I Giardini di Fantasia

Postcards by , on
Aug 12, 2023

A mysterious fantasy world awaits in the Sacro Bosco di Bomarzo, colloquially known as the Park of the Monsters—a unique garden with dozens of sculptures of otherworldly creatures based upon classical mythology, all immersed in the natural vegetation.

The park was conceived by the eccentric Renaissance prince Pier Francesco Orsini  (1523-1585), the lord of Bomarzo, following the premature death of his beloved wife Giulia Farnese as a way to cope with his grief. He was assisted by one of the most famous architects of the period, also one of the designers of the Tivoli Gardens, Pirro Ligorio. The Orsini family symbol was the bear (orso in Italian).

This ”sacred grove” is considered to be the oldest sculpture park in the modern world, with most of the sculptures carved out of the bedrock on site and blocks of local volcanic peperino stone, typical of the region.

In the last century, surrealist Salvadore Dali would be deeply influenced by the gardens. He made short film there, and the park inspired one of his paintings, The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

Many have attempted to interpret the garden’s meaning, but to little avail. The mascherone (large mask) rock face, which has become the iconic symbol of the park, bears the inscription Ogni pensiero vola, which means “every thought flies,” so perhaps the intention is for our imaginations to take wing.

Bomarzo makes for a great day trip by car from Rome. When in Rome you can also check out Palazzo Zuccari, a 16th-century residence located on the Via Gregoriana just off the Spanish Steps. It is known as the “House of Monsters” for the decorations on its doors and windows, inspired by—surprise!—the Gardens of Bomarzo.

Not far from Bomarzo, in Tuscany’s Maremma an enchanting modern sculpture garden also backons, with a surrealist landscape of twenty-two massive, vibrant, fantastical, multicolored depictions of the Major Arcana of the mystical and mythical tarot cards.
The garden is the public art magnum opus born of the fertile imagination of self-taught French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle. A vibrant celebration of feminism, the garden represents a beguiling fusion of pop, folk, outsider art and surrealism.
A great lover of Italy, de Saint Phalle was granted the land to create her magical world after a chance encounter with Marcella Agnelli, sister of Fiat industrialist Gianni Agnelli. She began work in 1979 and the colossal project consumed nearly two decades of her life.
Fully immersed in personally designing and building the statues (most measuring between 39 and 49 feet tall), de Saint Phalle hand-painted and decorated each with ornately detailed mirrors, mosaics, multi-colored ceramics and Murano glass, creating a kaleidoscope of colors, textures and shapes.
The garden’s largest sculpture is of the Empress, symbolizing the Great Mother archetype as a voluptuous woman-sphinx. The enormous hollow shell of its interior served as de Saint Phalle’s home while she worked on the garden. One of the figure’s breasts housed a mirrored and lavishly embellished living, dining and kitchen area, and the other a grand bedroom and bath.
Throughout the course of the project the artist enlisted a group of skilled collaborators in her “garden of joy.” Chief among those was her husband, Jean Tinguely, whose mechanical skills helped to motorize and breathe life into several of the garden’s features and monumental sculptures. But the overall phantasmagorical design could ultimately be the brainchild of only one supremely gifted individual.
In Giardino dei Tarocchi, a visitor can not only admire the art but interact with it, whether climbing the Tower or playing the Wheel of Fortune. Niki de Saint Phalle meant for her Eden-on-earth to be touched and enjoyed by children of all ages with all their senses . . . an evocation of—but also a brief respite from—the lifelong game of chance that is the story of the tarot.
Share on social media:

A Pilgrim’s Path to Rome

Postcards by , on
Apr 9, 2023

It seemed fitting for today’s “Postcards” to explore one of the oldest and most popular pilgrim routes to originate in the Middle Ages, connecting Canterbury to the Eternal City. Known as the Via Francigena, it transits the North and South of Europe passing through France, the land of the Franks, hence its name.  I like to think of it as the Medieval Route 66!

At various times, I have walked portions of this pilgrim route that passes through the heart of Italy and reveals a trove of artistic, cultural and natural treasures. It is a different pace of traveling—and a wonderful way to rediscover and appreciate the value of slowness, deliberation and simplicity.

We begin today south of Lucca in the charming village of San Miniato al Tedesco with its scenic panoramas.

No worries about getting lost, the route is well marked with various sorts of signage!

Our next town is San Gimignano, best known for its iconic skyline of tower houses owned by the wealthy families who errected them as symbols of their wealth and power. Although only 14 have survived, San Gimignano has retained its feudal atmosphere and appearance. The town also has several masterpieces of 14th- and 15th-century Italian art.

Here are some highlights.

This is an unusual secular fresco of a married couple sharing a warm bath in an antechamber of the Sala Dante in the Town Hall, now a civic museum.

Here are some frescoes from the city’s cathedral located next door— scenes from the passion and a fresco depicting the Martyrdom of Saint Sabastian.

The town is tiny but has some marvelous restaurants with breathtaking views of vineyards growing Vernaccia di San Gimignano … with its characteristic bright, crisp and citrusy flavor.

As we walk further south, the charming walled castle of Monteriggione elegantly dominates the surrounding landscape. The castle was built by the Sienese between 1213 and 1219 for defensive purposes, serving as a lookout for any approaching armies.

Which brings us to Siena, not only home of the famous Palio horse race, but also some of Italy’s most dazzling artistic treasures. The Republic of Siena existed for over 400 years, from 1125 to 1555. Helped by its location along the Francigena it was one of the major economic powers of the Middle Ages and one of the most important commercial, financial and artistic centers in all of Europe, initially eclipsing Florence. A combination of economic decline, sparked by the Black Death, and political instability led to its annexation by rival Florence.

Here is the Duomo.

Its zebra-striped columns accentuate the sense of height grandeur .

To the left of the entrance of the cathedral you will see a separate entrance to the Piccolomini Library. Piccolomini was a noble Sienese family that produced two popes. The library was built by Cardinal Francesco Tedeschini Piccolomini, archbishop of Siena (later Pope Pius III), around 1492 to honor the memory of uncle Enea Silvio Piccolomini (Pope Pius II) and to preserve the rare books and illuminated manuscripts that the pope and humanist had collected.

These eye-candy frescoes and ceiling were painted with a wealth of enameled colors, accentuated by golden pastille inserts, by Pinturicchio and his workshop (1503-1508), depicting ten episodes relating to life and pontificate of Pius II.

The one the Cathedral’s most extraordinary treasures is its spectacular inlaid marble mosaic floor—described by Giorgio Vasari as “the most beautiful, largest and most magnificent floor that ever was made.” Crafted by about forty artists and artisans between the 14th and 16th centuries, the 56 panels that constitute the floor vary in size and shape and are made mainly with two different techniques: graffito (tiny holes and cutting lines created in the marble and then filled with black stucco and mineral pitch) and marble intarsia (black, white, green, red and blue marble employed in much the same manner as wood inlaying). Most of the year the floors are covered but they can be viewed between mid-August and the end of October.

Housed in the nearby Cathedral Museum—Museo dell’Opera—are works of art created for the cathedral including sculptures by Giovanni Pisano, Donatello and Jacopo della Quercia, and painted masterpieces by Duccio, including his Maestà altarpiece, among other Sienese treasures.

From the Museum, there are great views of the surrounding countryside and the scallop-shaped Piazza del Campo.

The Palazzo Pubblico was the seat of Siena’s government. Nearly every major room contains frescoes, unusual for the time since they were commissioned the city rather than by the Church or by a religious fraternity. They are also unusual in that many depict secular instead of religious subjects

The most famous of the secular frescoes are in the Hall of the Nine (the Republic’s governing body) painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti and known as The Allegory of Good and Bad Government.

Here are portions from both the “good” and “bad” government frescoes.

Tyranny is personified as a devil with fangs.

Leaving Siena we head to the Italy’s largest inland body of water, Lake Bolsena, a super deep volcanic lake about 10 miles outside of Orvieto.

Orvieto’s magnificent cathedral houses a relic related to a miracle that took place in the town of Bolensa. In 1263 a pilgrim priest, Peter of Prague, stopped in Bolsena and said mass in a small church. When he consecrated the host it began to bleed on the corporal— the small cloth upon which the host and chalice rest during the mass. The appearance of blood was seen as a miracle affirming the doctrine of transubstantiation— that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ.  Today the Corporal of Bolsena is preserved at the Orvieto Cathedral.

Approaching Rome, we arrive in the town of Viterbo, another medieval gem. It is best known for being the seat of the papacy for two decades during the 13th century and for hosting the longest papal election (or conclave) in the history of the Catholic Church during this time, lasting nearly three years. The city is also known for its thermal springs that have been celebrated for centuries.

At last we arrive in Rome.  Pilgrims often include visits to Rome’s “other” cathedrals.  Here is Saint Paul Outside the Wall, built on the site where the saint was martyred.

Here are two “postcards” from Santa Maria Maggiore, whose mosaics never cease to astonish me.

Final we approach Saint Peter’s, the pilgrimage route’s ultimate destination, crossing the Ponte Sant’Angelo with its Via Crucis sculpted by Bernini.

And here is Bernini’s immense colonnade in Saint Peter’s Square that receives pilgrims, and all visitors, in what he described as “the welcoming arms of Mother Church.”

As we enter, we see one of the finest works of Baroque sculpture, the Baldacchino di San Pietro—a large Baroque canopy sculpture in bronze that marks the tomb of St. Peter, situated below.

And finally, the Throne of Saint Peter a wooden relic that belonged to the apostle and first pope. The relic is enclosed in a sculpted gilt bronze casing designed by Bernini.

Even today’s secular “pilgrims”—both locals and tourists—cannot help but be moved and transformed by the miraculous sites along the glorious Via Francigena.

Share on social media:

Renaissance WOMEN!

Postcards by , on
Mar 1, 2023

In celebration of International Women’s Month, today’s Postcards features several trailblazing “Renaissance” women of consequence in Italian culture from Roman antiquity to modern times.

Livia Drusilla, The First “First Lady of Rome” – Arguably the most powerful woman of all Antiquity, Livia was the wife of the first Roman emperor, Augustus. Livia was considered a model of womanly decorum, but also so much more. Beloved by the people, she acted as Augustus’ most trusted confidant and best counselor. Living well into her 80s, Livia received many honors during her lifetime and, after death, was the only woman to be deified for her service to Rome. Livia had considerable personal wealth and the freedom to manage her own affairs. She owned many properties. including a house on the Palatine Hill in Rome, commonly known as the “House of Livia.” Below is a section of an ethereal frescoed room, originally subterranean and often referred to as “Livia’s Garden,” which you can now see at Palazzo Massimo (Rome’s archaeological museum).
Galla Placidia – Galla Placidia led an amazingly adventurous life. She was a hostage for years and was married twice: first to a Gothic king, then to Rome’s most powerful general. Galla had one child who died, and another who became emperor. She ruled the Western Roman Empire for nearly a decade as regent until her son came of age. Galla was considered a fair and courageous empress and the last significant ruler of the Western Empire. Governing from Ravenna, Galla was responsible for the construction of important buildings there that today enjoy UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Pictured below is the dazzling mosaic interior of a building known as the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia.
Saint Catherine of SienaThe 24th of twenty-five children, St. Catherine was a charismatic speaker, writer and overall change agent, wielding the Word much as Joan of Arc wielded the sword. She worked tirelessly to help the sick and the poor and was influential in helping to end the papal schism and return the papacy from Avignon to Rome. Even today she is considered one of the most influential writers in Catholicism and is one of only four women to be declared a Doctor of the Church – its highest honor awarded for intellectual and doctrinal contributions.
Simonetta Vespucci – Botticelli’s iconic Venus was inspired by a real woman, considered to be the most beautiful woman in Florence – and, later, of the entire Renaissance.Born in a Ligurian town south of Genoa, Simonetta moved to Florence at the age of sixteen to marry a cousin of Amerigo Vespucci. She was an instant hit with the Medici, whose favorite artist at the time was Botticelli. And Botticelli was so taken by Simonetta that, years later, he asked (and was allowed) to be buried at her feet. Below is a portrait of Simonetta by Botticelli.
Vittoria Colonna — Marchioness of Pescara, Vittoria was a highly-educated noblewoman and acclaimed poet. She developed relationships within the intellectual circles of Naples and Rome and ultimately became one of the most popular poets of 16th-century Italy. Upon the early death of her husband, she took refuge at a convent in Rome; although she remained a
laywoman, Vittoria experienced a spiritual reawakening and remained devoutly religious for the rest of her life. Colonna is also known to have been a muse and the “spiritual soulmate” of Michelangelo, himself a poet.
Francesca Caccini – Caccini was born into a musical family in Florence in 1587. Her father was a well-regarded and prolific composer while her mother and younger sister were both talented singers. Together they performed chamber music and provided entertainment for the Medici court. Beyond being a virtuosic singer, Francesca played guitar, lute, harp, and keyboard. She also taught singing, instrumental performance and composition to younger women of the court. Known as La Cecchina, Francesca was a poet and the writer of lyrics for most of her published songs. Caccini also was the first woman to compose opera (La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina), and the highest paid of all the Medici court musicians during the 1620s.
Isabella D’EsteRaised in the sophisticated Este court of Ferrara, center of a rich humanist culture in the arts, literature and philosophy, Isabella would become one of the most fascinating and accomplished individuals in the Italian Renaissance. A clever and practiced diplomat, often under difficult circumstances, she served as regent of Mantua during the frequent absences of her husband, Francesco II Gonzaga, as well as after his death until her son came of age. Isabella was a well-known arbiter of fashion and design, with influence not only in Italy but in many of the European courts. Below is a famous portrait of her by Titian.

Isabella was a poet, accomplished musician, singer and friend and patron to many of the most distinguished artists, writers and humanists of the High Renaissance . . . as well as a devoted mother of eight! Also, a lover and voracious collector of art and antiquities, she proudly displayed this spectacular ancient double portrait cameo in her private studiolo. Throughout her life Isabella relentlessly pursued the works of Leonardo da Vinci, and she was the original owner of the beautiful sketch of his, below, that is now displayed in the National Gallery of Parma.

Caterina de’ Medici – Great-granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Caterina triggered a revolution in cuisine and culture that would reverberate throughout Europe and, ultimately, the world. After her marriage to the Duke of Orleans at age fourteen, she arrived in France with a dowry that included her chefs along with samples of her favorite vegetables and legumes, many of which had never been seen in France. She also famously brought with her the fork and knife, Venetian glassware, and the practice of written menus, among other innovations. Caterina supported her ladies-in-waiting and insisted that they be allowed to dine together with the men of the court. (She was also a busy mother . . . of ten!)

Sofonisba Anguissola – Daughter from a minor noble family in Cremona, Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) at age fourteen convinced her father to place her in the studio of the most renowned local artist. She did not train as an apprentice but instead focused on portraiture – an acceptable activity for a respectable aristocratic woman – initially portraying her siblings, her parents and herself. Her proud Papa actively promoted Sofonisba’s work by giving away her drawings and paintings as if they were calling cards. Her father boldly sent Sofonisba’s sketch of her little brother bitten by a crab (pictured below) to 82-year-old Michelangelo who was so impressed with her talent that he began sending her his own drawings to copy or rework as exercises.

Sofonisba’s work was later brought to the attention of King Philip II of Spain who was looking for both a court artist and lady-in-waiting for his new child bride, aged 14 (one of the daughters of Caterina di Medici). In Sofonisba he found both. She moved to Madrid, spending nearly 20 years at court, and later moved to Genoa where she married a younger nobleman and lived out her life while continuing her painting.

Gaspara Stampa – Born in Padua, Stampa was a poet, musician and singer. Following her father’s death in the 1530s, she and her mother moved to Venice. There her family home became a mecca of Venetian cultural society. She was highly admired for her lyrical verses which often elicited comparisons to those of the illustrious ancient Greek female poet Sappho. Despite her premature death at the age of 31, Gaspara produced more than 300 works (most of which were published posthumously), and today she is considered one of the greatest poets of the Renaissance.
Livinia Fontana – Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) of Bologna was 20 years younger than Sofonisba and also blessed with a supportive father. Known for her portraits as well as mythological works, Lavinia is regarded as the first female career artist in Western Europe: her family relied on her to ”bring home the bacon.” Livinia’s husband acted as her agent and served as a stay-at-home dad, raising their eleven (!!) children.
Artemisia Gentileschi – Artemisia was perhaps the most celebrated female painter of the 17th century. Born in Rome, she was the eldest of five children and only daughter of artist Orazio Gentileschi, under whom she trained. At age 18 Artemisia was raped by the painter Agostino Tassi, an acquaintance and collaborator of her father’s. An infamous public trial ensued in 1612. Although Tassi was found guilty and banished from Rome, his punishment was never enforced. With her reputation in tatters, Gentileschi moved to Florence to start anew. She would go on to work in Venice, Naples and London for the highest echelons of European society, and enjoyed considerable success in her own lifetime. Without the support of a wealthy husband Artemisia would nonetheless became a painter to dukes, princes, cardinals and kings. She was the first woman admitted to Florence’s prestigious Accademia del Disegno.
Finally, after years of obscurity, Artemisia is now “hot” and considered by many to be the greatest of Caravaggio’s followers. At long last she is receiving the recognition she always felt she deserved. “The works,” she once declared, “will speak for themselves.”
Isabella Stewart Gardner – Known as “Belle” in her youth and “Mrs. Jack” as a married woman, Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924) was a free spirit throughout her life, as brilliantly captured here by one of her many artist friends, Anders Zorn, at the main window of the grand salon in Venice’s Palazzo Barbaro. But she was also an independent-minded and prescient art lover: while most male American collectors of the Gilded Age focused on Dutch and English masters, Isabella also acquired – and soon came to favor and champion – Italian works. Isabella was either the first or one of the first Americans to purchase works by Giotto, Fra Angelico, Botticelli and Crivelli, among others. The crown jewel of her stunning collection is, arguably, the magnificent Rape of Europa by Titian.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, situated along the Fenway in Boston, is not just a fabulous and diverse collection of art and artifacts but also an architectural masterwork. It stands as a lasting gift to Gardner’s adopted city, a celebration of world-class (particularly Italian) art, and a tribute to one woman’s vision and amazing imagination.
 Peggy Guggenheim – Two generations after Isabella Stewart Gardner, Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) made waves of her own as an iconoclastic American art collector: in Peggy’s case, as an avatar of modern art in its abstract and surrealist expressions. Not just a collector, she also served as a patron of select living artists of assorted nationalities, but most famously Jackson Pollock. In 1948 the Venice Bienalle invited Peggy to exhibit her collection there – a groundbreaking event which marked that decades-old venue’s first genuine embrace of modern art. Peggy’s love affair with Italy, and Venice in particular, began as a young adult with her travels there, especially her sojourns to visit artworks of the great Italian masters, guided by the books of Bernard Berenson (Isabella Stewart Gardner’s principal art advisor).
When it came time to find a permanent home for her collection years later, La Serenissima beckoned as Peggy’s natural choice. Today, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is one of Venice’s top tourist destinations – among admission-charging sites, second only to the Doges Palace in St. Mark’s Square. Peggy’s legacy has immeasurably enriched the adopted city she adored and considered magical.
Share on social media: