The Palio: Pride, Passion & Pandemonium

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Jul 15, 2022

After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, Tuscany’s medieval jewel Siena, once again erupted in festivity and ritual pandemonium to the delight of tens of thousands of international spectators.

Il Palio di Siena, a four-day cultural sporting extravaganza, culminates in the world’s most thrilling horse race. Lasting a mere 75-90 seconds, it is the climax of a fiercely competitive all-consuming year-round rivalry between the 17 contrade (districts) of Siena. In Siena, your contrada is a part of your DNA. It courses through your veins. There’s a saying in Siena: you first belong to your contrada, then to Siena and then to Italy. You are baptized into it, you eat, sleep and breathe it. And, it’s best not to marry outside of it! Each contrada comes complete with its own symbol (e.g., Eagle, Giraffe, Unicorn, Turtle, Dragon), motto, church, traditions, and flag.

Leading up to the race, sweating crowds mob the Piazza del Campo as processions of the Contrade bedecked in armor and silk transform the city into a spectacle right out of the Cinquecento. Flag bearers perform extravagant displays of waving, throwing and twirling to the sound of military drums and trumpets.

The race begins as the sun drops low. The anticipation and tension is palpable. Consisting of three laps around the one-third of a mile track that outlines the Piazza del Campo, the course is treacherous and steep, with tight corners that the jockeys must navigate at full speed bareback. The thunderous sound of hooves is barely audible over the roar of the crowd. Like Garfunkel arriving without Simon, a horse can triumph without a rider (and this happens as spills come hard, fast and heavy). The contrade pay their jockeys handsomely to ride for them, yet these jockeys are hired guns from outside Siena . . . and fundamentally unfaithful. Everyone is a potential double agent. Secret negotiations abound.

Last July’s winner was Giraffe; they wept with happiness and celebrated as is tradition by sucking on pacifiers or drinking cheap wine from baby bottles to symbolize rebirth. Meals commenced at huge tables set up in the streets. The festivities ran all night. The prize, not the race, is technically the palio — a large painted banner specially designed for each year’s races (there are two, one July 2nd and the other August 16th) by different artists. Contrade proudly display their winning palio banners in their museums with the real prize being a year’s worth of bragging rights!

These incredible images of the July 2019 Palio are courtesy of Biordi Art Imports of San Francisco. Biordi’s exclusive line of Palio Contrade dinnerware is hand-painted by a father and his two daughters living in Siena who carry on their family’s artisanal tradition. Browse Biordi’s exclusive line of Contrade Dinnerware here. Receive a 20% discount using the Promo Code Contrade10, good thru 8/16/20. I LOVE this line and collect dessert plates and espresso cups & saucers which are fun to mix and match.

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Bernini’s Roma

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Apr 3, 2021

Nothing quite surpasses the grandeur of the Eternal City this time of year and it is difficult to recall a single person who has had a greater influence on the look and life of a city than Baroque genius Gian Lorenzo Bernini has had on Rome.

Sculptor, urban planner, architect, master of stagecraft and gesture, Bernini  engenders awe in the beholder with his exuberant style.

Connecting the Eternal City to Vatican City is the Pont Sant’ Angelo, one of the most serenely beautiful bridges in the world.  Bernini designed it as a “living” Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) to help pilgrims emotionally experience in the suffering of Jesus.

Bernini was able to transcend his preferred medium of marble to achieve visual and emotive effects never before imagined. A visit to the Borghese Gallery for me is always a “must” when in Rome.  The astonishing Apollo and Daphne, Rape of Proserpina, and his David were all completed before he was 25 years old!

From 1667 on, pilgrims to St. Peter’s arrive at the grand elliptical piazza with its two burbling fountains and an Egyptian obelisk standing at its center and at the far end the façade of monumental Basilica. The piazza itself is encircled by two colossal Doric colonnades four columns deep with a total of 140 statues of saints lining it’s rooftop. This momentous piece of urban planning and architecture was the product of Bernini’s imagination; figuratively speaking he designed his colonnade to embrace pilgrims with in his words, “the maternal arms of mother church”

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Eye of the Woman

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Mar 6, 2021

March is International Women’s Month, International Woman’s Day, March 8th, known as Festa della Donna in Italy, is when women of all ages celebrate each other with flowers, wine and torta mimosa. This is a special tribute to three trailblazing Italian women painters of the 16th and 17th century whose determination and prodigious talents were irrepressible. Their masterful works and legacies have only just began to be recognized.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 -1656) is the most celebrated female painter of the 17th century. She was born in Rome, the eldest of five children and only daughter of artist Orazio Gentileschi, under whom she trained. Artemisia’s earliest signed and dated painting, ‘Susanna and the Elders,’ what completed when she was 17. A year later Artemisia was raped by the painter Agostino Tassi, an acquaintance and collaborator of her father’s. An infamous public trial ensued in 1612. Tassi was found guilty and banished from Rome, though his punishment was never enforced. With her reputations in tatters, she 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 she 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 during Artemisia is now “hot”.  Now finally, she is receiving the recognition she always felt she deserved. “The works,” she once declared, “will speak for themselves.”

Daughter from a minor noble family from Cremona, at age 14 Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) convinced her father to place her in the studio of the most renowned local artist not as an apprentice. unthinkable for an aristocratic girl, but as a paying guest where she studied for three years.  She focused on portraiture, an acceptable activity for a respectable aristocratic woman; initially portraying her siblings, her parents and herself. Her proud father actively promoted Sofonisba’s work by giving away her drawings and paintings as if they were calling cards. He boldly sent Sofonisba’s sketch of her little brother bitten by a crab 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. Her work was eventually brought to the attention of King Philip II of Spain who was in search of both a court artist and lady-in-waiting for his new child bride of 14. 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 continuing her painting.

Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) of Bolgona 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.” Her husband was her agent and a stay-at-home dad raising their eleven (!!) children.

Features images are from Wiki-Commons and other public domain sources.

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