Venice, once an exotic East-meets-West Xanadu had by the turn of the 18th century long been a tourist honeypot with Europe’s best courtesans, elegant gambling salons and extravagant festivals like Carnevale. Most famous of all revelers was Casanova whose infamous seductions were, indeed, an expression of Venetian decadence. But then, abruptly, Carnevale was kaput. Napoleon, notorious killjoy that he was, decreed an end to all masquerade balls and public festivities when he took Venice as his own in 1797. It was not until 1979 that the pipers piped and revelers once again reveled thanks to many young art students committed to reviving the craft of mask-making.
Each year around this time, you can experience a joyous re-enactment of the original grand old party (about a 10-day affair)…and partake in a dizzying photographic feast without equal! There are many special public events like the candle-lit parade of boats, concerts, street performances and, of course, people parading around in spectacular period costumes. Also, not to be missed, are the opulent masquerade balls held in Venice’s most exclusive private palazzi which anyone can attend, though tickets are pricey. You can either bring your own costume, better yet, hire sumptuous finery from a Venetian atelier.
Most of the photos featured in this post are courtesy of several dear friends and colleagues: Anita Sanseverino Frank Yantorno, and Kathleen Gonzalez who have been taking dazzling photos of La Sernissima and La Bella Italia for decades.
Nestled in Italy’s broad Po valley is the handsome city of Parma, the world’s ham-and-cheese capital, which offers travelers far more than just outstanding gustatory pleasures … there’s far more to Parma than phenomenal ham and cheese!!!
Parma is a city rich with art, culture and a past that reads like a fairy tale. It has beauty, pride and, yes, glorious food!
I fell in love with Parma strolling through its narrow flagstone streets last October. The old part of town is a maze of buildings colored in soft yellows and deep ochres. The Piazza Duomo and the Baptistery are fine examples of 11th- and 12th-Century architecture. Two major artists contributed their talents to this remarkable center of religious life: Benedetto Antelami, to the Baptistery pictured below, and Antonio Allegro, better known as Correggio, to the city’s spectacular Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral.
Soaring above the Duomo’s apse is Correggio’s masterpiece, the Assumption of the Virgin (1526-1530). It would become the catalyst for the dramatically-illusionistic, di sotto in su (from the bottom up) ceiling paintings of the 17th-century Baroque period. The cupola is portrayed as the vault of heaven; the figures appear to protrude into the viewer’s space, an audacious and astounding effect at the time.
In the Benedictine church of San Giovanni Evangelista, directly behind the Duomo, you can view the cupola fresco and pendentives Correggio painted prior to the Assumption; (1520-1522); these led to his now historical Santa Maria Assunta commission.
Correggio was born not far from Parma — in the town of, you guessed it, Correggio. His first major commission (completed in 1519) was for a woman, the Abbess Giovanna Piacenza, to decorate the domed ceiling of her private apartment’s sitting room, now called the Camera di San Paolo. Here Correggio painted between the ribs to simulate a pergola with small pierced windows featuring smiling putti and scenes of the hunt. The fireplace is frescoed with a depiction of the goddess Diana. Photos cannot begin capture the impact and intimacy of this truly enchanting room. Trust me, it is jaw-dropping, plus it has the advantage of being off the radar of most tourists.
The frescoes have spurred a debate as to the significance of the iconography of pagan and hunting scenes in a nunnery! The convent was known for the laxity of its rules and had been embroiled, along with its abbess, in various local land disputes.
A symbol of “Made in Italy” gastronomy renowned all over the world is Parmigiano Reggiano: a cooked, hard parmesan cheese made from partially skimmed cow’s milk and classified under the protected designation of origin (PDO) category. About 3 million whole cheeses are produced every year; you can take a tour and watch it being made (as well as visit a museum dedicated to this Italian culinary icon).
Aged between 12 – 24 months before being sold, whole cheeses are inspected one by one and tested using a special hammer-diapason. The vibrations generated indicate whether or not the cheese is perfectly intact. (A wheel of parmesan weighs about 70 lbs.)
Prosciutto di Parma originated in ancient Roman times when Cato first mentioned the extraordinary flavor of the air-cured ham made around the town of Parma. Prosciutto di Parma can only be produced from pigs born and bred around Parma.The rear haunches of Parma pigs are carefully cured with moist salt so that the ham absorbs only enough to preserve it. The meat becomes tender and the distinctive aroma and flavor of Parma ham emerge.
The Galleria Nazionale di Parma has vast collections paintings and antiquities and was established in Renaissance times by the powerful ruling Farnese family. Here you will find marvelous paintings featuring Northern Italian painters and other Renaissance masters including the breathtaking Leonardo da Vinci is known as La Scapigliata meaning “The Lady with Dishevelled Hair.” The museum complex also includes Teatro Farnese built in 1618 and one of the largest Baroque theatres in Europe. It was conceived for the opera-tournament, in honor of the Medici, which never took place.
And for those of you who want a break from high culture, there is the quirky Il Castello dei Burattini Museo Giordano Ferrari (The Castle of the Puppets, Museum Giordano Ferrari). All the typical characters from Italian puppet theater are represented — princes and princesses, villains, devils, ghosts, monsters, servants, merchants, workers, society folk, priests and policemen. The faces are amazingly expressive and the elaborate costumes are fascinating.
Guiseppe Verdi grew up in the Duchy of Parma and today Parma is also a great city of music. Its annual Verdi Festival was conceived in 2001, the centennial of his death. Each October thousands make the pilgrimage for a multi-week immersion in Verdi’s music and legacy.
Parma’s Teatro Regio di Parma is renowned among the world’s most famous opera houses for the elegance of its neoclassical style and its near perfect acoustics.
In his career-making opera, Nabucco, about Hebrews in Babylonian exile, Verdi gave voice to the sentiment of longing for a land once known and now lost. Its signature aria “Va, pensiero” (“Go, My Thoughts” … on golden wings) would become the unofficial anthem of the Risorgimento, and even Verdi’s name became a rallying cry for unification.
I hope these Postcards have peaked your interest in discovering the many sensory allures this truly captivating city.
2023 marks the 800th anniversary of the crèche (derived from crib in Old French), a tradition that has, for centuries, symbolized the true essence of Christmas. Even the most elaborate crèche scenes of today trace back to the genius of the 13th century Christian impresario St. Francis of Assisi, who sought to recapture the humble nativity story told in the Gospel of Luke.
Troubled by the greed and materialism of his era, Francis borrowed some straw, an ox and a donkey from a friend, and convened a midnight mass on Christmas Eve 1223 in a tiny rock cave outside the Tuscan town of Greccio.
In his biography of Francis, Saint Bonaventure described what happened that night: “The brethren were summoned and the forest resounded with their voices … the night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and the sonorous psalms of praise … Francis stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy … then he preached to the people around the nativity of the baby Jesus, and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of his love, he called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.”
Francis believed his mission was to bring the message of Jesus closer to the people and to enliven the Holy Scripture. These impulses led him to create the marvel of holiday stagecraft we now take for granted: the nativity display which has evolved into a worldwide tradition practiced continuously by Christians for the last 800 years transcending cultural and geographical boundaries. Whether displayed in a cathedral in Europe or a home in Africa, its essence remains unchanged. It is a call back to simplicity, love and hope.
Featured in this special 800th Anniversary slide show are some of my favorite paintings of the Nativity by Italian Renaissance and Baroque masters interspersed with Angels, who are featured prominently in the Gospels in important roles as messengers announcing the arrival of the baby Jesus.