Raphael: Renaissance Rock Star

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Nov 2, 2020

Raffaello Sanzio, better known simply as Raphael, enjoyed a meteoric career. Handsome and the consummate gentleman, Raphael was famous both for his artistic skill and his charismatic personality. From his beginnings as a local painter in Urbino and later Florence, Raphael skyrocketed to “stardom” in Rome, ultimately becoming the city’s most sought-after artist. Raphael’s untimely death at the age of 37 while at the height of his powers only solidified the legend of his extraordinary talent. 2020 marks the 500th anniversary of his death. A majestic retrospective of his work took place in Rome this summer to commemorate his extraordinary body of work which you can view on YouTube.

Best known for his exquisite madonnas, Raphael was an artist whose range spanned  from paintings of all sizes and drawings in chalk and ink, to elaborate fresco cycles, tapestry designs, and architecture. He was also a designer, taste-maker, entrepreneur, team builder (supervising a workshop of over 50 artists), and visionary. His work is notable for its elegance, grace and ingenuity. How does one paint the concept of philosophy or divine grace?

Raphael did such things with sprezzatura (the appearance of effortless genius), a concept popularized by his close friend, Baldassare Castiglione, in his Book of the Courtier.

The world’s first art historian (also, a bit of a gossip), Giorgio Vasari attributed Raphael’s death, on Good Friday 1520, to an excess of amorous activities  . . . he was quite the lady’s man. The shock of his death reverberated throughout Rome. Raphael’s body lay in state in his studio under his final finished work, the Transfiguration, before being interred in no less an exalted site than the Pantheon.

“Dog Days of Summer” Explained

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Aug 24, 2020

The popular expression “dog days of summer” has exactly zero to do with the effects of intense summer heat on our canine friends. Both ancient and celestial in origin, the phrase was translated from Latin to English about five hundred years ago and has since morphed in meaning—a common tendency when people don’t know the true origin of a phrase and seek some plausible explanation … perhaps it comes from a day when the weather is so hot that dogs lie around panting and acting lifeless and lazy; or a day not fit for a dog; or a day so hot even mad dogs and Englishmen can’t handle it. The phrase lives on but the original meaning has been long forgotten.

During Roman times (and back to the time of the ancient Greeks as well) there was a period when the dog star Sirius, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, rose and set with the sun. This phenomenon occurred for about forty days between early July and mid-August. The Romans thought the combination of the brightest light of the day, the sun, and what was normally the brightest star at night, Sirius, was responsible for the most extreme heat of the summer season. The star sometimes seemed to glow with other colors, and they believed its reddish radiance augmented the heat of the sun.

Geminus, a Greek astronomer from Rhodes, in 70 BCE had a more accurate view: “It is generally believed that Sirius produces the heat of the ‘dog days’ but this is an error, for the star merely marks a season of the year when the sun’s heat is at its greatest.”

Still, the contemporary interpretation of “dog days” has a certain resonance, maybe even appeal, especially in non-pandemic times when one could venture to the ball park on a summer afternoon: hot dogs anyone?!

The Palio: Pride, Passion & Pandemonium

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Jul 10, 2020

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 (cancelled this year due to COVID-19) 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 !0% discount using the Promo Code Contrade10, good thru 7/31/20. I LOVE this line and collect dessert plates and espresso cups & saucers which are fun to mix and match.