Category Archives: 2019

Italy 25: Full Circle

A Memorable End to an Unforgettable Trip: Back to Venice, Then Back to Toronto

May 25-27, 2019

On the morning of Saturday, May 25 (one year ago today, as I begin to write this final post), we drove the final leg of our road trip, from Florence back to Venice. It is amazing how even one previous visit, however brief, can affect you when you return to a place: even though we had been in Venice for only two days at the beginning of our adventure, the city felt welcoming and familiar. We knew our way around, knew which vaporettos went where, and knew how to get our bearings when we took the wrong turn (which we continued to do). Maybe part of the reason we felt so much more comfortable was that we had now been in Italy for three weeks, but “La Serenissima” (Venice was a sovereign state for 1100 years, from 697 to 1797, and in Venetian its name was Serenìsima Repùblica Vèneta) felt very different this time from the days of our arrival. At the beginning of our trip, I had remarked to Arnie that Venice reminded me a little of West Edmonton Mall. This time I was able to get a feel for Venice as a richly historical and cultured city, rather than as a tourist destination.

The rooftop of the parkade where we dropped the rental car gave us a distinctive view of the city. We particularly noted the proliferation of cruise ships parked along the waterfront near St. Mark’s Square. As I mentioned in the first Italy post, cruise ships are (were? — who knows what will happen to the cruise-ship industry post-pandemic) a serious problem for Venetians: they bring in tourist dollars, but the ships are also destroying the environment. In addition, unlike tourists who come to Venice in other ways, many cruise-ship passengers do not stay in hotels but sleep and eat on board. So the costs can outweigh the benefits.

As we had the first few days of our trip, we stayed on Lido – the long (11k) thin barrier island that forms part of the series of islands in the Venetian lagoon. This time we stayed at the Hotel Villa Pannonia, which was modern and very comfortable. On our second-last evening in Italy, we wandered along Lido’s streets, and shared a pizza next to one of its canals. It was a lovely warm evening, perfect for a stroll through the warm night air and (of course) the consumption of a gelato.

The Jewish Ghetto

The next morning we had tickets to tour the synagogues in the ancient Jewish quarter of Venice, which has the distinction of being one of the first places in the world where people were segregated and their whereabouts monitored on the basis of their religion. In fact, the word “ghetto” — which is used in a host of different contexts now – originated here, likely because until 1516, this part of the city had been a foundry, which is a “getto” in Italian. In March of that year, the chief magistrate, or doge, turned it into an area where the city’s 900 Jews were required to live. (The population of Venice as a whole at the time was 160,000.) It was not until two hundred years later, when Bonaparte forced the Republic of Venice to dissolved itself and tore down the gates, that Jews were again allowed to move freely throughout the city.

From Wikipedia, we learn that “The ghetto was connected to the rest of the city by two bridges that were only open during the day. Gates were opened in the morning at the ringing of the marangona, the largest bell in St. Mark’s Campanile, and locked in the evening. Permanent, round-the-clock surveillance of the gates occurred at the Jewish residents’ expense.” Charming.

In 2016, the city marked the 500th anniversary of the establishment of the Jewish ghetto with five months of commemorative events, including an extensive art and historical exhibition, costume galas and even a performance of Gustav Mahler’s first symphony. The quincentenary program also included the first-ever performance of The Merchant of Venice in the ghetto, which must have been both moving and distressing. I well remember the scenes involving Shylock (played by Al Pacino in one of his better roles) in the 2004 movie version: these were also set in the “Campo di Ghetto Nuovo,” and they were haunting.

There are five synagogues in the small area (one and a quarter acres) to which the Jews were confined, each of them built by a different ethnic group: German; Italian; Spanish and Portuguese; Levantine Sephardic; and Venetian Ashkenazi. One can only imagine the crowds and mix of languages and cultures. An excellent article about the quincentenary that appeared in The New York Times in 2016 quotes the noted travel writer Jan Morris, who wrote that in the 17th century, “the city was a ‘treasure-box’ full of ‘ivory, spices, scents, apes, ebony, indigo, slaves, great galleons, Jews, mosaics, shining domes, rubies, and all the gorgeous commodities of Arabia, China and the Indies’.”

At its peak in the 17th century, 5,000 Jews lived in Venice; today there are about 450. Most do not live in the ghetto area (the few who do are mostly from the ultra-orthodox Lubavitcher sect; the Lubavitcher we saw when we were there were visiting from New York) but the synagogues are still in use, and there is a bookstore, displays and museums commemorating the Ghetto’s past.

We toured two of the synagogues and wandered around the main square in the Ghetto. We also had the opportunity to drop into a lovely photography gallery that is located there — the Ikona Gallery — which is owned by Živa Kraus, the sister of a friend of the friend we visited in Zagreb. We had a really wonderful (if brief) visit with Živa Kraus herself, who has lived in Venice for many years (and despairs for its future).

The entire tour was memorable and enlightening. I was particularly moved by an installation in the Ghetto square, a bas relief by Arbit Blatas called “The Last Train” that commemorates the deportation of the Jews from the Venetian Ghetto by the Nazis. It is a reminder (as if we needed one) that prejudice against the Jews has continued undiminished throughout history.

Casino di Venizia

On our way back to our hotel, we stopped in at the “oldest casino in the world,” the Casino di Venezia (est. 1638). I had been intrigued when I’d read about it before I left for Italy – the elegance of the gaming rooms on the top floor (which weren’t open when we were there: too early in the day) have been compared to those in Monaco. The dealers wear tuxedos, guests arrive at the front door by boat, and the decor includes chandeliers, Italian art works, and vintage mirrors from nearby Murano. It was splendid. Arnie played a game or two of blackjack; I just took in the atmosphere.

I was surprised to discover from a plaque on the wall as we entered (we came on foot, through the back door) that Richard Wagner, the composer of many of my favourite operas (I know. How can I say this in the same blog as I write about the Ghetto? I refer you to Wagner and Me, an excellent exploration of this issue of loving Wagner and deploring ant-semitism by Stephen Fry) had died in the Casino di Venizia. It wasn’t a casino at the time (it has served several other purposes since it was first established), and Wagner apparently spent quite a bit of time in Italy, part of it in exile. “After a funerary gondola bore Wagner’s remains over the Grand Canal, his body was taken to Germany where it was buried in the garden of the Villa Wahnfried in Bayreuth” (Where would I be without Wikipedia?).

We were not allowed to take photos inside the casino, but fortunately there are pictures of it on the Architectural Digest site.

A Dinner to Remember

We had tried without success on our first night back in Venice to get a table at the Andri Fish and Seafood restaurant on Lido, so we’d made a reservation for our last night in Italy. It was a perfect choice. The seafood was outstanding, and Arnie took a great interest in the grappa — they just put a full bottle of the powerful fruit and booze concoction down on each table with the dessert menu and let the guests go at it. Different fruit for different tables. (Ours was full of mandarins.) No charge. I doubt that anyone but the non-drinkers walked out of that place steadily. As well as watching Arnie’s enjoyment of the drink, I was intrigued by what it did to a couple sitting across from us on the patio who seemed to have barely known one another when they arrived.

The Flight Home

I’m just going to leave these photos here. The views of Greenland and northern Canada from the air may not have been worth the price of the flight, but they certainly enhanced it.

And that’s it. Thanks following along as I shared these memories. As soon as there’s a vaccine, we’re off again (right after we hug all the grandkids till they squeal. We had nine when the lockdown started. Now we have ten.) Next? España tal vez. Oder vielleicht Deutschland. 甚至中国。In the meantime, Addio per ora. (And where would I be without Google Translate?)

Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute

Italy 24: Florence (Part 6)

The Great Synagogue of Florence

May 25, 2019

Image by Toksave, published under Creative Commons licence

The Great Synagogue (Tempio Maggiore) of Florence, built between 1874 and 1882, is a magnificent building located not far from the major museums of the city, which is appropriate as it houses an extensive museum on its upper floor. The style of the building is Italian and Moorish Revival but signage at the synagogue indicates that it is also known as “of the Emancipation” as it “was designed as an independent building and is not disguised as something else, as happened in the ghettoes.” The lovely pink and beige colours of the travertine and granite that dapple the building used to be darker – were, in fact, once red and beige.

The domes of the synagogue were familiar to Separdhic Jewry, of which the Florentine community primarily consisted, which had its origins in Berber Moorish Spain. The domes, finished in copper now oxidized to green, stand out against the skyline. (Note: I am grateful to the photographers whose photos are posted for public use on Wikipedia. They make it possible for me to show these two angles on the synagogue that we were not able to capture ourselves. If you click on the images you can see the source photos.)

These are the photos we did take of the exterior:

The interior of the synagogue is wonderfully ornate. (Click on images to see them better.) “During World War II, Nazi soldiers occupied the synagogue and they used that as a storehouse. In August 1944 retreating German troops worked with Italian Fascists to lay explosives to destroy the synagogue. However, Italian resistance fighters managed to defuse most of the explosives and only a limited amount of damage was done. What damage was done was restored after the war. The synagogue was restored yet again after damage from the flood of the River Arno in 1966.” (Wikipedia)

Wikipedia also tells us that “The Jewish community in Florence is composed of about 1,400 people. However, it has a long history which reaches back to the medieval era. In addition, there was a nearby Jewish community in the Oltrarno area, south of the Arno river , that dates to the Roman era. It is thought that the first synagogue was probably built in the 13th century.”

The Jewish Museum of Florence, opened in 1987, is located on the second floor of the synagogue. We were not allowed to take photos, but you can see some of the lovely pieces on the Museums of Florence website. We spent quite a bit of time admiring the “kiddush cups, prayer shawls, silver ornaments and embroidered vestments dating from the 16th to the twentieth century, with illustrative panels of the community’s history, together with a carved model of the old ghetto and along with a pictorial display which is occasionally changed.”

The names of 248 Florentine deportees are listed on this plaque.

It was as much a reminder of the history of the Jews as it was a sign of the times that the synagogue was guarded by soldiers with rifles, and the process for being admitted to the grounds was very strict and thorough –involving passports, metal gates, and lockers for bags and coats.

We were sorry to have already eaten lunch when we saw this inviting spot, just beyond the grounds of the synagogue. Next time. (Where have I heard that before?)

Italy 23: Florence (Part 5)

Effusing over the Uffizi

May 23, 2019

“After the ruling house of Medici died out, their art collections were gifted to the city of Florence under the famous Patto di famiglia negotiated by Anna Maria Luisa, the last Medici heiress. The Uffizi is one of the first modern museums. The gallery had been open to visitors by request since the sixteenth century, and in 1765 it was officially opened to the public, formally becoming a museum in 1865.” (Wikipedia)

The Uffizi Gallery, one of the most important museums in the world, and particularly known for its Italian Renaissance collection, is huge. It has always been huge, but in 2006 the viewing area was expanded by 6,000 metres2, to 13,000 metres2 (139,000 ft2). The exhibition area comprises three floors, with rooms opening into other rooms and then onto corridors on either side of an internal courtyard (which opens onto the Arno).

Various sections of the gallery are devoted to Spanish artists, Dutch artists, Flemish artists, French artists and, of course, Italian artists — from Florence, Siena, Venice and many other regions. Different exhibition areas feature individuals and schools of art – Da Vinci, Caravaggio, Lippi, Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo and the Florentines, the Lombardi School, and on and on. There are several Rembrandt self-portraits that I wish I’d paid more attention to — a documentary we saw recently about Lucian Freud mentioned Rembrandt as an early adopter of the form.

Individual rooms display cabinets full of miniatures, and there is a mathematics room and a “hall with ancient inscriptions.” The long corridors along the piazzale are lined with statues dating from the 13th century. Everywhere you look, there is something that you do not want to miss.

It is overwhelming.

When it came to paintings at the Uffuzi, my eyes were drawn particularly to the works of Sandro Botticelli and Filippo Lippi — some of which were new to me, others familiar from photographs. I loved the colours and the range of characters and, as in the case of “Madonna of the Pomegranate,” the titles.

Then there were the sculptures. This one, of Hercules slaying the Centaur, was a relic from early Roman times – missing its heads and legs – and was completed during the Renaissance by Giovanni Caccini. Check out the marble base on which the sculpture is set, the long hallway beyond it lined with other treasures, and the delicate artwork on the ceiling.

I was intrigued by the plaster cast of the monument commissioned by the husband and children of Sofia Czartoryski Zamoyska, following her death in 1837 at the age of 59. Zamoyska had ten children and was once named the most beautiful woman in Europe. She and her husband were exiled in Florence following uprisings in Warsaw in 1830-31. The photo at the bottom, by Saiko, shows the monument by Lorenzo Bartolini that is located in Zamoskya’s tomb in the Machiavelli-Salviati chapel in St. Croce, and the engraving from the British Museum depicts the princess in her mid-twenties.

It continues to amaze me how stone (and even plaster) can be made to look so natural — like the actual fabrics and skin they depict – in the hands of a gifted sculptor.

The Laocoon Group by Baccio Bandilelli was based on another relic discovered in a vineyard in 1506. In the sculpture, Laocoon and his sons are fighting sea serpents sent by Poseidon. The original was made out of a single block of marble; the reproduction used three.

We not have the oomph to look at all the works on display in the Uffizi Gallery, nor was there time to make notes on many of the ones we did see. The more modern creations/interpretations below intrigued me, but I have no idea who did them or when. (The one on the right seems to reflect the more traditional sculpture behind it. The two on the right are clearly cast from the same mold.) Feedback from anyone who knows about these works is welcome.

Update: I found a note I had written to myself. The modern works were by Antony Gormley. The one in front of “Sleeping Hermaphrodite,” itself “a Roman copy from the imperial age of a 2nd century BC Hellenistic original resting on a plinth” is entitled “Settlement IV” (2018). And the dude outside the Effizi is called “Event Horizon” (2012). The Gormley exhibition is entitled “Essere” (“Being”) and included fifteen sculptures by the British artist.

Italy 22: Florence (Part 4)

Firenze al aperto (Florence Out of Doors)

May 23 – 24, 2019

We enjoyed wandering around Florence as much as we did touring its galleries and, still fortunate with the weather, we managed to get quite a bit of fresh air. As I continued to recover from my face-plant in the Borghese Gardens, I was amused to see a street sign that seemed to warn me against landing on my head again. (As if I needed a warning.)

We spent time on both days in Florence in the Piazza della Signoria because it is so central. Surrounded by several “palazzos” and the Uffizi Gallery, the piazza is massive, accommodating outdoor restaurant seating, a lovely old merry-go-round and many shops (including an Apple store). At times in its history, the square has been less welcoming: it was here that the puritanical Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola and his followers carried out the famous “Bonfire of the Vanities” – burning secular “books, gaming tables, fine dresses, and works of poets” in their attempt to build a new Jerusalem, and here – in front of the fountain of Neptune – Savonarola and two of his fellow friars were ultimately hanged and burned on May 23, 1498 (Wikipedia).

As is true in many major cities in Italy, being outside can be very much like being inside a museum, and that was certainly true of the large space just off the Florence’s Piazza della Signoria that is known as the Loggia dei Lanzi. We went there one afternoon to rest our feet between tours, but I soon found myself standing up again to more closely examine the huge sculptures on display in the loggia.

The Loggia dei Lanzi or Loggia della Signoria was built in the late 1300s and was intended to accommodate public meetings and events. The statues now located there include two Medici lions, historical figures, and a number of sculptures depicting characters and events from Greek and Roman myths. One of these, Perseus with the head of Medusa, I remember seeing in an encyclopedia when I was a girl, and being absolutely horrified. The actual statue is pretty horrifying too.

The River Arno flows from its source in the Apennines through Florence on its way to the sea, and while the water itself looks uninviting (it is fast and dirty), there is no matching the spectacle the river offers, especially when the light is right. There are six bridges across the Arno in Florence, five of which were bombed during the retreat of the Nazis from Italy in 1944. These have been rebuilt, either in a more modern form or to resemble the historic structures they replaced.

Although it was swept away by floods a couple of times during the first two centuries of the Common Era, and was damaged again by flooding in the mid 1960s. the Ponte Vecchio, the most famous and remarkable of the bridges, is the only one that was not destroyed in the German retreat — rumour has it that it was spared by direct command of Adolf Hitler. However, the buildings at either end of the bridge were destroyed in order to prevent its use.

The Ponte Vecchio is a “closed-spandrel bridge with three segmental arches” built from stone at the end of the first century. (The spandrel is the space between the outer part of the arch and the deck.) Its design was determined in part by the need to allow horses and carts to cross it easily, and vendors have been selling their wares from stalls on the bridge for more than a thousand years. We wandered past clothing and jewellery shops, some selling products of the highest quality (and price!) and others selling schlock for tourists, also at the highest price. The kicker was a gelato that I bought on the Ponte Vecchio for eight euros ($12)! (It did involve two tasty scoops, but the only reason it is memorable is because of how much it cost me.)

I was quite tickled to be standing in a place where Dante had also stood.

Florence, like other major Italian cities, must be particularly magical to those with limitless wealth and a fondness for shopping. We meet neither of those conditions, but we did enjoy wandering past some of the exclusive shops.

We are hard-pressed to remember even one disappointing meal in Italy. However, we discovered a couple of outstanding restaurants in Florence, one of them thanks to a fellow-writer from the U.S. who I’d met online on a writers’ forum. Caron Guillo had spent the previous four or five years leading tours in Europe and she had lived for an extended period of time in Italy. Before we left on our trip, I saw that she had posted a photo of a dinner she’d just eaten in her favourite restaurant in Florence. She gave me the name — 4 Leoni — we tracked it down, and had a most spectacular dinner. My main course was the restaurant’s popular ravioli dish featuring pears in taleggio cheese and asparagus sauce (the same dish that Caron had posted on Facebook) and for dessert a chocolate pudding. We should have made a reservation: we were lucky that they let us in without one.

Of course, even the graffiti in Italy is artistic. I liked this piece, which somehow evoked both Banksy and Magritte.

Italy 21: Florence (Part 3)

During the Virus: Remembering “The David” and Some Really Off-Beat (?) Musical Instruments at the Galleria Dell’Accademia

May 24, 2019

I am writing this post in March of 2020 — ten months after our trip to Italy — and at this moment Italians are experiencing the horrors of the peak days of the coronavirus: the most lethal and widespread catastrophe to have hit their country in decades. Thousands have died and the health-care system is overwhelmed. Italy has become a worst-case scenario for the rest of the world: a warning of what will happen if we don’t stay physically apart and “flatten the curve.”

Although Florence is not in one of the hardest-hit regions, Twitter posts show deserted streets and closed stores and bars. Clearly, the impact of this event on the economy will be immeasurable. At the moment, it all looks so desolate and yet so familiar. I’m so glad we have been there, and my thoughts are with all of the wonderful Italian people we met during our visit to their beautiful country.


On our second day in Florence, we visited two galleries — the Galleria Dell’Accademia and the Uffuzi Gallery. That was a lot of art for one day, and as we neared the final rooms of the Uffuzi we were hurrying past some astonishing works of art simply because we were physically worn out and (dare I admit it?) tired of looking at art. I’ll talk about the Uffuzi in a separate post, in the hope that my readers do not experience art-gallery fatigue as well.


The Galleria dell’Accademia was established in 1784 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. In 1873, Michelangelo’s David was moved into the Galleria from an outdoor piazza in Florence, and the facility features several other sculptures by the world-famous artist – who was born in the Florence region. It also includes pieces by Uccello, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli and Andrea del Sarto, plus the original full-size plaster model for the Rape of the Sabine Women by the sculptor Giambologna, who was Flemish, but based his career in Italy. 

The Accademia also houses a number of Florentine Gothic paintings, and a collection of Russian icons. All told, the collection represents an overwhelming representation of primarily Renaissance art.

The Palestrina Pieta (1655) was originally thought to have been created by Michelangelo, but scholars today do not believe that to be true, primarily because of its style.


The Museum of Musical Instruments, housed in the same building, opened in 2001. It includes a red spruce and maple viola made by Antonio Stradivarius, a cello by Niccolò Amati, and several instruments designed by Bartolomeo Cristofori — including the first-ever pianoforte, which Cristofori created for the Medicis in 1699.

The Galleria Dell’Accademia was a very satisfying museum to visit because, despite the size and glory of the pieces on display, the relatively cohesive parameters of the collection (compared to the Vatican and Borghese, for example, or the Uffuzi which we saw later that day) meant that my mind could (almost) accommodate it.


Aside from the “David” – which we have all seen so often in photographs that there is no point in trying to describe it – I was most drawn to the four “Prisoner” or “Slave” sculptures by Michelangelo: which he may or may not have left deliberately unfinished. To some they suggest the struggle of humans to break away from the earthly desires and material objects that hold their spirits down. To others, they represent the challenges of a human “becoming,” in all senses of that word.

In “The Prisoners,” I saw the struggle of an artistic work to become what it is intended to be – intended by the artist in some cases, more often (in my experience) by the work itself. But above all, they are testaments to the shining talents of the man who created them, his genius for bringing blocks of stone to life.


I think of Michelangelo’s “Prisoners” tonight, struggling their ways out of their stone integuments in the vast, silent, darkened halls – rooms now empty of visitors. Outside the Galleria is a world that evokes the Middle Ages, where humans fall sick and die for a lack of scientific knowledge, medical equipment and supplies – awaiting our own Renaissance.

Italy 20: Florence (Part 2)

A Dome, 463 Steps and a View

May 23, 2019

Our first tourist destination in Florence was the magnificent Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. Construction on this building began more than 700 years ago, in 1296, and was completed 141 years later, in 1436. The original designer of this Gothic-style building was Arnolfio di Cambio, and its crowning glory, il duomo, was the creation of Filippo Brunelleschi.

Wikipedia is quite helpful (and also quite interesting) in explaining what Gothic architecture is: “[The] most prominent features included the use of the rib vault and the flying buttress, which allowed the weight of the roof to be counterbalanced by buttresses outside the building, giving greater height and more space for windows. Another important feature was the extensive use of stained glass and the rose window, to bring light and color to the interior. Another feature was the use of realistic statuary on the exterior, particularly over the portals, to illustrate biblical stories for the largely illiterate parishioners. Some key architectural features, such as the pointed arch and a decorative kind of rib vault, existed earlier outside Europe, and may have been derived from Islamic architecture.These features had both existed in Romanesque architecture, but they were used more extensively and in more innovative ways to make Gothic cathedrals higher, stronger, and filled with light.”

Having purchased a ticket to climb to the top of the dome, we entered the cathedral through a side door (the baptistery and cathedral were a separate tour) and once all of us with tickets for the appointed time had gathered, we immediately started climbing. We climbed and climbed and climbed, with an occasional break to have a look around at pre-designated stages on our way up (you can see the walkways around the inside of the dome in a couple of the photos above). As we climbed higher and higher we were able to get a closer view of the frescoes of the Last Judgement inside the cupola, designed by Georgio Vasari but “mostly painted by his less talented student, Frederico Zuccari” (what a way to go down in history!) They were completed in 1579, and cleaned relatively recently (1996) — apparently to the consternation of many of Florence’s residents who felt that the money could have been better spent.

The passageways containing the stairs are very narrow with low ceilings, and the steps are steep: they were used by the workers during construction, and no one back then ever envisioned that the public would use them – especially not in the great numbers that now visit the cathedral every day (except Sundays). The higher up we went, the farther below us was the floor of the cathedral: from the “lantern” (the walkway inside the cupola), the drop is 40 metres, according to the “Visit Florence” website. The site encourages those with a fear of heights and small spaces to think twice before they sign on to this tour.

In all, we climbed 463 stairs.

As I had already learned in Siena, in addition to the view that awaited us at the top, climbing hundreds of stairs is a great way to meet people from all over the world who are climbing along with you. Misery loves company.

The climb, of course, was worth it. Once we got out onto the terrace no one regretted having made the trek — at least not until we remembered that going down such narrow steps was going to be even more disconcerting than climbing up had been.

A story I loved reading during my research for this post involved a balcony that Baccio d’Agnolo started to build at the base of the dome in 1507. It took him eight years to complete one balcony on one of the eight sides. At that point, “someone asked Michelangelo – whose artistic opinion was by this time taken as cardinal law – what he thought of it. The master reportedly scoffed, ‘It looks like a cricket cage.’ Work was immediately halted, and to this day the other seven sides remain rough brick!”

Five days after my tumble, my face looks worse but feels fine

Italy 19: Florence (Part 1)

The Lovely Villa Belvedere

May 22, 2019

Welcome / reception line, Villa Belvedere

Late on the afternoon of May 22, we arrived in Firenze (Florence) after a long drive through central Italy from Salerno. The Hotel Villa Belvedere, our accommodation for our visit, was so lovely that if we had been advised that every tourist site in the city had been unexpectedly closed for repairs and we were going to have to stay at the hotel for the entire three days we were in Florence, I would not have complained too much. This is the kind of hotel that makes you want to sit outside and read a book, or sit near a window inside and write one. Since we had a lot to see and do, I felt as though we did not have time to properly enjoy our accommodations – although we gave it our best effort.

The Villa Belvedere is a family-owned hotel, and the members of the family seem to have been born for the hospitality business. Everyone, including the hired staff, was helpful, accommodating, and eager to help us resolve any issues we had, whether they related to the villa, the city, or our next destination. Several suites have balconies: ours did not, which is a good thing or I would have wanted to spend even more time lounging about, but our room was large and comfortable. The gardens are magnificent, obviously cared for like the house itself with loving care, and the main floor common areas are comfortable and decorated with of all kinds of unusual objets d’art.

The dining room is a bright, well-appointed room with large windows that look out onto the pool and the gardens. The food was outstanding and the service impeccable. The chef is one of the owners, and when we complimented her cooking and especially her baking one morning, she asked if we would let her mother-in-law know we’d enjoyed it. (I did as she’d asked, of course, amused at this glimpse into the family dynamics.)

The city was not far away: as we wandered in the garden in the evening, we could hear the enthusiastic sounds of fans cheering on their favourite local football (soccer) game at a nearby stadium. After a spectacular dinner at the hotel and a sound night’s sleep, windows open to the Italian night, we did – of course – bestir ourselves to check out the other sights and sounds and tastes of Florence: from the Duomo to the Accademia Dell’Arte to the Uffuzi Gallery, from the Arno River to “the David” (more on those in subsequent posts). And of course we were glad we did. But it was lovely to have this place to return to each day after our wanderings had worn our feet out once again.

The art of Florence extends beyond its galleries: here, two European Rose Chafers, dining

Italy 18: The Amalfi Coast

From Sorrento to Salerno

May 21, 2019

What can I say?

Don’t need to say much.

(Here’s some mood music for you to listen to as you scroll through the rest of the photos.)

We ate well, both in restaurants and al fresco. And marvelled at the size of the lemons.

We left Sorrento in the morning and spent the rest of the day gaping at the views, one after another….

and wondering how traffic moved at all in the summer when there are many more buses and cars, and how they had built these houses so far up on the hills.

After a spectacular travel day, we arrived in Salerno in the evening.

(These photos are not in order. They are jumbled in my head and they are jumbled in the post. But in a good way, of course. It was just one damned spectacle after another.)

Italy 17: Naples and Pompeii


May 20, 2019


Unlike most of the other cities we visited in Italy, no one had recommended Naples as a “must see” destination. In fact, the people we knew who had been there told us to keep our valuables close to us and our wits about us. Naples is, after all, a port city and major port cities offer anonymity and cover for those with less than the most selfless of agendas. Naples regularly appears at or near the top of Italian cities where crime (specifically robbery) is common.

Such statistics and personal cautions only reinforced the darker expectations I’d had of Naples before we went there. My primary sources were two powerful fiction writers whose works I’ve devoured within the past few years: Curzio Malaparte, by turns a Nazi and a communist and author of The Skin, which depicts war-crushed Naples during the American “invasion” (1943-45) with what is probably the cruelest and most derisive humour I have ever read, and Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels concerning two girls who grew up after the second war in what she describes as a violent and restrictive city.

The Neapolitan municipal region is home to more than three million people, which makes it (with Rome and Milan) one of three highest-ranking cities in Italy both in terms of population and economically, and it is the most densely populated. The port is home to Allied Joint Force Command Naples, an important NATO presence. Probably due to its strategic location, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe (since 9th century B.C.!)

We did not spend much time in Naples. It was mid-afternoon when we arrived from Rome and we still wanted to get to Pompeii before the entrance to the park closed at 6. However, we did drive through the city rather than taking one of the bypass routes, and that allow me to take enough photos to reinforce my pre-judgement of what Naples was going to look like. I really did feel like we were driving through the setting of a Ferrante novel rather than a Dean Martin song.

But then, as we left the city and began the drive past Mount Vesuvius up to Pompeii, I looked back and saw a spectacle I could not have imagined. What a beautiful city!

Pompeii (Archeological Park of)

There are advantages to travelling in the off season and of arriving at world heritage sites at close-to-closing time. This juxtaposition of photos illustrates one of them (We were there in May of 2019. The New York Times article says that 450,000 visitors toured the site in July of 2019.):

There are also disadvantages to such timing. In the case of Pompeii (which in Italian is “Pompei” with one “i”; “Pompei” is also the name of the nearby town), the lack of time to explore the site was the primary disadvantage of arriving at the hour that we did. A full day would have offered adequate opportunity to properly explore the park, and would also have allowed a visit to the Antiquarium Visitor Centre. I recommend no less to friends and relatives (!) who may be visiting there in future.

But there was no way to prepare myself for the feeling that came over me when I stepped into the Santuario di Apollo, where I was almost physically jarred by the realization that real people had lived and died (and had eaten, and prayed, and bathed) in this very spot, and that some areas of the site had probably looked very much the same way in 79 AD as they do today.

We had seen the 2015 Royal Ontario Museum exhibition In the Shadow of the Volcano, and almost every school kid has heard the story of what happened to the citizens of Pompeii 2000 years ago and about the city’s subsequent excavation (which began in 1748). So it’s not as though I didn’t know where we were going and what we were likely to see.

The full awareness of this truth prompted tears and added a few new screw-turns of conviction to my evolving awareness of my world: the domination of Earth by Sapiens is just a phase, and a brief one at that. Our individual lifespans are of no more importance than is the arc described by a speck of lint we have removed from our skirt or trousers and flicked off a fingernail in irritation. I don’t find this awareness sad or depressing. It’s just a poignancy-inducing reality.

For a sense of the atmosphere, the awareness of lives lived, that is evoked by a visit to Pompeii, along with an eloquent description of the problems that have plagued and continue to plague the site (which have included looting, defacement, flooding, scandal, earthquakes, overuse, and even a bombing by the Allies), I recommend the New York Times article pictured above. The author, Paige McClanahan, weaves together historic and climatic details to imagine how it must have been to live in one of the restored homes: “The warm sea breeze would have blended the dry scent of cypress and bay leaves with the stench of rubbish and excrement from the street, and the gurgle of water in the baths would have been occasionally drowned out by cries from the crowd in the 20,000-seat amphitheater nearby.”

On top of being a fascinating place to visit, and one of great historic importance, Pompeii is also a situated in a magnificent location. No wonder its residents were reluctant to leave the day the mountain erupted.

Italy 16: Rome (Part 3)

We Finally See the Borghese Gallery and an Actual Physician (and Identify, in Retrospect, Rome’s Multitudes of Green Birds)

May 19-20, 2019

The Borghese Gallery

The first works of art selected for the collection that is housed in the Borghese Gallery were chosen by Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577-1633), the nephew of Pope Paul V. He hired the architect Flaminio Ponzio to design a villa on what was then the outskirts of Rome where he could spend time with his sculptures, paintings and ancient artifacts when time permitted. Not a bad “country home.”

Among the notable artists the Cardinal included in the Galleria – which is now owned by the Italian government – were Bernini, Caravaggio, Bimini, Titian, Raphael, and Peter Paul Reubens. He was clearly a man of outstanding taste. Subsequent generations of Borgheses added to and modified both the villa and the collection, most of them enhancing it – although in 1808, Prince Camilio Borghese had to sell some of the most ancient (pre-BCE) and precious pieces to his wife’s brother, the Emperor Napoleon. Those pieces are now in the Louvre. Coincidentally, or maybe not, in the same year Prince Camilio’s wife, Paulina Bonaparte, served as the model for the lovely Venus Victrix, by Antonio Canova.

I learned most of the information you have just read from the Wikipedia entry “Galleria Borghese” (or re-learned it, to be more precise, as I am sure I also read the details six months ago when I was actually in Rome, and possibly even a few months before that when I booked the tickets). You can find lots of other information about the Gallery from that Wiki if you are so inclined.

There are two floors in the Galleria Borghese and one really ought to spend an entire day there, rather than attempting to see it all at the end of an afternoon. But something is better than nothing and I was delighted with it all (for by now my swollen eye had settled down enough that I could see out of it a little, and the other one continued to work perfectly).

Among my favourite sculptures — as is, I am sure, the case for most visitors — were the Rape of Proserpina, Apollo and Daphne, and – of course — David. All by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who was 23 (!) when he executed the Proserpina. These sculptures are stunning — the detail as you walk around them simply defies any belief that a human could have carved them out of stone — even if the stone was Italian marble. The sculptors (not just Bernini, several of the others displayed in the Galleria as well) managed to bring the marble to life as well as the subjects. As I looked at Daphne turning into a laurel tree as Apollo tries to catch her – her fear and loathing absolutely relatable, as is her story even in the Me, Too era – it seemed as plausible that this was a scene from history as one derived from myth.

The paintings I admired are far too numerous to mention, and the dozen of photographs we took in the Gallery now form a wonderful slideshow of memories. I am truly grateful to my friend Virginia Sharek for suggesting that we go there.

We left the gallery when it closed and made our way by taxi to the international medical clinic (“with English-speaking doctors,” the website said) that we had tracked down on the internet that morning. Unfortunately, the clinic was not too keen on being found. The address was on a narrow street not far from the Spanish Steps, but there was no sign of the street number we’d written down. A pull-down security grill suggested that even if the clinic was there, it must be closed. But Arnie was undeterred by such observations. While I waited in the cab in case we decided to simply go back to the hotel, he walked back up the street and knocked on a door in the vicinity of the address we had. To his surprise, a nurse (I assume a nurse: she was dressed in white) aged about 50 opened a door, stuck her head out and told him to come in.

I let the cab go, and joined Arnie as he entered the clinic. There we found a doctor as well as the nurse; she was his translator as well as his medical assistant, which was a good thing as the doctor spoke no English. He attended to me carefully and kindly — joking that we must be related, as his first name was Walter. He examined my eye and forehead, and said he thought that I should get an x ray. He gave us the address of a hospital where we could go to get that done. He also gave me a prescription for an antibiotic ointment. Again, there was no fee.

A Missed Opportunity

Little did I know how close we’d come that day (twice) to the house where John Keats spent his last weeks of life: unfortunately for the world, there were no antibiotics in the vicinity, or anywhere else for that matter, when he was dying there. I’d seen his house in Hampstead when I was in London twenty years ago, and it would have been satisfying to see this final dwelling place – which has, like his home in London, been turned into a museum. Close by apparently, there are the one-time residences of Percy Bysshe Shelley, J.M.W. Turner, Lord Byron and others.

Near the Spanish Steps

As I read about Keats’s last months in this most interesting blog post by Giuseppe Albano, Curator of the Keats-Shelley House in Rome, it made me realize that in the western world, we have really forgotten the horrors of tuberculosis (or in my case have never known them, although before I was born, my aunt– an artist — contracted it and was in a sanitarium for two years). It seems kind of sad that ultimately, Keats was buried near Joseph Severn, an artist he’d travelled with to Rome from England, with whom – according to Albano, “he had maintained a cordial (but not intimate) relationship.” If you’re going to be buried next to someone (and I’d rather just be hoisted to the top of some tree and left for the turkey vultures to take care of), I think it should be someone with whom you feel more intimate than cordial.

As we left the hotel the following morning I noticed with curiosity, not for the first time, the flocks of green birds that are very common in Rome. I made a note to myself to find out about them when I got home. And I did. So I have now learned that the ones we saw are some of the thousands of parakeets that are descended from a few that escaped their cages or were released by their owners into the city’s parks forty or fifty years ago. Originally from South America, they have adapted so well to the climate of Rome that their numbers have increased dramatically. Large flocks also occur in Madrid, which is now looking for ways to get rid of some of them.

We went to the hospital that had been recommended to us as a place to have the x ray done, but they couldn’t give us an appointment until the following day. We had a hotel reservation that night in Sorrento, with a planned stop at Pompeii en route, so we gave up on that idea and headed for Naples.

The bruising and my appearance got worse and worse for several days as gravity took part in moving the swelling down to my jawline, but it wasn’t too uncomfortable and the discolouration had pretty much faded by the time I got back to Canada. After a few weeks of continuing pressure headaches after I got home, however, I did go to see my own physician, and she sent me for an x ray. The diagnosis: a non-displaced fracture of the zygoma. This basically means that although there was a crack in my cheekbone/orbital area, the pieces had not shifted away from their original locations so no surgical intervention was necessary. Put another way, I was very lucky. The headaches are now gone.

The author, as yet unXrayed, and also unsculpted (bottom right)