The Feast of St. Francis was just ending the day I arrive in Assisi. Candlelight processions and merrymaking brought many pilgrims from far and near to take part in the celebration of their most beloved saint. Francis’ basilica flowed with heavenly music as choirs and orchestras let lose their poetic melodies. Souvenir booths lined the streets selling mementos while costumed revelers stroll the piazza in medieval attire. The Feast of St. Francis commemorated the saint’s transition from this life to the afterlife. It is Assisi’s biggest day of the year. Read more
The old looming Church of Santa Chiara in the heart of Naples is well worth a break in your day. Built between 1313 and 1340, this Provençal – Gothic structure is a religious complex that includes a Franciscan monastery, tombs, an archaeological museum and a very unusual cloister garden. If you can work your way through the busy Piazza del Gesu just outside the doors, you will be well rewarded. King Robert of Anjou lies buried behind the main altar. Fragments of Giotto’s frescoes decorate the choir walls. But the real treasure of Santa Chiara is the “secret garden” tucked away behind the walls.
The contrast between the outer world of noise and confusion with the serene and tranquil cloister garden is immediately noticeable. It is a sanctuary of incredible and unusual beauty.
Majolica tiles decorate the octagonal columns in a pergola-like design. Impetuous colored floral decor climbs up the sides and along the bench-lined walkways. Benches contain tiles that depict life scenes of boar hunting, dancing, country life, scrollwork, and grapevines.
These 18th-century Rococó style tiles were hand painted by ceramists Donato and Giuseppe Massa and added to the garden after it was transformed in 1742 by Domenico Antonio Vaccaro. From that time up to 1925, the Order of the Poor Clares lived a cloistered life here. Since the sisters lived in complete seclusion the tiles were not seen by outsiders for nearly 200 years. I personally can’t imagine maintaining a prayerful mind among the liveliness and bold colors of these majolica tiles.
But in 1925, the neighboring Franciscan monks traded living quarters with the sisters. Since the monks do not have the cloistered vow, it became open to the public.
So what exactly are majolica ceramics? It originated in the Middle East during the 9th century and was imported to Italy through the Isle of Majorca in the 13th century. The Italians called it “miolica” thinking it was made in Majorca. But Majorca was only the headquarters of trade between Spain and Italy at the time.
In time, Italian artisans created their own majolica ceramics depicting their own traditions and creativity. These ceramics became very popular and reached their peak of artistic quality throughout central Italy during the Renaissance (late 15th to early 16th century).
Italian majolica tiles are tin-glazed pottery that is fired a second time. The tin glazing makes a brilliant white opaque surface for painting. They were typically decorated on a white background depicting historical and mythical scenes. The ceramics are also called “istoriato” wares which mean “painted with stories.”As you look at these majolica panels, you can understand this idea.
Santa Chiara is located along the famous “Spaccanapoli,” the straight, long and narrow main street that runs through the old historic city center of Naples. It is actually one of the three Greek-Roman east to west streets (decumani) used while the city was known as “Neapolis.”
The cloister garden of the Santa Chiara Monastery, in Via Santa Chiara 49C, is open every day from 9 am to 1 pm and from 2.30pm to 5.30pm (www.santachiara.info).
People often ask me what my favorite Italian city is. Although I love them all for their unique aspects, I have to say that Florence is the one that completely captures my heart and soul.
Florence has its own vocabulary for the eye. It is a city that the Italians call an insieme, an all-of-it-together kind of place. It is the birthplace of the Renaissance and has the best Renaissance art in Europe. Florence is unbeatable for some of the very finest food, fashion, and street markets. Not to mention unrivaled gelato and superlative people watching.
Shopping is a full-time occupation in Florence. Inside the Mercato Centrale (Central Market) you will find everything imaginable. The huge iron and glass covered building is full of enticing food, colorful produce, generous free samples, pasta-making, eateries, meat counters, and gigantic stacks of pulled pork sold in a bun for a pittance. Rub elbows with the locals and visit this elegant Florentine market. Hours are Mon-Sat 7:00-14:00, closed Sun year around.
Surrounding the Church of San Lorenzo is Florence’s spacious open-air market. Leather is a popular item, from clothing to purses to boots. Here the prices are soft, so you can use your bargaining skills. Located between the Duomo and train station, the hours are daily from 9:00 to 19:00.
There are plenty of these pantomimists around. Actually, they are quite impressive with their ability to stand absolutely still for hours. Kids especially love these guys, and flock around them along with the birds. Occasionally the statue will acknowledge its admirers with a glance and a nod, but don’t count on it.
On the other side of the Arno River and up to the Michelangelo Park viewpoint, the hilly landscape reveals a long portion of the old medieval wall that encompassed the city at one time. Invaders from all directions found it pretty difficult to scale those walls and penetrate into the city. Florence remained fairly well protected throughout its earlier history. The walk up to Michelangelo Park Viewpoint is well worth it, and also provides vast views of Florence, giving opportunities for great photo taking. Nighttime is spellbinding.
Behind Michelangelo Park Viewpoint is this classic 12th century Florentine Romanesque church, stately in its green and white marble facade. One of the oldest churches in town, highlights within the church are the glazed terra-cotta panels on the ceiling by Luca delle Robbia, an exquisite Renaissance chapel, and radiantly preserved frescoes in the upstairs sacristy, showing scenes from the life of St. Benedict (painted 1350 by a follower of Giotto.) I loved these paintings, and spent a lot of time in this room. Behind the building outside is the oldest graveyard I have ever seen. It’s full of life-size statues dancing, crying, sporting wings, little children laughing, and so on. I found it very interesting to walk through, but I don’t recommend a night-time stroll.
Florence is very multi-layered, and although I have seen a lot I know that I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are magnificent churches, museums and other historical venues that are Florence’s landmarks and not to be missed. Florence beacons me to return time and again, with each visit an entirely new adventure.
“And it was this…..that beckons us back: not any particular building or painting or statue or piazza or bridge; not even the whole unrivaled array of works of art. It is the city itself–the city understood as a self; as a whole, a miraculously developed design.”
R.W.B. Lewis “The City of Florence.”
“Tonight the sun has died like an Emperor…great scarlet arcs of silk…saffron…green…crimson…and the blaze of Venus to remind one of the absolute and the infinite…and along the lower rim of beauty lay the hard harsh line of the hills.” John Coldstream
I couldn’t wait to watch the sun set over Florence. After a delicious dinner in the Piazza Vecchio, I crossed the Arno River and its shops of precious jewels on to the left bank and followed the road upwards. After about 20 minutes on the Viale dei Colli, which runs through the hills that surround the central area of Oltrarno, I arrived at Piazzale Michelangelo. Extremely popular with tourists and locals alike, it has the best panoramic views of the heart of historic Florence.
The terrace lookout gives an open cityscape that is a beloved postcard photo of the city. The Palazzo Vecchio, Duomo, Baptistry and Bell Tower loom in the background.
In 1869, designer and architect Giuseppe Poggi built the Piazzale Michelangelo while Florence was the capital of Italy. As a result, it was decided the entire city needed a risanamento, a rebirth, which involved heady urban renewal of elegant proportions. Poggi’s most outstanding accomplishment, however, was the Viale dei Colli on the left bank. At eight kilometers long, the tree-lined street winds up the hill of San Miniato, ending at the Piazzale Michelangelo.
A bronze copy of Michelangelo’s David stands in the round-about, accompanied by the Four Allegories of the Medici Chapels of S. Lorenzo. The originals are in white marble. It took 9 pairs of oxen to transport the monument up from the city in June of 1873.
Remains of ancient city walls still surround parts of Florence in a protective embrace. From the Piazzale Michelangelo, this wall with towers runs up the side of a long hill. Begun in 1284 and completed in 1333, it is believed that it was built under the direction of Arnolfo di Cambio. The gates, no longer in existence, were embellished with religious scenes of the Madonna and Saints, standing 35 meters tall.
Most all of Florence’s history is laid out before us on the skyline. As twilight descends on this vibrant renaissance town, golden lights illuminate the stone facades of foremost landmarks. People begin to gather with iPhones and cameras ready to capture the beauty of shifting colors that begin to streak across the evening sky. All grows a bit quiet as the sun, like a golden orb, sinks slowly into the west.
My day in Florence drew to a close in the most dreamlike manner. Despite lengthy strolls through museums and dinner on the Piazza Vecchio with delicious wine, my most vivid memory is of Firenze’s dazzling rays of amber sunlight stretched out over the city in waves of crystal beauty. Breathtaking beauty….the kind that travels straight to the heart and soul, and leaves you longing for more.
Mystery surrounds Lord Cangrande I (1291 to 1329), early Lord of Verona, like a dark shadow. Historical documents claimed he expired suddenly from polluted drinking water but doubt remained among scholars. Shocking results from a recent exhumation revealed toxic levels of digitalis, a strong poison from the Foxglove family, discovered throughout his liver and colon. It appears that he was likely poisoned under the cloak of medical treatment in the midst of his astounding military victories. One of his physicians was hung afterwards by his successor, Mastino II. Foul play? One would think so.
Lord Cangrande I was the most celebrated of the Scaliger family, the Lords of Verona, who ruled from 1260 to 1387. A noble ruler who was a warrior, prince and patron of Giotto, Dante and Petrarch, he didn’t live to set foot inside Castelvecchio.
Lord Cangrande II della Scala had the castle and bridge built in 1355 for his protection and that of his ruling family. With a reputation opposite that of his predecessor, he was a cruel and tyrannical governor who needed a safe escape route from his abundance of enemies. Venice, the Sforza family and the Gonzaga were a constant threat. He had no lack of forceful neighbors who surrounded his keep in Verona. If needed, the bridge would allow him to escape northwards to relatives in Tyrol.
William Shakespeare was smitten by the walls of Verona and immortalized them through the words of his Romeo ~
“There is no world without Verona walls, but purgatory, torture, hell itself. Hence “banished” is banished from the world. And world’s exile is death.” Romeo and Juliette, Act 3, Scene 3
The Adige River in Verona passes gently beneath the red brick segmental arches of the Scaliger Bridge. Graceful in bearing, it was the world’s largest span at the time of its medieval construction. White marble lines the lower sections of the nearly 49 meter length, which connects to the powerful fortress of Castelvecchio.
The day I visited the Castle was grey and chilly, making this imposing Gothic structure all the more real. As I crossed the bridge toward the castle, I passed striking M-shaped merlons (see in photo above) that ran along the top of the walls. The brickwork opened regularly to offer a view of the river and surrounding countryside. Peace and tranquility permeated the ambience of this visually romantic castle fortress.
According to records, a tiny little church existed on this site prior to the castle’s construction. It’s name, San Martino in Acquaro, was adopted by the castle. It became known as Castello di San Martino in Acquaro. In 1404 it was renamed Castelvecchio, Old Castle, and became part of the Venetian Republic as their military compound.
Seven towers in a pentagonal shape give a magnificent character to the castle, which is divided into four buildings. The super lofty castle keep has four main buildings inside. And, a castle is rarely without a moat that surrounds it.
The castle remained steeped in historical events. It was brutalized by French troops during the Napoleonic Wars of 1796 when the population reacted violently to the anti-French revolt. During WWII, the retreating Germans destroyed the bridge and tower (Ponte Pietra), which was rebuilt by dredging the river for the original mortar and bricks.
Carlos Scarpa, famous architect of his time, implemented a final restoration of the castle in 1958. Born in Venice, he was an artist very sensitive to historical times. As a result, the Castelvecchio was carefully repaired to its original design.