Dressing Downton

Violet Crawley, the Dowager Duchess, and Martha Levinson, Cora’s mother.

I spent so much time talking (and talking and talking) about Italy, that I did not get a chance to tell you about this wonderful exhibition of costumes from Downton Abbey. The last Downton episode may have aired a few months ago, but the magic continues. In Chicago this spring, it has been especially easy to indulge our English country house fantasies with a wonderful exhibit, “Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times,” featuring more than 35 costumes from the award-winning series.

Last week one of my best fashion- and Downton-loving friends and I were finally able to visit this exhibit. (And not a minute too soon because it was about to close.) We’re so glad we went! Seeing the clothes that played such a huge part in the series was wonderful, but the setting at the Driehaus Museum and the production quality of the exhibit itself were both spot on.

First let me say that the setting for the exhibition, Chicago’s Driehaus Museum, provided a perfect backdrop. The museum was the “Gilded Age” home of banker Samuel Mayo Nickerson. It has been restored by philanthropist Richard H. Driehaus and today showcases both original furnishings and pieces from the Driehaus Collection of Fine and Decorative Arts. Although it’s nothing like the grandeur of Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey was filmed, the time period was perfect. So was the staging. Each costume vignette was paired with an oversized still photo of a scene in which the costume was worn. We relived moments from the show as we viewed the costumes!


This image of Robert Crowley, Earl of Grantham, and Cora Crowley, Duchess of Grantham, is from the first season, I think. They are dressed for the Downton Village Flower Show. I loved Cora’s dress here, the detail in the black faggoting was wonderful! (Okay, I do have a soft spot for black and white dressing.) And look at how beautifully the silk drapes on the mannequin and in the photo.


Another vignette features Robert in his military uniform, invented for the story but based on actual uniforms worn at the time. Cora’s dress features a piece of vintage fabric beaded with glass diamonds, pearls and seed beads. Clothes from that time were made to last and were well cared for, so re-making new clothes from old, using dress panels, lace and even ribbons was common. I know my grandmother was adept at doing that, largely out of necessity in the Depression, but I haven’t thought of it myself. Perhaps I should? But first I’ll need to get something with hand beading.


The servants’ side of the Downton storyline was well-represented by these outfits worn by Barrow and Mrs. Hughes: formal, proper, severe. Pick an adjective. This is the way they dressed all the time!


I admired the way Lady Edith Crawley embraced the changes and opportunities WWI and the post-war years brought to women’s lives. Here she is wearing trousers, but so elegantly with boots, gloves, velvet-trimmed coat, etc. You may recall she also learned to drive and even drove a tractor on the estate to help with farming chores while the men were off at war.


The skirt and blouse, center, worn by Lady Mary, is an interesting example of how the show’s costumers put the outfits together. Many pieces of clothing are original to the period, and therefore fragile. In this case, the chiffon print used on the blouse front was “rescued” from an unwearable garment and sewn onto the front of another blouse.


Cora’s velvet dress, worn when she escorted Lady Rose for her presentation at Court, has original lace and beadwork from the 1920’s. Interestingly, I read that the three white ostrich feathers were a requirement for both the debutantes and their escorts at Court! I have no idea why, but it’s worth investigating.


This may have been my favorite! Lady Rose’s dress is reminiscent of the “flapper” style and is also original to the period. It’s silk velvet with glass beads and sequins and also much shorter than what everyone has been wearing. She’s portrayed here with the American jazz singer and musician Jack Ross. Together they caused quite a stir, which pretty much describes Rose most of the time!

You can see why we loved this exhibit. It gave us a wonderful opportunity to step back into the world of Downton Abbey. As I have gone back over the photos, I have been thinking about how much we count on fashion to set the stage, good or bad. So, now I’m wondering, what are people going to say about our clothes in 100 years?

See you next time!




A different vibe in Florence

Florence fom San Miniato2I’m not sure if Florence has a different vibe from Rome or if we had a different vibe ourselves when we got there, but this leg of our trip was definitely a little “looser.”

If you read my post on Rome, you know we started there with some scheduled tours. In Florence, we started with two and a half days to explore the Uffizi, Duomo, Academia, and more. Because some of the sites in Florence require a reserved admission time (or a long wait in line), we had to arrange those, but that was pretty easy. On the fourth day there we had arranged to join a small tour from Siena to the Clay Hills, a monastery and a vineyard. We had a fifth day for anything we missed, wanted to go back to, etc.

Florence is a relatively short train ride from Rome and our hotel was a 10-minute walk from the Florence train station. Well, it actually took us at least 20 minutes. We didn’t pay really close attention to our map and we spent a lot of time marveling at the charming streets we were walking, the churches, the squares. Florence is just so pretty!

This is what it really looks like. One lovely view after another.

By the time we got to Florence I was feeling a pull between the obligatory museum and cathedral visits and simply wandering the sidestreets, poking around tiny boutiques, enjoying a daily gelato. The weather in Florence was still unseasonably chilly (I actually wore the same black sweater to dinner seven nights in a row!) and rainy from time to time, but I honestly don’t think it got in the way.

After checking into our hotel, we grabbed some lunch a few blocs away in the Piazza della Signoria and headed across the piazza for the Palazzo Vecchio. Oops! This is the day it closes at 2:15. So, we walked through the courtyard of the Galleria degli Uffizi and down to the Arno. There was a lot to take in: the architecture, the river, the people. Eventually, we headed back towards our hotel to meet friends from home (they were on the last day of their stay in Florence) for drinks and dinner.

The Ponte Vecchio was once a marketplace, today it is home to upscale jewelry and leather shops.

After drinks in the hotel bar and debriefing each other on our recent travel adventures, five of us set out for what is loosely known as “the first nite restaurant,” named by mutual friends who had a tradition of spending Thanksgiving in Florence (which is apparently where all the pilgrims go when they want a change of scene). This was another wonderful saunter, window-shopping our way across the Ponte Vecchio and beyond to the tiny piazza where Trattoria 4 Leoni  is located. Seated at an outside table, we enjoyed a fabulous dinner (pasta filled with pear and asparagus in walnut butter sauce. One word: yum!) As we were finishing up with espressos and coffee, travel guru Rick Steves showed up. Alas, no film crew, but fun to know he chose this restaurant too!

The next morning we went to the Uffizi, which was glorious, but not without its comic moments. We had opted not to take their tour as we had downloaded a Rick Steves audio tour of the museum to our phones. His tours are very professional, introducing art historians to talk about various pieces. However, in this case, many of the pieces had been moved to accommodate renovations in the building! It really was pretty funny, took a few adjustments and we did our best.

The collections in the Uffizi beautifully demonstrate the transition from Medieval to Renaissance art and the growing sophistication of painters in their representation of the human form and their use of perspective.

That afternoon we went to the Academia to see Michelangelo’s David. Of course, we had already seen “it” everywhere, including the copy in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. Despite all the photos, copies and general hype, seeing this in person is truly breathtaking.

Michelangelo’s David.

That night we had dinner at a Ristorante Paoli near our hotel. As we were enjoying yet another delicious plate of proscuiutto and melon, who should walk in but Rick Steves, again! Wow! Is he following us? We must be picking the right restaurants. (Disclaimer: Though the restaurants were recommended by friends, both are listed in his book.) He even came back to ask the couple next to us how they had found the restaurant and compliment us on dining at a European hour (it was well after 9:00 pm). And no, I did not mention that his audio tour of the Uffizi is way out of sync!

If you were feeling cynical…

You might say Florence is pretty commercial. Every square or piazza is ringed by stands hawking leather goods, scarves, refrigerator magnets shaped like Michelangelo’s David, etc. The most obvious cafes in these locations serve ho hum pasta, pizza and wine to tired tourists who are glad to have a seat. And don’t get me started on the parades of tourists following a guide wielding an umbrella or paddle in the air. It can seem a little grim.


Carousel and tourists in the Piazza della Repubblica. Our hotel was nearby, and we stopped by often to see what was happening.
Opera singer
Opera singers performing in the Piazza della Repubblica. Their performance was amazing.

But then you turn a corner, look a little further for what may be a quieter cafe with a local vibe, and you fall in love with Florence’s charm.

Florence street
We had one of our favorite lunches ever here, in a tiny cafe. The cook was also the owner and the winemaker!

One morning we were headed for the Duomo, but apparently our mental maps needed re-calibration, because we ended up at Santa Croce. It is the principal Franciscan church in Florence and the largest Franciscan Basilica in the world, consecrated in 1442 by Pope Eugene IV. Although its design is somewhat simpler inside, reflecting the Franciscan order, it is hardly plain. Many of the chapels are decorated by frescoes by Giotto and his pupils. Santa Croce is also the burial place for a number of important Italians, including Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli. We also discovered the leather workshop adjacent to the church, where aspiring artisans learn the traditional techniques for creating the genuinely beautiful leather pieces Florence is known for. I’m sorry to say we missed the monument to Florence Nightingale, who was born in Florence and named for it.

If you stay flexible, willing to follow your nose, you may find a real treasure. Friends had recommended taking the #12 bus across the river to Piazzale Michelangelo, a great vantage point for photographing the city. We took advantage of a warm, sunny morning to do just that. The ride through Florence and across the river offered beautiful views of the city — narrow, cobble-stone streets, stucco and stone buildings and a veritable sea of tile roofs.

As the bus climbed to the sought-after vantage point, another passenger overheard us discussing which stop we needed. She nicely pointed out that it would be easy to identify — everyone would be getting off there.  But she also told us about another, better vantage point which we could could walk to from the bus stop. So we followed her up a steep path to San Miniato al Monte.

San Miniato al Monte is a Romanesque jewel.

San Miniato was a Roman soldier condemned to death in the third century for being a Christian. As the legend goes, the beasts in the amphitheater refused to devour him and when the Roman soldiers then beheaded him, San Miniato picked up his head, crossed the Arno and walked up the hill to this point where he died. (I guess that makes it a mythical legend.) Eventually a shrine was built on this spot. Construction of the current church, considered one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture and one of the oldest churches in Florence, was begun in 1037. The adjacent monastery was originally a Benedictine community, but it has been run by Olivetans since 1373.

A change of scene in Tuscany

If we were overloaded on art, basilicas and cathedrals when we left Rome, our days in Florence threatened to put us over the edge (and Steve and I like this stuff!). Happily, before we left home we had tracked down Tours by Roberto (another find on the Rick Steves forum) and arranged to join one of his groups on a day trip to the clay hills, a monastery and lunch and wine tasting at a Tuscan winery. These tours are limited to eight people, but on this day the tour had been oversold, so Roberto’s driver, Andre, picked us up at our hotel in Florence and we enjoyed a private tour until we caught up with the others at the winery. The day was a delight.


The scenic drive thru the hilly terrain and Andre’s knowledgeable conversation about rural life from Roman times to the present set the stage perfectly for a stop at the Abbazia de Monte Oliveto Maggiore. Although there were other tourists there, and the monks make and sell their own products as well as those of other monasteries, the atmosphere was steeped in quiet.

The monastery centers on a pavilion lined with frescoes begun by Signorelli (eight scenes dated 1497-98) and later finished by Sodoma. The frescoes tell the life of Saint Benedict. As was the case in the Borghese in Rome, one of the joys of this small tour was how close we were able to get to the frescoes and see the artistry in their detail. These artists were not without a sense of humor. Sodoma  inserted a self-portrait on one of the panels he painted, including his pet badgers at his feet! (Michelangelo and Raphael did the same in the Vatican, without the badgers!) In the top right image below, you see two horses in the distance, but because the artist was being hurried to complete his work, there are a total of only six legs.


We stopped to stretch our legs and take pictures in Chiusure, a tiny, tiny town, typical of those that dot Tuscany.


From there we headed to the agricultural estate of Santa Giulia in Montalcino and met up with Roberto and the rest of the group. The winery is just one aspect of the 18-hectare farm that has been in the Terzuoli family since 1950. It is stunningly beautiful, but that’s just part of the story.


Roberto took us into a storehouse where the salami, prosciutto and other meats made by the family from animals raised on the farm are cured. The winery produces a brunello wine from San Giovese grapes grown on the farm. The wine must be approved by a consortium that carefully protects the quality. Each grower is allowed a limited size vineyard with specific soil and exposure to produce the best grapes. The wine must meet specific standards throughout its production or it cannot be labeled brunello. (All of which, I suppose, allows them to look down on California wines, produced with far fewer restrictions!) The total production is small, about 10,000 bottles.

Eventually, we sat down with the other eight tourists, Roberto, Andre and the winemaker for one of our most memorable meals in Italy. As Roberto promised, when we ate the meat, made from the animals on that farm, and drank the wine made from the grapes on that vineyard, the flavors of that soil and sun blended perfectly. (Did anyone say say farm to table?)

And, yes, our case of Brunello arrived this week.

Everyone has their own Italy

Steve and I have a number of friends who have traveled to Italy, some of them many times. As we were putting together this post, we talked about how everyone has their own Italy. Our friends who traveled annually to Florence for Thanksgiving had previously traveled throughout the country but decided Florence was their city and stuck with it. Another couple we know has family well south of Rome in Lecce. They’ve tied their Lecce visits to travels throughout Italy, but always manage a few days in Rome. Others lean towards Naples and Capri. And we know a few others who have hit as many high points as possible on a single, escorted tour.

Right now I think we would love to go back to Tuscany, stay in one hill town and take the time to explore others.It’s worth adding that we said the same thing last year after a river cruise in Provence. Let’s go back and explore on our own. Although I love the history in the cities and would certainly not want to skip it, I think I truly enjoy the pace and the lifestyle of the smaller towns. What about you?

See you next time!

A Pair of Independent Travelers in Rome

I know, I’ve been missing from the blog, but I have a great excuse: My husband and I were traveling in Rome, Florence and Pisa and then stopped over in London for a few days on our way back to Chicago. Whew! A lot of miles, museums, art, food, wine, churches — too much for a single post, but let me start by telling you a bit about Rome…

This was our first trip to Italy, ever, and we were the quintessential tourists with all the classics on our must-see list in Rome: the Vatican, the Coliseum, the Forum, you know the drill. You should also know that we watch a lot of travel shows on TV, especially Rick Steves (which made running into him, twice, in Florence, really funny). In fact, we relied heavily on RS in planning the trip, reading his books and posing questions on his forums (which always results in great, informative responses).

I describe us as “independent travelers,” because we just like to move at our own pace. However, we did need some tour help to make sure we were making the most of our sightseeing, so we booked several specific tours well in advance of our arrival. Good thing, too. Rome is big, busy, boisterous and, as one friend who has traveled there often describes it, grittier than some other cities. Personally I would say it pulses with its own dynamic energy.

We arrived on a Sunday afternoon and checked into our hotel near the Piazza del Popolo in time to join the daily, late afternoon/early evening stroll known as the passeggiatia. (The piazza is located just inside the city’s northern gate known as the Porto del Popolo and is home to two churches, Santa Maria in Montesanto, built 1662-75 and Santa Maria dei Miracoli, built 1675-79. Brace yourself, history is everywhere here.)

Looking down on the Piazza del Popolo with the dome of St. Peter’s in the background

We walked down the Via del Corso, headed for the Spanish Steps. Alas, see the fences? The steps were closed for renovations! (I guess you have to expect some of that in a city over 2000 years old, but really, the Spanish Steps?)


It was, however, a walk to remember, a people-watcher/sightseer delight: tourists and locals of every age, tiny alleys and passageways, gelato stands and sidewalk cafes. We kind of had to pinch ourselves, “are we really in Rome?”

The next morning we joined an 8:30 am tour at the Vatican with one of their guides and 25 other eager tourists. What we did not know, however, was that this was a national holiday, celebrating the defeat of the Nazis in WWII. So despite our early start, we were shoulder to shoulder with everyone else in Rome, it seemed, as the tour proceeded. The guide was awesome, her knowledge of the art and artists endless, but frankly I think I will always equate the Vatican first with massive crowds, then with the art.

Just a section of one of Rafael’s frescoes in the Vatican’s Papal Apartment. Our guide told us that unlike Michaelanglo who worked alone, Raphael had a crew of artisans who colored many of the frescoes he sketched. The artist was only 25 when he began these works!


St. Peter’s is breathtaking and immense. I know that’s not saying much, but it pretty much left me speechless.

After more than three hours on foot at the Vatican, we were glad to take a quick lunch break and grab a cab for the Borghese Gallery for our next tour. We actually had not planned to do both in one day (and we paid for it with “museum overload”), but there was a last-minute change in museum schedules, and the tour company offered this change, so we went with it.

This tour was the exact opposite of our Vatican experience. Context Tours limits groups to six participants; this time there were only four of us with an art historian for two hours in the Borghese Gallery. The afternoon was essentially a mini-seminar in Italian art history.

The wealthy and powerful Borghese family built the villa to house and display their art collection, not unusual for Renaissance families. The gallery houses works by Bernini, Caravaggio and Titian, among others. Compared to most other European museums, it’s  small and intimate. We got a closer look at things in a much quieter setting.

Bernini’s “Rape of Proserpine” (1622) is remarkable for so many reasons, not the least of which is his ability to capture detail in marble. Look at the hands and feet!

After this first day, we continued to move farther back in time, pulling back layers of Roman history to tour the Coliseum and ancient Rome via the Forum and Palatine Hill. It was occasionally rainy and a little chilly that afternoon at the forum, but impossible not to be struck by the history that transpired there, just think Julius Caesar.

The Coliseum. Our guide told us that despite popular images of chariot races here, there was not room. They took place at the Circus Maximus.
Though it was once the heart of the Roman Empire, the Forum was actually buried by centuries of flooding from the Tiber River and run off from the adjacent hills. It was  only excavated in the 19th century.

One rainy morning we set off on foot (again!) and found ourselves first at the Trevi Fountain and later at the Pantheon. In both cases I was struck by how tightly both of these sights seemed to be “squeezed” into their respective locations.  The Pantheon was completed by the emperor Hadrian and probably dedicated about 126 AD. The circular building is topped by what is still considered to be the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The city just grew up around it!

Originally built as a pre-Christian temple to honor all gods, then later converted to a church, Michaelangelo used the Pantheon dome as the model for the dome on St. Peter’s Basilica. Raphael is buried here.

I can’t close out this Roman travelogue without telling you about the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran. It is the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome and ranks above all other Catholic churches. It was the home church of the popes before the Vatican, in fact before the papacy was moved to Avignon. During that time, the church was damaged twice by fires and despite repairs, was not thought to be adequate when the papacy returned from France. Ambitious renovations were eventually completed, notably the installation of the statues of the 12 Apostles in 1718.

Steve learned about it as we were doing our research about the trip, and we’re very glad we found our way there. It’s a remarkable place, nearly as big as St. Peter’s and as quiet as St. Peter’s is crowded.

I should note that this site, like others, had tight security. In addition to the obvious presence of heavily armed military and police, we entered through metal detectors. Backpacks and purses were scanned separately.  This is the world we live in today.

The Archbasilica is the burial site for a number of early popes.

Across the street from the Archbasilica are the Holy Stairs, brought to Rome from Palestine by St. Empress Helena, mother of then-Emperor Constantine I and said to be the same stairs Christ traveled during his crucifixion. The marble stairs are protected by wood, but continue to be an important site for religious pilgrims.

Despite the crowds and the “iffy” weather, Steve and I had a terrific time in Rome. We walked, a lot, and were literally footsore by the time we returned to our hotel each day. We quickly adopted a rule that limited dinner to restaurants in a two- or three-block radius. Happily, the neighborhood was offered a number of small restaurants that served as many locals as they did tourists. (One night the waiters rearranged the dining room in mid-meal to accommodate a large family dinner!) We thought this was a good sign. Locals wouldn’t dine someplace that wasn’t really good.

Italians don’t even think about dining before about 8:30 or 9 and appearing earlier, even if the restaurant is technically open, seems a little rude. Instead, we would stop by around 7 pm and ask for a table later. They were always happy to hold one for us. Before we left home, a friend told us that restaurants would not serve wines they were not proud of. We took his advice and ordered the house red and it was always, always delicious.

Rome lived up to every expectation, but after four nights it was time to move on to Florence. More about that soon!

See you next time!