This week has been a lesson in the highs and lows of the human heart. On Sunday morning in Chicago we awoke to mid-April snow. Not flurries, not a dusting, but inches of wet, sloppy, slushy white stuff. In November we would have found it fun. But in April, on Palm Sunday, I didn’t get the joke at all.
In fact, I wanted to pull the covers over my head.
Instead we drank coffee, read the papers, and my husband turned on the Masters Golf Tournament. We got caught up in the drama of the last hole and Tiger Woods’ amazing finish. If you saw this, you know what I mean: sheer joy in every fiber of his being. The crowds and his competitors were equally jubilant. This was a moment Woods was afraid would never come. But it did. A testament to the simplest work ethic: never, ever, ever give up.
What an emotional high. If you watched him hug his children and his mother without feeling tears come to your eyes, you might be missing a heart.
I was in the car on Monday when I heard that Notre Dame de Paris was on fire. How is this impossible? Architectural icons don’t burn; they weather revolutions, plagues, World Wars and Nazi occupations. But this was real. When I got home my husband had the news on, and he said, “This is awful. It’s like Katrina. You can’t stop watching.”
He was so right. We watched it off and on throughout the afternoon, waiting for the firemen to somehow get on top of the blaze, to get it under control, but instead the fire kept growing, and we watched the spire fall. The news commentators talked about the added tragedy of this happening during Holy Week. And we looked at each other and recalled a family story.
Our Notre Dame story
Seventeen years ago Steve and I made our first trip to Paris together. It was a little earlier in the spring and we got back in time to celebrate Easter with my mom, her brother & his wife. (Our kids were away at school.) This was well before smart phones and selfies and so we took along a stack of printed photos (remember them?) from the trip to share over dinner. And as the five of us poured over the iconic sights from Paris — the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triumph — my uncle studied one of Notre Dame and remarked that he had been there for Easter in 1945.
What? How could he not have told any of us this story?
Bill was a Chicago kid in the Navy who spent WWII on a small boat escorting much larger ships back and forth across the Atlantic. He spent a lot of time in England and then in Le Harve, France. It was hazardous duty, and like so many WWII vets, he had never shared much about it. But back to Notre Dame…
When we found our voices, we asked what he was doing there. Well, he said, he and several shipmates had leave for Easter and they ended up in Paris. On Easter morning they headed for church. They didn’t know about Notre Dame or go looking for it, it was just the church they found (as if you could miss it, right?) The locals welcomed these young sailors warmly as “Yanks” and led them to seats right up front. I suppose they represented the liberators.
I can only imagine Bill’s blue eyes and his Evangelical and Reformed heart taking in the majesty of Notre Dame: its cavernous space, monumental pillars, stained glass, row after row after row of seats. How can you even take it all in?
Since hearing Bill’s story, I have been to Paris on a handful of additional visits. Notre Dame is simply part of the city, part of the skyline, we’ve walked by it a hundred times (often noting the crowds waiting to get in and said we’ve been here before and we’ll come back at a quieter time), we had breakfast with friends in a cafe just behind it, we’ve admired it up close and from across the river. We’ve picked it out of the skyline from the Musee d’Orsay and Sacre Coeur.
Notre Dame is Paris.
And clearly it will be repaired and rebuilt and continue to play its Parisian role. In the meantime, it hurts the heart to think of its blackened walls and collapsed roof. At the same time we’re heartened by its resilience. Icons can be fragile, it seems, and that should give us pause.
What about you? Do you have a Notre Dame story? I’d love to hear it!
In thinking about this blog post, it occurred to me that though I never thought of myself as a “French Riviera kind of girl,” after our visit there last fall, I’d go back in a heartbeat.
The French Riviera is incredibly beautiful. Blue skies, even bluer Mediterranean water, sunsets that defy any camera to adequately capture them. Turn away from the water and there are hilltops covered in the tiled roofs of villas and, beyond that, mountains.
We included the Riviera on our “great French road trip” because getting that close and skipping it would be foolish, and we wanted make at least some some stops on the “art trail” in the South of France. (You may recall we had been making our way along the western coast of France, beginning in Rouen, then Normandy and Mont St. Michel, before heading to the chateaus in the Loire and then wine tasting in Bordeaux.)
After a beautiful cruise thru the French countryside, with the occasional walled chateau or abbey along the road, we found ourselves navigating in bumper-to-bumper traffic on ridiculously narrow streets, lined with parked cars on each side and street vendors selling everything from sunglasses to take-out dinners. Bikes and pedestrians criss-crossed our paths. What had we done?
But wait, it gets better.
As we motored our way thru the congestion (it was Friday afternoon, the last Friday on the last weekend of the season as it turned out), we were trying to follow Google’s directions to our hotel in Juan les Pins, across the street from Antibes. Google meant well, but when she said turn left, she meant at the intersection we passed 20 yards ago. After a series of ridiculously convoluted detours, we finally pulled into a “parking space” on a sidewalk among a number of other cars and walked to the hotel. Then, having a somewhat better grasp of where to go, Steve moved the car to the underground garage where we happily left it until Sunday morning! (This park nd walk maneuver is one of our best tips. Sometimes finding someplace on foot is easier.)
Our room was large and lovely with a tiny balcony from which we could see the Mediterranean. We would be here for four nights. I don’t think we’d fully appreciated how much we had been “on the road” until now, stopping only for one or two nights along the way. And what a place to take a break. We walked down to the beach, found an empty cafe table, a glass of wine and just enjoyed the sunset. The next morning, after a leisurely hotel breakfast, we walked — yes, walked — about eight blocks, a little uphill and then down, and we were in Antibes!
The French Riviera is a string of cities like Nice and Cannes, and smaller cities and even villages along this lovely coast. We chose Juan les Pins/Antibes as a base because it was smaller than Nice and not as “high end” as Cannes. We could stay close to the water for a reasonable price. All of these cities are connected by a train line than runs frequently throughout the day, like a commuter rail. In fact on Monday, we walked to the station and took a short train ride to Nice.
This is Picasso country
Antibes was a fairly busy place on a Saturday morning, but we easily found our way to the Old Town with the usual tangle of charming, narrow streets and interesting shops. Our destination was the Picasso Museum. (Actually, there are Picasso Museums all over France it seems. I have also been to one in Paris.)
This was on a Saturday morning and we had been taking our time, ooh-ing and aaah-ing over the Antibes waterfront and wandering thru the old town. We arrived at the ticket office just before noon. We walked up to the ticket wndow along with some other visitors only to have the ticket-seller (who on this day was apparently also the ticket-taker) announce to all those around, that it was his lunch time and he would be closing until 1:30.
This is so quintessentially french, you just have to go with it.
So, we wandered back to a food market complete with a cafe, ordered a light lunch, and did some people watching. I checked out a brocante market and we got sidetracked by two wedding parties celebrating along the way. Back to the museum.
This particular museum is housed in the Chateau Grimaldi, a 14th Century Roman Fort turned museum in which Picasso enjoyed a work space in 1946. His time in this space was short, from September until mid-November, but his artistic output was remarkable. He produced 23 paintings and 44 drawings during this short time. Interestingly, he donated all this work to the museum, which eventually acquired much more, including sculpture and ceramics.
About Picasso. Although I am not a huge Picasso fan, I have come to genuinely appreciate his work and its evolution, as well as his influence on generations of artists. The range of his work extends from painting, drawing and sculpture to include set design and ceramics. I wish I pictures of his ceramics, they were stunning. (This is what happens to me. I get so busy looking that I forget to take photos!)
The next day we dared to take the car from the garage to the outskirts of Nice to visit the Musee Matisse.
After a predictably adventurous drive, we arrived at the museum, where interestingly (ironically?) there was a substantial exhibit recalling the friendship and rivalry between Matisse and Picasso. (Did I say this is Picasso country?) Matisse and Picasso met sometime in 1906 at Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon. (Americans Gertrude Stein, her brothers Leo and Michael and Michael’s wife Sarah were important collectors and supporters of Matisse.) Picasso, who was 11 years younger, and Matisse were artistic contemporaries. One of the most interesting displays in the exhibit was a pair of black and white films of each of them at work on similar pieces.
Matisse was 48 and a successful artist when he first came to Nice in 1917. Initially he wrote that it rained every day for a month. He was about to leave when the sun came out and he was hooked by the light. He never really left.
After Matisse we headed further inland to St. Paul de Vence, hoping to at least have a drink at La Colombe d’Or, the restaurant where so many artists paid their tabs by offering a painting or drawing in lieu of money. Did I mention this was a Sunday? On the last weekend in September? Everyone in France goes out to lunch on Sundays, especially beautiful September Sundays. The views on the drive were breathtaking, the town was packed, and the restaurant was unapproachable even for a drink without a reservation.
We knew better, but in our “carefree vacation” mode we just assumed they would throw open the doors for Janet and Steve. Happily, we found a table in an outdoor cafe and enjoyed a delicious lunch and some serious people watching. But we found the town too crowded to enjoy. C’est la vie.
On our last full day on the Riviera, we took the train from Juan les Pins to Nice to explore the old town. It took less than 30 minutes and, once in Nice, there is a handy tram a block from the train station that runs down to the water, making several stops along the way. This was a day to walk and enjoy. Nice is very old and so close to Italy, that the influence is striking. Look at these pastel hued buildings, so different from the neutral stone in the rest of France.
This streetscape of fountains and park amid more substantial buildings is in the heart of the town near the water. Note the clouds: a change in the weather was on the way. Although the sun shone all day, it was much cooler by the time we went to dinner.
This is the Promenade des Anglais. We walked here for several yards before I realized this is the idyllic spot where terrorists drove a huge truck into the crowds celebrating Bastille Day on July 14, 2016. Today the promenade is lined with bollards, but the horror of that night is hard to imagine in the midst of sun and sea.
As luck would have it, we were in Nice on the day of their regular antique market, which in this case was blocks-long, winding from one square to another. I was in heaven, Steve not so much. One of the most striking aspects of these markets is the age and provenance of the goods. There are chandeliers and gilt mirrors, confit pots, textiles and more that I have just never seen in a market in the midwest.
Despite our “longer stay” on the Riviera, we left the next day, promising ourselves to come back. In fact I would call this our “preview visit” to the Riviera. There is so much more to see on the art trail, we never got to Monaco or St. Jean Cap Ferrat or Cannes.
This is the mantra of our travels. And it is, I suppose, why we are totally unapologetic about returning to places that we love. There’s always more to see. What about you? Are you willing to make a return trip to a destination you really liked? Or do you feel each place you visit — in this country or around the globe — needs to be new? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
Thank you so much for stopping by. See you next time!
Last week Steve and I finally went to see the John Singer Sargent exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute. It’s a relatively small show compared to others mounted by the AI, but with a interesting cross section of his work. After reviewing his work and doing a little more research, I’m struck by how “American” his work seems, although he spent most of his life in a variety of European cities. Tell me what you think.
Most of us think of Sargent as the painter of Gilded Age portraits. And these he did beautifully. The facial expression, body language and clothing in each is remarkable and distinctive. No wonder he was so “in demand” from a relatively early age.
But before Sargent began accepting portrait commissions, he honed his skills on other works. Street in Venice, 1882, below, is one of several paintings he completed while painting there. (Although Sargent was American-born, his parents took him to Europe as a young child; the family remained there permanently.) I think it’s impossible to escape the moodiness here, or not wonder about the stories behind these three characters.
La Carmencita, 1890, is a more glamorous portrait of dancer Carmen Douset which captures her haughty (or is it defiant?) expression as well as a theatrical pose in equally theatrical dress.
When I think of John Singer Sargent portraits, I think of traditional works like this, Mrs. Edward L. Davis and her son Livingston Davis, painted in 1890. I like the crisp black and white here and the silky texture of her skirt versus the somewhat rumpled suit her son is wearing. And, most important, I think the pose looks totally natural: Mother with her hand on her hip, son just leaning into her.
Two years before the Davis portrait, Singer Sargent painted this portrait of Alice Vanderbilt (later Vanderbilt Morris) of the Vanderbilts when she was just 13. This seems a bit more traditional, but together with the Davis portrait, above, they are a clear representation of what we think of as “Gilded Age” portraits, from a time when new American money could buy the trappings of old European aristocracy.
Shortly after the turn of the century, however, Singer Sargent stepped way from his successful portraiture commissions to spend more time in pursuit of plein air painting. Many of these pieces feature vivid watercolors, including a number of paintings from Venice. The Gondoliers Siesta, 1904, is a beautiful example.
One of my favorites from the AI exhibition, The Fountain, Villa Tortonia, Frascati, Italy, 1907, captures Sargent’s transition from portraitist to plein air painter. The couple are Wilfred and Jane Emmet de Glenn, professional artists and friends of Sargent.
Sargent painted a series of watercolors much later while staying at the Florida estate, Vizcaya, of his friend and benefactor James Deering. One from the AI exhibition is The Terrace at Vizcaya, 1917. Here the color is much lighter, more “Florida.”
Despite living most of his life in Europe, John Singer Sargent never gave up his American citizenship, and painted many of the American political and industrial greats of his time. When I look at his paintings, especially his portraits, they seem to be very American: straightforward poses, not a lot of background, pretty much an American sensibility, but perhaps with the added polish of European training. What do you think?
The next field trip
Right now we are packing bags and maps before leaving on a long-awaited “road trip.” I hope you are following me on Instagram. I’ll be away from the blog but try to post often on IG!
Thanks for stopping by! See you next time – and on Instagram!
There’s nothing like one great antique or vintage find to whet your appetite for more. At least that’s how it works for me. One thing just leads to another…
About a month or six weeks ago, I happened upon this blue and white pitcher. In fact, you may have seen it on my Instagram feed. There is something about both the colors and the patterns that is distinctive from the rest of my blue and white transferware. It’s hard to see the detail in the image, but the lip of the pitcher is actually scalloped!
I haven’t had a chance to really research the manufacturing stamp on the bottom, so its real value is still elusive. And I need to be clear about my “antique” hunting. Most of it is just old stuff that catches my fancy, suits my style, calls my name. I don’t have the budget (or at this point even the space) for the $1200 antique Swedish cabinet my friend and I saw last weekend, even if it was truly wonderful!
I have a few more finds in my porch cupboard (a very old, not-at-all-sturdy cabinet basically held together by myriad coats of paint) where I keep paper towels and glass spray to freshen up the dining table, cocktail napkins, an assortment of small vases and flower frogs as well as a flower pot (on the bottom shelf) of hand tools for the garden. (My idea of porch necessities!) I recently added a few more vintage vases to the other pieces on the top shelf. (My husband collected the vintage fans. The larger one needs re-wiring, along with a third one on his workbench, but I thought they looked cool on the porch. Pun intended!)
But wait, there’s more!
Last week I went to the Randolph Street vintage and antique market on Chicago’s near west side. This is a monthly market in the summer and I have attended sporadically for years. Sometimes there are great finds, sometimes not so much. The merchandise is definitely more vintage (30’s and 40’s) than antique, and there are a number of vendors selling old, repurposed, industrial pieces. This is definitely the place to go for “loft-sized” artwork, kitchen islands, coffee tables and more. Last week I saw at least six beautiful, old, oak drafting tables (sorry, I forgot to take any pictures). Fun to look at, but not really my style.
Surprisingly, however, this is where I bought many antique french linens in the past. (One vendor used to come once each summer. Her selection was amazing!) I’ve also found great prints, as well as some fun lamps. Last week I found this sweet little water color, currently residing on a shelf in the dining room.
I also found two neat baskets. One is huge — 23″ by 16″ by 13″ deep — and needs some repairs. I’m going to have to glue the leather straps back in place at the ends of the handles. It also has some loose pieces on the bottom; perhaps from being dragged? I haven’t decided how to handle that, except to treat it gently overall. it’s big enough to hold some pillows on the porch or quilts at the foot of a bed, but I could also put it atop a cabinet to look neat and out of the way of further damage.
And since I found one basket, I picked a smaller one up from the same vendor. It’s really a nice shape and size, perfect for magazines. I don’t know about the rest of you who shop at similar venues, but if I find one thing at a booth, I often find more from the same vendor. It probably has a lot to do with companionable aesthetics. (Price negotiations are also a little easier when buying more than once piece.)
The big find…
Of course, I’m always looking for transfer ware and ironstone. Nothing last week. Lately I’ve been searching for small vintage vases like the ones in my porch cabinet. I was sure I’d find some at Randolph Street, but no. If there were any, I did not see them. However, I did spot this bistro table and four chairs early on and I could not get it out of my head. Was I looking for something like that? Not at all. Do I have a good spot for this? No!
I looked at it and walked away. Then I met up with my antiquing buddy and showed her. She agreed it was fabulous, insisted I should really buy it and negotiated a better price (she knows this vendor). I still walked away. We looked at other stuff, stopped for a cold drink, and while we were taking our break my friend asked if I was still thinking about the table.
“Yes,” I said. “And I’m thinking I’d better go buy it.”
Actually, it’s really charming in the yard, propped with a plant. I absolutely love it. My husband does too. We’re just assuming we’ll come up with another place for it.
Most of us who shop antique markets have a mental Rolodex of the pieces we didn’t buy. We were indecisive, couldn’t think where to put it, or someone else snatched it up. But the best shoppers/collectors/decorators offer the same advice: if you love it, you’ll find a place for it. They’re right. That’s the way antiques (or any collectibles) are. They’re really kind of insidious, worming their way into your heart, your home, and finally into a corner of the family room.
What ever it is that you collect, happy hunting! Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!
What do basketball and interior design have in common? It’s actually pretty simple.
Starting in the 4th or 5th grade and continuing for several years, my basketball-loving son enthusiastically followed the career and athletic achievements of Michael Jordan. (Who am I kidding, in the late eighties and early nineties we all loved #43!) His basketball feats seemingly had no limits. There were gravity-defying gymnastics that invariably ended with a basket. But there was also the ball handling, the competitiveness and the work ethic. (I know this because Doug watched tapes of his plays again and again and again. They were the soundtrack of my life for quite awhile.)
Hero worship is something we all occasionally fall into, and, depending on the hero, it’s not all bad. We might learn some new skills and/or acquire some new interests, etc. So it’s hardly surprising that my love of dishes, fabrics, furniture, color and design — really all the decorative elements — have led me to my own group of decorating heroes.
You may recall that I wrote here about the influence Mary Emmerling had on my early decorating, but she’s not my only design hero. If you checked my bookshelves, you would see that Charles Faudree is clearly a favorite. I’m not at all sure I have ever succeeded in recreating his lush, layered designs, but I’m happy to keep trying.
For those of you who may not be familiar with Faudree, he is an American designer known for his colorful take on country French interiors and credited by many for popularizing the look. I had admired a number of his rooms in magazines like Traditional Home for some time before I realized that they were all the work of one man.
Faudree’s designs feature a lot of center tables like this one, above, in a library (often the way he referred to an office or study) and, below, in an entry. The table tops are always decked with books, flowers and other meaningful brick-a-brack. I don’t have space for a center table, but I have toyed with similar arrangements atop our dining room table and on side tables.
Different spaces, same aesthetic
One of the things I appreciate about Charles Faudree’s designs is his ability to translate his aesthetic into different settings. The image above is a very traditional dining room, but the photo below features a more contemporary, voluminous space that still maintains his country French design.
Not all Faudree rooms are huge nor are they perfectly proportioned. I love the sunroon, below, but it’s clearly a narrow space.
And what wonderful rooms, furnished with beautiful antiques, plush couches and chairs always topped by a variety of pillows in a companionable array of colors, patterns, textures and trims (always trims — elegant tapes, fringe, tassels, ruffles, etc.). So many thoughtful details.
No room is too small or insignificant, no corner too obscure to escape his treatment. This would not work at my house, but I love the powder room below, especially the little Napoleon on the vanity, not to mention the sconces and wallpaper. Why shouldn’t a small powder room be so completely imaginative?
This transitional space, below, which could be clumsy in accommodating a distinct change of level, is instead totally charming; with chairs and a lamp it’s the perfect place to have a cup of tea or leaf through a magazine.
Despite his motto that “More is never enough,” Faudree often allows a distinctive antique or piece of art to stand on its own. I think the Swedish secretary, below, is from one of his own homes. And look how he allows the brooding Lincoln portrait to dominate the space.
But that “appropriateness” just one aspect of his aesthetic. For me, the real art of Faudree’s talent is in his attention to detail, perfectly placed objets d’arts, picture frames, figurines, cache pots, mementos, etc., all chosen to reflect the interests of the homeowner as well as the overall design. Many are pricey antiques, others are family pieces or flea market finds. (Truth to tell, I think the tension between high end and low end in one room or even one vignette makes a powerful statement.) In his hands, all of this fits perfectly into the greater design scheme. It’s personal, it’s layered, it’s thoughtful.
I’m not advocating assembling and displaying “stuff” for the sake of “stuff.” And I don’t think Faudree was either. But I do think that rooms devoid of artwork, photographs, books, collectibles from a hobby or travel tend to have a very sterile look, as though anyone could live there instead of the individuals who do.
I never tire of paging thru his books, reading and re-reading his comments about how or why various elements combined into the finished design. I always learn something new, about wall arrangements or color or collectibles. I also find that I am more than a little charmed by his impish personality, stories from friends and associates about buying trips in France and his prankish sense of humor. This is someone I really wish I could have met.
Sadly, Charles Faudree died in 2013. (I know, think of the rooms he could have designed, the books he could have written!) But, you can enjoy his many books from new and used sellers and even the library. Titles include: Charles Faudree Home,Charles Faudree Details, Charles Faudree Interiors, Country French Florals and Interiors, Charles Faudree’s Country French Living, Charles Faudree Country French Signature, and Charles Faudree Country French Legacy.
What about you, who or what inspires your interests?
Last fall as I was telling the multi-part story of our trip to Italy, life and “the holidays” got in the way, so here is my post about returning to Rome. I hope you enjoy it! (You can read about our earlier stops in Tuscany here and Florence here.)
Rome was our last stop in Italy. As with Florence, it was not our first visit. Last year we toured the Vatican Museums, the Borghese Gallery, and the Forum. It was fun going back with some of the tourist pressure off.
We took the highspeed train from Florence to Rome and checked into the Residenza di Ripetta, where we stayed last year. We love this hotel; it’s elegant yet comfortable and ideally situated between Rome’s Piazza di Popolo and the Spanish Steps. It’s just a few short blocks from the Via Corso, perfect for enjoying the daily passeggiata before stopping for dinner in one of the small, local restaurants in the neighborhood.
Checking off another Papal Basilica
There are four Papal major basilicas in Rome: St. Peter’s in the Vatican; St. John Lateran, which predates St. Peter’s and which we visited last year; St. Paul Outside the Walls; and the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. We had seen St. Peter’s and St. John Lateran, so we decided to visit at least one more and Santa Maria Maggiore looked like it was within walking distance of our hotel.
In reality, the church was really only kind of in “walking distance.”
Rome is built on seven hills. What I have been trying to figure out, for two visits now, is why no matter where we are in Rome, we are always walking uphill. AND, if you are going downhill, you are probably navigating ancient, steep, stone stairs. It’s a puzzle.
Santa Maria Maggiore was built in the fifth century and served as the temporary Palace of the Popes after the the Avignon Papacy. Knowing this history I expected it to occupy a distinguished setting, but actually it just appears in an old Roman neighborhood, surrounded by cobblestones that set it apart from the surrounding street. Because Santa Maria Maggiore is a papal basilica, it is used by the Pope, especially on certain holy days.
From here we walked (mostly uphill and then up a remarkable set of stairs) to Saint Peter in Chains (San Pietro in Vincoli), built in the fifth century to house the relic of chains believed to have bound Saint Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem. This minor basilica is home to Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, a massive work.
Taking a museum break
Rome is a lot more than churches.
Capitoline Museums on Capitoline Hill (another hill!) house an amazing assortment of secular art and artifacts that reflect Rome’s history. Once two palaces facing a piazza, the site was redesigned by Michelangelo in 1536. We loved seeing this side of Rome, especially after our previous “day of churches.” But for me, the real star of the day was the view of the Forum and other ruins from Capitoline Hill as we walked out of the buildings.
The Vatican’s Mosaic Workshop
On our last day in Rome we went to the Vatican for a tour of St. Peter’s and the mosaic studios. (And you thought we were done with churches!) We had toured the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel, ending with St. Peter’s, last year. But that tour happened to fall on a national holiday and coincided with a special Papal audience. We were shoulder-to-shoulder with other visitors the entire time.
This year we were hoping for a better experience and, boy, did we get it.
Steve found a tour that included the Vatican Mosaic Studio online with Viator. We joined just one other couple and our very knowlegeable guide early that morning. Contrary to the tour’s description, the guide started our tour in the Mosaic Studio so we would better appreciate the art we would see in the basilica. He knew what he was doing; the studio director took over and led the four of us into what I can only describe as a true atelier or studio, this one devoted to the preservation of the precious (and priceless) Vatican mosaics as well as the creation of newly commissioned pieces.
The studio is discretely located in one of the buildings in the Vatican complex. We began in a room that for all practical purposes was part conference room with a center table for display and part gallery, with a variety of mosaic pieces arrayed around the periphery. Sadly, photos were not allowed. The pieces are ancient and modern, sacred and secular. I assumed that the studio’s purpose was to maintain and/or repair the hundreds of square meters of mosaics in the Vatican. While this is true, the studio also produces new works that the Pope often presents as gifts to distinguished visitors and accepts private commissions from around the world. For example, once we stepped beyond this small gallery into the actual workspace, we saw one artist working on mosaic reproduction of a Monet painting.
In order to perfectly repair the Vatican mosaics the space also accommodates a mosaic library of the stones and colors used in all its artworks. These archives are stunning in both their simplicity and their extent. We were also allowed into another work space housing a small kiln where artists can fire the exact color necessary to complete a new work. There is no part of the mosaic process that is not painstakingly created and/or cared for. And of course, care is evident in every piece the studio creates. I’m not an artist, but I do like to understand the process behind art and this was a remarkable lesson.
The guide was, of course, so right to show us the studio first, because when he took us into St. Peter’s the stunning mosaic art there came alive. St. Peter’s Basilica is Christendom’s largest church; its size and decoration are breath-taking and, as our guide pointed out to us, purposely so. It would be impossible for even a “casual believer” to not be moved by St. Peter’s.
One of the options on this tour was a climb to the top of St. Peter’s Dome. I’m sure the view is stunning, but that’s not my kind of climb (or Steve’s either). So, the other couple left with another guide for that tour and we had a private tour of St. Peter’s. One of life’s better travel surprises.
Sure there were hundreds of others in the the basilica (in fact a group of seminarians was being ordained at the very front), but it felt like it was just us and our guide. Our guide walked us through several pieces, explaining the meaning and symbolism in each mosaic. We also visited the crypt to see where previous popes are buried. I must admit that although we are not catholic, it was amazing to see names recent and historic on tomb after tomb. (Many of the earliest tombs were destroyed long ago.)
We both think our guide made all of this come alive for us. He was more than just knowledgeable, perhaps trained for a religious vocation in an earlier career? As we were leaving St. Peter’s he pointed out one final mosaic in the portico which purports to tell visitors there is more work to do for God as they leave the physical confines of St. Peter’s.
We took this tour on our last day in Rome (our last day in Italy in fact), and we were overwhelmed with all we had seen. We stopped for a coffee then walked through some markets and found our way to Piazza Navona where we had a late lunch, before winding our way to the Spanish Steps and eventually back to our hotel. Here are some photos from that day.
After three weeks in Italy, we were ready to head for home. But now, three months later, I could easily go back. It seems as if there are always new layers of Italy to peel back and examine, new museums, churches, vineyards and towns. I’m not tired of it yet!
What do you do after all that fun in Tuscan hilltowns? We took a deep breath, braved the tourists, and headed to the historic heart of it all — Florence.
We waited a long time to finally get to Florence. Then we simply fell in love with the city. Steve and I both love London and Paris, but Florence is special. It’s compact and walkable (like Paris), has a seemingly endless supply of history and museums (like London), and it has what I think of as art and attitude.
The art is everywhere. The attitude is a little tougher to define, but I think it’s the total of the food and wine, shopping and sophistication, and most of all the history that ekes out of every corner. Now I can also say it’s even better the second time.
Our first visit to Florence was packed; there was so much to see. We planned differently this time, so we could wander more. In fact, the first afternoon, we did just that. After checking in at the Pierre Hotel we took a walk, found lunch, window-shopped our way to San Marco and back. We returned to the hotel and discovered they had delivered a bottle of prosecco and some snacks as a “welcome back” since we had also stayed there last year. This would be fun!
Getting serious about the Medicis
Florence was, first, a well-established medieval city, until it became the birthplace of the Renaissance and the credit for this goes largely to the Medici family. It’s impossible to spend any time in Florence without running into (and trying to understand) the financial and political power of the Medicis. Starting early in the 15th Century and lasting into the 17th century, the family enjoyed both political power (without holding office) and cultural influence.
The family’s wealth originated with its successful textile trade, which lead to the Medici Bank, the most successful in 15th Century Europe. With money comes power. The Medici’s support of the arts and subsequent impact on the Renaissance is unrivaled, starting with Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, who commissioned Brunelleschi for the reconstruction of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in 1419. Cosimo the Elder (another early Medici) commissioned works by Donatello and Fra Angelico. Most significantly Michelangelo accepted commissions from a number of Medici, beginning with Lorenzo the Magnificent, who was also a patron to Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) for seven years.
The Medici impact on the church and royal houses in Europe was equally significant. The family produced three Popes of the Catholic Church, Pope Leo X (1513-1521), Pope Clement VII (1523-1534) and Pope Leo XI (1605) as well as two Queens of France, Catherine de Medici (1547-1559) and Marie de Medici (1600-1610). In 1531, the family became hereditary Dukes of Florence. In 1569, the duchy was elevated to a grand duchy and the Medici family ruled the Grand Duchy of Tuscany until 1737
So much for name dropping.
The Medici family, and its money, were behind many of the ionic structures in Florence, and we visited a number of them with a guide from Context Tours who took us through the San Marco Convent and Museum, the Medici Palazzo, Baslica di San Lorenzo, Medici Chapels, and the New Sacristy (designed by Michelangelo).
(Context Tours are perfect for independent travelers. Guides, or docents as Context calls them, have with MAs, Ph.D.s or other terminal degrees in their subject matter, tours are limited to 5 or 6 people. We were the only ones on this tour. We have also used them in Rome and Paris.)
The convent was one of our first stops. After a brief period of upheaval during which the convent (which was really a monastery for branches of the order of Benedictine monks) deteriorated, Cosimo di Medici the Elder commissioned architect Michelozzo to rebuild it. The result is an elegant but spare, Renaissance structure. Like other monasteries, the convent features two cloisters, a chapter house, etc. The friars’ cells are each decorated with a single fresco, many by Fra Angelico in collaboration with other artists. Cells are walled off but topped by a single trussed roof, and the entire structure is finished in white-washed plaster. It’s easy to see how the residents could pray and meditate in this atmosphere.
The convent was home to painter Fra Angelico and preacher Girolamo Savonarola (of the infamous bonfire of the vanities). Cosimo de’ Medici also had a cell in the convent, adjacent to those of the friars, for use as his personal retreat.
The Basilica di San Lorenzo was consecrated in 393 when it was still outside the city walls. Later it became the parish church of the Medici family, as well as the burial place for the family’s principal members. The current basilica is actually the “new” building, completed in 1449 (financed by the Medici family), well after Brunelleschi died in 1446.
The Old Sacristy was designed by Brunelleschi and is the oldest part of the present church. It is also the only part completed (in 1440) in Brunelleschi’s lifetime. The Old Sacristy contains the tombs of several Medici family members.
The New Sacristy was designed by Michelangelo. Work began on it in 1520. The artist also designed the Medici family tombs to be included, but did not supervise the completion of the project. This is a far more elaborate structure. I was especially struck by drawings by Michelangelo, discovered in 1976, on the walls of a concealed corridor under the New Sacristy!
The Medici Chapel, designed by the family working with the architects, and begun in the early 17th Century, reflects a very different aesthetic, featuring elaborate marble mosaics in a domed octagonal space. The octagonal shape is distinctive on the Florentine landscape. Family remains were actually interred in a crypt below the chapel.
After these heady lessons in Medici history, art and architecture, we thought we needed something more light-hearted, so Steve signed us up for a tour of the hidden stairways and spaces at the Palazzo Vecchio. (We did this the next day. Two tours in one day would have been way too much to wrap our heads around!) Most often known as Florence’s city hall, the palazzo was, for awhile, also a Medici Palace. But that’s another history chapter.
The tour begins with an introduction to the Florentine Guilds, or Priori, who ruled the city. In 1342 the existing building was enlarged to resemble a fortress, including the addition of secret stairways allowing guild members to come and go in the night. The tour guide escorted our small group up and down some of these stairways, which, of course, included passing in and out of a number of secret doors. We had toured the building before, so this look at its “inner workings” was especially fun.
My husband and I loved the idea of these hidden doors. If you have read Dan Brown’s Inferno, or seen the Tom Hanks movie, you undoubtedly recall the crazy chase thru the Palazzo Vecchio. Remember the scene above the ceiling of the Hall of 500? After climbing dozens of narrow stairs, we were up in a corner of it. The space was more cramped than it appeared in the movie, but still very cool to see how the Renaissance building was assembled. Alternating rafters support the roof above and/or hold the ceiling below. What genius Renaissance architects displayed!
Whew! This is not all that we saw or did in Florence, but it gives you a good idea of how we spent our second visit in as many years. We enjoyed the fact that the city was somewhat familiar, we stayed in the same hotel (because we really love it!) and even ate at a restaurant we enjoyed last year. We also found some great new places. We ate lunch one day at the bustling the Central Market and I spent an afternoon at the Bargello. We spent a morning at the Pitti Palace (more Medicis) and found time to explore the tiny streets of the Oltarno. I think this second visit allowed us to “peel back another layer” on all there is to see in Florence.
What about you? Are there destinations you would happily return to? What about places you could happily say, “been there, done that” and move on? I’d love to hear from you.
Thank you so much for stopping by. See you next time!