Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Mortal Gorgon Loses Her Head in Florence

One of Florence's greatest statues is outdoors for all to enjoy day or night. Located in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Piazza Signoria Cellini's Perseus and Medusa is one of the world's masterpieces.

Perseus was the son of Zeus and Danae. As most Greek myths go Perseus mortal grandfather was told by a prophecy that he would be killed by his grandson. Perseus was exposed to the sea only to be found by a fisherman.

Years go by and Perseus is now a man. He attends a banquet and at the banquet he is fooled into promising to do anything that is asked of him by the King. The King asks him to fetch the head of Medusa. Medusa was one of the three Gorgons and the only mortal one of the three.

To begin his quest he is aided by Athena and Hermes. Perseus heads to Libya to seek 0ut the Graiae. When he finds them he steals their shared eye and tooth. In turn they tell him where and how to find Medusa. He also receives a pair of winged sandals, a magical bag, a magical helmut, and a shied from them. Hermes throws in a sickle-shaped sword too.

Off he goes to find and kill Medusa in her lair. If he gazes at her he'll be turned to stone. Perseus finds her sleeping and sees her through the reflection in his shield. His blow is guided by Athena. He places Medusa's head in his magical bag and flies away wearing his winged sandals.

Athena takes the head of Medusa and places it on her shield. It is now called an Aegis and is meant to frighten enemies during battle.

Cellini did his Medusa in bronze. It nearly killed him and burned down his studio. More on Cellini and the process later. Caravaggio created a painted shield with the head of Medusa now located in the Uffizi. Bernini created a masterful sculpture of her head in stone located in Rome at the Capitoline Museum.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Cacio all'argentera - Herbed Italian Cheese

This is a crowd pleaser and very easy to make. It serves four, but can easily accomodate more.

2 Tbl of olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 lb of Provolone cheese, cut into 1/2" slices
1 Tbl balsamic vinegar
1 tsp each of fresh oregano and rosemary
cracked black pepper
Italian bread

Heat the oil in a large non-stick pan over medium-high heat. Add the cheese and cook until it begins to soften slightly (around 2 minutes). Turn the cheese with a spatula and cook 1-2 more minutes. Scatter the garlic into the pan along with the vinegar and herbs. Saute until the garlic begins to sizzle.
Pour directly into serving platter and enjoy.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Dante - The father of the Italian language

Dante Alighieri wrote the Divine Comedy. It ranks up at the top with the world's best Epic Poems. In it Dante travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. His guide in Hell and Purgatory is another great poet named Virgil. In Heaven his guide is his beloved Beatrice.

The love story between Dante and Beatrice is worthy of Shakespeare. Having only met her a handful of times and sharing only a couple of conversations they never grew their relationship beyond a casual one. Only seeing her from afar Dante loved her so. He loved her so much that she has been immortalized the Divine Comedy as his guide through Heaven.

The Divine Comedy was written in Italian rather than the standard Latin or Greek. By doing so Dante brought the Italian language to center stage. This let Europe know that Italian was worthy of the highest use in literature. It also brought the trilogy to the masses throughout Italy that couldn't read Latin.

Each book contains 33 cantos. The Inferno actually has 34 because of the introduction. Each of the three books end with the word stars.

The Inferno is the most famous 0f the three due to Dante's colorful descriptions of the tortures of the nine levels of Hell, each sin that caused the sinner to be eternally tortured on that level, and bring contemporary Florentines, Romans, Popes, and other political figures to Hell while they lived in Dante's Italy.

One of the tortures that sticks in my mind is where a sinner, submerged under boiling pitch has his flesh ripped apart by demons using grappling hooks if they come above the boiling tar.

In the Divine Comedy Dante encounters Odysseus, Achilles, Charon, Saint Peter, other great Epic Poets, and many more.

It is well worth a read even if you only get through the Inferno and Purgatorio.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts!

The history of Greece versus Troy is fantastic. Two of the world's best books / epic poems tell us the story. Evidence of the epic war are everywhere in Italy through art.

The Vatican Musuem has one of my favorite statues that delivers through sculpture one of the pinnacle moments of the Trojan War, has been touched by Michelangelo, and is considered one of the finest examples of Ex Uno Lapide (carved from a single stone) in the world.

The Laocoon was carved in 25 BC...yes 25 BC by three Greek sculptors. It is the priest Laocoon and his two sons being dragged to their deaths by a serpent. The serpent was sent by Apollo as punishment for Laocoon's awareness of Greek treachery. The gods played an enourmous role in the fall of Troy.

The Greeks seemed to leave the beaches of Troy leaving behind a gift of a giant wooden horse. This gift was the brainchild of Odysseus. The Greeks sat quietly in the belly of the wooden horse, the Trojans opened up the city walls dragging the gift into the square. The Trojans, thinking the war was over, celebrated all night. Late into the evening when the Trojans slept the Greeks dropped from the horse and...well, the rest is history.

Laocoon knew this was a treacherous gift and warned the Trojans. Apollo punished Laocoon for his foresight and dragged him and his children into the sea.

This great sculpture was found in a vineyard in Rome on the Esquiline Hill. It was brought to Rome from Greece by Emperor Titus in 69 AD. The pope at the time of the discovery of the Laocoon was Pope Julius II...of course. Michelangelo himself went to identify the great sculpture, repaired the arm of the Laocoon (you can still see the cracks). Julius II offered the vineyard owner 600 gold ducats for life to own the great work.

It is now placed in the Vatican Museums and is one of their prize works.

Oh, by the way, the phrase, "beware of Greeks bearing gifts" was uttered by Laocoon and has remained a timeless phrase to this very day.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Italian Sangria

In Southern Italy you will enjoy chilled red wine...yes chilled. In it you'll find sliced peaches and oranges. It is easy to make and turns cheaper wine into something delicious.

First buy a gallon jub of Gallo Paisano.

Put the wine into a pitcher add sliced peaches and oranges

place in the fridge for a few hours

When you pour it to serve add a splash of sprite or 7 up.

Be sure each glass gets a bit of fruit to enjoy after the wine.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Narcissus in Rome

Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio painted a Narcissus. It is in the Barberini Gallery. Well worth a visit while in Rome. There are many great paintings at the Barberini, but this is one of my favorites.

Narcissus was a proud and beautiful youth. So beautiful that he didn't want to give himself to any lover. One of his spurned lovers yelled, "may Narcissus love one day so, and himself not win over the creature whom he loves." Nemesis, the god of vengeance, heard the cry and granted it. After a hunt in the woods Narcissus came upon a still dark pond and fell in love with his own reflection. He died gazing at his beauty and a flower grew in his place.
Art scholars question the authenticity of this work. Is it or isn't it a Caravaggio? Until they prove otherwise I'm giving him credit.
The image is fantastic. Caravaggio perfectly captures the emotion of Narcissus. He longingly gazes at himself, the water has an inky color that repressent his anguished soul.

The Narcissus flower grows on the water's edge and is named in honor of this Greek youth.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Talking Statues - Achilles rejoins the fight

In Rome even the statues talk. There is a statue of Menelaos with the body of Patroclus near Piazza Navona. It has been a staple of Roman politics since the 16th century.
It was named Pasquino because the statue was placed near a tailor's shop named, of course, Pasquino.
On it the Romans placed notes of political discontent since it was illegal to outwardly voice resentment to the government. When you visit the statue a few blocks from Piazza Navona you'll even see notes posted today. They'll be in Italian so take a few pictures and translate the notes when you get home or ask a nearby local if they would translate for you.
One of the more famous notes was placed on Pasquino in the mid 1600's directed at Pope Innocent X. This is the pope that funded and built the famous fountain of Four Rivers by Bernini in Piazza Navona with taxation of the Romans. The note read, "We don't want obelisks and fountains; we want bread, bread, bread."
A little on the story of Patroclus and Menelaos. Achilles chose to remove himself from the war against the Trojans in the Illiad due to a slight by general Agamemnon. The slight was over a woman who Achilles claimed as his own as a spoil of war. General Agamemnon took her from Achilles. Achilles removed himself from the war and remained in camp and vowed not to fight until he got back what was rightfully his. His cousin Patroclus wanted to join the fight, but Achilles refused.

One night while Achilles slept Patroclus donned his cousin's very recognizable armor and ran into battle. The Greeks thought Achilles was back. A battle raged that pitted "Achilles" against the great Hector of Troy. They fought one-on-one with Hector killing "Achilles." The Greeks and Trojans thought that the feared "Swift-Footed Achilles" had been slain. When his armor was removed it was discovered that it was Patroclus.

The Greeks brought the dead body to Achilles who flew into a violent rage. He rejoined the Greeks, but in the fashion of a great warrior rode to the gates of Troy, challenged Hector to a one-on-one battle and slew him. Then to add insult to injury tied his dead body to the back of his chariot. He dragged him around the walls of Troy three times and all the way back to camp.
More on the story of Troy and the importance of the Illiad to art in Italy and Greece.
Oh, one more thing, the Borghese museum statues are organized starting with the statue that ultimately kicked off the Trojan war with Venus Victrix and ending with Aenaes fleeing from Troy to found Rome.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Ordering espresso at the train station

Ordering your espresso at the train station is a little different than at a cafe in the city. At the station you must first go to the cashier and pay for it. You'll then get a receipt that you bring to the cafe counter. The barista will come up to you and take your ticket. Tell them what you want. They'll tear it indicating that you have been served.

Italy has changed the sugar servers. They are now the individual sugar packets or sugar pourer. I miss the old school servers that had spoons in them. I guess for health reasons it makes sense to have packets, but I always enjoyed the large community sugar bowl. Each cafe usually had a different one that automatically opened when you removed the spoon.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Museo San Marco - Fra Angelica

Museo San Marco is home to the glorious work of Fra Angelico. He painted the cells of the monastery for his brothers of the Dominican church in Florence near the Galleria del Accademia.

This museum isn't usually too busy, but provides a great look into Friar life of the Renaissance. Fra Angelico decorated the cells of the Friars with scenes of Saint Dominic inserted into Biblical scenes. Each image repressents divine life and illustrates the goal of each Friar in their work. Fra Angelico's Annunciation is one of my favorites in San Marco. His Annunciation is one of my favorite Annunciation scenes.

Savonarola lived here. You can visit his large cell with his desk and chair. You can also see his cloak. Savonarola took Florence away from the Medici family. He preached and raised the citizens to riot. He was responsible for the fire of the vanities forcing citizens and artists to burn things that were deemed "illegal" for church going people. It is sad to note that Botticelli burned some of his paintings in the fire. Savonarola was ultimately hanged and burned to death in Piazza Signoria. Rebels didn't last long in Florence.

San Marco delivers the calmness of the Friar's life. Its cloister is beautiful. The Dominicans were determined to avoid the moral problem of wealth and lived peaceful lives (except Savonarola).

Fra Angelico often wept before painting scenes of the crucifixion and refused to work on anything but sacred images. He was given the name Angelico by another Friar.

Pope John Paul II entered him into the church's official role of beautiful Christian. I recommend spending at least 2-2.5 hours at San Marco to soak it all in. You may have to wait a few minutes before entering each cell for those ahead of you to exit. The rooms are small and people often enjoy each work for 3-5 minutes.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Top Ten Ancient Rome

1. Colosseo - Rome

2. Foro Romano & Palatine Hill - Rome

3. Pantheon - Rome

4. Pompeii & Herculaneum - Rome

5. Roman Ampitheater - Verona (still used for concerts and entertainment today)

6. Piazza Navona - Rome

7. Hadrian's Villa - Tivoli

8. Ostia Antica - Ostia Antica

9. Domus Aurea - Rome

10. Paestum - Paestum

Friday, August 1, 2008

Live like a Roman - rent an apartment

A great way to enjoy Rome is to live like a Roman. Renting an apartment is affordable and places you in the daily routine of the Roman lifestyle. There are many companies that offer flats or apartments. I have personally used the Parker Company. They have a great inventory of property suitable for 1 up to 12 people.

You can jump online, check availability, book your room, and make your deposit. Once you arrive in Rome you meet a representative from Parker at the property. They take your cash deposit, give you the keys, and instructions on how to depart after your stay.

We stayed at a great apartment a few steps from Campo di Fiori. It was cheap compared to a hotel in the center of Rome. Most stays are a one week minimum.

Visit the website at You can also order a full color catalog. I recommend doing both.

Parker has property rental throughout Italy.