The final day of the 2011 program… Sunday, Sep 18 2011 

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Today is the last day of Tuscany 2011. In order to distract ourselves from this sad fact, a group of us decided to go to the Accademia which holds an astonishing collection of Venetian painting from the 14th – 16th centuries.

Much is made of the characteristics of Venetian painting, often in contrast to Florentine painting of the same time. Both cities enjoyed relatively stable governments, strong economies based on trade, and the patronage of both secular and religious groups and individuals. Venetian painting, as exemplified by Giorgione, the Bellini, Tintoretto, Veronese, Tiepolo and Titian, does reveal a close examination of color and light. Landscape also plays an important role (possibly due to the lack of it in Venice’s unusual topography).

We agreed to meet back at the Foresteria at 6:30 to have a final show of the work that has been accomplished since arriving in Venice. Scenes of the city as well as works created from inspirations at the Biennale covered the tables.

Off to our final group meal. Gino was the proud host. He spent all day making desserts and homemade pasta, just for us.

Departures will begin as early as 3:30 in the morning, so we tried to get back early enough so people could grab a couple of hours sleep.

Curt and Cynthia couldn’t be more proud of this group of students. Everywhere we went, people commented on their politeness, eagerness to learn, and pleasant attitudes. We look forward to a reunion back in the States!

Ciao, Italia.

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Shiny. Sparkly. Glass! Saturday, Sep 17 2011 

No trip to Venice would be complete without a journey to the island of Murano and the heart of Venetian glassmaking.

While glass was certainly known in Italy before it was developed to a fine art in Venice (the Romans used glass in their bathhouses, for example), it was Venice’s position as a trade partner to the Orient (Syria, Egypt and Palestine, all with significant glass-making histories) that brought the industry to Venice.

Some say that the island of Murano was chosen to prevent fires from breaking out in the more populated areas, but others believe that secluding glass-making to Murano was a way to regulate the trade and protect the secrets of the designs and processes.

Murano is a relatively short vaporetto ride — we arrived in just a few minutes and then dispersed to walk around the quaint little town, lined with shop after shop of glass vessels, lighting fixtures, jewelry, and brik-a-brak. No surprise to any of you reading this blog, but purchases were made!

Biennale, Day 2 Friday, Sep 16 2011 

This morning we set out for the Arsenale, the second major site of the Biennale. It was here that Venice’s maritime fleet was built and, as such, is a symbol for her economic, political and military power. Over 50,000 square meters are devoted to exhibition space.

Video, sound installations, photography, sculpture, painting, ceramics, film — there was something for everyone.

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We had dinner at Le Piramidi again. Tonight’s menu offered pasta, pizza and a contorni (vegetable side dish). We also shared a few tiramisu at the end…

Biennale, Day 1 Friday, Sep 16 2011 

We met in the breakfast room to eat a light “prima colazione” of bread, cereal, yogurt, juice, caffe, etc. and then set out for the vaporetto stop to catch a water bus to the Giardini, one of two sites that houses the work of this international art exhibit.

The Bienalle (bi-annual) exhibition brings together contemporary art from around the world. Established in 1895, this year was to be the 54th exhibition. The theme is “Illuminazioni” (Illuminations) and is a nod to the traditional Venetian mastery of light and color. In fact, three of Tintoretto’s paintings were brought over from the Accademia to be displayed alongside the art world’s most cutting edge work.

The Giardini houses multiple national pavillions — singular structures devoted to particular countries. For example, this year the USA featured the collaborative team of Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. In all, 89 countries are represented, some at the Giardini and others at collateral spaces throughout the city.

We entered at 10:00 and most of us spent the entire day there. Here are some examples of the work we saw…

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Tuscany, out! Wednesday, Sep 14 2011 

After a long night of packing (and questioning certain purchases that now made our burden even heavier), we had our last breakfast at the Foresteria Gould in Florence, said good-bye to Ani and Marta, and walked 10 minutes to meet our charter bus in Piazza Tasso at 9:00. The final leg of our journey to Venice began.

The bus was large enough for everyone to have two seats to themselves, so it was a comfortable 4-hour ride. Mid-way, we stopped at a “truck stop” — more like a “truck super center” for snacks and even some last minute gift-buying. Once in Venice, we unloaded at Piazzale Roma, a new transfer point in the city, approximate to the vaporetti (water buses) that would ultimately take us to a stop near San Marco, the closest to our hotel. 26 people with more than 50 pieces of luggage were transported through the canals that make up Venice’s thoroughfare. The magic of the cityscape was lost on no one, even those of us who have been here before. Undulating light and shadow, incredible colors, and the atmosphere of water and sunshine are indescribable. We were duly entranced!

From the Zaccharia vaporetto stop, it is a relatively quick walk to the Foresteria Valdese. Well, quick if you discount the following factors:

1) Narrow passageways.

2) Throngs of tourists (for every 100 Venetians on a daily basis, there are 89 tourists in town).

3) The aforementioned 26 people with no less than two bags apiece.

4) Bridges, lots of bridges.

We checked in to our rooms and lugged our baggage up four flights of steps to the second floor of the Foresteria. Exhausted but excited, we agreed to meet later in the afternoon to walk to Piazza San Marco and do what we do best: ascend the camponile! While we are certainly in great shape at this point in the trip, we did not get the opportunity to climb the tower — the top is only accessible by elevator. Our timing was perfect; the bells rang at the top of the hour and we were treated to an amazing view of La Serenissima, Venezia!

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Back down to the piazza (the only one in Venice meriting the name — all others are called piazzale) and a short walk to the restaurant, Le Piramidi. There, Gino (the owner) and Jeff (our server) offered pasta or pizza with a choice of beverage.

We headed out on a night time vaporetto ride (everyone had 7 day passes) and then home to get some sleep. Tomorrow, the Bienalle!

L’ultimo giorno — our last day in Florence Tuesday, Sep 13 2011 

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No trip to Florence would be complete without a visit to the Bargello which houses the majority of important sculpture from the Renaissance. In a building that influenced the fortress-like Palazzo Vecchio and once served as a prison, as the mayor’s office and, until the mid-19th century, the home of the chief of police. We were able to enjoy works by Donatello, Michelangelo, Annamati (including a special exhibition of a sculptural program for one of the Medici villas near Florence). If that wasn’t enough, there is also a wonderful collection of ceramics, coins, metalwork from the Near East, and carved ivories. The students were charged with making a drawing from something they found of interest.

The afternoon was free to run last-minute errands (primarily, shopping for gifts) until we met up again for a group dinner. We returned to Il Gatto e’ la Volpe and topped off the evening with a gelato from the Gelateria La Carraia. Home to pack and prepare for our morning departure to Venice!

Choose your own adventure… Monday, Sep 12 2011 

We are in the last week of our program and one of our last few days in Florence. It is hard for all of us to believe. On Wednesday, we depart for Venice.

This morning, we decided to give the students multiple options to visit the museum or site of their choice. While the state museums are closed on Mondays, there are still many options available, such as the Boboli Gardens,  the Pitti Palace,  the Medici Chapel. the  Archeological Museum,  Leonardo da Vinci Museum, the  Pietra Dura Museum, the History of Florence Museum, Casa Buonarotti, Medici Riccardi Palace, Palazzo Vecchio, the  Salvatore Ferragamo Museum, the Stibbert Museum, and the Church/Museum of Orsanmichele.

We gathered again at 4:00 to clean-up the studio and to have an artists’ reception. We had a chance to look at everyone’s work, talk about what we liked, and then snacked on olives, focaccia, meat, cheese and fruit.

Country life, Tuscan style Friday, Sep 9 2011 

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After breakfast, we loaded into our charter bus and took a short trip to a local market that sold fresh and aged cheeses (made on site) as well as a selection of meats, olives and cold drinks. We headed to the Casa d’Erci, a museum devoted to the history of agricultural practices that have existed in the area since the feudal ages.

Because the road to the museum was narrow, we took a leisurely 30-minute walk along a winding path, past fields, vineyards, gardens and woods.

We were met by Cristina (our guide at the Knife Museum) and the volunteer staff at the Casa d’Erci. We received a brief introduction to the organization, then set to work making bread in the traditional manner. Tuscan bread is infamous for lacking one important ingredient: salt. One story goes that this peculiarity of the Tuscan bread goes back to the 12th century, when the Pisans controlled the salt trade to damage their worst enemies, the Florentines. This made it too expensive for the humble people of the region to buy salt.

Each student was given a portion of the dough and kneaded it into distinct shapes. Romano and Luigi provided instruction and encouragement.

While the bread rose, we went for a tour of the museum that contains many interesting exhibits and artifacts related to agricultural practices and artisanal trades.

We then had a picnic outside in a beautiful setting. As we left, we took our individual bread loaves with us.

Casa d’Erci is a must see if you are in the Mugello. We will definitely return next year.

Back down to the bus and on the road to our second stop of the day, Castello Il Trebbio. This was the summer home of the second-most famous and powerful family in Florence, the Pazzi. The Castello had fallen into ruin and disrepair until purchased in the 1960’s by a couple who wanted to have a home in Tuscany (she was Austrian, he was Italian.) It is now a wine-producer and we were given a tour of the entire property.

The contrast between our two stops today illuminated the Tuscan countryside through the lens of the poor and that of the very wealthy.

A great field trip. We returned home (as we now think of Florence) incredibly happy and somewhat tired…

Scarperia, Part II Thursday, Sep 8 2011 

This morning we left for our one and only overnight trip of the program, returning to Scarperia by public bus for Diotto. “Diotto” means “the eighth” and September 8 marks the day the town was founded (now 705 years ago) and the traditional change of the Viccar, the “mayor” of the town.

We checked in to our hotel upon arriving and everyone was given several hours to relax, sit by the pool, walk around the town (no traces of the Renaissance Village we had visited last Sunday) and have lunch. We met again at 3:30 to walk back into the historic center to meet Cristina who was our guide through the Viccar’s Palace and the Knife Museum.

Scarperia had a very special relationship with Florence (the only other town that was allowed to use the Florentine gigilio — lily or fleur du lis — as its emblem. Because Scarperia emerged on the main thoroughfare between Florence and Bologna, the knife-making industry became the economic mainstay of the town as travelers needed protection from thieves as they made their journey. The Knife Museum (Museo del Coltello) contained many examples of knives, not only from Scarperia, but from some of the other knife-making capitals in Italy.

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After the museum, there was time for shopping before we met for dinner at Il Torrione. Multiple courses of antipasti, pizza and pasts prepared us for the main event: the Pallio.

We made it to our seats in the stands (along with inhabitants from the four neighborhoods who had made it to the final competition): Pink, Red, Black and Yellow (Rossa, Rosa, Nero and Giallo). The events included knife-throwing, tug-of-war, brick-waslking, pole-climbing and barrel-racing. All events were tied to medieval artistan trades.

Nero, who had won last year’s event, proved a formidable competitor again this year and became the victor for the 2011 games.

We wandered back to the hotel. Early check-out tomorrow morning so we can get on the road for three stops on our way back to Florence,

And now for something completely different… Wednesday, Sep 7 2011 

Today we walked over to La Speccola, the museum of zoology that is right in our neighborhood. This collection was originally part of the vast Medici holdings and was housed in the Uffizi. Later, it was moved to the museum that is now the Museo Galileo and then finally to it’s current location at the edge of the Boboli Garden.

The collection is made up of insects, mollusks, mammals, and birds — not all are on display, but there are more than 3 million specimens. This year, we were given a private tour of the hall of skeletons by Annalise, a research scientist who works there.

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We took a break for lunch at La Mangiatoia — pizza and soda for all.

Back to La Speccola to draw for a few hours. Then, we met at Studio Giannini e’ FIglio  to learn more about carta marmozzata, the process of marbling paper. Guido Giannini is the fifth generation in his family to practice this art.

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