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!

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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!

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! Sunday, Sep 4 2011 

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A short bus ride to the area known as the Mugello and a visit to Scarperia and the celebration of the city’s founding more than 700 years ago.

We arrived at 11:00, just as the gates opened and time-traveled back to the Renaissance. Lords and ladies in incredibly beautiful garments, artisans demonstrating age-old practices, and a color guard shooting off their muscats.

We had lunch just as they skies opened and a pouring rain ensued. Because we have been here in years past, the town folk took us under their protection and guided us to a covered area where we could eat, safe from the torrential rain.

We saw birds of prey, shot some arrows, purchased some knives, and then boarded the bus for our trip home. A short stop at the Parco Demidoff to see Gianbologna’s gigantic sculpture was somewhat dampened by 30 feet of scaffolding.

Back to Florence and a peaceful evening.

Subiaco and Frascati — a day trip with the design group Thursday, Sep 16 2010 

Today we joined another Exploration Seminar group, the design program led by Chris Ozubko, and boarded a charter bus for Subiaco, a two-hour journey from Rome. It was an early start, so many of the students took the opportunity to nap along the way.

Subiaco is an important site because it is where Saint Benedict went into seclusion to pray, meditate and reflect and then found the first monastery in the 6th century. We were guided through the site by Sara, a knowledgeable young woman who provided us with a great tour of both monasteries (Santo Benedetto and the second which is dedicated to Santa Scholastica). We learned a great deal about the history of the sites. We also were able to visit both churches and the library.

We were served a lovely (and much-welcomed lunch) at the Foresteria. Then, back on the bus and off to visit Frascati on our way back. Frascati (the name may sound familiar because it is a type of sparkling white wine) is a sweet little town with a beautiful view back towards Rome and a major Renaissance garden.

Back to Silvio’s for dinner —- everyone was hungry after a long day on the road. Tomorrow is the final day of the program and we are beginning to fully realize how much we have seen and experienced together.

A short bus ride = time travel Sunday, Sep 5 2010 

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After a leisurely breakfast, we left our hostel for a short walk to meet our bus outside the gate of San Frediano. Our objective: Scarperia and the Renaissance Village.

Scarperia was founded 703 years ago as a major outpost on the road between Rome and Bologna. Every year, at this time, they celebrate the town’s founding with a Renaissance Village and, on September 8, the Pallio.

Our bus driver, Michele, took us along the scenic route to Scarperia, climbing the hills near Fiesole that provide such a bella vista of the Florence skyline. We arrived in Scarpera less than an hour later.

We passed through the entrance to the historic center of the town to find the streets strewn with hay and every Scarperian sporting authentic costumes of the time. The women were especially beautiful in sumptuous velvets and brocades.  Everyone had a character to play: a friar, a witch, a caveliere, a prostitute —- even the babies were in full dress!

The town was strewn with booths where artisans, using age-old practices, demonstrated everything from candle-making to book-binding to falconry.

We had a guided tour of the gardens surrounding the medieval castle, then headed off for lunch.

Traditional food was served. One needed to purchase renaissance florin to pay. Menu items included crostini, stew, leg-o-beast (pork), spiedone (large skewers of sausage), farro salad, etc.

We spent several more hours in Scarperia before heading home for the evening. Tomorrow is a free day to do as one pleases (“a ciascuno il suo”).

Santa Croce Thursday, Sep 2 2010 

Another day, another great Florentine church.

After breakfast, we went to the Franciscan church of Santa Croce. Designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, this structure holds the tombs (and cenotaph) of some of Florence’s great hits: Michelangelo, Dante, Machiavelli, and Galileo. The nave, originally separated so the monks of Santa Croce could worship separately from the people, ends in a beautiful apse that has been under restoration for the past three years.

Outside the church you will find Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel and the Museo di Santa Croce (the former convent that has been converted into a museum to hold the works of the church). Two cloisters provide a quiet sanctuary and several students used the shaded spaces to draw.

We continued student conferences today. Those who weren’t conferencing yesterday and today were encouraged to go to the Pitti Palace to see the rest of the Caravaggio show that we first encountered at the Uffizi. It is the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death.

Tomorrow, we are off to Siena.

Something old and something new(ish). Thursday, Sep 2 2010 

Typically, we wouldn’t visit two museums in the same day, but today we encountered art that spanned nine centuries!

Out the door early this morning to be first (or nearly first) people in line for the Accademia. The Accademia was created in the late 18th century as a collection to inspire the artists who were studying at the Academy of Fine Arts (Accademia de Belli Arti) as well as to give them a standard by which to measure their work. It is home to Michelagelo’s “Slaves” as well as Il Gigante (“David.”)

Once in the door, we bought guides for all of the students and headed inside to quickly walk into the hallway that leads to “David” in all of his glory. An early entrance to the museum also affords you a view of the statue minus the hoards that will build and circulate around the base of the statue. No matter how many times you have seen the work in reproduction, there is nothing that can truly prepare you for encountering the David.

We spent most of the morning there — sketching and exploring the rest of the collection. We agreed to meet at 12:30 outside San Lorenzo at 12:30, giving everyone time to grab some lunch.

Our next stop was the Museo Marino Marini.  Marini was an early 20th century artist whose foundation is now in a deconsecrated church that holds many of his important sculptures, paintings and prints. As a contemporary of Picasso and Bracque, the influence of cubism is highly evident in his work.

We began student conferences today. This is a chance for everyone to check-in and talk about how the program is going, what they’re excited about, suggestions for change, etc.

Tonight, a group dinner at Casalinga, a neighborhood place. Mixed crostini, two types of pasta (penne al’arrabiata and ravioli with sage and butter), plus a mixed salad. Buono!

A Leonard Cohen concert in the Piazza Santa Croce was a temptation to go out for an evening passegiata, although the streets around the venue were roped off and no Cohen was heard. It was a nice stroll for those who ventured out.

Team USA 2010! Sunday, Aug 29 2010 

Fra Angelico, Savanarola and the Monks’ “studioli” Friday, Aug 27 2010 

Our destination today was the religious complex of San Marco, including the church designed for Cosimo de’ Medici by Michelozzo and the attendant monastery that is now a museum. The hand of Beato Angelo (Fra Angelico) is everywhere.

The monks’ cells (“studioli”) each contain an individual fresco intended to inspire their prayers and reflections. Prominent themes were scenes from the Passion of Christ, predominantly the Crucifixion. While Fra Angelico designed all of the paintings, the work was carried out by assistants. The Library is a beautiful room, also designed by Michelozzo, that contains several display cases containing exquisite illumination manuscripts and the materials used to create them.

Our weekend begins at noon on Friday. There are numerous groups making plans to travel to the Cinque Terre over the weekend. For those remaining, the is a mini-day-trip planned for Fiesole on Saturday and a trip to the Ciompe Antique Market near Santa Croce on Sunday.

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