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Month: February, 2017

A FLORENTINE HOLIDAY

Milan, 22 February 2017

We have just come back from a little holiday in Florence (ah, the joys of retirement! go where you like, when you like). Since neither my wife nor I had been back to Florence in the last 40-50 years (me, the former; my wife, the latter), we decided to celebrate her birthday by going on a little jaunt down there. We agreed that we wanted to visit at least the Uffizi galleries, to see what its new German director was up to, as well as Pitti Palace and its gardens, the Boboli gardens (neither of us having ever visited this complex, we discovered, after comparing notes). The rest would be up to chance and whatever took our fancy.

So decided, my wife took the management of the trip into her very capable hands. Having heard decades of horror stories about the queues to get into the Uffizi, she booked the tickets on-line, along with a time slot for the visit. To be on the safe side, she did the same for Pitti Palace and the Boboli gardens. She found a place to stay on the left bank of the Arno, a five-minute walk from Pitti Palace. And she booked tickets on the bus to get us there and back (much cheaper than the train; we are retirees, after all).

Thus prepared, we set off and spent five days in the city. We visited, in the following order, Pitti Palace; the Boboli gardens, the ticket for which included a visit to the gardens of the nearby Bardini Villa; the church of San Miniato; the Uffizi galleries; the church of Santo Spirito; the church of Santa Croce; the Cathedral, along with its Baptistery and museum; and, finally, on the way to catch the bus home, the church of San Lorenzo and its Medicean library. In between, we strolled through the streets of the city center, crossed the Arno several times a day using the Ponte Vecchio as well several of the other bridges which straddle the river, and last but not least enjoyed delectable dinners in a number of the trattorie located around where we were staying.

I will not bore readers with the details. Let me just point out what were some highlights for me, the things that come back to mind as I sit here writing this:

Bronzino’s Descent of Christ into Limbo, hanging in the church of Santa Croce.
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A magnificent painting, with this luminously serene Christ pulling the dead from their graves. All that more wonderful knowing that this painting was terribly badly damaged in the big floods which struck Florence in November of 1966.

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The mosaics in the dome of the Baptistery.
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I was not expecting to see such magnificent late Medieval mosaics in that beating heart of the Renaissance which is Florence (the church of San Miniato also has a great mosaic in its apse).
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A wooden crucifix carved by Michelangelo and tucked away in a corner chapel of the sacristy of the church of Santo Spirito.
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Absent are the finely sculpted muscles, the blood and the gore, that you find in most crucifixes. Just a slim body hanging on the cross.

Donatello’s take on the prophet Jeremiah: a tough, uncompromising figure.
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A copy can be seen on the Cathedral’s campanile, while the original is in the Museo del Duomo, the Cathedral Museum – a great museum, by the way, recently redesigned and now a really very pleasurable museum experience.
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In the same museum, the unfinished Pietà by Michelangelo.
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A statue which, as I have related in a previous post, transfixed me during me first visit to Florence forty years ago.

Botticelli’s Annunciation, in the Uffizi.
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With such grace does Mary suggest that she is not worthy!

Of course, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and his Spring, are also magnificent, but I have seen and re-seen them so many times now in a thousand pictures that my senses have been dulled towards them.

Also in the Uffizi, Piero della Francesca’s portrait of the Duke of Urbino and his wife
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That Duke, what a wonderful, wonderful face!

Talking of faces, look at those of the shepherds in Hugo van der Goes’s Adoration of the Shepherds, also in the Uffizi.
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Such rough and honest and simple faces!

The view of the Brunelleschi’s dome from the gardens of Villa Bardini.
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We were taken completely by surprise as we rounded the corner of the villa and found Florence at our feet, with Brunelleschi’s dome soaring above the houses. As Leon Battista Alberti wrote in 1435, one year before the dome was finished, in his book De Pictura, “who is so hard or so jealous as to not praise Pippo [Brunelleschi] the architect upon seeing that structure so large, erected above the sky, broad enough to cover all of the Tuscan populace with its shade?”

And who is so hard or so jealous as not to praise Giorgio Vasari the painter, for his fresco of the last judgement which covers the inside of that dome?
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Bronzino, Descent of Christ into Limbo: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/santacroceinflorence.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/bronzinos-1552-social-network-page/amp/
Floods, Florence: https://committeeforculturalpolicy.org/projects-for-50th-anniversary-of-florence-and-venice-floods/
Mosaics, Baptistery: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:File-_The_mosaic_ceiling_of_the_Baptistery_in_Florence.jpg
Mosaic, San Miniato: https://www.flickr.com/photos/edk7/16383376970
Michelangelo, crucifix: https://www.visitflorence.com/itineraries-in-florence/fifteenth-century-wooden-sculpture.html
Donatello, the prophet Jeremiah: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donatello,_geremia,_1427-36,_dal_lato_ovest_del_campanile_02.JPG
Museo del Duomo: http://viaggi.corriere.it/viaggi/eventi-news/firenze-inaugura-il-nuovo-museo-dellopera-del-duomo/
Michelangelo, Pietà: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/297589487853635778/
Botticelli, Annunciation: http://historylink101.com/art/Sandro_Botticelli/pages/26_Annunciation_jpg.htm
Piero della Francesca, Duke of Urbino and wife: http://www.abcfirenze.com/musei/MuseiFoto_i.asp?N=238&Foto=Uffizi-D22.jpg
Hugo van der Goes, Adoration of the Shepherds: http://www.artbible.info/art/large/111.html
View of the cathedral’s dome: https://www.pinterest.com/enamoradoitalia/villa-bardini-firenze-florence/
Vasari, Internal fresco of cathedral dome: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupola_del_Brunelleschi

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SEA BEET

  • Milan, 11 February 2017

I’ve written much earlier about the culinary dowry which my wife brought to our marriage, a splendidly long list of Italian foods and dishes against which my contribution shriveled to nothingness. The columnn on my wife’s side of the kitchen ledger should have been even longer, though. I wrote that first post when we were living in Beijing and I drew up the list from memory. Now that we are back in Italy a good part of our time, I can closely scan the supermarket shelves to see what delights we have come back to. One of these is the vegetable known in Italian as coste, chard in English (often called Swiss chard, although there is absolutely nothing Swiss about the plant).
img_1857When I first tried coste all those decades ago, cooked by my mother-in-law, I was immediately struck by two certainties: the first, that I had stumbled across a culinary treasure; the second, that this treasure had never crossed my lips either in the UK or in France – neither of my grandmothers seemed to have been familiar with this worthiest of vegetables.

The wonderful thing is that the cooking method for chard which I prefer adheres strictly to my golden rule for all things in life, the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid!). Strip the stalks of the leaves. Boil each briefly in water. Then briefly fry each separately in butter (oil will also work). Serve. That’s it. Yes, you can add this and that, garlic for instance, but it’s really not necessary.
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The stems are by far the best. Cooking them gives them a delicate, slightly sweet taste that inexorably leads you to eagerly slip the next stalk into your mouth. They are addictive.

Readers looking on line will see that many recipes consider chard a side dish, to be eaten as a complement to something else. I disagree. They stand on their own, as a complete dish. If anything, the stalks can be the main dish, the leaves the side dish. Many other recipes mix it into soups or into quiche-like things or into pasta sauces. Forget it. Just eat them on their own.

I thought perhaps that with the broadening of the British culinary horizons over the last forty years I would now find chard commonly stocked in supermarkets. But no. I went on Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s websites to see what vegetables could be ordered online, and chard was nowhere to be found. I double-checked with a friend of mine in the UK and he confirmed that chard was not readily available in supermarkets (although he did note that his sister, who has a green thumb, grows them in her vegetable garden).

It’s funny, that, because the wild ancestor to chard is sea beet.
Papier beet
For reasons which will become clear in a minute, I also show it uprooted.
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Sea beet can be found along along the coasts of the UK more or less up to Scotland, so it is a plant that surely made its way into the British cooking pot very early on, when people ate whatever the local environment offered and when hunger was a constant companion. From a quick zip through web sites run by enthusiasts dedicated to recreating ancient recipes, chard was certainly eaten in Britain in Medieval and Tudor times (when it was called beet; Lord knows why the name changed). Take this entry from John Gerard’s 1597 Herball:
Beta alba. White Beets….the white Beete is a cold and moist pot-herbe…Being eaten when it is boyled, it quickly descendeth … especially being taken with the broth wherein it is sodden…
Beta rubra, Beta rubra Romana. Red Beets, Red Roman Beets …The great and beautiful Beet last described may be vsed in winter for a salad herbe, with vinegar, oyle, and salt, and is not onely pleasant to the taste, but also delightfull to the eye. The greater red Beet or Roman Beet, boyled and eaten with oyle, vinegar and pepper, is a most excellent and delicate sallad
.

(It seems that by 1597 farmers had already produced beets of varying colours – the earlier photo of uprooted sea beet shows that white was originally the only colour complementing the green.)

For some reason, chard seems to have fallen out of favour with the greater British public in later centuries. I’ve read that spinach, to which chard is often compared, could have been the culprit, displacing chard in the hearts of consumers. Naughty spinach …

The opposite fate has befallen another descendent of see beet, the beetroot.
beetroot isolated on white backgroundThe quote above from Gerard goes on:
But what might be made of the red and beautifull root (which is to be preferred before the leaues, as well in beauty as in goodnesse) I refer vnto the curious and cunning cooke, who no doubt when he hath had the view thereof, and is assured that it is both good and wholesome, will make thereof many and diuers dishes, both faire and good.
From which we can gather that the root of the chard/beet was not eaten by Brits in 1597. But things changed somewhere along the way, for if the selection on offer from Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s is at all a guide to general British preferences in vegetables, beetroot does now have a following in the UK. Perhaps the reason for this change of heart can be traced to the growth in the size of the root. Gerard’s illustration of the Red Roman Beet in his Herball shows it to have a pretty skinny root in his day, much like the root of the sea beet. Perhaps only when a myriad of farmers had patiently coaxed the beet’s root to grow mightily in girth did it become popular.

Not that the British have ever done anything very exciting with the beetroot. The best they have managed to do is to pickle it.
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That sweet-sour combination certainly seems to be a winning combination for the beetroot, and has been brought to a glorious culmination by “curious and cunning cookes” with the borschts of Eastern Europe. Every country from that part of the world has its own borscht tradition, but there is a commonality in all the recipes. Sauté a variety of vegetables including, of course, beetroots. Add stock. Simmer for a bit. Serve with a dollop of sour cream. The result looks something like this.
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Let’s not forget the leaves of the beetroot! Just as much as chard is edible so too are the leaves of the beetroot. Various Italian (and English) recipes show that they can be prepared exactly the same way as chard.
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And there is of course Gerard’s suggestion to eat them with “vinegar, oyle, and salt”.

This celebration of the sea beet and its offspring would not be complete without a mention of two more of its descendants, neither of which are normally eaten by humans: the splendidly named mangelwurzel, developed in Germany as fodder for cattle
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and the sugar beet, developed – also initially in Germany – from the sweetest of the mangelwurzels around at the time, as an alternative to sugar cane.
img_1866I’m not sure we should celebrate the sugar beet, since there is a growing consensus that sugar is a plague.
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Mangelwurzel, on the other hand, deserves to be given a big hand. We don’t eat it, but farm animals like to eat it very much
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(as do their wild cousins)
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and we like eating the farm animals. On top of this, mangelwurzel is used to make jack-o-lanterns in certain parts of the UK
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an art form that is surely worth celebrating.

____________
Chard: http://www.dimeoremo.it/pianta_da_orto.php?idorto=4
Cooked chard: http://blog.cookaround.com/peg930/bieta-a-coste-saltate-in-padella/
Sea beet: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/261719699_fig1_Wild-sea-beet-Beta-vulgaris-subsp-maritima-the-wild-ancestor-of-all-cultivated-beets
Sea beet uprooted: http://www.bushcraftuk.com/forum/showthread.php?t=142391
Beetroot: http://www.realfoods.co.uk/article/so-fresh-and-so-green
British pickled beetroot: http://m.tesco.com/h5/groceries/r/www.tesco.com/groceries/product/details/?id=272309421
Borscht: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borscht#
Cooked beetroot leaves: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/allrecipes.it/ricetta/5137/foglie-di-barbabietole-saltate-in-padella.aspx/amp/
Mangelwurzel: http://www.naturganznah.com/shop/index.php?sid=x&shp=oxbaseshop&cl=details&anid=c7943302e125e3a84.49084479&tpl=&lang=1
Sugar beet: https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/vegetables/beets/sugar-beet-cultivation.htm
Book on sugar: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Beat-Sugar-Addiction-Now-Cutting-Edge/dp/1592334156
Pigs eating mangelwurzel: https://hisandhershomesteading.wordpress.com/page/2/
Wild boar eating mangelwurzel: http://footage.framepool.com/en/shot/550643113-turnip-field-mangelwurzel-potato-field-pack
Mangelwurzel jack-o-lanterns: http://herbs-treatandtaste.blogspot.it/2012/05/mangel-wurzel-confusing-vegetable.html?m=1

ART OVERLOAD

Milan, 2 February 2017

Whenever in my wanderings through the world’s art museums I come across pictures such as this one, a painting from the 1600s of the Austrian Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Gallery in Brussels
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I ask myself how on earth the viewer, in this case the Archduke, managed to really see any of the paintings he had put on the wall. I mean, when so crowded together like this the paintings just become wallpaper. I don’t fully comprehend the point of paying a multitude of dollars (or probably guilders in the case of the Archduke) for each of your paintings, to end up with an effect that you could no doubt get with a roll of wallpaper bought for a mere handful of dollars down at your local hardware store.

My wife and I had a very close-up example of this effect a few days ago, when we visited the Boschi Di Stefano collection in Milan. A little bit of background is in order. Mr. Boschi and Ms. Di Stefano got married in 1927. Two years later, they started collecting – and collecting – and collecting. Only after Ms. Di Stefano died in 1968 did the collecting peter out. The couple ended up with a collection of nigh on 2,000 works, all from contemporary, mostly Italian, artists. The problem is, they lived in a not terribly big apartment, cut up, as was the habit then, into a bunch of small rooms. No problem! They covered all the walls, everywhere, even in the bathroom, with paintings.

So my wife and I would step into these small rooms and have paintings pressing in on us from all sides.
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In my case at least, my eyes would dart from side to side and up and down, with my brain nervously asking “where do I start?” It took an effort of will to pick out one painting among the masses crying out for attention and just focus on that one for a few minutes, before repeating the process with the next one. Most exhausting.

It was worth the effort, though, for one thing that struck me as I waded through all the paintings was how atypical many of the pieces in the apartment were. Take Lucio Fontana. I’m sure everyone has in mind a “typical” Fontana: this one, for instance
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where he elegantly slits a blank canvas, or this one

where he perforates the canvas instead. The apartment had a number of these, but it also had this
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a type of abstraction which I personally had never seen in Fontana.

Or take Giorgio De Chirico. Again, a “typical” painting associated with De Chirico will look like this.

Melancholia
But the apartment instead had this painting by De Chirico. It depicts a gladiator school.
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Not a style I would have associated with De Chirico.

Or how about Giorgio Morandi who you would think, based on the examples you see in museums, just painted bottles like these ones, over and over again.
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The apartment, while also having a bottle painting by Morandi, had a couple of landscapes by him.
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I don’t think I’ve ever seen a landscape painted by Morandi.

I finish with Enrico Baj, a painter who frankly I dislike. His “typical” painting is something like this.
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This is his leitmotif: grotesque persons, repeated over and over again, as nauseam. Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw this Baj in the apartment!
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More different than from his “normal” style you cannot get.

There were some other interesting pieces in the apartment. This piece, for instance, by one of the Italian Futurists (I forgot to note the name).
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Normally, I’m a little wary of the Futurists since they seem to all have been enthusiastic Fascists (and in fact this painting is dated the Fascist way, “IX”, the ninth year of the Fascist Era), but this painting charmed me.

The couple did not only collect paintings. They also collected sculpture. This piece particularly caught my attention.
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Happenstance has split the head in a most arresting manner. The label described it as 4th-5th Century AD, so presumably late Roman. Yet, looking at the cut of the eye and the shape of the nose, it didn’t look Roman. To my untrained eye, there seemed to be a stylistic resemblance to the Indo-Greek art which was produced in Ghandara, Afghanistan. Where did our collecting couple find this, I wonder?

The couple did not just collect, they also created. Ms. Di Stefano was an accomplished ceramicist in her own right, and the apartment holds a number of her pieces, among them these delightful little fish dishes
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as well as this horse and rider.
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Yes, it was all lovely, but really too overpowering. We staggered thankfully out of the apartment, walked down the stairs (themselves a nice example of 1930s architecture, as is the whole building)
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and repaired to the nearest bar for a well-earned drink.

_________________
David Deniers the Younger, The Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Gallery:

Room in the Boschi Di Stefano apartment: http://www.mondorosashokking.com/L’Arte-Di-Vista-Da/La-Casa-Museo-Boschi-Di-Stefano/
Room in Boschi Di Stefano apartment: http://www.nuok.it/milan/perle-nascoste-nel-centro-di-milano-le-case-museo-12/
Lucio Fontana, Musée d’art Contemporain: http://www.scoop.it/t/art-by-artpaintingparis/p/4030868868/2014/10/31/a-paul-klee-painting-in-paris-art-painting-paris
Lucio Fontana, perforations, Tate: https://www.pinterest.com/addison1235/lucio-fontana/
Lucio Fontana in apartment: my photo
Giorgio De Chirico: https://www.pinterest.com/emiliorossipapa/giorgio-de-chirico/
Giorgio de Chirico in apartment: my photo
Giorgio Morandi: https://www.pinterest.com/raulmihaiadd/giorgio-morandi/
Giorgio Morandi in apartment: my photo
Enrico Baj: https://alchetron.com/Enrico-Baj-760060-W
Enrico Baj in apartment: my photo
Futurist in apartment: my photo
Head in apartment: my photo
Ceramic pieces in apartment: my photos
Stairwell of building: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/milanostupenda.wordpress.com/2014/10/20/le-case-museo-di-milano-boschi-di-stefano/amp/