‘Portrait of Frau P. in the south’, a 1924 water colour and oil on paper from Paul Klee, one of my favourites in the Peggy Guggenheim collection

It is not only the classical Italian Renaissance art that is on offer in Venice’s rich museum land, there is also an extraordinary modern art collection. Peggy Guggenheim, heir to the Guggenheim fortune, spent her life not only acquiring husbands – she was married to Max Ernst for a while, amongst various others – but also an impressive array of modernistic art works. At the invitation of the Biennale she came to Venice in 1948 to show her collection, and later she settled here, complete with a palace at the Grand Canal, now the museum that carries her name, and her collection.

And what a collection it is. My guide book says that there are not a lot of works exhibited, but perhaps that is compared to the Galleria dell’ Accademia. What is hanging – and standing, there are also lots of sculptures, too – is more than enough to keep you occupied for a quite a while. All the big names of 20th Century artists are represented, providing a unique and attractively exhibited overview of modern art. Which didn’t stop at Peggy’s passing away in 1979, because her uncle’s Solomon R.Guggenheim foundation took over the management of the collection, and kept on adding.

A must, when in Venice – if you like modern art, that is.

Vasily Kandinsky painted ‘Upward’ in 1929

another Vasily Kandinsky, ‘White Cross’, from 1922

an untitled painting from El Lissitzky (ca 1919-1920)

‘Woman with animals (Madame Raymond Duchamp-Villon)’, by Albert Gleizes, also relatively old, painted in1914

‘Rain’ (1911) from Marc Chagall

Theo van Doesburg’s ‘Composition in grey (Rag-time)’ (1919)

a 1933 wall sculpture ‘Anchored Cross’ (marble, brass painted black, and crystal), by Antoine Pavsner

‘Au Velodrome’ (at the cycle-race track), painted by Jean Metzinger as early as 1912

a polished bronze sculpture from Constantin Brancusi, called ‘Maiastra’ (1912)

a bronze sculpture by Max Ernst, Peggy’s ex-husband, called ‘In the streets of Athens’ (1960)

Hans Hoffman’s ‘Spring on Cape Cod’ (1961)

I am a sucker for Anselm Kiefer, this is ‘The golden hair, Margarethe’ from 1981 (acryllic, emulsion, mixed tech.), painted and collected after Peggy’s death, which was 1979

and a detail – the hairs? – from this painting

‘Reclining figure’, a 1938 polished bronze sculpture from Henry Moore

one of my favourites in the Galleria dell’Academia, ‘Saint Jerome’, painted by Paolo Veronese at around 1575 – note the dog in the right hand bottom corner!

The most important museum in Venice is, no doubt, the Galleria dell’Accademia, a monumental museum with an incredibly rich collection of Italian Renaissance paintings, starting in the 14th Century.

As I mentioned earlier, being predominantly interested in 19th and 20th Century modern art, I didn’t expect to be impressed much with Italian Renaissance art, but I was wrong. Where I had anticipated to be confronted with religious images in dark shades, I in fact greatly enjoyed the lively, colourful paintings – indeed mostly depicting religious scenes, of which no doubt lots of the symbolism has evaded me, but showing enough variation and technical ability to also entertain a layman like me.

the 15th C ceiling of the first room of the museum, a former monastery

Some of the paintings are huge, filling an entire wall. Gentile Bellini’s painting Procession in the Piazza San Marco is almost 4 x 7.5 meters.  What is nice, of course, is that being in Venice, one immediately recognises the Basilica of San Marco, and the square in front of it, it hasn’t changed much since (perhaps a few more terraces, these days). But was strikes me most with this work, and many others, is the amount of detail present. I am the first to admit that such an enormous painting baffles me at first sight, but take your time, look close up, and you start discovering all kinds of fine details, paintings within the painting, so to speak. I have tried to illustrate that with some of the photos in this entry, a small selection of the almost 400 works that are, apparently, exhibited here – I didn’t count them. Of course, in such a rich collection there is much more to admire, too, like portraits that seem timeless – just look at Antonello da Messina’s blue Madonna in the ‘Annunciata’, or the bright, slightly naive ‘Madonna col Bambino’ byan unknown painter from the Venetian-Byzantine school.

Hours I spent here…

‘Processione in Piazza San Marco’, a monumental painting by Gentile Bellini from 1496, and very recognisable for every visitor to Venice today

it is so huge, you don’t notice the details at first – until you focus and zoom in, like here, for the actual procession

‘Madonna col Bambino’ by an unknown painter from the Venetian-Byzantine school, also end 14th C

one of the five paintings that make up the ‘Polittico dell’Apocalisse’, painted by Jacobello Alberegno at the end of the 14th C

and a detail – the lower half – of the same painting

Lazzaro Bastiani painted ‘La comunione di San Girolamo’, probably also end 15th C – which I included for the incredible details in the various people, see below

this is one of the details

and this is another one – to show that there is so much more in a painting than what you see first

another Paolo Veronese, the huge, wall-filling ‘The Feast in the House of Levi’ (who later became the apostle Matthew); this painting was criticized for the many inppropriate characters – dwarf with parrot, drinking soldiers, see the details below -, which Veronese defended by pointing out that they were there for compositional purposes only, perhaps the first painter to claim artistic liberty.

a detail, this one a fully acceptable notable participating in the dinner

the dwarf with green parrot, one of the ‘inappropriate’ details

the drinking German soldiers, another ‘inappropriate’ detail

a timeless painting: ‘Annunciata’ by Antonello da Messina, end 15th C

not a particularly nice painting, ‘Meeting of the Pilgrims Outside the Walls of Rome’ by Vittore Carpaccio, ca 1490, but I include it for the funny hats all pointing in one direction, see detail

the funny hats, detail in the Carpaccio painting

later in time came the individual portraits, like ‘Ritratto del Doge Alvise Mocenigo’, by Tintoretto, around 1575

and this somewhat earlier one, ‘Ritratto del Procuratore Jacopo Soranzo’, also Tintoretto, from around 1550

one of the many ‘Crucifixion’ paintings, this one a jolly affair by Tintoretto, ca 1555 – note the gambling soldiers in the right hand bottom corner

and another Crucifixion, this one almost 100 years older (ca 1460), and showing a far more sterile scene, painted by an unknown painter from the Paduan school

‘tre angeli musicanti’ (three angel musicians ), painting by Bartolomeo Montagna (c 1450-1523) in the Museo di Castelvecchio in Verona

This is the main museum in Verona. The building, Castelvecchio – so called to distinguish it from a newer castle – originates from the 14th Century, but has been heavily restored in the 1960s. It now houses a museum, with 12th C sculptures as well as several 14th C frescoes from the Veronese school, taken from ancient homes, no doubt. But the foremost reason to visit is the 14th-18th C painting collection of Italianate Renaissance paintings, from Jacopo Bellini to Tintoretto and Tiepolo. To be honest, something we initially weren’t very interested in, but gradually learnt to appreciate during this trip, from the sublime art works in churches and the incomparable museum collections.

‘annunciation’, I don’t know who painted it

A nice touch is that the court yard of the museum also contains modern art, something you’d almost overlook.

Below are just a few examples of our favourites.

14th C fresco in the museum, “Battaglia di Cavalieri”

Saint Anastasia’s crucifixion from early 14th C, one of the sculptures for which the museum is famous

fresco of a nursing Madonna, by an unknown Veronese painter, end 13th C

wooden panel with thirty bible stories, from another unknown Veronese painter, end 14th C

15/16th C painting by Girolamo Mocetto, named “The torture of Attilius Regulus”

‘the triumph of Pompey’, by Nicola Giolfino (1476-1555)

a detail of ‘the triumph of Pompey’

another detail, same painting

another detail 

a young benedictine monk, by Giovan Francesco Caroto (c 1480-1555)

another painting by Giovan Francesco Caroto (c 1480-1555), called ‘Portrait of a young man with a child’s drawing’

‘Quattro Santi Camaldolesi (four camaldolese saints), by Giandomenico Tiepolo (1727-1804)

and the modern art, a collection of glass structures outside

another modern work, two rings half-filled

Even though I have been working on the site for some five or six years now, it is still very much work in progress. Here you’ll find what’s new on theonearmedcarb.com (and when I added it).

  • Having been back to Italy in October 2020, I expanded the Italy page, and also included a Northern Italy page to list the relevant travel blog entries. In the process, and for completeness sake, I decided to add a San Marino country page, which is nothing more that the blog entry (Nov. 2020).
  • Following our trip to the Czech Republic in July 2020, which is described in the Czech Republic blog, I also created a country page Czech Republic, under the SE Europe section (Sept. 2020). The locations on this page link directly to the blog entries of these towns.
  • From the start of this site I have created the attic, with the intention to post items for sale that we have collected over the years, but have no space for anymore in our home. Instead of using theonearmedcrab.com, I have created two satelite sites, the ethnic attic and the artworks attic, where I have uploaded a few pieces already, and to which I will be adding in the – as yet vaguely defined – future.
  • Sorting through my old photos I came across the pictures of a trip we did in 1992 to Egypt and Jordan. Which I turned into an Egypt page and a Jordan page (both May 2020), both mostly photos because the memories are limited after such a long time.
  • And then I also put some reading material for Haiti on the site (April 2020, and an update May 2020).
  • I transfered the Back to Haiti blog, initially published outside this site, to theonearmedcrab, and whilst I was doing that, I also added the experiences and observations from three earlier years in Haiti (2000-2003), as The Haiti Diaries (March 2020).
  • Inspired by friends who went to Guatemala, I added the Guatemala page and filled it with our own experiences, from 2000-2003, when I traveled there frequently for work, and occasionally took some time off. A couple of locations, and also the exciting Semana Santa processions in Antigua Guatemala (Dec 2019).
  • Whilst on the Iran page, I added a Dutch language article I wrote some years back, just after we returned from Iran, about Ashura, the mourning for the profet Hussain (Dec. 2019).
  • I also added locations to the Chile, the Peru, ánd the Iran page, something I had not done earlier. I also added some slider photos to the latter. So now you can directly click through to a specific location we have been to, without first accessing the blog (the locations do refer to the blog entries, though) (Nov./Dec. 2019).
  • After our Caucasus trip of September/October 2019 I rearranged the blog, Travel in the Caucasus, on a dedicated page. I also created pages for the Caucasus, for Azerbaijan and for Georgia, with links to the blog and to the individual locations. And I added a short reading list for the Caucasus. (Nov. 2019)
  • Following our Chile and Peru trip I share a short reading list of the books we read on the way, and afterwards. (July 2019)
  • I wrote an entry on Trento, in Northern Italy, which we visited in August 2018. (June 2019)
  • After our Chile & Peru trip I have rearranged the travelogue for easy old to new reading, and called it Costa Pacifico (April 2019). And I created country pages for Peru and Chile (April 2019) – I still need to add some photos here, though, and the locations.

sculptures looking back at Italy, too

Usually the last entry of the blog is a short, or sometimes longer, looking back on the trip, with a personal note often accompanied by some smart-ass observation. So what can I say about almost four weeks Northern Italy?

Firstly, that Northern Italians are quite different from their brethren in the South, or at least those in Sicily. Not that they are unfriendly, but they are quite business-like, to the point, and for most part nothing extra. Not the warm, Mediterranean welcoming approach we perhaps had expected. There are individual exceptions, of course, but by and large, you don’t go to Northern Italy for the people.

Italy has much more to offer than pasta and pizza – and in the pastas alone is already plenty variety

You do go for the food, though. You have to look for the better restaurants – and our travel guide, Dutch language called Trotter, time and again proved very reliable in pointing us in the right direction. But once you find them, their Northern Italian food can be excellent, and varied, from an unexpected pasta sauce or truffle-filled raviolis, to the most exquisite meat dishes – and in that respect it perhaps beats Sicily, which cuisine is more repetitive. And there is plenty of local wine, of course, but here – at least to our taste – not everything is equally appealing. We are both no great Chianti lovers, although the Super-Tuscans, and the Amarones of the north, did find plenty of appreciation, so to speak.

huge buildings, like this tower in Florence

and lots of covered galleries, like this one in Venice

colourful pigments, for today’s artists

Secondly, our focus was specifically on the touristic highlights, aiming to benefit from the absence of tourists during Corona times. And yes, we did see Venice and Florence, and also day destinations like San Gimignano, without the hordes, without the overwhelming groups led by umbrella wielding guides who tend to claim a street, a square or a church by the terror of sheer numbers. And even though we had to make reservations in many of the museums and several of the basilicas, thanks to the limitations in numbers that where allowed inside, we often did have those places largely for ourselves, much less crowded than – I imagine – usual. At the same time this also affected the atmosphere in town, sometimes. Piazza San Marco is different, with empty terraces. And there are only so many churches and museums you can visit, there comes a moment that saturation sets in.

 

and I was never far away

never, really

So next time – no doubt we will return to Italy, to come and see all those cultural highlights we didn’t see yet, but could have fitted into our itinerary, like Pisa, Siena, Lucca, Bologna, Ferrara -, next time we will build in more variety. More nature, mountains, beaches and sea. More small, unspoilt Italian villages. Interspersed with the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a few more churches, a few more museums. And three to four weeks, like we did now, is quite enough for a trip, no need to be exposed longer than that to a dose of Italy, however pleasant the climate, the food and all these other things Italian are. But going back, yes, for sure!

frescoes aplenty, often of recognisable scenes

autumn colours in the wine ranks of Tuscany

The last few days of our Italy journey we spend exploring the Tuscany region, away from the big towns. Inescapably, that exploration includes wine, as well.

We could continue our art journey for weeks more, with the towns of Pisa and Siena only an hour, or so, away from Florence. But there is a limit to touristic cities, souvenir and leather shops, must-see museums and frescoed churches we can handle. So we decide to focus the last few days of our trip on Tuscany, the rural area, away from the tourist infrastructure.

Forget it. What we did right is to book ourselves in a hotel in small town Poggibonsi, which indeed doesn’t have any touristic attractions, doesn’t even make it to our guide book. Which means that we are treated as normal people, not walking cash machines. We can wander through the small town centre, drink a glass of wine (or, in the case of my travel companion, some of that horribly looking and vile tasting Campari or Aperol) on a casual, informal terrace, and eat in a small family restaurant without immediately being presented with an English-language menu. So far, so good.

more wine, and olives, that other Tuscany commodity

in front of the Chianti symbol

in front of an Aperol

wine fields almost everywhere

wine ranks neatly cropped

But wherever we go, Tuscany is touristic. Number one attraction is the wine, the Chianti, of which we are, to be honest, not the biggest fans. So we are also not so much attracted by the many tasting houses, who advertise along the road in Italian, English and German (not in French, funny enough – they know better). Or to the tasting tours that are everywhere being offered, for half or full days, and which generally offer a prescribed number of pre-selected wines in several wineries and lack any flexibility. Having said that, the countryside is spectacular, of course. Wine ranks everywhere, already harvested, but with raging autumn colours making this a fabulously vibrant spectacle. And trust me, the pictures don’t even come close to doing right to what it looks in real life.

entrance to the village of Bolgheri

cypress-lined road in Bolgheri

and the wine ranks. which are mostly on flat lands in Bolgheri

The wine we do like, comes from the Bolgheri area, a little further south. Being familiar with the reds, we taste a white one, one day, which whets our appetite further, so we take a day to visit the Bolgheri village and some surrounding wine estates. The village is, again, disappointingly touristic – here we thought to discover a little known wine area, but how wrong we were! Many of the wine estates are closed, or only entertain tastings on pre-booked arrangements. But we do get enough opportunity to learn more about the Bolgheri wines, and about what we like and what we don’t like so much. And we learn that Bolgheri wines, the so-called Super-Tuscans, are pretty expensive – yet we don’t travel back entirely empty handed.

first view of the village of San Gimignano

this is as busy as it gets, nowadays, in San Gimignano

normal life continues, with laundry

side street in San Gimignano

one of the characteristic towers in San Gimignano

more towers, including thae one from the church

balconies

inside the local Duomo

not everything is frescoes

but quite a lot of the decoration is

And then we spend a few days visiting the cute little towns for which Tuscany is also famous. San Gimignano is a beautifully preserved – or should I say restored? – Medieval hill-top town with  a spectacularly frescoed Duomo (there we go again…) and lots of square towers, apparently a status symbol for families who built their homes here in the 12th and 13 Century. I imagine this town packed with tourists during a normal summer, but now there are really few people, our bet pays off. But the streets are still lined with souvenir and leather shops, and the terraces offer menu’s in four languages.

twelve old acquaintances

the Boccaccio street in Ceralto Alto

a window

the outer wall of the Palazzo Pretorio in Ceralto Alto, decorated with coats of arms of earlier occupants

Nearby Ceralto is unremarkable, a little sombre even, except at the end of its funicular to Ceralto Alto, which is another, albeit miniature, hill-top fortification, much smaller – and less interesting, but thus less touristic – then San Gimignano. It earns its fame as the birthplace and residence of Boccaccio, who wrote the Decamerone, long ago. Everything in town refers to the great poet and writer.

Greve in Chianti, tourist infrastructure in place

Castelina in Chianti, tourist infrastructure in place

Badia al Passignano in between the cypresses

and that other ‘nicest village of Italy’, Montefioralle

street in Montefioralle

laundry in Castelina

And then there are the various small town in the Chianti area itself, Greve in Chianti, Castellina in Chianti, and a few more. Nice little towns, good for a stroll, but not particularly remarkable. Or Badia al Passignano, or Montefioralle, both touted as one of the nicest villages in the area, something that immediately attracts loads of tourist, in this case local tourists. Especially on Sunday so that local restaurants are all full for lunch. No, Tuscany is perhaps nicest as an area to drive through, and enjoy the many vistas of endless wine and olive plantations. Well, except for the weekends, when the roads, invariably too narrow, are populated with over-enthusiastic cyclists who struggle uphill, and need most of the road width for this, and with macho motor bikers who need to test their equipment with a maximum of noise and a minimum of regards for traffic conventions, like keep to your lane on winding roads with a poor view of what is coming from the other end. You know, maybe Tuscany is a little overrated.

Except Poggibonsi, of course, which is not rated at all – which makes it such a pleasant town.

 

Next: We head home again. At the end I look back briefly on our Northern Italy trip.

colourful wine ranks

but not all is wine, this season

and a door, in one of the villages

13th Century tableau on the life of ‘Saint Francis in the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence

Florence – or Firenze in Italian – has all the art treasures and historical architecture you expect from this major tourist city. But it lacks a bit of atmosphere.

The second major target of this trip, after Venice, is Florence – or Firenze, in Italian. Another of those Italian cities with an overdose of historical buildings and incomparable museums, usually accompanied by an overdose of tourists, too. But most of those, we anticipated, would have stayed at home in Corona times. Which was correct, although we do see a few Chinese, and also the occasional tourist group with an umbrella-wielding tour guide in front, something so far conspicuously absent from our trip.

courtyard of the Palazzo Vechio

column in the courtyard

painted gallery surrounding the courtyard

Unfortunately, in Florence, too, it rained most of the time. Perhaps this is why we weren’t as impressed by the city in itself, despite the many old buildings, the palaces, the churches and the historic squares. Somehow, Florence didn’t have the backstreet neighbourhoods we enjoyed so much in Venice, the small terraces, the authentic restaurants – or perhaps we didn’t manage to find them. Everything is big, the cathedral and several other churches with their walls from marble, and the museum buildings, all with walls built from massive stones.

the Ponte Vecchio, in a rare sunny moment

the coloured houses of the Ponte Vecchio

a few more bridge houses

the covered gallery leading towards the bridge

jewellery shops on the Ponte Vecchio itself

The Ponte Vecchio, of course, lovely with its small, coloured houses – but on closer look entirely populated with tourists shops selling souvenirs, leather goods, jewellery. And you know, we almost nowhere in Florence encountered a normal shop, everything was geared towards tourists, perhaps with the exception of the occasional small supermarket.

the Duomo, or Catedrale di San Marco del Fiore, and its clock tower

the cupola of the Duomo, as seen from our hotel courtyard

the marble walls of the Duomo, heavily decorated

decoration at the front of the Duomo

the small baptistry chapel, the Battistero, in front of the Duomo

mosaic on the ceiling of the Battistero

another mosaic, note the detail of the fishes!

Granted, inside most of these massive buildings are impressive. The Duomo, or Catedrale di San Marco del Fiore in full, is pretty bare inside, compared to many of the churches we have seen. Which, as so often, is compensated by the next-door Battistero, the baptism chapel, impressively decorated all around with mosaics that are covering walls and ceiling.

the Battistero ceiling

detail of the frescoes of the Cupola of Brunelleschi

the Cupola in full view

view from the roof of the Cupola

another view

At the end, we also we also climb up into the cupola of the Duomo. At the time this was the largest in its kind, designed by sculpturer-turned-architect Brunelleschi and completed in 1434, after his death. Some 463 steps, through narrow stairs, first to the base to admire the ceiling frescoes of The Last Judgement. Then even higher, in between the inner and outer wall of the cupola, to almost the top, where an outside gallery provides a  fabulous view over entire Florence, from a vantage point even higher than the neighbouring campanile. Luckily, just before it starts raining again. Great experience, even though our guidebook says not to undertake this is you are suffering from claustrophobia or vertigo – between the two of us, that is exactly what we do, but it was worth it, nevertheless.

Piazza Santa Croce, with the Basilica to the right

tomb of Michelangelo

the Basilica di Santa Croce

one of the many chapels, incredibly decorated

just one detail of one of the frescoes

The Basilica della Santa Croce, further east, is also a marble construction, and on the inside better decorated than the Duomo, with a few superbly frescoed chapels next to the altar. This is also the place where many famous Italians have been buried. The floor is full of tomb stones, and along the walls are tombs for such celebrities as Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo Galilei, Rossini and others.

overview of one of the chapels

Michelangelo’s David, in marble (1502-1504), showpiece of the Galleria dell’Academia

detail of David, Galleria dell’Academia

Donatello’s David in the Bargello Museum

lovely bronze sculpture, ‘The Fisher Boy’ (bronze, 1877), by Vincenzo Gemito, in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello

the outside of the Uffizi Museum

Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man, in the Uffizi Museum

And then there are the I-don’t-know-how-many museums in Florence. Of which even we, during mostly rainy days, only manage to visit a few. The Galleria dell’ Academia, with Michelangelo’s most famous 5 meter high marble sculpture of David, the Museo Bargello, with an incredible collection of Renaissance sculptures (as well as small bronzes, carved ivory, a weapons’ collection, Islamic art, coins and what have you), and the incomparable Galleria degli Uffizi, in essence a visual lecture in early Renaissance Italian art history, mostly the once private collection of the family de’Medici. An incredible collection it is, and something we now actually find very interesting and appealing – we have learned that much already from this Italy journey. Will illustrate later, with separate museum entries.

 

a corridor in the museum Galleria degli Uffizi

the local artist Il Pontormo painted ‘Portrait of Cosimo the Elder de’Medici’ (1519-1520) – the man who made Florence

selection of mushrooms in the Mercato Centrale

little balcona, also at the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata

a man sitting at the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata

the Chinese wolves and warrior, from artist Liu Ruowang, is out of place in front of the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata

And that is about all there is to tell about our visit to Firenze. Or it must be the rather unfitting exhibition of ‘Wolves Coming’ by Chinese artist Liu Ruowang, who sculpted one hundred wolves in cast iron and a kind of Mongol warrior fending them off, and placed those on two squares in the city. With a message, of course. The generally lively market, the Mercato Centrale, was operating at half capacity only, perhaps because of Corona. And my prejudice against Italians was once more confirmed when my phone case was picked from my trouser pocket. Whilst I had my telephone in my hands! Pretty stupid of me, agreed, but even more so of the person trying to steal my telephone.

Next: Tuscany.

and another standard city view, the scooters

Camparis on a terrace are never out of place, in Italy

same courtyard, looking back at the side chapel of the Basilica

another rare sunny moment, in the courtyard of the Bassilica della Santa Croce

the local police in colourful San Marino uniform

There is little to do in San Marino, except that we can now say that we have been to another independent country.

Technically speaking, San Marino does not belong in an Italy blog, of course. The independent Republic of San Marino should really be treated as a country on its own. With 62 km2 and a little over 30,000 inhabitants, it is the oldest still existing republic in the world, with the oldest still existing constitution of the world. But for all intents and purposes, for the traveller cum tourist San Marino is just another part of Italy. You don’t cross a border, you don’t change currency, you don’t adopt another language. It is just that fuel, alcohol and cigarettes are a little cheaper, and there are, curiously, an inordinate number of banks. So that defines the business model of this country, too; successful, as San Marino is one of the richest countries in the world, in terms of BBP.

access is by funicular

San Marino city, high on the mountain

great views from the top

the Basilica de San Marino

narrow, sloping streets

the tower of the Palazzio Publico

the Palazzio Publico, and San Marino’s own version of the Statue of Liberty

The only reason we go here is so that we can say that we have been. Really, there is no other reason to go to San Marino. A website listing the top ten attractions in the country comes up with things like “get a stamp in your passport” and “shopping”. We do not do either, but we do take the cable car from Borgo Maggiore to San Marino Citta, the capital which is situated on top of a 739 m high rocky outcrop, Mount Titano. From where we see that every other rocky outcrop in the surrounding also has a town, a village or a castle or monastery on top, but they have all been incorporated into Italy. The touristic highlights are limited to a couple of towers, a Neo-classic basilica, also from early 1900s, and the Palazzo Pubblico, from the late 1800s (in Italy!, where everything is at least 500 years old, even more – what a joke!) . We ignored the wax museum, the museum of torture, the Ferrari museum, and the museum of agricultural culture and traditions. Really.

We had a coffee, and a horrible lunch in a tourist restaurant – there are no other restaurants in San Marino Citta. And then we left again, without stamp, without cigarettes. But, with the knowledge that we had now been to the oldest still surviving republic in the world, in San Marino.

Next, to Florence.

decorations on a door

one of the central city buildings

which is accesibly by steep stairs, like much of San Marino

another street

and proof that you can by everything here

the Prima Torre, the biggest of San Marino’s three defense towers

detail of a mosaic in the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuevo in Ravenna

It was raining in Ravenna, but that didn’t affect the main attractions in town, an incredible collection of UNESCO World Heritage protected mosaics in several chapels and churches.

I wonder why it is that almost everywhere in Northern Italy they have churches and museums with medieval paintings, except in Ravenna? And why is it that in Ravenna, unlike everywhere else in Italy, they have mosaics? Perhaps this is because Ravenna is steeped in Roman and Byzantine history of the 5th to 8th century, older than most other Northern Italian cities. The time that mosaics were the decorative artform of churches, preceding the frescoes of Medieval times.

Piazza del San Francesco in the rain

We thought to take it easy, and take two full days for Ravenna. Which was perhaps too much, especially because it has been raining both of those days, and then Ravenna is not particularly pretty. On the other hand, it was weekend, and weekends are, despite the absence of foreign tourists, still pretty busy in Italy, with lots of locals flooding to the sites. Which becomes an issue because of the limitation to visitor numbers in the many places that support the mosaics, so we had to book for almost each and every place.

the clock tower of the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuevo

inside the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuevo

the row of virgins on one side of the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuevo

another mosaic, Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuevo

mosaic in the Capella di San Andrea

and the ceiling inside the Capella di San Andrea

There are five tourist sites on a combination ticket, which we divided over the two days. And yes, they are spectacular, not for nothing all UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Almost opposite our hotel is the Basilica de Sant’Apollinare Nuevo, with its characteristic round tower. Inside, the large nave is flanked on both sides by pillars, above which an array of virgins on one side and of martyrs on the other, all done with painstakingly small mosaic stones. Even some of the window decoration is done in mosaics. The next two sites we visit are the Capella di Sant’Andrea, which is inside the Archbishop’s museum, and the Battistero – the Baptistry – Neoniano, another tiny chapel. Both of them decorated all over with fabulous mosaics.

The Basilica di San Vitale and the nearby Mausoleum of Galla Placidia we kept for the next day. Even without the mosaics the Basilica is already pretty spectacular, with its marble on the sides and its intricate floor patterns. But the choir area, very high and decorated with, once more, great, and brightly coloured, mosaics, adds the icing on the cake. The Mausoleum, built for the half-sister of Roman Emperor Honorius around 425 AD, contains the oldest mosaics in Ravenna, much quieter because of its predominantly dark-blue colour, sublimely lit with the light that comes through alabaster windows.

the high, decorated choir in the Basilica di San Vitale

detailed mosaic, also in the Basilica di San Vitale

and the hand of God, Basilica di San Vitale

the outside of the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia

and inside, the ceiling of the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia

here the only place where not every mosaic has a religious meaning, Mausoleo di Galla Placidia

A sixth site, Battistero degli Ariani, also Unesco-recognised, is free, but not part of the ticket. So there is nobody when we get there, after having negotiated our way through the sodding rain. Have we booked? No we haven’t, but the chapel is entirely empty. Ah, no, but we have to book, otherwise we are not allowed in. Can we then book, here and now? Ah, no, this needs to be done via Internet. But there is nobody inside! It takes five minutes arguing before, finally, the supervisor sees the light, and lets us in. And in another five minutes, of course, we have seen the mosaics; it is, after all, a very small chapel.

the ceiling of the Battistero Neoniano

and a detail from the same ceiling, Battistero Neoniano

and a detailed mosaic, Battistero degli Ariani

ceiling of the Battistero degli Ariani – repetitive subject matter!!

inside San Francesco, the mosaic under water

the Basilica San Francesco

another view, same mosaics

same floor, in detail

the carpet-like mosaics of the Domus dei Tappeti di Pietra

and another detail, dancing people

A few more mosaics are distributed across other sites, one popular one are the mosaics in San Francesco church, which are underwater, for no apparent reason. And another one, also less popular, is showing the floor mosaics of an old Roman villa, which looks very much like a carpet – and is thus called Domus dei Tappeti di Pietra.

the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe outside Ravenna

colourful mosaic, inside the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe

the spacious nave of the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe

the cupola above the choir of the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe

Oh, and outside town is another basilica, more mosaics, the Basilica di Sant’Apollonia in Classe – Classe being the now completely silted-up port of Ravenna. Big building once again, but here the mosaics are mostly limited to the dome above the choir, set against a mainly green background. Like almost all of the mosaics, these, too, are depicting religious scenes – some sheep depicting the apostles, others depicting believers listening to the preaching of Saint Apollonius.

And that it is. Nothing else in Ravenna that we found interesting enough to spend much time on. No culinary highlights either, or it must be the Chinese restaurant we found – finally one evening no pasta, pizza or pomodori. Luckily, we had booked ourselves a comfortable hotel, this time, where it was good staying whilst it rained outside. And the opportunity to update this blog.

Next: an excursion to San Marino.

Villa Pisani, the most extravagant villa outside Padua, from the garden in the back

Along the Brenta Canal, outside Padua, there are several fabulous villas, built in the 16th to 18th Century. We only had time to visit one, the extravagant Villa Pisani.

many of the villas along the Brent Canal have a Via Venezia address

Having admired some of the extravagant villas in Vicenza, we have to attend to some unfinished business outside Padua, as well. On our way in, driving from Venice, we already had noticed some fabulous houses along the road, the so-called R11, so we decide to explore this stretch of road with a little more time at hand.

Villa Bedendo, not accessible to the public

flowers in the garden of another villa

a random sculpture in a random villa garden

Villa Widmann, one of the restored villas that can be visited

Villa Foscarini Rossi, for a shoe magnate – and containing a shoe museum, but closed on Saturdays

some of the decoration of the villa

and some more

The R11 essentially follows what is known as the Canale del Brenta: the Brenta River flowing into the Venice lagoon and the Adriatic, canalized in the 16th Century to avoid the port of Venice silting up. At the same time, this humble stream became a popular location for rich Venetians to build their summer villas, away from the hot and steamy Venice swamps. And with Palladio and his followers around, this resulted in another series of extravagant villas, along the water, and easily accessible by boat from Venice.

Villa Pisani, from left to right

formal entrance of Villa Pisani

the patio inside, with frescoes and sculptures

long galleries with sculptures

quite expressive, some of them

Apparently, there are about 50 of them, originally surrounded by extensive gardens, but these days often embedded in more urban developments of towns like Stra, Dolo and Mira. Many of the villas need restauration, and are closed to the public, but a few are open. We decide to go to Villa Pisani, the largest and most famous of the villas, built only in the 18th Century for the then-ambassador of Venice to France. Lots of famous people passed through, even lived here, during the years, most notably perhaps Napoleon, who put his stamp on the current furnishing (literally, the crowned ‘N’ everywhere). Less emphasized, this villa was also the place where Hitler and Mussolini met for the first time. Whatever, it is now a fabulous place, beautifully decorated, and with a huge and attractive garden – complete with labyrinth, pergolas, dwarf sculptures and what appears to have been the stables, but is little more than an even more extravagant façade at the far end of the gardens.

the bed of Napoleon, the “N” above it

the billard room, decorated

with frescoes that can only distract

from concentration for the next carambole

another room, exorbitantly decorated

and the ceiling painted

Of some of the other villas we don’t see more than the outside, often behind a closed gate, but it is enough to create the idea of unbridled demonstration of wealth and luxury, obviously the thing to do in those days. What, with having your house build by the leading architects of the time, and decorated by the most famous painters.

Afterwards, we continue our way to Ravenna.

view into the garden, with the stables at the end

an early version of the garden gnome

and no garden is complete without a labyrinth