Where’s the body?

We could have sworn Dante was buried in Florence because we saw the tombs of Michelangelo, Rossini, Machiavelli, and Galileo when we visited the Basilica of Santa Croce.

And yes, we also saw what we thought was the tomb of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), poet and author of “The Divine Comedy” in the same Basilica.

After our Florence visit, we took a train to Ravenna, Italy.  Our new tourist map noted the “Tomba Dante Alighieri”.  What?  Now we were confused.

So, where is the body?  Florence or Ravenna?

We turned to Google to settle the matter, and it was quite an amazing story.  Dante loved his hometown of Florence and became involved in politics. Unfortunately, he chose to support the losing side and made matters further worse for himself by proposing support for secular rule (a universal monarchy under the Holy Roman Emperor) rather than religious rule (under the Pope).  He was sentenced to death and exiled from Florence.  He left Florence.  What choice did he have?  He hoped Florence would relent and always expected to return.

His later years were spent in Ravenna and when he died there, he was buried at the Church of San Pier Maggiore (now called the Basilica of San Francesco) in Ravenna.

In death, Florence had a change of heart and wanted its native son’s body to be returned.  Ravenna declined and Dante was buried in Ravenna.

Two hundred years later, the pope ordered Dante’s remains to be returned to Florence.  Florence sent a delegation to get the body, but the Franciscan friars in Ravenna stole his remains and hid the body in a false wall.

Over the years it seemed the secret of where the body was located may have been forgotten.

Over 500 years after Dante’s death –  in 1865  – renovations were carried out and Dante’s bones were rediscovered.  They were placed in the small Ravenna tomb built in 1780.  Don’t think the story ends here.

In March 1944 Dante’s remains were moved yet again into the garden behind his tomb for safekeeping during the world war.  An ivy-covered mound marks where his remains were buried to protect them.  In December 1945 Dante’s remains were again moved back into the tomb.

Florence built its tomb for Dante in the Basilica of Santa Croce in 1829, but Dante’s remains never left Ravenna.  Florence’s tomb had become a cenotaph.  In 2008 Florence officially apologized for its exile of Dante.

The difference between the grand sculptural cenotaph in Florence at Santa Croce and the simple, understated tomb in Ravenna is stark.

A sign on the street by the tomb came as a surprise.  We were in a zone of silence.



May 2018

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It looked so easy

Before Beth started making her first mosaic piece at the Mosaic Art School, she had no idea there was more than one way to make a mosaic or how technically challenging making a mosaic could be. There were many steps using the Ravenna method and each required knowledge and finesse. It had all looked so easy, until she made her first mosaic.

The second mosaic used the modern method with a timeline of just over a day to complete the entire work. Most of the steps of the Ravenna method were eliminated (and Beth was happy for that!), but the drawback with this modern method was having to work quickly with no ability to make changes later.

We students selected or created our own design and selected the materials.  A quick drying cement was placed on half of the framed board at 9am. The work began quickly because by 12:30pm the cement would be too dry to hold the tesserae (tiles).  After lunch the other half of the framed board was covered in cement.  The mosaic in its entirety needed to be completed when the class ended at 4pm.

Charissa finished her bold mosaic and then Luciana Notturni, head of the school, came over and studied it, made a few suggestions, and Charissa went back to work. Both were happy with the finished product.

Beth studied the blue shades of Venetian glass and decided to incorporate many shades in her design, including a little piece of ceramic tile she had scooped out of a dumpster while traveling though Cordoba, Spain.

Catherine worked from her photo of a fresco.

Time was too short to do an entire face so Hilkka concentrated her work on the eyes of the subject she found in a book.

Beth decided to use a mixture of marble and Venetian glass for her modern method design. She bisected the marble and glass with gold tesserae (tiles).

It was interesting to discover that tessera that looks silver is actually white gold since silver tarnishes.

The last morning we students retrieved our 1st mosaics (made using the Ravenna method) for one last touch.

Suzanne painted her work lightly with an oxide stain which slightly darkened the work – making it look less “new”.

Beth was happy with her finished work using the Ravenna method…until she spotted a problem area.

It was only then she remembered a tessera had fallen out when the lime was removed. Did it not get put back in?  She also saw a few tesserae had moved slightly and were no longer in their correct place. That’s when she remembered that she once heard that all oriental rugs were created with a minor flaw – since their makers believed only God could make a perfect rug.

For Beth the week truly was a dream come true.  Well, actually 4 dreams: 1) Taking a week-long class, 2) at the Mosaic Art School 3) in Ravenna, Italy, and 4) Beth was satisfied – actually, delighted! – with both of her mosaic pieces. Life could not be better than that!


May 2018

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500 days to wait for her 1st day of school

Almost two years ago, Beth’s friend, Nan, highly recommended a mosaics class she had recently taken in Ravenna, Italy.  Beth started to dream about how wonderful it would be to take the class, too.  She wrote to the Mosaic Art School and registered; and then devoted the next 500 days to thinking about what kind of piece she would make, the colors, and the materials.  Every time we visited a site with mosaics, she took photos.  She even saw a beautiful blue piece of ceramic tile in a construction site dumpster while traveling though Cordoba, Spain that she scooped out and carried with her so she could use it in her own mosaic piece.

We took a train from Florence to Ravenna.  The first day of school finally arrived.  This was the moment Beth had been waiting for – creating her own mosaic artwork.

There were 6 students in the class and almost as many instructors throughout the week.

After some instruction and lots of practice using tools, Beth cut marble into little cubes. The first project was to create a mosaic using the Ravenna (double reverse) method using lime as a temporary binder.  Each student selected an ancient work to copy.  Beth chose a geometric design but slightly altered the colors. Students traced their design showing placement for each tessera (tile) onto glassine paper.  Papers in hand, the students gathered around Minna for the next step.

Minna spread a layer of lime on a board for each student.

The glassine paper was placed ink-side down on the wet lime and after a minute slowly peeled back to reveal the ink had transferred the design on to the moist surface of the lime.  Magic!

Now the real fun began. Beth cut her chunks of marble and carefully placed each tessera in the lime.  She discovered she did improve her cutting accuracy over time but also discovered that not all marbles are equal and some are harder to cut than others.

The wonderful instructors came around with constructive suggestions – all greatly helped the look of the finished work.

After Beth put in her last tessera, Luciana covered the finished piece with cheesecloth and then dabbed the cloth with glue.

The work was placed in the sun to dry.

Minna took the board with the mosaic work on it and, with a cake spatula, gently started to separate the bottom layer of lime from the board without disturbing the tesserae (tiles). After the mosaic was freed from the board, she gently placed the piece on a clean board, cheesecloth–side down.

All she needed to remove the soft lime mixture still sticking to the back of the tesserae was a putty knife using gentle, dabbing motions.

Students used dental tools to clear away any larger pieces still remaining.

Minna mixed a nice batch of cement with marble dust or sand, and spread a thin layer in the bottom of the wooden frame and a thicker layer on the backside of the mosaic piece.

The frame was placed on top of the mosaic, the boards were flipped over, and the two cement surfaces adhered to each other. The mosaic work was left to dry.

The next morning water removed the cheesecloth and a scrub brush removed all the remaining glue.

The process using the Ravenna method was much more complicated than Beth expected.  Still, with help, all the students had created their own mosaic.  How did Beth’s finished piece look?

To be continued with …. “It looked so easy”


May 2018

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Oltrarno orphans

Every day in Florence seemed like a special day.  Our last days in the Oltrarno (the Florence neighborhood south of the Arno River), we rambled through the neighborhood as if we were trying to walk every street and take in every sight.  Who knew if we would ever return?

We always have our cameras with us, snapping away at whatever treasured memento we see.  Somehow we usually overlook the “big picture” photos in favor of smaller, observed details.  That has its drawbacks, but our photos of a place definitely record our point of view.

Often those photos are stand-alone photos, not really belonging to any group.  We call them “orphans.”  We think that putting this little collection of “orphan” photos together gives a true impression of our daily Oltrarno walks

Of all the wonderful shops in Florence, Romanzeria won our award for the best signage, display and concept.  The translation is “books by weight for every taste”.  A smaller sign in the window clarified how many euros the used books cost per gram.

We’ve never been anywhere with so many wonderful specialty shops. However, photographing those shops proved almost impossible.  Lighting in the windows killed almost every photo we took and that was disappointing.

One of the few photos that worked was of Mannina, a store specializing in handmade shoes.  We were interested in the use of space to display the finished shoes, tools, old wooden bench, and mementos on the top shelf.

San Miniato al Monte presented a good example of the word “facade” – according to the dictionary: “an outward appearance that is maintained to conceal a less pleasant or creditable reality.”

Sometimes our walks lasted so long that we needed a little “snack” to tide us over.  We discovered the charming little wine bar, Le Volpi e L’uva, tucked away on a side street near the Pitti Palace.

Joe drank Dolimiti beer, and Beth had a ginger beer.  The little appetizer sandwiches were just enough to see us through till dinner.

Photographing the old and the new for an interesting composition.

Our AirBnB apartment was just a few doors down from Teatro Goldoni.  The theatre dates back to 1817.  When the theatre opened it had 1600 seats.

We loved our month-long stay in Florence – half in the Oltrarno area.  Our photos will be wonderful reminders not just of the big museums, the majestic churches and rich artwork.  We’ll remember fondly little shops, the out-of-the-way wine bar, and the theatre just down the street.


May 2018

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Forget sunny days on this trip!

We welcomed the sunny skies on this trip until we realized our photography suffered from the glare and shadows.  Bring on the clouds, the darkening skies, and even a little mist!  All would be welcome.

After too many days straight of sun, sun, sun, our luck came with a good forecast: RAIN.  We raced out the door.

We headed for Piazzale Michelangelo up Via dell Monte alli Croce.   Partway up the hill, we saw open gates to a Rose Garden with a note: free entrance.  We walked in. (By now you may have guessed that we look for opportunities on the way to anywhere we’re going.)

How had we not heard of this garden?  It’s nestled on a hillside with lovely views back over to the great monuments of Florence. Sculpture, like the resting cat,  was very nicely placed.

We especially loved the roses clinging to the high stone wall and the small water feature.

The flowers were easier to photograph without the sun’s glare, particularly those with lighter colors.

We were quite taken with this old little girl and the view behind her of the ancient city wall.

We did eventually make it up to Piazzale Michelangelo in a light rain.  We thought the overcast skies and the wet, shiny surfaces probably improved the photo.

We discovered the threat of rain or a little sprinkle often drives tourists inside.  When we walked back to the heart of Florence, the crowds had thinned out.

Finally, we were able to take some photos of the Baptistry, the Duomo (Cathedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore), and the Bell Tower.  No sun and fewer crowds.

The moral of the story is that rain is not good just for farmers.  Seize the opportunity to take some of your best photos in the mist. While many tourists in Florence that day were sure the rain had ruined their plans, we found it to be a most delightful and productive day.



May 2018

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Stretching ourselves

We needed a break from touring museums and the crowds. On a beautiful sunny day, we started our walk, passing through the Porta Romana, the southernmost gate in the walls leaving the old city of Florence.  We had a destination in mind, but, since it was 4.5 km away, we decided to be flexible.  Who knew how the walk would go and what we’d see on the way?  Our purpose was a good stroll in the Tuscan countryside.  Little did we know how this day would turn out!

The walk went smoothly, and we passed a number of small churches, more wildflowers to photograph, and crossed the river Ema. That’s when we saw our destination in the distance: the Certosa dell Galluzzo.

An explanation is in order.  In planning for the walk, we looked at an online map.  Certosa dell Galluzzo was a prominent place at just about the right distance to walk.  We looked up to see what it was.  “Certosa” is an Italian word meaning Carthusian monastery.  The Certosa dell Galluzzo was one of the largest monasteries in Europe back in the day (600 years ago).  It had everything going for it: a wonderful library, a massive and important art collection, and a school for the human sciences.

A sign at the base of the hill leading up to the Certosa indicated there were tours.  We had no idea, of course.  The next tour left in 15 minutes.  We powered uphill and bought our tickets with just minutes to spare.  One problem we hadn’t anticipated: the tour was in Italian, not a language we speak.  Ah, well. Along with about 15 others, we dutifully followed the guide.

He unlocked doors to massive rooms rich in art and frescoes.

Terracotta reliefs by Andrea and Giovanni della Robbia from the 15th and 16th centuries hung over every archway in the large cloister.  Just to see these was worth the walk.

We crossed the forecourt to enter the 16th century Church of San Lorenzo.

The Certosa dell Galluzzo dates back to 1341, funded by Niccolò Acciaiuoli, one of the wealthiest men in Florence.

All simplicity from the exterior vanished when we entered the richly decorated church in the Mannerist style.

Every detail met the highest artistic standard.  Imagine sitting here during services?

We passed from the church into the Colloquium with stained glass windows portraying scenes from St Benedict’s life.

Most doorways had frescos painted over them.

Our guide took out his keys and opened a simple door facing the large cloister. We stepped into one of the 18 little apartments where a monk lived – spending his days in solitary work and prayer. The apartment had a small study, bedroom, and garden.  Monks only spoke on Sundays and holy days.

So, you may ask, how did the tour go with our guide speaking Italian?  Very well, as a matter of fact.  He literally unlocked doors and let us browse in places we would not have been able to see on our own.  We suspected all the rich ceramic works were by the Della Robbias, which he confirmed, and we learned that a painting we saw was a copy, the original now hanging in the Ufizzi.  We puzzled out just enough, that with a little reading afterword, it all made sense.

What has happened to the monastery after almost 800 years?  In 1957 Cistercian monks replaced the Carthusian monks, but, a few years ago, with only four old monks left and unable to care for the vast complex, the certosa was turned over to the government.

Before we left, we noticed a painter around the corner from the gift shop.  We had not anticipated seeing such magnificent art and architecture on our “walk.”

As we made our way back down the long driveway, we took one more photo of the monastery complex.

We just wanted a nice walk outside Florence, preferably with a good destination.  The plan to visit a “monastery” sounded fine, but a tour of   Certosa dell Galluzzo turned out to be great visit.


April 2018




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Hidden and private

On a walk in our new Florence neighborhood – the Oltrarno area – we discovered something rather mysterious. A very long and very high wall extended the length of several city blocks near our apartment. We could see glorious mature trees surpassing the wall in height, and we heard birds calling. Could it be a garden?  If so, there were no openings and no entrance to indicate how to gain entry.

Then we spied the most fantastical tower behind the wall.  That only made it all the more mysterious.

When we returned home, a search on google maps indicated it was Giardini Torrigiani.  More searching and we discovered that the hidden garden is private, but, with an email request, we might be able to take a tour, the only way to gain entrance.

We emailed our request and days passed.  The next week we received an email from Vieri Torrigiani Malaspina inviting us to join a tour on one of our last days in Florence.

In preparation for our visit, we read all that we could about the garden.

The botanical garden was famous in the 16th century.

One hundred years later, Pier Antonio Micheli, the founder of scientific mycology and noted botanist, worked in the garden.  In 1716 he and others founded the Italian Botanical Society.

When Pietro Torrigiani (1773-1848) inherited and expanded the garden, he hired a famous landscaper, Luigi De Cambray Digny, who changed the look of the garden to the popular English-style.

The more we read, the more excited we were to see the garden.  Giardini Torrigiani is the largest private garden in Europe, still owned by the Torrigiani family who live within its 27-acre (7 hectares) walled estate.

Vieri greeted us at a door in the wall and introduced us to the others taking the 1.5 hour tour.  As we strolled, he told us of his passion and commitment to the garden.

Many of the mature trees are now 300 years old.  One of the trees we especially wanted to see was the Fagus tricolor, a type of European beech.   “The old French cultivar called ‘Tricolor’ (green leaves edged with pink changing to white) is extremely rare and may no longer be circulating to any extent in commerce in the U. S.”

The garden is large enough to have areas devoted to flowerbeds, several greenhouses, and extensive lawns with mature trees.   Sculptures and small buildings were prominently featured across the garden.

We weren’t familiar with many of the trees, plants and flowers, like this Turkish or Jerusalem Sage (phlomis).  We did get a laugh when Vieri pointed to a vine growing up a wall, the Virginia Creeper, one of the few plants we most definitely knew.

The builder of the bell tower at the church of Santa Croce, Gaetano Baccani, was hired in 1821 to build a tower in the garden.  This was the tower we had first viewed from outside the walls.

The tower contained a library and astronomical instruments.  It had a mechanical lift, as well as circular stone steps.  Sadly, the tower is no longer safe for visitors.

Near the base of the tower, and protected by old stone walls and a bastion built by Cosimo Medici in 1544, was a crypt.  Vieri unlocked it so we could go inside.   Before it could be used, Italian laws changed, so it was never put in use.

We walked on a shaded path and looked over to his cousin’s garden, still within the walls.

A moment later we looked in a different direction and saw rose bushes planted by a decorative low wall and a little building with who knows what purpose?

All the while Vieri told us stories about the garden, the family, and the importance of all that had taken place in the garden.  We were spellbound.  There is a sculpture in the garden of Seneca, the Roman philosopher, and the young Pietro Torrigiani. Pio Fedi, the sculptor, was known for his work, “The Rape of Polyxena” in 1865. We had just seen that piece in the Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence.

At the tour’s end we were all invited into Vieri’s house for afternoon tea – a lovely, hospitable way to conclude our visit to the garden.

In our many years of traveling, we could not think of another experience we had that was quite like this. The botanical garden itself was magnificent.  The historical background was fascinating.  And Vieri was a most charming host for an incredible tour.


May 2018

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