Thursday, December 24, 2020

A 2020 Florence Covid Christmas


It's the afternoon of Christmas Eve here in Florence--and thanks to the red zone aimed to slow down the number of Coronavirus contagions--it is already as silent as the middle of the night.  In Piazza Duomo, Mary and Joseph, the ox and the ass, wait patiently for Jesus to arrive, bringing hope and love. 

Florence is also waiting for the arrival of the Covid-19 vaccine, slated for December 27.

As usual, the life-size Nativity scene will remain in the Cathedral square until January 6.  The figures are made of terra-cotta, the same material as the dome's tiles created in the Tuscan town of Impruneta in the 15th century, during the height of the Renaissance.  This was a period of humanistic and artistic rebirth after the Dark Ages, and the Black Plague, which caused the death of at least 50 million people. 
The Nativity scene were donated to the city of Florence in homage to the basilica's roofing by their maker, a terracotta craftsman still carrying on a centuries' old tradition in Impruneta.

Someone else is also waiting for hope to arrive, whom Florence has not forgotten.
He is Patrick Zaky, a master's degree student at the University of Bologna (Italy's oldest such institute of high learning).  A native of Egypt, Zack was arrested on February 7 (a date coinciding with the warnings of an imminent Covid epidemic in Italy) and has been held in prison in Cairo ever since.
The trumped-up charge is "subversive propaganda."  Zaky's research in Bologna on women and gender studies, for which he received a scholarship, 
offended deep-rooted cultural sensibilities in his home country.  

Florence's response to this is its Neighborhood 2 annual Nativity scene created by 
Gruppo Donatello artists in front of Villa Arrivabene is dedicated to Patrick Zaky.

I had an appointment at the vital statistics department of Villa Arrivabene on a brilliantly sunny December day and found the installation at the entrance.  "Freedom for Patrick Zaky" is written on the T-shirt of the activist, with the depiction inspired by Amnesty International's poster.  Facing Patrick's silhouette is a woman judge seen from the back.  I don't know if this is a reference to 
the subject of Patrick's thesis work in Bologna, but it is known to have irritated Egyptian authorities, 
and probably led to his detention.

The members of Gruppo Donatello are located in and around piazzale Donatello and via degli Artisti, a time-honored location for artist studios in Florence since the late 1800s. The Villa Arrivabene nativity is also populated with portrayals of local residents and protagonists of the Coronavirus health emergency.  A frontline doctor (among those slated to be vaccinated first) can be glimpsed in back of a photojournalist.  The entire scene is so life-like that it's easy to mistake an actual person in the gray down coat to the left as one of the cutouts. 

The installation gave me a feeling of suspended reality, frozen in time.

With 2021 on the horizon, older and wiser with lessons imparted by lockdown (or arrest),
we would like to come to life again. 
The Christmas hope is freedom once more for all of us...and Patrick Zaky.

                                                                          Reporting live from Beautiful Florence
                                           -- Rosanna

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Christmas Scenes in Florence, 2019

Visitors to Florence at Christmastime are used to seeing a tree situated between the
Cathedral with its neo-Gothic marble facade and the octagonal Romanesque Baptistery.
The 50 ft. (15 meter) fir tree was donated to the city of Florence by the town of Moena in the
Trentino province in the Dolomites, the Italian Alps.  Moena is also known locally as where the Fiorentina soccer team practices during the summertime at a minimum altitude of 3,000 ft.
Florence's traditional Christmas tree is decorated with hundreds of glowing LEDs, glass ornaments and holiday red gigli, stylized lilies, Florence's coat-of-arms, which actually derive from wild irises that grow spontaneously in the area.
To the left of the first photo, the gentle reader will see the top of the city's presepio, or Nativity scene.  Below the wooden roof of the stall, figures are made of terracotta in the local tradition by the artisans of Impruneta, who are specialized in this craft.  Their ancestors supplied the terracotta tiles used in the Cathedral's iconic dome or Cupola,
created by Brunelleschi in the 15th century.

Obviously, at midnight on Christmas Eve, Baby Jesus arrives in the manger; on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany,  Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the donkey and the ox in terracotta are substituted by
living, breathing humans and animals, who await the Three Kings (Re Magi), who arrive bearing gifts in a colorful pageant.
 Well, this year, Florence also hosts "Three Modern Trees" as installations across the city, in conjunction with the Novecento Museum of 20th and 21st Century Art.  The trio can be viewed, like the one in piazza Duomo, through January 6.
The most traditional one, (above) surrounded by the Renaissance arches of
piazza Santissima Annunizata, is by Domenico Bianchi.  As the theme of Christmas lights throughout Florence is the 50th anniversary of the moon landing,
the artist used symbols to create a movement to evoke
the connection between space and time,
united in the cosmos.  

The most unconventional, yet striking tree, is located in piazza della Repubblica.  Its author is Michelangelo Pistoletto, who uses it to illustrate his current artistic project "Terzo Paradiso"
(Third Paradise) to inspire and illuminate contemporary society,
for which he redesigned the eternity symbol (a horizontal number 8) to include three circles, not one.  The outer circles represent, respectively,
the natural world and the modern, man-made world of artifice.
The central, larger circle, is meant to embody the union of the two opposites which create healing and balance in a sort of New Age and utopian garden sanctuary necessary to achieve if
the planet is to survive.

Its location is symbolic as well -- the medieval ghetto and slum-like medieval dwellings and market crowding the space, originally the location of the ancient Roman forum, were demolished in the 19th century to create Piazza della Repubblica.  An inscription above the arch reads "The Ancient Center of the City/From Centuries-Old Squalor/Brought to New Life.

I would imagine that the artist had this in mind when presenting his futurist tree to Florence.

Then, there is Mimmo Paladino tree in piazza Santa Maria Novella, standing before the Romanesque splendor of the church of the same name as a sort of bridge to the Novecento Museum of 20th and 21st Century Art directly across from it, located in a Renaissance building.

Paladino created a cone of light filled with numbers that switch on and off in a sequence,
also playfully alluding to the the game of Bingo, which is a popular pastime among Italians
after gargantuan holiday meals.
A little lightness after the heaviness; perhaps this also inspired Paladino. Numbers are symbolic as well, but one cannot enter the artist's mind to understand his reasoning,
so let's leave it at that...

Paladino's tree does, however, have a beautiful, shooting star, on top.
Maybe we are all supposed look higher.

Buon Natale/Merry Christmas
to you and yours!

                                                                               reporting live from Beautiful Florence
                                                                               -- Rosanna

Saturday, December 22, 2018

A Florence Chocolate Christmas

This jolly man looks like one of Santa's helpers, and he actually is.

He is Leonardo Vestri, member of the third generation of premier chocolate makers in Tuscany,
While his family works in Arezzo, Leonardo has a shop in Florence on Borgo degli Albizi. 
He is holding one of his signature holiday specialties:  a panettone, an Italian Christmas bread which normally contains candied fruit and raisins.  This, however, is not
your average panettone: it is made with natural starter, and once hot out of the oven behind the shop's counter and cooled, is hand-glazed with dark chocolate and chopped hazelnuts.

As faithful Beautiful Florence blog photographer Kayla Smith and I were to the discover,
one can personalized a gift panettone by selecting it according to glaze: milk or dark chocolate with hazelnuts, milk chocolate with pistachios, dark or milk chocolate topped by almond slivers.

The same choice is offered for pandoro (pictured top left in the above photo), a tall, spongy yeast Italian Christmas cake with origins in Verona, the town of Romeo and Juliet.
One of the reasons the chocolate is so good is that Leonardo and his father Daniele are
chocolate connoisseurs.  Daniele, based in a city, Arezzo, known for frescoes by Piero della Francesca, owns and oversees a cocoa plantation in San Domingo which furnishes
the basic ingredient,
going there at least twice a year.

Aren't these Vestri chocolate truffles to die for?  You are right:  they come in gianduia (a chocolate hazelnut base) instead of the normal dark chocolate; additionally, are coated in
chopped hazelnuts.

Fans of supermarket Nutella (commercial chocolate-hazelnut spread), I dare you to try one 
and taste the difference.

Does Leonardo ever get tired of chocolate?  
"I always eat it - who doesn't not like chocolate?." he answered.
"Besides, I have to taste, taste, taste...the palate is part of the recipe."

I inquired what are the most popular Christmas gifts items in his chocolate shop.
It turns out to be boxed chocolates, which come in endless choices 
featuring 100% natural ingredients.
I admit, Italians know how to gift wrap better than anyone else.
I learned this at my own Italian mother's knee 
in the United States.
Of course she could cook ... and her gifts under the tree were packaged
as if they were works of art.

Just look at these chocolate confections in gold foil 
or in boxes that look like modern paintings...

But Vestri's delights don't end there.
This is the place for the best hot chocolate in Florence:
thick, pure melted chocolate -- nothing else -- with an optional
sprinkling of crushed hot pepper flakes or cinnamon.

What is the secret behind its sheer chocolatey goodness?

This state-of-the-art hot chocolate is keep warm and stirred continuously in
a brass container with a thermostat and a sprout to measure out the just right amount.

"I don't have to have to add potato starch or other thickeners," says Leonardo, "because the mixture is continuously amalgamated, bringing it to 
and keeping it at 
the perfect denseness."

And even better, Vestri sells his own packaged hot chocolate.
The perfect gift, along with everything else in the shop
(to the left in the below photo, which was taken on a table
in the patio just outside Leonardo's intimate chocolate paradise).

Just add hot milk and stir to make a
fabulous cup
of Italian artisanal hot chocolate.

So, have yourself a merry, chocolate Christmas!

                                                         -- Rosanna 
                                                               & Kayla Smith
                                                                      reporting live from
                                                                      Beautiful Florence

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Florence 2017 Christmas Card

What is this in the photo below? the gentle reader may ask.  
It is risotto which was made before our eyes -- intern Deanna Carbone and mine -- at the launch of a Florence hotel this past November and served to guests.  As the event was titled
"Gold," (in English, no less), 
the risotto came topped with edible gold leaf, which marked the first time I had heard of such a thing.
Well, in the spirit of the Christmas season, I would like to share what the Dalai Lama said at a meeting of Florence's Festival of Religions at the Mandela Forum earlier this year.

Much to my relief (due to someone I know who constantly parrots the phrase), the Dalai Lama did not say "Tibetan Buddhism," even once.  His Holiness spoke exclusively of
all-inclusive values.

"We must transmit forgiveness and tolerance," he said.
"Although everyone has a right to a happy life and self realization,
I have seen so much suffering and violence.
It would be helpful to remember that we are all human beings in order to maintain peace.
War is only mobilized violence.
There is no freedom without peace."

"God gave us different religions to take into account different types of people.
There are no Muslim terrorists -- there are only terrorists.
Terrorists do no adhere to any religion."

"Can people of all religions live together and happily?
A 1,000 times yes!"

"To stop suffering, we need to go deeper.  We are all the same.
Peace comes from within.
We must work towards universal love."

Now, that's true gold.

                  Buon Natale from
                    Beautiful Florence
                                -- Rosanna


Sunday, August 20, 2017

Florence Summer Sales & Armani

Well, summer sales in Florence continue through September 8, and it is clear that this pigeon is window shopping at the Armani boutique near Piazza della Repubblica.

He (I assume the bird is male given that the point of attraction is a pair of men's shoes)
shares my taste.
I really can't afford designer clothes but if I could I would choose Armani.

I am the lucky owner of two Armani pillows given as a gift to
journalists when one of his boutiques opened on or close to via Tornabuoni.
I saw Giorgio at the inauguration and remembered feeling worried about his
excessive tan -- his face was beginning to resemble leather.

love Armani fashion.

I also purchased a pair of gorgeous cream colored linen Emporio Armani pants 
in the Galluzzo market.  As my heart sister, Mary Louise, would say,
"the hand" (I am the daughter of an Italian tailor) reached out and touched
the fabric of items on a rack.  "The hand" felt a find and began to shake. Voilà! 
I became the proud owner of another Armani for only €30!
Back in downtown Florence, after a few minutes, the bird's attention towards the shoes began to wane.  Maybe even the sales prices was too steep, or that he simply realized, being pigeon-toed,
the pair wouldn't fit.

But there still is plenty of sales shopping for visitors and residents alike throughout Florence.
Not nearly as elegant as Armani, but available.
Handy if you are heading to the beach, as I am tomorrow.
But I am not a size 6.
But this is a sales shoe story.  One of my interns purchased a pair of sandals at a shop between
Piazza della Repubblica and Ponte Vecchio.
On the surface, the sandals appeared to be a good buy.
Nice, huh?
But always look beyond the surface.
And regarding sales in Florence, remember to keep your receipt.
Sales time (January-February, July - early September) is probably the only time that the
sales staff or proprietor will allow you to make a return.
Because sales periods in Italy are regulated by law.
After less than a week of wear, the soles of Natalia's shoes were cracked as the ancient Florentine pavement they are laying on.  Unwearable because they were falling apart, Natalia brought the sandals back to the store, which, in the absence of a sales receipt, refused
to reimburse her money or make an exchange.
Given the fact that the model was still in the window,
I would suggest calling the vigili urbani (the local city police squad) if you find yourself in a similar situation.

"Do you know a cobbler?" Natalia asked me.  I accompanied her to
one located on via Matteo Palmieri, right behind our office on Borgo degli Albizi.
His look of disgust says it all.

What's to be done?
The shoemaker simply made the sign of the cross, as 
an Italian priest would at a funeral.
The shoes were as dead as the time-honored practice of asking for a discount 
("lo sconto") at his repair business, as stated by the notice behind him

End of story -- almost.

Discounts, at least during sales periods, are still alive and well in
Florence.  You simply need to know where to go.

The pigeon and I do.  Today it's only window shopping at Armani.
Tomorrow, who knows?

                                                 reporting live from Beautiful Florence

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

From A Journalist in Florence: A Mentor Tribute on International Women's Day

In just over an hour, it will be International Women's Day in Italy.
In honor of my mentor in a three-month stint in a news reporting class,
among the facts that I will report in this post is how blossoming mimosa
(pictured above) came to be the symbol of the Festa della Donna in Italy.
Today, everybody -- loves ones, even proprietors of cafés and stationary shops -- gift women with a sprig of soft-scented mimosa on March 8.

The custom can be traced to WWII Italy when Fascist police executed two sisters at the forefront of the Resistance movement.  At their funeral, dozens of female supporters came and placed mimosa on their graves.  It was probably late February or early March when the shrub is in bloom.

Well, I mentioned that this post was about me learning to report hard news.
A strange topic as everyone knows I am a wimp -- I love culture, non-profits and poetic causes, although I can really write about anything except sports.  And violence, except for rare cases.

Although I attended college in Boston, I grew up on the banks of the
Hudson Valley north of New York.  The city, that is.
Idyllic. Very peaceful, although I was raised in Highland Falls, next to that bastion of militarism: West Point.  My late father was an Italian tailor at the military academy.

One year, while home I decided to cross-register and take the aforementioned news journalism course at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York.  My family was living in New Windsor at the time.

A tiny women, a professional journalist on maternity leave, taught the class.
I remember her bangs and eye makeup that made her vaguely resemble Cleopatra.
She wielded a red pen, which she used copiously on our assignments.

A chain smoker, she gave the impression of being in perpetual motion, of restlessness, even when she was still.  The trademark of a hard-bitten news writer.

Thirty-five years later I found her photo on Facebook.
Mimi Mcandrew has not changed all that much.

As one of her Facebook friends wrote, "a great picture of a great journalist."
I have already thanked her in a preface to one of my books for teaching me to write a lede,
that crucial first sentence or two which sums up the article, which, then,
also included incisiveness.  Now, the requirement -- a tall order -- is punch.
Bisogna spaccare, as the Italians would say.  Leave an indelible impression.
Like Mimi herself.

As a final assignment, Mimi had Marist College stage a mock disaster: students taken hostage, frightened parents (with weirdly-spelled names, Laurence instead of Lawrence,
I got it right), police, negotiations, the works.  The class was divided into teams, for coverage and live reporting and surprisingly I was asked to head one of them.  After all, I was from another school.  Even more surprisingly, my team came in second out of five,
with Marist's star reporter's group first.
As I had no ambition to continue in the field of hard news, I perceived it a great honor.

Fast forward to early 2016, when the Florence newsroom of La Repubblica asks me to write a story about the gruesome Ashley Olsen murder in Florence.  I thought the article would be posted in my (normally speaking) arts and leisure column in English called Day on the news site.

"I don't do this type of piece," was my mildly irritated response, "it was bad enough when I anchored the broadcast for BBC World Service after the bomb blast at the Uffizi."

But if you are a true journalist you know that obedience to the editor
(or in this case, as she was away for the week, the editor's standby) is a given.
The only question you can ask is:  "when do you need it by?"
And we all know, if we miss a deadline, it is because we are dead.

I finished that article in just under an hour and half, reading the facts in Italian
and expressing in English.
I briefly thought of Mimi when composing the lead.  "Don't ever, ever start with a question,
unless the event is exceptional," she taught us.
I took a deep breath and wrote:  "Who killed Ashley Olsen?" and begged forgiveness.
The rest came on automatic pilot also thanks to the lessons I had learned.
The article here.

With the beginnings of tremendous back pain, which lasted all week, I left the office
after sending the story.
I received a text message from the editor in chief on the bus thanking me.  When I arrived at my Florence home, the web editor's assistant in charge sent me a concise email:
"Rosanna, you are in national coverage."
Oh my God, directly in English, was the email I shot back.

The story was on the national web site of Repubblica along with the Italian articles on the murder.
A first.
And the way it was posted, it seemed I had written all the pieces, English and Italian.

This delirio (I can think of no other word in either language) continued for five days,
including coverage of the arrest
of the alleged murderer and the funeral.

Throughout, I felt I was walking a tightrope strung between two skyscrapers,
balancing two languages.
I had to remain perfectly calm although I could hear noise -- a roar -- below me.
On the third day of the case,
Repubblica's arch rival Corriere Fiorentino -- the local newsroom of the Corriere della Sera -- started running English translations.  The heat was on.  I began to sweat, not perspire
as ladies are alleged to do.

Plus, what slowed down me down was the legal terminology -- in both Italian and in English.
A procuratore?  Who the hell is that?  A district attorney?  What is a district attorney? And so on.

I had never ever studied or done the courthouse beat.   And I couldn't make a mistake.
I would fall off the tightrope, although I knew that Repubblica journalists
would launch a safety net.

I didn't need it.

Thank you, Mimi.

Happy Women's Day.

                                               reporting live from Beautiful Florence


Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Norcia Earthquake & Siena: Goodby to 2016

This gilded wooden Madonna, originally found in the Cathedral of Santa Maria Argentea in Norcia, is currently on display in a art show divided between Siena's Cathedral crypt and Santa Maria della Scala.  The statue is part of the Bellezza Ferita (Wounded Beauty) exhibition of artworks rescued in the October 30, 2016 earthquake that devastated
a town in Umbria.

Originally part of an Assumption, in this setting she is raising her eyes upward, not to heaven, but to the semi-destroyed church from she was rescued.  Arms flung outwards, Mary seems to be supplicating help and mercy for Norcia.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Argentea in Norcia,
(above), was originally built in the 3rd century A.D. on the site of a Rome temple dedicated to Athena in her guise of the goddess of good fortune, with the "argentea" denoting one of her attributes:
a "shining" goddess.  The ancient church, which embraced Christianity but preserved the memory of Athena in its official name, was restructured in the 11th century in the Romanesque style, torn down in the 16th century and was rebuilt between the 16th and 18th centuries in what is been variously described as Renaissance (mirroring when it was begun) and
Neoclassical (reflecting when it was finished).

One can only hope that, seeing what is left of Santa Maria Argentea, that it will rise again from the rubble, along with rest of Norcia.

I covered the 1993 Uffizi bomb blast for BBC World Service, the result of an explosive set off in by the Mafia, killing six people, including an infant carried out lifeless by a fireman.  Looking at this image at the exhibition, which shows another fireman carrying out a Christ child sculpture from the church of San Pellegrino in Norcia, I couldn't help being reminded of another tragedy,
which damaged downtown Florence.

The panels already brought to safety and leaning on wall depict St. Benedict and his sister, St. Scholastica.

Both are exhibited, so that visitors can figuratively touch the cultural identity of the
earthquake area, and contribute to its rebirth, along with that of Siena.  The Tuscan city is financially troubled due to the near collapse of its signature bank, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, founded before Colombus discovered America, in 1472!

For centuries, Santa Maria della Scala, located directly across from the steps of Siena's Cathedral, gave rest and shelter to pilgrims walking the via Francigena to Rome.  It is a fitting place to host Bellezza Ferita.

It is the wish of Beautiful Florence's less than faithful blogger on this New Year's Eve,
that humanity absorb the heartbreaking scenarios that 2016 unfolded and
commence 2017 with hope, looking forward to
rejuvenation and reconstruction,
 built on the
cornerstone of true
fraternity & sisterhood.

Buon Anno from
Beautiful Florence
                                           -- Rosanna