Pienza, the ideal city

Let’s say you are the Pope.  You’re from a small, Medieval village in Tuscany that really isn’t on the map and you want to do something really great for your hometown.  In fact, you want to make it an important rest stop on a famous road that leads from Rome to Bologna and points north, or to Rome and Naples and points south.  What would you do?

Would you create an “ideal city” and make sure it gets notoriety?

That’s exactly what Pope Pius II did.

Born Enea Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolomini, (18 October 1405 – 14 August 1464), he became the head of the Catholic Church and ruler of the Papal States from 19 August 1458 until his death. During his 6 year reign, he transformed his hometown into a marvelous Renaissance borgo.

You enter the city through this gate:

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The picture above tells us that Pienza was destroyed on 15 June 1944 and restored by October 1955. If walls could talk.

 

Here is the cathedral Pope Pius II built.

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The Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore

A visit on a gorgeous day to the Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore in Tuscany is about as good a day trip as I can think of. Leaving Florence on a soft, summer morning, it is a pleasure to drive through beautiful countryside. And once you reach the historic abbey itself, you’ve reached a little piece of heaven.

 

 

 

 

This large Benedictine monastery is constructed mostly of red brick, making it stand out against the grey clayey and sandy soil of the the Crete senesi, which give this area of Tuscany its name.

The territorial abbey’s abbot functions as the bishop of the land within the abbey’s possession, even though he is not consecrated as a bishop. It is also the mother-house of the Olivetans and the monastery later took the name of Monte Oliveto Maggiore (“the greater”) to distinguish it from successive monasteries at Florence, San Gimignano, Naples and elsewhere.

It was founded in 1313 by Bernardo Tolomei, a jurist from a prominent aristocratic family of Siena. By 1320, it was approved by Bishop Guido Tarlati as Monte Oliveto, with reference to the Mount of Olives and in honor of Christ’s Passion. The monastery was begun in 1320, the new congregation being approved by Pope Clement VI in 1344.

The abbey was for centuries one of the main land possessors in the Siena region.  On January 18, 1765, the monastery was made the seat of the Territorial Abbacy of Monte Oliveto Maggiore.

 

The monastery consists of a medieval palace in red brickwork, surmounted by a massive quadrangular tower with barbicans and merlons. Begun in 1393 as the fortified gate of the complex, it was completed in 1526 and restored in the 19th century. The church’s atrium is on the site of a previous church (1319). The Latin cross formed church was renovated in the Baroque style in 1772 by Giovanni Antinori.

A long alley with cypresses, sided by the botanical garden of the old pharmacy (destroyed in 1896), with a cistern from 1533. At the alley’s end is the bell tower, in Romanesque-Gothic style, and the apse of the church, which has a Gothic façade.

 

The abbey’s monastic library, housing some 40,000 volumes and incunabula, gives way to  the pharmacy, which houses medicinal herbs in a collection of 17th century vases.

 

 

 

 

For me, the rectangular Chiostro Grande was the highlight of the visit. The fresco cycle that adorns the walls of the lovely cortile was painted by Luca Signorelli (he created 8 lunettes between 1497-98) and Sodoma, who completed the cycle after 1505.  Sodoma painted 26 of the lunettes.

The cloister was constructed between 1426 and 1443.  The notable fresco cycle of the Life of St. Benedict was painted between 1497 and 1510 by Luca Signorelli and il Sodoma.

Wikipedia has an excellent article on these frescoes, telling you the entire program of the frescoes and which artist painted which scenes.

https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Storie_di_san_Benedetto_di_Monte_Oliveto_Maggiore

Luca Signorelli (c. 1445-1523) was an Italian Renaissance painter who was noted in particular for his draftsmanship and his deft handling of foreshortening. His massive frescoes of the Last Judgment (1499–1503) in Orvieto Cathedral are considered his masterpiece. Considered to be part of the Tuscan school, Signorelli also worked extensively in Umbria and Rome.

In the Monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore Signorelli painted eight frescoes, forming part of a vast series depicting the life of St. Benedict; they are not in great condition.

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Luca Signorelli, dettaglio di San Benedetto rimprovera due monaci che hanno violato la Regola

Il Sodoma (1477 – 1549) was the strange nickname given to the Italian Renaissance painter Giovanni Antonio Bazzi. Il Sodoma painted in a manner that superimposed the High Renaissance style of early 16th-century Rome onto the traditions of the provincial Sienese school; he spent the bulk of his professional life in Siena, with two periods in Rome.

Sodoma was one of the first to paint in the style of the High Renaissance in Siena. His first important works were these frescoes in the Benedictine monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, on the road from Siena to Rome. The frescoes illustrate the life of St Benedict in continuation of the series that Luca Signorelli had begun in 1498. Gaining fluency in the prevailing popular style of Pinturicchio, Sodoma completed the set in 1502 and included a self-portrait with badgers and ravens.

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Autoritratto del Sodoma in un dettaglio da uno degli affreschi delle Storie di san Benedetto di Monte Oliveto Maggiore

 

 

The fresco above is by Sodoma, showing Benedict leaving the Roman school.

 

 

The fresco above is by Sodoma.  It shows a Roman monk giving the hermit habit to Benedict.

 

The fresco above, by Sodoma, shows the devil breaking the bell.

 

Above, by Sodoma, shows Benedict as a god-inspired priest bringing food to blessed on Easter.

 

Love the window in this lunette.

 

 

 

 

 

 


In this lunette, above and below, painted by Sodoma, shows How he blessed the building of twelve monasteries.

 

 

 

 

The painting below is by Signorelli and depicts Benedict talking to the monks after they had eaten outside the monastery

 

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Below: How Benedict discovers Totila’s fiction. In the scene Riggo is seen, disguised as Totila to deceive Benedetto, who arrived in front of the figure of the saint who invites him to take off his clothes; the crowd around composed of monks and warriors expresses his amazement; in the background Riggo tells the story to Totila. It is a crowded scene and set to a theatrical taste [2].

 

In the scene Riggo is seen, disguised as Totila to deceive Benedetto, who arrived in front of the figure of the saint who invites him to take off his clothes; the crowd around composed of monks and warriors expresses his amazement; in the background Riggo tells the story to Totila. It is a crowded scene and set to a theatrical taste [2].

 

How Benedict recognizes and welcomes Totila

 

 

 

 


How Benedict gets plenty of flour and restores the monks

 


How Benedict appears to two distant monks and he designs the construction of a monastery.
The scene takes place in two stages. On the left the saint appears to one of the two sleeping monks while on the right the work is accomplished

 

 

 

 

Like Benedict, he excommunicates two nuns and then acquits them that they were dead
Inside a church during the celebration of a mass; to the deacon’s words: If anyone is excommunicated, go out, a woman sees two nuns excommunicated by Saint Benedict come out of the tomb. On the right, in small, the saint reconciles the nuns

 

 

 

 

And, last, but not least, the modern incursion into the abbey.  A garage where there used to be a stable. Complete with frescoes.

 

Museo Bardini has re-opened in Florence

And I paid a visit.  It was not like the old days, where you could wander at will, which is very sad.  Now they have a “percorso” or path, which you have to follow and they have guards in every room watching you like a hawk.  It didn’t feel like they were watching out for Covid.  It felt like they thought I was going to damage or steal the art.  I didn’t care for it.  Plus, I was one of 3 visitors.  I mean, really?

Despite my complaints, the museum is still a wonderful place with a fascinating collection. It is one of my favorite museums in Florence.  Here are a few of my favorite things:

 

 

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The unusual sculpture above, showing a woman breast feeding 2 children at once, is explained in the label above.

 

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Here’s some info about the collector for whom the museum is named:

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And here are some of his eclectic objets:

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It’s official.  My new favorite art form is medieval sculpture.  I mean, look at the examples above and below.  Did you ever see a sweeter angel above?

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And, above, check out the lion caryatid figure.  Notice that he has a poor ram pinned below his feet, for all eternity.  The poor ram.  I love the primitive charm of these sculptures!

 

 

When I backtracked to take a picture of this gorgeous Renaissance doorway was when I knew my visit yesterday was not going to be the carefree affair of the olden days.  A mean, older woman reprimanded me for taking a few steps back towards where I had come from (although how you would notice the far side of the doorway you are walking through is beyond me), cackling at me that you must follow the path forward (I saw no signs showing me the path ahead either).

But, forget about her…look at the sumptuous doorway.  Wow.  What it must have felt like to use such casings.

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Going upstairs, like a good girl, I arrived in the room for which I had come.  I could spend hours in this gallery, if they would turn on all of the lights and get rid of the guards acting like I was going to damage the artworks.

 

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Donatello’s Madonna and Child with the Apple

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Donatello’s Madonna and Child, known as the Madonna and the Ropemakers:

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And then there are the cassone, or the wooden chests (like a hope chest for an aristocratic Italian woman), that Bardini collected.  If they would turn on the lights in the gallery and let me get close to the works, I would be in heaven.  As it is, I’m halfway to heaven, just looking at the furniture and thinking about the girls/women whose lives they represent.

 

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And then there are the cornice: the incredible frames that Bardini collected. Any American art museum would give eye teeth for one of these marvelous frames.

 

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Moving into another gallery, I pass through another sumptuous doorway casing:

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Beautiful painted crucifixes were also collected by Bardini.  Below them, more cassone.

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I could spend a day in this museum just studying the ceilings:

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Or the Sienese sculpture:

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Below, you might think you are looking at a rug on a floor, but it is a ceiling:

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Upon leaving my favorite galleries, I go down this stairway, lined with rugs hung on walls.  Very effective.

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What a collection.  Despite the guards, I love this museum!

San Giovani Day, June 24, 2020

The Feast of St. John, a Public Holiday in Florence

Today, June 24, is The Feast of St. John the Baptist, and therefore a public holiday in Florence. It is a day off for the general population, with schools and most businesses closed.

In Florence, a parade traditionally occurs at the city center, followed by fireworks in the evening.

This year, with social distancing, will be quite different:

On June 24, San Giovanni, the city’s patron saint, is usually remembered by the pomp and circumstance of a parade, the final of bombastic local sport Calcio Storico and a spectacular late-night firework display. For obvious reasons, crowds will not be cramming the streets this year. Instead, an impressive combined celebration is in the making by Florence, Genoa and Turin, who share a patron saint in St John the Baptist [read]. Florence will be illuminated by a light show instead of fireworks, lasting from sunset until midnight. Porta San Gallo, Porta alla Croce, Torre di San Niccolò, Porta Romana, Porta al Prato, Porta San Frediano, San Miniato al Monte and Istituto degli Innocenti will all act as canvases for the illuminations, but the highlight is likely to be three streams of light cast onto the lantern at the top of Brunelleschi’s Dome.

June 24 will be a day of culture for all, with free entrance to the Museum of the Palazzo Vecchio Museum (10am-3pm), the Bardini Museum and Novecento Museum (both 3-8pm). In terms of music, singer-songwriter Irene Grandi will perform in the Palazzo Vecchio’s Salone dei Cinquecento and Zubin Mehta will conduct the orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino opera house in the Duomo.

St. John the Baptist (San Giovanni) is Florence’s patron saint. He was beheaded around the year 30 CE, having been a preacher and religious leader during Jesus’ lifetime. Baptism rituals in the Jordan River were an important part of his ministry. St John’s birthday is celebrated on June 24 in many churches.

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Images of St John the Baptist often depict him wearing a camel-skin robe and with a cross and a lamb. He is often shown baptizing people, particularly Jesus. Below is Giotto’s imagining of the event:

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It is believed that the Cathedral of San Lorenzo in Genoa keeps relics such as John the Baptist’s ashes.  Florence’s cathedral also is said to own some of his relics.

On my recent visit to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, I happened upon this interesting fresco which shows the celebration of St. John in the 1500s.  I guess this fireworks tradition is truly an old tradition.

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So why is St. John the patron saint of Florence?
Well, it happened so long ago we really can’t know for sure, but there are some theories. After their conversion to Christianity (yes, that is how long ago we are talking), the Roman Florentines selected the patron saint that correlated to their original pagan patron, the god Mars.

To make conversion easier, Christians came up with a clever way of associating certain saints with a Roman counterpart.

St. John must have seemed pretty rugged, hanging out in the desert with his hairy undergarment, so maybe that’s why he got matched up with the God of War.

According to tradition, the new Christians then re-founded their main temple to Mars, what we now call the Baptistery, as a church to St. John. The dating is problematic, but we won’t get into that now. Let’s just note that Dante called the building the “beautiful San Giovanni.”

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After the mid-13th century, St. John even decorated one half of the new Florentine coin, the florin.

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It is understandable, then, that the feast day of Saint John has been celebrated in Florence from the Middle Ages and on. Traditionally, this holiday included festivities that lasted for as many as three days, corresponding to the European celebration of the Summer Solstice, which typically falls on June 21 – June 24th. Contemporary celebrations, however, tend to be condensed into one day.

So, every year on June 24th, –at least prior to Covid 19– the saint’s feast day, Florence (along with a few other pro-John cities) celebrates the feast of this great patron. The now single-day festival begins with a historic parade, which starts at Piazza Signoria and continues to the Baptistery, with an offering of candles for the Saint in his most sacred house. After the parade, there is a mass, which includes a public showing of the Saint’s relics (an event that only occurs on that day and hence is very holy).

June 24th ends with a traditional fireworks display in Piazzale Michelangelo. Crowds gather around the Arno for the best view of the hill and there is a general sense of merriment all around. These fireworks, called fuochi di San Giovanni, are pretty big and visible from quite a few spots along the water. It is a good show and a great end to a gorgeous summer day full of fun, parades, and costumes.

High water marks

The famous Arno city of Florence has been plagued with floods for centuries.  Walking through the city, you will find many plaques on buildings, showing you the heights the water reached.  It is sobering, to say the least.

On the front of the Pazzi Chapel, to the far left side, two high water marks point out the incredible heights reached in 2 remarkable years.

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See those 2 small white rectangles on the left of the pilaster?  Those mark the flood heights.

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Zeroing in…

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Zeroed in:  you can see the 1966 flood reached the highest level marked.  The lower one (which is still pretty high!) is from 1557 if my reading of the Roman numerals is correct.  The time spans in Italy will always blow my mind!

 

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La Foce

La Foce, or “the mouth” of the Orcia river, in the beautiful Val d’Orcia, Toscana.  If there is a more beautiful place on earth, I’ve yet to find it.

Created by Iris Origo and her husband, this incredible formal Italian garden is set amidst the rugged Crete senesi.  This was my second visit, but I know there will be more visits in the future.  Last time I was there, it was late summer and the earth and foliage was rather brown. This time, after the rains we have been getting, it was vibrantly green.  It is beautiful in any season.

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https://www.lafoce.com/it/

 

Inside the Upper Church in the Russian Orthodox Church of Florence

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A recent visit to this beautiful church in Florence led me to write posts on the exterior and the interior of the lower church.  Today I want to focus on the upper church.

You climb the stairs outside the front door of the church, and enter the upper church through this lovely stained glass and iron work door.

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Walking through the door pictured above, I entered the upper church and my immediate thought was “more is certainly more.” I don’t think there is one square inch that is not decorated in this sacred space.

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Even the pavement was quite interesting.  The entire upper church has the feeling of the arts and crafts movement.

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While the consecration of the lower church took place on October 2, 1902, the upper church was not completed because of problems with insufficient funds.

A generous contribution from Princess Elena Petrovna Demidoff of San Donato saved the day and the upper church was consecrated on time, on October 28, 1903. Aside from the Russian locals, Russian diplomats and Orthodox clergy from Rome and Nice, where Preobrazhensky would also design the Orthodox cathedral, an admiral, the captain and the crew of the Russian battleship “Ossljabja,” then in dry dock in La Spezia, joined the celebrations.