Un bello palazzo, Firenze

There’s a gorgeous, small (relatively speaking) palazzo across the street from il Duomo, and I walk by it almost daily. I always admire it.



This lovely palazzo is often overlooked;  it loses attention because it faces the Piazza del Duomo, where it is overshadowed by the razzle-dazzle of the cathedral complex.



October is a beautiful month in Firenze, the days are bright and sunny, the evenings are fresh and cool, and the crowds are much diminished.  The latter is the best factor of all!



The October sunshine shone brightly on this palazzo recently, making all of its delicate decorative features stand out in strong relief.


It is definitely work while to stop and take notice of the lovely features of this bello palazzo.

Living atop Florence!

You may look at the photo below and think, that’s not the best shot of Giotto’s Campanile that she’s posted recently.


And you’d be right!  It isn’t!  But, what I’m trying to focus on is the terra cotta chimney topper on the chimney in the middle of the picture.  See it?


This thing.  I’m talking about this chimney topper of 3 upside down V’s.

What I’ve noticed about living up high above historic Florence is that there are all manner of interesting and artistic chimney toppers.  I love looking at them.

For example, there’s also this one:


I know, you’re probably looking at the Duomo dome.  But I’m focusing right now on this thing:


It’s another cool terra cotta chimney topper and it looks like a little Roman temple!

Then there’s this:


I’m sure that by now your eye is trained and you can focus right on the chimney topper.  This one looks like a little barn with a rolled top.

I’ve yet to see any two chimney toppers alike!



I mean, just look at all the types in any one view!  It’s rather amazing.


And then I start noticing how people up at this level like to decorate their terraces.  Check out the line of matching ceramic pots in the picture above.  See them?


There.  You got it!




Terre cotte di Impruneta, the world’s finest

Let’s start with a picture that summarizes Italian summer to me:


I love Italian geraniums!

But, I digressed!


Okay, so today a friend and I took a beautiful little jaunt through warm and very green Chianti, just outside of Florence to the little village of Impruneta. Impruneta is famed for its proprietorial production of what may well be the world’s finest quality terre cotte.  To me, it is just that.

And the most beautiful.



It is said that the world’s finest terracotta planters come from Impruneta, this small village nestled in the Tuscan hills a few kilometers from Florence, Italy.  Blessed with land that is naturally rich in iron, copper, calcium, and aluminum, the town has been well known for its exceptional quality terracotta and craftsmanship for centuries. Hard gray earth is mined from the surrounding hills, ground to a powder, and mixed with water to make this coarse bodied clay. It develops its renowned pale, terracotta color after the firing process and is able to withstand extreme temperatures.  Terracotta from Impruneta is frost resistant to -22°F. This, along with the hand of a skilled artisan makes the Impruneta collection the absolute best available.


Classic Impruneta Italian terra cotta planters have held their aesthetic value for generations and aren’t showing any signs of slowing down.

DSC_0171If the term terracotta conjures up images of stacks of dusty orange common clay nursery pots, you’ve probably never experienced the subdued beauty of Italian terracotta from the regions of Impruneta or Siena.



The rich earth in these beautiful Italian towns near Florence boasts an extremely high mineral content which is exceptionally high in iron, calcium, aluminum and copper.  The Impruneta clay is so revered that only seven potters are licensed by the Italian government to use the name on their wares.

The first factor is the type of clay that is used. Impruneta clay is found only by the river Arno near Florence and has been useDSC_0156d to make pottery for at least the last ten centuries.

In addition to the minerals, this gray clay contains particles of sandstone which give it a special strength and texture. This robust mixture makes the resulting pottery incredibly strong in the same way that adding gravel to a concrete mix binds it together to create a more durable finished product.

The pottery is then fired at over 1000 degrees for 36 hours and cooled in the kiln for another 70 hours (terra cotta =  cooked earth). The result is a beautiful soft rosy color not found anywhere else in the world.

The second factor is how the Impruneta pots are created.  There are several techniques employed, all of them labor-intensive.   One method is to hand-apply the clay, pounding it over an inverted form which shapes the clay to the desired form and size. This is then smoothed and decorated.

Another method is to hand-pack the clay into plaster cases, a technique perfected hundreds of years ago.

Even larger pots are often made free-form entirely by hand.  After the bowl or basin of the pot is created, the rim is applied by hand.

It’s easy to tell a handmade pot–when you run your haDSC_0159nd under the rim there is a deep relief where you can fit your fingers.  Machine-made or cast-formed pots have a flat, less dimensional rim with no overhang.


When the artist is satisfied with the
appearance of the pot, it is then fired as previously mentioned.  This results in an extremely strong pot with great structural integrity.  Designs are actually molded into the pot and become an integral part of the structure instead of being “applied” as an afterthought.

Another great way to identify one of these Tuscan masterpieces is by giving it a sharp rap with your knuckles.  The resulting clear, sharp peal of a bell signifies that you indeed are in the presence of one of these amazing pots – high fired with no cracks.

Impruneta terracotta ornaments have classic good looks that9390-1 serve as the perfect counterpoint to a wide variety of flowers and foliage.  Florentine gardens are replete with Imprunetta pottery, as is the Vatican.  In the USA, the Biltmore Estate has several large Impruneta pots that have graced their gardens since the 1800s.

Imagine how tough it was to import these from Italy more than 200 years ago.   These are some rugged beauties that were able to survive that journey.

Another spot in the US in which you may have seen Impruneta terracotta is at the New York Botanical Gardens.  They chose large classic rolled rim pots to showcase their gorgeous specimens of lemon trees.

These planters will last more than a lifetime with proper care.  They’re extremely hardy and can be left outside to weather in areas where frost is expected (but nothing lower) without fear, but it is  imperative to make sure the pot is lifted off the ground and that the drainage hole is unobstructed so water has the ability to drain freely.

clay_boyThe use of clay to produce both models and finished sculpture has been important to Italian artists such as Donatello and Luca della Robbia since the early 15th century. They took advantage of the special clay found in the area and consequently helped make Florence an important center for Italian art. Still today you occasionally find beautiful, classical statues with graceful figures and lovely faces sculpted in the distinctive rose pink clay of Impruneta.







Before I talk about the two pottery businesses I visited today, let me note the use of terra cotta in Impruneta.  It’s everywhere!  House number plates are terra cotta.  Mail boxes are terra cotta. Door bells are surrounded by terra cotta plates.  Local altars are terra cotta.


Of course window gardens, even those of cactus, are in terra cotta containers.



Many homes enjoy a terra cotta lion guarding the gate.


Sidewalks, stair treads, balustrades are all of terra cotta.


Close to the center of the sweet little village are two businesses within a easy walk. The first we visited was Corsiani Impruneta Terrecotte srcs on Via di Cappello.  You can visit this business virtually on their websites:  www.terrecottecorsiani.it and www.imprunetaterrecotte.it  .



The proprietor could not have been nicer or more welcoming to us, showing us a large hand-formed vessel he was making as well as the furnace in which the pots are fired.





Here’s a look at Corsiani’s vast array of products.



We next walked to another pottery: Antica Furnace Mariani M.I.T.A.L., sas, which you can also visit virtually at www.terrecottemital.it  .



Another vast yard, full of terra cotta treasures, awaits your visit!  But first, a hydrangea growing in a large vessel.


The containers produced by this pottery seem infinite, though of course I exaggerate.  I think you can get a sense of why: as a gardener and an art historian, I was almost hyperventilating from the choices available here!



In addition to garden vessels, this pottery also makes fabulous terra cotta reproductions of some famous art works.




A likeness of Cosimo I among the oleander blossoms.



There is literally something for everyone at this pottery.

My favorite items were some reproductions of famous artworks in nearby Florence:

Dontatello’s David:



Luca della Robbia:



Desiderio di Settignano:



And other Florentine notables:



And then there was the kitch!  The human-sized Eiffel Tower!



The human-sized Leaning Tower of Pisa:



Venice’s Rialto Bridge:



And, if you are going to do a bridge, you’ve got to do the Ponte Vecchio!  Certo!



Tremendously practical items were made of terra cotta, as in this downspout:



And unusual decorative items such as a fireplace surround, in terra cotta of course:



We had time to return to the center of the sweet, small piazza where we had a nice pranzo while gazing at the town’s main church.




You knew I would soon veer to art, didn’t you?

Oranges and Italian art:

Because of a combination of new artistic techniques and some apparently reasonable, but mistaken, assumptions about the history of citrus, oranges appeared frequently in paintings by any number of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance.

In making the break from Byzantine scholasticism to the new humanism of the Renaissance, artists began setting their religious figures against naturalistic backgrounds. Not having seen the Holy Land, they glibly set their Annunciations and Resurrections in Italian villas and on Italian hills.

Crusaders, among others, had long since reported that orange trees flourished in Palestine, so, as a kind of hallmark of authenticity, the painters slipped orange trees into masterpiece after masterpiece, remaining ignorant to their deaths that in the time of Christ there were no orange trees in or near the Holy Land.

In his “Maestà,” the Sienese painter Duccio di Buoninsegna showed Jesus entering Jerusalem through the streets of Siena, past orange trees in full fruit.

Fra Angelico painted Jesus resting under an orange tree.

It was almost unthinkable for a great master to do a “Flight into Egypt” without lining the route with orange trees.

A “Last Supper” was incomplete without oranges on the table, although there is no mention of oranges in the Bible.

Titian’s “Last Supper,” which hangs in the Escorial, shows oranges with fish.

A Domenico Ghirlandaio “Last Supper” goes further: a mature orange grove is depicted in murals behind the Disciples.

The deterioration of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” has been too extensive for any oranges in it to be identified, but in all likelihood, according to Tolkowsky, they were there.

Most painters thought of the Annunciation as occurring indoors, and Paolo Veronese, for one, moved orange trees indoors to authenticate the scene, setting the plants in trapezoidal pots, of the type in which orange trees were grown in his time in northern Italy.

Fra Angelico also used orange trees to give a sense of the Holy Land to his “Descent from the Cross,” which was otherwise set against the walls of Florence, and, like many of his contemporaries, when he painted the Garden of Eden he gave it the appearance of a citrus grove.

Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes in a family chapel of the Medici show Melchior, Balthasar, and Gaspar looking less like three wise kings from the East than three well-fed Medici, descending a hill that is identifiable as one near Fiesole, dressed as an Italian hunting party, and passing through stands of orange trees bright with fruit.

Actually, Gozzoli’s models for the magi were Lorenzo de’ Medici; Joseph, Patriarch of Constantinople; and John Palaeologus, Emperor of the East.



The orange tree was more than a misplaced landmark. It was also a symbol of the Virgin, erroneously derived from an earlier association that medieval theologians had established between Mary and the tall cedars of Lebanon.

Thus, countless paintings of the Madonna or of the Madonna and Child were garlanded with orange blossoms, decorated with oranges, or placed in a setting of orange trees.

Mantegna, Verrochio, Ghirlandaio, Correggio, and Fra Angelico all complemented their Madonnas with oranges.

Sandro Botticelli, in his “Madonna with Child and Angels,” set his scene under a tentlike canopy thickly overhung with the branches of orange trees full of oranges.

In the Neo-Latin of the Renaissance, oranges were sometimes called medici— an etymological development that had begun with the Greek word for citron, or Median apple.

It is no wonder, therefore, that in art and interior decoration the Medici themselves went in heavily for oranges. In Florence, oranges are painted all over the ceilings of the Medici’s Pitti Palace.

The Grand Duke Francesco de’ Medici was one of the world’s earliest collectors of citrus trees, and in Tolkowsky’s view the five red spheres on the Medici coat of arms were almost certainly meant to represent oranges.

When Botticelli painted his “Primavera,” under a commission from the family, he shamelessly included Giuliano de’ Medici as the god Mercury, picking oranges.

Botticelli also painted his “Birth of Venus” for the Medici.

It was Venus, and not the Hesperides, according to a legend current at the time, who had brought oranges to Italy.

Botticelli’s model was Simonetta dei Cattanei, wife of Marco Vespucci and Giuliano de’ Medici’s Platonic love. Simonetta came from Porto Venere, where Venus was alleged to have landed with the original oranges, so Botticelli painted her in the celebrated scallop shell bobbing on the gentle swells off Porto Venere, and lined the coast behind her with orange trees.

Giuliano’s son, Giulio de’ Medici, who became Pope Clement VII, commissioned Raphael to design a villa for him with a great double stairway leading to a sunken garden full of orange trees.

All this was bound to engage the envy of royalty in the north, and at the end of the fifteenth century, in an expedition often said to mark the dividing point between medieval and modern history, Charles VIII of France went to Italy intending to subdue the peninsula by force of arms. Instead, he fell in love with Italian art, architecture, and oranges. When he returned to France, every other man in his retinue was an Italian gardener, an Italian artist, or an Italian architect. Charles was going to transform the castles and gardens of France.

McPhee, John (2011-04-01). Oranges. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.