Back to Rome for a hot minute: Triumphs and Laments

William Kentridge: Triumphs and Laments, Rome


Last month I had the great pleasure of staying in Rome for a few weeks.  I’ve lived in Rome in years past and, like so many others, have a great affection for the Eternal City.  The city has had its ups and downs, but still has great capacity to beguile.

As is well-known, Rome is suffering under mammoth financial and organizational problems; what is less well known but, quite interesting and inspiring, is how some non-profit organizations have stepped in with armies of volunteers to make a difference in the city.

One instantly noticed area of neglect has always been the banks of the Tiber. While for decades city officials have promised to clean up the river’s banks, little to nothing has been done over the years.  That’s until some volunteers stepped in.


As a result of their work, one of the best new things in Rome is the street art, or I guess I should say the river art, along sections of the Tiber: Kentridge’s Triumphs and Laments. Great stretches of the riverfront walkways that abut the high travertine embankments built after disastrous flooding in 1870 have been covered with images from local–and thereby world–history.



As Rome’s largest contemporary art work, it was unveiled last year with great festivities. Launched by a local non-profit organization, the Tevereterno Onlus, the mission of Tevereterno is to reactivate the Tiber in the heart of Rome. It’s a multidisciplinary cultural organization, dedicated to the site-specific contemporary art on Rome’s urban riverfront, called Piazza Tevere. Overcoming years of administrative opposition and bureaucratic hurdles, the Italian culture minister and others finally gave the green light to the project.


Along a 500-yard stretch of the river’s embankment now appear an incongruous procession of historical characters depicting a series of “Triumphs and Laments,” culled from Rome’s history.

The figures were created using gigantic stencils and power-washing to erase layers of smog, soot and biological patina on the embankment — a process sometimes known as reverse graffiti — to produce beauty from grime.


The ancient statesman Cicero, St. Peter and the she-wolf who nurtured Romulus and Remus are among the dozens of figures, drawn from iconic sculptures, photographs and monuments, along with Bernini’s statue of St. Teresa in ecstasy.

There are celebrities: Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni from “Dolce Vita” days. And then there are the unknown and anonymous: three women who are the nameless widows of countless migrants who have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean into Italy.

The artist, William Kentridge, discussed his work: “There’s no specific narrative, except that everyone’s triumphs and glories is someone else’s laments and shamefulness.”



You can read about Kentridge, a South African political artist, here:

You can view the project fully here:

And you can read more about it here:

Palazzo Strozzi: an incredible, historic building now repurposed as a superb exhibition space

The Palazzo Strozzi is a superb example of Renaissance civil noble residential architecture in the historic center of Florence.  And it has been repurposed to delightful service of the modern world.



Today the palace is used for temporary international expositions, like the one I viewed yesterday, devoted to Bill Viola.




Before looking at the exhibition, let’s discuss the incredible building:

Filippo Strozzi the Elder (1428 – 1491), the banker and statesman, commissioned the structure after his return to Florence in November of 1466.


As a major Medici rival, Strozzi wanted to build the most magnificent home in the city to assert his family’s prominence.  The palace may as well have been intended as a political statement of his own status.  Based on the wishes of Strozzi himself, the palazzo would be built to look like a small fortress in the heart of the city.

The palace was begun in 1489 and designed by Benedetto da Maiano.


The Strozzi palace was clearly inspired by the Palazzo Medici, with its rusticated stone exterior, but it is much larger and has more harmonious proportions than its predecessor.  Whereas the Palazzo Medici was sited on a corner lot and thus has only two main sides, the Stozzi is surrounded on all four sides by streets. The Strozzi palace faces the historical  and fashionable Via de’ Tornabuoni, as well as the Piazza Strozzi and on Via Strozzi. The building thus required three imposing entranceways, each flanked by rectangular windows. The Strozzi family’s coat of arms is found in the upper floors.

The siting of the Strozzi in the center major streets provided the challenge of how to integrate a cross-axis in keeping with the Renaissance desire for strict internal symmetry.  As a result, the ground plan of Palazzo Strozzi is rigorously symmetrical on its two axes.

The Strozzi family acquired a great number of buildings in this area were acquired during the 70s and demolished them all to to provide enough space for his new home.

The original architect, Benedetto da Maiano, died in 1497; Simone del Pollaiolo (il Cronaca) took over and was responsible for the completion of the palace. Pollaiolo died in Florence in 1508, but is credited with the design and finish of the central courtyard or cortile, surrounded by an arcade inspired by Michelozzo.

The external facade is adnorned with splendid torch holders, flag holders and rings to tie horses made by Niccolò di Nofri, an iron-worker known as il Caparra.

Unfortunately, Filippo Strozzi died in 1491, long before the construction’s completion in 1538.  Strozzi’s children were the first to live in the palazzo, moving in around 1505.  Ironically, Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici confiscated the palazzo in the same year, not returning it to the Strozzi family until thirty years later.

The palazzo remained the seat of the Strozzi family. Although the family lived in Rome for centuries, the palazzo was returned to its original splendour in the mid-1800s with the Princess Antonietta, and then with Prince Piero, who, from 1886 to 1889, had the building renovated by architect Pietro Berti.  In 1937 the family sold the building to the Istituto Nazionale delle Assicurazioni, and many changes were made to the edifice.  It was later given to the city of Florence in 1999. It is now home to the Institute of Humanist Studies and to the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi.

Since July 2006, the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi has been able to create a rich and innovative calendar of events and exhibits, in these areas of the building: Piano Nobile, la Strozzina and Il Cortile.

The Gabinetto G.P. Viesseux and the Renaissance Studies Institute both have also occupied the building since 1940.  Here also is the seat of the Istituto Nazionale del Rinascimento and the noted Gabinetto Vieusseux, with a library and reading room.

Today the palace is used for temporary international expositions like the now-annual antique show, founded as the Biennale dell’Antiquariato in 1959, fashion shows and other cultural and artistic events.





Allora, on to Bill Viola and his video art.

In the exhibition “Electric Renaissance,” Viola seems to have taken certain Renaissance masterpieces and created video dialogues with them.  I would say he is tremendously fortunate to have been able to borrow the original Italian artworks and, even if you don’t love Viola’s work, you will be rewarded with a small, select group of historic masterworks.  For example:

Here’s his dialogue between his video of 3 contemporary women greeting each other, in relationship to Pontormo’s



IMG_3758  IMG_3757


Other installations stand on their own.  This screen is about 200 feet long by 15 feet high.








Summer reading.

I know, the calendar hasn’t officially cleared summer for take off.  But, as I write this in Florence on Saturday evening at 6:30 p.m., the temperature is 91 degrees F.  Summer has arrived, secondo me. If it gets much hotter than this, I may have to move way way up north to Scotland.

Keeping cool for me requires a lot of good reading material.  My latest enjoyment has been found in this great non-fiction tome, filled with art intrigue, a connection between Italy and the US, and historical context of the 1960s and 1970s.  A fun book to read, and not just for art historians, I promise!




The Boston Raphael: A Mysterious Painting, an Embattled Museum in an Era of Change & A Daughter’s Search for the Truth by Belinda Rathbone

Great summer reading.

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: and  .



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  .



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.