Grand Tour photo albums, a travel souvenir

If you were a young, aristocratic European man in the late 18th through 19th centuries, you might well have taken a Grand Tour.  After finishing your formal education, you would take a kind of gap year (or year and a half), traveling to and through the finest European capitals, including, in Italy, cities such as Venice, Milan, Florence, Rome and Naples.


You might have asked Alinari Brothers or another similar firm to create an album for you, comprised of their photographs of your favorite places. The Fratelli Alinari archives in Florence have many of these albums in their archives, and I had the opportunity to look at one of them from 1874.

It begins with a hand-tooled red leather cover.  The book measures roughly 20 x 30 inches.





The Frontispiece reveals that this album was created in Naples, by the Giorgio Sommer firm.



This particular album begins with photographs of Torino, Milano, and Venice, as here:



This album then moves to Firenze, and here are 3 images from this section of the book:





Next, the book moves on visually to Rome.  Here is a picture of oxen pulling carts through the Roman forum.



Then it was on to Naples.  The following is a picture of Mt. Vesuvius erupting in 1872.


I could (and will) spend hours looking through these albums!

According to my guide at the Alinari archives, an album like this would have cost a young gentleman about $1500 in today’s money.


The (almost) unknown Florentine museum attached to the refectory of San Michele a San Salvi

Yesterday I posted about Andrea del Sarto’s Last Supper in Florence.  Attached to the same building is a small but fine museum of 15th and 16th century art, in addition to the main event of the Last Supper.


I might lose my membership in the world of art historians because while I took pictures of a few of the artworks that grabbed my attention in this smallish museum, I didn’t take adequate pictures (or, god forbid, hand-written notes) of the labels that identify the artist.  From the depths of my heart, I apologize.  It was a hot, hot, hot day in Florence and I simply failed to live up to my creed. :-)



But this odd painting certainly did grab my attention!  It is, I assume, a vision of Saint Mary in heaven, bestowing a string of pearls? beads? to someone below her on earth, I would guess?

Anyway, what I liked is the bodiless angels floating around Mary in the shape of a mandorla (almond).  Their heads and wings are kind of creepy, floating as they do around Mary.


And, speaking of being surrounded by cherubim and seraphim, look at this oil painting!


Again, I would be fired as a curator, but I don’t know who painted this work. (But I know where the label is if I need the info; it’s right beside the painting for goodness sake! My art historical training is playing out in this post, as a kind of Catholic guilt.  I am smiling as I write this silly thing.)

But, check out the multitudes surrounding Christ on the cross, above whom is God the Father, and below is Mary and 2 others.


But, as entertaining to me as the 2 works above were, the one that really gave me a jolt was this:



It represents, of course, the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriele tells the Virgin Mary that she will bear the Son of God.  I’ve seen thousands of renditions of this scene, which one of the most hopeful moments in Christian art.

But, what I have never seen before is Gabriel standing on 2 little clouds, one for each foot, that makes it look like he is hover-boarding up to Mary!


Crazy funny to me!

There are many fine works of painting and some sculpture in this fine museum.


Vai!  You’ll be glad you did!

How to beat the heat & crowds in Florence & have a major Renaissance painting all to yourself

I don’t usually give this kind of advice or information.

Typically I write my impressions of places I visit, without giving away too much info, mainly because Florence is so heavily visited and information is easily obtainable.

But today I will share a secret. It is good for any time of year, but in summer, it serves 2 purposes.  You will be in peace, perhaps even alone, and you can appreciate an under-known masterwork by a well-known artist.



So, let’s say it’s over 90 degrees F.; you are in Florence; you love Renaissance art; you’ve visited all of the usual venues (museums/churches/artworks); and you’ve had it up to your eyebrows with the swarms of tourists that engulf this city.  What to do?


Head yourself over to an empty, cool, beautiful former refectory on the east end of Florence.  It’s easy to get to by taxi or by bus and when you get there you will probably be alone, like I was last week, in the space.


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This church of San Michele a San Salvi is one of the most important ancient churches located outside Florence’s (former) circle of medieval walls. The adjacent Cenacle of San Salvi is a real hidden gem of the city.

You can find the location on the right side of this Google map screen shot. It is marked with a pin and titled “Cenacolo di Andrea del Sarto.”




(For some reason I am not educated enough to understand, the picture above shows the plaque with a citation from Dante’s Purgatorio, which is placed on a wall near the church’s facade.  If you know why it’s there, please leave me a comment!  Grazie!!)

By traveling to this location, you will be rewarded not only with a coolish tranquility but also with a masterpiece:  Andrea del Sarto’s fresco of The Last Supper (called Cenacoli in Italian), which is as monumental as it is beautiful.

You walk into this calm typically Tuscan space (pale walls, red floor, accents of gray pietra serena stone) and this is what you see.  For me, this is where my blood pressure begins to regulate; soon I will be lost in the experience of the painting.


This relatively unknown jewel of the art of fresco was lovingly described by none other than the world’s first true art historian, Giorgio Vasari. About it he said: “Andrea del Sarto, the flawless painter, is the author of the Last Supper kept in the Great Refectory of the San Salvi convent. [The fresco has] endless majesty with its absolute grace of all the painted figures.”

Here are some details of the glorious painting:


I simply adore this casual slice of everyday Florentine life captured by Andrea del Sarto in the top of the lunette over the last supper.  One man appears to just be hanging out on a balcony over the people eating, while the other, possibly a server for the dinner, seems to be walking away.



Not pictured here, but to the right and left of the room, along the walls in glass topped cases, are many sketches for the fresco by Andrea del Sarto.  It is a rare opportunity to see sketches by an artist from this period.  And, to see them in conjunction with the final work is an extraordinary opportunity.



Notice in the picture above, Andrea del Sarto’s treatment of the Trinity.  A 3-faced head shot of sorts.

Who knows!? You might be as lucky as I was and have the place all to your self on the middle of a Saturday in July.  This is almost unheard of in Firenze!

Just outside the refectory is a fountain where the convent members could wash their hands before entering the refectory to dine.


Utilitarian yet artistic.


Here is some info about the venue:

In and under Orvieto

Above and underground in Orvieto

This past week I have been very lucky to have a very dear friend visiting, and so I’ve been playing a bit more tourist than I normally do in Italy. We wanted to get out of Florence a bit, so we headed to nearby Orvieto, somewhere I have never been, and only about two hours on the regional (slow) train. Orvieto is located on a (very tall) hill, so we took the funicular from the bottom of the hill where the train dropped us off to the old town, and then headed straight for the main piazza del Duomo. We picked up tickets for our main interest first, and while we waited headed into the Duomo. Orvieto’s Duomo is pretty low-key overall, but the chapels are what are most noticeable and they are much more ornate than the rest of the empty-feeling church.


The church is similar in feel to the Duomo in Siena, but as previously noted the chapels here are what are incredibly ornate. One chapel in particular was created for a piece of bloody cloth from when the wafer began to drip with the actual blood of Christ to convince a doubting priest. The cloth and host were taken to the pope, a miracle was declared and the chapel was built where the cloth is enshrined to this day. The majority of the frescos in that chapel were done by Luca Signorelli, and are said to have influenced Michelangelo’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel. The influence is obvious; Signorelli’s figures are incredibly muscular.

After viewing the church we headed from the beautiful city aboveground to under the ground, to the main attraction of Orvieto and what we were most excited to see: the Orvieto underground. During the time of the Etruscans thousands of man-made caves were dug out of the hillside and they are spread throughout the city. I tried to find an example of the map that you can see there, but was unsuccessful, but imagine a small Italian town city map: now draw thousands of red circles all over it and you’ll have an idea of how many caves there were and the reach of them. We took a guided tour in English, and were able to get some backstory on the caves and see them up close and personal.

The caves look pretty much like you would expect– they are caves after all– but what is perhaps most surprising is the temperature drop after you descend even just one level down into the caves. It is so much cooler there, and it is no surprise that the Etruscans used the caves for things such as olive oil making. Below you can see an ancient olive oil press. The straining mat is modern, but something similar would have been used to press the oil out of the olives and prevent pieces of the olives from joining the oil.

IMG_1979The caves were incredibly extensive; we felt we had seen so much, but in reality we only covered two tiny circles on the map of thousands. At one point our guide pointed out that while it seemed we had covered a lot of ground, it had all been vertical, and there certainly were a lot of stairs– this was not a tour for those who can’t do stairs– or the claustrophobic! The caves were quite spacious, but the tiny staircases and passages between them, not so much.


Many of the rooms in the caves were studded with holes, as you can see in the photograph above. For a long time they believed that these holes had a different purpose, but now archeologists are pretty certain that they were used to raise pigeons, which are actually a pretty common food in Orvieto, one of the things the city is known for (the others being ceramics, Orvieto classico wine from Trebbiano grapes, and olive oil). The pigeons were self-maintaining, because they would fly out the window that was ever-present to eat, and also bring back food for their young. Unlike other animals such as rabbits, people did not have to put in as much effort to raise them.

After some time the caves reached their final hurrah when the people of Orvieto were forbidden from digging out any more caves due to the instability of the area; landslides, thanks to the instability caused by the caves were increasing and there was fear that the entire city might disappear. Now there are spikes driven through the hill to protect the city, but the caves are now an archeological and historical site as opposed to a functional one.

Orvieto, being a hill town, had beautiful views, and we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering and enjoying them before heading back to Florence on the train. Below you can see a convent (I believe) from the hillside where we entered the underground caves.

IMG_1975Orvieto was sacked by the Romans, but the city withstood their attacks for two years thanks to its prime hilltop position: easy to defend. There are walls around the city as well, and facing the train station you can climb atop for the best view of the valley below.

IMG_1984Sometimes living in Florence it’s easy to forget that Italy isn’t really a land of cities. I’m lucky enough to have a view of the hills from my balcony, but visiting a small hill town is a good reminder of what Italian life is really like for most people– in the past, and in the present.


· · in Escapes, Europe, Off the Beaten Track, Out & About. ·