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.

 

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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.

 

 

Beautiful Siena.

 

 

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Siena still seems one of the blessed places of the Earth, a town whose beauty alone might justify the claim inscribed on the Camollia Gate:  – ‘Siena opens her heart wide to you’. From the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, the three terzi (districts) spread along the town’s three curving ridges, their harmonious buildings constructed in the bricks of that warm hue known to artists as ‘burnt sienna’. In the prosperous years before the Black Death, ‘the city of the Virgin’, as it was called, had a population of over 50,000 in addition to another 50,000 in its contado, the country districts and small towns it controlled to its south and west. By the time of Lorenzetti’s frescoes, Siena had added Grosseto and Massa Marittima to its domains.

By the 1330s Florence had twice as many inhabitants as Siena, yet it was at this time that the smaller city, already possessor of the striking zebra-striped cathedral we see today, decided to erect the largest church in Christendom. The project was halted by the Black Death, which killed half the town’s population, and was abandoned soon afterwards, but some of its pillars and arches still stand as testament to monumental ambition. The existing cathedral, which is pretty large itself, would have become merely the transept of the greater glory. Siena’s rulers, whom their subjects might

Gilmour, David (2011-10-25). The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples (Kindle Locations 1226-1230). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

 

Il Palio, Part 2

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A poster for the Palio 2010

After posting the blog post from on the Siena Palio, I am inspired to add from my personal recollections of the race.  I was incredibly fortunate to attend a Palio in the early 1990s.

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My Italian boyfriend said the Palio was not to be missed and he made a lot of special arrangements for my first experience. He was assolutamente right–it was not to be missed!

We drove to Siena that day from his home in Assisi.  He had used his contacts so we could watch the race from a balcony window to the left of the Palazzo Publico and I prepared to be amazed.  I was indeed!

It was an unbelievable thrill to be a part of the living history of the Palio.  We stood outdoors on the balcony on a warm sunny Italian pomeriggio with a perfect view of the entire race.  It was an incredible experience to be there.

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My favorite part of the day of the race was the banner guard that circled the race track prior to the race.  Each contrada enters their own people wearing their own contrada colors.  It felt like I had time traveled back to the Italian Renaissance.

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I grew up with a horse-loving father and we not only rode horses but attended rodeos almost every summer Sunday.  I even competed in some of the events.  Sadly for my father, I am not a lover of risk-taking horseback riding, either to do or to watch.  Because of that, it was hard for me to watch certain parts of the Palio, for the race is still brutal even though it is much less so than it was during its early centuries; horses and riders careen into the temporary walls set up all around the periphery and riders fall off horses and get trampled.  It is all very chancy. You can see it in this video:

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After the event was over, we ran around all the side streets in all the contrade (neighborhoods of old Siena), which were filled to overflowing with rabid fans (think American super bowl fan fanaticism)

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all wearing their contrada colors.

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Streets decked in the contrada flag

Each contrada maintains a museum of sorts with all sorts of paraphernalia from years past.  These museums are typically only open on the day of Palio, so it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see not only the race, but the museums as well.

Siena split into contrade, with colours and flags

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Contrada flags

The one aspect of the Palio that absolutely blew my mind is that the winning horse is brought into the Siena Cathedral! The secular and divine come together in patrioticism.

The contrade parade out of the Duomo

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Blessing in the Duomo, August 2010

Somehow I just never thought I would live to see the day when I’d see a horse in a magnificent Italian cathedral!!  But that was before I knew Italy at all!

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Here are some more fun shots of the hysteria surrounding this annual event in Tuscany!

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Contradaioli friends

Contradaioli battle for a place on the barricades

The Palio atop the

The horses are brought into the Campo by their stablemen

A horse with its stableman

The Palio dell'Assunta, Siena, August 2010

No ordinary horserace: the Palio in Siena. Part 1

DreamDiscoverItalia

As the horses and their bare-back riders line up against the starting rope in Piazza del Campo, you can almost taste the anxiety, agitation and adrenaline, rising up from the 40,000-strong crowd. The last few weeks, months and years of planning have all led to this moment. And the next one and half minutes will decide the happiness of one of Siena’s contrade for the year to come and even beyond. This is the legendary Palio di Siena horse race and it’s a spectacle not to be missed!

The Palio dell'Assunta, Siena 2010 The Palio dell’Assunta, Siena 2010

The Palio is a piece of living history. The tradition of horse racing in Italy goes back to Ancient Roman days when a pallium, or precious piece of material, was awarded to the winner. In medieval times, the Senese people held races called palii alla lunga through the city streets, with the winner being the first bull…

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Siena. Contrada life.

Another first-rate post on one of my favorite subjects!

DreamDiscoverItalia

Paris has its arrondissements, New York has its blocks, and Siena has its contradas. But a contrada, or district, is not just a geographic designation within the city’s historic walls, it is much, much more serious than that. It is life itself.

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The UNESCO heritage city of Siena will host the second of her annual Palio horse races this weekend, on Saturday 16th August, but before we can delve into the history of the race, we first need to understand what a contrada is and why passions run so high at the Palio.

The Palio of Siena The Palio of Siena

Siena is divided into three main parts, called the terzi, or thirds. These are Terzo di Camollia, Terzo di Città and Terzo di San Martino. These are then divided further into the 17 contradas, or to be more correct contrade (Italian plural), that sit proudly within the medieval walls. The contrade…

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