A Roman Zoo

I had meant to conclude the second day of my visit to Rome with a visit to the Galleria Borghese and its marvellous arts collection but instead finished up at the zoo and what’s more almost spent the night there!

My way into Rome’s own version of Paris’ Bois de Boulogne, the Villa Borghese, was via the entrance past the church of the Santissima Trinità dei Monti at the top of the Spanish Steps and the Villa Medici, the place where the winners of the Prix de Rome stayed.

In music alone such famous names as Bizet and Debussy were prize-winners.  (The prix was discontinued after the 1968 riots by the then culture minister Andre Malraux. Thank you very much Andre!)

The villa, a word which in Italian also means the grounds in which the villa is situated, is an enticing mixture of Italian formal avenues and English landscape paths.

The galleria is housed in the fine Villa Borghese Pinciana.

However, my hopes of visiting the collection were dashed as all tickets for that day had been sold and had to be pre-booked anyway. (Also covid protocol means that numbers of visitors are very limited).

I thought of going to the Villa Giulia with its marvellous Etruscan collection but never got there as I came across this portal designed by Armando Brasini.

It’s the entrance to what was once called ‘Giardini Zoologici’ but is now transformed into the ‘Bioparco’ of Rome. It’s the oldest zoological garden in Italy and currently houses over a thousand animals with over two hundred different species.

In 1994 the zoo began to be transformed into a bio park – a structure that conserves animals at risk of extinction, and carries out scientific research with greater respect for animal rights and with environmental education activities.

Here are some of the fauna I saw. Spot the Komodo dragon, the meerkats, Rome’s emblematic wolves, anaconda, Bactrian camels penguins and more.

I was also able to observe Roman families enjoying themselves on an afternoon out in one of the city’s most attractive lungs – on a day which was increasingly and uncomfortably humid.

An announcement warned visitors that the zoo was closing but when I reached the exit it was already locked! I noticed some people outside that had managed to get out and shouted to them ‘Please let me out. I’m not a lion (although I’m born under the sign of Leo…)’. Fortunately I managed to escape via the bio park’s offices which were still open. Actually I wouldn’t have minded spending the night in Rome’s zoo and listen to the serenading of wolves and the squawking of peacocks…provided, of course, that I was not fed to the crocodiles for breakfast!

I returned to my pensione near Campo dei Fiori down the Rome’s own Park Lane, Via Veneto, lined with some of the city’s most luxurious hotels and full of cinematic memories

Rome’s bio park is clearly not the main reason why one would plan a visit to the eternal city. However, it is very well organized and laid out and proves that, in at least one respect, modern inhabitants of the city have evolved from the times when they would gleefully watch savage felines devouring christian martyrs or fighting with gladiators in the Colosseum.

Life’s Illusions

Life is full of illusions. So full, in fact, that life itself may be an illusion. Why is it that some years in our earthly existence seem so much longer than others? Why is it that some people see life as a gloriously positive experience and others bemoan the lugubriousness of reality? Why is that the smallest problems seem huge and the largest ones mere specks?

Happiness is the biggest illusion, of course, and my life has been somewhat tortured to say the least. I never found my beloved or experienced pure joy. I did not have the suave manners and erotic attractions of my contemporary Bernini. I envied him his seductive behaviour and his indubitable talent. However, I am one thing which Gian Lorenzo is not: an architect. He is a sculptor who became a part-time architect while I was born and remain an architect. He based his design on the human body while I worked mine out using geometrical forms. On one thing, however, we did collaborate closely and that was the baldachin that covers the high altar of Saint Peters. At least we did agree on that one. I just wish we could have done more friendly collaborations as so much was happening to add to the golden baroque splendour of my seventeenth century Rome.

I also managed to participate with Bernini in the staircases we built for Cardinal Barberini’s palace. Here is my rival’s effort:

But I think my own solution is rather more adventurous:

Tantalisingly at other times I had my commissions taken over. That was the case with my church of Sant’ Agnese in Agone in Piazza Navona

and so many of my original designs such as Sant’ Andrea della Fratte and San Filippo Neri were maliciously altered. These spurnings and rejections added to my gloomy attitude and even made me think that everyone was against me. Unfortunately, too, my temper often got the better of me: on one occasion, for instance, I almost kicked to death a labourer working on one of my projects because I thought he was spoiling my building material.

My big problem was what would be described in your age as ‘chronic depression’. In ours it was called ‘melancholia’ and we had no Valium pills to take then. Combined with my irascible temper it ruined my life and, indeed, almost got me to take it. I was obsessed by suicide to the point when on a particularly hot summer’s night, unable to sleep and with mosquitos attacking me, I found a sword and fell upon it. Unsuccessfully, however. A neighbour found me in a pool of blood and called the doctor in the nick of time.

There were spells when, feeling threatened by an exterminating angel, I felt unable to step outside my house for weeks. My old servant was so worried that I would starve myself to death; I was apprehensive that they might steal my architectural designs and so one evening I burnt them all.

I never recovered from my sword wound and died not long afterwards. Miraculously, as if God had finally taken pity on me I regained my lucidity of mind, asked forgiveness from the Almighty Father and received my last sacraments. I requested to be buried anonymously in the grave of my teacher and friend, Maderno who was instrumental in changing the design of St Peter’s Basilica from a Greek to a Latin cross.

Anyway, as I already said, it looks to me that life is one big illusion. Not a ‘con’ mind you but a supernatural illusion – a sempiternal cosmic joke if you like where one is led astray by preconceived hallucinations and habitual visions. I placed my own illusions – sometimes they could be better described as disillusions – in my buildings; making smallness become greatness, as in my church San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (now you wouldn’t think that this grand little church could fit into one of the central piers of Saint Peter’s basilica would you?)

or by emulating academic mathematicians at their own game as in my church of Sant’ Ivo built for la Sapienza, Rome’s university and based on measurements derived from the then new branch of Calculus.

Like that English architect, Sir Christopher Wren, I was often challenged by the most awkward sites. How to fit in a building on these sites and make them look full of presence was my constant puzzling delight.

One of the most fun things I did is that galleria you have seen today at the palazzo originally designed by Bartolomeo Baronino but which I modified to the latest taste for Cardinal Bernardino Spada.

You pass into the palace’s courtyard and on your left you see the gallery with a perspective that makes you feel you are going into next door’s garden. Or are you? Of course not! It’s just an illusion.

You’d think that the arcade is around thirty metres long, while in reality it is less than nine. With the help of my mathematician friend Father Giovanni Maria da Bitonto I created a deception where planes converge into a single vanishing point; while the ceiling descends from top to bottom, the mosaic floor rises. At its end there is a statue of a warrior from the Roman era. The sculpture seems full size but is only a yard high and, as for the width of the arch before it – well I’ll get you to work it out with your pocket calculator!

The gallery is also the result of the Cardinal’s interest in games of perspective. Spada clearly attributed to this gallery the meaning of moral deception and the illusion of earthly magnitude. We think we are so powerful and almighty but we are mere puny mortals. Our greatness is a mere illusion just like that statue at the end of my gallery.

By the way, if you are film-lovers (your own contemporary creators of illusions) Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning film ‘La Grande Bellezza’ has the magnificent Borrominian perspective set in one of its scenes.

PS Don’t forget to visit the lovely collection of paintings in the Palace’s first floor.

They include masterpieces by that once rare phenomenon, a female artist, Artemisia Gentileschi who I had the delight of meeting but was never able to capture the love I had wished from her.

I am so glad that the lovely golden tables I remember in the palazzo are being restored too. One has already been finished – two months’ work – and the other is on its way to regaining its original lustre.

Don’t worry about the profusion of carabinieri, grey suited men and large black saloon cars around the Palazzo. Cardinal Spada’s city mansion does, in fact, house Italy’s supreme administrative and judicial body the ‘Consiglio di Stato’ (the state council) which has jurisdiction on acts of all administrative authorities and consists of the President, eighteen section presidents and ninety two councillors of State. I think the cardinal would be delighted to know how important his elegant palazzo has become. I just hope that the council’s policies and results won’t be counted as other illusions to be set along with my little-large galleria…

PS Don’t feel sorry for me: I know I’m now getting my due in architectural history by the academic writers at long last…

Rome: a Low-rise Capital with High Aspirations

What is the most wonderful thing about Rome? Of course, there is her richness of mementoes from past ages: from Etruscan shepherds’ encampment on the Capitol hill to early virtuous Republican times, through dark gothic ages of plagues and invasions and into the golden light of Renaissance and the Baroque when Rome once again reinvented itself and became transformed into majestic splendour.

For me, however, there are two features of this truly eternal city that mean so much.

First, Rome is not a high-rise city. Just look at the archetypal views of the city from the Pincio, from the Spanish steps, indeed from anywhere in the heart of the city. Church spires and domes stand out among domestic buildings. There are no skyscrapers such as one finds in London’s centre disfiguring the cityscape and demolishing the once famous view of the metropolis as painted by Canaletto where Wren’s city church spires rose and stood out from the rest of the buildings and where Saint Paul’s cupola crowned the urban scene.

It’s so unlike today where one is often hard put to get a unobstructed photograph of the Dome – so hemmed is it by recent high rise office blocks (which will soon empty as work-places because of the increase in teleworking). High-rise capitals are sadly proliferating throughout the world making a capital in India look increasingly the same as a capital in Saudi Arabia or Thailand or China or Japan or the USA……. It would be difficult to apply those lines from Wordsworth’s sonnet written on London’s Westminster bridge today:

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

Rather it would have to be re-written as something like this:

Shard, cheese-grater, gherkin, walkie-talkie

Tomb-like stand despotic and so pawky

But Rome is unique: it stands out exactly because it is low-rise. May it ever remain like that!

London capital city:

Rome capital city:

The second feature I love so much about Rome is that one can still walk streets in its heart which have retained their age-old characteristics. These are the areas which escaped that misplaced attempt to give ‘regularity’ and ‘formality’ to the city’s maze of old alleys and streets. After Rome became capital of a united Italy in 1870 there were ‘piani regolatori’ (town planning schemes) put into operation which caused the ploughing of grand boulevards through Rome. Such roads as the Via Nazionale and the Via dei Fori Imperiali are the most prominent examples of this totalitarianistic town-planning. The new Italian rulers wanted to make Rome look like any other big European capital such as Vienna or Paris. Fortunately, much has remained unspoilt and untouched by the ogre of speculative new building such as has regrettably occurred to so much of London (and so many other cities).

People do still live in the centre of Rome! The streets are still cobbled with those square lava stones called San Pietrini (so attractive but so tough if the right shoes aren’t worn). The lanes are shaded from the often torrid summer sun by their narrowness. Rome could, indeed, be described not only as the Eternal City but also as the archetypal Global Village.

Maggior Di Roma non c’e’…

A Prince ‘s Private Collection

So many of of us have our little collections of curios. They could be vintage 1960’s clothes or models of London omnibuses or old vinyl records, for example.

If one is a little richer then collections might include nineteenth century paintings and other art works. If one is very rich then collections could extend to old masters and fine arts. If one is filthy rich then one can make a collection of other people’s collections.

This was certainly the case with Alessandro Torlonia, Prince of Fucino (where he did much good work in improving the peasant’s lot). In addition to his aristocratic inheritance the Prince made a fortune in banking and was able to indulge in his favourite hobby of collecting ancient classical statuary, much of which derived from previous famous collections including those of renaissance nobles and clerics. In his sumptuous Palazzo Albani-Torlonia (not to be confused with the Villa Torlonia, Mussolini’s favourite residence) the prince built up perhaps the world’s greatest private collection of Roman (and some Greek) sculpture: Venuses, sarcophagi, fauns, gods, mythical heroes, vases and urns are all included. The collection is so vast that it accounts for one third of all Rome’s ancient sculptural heritage and is seven times larger than the national museum’s Palazzo Altemps collection.

The Prince’s collection of over six hundred items was visitable (only to academics) upon invitation until around eighty years ago. Then it disappeared from view and legal wrangling with the Italian government’s arts and heritage ministry subsequently started, the latest Prince of Fucino converting one of his palaces into abusive self catering apartments and stuffing the priceless collection higgledy-piggledy in the basement. That is, until now when in the beautifully designed new exhibition space of the Capitoline museum, the adjoining villa Caffarelli, this unique collection may be viewed again, courtesy of Bulgari and other sponsors, until the end of this month.

Around ninety statues have been selected for the show. That’s just a sixth of Torlonia’s collection, but they are all of astounding quality.

Some caveats, however. First, several of the statues have been thoroughly restored, perhaps too thoroughly, as used to be the practice once. Second, the statues are wash-day clean and shining white (apart from some including porphyry and other previous stone) unlike what they would have looked like when originally sculpted in ancient Rome and Africa when they would have been painted in bright, often garish, colours.

The Caffarelli villa has an enviable situation on Rome’s founding hill, the Capitoline, and the views from its terraces are reason enough to visit it.

As for the collection…it’s exquisite and a true thing of beauty. Judge for yourselves from the pictures I took of it yesterday. Do not despair, however, if you have been locked down from it: items from the collection may well go on a world tour in future less infectious times.

Authentic Concerts Return!

There was a time when, according to concert programmes, music began to be played on ‘authentic instruments’. It made one wonder what instruments were used previously; violins made of vinyl, pre-recorded cassettes for clarinets or perhaps balsawood bassoons? ‘Authentic’ has since been superseded by a truly HIPP term: ‘Historically Informed Performance Practise’,

So many of the concerts we have for some time been listening to have, regrettably not even been ‘authentic’. Instead, they have been ‘virtual’. At least, that was something.

For too long this has been the case with that Salzburg musical equivalent south of the Alps, Lucca. Last week, however, I was able to attend a brilliant rendition of Stravinsky’s ‘A Soldier’s Tale’ conducted by Jonathan Brandani, now an internationally respected conductor and someone who was raised in the Lucchesia. Brandani’s youthful performances of Mozart’s da Ponte operas were a highlight at the Montecarlo theatre in 2013 and were covered in my posts at:

and at
and finally:

The Stravinsky concert was held in the ample space of Lucca’s church of San Francesco. Originally the centrepiece of a large convent, which had been reduced to a military depository in the nineteenth century it is now beautifully restored as one of the city’s finest venues, higher education institutes and conference centres.

The inauguration of San Francesco and its transformation into one of Lucca’s major cultural centres is described in my post at:

It was refreshing to be able to attend a truly authentic concert in Lucca instead of those ‘live streams’ which, although lucky to have the technology, are clearly no way near the real thing in terms of atmosphere and acoustics.

Stravinsky’s ‘Soldier’s Tale’, a variant of the Faustian story where a soldier trades his fiddle to the devil in return for unlimited wealth, is set in that dismal year which ended the First World War and saw the Spanish Flu pandemic sweep the world and kill even more millions than the machine-guns, barbed wire, trenches and mud. With its sparse band of seven (socially distanced) instruments, speaker and dancer parts the piece seemed strangely appropriate for our times when another cataclysmic world event drags on….and on.

Immaculately performed under Brandani’s direction the event was an excellent way of stating that the arts will never be put down no matter whatever age can infict upon creativity and hope.

In this respect it is great that Giacomo Brunini, the new director of our own local music school at Borgo a Mozzano (and half of the Brunini-Atzori guitar duo), has announced the following concerts as part of the ‘I Luoghi del Bello e della Cultura’ series which aim to bring visitors to the attention of beautiful and historic locations in our area. (More information on the programmes, performers and times of performances will follow, I am informed:)

27 June – Chiesa di San Francesco a Borgo a Mozzano➡️

1 July – Chiesa di S. Maria Assunta – Rocca➡️

13 July- Chiesa di San Francesco a Borgo a Mozzano➡️

29 July- Chiesa di San Romano➡️

5 August- Piazza della Chiesa di S. Giovanni Battista – Cerreto

Let summer return with a glorious vengeance! Already temperatures here are hitting above thirty degrees centigrade and beaches, mountain footpaths and cool streams are showing increasing signs of bipedal activity (and I don’t mean just ducks, eagles and swallows!)

Poetical Flowers

The Prato Fiorito, that mountain presenting its grim fortress-like appearance in the Lima valley

shows a completely different and gentler look on its northern face.

It’s the difference between a scarp and a dip slope: gone are the steep rock buttresses known as ‘le ravi’ and, instead, a wonderful Elysian field spreads out containing the most varied collection of flora found anywhere in Italy.

Why is the mountain not wooded like so much of the Apennines?  Clearly there was a time when trees covered its slopes. They were felled centuries ago for fuel and construction and the cleared land given over to sheep and goat grazing thus preventing the regeneration of new forests. Instead, the calcareous soil has given birth to hundreds of flower species including some of the rarest orchids.

In May the Prato Fiorito’s slopes are covered with myriads of ‘Narcissus Poeticus’ or the ‘poet’s daffodil’.

It’s a most apt name for not only does it bring to mind the Greek legend of Narcissus and Wordsworth’s lakeside golden host but also Percy Bysshe Shelley’s own visit to the mountain while staying at Bagni di Lucca, which inspired his poem ‘Epipsychidion’ (trans: ‘concerning or about a little soul’) especially those lines beginning.

 Of flowers, which, like lips murmuring in their sleep
Of the sweet kisses which had lulled them there,

(For more of the Shelley connection see my post at


I had meant to go the Prato in mid-May to see the wonderful display of Narcisi but was told that everything was late flowering this year, particularly on the Prato. May was so full of rain that I delayed my visit until yesterday and then it was a little late for the full display which only lasts around a week. It was a slight disappointment, perhaps, but still a gorgeous morning to spend in this paradisiacal place.

As with all lovely things there is a dark side to Narcissus Poeticus – as Shelley’s contemporary Keats writes ‘Ay, in the very temple of Delight Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine’. All daffodil species are poisonous but this one is more poisonous than any other and eating it will give rashes, vomiting and severe headaches. However, just sniffing its perfume remains seductive and in the Netherlands and southern France Narcissus Poeticus is cultivated for its essential oil used in the making of perfumes where it combines the fragrances of jasmine and hyacinth. Two perfumes brands, ‘Fatale’ and ‘Samsara’, are based on this oil.

Recently, Narcissus Poeticus has returned to many gardens as part of the search for heritage horticulture. Its simple form, contrasted with the standard rather showier common daffodil, has produced a hybrid known as ‘Narcissus Actaea’ which has won a Royal Horticultural society award and can be now found in several garden centres such as this one:


Of course, even in Italy there are several mountains brimming over with fancy waves of this beautiful flower in May and June. Monte Linzone in the Bergamo Pre-Alps is famous for its crop of Narcissi and is a favourite excursion spot for those staying in Milan (as I used to do). Monte Croce which is near us, in the Garfagnana, is even called ‘Monte delle Giunchiglie’ (jonquils) and has what many regard as even more spectacular displays of this delicate flower.

You can read my post on Monte Croce at:

Elysium on Earth

And more of the Prato Fiorito at:

A Perfect Shelleyan Day

Narcissus Poeticus has even helped save a heroine and her pet from the depth of Outer Space where ‘no-one can hear you scream’. It was the spacecraft ‘Narcissus’ which enabled Ellen Ripley (acted by Sigourney Weaver) to escape with her cat Jones in that cult film ‘Alien’

and I managed to get off the Prato Fiorito in time yesterday morning before rumbling thunder proclaimed another afternoon of dramatic cosmic storms.

Florentine Facades

There was a time when too many museums in Florence seemed stuck in a time warp: they were becoming museum pieces in themselves. There seemed to be no dynamic curatorship, few up-to-date guides, no provisions for children’s activities, no special events and the same rooms ‘under restoration’ since time immemorial.

The change since we first began visiting Florence in the 1980’s has been remarkable. There is a new awareness, a revaluation of the city’s extraordinary cultural heritage, management has been reorganized, and the introduction of digital technology for matters from bookings to virtual visits has changed everything. Nowhere is this transformation more visible than in the Museo dell’Opera Del Duomo, the museum dedicated to Florence’s cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore. Completely renovated in 2015 it is one of the city’s most spectacular museums.

The entrance is through a spacious hall leading to a passageway with the names of those involved in building the cathedral carved on a wall.

We come face to face with Florence’s cathedral’s greatest treasure, the unfinished Michaelangelo Pietà now being restored. (I wish I could have seen the restorers at work).

We then enter a vast space where the original, uncompleted gothic facade of the Duomo has been reconstructed on a 1 to 1 scale.

A curator told me that this exhibit alone cost half the funds spent on the museum’s refurbishment. It was this facade that was torn down to be replaced, it was hoped, by a newly designed one. For almost four centuries this never occurred until in the nineteenth century there was final agreement on the present frontage as a result of a competition. Although clearly it would have been better if the original design had been completed the present facade is more suitable for a gothic building transitioning into the renaissance than the various abandoned baroque projects.

Why have so many churches in Florence (and, indeed, in Italy – Milan Cathedral’s front was only completed in the nineteenth century, for example) had problems in completing their facades. Of the great churches Santa Maria Novella is the only one with a frontage which was completed during the renaissance when Alberti built upon the uncompleted Romanesque section and finished it off with those graceful volutes which became a hallmark of many subsequent churches.

Santa Croce, the huge Franciscan church, only had its front added in the late nineteenth century. The two great Brunelleschi-designed churches of San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito have no completed facades and Santa Maria del Carmine, with its great Masaccio frescoes, presents a similarly raw frontage.

What was the problem? Perhaps it’s because the facades were the last part of the churches to be built by which time funds could have run out, or perhaps styles may have changed in fashion and nobody could agree on how to complete the last part of their church.

A considerable part of the museum is devoted to this thorny issue as can be seen from the models of the facade designs submitted through the centuries before the present scheme was finally approved.

It’s significant to note that not all Italian cities have had this problem with their churches. For example, Siena, Orvieto and Spoleto completed their wonderful cathedral facades in gothic or early renaissance times.

Other sections of Florence’s museum house the original sculptures from Giotto’s bell-tower (the ones one sees on the campanile are reproductions).

Ghiberti’s miraculous doors of paradise are here too (again what one sees on the baptistery are copies).

A considerable part of the display is devoted to the revolutionary way Brunelleschi built the famous cupola without the use of centring form work or flying buttresses. The concept of a dome within a dome was one that Wren also took up when he came to build London’s St Pauls cathedral.

For me the most beautiful part of the museum was the section dealing with the cantorie or choir stalls for the cathedral. On one side is Luca Della Robbia’s design with its wonderful groups of angelic singers.

On the other side is Donatello’s more classical version. Both are quite exquisite.

Again there is a mystery for me here. Why were these beautiful features removed from the cathedral? Was it because choirs became larger and required more space which only the apse could supply? Or was it just a change in fashions. I do not even know when the cantorie were removed. Certainly the interior of Florence cathedral presents a somewhat bare appearance when compared, say, to the sumptuousness of Siena cathedral.

Because of the pandemic not all the building is open. There is a top floor viewing terrace which remains closed. However, there is so much to see and appreciate in this exemplary museum that I remained very pleased with my visit.

Back to the Jazzy Nineteen Twenties in a Royal Villa

In 1971 Mimì Pecci Blunt, died and with her died a whole era. Particularly in the 1920’s, that decade of liberation in life-style and experimentation in the arts, the Villa Reale at Marlia in the Lucchesia was buzzing with parties to which famous guests were invited. They were able to enjoy the lovely park and gardens surrounding the neo-classical villa, Napoleon’s sister Elisa Baciocchi had redesigned and which was her favourite haunt when she was princess of Lucca.

Last weekend I too, became an invitee and was able to enjoy not only the lovely grounds but also a taster of twenties atmosphere. I went back in time and met some of Mimi’s guests as they too enjoyed the park and the villa on a glorious June Sunday afternoon.

It was an event in the nationwide “Appointment in the Garden” initiative which invites people to discover the surprising historical, artistic, botanical and landscape richness of Italian gardens. Villa Reale participated with an event in memory of countess Mimi and gave the opportunity to feel like one of the famous guests that she used to invite in her exquisite domain.

During the day there were historical re-enactments. For instance here part of Mimis record collection of interwar hits (in shellac of course) was played on an original HMV phonograph. It actually sounded surprisingly good – truly an authentic sound.

The exhibition of vintage vehicles included a 1923 Fiat Balilla and a fine USA Indian motorbike.

Anna-Laetitia Pecci-Blunt, known as Mimì, owner of Villa Reale from 1923 until 1971, the year of her death restored the Villa and the gardens, bringing them back to life after years of neglect; she spent her life in her salons in Paris, Rome, New York and that of Marlia, which she chose as a summer residence.

Mimi married Cecil Blunt in Paris in 1919, and in their Parisian salon one could meet well-known persons like Cocteau, Picasso, Braque, Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes, Dalì, Alberto Moravia, the Windsors and Gianni Agnelli. Jacques Gréber, an internationally renowned landscape architect worked on the restoration and extension of the park in the 1920s creating such fabulous layouts as the Moorish and the Lemon gardens.

I also visited the Pecci-Blunt museum housed in the old stables. I was unable to take any photographs but can say that the four main sections deal with the Pecci relationship to the Vatican (one of her ancestors became Pope Leo XIII), a fine library of books and old magazines, a music section with an old record collection and posters of concerts given in the Villa right up to the 1980s when Herbert Handt was musical director and a sweet collection of dolls from all over the world wearing their national costumes.

There is one question I have not yet managed to answer. What caused the Pecci-Blunts to sell the villa off in 2015 after years of neglect to the young Swiss couple who have brought it back to life with such panache. There was an original idea to turn the Villa Reale into a luxury hotel but fortunately this scheme never materialised. I am quite sure that with the current slump in the hospitality sector due to the pandemic the Villa would have severely suffered. The enterprising series of events which have been organised in these most difficult circumstances and the wonderful care and attention given to the restoration of both the villa and its grounds show that financially, at least, its future is safer.

American Art Comes to Florence

The current exhibition at Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi opened on 28 May and runs until 29 August 2021. It celebrates American art between 1961 and 2001, with over eighty works by artists such as Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Louise Nevelson, Roy Lichtenstein , Claes Oldenburg, Bruce Nauman, Barbara Kruger, Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, Matthew Barney and Kara Walker, many of them exhibited for the first time in Italy, thanks to the Strozzi collaboration with the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

There are iconic works that have marked American art from the beginning of the Vietnam War until 9/11 with everything from Pop Art to Minimalism and Conceptual Art, all represented by a mixture of painting, photography, video art, sculpture and installations. Issues such as the development of consumerism, feminism, civil rights and anti racism are particularly emphasised. The exhibition is a true woke experience and something not quite what one expects to see in Florence at this time but well worth viewing all the same.

I came across the exhibition quite by chance and was able to be one of the first members of the public to see it when it was inaugurated.

Much of what I saw made me nostalgic as it reminded me of my student days when people like Warhol with his plastic fantastic Velvet Underground and Lichenstein with his blown-up comic strips were giving revolutionary perspectives to the UK arts scene.
However, the show moves forwards beyond the swinging sixties to include themes like AIDS, such a relevant subject in these pandemic times, and a special emphasis on the black lives matter movement which is particularly poignant since the Walker Art centre is located in the US city where these issues have come to the fore with the death of George Floyd.

The Minneapolis Art Centre was founded in 1927 by Thomas Barlow Walker, a timber merchant who became one of the world’s ten richest men. In 1971 a new gallery was designed and expanded in 2005. Walker’s original collection was centred mainly on romantic art with a few renaissance pieces (which also included some fakes). I wonder what the founder would think if he could now see the collection of art which his gallery houses. I feel he should at least be glad that the center he created has become one of America’s most visited contemporary art museums.

I have no wish to pontificate on the wonderful opportunity the Minneapolis collection has given Florence to get a taste of our confusing modern creative times. Do remember, however, that Florence’s renaissance artists were once contemporary too! Whether Rothko will be deemed to be as exquisite as Raphael in a future age remains to be seen, nevertheless.

What is without doubt, however, is that the original Strozzi facade was aesthetically a rather calmer experience than the one visitors now encounter with the installation French artist JR has placed over it and which is titled ‘the wound’ alluding to the harm covid19 has also inflicted on the art world. Let us sincerely hope we may be able to see that wound healed in our lifetime.

Jab, Joy and Jazz

I finally got it: my first jab at Viareggio’s terminetto health centre on Italy’s republic day! Because it was a national holiday transport links were rather fewer. But my 6.55 am train got me there in plenty of time. I was warned by a friend that one could expect some disorganization and a long wait. Nothing of the sort. Everything was very well organized and as I arrived early I was done early. First my appointment was checked off. Then I saw a doctor to verify if I was allergic to anything. Then I was taken to the jab point. I can’t stand injections so I didn’t look at my arm while it happened but I didn’t feel a thing! I was then asked to wait fifteen minutes to see if there were any immediate after effects. None at all. (Not even the following days).

I then decided that a walk down to the beach might be in order. I followed the canal leading to the port. It was a lovely day and the lines of little boats presented a festive atmosphere.

I had a fab fish lunch from one of the boats consisting of calamari and prawns.

I then walked along the beach. It was great to see so many people, especially young people, having fun by the sea and even in it. Some were playing volleyball. Others were just sitting in groups and chatting. Smiles were on all the faces and they expressed freedom and enjoyment.

How terrible it has been for such a sociable country like Italy to have to shut down so many activities! Of course we are not out of the woods yet and the usual covid19 protocol restrictions are still enforced. However, when I got to one of my favourite ice cream places and ordered a limone/panna cotta/pistachio gelato I don’t think I have enjoyed being in a holiday atmosphere for such a long time.

I got back in time for Bagni Di Lucca’s jazz concert at its theatre, opened for shows for the first time in over a year. The wonderful singer Michela Lombardi was the star and, again, it was so lovely to be able to have a taster of what life is normally like, or would have been B.C. (Before Covid!).

What we have been missing for over a year! And let’s hope we soon will never be missing it again….normal life, in other words living with the freedom to travel where we want to and to be with people we wish to share company with!