Florence, Italy In A Nutshell
From a historical perspective, Florence is a city that is relatively easy to digest. As opposed to a city like Rome whose history spans more than two millennia, Florence’s critical history can be approximated to the two centuries that fall between the years 1300 and 1500 CE. Nearly all of the city’s “rock-star”, celebrity artists were active during these two centuries. From Medieval artists such as Cimabue, Dante, Giotto, Boccaccio, and Petrarch active in the fourteenth century, through the Renaissance giants Donatello, Brunelleschi, Botticelli and climaxing with Leonardo and Michelangelo in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the level of artistic production in Florence during these two centuries is unprecedented and unparalleled in history.
Beyond its artistic importance, Florence’s political reality was also exceptional, as it was also one of Europe’s few medieval republics. A quick survey of Christian Europe’s political regimes in the fourteenth century – England/king, France/king, Germany/Holy Roman Emperor, what little Christian Spain remained/king, Central Italy/pope, southern Italy and major Italian islands/king – reveals that monarchical government was the norm, and democracy the exception. In fact, the medieval republics of Europe could be counted upon one hand, and they were all in Italy – Florence, Siena, Lucca, Genoa and the longest-lasting republic of all time, Venice. As opposed to the European monarchies where a majority of artistic production was directed towards glorifying individual rulers and their families, much of the art and architecture of these republics was communal, that is, created and paid for by the people. And although few have ever “willingly” paid taxes, it was ennobling to see public funds employed in order to celebrate the populace. In Florence alone, late thirteenth-century buildings such as the Basilica of Santa Croce, which is the world’s largest Franciscan church; Florence cathedral, which for two centuries was the world’s largest church (presently the third largest); Palazzo Vecchio (or della Signoria as it was originally called) the imposing seminal political structure that has served as Florence’s town hall for the past seven centuries; and the church and convent of Santa Maria Novella, which is one of the world’s largest Dominican complexes, were all constructed with communal funding.
Where did the money come from? By 1300 AD, Florence was home to Europe’s second wealthiest economy after Venice. The medieval Venetian economy was based strictly on trade, as the maritime republic enjoyed exclusive trading rights throughout the Byzantine Empire. This privileged role, which was the equivalent of country today having exclusive trading rights with China, made Venice immeasurably wealthy. Florence instead accumulated its significant wealth through both a trade and manufacturing economy. A nearly Silicon-Valley-like phenomenon occurred in Florence in the thirteenth century with the development of a wool textile production and distribution industry. Raw wool was imported from all over Europe in order to be refined in the city, and then sold through a distribution network that encompassed most of the Mediterranean world. Furthermore, Florentine wool was the best that money could buy.
In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, business was booming in Florence. One of the many spin-offs of the wool industry was banking. Florentine banks were known as the “fifth element.” Wherever one could find the other four – earth, water, fire and air – one could find a Florentine bank. Much like American Express offices in the twentieth century, Florentine banks offered international merchants the security of not traveling with cash. With the immense capital acquired by these banks through exchange commissions, they could also then lend money on an average interest rate of 25%. Although such rates would be considered usury today, the returns on investments in the medieval world could be as high as 100%.
This wealth brought with it a demographic boom. By 1300, Florence was the fourth largest city in Europe after Paris, Venice, and Milan, with a population of between 100,000 and 120,000 people. As early as the eleventh century, both noble and peasant inhabitants of the contado (as the countryside around cities was known) were migrating to urban centers in order to claim a stake in what has been dubbed the “commercial revolution” of the Middle Ages. This economic and demographic explosion laid fertile ground for the rebirth of classical culture and civilization, or, as we call it today – the Renaissance.
Author: Rocky Ruggiero, Ph.D.
Milan, Italy ?
When you get off the train in Milano Centrale train station and find yourself covered by the massive cast iron and glass canopy, you wonder if you are still in Italy. Your doubts are further inflated by the hectic pace of the people around. Unlike the languid strollers in most other Italian cities, these people actually seem in a hurry to get somewhere. Once you get to the taxi stands outside the train station, you are surprised to find people actually waiting their turn in a proper line; not to mention the efficiency of the taxis in loading passengers and quick departures. And you wonder again… am I still in Italy?
Milan, or Milano, is the capital city of the northern Italian region of Lombardy and the second largest city in Italy after Rome, with a greater metropolitan population of about 3 million people. It is also Italy’s capital of industry, finance and fashion. The modern urbanism of the city (including skyscrapers), convenient metro system, and fast-paced lifestyle reflect its unique role as a thriving European metropolis. So it might be surprising to find some of the greatest artistic treasures of the Renaissance scattered within this “bright lights, big city” atmosphere.
Milan’s 14th-century cathedral is one of the few successful Italian expressions of Gothic architecture. Its dizzying array of spires, rose windows, decorative sculpture, and stone tracery is as impressive as any of the great gothic cathedrals of northern Europe. But Milan’s defining artistic moment was the arrival of the 29 year-old Florentine artist Leonardo da Vinci in 1481. Hired by the then Duke of Milan, Ludovico “the Moor” Sforza, as his court artist, Leonardo not only brought his own singular genius to the northern city, but also the artistic, scientific, and philosophical trends of his native Renaissance Florence. Over the 18 years that he lived in Milan, Leonardo produced some of his most important works such the Virgin of the Rocks (now in the Louvre, Paris), the Lady with the Ermine (now in the National Gallery in Cracow, Poland), the drawing of the Vitruvian Man (now in the Accademia Gallery, Venice) and the Last Supper (still in sitù in the Dominican refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan).
And although Michelangelo never went to or worked in Milan, the city acquired one of his sculptures in 1952. Known as the Rondanini Pietà (after the name of the Roman palace where it was previously located), it was Michelangelo’s last sculpture and intended as his own funerary monument. The great artist worked on the piece up until 6 days before he died at nearly 89 years of age. Tragic and frail, the sculpture is often interpreted as reflecting the fragile state of mind of an extraordinary artist in the twilight of his life.
Milan is also home to my second favorite museum in Italy (after the Borghese Gallery in Rome) – the Brera Gallery. This 19th-century museum houses extraordinary works by Renaissance artists such as Mantegna, Bellini, Tintoretto, Raphael, Piero della Francesca and Caravaggio (although I have my doubts regarding the authenticity of the last). But the museum also houses an impressive collection of modern art by artists of the caliber of Picasso, Modigliani, Braque, De Chirico, Boccioni and Morandi.
And if all this art makes you hungry, make sure to try the famous saffron-rich Risotto Milanese or the breaded veal cutlet known as the Cotoletta alla Milanese.
Come enjoy the treasures of Milan with us during our Spring Northern Italy program from May 21-25, 2018.
Author: Rocky Ruggiero, Ph.D.
Mantua, Italy – Rigoletto, Romeo and Romano
In Canto I of the Inferno, Virgil, the ancient Roman author of the epic poem the Aeneid presents himself to Dante with the following words, “Mantua me genuit” – “Mantua made me”. Well, not only did Mantua, or “Mantova” as the city is called in Italian, produce the great classical poet, but also some of the greatest art treasures of the Renaissance. The ruling family of Mantua, the Gonzaga, employed artists such as Andrea Mantegna, Leon Battista Alberti, and Giulio Romano in order to transform their remote Lombard city into a thriving center for the arts.
Although the Gonzaga family usurped control of Mantua from another family as earlier as 1328, it was not until the reign of Marquis Ludovico Gonzaga (1414-1478) in the fifteenth century that the city gained artistic importance. Serving as a condottiere, or “mercenary warlord” for Cosimo “the Elder” de’Medici, Ludovico was exposed to the artistic explosion that was occurring in the Medici city of Florence. Eager to create the same cultural atmosphere in his own city of Mantua, Ludovico began courting great Renaissance artists, offering them both honor and significant wealth.
Andrea Mantegna (originally from Padua) was one of the first princely painters of the Renaissance and went to Mantua 1459, where he served as official court painter for the family for nearly 50 years. Amongst other duties, Mantegna was also asked to fresco the formal reception room of the ducal palace. This room, known today as the Camera degli Sposi, is one of the 500 rooms contained within a 350,000ft.2 royal palace. In his fresco, Mantegna transports the viewer back in time by vividly portraying the Gonzaga family at court in their contemporary dress, actions and settings – all the way down to the Marquis’ favorite dog “Rubino” who sits under his throne!
After securing the services of Mantegna, Ludovico then hired the great Florentine architect and theoretician Leon Battista Alberti to design the new Basilica of Sant’Andrea. This church houses the second most important relic in Christendom – the blood of Jesus Christ, allegedly brought to Mantua by the very Roman soldier who pierced Jesus’ side with his lance, St. Longinus.
In the 16th century, Ludovico’s grandson Federico II Gonzaga, was elevated in rank from “Marquis” to “Duke”. Federico II had spent several years in Rome as a youth and was exposed to the great works of the Roman Renaissance such the Sistine Chapel ceiling and the Raphael rooms in the Vatican. Hoping to recreate his grandfather’s special relationship with Mantegna, Federico brought Raphael’s prize pupil, Giulio Romano, to Mantua in order to design and decorate his sumptuous pleasure palace known as the Palazzo del Te. Some of Romano’s beautiful frescoes in the palace border on debauchery, reflecting the rather hedonistic activities that occurred therein. But the most breathtaking work of the Palazzo is the so-called “Room of the Giants”, where Romano painted colossal titans being crushed by the Olympian gods in a sort of 16th -century virtual reality.
If all this is not enough, Mantua was also home (albeit temporarily in the first case) to two of the world’s most famous fictional characters – Romeo and Rigoletto! After killing Tybalt in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Romeo flees to Mantua to live in exile. In Giuseppe Verdi’s great 19th century opera Rigoletto, the homonymous hunch-backed court jester loses his beloved daughter Gilda at the Gonzaga court. There is even a Rigoletto museum in Mantua today! Not really sure why since he didn’t exist… but tourists love it.
And when you’re in Mantua, you have to try the pumpkin-filled tortelli! A little on the sweet side for me as the pumpkin filling is spiked with amaretto liquor, they are nonetheless a culinary treasure. Wash them down with some local fizzy Lambrusco wine, and finish the meal with the local caloric bomb of a dessert called “sbrisolona”.
Come explore Mantua with us on our upcoming Northern Italy program from Oct. 16-20, 2017.
Author: Rocky Ruggiero, Ph.D.
Parma,Italy – Beyond Prosciutto, Parmigiano and Politics
When most people think of Parma, they think of prosciutto and Parmigiano cheese. But there is much, much more to this city. Parma is located in the north-central region of Emilia-Romagna, which is best known for its culinary traditions. Bologna is the capital of the region and is known as La Grassa – “the fat”. Lasagna, tortellini, mortadella, balsamic vinegar, and of course, Prosciutto di Parma (a sweeter, less-salty variety of the popular Italian cured pork) and Parmigiano cheese are the regions best-known culinary contributions. The wines aren’t great, but getting better, especially the Sangiovese di Romagna.
Emilia-Romagna is also well known for its traditionally liberal politics, and is one of the strongholds of Italy’s “leftist” political parties. Parma, a city of about 200,000 people, is no different. But because of the conspicuous wealth of the city, due mainly to its booming pharmaceutical and gastronomical industries (including Barilla pasta), its citizens are dubbed “fur-wearing communists”. The affluence is palpable in Parma – in the clothes, in the cars (the Ferrari factory at Maranello is only 30 minutes away), in the jewelry, and in the very near-patrician demeanor of the Parmigiani.
Parma is also home to some of the world’s greatest art treasures. Its twelfth-century cathedral is breathtaking, and its unique multi-tiered baptistery is one of the icons of Italian Romanesque architecture. But the artist who put Parma on the artistic map was the painter known as Correggio (1489-1534). It is hard to believe that a city with such a mediocre local culture in the Middle Ages could have produced such a singular Renaissance genius. Although Correggio is not as well known as Florentine rock-star artists such as Leonardo, Botticelli and Michelangelo, amongst Renaissance connaisseurs he is considered a giant. Correggio’s sensual painting style was strongly influenced by Leonardo da Vinci (one of whose works is in the National Painting Gallery of Parma), and combines sublime draughtsmanship with endless layers of glaze, giving his a paintings a shimmering, almost proto-Baroque quality.
Correggio’s first commission was to decorate the dining hall of a particularly enlightened, and perhaps somewhat libertine, Benedictine abbess named Giovanna Piacenza. Known as the Camera di San Paolo, the ceiling of the room is decorated with a bamboo-like pergola and playful putti poking their heads through illusionistic apertures. Above the fireplace is a large fresco of the virgin goddess Diana; and just below, a Latin inscription that warns (presumably male visitors) “Do not stick your poker in the fire”!
One year later, Correggio was commissioned to paint the dome of the Benedictine church of San Giovanni Evangelista. It was here that Correggio first applied his signature technique of di sotto in sù perspective, creating the illusion that his painted figures were in fact flying in the air above the heads of viewers. This technique would reach its apotheosis in his later fresco in the dome of Parma cathedral. An explosion of endless figures hover in an illusionistic sky celebrating the Virgin Mary’s assumption into heaven. The great Venetian painter Titian retorted to a disgruntled priest who complained that he had paid Correggio too much for the painting, “Turn the dome upside down and fill it with gold…that is its price!”
Come enjoy the beauty and food of Parma with us on our upcoming Northern Italy Program from Oct. 16-20, 2017.
Author: Rocky Ruggiero, Ph.D.
Padua, Italy – City of Saints, Sinners and Spritz
Nearly all trains heading to Venice pass through the city of Padua. Yet, in comparison to the throngs of tourists who invade Venice each year, relatively few explore the historic and artistic treasures that lie in the Veneto region’s second most important city. Located about 25 miles west of Venice, “Padova” (as it is known in Italian) was founded long before Venice as an ancient Roman city with the name of Patuvium. Gradually overshadowed and eventually ruled by its neighboring city on the sea, Padua regained importance in the Middle Ages when a Portuguese saint named Anthony of Lisbon decided to make the city his home in 1226.
St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231CE) was a Franciscan friar and contemporary of the founder of his order, St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226CE). Like Francis, Anthony was an extraordinary preacher who used his abilities to spread the message of the gospels; and to whom many miracles are attributed. Both Catholics and non-Catholics still invoke Anthony’s intervention today as “the patron saint of lost objects.” Not surprisingly, shortly after his death a basilica was constructed in Padua to house his mortal remains, and was later decorated with sculptures by the great Donatello. Technically called the “Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua”, the church is better known simply as the Santo. Each year nearly 7 million pilgrims visit the Santo to pay homage to the body of the saint and to venerate the relics that are displayed there, which include the tongue and the vocal cords (I’m not kidding) of the great preacher-saint.
But, Padua was also home to a rather celebrated sinner – Rinaldo degli Scrovegni. Singled out by Dante in Canto XVII of his Inferno as a sinner being punished for usury, Rinaldo must have realized that being placed in hell in the most-largely-circulating piece of literature of the time was not very good P.R. for his bank. Usury, or lending money at exorbitant interest rates, was a common practice amongst medieval banks. It was actually Rinaldo’s son, Enrico, who would eventually try to publicly expiate his family’s sins by paying for the construction and decoration of my absolute favorite work of art – the Scrovegni Chapel.
Enrico spared no expense in showing the world that the wealth accumulated by his family bank was also being used to glorify God. And so he called to Florence to hire Giotto, the most important painter of the century, to decorate the chapel in fresco. The result was one of the most innovative and entertaining painting cycles in history. I like to refer to Giotto as the “Alfred Hitchcock of the Middle Ages”, and the psychology, drama and suspense of his paintings are not only absolutely singular for his time, but also collectively represent the seminal motion picture in history.
After mulling over all the holy relics and sublime paintings, don’t forget to try the local cocktail – the spritz! Prosecco mixed with either Campari or Aperol, and a splash of soda water. Instead of Campari or Aperol, the locals prefer a type of liquor named “Select”, which can only be found in the Veneto region. And there is nothing better to accompany a spritz than some local fish fry!
Come explore Padua with us during our upcoming program “The Renaissance in Northern Italy” from Oct. 16-20, 2017.
Author: Rocky Ruggiero, Ph.D.
Years ago, just weeks before I met my wife Emilie, and after 10 years of living in Florence, Italy, I came very close to moving to my favorite city in the world – Rome. Rome is the starting point of southern Italy, and as a terrone, as rural “earthy” southern Italians are derogatorily called, I felt much more at home with the dialect, temperate climate and animated demeanor of the “Eternal City”. Moreover, Rome is a real city. With a population of nearly 4 million people, the energy, size and chaos of the nation’s capital was a far cry from the “medieval Disneyland” of Florence where, not only is the population one-tenth that of Rome, but also where, much to the relief of tourists visiting the city after Rome and on-route to Venice, everything is within walking distance. I love the hectic pulse of Rome – the head-spinning traffic, the incessant honking, the almost daily political protests, the visit of some significant head of state, the movie premier, the opera, the non la puoi perdere (“you can’t miss”) art exhibit. Every time I went to Rome, which was almost weekly, there was always something big going on.
But what I also love is that hidden within the midst of all this functional pandemonium was some of the world’s greatest art, architecture and history. Strolling past the Colosseum and Roman Forum still gives me goose bumps. Such monuments testify to the city’s credo – “once we were Romans”, and once (as hard as it is to believe) they ruled nearly half of the known world. But, there is also “Papal Rome”, with the magnificent papal palaces, piazzas, and fountains such as the Palazzo Doria-Pamphili and its adjacent Piazza Navona with Bernini’s spectacular “Four Rivers Fountain”. Or Pope Paul V’s Baroque pleasure palace – the Villa Borghese – that contains what I like to describe as, piece for piece, the most impressive art collection in the world. The Trevi fountain and Spanish Steps by night are magical; as is the romantic mystery of those ivy-covered dark streets.
And then there is the food… my God! Fettucini “Alfredo”, spaghetti all carbonara, tonnarelli cacio e pepe, and the one dish I make sure to eat every time I am in Rome, bucatini all’amatriciana. I also believe that only two places in the world really know how to cook lamb are the Greece and Rome. The Romans call it abbacchio (not agnello as Italians do). Rome is also the place to explore the wonderful world of artichokes! Either alla Romana (sautéed in olive oil, garlic, chili pepper and mint leaves) or alla giudia (“Jewish style”), which means deep-fried and as scrumptious as they are pretty. And being so close to the sea, fresh fish is always readily available. Sometimes a simple plate of spaghetti alle vongole (“with clams”) with a glass of local Frascati wine will do…
But then I wondered… if I lived in Rome, would all the craziness tarnish the magic? Believing it would, I decided to stay in Florence. I would keep Rome as my mistress (my wife loves that metaphor!). I would visit her frequently, but would always return home to Florence; thus maintaining the mystery and excitement. Ten years later our relationship is still perfect!
Come and enjoy the magic of Rome for yourselves during our upcoming program “Rome: the Eternal City” from Oct. 7-11, 2017!
Author: Rocky Ruggiero, Ph.D.
The Age of Genius
Our upcoming fall program “The Age of Genius” will take place in Florence from October 2-6, 2017, and will explore those extraordinary artists and patrons who virtually invented the Renaissance. Beginning with Masaccio, who was the first painter to apply linear perspective to painting in his fresco of the Holy Trinity in Santa Maria Novella, to the sublime masterpieces by Raphael in the Pitti Palace collection, through to the eclectic and often bizarre paintings of the Mannerists, we will explore the development of painting in Florence over the course of a century.
Yet, the great art and architecture of the Renaissance would not have been possible without the patronage of those persons and institutions who sought to produce beauty to celebrate both God and themselves. No other family in history exploited this role better than the Medici. By examining their religious, domestic and commercial patronage at San Lorenzo, San Marco and their own homonymous palace, we shall learn how the Medici used art, architecture and artists of the caliber of Brunelleschi, Fra Angelico, Michelozzo and Donatello to their own ambitious ends.
Beyond Florence, this program also includes a day trip to the great city of Siena, which was Florence’s main political, economic and artistic rival in the first half of the 14th century. Artists such as Duccio, Simone Martini and Ambrogio Lorenzetti were members of Europe’s most important school of painting; while the architecture in Siena reflects the city’s international importance and civic pride. Our visit will examine the religious and civic art and architecture in Siena in order to understand the city’s unique beauty and rivalry with Florence.
Moreover, there is no better time to be in Tuscany than in the fall. Temperatures drop, crowds dwindle, and the Tuscan country comes into bloom. The vendemmia or “grape harvest” takes place in September, and we are usually trying the vino novello or “new wine” by late October. Olives trees are ripe for the picking, and Tuscans begin harvesting earlier than just about everyone else in Italy, usually in November. Porcini mushrooms also abound in their peak season. But most importantly (at least for me) the first white truffles begin to appear by October.
So come enjoy the beauty, history and flavors of Florence and Tuscany with us!
Rocky Ruggiero, Ph.D.
In 2016, more than fifty million people visited Italy. Why? Maybe because if you love art, architecture and history, there is no other place in the world with as much as Italy. According to an UNESCO report, more than half of the world’s artistic patrimony is located in Italy, which is home to 51 “UNESCO World Heritage Sites” (more than any other country in the world).
Or maybe because if you are a “foodie”, Italian cuisine is perhaps the most recognized, loved and affordable cuisine in the world. From pasta, to pizza, to prosciutto, to Parmigiano, to cappuccino, to gelato, to olive oil, to balsamic vinegar and mozzarella, no other culinary tradition is as universal (and healthy) as Italian food.
Or maybe it’s the wine? Italy has surpassed France as the world’s largest exporter of wine -and prosecco has surpassed champagne! The reason is not only because of the quality of Italian wine, but also because of its variety and affordability. While top-level Bordeaux’s and Bourgogne’s and champagnes live on the Olympus of oenology, their costs render them unapproachable to most. Italian wine guarantees an extraordinary relationship between price and quality. Whether its Barolo, Brunello, Super Tuscan or Chianti, hot days and cool nights render Italian wine a Promethean elixir!
Maybe it’s the stunning natural beauty of Italy? If you like the seaside, 90% of Italy’s borders is coastline. Few places can compete with the Amalfi Coast (Positano is my favorite), Cinque Terre, Sardegna, Puglia and Sicily. If you prefer skiing, mountain hikes or bike trips, you can choose between the Alps, the Dolomites or the Apennines.
Maybe its fashion? Italy is home to Prada, Gucci, Armani, Versace, Ferragamo, Pucci, Valentino, Zegna, Tod’s and many more of the world’s top designers, much of whose merchandise is offered at discount prices at the various outlets throughout the country.
Cars? The Ferrari factory is in Modena, the Lamborghini factory nearby.
Motorcycles? Ducati’s are made near Bologna, Moto Guzzi’s near Como.
And the list goes on and on…
Why Italy? Because why would you go anywhere else?
Rocky Ruggiero, Ph.D.
When Cultural Programs in Italy was established in 2008, the objective was to meet the need for the ever-increasing demand for educational travel. So many of the people I have met and worked with in various cities throughout Italy have expressed the desire to experience the art and history of this great country not simply as transient tourists, but as students. Our programs offer week-long study tours for adults in various Italian cities. Each program is designed to offer participants an in-depth understanding and familiarity not only with the art and architecture, but also with the social, economic, religious, and historical factors that surrounded it. However, “culture” means more than history and art; it also means the language, food and traditions of a people. A language reflects the way a people think, and the melodious Italian language is one of the world’s most beautiful; while food, of course, is the very substance of a people. These aspects are not only frequently discussed in the study tours, but participants are also provided with list of handpicked restaurants where they can enjoy the great regional foods and wines of Italy.
Since 2015, Cultural Programs in Italy has also begun offering a variety of events throughout the United States in the form specialized lectures in art and architectural history, cultural events and educational seminars for various public, private and cultural venues. These US events, which are as entertaining as they are informative, have allowed us to bring the beauty and culture of Italy directly to you, with the same love and passion that infuse our programs in Italy. Our programs, whether in the US or in Italy, are authentic learning experiences and provide a unique opportunity for participants to truly immerse themselves greatness of Italian culture.
Rocky Ruggiero, Ph.D.