Padua, Italy – City of Saints, Sinners and Spritz

September 13th, 2017 Padua

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.

Bella Roma

August 23rd, 2017 bella roma

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!

The Age of Genius

July 17th, 2017 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.
Cultural Programs in Italy

Why Italy?

June 7th, 2017 why italy

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?

Open Letter

June 19th, 2017 open letter

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