The Casual Blog

Tag: Italy

Our week in Tuscany


Sally and I got back on Sunday from our first trip to Italy, where we saw the major tourist sites of Rome, Siena, and Florence, as well as five medieval cities in central Tuscany. We took in a ton of Renaissance art and architecture, wandered for miles through narrow streets, and drank some wonderful wines. We also had our share of minor travel tribulations, such as lost luggage, lost car, and just plain lost. We got soaked by a sudden downpour on the way to the Vatican, but for the most part the skies were blue and temperatures were mild.

Hearing about other people’s vacations is usually either frustrating or boring, and I will therefore spare you a blow by blow of the beautiful places and fine food. But I will say, if at all possible, you should go. It was an amazing feast for the senses and the mind.

It was also a time machine. The antiquities of Rome, like the Colosseum and the Forum, are awe inspiring. I asked myself, would I have enjoyed gladiators fighting to the death or religious dissidents being fed to the lions? Probably not, but who knows? The Romans’ appropriation of Greek art, followed by the Renaissance reappropriation of those same ideas, all made sense. But the hard phyical facts were also mildly shocking. There were a lot of statues of nude people! I get that they decided to glorify the human form, but faced with all those bare bodies, it seems fairly obvious these were highly sensual people.

With the benefit of some education in art history, I was looking forward to many great masterpieces, and they were certainly there. We made a particular point of seeking out the paintings of Caravaggio, which are amazingly powerful, and the great sculptures of Michelangelo. I will also note that the Sistine Chapel ceiling was awesome. There were so many other master works that I looked at hard and was touched by.

At the same time, I was struck at how many fine examples of Renaissance and Baroque art were connected, using the same subjects, the same gestures, the same costumes, and so forth. So many Annunciations, so many Adorations, so many Crucifixions, with so many similar arrangements. Clearly artists were borrowing from each other all the time. On the trip, I finished reading The Knock Off Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation, by Kal Raustiala and Chris Sprigman. It makes the case that creative endeavors in certain fields, including fashion, haute cuisine, and football, develop through copying unconstrained by intellectual property law. Looking at art in terms of what is shared rather than what is original to the artist goes against the grain of art history as I learned it, but it helped me think about the art without getting completely overwhelmed. The art tells us about the community of people that it grew out of, and connects us with those communities.

There did come a point each day when I reached then saturation point, and could not stand to look at on more beautiful Madonna. But looking at these ancient objects had affected my perceptions. As I emerged from the last 12th or 14th century church of the day, I had the impression that the people around me were unusually vivid. Their faces seemed brighter. And they moved!

The Italians are not intent on your being a great art scholar. I was surprised at museums and churches generally gave little information about their treasures. They also are not much concerned with providing public restrooms. I finally figured out that it’s accepted to duck into a bar. Even so, there were further challenges, like finding water, soap, and paper towels all in one place. It is really disheartening, after a long search for a WC, and a moment of sweet release, to soap up your hands only to find there is nothing to rinse with.

But these things pass. After two days in Rome, we spent two days based in Siena, a marvelous Medieval city, and ventured out by car to see the Tuscan countryside and taking in the beautiful ancient towns of San Gigminiano, Volterra, Montelcino, Pienza, and Moltepulciano. It was a great pleasure to drive the winding roads among vineyards and olive orchards. Seeing so much land devoted to wine gave me a new understanding and respect for the place of wine in this culture.

I’ve long had a fascination with medieval architecture. Walking along the narrow streets gives a window into a different kind of community. Somehow these people of several centuries ago organized themselves to produce a kind of hive that worked very well and endured. Their walls and battlements prove that fear and violence were part of their world, but their churches show that they had moments of peace and transcendence. By the way, the streets in these hill towns can be unbelievably steep. Montepulciano was especially challenging. Our work outs finally paid off; we were in good enough physical shape to walk them.

We also adored Siena. We we disconcerted at first that cars zoom down the narrow streets dodging pedestrians, rather than pedestrians dodging cars — the pedestrians seemed at high risk — but we got used to it. We developed a taste for gelatos. A high point was climbing the circular staircase of the spectacular cathedral to look out over the city at sunset.

Arriving in Florence was another jump in the time machine, this time to the high Renaissance. It’s beautiful, and also easier to walk in. And the old part of the city thrummed with people. We did the famous churches and museums, including the Duomo, the Uffizi,the Accademia, Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novello, and San Marco. We crossed the Ponte Vecchio at sunset and sipped wine at an outdoor table at Piazza de Signoria. What a beautiful place! We agreed that Florence goes on the list of our favorite cities.

Wonderful Balanchine ballets, and friends

We just loved the new Carolina Ballet program, A Balanchine Celebration, which we saw when it opened on Thursday night.  It ran the emotional gamut, from wrenching (Agon) to carefree (Who Cares?), all, naturally, by George Balanchine, the greatest choreographer of the twentieth century.  
It was all wonderful, but I have to mention especially Lara O’Brien and Eugene Barnes in the Agon pas de deux, with music by Stravinsky.  As I mentioned to Lara afterward, it truly made me uncomfortable, as it surely is meant to do.  She took the angular movements to a frightening extreme.  I was reminded of something I once read about Suzanne Farrell:  she made the audience sweat.  Margaret Severin-Hansen and Pablo Javier Perez were deft and delightful in Tarantella.  I also had a new appreciation for Jan Burkhard in Valse Fantaisie and in Who Cares.  She’s got a spunk and sass, which worked particularly well in the Gershwin.
I need to give a special note of appreciation to the pianist for the Gershwin, Karl Moraski.  I was on the second row, practically inside the piano, and could hear every detail.  In my jazz period, I listened to multiple versions of all these iconic standards, and learned not just the tunes and harmonic structures, but also the words to all these songs.  Moraski was faithful to the spirit of the music; Gershwin would certainly have approved.  I spoke to him afterwards to congratulate him, and verified that he had done the arranging.  I noticed that the dancers seemed to be smiling a lot during the Gershwin, and wondered for a minute if they’d been coached smiling.  Then I realized I was smiling a lot, too.  The great music, and Balanchine’s lighthearted ballet translation of MGM musical-type dancing, was delightful.  
Last year we made a contribution that made us the pointe shoe sponsors of Lola Cooper, and so we always watch her performances with particular interest.  She had a charming pas de deuz with Nikolai Smirnov in the Gershwin piece, S’Wonderful.  She’s got a ton of warmth and vitality, and just keeps getting better.
One of the great things about having exceptional artists in the 42d largest city in America (as opposed, say, to the first, second, or third) is you can, if you want to, talk to them.  Earlier in the week, I’d sent Ricky Weiss a link to a Ted Talks talk by the choreographer Wayne McGregor.  At intermission, he told me that he really appreciated my sending it, and he absolutely hated it!  It was contrary to everything he believed dance should be trying to do.  He found it hollow and superficial.  I didn’t think it was quite that bad, but what do I know?  As I told Ricky, whatever the merits ot McGregor’s choreography, I thought it was worthwhile that the Ted conference was engaging with dance, and it suggested another avenue for exploring and communicating about creativity.  Ricky seemed to be of the view that there was no redeeming quality.  He just couldn’t stand it.  
At the other intermission, we had a glass of wine and a chocolate in the donor’s room, and two of the new dancers of the company came up and introduced themselves:  Colby and Laren Treat, who are twin sisters from Ilion, New York.  I was so impressed that they had the gumption to come right up to us and start talking.  That’s not an easy thing to do, for a young person or any person.  They were really friendly and had interesting things to say about the program.  
I feel so fortunate to be able to meet and be inspired by all these artists.  It’s one more great reason to live in Raleigh, NC.  Earlier in the week, I had lunch with my friend David Meeker, who was recruiting me to join the board the City of Raleigh Museum.  David is still in his twenties, but has contributed significantly to civic life by founding the Busy Bee Cafe and developing the building with Beazley’s and other properties.  We agreed that Raleigh had come a long way and had a ton of great things happening (e.g. arts, food, sports, commerce), but was still struggling with its branding.  I thought the museum might help develop a richer understanding of Raleigh, and agreed to consider joining the board.
As I’m posting this, we’re in RDU airport (free wifi!) about to depart for Italy.   is our first trip there, and has been a long time coming.  I almost made it when I was sixteen, and was recruited for an orchestral music program by the NC School of the Arts in Siena, but lacked the necessary funding.  I almost made it six years ago, but then my Mom fell ill.  So now we’re going to do it.  I’ve reviewed numerous guidebooks, and listened to 15 CDs of Pimsleur’s Italian.  I think it’s going to be great.  More to come.