Tuesday, March 15, 2016


I just spent a great weekend in southern Tuscany, so good that I wanted to share it for those who don’t know this neck of the woods.

Accommodation: I stayed in the abbazia di Spineto www.abbaziadispineto.com for two nights, just outside of Sarteano. It was simply wonderful. The abbey is celebrating their 1000th year anniversary this year, pretty incredible. It was bought in ruins in the 1980s by a couple who have restored it with grace and care without missing any nook and cranny, nor with a penny spared. The church of the abbey is still consecrated and so it is a popular place for weddings as the property is a one stop shop being able to supply the church service and the reception. There are many restored properties surrounding the main complex (villas, smaller houses, etc.), however, we stayed in the abbey proper in a wonderfully comfortable double room. The excellent breakfast was in a small dining room with one of those old fireplaces with seating benches inside the stone frame of the fireplace. It was a wonderful way to start the day.

Towns: we visited Sarteano, Cetona (part of the ‘100 borghi più belli dell’Italia’ category) and Chiusi.


Sarteano: Saturday mornings it is possible to visit a spectacular painted Etruscan tomb, the tomb of the Infernal Chariot (IV century B.C.). Bookings are essential through the local city museum of Sarteano www.museosarteano.it and tickets need to be paid here in advance. The tomb is located a few kilometres outside the town. Up close and personal without any barrier to the Etruscan frescoes in the tomb is an exhilarating experience. In spectacular condition they show a banqueting scene, a chariot scene with one of gods of the underworld, Charon, at the reins of a chariot being pulled by griffons and lions.

Chiusi: The archeological museum in Chiusi houses a great collection of Etruscan artefacts. The collection is outstanding and the museum is modern, well organised, well lit and well labelled, which makes for a very enjoyable visit.

Cetona: A walk around this small town along all the very narrow streets is lovely. The inhabitants seem all very house proud with many flower pots and scrubbed clean stone flagstones.


I had three magnificent meals.

Sarteano: Da Gagliano, no website Phone: 0578 268022

This was the second time for me here. The first time was for lunch and we liked it so much that this weekend was largely fuelled by the thought that we would eat here again, this time for dinner. The place was small and run by a couple, hubby on the floor and wife in the kitchen. It is Tuscan fare and all locally sourced ingredients and wine list. Four courses here because I knew that I would feel food envy if I had left one out…..they are listed in the Slow food guide and have been awarded a snail by the guide, which is a symbol of recognition for quality and slowness….. deserved.

Dessert at da Gangliano Sarteano
Cetona: Il Tiglio di piazza da Nilo

This was recommended by the owner of the abbey (accommodation). It was excellent. Lovely service, great menu, great wine list. The restaurant was full of locals for an evening of great food in good company. The restaurant is next to a bar / caffe where we had stopped in earlier in the afternoon for a coffee and a sneaky chocolate. There is nothing like the old school Italian coffee bars where the barman is dressed in his uniform and he makes a good coffee and is ready for a chat. Always a pleasure. We stopped in here for an after dinner digestive because we didn’t want the evening to end.

Chiusi: Il Grillo è buoncantore www.ilgrillobuoncantore.it

This was again one from the Slow food guide and also highlighted with a snail…. Again deserved. Three courses later, my only regret was that I hadn’t also ordered a primo to try their fresh pasta. I asked for seconds of the bread basket because their homemade bread was simply perfect. It didn’t come out immediately because she actually was making it for me on the spot (it was a sort of piadina). Again, a husband and wife partnership with the husband on the floor and wife in the kitchen. Every.single.ingredient. was sourced from a local producer. It was really astounding.

The antipasto was all home grown
Enjoying the Guinea fowl

This area is known for thermal baths. I didn’t visit any this trip….. I had to leave something for me to come back to. I will not be looking for new restaurants nor different accommodation because I want to go back to the same and start the experience all over again. 

Saturday, December 12, 2015


Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) depicted Judith from the Old Testament at least four times in painting; she quite possibly had painted more of this subject but as not all of her oeuvre has survived, we cannot be sure. Judith is the female equivalent of David in the Old Testament. She, like David, against all odds, saved her city from an enemy. Holofernes, an Assyrian general, was camped outside her city with his army intent on attacking it the following day. Judith, a virtuous and chaste young woman, aided by her maid servant Abra, took the situation in hand the evening before the attack and stole into Holofernes’ tent. All glammed up and oozing charm, she managed to get Holofernes to drink copious amounts of wine to the point that he was inebriated and weakened.  She then took his sword and beheaded him, putting his head on a pike in the camp site for his soldiers to see the following morning. Without a leader, they retreated and her city was saved.

Artemisia shared several characteristics with Judith. The two woman had a strong sense of independence, determination and strength, and neither was afraid of tackling seemingly unsurmountable tasks. Artemisia painted many female subjects, in particular women who were put on trial or had been accused of something, such as Susanna from the Old Testament or Lucretia from Roman Antiquity. She was not only a painter in her own right, which was basically unheard for a female in the early seventeenth century, but was the first woman to be invited to join the Accademia del disegno in Florence, the first Fine Arts Academy in the modern world.
Born in Rome, she trained under her father, Orazio Gentileschi, in very early years of the 1600s and by her early teenage years she was the driving force of the workshop beside her father. This was the period that the northern Italian artist, Caravaggio, had created shock waves through artistic Rome with his dramatic and powerful style imbued with high tension and psychological weight. Artemisia was hugely influenced by his style. His technique proved to be the best vessel through which she could transmit the energy, strength and power that she longed for her canvases to communicate. She, like Caravaggio, pared down the number of figures in her scenes so as to spotlight even more the depicted moment. She too used sharp contours, primary colours and dramatic lighting like in a theatre (strong chiaroscuro).
Like Caravaggio, in many of her works, she managed to covey a running moment of time. Somehow she managed to depict her subjects in such a way that our mind continues with what could be the following scenes that would take place after the one on the canvas in front of us. Using as an example the two very similar paintings of Judith and Holofernes hanging in the Uffizi gallery in Florence and the Capodimonte museum in Naples, we see that Judith is in the middle of killing Holofernes; the action has started but is not yet finished. We as spectators, feel the mid-kill, the blood is spurting up and will stain Judith’s dress and we feel the strength that Holofernes still has in attempting fight of Alba the maidservant.  And finally, we see the complete conviction in Judith’s expression. He is not yet dead but no longer really alive.
Now let’s take a look at the paintings depicting Judith and Abra alone, hanging in the Pitti Palace in Florence and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Here the killing is done and they are carrying the general’s head. Where is the mid action here? They are still in the camp, in enemy territory, and they have just heard a sound and their heads are shown whipping around to see who is there! Artemisia wraps us up in the tension of the scene, the drama and the suspense. We become part of the painting.

One month after the trial had finished her father organised for her to be married to a relatively little known Tuscan artist and she moved to Florence. Here, however, she earned fame for her talent and her person. She was particularly esteemed by the Medici Grand Duke Cosimo II and his wife the Grand duchess Maria Maddalena of Austria and some of their most illustrious court members, such as the court astronomer and mathematician Galileo Galilei, and one of the most brilliant intellectuals in the city, Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger (the master artist’s great nephew). Both the Medici and Buonarroti commissioned works from her and Artemisia and Galileo wrote numerous letters to one another.
Strong in art and strong in nature, Artemisia was all girl power in a man's world!

Saturday, October 25, 2014


In the Botticelli room of the Uffizi gallery there is a huge lonely masterpiece. It stands for the most part alone without admirers as it is outshone by its more famous contemporary, the Birth of Venus by Botticelli, located directly opposite. However, when this painting arrived in Florence on May 28 in 1483, it was a huge hit and people fought to see it just like they do with the Botticellis in the room today.

Portinari Altarpeice, Hugo van der Goes, oil on wood, Uffizi gallery, 1477-8.

This very large triptych (a composition made up of three paintings) was commissioned by a Florentine banker, Tommaso Portinari, who had been living abroad for decades, in Bruges,  working for the Medici bank. When his ex-patriot stint  finished and he returned home, he brought with him some art work that he had commissioned form the fashionable native contemporary painters of his host area, Flanders. He commissioned the above mentioned  altarpiece from Hugo van der Goes for his family’s local church, Sant’ Egidio, the church of the Santa Maria Nuovo hospital. The hospital, which is still one of the major hospitals in the city today, had been founded by his ancestor, Folco Portinari (the father of Dante’s muse, Beatrice) in l288.

The central panel of the triptych depicts the adoration of the shepherds. The flanking panels depict the Portinari family with their individual namesakes. On the left are the males of the family, the head of the family, Tommaso, with Saint Thomas behind him (the saint is holding the spear that was used to make the wound on Christ’s side) and his two sons, Antonio and Pigello, with Saint Anthony Abbot behind them (Anthony is holding his attribute, a little bell). The right panel depicts Tommaso’s wife, Maria, and their daughter Margherita, and behind them are Saint Margaret (the saint is holding a cross and a dragon is at her feet) and Mary Magdalen (the saint has the perfume bottle to wash Christ’s wounds after the deposition from the cross).

Side panels: left panel with Tommaso Portinari and two sons with St Thomas and St Anthony Abbot.
Right panel: Margherita and daughter Maddalena with St Margherita and Maria Maddelena.

The middle and main panel depicts the Adoration of the shepherds. The Virgin Mary looks down at her baby who is lying directly on the ground on wheat. The wheat is a reference to his future death and thus ensuring salvation for mankind, wheat being symbolic of the Eucharistic host. The masterfully depicted cow and ox to the left of the scene look on silently and reverently. They are in shadow, under the barn shelter; however, the detail in the beautiful muzzle and nose doesn’t go unnoticed. Joseph looks on from the far left of the painting with his hands clasped in pair and sign of his awareness of the holiness of the scene in front of him. His hands catch the light and the realism of the rough worked skin is unbelievable. The three shepherds are grouped on the right. They too have been depicted with extraordinary realism, hyper realism, the antithesis of airbrushing. The painter shows them in the raw; they are ugly and lined after years of living outside with the elements. The painting is skilfully developed on a diagonal which creates a sense of dynamism to the scene, not to mention, uniqueness.

Main panel of Portinari altarpiece, Adoration of the shepherds. 

The delightful shoe, one only in front of Joseph makes the eye notice the individual wheat stalks and the delightful still life in the central foreground. These flowers in the foreground would have been read immediately by the public as religious symbols relating to the people depicted behind. The red carnations symbolise love and the white irises are for purity, the violets are for humility and the blue irises are heaven and the orange lilies for the Passion of Christ.

Detail of the flowers in the foreground of the main panel.

The flanking panels are double sided as the altarpiece would be closed when not being used for ceremonies and prayer. The frontispiece panels depict the Annunciation, the Virgin on the right and the archangel Gabriel on the left. It is executed using the technique of Grisaille. This is a monochrome painting executed in shades of grey.

Cover panels of the altarpiece in grisaille depicting the Annunciation. 

The altarpiece was finished in 1475 it was put on a boat which sailed to Sicily after which the painting was put on a boat to Pisa and then it was brought to Florence on a barge dragged up the Arno river to the porta San Frediano. It was carried by sixteen porters to the church close to the cathedral. When the painting arrived in Florence it caused quite a commotion amongst the artistic community. The painting’s strong realism and microscopic  attention to details coupled with the intense moving humanity in the facial expressions of the shepherds were all so different to the Italian priority given to the ideal aspect of the figures. Domenic Ghirlandaio’s painting of the same subject matter, Adoration of the Magi, from 1585, is exemplary in showing the influence that Hugo van der Goes’s great masterpiece had in the city.

Adoration of the Magi, Domenico Ghirlandaio, egg tempura on wood, Santa Trinita, 1485.

Detail of the shepherds from the main panel of the Portinari altarpiece, Hugo van der Goes,  1477-78.

The painter, Hugo van der Goes,  was from Ghent and very little is known about his life. This painting is considered his masterpiece. He was registered as a painter with the artists' guild in Ghent in 1467. He became the dean of the guild in 1475 and maybe the same year entered a monastery in Brussels. However, he still travelled.  It seems that he suffered from depression and had a mental breakdown in 1481 and died the following year. The Portinari triptych is the only painting which can be ascribed to him with certainty. It is unsigned however. Vasari also mentions it in his Lives of the Artists. 

Monday, May 5, 2014


The splendid palazzo Mellini-Fossi is in via de Benci at number 20. The land was bought by Duccio di Noferi Mellini in the 1460s and the facade that we see today is thought to have been built in the beginning of the 1500s. The style is in line with that of the Cronaco (palazzo Guadagni in piazza Santo Spirito) and Baccio d’Agnolo.

The style reflects a palazzo of a wealthy merchant from the second half of the 1400s to the first half of the 1500s. Each of the three storeys of the palace is demarcated by moulded string courses and it is five window bays wide. There is the characteristic Florentine feature of the bench in the ground floor and a wine door on the right. Finally, there are also the typical extended eaves from the roof. The building was sold numerous times before becoming the property of Marquess Federico Fossi in 1890, explaining the palazzo’s current name, palazzo Mellini-Fossi.

The facade has the most wonderful fresco decoration. They are in good condition after the restoration from the Opificio in 1994-96. However, I can’t imagine what splendour it would have been when just finished in its entirety in the 1570s. This was during the reign of Grand duke Francesco I and his wife, the grand duchess, Joan of Austria, which explains the huge coat of arms in the middle above the main entrance of the palazzo. Half is the Medici crest, the other half, the crest of Joanna of Austria.

Decoration has all but disappeared on the bottom half of the ground floor but it remains for the most part recognisable, on the first and second floors

The decoration depicts scenes from the life of Perseus, from his birth to the most famous events in his life.

Who was Perseus?

His mother was Danae. Her father, Acrisius King of Argos, had no sons and consulted the oracle at Delphi who warned him that one day he would be killed by his daughter’s son who she would have with Zeus. Consequently, to avoid Danae from ever having any contact with the outside world, he kept her in a bronze chamber in the palace open to the sky. But Zeus came to her in a shower of gold. After she had Perseus (a demi-god), Danae’s father wanted to rid himself of both of them to keep his power but,  not willing to provoke the wrath of the gods by killing them both, he cast them into the sea in a wooden chest. They were found by the brother of the ruler of a new land and given shelter and looked after in this new community. The ruler was Polydectes, who fell in love with Danae. Perseus however was protective of his mother and refused to let Danae near him. He hashed a plan to rid himself of Persues. He planned a false marriage and when the guests arrived with presents, Perseus, who was invited, didn’t arrive with anything as they were poor. Polydectes pretended to be furious and called Perseus hopeless. Perseus exclaimed that he could bring any present that he wished. Polydectes demanded the head of Medusa, the Gorgon.

Perseus walked for days on the land of the Gorgons where these frightening women lived with snakes as hair and when you looked at them you turned into stone. He was feeling desparate when one day Hermes (Mercury) and Athena (Minerva) appeared to him. They were all children of Zeus, his half brothers and sisters. Hermes gave him his winged sandals and the sickle, which Cronos (Saturn) used to overpower Uranus, to kill Medusa. Athena gave him a shield so polished that he would be able to see the reflection of Medusa rather than looking at her directly. They told him to go find the Graeae who would tell him how to find the Nymphs of the north who would in turn give him the cap of darkness and a magic wallet as well as tell him how to get to the Gorgon’s lair. The three Graeae were perpetually old cranky women who shared one eye. Perseus hid behind a bush and watched them and then when one handed the eye to another, he sprang out from the bush and grabbed it. He threatened to never give the eye back unless they told him where the nymphs lived, so they did. The nymphs gave Perseus the cap of Darkness, which makes the wearer invisible, and the magic wallet where he can put the head. They told him how to arrive at the Gorgon’s lair. He went very far north until he found an island surrounded by rocks and statues which used to be men but were now turned into stone. He saw medusa sleeping in her lair along with her sisters and beheaded her with the sickle, looking at her on his shield, and put her head in his bag. When her sisters woke up and chased him he put on the cap of Darkness and flew away.

On his way back home he saw Andromeda chained to a rock about to be eaten by a sea monster. He flew down and showed the sea monster Medusa’s head and the monster turned to stone. He freed Andromeda and they were married. There was a fight during the wedding celebrations with Phineus who had had his eye on Andromeda before Perseus came onto the scene, and he was turned to stone also. Flying back home they stopped at Larisa, the birth place of both Danae and Perseus (not that he knew this) and he participated in some games. He threw a discus which hit Acrisius, the king and his grandfather, in the crowd and he died. The oracle was right!

He finally arrived back home with her and entered Polydectes’ court and told his friends to shield their eyes and then showed Medusa’s head and Polydectes and his courtiers turned to stone. He and Andromeda ruled there after.

So the next time that you are standing in front of the palazzo Mellini Fossi check out the scenes:

On the ground floor from left to right:

Perseus slaying the sea monster, Andromeda chained to the rock, the coat of arms of the Medici/Hapsburg (above), Phineus and his followers being turned to stone.
There are eight scenes, from left to right:

Acrisius, king of Argos before the Delphi oracle, Danae seduced by Jupiter, Danae and her newborn child cast into the sea in a wooden chest, Persues receiving the shield from Athena and winged sandals from Hermes, Perseus removing the Graeae’s only eye, Perseus slaying the Gorgon Medusa, Perseus with Pegasus seeking shelter from Atlas, Perseus brandishing the head of Medusa.