Tuesday, November 30, 2010

La Dolce Lucca

Built between the 11th and 14th centuries, the church of San Michele in Foro is named after the Roman forum that used to stand at this intersection of the Roman street grid in the center of Lucca. But what is happening here? Have aliens landed and are they dismantling the old church's glorious façade?

One recalls this unforgettable image out of classic Italian cinema. A helicopter transports a statue of Christ over an ancient Roman aqueduct while a second, Marcello's news helicopter, follows it into the city. The news helicopter is momentarily sidetracked by a group of bikini-clad women sunbathing on the rooftop of a high-rise apartment building. Hovering above, Marcello uses gestures to elicit phone numbers from them but fails in his attempt then shrugs and continues on following the statue on to Saint Peter's Square.

The Romanesque façade of San Michele, Lucca's most celebrated church, features busts of important men of the age rather than mythological or biblical figures. But what about this statue these men are removing? I don't remember ever seeing it up there among the others that are all so far superior in quality.

Poetic moments like this one, from Fellini's La Dolce Vita, resonate across ages and cultures. Forty years after it was shot this image is still a portentous comment about the times in which we live.

And the statue these men are lowering to the ground? It was an exercise performed, last Saturday, by the rescue division of the Fine Arts Authority of Italy, a demonstration of how Italy's patrimony was recovered after the earthquake in L'aquilla almost two years ago to the date. Curating Italy's great treasures is no minor task. When the statue reached the ground it met with applause from the crowded piazza.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


The sense of lyricism and of proportion in the works of the Italian composer, Luigi Boccherini (February 19, 1743 – May 28, 1805) is truly impressive, as was his creativity and productivity. Born here in Lucca to a musical family, he accepted a position in a Vienna orchestra when he was just 14. In time he would write an enormous number of large-scale chamber works. His output includes 91 string quartets (Haydn wrote 83), an astonishing 137 quintets for various combinations of strings, as well as multitudes of trios, keyboard quintets, sextets, sonatas and other works.

Sculptor Daphné du Barry created this fine and respectful statue of the great Lucchese composer and it stands in front of the Istituto Superiore di Studi Musicali Luigi Boccherini in Piazza Del Suffragio, Lucca. Du Barry has achieved significant notoriety of late as creator of the memorial to Prince Ranier III which now stands in the Monaco Palace Gardens—she's also done statues of Princess Grace and of Prince Albert.

The famous music school opened on August 14, 1842 (though this building obviously predates it by at least two hundred years) by order of Duke Carlo Ludovico di Borbone and under the directorship of Giovanni Pacini. It's one of the oldest music conservatories in Italy and certainly one of the most charming in appearance. Andrea Bocelli was president until 2003!

In the entry hall students have the luxury of relaxing in some of the original furniture acquired for the institute in the 1840s—with their heads so full of music do they realize what they're sitting on? This seat seems to be Lucchese, and from the late 18th century; you can't help but admire the extraordinary simplicity and subtle nobility of its lines!

Boccherini has been immortalized in bronze and in marble and in paint on canvas—these are just a few of the many portraits of the great composer on display here at the institute.

In Piazza Del Suffragio, one of the most charming little corners of the old city of Lucca, students might congregate in front of the Boccherini Institute's portals where they can gaze admiringly at Chiesa di S. Giulia and its 13th century façade while listening to the strains of cellos emanating from the music school's windows off to the left.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Lunch in Artimino

One of my favorite Tuscan restaurants is Da Delfina in Artimino, in the hills to the west of Florence. This is their menu.

The view from the restaurant's terrace, open for dining in the warmer months, looks out upon this enormous Medici villa, sometimes referred to as the villa of 100 chimneys.

And inside the restaurant itself you dine under a rustic vaulted ceiling with its hanging fiaschi (straw bound bottles), commemorative plates and hunting trophies.

You nibble on these breaded meatballs as you look over Da Delfina's spotless menu printed fresh each day and dated—always a good sign in any restaurant anywhere!

Along might come a "taste" of the zuppa di verdura with a drizzle of the new Carmignano oil on top.

The wine ought to be local—when the Medici held a wedding they always drank Carmignano wine, felt to be the best of the region.

The typical bread, made without almost any salt at all, is exactly the right vehicle for the tasty country fare to come.

You might chose wholewheat tagliatelli with pancetta, scallions, onion and a grating of pecorino cheese.

Or the home made ravioli of zucca (squash)—state of the art confection here, super thin and with a generous apron of pasta all around the filling!

The fagottini of cabbage stuffed with vegetables, topped with a light tomato sauce and an accompaniment of polenta. You can easily be a vegetarian here in Tuscany. So many of the dishes on the menus are meat-free—but not because of fashion, because that's the way it's always been.

I very seldom eat meat in fact, and never red meat, but I'm very fond of Da Delfina's guinea fowl cooked in a wood oven in Vin Santo with myrtle berries and served with roasted potatoes. I love the complete lack of chic styling here, no rectangular Chinese import plates, no smears of balsamic vinegar, no foams and denatured ingredients meant to deceive and awe-inspire, just the best of fine eating the whole gastronomic world has to offer! www.dadelfina.it

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Bedroom Bis

In the mid-nineteenth century furniture in Europe took on that charming bourgeois style, lending a bit of fantasia to the neoclassical. It's thought that these armchairs are from Piemonte in the north of Italy—I have four of them in my bedroom here in Massa Macinaia.

I bought this clock (19th century English) at an auction here in Lucca more than twenty years ago. It's of painted bronze; a basket of flowers in filigree is the motif. The pair of candlesticks, adapted to electric lights, are early 19th century, in the style of Egyptian columns like those of Obo.

And on the wall is this French photograph from the late 1800s: Egypt, a few boys gather by an old city wall while reflected in the background are my gilded bronze columns of Obo, shown above.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Glance around my Bedroom

My taste for colonial style must be firmly set in my DNA. But it's not the colonial of New England I'd been unconsciously striving for here in my second floor bedroom at Villa Massei; it's that of the Orient—a colonial taste, say, that offers space to the Asian collectibles you've gathered along your way from Amsterdam to your outpost of the Dutch East India Company. But there's a bit of Venice here as well, teamed up with the here and now—let's be honest: this room is nothing if not eclectic!

The chair is Italian, Charles X, and it's leather has comforted many a weary old soul since 1830, the year of its manufacture—recovering it would be a pity. The fabric of the cushion is by the noble weavers of Antigua, Guatemala.

I bought this guéridon from an antique dealer in Damascus. I might have chosen one of the new ones they had but when they placed them next to this fine piece I had to spend that extra bit—there was no comparison. I think it looks especially exotic upon this Berber carpet from the Atlas Mountains.

The fondo letto is my creation. The fabric is Bedouin from the Syrian desert. As for the carpet, it was interesting to recently learn that even in colonial New England they favored straw matting on their floors in the summer months.

These Victorian game chairs remind us of the fact that the sun never sets on the British Empire. When I bought them, here in Lucca more than twenty-five years ago, they were upholstered in the most awful green fabric. Removing it, I saw that they had once been finished in paglia di Vienna (you can see a bit of it peeking out beneath the white cushion). Thank goodness there are still a few people out there who know how to restore this charming cane weaving, which was so popular in the 19th century!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Room With a View, or a Few

Quite a while ago I showed Gil Cohen's study in my post called A Private Study and this is the view from one of his windows, of our Orange Garden as it looked this past August. The rose on the wall is Sea Foam and the potted oranges are Citrus mites.

This is the view from my bedroom window filled with ripening persimmons still clinging to the old tree's branches even though most of the leaves have flown off in the November rain and winds. In a few weeks the fruit will be red and soft, ready to bring in for our winter table.

This is the view from the sitting room of Italian author Raffaele La Capria on the island of Capri. It's now the holiday home of our friends Antonio and Piera Fontana. I took this photograph one recent mid-September evening of the famed Faraglioni and a single lonely yacht heading off towards Sardegna.

And this is the view to end all views—if quantity were the bottom line. The astronauts aboard the International Space Station see Italy from 350 kilometers up framed in their round window with all of its evening illumination—there's even my little town of Massa Macinaia down there making its modest contribution to that blaze of light!

Monday, November 15, 2010

La macinatura

La Visona is just one of several olive mills in the vicinity of Massa Macinaia. This one is from the 18th century. Though it's mostly dark and useless throughout much of the year, during olive harvest, from October till Christmas, the place is a hive of busy activity.

We bring in the olives in crates such as these, and the management inspects them to see that they're up to a certain standard—if not, you're unceremoniously sent home!

The olives are welcomed and washed by this machine and the leaves and stems are sifted out.

The new oil, as the olives are stone-pressed, is filtered through dozens of layers of these basket-woven mats. The solid waste is sent off to larger commercial oil producers who repress it, treat it, bottle and sell it as the ordinary oil most of the world uses (unaware).

In the end, the oil is passed through this centrifuge and comes out here (below). This oil, the first cold pressing, has almost a peppery quality to it and it's best eaten raw as a garnish over seasonal dishes such as la zuppa. It's low in acidity, it comes from a small farm here in the Compitese, it has never suffered any stress nor has it been bottled or shipped. It's olio extra vergine, and it's the best that money can buy!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

La raccolta delle olive

We have nearly a thousand olive trees here at Villa Massei, but unfortunately not all of them are good producers. Many of them had been long abandoned before our arrival here in 1982, and still more of them were lost—but they grow back—in a forest fire of two years ago. This is the harvest season now and we all look forward to tasting the first pressing. This, above, is a view from one of our olive groves towards the Pisa Mountains and the village of Sant'Andrea di Compito.

Nets are spread out on the ground under the trees and then the fruit is shaken off, by hand, with a bamboo pole—or an electric picker, which more and more people seem to be using these days. What lands is always a mix of color, as not all the fruit reaches the same ripeness at once.

One of our oldest trees, this one has stood here for more than three hundred years—but olive trees can live to be a thousand.

At the top of All'Uccelliera, our highest olive grove, the view of the city of Lucca (with towers in the center distance) is breathtaking. We're surrounded by olive groves in Massa Macinaia, all producing that famous Lucca olive oil, which is arguably among the best in the world. The mountains beyond are the Apuan Alps, home of Carrara marble.

At the end of a day's picking the olives are stored in the old cellar until we have enough to take to the mill. Below, the road home and the farm house where our farmer and his family live. In my next post, we'll press the olives and see the new oil.