Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Earth's Natural Treasures


Just beyond this elegantly rusted applique, personalized for the Liceo Machiavelli, the classics secondary school of Lucca founded by Elisa Buonaparte, is the Gabinetto di Storia Naturale, Lucca's diminutive, antique, natural history museum.

It's no longer open to the public, sadly, due to funding problems and the fact that the museum is contained within a public school where the traffic of visitors might disturb the very serious students—this is a preparatory school of the very highest standards. Above is an old photograph of a curator at work.

The museum was founded by the grand duke of Tuscany, Leopoldo II di Borbone, and opened its doors in 1857. Originally contained within the Lucca Ducal Palace, it eventually moved to its current location. This is a look at the museum's 16th century ceiling.

Nothing has been touched since its installation here in the mid-nineteenth century. This stand of study documents and illustrations is of the period. (Most of the floors are original except for the one in this first room.)

Many of the original hand-written notes and labels remain.

Of great local importance is this collection of marbles. Just as animals sometimes do, marbles become extinct—a sad thought!

The antique cases still have their original flawed glass.

And they're full of oddities—I'd never seen this shellfish before.

There's something very chic about the look of it all.

It's like the Deyrolle shop in Paris.

These study centers, with their saddle-shaped chairs, stand here and there about the museum. This one has been appropriated as a stand for a tortoise. This floor is original; it's done in terracotta bricks which were then stuccoed and painted "al tappeto," to resemble carpeting.

The collection includes a mummy from Thebes, found in 1820.

I love cats of any kind. This one was once wild here in Lucca but can no longer be found—is it extinct, or has it merely gone away to more hospitable shores? No one here to ask. My thanks to the Liceo Machiavelli for this private visit, and to Gil Cohen, who lends his teaching skills to the English department on a volunteer basis, for arranging it.

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Wedding Gift


My friends the Gambogi, whom I've spoken of many times here, are a talented couple of potters, and I asked them to collaborate with me in producing a unique wedding gift for a young couple from Madrid who will marry here in Lucca in September. I've always admired sets of three pots, the center one being a bit different from its companions to the left and right and so I gave them a small sketch of the forms that I like. The rest was up to them.

The insides are the same rather timely shade of green.

The pair of lidded pots are dotted with with little stuck-on balls of clay as if to create studs—this is a common feature of works out of this design house.

I don't believe this young couple follow my blog, but if they do and happen to see what they're getting I'm afraid they'll have to wait for the grand occasion.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On the Trail of Sergio Troncoso


A labyrinth is an ancient symbol that relates to wholeness. It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path. It represents a journey to our own center and back again out into the world. Labyrinths have long been used as meditation and prayer tools and they are an archetype with which we can have a direct, deeply affecting experience. Walking the labyrinth can be considered an initiation in which one awakens the knowledge encoded within. Here is Sergio Troncoso standing in front of the famed labyrinth carving at the Duomo of San Martino, one of the world's most ancient surviving representations of the symbol. I truly hope that his visit to Lucca might have been the sort of journey described above. Troncoso was born of Mexican immigrants and was raised in El Paso. He now lives in New York where he writes in a "straightforward, light-handed style reminiscent of Grace Paley and Raymond Carver, spinning charming tales that reflect his experiences in two worlds." (Book jacket notes from The Last Tortilla & Other Stories.) This is a man who knows more than most about journeys.

The Last Tortilla and Other Stories won the Premio Aztlan and the Southwest Book Award. The Nature of Truth, his second book, is a novel about a Yale research student who discovers that his boss, a renowned professor, hides a Nazi past. The author graduated from Harvard College and studied international relations and philosophy at Yale University. He won a Fulbright scholarship to Mexico and was inducted into the Hispanic Scholarship Fund's Alumni Hall of Fame. His new book, From this Wicked Patch of Dust, to be published in September, explores a family’s conflicted desires: to honor the past that connected them closely to one another and to embrace the future that launches them toward separate destinies.

Also out next month is this intriguing collection of short non-fiction pieces, Crossing Borders. In this volume Troncoso takes the reader on an intensely personal look at the inner workings of his mind as he seeks his personal truth through reflection. He draws the reader into this labyrinthian journey through reflections on his own personal relationships: with his wife and her battle with cancer, his sons, his parents, his grandmother, his culture, with his Ivy-League colleagues and more.

It was a pleasure to have the Troncoso family (Sergio, Aaron, Isaac and wife Laura) in Lucca and I look forward to the release of these two fascinating new books by an intriguing author with a rare gift and a great sense of his own unique place in the American literary landscape. Check out his blog,

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Letter


A letter arrived from another place, as if from another time.

From Gaye Tapp—well we all know who that is, don't we?

A curious, cryptic card, manipulated and dressed, pasted and over-pasted, torn and trimmed, a message but an anti-message. A medium. A construct. A deconstruct. The inscription, like a title of a book, reads "On the Road to the Asylum." Am I to be driven crazy by this?

An envelope within the card within the envelope. I don't remember writing that note to myself! Am I mad yet?

William Morris, yes, of course. I seem to vaguely ...

And the sisters, mine? I don't recall any sisters ...

The suggested remedy.

The dreaded relapse!

A week at Keeley Institute, they've booked my room. Perfect rest, retirement and privacy. Yes. That'll be lovely. Thank you Little Augury, I've needed this break, but let's just keep the whole unfortunate incident to ourselves, shall we! I love you.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tomato Tarte Tatin


But so little is happening in these glorious summer hours. The best moments are celebrated with good food (like this tomato version of a classic French tarte tatin—needless to say, the tomatoes and sweet basil come from our own garden) and a few good friends to share it with. Sorry, I have little more to say just now—I'm busy at the swimming pool!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Bite at the Beach


The beach at Versilia is one of the longest and most popular of the Italian Riviera, and Forte dei Marmi, once summer home to the Italian royal family, is the jewel in its crown. For those looking for a crescent-shaped Mediterranean cove of calm and natural beauty this would hardly be the appropriate choice. It's a busy place with lots of attractions for both day and night and young people love it for its endless activities and the companionship of kids their own age they easily encounter. Gil and I rarely ever go there.

This is the view looking north towards Carara. There are none of the highrise developments you'd expect to see on the Costa Brava. But still, it's an atmosphere you either love or hate.

It's one bathing club after another and each one has literally hundreds of sun loungers and tents—this is no place to get away from it all!

The preferred mode of transportation is the bicycle. Here they are lined up in front of Orso Maggiore, today's luncheon destination.

From the roadside parking area little is given away as to what lies beyond this discreet contemporary entrance.

A restaurant on the beach that brings the beach in as if it were an enormous mural on the far wall!

There's a touch of New England to the blue and white simplicity.

And to the charming little American Bar.

But the rows of changing cabins along the side patio are typically Italian.

They make three kinds of bread daily in a wood oven.

And what could be more perfect for a summer's day than a warm seafood salad of scampi, octopus, shrimps, squid and vegetables!