Parco Sculture del Chianti

I absolutely ADORE sculpture gardens – the idea of very creative people making something none of the rest of us could ever imagine, and putting it in a setting that opens their idea to all that nature has to offer. So when Alan came across a past New York Times “36 Hours in Chianti” article that mentioned the Parco Sculture del Chianti near Siena, I immediately put it at the top of my “To Do” list for our short visit to that area.

I was not disappointed. It’s FABULOUS!!!! What is disappointing, though, is that no one we talked to knew much about the park…..including the people around Chianti….even though the National Geographic had it as one of “The 10 Best Sculpture Parks” in the world. I presume those in the art world are familiar with it, but since I think it deserves a MUCH wider audience….an audience I’ll call “everyone I know”….I now consider it my duty to tell you, as well as anyone I might meet, all about it. In fact, I was able to start spreading the word the night of my visit, describing it to strangers at the table next to ours during dinner, even though they were heading back to Scotland the following day. No one will escape my enthusiasm!!

First — all the background I know…..which, lucky for you, isn’t much. The park is on 17 heavily wooded acres – a parcel that was bought by contemporary art lovers Piero and Rosalba Giadrossi for the express purpose of turning it into a sculpture garden. The land was absolutely perfect because it had been a wild boar farm, and therefore was already completely fenced. Although not a large property, the 1 kilometer path meanders down a hill, over a bridge crossing a small ravine, and up the other side…..the perfect distance for even non modern art lovers to enjoy a nice walk with wonderful surprises tucked among the trees.

How were the pieces on display chosen, you might ask.  Well, the goal was to have works from artists in countries not usually associated with large sculptures, and who, though known in their country, were not particularly well-known outside. So while many came from the US and Europe, they also have artists who call Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Egypt, S. Korea, Turkey and Singapore home.

Another consideration to the decision process was that the materials be different, resulting in pieces made from rough stone

Keel -- a self-explanatory name

Keel — A self-explanatory name

and rust-coated metal


Chianti — Think wine barrel without the barrel, and with wine making miscellany suspended inside

to highly polished stone


I don’t know the name of this one, and I really can’t explain it except to say that I was in a narrow space where the outside is reflected in the stone.

and finished metal,

Off the Beaten Trail

Off the Beaten Trail



Teak — This one had even me scratching my head. It’s pieces of teak tied to the indigenous oaks. Perhaps it’s meant to represent “2 diverse cultures tied together”.  Still….as a work of art, it’s certainly not going to have the same longevity as Keel….meaning at some point in the future, it will represent “2 diverse cultures disintegrated by time”.



Energy — This was by far my favorite, and there’s no way a photo can do it justice. Think of it as a glass cypress tree. It had to be constructed on the spot, with its central pole being buried over 6 feet in the ground. Its only problem: it’s impossible to clean.


Rainbow Crash

Rainbow Crash — After all the pieces that blend into the woods, it was a pleasant surprise to come upon this.

and combinations of all of the above.



The Giadrossis live across the street from the park in a gorgeous home/museum/gallery built out of a former terra cotta factory. Each artist came to stay with them to visit the park, soak up the atmosphere for inspiration and decide exactly where they wanted their piece to go. I was lucky enough to speak with Dr. Giadrossi when I visited the museum/gallery and he said there were very few of the artists’ ideas he and his wife turned down. He also mentioned that while the artists were completely different from each other, the one common thread they had was that all 25 enjoyed drinking. He didn’t exactly say that it was a requirement, but I got the impression that he felt inspiration was considerably enhanced when sitting around the table enjoying a glass or 2 of Chianti Classico.

I asked how the pieces were installed. Some were built back in the artist’s own studio and shipped whole to the park, while others came in pieces with explicit directions for assembling. I picture this as bringing home a box for an Ikea cabinet, but with a vastly more interesting finished product. In several cases, the artist had to come back to supervise the installation, and in a few (like Energy), the pieces themselves had to be produced on the site.

The whole point of a sculpture garden is that the setting itself is an integral part of the artist’s work. So while I have shown you photos of a few pieces, a photo can never represent more than about 1/8 of the actual experience. Imagine walking up the drive to the museum/gallery and coming upon this:

The Milk Factory

The Milk Factory

or this in the back yard of the house:


Of course, it’s nice to have a “back yard” that’s big enough for these giant peppers….

The Chianti region of Italy, between Florence and Siena, is one of the most iconic and most visited, and since you need a car in order to enjoy its lovely small towns and drop-dead gorgeous countryside, plug Parco Sculture del Chianti into your GPS. I’m betting that night at dinner even those of you who normally hate regular museums willl be pestering the people at the next table….telling them that they simply MUST go.



Italian Paranoia

We have friends who have a house in an extremely small hamlet just outside of Orvieto. They wanted to have some carpentry work done, and when they told their neighbor that they were going to use someone from Orvieto, he gravely warned them that they should never trust any workmen from Orvieto.

This kind of paranoia is quite common. People from one town almost never trust the people from the next town over. It’s been going on for so many centuries that it has probably evolved into an actual gene that now gets passed from one generation to the next. A bit of history helps to explain this.

Americans tend to think of Italy as an old country – not realizing that its unification just happened in 1860. The reason for this lack of awareness is we stopped hearing much about it after we got through learning about the Roman Empire (history class), or Caesar’s Gallic Wars (Latin class), or the Italian Renaissance (art history class). But when the Roman Empire fell, the resulting pieces were taken over by a variety of groups. Sicily and the southern provinces were invaded by a succession of foreign entities such as the Arabs, the Normans and the Spanish, to name just a few. In the north, the larger, more powerful cities became city-states – making their own rules and enforcing them with their own armies. Sometimes a few would band together to wreck havoc on a neighboring city-state they felt was out of line.  However, like global politics today, the enemy of my enemy becomes my friend, and the opposite is also true; if my new friend decides to change and become a friend of my enemy, he will automatically become my new enemy. So you could never really trust your neighboring towns since loyalties could easily switch back and forth after the various cities’ leaders had a long weekend of partying together and perhaps passing a bit of money under the table to one side or the other.

Two prominent enemies from antiquity were Siena and Florence. They had many battles over several hundred years, with Florence winning the last one, thereby becoming what I would call The Victor. However, you wouldn’t know that if you were talking to a Senese. All they ever talk about is the Battle of Montaperti in 1260, and the reason they talk so much about it is this was their one major win and they did it through treachery – thereby increasing its story value. (As an aside – my poor Orvieto happened to be fighting with the loser in this particular battle.) You would think that after 784 years, the Senese might give their boasting a rest….but you’d be wrong. Though no arrows and swords are exchanged between the 2 cities today, you will always hear from the Fiorentini how poorly the Senese speak the noble Italian language…..or from the Senese how poorly those Fiorentini drive, etc., etc., etc.

In my piece about Siena’s Palio*, I mentioned that in the hierarchy of Italian relationships the family is always first and foremost.  Second would be the town IF it’s a small town. If you’re in a larger one, your loyalty is to the neighborhood that lays within the sound of the bells from your particular church.  This is call campanilismo  — from the word campanile, meaning bell tower.  Third is the larger town itself, followed by the region and at the very end – the country. A French person generally thinks of him/herself as being French; Italians think of themselves as being Napolitani or Lucchesi or Veneziani. Their only time for nationalism is during the World Cup. This means that those of you coming to Italy this summer will find a lot more Italian flags around than you would have last summer or will next summer.

So you can see how centuries of never being able to count on anyone outside your family or close neighborhood would breed a form of national distrust. I mean after all — everyone in Umbria knows that those people from Perugia have always been thugs……

*If you’d care to refresh your memory — here’s the link:


Italian Construction Magic

The first time I saw Italian “construction magic” at work was in 1998.  It was at the Doges Palace in Venice’s wonderful Piazza San Marco.  Take a look at this picture:


The only reason you can easily tell that the upper left-hand section of the Palace front is a screen and not the real building is because they included a cut-out showing one of the interior’s ornate ceilings.  However, the row of columns and railings just below that, as well as the ground-level arches, are also part of the construction screen.  The lower section looked so realistic that my travel partner could not see the difference between the real arches on the right and the false on the left, and would not believe that it was just a reproduction until he got right up to it and tried to walk through one of them. It’s trompe l’oeil on a very large scale, but since I’ve never been able to pronounce trompe l’oeil, I’m calling it “construction magic”.

Venice was obviously getting itself prettied-up that year, because on the other side of Piazza San Marco, they had also disguised their renovation work on the famous clock tower:


Since that trip I have seen many wonderful examples of this attempt to make construction sites an interesting part of the surroundings instead of an eye-sore — and they’ve all been in Italy.  I’ve never seen even a hint of this kind of thing in the US…..perhaps because we tend to tear down and rebuild bigger, rather than restore.

However I can certainly understand why Italy goes to this amount of trouble.  The country has an almost embarrassing amount of architectural treasures worthy of keeping in tip-top shape, and for which millions of people travel thousands of miles, spending millions of dollars just to see.  Tourists don’t want to get to the Piazza San Marco and see 2 of its most famous structures wrapped in shrouds.  Yes — they might be disappointed to not see the actual stones, but at least the reproduction is better than having them completely hidden.

Some of the screens are incredibly realistic — such as the Doges Palace — and surely came from photos.  Others are more like an artist’s rendering of what the building should  look like after it’s done.  For instance, here’s a rather humble building in Piazza della Rotunda in Rome, where the Pantheon is the center of attention:

20012 Solo-Rome-Constr 3

I’m assuming that whoever was in charge of the construction site decisions felt that in such a prestigious piazza, they just could not have the whole building covered in dingy cloth like that in those other 3 vertical panels, but nor did they want to go to the trouble (make that: expense) of reproducing the whole building. So they gave the front a bit of personality with window boxes and shuttered French doors, showing that they planned to eventually make the building worthy of its prime position near the Pantheon. Same with this building on the right side of Trevi Fountain:

2002-Solo-Rome-Constr 1

After seeing the great job Venice did with its Doges Palace, I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed several years later when I saw the bottom part of Siena’s Duomo.  The top was so promising, but then……  I’d like to think that perhaps I was just there on the wrong day and a week later they would have extended the screen down to the ground.


All of these renovations were for either prestigious buildings or more modest ones in a prestigious neighborhood.  However, this past Fall I was in the VERY small town of Solomeo, just outside of Perugia.  Solomeo’s claim to fame is that it was chosen by Brunello Cucinelli to be the site of the “factory” for his beautiful, high-end casual clothing business.  Demanding the same quality workmanship in the renovations as he does in his clothes, he has rejuvenated the run-down village bit by bit and installed his offices and workshops in the restored buildings.  Right across from what is now the showroom was this home in the process of being re-done:

Solomeo home

While we can’t tell what the original looked like, I would say that in its finest hour, it was probably a nice house, but certainly not a great house….not one considered to be an “important” building by anyone……other than Signor Cucinelli and perhaps the previous owner.  But look at the work that went into the screen.  Here’s a front view:

Solomeo house -- front view.

I was fascinated by the detail of the curtains in the windows, the shadows of the shudders, the carving on the door, the reflection of a tree in the upper right window glass and the fact that they’ve landscaped in front of the screen.  Few private people have the money to go to this kind of trouble when they’re already paying an arm and leg for the restoration work itself, so I hope little Solomeo adequately appreciates having a benefactor who shares his desire for beauty with the whole town.

Obviously I’ve spent a lot more time admiring this “construction magic” through the years than doing any useful research on it so I could give you solid information along with the photos……like who authorizes the installation?… much does it cost?…..where are the screens produced?  But my fear is that knowing the facts might take away a bit of the magic.  Then I’d have to come up with another name.  And worst of all — I might have to learn how to pronounce trompe l’oeil…..


A very HAPPY NEW YEAR  to everyone!!!!!  I hope 2014 finds you traveling to all the places you’ve always dreamed of visiting.

Scenes of Siena

We make it a point to visit Siena every year… least once.  It’s a town I’ve liked ever since my first trip in 1990, and our visit last month did nothing to tarnish our high opinion of it.

My first 3 stays were just quick overnights on my way to somewhere else, in hotels slightly outside the town walls.  It wasn’t until my 4th stay that I really developed an appreciation for Siena because I was finally INside the walls – and it didn’t hurt that I was there for 2 weeks.

Why 2 weeks?  Well, this was the beginning of what is turning out to be a lifelong quest to learn Italian, and Siena was noted for having several good schools.  Unfortunately, in my ranking of personal language studies, this particular school falls at the absolute bottom.  I don’t remember learning even one thing from it – not a word or idiomatic expression or verb tense.  However, it was far from a waste of time.  I met my friend Ingrid, a lawyer from Sweden, and we immediately decided it was our duty each day after class to try a different restaurant for lunch, accompanied by a different wine.  It was a hugely rewarding 2 weeks!!!  In fact, my favorite find back then is still a favorite, and we ate dinner there once again on last month’s visit.

Siena has many great museums, but in all of my visits there, I’ve only been to 2.  One is the Museo dell’Opera del DuomoOpera means work or works, and most large churches have a museum nearby, containing treasures (or works) that were once in them, but for whatever reason, are no longer.  For instance, the Opera del Duomo in Florence has Ghiberti’s original baptistery brass doors to protect them from the ravages of pollution.  There’s also a Michelangelo Pieta’ containing a self-sculpture standing behind Mary and Jesus.  We’re talking top quality stuff here!  In Florence’s case, if I had to make a choice between seeing the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and the Duomo, I would definitely pick the Opera.

But getting back to Siena – I highly recommend its Opera del Duomo, but if I had to make the same choice, the Duomo would win.  From the outside, it’s very reminiscent of Orvieto’s Duomo, and they obviously had many architectural influences in common.  When you first walk into Orvieto’s, its stark gray and cream striped walls present a scene of calm after the dazzle of the façade.  In Siena, the dazzle not only continues – it intensifies.  It seems that every inch of internal surface is covered with something worthy of examination.  It’s almost impossible for your eyes to transmit all those images to your brain without your brain sounding an art overload alarm.

Ahhh…. I can never pass up an opportunity to pull out the photo of Orvieto’s gorgeous Duomo.

Siena’s Duomo. I think I’m being absolutely 100% fair-minded when I say that I feel OUR Duomo is much more beautiful. This one has just a little too much going on for my taste.

The other Senese museum I’ve visited is the Palazzo Pubblico, and it, too, is filled with incredible treasurers. It sits prominently on Il Campo (meaning “the field”) – the famous shell-shaped main piazza of town.  Building began in 1297, and the fact that so much effort and money were put into such a prominent non-religious building at that time shows, to my mind, a government with a very high sense of public responsibility.

Siena’s Piazza Pubblico. And yes, you can climb the 400 (although some say the number is over 500) steps to the top of the Torre del Mangia at left for what I’m sure is a fabulous view over the town. I’ve never felt a need to do that.

Whenever anyone ever talks about Siena and the Campo, the Palio is always mentioned. (If you don’t know anything about the Palio and are so inclined, you can go back and read my 11/23/11 blog called “Siena: Palio Participation”.)  Plenty of my friends have witnessed this horse racing spectacle that takes place twice a year within the Campo, but since I never go to Munich during Octoberfest nor New Orleans during Mardi Gras, I’ve never joined the thousands who cram into the piazza each year to see the Palio. Lou’s son John spent 6 months going to a good Italian school in Siena, just after college.  This was before the days of rampant tourism, and Siena was so manageable that he easily got a reasonably priced apartment with wonderful windows overlooking the Campo.  He figured he’d have a front row seat for the Palio, and he wouldn’t have to get out of his pajamas to watch.  But even back in those less tourist-intensive days, the Palio produced an almost religious fervor, and it turned out John hadn’t read the fine print on his lease.  The reality was that he rented the apartment EXCEPT for the days of the Palio, at which time the landlord sold seats for his window space, meaning strangers were milling around his apartment and he wasn’t allowed in without a ticket.

Today the Campo is filled with both tourists and locals all year, and it really is a wonderful place for people watching.  I’m sure that now, bad seats for the Palio cost as much as John paid each month for his apartment back then, and the current monthly rent is probably more than the cost of his first car.

The most famous person from Siena is St. Catherine.  She and St. Francis of Assisi are the 2 patron saints of Italy, and though she was young when she died, she is attributed with bringing the papacy back to Italy from France during the late 1300’s.  I was intrigued when I heard her head and thumb were somewhere in Siena.  It turned out that their resting place was just down from our school in the Basilica of San Domenico.  This was the year before I saw the monks’ bones artistically displayed at Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini in Rome (2/8/12 blog, if you’re interested), so the idea of randomly placed body parts was strange enough that I had to go take a look.  I’m afraid San Domenico is a really uninspiring church – deadly dull if you don’t count the head and thumb.  The following year when I was in Rome for the first time, I stumbled into Santa Maria Sopra Minerva near the Pantheon, which just happens to be THE most beautiful church I’ve ever seen.  And who should be under the altar?  You guessed it:  St. Catherine’s body!  I’m always amazed at how people traveled from place to place back in those harsh days, but perhaps even more amazing is how body parts traveled around – a saint’s leg bone in Italy, the hand in France.  As for poor St. Catherine – I was glad to see at least part of her had a decent resting place.

I’ll leave you with one last piece of advice:  Park in one of Siena’s parking garages; do not park on the street.  You might think you’re in a legal parking spot, but you’re probably wrong.  We found out the hard way – at midnight, after a large dinner, in a drizzle, with friends who had a cranky 17-month old child.  Parking garage.  Trust me on this one……


I want to wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving……even those of you who aren’t Americans.  It’s our nicest holiday and I think it translates well into any culture because its only job is to remind us of how very lucky we are, and how thankful we should be for that luck.

The time between Thanksgiving and New Years is always hectic, so I will be putting out pieces every other week rather than weekly.   I know your alternate Wednesdays just won’t be the same, but I hope you’ll use that extra 5 to do something useful — like get 5 minutes more sleep.  Live it up!!

Siena: Palio Participation

It was during the never-ending drying phase in the Siena laundromat that all the hoop-la started outside in the form of several marching drum and trumpet groups echoing down the narrow stone-walled street, accompanied by their followers chanting what sounded like aggressive European soccer fight songs.

View toward Il Campo from laundromat. You can feel the anticipation.

This was back in my Category 2 days. I was in the third week of a month-long stay in Italy, and I was ecstatic to finally be in a town with a laundromat. The other American (and believe me – only Americans are desperate enough to waste valuable vacation time in a laundromat) and I followed the chanters the 25 feet to the edge of Il Campo, Siena’s rightfully famous clam-shell shaped main piazza. We couldn’t walk in the Campo because every single inch was taken up with expectant Senesi (what people from Siena are called), all looking up at the Palazzo Pubblico.

Palazzo Pubblico on a normal day.

They were staring at 7 banners waving just below a high row of windows. At a few minutes past 7:00, one of the windows opened and an 8th banner was held out. One section of the crowd, along with its drums and trumpets, went wild. A few minutes later a 9th banner appeared, and a different section of the crowd went wild. At this point, even two Americans worrying about their half-dry T-shirts could feel that the anticipation was at absolute fever pitch. And then the next window was opened for the 10th banner, and the section that went wild made the first two sections look like they had taken a vow of silence.

However, the balance of the throng was obviously devastated, as demonstrated by the young woman right in front of us who became hysterical — crying and sobbing as if her boyfriend had dumped her the day of the prom. I said to my laundromat buddy that in order to generate this much passion, the whole thing had to be involved with the Palio – Siena’s rightfully infamous horse race — and which of the town’s 17 contrade (plural of contrada) was going to be included.

A contrada is basically an organized neighborhood, and the best way to explain its importance to the Senesi is to give you the social hierarchy in their lives in order of importance: family, contrada, town, region, and far at the end, country. Your particular contrada is based on where you were born, and it never changes. It is not unheard-of for couples to separate, returning to their home contrade during the Palio season.  I have also heard tales of soil from the home contrada being placed under an infant’s bed if the baby should be born outside of Siena.  We’re talking serious here.

But back to the Palio itself. For some reason, I had mistakenly thought that there would be some kind of qualifying procedure involving the horses in order to determine who would participate in the race. How silly of me! This is Italy; of course it would be random! The story is this: There are 2 races a year – July 2nd and August 16th (except for any year deemed extraordinary, such as 2000, when there can be another in September — but we’re not even going think about that). Only 10 of the 17 contrade can be in the race, leaving 7 out each time. Those 7 are automatically in the next year’s race on that date.

The 7 original banners on the Palazzo Pubblico represented the automatic contrade who did not make the previous July 2nd race. The method for choosing the other 3 has been in place since the race’s origins way back in the 1300’s. The “responsible authorities” use what is described as a flask with a long neck, into which pieces representing each contrada are placed. It’s turned over and the first 3 pieces that come out are the lucky participants. This flask is also used to determine the order of the horses at the start of the race. It’s sort of like a lottery drawing, except that — call me cynical — I’d be quite surprised to find there aren’t a few bundles of euros pressed discreetly into a hand or 2 somewhere along the way for the honor of a particular contrada.

Of course it would be nice if your contrada could be in every race, and it is possible to be locked out of both races in a year. But if that’s the case, they’d be assured of participating in both the following year, no matter what happened. So it was difficult for me to empathize with the hysterical young woman in front of me. Disappointment would have been appropriate, but hysteria seemed a bit dramatic. However, that is the degree of emotion the Senesi feel for their spectacle. All Senesi that I’ve ever met have appeared to be quite rational and refined in every other respect, but I warn you: just don’t get them started on their contrada!!

Each winning team gets marching rights through the streets, as demonstrated by the Istrice (porcupine) contrada in 2008. The prized Palio, by the way, is the banner in front.


1)  I’d like to thank those of you who sent along photos of your furry companions.  It’s great to see there are so many well-loved friends.  And for those of you who were thinking about sending a photo but just didn’t get around to it — there’s no time limit on this.  Just send them whenever you can.

2)  Holiday time is busy for everyone, and I’d rather have you scurrying around shopping and boosting our suffering economy, than reading blogs about Italy every week.  Therefore, I’m going to cut back to every other week until 2012.  Thanksgiving is an American holiday, but I think its message applies everywhere.  So I wish all of you, no matter where you’re from, a great Thanksgiving, and I’ll see you in 2 weeks….