Monthly Archives: August 2011

Arrivederci Roma!

The view of the Arno River from our balcony

Could the title of my last post from Italy be anything but: Arrivederci  Roma!

We have enjoyed this holiday so much but after a month away, getting home to Mérida is all Jorge and I can think about. The last leg of our journey is getting closer, and we are feeling excited to see our daughter and friends… I can’t wait to swim in my pool and sleep in my own bed.

But I also know that once we have settled back into our routines, memories of this time will often saunter into our hearts and minds.

One of the best things about staying here in Florence has been our apartment. We are located on the right bank of the Arno River; our view is of the old city, perched above swaying cyprus and birch trees. We never tire of watching the water birds and otter feeding on the banks. There’s so much going on all day long, and in the evenings the music carries downwind from the small bars that line the shore.

For the past five days, there has been the excitement of 17 delegations competing for top catch in the “International Pole Fishing Tournament” to be held here over the weekend.  We’ve watched them positioning and practicing across the water  and to think… we’ll miss seeing which country wins!

“Costco” won’t cut it for us anymore… we’ll mourn the fact that we can no longer shop at Florence’s mammoth mercato, nor in the small neighborhood negozio de alimentari.  We have found the most delectable and sometimes mysterious edibles… We easily identified the olive oil, truffles, and porcini mushrooms, but a couple of days ago we figured out that the “pate” we’ve been scarfing down is actually tripe.

We know it’s time to detox from the daily bottle (sometimes plural) of vino and the limoncello every night…   My cholesterol will certainly lower once I stop my daily intake of seafood, rich cheeses and spicy sausage. But oh, it has all tasted so deliizioso!

The confusion between the Italian language and our familiar español will no longer leave me looking aghast at what I THINK I’ve heard. The funniest example being the Florentine word for “cherubs”… it is “putti,” which sure doesn’t mean plump baby angels in our corner of the world!

And the Florentine sense of style! Everything here is chic. The men and women both dress with gauzy, gutsy flair. Their lustrous long hair flows out behind them as they dash through traffic on their Vespas or teensy-weensy Fiats. Even the babies look fashionable in their 60 Euro blue suede shoes… Si, si, si … Italians spend A LOT of money to look as good as they do.

I’ll miss the churches where I’ve felt blessed (“G.R. –  grazia ricevuta” is the term the Italians use to describe having received the grace of God.) The powerful symbolism, gold and centuries of incrementing adornment are a sight to behold.

As is all the art. It is EVERYWHERE in Italy! Sculptures, paintings, terracotta, frescos, architecture… Turn yourself around in a circle and your eyes will take in 360 degrees of beauty.

The sunlight, especially in Tuscany is bright but at the same time, soft… everything glows. Flowers are   profuse – tumbling out of courtyards and artfully designed in stupendous Murano and Venetian vases…

Italy is a country where earthiness and élan co-exist. I love it here… there’s no denying that. And yet, the fusion of Mexico’s pre-Columbian, colonial and contemporary Latin America charm is hard to top.

We are sad to leave… we’ll miss Italy. Yet we’re happy to be homeward bound.  Arrivederci  Roma!

¡Hasta pronto Mérida!

Photos: Some are mine, the rest were taken by Colleen Leonard



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The Mud Angels

“The Arno River reached this hight on Nov. 4, 1966

All over Florence, you can see small plaques that mark the level reached by the devastating flood of the Arno River on November 4, 1966.

The River Arno is approximately 240 km long and a part of it runs through Florence. On the fateful day, after a long period of steady rain, engineers feared that the Valdarno Dam would burst, so at 4 am they discharged a mass of water that rushed towards the city at a rate of 37 miles per hour.

The narrow streets within city limits funneled floodwaters, increasing their height and velocity. By 9:45am, the Piazza del Duomo was flooded. The powerful waters ruptured central heating oil tanks, and the oil mixed with the water and mud. At its highest, the water reached over 22 feet (6.7 m) in the Santa Croce area.

The flood devastated Florence, economically and culturally. City officials and citizens were totally unprepared for the storm and the widespread destruction it caused. There were virtually no emergency measures in place because Florence is located in an area where the danger of flooding is relatively low.

5,000 families were left homeless by the flood, and 6,000 businesses were forced to close. 101 people lost their lives when approximately 600,000 tons of mud, rubble and sewage swept them away.  It is estimated that between 3 and 4 million books and manuscripts were damaged, as well as 14,000 movable works of art. Among the most famous were: The Cross by Giovanni Cimabue, The Doors of Paradise by Lorenzo Ghiberti and The Magdalene by Donatello

Immediately, individuals and organizations from many countries made their way to Florence to help with the rescue and conservation. International committees were formed and supervised by a central committee in Rome. Additional funding came from various governments and UNESCO and Charity auctions were also organized. In a show of support for the Florentine art community, Pablo Picasso auctioned one of his paintings, Recumbent Woman Reading.

But the hearts of the Florentine people were won by a group of individuals who travelled to Italy completely at their own expense to aid in the restoration. There were fine arts students and aficionados, librarians and lots of “young people with strong backs”. Collectively, these people became known as the Gli Angeli del Fango or the Mud Angels.  They worked under deplorable conditions and without them, even more irreplaceable treasures would have been lost.

The Angels cleaned the city of refuse, mud and oil, and retrieved works of art, books and other materials from flooded rooms; the Mud Angels felt compelled to help: a concern for future generations, a feeling of international unity and a pervasive sense of solidarity.

Yet sadly, even forty years later, a significant amount of restorative work remains to be done in          Florence. Due to a lack of awareness, funding, and manpower, a great number of works of art and books lie in storage, dirty and damaged.

The photos of the mud angels were selected from Google Images files. The one of the marker is mine and the final “angel” … while not one of the mud, was adorable nonetheless…

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The Arno River at Sundown

Sh-sh-sh-sh… don’t wake anybody up!  Our friends Colleen and Lance have arrived in Florence after a grueling two day journey from Merida. Heading for the airport at a quarter to four, last Friday morning… they finally got here at 3 am, this Sunday morning. There is of course, a seven hour time difference, but still… it is a l-o-n-g time on the road (or in the sky or wherever)                                                                                                                                                           

Travel is certainly not what it used to be. I worked for an airline during the 1970s, and believe me, we had to do everything in our power to make our passengers feel comfortable, safe and yes… pampered. (Imagine!)

Now, being bumped, delayed, shuffled around, and re-routed are par for the course and anyone who embarks on a long trip should be prepared for whatever.  And don’t even think about being compensated for inconvenience.  The days of complementary meals, hotel rooms, and other bribes are long gone.

This summer, our own odyssey on planes, trains, buses, metros, boats and taxis has been far from easy, but… and all inconvenience aside, the four of us feel lucky to be spending the last days of August in such splendid company!

I haven’t blogged the past couple of days because Jorge and I have been doing lots of sightseeing… This building is the original “Academia”, where Micaelangelo learned to sculpt!

We’ve been to the  shops                                                                                                                                                                                                           

And continue rating the restaurants…

We’ve done some cooking too. I made the famous Tuscan bread soup called “Ribollita”…                                                                                                                          

As well, we now know where one can get Italy’s finest tiramisu and seafood pasta dishes…

The Chiantis of the country have been amply consumed, as have the espressos and cappuccinos. We can also give very informed opinion on the nation’s chocolate and gelato.

We’ve been reading too; my current afternoon treat is Amy Tan’s lyrical “Saving Fish From Drowning.”

To get from one place to another, we take long walks, and so that we can enjoy the sensational evenings, we sleep siestas during the heat of the day.

If a picture paints a thousand words…


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Pitti Palace and other delights…

Yesterday, Jorge and I (advance tickets in hand) made our way along the Arno River, over Ponte Veccio to the Pitti Palace. This was the home of Cosimo I and his wife Leonore and their numerous children.

Like the Uffizi, the Palazzo Veccio, and La Academia this museum is so full of art, it is absolutely impossible to see it all. We made a great effort, but after five full hours, we were all but comatose.

Unfortunately I have no photos of the museum because it is forbidden to take them (even without flash) but if you like, go to this link for a virtual tour.                                                                         

Adjacent to the palace are the gardens which offer spectacular views of Florence:

After a restorative 4 hour siesta, Jorge and I were back on the streets and found MORE terra cotta that (regrettably) you won’t be seeing in our home. The proprietress of “Migliori” allowed me to take these photos:

Then my eyes landed on THIS beauty… If anyone knows of someone in Mexico who could replicate this ultra-wonderful outdoor stove, please let me know …

We wandered back down the shore of the Arno about 9 pm and heard     music… en español!  There below, right at the river’s edge was a laid back club serving nachos, mojitos, margaritas… the works! We stayed ‘til “Club Salamanca” closed and then weaved back across the river and into bed…                                


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Silver and Gold

The topic of today’s post was suggested to me by Steve Cotton, whose blog is mexpatriate – in the key of steve. He wondered about the pathways taken by Mexican silver and gold en route to Europe during the colonial period…

In 1492, Spain was ruled by the iron fist of a Catholic Spanish king and queen:  Isabel de Castilla and Fernando de Aragón. When America was discovered, Spain had a highly trained, ambitious army that was anxious for new battles and conquests and the society hungered for wealth and opportunities. The Catholic Church’s power, as well as that of  the royals were unifying strengths in the country.

From the outset, late medieval Castile shaped society and stamped its culture on Latin America. It imposed a   set of values that were the product of Spain’s long Re-conquest of its territories from the Moors, completed in 1492, the same year that Columbus “discovered” Hispaniola. They were Conquistador values, which stressed the role of the warrior in the name of the Church, and assumed the inherent right of European rule over people of unknown culture, and pagan beliefs.

When it was discovered that gold, silver and other precious objects were to be had in the newly conquered territories, there was no compunction whatsoever about taking the bounty. Large land holdings were awarded to the heroes of the Crown and the Church. The Colony established itself quickly, and the military presence focused on keeping other nations out of “New Spain.” The Catholic clergy put their full efforts into evangelizing the entire indigenous population, and the Crown instituted a strong commercial monopoly that reigned supreme for three centuries.

It was said that the sun never set over the Spanish domain – the empire was that vast. The economic activity centered on mining, agriculture and trade, which were, of course, completely controlled by the Spanish monarchs.

The Crown appointed an institution that managed trade and commerce between the new colonies and Europe; it was called, “La Casa de Contratación de Sevilla.” One of the activities was the transport of Mexican silver aboard the Spanish controlled shipping line, whose fleet (called La Nao de China) made an annual round trip voyage from Acapulco to Manila. The principal cargo carried to the Philippines was silver coin. There it was purchased by various nations who stamped the doubloons with their country’s seal and affixed a value. On the return voyage the fleet carried spices, silks and other items that were much esteemed by both the Europeans and the colonials in México.

Gold from México also made its way to Europe through Veracruz and across the Atlantic. Many of the gilded altarpieces and the ornamentation in the fine mansions of Europe used gold from México. The precious metal was also shipped to Europe from Peru. Both were in demand for their high quality.

The influx of Mexican silver often caused inflation in Europe which was devastating for the lower classes. And when the Independence movements throughout Latin American began in the early 1800s, the silver trade was interrupted, provoking a worldwide economic crisis not unlike the modern day recessions caused by fluctuations in the petro industry.

I guess that one could say that, “The more things change… the more they stay the same.



Photo credits: I found the images for this post on Google Images.

  • Image of La Nao de China from:

  • Image of Fernando and Isabela from:

  • Image of map from:

  • Image of coins from:


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Terra Cotta

Among the many mediums found in Florentine art is glazed terra cotta. Since the 15th century, it has been used to fashion portrait busts and wall ornaments, and other decorative items.

When exposed to firing temperatures in excess of 600°C, terra cotta            increases its durability and, although still porous, becomes somewhat waterproof. Terra cotta can be compared to earthenware. Earthenware is composed of sedimentary clays, which contain many organic and mineral impurities. It is these that determine the characteristic color of the clay. The color most commonly associated with terra cotta is a rich red-brown, due to the presence of iron oxide, and when fired in an oxygen-rich atmosphere, produces the distinctive red color. The presence of other minerals, the firing temperature and the atmosphere in the kiln all contribute to the final shade of terracotta, which can range from dark brown to pink, buff, tan, orange or even green.

Sculptors are attracted to terra cotta as a medium because it can be worked with great speed, often resulting in a spontaneity that can be lost in the more laborious processes involved in bronze casting or carving stone. Clay also permits an extraordinarily fine degree of detail.

The most widespread technique for finishing terracotta sculpture has always been polychrome. Color is applied, usually over an initial gesso layer, by the modeler himself or by a specialized painter. Sometimes gilding is added, giving the piece a richly extravagant effect. Terracotta finishes can also simulate precious materials such as bronze, marble or gold. The glazed terracotta technique, first applied to sculpture by Luca della Robbia in the 1440s is still widely imitated up until the present day.

As I walk past the many shops that offer these pieces for sale, I think, “It’s not THAT big… I could carry that plaque / vase / bust …” Jorge reminds me of the other items that will also require hand carrying during the return trip to Mexico – on the train, a couple of taxis, through three BIG airports… and I restrain myself. But the lovely Florentine terra cotta will continue to feature prominently in my dreams…


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Santa Croce

Santa Croce

The Basilica of Santa Croce is the largest Franciscan temple in the   world, and legend says that the church was founded by St. Francis himself. It is named for the world famous Cimabue cross, created by the Renaissance artist Giotto.

If you have read some of this past month’s posts, you’ll know that arriving at a serene understanding of my adult Catholic faith has been a resurging theme during our European odyssey. I have wanted to attend Mass and finally did so this Sunday at Santa Croce… complete with accompanying thunderous pipe organ music… amazing!

Although I do not speak Italian beyond the level of a two year old, my comprehension of the language is good, and with the aural cues from a fine donna whose clear voice rang out through the entire hour, I was able to follow the missal and all that went on. The Mass was a very poignant experience, and while it did not reconcile all my conflicting emotions, I feel I have moved a step closer to reconciliation.

The construction of the current church, that replaced the older building, was begun on  May 12th, 1294, probably by Arnolfo di Cambio, and paid for by some of the city’s wealthiest families. Consecrated in 1442 by Pope Eugene IV, the building’s design floor plan is an Egyptian or Tau cross (a symbol of St Francis). To the south of the church was a convent, although only a few of the buildings remain.

The current bell tower was built in 1842, replacing an earlier one damaged by lightning.  A Jewish architect Niccolo Matas from Ancona, designed the church’s 19th century neo-Gothic facade, working a prominent Star of David into the composition.

Many famous Florentines, including Michelangelo, Rossini,           Machiavelli, and Galileo Galilei  (who was tried by the Inquisition and was not allowed a Christian burial until 1737, 95 years after his death) are buried at Santa Croce. There is also a memorial to Dante but his sarcophagus is empty.  Matas wanted to be buried with his peers but because he was Jewish, he was interred under the porch and not within the walls.

I first became interested in this church while reading a novel, “The Sixteen Pleasures” by Robert Hellenga. The intriguing read is set during a time of true-life drama: 1966, when the Arno River flooded much of Florence, including Santa Croce. The water entered the church bringing mud, pollution and heating oil. The damage to buildings and art treasures was severe, taking several decades to repair. The novel’s plot is convoluted and often racy…  it brought the city of the Medici to life for me.

After Mass, Jorge and I again found ourselves headed for the delightful bistro where we had dined the night before. Our delectable choice was a pasta dish with clams and mussels, chilled white wine and salt-free bread to soak up the juices… We rounded off the meal with a chocolate and pear dessert and of course, a shot of limoncelo…  Another delightful day in Paradise!

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