Apex point - © Robert Sommers 2024

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Paesaggi d'Italia

I have just returned from a quick trip to Italy with my wife Leslie, my first visit. We were privileged to attend the Mercanteinfiera, the largest antique show in Italy, as guests of the promoters and early buyers. As I mentioned a few weeks ago my wonderful hosts picked up my expenses. For some reason. God bless them.

The show is enormous, over 1000 exhibitors attended, mostly Italian but also from other european countries. It gave me a chance to consider the state of the decorative arts today, both at home and abroad.

Leslie and I flew for the better part of two days to reach our destination in Bologna, with a long layover at Heathrow.  Tough flight. We arrived on the night of the 28th. An older driver in a nice black Mercedes sedan met us at the airport and whisked us on a high speed journey to the city of Parma, where the exhibition is held. I gripped the strap above the handle and marveled at the velocity of the traffic.

He spoke no English and we spoke no Italian but we all managed to communicate with our bastardized latin roots and a good measure of tolerance for each other.

He pointed out some of the architectural marvels of the region, including a very far out futuristic station by Santiago Calatrava newly built in Reggio Emilia.

We were traveling in the region of Emilia Romagna, known as both the breadbasket of Italy and one of its wealthiest regions. Bologna is its capitol.

What is incongruent to me is that it is also a city with a large population of communists, perhaps because of its university, the oldest in the world, founded in 1088.

I am not sure that I comprehended our driver perfectly but I believe that he told me that he had been a proud communist for the last thirty years, the proclamation without the slightest amount of attendant shame or negative opprobrium that it would engender in the United States.

Later we traveled on Stalingrad Avenue while on our return to the city of Bologna.

We checked into our hotel, the Star Parc, near one and went to sleep somewhere after one thirty, it would be rough the next day as we had breakfast and an early orientation the next morning at six thirty.

When we got to breakfast I was surprised and delighted to see that I was friends with many of my fellow attendees, having done shows with them for years.

The breakfast was phenomenal, wonderful croissants and eggs, Italian bacon, I quickly understood that I have never met a people who cared as much about food as these. The entire trip was an epicurean delight.

If you click on a picture you will get to see all of them at proper size
We took a shuttle bus to the venue after breakfast. It is always tough to see a show as it is being set up, like watching sausage being made, sort of crazy and frenetic  but we were early buyers and veterans of the trade and managed to get a feel for things.

There is evidently the same push pull going on in Europe as in the United States, a decorative friction between the classical and modernism.

When a booth chooses to do both at the same time, things can appear rather incongruent and jarring.

I saw brightly colored Murano glass clowns juxtaposed with dark and brooding canvasses. Honestly, things smoothed out considerably two days later when the show opened to the general public.

The show had some wonderful material, phenomenal statuary that you would never find stateside, incredible collections of armor and weaponry, intricate and gorgeous groupings of antique padlocks and keys.

One art dealer focussed on alpine paintings, of varying quality.

I bought a wonderful painting by an important artist from the Italian Futurism movement that I am very excited about.

I saw impeccable ivories, lovely and delicate ceramics, not nearly as much good art nouveau or secessionism as I had hoped for but as I have mentioned before, its elegant and sinewy line has seemed to fall out of fashion with the young. A pity.

Lots of skulls as well and many fine mannikins, for some reason one of my favorite things to photograph.

Having been raised with a foot in both the new and the old, the modern and the classical, there was much to like.

I was expecting a slightly better quality of paintings, but there certainly were some fantastic ones, like here in the United States, antique dealers tend to think decoratively and not have the same level of discernment as the person or shop whose business focusses solely on art.

I did see some great silver, much of which I could not afford, a few pieces of great spanish colonial, a fantastic and large Paul Storr samovar.

There was also a large Modernism wing and lots of great lighting. Something for everybody, whatever your bag. I would love to come back one day, now that I know what to expect.

When I booked the trip, my fantasy was to find a great american painting hidden away, a forgotten Taos master or something like that. The reality was that I saw practically no American antiques or art of any kind, with the exception of some Tiffany silver. It is strange because our antique shows are full of european wares and art but sadly the continental current seems to flow in only one direction.

did I mention skulls?

We returned to our hotel after a long day and set out for dinner. We found a great restaurant near our hotel called Alfioni. You enter through a small deli shop selling aromatic cheese and salumis. We were seated outside.

What a marvelous meal we had! A treasure. I started with Uovo d'oro, twice cooked eggs with copious amounts of shaved black truffle, a house specialty. Best ever. Every meal had cheese and prosciutto so I won't mention them again either.

Leslie had steak tartare, I opted for the veal cutlet milanesa and potatoes. There was much more. Leslie tried several local wines. At the end of the meal we were treated to a hot alcoholic libation made with chocolate and nuts.

My only complaint is that if you eat in Italy, expect people to be smoking all around you, something off putting for us tender Californians. And it takes forever to get a check.

Oh and since I am on the topic of food, did you know that the Parma ham lies down on its right side and stresses out the muscles on that side. That is why meat of the left leg is favored.

The next day was more of the same at the show. I walked so much my feet near fell off. Met a very competent art dealer couple from Rome.

That night we were treated to a sumptuous multi course dinner at the Lamoretti Vineyard, north of Parma in the hills under the watchful eye of a nearby castle. 

The crush had ended that very day and the winemaker took us through the facility and explained the ins and outs of wine making and their desire to keep sulfites at a minimum. 

Look at his wine stained hands. He was quite happy to be through with his labors and toil, at least for a little while.

Somebody else was very happy too.

We were treated to a fantastic meal of many multiple courses that lasted long into the night. Food and wine were both superb.

People laughed and got to know each other better, under the spell of the young wine. I sat with our host Jacobo, an engaging young man who has sang in a band for much of his adult life.

We all loved him and he taught us a lot about his country. Perhaps it was the effects of the malvasia frazzi or the sauvignon but he said that we were his favorite group ever.

An unforgettable memory! I am so thankful, feel so privileged, honored.

The next day I walked through the Art Faire and Auto Show being held in the same complex.

Saw many beautiful classics at the latter and some excellent work at the former as well, like a great grouping of works by early Italian fascist artist Mario Sironi at Galleria Russo. One cartoon showed liberalism leading Italy off the cliff to Anarchia.

Did I mention that there were a couple delis on the grounds as well?

I went back to the show and shopped the whole thing one more time. My legs were completely exhausted in the afternoon when I had finished.

One of the things that I found interesting was the number of booths that exhibited material that seemed to glorify Mussolini and the fascist era. Lots of romanticized pics of Il Duce in many booths.

I had asked my host about this curiosity at the dinner at the vineyard. He explained that there had been a long denial and taboo about that particular era and that the once forbidden was now being rediscovered decoratively by some. I hope that the attraction is indeed merely aesthetic or academic.

For the first time that night I walked into the old city of Parma. We went with friends Mike and Lisa into town. Our hotel backed up to the Ducal Palace Garden. The Palace of Colorno is an immense castle built as an early defense of the Po River by the Corregio family in the 13th Century, it later once housed Countess Barbara Sanseverino's fine artwork until she was unfortunately beheaded by the Duke of Farnese in  the early 1700's.

It started to rain as we crossed the bridge and made our way into the old city.

We met a grumpy Parma native later in Florence who called his hometown city a dump. To each his own. He only occasionally came back to visit his mother but preferred the action of Milan.

It was our favorite city visited. Charming, disaffected. The absolute center of the Italian culinary universe.

That night we walked around and had a tough time finding a place without a reservation. We found a trattoria on Via Maestra, the name now escapes me. We sat on the street under covers that leaked but the food was good. I had pork cheek braised in lambrusco, a local specialty. Leslie had gnocchi with crispy pancetta and fresh porcini. Wonderful, as was every meal we had in Italy from the simplest cafeteria to the finest restaurant.

These people care very deeply about food and it shows in the quality of every dish.

We walked back to our hotel and said good night to our friends.  The next day was Sunday and we decided to get up early and walk back through the town in morning light.

There was a large enclosure between our hotel and the Ducal garden that was a park for cats. Leslie made a lot of new friends. Many sweet, well fed cats ran from all directions to meet her.

The thing that is so great about Parma is that its old world beauty hasn't been spoiled by tourism. The locals jog in the non compressed park, walk freely through the streets, pretty much the same way they have for the last eight hundred years. Not performing, living.

Very easy place for a guy like me to fall in love with. 

The old marble steps in the chapel were well worn and rounded, an echo of countless steps.

A lovely city, content to live at its own pace.

We went back to our hotel and checked out, then wheeled our way to the train station to catch a ride to Florence.  I screwed up and put us on the local train. Oops.

Finally got there, wandered a bit through the madness and then found our way to our hotel, the new and modern Glance Hotel. Very nice, chic. Close to the railroad.

After dropping off the bags in the room and freshening up, we took the number 13 bus up the hill to the Plaza of Michelangelo. Great views of the city and the Arno River from the high vantage.

You can't begin to scratch the surface of cities with this sort of history and pedigree in a week. But you can certainly whet your appetite for another go.

We walked back down the paths down the mountain and eventually stopped at a pizza trattoria on the Oltrarno, I Tarocchi. It turned out to be the greatest meal of our trip. Simple, honest and delicious. Like busting in on a welcoming group of old friends.

Unpretentious, all locals. I started with faggotini, little pillow pasta stuffed with pears and cream sauce. Leslie had gnudi, another local dish, large dumplings of spinach and cottage cheese. Both beyond description.

An older woman and friend sat next to us and became our best friends, although none of us spoke the other's language. Showed us when the well heeled woman who lives in the neighboring palazzo showed up to eat with her contingent. "The Princess!"

I ordered swordfish carpaccio. Leslie got a formaghi pizza for her primi. All of us diners watched a rat ferry her children to and fro across the cobbled block.

When I found out that I was going, I wanted my wife to come with me and gave her the option of an extended city, Venice or Florence. She had been all over Italy in her youth but was emphatic about Florence. I am so glad that she made the choice that she did.

The second day we transferred to the villa we had selected a month ago, the Ville Sull'Arno

Located about twenty minutes east of the downtown area, right on the Arno river, this villa has been frequented by artists for over two hundred years, principally by a group of Tuscan plein aire artists in the nineteenth century called the Macchiaiaoli. I believe this was one of their spots to sip chianti, called La Casaccia del Bellariva.

This hotel is one of the best I have ever stayed, right on the river. Equipped with a fantastic spa, we steamed, spritzed, jacuzzied and otherwise babied our poor tender muscles and appendages. 

Staff could not have been more helpful, the food more excellent. Beyond charming.

We will be back! Not terribly expensive and worth every penny.

Beautiful rooms too.

You know I took so many pictures and I think that for the first time in nine years I will reach my google limit on this post and not be able to put up any more very soon. If that happens I will leave the first part up for a week or so and then put up a part two. We will see.

I think I will just finish this part with some pictures. For now.

I took some pictures of a beautiful girl from Venice in front of the Duomo. One of the bar girls asked her for me. Lovely and sweet. The women in Italy just might be the most beautiful in the world...

More soon! Next Rob and Les lose each other at the Uffizi...

Portrait of a woman known as La Fornarina - Sebastiano Del Piombo, 1512

Chapter 2

Chapter 3


MRE said...

Welcome home! Look forward to hearing about your trip!

Ken Seals said...

Really great story and fabulous photos!

Unknown said...

what a great trip and very happy for you Rob and Leslie

Anonymous said...

I am so glad you went. I am so super glad you enjoyed yourself. I have traveled a fair amount and can never imagine not going back to Italy for more, I just want to soak it in and stay for a month in a little village it is my favorite place in the world. And man can you walk and walk and walk there's so much to see around every corner at each different time of the day. The mountain towns around Florence are phenomenal as well love you guys,
your friend the deli guy

Isak said...

Everything wonderful to view. But NO chocolate salami! You take the best photographs. I loved the chapel and one outrageous building which stood on its own in the center of a square. It looked ancient and good enough to eat. like a five or six layer ornamented cake. I never went to Parma but would now love to go there now that I have seen it from your point of view. Florence, oh my! One of my favorite places on earth. Remind me to tell you about the time I was almost locked up inside as they began to close the Ufizzi!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your beautiful adventure. I look forward to part 2 & 3.
After reading this I am about to do a midnight raid on the fridge but nothing seems too exciting.
Leslie is so photogenic.
We never attended an antique show in ITALY just Paris & Nice.
I found ITALY so pricey for buying but I would of had to take one of those wooden boys home with me.
Cannot wait to hear more.
ITALY is magic.
Have a book Leslie would love about Tuscany...,

Douglas Keller said...

Thank you, Robert...for the story and the photos. I enjoyed it all.

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

Wonderful meaty account of a fascinating trip. Photos are great. Bring on Part 2!

Jon Harwood said...

Nice set of snaps.

Anonymous said...

Great read and I loved to travel with you via the great photography! I felt as I was there!

Anonymous said...

Jet lag mutherfugger. Italy effin rawks! sounds like an incredible trip btw they spend more on food per capita than any other country.

Anonymous said...

TY TY TY, I spent so much time in Italy mostly Florence in the nineties and early 2000's everything is so old and wonderful, the streets are small the doorways short, there are no Walmart's or Safeway's as people buy what they are going to eat fresh that day, You were lucky to be there when the tortuffo? (truffle) was in season, they use dogs in Italy and pigs in France. Thank you for the tour, I will read at least 3 more times, oh and the photos are great! I will see you the first week of November, hello to Leslie!

Anonymous said...

oh my gosh!!!!!!!! you are in my favorite country...I am extremely jealous but so thankful for sharing your amazing trip....thanks great photos jeff , fairbanks alaska

Michael.G said...

Is there a way to download your story so I can read it again when part deux comes out?

Blue Heron said...

Thanks Michael.G. I stuck some links in to the next chapters on the original post.