Category Archives: Travel

Mainly, independent travel on the cheap.

Arrivederci San Lorenzo Market

Vendors' carts and awnings line the street across from Florence's Basilica San Lorenzo. Photo by Roy Scarbrough

Vendors’ carts and awnings line the street across from Florence’s Basilica San Lorenzo. Photo by Roy Scarbrough

The three bouquets someone attached to the barricades could stand as funerary offerings for the once-lively and historic marketplace. The city of Florence has cast out the money and souvenir exchangers from the vicinity of San Lorenzo Basilica steps.

Not everyone is sorry that the street merchants of the San Lorenzo Market have folded up their canvas awnings and wheeled their push carts away. Some folks are happy with the newly unobstructed views of one of the city’s principal Renaissance-era structures, Basilica San Lorenzo. The news has not been good for the vendors who have long operated a kind of flea market around the church. The city has now ordered them out.

Officially, the move is temporary. The city needs to reset the paving stones in the street and in the plaza as part of a redevelopment plan for the district.  These things take time, a lot of time in Italy. There’s no guarantee that vendors will be back, and even the mayor is talking like merchants are gone for good.

The marketplace has its own cultural history. The vendors have been saying they have been in the piazza since 1792. That was barely twenty years after workers completed the finishing touches on the church.

View from space: Google satellite view of merchant stalls against the old church.

View from space: Google satellite view of merchant stalls against the old church.

In the decades that poets Robert and Elizabeth Browning lived in Florence, Robert liked to browse through the old books in the market. In 1860, at one of the vendor’s stalls, Browning found a bound volume of official trial court records of the 1698 Franceschini murder case. This was a sordid affair involving a count who killed his unfaithful wife and in-laws, a story that became the basis of Robert’s best selling book, a long narrative poem, The Ring and the Book.

A tweet from Mayor Matteo Renzi last week shows the extent that some people welcome the ouster of the street merchants. “Basilica di San Lorenzo libertata dalle bancarelle'” the Mayor Tweeted. That is,  “Basilica San Lorenzo now liberated from the cart vendors.  We have liberated as promised the San Lorenzo area. One of the most beautiful places in the world. ” You’d expect that there was similar sentiments expressed over the end of the French occupation of 1494.

A quick check of more  #Firenze tweets shows some solidarity with the popular mayor. “What a beautiful sunny day it is in Florence. San Lorenzo without the push carts.” says another Italian language tweet.

Personally, I’ve enjoyed the buzz of the place.  I’ve watched the vendors in the mornings wheel their carts to the lanes surrounding the old church and its cloisters, then spread their white canvas awnings. And I’ve watched these fellows push their rigs home, down dark, half-lit, narrow streets at night, the wheels rattling over the paving stones.  The selfie I use for my Twitter avatar happens to be a picture I took while standing front of a cracked full-length mirror that one of the vendors had set out for his customers. So, there was something there that was part of my identity.

I’ve always found the vendors convivial. On the final day of my last visit to Florence, I bought two men’s wool scarves.  He told me his name is Eddie. I’m guessing it was really, Eduardo, but he wanted me to know him as Eddie. I liked him, and it seemed like he liked me. Eddie taught me how to tie them in the traditional Florentine fashion.  When it came time to pay, I was short of Euro. I tell I’ll come back for my purchase after visiting the ATM.  He says, no, take them now. You come back and pay me.”

Over the years I’ve purchased two Chinese-made wallets.  Functional wallets with a built-in coin purse in a style I think I might now have to have custom made. I’ve bought maybe three Italian-made woolen neck scarves, and a pair of sandals from an Italian manufacturer that claimed on its tag to supply the pope with footwear.

To be fair, none of these things I’ve purchased in the San Lorenzo market were produced by local craftsmen, which is part of the public’s complaint against these vendors.  While the marketplace has historic roots, its critics see it as lacking in complete authenticity. Robert Browning was English and the 17th Century murder trial documents he purchased came from Rome. Fair enough. Still,  there’s stuff there that people who live in the neighborhood can use. As far as I know, the San Lorenzo Market commotion never woke the Medici dead, and its reputed tackiness has never made any of them roll over in their tombs across the street.

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So what’s the big picture? Change happens. People adjust. Across town, for hundreds of years, butchers and tanners occupied the shops on the Ponte Vecchio. Their time to go came one day in 1593 when they were replaced by the goldsmiths on order of Duke Fernando de Medici, who disliked the odors from those establishments.

Who now misses the butchers?  Not many, but I think I would like to see them at work when crossing the Arno.  The jewelry I see in the Ponte Vecchio windows doesn’t interest me so much. When I see all the gold, and the high-Euro price tags, I try to remember the tanners and butchers.

Who drew Laughing Mona Lisa?

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“Laughing Mona Lisa” appears uncredited on back cover of a 1980’s out-of-print book.

Isn’t it a Pity?

Yes, it’s too bad when time shrouds the identity of  an artist with a level of anonymity of a paleolithic bison painter.  All I can say now is that I searched some more,  but did not find. Cerco, ma non trovo. 

The name I was looking for belongs to the creator of  “Laughing Mona Lisa,”  a piece of graphic art that was the subject of my last blog post.  Unfortunately, the artist’s identity appears to be something that’s now lost somewhere in the irretrievable history of 1970s southern California pop culture. The trail was older, longer, and more faint than I imagined.

Apparently, art blogger Robert A. Baron  went this way ahead of me. He got as far as tracing the image to a piece of wrapping paper from a Pier I Imports store in Redondo Beach, California .  The gift wrap was back in the 1970s.  Also during that decade, the graphic  circulated in the form of cocktail napkins, says Baron.

That just goes to show how wrong I was with my earlier assumption. My plan was to contact the store in Florence, Italy, where I purchased the T-shirt,  and then the wholesaler,  the manufacturer, and so on.  After all that, I thought,  maybe I would learn who created the series of images that regularly appears across my chest and stomach.

This much I do know now, the original graphic has changed a little over the decades.  So, it’s evolving in the public domain,  apparently adapting to contemporary contexts as it continues to be in play in form of T-shirts and who knows what else next.

One change in the graphic is in the framing of the panels.  Each shot was originally depicted  as one frame on a roll or reel of  35 mm film. That is, the panels were framed by strips of camera or projector sprocket holes running along the sides of each panel. Or, as they are called in the film industry: perforations,  perfs, for short.

The perfs reinforce the impression that the restrained smile on Leonardo’s model was a thing in motion, not fixed in a pose.  Alone, each panel would stand as a single cinematographic instant, frozen within a sequence of instances as this lady’s expression changes on its way toward uncontrolled laughter.  Leonardo’s original painting is one of those instances as well.

By the way, something like that could be said about the expressions of shock on the faces in Leonardo’s “Last Supper,” as the apostles react in the moment immediately following  Jesus saying, “One of you will betray me?”  Here is another frozen moment on its way to something else. First shock, then presumably horror.

While not as dramatic as the scene in the “Last Supper”, the expression in the Mona Lisa is presumably the initial reaction to the entertainment  Leonardo arranged for her long sitting.  Leonardo “surrounded his model with musicians, singers and buffoons to keep her in gentle gayety and so avoid the melancholy aspect we observe in most portraits,” says  Giorgio Vasari. Vasari is the 16th century Italian painter, architect and author of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.

Just “gentle gayety”?  Come on, Giorgio.  With buffoons in the room,  would not the punch lines, pratfalls  and slapstick produce some laughing out loud?

Mona Lisa appearing as captures on 35mm film.

Mona Lisa appearing as captured on 35mm film.

In 1980, years after the wrapping paper and cocktail napkins, the graphic appears again on the back cover of a slim edition of a now out-of-print collection of Mona Lisa parodies and Mona Lisa influenced artwork. That would be, Mona Lisas, by Mary Rose Storey, pictured above. “Laughing Mona Lisa” appears on the back cover.

This time the panels appear without the film perforations, so the graphic at this point is more in the style of comic book panels. This is  also how the drawing appears on my souvenir T-shirt.  The curious thing is that while other artwork is credited to the artists in Ms. Storey’s book, “Laughing Mona Lisa” remains uncredited on the back cover. It’s not even listed as “anonymous.”

So how do I leave this?

Ok, this helps. When I was a newspaper reporter, I sometimes wrote about hikers, climbers, or hunters and children getting themselves lost in some wilderness or another. There would be a big search operation with hundreds of volunteers and sometimes aircraft. Most of the time the people were found. Once or twice the individuals disappeared for good, sad to say.  In those cases, the last press release from the sheriff  read “search suspended.”   Suspended? Suspended until when?  I always had ask that.  Suspended pending further information, was always the answer.  No closure.

So, search suspended.  There’s nothing here of the magnitude of a missing person, of course. This little case does remains open and with no word on whether the artist is even alive after all this time.  I’d love to learn that he or she is alive and well, of course.

Meanwhile, if I’m going to have a conversation with the creator of a piece of graphics art that I like, it will be something else, and some another time, probably fairly soon.

Please stay tuned.

Seeing Mona Lisa Differently

I’m sorry. I don’t know this clever artist’s name.  It so often happens that way with all the graphic art that surround us. For the past 100 years or so we’ve been increasingly inundated with mechanically reproduced images.  This has relegated most of what we see to the realms of anonymity.
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In this case, I wear it.  I bought the t-shirt. Twelve Euros, I think.

The problem here is that without the name, there’s no way I can properly credit the artist whose unsigned work I’m discussing here. And without the name, it’s hard to express my gratitude for way this playful work of  t-shirt art has changed how I  look at the world’s most famous painting, Leonardo da Vinci’s  Mona Lisa.

Because it is customary to give credit where credit is due, at first opportunity I meant to return to shop in Florence where I bought the t-shirt and ask the lady to point me down the path to the artist. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile: Hey artist,  are you are out there?  Step up and let me know.  We’ll have an espresso.  I want you to know that I wear your shirt once a week.  That is, at work, in the packing house where other working people stop me all the time to ask me what it signifies. The lady who cleans the restrooms loves it and was the last to ask.

As I have told one or two of my co-workers in the packinghouse,  the truth is that Leonardo’s masterpiece is a painting I once literally turned my back on.  This was a long time ago. I was just 19.  I’m not fond of crowds then, nor am I now. I needed relief from the crowd-induced claustrophobia I was experiencing in the Louvre, where the painting hangs.  These people were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, speaking of that “mysterious smile”, that “enigmatic smile”, that smile they were seeing under their own reflections upon the bullet-proof glass. The experience was less than I had hoped.

And so the this is how it was for me back then, and how I left it for years, a smile fixed in recollection and behind glass  I nursed a sour grapes feeling that the painting was overrated.

Not too long ago, I bought this Mona Lisa-themed t-shirt as a souvenir in Italy. Artsy T-shirts are about the only kind of souvenir I will buy when I travel. They’re reasonably cheap light, and perfect for the kind of travel packing I do. When I buy a new t-shirt,  I throw out the one in my backpack that is the most worn.

shirtszAs I was saying,  this unidentified  graphic artist’s work changed how I see the Mona Lisa, or rather how I see the Mona Lisa when viewing computer screen reproductions of the Mona Lisa.

How so?

That’s the question I’ve been mulling over lately. I believe the answer lies in how the brain likes to process visual images artists create in the form of a painting or sculpture.  At some level the brain has to ask, is this a thing in motion or a thing at rest?

Michelangelo’s David is stationary, and that’s important because that David is captured in a moment of intense mental preparation for the kill. Also,   Donatello’s David, stands posed with one foot resting on Goliath’s severed head.  But then,  Bernini’s  David  appears with his the body awhirl in the act of  launching of the stone from the sling.

The same can be said of paintings. A still life is still life. The fruit is not supposed to be going anywhere. Jesus can hang lifeless on the cross in one painting, but and in another be carrying the cross to the hill.

As for the Mona Lisa.  It’s a portrait. Ordinarily, a portrait’s  subject is a figure that is not in motion. Leonardo’s model is posed, it should seem,  positioned at rest, seated in a chair that someone has set out in a lovely patio or loggia,  an outdoor room with a commanding view of the rocky landscape.

So, is she, or isn’t she? Stationary, that is.  I sure thought so for years and years after I turned my back on the painting to extract myself from the crowd. Because Leonardo was an excruciatingly slow painter,  Lisa del Giocondo would be sitting for long time indeed.

Being a painter who liked to take his sweet time,  clever Leonardo arranged for entertainment to amuse the lady during her long sitting. Giorgio Vasari tells us that Leonardo hired musicians and clowns to perform for the lady.

So with clowns, we can assume there was some slapstick, high jinks and jokes. And from that, can we not assume that Lisa also laughed?  Now,  if she laughed, would that smile have been a fixed, long-posed smile?

The art on my shirt has lead me to think otherwise and process the image as one frame in a motion picture.  This graphic presents the lady’s expression in a series of twelve consecutive frames that appear to represent a face in full animation.

That is,  from the mild amusement of, say,  Leonardo’s hired clown entering the loggia, followed by more schtick and buffoonery,  leading up to a final moment of some rollicking ROFLMAO-worthy pratfall.  I particularly like how the graphic artist has her falling out of the right edge of the final frame.

Brilliant.

So these days, I’m going with Leonardo’s subject being a subject in motion. His notebooks do attest to an abiding interest in the motion of birds and other animals. He liked to purchase caged birds just to release them and study their movements.

Like some other works of art from the past, this painting remains in continuous play in our times. Duchamps and Dali have painted spoofs of it. I don’t bemoan the appropriation of old works for present day tastes and amusement.  I like it, perhaps in way similar to the way Renaissance era people enjoyed seeing the works Romans and Greeks at play in their time and in their art.  I relish the past achieving a presence in the present, like how  Mona Lisa made an appearance in Batman comics.

And these days, as forensic archeologists pick at the bones in her grave,  I see do imagine a much-alive Lisa del Giocondo laughing. I so love to wear her laugh across my belly. Better that, I think,  than just a smile behind bullet-proof glass.

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Vargas Llosa and the Florentine Literary Tradition

Like Dante in The Commedia, Mario Vargas Llosa casts himself in the dual role of both the author and the self-exiled narrator-character in the Storyteller We’ve seen this act before. In those few pages of the novel where Llosa speaks directly to the reader he speaks of his time in Florence, Italy. It’s here where Vargas Llosa plays with the Florentine literary tradition.

There’s a feeling that this Peruvian Mario is a man who to has lost his way. He is unhappy, sad, working his way through the circles of recollection, a kind of Purgatorio. He is remembering an old friendship, a faraway culture, and wanders the Florentine Streets whole world away from family and home.

Vargas Llosa’s account of his stay in Florence leaves the reader with the feeling that he means these months to be a period of self-exile. Throughout the account, Vargas Llosa experiences a longing for his homeland, together with sadness over the state of its political affairs back home. Meanwhile, he tells us, he spends hours in cafes and the libraries reading Dante and Machiavelli.

Why Machiavelli? Why Dante?

The simple answer is that modernist writers like Vargas Llosa tend to reference literary figures in their works. Beyond that, it’s a little risky to guess what is in the mind of a living writer. You never know. Vargas Llosa may one day Google himself and see this blog. Not likely, but you never know. The comment box is below. So, lets continue with this thought experiment in conjecture.

While Machiavelli is best known as the author of The Prince, a little how-to manual for despots on the art of political manipulation and deception, the bulk of Machiavelli’s writings are more benign than that. There’s plays, poems, history, and one work that praises the virtues of republics. Yes, bad old Machiavelli was an advocate of representative democracies that govern with the good will of the people. Machiavelli was also pragmatic. When he was out of a job after the Florentine Republic fell, he wrote The Prince and offered it as a gift to the city’s ruler. It would be the French who would later tag Machiavelli with Machiavellianism.

Dante and Machiavelli lived in much different times. Machiavelli lived during the high Renaissance, as opposed to Dante’s middle ages. And yet the thing they have in common is that both held high public office in Florence, and both the became exiles from Florence when the political tides changed. Here’s the risky part, Vargas Llosa appears to be identifying with their experience. Vargas Llosa was politically active in his country. He even ran for President. He fell out of favor with his country’s ruling party after he fought Peru’s nationalization of banks, and again when he protested against his governments human rights violations.

It’s less risky to say that writers and poets generally enjoy toying with the literary canon.  Dante and Machiavelli are clearly part of the canon, and there’s no reason to think that Vargas Llosa would not be deliberately putting the Dante and Machiavelli at play in his work. One can hardly be in Florence without sensing something of the  presence of  Dante. You can walk right up the Alighieri home, then cross the Ponte Vecchio and stand in the doorway of Machiavelli’s digs.

If one is a writer or a poet. one is going to be especially mindful of the likelihood down this or that old street,  or these stairs Dante or Machiavelli walked. If you write, and know something of your literary history, and have spent any time in places like Florence, or Paris,  or Stratford, you know this feeling.

Mario Vargas Llosa on Florence’s Mosquitos and Art

Mario Vargas Llosa once traveled to Florence with a plan to forget about his native Peru in “absolute solitude”. The 2010 Nobel Prize winning novelist tells us about this trip in the opening and closing chapters of The Storyteller. Florence’s Renaissance art was supposed to help with the forgetting. The mosquitos didn’t help at all.

The Storyteller is a postmodern novel in which Vargas Llosa is not just the author, but also a character and narrator in those chapters. It turns out that Mario’s time of solitude were mobbed by summer crowds and menaced by mosquitos he remembers attacking the tourists on behalf of displaced Florentine natives.

Even while viewing Florence’s Renaissance art, the mosquitos bite Mario. He can’t forget Peru. The mosquitos won’t allow it. The swarms continue to remind him of Peru and the Peruvian mosquitos that bit him on the arms, legs and neck years earlier when he visited the jungle’s Machiguenga people

While Florence’s art is clearly at play in the opening and closing chapters, specific works receive scant mention. The narrator mentions Botticelli’s Primavera and Paolo Uccello’s Battle of San Romano. That’s it, and he mentions these only to praise a contemporary photograph taken in the Peruvian jungle, a photograph displayed as part of a temporary exhibit in a little gallery near Dante’s house.

In the jungle picture, a storyteller performs among a gathering of Indians. Mario is so captivated by the image that he says the photo is as much a masterpiece as those two paintings hanging in Florence’s famed Uffizi Gallery. The story is, after all, a novel primarily about the immense cultural value of storytelling, and a Jewish man who disappears from modern Lima to live among the indigenous Machiguenga people as their storyteller. And as a postmodern Latin American novelist, author Vargas Llosa means to undermine the old Eurocentric grand narrative.

The Mario in this story rents a room in a pensione and spends his days either in galleries viewing paintings and photographs, or in cafes reading Dante and Machiavelli. He tells us that the stream of tourists inundate the streets like a flooding “Amazonian River.” So, instead of a comfortable and reflective solitude, he experiences a sense of isolation among the crowds, and a sense of loss and sadness in seeing foreign invaders occupy Florence. He says, “…there are virtually no natives left in Firenze.”

That part is an exaggeration, although it is true that some of the city’s streets become choked with foreign tourists in the summer. It’s true that many Florentines schedule long vacations from the city in the peak tourist season. Vargas Llosa is too good of a storyteller to let the facts spoil his story.

With his exaggerated crowds and mosquitos, Vargas Llosa raises those big questions of cultural hegemony and threatened native populations, and applies those questions to both the Machiguenga and the Florentines. While the Machiguenga are displaced by the corporate exploitation of their jungle homeland, Florentines see their lives altered by the tourists and the travel industry. And so, he asks, “Are the mosquitos the zanzare of the Firenze totem animals, the guardian angels of Leonardos, Cellinis, Botticellis, Filippo Lipis, Fra Angelicos?” He wants to know if the mosquitos are that, “or are they the weapon that the absent Florentines try to put their detested invaders to flight?”
–rs

Next time: What Vargas Llosa lifts from Florentine literary traditions.

Dogs of the Passeggiata

The passeggiata is the traditional evening walk in Italian communities. It’s a fun time with the local folks stepping out of the doorways and into the streets. In the most Renaissance of Italian of cities, Florence, dogs seem to have become part of the street scene. For best viewing, go during the off-season.


(photo by Roy Scarbrough/ponte commedia)

That’s the Basilica of Santa Maria Fiore and its polychrome marble siding in the background.

More on the historical portrayal of Renaissance dogs in art and literature to come.

The Egg of Columbus

In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, Columbus was a sea pirate, a high Renaissance sea pirate, a slaver and a con man. We’ve all heard how Columbus presented the king and queen of Spain with a scheme to bring the riches of the Indies back to Seville and Barcelona. Bait with the Indies, then switch to the Bahamas.

In his novel, Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut’s narrator undermines the traditional narrative by taking the usual issues with the notion that human beings discovered America in 1492. That year “… was simply the year sea pirates began to rob, cheat, and kill” human beings who already lived in the Western Hemisphere. He goes on to say, “The chief weapon of sea pirates, however, was their capacity to astonish. Nobody else could believe, until it was too late, how heartless and greedy they were.”

To astonish?

Yes, there’s stories about Columbus’ capacity to astonish. He says in his journal that the “Indians” were so primitive that they were astonished to find out that swords would cut their hands when they grabbed the metal blades. One wonders about the manner in which those swords were presented to make that happen. And then there was his parading of captured people and animals from the Caribbean through Spanish streets, which did astonish the crowds as much as anything P.T. Barnum could have ever dreamed up. Another story with some bearing on that is “The Egg of Columbus” There is an unfortunate metaphor involving this trick with a broken egg, and it’s something less than an omelette for the people of the Caribbean.

Columbus and the old egg trick.

The story is most often attributed to an Italian historian Girolamo Benzoni, who in 1565 published an account of a Spanish banquet for Columbus after his return. Columbus confounded a group of noblemen who sugested the Admiral was not as special as he might think. Sooner or later another sailor would have bumped into that land mass by heading west, probably a Spaniard. According to the account, Columbus did not immediately respond. Instead, he asked that an egg be brought to the table, and then said, ‘My lords, I will lay a wager with any of you that you are unable to make this egg stand on its end like I will do without any kind of help or aid.’ Sooner or later, somebody would figure out the trick.

One can see how the story speaks well of Columbus. He was, after all, the most clever man in the room.

One of the many monuments to Columbus is a modernist egg sculpture by Julio Bauza, installed in 1992 on the Spanish Island of Ibiza. A replica of his ship, the Santa Maria, is anchored within a hole in the egg. Some Ibizans claim Columbus was not Genoise, but one of them. That is their grand narrative.

And, in 1883, physicist Nikola Tesla, created a electro magnetically driven device that made a brass egg stand up for the Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition. He called the machine, “The Egg of Columbus.”

And yet, there is a problem. Like the Ibizan monument, there’s a hole in this narrative. Just as Columbus is erroneously credited with “discovering” America, the famous Egg of Columbus is erroneously credited to Columbus.

Before all that, in 1418, there was this Florentine sculptor and architect named Filippo Brunelleschi who was competing with other architects to be awarded the job of designing a dome for the uncompleted Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. No one had built so large a dome before. It was still unclear how it could be done. Brunelleschi refused to reveal any drawings or present a model. He claimed that if he did any of that, then his ideas would sooner or later be stolen and the commission might just as easily go to any builder willing to employ them.

Instead, says Giorgio Vasari, writing in 1550, Brunelleschi “… made a proposal that the building of the cupola should be given to him who could make an egg stand firmly on the smooth marble, for by doing this he would show his skill. And an egg being brought, all the masters tried to make it stand upright, but none found the way. And when they bade Filippo set it up, he took it, and striking it on the marble made it stand. ”