Saturday, March 31, 2012

Mosaico Fiorentino

One of the things that Florence is famous for is art.  Sculptures such as Michelangelo's "David" and paintings such as Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" are all found here.  There is another form of art, however, that you may not know that Florence is famous for.

Back in the 1500's, the Medici family became extremely found of pietre dure - a form of mosaic where different colored stones are cut, fitted together, and then polished to form a picture.

In 1588, the Grand Duke Ferdinando I de'Medici established the Opificio della Pietre Dura, a workshop where these magnificent works of art would be produced.  Today, the Opificio is still there, and there is a very nice museum where you can see hundreds of examples of this form of artwork.

On one wall in the museum, they have a set of paintings representing the arts hanging below a set of mosaic copies of the paintings.  The comparison between the two different media is amazing.

The painting (representing the art of music)

The mosaic version

The mosaic version is a bit "brighter", but other than that, unless you look closely, it is very difficult to differentiate between the two.

A close up of the mosaic version of the painting.  You can see the tiny seams between the cut stones.
The museum houses splendid mosaic topped tables as well as other furniture pieces that feature the stonework.

Upstairs, there is a large display of workbenches and tools that were used over the ages by the mosaic artists.  There is also along the wall, next to the workbenches, examples of the different types of stone used in these works of art.

The museum is rarely crowded.  Once when we visited, there were only 5 other people there.  Tickets are only 2 euro, and they are open during the day Monday - Saturday from 8:15am - 2pm, with extended hours on Thursdays, when they close at 7pm (they are closed Sundays and holidays).  It's definitely worth an hour or so of your time while you're in Florence.  It's located at Via degli Alfani, 78, which is right around the corner from l'Accademia (where David resides).

During my first trip to Florence, my boyfriend took me to Scarpelli Mosaici, which is a workshop headed up by father and son master craftsmen Renzo and Lorenzo Scarpelli.  There is a small shop where you can look at (and purchase, if you can afford to) some of their pieces of art.  While we were there, we met Maestro Renzo who brought us back to his workbench, explained the process of Florentine mosaic and showed us how he cuts the stones and fits them together using wax.  (The photos in this blog post are all from the Opificio museum.  I was too entranced to take photos when Renzo was showing us his craft!)

It starts with a drawing, then the artist carefully chooses the type of stones that he wants to use in the piece.  He will used his trained eye to pick out the perfect piece, one that has natural shading where he wants it.  Then, he will use an ancient tool, a bow with a metal wire, to carefully cut out the intricate shape.  (Some modern workshops use modern electric saws to cut out the pieces, but Scarpelli crafts their pieces using only traditional methods)

After cutting out the shape, he then smooths out the edges and fits it into place.

This small flower is comprised of over 40 cut pieces of stone.  Large, more detailed pieces can contain hundreds, even thousands of pieces that were individually cut out of various stones.

You can visit the Scapelli's shop while in Florence.  They are located at Via Ricasoli, 59r, which is just down the street from l'Accademia.  As you walk toward the Duomo, it will be on your right.  There is no charge to browse the gallery and those who work there are very friendly and more than happy to explain the process of making Florentine mosaic (Mayumi was the one who talked to us before we talked to Renzo. She speaks several languages, so you should have no problem while you are there).

So, when you are wandering around Florence, maybe after visiting David at l'Accademia, stop by one or both of these fantastic sites to lay your eyes on some amazing works of art!

Saturday, March 24, 2012


A little background information about me:  I've always loved music.  At work, at home, and in the car, I'm constantly listening to it.

An old book of church music.  Not the era or genre of music I'm talking about today!
Two years ago - almost exactly - I discovered Italian music.  I was hooked immediately and now I exclusively listen to Italian radio on the internet (Radio Italia for music, Radio 24 for talk/news).

The first Italian musician I became a fan of was Max Gazze'.  At the time, his song "Mentre Dormi" (While You Sleep) was playing a lot on the airwaves of Italy.  It was featured in the movie "Basilicata Coast to Coast", in which Max co-starred with Alessandro Gassman, Paolo Briguglia, Rocco Papaleo and Giovanna Mezzogiorno.  It's such a nice, romantic song - it still makes me swoon!  See for yourself:

I have added other Italian artists/groups to my list of favorites over the past couple years, such as Jovanotti, Zucchero, Max Pezzali, Negramaro and Neffa.  When I met my boyfriend, he introduced me to even more Italian musicians, such as Fabrizio De Andre and Sergio Cammariere.  

Since I'm sure most of you reading this probably don't have much (or any) experience with Italian music, I thought I'd share a few of the songs that I've been listening to lately.  Even if you can't understand Italian, give it a try and listen - you might just find something you like!

Right now, I'm really loving the latest song from Sergio Cammariere, "Ogni Cosa di Me" (Everything of Me).  I really enjoy listening to Serigo's mellow jazz stylings.  My favorite song of his will always be "Tutto Quello Che un Uomo" (All That a Man), but this song is a close second.  Very romantic and lovely.  Grab a glass of wine and your significant other and take a listen:

Raf has become one of my favorite artists recently.  His song "Controsenso" (Contradiction) has been running through my head a lot lately.

It's not a new song, but Claudio Baglioni's "Crescendo e Cercando" (Growing and Searching) is one of my favorites.  I always crank up the volume when it comes on the radio.

Eros Ramazzotti has been one of my favorites for about a year now.  His duet with Giorgia, "Inevitabile," is getting a lot of airplay lately:

I could go on and on about what I've been listening to lately, but I'll wrap it up with Lucio Dalla.  Lucio was one of the most incredibly talented Italian musicians out there.  His career spanned almost 5 decades, starting in 1965.  Unfortunately, on the 1st of March, he died suddenly of a heart attack - just 3 days short of his 69th birthday.  I love many of his songs, but the one he is probably most famous for (it's been recorded by the likes of Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli) is "Caruso" - a song he wrote about one of the most famous Italian tenors in history.  (An interesting side note: the music video was filmed at the hotel where Caruso died in 1921.)

Rest in Peace, Lucio.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Fortezza di Santa Barbara

Wanna see a fort?

I mean a real fort.

A real OLD fort.

Like...OLD old.

Look no further than Fortezza di Santa Barbara.  This medieval fort is located in the town of Pistoia, which is approximately a 30-35 minute drive from Florence.

The fortezza (fort) that you see standing today was built starting in 1539 by order of Cosimo I de'Medici and is on top of the site an even older fort that was built in 1331 by the Florentines.  That original fort was destroyed for the most part by the people of Pistoia in 1343.  Some of the ancient structure still exsits, however, such as the tower, which was integrated into the present fort.

The ancient tower peeking out from behind the walls and walkways
The original purpose of the fort was to try to end the military ambitions of Pistoia, rather than to defend from outside forces.  Interestingly enough, during the 195 years that the present structure was an active fort, it was only attacked once - in 1643 by Barbarini troops.  They were unsuccessful.

The fort was disarmed in 1734 by the Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo.  Among later uses for the fort were barracks and a military prison.

A sad bit of history that took place at this fort: in 1944, during WWII, German soldiers shot and killed four young Pistoiesi.

After many years of ruin, the Soprintendenza ai Monumenti di Firenze began restoring the structure in 1970.  Ten years later, it opened to the public, and remains open today, free of charge.

It is really interesting to walk around this ancient fort.  It's located at the Southeast corner of the city walls, and relatively easy to find and get to. The price of admittance is right:  100% free!  Just watch when you go, because it's only open for a short few hours - 8:15am until 1:30pm.  If you make an appointment ahead of time, you can get a free, guided tour of the grounds.  (Appointments tours only take place Tuesdays thru Sundays at 10:30am)

When we visited the fortezza, we had the entire fort to ourselves.  We showed up in the middle of the week just 15 or so minutes before they were scheduled to close.  It was a whirlwind tour, running around all of the walls and poking our heads into all of the little buildings that we could, while I clicked away with my camera.  We are definitely going to have to come back for another visit when we have more time!

The "front door" of the fort, with the Medici family crest above the door
While visiting Florence, take a day or two for some side trips.  There are a lot of interesting things to see and enjoy in the surrounding towns!  (I'll post more on some of these sites in the future.)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Pane Toscano

The "Tuscan Bread" that you see in stores here in the States is not really Tuscan bread.  Sorry.  It's not, unless you somehow find traditional pane toscano in an Italian bakery.

Traditional pane toscano is a very simple bread.  It only has three ingredients:  yeast, water, and flour.  That's it.  No salt whatsoever.  This can seem strange, but once you try it alongside a highly flavorful Tuscan dish, it makes complete sense.  The neutrality of it helps enhance the other flavors, especially when used in crostini or ribollita.

Toasted pane toscano makes a great base for flavorful salse

It's fairly easy to make this bread, but it is going to take some time.  If you're game, here's how you can do it:

First, you need to make the sponge.  You'll want to do this the night before you want to bake, so it can take it's time to rise.

Stir 1/4 teaspoon of active dry yeast into 2/3 cup of warm water.  Let that sit for about 10 minutes or so until it gets all foamy and bubbly.  Then add 1-1/3 cups of flour and mix it all up.  Cover it with plastic wrap & leave it alone.

The next day, you should see something like this:

Stir 1-1/4 teaspoons of active dry yeast into 1/3 cup of warm water and let it sit (like you did the first time) until it gets all nice and bubbly (about 10 minutes).

Then, you need to add the sponge and 1 cup of room-temperature water to the yeast water.  It's going to look weird, but it's normal.

Stir it together well and then beat in 3-3/4 cups of flour until the the dough is stiff enough to knead.  (Yeah, you can probably use your stand mixer to do all this and it would be waaaaaay easier.)  Then plop it all out onto a lightly floured surface.

Knead it for about 10 minutes.  It should be nice and firm and elastic.  Then, you can do one of two things, depending on what you want your loaf to look like.  If you want a round loaf, then you will want to put it into a large bowl that has been well-oiled with some good olive oil (and turn the dough over so the oil coats both sides).  Personally, I prefer a long loaf, so I line a big baking dish (in my case, a lasagne pan) with some plastic wrap and oil it with olive oil.  Then I roll the dough into a log with my hands and plop it onto the oil-covered plastic and turn it once to coat it entirely.

Whichever way you choose to do it, cover it with plastic wrap (loosely) and a towel.  You can just use a towel, but I hate getting dough stuck to my towels.  Ick.

Let it sit for an hour, until it doubles.

Sprinkle your work space with a little flour and gently transfer the dough.  Be sure not to punch it down or poke holes in the dough with your's not that kind of dough.  Shape it into a nice oblong loaf  by gently moving the sides with your hands.

Then (if you're making it like I do - in a long loaf), sprinkle some flour onto a baking sheet, then carefully pick up the dough in the plastic wrap and transfer it to the sheet.  Try to avoid poking your fingers into the dough.  I have a hard time not leaving little holes in the dough, as you can see.  Don't be like me.

If you are making it into a round shape, carefully move the dough from the bowl to the lightly floured surface.    Then you will want to form the blob of dough into a round loaf.  Gently pull the edges underneath the ball and squeeze them together.  The top of the loaf should be smooth.  Then place the loaf onto your lightly floured baking sheet.

Cover your loaf with a towel and let it sit until it doubles in size (again).  This will take about an hour.  While you're waiting, preheat your oven to 450°F/230°C.

Just before popping it into the oven, you'll want to take a knife and make a slash down the center of your loaf  (if you've got a round loaf, make 4 slashes, like this: #).

Bake your loaf for 15 minutes.  You will need to mist your loaf with water 3 times during these first 15 minutes to give it a nice, crunchy crust.  This is where a spray bottle comes in handy.  You can pick one up for super cheap at just about any store.  I bought mine at Ikea for $1.

When the first 15 minutes are up (and you have misted the bread with water 3 times), reduce the heat to 400°F/200°C.  Bake for another 25-30 minutes, until you have a nice golden brown crust and it sounds hollow when you tap on the crust.  Cool it for awhile on a rack and then ENJOY!

Buon appetito!

Here's the recipe in "recipe" form:

Pane Toscano (adapted from King Arthur Flour's recipe)

1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
2/3 cup warm water
1-1/3 cups flour
1-1/4 tsp active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
1 cup room temperature water
3-3/4 cups flour

Make sponge the night before you want to bake.
Stir 1/4 teaspoon of yeast into 2/3 cup warm water.  Let sit for about 10 minutes, until it gets bubbly.  Add 1-1/3 cups flour and mix well.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit overnight.

The next day, stir 1-1/4 teaspoon yeast into 1/2 cup warm water.  Let sit for about 10 minutes, until it gets bubbly.  Add the sponge and 1 cup water.  Mix together well.  Beat in the 3-3/4 cups flour until the dough is firm enough to knead.  Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until firm and elastic (about 10 minutes).

For round shape:
Place dough in a bowl that has been well oiled with olive oil, turning to coat all sides.

For oblong shape:
Place in a dish that has been lined with a piece of plastic wrap coated with olive oil.  Turn dough to coat all sides.

Cover and let rise until it is doubled in size (about 1 hour).

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface without punching it down or being too rough with it.

For round shape:
Gently form into a round loaf by pulling the edges underneath and gathering/squeezing them together.  The top should be smooth.

For oblong shape:
Shape it into a nice oblong loaf  by gently moving the sides with your hands.

Sprinkle a baking sheet with flour and place the loaf on it.  Cover with a towel and let rise until doubled in size (about 1 hour).  Preheat the oven to 450°F/230°C.  Before placing loaf into oven, make a slit down the center of the oblong loaf, or make slits in the pattern of a #, if you are making a round loaf.  Bake for 15 minutes, misting with water 3 times during this time.  (I mist every 5 minutes).  Then, reduce heat to 400°F/200°C and bake for 25-30 minutes longer.  Remove from oven and cool on cooling rack.