november 2002, toscana (tuscany)


for the background story, read my rome page first.

on wednesday we started out for pisa and toscana in general. toscana is the province which lies north of lazio, the province of rome. toscana is green and reasonably lush, with lots of wine districts.

a quick note on italian pronunciation: 'z' is generally pronounced like "ts". thus "lazio" sounds like "latsio", not lazy-o. also, "c" and "cc" before 'i' or 'e' is pronounced like "ch" as in "check". everywhere else it is pronounced like 'k'. if you want a 'k' sound before 'i' or 'e', you need to write "ch" or "cch" instead. thus gnocchi is pronounced gno-ki, not gno-chi. these two forms are not used anywhere else. the "gn" in gnocchi is pronounced like a spanish ''. on the whole, once you know these few rules and the general pronunctiation of the letters, you should be able to make a decent attempt at pronouncing anything in italian as it is quite regular.

the tuscan countryside is just gorgeous. the towns tend to be placed on hilltops, and the older they are, the more fortified they are. it is not unusual for a small town to have 10m walls all around, with strictly controlled access roads. nowadays many of the towns have grown beyond their old walls, and spill into the valleys below.

pienza was a small town of around 2300 inhabitants. it is unusual in that pope pius II or III had the centre designed to be the perfect town, with the city hall, the main church and the pope's palace all abutting, with little roads running off in all directions. the popes' family name was piccolomini. there were no tourists other than us, and hardly anyone else either. i can't guarantee that this will be the case in high season however.

montalcino is home of the famous brunello di montalcino wine, one of italy's most famous. we both bought €39 bottles there. the highest price we saw was a 1985 sassicaia for €1200, sold at the fortezza where we bought our wines. ours were from 1997, which apparently earned a 99 point score from the wine spectator, and this vintage is expected to go down in history as one of the all-time greatest wines. i wish i had the guts to open it :)

siena is another unusual little town, although somewhat larger than either pienza or montalcino with a population somewhere around 27000. it has the standard top-of-a-hill location with the center at the highest point, but the center itself is actually bowl-shaped. the piazza is covered with red tiles in the middle and grey tiles around the edges. the grey is covered with sand twice a year for horseraces, and the center is completely packed with spectators on these occasions. the church is gorgeous, with a very simple, spartan look to it. to the one side there is a room on the ceiling of which can be seen the typical crescent moons of pope pius II. around the walls are paintings and books opened to gregorian chants. in the center is a sculpture of three young women. giovanni is used to beautiful architecture but this room completely floored him and he sat for perhaps 10 or 15 minutes in this room, just taking it all in.

that night we arrived in pisa and after having dinner with giovanni's mother and her husband, we slept.


the following day was our day in firenze, or florence as it is called in english. we zipped around pisa before hopping on the train. there really isn't much in pisa other than the not-so-straight tower. they now charge €15 to ascend the tower, which has the intended effect of minimising traffic, and thus wear and tear. the tower started leaning even as it was being built, so they continually corrected the angle of construction, leading to it being somewhat banana-shaped. the picture of the base of the tower really makes it clear how crooked it is. the last two pictures are the view from giovanni's mother's balcony.

firenze is the art-centre of italy. there are lots and lots of galleries and museums, and you can study art formally here whether you are italian or foreign. firenze also has a stunning duomo (dome, ie. a church), in typical but extraordinarily well executed tuscan style. the yellow doors are gold plated and are called the gates of paradise. the dome has a painting of the seven tiers of heaven. like so many large architectural constructions in italy, the duomo does not have much room around it, but completely dominates its little piazza.

the david statue by michelangelo, located in the galleria dell' academia, is quite simply the most stunning work of art i have seen in my life. it has incredible presence, and one feels truly humbled at the sight of it. it used to stand outside a fortress, but now a copy is located there, shown in two of the pictures.

the chunk of marble was massive, and belonged to the opera del duomo di firenze. it was quite narrow however, and full of veins, and famous sculptor after sculptor either had to give up doing anything with it, if they hadn't already declined up front. even michelangelo buonarroti declined initially, but when the political landscape changed later and the marble become available, he snapped it up. the damage done by previous attempts as well as the narrowness of the piece, and the opportunity to measure himself against the best sculptors of his time must have been an irresistible challenge, and so he commenced at the age of 26 on the 16th of august, 1501, finishing just two years later on the 25th of january, 1504.

there was much envy and controversy surrounding the statue, and from the very beginning it has been the target of much vandalism, some of which broke a finger and the left arm. most of it has been well repaired, but the scars can still be seen.

michelangelo deliberately made the hands, feet and head larger than normal to emphasise them. the expression on david's face is exceedingly subtle, yet intense, and none of the copies or tourist miniatures i have seen capture it like the original does.

when michelangelo was done he considered it perfect, but knowing that his patron, pier soderini, would ask for changes, he hid some marble dust in one of his hands when presenting it. sure enough, soderini said that the nose was too big and asked him to change it slightly. michelangelo climbed up the ladded, pretended to chip a little off the nose, letting the dust fall. when he was done, soderini declared it perfect!

i wanted absolutely to have my own pictures of this masterpiece, but there were guards everywhere and photography was not allowed, so i had to sneak around and takes pictures from waist-height, concealing the camera inside my coat. the frontal picture was very hard to get without getting discovered, as there were two guards to my right.

the first picture here is the uffizi, the largest and perhaps most famous of firenze's galleries. there is a very poor picture of the birth of venus, which i took while a guard was watching me very carefully the whole time. the uffizi is immense, with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of incredible paintings and sculptures. after walking around in here for a while, you get incredibly numb to the beauty of most of them, simply due to sensory overload. we did manage to see them all, i think, but near the end i was simply passing by row after row of paintings, barely seeing anything, except when it was a michelangelo, caravaggio, raffaelo, botticelli, or some other maestro.

the bridge is ponte vecchio, which since the 1600s has been full of little gold shops.

this last picture from this trip shows how the pricing differs depending on whether you stand at the coffee bar (banco) or want to sit at a table (tavolo). for example, at the bar an espresso costs €0,75 whereas at a table it costs €1,60! its amazing what solution people find to a lack of space.

then we took the train back to pisa again. on the way we met a gorgeous girl, selena, who gio talked to for a long time. she is studying for her phd in languages, and speaks italian, spanish, portuguese and romanian. with my english, danish, french and german we still had no common language. sigh. i just adored her accent, a soft, lilting italian, relaxed and happy. i would have married her on the spot if she had promised me to talk to me always :)

back in pisa we went out for dinner with livia, a friend of gio's, who was very bubbly and lots of fun to be with. we went to a neat little cafeteria style place called, i think, "12".

the next morning we drove back to rome again. we saw all the major items, but missed the vast majority of things to see. i will have to make a separate trip to firenze another time, and spend perhaps one or two weeks, just to take it all in. the art here is just incredible, perhaps unmatched in the world, possibly excepting the louvre in paris.