Tag Archives: Florence

Roll Call– What’s in a Name

botticelli_birth_venus_2In preparation for a writer’s lockdown for the next month, I’m reading some of my early Montana musings and learning from myself. This woman was being schooled by her need to see things from the inside out, coming into her intuition. Pour a cup of tea, take a quiet moment, and see if you remember this time in your life.  Maybe it’s right now…

The naming of things. I’ve never been very good at it. Seems so formal. Restrictive.
Babies don’t enter this world with the need to name everything in it. In their estimation, the world is not made up of nouns that must be pointed at; possessed. The world is merely an extension of their little selves, still more soul than flesh. The naming of things, then, becomes a social convenience. But every baby knows that it is not a matter of survival. We forget that, I think, once we discover that our index fingers have power.

It was the Renaissance that brought me around. I was living for a year in Florence, Italy as a student of Art History. The naming of names was not just a practice reserved for museums and classrooms in that boisterous city. Florence sang with names in a full crescendo Verdi. In the dome of the Duomo…Michelangelo… Brunelleschi… the bronzed doors of the Baptistry…Ghiberti…in the cornflower and squash blossom porcelain Madonnas and cherubini in vertical rounds throughout the city…Della Robbia…in the stone walls of the countryside…Etruscans…fig picking in the hills of Chianti…Gallileo… the great Palazzo Medici keeping watch, the spirit of Dante burning for a woman in a small church, the quiet river Arno reminding the Florentines that it can rise and destroy even a Leonardo, but not his name. The names that made their city great are in the hearts and mouths of every Florentine—child, teenager, middle-aged and old; you cannot get through a dinner without being reminded of the Renaissance and the events that led up to it.
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After a while, the novelty of hearing a place in fortissimo twenty-four-seven, became jaded– sinister almost. It was what I imagine the early stages of madness to sound like: a roll call in my mind’s ear– Machiavelli, Raphael, Tiziano, Donatello, Giotto, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca… A simple walk through the city became deafening: San Lorenzo, Santa Croce, Santa Trinita`, Orsanmichele, San Marco, Santa Maria Novella, Santo Spirito—with always this maniac coloratura: Michelangelo…Michelangelo. One foot into the Uffizi museum and the brain throbbed with it. Like a horror film shooting from every angle—there: the famous angel playing the lute up in a corner almost lost in the red dark velvet. There: the reds and blues of Raphael…there: the fair pinks and periwinkles of Fra Angelico…there: the structure and hulk of the Michelangelos, the red crayon of the de Vincis pulsing three dimensional on a sheet of paper. And always those eyes of the Botticelli divas.
There was no relief, no sanctuary. How could I sit in a café drinking espresso when The David was within walking distance? How many times should a girl spending a year in Florence visit the David before she really knows the David? Once a day? Twice a week. Twice a day? And what about the Slaves? Don’t forget them in their eternal half-emergence from their Carraran marble tombs. What about the unending palazzos, piazzas, chiesas, ponte? The tapestries and frescoes, the nunneries and the catacombs, and the gardens—the gardens? Every moment of looking down was a promise of missing the name that would surely be there should I look up.
But what about the tomatoes? The long stemmed artichokes and blood oranges, the walnuts and purple figs and hot chocolate so thick it hangs at the end of your spoon? What about the little forgotten churches, cold and wet, with a quartet practicing Vivaldi in the apse?
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One day, I folded under the aural heft of it. I turned from the gallery of the Uffizi I had been skimming, and I ran—past Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Michelangelos’ Holy Family, Piero della Francesca’s Duke and Duchess of Urbino– past postcard vendors and character artists’ easels—past whizzing Vespas and women walking arm in arm– down to the Arno, where in a full sweat, I vomited. And I watched the voices drown in the steady slow stink until they were gone.
“You’re one of the lucky dozen,” said an old Italian man pointing at me with his cane as if he had been sent from the Renaissance to rub salt in my country’s artistic wound.
“Scusi?” I said.
“Il Stendhalismo. Stendhal’s Disease. Dizzy in the head and the stomach from all the art of Firenze. At least a dozen tourists get it every year.”
“But I live here,” I managed to say in my borderline Italian.
He smiled and shrugged and walked off as quickly as he had appeared.
I made a pact then. I would leave one museum unseen. Unheard. Its faces un-named. The other famous Florentine museum: The Bargello. I would save it. And instead, I would go slowly through the halls of the Uffizi for one year until the voices simmered to a whisper, or better, became woven into my heartbeat like a monk’s prayer.
It worked. Months later, I made my usual pass along the wall which holds the Birth of Venus, and stopped dead center. Not because I wanted to name her, but because I needed to forget a lost love– stare at something so beautiful, it would flush the hurt away. I stared into her wise eyes and her figure started to tunnel out of the painting toward me with a promise: she would clean away my heartbreak if I would not close my eyes. So I stood there, my eyes fixed on hers until they stung, museum patrons coming and going, reading the plaque beside her, saying the word Botticelli and leaving, and I stayed until there were sea-cleaned tears falling down my cheeks. Now, when I look into the eyes of the Venus on the half shell, I do not need to say Botticelli in order to believe in her perfect flaxen place in land, sea and sky.
I spent my last day in Florence making a café latte last four hours in my favorite outdoor café, around the corner from the Uffizi, one piazza away from the Bargello. I needed to return to the States with the taste of espresso in my mouth and the stink of the Arno in my nose and the perfume of squashed tomatoes fallen from street vendors, the sound of the horses’ hoofs and high-heeled shoes on the cobblestones. I did not hear Puccini or Verdi, not even in a pianissimo.
Instead, I overheard some tourists talking on the street corner, clad in money belts and brand new Nike sneakers. “Yeah, it’s been an awesome two weeks,” one said to the other similarly vested American, introducing herself. “First we did Paris, and then we did Madrid, then we did Milan, today and tomorrow we’re doing Florence, and then we’re doing Rome for a few days and flying back.”
That sealed it. I did not do Florence. I learned that year that a place cannot be done. Whether you have one minute in it, or an entire lifetime. The ultimate difference between doing a place and being in a place, I suppose, has to do with an openness, but too, the privilege of time. I will never know Florence like the Florentines do. But I understand the place past the name. And I understand that a name is just a name perhaps, until you have sat for many hours, and sipped a cup of coffee knowing it is there, around the corner. Having surrendered a lover in its midst. Trusting that it can clean you the next time you look it in the eye.
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***
It took three years of living in Montana before it dawned on me that all cone-bearing trees are not called Pine trees. It took me five years of living in Montana before I could see that the structure of the distant hills was different from hill to hill. Six, before I could see what the hills were made of. Seven before I would stop and stare at a Hemlock and wonder why there were not, then, Cedars or Subalpine Fir dwelling nearby. Eight before I could tell when the Larch were just about to go as flaxen as the Botticelli Venus, before they went bare and asleep. And I got stuck there at eight for a while because I decided it was time for field guides and the naming of names—and suddenly my pack became heavy with books on wildflowers, trees, scat and track identification, and binoculars, and my walks in the woods were half spent with my nose in a topographical map. Suddenly my walks in the woods were like my early walks through the galleries of the Uffizi, with a running commentary of names: Fir, Larch, Subalpine Fir, Grand Fir, Cedar, Hemlock, Lodgepole, Ponderosa. And I was not seeing the forest anymore.
So I backed off. Lost the field guides and maps. Started riding horses and not carrying anything but a bottle of water and a piece of fruit. I cantered through the woods so that the trees were in constant blur, hoping that with my new vantage point, I might not see a Larch and think: Larch. And that brought me through to nine. My ninth year. Now. Today. When the forest started to sing.
I was sitting at a glacial lake, ten or so miles from home, not remembering that it was late September and that the ten o’clock sunsets are a thing of summer past. I had come to the woods not in the pursuit of trees, and not to forget a lost love, but to forget a potential one.
My husband announced that morning that he wanted to be scientifically done with our life “as breeders.” No more kids. I heard bits and pieces of it—one of each…enough for both sets of arms…we fit just right in a canoe…airplanes trips still affordable…college tuition possibly manageable if we start saving now…no shared bedrooms…we can take that trip back to Italy you’ve been talking about since I met you—show the kids all those paintings you love so much.
“I’m done,” he said. I heard that loud and clear. He wanted to know that I was okay with that.
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So I lost light tonight at the lake, thinking about the fact that we humans have one miracle left that we can at least court, if not perform. An outward and visible sign, I think the Sunday school quote goes. Still, left up to Mystery, but perhaps, if all goes well, possible. One last stroke at genius—one last connection to the Creator. One last place of true breathlessness. Surrender.
And he wanted to cut off that line to Divinity in a matter of a few minutes in a fluorescent-lit doctor’s office, all for a small fee. “I think insurance pays for most of it,” he said.
I lost light watching the last of the bug hatches, and the fish rising and the clouds going crimson, breathing shallow little strikes at feeling okay about the last of my motherhood. No more would my belly swell with life kicking and swimming inside me like that mountain lake. I tried to force a cavalier alliance to population control. But it seemed all wrong, no matter how I tried to wrap my mind around it.
And then it didn’t matter, because it was dark. And I was far from home. And I wasn’t sure I knew my way. I’d always heard that horses did, but there were steep cliffs my horse was willing to go down in the dark that I wasn’t, and so I needed to be her guide. And I didn’t feel like I could be anyone’s guide just then.
I mounted and, loose-reined, she led me to the trail. The moon was a thin crescent—not much for lighting paths through thick stands of Fir and Larch. I turned her one way and she hesitated, ever-loyal, and I made my mind blank. Putting take me home…make my decision for me…into a parcel of intention she might be able to translate; horses are the most intuitive animals I have ever shared dark or light with. She stepped forward and I went with her into the dark woods. And I went like that for what seemed like miles and miles, not being able to see the trail, not really caring all that much, mourning my unborn children, trusting.
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And then I thought about the Venus. How she asked me to stare into her, believe in her until my eyes stung with her cleansing power. I let out a sigh then. And my horse stopped. We were at an old granddaddy of a Douglas Fir that I recognized; it was the one that stood alone in the clear-cut, like some logger had just been too taken by it to cut it down. My horse was still; dormant. I looked up into its branches; they were full and architectural. Second growth. Maybe third. But statuesque and mighty in a way trees aren’t allowed to be around here much anymore.
I let my head fall back against my shoulders and sighed and let my breath rise up into its branches the way I had let the Venus pull out of her painting. And I held and it stung, only not in my eyes, but in my ears this time. And I did not say, Douglas Fir. I said, “Thank you.”
And we went then, through the next few undulations of forest until we were climbing the steep hill home. I couldn’t see it, but I could hear it for all its silence. And I could smell it, for all its running sap. Rotting stumps. Dusty bottom.
I leaned forward on my mare’s neck, holding her mane. And we crested the ridge. Then back I leaned, holding firm with my knees, letting my hips go loose in her rhythm. Hearing the scuttle of scrim and glacial tilth, grinding under-hoof. The rustling of scrubby brush and nocturnal beasts, not the sort to trust daylight at all.
On the flat ground, we cantered. I held on to her mane, breathless in the dark. And I did the reverse. I closed my eyes.
I felt it: clean.
And the forest sang us home.

To plug into your intuition through the power of words and Montana…come to a Haven Writing Retreat this Fall 2017

September 6-10
September 20-24
October 4-8 (FULL)
October 18-22

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Signs, Designs, Italy

(for Melinda)
People say that there are no coincidences. I profoundly and purely believe that sometimes. Sometimes I think it’s an overly convenient way of thinking. And sometimes I want to believe it more than others. Sometimes we are looking for signs.

I spent most of August in Italy. I went this time not needing to prove myself in museum knees. Or postcards. Or checked-off lists and well-obeyed itineraries. I went with my friend and daughter and I went to receive the gift of a “victory lap” after a few years promoting my memoir. I went to eat, pray, love. (sorry, couldn’t help myself).

And whether you believe in the power of intention or the manifestation of intention or signs or divine design…I will tell you this: A sculpture followed me. Dare I say stalked me. I started to imagine what it is to have Heaven dance and clap and rejoice in a human’s awakening to a great mysterious power not being at all mysterious. I started to believe in angels.

If you ask a surgeon if you need surgery, that surgeon will likely say yes. If you ask a writer if books are important, he or she will say yes. If you ask an art historian where you could have full frontal and even mystical experiences with art, they might direct you to Italy. If you say you love sculpture, they’ll tell you to go to the Loggia in the Piazza Signoria in Florence. That’s the side of my mind that thinks in overly-convenient thinking justifying what happened this August in Italy. Here’s the other side:

I swear, I didn’t mean to have this happen. I swear I went to eat browned butter and sage ravioli. I swear, I actually don’t pay that much attention to sculpture. I like canvas and paper, ink and paint. The closest to three dimensional that sings in my heart is relief. Not exactly emergent creatures. But not this time.

This time, from Milan, to Florence, to Pietrasanta, I was shoulder to shoulder with every sculpture I encountered. The marble tears. The marble creases in robes and skin. The toes which are all of our toes, wedded to the earth and our pain and loss and fear and consciousness of our non-marble mortality. In museums, piazzas, street corners, and chin-to-the-sky encounters with bell towers I wept with the collective non-marble We mirrored in the marble We. I saw my whole life in those sculptures. Every emotion like my life flashing before me, like they say about the moments before death. Like they say about no coincidences.

And still, there was one sculpture in particular that followed me. Like it would not let go. Like it had something to tell me.

Michelangelo believed the sculpture was in the marble waiting to be released. He released it. I received it. But this was not Michelangelo. This was Lorenzo Bartolini.

I first saw this sculpture on a plaque on a wall in the Poldi Pezzoli in Milan. It was commissioned by the lady of the house to show her grief after her husband’s death. Its rawness and courage spoke to me. Taking a stand for your emotional truth in marble. Its power and its presence were large in its physical absence, as the sculpture was currently touring in a show in the Accademia in Florence. I bought the postcard to remind me of the power of this sculpture I’d likely not see. I’d put it on my writing desk. I’d look to her powerful emotional choice in my own emotional choices– bouyed by her sadness and yet released in her marble. I forgot the name of the sculptor.

Then a friend arranged for me to go to a private family gallery in Florence. The Romanelli gallery. She thought it was beautiful and full of history—two things I love. She told me little else. I went. I went with my daughter. As the owner of the gallery, the lovely Rubina, was showing me around, I was sorting out my intrigue with the feeling of sacred space, the presence of the place of creation with the place of exhibition, the information she was giving me, the pointing of my daughter’s hand—everything slow motion. I heard and sensed: originally a church. A family of sculptors. Famous. Major museums. Multi generations. 1860. Rodin was friends with Romano Romanelli. They shared the same model, Isadora Duncan. Camille Claudel used to walk in and out of the studio. Rodin. Camille Claudel. Early influencers of my life as an artist. Pilgrimage to the Rodin museum in Paris. Rilke’s home. Rilke. Early influencer of my life as an artist. And there was a bronze of Isadora Duncan in the corner.

And then my daughter pointed with fervor. “There it is!” There was the sculpture that lived at the Poldi Pezzoli in Milan, that was out on tour at the Accademia. Only rough.

“It’s the original plaster,” Rubina told me.

And I replayed her gallery tour. She’d said that after it being a church it was the studio of a famous sculptor. I asked her to repeat it.

“Bartolini,” she said. “There’s a show of his work at the Accademia right now. That sculpture is on exhibit. It’s a portrayal of a woman’s grief.”

“I know,” I said.

“This was his studio. He created that sculpture here. In that room. This is its plaster counterpart.”

I walked in and out of the studio. I tried to feel the flesh behind the marble.

The next day my daughter and I went to the Accademia. Not to see David. I’ve spent hours admiring David. We went to see the grieving woman. Her toes so folded underneath the heft of her body and the heft of her grief. Her head so heartbroken and almost-hopeful. I wept.

How are we released?

How are we held captive?

How are we to receive the legacy of messages? Is Heaven really clapping its hands when we pay attention?

And further, what do I need to learn about grief? That it is made of marble and flesh? That it does not go away? That it is holy? And naked. And even beautiful?

What are our lessons? Who are our teachers? What is right before our very eyes that we cannot see?

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The heart language of an Italian family.

In 1986, I sat in a classroom at the Syracuse University school, in the Piazza Savonarola in Florence, Italy, waiting to meet the people who would be my host parents for the next year of my life. I was nervous. I didn’t speak a word of Italian. I’d chosen Florence precisely for the art and the gut-spawned sense that it would be good for me to be mute for a year, or at least wildly misunderstood. I was in rebel mode, and I needed to slip sweetly into humility. I needed to get rid of the fight and get into receiving the beauty and power of life, and what better legacy of beauty and power than in those streets. I threw my eight years of Spanish out the window, and arrived in Italy thinking that you spelled the word “ciao” like this: Chow.

A lot of the students looked like they’d already spent a year in Italy, dressed in leather and capes, chatting and drinking espresso long before Starbucks hit the American scene. I felt small and invisible. One by one, students were paired with their Italian host families, lugging their suitcases and duffel bags down the parquet floors, out to the grainy honeyed light of the city. I was the last one left. It felt a lot like gym class. Before the teacher could call my name, a man who looked like Picasso, with large blinking doe eyes, stood up in a blue workshirt and jeans, nodded and smiled at me like he was rescuing me from waiting a second longer, like he was choosing me, wrapped his calloused black-etched fingers around my duffel, and walked toward the door. I guessed the nod and the smile had been our hello.

He opened the door of a tiny car called a Panda, similar to the 1960s Topolino (means Mickey Mouse), and I climbed inside, smooshed up against my bag. He lit a cigarette, smiled and nodded again, said something in Italian which I of course didn’t understand, and careened us through the streets of Florence, out to the highway, and through the Tuscan countryside. I beamed with measures of invigoration and confusion. Our host families were supposed to live in town. This was not town. How was I going to pound the pavement of the Renaissance in what was looking, ten, twenty, thirty miles out of the city? I wanted urban grit, not Cyprus trees and vineyards. Plus…there was the question of “the rest of the family” and if it existed.

We pulled into a pea gravel driveway, an old mustard stucco edifice standing proud with arched windows, topped in terracotta tiles. A woman was standing at the front door, wiping her hands on her apron, bubbling over with words clearly spun of homemade love. She kissed both of my cheeks. I held her a little hard for our first meeting.

The father took my bag inside, and I just stood there smiling, wishing I could tell her everything. That I was smart and kind and trustworthy and would help out and…and…and…please like me! I’m really not a rebel. I just need to be re-booted.

But I didn’t need to say anything. She took me inside, gave me a helping of a thick bread soup called papa al pomodoro, which is to this day my favorite comfort food, (made from the week’s leftover bread, tomatoes, garlic, onions, and olive oil—sort of their version of mashed potatoes), and afterward an espresso. Then she introduced me to the cat, the grandmother (la Nonna), the housekeeper, the pot of sauce simmering on the wood-fired stove, and suddenly, I realized, I was home. I was a daughter in this house for a year. I didn’t know if there were other children. It didn’t matter.

Then the father came down and took my hand and walked me out to the back porch where all of Tuscany spread out in quilts of olive groves and vineyards. He didn’t need to say a thing. Stunning is stunning is stunning. He paused a while to let me take it in.

Then he reached up to what I soon realized was a walnut tree, and picked a nut. He moved us over to a fig tree, and picked a fig. Then he did a little hand play like a magician before the tah-dah, cracked the walnut in one hand, popped the nut meat into the fig, and held it in front of my mouth. Then he opened his mouth, pantomime, and I knew to open mine, and in popped my first fig, filled with my first fresh walnut. I chewed. The little fig seeds bursting between my teeth.

He watched, like: well? There was no way I wasn’t going to love this, he was sure of it.
“Mmmmmmmmm,” I said, which is the same in every language, I imagine.

Then we went inside to see the villa. I later learned that it was inhabited long before America was even discovered. Its foundation was built c. 1420-30, the first floor in the late 1700s, and the second floor in the late 1800s. It came into this family in the mid 1900s when the patriarch fell in love with the Italian style gardens, (think Boboli), a rarity for such a small property. From every window, you could see gardens, or hills or olive groves or vineyards or vegetable gardens.

This was clearly a family who loved land and the fruits of good soil, and it all came to a fervent dance in the glorious kitchen, a warm and never-dormant place of maternal pride and creation; a long table suggestive of a big family and many stories told.

The living room was an ode to  stone, with its large fireplace and smooth floors. I would later learn that Florentines were stone masons. The banister and chandelier were wrought iron masterpieces and I would also learn that the paternal side of this family was a long line of blacksmiths, explaining my Italian host father’s hands.


The dining room walls were done in fresco by, I would later come to learn, their famous artist uncle, Silvano Campeggi, the table set in lace, large windows letting in that grainy light so that it looked like a Dutch Vermeer. Up the steep stone stairway were three rooms off a central second living room, a harpsichord in the corner. The ceiling high with wooden beams across white stucco. What I soon realized would become my weekend country room, their primary residence in the city, was fit for a princess– the bed frame, twisted in the same skilled wrought iron, the wardrobe and bureau, priceless antiques, lovingly kept to a shine.


These people were not necessarily rich. They were simply longtime stewards of place. And they were teachers and parents to me for one of the best years of my life. It turned out there were children in this family. A lovely daughter, Elisabetta, who has become a true sister to me over the years and who now lives next door with her children and her British husband—all of them fluent in English, and a talented musician son, Francesco, who has taken over their city flat.

When I returned with my daughter 20 years later, I was thrilled to find that they’ve turned their country home into a Bed & Breakfast, also hosting dinners for tourists in the Chianti area.  This is a family of  true Tuscans, fiercely proud, as they should  be, of their region’s tremendous heritage.  Elisabetta, after years of working in the fashion business (Gucci and Ferragamo to name a few), now offers custom insider day excursions around Florence, serving as personal shopper at exclusive and/or off-the-beaten-path artisan shops, personal docent in the world famous museums, ushering you through the streets of Florence to places you might never know to visit like the Ferragamo Shoe Museum, or a silk factory truly fit for kings (the Grimaldi family of Monoco and the Kremlin to name a few of their clients) with silk worms at work and an age-old show room flanked in bolts of the most exquisite fabric I’ve ever seen…booking luncheons in private homes overlooking the Arno, and on an on.  My daughter and I got to spend a day with Elisabetta, touring the city of Florence in a way I’d never experienced it.  But that’s another blog post.  For now check out her website.

I am so thrilled to be able to share my Italian “family” with you. I wrote about them in my book, and I love them. They are touchstones for me. Cairns. Gatekeepers of the soul. It is my deepest pleasure to introduce you to Milvia and Luigi of the Renzoni family. If you’re travelling to Florence any time soon, you might be lucky enough to eat a walnut filled fig and bask in this unspeakable hospitality.
For theirs is heart language.

For information about the Villa di Riboia and how to book a stay at this fantastic family home in the Tuscan countryside, go here.

And this is me, returning after 20 years, happy.

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