Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Palazzo Bartolini Salimbeni

One of the reasons I strongly suggest for visitors to go on a guided tour of Florence is that you learn so much about the history of the city and notice things you would surely have missed just walking around on your own. Getting the background of the events and people who shaped the Renaissance makes a world of difference in how you perceive the city, and certainly makes things more interesting. Unless you are a history scholar, it is unlikely that you will spend 3 hours with a professional guide and not discover something new! Every time I participate in a tour with my clients I learn a few fascinating things - and I have lived here for a long time! 

On my most recent tour of Florence, I came to know the history of a unique building located in the heart of the center, between Piazza Santa Trinita and Via Tornabuoni. Palazzo Bartolini Salimbeni was built between 1520 and 1523 by the architect Baccio d’Agnolo for a wealthy family of wool merchants whose descendants were originally from Siena. This residential palazzo represents an unconventional, avant-garde style of architecture for that period.

photo: Fabrizio Pivari via Flickr.com

It was the first building to have rectangular windows, topped by a tympanum with arched or triangular gables. The window panes were divided into rectangular sections by a cross set inside them. The front door and the windows were flanked by columns, reminiscent of ancient Roman architecture. These, among other unique elements, distinguished the building from all the other Renaissance residential palazzos (this is quite evident if you consider that the building right next to it, on the right in the photo below, was built only a few years earlier).  

photo credits: Sailko via Wikipedia.com
However, the radical design was not well received at the time and it resulted in a great deal of general criticism, which spurred the proud architect to brazenly challenge his detractors by engraving this quote above the door: carpere promptius quam imitari: criticizing is easier than imitating. To his credit, over time this new style became an architectural model to emulate and many other buildings were constructed to resemble it. 

As is almost always the case when probing into the history behind the monuments, there is an intriguing tale about the Bartolini Salimbeni family that helps to explain some of the other details found on the facade. These rich wool merchants were known for their diligent and untiring work ethic, so it is not surprising that they chose their motto to be: Per non dormire (to not sleep) - which is engraved in several of the window crosses. However, legend has it that there is more to the story than just their hard-working nature. In fact, another decorative element linked to this theory can be found in the
 border with a symbol from their family crest, a ring containing 3 poppies. It is said that they used a shrewd trick to claim a shipment of precious wool which brought them great wealth. A sumptuous banquet was organized at the palazzo for their fellow wool merchants (and competitors) where the food was laced with opium - derived from poppies. While the guests were conveniently asleep, they secured the valuable  goods - making a fortune. (So, I guess in modern vernacular their motto would read: You snooze you lose!) 

A stunning courtyard is another typical characteristic of historic palazzos, although it's unfortunately hidden behind the (normally) closed doors of the facade. Here too you can see the classical architectural elements and also a wonderful example of the graffiti decorations and the grotesque motif. 

The Bartolini Salimbeni family lived in the residence until the early 1800s when it was rented to a foreign couple who turned it into the Hotel du Nord in 1839 - a fashionable place where illustrious guests like Henry James and Herman Melville were known to have stayed. 
Today it is privately owned. 

photo: Simona Constantin

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Discover the Art of Tuscan Living

What is it that draws people to Tuscany? For many it is a combination of qualities that are present in this beautiful region of Italy: the natural scenery, with postcard perfect landscapes of rolling hills covered with vineyards, olive groves and cypress trees; the excellent wine and food; the extraordinary art and history; the stunning architecture and monuments… but perhaps what tilts the scale is the mystique of the Tuscan Lifestyle. This intangible element is really the underlying attraction that seems to unite everyone in their love of Tuscany. 

In the collective imagination, Tuscany is somehow synonymous with “good living”. In many ways this is true. Here you are surrounded by beauty, which is probably why  Italians tend to take things slower - their meals, their encounters with others, their walks (known as strolls called passeggiate), but can you blame them? History permeates everything, making it easy to get caught up in the past - when things were less frenetic. Also, it is a reality that rushing down a cobblestone street can be downright dangerous! One false step and you risk breaking a leg (I speak from experience!) - so it’s best to slow down, even if you are a few minutes late reaching your destination. Other characteristics that surely interfere with speed are the quaint shops lining the streets (constantly inviting you to glance in their windows); the cafes everywhere, beckoning you to pop in for an espresso or a pastry; the beautiful architecture, where even the doorways and courtyards will catch your eye as you make your way through town. 

Yet, despite all the distractions, the locals do actually manage to live and work in Tuscany. In fact, it is one of Italy’s most productive regions. As a result, often they themselves forget to look up and appreciate their surroundings - because they are in a hurry to get to an appointment, catch a bus, reach the office, or whatever else normal residents do on a daily basis in the 21st century. However, fortunately most Tuscans do still recognize their good fortune of living in such an incredible place. They are the ones who proudly carry on the traditions of this land - despite all the obstacles (and there are many!) Among them are the artisans, farmers, shopkeepers, winemakers, and those who have restored ancient homes both in the city and the countryside, saving them from ruin and disrepair. 

You will also find a great number of passionate Tuscans working in the tourist industry, proud to show off their home and culture to visitors. They are the ones who do their job with integrity and a smile - making you feel welcome. Having looked behind the scenes, I can honestly say that for many it is truly a calling, as the effort required to do their jobs well is much greater than what one would expect. Italy still doesn’t support its local economy enough. Small entrepeneurs are faced with so much red tape and a mountain of challenges, making success very difficult. It is important to mention this aspect, because sometimes Italy’s tainted reputation clouds the general perspective on the existence of its honest hard-working population.

So my suggestion is, when you visit Tuscany, allow yourself to feel its vibe. Take time to enjoy the good life - even if it means not being able to do and see everything on your bucket list. Don’t rush or over-schedule, otherwise you’ll miss the best part of what this wonderful place has to offer. Leave room for the unknown, be spontaneous and love the journey as much as the destination. Chances are, no matter what, you will be left with the desire to return… that’s the magic of Tuscany!