the other tastiest place in the world

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Arts & Crafts gallery, Victoria & Albert Museum

Back in 2010 we named the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna as the tastiest place in a very, very tasty city, but must report that its crown is challenged by one single room in London.  (Surely a topic of such weight merits the esteemed position of this post, which is our 100th, thank you very much & you are welcome!)

During our most recent jaunt through Dear Old Blighty, which was awash with Artsy-Craftsy wonderfulness, we swooned in the Arts and Crafts galleries of the Victoria and Albert.  The museum presents, as one might expect, a singular collection of this great movement that we’ve been increasingly obsessed about (and that we’ve talked with you about before, like here, here, here, and here).  Any reasonable gallery with a reasonable nineteenth-century design collection will have a bit of Morris, maybe some Voysey; perhaps something shiny by Archibald Knox if they’re really fancy.  Well howzabout all of that, and then some, gathered up in one place at one time.

That image at the top is a veritable family picture: Burne-Jones glass, Liberty & Co. washstand, Voysey owls & clock, Farnham pottery, Knox pewter, Webb candlesticks & chair, De Morgan pottery, Ashbee decanter, Townsend fabric, a Morris cabinet and carpet and, of course, the movement’s unofficial mascot, the Strawberry Thief.

Seriously, just look at this stuff:

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in the Medieval Gallery

And because it’s the V & A once you’re finished swooning here, you can walk yourself down to the medieval stuff and see their inspiration. Or over to an adjacent room for Pugin and the Crystal Palace.  It’s almost too much for nineteenth-century people to bear.

Just one downside to the V & A.  Unlike the KM in Vienna, the environment of its wonderfully-designed cafes trumps the nosh.  Such a pity.  Then again, and while there are probably scones to be had in Kensington, why not make your way two miles to Conduit Street, where you can have the cream tea at the Sketch cafe and commune with other tasty ghosts at this former home to the RIBA?

why not, indeed

why not, indeed

 

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the Andersonville water tower

Clark Street

Days of yore

It’s been a long, long time since the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago was home to the majority of Swedish immigrants who gave the place its original identity and enduring name. Even as the neighborhood has changed hands, the memory of that particular heritage has remained prominent, largely due to a few remaining institutions (in particular, those dedicated to the hallowed traditions of manipulating flour, butter and sugar in exquisite combinations–one of Sweden’s great gifts to the world), and one great iconic element: the water tower on top of the Swedish-American Museum that, since sometime in the 1980s, has been emblazoned with the Swedish flag.

All neighborhoods go through transitions that reflect the character of their diverse residents; a large part of the richness of Chicago’s neighborhoods abides in these cultural layers.  The city is not a mothballed collection of quarantined ethnic groups, but a living, evolving thing that ought to reveal the waves of change that sweep through a place.

But it’s important to preserve the heritage of those who come and go, to create a kind of urban archaeology that accrues across time, like the patina on the Art Institute’s lions.  Unfortunately for Andersonville, a significant, violent, awful change has come to the 5200 block of Clark Street in recent months.  It’s especially terrible since this is the home of the Swedish-American Museum: one would expect if anyone was going to be the safekeeper of Swedish heritage in Chicago, it would be these guys.  In truth, there is  little they could do about the shifting nature of population and associated retail services that have left just a few truly Swedish joints on the street–although we hope they held some kind of Viking version of a Requiem Mass to mourn the tragic passing of the Ann Sather restaurant, which was their neighbor for years.

Ärngöt shed only manly viking tears as the cinnamon bun oven went up in flames

But they sure as herring might have taken better care of the icon that perched on top of their building for almost a century: the water tower that apparently experienced significant damage during the recent winter.  That, at least, is the word on the street; one wonders how diligent the museum has been in checking the stability of the tower since it’s not like a crummy long winter is a new thing in Chicago.  Due to neglect, the tower has been deemed too far gone to save, and on March 20, Clark Street was shut down to allow cranes to get in there and do the work of dismantling the great blue and yellow symbol.

Those of us who have looked, for years, to the rooftops around Clark and Foster for that beacon of we’re almost there!–much as our mighty ancestors likely looked upon the towers of Lindisfarne after their stormy sea crossing (yes, we are saying that a drive from the suburbs is just like that)–will be grateful that the local alderman is apparently making noise to have the thing fixed or replaced in some reasonable way.

But shouldn’t that have been the museum’s job?  First, where were you guys when the thing was starting to rust in the first place?  You’ve been in that building since 1987 and surely this wasn’t your first trip up to the roof.  Second, where’s your initiative to preserve and rebuild what is such an iconic reminder of Swedish settlement in Chicago for so many folks?

The Museum’s own mission claims its dedication to interpreting the immigrant experience, to be a “unifying force within the Midwestern Scandinavian community.”  It’s time to live up to that ideal.  One of your core values is to inspire the community and foster collaboration.  Efforts to raise cash to rebuild or preserve the water tower is just the thing to do that; we bet you dollars to dumplings.

sad thor

seriously, don’t make this guy mad.  we’ve had enough weather, tack så mycket

Tilda Swinton ‘Maybe’ Art

art

art.

Having already performed the work in London and Rome (1995, 1996), Tilda Swinton brought her performance piece “The Maybe” to New York in March, 2013. It is exactly what it looks like: Tilda Swinton sleeping in a box, in the Museum of Modern Art.

People who think that museums are for paintings and sculptures–among them images of women but not the animate thing itself–may wonder, what is the point?

Is the title meant to state the fragile, uncertain nature of “art” by its identification with a simple adverb modified, incongruously, by an article adjective–making language just as flimsy as the ‘art’ it might describe?

Is it some kind of statement on fame and celebrity and access and voyeurism?

Is it just a crass marketing ploy, the blonde vampire in the transparent coffin, leading up to the release of a movie later this year?

Is it a statement on how not to nap: (1) in public, (2) in jeans and (3) with shoes?

Is Swinton a Tracey Emin fan and this performance is an homage–or rebuttal?–to the Unmade Bed, providing a tidy napper for the earlier, much messier, installation?

And do you need to go back to college and take that contemporary art class to get it?–to understand art, to know if it’s good or not?  Or even, anymore, to be able to identify art when you see it, especially if the sight of a very normal human activity, but performed by a famous person in a box in a gallery, challenges your understanding of “art”?

No.

You only need to know: yes, Swinton sleeping in public (above) is art, while the guy doing the same thing, in a different context (below), is not.  Swinton’s nap is art and that guy’s nap is, instead, just shy of vagrancy, for the same reason this is art and this is not, and why this art and this is not.

Why?

Because: a stage, and a proclamation.

Because: modern, and Duchamp.

Now, while you have to say it’s art, you don’t have to say it’s good art.  Because: when the eons-old understanding of “art” was overturned by a French guy with a urinal, traditional judgement on “quality” was necessarily abandoned as well.  While one category of making and consuming was closed to a tight, small circle–one which has become mightily skilled at communicating its sense of superiority and keeping its trade secrets to itself–, another was opened up to a wider audience.  And it is only fair that if the naming makes the artist, the critique makes the critic.

Then again, no one every said that modern art is fair.

Maybe.

not art.

not art.

curiouser and curiouser: the new Barnes Foundation

fun signs: the single sign of life on the Parkway

A trip to the new Barnes is a curious excursion.  Because of the shady (if not downright nefarious) manner in which Alfred Barnes’ great collection of Post-Impressionist art was commandeered by the Philadelphia Art Mafia (see this post if you need a refresher), it already promises a slightly uncomfortable visit.  It’s hard not to feel a little wrong about enjoying the spoils of a robbery, which is maybe how the cheering Romans felt when watching a triumph.  But the Romans were really good at designing a splendid parade in a gorgeous setting that probably made people forget how nasty the instigating event really was.  That’s not the case at the Barnes, where the building fails to rise above the ugliness of the heist.  In fact it just exemplifies—maybe exacerbates—it.

galleries with Mr. Barnes’ “ensembles” (WHYY)

The most gracious part of the building is the sequence of galleries that follow the lines of Paul Cret’s original design for the collection as it was displayed in Merion and installed by Albert C. Barnes himself in 1925.  This is important since the Barnes isn’t just some rich person’s collection curated by some expert with an art history degree and lined up in chronological order.  The manner of its arrangement—the compositions of paintings in a group on a wall, often interspersed with metal objects and joined with furniture—is very particular to the personality of Barnes.  These “ensembles,” as he called them, record the way he thought about the collection; the visitor’s consideration of how, say, a Matisse painting, a German portrait, a Cézanne  landscape, a still-life, two hinges and a Pennsylvania Dutch chest work together is part of the intellectual riddle and aesthetic joy of viewing the collection.  It’s to the credit of the Barnes Foundation (or the judge that ordered them to do it) that the ensembles and rooms were replicated as closely as possible to Barnes’ original intent.

eyes to a building’s soul (we see torment)

But the fact that these galleries of Cret’s inspiration are stuffed into an unapologetically contemporary building is just strange.  It’s an odd experience to cross the threshold from the giant, modernist holding tank (where visitors line up and wait, wait, wait, in spite of timed tickets) to the relatively small, and lovely, galleries.  It’s a transfer from a cold, empty, lifeless space, to a compressed sequence of rooms teeming with people jockeying for the best view of the 100th naked Renoir lady in a bathtub, while the guard nudges you back from the tape border on the floor, lest you get too close to all that brushwork.  Odd as it is to step from the new building to the old galleries, this interior move is easier than witnessing the way they clash on the outside. The window sizes, proportions, detailing, and placement make all kinds of sense inside, but they look very strange from the street.  In particular, the sense of scale articulated by the wooden muntins is completely at odds with the abstract, scale-less quality of the building mass.

the shipping container that defied gravity

Even in purely contemporary terms this is not a great building.  It is basically two big stone boxes on the ground with a hovering box sheathed in glass or plastic or plexi or something in between them, with a tremendous cantilever to the west.  There’s no clear reason why this box has is expressed distinctly through the different materials and striking structure.  Also curious is the articulation of the façade, with different sizes of limestone slabs separated by joints of a mystery material.  The joints are not all the same width, possibly to allow for mistakes that the architects expect the masons to make.  We can’t think of any aesthetic or structural reason to justify this weirdness, so that’s our best guess.  Also, the limestone was sourced not in Pennsylvania, which might have been a nice boost to some struggling local economy, but rather from Israel, meaning it traveled 5,700 miles to get to Philadelphia.  (The fact that the Foundation is still seeking Platinum LEED certification, and could even get it, with this blunder, makes us see red, but that’s nothing new with LEED.)

Sometimes buildings raise questions that can be riddled out (say, a Flamboyant Gothic church).  Sometimes they can’t be, but the joy in thinking about what was going on in the architect’s gray matter makes the weirdness its own reward (like with a Borromini church).  At the Barnes Foundation, it’s just curious, and strange, and ultimately unsatisfactory. Our best guess is that time and time again the architects, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, challenged each other to spend through their giant budget as quickly as possible.  Their choices certainly weren’t made to serve art, to craft a singular museum, or to reveal anything about Philadelphia, so that’s as good a guess as anything.

the decent garden

The best of the non-Cret parts of the project is the landscape by Laurie Olin to the north and east of the building.  This is a slick modern garden, all right angles and interesting textures.  Its sensibility is in harmony with the building but it is generally more visually interesting, and pleasant to be in, as long as you don’t mind walking in very straight paths, and turning on perfect right angles. It is a memorial to Corb’s dictum that the modern man’s city is one of rationality and ninety-degree turns; cutting corners and winding paths are for uncivilized goat herders.  Near a good modern building, it might be a boring garden, but since the Barnes is not a good modern building, Olin’s garden looks pretty great.  And it ought to, since, even though this is the back of the building (in reference to the tradition of the city), it’s used as the front (according to the architects’ desire to stir things up?  challenge our preconceptions?  make it easier to access the Whole Foods parking lot when we need a snack?  Hard to say.).

Bank Barnes (ha, ha!)

It’s the south side of the building, along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where the design really goes astray.  The building, already suffering from those odd windows, is landscaped with the charm of a bank barn in Indiana (actually, far less so.).  A stepped little hill runs down from the building and is separated by a strict line of trees that mark the edge of No Man’s Land along the Parkway.  There’s nothing on this side of the building that says, come on in and see some paintings (as long as you buy your tickets in advance, because they’re always all gone before we open).  At best, it says, go ahead and pitch the hay through these here windows and we’ll bring the cows in around the other side.  But what it really says is, these architects never learned that buildings that ignore pedestrians, contribute nothing to the street and expect no life to be there anyway make bad cities and are, themselves, bad.

plans for the BFP: PMA at top (photo credit)

Truthfully, the Parkway has never been a particularly good example of what it wants to be, which is a little piece of Paris, an elegant and lively boulevard. The Philadelphia planners got the formal part right, but loaded it with institutions of a single kind a little too far away from the street, without the shops and restaurants and density that would have made the thing work (Classical aesthetics, Modernist single-use zoning; again we say, well done, Philly).  Still, that stumbling plan is no excuse to contribute another bad example of bad planning to the Parkway.

Had the Foundation moved the Cret-designed Barnes building with its collection, and added a few attributes to liven up the sidewalk (the ubiquitous gift shop?  an outpost for Beiler’s Bakery, maybe?), that would have been a great start.  It’s appropriate that the gallery spaces are the most enjoyable part of the museum; it’s a shame that the rest of the project falls so far beneath the “copied” Cret interiors. It raises the obvious question: as long as they were recreating the interior Barnes experience, why not also build the original Cret building–all of it?  This would have made a lot of sense in its particular site, in between the Rodin museum (designed by Cret in 1928) and the Free Library (Horace Trumbauer, 1917).  It could have been a marvelous Classical trio to fill out one the country’s great attempts at White City planning.

Of all the curiosities attending the new Barnes, the greatest one is that it recreates the guts of the old Barnes, but sticks it in a boring husk that completely turns its back on Benjamin Franklin Parkway.  In short, it looks very much like the Barnes Foundation does not want to be in Philadelphia at all—which is very curious, given the number of lawyers and briefs and filings and fights that were required to uproot the collection from Marion and deliver it to Parkway in the first place.

once upon a time: Barnes in Merion (Paul Philippe Cret, 1925; photo credit)

Bertrand Goldberg: humanist/inventor . . . or not

Health Sciences Center, Stony Brook NY, ca. 1974 (AIC)

Because it ran from late 2011 to early 2012, the great big Bertrand Goldberg exhibit at the Art institute of Chicago will be featured in both years’ end-of-the-year lists of wow events in architecture.  When they viewed the show, MoT‘s curatorial critics and exhibition mavens were all inspired by several wow moments: Wow, he really, really did love concrete like we expected.  Wow, they exhibit styrofoam models that we wouldn’t let our students put on public display in a design jury!  Wow, just how many acres of exhibition space have they dedicated to this show?  Wow, they say he was a humanist?  Wow indeed.

First, a disclosure, and a moment of self-awareness.  In terms of taste, Goldberg’s hulking cans of concrete are not to MoT‘s.  But we can set that aside, and certainly do so quite often when attending to such museum events.  We’re teachable. We’re ready to appreciate something about an architect we didn’t think we cared about.  It happens.  Unfortunately, this exhibit didn’t do the trick for us & Bertrand.

The sheer scale was overwhelming.  Hugely gigantic, highly repetitive, and of mixed quality that diminished the overall punch of what really good and interesting projects were included.  What we found most interesting, and inspiring, were those vignettes that sort of bookend the big massive institutional projects that Goldberg is known for.  On the one hand, there is the early work that showed his development: a keen portrait of an early Modernist, intentionally making himself so by enrolling in the Bauhaus.  That could have been an exhibit all on its own (especially to find out what in the world someone named Goldberg was doing in Germany in 1932-34).  Unfortunately this early work, with its fascinating implications, was squirreled away in the back as a prize for those who showed enough endurance to make it through miles of mid-century concrete stuff.  We found the earlier work to be lively, unique, interesting; it lived up to the exhibition’s name, “Architecture of Invention:” indeed, here we see the Invention of the Architect; that’s both interesting and enlightening.

Marina City Theatre, roof and partial concrete frame development (1961-2, AIC)

Another strong point of the exhibition was the use of artifacts, including study models and construction diagrams, that are rarely included in exhibits that typically privilege the building as fait accompli.  The models might have been edited: one model that shows the process is interesting; dozens of teetering styrofoam blobs suggests shoddy work.  The construction drawings were a revelation: big, precise, sparse.  They reminded us how architects used to really know how to draw.  We enjoyed the baffled expressions of architecture majors in the galleries trying to figure out how to do that without a computer almost as much as the drawings themselves.

Beyond those points, the exhibition left us cold, and tired, confused.  It must have been early in the planning process that someone got the cute idea to make the gallery spaces take the form of the apartment wedges in Marina City.  But no one stopped later to say um, are we sure about this? they’re kind of small, cramped, awkward. . . ?  The wedges did not accommodate the exhibition themes very well, so ideas spilled from one room to the next, failing to use the physical space to enhance the scholarly ideas that were presented and that formed the framework for the exhibition.

And then, there are the ideas themselves.  We hold the old-fashioned belief that if a title suggests an idea, the idea should be pursued through the book, poem, exhibition, whatever–and ideally supported.  Not the case here.  The notion of “invention” was addressed here and there; maybe we are meant to just understand that Goldberg invented a lot of stuff with his work.  Problem is, we’ve seen a lot of this before.  Corbusian planning, Dymaxion housing, Brutalism.  Rather than take the view that the only aspect of architecture that is worth praising is utter invention, the exhibition would have been enhanced by making comparisons and links between Goldberg and other twentieth-century designers–or even earlier ones.  That would have been instructive and knit him into the broader developments of the century from which he is so often excluded in favor of more famous folks like Mies, Corb and Kahn.  Ignoring these connections just smacks of a desire to make him more ‘inventive’ than he was, and push that modernist value of invention which really is not as engaging as innovation within professional, historical and social contexts.  (And worse yet, it rings of that sad “hey me too!” attitude that is a major sickness across Chicago.)  Goldberg himself made interesting remarks about how Marina City was like, and was not like, projects by Corbusier and the traditional way of building cities.  People working with other people’s ideas: interesting.  People living in creative bubbles: not interesting.

Same goes for people who study in a bubble: you miss some interesting points of comparison.  The exhibition catalogue describes Goldberg’s hospital planning as being based on a “highly specialized ‘geo-centric’ or ‘nuclear’ model for the rooms. . . . At the most basic level, his geocentric ideal began with planning around a focal point or epicenter corresponding to a centralized area of activity or purpose.” (p. 132).  No, actually, at the most basic level, he designed a circle with a nurse station at the center point ringed by egg-shaped patient rooms and stuck the mechanical stuff into the leftover, weirdly shaped bits.  This was indeed an astonishingly contemporary idea, once upon a time, in the eighteenth century (probably earlier).

A final irritation is its use of the word “humanist” without a definition clarifying that Goldberg’s “humanism” (for there must be such a thing from which “humanist” may derive) is not related to any established definition (among the possibilities: the study of the Humanities, Greek and Latin antiquities, the Renaissance interest in those pursuits, an interest in worldly interests at the expense of the spiritual, a theological understanding of Christ’s human nature).  Of these, maybe we could assume that Goldberg’s “humanism” is related to a big general interest in humans–but one assumes (sometimes to our detriment, we know) such would be at the center of architectural design.  We were surprised to see this term at all, since we don’t understand the historical or social nature of “humanism” manifest in mega-scaled brutalist concrete that have no relationship to their extant city grids and cut off natural resources (like rivers) with a lengthy wall of building.  Goldberg’s exact meaning was not pursued in the exhibition, but is included in a chapter in the catalogue: Goldberg used the word “humanistic” to distinguish the occupied areas from “bulk” spaces in a report dated April 1965.  This distinction between “humanistic” and “bulk” spaces is a much less catchy version of an old idea; it was not even new when Kahn started talking about “servant” and “served” spaces, which he must have done sometime around 1953 when he was working on the Yale Art Gallery.  Ignoring that heritage, and its centuries of development, doesn’t make your guy sound like more of a genius, it just makes it sound like more modernist propaganda–or just scholarship that needed another footnote or two, or perhaps a better editor, which might have made this exhibition as enlightening as it was expansive.

River City I: pedestrian park level plan (ca. 1974, AIC)

All images from the Art Institute: click for link Stony Brook, Marina City and River City

Bertrand Goldberg: Architecture of Invention [exhibition] at the Art Institute of Chicago

tastometer 2011

Alfred C. Barnes, when he was alive, and still able to forcibly beat the crap out of anyone who suggested dismantling his collection

Although taste can neither be judged on a perfect continuum (since so often events and objects evince both good and bad taste) nor be comfortable within delimiting factors of a ten-part end-of-year list, the turning of the calendar does seem an appropriate time to take pause, consider the year that has passed, and acknowledge special achievements in Taste: the good, the bad, and otherwise.  MoT‘s Department of Tastemetrics offers the following study of events of 2011, ranging from the Worst of Bad Taste to Tasty of the Tasty, recognizing that bad taste is sometimes enjoyable and good taste can be downright boring.

Rather than apply a simple numeric system to this slippery study, the Department instead adopts a system of word-pictures.  These Taste Indicator Determinant arBited Illustration Types (TIDBITs) have been assigned somewhat like the party election symbols used in India–not that those were judgmental, as MoT‘s are, but they are illustrative little morsels none the less.  Join us as we start at the scuzzy, slimy bottom:

Bunga-bunga?  Buh-bye!

The resignation of Silvio Berlusconi as Prime Minister of Italy finally took place on 16 November.  There’s nothing redeeming about this story; he was a schmucky guy who took advantage of everything and everyone.  Yuck.  TIDBIT: Flaming Bag of Poo

The celebration of “Architect Barbie” by people who should know better: it was bad enough that this crummy parody of a female professional was unleashed, it’s worse that there has been so much praise and excitement about it from professionals and academics.  Ugh, we’ve been through this enough and have submitted the Barbie Department here at MoT HQ to redundancy downsizing, so just read their now-historic report here.  TIDBIT: Cat Barf

A nut that was cracked wide open in an interview on ABC in February, Charlie Sheen’s simultaneous meltdown and reinvention was sad, overplayed and tedious, but somehow heroic, albeit in a deluded sort of way.  We include it here mostly to emphasize how much we hate Architect Barbie by making her the meat in a crap sandwich with Silvio & Charlie as the bread.  TIDBIT: A Crap Sandwich

one monstrosity OMA hasn’t managed to get built yet

There’s plenty of stupid spectacle architecture out there, both built and proposed (here’s an exemplary late entry), but the La Paille Dans L’Åil Du Voisin is the stupidest (watch the video if you have excess IQ points to spare).  TIDBIT: Whatever Tastes Like The Head of Michelangelo’s David With A Big Beam Rammed Through It

On July 3 the Barnes Foundation closed. What a travesty.  Readers unaware of what a slimy business the art world is (especially in Philadelphia, but not uniquely so), need to read up or see this good documentary.  Glimmer of hope: with this theft, more people will be able to see and enjoy the art at the center of the controversy.  But that’s the same kind of thin excuse that protects a lot art in European museums stolen by marauding armies.  This time the crime was perpetrated by very slick culture vultures, but the result is the same.  TIDBIT: Heirloom Tomato, Rotten and Worm-Eaten

Josh: SHOULDDA

A one-time favorite around HQ, Project Runway concluded season 9 by naming Anya the winner. Inconceivable!  Anya, who can make only one dress, for one climate, but sew no sleeves, and never heard the word “zipper.”  This, especially when the duo of Joshua (left) and Viktor were actual contenders, dripping with loads of talent and versatility and skill.  Although the award raises an interesting point–how essential is design education vs. natural talent?–it revealed the producer’s interest, finally, in favor of sizzle over steak.  TIDBIT: Beadazzled Crap Sandwich

Mixed blessings from England: someone newly hired at Mini somehow missed the memo that “mini” means “small,” and urged the developement of maxi-size minis.  The Mini Cooper “Countryman” (what does that even mean?) is weird, and dumb.  Problem: it was first advertised with this commercial, and the catch phrase cram it in the boot, that we really kind of like.  However, when MoT crams it, we cram it in a properly-scaled mini Mini boot, thank you very much.  A proper Mini is more than adequate for our needs, and we have stretched it to accomode, at one point, two of MoT‘s junior staffers toting backpacks, viola and cello, and a pitbull, for good measure, and did so while maintaining the spirit of Mini as encapsulated in the great commercial that celebrates the “Best Test Drive Ever, Period.”  (However, MoT‘s six-word “Best Test Drive Ever, Period.” would be described thusly: MrDarcy, Quadrilatero’d’Oro, Ringstrasse, Scone, Hogwarts, Siouxsie.)  But that’s just not happening in a Countryman.  TIDBIT: Poofy Scone, Oversized For American Market 

We needed a lie-down, too

MoT staffers have anticipated few movies for their artistic promise alone like they have Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.  What a visual treat it was . . . until we had to run out of the theatre due to severe nausea caused by over-indulgence of the shaky-cam.  Why, Lars, why?  We were ready for the cinematic version of German Romantic paintings, and instead were sickened by camerawork that would be too jerky for a Bourne installation.  TIDBIT: Sad Scone.  A Beautiful, Sad, Nearly-Vomiting Scone. 

There’s good taste, and bad taste, and then there’s excellent bad taste.  Hello, Honey Badger, the short film first posted to YouTube in January.  Nasty indeed, but humor that fresh and funny is something to celebrate.  TIDBIT: Steak ‘n Shake Chili Deluxe With Cheese Fries

the Lake Shore Drive “graveyard” in February

That leads to the mid-point of the Tastometer and the potentially taste-neutral matter of time and weather.  The latter was dealt a wallop near MoT HQ in February, when SnOwMaGeddon swept into the Chicago area.  It’s only weather if you notice it, and it’s only tasty if something cool happens because of it: behold Jim Cantore’s response to thundersnow!  (How this has not been autotuned is beyond our understanding.)  Also, all those abandoned cars on Lake Shore Drive became the subject matter of great Snowpocalypse photography.  TIDBIT: Flaming Baked Alaska

Likewise, dates tend to be  untasty.  But no day for years and years will live up to the graphic simplicity and regularity of 11 11 11; likewise, no date will ever emphasize one of cinema’s most tasty scenes, ever.  TIDBIT: Shark Sandwich.*

Launched in April, the architecture blog Philaphilia wins high marks in a similar vein as the Honey Badger, but for buildings (and so it’s better than studies of “nature”).  Philaphilia is remarkably active and consistent, has a very specific point of view, is historically spot-on and full of sage wisdom (a favorite bon mot: “don’t build buildings out of sidewalks.”)  That’s all we can quote here and keep our PG rating.  If you like your architectural criticism sprinkled with F-bombs, hearken ye to Philaphilia.  TIDBIT: Salty Caramel

The Tastometer begins to pick up now, with the very tasty news that the British Library now offers an e-classics app for the iPad, huzzah!  For a monthly fee (say, the cost of an Aztec cocoa, or two whoopie pies, or half a bottle of Essie nailpolish–all tasty things) one may access tens of thousands of books, scanned from the original, on an iPad.  With this service, Hermione’s beaded bag has nothing on your own Birken, virtually full of 30,000 nineteenth-century tomes.  Actual books are still better than their electronic versions, but since MoT‘s collecting habits in nineteenth-centry books are, alas, somewhat limited, we are grateful to the Brits.  Once again.    TIDBIT: Scone with Clotted Cream

MoT hearts books

With its new director, the Art institute of Chicago seems to be going gangbusters with exhibitions, but many of them have fallen flat.  Not so for our favorite of the year, a very small collection of printed materials arranged in the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries in celebration of the citywide “Festival of the Architecture Book,” marking the 500th anniversary of the publication of the first illustrated architecture book.  “Design Inspiration: Nineteenth- Century American Builders’ Manuals and Pattern Books” was a wonderful show.  More, please!  TIDBIT: Chocolate Chip Cookie

A certain big box retailer scored big with another blockbuster designer collaboration with the storied house of Missoni for Target.  Fashionista Bargainistas saw zigzags . . . then saw red (more about that here), as stores were cleaned out and the Target.com website went kaput.  Several months later, very slow boats from China are still struggling to fill open orders.  TIDBIT: Bruschetta di Milano

Trrrooolllllllll!!!

The big and little screen made us happy, from the visually and intellectually stunning Cave of Forgotten Dreams to the local favorite Munger Road, also big Scandinavian “tummar-upp”  (well, that’s what Røger Ebertssen would say) for Trollhunter, which managed to blend aspects of The Blair Witch Project, Jaws, and Scandinavian myths together in an effective way that makes us eager for a sequel and a prequel to learn more about the stoic hero for whom the movie was named.  We applaud two humane shows in the midst of dreck on television: Parks and Recreation features characters who are actually genuinely likeable people, and The Walking Dead mixes up the good and the bad, and makes a person wonder every week which one they are.  TIDBIT: Zombie Waffles, with Lingonberries

Colin Firth, action hero

Was 2011 The Year of Firth? An Oscar, London Film Critics Circle, the European Film Award, and that was after raking in a few dozen similar trophies in the last months of 2010, all for The King’s Speech, which was released on dvd in April, and you bought it immediately, didn’t you?  And in June he was presented at the Queen’s Honours with the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).  (Bryan Ferry was also honored in that program, prompting our consideration that the whole event should have a special award for Tastiness.)  The year closes with the opening of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which also holds the promise of the action figures we most look forward to seeing under our Christmas tree.  TIDBIT: Scone With Clotted Cream *And* Jam.

Speaking of men we love, David McCullough published The Greater Journey, a book that celebrates some of America’s greatest architects, artists, writers, and others who aspired to greatness and pursued it in Paris.  Like all of Mr. McCllough’s books, it is an inspirational and wonderful tale.  We have long admired this fabulous historian who writes history that people actually want to read.  The fact that MoT‘s Chief of Literature Consumption met him at a book signing, where he was marvelously sweet, kind, supportive, personable, gave him the edge over Mr. Darcy.  (No, she still hasn’t washed the hand that he so warmly shook.)  TIDBIT: Boeuf Bourguignon

Always.

A dominant force in the Tastiverse this year was the final installment of the Harry Potter movies, the Deathly Hallows, Part II. Fine film it was, but that’s not why it ranks so high on this list: it’s just that the final installment finally gave a platform to Snape’s long suffering.  At last, Alan Rickman was able to let loose and reveal Snape’s heartbreakingly courageous lonesome lovelorn sacrificial self as a main pivot point for the whole story.  (Too bad the filmmakers crapped up the ending so bad, or this entry would have crept closer to the top of the list.)  TIDBIT: Flourless Chocolate Torte & Port

One of the tastiest events to blow into New York–a city that knows from taste–blew away all previous exhibition records at the Met: Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, dominated the summer.  MoT‘s Department of Exhibition Critique worries that museums are not doing their job if a fashion designer can out-draw painters and sculptors who have made a more proven and lasting contrition to civilization, but even so, admit that it was an extraordinary and amazing show. It is a rare treat when an exhibition encapsulates the spirit of its subject without overwhelming it.  TIDBIT: Any Two Or Three of These Cakes

kiss me, Kate

Nearing the top of the list, it’s hard to deny that Britain had the corner on taste in 2011, for no event was more anticipated and drawn out and over-reported and yet still left us somehow unsatiated than the great fabulous Royal Wedding of April 29, for these four reasons: (1) Kate Middleton, (now Her Royal Highness Princess William Arthur Philip Louis, Duchess of Cambridge, Countess of Strathearn and Baroness Carrickfergus), not only looked great but has acted with admirable demureness through this whole crazy affair; (2) the beautiful sublimity of the gorgeous day was thrown comfortably and realistically off by the crazy hats, especially  Princess Beatrice’s Fascinator (don’t you feel better about what your embarrassing cousin wore to your wedding now?), and the peevishness of Princess Grumpsalot (left);  (3) it inspired one of our favorite websites of the year, Kate Middleton For The Win, and (4) it was a great excuse to get up early, make scones and finally figure out where in town we can source clotted cream.  TIDBIT: Just The Clotted Cream

Finally, what’s tastier than The Taste?  Well it’s the tasty readers of the Taste of course, a readership that has gone berserker in the last weeks of 2011 thanks, as far as MoT‘s  Electronic Media Research Team can tell, from a post from two years ago being circulated like gang busters.  MoT has now been read on at least four continents and translated into Chinese.  For that, 作者 sends a hearty 谢谢 to our new friends at renren.com, and also our friends at Google Translate, who allowed our Department of Poor Language Skills to put the Chinese back into English, to hilarious results.  Plenty of traffic was also prompted by the tweeting of tasty folks at Dwell.com and postings at Archinect.com, but we especially thank Artmagonline.wordpress.com, since they introduced our post on a page with Helena Bonham Carter, so now MoT and HBC are BFFs.  Glad to have you all along for the ride, please introduce yourselves to the faithful who have been around since our launch on Borromini’s birthday in 2009.  TIDBIT: You!  (Or Almond Bark)

Savage Beauty: McQueen, 2005

*that one is for you, MoT CFO

the “lesser arts” at the Met

It’s a well-known fact that looking at (or preferably, living with) fruits of the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements makes one a better person.  If either or both of these movements is/are new to you, please see other clever and insightful blog entries, like this one, or this one or this one or this one or this really good one (but definitely not this one) to find out more.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a lovely, if small, collection of British designers who represent the mid-century roots of pure Arts and Crafts (founded in the idealism of William Morris) and its later Nouveau blossoming (which came to terms with industry and capitalism in a way that would have made Morris pout).  We leave the debate between the idealists and realists to MoT‘s Department of Aesthetic Theory and report on our quick romp through this small happy place at the Met.

We saw this view (to the left) at a distance and it pulled us in like a tractor beam.  The whole time we were focused on the large piece next to the funky little chair and stammering WebbWebbWebbit’sgottobeaWebb.  Sure enough, it is, and even though our camera skills were not quite up to par (shaky hands, all that Philip Webbness in front of us) (some people would get nervous taking a picture of Nick Rhodes; we freak out in front of a Philip Webb cabinet) (well, full disclosure: we’d be pretty shaky in either situation), you can see it better here.  And you should, so you can get a better view of the Burne-Jones painting on it too (although our color is better).  But in our picture, it’s sitting there next to a Pugin chair (not THE Pugin, but rather THE Pugin’s son, Edward, but still.); details here.  We still wince a little bit to see the products of this movement set up in a museum, in the exact setting they were not supposed to be a part of (and indeed were designed in opposition to); the same could be said for the wonderful ceramics at the top of the page (American relatives of the things featured here), which sort of wince and grimace in their colorless cases, on glass shelves, blasted by sunlight.

Knox, “Thrym” Design (ca. 1905)

Under somewhat better conditions, we find this terra cotta number by Archibald Knox.  Oh Archibald Knox: where were you when we were selecting topics for our dissertation, and blinded by American architects and their fabulous domes?  Better late than never: we are happy to have found you later in life.  To the left, this jardiniere (French for “plant pot”) was designed by Knox and made by Carter & Co. for Liberty & Co. just after the turn of the century.  It’s a marvelously simple form, and although we are skeptical that having the handles so low in a piece that’s supposed to carry a big plant would really work, we forgive you Archie, because that big Celtic Nouveau knot is wonderful, and the glaze on this pot so rich and varied–just look at those highlights to the left of the knot.  We don’t believe we’ve ever seen anything in nature that could be potted here and survive the comparison. (Hot for Knox?  Check out these people who have also got it bad.)

Knox, Claret Jug (1901)

And if we weren’t dazzled already, then there is this claret jug (left), that Knox designed for Liberty (Met info here).  We don’t drink claret, and have already forgotten what Wikipedia told us about the little green stones (chrysoprase) that adorn the vessel.  But we will make it our birthstone and vow to down claret by the gallon if it meant we could do it with this stunner in our house.

Lo and behold, so close to the Knox pieces, is a reminder of our first real Arts and Crafts love, C.F.A. (Charles Francis Awesomely) Voysey, represented at the Met by this little swath of velveteen below (details here).  So pretty, so fine.  There’s something about the soft hues, the sneaky bird, the tulip (our favorite flower: how did you know, CFA?), in that drumbeat repeat and stiff geometry that remains engaging.  (But that’s it?  why so little love for Voysey, Met?  Where’s this nutty cast iron fireplace?  And the dozens of other things you ought to have for us?)

velveteen Voysey (1890s)

Also under-represented is Christopher Dresser, who at least is shown through one of his excellent toast racks (below).  It’s almost Bauhausian in its industrial straightforwardness, but then has those little bulbous connections, the playful rivetty elements at the bottom, and the overall exuberance of a jaunty crown that reminds us no, no: Walter Gropius had nothing to do with this (indeed, Herr Sourpuss was born two years after Dresser knocked out this little beauty).  For more on the toast rack, read this from the Met, but we have our doubts about their write up: letter rack?  No way, this is totally for toast.  And we are not toast people.  But, again, we’ll indulge, and wash it down with claret, if we can take it home.

Toast of the town: Dresser

And there’s more.  There are silver belt buckles with sea creature/dolphin kings:

Anna Wagner, Austria (1904)

And this chair designed by French people we don’t know, but who have very fancy names that you can learn here (names as fancy as this awesome chair).

Henri-Jules-Ferdinand Bellery-Desfontaines, SERIOUSLY (1905)

And Lalique pendant of kissing PEACOCKS, for crying out loud, enamelled gold with opal, pearl and diamonds (if our picture doesn’t have you in tears yet, try this one, and if that doesn’t do it, check your pulse).

Lalique (French for “mmmwah!”) (1901)

And oh yes, one more piece by Knox, a silver and champlevé piece (below) that we still can’t decide if it is better used to eat our soup or adorn our hair.  We do know that champlevé is a very, very old-school method of enamelling closely associated with Celtic traditions and we like to see that in our friend Knox; it’s truer to the intellectual foundation of Arts and Crafts than some of his other things, and its philosophical foundations too.

Which reminds us of something that was said by one of Knox’s biographers and is now repeated by every lazy curator who throws together an Arts  & Crafts show: What Charles Rennie Mackintosh was to furniture, Archibald Knox was to metalwork and jewelry.  Now, we understand the sentiment since Mack is such a big freaking deal in most circles, but since we see him as designer of prissy Ikea prototypes, we’ll just say that Knox rocks our world, and leave it at that.

This exhibition, a tiny piece of the Met, includes some wonderful things that warm our heart, but their display leaves MoT‘s Curatorial Critic cold.  When will curators learn that they need to build little domestically-scaled rooms for the proper display of these wonderful objects?  They were designed, fabricated and sold for home use and enjoyment.  Their treatment as those artifacts that Morris called the “Greater Arts” just isn’t right.  Just as a sculpture removed from a Buddhist temple should not be displayed in the same was as a Renaissance portrait, the “Lesser Arts” require a different setting: one more domestic than clinical, more contextual than object-oriented.  For the sake of the goods and the people who love them, change it.  Or, send them home with us.  We’d be happy to put them on display in the domestic wing of MoT HQ in an appropriate setting and at the proper scale for consumption–ours and the “public’s,” we promise.

Knox three times

how to go to Florence

Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) takes in the View (Merchant & Ivory, 1985)

Florence has one of the highest Amazing-Things-to-Square-Yards ratios of any city, but that doesn’t make it a great city to visit because all those nice things are awash among less-nice, and even foul, things, that make it not a great city to visit.  The problem is all the people who have come from far away; not only the bazillions of tourists like you and me that clog the streets and overwhelm the historic sites, but also the gajillions of people who have come, seen an opportunity to make a buck, and stayed put.  In short, Florence is kind of destitute of Florentines, and as is the case in so many places, the general quality of the place really suffers for all the people who don’t belong there (and yes we, as hearty travelers, recognize the irony of that statement, but we proclaim it nonetheless).  Florence is like a lovely soup brimming with choice morsels prepared in the most careful and perfect manner and that one might savor individually, but the broth is all wrong: it came out of a can, and the can came from a factory somewhere far, far away.

This is not to say that Florence not worth the trip; for Heaven’s sake, that is not our point.  This is one city whose individual elements are worth picking out of, or to continue the metaphor, wading through, a wonky gravy.  It is the medieval powerhouse that became the birthplace of the Renaissance; brilliant and tasteful clergy, merchants, artists and architects have left their stamp all over the place.  This is the Florence that Lucy Honeychurch discovered in the excellent A Room with a View, where Lucy knows that the best things happen when Florence is either taken in from far away (the famous view from across the Arno or from the poppy field), or a view from right in the midst of the beautiful things (hanging back from a group of gogglers outside of the Bardi Chapel, for example).  It’s the in-between parts that are problematic, because there it is so very hard to get by yourself.

The in-between parts are made worse today by all the commercial ugliness that a visitor must pass to get from point to stunning point.  But it’s absolutely worth it and, at the same time, since Florence is really, really small,travelers can manage this quickly, if not comfortably.  Just don’t go planning to spend weeks on end in Florence; it’s not a place to wander and get lost in, as we like to do in many cities with happier fabric.  Let’s start with the hard part first, shall we?

Palazzo Gelato

 

What it’s like

The center of town was built by Imperial Romans, and there’s nothing that the Imperial Romans loved more than a straight road (except perhaps a ninety-degree angle); it’s very clear where the Romans left off (the edges of the neat castrum grid) and the Florentines began (by observing where the roads get all crazy and, well, Italian).  This central plan, juxtaposed against the non-planned periphery, makes it very easy to get around and know where you are at all times.  Florence has a few main nodes of wonderfulness: the Piazza della Signoria, Santa Croce and the Cathedral-San Lorenzo area among them, and you will want to go there.  But, as you make your way, keep in mind:

What to avoid

Appreciated by Roman veterans two millennia ago, those nice straight streets in the center are the obvious paths for today’s traveler to take, and businesses are mindful of that. It is the easiest, straightest paths from place to place that have been almost completely taken over my multi-national brands, turning Florence into a big open-air shopping mall.  Part of that character is necessary in any city, and the miles of leather stands crowded around San Lorenzo are, we think, a welcome reminder of medieval markets. Il nostro problema are the boring retailers that line the main drags of this and every other big city’s commercial center.  It’s one thing to window shop Italian labels (and we have spent plenty of time window-licking our way along swanky streets where houses like Prada, Gucci and Armani stand, aloofly, cheek by fashionable jowl); it’s another to be pummeled with images of the big fat boring brands that are here and everywhere else.  When we travel to Italy we want to be swept into an Italian reverie, and stay there: not to be jostled back to twenty-first century Boringland.  Florence is not alone here: if a Gap store can open in Milan, what hope is there for the rest of the Apennine peninsula?

this is NOT the problem

Steer clear of Mallissimo Massimo Firenze, a condition that has spread through the fair city like Eczema ‘on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.’ In general, MoT resident travel experts bemoan the impact of what MoT resident economists believe about globalization: it’s kind of bad (and yes we recognize the irony of that statement that we just MacTyped on our MacBook while drinking Ethiopian coffee from a cup made in China while wearing clothes from yet another continent, but we believe it nonetheless). Our advice: take the long way around from place to place; the narrower and more twisty the street, the better: you’ll find fewer boring stores and more interesting local goods, as well as fewer American art history students clogging your path and a greater number of good places to eat.

What to see

In addition to being a smallish place, Florence has been beat up in ways that interrupt what might otherwise have been opportunities for hours of strolling through picturesque neighborhoods.  Much of the area around the historic core is quite recent, and some of the interior has been rebuilt in the nineteenth century (following national unification, Florence was Italy’s capital from 1865-71) with urban schemes of questionable quality and in the twentieth century to replace what Hitler blew up.  Florence is one place that does not, in our opinion, repay the slow traveler.  Take your time with the things that matter, but that can be a short list, and then you can move on to Siena or Venice or wherever.  If you need someone to tell you three things you cannot miss, here they are:

Brunelleschi’s dome, from the campanile

 

 

Santa Maria del Fiore is the full name for the cathedral (Duomo) of Florence, which stands, in the Italian tradition, with a bell tower (campanile) and baptistery (here, dedicated to St. John).  The interior is not thrilling to those who have learned to like Gothic churches by looking at France, where vaults soar miles above lofty interiors bathed with stained glass.  Florence cathedral’s medieval structure is comparatively drab, and the iron tie bars that support the vaults look, to many people (who notice them), like afterthoughts (they’re not).  But you probably didn’t come to see the church interior, or even its external marble revetment (stunning, but nineteenth century); you’re here for the lid they didn’t know how to build when they started work on the cathedral in the middle ages.  You’re here for THE DOME.

The cathedral’s dome is perhaps the dome of dome experiences.  It’s the mother of all domes; really, we mean that.  Its designer, Filippo Brunelleschi, invented a new thing when he made a double-shell dome, meaning there is a void rising up through the structure and you get to walk through it.  (If you want a good history of the dome, you could do worse than read Ross King’s book, which is comprehensive but not nearly as exciting as the story it tells.)  If later architects from Michelangelo to Christopher Wren could be impressed by the idea, you should be, too.

Get there early; the line gets long in the summers later in the day.  It’s a long climb; first to the base of the dome (visitors can briefly walk through the church interior below the dome and view the (intentionally) gruesome and terrifying images in the frescoes painted by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari).  Then the walk gets really interesting, through the dome itself, since your walk follows the curvature of the structure.  463 steps above the pavement, you’re rewarded by sweeping, stunning views.  It’s the best thing in Florence; second only, maybe, to the climb up the Campanile (do this on another day after your legs have recovered).  The climb itself is less interesting and a bit shorter (414 steps), but the view of the city is still spectacular AND the view back to Brunelleschi’s dome makes it appear even bigger than you thought it was.

focaccia at Verrazano

 

 

In the neighborhood: Don’t miss the wonderful memorial for the cathedral’s architects against the buildings immediately opposite the transept to the south side: the medieval architect, Arnolfo di Cambio (tablet in hand) looking downward to the plan of his design; and the Renaissance architect, Brunelleschi (working the compass) looking upward to the dome of his invention.  Great architects should be honored this way more frequently.  The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo is the museum for the building; it has lots of sculpture that used to be on and in the building, and also preserves really, really old drawings and models of proposed designs, as well as Brunelleschi’s death mask.  After the exertion of the climb, travelers are well rewarded by a great, relatively inexpensive and completely delicious lunch or snack at Cantinetta da Verrazano (Via dei Tavolini, 18).  It’s all focaccia, all the time.  Pay at the register at the front for the number of pieces desired, take your ticket to the back where you can point out your selections (MoT recommends fungi and the one that is all tiny tomatoes & basil).  It’s a small place but you can probably perch on one of the little benches that also allow you to gawk at the pastry case while you eat, and make your selection for wrapping up lunch with a slice of torta della nonna and a cappuccino.  Or, go across the street to Perche no! (“why not,” indeed!  Via dei Tavolini, 19r) for gelato.  And wonder what in the world those dopes over at MoT were complaining about; this city is fantastic!

Michelangelo’s “Dusk” in the New Sacristy

 

 

II. San Lorenzo

This church looks like a real dump from the outside; we’re still puzzled that the Medici never got it together enough to finish Cosimo’s church—its bare, ugly macigno front was intended to be covered with marble.  But, they had other priorities, as you will see inside.  This interior is Brunelleschi at his best; a much more identifiably Renaissance style when compared with the cathedral’s dome.  It’s a sublimely quiet, cool, refined interior; just what the doctor ordered after wading across the stream of leather merchants outside, and shielding one’s eyes from the cheap souvenir shops across the street (then again, if you need that Ciao Bella t-shirt, or apron featuring the anatomy of Michelangelo’s David, this is the place).

The church interior is wonderful, but do not neglect its notable additions, too: the Sacristies designed by Brunelleschi and Michelangelo; the two together are your textbook-perfect examples of early and late Renaissance works.  The “New” Sacristy features lots of Michelangelo sculpture too.  So good.  But just as good is the Laurentian Library of Michelangelo’s design, accessible from the courtyard to the south of the church.  All of it by him, including the clever reading desks and the ridiculously and fabulously monumental stair leading to the library.

San Miniato al Monte

 

 

III. San Miniato al Monte

Florence looks best from far away, and this is the far-away spot from which it is seen to best advantage.  Go to a market (the Mercato Centrale is handy and interesting) or good sandwich shop to gather provisions for lunch or a late afternoon snack; get a bus ticket from a tobacconist and grab the number 12 bus across the Arno then up, up and away.  Don’t be fooled by the Piazale Michelangelo, where the bus will stop first.  Let others on your bus get off and join the glut of tour coaches, cars, crap hawkers and tourists who fill up the parking lot.  Go all the way to the top of the monte and be rewarded for your patience.

A steep climb up some stairs takes you to a piazza in front of San Miniato, a Romanesque church that is lovely and striking all on its own and definitely worth poking around in for a while; you might get lucky and get to hear the Olivetan monks sing for a while.  But it’s the view back to the city that will make you swoon; it’s a great place to sit for a while, eat, and enjoy this beautiful city.  What was it again that we were crabby about earlier?

Those are the three places a person really should go to avoid being slapped by passport control on the way home.  But the city does, of course, offer a lot more, and it is our habit to think thematically about our destinations.  Behold:

inside the Bargello

 

 

I. The Medieval & Renaissance City

Although Firenze has Roman roots, it flowered during the medieval and Renaissance periods; lots of buildings and collections reveal this important historical transition.  For the earlier material, see the great church of Santa Croce and the Cathedral (the former will make the latter look more majestic than comparisons with the French Gothic that most people think of when they think of “medieval architecture,” which we know everyone does, all the time).  Pass through the medieval church by Cambio, adorned with Giotto’s wonderful frescoes, exit into a courtyard and find yourself face to face with the Renaissance: Brunelleschi’s little Pazzi Chapel is a fifteenth-century gem dropped into this medieval crown.  Walking back toward the center, wend your way to Via Isola delle Stinche, 7r where you will find Vivoli and its truly magnificent gelato.  Please have a pistacchio for us.  Our other favorite medieval sites include Santa Maria Novella, a superb collection of buildings with the strictest guards in town; pay the extra to go into the museum cloisters: the frescoes will knock you out and hardly anyone goes back there, so you will have some time to commune with art all by your onesie.  Very close at hand, the Officina de Santa Maria Novella (Via della Scala, 16r) is a pharmacy dating back to the fourteenth century that now offers some of the nicest shopping for your Florentine memento.  Warning: once you’ve lived with almond hand cream, you can’t live without it.  Florence has great medieval palazzi: don’t miss the Bargello (see below), now an art museum, the Palazzo Vecchio (at least from the outside, which is framed to one side by the Loggia dei Lanzi), and the Palazzo Davanzati (Via Porta Rossa, 9-13), which remains furnished and adorned like a fine residence.  It’s under-visited (read: not crowded) and fantastic.  Don’t miss it.

With this medieval background, visitors will even better understand the profound and radical shift of taste seen in the Renaissance.  Compare Santa Croce with San Lorenzo; consider the Bargello and Davanzati in light of the Palazzi Medici and Strozzi.   Warning: your head may begin to ache from aha! moments.  We recommend liberal dosages of gelato to ensure full recovery.

Brunelleschi, again: the Ospedale degli Innocenti

II. Brunelleschi

Florence is Filippo’s town.  Start at the Baptistery, admire Ghiberti’s doors, which beat Brunelleschi’s in the design competition; celebrate this failure which pushed him into architecture.  You’re standing near the place where he famously demonstrated one of his many inventions: linear perspective.  Yes, someone had to think that up so that Western art could change completely and forever.  It was Brunelleschi.  (How are you feeling about your resume right about now?)  If you haven’t been to the Duomo dome, do that.  Then, walk north from the piazza and find your way to the Piazza Santissima Annunziata, the eastern edge of which is Ospedale degli Innocenti.  Compared with the more majestically scaled, but old-fashioned Loggia dei Lanzi, Brunelleschi’s small arcaded loggia is a delicate and stunning first go at what we now call Renaissance architecture. It’s pretty amazing: there are no baby steps here; Brunelleschi just did it.  Zigzag back toward the middle of things, down the Via Camillo Cavour to pass by the house of Brunelleschi’s great patron, Cosimo de’ Medici.  Continue on to Cosmino’s church, San Lorenzo, of Brunelleschi’s design.  The core of its interior is the Ospedale’s loggia bent around and given a roof.  Make sure to see his “Old” Sacristy before you go, and if it’s open also take in the other sacristy, designed as an homage to Brunelleschi by one of his better-known admirers and fellow Florentines, Michelangelo.  From here, it’s as much of a hike as you’ll have in Florence to walk back through town, crossing the Arno over the elegant ellipses of the rebuilt (grazie, Nazis) Ponte Santa Trìnita to Santo Spirito.

Stile Floreale

 

 

III. Floreale Florence

The Medieval and Renaissance elements of Florence are enough to keep most people happy; travelers who like to go off the beaten track, especially in an Art Nouveau kind of way, can do that here in Florence too.  Many Italian cities took part in this modern movement that swept Europe from around 1880 to the outbreak of WWI.  In Italy the movement is called Stile Floreale (suggesting the naturalistic source for ornamental motifs) or Stile Liberty (revealing indebtedness to the London department store, of which we are rather fond also), but was part of the self-conscious modernity of much of Europe at the time, applied here as decorative devices that modernized buildings that remained otherwise conservative in their planning.  A surprisingly good walking tour is available here.  It’s long, but will take you to places you wouldn’t go otherwise, to see a very different side of Florence.

“Rape of the Sabine Women,” Giambologna, in the Loggia dei Lanzi

 

 

IV. Art Without Tears, or Band-Aids

What about the Uffizi?  What about the Accademia?  Ignoring them leaves a Florence holiday incomplete, but we have explained elsewhere why we are in favor of leaving itineraries incomplete.  We are all for enjoying the bounty of art available in this museum-rich city, but as we’ve said before, we do not like museum-going to become a contact sport, so we avoid these places.  Probably in one’s life one needs to go to them—we’re glad to have seen Primavera in person, but regret how impossible it is to do that without being mercilessly packed with so many other people who need to pay their respects to Botticelli.  In a city with such good alternatives, we prefer the Casa Buonarroti, a fine palazzo on an insignificant street with early and diverse Michelangelo works; the Loggia dei Lanzi, an open-air kiosk full of sculpture (and unfortunately, usually, lots of tourists resting their feet and not looking at the Giambolognas all around them); and our favorite, the Bargello, stuffed with wonderful things like ceramics, textiles, silver, and sculptures by Michelangelo, Donatello, the Della Robbia family, Cellini, competition entries for the Baptistery doors by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi, and lots more Giambologna, one of our favorites.  He’s not very well known outside of art history circles, which is too bad; take some time to get to know him through his violently twisting multi-figure works, his quiet allegories (Architecture is in the Bargello) and even a riot of little bronze birds (also Bargello) that you will want to take home.

It’s all good, and because everyone else is in line at the Accademia and Uffizi, you’ll almost have the joint to yourself.  It proves the rule that Florence is really, really better when it’s just you and a bunch of dead artists.

another view

Photo of the Innocenti loggia: Simone Ramella (http://www.flickr.com/photos/ramella/)

how to go to Rome

your holiday starts here: Piazza della Rotonda

The truth of the ancient aphorism ars longa, vita brevis is made more obvious in Rome than in any other European capital.  All those great cities bear witness to rich and lengthy histories through miles of venerable structures and museums heaving with centuries’ worth of art, but Rome is different: there you will really feel how long art is and how short your time to soak it in.  In such capitals as Paris and London monuments articulate a clear sense of historical change; Rome spreads out with multiple histories as vast and rambling as the city itself.  Those other cities may simply feel more comprehensible because they are easier to traverse from end to end via long boulevards and snappy subways; while all roads may lead to Rome, finding the right one to get back to your hotel, or the correct bus or subway to get you from point to point to point is another story altogether.  It is the un-embraceable bigness and depth of Rome—not so much a repository of art but a work of art itself—that is its glory, and the problem to the traveler who expects to “do” this city in four days, two weeks, whatever.  There’s simply too much, and your time is too little.

The best you can do is to arrive with certain, select places that are of greatest interest to you, and then let the city do the rest. Navigating the city can be a challenge; negotiating it as a linear progress can be futile; expecting Italians to abide by posted opening hours is a fool’s errand.  More importantly however, this is one of these places that will open up in unexpected ways if you have the time and willingness to walk around with less agenda and more free time.  This is counter-intuitive if you travel with a checklist mentality, but ultimately, is the most rewarding; instead of seeing everybody’s Rome, you’ll discover your Rome.

What to see?

After you have followed our general advice on organizing your days (plus: read this blog), you need to determine which of the many, many famous things that have been drawing countless travelers to the banks of the Tiber.  Be selective about what you choose and be willing to let some things go.  But, if you need someone else to tell you three things you cannot miss, here they are:

Pantheon

 

I. The Pantheon

The great temple dedicated to all the Roman gods is stunning in photography and jaw-dropping in person.  The effect of its spherical interior (the height of the interior from the floor to the top of the dome and the diameter of its circular plan are the same measurement) defies accurate description through words, drawings or photographs.  That simplest of design concepts is made surprisingly complex by the veneers of colorful marble (brought from all ends of the Empire) in geometric patterns lining the walls and floor, and most notably by its ever-changing light source.  The only window (so to speak) is the open oculus at the apex of the dome; depending on time of day and the quality of the weather (including rainy days, when it will rain inside the building), the light effects changes the interior.  Visit the Pantheon as many times as possible to take in this shifting atmosphere.  (Also, do not neglect to pay your respects at Raphael’s tomb.) The Pantheon makes us wonder if its (possible) designer Hadrian hadn’t been so distracted by all that emperor stuff, just what more would Roman Imperial architecture have become?

In the neighborhood: Lots of souvenir shopping in interesting galleries, paper makers, etc.  Pricier than other neighborhoods, but that’s not always a bad thing, especially if your tchotchke reminds you that you were at the Pantheon. Lots of churchy shopping—tons of shops for elaborate vestments and altar ware.  You don’t have to be a man of the cloth to enjoy window shopping for glittery, shiny crucifixes and incense burning devices and other sacramental gizmos. Church of the Gesù: home church of the Jesuits, built in the mid-sixteenth century.  Fine church with powerful late Renaissance architecture, but the real reason you go is for the mind-blowing ceiling fresco painted by Baciccio in the 1660s-70s.  Largo Argentina: This collection of ruined temples will only attract the attention of serious scholars of antiquities for the temples themselves.  The rest of us, however, will be impressed by two other aspects of this interesting site.  First, it appears significantly sunken which is, of course, the result of the ground around it rising across the centuries.  In many places in Rome you will see the result of this phenomenon (the Pantheon itself used to be approached by a tall flight of steps; now you walk in virtually on grade), but no where quite as dramatically.  Second, the site is a stray cat refuge, so you can observe dozens of i gatti di Roma lolling about ancient relics.  Giolitti, one of the best gelato joints in town, favored by Michelle Obama and John Paul II.  If it’s good enough for the FLOTUS and the Pope, it’s certainly good enough for you.  We recommend the puro chocolate (approximately 137% cocoa), if you dare.  (Like a lot of non-antiquities in Rome, this is not super-easy to find, so you are advised to print a map before you go.  Here are MapQuest’s hilarious directions (you can obviously walk the pedestrian ways north of the Pantheon, through the piazza and beyond, and get there much more directly).

St. Peter's Basilica

 

II. The Vatican

The Vatican comprises four things, each of them requiring a certain effort, stamina and planning.  The Basilica is the church dedicated to St. Peter, designed and built for a century and a half starting in the first years of the sixteenth century.  When it gets enormously crowded it loses its sense of being an active church, which is a shame.  Be there at the very start of the day or the very end, when the crowds are smaller and you can experience the church in relative quiet, if not quite silence.  If you are the first one in the door, head straight for Michelangelo ‘s Pietà, which is on the right as you enter, so you just have Plexiglas between you and the sculpture.  Michelangelo’s Dome, which, likewise, you should see early in the day (again, shorter lines) or toward closing time (lines may have lengthened, but the sun will be behind you as you look into the center of town).  It is not much more expensive to buy the ticket that allows an elevator ride to the base of the dome (make sure to get out and walk along the woopy nave roof), from which you must hike—but it’s a very cool hike through slanty, skinny corridors sliced through the dome.  It’s tiring but, dude, you’re walking through a dome! And the view from above is not to be missed.  The Museums, which are super crowded, all the time, and unfortunately everyone is herded through like cattle (except for the lengthy galleries full of art that Rick Steves hasn’t told his devoted followers to study).  There’s not much choice but to join the line for the famous things, including the octagonal courtyard with the Apollo Belvedere and Laocoön, Raphael’s frescoed rooms and of course the Sistine Chapel.  Just go in knowing it will be crowded and deal with it; after you exit you can find plenty of space to relax in The Piazza.

the Forum

 

III. The Forum

Center of the world for centuries, during which the impossible complexity of this archaeological site grew in innumerable layers in a chaotic, picturesque, melancholy and inspiring tableau.  Try to find a quiet (relative term here) corner to plant yourself and imagine your way back through well over two millennia of its history. Enter from the Campidoglio side, which will give you a splendid view across the whole site before you enter. Total nerds should carry a copy of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” with them to review throughout the day, alternating site visits with swooning fits as needed.

Nearby: The Colosseum. Helpful to have the RomaPass for this and other sites throughout and around the city.  It will help you save a few euro along the way, and what is most valuable, save time by ducking around the longest lines for popular sites like this.  Also close: the Campidoglio and Capitoline Museums; the former a brilliant urban and architectural design by Michelangelo; the latter a collection of art and antiquities with fine views across Rome and the Forum.

The sites above do not reflect any stunning discoveries, but they are super-famous for a good reason.  They’re totally awesome; that is historic fact (we have graduate degrees in these subjects; trust us).  But there are other ways to organize your time in Rome, reflecting the many historical layers of this great city.  This is a different way to travel, one that privileges themes and chronologies rather than geographic proximity, but also demands that the traveler ignore great famous things to emphasize other things, arranged by theme.  Behold:

the Baths of Caracalla

 

I. Imperial Rome: The Ancient Concrete Jungle

Go to the Forum and the Colosseum, where concrete is used but not nearly to the sweeping effect you’ll see later.  After the messy (Republican-era) Forum, admire what’s left of the order of the Imperial Fora; tour Trajan’s Markets and start to be excited about concrete—the market hall was the first big concrete vault built in a public building in Rome. At some point try to get tickets into Nero’s Domus Aurea, unless more of it has caved in so it’s all shut down again, in which case you will have to content yourself with the pictures on postcards.  For his many, many faults, Nero was a great supporter of art and architecture, as his concrete house shows.  Go to the Pantheon and admire the spatial and technical feat of that dome: concrete simulating the vault of Heaven.  Not too far away you can catch the bus down to the Baths of Caracalla, a concrete structure as big as they come.

St. Ivo della Sapienza

 

II. Baroque Rome

The Catholic Counter-Reformation prompted a bombastic building boom in Rome.  During the sixteenth century, the city was blessed by the joint efforts of extraordinary artists and papal patrons who knew how to utilize their talents—and had access to the deep deep papal purse to support them.  Catch a bus or taxi out to Michelangelo’s wild and wonderful Porta Pia, at the end of the Via 20 Settembre by the Corso d’Italia, and walk into the city along this busy long straight street—an anomaly in the otherwise irregular city plan, and indicative of the new urban planning undertaken in the Renaissance and Baroque periods.  Visit Santa Susanna and the Fontana dell’Acqua Felice (the latter fronts a piazza which is one of the densest scooter parking lots in the city).  Take your time in Santa Maria delle Vittoria, which is pretty overpowering and heavy for its scale.  But you, like most people, will be focused on the scene to the left of the altar: Bernini’s stunning chapel for the Cornaro family featuring the Ecstasy of St. Theresa. In textbooks that only have room for one photo per artistic movement, that’s THE one for Baroque sculpture.  Study the treatment of the skin, the clothes, the cloud, and remember: that’s a big freaking rock that he made look like skin, fabric and a floating cloud! Farther down the road are the pair of Baroque churches that every architecture major must learn by heart: Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and Bernini’s San Andrea al Quirinale.  They’re both just barely on this side of sublime, and while much, much, muchmuchmuchmuch smaller than St. Peter’s, require a certain amount of time to absorb.  Borromini will wow you with crazy melted architecture; Bernini will draw you through an evocative narrative portraying St. Andrew’s crucifixion, apotheosis and final reward in the Holy Spirit in the dome.  When you plan this day, be aware that on Saturdays these small churches are very popular with weddings, so you may need to wait to dart in between ceremonies.  Also, San Carlo has strange hours, so build your day around the times it is open.  Once done with this leg of the journey through Baroque Rome, rest and eat, then continue on: the slightly later Trevi Fountain is nearby; hang on to your purse but make sure to throw a coin in the fountain (this assures your return to Rome one day).  More in keeping with the theme of the day: head up to the Villa Borghese, which is in the midst of extensive public gardens. They are nice, and we like the umbrella pines, but you need to go to the Galleria Borghese, housed in the villa proper.  It’s a weird villa building, but its patron, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, had divinely good taste and commissioned or snatched up a ton of Bernini’s best work.  That’s where you’ll find his David and Apollo and Daphne; if you can view the latter without breaking into tears, you need to have your pulse checked.  Make sure to reserve tickets in advance; they are limited every day and you don’t want to be left out.  Lastly, wind your way down to the wonderful sixteenth-seventeenth-century Piazza del Popolo, which is treacherous for pedestrians but very cool to look at from a safe distance.  Your destination is the less architecturally-remarkable Santa Maria del Popolo; head in there, marvel at some wacky ornament, and jostle your way with all the other people on the left side of the altar there to see two great paintings by Caravaggio; impressive on their own but especially when compared with the contemporaneous but yawn-inducing work by Annibale Carracci in between them. If you have not yet floated off to Baroque nirvana wander through the Piazza Navona.  Play hide and seek with Borromini, whose Sant’Ivo della Sapienza is not too far away, but somewhat difficult to find, since the church is hidden behind a boring dirty orange wall on a street that looks like nothing important happens there. Like San Carlo, Sant’Ivo has weird hours, but it is part of the university and is sometime open for university events.  If you are not dressed too terribly like a tourist, you can waltz right in there, take a seat and achieve Borrominirvana.  If anyone talks to you in Italian, just strike a pose like a bored academic and they’ll leave you alone.

Trastevere

 

III. Trastevere

Tired of the famous things and the crowds they draw?  Head across the Tiber to this part of Rome that preserves a medieval character more than most of the city.  Trastevere has several sites of note that for most people are just not worth the walk across the Tiber: Santa Cecelia is a beautiful martyr’s shrine exhibiting every major architectural era in Rome (make sure to get way up front to see the haunting sculpture of Cecelia under the altar).  Santa Maria in Trastevere likewise blends Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque motifs in a church that absorbed Roman antiquities (spolia) in its original design.  Don’t miss the wacky recycled Roman columns by being overwhelmed by the apse mosaics.  But the real joy of Trastevere is just wandering around and being partially lost, discovering great restaurants and cool small shops.  Ditch the map; maybe watch the sun or a compass (if you travel with one of those) to have a certain sense of which way the river is so you can get back to your hotel eventually; but in general you will be well rewarded by discovering a private part of Rome that you will swear no other person has seen as you have.

Santa Maria in Cosmedin

 

IV. Early Christian Rome

The Early Christian church found its architectural expression under Constantine in Rome, and there’s a fair amount left to see, although much has been altered or unfortunately frosted with Baroque lusciousness.  It takes a little effort to find the bus to get there, but it’s worth it to visit one of the catacombs (we liked the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, where you can have a tour in one of a dozen languages), which show what little artistic expression the Christians were allowed prior to the faith being tolerated in 313 AD.  Go to the cathedral in town, St. John Lateran, which still has its Early Christian plan and wonderful courtyard, although much of its architecture is altered.  Especially important here is the Baptistery; make that THE Baptistery, the earliest one ever.  EVER.  One church that retains more of its Early Christian qualities is Santa Maria in Cosmedin (where you can also have your Roman Holiday moment with the Bocca della Verità, if you must).  If you can manage the tram, a trip out to Santa Costanza, the mausoleum Constantine built for his daughter, is well worth it: it’s a round building with lots and lots of mosaics.  Lastly, if you are really serious about getting in touch with early church history, make like a fourth-century penitent and get around to all seven of the official pilgrimage churches.  The challenge of doing this today with subways, busses, and Aerosoles will really make you appreciate those dedicated pilgrims of earlier centuries and feel guilty about how much you’ve pathetically complained about your sore feet and stiff hotel pillow.  Try sleeping with pigs and going barefoot, pilgrim!

Capitoline Museum

 

V. Happy Museums

Rome is a great art city but the big museums can really be a trial (MoT firmly believes that museum-going is not a contact sport).  Rome has several great museums, chock-full of work that would be treasured by any other city that wasn’t lousy with Michelangelo and Raphael, thus not overrun by tourists.  Here are our favorites: The National Etruscan Museum/Villa Giulia is full of really old art and housed and in a unique Renaissance villa that is a series of pavilions, kiosks, gardens and water elements extended along a long axis.  It’s good for ancient art and also breathing air under the super-blue Roman sky and seeing healthy plants, which are not to be had in abundance in Rome (this is kind of the point of building a villa).  The Galleria Borghese is busy, but manageable due to their carefully timed entries; it comes with the benefit of being surrounded by a huge public garden.  The Capitoline Museums are full of wonderful antiquities (inducing Constantine’s 8-foot-high head) and largely overlooked by tourists rushing on to the Forum.  We love, love, love The Villa Farnesina, a small palazzo structure slathered with glorious frescoes by Raphael and his friends.  Plan to spend quality time with Galatea; she will cure you of your jostled-traveler blues.  A few hours in any one of these less-frequented museums can renew your spirit and energy to face down the hoards elsewhere in the city.  If only the Romans had access to these institutions when Odoacer was bearing down on the city, who knows how things might have gone differently for the Goths?

. . . and it ends here.