Category Archives: Florence

A Bad Day for Santa Croce

A Spanish tourist was just killed by a falling stone fragment inside Florence’s Santa Croce Basilica. How could this happen?

Santa Croce is one of the major sights in Florence. The interior is warmly lit and surprisingly peaceful, considering the number of visitors.

People pause to pay their respects at the tombs of the great and good:





Rossini, and many others I feel like I should know.

Santa Croce is said to be the largest Franciscan church in the world, with beautiful Giotto frescoes honoring the humble monk from Assisi. 

St. Francis is believed to have actually founded this church. 

And now, it’s closed while the authorities investigate why an unsuspecting tourist was killed by a chunk of falling stone.

No tourists will be gazing up at the beautiful ceilings for awhile. The faithful will have to light their candles and murmur their prayers elsewhere in the city.

Italy has artistic treasures everywhere, but it seems there is never enough money to properly take care of them, or to accommodate the number of visitors lining up to see them. 

In 1966, the Arno River overflowed its banks, flooding much of Florence. Damage to Santa Croce took years and years to repair. There are still high water marks in the building, and some of the artworks can’t be completely restored. I hope Santa Croce can be made safe again.

No doubt lots of ink will be used as the investigation goes forward. One article about it is at:

St. Jerome and His Lion: More Sightings


I’m always on the lookout for images of St. Jerome and his lion. Legend has it that when the saint retreated to the wilderness to study and pray, he came upon a lion with a thorn in its paw.  St. Jerome didn’t run or climb a tree.  He stopped and removed the thorn. From that day forward, the grateful lion stayed by his side. The fresco above is from a ceiling in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Agnolo di Cosimo, known as Bronzino, painted it between 1540 and 1565.

Pala Tezi, Pietro di Cristoforo Vannucci, known as Il Perugino, 1500

Pala Tezi, Pietro di Cristoforo Vannucci, known as Il Perugino, 1500

A more primitive, but still endearing, lion is in the painting above, from the Galleria Nazionale of Umbria in the town of Perugia.

Detail from Il Perugino painting above

Detail from Il Perugino painting above

The artist painted the lion and the saint sitting peacefully together in a simple landscape, in front of the cave that Jerome may have lived in.

San Girolamo Penitente, Il Perugino, 1512

San Girolamo Penitente, Il Perugino, 1512

Another painting by Perugino shows the saint in contemplation of the Virgin and child, accompanied by other saints.  In humble adoration, he’s set his cardinal’s red hat on the ground–and who is lurking beside him?

San Girolamo Penitente, Il Perugino, 1512

San Girolamo Penitente, Il Perugino, 1512

In turn, Jerome’s faithful lion gazes adoringly at him.  Isn’t this what we all love to have our pets do?

Detail from Il Perugino painting above

Detail from Il Perugino painting above

The lion’s face is distinctly human.  How many of us humanize our pets? It’s an ancient impulse.

St. Jerome, Pintoricchio, around 1495

St. Jerome, Pintoricchio, around 1495

The same museum in Perugia has another painting of the saint in the same pose–also with his cardinal’s red hat set humbly on the ground. It’s by Bernardino di Betto, known as il Pintoricchio.

The friendly lion is guarding the hat–and St. Jerome.  Who wouldn’t like to have a tame lion riding shotgun all the way through life? Jerome’s lion always had his back.

In medieval times, retreating to the wilderness to meditate was a radical action. Jerome would not have been the first man eaten by a lion in the wilderness. At a time when nature was frightening, St. Jerome was revered for being at one with nature. In our times, retreating to the wilderness still has its risks, but it’s becoming more and more an expensive luxury. Our wildernesses are shrinking and human over-development is routing wild animals from their age-old homes.


I treasure any wildlife sightings, like this fox right outside my window.  And I’ll keep looking for glimpses of St. Jerome and his lion.

My previous post about St. Jerome and his lion is at

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Happy International Cat Day!


Do cats deserve a day of their very own in the international calendar? Of course they do. A couple of years ago, wandering art museums in Amsterdam and Haarlem, I wrote about the many dogs that appear in Dutch paintings.  I mused that for me, the dogs served as a window into long-ago times and places.  Cats are the same. It’s hard to identify with people wearing heavy black robe-like garments relieved only by starched white ruffs and collars. But  these same people had pets they loved.  The cat above, looking out at the world from the safety of her person’s lap, has the same smug look as any cat of mine. I can understand people who appreciate their feline friends enough to immortalize them in art.


Cats in Dutch paintings are often up to no good.  The one above is about to make off with a plucked bird while the unsuspecting housewife is looking the other way.


Cats often gaze longingly at the food artfully arranged in Dutch still life paintings, and they add some “life” to still lifes that consist mainly of dead animals ready to be consumed.


Children have always liked cats.  This ceramic pet, complete with a bib and abandaged leg, sits in the now-quiet nursery at Wightwick Manor, a wonderful Arts and Crafts home in England. He looks a little anxious. I have a feeling his broken ear and broken paw happened when he got tossed across the nursery in some long-ago game.


I have a soft spot for all cats, but especially for the calico and tabby  varieties. They remind me of the pair that patiently wait for me at home.


Of course I’m always on the lookout for friendly cats on my travels. This handsome fellow was in York, England.


What about big cats? I love them too.  The fierce creature above is on an exterior wall of the very grand Pitti Palace in Florence.


Chatsworth House in England has a pair of regal lions who lord it over the Sculpture Gallery. I think part of our fascination with big cats is that we feel we understand them just a bit, especially if we live with their small domesticated relatives. Our pet cats give us a little insight into both long-ago places and wild places on this earth.

In my post “Dogs in Dutch Art,” I quoted a striking poem by David Graham:  “The Dogs in Dutch Paintings.”  A couple of months ago I received a lovely comment from the poet, who had just happened upon my post.  The main reason I keep posting is to remember where I’ve been, what I’ve seen, and what I was thinking at the time.  That must be part of what motivates a poet, too.

Posts about dogs in art are at ‎and

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Is That You, Lorenzo?

Lorenzo de'Medici, after Andrea del Verorocchio, 1480

Lorenzo de’Medici, after Andrea del Verorocchio, 1480

I was startled to see a familiar-looking face among the treasures in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and even more startled that I actually knew his name.  It was Lorenzo de’ Medici, known during his lifetime as “Lorenzo the Magnificent.” His image appears all over Florence, Italy.  He lived from 1449 to 1492. This likeness is in painted terracotta.  Reportedly his brother Giulano was much better-looking, but Lorenzo was the one groomed for power.

Lorenzo inherited his family’s banking fortune, built up starting with his grandfather, Cosimo.  The Medicis were great patrons of the arts in the Renaissance, and Lorenzo was privileged to take over the family fortune at about age 20.  He continued  and even expanded his family’s tradition of supporting great artists like Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo.

Madonna del Magnificat, Botticelli, Public Domain

Madonna del Magnificat, Botticelli, Public Domain

It was common for artists to use members of their patron families as models. In this Madonna by Botticelli, Lorenzo’s mother Lucrezia, a poet and patron of writers, is the Madonna. Lorenzo is the young man obligingly holding the inkpot.

At the time he took over, the family’s banking fortunes were already in decline due to overspending and political struggles. Still, Lorenzo used his wealth, political pull bribes and various strong-arm techniques to maintain a fragile peace among the notoriously fractious rich families of Italy.  His lifetime was known as the “Golden Age of Florence.”

Like his father and grandfather, Lorenzo was the de facto ruler of Florence, important enough and annoying enough to some people that he came very close to being assassinated. On Easter Sunday 1478, he and his entourage were attacked–in Florence Cathedral.  The conspiracy was instigated by the rival Pazzi family, and backed by the Archbishop–and even by the Pope. Giuiano was killed, but Lorenzo escaped with only a stab wound. After he died (later, peacefully), things went downhill for the Medicis in Florence.  In fact, Lorenzo’s successor was known as Piero the Unfortunate.

Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe!

How Brunelleschi Gave Us Perspective

Filippo Brunelleschi, the genius who figured out how to build the spectacular octagonal dome of the Florence Cathedral, is often credited with inventing linear perspective around 1420.  Actually, his great rival Lorenzo Ghiberti would beg to differ.  So would the Arab mathemetician known as Alhazen, who lived around 965-1040.  A copy of Alhazen’s work on the subject, with notes by Ghiberti, is in the Vatican Library.  The ancient Greeks and Romans had the knowledge too, but it was lost in the Middle Ages.  So Brunelleschi’s work was really more of a rediscovery.

What exactly is linear perspective?  It is the technique of making an image in two dimensions–a flat surface–appear to be in three dimensions, with depth.  As a not-very-good, self-taught painter, I’m always looking for ways to make my paintings less bad.  Awhile ago, I bought a kit that promised to help me:

Linear Perspective Kit

Linear Perspective Kit

The kit consists of various frames and grids.  If I had the patience to actually work with the kit, I could create more realistic paintings by establishing a vanishing point, a horizon line, and accurate diagonals.  While writing about Filippo Brunelleschi, I realized that the illustration on the cover of my kit depicts the master’s famous demonstration of linear perspective.  The building shown on the cover is the Baptistery of Florence.

Florence Baptistery

Florence Baptistery

The hexagonal building stands directly across from the Florence Duomo. Brunelleschi stood in the doorway of the still-unfinished cathedral.  Using the rediscovered calculations and techniques of perspective, he painted a very accurate picture of the Baptistery.  (We could take a photo, but there were no cameras in his day). Then he poked a hole in the canvas and looked through the back of the canvas at a mirror.  When he quickly moved the mirror away, the viewer could see how accurate the painting was.  Very quickly, every Renaissance painter worth his salt began using the technique.  It was part of the new realism that swept the art world after centuries of art that was much more symbolic than realistic.

The Baptistery was constructed sometime between 1059 and 1128.  Right up into the 19th century, this was the place every Florentine Catholic was baptized. In about 1400, new doors were needed.  The city fathers held a competition for the plum job of creating bronze doors for this very important building.  Brunelleschi was 21 at the time; Ghiberti was barely 20.  The younger pup won.  Ghiberti ended up working on these doors, plus a subsequent set, for pretty much the rest of his life.  It took him 20 years to finish the first set of doors and 25 more years for the next set.

Brunelleschi was disappointed; this may have been one reason he turned his talents to architecture and design.  Personally, I think he was lucky he lost this competition. It enabled him to enter and win the one for the cathedral dome.  Both men became famous and had illustrious, well-paid careers.  But today, it is hard to fully appreciate Ghiberti’s work even when standing right in front of the doors.  We’ve lost our taste for intricate bronze reliefs.  Brunelleschi, on the other hand, got to spend 16 years on a complex project in the open air of Florence, while everyone in the city discussed and admired his work.  Today, every visitor can admire the Duomo from countless vantage points in and around the city.

The most famous image of Brunelleschi is a large statue that shows him gazing up at the crowning achievement of his life, the dome of the cathedral.

Photo by Richardfabi, released to public domain

Photo by Richardfabi, released to public domain

Leonardo da Vinci remarked, “Perspective is the rein and rudder of painting.”  Now, maybe I had better get that kit off the shelf and get to work painting.

Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe!

A Room with a View

When the movie A Room with a View came out in 1985, I had never been to Italy.  Within the first 20 minutes, I made up my mind to get there, especially to Florence and the countryside of Tuscany.  That’s what movies can do for us.  The story is from E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel of the same name; the chapter titles are charmingly used to name the chapters of the movie.  In Britain, The Guardian named this movie one of the 10 best romantic films of all time, and it’s no wonder.


Helena Bonham Carter, playing a somewhat muddled girl named Lucy Honeychurch, has to choose between two equally handsome men:  Julian Sands, passionate and unconventional, and Daniel Day Lewis, bookish, inhibited, and full of himself.

Maggie Smith, as her cousin and older chaperon Charlotte Bartlett, is deliciously dithery but finally comes down on the side of true love.

Judy Dench, as a not-very-good lady novelist, writes some immortal prose about a scandalous kiss that takes place in a very real Tuscan meadow.

Daniel Day Lewis, as Cecil Vyse,  makes the mistake of mocking the passage at a crucial moment. (The very different movie My Beautiful Laundrette came out on the very same day as this one.  It was hard to believe Daniel Day Lewis was the same actor in both of them.  His incredible range as an actor put him well on the way to stardom).  But I’ve given enough away already.  Watch the movie!  It’s available streaming on Netflix.

The screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, won an Oscar for her screenplay.  She won another Oscar six years later for Howard’s End, from another E. M. Forster novel. She collaborated for many years with the directing-producing team of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant. She died on April 3 of this year, at age 85.  Throughout her life, she also wrote wonderful fiction.  Her most recent story, “The Judge’s Will,” was just published in the March 25 issue of The New Yorker.

Florence is not just a location, but a starring character in this movie.  And the Tuscan countryside just outside the city is a place where dreams can come true.  I did make it to Florence, and to the Tuscany countryside.  Both destinations were everything I wished for, and more.  Travel gives each of us a personal and lifelong “room with a view,” even after we return home.  Movies can give us each a little boost in getting to those views.

Join me next time for more reflections on the art and history of Europe!