Saturday, September 29, 2007

Cinderella for a day

The Florentine is publishing a book by Professor Robert Hatfield (Rab) about the location, based on his study of the archives, of Leonardo da Vinci's Battle of Anghiari. Contessa Simonetta Brandolini D'Adda, founder of Friends of Florence, is funding the book. Friends of Florence, and Simonetta, have probably contributed and done more for art in Florence, than any individual or entity since the Renaissance. They have funded the restoration of dozens of sculptures and paintings, most notably, the David, contributing millions of dollars, as well as documenting every project with magnificent books and films for education and training.
Two times a year, Simonetta arranges special visits for these 'friends'. In the past, they have included cocktails with the David himself in the Academia, private viewings in the Uffizi, Bargello, dinners in castles, etc.
This trip was a 'theme' trip on Leonardo. The 'friends' started in Florence, went on to Milan for a private viewing of The Last Supper, and off to Paris.
Because of our collaboration on Rab's book, I was invited to join the group for a day in Florence. An honor and privilege which I will never get over. We started the day in the Palazzo Vecchio with the scholars who are on the committee for searching for this 'missing' Leonardo. This is another story, which we have discussed many times in The Florentine (look for Up close and Personal: Rab Hatfield and Maurizio Seracini).
Then to a laboratory where three sculptures from the Baptistry are being restored. Magnificent sculptures by Rusticci. To see them that close and hear from the restorers how they do their work, the decisions they have to make, the precaution, etc, is fascinating and almost sacred.
Lunch at a villa outside Florence, an Italian board member of Friends of Florence, who has the most amazing and thoughtful art collection of masters, as well as Italian contemporary art, incredible gardens, wine by Frescobaldi.....a life I could get used to.
I had to miss the visit to the Bargello to get a little work done before meeting at the Uffizi for the evening, after closing hours. We were taken to a room which is never open to the public, where the drawings are stored. The lovely curator of this 'vault' was dressed to the 'nines' in formal black and an emerald and diamond necklace that took my breath away.....I quickly understood this was an 'important state occasion.' (Fortunately, I was dressed in black, too......of course, I always am, but minus the diamonds and emeralds.)
She then puts on her white gloves as she tells us what she is about to show us, and how few people have seen what we will see. Then she opens a portfolio and takes out a drawing by gasps of shock and awe. I found out by the art historians in the room, that this is the most famous drawing, because it was the only landscape. Very detailed, in pencil, and very fresh, as though it had been drawn a few days, or minutes before. Gary Radke, who was the professor leading the entire 5 day trip, said he often uses slides of that drawing but had never seen the original and was shocked by how different they were.
This sense of 'aliveness' not of the subjects that were drawn, but of the process of drawing itself- you could feel the hand making the strokes only deepened as we saw 4 or 5 more drawings. There were 'studies' of drapery exhibiting the mastery of light and dark, architecture, and then there was the drawing of a woman (or angel...or nymph...something not of this world), that brought me to my knees.

We left the room, to see the 3 Leonardo paintings in the museum. Even though I have been in this gallery many times, being there with just 30 people, no time limit, and without the sensors so that we could look closely at each painting, was a very different experience. And we saw in oil, several of the 'studies' from the drawings!!

The group consisted of very knowledgeable and sophisticated American contributors (and me), who had the means and interest to do and see everything in the world. Not one person there was unaffected by what we had seen.....'been there, done that' could never be used to describe the day.
It would appear that dinner would have to be anti-climactic, but instead it was a perfect completion. We went to the cafeteria of the Uffizi which had been dramatically transformed. One long, long table for 30 people, lit by candlelight, flowers, tuxedoed waiters with white gloves, on the second floor with one wall of windows looking onto the Duomo and towers of Palazzo Vecchio at night. Wine by Antinori, short interludes of opera performances, great food, exciting conversation. At the stroke of midnight, I did my Cinderella number and floated back on my carriage (bicycle) to call my prince and recount my day.

At the end of our phone call, Tony said, "Wednesday you were with the movie stars, Thursday with Leonardo, what are you going to do tomorrow?" I said, I'm getting back to earth, and going to work. Little did I know.

Hanging with the thespians

Wednesday evening, I was invited by my most beautiful, bright and bold friend, Ellyn Toscano to join the 'cast', writer, director, producer, and set designer (from a new play by Sir Antony Sher, that was previewed at Villa La Pietra on Friday, before opening in the West End in London on November 1), for dinner. Besides, being impressed, and I admit, I am very easily impressed, by the works and fame of this group, I can't remember having more fun on an evening out.
But let's get to being impressed:
Sir Antony Sher wrote the new play about the making of Michelangelo's David, which is called The Giant. He has been knighted by the royal order for his contributions to the theatre. He has written 3 plays, been a major actor in the RSC and National Theatre and received the Lawrence Olivier award a few times. He is also noteworthy because he and his partner, Greg Doran (director of the production) are among the first gay couples to form a civil partnership in England. Also, the first 'civil partnership' couple to be invited to spend the weekend at Sandringham Castle with Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles.
John Light: An actor who plays Michelangelo in the play is also a noted actor, but got 'impressed' points because he is married to Neve Campbell (American actress).
Roger Allam: plays Leonardo da Vinci. He is an amazing actor. In the movie, The Queen with Helen Mirren, he played the part of the Queen's private secretary. Besides being 'too tired, too old, and too talented', he speaks many languages, has the sharpest wit, and is very sexy!
Stephen Hagen: Remember this name, because he will be a superstar soon. He plays the quarry worker who Michelangelo uses as his model for David (the play is historical fiction). Stephen is such an amazing likeness, that when the troupe went to Carrara, people were pointing in the streets. He's a magnificent 'hunk', tall, exquisite, funny, sweet and heterosexual. At dinner, I had to ask him if he was straight. He barked, 'yes'. And I told him, it was a compliment that stemmed from my 10 years in San Francisco, when I established a 'rule of thumb', that any man 75% or more good-looking was assumed gay. And this 'assumption' proved true almost without exception.
During the reading of the play on Friday, there is a time when Michelangelo tells him to take off his shirt, but since it was just a read-thru, Stephen just makes a motion without disrobing. "Damn!!" is the word that I hear from the student sitting behind me... she was the only one who vocalized what we all were thinking.

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Miracle in Firenze: Shana Tova 2006

Rosh Hoshanah in Florence. I didn’t want to go to the main synagogue because although it is incredibly beautiful, the service wasn’t what I was looking for. It is very orthodox, all in Hebrew and Italian, and the women are separate in an upper balcony behind bars,,hot, stuffy and too far from the “action.”
A few years ago, a group of Italians and ex-pats started holding Progressive Jewish services in a classroom of a local school. I made sure their schedule for the High Holidays was in our paper along with that of the Synagogue, and I decided to attend myself.
Saturday morning, I rode my bike to the “classroom”. There were maybe 25 people there. There was a small ark, holding a single Torah. We sat on plastic chairs surrounded by schoolwork and blackboards. An Italian gentleman, greeted us in Italian, and told us that the man who was supposed to blow the shofar wasn’t able to come because a friend of his had died the night before. Then he asked what I considered an absurd question. He asked if anyone there knew how to blow the shofar. The group present consisted of several tourists, who had heard about these services from our paper, or their concierge, a handful of Italians, a few ex-pats and a couple of students. Then a darling American girl of around 23 years old, from WDC, who was traveling in Florence with her parents raised her hand, and said she did. I looked back at her, thinking maybe she had picked one up in Sunday school, and would be able to play it at the level that I can play a kazoo, and the service began.
This wonderful man led the service. In real life, he’s a psychiatrist or psychologist. He spoke very little English, so there was a friend of his who translated. We all did the service, he would ask different people to read different parts…most of us didn’t know each other, but we pitched in, to read Hebrew, or English or Italian. We discussed the parshah in a mishmash of Italian and English. At one point Stefano forgot to wait for the Aliyah before he started the next parshah, and we knew to remind him. No one was “scheduled” to do anything, but it all got done. For the last aliyah, we were all at the Torah. Meanwhile, I was crying so hard that my friend next to me, remarked about what a bad cold I had (obviously, not a friend who knows me well).
In my seat, I kept thinking about the ceremony of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Up until my son, Jordan’s Bar Mitzvah, I always thought a Bar Mitzvah was a rite of passage, of a boy becoming a man. But I learned that the Bar Mitzvah was the time that a boy/girl takes on the responsibility for continuing the Jewish religion. I had my Bat Mitzvah when I was 51 years old, and experienced the joy and honor which come with this responsibility of knowing how to read the Torah, and how to lead a Shabbat service. I looked around the room, wondering and in awe of this religion. What is it that this unrelated group of Jews made sure they attended services. What is it, after 1000’s of years, that we do this? When I grew up in Detroit, we went to services because everyone did…all my friends, family, everyone was Jewish. In Florence, most of my friends are Italian, and even among the ex-pats, I only know two Jewish families. So why did I carve out this time from my life in Florence?
Then, time for the blowing of the shofar. The girl came up front, a little embarrassed, apologizing because she hadn’t done this since she was 13. And she blew the shofar, not just getting some sound out, for which we all would have been grateful. But she really knew how to blow the shofar, she knew the correct response to each incantation (sorry I don’t know what it’s called), and she was magnificent. We tell the story at Chanukah, of the oil that was only enough for one day, lasted eight. That what I kept thinking about when I heard the shofar last week. It was Rosh Hoshanah, the shofar needed to be blown, only 25 people there….I am Jewish from birth, I know a lot of Jewish people, friends, family, neighbors, teachers, colleagues, and I do not know personally a single person who knows how to blow the shofar. And at all the different services over the years, it was always some older man who blew it. Who would think? A young, hip, beautiful, American…..girl, in Florence for a couple of days? It was a miracle.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

A week in the life

Monday: Alexandra Lawrence walked into the office of The Florentine to begin her job as managing editor. After 2 hours, she was up to speed and I knew that my prayers had been answered.

Tuesday: We're working on a special issue for the 90th Anniversary of the British Institute in Florence. Vanessa Hall Smith, the director and Deirdre Pirro, who will edit the edition came to the office. They have been working on the content all summer. My job is to keep it interesting,!! I'm excited by their progress.
Left the office to go to Villa la Pietra to see the film, Empire 2 by Amos Po. It had won a place at the Venice film festival and Ellen Toscano invited Amos to screen the film at the Villa before heading back for among others, the Tribeca film festival. Quite the 'avant-garde' film. Three hours of footage of the Empire State Building shot from the director's apartment window. When introducing the film, Amos said something I had never heard before: 'Please leave on your cell phones.' He also instructed us to walk around, talk, eat, which he did himself. He told me that he had set up the camera to film 24 hours a day for one year. I asked him how he could edit that much footage. He told me he didn't edit. 'I simply asked my computer to squeeze it by 2000x....and it got shrunk, and speeded up, ending up with 3 hours.
I actually enjoyed what he called, 'my poem to New York.' I especially enjoyed speaking with Amos, sweet gracious without an ounce of pretense.

Wednesday: Alex and I have been meeting with interns and program directors from the different universities here in Florence. We've had interns and requests to do internships since we started the paper. But given that we didn't know a thing about the newspaper business and journalism, not to mention that our office had no place for interns to sit, let alone even use their own computer, we didn't have great success. Linda Falcone took the internship program to a new level, where we not only are getting good work from the interns, but the experience is fun and valuable for them as well. Still, I start every intern meeting with the disclaimer, that we still don't have our act together, and that we aren't the New York Times.
What I can say without hesitation is that our office is the most fun place to work on earth.....not always the most productive, but definitely, the hippest place in town.

Thursday: I can't believe my life. The people I get to have 'meetings' with, are the 'who's who' of Florence. I met with the Contessa Simonetta Brandolini D'adda, director and founder of Friends of Florence to discuss some projects we are pursuing together. Then with Professor Hatfield, about a book we are publishing by him about the search for the Da Vinci painting in the Palazzo Vecchio.
Ended the day at a fashion show of Fendi furs. I'm still surprised when I am escorted to the seats reserved for the press. I used to 'pretend' I was a press person to get into such an event.

Friday: Meetings, meetings, and then I had to go out to the breathtaking Il Borro for an event to launch a children's book put out by Ferragamo. First, let me describe Il Borro. It is a medieval town that once belonged to the Savoie, the royal family of Italy. The descendant apparently kept needing to sell off parts of the village to subsidize his extravagant lifestyle. Ferruccio Ferragamo (son of Salvatore and president of the family company) was the willing buyer until he owned the entire 'borgo;.
The village includes churches, stores, a restaurant, the main villa, polo fields, and a cantina is completely and impeccably restored.
The main villa and other housing units are perfectly appointed and available for long and short term rentals. The main villa rents for 40,000 euro a week! Or can be reserved for parties, events and conferences. I have been fortunate to attend a few family parties there, and when I'm there I feel like I've stepped into a fairy tale, or 'sneaked' onto a movie set. No matter, that my hosts have always been nothing but kind and warm, I still think that I'm there under somewhat 'fraudulent' circumstances.
But I'm not complaining nor am I renouncing this behavior.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Good to be me!

People's response when discovering that my husband and kids are in the States and that I am away from them when I am in Florence, is invariably, "Oh, that must be really hard."
Though I am tempted to misappropriate the sympathy, I have to remember what I always 'preach' to my children. 'You can't have it both ways. You can't complain about how bad life is, and at the same time be happy and fulfilled.' Given the choice, I'd rather be happy.
Granted, no one could say that I've chosen a conventional path in life, But, I never looked for one. I seem to still be going through 'phases'. In high school, I had my 'beatnik' phase characterised by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen. In college, I passed through the radical, SDS phase into a hippie and free love phase. I lived in a teepee in Vermont and then a commune in Berkeley. Then there was the 'pop' psychology phase, with trips to Esalen, primal scream therapy, est, and Gestalt which segued beautifully into the 'spiritual' phase of Tibetan Buddhism, Tai Chi, Zen, whatever. (I said my life was not conventional, I didn't say I was in any way an individual or unique.) In fact reading this, it's embarrassing to reveal this trail of 'cliches and I'll save the reader and myself from further boredom.
Florence is my 'Under the Tuscan Sun' phase of course. And like every phase before it, I am living it to its fullest. After one year in Italy, my husband was ready to move onto his next phase, and moved to LA. Fortunately, my 'I love my husband' phase continues to bloom (we celebrated our 25th anniversary this summer) so I have spent the last two summers in LA with him.
Never having lived in LA before, I am completely surprised and delighted how much I love it. We live at the beach, I have tons of friends from previous 'phases', there's so much to see, do, eat, learn, it's a great and fun life.
I am asked which do I prefer, LA or Florence? I can't choose. I don't want to choose. And you know what, I don't need to choose.
Most of my 'phases' lasted 10 years, and given that I'm not getting any younger, and I kind of like this living life in phases pattern that I have, I look at my current life as simultaneously living 2 parallel lives. So I'm getting '2 phases for the price of 1.'
'BE HERE NOW' (from my 'spiritual' phase) still rings true for me as being a key to life. When I am in LA, I don't compare it to Florence, and when in Florence, I don't complain that it's not like LA.
Of course, I have bad and sad days in both cities. But I even feel grateful for my sadness, that I have a husband that I miss and I can't wait to talk to every day, than a husband that I can't wait to get away from.
I don't know how long this 'phase of 2 lives' will last. Maybe when my response to the question, 'Isn't it hard?', is 'yes.'