Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Visit to the Vatican Mosaic Workshop

Theresa (far left)  and group in the Vatican Mosaic Workshop
                         With guest blogger  Theresa Potenza
One  of the most  popular tours  I lead within the Vatican  is to an area off limits to  the general public, where only Vatican City employees and church clergy are allowed. 
Visitors must pass  through security several times; first being checked by Italian police, then getting saluted by the illustrious Swiss Guards in their colorful stripped uniforms. Finally the Vatican City police  hand over  entrance badges  which allow us inside the Vatican mosaic studio and gallery space. 

Security is on high alert here  since the studio  workshop has  a new next door neighbor: Pope Francis. 
Vatican mosaic artist at work 
Just after the Pope was elected he made the unprecedented decision not to live in the Vatican palaces, but rather in a hospice building designed for the Cardinals’ accommodations during the papal election.  It is an unassuming building compared to the rest of the Vatican complex, as is the exterior of the mosaic workshop.

  The interior of the workshop instead is a wonderland  where a handful of privileged craftsmen painstakingly work to create  mosaic  masterpieces. They spend their time  chiseling  color compounds and delicately applying  colored marble and glass tiles onto a canvas with a putty base.

Reproducing a famous Vatican mosaic 
Next to their workspace a  gallery displays  the masterpieces that are for sale. There are  mosaic reproductions of  Impressionist paintings like Vincent Van Gough’s Sunflowers as well as  religious themed Renaissance paintings such as Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch. Prices for mosaic panels can cost  from $6,000 to $50,000 depending  on the size of the panel and  the size of the  mosaic tiles used.

The Vatican’s mosaic artists have been  well known for centuries, making  masterpieces for the Pope to bestow as gifts to foreign heads of State. The studio walls are hung with photos  of popes throughout modern history presenting diplomatic gifts. We see  Pope John Paul II with Fidel Castro and Pope Benedict XVI with President Obama and the First Lady and meet  the artist who  made the landscape scene with Christ the Redeemer that Pope Francis recently presented to the President of Brazil during  World Youth Day.  

Less than a dozen artists work in this studio that was founded in the 18th Century.   The artists are more accurately called “painters in mosaic” and their main task is to preserve and restore the 10,000 square meters of mosaics that decorate the interior of St. Peter’s Basilica.  They also craft  mosaic portraits that make up the Chronological Series of Popes located inside the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. 

After watching the artists burn, smolder, chisel, and polish  tiles  (tessere )from the vast array of 26,000 different colored tiles, one of the craftsmen, wearing a long white tunic,  escorts us  through a back door to visit the Basilica. Here inside St. Peter’s  we are able  to admire  their creations  on site,  for the  11 huge interior domes and all the 45 altar pieces are works created by Vatican’s  mosaicists over the centuries.

 Theresa Potenza is an art historian and tour guide in Rome. For more information  see her website: 

More stories about the Vatican  here and here 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Boosting Tourism in Viterbo

E. Frangipane, A. Delli Iaconi, G.Curti, A.R. De Alexandris at new BIC center 

This  week  saw two important events  in Viterbo  for boosting  tourism: a visit of an  international meeting,  Certess,  organized  by the Lazio Region and the 16th international workshop BUY Lazio. The first  took place in the new  building of BIC Lazio, once  the  city's slaughter house. 
Recycling  an old building to new use

CERTESS  workshop with G.Curti & Bruno Blanco  

international  delegates 

translating  for  BIC workshop 
I  was happy  to be involved   as translator, meeting people from Palma di  Majorca, Finland, Croatia, Poland and several other European countries. 

 pilgrim guide to  Papal Palace 
The  visit  included  a workshop, discussion  and exploration of Viterbo’s   medieval quarter accompanied  by  an authentically dressed medieval pilgrim   (Massimiliano Vinci)  who led the group along  the old pilgrims’ route, Via di S. Clemente,  to the Duomo  and Papal Palace.

The guests were surprised  to see how coins were   minted at the  workshop of Maestro  Marco Guglielmi who also dressed the part.  This eclectic  artisan  works in  ceramics as well as coinage and has published several books.

Master  coin maker 
Throughout the  weekend  Viterbo was  bustling  with over  200 delegates at  the 16th edition of Buy Lazio,where buyers and sellers meet to  exchange information and  offers for  touristic services. The workshop is held in the ancient papal palace whose  soaring arches and tufa stone halls  recall the papal court which met here in the 13th century.

Buy Lazio stands 
Snappily dressed young  men and  girls (with dangerously high heels considering the cobblestones and steep stairs) were busy  promoting the folklore, traditions, gastronomy archeology, environment  and special itineraries  that exist for tourists  in the  five  provinces  of the Lazio region:  Latina, Roma, Rieti, Frosinone and  Viterbo.
red carpet  at the Papal Palace 

Buyers converged on Viterbo from  24 different countries  as far away as Mexico, Norway and Russia with a large percentage from central and eastern European countries (Slovenia,Ukraine,Slovakia Luthuania,  Hungary, Austria,Poland) and  Scandinavia (Norway, Finland,Denmark,  Estonia Sweden).
 As I write, on Sunday morning, the foreign participants are being treated to a post-workshop tour of Tuscania, Bolsena and Tarquinia before heading back to their respective countires.

Things  have changed  in these past  16 years: instead  of  reams of papers and  heavy  catalogues  appointments are now set up electronically so that face to face meetings and exchange of business cards are all that is  needed  to make contacts  leading  to a future  of sustainable tourism  for the  Viterbo area and all of Lazio. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Hill towns near Rome: Ronciglione

If you are watching  the TV series  “The Borgias”  you are taking a virtual tour of  some of the  hill towns in the area north of Rome.  
Main gateway entering Ronciglione 
  Last night’s episodes  featured  a bull fight in the amphitheatre of Sutri and   a visit to the Odescalchi Castle in Bracciano. See more about this castle on the blog posts of the past couple of weeks

gorge  and medieval quarter, Ronciglione 

laundry  with cupola and bell tower 

Vignola's   fountain of the Unicorns 

exploring the back streets  of Ronciglione  

  The  film director  used some  good camera work  to make the view from the castle gardens  look like  the Bay of Naples.
Ronciglione  once had a  ghetto 
garden on the street 
Those of us who live here  have our personal favorites: usually they are the towns we know best…where our friends live, or where our  favorite restaurants are located.

castle of Julius II 
 Many of  the hill towns  in the Etruria area  coincidentally  begin with the letter “V”: Vignanello, Vallerano, Vitorchiano and  of course Vetralla.  I’d love to hear why from  a specialist in  linguistics.  

medieval  alley way 
 Last weekend’s outing  brought me to  an “R”  town; Ronciglione, known familiarly  by  the natives  as “RonciĆ²”, which is also the name of a typical farming utensil used  to hoe and cut crops. 

It has also been used  as  a murder weapon  in the dark days  when families such as the Borgia   lived and ruled in this area. 

Entering  the town through an imposing doorway topped with papal coat of arms,  we walked along the main street where colorful Baroque period  facades  made a sharp contrast  with the  dark stone  of the medieval houses. 

 Each February a terrifying  rider-less horse race is held  along this street to celebrate  Carnival time .   

bright Baroque 
The town is dotted with churches,  bell towers, palazzi, convents and castles and the medieval quarter  is intact and  perfect for a stroll , but watch out for falling roof tiles.

a green corner of the medieval quarter 

RonciĆ²  cat  
cats rule

Being  originally  from the mill town of  Lowell, MA where the rushing waters of the Merrimack river created  the Industrial Revolution  in the 1840s-60s and the famous “Mile  of  Mills”, I felt  quite at home in Ronciglione.
Which is your favorite hill town in Italy? 
The streams  which rush through the gorges were used  as a primitive source of water power which made Ronciglione an early industrial center with production of metal objects and printing. Playing cards produced here were famous around the world. The tradition is continued by the Spada  printing company  which produced  my book Etruria.    

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Artisans and Handicrafts in Ancient Blera

During an afternoon wander through  the fascinating medieval town of Blera   I met  two  artisans who are living proof that craftsmen   are still alive and well  and creating  handicrafts  in many of the  small  towns of Etruria .
photo album or sketch book 

Trench  creates in leather and stone 
Trench is the nickname of  stone mason/sculptor and  leather artisan   Renzo Torelli who we met as he  was  setting an array of colorful leather  objects on a table in the main piazza.  
leather picture frames 

 He confessed that working in  leather  was a new hobby he had just started up, for his primary work was  that  of  stone mason and sculptor. His house at the further end of town was his calling card, he said. 
doorways  of  Blera 
That was reason enough to abandon the   noisy  central piazza where  dozens of hungry people were already  lining  up to partake of the sagra offering fettuccine con tartufo. (pasta with truffles)
 waiting  for the  bouncy games to be blown up

Blera's   Duomo  

 Escher  inspired   stairs of Blera

 Past the Duomo, through the  tiny streets leading to Porta Marina

Porta Marina 
 and there overlooking  the lush Etruscan valley  was  the house  that Trench had  built and decorated  with sculptures, loggias and  Renaissance style windows .  
Etruscan style decorations   by  Trench 

Another artistic workshop is that of Bernardino Balzi  a soft spoken and eclectic  artist  who  creates with recycled  and found objects. 

Irish  drum in  sheep skin 
goose eggs   make  excellent  Christmas decorations 
The tiny rooms of his  atelier held a plethora of objects  including  decorated  goose eggs,  origiami, sculpture and paintings, all  in colorful confusion. 

hand made books 

You can see more of his work on his website.  

For those interested in visiting  artisans workshops  don't miss the special tour being organized   in Viterbo on September  21   by Archeoares . Call  today  and make your reservation for this free tour. Hope to see you there !
  Any special  artisans in your town?    

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Making Summer Memories at Bracciano

Bracciano castle's  ivy covered  tower  
 Seeing   local  places  through the eyes of foreign visitors   gives us new insight into things  we usually take for granted.
Last week  I wrote about  our visit to Bracciano   with  Sergey and Tanya  from Moscow  and  our  lake side lunch  at  an old fashioned  trattoria .  
castle ramparts 

sail boats  far below  the castle

Sergey’s  eyes and camera lens  captured  scenes that were special and unusual for  him. 

a brilliant  19th century ball gown 
These included the colors of the  lake, the family of swans  and ducks  and the colorful costumes  exhibited  in the huge castle halls.
Duomo  di Bracciano overlooking the lake 

The  memory of  lake fish, local wine, watermelon   and strong caffe will also  keep  our Russian friends company during the dark days of  the  long Russian  winter. 

Having  passed  four winters in Moscow  I can understand their fascination with the  red tiled rooftops and church steeples, so different from the gilded   churches of Russia. 

They were also  fascinated by the  street lights, the flower filled piazzas and landscapes of lake and rolling  hills .
Piazza  near the castle 

 Since  the guide who accompanied us through the castle spoke only in Italian, our Russian friends  concentrated  on the frescoed rooms furnished with period antiques and managed  to get some close ups of the magnificent costumes  which are  on view until November . 
Renaissance  costumes

a dazzling  1920s gold feathered cape 

  The colorful costumes  enrich  the  historic atmosphere of the  castle’s halls and remind us of those who once  made history here .
armored knight and   horse  in the  main hall, Bracciano 
 No wonder  the   privately  owned Odescalchi  castle
 is a steady  favorite for  weddings and film shoots.

All photos by Sergey  Soloviev