Saving the Great Bear: Trieste’s floating crane

Towering nearly 80 metres over the harbour of Trieste, cranked at an angle of about 30 degrees, stands a huge pontoon crane: the URSUS. She has been declared a national monument and has been taken to the collective heart of the people of Trieste as one of the symbols of the city, more potent probably than the halberd of St Sergius which decorates all the lamp posts and civic buildings. The pontoon on which she floats was built in 1914, in Trieste’s San Marco shipyard. The crane itself dates from 1931, from the same shipyard. When it was announced in the spring of this year that funds for her restoration were insufficient, it caused consternation. “After all,” remarked a café proprietor on Riva Nazario Sauro, “this is the Ursus we’re talking about. She’s history. She’s been towed all up and down this coast to work, even as far as Croatia. We can’t just let her sink.” But her pontoon is damaged. Furious bora winds in March 2011, sweeping the coast at over 170 kmph, wrested her from her moorings and she went galumphing out to sea like a rogue elephant, bumping herself in the process. This YouTube video shows her mad stampede, as two tugs attempt to catch her.

But the thousands of euros of public money made available by the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia have been deemed insufficient to cover the maintenance and restoration costs that her overhaul will incur. More money (according to the local newspaper Il Piccolo, around 40,000 euro) needs to be found—and quickly, or the existing 150,000 made over by the region will be used for other projects.

Ursus is a magnificent sight, even in her present rusting, hunkered-down state. Let’s remain bullish that the bear can be saved.

Ursus from the top
Ursus from the bottom

News from Florence

For many years in the buildings adjoining the magnificent church of Santa Croce (in the rooms around the sacristy and in the great refectory) some important works of art have been on a temporary display. A few weeks ago a definitive arrangement of them was presented to the public. They have been housed in the conventual buildings since the first years of the 20th century (when they were rescued from religious houses suppressed by Napoleon).

Madonna and Child by Jacopo di Cione. Photo ©Sailko.

In the last few decades Santa Croce has found itself in a rather unhappy geographical position: on a straight street which provides an entrance to the city from the ring-road, which makes it a favourite place for bus tours. An added attraction is the old-established ‘leather factory’ attached to the church, and leather goods are now sold in the shops on the approach so that, all in all, it represents a perfect stopping place for tour groups which are being hurried on their way from Venice to Rome, but in this way can also fit in a few hours in Florence en route. So it is all the more important that if you are on your own and the church becomes too crowded (as it more often than not does by mid-morning), you can now visit the quieter areas which have been beautifully restored.

Close to the famous frescoes by Giotto in two chapels at the east end of the huge church, you enter a corridor off which is the sacristy,where Cimabue’s famous painted Crucifix has at last found a permanent position. It was the most important work of art in Florence to be damaged in the Arno flood of 1966. After a spectacular restoration it is now hung high enough in this beautiful room to be safe from the waters of the Arno should they ever break their banks again. Painted before 1288, it shows Christ ‘patiens’ (suffering) rather than ‘triumphans’ and is for that reason a particularly dramatic figure. The sacristy, because it was part of such an important religious house, is very spacious and has its own ‘chapel’ covered with splendid frescoes by Giovanni da Milano, one of the most interesting followers of Giotto.

From the sacristy you can now go into an adjacent room which has a well in a niche frescoed by Paolo Schiavo, currently being restored. The well would have provided fresh water for the lavabo that was once here. The walls have now been hung with panel paintings (from suppressed churches and convents) which have been in storage here ever since the first years of the 19th century. A triptych by Giovanni del Biondo is dedicated to St John Gualberto, with stories from his life. A modern frame has been reconstructed around Nardo di Cione’s triptych which is particularly interesting for its predella, which has unusual scenes from the life of Job. Also here is St James the Greater Enthroned by Lorenzo Monaco.

The Chapel of the Novices, built for Cosimo de’ Medici by his favourite architect Michelozzo, is also now open. It houses two huge paintings in wonderful gilded frames by Battista di Marco del Tasso; a Deposition by Salviati and a Descent into Limbo by Bronzino. There is also a Descent from the Cross by Alessandro Allori and a Trinity (with the dead Christ) by Ludovico Cigoli. The enamelled terracotta altarpiece is a della Robbia work and above it a little stained-glass window (designed by Alesso Baldovinetti) has the two Medici patron saints, Cosmas and Damian.

In a tiny barrel-vaulted room off the chapel, with one little window and just large enough to hold a coffin, a bust of Galileo records the fate of the great scientist’s corpse, which was hidden here in 1642 before it was decided he could be given a Christian burial inside the church nearly a century later. In the corridor outside are four gold-ground paintings and a monument to Lorenzo Bartolini, who by the time of his death in 1850 had become the most important sculptor of his day.

Back in the church itself, beside the very beautiful Annunciation tabernacle by Donatello, a door leads out to the first cloister. At the foot of the steps, behind a white curtain, is the Pazzi Chapel, one of the most perfect Renaissance interiors in Florence. Close by is the second cloister, one of the most peaceful and beautiful spaces in the city. The rooms of the museum here are now a bit shabby, but don’t miss the last room, which has a delightful fragment of the Madonna learning to sew and a fragment of the grieving Madonna in a delicate peach-coloured robe, which found its way here in 1904 from somewhere in the city. In the same room are two newly restored Madonnas, one by the Maestro di San Martino alla Palma, and one by Jacopo di Cione, with the Child in a golden tunic. From this room you enter directly into the splendid Gothic refectory with its huge frescoed representation of the Last Supper by Taddeo Gaddi. This space has now regained its spacious atmosphere. Don’t miss the fresco fragment with one of the earliest views of the Baptistery or the gilded bronze St Louis of Toulouse made by Donatello for the exterior of Orsanmichele.

In a little cloister behind the Pazzi Chapel (entered from the new Information Office) an interesting and well-designed little exhibition illustrates the history of the Arno floods (and a ‘totem’ outside show the various levels the water reached). Also here there is sometimes access to a huge crypt (beneath the sacristy), the ‘Famedio’, a First World War memorial opened by the Fascist regime in 1937 with the names of the 3,672 Florentine soldiers who fell in the fighting inscribed on black marble all around the walls.

As mentioned above, Santa Croce and its piazza can become uncomfortably crowded—but you can slip away from the crowds with the greatest ease if you seek out the little medieval church of San Remigio, in an extremely peaceful corner of town. At the far end of the piazza (the opposite end from the church) take Borgo de’ Greci and then (second left) Via de’ Malagotti, which leads to it directly. The church contains one of the most beautiful 13th-century paintings of the Madonna and Child in Florence, by an unknown master named from this work the ‘Maestro di San Remigio’.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence, available in print and digital formats. For more, see here.

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Parmigiano-Reggiano comes from a strictly defined area: both the cheese and the milk from which it is made are produced only in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Mantua, by a consortium of 600 small dairies. The cows graze in open pastures or are fed locally-grown fodder, and all-natural fermenting agents are used to give the cheese its particular flavour and texture.

Today, as eight centuries ago, the process is the same: milk, fire, rennet and the skill and knowledge of cheese masters are the basic ingredients. The giant truckles are aged naturally for at least a year (usually two years or more), all the while being brushed and turned, and inspected daily to check that they match up to strict consortium standards.

Parmigiano-Reggiano is a DOP (Designazione d’Origine Protetta) product, which means it meets special EU quality standards. If buying a truckle (or, more likely, part of one), you should look for ID markings on the rind: the words PARMIGIANO REGGIANO, the identification number of the dairy, the month and year of production, the acronym DOP in pin-dot stencil.

Real Parmigiano-Reggiano is straw-coloured and the colour is always uniform throughout the cheese. Inside, the cheese forms long, thin flakes radiating from, or converging towards, the centre. The internal mass tends to be soft, minutely granulated, and dotted with barely visible holes. Although these traits remain constant, it is still possible to detect differences between individual cheeses. As is the case with any hand-made product, each truckle has a touch of individuality.

Explore Parma, Reggio Emilia and Modena with Blue Guides’ new ebook on the region of Emilia Romagna. See here for details.

Baccio Bandinelli: a rehabilitation

by Alta Macadam

This exhibition, running at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence until 13th July, is the first ever show devoted to this sculptor, who was of supreme importance during his lifetime in 16th-century Florence, not only for his skill as an artist but also because he was the official sculptor of the Medici. He learnt his art directly from Michelangelo and (the far less well-known) Giovanfrancesco Rustici. Bandinelli’s pupils included Vincenzo de’ Rossi, Ammannati, and his successor as court sculptor for the Medici, Giambologna. The Bargello is therefore the most fitting place to hold this exhibition, since in the first room of the museum, recently rearranged, all of these sculptors are very well represented.

Baccio Bandinelli, self-portrait, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

The reason for the notable lack of interest in Bandinelli (1493–1560) until now is probably due most of all to the fact that he was clearly an unpleasant man and jealous of his position as the Medici favourite. In public he was particularly fond of doing down Cellini, whom we know far better through his delightful Autobiography and who was by far the greater sculptor, but who suffered from the success of his rival.

Bandinelli had the grossly mistaken idea to carve a colossal statue as a pair to Michelangelo’s David outside the entrance to Palazzo Vecchio. It is one of the worst sculptures produced in Florence in the 16th century. Representing Hercules and Cacus, the two figures are flabby and in fact border on the ridiculous. Cellini was delighted to point this out to Cosimo I in the presence of Bandinelli, but Cosimo still continued to commission statues from Bandinelli rather than Cellini including, nearly thirty years later, the huge but feeble and languid Neptune for the fountain a few metres away in Piazza della Signoria (it had to completed by his pupil Ammannati after his death). Cellini’s famous Perseus is in the loggia of the same square but its model and original base and exquisite bronze statuettes are preserved in the Michelangelo room where the exhibition begins. Cellini would have been satisfied indeed that these and some of his other superb sculptures are displayed here, establishing his pre-eminence.

Bandinelli’s earliest sculptures in the exhibition include a mutilated classical Mercury from the Louvre, a bas-relief of the Flagellation from Orleans (with a plaster cast of it from the Casa Martelli in Florence) and several red chalk drawings from the Louvre and another from the British Museum. There is also a small relief of the Deposition in gilded and painted stucco from the Victoria and Albert Museum. All these demonstrate clearly Bandinelli’s superb skills as a draughtsman, and also particularly as a sculptor in low relief.

A number of busts by him of his patron Cosimo I are displayed together, including one which he carved for the façade of his own residence in Via Ginori, as a proud statement of his allegiance to the Medici family (now in a private collection it has rarely been seen since its was removed from the house front). Accompanying these works is Cellini’s colossal bronze bust of Cosimo, now even more impressive since, in the new display of the permanent collection here it has been raised higher on a pedestal, and clearly it is a greater portrait of the powerful Duke than any produced by Bandinelli.

Some of Bandinelli’s best marble reliefs were carved for an elaborate new choir he designed for the Duomo, directly beneath the dome, but which was never completed and was ultimately considered unsuitable for the church (it included two entirely nude statues of Adam and Eve which were to flank the altar, and which are on permanent display in this room). Some of the superb original reliefs are on display next to a model of how this ambitious project would have looked: it was to have included some 300 similar reliefs. Bandinelli’s Bacchus is also displayed here, rejoining three other statues on permanent display in this room: Sansovino’s earlier Bacchus; Cellini’s classical Ganymede; and Michelangelo’s David-Apollo, all four of which are known to have been special favourites of the Duke’s, which he kept together in a room of his palace.

The exhibition continues in two small rooms also off the courtyard. Here you can see a series of Bandinelli’s exquisite small bronzes, all from the Bargello collection. Seen on their own they confirm his mastery of this genre. All around the walls are examples of Bandinelli’s splendid drawings, many in red chalk, from the Uffizi, including two of his famous patrons Pope Leo X and Cosimo I, clearly drawn from life in the 1540s.

In the last room there is a memorable portrait of the young Bandinelli by an unknown Florentine painter influenced by Andrea del Sarto and a marble relief of a bearded man attributed to Bandinelli, as well as his self-portrait in terracotta dating from around 1557. The show helps reinstates Bandinelli as an artist of great merit, and it is always a delight to return to the Bargello, which is one of the finest museums in Florence and never, for some mysterious reason, over-crowded.

Alta Macadam is the author of Blue Guide Florence.

Artwork of the month: May. “Flora”, Pompeii

The Sorrento peninsula begins at the modern town of Castellammare di Stabia, on the southeast shore of the Bay of Naples. It takes its name from its 9th-century castle and from the ancient city of Stabiae, which was swallowed up by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Pliny the Elder met his death on the beach at Stabiae, suffocated by toxic fumes from the volcano. On the plain of Varano and in the hills above, overlooking the water, are the remains of two Roman villas. The Villa Arianna dates from the 2nd century BC. It is not known how large it was at its full extent, as many of its clifftop rooms have collapsed, but surviving remains show a sumptuous, spacious building, including the large palaestra. Some of the surviving wall decoration and floor mosaics are very fine. In the main triclinium was a fresco of Ariadne, abandoned on Naxos by Theseus, which gave the villa its name, Arianna. Finest of all the frescoes are those from the cubicula, detached in the 18th–19th centuries and now in the Archaeological Museum in Naples. One of the most interesting is the Cupid Seller, depicting two women, one young, one middle aged, confabulating together while an old crone at their feet (a procuress?) displays her wares, tiny cupids trapped in a wooden cage like chickens at a market. The image fascinated artists of the Neoclassical age, and several versions of it were produced. More famous still, and apparently without any sinister subtext, is the lovely Flora, a young girl shown with her back to us, delicately gathering spring flowers.

“Cupid Seller”: Soprintendenza Speciale ai Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

Stabiae and Naples are covered in Blue Guide Southern Italy.