Scusi, Do You Speak English?


Part 2: "Tutti gli Dei"

Day 2 began with Georg and myself checking out of our hotel and meeting Francesca at the Uffizi Gallery. We got there a few minutes early and had time to check out a very nice exhibit of Botero sculptures outside the gallery. They seemed a bit incongruous in the middle of this Renaissence wonderland, but still, I like Botero's work. We only had a couple of hours in the Uffizi, not nearly enough time to view all the magnificent art, much less absorb it. But we couldn't spend a day in Florence and miss the opportunity to visit this famed museum. Besides, Francesca used the patented "friend of a friend" technique (in this case, "mother of the girlfriend of a friend") to get us in for free, but more importantly, without having to wait in the interminable line. What luck!

The travelers in Monteriggioni
Brian Williams, John Williams, Sarah, Georg, Arnell Ando, Ann Williams, and Mike McAteer outside the walls of Monteriggioni

It's fascinating to me that so many artists in the late middle ages and early renaissence were able to express their artistic vision within the narrow scope of a few religious scenes. Slight changes of pose or facial expression can significantly alter the focus or implied meaning. It was overwhelming to see so many masterful interpretations of scenes like the Madonna and Child (called Maria con Bambino), the Annunciation, and the Assumption. I think my favorites were the Annunciations, with Mary sometimes fearful, sometimes proud, sometimes subordinate to the angel and sometimes superior. However, the highlight of the museum was definitely the Botticelli room, which contained "Birth of Venus" and "Primavera." All I can say about that is, wow.

We did see a representation of "Forza" by Botticelli, but it wasn't much like the Tarot images I'm familiar with. No "lady wrestler," this was a seated female knight, in full armor holding a sword in her lap. It was in a room with a series of paintings of the cardinal virtues: Patience, Temperance, Justice, etc. Many of these images resonate with the traditional Tarot, which of course was first created in the same milieu, in Milano in the early 15th century. We were a bit surprised to find windows letting sunlight into the museum, sometimes glaring directly on five hundred year old paintings. We mentioned to Francesca that you would never see natural light inside a museum in the US, because of the damage it can do to the art. She replied that some museums in Italy don't place as much priority on preservation as you might hope.

We did see a couple of Leonardos, but unfortunately by that point we were rushing to leave, literally walking through each room as fast as we could. After the Uffizi, we said goodbye to Francesca (so she could spend a few days in Florence with her friends Mauro and Cecilia) and met up with the rest of the group at the Pendini Hotel, where much of the group had stayed. We piled into two Fiat vans -- driven by John and Arnell Ando's husband Mike McAteer -- and off we went. Why are European cars all so cute? As a devoted driver of a small car (a 78 Toyota Corolla), I loved the cute little cars we saw everywhere in Italy. Francesca said they no longer make the Fiat Cinque Cento, the cutest of all. But we saw a new car called "Sprite" that was so small, Glenna Gorlick observed that it should fold up into a briefcase, a la the Jetsons. Even our vans, with seating for nine, still looked cuter than American cars of the same size. On country roads we saw little three-wheeled trucks called Ape (ah-pay, "bee") that I think have only one cylinder! Anyway, enough about cars.

Sarah having lunch with Arnell Ando and Mike McAteer
Sarah having lunch with Arnell Ando and Mike McAteer

We had some time before we could check into Montalto, so we stopped for lunch at the hill town of Monteriggioni (I think that's how it's spelled!). Brian explained that this town, originally a military installation, was unusual in that all its walls were intact, due to its location being unimportant during WWII. He also pointed out a stand of olive trees that might be a thousand years old, and capers growing out of a crack in the wall. It was wonderful to see exotic plants growing side-by-side with familiar flora such as blackberries, trumpet vine or mimosa. And I swear, I even saw a pokeberry bush! Pokeberries are my nemesis in the garden back home, but seeing them halfway across the world felt like meeting an old friend. (An old annoying friend, but a friend nonetheless!)

At lunch I had a nice conversation with Arnell Ando & Michael McAteer, Maria Näslund and Riccardo Minetti, who works with Lo Scarabeo, the largest Italian tarot publisher (tarocchi, as they call it in Italia). It was great to hear Riccardo's perspective on Lo Scarabeo's future goals. He said he was especially interested in seeing them produce more substantial books to go with their decks, rather than the ubiquitous generic "little white booklets". And while Georg and I did little shopping on this trip, we couldn't resist a postcard that showed a picture of the store where we bought the postcard, prominently featuring the postcard rack. Apparently kitch is universal.

Finally we arrived at the Castello di Montalto, our home for the week. When we caught our first sight of the castle, a collective gasp went around the van. The castle's website,, has several photos, but none of them do it justice. Apparently the castello was first built in the ninth century, but the owners, loyal to Siena, ran afoul of the Florentines and it was partially destroyed several times over the centuries. The current structure was mainly built in the early 15th century; the keystone over the entrance reads 1408. Our hosts, Giovanni and Diana Coda-Nunziante, live in the main castle and operate a working farm on the grounds. But they have renovated all the outbuildings -- the guardhouse, the schoolhouse, a tower, etc -- and rent them out by the week or month. Our group was large enough to have filled almost all the available spaces for the week. Diana said that a great deal of renovations had been done last century, but she and Giovanni would probably not be able to do any more repair to the stonework because there were no more living craftsmen able to do the work.

Arrival Day at the Castello di Montalto
Arrival day at the Castello di Montalto. The balcony and arches to the left are part of the owners' home.

At the end of a lengthy dirt road, the castle felt completely isolated and private. (though it was actually only a 20 minute drive to the nearest supermarket, in Castelnuevo Berardenga.) At night we could see the Milky Way, and the only sounds were insects (and, of course, us). Each of the apartments had something special about it -- a massive fireplace in Guardia's kitchen, a spectacular view from the bedrooms of Giocche, lavish bathrooms in Fattoria. The folks in Torre del Vescovo had the most upscale accomodations, with frescoes on the walls, a dishwasher, private phone and a TV (which may have never been turned on). Georg and I had Scuola, a little cottage outside the castle walls which served as the one-room schoolhouse until 1967. A living room, bedroom, bathroom, and kitchenette, plus a secluded little patio behind. I think it was perfect.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around, exploring the grounds and seeing other apartments, and unpacking. Arnell, Mike and I visited with the Genettis in their apartment, Fattoria. They said it was originally the overseer's apartment, upstairs from Scrittoria, the current office. The Genettis were on a family trip: daughters Cerrithwen and Bronwen, son Gaelen, and Alexandra's mother Nancy were there, as well as their friend Simon. All their group were charming and fun to talk to. The young women are both intelligent and talented (I especially enjoyed Cerrithwen's lively trump deck), and Gaelen has a great future ahead of him as a botanist or zoologist. (He made great friends with the Coda-Nunziantes' dog, Dylan, an elderly Alsation who loved to play tug of war with sticks.) We passed handmade and hand-colored decks around, and spent some time catching up on ongoing projects and each other's work.

One of the nicest things about the castello was the grocery system. Fresh produce was picked on site and put in baskets outside the office. You just took what you wanted, weighed it and wrote it down on a pad of paper. You could also order supplies like olive oil made on the premises, local wine, and fresh bread delivered daily. Just write down what you wanted on the same pad, and it would be left in your box the next day. I'm still thinking about that olive oil, pungent and green. I wish I had bought another bottle to take home! But at the time I didn't want the additional weight.

Georg and I had been warned repeatedly about the torrid summer heat in Toscana, to the point that I was worried about being too hot to enjoy the trip. But I found the weather quite temperate. I would guess it was high 80s, maybe 90, in the daytime. And fairly breezy, not too humid. If you stayed out of the sun it felt very comfortable. At night it got so chilly that I wished for a sweater more than once. I'm not sure whether it was unseasonably cool, or whether I'm better accustomed to heat than I thought (maybe the fact that we were having a heat wave back home helped to make Toscana seem cool by comparison). Occasionally it occured to me to wonder if Italians use, or would benefit from, ceiling fans, the ubiquitous use of which makes life bearable here in the southern US. But I didn't miss air conditioning, even once. The walls of the cottage were so thick that if you closed the shutters on the sunny side, it stayed nice and cool.

To celebrate our first night, Brian made dinner for everyone and we ate outside, sitting around a table made of a massive stone slab. (The stone table was the site of a special ceremony for Mike and Arnell a few nights later, but now I'm getting ahead of myself.) We shared a toast, and Brian poured wine on the ground in honor of tutti i dei. I'm sure I spelled that wrong (thanks to Francesca for providing the correct spelling, tutti gli dei), but "to all the gods" is what he really said. It was a magical day.

Ok, that's Day 2. Next up, Pienza, the collapsing cathedral, and marvelous cheeses.

Italy Travelogue:
Day 1: Turisti Americani

Day 2: Tutti gli Dei

Day 3: Behold the Power of Cheese

Day 4: Monk Mobile

Day 5: Scusi, do you speak English?

Day 6: Tutte le Direzione

Day 7: Gardens Sacred and Profane

Day 8: Ciao Ciao

il Palio: special report by Georg

Castello di Montalto official website



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