Tag Archives: Pat Krapf

EUROPE 2011: Venice, Italy

Aerial View of St Marks Square Venice, Italy On our second day in Venice, we set out to sightsee. Piazza San Marco, St. Mark’s Square, was first on our agenda. Although our hotel was a short walk from the square, the hardest part was negotiating all the tourists, even in late September. Face it, Venice is a popular destination no matter what time of year. St. Mark’s is the largest square in the city and the only one given the designation “piazza.” The centerpiece is St. Mark’s Basilica, nicknamed Church of Gold for its opulence. As I stood in the enclosed piazza and gazed about, I was in astounded by its size, almost 240 yards long, and its grandeur.

Venice St Mark's BasilicaWith my back to the basilica, I studied the architecture of the historic buildings. To my right were the old offices, circa sixteenth century, and the clock tower. To my left, the new offices, circa seventeenth century, and beyond them the square opened to the water. Behind me was the Correr Museum. Despite its size, the square felt protected, intimate, and definitely romantic.

St Marks Basilica Venice Italy I gravitated toward the basilica, drawn by its Byzantine and Gothic architecture. Construction of the cathedral began in 829 with the intention of building a shrine for the body of St. Mark, believed to have been brought from Alexandria to Venice in the same year. Fire destroyed the church in 976, and it was rebuilt between 1043 and 1071. The exterior of the west facade is divided into three registers: lower, upper, and domes. The lower register has five arched portals that open into the narthex through bronze doors. The upper register has mosaics depicting the Life of Christ. The layout of the church is based on a Greek cross with four arms of equal length. Five domes cap the space—one over each arm and one over the center where the two arms cross.
Upon completion, the interior of the basilica was plain brick and stucco until the late twelfth century, when every surface was covered with precious materials—marble, gold, gems, and mosaic glass—a space of unsurpassed visual splendor. Although all this was captivating, my eyes were drawn to the apex of the dome, where Christ appears adorned in gold.

Venice Campanile Outside the church, we crossed the square to the Campanile, the bell tower, which stands 323 feet high and has an elevator to the top for a spectacular view of Venice. We snapped a few shots of the city and some of the exterior of the tower, then walked on, hundreds of pigeons scattering in our wake. Relieved that we had avoided being dive-bombed by the birds, we skirted the outdoor cafés and left the piazza to explore the island, bypassing a visit to the Doge’s Palace. We were more interested in some other sites: the Rialto Bridge, the Grand Canal, Bridge of Sighs, and a few churches.

Santa Maria della Salute in Venice After two hours of sightseeing, and a tour of the Accademia Gallery, we made the short walk from the Accademia Bridge to Santa Maria della Salute. The domed baroque church stands on a narrow finger of land between the Grand Canal and the Bacino di San Marco. From what I have read, Doge Nicolò Contarini, before his death from the black plague, made a solemn vow to build a church to the Virgin Mary if she would free the city from the disease. He also promised that every year, on November 21st, he would lead a procession to the church. After his death, Doge Francesco Erizzo fulfilled Nicolò’s vow with the construction of Santa Maria della Salute. The plague killed almost one-third of the population of Venice.

Rialto Bridge Late in the afternoon, we strolled across the Rialto Bridge to browse the shops and take in the scenery. We had been warned that some of the stores were not selling authentic Murano glass, but we had already made our purchases on the island and weren’t interested in buying more.

Venice St Mark's Piazza On our way back to our hotel, we stopped for a coffee at one of the cafés that line St. Mark’s Square, and to give our feet a short break before we made the jaunt to dinner. That night, we had reservations at Osteria Da Fiore.

Da Fiore Venice The warm evening was delightful, so we took our time walking through the maze of quaint narrow streets until we reached our restaurant. The waitstaff led us to a table for two on the only balcony in Da Fiore. It overlooked a quiet canal. The setting was very romantic, especially when the occasional gondola would cruise by and soft music would drift our way as the gondolier serenaded his riders . . . and us.

Public Fountain We passed on the six- or seven-course tasting menu and ordered à la carte, beginning with tiny shrimp tempura on creamy polenta followed by a seafood tower. For our mains, more fish. I had shrimp in seven spices, and Dave ordered wild bass steamed with apples. For dessert, I chose the chocolate cake and Dave an orange-apricot cream. Full, we sipped our wine and watched the next gondola as it slowly glided down the canal past our table, this gondolier too serenading us with a low, melodic tune.

Before I sign off, here are two tips from the locals. One: carry a lightweight water bottle that you can refill at public fountains. Venetians pride themselves on great-tasting tap water piped in from the foothills of the Alps, and it is cold and refreshing, especially on a warm day. Two: if you are dive-bombed by pigeons, resist the urge to clean the poop out of your hair. Let it dry, and then you can brush it out. I know this will take some restraint, but it works. However, if it lands on your clothes, wipe it off immediately to prevent a stain. On that note, see you next week!

Next week: “Europe 2011: Florence, Italy.”

EUROPE 2011: Milan, Italy – Part 2

The Milan Galleria

After a substantial buffet breakfast, we left the Boscolo Milano for our first stop of the day, the Brera Art Gallery. While I love modern architecture, I also have an abiding appreciation for historical buildings, which is one reason I am drawn to Europe. My imagination runs wild thinking of what life must have been like in these cities and villages years before America was even discovered. And the countries hold a certain fascination for me because of my European heritage.

From the moment I entered the courtyard of the neoclassical structure, I began snapping photos of the fourteenth-century monastery, which was converted into a gallery by Maria Theresa of Austria. Three minutes into my photo shoot, Dave tapped me on the shoulder and gave me that “Come on” look, so I followed him into the gallery as he was saying, “The first works of art were mainly paintings that arrived in Milan after the suppression of churches and monasteries.”

After three hours of viewing frescoes, other paintings, and a few sculptures, all beautiful to behold, then listening to my history-buff husband explain the historical and religious significance of each piece, I admit to growing a tad antsy. He was relaying how the collection had been substantially enlarged during the Napoleonic era, when an extraordinary number of works were confiscated all over northern Italy as a direct consequence of Napoleon’s policy. In Napoleon’s view, Milan was destined to become a capital and therefore needed an art collection of its own.

By hour four, I found my mind wandering and I started looking around the gallery, seeing it as a potential site for a chapter in my next Darcy novel. Maybe she would meet an informant here? He’d pass her a note . . . a clue to something? My thoughts were running the gamut when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Dave was finally ready to leave for our next stop, the Sforza Castle.

Again Dave waited patiently while I satisfied my architectural fix through photography; then we headed inside to see the Rondanini Pietà, the marble sculpture Michelangelo worked on until his death in 1564. The piece depicts the Virgin Mary mourning the dead Christ. I was particularly interested in seeing it since I had seen the Pietà housed in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, during my visit in 1969.

Hungry, we both took a few final pictures of the exterior of the castle (not easy with all the tourists lurking), then walked toward the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, with lunch and some shopping in mind, precisely in that order.

We ate on the outdoor patio at La Locanda del Gatto Rosso. For once, I passed on the risotto—although I was tempted—and ordered the special of the day, freshly made, al dente linguine heaped with shaved parma and mushrooms in a white wine cream sauce—rich, filling, and absolutely delizioso. We politely declined dessert, being more interested in checking out the shops, but I soon lost interest in the stores since I was so taken with the architecture of one of the world’s oldest shopping malls.

Built between 1865 and 1877 and named after Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of the Kingdom of Italy, the Galleria consists of two glass-vaulted arcades intersecting an octagon and covers the street that connects Piazza del Duomo to Piazza della Scala. The central octagon is topped with a glass dome.

The Galleria, nicknamed Milan’s drawing room, is a common Milanese meeting and dining place and contains luxury haute couture retailers such as Prada and Louis Vuitton, to name just two, in addition to retailers of jewelry, books, and paintings, and restaurants, cafes, and bars.

On the floor of the central octagon are four mosaics portraying the coats of arms of Italy: Turin, Florence, Rome, and Milan. Tradition says that if a person kisses the bull’s genitals on the Turin coat of arms that this will bring good luck. The practice has created a hole on the bull’s genitals, and no, I did not add to the damage.

After a lengthy photo shoot, I put away my camera, did some light shopping—remember, if you buy it you must carry it—then said goodbye to this mesmerizing glass-enclosed mall for our next destination—the Duomo.

The facade of the Duomo is covered in white marble and the layout is in the form of a Latin cross. The inside can accommodate up to forty thousand people. It has 135 needles on its spires, with the statue of the Virgin on the highest. There are around 3,400 statues and ninety-six giant gargoyles. Access to the cathedral is through five large bronze doors. But what struck me in particular was the light that filters through the Gothic windows into the interior, creating a solemn atmosphere, contemplative and moving.

We wanted to stay longer, but we had reservations to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, Italy’s most famous and most visited painting. We had purchased our tickets two months in advance and even then only two time slots were available. Due to the painting’s popularity, only twenty to twenty-five people can view it at one time and each for a maximum of fifteen minutes. And because of the mural’s fragility, humidity is strictly regulated. The refectory is climate controlled, so visitors must pass through dehumidifying chambers before they can enter the dining room where the mural is located.

Leonardo painted The Last Supper at the request of his employer Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. The original mural occupies the wall of the refectory (dining hall) in the convent of Santa Marie delle Grazie and measures fifteen by twenty-nine feet. He began the fresco in 1495 and finished in 1498—quite an accomplishment for the known procrastinator.

The fresco depicts the moment immediately after Christ said, “One of you will betray me.” The twelve apostles react in different ways; their movements and expressions are magnificently captured in Leonardo’s work. He focused on the impact of Christ’s words and on the apostles’ reactions to those words. All display horror, anger, or shock. Only one, Judas, has his face in shadow, and his hand clutches a small bag. Thirty pieces of silver, perhaps? Only Christ is calm.

Unfortunately, Leonardo did not work in the fast-drying and stable watercolor fresco technique of the time, but used experimental pigments directly on the dry plaster wall. Within five years of completion the painting began to flake. Da Vinci repaired the damage, but it continued to crumble. Further damage ensued when a curtain was hung over the painting for “protection,” trapping moisture and causing more paint to flake with every touch. Two hundred years later, Napoleon’s troops used the wall and mural for target practice. And Jesus has no feet in the painting, because around 1650 someone decided to add another door to the refectory and the only logical place was in the middle of the wall. The mural suffered other mishaps too. During World War II a bomb flattened most of Santa Maria, sparing only the wall that bore Leonardo’s painting. A miracle, perhaps? And for a time, the refectory was used as a prison. The fact that the painting survived at all, and in such good condition (although it did undergo restoration over a twenty-one-year period) is a miracle unto itself.

We arrived at the convent early, but already a crowd of eighteen had assembled for the next showing. After we cleared the dehumidifying chambers, we filed into the refectory. Too soon our fifteen-minute viewing time had come to an end. I tore my gaze from Leonardo’s spiritually moving piece to spend a few minutes admiring the painting on the opposite wall of the dining room—Crucifixion, which dated to the same period and was painted by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano.


The next morning, our last in Milan, we window-shopped for Italian furniture; we had no intent to buy, only to marvel at it and enjoy. Then we ordered espressos at a sidewalk cafe where we lingered to watch the procession of men and women who passed by, each flawlessly decked out in Milan’s finest—an ongoing fashion show.

At noon we took a taxi to the Milan airport, rented a car, and drove to Bellagio on Lake Como.

Next week: “Europe 2011: Bellagio, Italy.”