Cortona revisited

We fell in love with Cortona on our first trip to Italy in 2014 and, even though it was a two hour drive from Montepozzo, we just had to revisit. Yes, it is another Etruscan hilltown but from an elevation of 600 metres, the panorama across the Val di Chiana and Lake Trasimeno is breathtaking.

The alluvial valley covers 2,300 square kilometres and is home to the Chianina cattle, the largest breed in the world and one of the oldest. The beef is sold at premium prices by approved butchers and you will pay handsomely for Bistecca alla Fiorentina in any ristorante.

The Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie was built on the site of a former tannery where, in 1484, an image of the Madonna and Child, painted on the wall of a basin used for tanning leather, began to perform miracles. Because of the steep terrain and presence of a stream, the building wasn’t completed until 1525 and the original icon is still visible on the high altar in the church.

We made our way along narrow stone streets

to Piazza della Repubblica, the centre of the city since Roman times. There was so much to take in around the piazza; gorgeous shops, medieval architecture and sunshine.

We enjoyed coffee & pastries while being serenaded from the steps of the Palazzo Comunale. The town hall was built in the 12th century on the ruins of the Forum of the Roman City and was extended in the 1500s.

Pietro Berrettini was a 17th century Italian Baroque painter and architect. Although he worked mainly in Rome and Florence, he was known by the name of his native town, Pietro da Cortona.

We wandered around Piazza Signorelli

before exploring the shops along Via Nazionale

and celebrating our purchases with an Aperol Spritz in Piazza Garibaldi.

We retraced our steps to lunch at Caffè degli Artisti, seated in the street we savoured our surroundings as much as the food.

Starting with bruschetta, we decided on ravioli with butter & sage, pici with cream, porcini mushrooms, sausage & truffle sauce and pici with walnuts, gorgonzola cheese & pear.

Reluctant to leave, we returned to the car and drove to the top of the town to see Fortezza del Girifalco and the fascinating Basilica di Santa Margherita but that is another story.

Il Giardino

After lunching in the beautiful town of Seggiano, we just had to visit nearby Il Giardino di Daniel Spoerri. The Swiss artist created the sculpture park in the early 1990s and it opened to the public in 1997. Set among 16 hectares of rolling Tuscan countryside,

there are now 113 installations scattered seemingly at random. Even with map in hand, I think we missed quite a few. There are too many works to cover in one post, with 54 different artists represented, so I will firstly cover those by Daniel Spoerri himself. The adventure begins as soon as we leave the ticket office

with an oversized cup atop an antique capital standing on the lawn.

The Cup

A baking oven has been constructed in the style of a Trulli, a traditional dry stone hut from the Puglia region of Italy. Five smoke stacks, modelled on a family of tailors dummies, have been added so when the oven is in use, fine smoke flows from the heads.

Trullo – Smoke is Coming From My Head

Daniel Spoerri is best known for his snare-pictures, a process where a group of objects, such as the remains of a meal along with the table setting, are fixed as they are and transformed from a horizontal plane to a vertical one. There are two snare-pictures cast in bronze at the garden. Luncheon Table in All Eternity is suspended on the exterior wall of the restaurant, Non Solo Eat Art, while Eternal Breakfast, complete with bread and eggs, complements it on the adjacent wall of the estate villa.

Many of the sculptures feature ordinary objects used in unconventional ways. Remnants from a foundry form the face of The Bersagliera, a sharpshooter who seems to have received a few shots herself, awaiting visitors outside the restaurant.

A Flower Bouquet made from mirrors, a variety of rods and a chestnut roasting pan is arranged in a flattened bucket.

The artist was invited by Acquedotto Santa Fiora to create a Golem, a human-like being from Jewish folklore usually made from clay. They gave him parts of water supply systems including old pumps, valves and sieves and Acqua Golem was born.

One of the first installations in the garden, Unicorns – Navel of the World, is on the site where, according to legend, the village of Seggiano once stood. There is now a spectacular view of the town on the opposite hill. The long horns protrude from horses skulls and are held by gloves like lances leaning towards the centre of the circle.

The inspiration for Damocles’ Rose Bower Walk came from a trip to England where Spoerri sketched a pergola comprising a row of interwoven sickles. Roses and Jasmine will eventually grow over the framework.

Marble slabs depicting the last meals of twelve famous women are mounted on a wall, an unusual monument to Marie Antoinette, Hannah Arendt, Hildegard von Bingen, Tanja Blixen, Madame Curie, Marlene Dietrich, Isadora Duncan, Mata Hari, Frida Kahlo, Cleopatra, Empress Elisabeth of Austria and the goddess Leda.

Eight gaunt Nightmares appear from the shadows and I am pleased to say I have never encountered anything like these in my sleep.

The scary theme continues with the four bronze cast skulls guarding Gorilla Bridge

and the macabre totem of Skull Tree.

The title of You white? You black? comes from the merging of two figures where the African and European heads have been switched.

In a shady, wooded area, a Marble Table is set with movable pieces that are work samples from a studio in Carrara. The table is supported by cast bronze scraps rather than ordinary table legs.

Next to the table, a twisting column holds up a small golden head which appears to grow out of a flower bud. Renaissance is dedicated to the Sicilian town of Gibellina which was destroyed in an earthquake in 1968.

At the rear of the restaurant there appears to be a pile of old slippers, the kind that are made of felt and handed out at palace tours to protect the floors. No entry without slippers pays homage to artist Joseph Beuys who frequently used felt in his work.

The villa, where Daniel Spoerri lived for a long time, has been divided into four spacious holiday apartments all with fabulous views of the garden.

The Chain Heap is just that. Spoerri saw the mass of iron chains hanging in an Italian scrap merchant yard and had them transported to the garden where he augmented the collection. The result is reminiscent of a chieftain or medicine man decorated with fetishes.

Something you don’t expect to find in a sculpture garden is a meatgrinder, however, Spoerri finds the diversity of form of this piece of kitchen equipment astounding and intriguing. The 3 metre high Meatgrinder Fountain was sans water on this day but I imagine it would be quite a spectacle.

The same kitchen appliance has been combined with hat models for Warriors of the Night, a small battle-scarred army rising up from a pond.

Five life size mannequins lie distorted in a ditch, reminiscent of mass gravesites as humans destroy other humans. The Mass Grave of the Clones isn’t exactly uplifting, though, as the artist explains,
“Over and over again, the Giardino shows us dark sides, for without these there could be no beauty”.

The Labyrinthine Wall Path is based on a pre-Columbian Neolithic cave drawing, altered slightly to create a labyrinthine form, it was then ‘drawn’ on the meadow using a low wall. The cosmic union of Mother Earth and Father Son is symbolised by representation of a hermaphroditic creature with a phallus and breasts.

Tintin-Elefant is so named due to its similarity to the spherically headed hero of the Belgian comic series Tintin by Hergé. Obviously, the hoseline nose contributes to the second half of the title.

When Spoerri’s good friend Roland Topor died in 1997, he felt there should be something to memorialise him at the garden. Topor was a satirist and illustrator and so Spoerri selected a drawing from which to create the sculpture that is The Eccentric Reader.

Skull Chapel verified Spoerri’s fascination with the cadaver’s cranium. The collection housed in the chapel includes Tibetan monks’ skulls, two mummies’ heads and monkey skulls.

There are so many more incredible sculptures at Il Giardino, they will be featured in a later instalment.

Pitigliano

After our relaxing lunch in Saturnia, we detoured on the way home to explore Pitigliano. You might think we’d seen enough gorgeous medieval hilltop towns perched on tufa rock but it’s not something I could ever tire of.

The town is also known as Piccola Gerusalemme or Little Jerusalem, as it became a haven for the Jews escaping from the ghettos of the cities in the 16th century. They lived happily here until 1622 when the residents were confined to the Jewish Quarter and remained so until the Jews were emancipated in the mid 19th century. Many of them moved to the cities and by World War II none were left. Houses seemed to emerge from the rock

as we made our way into town.

We didn’t get far before our attention was diverted by La Dispensa del Conte (The Count’s Pantry), a wonderland brimming with local produce.

With a few purchases in our bags, we wandered to the edge of town

and discovered a spectacular structure with two large arches and thirteen smaller ones incorporated into the walls of the town. The Medici aqueduct was built between 1636 and 1639 to bring running water to the village and the Lorraines added the series of small arches in the 18th century.

From there we had a great view of the road into town and the stunning arched bridge over which we would soon be driving.

Adjacent to the aqueduct, the 14th century Palazzo Orsini is now a museum. The twenty one rooms are filled with antique furniture, jewellery and wooden sculptures as well as sacred art and precious fabrics.

As we drove out of town, there seemed to be one gourmet paradise after another.

It would have been wonderful to spend more time in Pitigliano, there was so much more to see.

Saturnia

We had worked up an appetite lounging around in the healing waters of Cascate del Mulino and so, smelling slightly sulphurous, advanced to the nearby town of Saturnia. Despite dating back to the Etruscans in 800BC, there was a feeling of openness and modernity.

There is a reason for this. In 1300AD, it became the hideout of outlaws and was razed to the ground by the Sienese. Forgotten for hundreds of years, it was rediscovered in the late 19th century, the land around the spring was drained, the spa was built and the town breathed new life. While the boys relaxed with a coffee,

we girls wandered the streets, exploring shops

and local sights,

some of which were quite unexpected.

The Church of Santa Maria Maddalena dates back to 1188AD but the building we see now is due to a restoration in 1933. If only we had known the 15th century Madonna and Child frescoe by Benvenuto di Giovanni was inside.

We found a lovely alfresco dining area at Ristorante Il Melangolo, the perfect setting to savour a vino and delicious pizza.

We enjoyed friendly banter with our waiter, Alex and as we left, an ardent “good-bye” reached us from a smiling chef Marco in the top floor window.

We made our way back to the car and, with a last glimpse of the stunning panorama, farewelled Saturnia.