The other side of Florence

As a student in Bologna I made a few trips to this capital of renaissance opulence, bobbing up for air in cool basilicas before plunging into palazzo after palazzo, packed closely with more art than I could chew in a lifetime, let alone a day, before sinking into a bowl of something starchy somewhere shady, off the deeply beaten tourist track that circles Brunelleschi’s egg-topped duomo.

Now in my 33rd July, I’m pleased to be back in Florence with a little more time. I recommend you give Florence at least 3 days – enough to let it introduce itself to you in its own time. I’m not one for these prescribed “36 hours in” tours, which tie you to your map and your intention on getting there, missing the joys of happenstance. Cities like Florence, with so much to see and eat everywhere, are designed to be eaten whole, from seed to peel.

My favourite quarter is on the other side if the river,  L’Oltrano, across the river from the Uffizi and duomo , near the miles of box hedges in the Boboli gardens. Here, on the other side, is space and peace broken only by mouthwatering artisanal markets and brilliant buskers . Also, in seeming homage to the statue of Abundance (L’Abbondanza) that surveys this quarter from the top of the Boboli estate , there’s not a street or piazza without a place to feast on beef and udon-like ‘pici’, gnocchi, bean stew, wild boar and all manner of Tuscan treats, finished off with a basket of edifying almond-packed Cantuccini biscuits steeped in soul-affirming Vin Santo.

 

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Where was I? Ah si si, the other side of Florence’s  river Arno, bridged by the ancient, tourist-heavy jewellery arcade that is the Ponte Vecchio, joint equal with Venice’s Rialto, the most touristed bridge in Europe and possibly the world. As if by magic the tourist flow dissipates once you cross over, with the duomo behind you, as the Oltrarno’s network of clear streets welcomes you into its confidence. 

Here you’ll find a couple of palazzos now turned into public museums and art collections,  time capsules created by the 18th and 19th century aristocratic ‘grand’ tourists and later “cognoscenti”. Here you’ll also find the piazzas of Santas Spirito and Croce. The former is perhaps my favourite square in Florence. Its beauty is not it’s ornate medieval-renaissance architecture, that forms merely the stage – it’s the players: Florentines, students, immigrants, all milling about, lining the long steps outside the Basilica of Santo Spirito, letting the stirring of the busking dancers and musicians fan their ‘discorsi’ in the gently simmering dusk.

 

Santo Spirito

 There’s a 15th century convent on this square that the Catholic church have obligingly allowed to become a lovely hotel, each room blessed with its own character and heavenly views over the city. There’s one with a bathroom that looks like there’s a romantic painting of the cathedral on the wall, until you realise it’s actually a window with the best view in Florence. I’ll never forget having a shower, looking out into this with the evening sun and breeze flowing through the window, mingling with the smell of gorgeously cheesy opera music wafting up from the Piazza below.

Room with a view

Hopelessly sentimental I know, but Italy does this to you, it’s very hard not to be lost in ‘sentimentalità’ here. I have a friend who is one of the rare breed of non-Italians who have managed to penetrate the impenetrable ancient world of the Florentine artisan. What I wouldn’t give to have a little garret  in Piazza Santo Spirito and have a pastry and espresso under the trees before making my way to my cave-like workshop in a dusty side-street to work diligently and thoughtfully on an altar piece or a memorial stone of pietra dura, carving different stones into animals and crests and flowers before stopping for a beautifully simple lunch somewhere delicious and affordable

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But back to reality and London frenzy we Londoners must go, thanking Italy for yet another beautiful city of art, love and of course, food. Here are some of the places I love in Florence. If you spot them, bene, if you don’t, bene, you will no doubt find your own treasures. The only thing I would recommend above all, is to stay in the converted covent in Piazza Santo Spirito, formerly known as Convent of the Sorelle Bandini (Bandini Sisters), now Hotel Palazzo Guadagni.

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Review of Dunkirk

On leaving the cinema, I felt moved and a little seasick after 2 hours in Nolan’s stylishly be-washed version of the Dunkirk evacuation. Looking back, however, I do think he missed quite a few tricks. More sea and sky than man and action. And the dialogue? Sparse, garbled and inaudible. Tom Hardy’s aviator goggles will probably get the Oscar for looking up…Then down…Then up… Perplexed yet calm.

Branagh and Rylance get their teeth stuck in, no question, but the screenplay doesn’t give them so much as a tin of spam to chew on. Lank grey scenes lap the repetitive sinking-ship action, as each new batch of grey extras topple off the decks. One or two figures form a bond and are distinguished from the crowd with a few close ups, but we’re given little to latch on to.

The rich tapestry of Dunkirk stories that could have populated the shores of both France and Britain, are not here – The tales within and behind the queues for boats, the tales of heroism from the civilian seamen from other side, are carried solely in Mark Rylance’s father-son skiff team, splashes of colour in desperate need of background.

The scale of the recovery feat, termed ‘The Miracle of Dunkirk’, the sheer number of men and the relatively small number of tiny boats that ferried them all back, (over 300,000 men in only 700 brave boats, back and forth, in just over a week) did not come across, visually or mentally.

It would be interesting to ask the veteran rescuers if they think Nolan did the scale of their efforts justice. Perhaps they weren’t the focus he was after. But, of all the lenses he could have put over Dunkirk, it seems to me he chose a very obvious one and lost the chance to distinguish Dunkirk from other war films.

What was unique about Dunkirk and why it is now known as ‘The Miracle of Dunkirk’ was that it demonstrated human capacity for hope and fearless altruism, en masse, collectively.  Not the old story, tired and tested in every war film – man saves men.  This one could have been different – hundreds of ordinary people of various ages and both sexes, getting up and going, against all odds, for the greater good, at the last minute, together. Rylance’s civilian voice was good but it could never be broad enough to hold all that water. Nolan needed to scale up the message. It would have been a timely one.

Further reading

That said – Nolan’s Dunkirk has done a good job in whetting my appetite for Dunkirk, or at least what ended up in the editing room floor.

‘Dunkirk, the History behind the motion picture’

‘The Little Ships of Dunkirk’

‘The Little Ships’ (tale for your little ones not lucky enough to be able to sit on great-grand-parents’ knees,  told from a girl’s perspective)

Thoughts on Health and Artificial Intelligence

If it hadn’t been for a trip to the optician, I’d be, as my cockney gran and the Good Funeral Guide used to say, ‘pushing up daisies’. My sight had started to go, and it turned out that a tumour was eating into my optic nerves…

My life-saving optician pointed out:

‘Your eyes aren’t just the mirrors to your soul, they tell you how healthy the rest of your body is and, when you get ill, they do too.’

The only thing worse than going blind (I lost 70% of my vision before I had corrective surgery, and that was bad enough!) is going blind and knowing that it could have been avoided:

Eighty percent of blindness worldwide is preventable if detected and treated early (WHO).

Most people see blindness as one of life’s unavoidable poker hands, not realizing that regular screening can safeguard two of our most precious tools and that, if you’ve got a condition that affects your hormones, like diabetes (world’s top cause of blindness) you need to be extra vigilant..

The good news is that, with the help of a little Artificial Intelligence, we can now see previously undetectable/easy to miss pathologies in the eyes of say, diabetes sufferers or undiagnosed glaucoma patients. IBM Watson AI, famous for chess and Jeopardy triumphs, has begun to use its loaf to solve some of the most complex diabetes and glaucoma screening conundrums.

I was lucky enough to participate on winning team at the latest IBM & Ogilvy Hackathon. Our project involved the diagnosis of pre-diabetes. I hadn’t heard of pre-diabetes, let alone realised that one in three of us are at risk.

Doughnuts

I hadn’t realised that, if that one in three of us carry on with an unhealthy lifestyle, stress levels and being that wee bit overweight, we’re more likely to get diabetes, but that we can actually avoid it, quite easily, by making a few habit and mind-set changes..

It now occurs to me that whatever we can do to avoid diabetes, is also helping us protect our vision. All the more incentive for us all to look away from that Krispy crème for 2 mins and take the Know Your Risk survey

 

Read more

IBM & Ogilvy Hackathon site and Twitter

IBM Watson and spotting diabetes and glaucoma

WHO blindness data

Ads without borders

For 5 days last month, #MarchForGiants reminded at least 25,000 of us about the plight of elephants.

A 2,500 strong digital herd, created by brands and people, marched across billboards around the world, from Hong Kong to London and New York via Birmingham and Manchester.

It linked outdoor ads globally. No campaign has ever done this before. It’s the start of the outdoor web, the web jumping into our periphery vision, connecting us when we are out and about, above and beyond our pocketed phones..

During their digital trek, adult elephants wore corporate sponsors’ logos, while their babies sported the name and chosen colour of people who’d donated a £5/$6. Brands and people shared ‘their’ elephants on websites or social networks.

Elephant march

You might say that the elephants were just 2,500 corporate/personal brand vehicles, that  impact weighed against need was minimal. But let’s not be cynical. It’s a win win. Brands and, increasingly, people, like free/cheap exposure, elephants like marching.

I hope this new form of connected, user-generated outdoor ad, will see the ethical slant as part and parcel of it’s success. With all the water, food and fuel ‘elephants in the room’ just about to blow their trumps, this kind of a borderless approach to communication and action is what’s called for, urgently.

More about the march.

See how and why we should make More Space for Giants .

One a side note, I was inspired to draw some elephants and sell the prints to support the their cause.

Elephants etsy

How to survive the Roman rat-race and open Heaven’s gates before lunch

If you are going to Rome to escape the daily grind of commuter overcrowding, don’t set out for the Vatican.

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Never was there such an economy built on subsidized queue-skipping. And once you are in, there is no turning back. You must go with the flow of 25,000 tourist and pilgrim rats that run their trainer tracks through the Vatican every day. After all that queuing, it does feel like a race to make up for lost time. No-one stops to look at anything, the modern art display glides by in a  Sistine-hungry haze; eyes and bellies craving the long awaited micheangelan feast ahead.

And when you get there? Police not priests, and much firefighting of illegal android flashing. The police, in riot-managing mode, hurling riot-squad voices across the ‘chapel’ make you forget where you are and forget to look up, as they urge you to “keep moving”. There’s the sense that it wouldn’t be Christian to linger any length of time, that you are taking up scarce standing space for the next rat-batch to swell into.

Visitors-in-Sistine-Chapel

Guided tours can short-cut to the cathedral but humble individuals must power on through the halls of relics (if lined up, they’d stretch for 9 miles). However interesting they might have been to our un-queued selves, they can’t compete with the currents that pulls us all: the prospect of food or at least a moment of sitting down on a non-stoop modern Italian loo. Phew! Will have to Google Sistine-chapel and look at God and Adam’s garishly restored sinews from the time and comfort of my London broadband sofa…

But it’s not over yet, we still had Heaven’s gates to open, before lunch.

St Peter’s Basilica

Having paid to skip the queue for St Peter’s we found ourselves queuing in the queue for the paid-to-skip-the-queuers.

Then we paid some more to take the elevator and skip 500 steps to God and the top of St Peter’s, the world’s highest, largest stone dome.

With no expectation, only that tourist-tick-box feeling that we must reach the end of the last queue, whatever the cost, wherever it led, we were struck, as we came out onto the dome’s inner ledge, by a throat-tickling, eye-stinging awe.

The majesty of the sheer drop beneath and the arc above are enough to make even the most atheist of spines tingle. So many thousands of square feat of marble hosting so much space for thought and prayer and song.

Saint Peter’s is like a mountain. Humbling, terrifying, and yet intensely liberating and peaceful. Truly as close to a house for God as we humans can make. And, as a non-Catholic agnostic yoga, humanist-leaning type, I can say I’m unbiased.

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And so, after all this terrific peace and splendour, you’ll need something warm to bring you  back down to earth. Here’s where the Vatican’s canniest rats find the best crumbs:

Perdincibacco – pizza, spaghetti – simple, subtle yet traditional, bicycles hanging on the ceiling, wine lining the walls, you can sit outside if you don’t mind being in the traffic scooting round the Vatican. Via Delle Fornaci, 5/9 San Pietro.

More tasty morsels:

Near the Trevi and Pantheon

Za Za Pizzaorganic sourdough, charged by weight unusual twists like salmon + pots + mascarpone –  I was highly suspicious but quite possibly these bites were the best pizza moments of my life to date. Note that it’s no frills, just pure pizza  –  outside on plastic chairs in the pretty square. Piazza di Sant’Eustachio 49

On and near the Island

Tiberino –  cat’s tongue biscuits (like anorexic shortbread) and coffee or some homemade gnocchi, if it’s close to mealtime and you fancy being tucked away in the old attic by the bridge – better in colder weather. Via Ponte Quattro Capi 18

La Gensola  – sea-bass tortellini, fresh anchovies, tart lemon sorbet, fish is the thing here as you sit overlooked cartoon-doodled table-coths hanging on the wall , drawn by former patrons, well oiled with the excellent wine. Piazza della Gensola 15

Near the Circus Maximus

(and that stone face, the Bocca della Verita that thousands queue to touch, thanks to Audrey, Anita and Brigitte)

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Volpetti –  best tonarelli (the Roman lovechild of tagliatelle and spaghetti) and anything you like from the sister deli (rated by Guardian as one of Rome’s 10 best delis).  Via Marmorata 47

Gelateria ai Cerchi – nice selection, nutty flavours are best, all good for gearing up for a ‘giro’ round the circus maximus.. or a queue to stick your hand in the old Bocca della Verita.. Via dei Cerchi, 61

Near the Botanical Gardens and Trastevere ( if you fancy a bit of peace and quiet)

 Da Gildo – woodfired pizza, homemade pasta, seasonal veg and  the best tiramisu of all time. Via Della Scala, 31/A

Where I’d try next

At least 3 of these 9 pasta places

Where I’d stay again

VOI Donna Camilla Savelli 

 – especially in Spring, when the magnolias and camellias deck the courtyard, a haven of 17th century ex-convent bliss with a breakfast that would have have had nuns confessing to the 2nd deadly sin every morning…

Toucans of affection

Toucans are one of the most punnable species. No wonder Guinness trial of  “zoo” mascots in 1930s found that the toucan took off, scoring high above the ostriches and tortoises…

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Just take one topic, e.g.  ‘Valentine’s Day’: ‘toucan of my affection’, ‘love toucan’, ‘not just a toucan gesture’,  ‘toucan play that game’, ‘toucans take to tango’, ‘a romantic evening for toucans is toucans of Guinness and a packet of…’

And so this colourful cousin of the woodpecker (yes indeed, you’d be forgiven for assuming them to be the Barbara Streisands of the Parrot family) shot to fame thanks to a serendipitous grammatical coincidence of one of the most useful numbers +  the #1 bestseller of the verb world…They came on my radar lately thanks to this one:

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It’s by German artist Wolfgang Tillmans, whose exhibition at the Tate Modern opens today. Tillmans calls his works ‘images’ and not photographs. The ‘image’ is a careful composition of choices.  Wolgang has cited colour as one of the areas of ‘choice’ over which the photographer, like a painter, has jurisdiction…

Read more about this photograph

 

Love toucan

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Taking a closer look at this picture – I was surprised to find that there is no colour in the dazzlingly tropical toucan that isn’t also shared with it’s decidedly non-tropical, ephemeral surroundings.

The blue of the toucan’s eye socket makes the blue in the rim of the garden water pools more vivid. The orange glow of the toucan’s ‘eye shadow’ and beak somehow give the stale crusts in the tray below a tropical zest.  The unimaginably white softness of the toucan’s neck and the warm sandy yellow round its lapels light up the cheap beige repetition of the tiled patio.

Turner Prize-winning  artist Wolfgang Tillmans’ exhibition at the Tate Modern opens today. With this toucan and other shots,  Tillmans demonstrates his principle of creating an image and not just a photo.

Each ‘image’ is not simply a capturing of a fleeting moment for our attention. It combines both passive observation and choreography. The photographer, in the taking and the developing, has made a set of choices that we could not make with the naked eye. Wolfgang has cited colour as one of the elements which the photographer uses to steer our view.

And so it’s not just a portrait of a toucan, but also it’s an exercise in colour appreciation. Through it we realise that our  appreciation of colour is subject to context.

This has the unexpected subconscious side-effect of cheering up my dreary afternoon loo-trip – the ‘CAUTION CLEANING IN PROGRESS!’ flip board sign outside the Ladies is somehow less exasperating, I’m actually rather uplifted by it’s harmony of yellow and red, like the cheeky curved smile of a toucan’s bill. Subject for the next Turner Prize 😉 ?

More Tillmans and toucans

See the Toucan in real life at the Tate

Watch the artist himself discuss his approach to photography