In Case You’ve Ever Wondered How the Floating City Stays Afloat…

(As I certainly have,) Ancient Origins has a great, short article on the history and construction development of  Venice. How did they ever manage to build such magnificent architecture seemingly floating upon the waterways? The secret is petrified toothpicks. Well, not really toothpicks, but not far from it. Many of the buildings sit upon wooden platforms supported by wooden stakes driven into the ground below the water line .  The surrounding salt water and lack of oxygen beneath the surface of the water works to petrify the wood, effectively turning it to into stone.  Ingenious!  I wonder if early builders were aware of this magical chemical transformation or whether they simply lucked in?

One of the things I’ve loved about studying art history is understanding where the architectural influence of cities comes from. Florence for instance, has a very different feel architecturally than Venice. Venice’s architecture is more Gothic; lighter, more graceful and more intricately designed. Venice’s location also brought to it Byzantine and Islamic influence from the Near East.  The arabesque-like cut outs on the portals leading to the Bridge of Sighs and in the window frames are forms originating in Islamic calligraphy. (Interesting side note:  the word ‘arabesque, typically known as a ballet position, has ‘arab’ as its root, denoting Arabic or Moorish design.) As if I needed another reason to be enchanted…

Napoleon’s Villa

Fancy a tour of Napoleon’s Italian villa? Villa Voglina, where Napoleon lived during the Battle of Marengo, is for sale (!) for a cool $5.8 million.  The 18th century Baroque villa is located in the Piedmont region of Italy, has seventy four rooms and sits on sixty green acres of truffles and and cherries.  If I had 5.8 mill, I’d snap that villa up and make it into a destination for art and culture retreats.  Imagine owning a piece of history…

Midterm Meditations…

Last week I pulled my groin doing relaxation exercises. How utterly lame is that? Besides having kids or breaking my ankle in the kitchen, a pulled groin is about as close to an athletic injury as I’ve come.  This kind of intense, movement limiting pain has a big effect on my ability to stay balanced.  How in the world do people with chronic pain do it? Pretty sure I’d be addicted to pain killers and mood stabilizers before long.

This week is midterms at school.  This is the first year I’ve been a full-time student and I thought I was managing pretty well, in spite of things.  But after limping to drawing class on my screaming pulled groin, struggling to get the nude’s head proportional to her body, comparing myself ruthlessly against far younger, far more talented students and my prof’s head disappearing into the aura of an ocular migraine, I had a little midterm meltdown.  So I ditched class and sat in my car, seat reclined, feet out the open window with my mascara running down my cheeks. Ahh, student life.

And yet here I am this morning, fueled by coffee and irrationality,  forgetting all that. Instead I’m thinking about adding another two classes and plotting how in the world I can get to art school in Florence.  Every morning my Facebook feed taunts me with classes abroad in fresco painting, conservation & restoration, writing.  I’m imagining myself young and untouched by life, an art & history student at a Florentine school housed in an ancient palazzo, years stretching boundlessly ahead.  Sigh.  Why is so hard to be settled where we are?  Why am I stalled studying Ancient Greece when I want to be studying the Renaissance? Why is it so damn hard to get head size right?  Where is my mood stabilizer?!

This is probably the point to remember to breathe… 2,3,4.  Let me share my pain and leave you with this picture of the Palazzo dei Cartelloni, the building that houses the SACI art school in Florence. We can cry together.

saci 2
Palazzo dei Cartelloni, SACI, Florence, Italy (ps – that’s a bust of Galileo crowning the entrance way)

Leonardo’s Wings

I’ve been trying to settle into an ancient history paper this weekend, but my brain keeps taking off on me.  Across my living room, the Mona Lisa, the Vitruvian Man and The Lady of the Dishevelled Hair are all vying for my attention.  Seems I’m on a bit of a Leonardo kick.  Over the past couple years, I’ve been taking art history courses spanning from prehistory to the twenty-first century.  I’ve been running back and forth along that timeline ever since.  Every time I think ‘the Renaissance is definitely my fave!’, I get swept up in compelling stories of yet another century, another country or continent.  Maybe there’s no such thing as settling on a favourite point of history.

A few days ago I returned to the Renaissance and watched a fascinating dramatized documentary, ‘Inside the Mind of Leonardo.’   What a mind. Painter of the immortal Mona Lisa and The Last Supper,  inventor, architect, physicist, geologist, civil and military engineer, botanist, anatomist, map maker, musician. I’m awestruck by the genius of the original Renaissance man.  Wouldn’t it be incredible to poke around in the diary of someone like that?

Actually, if you go to the Pinocoteca Ambrosiano and the Bramante Sacristy in Milan, you can.  That’s where a portion of the Codex Atlanticus, Leonardo’s diary is housed.  Of course, you’d have to learn to read Italian backwards and probably get some sort of security clearance to see it all.  But part of the collection of writings and drawings are on public display.  While you’re there, you can also see the white gloves that Napoleon wore at the Battle of Waterloo. History is such a magnificent goose chase, isn’t it?  From ancient Egypt to the Renaissance to the Napoleonic Wars in just three paragraphs.

The Bramante Sacristy

But back to Leonardo.  How do you even begin to consider his artistic, scientific, philosophical and engineering innovations without filling a library?  Or at the very least, writing a paper?  I won’t subject you to that, but can I ramble a bit about wings? Leonardo’s wings specifically.  Until last week, I didn’t know that twenty-first century flight traces its beginnings to fifteenth century Europe.  I missed acquiring this apparently common piece of knowledge as a kid, which makes it all the more exciting to discover now.

Leonardo was perhaps the first European to envision the aerodynamics of modern flight. It became a lifelong preoccupation, though his efforts wouldn’t be realized for another four centuries. As a youth in Florence, nature was the foundation for Leonardo’s ideas, including flight. He examined birds, bats and insects;  analyzing and sketching their internal anatomy.

Leonardo Da Vinci, Wing Study
Leonardo Da Vinci, Wing Study

I was briefly put off, imagining young Leonardo killing and dissecting living things in his experimentation.  But this apparently isn’t true.  Historians seem to agree on Leonardo’s refusal to consume animals and his recognition of the cruelty of mistreating them. This wasn’t at all common practice at the time.  Here’s some interesting info on Leonardo’s vegetarianism. Strange, I’m considering this myself now also, not something I was expecting to address via art history.

Fifteenth century Europe didn’t look favourably on Leonardo’s investigations into flight. The church viewed much of science as magic, a pursuit that could get you hung or beheaded for heresy. Galileo, Leonardo’s contemporary, spent the last ten years of his life on house arrest for his views on heliocentrism, a view Leonardo supported also.  But I’m off on another chase into the Copernican Revolution. How can anyone study history without getting hopelessly side tracked?

My point in this meandering reflection, is that advancement of flight wasn’t based on the wings of birds, but rather on the wings of bats.  The above left illustration is a bat wing, which later was implemented in the design of the glider, which eventually led to modern flight.  I spent quite a while perusing this here.   I’m not sure why this all strikes me as so significant, other than that I hadn’t considered it before.  I didn’t know last January when I traveled to Europe, that I was figuratively flying on Leonardo’s wings.

As I was saying, art history is taking me to many uncharted places.  I’ve lost roughly thirty-six hours to this pleasant diversion and my ancient history paper is still waiting. But before I try to focus on that, let me leave you with this picture of Napoleon’s white gloves.  I’m sure before long, they’ll be wrapping their white fingertips around my shifting attentions also.

napoleon's gloves


If you’re ever in Florence…

…and your name is Lori, here’s the spot to look for. 😉


Back in January, my daughter & I met up with my son, who was studying in the South of France, and took a three week whirlwind trip around Europe. We began in Paris, then on to Vienna, Florence, Marseille and the French countryside. It was beyond anything I could have imagined, historically, architecturally, artistically.  Sometimes I wonder how I can possibly last another day without packing my bags and spending the rest of my life exploring Europe and refurbishing a chateau or villa.  Such a sweet dream…