Will Work For Wine: Luca Signorelli’s Orvieto Duomo Contract and His Intoxicating, Apocalyptic Fresco Cycle

Orvieto Cathedral

In 1499, Tuscan artist Luca Signorelli signed a contract to paint two remaining sections of the Cappella Nuova (new chapel) of the Duomo in the Umbrian town of Orvieto. By 1502 (or 1504, depending on which documentation you read), he had completed his “End of the World” fresco cycle in what is now known as the San Brizio Chapel.

The apocalyptic scenes, some “with their winged devils diving and rolling in the sky, and death-rays devastating terrified crowds on the ground below, uncannily prefigure 20th-century science fiction.” His dramatic, muscular human figures also look familiar. Signorelli, who was born in 1445, is seen as an influence on both Raphael and Michelangelo. Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel seems to borrow some of the ideas and techniques from Signorelli’s fresco cycle.

I’ve long admired Orvieto’s cathedral, which sits on the top of its hill like a glimmering, gold-and-white mirage. Inside, the church is even more impressive, especially because of Signorelli’s fantastical frescoes. But the one story that I have always remembered and enjoyed with regards to Signorelli and what is considered his masterpiece is that he was partially paid in wine.

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One Year in Italy: 12 Months of Memories

Time Flies!
“Time Flies! Stop lying around and write something, will ya?” (Photo of a detail from the facade of Santa Maria dell’ Orazione e delle Morte on the Via Giulia, Rome)

Living in a new place, especially for an extended period of time, fills me with a sense of duty that I have to write everything down, commit every moment to memory, take a photo every day if not every hour. But eventually, that initial motivation turns to dread and an overwhelming feeling that I should be more mindful of my surroundings rather than living behind a lens or a computer screen.

The latter reason is why I have not written as much as I should have over this past year in Italy. Plus, I’ve just done so much in these 12 months! I’ve traveled all over Rome and its region Lazio, from the beaches to the lakes to hill towns in between, and have visited six other regions (with a goal of getting to all 20 before my time here comes to and end). Over the past year, I have also taken more than 7,000 photos — so much for not living behind a lens!

Despite that photo stat, I have been paying attention with my other senses: smelling the roasting chestnuts in winter, the jasmine bushes in spring, and the cool, damp aroma of underground spaces; listening to the rumble of trams, the clinking of cups and saucers, the fleeting bits of Italian conversations overheard in the markets and shops; and tasting the foods of each season. Touch has been more elusive, as Italy is full of things you want to touch but cannot — smooth marbles and mosaics and frescoes, tufts of moss growing out of crevices high on a Roman wall.

Of course, readers visit this blog to see Italy as much as learn about it. So, I wanted to share 12 photos over this past year, one for each month, to mark my transition from year one to year two. These are simple photos — most taken with an iPhone 5 — but they are special reminders for me. Read below for details.

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Cool Italian Street Art from The Drawing Bike


Rachele del Nevo parks her bike every day on the corner of Piazza Della Rotonda within view of the Pantheon. It is here, right outside of Tazza D’Oro (one of the city’s best known coffee shops) that she sells her one-of-a-kind souvenir drawings of some of the city’s gorgeous landmarks.

When I chatted with her one morning, I thumbed through the artwork stuffed into the basket of her Drawing Bike. There were large illustrations of obelisks and small drawings of details from churches. So many of the drawings were of familiar Roman scenes but they all felt different because of her colorful, pop art style. Rachele’s medium? Marker on cardboard panels, most from the sides of boxes that once held everyday Italian products like laundry soap or pasta.

I was particularly smitten with an illustration of Bernini’s obelisk-topped elephant, a sculpture that sits in a square less than a block from her station. But I would have been happy to take home any one of her panels, some of which integrate brands and logos into common Roman and Italian scenes. She also does made-to-order illustrations. But I doubt you could come up with better ideas than she has already created.

People always talk about Rome being a blend of old and new. But this is really a way to bring the Roman street home with you in a way that is fresh, lightweight—and possibly worth something some day.

Italy News Round-Up XIII: #Dante750, Uffizi Exhibition in a Mobster’s Home

My Pocket list of saved articles has been going through a workout lately. So here is one big Italy News Round-Up. I’ve done about 12 of these things over the life of this blog (and now 13 – XIII). But I will probably end up doing more.

For more links to Italy travel, art, culture, and history in the news, see my Italofile Facebook page or Twitter.

#dante750

Dante Turns 750 [The New Yorker]

This year marks the 750th birthday of Dante Alighieri. For the New Yorker, Professor John Kleiner talks about what Dante means to Italians and about the more than 100 events that are planned for this occasion, including the “selfie con Dante” campaign with cardboard cutouts in Florence.

Uffizi Gallery Exhibition in Former Mobster’s Mansion [Hyperallergic]

In a moving, nonviolent act of revenge, a mayor in Campania and the Uffizi Gallery have teamed up to turn a mafia don’s confiscated home into a temporary art gallery. “The Light Wins Over the Shadow” will honor the memory of Peppe Diana, a priest who was shot by the Camorra in 1994, by displaying a number of chiaroscuro works from the Uffizi at the Casal di Principe.

Construction Workers in Bologna Uncover Ancient Roman Road [Repubblica]

It makes sense that the 1st Century AD Roman road Via Emilia was lying a few meters under the current roads in Bologna, the capital of Emilia-Romagna. But workers plan to cover it back up “for another 2,000 years” after they finish work on the Via Rizzoli and Via Ugo Bassi. Take a look at the road in the video from ETV (h/t Italy Explained). (Click here if you can’t see the embedded video.)

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Photo of the Day: A Ray of Light in San Giovanni in Laterano

While hundreds wait in lines in the harsh sun to get into Saint Peter’s, the Archbasilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, also known as the Cathedral of Rome, is practically empty. San Giovanni is the oldest and largest papal basilica in Rome, although it has gone through many reconstructions over the years due to earthquakes, fires, and vandalism (by the actual Vandals, in the 5th century).

Admission to San Giovanni in Laterano is free. But you can purchase a ticket to visit the 13th century cloister, located through a door to the left of the altar, and the Scala Santa and Sancta Sanctorum (the Holy Stairs and Holy Sanctum, located across the street), one of the most important sites of pilgrimage outside of Vatican City.

Italy’s A3 Autostrada Near Completion 50 Years After Project Began

It’s been called the “shame of Italy” and for good reason. The A3 autostrada, a 443km highway that is to connect Salerno to Reggio Calabria, has been under construction since 1966.

Faulty construction and mafia meddling by both the Camorra and ‘Ndragheta factions have caused numerous delays during the nearly 50 years since the project began, reports The Independent. It has become the “symbol of how public works are in Italy,” according to Stefano Zerbi, spokesman for Codacons, Italy’s national consumer organization.

When mobsters aren’t creaming off millions from the road building thanks to dodgy contract work, it seems they’re ensuring that the route doesn’t impinge on their other activities. About halfway, the route curves back on itself awkwardly. This detour is said to have been done at the request of a local Mob boss who didn’t want the motorway coming too close to his villa.

This week, Prime Minister Renzi declared that construction of the A3 will be stepped up in the hopes that the project will be finalized by the end of 2015. However, no completion date has been set.

Read more: Fifty years on, work on Italy’s ‘eternally unfinished’ highway enters final stretch

The Pantheon On Pentecost Sunday

Pantheon at Pentecost: Rose Petals

Easter may have come and gone but the ceremonies and spectacles surrounding this holy time continue long after Easter Sunday mass at Saint Peter’s.

Fifty days after Easter Sunday, Christians celebrate Pentecost Sunday, a day when the Holy Spirit is said to come down to earth. Rome celebrates this day by raining rose petals down into the Pantheon through its oculus.

The ancient Pantheon, known since the 7th century as St. Mary and the Martyrs or Santa Maria Rotonda, hosts the event called Pioggia dele Rose (The Rain of Roses) or Pioggia di Petali (The Rain of Petals)  in the afternoon following Pentecost mass. The event is free.

How to Avoid Tourists in Venice

Crowds outside the Doge's Palace in Venice

It’s the conundrum that many travelers face: how to be a tourist but avoid other tourists. In a place like Venice, that’s pretty hard to do. The canal city on the Adriatic has less than 300,000 permanent residents* but welcomes approximately 30 million tourists each year.

Numbers like that make it nearly impossible not to trip over your fellow Venice visitors. But there are some ways to make the experience of seeing Venice–one of the most remarkable cities in the world–slightly more pleasant.

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