Abbey of San Galgano, Siena
In the stretch of Tuscany between Siena and the coastal area of Massa Marittima, the wild and unsung Val di Merse, lay the spectacular remains of the Cistercian Abbey of San Galgano, home to the famous “Sword in the Stone” that recalls stories of ancient knights combining art and legend. Of Saint Galgano, who gives the name to the place and who is celebrated on December 3rd, we know that he died in 1181 and that, after a disorderly youth, he converted and retired to a hermit life of repentance, with the same intensity with which he had previously given himself to debauchery. The climax of the conversion took place in 1180 on Christmas day, when he arrived on the hill of Montesiepi and stuck his sword in the ground to transform the weapon into a cross. The evident echo of the Arturian myth hasn’t failed to raise curiosity and some bold hypothesis on possible relations between the mythology of the Round table and the history of Saint Galgano. Nonetheless, the hermitage of Montesiepi and the imposing ruins of the Abbey are to this day one of the most evocative places of Tuscan spirituality and some of the most relevant examples of Gothic-Cistercian and Romanesque architecture in Italy.
Caffè Meletti, Ascoli Piceno
When passing through Ascoli Piceno, an obligatory stop is the Ancient Caffè Meletti, which thanks to its originality and Art Nouveau taste, is among the most renowned historical cafes in Italy. It still bears the name of the founder, Silvio Meletti, a well-known entrepreneur of the start of the 1900s who was responsible for the invention of the famous anisette liqueur, which is still served today in elegant glasses with the addition of a coffee bean, called “Anisette with the fly”. Over time, the Cafè has maintained that elegant soul that, back in the days, made it a rendez-vous for intellectuals from all over the world who met in the placid square of Ascoli Piceno to celebrate the Italian way of life. Among the illustrious guests were Ernest Hemingway, Renato Guttuso, Jean Paul Sartre, Pietro Mascagni and the former King of Italy Vittorio Emanuele who, in 1908, made Caffè Meletti the official supplier of the House of Savoy. The property has maintained the splendid frescoes by Pio Nardini, dating back to the early twentieth century (they are a tribute to the anisette, which is allegorically depicted) and the original furnishings, a sweetly ethereal environment with mauve-colored tables that overlook Piazza del Popolo and spill out in the summer days where writers and poets still meet up looking for inspiration.
The Futurist House, Rome
Walking up to the second floor of a 1920s building in the heart of the Parioli neighborhood in Rome, you suddenly find yourself immersed in a rarefied atmosphere of extraordinary beauty which takes you on a journey back in time of almost a century. It’s 1932 when a well-known roman lawyer and businessman confers the task of designing and furnishing his home to Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo, one of the most prominent architects of the time. Morpurgo remains pleasantly impressed by the sizeable space available and the circular plan apartment and, when designing the interiors to measure, he wisely balances the dictates of rigid rationalist architecture with soft shapes and iridescent colors typical of the twentieth century, hiring decorators and artists in vogue during the days. The 450 square meters of the apartment are sinuously divided into different rooms, with a pentagonal shaped entrance, a double living room enriched with custom-made furniture produced in Germany on the very careful designs of Morpurgo, engraved mirrors with aquatic motifs, frescoes of futurist influence and vases, such as the iridescent one designed by the architect Tommaso Buzzi (owner of La Scarzuola). The dining room (pictured here) is the richest room of the house and was the last one to be completed. Intrigued by the oval shape of the room, the architect recreated a unique line between the ceiling – with an oval painting with three different colored stripes – the large dining table and the decoration on the polychrome linoleum floor. The chandelier is by Fontana Arte with a very detailed design by Morpurgo, the chairs decorated with python skin. Two frescoes by Giulio Rosso (collaborator of the famous architect Piacentini) brighten the atmosphere with colorful and frivolous scenes typical of the artist’s work.
Casa Mollino, Turin
Carlo Mollino’s house is located on the first floor of a late 19th century French-style villa in the heart of Turin, a place which remained hidden for many years after the artist’s death. It is still shrouded in mystery but gives the measure of the genius of this extraordinary twentieth-century character who is still able to inspire our modern days. Architect, designer, aircraft pilot, racing car creator, photographer with an obsession for the female body which he often translated into sinuous forms and architectures. Mollino was an all-round artist and built his home as an intellectual and spiritual project, by virtue of the fact that as in the tradition of Ancient Egypt (which always fascinated him) his home should have housed in soul in his afterlife too. Among the many symbolic references to the Egyptian civilization there is a boat-shaped nineteenth-century bed and a wall covered with colored butterflies, which represent rebirth from darkness. Mollino’s eclectic genius lies precisely in his innate ability to blend in the same environment references of different inspiration, from surrealist to baroque to Japonese aesthetics, with a game of mirrors that separates the interiors and that magically connects them to the exteriors. And there are many unsolved mysteries to this magical house-museum.
La Scarzuola, Terni
The Scarzuola is an extraordinary architectural project, the result of the eccentric mind of the famous designer Tomaso Buzzi, well-known among the Milanese bourgeoisie of the 1930s as together with his friends and colleagues Gio Ponti and Paolo Venini, he founded the group “Labirinto”, which designed objects and avant-garde furniture for the houses of the times. Buzzi purchased this piece of land near Montegabbione in 1956 and, on the site of a former convent dedicated to San Francesco d’Assisi, he built the Ideal City that needed to be a dreamlike and architectural representation of himself. The project develops into an actual theatrical setting, in which references to classical architecture mysteriously marry with esoteric elements. Buzzi drew inspiration from Hadrian’s Villa, the seven buildings of the Acropolis, the Sacred Garden of Monsters of Bomarzo and the mannerist Villa d’Este. The path is interspersed with erotic and esoteric symbolisms and references, inspired by the illustrated Italian poem “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” which narrates the protagonist’s initiation journey in search of the woman he loved, a journey that entailed a profound metamorphosis. This complex project occupied Buzzi until 1978 and, in the following years, his nephew Marco Solari completed the missing parts. Today one of the young heirs of the villa accompanies guests delighting with anecdotes and curiosities regarding the enigmatic site.
Palazzo Biscari, Catania
Located in the heart of Catania, Palazzo Biscari is the centerpiece of the city’s Baroque architecture and one of the most beautiful palaces in Sicily. The construction works, which involved three generations of the Biscari Princes, began in the late 1600s, after the terrible earthquake of 1693. Once the foundations were laid by Prince Ignazio Biscari, his son Vincenzo continued the works to reflect his eccentric personality. The façade facing the sea was built with magnificently lavish decorations, as it had to look like the entrance door to the city for navigators and travelers alike. Inside the Baroque splendor continued, with numerous references to Greek mythology. In the ballroom, pride and heart of the palace, a staircase adorned with white stucco work reminiscent of a wave surrounded by foam, was designed to look like the sea had just rushed through the palazzo’s large windows that overlook the port of Catania. With the splendor of its seven hundred rooms, Palazzo Biscari has been chosen as the set for numerous films including ‘I Vicerè’. Today lucky travelers can visit the palace in the company of Prince Ruggero Moncada, a descendant of the family, who keenly narrates numerous anecdotes, best of which includes British officers playing tennis in the magnificent ballroom during the Second World War.
Piscina Mirabilis, Campi Flegrei
This grandiose water cistern and work of the highest engineering level is a historical engineering feat. This week we marvel at the Piscina Mirabilis, an extraordinary Roman archaeological monument in the Campi Flegrei area of Bacoli, a short drive from the city center of Naples. The structure is the largest known water tank ever built by the ancient romans during the Augustan age. Its function was to supply water to the numerous ships of the imperial military fleet which were moored and stationed in the nearby port of Capo Miseno. The construction, with a rectangular plan measuring 70 meters in length, 25 in width and 15 in height, stored 12.600 cubic meters of water, which was extracted through the top openings. Upon entering, the first impression is of its vast emptiness. The structure stands as tall as a three-storey building; a forest of pylons on which arches and vaults rest, divided into five large naves, perforated by the light that floods from above in rhapsodic manner. The current name dates back to the late seventeenth century when the Piscina Mirabilis became a fixed destination for the first European scholars, travelers and intellectuals on their Italian Grand Tour, such as Goethe, Mozart and Dumas.
Temple of Valadier, Ancona
Hidden between the marble walls of an ancient cave in the Marche region in Italy, lies a special temple, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The cavern was originally used by local populations taking refuge from invading tribes back in the early 10th century and during the construction of the neo-classical masterpiece in 1828, remains of the earlier uses of the cavity were uncovered, such as ovens for baking bread, warehouses for wheat as well as coins dating back to the both the Bronze and Iron age. The extraordinary construction was built on the order of Pope Leo XII (who was born in the area) and commissioned to the architect Giuseppe Valadier. The inscription reads “Refugium Peccatorum” as the Pope’s intention was that to build a refuge in which pilgrims could atone for their sins. The visual contrast between the sharp eight-sided temple (symbolizing the resurrection of Jesus which occurred on the 8th day) and the hewn, rugged limestone walls of the cave gives the location a theatrical appearance and no trip to Le Marche region would be complete without having seen this outstanding work of art.
Abbey of Cervara, Santa Maria Ligure
Poetically overlooking the Tigullio Gulf, the Abbey of Cervara is a former monastic complex, still today a place of catholic worship, along the coastal road between Santa Margherita Ligure and glitzy Portofino. It was built in 1361 as a monastery dedicated to Saint Girolamo and what used to be the monks’ vegetable garden is today the extraordinary Italian-style monumental garden, the only one in Liguria which plunges into the Mediterranean sea.
The prestige of Saint Girolamo of Cervara and the abbey’s beautiful position made it immediately a privileged destination for illustrious travelers, whose visits are attested among the pages of the local chronicle: from the poet Francesco Petrarca to Saint Catherine of Siena who stopped by whilst returning from Avignone, from Pope Gregory XI to Don Giovanni of Austria, famous leader who defeated the Turks in the battle of Lepanto in 1571.
The garden, pride of the place, reflects the best canons of topiary art with box hedges skillfully pruned to form geometric designs. There are an innumerable number of plants and floral species, including the American agave, the Chinese palm, the colorful strelitzia, a century-old pink pepper tree, Aleppo pines, bouganvilleas, citrus fruits and a monumental ancient wisteria which shades the silent courtyard. The Abbey still bears the charm of the original hermitage and is today part of the esteemed circuit of the Great Italian Gardens.