The Great Flood of Florence

Among those cleaning up the Santa Croce courtyard after the flood are Marcello Gori (left standing on the ground), who was my employer at The Leather School, and Padre Franchi (second from right) who became head of the Franciscans at the Basilica.

Some of the men who would become my friends in Florence labored to clean up the Santa Croce courtyard after the flood. Massimo “Max” Melani’s head is just visible (third from the left on the truck bed). On the ground are Marcello Gori (left), who was my employer at The Leather School, and Padre Franchi (second from left) who later became head of the Franciscans at the Basilica.

By Walter Sanders

When I moved to Florence in 1971, the city was still recovering from the disastrous flood of November 4, 1966. High water marks—stained by mud, heating oil, and gasoline—stretched like taut ropes across building facades near the Arno.

It was harsh stuff that floated to the top. And below the crest mark, on walls around the city, were murky shadows of flood residue.

These ugly reminders faded with time, but have been memorialized with plaques designating the height of flood waters throughout the city. Five floods from five different centuries are noted by these marble plaques; none are as high as those commemorating 1966.

I worked at the Scuola del Cuoio, the Leather School,  from 1972 through 1975. The workshops and showrooms were located in the old Franciscan monastery attached to the Basilica of Santa Croce, one of the hardest hit victims of the flood. I still remember the stains, and even the faint smell of fuel, on the exterior and interior walls of the courtyard.

Kayla Metelenis and Diane Cole Ahl

Kayla Metelenis and Diane Cole Ahl

Those memories rushed back when I attended a presentation “Looking Back at the Flood of Florence in 1966: Disaster, Recovery, and Cultural Conservation,” sponsored by the Art Department and The Ideal Center of Lafayette College, Easton, Pa.

Sharon and I had met the one of the presenters, Diane Cole Ahl, Rothkopf Professor of Art History, when she curated a traveling exhibit of “Offering of the Angels” from the Uffizi at the Michener Museum, Doylestown, Pa.

Ahls’s student Kayla Metelenis ’15, art history major, was co-presenter.

Learn more about the great flood

St. Francis in Brooklyn

Francis doc

The Codex 338, dated between 1224 and 1226 (the oldest existing copy) contains the writings of Francis and among these the “Canticle of the Creatures,” a work considered the first literary document written in the vernacular and a poetic and spiritual masterpiece.

By Tess Sanders

This time of year, the Brooklyn Borough Hall is ablaze in all its holiday glory. But its current display, in particular, more clearly conveys the spirit of Christmas than any number of colored lights.

From now until Jan. 14, 2015, Brooklynites and visitors can see–for the first time in this country–papers that belonged to St. Francis of Assisi. The exhibit, Frate Francesco: Icons, Words, and Images, features documents from the early thirteenth century that capture the spirit of this extraordinary individual.

The show, which originally appeared in Rome, was displayed at the United Nations prior to coming to Brooklyn. These documents have only been viewed in Italy before this year.

The exhibition is divided into three sections:

  • Icons in the documents that closely witness the historical life of Francis
  • Words relating to the life of the saint
  • Images in miniatures portraying him in various ancient contexts
One of the most moving documents from the show is the illuminated Bible, which depicts St. Francis' union with God. The illustration of the saint remains vibrant for all viewers who want a reminder of all the good that can be done in this world.

One of the most moving documents from the show is the illuminated Bible, which depicts St. Francis’ union with God. The illustration of the saint remains vibrant for all viewers who want a reminder of all the good that can be done in this world.

St. Francis’ virtues of compassion and connection are more important than ever nearly one thousand years after he lived. Francis sacrificed his life and wealth in service of the poor, and his commitment to his fellow man transcends all religions.

At the recent opening reception, his spirit was in the air.



Tomie dePaola

Tomie Christmas Books

Author and illustrator Tomie dePaola captures the magic of Christmastime.

When my daughters Emma and Tess were six and four, we met Tomie dePaola at a book signing in Oakbrook, Ill., for his then-latest release, Jingle, the Christmas Clown. The girls were shy about meeting the artist who had created Strega Nona and The Art Lesson, classics in our home library. They were hanging back, half-hidden behind bookshelves.

Staying behind when their circus moves on, a young clown and a troupe of baby animals put on a special Christmas Eve show for an Italian village too poor to celebrate the holiday.

Staying behind when their circus moves on, a young clown and a troupe of baby animals put on a special Christmas Eve show for an Italian village too poor to celebrate the holiday.

Tomie not only graciously autographed Jingle but also signed the well-loved copies of his The First Christmas pop-up book and Merry Christmas, Strega Nona that we had toted with us.

Tomie was born in 1934 into an Italian-Irish family in Meriden, Conn. An artist from a young age, he has written and/or illustrated more than 250 books and has received every major children’s book award including the Newbery Award, the  Caldecott Medal, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. Of his works, I can only say, they make me smile inside. As a writer, I relate to his narratives, which are wise to the universal foibles of human nature. Since I’m not versed in art, I’ll quote illustrator Beth Gismondi on what makes Tomie’s illustrations unique.

“Tomie is known for his distinctive, deceptively simple style: bold outlines, washes of bright color, and very linear compositions. However, as many illustration students soon realize, simplicity is anything but easy to achieve. Tomie has a full mastery of his technique and characters when he works in his minimalist line-and-wash style. He can indicate a facial expression in four lines! Every mark counts, and there is no way to hide a mistake when working in translucent washes of paint.”

You can read about Tomie’s life and art on his Website. To order autographed Tomie books, visit Morgan Hill Bookstore in Tomie’s hometown of New London, N.H.

What Tomie book do you love the most?

Pazzi Chapel Restoration

Commissioned by the Pazzi family, the Chapel

Ornate sculpted rosettes, terracotta cherubim roundels and the colourful tin-glaze terracotta by Luca della Robbia decorate the interior of the Pazzi Chapel loggia. It is built in pietra serena, a grey sandstone that, by its very nature, tends to crumble over time.

By Walter Sanders

Many fortunate lovers of Renaissance art journey to Florence, but few get to the splendid Pazzi Chapel—one of architect Filippo Brunelleschi’s 15th Century masterworks–part of the complex of the Basilica of Santa Croce. If you have been to the Pazzi recently, you may have noticed the façade is in need of some repair. After 650 years, who wouldn’t need a little touch up?

The video in the Kickstarter campaign launched by the nonprofit Opera di Santa Croce paints a loving portrait of a jewel. The Opera is seeking donations to match the 50 percent of the funding it has already raised.

I’ll focus on what the Pazzi Chapel means to me. I first experienced it as an art history master’s student. Viewing it from the courtyard, I was underwhelmed. The façade looked severe, and a little top heavy, with the illusion of the tall porch and cupola being supported by impossibly spindly columns.

But there’s something transformative about entering the Chapel. I felt serenity, order, cool spatial integrity. I was amazed how hushed the interior was, muffling clamor from nearby Piazza Santa Croce. And, over time, I learned to love the façade.

I worked inside Santa Croce, at the Scuola del Cuoio (The Leather School), and lived just off the square. Santa Croce and the Pazzi Chapel became integral aspects of my daily life. In some respects, the Pazzi Chapel became a personal escape, a calm island. I needed only to look at it to feel the peace.

Sharon and I met in Santa Croce, and four years later married there. No, not in the Pazzi Chapel but in the Medici Chapel in the adjacent sanctuary of the Basilica.

The Pazzi means a great deal to us, and we are helping to support the renovation (#crazyforpazzi).

Do you have a Pazzi story? Share it here and please consider a contribution to help restore this Renaissance treasure.

Tuscany Tours 2015

Is 2015 the year for your Tuscan dream to come true?

Escape with SimpleItaly to the private Villa Pipistrelli!

Few experiences are as memorable as sharing time and a spectacular destination with an intimate group of friends, colleagues, or grown-up family.

This intimate curated adventure is all about cultural immersion, relaxation, and good times. You’ll feel as if Villa Pipistrelli is your home because you’ll unpack once and “move in” for a week of wonders . . .

Pecorino cheese-making demonstration and tasting.

Olive oil comparison blind tasting.

• Watercolor painting class.

Pasta making session and tasting.

Wine estate tour with tasting.

• Magnificent medieval Siena—home of the Palio—and a private tour of the Brucco contrada with author Dario Castagno.

• Outing to the stunning hill town of Montepulciano.

• Presentation on the restoration of Villa Pipistrelli conducted by antiques expert Susan Pennington.

• Lavish buffet breakfasts and gourmet evening meals prepared by a private chef at Villa Pipistrelli.

• Free time to explore Montestigliano, the 2,500-acre Tuscan estate on which Villa Pipistrelli is tucked away.

• Social time with author Jennifer Criswell and other English-speaking experts on the culture, cuisine, and lifestyle.

Click here for the full itinerary to make 2015 the year for your Tuscan dream to come true!

Four week-long itineraries are reserved for you to choose from:
April 11–18, 2015
April 18–25, 2015
October 3–10, 2015
October 10–17, 2015