A lovely exhibition at the Frick showcases the drawings of Andrea del Sarto, the Florentine sixteenth century artist. The show highlights the creative process and the role of drawing in the Renaissance workshop. The drawings on view at the Frick span del Sarto’s career. They are amazingly nuanced and mostly in red and black chalk. Possibly the most striking drawings are the various head studies, amongst which are the Study for the Head of Julius Caesar – most elegant – and the expressive Study for the Head of Saint John the Baptist. Also in the exhibition are three finished paintings, including a masterful (the draping of the sleeve – wow!) Portrait of a Young Man and an innocent yet sensuous Saint John the Baptist from Palazzo Pitti.
The final volume of Elena Ferrante’s quartet about the Neapolitan friends Lila and Lenu has just been published in English to great acclaim – both by reviewers and friends. Having slogged through the first and the fourth of the books it’s mystifying to me why they are so popular. It may be a more American phenomenon: an informal survey of Italian friends found only two who liked the books. If you can get through the 450-odd pages of the fourth volume there is no real reason to read the preceding three – all the threads are explained, re-explained and tied up. It’s like watching a soap opera after a few years of not watching and seeing which relationships have broken up and reformed in other configurations. And yes, the themes and emotions may be universal and therefore appealing to some people, and it’s also an overview of Italy’s (and Naples’) history from World War Two to the present, but Lila is simply arrogant and obnoxious and Lenu has to be one of the more irritating women on the planet. Besides which I felt like smacking her for what she puts up with from one of her men. It’s all a grand pasticcio and far too many parole, parole, parole… For those who loved the series, stay tuned – the RAI miniseries is coming soon!
Many towns in Italy hold historic competitions of different types that recall past times. Perhaps best-known is Siena’s Palio, a no-holds barred horse race in the town’s oval-shaped Campo. Also famous is Venice’s “regatta” of the feast of the Redemptor. Or Gubbio’s Palio in which teams compete with crossbows. Possibly one of the most amazing competitions is the violent sport known as “calcio storico” which is played in Florence and which was the subject of a recent article in The New York Times. It is a mix of rugby, wrestling, soccer and brutality and broken bones. As the title of the article goes: a most dangerous game, but one that still has an impassioned following given the numbers of cheering spectators.
A recent article in The New Yorker about the Italian bookstore SF Vanni was a reminder of this odd little place. To call it a book shop is perhaps somewhat grandiose – in fact they called themselves booksellers. The store had seemingly existed forever and through the 1980s, 90s and very early 2000s this was one of the few places in New York that had (some) Italian books available. It was an anonymous storefront on W 12th St; if you didn’t know it was there it was easy to miss. The store window was not inviting, my memories are of a beige background with a few dusty tomes sitting in it. My interactions were almost always with a civil but not friendly older gentleman. A few times I saw the rumored owner, an old woman who was extremely grumpy and seemed to want to rush you out. In this way it was very reminiscent of a type of smaller store one finds in Italy. It was not a place to go and browse. If you knew what you wanted, had phoned and checked if they had the book in stock, everything went well. With the advent of the internet and the ease and availability of buying books online my visits to Vanni eventually stopped but the article brought back some nostalgia for a different time when you could shrug and shake your head about this peculiar piece of Italy in New York.