Italy on My Mind

It seems that everywhere I turn lately I run into stories about Italy. No surprise, really. There are always stories available on every subject. Often we only see certain ones thanks to whatever is bouncing around in our conscious or subconscious minds. This time one year ago I was packing for a highly anticipated trip to Italy that included stops in Rome, Florence, Venice and Umbria. And that trip, with my partner Cindy at my side, was one of the true highlights of my life. Oh to be in Italy again!

So I was particularly struck the other day when I saw an article in the NY Times written by Helene Cooper (“My Big Italian Dream Party”). It’s a wonderful story about her dinner party at the olive oil estate, La Montagnola, family owned and run by Vittoria Iraci Borgia and her assistant Carmela. We spent a week there, winding down in the Umbrian countryside, after weeks of urban bustle. Strolling through the olive groves, staring off into the beautiful countryside, dotted with small hilltop towns, could be enough of a vacation on its own. But the proximity to Assisi and a host of other “jewels” of small towns turned the visit into a wonderland adventure.

While we didn’t sit through any large dinner parties, as did Helene, we ate very well indeed. Upon our arrival, Carmela presented us with a fresh tin of olive oil that graced every meal. The local food shops were equally wonderful. Often, though, what is far more important, far more memorable, and far more touching, are the smallest of acts. One day, after exploring the nearby towns, we returned to the lovely converted farmhouse we were staying in. As we approached the front door we found sitting there a small vase filled with wild asparagus.  Vittoria picked them on the way down from her hilltop palazzo, thinking, rightly so, that they would enhance that evening’s dinner. And they did. It’s the little acts of kindness and thoughtfulness that remain in our hearts – far more than all the art, fine food, or beautiful landscapes.

So, with all that in mind, here are images from La Montagnola and the surrounding areas. Next week more fossils, and many more Italian images in the weeks ahead. But for now a little bit of Umbria.

Thank you for the visit. More images at

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Italy and Fossils

Did you know that Leonardo da Vinci collected fossils? Renaissance man that he was, I guess it only makes sense. On a recent trip to Italy I had the good fortune to meet Dr. Elisabetta Cioppi, head of the Geology/Paleontology Department of Florence’s Museum of Natural History, who explained this fact to me and who continues research on the subject.

It was Dr. Cioppi and her associate, Dr. Stefano Dominici, who most graciously allowed me to photograph fossils from their invertebrate collection. With the origins of the Museum dating all the way back to the second half of the Fifteenth Century and the early Medicis. I couldn’t help but wonder, as I worked my way through the storage cabinets, if anything I was photographing had been picked up out of the rubble by Leonardo himself! The image above is from that body of work which I hope to have completed soon.

While that was a true high point of the trip, needless to say there were many other subjects to focus on. And I think that this touches on one of the beauties of exploring with a camera. I wondered before the trip what kind of images it would yield but couldn’t really answer that question until I returned home. Only then while pouring over my updated photo library did patterns and threads begin to emerge.

One major thread was my fascination with what I call street shrines. While I have seen them in other locations (from Latin America to the South Bronx) nowhere else can you find shrines , frescos, and sculptures like those throughout Italy.While some of them can be somewhat kitchy many left me wondering whose skilled hands created them. The dates attributed to them often suggest an old masters work. Whether stopped at a traffic light or entering the local bread shop there is always one nearby. Votive candles and flowers attest to  ongoing religious devotion by the locals. And these shrines can be found in all the main cities and, I am happy to say, in many of the small country towns.

“Amore mio” Cynthia and I spent our last week in the Umbrian countryside in a lovely old farmhouse on an olive grove estate that dates back to the 1700s. La Montagnola, family owned and run by Vittoria Iraci Borgia, became our home base for exploring the region and one that we hope to revisit over and over again. It’s a little piece of heaven (with the finest olive oil on the planet!!) It also gave us access to many towns from Assisi and Spello to Bettona, Torgiano, and many others – all full of these “street shrines.”

What follows is a view of Torgiano from La Montagnola and a brief selection of local “street shrines.”

As always, more images can be found at