Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Power of Beauty..."Outer Beauty, Inner Joy: Contemplating the Soul of the Renaissance"

Many of you know I've spent much of the last two years working on my first novel "Beneath the Lion's Wings", and keeping this blog. Both have brought me great pleasure and have opened my world up to those who I would have otherwise never met. Viewers from across the globe have found their way to my blog, and my shared love of writing has introduced me to authors and new friends in New York, San Francisco, England, Australia...well the list goes on. In order to thank my readers and all those who continue to encourage me to write and follow my dream of one day being published, I have decided to open up "Italy to Los Angeles and Back" to some topnotch guest bloggers. 

My first guest is Julianne Davidow. She's a sometimes expat, constant lover of art and the author of "Outer Beauty, Inner Joy: Contemplating the Soul of the Renaissance". 
Julianne's beautiful book can be found at  Welcome Julianne Davidow! 

The Power of BeautyI've always been captivated by the beauty of Italy, and particularly by the art and architecture of the Renaissance.  I’m not alone, of course.  Many people are drawn to Italy and experience strong reactions to the beauty that is all around. When the 19th century French writer Stendhal visited Florence in 1817, he wrote of feeling so overwhelmed by the number of masterpieces that he had heart palpitations and was afraid he would faint!  In fact, others have also spoken of having similar experiences.
During the months and years I’ve spent in Italy, I’ve taken countless photographs of Renaissance art and architecture.  But it was when I began to read the works of Renaissance writers that I understood there was a strong connection between the art and the philosophy—and that this connection had something to do with why the art feels so powerful.  I wanted to share my experience with others, and to express why the art and philosophy of the Renaissance are still relevant today.
Outer Beauty, Inner Joy: Contemplating the Soul of the Renaissance, is an interweaving of photos, quotes from Italian Renaissance writers, brief essays, and my own thoughts and impressions.  The book is a dip into the Renaissance--one that I hope will transport the reader back into a time when poetry, mythology, and mystery were important aspects of life.
During the 14th and 15th centuries, philosophers and artists rediscovered writings, architecture, and sculptures from ancient Greece and Rome.   They studied ancient texts, which spoke of love and beauty as being ways to contact a higher spiritual reality.  In the art, they found a sense of harmony, order, and proportion, and wanted to use these same principles in their own work.  But rather than imitate, Renaissance artists developed unique methods of incorporating these ancient ideals.  As a result, they brought beautiful, innovative creations to the world. 
               The writings of Plato played a major part in the unfolding of this art and culture.  Plato spoke of a divine world of forms of which this level of reality is merely a reflection.   He suggests that the reason we love beauty so much is that it makes us remember our former life in an eternal dimension.  
During the Renaissance, it was believed that great artists had special powers, and that they could contact unseen forces, bringing the beauty of higher realms into their art.  It was also believed that those who viewed this art could come into contact with a divine essence.  Perhaps many people feel this way when they look at a sculpture by Michelangelo or a painting by Botticelli, for example.  I certainly do.  There is something about seeing one of these great works of art that seems to put us in touch with a different level of reality. 
Renaissance artists and writers looked deeply into beauty and found meaning in what they saw.  They felt that beauty is a living energy force, and that through noticing beauty we actually nourish it, just as it nourishes us. 
I believe that by paying more attention to beauty when we find it—in art, nature, and in those we love—we expand our ability to discover it more often and in more places.  Through cultivating a greater awareness of beauty, something in us awakens and we can find a new way of living in the world.

Julianne lives in New York City but has been traveling to Italy since 1990. She lived in Rome for two years and in Venice for three.  As a writer and editor, she has contributed to such print publications as the L.A. Weekly newspaper and to RosebudAngels on EarthTime Out, and Departures magazines.  She was also the correspondent for the Veneto region for the online publication, Italy Italia. Julianne's beautiful book can be found at 

Monday, March 5, 2012

It took a wedding in Spain’s Basque Country to make me fall in love with a Guggenheim…

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Spain has always been a country I’ve wanted to visit, yet for some reason  countries such as Greece, France, Germany, Austria, England, Switzerland and of course Italy have continued to occupy the top European slots on my travel list. And though I’ve always thought my first Iberian stop would be Andalucía, a region which wraps its arms around the cities of Seville, Granada, Cordoba, rubs shoulders with Gibraltar and exhibits a rich blend of ancient Roman, Greek and Muslim cultures it was a wedding invitation that brought me to fly across the Pyrenees and land in Bilbao. 
Plaza Nueva, Bilbao Spain

I was with my husband and four good friends from Venice, all who enjoy nothing more than a flavorful meal washed down with a good glass—or two—of wine. So, as soon as we arrived in Bilbao we set foot toward the Casco Viejo or Old Quarters to find the Plaza Nueva—interesting how the New Plaza is in the Old Quarters. Anyway, we journeyed forward because we had heard that the Plaza Nueva is where the best tapas bars in Bilbao can be found.  The entrance to the plaza took us through a small portico which led us onto a large palm tree dotted square. On the opposite side of the plaza the bright blue façade of the Bar Bilbao grabbed our attention. It was crowded with locals—always a good sign that the food is good and probably reasonably priced. My husband and friends are experts at picking and choosing cicchetti in Venice and they proved apt at doing the same with Spanish tapas. Soon our café table was covered with plates of crunchy pieces of fresh bread topped with creamed crab, or slivers of salmon, or layers of hand sliced pata negra— the melt in your mouth Iberian ham known to be the most expensive prosciutto in the world! And as true Venetians are accustomed to doing while on an ordinary ciccheti crawl in Venice we tasted, savored and sipped, paid the bill and then hopped around the corner to the next locale: the Victor Montes bar—serving find food since 1849.

Victor Montes Bar, Bilbao
We stepped inside to friendly smiles coming at us from behind a long black bar covered with platters bulging with Spanish/Basque delicacies; we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect invitation to continue our tapas trail. But this establishment was different than the first more casual Bar Bilbao. Quick glances around made me feel as if I had been taken back to another time of elegance. Black and white floor tiles formed a delightful checkered backdrop to classic wooden bistro chairs tucked beneath white marble table tops. Rows of spotless wine glasses hung upside-down from a brass rack hovering within arm’s reach above the bar. And the honored guests of the house, a line of pata negra ham hocks aged for eight-years, were tastefully displayed in the midst of fine wine, brandy and cognac. Between a morsel of a pata negra, brie and roasted tomato tapa and a sip of Rioja wine I imagined what it would have been like when this proud establishment first opened and women wearing long bustled dresses and  
Tapas at Victor Montes, Bilbao
mustached gents donning Bowler hats stopped by for a snack and a drink just as we were doing that day dressed in jeans, down-jackets and loafers. Or, how I would have liked to have listened in on the conversation that took place there in 1997 when the Guggenheim museum project was signed over a hearty meal; an architectural wonder I’ll come back to in a moment.

Stomachs satisfied and feeling cheery we said goodbye to the tapas bars, exited the Plaza Nueva and wander down the wide promenade that gently curves alongside the Nerviòn River and through the soul of Bilbao. Pleasant surprises were found every step of the way: a statue of three cherubs standing atop a fountain as if encouraging the surrounding leafless trees to prepare for spring; a Victorian carousel sat quiet while waiting for school children to put away their books and come out and play; well-maintained playgrounds and green spaces filled with laughing preschoolers, doting parents and hand holding retirees.

Nerviòn River and Zubizuri footbridge, Bilbao
One immediately understands that Bilbao is a city developed with family recreation, food markets, theater and outdoor entertainment in mind. The city administrators and urban planners have wisely and artistically blended Bilbao’s traditions with its contemporary growth, and I think they’ve been successful at creating a beautiful, livable city. Our group followed the wide pathway along the river thinking, wouldn’t it be nice to have such a well-organized city to live in…yes we all come from one of the most beautiful cities in the world and yet….

Bilbao city tram

Rear entrance to the Guggenheim Bilbao
The Guggenheim Museum beckoned us in the distance and unanimously—well almost—we decided that we couldn’t leave Bilbao without a closer look. We crossed the Zubizuri which in Basque means white bridge—a footbridge suspended over the river which much like the Millennium Bridge in London connects the promenade with the museum side of town. Zubizuri was handsomely designed by Santiago Calatrava—it should be noted that in Venice Santiago Calatrava’s work is either admired or disputed. He is also the architect of the very contemporary and “slippery” glass bridge in Venice, the Ponte della Costituzione or as many in Venice still call it Il Ponte di Calatrava. Once across the Zubizuri we stepped passed a carpet of green grass that doubles as the foundation for the city’s tram tracks—yes, even the tram tracks run across well maintained green grass.

We left the footbridge behind and walked down a quiet road. The shrine built to worship contemporary art twisted and towered in the distance. With each step we took the exterior of the Guggenheim Museum changed and showed us a different angle of genius. When we stood near enough to touch its smooth surface it dominated us and became its own surroundings, and as if in a sacred place, our very talkative group of friends was silenced by the beauty and magnitude of Frank O. Gehry’s masterpiece. It is a structure that pulls at your senses, seems to defy gravity, and used up all 
 my digital camera’s picture frames. It curves, it hovers, it reflects, it twists, it leans, and it glistens. Its titanium surface seems cold but is instead warm and welcoming. And as I stood and observed this marvel of architecture I wondered if the ancient Egyptians might have felt the same awe and emotion that was rumbling through me as they observed the genius of their own pyramids.
Frank O. Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

For more information on places I've mentioned see:
Victor Montes Tapas Bar & Restaurant:
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao: