Enjoying the little things

Piacevole is my new favourite Italian word. It means enjoyable or pleasant and is pronounced pee-ah-chay-voh-lay. It’s even enjoyable to tumble that morsel around in the mouth for a minute. It’s so nice to say that I even find myself saying it aloud when I’m cleaning the toilet or sweltering at the bus stop – things which are decidedly un-piacevole. It sounds like that feeling of not having to carry a bag of any description anywhere. Picture that. Ahhhh, it’s so piacevole. Piacevole has knocked the Italian word for spoon, cucchiaio (pronounced koo-kee-eye-ee-oh) off the top spot in my top three list of favourite Italian words. The first time I heard cucchiaio I thought it made a good name for an Aztec king. Asciugamano, Italian for towel, (pronounced ah-shoo-gah-man-oh) is now at number three, and I think of it as an exclamation you might make when trying to get rid of someone irritating. If the incessant heat gets the better of me and fries the rest of the Italian words out of my brain, I am convinced that these three will remain. When I am muttering these words on my deathbed, kind Italian friends will be bringing me spoons and towels as offerings of comfort. Dopodomani (pronounced doh-poh-doh-man-ee) used to be number three on the list, but is now in fourth place. It means the-day-after-tomorrow, and to me the word has the onomatopoeic quality of someone’s retreating footsteps as they attempt to fob you off for another day. Actually maybe I should hang on to that one too for any deathbed protestations with the grim reaper.

I came across piacevole in the course of trying to describe to another student the current enamelling technique I am learning. I am painting miniatures on 3.5 cm copper discs using oil-based enamel paints. Executing these little paintings is difficult but enjoyable – difficile ma piacevole. (The fact that I learned the word for difficult pretty quickly, but have just learned the word for enjoyable is not a reflection on my enamelling course by the way! I have enjoyed every minute. I usually just say ‘mi piace‘ – ‘it pleases me/I like it’). My miniatures have taken a lot of time because the colours have to be added gradually and in very thin layers with a very fine paintbrush. The piece is then dried at a very high temperature to get rid of the oil in the paint. Any excess paint has to be scraped off with a little pointy wooden stick and then the piece is fired in the kiln between each layer. It requires patience, a steady hand and the ability to remember that you have put something in the kiln! I didn’t think I would like painting miniatures as much as I do. I used to draw and paint very detailed images when I was younger, but I stopped years ago. Art college drawing was more expressive or utilitarian, depending on my objective, and I became preoccupied with 3-D rather than 2-D work. It’s nice to know I still have the brush skills! I found images online to refer to and recreated them by eye in miniature. I have painted an owl’s face on one piece and a detail of a peacock feather on another. They are not exact copies of the reference images I used, but I decided that painting every single rib of the peacock feather was probably not good for my mental health! I really love my little owl’s face. I might make it into a brooch.

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Speaking of miniatures, myself and Ollie went to the Museo degli Argenti (The Silver Museum) recently, which is housed in the Palazzo Pitti just around the corner from my school, to check out its stunning interior and impressive collection of silver, jewels, ivory and other precious objects collected by the Medici family. At present there is a temporary exhibition titled Splendida Minima of miniature carved statuettes from the Roman-Hellenistic period, made from semi-precious stone and precious metals. With their brightly coloured heads and gold cloaks or armour, some reminded me of my brother’s childhood action figures. I didn’t take any photographs, which in hindsight I probably should have done, but there was just too much to see. Unfortunately it’s difficult to use the museums online collection system, but this link gives some indication of what is in the permanent collection on display there. The ground floor walls and ceiling frescoes are painted using trompe l’oeil technique, with artificial architectural devices, like pillars, balconies and staircases, creating magnificent optical illusions that blended into the real coving and cut marble features of the rooms. In one mural a small boy runs onto a balcony as his pet monkey tries to escape from the ledge. I had to examine the real balcony in the room for a second to see if I was looking at a particularly convincing optical illusion. The 3-D effect cannot truly be appreciated from a photograph, so maybe it’s just as well I didn’t get my camera out. The powerful visual effect of these rooms seems to fight for your attention with the objects on display however. I continuously found myself drifting from looking in the cases to gazing at the interior decor.

Beyond the temporary exhibition, in a room with less distracting decor, there is a array of lathe-turned and carved ivory on display, mind-boggling in its intricacy. An adjoining room displays religious reliquaries, some of which house human bones. The last room on the ground floor has a significant amount of carved lapis lazuli and rock crystal vessels, just the sort of thing you’d want your fine wine and food served from at a luxurious Medici banquet. Upstairs the rooms were frescoed but less opulent, and housed a seemingly never-ending expanse of treasures, from strange little sculptures made from shells to case after case of extremely sumptuous jewellery.

One case contained a collection of miniature portraits, some of which were hilarious. Sadly I couldn’t find images of them online so I’ll aim to describe them. They bear comparison with candid photographs taken at a birthday party when the subject was mid-blink or caught off guard with a mouth full of cake. I can’t imagine the sitters were all happy with the results. And then there were the very beautiful ones, one of which you could tell was probably a self portrait by the artist due to the presence of his palette. He looked fabulous with his swishy hair and smiling eyes. Stick him in some designer clothes and he wouldn’t look out of place in a fashion magazine. Some of these miniatures had a touch of the modern, self-conscious poseur about them. In a couple of hundred years, provided we haven’t wiped ourselves out in the meantime, people might look at any non-pouty photos of today and laugh at how we hadn’t all embraced the clear advantages of taking photos from two foot above our heads while pretending to blow air through a straw. We fools, who smile awkwardly in photos taken at eye level, might some day be mocked the same way I chuckled at the uninitiated, half-blinking cake-eaters.

After the museum we decided to take a quick lunch break, grabbing some focacce at Gusto Panino and eating them outside the Basilica di Santo Spirito. The sky was the sort of solid blue colour you might see on a colour swatch – no clouds, just pure, unadulterated blue. We hid in the shade of the church, but the stored heat from the stone we were sitting on made it feel like we were slow-grilling our behinds. We decided to take a stroll over to the Bardini Gardens. My sister and her husband had recommended it as a place to escape the crowds when they were visiting Florence a few weeks ago. It was a witheringly hot afternoon, so as soon as we arrived we found a shady spot to take a break before our ascent to the top. The gardens are a steep, terraced arrangement with a café at the summit which affords a rewarding view of the city. The café area was quite busy so we took a wander through the remainder of the gardens and soaked up the sounds of the crickets belting out their greatest summer soundtrack. I had to record a little bit of video to capture the sound – it was deafening! For such small creatures they really do make an impact. That sound is something I will miss when we leave. I can hear a chorus of them outside my window now as I type. So piacevole.

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