Rovereto and the Depero Futurist House of Art Diary

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It was the perfect way to spend the last day of my trip to the Veneto region. I had travelled with arsviva travel agency to Vicenza for an art exhibition and to Padua for some sightseeing. The town of Rovereto, below the Dolomites and near Lake Garda, was even more enthralling than the Palladian villas I had seen. The narrow, picturesque streets and quaint squares gave the place a romantic flair. The town had a distinctive poetic quality. I loved the cafes, where I could have sat all day while sipping cappuccinos and eating paninis. There was a lot to see, and, unfortunately, we only had a few hours before the long bus trip back to Prague.

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The facades of the buildings caught my undivided attention. I especially liked the floral motifs on the façade of the Palazzo Del Ben-Conti d’Arco behind a fountain on one of the main squares. Other facades showed religious decoration. The town had made a name for itself in history, too. Prominent personalities had set foot in Rovereto, especially during the 18th century. Goethe had visited in 1786, Pope Pius VI in 1782. Mozart gave his first concert in Italy there during 1769. Indeed, I could almost hear Mozart’s lively music as I meandered along the charming streets.

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There’s more. The Public Library holds the distinction of being the location of the longest nonstop reading session ever – 53 hours long. There are intriguing churches while a castle housing a military museum looms above the town. The Bell of the Fallen is the largest bell in the world, made of bronze of cannons from all countries that saw action in World War I.

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When we came to the Depero Futurist House of Art (Casa d’Arte Futurista Depero), I took one look at the building and knew I had to go inside. Elements of modern architecture somehow accented the medieval character of the structure. The building reminded me of the House of the Stone Bell (Dům U kammeného zvonu) in Prague, an exhibition space in a medieval building that is seeping with history. This was the only Futurist museum in Italy, and I wanted to familiarize myself with the movement in which Fortunato Depero (1892-1960) had played a prominent role.

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First, I needed some background information about Depero. He grew up in Rovereto, working with marble and creating art, so it was only fitting that in 1919 he chose this town as the location for the museum that would eventually contain as many as 3,000 of his works. Depero made a name for himself as a painter, sculptor, writer and graphic designer. While living in Rome, he wrote a futurist manifesto and created stage sets and costumes. In 1928, he tried his luck in America, settling in New York City, where he designed costumes for the theatre and created covers for magazines. After a stint of several years, he returned to Italy. Depero remained loyal to the futurist movement, even though it was not as well respected in the 1930s and 1940s because many artists working in that style became fascists during those decades. Due to futurism’s negative image, many abandoned the movement. Not Depero. After World War II, he moved back to the USA, residing in Connecticut. In 1949, he returned to his boyhood home of Rovereto, and he would stay there for the remainder of his life. He was ill for two years before passing in 1960 at the age 68.

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Wall decoration of interior

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It wasn’t until I came to the museum that I became familiar with the movement of Futurism, a movement that was born in Italy during the early 20th century. Futurism rejected the past and celebrated modernity and technological advances. Often its artists portrayed urban environments and industrial cities. Cars and airplanes made frequent appearances. Vehicles were shown in motion, not standing still. However, futurists also tended to praise violence and war. Artists of this movement took up diverse fields – painting, sculpture, ceramics, graphic design, theatre, film, literature and others.

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The museum was eclectic with furniture, paintings, tapestries, cloth material, drawings, collages, posters, toys and a film, for instance. I loved the dynamic colors, especially the bright orange of one painting and bright pink hues of others. The works indeed looked as if they were in motion. I could see elements of Cubism in the designs. I especially thought of Josef Čapek’s mechanical figures in his paintings, and I could see characteristics of primitive art, too. I was struck by the way some figures resembled machines. In one sculpture in particular I could see the figures in motion. It was as if the sculpture was not standing still, but, of course, it was.

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There were tranquil scenes, such as a woman with a pink face holding a pot on her head, having stopped to talk to a figure smoking a pipe. Some of the furniture seemed to have designs resembling folk themes. In some paintings I saw a dangerous, impersonal city, sharp as a sword. It was as if the buildings themselves had swallowed up humanity. Of course, these are just my personal impressions. I do not know if they are the impressions Depero wanted viewers to have.

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I liked the unique museum because it had both a modern and medieval character architecturally, and the many artifacts introduced me to a movement I had known nothing about. I especially was drawn to the pastel colors of some of the works. I learned about an artist who never gave up on futurism, even when many others had given up on the movement. It was somewhat ironic to have a museum dedicated to art that stressed modernity and despised anything old in a town of rich historical content. It was interesting that Depero chose a medieval building as the place to exhibit his works. The exhibition’s location stressed that the old was fused into the new and vice versa, not that the new rejected the old.

Perhaps the irony was part of the beauty of it all, too.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Scrovegni Chapel Diary

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One of the highlights of my day trip from Vicenza to Padua was seeing the Scrovegni Chapel, which had been decorated with amazing frescoes by Giotto di Bondone during the 14th century. I was familiar with Giotto’s masterful work. I had toured the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi several times and had been captivated by his masterful creations there.

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Built for Enrico Scrovegni, the chapel, christened Our Lady of the Annunciation, had once been connected to a palace, but it was demolished in 1827. The name of the architect is not known. We had to follow a path outside of the impressive and comprehensive art gallery near the chapel, which stood on its own. It was raining heavily and immediately after taking shelter inside the documentation room, we saw a short, instructive film about the chapel.

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Upon entering the chapel itself, I was overwhelmed by the 38 panels of frescoes covering three walls on three levels. The star-studded ceiling vault in its brilliant blue hue was one of the first features to capture my attention. The blue was so vibrant. Scenes from the Old Testament abounded. Allegorical figures of the Seven Virtues and Vices made prominent appearances. I inwardly celebrated with Mary’s parents when the Virgin was born in a modest cottage. In the Annunciation, I noticed the chiaroscuro effect on Mary’s robe. A comet stood out in the Adoration of the Wise Kings.

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In the Flight into Egypt, Mary was holding Jesus so tightly, so protectively while Joseph glanced behind him at the family for which he felt a fierce love. The white bodies of the dead babies were chilling in the Slaughter of the Innocents. In the Kiss of Betrayal, I could feel my body tense as I noticed the look between Judas and Christ. In the Weeping over the Body Christ, a solitary tree with bare branches captured my attention. As an architectural buff, the six Gothic windows in the Pentecost panel intrigued me.

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The Vices and Virtues also made a lasting impression. Ire was violently tearing her robe apart, exposing her chest, and I saw a serpent slivering out of the mouth of Envy.

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My favorite part of the frescoes was the Last Judgment. Christ, of course, took up a central position. Giotto even put himself in the fresco. Enrico presents the Virgin Mary with a model of the chapel. Then there is Hell, with a dancing, consuming fire as the tormented, writhing figures descend toward Lucifer, a monster feeding upon the damned. I could feel the torment of the figures.

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Soon, though, it was time to leave, and it was difficult to say goodbye to such a masterful work. I could have stared at Giotto’s magnificent frescoes for hours, analyzing each one. I had felt the same way in the basilica in Assisi.

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I would see more impressive sights in Padua, such as the Basilica of the Saint, a vast structure dedicated to Saint Anthony and the stunning Hall of Justice. Still, whenever I think of my time in Padua, the first images that comes to mind are the riveting frescoes in this chapel.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Palazzo Leoni Montanari Diary

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My visit to the Gallerie d’Italia in the Palazzo Leoni Montanari of Vicenza proved to be one of the most enthralling art experiences I have ever experienced. The gushingly Baroque palace was built in the 1670s, commissioned by Giovanni Leoni Montanari. The combination of statuary, stucco and fresco decoration in the building enhanced my great interest in the exhibitions. Owned by Intesa Sanpaolo bank and opened in 1999, the gallery houses a collection of vases from Attica and Magna Graecia, 18th century Venetian painting, a unique 17th century Carrara marble sculpture and the most impressive collection of Russian icons I have seen outside of the Russian Museum and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. In this post, I am concentrating on the interior of the gallery itself and the exhibition of Russian icons as well as a temporary show of Soviet era icons.

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While the palace is by no means as vast as the Hermitage or Prado, it certainly made an everlasting impression. In fact, its size allows for an intimate atmosphere in which the visitor can become well-acquainted with its displays without feeling overwhelmed, though the gallery is by no means small.

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This definitely is one of my favorite art galleries in the world, ranking up there with the Doria Pamphilj in Rome or Lazaro Galdiano Museum in Madrid. The Baroque palazzo is a work of art itself. Indeed, the palace ornamentation is unbelievably rich. The inner courtyard with loggia features a superb statue of Hercules clubbing a monster to death. Just looking at the statue makes one feel imbued with the mythological character’s strength and determination. I was reminded of the theme of Hercules that was promoted in the Teatro Olimpico, an architectural gem designed by Andrea Palladio and a breathtaking sight I had visited earlier that day. In addition, in the palace courtyard I saw five frescoes sporting classical themes.

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Sculptural adornment greets the visitor in the entrance hall as dragons and hideous creatures make appearances in stucco forms. One space near the main staircase is designed as a sort of grotto with exquisite painting decoration. The Hall of Apollo celebrates that deity as well as Hercules. It features tapestries and stucco portrayals of protagonists from The Iliad, too. The Room of the Old Testament and the Room of Ancient Rome have stunning friezes.  The Room of the Four Continents prominently displays stucco figures of America, Africa, Asia and Europe above the entrances. Frescoes take on historical themes, such as Aristotle mentoring a young Alexander the Great in geography. Allegorical statues also add eloquence to the space.

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The Gallery of Truth is the room that most amazed me. I could not look away for a long time, as I was so mesmerized with the stucco and fresco decoration that covers the entire ceiling. The central fresco celebrates the triumph of truth. Nine muses are represented, too. Putties and garlands abound, and grotesque creatures join in the exuberant fray. The paintings show the feats of Hercules. In this room, I saw him slaying serpents, freeing Prometheus from the rock and holding up the world for Atlas.

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While ceramics are not usually my cup of tea, this collection did feature an impressive 500 items, many unearthed in Ruvo di Puglia, a town in Puglia I had visited the previous year and one of the most tranquil places I had ever seen. It brought back memories of that astounding trip to Apulian Romanesque churches and tranquil settings without hordes of tourists. Puglia had given me a sense of serenity and a feeling of peace. I was reminded of those feelings, as I better comprehended the ancient history of Ruvo di Puglia.

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The 18th century Venetian paintings brought back memories of my trip to Venice, just one of many places in Italy to which I longed to return. The 14 paintings of everyday life in the society of the Venetian nobility by Pietro Longhi triggered thoughts of a Prague exhibition of works by Rococo painter Norbert Grund, who was a masterful observer of his era. Yet Longhi did not only paint common scenes. I also admired his portrayals of exotic animals surprising and enthralling an audience.

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I was entranced with the works of Canaletto and his contemporaries. The Venice landscapes spoke to me. I recalled the exhibition of Canaletto’s works I had seen in Aix-en-Provence a few years earlier. I also thought of the Canaletto painting that I had admired in Nelahozeves Chateau and later in the Lobkowicz Museum in Prague.

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In a room punctuated by stucco decoration, I admired the unique sculpture “The Fall of the Rebel Angels” by Agostino Fasolato, created in the 18th century. Shaped as a pyramid, the sculpture features 60 intertwining figures, all twisting and turning, carved from one piece of Carrara marble. Once on display in Padua, the plethora of figures exhibit a great attention to detail as masterful as that in paintings by Pietor Brueghel the Elder. I was entranced with the dynamic sense of movement attained by the sculptor. The sculpture, indeed, seemed to be in motion as figures wiggled and writhed.

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The Russian icons enthralled me so much that I was just as astounded by this gallery as I was by the comprehensive Van Gogh exhibition at the Palladian Basilicata with its elegant arches and arcades. At this gallery I saw 140 icons ranging in age from the Middle Ages to the 20th century and giving a superb overview of the history of the icon in Russian society throughout the centuries.

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The icons boast various themes. They are inspired by the Bible, legends, liturgical hymns, theological texts and feasts, for instance. The Mother of God and Saint Nicholas are featured in some of the artistic creations. Icons of saints and monks, some with monasteries in the background, make many appearances. I also saw frames and covers for icons made with precious materials. A mastery of the goldsmith trade also is illustrated in some items. The schools represented include Moscow, Novgorod and Vladimír. The icons are organized by subject matter, which was helpful and intriguing.

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I also found the temporary exhibition of Soviet icons by Grisha Bruskin to be very impressive. A monumental painting called “The Fundamental Lesson,” created in 1945, features 256 white figures. The painting stresses the significance of statues in the Soviet Union as each person represented has an ideological meaning. Instead of a celebration of saints, Madonnas and monks, I saw workers, pioneers, athletes, functionaries, astronauts, soldiers and doctors exalted onto ideological pedestals. Small sculptures of these figures are also displayed. There are 25 porcelain pieces and 49 renditions in bronze.

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“The Fundamental Lesson”

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I remembered how, as a child growing up in America, I had been taught by society that Russia was the enemy, all Communists were bad people, and everything was black-and-white. Russia was evil, we were good. I had wondered what life was like in a Communist country. Did people ever cry with joy or truly feel happy and at peace with themselves and with the world? I wondered what people ate, what people wore, what people were thinking about.

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Overall, I was most impressed with this exhibition because it exposes the dangers of Soviet ideology. It impressed upon me how Soviet society had been inundated by the ideological myths represented by the painting and small statuary.

More Russian icons from the permanent exhibition:

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I came away from this gallery with a heightened appreciation of having grown up in a free, democratic society. I had attained a deeper understanding of the art of Russian icons. I had seen a unique sculpture carved with precision. The visit had triggered golden memories of Venice. I had examined Venetian society in the 18th century thanks to Longhi. I had seen artifacts from one of my favorite Apulian towns, Ruvo di Puglia and had thought about that unforgettable trip. I had experienced all this in a building that was a masterful work of art, the Gallery of Truth being my favorite space.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Teatro Olimpico Diary

 

VicenzaTeatroOint17I cannot choose one place as the highlight of my trip to the magical world of Palladian architecture in Vicenza, but certainly seeing the Teatro Olimpico ranks right up there. Recognized by UNESCO, this is one of the three Renaissance theatres in existence. The 72-year old Andrea Palladio designed what is now the oldest covered theatre in Europe, and construction began in 1580. When Palladio died in August of that year, Vicenza-born architect Vincenzo Scamozzi took over.

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Still, the theatre clearly features many Palladian characteristics. For instance, the plan for the theatre was based on classical architecture. As usual, Palladio had found inspiration in the writings of Roman architectural guru Vitruvius, who lived during 1 BC. Indeed, I felt as if I were seated in a theatre dating back to antiquity. The classical forms gave the Teatro Olimpico a very majestic quality.

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The theatre held its first performance on March 3, 1585, as actors who were at the time well-known performed Oedipus Rex, a play chosen for its classical theme. The costumes were extravagant. About 1,500 spectators watched, and the play was a huge success. However, the theatre was only used for a few performances.

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Palladio had had his work cut out for him. The theatre was built on the site of a former prison, which had a box-like shape. Palladio was able to turn the audience hall into an oval shape, and the seating was sloped steeply, as if it were a Roman amphitheatre. The amphitheatres I had visited in Taormina, Segesta and Syracuse, Sicily and in Arles, France came to mind. I also thought of the Roman amphitheatre I had seen the previous year in Lecce, Puglia.

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The classical architecture and statuary captured my immediate attention. Three orders of columns decorated the proscenium. The 41 statues that adorned the theatre on the proscenium and in the wings looked as if they were made of stone. That was just one of the many illusions in this theatre. In reality, the statues were sculpted from swamp reeds, tow, earthenware and mortar. While the statues showed off aristocrats from the 16th century, these figures were clad in classical attire, often wearing armor or long gowns. Thus, they were not portraits but likenesses set in a past time period. Because Leonardo Valmarana had been an ardent supporter of the Habsburgs, his statue has a face similar to that of Emperor Charles V.

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Notably, there were no women represented. Still, some of the men rendered had distinctive feminine features. Initially, some of the statues had been designed to show female figures, but they were changed into men. This produced some hilarious results. In the upper tier, the statue of Gerolamo Forni sports a beard but has a female body.

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Furthermore, all of the statues were not of the same quality. That’s because the quality of the statue depended on two factors – how influential the man represented was and how much the man had paid to have the statue sculpted. It would have been interesting to be able to inspect each one and learn who was most valued in Renaissance society. There were other statues, too. These included renditions of Olympic deities and one of Palladio himself, designed after the masterful architect had died.

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Hercules held a prominent position in the décor of the theatre. This legendary figure was the focus of stucco-clad bas-reliefs that told the story of his life. The artistic narration included scenes in which Hercules takes over for Atlas holding up the world, the Hercules – Antaeus encounter in which Hercules was victorious and Hercules’ successful fight against the Cretan bull. Thus, another classical theme was portrayed. The bas-reliefs by no means stagnant. There is a strong dynamic quality to the episodes that are brought to life in a vivacious way. So, while the theme stems from the classical world, the bas-reliefs provide a much livelier look than that expressed in the classical world. The figures even have a Baroqueness about them.

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One feature that enamored me was the illusive architecture, the false perspectives utilized in the design. The set for Oedipus Rex, the oldest existing theatre scenery, looked as if the seven roads of Thebes led from the stage far into the horizon, but it was really painted so that it created a fake perspective. I couldn’t believe that it was all an illusion. I could see myself meandering down the streets. It was architecturally amazing. I thought of the basilica at Hejnice and how the main altar was really painted on the wall, while it appeared three-dimensional. This feature of the theatre was designed by Scamozzi, who was known for his talent using false perspective. Via Theatres showed spectators a world of illusion. The world of the play was not the real world. This theatre also was a place of illusion itself.

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Another illusionary feature was the false sky above. It looked like the theatre was not covered at all, as if it were open and light under a clear sky. The likeness to a real sky was incredible. I did not sense I was in a closed space. This feature was designed at the beginning of the 20th century.

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The lighting played a major role in producing the illusive perspectives due to their location. Originally, the lights consisted of colored oils inside glass bulbs or wicks in metal boxes. They were hidden within the architecture featuring false perspective, so no one could tell where the source of the lighting was. It was a masterful idea, I thought. Scamozzi was responsible for the lighting. I wondered if my friend and former college lighting professor had ever been here. She would have a field day studying the lighting features.

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The theatre soon became an entertainment venue. During the 17th century, the theatre was used for receptions of VIPs the town was hosting. Fencing tournaments also took place there. Until recently, graduation ceremonies were held there. It is still used as a theatre on occasion, but only 400 spectators are allowed to watch performances for safety reasons.

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I appreciated the classical features of the theatre that had a distinguished feel. The statues added a classical elegance, and the bas-reliefs gave the theatre’s décor a vivacious character. I also was enthralled by the false perspective. Both the scenery and the fake sky were unbelievable.

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When it was time to leave, I did not want to go. I could have stared at the proscenium, wings and false sky for hours. It certainly was a unique structure. It would prove to be one of most bewitching sights I visited in Vicenza.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

 

Church of Saint Corona Diary

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The first place our guides took us in Vicenza was the Church of Saint Corona, a three-nave Gothic structure with many treasures inside. The church harkens back to 1261, when it was constructed to house a Holy Thorn that the bishop of Vicenza had received as a present from French King Louis IX.

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I loved the interior with its paintings, frescoes, superb choir, ceiling and chancel. The artwork included a masterpiece by Paolo Veronese, “Adoration of the Magi.” The main altar featured Giovanni Bellini’s “The Baptism of Christ” while Bartolomeo Montagna’s “Magdalen and Saints” also made an appearance. I was especially entranced with Giabattista Pittoni’s “Enthroned Madonna and child venerated by Saints Peter and Pius V,” though all the paintings greatly impressed me. I loved art, and seeing these paintings filled me with joy and excitement as if I were at a renowned art museum.

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The choir in the apse was another wonder. The carved, inlaid decoration on the wooden choir was so delicate and detailed. The frescoes in the Thiene Chapel hailed from the early 15th century. The chancel was also of Renaissance origin. The painted coffered ceiling with stucco decoration was another jewel.  The superbly adorned main altar also appealed to me. The stained glass windows amazed.

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Of course, we could not take a good look at the church without paying close attention to the Valmarana Chapel, designed by Andrea Palladio around 1576 and located in the crypt. The Valmarana clan had been buried in the church, so it was no surprise that Antonio Valmarana had chosen to be interred there. The chapel was simply designed as a balanced space with a square space. The two niches in the chapel were simple yet helped give the space a sense of elegance. I liked the symmetry, and I would appreciate this characteristic of Palladio’s architecture in many other works that day and in the following days of our trip.

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Every element of the church seemed unique. The paintings each told a powerful story. The Gothic characteristics, the ceiling, the chancel, the choir, the chapel designed by Palladio – everything fused together to make this an architectural gem, just one of the many architectural gems that awaited me in Vicenza.

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Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Palazzo Chiericati Diary

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In March of 2018, I spent time in Vicenza, where I admired Renaissance Palladian architecture. I was enthralled with Vicenza. The elegant arches and arcades of the Basilicata Palladiana and the Renaissance masterpiece called the Theatre Olimpico were two sights that took my breath away. The two art galleries I visited also were stunning. I could have spent hours at each gallery. The Civic Museum, housed in the Chiericati Palace, displays amazing art from the 1200s to the beginning of the 20th century. Even though renovation was ongoing, the collections were extensive.

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The palace itself is a masterpiece designed by Palladio in 1550. The building is a work of art with enthralling frescoes and superb stuccoes and has been recognized by UNESCO. The Chiericatis were fans of Palladio; he also designed a villa for them. One prominent architectural feature involves Palladio making the palace look elegant by placing the structure on a podium. The central section, accessible by a grand staircase, resembles a temple, as Palladio respected antique forms. By raising the building, Palladio also was able to protect it from floods, so it served more than a merely decorative purpose. I also found these architectural elements at the Villa Rotunda and the Villa Malcontenta, two places designed by Palladio. The façade has a two-story loggia, typical of Palladio’s designs. One side of the loggia is closed off by a wall with an arch.

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While I was enamored with the exterior of the building, I was not prepared for the onslaught of beautiful artworks that greeted me inside. The ground floor showed off frescoes, stuccoes, grotesques and lunettes. Seven lunettes told the story of the city’s prosperity during the 1500s and 1600s.

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The first floor included a medieval section, where work by Hans Memling and others were showcased. I also was introduced to the paintings of Bartolomeo Montagna and his contemporaries. The second floor concentrated on Venetian paintings of the 1500s, with works by Bassano, Tintoretto and Veronese. The 17th century was also represented.

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When I reached the attic, I no longer felt as if I was in a museum but rather as if I had set foot in a three-room house. These spaces held the paintings, drawings and etchings that once belonged to Marquis Giuseppe Roi. The works dated from the 15th century to the 20th century. Intriguing furniture also made up the collection.

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The basement hosted temporary exhibitions. I could see the 14th and 15th century foundations of the palace, where kitchens and cellars used to be. There was a well and a barrel staircase, for instance. Walking through the basement was like walking back in time.

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We got off the bus in Vicenza across from the Palazzo Chiericati, and this was the first building I saw in the city. The exterior certainly didn’t disappoint, and the interior was full of surprises and delights.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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2017 Travel Review Diary

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Sassi in Matera, Italy

My travels during 2017 made my year very special. I went to Italy twice and spent time exploring the Czech Republic on day trips, taking jaunts to numerous chateaus and a basilica, for instance.

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Castle in Trento

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Treviso

During my first trip to Italy in 2017, I saw a wonderful Impressionist art exhibition in Treviso. I visited the impressive castle and picturesque streets of Trento. I also ransacked a few good bookstores in Treviso and picked up a year’s worth of reading in Italian. (I took advantage of the fact that we were traveling by bus.) I especially enjoyed discovering the charming town of Bassano del Grappa with its wooden Palladian bridge and, most importantly, its superb collection of paintings by Jacopo Bassano and others.

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Civic Museum in Bassano del Grappa

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Civic Museum in Bassano del Grappa

In June, I took one of my best trips ever, to the lesser known and lesser travelled regions of Puglia and Basilicata. Most of the sights were not so crowded. We saw many charming, sleepy towns, refreshingly not inundated with tourists. I was entranced with all the Apulian-Romanesque cathedrals. The intricate design of the main portal of the cathedral in Altamura and the rose window surrounded by lions perched on columns on the Cathedral of Saint Valentine in Bitonto are only two of the many gems designed in this rich architectural style. The bishop’s throne from the 12th century in Canosa di Puglia featured two elephant figures for legs and was a true delight.

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Altamura, cathedral

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Bishop’s throne in cathedral in Canosa di Puglia

Lecce with its Baroque wonders, Roman theatre and Roman amphitheatre left me speechless. The Baroque craftsmanship of Lecce’s most notable architect, Giuseppe Zimbalo, was breathtaking. The Cathedral of Our Lady the Assumption, one of many Baroque gems, had a stunning side façade and 75-meter tall belfry with balustrades, sculptures and pyramids. Inside, the structure was no less amazing. The gilt coffered ceiling over the nave and transept and the 18th century marble main altar decorated with angels were just a few of the awe-inspiring features of the interior.

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Ceiling of cathedral in Lecce

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Altar in church in Baroque Lecce

A castle buff, I was also more than intrigued by the octagonal Castel del Monte and the way the number eight was so symbolic in its architectural design. I was impressed with the French windows, Romanesque features and mosaic floor, for instance.

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Castel del Monte

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Castel del Monte

What fascinated me most of all on that trip was the rock town of Matera with its two “sassi” districts. I have never seen a place that is so unique and moving, except for Pompeii. I explored the Sasso Caveoso. Its structures were dug into the calcareous rock on different levels of a hillside. They were cave dwellings that had been turned into restaurants, cafes, hotels and sightseeing gems. It was difficult to believe that, until the 1950s, the sassi had been poverty-stricken, riddled with unsanitary conditions and overcrowding.

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Sassi Caveoso in Matera

The Rupertian churches especially caught my attention. They boasted frescoes from the 11th and 12th centuries. The Santa Maria de Idris Church had a main altar made of tufo and chalk and decorated with 17th and 18th century frescoes. The rocky churches had actually been places of worship until 1960.

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Sassi Caveoso in Matera

I also explored two neighborhoods of Prague, parts of the city that I have always loved. In Hanspaulka I became more familiar with the various types of villas – Neo-Classical and Neo-Baroque, functionalist and purist, for example. I saw the villas where actress Lída Baarová had lived and where her sister had committed suicide as well as the villa where comedian Vlasta Burian had resided. I love the Art Deco townhouses in the area.

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Art Deco townhouses in Hanspaulka

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The villa where actor Vlasta Burian once lived, Hanspaulka

There are just as beautiful Art Deco townhouses in the nearby Ořechovka district, where I saw villas created by the well-known Czech modern architect Pavel Janák and many former homes of famous Czech artists. The Rondocubist dwellings with their designs inspired by folk art also excited me. I loved the folk art elements in Rondocubism. My favorite place in the quarter is Lomená Street. The 1920s townhouses are modelled after English cottages.

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Lomená Street in Ořechovka

I also visited the Winternitz Villa, designed by Viennese architect Adolf Loos and his Czech colleague Karel Lhota, situated in Prague’s fifth district. Winternitz, a lawyer by trade, was forced to leave with his family in 1941 due to their Jewish origin. His wife and daughter miraculously survived Auschwitz. The villa features the Raumplan, Loos’ trademark, in which every room is on a different level. I also saw two apartments designed by Loos in Pilsen. The Brummel House with its bright yellow furnishings and Renaissance fireplace amazed.

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Exterior of Winternitz Villa, Prague

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Living room of Winternitz Villa

I took many day trips outside of Prague. Červený Újezd Castle, only built in 2001, looked like it belongs in a medieval fairy tale. The park and open-air architectural museum were just as appealing. Braving the D1 highway that is partially under construction, my friend and I made our way to Telč. I admired its Renaissance burgher houses lining the main square and its chateau that features a Renaissance gilded coffered ceiling in the Golden Hall, 300 Delft faience plates on a wall in the Count’s Room and an African Hall with a gigantic elephant’s ear.

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Červený Ujezd Castle

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Burgher houses on the main square in Telč

At Zákupy I was entranced by the ceiling paintings of Josef Navrátil. Its Chapel of St. Francis sparkled in 17th century Baroque style with frescoes on the ceiling. I finally made it to the Minor Basilica of St. Zdislava and St. Lawrence in the tranquil north Bohemian town of Jablonné v Podještědí. The main altar is in pseudo-Baroque style while the pulpit and the baptismal font hailed from the 18th century. One chapel’s altar is Rococo, adorned with a late Gothic statue. The stained glass windows amazed me.

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Interior of chapel at Zákupy Chateau

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Interior of Basilica of St. Zdislava and St. Lawrence

The chateau of Dětenice in late Baroque style had an interior that mostly dates from the 18th century with rooms small enough to give an intimate feel but large enough to hold many architectural delights. In the Blue Dining Room the wall paintings were made to look like works by Botticelli. The tapestries in the Music Salon were wonderful. The Golden Hall was unbelievably breathtaking.

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Interior of Detěnice Chateau

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Interior of Detěnice Chateau

My favorite chateau of this past year’s trips is Hrubý Rohozec, which I have toured many times. It is filled with original furnishings and objects – lots of them – that I found captivating. Most of all, I loved the lively history that made the chateau unique and unforgettable. Bullet holes can still be seen in the Main Library. A thief on the run had barricaded himself in the room, and the policemen had to shoot the door open. Before World War II, the two sons of the castle’s owner were caught reading erotic magazines in the Children’s Room. There were bars on the window to prevent them from throwing chairs into the courtyard at midnight.

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Organ in chapel of Hrubý Rohozec Chateau

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Blue Salon of Hrubý Rohozec Chateau

The Porcelain Museum at Klášterec nad Ohří held some delights. The Birth of the Virgin Mary Church in Doksany charmed in Baroque style with much stucco decoration. I admired many other chateaus as well, including Orlík and Březnice with its spectacular chapel.

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Interior of chapel at Březnice Chateau

The year was extra special because my parents were able to visit me. We toured the Rudolfinum concert hall in Prague, where I have season tickets for three cycles. The concert hall has played a role in Czechoslovak history. Democrat statesman Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was elected president three times in its large Dvořák Hall during the 1920s and 1930s, when the Rudolfinum was the home of Czechoslovak Parliament. The statuary and view of Prague Castle on the roof were splendid, and the Conductors’ Room boasted various styles of furnishings, black-and-white photos of well-renowned musicians and an impressive Petrov piano.

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Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum

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Rudolfinum, upper level

We also toured Nelahozeves Chateau near Prague, a place that has been dear to me for many years. For me the highlight of visiting this chateau is superb collection of art, especially Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s painting of a winter scene. The painting by Rubens was a delight, too. I also loved the small 18th century table inlaid with 20 kinds of wood. The exterior was captivating as well. The graffito on one wall and the Renaissance courtyard were two stunning architectural elements.

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Renaissance courtyard of Nelahozeves Chateau

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Sgraffito on wall of Nelahozeves Chateau

I took my parents on a trip around Hanspaulka and pointed out one of the Baroque chapels, the chateau and other sights. We admired the villas of various styles. We ate paninis in the local café.

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Chapel in Hanspaulka

Perhaps the highlight of their visit was seeing a Czech play in the Žižkov Theatre of Jára Cimrman. We laughed along to the music of Cimrman in the Paradise of Music, which focuses on the operatic works of the fictional legendary Jára Cimrman, who was an unlucky man of all trades – inventor, philosopher, teacher, self-taught gynecologist, to name a few of his many professions. The opera in the second half of the play involves a Czech engineer introducing the great taste of pilsner beer to India. The British colonel in the play is so impressed with the taste of Czech beer that he wishes he had been born Czech. It was terrific that I was able to introduce my parents to the character of Jára Cimrman, who has played such a major role in Czech culture and folklore, even though he is not real.

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Almost featureless bust of Jára Cimrman

I was thankful that I had my best friend, my black cat Šarlota Garrigue Masaryková Burnsová by my side throughout the year. She is happy here, much happier than she was in a shelter four years ago.

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Šarlota Garrigue Masaryková Burnsová

Every day I think of Bohumil Hrabal Burns, my feisty and naughty black cat who died three-and-a-half years ago. He remains with me in spirit every moment of my life. I know that somewhere in Cat Heaven, he is vomiting for fun on white rugs and playing with Fat Cat toys.

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Bohumil Hrabal Burns, 1999 – 2014

Those were my travels of 2017. I look forward to more adventures this year. I have planned one trip to Italy and will soon jot down a list of day trips I would like to take.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Santa Croce Church in Lecce