Was This The Real Mona Lisa?

Mona Lisa
Wikimedia Commons

Scientists in Florence are examining the bones of a 16th century nun they think served as the model for the Mona Lisa.

Lisa Gherardini Del Giocondo was the wife of a wealthy merchant and is rumored to have been the model for Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait. She was a famed beauty in her time and lived across the street from the famous artist and inventor. When her husband died she became a nun at the convent of San Orsula in Florence, where she died and was buried in 1542.

A team of scientists went looking for her in a crypt under the convent. DNA in the bones they found is now being compared with samples taken from the Gherardini family tomb in hopes of finding a match. The next step will be facial reconstruction to see what the woman looked like in life. Perhaps they’ll find the mystery to her enigmatic smile.

Facial reconstruction and DNA analysis have already been done for the remains of King Richard III, found last year under an English parking lot. Researchers are also examining the possible remains of King Alfred the Great.

American Tourist Snaps Finger Off Priceless Florentine Statue

sailko, Wikimedia

An American tourist who says he was “measuring” the finger of a 600-year-old statue of the Virgin Mary ended up accidently snapping off the statue’s pinky.

Staff at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence, Italy are outraged. Although the statue is a cast of the original, repairs will be complex and costly. Timothy Verdun, an American expat and art historian who works with the museum, said:

“In a globalized world like ours, the fundamental rules for visiting a museum have been forgotten, that is, ‘Do not touch the works'”

Although the tourist apologized for his carelessness, he could still be fined for damaging the artwork, which is believed to have been made by Florentine Giovanni d’Ambrogio during the 14th or 15th century.

This is far from the first time someone damaging artwork has made headlines. A tourist once crashed into a work by Pablo Picasso at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, causing a six-inch gash. And then there are people who have purposely damaged paintings, like the woman who once tried to pull a painting by Paul Gauguin off the wall in Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art, and another woman who threw an empty mug at the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in France.

Got Granita? Savoring A Summertime Sweet In Italy

granita con caffe
Chris, Flickr

It will officially be summer in just a few days, and who doesn’t associate long, hot days with ice cream? Or, depending upon your preferences, lactose-digesting capabilities, and what part of the world you’re in, gelato, sorbet, paletas, kulfi, faloodeh, bur bur cha cha or other sweet, frozen treats served around the world.

Gelato is obviously past its tipping point in the U.S, but the granita still isn’t a well-known part of the general populace’s culinary lexicon. In Italy, however, this grainy frozen dessert is a summertime staple. Granite (plural of granita) refers to a dessert that’s scraped at intervals as it freezes, in order to form larger crystals than a typical sorbetto. A true granita should have a coarse texture because it’s made by hand, rather than processed in a machine, which results in a slush.

Coffee or espresso with a bit of sugar is the most commonly used flavoring for granite. Known as granita di café or caffe freddo, this refreshing treat is best served con panna; with unsweetened whipped cream. The first time I ever had one was in Florence, on a freakishly hot October day. Like millions before me, I left crowded the Galleria dell’ Accademia after viewing Michelangelo’s David, thirsty, sweaty, and grumpy.

Several blocks down via Ricasoli, I happened upon a little shop called Gelato Carabé . I was drawn by the wafts of sugary, perfumed air, but it was the menu and hand-crafted appearance of the gelati (mass-produced stuff is often sold out of plastic tubs, but it also tends to look manufactured, and just a little too perfect) that sold me on the place.

eating gelato
minka6, Flickr

The customer in front of me turned away from the counter clutching a cup filled with a rough-looking iced concoction, topped with a soft mound of whipped cream. Its color suggested it contained caffeine. I asked, in crappy Italian, what it was. And then I ordered my first-ever granita di café con panna. Instant addiction. The melding of flavors and textures – bitter espresso, a hint of sugar, grainy ice, silky cream – was the ideal salve for my museum-and-crowd-addled soul.

I returned to the gelateria every day for the remainder of my trip. After I returned home, I learned that owners Antonio and Loredana Lisciandro are from Patti, on Sicily’s northern coast. Antonio’s grandfather was a gelatio, or gelato master, and Antonio became a leading authority on gelato, as well. FYI, gelato has less air incorporated into it than American ice cream, which results in a more dense, flavorful product. Depending upon the region in which it’s made, it may contain eggs, or use cream instead of milk.

The Lisciandro’s import seasonal ingredients from Sicily, including pistachios, hazelnuts and almonds, and the intensely flavored native lemons, which have a thick, bumpy skin. They produce rich, creamy gelati, cremolati (cremolata is similar to sherbet, but made with fresh fruit pulp instead of filtered juice; both are made with milk or cream, whereas sorbetto is dairy-free), and the aforementioned ethereal granite.

Today, Gelato Carabé has two locations in Florence. I’ve since had granita di café con panna all over Italy (I highly recommend enjoying it overlooking the Sant’ Angelo harbor on the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples). Barring that, I suggest using this recipe. Get a copy of Laura Fraser’s delicious “An Italian Affair” (which is how I learned about Ischia in the first place). Spoon granita into a pint glass (let’s not kid ourselves with a foofy parfait-style). Find a relaxing place in the shade, and then savor summer, Italian-style.

Inside The Urban Underground: Exploration Gets Personal

New Yorker Steve Duncan was so desperate to pass his college math class, he crawled through a tunnel to finish it. A computer assignment was due the next day and the software to finish was inside a building closed for the night. In a moment of desperation, Steve came up with a crazy plan: he could sneak inside. Having heard from a classmate about a collection of well-known tunnels connecting the university’s buildings, he resolved to convince the friend to guide him. After escorting Steve to the tunnel entrance, the friend offered vague directions, wished him luck and promptly left. As Steve recalls:

“He took off in the other direction and … here I was absolutely alone – it was terrifying and eye-opening, because every building on campus was connected by these tunnels. I passed the math class, but what always stuck with me was that first moment of being alone in the dark and being absolutely terrified but realizing that if I could face that, I had access to every part of the campus.”

Duncan had educational goals in mind when he entered the underground tunnels that night, but his experience kick-started an interest in an activity he continues to practice to this day: urban exploration.

Urban explorers seek to investigate the centuries of infrastructure created (and sometimes abandoned) by modern civilization: disused factories, historic bridges and unknown tunnels entered using legal, and sometimes illegal, means. The reason they do it is not as easily defined. Urban explorers come from a range of backgrounds, ranging from urban planners to historians to preservationists to architecture lovers, photographers and just plain old thrill-seekers all of whom are often lumped together under the banner of this general term. Just in New York alone, there’s the founders of the website Atlas Obscura, Nick Carr from Scouting New York and Kevin Walsh from Forgotten New York, along with countless others living around the world. These individuals, taken together, are less a community than a loose network of individuals united by a common love: re-discovering and investigating the forgotten and sometimes misunderstood detritus of modern day urban civilization

Yet the popularity of urban exploration confronts an interesting dilemma facing many 21st Century travelers: now that so much of what we seek to “discover” has been Google mapped, investigated and written about ad nauseum, how is our relationship with the concept of exploration evolving? And what does it tell us about the future of travel?

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Steve Duncan – Urban Historian, Explorer and Geographer
It’s been over a decade since that math class first brought Steve Duncan underground, but he’s continued to evolve his approach to urban exploration from his home base of New York City. Styling himself as an “urban geographer” and historian, Duncan continues to direct his energies towards understanding the unseen layers of infrastructure that constitute our urban environment – namely the sewers, bridges and subway tunnels of the Big Apple.

In more recent years, Duncan has gained increasing attention for his adventures, including a week-long expedition through the sewers under NYC with Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge and a short documentary made by filmmaker Andrew Wonder that follows him as he visits New York’s off-limits subway stations and climbs to the top of the Queensboro Bridge.

But Duncan’s urban adventures aren’t undertaken merely for thrills – they’re a means to an intriguing end. In fact, Duncan cares less about being the first to rediscover forgotten places than taking a fresh look at the urban environments we inhabit. Despite the fact more than 50% of our world’s population now lives in cities, Duncan notes, much of today’s travel media continues to focus on outward-looking explorations of far-flung places perceived to be “exotic” – for instance, the wild jungles of Borneo or the ancient temples of Jordan. Steve believes his own adventures constitute an equally exotic form of adventure – a new inward-focused method of exploration.

As he notes, “I’m not interested in going to places nobody’s been before, [but rather] I’m interested in how we shape places.” This life-long history lover views exploration not as a means for public recognition but rather as a way to better understand his personal passion for the ever-changing nature of cities. Whether or not he can “claim the place” as his is irrelevant – he’s more interested in understanding. As he tells it, “All exploration to some extent is personal. It doesn’t matter if someone’s been there before. If it’s new to you, it’s still exploration.”

Taken together, Duncan’s adventures constitutes a kind of inward-driven “time travel” – a concept in which the worlds of history, the growth and decay of cities and adventure travel merge together to define a new opportunity all of us as travelers can take to re-examine the everyday world around us as a source of curiosity.

Dylan Thuras – Cartographer of Curiosities

Not all stories of urban exploration involve spending weeks in tunnels under New York City. For Dylan Thuras, co-founder of website Atlas Obscura, a mind-altering childhood trip to House on the Rock in Wisconsin defined his early travel memories. The strange house is part museum and part hall of curiosities, filled with bizarre collections of artwork, carousel rides and giant biological specimens. As Dylan recalls, “the fact that this could be tucked away in the woods in sleepy Wisconsin made me feel like there were these magical worlds all over the place … if I just knew how to look, I would start to find these fantastical places everywhere”

Ever since that moment, Thuras and his co-founder Joshua Foer of Atlas Obscura have dedicated their website to altering travelers’ perspectives of the places worth visiting on their itineraries. To date they’ve built a worldwide, user-driven database highlighting more sites on all seven continents. As an example of the sites Atlas uncovers, Thuras mentions two sites in Florence, Italy – whereas the Uffizi Gallery is probably on most travelers’ radar, Dylan and Joshua also want to help you discover La Specola, the museum of wax anatomical models that contains a specimen of astronomer Galileo’s middle finger.

As Dylan points out, if an attraction isn’t listed on the top ten list in a guidebook “… it is easy to slip into anonymity, obscurity and disappear. I want to give people a sense that there is so much more than those ten things and that they might find that they have a better time if they venture into new territory.”

The style of exploration advocated by Thuras seeks to shift the context of the worlds we already know. That’s a far cry from the conception many travelers have in their heads of an idealized explorer discovering uncharted lands. Says Thuras: “This isn’t [exploration] in the Victorian sense of climbing the tallest mountain, or finding the source of a river … but in the sense that every one of us can find new and astonishing things if we look for them … it doesn’t always have to be about far-flung adventures.”

Urban Exploration – What’s Next?

Duncan and Thuras may appear to occupy different ends of the urban exploration spectrum, but their motivation stems from a distinct similarity. After years of endless exploring, categorizing and searching, both have arrived at the realization that our mundane daily worlds can be unknown places of curiosity and wonder. The challenge of getting there then, isn’t in the physical act of getting there. Explorers like Duncan do face large risks of injury in their wanderings, but it’s not on the scale of Ernest Shackleton, Captain James Cook or Edmund Hilary.

The difference in these explorers’ adventures thus seems to be a mental reframing of what we conceive of as exploration. Their perception of what is worthy of our consideration and interest as travelers is gradually shifting from the physical towards the mental. In the relentless search for finding the most far-flung undiscovered locations on earth, all of us as travelers have neglected to look right in front of our faces at the places we inhabit everyday as worthy of discovery. Unlike Steve Duncan the journey might not require a crawl through a sewer to appreciate, but ultimately it can be just as rewarding.

A Reluctant Artist Finds His Way In Florence

To say that I’m a reluctant traveler would be to vastly undersell the case. When asked to take a trip out of town my gut reaction is to blurt out WHY? as if I were being threatened with banishment for committing some wrong. So when my parents asked me and my girlfriend to join them in Florence for a week and I agreed, everyone was taken aback…myself included.

My girlfriend is a planner. In the weeks leading up to our departure she immersed herself in guidebooks, maps, internet searches, and even Italian language lessons on tape. My seeming lack of curiosity or interest in involving myself in these preparatory studies irked her relentlessly. She wanted to know whether I even wanted to go on the trip at all. I’d tell her I was looking forward to being in Italy with her and to seeing my folks. This was a vague, unsatisfactory answer in her eyes but it’s all I could say.

A sudden storm delayed our takeoff from O’Hare some two hours so instead of Chicago-Zurich-Florence it became Chicago-Zurich-Frankfurt-Florence. Mercifully, walking off the plane to meet my waiting parents took mere minutes.

Florence’s airport would fit inside of O’Hare a dozen times over, and soon we were squeezing a rented Audi around cars, scooters, bikes, pedestrians, and other less-classifiable modes of conveyance in the narrow free-for-all of Florence traffic, a steady chorus of vaffanculos raining down on us from impatient Italian motorists throughout. We were headed into the hills above the city, to Fiesole, where my folks had rented an apartment in a farmhouse set in an olive grove; part of Italy’s agriturismo program.

My parents have vacationed here for three of the last four summers, coming back for the vistas of lush hills, interrupted every so often by red-roofed villas; for the relief from summer heat that this altitude afforded; and, probably most of all, for the locally grown and produced food and wine. Waking the next morning and looking out the window, I could see why painters have been painting this landscape for all these many centuries.The center of Fiesole is home to a beautiful monastery, and we peeked through the barred windows of the ancient cells to reveal tiny spaces filled with one or two pieces of furniture-a desk with a cross most often-where it was hard to imagine a person could stand up and stretch, much less spend years.


One evening we drove to San Minuato del Monte-a stunning 13th Century church-which afforded a clear view of the center of Florence. I was taken enough with the place to return a couple mornings later and paint a watercolor of the setting, backlit by a steady stream of weary tourists stopping on their journeys. We knew that our few days wouldn’t allow us to take in even a fraction of the architectural, artistic, and religious treasures one stumbles over around every other corner here so we were content to linger in the places that drew us and not to worry about missing the many wonders we’d doubtless miss.

On a lark one steaming afternoon we got in line for a look inside the Duomo. We thought it’d be a quick look upward until we saw the sign by the cashier’s window warning those with heart conditions to turn back. We climbed over four hundred steps up to the top of the dome, with respites on two catwalks for views of the tremendous Vasari mural, and the hike culminated in a view of all of Florence and the surrounding hills. It was the exhausting, exhilarating, and unexpected highlight of the whole trip.

Before we left I spent a couple hours sitting and painting outside the door of my parents’ place up in the hills. I’ve always heard that the point of a vacation is to get out of your routine, to do and see things you wouldn’t in your workaday world, but for a painter, those everyday sights form the vocabulary of what he does. If I stayed in this place longer I’d have likely remained in this courtyard with the olive groves, painting and drawing and trying to get a better sense of the place than a week could possibly hope to afford. This is what stopped me from traveling more over the years, the sense that nothing but a scratch of the surface could ever be had from these excursions.

As I told my girlfriend before we went, I was glad to be in Italy with her and with my parents but getting these glimpses of a world other than the one I knew proved more worthwhile than I would have ever suspected. In a way those red roofs, hairpinning, blind roadways, and green hills will stay with me for a while.