Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Catalgirone vase: conservation for free is slow going

I have taken on a few personal conservation projects since my move here to Sicily a year ago. One has been hanging over my head for some time as it turned out to be much more challenging and time consuming than anticipated.

See this lovely 18th century Caltagirone vase?

Well, it is really broken into many pieces and was badly (or not so badly, depending on how you look at it) restored in the past. 

My husband purchased this for his father's 70th birthday some years back. When his father opened the gift, it had mysteriously been cracked along the rim. We were very upset and being a conservator I promised to fix it the next time I came for a visit and would bring the right kind of glue.

A few years passed and we suddenly found ourselves in Sicily, not visiting, but actually living across the street from my father-in-law. The vase was returned to me and it sat on the shelf. There was much to do before I managed to get it together to fix the vase. I finally got settled and got around to examining it. And with the right light and the time to really look at the surface I realized there was much more going on than what I had observed in that dim, dusty antique shop. 

This piece had been HEAVILY restored in the past. It was broken into at least thirty fragments and had many blind cracks. In technical terms it had 'sprung'. This means it was impossible to make all the breaks line up properly and there were little steps from uneven joins all over. That explained the heavy restoration. The only way to hide the uneven surface would be to overfill it completely. Fill in the cracks and many surface losses with a putty that would not only just fill in areas of loss, but also cover up originally glazed surfaces. 

So, even though I knew it would mean more work for me, I decided to not just fix the broken piece and pretend as I if I knew nothing about the overpaint covering up the beautiful glazed surfaces of the vase. I decided to take it all off!!!

First, all the old paint came off. Not as easy at it sounds. Then, as I realized taking the old joins apart and rejoining them would cause more damage than good, with no guarantee of a better result giving the many blind cracks, I decided to leave the piece intact, live with some misalignments and rework the original fills. That means after my work the fills would only be filling in areas of loss, and not covering up any original surfaces.  That took some time and careful smoothing. But then, for the real challenge--inpainting (or painting in of the fills). The white fills would painted in to match the surrounding colors of the glazed surfaces. This would make the fills blend in with the piece so that the areas of damage would only be visible when viewed up close. The overall effect is to make the piece look whole again without completely hiding the fact that it is damaged (if you click on the image you'll be able to clearly see where my inpainting is).

Color matching can be frustrating, but also great fun. In this case it was mostly fun. I approached it one color family at a time. My medium of choice was watercolors. And finally, after weeks of doing a little bit here, and after starting to feel embarrased when asked by my in-laws would ask me about the status of the vase, I finally finished!!! 

It feels great to be done with it, a load of my chest, something to cross off my list, and I can't wait to move on to some other long  awaited personal projects (stripping down and refinishing an old chest is one, another one will be to finishing cleaning up some old Sicilian puppets, and there is more....).

Vizzini: Sagra della Ricotta

The hour drive to Vizzini went by like a flash for there was much to look forward to. It was the first time we had been on a longish car trip since the arrival of spring and with bambino at this tender age of almost two he was much happier doing so than ever before. It would be the first time visiting this allegedly beautiful town. And, the main reason for the trip, it was the first time we would be experiencing Sicilian ricotta cheese making celebrated in the form of Vizzini's annual sagra della ricotta.

We had made an early start but quickly discovered that we were not alone and the sagra was well under way. Guided by the smoke and the smell, it didn't take us long to find what we came for: the ricotta cheese hub presented as a live performance (a detail captured in the photo up top). Gathered in this temporary installation were at least 20 men, young and old, working together in a ricotta cheese assembly line composed of dozens of the traditional copper kettles, each with its own fire for cooking the sheep milk and water mixture to make the cheese. Bundles of branches had been collected for the event to keep the fires going, and additional bundles would be brought over as the supply got low. Clearly this was a well-planned event. And although there was already a line for collecting a bowl of the freshly cooked cheese, we were told it wouldn't be ready for another 30 minutes, but decided to join the others and line up too, perfectly happy to watch the cheese making spectacle.

And before we knew it, we, too, were gathered around a communal table partaking in the delicacy. The cheese was warm, soupy, surprisingly salty and mildly wonderful, best eaten with the fresh little roll that it came with. It somehow seemed the perfect thing to eat at 10:30 in the morning while the local marching band played its tunes to the delight of our bambino (who was not in the least bit interested in tasting the cheese). Others, not so keen on eating cheese at this hour, brought their own storage containers and we could only imagine what wonderful things they would be cooking up in the privacy of their own homes, presumably located somewhere nearby. 

We finished off our bowls in time to follow the marching band on its path through the town, which was indeed beautiful. Along the way we admired the architecture (just love the details on the building below) and views of verdant hills peeking through the alleyways, and I spotted the handmade basket that I was determined would be coming home with me (and I later made sure it did!). 

Our final goal for the trip was to visit palazzo Trao-Ventimiglia, which houses two historical museums: the bottom floor is dedicated to the town's agricultural and craft traditions, and the top floor, with its frescoed ceilings and fantastic rooftop views,  to the work of Vizzini's most famous son, the writer Giovanni Verga. 

There is more to see in Vizzini--like its churches, an abandoned section of the town that was formerly a tannery, beautiful countryside, etc.,--but we had filled our morning and were set on being back home by 1 for nap time. And this time it wasn't only bambino who needed some sleep!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Would you eat these?


The French aren't the only ones who have figured out how to make 'land' (or would garden be a better term?) snails taste good. I have tasted this variety of snail previously in Rome, mainly because hubby is a big fan and they happen to be the featured ingredient in a dish specially prepared for the Festa of San Giovanni, the patron saint of our former neighborhood in Rome (Esquilino, home to Rome's first basilica, San Giovanni), and by chance also my hubby's birthday. Lucky him, guaranteed fireworks and snails for every Esquilino birthday!

In the past we did celebrate one such birthday San Giovanni style, eating this Roman snail dish in one of the neighborhood trattorias that prepare snails in a tomato sauce for the occasion. They were not all that bad, but I couldn't eat them like popcorn like hubby did and felt as if I had done my duty after eating half a dozen or so. 

I had no idea Sicilians also partook in this delicacy. We came upon a trunk load full of squirming snails a few weeks ago in Acitrezza. Funny thing is, I recognized the trunk and the man selling the goods as he normally carries Tarrocco Sicilian oranges and I had purchased them from him before. This afternoon, however, the oranges had been replaced with these interesting creatures, accompanied by the sign posted above them--SNAILS, collected naturally, 8 Euros/kg.

Hubby was tempted to purchase some, but fortunately for me (I could not stomach seeing these poor creatures cooked alive!), we were leaving the next day for our long weekend in Rome and we wouldn't have time to prepare them. But I did find out that the Sicilian version of the dish differs from the Roman one as the snails are sauteed with oil, garlic, parsley and red pepper. 

And again confirmed that toddler loves all kinds of animals, big and small!


For anyone curious to know more about eating snails in Sicily, I found an interesting link in Italian that gives preparation methods, recipes and other facts about snails (like they were hugely popular with the ancient Greek and Romans, come in three varieties and are very high in protein).

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The animal in Rome

As a former resident of Rome, I pride myself on the efforts I made while I lived there to truly explore the city and its vast supply of wonders of all sorts. But in all those four years the thought never occurred to me to visit Rome's zoo (known as the bioparco), located in the city's most famous expanse of green space, Villa Borghese.

I can think of many reasons why I never visited the zoo, the main one being I don't particularly like seeing animals penned up in small spaces nor spending time in places that attract throngs of children. Having said that, being the mother of a small child has completely changed my willingness to visit and have a complete blast at zoos. I am sure I am not the first mother to say this! In fact, this is the third zoo I have visited in the last year and as my son gets older the experience just gets better. I have become a huge supporter of zoos for the pure joy they give to kids. It is truly amazing to see little ones overjoyed at the direct experience of witnessing fascinating creatures do the things they do. 

So while my three days spent in Rome were not only spent at the zoo, it sort of felt that way. This was in part due to the 'a-ni-ma-li' chant the little guy developed after our day one excursion to the zoo. After that, the 'animali' chant was heard every time we walked out the door and many other times throughout the day. It was so persistent (my oh my can two year olds be persistent!) I took him back for a second visit to the reptile area which required its own ticket and we had skipped the day before. And then found additional animal fun not at the zoo (thank goodness for me!), but at a temporary butterfly installation in Villa Borghese's elegant Uccelliera (just behind the Galleria Borhese--lovely building and gardens, with a cup of tea and biscotti included in the ticket price). And even our attempted effort to do something 'more adult'--a visit to the Capitoline Museum's permanent collection as well as the wonderful Beato Angelico show which we were really keen on seeing--ended up being about looking for animals in the painted or sculpted depictions as that was the only thing that would keep toddler's cries for animals at bay! 

(As I am writing this I am wondering out loud if zoos really are a blessing or a curse?)

In any case, Rome's zoo has an impressive entrance way (a detail of which you can see in the photo up top) and is better then I expected--meaning decent spaces for the animals, a well-maintained structure, and even a sweet little kiddy section with a cool bridge to cross, a slide to slide down, and a rabbit hole to tunnel through. The reptile area was a mostly enclosed space and with the cool weather and no crowds was a great area to let toddler explore on his own two feet at his own pace.

So here's to my newly discovered 2 year old vision of Roma: A-NI-MA-LI!

Since there are no zoos in Sicily that I know of of, we will be back to getting our animal fix from our immediate environment--fortunately we have a garden and an abundance of sea life to keep us busy! Let's hope toddler agrees...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Antiques in Cannizzaro?!

Although I practically live in Cannizzaro (a frazione, or what I like to call suburb of Aci Castello) I had never spent time in the neighborhood's historic center until a few days ago. We were on an errand and looking for a nearby solution to avoid the traffic and headaches that a drive into the longer-distance solution, Catania, usually entails.

And we lucked out!

We found the pet store we were after (needed a new bird feeder--don't ask!), I got to drive through this pleasant stretch of small, step back in time Sicily, and, best of all, we discovered a newly opened and really wonderful antique shop right in our little area and did not leave empty handed.

The shop is owned by a young  furniture restorer and accordingly sells mostly furniture, but also smaller objects, ceramics, paintings, jewelry, old books and prints, etc. The shop is too my liking because it is not a high end antique shop--you know the type which makes you feel like you have to hold your breath and tip toe quietly through. But it is not a divey, dusty thrift shop that gives you the sneezes either. Somewhere right in between, with enough sense of mystery to make it possible to hunt for that affordable something special that may require a little TLC to return it to its rightful condition. And if you personally are not up to the challenge of nuturing your find back to life, then Simone the restorer will do it for you for a fee. 

Needless to say, a few finds we did of which was spotted from the road and was responsible for drawing me in...the child's chair you see pictured up top. I just couldn't resist and toddler seems to be enjoying it too!

So while Cannizzaro is not really a destination of its own, if you happen to be driving through or are a lover of old stuff keep an eye out for Affari in Soffitto mercato dell'usato, located at 136 via Firenze, Cannizzaro (Catania).

P.S. you might be able to get a better feel for the place and rustic Sicilian antiques if you click on the photo up top. 

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

lovely facades

More interesting Catanese architecture.

Since I last posted on the art deco in decay I have been noticing more turn of the century period buildings in Catania that really are gorgeous. And there are so many of them in the heart of the historic center. Sometimes it is just a matter of looking up for a second on a drive through the city to catch something amazing.

Here is one.....

...and here is something a bit more unusual and I have no idea to what period it dates. Maybe someone more knowledgeable out there can give me some insight?

Looks like black river stones were used to decorate the top floor of this building's facade (this kind of stone is more commonly seen on outdoor pavements for a mosaic effect) whereas small volcanic stones were used to decorate the upper portion of the bottom floor. The differences in texture are not easy to see on first glance since the colors of the two stones are so similar, but a pretty clever use of local materials I'd say. Click on the photos to see all the details!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Is this cheating?

We had a lovely pasquetta with all the right ingredients--adult friends, playmates for the little one, plenty of food and drink, and even mostly sunshine!

Our grill was put too good use after a long, cold winter. 

But using a blow drier to speed up the coals? My question to you, should that be considered ingenious or cheating? 

We are not hardcore bbq-ers, so in our home, it is called just plain old efficient!

Friday, April 10, 2009

My first knitted bunny

Knitting is one of those activities that I would love to be better at. Because I do it so irregularly and never got beyond making scarves using simple variations of knit and purl, I still consider myself a beginner. And this can make it challenging to start a new knitting project. Another scarf? No thanks? Am I ready to move on to knitting in the round? Yikes! Wouldn't it be great to make a pair of knitted socks? You have got to be kidding!

So when I was scouting around for ideas on what to make for a friend's new baby, I flitted with the notion of making a baby blanket, searching for patterns on the internet, and came up uninspired. 

That was until I switched gears to the realm of knitted animals. And that's when I found this amazingly simple pattern! I could simply knit a square, do a little stitching and stuffing, and end up with an adorable bunny rabbit? 

It almost seemed too good to be true. 

I got right at it. 

Being that I was newly an expat living in Sicily, it took me some time to figure out where to buy some yarn and needles. Catania is a big city, but knitting shops here are nothing like the specialty shops you can find in the States. That is a whole subject of its own, but let's just say I found something decent and also a pair of metal needles to go with it. I re-found my favorite free video tutorial and managed to cast on, get my gauge figured out, and then get my knitted square going.

It went pretty well, but I did find it less enjoyable knitting with metal needles rather than bamboo and using the small metal needles were tricky. The needles were slippery. My stitches were too tight making it hard to get the needles through the loops. The baby was born and now I really had a motivator to finish that square!

I found the stitching and stuffing to be really fun, and even learned how to decrease in order to make the cute little ears. Once again, thanks to the free google tutorials. 

My only personal adaptation to the pattern was making a pompom tail which I separately stitched on rather than a tuft of fluff pulled out from the stuffing (that seemed too much like a baby hazard!)

All the little struggles were worth the while to see the final result! I really love this little bunny and hope little Saphia will as well. 

Sunday trot in San Nicolo

It is always a nice surprise to hear the sound of hooves trotting down the road, soon to be followed by the sight of a horse pulled cart. I don't know if I get more excited for myself or for my toddler who loves horses. While this cart is modern, the bright yellow feathers on the horse's head hint at the roots of this very Sicilian tradition. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Art Nouveau in decay

This villa is located in Catania's business district and is one of the most beautiful examples of Art nouveau architecture that I have seen in the city. Sadly, it is abandoned and falling apart, with no apparent hope for recovery. The wrought iron gates that surround it are so beautiful! There are many small details in the building's facade that echo the patterns in the fence. Despite its poor state, it brings beauty to an otherwise unattractive modern section of the city. 

Monday, April 6, 2009


Tragedy in Abruzzo and I find myself at a loss for words. I remind myself of Assisi, the incredible basilica that was brought back to life from the rubble after a tremor similar to that which struck Aquila. Let's hope for another miracle to bring renewal back to the hearts of those who call Aquila home.

Fragments from Giotto's frescoes that were reconstructed after years of restoration work.

Too pretty to eat

Chocolate is everywhere these days, whether you are looking for it or not. Entire sections of the supermarket have been taken over by temporary walls of large, cumbersomely packaged Italian Easter eggs piled high. Thankfully I have been able to avoid any accidental shopping cart crashes and the purchases such an incident would necessitate up until now. But, a recent visit to the Antica Ciccolateria Acese in search of that something special had a different ending indeed (no accidents, just lots of purchases!).

Here you will be greeted by the aroma of high quality, artisanal chocolate without the overwhelming displays of mass production. The artful arrangements contain beautifully decorated Easter eggs that look more like hand painted ceramics than anything edible.

And if, like us, you really do find the Easter eggs to be just too beautiful to eat, you'll have to try the equally impressive 'regular' offerings. High quality ingredients and local Sicilian flavors are the emphasis here. We fell in love with the chocolate covered pistachios and have yet to sample chocolate combined with ingredients such as orange blossom, fig and malvasia but are eager to do so!

And if you really are a lover of chocolate you can even join the 'Chocoholic Club' and get a 10% discount on all direct purchases! Just check out the web link above for more info and a peak into my little slice of chocolate heaven.