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Leonardo: A True Genius

23 Sep

In honor of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, 500 years ago on May 2, his life and works are being celebrated throughout Italy this entire year.

Self Portrait

Self Portrait

Da Vinci was born in a small Tuscan village called Anchiano on April 15, 1452. He was a true polymath, a person whose expertise spanned a significant number of subject areas. Today, we celebrate this genius’ life as a painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, musician, inventor, mathematician, anatomist, botanist, geologist, cartographer and writer.

While most people perhaps recognize da Vinci through some of his most famous paintings, such as the Mona Lisa and Last Supper, his study of so many things, including botany, was extensive.

This past week, we were fortunate to attend La Botanica di Leonardo (Leonardo’s Botany) at the incredible Santa Maria Novella complex in Firenze. Len has read the 600 page, Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson, (2017), not once but twice, and often out loud to me, so we were particularly interested in seeing any of da Vinci’s research and exploration.

We entered through the cloister, one of the oldest parts of the complex dating back to perhaps the early 1200s.




We then entered the magnificent Capilla de los Españoles, or Spanish Chapel.



From there, we followed the signs for the exhibit.


Along the way, there were many interesting things to see, such as a mirror placed next to some of da Vinci’s words to make them legible. Da Vinci was left-handed, often wrote in a shorthand he invented for himself, and often mirrored his writing, starting at the right side of the page and moving to the left.

©  ©

He also designed furnaces and ovens for the production of medicines and perfumes, required for his alchemy research.

Leonardo Botanico Exhibit, 2019 Firenze ©

We finally arrived at the elaborate and interesting mirrored entrance.


From the exhibition website:

The Botanical exhibition outlines the philosophical and technological context of the time in which Leonardo da Vinci lived in order to explore his study of the forms and processes of the Plant world in greater depth, through his eyes as a “systemic” thinker, highlighting the connections between art, science and nature and the relationships between the different spheres of knowledge.

The long hall was filled with exhibits on both sides, depicting various aspects of da Vinci’s research. With this animation, we saw da Vinci’s research on the progression of plant formation, one leaf at a time.

While others had discovered that a tree’s age was could be determined by counting the rings, it was da Vinci who discovered that the growth rings told the story of the environmental conditions of each year. These are photos of an animation of the rings of a tree over time and a tree sample.


There was also a large, two-sided screen depicting some of da Vinci’s notes, drawing and paintings.  Here’s a sampling:

And then this, some of his notes:

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Codex Atlanticus, folio 197 verso. Method for making a “positive” print; bottom, a sage leaf printed in negative. Copyright Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana/Mondadori Portfolio.

At the end of the hall, guests are invited to momentarily become like the Vitruvian man, who for da Vinci, was the proportional blend of math and art during the Renaissance, and a cornerstone of Leonardo’s attempts to relate man to nature.


The final panels, titled Leonardo’s Legacy, leave us with a message worthy of consideration:

Leonardo Botanico Exhibit, 2019 Firenze

And so we see the reason why Leonardo’s legacy is even more relevant today: if our sciences and technologies are ever more restricted in their focus, if they are unable to understand the complexity of problems by taking an interdisciplinary approach and are dominated by companies that are more interested in financial revenue than the well-being of humanity, then we urgently need to return to a vision of science that honours and respects the unity of life as a whole, that recognizes the fundamental interdependence of all natural phenomena and reconnects us with the system of living things. Our needs today are exactly those outlined in the thinking of Leonardo da Vinci five hundred years ago.

Leonardo Botanico Exhibit, 2019 Firenze

Leonardo da Vinci, a true genius, spent a great deal of time in the Santa Maria Novella area in 1504 and 1505. Walking through the exhibit, you sometimes feel as though he just might walk by. 





Buon Compleanno, Leonardo!

15 Apr

On April 15, 1452, Leonardo da Vinci was born in a small Tuscan village called Anchiano. He was a true polymath, a person whose expertise spanned a significant number of subject areas. Today, we celebrate this genius’ life as a painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, musician, inventor, mathematician, anatomist, botanist, geologist, cartographer and writer.

Presumed Self Portrait

Presumed Self Portrait

Da Vinci was the illegitimate child of Caterina, a domestic servant, and Sir Piero da Vinci, owner of the house where da Vinci was born. Today, the house is a museum where visitors are welcomed by da Vinci himself, well almost, as his life-sized hologram greets visitors and shares information about his life. In nearby Vinci, one can visit the, which, according it its website, “is one of the most extensive and most original collections, providing critical knowledge of Leonardo in his historical context and in that of late Middle Ages and Renaissance.”

Among Da Vinci’s most famous works is the Vitruvian Man.

Luc Viatour /

Luc Viatour /

This drawing, combining art and science, depicts a man in two superimposed positions. The picture represents da Vinci’s attempt to relate man to nature as he believed the human body was analogous to the workings of the universe. The drawing also contains notes based on the work of the architect Vitruvius. The original is kept in Venice in the Gallerie dell’ Accademia and made available to the public occasionally.

Another intriguing work of da Vinci is the Mona Lisa. On display at the Louvre in Paris, this painting is considered one of the most famous in the world.



In 1503, Francesco del Giocondo commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to paint a portrait of his wife, Lisa, age 24. It is believed it took him about four years to complete due to other projects. Da Vinci, however, feeling the painting was unfinished, never delivered it to Francesco nor did he get paid for his work; it is undated and unsigned.

Another iconic painting of da Vinci’s is The Last Supper, in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

The Last Supper

The Last Supper

While many of Da Vinci’s works still exist, many more were lost over the years. Yet his notebooks containing sketches and scientific diagrams, as well as his thoughts on the nature of painting, provide continuing and immeasurable contributions to both art and science.

Happy Birthday #563 , Leonardo!

You graced this earth for 67 short years, but your brilliance will shine forever.



“Italy the Extraordinary Commonplace”

25 Jan

We often read of the demise of Italy as a major producer and exporter, so the following video was made to counter some of these less than favorable descriptions.

Per Matteo Renzi, Prime Minister of Italy,

The video “Italy the extraordinary commonplace” is designed to show Italy beyond stereotypes, a major producer of technological goods and the second European exporter in mechanical engineering and automation. 

Since I love visiting Italy, I found this information to be great news. As for the format, well, leave it to the ever creative Italians. Thanks, Anna, for sharing.



Through His Words: Day Twenty-Seven

7 Jun

Reflections From and About My Grandfather
Alexander Capraro, Architect


Grand Hotel Flora – Roma

August 11, 1938

Darling Modesta

At last I have arrived in the eternal city. I left Siena this morning bright and early, 7:03 AM, and got here this noon. It was awful hot coming down on the train and you could feel it getting hotter as we neared Rome. Siena is much cooler because it is up in the mountains, while Rome is closer to the sea and low.

I had a little lunch and at the same time started to map out what I was going to see. One of the interesting spots is near my hotel, so I walked over to it, the Villa Borghese and the gardens of the Borghese.

In January, I visited The Hotel Flora at the end of Via Veneto overlooking the Borghese gardens, had a wonderful tour, and tried to imagine Alex’s pure delight at seeing the treasures of the eternal city.

Villa Borghese is a large palace now used as an art gallery which contains originals of Michelangelo, Raffaelo, da Vinci, Botticelli, Bernini, and other famous sculptors and painters. You know, it is almost fantastic to see the palaces the people in power of those days lived in. We have nothing like it anywhere in America.

Try to imagine a plot of land equal to Columbus Park, only more beautifully landscaped with formal gardens, big old trees, marble and bronze statuary, and wonderful fountains here and there, and the palace about the size of the Art Institute, and you have a pretty fair picture of this villa and gardens.

The Borghese Gardens

The Borghese Gardens

The Borghese family had two popes in it, and these were built when the church was the governing body of the state or country. From a hill nearby, I got a fair panorama of one side of Rome  and I gazed on St. Peter’s and numerous other church domes which could be seen at a distance.

Like Alex, I took several panorama photos of Rome, these from the Grand Hotel Flora’s incredible rooftop deck.

I called up the Fermes when I got back and had quite a long telephone conversation with Mrs. Ferme, because Ferme was out and would not be back until late. She was very glad to talk with someone from Chicago, and judging from her talk, she doesn’t like it here as well as Chicago, especially because her two big boys are back in America. She invited me over for dinner with them tomorrow night, and Ferme is coming over to see me in the morning to give me some information on how to see as much of Rome in five days as possible. She asked about you and sends her best regards.

Tonight after supper, I walked quite a bit and saw the Coliseum, The Forum, the ruins of this and that, and many structures dating back several centuries before Christ.

The impression is awe inspiring, the city is wonderfully clean, and the streets are lined with beautiful trees of tropical nature, palms, magnolias, etc. Tomorrow I shall start about visiting these places and probably make the Vatican in St. Peter’s first. It is going to take a lot of time here because there is so much to see. Will let you know more tomorrow night.

Greetings to the family and a big and tight embrace for you.” Wait until I get home!”

Yes, he wrote that!

Love, Al




Through His Words: Day Twenty-Four (2nd letter)

29 May

Reflections From and About My Grandfather
Alexander Capraro, Architect


Hotel De Rome

August 8, 1938

Hello Darling

Well I sure got my fill of walking today. Florence is filled with art treasures of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Rafael, etc. There are three large art galleries: Galleria Pitti, Uffizi, and Museum of San Marco. They are blocks long and filled with paintings and sculptures of the famous old masters.

Outside the Uffizi

Outside the Uffizi

Dante’s house, the Cathedral and Ponte Vecchio all date back centuries and yet they are here and used as if they were built only yesterday.

The Duomo –

The Duomo -

The Duomo –

Baptistry doors -

Baptistry doors –

My feet actually ache and I just got through taking a bath and treating my feet to soothe them a little. I am glad in a way that Joe was not with me, because he could never stand up under the strain, especially with a bad heart. It is just impossible to see everything worthwhile seeing in only a few days. It takes at least a week and I can’t spare that much time. I leave one place thinking it has the best in sculpture, painting, tapestries, etc., only to find the next place is richer than the one before. It actually makes you dizzy trying to take it all in.

Ponte Vecchio -

Ponte Vecchio –

I intend on leaving for Pisa and Montecatini at 8:10 in the morning and coming back to Florence later in the evening. Then I shall get to Siena for a half day and then Rome.

Pisa -

Pisa –

Pisa -

Pisa –

So much for my activities, now how about you? I still haven’t had word from you and I am actually starving for want of something from home. What in the world has happened? If you wrote me even after I landed here, I should have received your letters by now. Fortunately, I have met many Americans who are traveling about the same itinerary as I am, and it has been a comfort because as long as we are Americans when we meet here, we have a feeling of being neighbors.

It’s easy to understand Alex’s growing concern for news from home, especially after more than three weeks. His tone now had a slight edge to it that came across even on paper. Fortunately, there was much to keep him busy and distract him, at least until writing time, which was usually late at night when he was tired.

I have given up hope of hearing from you until I get to Rome now, but I hope to God I’ll get mail there, otherwise I’ll go nutty. I am starting to miss you more every day and the only medicine good for it is a letter from you. So good night and pleasant dreams. Love to the children and a big kiss for you, Al




Through His Words: Day Twenty-One

7 May

Reflections From and About My Grandfather
Alexander Capraro, Architect


Day Nineteen

August 5, 1938 (no letter written Aug.4)

Dear Maude,

Honey I feel blue tonight. I don’t know whether you are to blame or not, but I was terribly disappointed yesterday when I called at the American Express Co. here in Milan and found no mail. However, I was appeased by the information that mail from America was expected today and I went there late today feeling sure some mail would be there for me, but I was to be disappointed again. I am leaving for Venice early in the morning, and I left a forwarding address. You know, it’s about three weeks and I have not heard from you and not withstanding the fact that I am kept busy every minute of the day and night, I am getting lonesome for word from you and the children.

Well, let me tell you a little about Milano. It is almost a border town, being only one hour from Chiaso at the Swiss border. There seems to be quite a mixture here of dark and light-haired people. The women are mostly fair and have blue eyes but are not good-looking generally. Men and women dress about the same as we do at home. Outside of some real old buildings, (I saw a church today with relics in it from 2000 BC), there are decidedly very up-to-date and modern designed buildings here.

 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Milan skyline: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

One of the places Alex would have visited is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, named after the first king of the Italy.  It is one of the world’s oldest shopping malls and is located in central Milan.  The Galleria was designed in 1861 and built between 1865 and 1877 by Giuseppe Mengoni. 

Photo circa 1880

Photo circa 1880

Galleria: Wikimedia Commons

Galleria: Wikimedia Commons

Night photo at Christmas: Wikimedia Commons

Night photo at Christmas: Wikimedia Commons

Last night, I attended an open air performance of La Traviata. It was held in the courtyard of an old castle which is big enough to hold 20,000 seats and every one was occupied. It cost 10 lire for admission and the performance was really beautiful.

Today, I went with a regular tour in a sightseeing car and covered the points of interest. Later, I went back to the Duomo di Milano because it is a world-renowned, magnificent structure made all of marble, setback in a large piazza. I spent hours in the place.

Duomo di Milano

Duomo di Milano

I also saw the original painting of the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. 

Da Vinci's Last Supper

Da Vinci’s Last Supper

I miss you a lot and hope I’ll get some news tomorrow. I hope there’s nothing wrong and everyone is feeling well. Goodbye dear, God bless you and the children.

Anxiously waiting for a letter.

I am as ever yours,





Through His Words: Day Fourteen

11 Apr

Reflections From and About My Grandfather
Alexander Capraro, Architect

Day Fourteen
Hotel Regina, Paris

July 30th, 1938

Dear Toots,

Well, I made the grade today and dragged myself to Notre Dame Cathedral, situated on the banks of the Seine River, with a large front courtyard, and hundreds of old and imposing statues in stone on the entrance and the facade. (Christopher Kramer)

The exterior is immense, treasures of the church given it by and for the French kings and Napoleon Bonaparte.

One section is set-aside for the keeping of countless treasures in gold, precious gems, etc., which are encrusted on crowns, crucifixes, scepters, vestments, etc. There is one chalice about 2’6″ high, the sun bursts of which are entirely made up of diamonds, each bigger then Doc Vitullo’s pop bottle. On a wall in one of the rooms, there are figures of 228 past popes, each done in cameos with the exact likeness of their faces. These cameos are mounted on a gold frame and pinned on a black velvet background. So much for that. 

Next was the Louvre and Tuileries, immense buildings with beautiful formal gardens. The Louvre is about two blocks in width and about as long as Jackson to Washington Boulevard (just a little hut!)



Then on to the Place de Concorde, a large Piazza with beautiful fountains, marble and bronze statuary, and again formal gardens, and then to the Champs Elysees. This is the finest stretch of boulevard in the world, about 2 miles long, lined with double rows of great big old trees, great wide sidewalks, and the smartest shops, restaurants, and cafés on the first story of each building.

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

 All of the buildings are six stories in height with balconies and mansard roofs, all stone. Nearly all the main buildings in Paris are about the same height, but naturally vary in design.

A picture I took from the Louvre of Paris shows the symmetrical heights in Paris.

A picture I took of Paris from inside the Louvre shows the symmetrical heights he described.

 All the streets are at an angle, the main ones coming to a point at the Arc de Triomphe. This is one place I can’t get to learn, even with the study of the map. Every few blocks there are circles like you saw in Washington, only larger and each one is properly landscaped with fountains and statues. There is no imitation about anything here as far as the buildings are concerned–marble, mahogany, walnut, bronze wrought iron fences and balconies, are all the real thing. The Arc de Triomphe, you may have seen in pictures, is on a high spot and from the top can be seen all of Paris on a bright sunny day. I hope my pictures come out so you can see, at least in pictures, what I am trying so inadequately to describe in words. 

Benjamin Stäudinger

Arc at Night: Benjamin Stäudinger

This is the real international city of the world. Peoples from every known country seem to be here. There is no particular class or racial distinction. It is not uncommon to see a Negro or Sengalese, as they call them here, walking the street with a white French wife and a couple of children. There is no ban against them in theaters, restaurants or cafés. 

I also went to the street market section today. It is clean and well kept and run by all native Frenchmen. Everything is shown outside on neat carts or bulkheads, but they all yell out their wares the same way. Even the butchers have their meat and chops and fish outside, sliced and ready to be sold. Horsemeat is a common thing here, and out of curiosity, I had a steak from the fillet of horse tonight for dinner. If I didn’t know it was horse me, I would never have known the difference. 

Well, tomorrow I shall make an inside tour of the Louvre and then pack up and get ready to go. Next stop is Interlaken and Lucerne, Switzerland, but I will never forget this city of cities. If for no other reason, it was worth making this trip just to see Paris. 

Here are two incredible pieces of art Alex would have seen at the Louvre (from our 2009 family trip to Paris).


Winged Victory (in entrance To Louvre)


Winged Victory (in entrance To Louvre)


da Vinci’s Mona Lisa

By the way, you ought to be getting my letters starting tomorrow or the next day and I soon hope to get yours. I was dreaming about you last night, and that helped keep me from getting too lonesome. Hope I’ll dream of you every night. Feeling okay, so don’t worry. 

Loads of love, Al

Such a romantic!




Italian Hill Towns

7 Jun

Just returned from a two-day tour of the Italian countryside in Tuscany and Umbria where the drive was as lovely as the three ancient towns we visited.


Our first stop was Citta di Castello, meaning town of the castle. Although there actually is no castle, there are stately old buildings and monuments, and of course, in the “larger” cities as least, a duomo or cathedral. The area was an ancient Roman port on the Tiber River and some archaeological remains of the port are visible in the southern part of the historical center.






Eliza, at Antico Canonico where we spent the night, was most helpful in telling us about the city as well as other nearby towns which we visited the next day. Our “hotel” was originally built years ago as a home for priests. While the door to each unit is the original “cell” door, the apartment behind is simple, ample and clean. Yes, this is our apartment door!


In the afternoon, we enjoyed  watching the men’s bocce tournament. And in the evening, we strolled the town with the locals.


The next morning, our first destination was the lovely town of Citerna in Umbria, a tiny hilltop town which boasts of Etruscan and Roman origins and is ranked among the 100 most beautiful villages in Italy. It is the northernmost town in Umbria and while it was severely damaged during WWII, you’d  never know it today.





The panoramic views as we left town were spectacular!


From there we headed back to Tuscany to a town called  Anghiari. At first, this appeared to be a “modern” town until we came upon the ancient hilltop walled city. Anghiari is famous for a 1440 battle between the towns of Florence and Milan, and even inspired Leonardo da Vinci to create a fresco in Palazzo Vecchio. Although the original fresco has disappeared,  a sketch of it by Peter Paul Rubens is still in existence.

Peter Paul Rubens' copy of the lost Battle of ...

Peter Paul Rubens’ copy of the lost Battle of Anghiari. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The ancient town is filled with steep, winding streets, and on one of them, we came across a wonderful shop called Carabattole. Sitting inside was Marinella, from whom we learned about tombolo, an art not practiced in the US.





I bought a lovely pair of earrings similar to the ones shown above. Afterward, we enjoyed a simple but wonderful lunch at a local Cantina.


When we returned to Cortona and talked to some of the locals about our trip, many had not even heard of tiny Citerna. How lucky for us that  Eliza directed us there, as well as to Anghiari. Continuing to follow the road less travelled without agenda always brings us wonderful surprises and new memories as well as the opportunity to share them with you.



Mona Lisa Uncovered

1 Aug

Does the name Lisa Gherardini sound familiar? Well, it didn’t to me until I saw a news clip that caught my eye. Many experts believe that Lisa, the wife of Italian merchant Francesco del Giocondo, was the subject of Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting, Mona Lisa. Now it seems that her bones may have been uncovered beneath the altar of the Convent of Saint Ursula in Florence, Italy.

The clipping intrigued me, mostly because I’m not sure I have ever wondered who Mona Lisa was. So, a bit of research uncovered some information I found very interesting:

  • Lisa was born in Florence, Italy, in 1479, and was the eldest of seven children.
  • In 1945, at the age of fifteen, she married Francesco del Giocondo, a successful merchant. Together they had five children. Two of their daughters became nuns, (which has to do with the location of the archaeological dig!)
  • In 1503, Francesco commissioned Leonardo DaVinci to paint a portrait of his wife, Lisa, age 24. It is believed it took him about four years to complete due to other projects. DaVinci, however, feeling the painting was unfinished, never delivered it to Francesco nor did he get paid for his work.
  •  The painting depicts Lisa as a fashionable woman as well as a faithful wife of her time, as shown through her right hand over her left.
  • The title of the painting, La Gioconda in Italian and La Joconde in French, refers to Lisa’s married name Giocondo, as well as the nickname La Jocund, meaning the merry one.
  • Monna Lisa was the original title. Monna is considered a contraction for Madonna, meaning Madam or My Lady.
  • After her husband died and Lisa’s health began to fail, daughter Marietta (a nun) cared for Lisa in the convent of Saint Ursula, where she is believed to be buried.
  • King Francis I of France acquired the painting in the 16th century and kept it in his chateau, The Fontainebleau. Many years later, it was hanging in Napoleon’s bedroom in the Tuileries. In 1797, it was moved to the Louvre where it became accessible to the masses for viewing.
  • On August 21, 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian carpenter who worked  at the Louvre, stole the painting from the wall of the Salon Carré. It was recovered 2 years later when he attempted to sell it to a Florentine antique dealer.
  • Mona Lisa is considered one of the most famous paintings in the world. About six million people visit the painting each year at the Louvre in Paris. It now hangs in the Salle de Etats, inventory number # 779. ( Great trivia!)
  • Mona Lisa is undated and unsigned.

For those who have had the joy of being in the Louvre, you might have been caught off guard by the size of the painting. For a portrait of its time, it was actually considered large. But for many today, including me, it’s hard not to be struck by the small size of perhaps the world’s most famous painting… 30 inches high by 20 7/8 inches wide (77cm by 53 cm). Nonetheless, her smile and eyes never fail to intrigue…and now we know about the hands!

As for unearthing the bones, click on the link for a great picture of the dig as well as an explanation.



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