Archives for April 2020

Telling the time Italian style: it goes backwards!

The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.
Picture: Antonio Quattrone

Continuing my musings on the art and architecture of Florence, in our enforced incarceration during the coronavirus lockdown, I’d like you to turn your head a little from contemplating the marvels of the Cathedral floor (click here to see my piece on this) and have a look at an extraordinary clock on the wall just inside the West doors.

It is still working after the best part of 600 years, but it doesn’t tell the time the way you and I know it. It shows ‘Italian time’ and it goes backwards!

The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.

The clock face, with pictures of the four evangelists, was painted by the Renaissance master Paolo Uccello in 1443 and the workings were made by Angelo di Niccoló, with later improvements, including a pendulum, by one Galileo Galilei).

There is only one hand, in the shape of a golden shooting star, and the time starts at XXIIII, the Roman 24, and goes backwards, anti-clockwise. The 24 doesn’t represent midnight, but rather sunset, when in the old days there was a curfew: the city gates were closed and no–one was supposed to be on the streets. The bells of the Duomo, timed by the clock, would ring at set intervals before the sun set.

That time, of course, varies throughout the year, so the clock has regularly to be adjusted, to ensure that the last of the daylight coincides with the Roman numeral XXIIII. Then the clock works its way backwards through the hours, arriving again at sunset 24 hours later.

Is it time for a coffee?

Okay, hold onto your hat and I will try to tell you how to tell the time on Uccello’s clockface. If the sun set at 6pm, then by 10am the next day, the hand will be on XXIIII minus XVI, that is, at VIII, showing there’s been 16 hours since sunset the previous night! You need to be a bit of an expert to tell the precise modern time from Uccello’s old clock!

It was in the 1580s that the French started to reorganise time into two 12-hour periods, starting at midnight (midnight to noon are the ‘morning hours’; noon to midnight the ‘evening hours’) but it took the Florentines decades to change to the new system. In the 1660s, however, Uccello’s 24-hour clock face was covered with a new one, showing just 12 hours.

Careful investigation in the 1960s, however, revealed Uccello’s original underneath the new-fangled clock face showing ‘French time’. Now the original is revealed, restored and once more displayed as it should be.

So, if sunset was at 8:20 pm last night and the hour-hand is now in the middle of III does that mean it’s half-past four? Answers on a postcard, please!

Later this week I’d like to return to Pietro Uccello and another of his masterworks on the wall of the Cathedral, and ask the question: Did the invention of perspective ruin his married life?

The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.

Grandparents, cousins, aunts — everyone wants to join Mike’s international painting classes

The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.

Earlier this week we told you about how our  friend and Watermill painting tutor Mike Willdridge has been keeping his (teaching) hand in by running virtual art classes on Zoom for several of  his grandchildren living in Australia, Wales and England, aged between 10 and 4 years old. We showed you a picture of his five-year-old Welsh granddaughter, Evelyn, posing in front of some of her artwork.

That picture proved very popular on Facebook earlier in the week: more than 600 people pushed the Like button. Today is the turn of another granddaughter seven-year-old Joselyn from Australia, who is not just going to be a student, but also a tutor!

Mike says: “My virtual art classes are really taking off. We’ve now been joined by grandparents, cousins and aunts, all keen to share some special time with their younger relations. Tomorrow’s class, in a fascinating twist to these sessions, is being run by my granddaughter in Australia – Joselyn, who is seven years old and is shown with her artwork prepared for her first teaching assignment – scraper board art.

“She even made a video of ‘how to make a scraper board’ for everyone to make their own preparations. My eldest granddaughter (aged 10) in England is planning on running a session on Sunday.

“After each session all the grandkids send me their work – so impressive – and so much fun.”

Painting by Mike Willdridge, a tutor at The Watermill at Posara painting holidays/vacations, Tuscany, Italy.

Mike will, all being well, be taking another of his watercolour painting courses at the Watermill this September. Why not join him and be inspired, too? We promise you that you’ll have as much fun as the grandchildren, to say nothing of aunts, cousins and the whole international Willdridge family. (Thanks to them all for sharing their fun with us.)

Mike’s course, in watercolours and drawing (and gouache and acrylics) will run from Saturday 29 August to Saturday 5 September. Details and link below. Why not give yourself something to look forward to and join Mike here? We think things will be back to normal by then, but don’t forget the Watermill’s coronavirus promise:

  • Rest assured that if travel restrictions in your own country or in Italy mean that the course cannot run on these dates, or that appropriate flights are not available, we will postpone your course until 2021.
  • If a workshop is cancelled, rather than just being postponed, we will refund any payment in full.
  • If a workshop is postponed and you cannot make the new dates for the tutor you have chosen, we will offer you alternative courses with others inspiring tutors.
Painting by Mike Willdridge, a tutor at The Watermill at Posara painting holidays/vacations, Tuscany Italy.
A lovely watercolour by Mike Willdridge of the millstream bubbling under one of our gardner Flavio’s famous wooden bridges.

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Mike Willdridge
29 August – 5 September 2020 – three or four places left
Watercolour and drawing (also gouache and acrylics)
To learn more about Mike and his course at the mill, please visit his 2020 Profile Page.


Below is Mike’s beautiful demonstration painting of the nearby church at Pognana. Come and see for yourself. We would love to welcome you here.

Painting by Mike Willdridge, a tutor at The Watermill at Posara painting holidays/vacations, Tuscany, Italy.

Time to look down (virtually) in Florence’s cathedral. A mind-bending experience

The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.

Continuing my musings, during our enforced coronavirus lockdown, on the artistic and architectural wonders in Florence, I would like to urge you today to look down, rather than up. Not because we are dispirited, but rather to introduce you to something you may have missed even if it is, literally, beneath your feet.

Every time we visit the Duomo, Florence’s Cathedral of Santa Maria Fiore, we want to look around us at the impressively colossal space created by those ancient architects, at the wonderful artefacts around the walls, and then up into the interior of the extraordinary dome created by my hero Filippo Brunelleschi. Work on the dome, incidentally, started 1420, 600 years ago. Its design and construction is one of the most impressive feats of architecture and engineering ever*.

But next time you visit, the moment that you come through the main door into the nave, look down at the floor. The 16th century pavimento, mainly the work of Baccio d’Agnolo and Francesco da Sangallo, is a remarkable achievement in its own right.

The first section of flooring, just inside the main portal is the most extraordinary of all. You will see that the multicoloured marble motifs in the octagonal pavement get smaller until they reach the central point, marked with a medallion inscribed the letters OPA, the ‘logo’ of the Opera del Duomo, the venerable institution in charge of the cathedral works. (Pictures above and below)

The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.

You can admire the precision of the stonework and the knowledge of mathematics that went into its construction, apparently inspired by the inlays in Turkish carpets, fashionable among the rich in 16th century Florence. But to enjoy the truly remarkable aspect of this floor, you need to fly with me, virtually, high into the nave. Beware of vertigo!

The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.

Isn’t that an extraordinary? It just shows that being locked down can give you a new perspective on life!

The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.

Incidentally, I’m told that the image is often enjoyed by those on drugs, since it enhances a heightened spatial awareness. I have no personal knowledge of this, but I hope you enjoyed your trip today.

*Brunelleschi’s dome features a great deal in that intriguing detective story A Matter of Perspective! Please click here to learn more.

The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.

These pictures are the bee’s knees – and so’s the honey!

These pictures are the bee’s knees – and so’s the honey!

Our gardener Flavio Terenzoni pops into the Watermill from time to time, just to ensure everything is okay. And when he does, he takes some pictures and sends them to Florence, where we are locked down. We’ve already shown you some pictures of the spring flowers, buds and blossoms, but Flavio has also been turning his camera on the bees, who are already busy gathering the nectar to make this year’s honey:

These pictures are the bee’s knees – and so’s the honey!

Here’s another one Flavio took some time back, amongst the vibrant colour of an artichoke flower

The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.

Over the years, our Watermill guests, too, have taken some marvellous pictures the bees at work. Here is one by Ron Ploeg;

The Watermill at Posara for painting, sculpting, knitting, creative writing, Italian language and yoga, holidays/vacations, Tuscany, Italy.

And another, in a passion flower:

The Watermill at Posara for painting, sculpting, knitting, creative writing, Italian language, personal development and yoga holidays/vacations/retreats, Tuscany, Italy.
The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.

As you may know, honey from Lunigiana, the unspoiled part of Tuscany in which the Watermill is located, is the only one in Italy to have been given the coveted DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) designation. Other products so defined include Parma ham and Parmesan cheese and the balsamic vinegar of Modena.

Beekeepers here still keep to the centuries-old traditions to ensure the quality of the honey. The earliest records of honey-making go back to the early 16th Century (when the authorities realised they could tax the product!) and, amazingly, if you compare the locations of beehives on ancient maps with those on a modern one you can see that the hives today are in almost precisely the same areas as they were five centuries ago.

Two types of honey are made in Lunigiana: the lighter-coloured, delicately flavoured acacia honey and the darker, more strongly flavoured chestnut honey. We use both at the watermill, but we think the acacia is better with an amuse guele we serve with aperitivi on the vine verandah.

When we’re feeling posh we call it Foglie di indivia (cicoria) farcite con gorgonzola (dolce), noci e miele di Lunigiana (Denominazione di Origine Protetta). It is simple to prepare (taking only a little more time than actually saying the name) and is just individual crispy chicory leaves with sweet gorgonzola and walnuts, drizzled Lunigiana acacia honey. It’s the bee’s knees!

Silken remembrances of times past

Painting by Annabel Collis, a friend of The Watermill at Posara painting holidays/vacations, Tuscany, Italy.

We were reminiscing this week about how we had spent our Easter Mondays at the Watermill in the past, usually enjoying a picnic with a dozen friends and their families in a nearby hilltop olive grove with amazing views across the valleys to the Apuan Alps, the marble mountains of Carrara. As well as good company, tasty Italian food, plenty of wine, there was also that marvellous feeling that only the Italians have a word for: abbiocco, the drowsiness that sets in after a good meal!

This year, of course, we have been confined to barracks in Florence apartment, not so bad, but not to be compared with fresh air, incomparable scenery and ‘laughter and the love of friends.’

It all set me thinking about the colourful silk paintings that we have in the Watermill dining room and sitting room.  They were made by our English artist friend Annabel Collis and they represent various scenes from our Italian life when our children, Lydia and Lara, were very young. They’re painted with ‘barrier lines’ between areas of the silk so the colours don’t run into one section from to another.

The picture above shows in its central panel use all enjoying one of those Easter Monday picnics. It’s not a snapshot of one moment in time, but rather a collage of events, so the dramatis personae appear several times, notably the children, who can be seen from babies to toddlers. The dark-haired young man holding the football and flying the kite is Bill! The background shows typical scenes in nearby Fivizzano, including the children enjoying ice creams around one of the distinctive dolphins around the fountain in the Piazza Medicea.

The picture below features a diptych, with the Cinque Terre village of Vernazza on the left of the internal panel and the Watermill’s bamboozery on the right, while the background captures the ‘sea and sky together, under the blue Italian weather’ along the Cinque Terre coast.

Painting by Annabel Collis, a friend of The Watermill at Posara painting holidays/vacations, Tuscany, Italy.

In the sitting room in the Tuscan house, you’ll find a third Collis painting. This one captures the essence of the mill, the cascades and the river, the family enjoying the gardens, the bamboozery and surrounding vineyards.

Painting by Annabel Collis, a friend of The Watermill at Posara painting holidays/vacations, Tuscany, Italy.
Painting by Annabel Collis, a friend of The Watermill at Posara painting holidays/vacations, Tuscany, Italy.

We commissioned the pictures many years ago after Bill had asked Annabel to make a silk scarf of Venice for one of Lois’ birthdays. Lois liked it so much she refused to wear it and had it framed instead. It hangs in the Botticelli bedroom at the Watermill (viewing by request to the guest who’s occupying it!) 

Lovely pictures, bringing back happy remembrances of times past. We are hoping to see them again very soon and, of course, the Watermill, it’s gardens and grounds at the stunning surrounding scenery of Lunigiana. We hope, too, that you be able to join us later in the year one of our painting, creative writing, knitting or Italian language courses, and that you will make your own warm Watermill memories.

The case of the un-swaddled bambino

The case of the un-swaddled bambino. It sounds like a bit of a mystery story, something perhaps for Inspector Montalbano to investigate. Well, there is a mystery, but a rather pleasant one, unrelated to violence or crime, quite the contrary.

I was talking yesterday about the graceful classical façade of the ospedale degli Innocenti, the Foundlings Hospital, one of the masterpieces of my architectural hero Filippo Brunelleschi. I mentioned the bambini tondi and promised to tell you more about them.

When the ospedale was finished in the 1440s, there were blank roundels in the spandrels, the spaces between the arches. It wasn’t until more than 40 years later, in 1487, that these were filled with the famous bambini tondi, round glazed ceramic plaques, created by Andrea della Robbia. (There were originally 10 of them but in 1845 two additional pairs, reproductions of some of the originals was installed at either end of the façade.)

Each original bambino is unique. Some are tightly swaddled, while in others, the unravelling bands are sagging below the waist or knees. But one of these delightful babies is even untidier than the others. The swaddling bands are falling away, and the baby’s feet are unbound. You can see the un-swaddled bambino at the top of this story and he is in the top left-hand corner of the montage below.

And that’s the mystery. Why did Andrea della Robbia do this? If I were an administrator of the Foundlings Hospital, I’m not sure that I would like to have my charges depicted in this way. And the un-swaddled bambino? Matron would have been outraged.

Nobody knows the answer, but there is a theory to which I like to subscribe, that the un-swaddled bambino represents the baby’s transition from the stigma of being an abandoned, unwanted child to the liberation of a new life, thanks to the care of the hospital. More than five centuries on, the ospedale still cares for children: The Istituto degli Innocenti, working closely with UNICEF, researches into the care of children internationally and promotes the defence of their rights.

The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.
The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.

The most beautiful orphanage in the world?

The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.
The incomparable façade of the ospedale degli innocenti

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This week in my musings on Florentine art and architecture during our enforced coronavirus incarceration, I would like to talk about the masterworks of my great hero Filippo Brunelleschi.

As well as designing and supervising the construction of the incomparable dome of Florence cathedral, Filippo invented linear perspective, designed the first neo-classical building since Roman times, the ospedale degli innocenti (above) and created the sublime space of the Pazzi chapel in the cloisters of Santa Croce. With his one-time apprentice Donatello (who re-created classical sculpture) and his patron Cosimo (Medici) the Elder (who led the re-discovery of Greek and Roman texts and promoted Humanism), Brunelleschi can truly be regarded as the father of the Renaissance.

The ospedale degli innocenti (The Foundlings Hospital), designed by Filippo in 1419, is in that magnificent square, the Piazza Santissima Annunziata, and its gentle classical proportions take one’s breath away (mine anyway).

The loggia at the front of the building features nine semicircular arches mounted on classical columns with composite capitols. It is the sense of proportion that is so satisfying: the height of the columns is the same as the width of the arches, and the height of the entablature is half the height of the columns, bringing clarity and order to the design.

In the spandrels of the arches there are tondi, circular panels with wonderful glazed terracotta reliefs by Andrea della Robbia of bambini in various stages of swaddling and un-swaddling. There is a story behind those, too: remind me to tell you about them tomorrow.

 But today, I just wanted to show you a Sandro Botticelli picture that can be seen in the Ospedale’s museum. It is of the Madonna and Child with an Angel, the same subject (minus one angel!) as the Filippo Lippi, my favourite painting in the Uffizi gallery.

Here is the Botticelli:

The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.

And here’s Lippi’s Madonna and Child with Two Angels.

The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.

Botticelli, who was Lippi’s pupil, clearly based his painting on Lippi’s. I have no doubt which of the two is the better. It confirms my contention that Lippi taught Botticelli all he knew, including the portrayal of female beauty.

I’ll tell you about the bambini tomorrow.

Bill finishes the world’s slowest marathon. Church bells ring in Florence

The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.

At 9 o’clock this morning the church bells in Florence rang out loudly under a clear blue Tuscan sky. I’m not sure whether they were celebrating Easter Day or the fact that I had just completed the World’s Slowest Marathon, 422 100-metre laps around a specially designed circuit in our apartment here.

Yes, I’ve been in and out of the bedrooms, round the kitchen, through the hall and sitting room and round a couple of balconies no fewer than 422 times, for a total of 42.2 km, slightly more than the 26 miles 385 yards required. That’s me above at the Finishing Line between Balcony Bend and Sitting Room Straight, waving the chequered flag specially prepared by Lois.

And here’s the victor’s trophy, which looks suspiciously like one of those over-the-top Italian Easter eggs.

The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.

Mo Farah has called, anxious to see whether his under-two-hour record is threatened, but we were able to assure him that, using the sophisticated timing mechanism below, he has little to fear. I completed the feat in an impressive 14 hours four minutes.

The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.

Now the problem is where to go next, since our Prime Minister has just announced that we going to be locked down until May 3. Walking from Land’s End to John O’Groats in that time, even for an experienced apartment-walker like me, might prove a little too far. I was also thinking about Ghent to Aix. (I remember the Robert Browning poem from my youth: ‘I sprang to the stirrup and Joris and he. I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three.’) But even that seems a little far, given the lack of horseflesh on the second floor of a Florentine apartment block.

I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime raise a glass (or two) to the hero of the World’s Slowest Marathon! Salute! Happy Easter, wherever you are.

Bye bye, baby and other English words to make your Italian more sophisticated!

The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.
A sophisticated teenager or, in Italian, trendy baby!

One of the strange fascinations of their beautiful language is the way Italian love to use English words! They even have a word for them: anglicismi. It seems to be happening more and more, as, according to one recent estimate, there are as many as 3,500 English words in common Italian usage.

Sprinkling English into their language is counted rather sophisticated by many Italians. In fact, they would call it trendy – and while that’s a rather old-fashioned way of being cool in the UK, it is still fashionable in Italy. Alla moda, you might say.

I am grateful to the English language online newspaper The Local (thelocal.it) for this information. (Incidentally they are doing a wonderful job in reporting round-the-clock on the coronavirus situation here.) The Local reports: “The weirdest is when Italians take English words but then use them for something else entirely. One Italian couldn’t believe that we didn’t call channel surfing ‘zapping’ in England.”

Those of you who have been to the Watermill will know that our driver Paolo often says ‘Bye, bye’, instead of the traditional arriverderci or even ciaio, when he drops us off. I have explained that we would usually use it when talking to children, but he perseveres and thinks it is the height of sophistication, as do many of his countrymen and women.

And baby? Well, you are more likely to see that in the Italian papers, where it is used as an adjective, meaning ‘teenage’, as when groups of teenage troublemakers are described as a ‘baby gang’. And, reports The Local: “16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg is a ‘baby attivista’.”

I think my favourite is gossip. There’s a wonderful Italian word for it, pettegolezzo, but many trendy Italians prefer to use English. There’s even a verb: gossipare.

The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.
Gossipiamo: we gossip! Picture: Stock pic; The Daily Mail

Well, the word on the street is that one of the best ways to enjoy learning Italian language (with or without a sprinkling of English) is to come on the famous Watermill Italian language course, which will run again this August (coronavirus willing!)

*Please rest assured that if travel restrictions in your own country or in Italy mean that the course cannot run on these dates, or that appropriate flights are not available, we will postpone your course to later in the year or even until 2021. You can find out all about our coronavirus strategy by clicking here.

We have teamed up again with the Florence language school Langues Services and our old friend Francesca la Sala to bring you a unique course which is both fun and illuminating. I have made one of those fun, 30-second slideshows on Facebook, which you can see by clicking here.

The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.
Learning the language under the shade of the vine verandah-

We already have nine students booked into our unique language course, so we have room for three or four more. You can read all about it by clicking here. Incidentally, even in August, the Watermill is Cool and Green. We have air-conditioning in all our rooms, both the bedrooms and public rooms and the studio. It’s all powered by our photovoltaic electricity-producing system, meaning we are self-sufficient in electricity. That’s why we are Cool and Green!

The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.

Langues Services and Francesca La Sala

22-29 August 2020

Learning Italian with the Italians Three/four places left

To learn more about Langues Services and Francesca, please visit their Tutor Profile Page by clicking here.

We promise you also that it won’t be ‘over the top’. That’s another English phrase that subtly alters its meaning when used in Italian. We would think it means ‘going too far’, but in Italian it means ‘extremely good’ or ‘the best’. So perhaps it will be over-the-top after all. It will certainly be rocambolesco.

The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.
Picture credit: The Huffington Post

Blue sky and buds. What more could a serin want?

The Watermill at Posara for painting, creative writing, knitting, and Italian language holidays/vacations/workshops, Tuscany, Italy.

This good-looking creature, photographed recently at the Watermill by our gardener Flavio Terenzoni, looks like he (or she; I think it’s a male but I’m no expert) is having a good time. Not surprisingly, because he likes eating buds and it’s a budding time of year.

He’s a European Serin, verzellino in Italian, and one of rural Italy’s commonest birds. A relative of the canary, the serin’s trilling song is part of the background to the marvellous dawn chorus we enjoy at the Watermill on spring mornings.

Or we would do, if only we were there: we are locked down in Florence, with cooing pigeons, a magpie or two and the odd sparrow flitting about outside our apartment. We are, however, beginning to look out for the swifts, who should be with us in another couple of weeks.

No sign yet.

Traditionally they arrive in Rome, on 21 March the feast day of St Benedict: (San Benedetto, rondini sotto il tetto, Saint Benedict, swifts under the eaves). There is no sign of them yet in Florence…

Their raucous screeches as they swoop around the rooftops may not be as pleasant as the serins’ song, but they are harbingers of summer, so their arrival will be welcome. Unlike us, they’re free to travel. We will let you know when they make their appearance, after their long journey from the south of Africa.

They are on their way!