May Day in Italy: An Ancient Festival of Flowers & Song

Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Dance Around the Maypole, ca. 1625-1630.

The ancient springtime festivity known as May Day marks a period traditionally associated with flowers, abundance, and rebirth. Its observance includes colorful and merry singing rites, in particular troupes of flower-adorned musicians who frolic about country villages and sing auspicious, entertaining songs in exchange for offerings of eggs, wine, cakes and other sweets.

Similar to caroling, soul-caking, some forms of mumming, and trick-or-treating, these May Day folk performances have ancient pagan roots. In pre-Christian Europe, the night of April 30 initiated a crucial moment in the natural cycle of the year, one that marked the transition from spring to summer. (For the ancient Romans, February 1 was the first day of spring and May 1 the start of summer, which is why we still use the term Midsummer to refer to the summer solstice festivities starting around June 21 and culminating with the Feast of St John the Baptist on June 24.)

John Collier, Queen Guinevre’s Maying, 1900.

European cultures have observed May Day for millennia, from the Celtic Beltane to the Germanic Walpurgis night. In Italy, Calendimaggio (from the Latin calenda maia, meaning calends of May), goes by other popular names that reflect this day’s strong association with song: cantamaggio and cantarmaggio, both related to the Italian word cantare, to singWander about the country villages of Tuscany and other Italian regions on this day and you might catch sight of festive rural picnics, maidens adorned with flowers, and troupes of maggerini, the May Day singers who delight crowds with lively and symbolic maggi lirici (here the word for May, maggio, is the name of a type of rhymed couplet). The maggerini sing songs of rebirth, renewal, plants, flowers, and young love, always with a good dose of lyrical flair and wit.

Notable May Day events in Italy include the Calendimaggio Festival in Assisi and the Florentine Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Interestingly, the Florentine festival formerly called la maggiolata was rooted in medieval folk traditions with pagan roots practiced throughout the rural mountain areas surrounding Florence. In the 1930s, the folk practice was transformed into a modern, organized annual festival, the prestigious Maggio Musicale Fiorentino season.

A 2015 poster for ‘Cantar Maggio’ organized by the Pistoia Mountains cultural association

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The Rediscovery of a Masterpiece: ArtViva Hosts Special Event on ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ by Leonardo da Vinci

ArtViva recently hosted a very special guest speaker, Dr. Maurizio Seracini, art diagnostician and founder of Editech, Diagnostic Center for Cultural Heritage in Florence. Mr. Seracini, whose work applies techniques and processes adapted from science and technology to the analysis of precious art works, is well known for his ongoing research on Leonardo da Vinci’s The Battle of Anghiari, a lost masterpiece believed by Seracini and others to lie hidden underneath another painting in the Hall of the Five Hundred in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio.  On Thursday, April 6, he spoke at length about his involvement in the study of The Adoration of the Magi, a da Vinci work that just last month was returned to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence after a significant restoration.

During his talk, Seracini outlined the problematic state the painting was in when he first started working on its analysis 15 years ago. With great detail and intriguing visual aids, he explained the various types of organic decay that played a part in the painting’s deterioration, and the tools and methods used to remedy them. Beyond the scientific aspects of his work, however, Seracini’s analysis revealed some amazing discoveries regarding Leonardo’s original cartoon, a preparatory sketch (sometimes called the underdrawing) used by artists of the time to outline the composition of an artwork before applying paint.

Gasps of wonder and admiration filled the room when Seracini presented images of the original cartoons drawn by Leonardo, which according to Seracini’s extensive study—using diagnostic techniques such as infrared, thermographic, and ultrasound—were subsequently painted over by another hand when the work was left unfinished by da Vinci in 1481. The drawings, in true Leonardo style, contain detailed, extraordinarily expressive images of human activity, including a group of faces considered by many the most beautiful portraits ever done by the master.

Interested in seeing this mysterious artwork by Leonardo da Vinci? Join ArtViva’s Masterpieces of the Uffizi Gallery tour led by one of our expert guides, to admire and appreciate this and many other timeless works of Italian art. Or for a truly unforgettable experience, join our Private Tour with the da Vinci Art Sleuth himself, or an evening with Artists, Authors and Aristocrats, for a chance to hear Mr. Seracini speak about his study of Leonardo.

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Italian Carnival: Tradition, Spectacle & Feasting!

Venetian Carnival (Photo by Roberto Vicario)

Italian Carnival (‘carnevale‘) festivities are at their most impressive in the cities of Venice and Viareggio, where often this time of year hotels must be booked a year in advance! Yet Italians throughout the rest of the country will also be observing the pre-Lenten season with a variety of traditional sweets, costumes and masks, music and other street entertainments.

Carnival’s arrival coincides with the appearance of cenci at Tuscan bakeries, roughly-cut strips of deep-fried or baked pastry coated in icing sugar and whose name translates to something like ‘rags’.  (See recipe below). In Venice, streets fill with elaborately dressed fun-seekers–young and old, locals and visitors–while music fills the air, street performers dazzle onlookers, and extravagant parties light up the night. The Venetian Carnival represents a grandiose and utterly magical time to be in this majestic city.

Meanwhile, in Viareggio, Tuscany’s glamorous beach-side village, Carnival takes place along the famous art-deco-esque boardwalk, in a very different style–colorful float parades, often political or satirical in nature, stun crowds and onlookers with their artistic and comical flair.

Here is a recipe for cenci from Twelve: A Tuscan Cook Book, by Artviva friend Tessa Kiros.

Cenci (or ‘Chiacchere’) – Deep-fried pastry ribbons

Ingredients for about 35 small pastry strips
280 g plain all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons caster sugar
2 eggs
2 tablespoons butter (melted)
grated zest of ½ a lemon and ½ an orange
1 teaspoon of vanilla essence
2 tablespoons Vin Santo or port
light olive oil or sunflower oil for frying
icing sugar for sprinkling

Sift the flour, a pinch of salt and the caster sugar into a wide bowl or onto your work surface. Make a well in the centre and add the eggs. Begin mixing with a fork to incorporate the eggs into the flour. Add the butter, the zest, vanilla and Vin Santo. Begin working the dough with your hands, kneading until it is smooth, adding a little more flour if it seems too wet. It should be a soft, workable dough.

Dust your work surface with flour. Divide the dough into 4 equal parts and beginning with one, roll it out with a rolling pin to thickness of about 2 mm. Cover the dough you are not using with a cloth to prevent it drying.

Cut into strips of about 10 x 5 cm. Keep them on a lightly floured tray while you roll out the rest. The pastry strips may also be rolled out in a pasta machine to the final setting, and cut.

Pour enough oil into a frying pan to come to about 3 cm. Heat the oil on a medium heat and when it is quite hot, fry the cenci on both sides until they are crisp and golden. They should not become too brown, so lower the heat if it seems necessary. With a slotted spoon, transfer them to a plate lined with kitchen paper to absorb the excess oil.

Sprinkle with icing sugar and put a few onto a serving plate with a small pile of orange salad to eat with the cenci and a small bowl of crème anglaise to dip the cenci into. Alternatively, serve them plain as they are.

Keen on seeing Venice for yourself? We have a great discounted Venice tour packages available either as private tours in Venice, or small-group prestigious Venice tour discounted package including a guided tour of St Mark’s with expert Venice tour guide, a gondola ride, guided Doge’s palace tour, and a boat ride along the Grand Canal.

You could also opt for a hands-on cooking classes in Italy to learn to make delicious Italian recipes in Florence.

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New Year’s Eve in Italy – from red underwear to throwing pans and pots

We’ve no doubt that Italians like a good celebration: and New Year’s Eve is no exception to the rule. Another year draws to an end, and people worldwide gather to celebrate the happenings of the year past – and hope for a better year ahead. Different cultures mean different celebrations – and Italy has some quirky, fun and traditional celebrations to add to the list.

Starting off with food – there’s no celebration without way too much food in Italy. Typical dinner on New Year’s Eve kicks off with zampone (or cotechino) e lenticchie – Zampone being a pig’s hoof, and cotechino being sausage made out of the meat inside. Both symbolise abundance – represented mostly by the meat’s high fat content. Lenticchie – lentils, are thought to bring luck and prosperity in the coming year  – mostly due to their nature, representing the shape of a coin. Dessert is grapes and dried fruit – which is said to bring wisdom to all those sitting at the table.

The quirkiest tradition comes after dinner. Originating from southern Italy is the tradition of throwing the past out of the window, quite literally – as pots and pans, clothes or any material thing you do not want to bring along with you in the following year are actually thrown out from upstairs windows. This tradition is said to bring luck and a better year ahead (naturally for the throwees, and not for any bystander who finds himself hit in the head by some pot or pan!)

One can expect more luck and by wearing the right undergarments – red underwear promises a happy and lucky year ahead, as it is said that these help fight off evil and bad spirits. Just remember that it has to be new underwear, and that is also has to be a gift from someone else!

Other than that, Italians like to spend the last night of the year, and the early hours of the new year celebrating with their friends and family, together with a nice glass of prosecco, usually at a concert or in the piazzas in the cities.

If you plan on spending New Year’s Eve in Italy, our tips would definitely be to try some of these traditions, to avoid driving and parking in the city center – as one can imagine how crowded and crazy it can get, and to have a good time, celebrating the past year, and anticipating a great year ahead.

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Spending Christmas in Italy

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…and it gets slightly more wonderful when spent the world’s most beautiful country – Italy (we might be slightly biased here…)

As in many other countries, Christmas in Italy comes with a series of traditions starting as early as November – where in most towns and cities, one can see Christmas markets being set up – such as the Weihnachtsmarkt market in Florence – where one can find a selection of traditional German and Italian Christmas products in the Santa Croce Square.

Come early December, shops, squares and also houses put on their festive look – with most houses being decorated on the 8th of December- which marks a public holiday in Italy celebrating the Catholic Feast of the Immaculate Conception, when most Italians take the opportunity of a free day off work to decorate their houses together with their families.

Spending Christmas in Italy is as magical as it sounds – our favourite Christmas celebrations are attending midnight mass at the Duomo (or any other church really!) and also, obviously, Christmas Lunch which is taken very seriously!  If you intend to have lunch on Christmas day our advice would definitely be to book in advance – as most places will either be fully booked, or else closed as smaller family-run restaurants might choose to close and spend the day with their loved ones. No Christmas is Christmas without gaining an extra pound or two…which is an excellent reason to indulge in the many Christmas desserts and sweets such as Pannettone, Pandoro, Panforte, and anything in between.

Following the intake of one too many calories, we would recommend you take a walk around, and observe how landmarks magically transform themselves in something more magic on Christmas day. Most museums will be closed on Christmas day, which is why we would recommend you schedule your trip to the museum to the following day: as most museums are open on the 26th December – including the Uffizi and Accademia Gallery in Florence.

Whichever way you choose to spend Christmas in Italy, you’re bound to experience a different yet wonderful day – in a country that cherishes traditions which have shaped its history and people for a long time, and which are bound to give you a Christmas to remember!

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Unique Souvenirs to take from Italy

Souvenirs – that lovely token sitting on our desk that helps us deal a little better with our post-holiday blues once we’re back home. Be it a figurine of Florence’s Duomo, a traditional mask from Venice or a t-shirt saying “I love Rome” – we like to look at these mementos of our unforgettable experiences away from home.

However, there is nothing more unforgettable and eternal than learning and experiencing when we’re on holiday. There is something much more special when preparing homemade pasta or picking up a paintbrush on a Saturday afternoon, and painting a portrait – and remembering you were taught how to do so on your holiday in Italy. So, here are a couple of things we think you should try when in Italy:

Get your hands messy in the kitchen

Be it pasta, pizza or a 5 course meal – Italy’s cuisine is famous for a reason. Perhaps there’s nothing that could cure our post-holiday blues than a nice, comforting plate of homemade pasta – reminding us of that amazing evening spent in great company over some good food.

Get to know your food (and your wine)

Food and wine are the staple of Italy’s lifestyle – and what else could be better than knowing the history, the culture and the traditions behind the food you’re eating or beverage you’re drinking. Also, taking that tradition back home, reminiscing your trip over dinner? Quite priceless!

Learn how to paint or sculpt

We like to think that the A in Italy stands for art – with cities and towns bursting at the seams with works of art at every corner. Learning the principles of painting or sculpting is pretty much like riding a bike – you will never quite forget them – and who knows – maybe you could discover a love for art, or also a skill previously known to you!

Immerse yourself in art

Even walking around the streets in Italy means absorbing all of the art that cities like Florence, Rome and Venice have to offer. Art is a witness to history’s happenings – from ancient times to contemporary times. We can learn so much about our history, our countries and our traditions – and also about ourselves just by exploring different works of art.

Or Learn to be a Gondolier…

Save the most unique for last! Going to Venice and looking in marvel at gondolas gliding on the canals is one thing – learning the skill behind it is another. Understanding what goes on behind the scenes, and also the history of this wonderful tradition is definitely a memorable experience (and it also looks great on your CV…)

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Photo credits: Nicolas Nova 

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Vasari Corridor re-opens – Last opportunity to visit before its closure

After its closure last July, the Vasari Corridor has now re-opened to the public. Visitors now have the once in a lifetime opportunity to visit the famous secret passageway before it is closed once again this December. It should then be open again more than a year later, as major renovation works are expected to take place, which include moving the precious artworks housed in this corridor to a new dedicated space within the Uffizi Gallery.

The closure was a direct consequence of a fire department inspection which deemed the corridor as lacking apt safety and emergency measures. Now that it has re-opened, there are naturally a couple of compulsory limitations which were put in place.

Entrances are now limited to groups with a maximum of 19, plus a guide, as well as another two custodians. There is a maximum number of 88 people allowed in the corridor at once – which also includes members of staff. Other safety measures have been implemented.

This is the very last opportunity to see the Vasari Corridor as it is – and we’re making sure to offer an unforgettable experience to all those who wish to visit it with us. Given that one can only access the Vasari Corridor through the Uffizi Gallery, our tour starts off with a guided visit to the highlights of the Uffizi Gallery – introducing the main masterpieces within the museum before moving on to the corridor.

We’re offering our small-group tours on selected dates at selected times – with our first Uffizi Gallery and Vasari Corridor tour running tomorrow, Tuesday 5th of October at 12.30pm! Other dates are available throughout the rest of October, as well as November.

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Art Lesson in Florence: Learn to Sculpt or Paint

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Florence is synonymous with its artists and architects that forever changed the world landscape in their artistic fields.

Considered the forefathers of painting are Cimabue and Giotto, together with art ‘uncles’ Andrea Pisano and Arnolfo. Then came Donatello, Masaccio, Bronzino, Raphael, Filippo Brunelleschi, Piero della Francesca, Ghiberti, Filippo Lippi, Verrocchio, Orcagna, Benozzo Gozzoli, Fra Angelico, Pollaiuolo, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Benvenuto Cellini, Della Robbia, Nanni di Banco, Andrea del Sarto, Leon Battista Alberti, Bernardo Buontalenti, Botticelli, Paolo Uccello, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci – all who lived and worked within Florence.

As a result, Florence is home to some of the greatest artworks and museums, including the Uffizi Gallery and Accademia, with many churches also housing masterpieces by illustrious figures. Then there is, of course, the iconic Florence architecture that renders the city and its skyline so breathtakingly unmistakable.

The artistic tradition in Florence has never waned, with many art schools in operation today.

For anyone interesting in dipping their toe (or at least paintbrush) in the art lesson in Florence waters, we offer a half-day painting or sculpting lesson in Florence in a private studio.

As the photos show, this art lesson in Florence is fun for all ages and skill levels!

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Top reasons to visit Italy this Autumn

The days get shorter; the weather gets colder. Sulking, children and adults alike head back to school and to work after the summer holidays. Yes, autumn is right around the corner.

Different seasons, different charms. We might sound like a proud mother when we say that all seasons here in Italy are beautiful, and autumn is no exception. If you’ve considered visiting Italy in autumn, here are a couple of reasons which will further convince you to make your way to the Bel Paese.

It’s cool(er)

Following scorching summers in the cities – autumn means a sigh of relief for tourists and locals alike as temperatures drop, and make exploring and walking around much easier. Early autumn days still allow you to take a dip in one of Italy’s gorgeous seas, and you are likely to experience more sunny days than rainy ones – especially if you are headed to central-south Italy, but not only. Usually, most autumn days, albeit cooler, are nice and sunny even further north.

It’s less crowded 

During autumn, the cities start getting less crowded – as all summer vacationers head back to their normal routine back home. This usually means shorter lines at museums and attractions, as well as the luxury of having more space and time to enjoy the numerous wonders this country has to offer.

It’s harvest season

Spring is the season during which nature comes back to life – but autumn is the season during which it makes its way to your table! Most of Italy’s mouth-watering specialities are harvested during autumn – including olives and grapes (i.e. olive oil and wine!) A once in a lifetime opportunity would be participating in the production of wine, especially if you are a wine enthusiast. Learning about the harvest process and getting the opportunity to participate hands-on in the procfess is definitely an experience you will never forget!

It’s beautiful

The crispy auburn leaves, the streets glistening after the rain – Italy’s beautiful cities get a little more beautiful in autumn. Exploring the countryside – now the shade of autumn makes it really picture-perfect! Enjoy your time in Italy by either walking around the cities, and exploring the many wanders they have to offer – or discovering the beauty of its countryside on foot, on bike, or by even just by driving (or being driven) around.

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Grape Stomping in Tuscany

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Grape stomping is a traditional form of maceration that dates back to Roman times, at least as far back as 200 BC.

Freshly-harvested grapes would be placed in a barrel before people would climb in, barefooted, and squish the juice out of the grapes using their own bodyweight as the ‘press’.

The juice would then be collected and fermented to produce wine.

The wooden barrels would range in size from single-person to large enough to accommodate numerous people who turned this ancient practice into quite a spectacle during harvest festivals.

Also known as the pigeage method, eventually wooden presses and then more technological means developed over the centuries replaced this traditional grape stomping method.

Nonetheless, grape stomping is still a fun way to step (or stomp) back in time and engage in the days of yore.

To this end, throughout each harvest season (varying from around August to October). Taking place at a stunning historical villa in Tuscany, guests are given a tour of the vineyard, the modern cellar and the historic wine cellar before partaking in a good ol’ fashioned grape stomp.

After all that ‘exertion’, a typical light lunch comprising delicious Tuscan delicacies is served in the estate garden or by the pool  before this unique thing to do in Tuscany concludes with the return transfer to Florence.

The Grape Stomping tour in Tuscany is available during harvest season only, which varies each year. Throughout the rest of the year, we also have a great range of small-group Tuscany tours and private Tuscany tours to choose from.

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