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The story behind the picture: Villa Vignamaggio

Every great photograph tells a story, but I often find it interesting to read the story behind the photograph -- and hence this occasional series of posts. This time it is the turn of an image that has frequently appeared in books and magazines, including the front cover of one property guide, and is also one of the most popular photographs on LodgePhoto.com:

Chianti, Europe, Greve, Italy, Toscana, Toskana, agricultural building, ancient, architectural, architecture, building, dark green, deep green, edifice, edifices, farm house, farmhouse, haze, horizontal, horizontals, landscape, mist, old, scenic, structures, travel, tuscany, weather
Farmhouse at Villa Vignamaggio, Greve in Chianti, Italy

First of all, an answer to a frequently asked question: Yes, it's a true photograph and the haze behind the farmhouse has not been "photoshopped" into the image! Vignamaggio is a charming Tuscan renaissance villa clinging to the hillside above the town of Greve in Chianti. We first found it while renting a villa a short distance away, further up the road. We saw it was a winery and that was enough by itself for us to stop -- but we also knew that Vignamaggio was the location for Kenneth Brannagh's joyous 1993 Shakespeare film adaptation, Much Ado About Nothing.

Today, the villa is an upscale B&B and winery and had billed itself as "The Birthplace Of Mona Lisa" until just a few years ago. This leads to second most frequently asked question: is it really, truly the birthplace of Mona Lisa, sitter for perhaps the most famous portrait ever? Well... no, sorry. The literature at the villa claims Lisa Gherardini, the subject of Mona Lisa, was born at Vignamaggio in 1479, the daughter of a wealthy Tuscan merchant. There's just one problem with this: the Gherardinis had sold Vignamaggio 50 years before Lisa was born, and the baptistry records in Florence are clear: she was born and baptised there.

There has been intense speculation over the "actual" identity of the model for Leonardo Da Vinci's painting. Renaissance art historian Vasari states that it was Lisa Giocondo (nee Gherardini) in his "Lives of the artists". The only problem was that Vasari was writing 30 years after Leonardo's death, which was enough wiggle room for some to suggest that Vasari was mistaken and that the sitter was Leonardo himself, or Isabella of Aragon, or Leonardo's mother, or... you get the picture.

In 2005, an academic at the University of Heidelberg discovered a note scribbled in the margin of a book that is contemporary with the time of the painting. It positively identifies the sitter as Lisa Giocondo. Lisa was married to a wealthy Florentine silk merchant, Francesco del Giocondo, and this gave rise to the other name of the painting: La Gioconda -- also a pun on the jovial expression Leonardo painted.

But no matter: today, a visit to Villa Vignamaggio is primarily about wine and/or olive oil, or to stay in its Bed & Breakfast accomodation. The villa's Mona Lisa Chianti Classico Riserva is excellent, and they also make a range of "Super Tuscans" -- wines grown locally that don't meet the technical criteria to qualify as Chianti Classico. Don't let that put you off: only wines made almost entirely from Sangiovese can be Chiantis, so a really good Tuscan cabernet has to be called something else!

The picture was taken with a long lens late on a summer afternoon looking down from the villa itself. One of the things that makes this picture is the quality of light, a natural gift in that part of the world, which is largely responsible for the saturated color of the tile and stone. The atmospheric conditions common at that time of year (September) cause the haze, making for a pleasing contrast between the foreground and the background. Quality of light is one of the most important ingredients in "available light" photography, and is one reason why waiting for the right light can make a huge difference to a picture. That's also my excuse for enjoying a leisurely Italian lunch with a glass or two of wine: the light's too strong! Finally, the long lens is important because it helps to blur the background, improving the contrast and composition.

Vignamaggio is a magical place to visit or stay, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there.

The simple five-step guide to renting a Villa in Italy or France

Renting a villa in Italy, France or Spain isn't just for millionaires. Perhaps surprisingly, villa rental can be more reasonable than staying in a hotel, especially if you're a family a larger group (though being a millionaire does help if you want to rent an entire Tuscan village from the Ferragamo family).

Early morning sunlight rises over the patio of an Italian villa in Chianti, Tuscany, Italy
Early morning sunlight rises over the patio of an Italian villa in Chianti, Tuscany, Italy
There are just five simple steps: 1) Decide if a villa vacation is for you. The pros are that you'll have a base for a week or two that you can come back to each night. You can stay in all day, lounge by the pool or in the garden, take in the culture somewhere else, eat in or out... all up to you. The cons are that there's no daily maid service or other hotel amenities, you are in the same place (so visiting places far from base means a longer round trip), and you have to keep the place reasonably clean and tidy. You'll likely be doing cooking yourself if you stay in, though you can also hire a cook -- and in some places you can also hire a maid if you want more frequent cleaning. Personally, I am happy to trade hotel amenities for a more relaxed and flexible vacation. 2) Pick a country and general geography -- South of France, Tuscany etc -- based on the kind of things you want to do and see. Get a few guidebooks to places you think you might like to go. My personal favorites are the Dorling Kindersley "Eyewitness" travel guides (DK guides), and the Rough Guides. I like the DK guides because they're chock full of photographs so you can get a better idea of what a place is really like, and they're also a good starting point for planning photography trips. The Rough Guides are impeccably researched with good writing on places, history, art and contemporary life, with great vignettes on the famous locals. However, although brimming with great maps to get you around, they are sparsely illustrated when it comes to photos.

What kind of power adapter do I need in Europe?

Figuring out how to power cameras and other gadgets in Europe can seem tricky, but it's easy enough once you know how.

Florence streets lit by 220 volts
Florence streets lit by 220 volts

Plug converters / adapters for Europe

An extremely common question, especially for those heading to Europe for the first time, is what kind of plug adapter to use for their cameras, laptops, phones, iPads etc. In this video, I take a look at three common adapter types and show you how they work. I also show you what to look for to make sure your particular device will work on European voltages, and what kind of devices won't work. This really is one of those topics where literally taking a look at the converters is so much better than reading about them. Enjoy!

What is Chianti Classico wine?

Bottles of Chianti and Brunello wine at a Montalcino Enoteca (wine bar)
Bottles of Chianti and Brunello wine at a Montalcino Enoteca (wine bar)
A trip to Tuscany inevitably means a glass of red Chianti Classico for most visitors. But what makes this wine special? Chianti Classico must come from grapes grown in a strictly defined area of the hills between Florence and Siena, centered around Castellina, Gaiole, Radda and Greve:
Chianti wine regions
Chianti wine regions
The original boundaries were laid down in 1716 by Cosimo III di Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and covered the Tuscan villages of Castellina, Gaiole and Radda. In 1932, Chianti was vastly expanded to cover seven different regions of which the original area was just one. Today, the area is roughly 100 square miles. There are also rules on the grape content that have changed over the years. Since the 1990s, Chianti Classico has to contain at least 75% Sangiovese grapes, a maximum of 10% Canaiolo, at most 6% white wine grapes and up to 15% Cabernet, Merlot or Syrah.

The official Chianti definition

The definition is controlled by the DOCG, the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. In the past 40 years or so, Chianti's reputation has gone from "low-grade red" to a region producing some world-class wines. In the 1970s-90s, it was common to see low-grade Chianti in its traditional straw bottle jacket or fiasco. In 1971, the Antinori family broke with tradition in releasing a "Chianti-style" blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet called Tignanello. It didn't fit the DOCG definition, which disallowed Cabernet and required at least 10% white wine grapes, so it wasn't officially Chianti Classico. But Tignanello began to win awards and acclaim, prices rose and other producers followed. Thus the "Super Tuscan" wines were born. The success of Super Tuscans led the DOCG to change the rules of grape composition in the 1990s, allowing many Super Tuscans to be reclassified as Chianti Classico. Chianti Classico is what the French would call an appellation: an area where the grapes are grown within a strict geographical boundary. Contrast this with a Napa wine, for example, which is more of a brand. Napa wines might be made within the boundaries of Napa County, but the grapes or grape juice could have been trucked in from the central Californian coast (as they are for Charles Shaw, AKA "2 Buck Chuck"). Today, thanks to vastly improved wine-making techniques and the relaxation of the official DOCG rules to allow better blending, the Chianti region produces some excellent high quality wines. And none of them are served in a straw fiasco :-)

Set up your AT&T iPhone for Europe and save money

[Updated May 2013 with new AT&T screen shots and prices] Travelling with your AT&T iPhone to Europe? Here's how you can make sure it works when you get there and avoid a giant bill when you get back. Who doesn't like to save money? If you haven't done so already, register with AT&T's web site so that you can make changes to your phone plan options online. Log in with your wireless number and password, so that you get to the home screen for your wireless service. Look in the top-left quadrant of the page for a menu called "I want to...", which will look like this:

Click on "I want to..." to get this menu
Click on "I want to..." to get this menu

Siena Palio horse selection video

We recently got back from a photo trip to Tuscany, where we got to see the July Siena Palio. The Palio is the world's longest continuously running sporting event and runs twice a year during the summer in Siena, Tuscany. Each district (contrade) of the city has a chance to get a horse into the race, and the horses are assigned by lottery. This short (1 min 30 sec) video gives you a glimpse of the intense emotions of the Sienese around their favorite cultural festival. The video shows the drawing of the horses, where each one is randomly assigned to a contrade, who them parade the horse through the town on the way to their secret stable location (to make sure their rivals can't tamper with the horse!) Jockeys are also randomly assigned to ride each horse. Through the many hundreds of years that the Palio has been running, there have been all kinds of dark deeds including bribery, violence and drugging, to try and get an unfair advantage to win the race and the prestige that goes along with it. So the transparency of the lottery system is very important to the running of a fair race, which is the main focus of the horse selection you can see in the video. It's quite an event in itself -- there are about 20 thousand people crammed into the main square (Il Campo) to see the drawing and it goes silent when each Palio horse is matched to a contrade. Once the horse is safely inside the contrade's stable, it is guarded day and night and only brought out for the trial races that take place ahead of the main event. The horse is also blessed by a priest on race day, and it's considered good luck if the horse leaves a pile of manure inside the chapel!  

How to phone home from Europe

Making a phone call home from Italy, France, the UK or indeed anywhere else in Europe is easy since all countries in the European Union agreed on one standard way of making international calls. You dial two zeros (00), the country code, and then the number. The country code for the US is 1, so a call to the San Francisco number 415-555-1212 is dialed 00-1-415-555-1212.

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Beautifully arranged mounds of fresh Italian ice cream await at a Gelateria in Siena, Italy.
Dialing works the same way on mobile phones, or you can use the shorthand of "+" instead of the two zeros. The benefit of this approach is that this works anywhere on any mobile phone network world-wide, not just in Europe -- which is handy for numbers you put into the phone's memory or contact list. In my example, you'd dial +1-415-555-1212, and this same number would work when dialed in the US as well as in Europe. On regular land-line phones, you can speed up the connection by dialing a # at the end of the number (more precisely, this cuts short the "post dial delay"). This tells the phone network that you are done dialing your international number, and it starts connecting the call immediately. Otherwise, the phone network will sit and wait in case you want to dial any more digits -- several seconds -- because unlike domestic calls, the network doesn't know the exact length of phone numbers for every area of every country. This isn't required with mobile phones because you hit the "send" or "call" button at the end of the number. One more thing about the '# at the end trick': it works in the US too when dialing internationally. Try it and see! Want to learn more about calling from Europe? See Using cell phones in Europe part 1, and using mobile data services (part 2)

Sienese Flag Throwing: Story Behind The Picture

You might be forgiven for wondering what is going on in this photograph. It is a vertical view down onto the heads of a bunch of grown men in medieval yellow silk outfits waving large flags in Siena, Italy. You can only tell they're men and flags by the shadows, which is part of the appeal in this photograph. But what on earth is going on?

Members of Siena's Eagle contrade throw their flags high into the air during a display in the Campo. Siena, Tuscany, Italy
Members of Siena's Eagle contrade throw their flags high into the air during a display in the Campo. Siena, Tuscany, Italy

Story behind the picture: Tuscan Plain from Volterra

This photo recently featured as the travel section lead in Links Best Of Golf magazine, and was taken from a ruined monastery on the edge of Volterra, Tuscany. The town itself is at the top of a rocky outcrop west of San Gimignano, and the north-western side has been eroding for hundreds of years. Many buildings are already at the base of the cliffs, and this Pisan-style monastery was abandoned years ago. It was late in the day, and as the sun set from the West it lit up the rolling Tuscan plain, framed by the old stone window.

View west across the Tuscan plain from a ruined monastery at the edge of the cliffs ("balze") in Volterra, Italy.
View west across the Tuscan plain from a ruined monastery at the edge of the cliffs ("balze") in Volterra, Italy.

Links golf travel section

Links Best Of Golf magazine features a Lodge Photo image to head up its travel section in the Summer 2010 issue (page 65):

View across the Tuscan plain from Volterra
View across the Tuscan plain from Volterra

What is Super Tuscan wine?

For many, Tuscan wine means Chianti -- but Super Tuscan wines have been growing strongly in popularity, and increasingly appear on US wine lists. So what is a Super Tuscan, anyway?

Merlot grapes at Vignamaggio
Merlot grapes at Vignamaggio
Super Tuscans started out as high quality wines from Tuscany that didn't fit into the strict definition of Chianti wine according to the Italian authorities. The first Super Tuscan was Tignanello from Antinori, produced in 1971. It was a “Chianti-style” blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet, but it didn't fit the DOCG definition of Chianti at the time (which didn’t allow Cabernet and required at least 10% white wine grapes). Antinori wanted to maximize the potential of the grapes and wine-making in Tuscany without being constrained to a specific formula. He also broke with tradition in aging the wine in French barriques (oak barrels from Bordeaux) rather than the traditional Slovenian oak or Chestnut used for Chianti. The wine began to win awards and acclaim, prices rose and other producers followed, and so “Super Tuscan” wines as a category were born. The success of Super Tuscans led the Italian authorities to change the rules of grape composition in the 1990s, allowing many Super Tuscans to be classified as true Chianti Classico. Today, Super Tuscans that still don't fit the Chianti rules are classified as IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica), "typical of the geography". Prices for Super Tuscans range from the very reasonably to the stratospheric. Some of the best known include Tignananello (still a major force), Sassacaia from Tenuta San Guido, Solaia from Antinori and Ornellaia from Tenuta della Ornellaia.

Tuscany, Umbria and the Marches photo

Cadogan's guide to Tuscany, Umbria and the Marches, 10th edition, features a Lodge Photo image on page 9, at the bottom. This is image IT-B-0111 from Tuscany.

Villa Vignamaggio and the Mona Lisa controversy

Villa Vignamaggio is a charming restored renaissance villa just outside the town of Greve in Chianti. It's a beautiful location, is exceptionally photogenic and they make great wine... what more could you ask for? How about also being the birthplace of perhaps the most famous portrait sitter ever: Mona Lisa ? The owners of Vignamaggio crowned the exceptional qualities of their property with the claim that their villa is the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa -- an assertion that I have repeated on this website. The history of that part of the world and the information provided by Vignamaggio on its chain of ownership appears to back up the assertion. However, there's just one problem: it isn't true. In the past few years, Vignamaggio has backed off from their birthplace claim and now says "Legend has it that Lisa Gherardini spent a lot of time at Vignamaggio" So what exactly is going on here?

Chianti, Europe, Greve, Italy, Toscana, Toskana, agricultural building, ancient, architectural, architecture, building, dark green, deep green, edifice, edifices, farm house, farmhouse, haze, horizontal, horizontals, landscape, mist, old, scenic, structures, travel, tuscany, weather
Farmhouse at Villa Vignamaggio, Greve in Chianti, Italy

An afternoon in San Gimignano, Tuscany

I uploaded some new photographs of San Gimignano recently, a small town between Florence and Siena (on the road to Volterra) that has become famous for its medieval towers -- "The Manhattan Of Tuscany", as some tours call it.

San Gimignano and two of its famous towers
San Gimignano towers
It's certainly on the tourist map these days, so here's my recommendation for a half day in San Gimignano that allows you both to enjoy the town and what it offers and take some great photographs.

Should I really rent a car in Italy? What about the price of gas, parking, license etc.

I got some follow-up questions to the article on renting a car in Europe. It seems this is a topic that causes some anxiety, so some additional tips are in order. Yes, gas is somewhere between $7 and $8 a gallon in Italy, depending on the exchange rate. This isolated statistic, by itself, causes some of you to freak out. After all, your small SUV does 18 miles to the gallon (I'm talking actual miles, not the sticker MPG) on a good day, so that kind of pricing is bad news for the vacation budget, right? Hold on: most of that $7 is taxes, so the actual price hasn't varied as much since the raw gas cost itself is far less of a component in the price. Car manufacturers in Italy and the rest of Europe have had a while to get used to this kind of pricing level, and this means the majority of cars there are very different to those in the US. Those of you who have been to Europe know that cars there are smaller. That's one effect of high gas prices: cars that are smaller weigh less, and therefore require less gas. In general, cars are smaller in size, lighter and have smaller engines. However, to compensate for the smaller engines, they also have very advanced engine management to squeeze out maximum performance. So European cars sip gas like an expensive wine rather than gulping it down like cheap beer, but can still perform. But that's not all. Diesel fuel is widely available in Europe and Italy, and not reserved for trucks at gas stations. Diesel cars are even more economical than gas cars -- the engine design means they use less fuel, which also means lower CO2 emissions. Diesel engines used to be slow, noisy, dirty things with poor acceleration. But the same engine management technology that has improved efficiency of gas engines means that turbocharged diesel engines are quiet, clean and deliver amazing acceleration -- while using even less fuel. Thus you can achieve 50 miles to the gallon or better in a European diesel car (actual MPG, not sticker). To top it all off, Diesel fuel is actually cheaper than gas in Italy and many other European countries. So don't freak out at $8 a gallon for gas, because diesel is cheaper, you can easily get a diesel rental car (if you don't get one by default, ask for one) and it will do far more miles to the gallon. Just remember that diesel is called Gasolio in Italy, which sounds confusingly like gas. But now you know differently, so fill up your diesel car with gasolio with confidence. Parking: yes, you will need to be reasonably good at parallel parking in Italy. It's a learnable skill that you can achieve with a little practice. To rent a car in Italy you only need your US state license. Show it at the rental car counter, sign the paperwork and you're off. But the law in Italy says that you must have an International driver's license if you are not a European Union license holder. This means you, my American friends. You can get these for about $15 at AAA. The fine for not having one if the police stop you is 70 Euros (about $100 or so). You may be thinking "OK, so what's the chance of being stopped?" One major difference between the US and Italy is that the police do not need "probable cause" to stop cars. They can set up roadblocks and do random stops to check on vehicle condition, drink-driving, and paperwork violations. It seems like a reasonable trade-off: $15 and the inconvenience of a trip to the AAA office, versus a 70 Euro fine. If you develop an attitude when stopped in this way, the Italian police can also impound your car... but you'd really have to annoy them to get that far. So be nice and enjoy your vacation.