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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.

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 🙂

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!

 

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

Flag throwing is a very serious business in Siena: it is part of a larger social structure called Contrade that has lasted for hundreds of years. The city is divided into regions, each one the territory of a Contrade — originally these had a military purpose: to help defend against the hated Florentines. In modern Siena there are 17 contrade, but in medieval Siena there were more: six are remembered as the “suppressed contrade”; they disappeared when the plague decimated the city’s population. Every citizen of Siena is a contrade member, determined by place of birth or “inherited” from parents.

As one Sienese (“Senesi”) tried to explain it to me, a contrade is like a large extended family. I was also told that non-Senesi cannot really comprehend what it means to be a member; after several glasses of Chianti I felt I was definitely getting closer to understanding. Contrade have a church or chapel and headquarters (where Palio trophies are jealously guarded), a patron saint, a symbol or insignia and, of course, colors and a flag.

Active members are passionate about their contrade, and flag throwing is a way of expressing this. It’s part of the ceremony around the famous horse race, Il Palio, and a way for contrade to show off. In the picture, you see members of the Aquilla (Eagle) Contrade practicing in mid June, getting ready for the Palio. The photo was taken from the top of Siena’s town hall tower with a long lens to get the angle and shadows. Luck played a major part in this as I’d just reached the top when I leard the drum beat of the Aquilla as they marched from their part of the city into Il Campo, the main square.

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 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

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 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

Recent research led me to the English translation of an Italian book, “Mona Lisa Revealed” by Giuseppe Pallanti. Mr Pallanti set out to connect the life of the model (Lisa Giocondo, nee Gherardini) with the painting, and the result is a fascinating book that provides a clear, vibrant glimpse into the world of renaissance Florence and the life of Lisa Gherardini, her husband Francesco del Giocondo (a wealthy silk merchant), Leonardo da Vinci and his father Piero. It is impeccably researched, using Florentine medieval tax returns and registers of births and other official documents. And this is where the birthplace claim of Villa Vignamaggio parts company with historical record.

Lisa Gherardini was born in Florence on 15 June 1479 in a house on Via Maggio, and not at Vignamaggio as the villa owners claimed. This is recorded in the grandly titled Archivio dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore di Firenze “Battesimi” (baptismal record) for 1457-1491. Could confusion between Via Maggio and Vignamaggio be to blame? Perhaps, except that 57 years previously in March 1422, the Gherardini family had sold Vignamaggio to the Gherardi family. This is recorded in the Florentine tax records, the “Catasto” — a kind of medieval 1040 tax return. Despite the similarity of names, it was Lisa Gherardini who later married Francesco del Giocondo and who eventually sat for Leonardo .

Giuseppe Pallanti, author of the book, was born in Greve — the closest town to Vignamaggio — and goes out of his way in the text to document the chain of ownership of Vignamaggio, even though it is peripheral to the story of the Gherardini family. His book shows that he knows the Greve area well, and I’m sure he has been to Vignamaggio; my guess is that this is his way of obliquely refuting the villa owners’ claim.

So, what are we to make of all this? A bit of embellishment where non was required: Vignamaggio is a beautifully restored villa in a superb location, is supremely photogenic and makes great wine — and good olive oil, too. Mr Pallanti’s book was published in 2006, seven years after I first visited the villa and many years after the current owners bought it, so perhaps there was some legitimate confusion. Regardless, I love to visit and I’ll be going back in the future.

Final post script: Pallanti’s book is very convincing that Lisa Gherardini was the sitter but there was still some wiggle room for alternative theories. Shortly before the book was published, an academic at the University of Heidelberg discovered a note scribbled in the margin of a medieval ledger that is contemporary with the time of the painting. It positively identifies the sitter as Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo: the true Mona Lisa after all.

Chianti, Europe, Greve, Italy, Toscana, Toskana, architectural, architectural detail, architecture, building, building detail, building material, building materials, door, doorway, edifice, edifices, entrance, entry, exit, exterior, garden, landscape, medieval, outside, paneling, panelling, path, pink, portal, portals, portrait, private garden, scenic, structures, track, tuscany, vertical, villa
Garden doorway to Villa Vignamaggio, Greve, Chianti, Tuscany, Italy.

On the front page of Lodge Photo is a crop from a photo showing a man on a horse with a lance, tilting at a strange target. It’s one of a sequence of four:

Joust of the Saracens, Arezzo

This is the Giostra del Saracino – Joust of the Saracens – held twice a year in Arezzo, Tuscany.

Italy is alive with various contests that have been around for hundreds of years. Siena‘s twice-a-year horse race, Il Palio, is thought to be the world’s longest running sporting event. In a world of disappearing traditions, it is worth a moment’s thought to ponder why. If you go to one of these events then I think it becomes clearer. These events are form of social cohesion, fun and commerce for the communities within the towns. As one eager participant in the enormously popular Siena Palio explained it to me: “The Palio is an excuse to have fun with your friends for a week”.

In Arezzo, the joust has not run continuously like the Palio; it was resurrected some years ago as a way for the town to come together and, let’s be honest, as a way to boost tourism. It takes place in early September on the day of San Donato, the town’s patron saint. There are four main districts of the town – a bit like Siena’s Contrade – each with their own colors and contestants. The jousters ride towards an effigy of a Saracen King, who holds a target in the crook of one wooden arm. The lance is tipped with chalk and the contestant gains points for accuracy. The other arm holds a “cat-o-three-tails” – three leather strips with heavy wooden balls attached. These swing around and the jouster has to dodge them or risk being dislodged from his horse. The winner of the tournament is presented with a golden lance, that part of the town goes wild, and vast quantities of wine are consumed.

The photo sequence you see was taken the evening beforehand during practice. This is a good way to get better photo access than you would at the event itself (this also works, to a certain extent, for the Palio). The light was declining rapidly as the contestants warmed up and took their turns, which presented a problem. Flash wasn’t an option as it would have upset the contestants and wouldn’t have illuminated the entire scene. By using a fast (wide aperture) lens, dialling up the ISO sensitivity on the camera and selecting shutter priority mode, I was able to select a shutter speed that was fast enough to isolate the action but not so fast that the riders and horses appear completely frozen. This gives energy and a sense of action to the pictures while ensuring they’re properly exposed.

If you’re wondering why the Saracens (Turks) get such a rough deal, consider that when this tradition emerged during the middle ages, the Turks were surging through Eastern and Southern Europe: a clear and present danger to Italian principalities.

Millions of people rent cars every year, but if you’re not familiar with renting in Europe there are a few things that will smooth the path of your vacation.

Tip One: Car rental might not be necessary

In many European capitals and major cities, it is often advantageous not to have a car – parking is difficult to find and expensive, and moving around by car can be slower than public transport at busy times. Unlike the US, many hotels do not have their own parking. So when in Rome, Paris, London, Florence etc. don’t rent a car if you intend to just sightsee in the city itself. If you need to get out to visit another town or city, consider taking the train or even a bus. Services in Europe can be fast, frequent and reasonably priced.

When it comes to a larger geographical area like Tuscany or the Dordogne, then you are going to need transport to get about, and a car is the most efficient way to do so. I say this as someone who really likes to take good public transport, and often takes not-so-good public transport. It is possible to get around by bus in areas like Tuscany, but boy is it a logistical challenge and fundamentally you will get to spend far less time enjoying the area. When you have limited time to vacation, spending it on a bus is false economy. Buy carbon offset to cover the CO2 emissions of the car (and your plane ride, while you are at it) if you feel bad about that aspect.

Tip Two: Two smaller cars may be better than one giant car

Resist the urge to rent a large car or van, even if it is appealing because you have a large family or group on the trip. Get a couple of smaller cars instead. Larger cars are rarer in Europe because running them is more expensive, and also European towns and cities were not designed for cars at all. As well as being expensive to fuel, large cars are hard to maneuver in narrow streets designed for nothing wider than a horse and cart.

On one trip, we were staying a few nights in Florence and then heading out to Villa Vignamaggio. We were to stay at Hotel Brunelleschi, squeezed into the centre of the ancient city of Florence. The area is so old, the hotel is built around a Byzantine tower with Roman remains in the basement – it even has its own museum. The streets leading to it are really, really narrow: even the taxi driver had a hard time getting his small Fiat around the final bend. Some kindly Italians stopped to guide him back-and-forth as he edged the car around the corner. With even a small SUV or Minivan you’d be wedged between two buildings several turns back.

Florence cathedral from the Brunelleschi roof terrace

Incidentally, we’ll probably never stay at the Brunelleschi again. Not because it was bad – quite the reverse: it is a truly historic hotel with charm, good rooms, friendly staff and a fantastic location. Dan Brown is to blame: it’s where his characters Langdon and Sophie agree to rendezvous at the end of The Da Vinci Code for a night of passion. I could be wrong about the last bit, but it doesn’t seem like they’re planning to discuss iconography. At any rate, ever since then prices have gone up, up, up and you practically have to be Dan Brown to get in.

Tip three: Use your credit card rental car insurance to save money

Many credit cards offer extensions to basic rental car insurance to cover accidental damage and/or theft – far more cheaply than the rental car company. You are already paying for this in your annual card fee and/or interest, so make use of it. Check the website of your card supplier to find out what they offer, and read all the small print so you know what is covered, and what isn’t. We recently discovered that Amex no longer insures larger cars and SUVs, for example.

We’ve been unfortunate enough to claim on American Express insurance a couple of times. Our rental car was vandalized in Toulouse, France — not badly, but bad enough for a hefty charge from the rental company. After sending in the paper work Amex did their investigation and paid up some months later. Insurance is getting simpler in places like Italy where there are a lot of claims – all rental car companies now mandate you buy comprehensive cover.

The insurance cover you probably don’t need is for personal possessions. Most people’s belongings are covered by their household insurance policy, but there are exceptions for expensive stuff like cameras and lenses and jewelry. Read your policy to see what is covered and don’t buy coverage twice. In general, the best policy is to take anything remotely valuable out of the car as any kind of car trouble tends to ruin your day.

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.

No-one should be rushed on a Tuscan vacation, so plan on arriving in time for lunch. Use the plentiful parking outside of the town and walk up the hill through the fortified gateway, heading for the Piazza della Cisterna — unmistakable for the well in the center. There you’ll find Hotel Cisterna; skip the tables outside and head inside and up the stairs to their restaurant “Le Terrazze”, with its fine views across the Tuscan hills. Settle in at a table with a view, and order their Asparagus Ravioli and a bottle of the local white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano — grown on the slopes you can see from the windows. The ravioli is their speciality — fresh hand-made pasta with a beautiful green asparagus filling and sauce… to die for.

Remember this is Italy, so a couple of courses and some coffee or digestif is likely to take you a few hours — but that’s OK, because the light outside will be harsh and bright and not conducive to good photography. Float down the steps on your food high, past the well and into the Piazza del Duomo. Head into the cool interior of the 12th century church to get away from the heat of the day and marvel at the 14th and 15th century fresco cycles, the chapel and baptistry and museum of sacred art next door.

If shopping is your thing, then now is also a good time to wander down the streets checking out the local artwork, clothing, wine and food.

Wild boar and other local specialities
Wild boar and other local specialities

Heading back to the Piazza del Duomo, you’ll find the Museo Civico, where you can take in the artwork and also work off what’s left of lunch by climbing the steps to the top of Torre Grossa — the big tower. In theory, after a local ordnance issued in 1255, no other towers were supposed to be taller than the Torre della Rognosa, which you can see directly across the square from the church (duomo). In practice, as you can see with your own eyes, this was largely ignored — the very essence of Italian bureaucracy. By now, the sun should be much further down in the sky, making for better light and some great shots looking over the town to the Tuscan hills all around.

After the climb back down the tower, you might be in need of a pick-me-up, so head back to Piazza della Cisterna for ice cream at the award-winning Gelateria di Piazza. As the sun heads towards the horizon, the tour bus crowds melt away, leaving you to take great photographs in the incomparable Tuscan “golden hour”, as the locals come out for passagiata and to enjoy the evening.

Old Italian ladies enjoy the evening sunshine
Old Italian ladies enjoy the evening sunshine