Metal sculpture in Florence

A few weeks ago I posted some photos of Florentine wrought ironwork. Here is a follow-up featuring Florentine metalwork closer to the fine art end of the spectrum. This is a huge subject with a great tradition but these are just a few pictures that appealed to me.

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The main bronze doors of Florence Cathedral by Augusto Passaglia

The casting of relief-decorated bronze doors has been a major art form in Florence since the start of the Renaissance. In fact, many classic texts date the true start of the Italian Renaissance to the sculpting of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s doors for Florence’s Baptistery.

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“The Annunciation” – A panel in a side door of Florence Cathedral

Sadly, the two sets of doors that Ghiberti made for the Baptistery have now been replaced by modern copies in order to preserve the originals. The copies are superb, however, and a great testament to an enduring Florentine bronze casting tradition.

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One of the North doors of the Baptistery (a modern exact replica)

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The second set of doors by Ghiberti were christened “The Gates of Paradise” by Michelangelo

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Detail from “The Gates of Paradise” (a modern replica)

Cast sculpture can be found throughout Florence both in the galleries and out in public spaces. A favourite of mine is the fountains in the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata by Pietro Tacca.

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Detail from a mannerist fountain by Pietro Tacca

As well as skills with bronze, Florence has long been renowned as a centre for gold-smithing. In the Pitti Palace fine examples are displayed of gold working from many periods.

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A gold mounted drinking horn

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A large gold snail featuring a real seashell

Finally, though not high art, I noticed a number small metal tortoises scattered around the city, often in hard to spot places and usually carrying heavy loads on their backs.sculpture 8

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See also: Florentine Ironwork



Major Ikat Exhibition

A major exhibition of IKAT textiles has just opened at the Brunei Gallery, in the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Organized by the World Crafts Council, this marvellous show is well worth a visit by anyone with an interest in traditional textiles.

Ikat is a technique where yarn is dyed with multiple colours prior to weaving so that patterns arise from aligning the yarn colours during the weaving process. Yarn is most commonly dyed using a tie-dye or similar resist technique. Because the production techniques are both painstaking and time consuming, Ikat textiles are among the most expensive of all fabrics. Variations on the Ikat technique can be found all around the world.

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The Brunei Gallery is a beautiful venue and deserves to be much better known. It is only a 3 minute walk from the British Museum. In addition to a program of changing exhibitions, there is a permanent collection and a beautiful Japanese roof garden.Ikat 5The show features examples from some ten countries in the Asia-Pacific region, plus items from Latin-America, the Middle East, West Africa and Europe.

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As well as the textile displays, on specific event days there are live demonstrations, a symposium and film screenings.

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The gallery is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10.30 to 17.00. Closed Sundays, Mondays and Bank holidays. Admission is free.

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For more details, see the Brunei Gallery website

Ironwork in Florence

When the family took a short break in Florence a couple of weeks ago we were all struck by the amount of wrought ironwork attached to walls and covering ground floor windows. Much of this ironwork dates back to renaissance times but the tradition of using metal in attractive and interesting ways continues today.

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Wrought iron bars covering the ground floor window of an old building

In medieval and renaissance times Florence was a turbulent place, with civil unrest, invasion and religious upheaval all being regular hazards. Measures to keep unwanted intruders out of your property were essential.

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Over time the window coverings became less utilitarian and more decorative


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Wandering the streets of Florence you see many variations of the blacksmith’s art

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A more modern take on the window bars concept

During the renaissance, streets and buildings were lit by burning torches inserted into brackets on walls. Different designs of bracket can be seen throughout the old city.

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Bracket for a torch

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Later these torch brackets also became much more elaborate like this dragon

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An elaborate lantern

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The metalwork tradition continued when new kinds of street lighting were introduced

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Many interesting balconies continue the public metalwork tradition

Stokesay Castle

A few weeks ago we spent a weekend in the lovely city of Hereford. As well as spending time visiting the beautiful cathedral and interesting shops we also took a trip by car to see an old favourite of ours.

Stokesay Castle is a medieval fortified manor house situated on the A49 between Hereford and Shrewsbury. It was originally built in the 1280’s and much of that first building phase has somehow survived.

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The entrance to Stokesay Castle with its ornate gatehouse

Some additions and alterations were made in the 16th century, most notably the construction of an ornate gatehouse. The only other major change to the layout came during the civil war when the Parliamentarians demolished the curtain wall after the castle was surrendered to them.

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The South Tower is the most military looking part of the structure

Stokesay was built as a grand country residence by a powerful wool merchant named Richard of Ludlow, who was one of the richest people in England.

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The great hall stands just as originally built

The great hall is the stand out feature of the castle and gives a powerful impression of how basic life in a medieval household must have been. We had last visited Stokesay about fifteen years before on a warm summer’s day. This time we came on a bleak freezing day in February and it really brought home how cold life was in large uninsulated buildings without glazing to keep the wind out.

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The impressive roof of the great hall

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The main door to the great hall

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The carved wooden fireplace surround in the 16th century solar

Things became more civilized in the sixteenth century when a private room adjoining the great hall was converted into a solar, with glazed windows and wood panelled walls.

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The elaborate and decorative gatehouse

The building of the decorative gatehouse as part of the sixteenth century updating illustrates how life had become much less dangerous on the Welsh borders by this time. The gatehouse is very beautiful but looks slightly incongruous in the context of the other buildings. The missing outer castle wall adds to its sense of dislocation.

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This serpent is one of many carved decorations on the gatehouse walls

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Stokesay Castle is situated in a beautiful valley

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Sheep grazing by the castle

Today, Stokesay Castle is owned and maintained by English Heritage. In a world where heritage sites too often try to be entertaining, this old building that has survived so miraculously is presented to visitors with the minimum modern embellishment possible and that is very refreshing. If you are ever in that part of the world it is worth a visit.

A Trip to Rome

Last week my husband Alex and daughter Isla made a short trip to Rome. Here are some of their photographs and thoughts on the experience.

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Roman ruins on the Palatine hill in bright early morning sunshine

You cannot do justice to all that Rome has to offer in three days. We tried to cover just a few of the tourist highlights but it was more of a brief introduction than a chance to understand this historic city. Visiting in January has the advantage that the sites are much less crowded but you can end up arriving during a cold snap as we did. The bright sunshine in our photos does not convey how cold it was, with ice on the puddles and a biting wind (we passed on the gelato!)

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The Palatine ruins were much bigger and more interesting than anticipated. We were left feeling we should have done much more reading before the visit.

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The low morning sunshine made for some dramatic shadows

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The scale of these buildings that are heading towards 2000 years old is staggering but it is very hard to imagine what they would have looked like when clad in marble and plaster

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Fragments of marble dotted all around give clues to what these palaces must have looked like in their glory

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The Roman Forum – A fascinating but puzzling jumble of foundations and disjointed bits of architecture

We both found the Roman Forum a real challenge to the imagination. You try to picture it as it must have been in its heyday but also as it was in the dark ages, buried under soil and used for grazing animals.

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The Colosseum – Rome’s equivalent of Wembley Stadium but a bit more gruesome!

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Vaticam Museums – The Hall of Maps. The Museums gave a feeling of decoration gone mad. After a while the obsessive covering of every surface with paint or gilding began to feel oppressive

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The decoration of the Vatican Museums varies wildly in quality but offers lots of amusing details. This very human lion sitting by his St. Jerome caught our eye

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Beautiful tourist Rome – The Tiber from the top of Castel Sant’Angelo

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The Baths of Diocletian

On our final morning in Rome we visited an unexpected gem, The Baths of Diocletian. Built around 300 AD this vast complex offered bathing for several thousand people and it really brings home the scale that the Romans built on. Equally impressive is the sensitive reuse of the buildings. (Building onto historic ruins rather than knocking them down to build afresh seems a notable theme in Rome.) Around 1563-4, Michelangelo worked to convert the ruins into a church (Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs) and a monastery. At the age of 86 this was his last architectural project. He placed the new building work inside the original walls leaving the Roman brickwork exposed which works beautifully. Today the Basilica remains but the rest of the complex has largely been converted into part of the Museum of Rome.

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Michelangelo’s Cloister – Part of the monastic complex at the Baths of Diocletian, now part of the Museum of Rome

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In the centre of the gardens are iconic sculptures of animal heads

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Around the huge cloister are hundreds of examples of classical Roman sculpture

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Among the sculptures are many wonderful grotesque heads

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This refined lady could belong in a Victorian drawing room but is from a tomb dated to around 40AD

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A display of child’s heads was very moving and powerful

On the flight back to London, Isla amused herself by composing a series of Rome-related acrostic poems. Here is one inspired by the Diocletian Baths and the display of child portraits shown above:

Dismembered heads seem entirely
Innocuous until the
Object in question is a
Child. Pale lips an eternal moment from speech,
Locks of hair unmoved by chill breeze, and
Eyes never carved to completion.
They loved this face enough to make it marble. While the laughing boy
Is now forgotten, love
Anchors to his every
Nick and fracture.



Christmas Boned Turkey

Merry Christmas everyone!
Normally at this time of year I post some pictures of our Christmas cake decorations but this year our main culinary effort has been to make a boned and stuffed turkey for the main course of Christmas dinner. This involved removing the bones from the body of the turkey and stuffing the cavity with a duck, pork and apricot filling (apologies to all vegetarians!)


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Turkey stuffed with duck, pork sausage meat and apricot stuffing

When I have boned a turkey in the past I have always removed all the bones. This time my son Gregor suggested that we should leave the leg and wing bones in place so that the end result still looked like a regular turkey.

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The stuffing ingredients were – onions, chopped apricots and celery, duck breast and pork sausage meat with minced pork shoulder added.

Gregor did all the hard work of boning, and we then stuffed the bird with the blended filling (testing out a teaspoon in the microwave beforehand to check the flavour), and then stitched everything in place.

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Greg busy filling the bird

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The finished turkey, ready for roasting

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The finished bird being sliced for serving

Our verdict – very nice indeed, though perhaps the duck meat was rather overcooked by the time the turkey was done.

One other dish we like at this time of year is paté – perfect for lunches and snacking, and pretty simple to make. Here are links to two paté recipes that we’ve been enjoying this year:

This one  is a chicken and pork recipe from the BBC – Chicken and pork paté with pistachios

This one is a paté de campangne recipe from Raymond Blanc – paté de campagne

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Chicken and pork paté on the left, paté de campagne on the right



A Discworld Cake

Creating a cake based on the late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld has been the latest creative effort from Alex and myself. Greg and Isla, our two children, decided to have a joint birthday party this year, with fancy dress themed on Discworld characters. We took on the challenge of providing a cake to match the theme.

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A turtle with four giant elephants on its back supporting the Discworld

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Sculpting the cake was the first step

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Next a head was added

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More cake was cut to make the forelimbs and to represent the elephant bodies

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Fondant icing was rolled out and used to cover the pieces

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A first check on how the parts will fit together

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Eyes were added and the shell pattern was marked out

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The turtle was painted using cake decorating colours

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Prototype elephant heads

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The completed cake

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The Discworld

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The cake packed up for transport to Southampton for the party

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The demolition of the cake begins