Pink Fire Pointer June 2012

Dreaming About Italy

Ravello, Italy
Photo via here

Happy Summer!  What are your vacation plans?  I will be staying close to home most of the time, but I have been dreaming of far flung destinations.  Especially Ravello, Capri, Positano...oh those names conjure up such beautiful images.  Gorgeous scenery, delicious food, great wines, the Mediterranean, magnificent views, glamour, getting away from it all...  I have never traveled to this region, but its beauty is legendary. Twice in one day two different friends mentioned Ravello to me. One was on her way there for a  vacation (lucky girl!) and another was reading a book set in Ravello.  I am half Italian and spent a lot of time with my Italian grandparents when I was young.  They were always cooking delicious food for me and "mangia bene" was a frequent refrain in their house. My grandfather had a vegetable garden in his backyard and I spent many happy hours there as a child wandering through the tomato plants and swinging on the hammock.  I have always wanted to go to Rome and Naples, their birthplaces, and trace the footsteps of my ancestors.

Venice, 2005

I have been to Italy once and oh, how I loved it!  We went to Venice, Florence, and Rome, the three cities that I imagine everyone starts out with.  However, I am hoping one day to travel to the Amalfi Coast and experience the true La Dolce Vita.  In the meantime, I am gravitating towards books about Italy.  Summer is here and Italy beckons. There are so many good ones to choose from:

Who can forget the scene in "The Enchanted April" when Lottie, one of the four Englishwomen who have traveled to Italy, throws open the windows of their Tuscan villa and sees their Italian paradise for the first time.  That setting has transformative powers for all of them.

E.M. Forster's first novel is about his signature themes:  the collision of cultures and the hypocrisy and snobbishness of Edwardian England.  The story concerns an English widow who goes to Italy and marries an Italian.  I haven't read this one for a while, but I remember enjoying it.  I love this new edition by Vintage Classics.

"A Room With a View" is a gem, romantic and optimistic, once again about young people escaping their restrictive lives and finding love and happiness in Italy.  And who can forget the beautiful movie starring Helena Bonham Carter and the scene where Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson walk in the meadow carpeted with bluebells!

This book must have been responsible for a surge of people buying and restoring villas in Tuscany. Frances Mayes made it sound so romantic and life in Tuscany so beautiful and simple.

"A Year int the World" is another book by Frances Mayes that I have been reading.  She writes about the allure of travel and the many places that she has visited all around the world and what they have meant to her.  I love her thoughtful reflections about travel.  She visits many spots in Italy outside of Tuscany.

A vintage book on Italian cooking given to me by my daughter, don't you love the cover?


And here are some that I have accumulated over the years, but haven't had a chance to read:

In these essays Henry James writes of the qualities he admires about Italy, as well as the political shifts and cultural revolutions he observed at the time (from 1872 -1909).

"Innocence" by Penelope Fitzgerald is described as a "delectable comedy of manners" that takes place in Italy in 1955.  The story concerns an old Florentine family struggling after the war to keep their villa and farm going.

Author Shirley Hazzard writes about her friendship with the writer Graham Greene on the island of Capri.  He came to Capri each summer for years and it was there that they formed their friendship. 

"A Book of Secrets" sounds intriguing, the subtitle is "Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers." It tells several different stories that took place in the beautiful and mysterious Villa Cimbrone in Ravello.  Can't wait to read this one.


Monique at her blog Bringing Travel Home just mentioned a new book "La Bella Lingua" about the beauty of the Italian language.  The author Dianne Hales writes about her "love affair with Italian, the world's most enchanting language."  It sounds excellent!

Many writers have celebrated the beauty and pleasures of Italy in their books, using Italy as a metaphor for love and liberation.  Elizabeth Von Armin, E.M. Forster, and Henry James all wrote about characters finding themselves in Italy. Tell me, are you dreaming about Italy and if so, what books are taking you there?  Have you been to Italy?  Please tell me about your favorite region or city. We can all be armchair travelers!

Lunch in the Garden

Last year I donated "Lunch in the Garden" to benefit Robinson Gardens, an organization that supports the restoration of an historic home and gardens in our community.  A group of women bought it at a silent auction, a date was chosen, and it happened last week.  I was very excited because we had been working very hard on the garden to get it looking its very best.  I planned the menu and two lovely friends helped me do the cooking.    

We set the table, decorating it with flowers and chocolate candies, and welcomed our guests.  We walked them outside and amidst happy chatter they sipped chilled glasses of Fresh Peach Bellinis and wandered through the garden. 

The weather couldn't have been better, the sun warmed our backs and the green of the leaves was an especially vivid shade.  The perfume of the star jasmine wafted through the air.  Everyone agreed it was a beautiful day for eating outside.

We sat down on the patio for lunch and toasted the beginning of summer.  There was a lot of talk about summer travel plans, good books, new movies, and even blogging!  Here is what we served:

 Zucchini SoupArugula Salad with Lemon VinaigretteRoasted Shrimp with Feta, and Eton Mess

After the party was over and everyone was gone, I brought in all the flowers from outside and my kitchen looked festive for days!  

As I enjoyed the long lasting beauty of the flowers, I thought about the garden lunch -- it was a wonderful day of being outside, dining alfresco, laughing, talking about many different topics and getting to know a wonderful group of women, who stayed for most of the afternoon!

After thinking about it all, I realized that my favorite thing to donate to a charity event is an experience such as this.  I think that the people who purchase it enjoy the event, in this case a lunch, and the person who donates it can have a lot of fun putting it together.  Especially if you do it with the help of friends.  It gets you into the kitchen, motivates you to work on your garden, and gives you an opportunity to meet some very generous and lovely new friends.  Everyone feels good because they all contributed to a worthwhile cause, and had a very good time doing it!

A Fondness for Green

"We think we deserve some good luck.  Yet I daresay we're the happiest couple in England.
-- Virginia Woolf, after purchasing Monk's House in 1919.

I have always wanted to visit Virginia Woolf's home Monk's House, and now I feel as if I have.  Have you seen the June issue of "The World of Interiors"?  If you enjoy seeing the houses in which writers lived, you will love this article on Monk's House, Virginia and Leonard Woolf's cottage in Sussex, England.  I love seeing the places where writers lived and worked, the environments where all that creativity took place.  We can wonder, for example, which room Virginia Woolf was in when she came up with the idea for a new novel? Was she warming herself in front of the fire when she suddenly saw the main character in her mind?   How did the morning sunlight coming through the kitchen window, together with a soothing cup of tea inspire the ideas that lead to a story?  Was she daydreaming in the garden when the perfect solution for how to end a book came to her? These kinds of musings are especially relevant in the case of Virginia Woolf, since houses and their interiors have such a strong presence in her books.  As the writer of the article points out, the Woolfs adored Monk's House and lavished great time and attention on making it the very best it could be.   It was almost like the child they never had.

The house dates from the late 17th century and was lived in by millers and carpenters until Virginia and Leonard Woolf bought it at auction in 1919.  Virginia told her friends that it was an ancient Monk's house with niches for holy water, but this was an instance of her famous verbal embroidery (though there were niches on either side of the chimney); monks never actually lived there.  It is a charming brick and weather-board cottage with a large garden in the Sussex village of Rodmell.   As Virginia's books began to make money, the Woolfs were able to add amenities to the house. At one end of the house there is an extension built in 1929 that was possible because of the money Virginia earned from her novel "Orlando."  They added a studio for Virginia in the garden.  The garden was Leonard's pride and joy; he created and cared for this beautiful retreat where they spent many happy hours.

The view of the house from Leonard's Italian garden

Some of the greatest minds of the twentieth century found their way to Monk's house, including T.S. Eliot, Maynard Keynes, E.M Forster, Lytton Strachey, and Roger Fry.  Eliot told the story of the slope in the bathroom floor that made the bath water sit higher on the right.  The artists Vanessa Bell (Virginia's sister) and Duncan Grant hand-painted most of the furniture and decorative objects in the house. It is a house bursting with the personalities of the two people who lived there and, as with so many great houses, it allows us to understand them better.  "Places explain people," as David Garnett once said.

This issue of "The World of Interiors" takes us on a tour of the inside of the house and gives us a glimpse into the domestic life of Virginia Woolf.  It is a beautiful article with great photos, written by Caroline Zoob who is the last tenant-curator of Monk's House.   She tells us that Virginia "felt an irrational pain and sense of failure when her painter sister Vanessa Bell ridiculed her fondness for green."  But even though she was often influenced by her sister's artistic pronouncements, Virginia went ahead and included her favorite color in almost every room of the house.  

The sitting room at Monk's House, featuring Virginia's favorite green

The canvas-work seat of the chair in front of the writing desk in the sitting room, made by Duncan Grant's mother

The dining room with its green enamelled stove
The chairs were designed by Duncan Grant and the yellow seat backs were worked by Mrs. Grant

Virginia's sunny ground floor bedroom, surrounded by the garden.  Vanessa Bell painted the fireplace surround, signing it "VW from VB 1930."   She featured a lighthouse at the top of the tile work.

My favorite detail?  It has to be Virginia's Shakespeare collection which she bound in colorful papers.  In 1936, she wrote to E.M. Forster that she was "rebinding all my Shakespeares - 29 volumes - in coloured paper," labelling the spines herself.

 Lady Ottoline Morrell gave Virginia the Chinese silk shawl which is draped on this chair in her bedroom.  Virginia would write here using a board which would sit upon the chair's arms.  

Virginia's Shakespeare collection rebound by her "in coloured paper" -- it almost looks marbleized.
How beautiful!

Virginia Woolf's fondness for green is just one of her personal preferences that we can see in the way she decorated her home.  Pick up this issue of "World of Interiors" to see all the gorgeous photos of her charming Bloomsbury retreat and to read the fascinating article. (Photos by Caroline Arber and text by Caroline Zoob)   Notice how personalized everything is --  her hand or that of her sister Vanessa is responsible for almost everything.  Her approach to decorating this country cottage reveals a time and a sensibility when most things were hand decorated and this approach to making a home was the welcome relief she needed from writing her books.  Her friends enjoyed being at Monk's House and many of them wrote about it:  

"I loved the untidy, warm, informal nature of the house with books and magazines littered about the rooms, logs piled up by the fireplaces, painted furniture and low tables of tiles designed by the Bloomsbury artists, and writing done in sunny, flower-filled , messy studios.  A smell of wood smoke and ripe apples lingered about it, mixed with the fainter under-perfume of old bindings and old paper."
-- John Lehmann

It sounds like a wonderful environment for inspiration.  And now I can picture Virginia sitting in that chair in her bedroom with Ottoline's scarf wrapped around her shoulders writing one of her books.  With Shakespeare nearby to guide her, she was in a great space to unleash her creativity.

Schiaparelli and Prada at the Met

Wallis Simpson wearing Schiaparelli

"She shook back her shining hair .  For this evening, she had managed to borrow the Schiaparelli dress.  It was made of taffeta, with small side panniers stuck out with cleverly curved pads over the hips.  It was coloured dark blue, green, orange and white in a floral pattern as from the Pacific Islands.  
He said, 'I don't think I've ever seen such a gorgeous dress.'  
'Schiaparelli,' she said.
He said, 'Is that the one you swap amongst yourselves?
'Who told you that?'
'You look beautiful,' he replied.
She picked up the rustling skirt and floated away up the staircase.  Oh, the girls of slender means!"

 --  Muriel Spark, "The Girls of Slender Means" 


Last week I was in New York and got a chance to see the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute's retrospective "Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada:  Impossible Conversations."  It is a fascinating and beautiful show, comparing and contrasting work by two designers of different generations.  It includes an imaginative film by Baz Luhrmann featuring the actress Judy Davis playing Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada.  They are sitting across from each other at a dining table having a conversation about clothes and feminism.  Although the women lived during different time periods, there are many similarities between the two.  They were both born in Italy to old, conservative families.  Both of them rebelled early on and when they started designing clothing, they brought an original and fresh perspective: Prada inspired women to dress for themselves and not for a man and Schiaparelli was influenced by Surrealism through her friend Salvador Dali and incorporated it into some of her designs.  (The surrealist designs are outstanding, though they don't dominate the show; most of her clothes are elegant and relatable.)  Her lobster dress was worn by Wallis Simpson and is in this exhibition.  It is truly something to see!

A film featuring Miucccia Prada and actress Judy Davis playing Elsa Schiaparelli plays behind the fashions they designed

This segment is called "Waist Up/Waist Down" and pairs skirts by Prada with jackets by Schiaparelli

Shoes by Prada and necklaces by Schiaparelli

Judy Davis playing Elsa Schiaparelli in the film by Baz Luhrmann that plays throughout the exhibition

If you get a chance to see this show, don't miss it.  You will enjoy getting to know these two strong and creative women through Baz Luhrmann's film.  I loved Judy Davis' portrayal of Elsa Schiaparelli.  The conversation between her and Miuccia Prada as captured in this film is fascinating.  And the clothes are fabulous!  Both designers have made major contributions to the art of fashion design and it is exciting to see such a large collection of both their designs in one place.   Don't miss Shiaparelli's "Lobster Dress and her "Tears Dress," both influenced by Salvador Dali.

 Photo via here

All photos (except the last two) from The New York Times