A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Parco della Musica (Rome)

9 May 2014

Includes concert review:

Gustavo Dudamel:  Wagner, Haydn, Schumann

Monday 17 June 2013 at 9pm Auditorium Parco della Musica: Sala S. Cecilia 4, Rome


In the next few weeks we are going to be taking a break from “Johann Sebastian Bach’s GERMANY” and explore some other areas of Europe.  Our destination today:  Italy, a new architectural paradigm, and one of its musical exponents.


Two Distinctive Architectural perspectives:  Herzog & de Meuron and Renzo Piano


Just a couple of weeks ago I mentioned in this blog a new concert hall rising above the HafenCity quarter of Hamburg, Germany (see Johann Sebastian Bach's Germany Part 3, Hamburg, 25 April 2014).  Designed by Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg concert hall is actually situated on top of an old warehouse and — expected to be completed in 2016 with a final height of 110 meters — will be the tallest inhabited building of Hamburg.


The Elbphilharmonie Hamburg concert hall in Hamburg, Germany, is shown under construction in May 2013.

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}



Un Abbecedario

7 February 2014

Having assembled an abecedary (alphabet primer) in French a couple of years ago in this blog, I thought I would now pay an analogous compliment to the Italian language.  Although the Italian alphabet has fewer letters than that of French or English — only 21 — the job wasn’t made any easier because of the many exquisite nouns from which to choose in Italian.  But in any case, being an avid photographer has made this a true pleasure for me.  I hope you enjoy this linguistic/photographic tour of Italy.  Following each letter is its Italian pronunciation in parentheses and a description of its accompanying photo.



Aa (a)



This ancient arch is found in the Umbrian city of Perugia.  Its base is Etruscan with later additions dating from the Middle Ages. Arco can also refer to a violin bow (historically even more arch-shaped than today) and, in fact, gli archi indicates the entire string section of the orchestra.


Mandatory Opera Business Part 3

31 May 2013

Disclaimer:  This blog entry is the result of a wasted attempt to ponder the myriad causalities in the mysterious link between Italian composers and the phenomenon of opera.  The following thoughts transpired during an almost interminable intermission in an Italian opera performance in an outdoor amphitheater — in the midst of a delirium-producing, record-breaking heat wave (see Hot Opera).  Any resemblance to actual events in music history is purely coincidental and can only be considered lucky.

Read Part 1


Donizetti Pasha and others

In Part 2 of this blog entry, we began to consider the ridiculously unlikely hypothesis of the m.o.b. — mandatory opera business —in an attempt to explain why those composers who generated a regular output of operas tended to remain in Italy, while those who composed in genres other than opera were more likely to live outside of Italy.  This hypothesis was then supported with a few feeble examples.  Here are a few more unconvincing examples to consider.

Opera boss Gaetano Donizetti’s older brother, Giuseppe Donizetti (1788–1856), to Gaetano’s chagrin, repudiated operas.  After, it is assumed, being threatened with having each foot stuck in a tuba and being thrown into the River Po, he was forced to flee Italy with the m.o.b. in continual pursuit.  Eventually he was able to stop running and he taught music at the court of Sultan Mahmud II in Istanbul.  Known as ‘Donizetti Pasha’, he composed the first national anthem of the Ottoman Empire.


Anonymous:  Giuseppe Donizetti Pasha

  (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Mandatory Opera Business Part 2

31 May 2013

Disclaimer:  This blog entry is the result of a wasted attempt to ponder the myriad causalities in the mysterious link between Italian composers and the phenomenon of opera.  The following thoughts transpired during an almost interminable intermission in an Italian opera performance in an outdoor amphitheater — in the midst of a delirium-producing, record-breaking heat wave (see Hot Opera).  Any resemblance to actual events in music history is purely coincidental and can only be considered lucky.


A set is being constructed at Teatro alla Scala (La Scala opera house) in Milan, Italy.  Three operas of Gioachino Rossini, the composer discussed in Part 1 of this blog entry, received their première performances at La Scala.



OPERA, n. A play representing life in another world, whose inhabitants have no speech but song, no motions but gestures and no postures but attitudes.

— Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914)


Fuga a 22 voci — Escape in 22 parts


So, in Part 1 of this blog entry, we were talking about, as a prime example, how after Gioachino Rossini had stopped composing operas, he seemed to have been exiled to France.  I had propounded a theory that, given the signal magnitude of opera in Italian society, an organized rhyme syndicate, the m.o.b. — mandatory opera business — may have been conducting its activities behind the scenes.

This hypothesis would explain why those composers who generated a regular output of operas tended to remain in Italy, with great veneration, while those who composed in genres other than opera were more likely to emigrate, living in numerous locations outside of Italy.


Mandatory Opera Business Part 1

31 May 2013

Disclaimer:  This blog entry is the result of a wasted attempt to ponder the myriad causalities in the mysterious link between Italian composers and the phenomenon of opera.  The following thoughts transpired during an almost interminable intermission in an Italian opera performance in an outdoor amphitheater — in the midst of a delirium-producing, record-breaking heat wave (see Hot Opera).  Any resemblance to actual events in music history is purely coincidental and can only be considered lucky.

Signor Crescendo


Étienne Carjat (1828–1906), photographer:  Gioachino Rossini, 1865

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}



Have you seen both of Rossini’s graves?  “Huh?” you may ask.  Yes, there are, in fact, two of them.  It’s not that he was too large to fit into just one, although, considering his portliness, that may have made things a little difficult.  It’s just that, well, he stopped composing operas and, shall we say, sensed a certain urgency to leave Italy . . .

Gioachino Rossini, known affectionately as "Signor Crescendo" to his opera audience, was born on Leap Day in 1792 and by the time he saw 37 (technically nine years old, if we want to be strict about the 29 February date) he had composed 39 operas, including Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), La Cenerentola (Cinderella), and even an Otello (Othello) with a happy ending.

He boasted, "Give me a laundry list and I'll set it to music."


Guido d'Arezzo Part 2

24 May 2013

The entire gamut


Piazza Grande in Arezzo, where the opening scenes of Roberto Benigni’s La vita è bella (Life Is Beautiful, 1997) were filmed.


In Part 1 of this blog entry, we discussed Guido’s invention of the staff and, for his use in teaching, the hymn “Ut queant laxis” and the syllables that he derived from its Latin text.  We also briefly touched on the concept of the hexachordal system, which now calls for a little more attention.

So Guido constructed a scale of 21 notes made up of overlapping hexachords to accommodate all of the modes within the range of the human voice in singing chant.  Each pitch came to be known by the syllables of its associated hexachords.  For example, middle C is the fifth degree (sol) of an F hexachord, the fourth degree (fa) of a G hexachord, and the first degree (ut) of a C hexachord, making it unique in the 21-note scale. Its name would therefore be "C sol fa ut."

The lowest note of the scale, G on the first line of our modern bass staff, was given a mark of distinction by being called by the Greek letter gamma ().  Hence, that pitch, being the lowest and belonging to just one hexachord on the scale (the G hexachord), was termed “gamma ut,” or “gamut.”  Gamut came to  refer to the entire scale, and today the word indicates the complete range of anything.


Guido d'Arezzo Part 1

17 May 2013

A statue of Guido Monaco, better known as Guido d’Arezzo, stands in Arezzo, Italy.


There was once this guy who was a monk.  In fact, that was his name — Guy Monk, or as his paisà (buddies) pronounced it, Guido Monaco.

He is perhaps better known as Guido d’Arezzo or Guido Aretino, the name deriving from his city, Arezzo (Aretium).  Guido is one of many notable aretini who have made their mark through the centuries.

Born in 991 or 992, Guido lived during a period of monumental transformation in music:  polyphony was emerging as musicians learned to mingle several independent melodic lines, notation was developing due to the increasing demands of music of the time, and people were starting to ask questions in ways that were never asked before about how sound can be organized.


Petrarch Part 5

10 May 2013

From waltz to dirge


Read Part 1

Read Part 2

Read Part 3

Read Part 4


In Part 3 of this blog entry we discussed the overwhelming attraction of sixteenth-century composers to Petrarch, focusing on the sonnet "L'aura che'l verde Lauro" (poem #246), and its setting by the leading madrigal composer of his time, Luca Marenzio (1553?–1599).

Following Marenzio’s brilliant innovations as a madrigalist, the most influential composer of madrigals at the beginning of the seventeenth century was Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643).  Also a singer and gambist [performer on the viola da gamba], Monteverdi created lasting works that were ground-breaking and original.  Monteverdi also used Petrarch's words in several of his madrigals.


Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644): Claudio Monteverdi, 1640, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Born in Cremona, Monteverdi served in the court of Vincenzo I Gonzaga in Mantua, where he composed one of the earliest operas, L'Orfeo.  In 1613, he became conductor at the Basilica di San Marco in Venice.


Petrarch Part 4

3 May 2013

Dating Service for Poetry


“We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or its love.”

— Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)


Illustration from a fifteenth-century edition of Il Canzoniere: Laura and Petrarch

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Read Part 1

Read Part 2

Read Part 3


Readers of Petrarch’s Canzoniere have been noticing for almost seven centuries now that the author seemed to be subject to spacious mood-swings, his poetry roller-coastering between an expectant hope arising from the minutest nonverbal twitch coming from the general direction of the object of his desire — Laura — to an abject gloom resulting from his unreciprocated cathectic attentions given to her.

This is one matter.  Another matter, which initially may seem unrelated, is that although Petrarch dated some of the manuscripts of poems found in the Canzoniere, there are many poems that are difficult to place chronologically.  Complicating this fact is that, even after Petrarch had written most of the poetry in the Canzoniere over a period of forty years, he continued to revise these poems, rearranging them in the process like shuffling a deck of cards, until the end of his life.  The only clear sense of sequential ordering in the book is in its bipartite arrangement:  those poems written before Laura died, and those written after.

You may be thinking now, we can’t have poems just drifting around without dates; what is needed is an online poetic dating service, where poems can find other poems that are compatible, who can understand each other’s metonymy and accentual rhythm and can form a lasting, post-structuralist relationship and . . . no, that’s not exactly what I mean.  To clarify the situation, to the rescue comes Frederic J. Jones, author of The Structure of Petrarch's Canzoniere: A Chronological, Psychological, and Stylistic Analysis (1995).


Petrarch Part 3

26 April 2013

From songbook (Il Canzoniere) to singing 


Andrea del Castagno (or Andrea di Bartolo di Bargilla) (c. 1421–1457): Francesco Petrarca, c. 1450, fresco on wood, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


When Petrarch sang his verses to the accompaniment of the lute, he couldn’t have known at the time what an immense impact his poetry would have on the music of the Renaissance. Musical settings of poetry from Petrarch's Il Canzoniere (The Songbook) began as a trickle.  Jacopo da Bologna (fl 1340-1360), around 1350, set the sonnet “Non al suo amante” (#52) to music while the poet was alive, and then, almost one hundred years later, Guillaume Dufay (1397? –1474) set the canzone “Vergine bella” (#366). 

At the turn of the sixteenth century, enter the scholar and poet Pietro Bembo.  He was so passionate about Petrarch’s verse that his imitations of Petrarch in his own poetry came to be labeled as bembismo.  When Bembo, at his bembistic best, published a new edition of Petrarch’s Canzoniere in Venice in 1501, the trickle of music settings grew into an acqua alta (high water) of notes and staves, and Petrarch’s sonnets were soon floating all over Italy on strains of music.

Tiziano Vecelli (Titian) (1485/1490-1576): Portrait of Cardinal Pietro Bembo, c. 1540, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}

Not only were most sixteenth-century Italian composers inspired by Bembo’s publication of Petrarch, but a new generation of poets was also stirred, including Jacopo Sannazaro (1458-1530) and Torquato Tasso (1544-1595), who in turn wrote more poetry for composers to set to music.  After Bembo’s edition, the Canzoniere was published in more than 150 individual editions throughout the sixteenth century, prompting a cycle of even more poets and composers to follow in the Petrarchan tradition.


Petrarch Part 2

19 April 2013

Petrarch is one of 28 Tuscan artists, poets, politicians, and scientists represented by statues in the Loggiato degli Uffizi in Florence, Italy. Designed in the sixteenth century by Giorgio Vasari, the Galleria degli Uffizi did not feature these sculptures in its court until the nineteenth century.


Il Canzoniere


In Part 1 of this blog entry, we considered some details in the life of Italian scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), whose works had an immense impact throughout the Renaissance and beyond.  While much of Petrarch’s work was written in Latin — the scholarly language of the time — some of his writings employ the Tuscan dialect.  These writings in large part, along with those of two other fourteenth-century Tuscans, Boccaccio (1313-1375) and Dante (1265-1321), became the basis for the modern Italian language.

One such Italian work, featuring poetry for which Petrarch is probably best known, is Il Canzoniere (‘The Songbook’).  Originally titled Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (‘Fragments of common things’, signifying that the work was composed in the vernacular, that is, in Italian rather than Latin), this collection contains 366 poems written over a period of forty years.  Most of these poems — 317 — are sonnets; in addition, there are 29 canzoni, nine sestine, seven ballate, and four madrigali, all fixed poetic forms dating from the Middle Ages.

The subject matter of the Canzoniere should come as no surprise, as Petrarch had difficulty thinking about anything else most of the time: Laura.  In this collection Petrarch also discusses religion and politics (ignoring the common injunction at the dinner table), but it is the theme of ‘Petrarchan love’ — that of desiring someone who is unattainable, which paradoxically entails both longing and pain — that permeates the poetry.


Petrarch Part 1

12 April 2013

se bona, ond’è l’effetto aspro mortale?

— Petrarch, from Sonnet 132

If love be good, from whennes comth my wo?

—translation of the above line by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340? – 1400)


Petrarch, in an anonymous portrait, is shown wearing the laurel wreath, fashioned from Laurus nobilis, or bay laurel.

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Petrarch had everything going for him:  a cushy job, ample travel opportunities, Provençal cuisine whenever he wanted it, more sun in a week in southern France than most places get in a year, and a cool hat that provided excellent seasoning for soups.  (see above photo)

But there was one — tiny — problem that consumed all of his attention and energies for more than twenty years:  unrequited love.  Petrarch had the misfortune of randomly encountering a woman who, for whatever reason, was simply not interested in sorting out his tragic OCD issues.  So he ended up writing hundreds of sonnets about her as a kind of catharsis, which even after she died didn’t really seem to help.

At one point it looked as if he was getting close to the right idea when he wrote, “To be able to say how much you love is to love but little” (canzone, poem #37), but he kept scratching away on all of those sonnets anyway.  Ultimately there was no relief — for, as Charlie Brown once observed while eating lunch, “Nothing takes the taste out of peanut butter quite like unrequited love.”


Andrea Mantegna Part 6

5 April 2013

Seeing Triple:  Mantegna’s Saint Sebastians


Read Part 1

Read Part 2


During the period in which the Casa del Mantegna (see Part 5) was being constructed, Mantegna continued to produce several remarkable paintings as court artist in Mantua.  These include Madonna col Bambino e un coro di cherubini (Madonna with the Cherubim; c. 1485; Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan), Trionfi di Cesare (Triumphs of Caesar; c. 1484 - c. 1492; Hampton Court Palace, England — discussed in Part 4 of this entry), Giuditta e l'ancella con la testa di Oloferne (Judith and Holofernes; 1495; National Gallery of Art, Washington), and Madonna della Vittoria (Madonna of the Victory; 1496; Musée du Louvre, Paris).  This last painting —a sizeable canvas at 280 x 166 cm, or approximately 9 x 5.5 feet, a detail of which can be seen in Part 3 of this entry — features a portrait of Francesco II Gonzaga kneeling in full armor.

There was additionally a recurring theme in Mantegna’s work that figures in this period, one that dates back to when he lived in Padua — the martyrdom of a third century saint.  Saint Sebastian is believed to have been a captain in the Praetorian Guard in Rome.  In 286, when Emperor Diocletian discovered that Sebastian was a Christian, he ordered that he be executed by being tied to a post and shot with arrows until he looked like a “hedgehog,” following which, according to the legend, Sebastian survived.

Somewhat incongruously, due to the repeated reappearance of the Black Death (bubonic plague) in Europe since the fourteenth century, Saint Sebastian had become a popular object of identification by Mantegna’s time.  This is presumably because in medieval thought, just as arrows travel through the air, so does pestilence. (This is technically true if we include the fleas that spread the virus.)


Paul Fürst (1608-1666): Doktor Schnabel von Rom (Doctor Beak from Rome), 1656, engraving — an example of what a physician might wear for protection from the Black Death plague

  (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}



Andrea Mantegna Part 5

29 March 2013

The Casa del Mantegna


View from an arcade of the Palazzo Ducale onto Piazza Sordello — named after the 13th-century Lombard troubadour who was born near Mantua — where the dome of Basilica di Sant’ Andrea (15th century — designed by Leon Battista Alberti and burial place of Andrea Mantegna) and the Palazzo Bonacolsi (13th century) can be seen.


Read Part 1

Read Part 2

Read Part 3

Read Part 4

There is a little wordplay that school children learn in France:  Si c'est rond c'est point carré.  This seems fairly logical at first.  It means, “If it's round, it's not square.”

However, when spoken this phrase sounds exactly like Cicéron c'est Poincaré, meaning, “Cicero is Poincaré.”  Even though Henri Poincaré (1854 –1912) thought that “toutes les parties de l’univers sont solidaires dans une certaine mesure [all the parts of the universe are interdependent in a certain measure]" and Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) noticed, “Suum cuique [to each his own]," the likelihood of the French mathematician and the Roman orator and statesman being the same person is fairly slim.

But in the case of Andrea Mantegna, the subject of this blog entry, paradoxically, if it's round, it is square. 


Andrea Mantegna Part 4

22 March 2013

The Triumphs of Caesar


The Castello di San Giorgio at the Palazzo Ducale, Mantua — complete with moat — was built in the early 1400s.


Read Part 1

Read Part 2

Before our detour (in Part 3 of this entry) through the rich, centuries-long tradition of art, literature, and music at the Gonzaga court, we had been discussing Andrea Mantegna’s service as court artist to the Gonzagas.  With one brief (known) exception, he had remained since his arrival in 1459 at Mantua for the rest of his life.

In 1488 Mantegna was invited to Rome to paint a series of frescoes in the Belvedere Chapel at the Vatican.  These frescoes, which were meticulously described by Vasari, were unfortunately destroyed almost 300 years later to make room for the construction of the Pio-Clementino Museum.  Mantegna’s stay in Rome allowed him to further his study of ancient Roman sculpture and architecture, an enduring interest for his entire life and a significant influence on his paintings.


Ancient ruins can still be seen in the Roman Forum.



Andrea Mantegna Part 3

15 March 2013

Art, Literature, and Music at the Palazzo Ducale


The Galleria dei Mesi (Gallery of the Months) at the Palazzo Ducale, Mantua


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Read Part 2

Andrea Mantegna had finished painting the extraordinary frescoes in the Camera degli Sposi in 1474 and only a few years later — in 1478 — the subject of these paintings, Ludovico II Gonzaga, died and was succeeded by his eldest son, Federico I Gonzaga (1441-1484).  Federico, who was a good friend of Mantegna, had received his education from Mantegna's mother as well as from Vittorino da Feltre (1378–1446), whose instruction in Greek, Latin, philosophy, mathematics, music, poetry, art, religion, and history was so delightful that his school was known as Casa Giocosa (Happy House).

Anonymous: Portrait of Federico I Gonzaga; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}

But Federico died suddenly from a fever at the age of 43 in 1484.  With his death, as well as the deaths of Mantegna’s former patron Ludovico, Ludovico’s wife Barbara of Brandenburg, and Mantegna’s own son Bernardino all in such a brief span, these years were difficult for the artist.

Federico’s son Francesco II (1466–1519) was only 17 when he took power.  He was described as “short, pop-eyed, and snub-nosed;” however, he was also considered “exceptionally brave, and . . . the finest knight in Italy."


Andrea Mantegna Part 2

8 March 2013

From Padua to Verona 


A view of the Adige River and the Castelvecchio from Ponte Scaligero in Verona, Italy


Read Part 1

Although Andrea Mantegna had been chiefly influenced by Francesco Squarcione since his youth, he found other inspiration as well in Padua.  Padua since 1222 had been a university town that was brimming with opportunities.  The centuries before and after Mantegna have witnessed many great names who come there as students — the poet Dante (c. 1265–1321), the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), and the composer Giuseppe Tartini (1692–1770) — or teachers — the poet Petrarch (1304–1374), the astronomer Galileo (1564–1642), and the inventor of the battery, Alessandro Volta (1745–1827), for example.  Even two famed tubes are named after Paduans:  Gabriele Falloppio (1523-62) taught there, and Bartolomeo Eustachi (1520-74) was a student there.

But Padua was also an artistic crossroads in the fifteenth century.  Donatello (c. 1386 –1466), Paolo Uccello (1397–1475), and Fra Filippo Lippi (c. 1406–1469) created art there, just as Giotto (1266/7–1337) had the previous century.  Donatello, in particular, had a considerable impact on Mantegna’s development as a painter.

Even greater was the effect on Mantegna of the Renaissance painter Jacopo Bellini (c. 1400 – c. 1470), who, in addition to having traveled from Venice to Florence, Verona, and Ferrara on commissions, also spent time in Padua.  Bellini appreciated Mantegna’s youthful talent and encouraged him, instructing him in the new science of linear perspective.


Andrea Mantegna Part 1

1 March 2013

Cristo Morto


Giorgio Vasari (1511 –1574):  engraving of Andrea Mantegna in Le Vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori (Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects), 1550 (1568 edition)

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


The Pinacoteca di Brera is an exceptional art museum located in a splendid seventeenth-century palazzo in Milan.  Portions of the building date back to the 1500s, when it functioned as a convent.  The museum itself began as a collection of art to serve as examples for students at l'Accademia di Belle Arti (the Academy of Fine Arts) founded there, which still exists, but now the school and museum are separate institutions within the same building.

As one walks through Napoleon’s courtyard to the museum, the de rigueur bohemian tone of an art school is hard to miss.  We had come to see art dating back to the Renaissance —to give this great art, as it were, a “big hello” — but initially encountered what is called, in Italian, bighellonare: students of the academy lounging, drooped listlessly over staircases, languorously leaning against walls, affecting an artist’s poverty and world-weariness, but nevertheless seriously cool, an attitude that art students have no doubt affected here since 1776, the date of the founding of the art academy.

There are many important Italian paintings among the 38 rooms at the Brera — by Raphael, Veronese, Titian, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, and Canaletto, as well as Caravaggio’s La Cena in Emmaus (Supper at Emmaus).  This last painting was the second that Caravaggio had done on the subject, when he was hiding in 1606.  Why was he hiding?  He had apparently killed someone — possibly by mistake — and had to run. Caravaggio's police record was in many ways just as colorful as his canvases.


La bella lingua Part 3

22 February 2013

Virtuoso suffixes


A liutaio is a business that makes stringed instruments such as violins, guitars, or lutes (the latter which distinguishes the trade name).  This one, in Cremona, Italy, displays in its window works-in-progress from the violin family.  The term ‘lute’ derives from the Arabic al-‘ud, meaning ‘the wood’; the instrument was introduced to Europe in the ninth century, when Moors brought the Oud to Spain.  Various suffixes differentiate the members of the violin family, as discussed below.


We began Part 1 of this blog entry with a discussion of the multitalented word “piano.”  In Part 2 we talked about falsi amici and names for types of pasta.  Now we may as well end with, well, endings — in particular, some endings of names for a few other instruments besides the piano.

Did you notice any patterns in some of the word-endings in the list of pasta types in Part 2? How about -etti (masculine plural) as in spaghetti; –ine (feminine plural) as in fettuccine; -elli (masculine plural; note here that a 'c' is added due to the preceding vowel) as in vermicelli; or –otti (masculine plural) as in manicotti?  These are diminutive suffixes.  Other words in the list have an augmentative suffix:  -oni (masculine plural) as in rigatoni.

This is another virtuoso aspect of the Italian language.  Take any word and make it shrink or grow with just a few extra letters.


La bella lingua Part 2

15 February 2013

i falsi amici


a street in Cremona, Italy


Read Part 1

I recall visiting a little shop in Cremona once.  My wife had discovered one of those rare phenomena in the Italian landscape, a public restroom, and I found myself with some time to squander.  When the clerk asked me, “Posso aiutarla [May I help you]?” I responded, “Grazie.  Sto dando solo un'occhiata . . . Attendo mia moglie [Thanks.  I’m just looking . . . I’m waiting for my wife].”

The word attendo got me thinking about some often incorrectly assumed cognates between Italian and English.  These words may be homonyms, but synonyms they are not, and they will get you into trouble every time if you're not careful.  The Italians call these mistaken cognates falsi amici  — false friends, which are also known by the French expression, faux amis.


La bella lingua Part 1

8 February 2013

Fantasia per piano


Chi ha fretta vada piano — make haste slowly.


The word “piano” in the Italian language — denoting “slowly” in the above adage — is really quite versatile.  It can indicate concepts such as flat, even, level, a surface, a geometric plane, a prairie, without hurdles (in athletics), a floor, (whether or not designed by Italian starchitect Renzo Piano; for example, piano terreno — ground floor; primo piano is what we in the US call the second floor), a plan (as in piano d’azione — plan of action), gradually (as in pian piano — a reduplicative that means “little by little”), prominent, high-ranking (as in uno scrittore di primo piano — a major author) as well as a range of ideas from clear, straightforward, simple, and intelligible, to smooth or softly, and from carefully, delicately, and gently to, and here’s a musical application, quietly.

In the last instance, this particular dynamic (loudness) level is indicated with the letter  in music scores, as opposed to the letter — for forte, which means loud or strong.  Hence the instrument with strings activated by hammers and invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori in Florence in 1700, the pianoforte, which, unlike the earlier harpsichord, plays both softly and loudly according to touch, and which today we call by its abbreviated name, the piano.


A "Giraffe” piano from the 19th century (Museo degli strumenti musicali, Milan)



Hot Opera Part 3

13 April 2012

Read Part 1

Read Part 2



The opening of the first act of Aida was majestic:  the Pharaoh’s palace at Memphis, rows of priests and court officials, scores of sentries lining the terraces behind the stage, and an impressive set.  Soon Radames, the captain of the guard, was intoning “Celeste Aida”:  Se quell guerrier io fossi! . . . Ergerti un trono vicino al sol [If only I were that warrior! . . . To raise you a throne next to the sun], an aria in which he reveals that he is hoping to score points in the imminent battle with Ethiopians at Thebes and simultaneously score points with Aida.

Suddenly, from behind us, came an urgent cry, “Medico!  Medico!”  Everyone in our section turned around to see the commotion about four rows behind us:  a woman was slumped over and several people around her were frantically fanning her with their program booklets.  No, it wasn’t Rademes’ stirring aria that made her swoon; it was the fact that we were all sitting, in effect, in a ‘throne next to the sun’, as the aria put it, during one of Italy’s most severe heat waves.  In spite of the occasional, slight breeze, the massive stones over the broad expanse of the arena — stones that had been absorbing the heat of the sun all day — were now giving off their stored energy.  This being Italy, the picture of bricks in a pizza oven kept coming to my mind. Read more...

Hot Opera Part 2

6 April 2012

In Part 1 of this entry, I described our preparations to attend Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida at the Verona Arena, providing a little history of both the venue and the opera, and alluded to the record-breaking heat wave that was encasing Italy that week.

By that evening, after having repaired to a restaurant where one tiny air-conditioner above the door was struggling heroically, Colleen and I emerged around 8 p.m. into the still sultry Piazza Bra’ near the arena.  We gazed at the Roman walls, conscious of the crowd swelling by the thousands around the arena, and also, ominously, noted the Croce Verde (Green Cross) ambulances parked near the arena gates.  By 8:30 we noticed the crowd thinning as people funneled into the arena, and although the opera didn’t start until 9:15, we decided we had better find our seats since everyone else was doing just that.


Verona’s Piazza Bra’ with the arena in the background



Hot Opera Part 1

30 March 2012

When talking about Italy, it’s hard to avoid the subject of opera for very long.  Opera was invented in Italy and epitomizes Italian culture, right along with up-to-the-minute fashion, superb design, Renaissance art, slow food, fast cars, and the occasional garbage strike.

Normally, opera is not my thing — I have to be in just the right mood to listen to people sing while they are dying — but I must admit that I’ve found myself enjoying quite a few operatic productions both in Italy and in the U.S. all the same.

During a recent visit to Verona, I had an opportunity to experience the quintessence of opera, wherein a story about cruel and inhumane deeds was enacted in a remarkably apt setting:  an ancient site of gladiatorial fights, venationes (fierce, exotic animal hunts), and public executions.  The Arena di Verona was built in the 1st century AD to hold 30,000 people, making it the third largest Roman amphitheater in the world and today having ample space for operatic ambience.  Even the name of the structure is pointedly symbolic, deriving as it does from the Latin harena, a fine sand used to absorb blood.

Fortunately for my tastes, the only thing being executed in the arena on the evening I planned to attend would be arduous coloratura passages by sopranos.


The Arena di Verona (center), seen from the 84 meter-high Torre dei Lamberti in Verona, Italy.


la Gioconda

What's Mona Lisa been up to lately?

Part 4

23 March 2012

Architect I. M. Pei’s glass pyramids, completed in 1989, stand in the Cour Napoléon over the entrance to the Musée du Louvre, where the Mona Lisa is on display.


Read Part 1

Read Part 2


In Part 3 of this entry, we pondered some questions that over the centuries have baffled many that are curious about the Mona Lisa, taking into account the illumunation, if any, that recent research has brought to bear on the painting.  An inexhaustible stream of theories concerning multiple Mona Lisa issues swirls through newspapers, magazines, peer-reviewed academic journals, scientific papers, internet sites, television specials, and documentary films.  As you might expect, some researchers can be fiercely tendentious, but then, as the Italians might say, Il mondo è bello perché è vario (the world is beautiful because it is varied), or as the French put it more succinctly, Vive la différence!  The more theories about the Mona Lisa there are, the more mind-bogglingly contradictory ones seem to be hatched.

In case you are wondering about the above two foreign expressions, they were appropriated precisely because the Mona Lisa, like Carla Bruni — singer, actress, former model, and wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, to cite a handy example — was born in Italy but now lives in France.  Both Mona Lisa and Carla Bruni, coincidentally, are also marvelously adept at generating media maelstroms despite their best intentions. Read more...

la Gioconda

What's Mona Lisa been up to lately?

Part 3

16 March 2012

Artists from around the world go to the Louvre in Paris to copy the masterpieces, one of which happens to be the Mona Lisa.


In Part 1 of this entry, after noting the constant supply of media consideration allotted to the Mona Lisa, we briefly traced the intriguing history of this portrait.  En route, we mentioned some perplexing questions that have given rise to extensive speculation:


What’s going on with her eyebrows? Which region of Italy laying claim to the sfumato landscape that is featured in the background are we in fact looking at?  Had Lisa suffered from high cholesterol?  Were there originally columns on either side of her in the painting that were subsequently lopped off?  Exactly how many versions are there underneath the painting that we see now?  Are those really letters and numbers and what are they doing in her eyes?  Who, indeed, was Lisa, and if she is who some think she is, is she really buried in a dump?  Or, was she Leonardo’s mother, or even Leonardo himself?  What’s this about a lion, an ape and a buffalo lurking in the painting?  And the biggest question of all, to which psychologists, scientists, engineers, art historians, and other scholars return regularly: what is it about that famous, enigmatic smile?


After considering in Part 2 some of the more resolute parodies of the Mona Lisa — which heap ever more attention onto this shy girl —it might be worthwhile now to find out what current research says about those bewildering questions. Read more...

la Gioconda

What's Mona Lisa been up to lately?

Part 2

9 March 2012

Visitors to the Musée du Louvre, where the Mona Lisa resides, ascend the spiral stairs under the Pyramide du Louvre, which was designed by the architect I. M. Pei  and serves as the main entrance to the museum.


After our quick look, in Part 1 of this blog entry, at some historical details concerning the Mona Lisa (la Joconde in French; la Gioconda in Italian; the painting having connections to both countries), I thought it would be worth noting the dialogue, for the moment assuming voluntary participation on all sides, that this painting seems to be having with the arts, sciences, and, in general, the culture at large today.

This singular portrait pervades our civilization almost without our noticing it. The image of Mona Lisa is found on wristwatches, key chains, neckties, socks, T-shirts, greeting cards, and ads for hair products, bicycles, automobiles, airlines, cameras, light bulbs, printers, pens, bottled water, and restaurants.  The name of the painting, in one form or another, is used for chocolates, cookies (Le Biscuit Joconde), soap, a crater on Venus, a cruise ship, a song by Nat King Cole, a Doctor Who alien organism, a cyberpunk novel by William Gibson, and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles character (Leonardo and Mona Lisa are but two of the many eponymous characters featured).  An American pop and R&B singer-songwriter has even assumed the name for herself. Read more...

la Gioconda

What's Mona Lisa been up to lately?

Part 1

2 March 2012

Mont Blanc (French) — or Monte Bianco (Italian), as it is located on the border between the two countries — pokes up its nose above Chamonix, France.


At this moment in Chamonix, France, and Courmayeur, Italy, two different parties could be sitting in a café / caffè at the foot of Mont Blanc / Monte Bianco under a waving flag — le drapeau tricolore (blue, white, and red) / Il Tricolore (green, white, and red) — munching on a croissant / cornetto and discussing the psychological makeup of Pierrot Lunaire / Pedrolino in the history of le théâtre / il teatro or possibly in regard to Europe’s favorite sport, soccer, the upcoming Coupe du monde de football / Campionato mondiale di calcio.

Or perhaps they are discussing some recent theories about la Joconde / la Gioconda, as the Mona Lisa is known respectively in these two countries.

France and Italy, despite their obvious differences — the former is shaped like one of the hexagonal faces of a soccer ball, the latter like a boot about to kick it — actually have quite a bit in common.  Both countries speak Romance languages (the lexical similarity of French with Latin is 87%, of Italian with Latin, 89%).  The populations of the two countries are quite similar (65,312,249 vs. 61,016,804), as are the populations of their capitals, Paris and Rome (2,138,550 vs. 2,563,240).  Likewise their GDP per capita ($33,100 US vs. $30,500 US), literacy rates (99% vs. 98.4%), along with many other statistical similarities that seem to culminate in both countries being leaders in fashion and design. Read more...

Italy Rediscovered Part 3

24 February 2012

Read Part 1

Read Part 2

It’s not that we couldn’t find Milan.  That was easy enough, although our route did not quite match the directions I had.  In fact, we even took the right exit off the autostrada, but at that point we were entirely confounded.  Our exit forced me to drive north, but we needed to go south, so I made a U-turn, only to be shunted involuntarily onto the toll road again, where in this case — in what the Italians call sistema aperto ('open system', or perhaps more accurately, 'open the wallet') — we would be required to pay a fixed charge again, regardless of the distance traveled.

I took the next exit in an attempt to turn around, only to find that I had entered yet another toll road.

During this entire time, my jet-lagged, semi-conscious brain actually had enough reserve capacity to observe that all of the other drivers, being Italian and apparently in awe of recondite, Renaissance ideals of beauty such as symmetry and balance, centered their wheels over the lines that divide lanes, thereby straddling la strada.  (Either that or they were having fun pretending to be jet pilots in their Alfa Romeos and the road, a runway.)  In any case, this state of affairs forces one to respond with an equal degree of ambiguity to lane markings if only to avoid the moving objects that continually intrude into one’s path, resulting in a sort of moiré effect on the traffic patterns that synchronizes nicely with jet-lagged perception.

Now that we were on our third toll road, rather than take another exit and find ourselves halfway to Rome (you may be familiar with the saying, tutte le strade portano a Roma . . . now you know why), we stopped at an official-looking building near the barriere (toll gates) in a humble attempt to ask directions.  All of the doors were locked, but soon someone was calling to us from a window: “Aspetta un momento . .  . alla porta . . .” Read more...

Italy Rediscovered Part 2

17 February 2012

Read Part 1

To set the mood for my upcoming visit to Italy, I got around to reading — in addition to Umberto Eco’s Kant and the Platypus, alluded to in Part 1 of this entry — a few other Italian poets/authors/playwrights or books with Italian subject matter that I happened to pick up:  Petrarch’s rich sonnets; Dario Fo’s hilariously thought-provoking We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay! ; Ross King’s description of the greatest architectural feat of the Renaissance, Brunelleschi’s Dome ; Luigi Pirandello’s symbolic Six Characters in Search of an Author ; Roger D. Masters’ probe of a crazy, but un-hatched, scheme of Leonardo and Machiavelli, Fortune Is A River ; Luigi Barzini’s insightful sociological essay, The Italians ; and Tim Parks’ amusing, biographical Italian Neighbors ; with Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo thrown in to add a little northern perspective.

I also revisited Dante and lots of other Italian literature from the distant past, though I still tremble slightly at the memory of reading the Inferno in the original fourteenth-century Italian as an undergraduate.  My teacher at the time, Franco Schwartz, a kindly Geppetto-like man from the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino in Switzerland, was nevertheless exacting.  I can still picture his jowls rattling and spit flying through his moustache as he emphasized, “Gli! Gli!,” with his distinct accent.  Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate — Abandon all hope, ye who enter here — especially if you are learning how to pronounce gli.


A statue of Dante stands in the Piazza di Santa Croce in Florence.


Italy Rediscovered Part 1

10 February 2012

It was a setup.  I mean the way I ended up traveling to Italy again this last time.  I had been there a few times before, but it had been several years ago and I really had no plans for going there again soon.

It began one January at Green Apple Books in San Francisco, where I happened to be standing in front of some shelves while perusing a book.  I was initially unaware of its existence, but a large volume, standing on the floor and propped up against the shelves, gently tipped over and came to rest on my right foot.



I didn’t stop reading.  I merely balanced on my left leg, flamingo-like, and tipped the book back up against the shelves with my right foot.  “. . . situated on the axis of contraries within the semiotic square of veridictory modalities . . . ,” I muttered at a slightly audible level in order to maintain my train of thought in reading while performing the delicate maneuver.


The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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