Italy Impressions #5: Hey Da Vinci, YER MOM! (and yer cat)


My day at the Ufizzi Gallery, or:


The Ufizzi Gallery in Florence is an endurance test.

I mean, it's a museum, with some of the world's masterworks by the likes of Bottecelli, Da Vinci, and Michalangelo...but it will wear your ass down.

By the end of your time in those priceless halls, under the beautifully grotesque painted ceilings, you will find yourself looking at the amputee Roman sculptures with their blank marble eyeballs, saying, "yeah man, I feel ya."

That said, go. Just go, when you can.

The vibrations of human perception, inspiration, and interpretation have energized these works for hundreds of years, and it bounces right back at you. I saw Botticelli's Venus, which I've seen a million times on fridge magnets, t-shirts, you name it, but to see the full sized work in context with his other work, in context with other contemporary art, is to understand why the guy was popular. Subject matter in those days, was not a free for all. Botticelli could not paint a picture of his bandaged ear or splatter paint on a canvas, it was all religion, or politics (commissioned portraits etc.) or mythology, so your distinction was all style.  Botticelli is, basically (and I am clearly not an art scholar) nice to look at. Beautiful. There's a hell of a lot more going on with him, but that was the biggest impact for me - lyrical, flowing, feminine lines (in my opinion) gorgeous.  In contrast, the Michelangelo I saw brought out a bright, colorful, three-dimensionality, which seemed eerily 20th century.  Have to check him out some more, I have no context for this observation.

Photography is not allowed in the Ufizzi, so in case you are unfamiliar with the work, I submit my rendering of Botticelli's Venus from memory.

Botticlli via Raya

Botticlli via Raya

But truly, one of the last pieces I saw will stay with me forever.

Da Vinci's version of The Annunciation. Remember last post when we talked about  that? The angel who came to tell The Virgin Mary that her baby was gonna be dope? That scene.

I was trying to explain to Bear the way this painting made me feel. I told him when a painting really moves me, I hear it. Not like music, but a certain type of stillness, almost like a charge in the air. Each detail in the distance comes to me like deep reverberation, like something which happened a long time ago, but happens again, and again, each time your eyes behold it. Everyone's hip to the supposed "sacred geometry" or hidden messages so popular to fling around in Da Vinci inspired pop culture, but the sense of perfection...the sense that this painting is a readable text, is undeniable.

The word "perfect" keeps coming to mind, but that really doesn't cover it. When I stood in front of the work, I felt a sense of balance from the razor tip of my subconscious. Without measurement, without mathematical accuracy, I knew everything was in its place for this precise expression.

Oddly, the Virgin in this portrait is not very enthused by the angelic visit. In earlier depictions of this scene, dating back to pre-Renaissance versions, the Virgin displays various reactions spanning from abject fear, to raptured bliss.

Da Vinci's Mary is composed. Almost like she was expecting it.

Photography is not allowed in the Ufizzi, so in case you are unfamiliar with the work, I submit my rendering of Da Vinci's Annunciation from memory.

da vinci via Raya

da vinci via Raya


Two days ago, Wednesday night, when we were out at dinner at the Hobbit house restaurant, remember? a couple posts ago...look it up, I'll wait...

Ok.  So on that night, Tom Riley (Da Vinci himself), mentioned an "a-maz-ing" lunch the cast had gone to, at a little B&B villa in the little town of Vinci, outside Florence.  Rumor is, that little villa is the historic residence of none other than Leonardo Da Vinci's mother. The story goes (very, very, roughly), that Da Vinci's mother re-married after Da Vinci was grown, moved out of Florence, and opened this B&B which still stands today (FYI this story has nothing to to with the narrative of the TV show, just local legend). So the Da Vinci cast went there, and had such a great time that Tom invited everyone to go back there on Friday , to celebrate Tom's birthday a second time. At Leonardo Da Vinci's mom's house. Sweet.


7pm-ish, Florence, Italy. Two  vans worth of  boisterous Da Vinci inspired Americans and Brits, bumped out of the city and into the Tuscan countryside. The cast said they remembered the ride taking around 30 minutes, but 30 minutes in, it was dark, and we had already passed two signs which read "Vinci" over a big arrow. Conversations began to involve the words "lost" and  "driver" with an upward inflection indicating concern.

Laughter...then more words like "kidnapping" and "dark outside."

Finally, the drivers pulled over and turned around. Ether we'd been bad children and  they were taking us home, or they were heading back to one of those signs we'd passed which said "Vinci." With an arrow.

Vinci with an arrow. Ok. Headlights swiped the reflective word, and we were back on track.

In less than 10 minutes, a small, lantern lit villa came into view. A healthy sized fluff of a tabby cat trotted out of the way, and up a hill beside the house.  The room could only accommodate about three large parties. The other diners eyed us as we passed to our table near the large brick fireplace. We were clearly not locals.

The chef entered the main room. The actors, and an effervescent Fox rep named Chrystal (hey girl) greeted her warmly. "Mama!" I never got her real name, because everyone called her Mama, which was completely fitting. She looked like the mama of all of Italy. Mama was a lovely, round, aproned, matriarch of ruddy cheeks, hearth, and spice smells. The air in the room was not dense, but cooking scents were so ingrained, the whole room whispered a permanent smoke of comfort.  "Mama" did not speak any English, but it didn't matter, she was taking care of us tonight.

We sorted ourselves out, and sat down at our long table. A large orange tabby framed himself in the far left window over Tom. Wine arrived immediately, bread in baskets, and a dish involving artichokes and oil - kind  of a tart and bitter taste to it.  Then meat slices arrived with oil, three different kinds of prosciutto, one with lemon, a cheese plate, and finally a first course: baked pasta with cheese. It looked and smelled like a dream, but of course I couldn't have any. I enjoyed the scent.

Then the meat course. Oh my. As a West Los Angeles native, who eats vegan 90% of the time, seeing this type of meat display was otherworldly. I felt like I was a guest at a Klingon feast (ask your nerd friend). Everyone was blown away. It was veal. Like a whole little cow, in a square, sliced. It was too astounding for moral objection. We took pictures.



The night was babbling, and imbibing, and storytelling, and overwhelming, and Mama was a goddess of plenty, rosey and creaseless...until someone asked for mustard. I'm not sure who it was, but it was communicated to a server (who happened to be her husband)  that someone desired mustard. He froze. Mama froze as well - she hadn't  heard the request, but she registered something was amiss. The man struggled to find words, finally he said he could not translate the request, not because he didn't understand - but because he simply couldn't. By this time Mama understood. For the first time in the evening she was not smiling. She wasn't angry, wasn't sad, it was something beyond shock - like a spiritual earthquake. Someone would desire to change the flavor of her cooking? This isn't done. The two servers and Mama went back to the kitchen after that, and we didn't see them again for about 15 minutes.

We felt like we'd pissed in the holy water.

But nature will intervene and bring back the  buoyancy. And so it did, when it rounded the end of the table in the form of a ball of orange fur, and jumped up on one of our laps. The orange cat who had been peering in on us from the window over Tom's head, had come into the room and parked on Christine's lap. He would not get up.

cat compositeSML

cat compositeSML

This is an ample amount of well fed, Tuscan, orange tabby.

Finally, Tom went to rescue the lap, and then he himself was inhabited...

IMG_1919(Tom cat)

IMG_1919(Tom cat)

Kitty got comfy with Da Vinci. Very fast.

Da Vinci cat made the rounds of all the cast member laps, and when Mama's husband saw this, he said it was unusual - that the cat is not generally friendly -  well, this was the friendliest hunk of cat I've come across in a long time.

IMG_1924(cat comp 2)

IMG_1924(cat comp 2)

Da Vinci cat making bridge from Tom to with Laura Haddock...Cat with Lara Pulver

The evening closed with yet another birthday cake and  gifts, (we gave Tom a Leonardo Da Vinci coloring book and crayons. We hope it inspires him) champagne and dessert, and all was fine with Mama again.

On the way home, we were in a van with Lara and Tom. Tom, surfing on his iPhone, found an "unauthorized" book about the making of Da Vinci's Demons, the TV show. Huh? Remember, the show was 2 weeks from airing at this point. What could they possibly be talking about? Was the cat a spy? We dissected the possible contents of this book, for as long as we could, which wasn't very long, because Mama's baked pasta was still with us, soothing us into calorie trances. So we let it go.

The mysteries of Leonardo never cease, they just get weirder, darker, more serpentine... and furrier.

Raya Yarbrough

Singer, Composer, writer of absurd stories about LA, chanteuse on Outlander, BSG, DaVinci's Demons, & I used to date Dick Grayson.