31 January 2016

LIFE: Celebrating Fashion

CHIAVARI, Italy - Men’s Fashion Week in Milan ended last week, but its not over yet. The city is still trying to catch its breath from the onslaught of fashion buyers, models, seamstresses, hairdressers, make-up artists, carpenters, set and stage designers, photographers and of course all those journalists who fly in to bear witness to one of the greatest shows on earth – Italian fashion.
Moschino Spring/Summer 2016
Fashion is a huge business here. Traders on the Milan stock market closely follow the fashion shows and the design trade shows. Milan’s financial newspapers run special fashion sections each week, and Milan is home to an international news service dedicated solely to the fashion industry. Who’s lunching with Krizia and who’s having dinner with Donatella are not just items for the gossip mill, but serious industry indicators.

Like other rites of passage, the rites of fashion celebrate change, and every three months, designers must create a new miracle. Each season has to have a new set of commandments on color, length, cut, fit and fabric. Nothing can be the same. A new a blouse, a skirt, a dress, a coat and don’t forget the accessories, need to be new, never seen before, and then artfully presented, for the presentation is part of the show as well.
Dolce and Gabbna, Fall/Winter 2015/2016
Some fashions are meant to shock, others are designed to fill you with waves of nostalgia, but mostly it is scramble to catch headlines, to be the most outrageous or the most beautiful – the most talked about. Fashion is fluid, it moves, sometime slow and sometimes at breakneck speed, and while we may feel a little sea sick along the way, we do eventually catch up with the ideas designers present. But that doesn’t mean no one complains.

You can’t imagine the public outcry when in 1917 Coco Chanel grabbed up bolts of jersey and turned them into dresses. There was a war on, all the fabric mills were busy turning out materials for military uniforms, the only fabric left was jersey, and at the time, jersey was used exclusively for men’s underwear. It was a shocking idea, but not for long.
 Dolce and Gabbana Spring/Summer 2016

A few years later, when Chanel put on a pair of trousers and went to a posh garden party, the guests were once again scandalized. They had never seen a woman wearing trousers before, at least not in public. Shocking ideas come and go and then somehow work their way into normality. And even though we know that every fashion show has the potential to make us gasp, somehow we are always caught off guard when that moment comes.

So as the men paraded down the runway wearing sequined sweaters and colorful little flowers embroidered on overcoat sleeves, the audience tightened their seat belts and hung on.
 Prada Menswear Fall/Winter 2016

The way fashion news is presented depends on who the readers are. Working for the Milan bureau of Women’s Wear Daily (WWD), a New York based publication for the fashion industry. It is considered the bible of the fashion industry and my job was to tell our readers what was hot and what was not in the world of Italian fashion and design.

WWD is not a slick magazine like Vogue, it’s a newspaper, a workhorse, a deliverer of industry news and trends. Vogue, on the other hand, is a magic carpet. As we turn the pages of that slick magazine we are taken into a dream world, a fanciful myth, a fantasy dressed in aspirational clothes.
Dolce and Gabbana Spring/Summer 2016
We all know we will never look like the super models on their pages, but who cares. A little daydreaming never hurt anyone. Besides, it fattens the bottom line of the designer’s financial statements, although not necessarily in the way you might think.

Picture the fashion industry as a pyramid, a fashion pyramid divided into three parts. The very top of the pyramid is reserved for the super expensive haute couture lines, the clothes you see on the runways. Those clothes are rarely sold and primarily serve as publicity generators. It’s that need for publicity that is behind the elaborate fashion shows staged during Fashion Week in Paris, New York or Milan, and Red Carpet events at the Oscars and other award shows.
 Moschino, Spring/Summer 2016

You already know the first question celebs are asked as they approach the interviewer, “who are you wearing.” That’s when the big names start rolling off their lips like dew off a grape: Armani, Versace, Prada, the list goes on and on.

And if you think those celebs have reached into their own pockets for those gowns or tuxedos, think again. Most of the clothes are “on loan” which often translates as possession is nine-tenths of the law. I’ve got it – I keep it. So the top one third of the fashion pyramid on its own doesn’t actually translate to big sales, in fact it hardly translates into any sales at all.
Cavalli, Menswear Fall/Winter 2016
In the middle section of the pyramid you’ll find expensive clothes, but not as expensive as haute couture. The price tags don’t seem to faze the top earners in London, Tokyo, New York and Beijing, who are not shy about spending big bucks for clothes in general, and especially for special events. But while the middle of the fashion pyramid does generates its share of profit for designers, it falls far short of the real moneymaker - the bottom third of the pyramid.

The bottom third of the fashion pyramid is where you’ll find $250 Gucci belts, $300 Prada scarves, key chains, wallets, small accessories, bed linens, sunglasses, cosmetics and perfume. Flashing the much sought after designer label, this is where the designers make the money to buy villas in France and penthouse apartments in New York.
 Moschino, Spring/Summer 2016
Those who are not able to afford the higher-ticket items will buy a little something from his/her favorite designer that makes them feel part of the bigger, more glamorous, picture. And the products are good. I’m not a designer junkie, but I confess, I love Chanel 5 parfum and I don’t feel at all guilty about spending money on it.

While most fashion journalists try to maintain a neutral position regarding the designers and their creations, they rarely succeed. We are all dazzled, bewitched and bewildered by the magic fashion creates, and even if a journalist struggles to find something positive to say about a particular line, most hope that they have been able to convey a little of the magic.   

Copyright © Phyllis Macchioni 2016

24 January 2016

LIFE: Once Upon a Time in the Court of d'Este

CHIAVARI, Italy - This is the true story of a young girl who made the mistake of falling in love with the wrong man, and was beheaded for that mistake.  It didn’t matter that she was the daughter of a rich man, it didn’t matter at all for he was as bad as the rest of them.
The d'Este Castle in Ferrara
The story takes place in the early years of the 1400’s, a difficult time in Italy. Condotierri ruled the land, each with their own city-state, each with a private army, each full of ambition and greedy for power. Some ruled as Lords of their city, others ruled as Dukes or Marquis, all grabbing whatever title they could to make them seem more respectable. But behind the pomp and circumstance of their courts, they were soldiers of fortune, and very violent men.

The most important unit was the family, but the value of the family was focused on creating a dynasty. Finding the right bride from the right family was a priority, and often deals were made and marriage contracts signed when the girls were very young, like the girl in this story.

Her name was Laura Malatesta. She was born in the fall of 1404 in the region of Emilia Romagna, where her father, Andrea Malatesta, was the Lord of Cesena. They called her Parisina, or the Parisian. It was their way of saying she had a natural grace, and elegance, even as a child. The family however, was not particularly elegant and its history is marked by dark family conspiracies and unexplained deaths.

One of the victims of the Malatesta family was Laura’s mother, Lucrezia di Francesco Ordelaffi. Just weeks after having given birth to Laura, she was poisoned by Laura’s father over a property dispute. A few years later, Laura’s father died a sudden and suspicious death, and she was sent to Rimini to live the court of her uncle, Carlo Malatesta.
Fresco of Daily Life in Ferrara in the 1400's 
In Rimini Laura’s life changed dramatically. Gone were her private lessons of Latin and French, of speech and the art of conversation, literature and etiquette. They were replaced by reading novels, horseback riding, hunting, falconry, and learning how to play the harp. She also learned the art of buying small works of art that could become frescoes, jewelry or miniatures for her future collections.

It wasn’t that her uncle was concerned about her future collections; in fact he didn’t care about her collections at all. What concerned him was who he could marry her off to, and what he could gain from the union.

He got some unexpected help from Venice when Venetian diplomats offered to handle marriage negotiations between Laura and the newly widowed Marquis of Este, who ruled the city-state of Ferrara.

Niccolo d’Este may have been a little plump and a little overly sensual, but he was also a smart international mediator, and an alliance with the House of Malatesta was definitely in his best interest. A deal was reached, and the wedding pact was signed. Fourteen year old Laura would marry the thirty-four year old Niccolo d'Este, Marquis of Ferrara in mid April, 1418.  

Laura was introduced into the extended Este family in Ferrara where the Marquis lived with his many illegitimate children. His favorites were Ugo, Leonello and Borso, the sons of his current mistress, Stella dei Tolomei. Stella disliked Laura from the start, knowing the legitimate heirs Laura could produce would interfere with her sons’ inheritance.

Three years into the marriage, what the Marquis’ mistress had feared became a reality. Laura had a baby boy, born on May 24, 1421. He was named Carlo Alberto. Unfortunately the long-awaited heir was a sickly child and died shortly after his first birthday. 
Bronze Statue of Niccolo' III d'Este, Marquis of Ferrara
After Carlo Alberto died, the Marquis began to seriously reconsider the political roles his other sons should play in governing Ferrara, especially his favorite son, Ugo, the oldest. He knew Ugo resented Laura, and even though he was sure the resentment was coming from Stella, Ugo’s mother, he decided to put an end to it.

In May 1424, he directed Ugo, who had just turned 19, to accompany Laura, his 20 year old step-mother, on holiday, and stay with her for a month. In spite of his feelings toward her, Ugo obeyed his father, and a few days later they began the long 55-mile journey to Rimini in a horse drawn coach. 

As the days passed and they got to know each other, the resentment that Ugo felt toward Laura soon faded. They were both young, and full of life and it wasn’t long before their newly found friendship developed into a love affair.

It was a dangerous game that both knew could lead them straight to the gallows if they were discovered, so they promised each other that when they returned to Ferrara   the affair would end. But in spite of their intentions, they continued to meet in Ferrara and in the country houses where the d’Este family often gathered in the summertime.

On May 21, 1426 a servant girl whispered the truth about Ugo and Laura in her master’s ear. Niccolo d'Este was stunned. Furious and hurt, he positioned himself in the room above Laura’s bedroom and through a small crack in the floor, he saw for himself what the servant’s words had revealed.

The Marquis waited until the middle of night to have Laura and Ugo arrested. They were taken to the dungeon below the Marchesana of Ferrara, the castle tower, and placed in separate cells to await execution. There was no trial, just a formal Decree signed by the Mayor.
 Pleading for the Lives of Laura and Ugo (1640)
Ugo begged and pleaded with his father to spare Laura, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. Even the pleadings of Niccolo’s ministers and friends to change his sentence from death to imprisonment were rejected. He was a man betrayed and humiliated, and he would have his revenge.

The two lovers were beheaded that same night. The next morning, as soon as dawn broke, they were hastily buried   in the garden of the church of San Francesco Ferrara, near the bell tower. 

But the deaths of the Marquis son and his wife did not pass unnoticed by the townspeople, and he knew that people were whispering about him behind his back. It was more than he could bear. He ordered the bodies of Laura and Ugo dug up, had their heads sewn back on and held a royal funeral. He played the part of a grieving husband and father well, mourning the deaths of his dearly beloveds who had died in an unfortunate accident.

There is some evidence that shows that in the days after the beheadings, the Marquis of Ferrara sent a dispatch to the Lord Chancellors of Italy, who were aware of what had happened, and yet no Italian archive has ever been able to find such a document. Laura, her story and any images of her that may have existed, have disappeared. All traces of Laura have disappeared. It’s as if she never existed.

A few years later Niccolo’ married Ricciarda di Saluzzo, and had two children with her. Between his three legitimate wives and four known mistresses, Niccolo’ produced 19 children, insuring the continuance of the name d’Este. And so it has.

Copyright © 2016 Phyllis Macchioni

Attn: Best of Italy blog. 
This is copyrighted material. Please stop posting my articles on your page.

17 January 2016

LIFE: Over the River

CHIAVARI, Italy – In the beginning, bridge builders used logs and large stones to cross rivers and tough terrain. That technique worked for a few centuries, but when the Romans came along, their engineers completely revolutionized the art of bridge building by showing the world how to construct an arch.

With such powerful knowledge, Roman engineers spread across Europe, Asia and Africa, building over 900 brides during the life of the Roman Republic and Empire. The Romans built bridges in 26 different countries from Portugal to Turkey, and hundreds and hundreds of them are still standing.

In Italy the art of bridge building has always been a source of national pride. Here are just ten of Italy’s beautiful bridges, some of them even date back to the days of the Roman Empire.

This beautiful bridge with its three stone arches, was built on the Metauro River during the Roman era. The medieval tower was strategic in the defense of the territory.

The Ponte Sant’Angelo is one of the oldest bridges in Rome. It was built over the Tiber by the emperor Hadrian (reigned 117–138 ad) to connect the Campus Martius (a public park called Field of Mars) with his tomb – originally called Hadrian’s Tomb and later renamed Castel Sant' Angelo. The bridge was completed about 135 AD. In the 16th century Pope Clement VII placed statues of Saints Peter and Paul at the end of the bridge. In 1688, ten statues of angels, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, were mounted on the parapets.

This covered bridge in the northern town of Bassano del Grappa in the Veneto region is post card pretty. It’s made of wood and has been around since the 1200’s. It’s known as the Ponte Vecchio or the Alpine bridge.

This stone bridge over the Stura river in the northern region of Piedmont, is made in a style called “schiena d’asino” or mule’s back. It is 52 feet high and was built in 1378. It’s no surprise that it draws a lot of tourists.

The Ponte Vecchio in Florence, which spans the Arno River, is one of the most famous bridges in Italy and a symbol of the city. It is one of the first examples of a bridge built using pointed Roman arches, which one housed butcher shops but now there are only jewelry shops and souvenir shops.

The Rialto Bridge in Venice is one of the most photographed bridges in the world. It is the most popular of the four bridges that cross the Grand Canal, a symbol of the city. The first bridge across the canal was a pontoon bridge that was built in 1181. But as the Rialto market developed, there was too much traffic for the pontoon bridge to handle, so in 1255 the city built a wooden drawbridge that opened in the middle to allow the passage of tall ships. During the first half of the 15th century the Rialto market flourished. Tall ship traffic was redirected and, as the Venetians were known not to waste anything, especially valuable space, two rows of shops were built along the sides of the bridge.

The Bridge of the Saracens, which is what this bridge is called, has absolutely nothing to do with Saracens. It was originally built by the Romans, but updated over the centuries and it is now considered one of the finest medieval bridges in Sicily. Built over the Simeto River in the ninth century, it connects the municipality of Adrano, near Catania, and the town of Centuripe, in the province of Enna.

In the green of the Umbrian countryside, you find this wonderful bridge built on the ruins of an ancient Roman aqueduct. The bridge, which has ten 295 foot arches, connects Colle Sant'Elia and Monteluco.  From here you have one of the most spectacular views of the city of Spoleto, so spectacular in fact, as to get a mention in Goethe’s “Journey to Italy.”. 

The Bridge of Sighs may be the smallest bridge on this list, but it is the most romantic. The name comes from the “sighs” of prisoners who were getting their last look at daylight before being taken down and imprisoned in the dark and dank dungeons under the Doge’s Palace. Today it’s a favorite place to pop that all-important question to the one you love.

This beautiful bridge was built over the Adige River in the middle of the nineteenth century. The stone and brick constructions fools many a visitor to Verona who think it was built in the Middle Ages, like other buildings nearby.

 Copyright © Phyllis Macchioni 2016 All Rights Reserved