THEME: Resistance


By Jean Dommermuth, Consulting Conservator, Villa La Pietra and Lecturer, Conservation Center, Institute of Fine Arts

Today as I write this, it is December 13, St. Lucy’s Day and eight months since Francesca posted her story. Eight months and here we are.

Resistance: from the Latin sistere – “to stop,” as Lucy stopped the eight oxen. Sistere is considered a “reduplication” of the Latin stare – “to stand.” The Italian stare can be translated into English as “to stay,” but also – and this can be hard for English speakers – as “to be,” where and how you are. Where do you stand? That is part of who you are.

What do you stand for, and are you willing to stand up for it? Who do you stand with, and who against? Because resistance is defined by what it opposes – oxen, water, temptation, electricity, change, infection, oppression. Meanwhile, we resent those who resist against us. We may fear them. And yet the resistance of an opposing force can make us stronger. How long can we hold out?

That weight can also harden our hearts and make them heavy – which hurts us more than anyone else. The ancient Egyptians believed that, when we die, our hearts are weighed against the feather of truth – if it is heavier, a crocodile eats it. Our fate lies in the balance. Lucy and the oxen both pulled against each other. But a knot in a rope can never be untied if the ends are pulled in a tug of war. 

The call was for a response to this story – “to give something back” – like light shines back from a mirror. That requires listening, trying to understand rather than simply withstand.

(Image: Detail of Gates of Paradise 010, Solomon, 2016, Photograph by Hiroshi Sugimoto. with a Votive for the Greek Saint Paraskevi.)

THEME: Memory


by Javi Chavez, NYU Florence Student

It is kind of wild how a memory can trigger other memories. This Russian doll of memories that is your head, can lead to feelings of appreciation for what the eyes have been able to see. Looking through old pictures seems to trigger this effect for me almost every time. I was waiting for the rice to cook and I am shuffling through my pictures trying to find a screenshot of a meme. I stumbled upon a series of pictures at Villa la Pietra.

A Stone Obelisque in the Garden of Villa La Pietra, Winter 2020, Javi Chavez

The picture that triggered, what I am now calling, The Matryoshka Doll Effect was one of a small obelisk with four spheres at its base and another one on top. Naturally, the first doll was thinking about how cold that day was, and the voice of the tour guide as I observed the greenery. I remembered that the amount of greenery surrounding me felt inviting. Looking around I followed the shapes of the trees and bushes; my eye drew its attention to what I initially thought was a pointy shrub but instead an extremely mossy obelisk. The sphere on top of the structure reminded me of a thinner version of La Mitad del Mundo. This is when the second doll opened up, I remembered staring at the structure in the horizon. This trip to Ecuador was particularly memorable because I was able to be at the middle of the world. Reaching the top of the monument really gives you a view into the vast mountainous region of Quito. After reaching the top, we made our way to a local restaurant where I remember having steak, rice, and beans. At this point the dolls had ran out and the thought that brought me back to reality was my rice.


Theme: Hope


by Dawson Batchelder, NYU Florence Student

Fearing a dissonance between memory and experience, I had no choice but to tread forward, unassured yet unlocked, drifting away in a pyre of smoke. How do two lines diverge? I walked down a dirt road long forgotten, aglow in a midsummer’s flare, under the pressure of a lazuli sky, buoyed, and weighted, by a feeling that nothing happens twice, no feeling felt again or again. An ermine scuttled in the undergrowth lining the path, its brown stripes pointing onward. I stopped, affixed by its gaze, and beckoned for it to come towards me, but it disappeared, swallowed by the long grass stems, as if aware of something unseen. I followed it further and further, deep into a forest unknown and unkempt, all the while knowing it drives my motives away from their origin. It thinks I hunt it, a chase through the wood. It stopped in a glen bleached by constant exposure, turning back towards me, a statuesque gaze in its beady black eyes. It’s at this moment I question the going and the coming, whether my actions occur in a vacuum, or whether they are imitations of a myriad of others, living in an unwrit mythology expanding on and on. To see into the future. What do they call it, a blank window? A blind window? Or maybe it was a blind widow.

I’m swept off my feet in a billowy and gargantuan gust of wind. It carries me for a day or more, a ticking in the distance. It brought me here, to you, Orpheus, singing to the stag and singing to the lions, the rabbits and the hares. By what way have you come here? By what miracle are you able to still sing? A presentation rather than an explanation. Hearing rather than understanding.

But the spell of song can only last so long, and so it ended with the weight of a thousand bells ringing. Falling down through a multitude of realities all exactly like this one. Seeing the systems and machines constituting the everyday. Oh Orpheus, what time ticks on? Who stands beside you? On a golden plinth so leveled by the passing of the year. What stories are still left to tell, falling from your lyre?
It is only at night that I know I have dreams.

(Image: “Empire Ormolu Mantel Clock.” The glazed enamel dial with roman numerals and striking movement is signed “Guiton et, Paris”, set within a rectangular plinth surmounted by a vase and youthful Bacchus, the base with Orpheus and attendants playing to the animals, upon a pounced ground, upon scrolling foliate and floral feet. Gilded Bronze, height cm. 41. Villa La Pietra, Camera Verde / Green Bedroom)

Theme: Coins


by Jean Dommermuth, Consulting Conservator, Villa La Pietra and Lecturer, Conservation Center, Institute of Fine Arts

Coins are practical things. They were devised to facilitate trade, so that it was no longer necessary to find someone who wanted to trade you shoes for your eggs. But, like many useful objects, they are also art and history. Rulers want their faces on coins to proclaim their authority, and metal smiths use that opportunity to create tiny sculptures. A merchant accidentally drops one, and, thousands of years later, an archeologist uses it to date a site. Gold beaters turn them into metal leaf, and painters use that to create a vision of heaven.

They are currency, but they are also culture. There are the coins you grow up with, whose shape, size and color you know like your own language. If you travel to a different country, you have to learn the coins, and fumbling with them is part of the sense of strangeness and discovery. You may be presented with possibilities you never imagined: bi-color coins or ones with holes in them. Counting by twenties instead of twenty-fives. When you return home, the coins you picked up along the way seem to turn up in random pockets, as accidental reminders of your journey.

Coins work their ways into our memories, stories and songs. The Greek god Zeus came to Danae as a shower of gold; from this the hero Perseus was born. Titian and other painters depicted this scene as a rain of gold coins. Because every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven. So, put another nickel in, in the nickelodeon. Brother, can you spare a dime? I put a dime in the drugstore record machine.

But there are two sides to every coin, and now we use them less and less. Because coins don’t seem so practical anymore. They are heavy, and their value is relatively small. We pay for things with credit cards, electronic transfers or apps and periodically empty our pockets of coins and put them into a jar. They weigh us down.

We also worry about them spreading contagion, passed as they are from hand to hand. How many people may have handled any given coin? How clean were those hands? But exactly because they represent that physical human interaction, and a connection to other times and places, I hope they never go away entirely. So I’ll make a wish and throw one in a fountain. Oh, look – there are already two there.

Theme: Hope


By Maggie Raywood, Associate Arts Professor/Costume Director,
Department of Design for Stage and Film, NYU Tisch School of the Arts

At this uncertain and unprecedented time, it has never been clearer to me why we equate Hope with spring, and how we are all looking to those words for solace right now. Just look at all of the ways we use the very word, spring….the clocks spring forward, people spring to life, springs surge with water…all of these are images of movement, life, and energy. Spring is the season of hope itself. The earth revives as nature rouses itself from the sleepy hibernation of winter. As humans, we have a renewed spring in our step, going forward into the season with hope in our hearts. Even the colors give us a burst of energy with young leaves of acid green, and blossoms in vibrant pinks and cheerful yellows sing out to us. Hope is renewed, and as humans we feel this keenly. Hope anchors us, guides and steers us through the rough waters of crisis and despair. When better to seek Hope than in spring?

Theme: Water


by Claudia Beyer and Costanza Perrone, Textile Conservators at Villa La Pietra, NYU Florence

Water is the origin of life. It is energy and strength, and every culture has its own iconography and symbols. In the Chinese culture water is the fifth stage of Wu Xing, the five elements and is the most yin in character. Its motion is downward and inward, and its energy is stillness and conserving.

(Fig. 1) This Chinese imperial Jifu, a blue silk gauze summer robe, made during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), the last Chinese Empire, ruled by the Manchu people, belongs to the Acton Collection in Villa La Pietra: its vibrant marine-blue ground is finely embroidered with eight five-clawed dragons and other motives. Symbolism is a keynote to all Chinese decorative arts. These motifs were distributed on the robe with great symmetry, a noteworthy element of Chinese art and architecture.

In the West, dragons are considered aggressive creatures who hide on earth and breathe fire. In China and the East, however, dragons are considered benevolent and auspicious creatures of water and air. They live in great waters and are in control of clouds, mist and rain. They are wingless and do not really fly, however they can swim in the air. The dragon was deemed to be charged with yang, the positive principle of the cosmos, and was selected as a symbol of the emperor. Depending on the ranking of the wearer, dragon motifs depicted would have five, four or three claws on each paw.

The composition of this robe is showing the universe as a whole. The dragons form a strong yang component that must balance with an equally strong yin component, and the water is yin. Therefore, the sea of the world was embroidered on to the hem of the garment and on the sleeves: it represents the water with turbulent waves (fig. 2) on its surface, and below them we can see still, deep waters depicted as colored, almost vertical stripes. On the early robes, the turbulent waves in the form of elaborate and curvy lines occupied the lower hem of the robe, and later, during the second quarter of the 19th century, a large area of deep water in the form of diagonal, sometimes wavy stripes, was added (fig. 3)

Robe-making was a painstaking process, and professionals used to spend up to thirty months to produce an intricate robe like the one that belongs to the Acton collection.
After the required measurements, the basic motifs were traced through pre-cut stencils. Then it was stretched onto a long embroidery frame or hoop. The designs were embroidered with floss or twist silk, gold or silver wrapped threads on silk fabrics – plain, satin, damask or gauze. Couching stitch, Peking knot and Satin stitch for filling (fig. 4 – from another Chinese embroidery, private collection), and split stitch for details, were common stitches in practice. Besides these stitches, a stitch called Nasha, a type of counted thread work, and similar to the Florentine stitch, was used on gauze. The stitch inserted the needle between the threads of the fabric in order to produce geometric shapes. On gauze it resembles brocading, and it is difficult to identify either one or the other technique at the first sight. (fig. 5) Each of the colored areas had to be woven or embroidered from a separate bobbin. The waves bear other symbols of wealth like pearls, corals, a granting of wishes, and paired golden fishes, which are the Chinese symbol of plenty.

Let the waters, these days cleaner than they have been for years… remind us to be virtuous with the richness it offers us.



Source material:

Schuyler Cammann, ‘China’s Dragon Robes’, Philadelphia – Chicago, 1952

Symbolism  in the Official Court Robes of the Ching Dynasty 1644_1911

The Dragon Robe as the Professional Dress of the Qing Dynasty Scholar-Official, The  NÁPRSTEK Museum Collection