09 March 2010

Forty day & forty nights

Visions of letters have been dancing through my head lately. During this period of Lent, known here as Quaresima, the latest seasonal treat in the local bakeries are quaresimali [shown in the photo above]. Composed of sugar, egg whites, flour, cocoa powder and miscellaneous ingredients that vary from one recipe to another, the cookie batter is piped into the letters of the alphabet before baking.

The story of the cookie’s origins possesses that same elusive quality I have stumbled across time and time again when researching anything pertaining to this country’s far-reaching history. One source claims that nuns at a convent near Florence invented the Tuscan version in the mid-1800s; their choice to shape them into letters is said to be symbolic of the words of the Gospel. I’ve also read that the cookies assumed the form of letters to amuse the younger set, for whom they were mainly intended. In any case, the light and not-too-sweet quaresimali were once the only sweets allowed during the period of Lent; while perhaps austere compared to other dolci, they are nonetheless satisfyingly crunchy, with a whisper of chocolate. The inclusion of cocoa powder may seem out of place during Lent (I can’t help but think of Joanne Harris’s novel, Chocolat), but tradition says that it was added to make the cookies dark in color, out of respect for the religious season of mourning.

I imagine the bakers in charge of piping out endless alphabets during these forty days must trace letters in their sleep, but my excuse for breathing and dreaming letters more than usual lately stems from the days and nights I spent working on an abecedary (which I recently submitted for consideration in an exhibition of abecedaries at a Denver-based gallery). I find the concept of these books that follow the alphabet, unfolding one letter at a time, to be very inspiring—it’s a solid structure with endless possibilities.

I love the potential inherent in the design of an artist’s book, and notice the same kind of parallels I used to appreciate between my Treasure Boxes and buildings (a basic structure/exterior, an interior and the accessories/decorative details). Despite the intimate scale of a one-of-a-kind book, the cascade of decisions can feel overwhelming. But ultimately it’s satisfying to see a book through from beginning to end—to have control over every choice, from the theme, content and layout, to the size, medium, binding type, construction and cover. And I enjoyed the process of letting it evolve in a way that balanced the designated structure with the available time (of which there never seems to be enough for this kind of thing) and materials.

In fact, I was thrilled to be able to salvage just enough ‘scraps’ of the creamy, heavyweight Rives paper that first brought me to the path that led to The Piazzas of Florence. I still remember that July day, nearly eight years ago … I sat in the light of a sunny window, admiring the paper’s slightly toothy texture and deckled edges, knowing I just had to create something from it. I am fascinated by books that open in unexpected ways, revealing new layers . . . little surprises . . . so I started experimenting with miniature books whose pages folded out. I ended up with chapters that began with a historical background of each of Florence’s main piazzas, which was then followed by pages that unfolded to reveal different types of increasingly more ‘personal’ information: excerpts from the writings of past travelers, watercolored maps that could be personalized by readers, ‘Invitations’ to inspire creative expression and blank space to use however they wished. When I was ready to present the proposal for my ‘interactive travel guide’ (the original concept for the book that eventually became The Piazzas of Florence), the package included a mock-up chapter showing how the various elements worked together—which I constructed from the gorgeous Rives paper.

But back to the abecedary . . . One of my goals for each of the places in my multimedia Cities project is to create a one-of-a-kind book. For this one I chose to focus on the familiar, but endlessly enthralling, city of Florence (I can’t imagine ever running out of ways to express the many rich layers that characterize my adopted home). From the Arno to the Bridges, the Cupola, Dante and so on, I interpreted each element through an arrangement of photographs and accompanying text (for which I used Arno Pro, a font named for the river that I cross almost daily). After several rounds of experimentation, I decided on a modified accordion binding, a format I am drawn to because it can either be experienced like a traditional book or expanded for display in a series of ever-changing forms.

How good it was to work with paper again, to let my hands guide me wherever they were so inclined. Even photographing the book was rewarding as I manipulated the accordion folds into different shapes, allowing me to appreciate the sculptural quality of the piece. [Please click here to see a few photos.] Although I am very happy with the end result, I can’t help but reflect on other things I would have done if time had permitted (an inevitable part of the creative process). For example, I had originally envisioned individually hand-designing the letters, as well as creating collages to complement the photographs that portrayed each letter’s theme. I wish there had  been more time to contemplate the cover too but, in retrospect, I like how the juxtaposition of corrugated cardboard with the more refined gold and cream-patterned paper alludes to the contrasts that are intrinsic to Florence.

Now that the deadline has passed and my studio and life have regained some order, I am no longer breathing and dreaming the letters of the alphabet. But still, I find my brain wandering restlessly through the night, turning over ideas for other artist’s book: I am already planning the next one…


New growth is emerging from tender buds and birds have been twittering among the trees and the rooftops as local temperatures begin a general upward trend. But, as is typical of marzo pazzo (crazy March), winter isn’t ready to blow out of town just yet . . . in fact, snow flakes have been flurrying through the air much of today. A visit to the enticingly sunny Pitti ‘Beach’ over the weekend lasted about five minutes before the bone-chilling wind sent us inside. And after spending yesterday afternoon standing in near-zero temps while my daughter participated in a middle school triathlon, we could hardly wait to get home to our cast iron radiators, feather duvets, hot water bottles and steaming bowls of stew. After we had warmed our numb feet and purple hands and noses, we indulged in tiny cups of potent hot chocolate served with a handful of crispy quaresimali—the perfect accompaniment.

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