Sotterraneo - where Michelangelo hid (and drew) in fear for his life

Categories: Florence, Venice & the Towns of Italy | Travel

1529-1530, Michelangelo

Each year I bring groups of artists to Italy to paint and study the Italian Renaissance. One of the visits that moves the romantics among us to tears is the little-known sotterraneo under the Sagrestia Nuova at San Lorenzo. Here are Sorecently discovered wall drawings in the secret passageway where Michelangelo hid from the Medici for three days during the 1530 siege of Florence. Having sided with the Republic against the exiled Medici (another chapter in the love-hate relationship between Michelangelo and the most famous art patrons of all time), he feared the consequences of his perceived betrayal. While in hiding he took some pitch from a wall torch and, as he later wrote, "to forget my fears I fill these walls with drawings."
Standing among the drawings, sketches, and doodles (yes, even doodles!) that cover the walls and ceilings of this tiny cave-like structure, one feels as if one is on tour inside Michelangelo's mind. It is "virtual Michelangelo."
To enter, you must ask for an additional ticket to the sotterraneo when purchasing the standard ticket to the Medici Tombs. The ticket you receive will be a timed admission to the passageway. Upon entering the Sagrestia Nuova you will notice, at the far side of the room, a small, plain-looking door with a guard standing next to it. At the designated time present him with the second ticket and enter this most magical of places.

Fred Wessel is a professor of art at the Hartford Art School at the University of Hartford. He codirects workshops in Italy, bringing small groups of artists and artlovers to Tuscany and Umbria. His work is included in many private and public collections including the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


POSTED BY Robert Kahn on August 15th 2012 | Add a comment

Columbia Road Flower Market

Categories: London | Travel


Columbia Road Flower Market

Columbia Road e5
Sunday morning only.

My favourite place is ephemeral. It comes into being on Sunday mornings, at the moment the trucks wake me up delivering their goods. It begins to disintegrate after 2:30 p.m., when what produce remains is trundled back into vans by people shouting in Cockney accents, or is bought cheaply, surreptitiously, and illegally by locals like me. I speak of that oldest and most famous flower market-Columbia Road. Every Sunday morning, my studio (thirty seconds' walk from the florabundal epicentre) is garlanded with kangaroo paw, lilies, parrot tulips, tuberose-proof that nature still exists somewhere, even during a London winter. The market provides many subsidiary attractions. For example, when the English buy bedding plants, they cheer up, and sometimes smile at complete strangers. Once, on a Sunday morning, I was practising my piano with the French doors open. A flower-buying crowd gathered on the street below and started clapping. The delight of Sunday mornings compensates for East End Sunday afternoons.

Robyn Davidson has had homes in Sydney, London, and the Indian Himalayas. Her books include Tracks, winner of the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, and Desert Places, shortlisted for the same prize.

POSTED BY Robert Kahn on August 9th 2012 | Add a comment

A. Gold

Categories: London | Travel

A. Gold
42 Brushfield Street e1
020 7247 2487

My current favourite weekend activity is bicycling to A. Gold, a small specialist grocer and wine merchant alongside Spitalfields Market, close to the City and Liverpool Street station. My route takes me through Brick Lane and the small side streets of this part of eighteenth-century London, now smartened up as if it were a piece of New England.

Charles Saumarez Smith is Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts.

POSTED BY Robert Kahn on August 7th 2012 | Add a comment

Jack the Ripper Walk - sounds corny but, believe me, it isn"t.

Categories: London | Travel


Jack the Ripper Walking Tour
020 7624 3978;

I know this sounds as corny as the waxworks at Madame Tussauds, but trust me, it ain’t. It’s my favourite walk offered by the Original London Walks, the group that organizes hourly tours with subjects ranging from Charles Dickens’s London to Princess Diana’s London, from the Old Jewish Quarter Tour to the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour. Show up at the tube stop, meet your guide, pay your £8, and you’re off. In two hours, see and learn more about London than most Londoners will ever know in a lifetime. Jack the Ripper Haunts meets Sunday nights at 7:30 p.m. at the Tower Hill tube and is often led by Donald Rumbelow (the world’s leading “Ripper-ologist”). He escorts his group through the East End of London, describing in gory detail the wheres and hows of each murder, finishing at the Ten Bells, the pub where the prostitute-victims drank their final gins. Despite initial protestations from visiting friends, they invariably return to my flat in a Victorian frenzy saying, “That was the best thing we’ve done in London.”

Glen Roven, four-time Emmy winner, has performed with orchestras around the world.

POSTED BY Robert Kahn on August 6th 2012 | Add a comment

Highgate Ponds - fresh water swimming with a view of the city

Categories: London | Travel


Highgate Ponds

Hampstead Heath, near East Heath nw3
020 7332 3773;
Open from May to mid-September.
For directions go to

A personal favourite with visitors in the summer are the ponds at Highgate. It surprises out-of-towners who have suffered a hot day of London tubes and stress that you can swim in fresh water in the open air—with a view over the City. There are three ponds: men’s and women’s and mixed (the water flows through the women’s first!), and in late summer the temperature is delightful. The atmosphere is very relaxed; it is not at all “naturist.” Indeed, the mix is indicative of London’s cultural diversity: Orthodox Jews with their ringlets pinned up; old, young, fit, and unfit. The women’s pond, I’m told, is rather more sociable.

I recommend the stiff walk back up the hill to theFlask Tavern (77 West Highgate Hill n6, 020 8348 7346), a Georgian pub at Highgate Village; if it is getting cold by then, they have braziers outside.

Ian Kelly
Ian Kelly is an actor and writer. His publications include Shakespeare Cinema.

POSTED BY Robert Kahn on August 4th 2012 | Add a comment

Sir John Soane's Museum - an extraordinary, if little visited, residence

Categories: London | Travel

Sir John Soane’s Museum
1792–1824, Sir John Soane
13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields wc2
020 7405 2107;

Sir John Soane’s Museum is still probably the least known museum in London. Even though its three contiguous townhouses are crammed with fine art and artifacts—Turners, William Hogarth’s most famous work, A Rake’s Progress, bronze sculptures, antique cork architectural models, and Regency décor—the museum at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, bequeathed to the nation by the architect John Soane upon his death in 1837, attracts only a hundred thousand visitors a year.

This may change: The museum has launched a program called “Opening Up the Soane,” making a series of “lost” interiors, including his bedroom and bath, accessible to the public for the first time since the architect’s death. The director, Tim Knox, former head of the National Trust, has written a new book on the museum, and it includes splendid photographs by Derry Moore; there is a new study centre where scholars can examine the ten thousand Robert Adam drawings in the collection; and a conservation lab is currently under construction.

Soane was a bricklayer’s son who apprenticed with architects. He became such an accomplished draftsman that he won the Prix de Rome, a three-year scholarship to study in the Italian capital. He eventually became the architect of the Bank of England, and wealthy enough to collect everything from contemporary paintings to an Egyptian sarcophagus. (He was a shopaholic on the level of Andy Warhol.) He continually re-arranged the rooms in his house, adding yellow-glass skylights, and creating mysterious spaces that still delight visitors. For decades he taught architecture students from the Royal Academy in his atelier, which partly explains the wealth of architectural models and plaster casts.

Considered a classicist, Soane was actually a “protomodernist,” interested in stripping down Beaux Art idioms. To this day, he remains popular with architects of every stripe: neoclassicists, modernists, post-modernists, and even the avant-garde (Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid). Many artists (including Anish Kapoor) say they find inspiration in the idiosyncratic museum and visit it often. Now, with the “opening up,” it’s time for the general public to appreciate the special appeal of Sir John Soane’s enduring vision.

Wendy Moonan covers architecture, fine arts, and the decorative arts for Veranda and Elle Decor, as well as for several websites, including and She wrote a weekly antiques column for The New York Times for fourteen years.



POSTED BY Robert Kahn on August 4th 2012 | Add a comment

Doubting Thomas

Categories: Rome | Travel
Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme
6th century C.E.

Piazza Santa Croce in Gerusalemme 12
06 706 13 053

Take the Metro out to the church of Santa Croce, which holds the treasures that St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, brought back from the Holy Land. See up close a thorn from Christ’s crown of thorns. See wood from the True Cross. See the actual nails that crucified Christ. Best of all, see the actual finger of St. Thomas—yes, the very finger that the doubting saint poked into the side of the living Jesus after the Resurrection.

John Guare
John Guare was awarded the Gold Medal in Drama by the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his Obie-, New York Drama Critics’ Circle–, and Tony-winning plays, including House of Blue Leaves, Six Degrees of Separation, and A Few Stout Individuals. He teaches playwrit­ing at the Yale School of Drama.

POSTED BY Robert Kahn on April 14th 2012 | Add a comment

Economy Candy

Categories: Manhattan | Travel


Economy Candy
108 Rivington Street between Ludlow and Essex Streets
800 352 4544,

Started in the midst of the post-Depression era when candy still came in barrels, Economy Candy is a rickety little Lower East Side spot owned by Jerry Cohen, a grizzly New York City native with an auctioneer's voice and an attitude to match. This vintage candy warehouse brims lower east side floor to ceiling (literally-a stepladder is required) with jawbreakers, licorice whips, chocolate-covered raisins, root beer barrels, Chiclets, Pixy Stix, kosher gourmet jellybeans, and other Willy Wonka-like delicacies. A favorite of Jerry Lewis, Red Buttons, and Tony Curtis, Economy Candy was described by Gourmet magazine as "the penny-candy store elevated to an art form."

Other favorites include rock-candy swizzle sticks (red, blue, amber, yellow, pink, and green), Jordan Almonds, Atomic Fireballs, candy necklaces, eighteen kinds of halvah, chocolate-covered pretzels (milk, dark, and white), and Pez in every imaginable size and form. In fact, the only candy you won't find here is Chunky. "It's my favorite," says Cohen. "I don't sell it because I'd eat it all day long." At least the man shows some restraint.

Dany Levy
Dany Levy is the founder and editor in chief of Daily Candy, a daily e-mail newsletter dedicated to fashion, trends, and deals of the day.

POSTED BY Robert Kahn on January 4th 2012 | Add a comment

The Show Folks Shoe Shop Dedicated to Beauty in Footwear

Categories: Manhattan | Travel

I. Miller Building
1929, Louis H. Friedland
167 West 46th Street at Seventh Avenue

As you stroll down Broadway after your matinee, stop and glance at the inscription on the façade of 167 West 46th Street (close to the northeast corner of Seventh Avenue and 46th Street), the site of the I. Miller shoe shop that served New Yorkers from 1929 into the 1970s. The words "The Show Folks Shoe Shop Dedicated to Beauty in Footwear" describe I. Miller's two passions-shoes and stars. As an added attraction, four statues by Alexander Stirling Calder (father of Alexander Calder of mobile fame) appear in niches below the inscription. Miller invited the public to vote for their favorite actresses as models. The winners were Ethel Barrymore as Ophelia, Mary Pickford as Little Lord Fauntleroy, Marilyn Miller as Sunny, and Rosa Ponselle as Norma.

Theresa Craig
Theresa Craig is the author of Edith Wharton: A House Full of Rooms-Architecture, Interiors and Gardens. She has taught literature at City University of New York and humanities at the New School University.

POSTED BY Robert Kahn on January 3rd 2012 | Add a comment

Hudson River Powerhouse

Categories: Manhattan | Travel

Hudson River Powerhouse
1900-1904, McKim, Mead & White
12th Avenue between West 58th and West 59th Streets
646 918 7917;

The IRT powerhouse is one of the most unusual architectural monuments in America. Designed by McKim, Mead & White in 1900 to power the very first section of the New York City subway system, it was the largest powerhouse in the world, and used the most sophisticated technology in the production of electrical power at that time. The delicately adorned exterior of the powerhouse was designed in the Beaux-Arts style, reflecting the civic minded ideals of the City Beautiful movement. In 1904, The New York Times described it as " . . . an ornament to the west side that enhances rather than diminishes the value of the surrounding property. But for its stacks, it might suggest an art museum or public library rather than a powerhouse."

In 1959, the building was sold to Con Edison for use as a power station for the New York City steam system. The utility promptly built a flat brick addition to the building, covering its western façade. As the demand for steam waned over the last twenty years, Con Edison has decommissioned most of the building and recently demolished the last of the original five smokestacks. The once majestic turbine hall stands largely empty. Decades of neglect have left other scars: steel loading doors have damaged the finely carved terra-cotta friezes and the original building cornice is entirely gone.

Efforts to designate the building a historic landmark, in 1979 and 1990, failed in the face of the powerful public utility. In 2007, The Hudson River Powerhouse Group was formed to lobby the city to designate the powerhouse a landmark, raise funds to restore the building, and re-purpose this once grand powerhouse as a public space. It remains to be seen if this gem will be preserved or demolished.

Basil Walter is the founding partner of Basil Walter Architects (BWA), an international architecture and design firm with offices in New York City and Beijing, China.

POSTED BY Robert Kahn on December 27th 2011 | Add a comment