Eating with my eyes: A trip to the Osteria Francescana, Modena, Italy

We all know that Italian food is invariably delicious, its pretty much a given that if you eat in Italy, or in any Italian restaurant, you’re going to get a decent meal. However what I experienced this afternoon in the city of Modena, took this idea and blew it up to the vastest proportions you can possibly imagine. Quite simply, I ate the best meal I have experienced in my, albeit brief, life. The venue for such culinary delight was the Osteria Francescana, a small unassuming looking place run by chef Massimo Bottura and his English wife Lara. It was last year voted by Restaurant Magazine as the 5th Best in the World, and holds three, much coveted stars in the Michelin Guide.

Oops! A broken fruit pie.

Before I get going, I want to assure you that this blog entry is in no way a review, as I would feel wholly inadequate reviewing such a magnificent restaurant. Instead, I’m aiming to use my lunch at the Osteria as a springboard to talking about the aesthetic element of food, something that has interested me for a while. Everybody eats with his or her eyes to a certain extent, for instance it is clear that if you’re presented with a nice, neat plate of food, it will look more appealing than a big heap slopped in front of you. In Modena, this idea was taken to the extreme. In fact some of dishes presented to me were so beautiful (and I really do mean, BEAUTIFUL) that I felt aggrieved to have to eat them, and would much rather have just studied them all afternoon, much as one would do with a Titian or a Bellini.

The most delicious breadsticks I have ever tasted!

Me and my dining companion, my mother, who also happened to pay (Thanks Mummy!), both decided to have the Chef’s Sensations menu, which claimed to be the ‘expressions of the experimental kitchen’. All very exciting. What followed were 11 of the most scrumptious and equally handsome plates of food I have ever eaten. I’ve got nowhere near enough words available to me to describe each course individually, but I’ll talk about some of the highlights briefly.

The Oyster that turned out not to be an Oyster!
Soft and crunchy Branzino with "cacciatora" rabbit sauce.

The first course was a delightfully light almond granita, with capers, bergamot, and coffee cream, which served as a perfect ‘amuse bouche’ for the forthcoming meal. What followed were a series of delectable seafood courses, including a seriously tasty Sea bass dish, with three different sauces, before we moved on to the final savoury dish of the day, the most spectacularly moist pigeon, with what the restaurant described as ‘sour and mineral salad and Balsamic juice’. Next were two pre-desserts, and finally, what was for me the piece de resistance of the meal, a dessert called ‘Oops! A broken fruit pie’, which was essentially a lemon tart, deconstructed to it’s elements, and delightfully presented as though it had been dropped.

In a meal full of delicious dishes, this was to the chef what David was to Michelangelo, absolutely unparalleled. Everything put in front of me today was not only delicious, but also entertaining, and spectacularly pretty, and I could not have had a better first meal, from which to talk about the visual art of food. In my opinion, art should not only delight the eyes, but also the soul, and I could not help but smile whenever a new dish was brought out to me. Whether or not food can be art is debateable, however on today’s evidence, I think it definitely can.

Razor clam and its friends

Osteria Francescana is run by Massimo Bottura in the Italian city of Modena. For more info visit:

The Jackson Pollock-esque Pigeon dish

News from China! The Shanghai Fabric Market by Caz St Quinton

Every girl has her dream dress. Unfortunately, these dreams rarely become reality. To get a dress design tailor made is often too expensive and rarely ends up how you once imagined it. However, in the bustling fabric market in Shanghai they will make you whatever you want, in whatever fabric you want and for prices you most definitely want.

The endless choice of materials and colours from one stall

Located in a massive four storey building sit hundreds of fabric stalls that together make up the Lujiabang Lu Fabric Market. Mountains of silk, cotton and chiffron in any colour or print you can imagine are hidden away in small dens where their owners sit waiting for customers. Men can be seen choosing the right fabric for their custom made £50 suit, whilst women take in photos of the latest red carpet gown and for around £40 get a replica made to measure. Sounds of haggling can be heard from every corner as customers bargain for the best price.

A stall in the fabric market


When a price is agreed two tailors begin to measure every inch of their new customer, carefully recording each number and nattering away in Mandarin. Before they can begin work on the dress discussions are made about the necessity of a lining. Decisions are made about how quickly it needs to be finished. Exclamations are made when the customer shows just how high she wants the slit up the leg to be, or how low the neck line.

Any design can be copied. A favourite here is the Chanel suit.


Braver tourists take in their own designs drawn on pieces of
paper. Simple clear drawings are presented to the tailors in hope of avoiding
the language barrier through pictures, although they have little to fear as
their English is often very good.

A taylor stands proudly next to the finished dress




Excitement builds in the market when girls come to try on their finished dresses. No doubt she will attract a small crowd around her as they murmur approvingly. The magical moment when one sees a custom floor length gown fitted and designed perfectly for its loving owner and knowing that three days previously it was a mere fantasy. A dream come true for the shoppers of Shanghai.





The Power of Line and Development: thoughts on the exhibition ‘Master Drawings from Mantegna to Matisse’, by Marie Naffah

There are two things that resonate in my mind after visiting the temporary exhibition Master Drawings from Mantegna to Matisse at the Courtauld Gallery: the importance of developing a work of art through drawings and sketches, and the authority of line in many a finished artwork. Having been to Italy and experienced the masterpieces of artists like Michelangelo and Tintoretto, I found the Courtauld’s drawings exhibition very refreshing. From this selection of sketches, the visitor is able to access the artists’ intentions and priorities for their work without having to see a finished piece at all.

The exhibition inpired me to  explore the concept of creative development and line using photographs of my own drawings, and editing software. I photographed a selection of portraits which I made while on the Art History Abroad Early Summer Course 2012.


Above is a portrait, ‘Rose’, edited with an applied “coloured pencil” filter. Here, I have sketched over digitally to create the chiaroscuro affect present in Piazzetta’s Head of a Boy and an Old Man (above right). I have also tried to imitate Piazetta’s use of white chalk to heigten the contrast of the black chalk on grey paper which in turn creates a soft suggestion of form.

I was also struck by  Ingres’ beautiful study for the Grande Odalisque, which demonstrates that line and composition can dominate colour and detail, creating something just as effective.


Above left: Here, I have divided my portrait in two, leaving the original drawing on the right hand side. Similarly to Ingres’ study, I have erased the detail on the left hand side, allowing the viewer to focus on the line and composition of the photograph.

Above : Self portrait taken 3 times in the Marino Marini museum in Florence and “Emma” in Santa Maria Novella. I decided to place these drawings together after seeing Da Vinci (Mary Magdelene studies 1480 ) and Veronese’s Studies of Christ Carrying the Cross (both above right). In both drawings the artists experimented with slightly different compositions before settling on the final outcome. Viewing the sketches, one can see the figures merge together, almost creating a sense of movement. It is rare that we are able to follow an artist’s thought process like this.

So in conclusion I am amazed at how effective a simple line drawing can be. The exhibition perhaps told me even more than if I’d seen the finished works. Here, I end with my final photograph, “Ella” which combines two layers – one of the original grayscale photograph, the other digitally sketched. As I hope you will see here, with a sketch, you do not necessarily need an abundance of detail and colour for the result to be effective. What you do need, is a clarity of line and of composition – something the drawings of the old masters illustrate in abundance.




Review: Van Gogh to Kandinsky at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, by AHA alum Katie Campbell

The names Van Gogh and Kandinsky are enough to attract anyone remotely interested in art, and this exhibition does not disappoint.  Billed as the “first ever exhibition dedicated to symbolist landscape painting” it guides the audience through the symbolist movement from 1880-1910.  Much of the material on show (with the exception of works by Kandinsky, Van Gogh, Gauguin to name a few) will be unknown to many of the visitors, the presence of Scandinavian artists is particularly strong with Akseli Gallen-Kallela depiction of Lake Keitele being a personal favourite.

The symbolist movement for those of you reading and feeling a little clueless (don’t worry I was too before the exhibition) began around the 1880’s as a reaction against the growing technological and material change occurring in the western world.  Symbolist artists jumped on the literary bandwagon spearheaded by Mallarmé and championed the use of art to express an idea or emotion through traditional scenes; landscape, portrait, and cityscapes.  For the symbolists a landscape could be imbibed with an emotion and thus symbolise more than just a mere representation of nature. From this we get Van Gogh swirling landscapes filled with a sense of uncertainty and Gauguin’s primitive scenes of Martinique life expressing a wish to return to simplicity, a far cry from the increasing industrialisation of his homeland.

One of the real highlights of the show is the diverse and varied selection of paintings on offer.  The symbolist movement was widespread throughout Europe yet was without a unifying technique or visual goal as is successfully represented in the exhibition.

Askeli Gallen-Kallela’s paintings act as a hymn to his homeland by offering an extraordinarily calm and peaceful depiction of Lake Keitele.  He presents a view of Finland untainted by external forces, which is particularly interesting considering Finland’s fight for independence from Russia at the time.  Whilst the landscape in Gallen-Kallela’s Lake Keitele symbolises national pride and heritage, the landscape in Fernand Knhopff’s The Lac d’Amour is a study of grief.  The image portrays a town in the background with a lake dominating the foreground.  The monochromatic scheme of the painting echoes the listlessness of grief.  The town itself is out of focus mirroring the blurred reflections on the surface of the lake and it is this lack of clarity that symbolises the disorientating nature of grief, for what should be clear and concrete (i.e. the buildings and reality) is blurred and made uncertain.

The wide-ranging nature of symbolist art is made clear throughout the exhibition.  Whilst this could have proved problematic it has instead been skilfully handled by the curator, arranging the paintings according to themes; “Moods of Nature,” “Dreams and Visions” and “Silent Cities”, to name a few examples.  The exhibition draws to a close by linking artists’ (such as Kandinsky) move from symbolism to abstraction leaving one contemplating how much can be evoked through traditional scenes thanks to the use of colour and technique.

Exhibition runs until 14th October.

All images courtesy of National Galleries of Scotland.


Art Limerick! This time Donatello’s David by Harriet Israel


An ode to (Donatello’s) David

Surprising in form and in story,

my body so youthful and shiny.

Arse sticking out,

an androgynous pout,

am I myth, my Medici, or city?

Composed in the Bargello in Florence, March 2011

Donatello probably made his famous ‘saucey’ David for the courtyard of the Medici Palace in c.1440s, commissioned by his great patron Cosimo il Vecchio. The sculpture’s overt sensuality and suggestiveness has been the subject of extensive debate among art historians for the past few decades.

Happy Coincidence: A Summer Student’s AHA Journey

Originally, I was an English student:  I read lots and loved analysing books. Then last Christmas I became absorbed by my a-level art history course and began learning about artists’ lives, analysing paintings and studying critics. I was hooked.

I first heard of Art History Abroad through a tutoring agency which sent one of the AHA tutors to my house to guide me through my A Level and show me new ways of viewing art. We spent two whole days engrossed in Art History: pawing over the Impressionists, astounded by the 19th century and shocked by the controversial Dadaists. For me, however, there was something bigger in art history which I wanted to explore and which I was getting more of an inkling of the more I read, even though I was not studying it for my exams:  the Italian Renaissance.

Soon after the AHA tutor left and I immersed myself in exam preparation, I decided to apply for the Northern Italy Three Summer course and was awarded a discretionary scholarship. My main objective was to study the Italian Renaissance. I also wanted to be inspired and stretched before I started my Art History BA at York University.

Heslington Hall on the Campus of York University

As it happened, I met one of the Art History Lecturers at York at an open day there later in the summer and he, being a veteran AHA tutor himself, was really impressed that I was going on the course. He was even willing to drop my grade boundaries as a result! This really showed me in what esteem these AHA courses are held.

And I was not disappointed. This esteem was justified  throughout the two weeks in Venice, Florence and Rome.  The tutors’ knowledge amazed me: walking  around churches and galleries they knew every fine detail – even things I’m sure the artists would have forgotten themselves!  They were also happy to sit, sometimes  for twenty minutes  at a time,  answering my never-ending questions on the architecture and paintings which surrounded me.

The Group dressed up as gods and goddesses in Florence

And the art I saw on the trip really did blow my mind. It was so exciting seeing works up close, touching-distance away, compared to the glossy pages in a text book.  And of course,  being in such beautiful locations also helped.
As a group I think that we all got a taste of Italian culture in the evenings:  from dining in quaint pizzerias,  to experiencing the adventure of Florence’s meat houses, to sampling the night life at various night clubs and bars whilst drinking authentic Italian drinks of presseco and sprtiz aperol.

I would encourage anyone who wants to have an exciting, special summer to take part in an AHA trip: it really is an experience of a lifetime.

AHA Summer Course student, 2012

·         AHA offers an annual scholarship.  It is highly prized and valued at the cost of a summer course – £3,400.  It is awarded to the winner of an essay competition :  ‘Write 400 words on a work of art you love, followed by 400 words on a work of art you loath’.  Open to all, this competition requires no prior knowledge of art history, just a sense of enthusiasm and powerful views.


·         AHA also awards the odd bursary, entirely on a discretionary basis, to those we feel have a particular desire to study art history and who we feel will make the most of the opportunity.


·         Lastly, there are travel funds and awards available at many schools and from many funds.  AHA will happily match fund, to a limit of £200, those who have secured such funding.


Blogging from a Boat: AHA alum Anna Fothergill finds an alternative route to Venice

If you ever decide that the stress and effort of flying is just too commercial and looks into alternative ways of getting to Italy, do not, if you value your sleep, time or mental health, take the boat to Venice. While the magnificent city itself might have relied on the sea vessels for trade, tourism and other such things, it certainly does not need the massive cruise ships which cut through it, and tower taller than the city could ever hope to be. Interestingly enough, the BBC have recently been talking about this dilemma and even covered a local protest that went on against them.

A massive cruise ship sailing through Venice. Copyright

Understand, we are not talking about a five star cruise boat with waiters in crisp white uniforms and a pool bar on the top deck. This is a cheap method of getting from one part of the continent to the next. If you do happen to find yourself on one of these magnificent works of engineering, here are a few survival tips:

1) Get a cabin. Sounds simple but to the backpacking, inter-railing, baggy-trouser-wearing hitchhikers, a simpler, cheaper option is to camp out on the main deck(and really any other bit of floor space). As you side step and hop over bundled up bodies, you will soon learn to appreciate the itchy prison blanket back at your cabin. As others sleep on anything from blow up mattress’, to lilos and even a small tent, you will certainly value your cramped hot bunk bed. Privacy may cost an extra €100 but it saves you bunking down in the “discotech”.

2) Bring plenty of entertainment. Ipods are essential to block out the crying of the baby in the next door cabin who does not like the constant vibrations of the engine(don’t worry, they are easy enough to tune out, until it comes time to sleep) Cards are however, the best option. Take the opportunity of being stuck on a moving tin can to learn those card games you always wanted to, and bond with family members as you do so. And who says it has to be with your own family?

S. Maria della Salute at Sunrise (photograph by AHA alum Helena Roy)

3) Destination. In essence however, all of this is quite bearable if the place you step off at the end is extraordinary. With Venice as the destination, you can survive the plastic food, the prison blankets, the constant feeling that you are on a refugee barge. As you arrive, you are welcomed by a fantastic, highly photographic angle of the city. When you step off the gang plank, into those unique waterways, knowing many new card games and speaking more german than when you started, you will look back at your time on the sea as a grand adventure and feel like any 18th century Grand Tour personality.

While the important debate about whether these massive ships should be allowed down the Venice lagoon continues, the experience itself is perhaps, not all that bad.


Arty Limerick! Another poetic treat by Harriet Israel

Artemesia Gentileschi, Judith and the maid with the head of Holofernes, Pitti Palace, Florence

An ode to Judith with the Head of Holofernes – 08/2/11

Gentileschi depicted three faces

in a quite economical space as

though they’d been disturbed

(they look fairly perturbed

as they rush to hide murderous traces.)


The painting is Artemesia Gentileschi’s ‘Judith with her Maidservant’ painted 1613-14 and hanging in the Pitti Palace. The story of the beautiful widow Judith beheading the Assyrian General Holofernes, who was about to destroy her native town of Bethulia, was a favourite subject for Gentileschi.

Please send us your arty poems – we’d love to see and share them with our followers! Email