One of my favourite places to stay in Tuscany (with the exception of our little home near Bagni di Lucca) just has to be the beautiful Pensione Bencista up in the hills above Florence in Fiesole. It is a truly delightful place with the most magnificent views over Florence. We have been privileged to have been able to stay there several times over the years and I wax lyrical about the beauty of this place in my new book.

Although my book is a non-fictional historical biography I was able to step into the past whilst keeping one foot firmly rooted in the present, since it also tells the story of my personal journey to discover more about the life of the Italian Renaissance noblewoman Annalena Malatesta. In addition to discovering more about the fascinating life of this remarkable woman I wanted the reader to be able to feel as though they were in Florence and that they could visualise the beautiful churches, historical monuments and museums. It was my wish that they should experience all the wonderful art treasures with me.

I was delighted to receive feedback from readers of my book who congratulated me on transporting them back to Tuscany. One gentleman thanked me for bringing back so many memories of his visits to Tuscany and in particular his stay at the Pensione Bencista. ‘From your description I could just picture the view from there and it brought back so many fond memories of when my late wife and I stayed there’. Others commented that it was truly wonderful to read about paintings that they had remembered seeing and it was as though they were standing before them once more.

  • Dawn Cumming

Whilst I might not be able to be in Florence at this time, at least my book can be. Thank you to Andrea, the manager of the historic Hotel Annalena in Via Romana, who enjoyed reading my book and kindly took these photos of it in the reception. My book feels truly at home in this place; after all it was here that I was first inspired to write it. The hotel stands upon part of the the site that was once occupied by the convent that Annalena Malatesta founded in the fifteenth century. I can't wait until I can return to Florence, but until then I rest content knowing that my book is in its rightful place. I am certain too that Annalena would also be very happy.

  • Dawn Cumming

Any visitor to Florence will have noticed the small shops selling beautiful handmade marbled paper in a kaleidoscope of mesmerising colours and patterns. Usually these shops incorporate a workshop and some even offer a demonstration as to how such papers are made. The art of marbling paper probably originated in China and flourished in Turkey in the 15th century where it was reserved for religious writings. They called it Ebru or ‘the art of the clouds’ which so magnificently conjures up the swirling free-form nature of the resulting patterns obtained. The art of ebru entered Europe via Venice through trade and actually became widespread in Italy in the 19th century. The art of paper marbling lingers on in Florence today.

How is marbled paper made? Basically, a resin or glue is added to a basin of water and pigments are dropped on to the surface. The resin or glue mix is used to attach the floating pigments to the paper. The paper is lowered into the basin with the added colours and adherents and then gently lifted from it and rinsed in cold water and allowed to dry.

We are once again experiencing a Lockdown in England and I’ve made a list of things I intend to do during this period when we are encouraged to stay at home. The art of paper marbling has always been something I would like to try and so it features near the top of my list. Many years ago I purchased a very basic marbled paper kit however, sadly I never got round to using it. I knew it was still around somewhere in my house and so I endeavoured to hunt it out. Before long I found it still lurking in the very depths of the cupboard where I’d stashed it all those years ago. I must admit inspection of its contents didn’t fill me with much hope since most of the components including both the pigments and glue looked well past their ‘best before‘ date. I am not looking for any excuses but I knew before I began that the final result may not be exactly what I would have hoped for.

I followed the instructions and prepared the size then squeezed out dollops of gungy pigment in a variety of colours and watched as they congregated into a collection of individual pools. I then used the small flimsy plastic comb supplied with the kit to hopefully create the lovely effects I had seen in the workshops in Florence. Unfortunately, instead of creating the ‘art of the clouds’ the pigment just amassed into what seemed like an island of ‘gloopiness’. Next I tried using a wooden skewer and very carefully tried to draw down patterns; this appeared slightly better. I was able to create elongated feather-like effects however, sadly almost as quickly as they appeared they dissipated into the size. I dipped a sheet of paper into the basin and carefully lifted it out to reveal a colourful pattern of ‘sorts’ but certainly not the desired effects I would have liked. I was determined to create at least one aesthetically pleasing sheet of marbled paper, so I kept trying. Soon I was surrounded by several dripping wet sheets of colourful paper, only one of which had an effect that resembled some form of pattern. I carefully pegged the sheets on to an indoor washing rack to dry.

This below is my very poor attempt!

It had certainly been an interesting Lockdown activity, albeit one that had left me with a great appreciation of this art. I know that I for one will be leaving it to the experts!

All images copyright Dawn Cumming, Tuscany At Home