Arts & Culture

Art, music, theatre and cultural experiences add to the enjoyment of a “Gusto”-forward life.

Classic Raffaellesco pattern on Deruta majolica plate

This lively, stylized dragon is a signature mark on the classic Raffaellesco pattern used on many Deruta majolica pieces. Pictured here is a plate from my personal collection.

Who am I to judge those who obsess over the dining chairs of an obscure designer, or those deranged fans of discontinued lipstick shades, hunting down the last remaining world supply with cold-sweat fervor? Not I. I will readily own up to my own unique brand of fascination: Italian majolica (pronounced “maYOLica”, and sometimes spelled maiolica). Majolica is pottery painted in a protected Renaissance tradition in the town of Deruta, in the region of Umbria. For those cooking-lesson villa renters out there, and fans of “Under the Tuscan Sun,” you may know Umbria as the region just southeast of Tuscany.

But Deruta pottery is so much more than some hand-painted flourishes scrawled on a fruit bowl. Deruta pottery comes in a variety of historic designs, which I will point out shortly. But aside from the rich tradition surrounding Deruta wares, I make the audacious claim that a Deruta dinner plate changed my life.

A dinner plate?

Yes – and from an early age, too. As a child, I used to play at the home of our family friends where I discovered an untapped passion. This couple has led tours to Italy for many years, particularly based around the Renaissance capital of Florence. In their home, I grew up gazing at the large, glamorous photos of them standing proudly in front of medieval architecture, and with wind-blown smiles atop city panoramas. Dressed in stylish gear, gelato in hand, they posed on gondolas and beside clock towers. I loved being in their home, surrounded by volumes of glossy art books, and the cozy luxury of rugs and artwork in every cranny.

But perhaps most of all, it was their elegant, stylish dinner parties (viewed from my vantage point at the “kids’ table”) that intrigued me the most. This is where I witnessed their never-ending parade of Deruta pottery: ceramic candlesticks whose colorful designs glowed amid the din of group laughter; platters sturdy enough to hold plump piles of veal piccata and hearty helpings of pesto linguine, and yet charming and poised enough to grace a table fit for Company.

Damn the kids’ table, I thought, as I gazed at my hot dogs n’ beans.

It was during one of these entertaining affairs that I first saw it: Raffaellesco, the pattern of my dreams.

Lively, stylized dragons with tapering tails in rich shades of golden maize, accented with cobalt, brown and teal. More ornamentation than a Bach fugue, but it all worked cleanly against the crisp, white background. This is truly the spirit of the Renaissance, captured perfectly! I remember thinking, as I reached the flashpoint of my lifelong love of the Italian Renaissance.

The Raffaellesco pattern offers an experience both visually and energetically. It is regal and stately, yet fun and dynamic – a satisfying combination for those with modern formal tastes.

Hand-painted detail showing the Raffaellesco dragon

In this detail from an authentic Deruta plate, you can see the brushstrokes indicating true, hand-painted workmanship.

The name Raffaellesco is attributed to the Renaissance artist Raphael, who was thought to have painted a benevolent sea god meant to protect seafaring merchants on their journeys. The design stuck, as it is one of Deruta’s most famed and popular designs. Other classic Deruta designs include the colorful Ricco Deruta, considered the oldest and most traditional pattern in the Deruta tradition; Orvieto, a nod to rustic living with its cheerful, green roosters;  Siena, an elegant, black-bordered collection featuring medieval-style flora and fauna; and the lively Arrabesco pattern, featuring birds and freeform decorations that evoke a more contemporary sensibility.

The town of Deruta takes its pottery traditions very seriously. The city houses what is widely considered the world’s foremost authority for the teaching of the Deruta majolica technique, the International School of Ceramic Art “Romero Ranieri.” All authentically created, local majolica pieces contain a special “Deruta” signature on their underside, usually hand-painted rather than stamped. The producers must follow strict design guidelines if they are to label their majolica pieces in the classic series.  This handiwork does not come cheap, and even within the regulated producers, there is a spectrum of quality and refinement. For the real deal, expect to pay at least $100 for a dinner plate (yes, one dinner plate).

Recently, after a two year investigation, the Italian police uncovered a Deruta fraud ring. According to a March 10, 2010 article published at’s blog by Tiziana, “last February…Italian police charged the owners of three companies located in Assisi and Deruta with fraud and other administrative crimes. They manufactured fake Raffaellesco and Ricco Deruta pottery that was then partly sold to bus loads of unaware tourists visiting Assisi, partly exported to Europe, Japan and to the US at competitive prices.” The police seized over 2000 pieces that bore the coveted “Handpainted in Deruta” signature but which were actually decal transfer work.

The dramatic world of art fraud is far-reaching, I’m afraid. I have encountered several knock-offs in some of my own local home furnishing stores. It is easy to spot these knock-offs if you look closely. You will be able to see a tiny “dot matrix” printing texture instead of a smooth series of brushstrokes. To this, they will often hand-paint the rim of the plate which may add more of an authentic look to the unsuspecting eye. Sure, these are priced quite inexpensively, but like first-class air travel, once you’ve experienced the real deal, it’s hard to go back.

Deruta authentic signature

This hand-signed mark on the underside of a Deruta majolica piece indicates authenticity.

Not surprisingly, I ended up spending a blissful semester in Florence during my college days. I was thrilled when I found an affordable Deruta (or was I duped into buying “Deruta style”?) vendor stand in one of the piazzas. I bought a small Raffaellesco plate, but it then broke in transit back to the States. Since then, I have thirsted for more Deruta to ease that early disappointment. But a funny thing happens with these types of pursuits. Suddenly, one piece is no longer enough. The most insidious part of a “Deruta-ddiction” is that these beautiful pieces are also functional. The rationalizations can get out of hand. I mean, who couldn’t use a mezzaluna (crescent-shaped) cookie dish around the house, or a hand-painted biscotti jar to catch someone’s hands in?

Come on, you know you want a rooster-shaped pitcher.

To purchase Italian majolica in the U.S., visit the website of Biordi in San Francisco, California. There are many other purveyors of Italian majolica in the U.S., but Biordi carries some of the finest examples of majolica from Deruta and other regions. Their inventory spans from classic to more contemporary styles, and many items beyond tableware. You can even commission your own designs through them.

© Gilat Ben-Dor, 2010. All rights reserved.


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McLin and Marshall play at Arizona State University

Katherine McLin (right, on a 1734 violin) and Kimberly Marshall (on pipe organ) mesmerize the audience at Arizona State University

There is something about a pipe organ. Something beautiful, something haunting (ok, I’ll say it – something even a bit creepy and foreboding). But something powerful, nevertheless. And the dreamlike sequence featuring Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, in Disney’s Fantasia, certainly put organs back on the map when that film came out.

And violins…don’t get me started! Done right, the sound of a violin can (and has) literally moved me to tears. Or gotten me so pumped up for life that I wanted to jump up and go conquer something. The movie alone, The Red Violin, has spoken volumes of the timeless power of this poignant and emotionally-charged instrument. Even non-musicians have heard of the great Stradivarius and his priceless violins.

I was therefore delighted to discover a concert created just for the sake of pairing these two musical titans of sound. Arizona State University’s Herberger College of the Arts sponsors an impressive array of concerts – choral, jazz, orchestral, band, percussion, guitar…you name it, they have an in-house ensemble or a guest performance of it. In this case, I attended an afternoon concert yesterday at Organ Hall called Beauty and Bravura, featuring the violin – a 1734 Sanctus Seraphin violin, in fact – and the organ, a beautiful rendition built in the 1990s in the classic Baroque style.

Since musical instruments do not play themselves (barring those saloon pianos), the credit goes to the two stunning virtuosos who performed: Katherine McLin on the violin and Kimberly Marshall on the organ. Each woman has had an illustrious international musical career, impressive academic affiliations, and a cadre of classical recordings.

As I left the concert hall, I had the following thought: What if Bach had gotten caught up in his daily grind? What if he started dabbling with a few variations on a theme – maybe 5 or 6 max, instead of the 64 variations in his signature Passacaglia – but then life got in the way? There they’d be:  unfinished manuscripts on his desk, gathering dust and coffee stains…What would his legacy have been? What would we have from him today? If we are serious about our own legacies, and realizing our gifts and potentials in this lifetime, let’s take our dreams seriously – turn them into goals (dreams with timeframes) and let’s get to the business of giving of ourselves to the world in the form of a legacy.

Pipe organ at ASU performance

Detail of the pipe organ featured in the "Beauty and Bravura" concert at Arizona State University. The organ was built in 1991, but retains a classic Baroque flavor.

For the serious aficionados, here is a look at yesterday’s Beauty and Bravura program, along with commentary from yours truly:

Adagio and Fugue for the Violin and Organ, Op. 150, no. 6

Joseph Rheinberger (1839-1901)

This lively opening piece featured both McLin and Marshall, playing violin and organ side by side. Although a much later successor of Bach, composer Rheinberger included several distinctive riffs reminiscent of Bach’s signature swirly flourishes.

Partita No. 2 in D minor for Violin, BWV 1004


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

This was by far McLin’s showcase piece, both for her crisp expertise as a violinist, and for the piece itself. Prior to playing it, she explained to the audience that the Ciaccona was thought to have been Bach’s dedication to his wife when he learned of her death. The Ciaccona is nearly 15 minutes long – longer than the preceding four parts combined – and with McLin’s expert mastery of its haunting, lyrical components, the audience was transfixed. There was is eerie beauty to this piece that is almost surreal.

Sonata Representiva for Violin and Continuo

Heinrich Ignaz Biber (1644-1704)


The Nightingale

The Cuckoo

The Frog


Allegro: The Hen/The Rooster


Adagio: The Quail

The Cat

Mussquetir Mars


Here, we heard a light-hearted contrast to the gravitas of the Ciaccona preceding it. Biber, who precedes Bach, created a rather amusing sonata centered on vignettes with particular animal themes. During The Hen/The Rooster segment, there was even a somewhat country-western flair at times, which was ironic since Biber was born in 1644. Perhaps it is now that the cowboy spirit lives on.

The other interesting feature of this piece was that Marshall did not play the organ, but instead, played an early musical instrument called the continuo. Prior to playing, she opened two ornate panels to let the sound travel better, and I was able to see, from my second-row seat, that the inside of the two panels was elaborately painted with flowers and ribbons. No plain packaging back then!

Side panel of continuo

Here, the side panel of the continuo is visible, with hand-painted floral and trompe l'oeil detailing.

Passacaglia in C Minor for Organ, BWV 582

J.S. Bach

Ahhh…back to Bach. Call me a purist, or simply a Baroque fanatic, but I always come back to J.S. Bach and his tremendous capacity for combining mathematical order with music to create works that are far from robotic – but are in fact, sublime and complex while conveying passionate melodies. In fact, this passacaglia, played exclusively on the organ by Marshall, contained a total of 64 variations on a single, four-bar theme. This is not just a case of “well-someone-had-some-time-on-their-hands-snicker-snicker” – this is the mark of true genius!

Capriccio for Violin and Organ

Naji Hakim (b. 1955)

McLin and Marshall concluded the program with this vivacious number by modern-day composer Naji Hakim. There were a variety of elements to it, and a mixture of tempos. While my personal favorites reside in the Baroque era, I applaud the duo for the variety of their program, and for showcasing the wide range of abilities of themselves as performers, the ingenuity of the composers, and of their exemplary instruments.

Time to dust off the ol’ hobbies and see which ones we want to take to the next level.

© Gilat Ben-Dor, 2010. All rights reserved.

Keyboard of continuo played at Beauty and Bravura concert

The black keyboard of the continuo played by Kimberly Marshall at Arizona State University


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Ancient artifacts are displayed amid the sleek modernity of Israel's Lod Airport.

Ancient artifacts are displayed amid the sleek modernity of Israel's Lod Airport.

Israel’s Lod International Airport, just outside of Tel Aviv, boasts a light, airy and spacious interior, and my favorite touch: actual ancient artifacts displayed throughout the walkway area. It is always fascinating to see the old and the new merged together – going much further back than the Louvre’s “old/new” addition of the glass structure, and even older than the Medieval buildings of Florence being used as gelato bars.

Being juxtaposed with truly ancient artifacts can, at once, make us feel like we, too, are just ‘passing through,’ dwarfing our own existence. At the same time, there is something continual and relevant about this coexistence, reminding us that there are still many things that stand the test of time, of history, and of cultural preservation. Our spirit and energy guarantee that we are not nearly as flimsy as our fleeting, physical lives would have us believe. And that is uplifting.

© Gilat Ben-Dor. All rights reserved.

A special energy exists in a land that is so ancient, its decor is comprised of local archaeological finds.

A special energy exists in a land that is so ancient, its decor is comprised of local archaeological finds.


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The lunch rush feels like a leisurely gathering in northern Tel Aviv's hip cafe, Zurich.

The lunch rush feels like a leisurely gathering in northern Tel Aviv's hip cafe, Zurich.

On a recent trip to Israel, it was hard to miss the fact that Tel Aviv, along with most of Israel’s cities, thrives on the energy and hub of the café. Quite similar to Europe, in fact. Unlike the Starbucks institution we know (all too well) back in the States, Israel’s cafés seem to have a different kind of energy.

First, the cafés tend to focus on being outdoors, being part of a scene, of seeing and being scene – though with a surprising lack of pretension. While there were some laptoppers I observed in the Tel Aviv cafés, it seemed that most of the caférati were there to be in the moment – to socialize, or if alone, to take in their surroundings over an “upside down coffee” (kafe hafuch), a popular way to have your brew, with the coffee sprinkled over hot milk rather than having water poured onto the coffee first. Also, while there are several café chains in Israel now – Aroma, Café Hillel, CafeCafe, Arcaffe – there still seemed to be a very individual spirit to each café, and plenty of independent locations.

Another note on Israeli cafes is that they focus on food well beyond the carb-laden, glass case offerings. You can often order a typical Israeli breakfast which includes tomato and cucumber salads chopped into painstakingly tiny pieces, with lemon and olive oil, as well as eggs, cheeses, and breads or even sandwiches. “Real” food for breakfast, if you will; perfect for the savory protein lover, like yours truly.

© Gilat Ben-Dor. All rights reserved.

Typical breakfast fare at an Israeli cafe fare includes fresh, chopped salads, eggs, fresh-squeezed juices and sandwiches.

Typical breakfast fare at an Israeli cafe includes fresh, chopped salads, eggs, fresh-squeezed juices and sandwiches.


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