Traveling to a new place is about art, architecture, food, and culture, but it can also be about the people you meet and the memories — and even souvenirs — you bring back. In today’s interview, Laura Morelli talks about Venetian artisans, the joys of limoncello, and shares her tips for finding the perfect way to remember your trip.
Dr. Laura Morelli has a Ph.D. in art history from Yale writes award-winning historical fiction based on the true stories of art history and teaches art history online.
- How early travels in Europe sparked Laura’s interest in medieval history
- Places in Venice where you can see behind the present facade to the history beneath
- The quiet places where you can still find artisans and craftspeople who keep old skills alive — and how to avoid being ripped off
- Venetian paper and bookbinding
- The plague mask and Carnival
- How travel helps us appreciate what’s different and what’s the same between our cultures and countries
- Recommended books around works of art
You can find Laura at www.LauraMorelli.com and on twitter @lauramorelliphd
Transcription of interview with Laura Morelli
Jo Frances: Dr. Laura Morelli has a Ph.D. in art history from Yale writes award-winning historical fiction based on the true stories of art history and teaches art history online. Welcome, Laura.
Laura: Hello Jo, I’m so happy to be with you.
Jo Frances: It’s great to have you on this show.
Start off by telling us what inspired you to study history in the first place. Tell us a bit more about your background.
Laura: Sure. Well, I’m a southern girl. I grew up on the coast of Georgia and I was very lucky at a young age to have the opportunity to travel and I can remember when I was growing up and people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I always said that I wanted to be a writer or an archaeologist. I feel like I was fortunate to be what I set out to be when I was a little girl!
I went to Europe when I was about 12 for the first time and I remember standing in front of the facade of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and just being feeling spellbound in front of that Gothic cathedral. I think that the architecture of medieval and Renaissance Europe really sparked a passion for me to continue to travel.
When I was 16, I went to Venice for the first time and I fell prey to one of those hawkers in St. Mark’s Square, one of those guys that hang around and lure unsuspecting Americans on to boats to head over to the island of Murano to buy Murano glass. Even at a young age I had this idea that ‘oh, I’m supposed to come home with Murano glass,’ but I had no idea why. There was something about the artistic traditions from centuries ago that really sparked a passion and lured me to continue to travel and want to know more.
I put my dream of being a writer on the back burner for a little while because I wanted to follow that trail of art history and so I went on to pursue advanced studies in art history and have taught at the college level. I still have a passion for it. I think it’s just the most interesting topic in the whole world.
Jo Frances: That’s so amazing. Before we get into Venice and your books, I’d love to know more about how someone from Georgia came to love European art history.
What are the big cultural shocks for an American out of Georgia going to Europe?
Laura: Oh gosh, so many, I suppose I am just a farm girl.
It’s interesting, I think all Americans can relate to the idea of having such an old past. You know there’s something about feeling connected to people from long ago that I think we’re missing a little bit in American culture, that distant past of those medieval ancestors. Feeling connected to your ancestors and to people from long ago is something that is probably just inherent in being human.
There’s part of it I think that’s missing a little bit in American culture. Certainly, the artists and the artisans that you see working in Europe are missing or they’re not the same. So it is a culture shock, for sure, but for me, it was a realization that there was meaning there. Meaning in art and that art was really important. That was something that really sparked an interest and made me want to pursue that further.
Jo Frances: So you have mentioned Venice and you have two novels and a short story set in Renaissance Venice.
Tell us about some of the places in Venice that you particularly love where you can see behind the tourist stuff to history beneath.
Laura: You know Venice has become insanely crowded in recent years but luckily there are still quiet corners of the city, places where you can still find these old-world craftsmen and craftswomen hard at work creating authentic things like Murano glass or carnival masks, marbled paper, handmade leather, and book bindings.
If you’ve been to Venice you’ll say ‘oh, well, you can see glass and masks everywhere.’ And that’s true. But there are only actually a few places where these really authentic artisans are making everything by hand in a traditional way.
Some of these are multigenerational family enterprises that have been in business for several hundred years. I set out, gosh, two decades ago now to rediscover some of these artisans. That was what really lured me.
So in Venice, there are places for lace, for example on the island of Burano, and glass, of course, on the island of Murano. There are several mask shops that are still in operation after many generations in the main part of Venice.
There are only two gondola boatyards that are still in operation where the guys are making every single part of the gondola by hand.
There are many gondola workshops across the Venetian lagoon but most of the artisans are using electric tools, modern woodworking tools, which is fine, but there are a couple of these old boatyards where the artisans are still turning out gondolas 100 percent by hand.
So, if you know how to locate these artisans, it’s such a fabulous immersive cultural experience. Go beyond the major sites, go beyond the tourist traps, and you can really make a connection with someone who’s doing something important, someone who’s passionate about what they do and someone who’s very excited to share it with you as a visitor. Some of these are still really quiet little corners of Venice. That’s one thing I love about it.
[Want more about Venice? Check out my personal podcast episode, Myth and Reality, Beauty and Decay in Venice with J.F.Penn]
Joanna: How have some of these artisan characters inspired your novels?
Laura: I started out teaching art history at the college level and I became interested in these Italian artisans, so I wrote a book called Made in Italy and since then I’ve written Made in Venice, Made in Florence, Made in Naples and the Amalfi Coast.
When I was in Venice doing research for the original edition of Made in Italy, I spent a lot of time talking with the gondola makers. Then as I went across the Italian peninsula, I heard the same story over and over again. People said that it’s so important to pass on the torch of tradition and we really feel that it’s critical that we show our skills to the next generation, that we teach our children, that we bring our grandchildren into this trade to keep it going.
I heard it so many times that I thought, gosh, what would happen if the heir was not willing or not able for some reason to carry on this torch of tradition? The story sort of popped into my head about this heir to a gondola boatyard and a complicated relationship with his father. My first work of historical fiction, The Gondola Maker, is based on that idea.
My fiction is very much rooted in my non-fiction research. That’s been a lot of fun to go back and forth between non-fiction and fiction because sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction and that just makes a great non-fiction book. And sometimes you only know up to a certain bit and then beyond that we don’t know, and then, of course, that’s where the story comes, that’s where the fiction begins, that’s a whole different can of worms. And so much fun!
Jo Frances: What are some of the other places that have inspired you?
I used to live in Australia and New Zealand and one of the things I missed was the historical architecture that you can actually see in the modern-day city, that can you can set things that in your books knowing that the building would have looked pretty similar however many hundred years ago, sometimes thousands of years ago.
What are some of the places either in Venice or other places in Italy that you’ve put into your books?
Laura: Currently I’m finishing a novel that’s based on the history of Michelangelo’s David and based on the story of its creation. You can’t really talk about Michelangelo’s David without talking about the history of Florence around 1500. It was a very public work of art and a work of architecture.
I’ve also been writing more about painting recently which has been interesting. I’m working on a book around Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady With The Ermine and what happened to that picture in subsequent centuries. So it’s not only places, but also works of art that were created in certain places and times.
Joanna: It’s interesting that you mention David because in the building where he’s displayed they have the slaves coming out of the blocks which I love even more in a way. David is so perfect. He’s just amazing. Then there are these slaves that are kind of crawling out of these blocks of marble.
Laura: There are there those famous slaves in the Frari church in Venice, too. I don’t know if you saw those when you were there. Just incredible gigantic figures.
Joanna: Florence also has all these sculptures in the main square, which is just amazing to look at. I love sculpture. It’s one of the things I enjoy the most about art.
On your blog, you’ve got this fantastic article on Venetian paper and bookbinding, and I’ve bought a journal in Venice.
What is the history around bookbinding and paper in Venice?
Laura: So Venice occupies a really important part of book history which I think not many people are aware of.
Venice used to be the gateway between the east and the west. So it was a natural place for book production to take root because Venetian artisans were already very good at gold leaf and leather and paper making and all of the trades that go along with book production.
It just so happens that they were economically, politically, geographically really well positioned for some of the earliest bookmakers who came after Gutenberg, who came after the printing press, and they were able to publish and distribute books widely throughout Europe.
So the Venetian artisans really were well-known for bookbinding and publishing, which filtered south from there into Florence and other parts of Italy, but certainly, Venice played an important role.
There were several artisanal bookmaking and bookbinding shops in Venice up until recently but a couple of the really historic bookbinders closed, I was so sad. But you can still go to Venetian bookshops and buy individual folios, little pages that were torn out of historic books long ago. You can buy them and have them framed. They make wonderful souvenirs and certainly, English people have been bringing home things like that from the Italian peninsula for a couple hundred years already as part of the grand tour.
Joanna: Venice is also famous for the carnival masks, and you and I both interested in the plague period. My most recent novel is Map of Plagues, which has a plague mask in it.
What’s the deal with the plague masks? Is it all just a tourist trap or are there still artisans around these masks as well?
Laura: There are many masks unfortunately in Venice today that are imported from elsewhere and passed off as authentic. One of my missions and my guide book series is about leading people beyond the tourist traps to discover the more authentic makers. There are a handful of excellent mask makers in Venice. They’re an affordable portable souvenir.
You can take mask-making classes which is super fun. Specifically, about the plague doctor mask, which is really one of my favorite things ever, it was not originally intended for Carnival.
It’s use as a carnival mask is a modern thing but the plague doctor mask was actually invented in the 1600s by a French doctor who was looking to curb the plague contagion across France. So he invented this mask and the Venetians, who had been mask wearing for many centuries for Carnival, just latched onto it immediately. The idea was to push various medicinal herbs down that long beak bird-like nose to help protect the doctor from breathing bad air.
He also wore a long cloak and gloves and he carried a cane so that he could flip people over and examine them without getting infected himself. It’s very scary looking. A lot of people find it very creepy, but it has a really cool history.
Joanna: I think that’s the other interesting thing about Europe. We were saying before we started recording that there is always a dark side to these ancient cities because people have been living and dying there for a long, long time.
Are there any other interesting things you found that have inspired your stories?
Laura: Yes, I have three different short stories that are set during plague times including one that you can download free from my website that’s set during the 1610 plague of Venice. It’s called Bridge of Sighs and you can get that free on my website.
The first novel in my Venetian Artisans series is called The Painter’s Apprentice. And it’s also set during the 1510 Plague of Venice. I find it interesting how people dealt with challenges in the age before modern medicine and I do think it makes for an interesting setting and set of challenges for a fictional character.
Joanna: Because I’ve been writing Map of Plagues, I think that it would have been like one of post-apocalyptic movies, so many people dying and not being able to do anything about it.
Did you have you discover any other interesting places in Venice that relate to the plague?
Laura: There is Poveglia, which is the plague island off the coast of Venice. There is one vaporetto that goes there. It’s not very easy to get to but you can actually visit one of the buildings that was used as a plague hospital in pre-modern times.
[I used Poveglia as a setting in Map of Shadows — amazing place!]
It was a quarantine Island, a place where ships would be docked off the coast. In fact, the word quarantine is a Venetian word because a quarantine was 40 days. And so the ships had to stay off the shore for 40 days to make sure that no one was sick and then they would allow them to come into the ports of Venice. If you are interested in in the dark side of culture, that’s a great place to visit.
Joanna: In London, of course, we have a ton of plague pits. You dig down into the ground in London and you hit a plague pit. Crazy! [Check out Charterhouse].
Changing tack, you have the shopping guides, which I think are brilliant because one of the things that, as you said, your first experience in Venice and certainly mine as well, is getting ripped off in the tourist traps.
If we want to buy something that is truly artisanal and we have some budget because I think it’s important to note that if you want something good, you have to pay for it.
What should people do in terms of finding them?
Laura: Yes. So I think that authentic souvenirs don’t necessarily have to be expensive. Some of them are quite affordable.
But I always tell people that it might just be the most valuable thing that you bring back from a trip. Not in monetary terms, but if you go to an artisan studio you come face to face with the maker of your souvenir. You might be involved in choosing some aspect of it.
If you go for example to Positano, and you have leather sandals made, you can choose what color leather you want, what color sole you want. You can talk to the person who’s making it. They’re not super expensive. You come home with not only a great authentic Italian souvenir but you can make a connection with the person who made it. To me, part of the most valuable part of traveling overseas is that cultural interaction.
That’s really the best way to avoid getting ripped off as well. Just buy directly from the source. You get the best possible price. You meet the person and you know you’re buying something authentic. So definitely go to the artisan studios. I’ve never found anyone who was rude or felt like they were being interrupted. Italians are extremely friendly and so happy to share their work and their passion with you.
Joanna: I think you’re right. Another tip is don’t buy anything in St. Mark’s Square or any streets directly around it.
Laura: Absolutely. Do not buy anything right around the Leaning Tower of Pisa either. That’s kind of common sense.
But beyond that sometimes it can be a little overwhelming. So I think people, for example, one of the slippery slopes in Italian shopping is buying leather in Florence. That’s really tricky to get right. There are a lot of tips and tricks to it. So if you want to know more you can check out my shopping guides, everything’s at LauraMorelli.com. If you’re going to Venice or Florence or Rome or Naples or the Amalfi Coast, Sicily, Sardinia, I covered all the regions.
Joanna: Next time I go back, I’m taking your carnival mask buying guide. I’m going to get one. In fact, I found a really good shop with steampunk carnival masks. I wish I’d bought one, I saw one, and I was like, ‘Oh, why do I need one of these?’ But it’s not about need. It’s about artistic appreciation.
Laura: Those are really fun. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to buy one that’s authentic to 1700. I mean you can buy something like a steampunk mask. It’s really fun. Yes, absolutely handmade.
Joanna: Absolutely. I did want to ask you about limoncello. Personally, I don’t like it.
Tell us about limoncello.
Laura: So limoncello is one of the joys of the Italian table. If you’ve ever traveled especially in the south they bring it to you at no charge to your table after dinner. And it’s a wonderful digestivo, after-dinner drink. You probably don’t like it because maybe you didn’t have a really good one. The bottles can vary so dramatically from one bottle to the next and if you get a bad bottle, it tastes like window cleaner.
Joanna: Or cough medicine.
Laura: But if you get a good bottle it tastes like you’re drinking a ray of sunshine. So the lemons are grown in a protected area along the Amalfi Coast in Capri just south of Naples.
There are a couple of different varieties of lemons and just like grapes and vinegar and some of the other world-class culinary products of Italy, they’re protected by the government and by the region. Limoncello is really nothing more than lemon peel, sugar and alcohol and that’s it.
It’s a really simple recipe. But like most Italian cuisine, the simplicity of it is deceptive because, as I said, there’s a huge range of quality and taste and flavor and family secrets and things that go into it. People have different types of lemons that they use, different types of alcohol they use. Some might put it in a cellar, some might put it in a closet. They all have these very well-kept family secret secrets around limoncello.
Some of the larger producers have tours. You can go in and watch the machines and the bottles going through, but there are also smaller producers in the area and families. If you go to Amalfi or Sorrento, there are lots of shops selling limoncello.
It’s very inexpensive. You can just go have a seat and try and taste test. I can hardly think of a more fun thing to do on a hot sunny afternoon!
Joanna: I think I’ll stick to gin and tonic!
That’s fantastic and I definitely, everyone has to try it. If you’re in Italy, you have to have a couple of limoncellos. It’s part of the deal really, isn’t it?
Laura: It is. And fun fact, it was probably invented by a group of nuns on the Amalfi Coast which I absolutely love.
They were known for these drinks called Rosalie which was kind of medicinal hardcore alcohol that they would give to people who came into the convent who were sick, because certainly in the late Middle Ages and even later anyone who was sick was going to the monastery or the convent to get medical care. So it’s believed that some of these liquor stores that are famous around the Amalfi Coast came out of that tradition of the convent and their medicinal liqueur.
Joanna: That’s cool. A bit like Belgium where it’s famous for the monks making beer. So, a bit of a broader question.
What does travel mean to you? How does travel inspire your writing?
Laura: Oh, in so many ways. I always feel inspired when I go somewhere new and it helps me see my own home in a different way.
Our brains are wired to look for the familiar and what’s similar and what’s different. I had an interesting experience recently. I was in Venice and I flew out of the Venice airport and I looked out the window at this vast sparkling lagoon with all of these low lying sandbars and the sea that seems like it’s going to threaten to overtake everything.
But yet so beautiful and so fragile looking from the air, then some hours later, I landed at a small airport near my home on the coast of Georgia. I live on a barrier island so when you look out the window, there’s that beautiful sparkling sea and those low lying sandbars and that fragile environment.
It’s fascinating to see and I thought, ‘Wow, I went to another world, to this mythic Venice and then I came home to this very familiar place that from the air looked almost like Venice. It’s a really interesting parallel that I had never really seen before. I think seeing the world from the air like that is inspiring in itself.
Joanna: That’s really interesting. You talked about the difference. You notice the things that are different when you’re not from that place. This is something I’m obsessed with at the moment — can you write more effectively about a place if you are not from that place?
So you’re writing about Georgia, for example, and then I write about the same places in Georgia as an outsider. You notice different things. Obviously, you’re not an Italian, you’re not from Venice, but you’re writing about Venice and you see things as an outsider that Venetians don’t see.
Laura: 100 percent, I understand what you’re saying. I mean you may know the work of Francis Mayes, the author of Under The Tuscan Sun, she is also from South Georgia and also has a passion for Italy. The way that she writes about Italy is very much as you’re describing. She sees things from an outsider’s point of view and but yet she just recently published a book called Under Magnolia, that is a memoir about her life in Georgia.
It was so interesting to read because, of course, that’s my world you know, that’s what I’m familiar with. Yet she was able to write about it in the same way. There’s this beautiful language and seeing it almost like an outsider and I thought, ‘Wow, I’m not sure I could do that.’ I’m not sure I could write about my own home and my own place in the same way that I can write about a place that feels so far and indifferent.
So, it is a really interesting idea. I mean people say ‘write what you know’ and I’m not sure that’s exactly right.
Joanna: Oh no, I think it should be “Write what you’re interested in.” We’re both interested in the plague, but we don’t have to have the plague to write about it.
So, apart from your own books, what are some books you would recommend that feature works of art?
Laura: So there are so many books that I love that are historical novels based on works of art. There’s really a long tradition of these. A few you may know, The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone, that was about Michelangelo.
Some of the more recent versions of art historical novels, some of my favorites, Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With The Pearl Earring; Susan Vreeland’s The Passion of Artemisia, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. These books that are that have works of art at the center are just really my kind of read. So I really enjoy those.
Joanna: It’s funny, we’re talking about Italy and now I’m thinking about Georgia. On this show you get ideas for lots of different things but, of course, to me Georgia is foreign. I’ve been to the south of the USA and it is quite different.
You’ll laugh at this. My stomach gets sick when I’m in the south of the USA whereas I’ve traveled to India and I am fine. So it’s really interesting what’s foreign to each of us.
Laura: Maybe it’s too much barbecue or some cheese grits.
Joanna: Exactly. That’s fantastic. Where can people find you and your books and your courses online?
Laura: You can find everything at LauraMorelli.com. You can download the free short story there, you can take a look at my books. You can sign up for an art history class. I’m just about to launch a new course on the ancient Etruscans, which I am super excited about.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well thanks so much for your time, Laura. That was great.
Laura: Thank you, Jo, I enjoyed it so much.