Image: Count Gherardo Scapinelli
Mark Schatzker  /  Condé Nast Traveler
The Count. My benefactor for the evening.
By Mark Schatzker Travel columnist
updated 5/30/2008 1:02:55 PM ET 2008-05-30T17:02:55

Condé Nast Traveler stuntman Mark Schatzker is on a mad quest to make himself into a modern-day Da Vinci during a month's stay in Europe. So far Mark has "mastered" golf in Scotland, "excelled" at gardening in England, and "ruled" the kitchens of Paris and and tinkled the ivories in Vienna and painted beside Lake Como.

The funny thing about Renaissance Men is that there is no recognized international standards body. A Renaissance Man doesn't have to pass any kind of exam or pay for some kind of license, and he doesn't have a plaque hanging on his wall the words "I hereby certify that ..." followed by his name in laser-printed calligraphy. Any mono-talented fool can rent a storefront in some suburban strip mall and go into business as a Renaissance Man. It's just not right.

So let me be the first to lay down the preconditions for what it takes to be a Renaissance Man: You have to work in at least two different fields for a member of authentic European nobility.

Well, you'll never guess what I did last night. I spent the evening at the home of a real-life Italian count. I cooked him and his guests dinner — okay, I cooked the first course. And then we spent somewhere in the region of 38 seconds admiring my painting. I am now a Renaissance Man. It doesn't feel all that different, to be honest, except for this euphoric tingling sensation all over my body, like the archangel Gabriel is sprinkling ferry dust on me. It's pretty cool, actually.

Mark Schatzker  /  Condé Nast Traveler
The guests
The night got off to a hectic start. We arrived at the villa, and I made straight for the kitchen to get my dish underway. Back in Paris, Christophe Raoux — who's presently doing a stint at Benoit New York, so for anyone who lives in the Big Apple, now would be a very good time to visit — taught me how to make a filet of turbot in a matelote sauce. I had to augment the recipe for Lake Como — replace the turbot with  lavarello, which is the lake whitefish that's presently in season. And I had to make the matelote sauce with a bunch of large, yellowy fish heads from some other species that came out of Lake Como. I decided to serve the fish with a thin line of puréed potatos, and on top just a sprinkling of diced missoltino.

In theory, it was an inspired dish. In practice, there were problems. The first was that I had less time than I thought. The matelote sauce needed at least another 45 minutes to reduce into the kind of  flavorful nectar beloved by the French. I had more like 15 minutes. It tasted fine, but it was too watery, which made plating something of a challenge.

Mark Schatzker  /  Condé Nast Traveler
The Renaissance Man at work.
There was also a problem with the stove. It has been my observation in life that the rich invariably have extremely expensive and highly dysfunctional stoves. The count is a case in point. One of the burners  wasn't working, and the knobs that adjust the flow of gas were so hot that using them was physically hazardous.

But enough excuses. As the chef, I accept responsibility. I should have taken more time. I should have been cooking ahead of the meal, so to speak, not behind it. Still, it was not a disaster. I think the presentation would have disappointed Christophe, and I pray that Monsieurre Ducasse never lays eyes on the photo. It tasted pretty good, though.

Mark Schatzker  /  Condé Nast Traveler
"An inspired dish."
Following dinner, we repaired to the sitting room. The count admired my painting for a moment, and said this: "It's good for a beginner. To be a great painter, you need to have the gift." The man has a point. He then gestured to a wall on which hung many other paintings and said, "It reminds me of these." I waited, anticipating that he would point at each work of art and rhyme off some big names in European painting. He said, "They are by my mother."

Mark Schatzker  /  Condé Nast Traveler
The guests were awe-struck by my painting.
We sat. We drank. I was hoping to play the count my music, but he began recounting a series of tales all beginning with, "Many, many years ago?" A good Renaissance Man knows not to get into stereo wars with his patron.

And that was it. From thence forward, it was all the count. As one story turned into a another, I realized why there are no Renaissance Men anymore. Ultimately, they're just hired help. Leonardo Da Vinci may have painted the Mona Lisa, invented the helicopter, and the nude man inside the circle. But back in the day, he was just the Medici's guy in Florence. Those, as they say, were different times. If he were alive today, he'd have something like fourteen start-ups under his belt. His cup would be runnething over with venture capital.

Mark Schatzker  /  Condé Nast Traveler
The Count is one smooth character.
Who knows? Leonardo might even have his own villa on Lake Como. That's what I'm aiming for. They start at around $5 million. That's a lot of money, but when you factor in all the Schubert CDs I plan on selling, not to mention a side gig as a gardening consultant, a stint on the PGA tour, and my forthcoming chain of Renaissance-style restaurants, then it won't be long before I get in a bidding war with some Russian billionaire. And if I get my mother to whip up some paintings for me — I can teach her how it's done, don't forget — then I'll save a bundle on art.

See you then.

Thank yous
A trip like this could not and would not happen without the help of many others. Thank you, Klara Glowczewska, for editing such a fine magazine and underwriting this educational and transformative  experience. Thank you, Ted Moncreiff, for keeping me on point. Always. Thanks, Hyla Bauer, for making me look good. Thanks Lily Newhouse for the invaluable logistical assistance. And thanks Tom Loftus for editing this blog and correcting all my Renaissance (mis)spellings.

Mark Schatzker  /  Condé Nast Traveler
The Count's people have been throwing dinner parties for centuries.
Thank you Greta for letting Daddy go away to "visit the horsies" for an entire month.

And finally, my wife. Behind every good Renaissance Man is a forlorn pregnant woman who's had just about enough of doing dinner and bath every evening for a month. Laura, only one more night before I'm back home in your sweet embrace. Please keep in mind that I've been cavorting around Europe in 5-star luxury. Fluff the pillows accordingly.

You see before you "La Villa Clooney." I for one and shocked. I'm not saying this painting is going to be hanging in the Louvre anytme soon — the Musée d'Orsay would be more appropriate — but those of you with some familiarity of my artistic history will be able to appreciate this feat of applying paint to canvas.

Let's give credit where credit is due. If Giuliana Gandola hadn't been standing behind me and guiding me, saying things like, "Don't be afraid. Just use the brush," or "No, not like that," and if she hadn't helped me with the Herculean task of mixing colors, then the result would have looked considerably different. At one point in the process, George Clooney's villa was looking more like George Clooney's dilapidated shed with a crooked roof. The problem was one of perspective, and Giuliana helped me fix that.

But most of the paint on that canvas was put there by me.

Of course, it's not enough to just look at a painting. You have to "understand" its deeper meanings. So for those of you not schooled in the intellectually thrilling arena of art criticism, you may be missing out on some high-quality nuance. This is a work rich in meaning. Allow me to explain.

George Clooney's villa is symbolic of not only of George Clooney's villa, but of nice villas everywhere. In this way, it is a universal symbol.

Condé Nast Traveler
Not too shabby.

The mountains are symbolic of extremely tall hills made out of rock that are not only majestic and grandly imposing, but also they're difficult to get over. They represent the boundary separating George Clooney's special world from our own.

The man fishing in the boat. This is George Clooney, and by the looks of things, he's hauling in a sizeable lavarello. This is the painting's most significant feature. Clooney as fisherman is symbolic of: a) Slow Food; b) Jesus; c) A sly nod to Clooney's appearance as Lenny Colwell on an episode of "Riptide" in 1984. ("Riptide" was an awesome show. Almost as good as "Simon and Simon.")

The man rowing the boat. This is the "artist" (me). Artists first started putting themselves in pictures during the Renaissance. For example, in Boticelli's "Adoration of the Magi," which hangs in Florence's Uffizi Gallery, you can see Boticelli staring back out at the viewer. It's like Boticelli is saying, "Hey, how's it going?" That's what I'm saying, too.

Tonight, I will be presenting this painting to Count Gherardo Scapinelli. The Count lives in one of the grandest villas in all of Lake Como; it was designed by the same architect who did Milan's La Scala opera house. His family tree goes back to the 1280s. His aunt was Ernest Hemingway's lover, and Hemingway — who, I would like to point out, was an incredible writer but didn't exactly leave a lasting impression with his cooking or piano playing — wrote his one and only children's story for the Count.

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I will also be cooking for the Count. And while we eat and appraise my work of art, we will listen to the Schubert piece I teamed up with Albert Frantzto produce.

And who knows, I might even write and dedicate a children's story to the man. It will be about golfing and botanical gardening, though I might throw in a talking animal to give it some zip.

This, in short, is the big test. In a few hours' time, I will see if I have what it takes to be a real Renaissance Man. Wish me luck.

Before I unveil my painterly masterpiece, let me take a moment to discuss the pressing issue of the culinary status of freshwater fish. Most people tend to think fishes that come out of oceans taste better. That explains why you can buy canned tuna and salmon, but not canned crappie or goldfish. Only the Chinese, so far as I know — or knew — have a preference for river and lake fish.

There is a restaurant in Bellagio called Silvio that could well change the way you and everyone else thinks about freshwater fish. It's run by Christian Ponzini, who is half restaurateur, half fisherman. Yesterday evening, the two of us, along with his dog, Aaron, putted out into Lake Como to set some nets. This morning, I met him down at the dock to take an inventory of the night's haul. Christian wasn't impressed, but I walked away firm in my new belief that nets catch way more fish than rods. (The first thing I'm going to do when I get back home is buy some fishing nets.)

Image: The fish of Lake Como
Mark Schatzker  /  Condé Nast Traveler
The fish of Lake Como
There are a total of 28 species of fish living in Lake Como, and all you have to do is peer in the lake to see a school of minnows darting this way or that as a big fish cruises in from the deep to swipe at them. For a cold, deep lake bounded by snow-capped mountains, it's surprisingly fertile. When Christian isn't netting one or more of said 28 species, he runs a restaurant that has come up with ingenious ways of preparing them.

I sat down on the veranda this evening and almost all 28 species. What follows is a list of the appetizer course:

Lavarello Pâté
Agone Liver Pâté
Filet of Lavarello in Parsley Sauce
Filet of Agone
Cubed Pike Salad
Lake and Mountain Salad (featuring three kinds of fish)
Pike Boiled in Aromatic Salt Water
Filet of Cavedano
Filet of Cavedano with Lemon Juice
Vegetable Terrine with Fish
Sun Perch in Mustard Sauce
Agone Marinated in Vinegar, White Wine, Onion and Wild Thyme
Filet of Pigo with Sweet Red Sauce
Filet of Savitta with Green Peppercorn Sauce

Mark Schatzker  /  Condé Nast Traveler
There followed pasta. Three different kinds, one of which included a local specialty called missoltino, which is a fish called agone that's salted and pressed for an alarming number of months.

Finally, it was time for a non-fish course, for which I chose tiramisu. No Italian meal is complete, of course, without a digestif, and Chistian poured me a glass of an extinct Italian brandy called Oropilla. His father bought an entire truckload of the stuff 40 years ago. It came with a free laundry machine and Polaroid camera.

The laundry machine and Polaroid camera are history. The brandy is, too — the brand went out of business shortly after Christian's father made his big buy. The wine cellar, however, still has many bottles sitting dusty on shelves. So you'll be able to have a glass of your very own when you visit Silvio. You'll just have to eat plenty of fish first.

There comes a time in the life of every Renaissance Man when he faces great challenge. Famously, Leonardo Da Vinci sat down one day and contemplated how it might be possible for a powder skiing enthusiast to ski twenty five thousand feet of vertical in a single day. Da Vinci spent most of the morning peering into the existential chasm, but by lunch he'd invented the solution: thehelicopter.

I face a similar task. I have traveled to yet another achingly beautiful corner of Italy to learn yet a new skill. It just so happens to be a skill I possess not a single iota of. They call it painting. My teacher is Giuliana Gandola. She began painting the same way Leonardo did: In Bottega. That's Italian for "in studio," and basically it means you learn how to paint by showing up at the studio of a noted master and paying careful attention. Giuliana's master was her aunt. My master is Giuliana. Giuliana's aunt never had it so bad.

The woman has her work cut out for her. Make no mistake: I have a rich imagination. I can think of thousands of paintings I'd like to paint. The problem is in the motor skills department. My hand is so unsteady that if a cashier bothers to compare my signature with the one on the back of my credit card, the transaction is usually refused. Oh, and there's this one other little minor issue. I'm colorblind.

Mark Schatzker  /  Condé Nast Traveler
And ... done!
I have decided to make up for this very slight lack of artistic aptitude by choosing a good subject. After all, would we even be talking about Leonardo if it weren't for that woman with the thin lips and the curious smile? Since I find myself in Bellagio, I have decided to follow an idea central to the Renaissance: Paint someone important. Around these parts, there's no one more important than George Clooney, who has a villa on the other side of the lake. I'm going to paint said villa. Or at least, I'm going to try.

In the meantime, please enjoy these landscape paintings I did today. I'm experimenting with realism. I feel like it's going well.

Florence, where I happen to find myself as of this morning, is a funny place. It was the scene of possibly the world's greatest blossoming of culture and technology, a stretch of history we call the Renaissance. As a result, thousands, though it feels like billions, of tourists come here every year to witness the place where it all went down. The funny thing, though, is that all that progress kind of stopped dead in its tracks. You can travel to Florence to see Galileo's telescope, but don't go looking for the workshop where artisans crafted the Hubble telescope, because someone will try to sell you a leather handbag.

With that in mind, let me propel Florence forward a century or five by reviewing some of the more recent technological innovations that accompanied me on this trip.

Plainly put, this is the best mobile phone I have ever used. That said, I haven't used many mobile phones. I'm a cell phone monogamist. My most recent phone was a Palm Treo, and its operating system seems idiotically and needlessly complex compared to the simple and crisp touch-screen system Apple created.

A few things to keep in mind:

1. Free wireless is about as prevalent in Europe as a free cup of espresso. If you plan on using data-streaming services, expect to pay something in the way of roaming charges.

2. A surprising percentage of European hotels haven't heard of wireless Internet, which means you'll still be stuck with roaming data, and that ain't cheap.

3. The "Directions" feature in Google Maps works less than half the time in Europe. My guess is that this has less to do with Apple, or even Google, than it does with Europe. Most Europeans don't know their way around Europe, so why should your cell phone?

4. Typing is hard, but not as hard as most people say. The fact is, it just isn't easy to type on something small enough to fit in your pocket. There's no getting around that. As awkward as the iPhone's touch keyboard is, it gets better the more you use it. And if you can lay down the phone on a table and type with your index finger, point-fu style, it's verging on easy.

MacBook Air
I was a MacBook Air skeptic. I thought it was idiotic not to include an Ethernet port or a CD drive. I thought that in its insane quest to produce a tiny computer, Apple basically got rid of the computer. I was wong. I haven't once missed the Ethernet slot or the extra USB ports. I'll admit that in Vienna, it would have been nice to buy a few classical music CDs and rip them. Instead, I had to buy off iTunes, and the classical music selection on iTunes is bad, though slowly improving.

Image: MacBook Air
Mark Schatzker  /  Condé Nast Traveler
MacBook Air
But here's the main thing: After lugging a MacBook Pro around the world last year, I truly and heartfully appreciate the reduction in weight. The version I'm carrying has a Flash drive, and the increase in battery life is noticeable. I composed an entire movie in iMovie on a train ride between Naples and Rome, and there was still 43 percent battery remaining when the train pulled into the station.

Canon Vixia HF10 HD Camcorder
Since I've been shooting Web video, the HD aspect of this camcorder is anything but necessary. Apart from that, I don't have a whole lot to say — which is a good thing. This camera is easy to use, so much so that a novice like me can pick it up and start filming without difficulty. It was as effortless as riding a bike. The sole complaint: Downloading footage to the laptop takes forever. But I'm not sure if this is the camera's fault, the MacBook Air's fault, or just a consequence of the fact that chip technology hasn't caught up with our desire for HD footage. Yet.

If you use a Mac and take a lot of photos, then you've probably already discovered the outer limits of iPhoto. It doesn't take that long before managing thousands of photos becomes a tad ungainly. In the past month, I've managed to take more than 2,000 photos, and managing that load is a snap with Aperture. The best feature, for my money, is that Aperture is somehow able to keep track of a photo library divided out over a whole bunch of hard drives. On the road, that means I can store the bulk of my images on a portable hard drive, which frees up space on the laptop. (And I can look at thumbnails of my entire library, even if the portable hard drive isn't plugged in.) At home, it means as my photo library expands, I don't have to buy a 1TB hard drive one month, then a 2TB hard drive the next month. Final bonus: The image editing tools are less powerful — hence, easier to use — than Photoshop.

Time to clean the system

If I learned one thing in Vienna, it was this: Piano does not qualify as cardio. At least, not if you're barely competent. Similarly, if you didn't know how to ride a bike, then going for a bike ride wouldn't be very good exercise at all. Add to that my daily habit of demolishing the complementary sweets tray at the Hotel Sacher, and a dietary regimen that included sausages, Wiener Schnitzel, and boiled beef (don't knock it till you try it), and it doesn't take a genius to see that my heart could use a bit of a break. Especially when you consider that my next stop is Florence.

With that in mind, I decided to pay a visit to an old friend. I met Tilde Vecchio last year as I made my way around the world. I spent two days at her Agriturismo about an hour and a half south of Naples, where I learned to make pasta. You could call it a life-changing visit. I haven't had store-bought pasta once in the year since. My wife complains every time I haul out my Imperia pasta-rolling machine, but then, an hour or so later, she inserts a forkful of pasta in her mouth and proclaims, "I take it back. It's worth it. It's totally worth it."  My wife doesn't know how good she has it. Or if she does, she's not letting on.

Mark Schatzker  /  Condé Nast Traveler

Well, I couldn't. It didn't take long for me to realize that a moment can seem like an eternity if you haven't played piano in ten years. I telescoped my ambition accordingly, then telescoped it two more times. Finally, in a piece that is ten lines long, I attempted to master one and half such lines. But even that proved too tall an order.

The thing is, I wanted to record something. So I'm pleased to report that technology has sort of made that possible. Here's what happened. In the Bosendorfer Studio, I positioned my Olympus LS-10 digital recorder — the best recording device I have ever used in my life — right in the mouth of a $290,000 concert grand. Albert Frantz played the entire piece. He played it cold, with hardly anything in the way of practice, and it sounded lovely. Next, I played my one-and-a-half-line moment-within-a-moment. Or, more precisely, I hacked my way through one or two bars at a time.

Albert took the sound files home and endured a marathon session of clipping and pasting and smoothing and altering and re-altering of tempi. In the end, he was able to insert my moment into the larger moment. And it doesn't sound nearly as bad as I would have imagined.

The question is, can you figure out which part is me and which part is Albert? To enter, just submit your answer via the Post a Comment link below. The first five individuals to come up with the right answer (in seconds) win.

© 2013 Condé Nast Traveler


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