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Category: Italy

WIENER SCHNITZEL vs COTOLETTA ALLA MILANESE

Vienna, 14 July 2017

As readers of my posts may know, since I retired last year my wife and I have pretty much divided our time between Vienna and Milan, having roots in both places. I therefore think it is time for me to wade into the Battle of the Wiener Schnitzel and the Cotoletta alla Milanese. As their names indicate, these delicious dishes are at home in Vienna and Milan, respectively. To get everyone’s juices flowing, I throw in here a photo of each: wiener schnitzel first

cotoletta alla milanese next.

For those of my readers who may not be conversant with one or both of these dishes, I should explain that both take a veal cutlet, dunk the veal in a beaten egg (sometimes preceded by a dunk in flour), cover it with a generous portion of breadcrumbs, and fry the result in butter (Milan) or lard (Vienna). They are for all intents and purposes the same dish, although the cognoscenti will insist on the differences: I have just mentioned the different frying medium, to which can be added: boned vs. deboned, Milan’s version still having the rib bone attached, while in Vienna’s version the bone has been detached; and as a consequence of this, different thicknesses, the Viennese version being pounded thin while the Milanese version, being still attached to the bone, is a few centimeters thick.

As I said, they are for all intents and purposes the same dish, and naturally enough the question has been raised if the chefs of one city did not at some point copy the chefs of the other. Well, let me tell you, much ink, and perhaps a little blood, has been spilled over this vital question: who copied who? Is the wiener schnitzel the son of the cotoletta alla milanese, or on the contrary did the cotoletta alla milanese sire the wiener schnitzel? Readers who think that this is an interesting academic question but surely hardly one over which to draw the kitchen knives don’t know the history of this little corner of the world. Allow me to give them a thumbnail sketch.

From 1525 to 1860, with the exception of some decades during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire that followed, Milan, along with much of northern Italy, was ruled by the Hapsburgs, first the Spanish branch of the family and then, from 1706 onwards, the Austrian branch. And so, by an accident of history, the Austrian was the Enemy when the Milanese, along with many other northern Italians, rallied behind the cause of Italian unification in the first decades of the 19th Century. Things first boiled over in 1848. Every Milanese, my wife included, will tell you of Le Cinque Giornate, the glorious five days in March of that year when the Milanese rose up and drove the Austrian Governor, Field Marshal Radetzky (he of Johan Strauss’s Radetzky March), and his troops out of Milan.

Alas! A few months later, Radetsky defeated the troops of the Piedmontese King of Sardinia, who had eagerly stepped forward to help his Lombard brothers (with the idea, of course, of incorporating Lombardy into his kingdom), and regained control of Milan and Austria’s other northern Italian territories. Not surprisingly, Radetzky is not seen with a terribly favourable eye in Milan.

Northern Italy was forced to remain under the yolk of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for another 11 years. In the meantime, Count Cavour, Prime Minister of the Piedmontese kingdom, had cut a deal with Napoleon III, which led to a Franco-Piedmontese war against the Austrians in 1859. The Austrians were beaten at the extremely bloody Battle of Solferino (it was his witnessing of the battle that caused the Swiss Henry Dunant to found the Red Cross).

After the battle, Lombardy was incorporated into the Kingdom of Sardinia, soon to be renamed the Kingdom of Italy.

I will skip the rest of the struggle against Austria, which only really concluded at the end of World War I with the cession of Trento and Alto Adige to the kingdom of Italy after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918.

I think my potted history of Italian unification – at least its northern ramifications – will suffice to explain the sensitivities (especially in Milan, I have to say) about the relationship between the wiener schnitzel and the cotoletta alla milanese. I mean, just imagine how the Indians would feel if, for instance, someone claimed that chicken masala was actually a copy of a British dish: a dish of the ex-colonialist! The sensitivities are such that in the late 1960s a Sicilian who had emigrated to Milan and had become more Milanese than the natives published a completely fabricated story about how Radetzky, in the middle of a report to the Imperial Court about the military situation in northern Italy, had started rhapsodizing about a wonderful veal dish he had been introduced to in Milan. This piqued the Emperor’s attention, and when Radetzky next came back to Vienna to report, the Emperor packed him off to the Imperial kitchens to give the chef the recipe. Thus was born the wiener schnitzel, our Sicilian claimed, sired by the cotoletta alla milanese.

For many years, the story that Radetzky brought the cotoletta alla milanese to Vienna was widely believed, on both sides of the debate, but it has now been debunked. I won’t go into the details, suffice to say that our Sicilian’s story was a tissue of lies from one end to the other. But then this has meant that the question of which of the two dishes came first reared its ugly head again and sent food historians scrambling to do more research.

A face-saving solution seemed to have been found when it was pointed out that a French cookery book from 1749, “La Science du Maître d’Hôtel Cuisinier”,

contained a recipe where a veal cutlet was dipped in a beaten egg, covered in bread crumbs, and fried. Surely this meant that the French had invented the dish? That was alright, after all French cuisine is the mother of all cuisines and to be descended from a French dish is an honour. After which, various theories were put forward to explain how this French dish arrived both in Milan and in Vienna.

However, other – Italian – food historians have pointed out that the technique of breading and frying meat was already in use in Italy in the 16th-17th Centuries, as evidenced in the cookery book published in 1570 by Bartolomeo Scappi,

who was a noted chef to Cardinals and Popes, as well as in that published by the Bolognese Vincenzo Tanara in 1653.

Both cookery books give this technique as a way of using up various cuts of meat.

These food historians have gone one step further. Tanara lived all his life in Bologna and Scappi spent many years there as a cook to a Bolognese cardinal. They therefore suggest that the ancestor of the cotoletta alla milanese (and maybe by some tortuous path the wiener schnitzel) is none other than … the cotoletta alla bolognese! For those readers who, like me, had never heard of this dish before today, I can quickly report that it is a veal cutlet prepared just like a cotoletta alla milanese or a wiener schnitzel but on which slices of raw cured ham have been placed, followed by flakes of Parmesan cheese, the whole then being placed in the oven and heated until the Parmesan has melted (aficionados pop a shaving of truffle on the top at the end). This is what it looks like.

Well! Here, we will plunge into an even earlier period of the Italian peninsula’s history, when the city-states were all quarreling and fighting with each other,

a competitiveness which lingers on in Italy’s football championship; here we have Inter Milan against Bologna last year (Inter Milan won 2-1).

Will the Milanese ever be able to accept that they received anything good from Bologna? I’ve asked my wife about the cotoletta alla bolognese and she says she’s never heard of it, even though she lived a year in Bologna during her student days and the dish is reported as being a very important, very ancient Bolognese dish.

This does not bode well for how this theory will be greeted as it percolates down from the small clique of food historians to the general Milanese public. Already other food historians claim to have found evidence that a predecessor of the cotoletta alla milanese already existed in Milan in the 12th Century. There is a Milanese document which lists in macaronic Latin the dishes eaten by the cannons of the Basilica of St. Ambrose in 1148. One of these dishes is “lombolos cum panitio”. No-one seems to have a problem with the word lombolos, which all agree is a cut of meat. The problem is with “cum panitio”. The more optimistic interpreters think it means breaded, and on the basis of this interpretation Milan’s city fathers passed a city decree a few years ago giving the cotoletta alla milanese a denomination of local origin. The more skeptical interpreters shrug their shoulders and say “cum panitio” could mean any one of a series of bread-based foodstuffs which were simply accompanying the lombolos.

The arguments will no doubt rage on. My personal take, for what it’s worth, is that the technique of breading a piece of meat could well have been invented in many places independently. Why couldn’t cooks in different places and at different times have figured out that bread crumbs will attach to a piece of meat when it’s been dipped in beaten egg and that the breaded meat can then be fried? I mean, we’re not talking rocket science here. But hey, who am I? Just a guy who enjoys eating wiener schnitzel and cotoletta alla milanese from time time. What do I know about anything?

_________________
Wiener Schnitzel: http://www.gayinvienna.com/en/blog/wiener-schnitzel
Cotoletta alla Milanese: http://mangiarebuono.it/la-cotoletta-o-costoletta-alla-milanese/
Cinque Giornate: http://www.milanofree.it/milano/storia/le_cinque_giornate_di_milano.amp.html
Battle of Solferino: http://www.experiences-plus.it/extra/extra_risorgimento_3.htm
Science du Maître d’Hôtel Cuisinier: https://nouveauservice.wordpress.com/category/recherche/
Opera di Bartolomeo Scappi: http://bibliodyssey.blogspot.co.at/2009/03/renaissance-kitchen.html?m=1
Vincenzo Tanara, L’economia del Cittadino I Villa: https://www.maremagnum.com/libri-antichi/l-economia-del-cittadino-in-villa-del-signor-vincenzo-tanara/105032152
Cotoletta bolognese: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/ricette.donnamoderna.com/cotolette-alla-bolognese%3Famp%3Dtrue
Battle between Italian city states: http://www.medievalists.net/2008/11/the-rise-and-decline-of-italian-city-states/
Inter Milan-Bologna, 2016: http://www.ilrestodelcarlino.it/bologna/sport/calcio/inter-bologna-2016-diretta-1.1970445

FOSSILS IN THE STAIRS

Vienna, 29 June 2017

A few days ago, just as my wife and I were setting out from the apartment, it started to rain. It was my wife who had decreed that it wouldn’t rain, but it was I who went back to get the umbrellas. As readers can imagine, I was a little grumpy as I ascended the stairs, glaring at the individual steps. Perhaps it was my acute attention of the steps, perhaps it was the light; whatever it was, I suddenly noticed in the sixth step from last, which had been worn smooth by countless feet treading on it, something which I had never noticed before on my walks up and down those stairs: a fossil.

At first sight it looked like a leaf, but I now think it could be a coral of some sort. I walked up and down all six flights of stairs in our building looking intently at each step,

and I now see what I had never really noticed before, that the limestone used for them is made up of a mass of shells and other marine remains, fallen randomly on top of each other and then squeezed tight by the monstrous weight of later rocks above them.

As we discovered when we bought the apartment and picked through the Land Register, our building was constructed at the turn of the century. It was, and has remained, a modest building – no Belvedere Palace for us

just a modest lower middle-class building, one of many outside Vienna’s swank 1st District.

Consequently, even at a time when long-distance travel had been made a thousand times easier by the booming rail system and nascent road system, I would imagine that the stone for our steps came from a local quarry. Which is more than possible, there being quite a number of old limestone quarries around Vienna, a number of which – I have been breathlessly informed by an Austrian fossil-hunter website – are good sources of marine fossils.

An Austrian map of the country’s geology

informs me – if my rudimentary German is correct – that the rock formations in question are Late Tertiary. Specifically, according to a mind-numbing report prepared for the 26th International Geological Congress which I leafed through electronically, they belong to the Neogene beds in the Vienna basin; these were laid down some some 10-15 million years ago, between the Upper Eggenburgian and Lower Badenian stages of the Middle Miocene epoch, as a result of at least two marine incursions into the Vienna basin.

Setting aside all the arcane – and, frankly, incomprehensible – scientific mumbo-jumbo with which this report is filled, we can happily conclude that the jumbled marine fossils locked forever more into the steps of our building’s stairway are the result of the area around Vienna twice being a sea. It must have been a nice warm sea too, since corals flourished in its waters. In fact, this map of mid-Miocene Europe shows that much of Central Europe was under water during this Epoch, this being the far western end of the wonderfully-named Tethys Sea.

In cases like these, I am always taken by a sense of wonder. Here I am, living on the edges of a rich agricultural plain 350 kilometers from the nearest sea.

Yet once upon a time there was sea all around me, probably quite like the sea which my wife and I snorkeled over a year ago in Thailand, with coral outcrops, starfish and sea urchins clinging to their rocks, crabs scuttling along the sea floor, fish flashing in and out of the coral, and from time to time the passing shadow of a shark.

That same sense of wonder came over me many years ago, when we visited Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. The park sits in the middle of a harsh, dry, desert region.

Yet all around us lay the petrified remains of a once mighty forest.


Artists imagine that these 200 million year-old forests looked something like this.

All that teaming life in this now almost dead environment …

It was more with a sense of fascinated horror than awe that I first gazed on the “fossils” (mummies is perhaps the better term) of people and animals dug up at Pompeii.



They were overtaken, submerged, in the 1000C-hot pyroclastic flow that swept down the sides of Mt. Vesuvius and howled through the city at 700 km/hr.

What a terrible, terrible death! But perhaps it was a mercifully quick death, with them being flash-cooked, basically.

Hmm, I didn’t want to finish on this rather depressing note. But hey, that’s life! In the meantime, I need to escogitate a plan to persuade my wife join me on a visit to Vienna’s Natural Science Museum (sheathed in a very nice stone, I should add)

so that I can study the area’s geology better.

_______________
Our building’s steps: our photos
Belvedere Palace: http://www.austriawanderer.com/the-belvedere-palace-in-vienna/
Our apartment building: our photo
Geological map of Europe: http://www.gifex.com/detail-en/2011-06-29-13972/Geological-map-of-Austria.html
Miocene Europe: http://www.dandebat.dk/eng-klima4.htm
Vienna plain: http://www.donau.com/de/roemerland-carnuntum-marchfeld/detail/marktgemeinde-goetzendorf-an-der-leitha/c53b2a6b0c75fed4d809b78b888830d9/
Tropical sea: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/coral-reef-in-thailand-louise-murray-and-photo-researchers.html
Petrified Forest NP: http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/explore/nature/petrifiedforest/#petrified-forest-hills.jpg
Petrified tree-1: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/petrified-forest-national-park-arizona.html
Petrified tree-2: http://www.van-tramp.com/wp/petrified-forest-national-park-revisit/
Forest 100 million years ago: https://jerry-coleby-williams.net/2015/02/15/bunya-prehistoric-plant-ancient-australian-food-tradition/araucaroid-forest-ca-100-million-years-ago/
Pompeii mummies-1: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/535224736949021987/
Pompeii mummies-2: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/za.pinterest.com/amp/pin/308144799474273688/
Pompeii mummies-3: https://forums.arrowheads.com/forum/general-discussion-gc5/fossils-paleontology-old-bones-gc30/25828-reposting-pam-s-odd-rock-fossil-2nd-opinion
Pompeii and Mt Vesuvius: https://it.pinterest.com/agcinnamongirl/pompeii-italy/
Natural History Museum, Vienna: https://ictca2017.conf.tuwien.ac.at/index.php/natural-history-museum-vienna

IN THE MOUNTAINS

Sori, 24 April 2017

The north wind had blown hard all night, and by morning the air over the sea, the village, and the hills behind it was crystal clear. After our morning coffee, we decided to take the path along the sea cliffs which brings one to the village graveyard. Along the way, we stopped for a moment at the memorial to those who have died at sea.

But with the air so clear, I soon forgot the dead and let my gaze be drawn by the snow-capped mountains hovering far away on the horizon: Mounts Gelàs and Argentera, along with their acolyte peaks, in the the Maritime Alps, today enveloped in the National Park of the Alpi Marittime.

Oh, that I could skim across that lapis lazuli sea!

Soar over Spotorno on the opposite shore of the Gulf, waiting patiently for its summer bathers, up over the hills behind it.

Over Mondovì, racing for the mountains beckoning to me behind it.

To finally alight, high up in the park, there to enjoy all its delights.






One day we’ll go there, I tell my wife, one day – although no doubt by a more normal mode of transportation.

_____________
Pics of the memorial and the mountains behind it: ours
Flying over the sea: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/amp.dailytelegraph.com.au/newslocal/northern-beaches/superman-surfer-gets-birdseye-view-to-sea/news-story/90862b1d51f14ff9887116c7a5768088
Spotorno: http://www.comune.spotorno.gov.it/1822/galleriafotografica/24-06-2007-la-spiaggia-di-spotorno/
Mondovì: http://www.italythisway.com/places/mondovi.php
Parco alpi marittime-1: http://thetourismcompany.com/casestudy.asp?serviceid=2&projectid=921
Parco alpi marittime-2: http://www.parks.it/parco.alpi.marittime/gallery_dettaglio.php?id=17863
Parco alpi marittime-3: http://www.parks.it/parco.alpi.marittime/gallery_dettaglio.php?id=14489
Parco alpi marittime-4: http://www.parks.it/parco.alpi.marittime/gallery_dettaglio.php?id=7856
Parco alpi marittime-5: http://www.parks.it/parco.alpi.marittime/gallery_dettaglio.php?id=13402
Parco alpi marittime-6: http://www.parks.it/parco.alpi.marittime/gallery_dettaglio.php?id=9385

FRANKINCENSE AND MYRRH

Milan, 19 April 2017

Some thirty years ago, when my wife and I were just beginning our journey together through life, I came down to Milan to spend Easter with her. At her mother’s suggestion, we went to a late-night service in the nearby basilica of Sant’Ambrogio


either on Good Friday night or Easter Saturday night (my memory is clouded on this detail). At the end of the ceremony, we all trooped out into the church’s atrium.

There, the presiding bishop put a light to a nice big bonfire which had been laid down earlier, and intoned loudly several times “Christus Resurrexit!”, “Christ is Resurrected!”. Now, since the resurrection of Christ is the central tenet of Christianity – without it, there would be no Christianity – you would think that the bishop would have shouted out this message with joy and gladness, or at least with a mild level of satisfaction. Not a bit of it! The fellow intoned it so mournfully as to make you wonder if he was sorry that the resurrection had ever taken place. Or maybe he enjoyed Lent a lot, fasting and praying and beating his breast, and was sorry that it was all over for another year. Or perhaps his hemorrhoids were acting up. Whatever the reason, the three of us agreed afterwards that the Bish had been a douche-bag, resurrection-wise.

Ever since that ceremony long ago, it has been in the back of my mind to attend it again, if only to see if succeeding bishops were a bit more joyful about it all. But as the Italians say, fra il dire e il fare c’è di mezzo il mare, between the saying and the doing lies the sea (it sounds better in Italian, if only because it rhymes). This year I thought the time was finally ripe, but alas! either the ceremony was on Good Friday night, when we had just arrived back from Los Angeles and were in no fit state to take part in anything, or some boringly politically correct entity like Health & Safety services had decided in the intervening years that open bonfires in church atria were a no-no. Whatever it was, the bottom line was that there was no ceremony on Easter Saturday.

My wife decreed that nevertheless we should at least step into Sant’Ambrogio on Easter Sunday – something to do with a sort of atavistic belief that this would be a good day and place to receive a dose of sympathetic magic – and I grouchily agreed. So some time in the afternoon of Easter Sunday we made our way to the church, weaving our way through the few Milanese left in the city who were going for their Sunday stroll, we walked through the courtyard where there should have been the bonfire, and we entered the church.

Ahh! My nose was immediately greeted by the smell of incense which had been burned in earlier ceremonies, and I was transported back to my youth. I saw the boy that was me inhaling that fragrance, pungent but with sweet overtones, watching the smoke curling towards the ceiling, and generally enjoying one of the few bright spots during those weekly masses which I had to endure.

I also thought that swinging that thingy (which I later learned was called a thurible) from which all that thick smoke poured out was pretty cool.

In my teenage years, when I was finally considered responsible enough, I got to serve in High Masses as an altar boy and to swing the thurible (the idea being to pass air over the incense and keep it burning). Luckily, I never got into trouble as Edward Norton did in the film “Keeping the Faith”. Readers may remember the scene where as a young priest just starting out he gets to swing the thurible, which he does with such enthusiasm that he sets his robes alight and has to jump into the font of holy water to douse the flames.

A quick search of my favourite source of information – Wikipedia – informs me that the incense used in the Roman Catholic rites of my youth contains a varying mix of frankincense, myrrh, gum benjamin, copal, and a few other odds and ends.

Frankincense and myrrh …

“We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshiping God on high.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia!, Alleluia!,
Rings through the earth and skies.”
(I have cut the refrain)

That conjures up another image of my childhood, me in the school choir at primary school, doing the rounds of houses in the neighborhood, our choir master ringing the doorbell, and us launching into this and other Christmas carols when the occupants opened.

At the end of it all, we trooped over to the choir master’s house where his wife had prepared a buffet supper for us all, and where we got to taste just a little bit of the choir master’s home brew … Good times, those were.

Frankincense and myrrh … the gifts, along with gold, that those three wise men with such mysterious names – Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior – are proffering to the child Jesus in those countless paintings of the Adoration of the Magi produced in centuries past.

They are also players in the crèches which appear every year at Christmastime in Italian churches, ranging from the simple

to the very elaborate.

As young children we prepared one at home under the overall theological supervision of our mother – the latter meaning that we were allowed to place other figurines in our possession, such as cowboys and Indians or various animals, in the background but not in such quantities as to crowd out the essential Christian message. The three wise men on their camels were placed far away from the manger in which Baby Jesus lay, and then every day after Christmas we children brought them a little closer, to end up at the manger on 6 January, the Day of the Epiphany.

It all looked all so easy to us, but T.S. Eliot, in his poem The Journey of the Magi suggests otherwise.

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Frankincense and myrrh … so desired throughout the Middle East and the broader Mediterranean world that its production centuries ago brought untold wealth to the Yemeni tribes which controlled the resin-bearing trees, allowing them to build cities like Shabwa, Marib, Baraqish.

They also brought untold riches to the tribes which controlled access to the incense route. This snaked its way up the western side of the Arabian peninsula, skirting the Empty Quarter and the Nafud desert, and culminating in Gaza. The wealth generated by the trade built cities like Avdat in the Negev

and helped build Petra in Jordan.

One day, if they stop hating and killing each other in this part of the world, my wife and I will go and visit the groves of frankincense trees

and we will travel the incense route, preferably on a camel.

 

WATT’S TOWERS

Los Angeles, 8 April 2017

There is a town on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius that goes by the name of Nola. Although very ancient, nothing much of great historical significance has ever happened there. It did play host to three battles between Hannibal and the Romans, there was another battle of some regional significance in the Middle Ages, and that’s about it. Naples, which like all big cities has been growing outwards over the last 100 years, has finally engulfed it so that Nola is now really no more than a suburb of Naples. Sadly, Nola’s main claim to fame nowadays is that of being a hotspot of Camorra activity. On the brighter side, it is also the host to the Festa dei Gigli, the Festival of the Lilies, which, together with several similar festivals in other parts of Italy, has been listed by UNESCO as an Intangible World Heritage.

The roots of Nola’s Festival of the Lilies are very ancient, going back all the way to the 800s AD. It celebrates an even earlier moment in the city’s history, back in the 400s AD. Pope Gregory the Great, no less, relates the story. A poor widow begged the bishop of the city, Paulinus, to help her get back her only son, who had been carried off by the Vandals to North Africa after one of their frequent raids of Campania. But Paulinus had already used up his considerable fortune ransoming other Nolans enslaved by the Vandals. So the saintly bishop sailed off to North Africa and offered to take the place of the widow’s son, an offer the Vandals accepted. Some time later, the king of the Vandals discovered that this slave was the great Bishop of Nola. He at once set him free, granting him also the freedom of all the other captive Nolans which the Vandals still held. When Paulinus sailed back to Campania, the joyful citizens of Nola escorted him to his residence holding lilies.

The citizens of Nola reenact the last part of this delightful, if rather unbelievable, story every year in their Festival of the Lilies, on Paulinus’s feast day in June. They organize a lavish procession which draws thousands of people, once pious (or perhaps credulous) locals but now mostly just curious tourists. When the festival was born 1200 years ago, each person in the procession carried an actual lily. The sixth century mosaic in Sant’Apollinare in Ravenna of the procession of virgins can stand in here for this event, even though the plants in the background are date palms rather than lilies.

Over the centuries, however, those many long-stemmed lilies morphed into eight thin, very tall (25-meter tall) pyramids, each carried by a team of men. These towers are rebuilt every year. The structure’s wooden skeleton is first assembled

and then elaborate decorations are applied to one side of the pyramid.

A ninth team carries an effigy of the boat which brought Paulinus back to Nola.

The teams carry their “lilies” and the boat through Nola, with them swaying and undulating as the teams navigate the city’s narrow streets.


Once the lilies and the boat have been brought into the piazza fronting the cathedral, they are ranged along the sides of the piazza.

The bishop, successor of Paulinus, then blesses the assembled crowds.

Now I must rewind my story more than a century. Some time in the early 1890s (as near as I can guess), a young boy called Sabato Rodia must have witnessed the Festival. He was born in 1879 in Ribottoli, a small village some 40 kilometers east of Nola. What he saw burnt itself into his mind and stayed with him all his life. The romantic in me wants to believe that he witnessed the Festival on his way down to the port of Naples: at the age of 15, his parents packed him off, unaccompanied, to America. He joined his elder brother, who had already emigrated and who was working in the coal mines in Pennsylvania. Tragedy struck when his brother was killed in a mining accident. Sabato, who had anglicized his name on entering the States to Sam, moved out to Seattle, entered the construction business, married and had three children. In 1905, when Sam was 26, he moved himself and his family to Oakland in California. Things were looking good for him, but unfortunately something went wrong inside him. He began drinking too much, lost his job, and I suspect beat his wife, or children, or both. Whatever the case, in 1912 his wife took the children and left him, and he never saw any of them again. Luckily, Sam managed to get off the bottle and to start working again, still in the construction industry but this time as an itinerant tile setter.

All the while, something was gnawing away at him. As he told an interviewer many years later, “I had in my mind I’m gonna do somethin’, somethin’ big”. Finally, in 1921, when he was 42, he bought a small plot of land, sandwiched between the railway tracks and the tram lines, in the working-class neighbourhood of Watts in Los Angeles. He lived in the plot’s small house, while in the narrow, triangular backyard he started to recreate his own very personal take on his vivid memories of Nola’s Festival of the Lilies.

For the next 34 years, until he was 76 years old, Sam dedicated all his spare time to his project, working alone since he had no money to hire help and using nothing but the most elementary tools of the construction trade. He built in reinforced concrete, a medium he was familiar with after all his years in the construction business but also because he wanted his dream to last. Like a magpie, he picked up colorful objects wherever he came across them – broken bottles of green but also blue and brown glass, broken tiles from his tiling business, sea shells which he picked up on the nearby beaches, colored stones – and he embedded them in the wet concrete for decoration. He was happy to be squeezed in between tram and rail tracks since the passengers would be able to enjoy views of his growing creation as they passed.

Recreating Nola’s cathedral piazza in his cramped backyard, Sam built the framework of three Lilies, with an airy interconnection between the tallest.


In the site’s narrow apex, he placed the boat which brought the bishop back from the Vandals.

On the other side, he built his vision of Nola’s cathedral as an airy gazebo.


Outside of it, he placed the font from which the bishop of Nola would bless the procession.

All around the site, he built a wall, decorated inside and out with his colorful finds.

Like all artists, he proudly signed his work, in his case with an SR

and, almost like a Medieval guild member, he showed off his tools of construction.

The local community must have found Sam odd, eccentric, somewhat mad, perhaps touched by God. Certainly, in a gesture of respect, the local Central American community called him Don Simon, which led to his last change of name, to Simon Rodia. In its final years, his project caught the attention of Los Angeles’s artistic community, so we finally have photos and films of Simon at work.


In 1955, Simon decided he had finished and dropped tools. Perhaps it was like the God of Genesis who on the sixth day “saw all that he had made, and it was very good”, and rested on the seventh. Or perhaps he was just tired of arguing with city officials over building permits. Whatever the reason, he deeded the property to a neighbor and moved to Martinez, California, where years before a sister of his had come out from Pennsylvania to take up residence. He lived there for another 10 years until he died at the ripe old age of 86.

As for Simon’s creation, neglect and vandalism nearly destroyed it, but good sense prevailed and the city council listed it as a Historic-Cultural Monument two years before Simon died, in 1963. Simon himself was granted the greatest of all apotheoses, a space on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (top right corner, near Bob Dylan).

What more could a person want?

________________
Procession of Virgins, Sant Apollinare: https://inpress.lib.uiowa.edu/feminae/DetailsPage.aspx?Feminae_ID=30725
“Lily” framework: https://gigli.jimdo.com/assegnazioni/
Building framework-1: http://www.cancelloedarnonenews.com/2009/09/16/da-brusciano-costruttori-e-cullatori-alla-festa-dei-gigli-di-mariglianella/
Building framework-2: http://ifg.uniurb.it/viaggio-nella-festa-dei-gigli-di-barra-tra-storia-passioni-e-maestosi-obelischi/
Covered lilies: http://www.lavocedelnolano.it/blog/2015/07/festa-dei-gigli-2015-il-nostro-pagellone/
The boat: http://www.fotovolpe.it/portfolio_page/i-gigli-di-nola-napoli/
Moving the lilies through the streets of Nola: http://mapio.net/s/58166915/
Carriers: http://www.dagospia.com/mediagallery/DEVOTI_E_DEFORMI_I_CULLATORI_DI_NOLA-118332/574414.htm
Lilies and boat in the cathedral’s piazza: http://www.rivistasitiunesco.it/domenica-26-giugno-si-rinnova-la-tradizione-dei-gigli-di-nola/
Simon Rodia’s lilies: our pictures
Simon Rodia’s boat: http://ca.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2013/december/09/why-the-watts-towers-were-nearly-knocked-down/
Simon Rodia’s church: http://www.terragalleria.com/california/picture.usca35355.html
Simon Rodia’s font: our pics
Simon Rodia’s walls: our pics
Simon Rodia-1: https://m.discoverlosangeles.com/blog/watts-towers-story-la-icon
Simon Rodia-2: http://www.wattstowers.us/history.htm
Sergeant Pepper’s album cover: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/genius.com/amp/The-beatles-sgt-peppers-lonely-hearts-club-band-album-artwork-annotated

THE GOLDEN MEAN IN CHURCH FACADES

Milan, 15 March 2017

Many years ago, when I first visited Italy, one of the things that struck me was the very flat facades which Italian churches had. In the Basilica dei Fieschi, the topic of my last post, we came across a typical example of the genre.

These facades were so different from the much more vertical and more articulated church facades of Northern Europe which I was used to. I throw in here pictures of la Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, Cologne Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey as examples of what I mean.



Much more than these facades, I find that the facades of Italian churches, with all those acres of flatness, can be quite boring, if not downright ugly, to look at unless something is done to liven them up. Consider, for example, the facade of the Florentine Church of Santo Spirito, which my wife and I came across in our recent visit to Florence.

I mean, look at that! It’s just like staring at a blank wall from your office window. Every time we crossed the square in front of it – which, given the location of our rented apartment relative to the locations of the places we were visiting, was quite often – I would comment disapprovingly on the facade’s drabness, its flatness, its total boringness until my wife finally remarked with a touch of asperity that I was repeating myself. But I mean, look at it!

Somewhat less flat but just as drab are the facades of those Italian churches – and there are many – which for some reason never got completed, initially because of lack of money, or quarrels about proposed designs, or the start of wars, or the break-out of pestilence, and thereafter simply through inertia. The facade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, also in Florence, is an excellent example of this type.


Those rough bricks are just crying out for an elegant, visually interesting facing to be added. That, of course, was the plan. A competition was held, which Michelangelo won. His facade that would have looked like this.

He had gone so far as to choose the marble for the facade. But the Medici pope who was paying was short of cash. So Michelangelo had to choose a cheaper stone. Then the Pope died. Then there was a war. Then Michelangelo was called to Rome by another pope, and that was the end of that. There have been at least three attempts since then to complete the facade, the latest no more than a few years ago, but all have come to naught.

Of course, it is not automatically the case that a finished facade will look better than the original bare brick. Personally, I think that Michelangelo’s facade would have been a definite improvement. But that’s because I’m a fan of simplicity in design, and Michelangelo’s has all the looks of a simple design. Take a look at this facade, though, built more or less at the same time that Michelangelo’s wasn’t.

This is the church of the Certosa di Pavia, which my wife and I visited a few days after our visit to the Basilica dei Fieschi. This was a Carthusian monastery whose creation had been ordered by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan. The church was to be his family’s mausoleum, and therefore had to be suitably magnificent. For this purpose, he gave the monks access to large amounts of funds which they could only use to embellish the church. So when the Carthusian monks started on the facade, only the best was acceptable, and the more, the better. To the fundamentally sober facade, a riot of Renaissance statuary and bas-reliefs were added, covering every square centimetre of the facade’s surface. Let me zoom in on just a few of the details.


Luckily, all this hue and cry in stone does not overcome the overall effect, which is really very pleasing on the eye.

Not so in the case of Milan’s cathedral.

Here, the statuary and other embellishments on the facade have gotten completely out of hand. The effect is not helped by the over-the-top statuary and embellishments having invaded every square centimetre of the entire outer envelope. All this gives one the feeling that the cathedral is drowning in white marble froth.

So where does this all leave us? Well, I suppose we have here yet another example of the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s principle of the golden mean: we should always seek the middle ground between the extremes of excess and of deficiency. So in our case, neither facade-less nor frothy facade.

With this in mind I invite readers to go back to facade-less Basilica of San Lorenzo. What design could we propose to Florence’s city fathers? Let me immediately say that the obvious proposal of simply finally installing Michelangelo’s design won’t fly. This was there the very recent suggestion by the-then mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi (who, fyi, went on to briefly be Prime Minister of Italy). This proposal was shot down, on the grounds that putting up Michelangelo’s facade now would be akin to making fake Louis Vuitton handbags (that precise simile was not used, I hasten to add). So a copy of an old design is out. Which is a pity, because I think that the facade of the Florentine church of San Miniato, for instance

or of Pisa’s cathedral

would both nicely fit the golden mean principle.

Personally, I think we should take our cue from San Miniato’s use of colored lines, although maybe to avoid the criticism of simply copying the past, we could adapt a more modern approach to line-drawing: a Mondrian style, for instance.

A follower of Mondrian’s actually adapted the style to a building facade, although in this case it was a very secular subject, a café in Rotterdam.

Given the ecclesiastical nature of our subject as well as its venerable age, I think we would need to go for more muted colours than Mondrian’s signature blues, reds, and yellows. Perhaps we could adopt the more muted hues of his earlier works.

If I had access to an app which would allow me to make architectural drawings, I would come up with a design to propose to readers. Instead, I will just leave it to their imagination as to what a Mondrian-like facade on the Basilica of San Lorenzo might look like.

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Facade Basilica dei Fieschi: my photo
Facade Notre-Dame cathedral: https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathédrale_Notre-Dame_de_Paris
Facade Cologne cathedral: http://www.learn.columbia.edu/ma/htm/related/ma_cologne_cath_01.htm
Facade Westminster Abbey: https://www.colourbox.com/image/london-westminster-abbey-west-facade-image-3357405
Facade Santo Spirito church: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Facciata_di_santo_spirito_01.JPG
Facade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:San_lorenzo_Facciata.JPG
Facade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo – Michelangelo’s design: http://www.fiorentininelmondo.it/it/home/143-san-lorenzo-e-la-facciata-di-michelangelo.html
Facade Certosa di Pavia: http://www.visual-italy.it/IT/lombardia/pavia/certosa/
Detail facade Certosa di Pavia: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Certosa_di_Pavia
Detail facade Certosa di Pavia: http://www.settemuse.it/viaggi_italia_lombardia/pavia_certosa.htm
Facade Milan cathedral: https://www.pinterest.com/mayavnt/duomo-milan/
Milan cathedral from side: http://topsy.one/hashtag.php?q=DuomodiMilano
Facade San Miniato church, Florence: https://www.gonews.it/2014/09/23/i-monaci-di-san-miniato-al-monte-chiedono-aiuto-per-il-restauro/amp/
Facade Pisa cathedral: https://www.turismo.intoscana.it/site/it/amp/Cattedrale-di-Santa-Maria-Assunta-a-Pisa/
Mondrian: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/piet-mondrian-1651
De Stijl café: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/264727284317842292/
Early Mondrian: http://www.pbase.com/bmcmorrow/image/143392523

 

BASILICA DEI FIESCHI

Sori, 6 March 2017

It was a grey day in Liguria, with the threat of rain, so my wife and I decided not to go for our usual walk in the hills. We opted instead to go to Lavagna. Non-Italian readers might well ask where on earth that is, and indeed Lavagna doesn’t make it into most guide books on Italy, or only slips in as a footnote. As for Italians, if they know it at all it’s because blackboards used to be called “lavagna” in honor of the fact that the first blackboards were made of slate and since time immemorial Lavagna has been a major source of good quality slate.

Alternatively, Italians could know it as one of the many seaside places in southern Liguria.

But we were going there neither for the slate nor for the sea and sand. We were going for a church.

A bit of background is in order here. Lavagna sits at the mouth of the Entella river, whose valley was the principal fiefdom of the Fieschi, a powerful family in Genoa in its heyday as a Maritime Republic (they lost out to another powerful Genoese family, the Doria, in a failed coup in 1547, and dropped out of History; but that is another story). As befitted any powerful Italian family in the pre-Reformation days, they maneuvered to have one of their own elevated to the papacy. Their efforts were rewarded in 1243 when Sinibaldo de’ Fieschi, younger son of Ugo de’ Fieschi count of Lavagna, became Pope Innocent IV.

(The Fieschi hit the papal jackpot again in July 1276, when a nephew of Innocent’s, Ottobuono de’ Fieschi, became Pope with the name Adrian V; alas, he died very shortly thereafter, in August – but that is another story.)

As often happened, Pope Innocent IV decided immediately to embellish the lands of his family with a great church. It was to be a Basilica, no less, and was to be constructed on a little knoll several kilometers north of Lavagna. It must have been constructed very fast, because in 1245 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederic II swept through the Fieschi fiefdom laying waste to all, including the Basilica.

Innocent IV promptly excommunicated Frederic II. All this had to do with the eternal squabbles between Popes and Emperors, Guelphs and Ghibellines, but that is definitely another story. Suffice to say that the Pope ordered the Basilica to be rebuilt, which his nephew, as Adrian V, managed to consecrate in 1276 as the Basilica di San Salvatore dei Fieschi before his untimely death.

We can leave History now, for the Basilica which my wife and I visited was essentially the one consecrated by Adrian V. By some miracle, there had been little fiddling with it in the centuries that followed its consecration. After getting off the bus and walking along some fairly nondescript suburban streets, we finally got our first full glimpse of the church, from the back, across a vineyard.


As befits a church built in a valley where slate is king, shades of grey predominated, no doubt enhanced by the greyness of the day.

We walked around the vineyard and entered a lane that led us through the small historical nucleus of houses clustered around the church

and into a delightful little pebbled piazza which sloped gently down to the entry door of the church.

It was as if a grey cloak had been flung on the ground in front of the church – no artificial leveling of the ground, just pebbles set in the earth.

The facade was a sober affair, grey slate with simple bands of white marble in the upper storeys.

There was little decoration, just a much faded fresco above the door and some simple but lovely little carvings along the edge of the roof.

The interior was equally severe and spare, with hardly any decoration.

This was more, I suspect, fruit of the latest restoration efforts which sought to rid the church of later additions than a reflection of what it actually looked like in 1276; I have to believe that the walls and columns were all frescoed back then.

The church was not entirely without decorations, however. Tucked away in a corner of the two little chapels flanking the main altar were an admirable crucifix carved from a cleft branch

and a lovely pietà made instead from a single branch

with the faces of Mary and Jesus barely breaking the wood’s surface.

Also giving onto the piazza was a smaller church.

Its creation actually predates the Basilica but its Baroque facade is the visual symbol of the original church’s complete restructuring over the ages. Beside it stands a palazzo of the Fieschi family built in 1196 and badly in need of restoration. With its white bands, its facade admirably echoes that of the church.

The piazza once had similar buildings all around it, but later constructions have taken their place.

We left the piazza by another lane. Looking back, we had one last glimpse of the Basilica.

As we turned away, we found ourselves in front of a door above which was a carved marble lintel.

It proclaimed:
HUC ADES
NON TIBI SUNT TRISTES CURAE NEC LUCTUS AMICE
SED VARII FLORES

With a lot of help from Google, we managed to translate this as:
“Come hither, friend,
Sad cares and grief are not for you,
But rather flowers of many hues.”

And indeed along the road back to the bus stop, flowers of many hues were beginning to appear, signs of the coming Spring.

______________

Photos: all ours except:
Slate mine: http://www.ardesiamangini.com/azienda.asp
Lavagna beach: http://www.panoramio.com/m/photo/57630010
Innocent IV: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Innocent_IV
Frederick II: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_II,_Holy_Roman_Emperor
Church interior: http://artigullio.scuolaeformazioneliguria.it/3_beni%20architettonici/architetture%20religiose/Cogorno%20S.Salvatore.htm
Botticelli, Spring: http://www.uffizi.org/artworks/la-primavera-allegory-of-spring-by-sandro-botticelli/

A WALK ALONG A VIA CRUCIS

Sori, 3 March 2017

We are down at the sea again and yesterday, in what is becoming a good habit, we went for a walk in the surrounding hills. Our starting point was San Rocco, subject of a previous post, but this time, rather than heading down towards Punta Chiappa, we turned left and headed up towards the summit of Monte Portofino. As I’ve noted in a previous post, trails up hills in Italy often become Vie Crucis, Ways of the Cross, with the fourteen Stations of the Cross set up along the trail. In the not-so old days – in my youth it was still common – local parish priests would periodically lead pious parishioners up such trails to “do the Stations of the Cross”. Given the subject matter, the death of Jesus on the Cross, Lent was a popular time. The group would move from station to station, stopping to pray at each one.
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With the precipitous decline in Christian worship in Europe, I doubt many people do this any more.

In any event, the Via Crucis which we were following as we slowly rose past houses and started passing through olive groves
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was not a standard Stations of the Cross, because it was enfolded in the story of Mary and was compressed to but a few of the standard fourteen stations. It started with the angel Gabriel visiting Mary and announcing to her that she would bear Jesus.
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It moved on to Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, this visit being the source of that wonderful prayer, the Magnificat.
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It ended the cycle of Jesus’s birth with the picture – much beloved in Italy – of the baby Jesus in the manger.
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Jesus’s youth was then summarized in one station, showing him as young boy in the Temple, discussing sapiently with the wise old men there.
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Jesus’s years of mission were skipped over and we were fast-forwarded to his agony in the garden of Gesthemane.

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Then it lingered over two scenes of Jesus’s condemnation to death by crucifixion, his flogging

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and his crowning with the crown of thorns.
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It finally started into the stations of the cross proper, but squeezed the standard fourteen down to two. It showed Jesus carrying the cross
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and him dying on that cross.
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It moved on to the transcendent moment for Christians, Jesus rising from the dead
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and went on to his ascension into heaven.
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The stations finally returned to Mary, with her ascension into heaven at her death
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to finish with her being crowned by her son in heaven.
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By this time, the trail had reached the outer edges of the olive grows. After a pause to catch our breath and admire the view, we went on and up, into the woods proper.
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I like this rural religious art. I like its simplicity, its roughness, its genuineness. This art will never be sold at Sotheby’s or Christie’s. But I also like it because it means something to me beyond the art. Brought up as I was in a Catholic family, all the stations along that walk represented scenes that are deeply familiar to me. All those hours – and hours – of gospel readings fifty years ago meant that when I saw those scenes of Jesus or Mary I went “Ah yes, that story!” And of course I have the same reaction in most Italian museums, stuffed as they are with religious paintings made by talented artists for Italy’s Renaissance city slickers. Thus it was at the Uffizi, which my wife and I visited very recently.

Fresh from that visit, I decided I wanted to re-propose to the readers the thirteen stations of the Via Crucis that my wife and I had just walked along, this time using paintings from the Italian Renaissance and especially paintings by Botticelli – when I saw the first station, the Annunciation, his wonderful painting on this theme in the Uffizi immediately came to my mind. I have pretty well managed in my intention, straying only once into late Gothic and once into early Baroque. Here they are. Enjoy!

The Annunciation, Sandro Botticelli
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The Visitation, Domenico Ghirlandaio
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The Nativity, Sandro Botticelli
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Christ among the Doctors, Duccio di Buoninsegna
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The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli
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The Flagellation of Christ, Sandro Botticelli
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Crowning with Thorns, Caravaggio
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Christ Carrying the Cross, Sandro Botticelli
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The Crucifixion, Andrea Mantegna
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The Resurrection, Sandro Botticelli
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The Ascension, Pietro Perugino
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The Assumption of the Virgin, Andrea del Sarto
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Incoronation of the Virgin, Fra’ Angelico

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__________

Stations of the Cross in Domodossala: https://allevents.in/domodossola/via-crucis-per-le-domeniche-di-quaresima/179152335896297
Pictures along the trail: ours
Botticelli, Annunciation, Uffizi, Florence: http://historylink101.com/art/Sandro_Botticelli/pages/26_Annunciation_jpg.htm
Ghirlandaio, Visitation, Louvre: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visitation_(Ghirlandaio)
Botticelli, Nativity, Columbia Museum of Art: https://www.google.com/amp/s/eclecticlight.co/2015/12/24/botticellis-unique-nativity/amp/
Duccio, Christ among the Doctors, Museum del Opera del Duomo, Siena: http://www.arts.magic-nation.co.uk/doctors1.htm
Botticelli, Agony in the Garden, Capilla Real de Granada: https://www.wikiart.org/en/sandro-botticelli/the-agony-in-the-garden
Botticelli, the Flagellation of Christ, Uffizi, Florence: https://www.wikiart.org/en/sandro-botticelli/the-flagellation
Caravaggio, Crowning with Thorns, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna: http://www.jesus-story.net/painting_passion_christ.htm
Botticelli, Christ carrying the Cross, Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sandro_Botticelli_-_Christ_Carrying_the_Cross._1490-1.jpg
Mantegna, Crucifixion, Louvre: http://www.oilpaintingfactory.com/english/oil-painting-105710.htm
Botticelli, the Resurrection, Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton: http://christianityinview.com/jesuschrist.html
Perugino, Ascension, Musée des Beaux Arts, Lyon: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ascension_of_Jesus_in_Christian_art#/media/File%3APietro_Perugino_cat48c.jpg
Andrea del Sarto, Assumption of the Virgin, Palazzo Pitti, Florence: https://www.wikiart.org/en/andrea-del-sarto/assumption-of-the-virgin-1
Fra Angelico, Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Uffizi, Florence: http://www.marysrosaries.com/collaboration/index.php?title=File:Coronation_Of-the_Blessed_Virgin_Mary_-_Fra_Angelico_081.jpg

A FLORENTINE HOLIDAY

Milan, 22 February 2017

We have just come back from a little holiday in Florence (ah, the joys of retirement! go where you like, when you like). Since neither my wife nor I had been back to Florence in the last 40-50 years (me, the former; my wife, the latter), we decided to celebrate her birthday by going on a little jaunt down there. We agreed that we wanted to visit at least the Uffizi galleries, to see what its new German director was up to, as well as Pitti Palace and its gardens, the Boboli gardens (neither of us having ever visited this complex, we discovered, after comparing notes). The rest would be up to chance and whatever took our fancy.

So decided, my wife took the management of the trip into her very capable hands. Having heard decades of horror stories about the queues to get into the Uffizi, she booked the tickets on-line, along with a time slot for the visit. To be on the safe side, she did the same for Pitti Palace and the Boboli gardens. She found a place to stay on the left bank of the Arno, a five-minute walk from Pitti Palace. And she booked tickets on the bus to get us there and back (much cheaper than the train; we are retirees, after all).

Thus prepared, we set off and spent five days in the city. We visited, in the following order, Pitti Palace; the Boboli gardens, the ticket for which included a visit to the gardens of the nearby Bardini Villa; the church of San Miniato; the Uffizi galleries; the church of Santo Spirito; the church of Santa Croce; the Cathedral, along with its Baptistery and museum; and, finally, on the way to catch the bus home, the church of San Lorenzo and its Medicean library. In between, we strolled through the streets of the city center, crossed the Arno several times a day using the Ponte Vecchio as well several of the other bridges which straddle the river, and last but not least enjoyed delectable dinners in a number of the trattorie located around where we were staying.

I will not bore readers with the details. Let me just point out what were some highlights for me, the things that come back to mind as I sit here writing this:

Bronzino’s Descent of Christ into Limbo, hanging in the church of Santa Croce.
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A magnificent painting, with this luminously serene Christ pulling the dead from their graves. All that more wonderful knowing that this painting was terribly badly damaged in the big floods which struck Florence in November of 1966.

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The mosaics in the dome of the Baptistery.
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I was not expecting to see such magnificent late Medieval mosaics in that beating heart of the Renaissance which is Florence (the church of San Miniato also has a great mosaic in its apse).
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A wooden crucifix carved by Michelangelo and tucked away in a corner chapel of the sacristy of the church of Santo Spirito.
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Absent are the finely sculpted muscles, the blood and the gore, that you find in most crucifixes. Just a slim body hanging on the cross.

Donatello’s take on the prophet Jeremiah: a tough, uncompromising figure.
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A copy can be seen on the Cathedral’s campanile, while the original is in the Museo del Duomo, the Cathedral Museum – a great museum, by the way, recently redesigned and now a really very pleasurable museum experience.
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In the same museum, the unfinished Pietà by Michelangelo.
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A statue which, as I have related in a previous post, transfixed me during me first visit to Florence forty years ago.

Botticelli’s Annunciation, in the Uffizi.
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With such grace does Mary suggest that she is not worthy!

Of course, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and his Spring, are also magnificent, but I have seen and re-seen them so many times now in a thousand pictures that my senses have been dulled towards them.

Also in the Uffizi, Piero della Francesca’s portrait of the Duke of Urbino and his wife
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That Duke, what a wonderful, wonderful face!

Talking of faces, look at those of the shepherds in Hugo van der Goes’s Adoration of the Shepherds, also in the Uffizi.
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Such rough and honest and simple faces!

The view of the Brunelleschi’s dome from the gardens of Villa Bardini.
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We were taken completely by surprise as we rounded the corner of the villa and found Florence at our feet, with Brunelleschi’s dome soaring above the houses. As Leon Battista Alberti wrote in 1435, one year before the dome was finished, in his book De Pictura, “who is so hard or so jealous as to not praise Pippo [Brunelleschi] the architect upon seeing that structure so large, erected above the sky, broad enough to cover all of the Tuscan populace with its shade?”

And who is so hard or so jealous as not to praise Giorgio Vasari the painter, for his fresco of the last judgement which covers the inside of that dome?
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_______________
Bronzino, Descent of Christ into Limbo: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/santacroceinflorence.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/bronzinos-1552-social-network-page/amp/
Floods, Florence: https://committeeforculturalpolicy.org/projects-for-50th-anniversary-of-florence-and-venice-floods/
Mosaics, Baptistery: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:File-_The_mosaic_ceiling_of_the_Baptistery_in_Florence.jpg
Mosaic, San Miniato: https://www.flickr.com/photos/edk7/16383376970
Michelangelo, crucifix: https://www.visitflorence.com/itineraries-in-florence/fifteenth-century-wooden-sculpture.html
Donatello, the prophet Jeremiah: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donatello,_geremia,_1427-36,_dal_lato_ovest_del_campanile_02.JPG
Museo del Duomo: http://viaggi.corriere.it/viaggi/eventi-news/firenze-inaugura-il-nuovo-museo-dellopera-del-duomo/
Michelangelo, Pietà: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/297589487853635778/
Botticelli, Annunciation: http://historylink101.com/art/Sandro_Botticelli/pages/26_Annunciation_jpg.htm
Piero della Francesca, Duke of Urbino and wife: http://www.abcfirenze.com/musei/MuseiFoto_i.asp?N=238&Foto=Uffizi-D22.jpg
Hugo van der Goes, Adoration of the Shepherds: http://www.artbible.info/art/large/111.html
View of the cathedral’s dome: https://www.pinterest.com/enamoradoitalia/villa-bardini-firenze-florence/
Vasari, Internal fresco of cathedral dome: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupola_del_Brunelleschi

SEA BEET

  • Milan, 11 February 2017

I’ve written much earlier about the culinary dowry which my wife brought to our marriage, a splendidly long list of Italian foods and dishes against which my contribution shriveled to nothingness. The columnn on my wife’s side of the kitchen ledger should have been even longer, though. I wrote that first post when we were living in Beijing and I drew up the list from memory. Now that we are back in Italy a good part of our time, I can closely scan the supermarket shelves to see what delights we have come back to. One of these is the vegetable known in Italian as coste, chard in English (often called Swiss chard, although there is absolutely nothing Swiss about the plant).
img_1857When I first tried coste all those decades ago, cooked by my mother-in-law, I was immediately struck by two certainties: the first, that I had stumbled across a culinary treasure; the second, that this treasure had never crossed my lips either in the UK or in France – neither of my grandmothers seemed to have been familiar with this worthiest of vegetables.

The wonderful thing is that the cooking method for chard which I prefer adheres strictly to my golden rule for all things in life, the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid!). Strip the stalks of the leaves. Boil each briefly in water. Then briefly fry each separately in butter (oil will also work). Serve. That’s it. Yes, you can add this and that, garlic for instance, but it’s really not necessary.
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The stems are by far the best. Cooking them gives them a delicate, slightly sweet taste that inexorably leads you to eagerly slip the next stalk into your mouth. They are addictive.

Readers looking on line will see that many recipes consider chard a side dish, to be eaten as a complement to something else. I disagree. They stand on their own, as a complete dish. If anything, the stalks can be the main dish, the leaves the side dish. Many other recipes mix it into soups or into quiche-like things or into pasta sauces. Forget it. Just eat them on their own.

I thought perhaps that with the broadening of the British culinary horizons over the last forty years I would now find chard commonly stocked in supermarkets. But no. I went on Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s websites to see what vegetables could be ordered online, and chard was nowhere to be found. I double-checked with a friend of mine in the UK and he confirmed that chard was not readily available in supermarkets (although he did note that his sister, who has a green thumb, grows them in her vegetable garden).

It’s funny, that, because the wild ancestor to chard is sea beet.
Papier beet
For reasons which will become clear in a minute, I also show it uprooted.
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Sea beet can be found along along the coasts of the UK more or less up to Scotland, so it is a plant that surely made its way into the British cooking pot very early on, when people ate whatever the local environment offered and when hunger was a constant companion. From a quick zip through web sites run by enthusiasts dedicated to recreating ancient recipes, chard was certainly eaten in Britain in Medieval and Tudor times (when it was called beet; Lord knows why the name changed). Take this entry from John Gerard’s 1597 Herball:
Beta alba. White Beets….the white Beete is a cold and moist pot-herbe…Being eaten when it is boyled, it quickly descendeth … especially being taken with the broth wherein it is sodden…
Beta rubra, Beta rubra Romana. Red Beets, Red Roman Beets …The great and beautiful Beet last described may be vsed in winter for a salad herbe, with vinegar, oyle, and salt, and is not onely pleasant to the taste, but also delightfull to the eye. The greater red Beet or Roman Beet, boyled and eaten with oyle, vinegar and pepper, is a most excellent and delicate sallad
.

(It seems that by 1597 farmers had already produced beets of varying colours – the earlier photo of uprooted sea beet shows that white was originally the only colour complementing the green.)

For some reason, chard seems to have fallen out of favour with the greater British public in later centuries. I’ve read that spinach, to which chard is often compared, could have been the culprit, displacing chard in the hearts of consumers. Naughty spinach …

The opposite fate has befallen another descendent of see beet, the beetroot.
beetroot isolated on white backgroundThe quote above from Gerard goes on:
But what might be made of the red and beautifull root (which is to be preferred before the leaues, as well in beauty as in goodnesse) I refer vnto the curious and cunning cooke, who no doubt when he hath had the view thereof, and is assured that it is both good and wholesome, will make thereof many and diuers dishes, both faire and good.
From which we can gather that the root of the chard/beet was not eaten by Brits in 1597. But things changed somewhere along the way, for if the selection on offer from Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s is at all a guide to general British preferences in vegetables, beetroot does now have a following in the UK. Perhaps the reason for this change of heart can be traced to the growth in the size of the root. Gerard’s illustration of the Red Roman Beet in his Herball shows it to have a pretty skinny root in his day, much like the root of the sea beet. Perhaps only when a myriad of farmers had patiently coaxed the beet’s root to grow mightily in girth did it become popular.

Not that the British have ever done anything very exciting with the beetroot. The best they have managed to do is to pickle it.
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That sweet-sour combination certainly seems to be a winning combination for the beetroot, and has been brought to a glorious culmination by “curious and cunning cookes” with the borschts of Eastern Europe. Every country from that part of the world has its own borscht tradition, but there is a commonality in all the recipes. Sauté a variety of vegetables including, of course, beetroots. Add stock. Simmer for a bit. Serve with a dollop of sour cream. The result looks something like this.
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Let’s not forget the leaves of the beetroot! Just as much as chard is edible so too are the leaves of the beetroot. Various Italian (and English) recipes show that they can be prepared exactly the same way as chard.
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And there is of course Gerard’s suggestion to eat them with “vinegar, oyle, and salt”.

This celebration of the sea beet and its offspring would not be complete without a mention of two more of its descendants, neither of which are normally eaten by humans: the splendidly named mangelwurzel, developed in Germany as fodder for cattle
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and the sugar beet, developed – also initially in Germany – from the sweetest of the mangelwurzels around at the time, as an alternative to sugar cane.
img_1866I’m not sure we should celebrate the sugar beet, since there is a growing consensus that sugar is a plague.
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Mangelwurzel, on the other hand, deserves to be given a big hand. We don’t eat it, but farm animals like to eat it very much
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(as do their wild cousins)
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and we like eating the farm animals. On top of this, mangelwurzel is used to make jack-o-lanterns in certain parts of the UK
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an art form that is surely worth celebrating.

____________
Chard: http://www.dimeoremo.it/pianta_da_orto.php?idorto=4
Cooked chard: http://blog.cookaround.com/peg930/bieta-a-coste-saltate-in-padella/
Sea beet: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/261719699_fig1_Wild-sea-beet-Beta-vulgaris-subsp-maritima-the-wild-ancestor-of-all-cultivated-beets
Sea beet uprooted: http://www.bushcraftuk.com/forum/showthread.php?t=142391
Beetroot: http://www.realfoods.co.uk/article/so-fresh-and-so-green
British pickled beetroot: http://m.tesco.com/h5/groceries/r/www.tesco.com/groceries/product/details/?id=272309421
Borscht: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borscht#
Cooked beetroot leaves: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/allrecipes.it/ricetta/5137/foglie-di-barbabietole-saltate-in-padella.aspx/amp/
Mangelwurzel: http://www.naturganznah.com/shop/index.php?sid=x&shp=oxbaseshop&cl=details&anid=c7943302e125e3a84.49084479&tpl=&lang=1
Sugar beet: https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/vegetables/beets/sugar-beet-cultivation.htm
Book on sugar: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Beat-Sugar-Addiction-Now-Cutting-Edge/dp/1592334156
Pigs eating mangelwurzel: https://hisandhershomesteading.wordpress.com/page/2/
Wild boar eating mangelwurzel: http://footage.framepool.com/en/shot/550643113-turnip-field-mangelwurzel-potato-field-pack
Mangelwurzel jack-o-lanterns: http://herbs-treatandtaste.blogspot.it/2012/05/mangel-wurzel-confusing-vegetable.html?m=1