Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Aren’t the Spring Flowers Petaloso?

Spring flowers are much more part of gardens in America and England than in the evergreen Italianate gardens of Tuscany. But now is the time to tour the Bardini Garden of Florence to see the wisteria. It is surely petaloso. Or can we describe it that way? Is petaloso even a word?

Wisteria in the Bardini Gardens (photo by Helen Bayley www.helenbayley.com)
Wisteria in the Bardini Gardens (photo by Helen Bayley www.helenbayley.com)

Early this February, in the small town of Copparo in central Italy, a primary school teacher, Margherita Aurora, was in a bind when one of her students, eight-year-old Matteo, used a made-up word in a written assignment.

Matteo described a flower as “petaloso” (“full of petals”). The word doesn’t exist in the Italian dictionary, but grammatically it makes sense as a combination of “petalo” (“petal”) and the suffix “-oso” (“full of”).

12778956_10153837051207209_2566454051572083941_oMs. Aurora marked the error by writing, “1 errore bello.” (“1 beautiful error”) But as only the best teachers do, she went a step further. She asked her class, “Did Matteo invent a new word? How are words created?”

With his teacher’s help, the students wrote to the Accademia della Crusca—the institution that oversees the use of the Italian language—to ask for their opinion.

imageTo their surprise, Matteo got a supportive reply. “The word you invented is well formed and could be used in the Italian language,” one of the Crusca’s linguistic experts wrote. “It is beautiful and clear.”

But, the linguist added, for a word to officially be part of the Italian language, a large number of people need to use it and understand its meaning. “If you manage to spread your word among many people who start saying ‘What a petaloso flower this is!’, then petaloso will have become a word in Italian.”

12671802_946244235430842_2005625424207388753_oMatteo’s teacher was thrilled by the reply. She wrote,”This is worth more than a thousand Italian lessons” on her Facebook page and shared pictures of the letter.

Cb_tAb1W8AEaoEgThis single act triggered a movement to do exactly what the Crusca had asked: make “petaloso” a widely known and used word.

10351262_1049581841766502_1159479361656688915_nHer original Facebook post has been shared more than 98,000 times. On Twitter #petaloso trended like crazy. Many tweeters used the word in context—demonstrating its wide use and commonly understood meaning, just as Accademia della Crusca had suggested. Italian companies joined the campaign, chefs created petaloso recipes, garden associations supported the idea, designers used it to advertise products, Italy’s prime minister joined the conversation on social media, the the story was reported throughout Europe, and even in the U.S. on NPR.

Life Stranger Than Fiction?

Accademia della Crusca is one of my favorite places. I’ve written about it before on TuscanTraveler.com.

51gW179x4BLImagine my joy when I read at the bottom of the letter from Accademia della Crusca to Matteo, a reference to an American author, Andrew Clements and his book, translated into Italian, Drilla.

The original American title is Frindle. The story is about an American schoolboy, Nick Allen, who likes to liven things up at school. When Nick learns some interesting information about how words are created, he’s got the inspiration for his best plan ever…the frindle. Who says a pen has to be called a pen? Why not call it a frindle? Things begin innocently enough as Nick gets his friends to use the new word. Then other people in town start saying frindle. Soon the school is in an uproar, and Nick has become a local hero. His teacher wants Nick to put an end to all this nonsense, but the funny thing is frindle doesn’t belong to Nick anymore. The new word is spreading across the country, and there’s nothing Nick can do to stop it.

41rY2x-D1-LThe reason the folks at Crusca learned about Frindle/Drilla was because a few years ago I gave the young son of an employee of the Accademia a copy of the Italian translation of this book that I had so enjoyed.

Maria Cristina Torchia at Crusca suggested that Matteo read the book with his teacher and his classmates. “[R]acconta proprio una storia come la tua, la storia di un bambino che inventa una parola e cerca di farla entrare nel vocabolario.”  (“It tells a story just like yours, the story of a child who invents a word and tries to enter it in the dictionary.”)  As petaloso started to trend in Italy, so did Drilla. The Italian publisher wrote to Crusca to thank them for the reference.

I hope that someday I’ll be able to report that petoloso has been officially added to the Italian lexicon.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – A Duomo Doesn’t Need a Dome

For years I told friends and family that the Duomo of Florence was called “duomo” because of the dome. Finally, because I was confused by the fact that Milan’s Duomo didn’t have a dome, I did the research. I was mistaken or just completely wrong.

Florence Duomo
Florence Duomo

Even the U.S.-based National Geographic got it wrong: “The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flower), nicknamed the Duomo after the enormous octagonal dome [emphasis added] on its east end, is the cathedral of Florence, Italy, and, arguably, the birthplace of the Renaissance.” There are two problems here. First is the duomo/dome mistake. And while Santa Maria del Fiore is a basilica, it is not one of the four major basilicas (see below), and should probably be designated as the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.

What is a Duomo?

Usually, “Duomo” is a term for an Italian cathedral church (or a former cathedral church). Italian for cathedral is cattedrale. To be designated a cattedrale, the church must have a bishop and a bishop’s chair (cattedra). But to make it more difficult, some, like the Duomo of Monza, have never been cathedrals, but are old and important.

Milan Duomo
Milan Duomo

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, and to Lo Zingarelli, the main Italian dictionary, the word “duomo” derives from the Latin word “domus“, meaning “house.” In ancient Rome, the domus was the type of house occupied by the upper classes. It could be found in almost all the major cities throughout the Roman territories. The modern English word “domestic” comes from Latin domesticus, which is derived from the word domus.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin was spoken only by members of the clergy, and so domus started to be used to address the “house of God.” A cathedral is considered the “house of God” or domus Dei and “house of the Bishop” or domus Ecclesia.

San Gimignano Duomo
San Gimignano Duomo

The most important church in each city is often called Duomo followed by the name of the city; for example, Duomo di Milano or Duomo di Firenze. This can include small towns, like San Gimignano in Tuscany, which also has a duomo, but wasn’t a cathedral, and the Duomo di Volterra, which was a cathedral with a bishop. There is, however, no church in Rome known as the Duomo or even, a duomo.

The Duomo in Florence

The official website of Florence’s Opera del Duomo tells us: “Santa Maria del Fiore, designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, is the third largest church in the world (after St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London) and was the largest church in Europe when it was completed in the 15th century. It is 153 metres long, 90 metres wide at the crossing, and 90 metres high from the floor to the bottom of the lantern. [The cathedral] was dedicated to Santa Maria del Fiore, the Virgin of the Flower, in 1412, a clear allusion to the lily, the symbol of the city of Florence.”

Again, having nothing to do with “duomo” or “domus”, the dome of the Florence Cathedral is known in Italian as the “cupola”, as it is for any dome on any Italian church.

Consisting of two interconnected ogival shells, the Duomo’s octagonal cupola was erected between 1420 and 1434 to a design of Filippo Brunelleschi. His innovative approach involved vaulting the dome space without any scaffolding by using a double shell with a space in between. The inner shell (with a thickness of more than two meters) is made of light bricks set in a herringbone pattern and is the self-supporting structural element while the outer dome simply serves as a heavier, wind-resistant covering.

The cupola is crowned by a lantern with a conical roof, designed by Brunelleschi but only built after his death in 1446, while the gilt copper sphere and cross on top of the lantern, containing holy relics, was designed by Andrea del Verrocchio and installed in 1466.

Monza Duomo
Monza Duomo
What is a Basilica?

The Basilica was a Roman public building, a sort of tribunal. (The term basilica comes from a Greek word meaning regal or kingly.) When the ancient Romans spoke of a basilica they were referring to a large, high-ceilinged hall with three long aisles. In the centuries after the Roman Empire, the term basilica started to mean “big church,” because the first big churches were built in the style of the old Roman basilicas. Some architectural elements that you can often find in a church (for example, columns, apses, naves) were already present in pre-Christian Roman buildings. Nowadays, many of the main churches in Italy have the formal name of Basilica followed by the name of a saint; for example, Basilica di San Pietro (in Rome), Basilica di San Marco (in Venice).

Over the centuries, the Popes have awarded the title “Minor Basilica” to churches that had unusual historical significance, or were especially sacred because of the presence of a relic or relics. There are over 1400 minor basilicas around the world, 527 just in Italy alone. These honorary basilicas include the great church at the Grotto in Lourdes, the Cathedral of St. Mark in Venice, the Shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupré in Quebec, and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. The designation Major Basilica is restricted to the four greatest churches in Rome St. Peters, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls.

Update: During the week of 10 April 2016 the news site of La Repubblica Firenze reported that the tourist information signs at the central Florence train station had misidentified the Church of Santa Maria Novella as the Florence Cathedral.

(photo from LaRebblicaFirenze.it)
(photo from LaRebblicaFirenze.it)

Mangia! Mangia! – Tuscan Holiday Treats for Spring

Carnival and Easter are the best times for desserts in Italy, especially in Tuscany. I have a sweet tooth, but have never been a big fan of Italian dolce. (I prefer French pastries and cakes.) But that all changes every spring. In previous posts I’ve extolled the virtues of giant Italian chocolate eggs and Colomba di Pasqua (the Easter Dove). Now it’s time to wrap up the quartet of Easter delights that are found in every pastry shop and café for the next two months – schiacciata alla fiorentina and cenci.

Easter Eggs

Schiacciata alla Fiorentina

Schiacciata alla fiorentina is a large, rectangular, flat, powdered sugar-dusted, citrus sponge cake. The scent of orange peel and vanilla are the predominant notes and it is traditionally served plain, but sometimes filled with slightly sweetened, freshly whipped Chantilly (my favorite) or pastry cream. You know you have the right sweet when you see the stenciled Florentine giglio, the symbolic lily of Florence, dusted over the top in powdered sugar or contrasting cocoa powder.

schiacciata-alla-fiorentina-You can sit down for a small square portion or take home a whole cake. During Carnival and Easter week, you may have to reserve your whole schiacciata alla fiorentina a day ahead of time at the best pasticceria, selecting a filling, or not, and requesting a white or chocolate giglio.

The name confused me in the beginning. In Florence, schiacciata means ‘squashed’ or ‘flattened’ and usually refers to a savory salt and olive oil drenched flat bread (similar to focaccia). There is also schiacciata all’uva in the fall, which is also a traditional bread dough, but layered with grapes from the new harvest. The only thing they all have in common is that they are flat, which perhaps makes sense.

Pellegrino Artusi (born in Forlimpopoli, near Forlì, August 4, 1820 – died in Florence, March 30, 1911), the father of Tuscan cooking talks of stiacciata delle Murate, a cake fed only to condemned prisoners of the Murate Prison in Florence “in the 1700s” before they were sent to be executed, essentially their “last bite of the sweet life.”

SCHIACCIATA-alla-fiorentina-2--525x564Other food historians dispute this since the Murate was a convent until 1808 and Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo abolished capital punishment in Tuscany in 1786. Perhaps the Murate nuns devised the recipe and were baking the cakes to celebrate Fat Tuesday each spring.

Schiacciata alla fiorentina traditionally included lard in the recipe, but today olive oil or butter or Crisco replaces this. Some recipes you might try are here, here and here.

Today’s schiacciata alla fiorentina is a delicately scented, light cake that’s not too sweet. Artusi’s rule that it be no thicker than the width of two fingers is not always followed. The characteristic flavor, marked by orange juice and zest, and soft, spongy texture, make it a favorite for a mid-morning or afternoon snack and I know people who have it for breakfast up until Lent and then again on Easter Sunday. It pairs well with coffee, tea and a good vin santo.

For the best places to find schiacciata alla fiorentina in Florence check out last year’s competition winners and this slightly different list. My favorites are Bar Pasticceria Giorgio in the Soffiano neighborhood and I Dolci di Patrizio Cosi in Piazza Gaetano Salvemini .

Cenci

The last of my favorite Tuscan Easter treats is cenci. The literal meaning of the word is “rags” and these addictive fried flat strips of dough look like rags. You are supposed to stop eating them when Lent starts, but the bakers of Florence know that is impossible to do. And, anyway, you will have them again at Easter.

CenciThe recipe supposedly comes from ancient Rome. Other parts of Italy indulge in the treat during Carnival and so there are many names: bugie (lies) (Piemont, Liguria), chiacchiere (talk) (Lombardy), crostolo, grostolo or galano (Venice), frappa (Emilia), sfrappole and sfrapla (Bologna), crespelle or sprelle (Umbria, Lazio), and meraviglie (wonderful) (Sardenia). Artusi again weighed in saying they are shaped like rags so they should be called cenci.

The dough for cenci is usually not sweet, but flavored with anise or orange liquor or vin santo or grappa. The flattened dough is cut in a variety of shapes (in Florence it’s short raggedy rectangles), fried in hot oil and dusted with powdered sugar.

Try to make your own by using the recipes here, here and here.

I love the cenci from the bakery, Pugi, in Piazza San Marco, but others have their own favorite places.

From the beginning of Carnival and for about a week after Easter you will be able to indulge in chocolate eggs, Colomba di Pasqua, schiacciata alla fiorentina, and cenci. After that you will have to wait another year — as it should be.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Strappo, the way to save a fresco

Many people do not realize that the majority of frescoes in Florence have been removed and reattached in the place where they were originally painted. The process of “tearing” the fresco off the original wall is called Strappo.

Frescoes in the cloister of the Badia Fiorentina
Frescoes in the cloister of the Badia Fiorentina

Fresco (affresco) means “wet”. Paint is applied to wet plaster and becomes part of the plaster. This allows the fresco to look virtually the same for over a thousand years, so long as it is not exposed to water or sunlight. Frescoes are permanent because of their chemical composition. Lime paste, which is produced by heating calcium carbonate with limestone, is the active ingredient in the wet plaster on which the fresco is painted. When lime paste is exposed to air it changes back into insoluble calcium carbonate, a hard crust, with the process of carbonatation. If pigment is applied to this type of plaster when wet, it becomes trapped and is permanent because it is chemically stable. (Those who are interested in the full process of creating a 15th century fresco should read “How to paint a fresco (the Renaissance way)” on ArtTrav.com by Alexandra Korey.)

November 3, 2016 will be the 50th anniversary of 1966 flood of the Arno River in Florence, which killed 101 people and damaged or destroyed thousands of art masterpieces and many more rare documents and books. It is considered the worst flood in the city’s history since 1557. Many of the historic works have been restored. New methods in conservation were devised and restoration laboratories established. Some of the methods were already known and came into use immediately after the flood. One of those was the strappo technique used to save frescoes immediately after the flood, a race against time.

Cloister of Santa Croce November 4, 1966
Cloister of Santa Croce November 4, 1966

Frescoes demanded complicated treatment. Normally water, once it evaporates, will leave a layer of residual salt on the surface of the wall that absorbed it. In some instances, the resultant efflorescence obscured painted images. In other cases, the impermeability of the fresco plaster caused the salt to become trapped beneath the surface, causing bubbles to form and erupt, and the paint to fall. The adhesion of the plaster to the wall was often also seriously compromised. A fresco can only be detached when fully dry. To dry a fresco, workers cut narrow tunnels beneath it, in which heaters were placed to draw out moisture from below (instead of outwards, which would have further damaged the paint). Within a few days, the fresco was ready to be detached.

This film of the strappo technique probably dates from the late 50s – early 60s. It documents the phases of removing a 14th century fresco from a niche. The fresco was discovered under a plaster and brick wall. The strappo process is performed by a technician under the direction of the restorer Giuseppe Rossi.

The strappo process begins with a gentle cleaning of the fresco with deionized water and a scalpel to verify the resistance of the color. Next, a layer of cheese cloth is laid over the fresco and is attached or “painted” onto the surface of the fresco with protein colloid glue (animal glue formed through hydrolysis of the collagen from skins, bones, or tendons) that has been dissolved in hot water. After the first layer dries, the process is repeated three or four more times with the same glue and a heavier muslin cloth to create a a strong cover. It is allowed to dry.

The Ghirlandaio Last Supper at the Church of Ognissanti was saved by strappo
The Ghirlandaio Last Supper at the Church of Ognissanti was saved by strappo

The drying glue creates a stronger cohesion with the layer of painted plaster of the fresco than the fresco to the wall behind it. After two or three days the phase of the tear (strappo) begins. A gentle tug on the cloth will start the process of removing the painted plaster layer from the rougher dry plaster wall below with the assistance of a long flexible blade, like a putty knife. The fresco is laid on its face and excess plaster is removed from the back of the fresco layer.

Once the back of the fresco is clean layers of muslin and then canvas are applied using a strong non-water soluble glue (PVA or acrylic resins). This is allowed to dry.

The fresco with its new back is turned over and the layers of cloth and animal glue are removed with hot water and steam. The clothed–backed fresco is then attached to a new support of masonite, polyester resin or fiberglass. The fresco is then restored as needed with watercolor paints. Finally, the fresco is returned to its original position or moved to a safer location.

Last Supper by Taddeo Gaddi (1335) restored after 1966 flood
Last Supper by Taddeo Gaddi (1335) restored after 1966 flood

One of the best places in Florence to view frescoes that have been removed from their original plaster wall and replaced is in the cloisters at the Church of Santa Croce.

Refectory of Santa Croce 1966
Refectory of Santa Croce 1966

In the refectory is the 14th century fresco of the Last Supper by Taddeo Gaddi , which has been restored and attached to a new base. The Last Supper was severely damaged during the 1966 flood. Along the side walls of the refectory are fragments of frescoes, some depicting the descent into hell, reposition onto wood backing.

This year in Florence there will be exhibitions, lectures, publications, films and much more celebrating the restoration of Florence after the flood that devastated the city almost fifty years ago.

Other media of interest:

Benozzo Gozzoli Museum Video of Strappo Technique (Italian language)

PBS NewsHour –  “Decades after Florence’s great flood, an art hospital renews still-damaged treasures

PBS NewsHour – “Photos behind  the scenes of the world’s largest art restoration center

Long compilation of original flood video

Modern restoration of frescoes

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Novels to Read Before Going to Italy in 2016

Many visitors to Florence in 2016 will either learn for the first time or will remember the Great Flood of Florence, which occurred on November 3, 1966, fifty years ago. Both the nonfiction and fiction lists are sure to include books about the flood and the response of the world to the catastrophe. Tuscan traveler has chosen two books, one and old favorite and one new for this year’s holiday “picks” list.

Green_christmas_ball_001019

Lucrezia Borgia could have used the Renaissance version of Olivia Pope, but she is finally getting a proper revision of her reputation with two recent novels.

Any of the following novels will make great holiday gifts for those going to Italy next year or for for the armchair traveler with a love of all things Italian.

Falling in Love by Donna Leon

51EmmG3EazL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Donna Leon’s Death at La Fenice, the first novel in her beloved Commissario Guido Brunetti series, introduced readers to the glamorous and cutthroat world of opera and one of Italy’s finest living sopranos, Flavia Petrelli—then a suspect in the poisoning of a renowned German conductor. Years after Brunetti cleared her name, Flavia has returned to Venice and La Fenice to sing the lead in Tosca.

Brunetti and his wife, Paola, attend an early performance, and Flavia receives a standing ovation. Back in her dressing room, she finds bouquets of yellow roses—too many roses. An anonymous fan has been showering Flavia with these beautiful gifts in London, St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, and now, Venice, but she no longer feels flattered. And when a talented young Venetian singer who has caught Flavia’s attention is savagely attacked, Brunetti begins to think that Flavia’s fears are justified in ways neither of them imagined. He must enter in the psyche of an obsessive fan before Flavia, or anyone else, comes to harm.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

51PUTD03R7L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship. This is the first of four known as the “Neapolitan Quartet.”

The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila.

Elena Ferrante is the pen-name of an Italian novelist whose true identity is not publicly known. Though heralded as the most important Italian novelist of her generation, she has kept her identity secret since the publication of her first novel in 1992. The fourth book of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, The Story of the Lost Child, appeared on the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2015.

The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga

51CTmMUboFL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_With graceful, assured prose, this 1994 novel gives a wry but empathetic view of the human character and an authoritative command of fascinating background detail are among the distinguishing features of this deeply satisfying first novel. Set in Florence after the terrible Arno flood of 1966, it is told partially by narrator Margot Harrington, a 29-year-old American book conservator who has come to Italy as one of the “mud angels” who volunteer in the wake of the disaster.

Margot’s life has been a series of bright promises deflected to dead ends, and she hopes Florence will provide a key to her future. Art restoration expert Dottor Alessandro Postiglione–debonair, middle-aged and married–suggests that Margot lodge at a Carmelite convent whose abbess is his cousin. When the nuns discover a priceless (and proscribed) Renaissance manuscript of 16 erotic poems and drawings, the abbess asks Margot to sell it, secretly, so that the convent will have the funds to resist the overbearing bishop’s efforts to seize its treasured library.

Many strands wind through the rest of the narrative: details about techniques of book and art restoration, observations of convent life refracted through Margot’s Protestant sensibilities and such arcane (and humorous) information as the methods by which a canonical court decides whether a man is truly impotentia coeundi (and thus entitled to an annulment).

The Flood by David Hewson

51ZxgG7pQXL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_A dazzling Italian mystery, rich in intrigue and dark secrets, from an internationally bestselling crime writer at the height of his powers.

Florence, 1986. A seemingly inexplicable attack on a church fresco of Adam and Eve brings together an unlikely couple: Julia Wellbeloved, an English art student, and Pino Fratelli, a semi-retired detective who longs to be back in the field. Their investigation leads them to the secret society that underpins the city: an elite underworld of excess, violence and desire.

Seeped in the culture of Tuscany’s most mysterious city, The Flood takes the reader on a dazzling journey into the darkness in Florence’s past: the night of the great flood in 1966. Hewson is a favorite of mystery readers who enjoy his series featuring police officers in Rome, led by the young detective and art lover Nic Costa, which began with A Season for the Dead.

The Pope’s Daughter by Dario Fo

51Ef-T3FZ2L._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_Lucrezia Borgia is one of the most vilified figures in modern history. The daughter of a notorious pope, she was twice betrothed before the age of eleven and thrice married—one husband was forced to declare himself impotent and thereby unfit and another was murdered by Lucrezia’s own brother, Cesar Borgia. She is cast in the role of murderess, temptress, incestuous lover, loose woman, femme fatale par excellence.

But there is always more than one version of a story.

Lucrezia Borgia is the only woman in history to serve as the head of the Catholic Church. She successfully administered several of the Renaissance Italy’s most thriving cities, founded one of the world’s first credit unions, and was a generous patron of the arts. She was mother to a prince and to a cardinal. She was a devoted wife to the Prince of Ferrara, and the lover of the poet Pietro Bembo. She was a child of the renaissance and in many ways the world’s first modern woman.

Dario Fo, Nobel laureate and one of Italy’s most beloved writers, reveals Lucrezia’s humanity, her passion for life, her compassion for others, and her skill at navigating around her family’s evildoings. The Borgias are unrivalled for the range and magnitude of their political machinations and opportunism. Fo’s brilliance rests in his rendering their story as a shocking mirror image of the uses and abuses of power in our own time. Lucrezia herself becomes a model for how to survive and rise above those abuses.

Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant

UnknownBy the end of the fifteenth century, the beauty and creativity of Italy is matched by its brutality and corruption, nowhere more than in Rome and inside the Church. When Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia buys his way into the papacy as Alexander VI, he is defined not just by his wealth or his passionate love for his illegitimate children, but by his blood: He is a Spanish Pope in a city run by Italians. If the Borgias are to triumph, this charismatic, consummate politician with a huge appetite for life, women, and power must use papacy and family—in particular, his eldest son, Cesare, and his daughter Lucrezia—in order to succeed.

Cesare, with a dazzlingly cold intelligence and an even colder soul, is his greatest—though increasingly unstable—weapon. Later immortalized in Machiavelli’s The Prince, he provides the energy and the muscle. Lucrezia, beloved by both men, is the prime dynastic tool. Twelve years old when the novel opens, hers is a journey through three marriages, and from childish innocence to painful experience, from pawn to political player.

Stripping away the myths around the Borgias, Blood and Beauty is a majestic novel that breathes life into this astonishing family and celebrates the raw power of history itself: compelling, complex and relentless.

The Memory Key by Conor Fitzgerald

Unknown-1The sniper’s bullet doesn’t quite dispatch notorious terrorist Stefania Manfellotto, but the investigation into the attack on the Rome university campus that leaves Manfellotto brain damaged—as well as the subsequent fatal shooting there six months later of witness Sofia Fontana—could finally deal a death blow to the career of Commissioner Alec Blume in Fitzgerald’s cerebral fourth mystery featuring the maverick American expat (after 2012’s The Namesake).

By rights, Blume shouldn’t even be involved in the politically sensitive probe, which falls under the jurisdiction of the rival Carabinieri. But that detail isn’t about to deter him once his old mentor, magistrate Filippo Principe, appeals for help, any more than he would dream of changing his opinion on a road rage homicide just because his lover, Chief Insp. Caterina Mattiola, sees it differently. Blume’s readiness to pursue any leads in an increasingly puzzling case helps make him an outstanding detective, but also, within a society that puts such a premium on personal relationships, a perennial outsider.

Bitter Remedy is Conor Fitzgerald’s most recent Alec Blume novel.

A Beam of Light  by Andrea Camilleri

51doaZBVrfL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_When Inspector Montalbano falls under the charms of beautiful gallery owner Marian, his longtime relationship with Livia comes under threat. Meanwhile, he is also troubled by a strange dream as three crimes demand his attention: the assault and robbery of a wealthy merchant’s young wife, shady art deals, and a search for arms traffickers that leads him deep into the countryside, where the investigation takes a tragic turn.

Also published in 2015, in Game of Mirrors Inspector Montalbano and his colleagues are stumped when two bombs explode outside empty warehouses—one of which is connected to a big-time drug dealer. Meanwhile, the alluring Liliana Lombardo is trying to seduce the Inspector over red wine and arancini. Between pesky reporters, amorous trysts, and cocaine kingpins, Montalbano feels as if he’s being manipulated on all fronts. That is, until the inspector himself becomes the prime suspect in an unspeakably brutal crime.

More Novels for Those Who Love Italy

In the right side column of this blog, near the top, there is a link to Tuscan Traveler’s Amazon Store. Buying books through the store does not increase the cost of the books to you, but does help to support this blog. The store can also be used to just browse for books about Italy without the need to make a purchase.

Tuscan Traveler welcomes suggestions for books to add to the list.

Fiction Categories: Tuscan Traveler’s Fiction Favorites, Historical Fiction, Mystery & Thriller, Literary Fiction, Romantic Italy, and Italy for Kids & Young Adults.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Nonfiction Books to Read Before Going to Italy in 2016

With so many of your friends and family planning to travel to Italy in 2016, this holiday season is the perfect time for the gift of a book or two that will enrich their experience. Or, perhaps, these suggestions will serve as a reminder that you meant to catch up on a little reading yourself before the New Year.

books-as-presents1

Tuscan Traveler’s Nonfiction Selection
Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered by Dianne Hales

514yVETXTTL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Over 500 years after her birth we are still talking about her. A genius immortalized her. A French king paid a fortune for her portrait. An emperor coveted her. Every year more than 9 million visitors trek through the Louvre to view her likeness. Yet while everyone recognizes her smile, hardly anyone knows her story or the story of women like her.

Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, by Dianne Hales is a blend of biography, history, and memoir. It is a book of discovery: about the world’s most recognized face, most revered artist, and most praised and parodied painting; about the woman and the men behind the portrait; and about the author Hales, who undertook a journey of discovery, about herself, her beloved Florence, and a mystery that intrigues her. This is a must-read before visiting Florence. To walk in Mona Lisa’s footsteps with Dianne Hales in modern Florence imparts a sense of history and context enriching your time in the Renaissance city.

The Italians by John Hooper

51C8HcD9EuL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_British-born John Hooper took on the almost impossible task of explaining to the outside world what makes the Italians so unique. Hooper was not living under the Tuscan sun for the last fifteen years, but was reporting from Rome, so his new book, simply entitled The Italians, isn’t a view full of good food, beautiful people and quaint customs. It is a complex, but very readable, analysis of the culture, connecting the historical antecedents with the present day political complexities and economic woes.

This is the ideal book for anyone seeking to understand contemporary Italy and the unique character of the Italians. Fifteen years as a foreign correspondent based in Rome have sharpened Hooper’s observations, and he looks at the facts that lie behind the stereotypes, shedding new light on everything from the Italians’ bewildering politics to their love of life and beauty. Hooper persuasively demonstrates the impact of geography, history, and tradition on many aspects of Italian life, including football and Freemasonry, sex, food, and opera. Brimming with the kind of fascinating—and often hilarious—insights unavailable in guidebooks, The Italians will surprise even the most die-hard Italophile.

Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis

51SST5u0TGL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Did the waiter in Rome sneer when you asked for butter for the bread or for a cappuccino after dinner? Did your Venetian grandmother slap your hand when you reached for the Parmesan cheese to sprinkle on her spaghetti alle vongole? Did the Florentine guest in your home turn pale when offered leftover pizza for breakfast? Did the fruit and vegetable vendor at the Mercato Centrale yell at you when you checked out the ripeness of his peaches or scooped up a handful of cherries? In Italy, they love making rules, although they seem to obey very few. When it comes to the national cuisine, however, the Italian Food Rules may as well be carved in marble. They will not change and are strictly followed. Visitors to Italy violate them at their peril. When in Italy, enjoy being Italian for a few days, weeks or months, by learning the Italian Food Rules (written by the Tuscan Traveler, herself), taking them to heart, and obeying each and every one of them.

The Venus Fixers by Ilaria Dagnini Brey

51bCcEpYt1L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In 1943, while the world was convulsed by war, a few visionaries―in the private sector and in the military―committed to protect Europe’s cultural heritage from the indiscriminate ravages of World War Two. And so the Allies appointed the Monuments Officers, a motley group of art historians, curators, architects, and artists, to ensure that the masterpieces of European art and architecture were not looted or bombed into oblivion. Often working as shellfire exploded around them, the Monuments men and women of Italy shored up tottering palaces and cathedrals, safeguarded Michelangelos and Giottos, and even blocked a Nazi convoy of stolen paintings bound for Göring’s birthday celebration. Sometimes they failed. But to an astonishing degree they succeeded, and their story is an unparalleled adventure with the gorgeous tints of a Botticelli as its backdrop.

This is the best book, among many (and a recent cinema adaptation), that describes the work of these brave men. Ilaria Dagnini Brey has firm command of art and military history and does an excellent job of evoking the atmosphere of a war-torn country. Brey learned of the “Venus Fixers” while researching the 1944 bombing of Ovetari Chapel in Padua, her hometown.

La Bella Lingua by Dianne Hales

51XSVJbSs4L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_A celebration of the language and culture of Italy, La Bella Lingua is the story of how a language shaped a nation, told against the backdrop of one woman’s personal quest to speak fluent Italian. For anyone who has been to Italy, the fantasy of living the Italian life is powerfully seductive. But to truly become Italian, one must learn the language. This is how Dianne Hales began her journey. In La Bella Lingua, she brings the story of her decades-long experience with the “the world’s most loved and lovable language” together with explorations of Italy’s history, literature, art, music, movies, lifestyle, and food in a true opera amorosa—a labor of her love of Italy. Like Dianne, readers of La Bella Lingua will find themselves innamorata, enchanted, by Italian, fascinated by its saga, tantalized by its adventures, addicted to its sound, and ever eager to spend more time in its company.

The Tigress of Forli by Elizabeth Lev  

512L-9ftOpL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_How do you create the perfect Renaissance superhero? Art historian, Elizabeth Lev, narrates the story in her fascinating book, The Tigress of Forlì. The story starts with a baby girl, Caterina Sforza, the illegitimate child of dissolute, but noble Milanese father and a drop-dead gorgeous mother. She is tutored in the classics, learns how to ride a horse and hunt, and masters the management skills of a great household. She is married at age thirteen (blessed by the Pope). She gives birth of her first child at fifteen. The cowardly husband is assassinated and all seems to be lost, but our pregnant superhero escapes her captors, takes up arms and captures the castle. All this happens before she turns thirty.

Then there is a steamy affair with a stable boy, a murder, and a bloody revenge. Machiavelli turns to negotiate peace, she marries a Medici, gives birth to the father of a future Tuscan Grand Duke, is widowed again, and finally loses her castle to Cesare Borgia. This, of course, is not the end of the story. She’s only 36 when Borgia drags her off to prison in Rome. (Spoiler alert: She lives to play with her grandchildren in Florence.)

Lev doesn’t fictionalize Caterina Riario Sforza de’Medici’s life. She doesn’t need to because this is a true case of truth being more amazing than fiction. No, she only had to spend years in the archives of Bologna, Florence and Rome, gathering the facts from the dusty pages of history and then spinning them out in a breathtaking narrative of the tale of a true superhero.

Italian Life Rules by Ann Reavis

51vTXhGkHWL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Italians have spent a thousand years perfecting a certain way of living. The Tuscan Traveler was back again with Italian Life Rules in which she describes how while Italy has a reputation of not obeying rules, there are some hard and fast Life Rules that are known and followed.

Why shouldn’t you greet some people in Italy with a cheery “Ciao!” How do Italian women stride across cobblestones wearing stilettos with five-inch heels and never twist an ankle? Studies show that Italians tip less than other Europeans. Why is that? Tourists can’t go to just any Italian beach and spread a picnic lunch out on the sand during some months. It seems like every shopkeeper in Italy demands exact change. Before traveling to Italy, read about the Italian Life Rules to heighten your anticipation of Italian life and to prepare you for the inevitable joys and pitfalls of your visit. When in Italy, enjoy being Italian for a few days, weeks or months, by learning first-hand the Italian Life Rules for a greater appreciation of what it means to be Italian.

50 Places in Rome, Florence and Venice Every Woman Should Go by Susan Van Allen

51KWRRKDm1L._SX360_BO1,204,203,200_The goal with 50 Places is to focus on the major cities—”Italy’s Big Three”—Rome, Florence and Venice. Susan Van Allen describes how these three cities are often overwhelming, and many travelers arrive with “must see” lists and then miss out on the fabulous unique spirits of each place. With so many guidebooks covering Rome, Florence, and Venice, 50 Places is for those seeking a more personal approach, as though they’re traveling with advice from a trusty girlfriend. For example, for the major sites, like the Uffizi in Florence, the author gives readers focus to see the art as glorifications of different aspects of femininity—from the sensual Goddess Venus to the compassionate Madonna—and adds in a “Golden Day” tip for the perfect place for dinner afterwards. She also steers readers to less crowded places in these popular cities, such as the stunning Palazzo Barberini in Rome, or to immersion experiences, such as maskmaking in Venice, that gives travelers the chance to have a hands-on experience of a beautiful tradition. Although written with women in mind, this guide will give men a different way to look at the usual travel destinations.

Secrets From My Tuscan Kitchen by Judy Witts Francini

516q2Uz1ZEL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_To celebrate over 25 years in Italy, Judy Witts Francini of Divina Cucina self-published the collection of recipes she used for the past 20 years at her cooking school in Florence and wrote about in her blog Over a Tuscan Stove (now Divina Cucina).

The cookbook started out as a handwritten, spiral-bound, photocopied edition that she gave to her students. In 2008, she took the time to recreate it as a more permanent collection and developed a blog to go with it. Now it is out as an easy-to-use eBook.

There are almost one hundred of Judy’s favorite recipes, perfected in her classes and her home kitchen, in the pages of Secets From My Tuscan Kitchen.

To order an autographed copy, you can use this link.

More Books for Those Who Love Italy

In the right side column of this blog,near the top, there is a link to Tuscan Traveler’s Amazon Store. Buying books through the store does not increase the cost of the books to you, but does help to support this blog. The store can also be used to just browse for books about Italy without the need to make a purchase.

Tuscan Traveler welcomes suggestions for books to add to the list.

Nonfiction Categories: Italian Food & Cooking, Italian Memoirs & Essays, Italian History, Italian Travel Guides, and Tuscan Traveler’s Favorites.

 

Tuscan Traveler’s Pick – The “New” Duomo Museum

Florence’s cathedral museum, known officially as Museo dell’ Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore (Museum of the Works of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore), hosts the world’s largest collection of Florentine Medieval and Renaissance sculpture. It reopened to the public on October 29, just in time for Pope Francis’s visit, after an expansion and renovation project lasting two years. The 45 million euro project was funded by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, and was design by Adolfo Natalini and Guicciardini & Magni Architects.

Sectional view of the Duomo Museum
Sectional view of the Duomo Museum

The museum is the anchor for what is known as Il Grande Museo del Duomo, which also includes the Duomo, the Campanile (Giotto’s Bell Tower), the Cupola (Brunelleschi’s Dome), the Baptistry, and the Crypt.

Inside the Museum

Known more simply as the Opera del Duomo or Duomo Museum, it now contains over 750 marble, bronze and silver sculptures and reliefs, including works by Michelangelo, Donatello, Arnolfo di Cambio, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Andrea Pisano, Antonio del Pollaiolo, Luca della Robbia and Andrea del Verrocchio, among others.

The museum displays the original artworks that have been removed from their positions from the façades of the Duomo, Bell Tower, and Baptistry (thereafter replaced by copies) or taken out of daily liturgical use, either for conservation or modernization.

Donatello’s Penitent Saint Mary Magdalene
Donatello’s Penitent Saint Mary Magdalene

New displays effectively highlight Donatello’s Maddalena, sculpted in wood; the original bronze doors created by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Florence Baptistry, known as the “Doors of Paradise”; Michelangelo’s unfinished Pietà; and 27 silk and gold embroidered panels designed by Antonio del Pollaiolo.

Reconfigured Doors of Paradise
Reconfigured Doors of Paradise

The Gallery of Brunelleschi’s Dome (1418–36), on the first floor, is one of the most educational highlights of the museum, housing 15th century wooden models including one attributed to Brunelleschi himself, period materials and the tools used to build the dome. The gallery also contains two large wooden models of the Lantern and of the Dome and video provides a virtual view of the building of the edifice.

Salone del Paradiso
Salone del Paradiso

Because the space of the museum doubled in the new renovation, visitors can also see many works previously held in museum storage, including forty 14th and 15th century statues and fragments of the cathedral’s original medieval façade, which are effectively displayed on a full-sized model made of resin and marble dust of the version designed by Arnolfo di Cambio (1296) that was subsequently destroyed in the 16th century and replaced in 1887 by the present façade. The new Duomo Museum project was under creative direction by Monsignor Timothy Verdon. He is reported saying that the biggest problem was “how to exhibit more than 100 fragments of the cathedral’s lost medieval facade, dismantled in 1586-87, forty statues, many monumental in scale, and some sixty architectural elements”. The medieval façade was rebuilt on the basis of an extant 16th century drawing. The grand room is entitled Salone del Paradiso.

Michelangelo's Pietà
Michelangelo’s Pietà

Michelangelo’s Pietà used to be displayed in a small niche room off a stairway in the old museum. Now it has its own room, the Tribuna di Michelangelo. This was Michelangelo’s next-to-last sculpture that, according to contemporary sources, “he meant to adorn the altar near which he expected to be buried in a Roman church. Begun around 1546-1547, the Pietà was abandoned at the end of 1555, when Michelangelo mutilated it: a destructive act due to the elderly master’s frustration at finding flaws in the marble block. Pieced back together, the work was acquired in 1671 by Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and placed in the crypt of the Basilica of San Lorenzo; in 1721 it was transferred to the Duomo and set opposite the Holy Sacrament altar.” (museumflorence.com)

Tribuna di Michelangelo
Tribuna di Michelangelo
American Director of the Museum

Monsignor Timothy Verdon was born in the United States (Weehawken, NJ, 1946). He is an art historian with a Ph.D. from Yale University.

His first interest in Italian art started as a teenager with visits to the New York City Metropolitan Museum. His first visit to Italy was a trip to Venice at the age of 18. He planned to immerse himself in Renaissance art and based his future studies on the use of iconography in Renaissance and Medieval art.

He has lived in Italy for 47 years and since 1994 has been a Roman Catholic priest in Florence, where he directs both the Diocesan Office of Sacred Art and Church Cultural Heritage and the Cathedral Foundation Museum (Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore).

Monsignor Timothy Verdon
Monsignor Timothy Verdon

Author of books and articles on sacred art in Italian and English and has been a Consultant to the Vatican Commission for Church Cultural Heritage and a Fellow of the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies (Villa I Tatti), and currently teaches in the Florence Program of Stanford University.

Monsignor Verdon’s decisions to make this not only a museum containing the past, but to use the communication tools of the present, served to create one of the most relevant museums in Italy for visitors of all ages and interests.

 Tickets

The combined ticket for the Baptistry, Bell Tower, Dome, Crypt and museum is €15 (Children 6 to 11, €3; under 6, free). Entry to the cathedral is free.

Photos and Video of the Museum

Get a preview of the Museum with a walk through described and photographed by art historian, Alexandra Korey.

The website of Il Grande Museo del Duomo has additional videos and photos.

National Geographic documentary about Brunelleschi’s Dome.

Articles in the Wall Street Journal and NYTimes.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – When The World Answered

14,000 masterpieces were lost in Florence’s devastating 1966 Flood.

Piazza Santa Croce in November 1966
Piazza Santa Croce in November 1966

40 women artists, known as the “Flood Ladies”, answered the city’s call for new art.

Titina Maselli, age 42 in 1966, donated her artwork to Florence
Titina Maselli, age 42 in 1966, donated her artwork to Florence

Their dream was to create a “modern-day Uffizi” and catapult Florence into the twentieth-century…

This did not happen. Florence still lives in the past and the artworks displayed in the city is 99% created by men. But the paintings and sculptures of these generous modern-day artists is still in Florence … in storage … now, after 40 years, in need of restoration.

Painting donated by Titina Maselli at the Museo Novecento after restoration
Painting donated by Titina Maselli at the Museo Novecento after restoration

These little-known art treasures by women artists, housed in the archival rooms at the Museo Novecento, are at the center of a new documentary created for American Public Television (PBS), premiering at the Odeon Cinema Hall in Piazza Strozzi at 6.30 on Tuesday, October 20.

Restorer Rosella Lari works to repair the painting donated by Titina Maselli
Restorer Rosella Lari works to repair the painting donated by Titina Maselli

From the makers of the Emmy-winning documentary Invisible Women comes the story of Florence’s 1966 flood and twentieth-century women artists, who—like Carla Accardi, Edita Broglio, Titina Maselli, Paquarosa Bertoletti, Stefania Guidi and Antonietta Raphael Mafai—answered the City’s plea for new works to “substitute” those lost in the deluge.

When the World Answered, a book by Jane Fortune and Linda Falcone
When the World Answered, a book by Jane Fortune and Linda Falcone

The documentary, entitled When the World Answered: Florence, Women Artists and the 1966 Flood, is based on a book published by the Florentine publishing house The Florentine Press in 2014. Its authors, Jane Fortune, Founder and Chairman of the Advancing Women Artists Foundation (AWA) and Linda Falcone—AWA’s Director, Italy—are on a televised quest to uncover the dozens of paintings and sculptures by women languishing in storage at Florence’s Civic Museums, to raise funds to have those masterworks restored, and to provide a venue for them to be viewed for the first time after almost forty years.

The new Museo Novecento in Piazza Santa Maria Novella
The new Museo Novecento in Piazza Santa Maria Novella

It’s a varied journey that takes viewers from the Restoration Laboratory of the Biblioteca Nazionale to the rooftops of the once-devastated Santa Croce neighborhood. It scopes the halls Florence’s new Twentieth-century Museum (Museo Novecento), where several of these forgotten works, recently restored by AWA in collaboration with the Municipality of Florence, are now on show.

After its red-carpet welcome in Florence, this Florentine story is scheduled for broadcast on over 180 Public Television Stations across the United States, beginning November 12, 2015.

Restored statue by Antonietta Raphael Mafai
Restored statue by Antonietta Raphael Mafai

The program shares interviews with living “Flood Ladies” as well as spotlighting many of the flood’s pivotal players, including director Franco Zeffirelli, whose documentary Per Firenze (1966) was fundamental to garnering international support, and Nicholas Sweitlan Kraczyna, whose prize-winning flood photos inspired the world to respond to Florence’s plight.

The World Premiere, organized by the Advancing Women Artists Foundation, The Florentine and the Odeon Cinema Hall, with the patronage of the U.S. Consulate in Florence, is a benefit event that is open to the public. Proceeds support the restoration of art by women in Florence.

Tickets can be pre-booked for 10 euro on line at: www.boxol.it/odeon-firenze/IT

Watch the film trailer: https://vimeo.com/131127546

(Santa Croce, November 4, 1966, photo by S. Nicholas Kraczyna)

Mangia! Mangia! – Zabaione, the Italian Dolce, Rarely Found in Italy

In the mid-1980s, I was sitting at the counter of the newly-opened Jackson Filmore Trattoria in San Francisco. I had finished a dinner that included gnocchi “come nuvole” (like clouds) as the Jack, the chef/owner, liked to say, when the subject of a dolce came up. “Have the zabaione,” Jack said. “Trust me.”

My seat at the counter was only a few yards from the kitchen stove. I watched as the pastry chef whipped up egg yokes in a deep round copper bowl, adding only Masala wine and sugar, and heating the mixture slowly as he whisked. Copper conducted the heat from the boiling water bath evenly, which allowed him to control the cooking process.

Zabaione (photo jacksonfilmoresf.com)
Zabaione (photo jacksonfilmoresf.com)

The volume of heavenly, luxurious yellow foam expanded as I watched. Served over strawberries, the warm zabaione flowing over the rim of a stemmed glass … no wonder I still remember this fabulous dessert thirty years later.

In 1998, I moved to Florence and stayed for over fifteen years. I thought my life would be filled with zabaione. Apparently no restaurant in Italy serves it and no home cook makes it anymore. A Florentine answered my wishful griping by saying that it was a dish made by mothers for their children and is too much trouble these days. I found zabaione gelato at Gelateria Vivoli in the late 90s and many artisanal gelaterias in Italy offer zabaione-flavored ice cream today.

Zabaione, an almost extinct classic sweet (kept alive only in America and still served at Jackson Filmore), is the perfect light, not overly sweet, ending to a dinner. The traditional recipe calls for only three ingredients—eggs, sugar and Marsala wine—and can be whipped up in just a few minutes. It’s useful to have a strong arm and a copper bowl.

Zabaione, also know as Zabaglione in the U.S. (photo fioriogelati.it)
Zabaione, also know as Zabaglione in the U.S. (photo fioriogelati.it)

One of the custard-like sauces that use egg yolks to thicken a liquid—crema pasticciera, hollandaise sauce and mayonnaise, come to mind—making zabaione is simpler in concept than in practice. Zabaione, like the others, is an emulsion, and the proportion of fat to liquid plays an important role. It requires patience when adding the Marsala to the egg yolks to prevent separation and care not to overheat and curdle the mixture.

The perfect copper pot for making zabaione (photo kitchenamore.it)
The perfect copper pot for making zabaione (photo kitchenamore.it)

Marsala is the most common wine used to make zabaione. But Gina DePalma, former pastry chef at Babbo Ristorante in NYC, makes her zabaione with Vin Santo, “because it is a wine with both sweetness and acidity.” She sometimes combine the Vin Santo with rum or grappa. In the Italian region of  Piedmonte, where zabaione originated, it is often made with bubbly Moscato D’Asti, a sweet local wine made with muscat grapes, or another Piedmontese wine, Brachetto D’Acqui.

marsala_vino_superiore_NI’m no cook, only an enthusiastic “good fork” (as they say in Italy), so I won’t give you the recipe or full instructions here. But I recommend a slow reading of home-cook Frank’s post on Memorie di Angelina and professional pastry chef Gina DePalma’s write-up on Serious Eats. Both describe how to make the traditional zabaione that has been made for centuries in Italy. Mika at The 350 Degree Oven adds whipping cream. This allows for either a warm zabaione or the cold thick zabaione, popular in the United States.

I favor the warm eggy zabaione, made without heavy cream, served immediately after it’s made, allowing the aroma of Marsala to waft about me as I savor its sweetness with every bite. Hopefully, while sitting at the counter in Jackson Filmore Trattoria.

Italian Food Rule – Hands on the Table

Centuries ago a table was a loose plank of wood on top of tree stump or a couple of saw horses with boards on top. Putting weight on one’s elbows would unbalance the table, sending everyone’s food and what cutlery there was tumbling to the ground. Not putting elbows on the table prevented embarrassment.

Modern tables are solid enough to support a body’s weight, but children are still taught the rule without the reason behind it. Feeling discomfort with elbows on the table is cultural; where people know what is correct and once understood why. People with manners.

Italy was the first country in Europe (even before it was actually a country) where manners mattered. Italian were also the first Europeans to acquire and properly use the fork, and thus set their tables with the full set of cutlery.

A wonderful blog TavoleadArte.it tells us that “in 11th-century Venice, Teodora, a Byzantine princess who married Doge Domenico Selvo, used a fork in public during a banquet. Made from precious materials such as gold, and with two prongs, the fork was nothing new at rich Byzantine feasts, but it was new to Italy and the rest of Europe, where people ate with their hands. Books of etiquette in the 13th-century recommended using just three fingers to pick up food: all five fingers were considered the “instrument” of villains.”

All hand above the table (The Banquet of the Monarchs by Alonso Sanchez Coello, Muzeum Narodowe, Poznan, Poland)
All hand above the table (The Banquet of the Monarchs, Alonso Sanchez Coello, Muzeum Narodowe, Poznan, Poland)
Italian Food and Life Rule: All Hands On The Table

When attending a dinner in Italy (or France), however, leaving your hands on your lap, will appear quite rude to the locals. You are supposed to put your wrists on the table, but not your elbows. This not, as many foreigners would suspect, because something untoward might be going on below the tablecloth. No, it is all about politics and murder.

In the 17th century French King Louis XIV uncovered a conspiracy to poison his wine and food with la poudre de succession (the succession powder), a fashionable mixture of arsenic and an extract from the glands of toads.

The Woman at the Center of 'affaire des poisons'. (Mme de Montespan, by Pierre Mignard, c 1670)
The Woman at the Center of ‘affaire des poisons’. (Mme de Montespan, by Pierre Mignard)

The famed affaire des poisons (1677-1682) began with the natural death of Godin de Sainte Croix, a French army captain, when a strange powder was discovered in a box together with letters belonging to his mistress, Marie Madeleine Marguerite d’Aubray, Marquise de Brinvilliers. The powder was poison and the letters revealed the murders of her father and brothers with la poudre de succession. The Marquise fled to England and was eventually arrested in a convent in Belgium. She was brought back to France, tortured until she admitted her crimes and gave the names of her accomplices.

The investigation led seven years later to a woman known as a brewer of aphrodisiacs and poisons, a midwife, and an alleged witch,  Catherine Deshayes Monvoisin, known as La Voisin (“The Neighbor”). Before being burned at the stake, La Voisin opened her secret address book, revealing the names of her numerous and prestigious clients, who purchased both love potions and poisons. This resulted in a permanent paranoid atmosphere at the court of Versailles, where almost everyone could have been suspect. More than 350 people were arrested and about 200 sent to jail. Of the condemned, 36 were executed; five were sentenced to the galleys; and 23 to exile.

The investigation was suddenly suppressed by Louis XIV, himself, in 1682, when among the clients of the poison-maker, he was shocked to discover his own ex-mistress, Madame de Montespan, whom the Sun King had replaced by the younger Mademoiselle de Fontanges. Madame de Montespan was so desperate to regain the attention of Louis, that she asked La Voisin for love potions.  According to testimony at La Voisin’s trial, they repeatedly carried out rituals that would create a special elixir for the King. The transcripts report that La Voisin and the Madame de Montespan would call on the devil, and pray to him for the King’s love.

Medieval Poison Ring
Medieval Poison Ring

The king, not taking any chances, declared that at all meals, both hands and at least half of both forearms were to be seen on or above the table at all times. For much the same reason wine must never poured underhanded. Always place your hand, palm down, when pouring wine. This prevents the pouring of poison from a hollowed-out ring into a glass as the wine is being served.

17th century Italians were enthralled with the French affaire des poisons and followed the court gossip closely. Soon polite society throughout Italy picked up on the hands-in-plain-sight practice at the table.

Italian Food and Life Rule: Knife in the Left, Fork in the Right

Of course, it is easy for the Italians and French to keep both hand above the table line because, unlike the Americans who cut their food with a knife in the dominant hand and then switch the fork to that hand to spear the bite (the “cut and switch” practice), Europeans rarely put their silverware down between bites.

The European style is to hold the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right. Once a bite-sized piece of food has been cut, it is conducted straight to the mouth by the left hand. For other food items, such as potatoes, vegetables or rice, the blade of the knife is used to assist or guide placement of the food on the back of the fork. The tines remain pointing down, which may be why peas are rarely served in Italy.

The knife and fork are both held with the handle running along the palm and extending out to be held by thumb and forefinger. This style is sometimes called “hidden handle” because the palm conceals the handle.

Try Being Italian

When in Italy, remember to keep both hands on the table at all times by trying to eat in the European style. And never pour your neighbor a glass of wine underhanded, it’s considered bad luck, even if you aren’t wearing a ring full of poison.

italian-food-rules-cover

Italian Life FINAL DIGITAL FRONT 1000 PIXELS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Italian Food Rules available at Amazon.com.

Italian Life Rules available at Amazon.com.