Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Nonfiction Books to Read Before You Go To Italy in 2017, Part Two

Instead of relying on internet sites and travel guides to inform your upcoming visit to Italy, get a copy of these histories, essays, cultural musings, and cookbooks to heighten the anticipation for your travels. Guide books are great planning tools, but an in-depth discussion of history and culture and cuisine will result in a richer Italian adventure. These books are set in Rome, Tuscany, Venice, Florence and Sicily. (Please add to the list by commenting on this post and check out last year’s picks.)

legal-holiday-books-624x445Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill

Tasting Rome is a love letter from two Americans to their adopted city, showcasing modern dishes influenced by tradition, as well as the rich culture of their surroundings.

The new book provides a complete picture of a place that many love, but few know completely. In sharing Rome’s celebrated dishes, street food innovations, and forgotten recipes, journalist Katie Parla and photographer Kristina Gill capture its unique character and reveal its truly evolved food culture—a culmination of 2000 years of history.

 

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Their recipes explore the foundations of Roman cuisine and demonstrate how it has transitioned to the variations found today. There are the expected classics (cacio e pepe, pollo alla romana, fiori di zucca); the fascinating, but largely undocumented, Sephardic Jewish cuisine (hraimi con couscous, brodo di pesce, pizzarelle); the authentic and tasty offal (guanciale, simmenthal di coda, insalata di nervetti); and so much more.

Studded with narrative features that capture the city’s history and gorgeous photography that highlights both the food and its hidden city, you’ll feel immediately inspired to start tasting Rome either in the actual city or at home.

A Literary Tour of Italy by Tim Parks

41jtihlzrnl-_sx319_bo1204203200_Tim Parks with his finely observed writings on all aspects of Italian life and customs has now compiled a selection of his best essays on the literature of his adopted country.

From Boccaccio and Machiavelli through to Moravia and Tabucchi, from the Stil Novo to Divisionism, across centuries of history and intellectual movements, these essays give English readers, who love Italy and its culture, a primer on the best writing throughout Italian history.

Kirkus says: “Italian identity, [Parks] concludes, comes from a sense of belonging to groups such as family, friends, region, church, and political party. He often takes issue, therefore, with biographers who fail “to draw on the disciplines of psychology and anthropology” to examine the personal and historical contexts of their subject’s life.”

The author’s deep familiarity with Italian culture informs these intelligent, perceptive essays.

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

51wnsrzeh6l-_sx315_bo1204203200_Over the course of four novels and story collections, Jhumpa Lahiri has written about themes of identity, estrangement and belonging. She has received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize; the PEN/Hemingway Award; the Premio Gregor von Rezzori; the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature; and the 2014 National Humanities Medal.

All the while, the Indian-American author has faced these issues herself. Torn between two worlds, she has felt like an outsider in both. The author has spent a lifetime caught in the clash between her parents’ Old World customs and the American culture that has so rewarded her achievements.

She fell in love with Italy and dreamed of immersing herself in its language and culture. It was an infatuation that became an obsession. In the end, Italy proved to be a place to neutralize tensions that had haunted her for decades. Learning it is an act of rebirth, of rebuilding a fractured self and changing course. In Other Words appeals on many levels—as a passion project, cultural document and psychological study. True to the nature of her quest, Lahiri wrote this book in Italian, rough edges and all; it conveys an intimate view of the complicated bonds that exist between language and identity.

Tuscany: A History by Alister Moffat

51sqgmsrvmlIf you travel to the region, you’ll want to take with you Moffat’s Tuscany: A History; and if you read the book first, you’ll want to travel to the region.

Ever since the days of the Grand Tour, Tuscany has cast its spell over world travelers. What is it that makes this exquisite part of Italy so seductive? To answer this question Alistair Moffat embarks on a journey into Tuscany’s past. From the flowering of the Etruscan civilization in the 7th century BC through the rise of the powerful medieval communes of Arezzo, Luca, Pisa and Florence, and the role the area played as the birthplace of the Renaissance, he underlines both the area’s regional uniqueness as well as the vital role it has played in the history of the whole of Italy.

Insightful, readable and imbued with the author’s own enthusiasm for Tuscany, this book includes a wealth of information not found in tourist guides.

City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas by Roger Crowley

city-of-fortuneThe rise and fall of Venice’s empire is an irresistible story and Roger Crowley, with his rousing descriptive gifts and scholarly attention to detail, is its perfect chronicler.

The New York Times bestselling author charts Venice’s astounding five-hundred-year voyage to the pinnacle of power in an epic story that stands unrivaled for drama, intrigue, and sheer opulent majesty. City of Fortune traces the full arc of the Venetian imperial saga, from the ill-fated Fourth Crusade, which culminates in the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, to the Ottoman-Venetian War of 1499–1503, which sees the Ottoman Turks supplant the Venetians as the preeminent naval power in the Mediterranean.

In between are three centuries of Venetian maritime dominance, during which a tiny city of “lagoon dwellers” grow into the richest place on earth. Drawing on firsthand accounts of pitched sea battles, skillful negotiations, and diplomatic maneuvers, Crowley paints a vivid picture of this avaricious, enterprising people and the bountiful lands that came under their dominion. From the opening of the spice routes to the clash between Christianity and Islam, Venice played a leading role in the defining conflicts of its time—the reverberations of which are still being felt today.

Mozza at Home: More than 150 Crowd-Pleasing Recipes for Relaxed, Family-Style Entertaining by Nancy Silverton

As an award-winning chef and the owner of six busy restaurants across two continents, Nancy Silverton was so consumed by her life in the professional kitchen that for years she almost never cooked at home. With her intense focus on the business of cooking, Nancy had forgotten what made her love to cook in the first place: fabulous ingredients at the height of their season, simple food served family style, and friends and loved ones gathered around the dinner table. Then, on a restorative trip to Italy—with its ripe vegetables, magnificent landscapes, and long summer days—Nancy began to cook for friends and family again, and rediscovered the great pleasures and tastes of cooking and eating at home.

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Now, in Mozza at Home, Nancy shares her renewed passion and provides nineteen menus packed with easy-to-follow recipes that can be prepared in advance and are perfect for entertaining. Organized by meal, each menu provides a main dish along with a complementary selection of appetizers and side dishes.

Whether it’s Marinated Olives and Fresh Pecorino and other appetizers that can be put out while you’re assembling the rest of the meal; simple sides, such as Roasted Carrots and Chickpeas with Cumin Vinaigrette, that are just as delicious served at room temperature as they are warm; or savory main dishes such as the Flattened Chicken Thighs with Charred Lemon Salsa Verde—there is something here for every occasion.

And don’t forget dessert—there’s an entire chapter dedicated to end-of-meal treats such as Devil’s Food Rings with Spiced White Mountain Frosting and Dario’s Olive Oil Cake with Rosemary and Pine Nuts that can be prepared hours before serving so that the host gets to relax during the event, too.

Enjoy this diverse group of books through the winter months and then in the spring head to Italy because everyone should be Italian once in their lives.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Books to Read Before Traveling to Italy in 2017, Part One

Over the winter months, reading from the new crop of fiction set in Italy will heighten the anticipation for your upcoming Italian vacation. Guide books are great planning tools, but novels and short stories add depth, fantasy, historical background and imagination to an Italian adventure. These books are set in Rome, Florence, Venice, Sicily and Naples. (Please add to the list by commenting on this post and check out last year’s picks.)

legal-holiday-books-624x445The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith

the-girl-from-venice-9781439140239_hrA suspenseful World War II love story set against the beauty, mystery, and danger of occupied 1945 Venice. One night, under a canopy of stars, a fisherman comes across a young woman’s body floating in the lagoon. She is still alive and in trouble. Born to a wealthy Jewish family, she is on the run from the Wehrmacht SS. An act of kindness leads to the world of Partisans, random executions, the arts of forgery and high explosives, Mussolini’s broken promises, the black market and gold, and, everywhere, the enigmatic maze of the Venice Lagoon.

Martin Cruz Smith is the consummate researcher, but he doesn’t bog the break-neck pace of his plot down with blocks of historical fact. By the end of the book, however, you will have an in-depth understanding of life in Venice and northern Italy as the war drew to a close.

Conclave by Robert Harris

In this thriller, the pope has died. Behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel, one hundred and eighteen cardinals from all over the globe will cast their votes in the world’s most secretive election. They are holy men. But they have ambition. They have rivals. Over the next seventy-two hours one of them will become the most powerful spiritual figure on Earth.

cb6dqs8w0aalwzzThe classic English mystery novel often involves a locked room. The suspects gather in an enclosed space. They cannot wander out or establish their alibis. They are trapped with each other as social rivalries, hidden love affairs, and old enmities emerge. A conclave of cardinals charged with choosing a new pope after the incumbent dies fits this tradition nicely – one of the largest locked rooms ever. Even the word conclave itself, from the Latin clavis, or key.

Siracusa by Delia Ephron

40293-1An electrifying novel about marriage and deceit follows two couples on vacation in Siracusa, a town on the coast of Sicily, where the secrets they have hidden from one another are exposed and relationships are unraveled. This is a story of two complicated marriages, one vulnerable child, and a trip to Italy that changes each of their lives forever.

Ephron excels at re-creating the atmosphere of Siracusa, with its serpentine streets, rocky outcroppings and “tattered” buildings. Her writing captures the tastes and aromas of the markets and the restaurants, where her characters savor wine, oranges, gelato, figs and spaghetti alla vongole. Ephron delivers a powerful meditation on marriage, friendship, and the meaning of travel. Set on the sun-drenched coast of the Ionian Sea, Siracusa unfolds with the pacing of a psychological thriller and delivers an unexpected final act that none will see coming.

Death at the Duomo by Ann Reavis

Death at the Duomo High Res Front Cover 1500 PIXELSThis page-turner is thrilling mystery set in the Renaissance City.

An explosion rips through the Easter festival in front of the Duomo in Florence, Italy, but no one claims responsibility. The vicitms are not only Florentine, but also visitors from throughout the world. The security forces of Europe and the United States join together to hunt down the killers. Caterina Falcone, a Florentine investigator, and Max Turner, an agent from the U.S. Embassy, team up to find out why an American student was at the cathedral when the bomb exploded. Max hunts a bomber who sows death around the globe. Inspector Falcone believes the identity of the perpetrator can be found close to home. Together they race across Tuscany to stop a killer before more people die.

The Beach at Night by Elena Ferrante

cover_9781609453701_722_600This picture book about a lost doll on an Italian beach is aimed at readers aged 6 to 10, but the famed Elena Ferrante, author of the best-selling Neapolitan novels, doesn’t sugarcoat things for young readers. It is best for the fans of the original Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, rather than the sugar-coated Disney version. The writing is poetic and evocative, but some parents will find the story too scary for some children. Every fan of Ferrante’s novels should get a copy for their libraries.

Told from the lost doll’s point of view after she is abandoned by her young owner to face nighttime terrors such as the Mean Beach Attendant of Sunset and his friend, the Big Rake. Celina, the doll, has a terrible night, one full of jealousy for the new kitten, Minù, feelings of abandonment and sadness, misadventures at the hands of the beach attendant, and dark dreams. But she will be happily found by Mati, her child, once the sun rises.

The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore

theserpentofveniceGreed, revenge, deception, lust, and a giant (but lovable) sea monster combine to create another hilarious and bawdy tale from modern comic genius, Christopher Moore.

What do you get when you stitch Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and “The Cask of Amontillado” together? Well, you get this rollickin’ adventure in which Pocket, the Royal Fool introduced in Moore’s Fool (2009), is lured to Venice, where he thinks he’ll be having a fun time with the beautiful Portia, but where three men (including a guy named Iago) are actually planning to murder him. The upshot is, if you’re the kind of reader who insists Shakespeare is untouchable, then this novel will probably annoy you. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of Moore’s brand of history-mangling humor, you’ll dive right in.

Cats of Italy by Ann Reavis

cats-of-italyThe cats of Italy lead rich and adventuresome lives in this book of four short stories. Cicero and Flavia race to save a cat sanctuary in the center of Rome. Dante and Guido take a friend on a quest that goes awry in a medieval tower. Regina falls into a canal, is rescued by Fosca and Casanova, and becomes queen of the regatta. Vanda and Pussipu love their lives in Calabria, but not all the Southern Italian cats are so lucky.

Cats of Italy is a compilation of four short stories: Cats of Rome, Cats of Florence, Cats of Venice, and Cats of Calabria. These tales will enchant cat lovers, both young and old. Those who are fascinated by Italian history and culture will find the little-known (but true) feline facts in these stories will enhance their next visit to Italy.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – 50 Years Since the Great Flood

Fifteen or more years ago I came to live in Florence. One of the historical tales of a city that has thousands of years of interesting stories was the Great Flood of 1966, known to Florentines as L’Alluvione a Firenze. I read every book I could about the flood, watched videos, searched online and viewed images by famous photographers. One of my favorite books was a collection of art by children who experienced water rushing through their city. This is one of the images.

School child remembers the flood and the rescue efforts.
School child remembers the flood and the rescue efforts.

I wrote about the flood here, here, here, here, here and here.

Today, and throughout this month Florentines will remember the horror and honor the brave and ask themselves whether it could ever happen again.

The Italian Embassy in Washington is hosting a rare exhibit of color photographs of the aftermath and a viewing of Franco Zeffirelli’s short documentary about the flood “Florence: Days of Destruction” (Italian title: “Per Firenze”)which he made to raise awareness of the flood’s impact. Released a month after the disaster, it raised more than $20 million for reconstruction efforts. The narrator is Richard Burton, speaking in Italian, perhaps from a phonetic script. There is also an exhibit in New York.

Vasari's Last Supper damaged by the flood of 1966 (photo credit: agenziaimpress.it)
Vasari’s Last Supper damaged by the flood of 1966 (photo credit: agenziaimpress.it)

The New York Times just published an excellent article about the restoration of Vasari’s painting of the Last Supper.

A forty year old artist and American teacher, Joe Blaustein, found himself in Florence on November 4, 1966 when the Arno overflowed the levees submerging the city and with his camera in tow decided to document in real time what was happening. He accomplished this but the slides remained closed in a box in his home for a long time. After many years those photos were donated to the Archive of the Municipality of Florence, were restored and are now displayed in this exhibit. Their peculiarity is that they are among very few color images that were taken then. See some of them here.

This photo by Joe Blaustein is among a set recently released.
This photo by Joe Blaustein is among a set recently released.

I learned about the 1966 Flood when I was eleven and saw the November 18, 1966 issue of Life Magazine with David Lees’ photographs. (See one of his images here.)

The next time I read about the flood was in a novel, The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga about a Mud Angel, one of the book restorers who came to Florence to volunteer to save the libraries.

Other books worth reading about the flood and its aftermath include: Dark Water by Robert Clark, The Great Flood of Florence, 1966: A Photographic Essay by Swietlan Nicholas Kraczyna, The Flood by David Hewson,and Diary of Florence in Flood by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Towers of Florence, Part Three

In any discussion of the hundreds of hidden towers in Florence, I always want to talk about my favorite tower, Torre della Castagna. It’s my favorite because over the centuries it is the one that hasn’t been changed to hide the original purpose of a tower: to defend those inside.

Torre della Castagna (photo credit florenceforover50s.it)
Torre della Castagna (photo credit florenceforover50s.it)
Towers of Defense: General Information

All of the other towers in the city have been altered to add windows and doors, but back when the towers were built Florence was a lawless town, controlled by families and clans that got their way by force.

1907 sketch of Tore della Castagna and Piazza San Martino
1907 sketch of Torre della Castagna and Piazza San Martino

A tower was built to protect a family, clan or political body and at different moments in time the now-named Torre della Castagna performed all of these functions.

I can’t find the exact date of its construction, but it must have been sometime between 900AD and 1000AD. It was first known as Torre Baccadiferrro and protected the Baccadiferro family. It was probably much taller than its present 90 feet (about 29 meters).

To look at it now (in Piazza San Martino, on the corner of Via Dante Alighieri), it is easy to imagine how dark and cold it was inside. Of course, there were no windows – to prevent burning arrows and other projectiles from entering. Light and air got in through small square holes (now cemented closed to prevent pigeons from entering). These holes were probably covered with tapestries in the winter and left open in the summer. There are no other openings on the north side of the tower.

On the west side of the square tower, the observant tourist will notice what look like three tall windows high on the wall over the front, and only, door to the tower. The very observant tourist will also see the protruding “stones” at the bottom of each of these “windows” and guess correctly that the windows are doors and that the stones are the ends of oak beams, now cut short, but once hooked this tower to another.

Imagine what it was like to live in a tower. It is tall and narrow and there is little space on each floor. Stairs climbed up one wall of each room. There was no privacy. It was dark, except for the light of lamps and candles. The kitchen and servants’ quarters were probably at the top so that if the kitchen burned up the rest of the tower wouldn’t go with it.

Back to the oak beams. To expand the Baccadiferro family’s space this tower would be attached high in the air to other towers – those of family and friends. In times of relative peace, the doors would be open, a layer of planks would be laid along the beams, and people could walk from tower to tower. (Not only was this a safety measure, but imagine the state of the Florentine dirt streets in a time of no sewer or garbage collection.)

History of Torre della Castagna

Sometime around 1038, the Torre Baccadiferro was given by the Holy Roman Emperor Corrado II to the Benedictine monks of the adjacent Badia Fiorentina in order to help with the monastery’s defenses.

In 1282 the tower became the meeting place of the Priori delle Arti of Florence. The Priori delle Arti was the governing body of the Florentine Republic. Its members came from all of the major guilds (Le Arti), such as those of the woolmakers and merchants, the bankers, the magistrates and notaries, and the silk weavers.

The Priors were elected for two-month terms, during which time they were not allowed to leave the tower unless in the company of another member, ensuring that all contact with outsiders was monitored to reduce the risk of threats or bribery. A quote from Dino Compagni’s Chronicles adorns the north wall of the tower: they then took the decision “to shut themselves away within the Castagna Tower in order to put an end to the threats fom the powerful.”

The Priors were enclosed in the tower said Dino Campagni (photo credit turismoletterario.com
The Priors were enclosed in the tower wrote Dino Compagni (photo credit turismoletterario.com)

During this “interesting” election cycle in the U.S., it is appropriate to note that the word “ballot” comes in to common usage because of the Priors. They use a voting system similar to the modern-day ballot, but instead of slipping pieces of paper in a box, the Priori delle Arti used chestnuts and cloth bags.

Chestnuts were placed in bags of fabric that indicated the voting preference of each member. Although the chestnuts were later replaced by balls of wax, metal or wood of different colors, the original ballots inspired the name of the tower, Torre della Castagna (Tower of the Chestnut). In Florentine dialect, boiled chestnuts are known as ballotte. It is short step to the English “ballot.” (The Venetians like to claim credit with their word ballota, meaning a small ball.)

Torre della Castagna Today

When Florence became a free city in 13th century and a republic was founded, all towers were cropped to signify that the age of clans and civil wars was over and to give precedence to the Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio. Florentine historian Giovanni Villani (1280-1348) wrote in his history of Florence, Nuova Cronica, that in 1251 the city government decided “all towers of Florence – and there were in big number with a height of 70 meters – to be cropped down to 29 meters or even less; the stones from the cropped towers were used to build houses in Oltrarno.” It was probably in preparation for the habitation (and name change) of the tower by the Priori delle Arti that it was shortened to 29 meters.

Inside the Giuseppe Garibaldi Museum
Inside the Giuseppe Garibaldi Museum

Visitors to Florence can explore inside the Tower of the Chestnut on Thursday afternoons because the bottom three floors of the tower are now the Garibaldi Museum (open from 4pm to 6pm).

The museum is devoted to Giuseppe Garibaldi and the veterans of the movement for the unification of Italy over 150 years ago. Flags, clothes, photos, portraits, furniture, guns and so much more from Garibaldi’s Redshirts can be found in this quirky exhibit.

Available from Amazon.com (eBook)

I am also a fan of all things Garibaldi, which can be seen here, here, and here. And I set my short story Cats of Florence in the museum and the tower.

Of course those who love towers and could care less about Garibaldi, get a chance by visiting the museum to imagine what living inside a medieval Florentine tower was like. Climb the stairs, imagine how the rooms would be furnished, think about what living without privacy would be like, and how hard it would be to carry everything up and down the stairs of a 120 foot tower, the work of servants for medieval nobility.

 

 

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Towers of Florence, Part Two

The oldest and arguably most beautiful Florentine tower is Torre della Pagliazza (the Straw Tower). This semi-circular (a unique shape) tower is tucked away in a small piazza in the center of Florence. It dates back to the fortress of the ancient Romans.

The Straw Tower - Torre della Pagliazza
The Straw Tower – Torre della Pagliazza

When the Roman Empire fell the city of Florence was virtually abandoned. Only about 1,000 people remained. The Roman city walls were too expansive for the smaller town so it was decided to create a second set of walls. The tower, now known as the Straw Tower was part of that second wall, built during the Gothic War by the Florentine citizens of the Byzantine Empire between 541 and 544 A.D.

In 1980, archaeological excavation of the tower revealed evidence of Roman building under the tower, part of the foundation – a caldarium (a room with a hot plunge bath, a hot and steamy room heated by a hypocaust, an under floor heating system) of the Roman thermal baths, which may explain the tower’s round shape.

An unusual photo of the Straw Tower from above (photo by Sailko)
An unusual photo of the Straw Tower from above (photo by Sailko)

It was used during the 13th century as the first women’s prison and thus got its name, the Straw Tower, which stuck through the centuries. The moniker comes from the bedding used in the prison to make the women comfortable, an unusual prison practice at the time. Many of the women who were locked up in this tower during the Middle Ages, however, were not criminals, at least in modern terms. For instance, those who refused to marry the man chosen by her parents in an arranged marriage could be jailed.

In the 10th century, St. Michael’s Church was built near the tower, which was used as its bell tower. Over the years the church changed names many times: from San Michele alle Trombe (St. Michael of the Trumpets), because trumpeters of the town resided within its parish, to the Church of Santa Maria della Visitazione (St. Mary of the Visitation), and finally, as the Church of Santa Elisabetta (St. Elizabeth’s Church). In the late 1700s it became part of a private residence.

The Hotel Giglio wrapped around the Straw Tower (19th cent)
The Hotel Giglio wrapped around the Straw Tower (19th cent)

In the 18th and 19th centuries, three hotels occupied the tower, adding additional walls. The last was the Giglio Hotel. After the hotel’s closure, the building was neglected for years until 1980, when the National Insurance Institute decided to renovate the structure, removing the Giglio Hotel suprastructure and exposed the original tower.

The Hotel Brunelleschi now occupies the tower and the surrounding buildings. It has the dubious honor of having a shout out in Dan Brown’s novel, Inferno: “It was early evening when Langdon made his way across Piazza Sant’Elisabetta and returned to Florence’s elegant Hotel Brunelleschi. Upstairs in his room, he was relieved to find an oversize package waiting for him.” (Dan Brown, Inferno)

A museum has been created inside the Brunelleschi Hotel. Today, the museum is open with no cost of admission on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 2p.m. to 5p.m., where visitors can see ceramic objects, Roman fragments, the site of the thermal baths and various items from Medieval times, which were found during the restoration of the tower.

(Note: The towers under scaffolding in the center photo were the conjoined towers of the Ricci and Donati families.)

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Towers of Florence, Part One

Visitors to Tuscany frequently head to San Gimignano to see the “Medieval Manhattan” – a town of high-rise buildings built in the 11th and 12th centuries – but a couple visits is enough for me. The views are great and the towers are fantastic, but it’s all too easy. I’m more intrigued by the hidden towers of Florence. Where San Gimignano had 72 towers, 13  of which remain and easy to find, Florence was a walled city of over 300 towers and all or part of over 100 towers still exist, but most are a challenge to find.

Towers of San Gimignano
Towers of San Gimignano

Why towers? In a world without elevators, wouldn’t a classic two- or three-story house style with rooms been easier to live in? The skyscrapers of modern cities are the answer to a space issue. The towers of medieval Florence were a safety solution.

The culture of the blood feud defined Florentine life before the 13th century (and thereafter, if truth be told, but soon it was controlled to a great extent by the rule of law). Internecine violence usual started between individuals, but could soon engulf whole families and clans (think the Montagues and the Capulets) over generations. Most arguments led to death. Historian Giovanni Villani (1277-1348) tells us:

In the year 1215, when Gherardo Orlandi was podestà of Florence, Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti promised to marry a young woman from the house of Amidei, honorable and noble citizens. Later, as Buondelmonte, a graceful and skillful horseman, was riding through the city, a woman from the house of Donati called to him and criticized the marriage agreement he had made, saying his betrothed was neither beautiful nor fine enough for him. “I’ve been saving my own daughter for you,” she said, and showed the daughter to him. The daughter was very beautiful and immediately with the devil’s connivance, Buondelmonte was so smitten that he married her.

The first girl’s family met together, smarting from the shame Buondelmonte had placed upon them, and they were filled with a terrible indignation that would destroy and divide the city of Florence. Many noble houses plotted together to bring shame on Buondelmonte in reprisal for these injuries. As they were discussing whether they should beat or wound him, Mosca dei Lamberti spoke the evil words, “A thing done has a head,” that is, they should kill him. And thus it happened, for on Easter morning the Amidei of Santo Stefano assembled in their house, and as Buondelmonte came from the other side of the Arno nobly attired in new, white clothes, riding a white palfrey, when he arrived on this side of the old bridge, precisely at the foot of the pillar where the statue of Mars stood, he was pulled from his horse by Schiatta degli Uberti, assaulted and wounded by Mosca Lamberti and Lambertuccio degli Amidei, and finished off by Oderigo Fifanti. They had with them one of the Counts of Gangalandi.

Funeral of Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti by F.S. Altamura (1860)
Funeral of Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti by F.S. Altamura (1860)

As a result, the city was thrown into strife and disorder, for Buondelmonte’s death was the cause and beginning of the cursed Guelf and Ghibelline parties in Florence. To be sure, there were already divisions among the noble citizens, and these parties already existed because of the quarrels and disputes between church and empire; yet it was because of Buondelmonte’s death that all the noble families and other Florentine citizens were divided into factions, some siding with the Buondelmonti, leaders of the Guelf party, and others with the Uberti, leaders of the Ghibellines.

Later, with the formation of the political parties of the Guelphs and Ghibellines, the familial factionalism morphed into warfare between neighborhoods and eventually drew cities across Tuscany into famous battles involving tens of thousands of soldiers, many of them mercenaries.

The tower design was the method used by wealthy Florentines to provide family security. They were made of small hand-cut stone “brick” walls up to six feet thick. They were typically about 15 to 18 feet along the horizontal sides and could climb up to 200 feet vertically.

Painting of Piazza della Signoria (18th century) by Giuseppe Zocchi
Painting of Piazza della Signoria (18th century)
by Giuseppe Zocchi

The towers embodied the family’s power, and had to be built taller than the ones of enemy clans: many towers collapsed during their construction because the owners wanted them to be too tall. The number of towers a family owned also signified wealth and clout.

In the story of the family feud above, note the name Uberti. The Uberti clan built a number of towers in what is now the Piazza Signoria. They supported the Ghibelline cause. When the Guelphs defeated the Ghibellines, the Uberti family towers were torn down. The reason the Palazzo Vecchio is off-center in the piazza is that the city government determined that the city hall “should not have its foundations in any way whatsoever on the land of the rebel Uberti.” (Villani) Instead the city bought another family (Foraboschi) tower, which was about 100 feet high, know as Torre della Vacca (Tower of the Cow), for use as the bell tower (and later, prison) on the Palazzo Vecchio.

Torre di Arnolfo was first the Foraboschi family tower.
Torre di Arnolfo was first the Foraboschi family tower.

The extreme violence unleashed by the factions within the city led to the destruction of many towers by both sides (the Ghibellines destroyed over 85 Guelph towers; then the Guelphs returned the favor by destroying even more built by their rivals).

As Alexandra Korey writes: “Eventually they came to be seen as fostering the violence, rather than creating places of safety. In an attempt to calm the city, legislation was enacted by the Florentine government in the 13th Century, at first to stop their construction, and then to force the owners of existing towers to reduce them to an acceptable height [90 feet], and for this reason, many of them have, over time, gradually been swallowed up by the palazzi around them, and they are now very difficult to make out. Many were lost with the demolition of the Old Market during the 19th Century, and yet more were destroyed during WWII, although some defied the best efforts of German engineers armed with high explosives!”

In future posts I will introduce some of the more hidden towers, but the family tower that is hiding in plain sight is the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio once owned and used by the Foraboschi family, surrounded by the ghosts of the Uberti clan towers. It is special because it is the only tower left in Florence that gives us an idea of the height of the the original private towers. Another benefit is that it is a tower that visitors can climb.

Want to know more: Lost Towers of Florence by Chris Dobson

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Real Licorice from Calabria

For Americans, licorice most likely means chewy candies called Red Vines or Twizzlers, which have no actual licorice in the recipe (corn syrup, wheat flour, citric acid, artificial flavor, red 40). (Red Vines also comes in Black Twists (molasses, wheat flour, corn syrup, caramel color, licorice extract, salt, artificial flavor).) Real licorice (liquorice to the Brits) comes from the root of a herbaceous perennial legume native to southern Europe, including Italy and parts of Asia, such as India.

Illustration of Glycyrrhiza Glabra
Illustration of Glycyrrhiza Glabra

In Italy, licorice is enjoyed as a hard or soft candy, usually button-shaped or tiny squares, with no added sugar because the licorice root has its own sweetness. In fact, the woody root itself was used (and for some, still is) as chew stick or toothbrush, prized for its anti-bacterial and breath-freshening qualities.

Licorice sticks for chewing (photo authoritynutrition.com)
Licorice sticks for chewing (photo authoritynutrition.com)

The history of licorice in Calabria begins in the 11th century. Old records testify that in the 16th century the Amarelli family and others were interested in the roots of a particular plant that grew wild on their extensive Calabrian estates (then in the Kingdom of Naples). Its name was liquirizia, scientifically called glycyrrhiza glabra, which means “sweet root”.

Map of Amarelli Museum and Factory in Rosano (photo amerelli.com)
Map of Amarelli Museum and Factory in Rosano (photo amerelli.com)

Today, visitors taking a road trip in Calabria are in for a once-in-a-lifetime experience because the Amarelli family, licorice producers since 1731, has opened the Giorgio Amarelli Museo della Liquirizia, in Rossano near Sibari in the region of Calabria. The Licorice Museum  was awarded the Premio Gugghenheim Impresa & Cultura (Guggenheim Culture and Business Prize) in 2001 and in 2004 Poste Italiane dedicated a postage stamp to it, part of the series Il Patrimonio Artistico e Culturale Italiano.

Licorice Museum depicted on Italian postage stamp
Licorice Museum depicted on Italian postage stamp

The Museum is located in the late 15th century historic residence, which was both home and production plant of the Amarelli family. The family’s history is presented through a series of engravings, documents, books and vintage photographs. The center gallery exhibits the history of licorice and the traditional system of its production, from the root bales, to the manual tools, to the bronze and porcelain molds and the first experimental machines. There are also documents about administrative procedures from the 18th and 19th centuries: manufacturing trade journals, accounting books, payments records and correspondence between manufacturers and government authorities. An old shipping office is reconstructed.

Amarelli Licorice Tablets (photo amarelli.com)
Amarelli Licorice Tablets (photo amarelli.com)

Visitors can also tour the production of Amerielli licorice, which still takes place in the historic eighteenth-century Concio, the original production site, across the road from the museum. In 1731 Amarelli’s established the concio, one of the first pre-industrial factories in the area to extract the juice of the licorice plant roots. The shiny, black licorice produced was not sweetened beyond the sugars naturally found in the root.

Licorice root ready to be pressed (photo pleinair.it)
Licorice root ready to be pressed (photo pleinair.it)

Historically, the roots were gathered and stored outside the factory (as they are today). The process began when the roots were milled by a big grindstone, then boiled (no grindstone today, but still boiled). The juice obtained was put through a sieve, cooked in great pots until the mass was reduced and thickened. While still warm and soft, it was hand-worked into licorice sticks and tiny buttons or squares. Find videos of the process here and here.

Ancient Licorice Factory (photo uisitalia.org)
Ancient Licorice Factory (photo uisitalia.org)

In 1907, steam boilers were installed. In 1919 the design of the first metal pocket-sized carrying cases for licorice drops was complete. These served to preserve the quality and in the following years became important for marketing with art-decò images still popular today.

Cooking the liquid from licorice roots (photo uisitalia.org)
Cooking the liquid from licorice roots (photo uisitalia.org)

In the present day, the process of root selection, juice extraction, boiling and reduction in modern facilities, in compliance with all the current regulations, computerized and automatically controlled, but the final product is controlled by the mastro liquiriziaio.

Amarelli Museum in Rosano
Amarelli Museum in Rossano

After three centuries the Amarelli Company, a member of the exclusive Les Hénokiens (an association of companies who have been continuously operating and remain family-owned for 200 years or more, and whose descendants still operate at management level), still produces a very high quality licorice, which can be eaten pure or soft or sugar-coated or tasted as delicious liqueur in candies, brandy and spirits. Amarelli licorice is even used in a Florentine toothpaste.

So give up the sugary fake chews and buy the real Italian licorice. As one reviewer said, “It’s not your father’s licorice, but it IS your grandfather’s licorice. (His grandmother is Calabrian.)

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Best Day in Chianti Classico Region, Part Two

If you have been following Tuscan Traveler’s Best Day in the Chianti Classico Region, Part One, it should be about 1pm and time for lunch. Time to take the Strada del Vino (SR222) from Greve to Panzano to a very special butcher shop..

Stop Four: Panzano

Leave Greve, following signs for Panzano. You will wind up the side of a ridge. About half way up you will see on the other side of the valley (on your left) a large pink villa surrounded by cypress trees. This is Villa Vignamaggio, the home of Mona Lisa before she moved to Florence, got married and sat for Leonardo Da Vinci’s portrait.

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Just before you arrive at Panzano’s town square you will see the driveway to a big parking lot on your left. Park here – it’s free.   If you get to the town square, drive around it and go back to the parking lot.

In Panzano, walk around the shops on the piazza. See the water colors by Carmine in the gallery called Artemisia. Explore the local wine selection at the enoteca.

For lunch, go uphill off the square (if you are looking at the door of the enoteca, the street is to your left) and find Antica Marcelleria Cecchini, Dario Cecchini’s butcher shop. On the candy-striped façade there is a marble plaque with a rose above it and the picture of a T-bone steak on it. Inside, you will frequently find Dario behind the raised counter. Introduce yourselves.

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If there are snacks set out, have a glass of wine and some of the tidbits. Notice the great products Dario has for sale. He will vacuum pack meat for you to grill up at your apartment in Florence or villa in Tuscany. The salami, sausage and porchetta are fabulous and easy snacks. Pick up a jar of the red pepper jelly, made in the butcher shop kitchen. The fenel pollen and Chianti herbed salt make great gifts to take home to the cooks you know.

 Have lunch upstairs at Dario DOC where the best burgers in Italy are served or across the street at Solociccia. Both places were created by Dario. For true lovers of grilled meats the Officina della Bistecca serves up a set menu that includes three different cuts of steak.Come hungry.

A vegetarian menu is available at each of Dario’s places, but this is a butcher shop. If your group wants lighter fare, have lunch at Oltre il Giardino (across the town piazza and to the left) or at Enoteca Baldi on the piazza.

After lunch, take a walk to digest before getting back in the car. Straight across the piazza follow the street toward the church at the top of the hill. Before you start to climb you will be at Verso X Verso, a shop of hand-made shoes, purses, and other wearable art.

Now it is time to make a choice: More Chianti countryside or wine tasting. You don’t have time for both. If you want to explore more of the Chianti Classico region head on to Volpaia. If wine is your goal, go back to Castello di Verrazzano.

Stop Five: Volpaia

Leave Panzano on the same road (left out of the parking lot) and in the same direction (don’t go back to Greve). Watch for signs to “Radda”. You will come to a left turn where you have a choice of going straight to Castellina in Chianti or to turn left to go to Radda. Before Radda you are going to look for signs to “Volpaia”. If you get to Radda you have gone too far.

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The left turn for Volpaia will be on a very sharp left curve in the road and the left you take will be even sharper. After that, watch for the Volpaia signs and follow them. You will go down hill a bit and then you will climb, climb, climb up a winding road. Volpaia is the highest hill town in Tuscany.

As you enter Volpaia you will see a sign for the parking lot. Park there – it’s free. If you get to the town center, turn around and go back to the parking lot.

Castello di Volpaia owns the entire hamlet and inside all of the medieval walls is a modern winery and an olive oil press. Contact them a month before your visit and schedule a tour of the winery.

 Stop Six: Chianti Cashmere Goat Farm

If you want to visit Nora Kravitz at Chianti Cashmere contact her a month beofore your visit to get permission.

Leave Volpaia by the same road and at the main Radda road turn left to Radda (be careful, you are turning into a sharp, blind curve).

Before you get to Radda you will go under a bridge made of terracotta brick and then come to a stop sign. You will turn left to Radda at the stop. You will then pass an industrial building and the road will curve to the left over a bridge. Don’t go over the bridge but take the hard right onto a road that ends at that curve with a stop sign.

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Drive slowly along that road constantly looking to your left for a metal sign with an image of a goat cut out of it. You will take a left at the sign and end up on a narrow rocky dirt road that goes sharply downward. Follow the road to the end and park at the house.

Look around for Nora Kravis and the goats and the Abruzzo guard dogs. The farm, known as La Pensola, is where Nora, originally from New York, spent over thirty years building her dream of operating the only privately owned cashmere goat farm in Europe. In the spring forty to fifty baby goats scamper up the hillsides, cavorting among the trees.

There is a store, open from 12pm to 4pm, where Nora sells cashmere goats’ milk products and scarves, shawls and stoles, and blankets and throws made out of the cashmere fiber.

Stop Seven: Rampini Ceramics

You may have had a long enough day by now and want to go back to Florence or you may want to see a small family-owned ceramic factory, Ceramiche Rampini. Leave Nora’s farm the way you came, but before turning right to go under the terracotta bridge, turn left and follow the signs to “Gaiole”. You will go through La Villa and come to a right turn with a sign for “Gaiole”. Take the right turn.

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On the ridge to your left you will see a  large villa with a fabulous façade, the Villa Vistarenni Winery. Very soon after you will come to a sharp left turn in the road and a short driveway on the left of the turn that has a sign for Rampini Ceramiche. Turn in at the gate and park. The showroom is up the stairs. IThe kiln is in the big brick building to the left of the showroom. Over the kiln is the artists’ workshop. Ask if you can see the workshop.

Alternative Stop: Castello di Verrazzano Winery

To get to Castello di Verrazzano you will return from Panzano to Greve. If you didn’t see the main piazza of Greve, stop and see it now. As you leave Greve, watch on the left side for the Castello di Verrazzano wine tasting room with a big sign. It is in the hamlet of Greti. Turn left at the tasting room and follow the small road across the bridge and up the hill. It will wind and then turn into a dirt road, but keep going.

cantina_2You will come to a widening in the road with a big tree and a school bus stop sign and the road in front of you will split. Stop here to look at the castello from a distance.  Walk down the lower road (right side) a bit to view two villas on facing ridges. The closest is Castello di Verrazzano. It was the home of of the family of Giovanni Verrazzano who discovered New York harbor in the 1400s. On the far hill is another walled villa winery that is called Castello Vicchiomaggio.

If it is either 3pm or 4pm, there will be a tour offered of the winery. It is best to reserve a space a month before your visit.

Returning to Florence

From Rampini, Radda or Vopaia, return to Panzano, then on to Greve.

From Castello di Verrazzano, go to the main road, turn left and almost immediately you will come to a left turn which should have signs to “Tavarnuzze” and “San Casciano” and, maybe, “Galluzzo”. Take that left. You will go back through Il Ferrone. You will pass the American Cemetery on your left and come to that round-about. Here you take the exit to “Firenze” and “Certosa” (the first exit off the round-about to your left). (Do not go through the tollgates and get on the freeway!) You will soon come to the Galluzzo village center and then follow the signs back to Florence.

I hope you had a great day in my favorite part of Tuscany!

Photo Credits:

Panzano – chiantiworld.it

Officina della Bistecca – oliveintuscany.com

Castello di Volpaia – castellodivolpaia.com

Chianti Cashmere – witaly.it

Rampini Ceramics – rampiniceramics.com

Castello di Verrazzano – verrazzano.com

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Best Day in Chianti Classico Region, Part One

Days in Florence are full and rich in art and history, but in this city of stone it is difficult to find the soothing color of green provided by plants and trees. After a week in Florence you may wish to rent a car and take off for the Chianti Classico Region. Only minutes out of the historic center you will find the first olive groves and vineyards.

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This is Tuscan Traveler’s favorite day in Chianti. You should start out by 9:00am.

Leave Florence via Porta Romana. At Porta Romana (traffic circle with “Headache Lady” statue in center) follow “Siena” and “Galluzzo” signs. Once you get to the suburb Galluzzo, follow the signs to “Siena” and “Greve” (sometimes you will see one town named, sometimes both). As you leave Galluzzo, you will see a large monastery, Certosa, on a hill in front of you. Watch for the sign to “Siena” and take a left.

After the left turn, you will cross a bridge built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during WWII after the Germans blew up the bridge to slow the Allies’ advance on Florence. You will now have a better view of the Certosa Monastery on your right.

Certosa di Firenze (Florence Charterhouse) was one of the most powerful Carthusian monasteries in Europe and exhibited, until Napoleon’s spoliation, 500 works of art. The building was erected on Monte Acuto, a low ridge south of Florence, financed by Niccolò Acciaioli, a powerful Florentine citizen who commissioned it in 1341 with the aim of creating both a religious center and a school. In the past, the Certosa was famous for its lavish library.

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The monastery is open every morning and afternoon for a few hours (except for Mondays) for group visits (in Italian) in the company of a lay brother acting as guide. Once the home of hundreds, there are only a few monks living at the monastery now. The monastery is still alive as a religious community, even if the original Carthusian order departed in the 1950s. The Cistercian order has lived in the monastery since then, restoring many areas. Donations from the tours help maintain their enclosed monastic life as well as the monastery itself.

Turn right at the top of the rise after the bridge. Follow the road to the round-about with a fountain in the center (it may not be flowing). As you go around the circle take the third exit to Siena and Greve. (Do not want to follow the blue sign to Siena (4 corsie) that leads to a four-lane highway to Siena.)

Stop One: American Cemetery of Florence

After the round-about, you will travel through Tavarnuzze and continue until you see a river on your right and then, green lawns. Slow down and look for a gate with a sign that reads “American Cemetery of Florence”. Drive through the gate (there are two entrances, so if you miss the first one, use the second). Go to the center of the curve drive and then drive straight through the entrance between the two small offices. Head over the river and at the flagpole turn right and follow the signs left up the hill to the very top. There is a parking lot (and great bathrooms). Get out and walk around.

The headstones of 4,402 of American military dead of World War II are set in symmetrical curved rows upon the hillside. They represent 39 percent of the U.S. Fifth Army burials originally made between Rome and the Alps. Most died in the fighting that occurred after the capture of Rome in June 1944. Included among them are casualties of the heavy fighting in the Apennines Mountains shortly before the war’s end. On May 2, 1945 the enemy troops in northern Italy surrendered.

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Above the graves, on the topmost of three broad terraces, stands the memorial marked by a tall pylon surmounted by a large sculptured figure. The memorial has two open atria, or courts, joined by the Tablets of the Missing upon which are inscribed 1,409 names. The atrium at the south end serves as a forecourt to the chapel, which is decorated with marble and mosaic. The north atrium contains the marble operations maps recording the advance of the American armed forces in this region.

Walk around the grave sites – the marble was quarried near the Austrian border because the whitest marble comes from there. Notice the classic Chianti view of the town of Impruneta on the opposite ridge.

Stop Two: Montefioralle

As you leave the cemetery, turn right onto the main road and drive through the towns of Il Ferrone and Passo dei Pecorai. Always look for signs the say “Greve”. There will be one place, soon after the cemetery, where on a soft curve you cross the oncoming lane of traffic to go straight, following the Greve and Il Ferrone signs.

This is an area of clay pits and terracotta ovens. You will see lots of pots and floor or roof terracotta tiles piled high.

Follow the road on to Greve. Before you get to Greve you will see the Verrazzano winery roadside tasting room in the hamlet of Greti. Remember this spot because you will come back to it later in the day.

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Enter the town of Greve, the center of the wine-making industry of Chianti Classico. Before you get to the middle of town, you will see on your right a small yellow sign for “Montefioralle”. The right turn to Montefioralle, will be soon after a stop light that is just after a new housing development (on the left) that has slender bronze sculptures near the road. (If you see the COOP supermarket on your left you have gone too far and have missed the turn to Montefioralle.)

Once on the road to Montefioralle, go straight for a bit and then the road narrows and you climb the hill. Remember to go slow because it is a two-way road. The road winds up the hill through an olive grove.

Notice how the olive trees are like bushes. You may even be able to see the stumps near the ground where they were cut off in 1985 after a hard freeze that killed the wood, but not the roots. The trees were sawed down, but new branches grew from the stumps to make these odd short three- or four-trunked olive trees.

Montefioralle is the best preserved medieval walled hill town in Tuscany. Start your tour at the end of the parking lot near the newly-restored tower gate, just up the slope from the stoplight. Walk along the village street that circles between the two walls. About five doors along the walk look for a design above the door with a V and a bumble bee.

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This is one of the homes of Amerigo Vespucci, who was a mapmaker in the 1400s and gave his name to America. Amerigo Vespucci was born (1454) and raised in Florence.

In March 1492, the Medici dispatched the thirty-eight-year-old Vespucci as confidential agent to look into the Medici branch office in Cádiz, Spain. In April 1495, the Crown of Castile broke their monopoly deal with Christopher Columbus and began handing out licenses to other navigators for the West Indies. Vespucci first worked as a provision contractor for Indies expeditions and then, became an explorer, navigator and the cartographer, who first demonstrated that Brazil and the West Indies did not represent Asia’s eastern outskirts as initially conjectured from Columbus’ voyages, but instead constituted an entirely separate landmass, hitherto unknown to Europeans. Colloquially referred to as the New World, this second super continent came to be termed ‘America’ on Vespucci’s maps, deriving its name from Americus, the Latin version of his first name.

Enjoy the “Kodak moments” of Montefioralle. Be sure to walk a ways down each of the small alleys that branch off the main village road – there are great views to be seen.

Stop Three: Greve

Leave Montefioralle by going back the way you came and continue on into the center of Greve. After the COOP supermarket, at the next stop light see if you can turn right into the main piazza of Greve with the City Hall at one end and a church at the other. A covered porch (loggia) surrounds the plaza. If allowed, drive in and park. (Be sure to go to the parking toll machine and put in an euro or two and get a slip of paper to put inside your windshield.)

If you aren’t allowed to drive into the main piazza then turn left at that same stop light and go across a bridge and turn right into the big parking lot. (I think it is free, but look around for a toll machine or an attendant.) Walk back to the main piazza with the statue of Giovanni da Verrazzano (another local boy who became an explorer) and tour the shops around it.

It’s lunchtime! Find Tuscan traveler’s Best Day in Chianti Classico Region, Part Two.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Cats of Venice

Shakespeare’s Shylock declared that the cats of Venice were “both necessary and harmless.” Venetians believe that cats helped save the city from the devastating plague of 1348 by killing diseased rats. However, from time to time the municipality has tried to reduce the teeming feline population. Each time the citizenry has been up in arms in protest. In 1960 there were over 12,000 stray cats in Venice. The cat ladies, known as gattare, provided food and water to colonies located in almost every neighborhood in the city.

Bridge Cat (photo by Bethany)
Bridge Cat (photo by Bethany)

Largely due to the efforts of an organization, oddly named Dingo, the number has been reduced to 2,000 without killing a single healthy cat. Founded in 1965, Dingo was started by British-born Helena Sanders and Venetian Elena Scarpabolla as a cat and dog rescue society. (Dingo was the name of the first rescued dog.)

Venice BridgeCat (photo by B&J Drum)
Cat on the Water  (photo by B&J Drum)

It took Dingo 20 years, but finally Venetian authorities gave them a designated space, a gattile or cattery, on the abandoned island of San Clemente, an ancient pilgrimage site that in the 19th century served as an insane asylum for women and was finally closed down after World War II. Imposing 19th-century buildings were still intact, as was an exquisite Baroque church, though it was stripped of its most precious art works by thieves when the island was uninhabited and unguarded. The cat sanctuary brought people to the island again.

But in 2005, Isola San Clemente was sold for redevelopment as a luxury hotel and resort. Almost 250 cats (stray dogs were not part of the mandate by this time) were transported to Malamocco, a fishing village on the long sandbar that is the Lido of Venice.

Cats by the Canal (photo from venessia.com)
Cats by the Canal (photo from venessia.com)

Dingo is now part of the Anglo Italian Society for the Protection of Animals, a British based charity which raises funds worldwide for animal welfare organizations in Italy. AISPA was started in 1952 and has branches all over Italy. AISPA is concerned the welfare of all kinds of animals, from cats and dogs to livestock and circus animals.

The gattile is housed in a small group of buildings in Malamocco. There are cat dormitories with individual cages, a surgery, and a series of outdoor enclosures where most of the cats hang out. There are also quarantine huts and a convalescence ward, for short- and long-term care of the injured and ailing residents. The farthest building houses the isolation ward for cats suffering from infectious illnesses like feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and panleukopenia (feline distemper) and a maternity ward for those about to give birth.

One of the Cat Ladies of Venice (photo from venise-acqua-vite.com)
One of the Cat Ladies of Venice (photo from venise-acqua-vite.com)

There is an ever expanding and contracting population of about 200 cats. Unwanted, sick or stray cats are brought to Dingo, either by Dingo volunteers or Venetian residents. Each new resident is given a medical exam and a determination is made whether they are lost, abandoned or feral. When its needs have been assessed, it joins the colony, some only for a short while. The gattile has an active adoption program and most of the captured feral cats are returned to their original colonies throughout Venice once they have been spayed or neutered. Unlike the U.S., where strays may be euthanized, Italy has laws to protect animals, wanted or unwanted. Most cities have TNR programs to trap, neuter and release feral cats. Venice was the first Italian city to pass an animal rights act, in 1987 (adopted nationally in 1991), and it guarantees stray cats an area to live in freedom.

Cats Valued in Venetian History (venetostoria.com)
Cats were valued in Venetian history (venetostoria.com)

On Robin Saikis’s website TheVeniceLido.com one can find this interesting snippet of history: “In Gaetano Zompini’s 1789 book about Venetian street traders we learn about knife-sharpeners, candle-sellers and wig-makers, but there is another intriguing trade, that of the castragatti, the cat-neuterers. The cat population of Venice had always been a problem but Venetians, as animal lovers, were always ready to try and compromise with their feline friends: cats kill rats, rats spread plague, so neutering the toms would have seemed a good way of keeping a useful ally under control.

Kitty Condo by San Lorenzo Church (photo by AnnieNC)
Kitty Condo by San Lorenzo Church (photo by AnnieNC)

Dingo also maintains some kitty condos in various neighborhoods in Venice for the free feral colonies. Londoner Jeff Cotton keeps track of the colonies on his website FictionalCities.

Available from Amazon.com (eBook)
Available from Amazon.com (eBook)
Available from Amazon.com (eBook)
Available from Amazon.com (eBook)