A few weeks ago CBS Sunday Morning presented a story that started in the Italian Alps of the Dolomites where a woodcutter with the name of Fabio Ognibene (Everygood) was seen wandering through a forest of alpine spruce while pointing out which attributes of various trees – ones with long and straight trunks and few branches or knots – were perfect for making violins.
It seems Italian stringed-instrument craftsmen have been selecting spruce and other varieties of prepared wood from the Fiemme Valley for almost six centuries because the light and elastic mountain timber makes stringed instruments, including pianos, sound better. The alpine spruce at this elevation is chopped down in the fall during a waning moon when there is the least amount of sap in the tree. And then, after it is cut and cured, it goes to Cremona, Italy where the magic happens.
Cremona in Lombardy ( about 90 minutes southeast of Milan by car) is famous for its luthiers – makers of stringed instruments – who have been crafting high-quality violins since the 16th century. Its beautiful medieval and Renaissance architecture and fabulous cuisine make it an excellent place to visit even in this cell phone world where Alexa and Siri have taken control of selecting the music for the masses; and if you, like me, are skeptical about the ultimate future of handcrafted violins and cellos.
One of the first violin makers in Cremona was Andrea Amati (1505 – 1577), considered to be the inventor of the violin. The city’s most famous violin maker was the long–lived Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737), who produced more than one thousand musical instruments in the late 17th to early 18th centuries. Stradivarius violins continue to be regarded as the best in the world today.
Cremona is still home to more than 140 luthiers in workshops located throughout the city, as well as a luthier school. A visitor only has to look for signs the say “LIUTAIO” to be able to observe craftsmen (very few women have been encourage to apprentice) at their work.
In 2012, UNESCO decreed that traditional violin craftsmanship in Cremona deserved protection on its list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” In 2013, the grand Museo del Violino opened in Piazza Marconi in the city center. The museum has excellent multi-media exhibits about the history and creation of stringed instruments, including the reproduction of an historic workshop. A large display of violins, made in various centuries, including Antonio Stradivari’s 1715 “Il Cremonese” violin and others by Guarneri and Amati. The collection also includes examples of the viola, cello, lute and double bass.
The less high-tech Civic Museum Ala Ponzone-Stradivariano (Via Ugolani Dati 4), was dedicated in 1887 and the collection has been housed since 1928 in the 16th century Palazzo Affaitati. The original heart of the museum dates back to Marquis Sigismondo Ala Ponzone (1761 – 1842), who donated his private collection (paintings, archaeological artifacts, coins, and ornithology). The Museo Stradivariano was housed in the same location as a specialised and independent collection that includes artifacts and tools from the workshop of the maestro Antonio Stradivari, donated to the city of Cremona by the violin maker Giuseppe Fiorini.
The Gothic palazzi, the Torrazzo (one of Europe’s tallest surviving medieval brick towers that houses one of the world’s largest astronomical clocks), the Romanesque cathedral, and the octagonal 12th-century baptistery, make a tour of the historic center an evocative experience. Mozart once performed in 270-year-old Teatro Ponchielli in Cermona and the theater is still hosting concerts in 2018.
Go to Cremona this year between September 27 and October 14 for the 15th International “Triennale” Violin Making Competition Antonio Stradivari (XV Concorso Triennale Internazionale di Liuteria Antonio Stradivari), where modern luthiers worldwide compete in the “Olympics of Violin Craftsmanship.” Once the jury has completed its deliberations, the instruments will be exhibited to the public.
Then come back for the Cremona Torrone Festival in November. But that is the tale for a future post…
I’ve never been a fan of meatloaf. That is until I lived in Italy and tasted the Italian version – polpettone. It was there, also, that I learned that the meatloaf I disliked had its genesis in Rome.
Like most Americans who grew up in the fifties and sixties, meatloaf made an appearance on our dinner table on a regular basis. Meatloaf is a dish of ground meat mixed with other ingredients, formed into a loaf shape, then baked. The loaf shape is usually formed by cooking it in a loaf pan, thus the name. Meatloaf is usually made from ground beef, although lamb, pork, veal, venison, poultry and seafood are also used.
The first known recipe came from Apicius, a collection of Roman recipes, usually thought to have been compiled in the late 4th or early 5th century AD. This was the cookbook erroneously attributed to the culinary writings of Marcus Apicius, noble and erudite Roman gourmet of the time of Tiberius. Apicius is said to have derived his gastronomic learning from Greek manuscripts and to have founded a school devoted to the culinary arts. His own manuscript was in fact lost, and the work, which was printed under his name, was derived from notes supposed to have been written by one of his pupils; these notes were copied, apparently, two hundred years after the death of Marcus Apicius.
Throughout the Roman Empire the recipe traveled until there were German, Scandinavian and Belgian versions, including the Dutch meatball. American meatloaf has its origins in scrapple, a mixture of ground pork and cornmeal served by German-Americans in Pennsylvania since Colonial times. However, meatloaf in the modern American sense of a loaf of ground meat did not appear in cookbooks until the late 19th century.
Recently, Frank Bruni and Jennifer Steinhauer, both contributors to the NY Times, shared their passion for meatloaf, having been exchanging recipes via phone, email, and text message for decades, in a new book, A MEATLOAF IN EVERY OVEN. It is their homage to a distinct tradition, with 50 recipes from Italian polpettone to Middle Eastern kibbe to curried bobotie; from the authors’ own favorites to those of famous chefs and prominent politicians.
Artusi riffs on “Mr. Meatloaf” who is “shy” and “feel[s] inferior” to other dishes. To Artusi and many Italians, polpettone is a way to use left-over meat and stale bread to create a delicious meal for the family.
Artusi, like Lidia Bastianich, soaked stale bread in milk (see Lidia’s video), which perhaps is one answer to improving the dry meatloaf of my youth. Artusi cooked his giant meatball in a pan on top of the stove creating a crispy crust surrounding a juicy center. He made an eggy cream sauce to pour over the finished meatloaf, an improvement on the catsup of today.
Artusi also offered a recipe for a stuffed meatloaf alla Piedmontese with hardboiled eggs at the center to give the meatloaf “a more attractive appearance when it is sliced.” Mario Batali’s home-style Italian polpettone ripieno wraps a 50/50 ratio of ground beef to sweet or spicy Italian sausage around vegetables, which keep the meat moist and adds much-needed flavor to the traditional dish. Notice, a loaf pan is not used in Batali’s recipe.
Dario Cecchini, the famed butcher of Panzano serves a polpettone, known as Il Cosimino, (find “Il Cosimino” in the artistic photograph on his home page) in his restaurants and sells it in his macelleria (butcher shop). Dario’s polpettone is a hand-formed, oven-baked beef meatloaf with a small amount of lean pork, garlic, red onion, thyme, salt and pepper. The name is derived from a dish that was served for the first time at a banquet for Cosimo de’ Medici’s christening in 1519, it brought him great luck for this baby from the more obscure branch of the Medici clan became the first Grand Duke of Tuscany.
Il Cosimino can be sliced or cubed. I like it best with a spicy-sweet Mediterranean sauce made of bell pepper and peperoncino. I can’t wait to be back in Panzano to have Cosimino again.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
If 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Other 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 .
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
By 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 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.
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 MirrorsInspector 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’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.
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.
That isn’t to say he doesn’t mention the fabulous food (see Chapter 8 “Gnocchi on Thursdays”) or the beautiful people (Chapter 6 “Face Values”) or quaint customs (Chapter 7 “Life as Art” and Chapter 13 “People Who Don’t Dance”) or, of course, the intricacies of Italian soccer (Chapter 14 “Taking Sides”). He, however, intertwines those discussions with a serious analysis of why Italy is having such a hard time joining the international marketplace and can’t play well with its neighbors, thus precluding any significant assistance with major problems like the influx into Italy of Africans fleeing in boats from Tunisia and Libya.
For those of us expats who have lived in Italy for years it is a fun book to read because the organization lend itself to dipping in and out of subjects where we get insight on cultural issues we’ve noticed for ages but never knew the “why” of. For the occasional visitor to Italy, The Italians will describe a fascinating world that is rarely seen on the tourist paths. (Jan Morris’s piece in Literary Review probably captures this best.) For Italians, reading Hooper’s book, I cannot rightly predict the response and leave that for other venues.
John Hooper was educated at St. Benedict’s School in London and St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge where he studied history. His wanderlust began early when at the age of 18, he travelled to the breakaway state of Biafra to help make a television documentary on the Nigerian civil war.
After graduating, Hooper worked for the BBC, followed by the Independent Radio News and the Daily Telegraph, and eventually became a freelance correspondent for a number of news organisations including the BBC, the Guardian, The Economist and NBC. In 1976, he was appointed by the Guardian as its correspondent in Madrid. Over the next three years, he reported on the end of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution and covered Spain’s eventful transition to democracy following the death of General Franco.
Hooper wrote his first book, The Spaniards, which won the 1987 Allen Lane award for a best first work of history or literature. In 2006, a updated version of the book was released, entitled The New Spaniards.
In 1994, he was posted to Rome as Southern Europe Correspondent for the Guardian and subsequently The Observer. Three years later, he brought to light the so-called ‘Ship of Death’ migrant trafficking disaster and was a member of the award-winning Observer team that investigated its aftermath.
After five years of reporting from Berlin and Afghanistan, Hooper returned to Rome as Italy correspondent for The Economist and the Guardian, and in 2012 he was appointed Southern Europe editor of the latter.
Luigi Barzini wrote The Italians in 1964, a book that has remained in print and is still quoted today as one of the best books to define the Italian character. Your book, released early this year, has been well-received, and is also titled, The Italians. How has the Italian character changed in the last fifty years? In your opinion, what has been the biggest single influence on the Italian character in that span of time?
First of all, I should say that I didn’t know Italy in 1964. I first visited the country four years later as a teenager. But I spent a couple of months working, first in Rome and then in Tuscany, so I had a glimpse of the after-glow of that extraordinary period of economic growth and social change that so attracted foreigners to Italy in the late 1950s and the early 1960s and which inspired Barzini to write his book for them – a great book, in my opinion, which although some parts are now a bit outdated, nevertheless contains many observations that are as true today as when they were first written. That alone would suggest that the Italian character has not altered very much since 1964. But my impression is that Italians have become more materialistic and less happy and optimistic than they were then.
You are British and live in Rome. What is the biggest benefit of examining and writing about the Italian culture from the viewpoint of someone who has only lived in the country for fifteen years or so? What is the biggest handicap?
Well, I would say that 15 years is actually quite a long time for a foreigner to live in another country. I doubt if most of the books that have been written about Italy have been written by authors with that much experience of it. But having said that, I think that a decade and a half is still a short enough period for one to retain the curiosity and sense of being an outsider that you need to write a book like the Italians, because there comes a point when a foreigner ceases to be a foreigner and becomes one of the locals. At that point, you cease to be much use as a foreign correspondent and you become blind to the idiosyncrasies that you need to be able to see in order to write a book like mine.
How much extra research did you have to do to write The Italians or did it flow naturally out of the pieces you were writing for the The Guardian, The Observer, and The Economist?
No. Not at all. There is some material in The Italians that derives from my work as a journalist, but my aim was to write a book about all the things that we foreign correspondents do not touch upon. We write about politics and economics – and there is some of that in The Italians – and we write about dramatic events like earthquakes, but we write very little about society and our perceptions of the people who inhabit the countries on which we report, and all of that is at the core of The Italians.
I once hypothesized that Putin and Berlusconi were lounging around a pool one day and Vladimir advised that Silvio should follow his political path by moving from the post of Prime Minister to President and back again as a way to stay in power and out of court. Is this pure fantasy on my part or did Silvio Berlusconi see himself in the Italian presidency once Giorgio Napolitano stepped down? Is this the basis of Berlusconi’s recent “360 degree” turn against Matteo Renzi’s reform plans?
Berlusconi is nothing if not ambitious. I think that he may very well have once dreamed of becoming head of state. But I think that he realised that the sex scandals – Bunga Bunga and all that – made it impossible. On the other hand, I think that he felt that, having given such valuable support to Matteo Renzi’s programme of constitutional and political reform, he was entitled to a say in who would be the next president. In the event, Renzi outwitted him by finding a candidate [Sergio Mattarella] who was acceptable to the vast majority of the lawmakers in his otherwise divided party. That, above all, explains Berlusconi’s hostility since then.
In The Italians, you quoted a judge interviewed after a recent notorious trial: “Our acquittal is the result of the truth that was created in the trial. The real truth will remain unresolved and may even be different.” In a country where it sometimes seems that people spend more time in jail before the guilty verdict is rendered than after, do you see any possibility of judicial reform in the coming decade? Or is that what is needed?
It is certainly what is needed. But whether it will materialise is another matter. Renzi’s emphasis is on the reform of the civil, as distinct from the criminal, justice system. That is because the delays and uncertainties in the civil justice system are a main – possibly the main – obstacle to foreign investment.
How does the declining Italian birthrate and the declining rate of marriages affect what is described in your book as “amoral familism” where “[l]oyalty to the family superseded loyalty to any wider grouping, be it the village, province , region or nation”? Also, will these demographic factors have an affect on Italian mammismo?
One of the points that I make in the book is that, while the nature of the family is changing in Italy, family bonds remain extraordinarily strong. So far at least, I am not seeing a decline in that menefreghismo, that lack of a sense of broader responsibility to the rest of society, in the areas where it has traditionally been most prevalent – that is, very generally speaking, in the south and in the cities. But I think that it will fall away in time. As for mammismo, I’m not sure. Will Italian mothers with only one son be any less attentive and possessive than their mothers who had two or three? I doubt it. On the other hand, mothers with only one son are likely to be mothers who have a job, and who will just not have the same amount of time to devote to their children. So, on the whole, I suspect that mammismo too is destined to a gradual retreat.
In the interviews for the launch of your book, what question have you not been asked that you wish had been? And how would you respond?
That’s a very cunning question! Nobody has asked me if I have any regrets about my time in Italy. And I do: I have not spent as much time as I would like to have done on Italy’s many islands, and in particular on Sardinia.
For more articles on The Italians and John Hooper look here, here, and here.
Two days after the devastating Florence Flood, November 4, 1966, the twenty-foot torrent that swept through the city was gone, but the piazzas, streets, churches homes, and businesses were buried in mud, naphthalene heating oil, mountains of waste, household goods, wrecked cars and even farm animals that had been swept down the valley. There was no potable water or electricity. Food was in short supply because most of the stores, including the massive Mercato Centrale had been flooded.
The federal government was slow to act, but first the Florentines pulled together in solidarity, neighbor helping neighbor, and then as news of the enormity of the disaster spread, volunteers arrived from the neighboring hill towns. The stream of helpers soon became another kind of flood with thousands of people coming from every region of Italy, western Europe and America, pulled by the catastrophic loss of the historic and artistic patrimony of Florence, but also to support the Florentines in their time of greatest need.
Those that came were mostly young, in their teens, twenties and thirties. They filled the hostels and pensiones and even slept in rows of sleeping bags at the train station. With an extraordinary spirit of sacrifice this youthful multi-lingual army shoveled away tons of mud, wiped sticky oil off of marble statues, rescued sodden books, and distributed food and water. Thousands of young people dedicated their time to recover from the mud paintings, books, frescoes, carvings, statues and other works of art.
They went without warm showers, heated rooms, clean clothes and hot food. Because of their dedication and solidarity they were named “Gli Angeli del Fango” (The Angels of the Mud). The name was apt also because mud was a constant companion at work, while asleep and at meals.
“You could call them volunteers, except they hadn’t volunteered or been recruited: they’d simply appeared as though from thin air and set to work.
“It was always cold and always damp where they worked, and often where they ate and slept. There was, of course, a surfeit of Chianti dispensed from immense demijohns just as there was limitless talk and laughter. People fell in love: with art; with one another; with themselves, because how often did you get to be a hero, much less an angel.”
Senator Edward M. Kennedy said in 1966:
“I remember that I was in Geneva at a conference on refugees and I wanted to see what had occurred, so I flew in to Florence for the day. I got to the library about 5 PM and I looked down into the flooded area. There was no electricity and massive candles had been set up to provide the necessary light to rescue the books.
“It was terribly cold and yet I saw students up to their waists in water. They had formed a line to pass along the books so that they could be retrieved from the water and then handed on to a safer area to have preservatives put on them. Everywhere I looked in the great main reading room, there were hundreds and hundreds of young people who had all gathered to help.
“It was as if they knew that this flooding of the library was putting their soul at risk. I found it incredibly inspiring to see this younger generation all united in this vital effort. It reminded me of the young people in the United States who responded with the same determination as they became involved in the civil rights movement.
“I was still shivering as I boarded the plane that took me back to Geneva, but I couldn’t stop thinking of the impressive solemnity of that scene – of all those students, oblivious to the biting cold and the muddy water, quietly concentrating on saving books in the flickering candlelight. I will never forget it.”
“[It] was the international community that worked to try to save Florence, this unique patrimony that belonged to the whole world,” said Mario Primicerio, former mayor of Florence on the 30th anniversary of the Florence Flood.
The fall of 2014 has been one of the wettest on record throughout northern Italy. The Arno is rising, but the cities that have seen the worst floods are Genoa and Massa Carrara. Genoa now in the eye of the storm is where a new generation of Mud Angels is coming to the aid of the port city.
Each day more Mud Angels are joining the struggle in the Liguria region. Most are high school and university students living in Genoa, but they are also from Eastern Europe and Africa and Italy.
Unlike the word-of-mouth organization of the Angeli del Fango of 1966, the modern angels are using social media, Facebook and Twitter, to put out the word about where the needs are greatest. As the rain moves east the Mud Angels will be helping in the hamlets and towns along the Po Valley. The spirit of world’s youth is answering the call of people in distress and once again they are saving great works of artistic and historical significance.
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.
Lisa Gherardini (1479-1542) was a quintessential woman of her times, caught in a whirl of political upheavals, family dramas, and public scandals. Her life spanned the most tumultuous chapters in the history of Florence—and of the greatest artistic outpouring the world has ever seen. Her story creates an extraordinary tapestry of Renaissance Florence, with larger-than-legend figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli.
Who was Mona Lisa, this ordinary woman who rose to such extraordinary fame? Why did the most renowned painter of her time choose her as his model? What became of her? And why does her smile enchant us still?
Dianne Hales agreed to answer a few questions about her book and its subject:
Years ago while in Florence doing research forLa Bella Lingua, I was having dinner at the home of an art historian who casually mentioned that the mother of La Gioconda had grown up in the very same building on Via Ghibellina. I hadn’t known until then that Leonardo’s model was a Florentine woman—Mona (Madame) Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo. I was immediately intrigued by what her life might have been like.
At the time the local papers were reporting discoveries of documents related to Lisa and the Gherardini family. I realized that the archival sleuth, Giuseppe Pallanti, had the same name as a friend of my husband’s. It turned out that they aren’t related, but he arranged a meeting.
When we met—on the roof terrace of the Palazzo Magnani Feroni overlooking Lisa’s childhood neighborhood in the Oltrarno—Pallanti brought a tourist map. With a pencil he marked an “X” for Via Sguazza, where she was born, and another “X” for Via della Stufa, where she lived with her husband and their children.
The very next day I made my way to Via Sguazza, a dank alley that still stinks five centuries after its residents complained about its stench. I was struck by the contrast between the fetid, graffiti-smeared street where Lisa Gherardini was born and the sublime symbol of Western civilization that her portrait has become. The journalist in me sensed a story just waiting to be told. Pretty soon I was off and running.
Describe a bit about the archival research you did. Did you have help? What was the biggest “ah ha” moment and what was the greatest frustration you encountered?
I started at the Florence State Archive, which houses a staggering forty-six miles of manuscripts. With the help of historian Lisa Kaborycha, an American professor who lives in Florence, I tracked down a history of the Gherardini written by a family member in 1586.
I had never done archival research before, and I found it surprisingly exhilarating—deciphering the ornate script, turning the yellowed pages, inhaling their musty scent. I felt that I was traveling through time and encountering flesh-and-blood—Gherardini knights, robber barons, warriors, rebels—all so proud and pugnacious that they coined the word Gherardiname to describe their fierce “Gherardini-ness.”
My biggest ah-ha moment came at my computer in California, when I tracked down a record of Lisa’s baptism in the cathedral digital archives. Seeing the hand-scripted words—Lisa & Camilla & Gherardini—in the ledger made her real to me.
The greatest frustration was not finding any words of her own. Leonardo’s Lisa truly is a face without a voice. Fortunately, I found that a relative of hers—Margherita Datini, wife of the famed merchant of Prato—had left behind the largest cache of letters of any woman of her day. This feisty, intelligent, no-nonsense woman, who taught herself to read and write in her twenties, embodied the Gherardini spirit that Lisa may have shared.
Describe the choices you made to tell the story of a woman for whom there is very little “paper trail” and an artist who everybody was talking and writing about.
Thanks to Giuseppe Pallanti’s research, I had a framework for Lisa’s life, including the dates when her children were born and a record of her death. But as I read more about Leonardo and about Florentine history, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information. How could I keep Lisa’s story from being lost?
An American art historian gave me some wonderful advice: Inhabit Lisa’s neighborhoods. That’s what I did. I walked the streets where Lisa had lived. I genuflected in the churches where she had worshiped. I explored the locations of the convents where she had placed her daughters.
Ross King, author of Leonardo and the Last Supper, describes my book as “cultural history that reads like a detective novel.” I hadn’t envisioned it quite that way, but I wanted take readers with me on my quest so they could share the step by step revelations of what turned into a true journey of discovery.
How many interviews did you conduct while researching the numerous subjects covered by the book (Leonardo da Vinci, life of Renaissance women, art, politics and commerce in 15th century Florence, and the journey of the painting from Florence to Paris, and much more)?
Well over a hundred. I certainly drew on all the skills I had honed in decades as a journalist. Basically I followed the facts wherever they led—to experts in art, history, economics, women’s studies, fashion, food, religion, even antique silk-making. Each of them offered a different perspective. My challenge was to weave the threads together into a tapestry that would bring Mona Lisa and her Florence to life.
One of my friends says she knew she was ready for her oral doctoral exam when she could turn any conversation on any topic to the Italian Renaissance. That’s how I feel about Mona Lisa and Leonardo. Baseball? Did you know that palle (balls) were the symbol of the Medici—and that one of Leonardo’s patrons was Giuliano de’ Medici, who was a political ally of Mona Lisa’s husband?
How much of the project was devoted to research and how much to writing?
They overlapped over a span of more than three years. The feet-on-the-ground research, which I did during extended visits to Florence and Tuscany, kept leading me in new directions. I’d come home and dive back into the library or computer archives.
I didn’t write this book as much as rewrite it—some 80,000 words over and over again. It was the most challenging project I’ve ever undertaken: organizing reams of material, finding the right tone, balancing anecdote and explanation, searching for the most telling details—and then polishing, polishing, polishing. I kept thinking of Leonardo applying tens of thousands of brush strokes to create his portrait of Mona Lisa. He inspired me!
What did you learn about the daily life of women in the late 15th century?
A great deal of research on women has been done in just the last three or four decades–and many of the findings are rather depressing. One historian called Renaissance Florence “among the more unlucky places in Western Europe to be born female.” This was particularly true for poor women, who were typically malnourished and illiterate, bred early, toiled endlessly and died young. Even women of the merchant class, like Mona Lisa, remained second-class citizens who passed from the control of their fathers to their husbands.
This is one reason that I was fascinated to learn that Lisa exercised two of the few prerogatives available to Renaissance women: she decided how to dispose of the property and valuables she inherited from her husband and she chose to be buried, not with him, but in a community of sisters at the convent where her daughter lived.
Italian scholars gave me a more positive perspective than American feminist historians. As one Italiana put it, Renaissance women were not liberated in the way we use the term, but they were strong and central to the most important social institution in Italy: the family. And some, like Lisa Gherardini, inspired great masterpieces of Western art, which may be the most lasting of legacies.
Why do you think Leonardo da Vinci accepted the commission to paint a “housewife” and then carried the portrait around for years?
I believe that something about Lisa herself captivated Leonardo —“something inherent in his vision,” as the art critic Sir Kenneth Clark observed. How else, he asked, could one explain the fact that “while he was refusing commissions from Popes, Kings, and Princesses he spent his utmost skill … painting the second wife of an obscure Florentine citizen?”
Perhaps with his discerning eye, Leonardo saw more than a fetching young mother caught up in the delights and distractions of small children, with a blustering husband and a big quarrelsome blended family. Perhaps what intrigued him as an artist was a flicker of her indomitable Gherardini-ness.
Leonardo left Florence before completing Lisa’s portrait, and it traveled with him to his final home in France. Most of the art historians I interviewed believe that the aging artist spent years refining the painting with delicate brushwork and almost transparent glazes. It may be that during its long metamorphosis, Mona Lisa took on deeper meaning for Leonardo—as a demonstration of all that he had learned about portraiture and all that he understood about human nature. Would Mona Lisa recognize herself in the Louvre portrait? We will never know.
Why does Lisa Gherardini’s story matter? Is a model’s identity relevant in consideration of a work of art?
Mona Lisa ultimately remains what it is: a masterpiece by an unparalleled genius. Yet learning about Leonardo’s model adds new dimensions to appreciation of the portrait. Once I saw only a silent figure with a wistful smile. Now I behold a daughter of Florence, a Renaissance woman, a merchant’s wife, a loving mother, a devout Christian, a noble spirit. I relate to her, not just as a lovely object, but as a real person.
Beyond adding new perspective on the painting, Lisa’s story opens a window onto life in Florence during the most astounding artistic outpouring in history. Hers was the city that thrills us still, bursting into fullest bloom and redefining the possibilities of man—and of woman.
Do you have events scheduled in the U.S. and Italy where you will be discussing Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered? How can we find out about upcoming events?
Yes, I have a busy schedule ahead, with readings and talks in northern California, Chicago, Philadelphia and the New York City area. You can find the details on the events page of my website.
I will be in Florence from September 25 to October 10 and will announce the details on my website. In addition to readings and presentations, I am developing personalized tours of Mona Lisa’s Florence and some programs for writers and storytellers. If any of your readers might be interested, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
Have you selected the subject for your next book?
I am currently finishing a very different project: a college textbook on Personal Stress Management with my daughter Julia, a psychology doctoral candidate. However, I so enjoy “living “ in Italy—if only in my head—that I hope to return to an Italian topic soon.
Heard in any gelateria: “Are you sure you don’t have a one euro coin?”
In Italy, you never know when you are really going to need small bills and coins, so you hoard them. It’s part of becoming Italian.
“What’s the deal with change in Italy?” ask my touring clients after a day or two in the country. At the gelateria, the newsstand, the post office, museum, and not last nor least, the coffee bar, the customer is quizzed about the possibility of spiccioli (coins), so that no resto (change) is necessary. The person at the cash register is willing to wait until you go through all of your pockets and the bottom of your purse in search of 20 centesimi (cents) or a one euro coin.
Coinage seems to be a rare commodity in almost any shop, eatery, or even the government-run entities in Italy. You may be denied the opportunity to buy a newspaper or a bottle of water if you pull out a 50 euro bill. Even a five euro bill will be met with a frown if you are purchasing an 80 centesimi espresso.
“Mi dispiace, non ho spiccioli” (“I’m sorry I don’t have any coins.”) has become one of my favorite phrases in Italian. After 15 years, I sometimes say it just to spite Italian cashiers, even if I have a pocket full of change.
Italian vending machines frequently don’t give change, despite the fact that there is a coin return slot. Be prepared for a loss if you really need that Coke or candy bar.
The problem seems to stem from the Italians’ dislike of dealing with their banks. Understandable. No one, absolutely no one, wants to deal with the bureaucratic hassles and time suck of the Italian bank, least of all the small business person. A visit to the bank only invites the headache of poor service and a paper trail, two things sought to be avoided by most Italians. But this still doesn’t answer why there is such a hassle regarding change when you are buying stamps or tickets from money mills like the post office or the Uffizi Gallery.
In the 1970s, Italy literally ran out of coins. Banks issued what were called “mini-assegni” or “mini-checks” that took the place of change. These mini-checks looked like monopoly money to replace the small denomination coins that were in short supply. It was not until 1978 that the Italian government produced coins in large enough quantities to meet consumer demand.
Even the priest of two tiny churches in the center of Florence goes to the Jewish-owned grocery store in the neighborhood with his sacks of donation coins to get the amount converted into large denomination bills. It’s a win-win — there is no paper trail for the priest and the store gets a replenished supply of small coins. And neither has to enter the encapsulated security door of the local bank.