Category Archives: Italy

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – The Tigress of Forlì by Elizabeth Lev

How do you create the perfect Renaissance superhero? Art historian, Elizabeth Lev, narrates the story in her fascinating book, The Tigress of Forlì. The story starts with a baby girl, Caterina Sforza, the illegitimate child of dissolute, but noble Milanese father and a drop-dead gorgeous mother. She is tutored in the classics, learns how to ride a horse and hunt, and masters the management skills of a great household. Then her father arranges for an engagement at age ten (consummated with the fiancée, aged 30) and marriage at age thirteen (blessed by the Pope). She gives birth of her first child at fifteen.

The Tigress of Forli

As her greedy self-serving husband’s health deteriorated, Caterina keeps providing heirs (six), but also takes over the governance of their dominions (Imola and Forlì). The cowardly husband is assassinated and all seems to be lost, but our pregnant superhero escapes her captors, takes up arms and captures the castle. All this happens before she turns thirty.

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

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

Elizabeth Lev, author of The Tigress of Forli
Elizabeth Lev, author of The Tigress of Forlì

Elizabeth, whose formidable resume takes pages to recount, agreed to answer a few questions about her life and The Tigress of Forlì.

I was transported reading your book The Tigress of Forlì, not only to the 15th century Italian city-states, but also to the Italy of today with its convoluted politics, family dynasties and love of gossip. Am I wrong, or has nothing changed in 500 years?

This is what makes history so fun. Human beings, the human condition, means that every age experiences desire for power, pleasure and possessions; but how it plays out against different backdrops and settings has an infinite variety. But amid the schemers and the scandalmongers, a few exceptional people stand out for forging their way in a complicated world and leaving a distinct mark. Caterina Sforza makes a wonderful guide to this era, as her unique viewpoint, enhanced by very human susceptibilities, shows us the Renaissance like we’ve never seen it.

What path did you take from life in the United States to ultimately living in Rome?

I always wanted to live in Europe, even as a kid. Whether it was Ian Fleming’s Bond novels or the Greek myths or the romances of Jane Austen, it seemed to me that all the cool stuff was always happening in stately drawing rooms or under marble porticos or driving along through picturesque European villages. It didn’t take long for me to discover the pictures that made the world even more brilliant: a Dutch still life or Florentine fresco. From the University of Chicago, I was thrilled to be able to study art history abroad for a year at the University of Bologna, and when I finished my degree, I came back to Bologna as a graduate student. My thesis director suggested I write on a Roman subject, and the rest is history.

It seems to me that you were working on a thesis when you were writing The Tigress of Forlì. First, how did you find the time and second, what was the subject of your thesis?

I first ran into Caterina when writing my thesis on the National Church of the Bolognese in Rome (Santi Giovanni e Petronio dei Bolognesi) while tucked away in Imola, where this glamorous countess had lived far away from the city lights for many years. I sympathized with her story—city girl transplanted to the country life—but didn’t actually start the book on her until many years later. At the time I was writing The Tigress of Forlì, I was the single mother of three kids, two teens and a toddler, with two teaching jobs, a regular news column and a full-time schedule of tours. Fortunately, getting up early is easier when aided by fine espresso and the hours spent with Caterina were like spending time with a dear friend.

Why did you decide to write about Caterina Riaro Sforza de’ Medici?

What a woman! What a story! Although victimized, she never made herself a victim, and always got up after any kind of fall. She lived in thrilling times: Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Pope Alexander Borgia, and she played a significant role wherever she went. Caterina was no wallflower. She left her mark, whether with her beauty, her courage or her cannons. She was an amazing challenge to understand. Not all she did was pretty, and to get inside the head and the world of a woman who made such surprising decisions took a lot work, but was so wonderfully worth it!

Giovanni de' Medici was the love of Caterina's life
Giovanni de’ Medici was the love of Caterina’s life

In reading the book, it seems at times that you get so under her skin that you begin to identify with her. Was this a plus, or did you have to make sure you weren’t projecting yourself on her?

There were many things in Caterina’s life that I identified with: being a single mother, and trying to figure out how to keep a family afloat in difficult circumstances among others. Indeed, I believe I brought a unique perspective to certain aspects of her story because I evaluated her options as a woman who had known similar situations. In some cases, where men dismissed her as power hungry or simply inept, I saw strategy. The hardest part to write was the tragedy of her wrongdoings. Caterina made terrible mistakes. In those cases, I found myself not projecting, but looking to her to see how one keeps going after a very public and humiliating fall. I must admit, there were days when I wished I was as tough as she was!

Caterina Sforza appears to be a very liberated, strong woman, once you get past the fact that she was engaged at age ten and forced to wed at age thirteen. Was she unique or were there other women who were equally agile at working the power dynamics of their time and assertive in taking the initiative?

Actually, there are many more remarkable women of the Renaissance than we recognize. Caterina grew up in a world that celebrated a 14-year-old girl named Agnes who had defied the Roman Empire, a world that named a Bolognese woman as patroness of artists, and Caterina herself was named for a 20-something woman from Siena who told the Pope “to be a man.” She was admired by Isabella D’Este—art patron extraordinaire—and knew Lucrezia Borgia (although she didn’t think much of her).

Elizabeth Lev discussing the  fresco by Pinturicchio that depicts Lucrezia Borgia
Elizabeth Lev discussing the fresco by Pinturicchio that depicts Lucrezia Borgia

The women of the Renaissance were trained to be circumspect and modest, but they were also adept at running businesses and complicated households, and at times engaged in the battles for power that raged in their time. Very few actually found themselves in situations where the ability and will to rule came to the fore, but they were formidable when they did. Some dazzled with charm and others with ruthlessness, but Caterina had a substantial dose of both.

Caterina Sforza was an iconoclast in her own time – men rose to fight wars at her behest, wrote poetry in her name, sent snarky reports about her behavior, and debated the political wisdom of killing her off – but it is hard for me to determine how an illegitimate pawn of a noble family got on this rollercoaster to fame. Was it nurture or nature?

Caterina’s father, with all of his obvious flaws, believed in education, whether for sons and daughters, legitimate and illegitimate. As condottieri, the Sforza family also understood that ability to command and to wield weapons was their lifeline. Hunting, like sports today, also taught important life skills for that age. Take that kind of training and put it into a package of natural beauty, fashion sense honed in the glamorous Milan court, brains nourished by Greek philosophers, Latin politicians and Christian thinkers, then add a sense of self-worth given to her by family and faith, and you have the stuff of legend and song.

Portrait of Caterina Sforza by Lorenzo di Credi
Portrait of Caterina Sforza by Lorenzo di Credi

In a time without Facebook and Twitter, the word of Caterina Sforza’s antics seemed to spread throughout the peninsula and into France and Germany. Was this the reality or is just that in The Tigress of Forlì you are recounting the reports sent to various noble courts? Did the common man in Rome or Florence know of Caterina Sforza or was she just the concern of the highest levels of the church and the nobles of warring city-states?

Before Facebook and Twitter, the story had to be really good in order to spread. The ease of information in our age has led to an indiscriminate sense of its value. But an astounding character, like Caterina, who had impressed armies, would soon find pan-European fame, thanks in large part to the mobility of soldiers. They sang ballads of her in France, (“For a good fight call….”), and they whispered about her in Rome. Obviously, in the modern age, she would have been much more notorious, but perhaps the incessant hammering of the modern news machine would have stifled her. It is one thing to make outrageous choices with a few court ambassadors scribbling by the sidelines; it would have been another thing altogether on the ramparts of Ravaldino with news helicopters flying overhead and paparazzi hiding in the bushes.

Please describe how the research for this book was done. How many archives did you use? Were you handling original documents or had they all been copied? What was the best “ah ha” moment you experienced in the research?

The most fruitful were the archives of Milan, Forlì and Florence (where they kept accounts of everything!). It is amazing how well-informed these princes and leaders were. The Vatican archives allowed me to handle the diaries of Pope Sixtus IV, which were so intimate they made me feel like I was in the room at times. Most were copied, except for a few diaries, where the notes in the margins and a text alteration that had happened during Caterina’s lifetime were crucial parts of understanding the text.

The fortress of Ravaldino that Caterina Sforza defended
The fortress of Ravaldino that Caterina Sforza defended

I was struck when I read the accounts of “the retort at Ravaldino,” the most famous event of her life, at how many different versions there were of the story. As I read each account, then read the author’s other writings, then researched the author himself, I began to see how much chronicles and accounts were manipulated in that age. One tends to think that these writers were serious men with a weighty sense of their duty to posterity, but one is a gossip, one is a stalker, one is trying to forge an alliance, one is hysterically prim and so on… It is sort of like reading the Italian newspapers today—read five stories, take an average mean, and you will wind up with an approximation of what might have really happened.

What I enjoyed most about The Tigress of Forlì is that it is a researched (and footnoted) work of nonfiction that reads as smoothly as fiction. This appears to be your first book. How were you able to achieve the descriptive flow?

I have been leading tours for fifteen years and teaching sophomores at Duquesne University for twelve. If you can’t tell a story and weave your facts into vivid picture of people and events, you will find yourself with snoozing tourists and students succumbing to their hangovers. Of course, much of the credit is due to my editor at Harcourt, who had the good sense to tell me to cut out a lot of the academic sounding explanations and always encouraged me to try to find the “voice” of my characters.

This story is so colorful, so exciting, so full of adventure that it almost reads like a movie script. Have you considered making the book into a movie or television series?

As I was writing the book, I saw much of it happening in my mind. The amount of information available allowed me to imagine the sets, the extras, the scenery and of course, as I got to know the people, I would sometimes cast them in my head. It was a great help when trying to get through rough spots where the words just stayed still and dry on the page, to try to see the events taking place, the exchange between the characters, and wonder who would make a good Caterina or Cesare Borgia or Machiavelli. But sadly, Caterina remains for the moment alive in words instead of images.

There are hundreds of convoluted family relationships, fluid political alliances, arcane minutiae about everything from home life to warfare, and more. Did you have a wall full of post-it notes and string to help keep it all straight?

It was a daunting task—learning about the Salt Wars, the Riario dynasty, the fluctuating friendships—and I grew to think about my job as “making perfume.” I’ve heard it takes 60,000 roses to make 1 ounce of rose oil. In many cases to get an event or dynasty straight, it felt like 60,000 sources for one paragraph!!!! The hardest part, however, was seeing my hard-researched work wind up on the editor’s floor. In earlier drafts I meticulously outlined the conflicts and characters, only to have my editor sweep in with her red pen and cut, cut, cut. My editor was a saving grace for the book, however, because a small dab of rose oil is fragrant, but being doused with it would be stifling!

I like to tell visitors to Florence that families like the Medici operated on the “five son formula” for successful dynastic growth. One son for the family business, one for the military, one destined for politics, one entered the church, and a spare. Did Caterina Sforza ascribe to this theory? If so, why were her sons so disappointing? Again, nature or nurture?

Caterina’s children made me much more patient with mine. Her older sons were too lazy for dynasty, too dumb for politics and too cowardly for the military. The interaction between Caterina and her oldest son was so tragicomic at times; they could have had a reality show! Her youngest son was, of course, her darling and became the hero known in the peninsula as “L’Italia”, and her daughter trusted her to help raise her own children, so despite the failure with the oldest boys, Caterina eventually must have done something right.

Is this Caterina Sforza in Botticelli's Sistine Chapel fresco?
Is this Caterina Sforza in Botticelli’s Sistine Chapel fresco?

Finally, Botticelli. Did Giovanni de’ Medici, Caterina’s last husband, grow up in a home where Botticelli’s Primavera and Birth of Venus were on the walls? Did Giovanni’s father commission these paintings? And, how did you learn that Caterina is depicted in The Purification of the Lepers by Botticelli, located in the Sistine Chapel?

The earliest mention of Botticelli’s two most famous works has them in the Medici Villa Castello owned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici of the cadet branch and brother of Caterina’s husband. Caterina herself also lived there at the end of her life. Lorenzo is also the one who commissioned the illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy from Botticelli. I find it comforting that this warrior princess found true love with a family of great art patrons—no wonder Botticelli loved painting images of how love conquers all!

Ludwig von Pastor, in his History of the Popes made an interesting excursus into the panel paintings of the Sistine Chapel. To be honest, he identified Caterina as one of the daughters of Jethro in the Botticelli image on the opposite wall. But Pastor also pointed out that the Purification, across from the papal throne, had several unique qualities that were all family references. I knew Caterina was pregnant at the time; all sources said that Sixtus doted on her, and the viper playing around the child’s feet seemed to allude to the Sforza family symbol. It was a great moment to be able to make a new argument for her identity in that great space!

What led to your involvement in the book, Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches?

George Weigel has been a friend of mine for years and indeed it was he that introduced me to my agent when it came time to publish The Tigress of Forlì. George came to me when the Caterina project was over and asked me if I would like to co-write a book with him. He is an outstanding writer, with great turns of phrase and clear, powerful prose and I was honored to be part of this project. It was wonderful to be able to see these Roman churches as part of a community of worshippers and to feel the connections between the buildings we admire today and the burgeoning, vibrant Christian community of sixteen hundred years ago.

Do you plan to write another biography? If so, of whom?

I have recently published a book with Father José Granados on the Theology of the Body as expressed in the art collection of the Vatican Museums, and now I am trying to get back into more of an art history groove. I am looking to work on something involving Michelangelo and I am also looking at another project to capitalize on my specialized knowledge of the Vatican collections.

A review of The Tigress of Forlì by Elizabeth Lev can be found here.

Buy it at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.it. Or visit Tuscan Traveler’s booklist.

Italian Life Rules – Galateo, the 500 Year Old Guide to Polite Manners

“Pleasant manners,” writes Giovanni Della Casa, “are those which delight or at least do not annoy any of the senses, the desires, or the imagination of those with whom we live.”

In modern times when we are reminded that President Lyndon Johnson would hold meetings while sitting on the toilet; or there is a kerfuffle throughout the Twittersphere when Mayor de Blasio (correctly according to Italian Food Rules) ate pizza with a knife and fork; or tourists in Florence insist on greeting strangers with “Ciao!”; or foreign students think flip-flops and cut-off shorts are proper attire when touring a church, it is comforting to know that at least the Italians have Life Rules that govern almost every aspect of their daily existence. These rules were set almost five hundred years ago.

Frontispiece of the First edition of Galateo, 1558
Frontispiece of the First edition of Galateo, 1558

“Since it is the case that you are now just beginning that journey that I have for the most part as you see completed, that is, the one through mortal life, and loving you so very much as I do, I have proposed to myself—as one who has been many places—to show you those places in life where, walking through them, I fear you could easily either fall or take the wrong direction.”

So begins Galateo, Trattato de’ Costumi (Galateo: Treatise on the Rules of Polite Behavior) a  short manuscript on good manners, written by the retired, but worldly (he was known to compose racy poetry), archbishop and diplomat Giovanni Della Casa (1503-1556).  First published in 1558, two years after the author’s death, it sets forth the rules on how to comport oneself in polite society.

Della Casa was born in Borgo San Lorenzo, a small town north of Florence, to a noble Tornabuoni mother and a highly educated father. He lived in Florence and Rome at the same time as Michelangelo. He attended university in Bologna and after deciding on an ecclesiastical career, he rose quickly to the position of Archbishop of Benevento, a small city northeast of Naples. His lasting legacy, however, is Il Galateo.

Portrait of Giovanni Della Casa by Pontormo
Portrait of Giovanni Della Casa by Pontormo

Purportedly for the benefit of his nephew, Annibale Rucellai, a young Florentine with an important lineage and a promising future, the treatise, in the voice of a cranky yet genial old uncle, offers the distillation of what had been learned over a lifetime of study of Greek and Roman humanistic texts and public service as diplomat and papal nuncio. (Archbishop Della Casa was once charged with setting up the inquisition in Venice to root out heretics.)

The University of Chicago Press has recently published a new edition, translated by M.F. Rusnak. As Rusnak discusses in the long introduction to Galateo: Or, The Rules of Polite Behavior, far from being a book on table manners, the original Galateo was a “conduct manual, a viable tourist guide to acting Italian in Italy, and a learned analysis of literary language.”

Most Recent Translation of Galateo
Most Recent Translation of Galateo

As relevant today as it was in Renaissance Italy, Galateo deals with subjects as varied as dress codes, charming conversation and off-color jokes, eating habits and hairstyles, and includes citations to the works of Dante and Boccaccio.  Less a treatise promoting courtly values or a manual of savoir faire, it is rather a meditation on conformity and the law, on perfection and rules, but also an exasperated reaction to the diverse ways in which people make fools of themselves in everyday social situations.

As such, it holds a distinguished place among Italy’s rich history of etiquette books. These range from Andreas Capellanus’s Art of Courtly Love, which describes how a medieval knight should behave to win the favor of his lady; to Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, which recommends sprezzatura, the Renaissance equivalent of being nonchalant, and Machiavelli’s The Prince, devoted to realpolitik and therefore, stressing effective, rather than genial, behavior. In its time, Galateo circulated as widely as Machiavelli’s Prince and Castiglione’s Courtier.

The Prince by Machiavelli was published 25 years before Galeteo
The Prince by Machiavelli was published 25 years before Galeteo

Mirroring what Machiavelli did for promoting political behavior, and what Castiglione did for behavior at a noble court, Della Casa described the refined every-man caught in a world in which embarrassment and vulgarity prevailed. Galateo was written at a time when the medieval openness about bodily functions was being discouraged. Renaissance etiquette writers were all begging their readers to stop spitting and touching themselves in public.

Della Casa’s explanation for his rules of dress, table manners, gestures and speech is the need to avoid offending others. That is the basic bargain required to live in peaceful communities. Naturally, it never happens without a struggle. Not all Europeans agreed with Della Casa.

At the end of the 16th century, English readers assumed that Thomas Coryate , one of the earliest travel writers, was joking when he reported that Italians did not attack their food with hands and hunting knives as did normal people, even normal royalty. Those prissy Italians wielding forks arrived at the royal court in France in 1533 with the Italian Catherine de’ Medici when the pope arranged for her to marry the future King Henry II. A century later, Louis XIV was supposedly so annoyed to see a court lady use one that he had hair put in her soup.

Catherine de' Medici took her forks to France in 1533
Catherine de’ Medici took her forks to France in 1533

In Richard II, Shakespeare, writing about forty years after Galateo was published, has the Duke of York complain to the dying John of Gaunt about “Report of fashions in proud Italy, / Whose manners still our tardy apish nation / Limps after in base imitation.” The French and the English disparaged Italian etiquette, only to lay claim in succeeding centuries to being the cultures of refinement, civility and propriety.

Galateo is divided into thirty chapters based around questions of etiquette. As with any modern manners book, it offers advice on proper dinner-table conversation and behavior. Have we not all been repulsed by people who, “oblivious as pigs with their snouts in the swill, never raise their faces nor their eyes, much less their hands, from the food? And they gulp down their grub with both their cheeks puffed out as if they were playing the trumpet or blowing on a fire, not eating but gobbling. Those who grease up their hands and arms to the elbows or dirty their napkins such that washcloths in the bathroom are neater.”

Throughout, Della Casa urges a reasonable conformity to the customs of the country in which one lives. (He would have encouraged Mayor de Blasio to eat pizza with his hands in NYC, but not in Florence.) Clothes, Galateo suggests, should fit well rather than be loud and trendy. He urged his nephew to follow the refined conservative fashions in Florence, but when in Naples to wear the more elaborate costumes popular there. “First of all, one must consider the country where one lives, for every custom is not good in every place. Perhaps what is customary for Neapolitans, whose city is rich in men of great lineage and barons of great prestige, would not do, for example, for the people of Lucca or Florentines who are for the most part merchants and simple gentlemen and have among them neither princes, nor counts, nor barons.”

Galateo disdains the Spanish style, but says when in Madrid, dress the part
Galateo disdained the Spanish style, but said when in Madrid, dress the part, get a collar

He recommended that people speak clearly and plainly, after having “first formed in your mind what you have to say.” He argued for civility but warned against sycophancy: “Flatterers overtly show that they consider the man they are praising to be vain and arrogant, as well as so stupid, obtuse, and so beef-witted that it is easy to lure and entrap him.”

Della Casa’s message is: Don’t be disgusting. Pretty much everything that comes out of a bodily orifice met his definition of disgusting — so much so that the mere sight of someone washing his hands would upset people, as their minds would leap to the function that had necessitated that cleansing.

The counsel itself remains timeless: “Most of us hate unpleasant and bothersome people as much as evil ones, maybe even more.” In modern times, the object of Della Casa’s disparaging comments would be the woman on the bus putting on her makeup in a cloud of perfume, someone on the park bench clipping his fingernails, the teenager who insists on tapping his feet to the music leaking out of his earbuds one seat over in a plane, and those who chat or conduct business on their cell phones in a restaurant.

“You do not want, when you blow your nose, to then open the hanky and gaze at your snot as if pearls or rubies might have descended from your brains. This is a nauseating habit not likely to make anyone love you, but rather, if someone loved you, he or she would fall out of love right there,” wrote Della Casa to his nephew.

He was also irritated by people who interrupt constantly (they “surely make the other person eager to punch or smack them”), and people who describe their dreams in excruciating detail: “One should not annoy others with such stuff as dreams, especially since most dreams are by and large idiotic.”

“To offer your advice without being asked is nothing else but a way of saying that you are wiser than those you are giving advice to, and even a reproof for their ignorance and lack of knowledge.”

The Italian iPhone app for Galateo a Tavola (Galateo at the Table)
Italian iPhone app for Galateo a Tavola (Galateo at the Table)

Americans would be surprised at Galateo’s advice on how to behave at a dinner party: “You must not do anything to proclaim how greatly you are enjoying the food and wine, for this habit is for tavern keepers.” And “[i]t is a barbarous habit to challenge someone to a drinking bout. This is not one of our Italian customs and so we give it a foreign name, that is, far brindisi.” [The Italian fare brindisi or brindare for “to toast” comes from German ich bring dir’s, “I bring yours.”]

Manners matter. As Della Casa writes, the annoyances of everyday life only seem trivial or of small moment. “Even light blows, if they are many, can kill.” In the end, regard for the feelings of others lies at the heart of any rational society. In Italy, an ill-bred bore is described as “one who has not read Il Galateo.” (Or acquired the latest smart phone app: Galateo a Tavola. )

To read Il Galateo is to have “a viable travel guide to acting Italian in Italy.” To follow its lessons is a big step toward being Italian.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – A Dozen Top Italy Blogs

Every two years or so, everyone who maintains a travel website or blog should clean up their Blogroll. For those who have never clicked on a Blogroll link or even thought “blogroll” was a word: a blogroll is the list of other websites or blogs (hopefully with handy click-through links) that a blogger (or travel writer, a term I prefer) either reads, or believes should be read. A blogger may have exchanged links with other websites in hopes of greater shared readership, or may believe that a blogroll should be created and maintained as part of the website management to-do list, or may have a myriad of other reasons for the list.

Photo by Melika http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/writing/images/9349790/title/pen-paper-wallpaper

The problem with a blogroll is that, unless you are linking to sites like The New York Times (or, come to think of it, even if you are linking to TNYT), the links will  become stale as Tuscan bread, meaning it is impossible to get through anymore. Further, in a place like Italy bloggers tend to pick up and move back to Dallas, Denver or Derbyshire, the story ending with a still relevant “Twenty Things I Love about Italy” post written four years ago. (In Italy the twenty things really don’t change all that much, I’ve found.)

Even if the writer is still in-country and posting away, the frustrations of WordPress, Blogger, Typepad, LiveJournal, and the like, or the failure to maintain the payments for the domain name and/or server, will result in a “404 Not Found” status code or a “503 Service Unavailable” or some such pothole in the internet highway to “Life in Italy.”

So today, I wandered back into my Blogroll, inspired by A.K. at Arttrav.com who is in competition with some other fine writers for Blog Awards 2013 at Italy Magazine. Going through the Italy Magazine Blog Categories I found a number of sites that I hadn’t heard of and will follow in the future. That led me to the job of adding those to my Blogroll, which led me to check the links and do an early spring cleaning of the whole list, which can be found by clicking on the link found right below the Tuscan Traveler banner.

All of the boring back and forth of clicking and checking and deleting and linking and checking again and swearing and starting all over, resulted in the idea that I, too, could do the impossible and pick the twelve best Italy blogs. Of course, this is completely subjective and subject to change next week, next month or next year. But I hope that none of these folks get tired of Italy or done with writing or weary of the process of posting or get a “real” job that eats up all of their blogging time and energy because I love reading what they write and marvel at the photography skills of most of them.

Tuscan Traveler’s Top Dozen Italy Blogs

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Arttrav

Arttrav is a blog about art, travel, and expat life in Florence, Italy.  Alongside art historical information, exhibit and museum reviews, you will find articles about the people and events that make up the lively nature of Italian life. Alexandra Korey has a PhD in Renaissance Italian art history from the University of Chicago and a goal to make art accessible. She has a real job, but luckily it is internet-related so she can keep Arttrav going while at work.

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Emiko Davies Regional Italian Cuisine 

Living in Florence, for seven years taught Emiko Davies a few things about Italian cuisine. One, that recipes of Tuscany are not all there is to Italian food. Instead, there are twenty regional cuisines. Two, that traditions rule. On her site she shares the anecdotes, techniques and history behind some favourite traditional regional recipes. If you’re making a trip to Florence or indeed anywhere in Tuscany soon and you’d like some tips on where to eat or places to visit, you’ll find things throughout her blog, like her favorite gelato shops, breakfast spots, where to eat like a Florentine, panini and wine bars and other food adventures.

Emiko has one of the most beautiful food sites of any country. Her writing and photographs can be found in a number of places, both online and in print, so start with her “About” page to get an idea of where to find more of her stuff after you’ve devoured her Regional Italian Cuisine blog.

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The Bittersweet Gourmet &  Platform 17

Living in the Bel Paese, in the tiny town of Grezzano in Tuscany, about an hour from Florence, Amy Gulick was in love with an Italian, but oceans now divided her from the people to whom she’d been closest. For many of those early years it seemed every minor success she achieved in her adoptive country necessitated a number of setbacks. This tough, perplexing, sometimes sorrowful time was not without its joys, however. On the contrary: it was also thrilling, full of first-time experiences with food, art, travel, new friends, and a new lifestyle she would soon come to cherish. She now says that no word more aptly sums up her initiation into Italian life than “bittersweet.”

Amy is maintaining two blogs (I hope, because my favorite is Platform 17 with both its history posts and its “life back of beyond in Italy” stories, and the last post is dated October 2013 . . . ), a scrumptious home food one, The Bittersweet Gourmet, with recipes and the other with a great “About” story of why it is called Platform 17, the unluckiest number in Italy.

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Mozzarella Mamma

How does a young American woman brought up on field hockey, frozen vegetables, washing machines, takeout Chinese food and backpacking become transformed into a functioning Italian mamma with perfect pasta and luscious legs? Impossible, but Trisha Thomas is giving it her best and writing about it as she goes.

Over the past 16 years, she has been raising her children and her “mamma buddies” have provided the understanding and wisdom to get her through. One mamma friend summed up beautifully her concerns about being an Italian-style mamma. She said, “We try to teach them good values, we try to teach them to work hard and do their best, but somehow I think we are turning our children into mozzarellas.”

Trisha has jotted down her humorous experiences as she has both worked for a television news agency and endeavored to become a good Italian mamma without losing her American-ness. She divides the anecdotes into different categories—food tales, health stories, clothing issues, and lately, Italy’s political foibles.

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Rebecca’s Brigolante Blog

Rebecca Winke, originally from Chicago, joined her husband Stefano in Assisi in 1993, and shortly thereafter the couple began a lengthy renovation project on the Brigolante farmhouse, which has been in the Bagnoli family for at least eight generations.

She posts essays that touch on her life as an American transplanted to the Umbrian countryside. If you have ever dreamed of picking up and moving to the Bel Paese, you will enjoy reading the cautionary tales on her blog that arise from life in Umbria.  Her real job of running a fabulous B&B and raising children keeps her really busy, except in the winter when school is in session and the B&B business is slow. So I hope her memory is good and she gets a year’s worth of posts written down in January and February.

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Not Just Another Dolce Vita 

Ever since Sarah Mastroianni can remember she has been fascinated by the Italian language and has felt strongly connected to her Italian roots. She has a Master of Arts in Italian Studies from the University of Toronto, and experience travelling, studying and working in Italy. She like to hang her hat in Siena, but her stories take her all over Italy. This blog gives her an outlet through which to express her love for Italian language and culture, to write (another passion) and also to share her firsthand knowledge with other fans of Italy.

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Parla Food

Katie Parla is from New Jersey and she earned a BA in Art History from Yale. In 2003, shortly after graduating, she moved to Rome and since then has earned a sommelier certificate (FISAR) and an MA in the Cultura Gastronomica Italiana. She has written and edited more than 20 books and her food criticism and travel writing have appeared all over the world. (She never sleeps.) She is now a Rome-based food and beverage educator and journalist so her blog is here to stay.

Parla Food is her personal blog where she gets to take a break from her day job of lecturing, giving private tours, and writing for others. She writes mostly about food issues facing diners in Rome and in Italy. Sometimes she sneaks in a non-food related topic if she is really excited about something and wants to share. She recently picked up an archeological speleology certification from the city of Rome so we should be reading soon about what is underneath the streets of Rome.

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Rubber Slippers In Italy

It’s a long, long way from Hawaii to Italy for Rowena. Living in the land of pasta, pizza, and wine is everything you might imagine, but one thing remains true: You can take the girl out of the island but you can’t take the island out of the girl.  Like many who have suddenly found themselves in a new environment, the desire to document every experience gave birth to Rowena’s humble little page on Blogspot. That page grew into more pages, year after year, developing into compilation of recipes, travels around Italy, and discoveries in a place that is so very unlike Hawaii.

Her dogs Mr. B and Mads are along for the ride whether they want to or not because she is compiling the “100 Ways to Celebrate Italy” (80 and counting) a fascinating compilation of sagras, festivals, parades, and carnivals.

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Green Holiday in Italy

Anna is a freelance journalist living in a stunning corner of Italy, Abruzzo, and doing her bit for the planet: she recycles religiously, grows organic vegetables, shops and eats local and make an effort to keep her holidays as green as possible. She started this site to share her passion for slow travel in Italy.

She sees responsible travel as looking at the world around you closely, making conscious choices and giving back to the places you visit and the people you meet. Her site has some of the beautiful photographs found on the internet and is one of the very few places you can find a post that starts out: “Birdwatching in Italy has just become more exciting! After 400 years the Northern Bald Ibis returned to Northern Italy.”

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Rick’s Rome

Yes, most of the best Italy bloggers are women. But then there is Rick Zullo.  Quite a few years ago he came to Italy on an extended vacation (he called it a “sabbatical” just to make it sound impressive, but let’s be honest…).  About midway through that trip, he fell in love with Rome on his very first night in the city.  On the second night, he fell in love with one of its inhabitants (who is now his wife).  Rick found being an American in Rome to be challenging. Rick’s Rome describes many of his trials and tribulations, how he’s been able to overcome them or at least come to a compromise, making the most out of living in that fascinating, perplexing, chaotic city.

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Timeless Italy

Susan Nelson is happiest walking the cobbled streets of Italy and exploring ruins that have existed for thousands of years. She has an exquisite eye for the the great photo shot, ranging from the quirky corner to the breath-taking vista. Giant aqueducts, earthy catacombs, back streets and back roads, mystical legends of the saints — they all catch her imagination. She shares her thoughts and experiences through Timeless Italy; a perfect companion for the armchair adventurer. 

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Over the Tuscan Stove

Judy Witts Francini adores shopping the markets and being inspired to cook with local seasonal food. She began her career as a pastry chef in San Francisco and when she moved to Florence she started from scratch in learning a whole new way to cook and eat. In 1997, she started her website Divina Cucina with a dining guide to Florence and Chianti and also Tuscan recipes. Soon after she started sharing her thoughts and observations in Over The Tuscan Stove. Now she’s expanding into the world of travel apps.

She writes about meeting the individuals who grow, make and sell the authentic food of Tuscany,  learning from them the age-old family traditions. Her recent tours to Sicily and southern Italy have provided a whole new set of posts and pictures.

Baker’s Dozen

If you want to get into the act, you can always comment on any post that these twelve superb writers produce. But to get a real conversation going about all things Italy (and France and Spain and . . . ) join the Slow Europe Travel Forums at SlowEurope.com, created by Pauline Kenny the creator of the Slow Travel movement with her original site SlowTravel.

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What are your favorite Italy websites? Leave a comment here.

Francesca’s Footprints – A Student Finally Learns Something Important

It is a joy to learn something new and surprising. As a teacher, it is even better when I learn from a student. Here’s a story many of you at TuscanTraveler.com may know, at least in part. It’s about Ann, the Tuscan Traveler. She’s published a book! I wrote the Foreward.

Ann was a San Francisco lawyer in search of any enlightenment that nine months in Italy could bring her when she walked into my Italian grammar class in Massa Marittima, near the Tuscan coast, in 1998. To be kind, let’s say that she had no ear for my melodic language.

Francesca Al Vapore!
Francesca “Al Vapore”!

Changing focus, she sought to learn to expand her kitchen skills beyond admittedly delicious chocolate chip cookies and carrot cake to include Florentine and Tuscan recipes. I was conducting cooking classes for Americans and other tourists. Ann, unfortunately, could never master a passable soffritto or achieve al dente when it came to cooking pasta.

I was ready to give up on the notion that Ann was ever going to awaken to the state of being Italian even for a day, but then we started to delve into the customs and practices that make Italian food authentic. Maybe it is the lawyer’s need for defined rules and precedents or Ann’s love for research that, combined with her passion for eating, if not cooking, Italian food led her to collect what she came to call the Italian Food Rules.

Italian Food Rules FINAL DIGITAL FRONT 1000 PIXELS

After nine months in Florence became over fifteen years in Italy, Ann is still clearly American, but she knows more than most Italians about the basis of the food practices that are passed down from generation to generation. Her delight in each discovery has frequently been shared in her writing on TuscanTraveler.com and, now, in this enchanting book.

The facts, fictions, history and reasons behind the Italian Food Rules, as well as the revelation of the mere existence of so many customs or edicts, will assist any visitor to Italy by making their stay easier, less confusing, and richer. For Italians, their response to reading Ann’s list of the rules is usually “giusto, giusto” (“exactly right”) and then delight when they read the rationale and history of the gastronomic commandments passed down from their grandmothers.

I never knew where Caesar Salad originated (certainly not Italy), or why spaghetti with meatballs was considered an Italian dish, or why Americans always wanted a bowl of olive oil with a squiggle of balsamic vinegar delivered immediately to the table when dining at a trattoria. I enjoy eating lampredotto and lardo on a regular basis, being very familiar with these Tuscan specialties, but I never thought much about their origins in Italian history until Ann started asking questions, urging me to translate at Florentine tripe stands, and traveling to Colonnata to see where herbed lard is aged.

The bricks that form the foundation of the most loved cuisine in the world today are important and should be preserved. Ann Reavis has given us the gift of memory in her light and amusing book of Italian Food Rules.

You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook

Italian Life Rules – Superstitions, Familiar and Strange

The first use of the Latin superstitio is found in the writing of the historians Livy and Ovid (1st century BC). At that time the term “superstition” was used in Italy mostly in the negative sense of an excessive fear of the gods or unreasonable religious belief, as opposed to religio, the proper, reasonable awe of the gods.

photo by Ann Reavis

The term superstitio, or superstitio vana (vain superstition) was applied by Tacitus and Domitian (80 AD) to those religious cults (druids, early Christianity) in the Roman Empire that were officially outlawed.

Throughout history, Italian culture has been rich with superstitions for good or evil that continue to form the basis of many of the Italian Life Rules. Today a visitor may be surprised at which superstitions are taken seriously and which are taken with a grain of salt, so to speak.

photo by Ann Reavis

Here is a non-inclusive list of Italian superstitions so that you don’t put a foot wrong during your next visit:

The Evil Eye (Malocchio)

The Evil Eye is one of the most ancient superstitions in Italy. Every region seems to have their own version of the Evil Eye, but some take it more seriously than others. One thing they seem to have in common is that the Evil Eye is caused by jealousy and envy. One test for the Malocchio is done by dropping olive oil in a plate of water. If the oil forms one large drop in the middle of the plate it’s a sure sign of the Evil Eye, but after chanting the right prayers that usually only women are allowed to know, the oil may break up into tiny droplets and spread out, thus breaking the curse of the Evil Eye. The cornicello (see below) is also used to ward off the malocchio.

key ring amulets from Naples

The Devil’s Horn (Corno)

The use of the Corno, or Devil’s Horn, is a curse of impotency or of the cuckold. The twisted phallic red coral, gold or silver amulet (cornicello) is often worn or carried by men to ward off curses on their “manliness” or mojo. Although many claim the amulet represents one of the horns of the devil, the Corno predates Christianity by thousands of years. The horned god Faunus was known for his wild nature and interest in fertility. The ancient Romans knew well  Cernunnos, the horned Celtic god of fertility, life, animals, wealth, and the underworld. The horns of an African eland most resemble the original amulets.

Related to the Corno is the hand gesture (extending only the pinkie and index finger like a pair of horns) known as the mano cornuta, which can be used (pointing upwards or directly at the victim (cornuto)) to curse another or not so subtly send the message that a man’s wife or girlfriend is straying. This gesture can also be used  to ward off the Evil Eye (pointing fingers down).

Lucky Numbers

The number 13 is lucky in Italy, especially when gambling. The number 13 is also associated with the Goddess of Fertility and the lunar cycles. It is thought  the number brings prosperity and abundant life. Although 13 is considered lucky, sitting down to a table with 12 others is an ill omen. At the Last Supper Jesus ate with his 12 disciples before one of them, Judas Iscariot, betrayed him. Italians aim to avoid a similar turning of the tables. In modern times it seems the Friday 13 is starting to lose its charm in Italy, as with the rest of the world.

Unlucky Numbers

The number 17 is considered unlucky. This has to do with how it is written. Italians dislike the number so much that some hotels don’t have a 17th level. When 17 is written using Roman numerals XVII, it can be rearranged to spell the Roman word VIXI meaning “I have lived” and is found on ancient tombstones, thus tempting death. When written using Arabic numerals, 17 is still considered unlucky since it resembles a man ( the 1) hanging from a gallows (the 7).

photo by Ann Reavis

Superstitions Pertaining to Bread

A loaf of bread must always be placed face up, or else bad luck will come.  Again, some claim this has a basis in Christianity with the symbol of Christ as the Bread of Life. It is impolite to turn the bread up-side-down or to stick a knife into a loaf of bread. Bread is considered a staple of life and so every precaution is taken in order to prevent cursing the supply.

photo by Ann Reavis

No Birds in the House

The presence of a bird in the house (either as a pet or accidentally) brings bad luck. Mere bird feathers, especially peacock feathers with their Evil Eye, can curse a household or the wearer of a feathery hat. Some say the superstition has a Christian origin from the Bible story where Peter denied that he knew Jesus three times before the cock crowed. Paintings of birds are also be avoided.

Blessing/Exorcising a New House

The blessing or exorcism of a new house in Italy is still practiced, especially when it comes to newlyweds. Moving into a first home was accompanied by the necessary rituals to rid the place of any spirits that may have ben left by the previous owners and could harm the new couple or their first child. A new broom is a common first gift to sweep away evil spirits. Sprinkled salt in the corners of the house will purify it. Neighborhood priests go house to house before Easter to bless each home with holy water (in modern times a tiny note is frequently wedged in the door to notify the residents of the service).

The Witchdoctor (Mago/Maga)

Southern Italians, Sardinians and Sicilians, mostly of the older generation, still mix folk medicine and ancient superstitions. When home remedies did not work and modern medicine was not an option (from either lack of money or language), some neighborhoods have the services of a man or woman trained in ancient practices, bordering on witchcraft.

Older Sicilians can recall ancient rites, involving making dolls to curse an enemy, amulets to protect themselves from evil, or, on the more positive side, love potions to encourage a slow suitor.

Marriage Superstitions

Singles, don’t let a broom touch your feet when someone is cleaning the floors. If you do, you will never be swept off your feet and get married. Likewise, never sweep over the feet of an unmarried person, or they will never marry.

photo by Ann Reavis

Cats – Good and Bad

It’s bad luck to have a black cat cross your path. On the other hand, it’s considered a good fortune if you happen to hear a cat sneeze.

What Not to Put on a Bed

Don’t put a hat on a bed. Traditionally, when the sick were on their deathbeds a priest would come to receive their final confessions. The priest would remove his hat and set it on the bed so that he could put on the vestments. Thus, a hat’s temporary resting place is associated with eternal rest, a thought that keeps Italians from sleeping peacefully.

A bed should never face the door because it replicate the position of a coffin in a church.

Other unlucky items to keep off the bed are clothes hangers, hairbrushes, and shoes (of course the last is a hygiene issue, too).

Bad Luck Toasting

Never raise a toast with a glass full of water as it is bad luck. Don’t cross arms when you clink wine glasses together. Also, be sure look fellow toasters in the eye when clinking glasses and don’t slip up by forgetting to take a sip before setting your drink down, otherwise you will have seven years of bad sex.

Spills of All Kinds

Don’t spill salt or olive oil for fear of bad luck. This conception may have begun as a trick to motivate people to handle the previously expensive goods with care. If it happens, however, toss a bit of salt over each shoulder or rub a drop of oil behind each ear. If you spill wine at the dinner table, wet your fingers and dab some behind every person’s ear.

photo by Ann Reavis

Hearses – Coming and Going

Don’t follow a hearse that isn’t carrying a coffin. You are in death’s wake and soon people might be attending your funeral. However, if the hearse bears a body, it isn’t in pursuit of another passenger, so you are safe, just like if you pass a hearse driving in the opposite direction.

A Word to the Wise

Never trim toe and finger nails on Thursday.

Don’t start a journey, new project or get married on a Friday or a Tuesday.

Never have your hair cut during the new moon.

Never get a perm during your menstrual cycle.

Eat plenty of lentils on New Years’ Eve.

If you give a gift of a new wallet, always put at least a coin in it.

To prevent a downturn of fortune people practice tocca ferro and touch iron if they think something bad is going to occur. Italian men, knowing what must be protected at all costs, may tap their testicles, known as tocca palle. This is similar to knocking on wood.

photo by Ann Reavis

Good Omens

Seeing a spider at night: a sure sign of monetary income.

When you drop something then someone is thinking of you and their name starts with the first letter of item dropped. (Drop a pen (penn a) and Pamela is thinking of you.)

When your nose itches, it’s either “pugni o baci,” punches or kisses.

Finding a button on the ground: a new friendship is on the horizon.

Dreaming of someone dying and you will have added ten years to their life.

When a new moon appears, the minute you see it say the New Moon Incantation: “Benvenuta Luna che mi porti fortuna!” – “Welcome, moon and may you bring me good fortune!” This is to be repeated, bowing respectfully at the lunar sliver 13 times with a coin in each hand.

Eat lentils on New Years Day and money will follow during the year.

Broken Hand Mirror

Bad Omens

Killing a spider will take money away.

Breaking a mirror will result in seven years of bad luck.

Giving a handkerchief as a gift will bring tears.

Crossing silverware on the table foretells strife.

Passing each other the salt hand to hand (without putting it down on the table) will lead to imminent fight between the two.

Nuns crossing your path (or is this only for school children?).

Walking under a ladder.

Crossing arms when shaking hands in a group.

An owl sighting is a vision of the spirits of the dead.

Sources and Websites of Interest about Italian Superstitions:

About the etimology and general information about superstitions look here, here, here, here and here.

Rick Zulo at rickzulo.com

Eleanora Baldwin at aglioolioepeperoncino.com

VeniVidiVinoItaly.com

LifeInItaly.com

Carol King at ItalyMagazine.com

More recent:

TheLocal.it

Gina Fava at Bostoniano.info

Tuscan Traveler is collecting more Italian superstitions. Please leave a comment if you know of one that needs to be added to the list.

Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Italian Food Rules: The Book

Burnt To A Crisp – The Italian Post Office, Of Course.

Among my friends and family, they know how much I hate Italian Post Offices. Some have described it as a phobia: ufficiopostalefobia (postophobia (var. Italian)).

The smaller the better
The smaller the better

Actually, it is not the post office building that I object to. There are many incredibly beautiful post offices in Italy.

It’s the people who work there.

The façade hides it all
The façade hides it all

Actually, before the byzantine numbering system was put in place, I disliked everyone I came into contact with at the post office, because when we all had to stand in a waiting line, Italians (men or women) seemed to think the closer they were pressed to the back of the person in front of them (me), the faster they would get to the window.  Or they (mostly the wily pensioners) would cut in front of me with “solo una piccola domanda” (only a short question).

Get your number here
Get your number here

Actually, it’s also that computerized numbering system, now in place in most of Florence’s post offices, I loathe. Because although it has been explained to me that it was the fruit of a scientific study that determined that the pattern of letters and numbers it spits out is the fastest and fairest way to get people served at the post office, I can (in the hour that I am sitting waiting for P178 to appear) unscientifically observe that there are only two windows serving P (for postal) clients, including those with fifty registered letters to have stamped, inscribed, digitally recorded, and sent, and one or the other of the employees behind those two P windows will step away for a pausa (break) at frequent intervals.

Actually, I don’t dislike the people behind the windows (well, except for one or two, and those who live in Florence know to whom I’m referring), I abhor the bureaucratic system in which they have their secure jobs-for-life and I assume they are as unhappy to be there as I am. They sure seem sad. Not a smiley face among them.

Italian postal employeesActually, I didn’t mean to disgorge all of the above because today, I got a present.

But first, a little background. I follow (mostly lurking) the Italian Reflections Group (IRG) on Facebook. It’s a fabulous group of about 1,042 English reading/writing expats living in Italy. About a week ago one of the IRGers posted a diverting story about how on her third trip to the post office to try to mail her EU-bound holiday cards, she was informed that they were smaller than standard size so the postage for these too dainty missives would be 2.50 euro ($3.44) each, instead of the standard rate of 85 centesimi (cents) ($1.16). She, being more polite than me, did not stomp off cursing. She asked if the postage would drop to .85 if she put each holiday envelope into a standard envelope. The answer was “Dipende …” It depended on whether the weight of the combined envelopes and card exceeded the maximum weight for standard postage.

I then told this postal story to Francesca, the Florentine, in an attempt to justify my fobia. She snorted and said, “Well obviously she does not have a “Bustometro.” “Huh?” I said.

Soon after I was the proud owner of the two-sided document seen here:

BUSTOMETRO
BUSTOMETRO

On this side is the measurement guide so that the sender can verify the size of the “corrispondenza” before she sends it. It’s easy! Just place the envelope or post card on the bustometro so that the right lower corner fits and then find out if it is “normalizzata” or, in other words, if the upper left corner fits inside the area colored red.

Prepare the perfect envelope
Prepare the perfect envelope

If you are still confused, the other side of the bustometro shows you exactly how to use the form, with added info about how to address and stamp your envelope. If that wasn’t enough, there are also warnings not to include keys, pins, and paperclips in the contents of your mailing. (If you click on either of these photos you can see all of the fine details.)

You may not find as much comfort as I do from this gift. (OBTW it was issued in the late 1970s or early ’80s.) But I got a tremendous amount of validation that I am, and always have been, correct about how much joy and satisfaction can be gotten from the Italian Post Office experience.

Italian Food Rules: The BookItalian Life Rules (the book) is coming in Summer 2014. Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook

Italian Life Rules – Italians Hate Wall-To-Wall Carpeting

It used to be that British and the French perpetuated the myth that the Italians were peasants, living in filth. Read books and essays published in the early 20th century and after WWII in England. Listen to the French, today, as they cross the border in Liguria.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Wall-to-wall carpets prove it.

Pink Shag in California
Pink Shag in California

Remember the shag carpets so popular in the 60s and 70s throughout Britain and the U.S.? Even now, most American and European homes have carpet in the bedrooms and livingrooms. The Swiss rank first in their disdain for wall-to-wall carpets. The Italians run a close second.

Terra Cotta Tiles Made in Italy
Terra Cotta Tiles Made in Italy

Few Italian families tolerate wall-to-wall carpeting because there is no control of the dirt clinging to a rug, especially one that can not be taken out, hung on a line and beaten clean. Not even the strongest vacuum cleaner, used every single day, can assure the Italian homemaker that what is lurking deep in the pile of a carpet has been sucked away.

The Germans argue that allowing the carpet to cling to dust and spores lessens allergic symptoms. They say the dirt on ceramic and wood floors swirls up into the air every time a door is opened or shut.

Wall-To-Wall in NYC
Wall-To-Wall in NYC

Italians declare that is much better to have floors that can be swept every day and mopped with hot soapy water every other day. To some, small washable throw rugs or shakeable area carpets are acceptable to break up the cold and noise of tile, marble and terra cotta floors.

In England and France, you will not see the lady of the house wash down the front stoop every day or store owners washing the sidewalk and street in front of the shop door. In Italy it is a common occurrence.

It is true that Italians are litterers and frequently fail to clean up after their dogs, which infuriates the Americans and the British, but not the French. Outside a radius of a couple of meters from their street door, Italians know that the world is a filthy place and there is nothing much they can do about it.

Italian Ceramic Tiles
Italian Ceramic Tiles

In the Italian home, however, with a ban on outside shoes, the use of pantofole (slippers) and no wall-to-wall carpets, the environment is dust and germ free.

Italian Food Rules: The BookItalian Life Rules (the book) is coming in Summer 2014. Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook

Francesca’s Footsteps – Giving Thanks In The Maremma

Carbonifera!  Baratti!  Campiglia!

How many tourists to Italy or even, Italians, know these places? Already the names are evocative. They are all part of Maremma, the seaside region south of Livorno, but north of Grosseto, where the sea is especially beautiful and clean, and the food is as good as it can be – Acquacotta anyone? Pappardelle al cinghiale? – have you ever tried them?

Foto from Francesca Boni's BlackBerry
Foto from FB’s BlackBerry

In the summer this area is beautiful, but there are people – often too many – on the beaches (you sometimes can even go naked if your body still allows it).

BUT… now … at the end of November …OH my god!

Foto from Francesca Boni's BalackBerry
Foto from FB’s BlackBerry

I went on a weekend “retreat” to Campiglia Marittima. I needed to breathe, away from the usual Renaissance Disneyland of Florence, where I am lucky to have been born and live.

Anywhere else in Italy this weekend was rainy, cold, muddy, even snowy, and in Venice my friend had acqua alta again, poor thing, being a tour guide, that is true suffering.

Foto from Francesca Boni's BlackBerry
Foto from FB’s BlackBerry

BUT … where I was in the Maremma, the weather gifted me with two nights full of the best sound in the world – rain on the roof – followed by two days of pure perfection, with sunny, sweet air, accompanied by the most amazing clouds I had ever seen, cleaned by the storm, pieces of white cotton, sometimes pink.

Foto from Francesca Boni's Blackberry
Foto from FB’s BlackBerry

I turned my eyes for a second and here they are: two rainbows one after another. And then, close up a sighting of pure white on a brown beach: the long neck of a heron lifting off in slow motion, spreading gorgeous wings of gray and white.

To be able to walk on the beach in November is very very rare, but not yesterday. There was even a pink carpet going back and forth on the bagnasciuga made of tiny jellyfish.

Wow! What a gift from God this whole serendipity weekend, the air made me drunk with oxygen, I couldn’t stop smiling and loving everything that was around me. I felt lucky and in sync with everything and everyone else. This never happens in the city.

Of course, I forgot to bring my camera, but my beloved BlackBerry filled the need. Here they are, not technically perfect, but I hope they convey what I felt.

Foto from Francesca Boni's BlackBerry
Foto from FB’s BlackBerry

Actually with just two days away from Thanksgiving, I think this weekend is something to be very grateful for.

Thank you E&R for the house. Thank God for all the rest.

Francesca’s Footprints – Have a Nice Day & Watch Your Step

“Have a nice day and watch your step!”

I ride buses when I am in the U.S. and pretty much everywhere else.

Every single time I cannot help but notice how nice and customer friendly the bus drivers in the States are. One morning, for example, we were on our way to the Washington, DC train station, schlepping lots of luggage, it was nice that the lady driver “leaned” her bus to help us get on board.

Francesca's Favorite Bus at Union Station in Better Weather
Francesca's Favorite Bus at Union Station in Better Weather

She greeted every single passenger and did not answer her cell phone when it rang. Why am I noticing all this? Because I am Florentine. I live in the historic center and I avoid buses as much as I can – to the point of getting soaked in the rain by riding my motorino just to avoid Florentine buses.

Let me explain for those unfamiliar with the Florence ATAF system: On our Italian buses cell phone calls are always answered. Questions about stops are not answered. Speed limits are not respected. Drivers roar in to halt at the posted stops and brake abruptly at all traffic lights or during the usual dodging of double parked cars, known to all Italian byways. Just take a moment to view these spectacular circus events that were filmed by  passengers in Italy and posted on YouTube: here, here and here.

Buses in the Renaissance City
ATAF Bus in the Renaissance City

Let’s go back to that morning in Washington, DC to the beautiful African American woman driving the bus, with her long painted nails, and friendly smile. It was pouring down rain. We asked her whether there would be a stop very near the train station. She said we would have to cross the street, but then she offered to take us to her final deposit stop inside the back of Union Station so that we wouldn’t be soaked. When we got there, she explained precisely how to get to the train tracks, smiled and said goodbye.

I thanked her profusely. Smiling, she said: “This is not part of my job. This is the way I am. Have a great day!”

Now I think: either I am very lucky and always find happy drivers when I am in the United States (both in Washington and New York City), or bus drivers are happier there than in Italy, or it is just a matter of general fabulous customer service?

Cross-town Bus in NYC
Cross-town Bus in NYC

In the end if you think about it, doesn’t it take the same amount of calories to smile or be grim? Sometimes I have tried to thank the bus driver in Florence, and I got a look like I was a strange lunatic passenger.

And so I will go on riding my motorino, rain or shine in the Renaissance Disneyland where I happen to have been born by mistake, it seems.

Have a nice day, and DO watch your step!

Italian Life Rules – If The Shoe Fits

Italy is famous for its shoes and rightly so. There are, however, rules for which pair of shoes is appropriate for each occasion and location.

The short and unchanging list: 1) shoes and sandals for townwear (be it a village or city); 2) sport shoes for participating in sporting events; 3) flip-flops or rubber sandals for the beach or poolside; 4) shower shoes for public or hotel showers; and 5) slippers for home.

Italian Style seen on the streets of Florence
Italian Style seen on the streets of Florence

The trend-setting Italians base their choice of shoe both on reasons of style and of health. The sidewalks, streets, and floors in the world outside the home are not controlled nor cleaned by the Italian mother. Thus, all surfaces outside the home are suspect and assumed to contain large amounts of deadly pathogens. Shoes and sandals, depending on the weather, are to be worn at all times when outside the home, except when participating in a sport or at the beach.

Traveling Italian Style
Traveling Italian Style

No professional Italian woman transits (on foot, via car, scooter or bicycle, or on public transportation) to work wearing sports shoes with her designer slacks or skirt. Sports shoes are to be worn when participating in sporting events. Men may be let off the hook if they are wearing designer sporting shoes with casual attire.

Flip-flops are never worn by Italians anywhere except the beach, poolside or at the spa (spa footwear is usually a spa-branded slipper). After leaving the sand and entering the parking lot or street, shoes or sandals must be worn.

Good for the beach (or Jersey Shore) not for the center of Florence
Good for the beach (or Jersey Shore) not for Florence

Shower shoes are necessary for any shower that is not your own or is not maintained in the way that your mother would approve. Dangerous fungi, molds, and germs lurk, waiting for the Italian foot in public shower stalls and hotel bathtubs.

Upon arrival home, the Italian will remove his shoes and put on slippers or some footwear that is designated for the house only. An Italian does not wear these slippers down three flights of stairs to retrieve a package from the deliveryman. An Italian does not wear slippers to deposit the bundled newspapers and magazines outside the door on recycling day.

The Casa della Pantofola sells only slippers
The Casa della Pantofola sells only slippers

Bare feet are not allowed in the home, except in the shower or the bed. The coolness of the floor can lead to cramps, if not other maladies. Furthermore, between mopping and vacuuming an errant breeze might bring a dust-borne pathogen will adhere to bare feet and those feet will eventually slide between clean sheets at bedtime. Pantofole (slippers), wool for winter and open-toed for summer, are the footwear of choice for the Italian home.

Be stylish, be healthy, be Italian by wearing the proper shoe at the proper time in the proper place. It’s all part of the Italian Life Rules.

Italian Food Rules: The BookItalian Life Rules (the book) is coming in Summer 2014. Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook