My father just posted a couple of beautiful photos of the zucchini flowers from his veggie garden and asked if they were really good to eat. Simple answer: Yes, the flowers are scrumptious! However, Italians have two pieces of advice for my father: 1) pick the male flowers now and cook them up immediately, and 2) don’t let the zucchini squash grow beyond five inches long before harvesting it.
Americans are notorious for growing gigantic zucchini and then searching for ways of disposing of the tasteless watery squash. Garrison Keillor reportedly claimed July is the only time of year when the citizens of Lake Wobegon lock their cars in the church parking lot, so their friends won’t put a squash or two on the front seat.
Italians frequently buy their zucchini with the flower attached. The squash is firm, flavorful and can be eaten either raw or cooked in a dozen different ways.
But, back to the flowers. The gorgeous golden blooms should be plucked from the garden according to their sex. Judy Witts at Divina Cucina explains this well. The male flowers will never produce a squash, so snap them off and eat them now. Judy also gives us a recipe for fried flowers, the way most people love to eat the blossoms.
In Rome, you will find stuffed zucchini flowers, full of ricotta and a sliver of anchovy, fried up in golden olive oil. If you want them stuffed, but not fried, cooking the ricotta filled flowers in a fresh tomato sauce is delicious, says Jamie Oliver.
Mario Batali offers a frittata decorated with blossoms, but you can also make an eggy frittata with both chopped baby zucchini, overlaid with golden flowers.
There is a wine bar in Florence that offers a focaccia with a light cheese, decorated with splayed zucchini blossoms, kind of a squash blossom pizza.
So my father should either cook up those male flowers now and the female blossoms when the baby zucchini is just long enough, or he should make a sunny bouquet to decorate the center of the dinner table. Zucchini flowers should not just hide away in the garden.
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.
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.
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, 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 TheTigress 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 TheTigress 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!
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).
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.
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 TheTigress 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.
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.
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!
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.
Tuscan Traveler’s Picks is expanding its focus to include books and movies with Italian themes. I am pleased that Estelle Jobson, author of Finding Rome on the Map of Love, agreed to participate in the first author interview.
(A full and ever growing list of books and films with Italian settings, authors, and themes is easily found by clicking on the Tuscan Traveler’s Amazon Store link in the right column. Amazon will pay Tuscan Traveler a small affiliate commission on any of your purchases. You pay exactly the same price as you would if you went to Amazon directly.)
Estelle has offered to give one free copy of Finding Rome on the Map of Loveto the person who comments on this post with the best tale about a cultural misunderstanding they observed, heard about or experienced in Italy. Click here or at the end of the post to leave your story.
About Estelle Jobson
Estelle Jobson chose to leave a great job in South Africa to follow love and adventure to a life as “Signora Stella” in a quiet neighborhood on one of the highest hills of Rome. After more than dozen years working in all aspects of book publishing, she found herself tossed into the writing end of the business as she kept a journal of the joys, frustrations, and mysteries of life off the fast track in a country not her own. That journal became Finding Rome On The Map Of Love.
Life then led Estelle to Geneva where she once again has a busy day job. Her book, set in the seasons of Rome, is a fitting reminder that its good to take that unfamiliar path and Italy is the perfect place explore the map of love.
Finding Rome on the Map of Love
I loved the writing and the humor of Finding Rome on the Map of Love. Is this your first book and do you plan to write another?
Grazie! This is my first book, yes, although in my publishing career I have brought hundreds of books into the world for other authors. Right now, a great deal of creative energy goes into marketing Finding Rome, which deservesits rightful début. I wrote it over a year when I was a casalinga (housewife) and had the time and leisure to ruminate thoroughly and creatively. Such freedom and creative space is now limited by the otherwise very rewarding matter of earning a ‘proper’ income again. But I am brewing ideas on writing about a very different matter, women’s bodies and health, using humour to cloak information and provoke thought.
Your book is a meditation on assimilation (a South African expat in Italy). How long did you live in Rome and have you lived anywhere else in Italy?
‘Meditation’ is a good way of phrasing it, because living in Rome for 3 years gave me a chance to test-drive the mantra that emerges in Chapter 1: ‘You are enough. You have enough. You do enough.’ I managed to turn this into a way of life, effectively, even though now I am back in a conventional working life. I turned myself from a manic, frazzled career woman to a more balanced, less ambitious and considerably more contented person. This evolution is thanks largely to my time in Rome.
Have you traveled in Tuscany and do you have a favorite stop in Tuscany?
Yes, I have visited Florence itself, numerous times. I don’t have a specific spot that I love most. I travelled west to Livorno, and south down that coast, inland to Viterbo, and of course, back to Rome. Monte Argentario is spectacular, and I loved exploring the Etruscan ruins, from Tuscany to Lazio.
Do you have any observations about the difference between Florentines and Romans?
Yes, indeed! Apart from differences in vocabulary (e.g. schiacciata vs. pizza bianca), I would say the Florentines are generally a little more northern; meaning more reserved, and as they speak a ‘better’ Italian, more clearly enunciated, it is easier for me to understand. They say it themselves—their dialect is what Dante Alighieri formalized into what became standard Italian. I tried fiercely to get my head around the Roman dialect, but didn’t get much further than ‘Awu’ (hey), ‘Mo’ (now), and ‘Namo’ (Let’s go).
I love the Italian Food Rules (i.e. “no cappuccino after 10am”). What is your favorite Food Rule and why?
Olive oil, always, and butter very rarely. In this shift from butter to olive oil, I evolved from a blunt-palated anglosaxon to being able to discern a good olive oil from a splendid one. To this refining of my palate, I dedicated the chapter: ‘An ode to the olive’.
I am studying Italian Life Rules (i.e. colpo d’aria) right now and I found one in Finding Rome on the Map of Love that I had recognized subliminally, but never put a name to: Italians always wear bathrobes with hoods. What is your favorite Italian Life Rule?
I just love coprire la pancia (covering your stomach), which implies that one gets a nap in after lunch, with one’s tummy snugly covered. Accordingly, Italian men wear vests as a matter of course, and I adore this mélange of tenderness with masculinity: to ward off the peril of a chill on one’s tummy.
I read that you seem to enjoy learning languages. Which languages do you speak and in what order did you learn them?
Yes, learning languages has long been a hobby and a love of mine. I grew up in an English-speaking home, heaving with books. Afrikaans was taught in South African schools from quite early on and in high school, I started with French where my linguistic love affair really took off. At university, I did a pure-languages BA, majoring in French, English, and Xhosa (a South African language, Mandela’s mother tongue). As there were no additional fees involved at varsity, I did extra courses, German and beginner South Sotho (another African language). Only years later, in my thirties, did I start learning Italian after I met the man in question. But no, I don’t speak them all that well and sometimes I jumble them up.
Likewise, you seem to have wanderlust. Which countries have you lived in for more than six months and in what order, starting at birth?
Ooh, yes! ‘Sagittarius: have suitcase, will travel’. I grew up in Cape Town and, as an adult, moved to Johannesburg for my first job. In my early thirties, I studied in New York for 15 months, then lived in Geneva for 2.5 years, then went back to Joburg for 4.5 years. Rome came next, for 3 years, and 2.5 years ago, I returned to Geneva. It suits me much better the second time around.
Which country that you haven’t lived in would you like to try for six months to a year?
I am more attracted to cities, than countries, as such. Which cities? Paris (big) or perhaps Lyon (smaller). Frankfurt. Sydney. Seattle. Toronto. Chicago. London. Bombay. How many chances do I get?
As a booklover, do you box up a library as you move from country to country or have you given in to an eReader or do you have another solution?
I do schlepp books around with me, but circumstances have forced me to become frugal. So I use local English libraries, buy used books from English church sales and the like, and then I swap with friends and colleagues. Occasionally, I donate books to public libraries or leave them in airports. I haven’t made the e-reader transition, because I love turning pages and I appreciate the mastery of a well-produced book.
Italy seems to lend itself to memoirs. You are now living in Switzerland. Is there a genre of expat-living-in-Switzerland memoirs? Can you see yourself writing one?
Italy has been the source of inspiration for numerous ‘travel’ writers, indeed, I think because Italy is such a total-immersion setting and so rich in quirky anecdotes, steeped in history. Such writing has not taken off in quite the same way in Switzerland, on the whole. Might this be because the Swiss are less loquacious and more inscrutable? In Geneva, which is more of a mini-global village, however, swissness is fairly diluted. My friends and colleagues hail from all corners of the globe. A few are even Swiss. In the course of a day at work, I may speak French, English, Italian, and maybe some rusty German. I don’t think writing about Switzerland is going to be my next writing project, however. I am keen to write about the landscape of the body.
You don’t describe in much detail about how your Italian partner (“the Metrosexual”) assimilated to South Africa. Do you think Italians assimilate when they move to another country?
On the whole, I don’t think first-generation Italians assimilate particularly well, no. Their children might, but those who are newly uprooted tend to stick to what they know and trust, that which is di fiducia. This includes brands, cuisine, and social familiarities, such as finding a local Italian butcher, hairdresser, shoemaker, and tailor. For example, try as I might, I could not persuade the Meterosexual that Disprin is just as good (no, identical to) aspirina. He made a tentative go at South African braais (barbecues), but was not able to keep up with the copious drinking marinated by the fierce African sun.
In the same vein, did “the Metrosexual” become “more” Italian when the two of you moved to Rome, and, if so, how?
I wrote about this process in ‘Love is like an artichoke‘, about the slow peeling off and identifying of layers of identity. He did not change, but my ability to differentiate between what was him, what came from his family, what was Florentine, or broadly Italian (and then, which kind of Italian), became much more nuanced.
What was the germinating idea for your book Finding Rome on the Map of Love and what was its path to publication?
When I moved to Rome, I was free to not work for the first time in my adult life. This luxury was strangely unhinging too. Simultaneously, I was flung into a brand-new setting and was processing cross-cultural conundrums daily, which triggered a flood of creativity. I carried around notebooks and scribbled away madly, recording snippets of conversations, words, and observations of events around me. From that heap of chaos, I pulled out themes and wrote them up, one by one, chapter by chapter. I wrote 45 chapters over a year, each one under 2,000 words and set myself the goal of 70,000 words. In so doing, I processed my personal path and deepened my understanding of Italy.
You have written essays that have been published on Transitionsabroad.com on the topics relating to, in most part, navigating the bureaucracy of Italian life. Do you plan to create a book of those and other similar essays?
Transitionsabroad.com commissioned me to write how-to articles for ex-pats settling in Italy, which gave me a yet another opportunity to turn life’s experiences into writing. Feedback on internet-based writing is often immediate, direct, and gives me a bit of a thrill, so I have written a good number of pieces as a guest blogger, here and there. I have not thought of bundling them together, mostly because I regard writing for the internet as fast food and book publishing as fine dining.
Do you still drive a Vespa?
I have a Sym Tonik 125cc now, simply because the dealer was operating mid-summer. Guess where the Vespa dealer was? On holiday. In Italy! But actually, I ride my bicycle much more. I am looking forward to seeing myself being quoted as a ‘chic cyclist’ in a bike book (The Girls’ Bicycle Handbook: Everything You Need to Know About Life on Two Wheels) to be published next month.
Do you still attend writing/publishing conferences? Which is your favorite and why?
On and off, yes. My favourite is the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is a mindboggling beehive of publishers, authors, exhibitors, and events. As Europe’s biggest book fair, it is 27 football fields worth of books and makes me feel, as a publishing person, that I am part of a vast, thriving, and magnificent world of ideas that become ink.
What is an Interrobang? What place does it play in your life and do you think it will find favor on Twitter?
The interrobang is a punctuation mark, merging an exclamation mark with a question mark. It was developed in the early days of printing and destined for great things, but did not thrive. The ‘?!’ conveys both surprise and questioning. No other punctuation mark in English communicates two emotive elements at once. Not being very on active on Twitter, I can’t rightly say which direction it might go in, but the interrobang would certainly fit well into the twittersphere. Bring it on!?
Ask and answer two questions that are not included here, which you think should be part of any interview with you.
Who is your favourite feminist?
Can I have two? Both of them think (thought) out of the box. Helen Keller was a lyrical and prolific writer. She mastered several languages, read widely, and was a vocal activist for women’s and workers’ rights. And then Inna Shevchenko, of Femen, who essentially turned a little known Ukrainian group of activist-intellectuals into an international movement. Their success lies in a particularly deft and radical move: having women write slogans of protest on their own bodies.
Who encouraged you most to write when you were young?
Lots of English teachers did. But at my high school, Will van der Walt, was the most emphatic and inspiring. He took my literary interests very seriously and bestowed the utmost respect upon the teenage angst I spilled out upon the page. You will see that I mentioned him in the Acknowledgements of my book.
Book Give Away
Remember:Estelle will give a free copy of Finding Rome on the Map of Love to one lucky person who comments on this post with the best tale about a cultural misunderstanding they observed, heard about or experienced in Italy. Click the link below.
Update: Ansa Liebenberg won the free book for her comment and tale.
Italy will spend 2011 celebrating the 150th anniversary of its unification – known as the Risorgimento (Resurgence). From a land of city-states, many under foreign domination, Italy became a country in 1861.
Most historians agree that the unification of Italy started in 1815 with the end of Napoleonic rule, but it took a tortuous path through the insurrections of the 1820s and 1830s and the abortive revolutions of 1848-1849. The War of 1859 created the Kingdom of Sardinia that encompassed most of northwestern and central Italy, including Tuscany. But the move to unify the peninsula stalled there. The rich north had had nothing to gain and little interest to take on the burden of the poor south or to confront the pope in the Papal States.
Giuseppe Garibaldi was the true hero who kick-started the final unification of Italy. In early 1860, he gathered about a thousand of volunteers (I Mille) in Genoa for an expedition by sea to Sicily.
The Kingdom of Two Sicilies (yellow on map), which ruled over not only the island, but most of the southern third of the mainland, had long been a corrupt government, oppressing a restive underclass. Although the Garibaldi Red Shirts were less skilled and ill equipped, they had tremendous success, gathering thousands of volunteers as they moved through the countryside. They occupied Sicily within two months. Garibaldi claimed Sicily in the name of Victor Emanuel II, King of Piedmont, Sardinia and Savoy. He then crossed to the mainland and marched his troops to Naples.
After Garibaldi’s success made full unification of Italy a real possibility, Piedmontese troops, under the command of Victor Emanuel II, used the riots and uprisings in the Papal States (red on map) as a reason to move south under the pretext of maintaining order. In 1860, two thirds of the Papal States joined the Kingdom of Sardinia and Rome was left alone. The Piedmontese army bypassed Rome and the remaining Papal States and marched south to Naples to help Garibaldi’s troops defeat the remaining armies of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies.
On September 18, 1860, Garibaldi gave up command of his army and all lands to the south, including Sicily and Naples, to Victor Emanuel II, signifying the unity and formation of the Kingdom of Italy, which was formalized by the new parliament on March 17, 1861. Victor Emanuel II was crowned the first King of Italy.
Although a Kingdom of Italy had been formed, it did not include all of Italy. The missing parts were Rome and Venetia. Venetia was annexed in 1866. Rome and the remaining Papal States became part of the union in 1870.
Throughout the year Tuscan Traveler will highlight events and stories relating to the unification of Italy.
One of the joys of living in Italy is not only the chance to visit places where Renaissance artists, poets, dukes and popes wandered the same hallways and alleys, but to visit locations where no less dramatic, but much more recent history took place.
To Americans under 60 years of age World War II in Europe is often a vague set of facts found in a history book – a short chapter or two. Italy, like Normandy, provides a full semester’s course on the sociological background, politics, alliances, military strategies, and both tragic and victorious outcomes, especially from 1942 to 1945 – the Italian Campaign.
TuscanTraveler.com has a special interest in the American Cemeteries, located at Anzio/Nettuno and Florence. So it is a pleasure to find that Anne Saunders, an American researcher, has compiled a guide to almost every location in Italy where one can undertake a full study of the history of World War II and the Italian Campaign.
A Travel Guide to World War II Sites in Italy describes and provides directions to over one hundred World War II museums, monuments, cemeteries and battlefields. The tours, with complete directions, travel times, maps and other helpful hints, focus on a particular city or region, following the Allied and German armies as they battled from southern to northern Italy.
It might be more accurate to call this book “A Short History and Travel Guide of the Italian Campaign” because in this small volume (100 pages) Anne provides concise descriptions of the years leading up to Italy’s alliance with Germany, the Allied landing in Africa and Sicily, and the subsequent important battles and strategic decisions that led to the German surrender. Sections recounting the history lead into to description of the pertinent museums, cemeteries (American, Commonwealth, German, Polish, French and others), memorials and monuments.
I learned that the Gothic Line was built by forced labor and that I want to go immediately to see the dramatic mountainside German Military Cemetery at Traversa where more than 30,000 German soldiers are buried. My only quibble with Anne’s book is that she fails to describe the beautiful flower gardens in which the Commonwealth soldiers are buried – not on the outside of the plots, but actually around each tombstone, as if they lie in an English country garden forever.
Anne, a true researcher, provides an exhaustive bibliography and even a list of films about the Italian Campaign. She also provides hotel and transportation suggestions. Archival WWII photos illustrate the guidebook. For more information regarding the Italian campaign, read about WWII Italy and/or visit Anne’s complete and informative online page of news and links.
Anne Saunders has a BA from Wellesley College, MA from Columbia University, and PhD from the University of South Carolina. She taught for over twenty years at the College of Charleston, where she is now a research associate. A lifelong fan of Italy, she spent four summers there doing research for the guidebook. I would like to know more about how she got the inspiration to undertake the years of travel and study that resulted in this informative and very helpful guide.
Connect to Anne’s Amazon Author Page. To view the book’s table of contents and selected pages, click on its Amazon web page. Visit where to buy for a list of stores and web vendors in the USA, Canada, the UK, Italy, and elsewhere.
In these hard economic times, the best business to have is the guy selling padlocks at the little cart on the Ponte Vecchio. It’s a return business that beats all others in Florence.
Locks of love, or lucchetti dell’amore, are the padlocks fixed by loving couples on to part of the Ponte Vecchio, usually to the fence around the statue of Cellini located in the center of the bridge, to symbolize their eternal love. The symbol is further enhanced by the fact that the bridge unites two sides of the city (unites/joins/attaches/holds together – get it?). The enamored twosome locks the padlock after inscribing their names or initials and/or the date on it and throws the key into the Arno so that their love is locked forever.
Some say the practice started in China where the Juyongguan, Sanbu and Badaling sections of the Great Wall (those closest to Beijing) are the most popular sections with thousands of locks of various sizes attached to the rows and rows of steel chains along the wall. (I’m not sure where they throw the key – an important part of the ritual.)
Reportedly the practice in Italy was born in Rome, when in 2006, a romantic movie based upon the novel “Ho Voglia di Te” was released. In the book a young man tries to win the heart of his true love by telling her that their love will last forever, preserved by the lock attached to Ponte Milvio and the key lost forever in the Tiber. Supposedly, the movie – not the book- started a wildly popular ritual among young Romans.
The Italian story I like the best about the lucchetti dell’amore also relates to attaching padlocks to bridges. It is said that the tradition began when young men had to leave their hometowns to do military service. They attached a lock to one of the local bridges before their departure as a promise to return home, essentially a promise to survive their enlistment.
But back to the mess of locks closing in around the venerable Benvenuto Cellini. About once every four months, a city worker with huge lock cutter arrives to denude the fence. One wonders what happens to the love of those now not so immortalized there. Do they feel a instantaneous heart pang when their lock is snipped? Do they suddenly look at each other for some unexplicable reason, realizing that their love is over/false/fading/mistaken/doomed?
The powers-that-be in Florence have called for more policing on the bridge to stop the locks, which some find unsightly and others claim are damaging historic artifacts. They hung a sign in front of poor Cellini that states in both Italian and English (why not also in Japanese, Russian, French and Spanish?) that the fine for attaching locks to the railing is 50 euros. The threat seemed to work for awhile, but love will not be denied. Also, they failed to stop the vendor on the Ponte Vecchio from selling cheap padlocks and felt-tipped pens.
I have a suggestion for that enterprising fellow: sell locks that come with two keys, but keep one key. With a little soapy water or, at most, a dab of benzine, and the shiny second key, you will be able to lure two sets of lovers to the fantasy of love everlasting, pocketing twice the price.
On the trendy Via de’ Tornabuoni, nestled in the courtyard of the luxe Palazzo Tornabuoni, is a new restaurant, Obikà, the latest location in a chain of mozzarella bars that has its birthplace in Rome, and now has siblings in London, New York, Kuwait City,Tokyo, Turin and Milan.
Obikà has the look of a stylish bar where one can stop in for a snack and a glass of wine. But it is more. You can get a full meal – antipasto, primo, secondo and dolce – or you can simply have a hand-pinched ball of the freshest mozzarella di bufala with a side of prosciutto or salame or tomatoes and basil, paired with a glass of Tuscan wine.
The minimalism of the counter at one end with its clear containers, which hold balls of the mozzarella and colorful vegetables, and even the brushstrokes of its logo suggest a Japanese, more than Mediterranean, sushi bar, not for fish, but for the freshest of cheeses. At the other end of the vast room is a cocktail bar of identical design, serving a full range of drinks.
Obikà focuses on the most prized mozzarella in Italy, small and large balls of mozzarella di bufala, made from water buffalo milk. For some, the smoked affumicata is the best choice, especially paired with a Sicilian eggplant caponata. For others the favorite styling is stracciatella di burrata.
Burrata starts out much like mozzarella and many other cheeses, with rennet used to curdle the warm milk. But then, unlike other cheeses, fresh mozzarella curds are plunged into hot whey or lightly salted water, kneaded and pulled to develop stretchy strings, then shaped in whatever form is desired. When making burrata, the still-hot cheese is formed into a pouch, which is then filled with scraps of leftover mozzarella and topped off with fresh cream before closing. Obikà serves a small glass bowl with only the buttery “scraps” swimming in cream.
Obikà’s mozzarella is served with accompaniments such as Sardinian bottarga, mortadella with pistachios, Tuscan porchetta, Ligurian pesto and seasonal fresh figs. Large salads, tasty pastas, desserts, coffees and a large selection of Italian wines from small Italian producers are also available.
Each evening the large raised communal table is decked with small plates of the freshest snacks, salty and sweet, some with mozzarella and some without. For 9 euro, guests are invited to eat all that they wish, accompanied by a cocktail or glass of wine to drink.
The only drawback to Florence’s Obikà is the service. The staff is either uncaring or poorly trained. Dropped and sloshed drinks, delivery of the wrong order, ignored requests for the bill, staff surfing the music sound track or congregating at the bar to chat, and a bartender who loves the crash the empties into the trash, may be part of any meal. (See 100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do, Part 1 and Part 2) Also, there was a disconcerting architectural design flaw (perhaps, by now, it has been solved) that resulted in all of the collected dirty dishes being periodically wheeled through the tables to a washing facility located somewhere not connected to the restaurant. Neither this nor the service failings should be sufficient to discourage the visitor from enjoying the impressive décor or the superlative cuisine.
bir & fud, a trendy beer and pizza joint on a narrow busy pedestrian street in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome, will put a smile on your face every time you think of the name or the food.
With an ever-changing menu of artisanal beers on tap and over 100 different bottled brews, this is the premier beer destination for all of Italy, not just Rome. bir & fud not only prizes the yeast in its beer, but also that in its special pizza and focaccia dough, the revered lievito madre. Order the fresh-daily buffalo mozzarella as an antipasto or better yet, have a pizza margherita con bufala.
The bir & fudblog is written in Italian, but is easy to navigate to find the ‘fud’ menu and the ‘bir’ list. There is a nearby botegga where the bottled beer and other items are for sale.
bir & fud
Via Benedetta, 23 Rome (Trastevere) Map Open every day 12:00pm to midnight
Reservations are necessary for dinner (call before 6pm). Tel. 06.5894016.