Category Archives: Tuscan Traveler’s Tales

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Expatriate Stories, Dr. Buly finds Podere Collalto

Owning a villa in Tuscany, producing fine wine and fragrant olive oil, is the fantasy of many Americans, but one that rarely comes to fruition. For years, Dr. Robert Buly nurtured such a dream, but once it came true he still had to keep his day job as a renown orthopedic surgeon in New York to fund his expatriate life.

View near Trequanda, Italy

A family history of immigration from Europe to the United States forms the basis of Dr. Buly’s interest in Italy and adds depth to his appreciation of the land of which he and his family now have stewardship. Although Bob and his family haven’t moved to Tuscany for good, his heart seems to be in Trequanda.

Grandparents Emigrate from Ukraine to Pennsylvania

Soon after the turn of the 20th century there was a grand immigration from Eastern Europe to Western Pennsylvania by those in search of work in the thriving steel mills, including Bob’s grandparents traveling from Ukraine for a better life. Their son, Mike (Bob’s father), who had just started to work as a plumber, rushed to enlist when the U.S. entered World War II. He was sent to Italy.

Mike Buly in Florence 1945

Mike Buly was a soldier in the U.S. Fifth Army. Moving north up the Italian peninsula he fought to liberate Italy from the occupying Germans at a time that it was essential to split the attention of the enemy forces as the D-Day landing was being implemented. As the Fifth Army entered Tuscany they took heavy casualties. Many of Mike’s comrades now lay buried in the American Cemetery of Florence.

Mike Buly Finds a Bride in Italy

Soon after the the town of Trequanda was liberated in southern Tuscany Mike and a buddy commandeered a motor scooter and took off through the countryside looking for a place to buy a few straw-covered fiascos of the local red wine. Seeing some lights on a hilltop, they droved into the village of Torre a Castello. A local festa di liberazione was taking place with music, dancing, food and, most important to Mike and his friend, a lot of local wine.

Fedora Gigli, who lived in a nearby village, was attending the celebration with seven of her female cousins. The two young American soldiers in uniform became the hit of the party. And that was the night Dr. Buly’s parents fell in love.

Italy was liberated April 25, 1945, and victory in Europe soon followed on May 8. Mike Buly could have chosen to take his well-earned discharge, but he reenlisted once his commanding officer confirmed that he could remain with the U.S. Army in Italy instead of going to the Pacific. He immediately started to jump through the Army’s bureaucratic hoops necessary to marry an Italian citizen, as well as to beg permission from Fedora’s family.

Mike and Fedora get married in 1945

Mike and Fedora were married in the village of Serre di Rapolano, just ten miles from where they first met. The entire village turned out for the wedding on November 29, 1945. Post-war Italy was in a state of chaos and poverty. Through the black market Mike was able to obtain gasoline for the vehicles, food and wine and even the hard-to-find ingredients for the wedding cake. His sister Stella, who lived on a farm in Pennsylvania, couldn’t attend, but sent Fedora a wedding dress. Fedora’s young cousin Giulio was part of the wedding party (he plays a big part, later). Fedora emigrated with her new husband to his hometown in western Pennsylvania. She and Mike would raise five sons. Robert Buly was the third.

When the Buly family finances could afford it, the seven of them would travel to visit Fedora’s extended family. (Remember the seven female cousins? They were only a fraction of the clan, all living near Siena.) Bob and his brothers became fluent in Italian since their mother spoke it at home. They all loved Italian food and the Tuscan lifestyle. Bob always dreamed of being able to have a place in the Italy that could produce olive oil and wine.

Finding a Place to Call Home in Italy

In 2006, after years of searching for a suitable place, Bob’s cousin Giulio (the 1945 ring-bearer) learned that Podere Collalto was for sale, approximately 6 miles from his own vineyard and farm, just outside the Tuscan town of Trequanda. Podere means farm and Collalto means high hill.  The hilltop farm with its classic expansive Tuscan view had land for a vineyard and already contained over 300 olive trees.

Olive Groves at Podere Collalto

From their large casa colonica (farmhouse), Bob’s family can see the towns of Montalcino (the home of world-famous Brunello) and Montepulciano (the excellent, but less well known, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano). Bob felt that the climate and soil should certainly be conducive to producing an excellent wine. His cousin Giulio felt that U.S.-based Bob was crazy for attempting this endeavor. Giulio has his own vineyard of almost 6 acres and offered to sell a portion of his grape harvest. But, Bob, whose undergraduate degree from Penn State’s college of agriculture was in plant science, felt just buying grapes to make his own wine would not be the same. He wanted to establish his own vineyard.

Casa Colonica at Podere Collalto

The vineyard was planted in early 2008. The altitude provides a summer breeze which dries out the vineyard after rainstorms and cool nights to allow the grapes to rest. The soil in the region appears to be perfect for olives and grapes, rocky, full of minerals and drainage, and not overly fertile. Bob likes to say that Italians feel that, like people, olive trees and vines do better in the long run if they have to suffer and struggle somewhat as they develop.

Buli “Estate 44” Toscano Rosso

Bob started with 1.2 acres of Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot grapes to create a red blend, known in the U.S. as Super Tuscan. He also planted some white grapes to be used for Vin Santo. In March 2012, he tripled the size of the vineyard and added a Shiraz varietal. The vineyard now produces about 1200 cases per year. Bob Buly called the winery Buli (the Italian version of his Ukrainian name). He named one of his red wines Estate 44, which in Italian is Summer of 44, to honor the soldiers who liberated Trequanda on July 1, 1944.

Bob has the help of not only his family, but also an enologist, Massimo Carpini, to employ more scientific techniques rather than the traditional Tuscan methods of his cousin, but harvesting the grapes is still labor-intensive and done in the traditional way. To bulk up his labor force Bob has managed year after year to convinced his American friends, professionals from all walks of life, to come to Tuscany during the vendemmia (harvest) for a few days of backbreaking physical labor, followed each evening by a great meal and a lot of wine from past vintages.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Tuscany’s Sword in the Stone, San Galgano

One of the most famous British legends is that of King Arthur and the sword in the stone, first found in Robert de Boron’s Merlin in the late 12th century. According to the various versions of the story, the sword could only be pulled out of the stone by the true king of England.

The Sword of Sir Galgano, a knight, embedded in a stone for 900 years (photo: TripAdvisor)

A similar, much less well-known, story of an earlier date, can be found originating from the Italian region of Tuscany. It has been suggested by some that the Italian tale was inspiration for the British legend. This is the sword in the stone of San Galgano.

Galgano Guidotti was born in 1148 in the small town of Chiusdino, Italy in the province of Siena. This strong blond boy reportedly wanted to be a knight and save the maiden. But though he became a knight, trained in the art of war, he was said to be arrogant and vicious and rather than saving the maiden, he broke many a heart. His mother Dionisia stepped in and found him a fiancée. But still he terrorized the region.

Rotonda di Montesiepi where San Galgano is buried (Photo: sailko, Wiki Commons)

One day, Archangel Michael appeared to him, showed him the way to salvation in Montesiepi, an uninhabited ridge, near his hometown. The next day Sir Galgano announced that he was going to become a hermit and took up residence in a cave. He was reportedly ridiculed by friends and relatives for his choice. They thought he had gone mad. His mother asked him to get rid of the ragged clothes, dress as befitted his station and, at least, go and say goodbye to his fiancée, perhaps thinking he would change his mind once he had seen the maiden again.

Being an obedient Italian son, he complied. Along the way, his horse threw him and Archangel Michael stepped in again and raised him up, directing his feet back to Montesiepi. The archangel directed his gaze to the top of the hill where he saw a vision of a round temple with Jesus and Mary surrounded by the Apostles; then the angel told him to climb the hill and the vision faded. When he reached the top, Archangel Michael bade him to renounce worldly pleasures.

Abbey of San Galgano (photo: Wiki Commons)

Galgano stated that giving up his riches and his fiancée would be as hard as splitting a rock, illustrating his point by attempting to plunge his sword into a large stone. The sword reported slid through the solid rock, where it remains today in the Rotonda di Montesiepi.

Another version of the story is that Galgano was convinced that his vision deserved a symbolic act; he decided to plant a cross. Since he had no way to make one of wood, he planted his sword in the ground. The earth solidified into stone and the sword could not be removed.

Galgano never left the hill again. Locals and visitors said that he lived in poverty, accompanied by wild animals, as well as the local farmers, who came to talk and ask his blessing. Others came to be followers of Galgano as religious monks. One day an assassin, disguised as a monk (some say he was sent by the Devil) came to kill Galgano; the wolves that lived with Galgano killed the man and gnawed at his bones. We know this because the bones of the murderous soul lie in a reliquary near the tomb of Galgano.

Assassin’s arm bone in reliquary at San Galgano (photo: jfkingsadventures)

One year later, after the attempted killing, Galgano the Religious Hermit died (1181). The funeral was reportedly attended by bishops and three Cistercian abbots. The next year the Bishop of Volterra gave Montesiepi to the Cistercian monks to build a shrine to Galgano’s memory. They began building in 1185, erecting a beautifully unique round temple (Rotonda di Montesiepi) over the purported tomb (also where Galgano’s hermit’s hut was located) and where the sword remained in the stone. (Most of Galgano’s monkish followers in life left, scattered over Tuscany, becoming Augustinian hermits.) The Rotonda di Montesiepi can be visited today.

San Galgano is reported to be the first saint whose canonization was conducted through a formal process by the Catholic Church. Consequently, much of San Galgano’s life is known through the documents of his canonization, which was carried out in 1185, just a few years after his death. Nineteen miracles were recorded as part of the canonization process.

After Galgano’s death his scalp reportedly continued to grow blond curls to the amazement of the faithful. The miraculous head was placed in a reliquary in a side chapel, and the chewed bones of the arms of the assassin in another. The crowds of pilgrims who came, hoping for more miracles or to be healed of some malady, were so numerous that the Cistercians were authorized to build another monastery, named after San Galgano, a short distance away.

Abbey of San Galgano at night (photo: Wiki Commons)

By 1220 a large Cistercian abbey was built below Galgano’s hermitage. This sect claimed him as a Cistercian saint. It was one of the most beautiful Gothic buildings of Italy. The monastery became powerful, with monks from San Galgano appointed to high offices throughout Tuscany, becoming absentee caretakers of the monastery and temple.

Medieval reliquary for San Galgano’s head (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo Siena)

The Abbey knew 100 years of great prosperity until 1364, then followed a slow decline. Eventually a local lord removed and sold the lead supporting the roofs of both the round temple and the abbey in 1548. The temple roof survived, but the roof of the abbey collapsed. When a local noble stopped to visit a century later, he found grass in the nave, and just one monk, dressed in rags.

The Pope suppressed the abbey in the early 1700s and declared the round temple to be a parish church. The round chapel still stands, containing both the sword in the stone and the gnawed forearms of the would be assassin. The walls of the abbey are also still standing, and it is a hauntingly beautiful place at all hours of the day.

For centuries, the sword in the stone was commonly believed to be a modern fake. Relatively recent research, however, has shown that the sword is indeed from the 12th century, based on the composition of the metal and the style of the sword. The researchers also discovered, with the aid of ground-penetrating radar, that there is a cavity measuring two meters by one meter beneath the sword, perhaps containing the body of San Galgano. Lastly, carbon dating of the other curiosity of the chapel – a pair of desiccated arms and hands, confirmed that they are also from the 12th century.

The head of San Galgano has also had an interesting afterlife. First, a intricate medieval reliquary was created for the miraculous cranium. It is now displayed – empty – in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Siena. As Cristina Amberti, the best tour guide in Siena and the province, asserts, “It is a real masterpiece.”

1977 Bini Reliquary containing San Galgano’s Skull (photo: siena-agriturismo.it)

But Cristina goes on to inform us that the skull of San Galgano is now contained in a reliquary in the San Michele church (Prepositura di San Michele Arcangelo) in Chiusdino. This evocative reliquary was created in 1977 by goldsmith  Bino Bini. The modern reliquary is made in embossed silver designed to recall the rock into which the saint thrusted his sword.

Cristina adds another touring note:  There is a chapel attached to the Rotonda di Montesiepi with frescoes by  Ambrogio Lorenzetti,  painted in 1340 with scenes from San Galgano’s life. Lorenzetti was one one the greatest Sienese masters of Medieval art, the one responsible for the world famous Allegory of Good and Bad Government. The San Galgano frescoes were detached last year and moved to the Museum of the Santa Maria della Scala Hospital in Siena, across from the Duomo, where they are now being restored by the famed restauratore Massimo Gavazzi.

Find Cristina Amberti on Facebook and at SienaTours. Tuscan Traveler recommends that you take a tour with her to understand Siena and its history to the fullest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History of Torre della Castagna

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

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

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

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

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

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

Torre della Castagna Today

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

Inside the Giuseppe Garibaldi Museum
Inside the Giuseppe Garibaldi Museum

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

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

Available from Amazon.com (eBook)

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

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

 

 

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Real Licorice from Calabria

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

Illustration of Glycyrrhiza Glabra
Illustration of Glycyrrhiza Glabra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amarelli Museum in Rosano
Amarelli Museum in Rossano

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

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

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Cats of Venice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life Stranger Than Fiction?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florence Duomo
Florence Duomo

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

What is a Duomo?

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

Milan Duomo
Milan Duomo

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

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

San Gimignano Duomo
San Gimignano Duomo

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

The Duomo in Florence

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

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

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

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

Monza Duomo
Monza Duomo
What is a Basilica?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Refectory of Santa Croce 1966
Refectory of Santa Croce 1966

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

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

Other media of interest:

Benozzo Gozzoli Museum Video of Strappo Technique (Italian language)

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

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

Long compilation of original flood video

Modern restoration of frescoes

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Bellini Museum

Visit Museo Bellini

Getting to view the collection of the Museo Bellini, located along the Arno in Florence, takes a bit of work. To understand its history, having some understanding of Italian helps. But for a new experience, a tour through the Bellini collection is as memorable, as it is fun.

Museo Bellini on Lungarno Soderini
Museo Bellini on Lungarno Soderini

To get in, you start by phoning or ringing the bell. Then make an appointment for a tour and turn up at the appointed time. The fee of 15 euro gets you three visits within a year.

As you walk in to the entry hall a mishmash of the ancient and the modern might make you wonder what is ahead. As you climb the stairs you are transported back to the early 20th century when Luigi Bellini, Sr. controlled the collection. It was the practice of antiquarians (Bardini, Contini, Volpi, Romano, Stibbert, Horne) to create “homes” filled with art that they might sell or trade or from which they couldn’t bear to be parted. The Bellini collection has this feel—fourteen rooms of a Renaissance home, but with a few touches that are medieval.

The centuries of art collide in the entry hall
In the entry hall Carole Feuerman’s art stands by ancient works

The visitor will find here a fresco of the school of Giotto, a bust by Donatello, a portrait by Tintoretto, a Della Robbia Madonna, a bronze by Giambologna, Ceramic from Xanto Avelli Rovigo, a Gothic tapestry, carved-wood Sansovino chest (armadio). Just when you have caught your breath the small doors enclosing a Fra Angelico gold-leafed Madonna are opened. There are ancient tables and chairs, a 19th century couch Luigi Sr. deemed “too modern”, statues, fountains, vases, minature bronzes, reliquies, carpets, and last but not least, a collection of crowns. Even if you don’t understand a word of Italian, the tour is fascinating.

Family History

Some say that this passion for collecting and selling started in Ferrara with Vincenzo Bellini (1708-1783), who after twenty years as a priest, developed an obsession for ancient coins. He was one of the most illustrous numismatists of his time, even selling coin collections to Austrian Emperor Francis I. His son, Vitaliano, expanded the business into antiques and his grandson Giuseppe moved to Florence and eventually became an antiquarian with a store on Via della Spada.

Vincenzo Bellini collected ancient coins (1708-1783)
Vincenzo Bellini collected ancient coins (1708-1783)

A few generations later the most well-known antiquarian in the family, Luigi Bellini Sr. (1884-1957) was born in Impruneta. At nineteen he took off for New York to make an international name for himself, bringing clients back to the gallery in Florence. In the 1920s, he moved the business to a more impressive location on Lungarno Soderini, where the museum is today. He needed more room for both his business and his collection.

Fra Angelico Madonna in the Bellini Museum (photo bellinimuseum.org)
Fra Angelico Madonna in the Bellini Museum (photo bellinimuseum.org)

“You start as an antique dealer and end up being a collector without realizing that the germ of antiquity has infected you, it debilitates and consumes you and you will never recover. It is worse than tuberculosis,” he wrote in his autobiography.

Luigi Sr. and Nini Bellini by Giorgio de Chirico, Bellini Collection (ilgiornaledellarte.com)
Luigi Sr. and Nini Bellini by Giorgio de Chirico, Bellini Collection (ilgiornaledellarte.com)

A decade later, in 1931, he acted on his interest in contemporary art by opening a gallery with a couple of partners in Palazzo Spini-Feroni (home of the Museo Ferragamo, which has included pieces from the Bellini collection in its new exhibit). The gallery opened with an exhibition dedicated to the sculptor Arturo Martini and the painter Primo Conti. This venture did not last the test of time.

Following the war, Luigi Sr. concentrated on antiquities and rebuilding the city. He was instrumental in the reconstruction of the Ponte Santa Trinita “as it was and where it was”, by setting up an committee chaired by Bernard Berenson, the famed American art critic. They obtained substantial contribution for the reconstruction of the bridge, which had been dynamited by German troops, from wealthy American bankers. (Bellini’s own building on Lugarno Solderini sustained severe damage when the Carraia Bridge was also blown up.)

The destruction of the Santa Trinita Bridge
The destruction of the Santa Trinita Bridge

Four years before his death, Luigi was the prime organizer of the 1953 national exhibition of antiques held in Florence at Palazzo Strozzi. It was the precursor of the present Biennial Exhibition of Antiques held regularly at the Palazzo Corsini across the river from Museo Bellini.

The Bellini Museum and Gallery, 2015

Luigi Sr.’s grandson, Prof. Luigi Bellini, Jr., and his great-grandaughter Sveva are still active in the Biennial Exhibition, as well as other projects, including Luigi Jr.’s 2004 exhibition entitled “Bellini Collection Presents the Renaissance of Florence” at the Museum of Imperial Ming Nanjing in China. This was the first exhibition at the Imperial Museum to showcase western art.

One of the fourteen rooms of the Bellini Museum
One of the fourteen rooms of the Bellini Museum

For the past 130 years the Bellini collectors have shared a desire to live the past while at the same time be present in the modern life of Florence. Through the status symbol of their collection and the role of protector of the past, they strengthened their relationship with the nobility of the city while becoming acknowledged experts in private collecting choices and exhibition content.

Entry to the museum's rooms
Entry to the museum’s rooms

Lugi Sr., who controlled the collection between the first part of the 20th century, was known to believe anything created after the 1800s was too modern to be part of his private universe, but he was happy to support and advise the exhibits at Palazzo Spini-Feroni, which highlighted the works of Giorgio de Chirico, Mario Sironi, and Filippo de Pisis. Today Sveva Bellini produces exhibitions in the ground-floor exhibitions space introducing the most modern of Italian artists. The present exhibit with free entry, on display until June 4, is called Woodenkammer: Ogni Forma é Nella Natura.

Woodenkammer Exhibit until June 4, 2015 (photo izi.TRAVEL Italia)
Woodenkammer Exhibit until June 4, 2015 (photo izi.TRAVEL Italia)

Sveva, however, does not disturb the evocative collection on the primo piano of the the palazzo that invokes the passion of her great-grandfather, and generations before him, with rooms of ancient artworks styled in homage to earlier centuries. The masterpieces, the everyday objects and the walls and stairs are history revived, reaching into the present.