My friend Nancy tries to get to Florence each year. While there she haunts the museums and the churches. When she goes home, does she take fine leather, golden bracelets, and marbleized paper? No, she carries a few tubes of toothpaste, a couple of bars of soap and a bag of Mattei brutti ma buoni.
Why? Because she likes sweets and loves to have everyday products around her that remind her of her trip. Products made in Florence. Little did she know how trendy she was until she ran across an ad for her toothpaste in an international fashion magazine.
Marvis toothpaste is made in Florence. It is now taking the fashionable world by storm. So what is the story? Toothpaste from Tuscany?
Dentifricio Marvis, as the Florentines call it, was originally registered by Conte Franco Cella Di Rivara in Florence in 1958. The company’s most productive period was during the ‘70s, when it became known for being particularly effective for smokers’ stained teeth. Many say the name came from a combination of the words Marvel + Vis (latin for strength).
Marvis was overshadowed by Crest and Colgate until it was bought by the Ludovico Martelli company in 1997. The Martelli family, with its patriarch Ludovico, started a Florentine cosmetics company in 1908. In 1948, when Ludovico’s son, Piero, took over, the company launched a brand of shaving products called Proraso (not something Nancy will buy, except as gifts for her sons).
Fans of Marvis love the extra strong minty freshness of the toothpaste (though there are those who swear by the jasmine Mint or the Amarelli Licorice), packaged in beautiful aluminum retro tubes. The design has found favor around the world at sites like Eataly and the Wall Street Journal. The Martelli company has been savvy in gifting participants at the Pitti fashion shows with miniature tubes of Marvis. The Marvis website is also a joy to behold, unlike most that Italy has to offer.
It’s distributed in over forty countries and sold at upscale pharmacies (as well as on Amazon.com). In Italy, Marvis can be found in both grocery stores and pharmacies.
It has YouTube fans (including a couple of guys who brush for the camera) and is stocked at MR PORTER, the menswear bellwether for when a brand has made it. Marvis gets a shout out on THE LINE and is included in its “stories“. Its name was dropped by former Valentino Chairman, Giancarlo Giammetti, and J.Crew’s Frank Muytjens, who reportedly called it one of the things he carries around the world with him.
The first product created was the Classic Strong Mint Toothpaste, which is still the best seller of the whole range, especially in Italy. All Marvis product are based on a minty taste declined in seven different flavours: from the strong freshness of the classic mint to the delicate flowery taste of Jasmine Mint. It retails for $9 to $12. The latest addition to the Marvis family, an alcohol-free mouthwash infused with tingle-inducing herbal extracts, remains strong even when diluted from concentrate.
The company wants to make the mundane activities of brushing teeth and shaving into a daily ritual of Italian pleasure.
When you visit Italy, don’t take that t-short back to your grandkids. Take Florentine Toothpaste!
Two days after the devastating Florence Flood, November 4, 1966, the twenty-foot torrent that swept through the city was gone, but the piazzas, streets, churches homes, and businesses were buried in mud, naphthalene heating oil, mountains of waste, household goods, wrecked cars and even farm animals that had been swept down the valley. There was no potable water or electricity. Food was in short supply because most of the stores, including the massive Mercato Centrale had been flooded.
The federal government was slow to act, but first the Florentines pulled together in solidarity, neighbor helping neighbor, and then as news of the enormity of the disaster spread, volunteers arrived from the neighboring hill towns. The stream of helpers soon became another kind of flood with thousands of people coming from every region of Italy, western Europe and America, pulled by the catastrophic loss of the historic and artistic patrimony of Florence, but also to support the Florentines in their time of greatest need.
Those that came were mostly young, in their teens, twenties and thirties. They filled the hostels and pensiones and even slept in rows of sleeping bags at the train station. With an extraordinary spirit of sacrifice this youthful multi-lingual army shoveled away tons of mud, wiped sticky oil off of marble statues, rescued sodden books, and distributed food and water. Thousands of young people dedicated their time to recover from the mud paintings, books, frescoes, carvings, statues and other works of art.
They went without warm showers, heated rooms, clean clothes and hot food. Because of their dedication and solidarity they were named “Gli Angeli del Fango” (The Angels of the Mud). The name was apt also because mud was a constant companion at work, while asleep and at meals.
“You could call them volunteers, except they hadn’t volunteered or been recruited: they’d simply appeared as though from thin air and set to work.
“It was always cold and always damp where they worked, and often where they ate and slept. There was, of course, a surfeit of Chianti dispensed from immense demijohns just as there was limitless talk and laughter. People fell in love: with art; with one another; with themselves, because how often did you get to be a hero, much less an angel.”
Senator Edward M. Kennedy said in 1966:
“I remember that I was in Geneva at a conference on refugees and I wanted to see what had occurred, so I flew in to Florence for the day. I got to the library about 5 PM and I looked down into the flooded area. There was no electricity and massive candles had been set up to provide the necessary light to rescue the books.
“It was terribly cold and yet I saw students up to their waists in water. They had formed a line to pass along the books so that they could be retrieved from the water and then handed on to a safer area to have preservatives put on them. Everywhere I looked in the great main reading room, there were hundreds and hundreds of young people who had all gathered to help.
“It was as if they knew that this flooding of the library was putting their soul at risk. I found it incredibly inspiring to see this younger generation all united in this vital effort. It reminded me of the young people in the United States who responded with the same determination as they became involved in the civil rights movement.
“I was still shivering as I boarded the plane that took me back to Geneva, but I couldn’t stop thinking of the impressive solemnity of that scene – of all those students, oblivious to the biting cold and the muddy water, quietly concentrating on saving books in the flickering candlelight. I will never forget it.”
“[It] was the international community that worked to try to save Florence, this unique patrimony that belonged to the whole world,” said Mario Primicerio, former mayor of Florence on the 30th anniversary of the Florence Flood.
The fall of 2014 has been one of the wettest on record throughout northern Italy. The Arno is rising, but the cities that have seen the worst floods are Genoa and Massa Carrara. Genoa now in the eye of the storm is where a new generation of Mud Angels is coming to the aid of the port city.
Each day more Mud Angels are joining the struggle in the Liguria region. Most are high school and university students living in Genoa, but they are also from Eastern Europe and Africa and Italy.
Unlike the word-of-mouth organization of the Angeli del Fango of 1966, the modern angels are using social media, Facebook and Twitter, to put out the word about where the needs are greatest. As the rain moves east the Mud Angels will be helping in the hamlets and towns along the Po Valley. The spirit of world’s youth is answering the call of people in distress and once again they are saving great works of artistic and historical significance.
November 4, 2014 will be the 48th anniversary of the Florence Flood of 1966. The memory is still vivid in the minds of most Florentines; either they experienced the flood and/or its aftermath, or they have been told stories of the disaster by their parents or grandparents.
The question in the minds of many who live in the city split by the Arno River is: Can it happen again?
Timeline of the Flood
3 November 1966
In 1966, heavy rains began falling in Tuscany in September. Soon, the earth of the Casentine Forrest, southeast of Florence, was saturated. The rains increased in October and November. It rained the first three days of November. On the 2nd alone, seventeen inches of rain fell in twenty-four hours on Monte Falterona southeast of Arezzo where the Arno is born. The early snow on the mountain melted and rivers of water flowed north and west toward Florence.
The Levane and La Penna dams in Valdarno, north of Arezzo began to emit more than 2,000 cubic meters (71,000 cubic feet) of water per second toward Florence.
At 2:30 pm, the Civil Engineering Department of Florence reported “an exceptional quantity of water.” Cellars in the Santa Croce and San Frediano areas began to flood. Streets failed to drain as the Arno backed up into the city’s drainage system.
Police received calls for assistance from farms and tiny towns north past Florence. The walls along river in the city still held, but floodwaters poured over roads and bridges, cutting off the little villages and forcing people to the roofs of their homes.
A worker died at the Anconella water treatment plant. In A Tuscan Trilogy, Paul Salsini writes: “At the aqueduct, a workman named Carlo Maggiorelli, fifty-two years old, had arrived at 8 o’clock Thursday night, carrying a thermos of coffee, half a loaf of bread and a pack of cigarettes. In a telephone call to officials in Florence, he reported that “everything’s going under.” But he refused to leave; he was responsible for the plant. Later, his body was recovered in a tunnel choked with mud. He was the first victim of the flood of November 4, 1966.”
By midnight on November 3, the Arno River in Florence had risen twenty feet from its normal level, but it still flowed between the high walls through the city.
4 November 1966
At 4:00 am, engineers, fearing that the Valdarno La Penna dam would burst, discharged a mass of water that eventually reached the outskirts of Florence at a rate of 60 kilometers per hour (37 mph). The wall of water overflowed the Levane dam and rushed toward Florence.
Florence’s newspaper, La Nazione, printed during the night, had a banner headline: “L’Arno Straripa a Firenze” (The Arno overflows at Florence). The article went on to report (translated by Salsini): “The city is in danger of being flooded. At 5:30 this morning water streamed over the embankments, flooding the Via dei Bardi, the Borgo San Jacopo, the Volta dei Tintori and the Corso dei Tintori, the Lungarno delle Grazie and the Lungarno Acciaiuoli. Many families are evacuating their homes. The river banks at Rovezzano and Compiobbi were overtopped shortly after 1 a.m. The Via Villamagna and the aqueduct plant at Anconella were invaded a short time later, and certain areas of the city are in danger of losing their water supply. There are indications that the day ahead may bring drama unparalleled in the history of the city. At 4:30 a.m. military units were ordered to stand by to cope with a possible emergency situation.”
The night guard on the Ponte Vecchio notified the jewelry store owners of the rising tide of water. Prudent vendors who rushed to move their wares were the only shopkeepers in the flooded areas to save their inventories. Later, the stores on the bridge were gutted by the water.
At 7:26am electric power failed in Florence. The Arno flowed over the parapets of San Niccolo bridge, as well as Ponte alle Grazie and the Ponte Vecchio. By 9:00am, hospital emergency generators (the only remaining source of electrical power) failed.
Landslides obstructed roads leading to Florence, while narrow streets within city limits funneled floodwaters, ever increasing in height and velocity.
After breaching its retaining walls on both sides, the Arno flooded the city. On the north side, it swept through the National Library, the Piazza Santa Croce and the church itself. Water filled the Piazza della Signoria, the basement of the Uffizi and the Palazzo Vecchio.
By 9:35 a.m. it reached the Duomo and the Campanile. Ten minutes later, the Piazza del Duomo was flooded. A twenty-foot vortex of water tore three panels from Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gate of Paradise on the east side of the Baptistry and two from Andrea Pisano’s panels on the south.
At the San Lorenzo Mercato Centrale the refrigeration units located below street level were destroyed and the main floor and all of the food stands were awash.
At the Accademia, water inched across the floor toward Michelangelo’s David although the statue was never in real danger.
On the south side, in the Oltrarno, where the land sloped uphill from the river, the damage was less.
The catastrophe was not only caused by the amount of water. The powerful flood ruptured heating oil tanks stored under or at ground level of most of the buildings, and the oil mixed with the water and the tons of muddy topsoil washed down the agricultural Arno Valley, causing far greater damage than that attributed to the water alone.
Twenty thousand families lost their homes, fifteen thousand cars were destroyed, and six thousand shops went out of business. At least thirty people were confirmed fatalities, but some reports put the toll at more than a hundred.
At its highest, the water reached over 6.7 meters (22 ft) in the Santa Croce area, more than twice as high as the flood of 1557.
By 8:00 pm, the water began to recede.
Treasures Damaged or Destroyed
Records after the flood estimated that 1,500 works of art in Florence were disfigured or destroyed. Of these, 850 were seriously damaged, including paintings on wood and on canvas, frescoes and sculptures. Among the casualties were Paolo Uccello’s Creation and Fall at Santa Maria Novella, Sandro Botticelli’s Saint Augustine and Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Saint Jerome at the Church of the Ognissanti, Andrea di Bonaiuto’s The Church Militant and Triumphant at Santa Maria Novella, Donatello’s wooden statue of Mary Magdalenein the Baptistry of the Duomo, Baccio Bandinelli’s white marble Pietà in Santa Croce and Filippo Brunelleschi’s wooden model for the Cupola of the Duomo, in the Duomo’s Museum.
Many considered the greatest loss to be the painted wood Crucifix by Giovanni Cimabue, the Father of Florentine Painting, in the Santa Croce Museum. The water there rose thirteen feet. The heavy wooden crucifix had taken on so much water that it had grown three inches and doubled its weight. The wood cracked and paint chips floated out on the water. After it was removed from the refectory, the cracks widened, mold grew, and the paint continued to flake off. It was years before the cross had shrunk down to its original size. The crevices were later filled in with poplar from the Casentine Forest, where Cimabue obtained the original wood, the same forest where the flood began. The Cimabue Crucifix became the symbol of both the tragedy of the flood and the rebirth of the city after the waters receded.
Archives of the Opera del Duomo (Archivio di Opera del Duomo): 6,000 volumes/documents and 55 illuminated manuscripts were damaged.
National Central Library (Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale Firenze): Located alongside the Arno River, the National Library was cut off from the rest of the city by the flood. The flood damaged 1,300,000 items, including the majority of the works in the Palatine and Magliabechi collections, along with periodicals, newspapers, prints, maps and posters. This was a third of the library’s collections.
Gabinetto Vieusseux Library (Biblioteca del Gabinetto Vieusseux): All 250,000 volumes were damaged, including titles of romantic literature and Risorgimento history; submerged in water, they became swollen and distorted. Pages, separated from their text blocks, were found pressed upon the walls and ceiling of the building.
The State Archives (Archivio di Stato): Roughly 40% of the collection was damaged, including property and financial records; birth, marriage and death records; judicial and administrative documents; and police records, among others.
Can It Happen Again?
Residents of Florence think of the 1966 Flood every year when the winter rains begin – even if they weren’t alive or living in Florence 48 years ago. The Arno still has a shallow riverbed. Each year the water climbs the Ponte Vecchio and covers the rose beds at the nearby Rowing Club, located under the Uffizi Gallery.
The plaques on Florence walls in the historic center remind us of the many floods that happened over the centuries.
The Arno flooded in a catastrophic manner eight times since 1333 – at a rate of about one a century (the one before 1966 was in 1844). Minor floods occur frequently – 13 times in the last 20 years alone.
In the 18th century, engineer Ferdinando Morozzi dal Colle compiled a list of all the floods registered from the year 1177 to 1761. He recorded 54 floods in 600 years: Once every 24 years there was a ‘medium’ flood, every 26 years a ‘big’ flood, and every 100 years an ‘extraordinary’ flood.
Two other disastrous floods, those of 1333 and 1844, both happened on the same day of the year, the day of the 1966 flood: November 4th.
The 1966 flood was the worst of them all.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) believed that the Arno could be tamed…but complex bureaucracy prevented any action, and by time the city government approved his plan he had moved on to something else.
“The Arno has been a problem since antiquity,” said Prof. Raffaello Nardi, who headed a special commission responsible for safeguarding the Arno river basin. “And even the old floods were caused as much by human error as by the forces of nature.”
Some believe it is only a matter of time. The Cimabue Crucifix is now hung on a metal device that can be raised far above the level of the 1966 Florence Flood if the waters start to rise again.
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 believes that 2014 is going to be the best year yet in Florence. So now we need to get 2013 to give up the ghost and move on.
Everybody, especially the Chinese and Russians tourists, are coming to visit. As the U.S. economy climbs to the top again, we look forward to Americans giving up their “staycations” and coming back to where the food and views are the best in the world! Florence and Tuscany!
We are ambivalent about snow in Florence, but for a day or two in January it gives us something to talk about. And the museums are empty so we will catch up on the new exhibits.
So be sure to check into what Tuscan Traveler has to offer in the coming year. If you or friends and family are coming for a visit, visit Friend In Florence for tours and services.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Italian Life Rules (the book) is coming in Summer 2014. Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:
How many tourists to Italy or even, Italians, know these places? Already the names are evocative. They are all part of Maremma, the seaside region south of Livorno, but north of Grosseto, where the sea is especially beautiful and clean, and the food is as good as it can be – Acquacotta anyone? Pappardelle al cinghiale? – have you ever tried them?
In the summer this area is beautiful, but there are people – often too many – on the beaches (you sometimes can even go naked if your body still allows it).
BUT… now … at the end of November …OH my god!
I went on a weekend “retreat” to Campiglia Marittima. I needed to breathe, away from the usual Renaissance Disneyland of Florence, where I am lucky to have been born and live.
Anywhere else in Italy this weekend was rainy, cold, muddy, even snowy, and in Venice my friend had acqua alta again, poor thing, being a tour guide, that is true suffering.
BUT … where I was in the Maremma, the weather gifted me with two nights full of the best sound in the world – rain on the roof – followed by two days of pure perfection, with sunny, sweet air, accompanied by the most amazing clouds I had ever seen, cleaned by the storm, pieces of white cotton, sometimes pink.
I turned my eyes for a second and here they are: two rainbows one after another. And then, close up a sighting of pure white on a brown beach: the long neck of a heron lifting off in slow motion, spreading gorgeous wings of gray and white.
To be able to walk on the beach in November is very very rare, but not yesterday. There was even a pink carpet going back and forth on the bagnasciuga made of tiny jellyfish.
Wow! What a gift from God this whole serendipity weekend, the air made me drunk with oxygen, I couldn’t stop smiling and loving everything that was around me. I felt lucky and in sync with everything and everyone else. This never happens in the city.
Of course, I forgot to bring my camera, but my beloved BlackBerry filled the need. Here they are, not technically perfect, but I hope they convey what I felt.
Actually with just two days away from Thanksgiving, I think this weekend is something to be very grateful for.
Thank you E&R for the house. Thank God for all the rest.
One sunny autumn day Francesca and I were walking through a narrow medieval street downstream from the Ponte Vecchio.
“Anarchy,” said Francesca, “I like it.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Look up there,” she said, pointing to the top floor of a medieval building in the center of Florence.
“I don’t see anything anarchical.”
“The shutters. They are turquoise.” Francesca pointed at a pair of small shutters on one window on the top floor where a noble family’s servants once lived.
Sure enough they were a light blue-green — different from every other shutter in Florence. This is absolutely illegal under the code of the Belle Arti, the governing body of all aspects of historical buildings in Florence. All buildings inside the now mostly absent 16th century walls of the city are deemed to be historical.
Shutters in Florence and Tuscany, as well as some other regions in Italy, can only be dark brown, black, dark gray or dark green. Any other color or lighter shade of one of the allowed hues is deemed out of compliance. A homeowner can expect a registered letter in the mail demanding change on threat of a substantial fine.
Shutters are important to the smooth running of Italian life. Not the color, just the use of shutters. Only Americans and the British throw open their shutters and windows on a sweltering summer day in hopes of catching a stray breeze. (As in “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun.” (Noel Coward).)
The Italians know that windows and shutters must be closed by 9am to hold in the night’s coolness and then at sunset they must be opened throughout the house to cambiare l’aria (change the air) throughout the night. Of course, the window in the bedroom will be closed as the occupants retire to prevent the dreaded draft (colpo d’aria) from striking the exposed necks of unwary sleepers. In the morning the process starts again.
The other kind of window shutter, the heavy rolling wood or metal blind, known as an avvolgibile, is found on most modern buildings (less than 100 years old) and provide the same service for standardized windows. (They are also better at denying entry to cat burglars.)
The lack of standardized window frames make traditional wooden shutters a common sight in the historic cities of Italy, but also prevents the use of screens to deny entry of the ever-present mosquitos. Itching tourists frequently complain about why even a five star hotel can’t figure out how to install window screens.
However those same tourists love the standardization of architectural artifacts, such as terracotta roofs and pale golden painted walls. It helps reinforce the cliché of Florentine and Tuscan style. But perhaps it would be better for Florence and the Florentines to take a risk and flaunt bright yellow, blue or even red and white striped shutters.
Italian Life Rules (the book) is coming in Summer 2014. Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:
Tourist are frequently surprised when they first taste traditional Tuscan bread that is always made without salt. Tuscans, especially those from Florence and Prato, would not eat it any other way.
Dante agreed. “Tu proverai si come sa di sale Lo pane altrui, e comè duro calle Lo scendere e il salir per l’altrui scale.” In these lines from the Paradiso of ”The Divine Comedy,” Dante learns of his exile from Florence and is given some idea of the difficulties he will face. ”You shall learn how salty is the taste of another’s bread, and how hard a path the descending and the climbing another’s stairs,” he is told.
Some say the best Tuscan bread is made in Prato. Pane di Prato is justifiably famous throughout the region. There are Florentines who virtually refuse to eat any other bread than Pane di Prato, even if their regard for the rival Pratesi is of a somewhat lesser degree. The bread of Prato was already being sold in the Florentine markets of the 16th century as a prestigious brand. It is said that the Medici served only Pane di Prato at their villa at Poggio a Caiano.
Last weekend was the first, and hopefully not the last, annual Festival del Pane di Prato. All of the bread bakeries were showing off their best breads, including the famous bozza, a small quickly rounded loaf with a rustic crunchy crust. The soft middle part of the loaf is honeycombed in appearance and somewhat elastic. When you squeeze a bozza, it springs back into shape. The taste is salt-free, yeasty and slightly acidic.
The Festival served up hot schiacciata for all attendees. Street performers celebrated the bakery theme. Despite the unseasonable rain nobody could be depressed when there is the unlimited supply of yeasty bread.
The bread is baked in the pre-dawn hours in a variety of forms that adapt themselves to every need: the cazzottino (‘a small fist”) is for breakfasts and snacks, perfect with a few slices of Pratese mortadella; the filone seems made to be sliced and slathered with flavorful marmalades, or drizzled in local olive oil and sprinkled with salt — the pan con l’olio used for snacks for kids and just about anyone else – or to make the traditional fettunta (toasted, rubbed with garlic and seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper) reserved for the dinner table. But the best is the bozza, which goes well with everything and when it is stale and hard as a rock, it becomes the prime ingredient for panzanella, ribollita, pappa al pomodoro and other tasty dishes.
The Pisans get all the blame from some pundits for the salt-less bread made in Prato. Supposedly, they attempted to force Florence to surrender in one of their endless battles against each other by blockading the salt that arrived at the Pisan port, preventing it from reaching Florence via the Arno River. Prato, as Florence’s nearest neighbor, was caught in the fight.
Others claim that the wide spread poverty in the Middle Ages is to blame – that salt was too costly for the Tuscans to use in bread-making. (It’s hard to credit this story because poor Italian peasants in other regions couldn’t afford salt, but didn’t give up making salted bread.)
I like to think it was the pope’s fault. During the 14th to 16th centuries, it is said, the popes, who controlled much of the Italian peninsula (known as the Vatican States), levied a tax on salt. Pope Paul III raised the tax in 1539 and the Perugians and the Tuscans refused to pay it. The government of Perugia even went to war over the issue – the Salt War of 1540. The Perugians lost the war, but some say the citizens then refused to buy the salt, thus forcing the fornai (bread bakeries) to produce salt-free bread. (Tuscan bread is one of the few that remains salt-free today, but there are many historical references to bread made without salt in other parts of Italy.)
During the 16th century in Tuscany, the Tuscan Medici dukes controlled all of the resources, including salt, for Tuscan towns such as Prato. When they needed cash (for a war or for building a new villa) they raised the price on salt and other commodities. Thus, pane toscano (Tuscan bread) became bread famous throughout Italy for being sciocco, from the word in the Tuscan dialect for “insipid” (to Tuscans “sciocco” also means “stupid”, but that doesn’t fit this situation because they think salt-less bread is anything, but stupid). Those who are not Tuscan make fun of the bread of the region, but Tuscans, like Dante, mourn it when it is not available.
Salt-less Tuscan bread is not intended for eating on its own. It’s usually served along with the main meal and is meant for sopping up thick, rich, spicy sauces. The bread doesn’t compete with the flavors in the dish, both are enhanced.
The Bread of Prato’s lack of salt helps keep it fresh for several days. Since it has no salt to hold in water, it does not form mold – it just becomes hard as a rock when it is stale – thus making it the basis of many of the tasty dishes that are renowned in Tuscan cuisine.
The following Italian dishes are made with stale salt-free Pane di Prato:
Ribollita – a twice-boiled thick vegetable soup (ribollita means ‘re-boiled’), made of black and white cabbage, white beans and other vegetables, made thick with crumbled stale Tuscan bread or poured over toasted Tuscan bread.
Pappa al pomodoro – a bread-based thick tomato soup in which stale Tuscan bread is rehydrated and crumbled; then cooked with the tomatoes, basil and garlic to make a tasty pappa.
Panzanella – a summer salad dish. Stale Tuscan bread is soaked in water, squeezed into a damp mass, crumbled into a big salad bowl and cucumber, raw onion, fresh diced tomato and fresh basil leaves are added. The ingredients are tossed thoroughly with some extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper.
Cacciucco – a fish chowder from Livorno made of fish, mollusks and crustaceans. The Livornese claim that the recipe should contain at least five types of fish to match the number of ‘c’s in the word cacciucco. Once cooked, the cacciucco is served on a bed of toasted Tuscan bread that has been rubbed with a clove of fresh garlic.
Fettunta – “garlic toast” made with slices of hot toasted Tuscan bread, rubbed with a clove of fresh garlic, splashed with fresh extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with salt. Don’t try to cut into a completely stale loaf of Tuscan bread to make this; it’s too hard to cut. Use slightly stale bread – too dry to eat untoasted, but perfect for fettunta.
(Tuscan Traveler will go anywhere for great bread. Matera bread is a a past and present favorite. While in Prato Tuscan Traveler, of course, stopped at Mattei for a kilo of brutti ma buoni cookies.)
Italian Life Rules (the book) is coming in Summer 2014. Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:
Casini Firenze in Piazza Pitti is the Best Destination for Fine Leather Goods
Casini Firenze is my go-to place in Florence for fine Florentine leather goods. When my touring clients ask me why, I simply say: Impeccable Service, Outstanding Quality and Unique Designs. Jennifer Tattanelli, as her father Giorgio before her, creates not only the perfect product, but the perfect shopping experience at the store located across from the Pitti Palace.
Customer service is always top of my list of reasons for recommending any of Florence’s stores, restaurants, or artisans. Florentine business owners, waiters and shop assistants are not known for their “the customer is always right” attitude. At Casini Firenze the customer is not only always right, but becomes a friend of Jennifer and those who work with her.
Year after year, clients, now friends, return to add another jacket or pair of boots or purse to their collection of designs by Jennifer. Many treat themselves to the personal shopping experience offered by Casini and walk away with full wardrobes of shoes, handbags, coats and jackets, dresses, shirts and slacks, not only made in leather, but cashmere, silk, wool and fine cotton. Jennifer and her assistants know at a glance which pieces to show you so as not to waste you precious time in the Renaissance City (or to try the patience of your shopping-adverse spouse, significant other or friends for whom there are comfy chairs and offers of water, soda or wine).
Florence is a city famous for it’s artisans working in gold, paper or leather. Shops selling leather coats and purses have sprung up like porcini after a summer rain. But rather than offering a better product, these flash shops are selling jackets and bags made in China, Indonesia and Morocco. The quality of the leather and the workmanship is suspect. Casini Firenze has its own Tuscan workshop, where skilled artisans work with the finest tanned leathers to create designs by Jennifer Tattanelli.
Not everyone is tall and model-slim. Jennifer’s designing magic takes this into account. Her body-loving designs hide the “flaws” and emphasize the “assets”. Jennifer does not require women to transform their body to suit her creations; she prefers molding her fashion around the woman’s body as it is. She skillfully walks the tightrope between trendy and classical design and has something for every body type. Casini even offers custom fitting and design where you get to chose anything from the color and type of leather, the size of the lapel and the placement of the pockets. Since Casini has its own workshop, the custom-made item will swiftly arrive at your home within a couple weeks.
Giorgio’s Legacy & Jennifer’s Savvy Styling
Giorgio Tattanelli’s dream of owning a store came true in 1971 when he opened Casini Firenze in the prestigious Piazza Pitti. Giorgio has always been a leather artisan. His family’s leather production began just after World War II in 1945 as a small artisan business hand making bags, wallets and attaché cases using a small group of local expert Florentine craftsmen. Giorgio expanded his entrepreneurial ambition by visiting all the trade fairs around Europe, as well as successfully placing his family’s leather accessories in stores on military bases.
Giorgio’s dream was to create and offer a wide variety of traditional Florentine goods, guaranteeing his clients, both men and women, the best quality leather, excellent craftsmanship and a perfect fit at an extremely reasonable price.
In the meantime, he met and fell in love with an American girl from New York, a descendant of both the famed pathologist Dr. James Ewing and Samuel Clemens, better known as the author Mark Twain. She settled in Florence with him and they began a family.
Giorgio’s eldest daughter Jennifer was born in Florence and was brought up speaking English with her mother and Italian with her father. She spent most of the year with her siblings in Florence, but every summer they went to the Hamptons to visit their grandmother June Ewing, a well know artist and famed collector of American Folk Art.
Jennifer began her modeling and fashion career at CK (Calvin Klein) in New York City, but in the early 1990s she returned home to expand the family business with her father. Her imagination, international experience, artistic sensibility (based in the very modern world of NYC and the old-style arts and crafts of her grandmother), appreciation of the quality of artisanal Florentine leatherwork, as well as her design savvy have boosted Casini Firenze to be a unique shopping experience in Florence.
Jennifer personally likes to meet her customers, to discover their tastes and style at work and play, so that she can understand their needs. “Everyone’s lifestyle and body is different, so I like to learn about my clients and work with them individually, creating for them exactly what will make them feel special,” she says.
In 2011, the brand – Casini Firenze by Jennifer Tattanelli – was launched, taking Jennifer to a whole new level of design and products. She introduced a fabric clothing line with fine silks cashmeres, and cottons, and soon will be offering personally designed goods for the home (her crocodile iPad case and leather picture frames are just the first pieces of a planned expansion of artisanal items).
Jennifer lives with her family in Florence and still enjoys taking her children for summers in the Hamptons.
Tuscan Traveler’s Picks from Casini Firenze
My favorite pieces of Jennifer’s recent collections include:
The Intrecciato Pieno Fiore Leather Basket of infinity design. This seamless shopping bag (big enough to be a room accessory for holding magazines or books) is a miracle of historic Florentine leather craftsmanship. Handwoven on a form, each bag takes weeks for the leather artisan to complete. It holds its shape well and is reversible due in part to a seamless construction. The long leather handles make it comfortable to carry and the soft woven leather makes you want to pet it as you make your shopping rounds.
The reversible jackets made of antelope leather light as a feather. The leather tanning process is known as Pieno Fiore. It created a reversible product, which is smooth as silk on one side and soft suede on the other. You get two coats in one. Jennifer’s skill as a stylist comes to the fore with these elegant jackets that come in many different designs, short, long, and full-length, and in elegant, classical, fun and intricate designs. All can be made to measure or bought off the rack. The colors are varied. There is a perfect coat or jacket available for every man or woman. Amazingly, they seem to work for any climate.
The Intrecciato Optical Nappa Satchel is my favorite purse. Sleek, timeless and expertly crafted, it balances with all the outfits, formal and casual, for a local shopping excursion or a long trip to Florence. The adjustable strap and the rounded and soft construction with woven accents gently adapt to the body. The slightly scooped front pocket is cleverly designed to hold an iPad or a paperback book. Zippered on top with one another zippered compartment inside the bag and a tiny inside pocket perfect for a cell phone, this purse is secure in any situation. An extra zippered pocket is located outside in the back for safe storage of your wallet or your passport.
Finally, her footwear selection is fabulous. The boots are to die for! They feel great and are extremely comfortable to wear thanks to the forms that are used. Her evening shoes are glamorous; they add the finished touch to any dress, which is hard to find anywhere else. My favorite shoes are the ballerina flats with the interesting blunted toe, like a real ballet shoe, and the hidden lift in the heel that makes for added comfort while walking the cobblestoned alleys of Florence.
Casini Firenze in the United States
Like her father, Jennifer understands the importance of bringing her collection and accessories to the customer. She undertakes three or four trunk sale tours a year with stops in Boston, New York, South Beach, Dallas, Minneapolis, Aspen and Los Angeles. “Like” Casini Firenze on Facebook to keep track of her travels.
Over ten years ago, Kathy McCabe had the brilliant idea of starting one of the first subscription travel newsletter on the Internet. She was passionate about all things Italy so it became Dream of Italy, The Insider’s Guide to Undiscovered Italy. The newsletter was awarded “Best Consumer Subscription Newsletter 2007” and has been recommended by USA TODAY, National Geographic Traveler, U.S News & World Report and BusinessWeek, among other major media outlets.
Through her newsletter and media appearances, Kathy has become well known as the travel expert for Italy. She has helped thousands of travelers “be Italian” for a day, a week, or a month. She was recently voted one of the “12 Top Travel Twitter Personalities for 2012.” She was also the editor for the recently released mobile app – Rome: Dream of Italy.
Kathy’s first-hand Italy reporting has included assisting in the production of buffalo mozzarella in Campania, partaking in truffle hunts in Piedmont and Umbria, soaking in magical hot springs in Tuscany, watching open-air opera in Verona, visiting ancient caves in Basilicata and reviewing Italy’s newest restaurants and hotels. She recently wrote about her visit to Francis Ford Coppola’s new venture, the exclusive hotel Palazzo Margherita in the Basilicata region, for The Huffington Post.
Rebecca’s blog is one of the wryest (and truest) looks at an expat’s life in Italy. When is she going to write that book?