Monthly Archives: June 2012

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise on the Move

On September 8th this year, in honor of the 716th anniversary of the Duomo, the original Florence Baptistery’s Gates of Paradise will return to public view in the museum of the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore (behind the Duomo), after a restoration lasting 27 years.


Coincidentally, 27 years is the same amount of time it took Lorenzo Ghiberti to achieve the originals. Without equal in complexity, the restoration saved the legendary gold-leafed bronze doors from certain destruction.


Directed and performed by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, commissioned by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, the restoration was made possible thanks to funding from the Ministry of Heritage and Culture and the contribution of the Friends of Florence, based in the United States.


The Gates of Paradise – named by Michelangelo, created by Ghiberti – were installed in the Florence Baptistery in 1452. In what is considered to be the first autobiography by a European artist, known as I Commentarii, Ghiberti recalled the creation of what he rightly judged to be “the most outstanding” of all his works. For the assignment, he wrote, he was “given a free hand to execute it in whatever way I thought it would turn out most perfect and most ornate and richest.” With that mandate, he dispensed with traditional quatrefoils—four-lobed configurations—and instead divided the doors into ten square panels, which he surrounded with 24 figures and 24 heads. Read more about the creation of the panels in an excellent article in The Smithsonian.


It took Ghiberti 12 years to model and cast the main reliefs and another 15 to finish them. Not so much time, really, when you consider that along with the arduous work of detailing the surface of the cast bronze—the punching, hammering, incising and polishing that, collectively, is known as “chasing”—he had to come up with a new syntax for portraying a narrative. But still, 27 years on one project is an act of true dedication.


Last night (June 27) the Gates of Paradise – weighing 8 tons, 15 feet (5 meters) high and 9 feet (3 meters) wide, with a thickness of just over 4 inches (11 centimeters) – took two trips, one for each door, from the restoration studio at the Opificio di Pietre Dure on Via Alfani to the Museum in Piazza Duomo. Added to the four tons of each door was the added weight of the cage of metal designed to support and protect it during transport, for a total of about 7 tons. The delicate operation required six hours.


The doors will never go back to their original position outside, but will become part of the Baptistery exhibition at the Museum. They will be shown inside a specially designed display case, necessary to preserve them under conditions of low humidity and constant temperature to prevent formation of salts between the unstable surface of the bronze and the layer of gold leaf, in the covered courtyard entrance of the Museum, until 2015 when a new wing of the museum to be created specially for the Baptistery collection is scheduled to be finished.


The doors, seen by millions, are a copy created after the disastrous flood in 1966. See Tuscan Traveler’s Tale about the fascinating story of the replacement of the Gates of Paradise.

TuscanTraveler’s Tales – Clet, Again!

I am an unabashed Clet Abraham fan. His street sign art and Common Man statues are a poke in the ribs of the all-too-serious art establishment and other red-tape loving bureaucrats of Florence.

photo by Francesca Boni

For his latest venture – giving the Oltrarno San Niccolò Tower a nose – Clet was not able to thumb his nose at City Hall and was forced to get some sort of permit. Maybe a tower climbing permit. Maybe a “Art Created After 1600” permit.

photo by Ann Reavis

It took more than two months for all the pages to be assembled, the appropriate stamps applied, and, probably, fees paid; but last week the 135-foot-high Torre di San Niccolò got a very handsome naso.

Sketch by Clet for the tower project
Sketch by Clet for the tower project

It appears that the original idea of eyebrows and moustache were scrapped or nixed. I like the minimalist completed project that allows the imagination to fill in the spaces.

photo by Francesca Boni

Some may say it’s a true Florentine nose in the style of Michelangelo’s David. Clet’s proboscis is a fine addition to the list of world famous noses.

photo by Francesca Boni

But as with many of Clet’s works this schnoz will not be on view for long. The paperwork munchkins declare it must come down by June 23.

Nose by Clet June 14 - 23, 2012
Nose by Clet June 14 - 23, 2012

Italian Food Rules – No Ice Cubes in Beverages

Florentine Francesca and I are in a New York restaurant where “Hi! I’m Sam, your waiter” is assisting us to have the best lunch experience possible. This includes large glasses of iced water that arrive immediately on the table with a large basket of warm bread. Francesca immediately starts scooping out the cubes into the empty wine glass. “Hi! I’m Sam” arrives to take our order and notices her he half full glass of iceless water. He leaves and returns with the water pitcher, which he turns sideways so that it dispenses the maximum amount of ice and a lesser amount of water. Duty done, he grins, “Now, what sounds good to you ladies, today?”


Confession: I have more ice cube trays in my freezer in Florence than anyone else in town. When May rolls around, I put away the hot tea and declare ice tea season officially open. I go through two trays a day. For over ten years I have felt ice-deprived in the restaurants and at the family tables of Italy.

Italian Food Rule: No ice cubes in beverages.

Ice in Italy is to keep fresh fish fresh. Full stop.

The most common reason Florentines (including Francesca) give me for the rule is that icy cold liquids are bad for your digestion. They can even cause the dreaded congestione – an abdominal cramp – that can kill you. (Florentines worry a lot about digestion.)

The next frequently cited reason is a fear of the tap water used for making ice. Despite the fact that Italy has very safe tap water – not always the best tasting, but safe to drink in any form – the consumption of bottled water (at room temperature) in Italy is one of the highest in Europe.

Mayor Renzi has joined other mayors in Tuscany in trying to cut down on the glass and plastic garbage and energy costs of bottled water by offer free acqua del sindaco, the mayor’s water, at various water stations (with both fizzy and still water) around the city. (Check behind Neptune’s tush on the side of the Palazzo Vecchio.) Of course, Mayor Renzi is not promoting the use of free tap water for making ice because I am sure he agrees with the Italian Food Rule: No ice cubes in beverages.

No hotel in Italy will have an ice machine in the hall and few will bring ice to the room. This may be for the reasons stated above or because ice machine suck a lot of very expensive electricity and are breeding grounds of all sorts of molds, fungi, and bacteria – all, unfortunately, good and verifiable reasons to follow the Italian Food Rule: No ice cubes in beverages.

Italy is a land of simple drinks – wine, beer and water (frizzante or naturale) – all which are drunk just fine without ice. There is not a big cocktail tradition, but in a bow to the rest of the world you will frequently find three tiny cubes of ice floating in your Negroni, never four, of course.

When visiting Italy in July and August, try following the Italian Food Rule: No ice cubes in beverages. You may find that you can actually taste what you are drinking. You may also find that you will be forced to take a break from those sugary sodas that taste disgusting without ice and you will embrace the entire Mediterranean diet, even the beverages.

But don’t look at me for a good example of how to “live Italian” by following all of the Italian Food Rules. I have more ice cube trays in my freezer than anyone else in Florence.

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

Italian Food Rules: The Book

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

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback (United Kingdom) (Italy) (Germany) (France)

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

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Second Quake Endangers Balsamic Vinegar Production

Two weeks ago I wrote about the loss of cheese in the Reggio Emilia region hard hit by a rare 6.0 earthquake. Now a second 5.8 quake has struck nearby, endangering the artisanal production of aceto balsamico tradizionale.

A small acetaia lost its roof and some barrels in the second quake
A small acetaia lost its roof and some barrels in the second quake

Second Earthquake Devastates Balsamic Vinegar Production

The French AFP news service reported on May 29:

The strong quake, which struck Italy on Tuesday (May 22) … has also dealt a blow to Modena’s balsamic vinegar industry — days after a quake in the area hit Parmesan production.

The damage to the balsamic vinegar industry will run into the millions
The damage to the balsamic vinegar industry will run into the millions

The industry has suffered losses totaling 15 million euros ($18 million), according to the head of the traditional balsamic vinegar consortium Enrico Corsini, who said stocks had been “seriously damaged” as tremors hit the area.

The Pontirol company based in San Felice sul Panaro – one of the worst-hit towns – lost practically everything after its warehouses were flattened, while smaller warehouses owned by other producers were also badly damaged.

The 5.8 quake, which struck Tuesday morning, and the series of tremors of other 5.0 magnitude that followed, “will bring the regional economy to its knees,” Corsini said, adding that 200 businesses in the sector were affected.

Earthquake damage at large balsamic vinegar factory
Earthquake damage at large balsamic vinegar factory

The north of the Modena region, where the quake was felt particularly strongly, is home to dozens of balsamic vinegar producers. The consortium said some producers claimed to have lost over 100,000 liters of the costly delicacy. Aceto basalmico tradizionale DOP can cost up to 1,500 euros a liter.

What Is Aceto Balsamico?

To understand the loss, it is important to understand how different aceto balsamico tradizionale is from the balsamic vinegar Americans buy at their local supermarket.  Traditional balsamic vinegar is more suited to drizzling on cheese, berries and gelato or gracing the edges of a plate of thin-sliced roast veal, rather than splashed on a salad of leafy greens.

Smooth flavors redolent of plums and cherries ...
Smooth flavors redolent of plums and cherries ...

Burton Anderson describes aceto balsamico tradizionale in his book Treasures of the Italian Table as: “The product of an elaborate, prolonged, inspired handiwork or, as some might say, a miracle of man.”

Brette Jackson in La Cucina Italiana also waxes lyrical: “With a lustrous mahogany hue and velvety smooth flavors redolent of plums and cherries (often with a smoky or spicy tang on the finish), traditional balsamic is made in only two places in Italy—the northern Italian provinces of Modena and Reggio nell’Emilia.”

How Is It Made?

In order to bear the name aceto balsamico tradizionale, every aspect of its creation, from grape to bottle, is carefully regulated by Italian DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) standards. This “vinegar” undergoes a lengthy transformation, starting as unfermented juice pressed from indigenous white Trebbiano grapes, which is simmered in large, copper cauldrons for about 24 hours.

The concentrated syrup, known as mosto cotto, is aged in a series of five barrels of varying sizes and types of wood (some combination of acacia, cherry, oak, chestnut, mulberry, ash, or juniper) known as a batteria. Fitted with large openings that are covered with loosely woven fabric, which allow oxygen to concentrate the must, the five barrels of a batteria range from large to small (the smaller the barrel the greater the concentration and the longer the time “aging”).

Acetaia for aceto balsamico traditionale
Acetaia for aceto balsamico tradizionale

The barrels are kept in upper attic spaces, known as an acetaia, because, unlike wine that must have a cool environment, the seasonal fluctuation in temperature only serve to improve the quality of aceto balsamico tradizionale.

It is important to understand that balsamic doesn’t “age” in the same way wine does. Where a single vintage of wine ages in barrels and bottles, a balsamic’s age refers to the length of time the vinegar maker, or acetaio, has worked with a blend; not the age of the contents in a bottle. The rules regarding the labeling continue to change, often causing confusion to the purchaser.

As the aceto balsamico becomes concentrated over time (a minimum of 12 years for the DOP designation), the contents of each barrel must be replenished (topped up) yearly to prevent solidification. This task begins with the smallest and most concentrated barrel in the batteria being filled with younger vinegar from the next largest barrel, and so on, down the line to the largest barrel, which is the youngest and the least concentrated. This barrel is filled with an addition of freshly cooked must.

Old depiction of a batteria of aceto balsamico barrels from Modena
Old depiction of a batteria of aceto balsamico barrels from Modena

Each producer is allotted a specific number of bottles of aceto balsamico tradizionale that they can sell, which is indicated by a numbered tag around the bottle’s neck. Bottles from Modena are mandated to be bulb-shaped, while bottles used in Reggio nell’Emilia must be bell-shaped.

Alice Twain, living in Milan, describes a tour of a traditional acetaia in Reggio Emilia in her article on

The Loss Continues

The first earthquake on May 20, which killed seven people, was followed by nearly a hundred aftershocks. The second large quake on May  22, killed 17 people (mostly those who were told it was safe to go back to work), injured more than 350, and has left 8,000 homeless (in addition to the 6,000 left homeless from the first 6.0 tremor). To discuss the loss of parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar seems frivolous, in light of the human cost, but this is also a tragedy because it is the livelihood of thousands in the chain that runs from the vineyard and the pastures to  the caseifici and acetaie to the stores in Florence, Rome and San Francisco.