Category Archives: Tuscan Traveler’s Tales

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Clet is not just about Street Signs

I am a fan of Clet Abraham’s street art that is manifest by the alteration of common street signs throughout Florence. But his anarchic acts don’t stop with a few signs. In a town mired in a 500-year-old artistic patrimony, Clet continues to bemuse residents and visitors alike.

Clet's Common Man taking a step off the Alle Grazie Bridge
Clet's Common Man taking a step off the Alle Grazie Bridge

During the dark of the night on January 19 last year, Clet and a couple of friends installed Common Man, a life-size black fiberglass statue, without permission, on Ponte alle Grazie. Common Man (Uomo Comune) bears a striking resemblance to the black cut-out figure on Clet’s altered street signs. The bridge-jumping statue, which from a distance looks like it is made of heavy iron,  was enjoyed by all (except perhaps the cultural powers-that-be) with photographs going viral on the internet. It was removed seven days later by city officials, taking weeks and a Facebook campaign to get the statue back into Clet’s possession.

Alexandra Korey of arttrav.com asks “Is lack of permission an essential part of Clet’s art? Position and surprise are elements that contribute to the meaning of the works. Common Man walks perpendicular to traffic on the bridge, proud and determined as he takes the first step in his battle against bureaucracy and the daily grind. His removal, Clet admits, is part of the plan but ‘one can always hope that they might see the light and leave it up, at least for a little while longer.'”

The Common Man heads down river
The Common Man heads down river

Alexandra continues by quoting Clet: “The Common Man statue is intended as a stimulus to take an important and risky step. It represents one of those moments on one’s life in which one needs to make a decision even not knowing its consequences (the void below him is this unknowingness). So Uomo Comune decides to take this step, and invites everyone to do it. The irony lays in being part of this dangerous spectacle from the safe side of the railing. The act is permanently frozen in limbo, being a sculpture that doesn’t move and will never finish stepping out, and so will never know if his choice was the right one or not – the only way for us to know is if we were to try it ourselves.”

Clet's Self-Portrait -- 24 hours in the Palazzo Vecchio
Clet's Self-Portrait hung in the Palazzo Vecchio

Part of the controversy about displaying modern art in Florence is that foreign artists seem to be given a venue — Gregory Wyatt (U.S.), Botero (Columbia), and more recently Damien Hirst — while resident artists are not afforded the opportunity to show their work. The Palazzo Vecchio raised admission prices for viewing Damien Hirst’s diamond skull. While the Hirst skull was on display, Clet managed to install his self-portrait in a gallery in Palazzo Vecchio, where it went unnoticed for 24 hours. Another act of artistic disobedience.

The Common Man's new home walking across a lake in Signa
The Common Man's new home walking across a lake in Signa

Clet’s Common Man statue was finally returned to the artist by the officialdom of Florence and in a bit of neighborly cultural nose thumbing, the nearby town of Signa has given the Common Man a permanent home. Instead of walking off a bridge, he is now walking on water. He is striding across the lake in Renai Park.

We look forward to Clet’s next artistic endeavor.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Men in Tights Never Go Out of Fashion

For years I’ve been telling my touring clients at FriendinFlorence.com to listen for the sound of drums and trumpets in the alleys of Florence. “You are sure to see men in tights if you find the corteo,” I say.

Corteo for the three kings on Epiphany in January
Corteo for the three kings on Epiphany in January

Throughout the year, there are at least thirty parades, processions, or other celebrations with historical costumes, including men in tights. The drummers are in tights, the trumpeters are in tights, the flag wavers are in tights, even the noblemen on horses are in tights as they ride in the corteo.

The Flag Wavers need the flexibility of calzemaglia
The Flag Wavers need the flexibility of calzamaglia

What brings this to mind today – a day without a corteo – is the wonderful column by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times. Mantyhose are apparently all the rage. In fact, yesterday I was in the Paperback Exchange Bookstore in Florence and there were two trendy men wearing mantyyhose. They looked something like this gentleman, but they incorpoated more layers and more color:

All over Europe Mantyhose are a La Moda
All over Europe Mantyhose are alla Moda

The U.S. has it’s own men in tights but they are usually super heros.

Batman & Robin flaunted their tights
Batman & Robin flaunted their tights

Britain had Robin Hood. Ms. Dowd rightly observed that in the 1993 film Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Robin, Little John and the Merry Men sang, “We’re men, we’re men in tights; we roam around the forest looking for fights.”

Men wore tights for over 300 years in Italy
Men wore tights for over 300 years in Italy

Florence, however, has the longest and most colorful history of men who showed a lot of leg. Frescos celebrate the fashionable men who roamed the streets generation after generation for almost 300 years (14th – 16th centuries). Lorenzo the Magnificent was … yes … magnificent … in tights (something had to distract the focus away from that nose). Michelangelo probably didn’t change his calzamaglia more than once a month, if that often. Even Savonarola, the monk of the Bonfire of the Vanities, didn’t disparage the well-turn calf sheathed in skin-tight stockings.

The historic soccer game Calcio in Costume take place in June in Florence
The historic soccer game Calcio in Costume takes place in June in Florence

The Calcio Storico in Florence has for centuries shown how manly men in tights can be. Or perhaps it’s because they are wearing stockings and bloomers that makes this annual game so bloody and violent. I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

Emilio Cavallini His & Hers
Emilio Cavallini His & Hers

It was, of course, a Tuscan, Emilio Cavallini (born 1945 in San Miniato near Pisa), who introduced unisex hosiery to modern times. In 2009, his high-end stocking company designed products for a more male sensibility and now it sells about 30,000 pairs a year to men. The new billionaire owner of Spanx didn’t skyrocket to success by ignoring the growing male market – look for Spanx this year for men who want to smooth those unsightly thigh-topping saddlebags.

The Conservative Man's Brosiery
The Conservative Man's Brosiery

Runners have been sporting spandex for years never knowing how fashionable they were (perhaps only worrying about that chaffing problem), but now they can toss away the all black look and add a little creativity with stripes, skulls, plaids and polka dots.

Colorful Mantyhose for Spring 2012?
Colorful Mantyhose for Spring 2012?

And maybe rainbow colors will show up in the designers’ lines for men next season and we will have come full circle from the trend setter of the Renaissance to the fashion forward man of today.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Clet Abraham’s Street Art

I hate graffiti. I especially hate graffiti on the ancient Florentine walls. I want to hang the idiot, who keeps painting YOGURT on the walls in my neighborhood, up by some painful part of his anatomy. I especially want to throw away the key when the paint is on stonework or frescos created over 500 hundred years ago and can’t be cleaned off or painted over. I’ve written about this twice, here and here. So I was perfectly willing to condemn all street “artists” in Florence.

The Common Man carried away the Do Not Enter bar
The Common Man carried away the Do Not Enter bar

Until now. Well not exactly now. I giggled at this artist’s whimsical street sign work a year or so ago. And then he graced Ponte alle Grazie with the most imaginative sculpture (subject of another post). It was only when I got up close with his art on the walls of the innovative café/gallery La Buchetta that I was willing to say “he may be a street artist, but …”

His name? Clet. Where did he come from? France. Underlying philosophy? “As long as there are roads, there will be street art.”

Do Not Park gets unbuckled by Clet
Do Not Park gets unbuckled by Clet

Cletus Abraham is not exactly your everyday street artist. He was born in 1966 in Brittany. His father is the French writer Jean-Pierre Abraham. Clet attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Rennes. His art was exhibited at various galleries of Brittany, after which he moved to Rome where he worked as a restorer of antique furniture. He exhibited in numerous galleries in Rome and Paris. In 2005, he moved to Florence. Did his arte nella strada begin here? I don’t know.

In 2010, the blogs started to twitter about Clet’s nighttime raids on Florence street signs. Clet said that he suddenly saw the overwhelming banality and primitiveness of the ubiquitous municipal signs that rule our lives. He wanted to give them another meaning — a political, religious and philosophic interpretation — without obscuring the readability of the underlying sign.

One of the first street sign silhoulettes created by Clet
One of the first street sign silhouettes created by Clet

It began with a crucified Christ hanging from a “dead-end” sign. Then Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man graced a “no-entry” sign. But the favorite has to be the Common Man who is carrying away the “no entry” bar.

Unlike the taggers and the spray painted ugliness on Florence’s ancient walls, Clet’s street sign art is a removable adhesive silhouette. His work can be found in Rome, Florence, Paris, Turin, London and Valencia. It may be coming to a city near you.

Frenchman Clet Abraham leaves his mark in Paris
Frenchman Clet Abraham leaves his mark in Paris

Alexandra Korey, of ArtTrav.com fame has already asked the question that most interested me: “What is the difference between your work and graffiti?” Clet answered:

I’m not sure exactly what the fundamental difference is between a graffiti artist and my work. I can say for sure that my stickers are easily removable. It’s essential to me to create works that are thematically in keeping with the support upon which I am working, to adapt myself thus to any situation with complete respect for the work of others; I try to offer a service with my talent and knowledge. It’s possible that some graffiti artists have a similar work ethic. We do have in common a taste for the mysteries of the night and of surprise; a healthy attitude [or preference] for liberty of expression and breaking of rules – but these are the bases of being an artist!

I may be persuaded that street art, when done well is a gift to the city and its residents, especially that which is not permanent or destructive, like the Clet street signs.

Near Arezzo, Clet painted the town of Popi for the Castello di Popi
Near Arezzo, Clet painted the town of Poppi for the Castello di Poppi

For Clet, street art is more of a hobby than a vocation. His works are experiencing a notable success with private collectors in Paris, Monte Carlo, and New York. Many private entities, such as Banca Popolare dell’Etruria e del Lazio, the Istituto Tommaso Crudeli of Udine and the Castello di Poppi, have commissioned works from him. He participated in three exhibitions organized by the FuoriLuogo (“Out of Place”) between 2008 and 2010.

You can visit his studio in Via dell’Olmo, 8r in the San Niccoló neighborhood where he sells small items (stickers, t-shirts, and pins) based on his work, as well as his enhanced city street signs, both new and weatherworn, discarded by the Florence road works department.

Check out the videos of Clet and his work.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Folon’s Over the Rainbow to See the Stars

The imagination and whimsy of Jean-Michel Folon’s sculpture gift to the Rose Garden in Florence (February 8 post) led me to discover more about this extraordinary artist. A quirky story about an 80-year-old yacht saved by Folon at the end of his own life caught my attention..

Folon's Arcangelo (2003) - a blue man flying
Folon's Arcangelo (2003) - a blue man flying

Folon said, “I’ve spent all my life trying to fly and I assure you that I can’t, I’ve spent my life drawing blue men who flew, and during my life, I’ve also drawn many rainbows.” In 2001, he found a  tangible rainbow.

He told this story: Some years ago I was in Roma with Federico Fellini, in the street and under the rain, and Federico had an appointment with his doctor.

After a while he put his big hands on my shoulders, looked at me and said “We’ve spent our life fulfilling our childhood dreams”; we all had dreams when we were children, and I believe that when we were children we all thought, “one day I’ll fly”. Childhood dreams are very important. In life we all face reality soon, it stresses us and it takes everything away, our energy and our time. All things considered, all the children are the same when they say, “when I’m a grown-up, I want to fly, I want to find a boat and sail far away”.

Eventually I took refuge in the sea, and, luckily, I’ve found the boat to go to sea with.”

On Over the Rainbow Folon went in search of his dreams
On Over the Rainbow Folon went in search of his dreams

History of a Special Yacht

It was in 1930, when W. G. Hetherington from Glasgow had his 34 meters (115 foot) yacht, Janetha IV, built at Dickie & Sons Shipyard in Bangor, North Wales, in order to allow himself relaxing cruises together with family and friends, along the coasts of Scotland. In the years that followed her launching, Janetha IV sailed in the Scottish waters until 1939, at the beginning of the Second World War, she was commandeered by the Royal Navy and put at its disposal as coastal patroller.

In the years that followed the war, after a short period spent sailing in America, the yacht arrived in the Aegean Sea. In that period, in Greece, the Janetha IV, at the anchorage off the harbor of Athens, was transformed into a little floating casino. The yacht, whose name was then changed in Ismini III, disappeared for a long time, almost forty years, until, at the end of the eighties, an English owner bought her, renamed her Classique, and used her as a charter yacht, a successful market for about ten years, until a new owner moved the yacht to Cote d’Azur, where it was left in a state of neglect; virtually abandoned until Folon discovered her in 2000.

Folon's spirit influenced the beauty of his yacht
Folon's spirit influenced the beauty of his yacht

After years Folon managed to buy the yacht. He said, “Three years ago I was in a little bar and I had just bought a wreck and I was looking for a name and Judy Garland was singing “Over The Rainbow” on the radio, a wonderful song, which doesn’t mean “over” but “beyond” the rainbow.”

In 2002, the renamed Over The Rainbow arrived at Mondomarine’s slipway in Savona, a shipyard the construction of large yachts. Folon was avidly involved in the rebirth of the adventuresome boat. Two years later, Over the Rainbow was launched.

The 2004 Launch Party

At the 2004 launch party, Folon tells the story: “One day in a port I saw a wreck that was going towards death and I thought that it shouldn’t have died; I said to myself immediately “you’ll have a new life.”

And so this yacht is not just a yacht for me, but a real creation, which is part of my life, with her I want to discover countries that I don’t know very well, and from this yacht I want to see the lights of the coast and the stars in the sky.”

And all this to tell you that I could still speak for ages, because now the only thing I think about is this magic yacht; she hasn’t got anything so extraordinary, I think she is quite an ordinary yacht, she isn’t particularly fast, she can’t give you a great performance because she is slow, lazy, she allows herself to be dragged away by the sea; but she is more than that, she’s a real wooden yacht as you’ll never find again, and I want to go and see the stars with her.”

Over the Rainbow still explores the Mediterranean (2008)
Over the Rainbow still explores the Mediterranean (2008)

I think that in life people should have many dreams, because they guide us and Over The Rainbow is a dream. My little crew and captain Jean Louis believe in the yacht and so do I, and together we’ll go to stroll and visit islands; and I’ll come back with many images, drawings and water color paintings, because I want to look at nature, the lights on the sea and the beauty on the earth.”

Folon enjoyed just over a year gazing at his billion of stars before he succumb to leukemia at the age of 71 on October 20, 2005.

To read more about the restoration of Over the Rainbow.

Master Designer in Glass & Crystal Beads – Ornella Aprosio

In a magical oasis on the edge of the noise and bustle of Florence’s historic center, you can find a glittering green-blue seahorse hanging on a ribbon just a foot away from a pink calla lily lapel pin. Fiery chili pepper necklaces vie with ruby red cherry earrings and spotted ladybug pins. On the upholstered “husband” bench, beaded needlepoint pillows provide support for the viewing of one after another of the jewel-toned purses and evening clutches.

Enter into a peaceful sunlit jewel box
Enter into a peaceful sunlit jewel box

This is the world of the Aprosio & Co., the dream child of designer Ornella Aprosio, master artisan of the tiniest of crystal and glass beads.

The art of beadwork was very popular at the beginning of the 20th century, reaching its height with the “flapper” styles of the 1920s, but with the worldwide depression of the 1930s the lighthearted designs disappeared and the artisans couldn’t sell their creations.

Spring comes to Aprosio & Co.
Spring comes to Aprosio & Co.

A Rome native, Ornella Aprosio began her career as a professional bead designer in 1993. Before that she was a restorer of antique clothing, including evening gowns dating back to the 1920s, thus giving her expertise in working with complex beadwork. There were no teachers for beaded jewelry, so she had to experiment with each of her early pieces.

Thousands of beads and hundreds of hours for a classic purse
Thousands of beads and hundreds of hours for a classic purse

Now, besides creating her own unique pieces, Ornella employs about thirty artisans. Her bi-level store with its ivy-covered courtyard is located in the Palazzo Frescobaldi on Via Santo Spirito. The shop is graced by the presence of Monsieur Maquis, Ornella’s dog, and a suitably aloof cat. A couple of months ago she opened another location across the river on Via della Spada.

Although some of the simpler pieces are affordable to all, Aprosio’s wares are not inexpensive. The prices reflect the skill and time required to produce each piece by hand, as well as the fine materials she personally chooses – Venice’s Murano micro glass beads (known as conteria) from Venice and Bohemian crystal beads from the Czech Republic.

Beauty and the beast coexist at Aprosio
Beauty and the beast coexist at Aprosio

Ornella’s designs are made one by one by her specially trained artisans and therefore have variations that make each piece unique. The three dimensional quality of the more complex pieces and the depth of color and shine are created with the different methods of construction; some are crocheted, others knitted, the cushions use needlepoint, and the scarves have beads woven into fabric.

Luscious cherries
Luscious cherries - a favorite design

The different shapes, glitter (matte glass Italian conteria, sparkling Bohemian crystal seed beads) and colors of the beads highlight the details and expertise of the designs. Ranging from classic shapes – simple soft stretchy bracelets, a classic knotted necklace and brightly colored ball ear posts – to the more extravagant complex pieces – bumble bee pins, art deco evening bags, and orchid necklaces – that can take up to weeks to create, Aprosio has something for every taste.

The spider’s web, celebrated for the natural perfection of design is an Italian symbol of good luck and fortune, was integrated in Aprosio’s logo. And spiders, beetles, lizards, ladybugs, snakes and bats show that Ornella has a quirky sense of humor. The thought of an Aprosio gold and black striped bee with silver wings perched on the shoulder of a little black cocktail dress is the perfect image of the brand.

Shop, showroom and office
Via Santo Spirito 11 (Palazzo Frescobaldi)
Tel:+39 055 2654077

Shop 2
Via della Spada, 38r

Opening hours:  Monday to Friday: 9.30 – 19.30, Saturday: 10.00 – 13.30 / 15.00 – 19.30

Website

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Artisan Woodworker of Cortona

Fifteen years ago on my second visit to Italy, I went to Cortona. Why? To have tea with Frances Mayes, of course. I planned to spend the following year under the Tuscan sun – a sabbatical from my law firm life. Who else would be the best source of info?

We did not sip tea under the shady arbor of grapevines, near the fragrant lavender patch, behind the golden and peach-colored walls of the restored Bramasole villa. No, we sat in the back of the Caffe Bar Signorelli in the main square of Cortona for two hours over countless cups of ever-weaker tea. I can’t remember what I learned about how to have an exceptional extended vacation in Italy, but I remember the author was charming and was a major proponent of buying a second home in Tuscany.

Umberto Rossi's showroom at the corner of Piazza della Repubblica
Umberto Rossi's shop in Piazza della Repubblica

On the same visit to Cortona, I also met Umberto Rossi. Some would call him a falegname – a craftsman of wood – although the better term would be artisan. Umberto is a master craftsman in “turned” wooden objects, using a lathe to make the thinnest possible wood bowl or objet d’art. But it was the fruit he created that caught my eye – apples of acacia or palisander wood, pears of tulipwood, and two cherries of cherry wood, joined by stems of lemonwood, no thicker than the real thing.

Umberto's pear of tulipwood and cherries of cherry wood.
Umberto's pear of tulipwood and cherries of cherry wood.

I met Umberto in his small shop on the same square where I had tea with Frances. After a long discourse on how each item was made and the decisions that go into choosing the wood, the preparation, the tools and the amount of skill and labor that go into each item, I bought three pieces.

Umberto said he couldn’t understand why someone would buy a piece of his work and not ask about the type of wood or how it was made. That wasn’t a problem with me. I wanted to know about all of it. I had never seen such intricate craftsmanship with such an eye to detail outside of a museum. He invited me to visit his workshop just down the hill on Via Guelfa. My memory of this place is that it was crowded, dark, cold, and full of sawdust and pieces of wood, as well as all of the equipment needed for his work – but it was a long time ago, I may have the details wrong. It was there, looking at rough chunks of chestnut and olive wood, small logs of mahogany and rosewood, and even a cube of ebony, that the philosophy attributed to Michelangelo came to mind – Umberto seemed to look at a piece of wood and envision the form contained inside and it was his mission to bring it to life.

An apple made of palisander wood.
An apple made of palisander wood.

Then, Umberto invited me home to meet his wife, Dee, who, like Frances Mayes, was from the American South. Maybe it was that southern hospitality, but Dee kindly interrupted her dinner preparations to make coffee for the tourist her husband brought home with no warning. I never did learn how Dee Morton, an artist from Georgia ended up in a cozy apartment in a soon-to-become-famous, but now a definitely obscure, rocky hill town on the edge of Tuscany, with woodworker Umberto Rossi. Besides cooking dinner and making coffee, she was wrangling two kids, the youngest just one year old – it didn’t leave a lot of time for personal histories.

Turned and carved wooden objects in the window.
Turned and carved wooden objects in the window.

Last week, I went back to Cortona. Frances Mayes has since moved to North Carolina. Umberto’s shop was closed tight by ancient faded green wooden doors – no way to peer in, no big sign to say it was still his shop – but there was a small card taped to the door that gave a phone number and directions to the workshop. “Open on request.” As I debated the issue, a woman arrived wearing a warm coat and jaunty beret. It was Dee Morton.

Apples in a variety of woods in the showroom.
Apples in a variety of woods in the showroom.

The shop is now a showroom – same size, but with elegant glass cases. Umberto’s exquisite work remains the focus, but now also there are Dee’s drawings and paintings on the walls and the artwork of their talented now-teenaged children on display.

Have lunch at La Bucaccia on Via Ghibellina in Cortona
Have lunch at La Bucaccia on Via Ghibellina in Cortona

I, of course, added to my collection. Then we went off to one of the best restaurants in Cortona, La Bucaccia, (Via Ghibellina, 17), for a lunch full of local specialties, but that’ s for a later post …

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Easter Egg Extravaganza!

As holidays go, Italy shines the brightest in the Spring when Easter approaches. Florence goes all out with flowers, but it is the chocolate eggs that are most impressive. Throughout the city shop windows bloom with vibrantly-wrapped chocolate treats from creamy white to mild ganache to darker fondente to extra noir.

The Palazzo Vecchio reflected in Rivoire's Easter window
The Palazzo Vecchio reflected in Rivoire's Easter window

Long before the Easter Bunny started delivering sugary eggs, the ancient Romans believed that “omne vivum ex ovo” – all life comes from the egg – and it was commonly a symbol of new birth after the winter when everything has lain dormant.

It is all in the details
It is all in the details

There is some evidence that in ancient Roman culture eggs were decorated with vegetable dyes, such as beets and carrots, and then given as gifts during the spring festivals.

Vestri bursts forth with chocolate eggs
Vestri bursts forth with chocolate eggs

Easter tradition in Renaissance Italy originally called for eggs colored red. Some say that following the death of Christ, Mary Magdalen traveled to Italy to spread the word of the resurrection. In an audience with a skeptical Emperor Tiberius Caesar, an egg she had brought as a gift miraculously turned red, symbolizing the blood of Christ.

Easter egg for nut lovers
Easter egg for nut lovers

As chocolate became increasingly popular in the early 20th century, the sharing of colored hard-boiled eggs started to fade in Italy and chocolate eggs took their place.

Pretty in pink
Pretty in pink

Chocolate eggs became increasingly elaborate. They range from the tiny solid milk chocolate to the massive, showy hollowed out eggs containing small toys and even elaborate gifts, such as iPods and diamond rings. Wrapped in foil, cellophane, and sometimes silk with massive bows and even decorated with dangling toys, these creations are a feast for the eyes before they are just a feast.

Easter Eggs for toddlers, too.
Easter Eggs for toddlers, too.

The very popular Kinder Eggs are by Ferrero, a family company based in the Piedmont region. ‘Kinder Surprise’ eggs are a treat for children all year long, but at Easter the company’s production ranges from tiny ‘mini-eggs’ to the giant special eggs produced as a limited edition.

Huge chocolate egg honoring Italy's 150th Anniversary of Unification
Huge chocolate egg honoring Italy's 150th Anniversary of Unification

After the solemnity of Lent, the extravaganza of chocolate Easter eggs can only lead to a return to the Mediterranean diet before it’s time to set up the ombrellone on the beach in June.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Artusi at 100, Italy Honors its Culinary Father

Pellegrino Artusi, author of the famous Italian cookbook La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiare Bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well), is the father of Italian cuisine. This year – the 100th anniversary of his death – will be remembered with special events and celebrations, especially in Forlimpopoli, Artusi’s birth place, and Florence, the city where Artusi spent his life.

Pellegrino Artusi was 71 when he wrote his iconic book on the art of eating
Pellegrino Artusi was 71 when he wrote and published his iconic book

Artusi made his fortune as a silk merchant, but after retiring he devoted himself to fine dining. In 1891, at the age of 71, he completed the 600+ page tome in which he included amusing anecdotes and menus, as well as recipes. He couldn’t find a publisher and so self-published the large volume. It took him four years to sell a thousand copies. The self-published second edition sold faster, so he increased the print-run of the third. Then, all the hard work paid off – the book was discovered by the middle class.

Pellegrino Artusi self-published the 1st Edition in 1891
Self-published First Edition 1891

One of the reasons for its popularity is that Artusi wrote his book entirely in Italian – this at a time when most professional chefs were French-trained, and their books were so sprinkled with French terminology that they were hard for the uninitiated to follow. Also, Artusi was a bon-vivant, a noted raconteur, and a celebrated host; he knew many of the leading figures of his day and read widely in the arts and sciences. Almost half his recipes contain anecdotes or snippets of advice on subjects as varied as regional dialects and public health: while you may open the book to find out how to make Minestrone or a German cake, you will probably read on to find out how Artusi escaped cholera, or what the Austrian troops who occupied Northern Italy in the 1840’s were like.

He also created an appendix of menus: “As it frequently occurs that one finds himself unsure of what dishes to select when one has to offer a dinner” Artusi wrote, “I thought it well to provide this appendix, which gives the menus for an elegant dinner for each month of the year, as well as several menus tailored for specific holidays. I’ve omitted desserts because the seasons, with their various fruits, will council you better than I could. Even if you can’t follow these menus to the letter, they’ll at least give you some ideas that will make your selections easier.”

Artusi's photo superimosed on the XIII edition (1909)
Artusi's photo superimposed on the XIII edition (1909)

Artusi’s book stands with Manzoni’s great novel, I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), and the music of Verdi as works that not only are great unto themselves but represented a sense of identity and self-worth to a nascent country with no nationalistic feeling … Artusi chose to give Italians their definition by telling them how they ate … Anyone who seeks to know Italian food avoids Artusi at his or her peril. He is the fountainhead of modern Italian cookery,” wrote Fred Plotkin in Gastronomica.

Before Artusi died in Florence in 1911, more than 200,000 copies had been already sold. Today, the book is a perennial best seller in Italy and the recipes are still used. It has been translated in Spanish, Dutch, German and English. In 2003, the University of Toronto Press, published a new English translation that is still  in print.

The most recent English translation
The most recent English translation

L’Artusi, as the book is called in Italy, went on to become one of the most read books of the time, a household icon, and a source of inspiration for generations of cooks. There is even an Italian language iPhone app that contains all of Artusi’s 790 recipes.

Although he became famous for his first book, Artusi wrote another – a practical manual for the kitchen – in 1904, with over 3,000 recipes, simply entitled Ecco il Tuo Libro di Cucina (Here is Your Cookbook). Last month, Artusi became a fictional amateur detective in a popular murder mystery written by Pisan Marco Malvaldi – Odore di Chiuso (Smells Stuffy).

Cartton by Sergio Staino for Casa Artusi
Sergio Staino for Casa Artusi - Impossible to eat 'lite' with Artusi

The 100th anniversary events and initiatives to celebrate Artusi include conferences in Florence and Folimpopoli about Artusi and his work, Artusi-themed dinners held in different Italian cities on the 17th of March, Italy’s new national holiday to celebrate Italy’s unification, theatrical performances, various demonstrations and videos, and a national competition.

In Florence, on 31 March, an exhibition, entitled Pellegrino Artusi: il tempo e le opere, will open at the National Central Library. The exhibition will show original work and documents in the life of Artusi and his relationship with the world of publishing. The ‘Artusian’ celebrations will continue in June with a week of culinary stands in Piazza d’Azeglio; in November there will be an Artusi Week, involving catering schools in Florence, as well as restaurant and hotel owners.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Italy’s 150th Anniversary, Garibaldi & Lincoln

Giuseppe Garibaldi resigned his commission of leader of the army of Unification (I Mille) on September 18, 1860 and retired to his home on the island of Caprera off the coast of Sardinia. He was 53  years old and recovering from a battle wound.

1860 Garibaldi fights for Italy's unity
1860 Garibaldi fights for Italy's unity

In 1861, at the outbreak of the American Civil War, Garibaldi was approached by a representative of the United States Government, reportedly on behalf of President Abraham Lincoln. The Union Army was in disarray and Lincoln was unhappy with those in command. He needed a proven military leader.

As Herbert Mitgang wrote in his fascinating and very detailed article in American Heritage Magazine (October 1975):

“The offer came at a moment in Garibaldi’s life when he lived in semi-exile—too little of a politician to scheme for personal advancement, too much of a national idol to be put behind bars on the Italian mainland. The hero of the movement for a unified Italy, he had led a spectacularly successful revolt against a reactionary regime in Sicily and in Naples—the so-called Two Sicilies—in 1860, but now he was in temporary retirement.

On lonely Caprera, a wild, rocky island covered with juniper and myrtle and stunted olive trees, below La Maddalena off the northeastern corner of Sardinia, Garibaldi tended his vines and figs, built stone walls to fence in his goats, and looked out to the sea, dreaming. The conqueror of the kingdom of the Two Sicilies, in gray trousers and slouch hat, his red shirt and poncho flapping in the wind, refused all titles and honors for himself and sought only lenience for his followers. “How men are treated like oranges—squeezed dry and then cast aside!” he said.

He had wanted to march on Rome, against the “myrmidons of Napoleon in,” supposedly there to protect the pope, and defeat the Bourbon troops. But Victor Emmanuel II, king of Sardinia and now of Sicily and Naples as well, decided that French help was needed to complete unification of Italy and called off Garibaldi’s advance. Going back to Caprera, Garibaldi leaned against the steamer rail and said to his legion of Red Shirts: “Addio—a Roma!”

Abraham Lincoln’s Offer

1866 Garibaldi leads Italy against Austria
1866 Garibaldi leads Italy against Austria

Through the letter, dated July 17, 1861,  from Secretary of State William H. Seward to H.S. Sanford, the U.S. Minister in Brussels, Garibaldi was offered a Major General’s commission in the U.S. Army.

On September 18, 1861, Sanford sent the following reply to Seward:

“He [Garibaldi] said that the only way in which he could render service, as he ardently desired to do, to the cause of the United States, was as Commander-in-chief of its forces, that he would only go as such, and with the additional contingent power – to be governed by events – of declaring the abolition of slavery; that he would be of little use without the first, and without the second it would appear like a civil war in which the world at large could have little interest or sympathy.”

In other words, according to Italian historian Petacco, “Garibaldi was ready to accept Lincoln’s offer but on one condition: that the war’s objective be declared as the abolition of slavery. But at that stage Lincoln was unwilling to make such a statement lest he worsen an agricultural crisis.”

Although President Lincoln did not have Garibaldi leading his troops, he did have Union soldiers trained by Garibaldi. The “Garibaldi Guard” was the nickname given to the 39th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment that fought in the American Civil War. Many of the regiment’s members were Italian Americans who had served under Garibaldi in Italy.

Lincoln reviews the 39th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment- the Garibaldi Guard
Lincoln reviews the 39th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment- the Garibaldi Guard

Garibaldi never joined the Union Army, but he kept track of the American Civil War’s progress. In August 6, 1863, still unhappy with the political outcome of Italy’s Unification, he wrote directly to President Lincoln.

In the midst of your titanic struggle, permit me, as another among the free children of Columbus, to send you a word of greeting and admiration for the great work you have begun. Posterity will call you the great emancipator, a more enviable title than any crown could be, and greater than any merely mundane treasure, You are a true heir of the teaching given us by Christ and by John Brown. If an entire race of human beings, subjugated into slavery by human egoism, has been restored to human dignity, to civilization and human love, this is by your doing and at the price of the most noble lives in America.

It is America, the same country which taught liberty to our forefathers, which now opens another solemn epoch of human progress. And while your tremendous courage astonishes the world, we are sadly reminded how this old Europe, which also can boast a great cause of liberty to fight for, has not found the mind or heart to equal you.

Giuseppe Garibaldi, Scritti politici e militari, ed. Domenico Ciàmpoli, Rome 1907

If Abraham Lincoln had been able to obtain the services of the brilliant Giuseppe Garibaldi, the American Civil War may have ended in short order. As it was, for his military expeditions in South America and Europe (Italy, Austria and France), Garibaldi is known as the “Hero of Two Worlds”.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Happy 150th Anniversary Italy!

Italy will spend 2011 celebrating the 150th anniversary of its unification – known as the Risorgimento (Resurgence). From a land of city-states, many under foreign domination, Italy became a country in 1861.

Most historians agree that the unification of Italy started in 1815 with the end of Napoleonic rule, but it took a tortuous path through the insurrections of the 1820s and 1830s and the abortive revolutions of 1848-1849. The War of 1859 created the Kingdom of Sardinia that encompassed most of northwestern and central Italy, including Tuscany. But the move to unify the peninsula stalled there. The rich north had had nothing to gain and little interest to take on the burden of the poor south or to confront the pope in the Papal States.

Garibaldi and his army of Red Shirts
Garibaldi and his army of Red Shirts

Giuseppe Garibaldi was the true hero who kick-started the final unification of Italy. In early 1860, he gathered about a thousand of volunteers (I Mille) in Genoa for an expedition by sea to Sicily.

Progress by December 1959
Progress of unification by December 1959

The Kingdom of Two Sicilies (yellow on map), which ruled over not only the island, but most of the southern third of the mainland, had long been a corrupt government, oppressing a restive underclass. Although the Garibaldi Red Shirts were less skilled and ill equipped, they had tremendous success, gathering thousands of volunteers as they moved through the countryside. They occupied Sicily within two months. Garibaldi claimed Sicily in the name of Victor Emanuel II, King of Piedmont, Sardinia and Savoy. He then crossed to the mainland and marched his troops to Naples.

After Garibaldi’s success made full unification of Italy a real possibility, Piedmontese troops, under the command of Victor Emanuel II, used the riots and uprisings in the Papal States (red on map) as a reason to move south under the pretext of maintaining order. In 1860, two thirds of the Papal States joined the Kingdom of Sardinia and Rome was left alone. The Piedmontese army bypassed Rome and the remaining Papal States and marched south to Naples to help Garibaldi’s troops defeat the remaining armies of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies.

1861 Italy - Orange Unified - Red Papal State - Green Austrian Venetia
1861 Orange & Pink Unified - Red Papal State - Green Austrian Venetia

On September 18, 1860, Garibaldi gave up command of his army and all lands to the south, including Sicily and Naples, to Victor Emanuel II, signifying the unity and formation of the Kingdom of Italy, which was formalized by the new parliament on March 17, 1861. Victor Emanuel II was crowned the first King of Italy.

Although a Kingdom of Italy had been formed, it did not include all of Italy. The missing parts were Rome and Venetia. Venetia was annexed in 1866. Rome and the remaining Papal States became part of the union in 1870.

Throughout the year Tuscan Traveler will highlight events and stories relating to the unification of Italy.