Bali, Tradition and Change. Witti’s Story

It was the sign on the little Warung that first caught my eye. The first item, Tipat Tahu Kantok, provided only one clue, Tahu (tofu), but the other elements remained a mystery. This was one Balinese dish I hadn’t come across before.

I asked the gentle man standing near the warung about the word Tipat and he pointed out some little palm leaf baskets hanging inside the Warung. Obviously, Tipat was some form of sticky rice steamed in these little baskets: the other elements of the dish were yet to be revealed. The other menu items looked tasty too. Plecing is a tomato chilli sauce and came with aforementioned Tipat, Sayur sounded like a vegetarian dish, Rujak, a spicy fruit salad, and some drinks. What a perfect little menu for a tiny Warung by the sea.

View from Warung Kak Esa

I returned the following day and met the delightful Witti, the cook and owner of this tiny new warung. We tried her tasty version of Tipat Tahu Cantok and began chatting.

Witti has witnessed great change in Sanur over 58 years, most for the better.

Witti has worked at the beach end of Segara Ayu, at the northern end of Sanur, since she was a girl. She regrets that she never went to school: in the 1960s, her parents didn’t consider school important and so she was taught to collect coconuts, make shell jewellery and so on. Of course Witti is literate and speaks three languages fluently as well as a smattering of other languages too. She learnt on the street and is a modern, well spoken Balinese woman, as sharp as a tac, happy and vibrant. Her own three children completed high school and now she proudly talks about her grandchildren and the soaring cost of education these days, a subject that all Indonesians worry about.

The beautiful Witti cooks up some tasty treats.

She remembers many aspects of life from the past quite vividly. She spoke of the day Mt Agung erupted. She was four years old at the time. That eruption was one of the largest and most devastating eruptions in Indonesia’s history, killing an estimated 1,100 – 1,500 people.

‘On February 18, 1963, local residents heard loud explosions and saw clouds rising from the crater of Mount Agung. On February 24, lava began flowing down the northern slope of the mountain, eventually traveling 7 km in the next 20 days. On March 17, the volcano erupted, sending debris 8 to 10 km into the air and generating massive pyroclastic flows. Cold lahars caused by heavy rainfall after the eruption killed an additional 200. A second eruption on May 16 led to pyroclastic flows that killed another 200 inhabitants. Minor eruptions and flows followed and lasted almost a year.’¹

Witti remembers crowding with others on the beach in the pitch darkness, as Mt Agung, looming on the horizon, spewed lava and fire into the air. She recalls the the rain of ash falling around her for days. As she spoke, I could see the terror of that childhood memory in her eyes.

Another sad memory involved the loss of many of her siblings. She was one of 12 children, but due to poor sanitation and lack of doctors and medicine, five of her siblings died at a young age. Still, she followed this with a smile- imagine having Wayan, Made, Nyoman and Ketut ( the four Balinese names used in order of birth) repeated three times over. We all laughed together: yes, things have changed for the better. We also met Los, her older brother, who works along Segara Ayu at a little booth next door to Witti, offering information and selling tickets for the large boat tours further north. I am keen to chat further with Los about the old days, to see if, as a teenager, he remembers the chaos and horror of the civil war period that followed the earthquake in the 1960s, though most Balinese don’t want to talk of those times.

Vibrant modern Balinese woman, Witti in her brand new warung.

After we finished our Tipat, a tasty and extremely filling vegetarian dish resembling, in some ways, a gado-gado, Witti brought out a little plate of crispy fried Jackfruit, an unusual sweet taste sensation. Sweet and crispy, the batter was as light as tempura but golden in colour. We promised to return for breakfast the next day to try her crispy fried sweet potato, pineapple and banana, washed down with Bali black coffee. On other occasions, we simply popped in for a cold beer and peanuts. Witti cooks peanuts and garlic together and serves them hot and fresh on a large saucer. One Bintang beer, some fresh nuts, a good sunset and a chat: life is sweet.

Jackfruit ( nangka ) fritters at Warung Kak Esa
These freshly fried nuts are cooked a little darker and will be used in the sauce

More about Tipat Cantok

A Balinese Tipat Tahu Cantok is a common traditional Balinese dish that can be found almost anywhere in Bali. It’s made of mixed steamed vegetables (water lily, long beans and bean sprout) which are mixed with steamed rice cake( tipat) and fried tofu mixed with peanut sauce.  The sauce is made from freshly fried whole un-skinned peanuts, garlic, white pepper, coriander, purple shallot, chili and fermented soy paste. Tipat Cantok can be found in local small Balinese warungs but is rarely found in big restaurants.

Warung Kak Esa
Los’ dog, Chocolate, knows his way home after work.

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Agung

As a footnote to this post, Indonesians live with the fearful presence of volcanoes and earthquakes. With all that beauty and fertility comes disaster from time to time. Mt Agung continues to vent, there are still over 1,500 Balinese evacuees. Agung only tends to become news worthy in the Western press when it affects air traffic and the plight of the traveller. Meanwhile, we awake to the sad news of another earthquake, following one from 10 days ago, on the neighbouring island of Lombok. If you are looking for a reliable place to chip in a few dollars or euros for food and emergency supplies, follow the link below. If you have ever spent time in Lombok, or its Gili islands, you will appreciate how important this help is. Big or small, donations make a difference.

Update: Thousands (22,000) local residents of Lombok residents are homeless and without aid. If 1000 readers of this blog donated $10, $10,000 would be raised to provide immediate relief by those volunteers on the ground. If you can’t donate, please share the following link to your social media networks.

https://fundrazr.com/LombokEarthquake?ref=ab_3A65lLLlvoX3A65lLLlvoX

Liquid Sunsets

Down by the shore of Port Philip Bay, Melbourne, there’s so much going on during the sunset hour. Seagulls frolic and chase phantoms, paddle boarders glide by, silhouetted in liquid gold, a passing puppet show on water, cargo vessels float weightlessly upon the shipping lane, black swans gently pose, and aluminium dinghies turn bronze. Mesmerizing and always new.

Aluminium turns to bronze
Sunset gulls and paddle boarders, Port Philip Bay, Melbourne
Swans,  silhouette and ships. Port Philip Bay, Melbourne
Paddle on by. Gentle and noiseless water sports by the bay.

Of Ships and Sunsets

For those who have gone the distance and have continued to camp alongside the great lagoon- like bay of Port Phillip until mid Autumn, the rewards are great. The summer crowds, the sun seekers, bathers and holiday makers have long left: a more mellow mood remains. Some old patterns and rituals continue as the season winds to a close. From 5 o’clock, the beach calls and it’s time for a Shirley. Folding chairs, chilled wine, cameras real and cloned are carted down to the shoreline just in time for the sunset show. The children run or cartwheel across the sand, dressed for an endless summer, too busy to ever get cold, while their elders swaddle in layers against the descending chill.

Tangerine dream, Port Phillip Bay looking towards Blairgowrie.

The sunsets of mid Autumn are incandescent and more evocative than their summer counterparts. No more lipstick sunsets, loud, adolescent and brash. The season brings out subtle colours, as softer tangerine mellows to russet, bronze and antique gold, like the waning of time and life. My mind wanders out to sea as ships come and go, with cargoes of cars and clutter. Melbourne’s shipping lane is busy in the evening. Ghost ships pass, container-less, skeletons of their former selves, story book ships, pirate fortune hunters in search of another raid.

Ghost ships and pirates leave the Bay

Or human cargo ships pass by, cruise ships full of expectation, lit up like floating apartment blocks, as they ostentatiously glide into the setting sun and head towards their next fleeting appointment with another land.

Save me.

As a Champagne stopper popped, landing a good distance away in the sand, a song came to mind, piercing my mental meanderings on ships and sunsets. An earworm of the evening, I firmly planted it in the minds and souls of my fellow drinkers. And now dear reader, I’m planting it in yours. Lyrics below seem more pertinent than ever.

Ship of Fools

We’re setting sail to the place on the map
from which no one has ever returned
Drawn by the promise of the joker and the fool
by the light of the crosses that burned.
Drawn by the promise of the women and the lace
and the gold and the cotton and pearls
It’s the place where they keep all the darkness you need.
You sail away from the light of the world on this trip, baby.
You will pay tomorrow
You’re gonna pay tomorrow
You will pay tomorrow
Save me. Save me from tomorrow
I don’t want to sail with this ship of fools. No, no
Oh, save me. Save me from tomorrow
I don’t want to sail with this ship of fools
I want to run and hide ……..right now

Avarice and greed are gonna drive you over the endless sea
They will leave you drifting in the shallows
or drowning in the oceans of history
Traveling the world, you’re in search of no good
but I’m sure you’ll build your Sodom like you knew you would
Using all the good people for your galley slaves
as you’re little boat struggles through the warning waves, but you don’t pay
You will pay tomorrow
You’re gonna pay tomorrow
You’re gonna pay tomorrow
Save me. Save me from tomorrow
I don’t want to sail with this ship of fools
Save me. Save me from tomorrow
I don’t want to sail with this ship of fools
Where’s it comin’ from?
Where’s it goin’ to now?
It’s just a It’s just a ship of fools
Songwriters: Karl Edmond De Vere Wallinger

 

Environmental Recovery. Port Phillip Bay.

It may be a sign of maturity, wisdom and age, or perhaps I’m just a slow learner, but lately I’ve been observing some wonderful changes along the foreshore down by the bay. Where once the sea grasses in the shallow water and the native grasses along the coast were gouged by tractors to create white sandy banks for sunbathers and swimmers, now the native flora is slowly returning. It’s a gradual but discernible march as the native grasses thicken, slowly forming seed beds for the indigenous Coastal Banksia to germinate and creep closer to the tide line. Thick brackets of Casuarina compete with purple Melaleuca along shady pathways to the sand. An early morning walk in and out of the fringing bush is a rewarding pastime.

Purple Melaleuca, Capel Sound foreshore area, Port Phillip Bay, Victoria.

I’ve spent most of my life ignoring the beauty of the coastal Banksia. An irregular shaped woody tree better known for its yellow or lime candle flowers than beauty, shade or shape, I am so thrilled to find new saplings emerging along the small human track forged between the soft headed coastal grass.

In the past, I’ve been more fascinated with the busy shipping lane in Port Phillip Bay or the brilliant sunsets of late Autumn. This year is less technicoloured, as a pastel view of this beautiful bay plays with my soul. I like this change. It’s a sign of hope for the delicate ecology of the Bay’s coastal precinct. And it’s a sign of hope for the future generally.

The Life Cycle of a Coastal Banksia Flower in Images.

 

For https://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/favorite-place/

Some previous posts on of Port Phillip Bay:

50 Shades of Bay

On a Turneresque Day by the Sea

The Norwegian Star

Crossing Port Phillip Bay

Simply Ed

The first thing I noticed, apart from the vertiginous stairs leading to my small pew on Level C, was the incongruity of our little group, consisting of five women ranging in age from 68 to 13. I was attending the Ed Sheeran concert along with my daughter, my granddaughter, her half-sister and her best friend. This is probably not the usual demographic you might find at a popular concert: along with our age difference, we probably have little in common when it comes to taste in music or culture generally. So what is it about Ed?

Travelling by train directly to the venue, I noticed other small groups like ours as mothers, daughters and girlfriends piled into the train, chatting eagerly en route to the show. Of the 65,000 attending last Monday night, I would hazard a guess and suggest that women and girls made up more than 70 percent of the audience. Younger girls attended with an older male, father, brother, boyfriend or chaperone. Families of women and girls outnumbered the token male in their group. Ed understands his demographic well and encourages the boyfriends and dads to join in the singing, ‘This is your karaoke moment, dance, sing and forget about the people around you. If you don’t know the words, make them up’, Ed teases. There are many chorus chants in most of Ed’s songs allowing for mass participation without stuffing up the lyrics. Some of these chants come with particular waving actions, not unlike a soccer crowd experience only gentler, tamer.

From my vertical seat in the Etihad Stadium, Melbourne, Ed looked like an unreal creature, or as one of my daughter’s friends commented, ‘like a Ranger Ant’. It doesn’t take long to lose this sense of distance, thanks to the sound and video close-ups shown on screens at the rear. For those who aren’t familiar with Ed’s approach, he plays an electrified acoustic guitar solo, a one-man band, with no pre- recorded choruses, drum machines or tracks. Sheeran is known for using loop pedals in his live performances, allowing him to record his own guitar riffs, verses and chants before ‘looping’ it as he continues to play. After a song or two, it’s intriguing to hear the various elements being laid down, then listening to their reintroduction as the song builds, layer upon layer.

‘He’s up there on his own and he’s riding a wave of being in the moment with the music and every time he puts his foot down he’s either recording or looping or reversing or adjusting a track….It’s like watching a painter live paint a picture while doing something else at the same time – to a global TV audience. The pressure is insane!’

For those who were brought up enjoying singing in rounds, the effect is similar, only more electrifying and complex.

Phone light show. The A Team, a song about homelessness. Photos courtesy of Rachael Morgan.

Ed encourages the audience to turn on their phone lights during the gentle chorus of ‘The A Team‘, 

It’s too cold outside, For angels to fly,  Angels to fly.

It’s a kitsch but magical moment, reminding me of the good old days when we would wave our cigarette lighters about in the dark during the more radical and anti- imperialist Midnight Oil concerts. 

Sheeran’s music is eclectic, popular and non aggressive. While some of the sounds and lyrics might be considered simplistic and banal, as in the popular Shape of You, other genres show more depth and song writing genius. His music skips around most styles, Pop, Rap, Blues, Acoustic, English Folk, Beat Boxing, often incorporating elements of story telling or ballad. My favourites include the gospel R&B Make it Rain, sadly not performed at the Melbourne concert, and the multi layered Bloodstream, the live version added below which demonstrates Sheeran’s loop box recording for those not familiar with this technique.

Ed Sheeran’s concert tour of Australia and New Zealand sold over 1 million tickets. Now that’s around one in 30 people who attended the show, and if we cut out the very young and the very old, the odds get much narrower. His music might be described as broadchurch, but then it’s hard not to admire this gentle and enormously talented force, especially if you’re a woman or a girl.

Lost in the Garden

I lose all sense of time in the garden, and then I lose myself. It’s a common enough experience among gardeners. After the first flurry of harvesting, tying back overgrown tomatoes and moving hoses about, observing life’s cycle from seed to flower to fruit then back to seed, and all the while conscious of my own aging body as it bends and complains within this bounteous space, another state emerges. My pragmatic self surrenders to a semi- conscious meditation on the essence of being. Through silent awareness and invisibility, the sounds and signals of earth- primordial, spiritual, supreme- reinforce the idea of Anattā, that Buddhist concept of non-being.

It begins with a chive flower waving in the gentle breeze, now taller than the blanketing pumpkin leaves, insisting on more light. The delicate white coriander flowers belie the true pungency of their leaves, roots and seeds. Things are not what they seem. Then a strange bird call punctures the silence. High pitched like a creaking table, the sound is urgent but not bleak. I look up and see a flash of yellow underneath a broad wing span of black. It’s the yellow -tailed black cockatoo, an infrequent visitor to these lightly wooded lands. Now one, now two more, followed by a train of rasping sound, they are on their way to a distant pine tree. Word is out that the nuts are ready to strip. The guard cocky stands alert, signalling from the highest branch, a two-dimensional black stencil, a wayang puppet, an inked picture outlined in the early morning sky.

The bluest of blue of the radicchio flower is a call to the bees. I can never find the word for this blue: constructs such as Cobalt or Persian or Cornflower might have to do. And the little gem of a beetle, friend or foe, travels across a furry field that is an eggplant leaf. The mauve and white bean flowers peep from the darkness of their leafy canopy, an arrangement, a posy, a boutoniere. The beans can wait.

 

Sweet Plums in Summer and an Old Tart Recipe

The orchard, summer’s sweet fulfillment, beckons each morning, before the heat sets in. With the passing of the month, more heavily laden boughs bend with the weight of fruits of the season. Long gone are the peaches, young berries and cherries of early summer: now is the time for slow maturing fruit, apples, pears, quinces, figs and plums. Today the ruby-red fleshed Satsuma plums announced their turn to be picked: not as sweet as the Mariposa plum of early January, but a close relative and a very good keeper.

satsuma plums

Picking fruit is a kind way to wake up. I ponder the efficacy of the netting, and the man who meticulously netted, as I reach in to gently press the fruit, testing for perfect ripeness. An abundant season thanks to good spring rain, purple plums press against each other, nudging siblings for space on the bough, beautiful cheeks full of dark juice. As the basket fills, recipes come to mind- sweets of all kinds and savoury concoctions too, jams to put down for rustic winter crostate, spicy Chinese sauces, and poached plums to eat with yoghurt or labne.

Picking plums in the cool of early morning

I’ve made this tart often, and in the past with pears, apricots and cherries. It’s a seasonal standby. The apricot version is my most popular recipe on this blog. I’ve never had much success with growing apricots and so that version is a rare treat. Commercial apricots are picked too soon and never seem to fully ripen, tasting wooden and sour. This plum version is colourful and not too sweet. When choosing plums, make sure that they are juicy, fully ripe and are red fleshed. I should stress that they are not poached beforehand, but gently pressed into the top of the almond frangipane batter before baking.

Torta di mandorle e prugne

Torta di Mandorle e Prugne con Amaretto. Italian Almond and Plum Cake with Amaretto.

Ingredients

  • 125 g softened unsalted butter
  • 150 g castor sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 50 g plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 375 g finely ground almond meal
  • 2 Tablespoons Amaretto liqueur ( brandy works well enough here)
  • red fleshed plums, such as blood plums, fully ripe, enough to fill the tart
  • 25 g flaked almonds

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 170 FF. Grease a 25 cm loose bottom tin and line with baking paper.
  2. Cream butter and sugar in a stand mixing bowl, then add eggs one at a time and beat for 5 minutes until thick and pale. If the mixture curdles, throw in a little of the measured flour.
  3. Stir in the flour mixed with the baking powder, then fold in the almond meal, followed by the Amaretto. Pour into the prepared tin.
  4. Arrange halved plums over the top and lightly press down so they are partly submerged. Scatter the top with the flaked almonds.
  5. Bake for 45- 50 mins. Cool in tin. Gently un-mould.

    Torta di Mandorle e Prugne

In summer, this tart keeps well in a covered box in the fridge. I reheat the slices a little before serving.

Links to my my previous plum concoctions.

Poached plums with labne and nuts and seeds

Plum Clafoutis

Plum and Semolina Cream Tart

Rustic Italian Plum Cake

Chinese Plum Sauce

 

Black Saturday Anniversary. Thoughts and Thank yous.

Today, nine years ago, my life changed significantly. I’m sure many people have suffered a life changing tragedy at some point too. These events come our way to remind us that life is precious, to test our resilience or perhaps to jolt us out of materialistic complacency. 

The anniversary of Black Saturday, the Victorian Bushfire of February 7th 2009, is one I need to honour, privately in my local town but more publicly through my rambling posts. I have written about it previously. And now I choose the day to reflect on my post- bushfire life and make myself look at a few more photos from that time, and I can honestly say that these memories are no longer painful.

Painted by fire

After that disaster, the mantra in Victoria sounded loudly- ‘We will rebuild’. It was a battle cry of sorts, encouraging communities to re-group and re-establish as well as rebuild their homes. We didn’t, although we did stay in our community. We decided that rebuilding on our land would be too slow, costly and painful and so, almost on a whim, we bought a friend’s house in November 2009. It helped us re-settle more quickly. In the early days, I enjoyed living in a place that was not quite home: for years it enabled me to divorce myself from possession,  attachment and loss. Things would never be quite the same: the moon rose in a different spot, and the battle with an invasive grass species made gardening a nightmare, the climate was different, the bedroom faced the wrong way. I could come and go and never felt home sick. There was a sense of freedom in that.

Once a wet gully, the bare earth burnt for a week.

Last November, after we returned from a 5 month overseas trip, I finally sensed a deep longing for home, this home. It had taken eight years of re-settlement to develop this love. And today, as I walk around the vegetable garden and orchard and see how much work we’ve done, I realise that we’ve achieved our goal of establishing a small permaculture garden. Years of making compost and creating a micro-climate has paid off. Celery, rocket, bok choy and radicchio self sow in cracks and corners, fennel heads wave in the breeze. Dill, coriander and borage pop up unbidden, while flat leafed parsley, the seed that goes to hell and back before germinating, has finally found home here too. Wild cucumbers ramble along pathways, climbing any structure they can find. Pumpkins, chillies and yet more wild tomatoes arrive after every rain. It has taken these years for the apples, plums, figs and pears to fruit abundantly. An old hazelnut and a quince tree battle for light in one corner while the chooks graze like jungle fowl underneath, tossing about leaf litter or hiding on hot days in dense loganberry patches.

The house itself now seems to have developed an enveloping calm since the intsallation of double glazed windows and better heating. The temperature tends to be fairly even and the front ornamental garden breaks the wind and softens the outlook. There are deep shady patches outside for summer or sun catching windows for winter. There is a sense of peace and calm.

Saving the chimney for the future required an engineer’s report. An old hand made convict brick from my grandparents house at Port Albert features in the cornerstone of the hearth. Chimney by Tony Berry, local alternative builder.
The cottage chimney from the front. This little additional building, illegally built, was loved by the children. When they moved out of home, they first moved here, a stone’s throw away from the main house. Also used for music sessions.

I’ve now found my home, and attachment. It’s been a long journey and perhaps it’s time for a simpler life. I need to let go of the things we’ve accumulated which were so important to us at first. And perhaps I need to let go of this home as well.

Old man gum, favourite tree, did not survive this treatment.

Thank you Tess Baldessin, Helen Hewitt and Chris Warner and Bernie Mace for housing us throughout that year of dislocation. You helped us find our feet within our own community, simply by offering us a place to stay. We feel blessed. If only it could be this way for all those in the world who experience dispossession and dislocation through war and natural disaster.

 

Over the Bridge to Trastevere, Rome

There’s something very captivating about Trastevere, despite the busy night time crowds and touristy restaurants. It’s just a hop over a bridge to Centro Storico, Rome’s ancient centre, and depending on which bridge you take, you’ll land in a different precinct. Getting lost is part of a good day in Rome as you find new streets and more colours until once again, a familiar piazza or ancient Roman building pops up before your very eyes and you know where you are. Rome is always surprising.

One bridge takes you to the Jewish quarter, a great place to wander about on a weekday morning but avoid the weekends when this district is swamped with lunchtime crowds and restaurant spruikers.

Around the Jewish quarter, Rome

Another bridge takes you to the working class, gritty suburb of Testaccio, with its central food market and authentic Roman trattorie. You’ll pass yet more ancient Roman treasures along the way, some just lying about, and wonder why you hadn’t seen them before. There’s a certain insouciance in Rome when it comes to antiquity and this is part of the charm.

Testaccio, Roma,

Other bridges lead you through some official districts until you wander past Palazzo Farnese and find yourself in Campo Dei Fiori and nearby Piazza del Biscione, with its old style restaurants, another market and a superb fornaio ( bakery) on the corner.

The walls seem to glow in Rome’s cold late Autumn light, an attraction in themselves. Layers of ochre, pinks and reds, some colours when weathered, have no name at all. They are the colours washed by time, the colours that make you keep wandering and wondering, the colours of Rome.

 

Lombardian Stories. The Visconti Unplugged

Ambitious and successful, cruel and paranoid, the Visconti ruled Lombardy for more than 150 years (1277 -1447), an era marked by political upheaval and instability. Constant battles between warring states, ambitious condottieri with their eyes firmly fixed on a princely acquisition or a better offer from another ruler, callous despotic rulers and outbreaks of the plague featured prominently during this period.

Castello Sforzesco, Vigevano

Histories often dwell on the intricate details and dates of deals, reversals, betrayals and reprisals in the battle for power in Northern Italy: this is hard going and tedious reading for many. It’s no wonder that most Renaissance scholars gravitate towards Florentine history, a safe and fertile ground for research. Florence was blessed with relative order (once the Guelfs and Ghibellines had settled their disputes), prudent and astute bankers, graceful and relatively modest buildings, as well as talented architects, artists, writers and poets. The prolific documentation pumped out by the Humanist writers of the Republic gave rise to an historical obsession with Florence. The Renaissance history books on my shelves reinforce this idea: Milan, one of the Big 5 of Italy during that era (the others being Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples) receives scant attention.

Castello Visconteo, Pavia

During the Visconti era, the following cities came under their rule: Bergamo, Novara , Cremona, Como, Lodi, Piacenza and Brescia, as well as Pavia, and smaller towns nearby. With each new acquisition came more cash flow, more gold florins to spend on castles and palaces. They brought a period of wealth and glory to Milan and, like other dictators and warlords of the period, extracted hefty taxes from the locals, not only to build and maintain their castles and lifestyle, but to continue to pay the condottieri ( mercenaries). Often famous, admired and wealthy in their own right, the condottieri commanded private armies to fight territorial battles as well as providing the Visconti with personal protection. It is estimated that half of all gathered revenue was spent on this. As the saying goes, paranoia is just being careful, and you can never be too careful.

Castello Sforzesco a Vigevano, Lombardia

The Visconti rulers were feared, not loved, and their cruelty was legendary. One of the early Visconti, Bernabò, was passionate about boar hunting: anyone who interfered with it was put to death by torture:

‘ The terrified people were forced to maintain 5,000 boar hounds, with strict responsiblity for their health and safety.’¹

A later member of the family, Giovanni Maria Visconti, was famed for his dogs though not so much for hunting but for tearing human bodies.

‘ In 1409, when war was going on, and the starving populace cried to him in the streets, Pace! Pace! he let lose his mercenaries upon them and 200 lives were sacrificed; under penalty of the gallows it was forbidden to utter the words pace and guerra.‘²

On the side of grandeur, Giangaleazzo Visconti founded the extraordinary convent, the Certosa of Pavia, the cathedral of Milan, considered at the time to be the most splendid of all churches in Christendom and the Palace in Pavia, ‘the most magnificent of princely buildings of Europe’. He became Duke of Milan in 1395 and before his death was hoping to become the ruler of the Kingdom of Italy. The Visconti were extremely ambitious.

La Strada Coperta or the covered road, commissioned by the Luchino Visconti in 1347, part of the Castello Sforzesco, Vigevano. It was built to allow the lords of Milan to enter and exit the castle without being seen by the inhabitants of the village, and to flee  during times of impending danger. 
La Strada Coperta, 160 metres long by 7 metres wide. Massive and intact from the Visconti era.

As mentioned above, a high level of paranoia was another feature of their rule, which is often noted in the behaviour of the last Visconti, Filippo Maria:

‘All the resources of the state were devoted to the one end of securing his personal safety, though happily his cruel egotism did not degenerate into a thirst for blood. He lived in the Citadel in Milan, surrounded by magnificent gardens, arbours and lawns. For years he never set foot in the city, only making excursions to the country….. by flotilla which, drawn by the swiftest horses, conducted him along canals constructed for the purpose…..Whoever entered the citadel was watched by a hundred eyes and it was forbidden to stand at the window, lest signs should be given to those without.’³

Servants distrusted each other while highly paid condottieri were watched by spies. Despite this level of neurosis and court intrigue, he managed to conduct long periods of war and dealt successfully with political affairs of the day.

The Biscione, the viper, swallowing a child or perhaps an Ottoman Turk. The family crest of the Visconti says it all! These shields can be found in all Visconti buildings. Below,a simplified graphic of Il Biscione.

Image result for visconti family crest

Beatrice de Tende, Fillip Maria’s wife, was said to have been an intelligent woman who concerned herself with the current affairs of state. Despite this and her own wealth, territory and military strength which she brought to the marriage, Filippo Maria had her accused, on trumped-up charges, of adultery with a young troubadour, and despite her confession of innocence, she was beheaded, along with her two maids and the young musician.

Window. Castello Sforzesco, Vigevano

If travelling to Milan and through Lombardy, plan to spend at least a day in Vigevano, una città ideale, one of the most beautiful Italian cities in northern Italy, bastion of the Visconti and Sforza, and probably much more accessible than Milan. A tour of the castle takes some hours and can be booked when purchasing your ticket.

The excellent  and informed guide leaves Castello Sforzesco, Vigevano.

**************************************

Background music for this post: the Saltarello, a dance originally from Italy in the late 14th century, the word deriving from the verb ‘saltare’, to jump. I include this as a reminder that some rather nice things went on during that period also.

Notes of the old fashioned kind.

¹ Jacob Burckhardt The Civilisation of The Renaissance in Italy. 1860. Phaidon  Press, edition 1955, pp.7-8

² Jacob Burckhardt, ibid, p 8

³Jacob Burckhardt, Ibid, pp 23-4

My interest in the Visconti and Sforza was aroused many years ago when teaching Renaissance history. I recall that the Dukes of Milano were not given much time; back then, the Medici claimed all the limelight. During my visit to Pavia, Vigevano and the small towns and villages along the Via Francigena, my interested was reignited. Guided by Stefania and Lorenza Costa Barbé, and the excellent young castle guide in Viegevano who spoke such magnificently lucid Italian, I’m now looking for some modern social histories of that era. Recommendations are sought.