Vigevano. The Renaissance in Lombardy

I’ve been working on this post for more than a year. Like many other posts written about Lombardy, this one got left in my draft pile. We spent one day in Vigevano, but as most of our time was taken up touring the fabulous Castello Sforzesco, along with a very good lunch, I feel I was cheated. When I return to Vigevano, I’ll stay in centro in a little apartamento overlooking the most beautiful Piazza in Italy, if not the world, the Piazza Ducale. Dream on.

In a country brimming with Renaissance architecture, it would be hard to choose which town might be considered the most beautiful, the most ideal Renaissance city. Maybe we could just settle for a short list? What is the framework for making such a claim? Do we choose on the basis of architecture, famous art, sculpture, painting, churches, piazze, harmonious urban landscape, civic pride or all of the above? Tourists in search of the Italian Renaissance in situ might put Florence near the top of the list, given that city’s fame. I personally find Florence dark, uninviting and not so harmonious when it comes to all things Rinascimento. Florence is crowded and many tourists are happy to see the fake David and Donatello, wander over the Ponte Vecchio, traipse through the Uffizzi for hours, catch a Masaccio or Giotto in one of the smaller churches, get in the queue to wander through Duomo, swoon if your name is Stendhal,¹slurp a gelato in Piazza della Signoria, wolf down an overpriced panino or pasta, then claim to have ‘done’ Florence.

The perfect piazza alla Bramante.

The Humanist writers of the 14th and 15th centuries were part of the great advertising think tank of the Florentine Renaissance. This hype culminated in the writing of Giorgio Vasari, evident in his Le Vite de’ Più Eccellenti Pittori, Scultori, ed Architettori.  (Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, sculptors and Architects). Published in 1550, ‘Lives‘ was the first art history written, presenting a distinct Florentine bias. I often get the feeling that Vasari’s prejudice is alive and well, nearly 500 years later. Florence has a great deal to offer in terms of understanding many aspects of the Renaissance, but other less famous cities do so equally and are more pleasant to visit.

Piazza Ducale, Vigevano

Up until recently, the city of Urbino in the Marche region sat at the top of my “Best Renaissance city” list. Under the rule of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino from 1444 to 1482, the town of Urbino flourished. Federico da Montefeltro was a successful condottiere, a gifted diplomat and an enthusiastic patron of art and literature. Ruling for four decades, he set out to reorganise the state, making the city of Urbino ‘comfortable, efficient and beautiful’. Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano, the Book of the Courtier, published in 1528, which outlined the standards for the modern European gentleman, was founded on Federico’s court. It was the Renaissance place to be in terms of language and letters.

The famous portrait by Piero della Francesca, Dyptich of the Dukes of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza, 1465-1472 circa. And what an amazing match of the two most important Renaissance families of that era.
Piazza Ducale Vigevano

Vigevano is a small town in Lombardy that could also claim the same title of Città Ideale of the Renaissance. The central part of the town, the Piazza Ducale, leads the eye in every direction- along the arched colonnades, through the inviting side streets, upwards towards the apartments overlooking the piazza, and then back down towards the Cathedral and further along into the grand Castello Sforzesco.

Vigevano is located around 35 kms from Milano in the Lomellina district of Lombardy. I was seduced by the graceful Piazza Ducale. Designed by Bramante, this is one of Italy’s most beautiful piazzas. The building was instigated by Duke Ludovico Sforza (il Moro) and work began in 1492. It was intended to serve as a stately forecourt to the castle and did so for some time. It is shaped in an elongated rectangle measuring 134 metres by 48 metres and is enclosed with arched porticos supported by 84 columns. The porticos have carved capitals, each one carved differently.

Castello Sforzesco

The castle, which rises up at the town’s highest point, dates back to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The castle was built in two consecutive stages, one under the Visconti and the other under the Sforza. The Visconti era is marked by  paranoia in design, as seen in the strada coperta, a secret exit from the castle. The latter architectural additions under the Sforza are marked with grace and openness. The artistic contribution of Donato Bramante cannot be understated-  his arches seem to balance lightly on stiletto shoes. So light, so graceful. During this period, the castle became one of Europe’s richest Renaissance courts, not unlike that of Urbino. Both leaders, Montefeltro and Lodovica Sforza were allies and skillful diplomats.

Stables, Castello Sforzesco
Falconiera, Castello Sforzesco

There is much to see and experience in Vigevano. A castle covering more than 2 hectares, a fine cathedral, a museum dedicated to the history of shoes ( Vigevano is the shoe making centre of Italy) and much more. But my main reason for wanting to return is simple. It’s that beautiful piazza that takes the prize: it is the centre stage of Vigevano. Theatrical, seductive and yet restrained, it invites you to take a stroll, to cross over, or to take shelter under Bramante’s arches in inclement weather, to whisper, to meet up with your lover, to be incognito or conversely to parade and strut about in your new shoes. Like all the best Italian piazze, Vigevano’s Piazza Ducale gives meaning and depth to that little Italian word, Centro.

La strada coperto, Visconti paranoia in Castello sforzesco

¹ I also suffer from Stendhalismo  when visiting Duomo in Firenze.

 

On a Broomstick with La Befana.

The Befana comes at night, With her shoes all tattered and torn, She comes dressed in the Roman way, Long Live the Befana.”

These lines sound so much better in Italian (see below) and it’s one poem that all children learn by rote and then recall as adults. La Befana is one of the most loved figures associated with Italian Christmas: the celebration is still popular throughout Italy. It’s nice to see photos of Italian women of a certain age getting into the spirit of Befana, dressing up as witches, while family groups attend the many winter feste and sagre dedicated to La Befana on the evening of January 5, 12 days after Christmas day.

Orion and the Seven Sisters. Photo by my brother Michael, whose celestial photos can be found at https://regionalcognisance.wordpress.com/.

For those who don’t know the story, the legend of La Befana is associated with the Epiphany which occurs 12 days after Christmas. Befana was an old woman who was asked to accompany the Three Wise Men on their journey to bring gifts to the new-born baby Jesus. She declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, Befana had a change of heart, and went in search of the three astrologers and the new born Jesus. That night she wasn’t able to find them, so to this day, La Befana goes out searching for the little baby on the night of the Epiphany, on January 5-6. Befana is a corruption of the Italian word of epifania, and is derived from the Greek, επιφάνεια, meaning appearance or manifestation. She is depicted as a kindly old witch wearing ragged clothes and riding a broomstick. She enters the house via the chimney and brings a sack of gifts for the children, sweet things for the good children and a lump of carbon or garlic for the naughty ones. See my earlier posts about Befana, here, here and  here.

Image courtesy of my brother Michael at https://regionalcognisance.wordpress.com/.

But there’s still something odd about the Christian aspects of this legend. Why a witch and why is she flying on a broomstick above Italian villages and cities? As it turns out, there are many pagan and folkloric threads to the story, each one providing more clues. Like many Christian stories, this one has been appropriated from ancient times and tacked on to a Christian legend about the birth of Jesus.

Moon and Tree. Courtesy M Robinson at Mick’s Cogs

‘The origin of the Befana is probably connected to a set of pagan propitiatory rites, dating back to the X-VI century BC, and is linked to seasonal cycles, to agriculture, and is related to the harvest of the past year, now ready to be reborn as a the new year’.¹

In the Roman era, the twelfth night after winter solstice symbolised the death and rebirth of nature, and was celebrated. They believed that the twelve nights after solstice represented the twelve months of the Roman calendar: female figures flew over the cultivated fields to promote the fertility of future crops, hence the legend of a “flying” figure. According to some, this female figure was first identified as Diana, the lunar goddess linked to game and hunting as well as to vegetation and the moon. Befana is also linked to minor deities such as Satìa and Abundìa, symbols of satiety and abundance. There may also be an association with an ancient Roman winter festival in honor of Strenia ¹, the goddess of New Year, a time when gifts were exchanged. (the word strenna meaning gifts is derived from this).

Other precursors include Holda and Perchta, nocturnal witches of Nordic mythology, and in the Veneto region, Erodiade. It is customary in these areas to burn an effigy of La Befana. Good, evil, mother, witch, goddess, housewife, grandmother, hag, crone, the modern, often cartoonised character of Befana, has emerged from a rich store of pagan and Italian folklore. In a sense, the Christian element is just one minor thread.

Seen in Trastevere, Roma, November 2017. The real Befana?

As for La Befana who comes dressed as a witch in the Roman style, historians specialising in Italian witchcraft and folkloric traditions have more to say. A story perhaps for next year’s post on this topic?

La Befana nell’orto d’abbondanza. Madre, nonna, dea, strega, casalinga, vecchia, contadina, amica, cuoca.

There are at least 12 versions of this little Italian poem, but this is the one I learnt many years ago. See opening paragraph above for the English translation.

La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
col vestito alla romana:
Viva viva la Befana!  

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

 

 

 

 

One week in Pavia. Part 1, Ponte Coperto

Over the summer holidays, I plan to polish off a few of my unfinished posts from 2018. Some of these concern Pavia in Lombardy, Italy. Instead of finalising these posts months ago, I’ve found myself crawling back down that rabbit hole of historical research, one of the great side benefits of travel.

In hindsight, we should have stayed longer in Pavia: a week was not long enough to explore the historical centre of town as well as the nearby villages and surrounding countryside. Pavia is a university town, and like many others, we found the student population added vibrancy and life to the city. The city is small enough to explore on foot, with castles, towers and churches from the Longobardian era through to the late medieval Visconti and the Renaissance Sforza periods. The Lombardian countryside, especially the wine growing district of the Oltrepo, provided glorious hill-top views of vineyards and wineries, with nearby small village trattorie. The nearby villages of the Lomellina area, known for their famous rice fields dating back to the 13th century, border the Ticino and Po rivers and are a short drive from Pavia. Dotted along the way are yet more red bricked, austere Visconti castles and solid brick Romanesque churches, as well as inviting rural pasticcerie, each one famous for a particular biscotto. Other side trips included travelling along the Via Francigena, the ancient camino that in medieval times connected Canterbury to Rome. Another day was spent in Vigevano, the most beautiful Renaissance town in Italy, challenging Urbino (in the Marche region) for that title. The little water-mill, the Mulino di Mora Bassa, contains a permanent exhibition dedicated to beautiful replicas of Leonardo’s machines, for those who are interested in the technical genius of Leonardo and his contribution to agricultural and hydraulic equipment.

Ponte Coperto,  Pavia

The Ponte Coperto ( covered bridge) dominates the entrance to Pavia, spanning the Ticino river. The river divides the city in two- Centro Storico on one side, the historical centre of Pavia, and the more suburban Borgo on the other. Borgo was once inhabited by fishermen and washerwomen but is now gentrified and charming, and provides some convenient Airbnb apartments as well as parking.

The Borgo district, now gentrified.

Il Ponte Coperto has had a few incarnations throughout history. It was built in Roman times and then rebuilt during in 1354 during the Visconti era. This medieval bridge was bombed by the Allied forces ( American/British) during WW2 and replaced between 1949 to 1951. The bombing occurred on three occasions, making it impassable during the 1940s. The new bridge was meant to be a replica of the old medieval bridge, but with some modern necessities. Indeed the modern bridge appears quite ancient and ‘authentic’ on the surface. Many of the original features have been included, such as a chapel, arches and a covered roof. The footings of the two earlier bridges can still be seen in the river near the current bridge.

Old Covered Bridge, Pavia, built in 1370s, damaged by allied bombing in 1944.  Source, G. Chiolini.  G 
The old Covered bridge after the Allied bombing in 1944. courtesy G. Chiolini

Of course there’s a story about the rebuilding of the Ponte Coperto: things are never straight forward in Italy when it comes to restoration and bureaucracy, even more so when dealing with a 600 year old bridge, known and loved for its strength and medieval beauty. Several experts estimated that the damage caused to the bridge by the Allied bombing was not so severe as to prevent a complete restoration, “as it was and where it was”. A lively debate took place around Pavia, involving engineers, historians and architects, the city council and in the general population, between the supporters of the old bridge and its “executioners”. Over a period of three years, the debate continued to rage until the old bridge was finally demolished in 1948, and replaced by the current copy. The current bridge was built 30 metres downstream from the old bridge, and is perpendicular to the river, unlike the old bridge which was shorter and wider and on a diagonal. The new bridge is taller, the new arches are thinner, and are constructed in reinforced concrete and veneered in red brick, a building material utilised in many medieval buildings throughout Pavia. The two portals are completely different. Even today, some consider this bridge a caricature of its former self. But of course, in the eyes of the casual visitor, the bridge looks like it fits in well and even appears to be an ‘old’ bridge. The same questions will always arise about the pros and cons of Restoration versus Renovation or Remodelling. There’s always a Disneyland aspect when attempting to copy an ancient building. At dusk, when the foggy mist of November hovers over the Ticino, then glides through the bridge after dark, making the air wet and cold and eerie, the bridge feels ancient. There are moments when you feel those medieval spirits crossing over the Ticino on their way to midnight mass in centro, with whispered stories of goats, Archangel Michael and a pact made with the devil.

Remains of the Old Covered Bridge

A few links relating to questions in this post.

https://www.liutprand.it/articoliPavia.asp?id=67

http://www.pavialcentro.it/en/monumenti/dal-ponte-coperto-san-giorgio-montefalcone-leggende/ponte-coperto

The Jewish Quarter, Rome

Rome’s Jewish quarter is a thriving and busy precinct within the centro storico. It is both a cultural and culinary attraction, with Jewish bakeries, delis and trattorie lining the busy streets. These days, the area has become a little too popular as spruikers work the narrow lanes with their menus and intrusive spiel and locals and tourists form long queues at bakeries and delis. Long gone is that quaint district of old. A good time to visit would be on a weekday morning.

Queues in the Jewish Quarter, Rome.

The Jewish quarter is a small, distinct precinct in the centre of Rome and is best accessed via the bridge over the Tevere from Trastevere. The Roman Ghetto was established as a result of a Papal Bull by Pope Paul 1V in 1555. The bull also required the Jews of Rome, who had lived as a community since pre- Christian times, to live in the ghetto. The ghetto was a walled quarter with its gates locked at night.

Jewish quarter, Rome. Sunday morning.

The papal bull also revoked all the rights of the Jewish community and imposed a variety of new restrictions such as prohibition on property ownership and practising medicine on Christians and compulsory Catholic sermons on the Jewish Sabbath.

In common with many other Italian ghettoes, the ghetto of Rome was not initially so called, but was variously referred to in documents as serraglio degli Ebrei or claustro degli Ebrei, both meaning “enclosure of the Hebrews”. Various forms of the word ghetto came into use in the late 16th century.

The word ‘ghetto’ is based on the Italian word for foundry getto, (because the first ghetto was established in 1516 on the site of a foundry in Venice), or from Italian borghetto, diminutive of borgo meaning ‘borough’.

Carciofi. The season for artichokes is November. Time to eat that classic Roman Jewish dish, Carciofi alla Giudia.

These images of Rome, variations on a theme, were taken around the Jewish Ghetto in Rome on a Sunday.

History of the Roman ghetto largely gleaned from Wikipedia.

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.

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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.

 

Kraków the Brave

Kraków is a remarkably city. It’s the surprise card of a three-week trip through Central Europe. Elegant and stately 18th and 19th century buildings line the narrow streets while the huge market square dominates the center of the old city. The manageable size of the city, the ease of getting around on foot, and the palpable creative and youthful energy one senses makes Krakow a great place to visit.

Krakow. Market Square on a sunny Autumn day.

The main square, Rynek Główny in Polish, dates back to the 13th century: at 9.4 acres in size, it is one of the largest medieval squares in Europe. This space is overpowering, hypnotic and graceful. It is irresistible at any time of the day, and with this size, never gets too crowded. Often main squares in European cities are best avoided in peak times, especially in the tourist season.

One small corner of Market Square, Krakow

The square is surrounded by historic townhouses, churches and the central Cloth Hall, rebuilt in 1555 in the Renaissance style. The cloth hall today has small tourist shops selling Polish themed trinkets. The building is long, rectangular and graceful. Other buildings edging the square, include the Town Hall Tower, the 10th century Church of St Adalbert, and many restaurants covered by market umbrellas along with heavy-duty heaters.

Market Square, Krakow
Another beautiful building lining the Market Square, Krakow

Historically, Krakow has been one of the leading centres of Polish academic, cultural and artistic life. It enjoyed its golden era during the 15th century, with Renaissance artists and architects flocking to the city. Despite the horrors of WW2 and the Nazi occupation of Kraków, followed by Stalinist control of all intellectual life, Krakow has, in the 21st century, re-emerged as a place of culture and education. In 2000, Kraków was named European Capital of Culture. In 2013 Kraków was officially approved as a UNESCO City of Literature. There are 250, 000 tertiary students in the city. Music venues are thriving, as well as the arts and literature. You can feel the energy in the streets.

The central market square attracts excellent musicians and buskers at any hour of the day.

After the Nazi invasion of Poland at the start of  WW2, Kraków became the capital of Germany’s General Government. The Jewish population of the city was forced into a Ghetto, which was later walled in: from there, they were sent to German extermination camps, at the nearby Auschwitz  and Birkenau. During that short period, 65,000 Jews from Krakow were murdered. The reality of this horrendous evil is reinforced through a visit to Oscar Schindler’s Enamel Factory in Krakow, a museum and exhibition of life in Kraków under Nazi occupation 1939-45, housed on the former site of Schindler’s factory. A visit to this display, which will take around two to three hours, is a must. Catch a taxi to the factory and buy tickets there. There is no need to go with a group or a guide. Warning: the exhibition is deeply moving and disturbing. The following photo collage is a media file, which opens as a slide show, depicting a few images from this museum.

There are also tours of Nowa Huta, a separate district of Krakow, and one of only two planned Socialist realist settlements or districts ever built and “one of the most renowned examples of deliberate social engineering” in the entire world.¹ A tour with Walkative Tours of Krakow with a guide well versed in the history of Stalinism, and its application in Poland, was available. But in the end, we chose the food tour, a great way to learn more about the traditional foods of Krakow.

The gentle sound of clip clopping horses in the streets nearby the central square.

A UNESCO World Heritage site, modern Kraków is brave, proud, lively and welcoming.

Tradition and Change. Rewriting Christmas.

I once owned many histories of Renaissance and Medieval Europe. Most of them mentioned the words Tradition and Change somewhere within the text, if not in the title itself. That period, perhaps more than any other in history, encapsulates this historical concept so well. Things don’t change suddenly. Old ways continue side by side with the new, traditions and beliefs endure, long past their relevance to the society practising them. A clashing of paradigms might take a century to resolve, only to be followed by a reactionary movement, another turn of the wheel, bringing about upheaval and further revisions to practice and belief, whilst simultaneously drawing legitimacy and cultural validity from older traditions. History is usually written and re- written from the perspective of the current paradigm: facts alone stand for very little.

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Daisy adding nutmeg to the pudding.

Now what’s all this got to do with Christmas in Australia, I hear you ask? Some traditions keep dragging on, despite their increasing irrelevance to a largely non- Christian society. Most Australians recognise, and are comfortable with this basic fact, embracing Christmas as a secular holiday. Or many see it as marking the beginning of summer and a long holiday for families. But before being let off the hook, before descending on beaches and rivers to play in the sun, certain archaic traditions must be followed. Shopping takes precedence over all others, with a slowish start in early December, building up to an insane frenzy as the weeks march by, as glossy supermarket magazines extol the virtues of catering for a family, with visions of excess, not unlike those Renaissance feasts of old. Catering for large numbers is not something that comes naturally to most, so Curtis or Jamie or Nigella can show the fashionable way. They make it look so easy.

I’ve observed mothers going slowly mad with stress, bent on purchasing more and more each year for their children. Bucket loads of plastic crap, or designer labelled clothing, or the latest gizmo, or a better version of something that they already own, helps to create yet more landfill for future generations to deal with. The consumer obsessed are still shopping at 11pm on Christmas Eve, still hunting for the unattainable. It’s the season of sadomasochism, as those indulging in these pastimes gloat about their pain, yet are unable to disengage.

Stores ship in mountains of wooden tasting prawns from the frozen bowels of somewhere, grown especially large for the holy day/holiday occasion, costing twice as much and tasting unlike a prawn should. Prawns on steroids, no brine from the sea or sweetness of flesh. Decapitated legs sawn from Alaskan crabs now grace the window displays of our supermarkets. What happened to their bodies? Slabs of smoked salmon unfreeze before greedy shoppers’ eyes, cheap manufactured mince tarts and puddings appear two months before Christmas, only to be replaced by Hot Cross Buns in the New Year. Easter is similarly meaningless and just around the corner. Here are the large bright cherries, gassed up to artificial ripeness, yet more cheeses, more Pavlova, more hams and prosciutto, pigs, baby goats, lambs, chickens and ducks, and especially that Imposter, the Turkey, followed by more and more mountains of food, in search of new tastes and more waste.

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Lisa’s Cardamom Shortbread, Tradition and Change in one spicy mouthful.

I  pulled the plug on excess this year. Gifts were still purchased, and a few lists were made. Simple little biscotti studded our pre- Christmas gatherings, as well as Lisa’s cardamom shortbread.  A large Christmas cake, made early in December, was given to my mother, the keeper of our old English/Irish traditions: she has more use for it than I do . A last-minute pudding was made for my daughter, who catered for her in-laws this year. I tasted some of the left over pudding: it wasn’t like my mother’s, it didn’t have the taste of tradition, that secret ingredient, nor the advantage of slow aging in a cloth. The children rejected it: it didn’t contain any silver coins. My mother keeps old sterling coins and generously studs hers at the last-minute before serving, a tradition she has kept but one that I am happy to see die with the next generation.

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A large Christmas Cake can last for 6 months. Foolproof recipe in link above.

The leftover coin-less pudding has been returned to my house, like a Christmas boomerang, reminding me that some traditions can’t change that quickly. Now it’s time to convert that fruity brandied reminder of times past into something that might be pulled out once again, renewed and reinterpreted, into something that is more suitable to our summer climate.

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Under a shady tree on a hot December day. Freshly picked peaches, furry and sweet, the juice running all over my clothes, and a glass of chilled Prosecco.

The following  recipe is the traditional Australian way to deal with that left over Christmas pudding.

  • 1 litre tub vanilla ice cream, slightly softened.
  • 200 g left over Christmas pudding.
  •  Amaretto to serve

    Whizz the ice cream in a food processor until smooth, fold in the  crumbled Christmas pudding and scrape into a freezer-proof container. Freeze for at least 2 hrs, or stash for longer. Scoop into bowls and top with amaretto.

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    Kids, fresh picked berries, and swimming during the weeks leading up to Christmas.

    My favourite Christmas read this year comes from Roger at Food Photography and France.

  •  https://stowell.wordpress.com/2016/12/02/what-i-really-really-want/

Postscript. After microwaving my plum pudding and serving with some brandy cream, I have to say it tasted dam good, so it will not be put into ice-cream after all, but stashed well in the freezer for a winter treat.

Way out West. Postcards from the Wimmera.

It’s Sunday morning and the small town of Jeparit seems deserted. We walk towards the centre and do not see a soul. There’s one car parked outside the Lutheran Church along the way.  Old time religion lost its customers long ago. The only remaining cafe, an annex of the supermarket, is closed as are the other two businesses in town. There are two pubs, the grand looking Hindmarsh, which opens from 4 pm a few days a week and the other, the Hopetoun, recently purchased by enthusiastic new owners, which opens from 11 am daily. Two years ago, neither pub was in operation. Business fluctuates in Jeparit. Welcome to the heart of the the Wimmera District of Western Victoria. Not many tourists bother to make it here. The vast bleached plains seem too flat and monotonous to the untrained eye. After a few visits though, the stark beauty of this rural, dry and at times, inhospitable landscape, leaves a stirring impression. I am called back annually, leaving my own claustrophobic hills and valley behind.

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Corellas in the sunset sky.

Jeparit, with a population of 632, clings to survival. Each year another business fails and more large Edwardian and Federation houses fall into disrepair, crying out for new owners to love them. But while the school, post office and bank remain, there’s some hope for the town. Situated 370 kms north-west of Melbourne, it takes a brave soul to re-settle here. The physical isolation is palpable: cheap real estate, pure air and austere beauty comes at a price.

The Wimmera river flows through the town.
The Wimmera river flows through the town. The river and nearby Lake Hindmarsh often run dry.

I have been visiting a friend here for around twenty years now and with each visit, the beauty of the environment unfolds: I am often overwhelmed by the silence and majesty of the vastness of the land. On one occasion, we were tempted to buy a solid 1920s red brick mansion on a thousand acres. It was a dream house begging to be cared for, with a crumbling earlier house from the 1880s out the back, beautiful handcrafted sheds, wild almond trees growing in the sand dunes, and rusty old harvesters lining the driveway. The property was going very cheaply. We resisted. The property still haunts me, such was the strength of that particular fantasy.

Flowering gum in bloom. Jeparit Camping Ground.
Flowering gum in bloom. Jeparit Camping Ground.

There is a sadness about the town, a melancholy that hovers under the mantle of continuance. This year, the rains have been good: the wheat crop is the best on record. Other crops such as lentils, peas and green manure crops have also been abundant, making the local farmers more optimistic. The newly re-opened pub, the Hopetoun Hotel, managed by smiling Mel along with an enthusiastic young chef and assistants from Sri Lanka and the Punjab in India, offers a cheerful gathering place for the locals. Our new Australians are breathing life into these isolated communities.

Harvesters busy at work on a Sunday.
Harvesters busy at work on a Sunday.

The first thing you will notice in the Wimmera is the sky. It seems overwhelming, surrounding you in blue clean air above and right down to the ground: even during winter when the mornings are crisp, the skies seem to be perennially blue. The landscape is entrancing and after a while, you begin to see slight rises in the flat, bleached plains, where old sand dunes rise and may contain ancient water springs, as old knowledge about water sources was passed down long ago to the farmers by the traditional owners, the Gromiluk aborigines.

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Old abandoned railway station, Hopetoun. The train lines still function for goods trains throughout the wheat-growing belt.

Another appealing hallmark of this wheat-growing district are the silos dotted along the horizon at each small town. At sunset, white silos turn pink against an azure sky. The silos at Brim have become a tourist attraction thanks to the amazing artwork by Brisbane artist, Guido van Helten. They are now a tourist landmark and have put the tiny town of Brim ( population 100) on the map. Nearby small towns are gearing up to get their silos painted also.

Famous painted silos, Brim, the Wimmera, Victoria, Australia
Famous painted silos, Brim, the Wimmera, Victoria, Australia
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Silos at Brim, painted by Guido van Helten

Other buildings, many falling into disrepair, dot the main streets in Brim, Beulah, Hopetoun, and Rainbow. It’s worth a drive around the circuit in this lonely land, to visit the real country, the heart of north western Victoria.

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Old Anglican church, Brim.
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Attractive rural shed opposite the Brim pub.
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Old shed, Rainbow.
Towers of straw bails follow the wheat harvest.
Towers of straw bales follow the wheat harvest.

Inside a Pasta Factory and a Very Italian Soup.

It is hard to imagine a world without pasta. Italian style pasta was unknown to most Australian households until the 1970s, despite the presence of Italian pasta manufacturers here in Melbourne. One of the earliest producers of quality pasta, Nello Borghesi, established La Tosca Company in 1947 in Bennett’s Lane, Melbourne. They eventually moved to a larger factory in Brunswick in 1971.

“Before then, Melbourne’s Italian community were largely the only customers of this fine pasta. By the 1970s many new Italian restaurants emerged: it was, for many families of Anglo-Saxon background, the first time they had tasted real pasta beyond spaghetti or macaroni from a can.” ¹

Dried pasta could be bought in supermarkets, especially around Carlton and Brunswick, but it was still unusual to eat pasta at home regularly, and when it did make a regular appearance, it came only in one form: the ubiquitous Spaghetti Bolognese.

Food Label - La Tosca Salsa Di Pomodoro Tomato Paste, 1950s

‘The Borghesi found it challenging at first to introduce the pasta to the Anglo-Australian consumers. The Italian Australian market also had to be convinced that the product was as good as that which they could make themselves. The pasta would be made in the mornings, then delivered in the afternoons in the family van. It was a very labour intensive process and the whole family would help in the production. Deliveries were made to most Melbourne Italian food outlets and restaurants, such as Florentino’s, The Latin, and Mario’s. By the 1960s, the clientele grew to catering for weddings and non-Italian cafes, and then the business really took off. In the 1960s, the delivery of dry pasta was replaced by frozen products.”¹

Food Label - La Tosca Salsa Di Pomodoro Tomato Paste, 1950s

The Borghesi business and I became very well acquainted in 1997 when I decided to take a job at La Tosca Pasta Company in Victoria Street, Brunswick, a suburb of Melbourne. This short-lived factory job was wedged between one era of teaching and another, a time when I felt lost in my search for meaningful work. I took the job thinking that it might be interesting to work in a completely different field, to do some physical work for a change, and that the Italian staff might help me acquire a better grasp of idiomatic Italian. I had finished a degree in Italian, followed by three years translating an autobiography. Without daily interaction in Italian, I feared that I might lose the language. So off to La Tosca I went.


Our working day started at 8 am precisely. We would begin by moving the racks of drying spaghetti, linguine or tagliatelle which had been stored on wooden drying rods in darkened rooms overnight. The pasta was carefully scooped off the rods, taking care not to break any of the brittle strands, and bundled neatly onto the bench for packing. Each stack was then weighed to a precise weight: after a while it was easy to gauge this visually. The pasta was placed in small boxes, ready for the machine to wrap and seal with the La Tosca logo. These packets were then placed in large boxes, twenty to a box, ready for the delivery trucks. The work was relentless and swift: there was no time for conversation beyond the conveying of basic instructions. pasta-labels-2
At 10 am on the dot, a whistle would sound, and a short Neapolitan woman would yell “Andiamo,” let’s go. All activity ceased instantly, machines and work stations were abandoned, the factory floor silenced by the call to coffee. We climbed the narrow stairs in single file and gathered in a cramped morning tea room above the factory floor for a piccolo cafe ristretto, made in an old beaten up aluminium Napolitana by the Andiamo lady. Ten minutes later it was back to work. Huge dough mixers gyrated above, operated by men on platforms, moving effortlessly in a noisy industrial ballet. Other machines chugged permanently in the background- pasta cutters, ravioli stuffers, packing machines- the factory floor was alive with mechanical noise. The strong coffee kept us going for more back-breaking work, boxing, stacking, wrapping, then sweeping, constantly in piedi for the 8 hour working day.  I lasted for about 6 weeks at the La Tosca Pasta factory- the unremitting noise eventually drove me demented, my legs longed for that moment of rest and my back was trashed. I began to consider other forms of paid work.

In that short time, I came to admire the endurance and stamina of these women who had worked in factories since migrating to Australia in the 1950s and 60s, sturdy middle- aged and older women, dressed in sensible and spotlessly clean factory uniforms, standing solidly on concrete floors in stockinged legs and sensible shoes. The work was hard and relentless. They made the pasta that Melbourne came to love.

Napolitana coffee maker
A vintage Napolitana coffee maker

Melbourne’s Italianita´can be found far more easily without taking such drastic steps, as I was to discover. Inner city libraries specialise in Italian film and magazine collections, there is a local Italian newspaper, Il Globo, an annual Italian film festival, numerous Italian regional  and cultural clubs as well as fresh markets, delis, restaurants, and Italian supermarkets. Melbourne’s Italian manufacturing centred around pasta, cheese making, salami and shoes, though this was far more pronounced in the last century than it is today.

Zuppa di Ceci con Maltagliati- Chick pea soup with Pasta Offcuts.

Zuppa di Ceci con Maltagliati

I recently made a large batch of pasta and after cutting the square shapes for some cannelloni, I was left with a nice pile of maltagliati, irregular shaped off cuts. ( I often call these cenci or stracci too ) These little pieces make a wonderful addition to a rustic soup, which can be thrown together in minutes, becoming a meal in a bowl. Like many good Italian recipes, my quantities are approximate. The soup is designed to be eaten at once- any soup with pasta is not suitable to be eaten the next day. The amount below makes three good serves.

Ingredients

  • 2 -3 large garlic cloves, chopped finely
  • one stem fresh rosemary, leaves stripped, finely chopped
  • 4-6 anchovy fillets
  • one dried chilli, finely chopped
  • a generous glug of EV olive oil
  • cooked chick peas- around two cups ( if using canned chick peas, drain off well and rinse off that awful preserving liquid)
  • one vegetable stock cube with water or home-made stock, vegetable or chicken.
  • Fresh pasta offcuts/maltagliati
  • Italian parsley, finely chopped
  • black pepper to taste
  • grated Parmigiano to serve

Using a heavy based saucepan, add the oil to the pan and gently fry off the soffritto, the garlic, anchovy, chilli, and rosemary, pressing the anchovies to a paste as you go.

Add the chickpeas and stock to cover (or water and stockcube). Bring slowly to the boil, then add the pasta pieces. Fresh pasta should cook in two minutes- if the pasta has been left overnight, allow a little longer. Taste as you go. Season with black pepper. Serve with ample parmesan cheese.

Zuppa di Ceci con Maltagliata
Zuppa di Ceci con Maltagliati

Some Melbournian Italian links this month.

¹A brief background on the Borghese family can be found here. https://museumvictoria.com.au/discoverycentre/infosheets/the-melbourne-story/selling-pasta-to-melbourne/

Melbourne’s Immigration Museum holds a vast collection of Italian memorabilia and an extensive library on Immigrazione Italiana in Australia.

Other Italian events in Melbourne: From Volcanoes We Sailed: Connecting Aeolian Generations. Immigration Museum until October 30, 2016.

Italian Salami Festa. Northcote Town Hall, October 9 http://www.italianicious.com.au/news/article/melbourne-salami-festa-tickets-now-on-sale

Déjà vu in Oamaru, New Zealand,

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Oamaru Historic Precinct, South Island, New Zealand

Some towns have a profound effect on the psyche. The moment you wander through their streets, or enter their buildings, an overwhelming sense of déjà vu confounds you. Oamaru, in North Otago, New Zealand, is one of these special places. Did my ancestors spend some time in this town before heading down south to settle in Invercargill all those years ago? Or is it the multitude of well-preserved Victorian architecture and streetscapes that enables a visitor to re-enter an imagined past?

Open the following photos individually to get a more intense view of this exceptional town.

Some streets are beautifully restored and are occupied by craftspeople, galleries, cafes, bakeries, and  brewers. Further south, towards the sea, the dark grey stoned industrial area bordered by an old railway, is more mysterious, in a ‘dark satanic mills’ kind of way.

The Oamaru Historical precinct was built of local limestone from the 1860s onwards. This is New Zealand’s most complete Victorian streetscape. You could spend days wandering around this town. It is an evocative place and not to be missed if travelling through the South Island of New Zealand.

Next time: Oamaru’s other attractions- food, parks and steampunk.