Today, I’d rather be travelling, anticipating another day of surprise and wonder, hearing the world in another language, pondering the beauty of architecture or the evolution of a city, wandering down lanes at random and getting lost, buying cheese at a weekly village market then picnicking by a river, walking and walking and never tiring, taking a ferry on a lake, a train through a tunnel or a tram across a city, driving over a vertiginous bridge, ordering a lunch, a dinner or a wine. It hasn’t taken long for my wanderlust to return. Below are views of Menton, a large sprawling town on the border of France and Italy. It is a place where you can hear French and Italian spoken at the same table, inspiring a drive in either direction, the French Riviera one way, or Northern Italy the other.
Buskers, beggars, chestnut sellers, restaurant spruikers, travellers, hawkers, diners, wanderers and locals, the streets of Rome are always busy, even in winter. Like many photographers, I tend to hunt down shots of Roman back streets, classical remains, art and food, without the intrusion of crowds. Thanks to a variety of lenses, I can remove whatever or whoever I please, creating a different reality from that before me, or perhaps the one I prefer to remember.
Today I’m putting the people back, some faces in the crowd, anonymous folk going about their daily business, who are very much part of the busy fabric of 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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As we lazed around the pool yesterday, I asked the girls if they were expecting a visit from La Befana. They looked at me blankly. I began explaining the legend of La Befana when suddenly the penny dropped- yes Daisy had heard about her from her Italian teacher last year and Charlotte simply said, “You mean that witch lady who does a Santa thing?”
Italian grandmothers fondly relate stories of their childhood in Italy when they eagerly anticipated the evening of the Befana between the 5th and 6th of January, L’ Epifania, the epiphany, is the night when La Befana would deliver gifts. La Befana, personified as a benign old witch with broken shoes, riding on a broomstick, and dressed in gypsy clothes, brings gifts to all children. Legend has it that the three kings, the Magi, dropped by the home of La Befana on their way to see the new-born baby Jesus. They asked her for directions as they had seen his star in the sky, but she didn’t know the way. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village. The Magi invited her to join them on the journey but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework and sweeping. Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to find the three wise men and Jesus. She searched but never found them. And so to this day, La Befana flies around on her broomstick, searching for the little baby Jesus, visiting all children with gifts. She also brings a lump of coal for those times when they have been naughty, and a sweet gift too. In the past, gifts were simple. I remember my dear friend Olga, who grew up in Marechiaro, near Naples in the 1920s, was delighted to receive an orange and a few caramelle from La Befana.
The epiphany is the 12th day of Christmas and signifies the end of the seasonal festivities. I like to celebrate this day in a small way: it’s my perverse nature I suppose, but I relate to the simplicity of this legend and the grandmotherly figure of the kindly old witch. Fat Santa, shopping mall Santa, Americanised commercial Santa be gone, and down with that Christmas tree too. The new year has begun in earnest.
This year’s sweet offering will be a tin of old school brownies, the ones we used to make before expensive pure chocolate became the preferred ingredient. This recipe is gooey and rich and is made using cocoa powder, a pantry staple. You won’t believe it’s not chocolate. They last for three days or so and as they get older, I serve them with custard or icecream as a small pudding.
- Preheat oven to 180 C. Line a 20 cm x 20 cm cake tin pan with baking paper. If you don’t have a square tin, an old slab tin 18 cm by 28 could be used, but the brownies might be slightly lower in height.
- Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir in cocoa and salt until smooth. Stir in coffee.
- In a medium-sized bowl whisk together the eggs and the sugar vigorously until thickened and lightened by a shade. A stand mixer makes the job easy. Add the vanilla extract. Whisk the cocoa and butter mixture into the sugar mixture.
- Sift the flour and baking powder over the mixture and fold it in until combined. Fold in walnuts.
- Spread batter into the prepared pan, sprinkle with extra walnuts. Bake for 20 minutes.
- Remove from the oven, cool and cut into small squares.
Recipe from Christina at Scientifically Sweet.
Cute, very Italian and kitsch, this cartoon caught my attention. It’s good to know that La Befana is still alive and well in Italy as a quick search will show.
This summer throughout January, I’m catching up with some of my unpublished stories from earlier travels in Europe in 2017. Some posts will be light-hearted, centered around food and accommodation, ‘the best of’ reports, while others are research based essays. It will be rewarding to polish them up and give them a final airing. Of course there will be a few cooking posts along the way too.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Agostino Chigi lately, and wondering why there’s not a great deal written about him. Given that he commissioned one of the most elegant and beautiful buildings of the Renaissance, Villa Farnesina in Trastevere, Rome, and was a generous patron of the arts, I find this quite unusual.
Agostino Chigi, (pronounced kee-gee) was a 15th to 16th century banker who was born in Siena then moved to Rome to assist his father, Mariano Chigi in 1487. He became the wealthiest man in Rome, especially after becoming banker to the Borgia family, in particular Pope Alexander V, followed by Pope Julius 11. If there’s one thing that helps a banker stay at the top, it’s having business dealings in Rome and becoming the Pope’s treasurer. The Florentine Medici, Giovanni di Bicci and Cosimo de’ Medici, also milked their Roman and Papal connections in the preceding years. Chigi’s financial interests expanded to obtaining lucrative control of important minerals, including the salt monopoly of the Papal States and Naples and the alum monopoly in Southern Italy. Alum was the essential mordant in the textile industry. With financial and mining interests, like a modern-day crony capitalist and entrepreneur, Chigi was ready to splurge.
The connection between the arts and banking makes an interesting Renaissance study in itself ¹. Banking families were keen patrons of the arts, not only in a bid to show off their taste and refinement, but also to cast off the slur of usury. Usury, making profit from charging interest on a loan, was a crime in 15th century Europe: a usurer was heading straight to hell, according to the main religious thinking of the day, unless he made a few corrections to that practice, through intricate bills of credit requiring lengthy international currency exchange deals. Banker patrons, worried about their afterlife, could buy a place in heaven by financing religious works -perhaps a marble tomb for a Pope, or some fine brass relief doors for a baptistry, or a few walls of religious themed freschi demonstrating their piety and devotion by appearing as genuflecting bystanders in a painting or two.
Chigi, like other bankers before him, was keen to spend time with the literati and patronised the main artistic figures of the early 16th century, including Perugino, Sebastiano del Piombo, Giovanni da Udine, Giulio Romano, Il Sodoma and Raffaele. These artists, and the architect Baldassare Peruzzi, all had a hand in making Villa Farnesina so attractive and harmonious. But the main feature you’ll notice in the painted works is its secularity: no religious themes appear in the decoration at all. Thus somewhere between the mid 15th century and 1508, when this building was commissioned and begun, the subject of the visual arts had shifted. Here, the freschi depict classical and historic themes: there’s not a Madonna or baby Jesus in sight except for those cheeky putti holding up garlands. I doubt that Agostino Chigi was overly concerned with the sin of usury. Times had changed.
The ground floor room, the stunning Loggia di Psiche e Amore, was designed by Raffaele, though was mostly executed by one of his followers Giulio Romano, and seems heavier in style. It’s not the best secular work by Raffaele: his most graceful works are held in the quiet gallery of Gemäldegalerie, in Berlin, Germany ( more on this gallery later). The decorative garlands and festoons are by Giovanni da Udine, and although hard to get close to, draped as they are on high ceilings and around tall window sills and pillars, they steal the show.
Sensuous and erotic, the total effect of the Loggia is complete in its aim and purpose. This is a pleasure palace, a space decorated with pagan themes of love and seduction from classical mythology, designed to amuse Chigi’s guests. The modern addition of a walled glass fronting the garden allows more light to shine on the rich colours and detail. It is delightful.
Upstairs in a smallish room, the wall panels by Il Sodoma, ( catchy nick name for the artist, Giovanni Antonio Bazzi , no two guesses why), depict scenes from the marriage of Roxana and Alexander. In such a small space, the painted walls are ceilings are visually overwhelming.
At the end of the 16th century, Villa Farnesina was bought by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese ( of course a Cardinal needs an erotically decorated villa) and its name “Farnesina” was given to distinguish it from the Cardinal’s much larger Palazzo Farnese on the other side of the Tevere. Today the Villa is the centre for the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, the Italian Science Academy and the rooms are open to visitors. Palazzo Farnese, across the river, is occupied by the French Consulate and is not open to the public.
These small decorative motifs on window shutters and in cornices add to the overall aesthetic of the villa.
Some useful accompanying notes.
Giorgio Vasari, (1511-1574) author of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, often simply called Vasari’s ‘Lives’, was the first art historian and the first to use the term rinascita ( Renaissance) in print, though an awareness of the ongoing “rebirth” in the arts had been in the air since the writings of the Florentine Humanist, Alberti, almost a century earlier. He was responsible for the use of the term Gothic Art, and used the word Goth which he associated with the “barbaric” German style. His work has a consistent bias in favour of Florentines and tends to attribute to them all the developments in Renaissance art. Vasari has influenced many art historians since then, and to this day, many travellers to Italy are blinded by Vasari’s Florentine list and bias, at the expense of other important works in Milano and Rome. Vasari, however, does recognise the works in the Farnesina.
¹ The nexus between banking and art patronage is fully explored by Tim Parks in Medici Money. Banking, Metaphysics and Art in Fifteenth- Century Florence,one of my favourite books. I am now re- reading this excellent history: it is written in an accessible style and makes for enjoyable summer reading, for those who like reading about the Renaissance.
² Various papers on the festoons and garlands in the Villa Farnesina in Colours of Prosperity Fruits from the Old and New world, produced by the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei and purchased at Villa Farnesina in Rome.
I flinch when I hear that commonly asked question, “what was the highlight of your trip?” I never have a ready answer, (a) because I cannot honestly choose one favourite and (b) because I know it’s a trick question, designed to protect the enquirer from a long-winded monologue, the equivalent of the tedious slide night of old.
And so when asked to share the most meaningful photo of 2017, I drew a blank. There are too many, ranging from beautiful shots of the young children in my life, their skin glowing with health, thousands of travel snaps taken throughout a recent five month journey, photos of my handmade sourdough bread- flour, water and salt- which always surprises me, pictures of friendly visitors, the bright red and green King Parrots, and more. None of these photos are particularly meaningful though many are quite special.
I’ve been looking at my Roman photos recently and remember the day we came upon the Pantheon after walking around randomly one afternoon last month. It was a cold day, and I certainly had no intention of revisiting that famous site. But there it loomed, that famous temple to every God insisting that we enter once again. That’s the problem with Rome. It’s hard to get much done as there are just too many distractions. Revisits offer new insights. Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon’s dome remains the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The height to the oculus and the diameter of the interior circle are the same, 43 metres ( 142 feet). It always amazes.
Snaps from the inside of the dome, edited just for fun, while I’m working on my answer to that question.
The day was foggy in Pavia. It often is. The Po valley in Lombardia is known for its humid weather, even in the cold winter months. The fog often hovers above Pavia’s Ticino River, though sometimes the nebbia has a distinct mustard tinge and looks more like the industrial smog that wafts down from the outskirts of Milano. On days like that, it’s good to get out of town and head for the hills.
After meandering through some delightful and very distracting small villages with hardly a soul in sight, we headed for the wineries, the tenute and cantine of the Oltrepò wine growing district situated in the hills next to and above the Po River. Ascending the foot hills and driving along country lanes, the road trip afforded excellent vistas, a fine contrast to Renaissance museum and church overload. No sign of the Visconti or Sforza ruling families up in these hills.
The Oltrepò Pavese region produces more than half of all wine made in the Lombardy region as well as two-thirds of its DOC-designated wines. As the area sits well above that infamous nebbia, it is clear and cool, enabling the production of delicate mineral tasting Riesling, Pinot Noir and sparkling wines made according to the méthode Champenois. At our first stop, the manager of Travaglino was a charming host and explained each wine style in detail. He also insisted we return for a wine tour of the cellars and property after lunch: as it was close to midday, restaurant recommendations were offered as NOTHING gets in the way of a decent Italian lunch.
The superb Riesling sold at around €6.90 a bottle. If I lived a little closer, I might be making that journey into the hills each week. After a comforting Risotto Milanese at a country osteria, followed by a tour of Travaglino’s cellars, we headed back down to the town of Broni for another most unusual wine tasting. In some ways, it was more like an episode from Black Books. But that’s a story for another day.
A ‘borrowed’ map of the Oltrepo wine district, just because I love maps.
The district of Lake Como is famous for its gardens and villas, and despite its proximity to Switzerland and its soaring dark wooded peeks ( over 2000 m high in some places), the weather is classified as humid subtropical. In winter, the lake helps to maintain a higher temperature in the surrounding region. Average daily temperatures range from about 3.7 °C (39 °F) in January to 23.4 °C (74 °F). Averages, in a sense, don’t deal with aberrations, like the exceedingly warm temperatures (above 25) we experienced in Como in late October recently. The lake is 400 metres deep and is Y-shaped, with two distinct arms. Travelling about by ferry, you can reach most of the 31 municipalities on the lake, all the lovely small Comaschi villages that don’t feature in glossy magazines or brochures. Keep an eye on the ferry timetable though and double-check with the ferry captain about return times, especially when travelling out of season. At each spot, you’ll probably find a small osteria serving the local lake fish or a good risotto. The Province of Como is more than its tourist namesake, the town of Como, which, as a single destination, is disappointing.
The clement weather helps explain the presence of palm trees and the luxuriant gardens that make Lake Como so special. The gardens of famous villas can be visited when open during the main tourist season. Many provide backdrops for American weddings. You’ll see plenty of ‘Wedding Planner’ signs around the province of Como. After all, the property rich but cash strapped marchesi need to keep up a certain bella figura.
Not all the lovely gardens are attached to villas. Public spaces are transformed through careful planting. Simple boxy looking houses take on more glamour when draped in Autumn creepers. Some gardens are wild, using the native chestnuts and pines of the ridges above: others are over manicured and formal. The synergy of garden and built environment ( house, village, church, dock, villa) results in a harmonious and glorious whole. It’s a lovely place to visit, especially if you get away from the main tourist traps.
The following collage is a media file full of gardens. Click open the first, then use the arrow to view some of Lake Como’s gardens.
Next post: village restaurants of Lake Como.