It’s Not Christmas in Italy until . . .

Every country has certain rituals and traditions that give meaning to the 1950’s classic holiday song “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas”. For most it probably has to do with putting up and decorating the Christmas tree. In Italy setting up il presepe is what creates that Christmas feeling. Il presepe (presepio) is the Italian Christmas crèche or nativity scene that depicts the birth of Jesus as described in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Although many Christians outside of Italy include a manger with Mary, Joseph, shepherds and angels awaiting the birth of Jesus few achieve the intricate detail of il presepe. The least of Italian presepe scenes are elaborate constructions that create a tablescape of buildings and figures while others achieve the intricacy of a museum diorama complete with running streams and flickering fires.

presepio bestAcross the country in churches, town squares and shop windows there are incredible scenes of the story Bethlehem from miniature to life-size. Some were commissioned to be made by well-known sculptors* and constructed with the same attention as the building of a real town or village.  Often figures would appear that resembled the people in the town, a tableaux of the community in a scene from the time of Christ’s birth. Natural materials and greenery from the surrounding countryside were collected and clothes were especially made for each figure as part of a vignette to create a realistic view of that moment in time.

The idea of creating a scene in which the people could feel part of the miracle of Christmas was first imagined in the village of Greccio in 1223 when Francis of Assisi prepared a special celebration on Christmas Eve.  In a natural cave near the town he prepared a straw-filled manger to create a presepe vivente“, a real-life nativity scene with live animals and towns people dressed as Mary and Joseph. The scene was described as follows

“the brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis . . . then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.”

*the most ancient known presepe was sculpted by Arnolfo di Cambio at the end of the 13th century and can be seen in the museum of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome

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The Elixir of Popes, Painters and Lorenzo the Magnificent

Referred to as the “Godfathers of the Renaissance”, the Medici are known for many things. Their political skills, papal legacy, ambition and struggle for power in 15th century Italy were equally matched by their cultural and artistic patronage of some of the most famous artists and scholars of the Western world. Da Vinci, Donatello, Raphael, Giotto, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Brunelleschi, Vasari and Galileo were all under the influence of their dynastic rule. Leo X and Clement VIII were part of the family.

AlkermesWhat fueled the bodies and energized the minds of these Renaissance movers and shakers? Perhaps it was an elixir.  Elixirs are sweetened liquids usually containing alcohol with complex and exotic formulas believed to have medicinal properties and health benefits. Experiencing melancholy, seeking wisdom and longevity, do you have a fluttering heart or frequent fainting spells, spasms or hysteria? These vexations of the body were said to be cured by the restorative properties of elixirs.

A favored elixir of the Medici said to be “revive weary and lazy spirits” was the scarlet Alkermes. Dispensed through the Dominican farmacia of Santa Maria Novella, the formula is thought to have originated in 9th century Persia as a medicinal drink used as a restorative by royalty. The monastic formula was a revision of the original and contained clove, nutmeg and orange blossom. The original included, gold leaf, honey, musk, powdered lapis lazuli, crushed pearls, raw silk, rosewater and kermes; alchemic yet somewhat recognizable ingredients except for the enigmatic kermes.

Kermes is a small parasitic insect (Kermes vermilio) found on the Mediterranean oak tree whose desiccated bodies yield a crimson dye. Popular as a natural colorant, kermes was used to dye the yarn woven into many of the Gothic tapestries producing a fine blood-red color which to this day “remains unfaded, though many of them are two or three hundred years old”. Cochineal, another colorant derived from insects replaced kermes in the monk’s recipe.

Today Alkermes is thought of as an exotic Italian liqueur used in the making of zuppa inglese(Italian trifle). It is drizzled over the final layer of savoiardi or lady fingers for color and flavoring.  Commercially available, with alcoholic contents ranging from 21 to 32%, it is still an exotic ingredient somewhat difficult to find. I found my bottle at the Alkermes PamOfficina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella in Florence, the personal pharmacy of the Medici where you can still buy ancient elixirs, oils and perfumes from the Renaissance.  At times I’ve been tempted to take a swig of it to revive my weary and lazy spirits or flavor my zuppa inglese but for some reason I can’t seem to get by the origin of the word Alchermes. Although today artificial  substitutes are used to achieve Alkermes scarlet red color, the name Alkermes comes from the Arabic “al quermiz”, meaning “the worm”, which in reality is the insect (the cochineal*), from which the scarlet color of the elixir of the Medici comes.

*many contemporary preparations still use cochineal extract and a similar ingredient called carmine in their products and have been used by indigenous peoples for thousands of years.