The Other Last Supper

Scrovegni chapel frescoes
Ceiling frescoes in Scrovegni Chapel also known as the Arena Chapel – Padua

One of the most important fresco cycles in Italy is by the Italian Renaissance master Giotto located in a chapel on the estate grounds of a money lenders son who in atonement for his father’s sins sought redemption through art. Reginaldo Scrovegni was a wealthy moneylender from the city of Padua. His reputation was such that he was portrayed in the Seventh Circle of Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy. It’s no wonder that Enrico Scrovegni, Reginaldo’s son, felt compelled to build a private chapel next to the family palazzo in penitence for his father’s sins. He must have been frightened out of his mind after reading Dante’s description of his impending doom and hoped not only to atone for the sins of his father but his own as it was suggested that Enrico was also involved in usurious practices. So Enrico commissioned Giotto to design a chapel with a series of frescoes on the site of a Roman arena that was on the grounds of his family estate.

Giotto last Supper
Giotto’s Last Supper

The vaulted chapel is a work of breathless beauty with a ceiling that resembles a starry blue sky.The walls of the chapel contain 37 panels in 3 tiers with scenes of the life of Christ and his mother Mary including a pre da Vinci painting of the Last Supper that in someways is as intriquing as Leonardo’s masterpiece in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. In Giotto’s versione the apostles are arranged around the table, some with their backs towards us, in a more realistic scene of a Passover meal. It’s interesting to note that the Last Supper had been portrayed many times prior to da Vinci’s Il Cenacolo including a 13th-century image with Mary Magdalene embracing the feet of Christ beneath the table while the beardless apostle John reclines his head on his Lord’s chest.

The Golden Horse of Easter

haflinger-horses-breed-south-tyrolAlthough Peter Cottontail may be the most recognizable animal image during the Easter holidays in the US, a golden horse is more likely to be a part of Easter celebrations in Merano (Meran), a picturesque village in Northern Italy’s Alto-Adige. A 2 -3 hour drive from Milan by way of Bolzano it is the perfect spot to spend a long weekend that ends with Pasquetta or “Little Easter”. Celebrated on Easter Monday Italians take off for a trip to “la campagna“, the country side, for picnics with family and friends and to enjoy an extra day off work or school. Often called the Italian Shangri-La, Merano is located in the lush meadows of Alpine wildflowers of Italy’s Sudtirol, an evocative setting for a Easter Monday procession of blonde-maned Haflinger horses ridden by local towns people dressed in traditional Tyrol costume.

haflinger-horses-tradition-south-tyrol-avelengoIn the afternoon the horses take part in the Corse Rusticane at the Maia Racetrack, a historic race connected to the Haflinger (Cavallo Avelignese), a mountain horse breed which originated in the Alto Adige. The breed took its name from the town named Hafling, (Avelengo in Italian) near Merano.

Ciao Patrick

Although Italy cannot claim St. Patrick as their favorite son, Patrick’s parents were citizens of Rome so it’s easy for Italians to translate the green in their flag to the “wearin of the green” on St. Patrick’s Day. There are many Irish pubs in Italy and you can be sure they will be serving Guinness on draught and Irish whiskey on March 17th along with pasta and pizza and Irish Espresso.  Take a St. Patrick’s Day tour of Italy beginning with Italy’s Celtic roots and then travel to Rome to visit its Irish churches.  St.  Isidore, San Clemente near the Roman Colosseum (known for its frescoes and twelfth-century mosaics), San Silvestro and St. Patrick with its Celtic design cathedral windows. A burial plaque commemorating Brian Boru’s son, King Donnchadh of Munster, can be found among the Roman columns of the 4th century basilica of St. Stefano Rotondo .  He died during a pilgrimage to Rome and was buried here in 1064.

bagpipeAnd if you listen closely you might hear the sound of bagpipes. Italy has a small but rich bagpipe tradition. The zampogna (Italian bagpipe) is part of a vibrant folk tradition in  Abruzzo, Molise and Southern Italy where the zampognari (bagpipe players) appear in open air markets and in the streets during the Christmas season as shepherds that came down from the hills to celebrate and entertain the people.

Lucky Italian Foods

Italians rely on food rather than four leaf clovers for luck. So celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with some traditional “lucky” Italian foods. Like these.

4 leaf clover italian In Italy coin-shaped lentils are symbolic of good fortune and prosperity. This custom comes from an ancient Roman tradition of giving a scarsella (a small leather satchel used to carry money or documents) filled with lentils at the end of the year in the hope that each lentil would turn into a coin.


4 leaf clover italianPork in Italy  represents the fullness and richness of life. On New Year’s Eve lentils are often eaten with cotechino, a large pork sausage (Cotechino con Lenticchie) or with zampone (stuffed pig’s trotter).


4 leaf clover italianCandies and confections with almonds like torrone or raisins and dried fruit (frutta secca) found in cakes and breads celebrate la bella vita. The small round-shaped fruits and nuts symbolize fruitfulness and abundance.

4 leaf clover italianIn the Piedmont and Lombardy regions of Italy, prosperity is symbolized by rice grains. The golden grains of a Milanese risotto would make a perfect addition to Corn Beef and Cabbage for an Italian inspired St. Patrick’s Day

Italy’s Celtic Roots

Flag-Pins-Italy-IrelandItaly and Ireland share more than just a band of green in the colors of their flags. At one time Northern Italy was inhabited by Celts and Proto-Celtic tribes in the Lombard Valley. Celtic tribes from central Europe hearing of the well-laid tables of the Etruscans were attracted to the region around 350BC and began to invite themselves over for dinner. The lush valleys, rich copper and iron deposits and strategic location convinced the Celts that an Etruscan-Celtic alliance would be to their advantage. This resulted in a peaceful coexistence, intermarriage and the building of a settlement at Monte Bibele in the Bolognese hills. The Luigi Fantini Archeological Museum in Monterenzio (BO) has one of the most important Etruscan-Celtic collections in the world and the largest in Italy. There is a life-size reconstruction of a dwelling hut from the 4th-3rd century BC furnished with authentic objects or reproductions  from daily life  including crockery containing carbonized seeds, utensils, decorations, arms and coins.

It seemed that pork was the “other white meat” for the Celts who raised pigs for food and shared their taste for pork with the Etruscans. Ciauscolo (cha-USE-colo) may be one result of this Celtic-Italian fusion. Not your typical Italian sausage, ciauscolo   ciauscolo has the texture of a paté and is eaten spread on a piece of bread.  It is believed to come from the Gallic people who were living in the Marche region of Italy. Once conserved in terracotta terrines, today ciauscolo is an PDO specialty in and around the towns of Ancona, Macerata and Ascoli Piceno into the region of Umbria. This semi-soft salami is made with meat seasoned with garlic, pepper and salt, pounded in a mortar with a drop or two of vincotto (sweet cooked wine), put into a casing made from small intestine and smoked with juniper wood followed by a brief aging (10 days). The result is a soft buttery spread whose name comes from the Latin word cibusculum meaning a small food. A perfect addition for a St. Patrick’s day antipasti serenaded with Italian bagpipes.

The Mad Hatter and the Marche’ Hare

The food and wine of  Italy’s Marche’ (pronounced MARkay) region is a whimsical mix of farm, field and sea. A province in Northern Italy whose name refers to a march or mark (a border region similar to a frontier), the Marche’ extends along the coastline of the Adriatic reaching into the mountainous and hilly interior of the Apennines. Because of its unique climate, history and scenery the Marche’ is a wonderland for the imaginative traveler and adventurous eater.

There are steamy fish soups and a brodetto, a fish stew made with 13 species of fish. Spaghetti Con Vongole, thin spaghetti cooked al dente, that has soaked up the delicate flavor of baby clams (vongole) and vincisgrassi, a type of lasagna which is made up of 15 layers of pasta.
march hareAnd as the March Hare is the Mad Hatter’s best friend in the Wonderland of Alice, lepre or wild hare is widely popular as a main course on the tables of Marche’ where it is often served cacciatora style, marinated and slow cooked in wine with onions, carrots, celery, parsley and in this case a piece of cinnamon or a touch of nutmeg .

Italians like lepre preparing it potted, roasted and sauced. They have been making it since the time of Artusi (1891) when in his self-published cookbook “la scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene” (the Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well) he offered a recipe for Pasticcio di Lepre (hare pie).

The first time I ate lepre was in Tuscany, Marche’s neighbor, where they like to pair it with pappardelle or polenta and the typical recipes for the Marche’ hare follow suit. They also like to prepare conigliolepre’s distant relative. Although both are furry and have long ears, the red meat of a hare is different from the white meat of a rabbit (coniglio); slightly stronger and gamier with a definite point of view as you would expect from a Marche’ Hare at the table in Wonderland.

Fly Me to Gandolfo

St Peters and helicopterBenedict XVI’s departure from the Vatican on Thursday was a fly by to the faithful as he left the papacy aboard Shepherd One heading for the extraterritorial papal residence of Castel Gandolfo. While “volo papale”, Benedict got to see some of the most iconic scenes of Rome on what must have been a bitter sweet end to his 8 year tenure as Pope. Church bells rang throughout Rome and I found myself  humming Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon as the helicopter passed over an aerial landscape of Rome that few get to see. It was truly a spectacular view.

He flew over the Vatican gardens, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Roman Coliseum with a breathtaking approach to the hills outside Rome to Castel Gandolfo. The papal palace, rebuilt on the ruins of the former castle of the Gandolfi, overlooks the mountains and the deep-blue waters of Lake Albano. The strategic site was once used by astronomers of the Papal See who viewed the stars from the Vatican Observatory on the palace’s roof. The aerial view is as uplifting as any on the planet but the idyllic setting is awash with layers of a distressful history both ancient and modern.

Castel Gandolfo
Castel Gandolfo

The grounds partly occupy the foundations of the summer residence of the Roman Emperor Domitian (AD 81-96) who once persecuted early Christians. In 1939 Pius XII made a global appeal to the world from Castel Gandolfo in an effort to prevent Word War II saying “Nothing is lost with peace, everything may be lost in a war”. During the war refugees were hidden and housed on the grounds of the castle where at times the papal chambers were used as maternity ward for pregnant refugees. There are reports that some 40 children were born at Castel Gandofo during this period resulting in many Italian citizens being named Pio (the Italian version of Pius) or Eugenio, Pius Xll’s given first name.

For some the legacy of Benedict’s papacy can only be viewed in a context of troubling times; for others Benedict’s aerial departure from the Vatican is a metaphor for a beautiful view of a faith that endures with great strength and promise for the future.