Benedict’s Bees

Some consider Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to be the “thinking man’s Pope”. A theologian and scholar by training he wrote three encyclicals, many apostolic letters, two popular books about the historical Jesus and numerous other publications; a Pope as industrious and prolific as his bees.

In September 2011 eight beehives containing more than 500,000 bees were given to then Pope Benedict by the Italian agricultural organization ‘Coldiretti’ to celebrate the Day for the Protection of Creation. The group promotes agricultural education and lobbies to protect agricultural land and encourage farm-friendly policies. Tbee closeuphe half million bees were transported to the Pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo and were expected to produce more than 600 pounds of organic wildflower honey each year pollinating the orchards and flowers of the pontifical farm that is also the home to 25 dairy cows and an assortment of hens and roosters.Baldacchino-bees


Bees have always found favor with the fathers of the Church. St. John Chrysostom explains that the bee is more honored than other animals, “not because it labors, but because it labors for others”. Pope Pius XII called them “fascinating little creatures of God” writing that there can be many lessons drawn from the “holy wisdom in these tiny humming insects”. Urban VIII, a 17th century Pope whose family coat of arms featured three bees, was particularly partial to l’ape. We might go so far as to designate him their papal patron. Bees seem to have found so much favor with him that there are architectural monuments all over Rome  swarming with bees including St. Peter’s Basilica where bees can be found decorating the baldachin altar.

Upon this Rock

Pre-fabricated buildings and construction with pre-engineered components much like fast food and AstroTurf moves us further away from the source of the natural materials that once made up the surroundings of our lives. Today most of our foundations are built on the synthetic and disposable with little regard for what nourishes our bodies, minds, spirits . . . and communities.

candoglia quarriesOnce upon a time this wasn’t so. Buildings were made of rock and stone and you knew where those materials came from. On October 24th 1387, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan gave the “Fabbrica del Duomo” the Candoglia marble quarries in the Italian Piemonte to use as a source of material for the construction of Milan’s Duomo, one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in Italy and Europe.

Located above the commune of Mergozzo, on the left bank of the Toce River at the mouth of the Val d’Ossola, the quarried pink-hued white marble streaked with grey (rosa candoglia) is of Paleozoic origin and still used today for maintenance and restoration work on the cathedral. The only tools used to cut the marble were iron picks, cudgels (a short heavy stick), drills, wedges and crowbars and the only way down the mountain was by way of a very risky series of ropes and pulleys. The marble, stamped ad usum fabricae ambrosianae (material for the construction of the cathedral of Milan), was then loaded on to flatboats on the Toce River and transported by horse drawn barges known as cagnone, to Milan-CathedralMilan along Lake Maggiore and the Naviglio Grande.

Milan’s Duomo took more than 500 years to complete. It is 515 feet long, 302 feet wide and 148 feet in height.  There are 5 naves divided by 40 pillars with a capacity of 40,000. Inspiring and impressive, the art and altars, statues (3,400 inside and out), stained glass and reliquary of Milan’s domus Dei make it one of the greatest churches in the world. It is the heart of Milan’s cultural and social life and the strength of the marble, skill of the stonecutter, architects and artisans who worked on it have created a priceless treasure that endures.

The Vocabulary of Venice

Venice Eric streetsMost cities in Italy reflect the food, wine, art and design of a particular region and then there is Venice. A stand alone city of palaces and churches built on 117 islands linked by nearly 400 bridges with canals instead of streets and boats rather than cars and buses. Unique unto its own, dependent on the sea, Venice went well beyond Italy’s borders looking across the Adriatic to the East rather than Western Europe for her power and prestige. A cosmopolitan city for her time, Venice was different. Her ruler was called the Doge. He wore a funny hat called a corno ducale  and was elected from the ranks of the aristocracy and could only rule with the support of the aristocrats and the common man. The influence of the East brought a certain exotic elegance to Venice as seafaring merchants and traders brought their goods and services to Venetian ports. In Venice artists and painters, printers, ceramists, glassworkers, woodworkers, lace makers, goldsmiths and sculptors were considered professional artisans and unlike many other parts of Italy where artists were funded in part by the Church or commissioned merely for the honor (without remuneration), the artisans of Venice were paid for their work and produced prolifically.

A city with such a lineage merits a vocabulary of its own to describe all the nuances of living in La Serenissima, beginning with the Italian word for house casa.

ca‘ — the abbreviated form of the word “casa” used for the noble palazzi of Venice, once private residences now museums that line the Grand Canal.

calle – (pronounced ca-lay), the most commonly used word for street, known as via or strada elsewhere in Italy. There are numerous variations.

stretto – a narrow passageway.

campo – everywhere else in Italy a square is called a piazza while in Venice the only piazza is Piazza San Marco ; all other squares are campi from the Italian word for field or meadow. Almost every one of Venice’s campi carries the name of the church that is or was associated with it.

androni – ground floor of a palazzo, often flooded during periods of aque alte (high waters).

piano nobilethe reception floor of a palazzo above the androne.

canale — there are three principal canals in Venice; Canale Grande (the Grand Canal), Canale della Giudecca, and Canale di Cannaregio.

rio – each of the other 160 or so smaller canals.

rio terrà – a filled-in canal now used as a street.

fondamenta – a walkway along the side of a rio.

riva – promenades along the Grand Canal near the Piazza San Marco and the Rialto (one of the four bridges across the Grand Canal and the oldest.

ramo – meaning “branch,” a small side street.

salizzada – meaning “laid with cobblestones,” so any street you see in Venice prefaced with salizzada was one of the first streets in Venice to be paved.

sottoportego – a passage under a building. sottoportego and venice

It is well know that the foods of Italy are local reflections of the culture and traditions of the region and all have their own regional names. Long thick strands of pasta are called stringozzi in Umbria, pici in Tuscany and bigoli in Venice. The exotic spices of Byzantium and the East flavored, colored and named the food of Venice with dishes like baccalà mantecato (creamed cod), risi e bisi (rice and peas), sardee in saor ( sweet and sour sardines with onions, pine nuts and raisins) and fegato alla Veneziana (liver and onions ). All but preludes to the notorious Venetian pastries that like the arabesque architecture and gilded mosaics reflect the sweet, serene, stunningly beautiful life of Venice.

pan di gogi best

The Misunderstood Italian

milan phone cover

After taste traveling in Italy for over 15+years and 15,000+miles sourcing products for CosituttiMarketPlace I’m asked a fair number of questions about Italy and Italians. Most of my answers are received with surprise and disbelief making me think that Americans in general don’t understand Italians. The mythology about the people and places of Italy is filled with misconceptions and most of it centers on food but there places that most tourists just don’t get and one of those is the city of Milan.

It may be that most foreign tourists to Milan come from other European countries (56%) with only 17% traveling from the US and it’s true that at first glance Milan can be a little intimidating. It doesn’t have the historical familiarity of Rome or the landscape setting of the Tuscan hill towns and for this reason many tourists tend to avoid spending time there. But that would be a pity because Milan has a style all its own, a style worth taking the time to see and get to know. Although Florence may be the beautiful and famous daughter of Rome with one of the largest collections of art and architecture on the planet*, Milan has a unique style that leads Italy into the 21st century. From Roman, medieval and Renaissance periods through Baroque, Neoclassical, Art Nouveau/Liberty and the nationalistic Novecento style architecture of the first half of the 20th century, the food, wine, art and design of Milan and environs could fill a taste traveler’s notebook many times over. With a series of subways (the Metro) and trams, getting around Milan is efficient, easy and inexpensive .

Here are a few sites that make Milan one of my favorite Italian cities.

Milan Duomo
Castello Sforzesco
La Scala                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   San Babila                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Ambrosiana
La Rinascente and Milan’s fashion District
Brera                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       A stroll under the luminous crystal roof to the cafe’s and shops in the Galleria
San’AmbrogioAbbey                                                                                                                                                                                                                            The Last Supper

*60% of the world’s most important works of art are in Italy and almost half of those are in Florence