A Romantic Remembrance of Italy

The terraces of Lake Como and Bellagio, the lagoons and calli of Venice, Juliet’s balcony and strolling along the Adige in Verona, castle turrets, beautiful and historic cities, romantic gardens, inspiring statutes and works of iconic art, breathtaking landscapes that can’t possibly be real. Italy is a country of allure and romance. Mysterious and adventurous; a country of special places where physical boundaries seems to meet the spiritual world. It is easy to develop a deep and often unexplainable emotional relationship with a country that promises so much. Travelers come to Italy with all sorts of expectations. The best leave with memories that last a lifetime and play over again to make you happy and smile and return for more.

I have many romantic remembrances of Italy like those described above but there is a scenic strand of coastline along the Brenta River that links Venice to Padua that I fantasize about with a longing.  It is known as the Brenta Riviera (Rivera del Brenta ).  Architects, such as Palladio, designed summer residences (villas) for wealthy Venetians who were looking for a diversion from the summer heat of Venice.  They would take “designer” barges known as a burchielli floating along the Brenta Canal (naviglio Brenta), stopping along the way to party. A floating version of a palazzo “schifanoia”  like the Renaissance palace in Ferrara built for the Este family for diversions (delizie), a sort of banqueting house whose only purpose was for fun and recreation.  The name “schifanoia” is thought to originate from “schivar la noia” meaning literally to “escape from boredom” and avoid the tedium of city life.

burchiello

The barges were able to navigate through the shallow river and were pushed by oars from St. Mark’s in Venice (Piazza San Marco) through the Venetian lagoon to Fusina then pulled by horses along the Brenta. It is possible to follow the historical route of the 18th century Venetian in historical replicas of burchielli and motor barges navigating the Brenta from Padua to Venice viewing the villas along the way including Villa Foscari (La Malcontenta) Villa Widmann in Mira and Villa Pisani in Stra. I have driven S11 that runs along most of the canal’s length. We did this with our Italian cousins and stopped at Trattoria Porto Menai dall’ Antonia along the canal in Mira for a spectacular feast of scampi giganti griglia (giant shrimp, grilled) and other assorted seafood with prosecco.  My drive and sightseeing along the canal was the beginning of an evocative romance with the Brenta.

burchiello Stra-Villa-Pisani

One can only imagine a trip along the Brenta in the burchielli of the noble Venetians,  entertaining their guests with comedians and musicians, slowly floating down the river in colorful, elegant barges decorated with mirrors and carvings traveling to their country villas as the life of the canal revealed itself with craftsmen’s workshops and fisherman along the banks.  The 18th century Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni describing the anticipation of the villa season wrote Tis time to set out for the villa. O’ longed for moment come at last. What anguish we’ve endured fearing we should never go”.     A romantic notion of Italy.

 

 

 

 

 

You Can’t Keep a Good Church Down

 

San Geminiano Church
San Geminiano Church – Venice (Canaletto c. 1723-4)

The Church of San Geminiano in Venice has faced many challenges. One of great architectural  churches of Venice it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times in the course of its history. Located in Piazza San Marco, on the opposite side to the Basilica, it was among the most decorated churches of Venice in the 16th century and displayed paintings by a number of prominent artists including Tintoretto and Veronese. Described in a book of the time by Francesco Sansovino as “being lavishly decorated within and encrusted with marble and Istrian stone on the outside, extremely rich and well-conceived in design, judged by everyone to be almost like a ruby among pearls”.

Now one of the lost churches of Venice, history records it to have been first built on the site in the sixth century as a gift to Venice by the Byzantine general Narses for help given by the Venetians at the siege of Ravenna. 

The up and down history of the destruction and rebuilding of San Geminiano was effected by a series of fires, natural disasters and human whims that began in 976. In the early 13th century the church was again brought down as part of a major work on the Palazzo Ducale directed by Doge Sebastiano Ziani. The church was demolished by the Doge as it was right in the middle of the planned piazza.

During the the French occupation of the city in 1807 the church was again demolished by Napoleon to make room for the staircase of Napoleon’s Palazzo Reale.  In the Handbook for Travelers in Northern Italy published in 1842, the author wrote that the destruction of San Geminiano was an example of “Gallic vandalism” as many of the works of art inside the church were either lost or scattered between Italy and other countries, placed in other churches or sold to private collectors.

 

The Angel Foretelling Saint Catharine of Her Martyrdom
Tintoretto’s The Angel Foretelling Saint Catharine of Her Martyrdom

It is reported that an altarpiece from the church, Tintoretto’s The Angel Foretelling Saint Catharine of Her Martyrdom, had been bought by David Bowie in 1987. After his death in 2016 it was acquired by an unnamed European collector. It will return to Venice for the 2019 Biennale for an exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale. Following the exhibition, the altarpiece will remain in the Doge’s Palace on long-term loan. Proving that you can’t keep a good church, or in this case its altarpiece, down.

 

An Ancient Roman Light Show

I stood under the oculus and felt the light shining down on me. Like a crew member on the Starship Enterprise or a saint chosen by God, I felt I could be beamed up at any moment and transported to another time and place even into heaven.

 

pantheon

My first experience standing in the Pantheon, Rome’s ” temple of the gods” looking up at the vault of a “perfect heaven” was one of the most awe-inspiring moments I’ve had traveling in Italy.  Commissioned in various forms by a series of Roman Emperors, the Pantheon as we know it is associated with the power and divine authority of the Emperor Hadrian who claimed it to be a perfect sphere resting in a perfect cylinder like a “shield of gold where rain would form its clear pool on the pavement below and prayers would rise like smoke toward that void where we place the gods”.

The impression created by the concentrated light of the oculus or opening at the top of the dome that illuminates the inner rotunda created such an effect that when Michelangelo first saw the Pantheon acclaimed it as “angelic and not of human design”. No CGI program or special effects department could duplicate the intensity and brilliance of this  moving disc of light against the stark concrete dome.

Historians have found that the beaming light of the Pantheon is very particular at certain times of the year. Every Summer Solstice at Midsummer on June 21 the sun reaches closest to the center of the Pantheon. The oculus or Great Eye in the ceiling of the Pantheon concentrates the light of the sun’s solstice rays so that they shine from the oculus through the front door . The drama and spectacle of this blinded by the light phenomenon entering through the massive domed roof is a wonder.

Of all the great buildings constructed during the peak of the Roman Empire, only this one still stands. Described as Hadrian’s giant sun-dial, a monument from classical antiquity, a tomb (the painter Raphael, the first two kings and first queen of Italy are buried here), and a church dedicated to the Christian martyrs, the Pantheon is all of these. One of the most recognizable works of architecture on the planet, a statement that Rome remains eternal and a model for monumental construction projects (the Pantheon inspired Brunelleschi’s dome for the Cathedral in Florence, Bramante’s design for St. Peter’s Basilica and the US Capitol building) from Michelangelo to Thomas Jefferson  it remains an inspiration to always strive towards the Light.

 

 

 

 

430 of the Most Fantastic Cars on the Planet

 

mille-miglia-

The 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500 is about to begin. Labeled “the greatest spectacle in racing” it is one of the iconic races of the world. This year Mario Andretti, an Italian-born American racer who over a five decade long career, contested the Indy 500 an astonishing 29 times and won in 1969 will be celebrating that 50th anniversary win at the brickyard.

Italians are no strangers to speed . The past and current history of Italian auto racing from Monza’s Grand Prix to Italy’s Mille Miglia, a thousand mile open endurance race notorious for fast cars and fatal crashes, may have began with the fast and furious chariot races of Rome. But the allure of Italian motor racing goes beyond the sound of carburetors and the endurance and courage of its drivers. There is a beauty in Italian racing that extends from the exquisite design of Italian coach builders (carrozziere) to the course itself.  The Mille Miglia, known as the most beautiful race in the world, begins today on a figure-eight route from Brescia to Rome passing through some of the most beautiful cities and scenery in Italy including Verona, Vicenza, Padua, Siena and Mantua. Known as la corsa piu bella del mondo the race was first run in 1927 winding, climbing and driving through the classic countryside of Medieval and Renaissance Italy.

mille-miglia-3
“This is a big celebration of Italian culture, the Italian landscape, the scenery, the architecture, the beauty that characterizes our country.” Gianfranco Gentile.

Citizens, fans, well-wishers and sightseers crowd along the route in amazement as 430* of the most fantastic cars on the planet drive by. Picnics and lunch breaks are a very Italian part of the race that began on Monday with a Holy Mass and blessing of the cars at the Duomo Vecchio in Brescia. But before the end of the race drivers will endure long (13 to 14 hours) days of driving in all kinds of weather navigating en route with a 3 volume analog logbook trying to stay on course and avoid ending up on an old Roman rocky dirt road. Arriving  on Saturday’s Night of the Mille Miglia for the prize giving ceremony and a hero’s welcome as cars and drivers return from their epic journey.

*to be eligible for the race the cars need to have been created before 1957 and must have attended or be registered to the original race.

Ciao Patrizio

st patrick crown

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.

The Eve of Easter in Milan

I wrote this post several years ago but the memory is as vivid now as then.  A must see under the Duomo if you are in Milano.

Even though we have 40 days to prepare, celebrating Easter seems to be more about bunnies and brunch then it does about a life changing transformation. For if we follow the teachings of faith we known that “if we die with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (Romans 6:8). This was never felt more deeply than by the Early Christians.  On all accounts their devotion and unwavering belief caused them to commit and transform their lives in a ways that seem impossible. Accepting a contra-lifestyle based on the teachings of an outlawed and unpopular doctrine of redemption often took them to the brink and it began with the sacramental waters of an Easter baptism.

Images of these early Christian baptisms took on a vivid reality when I first visited the Milan Duomo, a massive Gothic spired cathedral rising out of the concrete earth of Milan Centro like it had materialized from thin air. Described as one of the greatest churches in the world (second only to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome), the building of the Duomo took more than 500 years to complete. There are 5 naves divided by 40 pillars with 3,400 statues (1800 alone on the terraced roof).  It is a fairyland of pinnacles, spires and flying buttresses with a 4 meter gilded statue of the Madonna perched on the top of the highest spire.

duomo 1

The art and architecture of the Milan Duomo is amazing but what is more remarkable is what is hidden and unexpected. The 135 spires of the Duomo overshadow a little known paleo-Christian archeological site hidden below the surface of the city with baptismal pools (circa 378) used by the early Christians of Milan. Through a staircase on the left of the main door of the cathedral you descend into the excavated remains of a brick wall around the perimeter of a Baptistery and a Roman road. Walking along a raised platform you see a large octagonal frontal pool where the catechumens were baptized. The pool is impressive because of its size (6.10 meters in diameter) with concealed pipes that provided a channel of “holy water” sprouting from several jets.

BaptisteryA description of the space talks about the pool being clad in Greek marble and the original flooring and walls being made of black and white marble in geometric designs. It must have been an awe-inspiring event to be led to this place on the eve of Easter and to be immersed in the water to receive that sacrament that cleanses you of your sins and binds you to all of Christendom.  As many times as I’ve seen the Milan Duomo (at last count this would be 18), the one particular thing that stands out most in my mind is being in that underground space where lives were transformed forever.

Italian Bread Winners

The fascinating story behind two legendary Italian breads.

Coppia Ferrarese,a bread whose twisted shape was first served at the ducal banquet tables of Ferrara.

pane coppia-ferrarese

Coppia Ferrarese is a regional bread particular to the province of Ferrara in Northern Italy.  With IGP (protected geographical indication ) status similar to Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma you know it must be special. The name comes from the shape of the bread made by the coupling of two pieces of dough  twisted together to form the distinctive four-point X shape.

Type “O” soft wheat flour, pure pork lard, extra virgin olive oil, yeast, salt and malt are used to make this golden-crusted, aromatic bread. The history of bread making in Ferrara dates to 1287. Historical references in the late 1600’s talk about the bread of Ferrara, highlighting its goodness and strange shape, types of flour used for the special process and the contribution that it gave to the fame of regional gastronomy.

 

 

Pane Carasau, also known as Carta di Musica (sheet music) because of its extremely thin paper-like quality.

pane carasau

The inhabitants of the island of Sardegna eat a fiber rich diet of fava beans (high in folate) and a type of nutritive wafer-thin flat bread known as Pane Carasau or  Carta da musica. The bread is named for its cracker-like crispness (in the Sardinian dialect  “carasare” means toasting) and its large and paper thin shape similar to a sheet of music.  Remains of this type of bread were found in archeological excavations of nuraghi (traditional Sardinian stone buildings) dating to before 1000 BC. Traditionally a bread of shepherds, who carried it in their saddle bags, it could be preserved in the long months (up to one year) they were away from home. Here is a link to a remarkable documentary of the making of Pane Carasau.  The bread is baked in 7 stages and requires 3 women  to make it. The ovens used in the baking must be at 840°-930°F to achieve the characteristic puffiness and flavor.

State side versions (although not as authentic) were once available at Trader Joe’s  as Pane Guttiau – Sardinian Parchment Crackers or you can make them with the following recipe.

Pane Carasau – Sardinian Crisp Bread

  • 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
  • 2 cups semolina flour
  • 1 12teaspoons salt
  • about 1 13cups lukewarm water
  • about 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 
  • sea salt, to taste
  1. Combine first 3 ingredients in large bowl. Slowly mix in enough lukewarm water to form moist soft dough. Knead in bowl until dough is no longer sticky. Knead dough on lightly floured work surface until smooth, about 15 minutes. Cover with plastic and let stand at room temperature at least 20 minutes and up to 1 1/2 hours.
  2. Preheat oven to 450°F Very lightly dust 2 large baking sheets with whole what pastry flour. Divide dough into 8 equal pieces. Pat 1 piece into disk (keep remaining dough covered). Roll out disk to 13-inch round, lifting and turning often. Transfer to baking sheet. Bake until edges begin to turn up and bread is still malleable, about 3 minutes. Turn bread over and bake until bread bubbles in spots and is golden in places, about 4 minutes longer. Transfer to rack.
  3. Brush oil over bread. Sprinkle with sea salt.
  4. Repeat with remaining dough.

Yield 8 sheets. Serves 16-32.

Sardinians call pane carasau – pane guttiau when sprinkled with salt and a drizzle of olive oil and then warmed  for a few minutes.