Wedding Planners of the Renaissance Create Una Stravaganza

It’s June, the traditional month for weddings. Historically, June has always been the most popular month for tying the knot. Nice summer weather, in-season flowers and the higher number of outdoor venues make it an attractive month for a party.  Wedding planners are busy with the details, dates and unexpected family drama that need to be handled to make sure the day of your dreams is a Romeo an Juliet event.

Planning a wedding for the royal courts of the Renaissance was a daunting task.  Bridzillas like Lucrezia Borgia, Caterina d’ Medici and the d’Este daugthers from the court of Ferrara demanded only the very best. These divas of the Renaissance and their families were the Kardashians of the day. In this case a Pope, a duke and lavish courts staged spectacular choreographed events to celebrate the occasion. Music, dance, masques, plays with elaborate sets were the stage for the wedding festa which could last for days.

Lucrezia Borgia (daughter of Pope Alexander VI)  had several weddings. Political alliances and strategic arrangements for power and money were often the reason for marriages in the Renaissance and Lucrezia was the poster child for matrimonial manipulations. Her first wedding was an opulent affair that took place in the Vatican with 500 ladies as her bridesmaids. Another more private, and yet another to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, was a event that resulted in the creation of Italy’s iconic pasta tagliatelle to celebrate the long, golden ribbon-like tresses of the bride’s hair.

Caterina d’Medici’s marriage to the future King Henry II of France was officiated by the Pope and commemorated by a wedding portrait   painted by Renaissance master Giorgio Vasari  who incorporated it into the décor of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. The wedding was documented as being a grand affair with the bridegroom participating in a joust.  As Queen of France Caterina was known for lavish and spectacular entertainments at court, called “magnificences” where  leading artists and architects of the day created  dramas, dances, music and elaborate special effects. Banquets were held in meadows, entertainments lasted for several days and food influenced by the sauces and seasonings of Florentine Italy (the use of giblets, truffles, olive oil, artichokes, pasta, parsley, spinach, crepes, custards, ices, sweetbreads, truffles and zabaglione) became part of French cuisine due to the influence of Caterina.

Not to be outdone by their sister-in-law (Lucrezia Borgia), Beatrice and Isabella d’ Este had weddings worthy of a Renaissance InStyle feature article. Prior to a magnificent banquet which followed her wedding ceremony, Isabella rode through the streets of Ferrara on a horse draped in gems and gold and Beatrice received a painting of herself as a wedding gift from Leonardo da Vinci.

medici and flooding of pitti by orazio scarabelli ,ock sea battle naumachiaBut if you thought that elaborate Renaissance nuptuals only focused on the bride, think again. When former cardinal and Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinando de’ Medici married the French princess Christine of Lorraine ten months of preparations culminated in an event that lasted for a month. The Medici wedding of 1589 included the flooding of the courtyard  of the Palazzo Pitti for mock naval battles against the Turks, a soccer match and comedies in the Medici Theater with splendid costumes and stage designs. Said to be  one of the greatest court weddings in all of history it was a landmark in Renaissance art and architecture, theatre, music and political ceremonies.

Monochromatic Medici –the Church and Chapels of San Lorenzo

san_lorenzoThe Medici were living large from the 13th to the 17th century. This powerful Florentine family produced three popes (Leo X, Clement VII and Leo XI), numerous rulers of Florence (notably Lorenzo the Magnificent, patron of some of the most famous works of Renaissance art) and later members of the French and English royalty. They ate, drank and made merry and some would say led Italy into the Renaissance. Through banking and commerce they achieved great wealth and political influence throughout Europe.

So I was very surprised when I first saw the unassuming Church of San Lorenzo ,the official church of the Medici where six of the Medici dukes are buried as well as other family members. Michelangelo was commissioned to create a chapel of tombs for the Medici family. His famous
sculptures of Dusk and Dawn, Night and Day are to be found here. The other part of the Medici Chapels is a domed octagonal room where the grand dukes themselves are buried. I like the gray and white interior and austere facade of San Lorenzo and I’m glad that Michelangelo left Florence without completing the exterior of the basilica. Work was abruptly cancelled by his financially-strapped patrons before any real progress had been made and the basilica lacks a facade to this day.

Mother’s Day with the Medici

caterina de mediciCelebrate Mother’s Day with a Medici feast for a taste of the Italian Renaissance. Follow the traditions of the Renaissance tables of the Medici who introduced the concept of the well laid table to the people of Florence. Dinner with the Medici would be served in several courses and include roasted meats of game or fowl like capon, pigeon or peacock. Pine nuts and raisins were common in Italian Renaissance cooking and were used in both sweet and savory dishes. Tarts, custards and puddings made with cherries sweetened with wine were popular. There would be no tomatoes, peppers, kidney beans, turkey or potatoes! These ingredients native to the Americas were not yet known in Europe.
The Medici’s epicurean tastes were transferred to France when Catherine de’ Medici wed King Henry II, bringing with her Italian cooks, recipes and the fork! Her influence reputedly reformed the antique style of French medieval cooking and gave rise to the science and art of cooking practiced today. Here is a recipe for a historically delicious salad written of in history books as Catherine de’ Medici’s favorite salad.
Insalata di Caterina
Wash and dry well a variety of mixed salad greens and place in a large wooden bowl. Toss with a few pieces of Pecorino Toscano (a soft sheep’s milk cheese), anchovy fillets packed in oil and a few capers. Make a dressing using the best Italian extra virgin olive oil you can find, red wine vinegar, coarse ground salt and pepper. Garnish with wedges of hard-boiled egg,



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.

A Breath from the Renaissance

A weary traveler could benefit from knowing about the ancient workshops and antica farmacia (pharmacies) where healing ingredients from nature create an Italian sense of benessere. They can be found all over Italy if you know where to look.

Behind an unassuming entrance on Via della Scala 16 down the street from the Santa Maria Novella train station is one of the oldest farmacia in Florence, Santa Maria Novella Farmacia also known as the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. A fragrant universe filled with terra-cotta jars and gilded urns that was already well-known in Dante’s time. It was established in the 13th century by the Dominican friars of Florence who began to cultivate and prepare medicinal plants and herbs used in the treatment of the sick. Many of the products available for purchase today are based on the ancient recipes of the friars.

SMN products are truly unique. Soaps are made by hand, molded with antique equipment and aged like a fine cheese. Potpourri are made from flowers and herbs grown in the Florentine hills. Ancient and evocative preparations like elixir Alkermes (a rare but obtainable exlir said to offset weary and lazy spirits) were formulated by friar-chemists. There are calming waters for tired or puffy eyes, an aromatic vinegar (Aceto dei Sette Ladrei) said to be useful for fainting spells and an antihysteria water which I am pleased to say I haven’t needed yet. One of the first alcohol based perfumes, Aqua della Regina, was created here for Caterina de’Medici, an essence she took with her when she became the Queen of France. Every time I travel to Florence I live the life of a Medici princess and buy soaps, scented wax tablets and carta d’Armenia, little strips of paper  that smolder and freshen the air with a breath from the Renaissance.

Although the frescoes and imposing salons of SMN  Farmacia may seem more like a museum than a working pharmacy, don’t let the ornate interior and gilded furnishings deter you. There is much to see and enjoy and there is an English lista of everything in the shop. The sales staff is open to polite requests for information and help (although I have heard otherwise). Just plan what you would like to buy and ask for it with intention.