There is a reason people have flocked to la bel Paese as part of their Grand Tour in the nineteenth century and are still doing it today. Tourists gather en masse in hopes of discovering the romance, history and beauty of Italy. Blame the artists. That's right, the romantic movement in art filled the salons, galleries and the homes of the elite (who could actually afford a "Grand Tour" for a year or more) and in essence promoted the beauty of Italia. Here are a dozen of what I consider the most beautiful and romantic of this type of painting... who wouldn't want to travel to Italy after seeing the grandeur?
Gulf of Naples by moonlight by Ajvazovskij
Ponte Rotto by Hubert Robert
River Beggers by Caneletto 1780
View of the canal channel from the Ponte San Marco, by Giuseppe Canella - 1834
Ragusa, Sicily by Emil Jakob Schindler
Fireworks in Naples by Oswald Achenbach
The Shipment, by Segantini Giovanni
View from the Ponte Vecchio in Florence over the Arno, by Palladini 1862
Rome and Castel Sant Angelo by Silvestr Fedosievich Shchedrin
In a land ravaged by earthquakes, floods and volcanoes from time to time, it's no wonder that in Italy, one will occasionally discover one of the many Ghost Towns...
Perched high on a rocky outcrop, with buildings precariously built under overhanging cliffs, is the beautiful remains of Pentedattilo, a village in southern Calabria. (The look of this village--tucked under dolomite cliffs--reminds me of the twin villages of Pietrapertosa and Castellmezzano we visited in Basilicata.) The village is a 45 minute drive from Reggio-Calabria. It got its name from the Byzantine word Pentedáktilos, which means five fingers, a reference to the five deep valleys surrounding the mountainous village. First inhabited in "Magna Graecia" period and then the Romans, Pentedattilo offers a wonderful view of the sea.
Being one of the oldest Ghost Towns of Italy, the town was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1783, which led to large parts of the population moving to the nearby seaside port town of Melito Porto Salvo. Today a modern-day with the same name of Pentedattilo was built on another hilltop a bit closer to the sea. The residents still attend Catholic services in the restored Chiesa dei Pietro e Paolo (Church of Saints Peter and Paul) standing proudly against the threat of Nature under the cliffs in the old town.
After some restoration in the 1980s, the old village today has a few new residents, although many ruins still sit without roofs, windows or doors just waiting for the Voyager with camera to capture its haunting beauty and solitude. Oddly enough, the village becomes the site of the International Pentedattilo Film Festival... with appropriate their motto, "Don't be a Ghost".
It's simple, really. My Mother grew up in a poor immigrant Italian family in Hoboken. I'm sure her Neapolitan parents passed on this tradition. When you're poor in Italy, you are superstitious about money so you tend to push luck on your side with certain traditions. You would eat coin shaped lentils on New Year's Day, for instance. My Mother taught me that putting a pile of coins--whatever you happen to be carrying in your pocket at the end of the year--on the windowsill will guarantee that you have money all year long.
One rule: Put the coins out before midnight.
Felice Anno Nuovo!
Postscript: Years ago when I lived in my loft/studio in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, I used to have my windows washed by professional window-washers. You know the kind... they clip their safety belts on to lugs outside of the commercial building windows, then lean back over the void to soap up, clean and then squeegie the windows clean. I had a 50 foot long wall of 10 foot tall windows running along the front of my sixth floor loft. Once a month, they would clean the city grime off the windows and suddenly the front of the studio would seem a lot brighter.
One year, in a cold January, I noticed that the years of accumulated nickels, dimes, pennies and quarters were gone! There must have been $20-30 in coins out there. I figured one of my window-washers must have needed it more than I did...
...unless it was those notorious, thieving Flying Rats of New York--the pigeons! --Jerry Finzi
This tradition has its roots in the Middle Ages when superstitions (and the plague) ran rampant, many promising to cure a person of his ills or perhaps bring good fortune and love. Red represents passion, blood flowing through your bod and thus life itself. It's no wonder that most red-blooded, passionate Italians bring in the New Year by wearing red undies... but I wonder how many of them stick to the tradition of throwing away the undergarments just as the New Year commences. (How would one accomplish this?)
So, whether playing Tombola (Italian Bingo, read more HERE), dancing it up at a party, watching the fireworks in the Piazza or from your own balcony, don't forget the sausage, lentils and the red underwear! Felice anno nuovo!
Wrinkled skin, warts, black shawl, flying broomstick... sounds scary, right? Such a witch on a flying broom would strike fear in the hearts of most children, but not in Italy, and not on January 6th, the Epiphany (Epifania in Italian) .
This witch--la Befana--comes down chimneys and leaves gifts for children. And if they've been bad, she'll leave a lump of black coal... but she's usualy compelled to leave a black sugar lump rather than real coal. She's that good!
Since the 13th century, La Befana has been leaving her presents in children's stockings, but her story goes back much further than that. La Befana was stopped by the Three Wise Men and asked her to lead them to the manger and stable where baby Jesus was born. La Befana was so nasty and shoved them away without helping. But seeing the Christmas Star in the sky, she was drawn to find the reason for their quest and brought her own gifts for the Baby Jesus. Although she followed the Star, she wandered without finding Him. To this day, she flies around the world in search of that special child, and just in case she misses him, she leaves gifts for each and every child to make up for her past indiscretion.
In just about every town in Italy there will be celebrations, feasts, parades, marching bands, flying witches, floating witches, puppet witches and witches brooms and black cats everywhere...
On January 6, children will find their stockings filled with presents... and also discover that all too suddenly (at least to an Italian child), the Christmas season comes to a close. Some slices of sweet panettone, a cup of cioccolata calda, and playing a few rounds oftombola with the famiglia after playing with their new toys, and this magical Natale season tucks gently into their lifelong memories...
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Most of us know Papier-mâché as a craft we had fun with in grade school--slopping together strips of newspaper, flour, water and some glue--to create a silly mask molded on an inflated baloon. The more artistic among us might have produced more ambitious creations in high school--a dragon, a dog, maybe even an abstrat Papier-mâché obect of art. But in Italy, Papier-mâché, or Cartapesta, as it's known there, is considered a high art medium, with some amazing Masters of the craft creating monumental works that can look like they were coming out of the workshops of Renaissance Masters.
Guerrino Lovato is one of these Maestro di Cartapesta. After studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice, in 1983 he opened his Venice studio and workshop where he creates, along with his now famous Venetian paper mache masks, sculptures and architectural props for theater, opera and cinema. For many years he has organized the Venice Carnival, and in 1993 he created a monumental work--sculptures for the Nativity of Venice, an impressive 75 foot moving sculpture with narration by Marcello Mastroianni. This exhibit attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors.
In 1995 he wrote and published "Objects and Sculptures out of Papier mâché ". More of his creations include sculptures for Gulliver Park in Tokyo, Japan; two large statues of Santa Rosalia for the famous feast in Palermo; for the Vatican, a statue of Christ in Michelangelo's style that stoof 18 feet tall; and he created the interior decorations for The Venetian in Las Vegas.
Each year at Christmastime, inside the church of St. Isidore Agricola in Palermo, an ancient brotherhood of bakers creates a Presepe di Pane (Christmas Nativity of Bread) made entirely of bread, and they've been doing so since 1991.
The Presepe of artistic bread is baked and displayed in the beautiful ChiesaSt. Isidoro Agricola (...of the Bakers). St. Isidore was built in 1643, belonged from the beginning to the Society of Bakers.
The Presepe is made completely out of bread, a representation of the importance and symbolism of bread to Catholics... Bread is the Christ. All the characters are made painstakingly by the skilled hands of the bakers.
The Presepe di Pane is on display from December 9 to January 6 hours 9: 30-12: 00 16: 00-19: 00
Here is a video (in Italian) that profiles the Presepe di Pane....
In the next video, a baker-artisan works his magic and creates a detailed human figure. If you bake, this is well worth watching!
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In the centuries before the iconic Bialetti Mokka pot, people drank the new beverage in coffeehouses, an idea that started in Constantinople around 1550, but also spread to Mecca, Damascus and Cairo. Although David ibn Abi Zimra (a Cairo rabbi) ruled in 1553 that Jews could drink coffee prepared by a non-Jew, he also warned against patronizing public coffeehouses and suggested that instead, they have their coffee deliver to their homes--especially due to its medicinal use.
Initially, in the 15th century, the drink quickly spread throughout the Ottoman Empire, enjoyed with large amounts of sugar. Jews and Muslims alike found that it helped them stay awake and alert for nightly prayer services. For Muslims, it took the place of forbidden alcoholic beverages. For the Jews, its adoption was tentative with rabbis debating whether it was Kosher, what blessing it required or whether it was actually a medicinal drug.
Coffee in Italy had a slow start, partly due to it being declared a Drink of the Devil by the Catholic church, and because it was a very expensive drink for the elite. It wouldn't be until 1603 when Pope Clement VIII tasted--and liked--coffee and gave the drink full absolution from its sins. This helped open the floodgates for coffee in Italy and the rest of Europe.
In 1632, the Jews of Livorno--a port city that was given over to the Italian Jewish population which became a center of Mediterranean trade--imported the first coffee into Italy and then opened the first coffeehouses (Bottega del Caffè). By 1624 and 1650, large shipments were shipped to Venice and by 1683, the first coffeehouse in Venice opened.
In researching this article, I actually discovered that in 1766, an ancestor with my family name, Beniamino Finzi (an Italian Jew) was given management of a coffeehouse in Livorno. He managed to get the Jewish leaders to rescind a law forbidding games of chance in coffeehouses frequented by Jews. He was the first Jew to be granted a permit to allow gambling with card and board games in a coffeehouse. From this time on, a Jew could only run an "entertainment room" for gambling only if they also served coffee!
Coffee was becoming mainstream.... within 200 years of the first sip being tasted in Italy, the craving for coffee had spread throughout Europe and even into the New World.
Although there might still be a few homes in rural Italy where the fràscere or braciere (brazier) might be found, this tool for heating and cooking is more than likely a memory for older Italians. Typically an ancient-looking copper pan set into a wider wooden base, many recall their mothers placing the braciere full of hot coals from the home's fireplace into the middle of the room so all members of the family could sit around warming their feet on a cold winter's evening.
Some have shared memories with me: Mama putting large black olives in to heat them up, and then squeezing them onto pieces of toasted bread... or melting pieces of cheese on forks. They also remember how their fathers warmed up some zuppa for an evening snack before heading off to bed. A second braciere might have been placed in their bedroom to take the chill off as they drifted off to sleep.
And their mothers may well have covered the braciere with a scaldapanni (or sciuttapanni)--a dome cover made from bent strips of wood--and then draped a damp washcloth, panties, socks or a cloth diaper to dry overnight. In school the next day, there might have been a braciere--perhaps more than one--sitting on the floor between desks to help warm their scholastic endeavors, even if just to toss a crumpled mistake into the coals when their maestra was dissatisfied with their work.
A beautifully decorated braciere from a more ancient time
The "conca" (basin), as it was casually referred to, was an ancient household invention thousands of years old that could be perceived as a sure sign of poverty in Italy, but there were riches in its use, too... family members--young and old, children through grandparents-- gathered around, telling stories, sharing gossip, knitting or repairing garments, toasting bread, laughing together, the children always being the closest to the warm, glowing circle. Occasionally, a lemon or orange peel was tossed onto the coals to send a simple but glorious scent into the air and if you were a good child, your father might let you use the little shovel to perk up the glow of the coals.
The family hearth might have been small, but the memories were warmer than that pile of coals could ever be...
Braciere a Tavola... very portable
Traditional all-copper construction
Beautiful example from the 1700s
Copyright 2016, Jerry Finzi/Grand Voyage Italy - All Rights Reserved
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