Mar 112017
 

On this date in 1851 Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered in Venice. I’ve already highlighted Verdi — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/giuseppe-verdi/  — and the post included a brief nod to Rigoletto because it was a milestone in the development of opera, not only intertwining complex dramatic elements but also showcasing a variety of musical styles, not least being the eternal favorite “La donna è mobile” (whose title I used just this week in pointing out the difference to my students in the use of the direct article in English and Italian). I’m not inclined to do a massive analysis of Rigoletto here, but I do feel the need to say something given that I live right behind a museum called “Rigoletto’s House” (opposite palazzo ducale), touristic tribute to the fact that the opera is set in Mantua.

Rigoletto was set in Mantua, in the long past, to escape problems with Austrian censors. Verdi was commissioned to write a new opera by the La Fenice opera house in Venice in 1850. By this time he was already a well-known composer and had a degree of freedom in choosing the works he would prefer to set to music. He then asked Francesco Maria Piave (with whom he had already created Ernani, I due Foscari, Macbeth, Il Corsaro and Stiffelio) to examine the play Kean by Alexandre Dumas, père, but he was not happy with the subject matter. Then Verdi stumbled upon Victor Hugo’s five-act play Le roi s’amuse. He later explained that “The subject is grand, immense, and there is a character that is one of the greatest creations that the theatre can boast of, in any country and in all history.” It was a highly controversial subject, and Hugo himself had already had trouble with censorship in France, which had banned productions after its first performance nearly twenty years earlier (it would not be performed again until 1882). As Austria at that time directly controlled much of Northern Italy, it came before the Austrian Board of Censors. Hugo’s play depicted a king (Francis I of France) as an immoral and cynical womanizer, and this subject did not sit well with the powers that be.

From the beginning, Verdi was aware of the risks, as was Piave. In a letter which Verdi wrote to Piave: “Use four legs, run through the town and find me an influential person who can obtain the permission for making Le Roi s’amuse.” Correspondence between a prudent Piave and an already committed Verdi followed, but the two underestimated the power and the intentions of Austrians and remained at risk. Even the friendly Guglielmo Brenna, secretary of La Fenice, who had promised them that they would not have problems with the censors, was wrong. At the beginning of the summer of 1850, rumors started to spread that Austrian censorship was going to forbid the production. The censors considered the Hugo work to verge on lèse majesté and would never permit such a scandalous work to be performed in Venice. In August, Verdi and Piave prudently retired to Busseto, Verdi’s hometown, to continue the composition and prepare a defensive scheme. They wrote to the theater, assuring them that the censor’s doubts about the morality of the work were not justified but since very little time was left, very little could be done. At the time, Piave and Verdi had titled the opera La maledizione (The Curse), and this unofficial title was used by Austrian censor De Gorzkowski in an emphatic letter written in December 1850 in which he definitively denied consent to its production, calling it “a repugnant [example of] immorality and obscene triviality.”

By January 1851 the parties were able to agree that the action of the opera would be moved from the royal court of France to a duchy of France or Italy, and some of the characters would have to be renamed. In the new version the Duke reigns over Mantua and belongs to the Gonzaga family. The House of Gonzaga had long been extinct by the mid-19th century, and the Dukedom of Mantua no longer existed, thus no one could be offended. So, even though the connexion with Mantua is purely pragmatic and not motivated by any dramatic necessity, we reap the benefit.

Rigoletto premiered on 11 March 1851 to a sold-out La Fenice as the first part of a double bill with Giacomo Panizza’s ballet Faust. Gaetano Mares conducted, and the sets were designed and executed by Giuseppe Bertoja and Francesco Bagnara. The opening night was a complete triumph, especially the scena drammatica and the Duke’s cynical aria, “La donna è mobile”, which was sung in the streets the next morning. Verdi had maximised the aria’s impact by revealing it to the cast and orchestra only a few hours before the premiere, and forbidding them to sing, whistle or even think of the melody outside of the theater. Many years later, Giulia Cora Varesi, the daughter of Felice Varesi (the original Rigoletto), described her father’s performance at the premiere. Varesi was very uncomfortable with the false hump he had to wear. He was so uncertain that, even though he was an experienced singer, he had a panic attack when it was his turn to enter the stage. Verdi immediately realized he was paralyzed and roughly pushed him on the stage, so he appeared with a clumsy tumble. The audience, thinking it was an intentional gag, was very amused

Numerous tenors and sopranos have performed the key roles and there are many recordings to choose from.  This one amuses me. It’s not stellar but I rather dislike Pavarotti’s renditions which are everywhere.  In his earlier years (in the 1960s) he was great, but fame got to him, I fear, and by the time he was a household name, in my oh so humble opinion, he had developed an oversized ego (and body) and an undersized style corrupted by a desire to please audience with cheap theatrics.  I’ll take Caruso (or most any other tenor) any day of the week and twice on Sundays over Pavarotti.

A Venetian dish might be in order given the location of the premiere, but I like Mantuan cuisine and the opera is set here.  So let’s go with another Mantuan specialty, luccio in salsa (pike in sauce). I’m sure you can make a reasonable simulacrum, but without Garda Lake pike and Italian anchovies it won’t be the same.  Pike is not an easy fish to prepare because it is riddled with small epipleural or Y-bones. It is best to get fillets from large fish and inspect them carefully, removing any bones you find with tweezers.

Luccio in Salsa

Ingredients

½ kg pike fillets
1 onion
1 carrot
1 celery stalk
1 cup dry white wine
salt and pepper to taste

150 g salted anchovies
150 g capers
150 g fresh parsley
extra virgin olive oil

Instructions

Poach the fish gently in a pan with the water and wine plus the onion, carrot and celery all cut in large chunks. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Finely chop the capers, parsley and anchovies. Then mix in olive oil to taste. Too little oil will make the sauce over salty.

Separate the fillets into medium-sized pieces, place them on a serving dish and pour over the sauce. Let the fish and sauce rest so that the flavors marry.  Some Mantuan cooks mash the fish slightly with a fork and then add the sauce.

Serve with toasted polenta.

Mar 042017
 

Today is the birthday (1678) of Antonio Lucio Vivaldi, composer, virtuoso violinist, teacher, and cleric. He was born in Venice and is generally considered one of the greatest Baroque composers whose influence during his lifetime was widespread across Europe. He composed a number of instrumental concertos, for the violin and a variety of other instruments, as well as sacred choral works and more than forty operas. Here I want to focus on his best-known work(s), the violin concertos known as The Four Seasons, because they were composed in Mantua where I live now. In particular I want to pay special attention to La Primavera (Spring) because Spring is just starting here. The Four Seasons are very early examples of what has become to be known as program music, that is, music with some kind of narrative underpinning it as opposed to “pure” music, that is, music for its own sake. General opinion is that Vivaldi was inspired by the countryside around Mantua as it journeyed through the seasons.

Vivaldi was born in Venice and was baptized immediately after his birth at his home by the midwife, which led to a belief that his life was somehow in danger. Though not known for certain, the child’s immediate baptism was most likely due either to his poor health or to an earthquake that shook the city that day. In the trauma of the earthquake, Vivaldi’s mother may have dedicated him to the priesthood. Vivaldi’s official church baptism took place two months later.

Vivaldi’s, father, Giovanni Battista, who was a barber before becoming a professional violinist, taught his son to play the violin at an early age and then toured Venice playing the violin with his young son. Vivaldi’s health was problematic. His symptoms, strettezza di petto (“tightness of the chest”), have been interpreted as a form of asthma. In 1693, at the age of fifteen, he began studying to become a priest. He was ordained in 1703, aged 25, and was soon nicknamed il Prete Rosso, “The Red Priest” which probably referred to the color of his hair, a family trait. Not long after his ordination, in 1704, he was given a dispensation from celebrating Mass because of his ill health. Vivaldi said Mass as a priest only a few times and appears to have withdrawn from priestly duties in general, though he remained a priest.

In September 1703, Vivaldi became maestro di violino (master of violin) at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà (Devout Hospital of Mercy), an orphange in Venice. Vivaldi was only 25 when he started working at the Ospedale della Pietà. Over the next thirty years he composed most of his major works while working there. There were four similar institutions in Venice; their purpose was to give shelter and education to children who were abandoned or orphaned, or whose families could not support them. They were financed by funds provided by the Republic. The boys learned a trade and had to leave when they reached 15. The girls received a musical education, and the most talented stayed and became members of the Ospedale’s renowned orchestra and choir. Vivaldi composed over 60 pieces for the singers and musicians of the orphanage.

In 1717 or 1718, Vivaldi was offered a prestigious position as Maestro di Cappella of the court of prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt, governor of Mantua. He moved there for three years and produced several operas, among which was Tito Manlio (RV 738). During this period Vivaldi wrote the Four Seasons. Three of the concertos are of original conception, while the first, “Spring,” borrows motifs from a Sinfonia in the first act of his contemporaneous opera Il Giustino. They were a revolution in musical conception: in them Vivaldi represented flowing creeks, singing birds (of different species, each specifically characterized), barking dogs, buzzing mosquitoes, crying shepherds, storms, drunken dancers, silent nights, hunting parties from both the hunters’ and the prey’s point of view, frozen landscapes, ice-skating children, and warming winter fires. Each concerto is associated with a sonnet, possibly by Vivaldi, describing the scenes depicted in the music.

Here’s is Spring’s sonnet:

Allegro
Giunt’ è la Primavera e festosetti
La Salutan gl’ Augei con lieto canto,
E i fonti allo Spirar de’ Zeffiretti
Con dolce mormorio Scorrono intanto:
Vengon’ coprendo l’ aer di nero amanto
E Lampi, e tuoni ad annuntiarla eletti
Indi tacendo questi, gl’ Augelletti;
Tornan’ di nuovo al lor canoro incanto:Largo
E quindi sul fiorito ameno prato
Al caro mormorio di fronde e piante
Dorme ‘l Caprar col fido can’ à lato.Allegro
Di pastoral Zampogna al suon festante
Danzan Ninfe e Pastor nel tetto amato
Di primavera all’ apparir brillante.
Allegro
Springtime is upon us.
The birds celebrate her return with festive song,
and murmuring streams are softly caressed by the breezes.
Thunderstorms, those heralds of Spring, roar, casting their dark mantle over heaven,
Then they die away to silence, and the birds take up their charming songs once more.Largo
On the flower-strewn meadow, with leafy branches rustling overhead, the goat-herd sleeps, his faithful dog beside him.Allegro
Led by the festive sound of rustic bagpipes, nymphs and shepherds lightly dance beneath the brilliant canopy of spring.

 

Here is the concerto. The sonnet should guide you through the music. It is not clear whether Vivaldi wrote the sonnets that accompany the concertos nor whether they were written first or later.

A rustic Mantuan dish is suitable for today and I have chosen stracotto d’asino (donkey stew) which is well loved in Mantua. It can be served in two ways: as a first course in which case it is the sauce for pasta such as macaroni, or as a second course where it is the main dish and typically accompanied by polenta. As a first course with pasta you should use very little stracotta as a sauce. You can substitute beef for donkey meat, but, of course, it’s not the same. Donkey is readily available in markets in Mantua and surrounds. It is a tough meat that requires long, slow cooking. In Mantua the recipe calls for lardo di maiale which is prepared pork fat. You can use fatty bacon as a substitute. The wine for marinating is the Lambrusco that originates in the region of Mantua. It is the only Lambrusco produced in Lombardy as opposed to the Emilia Romagna region.

Stracotto D’Asino

Ingredients

1 kg donkey meat
100 g lardo di maiale, coarsely chopped
200 g onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
10 g carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
100 g of celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
3 bay leaves
10 whole peppercorns
1 stick cinnamon
1 sprig fresh rosemary
7.5 dL/ 3 cups Lambrusco mantovano (dry red wine)
2 dL/ ¾ cup  extra virgin olive oil
salt
beef stock

Instructions

Marinate the donkey meat for at least one day in the wine, then remove it and dry it.

Melt the lardo in a Dutch oven with the oil and butter. When completely melted, add the vegetables, bay leaf, rosemary and cloves of crushed garlic. Salt lightly and cook over high heat, stirring often.

Add the donkey meat and brown it on all sides. Then add the wine marinade along with the peppercorns and cinnamon. Add enough broth so that the meat is covered completely. Bring to a slow simmer, cover the pan, and cook slowly until the meat is in shreds. This may take 3 to 4 hours.

Remove the meat from the liquid. Strain the liquid and keep it warm. Shred the meat and add it back to the liquid.  Heat through, making sure the meat and sauce are thoroughly mixed. Serve with macaroni as a first course, or with polenta as a second course.

Serves 6

Aug 162016
 

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On this date in 1328, 4 members of the Gonzaga family who had been state officials – the 60-year-old Luigi and his sons Guido, Filippino, and Feltrino – overthrew the last Bonacolsi, Rinaldo, to become rulers of Mantua and remained in power until 1708. I wouldn’t normally memorialize the sordid machinations of a power-hungry elite, but I live in Mantua and the historical footprints of the Gonzagas are everywhere. Furthermore my apartment is right behind the duomo which is on piazza sordello, site of the coup that installed the Gonzagas and of the ducal palace (palazzo ducale) where they lived and ruled for four centuries. So I figured I’d give them a tip of the hat and give myself a little history lesson on my current home.

Mantua was originally an island settlement that was first established about the year 2000 BCE on the banks of River Mincio, which flows from Lake Garda to the Adriatic. In the 6th century BCE, Mantua was an Etruscan village which. The name (Mantova in Italian) may derive from the Etruscan god Mantus, although this is disputed. Mantua was subsequently fought over in the first and second Punic wars between Carthage and Rome. Eventually, what became new Roman territory was populated by veteran soldiers of Augustus. Mantua won’t let you forget that its most famous citizen from antiquity is the poet Virgil who was born in the year 70 BCE in a village near the city which is now known as Virgilio.

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After the fall of the western Roman Empire in 476 CE, Mantua was invaded in turn by Goths, Byzantines, Longobards, and Franks. In the 11th century, Mantua became a possession of Boniface of Canossa, marquis of Tuscany. The last ruler of that family was the countess Matilda of Canossa (d. 1115), who, according to legend, ordered the construction of the Rotonda di San Lorenzo which can still be seen in the historic district, although it has had to be significantly restored both in the post-war years and also in the last few years.

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After the death of Matilda of Canossa, Mantua became a free commune and strenuously defended itself from the Holy Roman Empire during the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1198, Alberto Pitentino altered the course of River Mincio, creating what the Mantuans originally called “the four lakes” to reinforce the city’s natural protection. Three of these lakes still remain and the fourth one, which ran through the center of town, was drained in the 18th century.

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During the 13th century there were a number of power struggles between major families in northern Italy, and in 1273 Pinamonte Bonacolsi took advantage of the chaotic situation to seize control of Mantua and was declared the capitano del popolo (Captain General of the People). This office was created in the 13th century in Italy as a way of balancing the interests of the people with that of the nobility. The Bonacolsi family ruled Mantua for the next two generations and made it more prosperous. On August 16, 1328, Luigi Gonzaga, an official in Bonacolsi’s podesteria, and his family staged a public revolt in Mantua and forced a coup d’état on the last Bonacolsi ruler, Rinaldo. Over the next 4 centuries the House of Gonzaga ruled Mantua.

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The history of the Gonzagas is not pretty. Over the time of their rule the family included a saint, twelve cardinals and fourteen bishops. Two Gonzaga descendants became Empresses of the Holy Roman Empire (Eleonora Gonzaga and Eleonora Gonzaga-Nevers), and one became Queen of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Marie Louise Gonzaga). Ludovico I, who had been podestà (chief magistrate) of the city in 1318, was elected capitano del popolo when the Gonzagas seized power. The Gonzagas built new walls and renovated the architecture of the city in the 14th century, but the political situation did not stabilize until the third ruler of Gonzaga, Ludovico III Gonzaga (1412 – 1478), killed his relatives and centralized power to himself. During the Italian Renaissance, the Gonzaga family softened their despotic rule and further raised the level of artistic refinement in Mantua, making it a significant center of Renaissance art and humanism, still reflected in art and architecture throughout the old part of the town.

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Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, married Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua in 1490. When she moved to Mantua from Ferrara (she was the daughter of Duke Ercole the ruler of Ferrara) she created her famous studiolo first in Castello di San Giorgio for which she commissioned paintings from Mantegna, Perugino and Lorenzo Costa. She later moved her studiolo to the Corte Vecchia and commissioned two paintings from Correggio to join the five from Castello di San Giorgio. It was unusual for a woman to have a studiolo in 15th century Italy but she was a powerful force in northern Italy. Niccolò da Corregio called her ‘la prima donna del mondo’.

Through a payment of 120,000 golden florins in 1433, Gianfrancesco I was appointed Marquis of Mantua by the Emperor Sigismund, whose niece Barbara of Brandenburg married his son, Ludovico. In 1459, Pope Pius II held the Council of Mantua to proclaim a crusade against the Turks. Under Ludovico and his heirs, the famous Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna worked in Mantua as court painter, producing some of his most outstanding works.

The first Duke of Mantua was Federico II Gonzaga, who acquired the title from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1530. Federico commissioned Giulio Romano to build the famous Palazzo Te, on the periphery of the city, and profoundly improved the city. In the late 16th century, Claudio Monteverdi came to Mantua from his native Cremona. He worked for the court of Vincenzo I Gonzaga, first as a singer and violist, then as music director, marrying the court singer Claudia Cattaneo in 1599.

In 1627, the direct line of the Gonzaga family came to an end with the vicious and weak Vincenzo II, and Mantua slowly declined under the new rulers, the Gonzaga-Nevers, a cadet French branch of the family. The War of the Mantuan Succession broke out, and in 1630 an Imperial army of 36,000 Landsknecht mercenaries besieged Mantua, bringing the plague with them. Mantua has never recovered from this disaster, and is now pretty much a sleepy backwater. Ferdinand Carlo IV, an inept ruler, whose only interest was in holding parties and theatrical shows, allied with France in the War of the Spanish Succession. After the French defeat, he took refuge in Venice and at his death in 1708, he was declared deposed, and the Gonzaga family lost Mantua forever in favor of the Habsburgs of Austria.

Here’s a little gallery of my photos to show the influence of the Gonzagas and to make it clear that Mantua is fortunate to have retained so much historical art and architecture, largely because for centuries no one cared about the town. It is swarmed with Italian day trippers on Sundays, but foreign tourists are in the small minority. Fine by me. Sundays are as awful for me as they were when I lived in san Telmo in Buenos Aires, but the rest of the week is fine.

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I’m not going to give you a recipe today but instead repeat what I wrote when I posted about Mantua’s patron saint http://www.bookofdaystales.com/mantua-and-anselm/ :

Mantua is famous as a culinary center. Some of the local specialties include bigoli con le sardelle, pasta with sardines, stracotto d’asino, donkey stew, salame con l’aglio, garlic sausage, luccio in salsa, pike in sauce, tortelli di zucca, pumpkin tortelli, and torta sbrisolona, a crumbly cake. I’m going to reprise what I used to write when I was living in China. If you want authentic Mantuan food, come to Mantua.

I gave a recipe there for bigoli which you can look at. Here’s a small gallery to make you drool.

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May 182016
 

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Today is reputedly the birthday (1474) of Isabella d’Este, Marchesa of Mantua and an important figure in the Renaissance. She was a political leader, a patron of the arts, and a fashionista whose innovative style of dressing was copied by women throughout Italy and at the French court. She served as the regent of Mantua during the absence of her husband, Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua, and during the minority of her son, Federico, Duke of Mantua.

Isabella’s early life is unusually well-documented because of the exalted position of her parents and their voluminous correspondence. Unfortunately specific days sometimes get confused in the welter of details. Some say that she was born on a Tuesday at 9 o’clock in the evening. Very precise; but that would make her birth date the 17th . Others claim the 19th as the correct date. Majority opinion splits the difference and use the 18th as correct. I’ll stay out of the debate, but I do want to celebrate her because I live in Mantua now, and she is an important component of the town’s history. Today works for me. She was born in Ferrara, to Ercole I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara and Eleanor of Naples. Eleanor was the daughter of Ferdinand I, the Aragonese King of Naples, and Isabella of Clermont.

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Isabella received an excellent education, which was unusual for girls at the time. As a child she studied Roman history, Greek, and Latin (and could recite Virgil and Terence by heart). She was personally acquainted with the politicians, ambassadors, painters, musicians, writers, and scholars, who lived in and around the court. Isabella was known as a talented singer and musician, and was taught to play the lute by Giovanni Angelo Testagrossa. In addition she was an innovator of new dances.

In 1480, at the age of six, Isabella was betrothed to Gianfrancesco, the heir to the Marquis of Mantua.  Isabella did not consider him handsome, but admired him for his strength and bravery and regarded him as honorable. After their first few encounters, she found that she enjoyed his company and spent the next few years getting to know him. During their courtship, Isabella treasured the letters, poems, and sonnets he sent her as gifts.

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Ten years later, on 11 February 1490 at age 15, she married Francesco Gonzaga, who had by then succeeded to the marquisate. Isabella became Marchesa on this marriage amid a spectacular outpouring of popular acclamation. Francesco, in his capacity as Captain General of the Venetian armies, was often required to go to Venice for conferences which left Isabella in Mantua on her own at La Reggia, the ancient palace which was the family seat of the Gonzagas.  She passed the time with her mother and sister, Beatrice; and upon meeting Elisabetta Gonzaga, her 18-year-old sister-in-law, the two women became close friends. They enjoyed reading books, playing cards, and traveling about the countryside together and maintained a steady correspondence until Elisabetta’s death in 1526.

A year after her marriage to Isabella’s brother, Alfonso in 1502, Lucrezia Borgia became Francesco’s mistress. I’ve spoken about this troubled relationship before and don’t need to say more. http://www.bookofdaystales.com/lucrezia-borgia/ When a  married man sleeps with another woman there are likely to be problems. I think what we have to avoid are judgments based on our own conceptions of morality and the mores of our own times. Based on what I know from her letters, Isabella felt betrayed largely because she felt she had a unique bond with Francesco that was not common among the nobility of the times. Marriages were arranged out of expediency and not love, so a certain amount of infidelity was expected and certainly condoned (although more for men than women).  Isabella believed her marriage was special and blamed Lucrezia for the affair even though Francesco often slept with prostitutes (from whom he contracted syphilis – from which he died, and which his son inherited and died from also).

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Isabella played an important role in Mantua during the city’s troubled times. When her husband was captured in 1509 and held hostage in Venice, she took control of Mantua’s military forces and held off invaders until his release in 1512. In the same year she was the hostess at the Congress of Mantua, which was held to settle questions concerning relations between Florence and Milan. As a ruler, it was clear that she was much more assertive and competent than her husband. When apprised of this fact upon his return, Francesco was furious and humiliated at being upstaged by his wife’s superior political ability. The marriage broke down irrevocably, and, as a result, Isabella began to travel freely and live independently from her husband until his death on 19 March 1519.

After the death of her husband, Isabella ruled Mantua as regent for her son, Federico. She began to play an increasingly important role in Italian politics, steadily advancing Mantua’s position. She was instrumental in promoting Mantua to a Duchy, which she obtained by wise diplomatic use of her son’s marriage contracts. She also succeeded in obtaining a cardinalate for her son Ercole. She further displayed shrewd political acumen in her negotiations with Cesare Borgia, who had dispossessed Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino, the husband of her sister-in-law and good friend Elisabetta Gonzaga in 1502.

Isabella d’Este was famous as a very important patron of the arts during the Renaissance. Many of her accomplishments are documented in her correspondence, which is still archived in Mantua (c. 28,000 letters received and copies of c. 12,000 letters written). In painting she had the most famous artists of the time work for her, such as, Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea Mantegna (court painter until 1506), Perugino, Raphael, and Titian, as well as Antonio da Correggio, Lorenzo Costa (court painter from 1509), Dosso Dossi, Francesco Francia, Giulio Romano and many others. Her ‘Studiolo’ in the Ducal Palace, Mantua, was decorated with allegories by Mantegna, Perugino, Costa and Correggio.

Isabella is considered by some art historians to be a plausible candidate for the woman in Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’ of 1502-06, which is usually considered a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. (wife of a merchant in Florence) Evidence in favor of Isabella as the subject of the famous work includes Leonardo’s drawing ‘Isabella d’Este’ from 1499 and her letters of 1501-06 requesting a promised painted portrait. The mountains in the background of the Mona Lisa could be the Dolomites, and the armrest is a Renaissance symbol for a portrait of a sovereign. You decide. The image below is from left to right, Leonard’s sketch of Isabella, a digitally cleaned up version of the Mona Lisa, and the Mona Lisa as it has been known for many years without cleaning.

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Isabella contracted the most important sculptors and medallists of her time – such as, Michelangelo, Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi (L’Antico), Gian Cristoforo Romano and Tullio Lombardo, and collected ancient Roman art. In the humanities she was in contact with Pietro Aretino, Ludovico Ariosto, Pietro Bembo, Baldassare Castiglione, Mario Equicola, Gian Giorgio Trissino  etc. In music she sponsored the composers Bartolomeo Tromboncino and Marco Cara, and played the lute herself. She employed women as professional singers at her court, which was unusual for the time, including Giovanna Moreschi, the wife of Marchetto Cara.

As a fashion leader, she ordered the finest clothing, including furs as well as the newest distillations of scents, which she made into perfumes and sent as presents. Her style of dressing in caps (‘capigliari’) and plunging décolletage was imitated throughout Italy and at the French court.

Isabella had met the French king in Milan in 1500 on a successful diplomatic mission which she had undertaken to protect Mantua from French invasion. Louis had been impressed by her, and it was while she was being entertained by Louis, whose troops occupied Milan, that she offered asylum to Milanese refugees including Cecilia Gallerani, the refined mistress of her sister Beatrice’s husband, Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, who had been forced to leave his duchy in the wake of French occupation. Isabella presented Cecilia to King Louis, describing her as a “lady of rare gifts and charm”.

As a widow, Isabella at the age of 45 became a devoted head of state while regent for her son. To improve the well-being of her subjects she studied architecture, agriculture, and industry, and followed the principles that Niccolò Machiavelli had set forth for rulers in The Prince. The people of Mantua are said to have respected and loved her, and she is still held in high regard here.

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Isabella left Mantua for Rome in 1527. She was present during the catastrophic Sack of Rome, when she converted her house into an asylum for about 2000 people fleeing the Imperial soldiers. Isabella’s house was one of the very few which was not attacked, due to the fact that her son was a member of the invading army. When she left, she managed to acquire safe passage for all the refugees who had sought refuge in her home.

After Rome became stabilized following the attack, she left the city and returned to Mantua. She made it a centre of culture, started a school for girls, and turned her ducal apartments into a museum containing the finest art treasures. This was not enough to satisfy Isabella, already in her mid-60s, so she returned to political life and ruled Solarolo, in Romagna until her death on 13 February 1539.

Isabella is a very important figure in Mantua today, not least because the center of the town is preserved very much as it was in her day. Frescoes, paintings, tapestries, and sculptures that she collected or commissioned are still on display, and you can visit her apartments and gardens.  Here’s a small gallery of my own photographs.

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There are many traditional dishes from Mantua which are famous, such as tortelli di zucca, pasta stuffed with pumpkin, which is available in numerous restaurants around town. It is commonly eaten on Christmas Eve as part of the evening festivities. There are also dishes made from local lake fish, and the common Mantuan risotto, (alla pilota), is not moist and creamy, as in other parts of Italy, but dry with all the grains separate. As with any artisanal cuisine, you are better off coming to Mantua if you want the real thing, but you can find plenty of Mantuan recipes online if you want to experiment.

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Sbrisolona is probably the tourist favorite, enjoyed as much by Italian tourists as foreigners, and loved by Mantuans as well. You’ll see it on sale everywhere. Sbrisolona is a round, flat, flour, butter, and nut crumble cake that is not terribly difficult to make at home; but Mantuan bakers make a specialty of it, and theirs is hard to beat. Sometimes you can find it with nuts other than almonds, or with dried fruits, but the idea is basically the same. You can see that the measures are very easy to follow, and overall it is not complicated. It’s just that local ingredients plus the generations of experience of local bakers are unbeatable. Italian tourists wouldn’t buy it by the ton if they could make it as well themselves. Here’s a decent recipe. The special polenta flour may be the hardest ingredient to find.

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Sbrisolona 

Ingredients

100 g flour
100 g fine polenta flour
100 g caster sugar
100 g butter
100 g coarsely ground almonds
1 egg yolk
grated zest, 1 lemon
1 pinch salt
40 mL grappa
whole almonds (about 8)

Instructions

Heat the oven to 170°F.

Mix the flour, sugar, polenta flour and salt together in a large bowl. Add the butter in the same way you would to make pastry.  That is, dice it small and rub it into the dry ingredients until it looks like rough crumbly sand. A food processor is good for this step. Pulse the ingredients about 8 times.

Add the ground almonds, lemon zest, egg yolk, and grappa and mix lightly. This will make a crumbly dough. Do not mix too much.

Put the mix into a lightly greased 26 cm tin without smoothing – just toss it in and spread. Add a few whole almonds.

Bake for about 30 minutes or until golden. Let the pan cool and turn out the cake carefully.

Sbrisolona keeps well in an air-tight container. To eat it, do not cut it with a knife but break it with your hands.

Mar 182016
 

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Today is the feast of Saint Anselm of Lucca (Latin: Anselmus; Italian: Anselmo; 1036 – March 18, 1086), born Anselm of Baggio (Anselmo da Baggio), which is a major holiday in Mantua because he is the patron saint of the town. Normally I would consider Anselm too minor a figure to be worth a post, but I live in Mantua, so he counts as a bigger deal than usual.

Anselm was a medieval bishop of Lucca in Italy and a prominent figure in the Investiture Controversy amid the fighting in central Italy between Matilda, countess of Tuscany, and Emperor Henry IV. His uncle Anselm preceded him as bishop of Lucca before being elected to the papacy as Pope Alexander II; owing to this, he is sometimes distinguished as Anselm the Younger or Anselm II.

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Anselm’s birthplace is disputed and his date of birth is unknown. Sources are divided as to whether he was born in Milan or Mantua. General sentiment in Italy favors Mantua as his birthplace because of his close association with the town. His uncle, Anselm of Lucca the Elder, became Pope Alexander II in 1061 and designated Anselm to succeed him in his former position as Bishop of Lucca (1071), sending him to take investiture from the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV.

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Anselm traveled to meet Henry, but was loath to receive the insignia of spiritual power from a temporal ruler and returned without investiture. In 1073, Alexander’s successor Pope Gregory VII, again appointed Anselm as bishop of Lucca, but advised him not to accept investiture from Henry. For some reason, Anselm did so this time around despite the pope’s injunction, but soon felt such remorse that he resigned his bishopric, and entered the Benedictine Order at Padilirone, a Cluniac monastery near Mantua. This was the beginning of the Investiture Controversy which pitted church against state concerning authority in church matters, and which was ultimately a key factor in the Protestant Reformation.

In the 11th century, temporal rulers chafed at the authority of the papacy to appoint high ranking church officials in their lands, whereas popes wanted the prerogative to appoint bishops and cardinals without local interference. As always, it comes down to money, power, and control. In the 16th century the issue came to such a head that German, Swiss, and English monarchs simply broke with Rome and took the power from the papacy. In the 11th and 12th centuries things simmered down after some judicious compromising on both sides.

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Gregory VII ordered Anselm to return to Lucca, and he reluctantly obeyed, but continued to lead the life of a monk. In the years 1077–79, he accepted the transfer of several castles from Countess Matilda, in preparation for Henry’s expected campaign against Italy, which was carried out in 1081–84. Meanwhile, he attempted to impose stricter monastic discipline upon the canons of his cathedral. Most of the canons refused to submit to the new regulations and Anselm was expelled from Lucca in 1081.

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Anselm fled first to the shelter of Moriana, an episcopal stronghold only a few miles up the Arno from Lucca— accompanied by Bardo, a priest who later wrote his vita—then retired to Canossa as spiritual guide to Countess Matilda. Bishop Benzo of Alba, Henry IV’s fiercely partisan supporter, tells how Matilda and Anselm stripped the monasteries to send gold and silver to Gregory in Rome. His biographer Rangerius, who succeeded him as bishop of Lucca, ascribed the rout of Matilda’s forces and the other enemies of Gregory VII to Anselm’s prayers, which is why he is sometimes depicted in art as standing before an army in confusion – the age old question, “which side are you on?”

Some time later pope Victor III made Anselm papal legate to Lombardy, with authorization to rule over all the dioceses which had been left without bishops due to the conflict between pope and emperor.

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Anselm was both a Biblical scholar and a canon lawyer. He wrote some significant works attacking lay investiture and defending pope Gregory against antipope Guibert. He spent his last years assembling a collection of ecclesiastical law canons in 13 books, which formed the earliest of the collections of canons (Collectio canonum) supporting the Gregorian reforms, which afterwards were incorporated into the Decretum of the jurist Gratian.

Anselm died in Mantua on March 18, 1086, and is the town’s patron saint.

Mantua is famous as a culinary center. Some of the local specialties include bigoli con le sardelle, pasta with sardines, stracotto d’asino, donkey stew, salame con l’aglio, garlic sausage, luccio in salsa, pike in sauce, tortelli di zucca, pumpkin tortelli, and torta sbrisolona, a crumbly cake. I’m going to reprise what I used to write when I was living in China. If you want authentic Mantuan food, come to Mantua. I’ll give you an idea about preparing bigoli con le sardelle, but without local pasta and fish, it won’t be the same. Bigoli is much like spaghetti only thicker and coarser which holds the sauce well; the sardines are caught in Italian waters. “Sardine” is not a well defined category of fish. Any small member of the herring family can qualify. Do the best you can, but be sure to use fresh fish, not canned. This is a good dish for Lent.

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Bigoli con le Sardelle alla Mantovana

Ingredients

150 g sardine fillets
400 g fresh bigoli
1 onion, chopped
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, minced
salt and pepper

Instructions

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet and gently brown the onions. Add the sardine fillets and cook until soft. Add the garlic. With the back of a wooden spoon, mash the fish into the olive oil until the sauce is creamy.

Meanwhile cook the pasta in plenty of boiling, salted water. Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce in the skillet. Mix thoroughly and serve on a heated platter (garnished with parsley if you wish).

Feb 032016
 

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Today is the feast of Saint Blaise, a saint who had an enormous following in the Middle Ages and is still venerated in a great number of places (under various names) throughout the world. Very little is known about the historical man. Reputedly he was bishop of Sebastea in historical Armenia (modern Sivas, Turkey) in the 4th century, but nothing written about him has survived any earlier than the 8th century. This is typical:

Blaise, who had studied philosophy in his youth, was a doctor in Sebaste in Armenia, the city of his birth, who exercised his art with miraculous ability, good-will, and piety. When the bishop of the city died, he was chosen to succeed him, with the acclamation of all the people. His holiness was manifest through many miracles: from all around, people came to him to find cures for their spirit and their body; even wild animals came in herds to receive his blessing. In 316, Agricola, the governor of Cappadocia and of Lesser Armenia, having arrived in Sebastia at the order of the emperor Licinius to kill the Christians, arrested the bishop. As he was being led to jail, a mother set her only son, choking to death of a fish-bone, at his feet, and the child was cured straight away. Regardless, the governor, unable to make Blaise renounce his faith, beat him with a stick, ripped his flesh with iron combs, and beheaded him.

The two main elements of this tale have led to him being associated with throat ailments and with wool combing.

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The cult of St Blaise was very popular in the 11th and 12th centuries as is attested in numerous shrines and villages dedicated to his name – primarily in Spanish speaking countries (san Blas) as well as in Italy (san Biagio) and Croatia (Sveti Vlaho). Likewise, the Blessing of the Throats ritual was, and is, common worldwide on the feast of St Blaise. Crossed candles are themselves blessed on Candlemas (Feb 2), then lit on St Blaise and pressed to the throats of those who wish, accompanied by one of several special prayers of intercession.

Given the importance of the throat in the veneration of St Blaise, it’s not surprising that special dishes are associated with this day. Here’s a couple.

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There is a small village called san Biagio a few kilometers southeast of Mantua, where I live now, and a few of my students live there and look forward to celebrations on the day. Of particular importance is torta di san biagio – a chocolate and nut pie encased in a special pastry that uses white wine in place of eggs. I am told that these pies have been made in Mantua for 450 years. In some parts of Mantua they make gigantic pies (3 meters across) to feed the whole community.

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Torta di San Biagio

Ingredients

Pastry

400 g flour
80 g cold butter
80 g caster sugar
1 vanilla pod, scraped
120 ml dry white wine

Filling

300 g blanched almonds
100 g caster sugar
2 eggs
100 g dark chocolate
1 lemon, grated rind

beaten egg plus milk (for glazing)

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 160°C.

Make the pastry by processing the butter and flour in a food processer to make a sandy mixture (or do this with your hands if you can). Pour the mix on to your counter top. Make the mound into a hollow volcano. Pour the wine into the hollow, a little at a time and combine it with the flour and butter mix. Then add the vanilla seeds. Knead to form a compact dough. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Chop the almonds in a food processor. Coarsely chop the chocolate and add it plus the sugar and lemon zest. Turn into a mixing bowl and add the eggs. Beat all the ingredients together thoroughly.

Roll out the pastry to about ½ cm thick. Line a pie dish with the pastry, trimming and saving the excess. Fill the pastry in the dish with the chocolate filling, smoothing it down flat.

Roll the pastry trimmings again, cut into strips, and make a lattice on top of the pie (to form lozenges), as shown in the photo. Brush the top with a little beaten egg wash.

Bake for 45 minutes, or until the crust is golden.

Note: the pastry will keep in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days, or can be frozen.

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St Blaise is the patron saint of Dubrovnik. There on this day they make šporki makaruli (dirty macaroni). If you are health conscious use vegetable oil instead of the pork fat.

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Šporki Makaruli

800 g finely diced beef (or veal)
100 g pork fat
500 g onions, peeled and diced
40 g tinned tomatoes, chopped
1 cup red wine
parsley, garlic, powdered cinnamon, powdered cloves (to taste)
1 bay leaf
500 g macaroni
goat cheese
salt and pepper

Instructions

Sauté the onions over medium heat in a large, heavy skillet until they are soft. Add the meat and brown gently. Add the tomatoes with their liquid and the wine. Bring to a slow simmer. Add all the seasonings to taste. Cook uncovered for about 1 to 2 hours – depending on the quality of the meat. If the cooking liquid reduces too much add a little stock to moisten.

Cook the pasta in boiling salted water. Drain and place in a deep serving dish. Pour the meat mixture over the pasta and toss thoroughly. Ladle into serving bowls and top with crumbled goat cheese.

Dec 132015
 

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Today is the feast of Lucia of Syracuse (283–304), also known as Saint Lucy, or Saint Lucia (Italian: Santa Lucia), a young Christian martyr who died during the Diocletianic Persecution. She is venerated as a saint by the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox Churches. She is one of eight women, who along with the Blessed Virgin Mary, are commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass.

All that is really known for certain of Lucy is that she was a martyr in Syracuse during the Diocletianic Persecution of 304 AD. Her veneration spread to Rome, and by the 6th century to the whole Church. The oldest archaeological evidence comes from Greek inscriptions in the catacombs of St. John in Syracuse.

The oldest record of her story comes from the fifth-century. Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea was the most widely read version of the Lucy legend in the Middle Ages. In medieval accounts, Saint Lucy’s eyes are gouged out prior to her execution, but this element is not part of the earliest narratives.

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All the details of her life are the conventional ones associated with female martyrs of the early 4th century. According to the traditional story, Lucy was born of rich and noble parents about the year 283. Her father was of Roman origin, but died when she was five years old, leaving Lucy and her mother without a protective guardian. Her mother’s name Eutychia, seems to indicate that she came of Greek stock. Like many of the early martyrs, Lucy had consecrated her virginity to God, and she hoped to distribute her dowry to the poor. However, Eutychia, not knowing of Lucy’s promise and, suffering from a bleeding disorder, feared for Lucy’s future. She arranged Lucy’s marriage to a young man of a wealthy pagan family.

Saint Agatha had been martyred 52 years earlier during the Decian persecution. Her shrine at Catania, less than fifty miles from Syracuse attracted a number of pilgrims, and many miracles were reported to have happened through her intercession. Eutychia was persuaded to make a pilgrimage to Catania, in hopes of a cure. While there, St. Agatha came to Lucy in a dream and told her that because of her faith her mother would be cured and that Lucy would be the glory of Syracuse, as she was of Catania. With her mother cured, Lucy took the opportunity to persuade her mother to allow her to distribute a great part of her riches among the poor.

Euthychia suggested that the sums would make a good bequest, but Lucy countered, “…whatever you give away at death for the Lord’s sake you give because you cannot take it with you. Give now to the true Savior, while you are healthy, whatever you intended to give away at your death.”

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News that the patrimony and jewels were being distributed came to Lucy’s betrothed, who denounced her to Paschasius, the Governor of Syracuse. Paschasius ordered her to burn a sacrifice to the emperor’s image. When she refused Paschasius sentenced her to be defiled in a brothel. The Christian tradition states that when the guards came to take her away, they could not move her even when they hitched her to a team of oxen. Bundles of wood were then heaped about her and set on fire, but would not burn. Finally, she met her death by the sword.

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By the 6th century, her story was sufficiently widespread that she appears in the Sacramentary of Pope Gregory I. She is also commemorated in the ancient Roman Martyrology. St. Aldhelm (d. 709) and later the Venerable Bede (d. 735) attest that her popularity had already spread to England, where her festival was kept until the Protestant Reformation, as a holy day of the second rank, in which no work except tillage or necessary farm work was allowed.

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Lucy’s Latin name Lucia shares a root (luc-) with the Latin word for light, lux. This has played a large part in Saint Lucy being named as the patron saint of the blind and those with eye-trouble. She is also the patroness of Syracuse in Sicily. At the Piazza Duomo in Syracuse, the church of Santa Lucia alla Badia houses the painting “Burial of St. Lucy (Caravaggio)”. Saint Lucy is also the patron saint of the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, one of the Windward Islands in the Lesser Antilles, (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/saint-lucia-independence-day/ ), and of the US state of Nebraska.

The feast of St Lucy falls in Advent and once coincided with the winter solstice, before the Gregorian calendar reform. So her feast day is conventionally a festival of light. This is particularly seen in Scandinavian countries, with their long dark winters. There, a young girl dressed in a white dress and a red sash (as the symbol of martyrdom) carries palms and wears a crown or wreath of candles on her head. In both Norway and Sweden, girls dressed as Lucy carry rolls and cookies in procession as songs are sung.

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It is also a tradition in Sweden for the eldest daughter in the family to rise early and, wearing her Lucy garb of white robe, red sash, and a wire crown covered with whortleberry-twigs with nine lighted candles fastened in it, to wake the family, singing Sankta Lucia, serving them coffee and saffron buns (St. Lucia buns).

Devotion to St. Lucy is practiced in the Italian regions of Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige, in the North of the country, and Sicily and Calabria, in the South, as well as in Croatian coastal region of Dalmatia. It is celebrated with large traditional feasts of home made pasta and various other Italian dishes, with a special dessert of wheat in hot chocolate milk (cuccia). The large grains of soft wheat are representative of her eyes and this dish is supposed to be made only once a year. In some parts of Sicily cuccia has evolved into a less soft pudding my adding ricotta.

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In some parts of Italy it is still customary for Santa Lucia to bring gifts to good children and coal to bad ones on the night between December 12 and 13. According to tradition, she arrives in the company of a donkey and her escort, Castaldo. Children are asked to leave some coffee for Lucia, a carrot for the donkey and a glass of wine for Castaldo. They must not watch Santa Lucia delivering these gifts, or she will throw ashes in their eyes, temporarily blinding them. Like other gift giving customs associated with the Christmas season (e.g. St Nicholas, Epiphany etc.), this one appears to be dying in favor of gifts on Christmas Day itself.

It is Hungarian custom to plant wheat in a small pot on St. Lucy’s feast. By Christmas green sprouts appear, signs of life coming from death. The wheat is then carried to the manger scene.

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Here’s an excellent website containing all manner of information about Saint Lucy’s Day in Sweden including recipes with plenty of images of the steps. I highly recommend saffron buns.

http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/st_lucia_saffron_buns/