Dec 072017
 

Today is the feast day of Saint Ambrose of Milan, also known as Aurelius Ambrosius (c. 340 – 4 April 397), a bishop of Milan who became one of the most influential ecclesiastical figures of the 4th century. He was the Roman governor of Liguria and Emilia, headquartered in Milan, before being made bishop of Milan by popular acclamation in 374. Ambrose was a staunch opponent of Arianism, a branch of Christianity that had been declared heretical by the First Council of Nicaea in 325, but which was still very popular in much of Christendom, including Milan and Lombardy. I’ll spare you the long theological explanation. It bored me rigid when I studied it as an undergraduate, and things have not improved. It all has to do with the nature of the Trinity: God, the Father; God the Son; and God the Holy Spirit. The Council of Nicaea asserted that the three members of the Trinity are co-eternal, that is, have always existed, whereas Arians believed that only God the Father has existed for all time, and God the Son was begotten by God the Father in time (that is, the Son is not eternal). I am pretty sure that the average Christian of the time had no understanding of the theological arguments that raged among the church fathers, and, furthermore, had no interest in them. But bishops, cardinals, and popes had deeply held views and came to blows often over such matters, sometimes literally.  In fact, it is claimed that the original Saint Nicholas (who morphed into Santa Claus), slapped Arius (main supporter of Arianism) on the ear at one point at the Council of Nicaea.

Ambrose was born into a Roman Christian family about 340 and was raised in Gallia Belgica, the capital of which was Augusta Treverorum. His father is sometimes identified with Aurelius Ambrosius, a praetorian prefect of Gaul, but some scholars identify his father as an official named Uranius who received an imperial constitution dated 3 February 339. His mother was a woman of intellect and piety and a member of the Roman gens of Aurelii Symmachi. Thus, Ambrose was cousin of the famed orator Q. Aurelius Symmachus. There is a legend that as an infant, a swarm of bees settled on his face while he lay in his cradle, leaving behind a drop of honey. His father considered this a sign of his future eloquence and “honeyed” tongue. For this reason, bees and beehives often appear in Ambrose’s symbology.

After the early death of his father, Ambrose followed his father’s career. He was educated in Rome, studying literature, law, and rhetoric. Praetorian prefect Sextus Claudius Petronius Probus first gave him a place in the council and then in about 372 made him governor of Liguria and Emilia, with headquarters at Milan, which was then (after Rome) the second capital in Italy.

In the late 4th century there was a deep conflict in the diocese of Milan between the Nicene Church (followers of the rulings of the Council of Nicaea) and Arians. In 374 the bishop of Milan, Auxentius, an Arian, died, and the Arians created problems over the succession. Ambrose went to the church where the election was to take place, to prevent the expected turmoil and addressed the people. His speech was interrupted by a call, “Ambrose, bishop!” which was taken up by the whole assembly. Ambrose was known to be Nicene Christian in belief, but also acceptable to Arians due to the charity shown in theological matters in this regard. At first, he energetically refused the office, for which he was in no way prepared: he was not even baptized and had no formal training in theology. He fled to a colleague’s home seeking to hide, but his host received a letter from the emperor, Gratian, praising the appointment of Ambrose, so he gave him up. Within a week, Ambrose was baptized, ordained, and duly consecrated bishop of Milan.

As bishop, he immediately adopted an ascetic lifestyle, apportioned his money to the poor, donating all of his land, making only provision for his sister Marcellina (who had become a nun), and committed the care of his family to his brother. This raised his popularity even further, giving him considerable political leverage over even the emperor. Ambrose also wrote a treatise called “The Goodness of Death”. Augustine deemed him to be a happy man as bishop, but celibacy was a burden to him.

After consecration as bishop Ambrose studied theology with Simplician, a presbyter of Rome. Using his excellent knowledge of Greek, which was then rare in the West, he studied the Bible in Greek as well as the works of the Greek church fathers, such as, Philo, Origen, Athanasius, and Basil of Caesarea, with whom he also exchanged letters. He applied this knowledge to his preaching which, among other things, led to the conversion of Augustine of Hippo, who, up to that point, had thought poorly of Christian preachers.

In Augustine’s Confessions there is a curious anecdote about Ambrose which has been interpreted as relevant to the history of reading in the West:

When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.

This is a celebrated passage in modern scholarly discussion leading some scholars to argue that Augustine thought that Ambrose was weird for reading silently, rather than reading out loud, and that Ambrose was one of the first people in the West to read to himself. I was taught this, in fact. It is, however, not a legitimate conclusion to draw from the passage. In Ambrose’s time few people were literate, and books were hard to come by because they had to be copied by hand and were expensive to produce. Consequently, anyone getting hold of a new book read it out loud to as many people as were interested. This was the normal practice so that large numbers of people could benefit from the book. Reading was, therefore, akin to public speaking. Ambrose was not an oddity because he had figured out how to read to himself: everyone could. He was an oddity because he preferred to read to himself, rather than to others. In this way he could absorb the text and contemplate it in his own fashion at his own pace, and not be distracted by the need to entertain others. The real historical question is therefore, “How did scholars routinely hammer out complex theological issues for themselves when the reading of significant texts were typically public events?”

In his early confrontation with the Arians, Ambrose sought to theologically refute their propositions, which were contrary to officially defined orthodoxy. The Arians appealed to many high-level leaders and clergy in both the Western and Eastern empires. Although the Western Emperor Gratian supported orthodoxy, the younger Valentinian II, who became his colleague in the Empire, was Arian. Ambrose did not sway the young prince’s position. In the East, Emperor Theodosius I likewise professed the Nicene creed; but there were many adherents of Arianism throughout his dominions, especially among the higher clergy.

In this contested state of religious opinion, two leaders of the Arians, bishops Palladius of Ratiaria and Secundianus of Singidunum, confident of numbers, prevailed upon Gratian to call a general council from all parts of the empire. This request appeared so equitable that he complied without hesitation. However, Ambrose feared the consequences and prevailed upon the emperor to have the matter determined by a council of the Western bishops. Accordingly, a synod composed of 32 bishops was held at Aquileia in the year 381. Ambrose was elected president and Palladius, being called upon to defend his opinions, declined. A vote was then taken, when Palladius and his associate Secundianus were deposed as bishops.

Nevertheless, the increasing strength of the Arians proved a formidable task for Ambrose. In 385 or 386 the emperor and his mother Justina, along with a considerable number of clergy and laity, especially the military, professed Arianism. They demanded two churches in Milan, one in the city (the Basilica of the Apostles), the other in the suburbs (St Victor’s), be allocated to the Arians. Ambrose refused and was required to answer for his conduct before the council. He went, and his eloquence in defense of the Church reportedly so overawed the ministers of Valentinian that he was permitted to leave without surrendering the churches to the Arians The next day, when he was performing divine service in the basilica, the prefect of the city came to persuade him to give up at least the Portian basilica in the suburbs. As he still refused, certain deans or officers of the court were sent to take possession of the Portian basilica, by hanging up imperial escutcheons in it, to prepare for the arrival of the emperor and his mother at the ensuing festival of Easter.

In spite of imperial opposition, Ambrose declared,

If you demand my person, I am ready to submit: carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist; but I will never betray the church of Christ. I will not call upon the people to succour me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it. The tumult of the people I will not encourage: but God alone can appease it.

In 386 Justina and Valentinian received the Arian bishop Auxentius the younger, and Ambrose was again ordered to hand over a church in Milan for Arian usage. Ambrose and his congregation barricaded themselves inside the church, and the imperial order was rescinded.

The imperial court was displeased with Ambrose’s religious principles and adamant opposition, but the emperor soon needed his help. When Magnus Maximus usurped the supreme power in Gaul, and was meditating a conquest of Italy, Valentinian sent Ambrose to dissuade him from attacking, and he was successful. However, a second, later, embassy failed. Magnus entered Italy and Milan fell. Justina and her son fled, but Ambrose remained in Milan and helped his parishioners in need by melting down the church silver. Theodosius I, emperor of the East, espoused the cause of Justina, and regained the kingdom, but only after great bloodshed. Ambrose excommunicated Theodosius for the massacre of 7,000 people at Thessalonica in 390, in retaliation for the murder of the Roman governor there by rioters. Ambrose told Theodosius to imitate David in his repentance as he had imitated him in guilt — Ambrose readmitted the emperor to the Eucharist only after several months of penance, showing the power that a strong bishop could wield, even over an emperor.

Soon after acquiring the undisputed possession of the Roman empire, Theodosius died at Milan in 395, and two years later (April 4, 397) Ambrose also died. He was succeeded as bishop of Milan by Simplician. Ambrose’s body may still be viewed in the church of Saint Ambrogio in Milan, where it has been continuously venerated — along with the bodies identified in his time as being those of Saints Gervase and Protase (the whereabouts of their remains having been revealed to Ambrose in a dream).

Ambrose ranks with Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great, as one of the Latin Doctors of the Church, but I’ll pass over his theology. Read it on your own if you are interested. Instead I’ll say a word about his interest in music. Ambrose is traditionally credited with advancing the repertory of Ambrosian chant, also known simply as “antiphonal chant”, a method of chanting where one side of the choir alternately responds to the other. It is not known if he actually composed any chants, but they are named in his honor due to his contributions to the music of the Church in general. He is credited with introducing hymnody from the Eastern Church into the West, and composed several original hymns as well, four of which still survive, along with music which may not have changed too much from the original melodies. It is said that he composed the hymn “Te Deum” to celebrate his baptism of  Augustine of Hippo, his most celebrated convert. Importantly, for this time of year, he is credited with composing the Advent chant Veni Redemptor Gentium (Come, Redeemer of the People). It’s in Latin, but you may be helped by this version which has a translation into Italian — or maybe that won’t help you.

In turn, to celebrate Ambrose, I cannot resist a pun (which generally I hate). Ambrose is patron of bees and beekeeping, so we need honey in today’s recipe, and his name suggests “ambrosia,” food of the gods. That means our recipe has to be honey ambrosia, a spread made with honey and butter.

Honey Ambrosia

Ingredients

1 cup sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup honey
¾ lb butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla extract

Instructions

Place the sugar, cream, and honey in a sauce pan. Heat on medium-high heat and stir continuously with a wooden spoon until it comes to a boil. Boil for 1 minute.

Place the softened butter in a blender or food processor and pour the hot honey mixture over the butter. Blend or pulse on medium speed until the ingredients and smooth and well mixed, adding the vanilla during the process.

Pour the mixture into an airtight container, cover, and let cool. Then refrigerate.

Honey ambrosia can be used as a spread for bread, toast, or biscuits, or it can be used between layers of cakes. Use your imagination.

 

Jun 132016
 

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On this date in 313 the Edict of Milan was posted in Nicomedia. The precise dating of the Edict and its exact nature is still under dispute, but in general it was a Roman proclamation (one of several) to declare that Christians were to be treated fairly throughout the empire. It was originally devised in February of that year, but no other definitive dates are known, nor has the original document survived. Western Roman Emperor Constantine I, and Licinius, who controlled the Balkans, met in Milan and among other things, agreed to change policies towards Christians following the Edict of Toleration by Galerius issued 2 years earlier in Serdica. The Edict of Milan gave Christianity a legal status, but did not make Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire.

The document we now call the Edict of Milan (Edictum Mediolanense) is found in Lactantius’ De Mortibus Persecutorum and in Eusebius of Caesarea’s History of the Church with marked divergences between the two. Whether or not there was actually a formal ‘Edict of Milan’  is debatable. The version found in Lactantius is not in the form of an edict. It is a letter from Licinius to the governors of the provinces in the Eastern Empire he had just conquered by defeating Maximinus later in the same year and issued in Nicomedia.

Ever since the fall of the Severan dynasty in 235, rivals for the imperial throne had bid for support by either favoring or persecuting Christians. The previous Edict of Toleration by Galerius had been recently issued by the emperor Galerius from Serdica and was posted at Nicomedia on 30 April 311. By its provisions, the Christians, who had “followed such a caprice and had fallen into such a folly that they would not obey the institutes of antiquity”, were granted an indulgence:

Wherefore, for this our indulgence, they ought to pray to their God for our safety, for that of the republic, and for their own, that the commonwealth may continue uninjured on every side, and that they may be able to live securely in their homes.

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Their confiscated property, however, was not restored until 313, when instructions were given for the Christians’ meeting places and other properties to be returned and compensation paid by the state to the current owners:

. . . the same shall be restored to the Christians without payment or any claim of recompense and without any kind of fraud or deception.

It directed the provincial magistrates to execute this order at once with all energy so that public order may be restored and the continuance of divine favor may “preserve and prosper our successes together with the good of the state.”

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The actual letters have never been retrieved. However, they are quoted at length in Lactantius’ On the Deaths of the Persecutors (De mortibus persecutorum), which gives the Latin text of both Galerius’ Edict of Toleration as posted at Nicomedia on 30 April 311 and of Licinius’s letter of toleration and restitution addressed to the governor of Bithynia and posted at Nicomedia on 13 June 313.

Eusebius of Caesarea translated both documents into Greek in his History of the Church (Historia Ecclesiastica). His version of the letter of Licinius must derive from a copy posted in the province of Palaestina Prima (probably at its capital, Caesarea) in the late summer or early autumn of 313, but the origin of his copy of Galerius’s Edict of 311 is unknown since that does not seem to have been promulgated in Caesarea. In his description of the events in Milan in his Life of Constantine, Eusebius eliminated the role of Licinius, whom he portrayed as the evil foil to his hero Constantine.

The Edict was actually directed against Maximinus Daia, the Caesar in the East who was at that time styling himself as Augustus. Having received the emperor Galerius’ instruction to repeal the persecution in 311, Maximinus had instructed his subordinates to desist, but had not released Christians from prisons or virtual death-sentences in the mines, as Constantine and Licinius had both done in the West. Following Galerius’ death, Maximinus was no longer constrained. He enthusiastically took up renewed persecutions in the eastern territories under his control, encouraging petitions against Christians. One of those petitions, addressed not only to Maximinus but also to Constantine and Licinius, is preserved in a stone inscription at Arycanda in Lycia:

Christians, who have long been disloyal and still persist in the same mischievous intent, should at last be put down and not be suffered by any absurd novelty to offend against the honor due to the gods.

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The Edict of Milan is popularly, but falsely, thought to concern only Christianity, and even to make Christianity the official religion of the Empire (which did not actually occur until the Edict of Thessalonica in 380). In fact, the Edict expressly grants religious liberty not only to Christians, who had been the object of special persecution, but goes even further and grants liberty to all religions:

When you see that this has been granted to [Christians] by us, your Worship will know that we have also conceded to other religions the right of open and free observance of their worship for the sake of the peace of our times, that each one may have the free opportunity to worship as he pleases; this regulation is made that we may not seem to detract from any dignity of any religion.

Because Licinius composed the Edict with the intent of publishing it in the east following his hoped-for victory over Maximinus, it expresses the religious policy accepted by Licinius, a pagan, rather than that of Constantine, who was already practicing some form of Christianity. Constantine’s own policy went beyond merely tolerating Christianity: he tolerated paganism and other religions, but he actively promoted Christianity.

People commonly point to the Edict of Milan as Constantine’s first great act as a Christian Emperor, although, it is unlikely that the Edict of Milan was an act of genuine Christian faith on Constantine’s part. The document instead should more accurately be seen as the first step in creating an alliance with the Christian God, whom Constantine considered the strongest deity – among many. Constantine at that time was more concerned about social stability and the protection of the empire from the wrath of the Christian God than he was for justice or care for the Christians. The Edict of Milan is more indicative of the Roman culture’s genuine desire for seeking the gods’ intervention – which ones might prove profitable –  than of Constantine’s or Licinius’ religious beliefs.

The Edict of Milan required that the wrong done to the Christians be righted as thoroughly as possible. From the state’s perspective all wrongs should be righted as it claims “it has pleased us to remove all conditions whatsoever.” The edict further demanded that individual Romans right any wrongs towards the Christians as well. These provisions indicate that more than just the establishment of justice was intended. After stating that they should return what was lost to the Christians immediately, the edict states that this should be done so that “public order may be secured,” not for the intrinsic value of justice or even for the glory of God. The sense of urgently righting wrongs reflects the leaders’ desires to avoid unfavorable consequences, which in this case included social unrest and both internal and external weakness.

Constantine is known to have been superstitious and believed in the existence of a number of gods. Because Constantine actually revered all the gods worshiped in the Roman Empire at that time, his fear of, and desire to form an alliance with, the Christian God (as demonstrated in the Edict of Milan), is insufficient to claim he was actually a Christian in the conventional sense. He was just trying to cover all bases. Nonetheless, the Edict stopped the persecution of Christians, which many historians see as both a blessing and a curse.

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Constantine was first exposed to Christianity by his mother, Helena. At the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, Constantine commanded his troops to adorn their shields with the Christian symbol in accordance with a vision that he had had the night before. After winning the battle, Constantine was able to claim the emperorship in the West. How much Christianity Constantine had adopted at this point is difficult to discern. The Roman coins minted up to eight years subsequent to the battle still bore the images of Roman gods. Nonetheless, the accession of Constantine was a turning point for the Christian Church. After his victory, Constantine supported the Church financially, built various basilicas, granted privileges such as exemption from certain taxes to clergy, promoted Christians to some high-ranking offices, and returned property confiscated during the Great Persecution of Diocletian.

Between 324 and 330, Constantine built, virtually from scratch, a new imperial capital that came to be named for him: Constantinople. It had overtly Christian architecture, contained churches within the city walls, and had no pagan temples. In accordance with a prevailing custom, Constantine was baptized on his deathbed.

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Constantine also played an active role in the leadership of the Church. In 316, he acted as a judge in a North African dispute concerning the Donatist controversy. More significantly, in 325 he summoned the Council of Nicaea, the first Ecumenical Council. Constantine thus established a precedent for the emperor as responsible to God for the spiritual health of his subjects, and, thus, with a duty to maintain orthodoxy. The emperor was to enforce doctrine, root out heresy, and uphold ecclesiastical unity. As far as I am concerned this is the curse.

Constantine’s son’s successor, known as Julian the Apostate, was a philosopher who upon becoming emperor renounced Christianity and embraced a Neo-platonic and mystical form of paganism shocking the Christian establishment. He began reopening pagan temples and, intent on re-establishing the prestige of the old pagan beliefs, he modified them to resemble Christian traditions such as the episcopal structure and public charity (previously unknown in Roman paganism). Julian’s short reign ended when he died while campaigning in the East.

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Subsequently Church Fathers such as Augustine, Gregory Nazianzus, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, John Chrysostom and Athanasius published extensive theological texts, and argued non-stop about the correct interpretation of canonical texts including the gospels and the Pauline epistles. This all led to the entrenchment of the rigidly dogmatic and hierarchical Catholic Church that was opposed periodically by various elements, leading to the kaleidoscope of sects we have today. I suspect that the Christian Church was a great deal more faithful to the precepts of Jesus before the Edict of Milan than it ever was subsequently, even following the Protestant Reformation.

I could give a recipe from De Re Coquinaria of Apicius. The period is right (4th century) as well as the general provenance. But I’ve given quite a few already. Search for Apicius in the search box and you’ll find plenty. They are really very much all on the same theme and are not easy to understand. A lot of the time he just gives lists of ingredients which all seem to be limited to the same items, such as here:

Piper, cuminum frictum, ligusticum, mentam, uuam passam enucleatam aut Damascena, mel modice. uino myrteo temperabis, aceto, liquamen et oleo.

Pepper, roasted cumin seeds, mint, grapes or raisins, honey, myrtle wine, vinegar, liquamen (fermented fish sauce) and olive oil.

These are pretty standard seasonings for Apicius, and, trust me, I’ve searched his work extensively. What we’re looking at is a sauce that is sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. Could be classic Chinese!

Let’s take a small, and slightly anachronistic detour. The village of Gorgonzola is in the Milan district and gives its name to the famous blue cheese, which can be found easily throughout Lombardy, and is immensely popular. The cheese was probably not made until the 9th century at the earliest, so it does not fit the period of the Edict, but it is regionally suitable. Like Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses, I’m fond of a midday snack of a Gorgonzola sandwich because I usually have some on hand, and it’s quick and easy – nothing additional necessary because Gorgonzola is rich, complex, and tangy. Gorgonzola is a good addition to pasta sauces too.

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For a basic Gorgonzola sauce, heat one or two tablespoons of good extra virgin olive oil in a wide, deep skillet over medium heat. Add some finely diced onion and cook gently until soft (2 to 3 minute). Add equal quantities of shredded gorgonzola and heavy cream, and stir until the cheese melts. Then add small cooked pasta, such as penne, farfalle, or conchiglie, and stir until the sauce coats the pasta completely. I like to add a little cooked spinach to the sauce for both color and flavor. Very traditional.

Jan 202016
 

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Today is the feast of Saint Sebastian. According to martyrologies he was killed during the Roman emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians. He is commonly depicted in art and literature tied to a post or tree and shot with arrows. Despite this being the most common artistic depiction of Sebastian, he was, according to legend, rescued and healed by Irene of Rome. Shortly afterwards he went to Diocletian to harass him about his sins, and as a result was ordered clubbed to death. The details of Saint Sebastian’s martyrdom were first written about by 4th-century bishop Ambrose of Milan, in his sermon (number 22) on Psalm 118. Ambrose stated that Sebastian came from Milan and that he was already venerated there at that time.

According to Acta Sanctorum, of unknown origin, but attributed to Ambrose by the 17th century hagiographer Jean Bolland, Sebastian was from Gallia Narbonensis in southeast France who was a student in Milan. In 283, Sebastian entered the army in Rome under Emperor Carinus to assist enlisted Christians. Because of his courage he became one of the captains of the Praetorian Guard under Diocletian and Maximian, who were unaware that he was a Christian.

Although Sebastian had concealed his faith, in 286 was found out. Diocletian commanded that he be bound to a stake so that archers from Mauritania could shoot arrows at him. The archers shot at him until he was full of arrows, and left him there for dead. Miraculously, the arrows did not kill him. Irene of Rome, the widow of Castulus (who had been converted by Sebastian and martyred by Diocletian), went to retrieve his body to bury it, and discovered he was still alive. So she brought him back to her house and nursed him back to health.

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Sebastian later stood on a route where Diocletian was to pass and harangued him for his cruelties against Christians. Diocletian who had presumed Sebastian to be dead was greatly astonished and gave orders for him to be seized and beaten to death with cudgels. His body was thrown into the common sewer, but a pious woman, called Lucina, who was visited by Sebastian in a vision, had it quietly removed, and buried in the catacombs at the entrance of the cemetery of Calixtus, where the Basilica of St. Sebastian (San Sebastiano fuori le mura) now stands.

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The church was rebuilt in the 1610s under the patronage of Scipione Borghese. St. Ado, Eginard, Sigebert, and other contemporary authors relate that, in the reign of Louis Debonnair, Pope Eugenius II gave the body of St. Sebastian to Hilduin, Abbot of St. Denys, who brought it into France, and it was deposited at Saint Medard Abbey, at Soissons, on the 8th of December 826.

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Sebastian’s cranium was brought to the town of Ebersberg (Germany) in 934. A Benedictine abbey was founded there and became one of the most important pilgrimage sites in southern Germany. It is said the silver-encased cranium was used as a cup in which to present wine to the faithful during the feast of Saint Sebastian.

During the Middle Ages, Sebastian was a popular saint, particularly because he was invoked against outbreaks of the plague. But in modern times his popularity has waned. His attempted execution by arrows has been an enduring artistic subject down to the present, however.

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Numerous towns and regions are named for Saint Sebastian, so you could pick a recipe from any one of them. I’ve chosen two seasonal soups from the region of Milan because it was Sebastian’s home for a while, and because I live nearby. Zuppa di porri e bietole (leek and Swiss chard soup) is easy to make, and a warming dish at this time of year. Leeks and chard are plentiful right now in northern Italy. Wash the vegetables thoroughly, chop them coarsely, and poach them in rich chicken stock. Done !! Some people add cooked rice for substance.

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Zupp alla pavese is also a simple dish, but is considered very elegant. Take 2 slices of day-old bread and fry them in a mix of olive oil and butter until golden. Place them in a shallow bowl and crack an egg over each slice. Pour in boiling stock which will lightly cook the eggs. Top with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

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Oct 102013
 

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Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was born at Roncole di Busseto, in the Duchy of Parma, on this date in 1813; son of Luigia Uttini, a spinner, and Carlo Verdi, farmer and landlord of an inn. Carlo came from a family of farmers in the Piacenza area in northern Italy between Bologna and Milan.  He had put aside some money and opened a modest tavern in Roncole where he divided his time between his role as a landlord and working in the fields.  From an early age Giuseppe had music lessons from the church organist and practiced on an old spinet that his father had given him.

Antonio Barezzi, a rich local tradesman, businessman, and music lover quickly recognized Verdi’s musical abilities and sponsored his early training in Busseto and later in Milan. Verdi wanted to enroll at Milan Conservatory but was unable to pass the entrance exam supposedly because of “an incorrect position of the hand while playing.” Ironically, the Conservatory is now named for him.  However, with economic assistance from Barezzi he began to frequent the world of La Scala, taking private lessons in composition and counterpoint, as well as attending performances and salons.

In 1836 he went back to Busseto to take up the position of music teacher.  Soon upon his return, Verdi married Barezzi’s daughter Margherita, and the couple had two children, Virginia Maria Luigia and Icilio Romano. Feeling confined by the limitations of Busseto, Verdi moved the family to Milan where his first opera Oberto opened at La Scala in 1839. It achieved a measure of success and Bartolomeo Merelli, La Scala’s impresario, offered Verdi a contract for three more works. However, during the writing of Oberto both Verdi’s children died, and while writing his second opera, Un giorno di regno, his wife died.  The opera was a failure and that, plus the deaths of his family, sent him into such a deep depression that he vowed to give up musical composition forever. However, Merelli persuaded him to read a new libretto, Nabucco, which engaged his interest.  He set to work, finishing the opera in a short period.  Verdi claimed that it was the words of the famous “Va, pensiero” chorus of the Hebrew slaves that inspired him to write music again.  The opera was a great triumph with people singing “Va, pensiero” in the streets.

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There followed years of extremely hard and unceasing work with continuous commissions and little time available in which to complete them. Verdi called this period “the galley years.” From 1842-1848 he composed to an incredibly tight schedule. I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata (1843) was another success however it was heavily censored by the Austrian governor because, like Nabucco, it could be interpreted in the light of Italian patriotism. This success was followed by Ernani (1844), I due foscari (1844), Macbeth (1847), I Masnadieri (1847) and Luisa Miller (1849). In this period his much talked about relationship with the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi began, and after writing Giovanna d’Arco (1845) Verdi moved away from Milan with her and settled in Paris.

Verdi and Strepponi were lifelong devoted companions but their cohabitation before marriage was regarded as scandalous in some of the places they lived. They did eventually marry in 1859 at Collonges-sous-Salève, in the Kingdom of Piemonte, near Geneva. In 1848, while living in Busseto with Strepponi, Verdi bought an estate at Sant’Agata in Villanova sull’Arda, two miles from the town. Initially, his parents lived there, but after his mother’s death in 1851, he built Villa Verdi there and made it his home for the rest of his life.  It was in this period that Verdi created one of his greatest masterpieces, Rigoletto, which premiered in Venice in 1851. With Rigoletto, Verdi firmly established his idea of opera as a complex patchwork of dramatic and musical elements – comedy intertwined with tragedy, pointed commentary on cultural values and social norms, along with plot twists involving disguise, betrayal, love, intrigue, and deception. Rigoletto‘s musical range includes band music such as the aria “La donna è mobile,” Italian melody such as the famous quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore,” chamber music such as the duet between Rigoletto and Sparafucile, and powerful and concise declamatos.

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There followed the second and third of the three major operas of Verdi’s “middle period” – Il trovatore was produced in Rome and La traviata in Venice. The latter was based on Alexandre Dumas, fils’ play The Lady of the Camellias, and became the most popular of all Verdi’s operas. These three contain some of his best known pieces including . . . “La donna è mobile” (Woman is Fickle) from Rigoletto, “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” (The Drinking Song) from La traviata, and the “Coro di zingari” (Anvil Chorus) from Il trovatore.

Here is “La donna è mobile” sung by Enrico Caruso in 1908 in a style I take to be rather closer to what Verdi would have expected, than what you generally hear from modern operatic tenors. “La donna è mobile” is typical Verdi in that it has a simple catchy melody repeated in strophes, but with the novelty of the orchestral ritornello stopping short of completing the phrase each time around until the end, giving the feeling of a kind of hesitant incompleteness that drives the piece forward. It is reported that the day following the premiere of Rigoletto, gondoliers were singing “La donna è mobile.”

In 1861 Verdi was persuaded to enter politics. First he was elected as a deputy to the first Italian parliament, then in 1874 he was nominated senator. During that time he composed La forza del destino (1862), and in 1865 he rewrote Macbeth for the French theater, and composed Don Carlos for the Paris Opera in 1867. In 1862 he composed Inno delle Nazioni ( Anthem for the Nations)  for the Universal Exhibition of London with a text by Boito. With Aida (1871), commissioned by Ismail Pasha as an Egyptian “national” opera, Verdi reinterpreted the spectacular demands of grand opera from an Italian perspective, rivaling his German contemporary, Richard Wagner.

In 1873 Verdi wrote the Messa da requiem for the death of Alessandro Manzoni, Italian poet, novelist, and patriot. Verdi is quite rightly celebrated for his operas, but it is non-operatic works, such as the Requiem, that demonstrate the depth and range of his musical ability, and give the lie to many of the critics who see him as one dimensional.  Some critics, for example, claim that he paid insufficient attention to the technical aspect of composition, because he lacked the necessary schooling and refinement. Verdi himself once said, “Of all composers, past and present, I am the least learned.” But he added “I mean that in all seriousness, and by learning I do not mean knowledge of music.” I believe the Dies Irae from the Requiem makes Verdi’s point brilliantly.

I also admire Verdi for quite deliberately avoiding simple crowd pleasing tricks such as high C notes in tenor arias.  He felt that such high notes distracted the singer from the overall aesthetics of the piece, especially in the vicinity of a high note. He did provide high C’s to Duprez in Jérusalem and to Tamberlick in the original version of La forza del destino (but removed them from the revision). The high C, often heard in the aria “Di quella pira” from Il trovatore, does not appear in Verdi’s autograph score.

In 1869, the second version of La forza del destino signified a definitive return to la Scala. Verdi also found the time to devote himself to the well-being of those in need. In 1888 he founded a hospital at Villanova D’Arda which he had financed in its entirety, and in 1880 he bought the land where his Retirement Home for Musicians would be built. The home still exists today and he described it as his “most beautiful work of art.” However the home would not be opened until after his death since Verdi had no wish to be thanked for his generosity.

Verdi loved the high life of great cities such as Milan and Paris, but he also greatly valued his time in the country at his villa.  Besides composing there he also enjoyed cooking, and was apparently especially proud of the risotto alla Milanese he made himself.  The cooking of good risotto takes a lifetime to perfect.  All I can do here with a recipe is get you started on the journey.  You are aiming for a creamy, flavorful rice that is not overloaded with ingredients.  Risotto alla Milanese, for example, is nothing more than rice cooked in chicken broth with saffron and finished off with grated cheese.  It starts with simple ingredients but reaches sublime heights in the hands of an expert.  I will try to explain the process as best as possible, but you must keep working on it for yourself until you get it right.  One thing that is crucial is the choice of rice.  It must be a short-grain starchy rice such as Arborio, from the Po Valley where Verdi lived.   There are others, such as Carnaroli, Maratelli, or Vialone Nano, which make a wonderful risotto but can be hard to find.

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Risotto alla Milanese

Ingredients:

extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, cut into small dice
salt
2 cups Arborio rice (or Carnaroli, Maratelli, or Vialone Nano)
2 large pinches saffron
chicken stock
1 ½ to 2 cups dry white wine
2 tablespoons butter
½ to ¾ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Instructions:

Set a pot of rich chicken stock to simmer on a back burner of the stove with a ladle in the pot. Add the saffron. Keep it simmering throughout the process.

Add a little olive oil to a heavy bottomed saucepan, heat on medium heat, and sauté the onions until translucent.  Turn up the heat slightly and add the rice.  Sauté for a few minutes.

Add enough wine to the pot to just cover the rice. Let cook until the rice has absorbed the wine.

Add a ladle of chicken stock to the rice.  Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.  At this juncture the level of heat is critical.  The rice should not be bubbling vigorously, nor simmering slowly, but somewhere in the middle.  As the liquid is absorbed by the rice add another ladle and continue to cook. You must pay constant attention, testing all the time to see when the rice is perfectly cooked. If you do this enough times you will eventually understand what I am talking about.

Keep this process up as many times as it takes for the rice to be cooked and creamy. Add the butter and cheese and remove from the heat. Whip vigorously for about a minute and serve plain.

Serves 4

Aug 282013
 

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Today is the saint’s day of Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Christian theologian whose writings were influential in the development of Western Christianity and Western philosophy. He was bishop of Hippo Regius (present-day Annaba, Algeria) in the Roman province of Africa. He was a prolific writer, his most widely read works being City of God and Confessions.  He was a great scholar, but I am ambivalent about some of  his teachings inasmuch as he gave us the concepts of “original sin” and “just war.” I’m not thrilled about his neo-Platonism either. On the other hand he is the patron saint of brewers which makes up for a lot. When the Western Roman Empire began to disintegrate, and in the face of growing Christian sects that challenged Catholic orthodoxy, Augustine developed the concept of the Catholic Church as a spiritual City of God, distinct from the material Earthly City. His thoughts profoundly influenced the medieval worldview.

Augustine was born in 354 in the municipium of Thagaste (now Souk Ahras, Algeria) in Roman Africa. It is believed that his mother was a Berber. At the age of 11, he was sent to school at Madaurus (now M’Daourouch), a small Numidian city about 19 miles south of Thagaste. There he became familiar with Latin literature, as well as Roman religious beliefs and practices. While at home in 369 and 370, he read Cicero’s dialogue Hortensius (now lost), which he described as leaving a lasting impression on him and sparking his interest in philosophy.

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At age 17, through the generosity of fellow citizen, Romanianus, Augustine went to Carthage to continue his education in rhetoric. As a youth Augustine lived a hedonistic lifestyle for a time, associating with young men who boasted of their sexual exploits with women and urged the inexperienced boys, like Augustine, to seek out experiences or to make up stories about experiences in order to gain acceptance and avoid ridicule. It was during this period that he uttered his famous prayer, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Augustine had two lengthy affairs, one of which produced a son. He was also briefly betrothed to an eleven year old girl of high birth, a union which his mother arranged, but broke it off when he began moving towards a more spiritual life.

In the summer of 386, Augustine reached a turning point in his life as he began absorbing Christian teaching.  At the time he held a very prestigious position as a teacher of rhetoric in Milan. He was becoming influenced more and more by Christian friends  and especially by Ambrose, bishop of Milan.  One day while in contemplation in a garden he heard a childlike voice saying “tolle, lege” (“pick [it] up, read”). He took this to mean that he should pick up the Bible and read it, which he did. He opened randomly to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and read (13:13-14):

“Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.”

He writes in Confessions that this was a transformative moment.  He became a catechumen and was baptized by Ambrose.

Augustine and his mother

Augustine and his mother

After a period in Rome, during which his mother died, Augustine returned to Thagaste in Africa, settled his property, established his own monastic community, and began to live a contemplative life as a lay “servant of God.” In 390 his son, who was apparently a gifted student, died. Grief made Augustine restless, and he visited Hippo to see about setting up another monastery there. Catholic Christians were in the minority in north Africa at that time, and were persecuted by other Christian sects, such as the Donatists and Manichaeans. Bishop Valerius asked him to accept ordination to help the embattled minority, and from then on he remained in Hippo until his death, preaching and writing against heresy. The Donatists and Manichaeans were both dualists, believing that the material world was essentially evil, and that only the spiritual realm was good – hence separating themselves from the world.  Augustine argued that the world was what it was, good and bad, and it was up to the church to live in the world and make it better.

In 395 Augustine was ordained coadjutor (assistant) bishop of Hippo. In less than two years he would be made bishop. During his episcopate, he drove the Donatists and other heretical Christian rivals out of Hippo. He led the community with a paternal hand, adjudicating disputes, intervening for prisoners to save them from torture and execution, advocating for the poor, buying freedom for badly treated slaves, and charging religious women with the care of abandoned and orphaned children. He preached abundantly and wrote extensively. By 410 Augustine had written thirty-three books.

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The last two decades of Augustine’s life were plagued with violence as Visigoths and Vandals began their conquest of the Roman Empire.  In 430 Vandals invaded the provinces around Hippo, burning and pillaging as they went. Communities fled to Hippo which was fortified.  Vandals laid siege to the city for several months. Augustine died of a fever, perhaps exacerbated by hunger caused by the siege, on 28 August 430.  The Vandals eventually burned most of the city but left the cathedral and Augustine’s library intact.  In it were all of his books, letters, notes, and sermons.  A priceless legacy. Some parts of the old city survive today.

Ancient Hippo today

Ancient Hippo today

It is impossible for me to summarize Augustine’s thought and his influence down to the present day.  Let me just pick up on a couple of themes, and you can search wider if you care to.  It’s a lot easier to write these posts when I don’t know what I am talking about! For me his greatest teaching has to be that the notion of a “literal” reading of the Bible is not a simple matter. He argued that you could read the Bible in many ways. You could adhere to a strict reading of the words (what is now called “literalism”), or you could see the stories as allegories (without worrying about the surface truth), and therefore see in them a spiritual truth.  Augustine spoke of the latter as just as literal as the former.  So, for example, in “The Literal Interpretation of Genesis” Augustine took the view that everything in the universe was created simultaneously by God, and not in seven calendar days as a surface reading of Genesis would require. He argued that the seven-day structure of creation presented in Genesis represents a logical framework, rather than the passage of time in a physical way; it has a spiritual, rather than physical, meaning.

His teachings on the sacraments of baptism and communion are very complicated, but one essential element I want to point out is that Augustine believed they were not mere mechanical rituals that worked because you performed them.   Their efficacy lay in the spiritual dimension you bring to them.  In this, as well as his Biblical teachings, he sounds an awful lot like a modern Protestant, and is often cited by Protestant theologians.

Hippo is now the city of Annaba in Algeria.  Algerian cooking is a variant of cuisines found throughout north Africa.  I have chosen a recipe for a chicken soup, shorba baidha, finished with an egg and lemon mixture that resembles soups found throughout the Mediterranean, but with an Algerian savor.

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Shorba Baidha

Ingredients:

6 chicken thighs
1 medium onion, peeled and finely diced
7 oz (200 g) cooked chick peas (garbanzos)
10 ½ cups (2 ½ li) chicken stock
1 cinnamon stick
½  lemon
1 large egg yolk, beaten
¼ cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
1 ½ tbsps basmati rice
salt  and pepper to taste

Instructions:

Sauté the onion in the olive oil in a heavy pot over medium-high heat until translucent.

Add the chicken and the cinnamon stick and sauté until the chicken is golden all over.

Add the stock plus salt and pepper to taste. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes on medium heat.

Strip the chicken from the bone, tear it into bite-sized pieces, and return it to the pot.

Add the chickpeas and rice to the pot and simmer for 20 minutes covered, or until the rice is cooked.

Add more stock if the soup is too thick.

Squeeze the juice of the lemon into the egg yolk in a small jug or cup.  Add several tablespoons of the soup to the egg/lemon mixture and whisk well.  With the soup on a rolling boil add the egg mix in a steady stream whisking constantly. Cook for one more minute and serve immediately garnished with parsley.

Serves 6