Aug 102019
 

On this date in 1793 the Louvre Museum (Musée du Louvre) in Paris, brainchild of the French Revolution, opened to the public. Nowadays it is the world’s largest art museum. The Louvre is a central landmark of the city, located on the Right Bank of the Seine in the city’s 1st arrondissement. Approximately 38,000 objects from prehistory to the 21st century are exhibited over an area of 72,735 square meters (782,910 square feet). In 2018, the Louvre was the world’s most visited art museum, receiving 10.2 million visitors.

The museum is housed in the Louvre Palace, originally built as the Louvre castle in the late 12th to 13th century under Philip II. Remnants of the fortress are visible in the basement of the museum. Due to urban expansion, the fortress eventually lost its defensive function, and in 1546 Francis I converted it into the main residence of the French Kings. The building was extended many times to form the present Louvre Palace. In 1682, Louis XIV chose the Palace of Versailles for his household, leaving the Louvre primarily as a place to display the royal collection, including, from 1692, ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. In 1692, the building was occupied by the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres and the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, which in 1699 held the first of a series of salons. The latter Académie remained at the Louvre for 100 years. During the French Revolution, the National Assembly decreed that the Louvre should be used as a museum to display the nation’s masterpieces.

When the museum opened on 10th August 1793 it showed an exhibition of 537 paintings, the majority of the works being royal and confiscated church property. Because of structural problems with the building, the museum was closed in 1796 until 1801. The collection was increased under Napoleon and the museum was renamed Musée Napoléon, but after Napoleon’s abdication in 1814 many works seized by his armies were returned to their original owners. The collection was further increased during the reigns of Louis XVIII and Charles X, and during the Second French Empire the museum gained 20,000 pieces. Holdings have grown steadily through donations and bequests since the Third Republic. The collection is divided among eight curatorial departments: Egyptian Antiquities; Near Eastern Antiquities; Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities; Islamic Art; Sculpture; Decorative Arts; Paintings; Prints and Drawings.

My son and I spent a week in Paris 14 years ago (when he was 14), and we spent a good part of every day at the Louvre. He got in free because he was an EU citizen under 18, but I had to pay.  It was worth it. First day we just wandered hither and yon, unable to take in its vastness.  We made the obligatory stop to see the Mona Lisa, taking 25 minutes to get close to the front so that we could see it (it’s small). The fact that this one painting out of the tens of thousands on display was crushed with humanity was depressing. Apparently, it’s common knowledge that the Mona Lisa is “the best painting in the world.” Absurd!!!  All you have to do is walk up a few stairs to the next floor and you find yourself in gallery after gallery wallpapered with priceless masterpieces – virtually deserted.

On that first day, we got lost and by accident stumbled into a display of Greek and Roman bronzes when we were trying to find the exit to get some lunch. Next day we made a beeline for that display and he was enchanted.  After that, we selected a wing per day, but barely scratched the surface, even so.  If you spent just one minute in front of each piece in the permanent collection – not allowing time for movement between rooms, and staying 24 hours per day – it would take a month to see everything. Meanwhile you would have no time to eat, sleep, or go to the toilet. It is vast.  I can understand why people return again and again and again – more than I can fathom why people return to Disney World.

There are several cakes called Louvre Cake although they do not have much of a connexion with the Louvre itself.  They are variations on a theme (lots of chocolate), and are all both sumptuous and appetizing.  As befits a place noted for its images, I will give you a small gallery to drool over.  Recipes are extra.

 

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.

Apr 152015
 

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Today is the birthday (1452) of Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, Italian Renaissance polymath— painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. Whilst I admire the man immensely, much of what is thought, and taught, about him seems overblown. For example, art historian Helen Gardner, says that “his mind and personality seem to us superhuman, the man himself mysterious and remote.” Superhuman? Really? Was he a better painter than Michelangelo? What do such comparisons tell us? Of course he was great, brilliant. But is the Mona Lisa the “best painting” of all time? To visit the Louvre you’d think so given that the room where it is displayed is mobbed all day whilst rooms wallpapered with Rembrandts or Botticellis are empty. I think of this phenomenon as a semi-unthinking herd mentality (which da Vinci himself despised). Was Einstein smarter then Newton or Darwin? Such questions are pointless. What I want to do here Is celebrate the genius of da Vinci rather than worship him as a supreme being.

Born out of wedlock to a notary, Piero da Vinci, and a peasant woman, Caterina, in Vinci in the region of Florence, Leonardo was educated in the studio of the renowned Florentine painter Verrocchio. Much of his earlier working life was spent in the service of Ludovico il Moro in Milan. He later worked in Rome, Bologna and Venice, and he spent his last years in France at the home awarded him by Francis I where he died.

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Leonardo was, and is, renowned primarily as a painter. Works such as Mona Lisa and the Last Supper are instantly recognizable – perhaps to their detriment. Does anyone really look at them? Leonardo’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man is also regarded as a cultural icon, being reproduced on items as varied as the euro coin, textbooks, and T-shirts. Perhaps fifteen of his paintings have survived, the small number because of his constant, and frequently disastrous, experimentation with new techniques, and his chronic procrastination. Nevertheless, these few works, together with his notebooks, which contain drawings, scientific diagrams, and his thoughts on the nature of painting, have made a major contribution to later generations of artists.

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Leonardo is revered for his technological ingenuity. He conceptualized flying machines, an armored vehicle, concentrated solar power, an adding machine, and the double ship’s hull, also outlining a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics. Relatively few of his designs were constructed or were even feasible during his lifetime, but some of his smaller inventions, such as an automated bobbin winder and a machine for testing the tensile strength of wire, entered the world of manufacturing. He made substantial discoveries in anatomy, civil engineering, optics, and hydrodynamics, but he did not publish his findings and they had no direct influence on later science.

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In 1482 Leonardo, who according to Vasari was a most talented musician, created a silver lyre in the shape of a horse’s head. Lorenzo de’ Medici sent Leonardo to Milan, bearing the lyre as a gift, to secure peace with Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. At this time Leonardo wrote an often-quoted letter describing the many marvelous and diverse things that he could achieve in the field of engineering and informing Ludovico that he could also paint. (Worth a smiley !)

Here is a collection of images and personal quotes that, to my mind, epitomizes the man:

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There are three classes of people: those who see, those who see when they are shown, those who do not see.

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I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough, we must do.

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Art is never finished, only abandoned.

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Why does the eye see a thing more clearly in dreams than the imagination when awake?

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Just as food eaten without appetite is a tedious nourishment, so does study without zeal damage the memory by not assimilating what it absorbs.

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Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master.

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Anyone who conducts an argument by appealing to authority is not using his intelligence; he is just using his memory.

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I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.

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The function of muscle is to pull and not to push, except in the case of the genitals and the tongue.

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Man and animals are in reality vehicles and conduits of food, tombs of animals, hostels of Death, coverings that consume, deriving life by the death of others.

For today’s recipe I have chosen a 15th century Florentine dish, torta d’agli taken from Libro de arte coquinaria by Maestro Martino de Como. It is more or less a quiche heavily laden with garlic. Here is the original:

Torta d‘agli

Toy li agli e mondali e lessali; quando sono cocti metili a moglio in aqua freda e poy pistali e metili zafarano e formazo assay che sia fresco e lardo batuto e specie dolze e forte distempera con ova e mitili ova passa e poy fa la torta.

[Take the garlic cloves, and peel them and boil them; when they are cooked, put them to soak in cold water, and then pound them and add saffron and plenty of cheese, which should be fresh, and chopped pork fat, and sweet and strong spices, and moisten with eggs, and add raisins, and then make the torta.]

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Here is my interpretation:

© Garlic Torta

Take the garlic cloves, and peel them and boil them; when they are cooked, put them to soak in cold water, and then pound them and add saffron and plenty of cheese, which should be fresh, and chopped pork fat, and sweet and strong spices, and moisten with eggs, and add raisins, and then make the torte.

Nowadays garlic and broccoli is more typical than just plain garlic which is a bit pungent for modern tastes, although the boiling reduces this. I would start by preheating the oven to 400°F. Coat the inside of a quiche dish with pork fat (or olive oil), line it with pastry, and set aside in a cool place.

Peel a whole head of garlic and parboil the cloves for about 10 minutes. Mash and chop them as fine as possible with a ¼ teaspoon of powdered garlic and other spices of your choice – I would use allspice and cloves, powdered (maybe a teaspoon each). Mix this together with 3 beaten eggs, 6 ounces of ricotta, and 6 ounces of fresh farmer’s cheese. Toss in a handful of raisins and ¼ cup of bacon fat well chopped. Mix well and fill the pie shell.

Bake for 45-60 minutes testing periodically to be sure the filling is set – firm but not dry – and the top is nicely browned. Serve in slices straight from the dish.