Today is the Festa della Repubblica in Italy commemorating the institutional referendum held by universal suffrage in 1946, in which the Italian people were called to the polls to decide on the form of government they wanted, following the Second World War and the fall of Fascism. With 12,717,923 votes for a republic and 10,719,284 for the monarchy, the male descendants of the House of Savoy were sent into exile. To commemorate this event a grand military parade is held in central Rome every year, presided over by the President of the Italian Republic in his role as Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. The Prime Minister, formally known as the President of the Council of Ministers, and other high officers of state also attend. There are also celebrations in all the Italian embassies around the world and foreign heads of state are invited to attend state dinners and the like. The main parade is in Rome but there are civic celebrations all over Italy. This is a much, much more important date than the day on which Italy achieved unification.
Prior to the foundation of the Republic, the Italian national day was the first Sunday in June, approximate anniversary of the granting of the Statuto Albertino to the kingdom of Italy when it unified in 1861. From 1977 to 1999, for economic reasons, this was the date set for the celebration of the 1946 foundation of the republic. The 2 June date became official in 2000. The grand parade was held in Turin in 1961 to mark the centennial year of Italian unification, and because at the time of unification Turin was the capital.
In 1948, Via dei Fori Imperiali hosted the first military parade in honor of the new Italian Republic. The following year, with Italy’s entry into NATO, ten parades were held simultaneously across the country and in 1950, the parade was featured for the first time in the protocol of official celebrations. This protocol provides for the ceremonial laying of a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Vittoriano, before the President of Italy reviews the parading formations. The ceremony continues in the afternoon with the opening of the gardens of the Quirinale Palace, seat of the President of the Republic and with musical performances by the band ensembles of the Italian Army, Italian Navy, Italian Air Force, the “Arma dei Carabinieri”, State Police, the “Guardia di Finanza”, the Penitentiary Police Corps, State Firefighters Corps and the State Forestry Corps, together with the band of the Rome City Police.
The parade begins when the Corazzieri Squadron of the Carabinieri arrives, either mounted or dismounted, at the Presidential grandstand at the Via dei Fori Imperiali with the President of Italy, and the honors are paid via the Italian Army Band or the mounted band of the 4th Carabineri Cavalry Regiment playing the first stanza of Il Canto degli Italiani, after which the squadron departs.
The parade proper itself then starts with the Carabinieri Central Band striking up to “La Fedelissima”, its official march, leading the parade proper with the parade commander, his staff and escort, followed by the National Colors of the Italian Armed Forces, standards of the regions of Italy and veterans associations. Following them are company-sized formations of Italian Armed Forces units, military bands and members of the Red Cross, Polizia di Stato, the Penitentiary Police Corps, State Firefighters Corps and the State Forestry Corps, and ending with the Rome City Police and the featuring the unique Bersaglieri contingent in their jogging pace.
2015 saw the first appearances in the parade of government employees and the National Civil Defense Service.
Important years of the anniversary of both the Republic and the Unification of Italy have also seen mobile and air columns go past the tribune. The parade ends with a flyby of the Frecce Tricolori aerobactic team in the colors of the Flag of Italy.
If I give you a recipe for an “Italian” dish a fight will break out and I’ll be handed my head. Every region in Italy has its own specialties that it is fiercely proud of. There is a solution though. The colors of the Italian flag are represented in 2 dishes that are widely known: pizza Margherita from Naples and insalata tricolore. The history of pizza Margherita is disputed, because something of the sort (tomato, mozzarella, and basil toppings) has been around in Naples since the late 18th century, and is mentioned in cookbooks throughout the 19th century. But it was not called Margherita at first, and did not have any patriotic associations because Italy as a nation and the Italian flag did not exist back then. It has those associations now, however.
A more practical choice is insalata tricolore which is an extremely popular antipasto all over Italy, and does have the Italian flag in mind (and in name). So go for it. Interleave sliced tomato, sliced mozzarella di bufala, and basil leaves, and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. It’s a great dish and very simple to make. Just make sure you use the soft white mozzarella not the yellow shredded stuff used for pizza. It comes packed in water.
Today, the Ides of May, was the Mercuralia (Festival of Mercury) in ancient Rome. Before talking about Mercury let’s talk a little about the Roman calendar first, since it formed the basis of the calendar commonly in use throughout the West. The calendar purported to have been created by the legendary founder of Rome, Romulus, had 10 months of either 31 days (full months) or 30 days (hollow months). The year began in March and ended in December, with roughly 51 days added in winter before March to keep the calendar in line with the sun. Those of you who know your Latin roots know that /septe/ /octo/ /noven/ and /decem/ are seven, eight, nine, and ten respectively. What day of the month it was, was expressed by counting forward to key points in the month: kalends, nones, and ides. The kalends was the first of the month (and gives us the word “calendar”), the ides were the 15th in full months and the 13th in hollow months, and the nones were one week before the ides. The Roman week was 8 days long, but a week was counted as nine days (nones) inclusively. May was a full month so the Ides were the 15th. In case you are wondering, January, February were added in when reforms were made by Julius Caesar and Augustus who gave their names to what were formerly simply called fifth and sixth months.
Mercury was the Roman messenger god whose attributes were mainly borrowed from the Greek god Hermes, but there are some legendary tales extant regarding Mercury that are clearly distinct from Greek ones and in line with ancient Roman beliefs. He was the god in charge of (variously) trade, thieves, eloquence, messages, luck, and travel. His name, by folk etymology, was related to “merx” (merchandise), “mercari” (trade), and “merces” (wages). The Ides of May was designated as his birthday from pre-Republican times, the Mercuralia, and on this day the merchants of Rome used laurel boughs to sprinkle their merchandise, their ships, and their heads with water from a fountain at Porta Capena known as aqua Mercurii. They also offered prayers to Mercury for forgiveness of past and future perjuries, for profit, and the continued ability to cheat customers!
Mercury was not one of the most ancient of the Roman gods but he did have a temple in Rome situated in the Circus Maximus, between the Aventine and Palatine hills. It was built in 495 BCE and dedicated on the Ides of May. That year saw conflicts in Rome between the patrician senators and the plebeians, which led to a secession of the plebs in the following year. At the completion of the temple’s construction, a dispute emerged between the consuls Appius Claudius Sabinus Regillensis and Publius Servilius Priscus Structus as to which of them should have the honor of dedicating the temple. The senate referred the decision to the popular assembly, and also decreed that whichever was chosen should also exercise additional duties, including presiding over the markets, establishing a merchants’ guild, and exercising the functions of the pontifex maximus. The people, because of the ongoing public discord, and in order to spite the senate and the consuls, instead awarded the honor of dedicating the temple to the senior military officer of one of the legions, Marcus Laetorius. The senate and the consuls, in particular the conservative Appius, were outraged at this decision, and it inflamed the ongoing situation leading to the famous secession of the plebeians the following year.
The temple was regarded as a fitting place to worship a swift god of trade and travel, since it was a major center of commerce as well as a racetrack. Because it stood between the plebeian stronghold on the Aventine and the patrician center on the Palatine, it also emphasized the role of Mercury as a mediator. Following Greek legends of Hermes, Mercury was associated with leading newly deceased souls to the afterlife. Additionally, Ovid wrote that Mercury carried Morpheus’ dreams from the valley of Somnus to sleeping humans. So, Mercury’s roles as mediator, messenger, and merchant are all intertwined.
Because of Mercury’s common roles he was easily syncretized with various indigenous gods throughout the Western Roman empire, taking on their local attributes and worship in different parts of Gaul and Britain. He also gave his name to a wandering star (planet), and hence one of the names of a weekday in Romance languages (Wednesday), which are mostly named for bodies in the solar system (as opposed to English which uses Norse gods primarily). To this day Mercury is a symbol of speed, especially in delivering messages.
Romans offered a great many things to Mercury to procure favors especially in trade and business, including cinnamon, honey, lambs, and goats. I make braised lamb shanks quite often, sometimes with a resultant honey glaze/sauce. Cinnamon and honey are a natural pairing, so here’s my recipe for honey and cinnamon braised lamb shanks in honor of Mercury. You could use goat pieces instead if you like. This should be an Old World only recipe – no potatoes, for example. You could serve the shanks with noodles if you believe, as I do, that the Romans made pasta long before Marco Polo visited China.
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 lamb shanks
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 onion, peeled and sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
2 cinnamon sticks
4 tbsp honey
1 pint beef stock
1 pint chicken stock
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a heavy cast-iron skillet. Add the onions and sauté until soft. Add the lamb shanks and brown thoroughly on all sides. Add the garlic towards the end, but do not let it brown.
Cover the shanks with beef and chicken stock. Bring to a simmer and add the honey and cinnamon. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Cook, uncovered, on a very slow simmer for 2 to 3 hours until the meat is falling from the bones and the braising sauce is thick and syrupy. You can do this step in the oven if you like at 325˚F. If the sauce is not reduced enough, remove the shanks, turn up the heat to high and cook quickly until it is sufficiently reduced. Roll the shanks in the sauce to cover thoroughly and serve with Old World root vegetables.
On this date in 1378 the majority of cardinals elected Robert of Geneva as pope, who then took the name Clement VII. The problem was that earlier that year they had elected Urban VI and he was still very much alive and well. They just didn’t like him very much. This act set in motion what is known now as the Western Schism, not to be confused with the Great Schism of 1054 when the eastern Orthodox split from the western Catholic Church http://www.bookofdaystales.com/east-west-schism/. People these days are dimly aware that the papacy has had a complicated history. They may know, for example, that there have been popes and antipopes, and that many medieval popes had illegitimate children (and no one much cared). The image of the pope as a saintly, peace-loving minister of the gospel and leader of the church in spiritual matters is a relatively recent phenomenon growing out of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation over time.
In the Middle Ages the pope was primarily a political (and military) figure. Hence, the election of the pope was more about politics than spirituality. Some might say, without cynicism, that this is still the case. I agree. The election of a Polish pope in the 20th century was a clear attempt to wrestle the papacy from its Italian stranglehold, and since then we’ve had a German and now an Argentino. Everyone knows that this opening of the papacy to ethnicities other than Italian is an attempt to broaden the appeal of a Church that is rapidly losing membership to Protestant churches as well as to atheism or indifference. You only have to live in traditional Catholic countries, as I have in Argentina and Italy, to know that this is obvious. Attendance at Sunday mass can be sparse, and many churches are closing or have to share priests with other churches because of lack of funds. We’ll get an African pope one day, and maybe even a Chinese pope when the time is right. All of this is an attempt to reassert the “catholic” in “Roman Catholic,” and to bolster flagging allegiance around the world.
The word “Catholic” these days is used as a short form of “Roman Catholic” which leads to some confusion. When I was an active pastor, Roman Catholics would sometimes attend my services and afterwards enquire why we said the Apostles’ Creed which says, “I believe in . . . the holy catholic church . . .” The lower case “c” in “catholic” is the hint. The word “catholic” means “universal.” Nowadays Protestants can say these words without flinching too much if they take the road of arguing that under all our differences Christians of all denominations have shared beliefs and values that are fundamental. The term ROMAN Catholic is therefore appropriate for one contemporary branch of Christianity because it is centered in Rome. This was not always the case.
At one time the Catholic Church truly was universal according to the strict interpretation of the Apostles’ Creed – up to the Great Schism of 1054. Local attempts to break away from the universal church were easily crushed. After the Great Schism things were more unsettled, and the papacy was increasingly politicized. The Western Schism or Papal Schism, which lasted from 1378 to 1417 was a political split within the Roman Catholic Church, when three men simultaneously claimed to be the true pope, which was ended by the Council of Constance (1414–1418).
After Pope Gregory XI died in 1378, Romans rioted to ensure the election of a Roman for pope. From 1309 to 1377 the papacy had been located in Avignon where 7 French popes were elected and served under the influence of the French king. Gregory returned the papacy to Rome in 1377 but then died a year later, thus creating a crisis. Was the next pope to be French or Roman?
On April 8, 1378 the cardinals elected a Neapolitan when no viable Roman candidates were acceptable. Bartolomeo Prignano, the Archbishop of Bari, was elected and served as Urban VI in Rome. Urban had been a respected administrator in the papal chancery at Avignon, but as pope he proved suspicious, reformist, and prone to violent outbursts of temper. Many of the cardinals who had elected him soon regretted their decision: the majority removed themselves from Rome to Anagni, where, even though Urban was still reigning in Rome, they elected Robert of Geneva as a rival pope on September 20. Robert took the name Clement VII and reestablished a papal court in Avignon. The second election threw the Church into turmoil. There had been antipopes—rival claimants to the papacy—before, but most of them had been appointed by various rival factions. In this case, a single group of leaders of the Church had created both the pope and the antipope.
The conflicts quickly escalated from a church problem to a diplomatic crisis that divided Europe. Secular leaders had to choose which claimant they would recognize which fell out as follows:
Avignon: France, Aragon, Castile and León, Cyprus, Burgundy, Savoy, Naples, Scotland and Wales.
Rome: Denmark, England, Flanders, the Holy Roman Empire, Hungary, Ireland (English Dominion), Norway, Portugal, Poland (later Poland-Lithuania), Sweden, Republic of Venice, and other City States of northern Italy.
Sustained by such national and factional rivalries throughout Catholic Christianity, the schism continued after the deaths of both initial claimants; Boniface IX, crowned at Rome in 1389, and Benedict XIII, who reigned in Avignon from 1394, maintained their rival courts. When Boniface died in 1404, the eight cardinals of the Roman conclave offered to refrain from electing a new pope if Benedict would resign; but when his legates refused on his behalf, the Roman party then proceeded to elect Innocent VII.
Efforts were made to end the Schism through force or diplomacy. The French crown even tried to coerce Benedict XIII, whom it nominally supported, into resigning. None of these remedies worked. The suggestion that a church council should resolve the Schism, first made in 1378, was not adopted at first because canon law required that a pope call a council. Eventually theologians like Pierre d’Ailly and Jean Gerson, as well as canon lawyers like Francesco Zabarella, adopted arguments that equity permitted the Church to act for its own welfare in defiance of the letter of the law.
Eventually the cardinals of both factions secured an agreement that Benedict and Pope Gregory XII would meet at Savona. They balked at the last moment, and both colleges of cardinals abandoned their popes. A church council was held at Pisa in 1409 under the auspices of the cardinals to try solving the dispute. At the fifteenth session, 5 June 1409, the Council of Pisa deposed the two pontiffs as schismatical, heretical, perjured, and scandalous. But it then added to the problem by electing another incumbent, Alexander V. He reigned briefly from June 26, 1409, to his death in 1410, when he was succeeded by John XXIII, who won some but not universal support.
Finally, a council was convened by Pisan pope John XXIII in 1414 at Constance to resolve the issue. This was endorsed by Gregory XII, Innocent VII’s successor in Rome, thus ensuring the legitimacy of any election. The council, advised by the theologian Jean Gerson, secured the resignations of John XXIII and Gregory XII, who resigned in 1415, while excommunicating the claimant who refused to step down, Benedict XIII. The Council elected Pope Martin V in 1417, essentially ending the schism. Nonetheless, the Crown of Aragon did not recognize Martin V and continued to recognize Benedict XIII. Archbishops loyal to Benedict XIII subsequently elected Antipope Benedict XIV (Bernard Garnier) and three followers simultaneously elected Antipope Clement VIII, but the Western Schism was by then practically over. Clement VIII resigned in 1429 and apparently recognized Martin V. Thus ended the last period of rival popes. Gregory XII’s resignation (in 1415) was the last time a pope would stand down from papacy before death until the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in early 2013.
The cuisine of Avignon at the time of the Avignon popes was a mix of southern French, Italian, and Spanish influences – markedly different from that of northern France. Sources for the 15th century are not abundant but the general outlines are evident. Escabeche is a dish that has been around a long time and is certainly known throughout the Mediterranean arc from Spain through France to Italy in various guises. At root it is a sweet and sour fish dish. Here’s a recipe for an escabeche of fresh sardines from southern France. You can use whole mackerel if you like instead of the sardines.
Sardines en Escabèche
12 sardines, scaled and gutted
3 onions, peeled and thinly sliced
6 carrots, peeled and grated
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 red chile, minced fine
20cl/⅔ cup wine vinegar
2 bay leaves
Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat and fry the sardines on each side for about 4 minutes. Remove them with a spatula and reserve.
Lightly sauté the onions, garlic, carrots, bay leaves and minced chili until they are softened but not browned.
Add the vinegar and salt and pepper to taste, and simmer covered for ten minutes.
Spread half of the vegetables on a serving platter, arrange the sardines on the vegetables, and add the rest of the vegetables on top. Cover with foil and refrigerate for 48 hours.
Today is the Feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven in the Catholic Church, often shortened to the Assumption, or the Assumption of Mary. In the Orthodox Church it is called the Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Both Western and Eastern rites assert that the Virgin Mary did not die (as such), but was taken directly into Heaven at the end of her earthly life. For the most part, Protestant traditions do not accept this theology because it has no Biblical basis. In Italy, where I am now, this date is also Ferragosto, a major public holiday supposedly rooted in Roman Imperial times, although the historical links are a bit dodgy. August is a good time for an annual day off, so beaches and tourist spots are always mobbed. Because I live in a major tourist spot, I can expect the worst.
The Catholic Church now teaches as dogma that the Virgin Mary “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” This doctrine was dogmatically defined by Pope Pius XII on 1st November 1 (All Souls), 1950 in the apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus by exercising papal infallibility. The Eastern Orthodox Church doctrine of the Dormition of the Theotokos (the falling asleep of Mary) is more or less the same as the Assumption, avoiding the idea of the physical death of Mary, but has not been dogmatically defined. In Munificentissimus Deus (item 39) Pope Pius XII pointed to the Book of Genesis (3:15) as scriptural support for the dogma of the Assumption in terms of Mary’s victory over sin and death as also reflected in 1 Corinthians 15:54: “then shall come to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.”
Although the Assumption (Latin: assumptio, “a taking”) was only relatively recently defined as infallible dogma by the Catholic Church, and in spite of a statement by Saint Epiphanius of Salamis in 377 that no one knew whether Mary had died or not, apocryphal accounts of the assumption of Mary into heaven have circulated since at least the 4th century. The Catholic Church itself interprets chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation as referring to it. The earliest known narrative is the so-called Liber Requiei Mariae (The Book of Mary’s Repose), which survives intact only in an Ethiopic translation. Probably composed by the 4th century, this narrative may be as early as the 3rd century. Also quite early are the very different traditions of the “Six Books” or Dormition narratives.
Teaching of the Assumption of Mary became widespread across the Christian world, having been celebrated as early as the 5th century and having been established in the East by Emperor Maurice around 600. It was celebrated in the West under Pope Sergius I in the 8th century and Pope Leo IV then confirmed the feast as official. Theological debate about the Assumption continued, following the Reformation, peaking in 1950 when Pope Pius XII defined it as dogma for the Catholic Church.
If you’ve paid any attention to my previous posts on feast days and the like, you’ll know what I think about all of this already. The Church has an endless need to tie up loose ends logically. Jesus died and was resurrected. Then what? What became of the risen Lord? Obviously he did not just hang around. Luke clears this mystery up in Acts 1:9-11. Jesus ascended into heaven. As I have said many times before, Luke likes to clean up things – Why was Jesus from Nazareth when the Hebrew prophets indicated the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem of the House of David? Are followers of John the Baptist Christians? Etc. etc. Luke provides the “answers” by making stuff up – maybe out of whole cloth or from previous sources. Unfortunately for the early church, Luke is silent on Mary’s fate.
Let me be crystal clear. As an ordained Christian pastor and (erstwhile) theologian, I take a certain amount of Christian dogma on faith, but I don’t accept Biblical narratives as history without serious reservations. If you want my thoughts on belief and Christianity this is a good place to start: https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Christian-Essays-Prod-Believer-ebook/dp/B01DGJ2OIM/ref=sr_1_5?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1471240630&sr=1-5 Luke, to my mind, is a horrible distraction. He was trained in the Greek philosophical tradition, and doesn’t like loose ends. For me, faith and logic do not have to be consistent. Logic and science are not always right. A certain amount of logical or scientific inconsistency is fine as far as I am concerned. Luke was more rigid. Unfortunately he had nothing to say about the end of Mary’s life, so the Church applied logic. Bad idea.
The veneration of Mary goes back a long way, and has led to some awfully dubious doctrines. The gospels tell us that Jesus had brothers. Did Mary have sex after Jesus was born? Horror !!! She must have been a perpetual virgin in order to be sinless. And . . . to be sinless, and give birth as a virgin to a sinless baby, she must have been born of a virgin (Immaculate Conception). Furthermore, she must have stayed a virgin to maintain her sinlessness, so these brothers must have been cousins (so twist the Greek a little to imply that when the gospels said “brother” this included biological cousins). That’s where logic gets you. Rather ironically, the Greek Orthodox church doesn’t like Aristotle much and the battles between East and West in the Middle Ages often pitted Catholics asserting theological points by using Aristotelian logic, and the Greeks laughing in their faces. The Greek answer to any question beginning, “How do you account for . . . ?” is “It’s a mystery.” End of story. I like it.
So . . . I think that the Assumption is one more case of the church tying up loose ends. But I’m all for holidays. Ferragosto in Italy falls on 15 August and is only by coincidence the same day as the Assumption of Mary. The Feriae Augusti (“Festivals of the Emperor Augustus”) were introduced by the emperor Augustus in 18 BCE. This was an addition to earlier ancient Roman festivals which fell in the same month, such as the Vinalia rustica or the Consualia, which celebrated the harvest and the end of a long period of intense agricultural labor. The Feriae Augusti, in addition to its propaganda function, linked the various August festivals to provide a longer period of rest, called Augustali, which was felt necessary after the hard labor of the previous weeks.
During these celebrations, horse races were organized across the Empire, and beasts of burden (including oxen, donkeys and mules), were released from their work duties and decorated with flowers. Settling on 15th August as the main day is a modern tradition. During the Roman festival, workers formally greeted their masters who in return would give them a present. The custom became so strongly rooted that in the Renaissance it was made compulsory in the Papal States.
The popular modern tradition of taking a trip during Ferragosto arose under the Fascist regime. In the second half of the 1920s, during the mid-August period, the regime mounted hundreds of popular trips through the Fascist leisure and recreational organizations of various corporations, including the establishment of the “People’s Trains of Ferragosto”, which were available at heavily discounted prices. The initiative gave the opportunity for people with little money to visit Italian cities or to reach seaside and mountain resorts. The offer was limited to 13, 14 and 15 August, and had two options: the “One-Day Trip”, within a radius of 50-100 km, and the “Three-Day Trip” within a radius of about 100–200 km.
Obviously Italian festival food has to be the fare of the day. I haven’t been out yet, but when I do I expect to see people scarfing down local specialties such as tortelli di zucca, torta Sbrisolona, and the like along with gallons of gelato and granita. Last night I made a festive dinner that was sort of Italian – all cold dishes because of the heat.
The dessert was my own creation taking off from tiramisu. I began by baking a stracciatella cake – a moist vanilla sponge cake with chocolate chips. Whilst it was cooling I made a tiramisu custard. Some people use raw eggs, but I prefer to cook mine.
Put 4 egg yolks and half a cup of sugar in the top of a double boiler. Bring the water in the bottom to a steady simmer, and make sure that the water does not touch the top part of the boiler. Whisk the sugar and egg yolk mixture vigorously for around 8 minutes. It will expand to a froth and cook. (Hint: you are not making scrambled eggs). Remove from the heat and fold in 1 pound (½ kg) of mascarpone. In a separate bowl whisk 1 cup of heavy cream to stiff peaks. Fold the mascarpone-egg mix into the cream. Then fold in about a ½ pound (¼ kg) of mixed frozen berries (you can use raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, or what ever you want). Set aside.
Slice the stracciatella reasonably thin – less than ½ inch (1.25 cm). Line the base of a loaf pan with the cake slices. Spread in half of the custard. Add another layer of stracciatella slices. Top with the remaining custard, and chill in the refrigerator overnight.
Before serving top with a layer of berries, then whipped cream, then shaved dark chocolate.
For some reason, today is designated as National Escargot Day In the United States. It’s one of hundreds of useless and trivial “special” food days accorded national status by the Congress. I assume it all has to do with marketing. Why cooked snails should get a special day is beyond me. But the date gives me the opportunity to talk about food preferences and prejudices, so I’ll accept the celebration this once.
Strictly speaking, the word “escargot” in English applies to cooked snails only. Raw snails are snails. Even calling cooked snails, “escargot,” strikes me as pretentious or affected. I can understand referring to a French dish, such as escargots à la Bourguignonne, using the French word, but I don’t see why cooked snails in general can’t simply be “snails.” That’s the term I’ll use.
Not all species of land snail are edible, and many are too small to make it worthwhile to prepare and cook them. Even among the edible species, the palatability of the flesh varies from species to species. In France, the species Helix pomatia is most often eaten. The “petit-gris” Cornu aspersa is also eaten, as is Helix lucorum. Several additional species, such as Elona quimperiana, are popular in Europe.
Burnt snail shells have been found in several archaeological excavations, indicating that snails have been eaten since prehistoric times. In addition, a number of archaeological sites around the Mediterranean have been excavated yielding physical evidence of the culinary use of several species of snails. The Romans in particular are known to have considered snails a delicacy, as noted in the writings of Pliny. The edible species Otala lactea has been recovered from the Roman-era city Volubilis in present-day Morocco. Romans also practiced snail farming, or heliciculture. The method was described by Fulvius Lippinus (49 BCE) and mentioned by Marcus Terentius Varro (Terrence) in De Re rustica (On Rural Things)III, 12. The snails were fattened for human consumption using corn flour and aromatic herbs. People usually raised snails in pens near the house, and these pens were called “cochlea”.
“Wall fish” were also often eaten in Britain, but were never as popular as on the continent. People sometimes ate snails during Lent, and in a few places, they consumed large quantities of snails at Carnival, as a foretaste of Lent.
U.S. imports of snails were worth more than $4.5 million in 1995 and came from 24 countries. This includes preserved or prepared snails and snails that are live, fresh, chilled, or frozen. Major exporters to the U.S. are France, Indonesia, Greece and China. So people do eat snails in the U.S., but in my experience a great many turn their noses up at them as hideously disgusting as food. Here we run up against food prejudice. Lots of people look at snails much as they do oysters, insects, and even offal (especially tripe), making the gargantuanly ethnocentric assumption that these things are inherently distasteful, and, therefore, anyone who eats them is weird. I’ve heard people say things like, “it was a very brave person who ate the first oyster.” How stupid can you be? Foragers (hunters and gatherers) eat whatever is edible. It’s not that they are stuck for enough to eat, it’s that their overall diet is much broader than that of sedentary peoples.
I’m not going to say that I find every food available in the world completely delectable. I’ve struggled a little sometimes with brains on toast. That’s because of the texture, not the idea. There’s plenty of slimy foods in Asia that don’t appeal to me even though the ingredients are straightforward. I just have a thing about certain textures. I can eat oysters all day because their texture does not bother me. My very narrow distaste may come from the fact that my mum used to make junket (a rennet custard) when I was a little boy, and I didn’t like it. I did eat it though. When my son was little we had a house rule – you cannot refuse a dish until you have tasted it. Fortunately, in that regard he was quite strange enough. He still won’t eat things made with eggs (including cake), or mushrooms, but finds duck tongue and pig stomach perfectly tasty.
In French culture, snails for cooking are typically purged (voided of unpleasant intestinal matter), killed, removed from their shells, and cooked (usually with garlic butter, chicken soup or wine), and then placed back into the shells with the butter and sauce for serving. Additional ingredients may be added, such as garlic, thyme, parsley and pine nuts. Special snail tongs (for holding the shell) and snail forks (for extracting the meat) are also normally provided, and the snails are served on indented metal trays with places for six or 12 snails. In Maltese cuisine, snails of the petit gris variety are simmered in red wine or ale with mint, basil and marjoram. The snails are cooked, and served in their shells.
Like most molluscs, escargots are high in protein and low in fat content (if cooked without butter). Snails are estimated to contain around 15% protein, 2.4% fat and about 80% water, although this depends on the method of preservation. I expect that many readers will have trouble finding fresh snails in the market. Even buying them canned can be difficult in some places. I’m a little spoiled in that in Argentina, China, and (now) Italy, I have no problems. Canned work fine, and you don’t absolutely need the shells either (they’re mostly decorative). Here’s two-fer.
Escargots à la Bourguignonne
1 clove garlic
4 oz unsalted butter, softened
2 tsp finely minced shallot
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp dry white wine
12 to 16 snails
kosher salt (for stabilizing snail shells)
12 to 16 sterilized snail shells
Preheat oven to 450°F.
Mince and mash the garlic to a paste with a small amount of table salt. Beat together the butter, shallot, garlic paste, parsley, and pepper to taste in a small bowl. You can use a hand electric mixer or immersion blender if you are lazy. Just be sure that the ingredients are combined thoroughly. Then beat in the wine to combine.
Divide up half the butter mix between the shells, put one shell in each shell, then top up with the remaining butter mix. Spread ample kosher salt in a shallow baking dish and nest the shells in it with the open sides up.
Bake the snails until the butter is sizzling. This should only take about 5 minutes. Serve immediately with crusty bread – 4 to 6 per person as an appetizer.
Snails and Mushrooms
6 fl oz crème fraîche
8 oz black mushrooms
1 tbsp minced shallot
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 (7-oz) can snails (18 to 24 snails), rinsed and drained
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp finely chopped chives
1 tsp finely chopped tarragon
1 tbsp unsalted butter
salt and pepper
Simmer the crème fraîche with the mushrooms, shallot, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste in a heavy medium saucepan, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are tender – about 10 minutes.
Reduce the heat to low, add the snails, herbs, and butter, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the snails are heated through – 1 to 2 minutes. Serve in small bowls.
Today there are many minor celebrations worldwide. I will talk about three of them together – under the rubric Cuckoo Day – because they are minimally related. Let’s start with the feast day, the feast of SS Tiburtius, Valerian and Maximus, martyrs in Rome. Tiburtius, Valerian, and Maximus are three Christian martyrs who were buried on 14 April of some unspecified year in the Catacombs of Praetextatus on the Via Appia near Rome. The Acts of Saint Cecilia represent Valerian as her husband, Tiburtius as his brother, and Maximus as a soldier or official who was martyred with the other two. But this work is generally considered not to be historical.
They were traditionally honored with a joint feast day on 14 April, as shown in the Tridentine Calendar. The 1969 revision of the General Roman Calendar removed this celebration, since the only thing really known about them is the historical fact of their burial in the Catacombs of Praetextatus. However, it allowed them to be honored in local calendars.
All three were given parts in the legend of St Cecilia http://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-cecilia/ and honored in Rome from an early date. The Roman Martyrology says that Tiburtius and the others suffered under Roman Emperor Alexander Severus, who ruled from 222 – 235. (Valerian is also known as Valerianus.)
An old English saying says: “The cuckoo sings from St Tiburtius’s Day to St John’s day [June 24]”. Hence today is sometimes celebrated as Cuckoo Day in England Although strongly identified with St Tiburtius’s Day, Cuckoo Day may better be described as a moveable feast dependent upon the variability of Nature. The common cuckoo, Cuculus canorus, overwinters in Africa and returns to the UK in Spring, but the arrival date varies. Several communities in England, notably Marsden in Yorkshire, have cuckoo fairs in April to welcome spring. Marsden Cuckoo Festival takes place each year on a designated Saturday in April near to 14 April.
Legend has it that the people of Marsden were aware that when the cuckoo arrived, so did the Spring and sunshine. They tried to keep Spring forever, by building a tower around the cuckoo. Unfortunately, as the last stones were about to be laid, the cuckoo flew away. As the legend says, it “were nobbut just wun course too low.”
I remember as a schoolboy in England, newly arrived from Australia, walking to school down a wooded country lane and hearing a clear and unmistakable coooo koooo from a tree to my right. “No,” I thought, “that’s somebody hiding and making that sound.” It was so clear and obvious. The first cuckoo of Spring, and my first ever cuckoo.
The common cuckoo is well known for laying its eggs in the nests of other birds. The cuckoo hatches first and tosses out the other eggs so that the poor “mother” is left to raise the cuckoo instead of its own chicks.
From Shakespeare’s time on, “cuckoo’s nest” has been used as a euphemism for a woman’s “private parts,” as represented in this traditional song:
The tune was used in the South Midlands for a morris dance in some villages. In the group I used to dance for it is customary when we get together for a feast for the eldest bachelor to begin the singing after dinner with his rendition of the song.
So we migrate to Black Day. This is an Asian celebration begun in South Korea but now spreading to other parts of Asia. Black Day is the third in a trinity of celebrations on the 14th of the month. First is 14 February celebrated worldwide as Valentine’s Day (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-valentine/ ), then 14 March or White Day (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/white-day/ ), begun in Japan as a marketing ploy; a day to reciprocate gifts given on Valentine’s Day. South Korean businesses then followed with Black Day on 14 April, a day for single people to lament/celebrate their status. Those who didn’t give or receive gifts on Valentine’s Day or White Day, can get together and eat jajang myeon (jja jang myeong), Korean-Chinese noodles with black bean sauce to commiserate their singledom.
Jajangmyeon (자장면; 짜장면; jjajangmyeon) is a Korean Chinese dish of special noodles dish topped with a thick sauce made of chunjang (a salty black soybean paste), diced pork and vegetables, and sometimes also seafood. Jajang (alternately spelled jjajang), the name of the sauce when heated, is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese characters 炸醬, which literally means ” deep fried sauce.” Myeon (also spelled myun) means “noodle”, which is represented by the Chinese character 麵.
The dish originated from zhajiangmian (炸醬麵, literally “fried sauce noodles”) in China’s Shandong region. Zhajiangmian was adapted in Korea to fit the Korean palate. Jajangmyeon is legendarily traced back to the Joseon Dynasty. When the Joseon opened the Incheon port, many Chinese people from the Shandong region moved to a town in Incheon, which is now known as Incheon China Town. These people started Chinese restaurants and adapted the traditional Shandong food zhajiangmian in a way that Korean people could enjoy. Originally jajangmyeon was a cheap dish that the working class enjoyed and was more akin to Shandong region’s zhajiangmian than the current day Korean jajamyeon. After the Korean War, Korean chunjang was invented. Korean chunjang has caramel added to give it a sweet taste. After this jajangmyeon became a completely different dish from zhajiangmian. The pronunciation of the dish’s name is nearly identical to that of its Korean counterpart. But Korean jajangmyeon differs from Chinese zhajiangmian, as Korean jjajangmyeon uses black Korean chunjang including caramel, and onions.
Jajangmyeon uses thick noodles made from white wheat flour. The noodles, which are made entirely by hand and not by machines, are called sutamyeon (수타면; 手打麵) are praised in South Korea as an essential ingredient of good jajangmyeon. While in Beijing cuisine, yellow soybean paste (黃醬) is used, in Tianjin and other parts of China tianmianjiang (甜麵醬), hoisin sauce (海鮮醬), or broad (fava) bean sauce (荳瓣醬) may be used in place of the yellow soybean paste. However, In Korea, the sauce is made with a dark soybean paste. This paste, which is made from roasted soybeans and caramel, is called chunjang (literally “spring paste”, hangul: 춘장; Chinese: 春醬) when unheated, while the heated sauce (containing vegetables and meat or seafood) is called jjajang (literally “fried sauce”). Chunjang is stir-fried with diced onions, ground meat (either beef or pork) or chopped seafood, and other ingredients. The meat stock is added to reduce the salty taste, and potato starch or cornstarch is added to give the sauce a thick consistency. The sauce is served hot over noodles, sometimes with sliced raw cucumbers. The same sauce is also used to make jajangbap (rice served with the sauce) and jajangtteokbokki (tteokbokki made with the sauce instead of the usual spicy sauce).
Jajangmyeon is usually served with a small amount of danmuji (단무지). Danmuji are made of radish, specifically daikon. The dish is often served with a small amount of sliced raw onions, seasoned with rice vinegar, accompanied with a little chunjang sauce. The diner eats the noodles with danmuji and onions dipped in chunjang sauce.
I am ostensibly single these days. Actually I am a widower and choose to live alone, but I fit in the broad class of people who did not get a gift on Valentine’s Day or White Day. So I will make black food. By chance I found cuttlefish ink in the supermarket yesterday, so I am going to make a black risotto – common favorite in coastal Croatia. If you can get hold of black bean paste you can make a simulacrum of jjajangmyeon or its Chinese equivalent. When I lived in Yunnan I made pork with black bean paste and noodles all the time as a quick evening meal. This site will guide you through the process of making classic jjajangmyeon with step-by-step pictures and a video http://www.maangchi.com/recipe/jjajangmyun
If this does not appeal, you can minimally celebrate with the Faroese who by custom never eat eggs on this day, which marks the end of winter. Tradition says that anyone who does will suffer boils for rest of year !!!
Today is the feast day of St Paul’s Shipwreck (San Pawl Nawfragu) which is a public holiday in Malta, especially in Valletta, Marsalforn, and Munxar. I am not sure why this date was chosen. The event is described in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 27:27-28:5), the tail end of the book. The chronology of events in Paul’s life is endlessly disputed by scholars because what facts can be gleaned from letters that we are reasonably certain were written by Paul are not always in agreement with Acts. According to Acts Paul arrived in Jerusalem on his fifth and final visit in 57 with a collection of money for the community there. Acts reports that he was warmly received, but goes on to recount how Paul was warned by James and the elders that he was gaining a reputation for being against the Law, saying “they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs.” (Acts 21:21) Paul underwent a purification ritual in order to give the Jews no grounds to bring accusations against him for not following the law. But he then caused a stir when he appeared at the Temple, and he escaped being killed by the crowd only by voluntarily being taken into Roman custody. When a plot to kill Paul on his way to an appearance before the Jews was discovered, he was transported by night to Caesarea Maritima. He was held as a prisoner there for two years, until a new governor reopened his case in 59.
When the governor suggested that he be sent back to Jerusalem for further trial, Paul exercised his right as a Roman citizen to appeal to Caesar, so he was transported to Rome. During the journey, vividly described in Acts, the shipwreck occurs. This passage is notable in that it is one of the so-called “we” passages – written in the 1st person plural. There is no scholarly consensus concerning these passages. They could be a deliberate forgery to suggest that the author of Acts was an actual eyewitness, or they could be redactions based on older, fragmentary primary material written by an eyewitness. I incline towards the latter, but this is more of an educated guess than anything else. Here’s the passage:
27:27 On the fourteenth night we were still being driven across the Adriatic Sea, when about midnight the sailors sensed they were approaching land. 28 They took soundings and found that the water was a hundred and twenty feet deep. A short time later they took soundings again and found it was ninety feet deep. 29 Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight. 30 In an attempt to escape from the ship, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea, pretending they were going to lower some anchors from the bow. 31 Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32 So the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it drift away.
33 Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food—you haven’t eaten anything. 34 Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” 35 After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. 36 They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. 37 Altogether there were 276 of us on board. 38 When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea.
39 When daylight came, they did not recognize the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could. 40 Cutting loose the anchors, they left them in the sea and at the same time untied the ropes that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and made for the beach. 41 But the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf.
42 The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. 43 But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. 44 The rest were to get there on planks or on other pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land safely.
28:1 Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. 2 The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. 3 Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. 4 When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” 5 But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects.
There is a special celebration in Valletta on Malta at the Collegiate Parish Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck on this day. The church hosts fine artistic works, including the magnificent altarpiece by Matteo Perez d’Aleccio, as well as paintings by Attilio Palombi, and Giuseppe Calì. The wooden titular statue of St Paul was carved in 1659 by Melchiorre Cafà, the brother of Lorenzo Gafà who designed the dome. The statue is paraded through the streets of Valletta on the feast day of St Paul’s Shipwreck even (and appropriately) during heavy rain One can also view the relic of the right wrist-bone of St Paul, and part of the column from San Paolo alle Tre Fontane, on which the saint was reputedly beheaded in Rome.
For this feast day I have chosen the unofficial national dish of Malta, rabbit braised in red wine and garlic. Given the name, you scarcely need a recipe, but here goes. The trick is to use A LOT of garlic. This recipe calls for three BULBS, not cloves – whole bulbs.
Rabbit with garlic & wine (Fenek fit-tewm u l-inbid)
1 rabbit cut into 6 or 8 pieces
500ml red wine
3 whole garlic bulbs, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2-3 bay leaves
salt and pepper
Place the rabbit pieces in an earthenware pot and cover with the wine. Refrigerate overnight.
In a large, heavy skillet gently sweat the garlic in the olive oil. Do not let it take on color.
Remove and reserve the garlic, leaving the oil in the pan. Heat the oil on medium-high, remove the rabbit pieces from the wine, and brown them in the oil on all sides – reserving the wine.
Place the rabbit, garlic and bay leaves in an ovenproof casserole. Cover with the wine, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and bake at around 375°F for an hour or until the meat is tender. Check the liquid level periodically to make sure that the wine is reducing to a thick sauce, but not drying out. Uncover towards the end if it is not reducing sufficiently.
Serve with boiled new potatoes and marrowfat peas.
Certainly not by coincidence, on this date in 326 the old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome was consecrated, and 1300 years later, in 1626 the “new” St Peter’s Basilica was consecrated. The latter is still in use, and is one of the most prominent buildings in Rome.
Old St. Peter’s Basilica was the building that stood, from the 4th to 16th centuries, on the spot where the new St. Peter’s Basilica stands today in Vatican City. Construction of the basilica, built over the historical site of the Circus of Nero, began during the reign of Emperor Constantine I. The name “old St. Peter’s Basilica” has been used since the construction of the current basilica to distinguish the two buildings.
Construction began by order of the Roman Emperor Constantine I between 318 and 322, and took about 30 years to complete. Over the next twelve centuries, the church gradually gained importance, eventually becoming a major place of pilgrimage in Rome. Papal coronations were held at the basilica, and in 800, Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire there. In 846, Saracens sacked and damaged the basilica. The raiders seem to have known about Rome’s extraordinary treasures. Some impressive basilicas, such as St. Peter’s, were outside the Aurelian walls, and thus easy targets. They were “filled to overflowing with rich liturgical vessels and with jeweled reliquaries housing all of the relics recently amassed”. As a result, the raiders pillaged the shrine. In response Pope Leo IV built the Leonine wall and rebuilt the parts of St. Peter’s that had been damaged. In 1099, Urban II convened a council including St Anselm. Among other topics, it repeated the bans on lay investiture and on clergy’s paying homage to secular lords (laying the seeds of the Protestant Reformation).
By the 15th century the church was falling into ruin. Discussions on repairing parts of the structure commenced upon the pope’s return from Avignon. Two people involved in this reconstruction were Leon Battista Alberti and Bernardo Rossellino, who improved the apse and partially added a multi-story benediction loggia to the atrium facade, on which construction continued intermittently until the new basilica was begun. Alberti pronounced the basilica a structural abomination:
I have noticed in the basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome a crass feature: an extremely long and high wall has been constructed over a continuous series of openings, with no curves to give it strength, and no buttresses to lend it support… The whole stretch of wall has been pierced by too many openings and built too high… As a result, the continual force of the wind has already displaced the wall more than six feet (1.8 m) from the vertical; I have no doubt that eventually some… slight movement will make it collapse…
At first Pope Julius II had every intention of preserving the old building, but his attention soon turned toward tearing it down and building a new structure. Many people of the time were shocked by the proposal, as the building represented papal continuity going back to Peter. The original altar was to be preserved in the new structure that housed it.
The design was a typical basilica form with the plan and elevation resembling those of Roman basilicas and audience halls, such as the Basilica Ulpia in Trajan’s Forum and Constantine’s own Aula Palatina at Trier, rather than the design of any Greco-Roman temple. Constantine went to great pains to build the basilica on the supposed site of Saint Peter’s grave, and this fact influenced the layout of the building. The Vatican Hill, on the west bank of the Tiber River, was leveled. Notably, since the site was outside the boundaries of the ancient city, the apse with the altar was located in the west so that the basilica’s façade could be approached from Rome itself to the east. The exterior however, unlike earlier pagan temples, was not lavishly decorated.
The church was capable of housing from 3,000 to 4,000 worshipers at one time. It consisted of five aisles, a wide central nave and two smaller aisles to each side, which were each divided by 21 marble columns, taken from earlier pagan buildings. It was over 350 feet (110 m) long, built in the shape of a Latin cross, and had a gabled roof which was timbered on the interior and which stood at over 100 feet (30 m) at the center. An atrium, known as the “Garden of Paradise”, stood at the entrance and had five doors which led to the body of the church; this was a 6th-century addition.
The altar of Old St. Peter’s Basilica used several Solomonic columns. According to tradition, Constantine took these columns from the Temple of Solomon and gave them to the church; however, the columns were probably from an Eastern church. When Gian Lorenzo Bernini built his baldacchino to cover the new St. Peter’s altar, he drew from the twisted design of the old columns. Eight of the original columns were moved to the piers of the new St. Peter’s.
The great Navicella mosaic (1305-1313) in the atrium is attributed to Giotto di Bondone. The giant mosaic, commissioned by Cardinal Jacopo Stefaneschi, occupied the whole wall above the entrance arcade facing the courtyard. It depicted “St. Peter walking on the waters. This extraordinary work was mainly destroyed during the construction of the new St. Peter’s in the 16th century, but fragments were preserved. Navicella means “little ship” referring to the large boat which dominated the scene, and whose sail, filled by the storm, loomed over the horizon. Such a natural representation of a seascape was known only from ancient works of art.
The nave ended with an arch, which held a mosaic of Constantine and Saint Peter, who presented a model of the church to Christ. On the walls, each having 11 windows, were frescoes of various people and scenes from both the Old and New Testament.
The fragment of an eighth-century mosaic, the Epiphany, is one of the very rare remaining bits of the medieval decoration of Old St. Peter’s Basilica. The precious fragment is kept in the sacristy of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. It proves the high artistic quality of the destroyed mosaics. Another one, a standing Madonna, is on a side altar in the Basilica of San Marco in Florence.
By the end of the 15th century, having been neglected during the period of the Avignon Papacy, the old basilica was in bad repair. It appears that the first pope to consider rebuilding, or at least making radical changes was Pope Nicholas V (1447–55). He commissioned work on the old building from Leone Battista Alberti and Bernardo Rossellino and also had Rossellino design a plan for an entirely new basilica, or an extreme modification of the old. His reign was frustrated by political problems and when he died, little had been achieved. He had, however, ordered the demolition of the Colosseum and by the time of his death, 2,522 cartloads of stone had been transported for use in the new building. The foundations were completed for a new transept and choir to form a domed Latin cross with the preserved nave and side aisles of the old basilica. Some walls for the choir had also been built.
Pope Julius II planned far more for St Peter’s than Nicholas V’s program of repair or modification. Julius was at that time planning his own tomb, which was to be designed and adorned with sculpture by Michelangelo and placed within St Peter’s. In 1505 Julius made a decision to demolish the ancient basilica and replace it with a monumental structure to house his enormous tomb and “aggrandize himself in the popular imagination”. A competition was held, and a number of the designs have survived at the Uffizi Gallery. A succession of popes and architects followed in the next 120 years, their combined efforts resulting in the present building. The scheme begun by Julius II continued through the reigns of 20 popes.
Pope Julius’ scheme for the grandest building in Christendom was the subject of a competition for which a number of entries remain intact in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. It was the design of Donato Bramante that was selected, and for which the foundation stone was laid in 1506. This plan was in the form of an enormous Greek Cross with a dome inspired by that of the huge circular Roman temple, the Pantheon. The main difference between Bramante’s design and that of the Pantheon is that where the dome of the Pantheon is supported by a continuous wall, that of the new basilica was to be supported only on four large piers. This feature was maintained in the ultimate design. Bramante’s dome was to be surmounted by a lantern with its own small dome but otherwise very similar in form to the Early Renaissance lantern of Florence Cathedral designed for Brunelleschi’s dome by Michelozzo.
Bramante had envisioned that the central dome be surrounded by four lower domes at the diagonal axes. The equal chancel, nave and transept arms were each to be of two bays ending in an apse. At each corner of the building was to stand a tower, so that the overall plan was square, with the apses projecting at the cardinal points. Each apse had two large radial buttresses, which squared off its semi-circular shape.
When Pope Julius died in 1513, Bramante was replaced with Giuliano da Sangallo, Fra Giocondo and Raphael. Sangallo and Fra Giocondo both died in 1515, Bramante himself having died the previous year. The main change in Raphael’s plan is the nave of five bays, with a row of complex apsidal chapels off the aisles on either side. Raphael’s plan for the chancel and transepts made the squareness of the exterior walls more definite by reducing the size of the towers, and the semi-circular apses more clearly defined by encircling each with an ambulatory.
In 1520 Raphael also died, aged 37, and his successor Baldassare Peruzzi maintained changes that Raphael had proposed to the internal arrangement of the three main apses, but otherwise reverted to the Greek Cross plan and other features of Bramante.This plan did not go ahead because of various difficulties of both Church and state. In 1527 Rome was sacked and plundered by Emperor Charles V. Peruzzi died in 1536 without his plan being realized.
At this point Antonio da Sangallo the Younger submitted a plan which combines features of Peruzzi, Raphael and Bramante in its design and extends the building into a short nave with a wide façade and portico of dynamic projection. His proposal for the dome was much more elaborate of both structure and decoration than that of Bramante and included ribs on the exterior. Like Bramante, Sangallo proposed that the dome be surmounted by a lantern which he redesigned to a larger and much more elaborate form. Sangallo’s main practical contribution was to strengthen Bramante’s piers which had begun to crack.
On 1 January 1547 in the reign of Pope Paul III, Michelangelo, then in his seventies, succeeded Sangallo the Younger as “Capomaestro”, the superintendent of the building program at St Peter’s. He is to be regarded as the principal designer of a large part of the building as it stands today, and as bringing the construction to a point where it could be carried through. He did not take on the job with pleasure; it was forced upon him by Pope Paul, frustrated at the death of his chosen candidate, Giulio Romano and the refusal of Jacopo Sansovino to leave Venice. Michelangelo wrote “I undertake this only for the love of God and in honor of the Apostle.” He insisted that he should be given a free hand to achieve the ultimate aim by whatever means he saw fit.
Michelangelo took over a building site at which four piers, enormous beyond any constructed since ancient Roman times, were rising behind the remaining nave of the old basilica. He also inherited the numerous schemes designed and redesigned by some of the greatest architectural and engineering minds of the 16th century. There were certain common elements in these schemes. They all called for a dome to equal that engineered by Brunelleschi a century earlier and which has since dominated the skyline of Renaissance Florence, and they all called for a strongly symmetrical plan of either Greek Cross form, like the iconic St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, or of a Latin Cross with the transepts of identical form to the chancel, as at Florence Cathedral.
Even though the work had progressed only a little in 40 years, Michelangelo did not simply dismiss the ideas of the previous architects. He drew on them in developing a grand vision. Above all, Michelangelo recognized the essential quality of Bramante’s original design. He reverted to the Greek Cross and, as Helen Gardner expresses it: “Without destroying the centralizing features of Bramante’s plan, Michelangelo, with a few strokes of the pen converted its snowflake complexity into massive, cohesive unity.”
As it stands today, St. Peter’s has been extended with a nave by Carlo Maderno. It is the chancel end (the ecclesiastical “Eastern end”) with its huge centrally placed dome that is the work of Michelangelo. Because of its location within the Vatican State and because the projection of the nave screens the dome from sight when the building is approached from the square in front of it, the work of Michelangelo is best appreciated from a distance. What becomes apparent is that the architect has greatly reduced the clearly defined geometric forms of Bramante’s plan of a square with square projections, and also of Raphael’s plan of a square with semi-circular projections. Michelangelo has blurred the definition of the geometry by making the external masonry of massive proportions and filling in every corner with a small vestry or stairwell. The effect created is of a continuous wall-surface that is folded or fractured at different angles, but lacks the right-angles which usually define change of direction at the corners of a building. This exterior is surrounded by a giant order of Corinthian pilasters all set at slightly different angles to each other, in keeping with the ever-changing angles of the wall’s surface. Above them the huge cornice ripples in a continuous band, giving the appearance of keeping the whole building in a state of compression.
The dome of St. Peter’s rises to a total height of 136.57 m (448.1 ft) from the floor of the basilica to the top of the external cross. It is the tallest dome in the world. Its internal diameter is 41.47 m (136.1 ft), slightly smaller than two of the three other huge domes that preceded it, those of the Pantheon of Ancient Rome, 43.3 m (142 ft), and Florence Cathedral of the Early Renaissance, 44 m (144 ft). It has a greater diameter by approximately 30 feet (9.1 m) than Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia church, completed in 537. It was to the domes of the Pantheon and Florence duomo that the architects of St. Peter’s looked for solutions as to how to go about building what was conceived, from the outset, as the greatest dome of Christendom.
Michelangelo redesigned the dome in 1547, taking into account all that had gone before. His dome, like that of Florence, is constructed of two shells of brick, the outer one having 16 stone ribs, twice the number at Florence but far fewer than in Sangallo’s design. As with the designs of Bramante and Sangallo, the dome is raised from the piers on a drum. The encircling peristyle of Bramante and the arcade of Sangallo are reduced to 16 pairs of Corinthian columns, each of 15 metres (49 ft) high which stand proud of the building, connected by an arch. Visually they appear to buttress each of the ribs, but structurally they are probably quite redundant. The reason for this is that the dome is ovoid in shape, rising steeply as does the dome of Florence Cathedral, and therefore exerting less outward thrust than does a hemispherical dome, such as that of the Pantheon, which, although it is not buttressed, is countered by the downward thrust of heavy masonry which extends above the circling wall.
Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana brought the dome to completion in 1590, the last year of the reign of Sixtus V. His successor, Gregory XIV, saw Fontana complete the lantern and had an inscription to the honor of Sixtus V placed around its inner opening. The next pope, Clement VIII, had the cross raised into place, an event which took all day, and was accompanied by the ringing of the bells of all the city’s churches.
TV ES PETRVS ET SVPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM. TIBI DABO CLAVES REGNI CAELORVM
(…you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. … I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven… Vulgate, Matthew 16:18–19.)
Beneath the lantern is the inscription:
PETRI GLORIAE SIXTVS PP. V. A. M. D. XC. PONTIF. V.
(To the glory of St Peter; Sixtus V, pope, in the year 1590, the fifth of his pontificate.)
On 18 February 1606, under Pope Paul V, the dismantling of the remaining parts of the Constantinian basilica began. The marble cross that had been set at the top of the pediment by Pope Sylvester and Constantine the Great was lowered to the ground. The timbers were salvaged for the roof of the Borghese Palace and two rare black marble columns, the largest of their kind, were carefully stored and later used in the narthex. The tombs of various popes were opened, treasures removed and plans made for reinterment in the new basilica.
Another influence on the thinking of both the Fabbrica (construction committee) and the Curia was a certain guilt at the demolition of the ancient building. The ground on which it and its various associated chapels, vestries and sacristies had stood for so long was hallowed. The only solution was to build a nave that encompassed the whole space. In 1607 a committee of ten architects was called together, and a decision was made to extend Michelangelo’s building into a nave. Maderno’s plans for both the nave and the façade were accepted. The building began on 7 May 1607, and proceeded at a great rate, with an army of 700 laborers being employed. The following year, the façade was begun, in December 1614 the final touches were added to the stucco decoration of the vault and early in 1615 the partition wall between the two sections was pulled down. All the rubble was carted away, and the nave was ready for use by Palm Sunday.
The façade designed by Maderno, is 114.69 m (376.3 ft) wide and 45.55 m (149.4 ft) high and is built of travertine stone, with a giant order of Corinthian columns and a central pediment rising in front of a tall attic surmounted by thirteen statues: Christ flanked by eleven of the Apostles (except Peter, whose statue is left of the stairs) and John the Baptist.
The façade is often cited as the least satisfactory part of the design of St. Peter’s. The reasons for this, according to James Lees-Milne, are that it was not given enough consideration by the Pope and committee because of the desire to get the building completed quickly, coupled with the fact that Maderno was hesitant to deviate from the pattern set by Michelangelo at the other end of the building. Lees-Milne describes the problems of the façade as being too broad for its height, too cramped in its details and too heavy in the attic storey. The breadth is caused by modifying the plan to have towers on either side. These towers were never executed above the line of the façade because it was discovered that the ground was not sufficiently stable to bear the weight. One effect of the façade and lengthened nave is to screen the view of the dome, so that the building, from the front, has no vertical feature, except from a distance.
I visited St Peter’s Basilica about 9 years ago with my son as part of a university summer session on Italian language and culture that I was teaching in. We had journeyed over Italy from Florence to Sicily, ending in Rome for a few days as the capstone. On the day that my son and I visited St Peter’s we found a little family-run restaurant for a late dinner down a back alley that was, unfortunately, in the process of closing for the night. We appealed to the owner to stay open and he told us that he would if we would eat all that he had left – trippa alla Romana !!! Sold. It was brilliant to eat one of the great dishes of Rome on that day of all days.
Tripe in the style of Rome differs very little from tripe served all over Italy. Basically it is cooked tripe bathed in tomato sauce. What makes it stand out is the addition of chick peas (I can live without them), and the addition towards the end of cooking of a mountain of shredded fresh mint. If you are a cook of any sort you can figure out how to do this without a recipe. If you really need help, here’s an excellent video.
Today is the traditional date of the founding of Rome in ancient legend. The Romans themselves quibbled about the year but not about the day of the year. The year was important because the Roman calendar was based on it. Roman enumeration of years employed the abbreviation auc standing for ab urbe condita (from the founding of the city). Eventually the Latin noun urbs came to be a general word for any city, but originally, and in special cases, it meant Rome. This is still reflected in the pope’s Easter message urbi et orbi (to the city [Rome] and to the world) which was the conventional beginning of imperial proclamations in the Roman empire.
Nowadays we can use archeology to investigate the history of Rome, but in ancient times they relied on legend based on multiple oral histories, and, therefore, there was a certain amount of confusion when historians wrote their accounts. This problem is made more complicated for us now when we try to get at the truth because histories, then and now, are not neutral narratives of events, but, rather, the interpretation of data with some agenda in mind. Archeology is not always clear either. As with most old cities, many significant sites are buried under more recent building which cannot be disturbed. Treasured discoveries are often made by accident when something is torn down to make way for a new project, subway tunnels are drilled, and the like. So it can be a bit hit and miss. Not to mention the fact that archeologists come with their own agendas too. I’ll spare you my rant on the impossibility of “objectivity.”
There are two main legends concerning the founding of Rome which ultimately had to be reconciled. The more familiar is the story of the twins Romulus and Remus who were abandoned as infants and lived in the wild, suckled by a she-wolf, until they were found and adopted by a shepherd and his wife. The other is the tale of Aeneas which has its roots in Homer’s Iliad, where he is mentioned several times as a Trojan warrior. Aeneas’ part in the founding of Rome is laid out in Virgil’s Aeneid, a 12 volume epic poem whose primary purpose was to establish the legitimacy of Augustus as emperor, the heir of Aeneas’ son Iulus (namesake of the Julio-Claudian dynasty). See what I mean about “objective” history?
The story of Romulus and Remus was probably originally unconnected with Aeneas and Troy; it was almost certainly a home grown tale whose origins cannot now be known. Taken as historical figures, which is unwarranted but still makes a comeback now and again, Romulus and Remus would have been born around 771 BCE.
Romulus and Remus’ mother was Rhea Silvia, daughter to Numitor, king of Alba Longa (legendary predecessor city to Rome). Before their conception, Numitor’s brother Amulius seizes power, kills Numitor’s male heirs and forces Rhea Silvia to become a Vestal Virgin, sworn to chastity. Rhea Silvia conceives the twins by the god Mars, or by the demi-god Hercules. Once the twins are born, Amulius has them abandoned to die in the river Tiber. They are saved by a series of miraculous interventions: the river carries them to safety, a she-wolf finds and suckles them, and a woodpecker feeds them. A shepherd, Faustulus, and his wife, Acca Laurentia, find them and foster them to manhood, as simple shepherds. The twins, still ignorant of their true origins, prove to be natural leaders. Each acquires many followers. When they discover the truth of their birth, they kill Amulius and restore Numitor to his throne. Rather than wait to inherit Alba Longa, they choose to found a new city.
Romulus wants to found the new city on the Palatine Hill; Remus prefers the Aventine Hill. They agree to determine the site through augury but when each claims the results in his own favor, they quarrel and Romulus kills Remus. Romulus founds the new city, names it Rome, after himself, and creates its first legions and senate. The new city grows rapidly, swelled by landless refugees. Because most of them are male, and unmarried, Romulus arranges the abduction of women from the neighboring Sabines (who will not willingly part with their daughters). This event is captured in numerous paintings usually called the Rape of the Sabine Women. Here “rape” is an archaic term for abduction and not sexual assault. In David’s painting Romulus’ wife is depicted preventing bloodshed between the warring sides.
Legend has it that the Sabines and Romans reconciled and joined forces as one Roman people. Thanks to divine favor and Romulus’ inspired leadership, Rome becomes a dominant force, but Romulus himself becomes increasingly autocratic, and disappears or dies in mysterious circumstances. In later forms of the tale, he ascends to heaven, and is identified with Quirinus, the divine personification of the Roman people.
The legend as a whole encapsulates Rome’s ideas of itself, its origins and moral values. For modern scholarship, it remains one of the most complex and problematic of all foundation legends, particularly in the matter and manner of Remus’ death. Many variants exist, including a version that when Romulus and Remus were planning the layout of the city Romulus outlined the city boundaries, where the walls would be built, using a plough. Remus mocks Romulus by leaping over the ploughed outlines saying that any invader could scale the walls. At this point Romulus, furious, slays Remus. Regardless of the specifics, Rome is portrayed as founded in the shadow of fratricide which became symbolic of Rome’s endless internal political struggles and civil wars.
Ancient historians had no doubt that Romulus gave his name to the city. Most modern historians believe his name is a deliberate back-formation from the name Rome. The basis for Remus’ name and role remain subjects of ancient and modern speculation. The legend was fully developed into something like an official chronological version in the late Republican and early Imperial era. Roman historians dated the city’s foundation to between 758 and 728 BCE, and Plutarch reckoned the twins’ birth year at c. 27/28 March 771 BC. The image of the she-wolf suckling the divinely fathered twins became an iconic representation of the city and its founding legend.
The national epic of imperial Rome, Virgil’s Aeneid, tells the story of how the Trojan prince Aeneas came to Italy. The Aeneid was written during the reign of Augustus, who claimed ancestry through Julius Caesar from the hero and his mother Venus. According to the Aeneid, the survivors from the fallen city of Troy banded together under Aeneas, underwent a series of adventures around the Mediterranean Sea, including a stop at newly founded Carthage under the rule of Queen Dido, and eventually reached the Italian coast. The Trojans were said to have landed in an area between modern Anzio and Fiumicino, southwest of Rome. Sometimes the site is called Laurentum, or in other versions, Lavinium, a place named for Lavinia, the daughter of King Latinus, whom Aeneas married. The marriage started a series of armed conflicts with Turnus who had previously been betrothed to Lavinia. Aeneas won the war and killed Turnus.
The Trojans won the right to stay and to assimilate with the local peoples. The young son of Aeneas, Ascanius, also known as Iulus, went on to found Alba Longa and the line of Alban kings who filled the chronological gap between the Trojan saga and the traditional founding of Rome in the 8th century BCE.
Toward the end of this line, King Procas had two sons, Numitor and Amulius. At Procas’ death, Numitor became king of Alba Longa, but Amulius captured him and sent him to prison. He also forced Numitor’s daughter, Rhea Silvia, to become a virgin priestess among the Vestals. For many years Amulius was then the king. The tortured nature of the chronology is indicated by Rhea Silvia’s ordination among the Vestals, whose order was traditionally said to have been founded by the successor of Romulus, Numa Pompilius. This awkward piece is necessary to link the line of Aeneas to that of Romulus.
During the Roman Republic, several dates were given for the founding of the city between 753 BC and 728 BC. Finally, under the Roman Empire, the date suggested by Marcus Terentius Varro, 753 BC, was agreed upon, but in the annals, Fasti Capitolini, the year given was 752. Although the proposed years varied, all versions agreed that the city was founded on April 21, the day of the festival sacred to Pales, goddess of shepherds. In her honor, Rome celebrated the Par ilia (or Palilia). The Roman a.u.c. calendar, begins with Varro’s dating of 753 BC.
Archaeology offers a chance of sorting out the historical details of the founding of Rome, and recent discoveries on Palatine Hill in Rome have offered solid evidence. Excavations have revealed a series of fortification walls on the north slope of Palatine Hill that can be dated to the middle of the 8th century BCE, which accords with the chronology of the legend concerning Romulus and Remus. However, very recent discoveries may push the date back a century.
According to archeological discoveries, the original Italic people who were the direct ancestors of Romans inhabited the Alban Hills. They later moved down into the river valleys, which provided better land for agriculture as the domestication of plants developed. The area around the Tiber river was particularly advantageous and offered notable strategic resources: the river was a natural border on one side, and the hills could provide a safe defensive position on the other side. This position would also have enabled the inhabitants to control the river and the commercial and military traffic on it from the natural observation point at Isola Tiberina. Moreover, road traffic could be controlled, since Rome was at the intersection of the principal roads to the sea coming from Sabinum (in the northeast) and Etruria (to the northwest).
The development of the town is presumed to have started from the development of separate small villages, located at the top of hills, that eventually joined together to form Rome. Although recent studies suggest that the Quirinal hill was very important in ancient times, the first hill to be inhabited seems to have been the Palatine (therefore confirming the legend in part), which is also at the center of ancient Rome. Its three peaks, the minor hills (Cermalus or Germalus, Palatium, and Velia), were united with the three peaks of the Esquiline (Cispius, Fagutal, and Oppius), and then with villages on the Caelian Hill and Suburra. These hills had expressive names. The Caelian Hill was also called Querquetulanus, from “quercus”” (oak), and “fagutal” (comes from “fagus” meaning “beech”). Recent discoveries revealed that the Germalus on the northern part of the Palatine was the site of a village (dated to the 9th century BCE) with circular or elliptic dwellings. It was protected by a clay wall (perhaps reinforced with wood), and it is likely that this is where Rome was really founded.
The territory of this federation was surrounded by a sacred border called the pomerium, which enclosed the so-called Roma quadrata (Square Rome). This border was extended to include the Capitoline Hill and Tiber Island when Rome became an oppidum, or fortified town. The Esquiline remained a satellite village that was included within Rome at a time of later expansion.
There are no recipes surviving from the earliest inhabitants of Rome, nor from neighboring peoples such as the Etruscans and Sabines. But archeology gives us a good list of ingredients based on pollen found at excavation sites. Most are vegetables and grains you might expect, but it was spelt that caught my attention when thinking about recipes. Spelt, also known as dinkel wheat, or hulled wheat, is a species of wheat cultivated since the fifth millennium BCE. Spelt was an important staple in parts of Europe from the Bronze Age to medieval times. It now survives as a relict crop in central Europe and northern Spain and has found a new market as a health food. You can find it in some health food stores and also online. It is no longer used regularly because it has a low gluten content and so is not suitable for most bread recipes. However, it does have some gluten so it is not suitable for people who have a reaction to gluten. Bulgar wheat would make an adequate substitute.
Spelt was probably used in ancient times to make a porridge which got me thinking about spelt soup which is still a favorite in Tuscany. Here is a recipe from Tuscany that I have modified to eliminate New World ingredients such as beans and tomatoes. If you like you can add broad beans (fava beans) to the soup which would be historically accurate. Modern Tuscans grate Parmesan cheese over the soup at serving time. I doubt this was done in antiquity, but you can if you like.
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 small fennel bulb, cored and finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for serving
2 cups spelt
2 cloves garlic minced fine
salt and freshly ground black pepper
12 cups water or chicken broth
½ head escarole, leaves torn into bite-size pieces
Heat the olive oil in a heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add the spelt and cook, stirring regularly until the grains have browned. Be careful not to let any of them blacken in the process, no more than 5 minutes.
Add the onion, fennel, carrot, celery, and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have softened.
Add broth or water to the pot and add salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, partially covered, until the spelt is tender. This should take about 1 hour.
Stir the escarole into the soup and cook until wilted.
Serve in deep bowls and have olive oil available to add if desired.
Today is the birthday (43 BCE) of Publius Ovidius Naso, known as Ovid in the English-speaking world, a Roman poet best known for the Metamorphoses, a 15-volume mythological narrative in epic verse, and for collections of love poetry in elegiac couplets, especially the Amores (“Love Affairs”) and Ars Amatoria (“Art of Love”). His poetry was much imitated during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and greatly influenced Western art and literature. The Metamorphoses remains one of the most important sources of classical mythology. Ovid is traditionally ranked alongside Virgil and Horace, his older contemporaries, as one of the three canonic poets of Latin literature. He was the first major Roman poet to begin his career during the reign of Augustus, and the Imperial scholar Quintilian considered him the last of the Latin love elegists. He enjoyed enormous popularity, but in one of the mysteries of literary history he was sent by Augustus into exile in a remote province on the Black Sea, where he remained until his death. Ovid himself attributes his exile to carmen et error, “a poem and a mistake,” but his discretion in discussing the causes has resulted in much speculation among scholars.
Ovid was born in Sulmo (modern Sulmona), in an Apennine valley east of Rome, to a well known equestrian family, a class that ranked above plebeians and below patricians. His father wished him to study rhetoric toward the practice of law, so he was educated in rhetoric in Rome under the teachers Arellius Fuscus and Porcius Latro with his brother who excelled at oratory. According to Seneca the Elder, Ovid tended to the emotional, not the argumentative pole of rhetoric. After the death of his brother at 20 years of age, Ovid renounced law and began travelling to Athens, Asia Minor, and Sicily. He held minor public posts, as one of the tresviri capitals (prison officers), as a member of the Centumviral court (chancery court) and as one of the decemviri stlitibus iudicandis (civil judges), but resigned to pursue poetry probably around 29–25 BCE, a decision of which his father apparently disapproved.
His first poetic recitation has been dated to around 25 BC, when Ovid was eighteen. He was part of the circle centered on the patron Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, and seems to have been a friend of poets in the circle of Maecenas. In Tristia 4.10.41–54, Ovid mentions friendships with Macer, Propertius, Horace, Ponticus and Bassus (he only barely met Virgil and Tibullus, a fellow member of Messalla’s circle whose elegies he admired greatly). Ovid was very popular at the time of his early works, but was later exiled by Augustus in AD 8. He married three times and divorced twice by the time he was thirty years old. He had one daughter, who eventually bore him grandchildren. His last wife was connected in some way to the influential gens (clan) Fabia and would help him during his exile in Tomis.
The first 25 years of Ovid’s literary career were spent primarily writing poetry in elegiac meter with erotic themes. The chronology of these early works is not completely certain, but his earliest extant work is thought to be the Heroides, letters of mythological heroines to their absent lovers, which may have been published in 19 BCE. The first five-book collection of the Amores, a series of erotic poems addressed to a lover, Corinna, is thought to have been published in 16–15 BCE; the surviving version, redacted to three books according to an epigram prefixed to the first book, is thought to have been published c. 8–3 BCE. Between the publications of the two editions of the Amores can be dated the premiere of his tragedy Medea, which was admired in antiquity but is no longer extant.
Ovid’s next poem, the Medicamina Faciei, a fragmentary work on women’s beauty treatments, preceded the Ars Amatoria, the Art of Love, a parody of didactic poetry (including advice such as “do not forget her birthday”), and a three-book manual about seduction and intrigue, which has been dated to 2 CE (Books 1–2 go back to 1 BCE). Ovid may have identified this work as the carmen, or song, which was one cause of his banishment. The Ars Amatoria was followed by the Remedia Amoris in the same year. This elegiac, erotic poetry earned Ovid a place among the chief Roman elegists Gallus, Tibullus, and Propertius, of whom he saw himself as the fourth member.
By 8 CE, he had completed his most ambitious work, the Metamorphoses, a hexameter epic poem in 15 books which encyclopedically catalogs transformations in Greek and Roman mythology from the emergence of the cosmos to the deification of Julius Caesar. The stories follow each other in telling of human beings transformed to new bodies: trees, rocks, animals, flowers, constellations etc. At the same time, he was working on the Fasti, a 12 volume poem in elegiac couplets which took as its theme the calendar of Roman festivals and astronomy. Only 6 volumes were completed The composition of this poem was interrupted by Ovid’s exile, and it is thought that Ovid abandoned work on the piece in Tomis.
In 8 CE, Ovid was banished to Tomis, on the Black Sea, by the exclusive order of the Emperor Augustus, without any participation of the Senate or of any Roman judge. This event shaped all of his following poetry. Ovid wrote that the reason for his exile was carmen et error – “a poem and a mistake” that his crime was worse than murder, more harmful than poetry. We know no more than that, which tells us very little. The Emperor’s grandchildren, Julia the Younger and Agrippa Postumus (the latter adopted by him), were also banished around the same time. Julia’s husband, Lucius Aemilius Paullus, was put to death for conspiracy against Augustus. That Augustus allowed Ovid to live suggests that whatever his crime was, it was unlikely to have been directed against Augustus per se. Most modern critics think that it had something to do with Augustus’ distaste for the rather loose morals of Ovid’s love poems at a time when the emperor was trying to clean up marriage in Rome in order to make the society more stable. But in the end, it is useless to speculate without more information.
In exile, Ovid wrote two poetry collections titled Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, illustrating his sadness and desolation. Being far from Rome, he had no access to libraries, and thus might have been forced to abandon the Fasti poem about the Roman calendar, of which only the first six books exist – January through June. The five books of the elegiac Tristia, a series of poems expressing the poet’s despair in exile and advocating his return to Rome, are dated to 9–12 CE. The Ibis, an elegiac curse poem attacking an adversary at home, may also be dated to this period. The Epistulae ex Ponto, a series of letters to friends in Rome asking them to effect his return, are thought to be his last compositions, with the first three books published in 13 CE and the fourth book between 14 and 16 CE. The exile poetry is particularly emotive and personal. In the Epistulae he claims friendship with the native people of Tomis (in the Tristia they are frightening barbarians) and to have written a poem in their language (Ex P. 4.13.19–20). And yet he pined for Rome and for his third wife; many of the poems are addressed to her. Some are also to the Emperor Augustus, yet others are to himself, to friends in Rome, and sometimes to the poems themselves, expressing loneliness and hope of recall from banishment or exile.
Ovid died at Tomis in 17 or 18 CE. It is thought that the Fasti, which he spent time revising, were published posthumously. He was allegedly buried a few kilometers away in a nearby town.
The Metamorphoses is a sprawling work that explores the world from the beginning of time down to the life of Julius Caesar. It is a source, not only for tales of Greek and Roman sacred history, but also for historical narratives concerning people in the classical world who lived close to the time of Ovid. Book 15 has extensive discussions on Pythagoras and his work; 11 of 18 sections in this book are directly about Pythagoras’ philosophy. Among other things, Pythagoras was a vegetarian (as were many of his followers), and Ovid provides us with his justifications for such an unusual stance to take at that time:
Human beings, stop desecrating your bodies with impious foodstuffs. There are crops; there are apples weighing down the branches; and ripening grapes on the vines; there are flavorsome herbs; and those that can be rendered mild and gentle over the flames; and you do not lack flowing milk; or honey fragrant from the flowering thyme. The earth, prodigal of its wealth, supplies you with gentle sustenance, and offers you food without killing or shedding blood.
Flesh satisfies the wild beast’s hunger, though not all of them, since horses, sheep and cattle live on grasses, but those that are wild and savage: Armenian tigers, raging lions, and wolves and bears, enjoy food wet with blood. Oh, how wrong it is for flesh to be made from flesh; for a greedy body to fatten, by swallowing another body; for one creature to live by the death of another creature! So amongst such riches, that earth, the greatest of mothers, yields, you are not happy unless you tear, with cruel teeth, at pitiful wounds, recalling Cyclops’s practice, and you cannot satisfy your voracious appetite, and your restless hunger, unless you destroy other life!
But that former age, that we call golden, was happy with the fruit from the trees, and the herbs the earth produced, and did not defile its lips with blood.
There is no evidence that Ovid was a vegetarian but I thought it might be suitable, based on this excerpt, to give a recipe for an ancient Roman vegetarian dish – broad beans and leeks with cilantro. Something similar can be found here, although the latter is a recipe for mussels where the leeks and cilantro are merely flavoring agents. The recipe I give here is my own adaptation from Apicius’ De Re Conquinaria which gives a list of ingredients and not much else. Liquamen was a sauce made by fermenting fish, and was very common in classical era cooking. It was primarily a source of salt to season the dish. I use a diluted mix of Thai fish sauce (phrik nam pla) and water as a substitute. You will find many attempts to convert Apicius’ recipe for the modern kitchen, but they all make the same mistake; they list string beans as the main ingredient. This is absurd because all string beans were domesticated in the New World, and taken to the Old World in the sixteenth century. Ovid’s “green beans” are fresh broad beans (fava beans). However, when I made this dish I was forced back on string beans myself because broad beans are not in season yet. I ended up making it into a soup and then as a sauce for pasta. It can accompany a variety of meat and fish dishes.