Mar 112017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luccio in Salsa

Ingredients

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

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

Instructions

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

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

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

Serve with toasted polenta.

May 182016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sbrisolona 

Ingredients

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

Instructions

Heat the oven to 170°F.

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

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

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

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

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

Apr 252014
 

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Today is the feast day of St Mark the Evangelist, author of the Gospel of Mark. He is one of the Seventy Disciples, and the supposed founder of the Church of Alexandria, one of the original three main episcopal sees of Christianity. No one can be sure of the actual identity of Mark but there are certain conjectures of long standing that have been accepted, for no really good reason, for centuries. The conventional belief is that Mark the Evangelist is the same person as John Mark who is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 12:12, 25; 13:5, 13; 15:37). Sometimes he is also conflated with Mark, the cousin of Barnabas (Col 4:10; Philm 1:24), but most modern scholars consider this unwarranted. Nowadays the identification of Mark the Evangelist with John Mark is the scholarly consensus, but there are skeptics (myself included). A great many debates in theological circles hinge on who exactly Mark was. Was he an eyewitness to events in the life of Jesus? Was he a follower of Paul and/or Peter without direct experience of Jesus? Was he a scribe who collated oral and written traditions into a continuous narrative? The first is highly unlikely, the second is a possibility, the third seems to me most likely.

Scholars have favored the identification of Mark the Evangelist with John Mark of the Acts because he seems to be a significant figure in the early church. Here’s what we know about him from Acts:

    When [Peter] realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.[Acts 12:12]

   And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, bringing with them John whose other name was Mark.[Acts 12:25]

   When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them.[Acts 13:5]

   Now Paul and his company set sail from Paphos, and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem; but they passed on from Perga and came to Antioch of Pisidia.[Acts 13:13–14]

   And Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp contention, so that they separated from each other; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord.[Acts 15:37–40]

My first essay for my Greek Bible tutor at Oxford was “Does it matter whether Mark the Evangelist was John Mark?” (He believed he was). Well, yes it does, but at 19 I had no clue how to answer this question; I have pondered it a great deal in the intervening years. The reason it does is that if the gospel writer is John Mark we can speculate on his motives for writing the gospel. For starters, John Mark vehemently disagreed with Paul, so chances are the gospel is some kind of riposte to Paul’s teachings. It is known that Paul disagreed with the apostles in Jerusalem on several occasions, and the solution was for the apostles to continue working in Jerusalem, and for Paul to go on missionary expeditions throughout the Mediterranean. Probably the chief issue was whether “the way” – the earliest name for Christianity – was for Jews only (the apostles), or whether it should be spread to the gentile world (Paul).

If the gospel writer is John Mark then he was a friend of Peter’s, which would explain Peter’s prominence in the gospel. It would also explain why the gospel was written in Greek, yet the author is very familiar with Aramaic (Jesus’ native language). He frequently translates Aramaic sayings into Greek. But we also have to accept the fact that John and Mark (Marcus) were very common names in the 1st century, and, therefore, the gospel writer could have been any one of them.

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There are a great many traditions surrounding Mark the Evangelist, chief of which is that in 49 CE he traveled to Alexandria where he founded the Church of Alexandria, which today is part of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Aspects of the Coptic liturgy are supposed to be attributable to Mark himself, although this is pure conjecture. Because of these traditions, Mark is celebrated as the first bishop of Alexandria and honored as the founder of Christianity in Africa.

In 828, relics believed to be the body of St. Mark were stolen from Alexandria by Venetian merchants and taken to Venice. A mosaic in St Mark’s Basilica depicts sailors covering the relics with a layer of pork and cabbage leaves. Since Muslims are not permitted to touch pork, this was done to prevent the guards from inspecting the ship’s cargo too closely. The possession of a truly important relic could have serious political consequences. When the body of St Mark came to Venice, the previous patron saint of the city, St Theodore, was demoted. The Doge of the day began to build a splendid church to contain the relics next to his palace, the original San Marco. With an evangelist on its territory, Venice acquired a status almost equal to that of Rome itself. To this day St Mark’s Day is a major festival in Venice.

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In 1063, during the construction of a new basilica in Venice, St. Mark’s relics could not be found. However, according to tradition, in 1094 the saint himself revealed the location of his remains by extending an arm from a pillar. The newfound remains were placed in a sarcophagus in the basilica.

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In art, Mark is represented sometimes as a young man sometimes as an old one, sometimes dressed in a bishop’s habit, with a lion at his feet and a scroll with words “Peace be to thee, O Mark, My Evangelist.” He holds a pen in his right hand and the Gospel in his left. He can also be represented seated on a throne decorated with lions, or else helping Venetian sailors.

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For the sake of variety I will celebrate Mark with a modern recipe from Alexandria rather than an ancient one. Alexandrian liver is a popular dish throughout Egypt. It is commonly found in major cities sold by street vendors with fresh chiles, lime wedges, and warm pita. It is easily made at home. Just be sure not to overcook the liver.

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Alexandrian Liver

Ingredients

? cup cooking oil
1 lb/500 gm calf’s liver, chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 large green bell pepper, chopped
1 hot red pepper, seeded and chopped (more if desired)
1 ½ tbsps powdered cumin
½ tsp powdered cinnamon
¼ tsp powdered ginger
¼ tsp powdered cloves
¼ tsp powdered cardamom
Juice of one lime or lemon
1 tsp salt

Instructions

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over high heat until it reaches the smoking point. Make sure the liver is dry by patting with paper towels.  Add the liver to the hot oil and sauté quickly until it lightly browns.

Add all the other ingredients and continue to cook on high heat from 1-2 minutes. Then cover the pan and cook over medium heat for another 10-15 minutes until the liver is cooked through but not dry.

Serve with warm pita or crusty bread.

Serves 4