May 022016


Today is the birthday (1660) of Alessandro Scarlatti, a Sicilian Baroque composer, especially famous for his operas and chamber cantatas. He is generally considered the founder of the Neapolitan school of opera. He was the father of two other composers, Domenico Scarlatti and Pietro Filippo Scarlatti.

Scarlatti was born in Palermo, then part of the Kingdom of Sicily. He is generally said to have been a pupil of Giacomo Carissimi in Rome, and some theorize that he had some connexion with northern Italy because his early works seem to show the influence of Stradella and Legrenzi. The production in Rome of his opera Gli Equivoci nell sembiante (1679) gained him the support of Queen Christina of Sweden (who at the time was living in Rome), and he became her maestro di cappella (choirmaster). In February 1684 he became maestro di cappella to the viceroy of Naples, perhaps through the influence of his sister, an opera singer, who might have been the mistress of an influential Neapolitan noble. In Naples he produced a long series of operas as well as music for state occasions.


In 1702 Scarlatti left Naples and did not return until the Spanish domination had been superseded by that of the Austrians. In the interval he enjoyed the patronage of Ferdinando de’ Medici, for whose private theater near Florence he composed operas, and of Cardinal Ottoboni, who made him his maestro di cappella, and procured him a similar post at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome in 1703.

After visiting Venice and Urbino in 1707, Scarlatti took up his duties in Naples again in 1708, and remained there until 1717. By this time Naples seems to have become tired of his music. The Romans, however, appreciated it better, and it was at the Teatro Capranica in Rome that he produced some of his best-known operas (Telemaco, 1718; Marco Attilio Regolò, 1719; La Griselda, 1721), as well as some well-received church music, including a mass for chorus and orchestra, composed in honor of Saint Cecilia for Cardinal Acquaviva in 1721. His last work on a large scale appears to have been the unfinished serenata for the marriage of the prince of Stigliano in 1723. He died in Naples in 1725.


Scarlatti’s music forms an important link between the early Baroque Italian vocal styles of the 17th century, with their centers in Florence, Venice and Rome, and the classical school of the 18th century. Scarlatti’s style, however, is more than a transitional element in Western music. He has tended to be forgotten by modern audiences, and many of his pieces exist in manuscript only. But I have always enjoyed his harpsichord compositions in their own right. For example:

Scarlatti composed upwards of 500 chamber-cantatas for solo voice. These represent the most intellectual type of chamber-music of their period, and it is regrettable that they have remained almost entirely in manuscript. His few remaining Masses, are generally not deemed important enough to rival those of Bach or Beethoven  So much for the experts.


Sicilian cuisine shows influences from the Italian mainland, but is definitely different from what outsiders normally perceive of as Italian food. In particular maccu, (also known as maccu di fave, and sometimes referred to as macco), is a favorite of mine even though it is now hard to find. In its most basic form, maccu is a Sicilian soup that is prepared with dried and crushed fava beans (known in Britain as broad beans) and fennel as primary ingredients. It can be very hard to find the right kind of fava beans outside of Sicily. I can get them in northern Italy, but I have never seen them elsewhere.

Before the European exploration of the Americas, fava beans and lentils were the primary legumes used in cooking in the Mediterranean. The best fava beans for maccu are hulled and split before they are dried.

Maccu is known to have been made in some form by ancient Romans but is now rare to in Sicily, although it occasionally appears on restaurant menus there. There are also several Sicialian dishes that use maccu as an ingredient, such as Bruschetta al maccú and Maccu di San Giuseppe. The maccu is traditionally dried and sliced as a preparatory step. It can then be breaded and deep fried.

Classic maccu is very easy to make if you have the right ingredients. I made it for lunch today.



Cover the right kind of split fava beans (that is, hulled) with broth in a large saucepan. Add a splash of extra virgin olive oil, along with some crushed fennel seeds and fresh fennel fronds, chopped, and simmer gently for about 2 hours. That’s all there is to it. You can mash up a few beans to thicken the broth if you like, and serve in deep bowls with crusty bread.

There are limitless variations, however. Many Sicilians add small pasta to the broth about 20 minutes before serving time. Some add tomatoes or other vegetables, such as zucchini. It’s really cook’s choice.  Just be sure that the flavors or fava beans, fennel, and olive oil predominate. This is not a generic vegetable soup.