Jan 122018

Today is the birthday (1856) of John Singer Sargent, called an “American” artist because his parents were U.S. citizens, but he actually spent almost none of his life in North America. In his day he was considered by many to be the leading portrait painter of his generation, but subsequently his work tended to be overlooked because the portraiture he is best known for was, for a long time, considered rather old fashioned for the period, and place, he worked in, which was known more for Impressionism. Interest in his work increased in the late 20th century as his oeuvre was explored more fully, and it became evident that it is much more varied than is known by the general public (or at least those who care at all).

Before Sargent’s birth, his father, FitzWilliam, was an eye surgeon at the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia from 1844 to 1854. After John’s older sister died at the age of two, his mother, Mary, suffered a mental breakdown, and the couple decided to go abroad to help her recover. They remained nomadic expatriates for the rest of their lives. Although based in Paris, Sargent’s parents moved regularly with the seasons to the sea and the mountain resorts in France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. While Mary was pregnant with John, they stopped in Florence to avoid a cholera epidemic, and Sargent was born there in 1856. A year later, his sister Mary was born. After her birth, FitzWilliam reluctantly resigned his post in Philadelphia and accepted his wife’s preference for them to remain abroad. They lived modestly on a small inheritance and savings, living a quiet life with their children. They generally avoided society and other U.S. citizens except for friends in the art world. The couple had 4 more children, two of whom died in childhood.

Sargent’s mother was convinced that traveling around Europe, and visiting museums and churches, would give young Sargent a satisfactory education. Several attempts to have him formally schooled failed, owing mostly to their itinerant life. Sargent’s mother was a fine amateur artist and his father was a skilled medical illustrator. Early on, she gave him sketchbooks and encouraged drawing excursions. Young Sargent worked with care on his drawings, and he enthusiastically copied images from The Illustrated London News of ships and made detailed sketches of landscapes. FitzWilliam had hoped that his son’s interest in ships and the sea might lead him toward a naval career.

At 13, his mother reported that, “John sketches quite nicely, & has a remarkably quick and correct eye. If we could afford to give him really good lessons, he would soon be quite a little artist.” Around that time, he received some watercolor lessons from Carl Welsch, a German landscape painter. His formal schooling was rather erratic, but Sargent turned into a well-educated young man, accomplished in art, music, and literature. He was fluent in French, Italian, and German. At 17, Sargent was described as “willful, curious, determined and strong, yet shy, generous, and modest.” He was well-acquainted with many of the great masters from first hand observation, and wrote in 1874, “I have learned in Venice to admire Tintoretto immensely and to consider him perhaps second only to Michelangelo and Titian.”

An attempt to study at the Academy of Florence failed because the school was re-organizing at the time, so, after returning to Paris from Florence, Sargent began his art studies with Carolus-Duran, who was on a meteoric rise at the time, and studied with him from 1874 to 1878. In 1874, on his first attempt, Sargent passed the rigorous exam required to gain admission to the École des Beaux-Arts, the premier art school in France. He took drawing classes, which included anatomy and perspective. Sargent also took some lessons from Léon Bonnat.

Carolus-Duran’s atelier was progressive, dispensing with the traditional academic approach, which required careful drawing and underpainting, in favor of the alla prima method of working directly on the canvas with a loaded brush, derived from Diego Velázquez. It was an approach that relied on the proper placement of tones of paint. This approach also permitted spontaneous flourishes of color not bound to an under-drawing. Sargent’s early enthusiasm was for landscapes, not portraiture, as evidenced by his voluminous sketches full of mountains, seascapes, and buildings. Carolus-Duran’s expertise in portraiture finally influenced Sargent in that direction. Commissions for history paintings were still considered more prestigious, but were much harder to get. Portrait painting, on the other hand, was the best way of promoting an art career, getting exhibited in the Salon, and gaining commissions to earn a livelihood.

Sargent’s first major portrait was of his friend Fanny Watts in 1877, and was also his first Salon admission. Its particularly well-executed pose drew attention. His second salon entry was the Oyster Gatherers of Cançale, an impressionistic painting of which he made two copies. In 1879, at the age of 23, Sargent painted a portrait of teacher Carolus-Duran; the virtuoso effort met with public approval, and announced the direction his mature work would take. Its showing at the Paris Salon was both a tribute to his teacher and an advertisement for portrait commissions. Of Sargent’s early work, Henry James wrote that the artist offered “the slightly ‘uncanny’ spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn.”

After leaving Carolus-Duran’s atelier, Sargent visited Spain. There he studied the paintings of Velázquez, absorbing his technique, and in his travels gathered ideas for future works. He was entranced with Spanish music and dance. The trip also re-awakened his own talent for music, and which found visual expression in his early masterpiece El Jaleo (1882). Music would continue to play a major part in his social life as well, as he was a skillful accompanist of both amateur and professional musicians. Sargent became a strong advocate for modern composers, especially Gabriel Fauré. Trips to Italy provided sketches and ideas for several Venetian street scenes genre paintings, which effectively captured gestures and postures he would find useful in later portraiture.

Upon his return to Paris, Sargent quickly received several portrait commissions, and his career was launched. He immediately demonstrated the concentration and stamina that enabled him to paint with workman-like steadiness for the next 25 years. He filled in the gaps between commissions with many non-commissioned portraits of friends and colleagues.

I won’t belabor the history of Sargent’s career more. Instead, I will look at 3 significant works.

Portrait of Madame X

This portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau caused a major scandal when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1884. Mme Gautreau was well known in Parisian social circles for using her beauty to advantage, and engaging in “infelicities.” She was sought after by numerous portraitists, because of the notoriety a painting of her would secure the artist. Sargent went beyond the bounds of polite society, however, by deliberately painting her in a seductive pose wearing a provocative dress. The plunging neckline, oceans of bare skin, and come-hither stance were scandalous enough for late-19th-century Parisians, but in the original Sargent also painted the right strap of her dress hanging down over her arm, which was considered to be outrageously salacious. For a time Mme Gautreau had to retire from public, even though Sargent did not name her on the portrait. She was well known without being identified. In addition, Sargent’s commissions in France dried up completely, and so he moved to London where he flourished.

Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood

On a visit to Monet at Giverny in 1885, Sargent painted one of his most Impressionistic portraits: Monet at work painting outdoors with his new wife nearby. Sargent is usually not thought of as an Impressionist painter, but he sometimes used Impressionist techniques. This is his own version of the Impressionist style which he continued using into the late 1880s, after his visit to Monet. Monet later wrote on Sargent’s style: “He is not an Impressionist in the sense that we use the word, he is too much under the influence of Carolus-Duran.”


In May 1918, Sargent was one of several painters commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee of the British Ministry of Information to create a large painting for a planned Hall of Remembrance. The plan for a Hall of Remembrance decorated by large paintings was abandoned when the project was incorporated with that for Imperial War Museum. Although he was 62 years old, he travelled to the Western Front in July 1918, accompanied by Henry Tonks. He spent time with the Guards Division near Arras, and then with the American Expeditionary Forces near Ypres. He was determined to paint an epic work with many human figures, but struggled to find a situation with American and British figures in the same scene. On 11 September 1918, Sargent wrote to Evan Charteris:

The Ministry of Information expects an epic – and how can one do an epic without masses of men? Excepting at night I have only seen three fine subjects with masses of men – one a harrowing sight, a field full of gassed and blindfolded men – another a train of trucks packed with “chair à cannon” – and another frequent sight a big road encumbered with troops and traffic, I daresay the latter, combining English and Americans, is the best thing to do, if it can be prevented from looking like going to the Derby.

The “harrowing sight” referred to the aftermath of a German barrage that Sargent witnessed on 21 August 1918, at Le Bac-du-Sud, between Arras and Doullens, in which mustard gas had been used against the advancing 99th Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division and 8th Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division of the British Army, during the Second Battle of Arras of 1918. You can see his deliberate homage to Breughel (The Blind Leading the Blind):

Sargent’s painting is huge, and, for me, is haunting, and captivates the horrors of the Great War. Curiously, in its day it had a remarkably mixed reception. Virginia Woolf, for example, described it as annoyingly patriotic, and E.M. Forster called it “too heroic.” I don’t see that at all. What was in their heads?

Sargent’s Birthday Party, is perhaps not as well known as his portraiture. It shows his mix of Realism and Impressionism, and also his characteristic use of color – especially the contrast of red and white, which you find in numerous portraits. So I thought that a characteristic (American) red and white cake would be appropriate for celebrating his birthday: the classic red velvet cake.

Red Velvet Cake



½ cup shortening
1 ½ cups white sugar
2 eggs
2 tbsp cocoa
4 tbsp red food coloring
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
2 ½ cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking soda
1 tbsp distilled white vinegar


5 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
1 cup white sugar
1 cup butter, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract


Preheat the oven to 350˚F/175˚C.

Grease two 9-inch round pans.

For the cake: Beat the shortening and 1 ½ cups sugar together until they are very light and fluffy. Add the eggs slowly and beat well. Make a paste of the cocoa and red food coloring and beat into the creamed mixture.

In a separate bowl, mix the salt, 1 teaspoon vanilla, and buttermilk together. Add the flour to the batter, alternating with the buttermilk mixture, mixing just until incorporated. Mix the baking soda and vinegar in a cup and gently fold into the cake batter. Don’t beat or stir the batter after this point.

Pour the batter into the prepared pans. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool the cakes completely on a wire rack.

For the icing: Put 5 tablespoons flour and milk into a saucepan, whisk, and then cook over low heat until thick, stirring constantly. Let cool completely. While the mixture is cooling, beat 1 cup of sugar, butter, and 1 teaspoon vanilla until light and fluffy. Add the cooled flour and milk mixture and beat until the icing is a good spreading consistency.

Split the cakes into layers, spreading the icing thickly between each layer, and then over the top and sides of the cake.

May 032014


Today is the birthday of Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, Florentine historian, politician, diplomat, philosopher, humanist, and writer during the Italian Renaissance, which had its birth and flourished in the Florence of Machiavelli’s day. He was an official for many years in the Florentine Republic, with responsibilities in diplomatic and military affairs. He was a founder of modern political science, and, more specifically, political ethics. He also wrote comedies, carnival songs, and poetry. His personal correspondence is renowned in the Italian language. He was Secretary to the Second Chancery of the Republic of Florence from 1498 to 1512, when the Medici were out of power. He wrote his masterpiece, The Prince, after the Medici had recovered power and when he no longer held a position of responsibility in government.

“Machiavellian” is now a widely used negative term to characterize unscrupulous politicians of the sort Machiavelli described in The Prince. The book itself gained enormous notoriety and wide readership because the author seemed to be endorsing behavior deemed, even then, as immoral. Sadly, like so many other great thinkers, Machiavelli is often misread and misunderstood. I am not going to try to excuse the fact that he condoned the notion that the ends justify the means. He did say that if you have to murder a few people – or a lot – it was worth it if it produced peace and stability (although you might argue that murder is not the road to a peaceful and stable nation – I do!). The fact is, though, that Machiavelli lived in a time when murdering enemies was the norm among the rich and powerful of Florence. You could think of him, therefore, as a man of his times – making an argument that the political realities of his day were necessary evils. But it is also true that when you read more than just The Prince you can see that Machiavelli was a complex and profound thinker. The irony is that the man himself was far from Machiavellian.

Machiavelli was born in Florence, the third child and first son of a lawyer, Bernardo di Niccolò Machiavelli, and his wife, Bartolomea di Stefano Nelli. The Machiavelli family are believed to be descended from the old marquesses of Tuscany and to have produced thirteen Florentine Gonfalonieres of Justice, one of the offices of a group of nine citizens selected by drawing lots every two months and who formed the government, or Signoria. However, Machiavelli was never a full citizen of Florence, due to the nature of Florentine citizenship in that time, even under the republican regime.

Machiavelli was born in a tumultuous era—popes waged acquisitive wars against Italian city-states, and people and cities often fell from power. Along with the pope and the major cities like Venice and Florence, foreign powers such as France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and even Switzerland battled for regional influence and control. Political-military alliances continually changed, featuring condottieri (mercenary leaders), who changed sides without warning, and the rise and fall of many short-lived governments.

Machiavelli was taught grammar, rhetoric, and Latin. It is thought that he did not learn Greek, even though Florence was at the time one of the centers of Greek scholarship in Europe. In 1494, Florence restored the republic—expelling the Medici family, who had ruled Florence for sixty years. Shortly after the execution of Savonarola, Machiavelli was appointed to an office of the second chancery, a medieval writing office which put Machiavelli in charge of the production of official Florentine government documents. Shortly thereafter, he was also made the secretary of the Dieci di Libertà e Pace. In the first decade of the sixteenth century, he carried out several diplomatic missions: most notably to the papacy in Rome, in the Italian states. Moreover, from 1502 to 1503 he witnessed the brutal reality of the state-building methods of Cesare Borgia (1475–1507) and his father, Pope Alexander VI, who were then engaged in the process of trying to bring a large part of central Italy under their possession. The pretext of defending Church interests was used as a partial justification by the Borgias. Other excursions to the court of Louis XII and the Spanish court influenced his writings and appear in The Prince and several other of his non-fiction works.


Between 1503 and 1506, Machiavelli was responsible for the Florentine militia. He distrusted mercenaries. He explained his distrust in his official reports, and then later in his theoretical works, as being grounded in the fact that mercenaries fought for money and not for any belief in the cause they were fighting for, making their allegiance fickle, and often unreliable when most needed. Instead, he staffed his army with citizens, a policy which proved to be successful many times. Under his command, for example, Florentine citizen-soldiers defeated Pisa in 1509. But his success did not last. In August 1512, the Medici, helped by Pope Julius II, used Spanish troops to defeat the Florentines at Prato, although many historians have argued that this was due to Piero Soderini’s unwillingness to compromise with the Medici who were holding Prato under siege. In the wake of the siege, Piero Soderini resigned as Florentine head of state and left in exile. This experience would, like Machiavelli’s time in foreign courts and with the Borgias, heavily influence his political writings.

The Florentine city-state and the republic were dissolved, and Machiavelli was deprived of office in 1512 by the Medici. In 1513, the Medici accused him of conspiracy against the Medici family and had him imprisoned. Despite having been subjected to torture (“with the rope,” where the prisoner is hanged from his bound wrists, from the back, forcing the arms to bear the body’s weight, thus dislocating the shoulders), he denied involvement and was released after three weeks.

Machiavelli then retired to his estate at Sant’Andrea in Percussina (near San Casciano in Val di Pesa) and devoted himself to study and to the writing of the political treatises that earned his intellectual place in the development of political philosophy and political conduct. Lacking the opportunity to remain directly involved in political matters, Machiavelli began to participate in intellectual groups in Florence and wrote several plays that (unlike most of his works on political theory) were both popular and widely known in his lifetime. Still, politics remained his main passion and, to satisfy this interest, he maintained a well-known correspondence with better politically connected friends, attempting to become involved once again in political life.

In a letter to Francesco Vettori, he described his exile:

When evening comes, I go back home, and go to my study. On the threshold, I take off my work clothes, covered in mud and filth, and I put on the clothes an ambassador would wear. Decently dressed, I enter the ancient courts of rulers who have long since died. There, I am warmly welcomed, and I feed on the only food I find nourishing and was born to savor. I am not ashamed to talk to them and ask them to explain their actions and they, out of kindness, answer me. Four hours go by without my feeling any anxiety. I forget every worry. I am no longer afraid of poverty or frightened of death. I live entirely through them.


Machiavelli died in 1527 at the age of 58, after receiving his last rites. He is buried at the Church of Santa Croce in Florence. An epitaph honoring him is inscribed on his monument. The Latin legend reads: TANTO NOMINI NULLUM PAR ELOGIUM (loosely: “there is no eulogy suitable for so great a name”).

Machiavelli’s best-known book, The Prince (Il Principe), contains several maxims concerning politics, but instead of the more traditional subject of a hereditary prince, it concentrates on the possibility of a “new prince.” To retain power, the hereditary prince must carefully maintain the sociopolitical institutions to which the people are accustomed, whereas a new prince has the more difficult task in ruling – he must first stabilize his newfound power in order to build an enduring political structure. He asserted that the social benefits of stability and security could be achieved in various ways, including moral corruption. Aside from that, Machiavelli believed that public and private morality had to be understood as two different things in order to rule well. What works for the new prince in the pursuit of peace and prosperity for the state will not work on a personal level. A ruler must be concerned with his public reputation, of course, but also must be willing to act immorally at the right times. Thus, Machiavelli emphasized the occasional need for the methodical exercise of brute force and deceit.

Scholars often note that Machiavelli glorifies ruthless practicality in state building—an approach embodied by the saying that “the ends justify the means.” Violence may be necessary for the successful stabilization of power and introduction of new legal institutions. Force may be used to eliminate political rivals, to coerce resistant populations, and to purge the community of other men strong enough of character to rule, who will inevitably attempt to replace the ruler. Hence the term “Machiavellian.”

The Catholic Church banned The Prince, registering it to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Banned Books), and humanists also viewed the book negatively. Among them was Erasmus of Rotterdam, arguably the greatest humanist of his day. As a treatise, the book’s primary intellectual contribution to the history of political thought is its fundamental break with political idealism in favor of political realism. The Prince is a manual about acquiring and keeping political power. In contrast with Plato and Aristotle, Machiavelli insisted that an imaginary ideal society, as in Plato’s Republic, is not a model by which a prince can or should be guided.

I find Machiavelli’s philosophy in The Prince and other works perfectly repugnant, but I will say a couple of things in mitigation. First, he was working with the political tools at his disposal. Go back to my post on Lucrezia Borgia (18 April 2014), and you’ll get the point. Second, we have to understand that the acts he described as necessary to secure peace and stability really were immoral in his eyes. But they were in service of the big picture. The goal of the new prince was not self promotion and self enrichment. The new prince was servant to the best interests of the people. In this context Machiavelli posed the ethical dilemma that we still argue about to this day: is it justifiable to torture and kill one person if it will save the lives of thousands? My answer is a firm and unequivocal no. You cannot build a moral state on immorality. Corrupt political methods breed nothing but corruption. If we have learnt nothing else from history we ought to have learnt that one by now.

To commemorate Machiavelli and his home city, I present you with my version of eggs Florentine. “Florentine” in a culinary context means “using spinach.” So, technically, any dish featuring eggs and spinach can be termed “eggs Florentine.” I’ve seen recipes for the dish, for example, that are basically scrambled eggs and spinach. But the classic version is essentially eggs Benedict with the ham replaced with spinach. That is a toasted muffin topped with steamed spinach with a poached egg on top bathed in hollandaise sauce. I prefer to put the muffin (or toast) on the side, because no matter how gently you steam the spinach it always leaks juice which makes anything under it soggy.

I’m not going to give you a formal recipe. If you are an experienced cook you can figure it out from my description and from this picture (I made this for breakfast this morning).


The only tricky part is the hollandaise, which I will be precise about. It’s not complicated to make but you have to know what you are doing. You’ll need a whisk, a double boiler of some sort, egg yolks and butter. A hollandaise is a semi-cooked emulsion of egg and butter, and all emulsions are tricky. You are trying to combine two things that don’t want to mix.

The proportions for hollandaise are ¼ cup of softened or melted butter, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a splash of water for each egg yolk. Place the egg yolks in the top of a double boiler on your counter top while heating water in the bottom to a simmer. If you do not have a double boiler suspend a stainless steel or heatproof glass bowl over simmering water so that the bowl does not come in direct contact with the water (otherwise the yolks will scramble). Whisk the yolks, water, and lemon juice together so that you have a smooth mix. Add a small amount of butter, place them over the steaming water and whisk vigorously. As the butter melts and begins to emulsify with the yolks add more butter, a little at a time at first, then increasing the amount as the emulsion forms and the sauce thickens. You should end up with a sauce slightly thicker than heavy cream. Keep it warm whilst you poach the eggs and steam the spinach.

To make the dish, spoon a portion of spinach on a serving plate (I use a lot). Top with a poached egg and pour over it the hollandaise. I get very generous with the sauce too because it goes well with the spinach. Serve with buttered toast.

Sep 272013


Today is the birthday (1389) of Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici founder of the Medici political dynasty, de facto rulers of Florence during much of the Italian Renaissance. He was also known as “Cosimo ‘the Elder'” (“il Vecchio”) and “Cosimo Pater Patriae” ( ‘father of the nation’). Cosimo was born in Florence and inherited both his wealth and his expertise in business from his father, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, founder of the Medici bank. Cosimo used his vast fortune of an estimated 150 000 gold florins to control the Florentine political system and sponsor a series of artistic accomplishments. His power over Florence stemmed from this wealth, which he used to control votes. As Florence was proud of its ‘democracy’, he pretended to have little political ambition, and did not often hold public office. Aeneas Sylvius, Bishop of Siena and later Pope Pius II, said of him:

“Political questions are settled in [Cosimo’s] house. The man he chooses holds office. . . He it is who decides peace and war…He is king in all but name.”

In 1433 Cosimo’s power over Florence, because it was exerted without occupying public office, began to look like a menace, so in September of that year he was imprisoned under trumped up charges. But he managed to turn the jail term into one of exile. He went to Padua and then to Venice, taking his bank along with him. Prompted by his influence and his money, others followed him. Within a year, the flight of capital from Florence was so great that the ban of exile had to be lifted. Cosimo returned in 1434, and controlled the government of Florence from then on.


In foreign policy, Cosimo worked to create peace in Northern Italy through the creation of a balance of power between Florence, Naples, Venice and Milan during the wars in Lombardy, and discouraging outside powers (notably the French and the Holy Roman Empire) from interfering. In 1439 he was also instrumental in convincing pope Eugene IV to move the Ecumenical council of Ferrara to Florence (a council designed to heal the schism between the Eastern and Western churches). The arrival of notable Byzantine figures from the Empire in the East, including Emperor John VIII Palaiologos, started the boom of culture and arts in the city.


Cosimo was also noted for his patronage of culture and the arts during the Renaissance, liberally spending the family fortune to enrich Florence. According to Salviati’s Zibaldone, Cosimo stated:

“All those things have given me the greatest satisfaction and contentment because they are not only for the honor of God but are likewise for my own remembrance. For fifty years, I have done nothing else but earn money and spend money; and it became clear that spending money gives me greater pleasure than earning it.”

His patronage of the arts both recognized and proclaimed the humanistic responsibility of the civic duty that came with wealth. He hired the young Michelozzo Michelozzi to create what is today perhaps the prototypical Florentine palazzo, the austere and magnificent Palazzo Medici.


He was a patron and confidante of Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi, and Donatello, whose famed bronzes, David and Judith Slaying Holofernes, were Medici commissions.


Cosimo’s patronage enabled the eccentric and bankrupt architect Brunelleschi to complete the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore (the “Duomo”) which was perhaps his crowning achievement as sponsor. Florence’s cathedral had been begun by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1296 and was still unfinished in Cosimo’s day. The principle concern was designing a dome that could span the 140 foot octagonal barrel already built to support it. No dome then existed that was this wide except the ancient Roman Pantheon which spans 142 feet but is made of concrete and is supported on massive walls. In the end, Brunelleschi’s ingenious design would allow the lantern above the dome to rise 375 feet above the pavement (the Pantheon’s dome is 125 feet high and well as wide) and would be built without the Pantheon’s massive walls or the buttressing that medieval architects had relied upon to counter the huge outward thrust created by arches (and domes) of this size.

cosimo6  cosimo7

In the realm of philosophy, Cosimo, influenced by the lectures of Gemistus Plethon, supported Marsilio Ficino and his attempts at reviving Neo-Platonism. Cosimo commissioned Ficino’s Latin translation of the complete works of Plato (the first ever complete translation) and collected a vast library which he shared with intellectuals such as Niccolo Niccoli and Leonardo Bruni. He provided his grandson, Lorenzo il Magnifico, with an education in the studia humanitatis. Cosimo had an inestimable influence on Renaissance intellectual life.


Although Cosimo’s father founded the Medici bank it was Cosimo who developed it into the largest in Europe and put his stamp on the family as rulers and patrons of Florence. The House of Medici produced four Popes —Pope Leo X (1513–1521), Pope Clement VII (1523–1534), Pope Pius IV (1559–1565), and Pope Leo XI (1605); two regent queens of France—Catherine de’ Medici (1547–1559) and Marie de’ Medici (1600–1610); and, in 1531, the family became hereditary Dukes of Florence. The dynasty survived well into the 18th century.

One of the most famous and oldest soups from Tuscany is ribollita, conventionally made from leftover soup and day old bread. There are many variations but the main ingredients always include leftover bread, cannellini beans and inexpensive vegetables such as carrot, kale, and onion. Its name literally means “reboiled.” Some food historians date it to the Middle Ages when the servants gathered up food-soaked bread trenchers from feudal lords’ banquets and boiled them for their own dinners. The soup is quite thick, almost like a stew. It is common to use ciabatta (a crusty bread with a porous texture), but any crusty bread will work.




¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus some for drizzling on bread
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
4 ounces pancetta, chopped
2 cloves garlic, 1 minced and 1 whole
1 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes
½ pound cooked kale
1 (15-ounce) can cannelloni beans, drained
1 tbsp thyme
3 cups chicken stock
1 bay leaf
4 to 6 ciabatta rolls, halved lengthwise or 1 loaf, sliced
grated Parmesan, for serving


Heat the oil in a heavy, large pot over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, pancetta, minced garlic, salt, and pepper and cook until the onion is golden brown and the pancetta is crisp (about 7 minutes).

Add the tomato paste and stir until dissolved.

Add the tomatoes and stir, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to release all the brown bits. Add the spinach, beans, herbs, stock, and bay leaf.

Bring the soup to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F.

Drizzle the ciabatta halves with olive oil and toast in the oven until golden brown. Remove from the oven and rub the top of the toasts with the whole garlic clove.

Place the toasts in the serving bowls and ladle the soup over them. Sprinkle with Parmesan and serve immediately.

Serves 6