Cheater’s Italian Cooking

One of my great life goals has been a delicious pasta sauce that can be made in the time between putting the pasta in the water and draining it, and that has minimal clean-up and non-perishable ingredients, so you can have them constantly on-hand.  I have succeeded.  The winning sauce is a variant on Amatriciana, a rich, tomato based red sauce with onion and pancetta, and with my modifications, it can be prepared in five minutes.

A sauce that can be made between putting the water on and draining it is relatively easy to achieve, but when one has just come home from work, haggard and voracious, the six-to-ten minutes it takes water to boil are invaluable.  They can be used for e-mail, changing out of work clothes, asking family about their days, doting on pets, or the ever-popular staring into space while the brain-drive defragments.  The effort to quality ratio was also a dominant factor in the development of this recipe.  While a fresh red sauce is better than most jar sauces, it’s generally only a bit better, and the small difference makes the effort of making something from scratch and cleaning it up hard to justify.  Thus my requirement was a sauce that can be created in 5 minutes, which generates minimal clean-up, and tastes considerably better than jar sauce.

Two great and widely-applicable cheats enable my nearly-instant Amatriciana, which are applicable in many contexts and have exponentially accelerated my ability to prepare any Italian dish and many others:

Dried Onion:

“I have an edible object!  I want to cook it!”

Great Cheat #1: Dried Onion

Even not knowing what the edible object is, I can still prescribe a technique that works 75% or the time:  In a large pan, simmer finely diced onion in delicious oil and/or liquid (olive oil & white wine, sesame oil and/or mirin & soy, take your pick), add some salt and basic seasoning (garlic, ginger, spicy red pepper, again take your pick), chop up edible object(s), add to onion mixture along with any chopped secondary food objects you may choose to contrast it, fry until cooked.  This is universal and easy, but not quite easy enough for a five-minute sauce, since it involves (A) having a perishable fresh onion on hand, (B) peeling and chopping said onion, (C) enduring onion vapors, (D) waiting for the onion to cook, (E) cleaning up peels, stems, splinters of onion, cutting board.

Dried onion solves all five problems.  Heat half a cup or so of liquid—any liquid—in a pan, sprinkle in a tablespoon or two of dried shredded onion, simmer for 20 seconds and the onion will reconstitute, and begin to cook and caramelize like fresh onion.  I use white wine (since here cheap white cooking wine is literally cheaper than water) but olive oil works, mead works, apple juice or cider works, and in a pinch water works.  It can’t substitute for fresh onion in a salad or a salsa, but for any of those myriad recipes, from marinara sauce to curry, which involve infusing onion into a mixture without having chunks of onion as an important ingredient, it solves infinite problems.  The primary drawbacks are (A) finding dried shredded onion, which is only carried at larger or specialty groceries, and (B) cooking it long enough for the pieces to get soft, or else they are detectably a little chewy in the final mixture, but the latter is rarely detectible and frankly doesn’t bother me when it is, and the former is countered by the fact that dried onion keeps indefinitely, so once you’ve found some you can buy a hogshead of it and have tasty foods for many moons.  Suddenly a whole world of 30 minute recipes become 20 minute recipes, and 20 minute recipes enter the realm of our between-pasta-stages ideal.

Frozen Garlic:

Likely you too have enjoyed the mild savor of a whole garlic clove roasted until it becomes soft and sweet.  As a pizza topping or accent in a sauce.  Problem: it takes a while.  Solution: a garlic clove which has been frozen and thawed again cooks to softness much faster, in a matter of five minutes instead of up to twenty.  These days, jars of pre-peeled garlic can be bought in many grocery stores.  Simply throw one in the freezer and, as you start your sauce, toss a handful of frozen whole cloves into the pan to simmer.  Five to seven minutes and they’ll be soft, sweet and completely done.

Gratuitous Product Placement:

MY APARTMENT HAS NO FREEZER.  Consequently certain aspects of the culinary world are cut off, among them frozen garlic.  I must thus resort to a slightly-less-convenient but even more delicious alternative enabled by the Leifheit brand Comfortline Gourmet cutter.  It is a hand-held slicer which in a matter of seconds transforms peeled fresh garlic cloves into perfect paper-thin slices that look exactly like rose petals, and cook with incredible speed to perfect tenderness.

I ran across this particular device when I went to the nearest hardware and kitchen store to acquire a good cheese grater.  I found the grater of my desiring—the round kind with the crank which grates with amazing speed and minimal bloodshed—and it was shelved in the shop clearly paired with this little garlic slicer, with the unspoken motto, “If you’re serious enough to want this cheese grater, you want this garlic slicer.”  And oooh was it right.  Now I do have to go to the bother of peeling my own garlic (4-8 seconds per clove, oh noes!) but when done, the petal-like slices cook in approximately one minute, and are a lovely addition to, well, everything.

To Business:

Now, Amatriciana (Ah-mah-tree-chee-ah-nah) is the winner, an extremely rich and mildly spicy red sauce using tomato, bacon or cured ham of some sort, and, in the Roman version, lots of onion.  (My next goal is a vegetarian version, but the meat really does power the sauce, so every veggie variant I’ve tried has been not enough better than jar sauce to justify the difference.  Sorry, Aang.)

Amatrice is a town on Lazio, near Rome.  The official website of the Comune of Amatrice explains the history of Pasta Amatriciana, and is propagandistically insistent that the true beast can only be prepared using Amatrice guanciale, a special cut of salted bacon-like cured meat made only in Amatrice, and pecorino cheese also from Amatrice.  I will, out of respect for the town, post their official recipe for real Amatriciana in my recipe section, and publically confess that, yes, it is better, but (much like the difference between the pizzeria O Vesuvio next to my apartment and the pizzeria Le Campane 20 minutes across town which has less charcoal edge to the crust) it is not enough better to justify making the effort very often.  Amatriciana is usually served on the indomitable Bucatini (which for its floppiness merits being nicknamed “Jackson Pollock pasta” or “Finger-painting pasta”) but is also good on any noodle.

An efficient, printable version of my “Cheater’s Amatriciana,” with quantities and all that busywork, is posted in the Recipes & Cooking section above.  Here, I wanted instead to share the sequence, since Amatriciana is best summarized as: “Fill your pan with yummy.  Now add tomato.  Done.”   Thus, I narrate the process here only for the sake of those who enjoy the vicarious pleasure of food voyeurism:

Start the pasta going.

Add diced Pancetta to the pan, or failing that thick-cut bacon or, in Amatrice, guanciale.  Simmer until the fat softens and savory, salty liquid starts to pool in the bottom of the pan.  Throw in some whole frozen garlic cloves at this stage for more garlic savor.

Add a half-cup or so of white wine, which at this point should flare and sizzle in the pan and lose its alcohol within a few seconds.  Use it to re-hydrate the onion, which quickly becomes golden and sweet.  Add petals of fresh garlic at this point for even more garlicness!

Sprinkle salt and ground spicy red pepper, or chopped fresh spicy pepper.  Add a can of crushed tomato.  Enjoy.

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Real Fake Centurions

The Roman Forum. Don't you wish there was a guy in plastic armor standing in front of this photo?

There has just been a crackdown, reported in this article, on the “fake centurions” in Rome, who stand around in classical armor outside the Colosseum or Pantheon or Forum or, perplexingly, St. Peter’s, and ask for tips from tourists in return for posing for photos.  Sometimes they claim to be pseudo-gladiators rather than centurions, and one also spots among them the occasional emperor, always tolerably costumed in that combination of leather, metal, plastic and cheap embroidery which would be a praise-worthy costume at a fancy-dress party but embarrassing in a film.

Why does this justify a crackdown?  As the article explains, these faux legionaries are fiercely demanding, extending to extortion, often letting you take a photograph and afterwards demanding ten or twenty euros, and it is not so easy to walk away.

Your memories of the Colosseum, now with 75% less extortion.

It is intimidating, plastic sword or no, to have a burly man in armor edge toward you while loudly demanding money, especially in an unfamiliar place where confusion and the language barrier mean that help is not intuitively obtained.  The article cites worse cases, where one might take a tourist’s camera and demand cash for its return, or offer genuine violence, particularly when their beats are threatened.  In this article, the actual arrest came when two under-cover officers dressed as centurions themselves and attempted to join the band by the Colosseum, only to be threatened and, eventually, attacked by the established centurions who would not allow newcomers to edge in on their ancient turf.

What struck me about the article, apart from the stereotypically Italian anecdote that an old promise by the government to begin licensing said centurions was followed by many years of complete inertia, was how often the journalist repeated variations on “fake centurion” or “phony gladiator”, as if, separate from the extortion, there is public outrage at the falseness of these impostors.

Maybe the fake centurions should pose by the fake Colosseum in the Museum of Roman Civilization?

Is there some corps of real centurions edged out of work by the ersatz legionaries?  Has the legitimate gladiators’ union filed suit?  Is the government licensing supposed to somehow guarantee that only real ancient Romans stand around outside the monuments to have their photos taken?

On further consideration, it is true that extortion on the part of someone in a legionary uniform does rather besmirch the honor of the patria.  Perhaps some sort of test is in order for the license, to prove that the spirit of the legions lives in the applicant’s heart.  How shall we do it?  Rustle up some Gauls or Dacians and have them storm the Palatine?  Introduce a lion into the Colosseum?  Have one of the costumed emperors command one of the costumed guards to leap into the Tiber?

Perhaps a group exam? Give them ten days to build a bridge across the Rhine? Julius' men did it.

There’s still some falseness to these methods, though, staged tests.  Eventually the solution dawned.  Each applicant should be issued with a provisional license and allowed to begin work.  Then in the first week on the job, the licensers bring a standard of said legionary’s legion, complete with banner and glittering plastic eagle, and hand it to some nearby teenagers with no particular instructions.  The sight of the standard being leaned on casually, set down in the dust, swung around, and generally played with, will instantly separate the inertia of the “fake centurion” from the righteous rage of the true.  Perhaps, for safety in the latter case, the teens should also be issued with some kind of padded armor.

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The Feast of San Lorenzo

Drummers in livery, with the Florentine crest of a red Fleur de Lys on their white drums

Florence is always having festivals, partly because every day is some saint’s day by now, but also because when the Republic of Florence decrees in 1397 that thenceforth they will provide a feast for all the people in honor of San Lorenzo on his feast day of August the 10th, they mean it, and however many successive regimes may rule said republic, the custom remains.  These are what one might call real Renaissance festivals, and the banners and livery that many of us are used to seeing at reenactments have an infinitely more organic feel when, instead of play, the feeling is of habit and obligation, and that this tired old tunic has been dug out and brushed off every year since tunics were a new thing.

Of course such festivals do feed the tourist trade, so the pageant is in part display for outsiders, but as the city standard and guild banners are borne proudly past crowds who haven’t the foggiest sense of their significance, there is a distinct sense of reality and continuity which contrasts with the (however faithful) nostalgic feeling of a reenactment.

Each flag and crest represents some part of the old government, which is, of course, still there

There is no nostalgia in this pageant, since everything involved: the church, the people, the city officials with their boring speeches, the saint’s cult, and the promised feast, are still normal, no more nor less serious now than they were when a youthful Machiavelli waited in the same line for a free meal.

The official city standard makes a universal appearance at these things, proudly displaying the city’s crest.  The title Gonfaloniere di Giustizia or Standard-Bearer of Justice was the title of the most prestigious and important position in the Republic, and while one doesn’t picture politicians actually carrying the spear around, the procession of the standard, guarded by officers in white and red livery and floppy Renaissance hats, standing solemnly through the whole mass holding their charge, remains a thrilling sight.  As does the real live politician following it in, who holds the successor to that noble office.

The Great Standard of the Republic of Florence enters the basilica for the festival mass

The banner of the saint is not usually there above the door; it’s just for his festival week.

The Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence is a church I have visited many times and shall visit many more, in person and in my discussions.  While my usual focus in visiting is the excellence of its neoclassical architecture and the brilliant design of the various Medici tombs therein, on August 10th it must be instead its dedicatee.  San Lorenzo (Saint Laurence in the anglophone world) is a saint particularly relevant to many of us, and has the  enviable distinction of being the Patron Saint of both libraries and chefs.  The former office he acquired, along with being patron of archivists and notaries, because of his activities as one of the early administrative deacons who ran finances and record-keeping of the early Roman Church; the latter for being grilled alive at the order of Emperor Vespasian, August 10 259 AD.  He is one of the  earlier martyrs, and one with a short but excellent set of associated anecdotes.

In this detail from a Fra Angelico fresco in San Marco, Lorenzo with his grill is obligingly easy to recognize standing next to blood-smeared St. Peter Martyr.

Discovering Lorenzo and his office, Vespasian commanded him to hand over the treasures of this illegal cult.  Given three days to prepare, Lorenzo emptied the treasury, giving everything he had to the poor.  When summoned to present the treasures to Vespasian he instead brought a company of the poor, sick and crippled, declaring that these were the treasures of the Church.  He is supposed to have been good-natured about his execution, and is rumored to have said when he was being grilled alive something along the lines of, “Flip me over, Caesar, I’m done on this side.”

San Lorenzo has several churches in Rome, including the church of San Lorenzo in Miranda (better known to classicists as the church they built in the middle of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, where San Lorenzo was supposedly sentenced), and San Lorenzo in Panisperna which has the famous grill on which he was executed, which he also carries quite reliably in art, making him one of the easiest saints to recognize when one plays the never-ending art game, “Spot the Saint”.

San Lorenzo’s basilica in Florence might in fact be the oldest church in Florence – several fight for the title, excluding rivals by using various definitions of “Florence” based on different past locations of the city walls.

Seen from above, you can see the long roof, the octagonal dome in the back (added later), and the library extending off to the left.

The eleventh-century original was replaced over the course of the 1400s by a new Romanesque church, intended to be showpiece of the new architecture based on the recently-rediscovered Vitruvius and other glories of the lost Roman arts.  Originally it was to have been paid for by the city with one chapel financed by the Medici, but when the Medici contribution was nicely done and the rest still languishing almost untouched, the Medici (who totally didn’t rule the city honest we didn’t) offered to step in and pay for the whole thing.  Good publicity for the Medici all around, and it became the family’s traditional burial church.  The great Laurenziana Library, containing the former Medici collections and many other manuscripts, is still attached (and currently doing a feature exhibit on the oldest and most complete surviving ancient collection of Virgil).  The facade of the church, as you can tell, was never finished, due to some legal quarrels and artist deaths and Michelangelo having another row with the pope and all the usual, but the inside…

A slightly organized mob

…is not our concern today.  Today’s concern is that the city has promised to give a free feast to the populace this night every year forever, and they’re not about to fail in 2011.  Not quite.  You see, excellent as the parade part of the festival is, feeding 1,000 Florentines, and 1,000 attending tourists, requires a great deal of logistics and discipline, and was organized by…  well… Florentines.

Our goal for the night?  Distribute watermelon, yogurt cups and pasta to an enormous mob.

They erected metal barriers, like you do, to organize the line into two files, then had a series of tents in which the watermelon was sliced and the pasta heated by burly men, then women with trays to carry them to the people

A well-meaning watermelon booth

By carry them to the people, I mean wander confusedly toward the mob and hold out trays until hands grabbed things in a vast, crushing mass.  The immediate effect was that a lot of us got in lines, and then huge numbers of people streamed past the lines, going around the barriers to the middle, and shoving in, getting food from the confused women, and leaving again past the people still waiting in the line.

The consternation of those in line was matched only by the unblinking calm of the hundreds streaming to cut in line, who were either blissfully unaware of the situation or equally blissfully uncaring.  The whole stream just flowed past us, smiling and shoving, while we stood stock still, with an increasing number of complaints rising from the veterans who put up with this every year.

Poor St. Laurence watching these attempts to feed his people…

Watermelon was the first item to manifest, and here a new problem arose.  Those in the front of the mob were shoved up against the front rails by the booths, along which it was necessary to advance to reach the pasta.  Those with watermelon brought it, and we ate it, but had no way to escape the area even if we wanted to since there was an enormous mob behind us.  Thus the dozens who already had watermelon blocked the hundreds who had not, with no escape in sight.  There was also nowhere to put the peels, resulting in hundreds of people standing in a tight mob either holding our dripping and sticky watermelon rinds, or attempting to hurl them over the head of the crowd into large, distant dumpsters, with mixed success.  And soon there was no one left who wanted watermelon, at least not that could get near.

After 2 hours of holding watermelon rind, I finally advanced to the pasta stage and discovered the next brilliant plan.  There were only two men working the pasta booths, and it took about two full minutes for them to do each batch, which was about 6 bowls.  12 bowls every two minutes, 1,500 people give or take, so… a process which started at 10 PM was still well underway at midnight when I escaped with the hardest-earned bowl of pasta I’ve ever eaten.

The fruits (or noodles) of victory!

It was a Tuscan specialty, ground meat with a little tomato, not much else.  But it will remain one of the most memorable pastas I’ve tasted, partly for the chaos of its acquisition, but more for the thought of so many previous Florentines (Michelangelo, Benvenuto Cellini, young Marsilio Ficino) fighting what I’m sure were equally-organized mobs.  You know, the tradition of handing out pasta at these things originated before the tradition of handing out silverware.  Yogurt, I hope, is modern.

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Site Migration Complete

Bronze monkeys on a fountain in the Boboli Gardens, behind the Palazzo Pitti
The monkey on the right, it was his fault. Honest.

The site migration is complete, but was rocky.  We are recovering from some serious but happily temporary site errors.

Ex Urbe has been down and up a few times in the last 24 hours due to these extreme server issues.  It should  be stable now, but we had to reconstruct it from scratch.  The price was that we lost all comments before the reboot.

Apologies to those whose comments were lost.

Meanwhile, things are hopefully stable now, but if you see any problems please let us know.

Thank you for your patience.

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Good morning, Giotto!

This morning the Campanile is having some inspections & cleaning.

The city of Florence would like it to be known that 7:00 AM is the correct time to get up and admire Giotto’s bell tower.

Perhaps you didn’t hear me.

IT’S 7 AM!  DONG!!!  I’M A BELL TOWER!  DONG!!!  LOOK AT ME!  DONG!!!  YOU WEREN’T STILL SLEEPING WERE YOU?  DONG!!!

Needless to say, sleeping in is an impossibility in an apartment a few blocks from, not one, but eight separate audible bell towers, which all ring with different degrees of force and verve at different times, all day.  Every day.  Especially Sunday.  The main campanile, though, designed by Giotto and started in 1334, is the hefty one, and guarantees a long, productive morning out of everyone.  Actually, the bell tower (or Campanile) was not finished to Giotto’s design, but he still gets credit, since he is, after all, the much-beloved heart and founder of Renaissance art.

Yes, it is that big, and it's three blocks from where I'm trying to sleep.

Why?

Five minute art history lesson: amaze your friends and impress your parents by being able to tell at a glance the difference between Medieval and Renaissance art!  Yes, it’s that easy.

To explain why Giotto matters I will take you to the first main room of the Uffizi gallery to look at three identical altarpieces depicting the Madonna enthroned with child and angels.  All derive from that era in which almost all art (I’m not talking 3/4, I’m talking 90%) consisted of nearly-identical, stiff iconic images of saints.  In fact, it’s safe to say 50% of them are the Madonna and Child.  This is an era of art that some people find beautiful but many find tedious and repetitive, and both camps are, in my opinion, right.  It is also the perfect way to demonstrate what Giotto did, and why everyone considers him the beginning of Renaissance art.

Madonna Ruccelai (Duccio di Buoninsegna; 1285)

Above is a lovely Madonna by Duccio di Buoninsegna, an excellent late medieval master.  (Click for a bigger version).  Note the beautiful and detailed patterns on the drapes behind the Madonna, rendered in elaborate colors and veined with gold leaf which would have glittered hypnotically in the church candlelight.  It’s beautiful.  Note too that Mary has pretty-much no anatomy.  She’s a big blue blob with a knee, and stars on her robe (one of Mary’s attributes, since Mary is the Queen of Heaven so gets stars).  The angels too are lovely with detailed wings, floating in a stack in non-space.  And her throne, elaborately patterned, knows nothing of perspective.  The whole thing is nearly-identical to a Byzantine icon.

Now, jumping up a few years:

Maestà di Santa Trinita (Cimabue, 1290-1300)

This Madonna, by the excellent and progressive artist Cimabue.  New things are going on here.  Mary has a lot more anatomy: feet, drapes outlined in gold.  The angels, with their lovely wings, are not floating vaguely but are in front of each other as if actually in the same place.  The throne has no formal linear perspective, but does have breadth due to being broader in the front than in the rear.  This is again lovely.

Now, check out Giotto’s:

Ognissanti Madonna (Giotto, 1314-27)

Houston, we have volume.  Look at Mary’s body; she has a chest, weight.  Look at the baby; you can tell how thick his arms and legs are.  Look at the kneeling angels, how you can see the volume of their thighs.  And check out the saints standing on either side: they’re standing in space.  In a plane.  Not just in front of each other but on an actual floor, like people standing in a room.  Their halos are starting to get in the way too, setting the stage for the era when halos will turn from gold discs to smaller arcs, to make room for other objects occupying the same space.  Look at their faces, how they have the proportions of real faces.  Mary less than the others, but the angels’ eyes are in the vertical center of the head, their brows, chins, noses, all in correct proportion.  If he had secretly snuck in a portrait of a real human onto one of those standing saints it would look the same.  Look how the shading on the drapery isn’t just lines but actual shadow so it looks really 3-dimensional.

All checked out and ready for the week.

When you look at it by itself, yes, it’s another fairly monotonous painting of the Madonna, but with more realistic figures we can now move toward realistic space, realistic facial expressions, people interacting with objects, foreground, background, landscape, architecture.

With this we can have a Renaissance.

And with this you can literally glance at a painting, look at how the figures are proportioned, and tell the difference between something from the Renaissance and something that’s in the Medieval/Byzantine/eastern tradition (since, after all, they still make icons of Mary as a shiny blue blob, they just don’t do it much in Italy…)

And I didn’t make you get up at 7 AM to do it either.  DONG!!!

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“Get your piping hot tripe!”

Locals enjoying their "Trippa Fiorentina"

In Florence, daily meals become a pleasure, but there remains the peculiarity that, divine as the pizzas and pastas and cheeses are, the actual Florentine delicacies, the ones invented in Florence by Florentines, are generally a bit less inviting than the broader Tuscan and Italian offerings. “Bistecca Fiorentina” (Florentine-style steak) is excellent, of course, but take, for example, the Florentine lunch special of choice, “Trippa Fiorentina”, spiced tripe. Tripe. Honest to goodness, it’s tripe, chopped, fried tripe. Roadside carts sell it like hotdog stands as a quick lunch, and locals crowd around, and you can smell it for blocks. In a cuisine centered on bringing out the best of fine quality ingredients, a rich milk, a powerful tomato, Florentine lunches focus on the part of the animal that tastes like… well… what its job is. If someone wants to argue that the American hotdog is itself a rather questionable food, despite being a hotdog eater I can’t really deny it, but a hotdog stand does not make a city block smell like a hybrid between a cow’s butt and a urinal. I am an open-minded diner and have tried tripe many times in many forms, Italian, Chinese, and it always tastes like tripe. I can’t understand it. I know the words “traditional” “local” and “delicacy” are often code for “what we ate while under siege when we ran out of cats,” (if you don’t believe me, hunt down a Tuscan recipe for “stinco” i.e. boiled pig’s knuckles). Still, they clearly love it, and if people have the option to eat buffalo mozzarella or tripe and choose tripe, then… I will try it again. I’ll wait a few months, and with sincere effort… maybe. One does acquire some local abilities by osmosis after a while. After my first six months in Florence I gained the inexplicable ability to recognize saints Cosimo and Damiano in a painting even if they don’t have their characteristic hats. So perhaps a year will be enough to master even tripe.

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A Simple Breakfast

A simple breakfast from the corner store.

I didn’t have time to go to a restaurant for lunch, or to make it to the good market, so I had to make do with what I could grab from the little corner store at the end of my block.  Still, not too shabby.

Good Mozzarella di Bufala, tomatoes, basil, a sweet Prosciutto Toscano, young first crop figs, redcurrants, young Pienza (the official cheese of Pope Pius II), a tall glass of milk, fresh blood orange juice, and salad with Greek feta and Italian oil and vinegar.  (As you read I’ll give you three guesses and a few paragraphs to figure out which of these things was the hardest to find).

While everyone expects to be wowed by the restaurants in Italy, the grocery stores are just as overwhelming, and many of my most memorable Italian meals have been at home.  Grab a few fresh veggies and fry them in olive oil, serve over pasta.  But even cooking things is often unnecessary.  Italian cuisine is about ingredients: good vegetables, good cheese, good meat that you can just eat, no need for preparation, eat.  In Venice, where all but a golden handful of restaurants are tourist traps, I usually just go into a grocery store and buy a quarter kilo of whatever cheese is freshest and sit by the canal and eat it (and offer it to any sad-looking anglophone strangers who wander by, and are inevitably delighted).  The cold cuts too are a centerpiece instead of a substitute for real food.  Most countries never have and never will consider cold cuts a main dish, but if you get really good ones they don’t need to be disguised with a sandwich and its toppings, they are, by themselves, perfect.  Real prosciutto literally melts on your tongue like butter and fills your mouth with the soft sweet salt of paper thin meat – more flavor from one ounce than from an entire pack of common store “salami”.

It’s actually slightly unsettling how much better the ingredients are.  Figs and oil one expects to be better here since here is where they come from, and redcurrants and Pienza cheese (a soft, chewy cheese with the texture of colby or jack, but with a mild Romano-esque tinge, gentle and filling; completely different in its aged state which is so strong down the Romano spectrum as to be almost spicy) you can’t find in most corner stores, but it’s the simpler things that are slightly alarming.  Milk, for example.

Keep in mind here that I’m a serious milk drinker.  I don’t just like milk, I actually systematically explore milk, comparing different brands, farms, percent mixes.  I’m not a 1% person or a skim person or a whole milk person, since I like all of them, each for its unique qualities, the creamy instant-full-feeling of whole.   I can therefore say with some confidence that milk here is better.  It just flat out tastes better than milk in America.  The common, cheapest of the cheap store brand milk tastes as good as the fancy expensive organic stuff in the US.  In fact it tastes as good as the extremely expensive un-homogenized stuff, except for not having the lumps of half-formed butter peppering it as it glides down.  Why?  The only answer I can come to is production without hormones.  I’m not saying this out of any environmentalist agenda, just as a neutral observation from someone who’s tasted a lot of milk.  Italian tomatoes being superior is one thing–they get better sun here, better soil, the tickle of the Mediterranean in the air–but cows are not photosynthetic.  EU restrictions on artificial hormones is the only real difference I can think of.

That and the fact that Italians care about ingredients.  In fact, the whole cuisine is about ingredients.

No one can win an argument about which is the best cuisine in the world, and I won’t argue that even the finest (non-truffle) pasta dish is usually not a match for a proper French or Turkish pastry or a really good tuna nigiri, but I think I’m right in saying that Italian is the best simple cuisine in the world.  The most delicious pasta sauces are usually still just a few ingredients prepared in a very simple way.  My Amatriciana and Carbonara I can make in the time between when the pasta goes in the water and when it’s soft enough to eat.  Because so little is done to the ingredients, their quality really shows through.  This is likely why it developed in Italy, where the vegetables and other food are naturally so good, so doing almost nothing to them is best.  Elaborate kitchen alchemy is necessary only when the fundamental foods are, well, the sorts of things subsistence cultures had to eat.   French baking is an art form, as are German sausages, all kinds of curry, but when what you have are truly good ingredients, Italian is definitely the best way to bring them out.  That also makes it the easiest great cuisine to become proficient in.  Anyone who wants to achieve a fine French sauce, or even cook a really, really good steak, requires a decent apprenticeship.  Good Italian?  One session in the kitchen with me and you can wow friends and neighbors, and I didn’t have much more than that with the Italian Moms (and American professors) who taught me.

A standard Italian glass beside my own.

Have you had your three guesses yet?  That’s right!  The most difficult thing to find was: a tall glass of milk.  Specifically a tall glass, as for reasons passing my understanding the standard sized drinking glass in Italy holds about three mouthfuls of liquid if that.  I had a grand hunt up and down the shopping district hunting for a glass large enough for what I never realized was apparently a rare perversion: taking a deep breath and downing a huge, cool glass of water, or taking a large volume of something with you to accent a meal.  Between that and the fact that water is so scarce and expensive in restaurants, and wine so common, I remain among those baffled that the Italians don’t all die of dehydration.  In Rome where public fountains provide free water everywhere it’s one thing, but in Florence where said fountains are scarce and, when present, inevitably broken?  Must be the patron saints.  Or… who would be the Roman god of hydration.  Neptune, maybe?  Apollo?  Castor and Pollux perhaps?  Leucothea?

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Vasari, the Palazzo Vecchio and the History of Florence (Begins Introductions to Historic Cities Series)

Uffizi and Palazzo Vecchio

On July 30th Florence, the Uffizi gallery, Google and numerous other Earthly powers celebrated the 500th birthday of Georgio Vasari (1511-1574).

Both praising and describing Vasari are challenging, since no one could in fairness call him one of the Renaissance’s best painters, nor one of its best architects, nor even one of its best biographers. His Lives of the Artists is certainly what has brought him the most fame, but this collection of brief biographies of Renaissance artists is not only dry but unreliable, both in the poor-fact-checking-sense and in the extreme and unblushing bias which is as ubiquitous in pre-modern biography as tomato sauce on an American pizza. We read Vasari today only because he was these artists’ only biographer, and needs must as the paucity of sources drives. Yet, if Vasari was surpassed by many in arts and letters, walking the streets of Florence today I can think of few who touch him in footprint. He was a Great Figure of the Renaissance, one whose touch I feel constantly as I cross squares and explain architecture to new-made friends, to whom I find myself constantly repeating, “Of course, that bit wasn’t like that back then—it was redone by Vasari.” In brief, Vasari redid the Palazzo Vecchio. At length, in order to avoid making Vasari seem to be a petty, place-seeking stooge, I’m afraid I have to go back a ways…

Once upon a time the Roman Empire ended, and with it the network of roads and trade and safety that had strung cities together into a web of economy and culture. Small, unsteady kingdoms followed, but in Northern Italy at least, while cities formally passed from prince to distant prince, the absence of real central infrastructure and enforcement left them virtually alone. Italy’s cities became citystates, ruled by remote powers, pope or Emperor, in name only, while in reality they governed themselves, walled islands of population and production, independent and, at first at least, many republican. They had Rome as their model, an elite voting population and elected offices, not quite the same as the old republic but close enough to breed patriots as proud as Cicero. But these little city republics, like Rome’s, weren’t stable. Faction fighting bred civil war, brought on partly by ambitious families but more often by that Hobbesian principle that anyone powerful or rich enough to be envied by his neighbors can never sleep safe at night until he has deprived said neighbors (through subjugation or execution) of the ability to kill him in his sleep. Winners became rulers and one-by-one the city republics became the seats of lords and dukes and counts and other-titled princes. (This is all oversimplified, of course, but the romantic narrative is more important than the gritty details when our purpose is to understand what the Palazzo Vecchio means as a symbol of what was.)

Florence held out longest of the great cities (excepting Venice; we must in all things except Venice, since Venice is that special), Florence the stubborn, free, fractious, strange Republic. Over and over it nearly fell, as ambitious nobles and entrenched vendettas (think Montagues and Capulets) made the streets stream with blood and the road with exiles, Dante among them. From a pure body-count perspective there is no way around admitting that the surrounding cities that did turn to monarchies were better off, stable, efficient, comparatively immune to faction fighting, but free Florentines would never sacrifice liberty and dignity for ease and calm—and this includes the vast, disenfranchised majority who were not members of the voting elite but still took pride in their Republic.

San Gimignano still has its towers (wiki pic)

After one near-tyrant too many, the Florentines decided to create a system of government which could never, ever let anyone gain enough power to take over, and so conceived the Signoria, a system so bizarre that if someone made it up in fiction no reader would think it plausible. The Florentines had long since exiled, killed or at least banned from government all their nobility. The private towers of the powerful families, which had once turned Florence into a forest of tiny battle-ready fortresses, were knocked down, their palaces burned, and a new law forbid any private citizen from building tall towers which could be used as private forts to defend elite families as their goons battled in the streets below. What remained as the elite were members of the merchant guilds, the great trade families who controlled cloth production, oil, wine, medicine, bureaucracy and, that great Italian invention, banking. A Signoria, or council of elected rulers, was created in 1282, a vaguely-defined political body also used by several other Italian republics. Florence’s unique system of “scrutiny and lot” was introduced in 1328, in which each qualifying member of the great guilds over thirty years of age was examined for fitness and then his name was put in a bag. Every two months nine names were pulled out, and these nine men became the Signoria, the ruling council, to rule the city for two months. At the end of these two months new names were drawn, so no one ever ruled alone, and no one was in office anywhere near long enough to form a personal power base. There were no elections to fix or sway with bribery and campaigning, so all would remain fair and stable and happy ever after. In theory, at least.

 

The Palazzo Vecchio

The Palazzo Vecchio (begun in 1299, the year before Dante went to Hell), was built to house the Signoria, and while in office they were held within the palace and never permitted to leave, since outside they could be bribed, kidnapped, even contaminated by passing heretics or devils (horror!). The palace was built on the crater left when the victorious Guelphs razed to the ground the palaces of their Ghibelline rivals (think Montagues on the smoldering graves of Capulets) and instantly became the symbol of the unity, stability and prayed-for longevity of the noble Republic.

The apartments of the Signoria, grandly decorated with painted wooden ceilings, were on the top floor. The ground floor was originally open, a place where people could gather and talk and trade. It was later closed in so a garrison could defend the palace from attack. On the lower levels, representatives of the people receive the laws sent down by the Signoria, and could vote to accept or reject them. An intermediate floor between the council level held the scribes and clerks and secretaries who kept the system running.

Yes, Assassin’s Creed fans, there really was a prison in the tower, and if someone you know was imprisoned there, that means he was very, very naughty.

Finally the great tower was a symbol of the supremacy of the republic, and at the top a special prison was built to hold the most dangerous traitors against the state, who were sometimes executed by being hanged off the tower itself.

A completely unfounded but nonetheless delightful urban legend holds that the semicircular battlements on top of the tower, associated with the defeated Ghibelline faction in contrast with square battlements used by Guelphs, represented the vicious, Ghibelline-leaning traitors imprisoned there.

Problem is, the Signoria system had one vital flaw:

(A new Signoria is elected)

Duke of Milan – Hello, Signoria. I’m the Duke of Milan. Congratulations on your election. Have a fruitcake.

(1 week passes as the Duke’s message is carried from Milan to Florence)

Signoria – Nice to meet you, Duke of Milan. Thanks for the fruitcake. We knit you this nice scarf.

(1 week passes as the Signoria’s reply is carried back)

Duke of Milan – Thanks for the scarf. Now that we’re friends, would you like to make a treaty for mutual defense against the French?

(1 week passes)

Signoria – Sure, we hate the French. What do you propose?

(1 week passes)

Duke of Milan – I propose committing X many troops, Y many florins, and everyone involved gets cookies every Thursday in honor of St. Ambrose.

(1 week passes)

Signoria – We want to send W many troops and Z many florins, and we demand that the cookies be distributed in the name of St. Zenobius.

(1 week passes)

Duke of Milan – Perhaps X many troops but Z many florins, and the cookies can be distributed in the name of both saints?

(1 week passes)

Signoria – Who are you? What are you talking about? We don’t want to give our troops and florins to someone we’ve never talked to! And we abhor cookies!

(1 week passes)

Duke of Milan – You had another election, didn’t you? Hi, Signoria, I’m the Duke of Milan. Have some fruitcake. Now, about the French…

No Tyrants within these Gates (David agrees).

Needless to say, the Signoria system was not popular with foreign powers who needed to negotiate with Florence’s government, nor with Florentines who needed to negotiate with Florence’s government, since the toothlessness which made the Signoria tyrant-proof also made it about as streamlined as a hedgehog. It certainly didn’t help that the guild members generally had no experience of government, and two months is far from long enough even to learn the ropes. Hence the rise of the Medici.

You see, there’s this brilliant thing called ‘banking’ which means you can leave your money with people in one city, and then go to another city and receive the same amount of money (minus a small fee), without having to carry bags of gold with you on the road where, in the absence of a real empire, bandits and adventuring parties roam free. The savings, in cash and in not getting your throat slit, made this option instantly popular, and the Italian families who did it instantly wealthy. The Medici managed to finagle the position of Official Bankers to the Pope, which meant that it was their job to escort donations, church taxes, land rents, indulgence fees and every kind of income from every church in Christendom back to Rome, taking a healthy cut. This rapidly made the Medici just about the wealthiest private people since Crassus.

Cosimo de Medici (1389-1464) was the one who applied wealth to politics. If you have enough money to keep a third of the city of Florence on your payroll, then you can tell all your clients “Do XYZ if you’re elected to the Signoria,” and then even if you can’t contact them while they’re inside, a third of the Signoria on average will still do what you want. Then, if the Duke of Milan wants to negotiate, instead of negotiating with the fleeting and inexperienced Signoria, he can negotiate with Cosimo, a stable, long-term political contact who will still be there in a year’s time. And eventually if Cosimo finds a way to bribe the men whose job it is to pull the names out of the bag, then things get even easier.

Was this Medici takeover tyrannical? Absolutely, since it directly perverted and controlled the Republic. Was it good for Florence? Absolutely, since Cosimo’s unofficial rule lent great stability, and he spent his enormous wealth on neoclassical architecture, public art, libraries, translating Plato, plumbing, a perfect mix of useful and sublime contributions to the glory and everyday living of his fellow Florentines.

There was resistance, of course. In 1433 Cosimo was arrested and imprisoned in that same Palazzo Vecchio tower where so many dangerous traitors and would-be tyrants enjoyed a last, grim vista of the city they tried to enslave. He escaped, bribing the cell guard with 300 florins and the captain with 700 florins, and is reported to have said they were the two stupidest men in history since he was the wealthiest man in Italy and would have happily paid tens of thousands of florins for his liberty. At the next election, by a total and not-remotely-bribery-related coincidence, all the members of the new Signoria decided to invite him back.

There were more tumults after Cosimo’s return – weak Piero’s succession, the bloody Pazzi conspiracy, assassin priests, the French invasion, the Black Friar Savonarola (stories for another day) – but the important part is that Cosimo never officially ruled anything. Legally he was a private citizen and remained so through his life. So did his successor Piero, and his successor, much-loved Lorenzo de Medici, a perfect humanist prince except that he was never technically prince of anything. The Signoria system continued, officially, with Medici control behind the scenes, and while it did so did Florentines’ patriotic zeal and, with it, enmity against the Medici tyrants.

Duke-worthy Offices

For more than a century the Medici kept being opposed, thrown out, restored, struggling to maintain control of their infamously fractious and rebellious city, until in the early 1500s there was one overthrow too many. The Medici raised a fresh army, marched in, got rid of the Signoria and in 1531 finally had themselves crowned Dukes.

Returning to Vasari…

Architecture remained the physical embodiment of Florence – its government, its church, its people – and the Palazzo Vecchio was by now the solid, permanent embodiment of the authority to rule. The Medici moved in, literally occupying the Signoria’s seat, a permanent end of the Republic. The old palace needed to be redone, and it was Vasari’s job to turn this icon of the long-loved Republic into a symbol of its death and rebirth as a glorious Medici monarchy.

The palace itself he had redecorated with new, more beautiful (and expensive) gilded ceilings, pseudo-Roman frescoes, and a beautiful but unsubtle mural of the Medici besieging Florence, with the simple message: you are here, my troops are here – think about it.

Vasari’s “Siege of Florence”

He also tore down the old quarter by the Palazzo Vecchio where the merchant guilds had had their headquarters and created the Uffizi, “offices”, a long, folded neoclassical loggia surrounding a new public square. Inside the guilds were installed into new, nicer, more mathematically harmonious and luxurious lodgings provided by their new ducal master. Below, the new square was comfortable and shaded by the galleries, perfectly situated to be the new center of commerce and civic gossip, again dominated by the elegant silhouette of the duke’s new offices above. Florence’s civic heart was literally transplanted into the duke’s architectural grasp. The offices were then decorated again with Roman-style grotesque frescoes, antiquities, the family’s collection of Renaissance masterpieces, busts of Roman emperors, and portraits of Medici family members and their famous vassals and political allies.

Vasari’s addition

The surface of the Uffizi is all perfect neoclassicism, elegant symmetrical gray window frames and pediments in harmonious mathematical precision, creating a square which feels at the same time new and ancient, and above all planned, intentional, in contrast with the eclectic mix of different eras’ facades which surrounded every other square in Florence and, pretty much, in all of Italy. Even before the installation of the statues of Cosimo Pater Patriae and Lorenzo il Magnifico, the feeling of standing in the square below the Uffizi is the best possible summary of the events: the chaos and liberty of the Republic have been replaced by an educated, organized, neoclassical, irresistible force. Vasari carved that lesson in brick and stone, and made it clear.

He also created the Vasari Corridor, a closed, elevated walkway which starts at the Palazzo Vecchio itself, connects it by a high (dukes only!) bridge to the Uffizi, then on the far side connects the Uffizi to a long hallway which runs well above head height along the river, across the Ponte Vecchio with its tight-crammed sparkling goldsmiths’ shops, through the houses and rooftops of the quarter across the river, and ends at the Palazzo Pitti, a much larger,

The Vasari corridor

grander second palace which Vasari’s scheme connected with the first. The Palazzo Vecchio was, after all, more than two hundred years old, and a bit cramped and old-fashioned, built for cobblers and dyers, not for dukes. The Pitti Palace had worthier apartments (worthy to house the kings of Italy in the early days of the unification). Now the Duke could walk in assassin-proof safety from palace to palace, even across the river, and more, now the Duke’s movements were a central part of the city’s face. Florentines going about their daily business would (and still) follow along the ducal way, enjoying the shade provided by the walkway above, while all across the city one could see the corridor along the bridge, tying the two halves of the city together like a great artery. Its pulse was the Duke.

Was Vasari a fawning Medici stooge? Essentially. Was anybody NOT at this point? Not who had a job. Artists need patrons, and the Medici were a wealthy, cultured, politically savvy, respectable and above all stabilizing force for a city that had gone through a dozen regime changes in two generations. Vasari was not one of the Renaissance’s greatest painters, nor its greatest architects, nor its greatest authors, but I will nominate him unreservedly for the title of greatest communicator.

Vasari’s Space

He packed the feeling and intensity of what had happened, two hundred years of chaos and gradual transition, into a series of physical spaces which perfectly teaches the viewer what happened and what this great change meant, even if the viewer doesn’t actually know the specifics of the great events which created these great spaces. Architecture, painting and interior design combine to create a very specific tint of awe, one which really does communicate both what was lost and what was gained.I know no comparable grand architectural scheme—not the Vatican Palace, not St. Peter’s, not the castles of Milan or Naples or even Versailles—which succeeds in channeling history so complicated into a simple view. Florence’s history, as you can tell, needs concise summary or it turns into a saga. Vasari turned it into a vista, and was in that perhaps a better biographer of Florence than he was of his fellow artists.

For that achievement, on his five hundredth birthday, he deserves congratulations.

Jump to an Overview of Florence’s Museums, or Venetian Carnival.

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My Fight with Florence

Florence's Ponte Vecchio after dusk.

Me – I’m going to stay inside all day and do work.

Florence – But I’m Florence.  Florence is better than work.

Me – No, I’ve been here more than a week now, it’s time I wrote some Ex Urbe entries and shared some of what I’ve done so far.

Florence – I have pizza…

Me – I went to more than a dozen museums, and so many restaurants to describe!

Florence – Gelato…

Me – It’s Vasari’s birthday; I really want to write about him today.

Florence – Frescoes, sculpture…

Me – You’ll have frescoes tomorrow.

Florence – But I have perfect weather today, cool and breezy and just humid enough.

Me – I opened the windows.

Florence – A beautiful sunset, curls of twisty pink cloud growing steadily purple as the sky turns richer and richer blue, wouldn’t that look amazing next to the green and white stripes of my Baptistery, or the gold stone tower of the Palazzo Vecchio?

Me – Look, I’m just trying to write home about how wonderful you are!   Can’t you stop being so wonderful for a few hours?

Florence – I have live music.

Me – I don’t care.

Florence – A live orchestra tucked away in one of the squares below, notes drifting up: Bach, then Vivaldi, you know you love Vivaldi…

Me – I’m not listening.

Florence – Crowds cheering, drums…

Me – Not listening.

Florence – Fireworks…

Me – Wait, really?

Florence – Fireworks, crackling, over by the Duomo, just low enough that you can’t quite see them beyond the houses.  You know I haven’t had fireworks by the Duomo since Easter.

Me – … … …

 

I lost.

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Salve!

The Arno just before Dusk

Since the number of people who have asked to receive my e-mails from Italy keeps growing beyond my ability to keep track, I’m finally going along with those of you who suggested that it would be simpler to post them online.

This year’s Italian adventure was brought to you by the letter Φ, the number 1417, and the Villa I Tatti Harvard University Institute for Italian Renaissance Studies Fellowship.  Generous support from wealthy, art-loving Harvard alums enables a few early career scholars every year to come to Florence to conduct research on history, art history, musicology etc., using not only Florence’s various libraries but Harvard’s own Berenson library with its collection of primary and secondary sources in English and other languages, not to mention its famous lunches and private vineyard and olive groves.  Scholarship is indeed a tough life.  I am here to conduct research on classical philosophy in the Renaissance (more on that later), so most of my time will be spent in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana and other collections of rare books and manuscripts that contain early (now out-of-date) attempts to summarize the lives of ancient philosophers about whom we know little now, and knew less back then.

I have two earlier batches of Ex Urbe e-mails, from earlier research trips, mainly in 2005-2007.  Over time I hope to polish and post the old letters here as well.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you all enjoy!

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