Spot the Saint: John the Baptist and Lorenzo (Begins Spot the Saint Series)

It’s a bunch of people standing around; thrilling, right?

In galleries, museums, and even on the art-spotted streets of Florence, friends and I love to play “Spot the Saint” – trying to identify the saints in art without looking at the blurb.  I know it sounds flippant to make a game of it, and perhaps it is flippant, but it is also in an important way authentic.  Renaissance art, religious art especially, is aesthetic, but it is also narrative.  Sculptures, paintings and other artifacts were created to retell and comment on stories and people whom the audience was expected to already know.  Being able to identify different subjects, especially saints, by their vocabulary of recurring attributes is a kind of cultural literacy which all Renaissance people had, but most modern viewers lack.  We are the illiterate ones, from the Renaissance perspective, when we come to an altarpiece unable to tell Paul from Peter or Augustine from Jerome.  If you understand who these figures are and what they mean, a whole world of details, subtleties and comments present in the paintings come to light which are completely obscure if you don’t understand the subject.  Time after time I’ve taken friends, who didn’t have much interest in Renaissance or religious art before, and after a few rounds of “Spot the Saint” in the Uffizi had them declare that it suddenly made a lot more sense, and carried a lot more meaning.

What a sweet Venetian street (and canal) corner.

Renaissance art often focuses on details that are absent from the main versions of stories, showing the emotional expressions and making you think about the experiences of secondary characters present at scenes (almost like fanfic, in fact).

There is a wonderful example which (curses!) the internet cannot supply me with a photo of, an altarpiece by Alessandro Gherardini housed in the elusive and rarely open Santo Spirito church, across the river.  It shows Christ crowning the Virgin Mary (a very common scene) accompanied by St. Monica and St. Augustine.

(On Augustine see my post on the Doctors of the Church).

Wait a minute – what’s that?

This is not in any way exciting until you think about the fact that Monica is Augustine’s mother, who watched patiently throughout his wild and chaotic youth (wild by any standards – he joined the Manichean cult, and ditched her in Italy while hitching a boat to Africa with no warning), but she kept on, patient and loving, until he finally—through his own independent studies—explored and eventually embraced the Christianity she loved so much, and became one of its great Doctors.  The altarpiece makes you think about the touching parallel between the two mothers’ love for their sons, and how proud Monica would be in Heaven watching Augustine’s growing greatness, and eventually getting to present her beloved son to Mary and her beloved Son.

Why, it’s San Lorenzo!  With his grill!

But if you can’t spot the saints, it’s all a bunch of random figures.

Recognizing saints is also valuable for figuring out who made a piece of art, and why.  Even an expert in a lifetime can’t memorize every single Florentine art treasure and its history, but a layman in a few days can learn enough to tell from the contents and context of a painting how to read a lot about its past and goals.  Some saints are specific to cities; see something with a prominent St. Mark and you can smell Venice, while St. Zenobius is never seen outside Florence.  Some are specific to types of patrons: is your altarpiece full of Dominicans?  Probably the church that commissioned it was too.  Full of female saints flanking Mary Magdalene?  It’s time to suspect it may have been commissioned for nuns, or by a female patron.  Renaissance masterworks didn’t come down to the modern age with convenient explanatory tags already attached: we wrote them, and the historians who did so used these same clues to figure out their origins.

Thus, this will be the first of many “Spot the Saint” posts, by which I hope to introduce the characters and thus open up the story of the art I see every day.  Each entry will introduce a couple of new saints and how to recognize them, so we can all play, and understand.  Since I am in Florence, I will concentrate first on the saints I see every day:

Addendum:

One friend, through more rigorous online hunting than my own, has very kindly provided this low-quality and slightly blurry photo of the altarpiece of Augustine and Monica at the coronation of the Virgin which I discussed above.

Santo Spirito, the church where it is housed, strives to fulfill its mission to protect the church from dangerous activities, like people going to it, looking at its art, or taking decent pictures of its treasures.  I love to visit it, both for the gorgeous contents and architecture, and to spite its over-zealous guardians.  It’s easier to go in these days, but a few years ago you practically had to have a Florentine accent to be admitted.

 

San Giovanni Baptista (St. John the Baptist )

  • Common attributes: Hairshirt, robes, tall stick with a cross on it, wild medium-length hair
  • Occasional attributes: Beard, scroll saying “Ecce agnus dei”, pointing at things, sheep or lamb, rarely a book or something with a lamb on it
  • Patron saint of: baptism, lambs, horse hoof care, printers, tailors, invoked to combat epilepsy and hailstorms (some of these are shared with several others, as is often the case).
  • Patron of places: Florence, Turin, Genoa, Cesena, Umbria, a zillion other Italian towns,Jordan, Puerto Rico, Newfoundland, French Canada
  • Feast days: June 24, August 29, January 7
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, baptizing Christ, pointing at Christ, pointing at viewer, pointing at heaven, visiting young Christ when they’re both kids, standing at the left hand of Christ during the apocalypse and overseeing the sorting of those damned to Hell, being imprisoned by King Herod, being beheaded, having his severed head delivered to Salome on a silver platter.
  • Here he’s pointing at the baby Jesus, lest the viewer, like Mary, be distracted by ever-distracting Saint Sebastian.

    Close relationships: Christ’s second cousin, son of Mary’s much older cousin Elisabeth and of Zachariah (both descended from Aaron); birth prophesied by Gabriel.

  • Relics: Scattered around.  His tomb is in Egypt, but his head is in Rome and Munich and Damascus and Bavaria and many other places.  Florence has his right index finger and part of a forearm.

John the Baptist is an intimidatingly-important saint.

Not only is he a blood relative of Christ, and the pioneer of baptism, his grim task at the resurrection is vividly depicted in the numerous Last Judgment images which traditionally decorate the rear walls of churches.

And if Mary is so important partly because of her role as the kind protector sitting at the right hand of Christ to mitigate the wrath and protecting her faithful during the second coming, John the Baptist does the opposite.  I certainly wouldn’t want to tick off a city under his personal protection.

Florence’s baptistery ceiling makes it clear

As Florence’s patron saint and protector, John the Baptist appears all over the place in Florentine art, and they never tire of painting him pointing at things, both to remind the viewer of his importance as the one who “points the way” to Christ, but also because they have that finger.  You can still see it, in fact, in the Museo del Opera del Duomo, but it used to be housed in the Baptistery, which is the historic heart and symbol of the city.

And a place that made a strong impression on a certain Dante when he was a little boy.

 

You don’t want to tick off the guy in that chair!

The main thing for spotting John the Baptist, though, is the hairshirt, depicted as some kind of fuzzy fur.  Sometimes it’s under a robe, sometimes it’s all he’s wearing.  Even in bronze or stone, it’s always clear:

Ghiberti’s statue on Orsanmichele – I wish this were my photo, but I don’t have a ladder.

San Lorenzo (St. Lawrence)

  • Common attributes: carries an enormous iron grill, dressed as a deacon (wearing a dalmatic tunic), short, tonsured hair
  • Occasional attributes: palm frond (any martyr can carry a palm frond), often dressed in red or pink
  • Patron saint of: cooking, chefs, barbeque, librarians, libraries, notaries, administrators, tanners, paupers, comedians, some other things
  • Patron of places: Rome, Canada, Rotterdam, Sri Lanka, Canada
  • Patron of people: Medici Family
  • Feast Day: August 10th
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, being roasted alive, being sentenced to death by the Emperor Vespasian, distributing alms to the poor
  • Close Relationships: He’s one of the Deacons of the Church who oversaw its finances in early days, so is associated with other early deacons, and early martyrs, like St. Stephen
  • Relics: They burned him so there are only bits.  Florence has some.  The grill is in Rome.

I already discussed San Lorenzo and his most excellent patronage of the poor in my post about the celebrations of his feast day.  As a prominent early martyr he is very commonly depicted with other martyrs.

“Flip me over, Caesar,” from the martyrdom of San Lorenzo, fresco in the Santuario della Madonna del Colle

He’s a favorite in Florence because he was a keeper of money, and the many moneylenders of the Italian banking circuit (not least the Medici) were eager for examples of virtuous people who dealt with money, so they could justify their financial obsessions and deflect accusations of usury.  That a man who was grilled alive is patron saint of cooking and specifically roasting and barbeque proves there is a sense of humor to these things, as does the fact that his witty last words, “Flip me over, Caesar, I’m done on this side,” earned him eternal fame as Patron Saint of Comedians.  True grace under (over?) fire.  Also: patron of cooking AND libraries?  There’s a saint dear to my heart.

Jump to the next Spot the Saint entry.

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Guess the Price – Guess the Purse

The Gucci store window
The Prada store window

There is a district, just west of the center of Florence, which I refer to as the “Thousand Dollar Purse” district.

Here the truly extravagant end of European fashion displays itself for the delectation of the envious masses.

Here one can spend $500 on sunglasses, $1,000 on boots, and ooh and aah over purses whose merits elude my understanding.  Yet I know to that, to the stylish, the differences are as obvious as when I glance at an altarpiece and tell a Saint Sebastian from a Saint Jerome.  It is a language, and I do respect the effort it takes to achieve fluency.

In preparation for a more substantial post on the subject of thousand dollar purses, I present a simple guessing game. I challenge you to guess the prices of the three black purses shown below. I will not pull any cheap tricks and include a purse from the sensible end of town: all three of these purses cost over a thousand dollars.  My challenge: Guess the price of each!  To whoever gets closest I’ll give the prize of suggesting my next topic.  Or if you’re not confident enough in your knowledge of high fashion to guess the prices, simply guess which of the three purses do you think costs the most.

By the way, the Prada jacket shown above on the left left costs 3,950 euros, and the purse she’s holding costs 2,700 euros.  The Gucci dress at the above right is 2,700 in green, 3,500 in pink.  Oh, also, the green dress should be worn with a 500 euro belt and 585 euro shoes, and the little purse is a mere 1,350.

Now, the challenge!  Guess the price – guess the purse:

 

Purse #1: the unnecessarily quilted reptile purse

(up close, it’s not reptile leather, it’s smooth leather quilted to look like reptile leather)

 

Purse #2: the inconveniently-small reptile purse

(No, there’s no shoulder strap, just the wrist loop, so it constantly occupies a hand.)

 

Purse #3: the crumpled trashbag look purse

(yes, that’s a Prada label)

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Bathroom Suspense

American friends who have traveled extensively in Italy, or some other regions of the Earth, smile with an instant, knowing understanding when I say “bathroom suspense.”  I grew up to expect going to the bathroom to be simple, relaxing, an almost unthinking break in which simple repetition and the brief suspension of work and interaction allows for a defragmenting mental breather.  In Italy, instead of relaxation, suspense: “How will this bathroom not work?”

The cause is simple: the buildings predate modern plumbing, so the bathrooms are tucked and tweaked in by force in often inconvenient and inhospitable architectural circumstances, but remembering the last time I had to replace a toilet in my own house, and browsed at Home Depot through the endless row of nearly-identical, “American Standard” toilets, I can’t help but think that the equivalent should be named, “Italian Chaos.”

Bathroom Suspense has two primary forms.

This seatless restaurant toilet presents only a brief challenge with its wall button

The first, and briefest, is hunting for the flush.  Many times a week when traveling one enters an unfamiliar bathroom, in a restaurant, hotel, train station, and there is very often an unsettling, sometimes extended hunt for the operating mechanism that commands the exodus.  Will it be a pull chain dangling from the ceiling?  A foot pedal?  A button on an extended wire somewhere random in the room?  A ceramic mechanism that looks like wall art, or alternately an enormous metal button that looks more like an emergency trigger than a flush, and won’t budge unless you lever your full bodyweight against it?  Even simple-seeming mechanisms, such as the common large plastic button on top of the tank, present complexities: which of two buttons is the right one?  Or, worse, sometimes there is only one button but it turns out to be a hinged panel which does different things when you push the left side or the right.  It generally only takes a few seconds’ experimentation to solve the mystery, but it is enough to turn calm into stress, much as if one were immersed in a novel only to discover that the last ten pages are glued together and need to be separated with a letter opener: annoyance destroys the moment.

This cartoon squirrel attempts to demonstrate a particularly intimidating automatic sink

I have also often had friends return from a public restroom with rather uncomfortable faces to confess that they gave up and couldn’t find the flush, or, more often, the sink controls: “Oh, that sink is controlled by a pair of color-coded foot petals behind the trash can.”  And it doesn’t help anglophones that caldo = hot and freddo = cold, therefore the hot tap is labeled “C”.

A large number of Italian toilets are also bizarre in other ways, with no seat, or a seat that pushes itself up automatically so you have to hold it down while trying to sit, or a seat that squirts itself with disinfectant at unpredictable moments.  Most infamous is the rare squat toilet subspecies, lurking patiently in the innocent-seeming stalls at museums and coffee bars.  Many are unaware that squat toilets exist in a civilization that had proper toilets more than two thousand years ago.  Even if one is aware, they are always still startling and awkward, as if one checked into a hotel room and went to throw one’s coat and backpack on the bed only to discover a hammock in its place: doable but weird, and not the kind of surprise you want mid-travel.

Shape adds another element to the complexity of the Italian public restroom, since these are, after all, crammed into awkward corners of Renaissance if not Medieval homes.  Many bathrooms are trapezoid, rhomboid, have strange beams or blocks of stone protruding into them, or deep former windows through foot-thick stone walls covered over with something as ephemeral as waxed paper.

An example of the common set-up with no head-height shower nozzle and no curtain, just a hand-held hose, and your own dexterity to prevent a flood

Pipes trail along the corners and bunch around rare openings, like tree roots desperate to claw their way through rock.  All this makes the brief moment of bathroom going a disruptive and memorable garnish to the museum trek or hotel night; simplicity is now adventure.

Hotel rooms have the extra resource of a shower to add surrealism to the moment.  I encountered an excellent example in Milan last summer.  It is not uncommon for an Italian bathroom to have no shower-height shower head, but instead to have only a low bathtub-height faucet, or more commonly a spray nozzle on the end of a hose, so one may sit or stand while holding it, and generally shower with reasonable success so long as one is careful to aim into the tub (which is often not guarded by any shower curtain).  Here, I discovered with some satisfaction that there was, in fact, a shower-height wall nozzle—jubilation!—if positioned a little oddly.  This shower had a formal bathtub positioned with one long side against the wall of the bathroom, and the nozzle was in that wall in the precise center of the tub’s length, so one stood, not at one end, but in the middle to be in the water’s course.

Of course, the venerable metropolis of Milan has treasures enough to compensate for any small inconveniences

This would have been excellent if not for two factors.  One: the nozzle didn’t point down, it pointed out, spraying the water completely past the tub toward the unguarded center of the room with a force sufficient to knock the shower curtain aside and drench the bathroom.  Okay, sure, this was surmountable if one took great care to position one’s self between the water jet and the room at all times, using one’s body to deflect the force.  However.  There was a lower nozzle, for filling the bath, flanked as many are by two taps, one cold one hot, so one could mix the water and achieve the desired temperature: good so far.  Yet, for the upper shower-height one, there was only one tap, hot.  Very hot.  Scaldingly hot, in fact, with no possibility of dimming its force with any cold.  So, to shower, one had to stand in the middle of the bathtub and, shielding the room with one’s body, take full brunt of a powerful jet of literally burning hot water.

But this is only the lesser form of Bathroom Suspense.  The true form comes in renting an apartment, and committing, sight unseen and from across the Atlantic, to six months with a bathroom which may well turn out to be another tier of Purgatory.

The view from my bathroom window. All residents of the dense and skyward-climbing termite colony that is the center of Florence share this problem, and are generally polite about moments of awkward eye-contact.

Before I turn to the outstanding examples, let me say that I love my current bathroom.  It is wonderful, by far the best I have had in any Italian apartment.  It’s bliss.  It is a peculiarly long thin space, narrow enough that one must take care stepping around the fixtures, and one must move sideways through it at all times, as well as entering sideways, since the tiny bathroom door is four inches narrower than my shoulders.  There is a window above the toilet looking out on the beautiful skyline and Giotto’s bell tower, which for me is at eye height when I’m sitting on the toilet, has no frosting, shutter or curtain, and an excellent view of several other nearby apartment windows, often occupied.  The shower follows a common trend and has no actual shower bed or rim, it is simply a nozzle that squirts hot water into the bathroom and a drain in the slanted tile floor to which the water, after adventuring across the bathroom, returns and exits.  There is a shower curtain (wonderful!) and a fine sink.  Oh, and the toilet requires my full bodyweight to flush, and the button has to be pressed so it actually recedes into the wall, so I have to throw my full weight against my thumb, not my palm, to activate it.  The water is gas heated, rather than electric, a great energy savings, but it does mean one has to turn the gas on before (and off after) every shower, and the activation mechanism is clear on the opposite side of the apartment by the front door, requiring either foresight or a quick dash in a bathrobe if one forgets.  It only takes about a minute and a half for the water to get hot, though, which is excellent.  My landlady warned me that the water pressure was low, since we are, after all, at the top of a medieval tower, and she even installed an electric pump to increase the flow, but I don’t use it, finding the water pressure perfectly sufficient and comparable to American Low Flow (Low Flow is a concept which will, I suspect, never penetrate a country whose towns are filled with lovely free-flowing public fountains pouring gallons of drinkable water down the drain every second).  Please don’t read any sarcasm into this description.  This is the best bathroom I have had in an Italian apartment, and I am absolutely delighted.

For those skeptical, let me now describe the worst bathroom I have endured in an Italian apartment.  The title does not go to the Roman apartment which offered precisely 1 minute 43 seconds of hot water followed by ice shock, nor to the Florentine apartment with the bathtub in the middle of the room and no curtain, requiring the most delicate aim with the hand-held nozzle.  Another Florentine place where the gas was actually inside the shower so you had to keep an eye on the fire while showering, was also more a case of character than discomfort.  No, the winner is a little place in Florence’s Oltrarno district, which used to belong to the Machiavelli family, whom I do not blame.

Wikipedia will happily educate the uninformed about the history and function of the bidet

Let me first highlight the important fact that, through all this chaos of chain-operated levers and incomprehensible knobs, and in most women’s public restrooms as well, there is always, inevitably, identically, beautifully and functionally, a bidet.  I’m certain that for those who grew up using a bidet its absence in American restrooms must be annoying if not disgusting, but coming from a bidet-free culture (and often having to explain to guests what that “little low sink thing” is next to the toilet) I can stay with confidence that a bidet is not necessary for the bathroom process.  Convenient, comfortable for those accustomed, but you can totally succeed in the whole bathroom experience without one.  (For those unfamiliar: you wash your bottom with it.)  So will someone tell me why, with so many barely-functional showers and sinks that require you to pump a priming handle, the least necessary component of the bathroom is the most reliable?

In the Machiavelli bathroom, the bidet was perfect.  The toilet was reasonable, requiring minimal massage of the mechanism to coax a flush out of it, but the shower nozzle was positioned almost directly above it, so while showering one had to either literally straddle the toilet or teeter in the narrow space between toilet and bidet.  There was again no rim around the shower area, it simply flowed freely into the bathroom, which had a drain in the middle of the floor, but while the very excellent bathroom I am currently enjoying has well-sloped tile to direct the water efficiently to the exit, in this one the water flowed merrily all around the bathroom, completely flooding it.  And this bathroom had no lintel.  So the water flowed merrily out of the bathroom to the space outside.  Did I mention this bathroom was situated on a landing half-way down a flight of solid stone steps between my bedroom and the outer door?  And that said stone stairwell was completely unheated?  Thus if the water made it out the door in winter, sheets of ice were instantly produced, coating the landing and glittering merrily down the steps from bathroom to street.  To prevent this, a squeegee on a long pole was provided, and while showering one had to periodically pause and squeegee the water away from the doorway back to the drain, an exercise rather like raking leaves, only when naked and wet.  And cold.

December in Florence offers bright lights, holiday treats, and an acute awareness that they hadn't invented insulation in 1500

Cold was the true centerpiece of this bathroom.  Italian stone architecture is brilliant in summer at using the natural cave-like coolness of stone and shade to create cool spaces without air conditioning, but the winter converse is not fun when the bathroom is just about as unheated as the stone stairwell outside.  It was freezing—sometimes literally—inside that bathroom, and rather than fog there would be lovely frost patterns on the mirror after a shower.  Returning through the sub-zero stairwell from bathroom to bedroom with wet hair required a deal of moral fiber as well.  Did I mention that this apartment was so cold that, in winter, I slept in my clothes, and my wool coat, and my super-thick camping socks, and my winter boots?  Getting out of my wintry bundle to strip off in a freezing bathroom was… character building.  Fine, good, we can deal with this, the cold should make the shower even more blissful, because the treasured immersion in streaming hot water is the one daily opportunity to be truly warm.  Right?  No, reader, I will not leave you with so predictable a punch line as to say there was no hot water, or that the water ran out after a few moments, or took forever to get warm.  Such mediocrities are unworthy of a property which might have at some point maybe belonged to Machiavelli’s uncle.

Italy, of course, still has treasures enough to make all these inconveniences more than worthwhile

The shower had a simple nozzle.  Half the holes produced completely frigid, barely-above-freezing cold water.  The other half produced blistering burn-yourself-from-touching-it you-could-make-tea-with-this hot water.  With no mixing.  Thus, the full shower experience involved stripping off cuddly warm winter wear in freezing temperatures, then straddling the toilet only to stand with my teeth chattering as freezing water cascaded over part of me, while other areas of skin are burned red by the scalding heat.  While periodically stopping to squeegee.  Comfy as covers are, never before or since has getting out of bed in the morning literally been torture.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is a true Italian bathroom, and I would not trade my current gas-activated heat and oddly-positioned window for all the treasures of the Medici.  Well, maybe for their Botticellis.

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Fake Centurions II

I have returned from a jaunt to Rome, and with great stealth and industry obtained this footage of the rare beast in its natural habitat.

The most common species inhabits the blocks around the Colosseum, but this specimen I sighted outside the Pantheon.  Here he is at the end of his pattern, acquiring a tip from the two ladies he had just snapped some shots with. The armor may be plastic but even from a medium distance the effect of the un-tapered draped cloak and the full-feathered crest is quite complete.

For all that the news reports about extortion around the margins of the occupation are certainly true, they do add an air of classical enthusiasm to the ancient sites.  Watching the endless repetitions of friends and families eagerly snapping badly-framed and back-lit or overexposed vacation snaps in front of one world landmark or another, I can’t help feeling that the sort of person who enjoys that kind of photo is precisely the sort of person who would enjoy it more with a burly recreationist perfecting the fantasy.  It isn’t worth 30 euros or the loss of a camera, but it is a public service of a kind, or a world service perhaps.

The fake tiaras on the other hand, there I don’t know what they’re thinking.

There is, of course, also a lighter (and for once well-organized) side to the Italian historical reenactment scene.  Here Duke Cosimo I de Medici deigns to oversee a field trip for a group of students from a peripheral public school, who have come to the Palazzo Vecchio to learn about Florence’s history.  He demanded that the teacher explain why her wards were so inappropriately dressed, and what they hoped to gain from their visit.  He interviewed a few personally and commanded that they be industrious in their studies so as to be worthy successors to Florence’s intellectual tradition.  He was particularly impressed with the class president and her art studies, and encouraged her to seek service with his Republic when her studies were complete.  He then gave the class permission to sketch some of the decoration his man Vasari had recently finished.  I know I never had a field trip that made me feel so connected to something so important.  Fact is: they are.

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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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