Posts Tagged ‘S.P.Q.F.’

Spot the Saint: Mary Magdalene and John the Evangelist

It’s been a while, so here are some extra trixy new saints to add to our challenge.  (Note, the Renaissance images featured in this post will feature nudity, so if you’re not comfortable with that skip this entry):

John the Evangelist (Giovanni Evangelista)

  • Common attributes: Eagle, book, pen, Roman robes, EITHER beautiful young man OR old man with very long beard
  • Occasional attributes: Chalice with a snake or dragon crawling out of it, often dressed in pink
  • Patron saint of: Friendship, everyone in the bookmaking industry (writers, editors, compositors, booksellers, bookbinders, print makers, engravers), protection from burns, protection from poison
  • Patron of places: Asia Minor, Umbria, Wroclaw Poland, Sundern Germany, lots of weird places like Cleveland and Milwaukee and Boise Idaho
  • Feast day: December 27th, also May 6th (his surviving being boiled in oil).
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, mourning at the Crucifixion or Deposition, asleep in Christ’s lap at the Last Supper, being boiled, in a set with the other three Evangelists
  • Relics: Ephesus (church has now been turned into a Mosque)

Due to the popularity of Crucefixion scenes, the most commonly depicted apostle in Renaissance art is not, shockingly, Peter, nor Paul, but John the Evangelist, who, like the fainting Virgin and tearful Magdalene, makes a mandatory cameo at the base of every cross.  Add to this the frequency with which artists decorate four matching surfaces (four vaults, four doors, four pinacles above central images) with the Four Evangelists, and the frequency with which John is depicted writing his Gospel or witnessing events of his Gospel, and he becomes one of the most familiar faces in our list.

Familiar but tricky.  John the Evangelist, or “the Beloved”, presumed author of the Gospel of John, is a great challenge to saint spotting for three reasons.  First: he often has no attributes, and has to be identified from his general bearing, location and activities.  Second: he appears at two completely different ages, which can throw one off.  Third: when young he often looks so female to the modern eye that the mind leaps straight to our list of female saints, looking for spiked wheels and eyes on plates, without considering the fact that this might be a boy.  The fact that he appears so often in the same scenes where Mary Magdalene makes sense to appear makes the two of them frustratingly easy to mix up.

John’s radically fluctuating age is due to the fact that he is believed to have lived a very long time, and did important things at many different points in his life, unlike martyrs who are pretty-much always shown at the ages they were when they died.  He was established as having been very young (and handsome) during Christ’s life, and can be spotted among full sets of apostles by being the most handsome, and often the only one without a beard.  He then went on to live a very long life preaching and writing, and survived numerous near-martyrdoms: He was arrested and beaten by Domitian, but remained impervious.  He was then poisoned, but he blessed the chalice and the poison turned into a snake or dragon and ran away (Where did it go?!  Is it still out there?…), hence his attribute of holding a cup with a snake in it.  He was then boiled in oil, but that didn’t work either, and he escaped to Ephesus where he lived a long and pious life.  He also supposedly got into a conflict with some worshipers of Artemis at one point, who tried to stone him, but the stones bounced off, and then at his invocation two hundred of them were killed by lightning, and then resurrected, in one of the largest mass-resurrections in the palette of saintly miracles.  But because none of the implements involved in these stories actually killed John, he does not carry them around with him in Heaven (i.e. in art), so while Lorenzo and Catherine and Paul have convenient death tags, John remains elusively short on attributes.

John is depicted either as a beautiful youth, or as an old man with a very long beard.  Modern gender tag conventions make his youthful form particularly easy to mistake for a woman, mainly because of his hairstyle, which is usually long and loose down to his shoulders or shoulder blades.  This style looks feminine by modern standards, but was not by Renaissance standards.  In Renaissance art, pretty-much no woman would ever have hair nearly that short.  Women’s hair is generally to the elbows, and is worn tied up in an elaborate hairstyle, or at least covered by a veil.  Loose hair with nothing tying it up is the style of a knight or dashing nobleman, never a woman.  The to-modern-eyes feminine presentation of John the Evangelist is enhanced by the fact that, at least in Tuscan art, he’s usually dressed in pink.  I don’t know why this is, and it certainly isn’t a solid rule, but just as the Virgin Mary is almost always in a blue robe, John is almost always in pink, which was not gender-coded in the Renaissance as it is now, but does rather add to the overall effeminacy of the young “beloved”.

The Four Evangelists have four winged animals that represent them: the Winged Lion for Mark, the Winged Bull for Luke, the Winged Person i.e. Angel for Matthew, and the Winged Eagle for John (no, no one has a non-winged Eagle as an attribute).  Sometimes just the animal is used to stand in for the evangelist, with no human figure at all.  The evangelists’ animals are sometimes depicted covered with lots of eyes, but more often John just has an eagle hanging out next to him.  This, combined with John’s youth and beauty, strongly invokes the Greco-Roman image of the handsome Ganymede being carried of by Zeus in the form of a lustful eagle, and puts John solidly with Sebastian in the palette of “sexy saints,” i.e. saints who are sometimes used as an excuse to show a sexy male body in a world in which eroticism, particularly homoeroticism, was controversial, yet religious content often eased criticism.  We have Renaissance diatribes in which theologians rail against the sensuality of paintings in aristocrats’ collections, citing nude Venuses and scandalous Ganymedes, but the same treatises often explicitly say that nudity is A-ok in religious art, because the bodies of John, Sebastian and Mary Magdalene point the soul toward heavenly thoughts rather than Earthly.  Looking at them, though, it is sometimes hard to see the difference:

Michelangelo’s Rape of Ganymede
John the Evangelist. Note the pose of the legs, and the position of the eagle.

The old John, author of the gospels, is often depicted with the other three evangelists in a set, but sometimes he is depicted as just a bearded sage with a book and an eagle, or, less helpfully, with just a book, or even less helpfully as just a bearded man, though, often, still in pink robes.  Sometimes, to mix things up, he’s just an eagle.

One way to spot John when he has no attributes is by his customary position.  At a Crucifixion, John is always depicted near the foot of the cross, mourning dramatically, accompanied by Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary and ladies attending to the Virgin, usually including Margaret.  Thus, if there are several beautiful mourners at Christ’s feet, the one with the shortest hair is John.  The gender tags remain trixy, however, and unless one knows what to look for in the hair styles, it can be difficult to tell the difference between John and Christ’s other major mourner, Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalene

  • Common attributes: Long loose hair
  • Occasional attributes: Ointment jar (often made of alabaster) or cup, skull, naked except for her hair
  • Patron saint of: Penitent sinners, converts, the contemplative life, apothecaries, women, reformed prostitutes, protection against sexual temptation
  • Patron of places: Atrani, Italy
  • Feast day: July 22nd
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, grieving at the Crucefixion or Deposition, anointing or embracing Christ’s feet, in the wilderness being a hermit, being airlifted to heaven by angels, with Christ in the garden attempting to touch him while he refuses (“noli me tangere”)
  • Relics: Either Constantinople OR the French hemitage on La Sainte-Baume, depending who you ask

Ah, Mary Magdalene, unofficial patron saint of conspiracy theorists, historical mystery fiction and feminist historicist conflicts.  There is either way too much information about Mary Magdalene or way too little, depending on what sources you listen to.  Our goal is to present the version which appears in Renaissance Art, as opposed to the skillion other versions, from Mary “Equal of the Apostles”, to Mary the systematically-suppressed founder of a long-lost feminist Christianity, to… I don’t actually know what she is in the Korean comic “Let’s Bible!” but given that Jesus is a teenage girl with no pants and Satan is a Mexican guitarist, I think I am safe in assuming that she is a talking spider plant.

In the Gospels, apart from a vague reference to her being cleansed of “seven devils”, and being Lazarus’ sister (even this is debated), she pretty-much only appears during the Crucifixion process, at which she is a named and specified witness of (A) the Crucifixion, (B) the fact that the tomb is empty, and (C) the Resurrection.  Renaissance artists depict her consistently at all these things, accompanied at the Crucefixion and tomb by the Virgin Mary, the confusingly vague “Other Mary”, and at the Crucifixion by them along with John the Evangelist and, often, Margaret.

Gregory the Great (in 591 AD) is credited with establishing the idea that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, who renounced and reformed her evil ways when she converted, and it is this version who populates Renaissance art as the second-most-commonly-depicted woman after the Virgin.  She is thus usually a very beautiful, sensual young woman, the cultural antithesis of the Virgin, and a figure which lets Renaissance religious art have a conversation about female sexuality in a way that the endless martyred virgins like Catherine and Lucy can’t facilitate.  The legend also has Mary Magdalene go out into the wilderness after the Crucifixion and live as a hermit, allowing her to be used as a prototype for serious female participation in the extreme religious life of total commitment, contemplation and self-denial which made hermits and, later, monks such a central part of medieval Christian ideas of true religious life.  Remember that, until St. Francis’s revolutionary program of bringing religious life to the urban lay population, the term “religious” in European culture meant a hermit, priest, monk or nun, who were considered the only people with meaningful religious lives, and the only ones likely to go to heaven without being martyred.  The archetype of Mary Magdalane, female hermit, opened this to women.

As champion and representative of the Contemplative Life, Mary Magdalene is patroness of contemplative philosophers, and of the Dominican order, which so values contemplation as a path to the divine.

A depiction of the “Noli me tangere”

While the Mary Magdalene story could serve to open some doors of religious activity to women, it also closed some in the form of the “Noli me tangere” scene.  This scene, frequently depicted in art, was when the resurrected Christ appeared to Mary (before he did to anyone else) and, when she attempted to embrace him, said “Don’t touch me” (Noli me tangere).  This scene is sometimes used to justify refusing to allow women to be priests, where they have to consecrate and touch the body of Christ.  The scene in which Thomas, after doubting the resurrection and saying he won’t believe until he touches Christ’s wounds, is then actually allowed to touch Christ’s wounds is used to demonstrate that men can touch him but not women.  The fact that Mary Magdalene was allowed to anoint Christ’s body when he was dead leads to all sorts of confusing cultural attempts to figure out the correct divisions of male and female physicality in liturgical, medical and funerary situations which I will not attempt to sort out.

“Penitent Magdalene” in hermit mode, with skull

The thing which makes Mary Magdalene recognizable 95% of the time in art is the fact that she has long loose trailing hair.  This derives from (A) the pre-modern association between loose hare on a woman and wantonness/ sensuality/ prostitution, and (B) a medieval legend that, when Mary renounced being a prostitute and threw away her luxurious seductive clothes, her hair miraculously grew to cover her nakedness.  And even though the miracle of her long hair happens at a certain point in the logic of her linear narrative, the same special relationship with time that allows renaissance artists to cheerfully depict toddler-aged John the Baptist in a hairshirt and carrying a staff allows them to depict Mary Magdalene’s miraculously long hair at any point.

Another fun Mary Magdalene legend moment, also medieval, describes the fact that she refuses to eat while in the wilderness, so to keep her alive angels air-lift her to Heaven every day where she is fed divine manna and then set down again.

All this makes Mary Magdalene the top choice saint for painters who want an excuse to depict a sexy woman, just as the usually-nearly-naked Saint Sebastian is the top choice for depicting a sexy man.  Saint Sebastian can be depicted as a fully clothed guy holding an arrow, but is usually a luscious youth with a gauze-like loincloth, and in the same way Mary Magdalene can be a haggard penitent hermit, or she can be a luscious nude, chest heaving with ecstatic (religious) excitement, indistinguishable from Lady Godiva.  Thus we encounter extremes with Mary, as we do with John, ranging, in her case, not in age, but in sensuality, from the extreme of Titian’s Magdalene, whose luscious hare carefully covers everything except the naughty bits, to Donatello’s gaunt and stunning hermit.

Donatello’s Version
Titian’s Version

The disparity of how Mary Magdalene is depicted is perhaps best summarized by who artists tend to pair her with, since saints are most often spotted in symmetrical groups flanking Christ or the Virgin, and thus every one needs a partner symmetrically opposite.  Often “reasonable Magdalene” (as I think of her) beautiful, in nice clothes, with long flowing hair and her jar, is paired with John the Evangelist, the two beautiful, young people who loved and were emotionally close to Christ the man.  In contrast, “hermet Magdalene” is usually paired with John the Baptist (her hair paralleling his hairshirt), or to the old wasted hermit Saint Jerome, so the pair of them can kneel on rocks and beat their breasts and contemplate skulls and crucifixes in the wilderness in parallel.  Finally “sexy Magdalene” is usually alone, as an excuse to have a naked lady.

But don’t forget to look for the jar – she does have it sometimes.

Population of a Crucefixion Scene:

With John and Mary Magdalene under our belts, it is now possible to sort the population of a standard Crucifixion scene.  Generally not all of these figures are present, but the scenes often include:

  • Virgin Mary, generally wearing a hood/veil, and depicted fainting into the arms of companions
  • Mary Magdalene, with long beautiful hair, generally embracing the foot of the cross, or otherwise grieving very conspicuously, with arms flung wide
  • John the Evangelist, also grieving conspicuously, occasionally helping those who catch the fainting Virgin
  • St. Margaret and “The Other Mary”, nondescript women catching the Virgin Mary while she faints
  • A skull at the base of the cross, supposed to be Adam’s skull, because he was buried at the same place that the cross was set up
  • The Good Thief and the Wicked Thief, crucified on two other crosses on the either side of Christ, with the Wicked Thief on Christ’s left having his soul carried of by a (usually adorable) little devil.
  • St. Longinus, the centurion who stabbed Christ with a spear, depicted carrying a spear, sometimes on horseback.  May or may not have a halo, since at the moment he does the stabbing he hasn’t yet converted, so some artists show him not-quite-yet a saint and therefore halo-free
  • Other non-saint figures, including the soldiers playing dice to see who keeps Christ’s clothes, an unappealing man mocking Christ’s thirst by offering him a sponge dipped in vinegar on a long pole (the Holy Sponge!), and assorted random witnesses who are sometimes so plentiful that it starts to feel like they must be time travelers gathering to watch the occasion
  • Angels with cups (the holy grail) catching the dripping blood
  • Other random saints who logically shouldn’t be there, like John the Baptist, or Francis or Dominic, or whoever is the local patron saint is, stuck in by the artist and shown as witnesses, contemplating the scene and grieving, or, in John the Baptist’s case, pointing at Christ.

The population of a Deposition, when they take the body down and mourn it, is about the same.

Samples:

Quiz Yourself on the Saints You Know So Far:

 The next level of challenge in saint spotting is judging when you do and don’t know figures.  In the image below, you should recognize five of the seven figures.  (One figure is deceptive, since the figure on the left holding lilies is, in fact, a portrait of a more obscure local figure made to look like a more famous one, but you should be able to identify who he’s pretending to be).

Some comments on the old figure second from the right (read these after you have done your best to identify everyone in the picture).  It is often possible to figure out a fair amount about a figure even if you don’t know who it is from looking at details of costume.  Looking at this figure, you can tell first what religious order he is a part of from his clothes, and from the extra decorated band on his habit you can tell he held a high rank, probably a bishop.  Now, note his halo.  See how, while everyone else’s halo is a circle, his is instead a bunch of linear rays coming from his head?  Artists sometimes use this technique, employing two different halo styles in one painting, to differentiate full saints (with the round halos here) from someone who is beatified, i.e. who has gone through the first three stages of becoming a saint but not the last one.  Someone who is beatified has been examined officially by the Church, which has determined that the person is in Heaven and capable of using their position in heaven to intercede with the divine on behalf of people, but who has not yet had the three confirmed miracles necessary to establish sainthood.  Historically, beatification was controlled more by local officials, so that bishops had the authority to beatify local people, while sainthood always required Vatican approval.  Reverting to our Kingdom of Heaven terms for a moment, someone who is beatified is at court, but hasn’t yet succeeded in securing any notable favors from the king, so is a less certain benefactor than an established court favorite like John the Baptist or St. Francis.  For example, Pope John Paul II is currently beatified, but not yet officially a saint.  Long-term, cult followings for figures who are beatified but never canonized are sometimes actively discouraged by the Vatican, which usually has a reason for denying sainthood to such a figure if they do.  For example, Charlemagne was beatified but never canonized, and when the power struggles between Pope and Emperor as rival claimants to imperial power got tougher, the Vatican actively suppressed the cult of Beato Carlo Magno in order to monopolize heavenly authority – this, however, is why Charlemagne is sometimes depicted with a halo, and his remains are stored in fancy reliquaries and treated as holy relics.

Reliquary of Charlemagne

Thus, whoever this figure in the painting is, you can tell by looking, has been beatified but not yet canonized at the point that the painting was done.  Since beatified figures are usually only popular in the areas where they lived, when you see a beatified figure like this, it’s a safe guess that the painting was done in the figure’s home town, or somewhere (s)he was active, and that it may well have hung over the beatified figure’s tomb, or in a church where (s)he worked.

The presence of two different distinct styles of halo is thus a marker that can help you nail down a painting’s origin.  Note: some artists use linear halos for everyone, so you can’t always say a linear halo = a beatified figure, rather what you need to look for is two different types of halo in one painting.  At other times artists use the same technique to differentiate other weird kinds of things, for example an altarpiece I saw at the Accademia last week which had round halos on a bunch of female saints and linear halos on some allegorical ladies who were hanging out with them.  This can also be used to differentiate saints from angels, and from Virtues, like Temperence and Strength/Fortitude, who also hang out in Heaven when they’re not busy crushing Vices underfoot or participating in Tarot readings.

Jump to the next Spot the Saint entry.

Real Mozzarella

Time once again for me to sound like a madwoman, but there are some topics for which the modest, objective vocabulary of sane discourse is not well suited.  This is true particularly of experiences which bring on moments worthy of the phrase “so happy I could die”: the experience of perfect spring weather on the prow of a sailing ship, of standing before Botticelli’s Madonna della Magnificat, of a farewell dinner at a favorite restaurant with six best friends, of having the world’s top expert on your subject praise your article, and of biting into real mozzarella.

Some readers will not have tasted real mozzarella yet, but those who have already know what I mean.  For those who have sunk our teeth into the velvet, meaty milk-flesh of a real mozzarella, which bleeds whey as it explodes with flavor-hypersaturated salt-cream, it is as difficult to believe it is the same chemical substance as string cheese or Domino’s pizza as it is to wrap one’s mind around the fact that dribbling, drowning water is in fact two-thirds breathable oxygen.  It’s not similar.  It’s not the same food, not even in the same mental category, like roast pheasant and turkey sandwich slices, or matzah and a baguette.  A true mozzarella is milk white, often in ball form, and best preserved submerged in brine.  It is soft, resilient, very slightly spongy, and usually salty, though some are made with little-to-no salt when intended to absorb surrounding flavors, as in  a salad or a filling.  A large ball will have a skin layer of a distinct texture, which is not a separate substance wrapped around the mozzarella, but the result of a chemical change caused by the surrounding liquid leaking in.

Fresh real mozzarella is softer and wetter than the "low moisture" mozzarella used for American pizza, so it creates a wetter, jucier result (sometimes even soggy) but also doesn't need to be shredded and distributed evenly the way dry mozzarella does.

My personal theory about why good mozzarella gives the brain such a direct blast of pleasure-center positive reinforcement is that it so richly combines the taste experiences of infancy, specifically nursing and weaning.  The pleasure center of the brain is programmed to fire off as positive reinforcement when a baby takes certain actions necessary for life, of which the first is nursing.  Fatty, sweet, salty milk liquid is thus a primordial addiction, and mozzarella with its never-chilled sweet-fat-salt is arguably more similar to breast milk than skimmed, refrigerated cow’s milk is.   When weaning approaches the pleasure center fires off anew to teach us that chewing and swallowing and solids are also good, and mozzarella’s soft, fleshy texture thus feeds that general solid food addiction too.  This is all pure hypothesis, but there is a staggering power to the experience of real mozzarella, not quite like any other food in the raw burst of “Yes!” that shoots through the psyche.  So delightful is a good, true buffalo mozzarella that I have known certain people at schools or institutes to tell the kitchen that they’re vegetarians just because the vegetarian alternative is occasionally mozzarella, and the heaven of mozzarella once or twice a month is worth giving up meat the rest of the time.

Let’s clear some terminology.  Buffalo mozzarella, or mozzarella di bufala means mozzarella cheese made from buffalo milk.  In Italy, mozzarella made from cow’s milk is called fior di latte.  Mozzarella di Campana means it is made from milk from the region of Campana in southern Italy, which is supposed to have the best milk, and where, legend has it, farmers offer miraculous roadside mozzarella stands, just as those in New England offer apples or summer fruit.   Buffalo milk is fattier than cow’s milk, making a richer (and even more luxuriantly calorific) cheese.  Fior di latte is also a gelato flavor, and is completely unflavored pure sweet milk.

Sometimes mozzarella is braided like this, which makes it firmer and stringier, with less soft middle - not my preference.

The best mozzarella is made from buffalo milk, but not all fiore di latte mozzarella is bad, nor is buffalo mozzarella necessarily good, since there are many opportunities to mistreat it.  Time is one enemy, as fresh mozzarella quickly degenerates, and refrigeration, unfortunately, is another, but chemicals, ingenuity and starting with the very best ingredients mean that there are a few store-brand mozzarella types which, if not actually as good as their fresh cousins, are a respectable substitute.  In the US, Trader Joe’s carries a mozzarella good enough that, when I bought some as part of a wedding breakfast banquet for newlywed friends, it made them both eternal converts.  In Italy, Cirigliana, Mufala and Mozzarella dei Preti are the best brands I have found in grocery marts.  (In my experience, the mozzarellas that come in a large transparent bucket tend to be good.)

Once only in my life I have had genuine farm fresh mozzarella, made when I ordered it, at the farm with the buffalo right there, and it was so delicate that when I touched it it bled milk.  That experience may not e repeatable outside a few corners of agricultural paradise which even in Italy I rarely have the opportunity to visit, but that does not prevent me from tearing up when I bite into a good grocery store version.

My taste of farm fresh mozzarella, which I will never forget. (Also, one of the best birthday presents ever: Thanks, Mom!)

Yet a “good grocery store version” is not easy to come by in many regions of the unhappy Earth.  Even at upscale grocery stores which in the US now often offer fancy mozzarella, alluring in its brine-bath, the odds are, in my experience, one in three at best that the cheese within will turn out to manifest mozzarella’s true  majesty.  1/3 of the time it will turn out to be practically unsalted bland mush, and another third it will be only a pale shadow.  It is worth trying, but at $5+ a ball at most yuppie-marts it can be a frustrating gamble, since the fail condition is pretty-much overpriced playdough.

Yet there is hope!  This particular elegy to the Boddhisatva of cheeses was spurred on by this article on how to rehabilitate lame store-bought mozzarella too make it taste like real mozzarella.  Two-sentence summary: when mozzarella is refrigerated it undergoes a chemical change which makes it retain more moisture, making it become bland and dry in contrast with unrefrigerated mozzarella, and giving it a solidity which melts to create the stringy texture associated with American pizza.  Empirical study shows that can overcome and partially reverse this chemical process by soaking the mozzarella in salted warm milk for an hour or two (circa 110 degrees Fahrenheit, 43 Celsius).  I have yet to try the experiment myself, but if it proves true, it may be one of the greatest technological advances since butter.

Sometimes mozzarella is made into a bulb with a vase-like neck like this. This is intended to be tied with a cord and hung up to dry, or to be smoked.

And then there is Burrata.  Last year I sent a friend off to Italy with instructions to eat at my favorite Roman restaurant Cul de Sac, and there to order, from their vast cheese menu, the Burrata.  Seeing him again months later I asked if he had done so.  “Yes,” he answered with maniacal glee.  “Three times.”  Burratta is the more luxuriant cousin of good mozzarella, made by wrapping a shell of mozzarella around a belly-ball made partly from mozzarella and partly from raw cream.  BEWARE: I have encountered “Burrata” in American grocery stores, notably at the Whole Foods flagship store in Houston, but an old burrata easily becomes bitter, a nasty awakening from hope for those who have tasted the sweet cream original.  Some burrata are so packed with cream that they are really half cheese, half butter, and at farmer’s markets they are sold wrapped up in leaves.  One New Years’, I brought such a burrata with me on the overnight train from Florence to Paris where I served honeymooning friends breakfast in bed with a hot Parisian baguette to spread the cheesy-butter on.  None of us would undo the experience given a second chance, but I know all three of us look back on the feast with some small sense of mourning that we allowed ourselves to become irredeemably addicted to an experience which can only be achieved by crossing the border from Italy to France before non-refrigeratable cheese goes off.

Another good way to find real mozzarella is at a good restaurant.  Caprese salad, a dish made by alternating slices of mozzarella and tomato, sometimes drizzled with olive oil, is always a gamble since at a good place it will be divine and at a bad place super lame.  But it is good enough to justify the gamble, if you watch for the right signs.  The major bad sign is if the restaurant has caprese sitting around on display, either in a case in the front, or under plastic wrap.  Such caprese were cut ages ago, whereas a good one has to be cut immediately before being served, or else the soft mozzarella collapses.  As for good signs, really the best you can say is that a good place will serve a good caprese.  The best sign is if mozzarella is an option by itself, or if a place has a cheese menu.  Generally a restaurant will not offer a mozzarella, or a burrata, or any cheese, by itself unless it’s good, since without the tomato to help cover it it’s embarrassingly obvious when they’re using bad supplies, and Italian customers would not stand for it.  Thus, if it’s alone, you can usually trust it – if it’s in a caprese, it could go either way.

Venice II: Mask Culture

Often in class I’m lecturing on some aspect of the Renaissance, of Rome, of Florence, and find myself needing to end a sentence with, “…well, except Venice, but Venice was weird.”

Venice is weird.  Very weird.  More weird than you think it is, and hopefully a taste of Venetian mask culture will make my point.  This is far from a comprehensive treatment, just a little review of tidbits I’ve picked up from the odd lecture here and there, and from visiting many, many mask shops.

Three types of masks roam wild in the shops (and, during Carnival on the streets) in Venice: Festival Masks, everyday masks, and Commedia dell’Arte masks.

Everyday Masks:

Two wise Carnival goers in decorated Bauta, the most comfortable full-face concealing mask.

Yes, there are such things, or rather there were.  Venice was an island capital, ruling a small land empire centered around its lagoon, plus a vast and far-flung naval empire stretching into the distant East.  It ruled numerous coastal cities and fortresses in Greece and the Middle East, and had constant dealings with exotic peoples that gave it great wealth, valuable trade secrets, and made it an object of envy and suspicion from the rest of Christendom.  Its status at the great central port of the Mediterranean made it a center of everything that had a center: trade, commerce, printing, philosophy, literature, fashion, languages, slavery, silk, paper, heresy, plague, prostitution, perfumes, theater, crime, and especially of exiles, as those who made the rest of the world too hot to hold them ran to the impregnable cosmopolitan island where so many strange peoples mixed refugee statesmen and poets and heretics and deposed kings and fallen tyrants could all hide safe from powerful but landlocked enemies.  Even the Medici traditionally picked Venice for their home-in-exile.

Venice was thus a nest of wealth, sin, crime, disease (so much disease!) and, above all, secrets.  Trade secrets were the most substantial, Venice’s glass trade in particular.  On the island of Murano, carefully segregated so the fires, an inevitability in pre-modern glass works, which periodically consumed the little island could not touch the city’s heart, the Venetians developed numerous new techniques which allowed them alone to produce very expensive marvels.  A famous example was their ability to create clear glass, using special quartz pebbles and imported soda ash, in an era when all rivals produced something yellow, brown or green.  They also kept innovating, so that every few generations, when outsiders did manage to smuggle out a secret, they gave up the old trade for a new miracle that only Venice could perform.  At many far-flung palaces in Sicily, in Spain, in the East, potentates prided themselves on local art, local produce, showcasing their nations’ glory, but still ordered the glass from Venice.

How does this relate to masks?  Venice was protective of its secrets, and passed severe laws to prevent their leakage.  Glass workers were strictly banned from communication with just about any outsider, and the Venetian nobility as well were for a long time legally forbidden to ever speak to a foreigner.  This is a sensible precaution, except when one has to, say, run a government, or participate in trade, or anything nobles actually do.  So, the custom developed that nobles would wear masks, and interact with foreigners in an official incognito, even though everyone knew they were nobles.  In fact, so codified was this rule, that I went to a talk on a 17th century case of a man who was very severely punished (imprisoned underground, i.e. in a watery pit!) for using a mask to dupe others into thinking he was a noble while cheating at gambling.  Venice was not amused.

Nobles did not have a monopoly on masks, they merely used them in a signature way.  Others used them in many aspects of Venetian life, for example prostitution.  For example, at one point the Patriarch (i.e. Cardinal) of Venice was concerned for Venice’s morals because the male prostitutes were pulling more business than the female.  An ordinance was passed permitting female prostitutes to display themselves nude in the windows of their establishments, to entice customers and encourage general heterosexuality.  The male prostitutes retaliated by appearing nude in the windows of their establishments wearing masks.  Anything one does while wearing a mask is legally “play” so unless it’s a severe crime (like defacing a Madonna) it isn’t prosecuted.

The everyday masks consist of the Bauta and the Muta (Moretta).

The Bauta is an incredibly comfortable and practical full-face mask, of which the upper part fits tight against the forehead, while the lower part is a triangular beak extending several inches forward.  This shape makes it easy to breath and speak, and not too difficult to eat and drink, without removing the mask.  The top is not rounded to go up to the hairline, but cut off horizontally in the middle of the forehead, to enable it to be worn with a hat.  The tricorn is the traditional companion, and combined with a black hood and long cloak, it makes the wearer into an amorphous, beaked cone.

If one wears any other kind of mask for a while (other than a simple half-mask or domino) one rapidly discovers why the Bauta is the shape it is, and that it really is a mask designed to be practical, concealing the face with minimal inconvenience. Originally the Bauta was leather, but later paper took over.  It was usually white, and often worn with a long black cloak, black hat, and a black hood, making for a very dramatic starkness.  It is the men’s mask.

The lady’s mask (brace yourselves, feminists) is the Moretta, or Muta, or “mute.”  It is a small oval-shaped mask which covers only the center of the face, leaving about an inch of skin visible all the way around.  It has round eye holes but no nostril holes and no mouth hole, and fits tightly to the face.

The curve of the mask largely conceals the shape of the nose, leaving a sense of complete blankness.  The effect of the completely formless, inhuman hole in the middle of the face, with nothing but the staring eyes, is distinctly eerie to behold.

I have no photos of women in muta because no one wears them. I do own one but haven’t photographed myself in it – too creepy.

A true Muta also has no straps.  Instead, a small button is sewn on the inside of the mask just where the lips are, and the wearer holds the mask on by gripping the button between her teeth.  This renders the wearer unable to speak, which, of course, a lady does not need to do.  (Grrrrr)  So prevalent was the Muta that, in parts of the 17th and 18th centuries, if a lady dressed in the finery of the upper classes went out without one, it was considered a declaration that she was a courtesan.  (Because our society still has issues, if you google image search “muta moretta” the first three hits at present are a woman in a muta doing dishes in a modern kitchen in her underwear.)

If shopping for masks in Venice, the Bauta is one of the most practical, usable masks one can choose, and is also easy to find in its authentic white or in a variety of fabulous decorated forms.  The Muta is also not hard to find, though most of the modern ones do have straps.  A well-made, well-sized Muta is guaranteed to creep people out, though if you are petite you may have trouble finding one that’s small enough, becuase it really needs to leave that inch of visible skin all around it or it doesn’t give off the same feeling of utter negation and inhumanity.

Festival Masks

Feathers and gold are just for special occasions.

Festival masks include all the spectacular, elaborate, idiosyncratic constructions of gold and feathers and flowers and animal faces and decoupage that fill the shops and stalls of Venice, and leak out into other tourist centers like Florence and Rome.  Such masks are art objects, eye-candy with little-to-no historicity to them.  Elaborate showpiece masks were indeed created for the pageants at carnivals, and worn at masked balls, but they were never more than costume pieces, and the truly elaborate ones made today of metallic lacework or covered with sparkling crystals are pure invention.  The charming animal masks, I’m sad to say, also have few historical precedents, except that the carnival floats did involve allegorical creatures of every sort you can imagine.

These masks are, when made the traditional way, papier-mâché, made from a special, very strong blue-gray paper which is layered in a plaster mold and held together with a mixture of water and a clear-drying white glue identical to Elmer’s.  (No flour is involved, unlike with elementary-school newspaper papier-mâché).  An original form for the mask is first made in re-usable oil-based modeling clay.  The clay form is covered with plaster to create the mold.  Then thousands of paper masks can be made from the mold.

Blue-gray paper drying inside a plastic mold. In a few hours it will be ready to have the rough edges trimmed off, then to be painted white and decorated.

Because the mold is the negative form, and the paper goes inside it, the first layer of paper you put down is the outer surface of the mask, and finer paper is used to make it smooth.  This technique means that every subtle texture and wrinkle that was on the clay transfers via the plaster to the paper, so you can create masks with very elaborate three-dimensional modeling, for example fine creases in the forehead and cheeks, quite easily, and reproduce the details with perfection every time.  Once complete, the masks are decorated with paint, decoupage and other items, and (when done properly) glazed with the same clear-drying white glue that formed them.  The result is reasonably sturdy so long as no strong pressures are put on it, and the plastic coating generated by the dried glue keeps it safe from small amounts of water, ink, food etc., making for a fairly sturdy product.

Blank masks, ready to become anything. The grotesque ones in the lower part are Commedia dell’Arte character masks.

A large portion of the masks currently for sale are made, not from paper, but from less sturdy mass-produced plastic.  These tend to be cheaper, but also break more easily, and when they do break they break completely, where the paper ones just get a bit bent and develop a fissure in the paint instead of cracking entirely.  The plastic ones also tend to be mass-decorated and less creative, but many of them are still beautiful.  It is also possible to buy blank masks, in both plastic and paper, to take home and decorate – I rarely manage to leave with fewer than 10 blank masks.

As for the cost of masks, on my last visit I observed the following prices:

  • Small, blank paint-it-yourself plastic mask, €2-€7
  • Small real paper paint-it-yourself blank mask (including Bauta) €8-20
  • Small, cheaply-decorated plastic mask (including Bauta) €12-25
  • More substantial and exciting paint-it-yourself blank mask (like a dragon or a lion) €25-35
  • Small, nicely hand decorated real paper mask €20-35
  • Large, more elaborate nicely decorated paper mask (including Bauta) €35-40
  • Wearable half-mask with feathers or fabric or veils or some such €45-60+
  • Large, very elaborate masks: €60 right up into the €200 range
  • Cheap quality real leather masks €30+
  • Authentic top quality real leather masks including stage-quality Commedia masks €150+

Commedia dell’Arte

The finest, most difficult to find, often the most expensive, and always the ugliest masks, are those of the Italian Comedy, or Commedia dell’Arte.  Most famous and popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, it is a great grandchild of Roman comedy, but because so much of the Middle Ages was illiterate, and so little low culture was recorded, we have little knowledge of the two generations in between.

The plays of the Commedia dell’Arte involve a set of stock characters who appear over and over in different scenarios.  Each character has a characteristic costume and signature mask, though individual mask designs can vary within set parameters (one wart or three, curly mustache or bushy mustache) etc.  They are all silly, distorted and exaggerated, and, from an artistic sense, ugly.  This is because the figures are caricature parodies, intended to exaggerate character types the Renaissance and Enlightenment found funny.

A real Harlequin mask.

Many of the characters of the Commedia are famous and familiar, especially Harlequin, but most people familiar with Harlequin still don’t recognize a Harlequin mask if they see one, because the famous diamond pattern we associate with Harlequin is on the clothing, not the mask.  A Harlequin mask is black and pug-nosed with at least one large wart and sometimes a goofy mustache.

Paper Commedia masks abound in Venice and are by far the most economical choice when one wants to collect them all, but the masks that were (and are) used on stage are leather, not paper, and it is still possible to find leather masks in Venice, and elsewhere.  These masks are flexible and much more durable and comfortable.  They are also much more difficult to make, and consequently expensive.  Not only is leather a more expensive material than paper, but the process is more labor-intensive and requires more skill.

Leather mask molds, made of carved wood.

This is largely because the mold is backwards.  In making a paper mask, the mold is negative, and the soft paper goes inside.  In a leather mask the wooden mold is positive, and the leather is stretched over the outside.  This means that for the paper, fine details can be sculpted into the original and included in the mold, so every crease and wrinkle comes across perfectly in every paper copy.  With the leather masks, the outer surface of the leather is smooth, so fine details like wrinkles have to be tooled in by hand on every individual mask, making each product more unique, but also requiring a much more practiced hand.

For this reason there is an enormous difference between low- and high-quality  leather masks, in price and in detail.  Low quality leather masks, which are generally still quite awesome, usually lack any three-dimensional surface details, since they were made by simply stretching the leather over a mold without further tooling.  They also tend to have a rougher, more organic texture.  It is possible to find nice leather masks of this type for as little as thirty or forty euros.  On the other hand, the stage-quality, fully tooled ones are extremely smooth and shiny, and tend to start at 150 euros and go up and up and up.

A lower quality molded leather Pantalone mask (Pantalone = old Venetian merchant character)  Its roughness has a fun, crude feel that reminds me of orcs.
Top quality tooled leather Pantalone, with sheepskin eyebrows and a nice wart. To be worn with pointed white fake beard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just set side-by-side a leather stage-quality Commedia mask is generally much less beautiful than  carnival masks which cost less than half as much, but to me it’s worth it. The big difference comes when you put one on.

These beauties don’t need a human face behind them to look fantastic.

Donning a beautiful mask makes you look awesome and somewhat mysterious and exotic, but the masks themselves are independent art, and often look just as fantastic on the shelf or wall as on a person.  A Commedia mask, though, comes to life when it’s on a human face, and suddenly a strange, lively new creature is standing in the room.  I’ve never seen anything quite like the burst of delight that hits a friend’s face when she watches another friend pop on a Pulcinella or a Pantalone, or the absolute transformation of body language of the wearer as he sees himself in the mirror and feels like someone else.  It isn’t putting on a mask, it’s putting on a person, and the exaggerated eyebrows and ridiculous noses have been perfected over centuries to create a delightful, entertaining new life-form, the creature of the Comedy.  At home, where my many, many, too many Venetian masks range across the shelves, it’s the Carnival masks that always make first-time visitors ooh and aah, but when the moment comes to try one on I always reach first for the Commedia.

As for the characters themselves, I’ll review them in another post.

Meanwhile a quick survey:

I’m taking a jaunt to the US this month, and want to bring back some fun goodies for my Italian friends.  What non-perishable, portable, only-available-in-America food can you think of which would be a good present to bring back?  Just don’t say Twinkies – they’re so (in)famous I’ve already had a request!

Venice I: What’s Carnival Really Like?

What is Venice’s carnival actually like?

Venice’s modern carnival is not a traditional folk and fertility festival.  It does not have mummers and green men and pitchforks and man-women and ceremonial uses of straw and swords and alcohol (for that see a friend’s excellent post on a Basque Carnival).  It is also not what it was in the Renaissance, an elaborate civic celebration-reversal, at which the rules of propriety were (witin limits) reversed, as the city displayed its wealth with gilded ships and gem-covered costumes, and paid vast sums to prominent artists to produce elaborate parade floats covered with mechanical universes and moving golden lions and actors dressed as confusing allegories.

What it is now is a very grand tourist attraction at which an already overwhelmingly beautiful and alien city is suddenly populated by fantastical creatures and time travelers in elegant finery and three-cornered hats.

A Fountain by the Doge’s Palace flows with wine. Really.

In Saint Mark’s square a not-very-well-engineered stage hosts mediocre entertainments, from ad hoc costume contests to poorly-microphoned musical acts.  Behind the closed doors of expensive palaces-turned-hotel-restaurant-theater, people pay $200+ a head to attend grand pseudo-period fantasy banquets and masked balls. Venice’s year-round delights also remain: the gold mosaic Basilica of San Marco, the Doge’s palace, unique and world-class museums and galleries.  All this is wonderful but unnecessary.  As I promised the friends who joined me for Carnival this year (and as they can now cheerfully confirm) one does not need any activities or entertainments of any kind to have a blast at Carnival.  One simply has to do one thing: get lost.

Even without its Carnival-only costumed population, Venice is eerily beautiful, and distant-feeling even when you’re there.  If reaching Florence feels like stepping into a cross-section of the past, our ancestors’ world, not ours, Venice feels like a cross-section of the past of a different species.  Everything is too delicate, ornamented with too many curves, too-elaborate windows, too colorful stonework, every surface a faerie facade.  Many of the palaces (there are no non-palaces in Venice) are pink, even the blown glass street lamps pink, but you don’t even notice that it’s pink because the color itself doesn’t register as much as the fact that everything is just a hair more beautiful, calculated for ornament rather than defense or practicality.  Where are the battlements?  Where the ditches?  Where the triangles of struggling grass between ill-laid streets?  This is not a real city, it’s some kind of theater set, all ornament with all the practical parts left out.


A main street in Venice.

Venice is also a maze of twisty passages all unique, and the most difficult city to navigate that I have ever found.  It isn’t just that it lacks a grid system, but that it lacks any main streets whatsoever and consists entirely of meandering alleys.  After all, the main streets are canals, so you can’t walk on them – imagine navigating any other town without being allowed to ever go on any large street.  In addition, no angle is 90°, no street is straight, no two points are connected by any kind of line, and a quarter of the streets are tunnels leading under palaces which have grown to cover them like a forest canopy uniting over an abandoned campsite.  The streets are also incredibly narrow, so one can’t look up at an angle and see that a particular tower or landmark is That Way therefore That Way is East.  The lack of 90° angles makes it very easy to get gradually turned around, and even people very good at navigating frequently end up thinking North is East and East South as a series of turns which seem to be heading consistently in one direction meander in another.  Hence my summary: in Venice one is either (A) in Saint Mark’s Square, (B) on the Rialto bridge, or (C) lost.

Standing on Rialto bridge, therefore not lost.

 

It is, in fact, possible to navigate in Venice, but it requires a huge amount of concentration and constant map checking, so unless one has an appointment, why bother?  Everything is equally beautiful.  It’s an island; it’s not as if you can accidentally fall off the edge and wind up in Padua.  Wherever you go there will be amazing palaces, intriguing mask shops, overpriced pizza, zillions and zillions of winged lions (Saint Mark, the symbol of the city) and you may as well turn left as right at any given point.  It’s like the genius of Tom Sawyer’s Island at Disneyland, where joyful parents can sit down while kids run wild and wear themselves out on the self-contained plastic island which it is impossible for an unaccompanied child to escape.  While on this island, everything is fine.  The city is filled, furthermore, with signs pointing to either San Marco or the Rialto, so, wherever you are, you can find one of these two points and, from it, take the water shuttle to where you need to be.  In fact, I highly recommend finding a hotel as close as possible to Saint Mark’s square (here is my preferred), since then magically Venice is filled with signs directing you home.  Often, of course, a square will have two signs pointing to San Marco in completely different directions; both are correct, because there is no straight line, not in Venice.

Time flies incredibly when one is wandering from alley to alley through an alien wonderland, and no further planned activity is necessary.  Venice cycles through many repeated shops, selling the same mass-produced tourist items which are still worth getting, for the most part, since they’re really nice mass-produced tourist items: velvet pouches and purses, masks, lace, beautiful glass work, masks, silk and satin draperies, masks, art prints, masks, beads, masks, and also masks.  During Carnival masks appear even in the shops that don’t sell masks, and every restaurant and hotel hangs up a few of these mandatory proofs that one is not a stick-in-the-mud.  Between these and the costumes, the days vanish, an afternoon seeming an hour, as one wanders and wanders and simply wanders.  When footsore, one hops on the water bus and rides around the city circumference or along the grand canal, where the most elaborate palace facades face, since, after all, water, not land, is the intended approach to these grand houses.

It is worth mentioning that on the last weekend there is usually something quite spectacular in Saint Mark’s Square (a fire show when I went, with dancers with flaming spears, and a huge dragon puppet that they set on fire) but apart from that, none of the public entertainments are generally as exciting as the city itself.

A flaming cyclops at the Carnival finale.

 

There are four categories of costumes seen on the streets at Venice’s contemporary carnival.

The first are extremely elaborate, colorful fantasy pieces with full-face masks in bold, overwhelming colors and luxurious fabrics, many period but some modern, designed to create the most visually striking thing a human being can still arguably stand up in.  Some are home-made, many rented.  Most commonly one sees couples, pairs, one male one female, intended to be worn together, but sometimes solos and sometimes larger groups.  Such costumes completely restrict one’s ability to do anything, including eat, talk, see more than a tunnel in front of you, and also doom you to the mercy of temperature, and walking too becomes a challenge.  For this reason, these costumes cluster around San Marco square, where they stand to be seen and photographed, and one can spend happy hours in the square going from group to group and enjoying the ingenious whimsy of the tailor’s art.

 

Not all the costumes are designed to look or feel period.  Modern fabrics, contemporary neon colors, and modern themes are worked in.  Some of the more ambitious modern designs move farther and farther from the notion of “Garment”:

The average alley in Venice is about 4 feet wide.  This person will be here all day.

The second category are period pieces, inspired not by the wholly fantastic costumes of those who rode the parade floats in the Renaissance, but by the spectators:

The Eighteenth Century: when pink was still a manly color.

These costumes tend to imitate the period of the peak of the carnival’s opulence and fame, which was not, in fact, in the Renaissance proper, but in the Eighteenth Century, so the costumes one sees are mainly Eighteenth Century.  This means for gentlemen long waistcoats, lacy cuffs and cravats or jabots, tricorne hats, coats with vast pleated tails, richly worked brocades, white powdered wigs, heavy walking sticks, and the kind of leather shoes with buckles or bows that one associates in US culture with the founding fathers.  For ladies, the brocades are even more richly worked, the sleeves usually elbow-length with lace dripping to the wrists, the bodices taut and square with the lacing hidden, the skirts wide, not with circular hoops but with panniers which extend the skirts far out to each side (trivia of the moment, the word derives from baskets hung on either side of a donkey), and the wigs tall with clusters of bizarre objects like feathers and scarves and gems and seashells and toy boats woven into them in what should look like birds’ nests but do manage to register to the mind as hats.  Such costumes are worn sometimes with beautiful but practical half-masks, and sometimes without.

 

Venice: where ladies in hoop skirts go to take pictures of ladies in hoop skirts.

 

Third come irregular historical and whimsical pieces.  Someone always dresses as the Doge.  Other historical figures like Dante or Galileo may crop up.  Some adopt characters from the Commedia dell’Arte, so Pulcinella, Harlequin, others generic 13th or 14th or 15th or 16th or 17th or 19th Century dress.  Into this category then creep more marginal costumes: women in leather bodices and not much else, girls in Renn Fest gear, the odd Naruto or other anime creature, and young people with pink hair and neon green tail coats with sparkly skulls embroidered on them and platform shoes that light up.  Why not?

Only the Doge can have the Doge Hat. It’s the Best Hat.
Tolkein’s Elves put in an appearance.

 

Dramatically posing gothic silver crystal scale bird plague thing?

And last, there are little kids in the kind of cheap costumes as clowns or faeries or witches or batman that one buys mass-produced, just like at Halloween.

By my estimate 15% of the Carnival attendees are in costume.  Another 20% are just in masks, which they buy mostly on arrival to get into the spirit of the thing, and a further 15% succumb to the desire for costume enough to buy a cloak and/or hat to wear over coat and jeans.  Of those in fancy costume almost all are foreigners, mainly anglophone.  Of those just in masks, 50% may be Italian.  Keep in mind that Venice’s tourist population outnumbers its native population at least 3:1 at all times, moreso at Carnival, and that its separate population of resident foreign college students, also substantially anglophone, also outnumbers the native population not quite 2:1, making Venetians less than 20% of the people on the streets.  In fact, there are only 20,000 Venetians and something well over 100,000 outsiders at any given time, and most of the Venetians, for real estate price reasons, have retreated to living on the shore anyway.  A hotel or shop simply makes so much money that it is very difficult to turn that down in favor of a residence.  It is for this reason that it’s not rare to find someone who both identifies as Venetian and grew up in Padua.

Venice at Carnival is also incredibly crowded.  This year I went in the middle of a deadly cold snap, and it was simply very crowded.  In good weather it is so crowded that one can barely walk through the streets.  At one point I literally encountered deadlocked foot traffic, an intersection at which so many people were shoving in from all 4 directions that it became physically jammed with bodies and was impossible to move, and the poor people in the center were literally trapped and unable to escape – after fully 30 minutes of shoving I gave up and went back the way I came.

The question of whether one wants to go to Venice for Carnival thus comes down to how fun one thinks it is to see the city populated with fantastic creatures in among the masses.  Venice is always beautiful, the canals always serene, the sunsets always stunning, the mask shops always open, a simple ride around and around on the water bus always perfect.  During Carnival prices go up, hotels fill, restaurants run out of tables, streets are crammed with people, attendants outside monuments get more fed-up and rude, but in the streets one catches little dream-like glimpses Doges, and Counts and dramatic cloaked figures, and mysterious masked ladies, and fantastic creatures from the historic other-race that instinct tells you built this miracle city.  For me, it’s a fair trade.

Read more about Venice’s Mask Culture.

Spot the Saint Mini-Quiz

Hello, all. My latest post has been delayed by, among other things, Venetian Carnival, book projects, visiting friends, private tours of the back rooms of the Cathedral, doing my taxes, preparing to upgrade this website, and the investment of the Archbishop of Florence as a Cardinal. I hope to post soon, but as a quick consolation in the meantime, here are are some saint-spotting pictures, so those who enjoy it can quiz yourselves on the saints you know so far:

If you hover the mouse over an image, it will tell you the file name, which tells you who it is.  Don’t hover accidentally, or it’ll give it away.

JohnTheBaptist-Martyrdom

Jump to the next Spot the Saint entry.

Relax. Have a gelato.

I was cheered recently by the juxtaposition of a pair of articles on my Italian news feed:

Both articles struck me, of course, as perfectly natural, since, as the ever-groaning gears of the Italian government, law and economy grow slower and more exhausted under austerity pressures, the only sane reaction is to relax and have a gelato. Gelato is an indispensable defensive measure in my experience of life in Italy, where truly obnoxious and stressful things do happen a lot, and you have to just accept that, 50% of the time, whatever you were trying to do just won’t happen.  The shop you spent an hour looking for is closed for no reason?  Relax.  Have a gelato.  The hotel you booked turns out not to exist?  (This DID happen to me, in Modena).  The paperwork you waited in line for 2 hours to file turns out to require something they never told you you didn’t have?  A pickpocket got you on the Rome 64 bus?  The museum you were looking forward to turns out to close early on the second Tuesday of each alternate month?  The romantic cobblestones broke your suitcase’s left wheel a half-mile from home?  These things happen all the time here, all the time, not to mention the constant frustrations of impossible-to-open doors and whimsical plumbing.  But even something as frustrating as a pickpocketing is much easier to deal with sensibly, and feels much less like the end of the world, if you relax and have a gelato.  I generally have a gelato the instant I get off the plane when I arrive in Italy, to give me the stamina necessary to brave the mobs around the baggage claim.   In fact, “Relax.  Have a gelato,” has become so ingrained in me as a default reaction to stress or failure that I habitually say it at home, to the great chagrin of my poor US-bound housemates, who would love to relax and have a gelato, were gelato achievable in the New World.

Luscious, seductive... bad gelato.

“But it is!” you say.  “They have gelato at the fancy grocery store by the mall.  Or at the import shop, or that pizzeria downtown, or in little Italy.”  They do.   There is gelato in the US, quite often these days, but, the important thing to note, is that it is (almost) always bad gelato, mere Hershey Bar ranked against artisanal truffles.  I have had good gelato in North America, in three locations, the Suite 88 gourmet chocolate shop in Montreal, the ChikaLicious Desert Bar in New York City (their cupcake bar across the street also has apple gelato of extraordinary quality), and, of all places, the underground cafeteria in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC (here too get the apple flavor).  (Note: the organic gelato chain GROM also has branches in NYC, and I expect these too would have respectable gelato; my full thoughts on GROM another day.)  But for the most part, even in Italy-town subsections of US cities, the gelato is no better than one would find in an Italian train station.  Not what a gelato snob would call “good gelato,” and I am, I will comfortably admit, a true gelato snob.

See the fibrous and variable texture of the apple gelato on the right? That's a good sign.

What is the difference between good and bad gelato?  Good gelato is made from all natural ingredients, as pure and as few as possible, while bad gelato is made with artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, and coagulants.  Good fruit gelato is made directly from the fruit, bad from fruit extracts.  Really bad gelato is made from a powdered mix with no fresh ingredients at all.  Keep in mind that I do not say this as any kind of organic food purist.  I do often buy organic when I can, but I will never pretend that organic always tastes better, merely often.  I do not shrink from eating radioactive orange mac ‘n’ cheese out of a box when the craving hits me, and I heartily repented of my folly the one year I procured an organic turkey for Thanksgiving, and discovered to my horror and chastisement the true merits of the hormone-stuffed, brine-injected Butterball.  But gelato is very delicate, because it is so pure, involving so few ingredients.  You can taste the chemicals when there are chemicals.  You can taste the quality of the milk and fruit used, and if you frequent a place you can tell day by day how ripe the figs were, how in season the oranges.  Bad gelato has an inescapable tinge of candy-like artificial flavor.  It’s still a yummy substance, still worth eating, but it’s infinitely inferior to the pure article. There are, from what I have uncovered, four reasons for the scarcity of good gelato in the US.

  1. Fresh gelato without preservatives does not last more than a day, and has to be made from scratch every morning.  This is labor-intensive and expensive, and is why so many places even in Italy don’t bother.
  2. The companies that manufacture and distribute commercial-sized gelato makers in the US want to make continual money off the restaurants that buy them, so have designed them to require the mix, and not to work with fresh ingredients, so the restaurants will have to continually subscribe to fresh batches of mix.  The kind of machine you get in Italy, that uses real ingredients, exists in the US only in the tiny use-it-at-home form, but is nearly impossible to find industrial-sized.
  3. Gelato, being so sensitive, requires really top quality fresh ingredients, both the milk and the fruit.  Such ingredients are expensive, and actually rare in the US where fruit is, usually, harvested unripe, and milk ultra-processed.  It is difficult and above all expensive to find ingredients of gelato quality in the US, and most restaurants could only cover costs if they charged more for their gelato than most people will pay for a scoop of ice-cream.
  4. American ice-cream is, in fact, pretty good.  It’s not gelato, and does not excel at the same things, but it is good.  If gelato excels at accentuating the purity of a single flavor: lemon, chocolate, milk; American ice-cream excels at creating triple chocolate fudge peanut swirl mars bar cookiedough crunch peach marshmallow ripple surprise.  These luxurious, over-the-top concoctions are delicious, and also complex enough to largely mask the artificial preservatives and inferior dairy that tends to go into US ice-cream.  Such products are  satisfying, mass-producible, preservable, and cheap.  Good gelato, which is more expensive to produce and doesn’t last, struggles to compete commercially.

Pear, persimmon, crema & yogurt gelato at Rivareno (Florence). Few flavors, but so good!

Reinforcing scholarship: in a published poll, when asked which they would prefer, an ice-cream shop with (A) 25 flavors or one with (B) flavors that were all really good, most Americans chose (A), most Italians (B), and the northern sections of Europe mixed both choices.

(This, by the way, is, I suspect, why, among Rome’s elite gelato joints, the world-famous Giolitti is so popular with Americans and San Crispino with Europeans.  I recommend going to both, as each excels at some things the other does not.   More on these when I eventually review different gelato places (if wordpress will ever let me create the kind of index I want to use to do so, grumble, grumble.)

What is the difference between gelato and icecream?

Friends enjoy elaborate cones at Giolitti (Rome).

I get this question a lot, and have two answers. In a technical sense, gelato is made with much less fat than ice-cream, in fact gelato is usually made with milk, not cream, but it has much more sugar, to compensate, since milk and sugar are the things that keep frozen concoctions soft and creamy.  A fruit gelato is, at its purest, a sorbet and contains no dairy whatsoever. In an aesthetic sense, however, gelato is much more about accentuating the substance from which it is made, whereas ice-cream is about combining flavors.  Strawberry ice-cream is an experience of the delightful comingling of strawberry juice with cream, producing a rich, strong, syrupy dairy experience, and reminding one pleasantly of strawberries and cream if one has ever had them together; strawberry gelato is the experience of eating a soft frozen strawberry, with no presence of dairy or commixture.  It is in the fruits and the nuts that this difference is most extreme.  A top quality chocolate gelato is quite similar to a top quality chocolate ice-cream, but a pistachio gelato is like eating a real pistachio, and a raspberry gelato will sometimes leave you with seeds between your teeth, which ice-cream never would.  Gelato, real gelato, doesn’t taste like it’s flavored with the thing, it tastes like it’s made of the thing. This last fact often makes it difficult for foreigners in Italy who are ordering gelato for the first time to choose flavors they will actually enjoy.   Pistachios and Pistacho Ice-Cream do not taste the same, and many people like one and not the other, and consequently make the wrong choice when trying to guess whether or not they’d like Pistachio Gelato.  I myself would run in terror from watermelon icecream, since I know from dumdums and artificial lemonade the horrors that watermelon flavor can inflict, but watermelon gelato (gelato di cocomero), which tastes like the entire fresh summer zest of a real watermelon distilled into each bite, is one of my great delights.  Conversely, many people like cherry syrup, in cocktails, on cakes, in Dr. Pepper, and these people are often wildly disappointed at the first bite of a cherry gelato, which bears no resemblance to the syrup, but simulates the experience of a, usually very acidic, sour cherry. Vanilla is the pinnacle of this cultural flavor misunderstanding.  Many Americans come to a gelateria wanting to try the equivalent of vanilla, and different people propose different equivalencies, but I have concluded, with careful study, that there is not an equivalent.  There are three equivalents.   This is because there are three different reasons people like vanilla ice-cream:

  1. Do you like vanilla for its pure, milky, creaminess?  The absence of any secondary flavor to interfere with the richness of pure dairy?  In that case you want fiore di latte (flower of milk) or, at a really good gelateria, fiore di panna (flower of cream), a gelato made of the pure milk or cream with sugar and nothing else to interfere.
  2. Do you like vanilla for its rich, custardy feeling, preferring the yellower French Vanilla flavors to traditional vanilla?  In this case you want crema, custard flavor, modeled on the eggy custards that fill pastries and doughnuts.
  3. Do you like the actual flavor of the vanilla bean, with its memories of Christmas cookies and traditional perfumes?  In this case and this case only you want gelato di vanilla, if they have it, but be warned: it means it that it’s really, honestly vanilla flavor, like a cookie, or liqueur.

Thus “Gelato is Italian ice-cream,” remains one of the more misleading truths involved in Italian travel.  Gelato is indeed Italian ice-cream, but one cannot apply the same logic to it, and there is nothing like a 1:1 correspondence between which flavors one should order in a gelateria and an ice-cream parlor.  Unfortunately, this concept is difficult to pass along quickly.  You must remember, that I feel true emotional pain whenever I see a happy-looking person step up to a truly terrible gelato place when there’s a good one next door, and I very frequently strike up conversations with passing anglophone tourists which lead inevitably to my showing them a good gelateria.

Witness a small tragedy on the Ponte Vecchio.

At this point follows the test, and the suspense, when I start recommending flavors.  Will they listen?  Will they not?  Since often I’m recommending flavors they would never want in ice-cream.  I can generally convince people about one flavor by having the employees give them a spoonful to taste, but a lot of people just aren’t prepared to believe that “Yogurt and Mandarin Orange” or “Grapefruit and Sour Cherry” are winning combos.  “I’ll take Chocolate and Chocolate Chip.” My two recent favorite people I took to gelato places were both middle-aged American men, with wives in tow who refused on diet grounds to get gelato and thereafter ate a hunk of their husbands’.  One, when we arrived at Giolitti and I started discussing flavors, simply said: order for me, I trust you.  One dark chocolate-coated whipped cream-stuffed waffle cone with Champagne, Sour Cherry and Fleur de Sel Caramel Gelato later, he was a very happy man.  The other I took to Perche no…! (The sensibly named “Why not…!” gelateria which is the reason I live on the street  I live on here in Florence).  I recommended Yogurt, Strawberry Mousse and Mixed Berry (Frutti di Bosco).  He ordered Chocolate and Coffee.  After he tasted his, I let him taste my own cone.  He sighed and smiled.  “Well, you told me so.”

New Travel Tips Section

I am (if I can persuade WordPress to condescend to let me) about to create a new “Travel Tips” index section of Ex Urbe, in which I will gradually review restaurants, museums, hotels, coffee bars, and also provide general city-specific travel tips, things like where the public restrooms in Florence are hidden, and which are the better-tasting Roman water fountains.

Bad gelato, lurking in its homogeneous slimyness!

I shall initiate it with an updated, web-friendly but also printable version of my little guide: How to Spot Good and Bad Gelato.  So vital is the skill that I, in fact, routinely distribute it as a handout to my students, and have often been thanked for it. I will also, in it, review specific preferred gelato places in major Italian cities, but sticking always to one principle: There Is No Best Gelateria.  There are bad gelaterias and good gelaterias, but in ranking the good ones against each other, I have never found one which beat all others in EVERY way.  Each has its points.  Perche no…! excels at sorbets, seasonal fruit flavors and mousses, Rivareno at smooth, creamy, antique flavors, GROM at its raw, organic feel, San Crispino at its meringue semifredo assortment and complex crema variations, Giolitti at its luxurious, elaborate cones and ocean of flavors, Vestri at its chocolate (Oh, its chocolate!), and each of these has three or four signature flavors which cannot be rivaled by the others.  I would never order frutti di bosco at Giolitti, nor fail to order it at Perche no…!; the converse for Caramel.  Both remain superb gelaterias. Remember, though: even bad gelato is still very, very yummy.  So, even if you don’t have access to the best, relax.  Have a gelato.

Spot the Saint: Agatha and Lucy

I have just returned from a jaunt through Sicily, where the change of cityscape was a perfect reminder of how useful the ability to spot saints can be.  I popped into church after church, and by the fourth it was easy to tell we weren’t in Florence anymore, and not just by the prevalence of baroque frufru on the altars.  San Lorenzo was scarcely anywhere to be seen, John the Baptist uncommon at best, Zenobius and Reparata distant memories, while every single church had an altarpiece or, more often, wooden statue of the two virgin martyrs Agatha and Lucy.  Two guesses who are the patron saints of major cities in Sicily.

Saint Agatha (died around 250 AD)

  • Common attributes: Breasts on a platter, breasts cut off, martyr’s palm
  • Occasional attributes: Pliers or pincers or big scissors, dressed in antique Roman-style robes
  • Patron saint of: Victims of rape and torture, single women, wet nurses, protection against volcanic eruptions, and fire, and natural disasters in general
  • Patron of places: Sicily, especially Palermo and areas where Mt. Etna’s eruptions threaten
  • Feast day: February 5th
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, having her breasts ripped off
  • Relics: Catania (Sicily)

Saint Agatha is, like Catherine, one of the popular set of late Roman beautiful virgin martyr saints.  The story is, like many of such vintage, tangled and unreliable, and follows a fairly stock sequence of romance and persecution, but in Agatha’s case she dedicated her virginity to God but was lusted after by a Roman official, Quintinianus.  He persecuted her for her rejection of him, and sent her to a brothel, but she refused to succumb.  The stories have her make some very sophisticated philosophical arguments against pagan idols.  Eventually he had her tortured, including having her breasts cut or ripped off, though an apparition St. Peter miraculously healed them.  She died in prison.

Agatha is protector against fire because of some of the tortures she endured.  This makes her extremely popular in Sicily, which is dominated by the towering volcano of Mt. Etna.  Some active volcanoes sort-of sit there rather calmly, or lurk building up steam for a millennium or two before destroying Pompeii again, but not Etna.  Etna erupts all the time.   It erupted two or three times last year alone.  Heck, it erupted while I was there, just a little eruption, but enough for the lava to trail visibly down through the snow cap like spilled ink.  Now, usually it just erupts around the crater part where no one lives, but it does erupt enough to destroy some inhabited ground once every few decades, making protection against fire the top question on everyone’s minds.  They have Agatha’s veil there and occasionally get it out and parade it in front of the lava as it’s coming down to try to get it to stop, and, miraculously, it sometimes does.  During one such incident the veil miraculously turned from white to red, confirming its special powers.

Like many martyr saints, Agatha carries the symbols of her martyrdom, in this case usually her severed breasts on a platter.  In art, the challenge is less to recognize this very distinct attribute, than to overcome the average early artist’s complete inability to visualize what breasts sitting on a platter would look like.   One sees a female saint holding a tray with… are those muffins?  Oranges?  Bells?  Bags?  Little pyramidal paperweights?  Oh!  It’s Agatha.

Saint Lucy (Santa Lucia, 283-304 AD)

  • Common attributes: Eyeballs on a platter, eyeballs on a cup or something other than a platter, lamp or cup with a flame in it possibly also with eyeballs in it, martyr’s palm.  Note that despite the eyeballs, she will still herself have eyes.
  • Occasional attributes: Sword, dressed in antique Roman-style robes
  • Patron saint of: Eyesight, blind people, writers (who need to read a lot!) especially Dante.
  • Patron of places: Perugia, Syracuse (Sicily), Malta
  • Feast day: December 13th
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, especially Agatha
  • Relics: Venice

Lucy was a little later than Agatha and intentionally followed her model, even receiving a visit from Agatha’s spirit.  In Lucy’s case she rejected a pagan bridegroom and wanted to give her dowry to the poor.  The disappointed suitor denounced her, and she was sentenced to be taken to a brothel, but became miraculously heavy, so the guards couldn’t lift her, even when they tied her to some oxen and had them pull.  She was then tortured and killed.

Lucy’s name means light, and this is the source of her association with eyesight.  The story of her having her eyes put out is a late addition, probably derived from the association rather than the other way around.  Renaissance artists are about as bad at drawing eyeballs as they are at breasts, but they generally just paint a pair of non-ball eyes, which are much easier to recognize than Agatha’s muffins.

Lucy was Dante’s personal patron saint, so it is to she that Beatrice turned within the hierarchy of heaven when Beatrice wanted permission to give Dante his tour of the afterlife.  Lucy then went to Mary, who arranged things with the King.

And now, Spot the Saint Quiz Time:

Quiz yourself on the saints you know so far.  (click here for a higher-res image)

Sorry it’s hard to see what she’s holding. Even in the room with the original painting it’s hard to see.

Jump to the next Spot the Saint entry.

Really Real Fake Centurions: Legio I Italica

The Italian legal kerfuffle over “Fake Centurions” abruptly came to make sense on my recent visit to Bologna, when I discovered the Legio I Italica camped out in the cathedral square.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Legio I Italica is a group of top quality, professional Roman Legionary reenactors, who travel around Italy by invitation, making camp in various towns and cities in order to educate Italians, young and old, about the real life of the legions and the ancient world.  Their gear is superb, none of the plastic or anachronistic ornament of those who strut around Rome’s monuments.  Real steel, real bronze, real leather, but more than that.  These soldiers are bruised and bandaged, rough, crude, their sandals worn, their armor dented, their tunics sweat-stained.

They also include the parts of Roman gear we don’t tend to identify as Roman: a sweat-catching handkerchief around the neck, an anti-sun bandanna, broad straw sun-hats only subtly different from the hundreds for sale at street stalls a block away. Parts that reinforce the continuity between history’s dirty work and today’s, and decrease, rather than augmenting, the feeling of antiquity.  Parts that should be there.

Their demeanor is perfect too, a lazy, languid casualness in interacting, both with people, and with gear, so they really feel like soldiers on their day off.  “Hey, kid, wanna pull this string?”  (Hands small child trigger rope for massive crossbow).  “Naah, your Mom doesn’t need to help, here, just pull that.”  They often just sit, doing their own thing, until curious bystanders approach them, rather than accosting.

The juxtaposition of Roman Legion with Bologna’s main square’s elaborate cathedral, Renaissance facades, medieval fortress-palaces, and the statues of popes and allegorical figures watching is, of course, fantastic.

The most outstanding element may be their variety.  They don’t only include soldiers and support but all kinds of camp staff and hangers-on, everyone that might travel with a legion, including my favorite: the camp layabout who won’t do anything helpful.  Here he is refusing to come help this legionary answer questions for the nice lady.  Shortly he will move on to refusing to help the shoemaker, then refusing to help the cook…

The camp's cook

They do have a cook, complete with samples of all sorts of noxious Roman spices and ingredients.  For those not familiar, if there is one branch of human achievement whose progress has been unilaterally and consistently positive through all of human history, that branch is cooking.  Excluding current perversions of too-artificial ingredients and flavor-free, chemical-plumped out-of-season vegetables (which are issues of farming and distribution rather than cuisine) food has gotten better, better, better as new combinations, techniques and ingredients have expanded the possibilities, and made it possible to leave the stopgaps of the past behind.  Crude early grains became cooked grains, then flour, flat bread, bread which rose and was soft and scrumptious, eventually to such masterpieces as the cake and the croissant.

Brazier, used for heating nuts, meat, shoes, metal pokers... so why do my chestnuts taste like leather?

There are some left-behind recipes and ingredients that are certainly worth revisiting, but as Florentine dishes like tripe and boiled pig’s knuckles teach us, many “old-fashioned” or “rustic” dishes are code for “What we used to eat when we were under siege.”  Many ingredients have faded from the world of cooking because we found better ingredients, and two-thousand-year-old Roman cooking is one step above the random plants and dead animals one would eat if trapped on a desert island.   This camp cook wisely did not offer to let us taste Rue, or the infamous Garum, rotten fermented salty fish paste which the Romans slathered like ketchup on everything, even deserts.  But he did have enough to smell.

Their doctor is also superb.  He’s a Greek doctor, and will happily explain that he does not want to be here with these idiotic , ignorant Romans.  He studied in Athens, and in Egypt, and he has read the writings of Hippocrates, and he wants to use real medicine and perform real surgery, but nooo…  all these superstitious soldiers want are charms and prayers.  He prescribes sensible things like liver-based ointments and asparagus extracts, but they won’t listen to him unless he also has a shrine filled with irrelevant idols, and a winged phallus hanging from the rafters of the hospital tent.  By the time you’ve listened to his rant, you realize you know what every instrument on the desk is for.

Tricycle age is the correct age to meet one's first Roman legion

Everyone in the world should learn about Rome, but there is a unique import to teaching Italian children about the empire which was, in fact, their own.  This duty the Legio I Italica takes very seriously.

Learning is fun! So is chainmail!

All over the camp, inviting tables of Roman materials were left practically unsupervised, inviting tiny kids to begin as tiny kids do, by simply touching and exploring new objects, learning at their own pace about weight and texture, before asking Mom or Dad or a nearby captain what the heavy metal vest is for, or what the big red things are called.  Adults too were invited to explore the random detritus of the camp and discover for ourselves the tools of a Roman sandal maker, or the different items necessary for the good maintenance of a shield and armor.  Exploration rather than lecture was both more memorable, and more authentic-feeling as one wandered the camp receiving silent half-glares from centurions who were obviously just too lazy to shoo out these curious provincials.

Tools laid out on a table for hands-on exploration.
Camp fix-it guy, always running out of leather.
The doctor's desk
Standards displayed before the central tent

 

 

 

The greatest change, from Rome and Florence, is that all this was in service of Italians.  These legionaries are not a tourist attraction, nor interested, and nothing whatsoever is in English: conversations and banner announcements in Italian, all else in Latin.

A son of the literate elite, marked by his striped tunic, explains papyrus and mapmaking

Bologna was a perfect venue for them, a lively square, with a trickle of foreigners making the Tuscany tour, but alive with natives, families out for Sunday lunch, and visitors from other parts of Italy in town to taste Bologna’s famous tortellini, or its treasured Mortadella (Mortadella is to humble America sandwich bologna as a butter-soft mouth-watering Prosciutto is to the contents of a 7-11 ham sandwich).

A guide who works in Sicily recently described that he was taking an American around who really wanted a photo of a native old lady in traditional Sicilian dress.  They ran across just such an old lady in a tiny mountain village outside Taormina, wearing a traditional black dress with headdress, and even leading a little black lamb.  They stopped to ask her for a photo.  Smiling, she rubbed her fingers together, asking for cash.

Italy’s dependence on tourist cash cannot be overstated.  Economic discussions these days are monotonously discouraging, but it is still interesting to compare the recession woes of home to the recession woes of other lands.  I chatted yesterday with a man who retired from the exhaustion of chef-dom hoping to set up business on his own in a small way.

Taxes made a restaurant prohibitive, since the taxes on electricity, gas, water, sewage, phone and property rental would, he said, have required millions in overhead, and translated to a cost of more than 300 euros per day for taxes alone for every day a small shop or restaurant was open.  The more modest goal of becoming a guide still involved 200,000 euros’ investment in government licenses.  With enterprise so challenging to undertake (he waxed wistfully about how miraculous it is that other countries, hint, hint, have government subsidies to help launch small businesses), it is no surprise that someone might try to make a living camping by the Colosseum in a plastic helmet, or coax what one can from passing visitors.  This makes the Legio I Italica that much more admirable, as they work far from international tourist centers.  They receive money from the towns that hire them, but while working they solicit and accept no tips, and work away, with the beating sun, uncomfortable armor and no pants, to make sure little Italians grow up with a dose of the real mixed among their fantasies of their glorious ancestry.

The legion enjoys its well-earned tortellini bolognese and mortadella, because people who really know about Roman cuisine don't eat it!
The shoemaker's workstation

 

 

Holiday Greetings from Pope Leo X

And on a more personal note, best wishes to all for the year’s end and beginning.  May your new year be filled with friends, accomplishments, good health, and feasting.

Spot the Saint: Nicholas and Befana (Christmas Special)

‘Tis the season for a review of the vague saintly origins of the modern Hallmark Christmas:

Saint Nicholas of Bari (or of Myra; San Nicola, 270-343 AD)

  • Common attributes: Bishop (with robes, hat, miter), holding 3 golden balls, or 3 coins, or 3 bags of gold
  • Occasional attributes: Accompanied by ship, accompanied by barrel containing three kids
  • Patron saint of: Sailors, ships, merchants, fishermen, children, also pharmacists & a few other things
  • Patron of places: Myra (Turkey), Bari (Italy)
  • Feast days: May 9th, December 6th
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, on the coast near ships, sneaking in a window
  • Relics: Bari (Italy), Basilica di San Nicola

Saint Nicholas was a 3rd to 4th century bishop saint, Greek by birth and active in the Middle East.  He was of a wealthy family but orphaned and raised by an uncle.  He came to the priesthood comfortably (no towers or evil parents or prostitutes or lightning) and progressed to bishop status in good time.  Nicholas is remarkable for the large number of miracles he is supposed to have worked during his lifetime, and for that reason is a very popular saint to pray to, since he is obviously willing to use the powers all saints have.  He saved ships from storms, multiplied grain to save towns from famine, and resurrected three kids.

Nicholas’ most famous story involves, not a miracle, but generosity.  It has several variants, but all revolve around a poor man in the town who had three daughters but did not have enough money to give them dowries so they could marry.  Nicholas stealthily provided the money, which is most commonly said to have been three bags of gold coins, but it varies.  He did it on three successive visits (either three days or three years), each time tossing the money secretly into the house so the father never knew his benefactor.  On the last visit (predictable due to the regularity of the first two), the father lay in wait, hoping to spot and thank his mysterious benefactor.  The ending varies, but in one popular version Nicholas, realizing the man was watching the window, climbed across the roof and dropped the gold down the chimney.  Some versions add the detail that one of the daughters had left her stockings hung up to dry by the hearth, and the money fell into one.  He is also supposed to have given other charitable gifts, including leaving coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him.

Saint Nicholas multiplies grain, so sailors can give some to end a famine and still have enough to deliver.

In 1071, when the area where Nicholas was buried fell into non-Christian hands, the relics were removed to the Italian town of Bari, sparking his large Italian cult.  Some Venetians claimed to have a big chunk, spawning another major church to him in Venice (where a patron of sailors was very popular) but scientists and their x-rays have confirmed that the remains at Bari are mostly intact.  Nicholas’ relics excrete a rose-scented liquid substance, referred to as myrrh, which has healing properties, much like the substance produced by the remains of Catherine of Alexandria.

Bishop saints are tricky to identify in art.  They’re easy to tell from other saints, with their curved shephard’s-crook-shaped miters, their pointy, triangular bishop hats (not to be confused with the cone-shaped pope hats with three crowns on them), and their fancy robes, with a cloak with elaborate trim closed by a broach at the breast, and, frequently, gloves with gems on the back of the hand.  Yet they can be very difficult to tell one from another, because their attributes are often unclear, or omitted.

How can we be expected to tell them apart if they have no identifying attributes?  Often the original context of the painting would make it clear, since it would be commissioned by or for devotees of a particular bishop saint, or in a city where a specific one was most popular.  But since pieces are so often in museums now, sometimes all one can do is guess.  Nicholas was one of the most popular bishop saints, along with Augustine and, in Florence, Zenobius, so in general Nicholas is a safe guess.  When in doubt, the artist sometimes provides separate scenes as hints.  Sometimes these are painted on separate panels below or above the main painting, showing a recognizable scene from the saint’s life.  With bishop saints, sometimes scenes from their lives are embroidered on their robes, though this can be deceptive, since I’ve seen Saint Augustine with scenes from the life of Saint Stephen on his robe.

As for Nicholas specifically in art, three golden balls or golden coins or bags of gold are the clearest sign, or a bishop accompanied by ships or standing near the sea.  Beyond that, though, Nicholas is a decent generic guess if you don’t have a better clue for your unidentified bishop.

La Befana, the Epiphany Witch (not a saint, but…)

  • Common attributes: Pointy hat, dark shawl, rough dress, old, long nose with warts, scraggly gray hair, spectacles
  • Most often depicted: Flying through the air on a broomstick with a sack of toys

Since Saint Nicholas is not, in fact, a jolly, red-clad toymaker equipped with flying reindeer, someone else has to bring presents to the kids in Italy.  This office falls to La Befana the Christmas Witch, or more accurately the Epiphany Witch, who flies on her broomstick with her sack of toys bringing presents to all the children on Epiphany Eve (Jan 5th).  She looks like a witch in every classic sense, so Christmas fairs in Italy are packed with witches and Christmas decorations often look more like Halloween than Christmas to American eyes.

If you ask Wikipedia about La Befana it will tell you various origin myths.  She was hostess to the Three Wise Men on their way to the Nativity; she regretted not following them and is still looking for the Christ Child so visits all children; she had a child which died so Christ let her be Mom to every kid in Italy; she’s the Sabine goddess Strina.

La Befana ornaments crowd for space at a stall in Piazza Navona, Rome.

If you ask an Italian, in my experience you don’t get any of that.  La Befana is a part of the holiday tradition, unquestioned as Santa in areas where he’s the gift giver, so just as most of those in the Santa region can’t tell you much about Nicholas of Bari, Italians are content with the witch they’ve known since childhood and don’t seem to wonder much.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have to say, though, Italian kids have more excuse to freak out at shopping malls when parents set them in the lap of someone costumed as the Christmas gift-giver.  A witch!  Why are my parents handing me to a witch?

La Befana is also subject to the same bizarre cultural distortions as Santa:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So this year, if you’re the tree-trimming type, get out your broomsticks and pointy hats and have a nice witch-filled Italian Holiday!

 

 

And now, Spot the Saint Quiz Time:

(Click for more detail.  If your eyes are sharp, you should be able to identify a few of the tiny figures on the sides as well as the main ones.  Scroll down for a detailed view of the left-hand main figures.)

A little more detail on the left-hand side:

Skip to the next Spot the Saint entry.