Friday, October 3, 2008

The grand tour: La bella Italia

Greetings, Ladies!
This day we will be visiting the beautiful country of Italy. Once more a country that is much too big to describe in a single blogposts, so we will have to make do with the highlights. And as if Italy in itsself isn't enough, I will try to add a few words about that other nation within Italy's borders: Vatican City. Italy is a country that has a much better reputation within the US than some of the previous we have visited. The only negative association about Italy comes from the view we have of Italian maffia, but even they are often romanticised figures. Italy we associate mostly with the sun, wonderful food, fashion, and la dolce vita. Italy is all that, and it is more. Much more. Today, let's make time for a little tour of the wonderful Italian cities and countryside, for a trip of art, food, history and style.
Before we start however, I want to make a quick disclaimer that I am by no means an expert on all the countries I am describing. I have visited them all, but there are few that I know truely through and through. My view is that, not of a native (except for Belgium of course) but of an amateur, from the Italian word amatore: lover, enthousiast. And who could not love Italy... you have the magnificent art cities like Florence, Venice, Ravenna, Rome, islands with each their own separate culture like Murano, Sicily and Sardinia, Capri the countryside... Tuscany and Umbria, and of course the coast with beautiful cities like Genoa and Palermo...

But first, let's go to our map again and look for Italy. You see the large green country of France and then to the east of it you see the peninsula sticking out into Mediteranean sea? It has a bit the shape of a boot. That and the two big islands close to it, one seemingly attached to the tip of the boot, one further out in the sea. That is Italy. I will today focus on the peninsula of Italy. Both Sardinie and Sicily claim and have so much a culture of their own that to add them to todays blogpost would be driving it too far in trying to capture what can not be captured.
As you know by now, I like to begin my tour with a bit of history. The history of Italy however is so complex and different per part of the country that it would simply take too long and be too complicated to even start as a post of my own. After all, Italy has been the home of the etruscs, the heart of the Roman Empire, a collection of medieval mini states in fierce competition, part of France, part of Austria, part of Spain (and sometimes all those things at almost the same time). It has been a loose union, a monarchy, a fascist state and finally a republic. I will therefor only refer you to the this very good and not too long overview of Italian history, which goes from about 800 BC till the mid nineties of previous century:
A good thing to remember though is that there was no real united Italy until the late 19th century. Italy is, since their defeat in the second world war a parliamentary democratic republic. Italian politics however are still a mixed bag of nuts and seldom truely stable. I do want to add a small note here about the founding of that 'nation within a nation', Vatican city. All through medieval times, the Catholic Church did not just confine itsself to religious work, but mixed widely in world politics, quite often driven by individuals within the Church with less than Christian motives. I am a devout Catholic myself, but that does not make me blind for history. Throughout history, the wordly and political powers of the Church diminished and focussed back on faith. The independence of the Church though remained an important matter. How could the head of a Church be subject to a country? In 1929 therefor, the independant state of Vatican city, a few square miles wide was created as one of the smallest nations in the world. This little independant city is the administrative and governmental center of the Catholic Church.

From history and politics, let us go to art. And here I could spend pages writing about the beauty of Italian art. Some of it's images are etched into our collective memories, and with reason.
Italy is one of the most famous countries for it's art wether it's the music of Verdi, the impressive remnants of the Roman amphi theater the colloseum where once Christians suffered martyrship for our Lord, the craftsmanship of Murano glass, the magnificent buildings of that merchant city on water Venice or the paintings and sculptures that are etched in everyones memory. Boticelli's Venus, Leonardo da Vinci's last supper or his Mona Lisa or the Pieta by Michelangelo.
The remnants of early Christian devotion and the fact that so many remains of antiquity have been preserved is one reason for the blooming of art in Italy. Another one was the mecenat. With the prospering of the Italian cities wealth was available and prestige of the utmost importance. Being a patron of the arts was seen as another way to demonstrate both financial ability and a cultured mind. Being a benefactor of religious art was seen as a sign of devotion. Hence this blooming period of several centuries in which Italian artists became amongst the most celebrated and skilled in the world.
Artists from other countries, like Rubens, even went to Italy to study there with those that were considered the masters of their time, and Italy was THE place to stop for culture in the Grand Tour that people made. However, it is not just the works of the greatest masters that you can admire in Italy. WHen you make a visit to Rome, it sufices to walk into any church and see the artwork there that has been an expression of devotion for the masses for ages. One of the things we should not forget is that for the longest time, less than ten percent of the population of Western countries could read. Never the less they hungered for the stories from the bible, or the recounting of legends of the antiquity. Therefor the depictions of religious art were one of the ways for people to get to know those stories, to familiarise themselves with details. Many will remember the uproar there was a few years ago about the book the Da Vinci code. This book could have never made such furore if people had been aware that there WAS indeed a code, but not a secret code of religious sects and mysterious plots as is implied. The code I am refered to is an artistic code. It was one custom for example to portray people from the bible in the contemporary clothing that the painter saw around him, that way it was easier for the people who saw the paintings, and who were not scholars, to recognise the status of people and who they were by the items before them or by the clothing they wore. Another custom was that of entering little symbols that now are virtually unreadable by most people except those who made a study of them.
A plate that seemed to balance half on the table for example was a reminder to those watching that the death could take them at any unexpected moment, and to have their souls prepared. An excellent example of that can be seen below. The shell on the tunic of the man on the right is another such sign, it was used in medieval times to show that someone was a traveling pilgrim. The red of the robe in which Jesus is dressed is both a colour of riches, and makes him stand out amidst his three companions, but it also refers to the blood He shed for us. Even in this small painting, there are dozens more symbols that tell the story that the painter wishes to tell, being able to read them often allows one to discover many rich layers in Italian art, some reverent, some less so...


For let us not forget that artists were never independent. They had to work for their patron and earn their salary. It is therefor not a wonder that on one hand they used the features of people they wished to please in the most flattering roles, and on the other hand sometimes allowed themselves little jokes, adding in the face of a curious monk, a face in the crowd that would not have been noted at first, but later be found out as a not so beloved rival or cheap patron, and other little details. They were part of the common lexicon of painting, without any sinister side plots attached. The next time you are in a museum and are looking at an Italian medieval, renaissance or baroque painting, try to see if you can find any little symbols that you recognise. An excellent and fun book to read by the American Author Samuel Shellabarger. It is not a historic work, but worked by a historic scholar and later made into a movie.
If there was more time I would like to go further into the literary tradition of Italy with Dantes famous Divina Comedia, the famous works of Machiavelli, poets like Boccacio and Tasso... but each of them would require an explenation at least as long as the above detailing of one, single painting.
And then we have not even talked about opera, that other proud Italian tradition. Although I can not do the subject justice, I do want to say a few words. Opera, for the longest time, has been the music of the people in Italy. The grand opera houses had their balconies and circles for the elite, but there were places available for the masses, shopkeepers, servants... all went to the opera. People knew and sometimes know the songs, and the great composers are considered part of the general Italian heritage. The stories of Italian opera vary from fun and flirtatious, movingly romantic to deep social undertones, which all can be found in for example Verdi's work. But opera is not the only contribution of the Italians to music, think of Palestrina, Vivaldi, Paganini, Rossini and others. Music is part of the Italian fabric of life, from the now popular radio tunes to the classical works of the great masters.
You might be tempted to think that people surounded by a legacy of such great art and literature would be a serious people that go through the day in deep contemplation of the mysteries of life and beauty, but as everyone knows, that image is not exactly true. Italy has a culture that is drenched with the sun. Family and food are central in the day to day life. One can say that the artistry of the past still influences Italy by its love for style in fashion. Especially in the large cities, beauty and glamour play a large part. There is a sense of a lost beauty in the daily life that people try to recapture through the new arts of the fashion industry and a glamourous style of living. There are two Italies that converge in their love for family and food. One is the simpler lifestyle of the country with piety, a simple rhythm to the days determined by the churchbells and the daily work and bread, the other the fashionable life in the city with elegant salons, creative cuisine, international allure and a glamour that takes quite a bit of work to be achieved.Of course I once more oversimplify things, but the contrast of both Italies is visible and it creates a palette for the senses that makes it impossible to truely 'grasp' Italy in one visit. One has to make a journey throughout the country and get a feel for the different ways of life united in this one bootshaped peninsula... Hospitality though is always extended through food and is never, ever hurried. A meal can easily take three hours. The pasta dish that we consider a meal there is only one course of a four or five course dinner. A gathering of friends is easy to make with some simple apetisers, some Italian cheese, bread, salt and olive oil and a glass of wine and hours of conversation.

Weaving my way to the end of this visit, I can not help but stop for a moment at the Italian cuisine. With so many Italian immigrants in the United States, this is one of the more known cuisines. People have long since left the idea that Italian food is only spaghetti marinara or spaghetti with meatballs. Aside from the many pizzeria's there are many restaurants that offer traditional Italian cuisine. Therefor, I will only add a few special recipes to this post from different sides of the country that perhaps will widen your Italian repertoire. No doubt, Italian food is easy enough to find.

Tuscan soup: Tuscan beans: salad: and spinach Florence: soup: and Bacon stew: Florentine: Palermo: meat sauce: Porc Cutlets: grilled cheese sandwich (do you notice that the grilled cheese sandwich always comes back?Olive tapenade: (this tapenade is absolutely, absolutely wonderful. Easy to make and great for entertaining)Genoa Salad: pasta with pesto: from Bari:
There... a whole new list of slightly different Italian recipes, which brings us to the end of our Italian tour. There is so much more I had wished to mention, Italian wines, olive oil, the position of women in Italy, but as always in a grand tour, we can only see a few highlights and hope that it wets your apetite for further study and perhaps even a visit.
What I want you to remember from todays lesson:
- Italy is a young republic- Worldfamous Italian masters worked under the mecenat in which they were supported by a patron.- Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque paintings have an artistic code that allows them to be read like a book- Italy is both glamourous and rustic- The wordly power of the Catholic Church had an enormous influence over the development of history and art in Italy. (and actually in the rest of Europe)- The Italian cuisine is diverse and much more than just spaghetti with tomato sauce- Music plays an important role in Italian life- Italian hospitality centers around food and conversation and takes a long time.

yes, here I am again with your homework assignments. By now you have no doubt caught on to the system. Chose one, and let me know what you think.
Do an internet search on any of the following topics:Italy, Sicily, Sardinie, pasta, Bernini, Paganini, Collosseum, Rome, Florence, Venice, Trieste, Milan, Ravenna, Vatican City, Tuscany, Umbria, Vivaldi, Rossini, Verdi, Armani, Ferragano, Gucci, Valentino, Versace, Botticelli, Michelangelo, DaVinci, Raphael, Tintoretto, Mussolini, Prodi, Victor Emmanuel
Practical assignment:
- make one of the recipes out of the Italian collection for your family- offer hospitality Italian style: invite some friends over for very simple food, sit outside on the porch or inside around the table with some wine and talk for hours and hours and hours.- Reveal your inner fashionista: think about this assignment for a bit before executing it. Then go to your closet and take half an hour or an hour to turn yourself out as stylish as possible. Do not forget to do your hair and make up and see what level of elegance you can achieve if you truely take your time for it. Extra credit if you have a baby sitter and then spend the evening with your husband with some wine and nice homemade food.

Easy assignment:
- Share three new facts that you have learned today about Italy or an Italian subject with someone you know.

There... that is it for today. I hope to see you here tomorrow for yet another country on our grand tour. I am doubting between chosing one more country, or trying to make a mix of little things to know or places to visit in some of the countries we didn't get a chance to see.
I hope you had a wonderful time. Till tomorrow.Be loved and blessed,


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