I just returned from a trip to Italy in the Venetian lagoon on the island of Torcello to meet the owners of the villa that will be our home for our Venezia – La Serenissima, June 3-13, 2019 tour (an intriguing history and fascinating family – more on that in a bit).
Torcello, was founded in the year 452 and has been referred to as the parent island from which Venice was populated, meaning Torcello is even older than Venice and was a very important island in ancient times, a town with a cathedral and bishops even before Venice’s St. Mark’s Basilica was built. After the downfall of the Western Roman Empire, Torcello was one of the first lagoon islands to be populated. First settled by the inhabitants of Altino (Altinum), a once-important Roman town. Led by their bishop, they fled successive invasions, which laid waste their mainland homes, and built their new town on this island.
Torcello benefited from and maintained close cultural and trading ties with Constantinople; however, being a rather distant outpost of the Eastern Roman Empire, it could establish de facto autonomy from the eastern capital. The tiny island rapidly grew in importance as a political and trading center; in the 10th century it had a population often estimated at 10,000-35,000 people, with 20,000 the most commonly cited estimate. In pre-Medieval times, Torcello was a more powerful trading center than Venice. Torcello’s economic backbone and its harbor developed quickly into an important re-export market in the profitable east-west-trade, which was largely controlled by Byzantium during that period.
In a dusty piazza stands one of the most impressive and interesting churches in the Venice area, the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta founded in the 7th century. A section of the earlier mosaic floor can be viewed through a glass panel. On the walls and apse are some fantastic mosaics which would make the trip worthwhile on their own: a lovely Madonna and Child on a gold background, and a scary depiction of the Last Judgement with details such as serpents crawling through skulls. The Church of Santa Fosca, next door, is very different but also lovely. The small church, which dates to the 11th century, is built to a Greek-cross plan and fronted by a later portico. The campanile (belltower) of the basilica is a steep climb up sloping ramps, but the view over the island and lagoon is worth the effort. The museum in the square is also worth visiting; it has a small collection of archaeological finds and historical items from the cathedral, the lagoon and the surrounding area.
Today, the main reason for visiting Torcello is to see the spectacular Byzantine mosaics
in the 7th century Cathedral.
Over the years, however, Venice grew more important while Torcello found its waterways silting up and its swamps malarial. Eventually the residents of Torcello, who had survived, packed their bags and took them south over the lagoon to sites nearer the hub of trade and politics. Buildings were plundered for building material so that little remains of its once splendid palaces, churches, and monasteries. Nowadays just a handful of residents remain; the town's piazza is overgrown with grass and weeds, and the two churches of Torcello stand in magnificent isolation.
Somewhat incongruously, the island is also home to a world-famous Inn and restaurant, called Locanda Cipriani. Yes, that Cipriani, of various "Cipriani's" and Harry's Bar's around the world—not to mention Harry's Bar in downtown Venice (the original Cipriani's first name was Arrigo, which is Italian for "Harry.").
Locanda Cipriani on Torcello was consecrated as a literary myth due to Ernest Hemingway living there in the fall of 1948. Joined in Venice by his wife Mary, Hemingway, already a legend, decided to spend the whole month of November at Locanda Cipriani, dividing his time between duck hunting, and writing his novel “Across the River and Into the Trees”. The impressions and memories of that November in Torcello are forever imprinted on the pages of his novel. Hemingway returned to Locanda Cipriani on Torcello with his wife Mary in the spring of 1954 during their stay in Venice and following their unfortunate experience in Africa.
Now, about where we will be staying during our Venezia – La Serenissma June 3-13, 2019 tour, Villa San Giovanni, or what the Venetian's call, Villa Baslini. I spent the morning with Angelica Baslini and her mother (86 yrs. old) at the villa. The villa is actually on a smaller separate island of San Giovanni Evangelista, connected to Torcello by a small bridge, Ponte del Diavolo (Devil’s Bridge). Another long, historical story I'll have to tell you another time.
As we talked I was told that Villa San Giovanni / Baslini is the only villa left on Torcello. The property began as The Monastery of St. John the Evangelist built in 640, an ancient ecclesiastical complex inhabited by Benedictine nuns, in which a basilica (there are ruins in the garden) where the preserved remains of Santa Barbara were brought and dedicated to the convent of nuns. The much larger complex stood on the property on an islet to the south-west of the square, accessible only over the famous Devil's Bridge, or by water. The villa is the lone remaining structure.
The first written document concerning the monastery is in the chronicle of Giovanni Diacono (Giovanni from Venice), who asserts that in 1009 the relics of St. Barbara of Nicomedia were transferred to St. John’s, donated a few years earlier by Maria Argyropolis, niece of the Byzantine emperor and sister-in-law of the then Abbess Felicita, daughter of Venetian doge Pietro Orseolo II.
Ancient map of the island showing The Monastery of St. John the Evangelist in the lower right hand corner. Also notice the name of the island as it use to be called "Torzelo".
Ancient drawing of the monastery as it looked in the 11th century
In 1168, under the Abbess Amabile Keulo, began a lively period of acquisitions that saw an exponential increase in its properties; there were acquisitions in Torcello; houses, plots of arable land and mud flats and two salt pans (Natural salt flats are flat expanses of ground covered with salt and other minerals, shining white under the sun) were added, one donated in 1178 by the Bobiçum brothers, the other set up in 1180 by the same nuns on one of their waterways.
The economic increase was continued by Abbess Adoalda Marcello, who lived in the first half of the 13th century. During this time two powerful noble families emerged, related to each other, the Barozzi and the Gradenigo families, who in the following centuries contributed to the life of the monastery by giving it Abbesses and Procurators.
Angelica told me that history records that in 1810 the Napoleonic edicts affected the Monastery of San Giovanni. The buildings became State Property, were abandoned and demolished. But she said, her family history says Napoleon ordered the nun’s quarters destroyed but spared the ‘guest house’ of the monastery, which her family later purchased as their summer home. Today few traces survive from the monastery with the exception of Villa Baslini.
The Baslini Family is a noble family. Angelica’s grandfather, Dr. Ernesto Baslini, founded an industrial chemical company in 1922, which grew substantially over the years and still exists today. Her father Antonio was an Italian politician spending over 20 years in the Italian Parliament.
An amazing, historic villa, sitting on ancient, historic land on an historic island in the Venetian lagoon with a beautiful swimming pool (the only swimming pool in the Veneto region) overlooking not only the surrounding area of Torcello and its salt pans, but also the nearby island town of Burano with its brightly colored buildings.
Looking forward to our Venezia – La Serenissima June 3 -13, 2019 tour at historic Villa Baslini, an historic property on a now quiet island that in its day was the power that became Venice!
We still have a few couples spots (double occupancy) for our Tuscan Adventure tour from August 18-28, 2019 at our villa in Tuscany near Certaldo and Gambassi Terme. Savings of up to $1000 per couple still available. Email us from our website to find out more.
Ciao . . . a presto,
Who remembers eating grissini when you were a kid? I sure do? When my brothers and I would go down with our dad to Genova Delicatessen in Oakland on Saturday (sadly its closed) to shop we would always walk in and go to the bin and grab a grissini to munch on while we were getting our cheeses, meats, ravioli, etc. Domenic would always give us another if we finished our first quickly. And, we were never charged for our grissini. It was something kids always got as a treat (probably to keep us quiet too), but Italians, whether in the US or Italy, are always good to kids. Italian's love children!
As a kid I always wondered, what is a grissini and why do they make them? They're bread, I think, but not really bread!? What the heck?
Well L' Italo-Americano Magazine, the #1 source of all things Italian since 1908 tells us these very crunchy “bread sticks” were invented in Turin in 1679, by the Savoias’ personal baker, who created them specifically for King Vittorio Amedeo II, who couldn’t digest regular bread very well.
Their dough is the same as bread but, as they are very thin, they dry while baking so remain very crunchy. Grissini were an immediate success because they were not only good to eat and easy to digest, but also lasted longer than regular bread; they were so famous that they became “les petits bâtons de Turin,” as Napoleon would call them (one of his favorites), turned into a local speciality.
Those first grissini - called “robatà,” between 10 and 15 inches in length, irregular in shape and rolled by
hand - are today a 'prodotto agroalimentare Italiano protetto' (Italian agri-food protected product).
Later, the grissini 'stirati' were invented, the mechanical production of which started as early as the
Today, we can enjoy herbs grissini, spice grissini, olive oil grissini, all of which should be enjoyed with local cold cuts, prosciutto and soft cheeses.
I still like munching on them, but plain, just for the crunch . . . it also brings back some very sweet memories. And oh by-the-way after leaving Genova's we'd walk across the street to Buon Gusto bakery (an Italian bakery, also sadly long gone) and we'd get free cookies from the ladies working the counter. It was good being a Italian kid back then!! Buon appetito!
As a kid growing up in an Italian family, during Lent we ate ‘frugally’, avoiding meat (definitely on Friday’s) and rich foods. These days were called, giorni di scammaro. Now, I wasn’t quite sure if it was a ’religious’ thing, or a holdover from the tough years my grandparents had to endure in Italy before immigrating to the US in the early 1900’s.
A ‘tradition’ of those tough economic times – when wallets were empty and nothing would go to waste. And this is how, what I consider a delicacy, was born and became a traditional local dish – a bowl of leftover spaghetti became “frittat’e maccarun, or (leftover) pasta frittata.
Throwing away pasta, was sacrilege! Especially when it can be used to make up a delicious meal for the following day. In spite of its name, frittata di pasta is usually made with spaghetti, vermicelli or bucatini, that is, with pasta lunga, so that the final result is dense, soft inside and crunchy outside.
My Nonna would take the leftover pasta from the night before (the pasta must rest overnight) and slice up some zucchini (always plentiful in any Italian’s garden and my Nonno’s garden was no different), onions, garlic, chard or whatever other vegetables might be fresh from the yard (and even some leftover meat from the sauce . . . yes sauce, NOT gravy), mix it together with the pasta, some eggs, some cheese, some salt and pepper, fry it in a cast iron skillet until brown on the bottom and either flip it over (which is a skill), or place the skillet in the oven and broil until the top is brown. You can eat it warm but it always seems to taste better cold. I think as it rests the flavors mingle and intensify.
To this day when we have any leftover pasta, we look forward to the frittata the next morning (Now, I throw a bit more Pecorino Romano on top before putting it in the oven to get a nice cheesy, crunchy top – sorry Nonna, but I know you’d understand).
Amo mia nonna! Buona mangiata!
When it was announced that Starbucks was coming to Italy, it was barely noticed. Perhaps it’s because they are busy trying to understand who is going to become their next Prime Minister, or just distracted by the early signs of summer approaching, but no one has been paying too much attention to the fact that Starbucks will finally come to the home of the perfect coffee, Italy.
Francesca Bezzone of L’Italo-Americano the #1 source of all things Italian since 1908 tells us that Starbucks’ love affair with Italy started as far back as 1983, when its executive chairman, Howard Schultz, experienced Italian coffee for the first time during a visit to Milan. Apparently, it was the epiphany he needed to conceive and create what was to become the most iconic and popular coffee shop chain on earth, with 29,000 worldwide and profits of over 4 billion dollars as of 2017. That Starbucks is a successful business is out of the question: it is ubiquitous, it has a huge coffee menu and people like it to grab their morning brew on the go. Thanks to its friendly and relaxed atmosphere Starbucks has become a place to chat, work, study and relax, all under the same roof: whether you are in the US or Britain, Ireland or France, Starbucks is a common fixture, a familiar haven when away from home, a comfy sitting room outside of your own. Yet, Italians may not be so willing to embrace the trend.
As an Italian-American (and Italian citizen) who’s equally comfortable in both countries, I must admit I like Starbucks (but I like Peet’s more); it’s a perfect place to take a break, to a have a quick lunch, have a meeting, or do some computer work. The coffee is good, even though it is so different from what I’m used to in Italy, or would prepare at home (Nespresso).
At the same time, there are a series of considerations about how successful the chain could be in a country like Italy and they do not all depend on the quality of its coffee, nor on the fact Italians will be hardly pressed to drink Americanos and Frappuccinos once the novelty wears off.
When it comes to coffee, Italy is a very traditional country: we sort of mastered the art of making it. Tradition and classical flavors are all we want, proof of it being the relatively small variety of coffees usually available in our cafés: espresso can be lungo, or regular or ristretto, macchiato caldo or freddo and sometimes corretto. Cappuccino can be normal or chiaro and we do have marocchino and a variety of decaf options (ginseng and barley drinks have become quite popular in recent years), but don’t expect much more than that. However, there’s little doubt that Italian coffee remains the best in the world: it’s a typical case of “why should you change or improve something that’s already perfect?” Italian coffee is not a matter of variety, but of extremely high quality: from the selection of the coffee, to the way it’s roasted and brewed, every drop of caffé has to be absolutely perfect. And if you've ever had coffee in Italy you know it pretty much always is.
There is more: we Italians love our coffee ritual the way it is. We love to get our caffé in the same place every morning, while having a chat with the barista and the other customers, whom we end up knowing and befriending because we meet them every day. We like the way we don’t need to say what we want, because the barista already knows it ; we love to read the paper standing at the counter, while having a chit chat with the man or woman beside us, a speck of a friendship that lasts the time it takes to sip our lungo, or slam down an espresso. The café, is a moment of “home” while we are out shopping or on a coffee break. It’s the place we choose to rest just about the time to have a macchiato and a glass of water, where we can forget for a couple of minutes about what goes on outside: a little corner of tranquillity.
This is not to say Starbucks won’t be successful in Italy: younger generations will certainly enjoy the possibility to study there and the free internet access, just as much as youth all over the world do. And many an expat will gladly have a venti caramel macchiato with an extra shot on the go, just for the sake of feeling closer to home. Some Italians may even like to make it a habit of “prendere un caffé da Starbucks” once in while, just for a change. But the point is: it will never become what an Italian caffé is for us.
Schultz declared, when speaking about finally opening in Italy, “we’re not coming here to teach Italians how to make coffee, we’re coming here with humility and respect, to show what we have learned.” Well, Italy’s happy to have been the inspiration, all those years ago, for the creation of such an amazing business, which ultimately helped spread the popularity of coffee around the world. Italy welcomes Starbucks with open arms, with that typical warm and friendly attitude it’s known for. And Italy will gladly and amicably take a look at what Starbucks “has learned” about coffee in more than 30 years of business. Yet, Italians will very likely keep on sticking to its bar dietro l’angolo per un cappuccio e brioche. I certainly will.
Who is that guy in the foreground in sunglasses at Bar Al Todaro?
Flour, water, salt and yeast, yet it’s not bread . . . The word comes from the Latin “focus,” that is, baked on live fire. Soft, fluffy, glistening with olive oil, delicious! You can eat it on its own, with cheese or cold cuts.
As many of you know my Italian roots are Lugurian and we grew up making and eating ‘Fugassa’ in the Genoese dialect different from ‘Focaccia (and pronounced differently). This article from L’Italo Americano, the #1 source of all things Italian since 1908 describes the history of this non-bread.
In the 16th century, it became so popular it was even consumed during religious functions. Italy produces several types of focaccia, but the most famous are those coming from Liguria: beside its most traditional variety, about an inch high with holes in its surface and covered in olive oil, cheese focaccia is also popular which has a very old history and may date back years to the Third Crusade (1189).
This type of focaccia is thinner than its basic, traditional counterpart and is filled with a type of fresh cheese, giuncata, which was - and still is - only available in Liguria. This focaccia, typical of the town of Recco, and became known as focaccia di Recco at the beginning of the 20th century, when it was so popular it was rumored even the Infanta of Spain (the title given in the Iberian kingdoms of Spain and Portugal to the sons and daughters (infantas) of the king), had the habit to visit the village to enjoy it.
This is a January 2018 article from L' Italo-Americano magazine the #1 source of all things Italian since 1908. Those of you who traveled with us in 2017 will undoubtedly recognize a farm we visited and the lovely and 'passionate' lady who explained her products; salumi, wines and olive oil they produce with us.
"Ah, prosciutto - that lovely, pink hued, paper-thin sliced meat that has delighted Italy’s residents for at least 3,000 years. Perhaps not as romanticized as wine or olive oil (anyone for a cozy picnic in a pig pen or butcher shop?), but possibly revered even more, there’s no question that prosciutto makes a daily appearance on tables throughout Italy.
Believed to have taken its name from the Latin word proexsuctus, meaning literally to suck out the moisture, the formula for creating prosciutto sounds quite simple: take a ham hock, add salt, wait. But alas, nothing is ever as simple as it seems!
The creation of prosciutto, like many traditional Italian slow foods, cannot be rushed. From birth of the pig to finished product, even a lower quality meat requires at least nine months to be table-ready. Products awarded D.O.P status (translated Denomination of Protected Origin) require even longer, more controlled methods specific to the product. Regardless of a D.O.P label or not, all livestock must be Italian born and bred to be considered the origin of a good prosciutto.
The process from start to finish begins to tighten up when we look at what goes into a D.O.P. prosciutto. Take one of the better-known products, Prosciutto di Parma. Overseen by the Parma Ham Consortium, livestock must be raised in a setting between the Enza and Stirone rivers at an altitude no higher than about 2,500 feet. Only 3 breed types will do, and the diet must consist of specified grain, along with whey from parmesan productions (of course!). And you can count on it that someone is closely monitoring adherence to these requirements. All that good food stops when the pig reaches about 9 months of age and weighs in at around 300 pounds.
Another D.O.P. product perhaps not as well known outside of Italy but considered by many to be the crème de la crème of prosciutto is Tuscany’s Cinta Senese prosciutto. The name translates to “belt of those from Siena,” and they wear it well: a striking cinch of white wraps fully around the pig’s front legs, shoulders, and sides in nice contrast to the black on either side.
The breed itself is notable. Indigenous to Tuscany with origins back at least to the Middle Ages, the Cinta Senese pigs were all but extinct after World War II. In fact, it’s said that only two males and 20 some-odd females existed at one point. In stepped good folks like Raymond Lamothe of Castellina in Chianti. Ray, born to an Italian mother and an American father, was one of the original people who set out to save the practically non-existent breed…and they have succeeded admirably!
A founding father of the consortium that now oversees conservation of the Cinta Senese, Ray’s involvement didn’t stop there. He and his wife Anna Rita rear these pigs on their family farm, Casamonti (which is also the site of a 900 year old monastery), and have produced salumi products since the early 1990’s. This labor of love requires following to a “T” each and every consortium and government agency rule.
Cinta Senese must be bred and raised in Tuscany and are tagged at birth with their genetic inheritance. Interestingly, the DNA of this breed is unique in the pig world and cannot be traced to any other breed. The pigs are free to roam the farm from age 4 months until they are butchered at around age 2. Allowed to forage, they are also supplemented with highly controlled natural feeds – no GMOs, no soy, no additives of any kind. Livestock must be inspected by a veterinarian every 2 months, while other assigned vets do periodic quality control checks on the meat products.
The results, however, produce a remarkable prosciutto that is delicate, extremely flavorful, and lean. In fact, Cinta Senese fat is quite similar in structure to that of extra virgin olive oil! No worries about raising your cholesterol with this product, so over-indulging is allowed.
As Ray shared with me, a lot has changed for D.O.P. prosciutti producers, including the Cinta Senese variety. Once upon a time, most farm homes sat atop a classic musty cellar perfect for curing, and the family had the ability to tend the hams 24/7. Nowadays, the majority of producers use the services of hi-tech and tightly controlled prosciuttifici, off-site labs, for the entire curing process.
Once butchering and trimming of the leg portion have occurred, the real work begins. Salt is rubbed manually over the entire ham daily for a month. Gentle pressing and massaging during this time drain all traces of blood, decreasing the chance of mold growth. After about two months, a series of washings remove the salt, and sugnatura (a mixture of salt, spices, and fat) is applied to the exposed portion of the leg not covered by skin. The ham is then hung in a controlled room to dry where humidity and temperatures must mimic those of the region the ham is from. Curing takes anywhere from 9 to 18 or more months depending on the size of the ham.
Any D.O.P. designated prosciutto is going to go down good, and even a lesser quality would bring a smile – but which is the best? That from Parma? Tuscany, specifically Cinta Senese? Well, what about the famed Prosciutto di San Daniele from the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia? It depends on what region you’re in when you ask, of course, but any would be welcome on an Italian table.
At one time, all pork products from Italy were banned from export to the United States; however, in 1989, prosciutti from Parma and San Daniele were permitted after the repeal of a 22-year ban. I came across indications that 2016 saw a lifting of the age-old ban on all meat products from Italy, but was unable to confirm this (sadly so). The current proclamation on the USDA website -- In very few cases swine and swine products can enter the United States – suggests you still might want to avoid stuffing that lovely leg of Italian-made prosciutto in your suitcase and just enjoy an affettati misti (cured plate meat) from your local deli."
During our Tuscan Adventure tours this year we visited Castellina in Chianti and during our 10 day tours we certainly sampled many premium Tuscan wines including many local vintners Chianti Classico wine. So, what is the history of that big black rooster statue we saw in Castellina.
Well, Castellina in Chianti is an ancient town in the Chianti Hills of about 2,800 inhabitants in the Tuscan region of Italy about 35 kilometres (22 mi) south of Florence and about 15 kilometres (9 mi) northwest of Siena. The first settlements date from the Etruscan age, between the 9th and 2nd centuries BC, and were probably devastated by Gaulish invasions during their invasions against Rome. In the early Middle Ages the town was known as Salingolpe; in the 11th century Matilda of Tuscany gave it as fief to the counts Guidi and, subsequently, to the Trebbio.
Castellina became an outpost of Florence and joined the League of Chianti and established itself as the capital of one of the "Terzieri", an ancient administrative division. Due to its strategic location between Siena and Florence, it had been at the center of the struggle between these two Republics and the village was surrounded by an impressive hexagonal wall which is still visible today.
The black rooster is the symbol that has made the Chianti region famous in the world, conveyed as a trademark of the Chianti Classico Consortium since its establishment in 1924, but this animal represents the Chianti area long before the Chianti Classico.
The legend of the Black Rooster is strongly connected to Castellina in Chianti. It dates back at least to the middle of the thirteenth century, when it was drawn on the banners of the Chianti League, the military and administrative institution which was composed by the "Terzieri" of Castellina, Gaiole and Radda in Chianti.
As the story goes, the two Republics were tired of the constant battles to define the territorial boundaries in the Chianti area, so they agreed to settle the dispute. They arranged a contest: two knights had to leave in the morning at cockcrow, each from their own city heading in the opposite direction: the Florentine towards Siena, the Sienese towards Florence. At the exact point where the two would meet, it would seal the border. So, in order to anticipate the opponent and conquer more territory, it was thought better to leave as soon as possible, but then they would need a reliable cock, ready to sing at dawn.
The Florentines entrusted a hungry and free-range black rooster, intentionally kept fasting. The Sienese, instead, chose a tame white rooster, which was, above all, satisfied by a hearty evening meal. The choice of the Florentines proved to be successful: the knight from Florence was able to leave earlier than the Sienese, covering more kilometers and annexing a larger portion of the territory.
Castellina in Chianti, is located atop a hill at the crossroads of the Arbia, Elsa and Pesa valleys, along the Chiantigiana road that still connects Florence to Siena. It's a small town but is one of the most important destinations in the Chianti area and the landscape that surrounds the town is quite beautiful and impressive, well worth a visit.
Next time you go shopping for a Chianti Classico look for the Black Rooster on the band on the neck of the bottle. A Chianti Classico with a Black Rooster on the tax band label indicates a DOCG wine (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita). This is the highest classification Italian wines can be awarded and means there are (controllata) controlled production methods and (garantita) guaranteed wine quality with each bottle.
Simply said, it is not enough to be produced within the Chianti region to be called a "Classico". In fact, Classico wine has to respect specific rules. Its blend is 80% of Sangiovese, the red grape typical of this area, 20% of other grapes, which include native grapes such as Canaiolo and Colorino, as well as other international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
A Black Rooster on the label best ensures a Chianti Classico wine bright ruby red in color, well-integrated aromas of tart red cherries, tobacco, sunbaked earth, and a hint of cedar spice. On the palate, a firm structure and refreshing acidity make it a very versatile food wine. Delicioso!
A journey to discover the origins of la bella lingua would not be complete without a stop in the very heart of Tuscany; the village of Certaldo Alto, a well-known medieval village located halfway between Firenze and Siena. According to tradition, this was the place where the third and last “Florentine Crown of the Italian Language” – namely, the great Giovanni Boccaccio – was born back in the summer of 1313.
Just as it was the case with Dante’s Commedia and Petrarch’s Canzoniere, it is really hard to underestimate the far-reaching influence of Boccaccio’s most perfect masterpiece: not only would his Decameron have a great impact on the development of Italian language and literature, it would also affect European culture as a whole (for example, by serving as an important structural model for Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales). Written in the Florentine vernacular and told by the viewpoint of ten young men and women who take refuge in a villa outside Florence to escape the plague of 1348, the one hundred novellas that constitute the Decameron offered an unprecedented use of realistic dialogue and everyday language, as well as a real slice of life in the Middle Ages. Whereas the 16th century scholar Pietro Bembo recognized Petrarch as the model for Italian poetry, when it came to prose nobody seemed worthier to him for this role than Boccaccio.
Even though Boccaccio would soon move to Naples to continue his studies, he would never forget about his Florentine heritage. On the contrary, Dante and Petrarch would become great sources of inspiration for him in the years to follow: he would not only write treatises and commentaries about the two masters’ work, he would also give the very first public lectures on the Inferno and copy down by his own hand as much as three manuscripts of Dante’s Comedy (just think that it was precisely Boccaccio who first talked about it as “Divine”). At the same time, in the year 1350 he would meet Petrarch in person for the first time and start to correspond with him.
Following a lifetime of literary achievements and public engagement between Napoli and Firenze, Boccaccio would eventually and abruptly fall from grace during the 1360s, when some people connected to him were accused of conspiring against the Florentine Republic. The writer would then spend most of his old age back in his native Certaldo, in the house on present-day Via Boccaccio n. 18, the one where – according to sources – he would eventually die of illness in 1375.
It is quite fascinating to visit this building today, after almost 650 years, but keep in mind that the casa del Boccaccio actually met the same fate as the casa del Petrarca in Arezzo. In the early 19th century, it had been purchased by the marchioness Carlotta Lenzoni de’ Medici, who renovated it and commissioned the neoclassical painter Pietro Benvenuti with the realization of a large fresco representing Boccaccio at his writing desk. In more recent times, though, the whole building was devastated by the bombings of the Second World War: only the wall with Benvenuti’s fine fresco did miraculously escape destruction. But even so, in the post-war period the entire house has been rebuilt and finally opened to the public as a museum, as well as being chosen as the official seat for the Ente Nazionale Boccaccio. Thanks to the efforts of the local community, it is now possible for everyone to step inside the casa del Boccaccio to take a look at the poet’s rooms: you can find here – among others – a series of artifacts dating back to the 14th century, commemorative badges and medals, a reproduction of Boccaccio’s first portrait ever, and a collection of modern theatrical costumes inspired by the Decameron.
Our journey ends just a few steps away from Boccaccio’s former home, in a small church in the vicinity of Certaldo’s gorgeous Palazzo Pretorio: here, under the floor of the Chiesa dei Santi Jacopo e Filippo lies Giovanni Boccaccio himself. A 1503 marble bust by Giovan Francesco Rustici portrays the great Certaldese as he holds his own masterwork. Underneath we find Boccaccio’s own epitaph, but also an awe-inspiring gravestone carved by the 20th century sculptor Mario Moschi, who recreated the writer’s features by drawing from the Renaissance artist Andrea del Castagno’s series of “Illustrious People”. Needless to say, Petrarch and Dante appeared alongside Boccaccio as part of this series.
In just a few short weeks and over the month of September, 30 or so guests will arrive at Villa il Renaccio in Tuscany just outside of Certaldo. Equidistant between Florence and Siena sitting on a beautiful hill surrounded by vineyards and olive orchards. There will be days of trips into the Tuscan countryside to visit small farms and wineries of friends we've made over these many years. We will travel to the towns and cities; Florence, Siena, Pisa, Lucca, San Gimignano, Volterra, Pienza, Castellina, Montalcino, Certaldo Alto and even venture out of Tuscany for a day to Riomaggiore and Manarola in Cinque Terre and on our way home stop to see the Carrara Marble Quarry. We will see the art, we will taste the cuisine, we will drink the fine wines, we will meet the people up close and personal, we will sit in their homes and break bread with them over meals they will prepare, all with ingredients from their farms. We will experience the Italian culture the way I want my guests to experience it. I want them to see and live the Italy I see and love. And, I hope it allows them to reconnect with their purpose in life, the way it always does for me.
When in Italy I am quickly reminded of my purpose. Riding the trains I revel in gazing out the window, hoping to spot a vineyard, an ancient building, or a hill top town in the distance. As I take in the view, in between mountain passes, the cypresses, the fields of my favorite girasole, I feel a sense of rightness in my soul. Our trips are full of moments like that, moments of surrender and revelation.
Whether in Rome, walking the same streets St. Paul strolled, taking in the sights at sunset of the Colosseum, imagining what life must have been like for those living there two thousand years ago. We eat margherita pizza with a caprese salad by the Pantheon . . .
Or in Florence, eating chocolate and hazelnut gelato on the historic Ponte Vecchio and haggling with merchants at the San Lorenzo market, buying souvenirs and Christmas gifts for family. Eating a lunch of porchetta and pasta with a good Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino or Vino Nobile di Montepulciano . . .
Or in Venice navigating the city on the sea, riding the vaporetti, crossing the hundreds of cobblestone bridges to visit friends, stopping once again in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari to see the Assumption of the Virgin high altar piece by Titian that I cannot ever get out of my head, and visiting with friends, laughing, eating, drinking . . .
It’s easy for us to get stuck in a rut and let our priorities fall out of order, to believe we live to work instead of the other way around. It’s tempting to get caught up in endless pursuits of celebrity and fame and trying to impress people. But none of those things satisfy. Because even when you do what you love, when you’re living your calling, you can’t forget that there’s always a greater why behind what you do. There has to be a life behind the work, something that’s bigger than you, a cause to guide you. And as we stroll the dimly-lit lanes of Italy, hand in hand with our hearts and stomachs full, I remember mine. And, I can hope our guests remember theirs.
Looking forward to seeing you at the villa soon. Remember, we travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.
Ciao famiglia e cari amici,
The hot season is here so the opportunity to talk about the famous Spritz. First of all, its origins. As you may already know, the origins of Spritz aren’t completely clear, the most probable “legend” says that Austro-Hungarian soldiers in Venice in the 18th century used to add (in german “spritzen“) sparkling water to the North Italy wines that were too strong for their refined palate. From there, Spritz finally acquired its classic red color, probably as a sign of disproval towards Austrians after the second half of the first world war.
For decades, Spritz was only famous in the Veneto region, but thanks to a very efficient marketing campaign, it became famous firstly in all Italy and then in other places in the world.
What it is, exactly?
Spritz is an aperitif drink, best to be drank before dinner, and it’s made with:
Its red ingredient is variable and depends on your taste. The most popular option is Aperol but I recommend you also try the other choices:
Lastly, where to drink it (in Venice)? There are two popular options, both excellent in my opinion. The first is Campo Santa Margherita, in Dorsoduro. Very easy to reach from Piazzale Roma and the train station (in 10 minutes) and near the beautiful Zattere and Accademia bridge. It’s a popular choice among students, as the local university is near there. The second option is Campo dell’Erbaria, at the feet of Rialto bridge. This is also an excellent location with several bars at your disposal, and it’s not as crowded as you may think despite its location.
If you happen not to be in Venice you can order a 'Spritz' at just about any bar. It's a nice alternative especially on a hot day.
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Tony Moglia's grandparents immigrated from Italy in the early 1900's. He's a dual citizen who has traveled extensively throughout Italy for 40 years. He's happily married to a vibrant dancer who together have two children and three grandchildren. Tony has dreamed of Villas of Italy since his first trip to Italy, and now he shares his dream with you.