Our son has gone on a “tartufata” today with some of his friends to a place called Ovada, a town in southern Piedmont. I’m not sure if this word really exists in Italian, but what it means is that they have gone to a restaurant in Ovada, where they will order various dishes seasoned with tartufo, or truffle in English. ‘Tis the truffle season! Many an Italian is fanning out over the country where truffles grow to taste this delicacy. Alas! neither my wife nor I are terribly fond of the use of truffle in cooking. I’m sure some readers will gasp in horror at this admission. Our son certainly shook his head sadly when we admitted this to him – he, of course, is a great fan. My beef with truffle is that its taste is very intense, far too intense for me; even my son, fan though he is, admits that he can only eat a small number of dishes seasoned with truffle before it’s too much for him.
For those of my readers who have never seen a truffle, they grow in the ground, normally around the roots of certain trees.
They are not at all handsome-looking. They resemble pebbles, with a roughly roundish shape and rather knobbly. Normally, a number of them will fit into the palm of one’s hand. This next photo shows the two most common species of truffle, the white and the black (there are number of other types of truffles, but we’ll keep it simple).
An enduring image from my youth is the use of pigs to find truffles. It was one of those stories I heard, about French farmers – a pig on a leash in one hand, a basket in the other (and no doubt a smoldering gitane in the side of the mouth) – wandering the woods of the Perigord (a region of France famous for its truffles) looking for this culinary delicacy.
With their fine sense of smell, pigs are exceedingly good at locating the truffles buried in the soil. I don’t suppose pigs are used much any more. Clever people have figured out how to farm truffles, so I presume the foraging for wild truffles is mostly a thing of the past.
For those of a biological turn of mind the truffle is a fungus, one of perhaps 2 to 4 million fungi species (this is an estimate; only some 120,000 species have been formally described). It belongs to the Ascomycota phylum of the fungi kingdom, along with “good” fungi like morels, brewer’s and baker’s yeasts, and the penicillins, as well as “bad” fungi like the Candida fungi and ringworm, which infect us humans, as well various plant pathogens with colourful names like black mold, apple scab, rice blast, black knot and powdery mildews.
What actually set me off on this post was not truffles; it just so happened that our son went off on his gastronomic adventures at this time. It was actually mushrooms, which are members of another phylum of the fungi kingdom, the Basidiomycota, that got me to pick up my pen, figuratively speaking. As is our habit when we are in Milan, we’ve been walking the woods around Lake Como, and in recent days we’ve stumbled across a good number of very striking mushrooms. Perhaps the weather conditions have been particularly propitious, perhaps we have just happened to walk across mushroom-rich grounds. I have no idea if any of the mushrooms we’ve seen are edible; I’m certain that one of them definitely is not. They just struck me as being particularly handsome. Seeing handsome mushrooms actually started on our walk along the Kumano Kodo trail in Japan. Here is a lovely one we almost tripped over, growing as it was right along the path we were following.
Aren’t they just beautiful?!
We also saw a very nice species of bracket fungus on a large cypress tree on our last day.
Passersby had put 10-yen coins on the bracket fungus; this was the entryway to a large Shinto shrine, so I presume they play a role in animistic religions. I took the coins off, feeling that the fungus looked much better without them (and I hastily add that I put them back once I had taken my photo).
I’m very fond of bracket fungi. Years ago, when we were living in Washington D.C., my wife and I came across a lovely set of bracket fungi growing on a dead branch, during a walk in the woods. We brought the branch back to our apartment, where it brightened up the place. With great regret, when we left for Europe, we gave the branch and its fungi to a friend. I’ve always wondered what became of them.
But coming back to Lake Como, the first set of mushrooms we saw were these, growing under a pine tree.
Unfortunately, since they were in someone’s garden I couldn’t get any close-up photos. I rather suspect, though, that at least some of them – the ones to the left – were the fly agaric mushroom. This is a truly beautiful mushroom – but a hallucinogen if eaten in small amounts, and deadly if eaten in larger amounts.
These are the mushrooms that gnomes will often be pictured sitting under or on.
A little later, when we had entered the woods, we were lucky enough to come across a fly agaric in its mature stage on the side of the path.
It looks like something took a bite out of it; I hope it had nice hallucinations.
After that, we saw a number of other mushrooms peeking out from the forest floor as we walked along.
Lovely … But I have no idea what their names are (or their toxic or hallucinogenic properties) – I welcome any reader who knows them to tell me. In the meantime, my wife and I will continue traipsing through the woods and perhaps we’ll see a few more species of mushrooms to admire.
Last year, I marked the annual migration which my wife and I make from Austria to Italy with a post celebrating the autumn crocuses which we saw sprinkled across the meadows we were crossing on our last walks around Vienna.
So this year, when on our first walk back in Italy – we came down from Austria a few days ago – I spotted a profusion of yellow crocuses it seemed to me that they would be an excellent topic for my first post of the winter season in Italy.
As it turned out, there was a slight hiccup in this plan. I have just discovered that the plants are not crocuses. They look terribly like them, as this photo demonstrates (the purple plant is a real crocus). But they are not.
A number of the plant’s common names make the same mistake. For instance, one of the plant’s common names in English is yellow autumn crocus, as it is in French (crocus jaune d’automne). But actually the plant is more closely related to the daffodil than it is to the crocus. And in fact a couple of the common English names refer to the daffodil – autumn daffodil, winter daffodil – although I suspect that this has more to do with the plant’s daffodil-yellow colour than with any botanical relationships. I don’t want to use these names because I really see nothing daffodil-like in the plant (apart from the colour). The plant’s official name is Sternbergia lutea, but I don’t want to use that, it makes me sound like a stuffy old bore. After looking around at what various (European) languages call the plant, I think I shall plump for the German Herbst-Goldbecher, Autumn Golden Cup.
So now let me celebrate the Autumn Golden Cup with a couple of photos of it by photographers who are way better than me at taking photos.
For anyone who might be interested, this map shows the geographic distribution of the Autumn Golden Cup.
The plant is native from Spain through to the southern shores of the Caspian Sea (and it’s been naturalized for quite a while in France, Morocco and Algeria). These photos of the Autumn Golden Cup show it in a rather more natural setting, the first in an old olive grove in southern Greece, the second on some stony ground in southern Italy.
There is only one dark cloud in all of this. The Autumn Golden Cup is one of a handful of plants whose bulbs are made commercially available mostly through collection in the wild rather than through artificial propagation. This has put terrible pressure on wild populations. In my last post, I wrote about the problem of species being moved to new ecosystems and running amok. Here we have the problem of over-exploitation of native populations, leading – if we are not careful – to their extinction in the wild. The situation for the Autumn Golden Cup is sufficiently worrisome that it has been listed in the global Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as a species that can only be traded internationally with the proper permits. The problem is that many of the countries where this bulb harvesting is going on have weak enforcement authorities, so the trade is not being managed as it should.
What I don’t understand in all of this is why the Autumn Golden Cup cannot be propagated, as happens with the great majority of bulbous plants. Some efforts are being made to teach farmers in Turkey, for instance, to do just this. But why don’t Italian farmers, where the species is native, also do it? My rather uncharitable thought is that everyone has pretty much left bulb propagation and sale to the Netherlands (those tulips, you know …), which as a result controls the great majority of the trade in flower bulbs. It so happens, my thinking continues, that since the Netherlands falls outside the geographic range of the Autumn Golden Cup it has never bothered to get into the business of propagating this particular plant. And so we are left with harvesting in the wild.
Well, I just hope that we can change this situation before it’s too late.
There is a flower which I much admire. I come across it quite often on our walks. This is a photo of it made by a professional photographer, with good lighting and a nice background.
But in truth, I come across it more often in this kind of context.
It is a flower which grows along the sides of fields, in waste land along the side of paths, in cracks in roads, … It is, in a word, the botanical embodiment of grace and beauty under pressure. And for that I am one of its greatest fans.
I have always called it the cornflower, but in preparing this post I have discovered that I have been terribly mistaken. Yes, it is sometimes called cornflower, but the real cornflower, the real McCoy as it were, is this.
What I have been admiring for its grit and determination as well as its beauty is the common chicory, Cichorium intybus. As is the case with pretty flowers that sprinkle our countryside, it has been given lots of delightful names over the centuries apart from cornflower: blue daisy, blue dandelion, blue sailors, blue weed, bunk, coffeeweed, hendibeh, horseweed, ragged sailors, succory, wild bachelor’s buttons, and wild endive. And that’s only in English! It being native to Europe, I’m sure that every European language has a similar suite of names for this delightful flower.
What I have also discovered through my readings is that the common chicory is one of those plants out of which humble, anonymous people whose names we will almost certainly never know have over the centuries coaxed various foodstuffs. I want to salute these people, and in that sense this post has become a continuation of previous posts I have written about the slew of vegetables coaxed out of the mustard plant and the sea beet.
People have worked on two parts of the plant: its leaf and its root. Out of its leaf they have extracted several vegetables. I start with catalogna chicory. I do so because it is an Italian vegetable. My wife being Italian and my most faithful reader, I want to begin with a salute to the genius of her countrymen and women (it also so happens that her mother used to eat catalogna chicory from time to time, and it’s nice to use this occasion to remember the good woman). I also start with it because the photo shows up the common chicory’s very obvious relationship to the dandelion (the two are part of the same family) in the shape of the catalogna chicory’s leaves. And that shape allows me to note that catalogna chicory leaves, like dandelion leaves, are quite bitter (in fact, the reason my mother-in-law didn’t eat catalogna all that often was because my father-in-law disliked its bitter taste).
I throw in here a popular Roman recipe which uses catalogna chicory, insalata di puntarelle alla romana
Cut out the white, less bitter stems. Slice them into narrow strips. Let them sit in iced water for an hour (this further reduces the bitterness). In the meantime prepare the salad sauce. Add together crushed garlic, anchovies, vinegar, and olive oil, and whip together. Drain the catalogna chicory stems. Drizzle with the salad sauce. Enjoy!
Then there is another Italian spin-off of the common chicory, the radicchio.
Although something like the radicchio may have already been enjoyed by the Romans, it is actually men and women living in the north-east of Italy during the fifteenth century, in the regions of Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, and Trentino, who started its modern cultivation. But it is a Belgian agronomist by the name of Francesco Van den Borre (where there is a name, let us highlight it) who engineered the radicchio’s typical deep-red colour. He used a technique where the plants are taken from the soil and placed in water in darkened sheds; the lack of light causes the plants to lose their green pigmentation and turn red.
There is also the sugarloaf, which I must confess I have never eaten and had until I read up for this post never even heard of, and whose origins are a mystery to me – I can’t find anything about them on the internet. This is what it looks like.
As far as I can make out, sugarloaf is eaten in much the same way as most chicories are: braised or in salad. I might nose around some of the higher-end grocery shops here to see if I can find any to try.
Finally, there is the Belgian endive.
Like the radicchio, this is a rather artificial vegetable. To prevent the leaves from turning green and opening up, it is grown just below the soil surface or indoors in the absence of sunlight. It seems that this technique was accidentally discovered in the 1850s at Brussels’ Botanical Garden, which no doubt explains why it’s called Belgian endive (just to confuse things, I should note that the true endive is another species, Cichorium endivia).
That’s what people have done with the leaf of the common chicory. Then there is its root.
It’s best known as the source of chicory coffee. The root is chopped up and then roasted, to give something like this.
It can either be used as is or mixed with real coffee. Personally, I don’t like the stuff. My wife doesn’t either, but my mother-in-law was quite partial. So was my French grandmother; I remember her drinking this rather bitter drink in the morning at breakfast with evident relish. As I recall, she drank this brand of chicory coffee – given the dates, I would imagine I saw her dipping into the second tin from the left.
I read that the French got a taste for chicory coffee during the Napoleonic wars. “Perfidious Albion” (i.e., the British) used its navy to blockade France so that coffee couldn’t get through. In desperation, the French turned to chicory to satisfy their craving for coffee. They got rather fond of it and continued drinking it after Waterloo.
Well, all very interesting, but let me finish where I started, with a very pretty flower with great determination to grow in the most hostile of environments.
And with that, let me get ready for our next walk and probable meeting with the common chicory.
Well, it’s taken me quite a while to get around to this post. We completed our hike in the Dolomites three weeks ago, but it’s only now that I’ve managed to put all our photos in order – there were three sets of photos to arrange, my wife’s, my daughter’s, and my own. But the work of electronic filing and folderizing is over and I can finally write this post.
My last post had us in Bolzano, visiting Ötzi the Iceman. From there, we took the bus over to the next valley, the Val di Fassa. Just to give readers an idea of this valley, here is one of those bird’s-eye-view maps that clever cartographers come up with. And here is the same map with a rather wonky red line put in by me showing our itinerary. We hiked for six days, staying for the most part in mountain huts. We had the pleasure of being joined by our daughter and her partner for three of those days.
The itinerary didn’t quite turn out as planned. The area had got hit by a terrible storm in October of last year, which brought down thousands of trees and blocked a good number of the paths. The authorities’ plan had been to start clean-up in May, but the valley suffered from unusually heavy late-season snowfalls that month, which meant that when we arrived not only many of the paths blocked by trees hadn’t been cleared but other paths were now blocked because of snow. The result was that we didn’t walk quite as long at high altitude as had originally been planned. But it was wonderful nevertheless.
I’ve done writing. I shall let our photos speak for themselves.
At the Passo di Carezza, we took refuge from the rain in a hotel’s restaurant, and drank a cup of tea while waiting for the bus to take us down to the Val di Fassa. The next day, we took the bus back to Bolzano, and from there made our way back to Milan.
We’ll be back in the Dolomites. It’s just too beautiful to pass up. We are still discussing where in the Dolomites to go next. Readers will have to wait with bated breath until next year’s post on the topic to know what we decided.
My wife and I were in Bolzano two weeks ago. For readers who are not familiar with Italy’s geography, that’s the main city of the Autonomous Province of Bolzano. This is a mainly German-speaking region of Italy in the Alps, wedged up against Austria.
Italians call it Alto Adige but many of its inhabitants call it South Tyrol, it having been part of the County of Tyrol since time immemorial; it was only prised away from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and given to Italy after the former collapsed at the end of the First World War. Over the last hundred years this fateful decision has led to much agitation, repression by the Italian State, and consequent acts of terrorism, although all the brouhaha has pretty much died down by now.
Fascinating as it is, the region’s history was not what brought us to Bolzano. It was Ötzi, the Stone Age mummy discovered in a glacier high up in the Ötzal Alps (hence the mummy’s nickname) nearly thirty years ago. Ever since a museum dedicated to him opened in Bolzano in 1998, I have been hankering to visit it. Our planned hiking trip to the valley next door (which will be the subject of my next post) gave me my chance to drop by Bolzano to look over Ötzi, and my wife – although not an Ötzi fan like me – was willing to come along.
Some words of introduction. Ötzi was discovered in September 1991 by a German couple who were hiking up in the Ötzal Alps. They were crossing the Tisenjoch Pass (Giogo di Tisa in Italian), where a small glacier is located. Climate change and a particularly hot summer had led to much shrinkage in the glacier and the couple spotted a body poking out through the ice.
They reported the matter to the owners of a mountain hut close by, who in turn reported it to the authorities – the initial assumption was that it must be the body of someone who had perished on a climb or hike. The man – as he turned out to be – died very close to the Italian-Austrian border. Initially, it was thought that the body’s location was in Austria and he was therefore taken down to Innsbruck (capital of the Austrian province of [northern] Tyrol) for examination. Later, after some careful measurements were made, it was concluded that he had actually been found within Italy, some 95 metres south of the border.
Under normal circumstances, if it had just been some poor bastard who had died on a hike or climb, this problem of which country he had actually been recovered in would not have been such a big deal. But it rapidly became apparent that the mummy was actually very, very old; it has since been calculated that Ötzi is some 5,000 years old. At that point, everyone began to see the dollar (or euro) signs
and the question about which country “owned” the mummy became vitally important. Luckily for the rest of the world, the issue was resolved by people who were actually “cousins”, whatever modern borders might say. The Governors of (Italian) Alto Adige/South Tyrol and (Austrian) Tyrol sat down around a table and (in German) hammered out an agreement. The scientists at Innsbruck (who were much better equipped anyway to study such an ancient mummy) would take the lead on all the scientific studies while the authorities in Bolzano would prepare the museum to house it. And so it was. In 1998, Ötzi was solemnly brought back from Innsbruck to his new home in Bolzano.
While all this had been going on, and in fact ever since Ötzi has been back in Bolzano, scientists from a multitude of disciplines have been busily at work on Ötzi as well as on all the things he was wearing or carrying. I have to say, these scientists seem to have squeezed poor old Ötzi and the tattered remnants of his clothes and equipment like a lemon; squeezed him so hard that his pips have squeaked as they say. But they have come up with an astonishing amount of information. Let me start, though, with a scientific work of art: a statue of what scientists believe Ötzi looked like, which now stands at the very end of the museum tour.
This work is scientific in that it has used the latest technology to measure Ötzi very precisely, to rebuild his bones, to cover those bones with muscles and skin, and then cover those with reconstitutions of his leggings and his shoes; it is artistic in that its creators have made Ötzi look incredibly human. They have given him an expression of someone you might just have met on the street and who is not completely sure who you are.
A few words about what we would have noticed about Ötzi if we had met him 5,000 years ago just before he died. He was about 160 cm (5 ft 3 in) tall (small by today’s standards, perhaps big by the standards of the day). His shoe size would have been an EU 38 (I will let readers translate that into whatever shoe size system they are familiar with; they can use this site, for instance, to do this). He weighed about 50 kilos (110 lbs), nicely within his BMI. He had brown eyes. He had dark hair. He was gap-toothed. His teeth in general were not in particularly good condition, badly worn down and with cavities (probably due to a diet based on heavily processed grains). As to his age when he died: about 45 – young by today’s standards, old by the standards of his time; the makers of the statue have made him look weatherbeaten, which he probably was. And he was tattooed; in all, he carried 61 tattoos on his body! This photo of the rear of the statue shows where he had some of them on his back.
As readers can see, they are not really decorative tattoos. From where they are found on Ötzi’s body, scientists believe that they probably had a therapeutic function; they were a way for Ötzi to deal with the aches and pains in his joints, an early form of acupuncture, especially since the tattoos are located along acupuncture lines still used today. For instance, scientists can see that his knee joints were well worn; I’m sure his knees ached as a result (something I can deeply sympathize with given the current state of my knees). So he had a good number of tattoos around his knees; I generally disapprove of tattoos but maybe I should try these kinds of tattoos around my knees …
From their high-tech prodding and probing, scientists have also discovered a number of things about Ötzi which you can’t see. The poor man had been sick several times in the last six months of his life; scientists can tell this from the Beau’s lines on his three remaining nails which they found (any readers who are doctors will no doubt understand this; it’s gibberish to me). He had worms – whipworms to be precise. This would have given him frequent bouts of painful diarrhea. He also had Lyme disease, while his clothes carried fleas. He had broken several ribs and his nose some time during his lifetime. His blood group was O positive. He was lactose intolerant. By rights, we should all be; it’s the “natural” default position for us humans in adulthood. But in Europe our herding culture and its dependence on milk products led to some of us eventually becoming lactose tolerant through a genetic mutation. Talking of mutations, Ötzi carried a rare genetic trait which meant that he was missing two ribs. His DNA links him to small populations of people living in remote parts of Sardinia and Corsica: testimony to his being part of the earlier populations of Europe which were later pushed aside by later immigrants.
It’s not just the man who has been thoroughly investigated, it’s also his clothes and equipment. What mainly transpires for me was that in today’s language, Ötzi was a completely sustainable guy. He relied heavily on animal hides for all his needs; scientists have identified bear skin, deer skin, goat skin. These were used not only for his clothes but also parts of his equipment (fascinating factoid: at least one of the hides which he used was tanned with bear brains and fat; better than the human carcinogen Chromium VI which is almost universally used nowadays). Animal sinews were used to sew the pieces of hide together (I’m no expert on sewing, but for those who are interested there are sites, e.g., this one, which explain the kind of sewing that was used). Grasses of various kinds were used to both make twine and as a thermal stuffing. Here is a close-up of the reconstituted leggings and shoes on the statue of Ötzi
while this photo shows the coat he was wearing – scientists think that the dark-pale-dark look was not serendipitous; it was a statement of some sort.
I’ll skip the weapons Ötzi was carrying except for one – his axe – which I will come back to in a minute. I find more fascinating the stuff he was carrying to make himself a fire: a fungus called tinder fungus. I’ve diligently read explanations of how to light a fire with a flint and some tinder fungus. It sounds easy, but I very much doubt it is. Unfortunately, making fires without matches is something they never taught me to do in the Scouts, and I am always fascinated by the apparent magic of people making fire from nothing. In such situations, I always think of Tom Hanks in the film Cast Away when he managed to start his first fire without matches: I can empathize with his sense of triumph at having cracked this problem.
And so we come to the great mystery of Ötzi’s death, the first murder that we know of. For it was murder: scientists discovered that an arrow had penetrated Ötzi just below his left shoulder. Someone shot him from behind. The arrowhead sliced through his subclavian artery, so medics have concluded that he would have bled out quite quickly. We can surmise that he dropped face down on his left arm (which was the position the mummy was found in) and died. From the depth of penetration, scientists estimate that the arrow was shot from 30 m (or 100 ft) away. That sounds to me like a pretty lucky shot. But then I’ve never tried killing anyone with a bow and arrow; maybe 30 m is no big deal for someone who is adept at using a bow and arrow. The fatal arrowhead is still in the mummy, but there was no sign of the arrow shaft, from which the scientists conclude that Ötzi’s killer pulled it out.
And now to the big question: Why? Why was Ötzi killed? Towards the end of the museum tour, visitors are invited to write down and submit their own theory about the reasons surrounding Ötzi’s death. My wife and I have been watching a lot of episodes from the British TV show Inspector Morse recently, whom we see here with his faithful sidekick Sergeant Lewis.
So I decided that this was an excellent opportunity to Think like Morse. Having sieved through the available facts, I have come up with the following story line:
A day or so before his death, Ötzi was involved in a vicious fracas with someone. We know this because scientists discovered a very deep cut between his thumb and forefinger as well as other cuts on his hands. These are typical of someone trying to protect themselves during a close-in fight involving weapons with a cutting edge, a knife attack for instance. I surmise that he successfully defended himself and in the process killed his assailant.
What was this deadly fracas about? “Cherchez la femme”, that’s what I say! As I already mentioned, Ötzi’s knee joints were well worn, indicating a lifestyle that required a lot of walking. This has led some scientists to suggest that he was a shepherd and so spent much of his time moving his flocks around the area’s Alpine pastures. I’m not convinced. The reason for that is his axe. The axe has a copper head; at the time of his death, this would have been a very rare, and therefore very valuable, item: until it was found it was thought that the Age of Metals had not yet started in Italy. So I conclude that he must have been a VIP of some sort. That in itself is not important to his murder, I believe. What is important is that his position required a lot of time away from home walking the mountains. My guess is that he returned home unexpectedly to find his wife canoodling with another man – or maybe his daughter. He got into a fight with the man and killed him. In the language of our time, it was an honour killing.
What next? There has been speculation that Ötzi was escaping when he was killed. That certainly could fit my story; it is not unusual in cases of honour killing for the murderer to quickly go into hiding until passions have subsided. But Ötzi doesn’t seem to have been in a hurry on his last journey. Scientists can tell that Ötzi’s deep cut to his hand occurred a day or so before his death, so he clearly hung around for a while before leaving. They also have figured out that he had quite a heavy meal about an hour before he died: not the behaviour one would expect from a man on the run. So I surmise that after putting his house in order Ötzi headed out again calmly, without a sense that his life was in danger. How wrong he was!
In my scenario, the family of the man he killed vowed revenge. I also posit that they didn’t live in the same village as Ötzi, so it took a while for the news to reach them, which explains why there wasn’t an immediate reaction. I also think that they couldn’t be too open about wanting revenge because of Ötzi’s VIP position. So they hurried over in secret, discovered that he had already left, and hurried after him. They caught up with him at the Pass. Maybe he saw them coming, realized what was happening, and started running, which would explain the decision to take a long bow shot before he disappeared over the horizon. After checking he was dead and pulling out the arrow shaft from where it was buried below his left shoulder, Ötzi’s killers then hurried back to their village, leaving him where he fell. If Ötzi was always traveling, it could have been a while before his family realized something was wrong, by which time early summer snows had already covered the body and hidden it from view – and started the long, slow process of mummification (by the way, scientists know it was early summer when he died because of the types of pollen that he swallowed with his last meal: such clever fellows, these scientists …).
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen, my theory on Ötzi’s untimely death! If you are not convinced, I suggest you find time one day to visit his museum in Bolzano to come up with your own theories. Or you can just read the wealth of stuff on the net about it all – Ötzi has created a veritable cottage industry around his life and death.
Whatever you do, though, spare a thought for poor old Ötzi, who is now hardly visible anymore in his own museum, lying as he is in a specially-created cold cell recreating the conditions he lay in for 5,000 years in the Tisenjoch Glacier, visible only through a small window.
During the month of March, my wife and I went to Bologna for a short visit (I should have written up this post quite a while back; but hey, as they say, better late than never). It’s a nice little town, somewhat off the tourists’ beaten track, which makes it all the nicer. It had been decades since either of us had been back – my wife studied there for a year in the late 1970s, and I had visited her one Christmas before we went off for a little jaunt to Puglia. So it was nice to visit a few old haunts, although in truth her memories of the town were somewhat hazy and mine were almost non-existent.
But actually, what I had really been looking forward to visit was a Lamentation over the Dead Christ, by Niccolò dell’Arca from 1463, which is located in the Church of Santa Maria della Vita (tucked away behind Piazza del Nettuno). I had come across it a decade or so ago when I was methodically leafing through the 1,000 pages of the book 30,000 Years of Art: the story of human creativity across time and space.
This very – very – thick book purports to summarize the best art that we humans have created ever since we started making things: the first entry in the book is from c. 28000 BC, the last is from the mid-1990s. Its entry for the year 1463 is Niccolò dell’Arca’s Lamentation (on page 685, if anyone is interested). When I saw it, I said to myself, “One day, I must go to Bologna to see this!”
The Lamentation in question is not a painting. Rather, it is a collection of terracotta statues making up a sort of “tableau vivant” of the scene of sorrow around Jesus’s dead body, after he has been taken down from the cross and before he has been deposed in his tomb. It seems that Lamentations of this kind were quite common, at least in Italy (and not just in terracotta; I recently saw the remains of two other Lamentations made of wood, in the Pinacoteca of Milan’s castle). The statues represent a set of stock characters: Jesus, of course, lying on the ground after being taken down from the cross; Mary, the mother of Jesus (whom I shall henceforth refer to as the Madonna, to avoid confusion with the three other Marys); St. John the Evangelist; the three other Marys – Mary Magdalene, Mary of Cleophas, Mary Salome; Joseph of Arimathea; and Nicodemus. Here is a typical example of the form, which we also saw in Bologna, in the cathedral, made by the artist Alfonso Lombardi between 1522 and 1526.
Very nice, very dignified, very composed.
But now consider the Lamentation which I wanted to see.
Talk about lamentation! Look at the faces of the women!
Mary, mother of Jesus, first of all
Next to her, Mary Salome, gripping her thighs frenetically in her anguish
At the feet of Jesus, Mary of Cleophas, trying to shield herself from the awful truth
Finally, next to her, Mary Magdalene, shrieking out her horror at what she sees.
The weeping, the wailing – the shrieking – going on in that circle of people is all heightened by Mary Magdalene’s clothes streaming behind her in a most dramatic fashion.
The explanation given in the church is that she was running to the scene and the artist caught her – as if in a cinematic still – at the moment when she burst into the circle around the body and saw with horror that Jesus was dead.
In contrast, the two men in the group are quite subdued. St. John’s expression can only be described as that of someone who is feeling somewhat miserable
while Joseph of Arimathea simply looks phlegmatic.
(for those of my readers who might be asking themselves this, Nicodemus was either not part of this particular group or he disappeared in the intervening 400 years)
This male-female contrast in emotions brings to mind an exchange we as a family had on WhatsApp about Theresa May’s resignation speech in late May. Our son commented that it was somewhat embarrassing to see her cry, at which our daughter leaped to her defence. I quote: “I thought her speech was pretty good. She got emotional when talking about the honour of the job and the fact that she was the second ever female UK prime minister (and not the last) – I think it’s fair to get emotional at that stage! We need to stop vilifying emotional releases such as tears. Women are physiologically more prone to crying – our tear ducts open more easily. If we see tears as a sign of weakness we are inherently disadvantaging women. Anyway, the premise that being “strong” means being unemotional I also think should be changed. We don’t need to go to the opposite extreme but her release was very appropriate.”
Well, Nicolò dell’Arca certainly seemed to think that grown men don’t cry, but that women do, and copiously!
It struck me that I could use the various Lamentations paintings created over the centuries to explore how painters felt about this gender difference in the showing of emotions, or simply about the showing of emotions at all. I should add a warning here that my personal take on this is that in real life the scene at the centre of the Lamentations would have been highly emotional: your son, or your leader, who has had you believing that he is heralding the arrival of the end of time and the start of the reign of Yahweh, has instead been shamefully put to death by the colonial authorities and now lies before you, dead. All your hopes, all your beliefs, smashed to smithereens. If I had been there I would have been a total puddle, even if I am a man. But let’s see what painters thought.
We can start this exploration some two centuries before dell’Arca’s composition, with Giotto’s Lamentation of 1303, which is to be found in the Scrovegni chapel in Padova (and on page 615 of the Very, Very Thick Book).
Here, everyone who is gathered around the dead Jesus is crying – not wailing as the women are in dell’Arco’s composition, but definitely crying. Even St. John – the person standing over the women huddled around Jesus – is crying. In fact, I would say that St. John is in transports of sorrow, more so than the women. Even the angels are in anguish. It is true that the two fellows to the right – believed to be Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus – are quite composed, but one could argue that they were not close companions of Jesus and so not as committed to the cause that he represented. It could also show that Giotto thought it was OK for young men like St. John to show their emotions, but that older men should keep their upper lip well stiffened.
Jumping forward to 1440-42, we have a Lamentation by the Dominican monk Fra’ Angelico, in the Monastery of San Marco in Florence.
Here, no crying, just a gentle preparation of the body for the tomb behind, by the women and St. John (who has his back to us) (the fellow in the background is St. Dominic, seeing all this in a trance). A typical work of Fra’ Angelico, I would say, as gentle as the man himself. Maybe strong emotions frightened him. Maybe he preferred to choose a moment slightly after the tears and the wailing, when practical considerations kicked in: the dead body needed to be prepared for the grave.
We can go forward another fifty years, to Mantegna’s Lamentation of 1489, hanging on the walls of Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera just up the road from where I write this (and which can be viewed on page 707 of the VVThB, by the way).
Looking at the painting, readers can see that next to Jesus there are three people – the Madonna, St. John next to her, and a third person you can just make out over the Madonna’s shoulder. They are all crying copiously. It seems that Mantegna, rather like Giotto, believed in everyone showing their emotions.
On the other hand, in Botticelli’s Lamentation of almost the same period (1490-92), now in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, the artist only has the women lamenting (although in a very stylized way, it seems to me; shades of things to come). St. John simply looks grim. So Boticcelli appears to be with dell’Arco on this one: women show emotions, men don’t.
The painting also has that stock situation, common in later times, and which I must confess to find most irritating, of the Madonna fainting from the emotion of it all. This really is the male assumption about the weakness and frailty of women: when the going gets tough, women faint. The other men, saints of various kinds, are simply there to witness the scene, like St. Dominic in Fra’ Angelico’s version, so do not show much emotion (I do think, though, that Botticelli had some cheek in including St. Peter – the fellow to the right, clutching a big key – since according to the Gospels while Jesus was being taken down from the cross and being buried he and the other – male – disciples were all cowering in a room somewhere, in fear of imminent arrest).
This next Lamentation is by Bellini, executed at the same time as Botticelli’s (1485-95). It is one of many Lamentations which he painted. This particular one is in the Uffizi in Florence. Here, everyone is even more composed: the Madonna, Mary Magdalene, and St. John seem to be sniffling a little while everyone else is looking calmly noble. Bellini does not believe in showing emotions, it would seem (although in fairness to him, some of his other Lamentations seem somewhat more emotionally charged).
On the other hand, in this Lamentation by the Venetian painter Carlo Crivelli, from exactly the same period (1485) (and now in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts), both the Madonna and St. John are in absolute agony, with the latter literally howling (it is true to say, though, that Mary Magdalene is more contained).
It would seem that Crivelli was a believer in showing strong emotions, like dell’Arca, and was quite happy with men showing such emotions.
But now look at this Lamentation by Perugino, again from the same period, 1495 (and now in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence).
I mean, everyone, man and woman, looks ridiculously calm and noble! (there is one half-hearted attempt at gesticulation, by the lady in red at the back, but it’s very unconvincing). Perugino must have thought that emotions weren’t necessary to the scene.
From 50 years later, 1547, we have this Lamentation by Paolo Veronese (it seems that every artist worth his salt had a go at this theme), now in the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona.
Again, everyone looks calm and dignified. The Madonna looks a trifle pale, but that’s about it. No emotions please!
A decade on, 1560 or thereabouts, Tintoretto painted this Removal from the Cross bleeding into a Lamentation, now in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice.
This is best described as baroque, although it’s a bit early for that. We have a fainting Madonna, dramatic gesticulation, contorted clothing – but not a single tear. Drama is required, but not emotions.
The same message comes through 45 years later in Caravaggio’s Deposition of 1603-1604 (which also contains some Lamentation in it), now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana.
The drama here comes from the play of light and dark and the angle from which it was painted. But the women seem quite composed in their sorrow; the gesticulation of the girl at the back feels contrived.
If real emotions seem to have drained away from the Lamentations painted in Italy, to be replaced first by Olympian calm and then by drama, there never seems to have been any real emotions at all in the Lamentations painted north of the Alps. The genre crossed the Alps at about the time that Giotto painted his Lamentation in Padova and became very popular. I have not been able to find any tears, or even much emotion, in these Northern European versions of the genre. For instance, this Lamentation from 1455-60, by the Early Netherlandish painter Petrus Christus (and now in Brussel’s Royal Museum of Fine Art) has the Madonna in a tasteful swoon, a lady to the right possibly wiping away a tear, and a woman to the left meekly wringing her hands. But everyone else is quietly going about their business.
This Lamentation by the Burgundian Early Netherlandish painter Simon Marmion is from a little later, about 1476 (and now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum).
Not a shred of emotion here. No drama, either. “Oh dear, he’s dead” is all I get from it.
Dürer, a few decades later (c. 1500), managed to include one person in his Lamentation who is gesticulating, although in a quite contained manner (you almost feel that Dürer included her because it was the done thing to do). The other women just look a little sad, while all the men are simply standing around. (This is another painting in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek)
This next Lamentation, in London’s National Gallery, is by Gerard David, another Early Netherlandish painter, and is from a few decades later still, 1515-1523.
It looks a polished work, but I still see very little emotion. A certain quiet sadness is all I get from the painting, from everyone involved.
I could add more paintings – like I say, every painter worth his salt seems to have had a crack at this one – but I think we get the gist. If there is any trend in later paintings, it’s towards the dramatic – exaggerated gestures, contorted clothing – but with only the women showing – theatrical – emotion; the men simply look stolid.
So what conclusions can we draw? – because we have to draw some conclusion. I have to say that I agree with my daughter on this one. Perhaps it is physiologically easier for women to cry than men, but I also think that European culture (and possibly all cultures) have evolved and now strongly suggest that men should have stiff upper lips while it’s OK for women’s (and children’s, male and female) upper lips to tremble. I also think that it is expected for our leaders not to cry – stern anger, for instance against the enemy is OK, but no tears. Tears imply weakness, and our leaders must not be weak. Which is why the Renaissance painters stopped showing these ordinary people around Jesus, which Christianity had turned into leaders, crying – and why our son felt a certain embarrassment at seeing May crack up at her podium in front of No. 10. But I think we men should stop trying to look strong and weep and wail when we feel the need to, especially when we have lost someone very near and dear to us.
Oh, and do go to Bologna to see dell’Arco’s Lamentation. it’s really worth the visit – and Bologna is a nice place, with very good food.
My wife and I were recently walking to the library of the Italian Alpine Club, with the idea of looking at some guide books on a walk in the Dolomites which we will be doing in a few weeks (and on which I hope to write a post or two). The walk took us through a part of Milan with which I’m not familiar, and so it was that I found myself walking for the first time through a little square. In the middle of it was this very intriguing statue.
As readers can see, it consists of a man emerging from a stone plinth, naked but for some sort of cap with ear flaps on his head, holding a lit torch in one hand, and wearing a heroic expression. The name carved into the base of the plinth was Francesco Baracca. I asked my wife who it was. She wasn’t sure – a First World War general, she hazarded? But I wasn’t convinced. The cap looked too much like those leather caps worn by the early aviators. I mean, who doesn’t remember Snoopy on his way to fight the Red Baron?
In my memory, there were also pictures of Biggles from the boys’ books of my youth.
No-one who is not British and not my age or older will know who this Biggles is. He was a fictional World War I fighter pilot about whom a series of exciting books were written. He was a very heroic figure and a Jolly Good Chap.
A bit more seriously, here is a photo of Charles Lindbergh, the first person to manage a solo crossing of the Atlantic non-stop, which he did in 1927.
Well, it turned out I was right. Francesco Baracca had indeed been an aviator. And not just any old aviator! He was Italy’s Ace of Aces during the First World War, racking up 34 recognized victories, the highest score for any Italian fighter pilot. Here we have him sitting in his plane with his flying cap on (and, contrary to his statue, with his clothes on; very sensible, it’s cold up there), ready to go and let the enemy have it.
While here we have him posing in front of one of the enemy planes he had downed.
Of course the government squeezed all the propaganda benefits they could out of his exploits. Anything heroic that could take the public’s mind off the bloody and ineffectual meat grinder of trench warfare was to be welcomed. And anyway, there was something terribly dashing about these aerial duels; it was the modern equivalent of Medieval knights jousting. As a result, he was lionized by the Italian public, who followed his every victory with enthusiasm.
It wasn’t just Italians who were enthused by the new forms of warfare in the air. On all sides of the war, the exploits of these new heroes of the air were followed avidly. But perhaps the Italians had a particular penchant for the exploits of aerial warfare. After all, it was in Italy that the Futurismo art movement was born, which had a total commitment to modern technology. To make the point, here are some key excerpts from two of the Futurist Manifestos that were published in 1910.
This is from the Futurist Painters Manifesto:
We want to fight with all our might the fanatical, senseless and snobbish worship of the past … We rebel against that spineless worshipping of old canvases, old statues and old bric-a-brac, against everything which is filthy and worm-ridden and corroded by time … Comrades! We declare to you that the triumphant progress of science has brought about such profound changes in humanity as to excavate an abyss between those docile slaves of past tradition and us, free, and confident in the radiant splendour of the future. … In the eyes of other countries, Italy is still a land of the dead, a vast Pompeii, whitened with sepulchres. But Italy is being reborn … In this land of illiterates, schools are multiplying; in this land of “dolce far niente” innumerable workshops now roar; in this land of traditional aesthetics are today taking flight inspirations dazzling in their novelty. Only art which draws its elements from the world around it is alive. Just as our forebears drew their artistic inspiration from a religious atmosphere which fed their souls, so must we inspire ourselves from the tangible miracles of contemporary life: the iron network of speedy communications which envelops the earth, the transatlantic liners, the dreadnoughts, those marvelous flights which furrow our skies, the profound courage of our submarine navigators and the spasmodic struggle to conquer the unknown.
And this is from the Futurism Manifesto penned by the poet Marinetti, the “Father of Futurism”, who laid out a decalogue of futurist thought.
1. We want to sing of a love of danger, and the practice of energy and rashness.
3. Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and slumber. We want to exalt aggressive movement, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the punch.
4. We affirm that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car, its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car, which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
9. We want to glorify war – the only cleanser of the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of liberals, beautiful ideas for which one dies, and contempt for women.
10. We want to destroy the museums and libraries, the academies of every type, and combat moralism, feminism, and against every opportunistic and utilitarian vileness.
11. We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; we will sing of the multi-colored and polyphonic tide of revolutions in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nocturnal fervour of the arsenals and construction sites, enflamed by violent electric moons; the ravenous railway stations, devourers of smoking serpents; the workshops suspended from the clouds by the twisted threads of their smoke; the bridges which, like giant gymnasts, leap across rivers, flashing in the sun with the glitter of knives; the adventurous steamers sniffing at the horizon, and the great-breasted locomotives, pawing at the rails like enormous steel horses harnessed with pipes, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propellers flutter in the wind like a flag and seem to applaud like an enthusiastic crowd.
Pretty incendiary stuff …
Right from the start, Futurist paintings reflected this adoration of speed and power, although initially the focus was on terrestrial technology. For instance, from 1912-1913, we have Luigi Russolo’s Dynamism of an Automobile.
From 1922, we have Ivo Pannaggi’s Moving Train.
(which rather reminds me of the opening credits of the Poirot TV series)
From 1923, we have Ugo Giannattasio’s Motorcyclists
It was only in the 1930s that Futurist painter’s started painting airplanes. For instance, from 1930 we have Tato’s Flying Over the Colosseum in Spirals.
Perhaps it took a while for the painters to get into a cockpit and experience the sensation of flying.
Coming back to Baracca, he was eventually shot down, in June 1918. For propaganda purposes, the Italian government put it out that he had been hit by ground fire (to perpetuate the myth that no other aviator could shoot him down), although the Austrians claimed with good evidence that he was taken out by one of their planes. However it happened, his body was recovered and he was given a hero’s funeral. He was finally laid to rest in his home town of Lugo in Emilia-Romagna. Several decades later, the Fascists erected a large statue of him in the main square (this time with his clothes on)
while his co-citizens opened a museum about him – might as well make some money off the town’s most famous son …
This story has a fascinating coda, which was really why I wrote this post. To explain it properly, I have to go back a bit and give readers a thumbnail biography of Baracca. He was, as I said, a citizen of Lugo, a small town located close to Ravenna. His parents were well-off and to some degree aristocratic – his mother was a countess. After his schooling, he chose to join the army. After studying at a military academy, in 1909 he was assigned a regiment. Given his social status, this was a cavalry regiment, the 2nd “Royal Piedmont”, a regiment created in 1692 by Duke Vittorio Amedeo II of Savoy. Because of its importance to my story, I insert here the regiment’s traditional banner: a silver prancing horse on a red field.
In 1912, after watching an aerial exhibition in Rome, Baracca became wildly enthusiastic about the future of military aviation. He asked to join the newly-created aviation arm of the army, a request that was granted. He went for training in France and by the time Italy joined the War in 1915, he was trained and ready to go.
As his number of victories climbed, the High Command fawned over him. In 1917, he was given his own squadron, the 91st, and allowed to choose his own pilots. He took all the other Italian aces, so the squadron became known as “the squadron of the aces”. On the right side of his plane’s fuselage, he placed the squadron’s insignia, a rampant griffin. On the left side, he placed his personal insignia. For this, in recognition of his earlier affiliation with the 2nd cavalry regiment, he chose its prancing horse. He changed the colour scheme, though, making the horse black on a silver background. Here we see him standing in front of his plane on which we see plainly his personal insignia.
The insignia was an instant hit with the public, especially when the pilots of his squadron all adopted it in his honour after his death.
Fast forward a few years after the war, 1923 to be exact. I now introduce another character to this story, that of Enzo Ferrari, the fabled creator of the Ferrari racing team and car manufacturer. In 1923, he was just a driver for Alfa Romeo, racing their cars on various circuits. Racing was very popular in Italy, and the successful drivers were stars, rather like Baracca had been – and they wore the same leather caps as aviators.
In any event, in that year Ferrari won a race near Ravenna. On the race’s edges, he met Baracca’s father. This led to a second meeting, this time with Baracca’s mother. He must have told them how much he had admired their son. And maybe they saw the racing of cars as an honourable descendant of what their son had been doing with planes. Whatever the reason, Baracca’s mother uttered these fateful words: “Ferrari, put my son’s horse on your cars. It will bring you good luck.” And that is exactly what Ferrari did seven years later in 1930, when he created his own racing team. From then on, his cars sported Baracca’s prancing horse. The only changes he brought were to make the field behind the horse canary yellow, to honour his home town, Modena, whose coat of arms has the same yellow field, and to raise the horse’s tail.
And that is why, dear readers, Ferrari cars to this day sport a shield with a black prancing horse on a yellow field.
I suspect that many of my readers will have no idea of what I’m talking about, especially if they hail from the northern latitudes. I certainly didn’t until I first came to Italy a lifetime ago. Loquats were one of a long list of new food items my wife introduced me to. Except that she didn’t call them loquats, she called them by their Italian name, nespole, and it took me at least thirty years and the internet to figure out their English name.
Loquats are a fruit. They look like this when unopened.
They’re a bit fussy to prepare. You have to first peel off their thin skin, which tends to break and tear easily, complicating removal. Once you’ve done that, you slice them open, only to find three or four large stones inside.
The stones are quite beautiful really – warm brown, smooth, glistening – but they take up a lot of the internal space, which of course means less flesh to eat. In any case, once you flip the stones out the fruit is ready to eat. Ah, my friends, such taste! Sweet, but with a slightly tart, acidic note, a very juicy but firm flesh. To die for …
When we lived in Italy, I always looked forward to the month of May as loquat season. Then we went away for some twenty years and loquats remained but a dream. Even in retirement, when we spend a good amount of time here, we tend to leave before loquats come on the market – we have been in the habit of migrating up to Vienna by mid-May. As luck would have it, though, this year we’ve stayed longer than usual, so I’ve had the joy of once again eating loquats.
The fruit’s English name gives us a clue as to where the loquat hails from. “Loquat” is the English rendering of the Cantonese name for the fruit, lou4gwat1 (I believe those numbers are indications of the tones – good luck with that; in my five years in China, I never managed to “hear” a single tone). The fruit’s ancestral homeland is indeed southern China – more strictly the middle and lower valley of the Daduhe River. I throw in a satellite map from Google Maps, where the red pin is stuck in the river’s valley.
Readers will see that Daduhe River is in the far south-west of China, in Yunnan province. It lies north of Xishuangbanna, which sits on the Mekong River (and which we had the pleasure to visit when we lived in China), and to the south of Pu’er, the location of a rather particular Chinese tea (which I must confess to not liking very much). It doesn’t surprise me that the loquat originates from this part of the world. Yunnan is a globally famous “hot spot” of biodiversity, hosting thousands of different species.
This Chinese connection delighted me when I found it out since over the years I have written a number of posts about various plants which have been carried out of China and spread to the rest of the world. To date, I have written about the Ginkgo tree, Kaki fruit, the Magnolia, the Peking Willow, Wisteria, the Pauwlonia tree, and Osmanthus. As always, Chinese poets and artists celebrated the fruit. We have here a painting from the mid to late Ming dynasty.
While here is one from the late Qing dynasty.
The fruit’s English name may be Cantonese but it was not through the port of Canton that it was first transferred to Europe. Like a number of other Chinese plants that reached Europe (from just among the ones I’ve written posts about: the ginkgo tree, kaki fruit, and the magnolia), the transfer occurred via Japan. It seems that the Portuguese, the first Europeans to reach Japan, were also the first to bring the loquat back to Europe. By the time they first set eyes on the fruit and its tree, probably very soon after they arrived in Japan in 1543, it had been growing there for 500 years or so. In all likelihood, it was brought to Japan by Buddhist monks, either Chinese monks going to proselytize in Japan or by Japanese monks returning home after a period of study in China.
The modern varieties of loquats owe a lot to the patient work by Japanese farmers to develop fruits that were bigger, juicier and sweeter than their wild ancestors. I salute all those anonymous Japanese farmers for their efforts! I throw in here a woodblock by Katsushiga Hokusai of Japanese farmers at work on their more traditional crop, rice.
Of course, like the Chinese, the Japanese celebrated the loquat in their art. Here is a woodblock by Utagawa Hiroshige (whom I’ve had cause to discuss at length in a previous post) with the same subject of bird and loquats as the Ming-era Chinese painting above.
In any event, some time in the late 16th, early 17th Century, a Portuguese ship like this one carried the loquat back to Europe.
The Portuguese didn’t call this new fruit “loquat”, nor did they even call it by some Lusitanian derivation of its Japanese name “biwa”. Instead, like a good number of other countries in Europe, they thought they had to do with a Japanese cousin of an already well-known fruit in Europe, the medlar, whose Portuguese name is nêspera (closely related to its Spanish name, níspero, and more distantly related to its Italian name, nespola – for those interested in linguistics, in all three languages the word derives from the Latin name for the medlar, mespilus, although at some point the “m” drifted to an “n” and the “l” further drifted into an “r” in the Iberian peninsula). The medlar was once quite a well-known fruit in Europe although it has since fallen into obscurity. I certainly had no idea what it looked like when I started this post, and I suspect this to be the case for many of my readers, so I throw in here a photo of this antique fruit.
Comparing this photo to my first photo of the loquat, I think readers will understand why this confusion arose. By the early 1800s, botanists had understood that it was actually a different plant but by then the damage was done and the Chinese upstart had linguistically dethroned the venerable medlar in about half the European languages.
Loquats have an interesting life-cycle. Like the strawberry tree, which I wrote an earlier post about, the flowers appear in the late autumn or early winter. It seems that the flowers have a sweet, heady aroma that can be smelled at quite a distance; personally, I have never experienced this even though the loquat tree grows in Liguria (from where I am writing this post). The sweet-smelling flowers were also a reason why the tree was a favourite among Chinese and Japanese poets.
But from a botanical point of view, what is more interesting is that to obtain fruits from these flowers you have to grow the trees in a region where pollinating insects are around at that late time of the year. That is why I never saw the fruit in either the UK or France when I was growing up and had to wait till I came to Italy, where the tree can fruit in the south and along the Ligurian coast, for me to discover it. An advantage of this life-cycle is that the fruit ripens at any time from spring to early summer. It is the first fresh fruit to be available naturally in Italy (i.e., not ripened artificially in some greenhouse somewhere, nor flown in from some remote part of the world), and so can have the monopoly of the fresh-fruit market before the cherries and other fruits appear. Which is why for me the month of May is loquat time.
And now it’s time for me to gorge myself on some more loquats!
That was the thought which crossed my mind when in our last AirBnB my wife and I were going through the kitchen cupboards to see what had been left behind by previous occupants. I looked at the bottle glumly. I like having my vegetables in salad, and my sauce of choice is a simple vinaigrette: olive oil, vinegar, salt. I dislike having to use balsamic vinegar. I don’t care for the sweet taste it imparts. Salads, in my humble opinion, require astringency, not sweetness. I hasten to add that I am not against the mixing of sweet and salt per se on my plate, as this previous post attests to. I’m just against sweet sauces on salads. So, as I say, I stared at the bottle glumly. It looked like I was going to have to use balsamic vinegar on my salads during our stay; who wants to buy a whole bottle of vinegar for a short AirBnB stay? Luckily, our daughter, whom we were visiting, came to the rescue, lending us some of her vinegar, the real stuff, made from red wine.
Where did all the real vinegar go to? There was a time, not so long ago – we’re talking 15-20 years ago – when waiters brought you real vinegar when you asked for “oil and vinegar” for your salad. Then, mysteriously, balsamic vinegar appeared out of nowhere, and the waiters would start asking: “balsamic or normal?” Then, after a bit, the waiters simply brought you balsamic; if you wanted real vinegar, you had to beg for it and they would bring it with evident ill-will if they had it at all. I think I know what the pagans in the Roman Empire must have felt like, just after Christianity became the State religion. One moment, your religion is mainstream, then along comes this upstart religion and suddenly everyone is looking at you askance, your favourite temple is being torn down or turned into a church, and you can’t get a job in government anymore! (an experience well described by Stephen Greenblatt in his book The Swerve).
I’ve always had a love for vinegar, ever since I tasted my French grandmother’s homemade brew. Down in her cellar – its earth-packed floor exuding a special scent of centuries-old dry dust and its dark corners packed with the fascinating flotsam and jetsam from the many generations who had lived in the house – there was a long wooden table, on which she kept her store of little round local goat’s cheeses as well as a small wooden barrel in which she made her vinegar. When the vinegar in the dining room was finished my grandmother would send me down to the cellar (which has already been the subject of a previous post) to fill the little vinegar pitcher. Of course, I never took a picture of her vinegar barrel. After a search on the web, though, I found this image which gives an idea of what I would find before me after I had walked down the old stone steps and opened the heavy cellar door.
As I would open the tap in the barrel, a lovely winey but slightly acidic scent would rise to my nostrils as the vinegar ran into the pitcher. Ah, that lovely, lovely smell! Never forgotten, even though half a century and more has passed. How can it be that people prefer balsamic vinegar to this elixir of the gods?!
After much thought on the matter, I have put it down to the fact that, contrary to my preferences, most people like a sweet sauce on their salads. I still remember with a shudder the sickly white, creamy, sweet sauces that the Brits spread with wild abandon on their salads. I see the same types of sauces in the Germanic and Nordic lands of Europe. In my youth, I had this theory that there was a salad-sauce border that ran across Europe, between the countries or parts thereof which spoke Romance languages plus Greece – all oil-and-vinegar salad sauce countries – and the remaining Germanic and Slavic speaking countries – all sweet creamy salad sauce countries. The US and Canada, reflecting their immigration history, have always seemed to me to be mixed in their tastes in salad sauce although I feel that the sweet creamy salad sauces predominate; even the non-creamy sauces are horribly sweet. Here is a picture of an array of such sauces in the posh supermarket that was up the road from our AirBnB. But the tsunami of balsamic vinegar which has flooded over bastions of the oil-and-vinegar salad sauce countries like Italy has led me to bitterly conclude that even most Italians – and probably most French and most Iberians – like their salad sauces sweet. I am the old 4th Century pagan left bewildered and embittered by the mass conversion of my compatriots to Christianity …
The ridiculous thing is, I’m sure that most people who liberally drizzle their salads with balsamic vinegar don’t realize that they are actually consuming a FAKE. We have all read and heard that balsamic vinegar has its roots in the Italian towns of Modena and Reggio-Emilia (I throw in here a photo of Modena’s main square).
It does indeed, but the original is hugely different from the vast majority of the stuff people call balsamic vinegar. First of all, it is not made from wine in the way vinegar is. Instead, a must of (locally grown) crushed grapes – pulp, seeds, skin, stems and all – is slowly reduced to a thick syrup over an open flame. This is then allowed to ferment to create some alcohol, at which point the acetic acid bacteria are allowed to get to work to turn that alcohol into acetic acid. After which, the acetified syrup goes through a long, long aging process, during which the acid levels rise. A series of at least five progressively smaller barrels (each made of different woods) are used for this.
Once a year, part of the syrupy vinegar in the smallest barrel is withdrawn as final product. The barrel is topped up with vinegar from the next largest barrel, and so on, in a cascade mode; at the end, the latest batch of acetified syrup is used to top up the biggest barrel. The procession of syrupy vinegar from largest to smallest barrel can take anywhere from 12 to 25 years or more to complete. All this is now regulated by a Protected Designation of Origin certification (DOP in Italian) for “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar” (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale). If readers would like to pick up the product in a shop (or online), it looks something like this.
Such smart-looking (and very small!) bottles come with a correspondingly high price tag. They can be yours for no less than 150€ and for as much as 300€! At those prices, do readers think it gets drizzled on salads? No way José!! Discerning Modenese and Reggio-Emilians will place a few drops on shards of Parmesan cheese as an appetizer, or on a plate of simple pasta like tortelli di zucca, or on a grilled fish, or on fresh fruit such as strawberries, or on a dessert like panna cotta. They will even drink it from a tiny glass to conclude a meal as an after-meal digestive, especially on special occasions such as weddings. But they will definitely not waste a single drop of this precious liquid on a vulgar salad.
As readers might appreciate, a product which takes this long to make doesn’t have a huge annual production. But when, after what I suspect was a canny global marketing campaign, balsamic vinegar became the thing to have in your home and at the restaurant, demand grew hugely. How to satisfy this voracious – and highly profit-making – demand? Very simple. Make grape must from any old grape variety, reduce it a bit (or maybe not), add any old normal vinegar to give the vinegary taste, add caramel to give it the dark look, and corn starch to give it the syrupy look, of the real thing, slap on a label proclaiming it to be balsamic vinegar, et voilà! I’ve simplified a bit, but that is more or less what happened in the heady days of the late 20th Century when demand for balsamic vinegar shot up.
Some order was brought into all of this by the EU creating two certifications: the highly prestigious DOP, which I’ve already mentioned, and a Protected Geographic Indication (IGP in Italian) for “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” (Aceto Balsamico di Modena), which in its name recognizes the origin of all this balsamic vinegar. In fact, when people buy “high-end” balsamic vinegar, they normally buy the IGP variety. If readers refer back to the first photo in this post, they will see that the bottle I stared at glumly is IGP certified. And I took this photo in the condiment aisle of the same posh supermarket I mentioned earlier. All the balsamic vinegars were, without exception, IGP-certified “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena”.
But I’m afraid this product is also rather a fake. You see, to get this certification all the producer really needs to do is to make sure that one stage of production occurs in or around Modena. So the must could be made in California with Californian grapes, and the vinegar could be made in Australia using Australian wine, but as long as the last required step – aging the resulting mixture for a minimum of 60 days – is carried out in a warehouse in an industrial park on the outskirts of Modena, the producer can quite legally claim it to be a “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” and use the mark of IGP certification on the label. (Oh, and the product would have to have at least 20% by volume of must, and at least 10% of vinegar, and at least 6% acidity, and no more than 2% of caramel for colouring.) And of course I leave it to my readers’ imaginations to think where any other product with just the words “balsamic vinegar” came from and what it contains (and doesn’t contain).
Well, with a bit of luck, this exposé of the nefarious ways of the world of balsamic vinegar producers may have persuaded some of my readers to abandon balsamic vinegar and go back to the one true faith of real vinegar on their salads. I can hear readers objecting that much of what passes for “wine vinegar” is also the product of some chemical refinery somewhere. I cannot deny this; my only answer is “caveat emptor and read the label” – and I make a mental note to myself to write a post in the future on how to make your very own, real, vinegar at home.
One of the nice things about being in Milan at this time of the year is that it allows my wife and me to visit the various exhibitions which make up the city’s annual Design Week. This last week saw us tramping the highways and byways of Milan and dropping into exhibitions of design, mostly of furniture and furnishings, this week also being the time that Milan was holding the Salone del Mobile, its huge international exhibition of furniture and furnishings. I cannot say that I saw anything that knocked my socks off, or even just rolled them down. But it did allow us to visit a good number of old palazzi which were hosting exhibitions and which are out of bounds to the general public the rest of the year. It also allowed us to visit a small botanical garden that is tucked away behind the Brera Academy in the heart of Milan’s fashion district, a garden which neither of us knew existed. It is that visit which started off this post.
Our reason for going to the botanical garden was that ENI, Italy’s huge national oil and gas corporation, was holding an exhibition there on the theme of circular economy. This is an idea that is currently growing in importance in the environmental world and one which I have been running trainings on, and I was curious to see what ENI had to say on the subject. The short answer is: not terribly much. But I came away with this picture. For readers who might be interested, the white core of this ring is composed of fungal mycelium, which ENI reminds us is completely biodegradable, and the outer casing is made of birch wood, which ENI says will be reused once the exhibition is over. Without much exaggeration, that pretty much sums up what ENI had to say about the circular economy in its exhibition.
Of greater interest for this post is what the makers of this ring have etched into the mycelium: apart from the title of the exhibition and the company’s name, the company’s logo: the six-legged dog. It is this dog which is the subject of this post. Or rather, given where this post started, it is the design history of this dog which I will write about.
My story starts in 1949, when Enrico Mattei, the charismatic boss of Agip, Italy’s national oil company, announced that oil and gas reserves had been discovered in the Po River plain. In truth, the finds were quite modest: the oil fields were to run dry quite quickly, while the gas fields, although they continue to chug along, have only a very modest output. But Mattei talked up the finds, offering a vision of Italy finally being self-sufficient in the fuels it needed to power its economic development, and thereby created a huge national stir. By late 1951, Italian refineries were beginning to produce the first petrol derived from Italian crude oil and Mattei’s PR office had come up with a name for this purely Italian petrol: Supercortemaggiore (Corte Maggiore being the place where the find had been made). In May 1952, Mattei decided to crank up excitement levels by announcing that Agip would hold a public competition open to all Italian citizens, inviting them to come up with, among other things, a publicity poster for Supercortemaggiore petrol. He made 10 million lire (or about 160,000 euros in today’s money) available in prize money to further whet people’s appetites. He composed a jury of very eminent persons to judge the entries; to give readers an idea of their eminence , the chair of the jury was the world-famous architect Giò Ponti.
Creative Italy got to work. By the closure of the competition in September, some 4,000 entries had been received. The jury ploughed through the submissions and for the Supercortemaggiore poster, it plumped for this:
The caption read: “Supercortemaggiore: the powerful Italian petrol”. But what really dominated the poster was a six-legged shaggy black dog blowing out a red flame over its back. The whole poster had a bright yellow background. The original drawing as submitted actually had the dog facing frontward with the flame shooting out forward. Mattei decreed that this was too aggressive, people could imagine they were faced with a canine version of a flame-thrower. No problem! The head was swiveled 180 degrees so that the flame flared harmlessly back over the dog’s back. The net result was that by late 1952 Italians up and down the land found themselves faced with huge billboards such as these.
Most advertising ideas work OK, some are a complete flop, and some work spectacularly well. The six-legged, fire-breathing, backward-looking, shaggy black dog falls into the last category; it was an instant hit with Italians. So popular did it become that in 1953, when Mattei created the new national oil and gas holding company, the Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi or ENI, with Agip as one of its subsidiaries, he decided that the dog should become the corporate brand. And so quite soon when Italians went to fill up at their local Agip petrol station they were faced with something like this.
In fact, this was how I first came across this intriguing dog. This was in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, where I was born a year or so after the shaggy black dog burst upon the scene. As an ex-Italian colony still full of Italians in the 1950s, Agip had a monopoly on the country’s petrol supply. It took a little while for the new ENI/Agip logo to grace every Agip petrol station, especially when the petrol stations were as far away from the center of the ENI empire as those in Asmara were. But they eventually got there, and I would have first seen the dog in 1958-59, from the back seat of the car as my father filled her up at the petrol station just behind our house.
Just to finish the design part, the dog has gone through some discreet remodelling as ENI has redesigned its look over the years. This is what it now looks like: slightly shorter than it was at the start and half out of the box rather than all in it. But the essentials are all still there.
At some point, everyone who looks at this dog asks themselves “why six legs?” or the more-or-less equivalent question “what kind of animal is this, actually?” To discuss this properly, I need to take a step sideways and relate a dramatic turn of evens which occurred in 1983, 30 or so years after Mattei held his competition. In that year, the startling news broke that Giuseppe Guzzi, the person who everyone had assumed was the creator of the dog – because the submission to the competition’s jury was in his name – was not in fact its author! He had been merely the front man for the dog’s real creator, Luigi Broggini, a respectable Milanese sculptor. Broggini died in 1983 and his children, who broke the news, felt that it was time for the real creator of the famous dog to get the credit he was due. It seems that Broggini was a bit of a cultural elitist; he felt that being linked to such a vulgar enterprise as designing a publicity poster for a brand of petrol was unworthy of a true artist such as he. This is a typical product of his artistic inclinations.
The cynic inside of me whispers that he probably didn’t deign to take the prize money; I only hope he shared it fairly with Guzzi to reward him for agreeing to be his front man.
So now we can return to the question of why six legs. Unfortunately, because Broggini died before his true role in this whole affair was revealed, we will never be able to ask the dog’s creator what he had in mind. I presume Broggini never told Guzzi, because it doesn’t seem that Guzzi ever gave any coherent response to this question. Maybe he would just smile mysteriously when asked and invite the questioners to come up with their own theory.
And come up with theories people have. One suggests that Broggini, thinking about the fact that the original crude oil lay underground, looked for possible models to the panoply of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses that peopled the shadowy underworld. Cerberus, the dog which guarded the entry to Hades, is considered one model. Cerberus was normally described as having three heads, a serpent for a tail, and snakes writhing out from his body in various places. But he had the normal amount of legs and he didn’t breathe fire. Here is a Greek vase depicting him.
The idea to have a fire-breathing animal no doubt comes from petrol’s readiness to burn. But what animal breathes fire? The answer is the dragon.
So another theory suggests that Broggini took a cue from a local Lombard legend of a dragon named Tarantasio which lived in a lake near Lodi, south-east of Milan (and perhaps not coincidentally quite close to the natural gas finds which Mattei announced in 1949). It was said that its breath was pestilential and it liked to devour little children. The Visconti, Lords of Milan, claimed that their ancestor had killed the terrible child-eating dragon and took it as the symbol on their coat of arms.
So maybe Broggini was imagining a dog from the underworld with dragon-like characteristics. Adding a dragon to the mix might explain the flaming mouth, but as far as I can make out dragons are, like dogs, four-legged. So we still have no explanation for the six legs. The best I can think of is that Broggini liked the idea of using Cerberus as a model, perhaps allied to a dragon-like ability to breathe fire, but didn’t think having multiple heads was a good idea and so decided on multiple legs. Whatever the reason, the ENI PR office came up with a really pathetic slogan: “the dog with six legs, faithful friend to the man on four wheels”. And the man who came up with this slogan was none other than the great film director, Ettore Scola! As I always say to my wife in cases like these, he surely needed to pay his rent and electricity bills.
Let me finish this post recounting what happened to the man who started the whole business of the competition which brought us the dragon-dog, Enrico Mattei. For Mattei, the real point of the competition was to strengthen public support for a strong national oil and gas company, which he could translate into political support. He succeeded spectacularly well. A year after the competition, he got the politicians to back his idea of creating ENI. He used the profits which Agip petroli and its sister company Agip gas made from the Italian oil and gas finds to fund his ventures in foreign countries rich in oil and gas. His long-term strategy was for ENI to become a competitor to the Seven Sisters (a term he invented to describe the seven – mainly US – corporations which at that time dominated the world’s oil and gas markets). To make this happen, he went to places the Seven Sisters couldn’t or didn’t want to go to, he offered the countries really good deals in the share of profits, and he wasn’t above offering succulent bribes. Judging by ENI’s heft today in the world market, I would say that Mattei got it right. But in the process he stepped on many, many toes. In 1962, he died when his private plane crashed while coming in to land at Milan airport. The inquest was rushed through and arrived at the conclusion that it was an accident. But this is Italy. Rumors continued to circulate that his plane had been sabotaged. In the early 1990s, his body and that of one of the two passengers on the plane with him were exhumed, and examination of metal fragments in their bones showed they had been deformed by an explosion. In 1994, the case was reopened and eventually the episode was reclassified as a homicide by a person or persons unknown. There has been enormous amounts of speculation as to who these “unknown persons” might be. At one time or other, the finger has been pointed at the British Secret Service, the French Secret Service, the OAS (the French irredentists for a French Algeria), the CIA, the Mafia (as a favour to their cousins in America, the Cosa Nostra), one or more of the Seven Sisters, and I’m sure I’ve missed a few. We’ll no doubt never know.
But we can all thank Mattei for that splendid six-legged, backward-looking, fire-breathing, shaggy black dog which he bequeathed the world!