Just in case any of you were wondering about the veracity of the subtitle of this blog, here is a ‘selfie’ (did I really just use that word?) of my colleague and me on the terrace of our place in Torino. It’s a beautiful evening in a beautiful town.
Just in case any of you were wondering about the veracity of the subtitle of this blog, here is a ‘selfie’ (did I really just use that word?) of my colleague and me on the terrace of our place in Torino. It’s a beautiful evening in a beautiful town.
Last Sunday I went on a day trip to Ravenna with two French women from my language school. I had been there many years ago during my first trip to Italy, and was glad to have an opportunity to pay a return visit.
Ravenna is an unusual city. It was actually the capital of the Western Roman Empire for a while. It was moved there from Milan by Honarius in 401 when the Empire was under threat from the Visigoths. Ravenna, surrounded by water, a bit like Venice, was thought to be easier to defend. The Visigoths didn’t seem to take much notice of this move; they marched down to Rome and sacked it in 410, as we all learned in school, thus initiating the beginning of the end for the Western Empire. While there, they took captive Galla Placidia, daughter of the previous emperor Theodosius I and sister of Honarius. Ravenna remained the capital of the Empire until it ceased to exist in 476, after which it was the capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy, and then briefly part of the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire. The various works of art in Ravenna provide a unique record of this transitional period from the late classical to the byzantine, and the beginnings of medieval.
Our first stop was the Arian Baptistery. Some explanation might be in order first. At the time it was built, around the end of the 5th century, Italy was ruled by the Ostrogoth Theodoric. Theodoric became King of Italy by killing the previous King of Italy, the Ostrogoth Odoacer, at the suggestion of the eastern Emperor Zeno. Odoacer had nominally been a vassal of the Emperor, but in reality was quite independent. In fact, he led a revolt which deposed the Western Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in 476, which as noted is usually taken as the ‘official’ end of the Western Empire, though there was in fact another Western Emperor after Romulus Augustulus (I’ve always loved that name; seems like something out of Life of Brian). When Odoacer proved too much for the Eastern Emperor to control, he had the Goth Theodoric take care of him. The imperial armies had for some time been manned by ‘barbarians’.
The Ostragoths had been converted to Christianity some time before, but as the theology of Christianity was still somewhat fluid in those days, they had been converted to a form of Christianity that held Christ to be somewhat less of a god than God. This stressed Christ’s humanity, and apparently had some impact on the imagery used by the Arians, though it’s hard to say since virtually none of it has survived, aside from Theodoric’s Arian Baptistery.
The baptistery is a pretty modest looking affair from the outside, looked over somewhat casually by a guy who has no tickets to sell or check. Inside, though…
there is a magnificent ceiling mosaic. It shows the twelve apostles (as then conceived) holding crowns and marching in procession towards a throne.
In the middle is a representation of Christ’s baptism. It is commonplace to point out that the humanity (as opposed to divinity) of Christ is accentuated in this representation, most notably by his clearly visible naughty bits under the water. This is thought to be theologically significant, in light of the Arian views of the semi-divinity of Christ. No one really knows exactly what the Arians of Theodoric’s court thought, though, and there are precious few, if any, other Arian representations at all, let alone of the baptism of Christ, from which to draw stylistic generalizations. In fact, as we’ll see, the imagery in the baptistery was based on that of the older Neonian baptistery in town.
John the Baptist is to the right of Christ, while a very standard classical representation of a river god, in this case that of the Jordan, is on the left, complete with overturned amphora. You might remember this type of representation from the San Carlino. Are those crab claws on his head?
The apostles, rather than paying attention to the ‘human’ Christ, proceed towards a representation of Christ Risen, i.e., the cross on the throne. This, presumably, is a representation of the more divine nature of Christ, according to Arian theology, and probably marks the biggest divergence from standard Catholic iconography. Sts Paul and Peter flank the throne, Peter with his keys, and Paul, uncharacteristically, with scrolls instead of a sword. They do look like all the standard representations of Paul and Peter, though, the former with dark hair, a long beard, and male pattern balding, the latter with curly white hair and short beard. I’ve always wondered where these representations came from.
On our way to the next stop, we took a little detour to pay our respects to Dante.
He was kicked out of Florence after getting on the wrong side of the Guelph/Ghibelline conflicts (more accurately, getting on the wrong side of the black and white Guelph conflicts after the Ghibellines had been defeated in Florence). He ended up in Ravenna, where he died, and from which Florence has ever after been trying to get his bones back.
The next stop was the Neonian Baptistery.
As noted, this predates the Arian Baptistery, and most likely served as the model for the latter’s mosaics. The mosaics date from the end of the fifth century, at the time of Bishop Neon. The design is almost identical to the mosaic we just saw.
In the center, Christ, bearded this time, is being baptized, with John the Baptist on one side and a personification of the river Jordan on the other. In an outer ring is a procession of the twelve apostles. This time, though, they’re not marching to a representation of Christ’s divinity, since presumably Christ is already divine in the center picture, and doesn’t need a stand in. As before, Peter and Paul are in the lead, with Peter looking as he always does, with short white hair and trimmed white beard.
Unlike the Arian Baptistery, there’s an outer ring with some really wonderful decoration.
Here again is Christ’s throne, though not the center of adoration as before.
It’s remarkable to me that this represents art from the late Roman Empire, in such a wonderfully preserved state.
Next stop was the Basilica of San Vitale.
This was begun under the Ostrogoths, but before it was finished, the Eastern (Byzantine) Emperor Justinian, or rather his general Belasarius, had retaken Ravenna, and thus the Basilica ended up being decorated with what are the finest Byzantine mosaics in the west.
The church is octagonal, like the baptisteries, but had a very different feel due to the unusual ambulatory around it.
The original entrance was off at an odd angle, with an external door leading to a wall and two side entrances, immediately disorienting the visitor as they entered what is already a fairly disorienting space. That experience unfortunately no longer exists, but it’s still quite a thrill walking in and seeing the apse mosaics for the first time.
In the center is a clean-shaven, classical looking Christ, decked out in imperial purple, sitting on the globe, handing a martyr’s crown to Saint Vitale. On his other side, Bishop Ecclesius holds a model of the church. These figures are very helpfully labeled.
On the sides are mosaics representing various Old Testament sacrifices.
as well as other Old Testament figures.
Among the most interesting – and most celebrated – mosaics are those of the Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora.
The rule of thumb for determining who was where in the hierarchy, aside from the relative sizes of the figures, is to look at who is stepping on whose toes. This is most obvious in the portrait of Justinian.
Within the San Vitale complex is the tomb of Galla Placidia, daughter of the emperor Theodosius and sister of Honarius. She led quite a life, which I will leave to you to discover at your leisure.
While there is some debate over whether this structure was ever really intended to be a tomb – Galla Placidia’s mortal remains supposedly reside in Rome – the pine cone on the roof, a Roman sign of death, would seem to indicate it was meant to be a home for the departed.
This is a 5th century building, and truly a late Roman building, with remarkable classical mosaics from that period.
Most notable is the representation of Christ as the Good Shepherd, with Christ looking more like Apollo than the gaunt, bearded fellow we’re used to seeing. Also of interest is a mosaic of St. Lawrence, who was martyred by being grilled on a gridiron.
His last words, according to the official biography, were “I’m done on this side, you can turn me over now.” I can’t really imagine what connection St. Lawrence, who is the patron saint of Spain, might have had to Galla Placidia.
Peter and Paul also make an appearance, looking much as they always do, albeit with white robes, rather than the robes of gold/blue and red/green, respectively, that they later acquired. Flash photography was not allowed in this building, and there was little light, so I apologize for the quality – or lack thereof – of the photos.
The last stop on our tour was St. Apollinare Nuovo.
This was originally built by the Arian Theodoric as his palace chapel, but after Justinian retook Ravenna it was ‘rehabilitated’ to be an orthodox church. There is another St. Apollinare in nearby Classe, and that is actually the newer church. St Apollinare Nuovo, while older, was dedicated to St. Apollinare after the church in Classe was, hence the chronologically confusing name.
The church is in basilica form, with a procession of male and female martyrs above the columns on either side, and above this some remarkable 6th century mosaics from the time of Theodoric representing Christ’s miracles/parables on one side, and the passion on the other. Notably, Christ is depicted as a young man in the miracle mosaics and as the more familiar bearded sage in the passion mosaics, showing a distinction which was probably more suitable to Arian theology than orthodox theology.
Here is the miraculous draught of fishes, with St Peter hauling up the net.
And here is the separation of the sheep from the goats (i.e., the good people/nations from the bad). The angel in blue on the right is thought by some to be the first Christian representation of the devil. In both of these panels Christ looks like a young emperor, not that dissimilar from the mosaic in the mausoleum. Note how less naturalistic Christ is in this later mosaic, though. Clearly some of that classical finesse had been lost by this point.
On the other side of the nave are scenes from the passion. Here is an interesting representation of the Last Supper.
What is remarkable to me about this is that everyone is reclining around the table during the meal, as would have been the case in Rome. Also, instead of a lamb, the meal involves fish. Note that Peter is lying next to Christ; he’s always easy to recognize.
This is the kiss of Judas, one of the few panels with a figure that isn’t static.
At the back of the processions of martyrs are a scene of the Royal Palace of Theodoric on one side and the port of Classe on the other. Here is the port, with a few boats in the harbor.
The gold bricks underneath the town of Classe were obviously newer additions, though I don’t know what they were meant to cover.
In the case of the Palace of Theodoric, the motivation behind later modifications is a little more obvious. In the panel below you can see Palatium written on the main building, with Ravenna in the background.
But the palace has mysterious curtains between the columns. What can this mean? Well, after Ravenna was taken over by Justinian, any representations of Theodoric and his court would not have been appreciated. So while portraits of Theodoric and his people would undoubtedly have occupied the spaces between the columns, they were worked over by Justinian’s artists. However, in some cases their arms extended beyond the spaces, leading to some oddly disembodied extremities.
In fact, if you look closely you can see ghostly shadows of the heads of the figures above some of the curtains.
Similarly, when the church was taken over by the Orthodox Justinian from the Arian Theodoric, it was rededicated to St. Martin of Tours, who was a staunch opponent of Arianism, and a portrait of St. Martin was added at the head of the line of martyrs.
Martin, however, was not a martyr, so he seems a bit out of place here. Note that he isn’t holding his martyr’s palm, as are all the fellows behind him in line.
After our long march through Ravenna we were hot, tired and thirsty, and so set off for the port to have a refreshing look at the sea. Alas, the port was not terribly picturesque.
But it did afford us our final, fitting mosaic of the day.
As a side note, you may have noticed the dearth of posts lately. As you might have guessed, I’ve had little time in the past few weeks. I’m in Torino now, and very near the end of my stay here. Thus, this will likely be my last post, though of course there’s much more to tell. That will have to wait until I see you all again.
This past weekend I decided to take two trips, one to Ferrara, a town I visited on my first trip to Italy, and the other to Modena, the next big town over from Bologna and site of one of the most charming squares in this region, so they say.
I wanted to visit Ferrara in particular to see again the wonderful old Romanesque cathedral, whose facade is one of the more interesting examples of the style, and to visit the art museum. Ferrara developed its own school of art during the Renaissance, a school which I like but don’t know much about.
Upon arrival in Ferrara, I headed cross town to the art museum, where I was informed that half of the museum was closed (no reason was given). It was the half with the home-grown Renaissance painters. Afterwards I tromped to the center of town, where I discovered that the facade of the cathedral was completely covered for restoration.
The next day I set off for Modena. I went to the station, bought my ticket, and found the platform, where the train was there waiting, albeit with its doors closed. An announcement kept coming over the PA that the train to Milan (the one stopping in Modena) was leaving from platform 5. I probably heard this announcement a dozen times, right until the minute before it was scheduled to leave, at which point the announcement simply said the train to Milan is cancelled. I went home, and came back to the station in time for the next train, which I found was also cancelled. I went home again, and came back for yet the next train, which was an hour and a half late, no doubt due to the previous cancellations, at which point it was too late in the day for a trip to Modena. I found out the next day that there had been a sciopero (strike). During a strike, there is no advance notice as to which trains are not going to get crew members, since only a subset of railway workers actually stop working.
When my Italian teacher asked me about my weekend on Monday, and I told her my tale, she said Ah! Veramente un fine settimana Italiano!
The other Sunday I went for a ramble around town. I like to go for unpremeditated walks on Sunday morning when the streets are empty and the heat isn’t too oppressive yet. The streets are usually empty at this time. This is not a city of early risers.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the central visual motif of the town is arcades – i portici. Locals will tell you that these are wonderful, providing protection from the sun during summer and from the rain and snow in spring and winter. To me, though, they make the town seem a bit claustrophobic, and make me feel like I’m always in a cage, unable to fully see what’s around me.
I portici come in a variety of styles, and in some cases there are interesting capitals on their columns.
But overall they give the town a somewhat oppressive feel, at least to me.
My apartment is right around the corner from hell. The road there seems to be paved in cobblestones, though. And hope does not seem to have been completely abandoned by all who entered there, as seen above.
As always seems to happen during an unplanned walk, I ended up at the Asinello tower. The main streets on the east side of town radiate out from the towers, so it’s no surprise I always end up there. For a few moments in the piazza in front of the towers I was out in the open…
but soon I was back under i portici.
through which I caught a glimpse of the Palazzo della Mercanzia.
This late 14th century Gothic building is one of the prettiest in Bologna, and is the current seat of the chamber of commerce. I believe that the ‘official’ recipe for ragu Bolognese resides here. There is a small piazza in front of the building, but for the most part one only catches glimpses of the palazzi in town from between the pillars and columns of i portici.
Because of this I feel like I really haven’t developed much knowledge of the city, or at least of its buildings. I have developed quite a bit of familiarity with its portici, though. It’s not unusual to come across some really unusual portici without ever figuring out what building they’re attached to.
These I believe are the portici di Pavaglione, built by Pius IV in the mid 16th century. Recall this most rossa of cities was part of the Papal States for a few centuries. I think this was originally the site of a silk market. Bologna was a silk manufacturing town back in the day, which presumably contributed to its grassa. Now this set of arcades provides shade for those wishing to part with large sums of money on luxury goods. Not a far cry from its original use, presumably.
It also serves as the approach to one of the most interesting set of portici – and one of the most interesting and historically significant sights – in Bologna, the Archiginnasio. Most people, if they know anything about Bologna (the town, not the lunch meat, of course), know that it was the site of the oldest university in the world. Well, the Archiginnasio is that site. Sort of. The University of Bologna, like most centers of learning of its time, started as a collection of students and masters based in Bologna. A similar collection would have existed in Paris. What happened in Bologna was that the groups of students, usually organized according to their nationality, banded together to form a single organization, a universitas, which was essentially a union for the students. Students were a powerful group back in those days, both financially and politically. It’s a theme that seems to recur occasionally, perhaps most recently in the 1960s. At any rate, the universitas was officially formed in 1088, though a single physical structure to house this universitas didn’t appear quite that early. That had to wait until the 16th century, when Pius IV had papal legate Carlo Borromeo oversee the building of the Archiginnasio. The more astute amongst you (well, I guess that probably includes everyone reading this) might recognize Carlo Borromeo as the saint after whom my favorite church in Rome is named.
And for the extraordinarily astute amongst you (again, probably everyone), you’ll recognize at once the Medici coat of arms, with its six balls, over the entrance to the Archiginnasio. Pius IV was a Medici pope.
The Archiginnasio turned out to be a surprisingly moving spot.
The most striking thing about it is the incredible collection of monuments to former teachers and the heraldic symbols commemorating past students.
These are some special portici.
Upstairs the heraldic symbols continue, but the highlight is the old anatomical theater.
This was where human bodies were dissected to teach anatomy. It is, strikingly, made of wood, with statues of famous doctors installed in niches around the amphitheater. A personal favorite of mine is Gaspare Tagliacozzi, the great pioneer of rhinoplasty.
The ceiling has carvings of mythological figures represented by constellations…
with Apollo in the center.
The seat from which the professor presided is quite remarkable. The female personification of the study of anatomy is being offered a thigh bone by an angel, while the canopy upon which she sits is held up by two flayed figures, the famous Spellati.
What’s even more remarkable is that the theater, and much of the Archiginnasio, was the victim of a direct strike by allied bombers in WWII.
Fragments were collected,
and the theater was reconstructed, bit by bit.
Down the hall from the anatomical theater is the Stabat Mater hall, thus named for a performance of Rossini’s stabat mater in 1842. It is completely covered in heraldic symbols,
some of which have been constructed on top of, and thus cover up, older symbols, such as this rather imposing monument to cardinal legate Fabrizio Savelli .
Who would have thought dragons could be so cute?
Being a bit of a nerd (shocking, yes), I couldn’t help myself from perusing some of the books in the stabat mater hall, and was pleased to find Lamarck represented in the biology section.
This random ramble, ending up in such a storied spot, reminded me a bit of my similar rambles in Rome, where no premeditation is ever required to happen upon something truly astonishing. Bologna is, alas, a much different city from Rome. Still, there’s enough here to provide for a distracting Sunday morning stroll.
On Wednesday I took a trip to Parma, an excursion suggested by the Dutch fortepiano maker. He drove his old work van to Bologna, so after class we hopped in it and hit the road. There is still something strange to me about a road trip in Europe. One takes road trips in the states, one rides trains in Europe.
It was a beautiful day, slightly cooler than it had been, and it was very refreshing to get out of hot and stuffy Bologna for the fresh air of the road. Parma is about an hour from Bologna, so it wasn’t a long trip.
After a bit of trouble finding our parking garage, we emerged onto one of the main streets in town, and I was immediately won over.
Unlike Bologna, the streets were wide and open. The buildings were also tidier and more varied, as opposed to the monochromatic brick red of Bologna.
Is this a gap-toothed Moses watching over us as we admire the town?
At first sight it looked like a street of largely 18th century buildings, but in fact there were much older buildings sprinkled in. For instance, attached to that somewhat central European-looking tower is the early 16th century Santo Sepolcro, complete (or incomplete) with unfinished facade, as seems to be so popular here.
We ended up in the center of town – Piazza Garibaldi – which is watched over by the man himself.
Behind him is the Palazzo del Governatore, with an exceedingly complicated sundial on its face. This supposedly can tell you when it is noon in many cities around the world, though fortunately there is a regular clock just above it for the less horologically inclined.
Our plan, such as it was, was to visit the Duomo, the Baptistery, and the National Gallery. Around the corner from the Piazza Garibaldi, though, we ran into an interesting looking church that we decided to pop into. It turned out to be Santa Maria Steccata, a real treasure house of local art.
The overall design of the church is late Renaissance, with some Baroque overlays, and lavish frescoes cover much of the surface area.
Parma’s most famous son is probably the aptly (nick)named Parmigianino. For some reason he always makes me think of eggplant. He is represented in this church with a couple of paintings and several frescoes. It took an inordinate amount of time to find his work, particularly given that there were diagrams laying out all the artworks scattered throughout the church. Spatial disorientation turned out to be a running theme of this visit. We did eventually find Parmigianino’s Santa Cecilia (columns and putti added later by someone else)
and his illustrations of the wise and foolish virgins
Santa Cecilia – and a matching portrait of David – were originally the doors of the church organ, appropriately enough for these two symbols of music. The Santa Cecilia in particular shows the mannerist predilection for odd, contorted poses. She reminds me of Michelangelo’s proto-mannerist figures on the Sistine ceiling.
Parmigianino was an interesting, and somewhat sad, figure. He was recognized early on as a child prodigy, and went to Rome to find fame and fortune. Unfortunately this was just a few years before the disastrous Sack of Rome, which cut his – and many others’ – visit short. He returned to Emilia Romagna, first Bologna and them Parma, but in spite of getting some work there, became obsessed with alchemy, a distraction which prevented him from following through on commissions, and eventually landed him in jail. He ended up dying of a fever when he was only 37.
There are quite a number of other interesting works in Santa Maria Steccata, including this Assumption by Gatti, who I discovered was a fairly prolific local painter.
Here are some peeks inside the side chapels:
After Santa Maria Steccata, we headed for the Duomo.
The romanesque Duomo, along with the accompanying baptistery and somewhat later campanile, make up an ensemble not entirely unlike the one in Pisa (and others in northern Italy, for that matter), though the campanile was built on more solid ground here. One of my favorite aspects of Italian romanesque is the lion sculptures, two of which guard the entrance to the Duomo.
They remind me of Chinese lions, in that they seem to have been carved by someone who never actually saw a lion, but only ever heard them described.
Inside the Duomo is a riot of decoration, not unlike Santa Maria Steccata, though on a much larger scale.
The undisputed artistic highlight is the cupola fresco, which is another Assumption, this one by Correggio.
This was a (late) Renaissance work, not a Baroque work, and was quite revelatory in its day for its illusionistic upward swirl of figures. It served as a model for many other similar works, including some of the great Baroque ceiling frescoes in Roman churches. I’ve been wanting to see this fresco literally for decades, but to be honest, it was a bit of a disappointment. Initially this was due to the fact that it’s really poorly lighted. There is, of course, a coin box to turn on artificial lights, which I did eventually find. But while the great swirl of figures is certainly breathtaking, the central figure, Mary, is so awkwardly posed, it’s hard to feel anything but slightly embarrassed for her.
After the Duomo, and a much-needed stop for gelato, there wasn’t time to visit the baptistery, unfortunately, so it was on to the Galleria Nazionale.
This art gallery is housed in part of an enormous palace, the Palazzo della Pilotta, which was built by the Farnese in the 16th century. Parma had been part of the Papal States, but during the pontificate of Paul III – a Farnese – it was turned into a Duchy and given to Paul III’s, er, nephew. It was this ‘nephew’s’ son who built the Palazzo della Pilotta. In addition to being very, very large, the Palazzo was bombed and partially destroyed in WWII, which has made for a discontinuous and very confusing structure.
We ended up circling around it a number of times before we finally found an entrance. Part of the central courtyard was being set up for a concert, with soundchecks going on, which further added to our confusion.
Once inside, you first go through a theater in order to get to the museum. There are two entrances to the museum: one, oddly, through a passageway under the stairs of the theater, and the other via a ramp backstage, which as it turned out was a dead end. This is not an ordinary theater, though, it was built in the early 17th century for a visit to Parma by Cosimo II de Medici, who, as it turned out, got sick and couldn’t make it. It was only used a handful of times, and was nearly destroyed by Allied bombs in WWII.
It was reconstructed, with the once-painted wooden elements left bare in places where they had to be replaced.
The theater is famous for being the first proscenium, i.e., modern style, theater.
We did manage to find the semi-secret passage way from the theater to the museum, and were lucky enough to be the only visitors to the museum, though at this point it was an hour before closing. It was an extensive collection in a very nice, open space. Highlights of the collection included a number of works by Correggio, such as this Incoronation of the Virgin,
and by Parmigianino (of course), such as this portrait of a lady
Note the typical Mannerist depiction of the hand, with the middle two fingers pressed together.
After the galleria we had a stroll back through town to end up at a very typical Parma trattoria, where we partook of the eponymous ham, as well as other local specialties, and drank some quite mediocre, warm white wine. I would have liked to have spent another day or two in Parma, as I really liked the town and there was much we missed, but still it was a very nice afternoon getaway.
From the acetaia we proceeded on to a prosciutto factory. This required a drive through some enchanting countryside, which unfortunately was difficult to photograph from the car.
At the prosciutto factory we walked into the warehouse right off the bat. It was overwhelming, both the quantity of preserved pig, and the smell.
More than just prosciutto, there was guanciale (jowl), pancetta (belly), culatello (a very expensive, separately cured portion of the pig haunch), prosciutto sgambato (boneless prosciutto), spalla (shoulder), and no doubt many more preserved piggy parts. Some were just salt cured, others rubbed with various spice mixtures.
We did get a walk through of the process, including the salting
Then of course there was the tasting. There was plate after plate of various types of salumi, with some token bread sticks and lambrusco ad pignoletto, what seem to be the preferred red and white, respectively of the region. Surrounded by tons of cured pig as I was, I couldn’t help thinking of our own Jimboni.
The tasting was essentially the antipasto to our lunch, for which we went to an agriturismo high up in the hills.
I resisted the urge to photo-document the meal; well, I didn’t really have the urge to begin with. At any rate you’ll have to take my word that we didn’t leave hungry.
I rode back with the Americans, just coincidentally, and rather than disperse we decided to have an aperitivo or two in town when we got back to Bologna. A characteristic of the aperitivo here is that it always comes with food, somewhat like tapas in Spain (at least in those few places in Spain where tapas still come gratis with a drink). When the waitress put out the plates of food alongside our drinks, though, we could barely stand to look at them. It was a nice end to the day, though after two rounds, the heat and the exhaustion of digestion necessitated a little siesta for everyone, so we made our ways to our respective hotels/apartments. It’s a little funny how during an event like this you end up getting quite intimate with what were a few hours before a group of strangers. Then, just as quickly, they disappear.
The next stop on the tour was an acetaia.
One of the most celebrated, and misunderstood, products of Emilia Romagna is balsamic vinegar. There are lots of things that call themselves balsamic vinegar, some that even call themselves balsamic vinegar of Modena, and more than a few that add those magic letters IGP (indicazione geografica protetta). Why here’s a bottle from Trader Joe’s that’s only a coupla bucks.
It can be a little confusing. Vinegar can legally be called balsamic vinegar IGP if it’s made from at least one product from Modena, for instance, if it uses some grapes from Modena. You could even call it traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena; there’s no law against that. But to be called Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, and get the DOP (denominazione di origine protetta), well, that’s a different story. For this you need Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes from Modena – the only ingredients – and a lot of patience.
The grapes are cooked down, and put into a series of barrels of diminishing size.
The barrels are made out of a variety of woods – in this case oak, chestnut and cherry – but there seem to be no requirements other than a general preference for some variety. The barrels are open, and hence there’s some evaporation. Once a year, the amount evaporated from each barrel is replaced with an amount taken from a barrel of the next largest size. The largest barrel gets some newly-cooked grape must. This goes on for twelve years before any vinegar can be bottled, and that only from the smallest barrel. Figuring out the exact age of the vinegar in each barrel is actually a little complicated, because of the constant topping up, but for those interested, it can be done (Giudici, P. and Rinaldi, G. (2007). A theoretical model to predict the age of traditional balsamic vinegar. J. Food Eng. 82, 121–127). If twelve year old vinegar isn’t quite refined enough for you, there’s the twenty five year old, extravecchio, variety. It is a tradition in Modena for a girl to be given a series of barrels when she’s born, so as to have some vinegar ready for her dowry.
The acetaia we visited had a number of series of barrels (batterie) going, some of which they were overseeing for other people. Barrels are kept in the attic to accentuate seasonal variation; they have to be hot in summer and cold in winter.
Production of balsamic vinegar is understandably limited, which explains the proliferation of such a wide variety of ‘copies’. Most of these, as in the case of Trader Joe’s, are made from grape must augmented with wine vinegar, and are thickened and sweetened (and darkened) artificially to approximate the taste and texture of the real thing.
As in the case of Parmigiano-Reggiano, inspectors from a consortium have to approve the vinegar before it is bottled, but in this case the vinegar is assessed mostly on the basis of taste. Once approved, the vinegar goes into a bottle of a legally-specified shape, with the twelve year old vinegar getting a white cap, and the twenty five year old stuff getting a gold cap. It also gets the DOP seal, which is most obvious guarantee that it’s the real thing.
Given the limited production of real aceto balsamico di Modena, a compromise product has developed that goes through the same process as the real thing, but is ‘only’ aged for six years. It is not augmented with wine vinegar or darkened with caramel coloring. It can’t legally be called aceto balsamico, so instead it’s called balsamic condiment.
After our tour we had a tasting, starting with the commercially produced pseudo-balsamic vinegar, to the condiment, and progressing to the real thing. We also tried it on fresh ricotta (fresh as in just picked up from the farm) and ice cream. The latter in particular was something of a revelation.
Of course there was balsamic vinegar available for sale at the acetaia, and though the twelve year old stuff seemed a bit too extravagant, and the twenty five year old stuff downright prohibitive, I did get a bottle of the condiment. While looking at the products – there were only five – I was surprised to discover amongst them a bottle of nocino! It slowly dawned on me that nocino is another traditional product of Modena. In fact the recipe I use is from the order of Modenese nocino makers. When I asked our guide about it, she was a little surprised that I’d heard of nocino, let alone make it, and poured out a cup of nocino from a little barrel tucked in a corner of the ‘showroom’. It tasted remarkably like my homemade version. She said her family makes it, too, as do most Modenese families. I asked her if they filtered it, since I always have problems with sediment, but she said they didn’t do anything to clarify it.
Of course there was no way I could resist getting a bottle of the real thing.
Thus the second leg of the tour ended with me happily toting my bag of nocino to the mini van, which then transported us to stop number three…