Although there are a million and one ways to drink coffee in Italy, I’m always surprised and delighted to discover a new one. Especially one like caffè alla salentina, perfectly suited to the summer weather which has finally arrived.
In medieval Venice, 2 February, Candlemas or the feast of the Purification of the Virgin, was the date of the Festa delle Marie (Festival of the Marys), one of the most important official events of the carnival.
As we saw in the last post, on 31 January, twelve rich families from around the city exhibited a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, richly adorned in clothes and jewels, in their palazzi. On 2 February, these would be taken in a grand waterborne procession to the church of San Pietro in Castello, which until 1797 was the cathedral of Venice. Here they would enter the church for a mass with the Patriarch (the archbishop) of Venice before once again being carried by boat, this time with the Patriarch, to the Riva degli Schiavoni. From here they would be carried into the Basilica San Marco for a mass with the Doge. After mass, the Doge, Patriarch and Marys would get back on the boats and the procession would go up the Grand Canal to Rialto and then up side canals to Santa Maria Formosa where there would be a third and final mass.
The statues of Mary became known as Marioni, ‘big Marys’, and it’s said that small replicas were on sale as souvenirs during the festival. These were known as ‘little Marys’ or Marionette, which is where the modern word for a string puppet comes from.
Since it took place at carnival time, the festival could get quite rowdy. The night before, young men from the families often paraded their Mary through the streets showing off how it was more lavishly decorated than those of the other families, which often ended in fist fights. In 1339 a law was passed banning the throwing of fruit and vegetables at the statues, suggesting that the whole thing had degenerated into a game of skittles. In 1379, Venice went to war with Genoa and every available penny was needed for the war effort. The government took this as the opportunity to abolish the festival once and for all. All that remained in future years was an annual visit by the Doge to Santa Maria Formosa for a simple mass.
More than a hundred years later, a myth was created to explain why there had been such a festival. It involved a story in which every year, the state would sponsor the weddings of twelve poor girls at the cathedral of San Pietro in Castello. One year, the brides with their dowries were kidnapped by pirates from Trieste. The whole city mobilized and gave chase, but the brides (and their dowries) were eventually rescued by the casselleri (cabinet makers) of the parish of Santa Maria Formosa. As this story only appears in the Renaissance, it is clear that it was invented to explain the festival and that the Marys had always been made of wood and represented the Virgin Mary.
In recent years a modern Festa delle Marie, which follows the myth rather than the historical version, has become part of the official Venice carnival. It involves a beauty contest for twelve Venetian girls who are carried from San Pietro in Castello to the Piazza San Marco before one is crowned the Maria of the year. This year it will take place tomorrow, February 3.
The picture at the top of this page is of an antiques shop in the Dorsoduro district of Venice, near the Accademia. The statues are eighteenth-century clothes mannequins, but for me they are very evocative of the original Festa delle Marie. They appear as ghostly reflections, projected onto the walls of the city, memories of the festival that once was.
The modern Italian language comes from Tuscany. Although other forms of speech developed alongside it—and so are, strictly speaking, languages and not dialects—Tuscan has had a prestige in the whole of the Italian peninsula from the middle ages onwards, mostly due to the diffusion of the works of Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, and other poets.
In the Renaissance, ironically partly due to the influence of a Venetian nobleman, Pietro Bembo, Tuscan was adopted and developed as the literary language in the whole of the Italian peninsula, with the Accademia della Crusca set up in 1583 to develop and protect it.
Other Italian languages, including Venetian, however continued to thrive due to the fact that there was no unified Italian state until the middle of the nineteenth century. And in fact, many words of Italian origin that entered the English language came directly from Venetian. Here are five of the best:
1. arsenal (first use in English – 1506). This derives from the arsenale, the enormous Venetian shipyard, once the largest industrial complex in Europe. The word in turn comes from the arabic darassina, meaning ‘factory’.
2. ballot (first use in English – 1549) A balota was a small ball used in Venetian political elections.
3. ghetto (first use in English – 1611). From 1516, Jews in Venice were forced to live in the old iron foundry complex, the gheto which still exists as a Jewish quarter today.
4. sequin (first use in English – 1671). A zechin was a gold coin of the Venetian currency, the ducat.
5. zany (first use in English – 1588). Zan or Zuan is the Venetian form of Italian Giovanni, or John. In the Venetian Commedia dell’Arte, there was originally a funny character called Zan and this developed into a group of stock characters known as the ‘Johns’ or ‘Zani’.
I’m delighted to present to you my first video recipe for Chestnuts and Truffles TV on YouTube. I really enjoyed making this video since I was able to go into a lot more detail about techniques, particularly with the pasta frolla, or shortcrust pastry, than you can in a recipe. You also get to see a bit of Tuscany and you’ll be seeing a lot more as I get out and about in future videos. The full recipe including all the ingredients is below. Buon appetito!
Crostata di Ciliegie
250g / 2 cups plain flour
50g 1/4 cup granulated sugar
5g / 1 teaspoon salt
< 120g / 1/2 cup water
125g / 1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 pot jam
- Put the flour, sugar, and salt into a bowl.
- Add the butter and rub in with your fingers until you have achieved the consistency of breadcrumbs.
- Add enough water to bring the mixture together into a dough. Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for one hour.
- Butter a pie tin. Roll the pastry out to fill the bottom of the pie tin. Prick the base of the pastry with a fork. Keep the leftover pastry. Refrigerate the pastry case for one hour.
- Roll out and cut the remaining pastry into eight strips with a pasta wheel.
- Cover the bottom of the pastry case with jam.
- Place the strips of pastry over the top of the jam in the form of a lattice.
- Bake at 180°C / 355°F for 35-40 minutes. Allow to cool completely before serving.