Saturday, November 26, 2011


A visit to Mantua (Mantova in Italian), located in the south east of the region of Lombardy, is ideal for a weekend getaway or an overnight stop in an Italian trip. Whilst the city is studied by every student of renaissance art history, it is a destination that is largely overlooked by foreign travellers, as it often becomes overshadowed by its much larger, and more magnificent, competitors on the Italian peninsula. Mantova is a small city (circa 50,000 inhabitants) and so it doesn’t take very long to feel at home and have visited the major sites, but with artistic wonders and a scrumptious cuisine, it is worth the visit. It was entered in the list of Unesco world heritage sites in 2008.

Geographically it is unusual, surrounded by lakes, and was unattractive swampy marsh land until the Corradi family took over the area in the fourteenth century and created their Marquisate in the early fifteenth century. The ruling family became best known by their adopted name of Gonzaga, hailing from their eponymous town of origin close by. The Gonzaga family (dukes from 1530), ruled until 1707 when the duchy passed to the Hapsburgs.

During the renaissance period, in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, the Gonzaga family were some of the most important patrons of Renaissance art, and they long cultivated a court which included some of the most illustrious artists and intellectuals of the time. Andrea Mantegna, the court painter from 1460-1506 (he was the brother-in-law to  Giovanni and Gentile Bellini – the most important painters of the Venetian Republic in the second half of the fifteenth century), succeeding from much acclaimed Pisanello, and Leon Battista Alberti (the great Renaissance theorist and architect from Florence), constructed the Basilica Sant’Andrea, a triumphant display of the new Renaissance humanist style. In the 1500’s, Giulio Romano, the most gifted of artists in Raphael’s workshop in Rome, who continued the workshop commissions after the great master’s death in 1520, was the court architect and painter in Mantua from the 1520’s. His most significant and most famous work was the architecture and decoration of Palazzo Te, the Gonzaga villa residence, once located outside the city, now a short walk from the Ducal palace.

The medieval castle that became the ducal palace of the Gonzaga family
The palazzo ducale in the centre of the city, where the Gonzaga family lived, is huge. The magnificent medieval castle was continuously enlarged throughout the centuries, as can be seen from the changes in the artistic building styles. The most exquisite room is the ‘camera picta’ (the painted room) later dubbed the ‘camera degli sposi’ (the wedding chamber), painted by Andrea Mantegna in 1467-1473. The ceiling is the first example of the trompe l’oeil technique in painting and appears to extend up into the outside with a wonderful balcony where figures and putti peer down onto the viewer below.

Ceiling from the 'camera picta' called 'camera degli sposi' by Andrea Mantegna finished in 1474

The two decorated walls depict the ruling family, Ludovico and Barbara Gonzaga; on the east wall the family together with courtiers and dwarf...

East wall of the camera picta
and on the north wall, Ludovico and his children, most importantly his son, Francesco, recently elected as cardinal.

North wall of the camera picta
Another ‘must see’ in the ducale palace is the studiolo (study) of one of the most cultured, famous and politically active women of her era, Isabella d’Este, the wife of Marquis Francesco II Gonzaga.

Portrait of Isabella d'Este by Titian
Daughter of the duke of Ferrara (another beautiful and important Renaissance centre not too distant from Mantua), Isabella was intelligent and extremely well educated (she was fluent in Latin and Greek), and friend of humanist scholars and artists. She was regent until her son became of age. Isabella commissioned two small private rooms for contemplation and meditation on the ground floor of the palace, along with an intimate garden space, for her envious collection of ancient and modern works of art. Her ‘studiolo’ (study) rivaled those of her male counterparts in the other Italian centres. The walls were lined with paintings by some of the most important artists of the day; Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, Correggio, and Perugino. The cabinets held an impressive collection of ancient and modern gems, cameos and artifacts. Today, there is only the architectural shell to be seen.  However, a little imagination and one can almost hear Isabella somewhere around the corner.

The Gonzaga country structure and stables, located outside the old city’s walls, was renovated by Giulio Romano and transformed into what it is today by the Marquis Federico II (son of Isabella d’Este and Francesco II Gonzaga) who was also to become the first Duke of Mantua.

Palazzo Te
The residence, called ‘Palazzo Te’ after the name of the island on which it was built, ‘Tejeto’ abbreviated to Te (the water canals were subsequently filled in), was made as a place for fun and frolicking for himself and his mistress the Marquise Isabella Boschetti. This explains the subject choice for the exquisite decoration of one of the rooms dedicated to Cupid (Amor) and Psyche.

Cupid and Psyche Bacchanalian feast by Giulio Romano in one of the rooms of the Palazzo Te 
Hand in hand with the magnificent art discoveries comes the food culture of Mantua, well worth some studious attention. It is the home of pork and the quality of the cold cuts and meats from here is known all over Italy.
A good starter is a plate of mixed salames. A must for the first course is the tortelli di zucca which is delightfully sweet, and/or the maccheroni con stracotto (meat cooked over a long period of time - often donkey or horse meat is used).

tortelli di zucca and maccheroni con stracotto 
Well known favourites for the second course is cotecchino (an oversize rich, fresh sausage about 3 inches wide and 9 inches long) which is boiled and served hot, most often with polenta.

cotecchino and stinco di maiale 
The stracotto di cavallo (horse steak) and the stinco di maiale (lamb shanks) are popular main dishes also, washed down with local lambrusco wine (red fizzy wine). Bollito is another great favourite served with mostarda, and is various pork and beef cuts boiled and served with candied fruit such as apples, pears, pumpkin and melon, and a mustard syrup (mostarda is also fabulous with cheese).  The typical deserts from here are sbrisolona (a buttery almond biscuit served in broken pieces).

 Sbisolona - the almond butter biscuit
or the torta di tagliatelle (a pastry base with a filling made from butter, almonds and sugar and topped with tagliatelle).

Torta di tagliatelle 
I stayed at the ‘B & B Casa del Teatro’, conveniently located a few minutes' walk from both the train station and the ducal palace. Cosy and comfy, completely renovated and elegant, it was perfect.

The slow food restaurant where I ate is called Due Cavallini (Via Sainitro 5, Tel: +39 0376 322084)

Saturday, November 19, 2011


The list of places to visit never gets any shorter around here. Last week I visited, for the first time, the sublime Villa Gamberaia located in Settignano, one of the hill top towns that, like a faithful watch dog, overlooks Florence. I recommend this little ‘gita’ (trans: excursion) to anyone who would like a peaceful few hours, away from the hustle and bustle, when visiting Florence, or for those who live here and wish to do something relaxing and new. Bus number 7 from piazza San Marco in the historical centre finishes at Settignano and from here it is a pleasant 15minutes walk to the villa.

The photo moments begin immediately.  With the wonderful vista of Florence down below, and the wide open space of the country side, it's a welcome relief from the tightly packed historical centre and suburbs.

The villa Gamberaia, so named because of the gamberi pond that the owner in the 1600’s created, is privately owned and so only the ground floor of the villa is possible to visit, but the real reason to come here is the garden. The views of Florence and the surrounding countryside, having already been enjoyed on the way here, are spectacular, and the garden is beautifully kept. 

The garden has everything that a good mannerist and Baroque garden should have; grotto, lemon house, parterre, sculptures and a bosco (a wild area ‘untamed’ by man). The ticket for the garden only is 10 euro and, for an extra 5 euro, the ground floor of the villa can also be visited. I loved it at this time of year when there were no flowers, but I look forward to returning next Spring when all will be in full bloom.

The garden is open for visits every day 9am-6pm during the warmer months and from November - March by appointment only (although they were still operating as normal when I visited last week in early November). Tel: 055 607205

Some other gardens close to Florence centre are:
Villa di Castello & Villa di Petraia - a bus ride away, important renaissance villas owned by the Medici family. Open daily, small admission fee.
Villa I Tatti - owned by Harvard University, bus number 7 to Settignano. It was the home of Bernard Berenson (art historican at the beginning of the twentieth century). A tour of Berenson's art collection and the gardens by appointment only (offered on Wednesday afternoons, no admission fee).
Villa le Balze - owned by Georgetown University. Bus number 7 to Fiesole The gardens are beautiful as is the view of Florence below. Visits by appointment, admission fee.
Villa Torrigiani - in the centre of Florence, privately owned by the Torrigiani family. Visits by appointment only, admission fee applies.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


My mum is a born super sleuth and shopper, one of her many fortes is finding very cool shops wherever she is around the world.  Cutting edge or artisanal, she’ll suss it out!  Every time she comes to Florence she discovers a new gem. A few years ago she discovered my now favourite little ceramic shop.

Located around the corner from the Accademia gallery, ‘La botteghina del Ceramista’ in via Guelfa 5/r is run by Daniela, having taken over from her father who opened the shop some decades ago. She sells ceramics from Montelupo in Tuscany and Deruta in Umbria, personally buying direct from the artist/artisans in both areas whom she has known now for years. Montelupo products are largely displayed on the left wall of her shop and the Deruta ceramics on the right. The decorative styles are different from each place. Montelupo ceramics are made in the eponymous little town, Montelupo Fiorentino, located circa twenty-five kilometers from Florence. 

Deruta ceramics from La Botteghina del Ceramista

Deruta ceramics from La Botteghina del Ceramista
Montelupo ceramics from La Botteghina del Ceramista

Montelupo ceramics from La Botteghina del Ceramista

Ceramic production began in this area in the thirteenth century. The town local ceramic export, under the territorial control of the Republic of Florence, greatly increased after Florentine conquest of Pisa, with the opening up of the sea route. This, coupled with the strong backing from local Florentine wealthy merchant families such as the Antinori, encouraged production which reached a peak between 1450 and 1530. 

Antique maiolica pot from Montelupo

The hill top town of Deruta (featuring in the list of the ‘borghi più belli dell’Italia) is a town close to Perugia in the region of Umbria.

Ceramics were not only used as sturdy and aesthetically pleasing table ware but also as interior and exterior decoration for architecture, the cheaper and more malleable version to marble.

A tin-glaze was applied to the earthenware base which created a white glossy opaque base on which designs and images could be applied. The tin glaze is a clear lead glaze to which tin oxide is added in a ratio of apporximately 1:3. First used in the Middle East, the technique was brought to Europe by the Moors in the Spanish area. With the influx of the Hispanic Moorish produced ceramics to Italy, both these original imports and the copied local work in technique and decoration, was dubbed Maiolica after the island Maiorca.

An over glaze was sometimes added which resulted in a brilliant shine and iridescence produced by the metallic oxides. The object was given a second firing at a low temperature in a ‘muffle kiln’ (reduction kiln) which excludes oxygen.

Luca della Robbia, a sculptor and contemporary to Donatello in the first half of the fifteenth century, transformed the tin-glaze terracotta technique into a viable alternative to marble sculpture. He created a large and efficient family workshop in Florence and worked not only for the most important families of Florence, the Repubblic, but his fame spread far and wide to the countryside and other cities in central Italy. One can admire the della Robbia works all over Florence; on the exterior of the Orsanmichele church, in the atrium inside the Pazzi chapel in Santa Croce, inside the Santa Trinita church, the Santi Apostoli church and the cathedral, the Foundling hospital and numerous examples in the Bargello National sculpture museum. His workshop was continued by his nephew Andrea, after his death, and Giovanni, Andrea’s son, after him. So diffused was their work, that their surname has become synonymous with tin-glazed ceramics.

Ceiling of the chapel of the the Portuguese cardinal in San miniato al Monte church showing the four cardinal virtues with the holy spirit in the middle by Luca della Robbia

Ceiling of the Pazzi Chapel in the Santa Croce church (courtesy of Becky Reid).
Resurrection of Christ by Luca della Robbia - the lunette above one of the two sacristies in the cathedral.
In the family homes of those who could afford to do so, it was customary to have a Madonna and child in every room of the house by the fifteenth century. This, and the downturn in the birth rate and thus a concerted push to encourage family life and procreation, led to a boom in workshop production of Madonnas and child as the perfect incarnation of the family and Christian devotion.

Luca della Robbia was much acclaimed for the classicizing calm and serenity infused in his Madonnas, and the ability to capture a real child’s playfulness, while still retaining a certain nobility. The della Robbias had their workshop in the same street as Daniela's shop, in via Guelfa.

Madonna and Child by Luca della Robbia, Orsanmichele
The Medici family created a ceramic workshop at Caffaggiolo, their villa estate circa 20km from Florence. The villa was decorated by tin-glazed ceramic tiles by Luca della Robbia, and on-site they created their own production of objects and table ware. Not much is known about this manufacture as they never produced any for commercial use, only for their own pleasure and for gifts.

By the sixteenth century, the technique was highly sophisticated and mythological and religious scenes were painted onto plates, serving dishes and table tops.

Some common terms explained:

Terracotta (trans: baked earth) is unglazed ceramic. It can also be used to describe glazed ceramic when the body is porous and red. It is often used for figurines or objects that have not been made on a potter’s wheel, which is then often referred to as pottery. The word ceramic comes from the Greek, meaning ‘of pottery’, and is usually referred to as terracotta having been fired and glazed.

The term maiolica was in use from the medieval period for earthenware with designs that resembled the imported Spanish ceramic from the area of Maiorca. It then became the name used only for lustreware, referring to both Spanish imports or local products. Lustreware is ceramic with a metallic glaze that gives an effect of iridescence produced by metal oxides in an over glaze finish produced by a second firing at a lower temperature in a reduction kiln which excludes oxygen. Tin-glaze ware was called bianchi (or white-ware) resulting from the first firing. Later, the term maiolica was used for any tin glazed earthenware, lustred or not.

Faience is the English word often used to describe tin-glaze terracotta. It originates from the name of the town Faenza (in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna) known also for their ceramics.

Ceramic shops in Florence that I like:

La bottegista del via Guelfa –, via Guelfa 5/r

Sbigoli -, via Sant’Egidio, 4/r

Saturday, November 5, 2011


The advertising campaign for the Pringle potato chips ‘once you pop you just can’t stop’ perfectly describes my cantucci addiction. I confess to being shamelessly hooked on cantucci.  I cannot stop at one, or even ten. These almond biscuits are typical of Tuscany.  Called biscotti in the Anglo-Saxon world, they now commonly go by the name cantucci (or cantuccini) in Italian but ‘biscotti di Prato’ is their real name.

Prato, a Tuscan town located about 30 kilometres outside of Florence, is their place of origin as the recipe stands today. The biscuits have been documented in Prato since the seventeenth century, however, they were revamped by the local pastry/biscuit chef Antonio Mattei in the nineteenth century, who opened his shop in 1858, where it still is today.

Cantucci were internationally recognized for their scrumptiousness when, in 1867, Mattei took them to the Universal Exposition (World Expo) in Paris where they received a special mention. These biscuits began to be the hottest sellers in his shop, and their name shifted from ‘biscotti di Prato’ to ‘cantucci’ as his outdoor shop sign read ‘Fabbricante di cantucci’ (Cantucci producer).

Fabbricante di cantucci
This sign referred to another type of rustic biscuit which he sold, hugely popular in the area, made of toasted bread, olive oil and aniseed. Over time, as the production of ‘biscotti di Prato’ superseded that of the traditional cantucci, the name changed. The shop now has been run by the Pandolfini family for three generations and they make the Cantucci to the traditional recipe. These are still the choicest ones to buy for somebody as a gift, even though, I must admit, they aren’t my favourite. I like them a bit more rustic  with a larger quantity of almonds and without the pinenuts that they add.

A fixed standard on most Tuscan dessert menus is ‘Cantucci & Vin Santo’. The biscuits are served with local sweet wine in which the cantucci are dipped. These biscuits can be eaten whenever you like, however this is how they are most commonly served here.

I had my first cooking lesson yesterday with my great mate Graham (renowned far and wide for his divine cooking skills and foodie talents), and we started by making cantucci - and they were fabulous! The ingredients are: self-raising flour, sugar, eggs, butter, toasted almonds and salt. 

Toasting almonds and melting butter
The mixture is then formed into a type of log, left for one hour and then cooked for about 30 minutes.

Afterwards, the logs are cut diagonally, about 1cm in width, and then put back into the oven for a few minutes to crisp a little more on the exterior whilst remaining a little soft inside.

Stay tuned for the next foodie blog with another lesson with Graham in my new series titled 'Prosciutto Grigio'.

Most bakeries in Tuscany sell cantucci, especially in the Prato and Florence provinces. There are two shops in the centre of Florence which specialize in them and where you can also find variants (fig and walnut, orange and dark chocolate etc) even though I am staunchly conservative and stay with the original almond kind.
Where to buy in Florence:  IL CANTUCCIO BISCOTTI DI LEONARDO in Via Nazionale 121/R, and the more recently opened family-run place IL CANTUCCIO in Via Sant'Antonio 23/r. Both are in the area of the central food market (mercato central).