Sunday, January 22, 2012


Baccala or salted codfish
One of the many loves that I have developed and nurtured since moving to Italy is baccalà. I get very excited every time I see it on the menu, especially as it is dished up and cooked in a variety of different ways depending upon the region. For most Italians, baccalà is salted codfish, except for the biggest consumers of this imported white fish, the Italians from the Veneto region, where the word baccalà is for unsalted codfish, this being referred to in all other areas of Italy as stockfish. Thus in Italy, baccalà is the word referring to the same fish, however, it is typically unsalted in the Veneto (stockfish to all other Italians) and salted to all other regions, such as in Tuscany.

Imported to Italy from the fifteenth century initially through Venice, baccalà  is still today a daily feature in the diet of the Italians from this region, whereas in Florence it appears on the menus typically on Fridays only. One commonly told story recounts that the importation of this versatile fish to Italy dates to 1432 when the Venetian captain Pietro Querini and his crew were shipwrecked on the island of Rost, south of the Lofoten islands off Norway, and to survive they fished and ate the local stockfish, known as baccala, which they continued to eat after returning home.

After the Italian, John Cabot, discovered Newfoundland in 1497, the greater trade routes of cold Atlantic seas made for much greater importation and from the sixteenth century onwards, codfish became continually more widespread in Italian cuisine. It is cheap and the two different preservation procedures used, air drying and salting (similar to that of prosciutto), meant that it was accessible to the poor and was able to be used on Fridays for inland towns when fresh fish wasn’t available.

Salted baccala at the Sant' Ambrogio Market in Florence on Friday, ready to cook. 
The fisherman splits the three to six foot long cod along the belly and discards the backbone, leaving a small portion above the tail. For the salting technique, the codfish is then heavily salted and tightly stacked in many layers. As the cod’s salt bearing cells begin to erupt in reaction to the salt, the liquid is removed and more salt is added. This process continues for about ten days when the water content is under 40% and the fish can be preserved for up to one year. When used for cooking, it must be soaked for up to 48 hours, to rehydrate and remove the percentage of the salt content. The soaking liquid should be changed at least three times during the 48 hours. For the air drying technique, the codfish is immediately treated after being caught and put on supports and left in the open air from February to May. The cold and dry climate, typical of the Scandinavian area, is perfect for this process.  With a temperature ideally below zero it protects the fish from bacteria and insects. After the three months out in the open, it matures in a dry and well ventilated area for a further two to three months. After this process the codfish has lost 70% of its water content but retains most of its nutrients. It is rich in protein, iron salts and calcium.

Baccala mantecato, also called baccala alla veneziana or ‘Venetian style’, is one of the things that I hold close to my heart. The rehydrated air dried codfish (stockfish) is mushed up and mixed with anchovies, oil and milk to form a paste (looks a bit like dense cottage cheese) and then spread in abundance on grilled polenta, or a crostino (small baguette slice). You can find this in the many baccaro bars (traditional tapas like bars in Venice) scattered around the city, and it is a perfect little snack when you meet your mates for an ombra (the Venetian word for an aperitif), ideal at anytime during the day.

Baccala mantecato
Baccala alla vicentina, ‘Vicenza style’, is also stockfish (air dried codfish) and the fish is kept in large flakes or small bite size pieces and prepared with similar ingredients as in Venice. It is eaten more often as a meal and served with soft polenta. 

Baccala alla vicentina
In Tuscany, on Fridays, in local trattorias, baccala alla livornese, Livorno style, will be very often on the menu. In fact, you can find already unsalted baccalà at the local food markets on Fridays so that families can cook it easily at home, avoiding the time consuming de-salting process. Livorno is the largest port in Tuscany, and the way that the Tuscans eat the salted cod is in a fillet, pan-fried, with peeled fresh tomatoes, parsley and garlic.

Baccala alla livornese
Baccala alla romana, Roman style, is deep fried, it is also called baccala fritto alla giudia, fried Jewish style, referring to its possible origin from the Roman Jewish ghetto. There are still some little traditional local bars in Rome, one just off the campo dei Fiori in the historical centre, which cooks this as a snack, and it also features often on the menus.

Baccala alla romana

In Venice I recently had a fabulous plate of baccala mantecato and baccala alla vicentina as a starter in the restaurant 'Antica Adelaide' situated in the Cannaregio area.  The menu here is predominately Venetian cuisine. 
My favourite baccala alla livornese to date in Florence is at 'La Casalinga' near piazza Santa Spirito, made on Fridays only.  If you are keen on trying it, aim to go at lunch time as there may not be any left by dinner time!

Saturday, January 14, 2012


Detail of one of the Agnolo Gaddi frescoes recently restored above the high altar of Santa Croce.  Previous filling of the cracks has been removed and will not be replaced as it damages the fresco further by altering the colours.
Seeing fourteenth century frescoes centimetres away is pretty special, but seeing them many metres up from the ground on the restorers' scaffolding, and being able to touch the ceiling, is a rare and fascinating experience. In an instant role-reversal, we are no longer merely the spectator but it is easy to imagine being the artist, and we are privy to all the little details that the workshop included, details that are missed when seen from a ‘normal’ viewing point, down below.

Scaffolding for the conservation project of the high altar frescoes
The cleaning and conservation project of the high altar frescoes, covering 900,000 square feet, in the main Franciscan church called Santa Croce in Florence, started in 2005, and scaffolding has blocked entry and viewing since then. This huge undertaking was financed by a private Japanese businessman, Mr. Kamazawa, who donated two million euros.  The restoration was carried out by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, a centuries-old Florentine workshop of international repute, devoted to restoration since the nineteenth century. The major part of the work on the frescoes has finished, however the scaffolding will remain until next June whilst the restorers monitor their work. They are also now cleaning and restoring the fourteenth century wooden crucifixion by the Master of Figline which usually hangs above the same high altar. The crucifixion is laid horizontally on a table on one of the many ‘floors’ made from the scaffolding.

Scaffolding surrounding the fourteenth century wooden crucifixion
The Opera di Santa Croce, the administrative body of the Santa Croce church complex, offers guided tours on the scaffolding, in both Italian and English, twice daily to see the frescoes and explain the story that they depict.  Silvia, my guide, talked us brilliantly through the frescoed scenes and answered my endless questions about the recent works. The tour lasts approximately 45 minutes to one hour and, at a cost of 10 euros a person, it is worth every penny. Tours will definitely run until Spring this year and possibly until June, the estimated time when the high altar is planned to be revealed and returned once again to the church.
Restorers' work station high up in the gods
The Franciscan church is dedicated to the holy cross of Christ, and the high altar frescoes, executed between 1380-90 by the Florentine artisan Agnolo Gaddi and his workshop, depict the history of the cross of Christ, from the very origin of the tree from which the wood of the cross was constructed, to its fate after the crucifixion of Jesus. Saint Francis of Assisi was particularly dedicated to the cross, symbolic of the suffering that Christ endured for the saving of mankind and his life. Francis earned the appellation Alter Christus due to the similarities between his own life and way of being and that of  Christ. He, like Christ, renounced worldly possessions and advocated a life of obedience, chastity and poverty (these virtues are symbolically represented by the three knots in the rope around the waist of the Franciscan habit). In 1224, two years before his death, he was the first Christian to receive the stigmata, the transversal of the five wounds that Christ received on the cross, symbolic of Francis’ elevated faith, holiness and reverence of Christ. Considering the mystical association of Francis and Christ with the stigmata, it is not surprising that a Franciscan church is dedicated to the Holy Cross.
A restorer's view of Gaddi's fresco cycle

The story of the wood used to make the cross is wonderfully dramatic. It’s very origins are contemporaneous with the origins of man himself. The history of the cross is narrated, at length, in the bestseller of the mid-thirteenth century, The Golden Legend, by Jacopo della Voragine, the bishop of Genoa and a Dominican friar.  His compilation of religious stories and hagiographies became a ‘must read’ for centuries. 
The first episode at Santa Croce depicts Adam’s death when his third son, Seth, put a branch from the Tree of Good and Evil, given to him by the Archangel Michael, inside the mouth of Adam before burial. This branch grows into a beautiful tree and when King Solomon was building the temple he ordered that the magnificent tree be chopped down so as to use the wood. The wood, however, proved to be too tough to work, and so instead was used to bridge a river. The Queen of Sheba,  crossing this river en route to meet the famous Solomon,  had a vision from God of the future use of the cross and told Solomon when she arrived in Jerusalem. Solomon, knowing that the wood would later be used for the cross of the man who would change the course of history for his people, buried it. Centuries after the crucifixion, Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, was determined to find the cross. She succeeded after much searching and more adventures. It would then be stolen, fought over, and returned to Christian hands, divided up and scattered throughout Christendom.
Discovery of the True cross (detail)

The construction of the True Cross
Another elaborate cycle of the cross in Tuscany, frescoed in the following century, is in another Franciscan church, San Francisco, in Arezzo, by the great fifteenth century artist, Piero della Francesca.

Discovery and proof of the True Cross by Piero della Francesca in San Francisco, Arezzo. Note the beautiful depiction of Jerusalem beyond the hills which is, in fact, Arezzo with its many coloured buildings enclosed by its walls.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


Adoration of the Magi, Filippino Lippi, 1496, oil on panel, Uffizi gallery, Florence.
The Epiphany is celebrated on the 6th of January in the Christian calendar, the day dedicated to the adoration of the Magi of the newborn Christ baby. This was an event celebrated with magnificent pomp and ceremony in fifteenth century Florence. The word Epiphany comes from the Greek, meaning ‘manifestation’ and refers to the physical manifestation of God the son as a human being to the Gentiles, the three wise men. They bring gifts to the Christ child which reflect their understanding of his dual nature; gold, frankincense and myrrh, as symbols of Christ’s regality, sacredness and death, respectively. Over time, the wise men developed more individualised and elaborate symbolism.  Casper, Balthazar and Melchior were often represented as the three main ages of life, and of three ethnic backgrounds.

Adoration of the Magi,  Andrea Mantegna, 1495-1500, oil on canvas, Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
If figurative representation is taken to be an indication of popularity, there were few other cities in Italy which gave such importance to the 6th January, so many are the paintings of the Adoration of the Magi in Florence from this period by some of the greatest artists, commissioned by some of the most important families. The most spectacular example of the subject is the frescoed chapel in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi by Benozzo Gozzoli in 1459-60, commissioned by Piero the Gouty de’ Medici.

Detail of the back and left wall, when looking at the altar, of the private chapel in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi.
Frescoed by Benozzo Gozzoli 1459-60, commissioned by Piero the Gouty de' Medici. 
The date of the Epiphany held even more importance for the Florentines, as it was also the day which John the Baptist, the patron saint of the city, would baptise his second cousin in the Jordon long after the Magi had visited him. This event is now celebrated in the Western church eight days after the Epiphany, on January 13, but in the Orthodox church it is celebrated on 6 January.

A Florentine lay confraternity dedicated to the three wise men (who over time become represented as kings with ever increasing symbolism) staged a re-enactment of the their journey to find the new born Jesus, the King of Kings, every few years. The confraternity was in existence from 1390, the earliest documentary evidence, when the pageant was recorded by a by-stander. It was dissolved with the expulsion of the Medici family in 1494, the ruling family being one of the longstanding active patrons of the confraternity.

2012 re-enactment of the Magi procession
The Compagnia dei Magi, staged a spectacular re-enactment of the story, using most of the city as the stage, every few years. A chronicler recorded that there seven hundred costumed men in the 1429 pageant. Herod’s palace was at the San Romolo church in the piazza della Signoria (now where Rivoire cafe is located), and then the hundreds of horsemen (the entourage for the Magi), and colourful floats with mini skits connected to the history of Florence, such as David and Goliath, make their way to Bethlehem, recreated in piazza San Marco. From the cathedral square or canto di San Giovanni (canto means ‘corner’) along the via Larga (now via Cavour) finishing in San Marco, the street was lined with grandstands, benches and boxes decorated with bunting, rugs and backing.

The pageant didn’t follow a precise route every time, nor a fixed narrative.  In the 1419 pageant, after the Magi visited Bethlehem they came back to the cathedral square where the Massacre of the Innocents was staged. So great and spectacular was the parade, the Compagnia de’ Magi were also called on by the Signoria (the government of the Republic of Florence) to stage re-enactments in times other than the Epiphany. One such time was in 1439, towards the end of the great ecumenical council that Florence had been hosting for the past few years. The most important leaders of the Orthodox and Western churches, their entourages and intellectuals, were all in the city. The splendid Festa dei Magi was included into the Festa di San Giovanni, the week-long festival held for St John the Baptist, the city’s patron saint. 

For four generations, the Medici capo di famiglia (head of family) were members of the Compagnia de Magi. In the 1459 pageant, the future Lorenzo the Magnificent, then ten years old, was an active participant. The subject was chosen by his father as the decoration of the chapel in their nearly completed Renaissance merchant home. This was the first private chapel in a private home in Italy. The underlining message here was that the Medici family were the kings of Florence in all but name and the republic was something of the past. The fresco was exquisitely executed.  Benozzo Gozzoli had trained under the sublime Dominican Observant friar, Fra Angelico in the San Marco monastery years before, another Medici funded project. The colours have a jewel-like quality and the costumes have a tactility about them that makes you want to reach out and touch them . 

Detail of the back wall in the Medici chapel, Balthazar, Benozzo Gozzoli, 1459-60, fresco, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. 

A Magi is depicted on each wall with their accompanying entourage.  These are like the social pages of Hello! Magazine, the leading allies of the Medici family, both domestic and foreign, clearly discernible. The background is similar for all three, a running landscape with lush green hills, prime for hunting (a favourite pastime of the family), dotted with castle-villas.

Detail of right wall when facing the altar, Melchior and entourage, Benozzo Gozzoli, 1459-60, fresco, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. Portrait of Cosimo the Elder dressed in black riding a donkey behind the Youngest Magi, his son, Piero the Gouty, to the right on a white horse. Riding a horse in the far left corner is Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, Lord of Rimini, and next to him is Galeazzo Sforza, intended future ruler of Milan.  
They too all arrive, prima o poi (sooner or later), at the Christ baby to adore him, a Filippo Lippi Madonna and child (now replaced with a copy, the original is in Berlin).

Adoration of the child,  Filippo Lippi, 1459, tempera on panel, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin.