In December most households in Italy set up their presepe, or nativity scene. The basic parts are the stable or manger, with figures of Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the donkey and the ox. Many people expand the scene with depictions of village life, the shepherds and the three wise men. Traditionally the presepe is set up on December 8th and taken down after the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. The first recreations of nativity scenes date back to early medieval times with the “father” of the presepe commonly considered St. Francis of Assisi who set up such a nativity scene in 1223 in order to represent the Christmas story visually for the great majority of people who could not read. There are many carved nativity scenes that are famous in art history such as the one by Arnolfo da Cambio (1289) in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. The city often associated with the presepe is Naples where artists and artisans have a history dating to Baroque times of creating detailed and fantastical carved representations of the nativity. Some examples of Neapolitan nativity figures can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum until January 7th.
Carnegie Hall has organized a festival dedicated to the music and arts of the Venetian Republic – La Serenissima, or “Most Serene Republic.” The Republic grew from Byzantine settlements in a lagoon to a great maritime power and commercial center that was essentially a crossroads between East and West. It flourished for over one thousand years until it fell to Napoleon in 1797. The festival traces the cultural evolution of the Republic with a series of Venetian-themed events of concerts, opera, theater, art and lectures that are taking place at Carnegie Hall but also in other venues.
It’s not often that you watch an old movie again and it lives up to your memories of it. However, Matrimonio all’italiana (1964) directed by Vittorio De SIca and based on Eduardo De Filippo’s play Filumena Marturano is a real gem. It features great performances by its stars Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni who not only could really act but were both incredibly good-looking! The plot could only be Italian – in fact, Neapolitan – and notwithstanding its old-fashioned nature, it’s delightful but also highlights a certain culture and attitude of wartime and post-war Naples. A true pleasure to see again.
During a Valentine’s Day visit to Eataly, among the gourmet and artisanal chocolates, I spotted the old standby Baci Perugina. Of course they are ubiquitous these days and certainly anything but artisanal (Perugina is now owned by Nestle) but they have a certain nostalgia and are, in fact, good. When that craving hits for something sweet and chocolatey, that bite of Bacio (singular!) hits the spot. Baci are iconic in Italy: advertisements for Baci, both print and television are part of modern cultural history. I looked up the story behind Baci and found to my surprise that they were created in 1922 by Luisa Spagnoli – the Luisa Spagnoli who was the founder of the fashion house. The connection? It turns out the enterprising Luisa was the wife of one of the founders of the Perugina chocolate company. Legend has it that Luisa came up with Baci because she was trying to figure out what to do with the leftover fragments of hazelnuts that had been used in other confectionery. She mixed the fragments with chocolate, added a whole hazelnut to each candy and covered it all in dark chocolate. Thus the irregularly shaped confection, with its bump of hazelnut at the top resembling a knuckle on a closed fist. Its original name was the somewhat inelegant “cazzotto” – roughly, “punch” or “wallop.” Giovanni Buitoni, another of the owners of Perugina, and rumored to be Luisa’s lover, had the clever idea of renaming the candy Baci. But there’s more. As anyone who regularly eats Baci knows, also contained in the foil wrapping of each candy is a small paper with a kiss/love-inspired message written on it. These tiny cartouches were added in the 1930s by the artistic director of Perugina at that time. He was inspired, apparently, by the story that the lovers Luisa and Giovanni would exchange love notes which they would pass to each other hidden in the various confections produced by Perugina. Interesting what you learn when you research the history of a chocolate candy!