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!
Many towns in Italy hold historic competitions of different types that recall past times. Perhaps best-known is Siena’s Palio, a no-holds barred horse race in the town’s oval-shaped Campo. Also famous is Venice’s “regatta” of the feast of the Redemptor. Or Gubbio’s Palio in which teams compete with crossbows. Possibly one of the most amazing competitions is the violent sport known as “calcio storico” which is played in Florence and which was the subject of a recent article in The New York Times. It is a mix of rugby, wrestling, soccer and brutality and broken bones. As the title of the article goes: a most dangerous game, but one that still has an impassioned following given the numbers of cheering spectators.