A More than Meets the Eye Moment -The Iconic Cross of San Damiano

The town of Assisi in Umbria is one of the most significant spiritual centers in the world. A land of religious fervor where saints walked the hillsides and forests and lived lives that changed the world. The gentle spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi continues to influence all who are open to the teachings of Francis who first heard God’s calling in a small church outside the city walls while praying at the iconic cross of San Damiano directing him to “Rebuild My Church”.

Crucifix of San Damiano

The iconic cross of San Damiano is not iconic in the sense of small graphic symbols on a computer screen or as references to powerful cultural figures but iconic as in a religious image or painting on a wooden panel used for prayer and devotion. The iconic Cross of San Damiano was painted in the 12th century by an unknown Umbrian artist living near Assisi. The cross is called an iconic cross because it contains images of persons who have a part in its meaning. As a religious icon and work of art the lines, colors and pictures teach the significance of the event and create a personal encounter with the sacred.

The symbolic meaning of an icon is part of a distinct spiritual tradition of the eastern church. Byzantine icons are religious imagery found in Eastern Christianity (peculiar to Byzantium, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Jordan, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Russia). Icons are images of a spiritual world both seen and unseen. They evoke a sense of spiritual mystery to engage us in a “more than meets the eye” moment. There’s often a lot going on in an icon (artistically and spiritually) and for early Christians it read like an open book.

Thought to have been painted by an eastern Christian monk living in the area, the imagery of the icon Cross of San Damiano expresses the Paschal Mystery of Christ. It is a layered and varied story with a cast of characters that were part of his death, resurrection and ascension into glory. cross-partGolden halos, medallions of red and mantles of blue,calligraphic scrolls, a Roman soldier and his son and groups of astonished angels all join together to teach us about the miraculous intercession of God in the life of mankind. Beautifully and skillfully painted icons, like the mosaics of Ravenna, are a medium for instruction and inspiration and a connection between God and man.

Contemporary iconographer Photios Kontoglou (1895-1965) reminds us that icons are more than mere wood and paint making up a physical image rather “icons raise the soul and mind to the realm of the spirit.”

Today the Cross of San Damiano hangs in the Basilica of St. Clare in Assisi.


Hortus Conclusus

As I begin to put my garden to bed for the Winter my thoughts are never far from its reawakening in the Spring. A typical read for me on a snowy winter day usually has something to do with gardening. “Half the interest of a garden is the constant exercise of the imagination” (Mrs. C.W. Earle, Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden, 1897) that spurs a gardener to come up with new designs and combinations every year.

garden-ortoMy inspiration comes from a little known monastic garden at the University of Perugia that I visited with my Umbrian friends, Luca and Luigi. The garden houses a collection of plants which are of scientific value because they contain DNA that allows for the study of  ancient genetic lines. Historically the garden is reminiscent  of a Hortus conclusis, a garden surrounded by a wall in which medicinal herbs and edible plants were grown. Located on the site of a Benedictine monastery, the University garden (Orto Botanico dell’Università di Perugia) was meant to be “symbolic” in that the placement of certain plants was based on religious and cultural  customs and conventions reflecting myths and beliefs typical of the period.

The first part of the garden is elliptically shaped like an egg and surrounded by water features representing the rivers of the Garden of Eden.  A succession of symbolic plantings and trees create a pathway to renewal and healing with medicinal plants for treatment, hygiene and nutrition meticulously labeled with common plant names used during the middle ages. The arrangement of semi-circular open-air seating , the Theatrum, was once used by the monks to distribute food and medicinals to the city’s needy.

hortusDesigning a garden where every plant is meant to nourish the mind, body and spirit   within a confined space is a little like creating a metaphoric garden of Eden. Something I can exercise my imagination on over the next few months.


Truffle Times

white truffle
Some have described the aroma and flavor of the Italian truffle as rich and intense with a taste of honey and garlic reminiscent of the earthy woods in which it is found. Others have described them as a misshapen knot with an aroma best left in the leafy understory of the woods. Each to his own but I would suggest that you give truffles a try. Italians eat them raw, shaved over egg dishes or plain pastas, infused in olive oil or honey, in risotto and soft polenta (I had them over braised pigeon on my last trip).
A few years ago I stayed in the village of San Giovanni d’Asso, in the heart of  the Crete Senesi, where I was able to get up close and personal with the legendary white truffle. S.G. d’Asso is the home of the Museo di Tartufo, Italys first museum dedicated to the truffle. The museum created by a pharmacist, a chef and a botanist is located in a 13th century castle. But this is only one of the many wonderful things about the town, the other is a the town itself and a remarkable locanda (country inn) called Locanda del Castello where Selvana, her son Massimo create the most pleasant soggiorno for you to enjoy truffles, termes and Tuscany plus other activities from wine and cheese tastings to horseback riding and cycling.
Many cities and towns in Northern Italy, Tuscany and Umbria celebrate the white truffle with food festivals and markets during October and November. The town of Alba in Piemonte is the classic big box tourist destination for white truffles in Italy but the towns of Savigno, NW of Bologna (1-2-3 Sunday in November), San Giovanni d’Asso south of Siena (2-3 weekend in November) and Citta’ di Castello in Umbria (1st weekend in November) all have regional truffle festivals.
A good introduction to the taste of the Italian truffle is by way of a honey available at CosituttiMarketPlace . This luxurious millefiori honey has a precious sliver of Italian truffle in every jar. A balance of earthiness and sweetness. Here you can also find some recipes for using this honey in the most extraordinary ways.
Some interesting facts about truffles 
  • The aroma and flavors of truffles was thought to be so intoxicating that the Church in the Middle Ages regarded the seductive appeal of truffles as dangerous and they were banned from Medieval kitchens.
  • Rossini, the famous Italian composer, admitted that he had wept only 3 times in his life, “Once when my first opera failed, once again when I heard Paganini play the violin and once when the truffled turkey fell overboard at a boating picnic”.
  • A tartufaio, truffle hunter, accompanied by his trained dog will search early in the morning for truffles when the air is clear and favorable for the dog to smell out the truffle.
  • The most sought after white truffles are found only in select geological pockets in central and northwest Italy, Croatia and Slovenia, and the yield each autumn cannot keep up.
  • The amount of truffle oil required for most recipes costs 25 to 50 cents, a small price to pay for an aroma and flavor that is so unique and irresistible.

La Macchina

enzo ferrariDriving a Ferrari on the streets of Maranello was a definite alpha Italy experience so when motorvalley.com launched in March with information and locations of Italian automobile museums, a calendar of racing and car show events and discounts on car driving experiences we were all over it.

The revved up Emilia Romagna tourism website also lists day tours of factories and showrooms and some great offers to immerse you into the “land of taste and motors”.  The province of Emilia Romagna in northeastern Italy is home to Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, Pagani and De Tomaso luxury car manufacturers as well as Ducati motorcycles and the taste towns of Bologna and Modena. You can sample the regions’s iconic  Aceto Balsamico, Lambrusco wine and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and satisfy your inner racer along the way.

The site also has an interesting section about the stories and characters significant to Italian motor racing and car manufacturing.

eric ferrari

Our travel group at the Hotel Arthur close to the Ferrari factory (Modena area)


Truffles for the Common Man

white truffleOk we admit it – we’re truffleholics. Ever since we spent time visiting the Truffle Museum in San Giovanni d’ Asso (25 miles southeast of Siena) and gorging ourselves on pappardelle with shaved truffles we can’t seem to get enough. Even if we only can get a taste of the essense in an oil or a sliver in a honey or cheese we will pursue it with a passion.

Italian truffles are an example of a singular ingredient that can be used to transform a dish into a gastronomic wonder. If you shy away from them, don’t. There are more reasons to like them then not and despite the recent negativity from naysayers that truffle oil is only infused olive oil with the chemical odorant in real truffles (who ever thought you could extract an oil from a truffle, anyway?), the extraordinary scent is still coveted by chefs and gastronomes. Fresh truffles are a rare and expensive
treat. Outside of Italy and other indigenous places of origin sensible to enjoy only on a special occasion. Even in Italy, the home of some of the world’s best  truffles, Italians look upon them with reverence, do not take them for granted and will travel to enjoy them in season.

So for those of us who cannot grab our dog and dig in the most secret places among the roots of forested Italian oak, hazel, poplar and beech or spend a small fortune on truffles served at a Michelin starred restaurant we consider ourselves fortunate to be able to savor the flavor of truffles in a more common way. There are some very good and authentic truffle oils, butters, salts, cheeses and honeys available online and in specialty food shops. Trader Joe’s makes a cheese with black truffles from central Umbria that will stand in for our favored truffled pecorino. We use it to make a recipe from Norcia called Salsicce Farcite – meaning stuffed sausage. You can do these on the grill or in the oven for a easy yet sophisticated dish that will have your friends and family wondering at what Italian cooking school you’ve been studying.

truffle sausages

Salsicce Farcite

  • 4 sweet Italian sausages, casings removed.
  • ¼ pound truffled cheese.
  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the skinless sausages on a roasting pan and bake in the preheated oven 10 minutes, or until almost cooked.
  • Cool 5 minutes. Using a paring knife, make a long slit down the middle of each sausage (but be careful not to cut all the way through-you still want the sausages to hold together). Stuff the slits with the cheese and return the sausages to the oven. Bake another 10 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and the sausages are cooked all the way through.
  • Serve hot, with crusty bread and a green salad tossed with olive oil. Serves 4.

The Market of the Flea

flea marketThe piazze and arcaded porticoes of Italy are the settings for some of Italy’s most pleasurable shopping experiences. The great antique and flea markets of Italy are tucked into the nooks and crannies of almost every town, village and city where locals and tourists alike can find unexpected treasures and destination bargains at open air stands and tented booths.

The markets often have colorful names like the Mercantino del Pidocchietto (Little Louse Market) in Passignano sul Trasimeno near Perugia or the Mercato delle Briciole (Market of the Crumbs) in Spoleto. Although the name alludes to the cast offs or crumbs that fall from the master’s table, the antiques, crafts and collectables found at this market are anything but. Located in the centro storia (historic center) of the city over 100 exhibitors fill their stalls with antiquarian delights and products typical of the region.

These cose d’altri tempi, things from another time remind us of long cherished heirlooms that connect us to the past. We can only imagine, or if we are lucky hear, the stories of the interior life found in each object. The connection to an owner, place or event that lives on in their material possessions.

Two of the most famous antique fairs in Italy are in the town of Arezzo with more than 1,000 vendors from Italy and all over Europe and the Mercatore del Naviglio Grande, held along the canals of Leonardo in Milan’s artsy Navigli district. You can wander over 2 kilometers of stands while shopping the unique stores found in Navigli.
Here are a few antique and flea markets to see and savor in Italy including the evocative Il Tarlo (The Moth) held in Genoa. Check on-line for dates and specific locations as markets are often seasonal.

Fiera del Cardinale – Cardinal’s Fair (Varese)
Carabattol Fiera – Fair of the Trinkets (Vinci)
La Soffitta in Piazza – The Attic in the Piazza (Ravenna)
Cose di Vecchie Case – Things from Old Houses (Belluno)

Grounded in History

sampietriniIf you’ve traveled in Italy you’ve probably walked on thousands of stone pavements and roadways covered in cobblestones with little regard for their importance. Yet like everything in Italy they do have a history especially the bevelled stones of black basalt, the sampietrini that line the streets of Rome.

After recurring carriage accidents due to the faulty roadways and ancient potholes near St. Peters, various Popes employed Vatican artisans and tradesmen to repair and repave Piazza San Pietro with a special type of stone cut and sized by hand and pounded into a compressed bed of sand and dirt. The stones laid were called “sampietrini”, the dialectical version of sanpietrini, after the “little St. Peters”, workmen who took care of the maintenance in and around the Vatican.

Throughout the years various geometric patterns, fans, herringbones and sampietrini rainbows lined the streets of Rome, a quaint reminder of the historical charm of the city. However because of its peculiarities, the sampietrini are no longer suitable for the streets of Rome. High traffic volumes and high speed vehicles find the irregular pavement hazardous and if you’ve walked the sampietrini in the rain you know they can be slippery.

In Janurary 2015 Rome’s Mayor Walter Vetroni, declared the stones of St. Peter “dangerous” for pedestrians and cars.  A hazard that needs to be replaced with regular pavement. He ordered the removal of the sampietrini wherever possible, citing the “damage to monuments, noise pollution, hazards to small two wheeled vehicles and complaints of pedestrians”. There are plans to replace them with larger, flatter stones embedded into a concrete foundation, similar in appearance to the old sampietrini but much easier on tires and pedestrians. Although the sampietrini will remain in certain parts of the city the streets of a Roman Holiday will seem a little less grounded in history.