There’s something very captivating about Trastevere, despite the busy night time crowds and touristy restaurants. It’s just a hop over a bridge to Centro Storico, Rome’s ancient centre, and depending on which bridge you take, you’ll land in a different precinct. Getting lost is part of a good day in Rome as you find new streets and more colours until once again, a familiar piazza or ancient Roman building pops up before your very eyes and you know where you are. Rome is always surprising.
One bridge takes you to the Jewish quarter, a great place to wander about on a weekday morning but avoid the weekends when this district is swamped with lunchtime crowds and restaurant spruikers.
Another bridge takes you to the working class, gritty suburb of Testaccio, with its central food market and authentic Roman trattorie. You’ll pass yet more ancient Roman treasures along the way, some just lying about, and wonder why you hadn’t seen them before. There’s a certain insouciance in Rome when it comes to antiquity and this is part of the charm.
Other bridges lead you through some official districts until you wander past Palazzo Farnese and find yourself in Campo Dei Fiori and nearby Piazza del Biscione, with its old style restaurants, another market and a superb fornaio ( bakery) on the corner.
The walls seem to glow in Rome’s cold late Autumn light, an attraction in themselves. Layers of ochre, pinks and reds, some colours when weathered, have no name at all. They are the colours washed by time, the colours that make you keep wandering and wondering, the colours of Rome.
This summer throughout January, I’m catching up with some of my unpublished stories from earlier travels in Europe in 2017. Some posts will be light-hearted, centered around food and accommodation, ‘the best of’ reports, while others are research based essays. It will be rewarding to polish them up and give them a final airing. Of course there will be a few cooking posts along the way too.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Agostino Chigi lately, and wondering why there’s not a great deal written about him. Given that he commissioned one of the most elegant and beautiful buildings of the Renaissance, Villa Farnesina in Trastevere, Rome, and was a generous patron of the arts, I find this quite unusual.
Agostino Chigi, (pronounced kee-gee) was a 15th to 16th century banker who was born in Siena then moved to Rome to assist his father, Mariano Chigi in 1487. He became the wealthiest man in Rome, especially after becoming banker to the Borgia family, in particular Pope Alexander V, followed by Pope Julius 11. If there’s one thing that helps a banker stay at the top, it’s having business dealings in Rome and becoming the Pope’s treasurer. The Florentine Medici, Giovanni di Bicci and Cosimo de’ Medici, also milked their Roman and Papal connections in the preceding years. Chigi’s financial interests expanded to obtaining lucrative control of important minerals, including the salt monopoly of the Papal States and Naples and the alum monopoly in Southern Italy. Alum was the essential mordant in the textile industry. With financial and mining interests, like a modern-day crony capitalist and entrepreneur, Chigi was ready to splurge.
The connection between the arts and banking makes an interesting Renaissance study in itself ¹. Banking families were keen patrons of the arts, not only in a bid to show off their taste and refinement, but also to cast off the slur of usury. Usury, making profit from charging interest on a loan, was a crime in 15th century Europe: a usurer was heading straight to hell, according to the main religious thinking of the day, unless he made a few corrections to that practice, through intricate bills of credit requiring lengthy international currency exchange deals. Banker patrons, worried about their afterlife, could buy a place in heaven by financing religious works -perhaps a marble tomb for a Pope, or some fine brass relief doors for a baptistry, or a few walls of religious themed freschi demonstrating their piety and devotion by appearing as genuflecting bystanders in a painting or two.
Chigi, like other bankers before him, was keen to spend time with the literati and patronised the main artistic figures of the early 16th century, including Perugino, Sebastiano del Piombo, Giovanni da Udine, Giulio Romano, Il Sodoma and Raffaele. These artists, and the architect Baldassare Peruzzi, all had a hand in making Villa Farnesina so attractive and harmonious. But the main feature you’ll notice in the painted works is its secularity: no religious themes appear in the decoration at all. Thus somewhere between the mid 15th century and 1508, when this building was commissioned and begun, the subject of the visual arts had shifted. Here, the freschi depict classical and historic themes: there’s not a Madonna or baby Jesus in sight except for those cheeky putti holding up garlands. I doubt that Agostino Chigi was overly concerned with the sin of usury. Times had changed.
The ground floor room, the stunning Loggia di Psiche e Amore, was designed by Raffaele, though was mostly executed by one of his followers Giulio Romano, and seems heavier in style. It’s not the best secular work by Raffaele: his most graceful works are held in the quiet gallery of Gemäldegalerie, in Berlin, Germany ( more on this gallery later). The decorative garlands and festoons are by Giovanni da Udine, and although hard to get close to, draped as they are on high ceilings and around tall window sills and pillars, they steal the show.
Sensuous and erotic, the total effect of the Loggia is complete in its aim and purpose. This is a pleasure palace, a space decorated with pagan themes of love and seduction from classical mythology, designed to amuse Chigi’s guests. The modern addition of a walled glass fronting the garden allows more light to shine on the rich colours and detail. It is delightful.
Upstairs in a smallish room, the wall panels by Il Sodoma, ( catchy nick name for the artist, Giovanni Antonio Bazzi , no two guesses why), depict scenes from the marriage of Roxana and Alexander. In such a small space, the painted walls are ceilings are visually overwhelming.
At the end of the 16th century, Villa Farnesina was bought by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese ( of course a Cardinal needs an erotically decorated villa) and its name “Farnesina” was given to distinguish it from the Cardinal’s much larger Palazzo Farnese on the other side of the Tevere. Today the Villa is the centre for the AccademiaNazionale dei Lincei, the Italian Science Academy and the rooms are open to visitors. Palazzo Farnese, across the river, is occupied by the French Consulate and is not open to the public.
These small decorative motifs on window shutters and in cornices add to the overall aesthetic of the villa.
Some useful accompanying notes.
Giorgio Vasari, (1511-1574) author of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors andArchitects, often simply called Vasari’s ‘Lives’, was the first art historian and the first to use the term rinascita ( Renaissance) in print, though an awareness of the ongoing “rebirth” in the arts had been in the air since the writings of the Florentine Humanist, Alberti, almost a century earlier. He was responsible for the use of the term Gothic Art, and used the word Goth which he associated with the “barbaric” German style. His work has a consistent bias in favour of Florentines and tends to attribute to them all the developments in Renaissance art. Vasari has influenced many art historians since then, and to this day, many travellers to Italy are blinded by Vasari’s Florentine list and bias, at the expense of other important works in Milano and Rome. Vasari, however, does recognise the works in the Farnesina.
¹ The nexus between banking and art patronage is fully explored by Tim Parks in Medici Money. Banking, Metaphysics and Art in Fifteenth- Century Florence,one of my favourite books. I am now re- reading this excellent history: it is written in an accessible style and makes for enjoyable summer reading, for those who like reading about the Renaissance.
² Various papers on the festoons and garlands in the Villa Farnesina in Colours of Prosperity Fruits from the Old and New world, produced by the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei and purchased at Villa Farnesina in Rome.
Villa Farnesina is in the quiet part of Trastevere, well away from the tourist hordes in that precinct, and during our visit last November, had only a few visitors. Sadly the garden wasn’t open.
Rome, my favourite city, is often visited at the beginning or end of our travels. There’s a problem with this and it’s taken me 32 years to work it out. Visiting Rome before heading off on a long journey allows you to see her wonders with fresh eyes, vigour and enthusiasm but often the visit is cut short by an eagerness to travel to the proposed, more anticipated, Italian or European destination. Visiting Rome at the other end of the holiday often means that you are less eager to wake early and are suffering from church and museum overload. Your legs will hurt as you wander along kilometres of Rome’s cobblestoned ways, but at least your muscles have been in training.
Often a mysterious melancholy descends when you realise that Rome needs more time. It always does. It doesn’t matter how often you visit, Rome will continue to unfold and excite, tripping you up along the way with unexpected finds, more exciting lanes and suburbs, new bridges and villas. I use the word ‘unexpected’ as this is what Rome does. Once away from the usual Roman icons, you discover lesser known classical ruins, just lying about, some rarely visited, and suburbs with real markets, Roman lifestyle and ‘local’ osterie, views never imagined from yet more hills, and more of that exciting Roman night-time brio. And just when you think you know Rome, you realise that you know nothing at all.
Memories are reinterpreted and revised as favourite districts and churches are revisited, a rainy day enlivens Bernini’s sculpture, all that masculine flesh glows with new vigour. Wet marble and muscle, pink and black veined. Sant’Agnese provides shelter from the storm and a rest for weary feet. Another Baroque church beckons, Sant’Andrea delle Valle, or maybe a visit to Feltrinelli’s bookshop, or is it time for a Prosecco?
Although winter is nigh, Rome glows pink. I want to keep wandering all day and night, but my legs can’t keep up with my desires. And that thing that I finally discovered so late in life? Rome is a destination in itself. One day I’ll just go there and nowhere else.
My Zucchini Festival continues today with another good zucchini pasta recipe ( see below) and a look at the seeds which produce this fecund vegetable. This year I planted two varieties of zucchini in my orto. The first to go in were the Black Jack variety, purchased as seedlings from a country market. They are the most common variety of zucchini grown in Australia, with vigorous, fast growing plants, high yields, and smooth dark green skin. Unfortunately for seed savers, they are also hybrids. The other variety, the Zucchino Striato d’Italia, or Italian striped zucchini, is easily grown from seed, and whilst not so prolific, which could be a good thing, they are definitely superior in taste and texture. An heirloom variety, this means you can save the seed for future plantings, a routine worth following when growing your own vegetables. The flavour is reminiscent of the zucchini grigliati we ate in the small trattorie in Trastevere, Roma. The other variety I’ve planted in the past is the yellow zucchini- a poor performer both in taste, yield and keeping quality, despite the lovely colour.
Today’s simple pasta dish marries Mafaldine pasta with small cubes of zucchini, saffron and cream. Mafaldine pasta is ribbon shaped pasta with curly edges and is also known as Reginette. The photos don’t do justice to the creaminess of this dish.
Mafaldine con Zucchini, Panna e Zafferano . Mafaldine Pasta with Zucchini, Cream and Saffron (for 2 medium serves)
180g mafaldine or other long ribbon egg pasta
2 small zucchini, cut into small cubes
1/2 small white onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 Tablespoons olive oil
pinch dried chilli
generous pinch of saffron threads
1 cup cream
Bring ample salted water to the boil in a large pot.
Heat a large wide frying pan or non stick wok for the sauce. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil then the chopped onion and garlic. When softened, add the cubes of zucchini, some salt, and a pinch of dried chilli. Stir about and cook on low heat for around 20 minutes.
Add the Mafaldine ( or chosen pasta) to the boiling water and cook for the required time.
Use a little of the cooking water and add to the saffron to soften, then add this to the zucchini mixture. Add a cup of cream and raise the heat so that the cream thickens. Add more cream if necessary.
When the pasta is ready, drain and add to the zucchini cream sauce in the pan. Toss about. Save a little pasta cooking liquid to loosen the sauce, if necessary.
Serve with ample grated parmigiano cheese.
I enjoyed this dish on this cooler summer day. It will be included in my annual Zucchini Festival repertoire. It cost tuppence to make, allowing the splurge on a pinch or two of precious saffron pistils and a nice chunk of Reggiano Parmigiano cheese to serve.
contorni di verdure
Malfaldine or Reginette Pasta
Good Italian Parmigiana and my favourite tool, the microplane.
Small plates of ‘sides’ have become very fashionable in Melbourne: many modern, inner suburban restaurants now offer meals involving a long sequence of little shared plates which are usually vegetarian. This is a great trend and one that I hope will spread. But surely there must be a better English word than ‘sides’ or ‘small plates’ for these sexy vegetarian offerings. ‘Accompaniments’ sounds too wooden and old school. The Italian term contorni strikes me as a more befitting word, meaning the things that surround il secondo or main course. I contorni traditionallyhave their own section on the Italian menu. If visiting Italy, read the menu in a different way, perhaps in a more modern way, and you’re likely to find plenty of fresh tasty vegetarian food in Italian restaurants to savour and enjoy.
When Mr T and I travel in Italy, we often order un primo piattto, usually a pasta, soup or risotto, which are generally vegetarian and often quite small, followed by a few different contorni and a salad for the main. As we don’t eat meat, and as good fish is not always readily available except in Sicily, this is our preferred main course. Years ago this ordering pattern raised a few eyebrows; now it is quite normal.
At home, a few plates of contorni make a perfect dinner, especially if you want to avoid the farinaceous approach to vegetarianism. Here are a few of our recent summer sides.
Contorno di Patate. Line a metal baking dish with baking paper, cut peeled potatoes into 1 cm slices. I use Nicola or Dutch cream potatoes (yellow fleshed potatoes) for flavour. Drizzle with good oil, dust with smoked pimenton, salt flakes and add a whole unpeeled garlic bulb. Bake at 180 for 45 minutes.
Contorno di Fagioli Scritti e Verdi. Beans in season. Cook fresh borlotti beans until soft but still with a little bite for around 20 minutes. Slice the green beans into small chunks, and cook to your liking. I don’t like them squeaky green as you can see. Mine are softish but not mushy: they match the texture of the borlotti. Mix in a serving bowl or platter, add salt and pepper, then your best olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Toss and serve warm or at room temperature.
Radicchio alla griglia. Loosen the leaves from a head of radicchio. Heat a ridged cast iron griddle on the gas top, and get it nice and hot before grilling the radicchio. Sprinkle with a little oil and salt as you go, and turn around with tongs. The leaves will wilt very quickly. Remove, add to your serving dish, grill some more leaves, adding a few drops of oil with each batch. Layer with crushed garlic as you go. This is my favourite way of eating radicchio. I’m looking forward to cooking cabbage and cavolo nero /Tuscan kale in this way in winter. My big black griddle lives permanently on the stove.
Good side dishes rely on delicate, well-balanced seasoning and dressings. Don’t skimp on good olive oil but go lightly with balsamic vinegar or lemon juice. A good Vincotto makes an excellent dressing for summer vegetables. Adding toasted nuts and seeds is a lovely trend. For an Italian touch, think toasted fennel seeds or pine nuts. Toasted left over sourdough bread, baked in the oven with olive oil and fennel seeds adds another delicious element. Cunza di pane, a crunchy Sicilian condiment, uses leftover bread, a very handy thing.
These are my modern takes on Italian contorni and every day we invent new versions. They are economical, healthy and fast to make, especially if you cook with the seasons, keep a herb garden and a pantry of interesting condiments.