$19.99An Unconventional Guide to Italian Culture from A to Z
ISBN 978-1-60952-131-8 328 pages
The book is organized alphabetically, but nothing is ever quite that straightforward when it comes to Italy. Even if you choose to read these mini-essays sequentially, you may very well feel as though you’re wandering the mysterious alleys of a medieval town, the hidden vicoli of a larger city, or even along the serpentine canals of La Serenissima. Unexpected connections emerge and fresh discoveries await even the most sophisticated Italophile. Or perhaps you’ll choose to dip in and out at random. Either way, just relax—you’re in Italia!—and enjoy the passeggiata. Readers who are planning to visit a specific Italian city or region may wish to consult the special Traveler’s Topic Index at the end of the book.
Charmingly illustrated, La Dolce Vita University brings the glorious and fascinating mosaic of Italy to life with wit, exuberance, and joy—a celebration of why we love Italy.
I’ve been writing this book my entire life … though I only realized it a few years ago.
My earliest sense of myself was not just that I was a little girl but that I was Italian. This made me feel special. I don’t know why I felt this, but I did. As it happens I wasn’t born in Italy, and Italian was spoken only rarely in our household by my father and grandmother and occasionally by visiting relatives.
Three of my four grandparents immigrated at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and my parents came of age during the Depression. A favorite family story was that when my father was courting my mother, he once gave blood for a small payment so he could buy her a Coke. He graduated from medical school, they married, war was declared, and my father joined the Navy. Like so many Italian-Americans, my father was eager to defend the country of his birth. (During the war his troop ship participated in the invasion of Sicily.) After the war family life resumed, and eleven years later I made my grand entrance. My parents were fiercely proud of being Americans, but within the family there was also tremendous pride in our Italian heritage. Both my parents imparted this to me in ways that were more than just a “feeling.” I learned to appreciate being Italian through the lenses of their personal interests and passions.
Every Sunday after church, my father gave me my Italian lessons. Lessons always began with words and pronunciation but inevitably lead to what I loved best, stories—the stories of my father’s favorite Italian geniuses throughout Italy’s history, beginning with the Romans. Daddy admired Julius Caesar and was named for him: Pasquale Julius Caesar. Julius Caesar had been captured by pirates when he was a teenager, crossed a famous river, and triumphally returned to Rome as one of the most brilliant military leaders who ever lived. I had several favorite stories: the story of Galileo dropping a big ball and a little ball off the Leaning Tower in Pisa; of Mr. Vivaldi teaching young orphan girls to sing and play violin in Venice; of Michelangelo painting the great ceiling upside down all by himself; and a sad story of Dante who couldn’t marry Beatrice, the girl of his dreams, but who instead wrote the greatest love story in the world, dedicated to her. Like all children I loved to hear my favorite stories over and over, and they imprinted on me just like Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood.
My mother much preferred art to history and loved Italian Renaissance art in particular. She had several big beautiful books of paintings which we would often look at together. By the age of seven, I could reliably identify a Raphael from Michelangelo or a Botticelli from a Titian, and began forming my own artistic opinions. My parents are very proud of my precocious skill which I was called upon to display for relatives, all of whom were naturally impressed! But I can also remember feeling frustrated with Mom’s love of Madonna and Child scenes, especially during the Christmas season. I would beg her to choose a family Christmas card with Santa Claus, Frosty or, better yet, Rudolf—yet she would not relent and stuck with her beloved Madonnas or a Holy Family, even on the postage stamps! One year she selected a card with Raphael’s Madonna Della Seggiola which caused me to impertinently ask why the baby Jesus was so chubby. There was no critiquing Raphael, her very favorite artist. When I was eight we all traveled to Italy and visited the Vatican Museum; my mother was so moved by Raphael’s Transfiguration she wept.
My father died prematurely three years later. By that time I had outgrown his storytelling, but I can still remember those stories almost word for word. My mother lived a long life, and art and painting and applied arts—not just by great Italians—always filled her with wonder, and she passed that passion on to me.
I passed through my teen years and young adulthood with the typical detachment young people can have from their childhood. Italy receded into the background as I built a career in advertising and marketing while also traveling widely across six continents for work and play.
Then in 1995 I signed up for a cycling trip in Sicily with a boutique travel company specializing in “authentic” Italy with native guides. A magical thing happened: I rediscovered my roots and I fell deeply in love with the land of my ancestors. Following that fateful trip, I took dozens more (eleven by bike) exploring the cities and the countryside in every region, seeing Italy in summer and winter and spring and fall, and delighting in the richness of its cultural gifts. In 2007, while a consultant to the Ciao Bella Gelato company, I co-created and co-led a unique tour dubbed the Giro del Gelato which went on to be awarded “Best Trip in Western Europe” by Outside Magazine.
But that original “Bella Sicilia” tour was life-changing, and that is no exaggeration. As a result, I resolved to open an Italian-inspired restaurant, not because I was a foodie—though I love food!—but because I wanted to create a place through which my guests could feel they too were “there” even when they were still “here.” About 12 years later I made that dream a reality and operated a very special restaurant for nearly a decade. It was called Via Vanti! (a contraction of via and avanti for “the way forward”) and was very popular, not just because its food was delicioso—we were a top Zagat®-rated restaurant for years—but because of the experience we created for our guests. We transformed the interior of a landmark train station into a veritable jewel box decorated with colorful Murano light fixtures, a Carrera marble bar, and assorted Venetian design motifs. Patrons were greeted with a dazzling gelato case offering 18 award-winning flavors daily. I took on the role of both Culinary and Cultural Director and became the impresario of all sorts of special dining events with catchy titles like Carnevale Evening in Venice, Swept Away in Sardinia, Sicilian Summer and Fichi Fantastiche, during which, between courses, I’d share the “backstory” of the food and wine, surprising historical facts about the region, and the like.
I discovered I loved to share with others the things that gave me pleasure, most especially talking about Italy and all things Italian. The restaurant’s food and wine were “portals” though which I could share my stories, stories that I built into the menu and weekly specials. A favorite annual event included our own unique take on New Year’s Eve Neapolitan Plate Tossing based on a quirky “out-with-the-old” custom originating in Naples (yes, we actually threw plates, though the paper variety, out through a window frame positioned on the bar). I enjoyed creating all sorts of “edu-taining” touches and souvenirs for my patrons, including laminated “La Dolce Vita University” fun fact discovery cards and “Parliamo Italiano” vocabulary cards placed at each table, which guests often collected. In addition, I authored a monthly column titled “La Dolce Vita U” for a local newspaper. Frequently I shared my “thesis” with guests that all of us, regardless of ethnicity, possess an Inner Italian—that part of us which is most joyful, spontaneous and expressive. This was invariably met with a knowing smile and unanimous nod of understanding and agreement. La Dolce Vita University began to take on tangible form through the restaurant.
I never imagined I would write a book as I’ve always had difficulty sustaining much of a written narrative, but La Dolce Vita University is different. Its “stories” are shorter than short stories—mini-essays, really, designed to impart surprising or intriguing nuggets that will enrich and enliven your appreciation of all that is Italian, whether you are an armchair or seasoned traveler, a lover of art, food, history, or of any other facet of Italian culture. What I have chosen to write about in La Dolce Vita “U” is what has most captured my imagination, so I have not attempted to be comprehensive or scholarly—just to share my passions.
Special thanks go to Mauro and Claudio, the guides on that fateful cycling tour, for being inspiring catalysts to my own Italian renaissance. Most of all, I shall be always grateful to my sweet and humble parents who cherished me and gave me the confidence to feel that anything is possible. I know they would be so very proud La Dolce Vita University is dedicated to them, and I hope that they would be able to see a small part of themselves in its pages.
I hope you love it too!
A Arlecchino • Arrangiarsi, the Art of Making Do • Arte • Artemisia’s Revenge • Anacapri, the Other Capri • Aperitivi to Digestivi • Amaretti, Amaretto, Amarone • Amorini, The Flying Bambini
B Barbells and Bikinis • Bellini • Bernini’s Angels • Beatrice, Love at First Sight • Botticelli’s Venus • Bonfire of the Vanities • Burano’s Candy-Colored Casas • Bolognese . . . Sauce or Dog?
C Carnevale • Carpaccio • Caterina’s Carciofi • Casanova, So Misunderstood • Centenarians of Sardinia • Carpet Slippers • Cosimo, Caesar of the Renaissance • Canticle of the Creatures • Cave Canem • The Castrati
D The Davids • Dante’s Commedia • Dome-estic Pride • Duomo, Not a Dome but a Home • Dolomiti and the Via Ferrata • Il Doge and His Palace • Divorce Italian Style • Dog Days of Summer
E Empire • The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa • Explosion of the Cart • The Exclamation Point! • Ebru, the Art of Marbled Paper • Espresso, Cappuccino, and Italian Coffee Culture • The Enormous Emperor
F Ferro • Farro • Fichi Fantastiche • Flowering in Fiorenza • “Florence Syndrome” • Firewater • Fra Angelico and Frangelico • Felliniesque
G Graffiti • The Grand Tour • Gelato, Ambrosia of the Boot • Gianduia, Grown-up Nutella • The Greek Soul of Sicily • Giotto, Master of Emotion • Girasole
H Human Chess Game • Hand Gestures • High Heels • The Harry Behind Harry’s Bar • The Four Horses of the Basilica • Hall of the Hunt • Head of the Moor
I Inner Italian • Illusionist Magic • Isabella D • Ippolito’s Golden Apple • Ignudi, not a Gnudi
J ~ K Jazz • Jeans of Genoa • Sangiovese by Jove • Jewel Box of the Adriatic • Kabbalah and the Pope’s Ceiling
L Leone • The Laocoon • Latin • La Bella Lingua • La Bella Figura • Limone • Livia’s Painted Garden • Le Vite • La Dolce Vita
M Mapping Eternity • Magi Chapel • Mezzogiorno • Margherita, Queen of Pearls and Pizza • Marinara • Murano, Island of Glass • The Many Faces of Venice • Marcello
N Nutella • Nativity Scenes • The Italian Navy • Norman Arab Sicily • Nepotism’s Legacy • Nero’s Golden House
O Viva Oliva! • Ovid’s Transformations • Gli Occhiali de Sole • Oculus, Gateway to Heaven • Orphans of the Ospedale
P Primavera Springs Eternal • Paparazzi • Patron Saint of Chefs and … Comedians? • This Little Piggy came from Parma • Pecorino, Cheese and Wine • Peggy’s Palazzo • Ponte Vecchio’s Surprise Savior • Plague Doctor • Pliny the Elder, Storyteller of the World
Q ~ R The Queen Who Refined the French • Renaissance Man • Rock Star of the Renaissance • Rocks of Capo Testa • Relics, Rest in Pieces • Rocco, Patron Saint of Dogs and More • Running of the Saints • Rome’s Decorator • Ridotto “Royale”
S Sympathy for the Borgia • Strangled Priest • Sins of the Father • Shakespeare in Amore • La Serenissma • The Salute • Snow in August • The First Snowball Fight • Scent of a Truffle
T Trulli, Hobbit Houses of Puglia • Trevi • Tiberius’s Swimming Pool • Terrace of Infinity • Tears of Christ • Tempest in a Tiramisu Cup • Torri Saracene • Tuscan Tarot Fantasy
U Ugly but Good • Uccello’s Battle • UNESCO Bonanza • Unswept Away
V Venus’ Navel • Venice’s Venus • Little Venice & Vespucci • The Vespa • Vesuvius • Vitruvius, the Man • Vin Santo e Biscotti • Volare
W Where the Wild Boar Roam • The Wolf Whisperer • Word-Playing with Your Food • Windmills of Sicily • The Wonder of the World
X ~ Z You Say Xitomati and I Say Xitomatho • Za’Faran, From Persia with Love • Zin’s Twin? • Zecchino • Zucarri Mostri Mashup • The Zanni
A is for ARLECCHINO
Endearingly transgressive, Arlecchino is a universal symbol of fun and creativity and can be instantly recognized by his iconic colorful diamond-patterned patchwork costume. You may know him by the similar sounding “Harlequin,” which is Frenchifi ed, but his roots are pure Italiane.
He is the true star of Italy’s Commedia dell’Arte—Naturally inventive and entertaining, he routinely displays acrobatic agility with a quick fl ip or a somersault for physical “punctuation.” His engaging trickster antics kept audiences coming back for more.
ARRANGIARSI, THE ART OF “MAKING DO” A recipe begins with a spontaneous and opportunistic organization of whatever is available. So goes just about all of life in Italy. Arrangiarsi means the art of working your way through, oft en through obstacles, and making do—even if it’s making something out of what seems to be nothing.
Is it a skill? Th at would be much too cerebral, too much like management. In Italian it’s un’arte. In the kitchen or the winery, it’s all about skillfully improvising and, always in the moment, adapting to ever-changing circumstances. In life, it involves putting aside too much premeditation in favor of acceptance and creative problem solving, occasionally reinforced —where improvisational theatre took root. Th e ever-clever servant, Arlecchino can be counted on to innocently thwart the plans of his master while pursuing his own interests, oft en love-oriented with political maneuvering (possibly payoffs!) and sometimes just ignoring the “rules” that somebody else or some authority is trying to impose.
It’s not overthinking and having too much of a plan, but it’s not laziness either—there isn’t a single word in English to encompass its full meaning because, as in so many things Italian, there’s body language involved just as there is a melody to the word. When asked in astonishment “how did you get this done?” or “how are you going to get yourself out of this jam?” one says with a shrug and raised eyebrows “si arrangia,” the last syllable trailing off as the listener is given a wink.
In Italy you get praised for having a good “naso” (nose), or being “in gamba” (as in another body part, a leg), but what it really means idiomatically is “being on top of your game.” All ways of putting imagery, as Italian so often does, to the combination of instinct and intuition. Fearlessness tempered by cleverness, that’s arrangiarsi. Italians know it well, and have needed it often. Every day, Italians face complex and mutable situations with no clear rules but plenty of amorphous threats, all overlaid with a faceless and self-contradictory bureaucracy overseen by a constantly changing government (an average of more than one a year since World War II). Throughout history, Italians have dealt with oppressors of every stripe: marauding barbarians from the north, fundamentalist religious leaders like Savonarola, bombastic dictators like Mussolini, self-appointed emperors like Napoleon.
When another one comes along, you shrug, raise an eyebrow, sigh “s’arrangia,” and ask “cosa mangiamo?” What’s for dinner?
ARTE Art is to Italy what oxygen is to the human bloodstream.
Art is everywhere. Art, beauty, and aesthetics have been integral to life on the Italian peninsula for millennia. Italy is home to the highest concentration of art in the world, with the most masterpieces per square mile, and possessing an estimated 60 percent of the world’s art treasures (not to mention all the Italian paintings and sculpture that grace museums throughout the world).
The great art may go back to the pre-Renaissance and Renaissance, but appreciation of manmade beauty and aesthetics goes back to the Romans, who appreciated Greek art the only way they knew how: they took it (al-though the more respectable word is “appropriation”). But while they may have conquered Greece politically and “appropriated” the culture (including the sculpture and architecture) of classical Greece, Greece “conquered” Rome in a cultural sense as its artistic output became part of the Greco-Roman style, which became one of the main foundational cornerstones of Italy’s artistic standing in subsequent centuries.
But it took awhile before there were “artists.” One thousand years ago the term artigiani (artisans) referred to members of craft guilds, with no particular word for those who did artwork, and no particular distinction for, say, anonymous stone carvers who worked on a cathedral. Painters belonged to the same craft guild as doctors and apothecaries; sculptors were associated with stone masons and woodworkers who were low-paid and anonymous.
The revelation that catapulted individual artists into Italian awareness came in the late 1200’s with the emergence of the painter Cimabue and his apprentice (who surpassed his teacher) Giotto. With Giotto painting became realistic portrayal of human drama. As Kenneth Clark pointed out in Civilization, for Giotto to break through the two-dimensional Byzantine style of painting, and “evolve this solid, space-conscious style was one of those feats of inspired originality that have occurred only two or three times in the history of art.”
Mathematics became art’s handmaiden with the science of spatial perspective and fostered the new realism of artists like Masaccio. Donatello learned from Greco-Roman influences how to, for example, represent bodily weight and movement under drapery, and Masaccio learned from classical portraiture and from Giotto realistic roundedness and portrayal of human emotion.
This placing of the human figure front and center ignited Renaissance art. The Renaissance in full bloom witnessed the glorification of art for art’s sake—not simply as a means to express religious devotion, but also to portray humanity, and (not surprisingly) put one’s patrons into the newly realistic human scene, to demonstrate their erudition, power, and prestige. “Artists”—painters, sculptors, poets, and architects—became the local heroes and the celebrities of the day, no longer anonymous craft people but the equivalent of today’s rock stars.
And no city rocked harder, so to speak, than Florence. Th e Florentines had the Athenian appreciation of beauty and, through the guilds, the skills and power to manifest that passion. Th ey also had the wealth to support it, thanks to their mastery of international fi nance, or as their guilds called it, the Arte de Cambio, moving money from one city to the next in their phenomenally successful banking system. One “Arte” here defi nitely supported another.
But all Italy shared in this creative explosion. All over the various citystates were patrons (apart from the usual kings and religious leaders) with a broader appetite for artistic subject matter and approaches. Up and down the peninsula were great mercantile centers with a growing and developing bourgeoisie supportive of the new humanism and the new art. And all through Italian culture was a pride in handmade workmanship, fostered by the pre-Renaissance craft guild system, that buttressed the culture of artistic creation. Th at enhanced the pursuit of the most talented and creative artists, and then the rewards (material and reputational) for the most accomplished, all of which led quite naturally to ever greater artistic competition and achievement.
And so arte became celebrated and learned and passed down through heroic vision of man being raised above simple earthly consciousness by the power of God in the Sistine Chapel, or the harmonization of classical reason and Christian wisdom in Raphael’s School of Athens, or the ever-fascinating beauty of the Mona Lisa.
Today, the great art of the past is a part of Italy’s civic pride (in contrast to the United States being more about the “now”). Art, architecture, poetry, literature, and music, whether Dante or Leonardo or opera, live on today and still have currency, and not just among cognoscenti, opinion-makers, and Italy’s fl ock of art students and tourists, but for the man (and woman on the street. You can even sit down to dinner almost anywhere, sip a Bellini fi rst, savor some Carpaccio, and have shared in a bit of Venice’s art legacy.
…and much more.
Carla Gambescia’s passion for Italy began early—with her mother’s love of the Renaissance masters and her father’s discourses on Italian geniuses of every calling. In the ensuing decades she has toured every region of Italy (often by bicycle) and immersed herself in its astonishing array of cultural treasures. In recent years Carla has combined her passion as an Italophile and writer with her skills as a career marketer and branding expert, acting as a consultant to and a collaborator with boutique tour operators. She conceived and co-led the Giro del Gelato bicycle tour, winner of Outside magazine’s “Best Trip in Western Europe.” In 2008 Carla founded Via Vanti! Restaurant & Gelateria, in Mount Kisco, New York, with the ambition of creating a unique environment and dining experience that would enable guests to feel as though they had stepped right into Italy. Via Vanti! quickly won plaudits not just for its innovative Italian cuisine, extraordinary gelato (named “Best Gelato Shop in New York”) and dazzling jewel box interior but also, under Carla’s direction, for its active program of culinary and cultural events. It is Carla’s conviction that all of us, regardless of our inherited ethnicities, share an “inner Italian”—that part of our nature which is most expressive, festive, spontaneous and fun—just waiting to be unlocked.
La Dolce Vita University: An Unconventional Guide to Italian Culture from A to Z is the natural outgrowth of Carla’s work and play in both the restaurant and boutique travel industries, as well as a lifelong love affair with the land of her ancestors.