Original Chocolate of Modica

When the Spanish came upon the ‘New World’–new to them anyway–the processing of cocoa and chocolate was one of the things they learned from the native peoples. The Maya made chocolate where the cocoa was not heated, and thus sugars stayed crystalline and crunchy. The Spaniards brought the original recipe from the New World to Europe, but in later centuries attempts to smooth the texture led to heating and eventually the introduction of milk. These later European processes of heating the cocoa also changed the complex aromas and tastes of the cocoa. The Spanish had introduced the original process to many of its colonies, including Sicily, and while everywhere else they lost the original method, in the little southeastern Sicilian town of Modica they continue to this day making chocolate in the original Mayan cold process way. There’s a wonderful chocolate store in Lecce, Italy, that has these wonderful ‘Chocolate of Modica’ bars. I got a plain dark chocolate one, one with sea salt, and one with almonds. Oh boy.

Living Lazarus

This mosaic panel is in the early 6th century CE church of Sant’Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna (see post below). In the upper parts of the walls, above the clerestory, are panels depicting scenes from the life of Christ. Here is the story of the Raising of Lazarus, told in spare efficiency: Christ on the right just raises his hand and Lazarus, in his sepulcher and still in his burial winding cloth, opens his eyes, alive once again.

Bearing Gifts

This procession of female saints can be found in the church of Sant’Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna (early 6th century CE). On the opposite wall, a complementary parade of male saints also bears gifts for Christ. For saints there are superbly dressed, with crowns and elegant clothing. Behind them are palm trees, the palm branch being symbolic of the martyrdom that they suffered. Their names float above them in black lettering. At the procession’s end they are joined by the Three Magi, also bearing gifts to the infant Christ.

Apostles of Ravenna

These three apostles, rendered in mosaic, are from the dome of the Baptistery of the Neonians in Ravenna, and date from the late 5th century CE (see also post below). Stalks that look like fancy agave sprout between them. Their drapery flows and furrows in complex folds. Each carries a crown, presumably the crown of heaven; the promise to the believers who enter the faith by being baptized in the font just below. Baptisms themselves, and the ceremonies, were processional, and so the apostles would have seemed to be participants in the rites.

St Peter, 1500 Years Old

This detail is of a mosaic in the Baptistery of the Neonians in Ravenna, dating from the late 400s CE. In the dome of the baptistery is a procession of apostles, of which Peter is one. He has already his standard look: a full head of white hair and beard. You can see his name written out in gold: PETRVS. This 1500 year-old depiction of the important saint is one of my favorite. His face, despite the limitations of mosaic, has a real specificity to it and a personality as well. Indeed, each of the apostles in these mosaics seem almost preternaturally individualized, as if the artists had particular friends in mind as models.

Stars of Galla Placidia

Galla Placidia was a Byzantine princess and imperial consort, the daughter of the Emperor Theodosius. She lived between 388-450 CE. She spent the end of her life in Ravenna, a Byzantine regional capital of the western holdings of the empire. Her mausoleum in Ravenna looks plain from the outside, and modest in scale, but the interior is glorious. In the vaults abstract stars twinkle in a night sky of deep blue, indicating the heaven that her soul aspired to.

The Garden of Heaven

One of the most remarkable depictions of paradise can be found in the apse of the church of Sant’Apollinaire en Class, just outside of Ravenna, Italy. Ravenna has probably the best collection of early Byzantine mosaics anywhere, mostly from the 6th century CE, and I have to say this one is my favorite. The saint stands in the center of a verdant glade filled with trees, birds, and blooming flowers. Above floats a cross and Moses and Elijah drift among clouds above. The myriad shades of green evoke an eternal spring, ever lush, overseen by the golden glow of a sacred sun (see post below).

Saint Apollinaire in Paradise

This is a detail of the image above, from the apse mosaic from the church of St Apollinaire in Classe, just on the outskirts of Ravenna. The saint is in an orant pose, a pose of worship, but he seems also to beckon the viewer to his paradise, as if saying, “this could all be yours if you believe”. The sheep are the believers, too, the flock of Christians for whom he is a shepherd. Above him floats a giant golden cross levitating in a giant circle with the blue of the sky and golden stars.

Theodora’s Procession

The 6th century CE mosaics of the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, are masterpieces of Byzantine art. In the chancel of this remarkable church, two imperial processions face each other. In one, the Emperor Justinian leads a cortege of courtiers and ecclesiasts in bringing a gift to a church, presumably a gift to San Vitale. Though Justinian never went there the mosaic serves as a record of his donation. Thus, while never present, he’s been there in mosaic for 1500 years. On the opposite wall, pictured here, the Empress Theodora leads a similar procession of women, dressed in impressive Byzantine finery. She, too, bears a gift for the church, the entrance to which is visible, beyond the parted veil, to the left. A phiale, a sacred water font, appears just inside. As if to remark on the precedent for giving gifts to god, the three magi are depicted in golden thread on the lower hem of her dress.

Around Etna

Yesterday I took the Ferrovia Circumetnea, the clunky old narrow gauge railway that goes around the base of Mount Etna, the famous Sicilian volcano, from Catania to the sleepy town of Randazzo. The views of the mountain were magnificent, with lots of snow still on the western and northern slopes. One of the calderas was really steaming and I got this picture near Randazzo (see post below). It was a clear day and I’d never seen Etna so active, even though it’s almost always doing something.

Inferno of Etna

And this was what Enta looked like just a few hours later from the balcony of my Air BnB room in Catania. I’d woken up around 12:20 and thought to look out and this is what I saw. It’s a bit misleading. I took this picture with a 300 mm telephoto. I’m many miles away from the lava.

Scrovegni and Usury

The Tuscan painter Giotto was hired by a Paduan banker by the name of Enrico Scrovegni to paint the walls of a chapel in Padua (see post below). Giotto completed the works by around 1305, with dozens of scenes. It’s one of the great works of European art. Sometimes the chapel is called the ‘Arena Chapel’ because it was built partly on top of the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, sections of which are still visible today. Enrico Scrovegni was a banker, as his father Reginaldo had been. His father had been accused of the sin of usury as this was still a time when for a Christian to lend money was still a moral problem. Through the Middle Ages Jews had been assigned this socioeconomic role. Dante assigned Reginaldo a place in the Inferno. Enrico’s patronage of the chapel, a magnificent building dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was the son’s attempt to expiate the sin of usury from the family name. This is the last scene one sees as one leaves the chapel, of Scrovegni offering the chapel to the Virgin Mary, on a wall the subject of which is the Last Judgement. Clearly, Scrovegni was begging for leniency. The depiction of Scrovegni is brilliant. The donor kneels as he offers the church. His mouth is slightly open as he tentatively reaches out to touch the Virgin’s accepting hand. Giotto has depicted Scrovegni and penitent and humble, his humility gauged by the temerity with which he raises his hand, as if he can barely believe that the Mother of God has accepted his votive gift. When doing fresco, one paints on wet plaster, and it takes only a day for plaster to dry, so painters only put down on the wall a section of plaster that they could realistically paint in one day. These sections were called giornata after the Italian word for day, giorno. If all you were doing was a simple background the giornata might be very large, but if you were doing, say, a face, the giornata might be small. Note that time has revealed the seam of the giornata around Scrovegni’s hand. So important was this hand gesture to the meaning of the work, Giotto knew he had to spend an entire day getting it right; the hesitancy, the humility, and the pathos of Scrovegni’s devotion.

Giotto’s Joy

When in Venice a great day trip is to Padua, merely half an hour away by train. There one finds one of the great masterpieces of European art: the Scrovegni Chapel, with frescoes by Giotto. I was so happy to go there last week and find that they’d rescinded their earlier prohibition against photography in the chapel. Here’s a detail from the scene of the Miracle at Cana, where Christ has turned water into wine. The Virgin Mary is also attending the wedding feast. I love this scene because whenever there’s a big party there’s always party-crashers, and here are two striding into view from the right. You can see the Virgin Mary in the middle (in blue) and almost can hear her say: “Who the heck are these guys? They weren’t invited”.  They’re hilariously typical. The leader is a big fellow who has already grabbed a cup and started drinking, while his sidekick holds on to his sleeve, not quite as confident. I like to think of the big guy as ‘Guido’. His swelling belly echoes the curves of the full containers of wine just below him. Giotto really had a sense of humor. Mary’s blue robe is flaking because that particular colour blue was not water soluble, so could not be used in buon fresco or true fresco (that is, pigments painted on wet plaster), but had to be applied after the plaster dried, al secco (dry). Thus the paint could not securely bind with the wall. Similarly, the party-crasher’s cup is black, but it was quite possibly silver leaf originally. It must’ve been impressive when new, but the silver eventually oxidized to leave a black stain.

Palladio’s Pantheon

Andrea Palladio inherited the mantle of Venice’s premier architect from Jacopo Sansovino, and went on to design two magnificent churches, Il Redentore and, pictured here, San Giorgio Maggiore. From the facade it’s easy to see the Roman influences. Palladio’s favorite ancient structure was the Pantheon in Rome, and the architect borrowed freely from it, yet making his own original designs from the borrowed parts. As the sun begins to go down in the west, one of the great sights in Venice is the white stone facade of San Giorgio picking up the tones of the waning light.

Ancient Spoils

At the Bacino waterfront, the entrance to Venice, there stand two enormous columns of granite. On one is a statue, made from parts of various statues, of St Theodore, who had been the patron saint of Venice before St Mark showed up (see post below) and superseded him. On the other column is a winged lion, the symbol of the evangelist Mark. Yet this statue, too, is a collage. Originally it was likely a Hellenistic sculpture, dating from around 300 BCE, from Asia Minor. Eventually, it made its way to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and when the Venetian sacked the city in the Fourth Crusade in 1204 they brought this bronze lion back and welded wings on it to make it the animal symbol of St Mark.