― Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
“Watching Italians eat (especially men, I have to say) is a form of tourism the books don't tell you about. They close their eyes, raise their eyebrows into accent marks, and make sounds of acute appreciation. It's fairly sexy. Of course I don't know how these men behave at home, if they help with the cooking or are vain and boorish and mistreat their wives. I realized Mediterranean cultures have their issues. Fine, don't burst my bubble. I didn’t want to marry these guys, I just wanted to watch.”
― Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
Since my March 12 blog entry about Parmigiano-Reggiano (i.e. Parmesan) cheese we had the good fortune to visit the Parmigiano-Reggiano factory of our friend Giuseppe whose family has been producing "the King of cheese" for over 130 years.
We had a tour of the facility by a private guide from the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano. I will not rehash what I already blogged about, but thought I would supplement that blog with these photographs of the time consuming process and some commentary accompanying the photos.
After researching the process I understand why this cheese is as expensive as it is. But then, after seeing the rows and rows of cheese and learning that only 25-30 wheels are released each day, I appreciate even more how this is truly an artisanal cheese.
Italians are a passionate bunch in general and their passion for life can be triggered on a dime. But then they also seem to make up with one another right away. I have seen them yelling and screaming at each other, faces reddened, spittle flying, arms waving and then shake hands and walk away five minutes later. Given this passionate culture, I was eager to attend a football match because one thing that Italians are very passionate about is football, the most popular game in the world. You know, what we Americans call soccer.
A few weeks ago we decided to support our local football team and we went to watch Parma play against Inter Milan. I was a tad nervous because my husband had warned me that when Parma scores the crowd goes a little crazy - their passions are unfurled with yelling, screaming, shoving, running up and down the stands. Joe was actually knocked over at the last game he went to. He was not hurt, but that knowledge made me anxious as neither my daughter, nor I, do well in crowds. I was also anxious because Inter Milan was ranked fifth and Parma was ranked sixth, so tensions were indeed high. But our time here is coming to a close and my desire to experience Italy to its fullest won out over my fear. We donned our blue and yellow and headed out to the stadium.
Upon arriving, I noticed that there is no alcohol allowed at an Italian soccer game. Now, bear in mind that Italy is a place where one can find a full bar just about everywhere - the park, the movie theater, the shopping mall, the gym. But not at a football stadium. I have to say, that I support this practice. I think it is a wise idea to prohibit alcohol at sporting events where passion and loyalties are on overdrive. One of my dear friends in California is a sweet, gentle guy unless you encounter him at the UCLA/USC football game. Then, he is a rabid dog. Give him some beer at the UCLA/USC game and he is a rabid bear. It may be a good thing for America to follow the Italian example in this case.
Something else that I noticed was that even stone cold sober, Italian fans are INTENSE about, and loyal to, their football team. One of our Italian friends welcomed his second daughter the morning of the game that we attended, but he still made it to the match that afternoon! The intense loyalty that they feel for their team is most often manifested by hurling insults at the other team. Through the entire game, Parma fans were chanting "Inter, Inter, vanfanculo, vafanculo!" which translates as "Inter, Inter, F^%k you! F^%k you!" Imagine half of a stadium chanting "F^%k you!" Here were some of the antics I was hoping to experience.
Italians are a poetic people. They value the poetry of their art, food, fashion and language. Given this love of language, a simple "F^%K you would not suffice and the fans occasionally intermixed the "F^%k you's" with the chanting of an Inter Milan player's name and then "pezzo di merda." As in, for example, "Zanetti piece of shit." They also broke into song once or twice singing along to the tune of Guantanamera but replacing the Guantanamera with "pezzo di merda" and then a player's name so that the tune went something like this -
"♫ pezzo di merda. Zanetti, pezzo di merda. ♪♪ peeeezzzzzo di merdaaa, ♫ Zanetti, pezzo di merda." Again, imagine a huge crowd all swearing together in song. Fascinating and entertaining stuff, I tell you.
The most perplexing expression of loyalty for me, however, was the yelling of "cinese vai via!" or "non ci sono cinese in Italia!" This translates as "Chinese go away" and "There are no Chinese in Italy." As factually incorrect, and as racially insensitive as these comments were, the funny thing to me is that they were yelling these insults at Inter Milan player Yuto Nagatomo . . . who is Japanese. I swear I saw Nagatomo looking around for the mysterious Chinese guy once or twice.
The final thing that I noticed about Italian football games is that the previously blogged about colpo d'aria - the dreaded hit of air that Italians feel must be avoided at all times and at all costs for fear of ending up in the hospital - seems to have a waiver for football matches.
During our game, for example, the weather was rainy and cold and yet scores of fans were without umbrellas or rain gear. And quite a few were without shirts. In the rain! There they were, standing in the freezing rain, getting hit by air for 2+ hours and not a one seemed to be concerned that they were going to end up in the hospital. Once again, questions arise in my American mind about the colpo d'aria malady.
Alas, for Parma fans, despite their best insults and choral talent, Inter Milan won. Parma didn't score a single goal so I didn't get to see the post score craze of happy fans that I craved. And despite the racist epithets, Nagatomo dominated the field. But, you know what they say . . . karma is a Japanese Inter Milan player.
One of the things I loved about living in Italy was the abundance of art and history around every corner. One can walk out of their door and see frescos, sculpture, incredible paintings in your local doctor's office, coffee bar or library. And, yet, here I was living an hour away from one of the most famous, iconic, and controversial works of art in the world and after 3 years I still hadn't seen it. I am talking about Leonardo da Vinci's L'Ultima Cena or The Last Supper.
Over the years I had read and heard from others that it really wasn't worth going to see because it has decayed and been damaged over time. Many forewarned that the tickets are difficult to come by requiring one to commit to a viewing months in advance. So for three years I blew it off. My friend Ellen was coming for a visit though and she really wanted to see it. Ellen easily booked the tickets. And it wasn't months in advance at all.
After all the negative feedback, the build up, the Dan Brown novel controversy and the commentary, I forged ahead with very low expectations.
When you arrive at the Santa Maria delle Grazie church, you are ushered into a waiting area. The waiting area is lined with photographs and historical plaques. As you wait you can read about the history of the church including the damage it suffered during a bombing in WWII. Miraculously, the refectory wall with da Vinci's painting was spared.
While waiting, you can also read up on the painting technique used by da Vinci and the restoration of the painting. The painting is painted on the wall but it is not a fresco. A fresco by definition must be painted on wet plaster and allegedly, da Vinci rejected the technique because it required that the artist hurry to finish the work before the plaster dried. Da Vinci began the painting in1495. He finished in 1498 so you can see why this method was a problem for him. Besides, no artist wants to rush. Particularly, a masterpiece.
Instead da Vinci invented a new technique using tempera paints on stone. He began by first painting the entire wall with a primer that he hoped would protect the tempera from the moisture and natural absorption of the bricks upon which he was painting. Unfortunately, his method failed and the paint began to degrade within the first few decades. Add the bombings of WWII and the painting was on its way to being lost forever. In 1980, however, a restoration project began which restored the painting to its original glory.
Da Vinci also came up with his own way to of depicting the scene with the appropriate dimension. He placed a nail in the temple of Jesus, tied a string to it and moved it about the painting as he worked. The string guided him around the scene and allowed him to make marks and assess the spatial perspective as he worked. Pretty ingenious.
While waiting in the hallway one is free to move about as you please. Once you are let in to see the actual painting, however, your movement is more limited. Given the degradation from changes in temperature and humidity over the years, the painting is now quite securely air locked away in a controlled environment. Groups of about 25 - 30 are let in to see the painting according to a designated time slot. When your time slot is up, the usher calls your time and an air lock door "shwoooshes" open.
Your group is taken into a second waiting area, a hallway with close up prints of the painting and views of the lovely gardens of the church. As you are looking around, "shwooosh" the door locks behind you and you realize that you are in a sealed hallway. As you wait, you can see the group with the time slot ahead of you waiting in a third anteroom, also sealed with air lock doors. It all feels very futuristic and important. Guests are quiet. Anticipating. We waited in the air locked hallway for about 7 or 8 minutes. You know how an elevator can seem awkward at times? Imagine that, only with a lot more people.
The door for the group ahead opens to the refectory where the painting is and you watch the group ahead of you enter. You are not allowed to leave the hallway until the entire group ahead of you is inside the refectory and the doors are sealed shut behind them. Then, your door opens and everyone must enter the third waiting area. And once again, "shwoosh" you are sealed in. Thank goodness it is all glass or this claustrophobic may have had a problem.
By the time you actually enter the refectory, the anticipation has built up and one is ready to see the painting. The paint is delicate and in order to preserve the painting while also accommodating the vast number of visitors to see it, time is limited to 15 minutes of viewing per group. No photographs are allowed inside the refectory.
All the "shwooshing" of air, the waiting rooms and the secure doors built up my anticipation, but I was utterly unprepared for how moved I would be by this painting. It is much larger than I had imagined and it is really a beautiful piece of art. But, more than that, I was taken aback at what it represented. The history, the millions of followers, the controversy about whether Young John is really Mary Magdalene - it all just kind of overwhelmed me. I was so moved by it that I dragged my husband and kids back to see it a couple of months later.
If you are planning a trip to Italy and are going through Milano, The Last Supper is worth a visit. No matter your religious beliefs or feelings about the controversy, it is simply a magnificent work of art.
American mother of two who left the comfort and ease of life in the Northern California suburbs for an international experience