Above: Pontormo’s Annunciation in Florence
Regular readers of this column will know that I have had a love affair with Italy, its history, art and wine. A bit of knowledge about the first two enhances an appreciation of the third. I first discovered Italy 20 years ago when on a work exchange in the beautiful former Lombard capital of Pavia and the stunning Certosa di Pavia, a glorious monastery just outside the city was the first great Italian work of art that I came across.
Between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Risorgimento leading to the fall of Rome on XX September 1870 and completing the unification of Italy, the country was deeply divided by European powers, France, Spain, and Austria, as well as a battleground between forces of the Holy Roman Emperor and those of the Pope.
Against this background, a number of city-states emerged, some like Venice creating empires of their own, and others, Florence, Mantova, Padova, becoming rich through trade and banking and giving rise to powerful ‘signori’ who became patrons of the arts. One of the greatest was Isabella d’Este who married the Duke of Mantua and was a patron to such greats as Leonardo, Bellini, Raphael and Titian. The peak of the High Renaissance, the so-called cinquecento occurred in the first decade of the 1500s when Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael were all at the height of their powers.
Some of my favourite places to experience the art of the Renaissance are Florence, Ferrara, (home of Isabella and a beautiful and underrated city) Padua, Verona and Mantua where Mantegna’s fresco of the Gonzaga family is one of the most stunning I have seen. Personally I prefer to visit churches which might just have a couple of masterpieces on view rather than great museums or galleries where one might experience the Stendhal effect named after the great 18th c French writer who experienced a panic attack at the sight of so much great art in Florence. For example one can walk in off the streets of Rome into the French Church and witness three great Caravaggio oil paintings, his St Mathew cycle, or visit the tiny Santa Felicita church in Florence to marval at Pontormo’s exquisite Annunciation.
Other favourite places I have visited in the past two decades are the Lakes, Stresa and Cannero on Maggiore, Bellagio on Como, and Salo and Torri del Benaco on Garda. Palladio’s Vicenza is beautiful as is Santa Margherita Liguria, and Bolzano and Brixen in the Dolomites.
My bucket list of spots I haven’t seen yet includes the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, Puglia with baroque Lecce, and Cremona, ‘the violin city’.
Italy’s provincial history is reflected in the great variety of fabulous wines, with the two most important growing areas of the former Savoy stronghold of Piedmont (the foot of the mountains) and Tuscany which gets its name from the Roman name for the Etruscans. (Incidentally it was the Romans who really popularised wine drinking in the Mediterranean area.)
In the Piedmont where Turin is an underrated destination with its beautiful Baroque piazzas and Alpine backdrop, Barolo and Barbaresco both made from the Nebbiolo grape rule supreme, but also noteworthy are Barbera d’Asti and Barbera d’Alba and a personal favourite, Dolcetto.
Tuscany is of course the home of Italy’s most famous wine, Chianti. If it is grown from Sangiovese grapes in the choice area of four villages, Radda, Greve, Gaeoli or Castellina, it can carry the name of Chianti Classico. So called Super Tuscan wines can be made from Cabernet Sauvignon and thus cannot be labelled as Chianti.
The Veneto produces Valpolicella, Bardolino and the more powerful Ripasso and Amarone wines. Other regions to look for up and coming and good value wine include the Marches, Apulia, Sicily, Sardinia and the Tyrol.
This had been a synopsis of a talk I gave on April 20 at the lovely Fernhill House Hotel. Many thanks to Niall at the hotel for being so helpful, to Mary and Sheila at the WCP for their support and sponsorship, to Linda for the nice Carbery cheese selection, and to Maebh, and to all who turned out on the soft April evening, particularly those who travelled all the way from Cooldurragha and from Inchigeelagh.
The wines of the night were:
Musella, Bianco del Drago, a lovely Chardonnay based white from the shores of Lake Garda, and Volpetto 2013 a young fresh Chianti, exhibiting the Sangiovese grape at its best. Both wines are from O’Brien’s in Douglas, Cork.