Eternal Mother Mary holds an ethereal place in Italian culture, a woman more revered than maybe even God himself. There's many an Italian blasphemy but few would go as far as to insult another's mother.
She's everywhere. In tiny crevices by roadsides, mountain paths, shrines on corners with burning candles and vases of flowers. She's in prayers, rosary beads, songs and Rennaissance art. In marble, gold and stained glass. Her tone is demure, her gaze cast down, she's the mother of all Italian mothers, La Madonna.
It's said Italian men stay in their family home until marriage and this may be true, the reason is simple - an Italian mum would never dream of casting out her beloved children or even encouraging them to venture into the world. Culturally, Italy is changing but there are pockets in the motherly apron where la mamma holds her babies close, be they three years old or thirty. Cooking is never a chore but a celebration of being together, but washing, ironing and cleaning for a grown, semi-independent man, could this be seen as merely a labour of motherly love?
Meet Nonna Lili. She spends many an evening ironing and many a morning cooking and has done so for years. Her sons are married, her granddaughters in their teens, but her maternal care is in every dish she makes and you can taste the love. Mangia Mangia Lasagna Classica is on our menu, it's her recipe to the last detail and we cook it with pride, just as she does. Lasagna is the name of the dish, 'le lasagne' the name of the pasta sheets, but Nonna Lili and most of northern Italy know lasagna as 'pasticcio'. A brilliant Italian word, 'Pasticcio' is an ensemble of things - it describes pies, quiches and even patties but it also translates as a predicament or mess. For example, you could drop a bowl of pasta and claim, "Ma che pasticcio!' - What a mess!
There's a bit of a dispute as far as pasticcio, lasagne or lasagna goes. Ask an Italian in a foreign country facing a menu with his homeland dish on it, and be sure to get a passionate answer. You see, lasagne, lasagna or pasticcio is a dish that does exactly that - it stirs up memories of kitchen tables, siblings and rumbling tummies, of proud mums and good food, thus it does need to be right, it's important.
There's something that needs to be said for homemade food and it's not just the human element. Food is instructions, ingredients and measures but it's also tastes, flavours, cultures and senses. It's recipes handed down through generations, memories, occasions, celebrations. It's floury fingers and giggles, licking bowls and eating sprinkles. It's time spent together in the heart of the home.
A mother's love is more than food, but in Italy, it's where love lies.
Celebrating La Madonna.
Matera, Basilicata - Festa della Bruna - 2nd July
This truly is a celebration of Matera's patron saint. It starts days before with street parties and processions and finishes with a grand firework display at midnight over the beautiful Sassi di Matera. The Sassi is an area of ancient cave-houses and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one not to be missed, but know that you and tens of thousands of devoted locals will be gathering to celebrate La Madonna di Bruna, known as La Bruna, in July, it does get incredibly packed. Basilicata heats up so much during the day that it shuts down. From 4 pm, shops and businesses re-open and life picks up again. The honourable guest herself makes an appearance in the form of a statue at noon where she is escorted to a nearby church by a set of knights - cavalieri on horseback. This in itself is a marvellous procession, which warrants a roadside stake; one can claim that stake by finding a place for your chair in advance. At 8 pm, her divine holiness is driven at snail's pace through the crowds on a lovingly-made, paper-mache chariot, through the city streets where her followers can catch a view, towards Piazza Vittorio Veneto and the Duomo. Amazingly, after she serenely does the rounds, her ornamental float is then ripped apart with every revered piece said to bring good fortune.
Siena, Tuscany - Il Palio - 16th August
Siena's well-known Palio horse race culminates twice a year; the 2nd of July, named the Palio di Provenzano in honour of the Madonna di Provenzano, and the 16th of August, named the Palio dell'Assunta, after Assumption Day. Assumption Day, on the 15th of August, is a widely celebrated national holiday with many villages forming their own processions in honour of their beloved Madonna. In Siena, this period of the year is abuzz with preparations; every district (contrada) of the city and surrounding areas don traditional colours and banners, practising furiously to win the formidable race, often in secret. It's brutal. There are few rules while the sloped, stone piazza infamously packs out to watch ten selected horses and their riders take on any means to win, with the prize as little motivation. It's not the silk canvas, il Drappellone, behind the underhand crippling of riders and horses, it's pure local pride that drives them on. Once again, the beautiful city of Siena parties in her stone alleyways and piazzas under a summer night sky lit by festive fireworks in celebration of both her cherished Maria and the pride of yet another happy contrada.
Zoagli, Liguria - Madonna del Mare - 6th August
Sometimes celebrated on the 5th of August, this incredible procession takes place underwater. Just offshore, in front of Zoagli's village beach, sits a 1,6m tall statue of the Virgin Mary about 9m deep. Work of the sculptor Hastiannatte, her sanctified, stone-carved beauty is observed at night with a procession of divers lighting the way into the sea. Mass is held on the beach with torches, lanterns, music, a photographic exhibition and a grande finale of fireworks to finish off the day. Celebrations do continue with boat trips to appreciate her divinity in the day light as well.
Venice - Festa della Madonna della Salute - 21st November
Venice is a city of Venetians and this is their holy day.
On the 21st of November, locals gather to walk the calle towards their Basilica della Salute in gratitude for good health - la buona salute. In 1630, a dramatic plague ravaged the city for two years, killing thousands. In desperation, the Doge pledged to build a majestic church in honour of the Madonna and soon fatalities began to drop. Out of gratitude for his city's good health, he promptly ordered a yearly procession to fall on this particular day and placed a beautiful statue of the Madonna high up above the rooftops to watch over Venice and her people. Venetian families walk the pilgrimage to their beloved Basilica della Salute - Our Lady of Health, and thank the Virgin Mary for her continued blessing with a heartfelt prayer and the lighting of a candle. Boats and gondolas join to create a temporary bridge across the Gran Canal, allowing pilgrims to reach the Basilica while a typical dish of cooked greens and mutton is enjoyed on Venice's holy day with an abundance of local sweets and cakes.
Read about the ins and outs of beautiful Venice - City of Venetians - in our bog post - Lose your map in Venice.