Sunday, October 24, 2010

Blessing of the Animals - The Lasting Legacy of St. Francis of Assisi

The man we know as Saint Francis was born Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone in 1182 in Assisi, Umbria. Surrounded by the trappings of privilege, he renounced it all and became an enduring symbol of the value of spirit over the flesh. But he may be best loved for his respect and honor of all creatures at a time when the world around him seemed steeped in cruelty.
Francesco gave one of his most famous sermons to a flock of birds. His biographer, Thomas of Celano, describes the birds listening to Francesco’s words, stretching their necks and wings as he touched and blessed them. According to Thomas, "He began to blame himself for negligence in not having preached to the birds before…from that day on, he solicitously admonished the birds, all animals and reptiles, and even creatures that have no feeling, to praise and love their Creator."
Francesco wrote the Canticle of the Creatures, dedicated to all of the God’s creation. On one occasion he allowed a donkey who needed shelter to displace him and his small band of brothers from the hovel where they were living. He saved the townspeople of Gubbio as well as the wolf who had been attacking them by brokering peace. He sought out the wolf and admonished him to repent for the pain he caused. The wolf would never harm the townspeople again and the people agreed to feed the wolf for the rest of his life.
The feast of St. Francis is October 4. In 1931 in Florence, Italy, a convention of ecologists instituted World Animal Day. This day of appreciation and blessing for all animals is commemorated on the Sunday closest to October 4, in recognition of Francesco’s deep love of animals. This celebration takes place all over the world and is known as The Blessing of the Animals.
I had the good fortune to attend the Blessing at St. John the Divine in NYC this year. The celebration included the full church choir along with dancers, singers and musicians from many countries. Beautiful dancers waved colorful banners in the aisle to music complete with whale songs and the baying of wolves. The performers included, among others, Alessandra Belloni and I Giulari di Piazza, the Omega Dance Company, Forces of Nature Dance Company.
At the end of the service, volunteers dressed in long, white robes walked slowly up the center aisle, holding or accompanying an array of animals. They surrounded the altar for the blessing and then slowly filed out of the church. Many attendees brought their dogs to the service, and periodically the sounds of barking filled the Cathedral. But it seemed to be just as St. Francesco would have wanted it.

I Giulari di Piazza entertains on the side lawn of the Cathedral.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Italian Creativity On the High Seas

A beautiful event took place on board the MSC Poesia cruise ship docked at Pier 88 in NYC on October 2, 2010. Sponsored by the Italy America Chamber of Commerce, Italian Government Tourist Board, as well the regions of Piemonte and Sardinia, Italian Creativity On Board! was a celebration of many of the things we love about Italy.

For starters, it took place on the Poesia, an Italian cruise ship. Even though the ship was docked for our event, it still felt as if we left the city and entered a more gracious world. MSC Cruises is an Italian-owned company and its fleet, including the Poesia, is built with the latest in eco-technology. The hull is painted with non-toxic polymers that increase fuel economy, wastewater is treated and recycled and energy usage is closely monitored. MSC Cruises was the first company to receive the 6 Golden Pearls Award for environmental care given by Bureau Veritas, an international certification body. MSC also received the Green Planet Award for eco-friendly facilities and was one of the first signatories of the Venice Blue Flag agreement to reduce emissions in the Venice lagoon.

Lest you think all of this must add up to Spartan design, believe me, it doesn’t. The Poesia is sumptuous in design and color. You can take a virtual tour here .

Italian Creativity On Board! began with cocktails, speeches and video presentations highlighting the cultural and tourist offerings of the regions of Piemonte and Sardinia. We later moved to the restaurant for a multi-course meal featuring specialties and wines from both regions.

After lunch we made our way to the Art Deco Theater for musical performances by some of the winners of the IBLA Grand Prize in Italy. The IBLA Foundation ( is based in Manhattan and its mission is to advance the careers of talented musicians. The Foundation holds an annual competition in Ragusa Ibla, Sicily every July. Winners perform in some of the world’s premier venues, such as Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall and Carnegie Hall, the Tokyo Opera City Hall, the Tchaikovsky Bolshoi Hall in Moscow and other prestigious places in Canada, Europe, Russia and the USA. The Foundation is under the direction of Baronessa Zerilli Marimo’, of whom NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimo’ is named.

On this particular afternoon, we enjoyed the talents of pianists Chie Sato Roden, Terri Eder, Adalberto Riva, Oliver Betz, composer David Cieri and tenor/whistler Michael Barimo. I had heard Mr. Barimo before at NYU Casa Italiana’s tribute to the Italian swing era singer Alberto Rabagliati. Not only possessing a beautiful tenor voice, Mr. Barimo has been winning awards for whistling since he was a child. This video link gives you some idea of his talent.

After the performances we were treated to a fashion show by Raffaella Curiel. Ms. Curiel has received many awards, including the Grand Cross from The Italian Republic, which is one of the highest civil awards. The city of Rome awarded her the Bronze Wolf as the official ambassador of Italian Fashion to the world. In 1985 she was appointed Ambassador of Fashion to the most prestigious Italian embassies in the world.

Ms. Curiel’s show did not disappoint. It included several collections, including day and evening wear, each marked with distinct music, lighting and the occasional dry ice. Her collections were vividly colorful and remarkable for their small details and embellishments.

Friday, October 15, 2010

ABC, L’Italiano s’Impara Cosi' or How to Learn Italian in One Hour

Photo by Ivan Seligman.

Everyone should be taught Italian like this. Splashy, colorful maps, poetry, music, a crash course on love and unapologetic impersonations of Italians from different regions telling the same story, each in a distinctly different way. The formidable, demanding and unflappable Professor Margharita, as played by Laura Caparrotti, made a rare appearance at The Cell Theater in NYC on October 5, 2010. A,B,C L’Italiano s’Impara Cosi’, is a one-woman show written and starring Caparrotti. She created Professor Margharita about 10 years ago, mainly for students. It was so well received, she has adapted it to a theater experience.

The Professor-Diva first appears on stage and, not pleased with the level of audience enthusiasm, gives us a loud “A-hem”, leaves the stage and makes her entrance again. Her message is clear and we, her lackluster students, applaud wildly this time. Her smile is approving. The chain of command is clear. We are her captives for the duration of the lesson.

The Professor is dressed in some combination of royalty-gypsy-showgirl. A long dark blue velvet coat covered with loops of beige ribbon and a gold lame’ turban adorned with 2 long, beaded tassels on either side of her face that swing with every move of her head. You can’t take your eyes off of her.

She begins with a history lesson of the Italian peninsula’s changing empires over the centuries. Using oversized, colorful maps, she brings home the point that after 150 years, unification is more concept than reality.

This is comically illustrated by taking 6 cities, from north to south, and impersonating a citizen from each one as they face various situations. The cities are Bolzano, Milan, Florence, Rome, Naples, and Palermo. The Professor explains why the inhabitants are so different from each other and then embodies each one, through song and storytelling. This culminates in a skit involving each citizen giving eyewitness testimony to the same crime: a drive-by shooting on an Italian street. While the crime isn’t funny, the testimony each witness gives is so heavily influenced by the town in which they live that it’s hilarious. This segment is based upon The Deposition by Tuscan actor and writer Uberto Kovacevich.

When the show was over I didn’t want it to end. Luckily, Caporrotti is working on a second act to teach us even more distinctly Italian elements.

Laura Caparrotti is the Artistic Director of KIT-Kairos Italy Theater in New York City. She is a playwright, journalist, Italian and Theater teacher, lecturer, curator and panelist for the New York State Council on the Arts. After years of professional theater in Italy, she relocated to New York where she has directed and/or performed in venues like The Kitchen, The Fringe Festival, Abrons Arts Center, Bernie West Theatre, Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimo’, Center for Jewish History and Lincoln Center. Off Broadway, she served as Assistant Director in Souls of Naples featuring John Turturro. She is also the worldwide representative for the Italian icon, Antonio De Curtis, better known as Totò.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Podere Pornanino For Tuscan Olive Oil

There’s time to squeeze in another tale from the 2010 Summer Fancy Food Show at NYC’s Jacob Javitz Center. I had the pleasure of meeting Francesco and Lia Lombardi, their daughter and son-in-law, who told me of their family business and the center of their lives: olive oil production at Podere Pornanino in Radda in Chianti.

During the last week of November, workers in the chilly Tuscan air will be leaning on ladders propped against 4,000 olive trees. Picking each olive by hand and tossing them into baskets, they will carry on the centuries-old brucatura method of olive harvesting. The olive trees at Podere Pornanino are of four varieties: Frantoio, Pendolino, Moraiolo and Leccino, which together create the distinctive flavor of Pornanino Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Francesco, Lia and family personally bottle the oil on site.

Originally from Milan, Francesco Lombardi bought Pornanino in 1989 as a tranquil place for him and his wife to retire. They looked forward to nurturing their small number of fruit trees and prolific vegetable garden in the Chianti hills. Set between Radda, Castellina and Vagliagli, they chose a property bordered by two rivers with views that go on forever. All seemed complete and blissfully uneventful. But one day Francesco discovered that his property included an abandoned olive grove of about 500 trees. Intrigued, he brought the orchard back to life and harvested the olives. After a visit to the public olive press, he enjoyed Pornanino’s first Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

This experience inspired Francesco and Lia to launch a new phase in their lives. They planted another 3,500 olive trees and purchased a renovated stone wheel press. They renovated the barn and placed the press inside. At harvest time, the mill slowly crushes the olives, bringing out their fragrance and sweetness. Pornanino is one of only 14 companies in all of Tuscany that still uses a stone mill. The extra-virgin olive oil is extracted from the resulting paste by applying high pressure rather than heat. This heat-free method allows the oil to retain its prized sensory and nutritional characteristics. This process is slower than more modern methods, but the resulting flavor is worth the wait. The enterprise increased and, six years ago, their daughter Francesca and her husband Matteo joined the family at Pornanino.

They have also created a line of bar soaps made with extra virgin olive oil. This lightly fragranced soap lathers well and is a treat for the skin and nose.

In addition to the olive groves and woodlands on the estate, the family restored other farm structures and created beautiful villa apartments for tourist holidays. Every Tuesday morning, Francesco gives a seminar for guests on olive oil.

To learn more, including how to purchase the products and enjoy the apartments, visit