To think it began with a stamp...
Returning to Cosa Bolle in Pentola, if you don't keep an artistic ear close to the ground, you may not have heard that the Collezione Contini Bonacossi, by far the most important addition to Florence's Galleria Degli Uffizi in several centuries, is finally open to the public, albeit on a limited basis: Free guided tours are held Thursdays at 2:45 PM and Saturdays at 11:30 AM, and you should contact the folks at the museum to let them know you'd like to take the tour; see the site for contact information and directions (the collection is adjacent to the Uffizi gallery).
The collection was assembled in the early part of the last century by Conte Ugo Contini Bonacossi's grandfather Alessandro, a man of many interests including stamp collecting. In particular, he was interested in Spanish Colonial issues (he was living in Spain at the time), and did so well with them that he was able to begin to buy paintings, and, after returning with his family to Italy, began regular visits to art galleries all over Europe.
Not alone, of course; his wife Vittoria accompanied him, and though neither had formal artistic training, Count Ugo says they both were blessed with excellent eyes, and told a story about a time the couple were visiting a gallery in (I think) London, and Alessandro saw a pair of impressionist works he liked. The gallery's owner asked for a ridiculous sum, and Alessandro was walking out when Vittoria drew him aside. So he went back, haggled some more, and finally agreed on something close to the original sum provided the owner sweeten the deal by throwing in a dirty old painting Vittoria had found in a back room. The dealer agreed, and the couple walked out -- with two impressionist paintings and a Cimabue.
Following Alessandro's death his children negotiated the donation of the heart of the collection to the Galleria Degli Uffizi; rather than take pieces piecemeal, the museum's curators picked 144 pieces to fill voids in their existing coverage, and, per the family's wishes, have kept the Contini Bonacossi collection together rather than scatter it throughout the museum. The result is astounding; the hall with the afore-mentioned Cimabue also has Sassetta's Madonna della Neve, a painting from the 1420s that combines Sienese Gothic detail with Renaissance Florentine figure rendition to commemorate the Virgin's appearing in Rome, on August 3 352 AD, to tell Pope Liberio and Patrician Giovanni to build a church following the snowy outline they would find on the Colle Esquilino -- find it they did, and built the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, one of Rome's four Basilicas (Saint Francis, who is kneeling in the foreground, indicates a platter of snow -- now blackened with age -- with his thumb, while an angel is packing some snow to make a snowball).
This painting also has a story with it; a few years ago an old farmer knocked and asked to see it, because his family, who had worked the lands of the town of Chiusdino's Parish Priest, had kept it in their hayloft near during the War -- he said the Germans weren't interested in it, but the Brits who drove them out were, and many came to see it. The curator asked the farmer if he knew how Conte Alessandro had gotten the painting, and the farmer said the priest had sold it to get money to repair the church roof. At least you fixed the roof, the curator said, but the farmer shook his head: "Al prete interessavano piú le tette che i tetti -- the priest was more interested in tits than roofs."
At least we can see it, and also many other things, including Mary Magdalene as she turns to look west towards the tomb (the dawn is behind her), and is lit by the light of Christ Arisen -- a painting by Savoldo, who taught Caravaggio. Then there's a fresco of the Madonna and child Andrea del Castagno did in 1445, taken from the Castello del Trebbio, Pazzi family's stronghold -- it has portraits of a pair of children, Pazzi family twins, in the foreground, and one cannot help but wonder what happened to them after the failure of the Congiura dei Pazzi in 1478, when Pazzi assassins killed Giuliano De'Medici, but not Lorenzo, who extracted swift and terrible revenge.
Other things that caught my eye? I could go on at length, but will limit myself to a pair of portraits of Giuseppe da Porto, a gentleman of Vicenza. One is official, by Tintoretto, and frankly reserved. The other is informal, by Paolo Veronese, and shows Giuseppe with his son Adriano, who holds his father's arm with a happy expression, and one has the impression this was a rare moment for him. And to Bernini's San Lorenzo, an early (some say his first) sculpture; Lorenzo is lying on the grill with the flames licking up (he's the patron saint of meat grillers), about to tell his tormentors he's done on one side and it's time to turn him over, and Bernini, who was a teenager at the time, is said to have burned himself to get an idea of how the Saint felt.
In short, if you visit Florence, plan your stay to include a Thursday or a Friday, and arrange to see the Collezione Contini Bonacossi. It will be a highpoint of your trip.
After the showing, Count Ugo invited us to the Ristorante Beccofino -- across the river from the Uffizi in Piazza degli Scarlatti, where there used to be a mosque. I won't bore you with the menu, which was quite nice, but will touch upon the wines, from the Contini Bonacossi family's Capezzana estate in Carmignano. In particular, we had the 2004 and 1990 Villa Capezzana Carmignano, and the 2000 and 1979 Trefiano Carmignano (reds all).
The younger wines, which were both made after the arrival of Stefano Chioccioli as consulting enologist, are rich and fruit driven, displaying considerable balance in an extremely appealing and approachable key. They're both good introductions to Central Tuscan wines, and though some might sniff because they do contain Cabernet, which is generally a recent addition in Tuscany, in Carmignano it was introduced by Cosimo III De'Medici in the early 1700s and has had lots of time to adapt to its surroundings.
The older wines are cut from a very different cloth; whereas the wines Stefano advised on are built around fruit, both the 1990 Villa Capezzana and the 1979 Treffiano (their first vintage) owe much of their energy and backbone to lively acidity that keeps them very much on their toes; though there is sour berry fruit, it's the acidity that makes things interesting, and as such the wines are considerably less approachable than their younger siblings. If you like the style, they have a great deal to say, but you do have to like the style.
Why the differences? In part time; fruit does fade, and as it does other things, in particular acidity, can emerge. But more importantly improvements in viticultural technique have resulted in riper, better quality grapes, and the improvements are reflected in the wines.
Send an SMS to find out about the Bottle
Fraud strikes everything, including wine, and a few years ago the papers were full of stories about someone who was caught selling fake Sassicaia -- the label looked good, but the wine was a far cry from what it was supposed to be. Brunello is also vulnerable to this sort of thing, and the Consorzio is introducing a holographic band called a CertiLogo, which is affixed to the neck like the paper fascetta with the Brunello seal. The CertiLogo bands are made by a Milanese company and are difficult to falsify; they also have a code on them that you can call in, together with the code on the fascetta via a cellphone SMS or a web form, and get back information about the wine -- what it is, accompaniments, serving temperature, and so on.
Ciacci Piccolomini D'Aragona is the first winery to adopt the system, and when a colleague tried sending in an SMS message, the reply was instantaneous. I expect we'll see more of these CertiLogo bands in the future.
Winding down, Tuesday the 20th is Carnevale, also known as Mardi Gras and Shrove Tuesday. It's a final occasion for fun and levity before the onset of Lent, and it's custom to celebrate with tasty treats. I've mentioned others in the past, and here are a couple more:
These are fritters sprinkled with honey; you'll need:
- 4 cups (400g) flour
- 2/3 cup dry white wine
- Powdered sugar
- The grated zest of a lemon
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- An egg, lightly beaten
- Oil for frying
Roll the dough out into a thin (2 mm, or 1/16 of an inch) sheet, and use a serrated pastry wheel to cut strips about a half-inch (1 cm) high. Roll the strips up to make cartedatte about an inch (2.5 cm) across, using a little beaten egg to stick down the outer end of each, and fry the cartedatte in hot oil.
Drain the cartedatte well on absorbent paper, brush them with honey, and serve at once.
These sound more difficult than they are to do, though they do require a pastry bag. You'll need:
- 2 1/2 cups (250 g) flour
- A vanilla bean
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter
- 6 eggs, beaten
- The grated zest of a lemon
- A pinch of salt
- Oil for frying
Let the mixture cool, and then incorporate the beaten eggs and the lemon zest. In the meantime, heat oil for frying.
The batter will be squeezable; use it to fill a pastry bag with a fairly large nozzle, and squeeze it out into the hot oil while moving the bag as if you were drawing with it. Remove the girandole when they are golden, drain them on absorbent paper, and serve.
This time's proverb is Neapolitan: È meglio a tené na mala spina ca nu malo vicino -- It's better to have a thorn in your flesh than to have a bad neighbor.
That's it, and Happy Carnevale! A presto,
Editor, The Italian Wine Review
Want to comment? Drop me a line at Kyle@cosabolle.com
PS -- Please forward this to anyone you think would enjoy it! If you would like to read past issues (nothing in them really gets stale), you'll find them on the IWR site, through http://www.cosabolle.com. Access to the online archives is via subscription -- in other words there's a yearly charge that helps us to offset our costs -- and includes extras of various kinds, including illustrations and links to other resources. IWR subscribers automatically have access to the Cosa Bolle archives.