Sacred Splendours: reliquaries of Florence’s pious grand duchesses

The former summer apartments of Palazzo Pitti are playing host(until 2nd November) to an exhibition of many of the treasures which used to be in the Chapel of the Reliquaries, on the palace’s first floor. Founded by Maria Magdalena of Austria (wife of Cosimo II) and numbering some 1,000 pieces, the collection used to be one of the most important in Europe, but it was broken up from 1784 onwards. It has been painstakingly reassembled for this occasion, and these precious devotional objects are displayed more or less chronologically.

Maria Magdalena of Austria as a widow, painted by Justus Sustermans.

Three exquisite works made in Germany are the earliest pieces, dating from the 14th–15th centuries: they were sent as gifts to the Grand Duchess Christine of Lorraine. The later works in the main room include a Cross and pair of candlesticks made in 1632 for the high altar of Santissima Annunziata: the rock crystal is by Matteo Nigetti and the bronze work by Pietro Tacca. In the centre of the room is displayed a large reliquary Cross made for the relic of the True Cross kept in the Duomo, decorated with a huge topaz—it is the work of Cosimo Merlini the Elder and Bernardo Holzmann (1618). Around the same time the silver coffin was designed by Giulio Parigi to display the body of a certain St Cesonius, dug up in the catacombs of San Sebastiano in Rome and sent to Maria Magdalena of Austria after she had ordered a ‘saintly body’ for her collection. The bones of the unknown saint were accompanied by a parchment declaration of its authenticity, today on display beside it. Two reliquaries of the same date by Andrea Tarchiani were presented to Maria Magdalena by her husband.

The adjoining three rooms contain ever more elaborate works commissioned by Maria Magdalena, many of them in amber, ebony and ivory, and later pieces made for Vittoria della Rovere (wife of Cosimo’s sucessor Ferdinando II). The last room has the most astonishing early 18th-century pieces, such as the reliquary by Giovanni Battista Foggini and Massimiliano Soldani Benzi made to preserve the thigh bone of St Casimir (patron saint of Poland).

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

Book Review. Helena Attlee: The Land where Lemons Grow

We were off with my group from Florence to Prato, where in the cathedral there is the Chapel of the Girdle of the Virgin Mary—not any old girdle, but the actual one that she dropped down to Thomas as she was being assumed into heaven. It is exposed on its feast days from a pulpit, one of the most beautiful and exhilarating creations of Donatello (the original now under cover in the adjoining cathedral museum). After the delight of seeing it, we still had time to fill in and so on the way back we stopped off at the Villa di Castello, one of the original 16th-century Medici villas, once graced by Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and now the home of the venerable Accademia della Crusca, the guardian of the purity of the Italian language.

The garden is famous for its extraordinary collection of citrus fruits and it is hardly surprising that this was one of the first stops for Helena Attlee in her absorbing story of citrus growing in Italy. The garden was created in the 1540s by Niccolo dei Pericoli, known to this day by his schoolboy nickname, Tribolo, ‘the troublemaker’. He knew what he was up to, making sure that the garden was divided up with walls and lots of shade to provide the perfect temperature for the growing fruit. All this was swept away in the 18th century and the more formal open spaces are now too hot for their produce but the garden still impresses with its hundreds of large terracotta pots and extraordinary array of fruits. They are dragged off in the winter into the garden’s limonaia, the lemon house. Many of these limonaie are spectacular buildings in their own right, especially further north among the lemon growers of Lake Garda, where further protective shelter from the cold is needed.

There were only three original species of the citrus genus in Asia, the mandarin, the pomelo and the citron, but they cross-pollinated so easily that hybrids soon formed and flourished even before any fruits arrived in Italy. The citron was the first to appear, in the 2nd century AD, as a mysterious newcomer in that it is ungainly, virtually inedible but exudes a wonderful perfume that suffuses everything that it touches. Lemons, a hybrid between citrons and sour oranges that are themselves a hybrid between a mandarin and a pomelo, arrived in Sicily with the Arabs in the 9th century while pure mandarins only arrived, from China via Kew Gardens, in the 19th century. By then luck and ingenuity had created the extraordinary mix of citrus fruits that made classification a botanist’s nightmare—especially as aristocrats delighted in creating as many exotic and grotesque specimens as possible.

The distinct climatic niches of Italy and Sicily fostered their own varieties. If you are looking for the best arancie rosse, blood oranges, you must come to the slopes of Mount Etna, for here the difference in temperature between day and night is at least ten degrees, without which the blood-coloured pigments cannot develop. For the treasured oil of the bergamot, a natural cross-pollination between a lemon and a sour orange, a thirty-five kilometre stretch of coastline in Calabria, where cultivation began in the 17th century, provides the finest in the world, while the Ligurian coast is the home of the small and bitter Chinotto, most usually found as an ingredient of Campari, but now enjoying a revival in its own right.

Inside a limonaia on Lake Garda

Varieties come and go as easier ways of working or developing the land challenge the original traditions and it is only the most skilful gardeners who can keep ancient specimens alive from one generation to the next. Attlee seeks out these dedicated few, some of whom may indeed sustain revivals of vanished species. The curator of the Castello garden, Paolo Galeotti, had a spectacular coup when he spotted a twig sprouting the celebrated bizzarria, a citrated lemon that had vanished without trace for decades. It is now flourishing. Alas, alone and unprepared as my group were, and without the expertise of Helena Attlee or Signor Galeotti at hand, we missed seeing it (and how could I have taken my recent Turin tour members to the excellent Via del Sale restaurant without insisting on their sorbet made from madarino tardivo di Ciaculli, with a flavour ‘so intense it could be consumed only in tiny mouthfuls’).

It was Goethe who dreamed of the land where the lemon trees bloom and this delightful and informative book is full of the sun, sensuality and scents of Italy. From now on anyone shopping for standard oranges and lemons in their local supermarket will be consumed with guilt at their lack of discrimination. I am not sure whether our excellent greengrocer will be able to source Limone femminello sfusato amalfitano, the distinctive Amalfi lemon, now given protection from outside competitors by the EU, but I have been promised Tagiolini alle scorzette di arancia e limone for supper and, as the summer warms, we might even try the old lemon-growers’ trick of trapping flies in a concoction of ammonia with an anchovy added to it. But please may we have a new edition with a sumptuous display of coloured prints so that we can feast our eyes on the richness of these wonderful fruits when winter comes to northern Europe?

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides.

The Land where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit is published by Particular Books, London, 2014.

Holiday reading

We have Blue Guide Literary Companions to Rome, Venice and London.

Books reviewed on these pages:

Rome
Al Dente, Madness, Beauty and the Food of Rome by acclaimed food writer David Winner.
Also David Watkin’s The Roman Forum – have archaeologists ruined it?
Whispering City: Rome and its Histories by RJB Bosworth.
Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor by Paul Stephenson.
Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us by Ferdinand Mount.

Nothern Italy
The Pike, Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s “biography of the extraordinary Italian poet, and—well one can hardly begin to say what else—Gabriele d’Annunzio”.

Sicily
Inspector Montalbano and the works of Andrea Camilleri.

Venice
The Politics of Washing, Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles “exploring the ‘political’ challenge of how far a newly arrived resident can pull out their underwear (and which garments) on a backstreet (backcanal?) Venetian washing line” compared to William Dean Howells’ classic, Venetian Life.
City of Fortune, How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire by Roger Crowley.
Ruskin on Venice by Robert Hewison.
Background reading recommended Blue Guide Venice author Alta Macadam: Venice »

Tuscany
The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution. Keith Devlin on Pisa’s 13th century mathematical genius.
Blue Guide Florence recommended background reading: Florence »

Italy
The Land where Lemons Grow, the Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit by Helena Atlee.

Britain
Under Another Sky, Travels in Roman Britain by Charlotte Higgins.

Greece
Patrick Leigh Fermor by Artemis Cooper.  Is the the real Patrick Leigh Fermor?

India
Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity by the author of Blue Guide India, Sam Miller.

Istanbul
Orhan Pamuk and other reading recommended by our historical consultant Charles Freeman: Istanbul »

Artwork of the Month: July. The Phaistos Disc

On 3rd July 1908, the Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier, working in the so-called ‘House 101’, northeast of the palace of Phaistos, found an object with symbols on both sides, next to a Linear A tablet. The object became known as the Phaistos Disc—and it remains as intriguing and mysterious now, over a hundred years later, as it was then. Physically it is round, hand-made, about 1.5cm thick and approx. 16.2cm in diameter, with an incised spiral decoration. The spiral is filled with little symbols, 241 or so of them (most of the motifs occurring more than once), stamped on the fresh clay. They represent the earliest evidence of the use of movable type. The clay is free from impurities and the object, unlike the tablets, was fired deliberately.

The excavator assumed it had fallen from the upper storey and that it was of Cretan manufacture. Not much progress has been made since then, though not for want of trying. Nothing else remotely similar has ever been found—and that is the main problem. Accusations of foul play were made as early as 1913. The villain of the piece was said to be Pernier who, jealous of his fellow archaeologist Halbherr’s success at Gortyn (also in Crete), where he found the famous Law Code, and of Evans’s discoveries at Knossos, deliberately planted a forged object with an invented script in order to raise the profile of his excavations. However, while it is true that Phaistos could not rival Knossos as to finds, at Aghia Triada nearby, also excavated by the Italians, the quality and quantity of material was truly amazing. Pernier and the Italian School had their hands full. He seems an unlikely accomplice in a forgery of this magnitude.

Interpretations of the object’s function and meaning are extremely diverse, ranging from an astronomical or astrological calendar to a hymn to victory, a nursery rhyme or a sacred text. Current thought assumes it is a piece of writing though the direction of it, from the centre to the periphery or the other way round, has yet to be established. The small number of characters, 45 in total, suggests it is a syllabic script and close to Linear A, which has not yet been deciphered. There has been no shortage of proposed translations, based on languages as diverse as Chinese, Dravidian, Georgian, Hittite, Luwian, Semitic, Slavic and Sumerian. Indeed it was this abundance that prompted the late John Chadwick, who decoded Linear B with Michael Ventris, to appeal to those producing their own solutions ‘not to send them to him’.

With appropriate testing, it would be possible to put this case to rest one way or another. Modern techniques such as thermoluminescence are not invasive and would ascertain the date of the firing, thereby deciding once and for all the question of authenticity, while the analysis of a minimal quantity of the clay could assist in determining provenance. So far the authorities involved have resisted all calls for such tests. But the case should not be allowed to linger.

Blue Guide Crete, which combs the island in loving detail, will be available in digital format later this month.