When I first started thinking about this month’s Italy Roundtable theme, MYTHS AND LEGENDS, I thought about the Montesiepi Chapel in Tuscany, where there is an actual sword embedded in actual stone.
It’s said to have been put there by Saint Galgano in the late 12th century, when he wanted to mark the location of a vision with a cross. Having no cross at hand, he pushed his sword into the ground, which instantly solidified around the sword so that it couldn’t be removed. The handle of a sword still protrudes from stone in the Montesiepi Chapel, where you can see it to this day.
And whatever you might think about visions, or that story, there have been studies done on the metal in the sword that show it could very well come from the 12th century. In other words, this very real sword in a very real stone could have been the inspiration for the Arthurian legend of Excalibur.
But there’s probably no way to know for sure whether that’s true, or how the Montesiepi Chapel sword got into the stone in the first place. So, while I like sharing that story with you, I wanted instead to focus on a few myths that sound cool but about which we have some facts to study.
Boring, maybe, but I’m a firstborn. It’s in my nature.
You’ve heard it said that “things sound better in Italian,” right? I have, for instance, stopped calling it “fruit salad” altogether. Because when I tell my family we’re having “macedonia” for dessert it sounds so much more intriguing.
That romantic ideal that many Italophiles (including yours truly) have attached to the sound of Italian words for mundane things can also extend to the Italian stories we hear while we travel through the country. Even if there’s evidence to the contrary, it can be fun to believe stories that just sound good.
Well-meaning tour guides or travel writers have perpetuated some Italian myths, perhaps because they didn’t do their homework or because they just like the sound of the myth. Well, I like truths, even if they come at the expense of something that sounds more romantic. So here are four Italian myths, and the truths they hide.
One of the most popular stops on any Rome tour is the oblong Piazza Navona. It’s fun to imagine the stadium that once occupied the space, and left its footprint on the shape of the piazza centuries later. It’s wonderful to see the Bernini sculptures on the central fountain. And the lovely Borromini facade of the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone makes a perfect photo backdrop.
The story some guides and writers tell here has its roots in a truth – that the artists Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini were contemporaries and rivals. To say the two men didn’t get along would be an understatement. The myth is that Bernini’s famous Fountain of the Four Rivers, the centerpiece of Piazza Navona, features one statue that appears to recoil from the facade of the church Borromini designed, as if it’s horrified by the work.
It’s a fun story, isn’t it? If it’s true, it’s an example of 17th-century shade – and shade that would have taken a really, really long time to throw, what with the carving required. That is commitment, y’all.
But it’s not true. Borromini’s facade was designed and built from 1653-1657, while Bernini’s fountain was sculpted in 1651 – before Borromini even got the job working on the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone. It’s not a look of disgust Bernini’s figure is displaying at all – it’s just the figure of the Río de la Plata, one of the four rivers represented, carved so beautifully as to look like he’s moving.
This is actually one of my favorite myths, because you still occasionally hear it in Italy – and this time it’s not from tour guides or travel writers, it’s Italians who say it.
The dig is meant to insinuate that, for all his faults, at least the Italian dictator got the trains to run on time, which (the insinuation continues) the government has failed to do since then. It’s getting less and less common to hear this nowadays, as it was primarily older generations who said it.
The truth is that while the rail system in Italy did improve during the 1920s, it was mostly due to work completed long before Mussolini came to power. More importantly, while the Fascists were in power, the Italian rail system was anything but punctual.
Today’s trains have issues at times, of course, but they remain the most dependable (and my most-recommended) way for visitors to get around the country. And yes, I love Italian trains so much that I wrote a book about them.
So there, Mussolini.
Italian weddings are famous for the amount of food served. Jokes abound regarding fasting for the week prior to a wedding, just so you don’t explode. There are umpteen-gajillion courses of food, and it’s not a tasting menu.
Nowhere on any reception menu, however, will you find anything called “Italian Wedding Soup.” The canned variety of this soup is in many an American grocery store, though. So, what gives?
The soup itself, a combination of meat and dark, leafy greens in a clear broth, has nothing to do with marriage or weddings at all. In fact, the original Italian phrase used to describe the recipe was “minestra maritata,” or “married soup.” Italians say foods that go together well “marry well,” so calling this soup a “minestra maritata” was simply a way of saying the meat and greens in the recipe tasted good together.
Putting the word “Italian” on just about anything makes it more appealing, so it’s not surprising that someone at Campbell’s (or whoever brought this mistranslation to America) went with “Italian Wedding Soup” instead of something more accurate, like “meatball and cabbage soup.” The fact remains, however, that this soup has absolutely no relation to nuptials of any kind.
Venice is an almost impossibly romantic city. (No, that’s not the myth, though I’ll acknowledge that it is opinion.) It’s not surprising, then, that one of its most famous monuments has such a romantic myth associated with it – though it’s mostly depressing.
The 17th-century bridge that connects the Palazzo Ducale with the prison next door, crossing high above the Rio di Palazzo canal, is universally known these days as the Bridge of Sighs. The name, says the story, comes from the sighs prisoners would emit when crossing into the prisons, as they caught a glimpse of the city outside – a city they wouldn’t be seeing again.
Oh, it’s a tragic tale, particularly when you hear about the conditions of the prisons, and how the judiciary system was often pretty biased (think “inquisition”). And when you walk over the bridge today (something you can only do on a tour of the Doge’s Palace) you’ll snap a photo from the tiny windows, imagining how painful it would have been to get a last look at that city before making yourself at home in a dank, cold cell.
But the bridge really owes its romantic nickname to a 19th-century poet.
The term “Ponte dei Sospiri” (Italian for “Bridge of Sighs”) was in use by the late 18th century, though who originally called it that is tough to nail down. Casanova mentions it in a book published in 1788 in which he talks about his 1757 escape from the prison, and English novelist William Beckford uses the nickname in a book published in 1783 about his 1782 visit to Venice, but both do so as if the nickname is already known. By the time Lord Byron translated the Italian to “Bridge of Sighs” in an 1818 poem, thereby popularizing it for the rest of us, the prison’s days of inquisition-style “trials” and speedy executions were ancient history.
Lord Byron wasn’t hearing any sighs, in other words.
The other complication with the nickname is that most of the prisoners heading from the Doge’s Palace to the cells weren’t being sentenced to life, which puts a dent in the idea that they were sighing over a final look at the city. Now, there’s no telling whether some prisoners sighed heavily as they walked from the quasi-courtroom to the prison, wistfully wondering what might have been had they not gotten caught or wrongly accused, but I suspect that at that point – facing time in one of those infamous cells or, at worst, death – they probably had other things on their minds.
Special thanks to reader Gregory Dowling who corrected my error in crediting Lord Byron with the origin of the nickname!
What are my truly legendary pals writing about this month? Click along with me through to the following links to read each of their posts – and please leave comments, share them with your friends, and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!
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