Sunday, September 14, 2008

Confluences of rivers & minds (w/ bootleg Barkan)

My little piece of the blogland here takes confluence literally and conceptually, and I have good news and links on both scores.

The Confluence Partnership has distributed its September 2008 e-newsletter, with all sorts of options for improving and enjoying The Confluence Greenway - all of which is expanded on The Confluence Partnership website.

[Note to self: check this out for the dayjob:
2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 25
“Establishing Islands: Black Neighborhoods in St. Louis”
Scott Joplin House State Historic Site
2658 Delmar Blvd.
John Wright, historian, delves into the independent neighborhoods which developed because of “redlining."]

Redlining - that's the opposite of Greenway and Confluence, but I'm glad I found this event on their website.

As for the conceptual art of the confluence - of bringing together different kinds of people and passions and perspectives, and making them talk to one another in transformative (or, at least, interesting) ways - the man (the Michelangelo) of that art is Leonard Barkan.

Leonard is the fanciest of fancy academics. Princeton University poached him from New York University, in a bidding war (he'll cringe, if he sees any of this put this way) that also included Harvard. Yet he still finds time to write a food column for an Italian Communist magazine. I have seen him hold his own, witty and engaged, with just about every kind of person imaginable.

I remember when I was staying with him in Greenwich Village and editing his book Unearthing the Past (which went on to win every award under the sun in that most confluence of literary categories, Comparative Literature). I was spending some of my (wilder) nights cavorting with a hip-hop crowd in Queens that was on the fringes of The Wu-Tang Clan scene. I remember my hesitancy to spell out all of these connections to him, thinking he wouldn't get it or didn't care. And I can remember when I did, finally, describe to him my new friends. His sincere response: "I'm familiar with the Wu-Tang Clan."

Not the typical response of someone who can do chapter and verse on both Michelangelo and the sheep cheeses of Chianti.

All of that, just to point you to his new essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is about (you got that right) Michelangelo and his softness for the sheep cheeses of Chianti. Regular readers of me who go read him will instantly understand where I have been coming from, and where I hope to be going: to be half as smart and connected (in the real sense) as Leonard Barkan.

Actually, I see from Leonard's email that The Chronicle is only promising a shelf life of five days for the link to his story to remain active for non-subscribers. So, if you can't read his essay on the Chronicle site, try this bootlegged version:


An Appetite for Scholarship
In search of Michelangelo and a cheese named marzolino


The year is 1967, and I am sitting in the round reading room of the old British Library, poring over Spenser's Faerie Queene on my way to a career as a scholar of early modern English literature. Flip the calendar to 1987, and I am gazing upward at the remains of the beautiful fresco painting in Emperor Nero's Golden House, on my way to writing a book about the rediscovery of ancient art in the Italian Renaissance.
Why the switch? Maybe I wished to integrate material culture into literary study, or to understand the Renaissance across national boundaries, or to meet the challenges of interdisciplinarity. But if I really try to explain the change of venue from a library in London to a palace in Rome, my best guess is, it was the food.
In fact, I've never quite managed to stick to my scholarly pursuits without something a little more hedonistic on the side. During my student days, I snuck away from the library to perform in plays — not King Lear or Mother Courage, but Hello, Dolly! and The Odd Couple. By the time I was a professor, my extracurricular life had coalesced around cuisine: I was either teaching myself how to make pâte feuilletĂ© and wild-mushroom lasagna, or else cadging invitations to tastings of Corton-Charlemagne and Ridge Montebello Cabernet.
All these years, in short, I have been leading a double life. My task in Rome — researching what would become Unearthing the Past — was to study the encounter between the Renaissance and antiquity. After discharging my scholarly duty by viewing the exquisitely wrought paintings in Nero's palace (which, when rediscovered underground at the end of the 15th century, had inspired artists like Raphael to crawl 15 meters downward on ropes in order to glimpse them), I would meet a band of nonacademic colleagues who were sipping white wines from the slopes of Vesuvius while checking out artistically inspiring varieties of fried artichokes and stuffed zucchini flowers that are the crowning glories of Roman Jewish cooking.
By that time I had graduated from apprentice status into full-fledged membership in a fraternity of chefs, winemakers, and journalists who were creating a new Italian consciousness concerning food and drink. These were the heady political years when Slow Food — now an international eco-gastronomic movement, but then a fledgling organization of pleasure-loving left-wingers — was being founded, along with Gambero Rosso (i.e., Red Shrimp, the name chosen for political resonances), which has since become Italy's premier publishing house in the field of cuisine. In the memoir that I would start writing some 15 years later, I grouped these new friends under the chapter "The Communist Gourmet Club."
So far as I was concerned, it all remained pretty schizophrenic. But things were about to change. My subsequent project, a book about Michelangelo's habit of writing words on his drawings, took me to Florence, where, at first, I kept my passions separate. By day I sat in the Casa Buonarroti, once home to members of Michelangelo's family, where I labored to make sense of one sheet with nine different figure sketches plus an almost perfectly remembered quatrain by Petrarch, or another sheet containing elongated nude figure sketches, fragments of a legal contract, and the mysterious words "Desire creates desire and then comes the suffering." By night I joined a band of incognito reviewers checking out Ristorante Il Latini to see whether the bread-and-tomato soup or the gargantuan platters of mixed roasted meats had dropped off in quality now that the place was a tourist destination. Or else I sat through three hours of tasting every single sample that had been presented to the Consortium of Chianti Classico for that year's seal of approval.
But then, back in the archive, I came across a sheet of paper that started to weave my two lives together. Along the left-hand margin, Michelangelo had written three menus, carefully separated by horizontal lines, and listing such items as "two breads / a pitcher of wine / a herring / tortellini." Not quite the repast I was hoping for at the end of my working day, though I was intrigued by the "two fennel soups" further down the list. But as I gazed at the real glories of this page — the artist's perfect renditions of breads, salads, anchovies, and wine carafes, which begin in precise horizontal parallel to the words and then grow larger and more three-dimensional as the menus themselves proliferate — I began to glimpse Michelangelo's own gastronomic interests.
The artist's contemporaries paint the picture of a highly abstemious man who took his nourishment (as his pupil and biographer Ascanio Condivi wrote in 1553) "more out of necessity than for pleasure." But the letters I was reading, bound in the same volumes that housed the drawings, included an extraordinary number of references to food and wine. On these sheets, Michelangelo worries about how the grapes in his garden are doing. He discusses a possible bakery business with his brother. He complains that his father is giving away too many bushels of corn. He spends many months writing a series of poetic epitaphs for a young man whose uncle sends culinary gifts in return, including truffles, salted mushrooms, fennel, squab, and trout, both fresh and marinated.
Most impressive of all in this archive are 40 thank-you notes to his nephew acknowledging the receipt of two recurrent culinary items: Marzolino cheese and trebbiano wine. For someone who is said to have merely gnawed on a crust of bread after a long day of frescoing, he certainly took a lot of trouble with these gastronomic care packages. In one particularly drawn-out episode, the cheese does not arrive, Michelangelo curses out the mule driver, and he makes several trips to the customs house in search of the lost shipment. At other times, wine bottles turn out to be broken, or their contents soured, and he puts down his chisel in order to complain to the authorities.
Probably because of these problems, Michelangelo does extremely careful bookkeeping on all these shipments. And the quantities turn out to be enormous: 90 liters of wine at a time, 86 pears (he seems to have counted them himself), dozens of cheeses. Abstemious indeed. To be fair, he also spreads the wealth. Thirty-three of those pears go to the Pope, and lots of wine gets shared. This has its pitfalls, to be sure: "I've had the trebbiano," he writes to his nephew in June of 1558, "but not without shame and consternation, because I gave some of it away without tasting it, believing it to be good. Afterward I was disgusted with it."
From my personal experience — and I was determined to do deeper research on the artist's favorite tastes — I could only concur on that last judgment. Following the trebbiano trail across Tuscany is disheartening. The wines are gratifyingly inexpensive, but their flavor is flat, flabby, and short, registering the fatal flaws of overproduction and poor clonal selection.
Marzolino, a sheep cheese produced exclusively in the Chianti region, is a different story. Making my way among the artisanal dairies around Siena and Pienza — now this was a piece of research I could really enjoy — I fell in love with these small, slightly pockmarked little bundles of creaminess, whose flavor is something between mozzarella, almonds, and fresh thyme.
Not that I could always find them. The name marzolino comes from the Italian word for the month of March, and these are above all springtime cheeses, small in size because the herds haven't yet had much pasturage, but tasty because the early appearing greenery on the hillsides is so pungent. For the real connoisseur, May Day is about the end of their life span.
It was around that fact that I made a small biographical discovery, something about what it meant that Michelangelo spent his last 30 years as an exile in Rome. By my count, the artist wrote his nephew eight times to thank him for shipments of marzolino (including the very last letter we have, composed in a shaky hand when he was almost 89), and we know that he was a prompt correspondent. Every one of these letters was written in November, December, or January — in other words, at least eight months into the life of these cheeses. Thanks to railways and rental cars, I could stalk the fresh marzolino, but he couldn't. So Michelangelo, world-famous even in his lifetime, was sentenced to eating the delicacies of his native region long after what most connoisseurs would consider their expiration date. Still, the tastes we grow up with often remain the most delicious, even when they've gone stale. Which probably explains his addiction to that insipid trebbiano: That, too, must have tasted of home.
Leonard Barkan is professor of comparative literature at Princeton University and author of the memoir Satyr Square: A Year, a Life in Rome, recently published in paperback by Northwestern University Press. He is also author of Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture (Yale University Press, 1999).

To view a video montage of 10,000 photographs from Rome — taken by Mr. Barkan's partner, Nicholas Barberio — visit this link:


Photo of the Mississippi River near The Confluence is by me.

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