Aqua Tofana: slow-poisoning and husband killing in 17th century Italy

From A Blast From the Past: Aqua Tofana: slow-poisoning and husband killing in 17th century Italy.

The story as it is commonly told is this: Aqua Tofana was the creation of a Sicilian woman named Giulia Tofana, who lived and worked in Palermo in the first half of the 17th century. It was a limpid, harmless-looking liquid, a scant four to six drops of which were “sufficient to destroy a man.” Its principal ingredient was arsenic, and, while its use spread throughout much of southern Italy, it was typically administered by women to their husbands, most commonly in order to come into their fortunes – poisons were often known as “inheritance powders” in those days.

The very existence of Aqua Tofana was, thus, a severe challenge to what was then agreed to be the natural order – a world in which men ruled as petty tyrants over their own families, and even the most aristocratic of daughters were chattels to be auctioned off into often loveless marriages. For this reason, generous allowance needs to be made for contemporary misogyny when we think about this tale; one of the few constants in the various portraits of events is the depiction of Tofana and her gang as hags, and their female customers as faithless Jezebels. [continue]

Italy. Poison. Murder. History. What more could you want? This is a well-written, well-researched, and thoroughly fascinating article.

Bag designed by Leonardo Da Vinci

From Leonardo Da Vinci: Bag Designer.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) was an artist, inventor, scientist, architect, engineer, writer and even a musician. Now we know that he was also a fashion designer.

After several months of meticulous research, scholars have reconstructed some fragmented drawings of a unique bag designed by the Renaissance genius around 1497. (…)

Overlooked for more than three decades, it has been reconstructed and reassembled by Agnese Sabato and Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Museo Ideale in the Tuscan town of Vinci, where da Vinci was born in 1452. [continue]

Found: Tomb of the general who inspired ‘Gladiator’

From The Independent: Found: Tomb of the general who inspired ‘Gladiator’.

Natural disaster makes for great archaelogy. Pompeii and Herculaneum we owe to the fury of Vesuvius – and today Italy’s Culture Ministry announced the dramatic discovery of the ruins of the tomb of the general who was the inspiration for the patrician-turned-vengeful gladiator played by Russell Crowe in the film Gladiator, fabulously well preserved thanks to a catastrophic flood.

The general in Gladiator, named Maximus Decimus Meridius by the film makers, was a favourite of the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius in the late 2nd century AD and fought with him against the fearsome Germanic tribes who threatened to inundate Italy, beating them back and postponing the empire’s decline and fall for another century or more.

All of this was also true of Marcus Nonius Macrinus, the man whose last resting place has now been identified. What is also true is that [continue]

Wine flowing from Italian taps is hailed as a miracle

One of my fantasies has come true, but alas — for somebody else, not for me. Slashfood explains:

When a woman in Marino, a small Italian town south of Rome, turned on her kitchen tap, she got a spurt of wine instead of water. "Miracolo!" she shouted, and ran outside to tell others.

Word quickly spread, and soon residents all over town were filling bottles and containers with Frascati, the local white wine made from trebbiano and malvasia grapes.

It turns out the wine [continue]

The Telegraph has more on the story: Wine flowing from Italian taps is hailed as a miracle.

Ostia’s ruins

From the New York Times: Archaeologists Unveil Majestic Roman Ruins That Rival Riches of Pompeii.

The ruins of Ostia, an ancient Roman port, have never captured the public imagination in the same way as those of Pompeii, perhaps because Ostia met with a less cataclysmic fate.

Yet past archaeological digs here have yielded evidence of majestic public halls and even multistory apartment buildings that challenge Pompeii’s primacy. Now officials hope that the decade-long restoration of four dwellings lavishly decorated with frescoes will focus new attention on this once-bustling port about 15 miles west of Rome.

Last week the second-century insulae, or housing complexes, were presented to the public [continue, see photos]

Italians vote for ugliest English words

From The Telegraph: Italians vote for ugliest English words.

For years it was the French who worked themselves into a lather over their native tongue being infected by English.

Now it is their southern neighbours across the Alps who are wringing their hands at the growing incursion of Anglo-Saxon words and phrases into every day use.

From ‘il weekend’ to ‘lo stress’ and ‘le leadership’, Italians increasingly sprinkle their conversations with English terms, some of them comically mangled and bizarre sounding to a native English speaker.

‘Baby parking’, for example, is a strange conflation which means child care centre or nursery.

A ‘baby gang’, on the other hand, is a more sinister construct. It means a group of young criminals or hoodlums.

As with the French and their use of Franglais, Italians sometimes throw in English words to appear worldly and cosmopolitan, and at other times to describe things slightly alien to the Italian mindset, from ‘il fitness’ to ‘il full immersion training’.

But now a cultural guardian of the Italian language is saying ‘basta!’ – enough. [continue]

Italy, anyone?

From the BBC: Sicily mayor offers bargain homes.

A small town in western Sicily has come up with a revolutionary solution to solve its property problems.

They are offering houses in the town, which sits between two rivers, for just a single euro (81 pence; $1.44).

The idea is the brainchild of mayor Vittorio Sgarbi, convinced it is the only way to revitalise its crumbling historic heart. [continue]

I wonder if this is open to non-Italians.

Beyond Pompeii: places swallowed by Vesuvius

From Beyond Pompeii: Places swallowed by Vesuvius.

Over several centuries, millions of tourists have visited Pompeii to acquaint themselves with the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Vesuvius that began on Aug. 24, 79 A.D. But while it’s the most famous eruption site, the ancient Roman city 15 miles south of Naples isn’t the best place to gauge the volcano’s awesome destructive power.

For that, one should visit lesser-known Herculaneum, which is closer to Vesuvius, or Oplontis and Stabiae, two sites more recently uncovered and still relatively unknown to tourists. In these places, several of which are still being excavated, the eruption’s consequences are more visible. [continue]

On Venice’s Grand Canal in a kayak

Dear heavens! These people kayaked through Venice. Part of me wants to shout "sacrilege!" and part of me wishes I’d thought of doing that. From the New York Times: On Venice’s Grand Canal in a Kayak.

They helped fleeing Romans evade Attila the Hun and held a glittering city aloft for more than 1,500 years. But the wooden pilings rising out of the Grand Canal in Venice are so decayed that as we clung to them one afternoon it wasn’t at all clear whether they would be sturdy enough to prevent us from capsizing into its murky waters.

It was rush hour in Venice, so the canal’s usual tumult of crosscurrents and tides was churning with the wake of water taxis, ferries and delivery boats. Each volley of waves slapped against the side of the inflatable kayak we were using to cross Italy’s most storied waterway; the pilings were our best chance to avoid being immersed in it. [continue]

Thousand-year-old Lombard warrior skeleton discovered buried with horse in Italy

From The Telegraph: Thousand-year-old Lombard warrior skeleton discovered buried with horse in Italy.

Italian archaeologists have discovered a perfectly preserved skeleton of a 1400-year-old Lombard warrior, buried with his horse.

The skeleton, which was found in a park at Testona, near Turin, is of a 25-year-old Lombard who died of a fever. Unusually, his horse was buried alongside him.

"This is a very rare find," said Gabriella Pantò, the archaeologist leading the dig. "We have not seen many precedents in Italy. We have seen horses’ heads buried with warriors, but this find shows the area is vitally important," she added.

The Lombards were a nomadic tribe of Germans who settled near the Danube and launched an attack on Italy in the sixth century. [continue]

Italian builders uncover 2,000-year-old tombs

From Italian builders uncover 2,000-year-old tombs.

Archaeologists were yesterday celebrating the discovery of 27 2,000-year-old tombs in Italy’s "Valley of the Dead". (…)

Archaeologists say there is also a "good chance" that there may well be other tombs waiting to be discovered. The tombs were discovered at Tarquinia, 50 miles north of Rome in an area named a World Heritage Site by Unesco.

Covering more than 400 acres, the area was the burial ground for the Etruscan tribes who predated the Romans. Maria Tecla Castaldi, an archaeologist, said: [continue]

Ancient artifacts seized near Rome

From the Guardian: Ancient Artifacts Seized Near Rome.

Police seized some 1,000 ancient artifacts from a wealthy Italian man’s country house outside Rome that were stolen from one of Emperor Trajan’s villas, prosecutors said Wednesday.

Authorities contend the artifacts, which were being used to decorate the man’s weekend residence, were ripped off the walls of what is believed to be Trajan’s hunting retreat in Arcinazzo Romano, a town in the countryside outside Rome. [continue]

Good heavens! What an exceptionally nervy thief.

Medici philosopher’s mystery death is solved

From the Telegraph: Medici philosopher’s mystery death is solved.

After 500 years, one of Renaissance Italy’s most enduring murder mysteries has been solved by forensic scientists.

Ever since Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, a mystical and mercurial philosopher at the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici, suddenly became sick and died in 1494, it has been rumoured that foul play was involved.

Pico’s fame has faded, but he was a celebrated figure at the Medici court.

He gained notoriety when, at the age of 23, [continue]

Newly unearthed cave may be linked to myth of Rome’s founding

From the International Herald Tribune: Newly unearthed cave may be linked to myth of Rome’s founding.

Italian archaeologists have inched closer to unearthing the secrets behind one of Western civilization’s most enduring legends.

On Tuesday, the government released photographs of a deep cavern where some archaeologists claim that ancient Romans honored Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome.

The cavern, now buried 16 meters, or 52 feet, under the ruins of Emperor Augustus’s palace on the Palatine Hill, has a height of 7.1 meters and a diameter of 6.5 meters. Photographs taken of the cave by a camera probe show a domed cavern decorated with extremely well-preserved colored mosaics and seashells. At the center of the vault is a painted white eagle, a symbol of the Roman Empire. [continue, see photo]

Venice lagoon reveals grim secrets

From the BBC: Venice lagoon reveals grim secrets.

The Venetian authorities are surveying two ancient ships found beside the lost island of San Marco in Boccalama that disappeared beneath the rising lagoon over 500 years ago.

The island — the site of an abandoned 11th century monastery — became a mass grave for scores of thousands of victims of the plague, the Black Death, in 1348.

Now, on what was the foreshore, they’re unearthing the two oldest ships ever found in Venice – sunk by the island’s monks in a doomed attempt to bolster sea defences against the encroaching lagoon.

On the lost island of San Marco, a ship is being uncovered that was built 700 years ago. The second ship, a 13th century galley, is now only a few inches below the water.

Aided by the new discoveries, historians are tracking the path of the plague.

Near the lost island is another abandoned monastery, San Lazaretto Nuovo.

This was Venice’s quarantine outpost during the 500 years of recurring plague — a haunted place where incoming crews and passengers were detained in the hope of checking the Black Death. [continue]

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Mozzarella di bufala

One of the things I miss about Italy is the bocconcini made from water buffalo milk — mozzarella di bufala. It’s splendid, and almost impossible to get in Canada, from what I’ve seen. (Of course you can buy bocconcini at most supermarkets here, but that stuff is almost certainly made from cows’ milk. What’s worse is that it’s been sitting around for too long, and is almost not worth eating by the time it gets to your table. Even if you do see mozzarella di bufala, it’s likely imported from Italy and no longer fresh.)

So can you imagine how pleased I was to learn that a farm on Vancouver Island has set up a water buffalo dairy? And yes, they’re making mozzarella di bufala!

Here’s an article about the enterprise from the Globe and Mail: Curdling till the buffalo come home.

The orb of pristine cheese in Paul Sutter’s hand is soft and shiny, the picture of youth in the cheese world.

"It’s very delicate at this point," says the Courtenay, B.C., cheese maker, cradling the day-old white mozzarella in his palm like an oversized poached egg.

This cheese is like any good ball of fresh Italian bocconcini, but it’s the first artisan buffalo-milk mozzarella commercially made in Canada. It’s moist on the inside, with the typical striated layers created by stretching the warmed mass of freshly coagulated curds. It’s encased in a tight, thin skin, formed when the cheese is pulled and hand-pinched into a neat round ball.

And like the original — the famed Mozzarella di Bufala Campana — it is made from buffalo milk: a dense, sweet, high-fat milk used to create the finest fresh cheeses.

The milk comes from Fairburn Farm in British Columbia’s Cowichan Valley, the only water buffalo dairy in Canada, where owners Darrel and Anthea Archer have just begun to produce enough buffalo milk to create this new Canadian product. [continue]

This is extra good news for anyone within striking distance of the Cowichan Valley.

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More clues in the legend (or is it fact?) of Romulus

From the New York Times: More Clues in the Legend (or Is It Fact?) of Romulus.

The story of Romulus and Remus is almost as old as Rome. The orphan
twins were suckled by a she-wolf in a cave on the banks of the Tiber.
Romulus grew up to found Rome in 753 B. C.

Historians have long since dismissed the story as a charming legend.
The 19th-century historian Theodor Mommsen said: "The founding of the
city in the strict sense, such as the legend assumes, is of course to
be reckoned out of the question: Rome was not built in a day."

Yet the legend is as imperishable as Mommsen’s skeptical verdict, and
it has been invigorated by recent archaeological finds. [continue]

You’ll probably need a password to read the rest of the article.

Roman temple found under president’s house

From Monsters and Critics: Roman temple found under president’s house.

An Italian archaeologist says he believes that the presidential palace in Rome is sitting on top of a temple to the Roman god Quirinus.

Andrea Carandini, a professor at Rome University, used radar scans to look for structures in the grounds of the Palazzo del Quirinale, the Italian news agency Ansa reported. The palace is on the Quirinal Hill, named after Quirinus.

Carandini said his scans show what may be porticos built during a renovation of the temple by Julius Caesar and his nephew, the Emperor Augustus. The porticos are under the palazzo`s English Garden. [continue]

Cracks threaten Rome’s majesty

From the BBC: Cracks threaten Rome’s majesty.

The Emperor Augustus said he found Rome a city of brick – and he left it a city of marble.

But 2,000 years on, the cracks in his legacy are beginning to show.

The Forum, the Colosseum and the palaces of the Palatine Hill still stand as proud testament to the Roman builders’ genius. Yet today they are betrayed by monumental neglect.

The problem of course is money.

It costs millions to protect the treasures of Ancient Rome.

Not to mention the funds needed to safeguard the newly discovered ruins, which in Rome they find practically every week. The budget from the Italian Culture Ministry doesn’t even begin to cover it.

One of the latest closures came in November 2005, when a 16th-Century wall collapsed without warning in a well-visited area, near the Emperor Tiberius’ palace. [continue]

Roman remains threaten metro

From the Guardian: Roman remains threaten metro.

A planned hi-tech driverless underground railway line set to bring desperately needed transport links to the historic heart of Rome has run into a minefield of Roman remains.

Planners aim to send the new C line under the city centre at a depth of 30 metres, well beneath the archaeological treasures that litter Rome. Stations will also be built deep underground, but even the simple task of digging entrances and exits is proving a headache and could mean the scrapping of the Largo Torre Argentina stop, which serves crowded tourist sights such as the Pantheon. [continue]

Roman towns built on astronomically-aligned grids?

From Roman Towns Built With Astronomy

Ancient Romans built their towns using astronomically aligned grids, an Italian study has concluded.

Published recently on the physics Web site,, maintained at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, the research examined the orientation of virtually all Roman towns in Italy.

"It emerged that these towns were not laid out at random. On the contrary, they were planned following strong symbolic aspects, all linked to astronomy," Giulio Magli, of the mathematics department at Milan’s Polytechnic University, told Discovery News.

Part of a wider study published in Magli’s book "Secrets of the Ancient Megalithic Towns," the research examined the orientation of some 38 towns in Italy.

Magli explained that ancient Roman writers, including Ovid and Plutarch, documented how the foundation of a new town took into account the flight of birds and astronomical references. [continue]

Etruscans: migrants to Italy?

From the New York Times: DNA Boosts Herodotus’ Account of Etruscans as Migrants to Italy.

Geneticists have added an edge to a 2,500-year-old debate over the origin of the Etruscans, a people whose brilliant and mysterious civilization dominated northwestern Italy for centuries until the rise of the Roman republic in 510 B.C. Several new findings support a view held by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus — but unpopular among archaeologists — that the Etruscans originally migrated to Italy from the Near East. [continue]