Unveiling the Box "Dreams and Chimeras"

sopra December 12, 2023

Hello! Here we are.

This is not an adventurous on-the-road travel diary or an itinerary to discover magnificent Italian cities. Instead, it's about savoring the beauties of Italy and the authentic made in Italy. 

 

 Toscana

 

This December Box marks the beginning of a journey into the green hills of Tuscany, exploring the charm of medieval villages and culinary delights. Primarily dedicated to Siena, its history, and treasures, I present to you the Dreams and Chimeras Box.

 

Volterra alabaster

Alabastro di Volterra - Cooperativa Artieri Alabastro

 

The alabaster of Volterra, recognized as the most exquisite in Europe, is found in open-air quarries in the Volterra region.

 Over two millennia have passed since the Etruscans began working with alabaster, a tradition still alive in Volterra today. The ancient craft is preserved in the historic workshops, crucial to the local economy until the mid-20th century. These workshops have the challenging yet vital task of conserving tradition and steering it towards modernity.

 

Alabaster, a highly malleable mineral worked more easily than marble, still employs tools and techniques from the past to create precious masterpieces. With varying colors depending on purity, its brightness and elegance have ensured its success over the centuries. While alabaster can be found in quarries in Spain, Brazil, and Romania, that of Volterra is universally acknowledged as the most prized. From Scaglione to Cinerino, alabaster varieties differ in color and transparency, but their ease of craftsmanship and timeless beauty remain constant.

 

In the Dreams & Chimeras Box, discover a white and elegant alabaster soap dish sourced from one of the cooperative artisan workshops in the charming town center. Its modern and simple design makes it suitable for any setting, adding a touch of Italian class.

 

ceramica senese 

Sienese Ceramics

Expressing the material culture, traditions, and folklore of a population, ceramic production showcases unique forms, colors, and decorations across practically every city and town in Italy. In a small artisanal ceramic workshop, I've selected a piece that tells two stories.

 

This sizable cup, suitable for tea, Americano coffee, or a more Italian cappuccino, not only speaks to the Sienese tradition of ceramic craftsmanship but also pays homage to the Siena Cathedral with its hand-painted decoration. The black and white design mirrors the stunning inlaid floor of the Cathedral, going through two rounds of firing: first in terracotta and, after glazing and painting, a second firing.

The cup is hand washable and dishwasher-safe. Perhaps the most typical and recognized Sienese decoration is the Bianco e Nero motif, mirroring the colors of the Balzana, the ancient city emblem. But black and white, along with touches of red, also appear in the aforementioned Cathedral floor, initiated in the second half of the 14th century, traditionally attributed (though with uncertain evidence) to the great Sienese painter Duccio di Buoninsegna. 

A sought-after item that will stand out among your tableware, carrying historical significance along with its aesthetic value.

 

 

Barbero dipinto a mano 

Hand painted Barbero - Cigno bianco

 

To narrate Siena, one of its symbolic items couldn't be overlooked. In the Tuscan city of Siena, the term "Barbero" refers to the horse randomly assigned to each Contrada that races in the Palio.

 

This hand-painted wooden ball, representing the horse and named Barbero, is adorned with the colors of the Contrade. It serves as one of the first gifts a young Contradaiolo receives, coming in a bag of "barberi." Playing with these barberi, one learns to recognize all the Contrade. In the game, this ball symbolizes the racing Contrada, encapsulating its symbols, colors, and the horse. It's a game for all ages, where, after the Contrada is drawn, akin to the Palio, the balls (Barberi) race along a track, with the first to finish winning the Palio!

 

Barberi come in various sizes and with more or less detailed decorations. While the smaller ones are used by children to play the Palio, larger ones serve as ornaments and gifts to friends dedicated to the Contrade.

For you, the Barberi of the Nobile Contrada della Tartuca (Blue and yellow) and the Contrada della Chiocciola (Red and yellow). Two rival Contrade neighboring each other in the city. I chose these two Contrade as they provide an opportunity to share an anecdote about this city and its social dynamics.

 

Recently, the two Contrade contested a piece of Via Tommaso Pendola, just a few meters long. I'm not talking about a disagreement among Sienese citizens but a genuine dispute that even went to court! The court ruled that the contested stretch should go back to the Contrada della Chiocciola, precisely as stated in the Bando di Violante di Baviera, a document drafted in 1729 defining the precise boundaries of all Siena's Contrade. This is a truly current testament to how strong the Sienese attachment to the territory and the sense of belonging to the Contrada is still today.

 

 

 postcards

Historical postcards

What do you know about the Palio? In this precious box dedicated to Siena, you'll find four postcards from the '30s, '40s, and '60s – authentic vintage relics, not reproductions. They depict the Palio event, showcasing a framed zigzag cut along the edges and paper yellowed by the years. These aren't just old photos but objects that have withstood time, bearing witness to an event integral to Siena's social life.

The Palio di Siena isn't a revived event organized for tourism; it's an integral part of the city's history and the Sienese people across the diverse aspects it has taken on over the centuries. The Contrade and the Palio have ancient origins, with the first documents mentioning Contrade dating back to 1208, and the first mention of "Expenses for the Feast of Santa Maria in August" in 1281. The actual Contrada names only appeared at the end of the 15th century, becoming complete in 1546. While horse races through the city were common since ancient times, the first Palio raced by the Contrade in Piazza with horses was documented in 1633. Since then, the Palio has been consistently held, except for interruptions during the Napoleonic period in 1801, the wars of independence in 1848, 1859, and 1866, the Great War interruptions from 1915 to 1918, World War II interruptions from 1940 to 1944, and more recently in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. The Palio is run twice a year: on July 2nd in honor of Madonna di Provenzano and on August 16th in honor of Madonna Assunta.

For the Sienese, the Palio lasts all year. The Palio days usually refer to the four days starting with the assignment of horses and culminating in the race (June 29 - July 2 and August 13 - August 16), concentrating most Palio events.

 

If you find yourself in Siena during the Palio, you can witness the Historical Parade along the route from the Prefecture to the Piazza, starting between 4:00 PM and 4:30 PM. However, you must stay on the sides of the road and not obstruct the parade in any way. Keep in mind that there's usually a lot of crowding, and the streets aren't very wide. You can also participate in other events of Sienese social life, but it's crucial to have respect for what is a culturally significant moment for them.

 

Under no circumstances attempt to approach the horses. Near the stable of each Contrada participating in the race, you'll find real checkpoints and barriers with barriers manned by Contradaioli. Passing is in no way possible, and neither is shouting or causing disturbance to the horse with noise, both daytime and nighttime. 

Avoid disturbing Contradaioli in moments of high tension: during the horse's practice runs, in the minutes immediately before the race, or after the race if they are disappointed or angry. Before the Palio, never tell a Contradaiolo that their Contrada is favored or will win, as reactions can be highly unpredictable. 

To avoid obstructing the view of the race for those in the middle of the Piazza, it's absolutely forbidden to wave flags or handkerchiefs and even hold up tablets of sizes that may disrupt the view of Contradaioli.

Do not sarcastically comment on the tension of Contradaioli leading up to the race. In case of a brawl or confrontation between Contradaioli from rival Contrade, discreetly move away immediately and, above all, do not attempt to take photos or film the brawl, as it is highly likely that some Contradaiolo might damage your device. 

Considering the sweltering heat and long waits, watching the Palio race from your own home remains one of the best options. Although the site is only in Italian, you can find these precise pieces of information on palio.org.

 

 

TUFO 

Small bottle with Terra di Siena

A small bottle crafted by a Sienese, containing a pinch of Tufo soil—the same soil laid on the outer ring of Piazza del Campo where the horses race.

Tufo is a specific type of soil that, when wet and exposed to the sun, hardens, creating a very tough yet somewhat friable surface. The track preparation, including maintaining elasticity for the race, involves two waterings per day: one at ten in the morning and one at four in the afternoon. During this process, the track is gradually closed off in sections until complete watering. The color of Tufo is renowned worldwide under the name "Terra di Siena."

 

panforte 

Panforte Margherita - Il Magnifico

With the arrival of the holiday season, the typical sweets that accompany festive meals, such as panettone and pandoro, make a comeback, along with regional specialties gracing Italian tables. (Read the story of another all-Italian dessert with Sienese origins, a dessert that I bet a Surprise Box you know too!).

Particularly in Tuscany, panforte, a delicacy from the city of Siena, is a constant presence every year. This Christmas, with My Box from Italy, you can savor it too.

Curiosities

The name derives from a sweet prepared until the 10th century called "panmelato," a simple focaccia with water and flour to which honey and fruit were added for flavor. In its ancient version, it was made in monasteries and resembled a focaccia made with water, honey, and fresh fruit, which, after a few days of fermentation, transformed into a sourdough bread, hence "panes fortis." 

Around the second half of the 13th century, spices from the East, such as pepper, were introduced, added to the original recipe. The apples were removed, creating panpepato, considered a twin sweet to panforte for many centuries. It was especially sought after by wealthier individuals like noble families and the clergy who stocked up on it from apothecaries (ancient pharmacists) because the expensive and rare ingredients made it quite costly. 

It's a low bread made with almonds, candied fruit, sugar, and honey enriched with spices, then baked in the oven on a sheet of communion wafer. It takes on a soft yet occasionally crunchy texture and an unmistakable pungent aroma and honeyed taste. A unique delight with medieval origins.

 

There are also curious legends surrounding the origin of panforte. According to some, it was a nun confined to a convent due to an impossible love affair. While preparing the classic panmelato, she heard the voice of her supposedly deceased lover from the window. Overcome with emotion, she added an uncontrollable amount of pepper and spices, creating the classic panforte. According to another legend, another nun created this highly energizing and invigorating sweet with honey, almonds, pepper, and spices to rehabilitate Sienese fighters. These are just a few legends about the origin of this Christmas sweet, and among them is a true story—the Panforte Margherita, the most famous version without melon peel and with a covering of vanilla sugar instead of black pepper. It was created by a pharmacist in honor of Queen Margherita of Savoy's visit. The main ingredients of this panforte are honey, almonds, walnuts, citron, candied orange peel, and spices like cloves and nutmeg.

 

Even today, many Tuscans, and beyond, celebrate Christmas with a slice of panforte, easily found at Tuscan Christmas markets and supermarkets in a more commercial version. It's best enjoyed with a glass of Vin Santo or noble wine.

 

silver pendant 2 

Silver pendant from the fairy tale Pinocchio - Il Galeone 

Strolling through Siena on Via delle Terme, you'll discover a workshop of handcrafted silver jewelry.

Il Galeone was founded in 1998 in Giovanna Giudici's cellar, a twenty-year-old graduate from Siena's art institute, it became a reality after four years of apprenticeship under Master Passerini. Giovanna pursued her dream, opening her own goldsmith workshop, later relocating to Via Cavour in Siena.

 

In 2001, she met Federico Biagi, who, after various jobs, decided to change his life. Having studied under two masters—one from Milan who moved to Siena and another from Cortona—he joined forces with Giovanna, his life companion. Together, they opened their workshop in the heart of Siena, simultaneously showcasing their creations throughout Italy and Europe.

 

Among their jewelry are pieces dedicated to famous fairytales: Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella. I've selected a small work of Italian art from these—an intricately handcrafted silver pendant representing the quintessentially Tuscan fairytale: Pinocchio.

 

I chose Pinocchio not just because it's a famous Tuscan fairytale, but also because the story symbolizes humanity's tendency to want to go its own way without heeding the teachings and advice of those with more experience.

 

Carlo Collodi's novel's pedagogical purpose lies in the message of man's inability to self-determine, attempting to reach happiness solely with one's own efforts. Instead, love for others, honesty, a sense of duty, respect, education, and listening form the foundation of ethics and interactions with others. A strong message—one of those tales from which we never cease to learn, even as adults.

 

When you purchase from an Italian artisan, you make an ethical and conscious gesture. You're not just acquiring an object; you're supporting an art and a tradition. Each product has a story to tell, crafted with care, paying attention to the smallest detail to create something unique.

 

As Aristotle said, humans are social animals because society is the sine qua non condition for the expression of one's personality. Thus, this fairy tale delivers a masterful interpretation of what truly means to grow up.

 

Hoping to have provided some food for thought on Italian culture and artisanal products, I leave you with the treasures of your Surprise Box.

... to share with your loved ones, why not?

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