Not Your Usual Biscotti

Three years ago this coming October we were in Berlin and visiting the Island Museums; I mentioned at the time that I found the Bode the most interesting of the lot particularly their Renaissance collection.  Late last week I was reminiscing about that trip and going through pictures that I had taken on that visit. I also unpacked a box of books and came upon a little book that had a serendipitous if slightly tenuous connection with a few of those pictures.  The following February we spent a few days in London and at my friend David’s suggestion spent a glorious Saturday morning at the V&A basking in their new Medieval and Renaissance wing.  And at their bookstore I picked up a fascinating little book: Renaissances Secrets by Jo Wheeler.  It contains all sorts of wonderful – you guessed it – Renaissance Secrets.   Illustrated with rarities from the V and A collections it includes recipes and closely guarded secret formulae for a myriad of concoctions once used to create medicines, cosmetics, printing materials, even amulets meant to ward off the plague.  Lip balm, rare paint pigments, stain removers; they are all there as are, of course, aids to the noble art of love making!  And just so you don’t think the Renaissance was all Adoring Magi, Breast-feeding Bambini and Virginal Assumptions here’s an easy to follow cookie recipe (if you can find or afford the ingredients) along with a few of the more “specialized” works from the Bode Renaissance collection.

This lovely ivory carving is an innocent representation of Adam and Eve covering their nakedness in shame.  Or is it?  The look on their faces isn’t exactly one of chagrin and a closer look reveals that their “communal” loin cloth can be removed to unveil heaven only knows what sort of salacious display!


Morsels to excite Venus.
Proven many times and which increase sperm. They do not cause any harm.


  • 3 drams each of walnuts, pine-kernels and pistachio nuts;
  • 3 drams each of powdered seeds of rocket, onion and knotgrass (also known as swine-grass or bloodwort)
  • Half a dram each of cloves, cinnamon and ginger
  • 1.5 ounces of skinned skinks (saltwater lizards) – four should suffice with heads and feet removed and ground to a fine powder
  • 1 ounce of Indian nut (coconut)
  • 1 dram each of long pepper, galangal, seeds of wild asparagus, chickpeas (the red variety)
  • 3 ounces of diasatirion*
  • A dram of ambergris
  • Half a dram of musk
  • 12 ounces of sugar dissolved in rosewater

Make morseletti in the normal way.
*also known as “wolf’s testicles” it was a concoction based on the bulbous roots of an orchid.

And it would appear that after ingesting these biscotti Venus embarked upon a rather elaborate voyage if this little “Triumph of Love” is to be credited. (A left click will enlarge the picture for a closer look)

These biscuits apparently packed quite a punch with most of the ingredients guaranteed to excite lust, particularly the pistachios.  They were known to be “wondrous for stimulating sexual desire” if fattening! But then plump wasn’t a problem in the Renaissance, in fact it was thought of as erotic. Florentine apothecary Stefano Rosselli (whose recipes this is) also stocked a rub which was to be used in the event of impotence.  Rosselli obviously gave the customers what they wanted – or needed!

It would appear this Satyr is in no need of Dottore Rosselli’s magic morsels – and one wonders where these naughty putti’s mothers are. Shouldn’t they be home in bed rather than helping the horny old bugger (litterally) in his depravity?

There is one secret that Mr Wheeler doesn’t divulge in amongst his treasury of formulae and concoction – he may let us in on how Venetian woman turned their hair golden but the oft sought secret of how to turn base metal into gold remains untold.  Given its price on the market these days I was hoping it would be revealed – no such luck!  

01 settembre/September – Sant’Egidio abate

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Touching Hands

Amongst the many Egyptian artifacts at the recently restored Neues Museum this fragment – shown a little bigger than actual size – could go unnoticed.

For some reason I find it exquisitely touching. The thumb of one hand covers the back of the other in a loving, almost protective fashion. I find it incredible that this tiny fragment can be such a powerful statement about a bond forged some 2000 years ago.

My friend Jolka, who just returned from a desert excursion in Eygpt and is dedicated to Egyptology, tells me that the clasping of hands normally suggested sexual intimacy between a couple. However she also suggested that the detailing is very unusual for Egyptian statuary as is the positioning and the material. A search on the internet revealed no information about this little fragment and of course I didn’t take a photo of the label for reference.

03 decembre – San Francesco Saverio

Il Fidelino

The Boy with a thorn in his foot (Il Fidele or Il Fidelino) was a well known subject in Greek and Roman sculpture. The first known version was a Greek bronze created between the 5th and 3rd centuries BCE which is now in the Musei Capitolini here in Rome. Various versions of it in bronze and marble were made from Roman times onwards and can be found in collections in Firenze, London, New York and this one at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin which dates from the time of Augustus.

He is part of the exhibition Die Rückkehr der Götter (The Return of the Gods) – a fascinating collection of classical pieces that had been taken from Berlin to Moscow and St Petersburg for “safe keeping” in 1958. The collection of Roman and Greek art was returned and has been restored and some pieces are being displayed for the first time in a decades.

The name Il Fidelino (The Faithful Boy)comes from the apocryphal story created to give what was a simple Grecian theme a more grandiose civic purpose in Rome. Legend says he was a shepherd boy who ignored the pain of a thorn lodged in his sole to deliver a message to the Senate. It was only after his task had been accomplished that he applied himself to removing the hurtful barb.

Some how this does not look like the face of a boy who has run miles to bring a message but simply a young lad, perhaps a Shepard, concentrating on removing that bothersome thorn.

Though those beautifully sculpted hands and feet don’t look like those of a young man who has tromped through fields or climbed rocks in search of his sheep.

What ever his purpose in life he was a fitting subject for the unknown sculptor’s hammer and chisel.

29 novembre – San Saturnino di Tolosa

A Day at the Track – Constantinople 832 AD

A day at the Hippodrome was a big event when Constantinople was the jewel of the Eastern World. Festivals – religious and secular – triumphs, marriages, births, events of all sorts, particularly when an unpopular Emperor was trying to curry favour with a fickle people – were celebrated with chariot races surrounded by pomp and ceremony. So popular were these races that the political parties took their colours from the four racing teams. The colour you supported indicated not only who was your favorite team but what political party you belonged to. In his marvelous triptych history of Byzantium hardly a chapter goes by without John Julius Norwich making some reference to the Hippodrome and the races as part of not only daily life but the tumultuous history of Constantinople.

This piece of carved stone, found in the Byzantine Collection at the Bode Museum, served two purposes – as a game of chance played in one of the arcades of the Hippodrome and as a pictorial record of a day at the track.
Betters would choose a coloured ball – no doubt reflecting their Hippodrome favorite – and the balls would be released at the top of the snaking ramp and through a series of holes and channels find their way to the bottom – the first to arrive, of course, being the winner. The game would have been over in less than a minute – sort of like playing the slots today.

The game iself is pretty simple but the carvings on the lottery “machine” are a fairly detailed record of the events of the day.

The back is a representation of the great gate of the Hippodrome and each of the other three panels follows the progress of the race.

As music is played a banner is raised proclaiming the opening of the races.

Lots are choosen for positions at the starting gate using a revolving amphora. The starting signal is given and the charioteers take off; each one championed by a “goader” on the sidelines urging them on.

Two charioteers via for lead and the current leader reaches back to thwart the progress of his competition by startling his horses with his whip.

The winner is proclaimed, given a purse for his efforts and receives the adulation of a lady who admires him from her window.

The race day over, to a final burst of music the banner is lowered.

According to Norwich often the races could turn ugly. But today has been a good day – no riots, no emperor deposed, no generals blinded, no charioteers killed by a disappointed crowd but then this version is only a game!

17 novembre – Sant’Elisabetta d’ungheria

Bits of Byzantium

Though not as spectacular as the Byzantine Museum in Athens the Bode Museum does house a very fine collection of artifacts from the glory days of Byzantium. There are some intriguing examples of ivory carving and stone work from the days of the Empire of the East.

These lovely miniatures reflect the remarkable skill of the ivory carvers of Constantinople and the Empire.

(From top right to bottom left.)These rather saucy dragons adorned the head of a staff of a court official. A head fragment and a saint showing traces of paint that would have adorned some of the figures. The Archangel Michael girds for battle. The 40 saints (and yes there are 40 – I counted) are set out on the frozen river to die.

This lovely diptych dates from the 6th or 7th century. It would have been joined by silver hinges which have long since disappeared, possibly in one of the lootings as Western Crusaders “liberated” Byzantium.

The stone carvings are equally as remarkable.

The top marble is a fragment of a Chancel screen from the 8th century. It found its way from Constantinople to Venice at some point.

16 novembre – Santa Margherita di Scozia