17th January 2008
A hard frost is on the ground and mist is in the valleys, rising up from between the bald scrub oaks in whisps and spectres.
In the distance the milky mountains roll back like time, Umbria morphs into Tuscany and soon we are in Florence, waiting on the cold stone steps of Santa Maria del Carmine to see the Brancacci chapel. It was on these steps that Michelangelo's nose was broken in a brawl. But that's another story, today we are here for 'Mad Tom', Masaccio.
The Brancacci frescoes were commisioned in 1424 by the Brancaccis, a family of wealthy Florentine silk merchants. It was while working on these frescoes that the 22 year old Masaccio began to really shine, usurping his teacher (Masolino) and emerging as a compelling talent. His desolate depiction of Adam and Eve howling in their nakedness as they are cast out into the world is worth the ticket price alone.
In the panel 'St Peter Enthroned', Masaccio has painted himself as one of the figures to the right of the throne. He stares boldly out as he touches St Peter's hem for luck, a luck that could not save him as he was to die just 3 years later. But it's more than a signature, it is a brazen flourish of humanity. It says "Look at me. I did this wonderful thing. I was here".
Masaccio never completed his paintings in the chapel and, in a shift of politics, the Brancaccis were exiled. 50 years later, after the dust had settled and long after Masaccio's death, the artist Fillipino Lippi finished and 'restored' the frescoes. It was a different kind of human emotion that prompted Lippi to paint out the arm that dared to touch the saint. He would have had to look Masaccio in the eye as he worked and, I wonder, did that open, steady gaze trouble him as he applied the tempera? Did it disturb his dreams?
The best thing I ate today;
At this time of year I always feel the urge to gorge on dark green veg. Maybe it's a kind of detox, an antidote to the excesses of December. Kale or spinach will do, but best of all is the 'king of cabbages', Cavolo Nero.
Its tightly crinkled, black/green leaves look so enticing when sold in large frosty bundles on the market stall in Chiusi. I lug them home and use a long sharp knife to separate the leaves from the central stem. The deep, sweetly pungent flavour is full of 'brassic' goodness. I have been toying with the idea of cooking them with lots of garlic and stiring the resulting puree into wet, creamy polenta (River Cafe Green) as a sort of yin/yang/flavour/colour thing.
But maybe it's best not to mess, as it's hard to beat the joy of cooking it in it's simplest form. All you need to do is boil until 'al dente', drain well, slug in the olive oil, sea salt, and black pepper, and pile the dark glistening leaves around a couple of plump and spicy sausages or any sticky roast. Then, open a bottle of good red wine and invite me round for supper.