Honorng the Passion of Italy’s Patron Saint

October 4 marks the feast of St. Francis, born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone in 1182, the son of a prosperous textile merchant in Assisi.  The ringleader of a band of hard-drinking, carousing young men who delighted "in practical jokes, in pranks, in tomfoolery, in...

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Venice’s Passion for Lace

In the early fifteenth century, a Venetian sailor wanted to bring his fiancée a souvenir of his exotic voyages. Too poor to afford a proper gift, he plucked a ruffled sea plant called Halimeda opuntia from the waters off Greece and carried it home to the island of Burano in the Venice lagoon.

His beloved, enchanted by the algae’s scalloped edges and raised furls, fretted that the memento would soon disintegrate. Determined to create something that would last as long as their love, she picked up a needle used to mend fishing nets. Plying white thread into intricate patterns, she replicated the delicate whorls. The stunning result was “mermaid’s lace,” an ingenious design that helped launch Burano’s lace-making industry.

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Italy’s Passion for Food

A passion for food merits a precise word in Italian: golosità (from gola, for throat), which goes beyond appetite, craving, gluttony, or hunger. Friends proudly declare themselves “golosi,” often for a dish made only in their hometowns, only with local ingredients, only with a recipe handed down from a great-grandmother to a grandmother to a mother.

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Are We Like the Ancient Romans?

“Sniff!” our guide commands as she thrusts a leaf snipped from a bush in the Roman Forum under my nose. “What do you smell?”

I inhale deeply. The aroma is tantalizingly familiar—fresh, spicy, woodsy, a scent I immediately link to a certain type of alpha male—but I can’t identify its name.

“Glory!” she exclaims.

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The Passions That Created Rome

Deep in mythological time, Venus (Aphrodite in the Greek pantheon), goddess of love and beauty, spied a handsome prince in the vicinity of Troy. Dressed as an earthly princess, she seduced him and then slipped away. Nine months later, Venus presented the Trojan prince with the son they had conceived.

Revealing her true identity, Venus made her lover pledge to keep their secret. (He didn’t, and as punishment, her father hobbled him with the strike of a lightning bolt.) She also predicted that their love child, whom she named Aeneas, would sire a race that would someday rule the world.

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Worshipping the Goddess in Sicily

Once upon a myth, Cronus, son of the god of the sky, castrated his despotic father. Uranus’s testicles fell into the sea, which gave birth to a fully formed woman who floated upon a wave that swept a magic mountain to the northwest tip of Sicily. In a temple atop this cliff, perched between sky and sea, the earliest tribes worshipped the Mediterranean Mother; the Greeks, Aphrodite; the Romans, Venus.

Here in the village of Erice, named for a son of Venus, beautiful maidens served as her priestesses. Night and day, winter and summer, they lit torches in a high tower visible to ships from every direction. Landing in the port of Trapani, sailors clamored almost 2,500 feet up the steep mountainside to worship at the shrine—although more for passion than piety. In a ritual delicately referred to as “embracing the goddess,” the men lay with Venus’s lissome handmaidens, who granted their lovers protection from the perils of the sea. The sailors left as their parting gifts the children who would populate the land.

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