• Nicoletta Fornaro

San Giorgio Maggiore and a recipe inspired by Tintoretto

I had this post in mind for a while, but wasn’t sure about sharing it because I was afraid to lose my target. But in the end it’s still about food and it’s still about Venice, so I’m taking courage and hope you will enjoy it (anyway, don’t worry: Saturday I’m trying a new restaurant and will go back to my usual posts)!

Let’s start by saying that, because of the photography workshop we are organising, I am reading a lot about Tintoretto in this period and something that particularly interests me is the theme of the Last Supper. So, today I’m taking you to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore to see one of his interpretations of the episode. Well, actually, the photos were taken last week when it was foggy and freezing, but I felt like a woman on a mission, dared the cold and climbed to the top of the bell tower.

I took the vaporetto -Linea 2- from San Zaccaria and was on the island in less than five minutes. Palladio’s architecture never fails to impress. The architect worked on it until his death (1580), the façade was then finished in the early 1600s, respecting his plans. The church is part of the former Benedictine abbey that used to occupy the whole island. Before the year 1000, in fact, the Venetian Republic gave in concession the islands located at the extremities of the city to Benedictine friars, so they could improve the land with reclamation works and, most importantly, carry out the function of “sentinels” and guard the city from possible attacks (ref. "Itinerari tra le chiese veneziane alla scoperta di Tintoretto” by Floriano Boaga).

Today, the Church still belongs to the Benedictine community, while the rest of the island is of the –worth visiting- Fondazione Giorgio Cini. Another curiosity is that the little white tower you see in the picture below, now managed by the Compagnia della Vela, represents the –failed- attempt to establish in the Venetian lagoon at the beginning of the XIX century a free port.

If you come all the way to San Giorgio, you really must climb to the top of the bell tower. It costs 6 euros, but it is absolutely worth it. You take an elevator and, once on the top, the whole city is there for you: its heart, with the Doges Palace and Saint Mark’s square and the islands in the south, east and west lagoon. You can even see the Benedictine garden, which looks like a maze. Marvellous!

Then, down again to focus on the painting. At San Giorgio Maggiore there are three paintings by Tintoretto: a “Deposition” (1592-94) in the Chapel of the Dead and, in the presbytery, The “Manna from Heaven” and “The Last Supper". Although the latter two are placed one in front of the other, thus related, I will focus only on the Last Supper. This version is extremely important in art history. Usually compared to Leonardo’s Last Supper (1495-98, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan) to show the passage from Renaissance to Mannerism.

While Leonardo’s painting is represented frontally with the vanishing point placed perfectly in the centre, in Tintoretto’s Last Supper the scene is moving. The table is represented diagonally, the vanishing point has become dynamic and is moved to the right, women enter the scene for the first time and the subject becomes the light itself. There are really many things to say about this painting, but I cannot do it in my food blog (there is plenty of literature on the subject. I also enjoyed the short online article by Meeting Venice that you can see here)

What interests me right now is the food, mostly because I liked the idea of combining a recipe to the painting (but this is when conceptual problems started arising). In front of us on the right there is a woman offering some confetti (clearly in dialogue with the "Manna from Heaven" on the other side) to a man who kindly refuses them pointing to the bowls of fruit on the small service table, while on the left of the canvas the last supper is taking place. There are two sources of light: one is the lantern, while the other is the inner light of Jesus.

On the table the typical foods eaten on such occasion: bread, wine, bitter herbs, a sweet paste called charoset and… two mysterious cakes with candles! Well, those cakes have been driving me crazy. It may sound absurd, but my initial idea was to make this cake… but in the end I turned to the charoset recipe because I didn’t want to do something completely unrelated to the painting. What cake is it? Many researchers studied this case and the possibility that seems more realistic to me is that it could be a Jewish sweet focaccia (in Italy called pizza di Beridde and very popular in the Roman ghetto) traditionally eaten for Pesach. But, obviously, I am not 100% sure.

Tintoretto’s isn’t the only Last Supper where this cake with candles appear, another example is the one by Pomponio Amalteo at the Palazzo della Ragione in Udine. Anyway, forgetting about the historical and religious significance of all this for a moment… I would have loved to try the unleavened Jewish focaccia, but I don’t have the right oven (I found a very good recipe on the Jewish food experience website in case you want to try it). So what should I make? The other foods -excluding the lamb, which does not appear in Tintoretto's painting- eaten at the Last Supper are raw. The bitter herbs, in fact, were quite likely lettuce and celery, so in the end I decided to make charoset.

Charoset is a sort of –way ahead of time- super food, something that I will introduce in my everyday diet! I learned that it is one of the symbolic foods of the Passover Seder Plate, which consist of 6 foods, all referring to the exodus from Egypt. Charoset is a sort of brownish paste made with dried fruits, nuts, grated apple and either fruit juice or wine. Its colour recalls the mortar or mud used by the Jewish slaves to make bricks in Egypt and the word charoset comes from the Hebrew “cheres”, meaning clay.

On the internet I found loads of recipes, in fact I presume there are as many recipes as the number of families that make it, some vegan others with eggs. I don’t know about you, but I am totally fascinated by this super food, a real concentrate of anti-oxidants and vitamins! I'm not going to share my version because (as you can see from the photo) I made the mistake of adding too much juice, but I suggest looking at the ones from around the world on My Jewish Learning website, all delicious and written by people who -surely- are more acquainted with this sort of preparation than me.

Going back to us, this is more or less how I spent the last five days, trying to figure out (without success) what exactly appears in that painting and reading about the different -and sometimes absurd- foods that appear in some Last Suppers. I hope you enjoyed this article and I strongly recommend, whether you are going to try to make charoset or not, to visit the island of San Giorgio Maggiore!

Talk to you soon ;-)


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