• Dawn Cumming

I have just spent the past two hours or so making marmalade, but not just any old marmalade. I had discovered a recipe for Aperol Spritz Marmalade in a magazine which sounded so good I just had to give it a try. I had never made marmalade before and to be honest I’m not a huge fan of it but it was that special ingredient of Aperol that did it for me. The illustration in the magazine showed jars of the finished product all tied up with candy-cane coloured twine with the suggestion that it would make an ideal Christmas gift for the ‘foodie’ in your life.

Aperol is generally enjoyed in Italy as Aperol Spritz an aperitif drink made with Aperol, prosecco and soda water. Aperol is a classic Italian bitter with a vibrant orange colour due to ‘a perfect infusion of bitter and sweet oranges’. Like many Italian liqueurs and bitters the taste is one that people from the UK may take a little time to appreciate. Personally I love such tastes. Having said all of this, in recent years Aperol Spritz has become quite trendy in the UK and in 2020 it apparently ranked number 5 in the list of the nation’s favourite cocktails.

Back to marmalade making; I prepared the red grapefruit and oranges as instructed and put them into a large pan, splashed in some Aperol with what seemed like a mountain of sugar together with some water. Soon a fresh citrusy aroma pervaded my kitchen. There is nothing like the scent of citrus to brighten up your day. In my mind I was instantly transported to Tuscany and I thought of the great masterpiece La Primavera by the Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli. now in the Uffizi, Florence. The Primavera (or Allegory of Spring) was originally painted for Lorenzo Pierfrancesco de’Medici a cousin of Lorenzo the magnificent and placed in the Villa di Castello near Florence. This large mythological painting depicts a group of figures set in an orange grove. Oranges were a symbol of the Medici family of Florence. Indeed, the Medici family were crazy about citrus fruit. Anyone interested in gardening and/or the history of citrus plants will be more than rewarded when they visit the villas owned by this family. I have really fond memories of visiting the Villa Medici at Fiesole and can still remember the scent of citrus blossom that filled the air.

Returning to my marmalade, after blitzing the cooled mixture with a hand blender and spooning it into jars. I stood back and admired my handiwork. I was pleased with my little jars of Tuscan sunshine. I just needed to sample the final product. Actually it tasted pretty good, ok perhaps I was only able to detect just a little bit of the Aperol taste but my Aperol Spritz marmalade had taken me on a journey to Tuscany albeit in my mind and in my senses.

This morning I have been mixing up a little bit of Renaissance Stardust (recipe courtesy of Gillian Riley from her wonderful book: A Feast for the Eyes The National Gallery Cookbook). I intend to use the stardust sprinkled over some roast chicken together with orange juice and rosewater (Renaissance Chicken) a recipe also from Gillian’s book.

I have a great interest in historical cooking and a real passion for the history of medicine and cosmetics. Usually I am brewing up herbal potions in my little space I call my Spezieria or apothecary. Pharmacies in Renaissance Italy were variously called apoteche, spezierie or aromatarii.

During the Renaissance the Apothecary Shop sold a variety of products including herbs, medicine, spices, candles, sweetmeats and syrups. It was also where artists would purchase their pigments. It is known that the Apothecary shop was as much a social gathering place as somewhere to buy products such as those above. People would meet here to chat, gossip, share information and sometimes even gamble. Whenever I have had to queue at our local pharmacy I am always amazed at the amount of chatter that goes on amongst those who have come to collect prescriptions. I could well believe that if you were able to buy the assortment of items available in the Renaissance Apothecary shop and you had to wait for your remedy to be weighed out and ground up, there would be scope for a real assortment of discussion.

Many years ago I was fortunate enough to visit the Castello di Issogne in the Val d’Aosta with its absolutely incredible fresco cycle painted c.1500, which depicts places of sale including a tavern, pie shop, vegetable market, drapers and an apothecary shop. The fresco of the apothecary shop (see above) is useful since it shows an array of items that would have been typically on display in such places: labelled jars, pestle and mortar, scales, herbs, small wax objects in the form of a leg, foot, hand and a horse and an assortment of containers for medicaments.

I think I would have felt truly quite at home in the Renaissance Apothecary shop, I can just imagine the smells, the sound of the grinding of pigments and herbs (see fresco with the little chap dressed in ragged clothes and wearing only one shoe straddled on a low stool) who is engaged in doing exactly this. I can just hear the incessant chatter surrounding the efficacy of weird and wonderful remedies. I would have loved it!

It is well known that medieval monks grew medicinal plants in their monastic gardens but fewer people are aware of the important role that nuns and convents played in the commercialisation of medicines during the Renaissance period. I am however, pleased to say that this subject has been greatly addressed by scholars in recent years. The San Vincenzo d’Annalena convent in Florence which was founded by the subject of my book Annalena Malatesta was amongst those convents which became renown for its sale of medicines from the beginning of the sixteenth century.

  • Dawn Cumming

For the past five years or so I have been living in the past or sort of, since I have spent all of that time doing research for my book: In Search of Annalena: a Life of Tragedy and Triumph in Renaissance Florence, due to be published by the end of October 2020. I’ve lost track of the number of hours that I must have spent poring over ancient documents in the State Archives in Florence and working in libraries both in Italy and in the UK. Carrying out the research was an immensely satisfying part of the process of writing my book whilst the actual writing itself was the ultimate expression of my labours.

The wonderful thing about research is that you never know where it might take you. Entering into the world of the fifteenth century noblewoman Annalena Malatesta brought me closer to a whole host of fascinating and interesting personalities from Renaissance Italy including members of the great Medici family of Florence, the Guidi of the Casentino and not least Annalena’s own family the Malatesta. Dark secrets came to the fore; most significantly the intrigue and mystery surrounding the murder of Annalena’s husband the great condottiere Baldaccio d’Anghiari. Furthermore, important Italian Renaissance art works both surviving and lost, took on a surprising and exciting new significance.

I wanted to live and breathe the air that Annalena Malatesta once did but most importantly I want to share her remarkable story with others. The name of Annalena still lives on in the city of Florence today. Annalena Malatesta was one of the most important female spiritual figures in fifteenth century Florence and as such her name deserves to be included in the line-up of individuals that helped to make Florence great.