Mamma is cherished in Italy and has always been the bedrock of the family. Mother’s Day — La Festa della Mamma — was “officially” recognized in Italy in 1958 about fifty years after it was established here in the States. A parish priest began the now annual tradition in the Umbrian hilltown of Assisi in 1957, with surrounding towns joining the celebration of Mamma and her unconditional love. The local festa was so popular, La Festa della Mamma was immediately adopted all across Italy. But even before then a special day for mothers — Giornata Della Madre e del Fanciullo — “The Day of the Mother and Child” had been celebrated in December.
Not surprisingly, images of the Virgin Mary with her son are among the most beloved in Christian art. Devotion to Mary in her dual role as the human mother and a divine being reached its peak in the 14th to 16th centuries, creating tremendous demand for mother and child depictions. The term Madonna is Italian for “my lady” and was conferred as a title of respect or high rank, but came to be synonymous with the mother of the holy child and with tender representations of the two.
This slideshow features 32 Madonnas by Italian artists such as Raphael, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea della Sarto, Luca della Robbia, Bellini, Tiepolo and Barocci from major museums, including those in Washington DC, London, Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam, Dresden, St. Petersburg and New York (The Met), as well as the Walter’s Art Gallery in Baltimore, the Vatican Museum, and Michelangelo’s exquisite Madonna from The Church of Our Lady in Bruges.
In the deep south of Italy, surrounded by crystal-clear waters and 500 miles of Adriatic and Ionian coastline, is the enclave of Puglia that sits on the sun-baked heel of the Boot. I first visited years ago and fell in love with its sleepy whitewashed villages, colorful folk traditions, its unique trulli set amongst olive trees, endless plates of mouth-watering food and some of the most gracious people in all of Italy.
More than 800 of the gargantuan trees at the ancient olive farm, Antica Masseria Brancati, near Ostuni, are considered natural monuments. With their gnarled and knotted trunks, many are upwards of 3000 years old.
The city of Lecce dates back to Magna Graecia, but because of its exquisite Baroque architecture it is known as the Florence of the South. The architectural style in Lecce is so distinctive that it was given its own name – “Barocco Leccese.“ The city’s opulent palaces and churches are built with Lecce stone, which has been used since ancient times.
Food is a surefire way to get to the heart of a culture and makes travel to Puglia ever-rewarding. Puglia’s tradition of rustic “cucina povera” centers around freshness and simplicity. The cherries are amazing, as is the burrata, focaccia and the orecchiette con cima di rape (with broccoli rabe), just to mention a few.
Puglia has plenty of charming towns ideal for leisurely wandering including Martina Franca; the labyrinthine whitewashed streets of Locorotondo and Ostuni; and the hobbit-like trulli of Alberobello (along with the stunning seaside towns of Polignano a Mare, Otranto and Gallipoli).
The town of Polignano a Mare has dedicated a statue and waterfront to the great Italian singer Domenico (Mimmo) Modugno (popularly known as Mr. Volare) who was born there in 1928. Mimmo was a singer, songwriter, actor, parliamentarian and three-time Grammy award winner.
His song Nel Blu Dipinto De Blu, popularly known as Volare, became a huge international hit in 1958 and sold over 30 million records. It also won him his first Grammy award (and an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show 😉
But what makes Puglia so appealing is its authenticity. Things move at a slower pace and people will always make time for you. Everyone is so proud of their region; they don’t mind when you take photos and are keen to help in any way they can.