Plump, naked, and adorable, amorini are those androgynous winged babies that tumble and flutter through Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo art. You may have also heard the related term putti. Both terms are Latin diminutives; amorini for love and putti for “putus,” meaning “boy child.” Amorini are typically depicted as angelic cherubs in religious scenes or frolicking cupids in mythological narratives. In both cases, their presence, whether divine or earthly, always symbolizes love and joy.
However young these playful, ever-curious and fetching flying bambini appear, they’re quite old . . . going back to classical antiquity, when they were winged messengers of the Greek gods known as “erotes,” members of Aphrodite’s train, who conveyed various forms of love to humans. They were recast as child-angels in early Christian imagery but fell out of favor during the dour and dreary Middle Ages.
Then came their rediscovery, along with a cornucopia of other classical images, during the Renaissance when masters like Donatello and Raphael breathed new life into them, creating a new generation as bacchanalian as their ancestors. Ever popular and ubiquitous today, especially around Valentines’ Day, amorini bring delight and enchantment to whatever tableaux they join.
The tradition of nativity scenes began with Saint Francis of Assisi who staged the first nativity in 1223 with people and live ox and lamb. Overtime this evolved to life-sized wooden figures placed in front of churches and then, into scenes made of small expressive terracotta figurines.
During the 1700s, crèche figures were an obsession in Naples. Wealthy families competed to create the most impressive ones. When Don Carlos of Bourbon (the future Charles III of Spain) ruled Naples and Sicily from 1734-1769, he reputedly owned a crèche with nearly 6,000 figures. Neapolitan crèches were often given as presents to royalty all over Europe so such figurines can appear on the antique market even today.
The 18th century crèche of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the finest in the US and features over 200 figurines made by the Neapolitan artisan Giuseppe Sammartino and his pupils. All the figurines have finely painted terracotta heads; legs, arms, and wings carved from wood; and bodies of hemp and wire. No two are alike. The graceful angels decorating the tree all have different faces and clothing and carry different objects. The Nativity scene surrounding the majestic twenty-foot blue spruce features the three main elements characteristic of 18th-century Naples: adoring shepherds and their flocks, the Three Kings in procession, and colorful peasants and townspeople engaged in quotidian tasks. In the background are dozens of animals and architectural pieces including quaint houses, market stalls, Roman ruins, and even a typical Italian fountain.
The Neapolitan Crèche and Baroque Angel Tree located in the Met’s Medieval Courtyard are on display through the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th (the 12th day of Christmas) marking the arrival of the Three Wise Man bringing their finest gifts for the new born King.
The markets of Sicily are brimming with the fish from the nearby seas, seasonal fruits and vegetables from orchards and fields just kilometers away, and spices from around the globe. Choruses from fish and meat vendors fill your ears; your eyes are inspired by colorful canopies shading a rainbow of purple eggplant, green zucchini, and canary-yellow melons; and your nose inhales the scents of cow and sheep cheeses seasoned with saffron, black pepper and olives. While you walk through the markets you can feast on a bounty of hand-held dishes that will challenge your palate: arancine (rice balls jammed with beef ragu and caciocavallo cheese), panelle (fried chickpea fritters), pane ca meusa (a bun stuffed with spleen and lung), stighiola (grilled, marinated sheep or goat entrails wrapped around green onions and fresh parsley), cazzilli (fried potato croquettes with mint), pastella (fried vegetables, sardines, and more), cannoli filled with sweet sheep’s milk ricotta, and brioche bursting with your favorite flavor of gelato.
From Palermo to Catania, from Trapani to Siracusa, Sicily not only offers travelers 3000 years of human history and sweeping landscapes but also a variety of tantalizing aromas, flavors and textures that will inspire your taste buds and lift your spirit.
Grazie Mille to Allison Scola, founder and curator of Experience Sicily for this appetizing post.