The urns of strong men stimulate strong minds
To deeds of great distinction O Pindemonte
And these urns make sacred for the traveller that earth which holds them
– Ugo Foscolo, Of the Sepulchres, 1807 –
I have always felt drawn to cemeteries. Whenever I go to the resting places of loved ones, I nearly always insist on staying longer to visit the burial sites of those nearby. They fascinate me with their names, dates and commemorative messages inscribed in their honour. I infer a lot about their lives and sadly, in some cases, deaths, from the information on the plaques. Illnesses or accidents that put a premature end to young lives. Personal, local and world events they lived through. Technological changes they witnessed. I then gasp when I make that inevitable realisation; these were people who lived and breathed just like me.
When I was younger, this reminder about mortality frightened me. With All Saints and All Souls Days rapidly approaching though, I’ve found myself reflecting on the lesson going to the cemetery taught me. I am not particularly religious. I do concede though that there is something special about Italian funerary art and moving about the commemorative customs characterising these Catholic feast days.
Each Italian village, town and city is home to a monumental cemetery run by the local council. These walled enclosures are located outside the historic centres, as per the 1804 Edict of Saint-Cloud which forbade burials in church graveyards within town walls [i]. With their multi-storied blocks of marble-plaqued vaults, they are veritable necropolises or cities of the dead. Home to funerary art and architecture representing a variety of artistic and architectural periods since Napoleon’s decree, some cimiteri monumentali [ii] are breathtakingly beautiful. Every 1st November (All Saints Day), a public holiday, their grounds fill up with visitors bringing flowers to the graves of their deceased relatives. The following day (All Souls Day), candles are lit for i defunti (‘the dead’) who are said to have returned for the day.
Rituals on these feast days are not limited to the churches and cemeteries. In Sicily, many children still look for presents – in the past these were in the form of frutta martorana (surreally colourful marzipan sweets made to look like fruits and vegetables) – around their homes hidden by the defunti. Gestures, moreover, are made to accommodate relatives visiting their old haunts with many families leaving lights on at night and setting an extra place at the table. On that table, symbolic offerings of food and drink, generally glasses of water and sweets, are laid out. Tired and weary after their journey from the underworld, the dead will be in need of replenishment.
Before Christianity, pagan food offerings in Ancient Rome were savoury beans. Later on, this practice was taken up by Christians. At some point though, the offerings took on a less savoury note and became sweet breads and biscuits. The biscuits can be rather macabre-looking as they are often made to resemble the ossa dei morti or ‘bones of the dead’ in shape and, in some cases, consistency. Sicilian ‘bones’, made with almonds and flavoured with cinnamon and cloves, are renowned for being particularly hard to bite into! The Piedmontese interpretation of these ‘bones’ are chewy macaroon-like biscuits, made with flour, sugar, eggs, butter, almonds and/or hazelnuts called ossa da mordere or ‘bones to bite on’). Here is a recipe for them from the town of Borgomanero:
Ossa da mordere piemontesi
Ingredients (makes about 20-25 ‘bones’)
- 320 g flour, plus extra for dusting
- 200 g hazelnuts, roughly chopped
- 400 g caster sugar
- 3 egg whites
- A pinch of salt
- 30 g butter, melted
- Lemon juice from half a lemon
- Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, chopped hazelnuts and sugar.
- Beat egg whites and pinch of salt until stiff white peaks form.
- Add lemon juice, melted butter and egg whites to mixing bowl and combine wet and dry ingredients carefully.
- Dust hands and a clean working surface with flour and knead biscuit mixture until obtaining a firm and smooth ball of dough.
- Divide dough into four equal sized balls. Roll each ball into a long snake-like shape. Cut snakes into pieces 5-7 cm long and shape them into ‘bones’.
- Place ‘bones’ on a lined baking tray, ensuring that they are no too close to each other.
- Bake bones for 20-25 minutes or until a nice golden colour.
- Remove from oven and leave to cool before serving.
[i] The edict also stipulated that, for democratic reasons, all tombs had to be equal in size with inscriptions to be controlled by a special commission. Ugo Foscolo, the poet quoted above, was critical of the decree. Although an atheist and generally supportive of French revolutionary principles, he felt all human beings aspire to transcend death and that the monuments and tombs of ‘great men’ serve to inspire the living to ‘great deeds’.
[ii] For more information about monumental cemeteries worth visiting in Italy, I recommend this article from Italy Magazine: http://www.italymagazine.com/featured-story/top-ten-italian-monumental-cemeteries