Describing a symbolic place gives us an opportunity to narrate its history and that of the people who have lived in and frequented it. Over the last thirty years or so, the historical offices of Slow Food and the Osteria Boccondivino have become a destination for thousands of people. It’s often possible to see them with their noses upturned, curious to see and get to know the place where everything began. They are members and enthusiasts from all over the world. This house and courtyard with balconies dominated by two wisterias (one almost a hundred years old) have become a tourist attraction. If one day we have a collection or a museum to exhibit the memorabilia of this great adventure of ours, I’d like this house to be the venue.
As you know, a place or a building can be described not only through its stylistic and architectural characteristics but often also for its past, as if it were an unknowing repository of stories and passions. This is what I want to tell all of you, but also many of my fellow citizens who are unfamiliar with the facts I’m about to describe.
Let’s begin with recent history: it was 1984 when, at Via della Mendicità Istruita 14, a group of volunteers gave life to the Boccondivino restaurant and the gastronomic movement then known as Arcigola. By my side were Marcello Marengo, Gigi Piumatti, Anna Ferrero, Silvio Barbero and Firmino Buttignol with, in the kitchen, the legendary Maria Pagliasso and Beppe Barbero, better known as Gepis. I think back to those days with nostalgia, but also with amazement for the road we have travelled since then. The Boccondivino was the first example of a restaurant in the local area attentive to the culture of wine. We had taken over from a small microbiotic restaurant on the ground floor called L’albero del pane (The Bread Tree). A year later, in September 1985, we moved to the present venue, on the first floor overlooking the courtyard. The Arcigola offices were installed on the first and second floors looking out onto the street. And it was from here that the adventure began. Meetings, convivial get-togethers, singsongs, unforgettable nights! Sometimes I think that if, like many restaurants do, we were to plaster the walls with photographs to immortalize our many prestigious clients, we would have no walls left!
But the purpose of this reflection is to share the memory of the place by delving back in time. And I certainly have a few things to tell!
We have no documents to establish the year in which the place was built. I presume that the original house, later extended to comprise other buildings, may be dated to the 17th century. It’s possible to see traces of it in Braydae Oppidum-Vernaculè Bra, a detailed view of the town if Bra engraved by Giovenale Boetto in 1666. What would later become Via Mendicità Istruita is depicted here as winding street that climbs from the main street to the upper part of town.
The first written document to speak about the house dates from 1702, the year in which the Accademia degli Innominati (Academy of the Nameless) was formed. Of the 15 founding members of this literary academy, 12 were natives of Bra, and in the course of time the number rose to 200. From 1702 until 1714, the Academy met in the building, which then belonged to a certain Domenico Tommaso Operti, a doctor in Medicine and Philosophy who, according to the custom of the time, bore the academic name l’Astratto, the Abstract One. With its publications, “performances” and gatherings, the life of the Academy acquired prestige throughout Italy. This network of relations led to the enrolment in the registers of the Academy names of national prestige such as Ludovico Antonio Muratori (Infervorato, the Impassioned One) and Scipione Maffei (Il Risorgente, the Resurgent One).
In 1717 the Accademia degli Innominati officially became the only Colonia Arcadica, or Arcadian Colony, in Piedmont. The Arcadian movement represents an important chapter in the history of Italian literature and was, without doubt, the most significant school of poetry between the 17th and 18th centuries. Here are the names of some of the founding members:
- Bonino Giovan Battista, better known as Incorporeo, the Incorporeal One
- Gastaldi Teologo Benedetto better known as Velato, the Veiled One
- Mathis Carlo Camillo better known as Impassibile, the Impassable One
- Reviglio Bartolomeo better known as Estraneo, The Outsider
- Saraceno Paolo better known as Oscuro, The Obscure One
And here are some of the titles of the performances staged in “our house” in the present-day Via Mendicità:
- Whether the acquisiton of kingdoms is more important to a King than that of literati
- Whether prose is nobler than poetry
- Whether teaching is more fruitful than example
- Whether he who condemns the innocent offends justice more than the corrupt man who acquits the guilty with gifts
As you can see, the subjects addressed were anything but banal. I like to imagine my fellow citizens of the time passionately discussing subjects that are still topical, three centuries on.
Let’s take a step forward to the second half of the 19th century when the street had just been named Via della Mendicità Istruita and the house now belonged to the Casalis family, notables who over the years were to hold prestigious positions in the town. They also owned a farm in Pollenzo and numerous archaeological remains from the ancient Pollentia ended up in our house’s garden-cum-courtyard. Still visible today are bricks from the Roman kiln in Pollenzo and, at the bottom of the courtyard, a headstone said to be dedicated to a wine merchant, also from Pollentia.
The most interesting detail, however, is that one member of the Casalis family who lived here, a, lawyer, was the Iacini Enquiry correspondent for the territory of Alba, Bra and the Langhe district. Between 1877 and 1886, the Kingdom of Italy carried out this enquiry on the conditions of life in its countryside. From Via Mendicità Istruita, Casalis described the everyday reality of the local peasants and documented the world that Slow Food would work to redeem a century later with Terra Madre. As Giuseppe Villani wrote, with the Iacini Enquiry “Italy learned that in vast zones of its countryside, malnutrition was the rule, that malaria was rampant in the regions of the south and pellagra in those of the north.”
Our correspondent described a human condition in this area that in the middle of the 20th century Beppe Fenoglio summed up with the term “la malora,” ruin.
Another step forward: for almost a century the ground floor which housed first the macrobiotic restaurant, then the first Osteria Boccondivino, was home to the Osteria della Stella Polare, the Osteria of the Pole Star. The name is beautiful and evocative but we decided not to use it and opted for Boccondivino when we established our restaurant. The two names certainly reflect the tastes and sensibilities of two different moments in history. What is certain is that on the first floor of the house 1990 saw the birth of Guida delle Osterie d’Italia, sussidiario del mangiar bene all’italiana, the guide that for more than 30 years has selected and promoted the best of Italy’s great food heritage. In certain respects, like a polar star itself, Osterie d’Italia set out the lines to follow and provided the inspiration for many an innkeeper in every part of Italy.
I wouldn’t be telling the full story, however, if I were to omit to mention a murder that took place at the Osteria della Stella Polare towards the end of the war, on January 28 1945. It was on that day that a small detachment of the partisan Belbo Brigade burst into the place. A detached. law report of the period takes up the story: “At about 7.20pm, three strangers, two disguised as soldiers of the Black Brigade and one as a German soldier, armed with Sten guns, entered the trattoria and ordered ‘Hands up!’ to all those present. One of two German soldiers who were in the trattoria reacted immediately and started shooting with his pistol. The strangers replied to the fire and during the shoot-out the two German soldiers, Rivetti Carlo and Giordano Angela were killed, while one of the strangers dressed as soldiers of the Black Brigade was wounded.”
You will agree with me then that many things have been seen and are surely still to be seen in this small corner of Bra, which the owner Cesare Alvazzi Del Frate put up for sale in 2017. Slow Food and the Cooperativa Tarocchi, the cooperative that runs the Boccondivino, are the present owners of the house in Via Mendicità Istruita 14.
The most curious part of the story, however, is the meaning of the street’s unusual, bizarre name: Mendicità Istruita, translated a few years by a daily newspaper in São Paulo in Brazil as “Mendicancia Culta,” or “Educated Mendicity.”
To explain the enigma, I suggest you read the article by Gina Lagorio published by L’Unità in 1989. The style and the content are wonderful and it reads as if it were written yesterday. Only the intelligence of a great Bra-born writer could capture that moment in our history, when the transition was made from Arcigola to Slow Food. And all that happened in this street with a strange name.
The story goes on but, for now, sit back and enjoy Lella Costa’s reading this outstanding contribution. The audio track is in Italian but here below you can find the written English translation.
Slow Food via Mendicità istruita
From L’arcigoloso, supplement to L’Unità, XXXVIII, new series, n.38,
September 25 1989, p. 1 – by Gina Lagorio
I was in New York and I can’t remember who it was at the table who started talking enthusiastically about the latest news from Italy: “Slow Food.” The people I was with were of course very civilized and cultivated and they had taken some pains over choosing the place where they’d taken me to eat.
I started laughing because I’d been following the Slow Food idea right from the start, chatting and laughing with Folco Portinari, and I too saw it as an effective form of gastronomic protest. I was thus able to describe to the others what a political reporter would call the behind-the-scenes dealings of something that was turning into a social-economic-ecological operation, and more besides.
I told them all about Arcigola, about restaurant competitions and ratings, about the Feste dell’Unità [Communist Party Festivals], about the wine guide, about my friend Carlin, and about Bra. That’s’ where the problems began: have you ever heard the name–which creates difficulties even for Italians, who, seeing I was born there, have always asked me whether Bra is spelt with or without an accent on the “a”–have you ever heard it pronounced by an American? A grinding noise that grates on the ear. Since the people talking with me couldn’t wait to get in touch with Slow Food’s meritorious organizing association, I had to give them the full address.
“Mendicità istruita” provokes the most unpredictable reactions here in Italy: imagine in America! At the table there was a writer, an exquisite lady of Jewish origin, born in America but Parisian by cultural training, with her husband, whose intellectual geography was no less sophisticated. Both knew everything about our country: she was a contributor to the New York Times literary supplement, in the columns of which she would speak about her latest Italian discoveries, week by week. It’s superfluous to add that her next article would be about the Langa district. So, no less curious than Victor, Beth asked me what this “mendicità istruita” was. It’s easier for me to decipher the mysteries of Cherasco, where my parents came from, but, luckily, I love Bra, where I have happy childhood memories, and I also have a little bit of knowledge of national history. So, somewhat sketchily and with a touch of nostalgia, I instilled in Beth an urge to come to have at least one meal with my friends at the “Boccondivino.”
Then, home again, with the care and attention worthy of a diligent native Bra-born Piemontese, I made my own inquiries. So I now want to tell my story to the followers of Arcigola who I beg and exhort and advise not to change their bizarre address, as I heard whispers they might (though knowing Carlin and his mates the metropolitanization of Arcigola will never come to pass). For many good reasons, the first of which is that each one of us has to love their past without which their only future will be as a vegetable or, at best, as an invertebrate. The second is that I find the ongoing trend to remove history detestable. It removes people who have committed crimes that have been ignored–or so they hope–and that they want to be forgotten. So let’s be serious about this, and that includes in the PCI [Italian Communist Party], too. Operations designed to interpret the past should be made with a very firm feeling of the dignity of a history without which postwar Italian history would have been different and tragically worse.
Coming back to us, isn’t it great that the cradle of the idea of food as rich in happiness and sincerity and humanity should be in this uphill street that leads to an old piazza, once the hub of the civil and religious life of the community? Where there’s a benedictory saint on a pedestal who was so compassionate with human suffering that he thought about the people who no one wants because they’re ugly and unpleasant, hence the loneliest people of all? Yes, I’m referring to Cottolengo, he too just a name for the majority of people.
And back too to my intention of telling you the story of “mendicità,” mendacity. The word derives from the Latin and defines the condition of those who live a life of mendacity, beggars. In Bra the addition of the word “istruita,” educated, refers to a building and a scholastic institute founded and funded by a certain Vittoria Craveri to help solitary girls so poor as to be forced to beg or, even if they lived with their parents, without the means to educate themselves.
It was the 1830s, when there was faith in the “magnificent fortunes” and the social effectiveness of education, and the aim in life of a woman as generous as Vittoria was to rescue solitary young girls from the inevitable violence of poverty and the street. Was she a feminist ante litteram? Sure she was, because even if her intention was to make the educated girls so many daughters of the Virgin Mary, nothing changes. She had grasped the crux of the matter. There can be no feminine emancipation, no inner freedom, no civil equality without education.
So, speaking as a woman, let me tell you, my dear friends of Arcigola, be sure to hold onto your awkward and slightly odd address and if “Slow Food” grows in your hands as a successful idea of human behavior, as I wish for you that it does, it will be wonderful to recall that it set out from here, from a lovely little street in a small town in the province of Cuneo.