In the 1750s the Venetian Senate granted young people a room – a space – in the palace where the Magistrate of Flours was located, so that, under the guidance of the Masters, they could become familiar with the art of drawing. The Church and the School of Santa Maria della Carità, which were next to it, later became the Academy of Fine Arts of Venice.
Many were the illustrious artists who crossed the great gate, which is now closed and visible from the homonymous Campo. In this long list we can also find a young Amedeo Modigliani. It was the year 1903.
At the entrance, a sight of a noble courtyard with a beautiful raised puteal and a herring-bone floor of red bricks gave welcome.
To the left, a covered area showed a large wrought iron chandelier and four steps led to the five large rooms which had been turned into laboratories. Above these, the space that had become the upper floor, splitting the whole Church, was the one that was used to exhibit the artworks.
Moving ahead from the first courtyard, which was surrounded by buildings with glass doors and windows, you would find a dark sottoportico. In the half-light, there were plaster copies of Greek bas-reliefs of excellent workmanship; then, immediately, an overwhelming light reappeared from a second wider courtyard, as if it was an entire Venetian Campo paved with Istrian stone.
In front of it, at the bottom, there was a majestic three-tiered colonnade with brick columns alternating with white Maestro Canova’s stone (this was one side of the16th century convent).
In the middle of the courtyard, there was a small spontaneous garden with tall oleanders, right next to a magnificent rectangular marble basin which was used to clean the work tools.
Again, along the wide perimeter, small islands of bricks were used as flowerbeds for other plants. Among these, a flourishing vine – which had become a robust pergola loaded with juicy grapes – could not remain unnoticed by the young students.
Often, it was right below the pergola where they sought the shadow and exchanged the doubts of their Art. Among these students, there was a young Modigliani, and the story goes that he was very greedy of those grapes to the point that, over the decades, the vine ended up taking his name and becoming “Modigliani’s vine”.
I was still a child when I crossed the sacred doors of the fine arts kingdom, hand in hand with my Mom, who stopped at the porter’s lodge asking about professor Zarotti to the old key-keeper.
The professor – a very young version of my father – came to the entrance after a few minutes, wearing one of those corduroy suits he had bought in Paris when he was just twenty.
I remember his dirty hands and the smell of turpentine on his jacket. I do not remember much more, but that courtyard with Modigliani’s vine under which we walked, I have never forgotten it.
Many years later, the historical headquarters of the Academy of Fine Arts were closed for a change of use, although this renewal has not yet been completed.
Emptied and robbed of everything, including its ancient charm – enriched by the stories that some of the most famous artists in the world have handed down – the Academy was shut down for a long time and Modigliani’s vine weakened until it disappeared.
Decades later, stories of large boats which were loaded with old oil-stained trestles and stools heading towards Venice landfill reached my ears. Professor Zarotti, who by that time was not so young anymore, saved a root of Modigliani’s vine by putting it into the pocket of his jacket.
True stories can be manipulated, as it often happens in the Venetian tradition, which tends to lengthen them by imitating the tail of San Marco’s lion (just look at it, it is out of all proportion!).
However, they can also be passed down faithfully from hand to hand – better, from ear to ear – to lucky witnesses, without dispersing them.
So it was. This story was collected together with some branches of Modigliani vine, which is now alive and flourishing in my garden.
*To all my italian readers —> Tomorrow (22th Sept.), you can also find the recipes for this grape-based menu on D – La Repubblica magazine!
* The recipes of this post (instructions below) were made with Modigliani’s grapes from my garden.
For an entire menu based on grape, read my previous post dedicated to a Venetian aperitif: Tiziano, a cocktail inspired by the Master of color and some roasted grape cicchetti.
Roasted grape cicchetti with goat cheese, thyme and balsamic vinegar
Concord grape risotto with smoked ricotta cheese
Concord grape puddings with whipped cream and salted almonds
- 320 g risotto rice (I used Vialone Nano quality)
- 400 g very ripe Concord grapes
- 1 leek
- 1 glass of red wine
- 1 liter of organic vegetable stock
- 30 g Grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (grated)
- 50 g smoked sheep ricotta cheese (grated)
- 60 g butter
- 1 kg Concord grapes
- 100 g sugar
- 100 ml water
- 40 g corn starch
- 1 cup of whipped cream
- 100 g chopped almonds
- 1 pinch of salt
- Wash and dry the grapes. Using a vegetable mill, get out the grapes juice and pulp and throw away peels and seeds. Keep aside.
- Wash and clean the leek. Slice the white part thinly and place half of the butter in a saucepan. Fry it over a gentle flame.
- Separately, heat the vegetable stock in a saucepan.
- Add the rice and turn up the heat – the rice will now begin to lightly fry, so keep stirring it with a wooden spoon. After 1 minute it will look slightly translucent.
- Add the red wine and keep stirring until the wine is completely absorbed by the rice.
- Add your first ladle of hot stock and turn the heat down to minimum. Keep adding ladlefuls of stock, stirring and allowing each ladleful to be absorbed before adding the next. This will take around 10 minutes.
- Risotto usually cooks in between 15 and 18 minutes, so about 5-8 minutes before the rice is cooked (check cooking times according to the quality of the rice you're using), add the juice and the pulp of the grapes you obtained previously.
- Keep stirring until the rice is cooked. You can taste the rice and, if it seems that it is not cooked yet, carry on adding a bit of stock until the rice is soft but with a slight bite. Add salt according to your taste.
- Remove the pan from the heat and add the remaining butter and the grated Parmesan or Grana cheese, stirring well to get a creamy risotto.
- Serve immediately, after sprinkling it with a handful of grated smoked ricotta and a few fresh grapes to make it pretty!
- Wash and dry the grapes, then shell them and place them in a saucepan together with the sugar. Cook the grapes over low heat for about 15 minutes, until the grapes are mushed. When the grapes are still hot, pass them in a vegetable mill, thus removing the seeds and skins, then pour the juicy pulpe you have obtained into a bowl. Pour again the pulp into the saucepan.
- Separately, in another bowl, mix the cornstarch in water using a whisk to avoid the formation of lumps and then add the mixture to the grape pulp into the saucepan.
- Put the saucepan back on low heat and, stirring constantly with the whisk, cook for about 10/15 minutes, until the mixture has thickened. If it still looks a little liquid, you do not need to worry: it will thicken further after it has cooled down.
- Pour immediately the pudding into the cups and let it cool down, first at room temperature and then in the refrigerator. In the meantime, quickly toast the almonds in a non-stick pan together with a pinch of salt. When the puddings are cold, garnish with whipped cream and a handful of salted almonds.