Ravenna, Italy

Basilica di San Vitale, Copyright Waspa 69 at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Ravenna, the northern Italian city where Dante was invited to live in 1318 and ended his days in three years later, has a long, rich history stretching back to the Roman Empire. Historians and archaeologists disagree on just which tribe settled Ravenna—Etruscans, Thessalians (from Thessaly, Greece), or Umbrians. There’s also a theory that the city’s name comes from Rasenna, or Rasna, the word Etruscans called themselves.

The Senones, a Gallic tribe, later settled in Ravenna, and laid it out very similarly to Venice, on a series of small islands in a lagoon. Initially, the Roman conquerors ignored Ravenna during their campaign in the Po River Delta, but eventually made it a Roman town in 89 BCE.

Ruins of Port of Classis, Copyright Trapezaki, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

In 49 BCE, Julius Caesar gathered his troops in Ravenna before they crossed the Rubicon, and in 31 BCE, Octavian established a military harbour with defensive walls in nearby Classis. This harbour was an important part of the Roman Imperial Fleet.

Ravenna continued to go from strength to strength under Roman rule, and had a population of 50,000 by the time it became capital of the Western Roman Empire in 402. The Western Roman Empire fell in 476, and Ravenna became capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom in 493. In the sixth century, it was chosen as the seat of the Exarch, Italy’s Byzantine governor. The Archbishop of Ravenna was second only to the Pope in Italy.

Porta Serrata gate, Copyright Ludvig14, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Apse mosaic of San Michele in Afrisco Church

Byzantine rule of Ravenna ended in 751, and gradually came under Papal authority. The city suffered a terrible loss when Pope Adrian I let Charlemagne rob Ravenna of anything he pleased, and an unknown amount of Roman mosaics, statues, columns, and other treasures were taken to Charlemagne’s court in Aachen.

In 1198, Ravenna led other cities in the Romagna region against the Holy Roman Emperor, but the Pope put down their rebellion. The noble Traversari family ruled the city from 1218–40. In 1248, Ravenna rejoined the Papal States, and later was returned to the Traversaris.

Finally, in 1275, the da Polenta family established their rule, which lasted till 1441. That year’s Treaty of Cremona annexed Ravenna to the Venetian territories.

Dante’s tomb, Copyright Congolandia.g at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Vault interior of Archbishop’s Chapel, Copyright Anelhj at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Venetian rule lasted till 1509, when the region was invaded during the Italian Wars. The French sacked Ravenna in 1512 during the Holy League Wars. Yet another period of Papal States rule followed, interrupted by another brief Venetian rule from 1527–29.

A huge flood severely damaged the city in May 1636. To prevent such a tragedy from recurring, authorities spend the next 300 years draining swamps and redirecting rivers.

Ravenna Art Museum, Copyright Mac9 at Italian Wikipedia

Banca di Romagna, Piazza del Popolo, Copyright Marie Thérèse Hébert & Jean Robert ThibaultCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

In 1796, the Cisalpine Republic, a French puppet state, annexed Ravenna. Predictably, it returned to the Papal States in 1814. Piedmontese troops occupied the city in 1859. Ravenna didn’t win her freedom till the unified Kingdom of Italy was created in 1861.

Miraculously, Ravenna suffered very little damage during WWII.

Arian Baptistry, Copyright Georges Jansoone, Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

Biblioteca Classense, Copyright Domenico Bressan at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Ravenna is gut-loaded with beautiful historic buildings, including many churches and tombs from the Early Middle Ages. Eight of its churches are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The city also has many museums, art galleries, theatres, gates, and towers, as well as two amusement parks.

Dante’s tomb was built in 1780–81 at the Basilica di San Francesco. The Supreme Poet’s bones are in a Roman sarcophagus which was embellished with a bas-relief in 1483.

Florence (Firenze) has been begging for the return of their illustrious native son’s remains since 1396, but Ravenna has continually refused to send them home. Several times, the bones have been hidden to prevent this. Dante’s empty tomb in the Basilica di Santa Croce is still patiently waiting to be occupied.

Copyright Opi1010 at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Vegetation mound which protected Dante’s bones from 23 March 1944–19 December 1945, © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0

Florence (Firenze), Italy

My IWSG post is here.

Copyright bongo vongo, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Florence, called Firenze in Italian, is known as the Athens of the Middle Ages, and was the birthplace of the Renaissance. Because the Florentine dialect of Tuscan Italian was used by so many literary luminaries, it became the basis of Modern Standard Italian. The city was also the capital of the Kingdom of Italy from 1865–71.

The first Florentine settlement is believed to have been between the tenth and eighth centuries BCE. Then Etruscans moved in between the seventh and sixth centuries.

The city’s written history began in 59 BCE, upon the arrival of the Romans.

Porta San Frediano wall, Copyright Sailko

Porta Romana wall, Copyright Sailko

Firenze went from strength to strength under Roman rule. The cityscape quickly grew to include a military camp, a theatre, spas, an aqueduct, an amphitheatre, a forum, city walls, and a river port. Sadly, few of these structures have survived into the modern era. The city walls are a notable exception.

Starting in the fourth century CE, Firenze went back and forth between Ostrogothic and Byzantine hands. These two rivals were constantly fighting one another, laying siege to the city, losing power, and doing it all over again.

The Lombards took over in the sixth century, and then Charlemagne conquered Firenze in 774. Under Charlemagne’s rule, as part of the March of Tuscany, the city’s population and wealth grew exponentially.

Montalbano Castle, Copyright Joe Sapienza at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Copyright Sailko

Around 1000, Ugo (Hugh) the Great, Margrave of Tuscany, chose Firenze as his residence. This led to the Golden Age of the Florentine School of art, a naturalistic style which reached its heights in the 14th and 15th centuries. A lot of new construction also started.

In 1115, the people revolted against the Margrave of Tuscany. In its place arose the Republic of Firenze, officially the Florentine Republic. The city-state soon grew wealthy from trade with other countries, and the population swelled yet again. Even more new churches and palaces were built.

Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova, Firenze’s oldest hospital still in existence, Copyright Mongolo1984

Garden of Palazzo di Gino Capponi, Copyright Sailko

The city was beset by internal strife during the 12th through 14th centuries, when rival political factions the Guelphs and Ghibellines constantly, violently fought for power. Guelphs supported the Pope, and Ghibellines supported the Holy Roman Emperor. Firenze was one of the pro-Guelph cities.

After the decisive Guelph victory at the 1289 Battle of Campaldino, the Guelphs began infighting and split into White and Black factions. The Black Guelphs seized control of the city in 1301, destroying much of it in the process. Dante, a White Guelph, was tried on false charges in absentia, ordered to pay a huge fine (which he never did), and condemned to exile.

Basilica di Santa Croce, Copyright Sailko

Dante’s empty tomb in the Basilica di Santa Croce, Copyright Sailko

In the 14th century, a groundswell of artistic, literary, architectural, musical, and scientific talent in Firenze heralded the birth of the Renaissance. All the political, moral, and social upheavals which had plagued the city on and off for the last few centuries halted under this new humanistic atmosphere. People also began rediscovering and falling in love with writers, philosophers, and scientists from Classical Antiquity.


Uffizi Gallery, Copyright Chris Wee, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Firenze became the capital of the unified Kingdom of Italy in 1865. In attempts to modernise the city, many Medieval houses and the historic Piazza del Mercato Vecchio market were razed. New houses took their place, along with a more formal street plan.

The population grew to over 230,000 during the 19th century, and was over 450,000 by the 20th century.

Grand Synagogue of Firenze, Copyright CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Synagogue interior, Copyright Sailko

The city was occupied by Germans from 1943–44, after the Italians defected to the Allied side and refused to deport their Jewish community. Eighty percent of Italian Jews survived the Shoah, due in large part to righteous Italian Gentiles hiding them and smuggling them to safe territories.

The Nazis packed the beautiful Grand Synagogue with explosives before retreating, but brave resistance fighters diffused almost all of them. Very little damage was sustained, and the building was restored after the war. There are, however, still bayonet blows on the Ark.

Casa di Dante museum (not the original house), Copyright Photo20201 at WikiCommons

Fireworks over Ponte Vecchio, Copyright Martin Falbisoner

Firenze has more tourists than locals every year from April–October, thanks to its wealth of museums, historic architecture, churches, art galleries, theatres, bridges, monuments, gates, walls, and many other treasures.

Zabar’s

Copyright Fuzheado

Zabar’s is a specialty food store which opened in 1934 and moved to Broadway between 80th and 81st Streets in 1941. The building started life as the Calvin Apartments, four three-story structures erected in 1882, and stood out like a sore thumb among the elegant, freestanding mansions which characterized upper Broadway at the time.

In 1890, developer Christian Blinn sold it to real estate investor Julia Schwarz, and in 1892, he entered a loonybin. He filed suit against her in 1901, claiming he’d been insane and had no knowledge about the sale.

The jury couldn’t decide, so the judge ruled in favor of Ms. Schwarz.

Copyright Fuzheado

In 1919, Ms. Schwarz leased the building for $30,000 a year to the C&L Lunch Company, and commissioned architects Whinston & Whinston to remodel and combine the four buildings into one complex. A small apartment on the next lot north, built 1890, was also included.

The Tudor-style Calvin Apartments opened in 1920. In addition to being beautifully decorated both inside and out, they promised on-premise dining. They were very expensive, with two-room apartments going for $165 a month ($2,134.09 today).

In the 1920s, the average NYC rent was only $40 a month, and houses sold for $15 a square foot. Not exactly apartments intended for normal people!

Enter Louis and Lillian Zabar.

Louis Zabar was born in Ukraine in 1901 and came to the U.S. via Canada in the early 1920s, after his dad was murdered in a pogrom. Lillian Teit was probably born in 1902 or 1903, though she pretended to be younger when she immigrated from Ukraine in the mid-Twenties, fearful she’d be deported for being too old.

Lillian lived with relatives in Philadelphia, and Louis lived in Brooklyn, where he rented a stall in a farmers’ market. Later, Louis became head of a grocery’s smoked fish section. When Lillian moved to NYC, she and Louis renewed their old acquaintance from their hometown and married 2 May 1927.

They started a deli in Brooklyn, selling Lillian’s wonderful homemade foods, among them stuffed cabbage, blintzes, coleslaw, and potato salad. When the couple moved to Manhattan, they set up shop in the third building north from 80th St. in the old Calvin Apartments. By that time, the complex had become a hotel.

By the time of his death in 1950, Louis owned ten Manhattan markets.

Oldest son Saul (born 1929), a med student at the University of Kansas, came home to help the family business. He thought he’d only be there for a few years, but it turned into the rest of his life. Saul became the store’s president, and middle brother Stanley became vice-president after graduating the University of Pennsylvania.

Youngest brother Eli operates his own food businesses.

In 1953, entrepreneur Murray Klein (1923–2007) joined Zabar’s and began transforming it from a small deli to one of the city’s most renowned specialty markets. He started as a floor sweeper and stock clerk, and quit several times, but eventually became a full partner in 1960.

In the 1970s, there were plans to buy a building on the west side of Broadway between 82nd and 83rd Streets, but hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) enabled them to buy the entire former Calvin Apartments instead and expand that way. They also gained the rooms upstairs, which were once the Cedar Hotel.

Copyright Nate Steiner

Mr. Klein knew the store’s core clientele and most loyal customers were Ashkenazic Jews who went there for things like lox, pastrami, bagels, and babka, but he also knew good businesses need to draw more than one demographic.

To gain the patronage of a wider patronage seeking sophisticated food, he offered things like brie, caviar, white truffles, and gourmet chocolate. He also began selling household wares. Even more unusually, he sold at below-market prices and at a loss, even for luxury foods.

Copyright Rob Young

Zabar’s hasn’t yet featured in my books, but I look forward to including it.

More information:

http://www.zabars.com/on/demandware.store/Sites-Zabars-Site/default/Link-Page?cid=ZABARS_STORY

http://www.westsiderag.com/2012/08/27/upper-west-side-essential-eats-zabars

http://www.nytimes.com/2002/11/10/realestate/streetscapes-zabar-s-broadway-between-80th-81st-street-its-horizons-widened-it.html

http://www.nytimes.com/1995/12/23/nyregion/lillian-zabar-co-founder-of-quintessential-deli.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/07/nyregion/07klein.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/31/nyregion/31zabars.html

http://historicalny.com/Historical_NY/Zabars_and_The_Hadrian.html

http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2020/02/tudor-charm-on-upper-west-side-2241.html

Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery

Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery is a culinary staple of the Lower East Side. Like many other proletarian businesspeople of the era, Romanian immigrant Rabbi Yonah Schimmel used a pushcart to hawk his wares (made by his wife) when he started in 1890. He originally worked on Coney Island.

Locals loved his offerings, so much so Rabbi Schimmel and his cousin Joseph Berger were soon able to rent a little store on Houston St. (It’s pronounced HOUSE-ton, not like the Texas city.) Rabbi Schimmel left to teach Hebrew two years later, but Mr. Berger kept the bakery’s name the same.

Copyright Nbarth

In 1910, the bakery moved to the south side of Houston, between First and Second Avenues. By this time, Mr. Berger’s wife Rose (also Rabbi Schimmel’s daughter; no comment!) co-ran the business. Back then, the bakery was on the ground level of a five-story tenement.

There were soon so many knisheries on the Lower East Side, a price war erupted in 1916. This was such a serious matter, state investigator William Groat held hearings regarding a knish cartel in 1928. One of the traditional knish fillings is kasha, buckwheat groats, so his surname was quite appropriate!

Copyright Urbankayaker

According to Milton Glaser and Jerome Snyder’s 1968 “Underground Eats” column in New York Magazine, “No New York politician in the last fifty years has been elected to public office without having at least one photograph taken showing him on the Lower East Side with a knish in his face.” To this day, that declaration is taped above a counter.

Just to give a few examples, Theodore Roosevelt came for kasha knishes when he was the city’s police commissioner, and Eleanor Roosevelt made many campaign stops at Schimmel’s on her husband’s behalf.

In addition to offering delicious knishes, Schimmel’s has also been the subject of several artworks. Jewish–Irish artist Harry Kernoff painted it in 1939, and the Museum of the City of New York has a 1976 oil painting by Hedy Pagremanski on permanent display.

Over the last 110 years, the menu has largely remained the same, and the recipe is unchanged, though prices have naturally risen. Knishes aren’t the only thing on the menu either. Schimmel’s also offers matzah ball soup, kugel, latkes, bagels, borshcht, and egg creams.

Traditional knish fillings are kasha, onion and mashed potatoes, and cheese. Though they’re still the most popular, modern diners can also choose from jalapeño, blueberry, apple, chocolate, cabbage, broccoli, spinach, sweet potato, cherry, and mushroom.

Copyright Eric Hunt

Schimmel’s is still a family business, now run by Alex Wolfson and his daughter Ellen Anistratov. On his second day in America in 1979, Mr. Wolfson (Rabbi Schimmel’s great-nephew) began working as a busboy.

My characters Igor Konev and Violetta Likachëva go to Schimmel’s on some of their dates. It’s casual without being a hole in the wall, and conveniently located. Violetta lives in Greenwich Village, and Igor lives in the northern part of the Lower East Side (the area which later seceded and rebranded itself the so-called East Village).

More information:

http://www.timesofisrael.com/at-new-yorks-oldest-knishery-nosh-with-a-side-of-jewish-history/

http://www.knishery.com/

http://web.archive.org/web/20090910044131/http://www.mcny.org/museum-collections/painting-new-york/pttcat109.htm

http://www.villagevoice.com/2015/06/18/nosh-on-knishes-and-more-than-100-years-of-tradition-at-yonah-schimmel/

http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/13/knish/

St. Francis Xavier Church and Xavier High School

In the summer of 1847, English-born Jesuit priest John Larkin was dispatched to create a church and school in New York City. He initially worked in Fordham, the Bronx, but Archbishop John Hughes thought he had what it took to survive that “rough, extraordinary city.”

It took an entire day to travel to downtown Manhattan, and Father Larkin only had fifty cents ($15.77 today).

The next day, Mass was offered for the success of this mission. In attendance was a newly-immigrated French muralist who wanted to thank God for his family’s safe journey. After Mass, he told Father Larkin he’d heard U.S. banks weren’t reliable, and asked how to keep his money safe.

This was no small sum of money, but $5,000 ($157,730.49 today).

Copyright Kwok-Chi Ng

Divine Providence continued shining for Father Larkin. A Protestant church between Bowery and Elizabeth Streets had just gone on sale for $18,000 ($567,829.76 today) after a big schism, and asked $5,000 as a down payment.

Father Larkin promised the good Frenchman security for his money in return for a mortgage on that church, and the church was dedicated in October. Sadly, it burnt to the ground in January, and Father Larkin was asked to return to Fordham.

Despite this tragedy, the congregation rallied behind him to rebuild their church. A surprising source of spiritual fortitude also came from a seemingly chance encounter in The Bowery.

Copyright Scry Photo

Shortly after the fire, a woman selling apples approached him and said, “Well, Father Larkin, so your church is burnt; the Lord be praised!”

Not quite sure what he was hearing, he said, “‘The Lord be praised!’ Are you then glad of it?”

“Oh, God forbid! But then we must give God glory for everything.”

Father Larkin realized she was right, as painful as this situation was, and resolved to take this lesson to heart. The apple seller then lamented being unable to donate any money, since she was a poor widow with five kids, but insisted he take her two finest apples.

And from that moment on, the congregation endeavoured to give God glory for everything, good things as well as bad.

Copyright Beyond My Ken

Father Larkin refused to abandon his congregation, and held Mass in borrowed spaces till 1851, when a new church, designed by William Rodrigue, opened on West 16th St., next to the old church. During this time, Father Larkin declined an offer to become Bishop of Toronto.

Tragedy struck again on 8 March 1877. During a women’s mission, a fire erupted in the packed sanctuary, and panic broke out. Six women and one child died, and the church was gutted.

This happened in part because the church had become too small to comfortably accommodate the entire congregation, since so many people from Catholic countries were immigrating in that era. A new building was needed anyway.

Copyright Steven Bornholtz

In May 1878, the cornerstone for a new church was laid immediately to the west, with 5,000 in attendance. Famous architect Patrick Charles Keely designed it in Roman Basilica style, with a bluish-grey Neo-Baroque façade and gabled portico. His frequent collaborators the Morgan Brothers designed the stained-glass windows in Pre-Raphaelite style.

William Lamprecht, the country’s leading ecclesiastical painter of the era, made almost 50 murals. The beautiful marble, in a rainbow of colors, came from Italy; the onyx came from Mexico; Massachusetts provided granite; and New Hampshire gave the cornices and columns.

This new building could hold 2,000. The total cost was $600,000 ($15,216,352.94 today).

Archbishop Michael Corrigan dedicated the completed church on 3 December 1882.

Copyright Americasroof at English Wikipedia

Every Catholic church has a school, and St. Francis Xavier Church has Xavier High School, also founded by Father Larkin. When he founded what was originally called the College of St. Francis Xavier, he only had five cents left ($1.58 today).

At the time, Father Larkin was also a professor at St. John’s College in Rosehill Manor, now Fordham University in the Bronx. His two schools played the first collegiate baseball game in 1859. Fordham won 33-11.

In 1861, after Father Larkin’s death, the high school was chartered by the state.

Copyright Ajay Suresh

The National Guard began military training at Xavier High School in 1886, and membership became mandatory in 1892. In 1897, collegiate and secondary studies were separated into different departments. The former closed in 1912.

In 1935, the student regiment became Junior ROTC, and the school was declared a military institute in 1968. Not till 1971 did participation in ROTC become optional.

I’ve not used either school nor church in my writing to date, but now I’m quite eager to make St. Francis Xavier the church of my Novak family when they move to New York in 1952.

More information:

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/27/realestate/a-sidestreet-surprise-a-monumental-church.html

http://www.nycago.org/Organs/NYC/html/StFrancisXavier.html

http://www.sfxavier.org/

http://www.xavierhs.org/s/81/rd16/start.aspx

http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/larkin_john_8E.html