Un uomo mediterraneo. Doesn’t that have the loveliest ring to it? It translates from the Italian to “a Mediterranean man” but it means so much more than that bland phrase. Un uomo mediterraneo is elegant, dapper, romantic, tips his hat to ladies, dresses immaculately, does not rush through life but rather meanders joyfully, enjoys all of life’s pleasures – women in particular – and is inevitably a bit of a dreamer. In this book, the man in question is all of those things and changes the life of our heroine forever.
Margot Harrington is a book conservator who heads to Florence solo after the Arno River flooded the city back in November 1966, destroying priceless works of art and literature. She is, like all of us around the age of 29, seeking something, seeking to find herself and her core, what she wants in life. Once there, she is befriended by the suave uomo mediterraneo himself, one Dr. Alessandro Postiglione, art conservator extraordinaire, lover of women, unhappily married. You get the picture. He arranges for Margot to lodge with his cousin who is the Mother Superior of a secluded convent, Santa Caterina. There, Margot assists the very able nuns in restoring the many books in their own library that were damaged by the flood, and in the process, discovers a priceless work of Renaissance erotic literature.
The book, eponymously titled as with this novel, is called the The Sixteen Pleasures, or I Modi. It was a collaboration between Renaissance engraver Marcantonio Raimondi and poet and satirist Pietro Aretino in 1525, combining engravings of couples in a wide variety of explicit sexual poses with extremely raunchy sonnets. In reality, the book did once exist, but was considered so subversive and pornographic that Pope Clement VII ordered all copies of it seized and burned except for one supposed copy that is stashed away in – you guessed it – the Vatican Library. Well, it would have to be the Vatican Library, wouldn’t it? Where else would the most famous work of Renaissance erotica possibly be at home?
Margot, putting her book conservation skills to work, rebinds the damaged book and sets out to get it auctioned in order to provide monetary support for the sisters of Santa Caterina, whom she has befriended. She also sets off on a love affair with the uomo mediterraneo himself, Alessandro Postiglione, traveling with him to his home region of Abruzzo and meeting his family and generally daydreaming of marrying him, until of course, he decides to go back to his wife in Rome and leaves Margot alone in Florence. Not at all surprising, nor is her grief over her lover. But when she embarks on giving the Sixteen Pleasures some credible provenance by pretending to find it in Switzerland (done so that the Bishop of Florence cannot claim it as Church property and keep the financial control over the nuns of Santa Caterina), she starts the process of having the book eventually be auctioned for thousands of dollars at Sotheby’s in London, and in turn also recreates herself.
I suppose you could consider the book medieval pornography, which goes to show that pornography is as ubiquitous across the ages as anything else. Looking at the images now – you can find them on Wikipedia by clicking here – I’d consider them quite erotic but certainly not pornographic, at least not by 2021 standards. The fact that pornography is so readily available online and is literally one click away from anyone’s smartphone or computer has made porn somewhat mundane, in my opinion, and which is why these images are erotic – because they are different. Can you imagine being around in 1525 and catching a glimpse of these images in the library of some very highly placed Italian prince or aristocrat? You can see why they caused such a scandal and why people would do almost anything to have a copy of this book. The sonnets alone, both witty and extremely lascivious, make it worth reading. I mean, I’m no prude but even I caught myself blushing the first time I read them. Below are just a couple of examples……get ready to fan yourself.
She: What a beautiful cazzo, how long and thick! If I matter to you, let me view it.
He: Why don’t we try, with me on top, to see if you can hold this cazzo in your potta
She: Stick your finger up my ass, old man
Thrust cazzo in a little at a time
Lift up my leg, maneuver well,
Now pound with all inhibitions gone
I believe this is a tastier feast
Than eating garlic bread before a fire
If you don’t like the potta, try the back way
A real man has to be a buggerer.
I TOLD you they were smutty!
Ultimately, the message of self-discovery, whether through travel, sex, love, art, or simply by taking chances, is something we can all relate to, which is why I enjoyed this book so much and why I reread it every few years or so, blushing still. I love Margot’s journey to herself, to her core, and I love that she found her calling in book conservation. In this day and age of digital and online and audio books, the fact that there is still an industry for the actual printed word makes me happy because I genuinely love books so very much. As well, there are many luscious mentions of food, including this one that inspired today’s recipe. In the early part of the book, when Margot has first arrived in Florence and is working with I Tatti, the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance studies, she is hit upon by Professor Jed Chapin before dinner at their pensione and decides to give him a tumble after their simple yet delicious Italian meal:
I went down to dinner in my red panties, a pair of tight jeans, and a man’s shirt…..no bra. Dinner was served family style: penne with a simple tomato sauce, pork chops, green beans, mixed salad, fruit, red wine.
I think it’s the simplicity of this meal that attracted me. When I was in Italy, one of the best meals I ate was in a small, family-owned trattoria in Bologna and I had penne puttanesca with parmesan-crusted pork chops. It sounds basic but it was one of my favorite meals when I was there and it was so much like Margot’s description in the book that I decided to recreate it here, using the method given to me by the very handsome and debonair uomo mediterraneo from Abruzzi himself, Giovanni Franceschini (or Tonno Bisaccio, as his nom de plume goes).
1 lb. penne pasta
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 cloves of garlic
1 28-oz can of San Marzano tomatoes, crushed
1 cup good red wine, preferably Chianti
6-8 good-quality anchovy fillets
1 and 1/2 cups of roughly chopped black Kalamata olives
2 heaping tablespoons of non-pareil capers
1 tablespoon red chili pepper flakes
Fresh Italian parsley
In a potful of salted water, bring the penne to a boil and cook for about 6-7 minutes, or until just before they are al dente. You will finish cooking the penne in the sauce so don’t fully cook it at this stage. Reserve a cupful of the pasta cooking water before you drain the pasta.
Peel and roughly chop the garlic, and fry it in another pan in the olive oil until the scent of it wafts up to your nose.
Roughly chop the anchovies and the olives and add them to the garlic and oil, and stir together, cooking for about 3 minutes.
Pour in the tomatoes and add the red wine.
Taste for seasoning and salt and pepper if needed, then add the capers and red chili flakes. Let simmer for 10-15 minutes on low heat, stirring occasionally so the sauce thickens. You can thin it with more wine or your reserved pasta water if necessary.
Drain the pasta and add to the bubbling sauce, cover and let cook another 10 minutes, until the penne is perfectly al dente.
Serve with your Italian pork chops, which are simply dipped in beaten egg then dipped in breadcrumbs mixed with Pecorino Romano cheese and dried oregano, and pan-fried for about 5 minutes per side, until they are crusted with a gorgeous golden-brown coating. Garnish the penne with the parsley and enjoy every delicious, strong, sensual mouthful of food. All things considered, this would be an excellent meal to serve to your lover either before or after enjoying the sixteen pleasures of the flesh. Ciao, amore!