Category Archives: St. Agatha’s Day

Don’t Blush: Here’s your February Book of Days

Type the Italian word minne into Google Translator and ask it to translate to English and you may get what I got: minne––the same word, repeated. Google did not see fit to translate such a word. But we’re all adults here, so I will translate for you: Minne is the Italian equivalent of, well… any number of English slang words for breasts: boobs, tatas, you can take your pick from a very long list. This all brings us to one of the oddest days in the seasonal round: St. Agatha’s Day, when Sicilian bakeries prepare a once-a-year sweet delicacy known as minne de virgine––Virgin’s Breasts––pastries that were invented by the nuns of Catania for us to savor with our espresso.

Saint Agatha, or Sant’Agata in Italian, lived in Catania in Sicily in the third century; she is sacred to those places, especially to Catania. The pastries are made from sponge cake with a mound of sweet ricotta cream on top, covered in marzipan and dotted, in the proper place, with a cherry. You may blush as you eat them, but the pastries come from the story of Agatha’s martyrdom for her faith: The Roman governor of Catania became enthralled with Agata’s beauty. Agata, however, one of the secret upstart Christians in town, had taken a vow of chastity to protect her virginity. The Roman governor would have none of it, though, and continued his advances. Agata continued to reject him to protect her faith… and for this she was sentenced to death by the governor. He had her killed in a gruesome manner that it pains me to describe for you. Yet I fear I must… for it’s the only reason these delicious minne de virgine make any sense: he had Agata’s breasts severed before roasting her above a bed of live coals. I told you it was gruesome.

Sant’Agata is now patroness of Catania. She is invoked for protection from breast disease as well as from volcanic eruptions. It was the nuns of Catania who began baking the confections that we enjoy each Fifth of February, something they’ve been doing for centuries. It’s part of what makes Catholicism so incredibly fascinating, especially in Italy. Marzipan pastries in the shape of breasts made by Catanese nuns? This is probably a big part of what makes Protestants so nervous around us Catholics, even to this day. We are a somewhat dramatic people.

The celebration in Catania has been going on for a few days now, but it all culminates tonight with processions through the city of large carriages and spectacular candelore––enormous towers with lit candles depicting scenes from St. Agatha’s life. The candelore are paraded and danced through the streets of Catania to shouts of “Evviva Sant’Agata!” by men in full costume, the towers hoisted upon their shoulders. (Again, not for the faint of heart.)

I love when there are literary connexions to the foods we eat, and my Italian professoressa, Myriam Swennen Ruthenberg, should she be reading this, might be thinking now of a famous scene in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel Il Gatopardo (The Leopard, in its English translation) in which Don Fabrizio looks over a vast table of Sicilian desserts that include these minne de vergine, the breasts of St. Agatha. He asks for some and receives them and he beholds them on his plate. He thinks of the famous paintings of St. Agatha presenting her own severed breasts on a plate. He asks, “Why ever didn’t the Holy Office forbid these puddings when it had the chance?”

And so today I hope you can find at an Italian bakery some minne de virgine. You don’t need to blush when you order them; just point, perhaps whisper the word “minne,” pay and go. And if you can’t find them, I have at least one something special for you today. It’s our monthly gift to you, somewhat belated this time around: The Convivio Book of Days Calendar, this time for February. It’s a fine companion to the blog, a PDF that you can print on standard US Letter size paper. You’ll find also a bevy of new items in our Book of Days Catalog for Valentine’s Day that we can ship to you pronto. We ship via US Priority Mail so most orders arrive in two or three days, and we offer free shipping if your order totals $50 or more (it’s a flat domestic shipping rate of $8.50 if your order is less, which is also not so bad).

 

The title photograph of minne de vergine in Catania is by Stefano Mortellaro, 2005 [Creative Commons] via Wikimedia Commons. The photograph of the statue of Sant’Agata comes to us thanks to Luisa Mangano-Johnson, a new friend of mine. She, too, is from Catania. We met last Saturday at the “Italy in Transit” symposium at Florida Atlantic University, where I got to speak about my family, the film “Moonstruck,” and the connexions between the two and my creative work (including the Convivio Book of Days). Grazie mille, Luisa!

 

Decadent Desserts (and Your February Book of Days)

Sweethearts

For you today, a belated gift: Your Convivio Book of Days Calendar for February. Perhaps someone more generous will give you another gift today: minne de virgine, a delectable Italian pastry made especially for this day, St. Agatha’s Day. Then again, should your friends be susceptible to fits of embarrassment, you may want to just go find them for yourself. The pastries, made from sponge cake with a mound of sweet ricotta cream on top, then covered in marzipan and dotted with a cherry, are meant to evoke a certain part of the female anatomy. They are the “breasts of the virgin,” the breasts of Sant’Agata, a specialty of Sicily and especially of Catania, where Agata lived in the third century.

The pastries come from the story of her martyrdom for her faith: The Roman governor of Catania became enthralled with the beauty of Agata. Agata, however, one of the secret upstart Christians in town, had taken a vow of chastity to protect her virginity. The Roman governor would have none of it, though, and continued his advances. Agata continued to reject him to protect her faith… and for this she died. The Roman governor had her killed in a gruesome death that it pains me to describe for you. Yet I fear I must… for it’s the only reason these delicious minne de virgine make any sense: he had Agata’s breasts severed before roasting her above a bed of live coals. I told you it was gruesome.

Sant’Agata is now patroness of Catania. She is invoked for protection from breast disease (for obvious reasons) as well as from volcanic eruptions (again… well, use your imagination, as this may perhaps be a combination of both elements of her martyrdom).

Eventually, it was the nuns of Catania who began baking the confections that we enjoy each Fifth of February. It’s part of what makes Catholicism so incredibly fascinating, especially in Italy. Marzipan pastries in the shape of breasts made by Catanese nuns? This is probably a big part of what makes Protestants so nervous around Catholics. We are a somewhat dramatic people.

The celebration in Catania has been going on for a few days now, but it all culminates tonight with processions through the city of large carriages and spectacular candelore––enormous towers with lit candles depicting scenes from St. Agatha’s life. The candelore are paraded and danced through the streets of Catania to shouts of “Evviva Sant’Agata!” by men in full costume, the towers hoisted upon their shoulders. (Again, not for the faint of heart.)

My Italian professor, Myriam Swennen-Ruthenberg, should she be reading this, might be thinking now of a famous scene in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel Il Gatopardo (The Leopard, in its English translation) in which Don Fabrizio looks over a vast table of Sicilian desserts that include these minne de vergine, the breasts of St. Agatha. He asks for some and receives them and he beholds them on his plate. He thinks of the famous paintings of St. Agatha presenting her own severed breasts on a plate. He asks, “Why ever didn’t the Holy Office forbid these puddings when it had the chance?”

Our image today is inspired by the cover star of our Convivio Book of Days Calendar for February: It is the 150th anniversary this year of the Conversation Heart––a famous American candy, to be sure: sweet, simple, decidedly non-dramatic. A confection, one might safely guess, not invented by the chaste nuns of Catania.

 

St. Agatha’s Day

Piero_della_Francesca_-_Polyptych_of_St_Anthony_-_St_Agatha_-_WGA17469

So the thing about saints is most of them suffered horrible deaths in the martyrdom that got them to sainthood. There’s a reason St. Blaise, whose feast day we celebrated on the 3rd of February, a patron saint of wool carders, I felt it was too gruesome to explain. And now today on the 5th we celebrate St. Agatha and when it comes to St. Agatha, there are traditions in Italy for her feast day that would make no sense unless you knew about the martyrdom she suffered for her faith. It is no less terrible. And so let me tell you and get it over with: her breasts were severed and then she was roasted over live coals. People were absolutely terrible back then. This was the 3rd century, and it was in Sicily, in Catania. St. Agatha is now patroness of Catania, and she is invoked for protection from volcanic eruptions (perhaps due to the roasting) and earthquakes, as well as for protection from breast disease.

And so in Italy St. Agatha is honored on her day by the baking of special round loaves of bread and by marzipan confections that are unapologetically meant to evoke the breasts of the saint. The marzipan breasts, called minne de vergine, traditionally were made by the nuns of Catania, and it is in these strange customs that the subtle dance between pagan and Christian in Italy is so fascinating. Italy, once the land of the Roman gods and goddesses, became eventually the home of the Roman church… but those gods and goddesses were not easy to evict, and many of them just evolved into the saints of the Church. Italians love their saints: San Antonio, San Giuseppe, Santa Lucia… and today, on the 5th of February, Sant’Agata. The saints are called upon by Italians as much as or perhaps even more so than the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. And we eat strange ritualistic foods based upon their lives and works, and their deaths. Marzipan pastries in the shape of breasts made by Catanese nuns? This is probably a big part of what makes Lutherans so nervous around Catholics. We are a somewhat dramatic people.

In Catania, they’ve been celebrating the feast of St. Agatha for a couple of days by now, and it will all conclude tonight. There have been processions throughout the city of large carriages and many spectacular candelore––enormous towers with lit candles depicting scenes from the saint’s life––over the course of these three nights. The candelore are paraded and danced through the streets of Catania to shouts of “Evviva Sant’Agata!” by men in full costume, the towers hoisted upon their many shoulders.

There is a famous scene in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel Il Gatopardo (The Leopard, in its English translation) in which Don Fabrizio looks over a vast table of Sicilian desserts that include these minne de vergine, the breasts of St. Agatha. He asks for some and receives them: pastries made of sponge cake with a mound of sweet ricotta cream on top, then covered in marzipan and dotted with a cherry, and he beholds them on his plate. It reminds him of the famous paintings of St. Agatha presenting her own severed breasts on a plate. He asks, “Why ever didn’t the Holy Office forbid these puddings when it had the chance?”

Who knows. But I suspect the Romans would have understood.

 

Image: Sant’Agata presenting her breasts on a plate, by Piero della Francesca, 15th century, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.