The basil of Salerno and Lisabetta’s tears

August 26, 2010

Above: Basil was prized for its healing properties for external wounds in the Middle Ages. The image of basil (note the presence of a woman and man) on the verso (left) is taken from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, in this case Codex Latinus 9333 from the Bibliothèque de France in Paris (click here to view a larger version). It was also a symbol of hate (read on).

I never imagined that my post the other day on Fake Pesto would lead to such a long comment thread here at the blog and over in the Facebook feed.

Here at the blog, Hande pointed out rightly that pesto, literally pestle, denotes the dressing for pasta made of ground basil, cheese, pine nuts, garlic, and olive oil. I was surprised to learn that the Genoese Pesto Consortium’s officially sanctioned recipe allows for walnuts (as a substitute for pine nuts) and Parmigiano Reggiano along with (the more traditional, in my view) Pecorino. As per Hande’s comment, when I wrote that pesto is traditionally served with boiled potatoes and green beans, I should have noted that the dish is properly called pesto avvantaggiato, literally, enriched pesto, whereby trenette or trofie (noodles) are tossed with the pesto, the boiled potatoes and green beans, and some of the cooking water from the vegetables. Thanks again, Hande, for keeping me on my toes!

Image via SchoolGardenWeekly.

But when friend Leslie noted (over in the Facebook thread of the post) that basil is an anti-depressant, I began to think about one of my favorite novelle from Boccaccio’s Decameron, the Tale of Lisabetta da Messina.

    Lisabetta’s brothers slay her lover: he appears to her in a dream, and shews her where he is buried: she privily disinters the head, and sets it in a pot of basil, whereon she daily weeps a great while. The pot being taken from her by her brothers, she dies not long after.

    And so, saddest of women, knowing that she might not bewail him there, she would gladly, if she could, have carried away the body and given it more honourable sepulture elsewhere; but as she might not so do, she took a knife, and, as best she could, severed the head from the trunk, and wrapped it in a napkin and laid it in the lap of her maid; and having covered the rest of the corpse with earth, she left the spot, having been seen by none, and went home. There she shut herself up in her room with the head, and kissed it a thousand times in every part, and wept long and bitterly over it, till she had bathed it in her tears. She then wrapped it in a piece of fine cloth, and set it in a large and beautiful pot of the sort in which marjoram or basil is planted, and covered it with earth, and therein planted some roots of the goodliest basil of Salerno, and drenched them only with her tears, or water perfumed with roses or orange-blossoms. And ’twas her wont ever to sit beside this pot, and, all her soul one yearning, to pore upon it, as that which enshrined her Lorenzo, and when long time she had so done, she would bend over it, and weep a great while, until the basil was quite bathed in her tears.

    Fostered with such constant, unremitting care, and nourished by the richness given to the soil by the decaying head that lay therein, the basil burgeoned out in exceeding great beauty and fragrance.

There is so much I’d love to share about this truly fascinating (at least to me) story and the role that basil plays in it. Boccaccio’s Decameron has so many wonderful references to food and wine in it. (Read the entire tale in English here.) But, ahimè, professional duties call… I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

In the meantime, here’s a scene from Pasolini’s version of the tale:


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