Postcard from Genoa, Italy: The humorous patron saint of the grill

Strange to keep referencing my father, Lawrence Conway Brennan (1918-1988), in posts about Italy, but he had several things in common with his namesake saint, Saint Lawrence (225-258). And Saint Lawrence happens to be honored prominently in Genoa where the seat of the archbishop is the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo.

First of all, they were both treasurers, my father of the Columbian Peanut Company and Lawrence entrusted with the treasury and riches of the church by Pope Sixtus II (?-258). Then there is the grill. Valencian-born Saint Lawrence is pretty much always depicted with a gridiron at his side or underfoot and is known as the patron saint of cooks.

My father loved grilling, so much so that I actually grew sick of eating his prized marbled sirloin steaks and still am not much of a steak-eater today. His penchant for medium-rare did carry over to me. My father’s impeccable timing for grilling was governed by when he swilled the last sip of bourbon and water from his highball glass.

The iconography of Saint Lawrence’s gridiron is not as pleasant an association. While sometimes in subsequent centuries assuming responsibility for the Vatican treasury enabled accumulation of great personal wealth, the perks in 258 were not pleasant. Emperor Valerian (200-264) was not fond of Pope Sixtus II and his band. He demanded the Christian clergy perform sacrifices to the Roman gods. Failing to follow his order, Christian leaders were ordered executed.

You might have noticed Sixtus II and Saint Lawrence died during the same year, but Lawrence lived a few days longer. Missed during the initial sweep of those to be beheaded, the treasurer requested a delay of three days to assemble church treasures to “render them unto Caesar.” He rounded up the goods, but, instead of turning them over to Roman authorities, he distributed them to the poor and infirm.

Needless to say, the reallocation of church assets was not received well by the emperor’s minions. A simple beheading was deemed too merciful a fate for Lawrence. A massive gridiron was heated over a fiery bed of hot coals to ensure a slow, sizzling death process for him.

After roasting for a considerable amount of time, legend claims Saint Lawrence piped up with a request: “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over.” A memorable quip meriting his saintly status as a patron of both cooks and comedians.

The impressive 1828 silver reliquary, above, containing some of Saint Lawrence’s unidentified smoked body remnants in its chest, is housed amid a collection of impressive silver and gold treasures housed in a museum under the cathedral in Genoa. Included there is a ceremonial casket for transporting the ashes of Saint John the Baptist, presumably not including his head as we viewed it enshrined in Rome in the Basilica di San Silvestro in Capite, on appropriate church holidays. And displayed also is yet another chalice with claims of being used for Jesus’ final sip of wine at the Last Supper. No wonder the search through the centuries for the “real” Holy Grail has been so convoluted and controversial.

In memory of Saint Lawrence’s sacrifices, the Genoese built an impressive Duomo atop/around the site of several earlier churches. The cathedral was consecrated in 1118 by Pope Galasius II (1060-1119) during his brief year-long papal reign.

Obviously from the photos above, the handsome cathedral underwent numerous major changes through the centuries resulting in layers of different architectural styles.

Perhaps my father’s mastery of the art of grilling was directed by his patron saint perched upon his shoulder? That, accompanied by a little devil perched on his glass urging him not to let those ice cubes melt.

Postcard from Genoa, Italy: Hey, don’t knock peanuts

The graceful statue of Caterina Campondonico is among the most popular in the Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno because of how it was secured. Peanuts.

“It’s only peanuts” is an idiom that never made sense in our house. Peanuts meant everything to us. My father, Lawrence Conway Brennan (1918-1988), was deep in peanuts.

Not that we grew up in a peanut patch, but our father was treasurer of the Columbian Peanut Company in Norfolk, Virginia. His engagement in the nerve-wracking gamble of predicting peanut deliverables by the railcar-load, subject to all the possible whims of Mother Nature in several southern states, sent three girls to college.

Campondonico scrimped and saved lire throughout her life to commission Lorenzo Orengo (1838-1909) to sculpt this prime example of Bourgeois Realism art in 1881, prior to her death. She funded the monument, as fine as those of neighboring aristocrats, from a lifetime of sales of doughnuts and nuts on the streets and at fairs in Genoa. She clutches a rosary of hazelnuts and a pair of doughnuts in her hands. The restoration of the statue was completed in 2016 by American Friends of Italian Monumental Sculpture.

“The Peanut Seller” is far from alone in the 82-acre cemetery; she is in the company of more than 2-million other Genovesi. The cemetery opened its gates to welcome its first deceased occupants in 1851, and the majority of its monuments are from the period of the following hundred years.

In addition to Staglieno’s monumental pantheon and marbled halls for the dead, families erected individual house-like or chapel-like mausolea climbing up the surrounding hillsides on narrow “streets,” forming sort of a suburban village overlooking those resting down below.

If this abundance of photos fails to satisfy your taphophilia, you have a severe obsession. As do I. I finally added a separate category on this blog for locating and scrolling down through related posts: Haunting Graveyards.

And, maybe, in memory of Caterina “The Peanut Seller” and Connie, my father aka “Goober,” rethink that dismissive idiom. Perhaps even improve a few sayings. A peanut in the hand is worth two in the ground. A peanut sold can be a penny saved. The road to heaven is paved with peanut hulls.

Marilyn Lanfear buttons up a collection of family stories

I am a visual storyteller who translates personal family stories into a common mythology of family generational connections.

I use wood, stone, paper, buttons – the concept determines the media. I use objects of material culture – cast iron beds, cook tables, cotton gin weights. I use words – embroidered on towels, burned into chairs, stenciled on window shades. I use whatever is needed to tell my story. Subtle elements like the pattern of wallpaper, the use of traditional milk paint, or folded clothes rendered in stone, load the images with irony and symbolism not repeated in the oral tradition. I am a visual storyteller. Narrative is the moving force of my visual language with the history of my Texas family as the core.

Artist Statement, Marilyn Lanfear

Buttons capture the hemline of Laurelis Bessie Nix Moore’s full skirt in this detail of Marilyn Lanfear’s triptych, “Uncle Clarence’s Three Wives,” on exhibit at the San Antonio Museum of Art. The artist obviously spent years rummaging through dark corners of antique shops to assemble thousands of vintage mother-of-pearl buttons to portray her uncle’s three wives on eight-foot-tall linen banners.

More than three-dozen volunteers helped Lanfear sort and sew the buttons to create the portraits in an upstairs space in the Southwest School of Art over a two-year period. The fashions worn by her three aunts conveying much about their personalities and the times in which they lived. And, of course, there are stories behind each wife. Aunt Billie on the left is posed in front of a school in New London, Texas, the site of a huge gas explosion that claimed her life and those of close to 300 students and teacher in 1937.

Lanfear is from Waco, was raised in Corpus Christi and received her Master’s of Fine Art from UTSA in 1978. The Mister and I probably were introduced to her art about that time in the gallery space where we encountered most of the artists whose work now resides in our home, Anne Alexander’s Charlton Art Gallery. Lanfear spent some time in New York and Seattle before returning to San Antonio to focus on the inescapable Texas stories to which she was drawn.

The exhibit awakens nostalgia for family stories left untold, remorse for all the questions you failed to ask older relatives before they departed. Incomplete tales with no one left to fill in the mysterious gaps for you.

And it rekindles my yearning for my grandmother’s button box, a magical tin overflowing with an amazing assortment of buttons leftover from seven decades of sewing clothes for herself, her children and grandchildren. When I was six, Nana (Katherine Ann Conway Brennan, 1887-1972) could keep me entertained for hours selecting some of the most unusual and awkwardly stitching them in nontraditional arrangements on scraps of cloth.

Now, I am left wondering button, button, who got the buttons. But, as the Mister might be the first to quickly point out, my domesticity is somewhat lacking in that area. My idea of replacing a button during our marriage has been to find the nearest safety-pin. When I went to briefly observe volunteers working on the triptych in 2007, that is all I did. Stand. Looking. Filled with admiration for Lanfear’s ability to translate the myriad of sizes and colors of thousands of round buttons into striking compositions.

Including mixed-media work from three decades of the artist’s career, “Marilyn Lanfear: Material Memory” will remain on exhibit at SAMA through November 11.