On a recent trip to Bologna, Italy, I learned the unbelievable story of how tortellini was created and how very important it is to the city’s culture and history.
Tortellini pasta originated in the Emilia-Romagna region in north-central Italy. And, according to legend, a war in the region brought a goddess to earth, then her belly button inspired the pasta’s shape. Want to know more?…
To begin our history of tortellini, let’s go back to the 14th century and, as with so many things, it started with a war. In Italy at that time, there were two political factions that had been fighting against each other for a few hundred years. They were the Guelphs which supported the Pope and the Ghibellines who supported the Holy Roman Emperor.
The city of Bologna was Guelph, and about 25 miles to the northwest was Modena, a Ghibelline city. It was trouble just waiting to happen. And in 1325 the rival city-states met on the battlefield of Zappolino.
It was a serious mess with a total of about 2,000 men killed from both sides. But Modena was the victor that day and the Bolognese army fled back home into the safety of their city walls and closed their big gates. The victorious Modenese soldiers wanted to take back some loot – some proof of their victory. They had won the battle, but they had only run the Bolognese back home, they hadn’t actually gotten into the city where they could loot anything of value. They were milling around outside the gates looking for something they could take back to Modena as a trophy.
Finally one of the soldiers spotted a well. He ran over to it and pulled up the wooden bucket. It wasn’t much, but it would have to do as a battle trophy. He held it aloft and the Modena army gave a victory cheer and proudly marched home with their wooden victory bucket. Was it a special bucket? No. It was a normal, run-of-the-mill, wooden bucket used to haul up water from a well. But it symbolized their victory and they proudly paraded it back to Modena.
The bucket was proudly displayed in Modena as a symbol of their victory over Bologna. It was hung up high in a tower by a long and strong chain – just in case the Bolognese had any ideas about coming to steal it back.
Poem about a Bucket
Now let’s jump ahead nearly 300 years to the 17th century. There’s a poet living in Modena by the name of Alessandro Tassoni. He was born and raised there, and he first saw this famous bucket as a child when he visited the tower with his grandfather. It must have captured his childish imagination as his grandfather told him of the great war and Modena’s glorious victory – and their prize was this bucket. He must have thought it a very special bucket indeed.
Tassoni grew up to become a writer and poet. He is best known for his epic, mock-heroic poem La Secchia Rapita or The Stolen Bucket, translated into English in 1713 as The Trophy-Bucket.
This poem was a satire of the great epic poems – making fun of everyone and everything, and it was inspired by the trophy bucket and the battle of Zappolino. To make the war (and the two cities) seem ridiculous, Tassoni made the war all about the bucket. In his version, it is the humble wooden bucket which causes all the problems instead of politics and land disputes.
Because of the satirical tone of his epic poem, Tassoni published it in Paris in 1622. It wasn’t published in Italy under his name until 1624 after he had made some changes to make it less offensive to the Catholic Church.
Venus: Goddess of Love
Tassoni added another ingredient to his epic poem. Since it was in the style of the ancient epic poems, he, of course, needed some involvement from the gods. In his story, news of the impending war reached the heavens and the gods pricked up their ears. Mars the god of war was interested and wanted to get in on the action. Bacchus came down to support Modena, and Venus to support Bologna.
Although the three deities had different interests, that didn’t stop them from getting along or enjoying each other’s company. They travelled together and stopped at an inn located between the two cities so as not to show any favoritism. But, shockingly, they all three shared one room. We had better leave Tassoni’s story there and move on to the pasta…
The tortellini creation story picks up from this point in Tassoni’s poem. The legend has a few versions, as legends do, but let’s say it went something like this…
After a day of watching the fighting between the armies of Bologna and Modena, the three gods were tired and decided to spend the night at an inn that sat midway between the two warring cities. Venus, Bacchus and Mars, checked in at the desk and asked for one room.
As the inn keeper was checking them in, he was very taken with the goddess of love. He couldn’t take his eyes off Venus. The three gods linked arms and went up to their room giggling. The innkeeper began to wipe the counter and tried to go about his business, but he just couldn’t get Venus out of his mind.
The next morning Mars and Bacchus woke up early as they were anxious to get out to the battlefield to see what was going on. But the beautiful Venus was sleeping so peacefully that they decided not to disturb her when they left.
The innkeeper was a bit creepy and a voyeur to boot. When he saw the two men leave, his thoughts turned to the goddess alone in her room. He creeped upstairs on tiptoes not making a sound. He bent down and put his eye up to the keyhole. Sure enough, the goddess was naked standing in front of the door. The innkeeper’s line of vision was centered on Venus’s belly. But what a beautiful belly it was and what a lovely belly button.
He was smitten with the goddess of love and her belly button. He sneaked back down the stairs to the kitchen to prepare the day’s meals. But all he could think of was Venus’s belly button. It was so perfect.
As he rolled out the pasta, instead of making it into long spaghetti as he had intended, he found himself trying to form it into a shape that resembled the marvelous belly button that he had just seen. Before he knew it, he had a pan full of tortellini – a pan full of belly button shaped pasta.
And so that is the legend of how a war, in which a bucket was the trophy, led to a pasta shaped like the Goddess of Love’s belly button.
What to see…
See the Bucket in Modena: Apparently, a bucket really was taken as a spoil of war and it can still be seen today in Modena. The original is in the Palazzo Comunale, but a replica is hanging from the ceiling in Torre della Ghirlandina.
Attend a Tortellini Festival in Castelfranco: Bologna and Modena are still rivals and they still argue about who created tortellini and who has the best tortellini. But they came to a compromise, and everyone agreed that Castelfranco, a town just between the two cities, is where the innkeeper peeped through the keyhole and created the belly button shaped pasta. In Castelfranco they celebrate and reenact this tortellini creation story every year in the second week of September in conjunction with the Feast of St. Nicholas.
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