Sugar and spice and all things nice . . . Laura Orvieto’s Italian Ambrosia

Dorota Bazylczyk takes us back to Italy this week, with further reflections on the delicious writings of Laura Orvieto.  — Elizabeth Hale

Laura Orvieto was an expert in “sweetening” stories of antiquity for contemporary Italian children. One way she did this was by putting the elements of Italian cuisine into her mythical stories. In her Storie di bambini molto antichi we can find many references to Italian food, drinks, sweets, traditional and regional products.

The best example in this context may be a chapter in which the author describes the story of Hebe. We read there that at Aphrodite’s and Hephaestus’ wedding party, ambrosia had a taste of:`

The Food of the Gods on Olympus
Italy Attributed to Nicola da Urbino Dish: The food of the gods on Olympus, 1530 Majolica, Istoriato style Donation collection: Mr. J.W. Frederiks 1994. Licensed to share:

…violette e foglie di rosa, di fiori d’arancio, di crema alla vaniglia, di mandorle pestate con lo zucchero, di panna montata con i cialdoni e di liquirizia alla menta[1].

…violets and rose leaves, orange blossoms, vanilla cream, almonds grated with sugar, whipped cream with cialdoni and liquorice flavoured with mint.

Doesn’t it sound delicious?

The flavors of the drink of Gods, described by Orvieto, are strongly associated with many Italian traditional products. Recalling those particular elements, the author wanted to make it easy for young readers, to imagine the situation of an Italian celebration day, full of typical sweets and fresh ingredients (in this case a wedding day). In addition, she decided to recall the products logically related to the characters, that had taken part the ceremony, so in this case with Hephaestus, a god connected with the region of Sicily.

Let’s take a closer look at the Italian tastes of Orvieto’s ambrosia

Cannoli from Palermo
Cannoli from Palermo, by Claudio Longo,

I cialdoni siciliani are the typical Sicilian cakes, covered with almond grain and stuffed with ricotta cream (type of cannoli). The choice of these sweets by Orvieto is appropriate to this specific situation – Hephaestus earlier lived inside a Sicilian volcano, so he could have tried them himself 🙂




Confetti Assortiti
Confetti Assortiti, by Kate Hopkins.

almonds and sugar are also not an accidental products while describing a wedding. In Italy, the famous sweets associated with this occasion are called confetti – those are dragées-almonds covered with sweet sugar shells. Their roots reach back to times of ancient Rome, but in those days honey was used instead of sugar.  I Confetti have a symbolic meaning – each color represents a different occasion (eg, azure blue for the birth or baptism of a baby).  It is also important what amount of them we offer to somebody (they usually should be packed in bomboniera) (5 confetti for riches, happiness, long life; 1 confetto for a unique event).  Sicily has its own type of confetti, called confetti con mandorla di Avola, which means that they are made from the specific type of almonds, that come from the city of Avola;

Pastiglie Leone by Graeme Maclean
Pastigli Leone by Graeme Maclean, reproduced under licence through

 liquorice flavoured with mint can refer to the very famous Italian sweets made for example by Amarelli company, or – what is more likely – to the liquorice Due Sicilie (the name refers to the ancient Italian Kingdom) related to the southern Italy, made since 1957 by the Pastiglie Leone company.

And of course, lemons and oranges are the fruits strongly associated with the Sicilian region. Those are also ingredients present in many traditional Sicilian wedding dishes. In the context of ambrosia, we can also recall a famous Sicilian orange liqueur – Arancello.

Italian flavours as literary treatments . . .

Italian flavors described in Storie di bambini molto antichi are one of the literary treatments that helped Orvieto to anchor the mythical stories in Italian children’s imagination. By approximating the “ancient tastes” to young readers, she emphasized two important aspects of food – its importance in every child’s life and its huge role in Italian culture. Thanks to the stories of Orvieto, kids were able to start to perceive Italian cuisine – their important cultural signifier[2]as an a centuries-old element of a great importance. They could also look at the figures from the ancient world as people similar to them, who like the same flavors and who like to celebrate equivalently. The modern illustrations made by Rita Petruccioli, included in the edition of Storie di bambini molto published by Mondadori (2014), additionally emphasize the Italian aspect of Orvieto’s mythical food. It is apparent that the illustrator decides to continue the concept of the Orvieto, placing on Aphrodite’s and Hephaestus’ wedding table, an additional Italian element – Panna cotta – one of the world’s most famous Italian desserts nowadays.

Rita Petruccioli's modern illustration of the gods' banquet
Rita Petruccioli’s modern illustration of the gods’ banquet (courtesy of the artist).

Thanks to the references to Italian cuisine, Orvieto’s text gains even bigger importance for today’s readers – it starts to function not only a source of knowledge about the myths, but also about the specific elements of Italian regions – their traditions, dishes, local products etc. It is amazing that reading Orvieto’s Storie di bambini molto antichi today, we can still become the witnesses of “continuity of taste” and we can still start to perceive Italian cuisine as an element that combines modern times with antiquity in the most delicious way.

[1] Orvieto, Laura, Storie di bambini molto antichi, Mondadori, 2014, Milano, Italy, pp. 45.

[2] Kara K. Keeling, Scott T. Pollard, Critical Approaches to Food in Children’s Literature, Routledge, 2012.



Dorota Bazylczyk is a postgraduate student in the Faculty of Artes Liberales, at the University of Warsaw.  Her PhD is funded by the ERC, through the Our Mythical Childhood project.  She is working on the function of mythology in Italian children’s literature.  It is my great pleasure to introduce her work here, in the second of a small series of posts on Laura Orvieto (1876-1953), a pioneer in retelling mythology for young Italians.    In her next post on Orvieto, Dorota will discuss Orvieto’s use of nursery rhymes and poetry. . . .



Italian Boots and Mythical Stories: the wonderful works of Laura Orvieto

Dorota Bazylczyk is a postgraduate student in the Faculty of Artes Liberales, at the University of Warsaw.  Her PhD is funded by the ERC, through the Our Mythical Childhood project.  She is working on the function of mythology in Italian children’s literature.  It is my great pleasure to introduce her work here, in the first of a small series of posts on Laura Orvieto (1876-1953), a pioneer in retelling mythology for young Italians.                                             –Elizabeth Hale


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Laura Orvieto, grandmother of Italian retellings of classical mythology

Laura Orvieto (7 March 1876, Milan – 9 March 1953, Florence) was a famous Italian-Jewish author of books for children. She dedicated most of her works to Greek and Roman mythology.  In 1911, she began her famous book series, titled Storie della storia del mondo. Greche e barbare (“Stories of the History of the World. Stories of Greece and the Barbarians”). It was the first Italian mythology addressed directly to very young readers. It became a milestone in its field and a very important base for Italian authors and scholars interested in writing for young readers/interested in the transmission of myth for young readers. (See, for instance, Grandi, William, La musa bambina. La letteratura mitologica italiana per ragazzi tra storia, narrazione e pedagogia., Edizioni Unicopli, 2011, Milano.)

Orvieto went on to write three more historical-mythological works: Beppe racconta la Guerra (1928), Il Natale di Roma (The Birth of Rome) (1927) and La forza di Roma (1933). Her last work published before the war was titled Storie di bambini molti antichi (1937).   It was also aimed at children. (Sadly, its distribution was quickly blocked because of the adoption of the fascist Italian Racial Laws in 1938.)  After the war, Orvieto edited a children’s newspaper.  Her works are now in wide circulation, and have been published in new editions, and translated into a number of languages.


Storie di bambini molti antichi

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The latest edition of Storie di Bambini Molto Antichi, illustrated by R. Petruccioli



Working on my doctoral dissertation, related to Italian mythological children’s literature, I was excited to read a new edition of Laura Orvieto’s Storie di bambini molto antichi, published in 2014 by Mondadori, and illustrated by Rita Petruccioli (click here to see more of Petruccioli’s delightful illustrations to the text).

While the book turned out to be interesting in many aspects, not least the mythological retellings, its role in Italian cultural studies is the main focus of my attention. A careful analysis of many myths presented by Orvieto reveals that she “smuggled” a lot of Italian elements into the world of the mythical characters, trying to bring the ancient stories closer to the Italian children living in her times. Most of the Italian references hidden in the text were not so obvious to me at first, so I decided to start looking for their deeper meaning. The results of my search turned out to be very interesting.

Selecting Relevant Myths

First and foremost, Orvieto made a specific selection of the myths. Many of them talk about the characters strongly associated with the culture of the ancient Rome, like Saturn (God of agriculture and time), Mercury (Roman god of commerce), Bacchus (God of wine), Diana (Goddess of moon an hunting) or are happening partially on Italian soil (for example the myth about Hephaestus, which takes place in Sicily[4]). Let’s take a closer look at one of the fragments of the myth of Saturn, where Orvieto describes Italy:

Scese giu’ dall’Olimpo traverso’ la Grecia senza fermarsi, con la sua falce sule spalle passo’ il mare, e approdo’ a una penisola lunga, verde, bellissima, che si lanciava sul mare e forma di stivale. Era l’Italia (. . . .)  In Italia c’era allora un antico re, che si chiamava Giano (p. 33).

With his scythe on his shoulders, he came down from the Olympus and walk across Greece without making any stops. Then he stepped on the sea, and landed on a long, green and beautiful peninsula, which was lying on the water in the form of a boot. It was Italy. (. . . ) In Italy, one ancient king was already ruled – he was called Janus.

Fragments such as this show that ancient culture is particularly close for Italians.  Living on the Apennine peninsula, they treat the ancient Roman world as if it was their own and direct cultural heritage.  (It seems that in the times of Orvieto, this connection between the past and the present was emphasized the most strongly, mainly through the politics of Mussolini who even wanted to rebuild the Roman Empire).


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The beautiful green boot that is Italy . . .


Telling Ancient Myths in Italian Ways

Another meaningful Italian aspect is the specific form of narration used in the book. It is developed in the form of a storytelling, which was always Orvieto’s favorite. In one of her letters to Luigi Tonelli, she wrote:

Ecco, ho sempre, da quando mi posso ricordare, raccontato storie ai bambini; chiedevo a tutti di raccontarne a me, e quando non potevo trovar nessuno, ne raccontavo io ai più piccoli…

Since I can remember, I was always telling stories to children…I was asking everyone to tell me some stories, and when I could not find anyone, I was telling them to the little ones . . . 

(This letter is quoted in  Cerasi, Laura, Laura Orvieto e le sue “Storie”: l’infanzia e le aporie dell’etica della sincerità, )

The situation of “storytelling” is very significant when it comes to the history of Italian’s literature and the genre of Italian fairytales. It is worth recalling that famous works, such as Le Piacevoli Notti by Giovanni Francesco Straparola (containing probably the first Italian fairytales), Decamerone by Giovanni Boccaccio (important work full of tales and stories) or Lo cunto de li cunti written by Gimabattista Basile (probably the main prototype for Grimm’s), were also based on a similar type of narration (cornice narrative , or ‘frame narrative’ in English) where we deal with stories within stories.

In Storie di bambini molto antichi the frame story is the situation of storytelling by the Italian woman/mother (or the author herself), who tells the myths to children. She is deciding which myths will be told on which day. Children are also active in the story – they are very happy to talk to the narrator:

Oggi quale storie si racconta? Quella di Dioniso, quella di Ermes o quella di Ercole?

Quella di Ercole e troppo lunga, e quella di Dioniso non ho voglia di dirla oggi. Si racconterà quella di Ermes.


Children: Which story will be told today? The one of Dionysus, the one of Hermes or the one of Hercules?

Narrator: That of Hercules is too long and I don’t want to talk about Dionysus today. Let’s talk about Hermes.

The other situation presented in the book are the myths themselves.

Orvieto decides to follow the storytelling motif to include many appositions to the presented stories. Thanks to this device, the Italian omniscient mamma, who narrates the myths to the little ones, can use multiple links to help them understand the faith of the main characters:

Nella storia della Bella Addormentata non ci sono le fate buone che fanno bei doni alla principessina quando nasce, e ce n’e una, che porta il suo, di male? Cosi fu quand o nacque Febo Apollo, il figlio di Zeus e di Latona .

In the story of “Sleeping Beauty” there are no good fairies who make beautiful gifts to the princess when she is born. There is only one who is evil and who brings something bad. The same happened when Febo (Apollo), the son of Zeus and Latona was born.

 The Italian mamma gives advice to her listeners, linking the ancient myths to the timeless tradition of storytelling, bringing antiquity even closer to young readers.

— Dorota Bazylczyk

In Dorota’s next post, she will continue this theme, this time talking about the way that Orvieto uses modern Italian food to contextualise ancient myths for her young readers.  Join us next time for another tasty morsel …