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. . . .



Bath-time Down Under for Archimedes and Friends

One of these characters is the great Archimedes: mathematician, scientist, engineer, bath-taker . . . .  The others are a kangaroo and a wombat, icons of Australian nature.   What happens when they take a bath together?  This is the topic of New Zealand picture-book writer, Pamela Allen’s lovely book Mr Archimedes’ Bath (Harper Collins, 1980).  . . . .


As part of my research for the Our Mythical Survey project, I’ve been digging around to see how Australian children’s writers are making connections to classical antiquity.  I’ve made some discoveries. First, that Australian picture books cover an enormous range of territories and purposes, from didacticism to entertainment, from comedy to tragedy, from the national to the personal. Second, that many of them incorporate exquisite imagery with profound, witty, and thoughtful texts. And third, that in Australian children’s books, classical receptions adapt moments from antiquity and myth, recasting them in new and intriguing ways.

A case in point is Mr Archimedes’ Bath, by the great Pamela Allen. A New Zealand artist, she moved to Australia in the late 1970s, where she began an illustrious career with a children’s book writer and illustrator with this lovely book.

Mr Archimedes’ Bath is a book about bath-time (that perennial of life with young children), with a classical twist. Its premise is simple: at bath-time, Mr Archimedes and his companion animals, a goat, a kangaroo, and a wombat, notice that the water keeps spilling out. Whose fault is it? They take it in turns to jump in and out of the bath, measuring the water each time. Finally . . .

Mr Archimedes got so excited that he jumped in and out, in and out, to make the water go up and down.  ‘EUREKA! I’ve found it, I’ve found it’ he shouted.  ‘Jump in everyone.’  And the bath overflowed.  ‘See,’ said Mr Archimedes. ‘We make the water go up.’
Mr Archimedes’ Bath, by Pamela Allen. Published by Harper Collins Australia 


Mr Archimedes discovers, as we might expect, that it’s everyone’s (and no-one’s) ‘fault.’   Problem solved, they carry on, jumping in and out, making ‘more mess than ever before.’

Without going into a super-forceful reception studies analysis of this book, it’s safe to say this book has it all: a book about bath-time starring Archimedes makes perfect sense; Allen brings him to Australia by including a kangaroo and wombat (and, really, who wouldn’t want to share one’s bath with a wombat?)

Allen returns to the topic of water and weight, with the equally delightful Who Sank the Boat (in which a number of animals debate who sank their boat), and Alexander’s Adventure (in which a duckling from Sydney’s Botanical Gardens falls in a hole, and is rescued by passers by pouring in water from the Archibald Fountain).  But it is Mr Archimedes’ Bath that tickles this reader’s fancy.

Mr Archimedes’ Bath is light and funny. It shows that classical reception doesn’t have to be about myth, or literature, or art, or even particularly deliberate, and that even the greatest scientist may have a slightly crinkly bottom. The principles of displacement are seldom so entertainingly depicted.

–Elizabeth Hale