here are life experiences that disorient me and leave me changed. It can be an intense encounter with something beautiful. Or witnessing the passion and dedication of a gentle soul dedicated to doing something that is both difficult and unique.
One such soul is Maddalena Forenza, the youngest member of an extraordinary family of stained-glass makers, the Moretti-Caselli.
For 150 years, Moretti-Caselli family members have been making and restoring stained glass works in some of Italy’s major churches, including Saint Francis in Assisi and the Duomo of Orvieto.
Their craft is exquisite not only because of its meticulousness — it’s stained glass, after all — but also because the glass itself serves as canvas that is then minutely and painstakingly painted. A famous example of this stain and paint technique is a full-scale replica of Leonardo’s last supper housed in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park near Los Angeles.
The family’s glass workshop is inside a 16th-century palazzo located in the historic center of Perugia. When I set out to visit the Moretti-Ceselli studio I thought I knew what to expect. After all, I’d seen a myriad of small museums in my life. Most were nice enough, but easily forgotten. But this would be something special.
That morning was sunny and crisp, the kind of weather that helps highlight the Perugia’s medieval austerity. Better still, the light was ideal.
Maddalena opened the palazzo’s modest doors and escorted my husband and I upstairs into a place that at first sight looked very much like a home. Maddalena’s mother Anna Matilde said hello, but there was no formal reception, no ticket office.
We then entered a small room containing family archives, including books and old photos. Next came the furnace room, which is still in working order. It looked like an alchemist’s studio, with shelves of jars, each one filled with mysterious pigments. After that came the vaulted main room, bathed in shafts of sunlight and packed with a jumble of imposing furniture, plaster models, cartons, glass of every shape and color.
It took a few moments to take it all in after which, suddenly, everything changed.
“She” was there. The Queen.
Before me was a life-size portrait of Margherita of Savoy, Regina Margherita, wife of King Umberto I and Italy’s first queen consort. In it, she’s wearing a sky-blue dress embellished with intricate white lace and embroidered with flowers and vines. The gown is the same color as her languid eyes. Her skin looks soft and luminous like the pearls adorning her lovely neck and wrists. She stands against the rich red of a silky damask curtain.
Magnificent. Alive. And made from painted glass.
There are many more splendid pieces in the workshop including a rendering of Perugino’s “Incoronation of the Virgin.”
But the 19th-century Queen of Pearls steals your heart. You want to meet her, to talk to her. She could be in any of the world’s great museums but she’s still in the home of those who created her likeness and have preserved it with care and love — Maddalena and the five generations before her.
In case you’re wondering, Margherita is the monarch who gave her name to the pizza that has the colors of the Italian flag: green, white and red. Like this little dessert I made to celebrate spring and the beauty that came to life in Perugia.
Tall ricotta mousse (Serves 4-6)
For the mousse
- 500 grams/1 pound ricotta cheese.
- 3 tablespoon powdered sugar.
- 100 ml/1/2 cup whipping cream or 2 tablespoon mascarpone.
- 4-6 teaspoons of raw artisan honey.
For the marinated berries
- 1/2 kg (1 lb) strawberries, cleaned and thinly sliced or diced (don’t dice them if they’re small).
- 1/2 cup white vermouth, Amaretto or a similar sweet liqueur.
- 1 tablespoon sugar.
- Juice of a half lemon.
— Toss berries, liqueur, sugar, and lemon juice in large bowl to combine the ingredients. Cover and place in the refrigerator for at least one hour. (For children, use only lemon juice and sugar.)
— If using cream, whip until firm. Whisk the sugar into the ricotta and fold in the cream or mascarpone.
— Cover and keep refrigerated for at least one hour. Just before serving, spoon the ricotta mousse on a plate, add the fruit and drizzle with honey.