Posted in History & Literature

Lo Stivale

The Italian peninsula is nicknamed “Lo Stivale” (“the boot”) because of its iconic geography. Every child who has ever seen a world map will know this iconic boot-shaped country.

But hypothetically speaking, if Italy was actually a giant boot, what shoe size would you have to be to fit it?

Shoe sizing varies across the world. In Korea, Japan and Taiwan, the Mondopoint system is used where the foot length is measured in millimetres (the width is also considered).

But if you come from an English-speaking country, there is a good chance you are more familiar with the UK and US number system, typically ranging from 3 to 13.

The UK sizing system uses the length of the last that is used to make the shoe. A last is a model of a foot that can fill the entire cavity of the shoe. Because you typically need 1-1.5cm wiggle room for your toes, the last is bigger than the foot that would eventually wear the shoe. Instead of simply using the length of the last in millimetres, UK shoe sizes use a strange unit called the barleycorn.

The barleycorn originates from the 19th century when an inch was defined as the length of three barley corns (or grains). Hence, a barleycorn is ⅓ inch. For adult shoe sizes, a size 1 is 26 barleycorns, or 8 and 2/3 inches (220mm). For every size you go up, you add one barleycorn. This means a size 11 is 12 inches, while a size 10 is 11 and ⅔ inches.

Essentially, this means that your UK shoe size is:

(3 x heel-toe length of your foot in inches) – 23 (accounting for the toe wiggle room).

It is important to note that every manufacturer takes their own liberty with sizing, so this will often be inconsistent and can vary up to an inch, especially for women’s shoes. The US system starts counting at 1 instead of 0, meaning that you just add 1 to the equivalent UK size.

Now that we know how sizes work, let us size the Italian boot.

By rough estimate, the “sole” of the peninsula is approximately 360km long. This is accounting for the bend in the middle, as the heel height is tall. To use our formula, we must convert this into inches, which equals 14,173,200 inches.

Ergo, the shoe size calculates as follows:

= (3 x 14,173,200) – 23
= 42,519,577

Whether you use the UK or US sizing, the boot is roughly a size 42.5 million. Or, if you live in Korea, the shoe size would be recorded as 360 million. Either way, that is one big shoe to fill.

Posted in History & Literature


Pizza is a food that has a diverse range from cheesy, party-purpose takeaway pizzas to classy, traditional woodfire pizzas. Although it is considered an Italian food, the modern pizza could not have been born without America.

The Mediterranean countries have a long history of making flat breads such as focaccia and coca. But one of the most important ingredients in pizza, tomato, was introduced to Europe only in the 16th century from the Americas. However, Europeans thought for some time that the fruit was poisonous and did not use it for cooking purposes. But by the 18th century, the poorer population in Naples, Italy began creating a dish consisting of flat bread with tomato paste, giving birth to the pizza. Pizza was not a luxury food to start with, but rather a poor man’s food as it was simple and cheap to make. There is even a story of how King Ferdinand 1 disguised himself as a commoner to sneak into Naples to indulge in some pizzas – a food banned from the royal court.

Nowadays, it is common to see at least 5 or more toppings on pizza for a rich taste, but the traditional pizza never has more than three toppings (this is still true in Italy). For example, the two main types of pizza considered as the “true pizzas” by Neapolitans, are: the marinara pizza (tomato, garlic, oregano and sometimes basil) and the Margherita pizza (tomato, mozzarella, basil). The story behind the Margherita pizza is that it was served to the Queen Margherita of Savoy (Queen of Italy at the time), thus the name. The pizza represented the Italian flag by using three ingredients: red tomatoes, white mozzarella cheese and green basil. As the Kingdom of Italy had only been formed a couple decades before this, the pizza was highly symbolic (Italy was very passionate about its flag to promote the unification of the various regions after the Kingdom formed). Today the two pizzas are the most popular pizzas in Italy and are officially protected products as “traditional Italian foods”.

The current record for the largest pizza was a pizza made in Johannesburg, South Africa, that had a diameter of 37.4 metres and made of 500kg of flour, 800kg of cheese and 900kg of tomato puree.

Posted in History & Literature

Capuchin Crypt

In Rome, Italy, there is a small church called Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. The church itself is not that different to the many beautiful churches in Rome, but it is special because of what lies beneath it. After walking down two staircases underground, one is faced by a door leading to the Capuchin Crypt.

Once inside the crypt, one can see why it is so famous – it is an ossuary, the burial place of human skeletons. The Crypt is made of six small chapels, each decorated with the skeleton of over 4000 bodies. Ribcages are organised into hearts, thigh bones are used to frame pictures and tailbones are used extensively with skulls to produce elaborate works of art. Even the bones of the fingers are used to create elaborate patterns on the wall. The chapels also have intact skeletons still dressed in brown friar habits (religious robes) from the 17th century. They also contain the remains of babies.

The reason why some skeletons are dressed as friars is that most of the bodies are those of Capuchin friars, buried by their order under a church according the regulation of the Catholic Church. In 1631, Capuchin monks brought 300 cartloads of deceased friars and buried them in the crypt. As monks died over time, bodies that were buried for the longest were exhumed to make room for the new bodies. This led to the accumulation of thousands of thirty-year old skeletons and so the monks decided to honour those friars by decorating the chapel with their bones. Among the buried are also bodies of poor Romans whose bodies no one cared for.

In the last chapel of the crypt, the Crypt of the Three Skeletons, the central skeleton stands out as it is enclosed in an oval of femurs (thigh bone) and holding a scythe and a scale. It is a symbol of death, reminding those that gaze upon it that all humans are mortal in the face of time. The room also contains a plaque with the following message in five different languages:

“What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…”