Fifty years ago, on November 15, 1959, I arrived in
After the vastness of
Slowly a pattern to my days evolved. Mornings were dedicated to classes. After lunch I would begin my exploration of the city’s art and architectural treasures. My friend Paul Hamilton, who’d gone to Williams with my high school classmate Tony Lovasco, and I would often set out for a particular museum or church, the Pitti Palace, say, Santa Croce or San Miniato al Monte. With the help of an old Baedeker guide I bought from a pushcart vendor in Piazza del Duomo we’d make our way through the
My sharpest memory of that time is of the city at dusk, of workers hurrying home, the click of high heels on the pavement, last light reflected on the surface of the river as I leaned on a stone wall above the water, marveling at my good fortune to be living and studying in this cradle of European civilization. There were students in Florence then from all over the world—many from the Middle East, who were studying medicine and agronomy; Germans doing art history and philology, along with Americans like Paul and me. Paul concentrated on art history, later becoming a professor of Renaissance art. I took courses in Dante, in Romance Philology, the study of Medieval literature through its ur-texts in Latin, Italian and Old French. I also attended lectures on modern French and Italian literature by the contemporary Florentine poet Mario Luzi. But in those days the city beckoned to me more than the classroom did. Soon I threw myself into the reading and study of living Italian writers—Moravia, Pratolini—and the novels and stories of the late Cesare Pavese, whose work and thought would become central to my own for many years.
I wandered with Paul and other friends—Italians, Germans—but more often by myself, through the streets and alleys of the city’s ancient neighborhoods—Santa Croce, San Frediano—and at night I would take in a movie, often the midnight show, after which I would walk through the city, usually ending at the railroad station bar, where I would order one last espresso or a cognac and watch the travelers embarking from the Brenner Express. Then I’d return to my room, sometimes to study, but mostly to read or write. By January of 1960 I had moved from the Pensione Cordova into the home of the DiMaggio family in Piazza San Marco, where my room looked down into a courtyard and across the neighboring rooftops to the Duomo,
I remained in
All of these rooms and neighborhoods, and the magical fall and winter I spent in Settignano, are part of my Florentine memories; but what I recall mostly are those early weeks and months in
There was the food and the wine, the little botteghe and the more elegant ristoranti, especially a marvelous Hungarian restaurant called I Tredici Gobbi, “The Thirteen Hunchbacks,” near Santa Maria Novella, where I discovered a delicious Tokay and where the food—chicken paprika, goulash with beef or veal—was exquisite. There were the antiquarian bookshops on Via dei Servi and Via Ricasoli, the art galleries and artists' studios near Piazza della Liberta` on the outskirts of the city. There were the free weekly concerts in the Palazzo Vecchio, opera at night at La Pergola, and dozens of movie theaters where I began seeing the films of Fellini, Antonioni and Pasolini that changed my life.
Living in Florence, traveling by bus and train to Pisa, Arezzo, Bologna, to the sea at Viareggio, and later to Venice and Milan, was the beginning of a new life for me, a small town boy, who had attended a small liberal arts college in a tiny Maine town.
I can close my eyes and picture the city as I knew it then, the walk from Bar Rivoire in Piazza Signoria up Via Calzaioli to the Doumo, and from the Duomo along Via Ricasoli to Piazza San Marco, or over from the Duomo to Piazza San Lorenzo and the Mercato Centrale, where fruit and vegetables arrived fresh each morning from the countryside. There was the wonderful department store UPIM in Piazza della Repubblica across the square from the cafes, where it seemed the entire city—students, office workers, women doing their daily grocery shopping—met over coffee or Punt e Mes. There was the Gran Café Doney, the British tearoom on Via Tournabuoni, where late in the afternoon members of the Anglo-Florentine community gathered for tea; and there were the American and British libraries, where one could find the latest books from
During my stay in
Much has changed in the city of my coming of age as a writer and discoverer of my European roots in this great treasure house of art and culture. The tourism of fifty years ago, which was seasonal and contained, has exploded.
As Walter Kaiser wrote in a recent review of Bernd Roeck’s Florence 1900 : The Quest for Arcadia, an extraordinary book about what attracted expatriates to the city beginning in the 19th century, “Florence itself has long since fallen prey to the depredations and demoralizations of mass tourism. Day after day, bus after bus disgorges swarms of tourists who are imperfectly aware of what they are seeing or where they are….Florentine palaces and churches, like the temples of
Kaiser continues—and I can only agree:
“It’s hard to know how to deal with this problem, but something must be done to save this beloved city. To be sure it can never again become the arcadia it once was, but one hopes it might return to something a bit closer to the city Nathanial Hawthorne fell in love with 150 years ago, or even to the one I first knew almost sixty years ago. ‘I hardly think,’
As it was for
2. Settignano Days
Before moving to Settignano, in October of 1960, I had often visited this gem of a Tuscan hill town. It was a lovely excursion in any season. You took the number 10 bus in Piazza San Marco, winding your way from the center of the city out through the post-war neighborhoods of high-rise apartment buildings and up into the Florentine hills, dotted with villas and farmhouses, many dating to before the Renaissance.
Viale Augusto Righi joined Via Gabrielle D’Annunzio and the houses gave way to vineyards and olive groves until you stepped down from the bus in the center of this ancient market town that had roots in both Etruscan and Roman settlements.
There was a small square bordered by the Santa Maria church, the vinaio where Peter Denzer and I used to buy wine and olive oil, and the green grocer’s where his wife Ann shopped for vegetables. Across from the fountain and next to the grocer’s was the Casa del Popolo, the bar and meeting place for the village Communists, many of them partisans from the war. Often Peter and I would drink wine with the men and talk politics. They loved Peter, who had fought in the war before working as a foreign correspondent in occupied
The things we talked about in those noisy rooms in the midst of a quiet village opened my mind to a discourse I’d been shut off from in
The Villino Martelli, which Peter and Ann had leased, inviting me to join them, was located directly above the piazza on Via Rossellino, 64, a paved hilly road that led past a walled cluster of villas, among which our house sat. At the summit of the hill, number 72, stood the Villa Gamberaia surrounded by cypresses and ilex trees. Formerly the property of a Romanian princess, the Villa Gamberaia had suffered mortar damage during the German occupation of
We also had a remarkable view from the Villino Martelli. There was a terraced garden in front of the house, planted with lemon trees. You could sit in the sun on that terrace over breakfast or lunch, even during the winter, to watch the city unfold beneath you. Below us and to the west in the hills, near the parish of San Domenico, was I Tatti, the villa that had belonged to the great critic and art historian Bernard Berenson. Berenson, who had died only a month before I arrived in
Settignano had been a place of resort for Florentines since Medieval times, and there were many tenant farms and villas that dated from that period, farms that provided a living for their urban owners. During the 19th century the English began to acquire villas here and in neighboring
Much of this history I did not know when we lived in Settignano, though we met several British and American writers and artists during our residence, including the American painter and designer Susan Nevelson (daughter of sculptor Louise Nevelson) and her young daughter Neith, who became a well-known painter.. There was a peacefulness in the country. We visited the surrounding farms, where one could buy the local wine and olive oil. It was in Settignano that I tasted polenta for the first time, cut into wedges and grilled with garlic and oil in cast iron skillets. At night a vast silence fell over the surrounding hillside, the stars brighter than I had ever experienced them in
You gained entrance to our villa through a heavy wooden gate in the wall flush with the street. A door let you into a large living room on the first floor, beyond which was an ample country kitchen with a stove and wood-fired oven. French doors gave onto the stone-paved terrace and a kitchen garden. On the second floor were two bedrooms and a bath with a wood-fueled hot water heater. The bedrooms contained wood-burning ceramic stoves, which took the chill off the mountain cold of fall and winter nights. I had my bedroom on the third floor across the stone stairway from Peter’s study. Our rooms, too, were heated by ceramic stoves. At night, as I read or wrote, or as I was about to fall asleep, I could hear the mournful shriek of the Brenner Express making its way though the
I remember the house as being full of people. Friends would join us from the city for Sunday afternoons of wine, cheese and talk, or dinners of homemade pasta and rich Bolognese sauce made from local beef and tomatoes. And always, there was the aroma of Ann’s freshly baked bread. The bus trip from the city took no more than half an hour, less so if there were fewer people getting on or off, and friends enjoyed an escape—una scappata-from the often noisy city. Piet and Kikko, Ann and Peter’s sons, attended the local school. Before long they were speaking Italian better than the adults.
During our winter and fall together in Settignano, Peter completed The Alien, his novel based on the life of expatriate American poet Ezra Pound. I finished From What Bone, a first novel inspired by my trip to
I read a lot during my time in Settignano, the final volume of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, some penetrating studies of Pound, Faulkner and Henry James, published in Oliver and Boyd’s Writers and Critics series, Ruskin’s Mornings in Florence and The Stones of Venice, and Richard Ellmann’s masterful biography of James Joyce. I read a lot of Italian writing, too, continuing my absorption in the novels of Pavese and a new discovery, Carlo Cassola, whose novels of the anti-fascist Resistance during the war corroborated everything our partisan friends at the Casa del Popolo had been telling us.
The brilliant fall gave way to a gray, rainy winter. Though we endured a chilly wind from the
3. Casa Soldi
For some months in 1961, after I’d left the house in Settignano and moved back down into the city, I lived with Augusta and Stella Soldi in a room in their big apartment on Via dei Servi. At first I didn't think I’d be able to rent the spacious single room, which Augusta, the strikingly white-haired, middle-aged padrona, had taken me through. It was on the second floor of a 17th century palace, directly overlooking Rigacci's art supply shop. If you stuck your head outside of the big French windows, you caught a glimpse of Piazza Santissima Annuziata, its two fountains splashing softly into their ornate catch basins on a hot summer's morning.
There was someone ahead of me, Augusta explained in her elegant Tuscan, a salesman who had given her a deposit, but, oh, how nice it would be—come bello—if the professore, who taught where her daughter was taking a post-graduate course in English, could become their guest. We commiserated in that way I'd learned to do in
The room was a writer's delight. By that time I had cut back on my classes at the university and taken on more teaching hours at night so I could devote the days to working on my second novel. But I left the Soldi household certain that I had come too late. With gestures of regret Augusta led me to the door, although not before conducting me into the recesses of that enormous palazzo to a tiny cell-like bedroom where La Mamina, her own mother, sat in a corner by her narrow, nunlike bed, rosary beads in her hand, dozing. We touched fingers, La Mamina and I, and I fully expected never to see her again.
A week later, however, on my way out of the afternoon class in conversational English I taught to local police detectives
"Lei ho pescato, professore!" she shouted above the voices of the high school students who were waiting for their next class. "I've caught you."
And she advanced in a black cloth coat that concealed her housedress to announce that the salesman had been transferred and couldn't take the room after all, so it was mine. Of course I had found another room, in Via dei Tavolini, on the other side of the Duomo, in the shadow of Medieval towers. It was dark and too small, and I'd regretted having taken it in my haste to resettle in the city. But I'd paid a month's rent in advance. So I made my apologies. Yes, I would have loved to return to her in Via dei Servi, but my room was already paid for—bell'e pagata—and I couldn't ask her to wait.
"You'll come now," she insisted. "Your room is ready. The minute I laid eyes on you I knew you would stay with us."
The padrona at Via dei Tavolini wasn't pleased. I didn't even think about asking her for my money back. Instead, I made some excuse about living with a friend closer to school and I left immediately, having called a taxi to carry my two suitcases, a carton of books, and some loose clothing to Via dei Servi, 32.
Thus began far more than a tenancy with the Soldis. On my first full day with them I was invited to lunch, "a trifle," as
When I told her that I hoped to complete another novel that summer during the school recess, she was thrilled. "Anche romanziero!" she added with flattery. And Stellina, whom I was pressed to call by her diminutive, smiled. But the point of the lunch, and perhaps even of
There was more, I learned.
I didn't mind spending time with Stellina because she was so beautiful. Her dark hair highlighted with red was a perfect complement to an ivory complexion, which only Tuscan women seemed to possess. She was tall and slender, with long legs, and she wore a short black leather skirt that drew stares on Via Tornabuoni from men and women alike. Naturally she had a ganzo. Her boyfriend Roberto picked her up after class in his Fiat Topolino; sometimes she didn't arrive for class at all.
I soon discovered that I was to be recruited by Stellina, not only to assure her mother that she was doing well in school, but to provide cover for her frequent excursions with Roberto. Stellina would tell
My reward for the pretense was an occasional kiss on the cheek and the time I relished at my worktable with this marvelous eighteen-year-old, who had both the body and the affect of a mature woman.
Stellina was smart, too. She’d graduated from liceo classico and I’d always felt she should be at University. We spent a lot of time talking about Antonioni's films or the novels of Cesare Pavese, which she, like many other students, read with deep empathy for the post-war alienation they portrayed, a sense of malaise none of us seemed able to shake during that Cold War era. I wondered what she saw in Roberto, who seemed beautifully empty-headed, like the typical young men one ran into in the bars of the Piazza della Repubblica, with their coats draped around their shoulders, their perfectly combed hair and impeccable shoes.
For his part, Roberto was always polite with me, never failing to offer me his hand or a cool, conspiratorial smile, when I delivered Stellina into his hands or received her back from him to be escorted home.
So the spring became summer and
Still, I loved my room. Even on the hottest of July days, once school was over for the summer, it was cool and shaded. I hid out in it, writing on late mornings after I took my coffee and pastry in a bar around the corner on Via dei Pucci, and returning there to nap briefly after lunch at the Buca Niccolini on Via Ricasoli. Nights I'd see friends or go to the cheaper second or third showings of films in the outskirts of the city, often walking back to the center, where, after wandering through the deserted streets, I’d stop at the railroad station cafe for a cappucino or a final glass of cognac before returning home to read and write in my journal.
I cherished those quiet nights, when, for just an hour or two before dawn, the streets would be empty of motorscooters, and I, too, could read Pavese and dream of the novels I would one day publish. Soon I gave up my fantasy of getting closer to Stellina or, for that matter, any other Italian woman. After two years in Florence, and a couple of abortive relationships with students I’d met at the University—one a fiery Communist, who excoriated me for what she considered my political naiveté—I learned that natives kept pretty much to themselves, and American women avidly sought Italian boyfriends. Even when I had given lessons in English to a group of pretty, upper-middle-class matrons, I discovered that their mild flirtations with me were always conducted with circumspection.
Then I met an English woman my own age, a painter, escaping a relationship gone awry with an artist from
"The English," she said, "with their lifeless hair and their bad shoes."
Then mother and daughter left for the sea and I was confronted with having to juggle my time with
But when I arrived home to write one morning after a night with
"Voi altri," she began. "It's bad enough that you foreigners consort indecently with each other, but to remove the little Madonna—La Madonnina!—from where she has been all these years!”
"But, Signora," I blurted out, "the room is mine. I pay good rent for it. Why can't I hang a few innocent pictures of my own?"
"Whatever your belief may be," she replied, sitting up straight in her chair, "this is a Christian household, and you mustn't forget it. Neither should you neglect your promises."
I knew she was referring to the tasks
When we returned from
"I'm terribly sorry," I rushed to say.
"Don't speak!" she interrupted. "I know all about the removal of the Madonnina. La Mamina was heartbroken. We took you into the family, we fed you--we gave you the best room in the house. And all we asked was an occasional kindness, a little errand, a peek into her room to see that she was comfortable."
I could only listen. And when she finished, not without telling me that La Mamina was now resting peacefully in her room and that she'd had to hire—yes, pay—for a nurse to watch her while she and Stellina wound up their stay at the sea, I found myself agreeing to be more attentive.
Next it was Stellina, who returned prematurely from Forte dei Marmi, presumably to register for school.
"Sono incinta," she confided, closing the door of my room behind her as she entered. "I’m pregnant.”
She sat down next to me on my bed, her eyes imploring.
"Roberto?" I asked.
"Bo'" she replied, turning the palms of her hands upward, "who else?"
"Is he prepared to marry you?"
"Of course not. He wants no part of it."
"What about you?"
"Why do you think I'm confiding in you?" she said with exasperation. Then she put her arm around me, dropping her head softly to my shoulder.
"You're my only friend.” She began to sob. "I can't do this to my mother!"
That night I spoke to Lynn, who gave me some pills she had obtained from a woman in
The pills worked, or maybe Stellina wasn't pregnant after all. At any rate, she came ecstatically into my room a week later with the news and just as promptly left for the sea again.
La Mamina no longer spoke to me when I checked to see if she needed anything. She communicated through her "nurse," a sour-faced woman named Anna whose Siennese dialect was nearly incomprehensible. Meanwhile Lynn and I decided that it would be cheaper for the two of us to occupy her studio. So one morning I moved out of the room I had once delighted in, leaving a note and an extra week's rent for
After school began in October, I ran into Stellina, who wagged her finger at me in mock admonition.
"My mother is very angry!" she said.
"Are you?" I asked.
"Of course not," she replied. "Ti ho sempre voluto bene."
A month later she was gone, having apparently dropped out of school to follow Roberto to
The day before
"What can you expect," she said, sighing. "With La Mamina dead and Stellina married.... Yes," she added, "she eloped with that villiacco Roberto."
After the loss of La Mamina's pension and the state subsidy she got for Stellina so long as she remained in school,
"You couldn't have rented the other rooms?" I offered.
"Ah, professore," she said, reverting to her formal diction, "it wouldn't have been the same. Besides," she added, "you foreigners come and go, you take and you leave..."
"I meant to visit you after the funeral," I said. "And I'm sorry I moved so quickly—.”
"Look," she said, getting up to fetch the espresso she'd prepared for us on her sparkling white gas stove. "Don't think I lack understanding of Americans. After all, it was your people who killed my sister."
"You never told me that!”
"You never asked in your egotism," she replied. "But that is how she died. She was traveling in a boxcar with some partisans—yes, she was a patriot. When the train slowed down and they began to descend, your troops started firing on them as if they were Nazis. 'We're partisans,' they shouted. 'Siamo partigiani!' But the Allies paid no attention, assuming that if they were Italians they must be fascists. She was machinegunned to death in front of her fiancé."
"Signora," I implored. "I only remember the war from the radio."
"For us, it was our lives," she answered. "And because my sister cared to free us from fascism before your people even arrived, she was punished. Gunned down" she added bitterly--Fuccilata!"
"And I," she went on, "I was left with a baby and La Mamina, already a widow from the first war. But we didn't give up. I worked my fingers to the bone tending the wounded. And after the war I took care of the sick, the invalids and the aging. Look!" she shouted.
"Guarda ai miei seni!" She puffed her chest out, pulling her slip tightly over her bra so that I could see the firmness of her breasts. Her skin was smooth and white, her shoulders round, her biceps solid.
"I haven't lost these womanly qualities," she asserted, smiling triumphantly.
I was speechless, as she smoothed her blouse back in place and proceeded to lift her brown tweed skirt to display a strong and shapely leg, right up to her solid thigh. I could imagine her at the shore looking far younger in a bathing suit than many women her age.
"Believe me, professore, I attract attention at the sea and not only because I'm well preserved," she said. "Our friends there like the way I express myself. They often ask me to talk so that they can hear my Florentine diction. I understand it is not unlike the way you speak English in
I returned home to become a high school teacher, a job that saved me from
Many years later, a small envelope containing a white engraved card with a black border arrived from
I often wonder what would have happened had I remained in
Certainly, I, too, thought about expatriation. I was well read in the literature of the Lost Generation. In fact, it had been my absorption in college in the lives and work of Hemingway, Joyce and Pound that initially led me to
I had made a life for myself in
In short, life was sufficient and affordable in
But it wasn’t the clothes or the shoes that attracted me to
“Non si fa fretta—don’t hurry,” was the watchword wherever I went. University classes didn’t begin exactly on time, but they were always richly rewarding. Friends might be a few minutes late for an appointment, but when they arrived they had a wonderful story to relate about whom they’d met on the way or what they witnessed in the street. And the streets themselves were full of the theater of life. One day I was walking through Piazza Santa Maria Novella when I heard a shot ring out. People rushed past me.
“C’e stato un’ omicidio!" someone shouted. “There’s been a murder.” And there on the sidewalk lay the body of a well dressed young man, blood running from his head. Nearby, the police were holding a beautiful, dark-haired woman, who stood screaming in a red dress. I later read in La Nazione that she had been the man’s cousin in
Political life, as I’ve said, was intense, combative; but I loved living in a country where Communism wasn’t considered anti-Italian, though it was scary watching the newly regenerated neo-fascist party, Movimento Sociale Italiano, parade in the streets to the shouts of desecration from old partisans who’d suffered torture at the hands of Mussolini. And there were always the Christian Democrats, thrust into power after the war by the
I also wrote with a greater sense of liberation, although the longer I remained in
“Expatriation can become a living death,” Moorehead cautioned his readers. He warned that not only could one’s native language be subsumed in the new one, one could also lose touch with the vitality of his or her native culture. While agreeing that people became expatriates in order to escape their own cultures, if not their pasts, Moorehead felt it was dangerous for artists, especially writers.
I remember discussing
These influences are surely understandable, considering that I was living in the midst of an aesthetic explosion. Even in
All this is speculation; for, in the end, I returned to
Had I remained in Florence one of my dreams was to find an apartment or studio across the Arno (L'Oltrano, as the natives called it), on the Costa San Giorgio, a long, hilly street that sloped from the Fortezza Belvedere down to Via Guicciardini. From the windows and rooftop terraces the city stretched out in all its beauty. Walking down the Costa one could only marvel at the fortuitous location of these lovely apartments, many of which were occupied by artists or scholars. The rents were slightly higher than in the neighborhoods I’d lived in, but I had a new job during my final months in the city, interpreting for a manufacturer of men’s wear. A good deal of their business was done with Americans, so they often needed an interpreter during the visits of stateside buyers. The job paid well and it gave me the opportunity to interact with my own countrymen from whom I received first-hand news about what was happening in
I did not return to
But once I began to feel at home in
“I must come back,” I wrote in my journal. “I must live in
“It can’t be that way anymore, or it wouldn’t. I’m old now and my memory for words, my ability to pick up and quickly retain idiomatic phrases, is gone. I’ll return, but it won’t be the way it was the first time, or this time, which was more like getting my feet wet again, getting acclimated, convincing myself I could come back after so many years, and that yes, it was still Italy, still Firenze, though different, as I’m different, but still the person I was those many years ago. I’ll come back and live for a time, no matter what. And when it’s over, when I’ve eaten the food and finished the wine, as Peter Denzer says, I’ll toss the dregs into the