Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Florence: Looking Back Fifty Years



Fifty years ago, on November 15, 1959, I arrived in Florence, Italy. It was my twenty-second birthday and I had come to study Medieval literature at the university. I remember that day as if it were yesterday. I remember getting off the train from Rome, where I’d spent the previous two weeks; and I recall walking in dazzling sunlight with my tan Naugahyde suitcase from the station through Piazza Santa Maria Novella over to the Pensione Cordova, in Via Cavour. I had chosen the pensione from a list of rooming houses the university supplied because it was only a few blocks from Piazza San Marco, where the university was located, just off Piazza Santissima Annunziata.


Fall in Italy was warm, the light incandescent, the days so mild I could walk about Rome in shirtsleeves. Daily I carried a copy of Il Corriere della Sera from my room in the Via del Corso to Piazza del Popolo. There, in that marvelous square where three ancient Roman roads converge, I would sit in the sun, or at a table at the nearby Café Rosati, and scan the news with the help of a pocket dictionary I still own. I had studied Italian for two years in college, practicing the spoken language each summer in Gloucester with my Rocky Neck neighbors Albert and Vera Alcalay, who had lived for many years in Rome and spoke Italian like natives.


After the vastness of Rome, Florence seemed a smaller, more human scale city. You could walk on the Lungarno along the river from the Cascine, once a dairy farm and now a park and former race-track, to Piazza Beccaria at the other end of the city in half an hour. That same day I arrived I began my habit of stopping periodically at the America Express office near the Santa Trinita` bridge to pick up my mail and exchange traveler’s checks for lire. Classes at the university’s Center for Foreigners, where those of us who had signed up for courses at the university were offered the opportunity to polish our Italian and attend lectures on Renaissance art and culture before plunging into graduate studies, were held in the morning on Via San Gallo, which ran parallel to Via Cavour, where I lived, and was a short walk from the university, in Piazza San Marco.


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 Pitti Palace’s vast collection of paintings and sculpture, one gallery at a time. In those days there were few tourists in Italy between late fall and mid-May and one had the city pretty much to one’s self. I would often go to the Uffizi gallery an hour before closing time to find myself alone in many of the galleries. It was my habit to sit there contemplating one or two paintings a day—some Pieros, Botticelli’s “Adoration,” a stunning Caravaggio—until it was time to leave. This is unthinkable today when busloads of tourists are disgorged in Piazza Signoria and the wait to enter the Uffizi can last for more than an hour, if you can get into the museum at all.


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, Florence’s great cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.


I remained in Florence for nearly three years, teaching English at the International Academy in Via Bufalini and completing my first novel. During that time I left the city briefly to live in the nearby Tuscan hill town of Settignano with my American friends, novelist Peter Denzer and his then wife, the painter Ann Sayre Wiseman, whom I had met in Brunswick, Maine. It was an entirely new experience to live with Peter, Ann and their two sons in a small villa among vineyards and olive groves high above the city, where I took the bus to classes or to work, often arriving home late at night. But the city called to me, and when my friends decided to move into a farm house near Fiesole, I returned to Florence, taking a large room on Via dei Servi, around the corner from Piazza San Marco, where I remained for another year before moving finally into a small studio on Via dei Fossi, just off Piazza Goldoni, along the river.


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 Florence, a time for me of great adventure and discovery. There were wine shops hidden away in Borgo dei Greci or in Borgo San Iacopo and Via Santo Sprito, where you could drink the local “vino nero” cool from casks and demi-johns kept in cellars, and where you could get panini on rustic bread with fresh prosciutto and pecorino cheese. You learned where to find these vinai and to remember what specialties they offered. And of course you found the trattorie in those same neighborhoods, where there was no menu, just the daily fare the owner brought you as you sat at a long table with workers from a nearby construction job, or natives who knew where one ate best in the city. There was the Buca Niccolini in Via Ricasoli and Angiolino in Via Santo Spirito, where you enjoyed Tuscan specialties like Trippa alla Fiorentina or grilled pheasant, often served with faggioli all’ uccelleto, white beans cooked in a sauce of tomatoes, garlic and sage. And there was also the famous Bistecca alla Fiorentina, the best steak I think I had ever tasted from local beef, grilled in a way that retained all its juices.


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. Florence was the right size for me. As much as I loved Rome and returned to it regularly for its avant-garde art, sunny streets and ample squares, Florence was my city. It is where I wrote my first stories that were published, where I perfected my Italian to the point where I could read, write and speak it, as my friends joked, with a Florentine accent. In fact, I even dreamed in Italian.


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 London and New York and hear one’s own language spoken again.


During my stay in Florence I didn’t want to speak English unless I had to. When I came to teach it, I discovered that my immersion in Italian had given me an objectivity about my own language that I was not aware of having possessed. I began to understand English not simply as words or expressions that came out of me like one’s breath, but as one of many possible ways of expressing myself. When I spoke Italian I thought in Italian and when I returned to English I heard the language as if it were spoken by a third party. Consequently, I came to speak it with greater precision. The effect on my writing was startling. I think it was then that I truly began to inhabit my native language with a keener awareness of its structure, rather than using it carelessly as I had done up until that time.


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 Cambodia, Egypt, and Greece, were never meant to withstand such trampling hoards, and these monuments are constantly imperiled. The throngs everywhere make it harder and harder for serious travelers and scholars either to examine or to enjoy the achievements of the past."


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,’ Hawthorne said, ‘there can be a place in the world where life is more delicious for its own simple sake.’”


As it was for Hawthorne a century before I arrived, so it was for me fifty years ago.


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 Germany; and the members enjoyed instructing me, as they put it, in the proper analysis of events, always from the perspective of class struggle.


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 America. Our conversations had drawn me closer to Italy. The men’s stories of the Nazi occupation of Florence, rife with atrocities, the heroism of the partisans—bloody battles in the city’s streets and among the surrounding hills—made me realize that I had a lot to learn about what people were willing to endure to remain free. Aside from a brief period as a member of Students for Stevenson, during the presidential campaign of 1956, I was largely apolitical until I arrived in Italy to discover a society in which political life was central.


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 Florence and was being restored by new owners. Its formal gardens were austerely beautiful, as were the main buildings themselves with their hue of sun-burnished stucco. The view from the villa out across the Florence and the Arno Valley was breathtaking.


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 Florence, had left I Tatti, its farms, gardens, fabulous art collection and extensive library, to his alma mater, Harvard University, to be used as a Renaissance study center. It was closed to the public during this period of transition, so I missed an opportunity to view the fabulous books and art, which I had read about in Berenson’s Sketch for a Self-Portrait; but Peter and I took long walks in the vicinity of this stately villa with its clock tower, where Berenson had entertained some of the world’s intellectual and political luminaries and lived a life of culture and connoisseurship that one only dreams of today.


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 Fiesole as an Anglo-Florentine community made up of Bohemians and aristocrats took hold. The American-born writer Iris Origo grew up in the Villa Medici, while Leo Stein, brother of Gertrude, a fine writer in his own right, and his Parisian wife Nina moved to an old farm house in the hills above the village, where they remained during the war years, and Leo produced a group of remarkable Cezanne-like paintings of the countryside. There was also the British writer and journalist Janet Ross's villa at nearby Poggio Gherardo, where they made the most delicious vermouth from a secret, centuries' old recipe.


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 America. Walking in the dark, the constellations were visible to me in the way they must have been to generations of Tuscan farmers who read the night sky like a book.


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 Arno valley.


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 Greece the previous summer. Peter and I talked a lot about books and writing. Ann painted marvelous oil paintings and water colors. She hooked rugs, wove tapestries and wrote a children’s book. I remember one particularly hilarious night when my Gloucester friend and high school classmates Tony Lovasco, who had come to Florence to study for a semester, read mimickingly to us from Mary McCarthy’s outrageously wrong-headed book, The Stones of Florence, in which McCarthy, who seemed to have learned nothing during her stay in the city, had the temerity to criticize the local cuisine. Those of us who had been enjoying this extraordinary food for over a year were aghast.


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 Apennines, there was no snow; and soon after Christmas, which we celebrated with gifts and a tree, the sunlight returned, ever brighter, until we could resume our lunches on the terrace. By early February the almond trees began to blossom and the earth smelled again of spring. When Ann and Peter started looking for a larger house, I knew it was time for me to return to the city. Though I had loved our country life, I missed the streets of Florence, teeming with pedestrians and motor bikes, the crowded cafes, where, warmed by the sun, one sat for hours over an espresso, the friends I met up with after classes, the new films. Resettled in Florence, where I resumed my nighttime walks, I felt at home again. But I missed the silence of the country, the brilliance of the night sky. I missed the vendemmia and the olive harvest. Most of all I missed the villino, where, among family, I had finished my first novel in a room that looked down over the city I would come to love like no other.


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 Florence, with facial gestures and a repertory of pat expressions; and I relinquished my dream of having that airy room with a bed by the door and a large, round work table under the window opposite the entrance. There was even a couch along its left wall, above which I'd noticed a long shelf, where all my books might have gone. Not to mention the frescoed ceiling with its intricate design of gorgons and swans.


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, I saw Augusta standing by the concierge's desk, a triumphant smile on her face.


"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."

Then Augusta led me out of the lobby by my arm, past my amazed students, down the Renaissance staircase of our school building to Via Bufalini, where, having exacted my promise to move in by nightfall, she left me with the task of getting out of the month's tenancy I'd just barely paid for.


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 Augusta always called her generous meals, beginning with the characteristic pastina in brodo and culminating in fruit and gorgonzola. At that meal I was pumped for the details of my life—my age, my marital status, my desires, as Augusta put it, meaning, I was certain, my ambitions.


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 Augusta's hastened retrieval of me at school, became more apparent as the days went by. Augusta hoped that with a professore in the house Stellina could be convinced to do better in her class work. She could come to me to hear her lessons—without interrupting my writing, her mother intimated. And I might even spend a minute or two helping Augusta brush up on her schoolgirl's English, as she put it, so that when she was at the sea this coming summer she might not make such a brutta figura with the lovely foreigners, who also frequented Forte dei Marmi.


There was more, I learned. Augusta hoped that with me in the house she could leave La Mamina more easily. She suggested that from time to time I might look in on her, perhaps even stopping at the butcher's to buy her a few grams of ground meat, which she'd prepare for herself while Augusta and Stellina were away.


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 Augusta that she was going to see a film with me. Once we were there she'd rush away to meet Roberto, or he'd appear at the theater and I would be left alone for the duration of the film. Sometimes I'd be waiting for her afterward in a bar or cafe so that we could return home together, thereby satisfying Augusta that her daughter was in good hands.


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 Augusta began to prepare for her time at the sea, which I learned would last until early September. Before she left, however, I learned more about the family as she was often voluble, coming to my room to chat while she cleaned, always looking over my books.


Augusta had never married. She'd become pregnant with Stellina during the last years of the war, when, as a nurse in Naples, she fell in love with a young doctor. I never understood why they didn't marry. She was unclear about that part of her life, or perhaps I didn't comprehend her often hasty sentences. At any rate, she gave birth to Stellina in 1943 and they returned to Florence, where Augusta attempted to make a life for them during the occupation and later, as the new Republic took shape. She had never been a fascist, she assured me. Fascists were ignorant—brutte persone, she said. A woman of her education and raffinanza could never have countenanced such types. "But we dissembled," she added, "we went along to get along."


Augusta no longer worked at a hospital. As a public health nurse, she visited invalids at their homes to administer personal care or injections. I think she may even have had a few private patients, for she was often out at night as well. Augusta had also mentioned a sister, but when I pressed her for details she merely noted that the woman had died near the end of the war.


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 Milan. Lynn and I became close, as the rest of our friends departed for the summer and we found ourselves thrown together. We spent most nights at the cinema, and on humid afternoons we’d often take refuge in the comfortable interiors of churches, while she studied the Massaccio frescoes in the Capella Brancacci, across the Arno at Santa Maria del Carmine, or the breathtaking late works of Uccello, in the refectory at Santa Maria Novella. With my help Lynn had located a studio in Via dei Fossi, just off Piazza Goldoni and the Carraia Bridge. It was there that I began to spend not only my afternoons but soon my evenings and nights.


Initially Augusta was quite pleasant about my new relationship, having met Lynn when I’d first invited her to my room. She was complimentary about Lynn's straightforward good looks, although she commented negatively on Lynn's refusal to apply the dense kohl eye-liner most younger women affected in Italy, which gave their eyes a strange indented quality.


"The English," she said, "with their lifeless hair and their bad shoes."


Lynn, to my mind, had wonderfully long hair and I came to adore her sturdy legs with or without shoes. So I offered no response to Augusta's sarcasm, though I took note of it. Stellina merely teased me, noting that I'd found myself altra compagnia as she continued to come and go with Roberto.


Then mother and daughter left for the sea and I was confronted with having to juggle my time with Lynn and my responsibilities toward La Mamina. With Augusta gone her mother ventured out of her room more often, while I took greater liberties with my own quarters. First I removed the religious pictures that had bothered me, a strange image of the bleeding heart of Christ above my doorway and an anorectic Madonna on the wall opposite my worktable. I put up some de Chirico prints I'd bought in Rome and a drawing by Fra Angelico.


But when I arrived home to write one morning after a night with Lynn, I found that the religious images had been returned to the walls and my own pictures lay on my neatly made bed. Without thinking, I rushed to confront La Mamina, who countered my questions with an amazing diatribe.


"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 Augusta had pressed on me before I could properly respond. Her tiny eyes held mine, her hands shook, and I backed out of the room bowing my apologies. The bleeding heart and the little Madonna remained. During July and August I ran countless errands for La Mamina, until the late summer's heat drove Lynn and me to Venice for the Ferragosto holiday. While we were away, I asked my painter friend Carlo to look in on her; and I left feeling comfortable that her needs would be met because Carlo had an aging grandmother in San Frediano to whom he paid scrupulous attention.


When we returned from Venice, we found a dark faced Augusta at the door. She had rushed home from the shore because Carlo had discovered La Mamina unconscious in the kitchen one morning, alerting a neighbor who notified Augusta.


"Certain unthoughtfulnesses," Augusta began in her most imperious manner.

"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 Edinburgh. Stellina was to take them daily and to sit in a bath as hot as she could stand it. Lynn said that if she weren't far along in her pregnancy the pills would probably induce menstruation. If that didn't work, she said she knew of an English doctor in Prato, who would perform an abortion.


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 Augusta when she returned.


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 Rome. Toward Christmas I read in La Nazione that La Mamina had died. I wanted to pay my respects, but I kept putting it off, fearing Augusta's wrath. The holidays passed, snowless but cold. In early March, just as spring was in full flower, I received a notice from my draft board in Gloucester to appear in a month for a pre-induction physical examination. Having stopped attending classes at the University, I no longer had an educational deferment. Reluctantly, I decided to return home. Lynn had been talking about spending some months in Mykonos, which I couldn't do without giving up the income I depended upon from my teaching job. So it seemed a good reason for us to go our separate ways, difficult as that was.


The day before Lynn was to accompany me to the boat at Genoa, I decided to visit Augusta. It turned out she had moved, but the downstairs neighbor directed me to her new apartment. It was out beyond Via Cavour, in what the natives referred to as the new quartiere among recently constructed highrise apartment buildings, hardly a place one would expect to encounter Augusta. But she answered the door and welcomed me in, leading me to a modern kitchen where she seemed utterly out of place.


"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, Augusta could no longer afford a large apartment. Besides, she added, with my sudden decampment an important source of income was gone.


"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.


Augusta pulled her white blouse up revealing her slip.


"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 Boston... I had such high aspirations," she shook her head disconsolately. "I hoped your presence in our family would be a stabilizing influence on Stellina. I hoped our fortunes might change with a man in the household."


I returned home to become a high school teacher, a job that saved me from Vietnam. I married and had children, then I became a social worker. Slowly I began to publish. Lynn and I corresponded occasionally. She had met a young filmmaker in Athens. Soon they left for Moscow, where he had a fellowship to study cinematography. Returning to England, they settled in London. After that we fell out of touch, except for an occasional brochure announcing a show of her paintings.


Many years later, a small envelope containing a white engraved card with a black border arrived from Italy. It announced Augusta’s death and was signed by Stella Spagnuola, which I took to be her daughter’s married name. Setting the notice down, I began searching for an old cardboard covered photograph album. Pasted among its faded black pages was a snapshot of myself in loden topcoat with my beard carefully trimmed. I was standing near the railing at the top of Piazzale Michelangelo, with the city of Florence spread out beneath me. Smiling next to me was a tall, bright-faced girl with her hair in a beehive—the beautiful Stellina!



Afterthoughts…



I often wonder what would have happened had I remained in Italy. I loved the years I spent in Florence. The city seemed endlessly fascinating. I made good friends among Italians and foreign residents, and I came to know a number of British and American expatriates, some whom had lived for many years in Italy without regret or any desire to return home. After he and Ann divorced, Peter Denzer remained in Florence, where he met the American artist Mary Alexandra Milton, who would become his wife of forty-five years. Living in an ancient palace, on Via dei Rustici in the heart of the city, Peter and Mary shared a remarkable life. Continuing to write and publish, Peter also carved from the native stone and modeled in clay, while Mary produced paintings, drawings and sculpture. And during the terrible flood of 1966, when so much of the city’s history and culture was threatened, Peter and Mary joined with their Florentine neighbors in digging the city out of the mud and caring for the afflicted.


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 Europe. Had I not been required to return home for a pre-induction physical examination by my local draft board (U.S. involvement in Vietnam was intensifying and the draft was very much in effect), I might well have stayed on in Florence. I had a teaching job I enjoyed, with prospects for advancement, from conducting classes in conversational English for bank clerks and law enforcement officers to offering courses in English and American literature to high school students. I earned 120 thousand lire a month, the equivalent of over $200. This may not have seemed a great deal in American terms, but when you consider that my rent was 15 thousand lire a month and one could eat abundantly for 1000 lire a day, I was fairly comfortable. I also earned extra money working at the Institute for Physical Chemistry at the University, where I translated scientific papers from Italian to English and interpreted for visiting American scholars and during various scientific conferences (I also translated Professor Giorgio Piccardi’s book, The Chemical Basis of Medical Climatology, into English, and it was published in America, in 1962).


I had made a life for myself in Florence. I was involved in a relationship, which, in retrospect, would probably not have become permanent. But at the time it held me to the city, along with many friendships with Italian and foreign writers and artists. Florence was not the great center of avant garde writing and visual art that Rome and Milan had become after the war; but there were many young writers who were producing cutting-edge work; and we had for inspiration the astounding new cinema of France and Italy, and the experimental writing and theorization about writing and art that was being published by Italian and French novelists and critics. There were marvelous journals to read in French and Italian. Newspapers like the Guardian and Observer arrived daily from England at the American and British libraries, so one never felt cut off culturally from the English-speaking world. Also, the Italian press was vigorous. You could not find a Communist paper in America like L’Unita` while the weekly gravure news magazine L’Espresso offered reviews and articles by leading Italian intellectuals, like Moravia and Pasolini. I borrowed books in Italian from the National Library, just off the Lungarno, there were free concerts of classical and progressive music at the Conservatory and Palazzo Vecchio, and one could see movies for 100 lire (less than 20 cents), while an espresso cost 50 lire, a mere dime.


In short, life was sufficient and affordable in Italy in the early 1960s. It was the era of the “Italian Miracle,” when the economy was surging and Italy design, automobiles and clothing were highly esteemed by the rest of the world. Discarding my American clothing soon after I arrived, in 1959, I bought two Italian suits off the rack at PanFin in downtown Florence for less than $100 each, and I had a white linen suit, which still fits me, custom tailored by Renato Lecci for 60 thousand lire, exactly $100. I bought a couple of pairs of Italian shoes, which were the envy of my friends when I returned to America, and a dark green loden topcoat, which got me through several American winters after my return.


But it wasn’t the clothes or the shoes that attracted me to Italy, nor the incredible food, or the fact that you could hop on a train without reservation and find yourself in Venice or the Italian Riviera, if you wanted an inexpensive vacation, or a simple getaway. It was the people of Italy I fell in love with, their warmth and openness. You’d find yourself sitting across from someone on a bus or train and the next thing you knew you’d be engaged in conversation. Food would be offered and out would come family pictures, followed by questions. Italians wanted to know who you were, where you came from, what your family did—why you were in their country. They actively solicited your views on art, on the war in Algeria. They complimented you on your mastery of their language, spoke to you without embarrassment in your own; took you into their confidence. Leaving your apartment to shop at a nearby grocer’s, a walk across the city, or a bus trip to San Gemignano was always an adventure. You’d meet remarkable people, hear amazing stories, get tips on where to eat or buy the best gorgonzola. Not that these things wouldn’t happen in America—but life was not fast in Italy. As soon as I arrived I began to slow down. I became more relaxed, more thoughtful, meditative.


“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 Sicily. He’d seduced her, leaving soon after for Florence, where he studied law. When she found out she was pregnant, she went to her older brothers who called their cousin, demanding that he return to Sicily to honor their sister by marrying her. He refused, so they gave her a gun and put her on the train to Florence, where she tracked her betrayer down and shot him in the head and chest. She was indicted for murder, but a judge freed her because she had, in his words, committed “a crime of passion,” which in Italy was allowed under certain provisions of the law. In another case, a frustrated husband had thrown his mother-in-law out of the window. He, too, was exonerated.


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 OSS and the CIA, many of whose members were corrupt to the core. One learned about politics fast in Italy, and I evolved very quickly, from an apolitical student to a deeply interested observer of the Italian process, returning home in time to vote against Barry Goldwater for President.


Living in Italy I felt free for the first time in my life. I earned my own money, bought my own clothing and lived in a room of my own. I traveled whenever I felt like it. Once, after reading in Richard Ellmann’s biography about James Joyce’s years in Trieste, a city I had first encountered in the pages of Italo Svevo’s novels, I got on the train and discovered an Adriatic metropolis that seemed more Balkan than Italian.


I also wrote with a greater sense of liberation, although the longer I remained in Italy the more my English prose began to sound like it had been translated from another language. Several other American writers I knew shared the same concern that we might be losing our spontaneity in English, not to speak of the freshness of its idioms. The Australian-born British war correspondent and historian, Alan Moorehead, had just then written an article in the Observer about his many years of living in Fiesole, in a villa that had once belonged to the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino.


“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 Moorhead’s article with friends who dismissed it. But in retrospect, I believe that remaining in Italy might well have changed not only the way I wrote but also my choice of subject matter. While I continued to read contemporary novels from England and America, I read more deeply in post-war French and German literature, which began to influence my approach to fiction. The difference between my first and second novels was dramatic. My first novel, From What Bone, sounded and felt American, not only in language but also in its angle of vision. But my second, Until the Axle Break, was deeply influenced by the paired-down prose of Cesare Pavese and the anti-fictional theories of Alain Robbe-Grillet, as well as the films of Antonioni, especially L’Aventura and La Notte, both of which I had seen many times.


These influences are surely understandable, considering that I was living in the midst of an aesthetic explosion. Even in America I would have been drawn to the rising European novelists and filmmakers, as the critic Susan Sontag had been, becoming one of the first Americans to write about them. Nevertheless, I thought a great deal about what it meant to be an American writer while I lived in Europe. Even then I knew that if I remained in Italy I would become a very different sort of writer than the one I eventually became. I doubt very much that I would have written about Gloucester in the way I’ve written about my home town, or about the kinds of issues I’ve addressed in my fiction and non-fiction. I might not have addressed American themes at all, or, like Henry James, whom I was beginning to understand for the first time, I might have written about Americans from a European perspective.


All this is speculation; for, in the end, I returned to America and my voice as a writer is surely an American one, though I often look back on my European experiences as a benchmark for my growth and development.


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 America, as the Eisenhower era gave way to Camelot. And then, precipitously, I returned home, leaving behind the life I had made for myself in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.


I did not return to Italy for 37 years, and when I was finally able to make the trip, with my partner Judy and our friend Ray Bentley, I found a very different country. As in America, prime urban areas were heavily gentrified, working people having been pushed out of their traditional neighborhoods to make way for the new money; and Italians, who had always been attracted to technical innovations like transistor radios, were now communicating primarily by telefonino—cell phone—instead of talking face to face with each other, as they once did at the drop of a hat. Florence was overrun by tourists, the museums crowded; churches full of half-naked sight-seers, who appeared to have no respect for age-old proprieties of dress or decorum. The city was noisy beyond belief, but the lineaments of the Florence I loved had not completely disappeared. Among the transformations—Medieval towers into luxury hotels, monasteries now operating as bed and breakfast inns, fancy boutiques in every storefront—I still recognized the city that had once been as intimate to me as my own body.


But once I began to feel at home in Italy, once I could speak Italian again with some fluency and ease, it was sadly time to leave.


“I must come back,” I wrote in my journal. “I must live in Italy again, in Tuscany. I’m glad we spent time in Rome [see my Italian Journal below] and that it was hot and the sun warmed us to the bone. I’m glad we mingled with the crowds and sat in the cafés, entered the dark sanctuaries of churches, many of whose names I can no longer recall. But it is Firenze I want to return to, Firenze where I want to live again, or nearby the city, so I can come to know it as I did so many years ago, know it with that old certainty I once had of the location of everything. And when I walked the streets at night, sometimes until dawn, the city unfolded for me and I was able to peel back the years, the ages, knowing when each palace was built and who built it, being able to imagine the inhabitants, the way they spoke and dressed. Indeed, hearing their voices in the voices of the night people in the bars and tavole calde I frequented, like the pizzeria in San Lorenzo I couldn’t find this time, when at midnight, before a film, I’d enter, sit at the counter and order a veal cutlet Milanese style, and the counter man, a native Florentine in white short sleeved shirt with his gray hair slicked back, would shout in the direction of the kitchen, “Una Milano!” or if it was crostine alla Bolgonese, a sandwich of mozarella between two thick slices of bread dipped in beaten egg and lightly fried until the cheese melted, he’d shout, “Una Bologna!” And when he got to know me he’d call me professore and we’d talk while I sipped a glass of vino nero and watched the most amazing pizzas with paper thin crust being pulled out of the brick oven behind him. Then I’d go to my film, often one by Antonioni I’d be seeing for the third or fourth time.


“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 Arno and say good-bye to the beloved land.”



2 comments:

janeanmaiken said...
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miladawley said...
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