Funny, heart-wrenching, and smart, these tales show ancient Italy to be always new, while modern Italy still speaks the old truths of the heart. Notable authors include: Frances Mayes, Tim Parks, Matthew Spender, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Mary Taylor Simeti.
The Idea of Italy
by Jan Morris
“Close your eyes and think of England” was the legendary wedding-night advice offered by Victorian mamas to their daughters. “Close your eyes and think of Italy” might seem more apposite nowadays, because to most of us the idea of Italy is at once soothing, rousing and romantic, if not actually aphrodisiac. However, it was not always so: Italy’s reputation has fluctuated disconcertingly down the centuries, and only fairly recently has it settled into its present mould of cultivated and sexy excitement.
Of course the cultivated bit has always been there, if only in retrospect. For example, eighteenth-century gentlemen went on the Grand Tour to Italy because they knew that there was the very seat of beauty, art, and learning, inherited from classical times by way of the Renaissance. They did not expect much, though, of the contemporary Italian, except as a kind of foppish fashion model, and their fathers indeed were often taken aback to find their sons tainted by the educational experience with every kind of coxcomb tomfoolery.
Then again, in the first half of our own century, if Rome, Venice, Florence, and Naples still possessed their incomparable allure, to the world at large the Italian was certainly no mother’s cynosure: unreliable, corrupt, at worst a gangster, at best a comic or sentimental buffoon, he seemed the epitome of dissolute Latinism. In American movies then, your standard Italian wore a ridiculous moustache and talked a particularly absurd variety of broken English, unless he was a Chicago gunman messily eating spaghetti and setting up murders: in the iconography of the cartoonist he was sometimes a fat restaurateur, sometimes a poisoner in the Medici mould.
Yet ever and again the idea of Italy has burst upon the rest of us in a glory of glamorous inspiration. In Victorian times it was briefly embodied in the idea of Garibaldi and Mazzini, terrific heroes of the Risorgimento, who represented to a whole generation the grandeur of national liberty. Between the world wars it was represented by opera singers and aristocratic racing drivers. Today—well, dear God, today, just consider the roster of Italians and Italianate influences which add up to that modern honeymoon exercise: football stars and Pavarotti, dress designers and saintly Popes, Ferraris, olive oil, Umberto Eco, delectable shoes and everything that goes with suavity, sophistication, winning touches of sharp practice, peasant authenticity, and lovingly attentive manners.
The thing about Italy is that, in reputation as in landscape, in the past as in the present, in the idea of it and in the hard fact, it is never dull. For a thousand years and more it has been one of the most interesting corners of the earth—not always admirable, but never boring. That young man returning from the Grand Tour may have shocked his pater with his long hair and affected manners, but he was certainly not more prosaic for the change: the daily nightmare that is contemporary Naples, congealed in petty crime amidst a more or less permanent grid-lock, is nevertheless full of endearing fascination; the generic Mafia Godfather is hardly nice, but he is certainly compelling.
For myself, I found myself seduced by the ambiguous Italian idea at the end of the second world war, when I set foot in Italy for the first time in my life. It was a moment of heavy slump in the Italian reputation. Not only had the Italians fought poorly in the war (except at sea or as partisans), for most of the time they had fought on the wrong side. They were tarred still with the unlovely brush of Fascism, and remembered as the bullying invaders of Abyssinia and Greece. They were endemically corrupt, notoriously bombastic.
Yet I very soon found that none of this truly represented the national character, as it stood in 1945. The Italians, I discovered, were far ahead of most of us in their contempt for the matter of war. If they had been gulled by Mussolini into unbecoming behaviour, it was only because of their native simplicity of the people—their fondness for show, their ardent response to rhetoric. If they had switched sides at an opportune moment, supporting first the Nazis, then the Allies, it was because they had by then discovered in themselves a profound disillusionment with the cruder kinds of patriotism and nationalism, so rampant then among the warring nations. By the time I got there, ordinary people hardly cared whether they were dealing with soldiers of the Wernmacht, the Grenadier Guards, or the U.S. Marines. They had realized the fallibility in all of us, the distinction between us and our leaders, and the overriding truth that a man’s a man for a’ that.
Now, half a century later at the end of the millennium, the genius of Italy has come into synch, as it were, with the times. It is at home with the Zeitgeist. That wry cynical attitude to the ways of the great world is now common to all of us in the West—which of us would now blame the harmless common citizen for the actions of his Government? The showy raffishness that our grandparents tended to despise in the Italian character is now the universal rage. The Italian Black Economy, which grew directly out of the rampant wartime black market, is now almost a model of economic opportunism. The severe authority of London’s Savile Row, once honoured by males on both sides of the Atlantic, has long since been superseded by the slick urbanity of Armani and his peers, and the cuisine of Italy, once snootily disregarded by gourmets, is now everyone’s healthy ideal. Even the familiar neuroses of the Italians, their confusions of machismo and mother-complex, their self-conscious sexuality, their fondness for noise and show-off, have become part of all our psyches.
And today more than ever, in good times as in bad, the world recognizes in Italy an essential idea of beauty: beauty of landscape, beauty of learning, beauty of art, beauty of human romance and affection. All these responses, all these varied judgements, are expressed somewhere or other in the pages of this book. Go on darling, close your eyes and think of Italy, if only while you copulate with its seductive chapters.
Jan Morris has been wandering the world and writing about her experiences for more than forty years. She is the author of numerous books and her essays on travel are classics of the genre. She lives in Wales, the only person in her postal code.
PART I ESSENCE OF ITALY
A Fiume Runs Through It–Thom Elkjer
The Measure of All Things–Libby Lubin
Facciamo Le Corna–Tim Parks
Pornosaint of the Extinguished Lights–Andrea Lee
A Bank in Palermo–Natalie Galli
The Olive Harvest–Mary Taylor Simeti
Baby’s a Bonus–Clara Hemphill
Five Ways of Escape–Jonathan Keates
Venice Again–Maureen Ann Jennings
Imagining the Flood–Robert Hellenga
My Roman Intimacies–Barbara Grizzuti Harrison
In the Shadow of Vesuvius–Thomas Belmonte
Signor Bananas–Duncan Fallowell
The Invisible Trattoria–Miranda Mowbray
PART II SOME THINGS TO DO
Underground Rome–Tom Mueller
Living Briefly Like a Roman–Susan Spano
Cinque Terre–Georgia I. Hesse
The Working World of Venice–William G. Scheller
Feast in Puglia–Fred L. Gardaphe
Walking to Assisi–Patricia Hampl
On Climbing the Dome of St. Peters–Jeanne Conte
Etruscan Sunlight–Frances Mayes
A Trulli Rich Woman–Kelly Simon
Ancient Islands–Theresa M. Maggio
The Hall of Maps–James Gardner
Sibling Rivalry, Italian Style–Elizabeth Roper Marcus
The Sands of Thyme–Bob Shacochis
PART III GOING YOUR OWN WAY
What’s in a Name?–Vince Sturla
Adventures in Leather–Catherine Thorpe
Night Swimmer–Kevin Dipirro
Body and Soul–Stanley Crouch
Big Butts and Walnuts–Douglas Rennie
Indirections to Rome–Donald Gecewicz
Rocking the Gondola–Jan Warner
The Errant Steps of Wooden Shoes–Adria Bernardi
Vacationing with Your Mom–Henry Alford
The Visible Man–Trey Ellis
Lunch at Pensione Suisse–David Robinson
The Children of Magna Graecia–Tom Mueller
Sleepwalking in Italy–Laura J. Aymond
PART IV IN THE SHADOWS
Una Bustarella–Tim Parks
The Italian Mistress–Luigi Barzini
Sagra di Polenta–Gary Paul Nabhan
The Nicholas Effect–Margaret Green
Are the Germans Gone?–Ivo John Lederer
PART V THE LAST WORD
The Waters of Clitumnus–H. V. Morton
Anne Calcagno was raised in Milan and Rome and is both bilingual and a dual national. She came to the US to attend Williams College, and remained. She now lives in Chicago, where she is an assistant professor of English at DePaul University. For her short story collection, Pray for Yourself, variously set in Italy and the US, she won the James D. Phelan Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and two Illinois Arts Council awards. She is currently at work on a novel about Italy and Eritrea during WW II. Her travel writing has appeared in The New York Times.