My book, “Florence, Dante and Me”

I posted several passages from this book back in 2016. Reader response was positive so I have decided to publish many more passages of the book. “Florence, Dante and Me” is based on letters to a girl friend that I wrote from Italy in 1960-61 when I was studying in Perugia and Florence. I was determined to learn the language and get to know Italy from just about every conceivable angle: customs, attitudes, music, painting architecture, etc. The book is also about the Italians who became good friends. I hope you enjoy “Florence, Dante and Me”.

Below are two reviews of “Florence, Dante and Me”. They will give you a good overview of the book.

The first one appeared in “Italica”, a journal of Italian studies:  Volume 95 • No. 3 • Fall The author is Debra Greschner.

The second one appeared in the journal of the North-East Conference of Teachers of Foreign Languages (NECTFL).  Number 18, Sept. 2018 The author is Stephen Westergan

In 1960, Robert Stuart Thomson was awarded a scholarship to study for one year at the University of Florence. The eager twenty-year-old Canadian, who had not travelled extensively beyond his birthplace of Vancouver, chronicled his year abroad in letters to his fiancée who remained at the University of British Columbia. The collection of his letters, Florence, Dante and Me, has elements of several literary genres: travelogue, epistolary novel, and coming of age treatise. Thomson shares his experiences in Italy, as well as thoughts on a wide range of subjects, from politics and poetry, to bel canto singing and sculpture. He arrives in a country recovering from the ravages of World War II, where the reminders of the conflict are omnipresent: a French literature professor who is a survivor of Auschwitz, the reconstruction of apartments destroyed in the Allied bombings, the photograph of Italian citizens being rounded up by German soldiers displayed on the bike-seller’s wall. The missives are a glimpse into a country and a world that has been harshly changed from the perspective of a young man who is on a journey of scholarship and self-discovery.

Thomson was a regular correspondent. He selected forty-four letters for inclusion in the volume; although some describe the author’s stops in England, France, and Switzerland, the majority chronicle the sights and events of his life in Florence, and his excursions to other Italian cities. The letter-writer shares his reactions to the sweeping grandeur of architecture and the charm of the countryside, as well as his fascination with the day-to-day details of Italian life. For many readers, the latter will prove more revelatory than the former. The structures and scenery are consistent: a visitor to Rome will still be as surprised as the young Thomson when “you follow a narrow street and suddenly, completely unexpected, you see something very grand, like the Trevi or the Pantheon” (41). The daily fabric of Italian life, however, has been altered since Thomson’s sojourn. While many of the habits of the Italians are unchanged, such as long meals with plenty of wine (“piano, piano” beseeches the waitress on any visit to a Roman restaurant, “do not hurry”) and expressive speech with plenty of hand gesticulations, other societal norms (characterized by the author as molto curiose) are abolished, such as the restrictions on young women going out unescorted after 8:00 p.m.

The subject of Thomson’s studies was the works of Dante. The Italian poet, who encouraged the development of Italian as the national language by writing his verses in the vernacular, is a recurring reference throughout the letters. Delving into La Divina Commedia, writes Thomson, “[…] has led me to explore my own conscience, especially my own sins and shortcomings” (76). The author’s comingof-age is evidenced in every letter. In some, the youth questions the meaning of life and probes the concept of moral justice. He plumbs his attitudes and beliefs about spirituality, in one letter defending Catholicism, while in another lamenting that he grew up in a family that was amoral. He contrasts his familial experiences with the warm affection he witnesses during his visit to the Neapolitan family of his friend Gino.

Thomson welcomes both the experiences and the intellectual stimulation; his mind is as fertile and receptive as the rich, black, volcanic soil he sees in Pompeii. He embraces the culture with open arms, and as is often the case for those transplanted to different environs, reinvents his persona. “In Canada I was more reserved; here I feel free to be more outgoing” (79), he writes. Thomson fulfills a long-held wish and takes voices lessons with a maestra di canto who introduces him to the bel canto technique that has produced generations of outstanding singers.

In the 14th century, Petrarch chided his companions for frigida incuriositas when they declined to climb Mount Ventoux. This cold lack of curiosity is nowhere to be found in these letters. Florence, Dante and Me sounds a clarion call to discover new places and explore different cultures, even in an age when the globe had shrunk to the size of a smartphone.

DEBRA GRESCHNER Lamar University Below is the text of another review of “Florence, Dante and Me.”

The following review appeared in number 82 (Sept. 2018) of the NECTFL REVIEW, pp. 80-82 (NECTFL: The Northeast Conference for Teachers of Foreign Languages. Stephen Westergan, Professor of the Humanities, St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin

This book compiles forty-four of the letters that the author wrote to his fiancée during an academic year abroad, in 1960-61; a student at the University of British Columbia, he had won a scholarship from the Italian government and used it to attend lectures at the Università per Stranieri in Perugia, during his first two months, and then to take courses (taught in Italian and French) at the Università di Firenze. Over eighty black and white photographs are interspersed throughout, and there are endnotes elaborating on a number of details. This book would appeal to anyone interested in accounts of a person’s growth, especially through a prolonged encounter with another culture, and it would be especially valuable for undergraduates preparing to spend time abroad, because it exemplifies (and quietly encourages) the kind of reflective immersion that would enable them to benefit richly from the various opportunities presented to them, especially exposure to new ways of thinking. It would definitely help them realize that by doing their best to use the language of the country they were living in, and by continually broadening their knowledge, they could not just gain insights into history and culture but, even more importantly, forge very special friendships. I knew a college student a number of years ago who went off to Florence for a semester but spent all his time with other Americans, instead of interacting with Italians; I wish he had read a book like this one, because it might well have given him the push (aka the kick in the butt) he needed to take risks and plunge into all the rewarding challenges that surrounded him daily.

The younger Robert Thomson is enthusiastic, bright, and observant as he takes in various aspects of Florence, reads more and more Italian literature, especially Dante, and travels throughout the country.

For example: There was a magnificent rainbow this evening. It stretched in a perfect arc from Fiesole to the mists over Belvedere. There was a fine spray in the warm May air and the city’s towers and palaces were lit in gold. (208) Or, as Thomson bikes north of Florence: I passed the Grotta della Madonna, a cave with a statue to the Madonna in front of it. Nearby is a waterfall and an ancient broken-down mill beside it. God knows how old! It could be from Dante’s time. I can well imagine him trudging along this very road at the beginning of his lifelong exile from Florence. Maybe it goes as far back as the Romans, or even the Etruscans! You can feel the history over here. It’s mysterious and powerful. (101)

And when Thomson visits Pompeii, he notes:

The walls of the buildings are dark and somber, often with jagged tops. In contrast, the grass (where there is any) is lush and very green. This place is unlike any I have ever seen. It has an eerie, tragic atmosphere. (132)

The letters, taken as a whole, convey a great deal of information about many different topics—from singing lessons to a suit made to order, from the library where Thomson studies to the noisy street below his rented room, from cultural differences to musical performances, from paintings he discovers to the struggles and suffering of Italians under the Nazis (still quite fresh in their memories because only fifteen years have passed since the war ended). What is especially striking and endearing is that he is befriended, warmly, by a number of Florentines. One of them, a fellow renter named Colonel Cugiani, knows well Thomson’s growing passion for Dante and gives him a book of photographs entitled Il Paesaggio italico nella Divina Commedia, inscribed

“All’amico canadese Roberto, amico di Dante, l’amico fiorentino Colonnello Franco Cugiani in segno di stima e di affetto” (122).

 His landlady thoughtfully brings him coffee and poetry, in addition to including him in her circle of acquaintances; and he spends a week just outside Naples with the family of another renter, a violinist named Gino. Thomson’s stay with them exemplifies a particularly striking feature of the letters: he grows as a person during his ten months abroad. Seeing the tremendous affection that Gino and others show his mother and grandmother makes Thomson realize how special and important family can be (his own background, about which he is very candid, is saddening).

(…) Or during a trip to Rome, he becomes aware, for the very first time, that the ancient world actually existed, instead of being

“a bit academic, unreal, and unconvincing” (43). “At the moment I harbor no doubts whatever about the reality of these ancient civilizations. I have changed and it has come through real physical contact” (44).

Even more notable is that reading Dante makes him deeply rethink his life:

“Looking back on my schools and family I realize that there was almost no discussion of the Bible or values. Realizing this has come as a jolt and I have Dante to thank for it” (70-71).

The strong impression made on Thomson by the Commedia is clear in reference after reference, whether brief or more extensive, throughout the letters. There are two aspects of the book to be aware of that can distract from its many interesting descriptions and observations. As a 20- or 21- year-old, the author of the letters is still coming into his own, both as a person and as a writer, and so there are more than a few moments when he makes brief comments that are stilted, such as “When nature mixed the best of artistic talents in one man, surely it was Botticelli!” (54) or, as he compares the French and English versions of Canada’s national anthem, “How pale and insipid is our version in English” (157) or “How arrogant and full of myself I have been at times! I cringe!” (71) His sincerity is clear, but the reader may wish he would convey it in a more natural, less precious way. More pervasive is a limitation posed by the book’s format: since these are letters, rather than essays, each one keeps shifting its focus, pausing over or just touching on various aspects of Thomson’s year abroad, and the lack of sustained discussion can be tiring – though never tiresome. It may be best to read the book twenty pages at a time, to stay focused on all its positive qualities. There is no question that Florence, Dante and Me will fulfill the hope that Robert Thomson expresses near the end of his introduction:

“I will feel very gratified if this book inspires some people to take the trouble to learn the language of the country they travel to. Such knowledge will bring understanding of the culture and enable them to connect with people in a more meaningful way” (ix).

Stephen Westergan, Professor of the Humanities, St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin

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