“Florence, Dante and Me”, the first post.

This is the first of maybe eight to ten posts that I will be taking from my book, Florence, Dante and Me. I plan to make each post about ten computer pages long.

As I have mentioned, the origin of this book is the letters I sent to my girlfriend who was doing her junior year in arts (English and theater) at the University of British Columbia. To get to Europe from Vancouver in those days most people took the train across Canada (a trip of three whole days, maybe four,) then a ship from Montreal to (in my case) Scotland. Then from Scotland to London where I spent a week taking in some of the cultural splendors of that great city. What you see below is my first letter to the girl back home, written on August 7, 1960.

By the way, my book has all kinds of good photos. Unfortunately I couldn’t manage to upload them with the text that you see below. (I am not a whiz on the computer.) This book also contains about ten pages of footnotes. The footnotes contain many comments about my family of origin. They are personal and forthright. Some people will like them, others won’t. I had to include them because being in Italy for a year gave me a lot of insight into my family. The Italians I made friends with had close, loving family connections. That got me thinking a lot about my past.

August 7, 1960

My dearest J,

 The voyage across the Atlantic on the Ivernia could easily have turned out tiring and boring. I got the wrong ship: a religious convention of 800 people! This did not seem to promise a good time. Fortunately I found a lively Scottish group and every night we sang and drank until the wee hours. The ship landed at Greenock, Scotland. From there I hitched my way to London. It took four rides. The fourth ride I got near Gretna Greene with a Cockney named “Blackie”. He was a friendly fellow, full of stories about his life. He was also generous and insisted on paying for the fish and chips.

In London I stayed with my stepfather’s sister, Agnes, and her husband Jack, from Victoria, British Columbia. Their son John is studying painting here and their daughter Jan is also living here. She very recently got hitched to Ian McDougall, a fine jazz trombone player. Ian has found a job playing in Jack Dankworth’s big band, one of the best in England. I helped them move a huge piano into their apartment. I visited The National Gallery and one of the paintings which really impressed me was Leonardo Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. This is the first Italian Renaissance painting I have ever seen. I can’t wait to see more. I also saw a good movie of The Marriage of Figaro (the play, not the opera) at the new National Film Center on the south bank of the Thames.

August 11, 1960

Dearest J,

I am off! I took the train to Dover then a small ship to France. The crossing was exciting: the English Channel and the cliffs of France just ahead! The sea was blue, a real blue and it was a bright sunny day. I am really wound up about what’s in store for me! On the ship I treated myself to a full meal, with wine. For me, this was splurging. On my $100 a month stipend I won’t be doing it often (although as a reserve I do have $600. saved from my summer job). Then I took the train to Perugia in Umbria. Just before arriving in Perugia I saw Lake Trasimeno, which is very marshy. I have learned that it was here in the Punic Wars that Hannibal and his elephants drove the Roman soldiers into the lake where they drowned. I wonder if it has lots of armor and weapons on the bottom.

 Perugia. How strange it is again, like in Quebec City, to walk down narrow, winding streets. Via del Cane! (The Street of the Dog!). On the corner of a building is a horrid griffin with bloodied, mocking jowls. Cave cane! Swine! Cur! Via di qua! (Get out!) The heat is oppressive and like nothing I have ever experienced. In the air you can hear a great chorus of cicadas clicking away. The buildings are three-storied and on the balconies there are flower pots and pettycoats hanging from clotheslines. I see brick buildings rotting with age. The iron grills on their windows look forbidding. I glance into a doorway: an old man, yellow and bent with age, is sawing planks with a saw that looks medieval. They work hard, these Italians, and I admire them for it. The waitress at the Jamaica (a restaurant where I have started going regularly) has to serve eight tables. I think that’s too much to handle yet she is always cheerful.

I guess Perugia shouldn’t exist (or there shouldn’t be much left of it). It luckily escaped bombing during the last war but only because after taking Rome the Allies made a very fast thrust north and bypassed Perugia. Florence and the region north of here took the pounding instead. Geoffrey, a young Oxford grad in history, told me this (I must acknowledge sources!) and much more, last night, over supper at the Jamaica. There was a full moon and we went for a walk after dinner. I really got a tour and much interesting information. He said that Perugia was built before Romulus founded Rome. It was an Etruscan center and this explains the huge triumphal arch in the center of the city. It’s monumental and perfectly preserved. I could gaze at it for hours. You have to wonder at the things it’s witnessed and the amazing number of years it has been there. Chi furono, questi Etruschi? (Who were they, these Etruscans?)

There are about one hundred forty churches in Perugia (one serves as a major museum) and a medieval fortress. From the top of this fortress (two hundred feet up) you get an amazing panorama of the surrounding countryside. You can see Assisi, only twenty miles away, glimmering through the warm summer air. I am eager to see the city of Saint Francis. There are always lovely breezes coming from the south-west, up the Tiber and over to us.

 Most people here get up early and then sleep for a few hours in the afternoon. After the nap everyone dresses to the nines and saunters on up to the wide Corso Vannucci where the stores, open air market and outdoor wine and coffee shops are open until nine. Everyone in town walks up and down the Corso, which is closed to automobile traffic. It is not uncommon to see men walking arm in arm and it is common for men to wear their jacket over their shoulders like a cloak. People walk adagio up and down the Corso, observing, smiling, greeting, nodding, ogling. The game is to look sophisticated and fare una bella figura (which means to look good and appear contented with yourself). Everyone plays it well. [3]

I am enjoying the pace of life here. It’s pretty easy-going. The Italians call it dolce far niente (“sweet doing nothing”). Dressing well is important. The men dress a bit flashily but they definitely have flair: white leather shoes or suedes with pointed toes. Fruity, by Canadian standards. Their dress shirts have much broader collars than ours and I think they look better. The tight pants are quite splendid for showing off a well-turned leg. The women dress to please: high heels almost all the time, billowy, dainty, feminine dresses that show a little of the knee, and their hair is swept up in an elegant style. Their posture, bearing and figure are quite striking. The old saying probably applies here: Per essere bella bisogna soffrire. (To be beautiful you have to suffer.)

 I went into a tobacco shop for some stamps the other day and serving behind the counter was a beautiful, majestic young woman with expressive eyes—a real Sophia Loren type. She just stared at me with her enormous dark eyes for what seemed the longest time, then finally said, “Dica!” (i. e. “Say! Say something! Speak, you Moron!). I had been too stunned to speak and 10 Florence, Dante and Me mumbled away as I ordered a few stamps. What an anticlimax! I find some of these little exchanges so interesting, dramatic and somehow loaded. These Italians really look at you square in the eye; they’re not like Canadians. I have learned that apart from post offices the only places allowed to sell postage stamps are the tobacconists and this stems from an edict by Napoleon.

Night life for Italians consists in going to the local bar, drinking wine, and watching television. Many American programs are shown here with dubbed in Italian. The same goes for movies. Water is scarce and is carried and hoarded in pop bottles. Wine (the local variety) can be bought for as little as 25 cents a bottle; a pack of cigarettes, 20 cents; a three course meal (all you can eat!) and a quarter liter of wine for 55 cents. Here’s what I had last night at the Jamaica restaurant: a huge plate of spaghetti bolognese, then a steak, then a tomato and lettuce salad. To top it off, fruit for dessert. This was all washed down by half a liter of red wine. Total bill: 75 cents. Not bad, eh? Okay, it’s a cheap restaurant, but can you beat it?

About the water: there’s no hot running water here and you can’t even get cold running water between noon and midnight. Apparently the water is run in via an old Roman aqueduct.

On weekends excursions are organized at reasonable rates by the Università per Stranieri (Foreigners). Unfortunately, this week I put off buying a ticket too long and missed a Sunday trip to the beach at Senigallia on the Adriatic, plus an art tour to a few out-of-the-way Umbrian towns.

I had lunch today with Hassan from the Sudan and James from Malta. Pretty cosmopolitan, eh? I find I have much in common with the students I have been meeting. We are all here to learn Italian and enjoy Italy. This afternoon I heard a lecture on Signorelli, a fifteenth century painter, given by the great professor Mariani of the University of Naples. I can honestly say that he is the best (the most flamboyant, anyway) lecturer I have ever heard: impeccably dressed, and so voluble and expressive. And the gestures! A chop of the hand to emphasize a point, a snap of the fingers to signal a change in the slides. What style! Fantastic! Inexpressible! The lectures are held in an elegant palace: Il Palazzo Gallenga. It dates from the mid-1700s and is quite grand, with gold chandeliers.

I dropped in on another lecture at random. The professor was teaching economics with maps, graphs, pictures, etc. He was talking nostalgically about “autarchia”, which is the economic principle of a country becoming totally self-sufficient economically. I read somewhere that this was one of Mussolini’s goals for Italy. This professor had a sad look about him. I think he is still a great admirer of Il Duce.

 Yesterday I went on a bus trip organized by the University. The destination was Urbino (forty miles north-east of here, in the Apennines) then Pesaro on the Adriatic. I made several friends (and some enemies) by projecting my bass-baritone voice and anxious personality to everyone within earshot of the rear of the bus. The Yugoslavs sitting next to me loved it; the French behind me hated it. By and large the group on the bus was either very shy, dull, quiet or something which I can’t define.

 Urbino is a lovely medieval town. The grand ducal palace is worth seeing. Walking down the corridors of the palace I had the impression I was back in the fourteenth century. It is wonderfully preserved, even the furniture. From numerous little balconies and alcoves you get a fine view of the countryside of the Marche province. Urbino is famous as the birthplace of Raphael and I saw some of his paintings. In town I saw a quotation chiseled in marble high up on the side of a building (Italy has many of these to honor the great from past centuries.) It was a quote from Michel de Montaigne—and went something like this:

Urbine, où il y a partout à monter et à descendre; le marché y était parce qu’il était samedi.

The subtle fox! I love him. It gave me a funny feeling to think that Montaigne had walked these same streets way back in the 1500’s. We studied his essay on friendship in Kurt Weinberg’s class last year at UBC. [University of British Columbia]

From Urbino we drove to the beach at Pesaro, about twenty miles to the east. We encountered the Adriatic, ‘Hadrian’s Sea’, and miles and miles of white sand stretching north and south.

I realize now how narrow Italy is. Nowhere is the sea far off. I had lunch with a Yugoslavian couple on the terrace of a restaurant. We had cheese, bread and some kind of raw bacon which I discovered is called prosciutto crudo. I supplied the wine: forty-five cents for a large bottle of fairly good stuff. Hard to beat, eh? [Back in Perugia] I have to sign off. I am going down to the hospital to visit a very sick girl from Vancouver: Jan Elderkin, who also goes to UBC. She has taken a year out to travel all over the world and caught some nasty bug in India. I am taking her some oranges and a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls.

August 18, 1960 Perugia

Dear J,

I am sitting at my desk reading Dante in the late afternoon. All of a sudden, quite unexpectedly, the nearby church bells start to toll. Beautiful! Ah, the delights of reading!

 I went to the Circolo (a club for students) this morning. It’s a huge student lounge at the Università per Stranieri. You can buy lunch in the cafeteria for eighty cents (500 lire): pasta, salad, bread, and one quarter of a liter of wine. Amazing! Everyone has wine with their meal. It’s a given.

 A large slug of vermouth costs eight cents. I chatted with a couple of guys from Kenya, a fellow from Malta, an Egyptian who is a whiz at billiards and a girl from Frankfurt. As you can see, it’s a cosmopolitan place. The afternoon was as hot as blazes (I have never felt such heat.) so I went for a swim in an outdoor pool. Swimming caps are mandatory so I had to buy one. I am leaving for Rome tomorrow with Harry, a bearded, eccentric (he wears a black cape everywhere), and very intelligent Greek. We plan to take in a few events at the Olympic Games if we can get tickets.

 Perugia has lots to offer: ancient architecture, an excellent museum of Etruscology and a gallery full of Peruginos, Lorenzo da Lorenzos, etc. I really like Perugino, especially his detailed portraits of people. There is such pride in the faces. I hear that he was Raphael’s teacher. That alone says a lot for him. Perugia also has a music society although it seems limited to chamber music. I’m planning on taking voice lessons during my year over here but it will have to wait until I have settled in Florence. I think I am a bass-baritone. This is something I’ve always wanted to do.

Last night I went to a party in a house on a hill here in the city. Below us I could see a meadow enclosed by an ancient wall and in the distance the eerie outline of a castle. The weather was balmy and warm with a sky full of stars in a way that I have never seen before. There were red shooting stars as well. The Milky Way as seen from Italy really is a white ribbon. An American negro with a beautiful baritone voice sang several songs for us: Summertime, Laura, The St. Louis Blues. It was very special. He is quite good enough for Broadway!

 I have been going to lectures on Italian opera twice a week at the University and have been studying Verdi librettos in my room. These two activities go well together. The lecturer is lively and illustrates his talk with extracts on the gramophone. I have been studying Italian five or six hours a day and I just wish I had more time to watch the Olympics on TV. I did see the finals of the one hundred meter hurdles and saw the Americans clean up: 1st, 2nd and 3rd places.

 I have heard from home that my 1949 Studebaker was sold for $200. It was an incredible oil-guzzler and I had to put a quart of oil in it every few days but it was a reliable jalopy and I am sad to see it go.

 I forgot to mention John, a guy from Cambridge University who has shown me around town and explained the historical significance of many buildings. He is a whiz at history. We had a going-away party for him a few nights ago in a beautiful ancient house. John epitomizes how good the British system of education can be (if you manage to pass the rigorous exam that everyone takes at age eleven: “the eleven plus”). Before going to university he had had nine years of Latin, seven years of Greek, and had read most of Shakespeare. It’s impossible to compete with that! A group of us—John, myself, a girl philosophy grad from Dublin, and an Indian prince (or something!) left the rock and roll group, took a few gallons of wine and went to an obscure corner to talk and recite poetry. John recited Shakespeare and Wilfred Owen beautifully in his soft, sonorous English public school accent. Yours truly did some French Romantics (Nerval, Baudelaire) and Ronnie, the Indian, recited the most melodious, poignant-sounding Indian and Sanskrit verse.

 The other day, while winding my way up the dusty, narrow, urchin-running, padrona-yelling Corso Bersaglieri I heard a rollicking harmonica duet played by two little old ragged Italian men. They were bald and poor but happy nonetheless. One played the melody on a Hohner, the other played a bass accompaniment. I sat and listened, then applauded vigorously and gave them a few coins. I went away feeling very happy. I thought that this is typical of the Italian joie de vivre. Even though these little guys are earning only a pittance, they still get great pleasure from music, companionship, and whatever other worthwhile and pleasing things life has to offer them.

My spoken Italian is improving only slightly. To improve I really should avoid English-speaking people. Speaking for myself, I think we English speakers feel quite awkward and self-conscious when speaking to each other in a foreign language so I think I will make a point of seeking out Italians and speaking only Italian with them. I will have to be careful that following this rule does not isolate me. [4] I have found a comfortable room with the Bianchi family. I have a cheerful, bright room on the second floor. When I am at my desk I get a good view of the city, which is great. The landlady, Signora Bianchi, is friendly and helps me with some of my language difficulties e.g. in the Petrarcan sonnets which I am studying at the moment.

[Let me interrupt your reading to explain what the number 4 is, five lines back. It refers you to the footnote and I am including it here to show you the kind of remark I make in many of my footnotes. Here’s how footnote four reads:

“Looking back years later (2016) I think it was neither wise nor necessary to make ‘Italian only, no English’ a rigid policy.  It would have been better to strike a balance and cultivate both Italian and English-speaking friends throughout the year. My stubborn ‘rule’ caused me to suffer unnecessarily at times from loneliness and isolation.”

As I make my way home to the Bianchis’ from the university, here’s my route: up the Corso Bersaglieri, under the gigantic Etruscan triumphal arch, past a group of Italian men playing a game of bocce, a turn to the right up Via Enrico Cialdini, past the grey-haired lavandaia (laundry women) scrubbing furiously at their washbasins, and, turning to the left on Via Guido Pompili, I see my apartment on the left. I haven’t had any mail from you for at least a week so I curse the mailbox as I pass it in the hall. I climb the stairs singing softly “Stormy Weather… since my gal and I ain’t together/Keeps rainin’ all the tiiiime.” I enter my room and…what ho! A letter from you! I have never got more pleasure from reading a letter.

September 5, 1960


 Cara Fidanzata amata,

Here I am in Florence where I plan to spend about ten days. I am writing this from an artist’s flat with a terrace. I arrived Saturday from Perugia after a hot and crowded train ride. I had to stand for most of the 125 km. Hard lines! My Greek friend Harry suggested that I look up a vague New York girlfriend of his. I did, but she was out (in Greece, to be exact.) A short mad-looking, bearded, sandaled, Van Gough type from Trieste was bunking here, and as he had no objection to my holing up for a while, I promptly did. It costs nothing, so I can economize. Teo (the guy who’s staying here) is a talented sculptor: his busts of Verdi and Beethoven are remarkably life-like and convey the power of these two great men. He himself seems strangely unconcerned about material things and literally lives from hand to mouth, day by day. Quite often he goes without meals.

 The digs are good here: three large rooms. One serves as a studio and is cluttered with paintings and good books. The two American girls who live here seem to have Medicean tastes. Their books cover a range of subjects: history, art, travel, and literature. I always have in mind that I should be studying Italian but I can’t resist the urge to dig into some of these excellent books in English. At the moment I am reading (in translation) The Etruscans, by Pallottino.

 I really see now that to be in Florence is to be in the Mecca of artists. The city is about the size of Vancouver proper (400,000?) and is dominated in the center by the great cathedral dome of Brunelleschi’s Santa Maria del Fiore and Giotto’s bell tower. Much of the city is flat and the buildings which set the overall tone are  light brown and in the Renaissance style. There are many churches of interest. When you walk around, the main impression you get is one of harmony and power. I would even add a feeling of denseness and confinement, not always, but quite often.

 I spent Sunday browsing in the Galleria degli Uffizi, one of the largest in Europe. I was only sorry that you couldn’t be there. Hundreds, yes, hundreds of originals by da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Giotto, Van Dyke, etc. Holy Smoke! My esthetic needs were gratified almost to the point of satiety! I also was impressed by the Piazza della Signoria where you can see Perseus with the head of the Medusa, The Abduction of the Sabine Women, Hercules and Cacus, and a very accurate model of Michelangelo’s David. Truly a marvel!

 In most of the churches and galleries here, especially the former, religious motifs dominate. In general the art is inspired by two very different (I would say almost incompatible) traditions, one Christian (Catholic) and the other pagan (mostly mythology). The art with pagan motifs charms me more than the Christian but the Christian art is more able to move me in a moral way. Menelaus, Hercules, Perseus. What great names! The religiously inspired works of Giotto, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and others make me want to find out more about Christianity and people like Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Thomas Aquinas. Thank God for both traditions. Sooner or later I would like to study some of the technical aspects of painting: composition, design, and so on. I know so little about them.

 Sunday evening I went to an open-air concert in an eighteenth century palace courtyard. One of the best trios in Europe, (Pelliccia, Santoliquido, etc.) performed. There they were, up on the stage and all around us were lush tropical plants and trees and Grecian columns and arches which cast eerie shadows. Add to the picture a colossal ornate fountain and further up, in the sky, the Tuscan moon, shining somewhere over Persia. When they played the first selection, Beethoven’s opus 7, number 4, I came close to jumping up on my chair and shouting for joy!

 On Monday I visited the Pitti Palace. This palace houses a famous jewel collection but the main attraction is the Medici art collection. The paintings are displayed in a crowded, helter-skelter way which is a bit overwhelming. I have never seen so many great paintings crowded into ten rooms. Paintings are organized differently in the Uffizi: they are not crowded and they are grouped together according to painter or genre. This gives a feeling of space and orderliness.

 It also makes it easier to focus on one painting without being distracted. A nice surprise: I didn’t have to pay for admission. My student I.D. card from the University in Perugia did the trick. A bonus.

 Robert Browning’s house, Casa Guidi, is right across the street from the Pitti and I had a good look around. This was his love nest with Elizabeth Barrett-Browning. The flat is furnished exactly as it was in the late 1800s. I found the atmosphere quite moving. I could imagine them reading sonnets to each other.

 I almost forgot to mention the evening that I spent with Teo and two girls. We went to a big night-time festival on the banks of the Arno. There were thousands of people there, all of them carrying something that looked to me like a Chinese lantern. We arrived late but we heard the last of some singing. Everyone sang and it was quite strange and moving. On the river were hundreds of little boats with lanterns. The whole scene was lit up in blue, then grey, then white searchlights which were mounted on two of the bridges. There was a lot of energy, a je ne sais quoi in the air. You could sense the pride of the Florentines. I think the festival is called La Rificolona. [5]

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