My book, “Florence, Dante and Me” (footnotes)

Here are the footnotes tor my book “Florence, Dante and Me.” The book itself was written (in the form of letters) during the academic year 1960-61 and the notes were added around 2016 when I finally got around to publishing the letters in the form of a book. In the intervening fifty-six years I had plenty of time to think about the many ways that my year in Italy had changed me and set the course that my life was to follow. Many of these footnotes show how contact with certain families in Italy helped me to understand my family of origin. Dante too influenced me in many ways; it was he who gave me a moral compass.

Footnote 1 (p. 2) I am referring to the old campus of Laval, which was in the haute ville. In 1960 the university was just beginning to expand westwards to Sainte Foy. Maurice Duplessis had been the premier of the province for many years and had stubbornly refused to accept any financial aid from the federal government. He hurt no one but himself and the people of Quebec.

2 (p. 3) I didn’t realize at the time that this friendly, modest man who was also interested in Baudelaire was none other than the Gilles Vigneault who was destined to become one of the most popular French-Canadian singers of all time. His Mon Pays, c’est L’hiver from the 1960s is his best known song.

3 (p. 8) As the year progressed I became familiar with the portraits of such great painters as Leonardo da Vinci, Bronzino, Perugino and Raphael. Their subjects are proud and richly dressed and so too are many of the modern Italians whom I observed while taking the passeggiata in the Corso Vannucci. Pride, flair, taste—I think these are bred to the bone in Italians.

4 (p. 18) 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.

5 (p. 23) La Festa della Rificolona (September 7) celebrates the birth of the Virgin Mary (supposedly in Nazareth) on a September 8. On this date many Florentines mill about town carrying lanterns and singing as they make their way down to the celebrations on the Arno.

6 (p. 32) This German artillery tactic is described with droll dark humor by the Canadian author Farley Mowat in his World War II memoir, And No Birds Sang (Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, reprint of 2012. See pages 84-87.) The scene: Sicily. Mowat is sitting on a bren gun carrier and is part of a Canadian force advancing on a German-held hill town. All is calm and nature-loving Mowat is bird watching with his binoculars. All of a sudden: Pandemonium! Well aimed German artillery suddenly comes crashing down all over the place. Mowat and another soldier bolt to a ditch at the side of the road. As the bombardment continues Mowat yells out to his companion the names of the German guns as he is able to identify them: “81 mm. medium mortars… MG-42s… four-barrelled Flakvierling light anti-aircraft mount”, etc. Regarding Alfredo (at the Bianchi pensione in Perugia) I should mention that one evening we had a very strenuous wrestling match in the living room. I forget how it started. He got the better of me eventually but I think I gave him a run for his money.

 7 (p. 36) Len Timbers was a friend who owned a record shop on Robson Street. He specialized in classical music and had an amazing knowledge of the field. I mention him in the introduction as well.

8 (p. 38) Prices to enter galleries, museums, etc. were very low in 1960. I was fortunate. One paid nothing to wander around the Forum or the Baths of Caracalla. Today it costs you about $20 to visit either. To tour the Vatican now (2016) will set you back $25. In those days it cost about a dollar. Back in 1960 there was no need to make reservations and pay in advance for visits. In 2016 it is necessary to make a reservation if you want to avoid huge line ups. Another big change I’ve noticed concerns graffiti. There were hardly any in 1960. Alas! that’s no longer the case.

9 (p. 43) Dr. Leonard Grant. (1912-ca.1963) I started university with no Latin but as a student in honors Romance languages (French and Italian) I was wisely advised to take at least one year of both Latin and German. Any good graduate school would demand a reasonable knowledge of them. Dr. Grant was a mine of interesting lore on the civilization of ancient Rome and this made his classes fascinating. He was also the most organized, clear lecturer I ever encountered. At the beginning of every class he would take five minutes to summarize the previous session. Very few professors did this. It was in Dr. Grant’s class that I met the beguiling young lady whom I courted for two years prior to going off to Florence. During my year in Italy she was my muse and it was partly to impress her that I tried to make my year abroad as rich as possible in interesting experiences. She typed up many extracts from my letters and circulated them to various professors: Grant, Steinberg, Weinberg, Giese, Andison, etc.

10 (p. 45) Thinking about Canada in 2017 I have a fuller appreciation. It is a relatively compassionate country. Its health care system and most of its universities are excellent.

11 (p. 46) A famous book set in borgo San Frediano is Vasco Pratolini’s “Le Ragazze di San Frediano.”

12 (p. 50) Leonard’s remark about Canadians being dull and without illusions infuriated me. I had very thin skin in those days and tended to take generalizations as personal affronts. I now think that his remark was quite perceptive.

13 (p. 52) My interest in libretti has been constant throughout my life and led to my writing two books on the subject: “Italian for the Opera” (1991, 150 pages) and “Operatic Italian” (2009, 460 pages). For details see my website: and my blog,

14 (p. 54) This first exposure to the subject of Nazi brutality in Italy led to further investigation on my part. I discovered places in Rome which tourists can visit to get a good idea of the brutality and terror of the German occupation (September 1943 to June 1944): the Gestapo interrogation center on Tasso Street (a few blocks west of the Lateran), which is one of the main scenes in “Roma, Città Aperta” and the Ardeatine Caves located a few miles south of Rome, just west of the Appian Way. These caves witnessed the mass execution of a few hundred innocent Italians as a reprisal for an anti-German act by terrorists. They were tied up and shot and then the caves were dynamited shut. During my visit to these caves I was given a private tour by a Jewish man whose father was one of the victims. These are grim places but I think it is important to know about them. Dante’s Ulysses is right: to understand mankind one must know good and evil “i vizi umani e i valori.”

15 (p. 58) I cringe when I read my political views in 1960. Generally I did not keep well informed about current events. Events later in the l960s (the death of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, the Chicago riots, Kent State, and above all, the Vietnam War) appalled me and compelled me to become more aware of politics.

16 (p. 67) George Woodcock (1912-1995) The University of British Columbia almost never hired professors without degrees but in Woodcock’s case they made an exception because he had written many brilliant books and was well known in British academic circles (George Orwell was a close friend.) His course on European literature in translation was highly esteemed by students.

17 (p. 70) When I look back on my youth it is clear that at school we had very little training in morality, the virtues and the vices. I doubt if we were even aware of negative things like pride, envy, ire, treachery, or positive things like kindness, compassion, humility, modesty, self-control, etc. When I was in grade eight The British Columbia Department of Education stopped the reading of Bible passages over the school’s public address system. I remember thinking it was a shame because I enjoyed the sheer beauty and grandeur of the language. Throughout the rest of my school years I can recall almost no discussion of moral values (although it couldn’t be avoided when I encountered Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth.) Worse, (for me at least) I can recall almost no such discussion in my family of origin. We were stuck in a mute, inarticulate, valueless little world. Going to Florence and reading what Dante has to say about the seven deadly sins was a wonderful revelation. My eyes were opened. Finally, here were the concepts vital to understanding my life and finding a pathway out of the “selva oscura.” It was something I had been thirsting after for years.

18 (p. 72) Vittorio Gassman recites Dante with great sensitivity and power. I have never heard a better reading. In our own time another famous Italian actor, Roberto Benigni, has carried on the Gassman tradition by giving frequent public readings of “La Divina Commedia.” He too reads well. Although he likes to play the clown, when he reads Dante he is very serious and respectful. I have yet to meet an Italian who did not revere “Padre Dante”. Google “oral readings from Dante’s Inferno” or “Vittorio Gassman reads Dante” and you are in for a treat. Three years after my year in Florence I was in my second year of graduate studies at Yale. In a seminar on Dante Professor T. Bergin asked me to read the Ulysses passage from Dante. I slammed my book shut, stood up, and theatrically declaimed all twenty-six verses in the original Italian. It might have been impressive but I did not endear myself to my peers who were watching. Damned show off!

19 (p. 85) I think I can speak for my generation of left wing university students when I say that we were very naive in thinking that matters such as “decadence” and “pornography” were without serious inherent dangers. They were very dangerous indeed, as psychologists were to discover (in the 1980s) when they identified ‘sexual addictions’ and analyzed the havoc they (and pornography) wrought in the lives of many people.

20 (p. 86) Rick wasn’t the only North American who wanted to become an Italian. In the movie “Breaking Away” (1979) Dennis Christopher plays a young university student in Indiana who is obsessed with bicycle racing and becoming Italianate.

21 (p.90) The White Spot is a drive-in restaurant chain in Vancouver. They were prized locally for their excellent hamburgers. I car-hopped to help pay my way through university.

22 (p. 96) My local library (in Victoria, B.C.) has purchased several Italian television series which center on a police inspector. Watching them gives a good idea of life in Italy; it is also an excellent way to improve one’s understanding of spoken Italian. Three of the best ones are Commissario Nardone (set in post World War II Milan), Commissario Montalbano (based in Sicily and inspired by Andrea Camilleri’s novel), Commissario Soneri (Nebbie e delitti or Fogs and crimes), set in Ferrara.

23 (p. 101) I had a big thrill when I visited Venice in the summer of 2015 with copies of my recently printed “Operatic Italian” and found several Venetians (including a lady who sold tickets at the La Fenice Opera House) who were impressed with it and lost no time in buying a copy. For details of the book see my site:

24 (p. 109) I decided to use in this book many photos from “Il Paesaggio Italico nella Divina Comedia.” Its stark black and white photos from pre-World War One tone in well with the time frame of my stay (1960-61). I have used them for Perugia, Urbino, Assisi, Pisa, Siena, Rome and several other cities.

25 (p. 112) This was a chilling harbinger of things to come. Only six years after I wrote these letters the Arno unleashed its fury on Florence. Dante probably would have exulted in this and seen it as just punishment for the city’s iniquities. For those interested in the flood and a panorama of Italian history from 1960 to about 1990 be sure to see “La Meglio Gioventù” (“The Best of Our Young People”). This movie follows the experiences of two Roman brothers, one a police officer and the other a social worker. For those who love Italy it is obligatory viewing.

26 (p. 118) I will feel very gratified if anyone reading this book finds my remarks on families useful. One very important concept is ‘family scripts’ i.e. certain behaviors and attitudes that are transmitted, often unawares, from generation to generation. Gino’s family’s love for their mother was a wake-up call for me and got me thinking about my own family scripts, especially lack of love between mother and daughter (and son) and acute sibling rivalry. When my grandmother was widowed, old and frail, my mother refused to take her in to live with us and had her placed in a second rate nursing home. This was part of mother’s revenge for my grandmother’s siding with my violence-prone biological father and supporting him during my mother’s divorce proceedings against him (1946). My mother never forgave my grandmother for doing this and got even. Mother also never forgave her violent ex-husband for abusing her (Serious abuse: punches, black eyes, whippings with a policeman’s belt, etc.) and for many years after the divorce she harbored bitterness, a bitterness which spilled over onto me and my brother in the form of emotional detachment and neglect (in her eyes we resembled him a lot). I was too young to understand this (and I’ll bet my mother wasn’t even aware of it) but I reacted instinctively by walling myself off from her, getting my own revenge by giving her the silent treatment. I too learned to be cruel.

Mother retaliated by withdrawing from me even more. Our mutual silence lasted for years and precluded any insight as to what was happening. The script had worked its way down the line: my grandmother did not support my mother; my mother did not help me in any of the crises of my childhood. Did my retaliation against her for neglecting me and alientating me from my biological father take the form of seeking a new identity that would exclude her: that of an Italian? I think this is quite possible. Another script in our family was acute, physically violent sibling rivalry. (I mention this in my letter of December 4, 1960 in connection with Visconti’s movie “Rocco e i suoi Fratelli”) This rivalry existed between my older brother and me and, in an earlier generation, between my biological father and his younger brother. (The former trapped the latter under a steel tub then sat on it and kept him there all afternoon on a hot summer day.) I only became aware of psychology around 1965 but I realize now that the process of understanding and healing probably started in Torre Annunziata (Naples) when I observed the love that Gino’s family had for their mother. Living abroad for a year enabled me to see things from a new perspective.

27 (p. 120) Around 1966 I visited Sainte Anne de Beaupré which is just outside of Quebec City. The inner walls of this church are festooned with many discarded crutches. I was impressed and found it impossible not to believe in miracles.

28 (p. 123) On the subject of crime in modern-day Naples I recommend an excellent movie: “Ciao, Professore.” An elementary school teacher from Northern Italy falls victim to a bureaucratic error and is assigned to teach in a tough suburb of Naples. He soon finds out about the local drug and crime problems.

29 (p. 129) As I look back on things I think I sensed that my muse back in Vancouver might have found a new love interest and that that might account for her long silences. My hunch turned out to be accurate. I was in no position to feel self-righteous, however, because I had met a Florentine chemistry student, Laura C., who cast a spell on me. She had that special Botticelli blonde look—a mixture of spirituality and refined sensuality—that you can spot sometimes in Florence (I have seen such faces in shop girls in downtown Florence.) She had a sweet, even-tempered personality and the gift of making a man feel enfolded and validated. I went with her to a several Sunday afternoon dances at Fiesole and at the Student Union. My conversational Italian took a huge leap forward when I started spending time with her. Some lovely little details I recall: dancing close to what were to me very romantic new songs like Mina’s “Cielo in una stanza” (Try googling it through Youtube) and Peppino di Capri’s  “Luna Caprese”; her stroking the back of my hand and commenting on the protruding veins: “Suggeriscono la forza.” (They suggest strength.) she said, smiling and gazing into my eyes. What a lovely thing to hear a woman say! Such subtle recognition of one’s masculinity. She broke things off after about a month but did it with real kindness and style, giving me as a farewell keepsake a pair of gold cuff-links with the Florentine lily engraved on them. The lady in Vancouver was told nothing of this little interlude although it’s possible she suspected something.

30 (p. 129) James Inkster. I recall Mr. Inkster announcing over the public address system that “Rigoletto” would be shown on television over the weekend and that it was well worth watching. After he made that announcement he could do no wrong in my eyes! I should add that Mr. Inkster dared to talk about values. To link back with footnote 17 I still recall his excellent talk on the damaging effects of malicious gossip among students.

31 (p. 130) In the movie “The Amazing Mr. Ripley”, Matt Damon gets fitted by an Italian tailor and orders some suits. This scene brings back to me my visits to Signor Annichini and I have watched it more times than I care to admit. How thrilling, to order made to measure one’s first suit!

32 (p.142) If I could do the year over I would buy a scooter as soon as possible. It would save a great deal of time and exploring the country would be so much easier. I would also advise anyone embarking on a year abroad program to beware of trying to save money by settling for cheap but depressing accommodation. Keeping one’s morale up is important. So is fitness. I let my fitness level slide and put on some fat. Not good! Joining a fitness club would be a smart idea.

33 (p. 168) The special charm of Capri sets the stage for one of Somerset Maugham’s best short stories, “The Lotus Eaters.”

34 (p. 183) I returned to Vancouver in late June and within a few days the lady I wrote the letters to stepped out of my life. It was a major blow, I have to say. That summer (1961) I took two upper division courses at the University of British Columbia and studied with a vengeance. I had the great good fortune to study with two very remarkable teachers who just happened to be teaching there for the summer. One was Dr. Daniel Poirion (of Yale University) who gave a brilliant survey course on seventeenth century French literature. The other was Dr. Jean Darbelnet (of Laval University) who gave a course on the twentieth century novel in France. Darbelnet had written a brilliant book, “Stylistique comparé du français et de l’anglais,” which shows in depth how at an unconscious ‘metalinguistic’ level English and French differ in their essence (e.g. French tends to favor the abstract, English the concrete.) and that translators must take this into account when they translate. During the next academic year (1961-2) I finished my honors B.A. degree at UBC and was awarded a Woodrow Wilson fellowship which paid most of my expenses towards a PhD from Yale in Romance languages (1966). The things I learned during my year in Florence stood me in good stead throughout these years of study and for many years afterwards.

35 (p. 185) David Trott became a great friend and colleague. He went on to the University of Toronto, got his PhD there and had long, distinguished career as a professor at the Erindale branch of that university. He passed away in 2006 and had a theater named in his honor at the Erindale campus.

36 (p. 186) I returned to Florence several times over the years. During my visit there in 1994 I went around to Ede Parenti’s place in Via dei Serragli. Alas, she and Colonel Cugiani had long since died. It seemed that everything had changed: the friendly bookseller’s stall was gone, there was no trace of the “vinaio” or the communal showers. Italia’s trattoria was no longer there. I buzzed myself into the landing at the bottom of the stairs to Ede’s place and called out her name a few times. No answer but in my mind I could hear very distinctly her voice saying “Chi è?” (Who’s there?). I felt a lump in my throat, my eyes misted up, and I left.

37 (p. 190) “Son et lumière”: an entertainment held by night at a historic monument or building, telling its history by the use of recorded sound and dramatic lighting effects.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s