VAGLIAGLI, NEAR SIENA, June 10—By the grace and generosity of someone very dear, I finish a couple of weeks in Italy today, most of its spent in a stone farmhouse on a vineyard in this little commune between Siena and Florence. I have made many random notes, some in my head, some on paper. Here I cull a few of them from the hodge-podge collection.
IN ROME WE STAYED in a pleasant little loft just around the corner and down a narrow lane from the Fontana di Trevi—which, to be noted straightaway, is lost to the great broad masses. By ten any given morning and well into the evening, one can hardly penetrate in the little square in front of it. What strikes me most as I jostle through—apart from the appalling way people dress nowadays and the sight of paunchy middle-aged men in shabby shorts licking huge cones of gelato looking as spaced-out as any eight-year-old—is the feeling (more or less a certainty, in truth) that few people in the crowd has any clue as to the fountain’s history or pays any attention to its Baroque artistry or has any idea what is depicted in its Bernini-esque façade. Just another occasion for a “selfie.” A thought was planted.
One morning I crossed the square before the crowd had accumulated and went for coffee at the little bistro I favored down a street on the other side. A building next door was being cleaned, and the workmen soon climb down the scaffolding and came in for a quick espresso. I watched them as they gathered in front of the bar. They were dressed in workers’ blues smudged with the chalky dust of the stone they were cleaning. Their shirts read EUROPONT on the back, and beneath that, PONTEGGI.
They reminded me of all the blue-clothed workmen I used to have coffee next to early in the mornings long ago, when I was a student in Paris and walking along the quais on the way to my classes. The same thing struck me, although I was not able to articulate it back then. The Romans, like the Parisians in their “Renault bleues,” had an ease about them I, as an American, found quite unfamiliar. They bantered with a vitality and engagement one rarely sees among American workers, and I suppose I am thinking of the construction crews one passes along Manhattan streets. It mattered to each that he get his point across to the others. They might disagree, but that was half the fun, and they smiled fondly as they did. I thought, Unskilled or semi-skilled workers cleaning the grime from an old façade in central Rome, and they display nothing of that abstract fear you detect in Americans. They are bien dans leurs peaux, as the French say—comfortable in their skins. They enjoy a degree of security Americans have lost over the past few decades. Life isn’t going to bite them on their backsides.
At about this time I had my morning coffee near the Trevi, Ann Jones published a piece in The Nation about her several years in Norway and how different she found life on her return to America. Norwegians are not free because they have a free market, she wrote. They are free because part of their lives, a big part, is free from the market. It is something of my point.
In gesture and demeanor on any city street one finds evidence of the health (or otherwise) of the polity.
FROM ROME TO FLORENCE by bullet train, trens de alta velocidade. They are called Frecciarossa, red arrows, because of their color and the steeply sloped noses of the locomotives. We boarded one at 4.30 one afternoon and had dinner along the Arno that evening. Our tickets cost €43 each. (A comparable journey in the States—say from New York to Washington—would have cost anywhere from $100 to well above $200—you cannot know, because AmTrak arbitrages against demand and ticket prices change by the minute.)
Central Rome to central Florence in an hour and twenty minutes, top speed 260 kilometers per hour. It left us plenty of time to settle into our hotel before setting out for the evening. As we passed through the Umbrian countryside and then into Tuscany—one superb view after another—I said to the above-noted someone very dear, “Think about the ride from Grand Central to Ten Mile River,” the latter the tiny stop nearest my home in rural Connecticut. “Seventy miles or so, chug-chug, creak-creak, clank-clank, the trains never quite certain and never quite clean: It takes just short of two hours.” I allowed S.V.D. a moment to reflect. “We won’t get away with this much longer—if, in fact, we’re getting away with it now.”
IHAD MY HEART SET on seeing two paintings at the Uffizi. Just two, nothing more: This trip was about “the dailiness of living,” in Randall Jarrell’s memorable phrase, not sights.
They were the two Rembrandt self-portraits placed (if I recall accurately from the first time I saw them, thirty-odd years ago) opposite one another in an alcove at the top of a flight of stairs. Rembrandt did them in roughly in the same pose, the same black cap cocked the same way, the same gaze. One the artist painted when young and exuberant, bright with vitality, the other at the other end of his career—an old man who has seen too much to keep the bright flame of youth alive. Together they are… magnificent seems about right.
After lunch one day we went to the museum. Maybe thirty yards from the entrance I caught sight of the hoards. I pressed on, still eager, a few steps ahead of S.V.D. At ten yards or so I aborted mission: “Can’t cope,” I said as I turned toward S.V.D. “I’d rather look at them in an art book.”
My mind went back to Rome and the Trevi and the thought planted during our stay near it. What are we to think about the democratization of cultural institutions? I am very conflicted about this question. I have no answer. I have got this far: What we have now does not seem to work.
If I am a democrat in the broadest meaning, I am of the Jeffersonian kind in at least one (and maybe only one) way: Democracy lives if education (and the press—another conversation) is made universal. A working democracy assumes a certain degree of intelligence across the citizenry. The motion is raising up, not lowering down. But what do we find at such places as the Fontana di Trevi and the Uffizi? Of what use is it for people to enter and mill around aimlessly for a brief period, knowing little other than that a guide book tells them that this is what one does in Florence or Rome? Knowing very little on the way in, this is to say, and knowing no more on the way out.
What purpose is served? Has “culture” become mere ritualistic tribute, a hollow ceremony that long ago lost all meaning? What are we—long ago turned into desiring machines—pretending to honor?
BY WAY OF A FRIEND OF S.V.D, we have met the proprietors of one of the region’s most honored vineyards. The Bindi Segardi family has been making Chianti Classico (and variants) since 1349. Drink the wine: It is quite special.
The vineyard is now run by the daughter of the man into whose hands it descended sometime after the war (if I have the story right). She invited us to a tour, a tasting, and lunch, and afterward her delightful father joined us. We went out onto a loggia for coffee (and so he and I could smoke). The conversation went this way and that, and he started to tell me about the poverty prevalent in the early postwar years. I mentioned a book I have always ranked among favorites: Christ Stopped at Eboli, Carlo Levi’s account of a kind of internal exile he endured before and during the war years. Mussolini sent Levi—a doctor, a painter, an anti-fascist—to the mountains east of a market town in Calabria called Eboli. Beyond Eboli, he meant to say, civilization stopped.
The old man nodded. “Yes, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli. O.K. You want a writer who tells you truly about life in the south? Read Giovanni Verga. The books are short but very fine.”
I had not heard of Verga. But there was something about the way the old man spoke that made me determined to look up Verga and read him—if there was anything in English. I did this week and there is—plenty. His most famous novel, set in a Sicilian fishing village, is called The House by the Medlar Tree, Il Malavoglia in the original. Verga published in 1881, an English translation came out in 1890, and none other than Grove Press brought out a new one in 1953. To my delight—he is among my pantheon of greats—D.H. Lawrence published Little Novels of Sicily in 1925, a collection of Verga’s work. Lawrence brought it out by way of Thomas Seltzer, his very curious American publisher in the 1920s, based in Philadelphia.
A Seltzer edition of the Lawrence book is in the mail and will await me when I return home. Can hardly wait. I am already reading The House by the Medlar Tree. And I am damned if writers such as Gárcia Márquez, Mafouz, and Miguel Ángel Asturias—all three Nobelists, now that I think of it—did not learn from an Italian who predated them by a century.
MY DAYS IN ITALY have been eventful in the world beyond our Tuscan commune. President Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement. Europe recoiled in shock and began talking of going its own way—at last! President Macron received Vladimir Putin at Versailles, the Saudis and four other Arab nations aggressively sanctioned Qatar to isolate it. I have followed all this best I could. I wrote a column on Europe’s very remarkable reaction to Trump’s withdrawal from Paris, which was not accurately reported in the American press. (Neither was the Macron–Putin summit, but, then, American correspondents are entirely incapable of writing about Putin with any useful degree of detachment, not to mention integrity.)
I could not help but marvel as I read The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the usual corporate press on the internet. It was all Comey-said-this-and- Flynn-did-that-and-the-Russians-are-behind-it-and-Sessions-met-somebody-and-the-F.B.I.-is-or-is-not-investigating, and on and on, utterly without point. I marveled to be away from it, even if briefly: At last, the world outside our bubble. I marveled because I could again see the world as it is turning.
And I could look back and see, too, how lost we are in nonsense, how determined we are to pursue a decline that was in no wise inevitable until we set our minds to it. We will not, indeed, long get away with this.