A Recollection of Northern Italy
David Lance Goines
October 1, 1991
QUITE AN EVENTFUL couple of months, I must say. The most interesting, from a personal point of view was our trip to Italy from the 14th through the 25th of September, 1991.
Sometime in the mid-1970s, an Italian art historian of the University of Padua, Dr. Camillo Semenzato, visiting his son Paulo at UC Berkeley, wandered into my shop one morning and, though he did not speak English nor I Italian, he must have had someone with him who did, as he recollects a spirited conversation between us. When he left he took with him as souvenirs of Berkeley a dozen or so of my posters. He put them on the wall of his study and in the succeeding years showed them to everyone. About a year ago, his younger son Luigi Semenzato, a computer sciences doctoral candidate at UC, wandered into my shop one Saturday morning, and we fell to talking. He told me that his father had visited some fifteen years earlier, and that he had a small collection of my work in his home in Padua. Though I had no recollection of this meeting, I was gratified that my work appealed to someone so far from Berkeley, and an art historian to boot, and loaded Luigi down with current posters, as well as copies for his father, which he dutifully took with him when he visited that Christmas.
Early in the year, I got a call from Luigi (whose English is better than mine-both he and his brother have married Berkeley alumnae-his wife Martha is an international banker, and Paulo's wife, Paula, is busy adding to the population of Italy) asking if I would be interested in having a show of my work in Italy sometime in the fall. "You don't need to ask me twice," was my response, though indeed, so many times such remarks are no more than politeness and often do not come to fruition, so I more-or-less forgot about it immediately. You may imagine my surprise when, some months later, Luigi called to say that a small new gallery in Asolo, a town that I had never heard of, was interested in having an extensive showing of posters, and that if I were interested, the gallery owners would like me to be at the opening. So, the ball had begun to roll in earnest, seemingly, and I gathered together a collection of some sixty posters that I felt would best represent my work. After many delays and confusions-the inevitable result, I came to learn, of the effort to make American hurry-up-right-now-exactly-on-time mentality mesh with the Italian depend-on-a-miracle, three-hour-lunch-with-your-family view of the world (Americans think that Italians are inefficient; Italians think that Americans are insane)-we managed to get the posters shipped off to Treviso, which is a medium-sized industrial town between Venice and Asolo. Amazingly enough, the tickets were actually waiting for us at the crack-of-dawn airport, and we embarked on the usual exhausting twenty hours in flight, awful changes of plane, delays and cramped seats, arriving at last (after only two near-fatal run-in's with customs officials over just exactly how good it was for film to be x-rayed fifty or sixty times) in Rome's soggy downpour airport that looks just like any other airport, a three hour delay and then into the tiny Venice flat-as-a-pancake airport. No problems with customs, though a Mussolini look-alike gave me a pitying glance when he saw that I had brought a case of California wines and olive oils (as presents to our various hosts, all with labels that I had designed) but they were looking for drugs, snuffling hell-hound and all, and couldn't care less about good things to eat and drink coming into the country. At last, with a feeling much like getting out of jail after a brief visit, we were arrived. There to greet us were Luigi and Martha in their ancient, diseased Citroën-the kind that looks like a stinkbug and has an hydraulic system (it runs on a green fluid called "blood,") that runs everything and always is malfunctioning-and off to adventure number one: Italian driving!
Italian roads were not built like ours: "Put the freeway through here; on either side we'll bring in the houses, the school goes over there. Put the shopping center-two shopping centers-on that side. What the hell-we don't even know how big this place is yet. Far as we know, it goes on forever." No. Italian roads are the dwarf offspring of neolithic pig-trails, about half as wide as an ordinary American residential street, bordered on either side by deep ditches and lovely tall trees. Existing in apparent harmony on these incredibly narrow avenues are nuns on bicycles, women pushing baby carriages, pretty girls and old ladies on mopeds, tiny commercial trucks that have fifty cc engines and don't require a driver's license to operate, ordinary passenger cars, huge twenty-wheel trucks, racing cars, lunatic schoolboys two-at-a-time on scooters, powerful motorcycles piloted by hot-eyed maniacs, and doddering ancient pedestrians. Every single one of them proceeding at the speed they think best, with no regard whatever for the speed at which anyone else might be going. This apparent chaos, which had my heart in my mouth throughout our entire stay in Italy, is governed by three simple rules and no others: (1) Never pass on the right; (2) no right turn on a red light; (3) you are responsible for an area of roughly 180° in front of you, into which you may move as, if, and when, you see fit. That's it! It's dirt simple, sort of like the rules for chess. The area behind you is not your responsibility. Posted speeds are suggestions, not laws (nobody goes at the suggested speed unless on foot). Amazingly enough, this system seems to work perfectly well. The drivers are uniformly polite, and seemingly uniformly skillful. I didn't hear one single "fuck-you-buddy-and-the-horse-you-rode-in-on" style horn-honk all the time we were there. We ran over a dog, and saw the residue of a few nasty accidents, but it was nothing compared to the carnage that such a system would introduce to America. Automatic shift automobiles are not sold in Italy. For the Italians, driving is a national sport in which they indulge with great vigor. Unlike what the lying ads for cast-tin Geo's and other EPA Specials make you want to believe happens on American roads, driving in Italy is really fun! Gasoline is so expensive-filling the tank of our host's BMW station wagon cost a hundred dollars-that there are far fewer cars per person. Every car, without exception, was in excellent shape: shiny, no belching of oily smoke or lurching on failing internal combustion Ma-and-Pa-Kettle junk heaps. Lots of busses and bicycles, scooters and motorcycles. But there are also no vast spaces between things as here. Italy is a small country. Small and old. One village blends into the next, carefully tended fields and manicured orchards all around. All the land has been owned, tilled and fought over, sweated on and bled into for thousands and thousands of years.
Oh, yes. There is no legal drinking age. The purchase, sale and consumption of alcohol is entirely up to the individual. The rate of automobile accidents associated with alcohol consumption is about the same as here. I was gratified to notice that whoever was driving remained quite abstemious-maybe a glass of wine at lunch, but certainly no more, one or two with dinner. The custom of getting good and tanked up before heeding the call of the open road seems to have fallen by the wayside, at least in the circles in which we travelled. I saw, however, no signs of drunken, careless or rude driving at all. Fast as greased sin, yes, but competent.
The usual crop of do-gooders is trying to reduce teenage drinking and driving, but I'm pleased to report that so far their officious meddling has borne no fruit. If they do succeed in messing with what seems to be a system in equilibrium, no doubt things will get worse, nobody will associate Carrie Nation with the worsening, more laws will be passed, things will become worse yet and so on until it starts to look like around here.
My personal, ever-deepening anarchist convictions that the best government is no government received a real boost in Italy. However, you have to be born to it: I have one sincere piece of advice if you ever should travel to Italy: do not rent a car and do not drive. You don't know the rules and you won't live through the experience, and some innocent Italians probably won't either. The Northern Italian drivers, who turned my hair white, are themselves terrified of the drivers in Milan and Rome. Romans are, it seems, to the drivers of Padua as those of Boston to Bozeman, Montana. I must also add that there seems to be a real hatred between Northern and Southern Italy: what little graffiti I saw dedicated itself to equating Romans with Nazis, and Southern Italians in general with a plague of locust. When commenting on the beauty of the average person-they're all slender and not a single fatso did I see, a large percentage of ordinary young women would give Gina Lollabrigita a good run for her money and they all seem to spend every penny they make on clothes-I was told in all sobriety that the Southern women beyond the age of twelve (below the age of twelve they're monsters of perversity) are shrewish, devastatingly ugly, generously mustachioed and vastly corpulent; that the men (if the term can be stretched so far) are venal, corrupt, shiftless and incompetent; that where the land has not been destroyed by industrial pollution the countryside is bland and uninteresting; the wine undrinkable, the food unfit for human consumption and the blighted architecture would make a hog blush. I doubt that this is strictly true, but since I haven't been there I can't say for sure. The rivalry exceeds that of Northern California and Southern California by a long chalk.
Of graffiti, I couldn't help but think, each time I saw an ancient wall, monument, building, public statue, how in my own country it would have been vandalized, defaced with 'tags' and obscenities. It's as though I'd walked out of cacophony into a dignified silence.
Our drive from the Venice airport into the small medieval walled town of Castlefranco was punctuated by an intersection closed for a bicycle race. The countryside is as flat as a billiard table, devoted to Indian corn, wheat, alfalfa, grape vines, tomatoes and frequent stands of slender trees of perhaps ten acres or so, raised for paper. There were few bits of ground untilled. Not many lawns, per se. Italians seem to think that diverting energy into growing something that you can't eat is a bit eccentric. In corners of parking lots were often small wire-enclosed patches of tomatoes, or five square feet of corn, perhaps an olive tree. Squash, fruit trees and in every front yard at least a dozen vines. Every household grows as much of its own vegetables and grapes as it can. There are two things that money can't buy: true love and home-grown tomatoes, and the Italians seem to have done their best to live simply.
The big disadvantage of being flat and old is that the entire country smells, no matter where you are or what quality of place you may be in, of drains. Just a bit of mildew on everything; a whiff of sewer gas. You get used to it, but for an American it's uncomfortable. The Ancient Romans actually had a mildew festival in early spring. It didn't make too much sense to me until now.
In Castlefranco we stopped for a caffé correto, which seems to me to be the best way of doing it: rich, strong espresso with a shot of grappa. Grappa is a local specialty, and not much available elsewhere. I hadn't drunk much of it before, thinking of it mostly as something you need for cooking certain Italian specialties. It's made from the pumice, or pressed skins and seeds of the grape. This is fermented into a mash and then distilled into a water-clear, high-test beverage with a distinct rotten undertone. It's got the usual kick like a mule, numbs the entire mouth and throat, and if consumed immoderately induces upon the dawn a desire for death. Something that at first you don't much like, but then you get to like it. I didn't entirely succeed in getting to like it, but I had ample opportunity to try. As I write of it, a strange desire to drink some comes over me. It's surprisingly expensive, considering that it isn't aged at all-like our native white lightning, it's supposed to be drunk as soon as it's been distilled. But prices of $90 to $150 per bottle (1,000 lira is about 80¢) were not uncommon, and the really grand stuff that was poured down our throats in private homes probably went for more-if it was for sale at all; the Italian economy seems to run on a quid pro quo basis far more than ours. It seems that cash doesn't change hands as much as you might think. Our entire trip, for example, cost us precisely big nothing, the donut, zippola. We were supposed to pay for Edie's air fare, but when I brought the subject up, "It was not the time to discuss this." The implication, of course, is that I was expected to do something of approximately equal value in return. And, of course, being no dummy, that is just what I have done. As soon as I got the projects that had been hanging fire during my absence out of the way, I designed three logos for our Italian friends: one for a company that breeds genetically engineered mice; one for a small company that buys and sells mechanical wrist watches, and one for the Treviso Manufacturer's Association that theoretically brought me over in the first place and footed the bill.
The other local specialty is prossecco, a sparkling white wine that, just as with grappa, is meant to be drunk immediately. Not to be aged, not to be vintaged, but to be served, basically, until it runs out. Everywhere we had prossecco. It's a yeasty, foamy, fruity white wine that varies from dry as a bone to sticky sweet. It's always served in a glass pitcher-the red is always served in an earthenware pitcher or one of those official Italian government-sealed glass carafes. Prosecco goes well with everything that isn't suited to the local red, a thin, acidic, low-alcohol wine that cuts through rich sauces, olive oil-drenched breads and salads. At the first mouthful of the red I always shuddered involuntarily, but then it went down just fine. (Not like the wines of some areas, of which it is said that it takes three men to consume it: one to drink and two to hold him). We drank nothing else. Everywhere-fancy restaurants, private homes, corner caffés, trattorias-all served the same thing: the local red, the local prossecco and the local grappa. And by "the local," I mean that which is produced within actual sight of the trattoria, caffé, home, &c.
After the restorative, we walked around the castle walls. It didn't look too serious; more for a show of strength that with the actual thought of withstanding a siege. Something to indicate to the local "value subtracted" robber baron that messing with the city would be expensive and time consuming. The walls would certainly discourage casual brigands and whatnot, though nothing that couldn't be battered down in a few days with some fairly modest cannon. But damned picturesque at this remove of some six or seven hundred years of moss and trees growing in cracks, sections tumbling down and a miniature Snow White village inside. Not a lot of room left for streets within the city walls proper. Outside, of course, were huge open paseos in which everyone, young and old, paraded around gabbing and socializing. The young men and women strictly segregated in chattering, whispering, full-eye-contact clumps. Families pushing the customary month's-pay pram ensconcing a muffled, almost invisible bambino done up in the most splendid of outfits. Everywhere clothes drying on lines: Italians have embraced the washing machine, but believe the automatic clothes dryer to be immoral in some way that I couldn't get anyone to define. Our hosts, the UC graduate brothers with American wives, were deeply desirous of getting a dryer, but were afraid of public censure or something. It was hard to put your finger on, exactly. There is furthermore a deep conviction that diaper services spread germs, so the disposable is cramming their landfills even more than ours.
Leaving the late medieval rubble-heap of Castlefranco, by a road that seemed at times to head directly into a brick wall or dead-end alley, we proceeded again towards our destination: the tiny hill town of Asolo. To say "hill town," is not really precise. The Alps begin the way a flight of stairs begins. No long, low rolling foothills such as we are accustomed to in California, stretching on for fifty or a hundred miles before gradually resolving themselves into mountains that you would dignify with the name. Not at all. The Alps rise straight out of the table top of the district of Venito, ascending from the outskirts of Asolo, which are in the plain, to the center, which is a good fifteen hundred feet in elevation, giving a vast panorama of the surrounding farmlands, and on a clear day a sharp view of Venice itself.
Venice and environs in the summer are insupportably hot and muggy, and the towns of Treviso, Castlefranco, Bassano del Grappa, Asolo and others were founded to some extent by wealthy Venetians as summer retreats. This is less true of Asolo, which is not only of the most profound antiquity, dating back to Roman and even pre-Roman times, but a very fancy tourist town, mostly catering to wealthy Italians. The shops that don't sell antiques sell Rolex watches the size of hen's eggs, and the ones that don't sell Rolex watches sell those incredibly expensive, well-made, styleless, dirt-colored clothes that rich people wear because 1) they can get away with it and 2) rich people are cheapskates and want things that they buy to last forever.
We saw few foreign tourists-one small party of Germans, one or two other Americans, and thank God no French-and most shopkeepers did not speak or understand English. The waiters at the town's medium-fancy restaurant "Charley's One," spoke good English. Dinners at Charley's One ran about the same as the Chez Panisse Café. The town laundress-I had not brought enough shirts or pants or anything-spoke no English at all, and dumb-show had to do for "light starch." I didn't get any starch, which I suppose was just as well. I don't know if she took us for easy marks, but it cost about five dollars to get my shirt laundered and pressed.
Edie was of course quite comfortable, even a little chilly at times, whereas I sweated like a bull. There's a lot to be said for being big and strong, but in warm weather that smaller ratio of surface area to volume makes the cooling system kick in and I was in a muck most of the time. I was especially miserable when I had, for reasons of propriety, to wear my tweed sports coat and a tie. My only tie was considered unpresentable, so we went around the town's chi-chi haberdasheries and finally located a truly beautiful silk Italian necktie that ran about a billion lira, but it was worth it.
The people who were sponsoring the show and our presence at it own one of Asolo's two hotels. Hotel Duse-named in honor of one of the town's former residents, the great 19th century actress Eleanora Duse. She's buried in the ornate local graveyard with the notables of the last century (there must be an older graveyard somewhere else that we didn't locate), overlooking the valley between Asolo and the towering Alps. Nice view to have forever.
The other hotel, the Cipriano, is the one that Queen Elizabeth stays at when she vacations at Asolo. You may imagine that it is pretty darn fancy. We were intimidated by it and didn't go there for dinner. I suspect it would have been swell, but the sight of the exceedingly fancy people in the sunken-garden dining area put me off my feed. Personally, I'm more comfortable at places that do not cater to royalty. We were given a choice of the Hotel Duse (which we never actually went into, then or later) or a suite of rooms next door. We took the suite without even having compared it to whatever else might have been available.
Let me try to give you some idea of what this apartment was like. First, an inscription in stone on one of the pillars supporting the open walkway beneath the structure told us that
RESTAURATO PER LA HORIBILE TERREMOTO SEGULTO L'ANO 1675 GIORNO DI VENERDI 25 FEB HORE 12.
This 15th century building survived an earthquake that happened when the Pilgrims were just getting geared up for exterminating the Noble Red Man-that's pretty old. Up a dark flight of stairs, illuminated in former times by a small skylight and now abetted by tiny electric bulbs, to a small door on the first landing set into an imposing double door. Rock-solid wide oak plank flooring that looked to be as old as the building, thick plaster walls, fourteen-foot beamed ceilings, the beams about 6" x 12" and perhaps a foot apart. The main room was about 40 x 20 feet and full of horrid antiques and clumsy, but authentic, oils, engravings and lithos. In the middle of the room, above the huge formal dining table (which was actually quite beautiful-walnut I'd say and from its relative plainness perhaps from the 16th century or earlier) was the most astonishing confection of Venetian glass humanly imaginable. In any other context its extraordinary garishness would have been laughable, but here it made perfect sense. The thing was immense. I can't imagine how they cleaned it, though it sparkled. Most other large buildings had them, too. It looked like something made out of the glass that you win at carnivals by throwing dimes into plates, except really expensive and well made. I'd say it was five feet across and six feet tall; pink and blue and green and fluted, floral, trumpets of glass and countless tiny lightbulbs. It looked like the mother ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind hovering in our dining room. Out of vulgar curiosity we priced one when we were in Venice: about six thousand bucks. Having something like that, so gaudy and so expensive in my living room would give me the fan-tods. It also would be much bigger than our living room. Our whole house, yard included, is smaller than this apartment. Maybe we could leave the chandelier outside and bring it in once a year as a Christmas tree. Wouldn't need decorating, at least.
The dining room was further lighted by a large double door leading onto a balcony overlooking the street. Above the door was bottle glass, amber and red. Between the dining room and the obviously recently carved-out kitchen-which was large and attractive, but alien enough to where we couldn't figure out how to work anything but the refrigerator door-was another set of doors set in similar glass. To the left of the dining room, as you faced the street, was an equally large sitting room with a fireplace that you could camp out in. This room we only went into once. To the left were two large bedrooms and a modernized bath. We didn't use them either. To the right as you entered the apartment was a long hall leading into a large bath, and an unusually narrow, deep entryway that led into a palatial master bedroom. All white stucco, beamed 14 foot ceilings, another of those ox-roasting fireplaces. A bed that must have seen scores of lovers and an equal number of babies born, aching passion, deaths and quarrels and making-ups and tears and laughter; rages, fits, adulteries, plots and murders, poisonings and double-crosses. That bed was old, and big, and rather strange, with a powerful effect on the libido. It had a down mattress that you could drown in, supported in the middle by a board buried about a foot down running the length of the bed. A bit uncomfortable, and more or less making everyone sleep on one side or the other (Edie solved the problem by sleeping on top of me). No closets. No closets, in fact, in Italy. When Luigi saw the plans for his brother Paulo's to-be-newly-refurbished ancient farmhouse (Paulo is an architect) he suggested that he design built-in closets, like in Berkeley; like in America. But no, it was not possible. Same problem as with clothes dryers, I suspect. So, huge ornate wardrobes consume five or six square yards of floor space in every bedroom in the land.
Heavily curtained door-to-ceiling glass doors leading out to a large empty open space admitting air and light. Every window was shuttered, making the place as dark as the pit when closed up. Every window in the nation of Italy has shutters, and the custom seems to be to close them when you're not in the room. When you leave the house, everything is customarily shuttered up tight, making for blank walls and shops that appear and disappear like mushrooms. I don't think we actually saw all the little businesses in Asolo, because at any given time, half of them were closed and shuttered. This place has a long history of brigandage, I suppose. Something like Telegraph Avenue, only serious.
The only drawback to this otherwise fairy-tale apartment was that it had no hot water. We became accustomed to a brisk wash, though Edie worked on her sainthood candidacy by washing her hair every morning. I was a bit more perfunctory, but did my penance by shaving with cold water. If I'd been able to figure out how the stove worked, we could have warmed water on the stovetop, but it was too weird and I didn't want to repay our hosts by blowing the place up, and the language barrier prevented any really mechanical discussions. In compensation, there was a closet full of wines, wines stacked up in the kitchen, bottles of good booze on every table and expensive cigars and cigarettes in humidors. I regretted not smoking. Speaking of which, though none of our hosts smoked-the upper class seems to have adopted the American style of aspiring toward health-smoking was otherwise ubiquitous. People only half joked when I declined a cigarette saying, "Oh, yes. You are American. Nobody smokes there." All the time we were in Italy we saw only three joggers-one obviously a professional athlete puffing through Venice, and the other two equally obviously scrawny American health nuts. Though we had brought our running shoes, we felt it would be too great a display of eccentricity to jog anywhere, so we didn't. There were a number of weight-lifting and aerobic palaces that we saw in passing, but they seemed something of the avant-garde. We did not do any of that, either.
What we did do, however, was eat! I cannot believe that there are no fat people in Northern Italy, but it is so. Maybe they hide them when tourists are around, but I don't think that they do. I mean, I was about the fattest person in the whole country. They eat little or nothing for breakfast-a cappucino, a roll, a bit of bread. The older men have a caffé correto and a cigarette. At 12:30 the entire country shuts down for lunch. People go home and eat with their families; all the shops are shuttered; everything comes to a grinding, screeching halt for three hours. The bigger restaurants stay open, of course, and some of the caffés, though not all by any means. Lunch for us was usually a pasta dish, a half litre of the corrosive local red, some fruit and cheese, perhaps a sweet. Lots of bread and olive oil-butter is unheard of-and breadsticks as appetizers. Perhaps a bit of salad to tamp things down and clear the palate. Then a perfect espresso. Cappucino is for mornings only. The coffee is served with two packets of sugar, each of about two ounces. This is commonly dumped into a cup of coffee that is perhaps three ounces itself (it's amazing how much sugar you can get into a cup of coffee). In a caffé there are two ways of getting something to eat or drink: you can order for yourself at the bar, which is cheaper. But, then you must eat or drink standing. This is the usual thing when you're going to or returning from work and aren't going to do much socializing. If you wait for service at a table, things are about a quarter to a third more costly, but then you can sit until hell freezes over, talk and confabulate and no one will bat an eye.
At 3:30 or so in the afternoon, the whole civic machinery fires up again and continues to seven or eight at night. At that time, the plazas fill with people, parading around and talking and casting sheep's eyes at the fair one, the object of affection, who is of course buried in a bunch of people of their own gender. That's when dinner begins, the formal meal to have with friends or business associates. Lunch is for the family. To begin eating at ten or eleven at night is a commonplace, and the meals beggar my ability to express. Lots and lots of food, and they eat it all. We had steak more times in the two weeks that we were there than we usually have in a year. Beautiful steaks, perfect steaks-and from what I could determine, steaks that cost approximately their weight in silver. These are preceded by an antipasto, then the pasta, then the broiled beefsteak, followed often as not by another dish of fowl, then perhaps a bit of fish, then salad, then fruit and cheese and last a desert of mammoth proportions. All this accompanied by quarts of wine and followed by generous lashings of grappa. I have a strong head for drink, fortunately, and so did not make it hard for other Americans to follow us, should they come to Asolo.
Perhaps to see just how much we could eat without actually bursting at the seams, this was taken to an extreme by our hosts Enzo and Betty Tonon when we were entertained at a fish restaurant near Treviso. Course after course of exquisite seafoods: some that I had never laid eyes on. Shrimpy-crawdaddy things that looked prehistoric but tasted OK, really good, in fact; clam or mussel things that had a sort of mutated aspect but tasted just fine. And on and on and on until we were merely tasting each dish, mutely imploring our cheerful hosts for respite or at least a big doggie bag.
In this restaurant there was a style of toilet called "Turkish," which means a hole in the floor. It was a fancy Turkish toilet, which means that the whole floor is a large ceramic square sloping toward a hole, on either side of which are large corrugated footprints, where your feet should go. When you flush, you must move smartly to avoid being splashed by the water, which flows all over the place. You have to squat down to take a crap, and of course the ladies, unless they are careful indeed, find the trains of their gowns bemired. The bidet I got used to, and even began to like. But the Turkish toilet? No, gratzie.
Just to assure you that not all dining was peaches and prossecco, we did have dinner at the Hotel Duse restaurant, where the waiter was apparently stark, staring mad. Halfway through the meal, he leaped at a flying insect over Edie's head, smashing it triumphantly into paste above her and spilling her wine all over the table. Not a word, not a glance did he give us, nor, indeed did any of the other grossly underemployed louts lolling around in peaceful indolence. We ate what we had ordered and left. But, things like that make for a piquancy, a bit of spice. Without crazy waiters what would there be to talk about? We did not ride in any Italian taxis.
What I did have genuine difficulty with was the amount of coffee I was expected to drink, though not wishing to appear a crank, I had prepared myself by resuming coffee-a habit I dropped in 1984 along with tobacco-a month in advance of our trip. The coffee was delicious, though, and it would have seemed peculiar in the extreme if I had declined it. I've since taken it up again.
One of the things that it turned out that I was supposed to do, though no one had told me of it, was to present a design as a starting-off place for Italian designers to make an image for Treviso. I hadn't a clue, and it was due at the big ceremony with all the newspapers at ten o'clock the next morning, the day after we had arrived. Fortunately, Annamaria Semenzato and her husband and daughter-in-law Martha met us in Asolo's main square and we had dinner together. This, by the way, is how things are done. You drive an hour to a place you've never been, to meet people you've never seen, to tell them that something important that they've never heard anything about has to be done by tomorrow morning. The Italians accept miracles as a way of life. Of course, we met up with them as though it had been pre-ordained, and despite the fact that we did not understand each other's language, worked out a design. This is just the sort of event that makes it impossible to explain to Italians why things should be done in a more organized manner.
Mrs. Semenzato suggested, in jest, that it be a dot in the middle of the page. A "point" of departure for the artists. I was on this idea like a duck on a junebug, mainly because it meant that I wouldn't have to do any work and we could have a swell philosophical solution to a dumb problem. I am amazed to report that by the next morning, Professor Semenzato had worked the whole idea into such a florid presentation that nobody could possibly understand or disagree with him, and the idea went over beautifully. They all thought I was clever to defer to the local artists and not put myself forward like a pushy foreigner, but really there was no time to do anything else.
Asolo, being the size of a pocket handkerchief, lent itself admirably to walking, and we trekked every square inch of it. The town is dominated by a beetling, grim old 10th century fortress, about five hundred feet above everything else. It is itself, in turn, surrounded by a low stone wall enclosing nothing at all except twelve or fifteen acres of steep meadow. Probably where the livestock was pastured in time of relative tranquility. The fortress is blank thick stone walls, sixty feet high, enclosing an acre of nothing except a large cistern for siege water. In the bad old days, it probably had lean-to's for cattle and people, a forge for metalworking somewhere and a central hovel for the big cheese and his cheesetts and his dogs, and not much else. No real action unless somebody tried to get in that they hadn't invited. A serious business fortress; no show, no pizazz. Just plain straightforward murder, extortion and banditry without any frills or any excuse except that they could get away with it.
In the town proper is a relic of the Borgias; a large fort-cum-castle-cum-palace built in the early renaissance when things weren't quite settled down enough to where you could sleep well at night without three or four feet of masonry between you and the outside world, but safe enough to where you didn't really have to be able to withstand a serious siege of more than a day or two-if that. You also needed lots of room for retainers, horses (the former stables have been transformed into a splendid bocce ball court) and bands of touchy, heavily-armed bully-boys to intimidate the roving bands of other people's ill-tempered, equally heavily armed bully-boys. The tower rises a good hundred feet above the town, and on the downside the wall has a sheer drop of fifty or sixty feet. This place is still of a military caste, no doubt about it. We don't have picturesque walled cities with donjons and keeps scattered here and there like the quaint Europeans because gunpowder was commonplace when America was colonized by those same cantankerous Europeans. Walls just don't work when you have gunpowder. Otherwise, we too would have piles of masonry dotting the landscape. By way of icing on the cake, the entire town of Asolo is also surrounded by a wall, its four gates punched out of brick and stonework maybe twenty feet high. One gate is essentially abandoned, one long gone, and the remaining two are in good repair with houses built into them and flower boxes with red flowers-everywhere window boxes with geraniums, all over Northern Italy. Green shutters and red flowers in window boxes.
Across the town square, on which is situated the church, the main caffé, Charley's One and a number of smaller businesses, is a more modern pallazio. Maybe late 18th or early 19th century, it looks like a big, fancy hotel except that it's somebody's house. One of the three or four lavish formal gardens in town is in front, carefully manicured by probably the same team of old pizanos who do the others. Name of the place spelled out in flowers, lots of gone-to-seed marble sculptures, gravel walks that nobody walks on, formal beds of this and that; fussy, over-pruned trees: the usual lot. Not to my taste, really, which is just as well I suppose considering the upkeep.
Right outside our window and across the narrow, alternately one-way-this-way and one-way-that-way cobbled street is the town's main church. Big and not particularly distinguished, built over a period of a few hundred years, added onto and subtracted from bearing the marks of every architectural style to come down the pike. Impressive for so small a town. I'll bet that you could fit the entire permanent population of Asolo into the main part of the church and have room to spare. This is a Roman Catholic country, and you can't miss it for a minute. Every public building, bank, post office, business has a crucified Christ hanging in eternal, stylized agony mutely dripping blood all over everything. Or a small shrine to the Virgin, or both. Little saints scattered all over the place, like plaster gnomes on the lawn only they mean it. Lots of wayside shrines, each clearly maintained every day or once a week at least; candles burning, fresh flowers, little gifts of candy and tobacco. The most beautiful are the solitary alpine shrines; ordinarily a crucifix sheltered by a small steeply inclined roof to shed the snow. Little offerings in front of all of them.
Red tile roofs. Everything has a red tile roof. A view of an Italian town from a distance is a splotch of Tuscan red on hay green and yellow of withering cornstalks.
Enzo Tonon and his perky, cheerleader-pretty wife Betty (with the characteristic Northern Italian Goth + Vandal + Roman blond hair and big brown eyes-though Edie felt that there was a bit more art than nature reflected in those highlights) were our hosts much of the time. Enzo is connected in some mysterious way with the multitude of companies that mutually own the Studio Duse, the Hotel Duse, the travel agency that got us our tickets, his architectural firm, his watch company and the place that makes mice. Probably more that I didn't know about. Enzo is a fast driver. Our average speed on the road was about 120 kph, but we hit peaks of 160. Remember, these roads are the width of a '60s necktie, and as busy. In town, we went the speed of traffic, which I would guess was about 40 miles per hour. If Enzo saw a congested situation-say, a crippled nun on a bicycle and a ten-ton truck approaching a blind intersection fronting a high stone wall, he would speed up and get there first. I grew accustomed to it, but never really easy in my mind, if you know what I mean. When Enzo was in California, he was pulled over by the Highway Patrol for doing 75 in a 15 on Highway 1. He managed to persuade them that in Italy this would have been normal, and that he didn't understand that in Carmel you must do as the Carmelians do and leave Roman ways behind. No ticket, though God knows how he pulled it off. Betty owns a small upscale clothing store called "Alta Tension," and gave Edie (a continuing hit among the Italians for her exotic looks-not a whole lot of Asians in Northern Italy) a lovely sweater.
Betty's parents had us to dinner at their country home-a big modern house in the middle of fields and vineyards. Her ditzy mother is a good cook, and once again we did not leave the table hungry. Betty's father made wines, of which we sampled at least a dozen, and when we left he loaded us down with wines to take home. Prossecco and the customary red. Neither of her parents spoke English, and Betty and Enzo not well, but Luigi and Martha took up the slack. Going places with Enzo was, aside from his driving, relaxing. He spoke little and didn't seem to mind prolonged silence, which was fine with me. Otherwise, wherever I was I found myself embroiled in obscure conversations with people whose English was not too good-my own Italian consisting of "Bon giorno," and "Gratzie," and "Si" some of which obscure conversations on mutually incomprehensibly subjects, such as the one that got into the local papers, consisted in trying to find out my opinions of advertising campaigns that showed priests and nuns French kissing or little black kids made up as devils standing by little white kids dressed like angels or other stuff that I claimed (quite falsely) to have no knowledge of whatsoever. I figured, "When in Rome, keep your mouth shut." A good plan, as it turned out, and a good plan most of the time when you don't know what's going on. Why in the hell would I want to get caught up in their own internal politics, and end up by accident on one side or the other and make the other side mad at me? Only a fool would do that. I couldn't care less about nuns kissing priests-if pressed, I suppose I'd say it was a good thing, on the whole-brotherly love and all that. As long as it didn't go any further, that is. I mean, I wouldn't want to see priests or nuns kissing anybody else.
At last, after ten days the hot water was fixed, but by then we'd become inured to piercingly cold baths (cold water doesn't really get you very clean-you just sort of scoot the dirt around more than anything, where it collects in the cracks), our sainthood assured. Time to get ready for the whole reason we're here: the big show at Studio Duse. From what I could determine, it too was once part of the complex of rooms of which part is our apartment. Remains of renaissance frescos carefully preserved on the upper parts of the walls. Hanging the show with Professor Semenzato (no help at all) and his wife, Annamaria-herself a former art historian and a witty, pleasant woman (worse than no help-she kept moving things that had already been hung), Luigi, Martha, Paulo, Paula, Edie and I got the show up with only one piece crashing in flinders to the ground.
Scrambling to get ready for the five o'clock opening of the show, Edie maintained that we were in Italy for heaven's sake and what was the big fat Teutonic rush to be there exactly on time, but I herded her out the door at 4:58 and when we got to the gallery fifty feet away it was jammed with swanky Italians in their million-dollar shoes. The first thing my translator noticed was that I was wearing the same shoes that I'd worn to the Big Event at the Bank of Treviso where I'd dodged the questions about the United Colors of Benneton ads. "Yes, it's the only pair I brought." She disguised her shock as a cough, but hey, he's an artist-an American artist; a West Coast American artist-so he can wear the same pair of dirty white sneakers and Levis and a wrinkled blue cotton work shirt and a billion lira silk tie and a tweed sports coat. It's expected.
I'll tell you the truth: the Italians have got sex=shoes down to a fine art. Only rarely have I seen women whose feet were cradled in such devastatingly, openly lust-provoking coverings. CFM shoes, as we call them here in our coarse, brutal way. The Italians are nominally Catholic, but they really worship shoes. On one occasion I found myself the only man among three women-American women at that, not even Italian women-and the odds being unequal the first thing they did was head straight for the nearest shoe emporium. They didn't buy any shoes, they just looked at them and touched them and tried them on and talked about them. In Italy, it makes perfect sense. In Italy, a Payless Shoe Source would be firebombed. Women do not wear running shoes to get to work and then change into ho-hum dress-for-success shoes. Italian women wear shoes that look like this: men are fish, shoes are a fish hook. Men do not wear tennis shoes when anybody can see them. Men wear shoes that cost more than anybody there can possibly make for honest work. I don't understand how they do it. Can an entire nation live beyond its means? (I don't mean us and the tiresome national debt-that's not fun stuff, that's like somebody having, say, a swell time in a foreign country and then telling you about it when you had to stay at home and weed the yard, for example.)
After an interminable, florid introduction by the same silver-haired Professor Semenzato who wrote the show's completely untranslatable catalog text, the crowd applauded, I then said almost nothing, which was translated into a surprisingly lengthy oration, everybody applauded, and my (by then) two (one was not enough when more than one conversation is going on at a time) translators got down to the serious business of answering highly technical questions on a subject that they did not understand. Plenty of prossecco and peach juice, a drink invented at Harry's bar in Venice, a wheel of parmesan with a silver trowel in it and wonderful fancy little sandwiches galore. The crowd died down, my translators fell back to the ladies' room to regroup and the second wave came thundering in at 8:00. Translators, makeup refreshed and wearing different shoes, back at work until ten, when we were invited to join "The Big Boss" and his retainers at a trattoria in the middle of a vineyard a few miles away.
What a feed! The chow started coming around 10:30, and fortunately I had the appetite of a starving wolf or I would have disgraced our whole nation. By one in the morning we were trundled off to bed, full as ticks, to spectacular technicolor dreams.
In Padua, where we spent the better part of two days because it's where Professor and Mrs. Semenzato live, as do Luigi and Martha, we visited the ancient Roman fortifications enclosing the Giotto Chapel. I will tell you, that if you have the opportunity to see this jewel box of high-medieval art, you must do so without fail. It is not a large space, rather spare, with stone floors and clear glass windows. The walls and ceiling are frescoed by Giotto with the life of Christ, the Passion and the Last Judgement. It is beyond words to express the majesty of these, the last of paintings before the world lit up in the blaze of the Renaissance. There is in them expressed a simplicity, a childishness, a peacefulness that disappears like morning mist in the sunlight of reason and science. The struggle to portray the human form, of which Giotto had not much understanding; the struggle with perspective, which had not yet been invented-these naive elements only enhance the deep piety overwhelmingly conveyed by the chipped, faded paintings. After the tour of the chapel, I purchased a copy of the large book of reproductions of the murals to take with me to add to my library. When we returned to Berkeley, and calmed down from the long trip, I filed the large art book in its proper place in my book collection and there, sitting right next to it, was revealed a copy of a small Barnes and Noble Art Series paperback that I had bought when I was a student in the Classics Department at Berkeley. In 1964, 95¢ was as big an investment to me as 50,000 lira is now, and the book is faded, stained and worn, pages torn and dogeared, falling out from the hours I have spent looking at the reproductions in that small book authored by Dr. Camillo Semenzato so long ago. It was a fitting cap to a long voyage.
Everyone in Italy, and every Italian in America knows and deeply respects Dr. Semenzato. This may seem unbelievable, but it is true. Professor Semenzato teaches at the University of Padua. Padua is the oldest university in the world, and looks it. At the end of a stairwell, a statue of the first woman to graduate from any university; an anatomy theater rebuilt time and time again because the students, to keep warm, would sing and sway and stamp until the structure collapsed. In a long glass case, reverently displayed with their names and dates of death, the skulls of professors of medicine who donated their bodies to the university for the purpose of dissection in the years when getting corpses for that purpose was difficult and risky. The lectern of Galileo, and the busts of Copernicus and Tycho Brahe, all of whom studied and taught there. The walls festooned with hundreds and hundreds of coats-of-arms of students who had hung them there upon graduation. What an immense place. What a feeling of all the good things that people are capable of. I was drenched in learning and tradition. When we left the Semenzato's apartment, Annamaria gave Edie a precious old Japanese woodblock print. We had to strip it out of the frame to take it home with us, but it turned out to be a good thing, because it needed restoring and a more suitable frame.
Annamaria, a devout Catholic, took us for a tour of St. Anthony's Cathedral. A grosser nest of rank superstition and venality I never hope to see. The cathedral itself is an architectural mish-mash, with parts of the eponymous Saint Anthony scattered around in reliquaries and ornate tombs. Pitiful lines of the terminally ill, crippled, blind and deaf, aged and children in wheelchairs snaking past to kiss a marble tomb, hoping for what cannot and will not happen. These old Roman Catholics make the new style con-men with their orgone boxes and TV evangelism look like the pikers they are. They've got it down to a fine art. The place is so full of solid gold and silver sacred hearts commemorating or begging for cures that at night attack-trained guard dogs are set loose to roam the floors for fear of thieves. Just as I was moved to tears by the presence of the majesty of learning at the University of Padua, so was I moved by loathing at the monument to outmoded, repressive superstition at the Cathedral of Saint Anthony, whose claim to fame is that he was in two places at once.
Venice. What's to say about Venice that hasn't been said ten-thousand times before? A hundred thousand times? It's beautiful beyond what can be expressed in words. The wealthiest people in the world glorified their bizarre sea-level maze of islands city-state with all that money and pride could buy. They defended it against attack so successfully that it never was destroyed or even much hurt by depredations of vandals and pirates, princes and governments. It has no automobiles. It's sinking into the sea. The ocean wants it back, and the first floors of many buildings are uninhabitable. The city floods regularly now, as the ocean rises just a tiny bit. The rippling floors of Saint Mark's Cathedral are made of such precious mosaics that they are covered for protection against the hordes of worshippers and the curious with layers of hand-woven silk Persian rugs. Four tiny glasses of prossecco and peach juice at Harry's Bar where Hemingway once hung out cost $55. His estate should charge royalties. I had to pay an old crone fifty cents so that I could take a piss. The gondola manufacturing family has refused to treat with the unions, preferring to take the secrets of gondola making to the grave rather than give in to collective bargaining. Fueled entirely by tourism, Venice is a regal city transmogrified into an ancient theme park. Something like the formerly bustling heart of commercial San Francisco only much more picturesque and without beggars. (We saw only a few mendicants in Italy. One genuine war veteran, an old man sans legs, and two wandering musicians. I don't quite know if you'd call the musicians beggars; they provided excellent, if transient, entertainment. A one-man band in Treviso-as he walked, he tootled on a bagpipe, thumped a bass drum with a drumstick attached to his elbow and clashed a cymbal by means of a string tied to an ankle. Sounded like a whole troupe of Basques making merry. Watch out for the Gypsies, though.) Buildings set down every which way, passages in places so narrow that a fat man couldn't get through them, leading into open squares which in turn funnel out to teetering bridges over still, dark water. You could get lost big time in this place. You could kill somebody in this place by simply giving them the wrong directions and without warning they would walk right into a canal. Don't fall into a canal; though things are better than they used to was, particularly the way they used to be in the 17th century when the canals were also the sewers, still you don't want to let that water touch any part of your body. It is easily the most beautiful, strangest place on earth. I wouldn't live there for pie.
Our last day in Italy was spent with Luigi, Paulo, Paula & their son Niccolo at their villa outside of Padua. After the usual gargantuan lunch, we went to spend the night at Luigi and Martha's apartment in Padua. Our stay in Italy nearly at an end, we arose early in the morning to catch our airplane from the Venice airport. Leaving Luigi's apartment, we were greeted by a spectacle that I will remember always: On September 25, 1991, between 6:15 and 6:45 am local time in Padua, I observed Venus as I have never before seen the planet. Well above the horizon, it appeared as a brilliant, slender strip of light with pronounced radiances at its two extreme points. Squinting reduced the glare somewhat, and enabled me to see that the planet was quite unlike the bright dot of relatively nearby Jupiter. The only other astronomical body visible at the time was the just-past-full moon near the opposite horizon. Using the tinted upper part of the windshield of an automobile as a glare-reduction filter, we clearly saw the planet as a thin crescent. Though I have looked at Venus for better than four decades, and have known for years that it displays moon-like phases-which I have often observed through a telescope-I have never seen them with the unaided eye. It has been my understanding that a small percentage of the population can see, or has seen the planet as a crescent, but that this is by no means usual. However, as on this particular occasion all of us easily saw the planet display its crescent phase, I wonder if it is more commonplace than I had thought. None of us has exceptional eyesight. I am not an astronomical scholar, but I can call to mind no pre-telescopic reference to Venus as a crescent. This surprises me somewhat, considering the great interest the ancients often displayed in its comings and goings. Though it seems unlikely, perhaps special circumstances surround this particular sighting.
This was the crown of our stay: the unique opportunity to perceive an unusual manifestation of a celestial body in the very place where Galileo's telescope first drew men's eyes to the heavens with an understanding of our place in the universe.
Home is wonderful and I'm glad to be back, but if I had to live anywhere else it would be in Northern Italy.
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