Susan Van Allen probably never sleeps. She has written three interesting books that are must-reads especially women traveling to Italy. Her travel stories have been published in many media outlets, including National Public Radio, Town & Country, AFAR, Chicago Daily Herald, several Travelers Tales anthologies, and CNN.com. She makes presentations about Italian travel at such venues as The New York Times Travel Show and Museo Italo-Americano in San Francisco. She has a touring business, which introduces women to the joys of various regions of Italy every spring and fall. She’s also been an actor and a television script-writer.
Instead of covering the entire country, the goal with 50 Places is to focus on the major cities—”Italy’s Big Three”. These three spots are often overwhelming, and many travelers arrive with “Must See” lists and then miss out on the fabulous unique spirits of each place. With so many guidebooks covering Rome, Florence, and Venice, 50 Places is for those seeking a more personal approach, as though they’re traveling with advice from a trusty girlfriend. For example, for the major sites, like the Uffizi in Florence, I give readers focus to see the art as glorifications of different aspects of femininity—from the sensual Goddess Venus to the compassionate Madonna—AND add in a Golden Day tip for the perfect place for dinner afterwards. I also steer readers to less crowded places in these popular cities, such as the stunning Palazzo Barberini in Rome, or to immersion experiences, such as maskmaking in Venice, that gives travelers the chance to have a hands-on experience of this beautiful tradition.
I believe you grew up summering at the Jersey Shore. What are some of the major misconceptions Italian-Americans have about Italy?
You’re right—I grew up on the Jersey shore, (West Long Branch, to be exact), surrounded by Italian Americans—including my mother. Her parents, my Nana and Papa, were part of the big wave of immigration from southern Italy in the early 20th century, and like the rest of these early immigrants they brought traditions from their homeland, that created an Italian-American culture. It’s radically different from Italian-Italian—so many Americans are shocked when they arrive in Italy and find it different from what they imagined.
A major misconception is around the food. American travelers are surprised to find no chicken parm on the menus, rarely spaghetti and meatballs served together as it is in America, and that the pizza that is most revered in Italy (from Naples) is not served in sliced pies, but in single servings of whole rounds, with soft centers, and eaten with a knife and fork—so delicious!
Another misconception is about Italian women. In the movies, we’ve seen all those Italian mammas with loads of children, stirring sauce at the stove. Sure, there are still Nonnas—grandmothers who spend days in the kitchen, but modern Italian women work, the birth rate is low—most have just one child, and husbands share in the cooking and child care.
Then there’s the endless tape about how dangerous the city of Naples is—and many travelers don’t even go to this marvelous city. An expression I grew up hearing was “Va’ a Napoli”—Go to Naples!—which meant: “Go to Hell!”. These days Naples is actually a flourishing city, with a vibrant historical center, amazing archaeological museum, fantastic food, and fabulous, welcoming natives—it’s a place to truly experience the vibrant soul of southern Italy.
The impetus came from my beginnings as a writer, when I got the best advice: Write as if you’re writing a letter to a dear friend. I approach all my writing that way, including 100 Places and 50 Places—which are actually a mix of guidebook and travel essay. Letters from Italy brought me the satisfaction of sharing my experiences more completely, and includes essays I’ve written for National Public Radio and Travelers’ Tales anthologies. It’s a collection of nine stories from my travels over the years, ranging from adventures climbing to the top of the island of Stromboli’s volcano, to truffle hunting in Umbria, and the joys of flirting in Rome. I loved including practical advice at the end of each story for places to stay, eat, and shop, as whenever I read other travel stories I’m dying to know the practical details, so I can experience the same things the writer has, and come away with my own take on it.
You share your favorites in 50 Places in Rome, Florence, & Venice Every Woman Should Go. Have you ever been tempted to leave one out – a restaurant, a hotel, a small church or museum – because you don’t want it overrun with tourists? Were you tempted to keep it to yourself?
I’m not the type to keep Italian treasures to myself—I believe abundant Italy has enough for all of us, and am thrilled when I meet readers at my signings or travel shows who’ve taken my advice and discovered for themselves some of Italy’s less-trodden spots. One woman made a whole poster of the great time she had on the island of Ponza for me, another was ecstatic about visiting the Tarot Garden (packed with stunning mosaics) in a less explored province of Tuscany, and often when I’m back in Italy and re-visit my favorite shops, (like Marina e Susanna Sent in Venice—run by two sisters who make gorgeous contemporary glass tableware and jewelry), I’m happy to hear that women have come in and bought beautiful souvenirs, thanks to finding out about their place in my book.
You take women on small group tours, custom-designed to experience southern Italy and Florence. Describe one of your favorite experiences from one of these tours.
There are so many favorite experiences from these tours! I love to open the door for women to be in places I’ve fallen in love with and be by their side as they are seeing, tasting, and feeling the spirit of these places for the first time. And then there’s the great bonding that happens among women from such a variety of backgrounds, life experiences and ages. In one short week—from our welcome aperitivo to the farewell dinner—with so many adventures in between, I’m always thrilled to see how friendships are formed that last well beyond the Golden Week.
A favorite experience from a recent week in southern Italy was when we ended our tour of Pompeii in front of the recently restored mural in the Villa of Mysteries—a jaw-dropping painting cycle that shows a woman’s initiation into the Cult of Dionysus. As our guide took us through each panel, she became overwhelmed with the beauty of it and got teary-eyed—so did the women surrounding me—all of us taken in by the deep passion of this creation from thousands of years ago! It’s a memory-of-a-lifetime we will always treasure.
What, in your opinion, is the best advice to give travelers to Italy?
Go ahead and plan with the help of books and online resources, but always be sure to follow your personal desires, your mood day-by-day. This means slowing down, and leaving time for spontaneity. That’s when the Magic of Italian Travel takes over, you’re immersed in the sensual pleasures and wonderful surprises of the Bel Paese, and the trip becomes a soulful, transformational adventure beyond your imaginings. Buon Viaggio!
British-born John Hooper took on the almost impossible task of explaining to the outside world what makes the Italians so unique. Hooper was not living under the Tuscan sun for the last fifteen years, but was reporting from Rome, so his new book, simply entitled The Italians, isn’t a view full of good food, beautiful people and quaint customs. It is a complex, but very readable, analysis of the culture, connecting the historical antecedents with the present day political complexities and economic woes.
That isn’t to say he doesn’t mention the fabulous food (see Chapter 8 “Gnocchi on Thursdays”) or the beautiful people (Chapter 6 “Face Values”) or quaint customs (Chapter 7 “Life as Art” and Chapter 13 “People Who Don’t Dance”) or, of course, the intricacies of Italian soccer (Chapter 14 “Taking Sides”). He, however, intertwines those discussions with a serious analysis of why Italy is having such a hard time joining the international marketplace and can’t play well with its neighbors, thus precluding any significant assistance with major problems like the influx into Italy of Africans fleeing in boats from Tunisia and Libya.
For those of us expats who have lived in Italy for years it is a fun book to read because the organization lend itself to dipping in and out of subjects where we get insight on cultural issues we’ve noticed for ages but never knew the “why” of. For the occasional visitor to Italy, The Italians will describe a fascinating world that is rarely seen on the tourist paths. (Jan Morris’s piece in Literary Review probably captures this best.) For Italians, reading Hooper’s book, I cannot rightly predict the response and leave that for other venues.
John Hooper was educated at St. Benedict’s School in London and St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge where he studied history. His wanderlust began early when at the age of 18, he travelled to the breakaway state of Biafra to help make a television documentary on the Nigerian civil war.
After graduating, Hooper worked for the BBC, followed by the Independent Radio News and the Daily Telegraph, and eventually became a freelance correspondent for a number of news organisations including the BBC, the Guardian, The Economist and NBC. In 1976, he was appointed by the Guardian as its correspondent in Madrid. Over the next three years, he reported on the end of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution and covered Spain’s eventful transition to democracy following the death of General Franco.
Hooper wrote his first book, The Spaniards, which won the 1987 Allen Lane award for a best first work of history or literature. In 2006, a updated version of the book was released, entitled The New Spaniards.
In 1994, he was posted to Rome as Southern Europe Correspondent for the Guardian and subsequently The Observer. Three years later, he brought to light the so-called ‘Ship of Death’ migrant trafficking disaster and was a member of the award-winning Observer team that investigated its aftermath.
After five years of reporting from Berlin and Afghanistan, Hooper returned to Rome as Italy correspondent for The Economist and the Guardian, and in 2012 he was appointed Southern Europe editor of the latter.
Luigi Barzini wrote The Italians in 1964, a book that has remained in print and is still quoted today as one of the best books to define the Italian character. Your book, released early this year, has been well-received, and is also titled, The Italians. How has the Italian character changed in the last fifty years? In your opinion, what has been the biggest single influence on the Italian character in that span of time?
First of all, I should say that I didn’t know Italy in 1964. I first visited the country four years later as a teenager. But I spent a couple of months working, first in Rome and then in Tuscany, so I had a glimpse of the after-glow of that extraordinary period of economic growth and social change that so attracted foreigners to Italy in the late 1950s and the early 1960s and which inspired Barzini to write his book for them – a great book, in my opinion, which although some parts are now a bit outdated, nevertheless contains many observations that are as true today as when they were first written. That alone would suggest that the Italian character has not altered very much since 1964. But my impression is that Italians have become more materialistic and less happy and optimistic than they were then.
You are British and live in Rome. What is the biggest benefit of examining and writing about the Italian culture from the viewpoint of someone who has only lived in the country for fifteen years or so? What is the biggest handicap?
Well, I would say that 15 years is actually quite a long time for a foreigner to live in another country. I doubt if most of the books that have been written about Italy have been written by authors with that much experience of it. But having said that, I think that a decade and a half is still a short enough period for one to retain the curiosity and sense of being an outsider that you need to write a book like the Italians, because there comes a point when a foreigner ceases to be a foreigner and becomes one of the locals. At that point, you cease to be much use as a foreign correspondent and you become blind to the idiosyncrasies that you need to be able to see in order to write a book like mine.
How much extra research did you have to do to write The Italians or did it flow naturally out of the pieces you were writing for the The Guardian, The Observer, and The Economist?
No. Not at all. There is some material in The Italians that derives from my work as a journalist, but my aim was to write a book about all the things that we foreign correspondents do not touch upon. We write about politics and economics – and there is some of that in The Italians – and we write about dramatic events like earthquakes, but we write very little about society and our perceptions of the people who inhabit the countries on which we report, and all of that is at the core of The Italians.
I once hypothesized that Putin and Berlusconi were lounging around a pool one day and Vladimir advised that Silvio should follow his political path by moving from the post of Prime Minister to President and back again as a way to stay in power and out of court. Is this pure fantasy on my part or did Silvio Berlusconi see himself in the Italian presidency once Giorgio Napolitano stepped down? Is this the basis of Berlusconi’s recent “360 degree” turn against Matteo Renzi’s reform plans?
Berlusconi is nothing if not ambitious. I think that he may very well have once dreamed of becoming head of state. But I think that he realised that the sex scandals – Bunga Bunga and all that – made it impossible. On the other hand, I think that he felt that, having given such valuable support to Matteo Renzi’s programme of constitutional and political reform, he was entitled to a say in who would be the next president. In the event, Renzi outwitted him by finding a candidate [Sergio Mattarella] who was acceptable to the vast majority of the lawmakers in his otherwise divided party. That, above all, explains Berlusconi’s hostility since then.
In The Italians, you quoted a judge interviewed after a recent notorious trial: “Our acquittal is the result of the truth that was created in the trial. The real truth will remain unresolved and may even be different.” In a country where it sometimes seems that people spend more time in jail before the guilty verdict is rendered than after, do you see any possibility of judicial reform in the coming decade? Or is that what is needed?
It is certainly what is needed. But whether it will materialise is another matter. Renzi’s emphasis is on the reform of the civil, as distinct from the criminal, justice system. That is because the delays and uncertainties in the civil justice system are a main – possibly the main – obstacle to foreign investment.
How does the declining Italian birthrate and the declining rate of marriages affect what is described in your book as “amoral familism” where “[l]oyalty to the family superseded loyalty to any wider grouping, be it the village, province , region or nation”? Also, will these demographic factors have an affect on Italian mammismo?
One of the points that I make in the book is that, while the nature of the family is changing in Italy, family bonds remain extraordinarily strong. So far at least, I am not seeing a decline in that menefreghismo, that lack of a sense of broader responsibility to the rest of society, in the areas where it has traditionally been most prevalent – that is, very generally speaking, in the south and in the cities. But I think that it will fall away in time. As for mammismo, I’m not sure. Will Italian mothers with only one son be any less attentive and possessive than their mothers who had two or three? I doubt it. On the other hand, mothers with only one son are likely to be mothers who have a job, and who will just not have the same amount of time to devote to their children. So, on the whole, I suspect that mammismo too is destined to a gradual retreat.
In the interviews for the launch of your book, what question have you not been asked that you wish had been? And how would you respond?
That’s a very cunning question! Nobody has asked me if I have any regrets about my time in Italy. And I do: I have not spent as much time as I would like to have done on Italy’s many islands, and in particular on Sardinia.
For more articles on The Italians and John Hooper look here, here, and here.
At the beginning of 2014 I was so excited to hold my newly published book, Italian Food Rules, in my hands. I was even more pleased as the book was bought up by readers in bookshops in the US and Italy, ordered online in those countries and many more, and downloaded digitally anywhere a wifi signal could be found.
Some readers used Italian Food Rules in preparation for their 2014 vacations in Italy. Other people bought it as gifts for friends who were traveling to the peninsula. College students in Florence took a copy home to show their parents what they had to learn to “be Italian” for a semester. Expats in Tuscany put a copy on the bedside table of friends who were visiting, hoping to pass along the “rules” in a subtle way. Those long-time Italophiles got copies for themselves and more for friends to enjoy the memories of what is one of the most special and memorable aspects of Italy–the food.
Now, I am please to announce that almost a year later the companion book to Italian Food Rules has been published. Italian Life Rulesis available this week from online vendors, both in digital and print versions. Soon it should be available in bookstores in the US and Italy, either on the shelves or by request.
As the holidays approach, I hope you have some quiets time in a comfortable chair in a warm corner, perhaps in front of a crackling fire, and that there is a copy of Italian Food Rules and a copy ofItalian Life Rules to entertain you and give you a sense of being Italian for an hour or so.
In the wake of the tragic 1966 flood of Florence, then-curator of Florentine museums Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti put out a call for Italian and international artists to donate art to replace the masterpieces that had been lost in the flood. As part of this campaign, the City of Florence accepted hundreds of notable works by artists from all over the world.
Thirty-two were by female artists including those whose donations have now been recently restored: Antonietta Raphael Mafai, Amalia Ciardi Duprè, Carla Accardi and Titina Maselli. This restoration project, sponsored by the Advancing Women Artists Foundation (AWA) in collaboration with the Musei Civici Fiorentini, was led by Dr. Antonella Nesi, curator of Florence’s 20th century Civic Collections, and undertaken by Florentine restorer Rossella Lari.
After decades in storage, these and other works collected at Ragghianti’s behest have found a home at the newly-opened Museo Novecento in Florence. The 20th century art in Florence finally got scholarly and popular attention in 2014, first with the opening of the new museum dedicated to this period, and then at the end of September with a temporary exhibition at the Galleria di Arte Moderna at Palazzo Pitti called ‘Spotlight on the XX Century’ (Luci sul ‘900).
AWA has also agreed to restore a total of 28 paintings and sculptures to be exhibited at the Museo Novecento in 2016 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the flood.
As part of a project to safeguard and promote a hidden part of Florence’s heritage, the Advancing Women Artists Foundation has also published a new book about the female artists whose art forms part of the Florentine Civic Collections. The book by Linda Falcone and Jane Fortune, When the World Answered: Florence, Women Artists and the 1966 Flood, published in October 2014 by The Florentine Press, provides additional and timely insight into this period.
With this book, the team continues Jane Fortune’s quest to bring to light Florence’s “hidden” female artists. Her book Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence, which became the basis of an Emmy-award winning PBS documentary, sought out examples from the Renaissance through the Early Modern period.
With When the World Answered, they wondered if 20th century Florence continued to be a powerhouse for female talent and what prompted the “Flood Ladies” to donate their art to Florence.
In four years of research and writing, interviewing surviving “Flood Ladies” and their families, Falcone and Fortune discovered women whose contributions to Futurism, Magic Realism and Abstractionism in Italy are worthy of in-depth study. This book tells the stories of 23 of these women artists because “their stories must be salvaged along with their art if we are one day to understand the true significance of their contributions.”
On October 21, the Museo Novecento will be hosting a premiere event for the living artists and their family members, with the book’s authors, top museum executives and Vice Mayor Cristina Giachi.
The public event is scheduled for Wednesday October 22, 2014, at 6:30pm when the authors will present their book at the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (via Orsanmichele 4, Firenze), a venue that has supported women artists since Artemisia Gentileschi became its first female member in 1616. After the talk, attendees will be invited to visit the headquarters of this prestigious institution. The event is free and open to the public with registration at the following link: floodladies-talk.eventbrite.it
To enhance the connection between the flood, women artists and the City of Florence, The Florentine, licensed guide Alexandra Lawrence and the Advancing Women Artists Foundation will be offering a series of guided walks. On Saturday October 25 at 10am, the group will meet at Santa Croce and walk towards Le Murate, visiting and talking about some of the important spaces and artworks affected by the flood of 1966.
Saturday November 8 at 10am there will be a visit to the Museo Novecento focusing particularly on the newly restored works by female artists.
Both walks cost 33 euro including guide and book, plus museum entrance fees. To reserve, please contact Alexandra Lawrence at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, contact: The Florentine Press, Alexandra Korey, Editor, email@example.com, Tel: +39 055 2306616
Advancing Women Artists Foundation (AWA),Linda Falcone, Director, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Over 500 years after her birth we are still talking about her. A genius immortalized her. A French king paid a fortune for her portrait. An emperor coveted her. Every year more than 9 million visitors trek through the Louvre to view her likeness. Yet while everyone recognizes her smile, hardly anyone knows her story or the story of women like her.
Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, by Dianne Hales is a blend of biography, history, and memoir. It is a book of discovery: about the world’s most recognized face, most revered artist, and most praised and parodied painting; about the woman and the men behind the portrait; and about the author Hales, who undertook a journey of discovery, about herself, her beloved Florence, and a mystery that intrigues her.
Lisa Gherardini (1479-1542) was a quintessential woman of her times, caught in a whirl of political upheavals, family dramas, and public scandals. Her life spanned the most tumultuous chapters in the history of Florence—and of the greatest artistic outpouring the world has ever seen. Her story creates an extraordinary tapestry of Renaissance Florence, with larger-than-legend figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli.
Who was Mona Lisa, this ordinary woman who rose to such extraordinary fame? Why did the most renowned painter of her time choose her as his model? What became of her? And why does her smile enchant us still?
Dianne Hales agreed to answer a few questions about her book and its subject:
Years ago while in Florence doing research forLa Bella Lingua, I was having dinner at the home of an art historian who casually mentioned that the mother of La Gioconda had grown up in the very same building on Via Ghibellina. I hadn’t known until then that Leonardo’s model was a Florentine woman—Mona (Madame) Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo. I was immediately intrigued by what her life might have been like.
At the time the local papers were reporting discoveries of documents related to Lisa and the Gherardini family. I realized that the archival sleuth, Giuseppe Pallanti, had the same name as a friend of my husband’s. It turned out that they aren’t related, but he arranged a meeting.
When we met—on the roof terrace of the Palazzo Magnani Feroni overlooking Lisa’s childhood neighborhood in the Oltrarno—Pallanti brought a tourist map. With a pencil he marked an “X” for Via Sguazza, where she was born, and another “X” for Via della Stufa, where she lived with her husband and their children.
The very next day I made my way to Via Sguazza, a dank alley that still stinks five centuries after its residents complained about its stench. I was struck by the contrast between the fetid, graffiti-smeared street where Lisa Gherardini was born and the sublime symbol of Western civilization that her portrait has become. The journalist in me sensed a story just waiting to be told. Pretty soon I was off and running.
Describe a bit about the archival research you did. Did you have help? What was the biggest “ah ha” moment and what was the greatest frustration you encountered?
I started at the Florence State Archive, which houses a staggering forty-six miles of manuscripts. With the help of historian Lisa Kaborycha, an American professor who lives in Florence, I tracked down a history of the Gherardini written by a family member in 1586.
I had never done archival research before, and I found it surprisingly exhilarating—deciphering the ornate script, turning the yellowed pages, inhaling their musty scent. I felt that I was traveling through time and encountering flesh-and-blood—Gherardini knights, robber barons, warriors, rebels—all so proud and pugnacious that they coined the word Gherardiname to describe their fierce “Gherardini-ness.”
My biggest ah-ha moment came at my computer in California, when I tracked down a record of Lisa’s baptism in the cathedral digital archives. Seeing the hand-scripted words—Lisa & Camilla & Gherardini—in the ledger made her real to me.
The greatest frustration was not finding any words of her own. Leonardo’s Lisa truly is a face without a voice. Fortunately, I found that a relative of hers—Margherita Datini, wife of the famed merchant of Prato—had left behind the largest cache of letters of any woman of her day. This feisty, intelligent, no-nonsense woman, who taught herself to read and write in her twenties, embodied the Gherardini spirit that Lisa may have shared.
Describe the choices you made to tell the story of a woman for whom there is very little “paper trail” and an artist who everybody was talking and writing about.
Thanks to Giuseppe Pallanti’s research, I had a framework for Lisa’s life, including the dates when her children were born and a record of her death. But as I read more about Leonardo and about Florentine history, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information. How could I keep Lisa’s story from being lost?
An American art historian gave me some wonderful advice: Inhabit Lisa’s neighborhoods. That’s what I did. I walked the streets where Lisa had lived. I genuflected in the churches where she had worshiped. I explored the locations of the convents where she had placed her daughters.
Ross King, author of Leonardo and the Last Supper, describes my book as “cultural history that reads like a detective novel.” I hadn’t envisioned it quite that way, but I wanted take readers with me on my quest so they could share the step by step revelations of what turned into a true journey of discovery.
How many interviews did you conduct while researching the numerous subjects covered by the book (Leonardo da Vinci, life of Renaissance women, art, politics and commerce in 15th century Florence, and the journey of the painting from Florence to Paris, and much more)?
Well over a hundred. I certainly drew on all the skills I had honed in decades as a journalist. Basically I followed the facts wherever they led—to experts in art, history, economics, women’s studies, fashion, food, religion, even antique silk-making. Each of them offered a different perspective. My challenge was to weave the threads together into a tapestry that would bring Mona Lisa and her Florence to life.
One of my friends says she knew she was ready for her oral doctoral exam when she could turn any conversation on any topic to the Italian Renaissance. That’s how I feel about Mona Lisa and Leonardo. Baseball? Did you know that palle (balls) were the symbol of the Medici—and that one of Leonardo’s patrons was Giuliano de’ Medici, who was a political ally of Mona Lisa’s husband?
How much of the project was devoted to research and how much to writing?
They overlapped over a span of more than three years. The feet-on-the-ground research, which I did during extended visits to Florence and Tuscany, kept leading me in new directions. I’d come home and dive back into the library or computer archives.
I didn’t write this book as much as rewrite it—some 80,000 words over and over again. It was the most challenging project I’ve ever undertaken: organizing reams of material, finding the right tone, balancing anecdote and explanation, searching for the most telling details—and then polishing, polishing, polishing. I kept thinking of Leonardo applying tens of thousands of brush strokes to create his portrait of Mona Lisa. He inspired me!
What did you learn about the daily life of women in the late 15th century?
A great deal of research on women has been done in just the last three or four decades–and many of the findings are rather depressing. One historian called Renaissance Florence “among the more unlucky places in Western Europe to be born female.” This was particularly true for poor women, who were typically malnourished and illiterate, bred early, toiled endlessly and died young. Even women of the merchant class, like Mona Lisa, remained second-class citizens who passed from the control of their fathers to their husbands.
This is one reason that I was fascinated to learn that Lisa exercised two of the few prerogatives available to Renaissance women: she decided how to dispose of the property and valuables she inherited from her husband and she chose to be buried, not with him, but in a community of sisters at the convent where her daughter lived.
Italian scholars gave me a more positive perspective than American feminist historians. As one Italiana put it, Renaissance women were not liberated in the way we use the term, but they were strong and central to the most important social institution in Italy: the family. And some, like Lisa Gherardini, inspired great masterpieces of Western art, which may be the most lasting of legacies.
Why do you think Leonardo da Vinci accepted the commission to paint a “housewife” and then carried the portrait around for years?
I believe that something about Lisa herself captivated Leonardo —“something inherent in his vision,” as the art critic Sir Kenneth Clark observed. How else, he asked, could one explain the fact that “while he was refusing commissions from Popes, Kings, and Princesses he spent his utmost skill … painting the second wife of an obscure Florentine citizen?”
Perhaps with his discerning eye, Leonardo saw more than a fetching young mother caught up in the delights and distractions of small children, with a blustering husband and a big quarrelsome blended family. Perhaps what intrigued him as an artist was a flicker of her indomitable Gherardini-ness.
Leonardo left Florence before completing Lisa’s portrait, and it traveled with him to his final home in France. Most of the art historians I interviewed believe that the aging artist spent years refining the painting with delicate brushwork and almost transparent glazes. It may be that during its long metamorphosis, Mona Lisa took on deeper meaning for Leonardo—as a demonstration of all that he had learned about portraiture and all that he understood about human nature. Would Mona Lisa recognize herself in the Louvre portrait? We will never know.
Why does Lisa Gherardini’s story matter? Is a model’s identity relevant in consideration of a work of art?
Mona Lisa ultimately remains what it is: a masterpiece by an unparalleled genius. Yet learning about Leonardo’s model adds new dimensions to appreciation of the portrait. Once I saw only a silent figure with a wistful smile. Now I behold a daughter of Florence, a Renaissance woman, a merchant’s wife, a loving mother, a devout Christian, a noble spirit. I relate to her, not just as a lovely object, but as a real person.
Beyond adding new perspective on the painting, Lisa’s story opens a window onto life in Florence during the most astounding artistic outpouring in history. Hers was the city that thrills us still, bursting into fullest bloom and redefining the possibilities of man—and of woman.
Do you have events scheduled in the U.S. and Italy where you will be discussing Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered? How can we find out about upcoming events?
Yes, I have a busy schedule ahead, with readings and talks in northern California, Chicago, Philadelphia and the New York City area. You can find the details on the events page of my website.
I will be in Florence from September 25 to October 10 and will announce the details on my website. In addition to readings and presentations, I am developing personalized tours of Mona Lisa’s Florence and some programs for writers and storytellers. If any of your readers might be interested, drop me a line at email@example.com
Have you selected the subject for your next book?
I am currently finishing a very different project: a college textbook on Personal Stress Management with my daughter Julia, a psychology doctoral candidate. However, I so enjoy “living “ in Italy—if only in my head—that I hope to return to an Italian topic soon.
Your fast-paced ARKANE thrillers weave together historical artifacts, secret societies, psychological and religious references, global locations, a fearless female protagonist and hints of the supernatural. You’ve used Venice and Rome as settings. Your three short stories in A Thousand Fiendish Angels riff on Dante’s Inferno. Do you plan to return to Italy in a future book? How do Italy and/or the Italians inspire your writing?
I do love Italy, and how can one fail to be inspired by the architecture and cultural history of Europe in general! I especially like the use of the ossuaries and the Palermo Capuchin crypt in Prophecy, with the mummified bodies of monks and children. Creepy indeed! I do have an idea for a story set within the walls of the Vatican itself, catnip for a student of Theology like myself, so definitely more to come.
I also have Pentecost and Desecration coming in Italian language in the latter half of 2014, so I hope to expand my readership that way.
Desecration, your latest novel, is not part of the ARKANE series. Are you starting another series? Will you go back to the ARKANE characters in a future book? Is it possible that there will be a tie-in where Jamie and Blake from Desecration visit ARKANE?
You read my mind! In my next fast-paced novella, Day of the Vikings, out in May 2014, Dr Morgan Sierra is researching a Viking staff at the British Museum. When Neo-Viking terrorists take hostages and demand the staff of power, Morgan is aided by Blake Daniel, the reluctant psychic from Desecration, and together, they must work out how to stop Ragnarok, the Viking apocalypse.
The next full-length ARKANE book has a working title of Inquisition, and will delve into Morgan Sierra’s Spanish Jewish heritage. Desecration is the first in The London Mysteries, and the next one, Delirium, will be out in July 2014, opening with the murder of a psychiatrist in Bedlam, the London hospital for the mad.
Your books take the reader to many countries (Israel, Italy, Hungary, Turkey, India). You know the saying some people eat to live and others live to eat. Do you travel to write or write to travel? Do you see a travel memoir in your future?
I think you know me very well, Ann!
I am a travel junkie and the books have been fuelled by my own experiences, but part of the reason I now do this full time is to be able to travel more, and make every trip research for another story. I am heading to Barcelona in June for research into Inquisition, and a visit to the Morbid Anatomy museum in New York in July will definitely give me some story ideas. I also plan to visit Mexico for Day of the Dead sometime, as well as heading back to India for a book around Kali. By combining the two, I can reinvest the book income into more travel, fuelling more books – a happy life!
I do intend to write a travel memoir at some point, as I would like to share the diary side of my trips and especially the spiritual places I have been. That is a way off though!
You are exceedingly generous in providing information to writers, especially those who wish to indie-publish, through your website and your podcasts. You also work as a public speaker on all aspects of indie-publishing and book marketing. You are either exceptionally organized or don’t require a lot of sleep. Does your work as an entrepreneur and your writing on TheCreativePenn.com help to promote your J.F. Penn novels? Do you want to keep up this pace or do you want to settle into a fiction writer’s life at some point in time?
I always wanted to be a self-help writer, and so TheCreativePenn.com and my non-fiction books, as well as my speaking, are ways in which I can help others on the journey of being a writer in this ever-changing market. I also find that I need the public speaking side to balance out my natural tendency to be an introverted hermit in my writing cave! It does me good to get out and have a conversation with real people.
I also started TheCreativePenn.com before I started writing fiction, and it was only the freeing aspect of blogging that enabled me to write stories in the first place. So I could never give it up entirely! That said, I am slowing down the pace of content on that side of things to focus more on the fiction as my readership grows.
A last question about your first book, Career Change: Many of the readers of TuscanTraveler.com dream of leaving their jobs, selling their home, buying a plane ticket and moving to Italy to create a new life and perhaps write their version of Under the Tuscan Sun. What are three ideas from your book that may help them fulfill their dream or, at least, assist them in making the correct decision?
The most important thing to think about is what really makes you happy. So for me, I had to reach the point of understanding that freedom of place (a rented 1 bedroom flat and no car) and a lower income made me happier than a higher income and a four-bedroom house and a car. By giving up my secure day job to become a writer, I sacrificed what most people consider to be “success,” for a risky entrepreneurial career with no guarantees. Lots of people thought I was crazy, as the definition of success for most people is a high status job, a big house and a nice car with lots of ‘stuff.’ If you can escape that mentality, you can downsize and suddenly have a lot more choice in your life.
So my 3 ideas are:
a) Decide what REALLY makes you happy
b) Make time to investigate options e.g. get rid of your TV, freeing up several hours a night; go to four days a week at work and focus on testing your ideas out part time
c) Eliminate debt and save a financial buffer – any new move takes a while to get going financially
Joanna Penn’s books are available at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com, as well as Barnes & Noble, Kobo, ITunes, and Audible. Soon to be available in Italian on Amazon.it.
How do you create the perfect Renaissance superhero? Art historian, Elizabeth Lev, narrates the story in her fascinating book, The Tigress of Forlì. The story starts with a baby girl, Caterina Sforza, the illegitimate child of dissolute, but noble Milanese father and a drop-dead gorgeous mother. She is tutored in the classics, learns how to ride a horse and hunt, and masters the management skills of a great household. Then her father arranges for an engagement at age ten (consummated with the fiancée, aged 30) and marriage at age thirteen (blessed by the Pope). She gives birth of her first child at fifteen.
As her greedy self-serving husband’s health deteriorated, Caterina keeps providing heirs (six), but also takes over the governance of their dominions (Imola and Forlì). The cowardly husband is assassinated and all seems to be lost, but our pregnant superhero escapes her captors, takes up arms and captures the castle. All this happens before she turns thirty.
Then there is a steamy affair with a stable boy, a murder, and a bloody revenge. Machiavelli turns to negotiate peace, she marries a Medici, gives birth to the father of a future Tuscan Grand Duke, is widowed again, and finally loses her castle to Cesare Borgia. This, of course, is not the end of the story. She’s only 36 when Borgia drags her off to prison in Rome. (Spoiler alert: She lives to play with her grandchildren in Florence.)
Elizabeth Lev doesn’t fictionalize Caterina Riario Sforza de’Medici’s life. She doesn’t need to because this is a true case of truth being more amazing than fiction. No, Elizabeth only had to spend years in the archives of Bologna, Florence and Rome, gathering the facts from the dusty pages of history and the spinning them out in a breathtaking narrative of the tale of a true superhero.
Elizabeth, whose formidable resume takes pages to recount, agreed to answer a few questions about her life and The Tigress of Forlì.
I was transported reading your book The Tigress of Forlì, not only to the 15th century Italian city-states, but also to the Italy of today with its convoluted politics, family dynasties and love of gossip. Am I wrong, or has nothing changed in 500 years?
This is what makes history so fun. Human beings, the human condition, means that every age experiences desire for power, pleasure and possessions; but how it plays out against different backdrops and settings has an infinite variety. But amid the schemers and the scandalmongers, a few exceptional people stand out for forging their way in a complicated world and leaving a distinct mark. Caterina Sforza makes a wonderful guide to this era, as her unique viewpoint, enhanced by very human susceptibilities, shows us the Renaissance like we’ve never seen it.
What path did you take from life in the United States to ultimately living in Rome?
I always wanted to live in Europe, even as a kid. Whether it was Ian Fleming’s Bond novels or the Greek myths or the romances of Jane Austen, it seemed to me that all the cool stuff was always happening in stately drawing rooms or under marble porticos or driving along through picturesque European villages. It didn’t take long for me to discover the pictures that made the world even more brilliant: a Dutch still life or Florentine fresco. From the University of Chicago, I was thrilled to be able to study art history abroad for a year at the University of Bologna, and when I finished my degree, I came back to Bologna as a graduate student. My thesis director suggested I write on a Roman subject, and the rest is history.
It seems to me that you were working on a thesis when you were writing TheTigress of Forlì. First, how did you find the time and second, what was the subject of your thesis?
I first ran into Caterina when writing my thesis on the National Church of the Bolognese in Rome (Santi Giovanni e Petronio dei Bolognesi) while tucked away in Imola, where this glamorous countess had lived far away from the city lights for many years. I sympathized with her story—city girl transplanted to the country life—but didn’t actually start the book on her until many years later. At the time I was writing TheTigress of Forlì, I was the single mother of three kids, two teens and a toddler, with two teaching jobs, a regular news column and a full-time schedule of tours. Fortunately, getting up early is easier when aided by fine espresso and the hours spent with Caterina were like spending time with a dear friend.
Why did you decide to write about Caterina Riaro Sforza de’ Medici?
What a woman! What a story! Although victimized, she never made herself a victim, and always got up after any kind of fall. She lived in thrilling times: Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Pope Alexander Borgia, and she played a significant role wherever she went. Caterina was no wallflower. She left her mark, whether with her beauty, her courage or her cannons. She was an amazing challenge to understand. Not all she did was pretty, and to get inside the head and the world of a woman who made such surprising decisions took a lot work, but was so wonderfully worth it!
In reading the book, it seems at times that you get so under her skin that you begin to identify with her. Was this a plus, or did you have to make sure you weren’t projecting yourself on her?
There were many things in Caterina’s life that I identified with: being a single mother, and trying to figure out how to keep a family afloat in difficult circumstances among others. Indeed, I believe I brought a unique perspective to certain aspects of her story because I evaluated her options as a woman who had known similar situations. In some cases, where men dismissed her as power hungry or simply inept, I saw strategy. The hardest part to write was the tragedy of her wrongdoings. Caterina made terrible mistakes. In those cases, I found myself not projecting, but looking to her to see how one keeps going after a very public and humiliating fall. I must admit, there were days when I wished I was as tough as she was!
Caterina Sforza appears to be a very liberated, strong woman, once you get past the fact that she was engaged at age ten and forced to wed at age thirteen. Was she unique or were there other women who were equally agile at working the power dynamics of their time and assertive in taking the initiative?
Actually, there are many more remarkable women of the Renaissance than we recognize. Caterina grew up in a world that celebrated a 14-year-old girl named Agnes who had defied the Roman Empire, a world that named a Bolognese woman as patroness of artists, and Caterina herself was named for a 20-something woman from Siena who told the Pope “to be a man.” She was admired by Isabella D’Este—art patron extraordinaire—and knew Lucrezia Borgia (although she didn’t think much of her).
The women of the Renaissance were trained to be circumspect and modest, but they were also adept at running businesses and complicated households, and at times engaged in the battles for power that raged in their time. Very few actually found themselves in situations where the ability and will to rule came to the fore, but they were formidable when they did. Some dazzled with charm and others with ruthlessness, but Caterina had a substantial dose of both.
Caterina Sforza was an iconoclast in her own time – men rose to fight wars at her behest, wrote poetry in her name, sent snarky reports about her behavior, and debated the political wisdom of killing her off – but it is hard for me to determine how an illegitimate pawn of a noble family got on this rollercoaster to fame. Was it nurture or nature?
Caterina’s father, with all of his obvious flaws, believed in education, whether for sons and daughters, legitimate and illegitimate. As condottieri, the Sforza family also understood that ability to command and to wield weapons was their lifeline. Hunting, like sports today, also taught important life skills for that age. Take that kind of training and put it into a package of natural beauty, fashion sense honed in the glamorous Milan court, brains nourished by Greek philosophers, Latin politicians and Christian thinkers, then add a sense of self-worth given to her by family and faith, and you have the stuff of legend and song.
In a time without Facebook and Twitter, the word of Caterina Sforza’s antics seemed to spread throughout the peninsula and into France and Germany. Was this the reality or is just that in TheTigress of Forlì you are recounting the reports sent to various noble courts? Did the common man in Rome or Florence know of Caterina Sforza or was she just the concern of the highest levels of the church and the nobles of warring city-states?
Before Facebook and Twitter, the story had to be really good in order to spread. The ease of information in our age has led to an indiscriminate sense of its value. But an astounding character, like Caterina, who had impressed armies, would soon find pan-European fame, thanks in large part to the mobility of soldiers. They sang ballads of her in France, (“For a good fight call….”), and they whispered about her in Rome. Obviously, in the modern age, she would have been much more notorious, but perhaps the incessant hammering of the modern news machine would have stifled her. It is one thing to make outrageous choices with a few court ambassadors scribbling by the sidelines; it would have been another thing altogether on the ramparts of Ravaldino with news helicopters flying overhead and paparazzi hiding in the bushes.
Please describe how the research for this book was done. How many archives did you use? Were you handling original documents or had they all been copied? What was the best “ah ha” moment you experienced in the research?
The most fruitful were the archives of Milan, Forlì and Florence (where they kept accounts of everything!). It is amazing how well-informed these princes and leaders were. The Vatican archives allowed me to handle the diaries of Pope Sixtus IV, which were so intimate they made me feel like I was in the room at times. Most were copied, except for a few diaries, where the notes in the margins and a text alteration that had happened during Caterina’s lifetime were crucial parts of understanding the text.
I was struck when I read the accounts of “the retort at Ravaldino,” the most famous event of her life, at how many different versions there were of the story. As I read each account, then read the author’s other writings, then researched the author himself, I began to see how much chronicles and accounts were manipulated in that age. One tends to think that these writers were serious men with a weighty sense of their duty to posterity, but one is a gossip, one is a stalker, one is trying to forge an alliance, one is hysterically prim and so on… It is sort of like reading the Italian newspapers today—read five stories, take an average mean, and you will wind up with an approximation of what might have really happened.
What I enjoyed most about The Tigress of Forlì is that it is a researched (and footnoted) work of nonfiction that reads as smoothly as fiction. This appears to be your first book. How were you able to achieve the descriptive flow?
I have been leading tours for fifteen years and teaching sophomores at Duquesne University for twelve. If you can’t tell a story and weave your facts into vivid picture of people and events, you will find yourself with snoozing tourists and students succumbing to their hangovers. Of course, much of the credit is due to my editor at Harcourt, who had the good sense to tell me to cut out a lot of the academic sounding explanations and always encouraged me to try to find the “voice” of my characters.
This story is so colorful, so exciting, so full of adventure that it almost reads like a movie script. Have you considered making the book into a movie or television series?
As I was writing the book, I saw much of it happening in my mind. The amount of information available allowed me to imagine the sets, the extras, the scenery and of course, as I got to know the people, I would sometimes cast them in my head. It was a great help when trying to get through rough spots where the words just stayed still and dry on the page, to try to see the events taking place, the exchange between the characters, and wonder who would make a good Caterina or Cesare Borgia or Machiavelli. But sadly, Caterina remains for the moment alive in words instead of images.
There are hundreds of convoluted family relationships, fluid political alliances, arcane minutiae about everything from home life to warfare, and more. Did you have a wall full of post-it notes and string to help keep it all straight?
It was a daunting task—learning about the Salt Wars, the Riario dynasty, the fluctuating friendships—and I grew to think about my job as “making perfume.” I’ve heard it takes 60,000 roses to make 1 ounce of rose oil. In many cases to get an event or dynasty straight, it felt like 60,000 sources for one paragraph!!!! The hardest part, however, was seeing my hard-researched work wind up on the editor’s floor. In earlier drafts I meticulously outlined the conflicts and characters, only to have my editor sweep in with her red pen and cut, cut, cut. My editor was a saving grace for the book, however, because a small dab of rose oil is fragrant, but being doused with it would be stifling!
I like to tell visitors to Florence that families like the Medici operated on the “five son formula” for successful dynastic growth. One son for the family business, one for the military, one destined for politics, one entered the church, and a spare. Did Caterina Sforza ascribe to this theory? If so, why were her sons so disappointing? Again, nature or nurture?
Caterina’s children made me much more patient with mine. Her older sons were too lazy for dynasty, too dumb for politics and too cowardly for the military. The interaction between Caterina and her oldest son was so tragicomic at times; they could have had a reality show! Her youngest son was, of course, her darling and became the hero known in the peninsula as “L’Italia”, and her daughter trusted her to help raise her own children, so despite the failure with the oldest boys, Caterina eventually must have done something right.
Finally, Botticelli. Did Giovanni de’ Medici, Caterina’s last husband, grow up in a home where Botticelli’s Primavera and Birth of Venus were on the walls? Did Giovanni’s father commission these paintings? And, how did you learn that Caterina is depicted in The Purification of the Lepers by Botticelli, located in the Sistine Chapel?
The earliest mention of Botticelli’s two most famous works has them in the Medici Villa Castello owned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici of the cadet branch and brother of Caterina’s husband. Caterina herself also lived there at the end of her life. Lorenzo is also the one who commissioned the illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy from Botticelli. I find it comforting that this warrior princess found true love with a family of great art patrons—no wonder Botticelli loved painting images of how love conquers all!
Ludwig von Pastor, in his History of the Popes made an interesting excursus into the panel paintings of the Sistine Chapel. To be honest, he identified Caterina as one of the daughters of Jethro in the Botticelli image on the opposite wall. But Pastor also pointed out that the Purification, across from the papal throne, had several unique qualities that were all family references. I knew Caterina was pregnant at the time; all sources said that Sixtus doted on her, and the viper playing around the child’s feet seemed to allude to the Sforza family symbol. It was a great moment to be able to make a new argument for her identity in that great space!
George Weigel has been a friend of mine for years and indeed it was he that introduced me to my agent when it came time to publish The Tigress of Forlì. George came to me when the Caterina project was over and asked me if I would like to co-write a book with him. He is an outstanding writer, with great turns of phrase and clear, powerful prose and I was honored to be part of this project. It was wonderful to be able to see these Roman churches as part of a community of worshippers and to feel the connections between the buildings we admire today and the burgeoning, vibrant Christian community of sixteen hundred years ago.
Do you plan to write another biography? If so, of whom?
I have recently published a book with Father José Granados on the Theology of the Body as expressed in the art collection of the Vatican Museums, and now I am trying to get back into more of an art history groove. I am looking to work on something involving Michelangelo and I am also looking at another project to capitalize on my specialized knowledge of the Vatican collections.
A review of The Tigress of Forlì by Elizabeth Lev can be found here.
Tuscan Traveler’s Picks is expanding its focus to include books and movies with Italian themes. I am pleased that Estelle Jobson, author of Finding Rome on the Map of Love, agreed to participate in the first author interview.
(A full and ever growing list of books and films with Italian settings, authors, and themes is easily found by clicking on the Tuscan Traveler’s Amazon Store link in the right column. Amazon will pay Tuscan Traveler a small affiliate commission on any of your purchases. You pay exactly the same price as you would if you went to Amazon directly.)
Estelle has offered to give one free copy of Finding Rome on the Map of Loveto the person who comments on this post with the best tale about a cultural misunderstanding they observed, heard about or experienced in Italy. Click here or at the end of the post to leave your story.
About Estelle Jobson
Estelle Jobson chose to leave a great job in South Africa to follow love and adventure to a life as “Signora Stella” in a quiet neighborhood on one of the highest hills of Rome. After more than dozen years working in all aspects of book publishing, she found herself tossed into the writing end of the business as she kept a journal of the joys, frustrations, and mysteries of life off the fast track in a country not her own. That journal became Finding Rome On The Map Of Love.
Life then led Estelle to Geneva where she once again has a busy day job. Her book, set in the seasons of Rome, is a fitting reminder that its good to take that unfamiliar path and Italy is the perfect place explore the map of love.
Finding Rome on the Map of Love
I loved the writing and the humor of Finding Rome on the Map of Love. Is this your first book and do you plan to write another?
Grazie! This is my first book, yes, although in my publishing career I have brought hundreds of books into the world for other authors. Right now, a great deal of creative energy goes into marketing Finding Rome, which deservesits rightful début. I wrote it over a year when I was a casalinga (housewife) and had the time and leisure to ruminate thoroughly and creatively. Such freedom and creative space is now limited by the otherwise very rewarding matter of earning a ‘proper’ income again. But I am brewing ideas on writing about a very different matter, women’s bodies and health, using humour to cloak information and provoke thought.
Your book is a meditation on assimilation (a South African expat in Italy). How long did you live in Rome and have you lived anywhere else in Italy?
‘Meditation’ is a good way of phrasing it, because living in Rome for 3 years gave me a chance to test-drive the mantra that emerges in Chapter 1: ‘You are enough. You have enough. You do enough.’ I managed to turn this into a way of life, effectively, even though now I am back in a conventional working life. I turned myself from a manic, frazzled career woman to a more balanced, less ambitious and considerably more contented person. This evolution is thanks largely to my time in Rome.
Have you traveled in Tuscany and do you have a favorite stop in Tuscany?
Yes, I have visited Florence itself, numerous times. I don’t have a specific spot that I love most. I travelled west to Livorno, and south down that coast, inland to Viterbo, and of course, back to Rome. Monte Argentario is spectacular, and I loved exploring the Etruscan ruins, from Tuscany to Lazio.
Do you have any observations about the difference between Florentines and Romans?
Yes, indeed! Apart from differences in vocabulary (e.g. schiacciata vs. pizza bianca), I would say the Florentines are generally a little more northern; meaning more reserved, and as they speak a ‘better’ Italian, more clearly enunciated, it is easier for me to understand. They say it themselves—their dialect is what Dante Alighieri formalized into what became standard Italian. I tried fiercely to get my head around the Roman dialect, but didn’t get much further than ‘Awu’ (hey), ‘Mo’ (now), and ‘Namo’ (Let’s go).
I love the Italian Food Rules (i.e. “no cappuccino after 10am”). What is your favorite Food Rule and why?
Olive oil, always, and butter very rarely. In this shift from butter to olive oil, I evolved from a blunt-palated anglosaxon to being able to discern a good olive oil from a splendid one. To this refining of my palate, I dedicated the chapter: ‘An ode to the olive’.
I am studying Italian Life Rules (i.e. colpo d’aria) right now and I found one in Finding Rome on the Map of Love that I had recognized subliminally, but never put a name to: Italians always wear bathrobes with hoods. What is your favorite Italian Life Rule?
I just love coprire la pancia (covering your stomach), which implies that one gets a nap in after lunch, with one’s tummy snugly covered. Accordingly, Italian men wear vests as a matter of course, and I adore this mélange of tenderness with masculinity: to ward off the peril of a chill on one’s tummy.
I read that you seem to enjoy learning languages. Which languages do you speak and in what order did you learn them?
Yes, learning languages has long been a hobby and a love of mine. I grew up in an English-speaking home, heaving with books. Afrikaans was taught in South African schools from quite early on and in high school, I started with French where my linguistic love affair really took off. At university, I did a pure-languages BA, majoring in French, English, and Xhosa (a South African language, Mandela’s mother tongue). As there were no additional fees involved at varsity, I did extra courses, German and beginner South Sotho (another African language). Only years later, in my thirties, did I start learning Italian after I met the man in question. But no, I don’t speak them all that well and sometimes I jumble them up.
Likewise, you seem to have wanderlust. Which countries have you lived in for more than six months and in what order, starting at birth?
Ooh, yes! ‘Sagittarius: have suitcase, will travel’. I grew up in Cape Town and, as an adult, moved to Johannesburg for my first job. In my early thirties, I studied in New York for 15 months, then lived in Geneva for 2.5 years, then went back to Joburg for 4.5 years. Rome came next, for 3 years, and 2.5 years ago, I returned to Geneva. It suits me much better the second time around.
Which country that you haven’t lived in would you like to try for six months to a year?
I am more attracted to cities, than countries, as such. Which cities? Paris (big) or perhaps Lyon (smaller). Frankfurt. Sydney. Seattle. Toronto. Chicago. London. Bombay. How many chances do I get?
As a booklover, do you box up a library as you move from country to country or have you given in to an eReader or do you have another solution?
I do schlepp books around with me, but circumstances have forced me to become frugal. So I use local English libraries, buy used books from English church sales and the like, and then I swap with friends and colleagues. Occasionally, I donate books to public libraries or leave them in airports. I haven’t made the e-reader transition, because I love turning pages and I appreciate the mastery of a well-produced book.
Italy seems to lend itself to memoirs. You are now living in Switzerland. Is there a genre of expat-living-in-Switzerland memoirs? Can you see yourself writing one?
Italy has been the source of inspiration for numerous ‘travel’ writers, indeed, I think because Italy is such a total-immersion setting and so rich in quirky anecdotes, steeped in history. Such writing has not taken off in quite the same way in Switzerland, on the whole. Might this be because the Swiss are less loquacious and more inscrutable? In Geneva, which is more of a mini-global village, however, swissness is fairly diluted. My friends and colleagues hail from all corners of the globe. A few are even Swiss. In the course of a day at work, I may speak French, English, Italian, and maybe some rusty German. I don’t think writing about Switzerland is going to be my next writing project, however. I am keen to write about the landscape of the body.
You don’t describe in much detail about how your Italian partner (“the Metrosexual”) assimilated to South Africa. Do you think Italians assimilate when they move to another country?
On the whole, I don’t think first-generation Italians assimilate particularly well, no. Their children might, but those who are newly uprooted tend to stick to what they know and trust, that which is di fiducia. This includes brands, cuisine, and social familiarities, such as finding a local Italian butcher, hairdresser, shoemaker, and tailor. For example, try as I might, I could not persuade the Meterosexual that Disprin is just as good (no, identical to) aspirina. He made a tentative go at South African braais (barbecues), but was not able to keep up with the copious drinking marinated by the fierce African sun.
In the same vein, did “the Metrosexual” become “more” Italian when the two of you moved to Rome, and, if so, how?
I wrote about this process in ‘Love is like an artichoke‘, about the slow peeling off and identifying of layers of identity. He did not change, but my ability to differentiate between what was him, what came from his family, what was Florentine, or broadly Italian (and then, which kind of Italian), became much more nuanced.
What was the germinating idea for your book Finding Rome on the Map of Love and what was its path to publication?
When I moved to Rome, I was free to not work for the first time in my adult life. This luxury was strangely unhinging too. Simultaneously, I was flung into a brand-new setting and was processing cross-cultural conundrums daily, which triggered a flood of creativity. I carried around notebooks and scribbled away madly, recording snippets of conversations, words, and observations of events around me. From that heap of chaos, I pulled out themes and wrote them up, one by one, chapter by chapter. I wrote 45 chapters over a year, each one under 2,000 words and set myself the goal of 70,000 words. In so doing, I processed my personal path and deepened my understanding of Italy.
You have written essays that have been published on Transitionsabroad.com on the topics relating to, in most part, navigating the bureaucracy of Italian life. Do you plan to create a book of those and other similar essays?
Transitionsabroad.com commissioned me to write how-to articles for ex-pats settling in Italy, which gave me a yet another opportunity to turn life’s experiences into writing. Feedback on internet-based writing is often immediate, direct, and gives me a bit of a thrill, so I have written a good number of pieces as a guest blogger, here and there. I have not thought of bundling them together, mostly because I regard writing for the internet as fast food and book publishing as fine dining.
Do you still drive a Vespa?
I have a Sym Tonik 125cc now, simply because the dealer was operating mid-summer. Guess where the Vespa dealer was? On holiday. In Italy! But actually, I ride my bicycle much more. I am looking forward to seeing myself being quoted as a ‘chic cyclist’ in a bike book (The Girls’ Bicycle Handbook: Everything You Need to Know About Life on Two Wheels) to be published next month.
Do you still attend writing/publishing conferences? Which is your favorite and why?
On and off, yes. My favourite is the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is a mindboggling beehive of publishers, authors, exhibitors, and events. As Europe’s biggest book fair, it is 27 football fields worth of books and makes me feel, as a publishing person, that I am part of a vast, thriving, and magnificent world of ideas that become ink.
What is an Interrobang? What place does it play in your life and do you think it will find favor on Twitter?
The interrobang is a punctuation mark, merging an exclamation mark with a question mark. It was developed in the early days of printing and destined for great things, but did not thrive. The ‘?!’ conveys both surprise and questioning. No other punctuation mark in English communicates two emotive elements at once. Not being very on active on Twitter, I can’t rightly say which direction it might go in, but the interrobang would certainly fit well into the twittersphere. Bring it on!?
Ask and answer two questions that are not included here, which you think should be part of any interview with you.
Who is your favourite feminist?
Can I have two? Both of them think (thought) out of the box. Helen Keller was a lyrical and prolific writer. She mastered several languages, read widely, and was a vocal activist for women’s and workers’ rights. And then Inna Shevchenko, of Femen, who essentially turned a little known Ukrainian group of activist-intellectuals into an international movement. Their success lies in a particularly deft and radical move: having women write slogans of protest on their own bodies.
Who encouraged you most to write when you were young?
Lots of English teachers did. But at my high school, Will van der Walt, was the most emphatic and inspiring. He took my literary interests very seriously and bestowed the utmost respect upon the teenage angst I spilled out upon the page. You will see that I mentioned him in the Acknowledgements of my book.
Book Give Away
Remember:Estelle will give a free copy of Finding Rome on the Map of Love to one lucky person who comments on this post with the best tale about a cultural misunderstanding they observed, heard about or experienced in Italy. Click the link below.
Update: Ansa Liebenberg won the free book for her comment and tale.