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!
Colomba Pasquale or Colomba di Pasqua (“Easter Dove” in English) is an Italian traditional Easter cake, the counterpart of the two well-known Italian Christmas desserts, panettone and pandoro. The colomba traces its birth to the Lombardia region, but is enjoyed throughout Italy at Easter time.
The dough for the colomba is made in a similar manner to panettone, with flour, eggs, sugar, natural yeast and butter. Some prefer the light yellow dough studded with citrus peel or dried fruits; others want to only enjoy the sweetened cake.
The sticky dough is fashioned into a dove-shape paper mold (or fashioned with two crossed halves of the dough to form the suggestion of a bird) and finally is topped with pearl sugar and almonds before being baked.
Some manufacturers produce other versions including a popular bread topped with chocolate, but purists would argue that this is an unnecessary exaggeration.
There are a couple of fanciful stories about the origin of colomba. One version has the colomba dating back to 1176, commemorating the Lombardian victory over Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. During the deciding Battle of Legnano, according to this version, two doves representing the Holy Ghost miraculously appeared on the Milanese battle standards.
Another legend dates the bread to 572, when Alboin, King of the Lombards, conquered Pavia after a three-year siege. He demanded the typical tribute, including a dozen maidens, 11 of whom succumbed. The twelfth girl, however, arrived on the fateful night with a sweet bread in the shape of a dove, a symbol of peace. Alboin was so charmed (or exhausted) that he set her free, spared Pavia from destruction and made it his capital. (He later was assassinated on the orders of Rosamund, his Gepid wife, whom he forced to drink from the skull of her dead father, which he carried around his belt, inviting her “to drink merrily with her father.”)
In more mundane times, the colomba was commercialized by the Milanese baker and businessman Angelo Motta as an Easter version of the Christmas specialty panettone that Motta company were already producing. Motta, however, does not rate as high these days among the producers. The honor of the best commercial colomba goes to Tre Marie and Bauli.
Many local Easter specialties incorporating the dove can be found throughout Italy. The dove, a pagan symbol of the coming of spring as well as the sign of the Holy Spirit in Catholicism, is the inspiration for a sweet called pastifuorti or moscardini in Palermo, pasta raffinata in Noto, and incanniddati in Syracuse, where it is shaped like a dove sitting with little candies at its base.
The village of Solomeo is perched on the Umbrian hills ten minutes outside Perugia, about a two-hour drive from Florence. This is the home of Brunello Cucinelli cashmere luxury clothing.
Brunello Cucinelli, the son of a rural laborer, decided to drop out of engineering school in Perugia in the mid-70s. (A few years ago, he was awarded an honorary doctorate in Philosophy and Ethics from the University of Perugia). He got a loan from his local bank to try his hand dyeing cashmere a bright rainbow of colors.
Why cashmere? Cucinelli explains, “Because I never thought it would be thrown away. I wanted to manufacture something that theoretically never dies.” Other clothes may go to waste, but something made of cashmere goes from a piece of fine clothing, to every-day wear, to a favorite comfy knock-around-the-house outfit with holes or patches at the elbows. “You see the idea of guardianship; it all ties in together,” he has said. “[I]t has the fascination of eternity. You either pass it along, or find another use for it, but there is something eternal about it,” he told the men’s fashion magazine The Rake.
At the time there was no brightly colored cashmere being produced in Italy or elsewhere. He told the story to BusinessofFashion.com. “So I went to the dye shop and here we had the most famous dye expert, a young guy, who was wearing a ponytail and was very fashionable. … Alessio, he was 28 and I was 25, but he had such a taste and flair. I said, ‘I’d like this to be orange.’ ‘No, no. This is cashmere, you can’t possibly dye it. You’re crazy,’ he said. … [I said] ‘Alessio, you’re so young, how can you say we can’t possibly manage it? We can’t possibly do it? Yes, yes, come on, we can do it!’
“And I convinced him and talked him round. I took these six sweaters, three V-necks, three round [necks]… these six sweaters in six beautiful colors. In terms of the product, it was innovative. I was seeking perfection for one single thing. I was the man with the sweaters; the cashmere guy.”
The business started with 90% knitwear. Now, knitwear is only 35%, but still 60% of the collection is made out of cashmere. (In the winter collection, nearly everything is all made of cashmere.)
As the brand grew, so did the headquarters. In 1987, Cucinelli moved the business to the village where his wife was born, Solomeo. Slowly the company took over responsibility for restoration of the entire town, which today also encompasses a theater, an amphitheater, and the Aurelian Neo-Humanistic Academy, which hosts seminars on philosophy, history, architecture and spirituality.
There’s also a vineyard, a library and a school of arts and crafts that teaches masonry, gardening and farming, tailoring, knitting, cutting and sewing, darning and mending. In the tailoring course, students are awarded scholarships of 700 euros ($891) a month. Cucinelli relishes the exchange between students, artists and workers.
“Ever since my very first employee, I always thought the work should be done in a healthy and pleasant environment, with better human relationships. I can’t ease the weight of the job, which is often repetitive, but I can help with nice big windows for a beautiful view and to see the light outside.” While working conditions are important, his workers are also paid around 20% more than their Italian peers. The working hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a 90-minute lunch break. (Many employees go home for lunch, but the company offers a lunch three courses daily for €2.80 – including wine and olive oil from Cucinelli’s vineyards and groves.)
To ensure the continuity of his company, the unity of the village—as well as for his daughters Camilla and Carolina who both work in product development for the brand—Cucinelli has set up an irreversible trust. In 2010, Cucinelli received the Cavaliere del Lavoro award, Italy’s top business recognition, from the president of Italy.
The trust is a separate entity from theFondazione Brunello e Federica Cucinelli, whose goal is “the improvement and beauty of humanity.” This Cucinelli thinks is part of the Umbrian culture, with a philosophy stemming “from Saint Benedict and Saint Francis, to never turn your back on mankind.” In 2011, the Cucinelli Foundation donated $1.3 million to help restore the Etruscan Arch in Perugia, dating back to the third century B.C. This year work is scheduled to start on Un Progetto per la Bellezza— “A Project for Beauty”—a plan for the development of a series of parks in the valley beneath the village of Solomeo
In 2012, the company gave Christmas bonuses of 6,000 euros ($7,513) each to longtime employees to mark the listing of the company on the Italian stock market to thank them for their support and for helping make the IPO possible.
Brunello Cucinelli’s business philosophy? “First, it is important to make a profit because there is nothing wrong with that and that is the purpose of a business,” he told FT.com. “Secondly, to take some of that profit for myself and my family, because there is nothing wrong with making Brunello rich. Thirdly, the profit must go to the workers to give their work dignity and lastly, profit must also go towards the local community, whether that may be a hospital, a theatre, a monastery.”
His responsibility to the customer? Again to FT.com, “If you buy a sweater for €1,000 and you know that the funds you are paying are also going to help to build a hospital and a school, wouldn’t you think better about it? If I know a product is made well I will buy. I don’t want to buy something that has harmed anyone, this is my absolutely strongest belief, and I believe other people think this too. Or if they don’t now, they will”.
He goes on to tell The Rake, “Quality artisanship and creativity could be used to create a brand that expressed exclusivity through very refined details. Otherwise, what would be the point of manufacturing in Italy if we didn’t take advantage of the top-quality artisanal know-how available here? I want to provide you with a garment that, when you look at it or put it on, it expresses all that is best in Italy. I want to communicate our heritage to you.”
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
As the tourist season starts in Italy, the savvy visitor knows to keep in mind that one of the Italian national pastimes is to go on strike. Some years see more of lo sciopero than others, but in these difficult economic and political times in Italy it is certain that 2014 is predicted to be a year of delays and inconvenience.
Just last month, I was on my way to France via trains from Florence to Milan and Milan to Lyon. The day of my travels, the Italian national railways went on strike for eight hours. Lucky for me I was traveling to Milan with the fantastic private rail company Italo and then on to France with the French TGV. But this is what the schedule board looked like in Milan. Note especially the cancellation of trains to the international Malpensa airport.
Lo Sciopero is a strike or temporary work stoppage. A sciopero can be national or regional or local and can affect only one service sector or many. They inconvenience everyone and help no one, but Italians keep exercising their right to strike.
The most common strikes are local, usually lasting from four hours to one day. Strikes often involve the transportation sector. They are almost invariably announced in advance, which at least helps alert travelers to plan around the dates of strikes and arrange alternative modes of transportation. Occasionally, to make things more complicated, they are cancelled or postponed at short notice.
There are many rail strikes in Italy. They generally take place at the weekend, from Saturday evening until Sunday evening. The law guarantees a minimum service, so some trains should still run. There are also frequent strikes of urban transport. These scioperi are generally announced in advance, and many city transport authorities will try to negotiate continuation of service during the rush hour to help commuters.
A large proportion of Italy’s air travel strikes have involved Alitalia, the perpetually troubled Italian national airline. Sometimes there are more wide-ranging strikes by ground staff or by air traffic controllers, and unfortunately there’s not much travelers can do about this, other than be patient. These strikes usually last several hours; sometimes they simply delay flights, at other times they can lead to cancellations.
Other strikes in Italy – by schoolteachers, students, taxi drivers, garbage collectors, tobacco sellers, even bloggers (2009 to protest a restrictive bill in Parliament) add to the ever-growing variety of Scioperi Italiani. Strikes may even occur in sympathy with strikers from other countries.
Work stoppages by state employees may affect museum openings. Strikes at individual museums will almost always be timed to back up against the weekly closed day.
Strikes in any industry happen almost every year in the week leading up to and after the national August 15 holiday.
The granddaddy of all strikes is the national strike (lo sciopero nazionale), all transportation may be stopped or experience a slow-down, garbage won’t be collected, museums will be closed, and many stores, including supermarkets will be shut. National strikes are fairly rare, but it’s a day most Italians know it is hopeless to try to get anything done, better to stay home and catch up on sleep, read a good book or try out that new recipe for slow-cooking peposo di cinghiale.
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.
“Pleasant manners,” writes Giovanni Della Casa, “are those which delight or at least do not annoy any of the senses, the desires, or the imagination of those with whom we live.”
In modern times when we are reminded that President Lyndon Johnson would hold meetings while sitting on the toilet; or there is a kerfuffle throughout the Twittersphere when Mayor de Blasio (correctly according to Italian Food Rules) ate pizza with a knife and fork; or tourists in Florence insist on greeting strangers with “Ciao!”; or foreign students think flip-flops and cut-off shorts are proper attire when touring a church, it is comforting to know that at least the Italians have Life Rules that govern almost every aspect of their daily existence. These rules were set almost five hundred years ago.
“Since it is the case that you are now just beginning that journey that I have for the most part as you see completed, that is, the one through mortal life, and loving you so very much as I do, I have proposed to myself—as one who has been many places—to show you those places in life where, walking through them, I fear you could easily either fall or take the wrong direction.”
So begins Galateo, Trattato de’ Costumi (Galateo: Treatise on the Rules of Polite Behavior) a short manuscript on good manners, written by the retired, but worldly (he was known to compose racy poetry), archbishop and diplomat Giovanni Della Casa (1503-1556). First published in 1558, two years after the author’s death, it sets forth the rules on how to comport oneself in polite society.
Della Casa was born in Borgo San Lorenzo, a small town north of Florence, to a noble Tornabuoni mother and a highly educated father. He lived in Florence and Rome at the same time as Michelangelo. He attended university in Bologna and after deciding on an ecclesiastical career, he rose quickly to the position of Archbishop of Benevento, a small city northeast of Naples. His lasting legacy, however, is Il Galateo.
Purportedly for the benefit of his nephew, Annibale Rucellai, a young Florentine with an important lineage and a promising future, the treatise, in the voice of a cranky yet genial old uncle, offers the distillation of what had been learned over a lifetime of study of Greek and Roman humanistic texts and public service as diplomat and papal nuncio. (Archbishop Della Casa was once charged with setting up the inquisition in Venice to root out heretics.)
The University of Chicago Press has recently published a new edition, translated by M.F. Rusnak. As Rusnak discusses in the long introduction to Galateo: Or, The Rules of Polite Behavior, far from being a book on table manners, the original Galateo was a “conduct manual, a viable tourist guide to acting Italian in Italy, and a learned analysis of literary language.”
As relevant today as it was in Renaissance Italy, Galateo deals with subjects as varied as dress codes, charming conversation and off-color jokes, eating habits and hairstyles, and includes citations to the works of Dante and Boccaccio. Less a treatise promoting courtly values or a manual of savoir faire, it is rather a meditation on conformity and the law, on perfection and rules, but also an exasperated reaction to the diverse ways in which people make fools of themselves in everyday social situations.
As such, it holds a distinguished place among Italy’s rich history of etiquette books. These range from Andreas Capellanus’s Art of Courtly Love, which describes how a medieval knight should behave to win the favor of his lady; to Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, which recommends sprezzatura, the Renaissance equivalent of being nonchalant, and Machiavelli’s The Prince, devoted to realpolitik and therefore, stressing effective, rather than genial, behavior. In its time, Galateo circulated as widely as Machiavelli’s Prince and Castiglione’s Courtier.
Mirroring what Machiavelli did for promoting political behavior, and what Castiglione did for behavior at a noble court, Della Casa described the refined every-man caught in a world in which embarrassment and vulgarity prevailed. Galateo was written at a time when the medieval openness about bodily functions was being discouraged. Renaissance etiquette writers were all begging their readers to stop spitting and touching themselves in public.
Della Casa’s explanation for his rules of dress, table manners, gestures and speech is the need to avoid offending others. That is the basic bargain required to live in peaceful communities. Naturally, it never happens without a struggle. Not all Europeans agreed with Della Casa.
At the end of the 16th century, English readers assumed that Thomas Coryate , one of the earliest travel writers, was joking when he reported that Italians did not attack their food with hands and hunting knives as did normal people, even normal royalty. Those prissy Italians wielding forks arrived at the royal court in France in 1533 with the Italian Catherine de’ Medici when the pope arranged for her to marry the future King Henry II. A century later, Louis XIV was supposedly so annoyed to see a court lady use one that he had hair put in her soup.
In Richard II, Shakespeare, writing about forty years after Galateo was published, has the Duke of York complain to the dying John of Gaunt about “Report of fashions in proud Italy, / Whose manners still our tardy apish nation / Limps after in base imitation.” The French and the English disparaged Italian etiquette, only to lay claim in succeeding centuries to being the cultures of refinement, civility and propriety.
Galateo is divided into thirty chapters based around questions of etiquette. As with any modern manners book, it offers advice on proper dinner-table conversation and behavior. Have we not all been repulsed by people who, “oblivious as pigs with their snouts in the swill, never raise their faces nor their eyes, much less their hands, from the food? And they gulp down their grub with both their cheeks puffed out as if they were playing the trumpet or blowing on a fire, not eating but gobbling. Those who grease up their hands and arms to the elbows or dirty their napkins such that washcloths in the bathroom are neater.”
Throughout, Della Casa urges a reasonable conformity to the customs of the country in which one lives. (He would have encouraged Mayor de Blasio to eat pizza with his hands in NYC, but not in Florence.) Clothes, Galateo suggests, should fit well rather than be loud and trendy. He urged his nephew to follow the refined conservative fashions in Florence, but when in Naples to wear the more elaborate costumes popular there. “First of all, one must consider the country where one lives, for every custom is not good in every place. Perhaps what is customary for Neapolitans, whose city is rich in men of great lineage and barons of great prestige, would not do, for example, for the people of Lucca or Florentines who are for the most part merchants and simple gentlemen and have among them neither princes, nor counts, nor barons.”
He recommended that people speak clearly and plainly, after having “first formed in your mind what you have to say.” He argued for civility but warned against sycophancy: “Flatterers overtly show that they consider the man they are praising to be vain and arrogant, as well as so stupid, obtuse, and so beef-witted that it is easy to lure and entrap him.”
Della Casa’s message is: Don’t be disgusting. Pretty much everything that comes out of a bodily orifice met his definition of disgusting — so much so that the mere sight of someone washing his hands would upset people, as their minds would leap to the function that had necessitated that cleansing.
The counsel itself remains timeless: “Most of us hate unpleasant and bothersome people as much as evil ones, maybe even more.” In modern times, the object of Della Casa’s disparaging comments would be the woman on the bus putting on her makeup in a cloud of perfume, someone on the park bench clipping his fingernails, the teenager who insists on tapping his feet to the music leaking out of his earbuds one seat over in a plane, and those who chat or conduct business on their cell phones in a restaurant.
“You do not want, when you blow your nose, to then open the hanky and gaze at your snot as if pearls or rubies might have descended from your brains. This is a nauseating habit not likely to make anyone love you, but rather, if someone loved you, he or she would fall out of love right there,” wrote Della Casa to his nephew.
He was also irritated by people who interrupt constantly (they “surely make the other person eager to punch or smack them”), and people who describe their dreams in excruciating detail: “One should not annoy others with such stuff as dreams, especially since most dreams are by and large idiotic.”
“To offer your advice without being asked is nothing else but a way of saying that you are wiser than those you are giving advice to, and even a reproof for their ignorance and lack of knowledge.”
Americans would be surprised at Galateo’s advice on how to behave at a dinner party: “You must not do anything to proclaim how greatly you are enjoying the food and wine, for this habit is for tavern keepers.” And “[i]t is a barbarous habit to challenge someone to a drinking bout. This is not one of our Italian customs and so we give it a foreign name, that is, far brindisi.” [The Italian fare brindisi or brindare for “to toast” comes from German ich bring dir’s, “I bring yours.”]
Manners matter. As Della Casa writes, the annoyances of everyday life only seem trivial or of small moment. “Even light blows, if they are many, can kill.” In the end, regard for the feelings of others lies at the heart of any rational society. In Italy, an ill-bred bore is described as “one who has not read Il Galateo.” (Or acquired the latest smart phone app: Galateo a Tavola. )
To read Il Galateo is to have “a viable travel guide to acting Italian in Italy.” To follow its lessons is a big step toward being Italian.