Jul/Aug 2011 Nonfiction

Europe Calling: Wandering in the Shadow of D. H. Lawrence

by Julia Braun Kessler

Photo by Peter Witte

Photo by Peter Witte

The feast of Southern California's year-round sun, its brilliant blue sea and white sands held us fast in those first years. Yet, soon, along came temptation once more: to follow in the footsteps of that restless genius, D. H. Lawrence.

Ah, youthful vigor! How could my scholar husband resist such a lure? Could he decline Senator Fulbright's generous offer of a year's research grant in "that centro di civiltà," la bella Italia? Was it not there back in the early twentieth century that the writer himself had once happily roamed?

Thus, not two years after our long California trek, we were to find ourselves en route again. This time, to fly our way back East and across the vast Atlantic as we headed for that miracle of Renaissance art and culture, that living museum in the heart of Italy's Tuscan province, the sparkling city of Florence.

As a follow-up to his post-doctoral research, my husband would look further into the mind of the roving author. To gain a far clearer vision of that writer's work, he would seek out what Lawrence himself might have observed in his own time, delving into his special devotion to that blessed land.

How willingly we two had responded to the call. Europe tempted and seduced us. Yet, this time around, our adventure must proceed with two youngsters in tow! And this, not to speak of accumulated paraphernalia to see to before we could consider embarking upon our journey. Having only recently bought our house in California, there was its mortgage to be accounted for, and a reliable renting potential to be sought for it.

Worse yet, we now needed to find a loving caretaker for our beloved poodle. And on top of this, came my husband's own discovery of his University Department's disgruntlement at his abandonment of his teaching duties for the upcoming Academic year.

Fulbright Grants themselves were indeed something of distinction for a young scholar. Yet, the announcement of his award had, unfortunately arrived very late within the academic year, thus causing the Department considerable turmoil in re-scheduling. Back then, planning for those vast numbers of Freshman students arriving each semester came first among State-funded University's priorities. Young Assistant Professors, so new to campus, were hardly encouraged to rock that boat by failing to deliver on their commitments to earlier announced programs.

One kind professor cautioned him privately, taking him aside with, "Young man, this is not promising for your future with our department. If you wish to be with us one day in a position of tenure yourself, that is!"

While he struggled with these hurdles, I was scurrying about seeking reliable tenants for our newly-painted and furnished house. I worried about what to do with our fragile works of art, those few we'd managed to acquire while we, still free spirits, gallivanted about, down in Greenwich Village in our early days of "bohemianism" back in New York.

But the biggest worry of all for us was what was to become of our beautiful, oversized black poodle, Harry. How to secure a year's happy circumstance for the pet we all loved so much? That was to prove more arduous even than anything else we had faced as yet.

Out of the question was taking him along, given the restrictions of the times. Moreover, my Mom, newly-relocated in a small apartment, had little space for any animal, and certainly not this aristocrat of a fellow. In my desperation, I turned next towards my reluctant sister, herself hardly a dog-lover. Well I remembered from our childhood, how she had avoided our little mutt, Chum, for years and years, had shunted him off with a mere flick of her arm every single time that poor creature approached her!

Now, however, she lived comfortably with her professor husband and growing (though petless) children in their spacious house just near the glorious campus of Stanford University, and it certainly seemed our best prospect. Alas, she proved a stubbornly unwilling recipient for our Harry. I begged, cajoled, and even tried urging it for the sake of her three young kids, but still failed to convince her. I was beginning to despair.

It was only later, when she was literally commanded by my Mom to take him on, that she finally relented. She then reluctantly allowed my husband to deliver him 500 miles to his new home and to settle him in for the duration of our European stay.

Thus were we finally freed and could to go forth. The Fulbright Awards had been conceived as an ambitious post-War effort to put peoples at peace again with one another after the brutality and the destruction of the second World War. We as Americans were, in our turn, to act as emissaries of good will in such distant environments. And for us recipients, we would be introduced to new lands, immersed in their alien languages, exposed to foreign ways.

For those of us lucky enough to be spending the year in Italy, it was to be to the lively town of Perugia first off. In the province of Umbria, we were to be introduced to that nation's culture and traditions and prepared for a life wholly unlike our own American one. And there, before permitting each scholar and his/her family to disperse towards their eventual destinations all over the boot, we would be part of a six-week crash language course at Perugia's L'Università per Stranieri. For the purpose, we all willingly vowed we would speak nothing but Italian, even to one another and our little ones for that period of time. A mere six weeks would do it. Hardly a problem, or so it seemed at first! Yet, oh yet, what an endless interval it soon proved.

A varied group we were, mostly Americans, but lots of other nationals as well. Students, young aspirants of every variety, scientists, philosophers, literary types, assistant professors, all of them raw and certainly intimidated by their sudden lack of knowhow in this new land. "Fresh off the boat we were," as the old saying went, and not unlike some of our own parents, as they might have felt many years back when first reaching American shores. In truth, most of us felt all at sea regarding procedures and propriety in this alien land.

We ushered off our youngsters happily each day to a nearby Montessori nursery school, a place which boasted an experimental method much favored for children in those times. How well I still recollect those bright autumn mornings, when my then five-year-old son repeated an endless chant as he marched towards that little schoolhouse. His phrase, memorized and rehearsed, over and over, and so valiantly: Voglio scrivere, voglio sciverere! (I want to write) is what he repeated.

We had been lodged with a welcoming Perugian family. Signor and Signora Farinelli, together with their grown son, who fed us generously, coddling us in the warmth of their home. No matter what went wrong, they made all seem possible. We could even imagine, with their help, the preposterous idea of our being sent off to nearby Firenze soon, to begin our lives quite on our own and equipped with an ample comprehension of their expressive Latinate language. We even believed we might leave with a smattering of Mediterranean savvy and confidence for coping with any situation that should arise.

And in the Italy of the '60s, (who knows, possibly continuing to this day) we had already noted a wholly languorous pacing everywhere we turned. It was something they themselves clucked over as, a "faciamo domani" (let's do it tomorrow!) attitude. That persistent notion, with its lack of order, was all about us. Yet we, bred in our primarily Anglo-Saxon culture of promptness and efficiency, simply did not comprehend it. To be sure, little could be accomplished daily among them.

Soon enough we learned to slow down, accept their custom, and use their Italian phrases: "Oggi sciopero, domani festa!" (Today strike, tomorrow holiday) by way of explanation. The facts of daily life. For survival's sake, and sanity alone, it was vital to go along, to cope with that in order to keep the peace and tranquility.

Ah, but such compensations there were, such delights and pleasures in that way of life. We were soon to experience and succumb to its seductiveness. How could we not? All Italians, for instance, seemed to be passionate about little children, and the Farinellis immediately embraced our little fellas, making them as comfortable in their home as they would their very own.

Signora Farinelli would address them with her wondrous diminutive linguistic turns, pat them, hug them, and then offer not only such sweet talk, but all varieties of her concoctions of unknown Italian delicacies. She even flattered us by escorting them regularly to her neighbors' apartments to show-off her "piccoli bambini Americani, cosi belli e alla moda!" (little Americans, so much in style).

Their delightful hospitality liberated our days there, making us free spirits once more. We strived to think in Italian, to eat their specialties, drink their wines, and to do everything in Italian fashion. As was their habit, we napped during the afternoons, and we found this easy enough after their huge mid-day meals, complete with glasses of wine. And later, their dinners never seemed to come to an end, certainly not before ten pm. We watched as our still American children wilted while they sat through them.

Our days went swiftly and happily by, and the eagerness for adapting, adjusting and pacing ourselves comme I' Italiani overtook all. I recollect even today upon how we'd manage nightly to finally get our little ones into their beds and then slip out ourselves, just for a private moment together. Ostensibly, it was to go down to the piazza for a late expresso at the café. Our secret purpose, however, was to have that chance word with one another in English. Ah, the release, the relief. Ignoring our vows to speak Italian only, and to live it, body and soul. What a breach of discipline that was. It made us feel like delinquent kids.

The wonder of it was to find ourselves graduates after that six weeks language course, so that we might strike out into their world. For us, this was to be to Firenze, that miracolo, and for other families that we'd come to know in this short Perugia time, it was off to other townships scattered all over the Italian boot.

Along came a surprise invitation from our host, Signor Farinelli. He would accompany us on this first encounter to that city. So fond had the famiglia Farinelli become with il professore, sua signora, and their bambini, that his greatest fears came to the fore nightly as we prepared to leave them. Certain that we'd be cheated in attempting to rent an appartment (Didn't those furbo Fiorentini always cheat Americans?), he would insist. There was no refusing this generous offer. So off we went together.

Soon enough did that glorious vision of a city unfold. It spread before us, yet even before we could take in that first view of the Arno and its surrounding Renaissance wonders, it was meal time—as we already knew, sacred to the Italiani. Thus, time to stop at Signor Farinelli's most treasured restaurant, a steakhouse. Apparently, he was proud to introduce us to that most Italian delicacy (something we'd clearly mai vista, or, never seen before) the bisteka Fiorentina. How little he knew of Western American beef. So, before we knew it, there before us were what turned out to be fine T-bone steaks.

After, and now in earnest, we bought up the several Firenze newspaper dailies to study their advertisements for quarters. Signore Farinelli's wonderful eye and natural Italian skills at bargaining the price downwards would do the trick for these naive Americani. We tried one after the other, driving about steadily as the afternoon waned, yet nothing seemed even remotely a possibility.

Despite our steady efforts, all our tries had fizzled, and when one final advertisement took us to a splendid villa set in its own greenery on the Via Bolognese, within walking distance from Il Centro itself, we proceeded there gingerly, and with faint hopes of its availability to us. Signor Farinelli, instantly cautioned us yet again to be silent and to let him do all the talking. As we stood quietly behind him, awaiting some response to our ring, the door finally did open, and there stood a tall lady displaying her Florentine chicquerie of dress and a notable elegance.

Our good Farinelli, ever courtly in the Italian style, still firmly inquired of her what "part" of the Villa she might be offering to rent. He continued with queries about what repairs had been made in the old structure and whether it could house two adults and their young children. Yet, barely had he uttered these words, when the good lady replied in an Italian that was not only faulty, but in several respects reminiscent of our own recent struggles with Italian grammar and diction.

And, her next attempts immediately settled all suspicions. She pronounced in the sweet voice of a proper Lady from Alabam' accustomed to having her way in every instance, "Momento, Signori, devo chiamare il mio marito qui fa tutti gli affari per me," while muttering under her breath, in perfect English, "I'll call him instantly..."

Astonished, we two could but burst out in laughter. So my husband instantly spoke up: "Madam, no need, no need at all to call your husband. We who stand here before you are your own countrymen. He then introduced Signor Farinellia and explained how our Perugian friend had come along to help us settle for a year of study here in her own fair city. And next, he quickly turned to our own family to make his presentations.

Speechless now, poor, sweet, Signor Farinelli stood virtually helpless before this imposing lady, with little choice but to remain so. She appeared to be of some standing within that community's large international society, and all this while, we alone successfully pleaded for the rental of her spacious and newly-appointed quarters (which, we were soon to learn, had been renovated recently for the upcoming marriage of her son, Lorenzo, to an American heiress, but that this wedding, alas, had, at the last moment been postponed for a year by the bride's "suspicious" father).

Thus were we lucky enough to move ourselves into that fine neighborhood. Just across the road, we discovered, was Lord Acton's villa, and our own was also well-known in Firenze as the Villa Gori-Montanelli, her aristocratic husband's family name. This palazzo was situated on the posh Via Bolognese, was just off the high-road to Fiesole, yet another neighborhood of elegance not far above the rise.

So began our Florentine lives. With our little ones to be registered in the local school house not very far down the road, a grade school run by Nuns, despite its connections with the Italian state system, we would be happily situated and ready for our year there.

Having learned of this religious-secular combination from our new landlady, Signora Gori-Montanelli, I had gone there prepared. I would need to explain that while I was registering them in that school, we ourselves were "Hebrai," not "Cattolico," and that, moreover, we were no strict observers of our own faith in the bargain. We hardly welcomed therefore religious instruction of our children in any another faith.

The complexity of this message took some considerable rehearsal, given my primitive Italian. I was eager to be understood by these good Sisters. I was to find out right then that they, after all was said and done, were Florentines—another breed! Although altogether open to such requests from the family of a young "professore Americano," they would proceed in their own leisurely fashion.

Their wonderful principal in charge, a Suora Domencani (Sister of the Dominican Order) welcomed me warmly and promptly set papers before me to fill in before I could so much as utter a syllable. I proceeded to do so, taking the pen she offered me and writing with my left hand. Suddenly she was in a tizzy, calling out to the other Suore around her about this performance. "Vedi, che strana e, come la Signora scrive" (how strangely the Signora writes)! With this they all circled round to jeer, and I needed first explain that in our land we did not discourage left-handedness. Yet, this little fracas knocked the speech I'd prepared about religion quite out of my head.

When I finally did reve up and blurt out my reservations about religious training, she was equally casual. She would simply see to it that my little ones were sent out to play each Thursday morning in their lovely back garden, while such teaching was in process. So off the children went to that little school house on the Via Bolognese, and happily, too, to study with the other neighboring kiddies.

Soon enough, they'd learned that tongue, even to the Fiorentine-accented tones in it, and chattered their way in it daily. I recall how they made their farewells to their schoolmates each afternoon, reverting to English only as they hailed one of us to shout, "Wait up, Mom, I wanna talk to Fernando or Lucio." They sounded as fluent as any of the natives, and their fluency made us look all the more amateur in our own attempts at "la pronuncia propria di Italiano."

Italia, with it diversions, its slow pacing, yet ever the charmer, and always able to take off one's guard!

One of the more amusing moments concerned with that supposed non-religious exposure occurred months later. It was during our Easter break, when we'd taken ourselves off for a holiday in Greece. We were demonstrating for our kiddies those miraculous acoustics that had once pervaded in some of the open ancient theaters, while we visited their ruins. A bright spring day at Delphi, we had scooted ourselves up to a high level in one of the stalls remaining to watch as our little daughter, standing down below in its center, recited for us in her newly acquired Florentine accented tongue, to demonstrate those resounding tones.

The tiny girl stood proud while projecting her childish voice to explain "How the Donkey Got Its Big Ears," from her class-lesson with the Suore. Just a wee sample of the Nun's idea of "secular teaching." She bellowed out her rendition:

Perche l'asino ha orecchi lunghi?
Un giornio Gesú nomina gli animali.
Tutti gli animali ascoltano ai loro nomi.
Quando viene l'asino, Gesú gli da il nome, Asino.
Ma l'asino, dimenticando, ritorna a Gesú, e dice,
"Signore, non mi ricordo il proprio nome."
Gesú tiro il suoi orécchi, "Tu sei asino."
"Ah si, si! Ora mi ricordo—sono un asino!"
Ma l'asino dimentica un altra volta , e poi un altra volta.
E ogni volta Gesú tira i suoi orécchi, dicendo, "Tu sei asino!"
Ed é per questo ragione che l'asino ha orécchi così lunghi!

And what her tale had us told was this:

Why do donkeys have such long ears? One day Jesus was giving out their names to the animals as each listened to theirs. When came the donkey's turn came, Jesus named him L'asino. But the donkey, forgetting, returned to Jesus and said, "Signore, I forgot my name. Jesus pulled on his ears, repeating, "You are l'asino!" The donkey forgot again and again, and Jesus pulled his ears every time, shouting , YOU ARE L' ASSINO! And that's why the donkey has such long ears!

There was Gesu in every sentence! So much for their notions of secular teaching. Or, for that matter the very idea of separation of church and state! Not, at least, at that charming little schoolhouse in Firenze.

Such incidents come to mind today as utterly bizarre. Ah, Italia! Yet our children studied, learned, and thrived there. One day, for instance, I'd come early to fetch them, and there before me and her class stood one of these cheery yet devout women in her customary black habit, to which she had added the most comical hat over her veil, for her recital to her delighted pupils of another of these charming fairytales. In the end, the children's was a harmless exposure, remaining a happy memory to this day.

The meanwhile, my husband had been quickly thrust into his researches of the Italian life as D. H. Lawrence might have known it by traveling to the very places where the writer had lived with his wife Frieda and worked upon his opus way back in the 1920s. So, when he was not at the library in Florence, he was off in such places as Cerveteri, Volterra, or other Tarquinian townships outside the city, concentrating on those tasks. Sicily was to come later, and for us all.

I was off on excursions of my own, only right there, into Firenze's artistic culture. These happened exclusively weekday afternoons, while the children were in school. And what a learning experience that proved to be! I could hardly have anticipated what I found awaiting me. Everywhere I turned were those miracles of the Renaissance. After my morning's chores of food-shopping were completed, I'd stroll into the local churches, parking my full shopping cart out in the front to seek out the priests in attendance (by whom I was repeatedly assured that my groceries were safe), I'd inquire of the whereabouts of their own "capo-lavori" (masterpieces). From that moment on, I was inevitably squired around with loving attention by these devout brothers, who held forth eloquently about such treasures. Some days, their talk went on and on, telling more even than I could absorb of those early artists' lives, their struggles in their times of strife. Or, often enough, they launched into their church community's own hurdles for the maintenance of such miraculous creations over the centuries.

Florence itself had flourished among Italian villages in the early 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, nourishing and welcoming the best of artists, and had virtually been the very center touted for the re-birth of great art, culture, and civilization. So, there it was that I too discovered my new world. For me it was found not only in the local churches, but in every room of the Uffizi and the Pitti where such works of art were displayed for my hungry eyes. They were the glorious achievements of Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pinturicchio, Paolo Uccello, Massaccio, Fra Filippo Lippi, Giorgione, Piero della Fresca, and others. Leonardo de Vinci and Michelangelo themselves received their training there, and Raphael soon joined the others to work in the city from the beginning of the 16th Century on.

Along with these came the sculptors like Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and more. There were architects, too, whose works, such as that of the Loggia dei Lanzi, with its round arches instead of the more usual Gothic, pointy ones, restored a new simplicity and a resemblance to Classical structures. And how might we neglect Benvenuto Cellini, or Michelangelo himself, the sculptors who brought new life to the city's stately piazzas?

All ushered Quattrocentesco art to Firenze—not to Rome—where it had ever flourished, thus altering the intellectual and cultural outlook of the post-medieval period in Italy.

So could I feast daily back then. Those sights were to become an education, a vision: of line, color, space, story and tradition. Choosing my masterworks at will, developing favorites among these geniuses, was luxury itself. And the most preposterous part of it all came afterwards, as I proceeded daily with my grocery cart to call for my children at the schoolhouse, as though nothing special had happened!

Just to walk and to wander into Ognissanti, come upon Ghirlandaio's Pieta or his St. Jerome, to plant my feet before those grand doors of the Baptistery by the great cathedral, the Duomo, and to look upon the Ghiberti's sculpted figures shining out to me, even leaning towards me, or then to dip into the nearby Church of Santa Maria del Carmine for the Massaccio's frescoes, provided more riches for my bemused mind's eye. How inspiring they were, and how satisfying! They are among my fondest recollections of that blessed land.

These visits were to be merely a beginning for all of our family, as that glorious year proceeded. Italia's riches seemed inexhaustible, and they were to be seen in each of the marvelous communities we soon visited nearby. Our kiddies, the while, barely tolerated such excursions, restless and unwieldy, running about in those churches and museums. No matter, we've little regret since their own devotions to art and artists remains true to this day. And who but Italia itself can claim the credit?

If to this very day, I can't say where the donkey's long ears might have come from, what I can be sure of is that my own magic moment of discovery of that Renaissance world, my love of those masters, was nurtured during those early morning strolls into the nooks and crannies of divine Firenze.


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