As we gradually and, in some cases, fitfully emerge from under the shadow of the pandemic, the ordinary pleasures of the B.C. (Before Covid) era beckon with renewed allure: a grandchild’s hug, a restaurant meal, a day at the ballpark, and that abandoned vacation that now seems even sweeter than it did when first planned. In our case, my wife and I have been spending two to three weeks in Italy each year to visit family and indulge our Italian heritage. It’s a pleasure that never exhausts itself but grows stronger each time we go. Shakespeare described the feeling more poetically when he referred to Hamlet’s mother’s passion for her murdered husband: She would hang on him as if the increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on. We have been feeding on Italy for a year, literally and figuratively.
But with our yearly trip canceled by the virus, we found ourselves, either by design or necessity, paying greater attention to the things we previously had taken for granted. My wife, Maria, is an excellent cook. In the early days of the virus she took complete control of making sure we had not just enough food in the house but the right foods, spending hours online each week tracking down the stores that had what we needed, and, in many cases, arranging for home delivery or curbside pickup. We might have been confined to our house but we were eating better than ever!
Before the shutdowns and quarantines, I would typically spend a lot of time indulging my passion for libraries and bookstores. When that became impossible I actually wasn’t all that upset. Rather, Covid became my rationale for staying home and doing what I liked best — reading, writing, and surfing online used book outlets. I have always been an avid reader of history and literature for the enjoyment of the subjects themselves and for the probative relationship they share. Literature, like art and architecture, often serves as a bridge connecting the past, present, and future, elucidating events, their effects, and how history records those effects. William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels are a perfect example of this symbiotic relationship. Set against the ever-present memory of the Civil War that hangs over them like a dark cloud, many of the famous names, dates, and places of that four-year blood fest appear in the books and short stories set in the fictional Mississippi county of Yoknapatawpha. But those are only surface data that illustrate how the idea of slavery existed in the mind and psyche of antebellum Southerners. To understand how it threaded through their thinking like veins in a diseased body, read the fever-pitched Absalom, Absalom!, the frightening Light in August, The Unvanquished, or The Hamlet and cringe at how that “peculiar institution” continues to afflict our political and moral culture 200 years later. Or Hard Times, David Copperfield, or Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens for a record of how the squalor and deprivation suffered by the poor and working-class in 19th-century London led to the decades of political and social unrest in England.
And so, held hostage by the virus I turned to literature and history for some context or understanding of the situation that I along with millions of others were facing. Two analogues immediately leapt to mind that involved a pandemic, its effects on people and on a town we had planned to visit on our now-aborted vacation.
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It was a day sacrificed to art. The streets of Florence were broiling in the mezzogiorno sun. As we walked across the Ponte Vecchio the Arno bounced shimmering sheets of light back up against the blue ceiling of the sky in a pyrotechnic display. Because we had neglected to reserve tickets ahead of time, we waited with hundreds of other art-hungry pilgrims to squeeze into the already-packed Accademia Gallery to see Michelangelo’s David and later that afternoon to repeat the experience at the Uffizi for Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. We had seen both masterpieces before, but no number of visits is too many. It was hot; it was enervating but well worth the price for that other-worldly sensation of feeling both empty and full all at the same time that always comes in the presence of these overpowering works of art.
The next day we needed a respite from the heat, the crowds, and even the art. We found it on a picturesque hill less than five miles from Florence in the town of Fiesole. Tourists come to Fiesole just as they come to Rome, Venice, Florence, and Italy’s other major cities, not for what it has but for what it doesn’t have: the blare of car sirens and the deadly game of dodge the Vespa, celebrity prices on everything from a pair of shoes to a week’s rent and hordes of ravenous tourists eager to consume as much culture as possible on limited time and budgets.
The sirens, Vespas, sky-high prices, and crowds are the necessary trade-offs for the splendors of Italy’s major cities. Fiesole’s attractions are of a different order: tasteful villas, cypress-lined avenues, quiet gardens, olive groves glinting silver in the sun, and, from 1,000 feet above, an unforgettable view of Florence in the valley below. From Fiesole, we were able to enjoy the surrounding beauty of the Tuscan countryside while appreciating the deeper meaning of its significance in history. Here is where classical culture, in forms as diverse as the Apollo Belvedere, Cicero’s Letters, Aristotle’s Politics, Vitruvius’ de Architectura, and numerous other artworks and texts, surged back to life in the fecund soil of the Renaissance.
It wasn’t always so in this city on the hill. When the Etruscans founded Fiesole in the 8th century B.C., Florence was already a Roman military colony a few miles away. For centuries, the two towns existed in uneasy accommodation to each other’s visibly growing military strength. Then, so legend has it, in 1125 a Florentine merchant was robbed in Fiesole. This was more than the proud Florentines were willing to bear. In retribution, they destroyed Fiesole and carted off the ruins to use as building materials for their own city.
By the 14th century, wealthy Florentines had staked out Fiesole as a convenient getaway from the noise and political turmoil of their own city. The Medici family, rulers of Florence and surrounding towns, breathed new life into many of the existing villas and churches while adding new ones. Armed with the newly rediscovered principles of harmony, balance, and proportion that had guided the creation of such masterpieces as the Parthenon, the Pantheon, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and the Venus de Milo, the Medici employed architecture and art to connect 14th-century Fiesole backward 2,000 years to “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome.” Conversely, literature pushes Fiesole 700 years forward to the present time in the works of Giovanni Boccaccio and Dante Alighieri.
Poet, scholar and humanist, Boccaccio published his Decameron in 1353, setting a new standard for Italian prose. The 100 tales in the collection are told by seven women and three men who have left Florence for a country villa to escape the Black Death. In the fresh air and healthful climate of the countryside, they amuse themselves with pleasant thoughts and storytelling, hoping that these activities will insulate them physically and emotionally from the plague that is decimating their city. The villa “so green that it seemed almost black, flanked with flowers of, perhaps, a thousand sorts, and girt about with the richest living verdure of orange-trees and cedars, which showed not only flowers but fruits both new and old, and were no less grateful to the smell by their fragrance than to the eye by their shade,” is the Villa Palmieri. Today, it still sits on the rolling Tuscan slopes below the Piazza San Domenico, echoing the tales of lecherous clerics, jealous lovers, and crafty princes penned by Boccaccio 700 years earlier. The town where these stories were told is Fiesole.
In the introduction to the Decameron, Boccaccio gives us one of the best historical and psychological narratives of the Black Death; which ultimately killed about half the population of Florence. He records the plague’s physical effects on people. The black lumps in armpits and groins, glands swollen to the size of apples, the deaths so quick that people could eat breakfast with family and dinner with ancestors in another world — and the psychological damage, leading people to abandon families and friends in desperate attempts to avoid infection. Were the suffocating deaths of Covid in our time, the horror of family and friends in intensive care units with tubes in their throats, so very different from what Boccaccio told us about?
In 1320, Boccaccio’s contemporary, Dante Alighieri, finished his Divine Comedy, the timeless tale of Man’s journey through hell and purgatory to paradise and salvation. In Canto V, the poet is crossing through the second circle of hell, reserved for those who gave in to lust during their lives. He meets up with a young Florentine girl, Francesca da Rimini, who along with her lover Paolo Malatesta, is buffeted back and forth with no rest by powerful winds that symbolize the storm of sexual desire. When Dante expresses sympathy for their plight, Francesca explains how she and Paolo, while reading the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere, surrendered to their passion for each other. Francesca’s husband discovers their adultery and kills them both. Rather than complain against their punishment, Francesca calmly replies: “Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice ne la miseria” (there is no greater pain than remembering happy times in misery). Francesca’s words are perhaps the most human and universal sentiment in all of the more than 14,000 lines of the poem, reaching us across 700 years to again link up the plague-afflicted 14th century with our Covid-afflicted 21st.
Fiesole also found its way into the works of more recent authors. The 19th-century English poet Robert Browning commemorates “sober pleasant Fiesole” in his poem, “Andrea del Sarto.” The city also serves as the setting for E.M. Forster’s, A Room with a View, Herman Hesse’s Peter Carmenzind, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, and Alexander Dumas’ “De Voyage: La Villa Palmieri.” Other famous authors associated with Fiesole include Marcel Proust, Sinclair Lewis, Gertrude Stein, and Edith Wharton.
In 1506, a young man enters the historical record not for any great accomplishment of his own but for that of his friend. Tomasso Masini, a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci, was foolish or brave enough, depending on your viewpoint, to agree to test Leonardo’s newly invented “flying machine.” In the excitement of what was about to take place, Leonardo wrote prior to the experiment: “The great bird will take his first flight above from the hill of Mount Ceceri, filling the universe with wonder, filling with his fame all the scriptures and giving eternal glory to the nest where he was born.” Standing atop the hill, one and a half miles from Fiesole, Masini laid down on a board in the center of a pair of wings that measured more than 33 feet from tip to tip. The wings themselves were a framework of pine with membranes of silk and resembled huge bat wings. With visions of immortality in his head, and presumably a prayer on his lips, Masini leaped into the air. After a short glide of a hundred feet or so, Leonardo’s flying machine and its pilot crashed to earth. For his efforts, Masini earned a broken leg and eternal fame as Leonardo da Vinci’s test pilot. Some historians doubt that this event ever took place, claiming it was more a confluence of a 19th-century novel about Leonardo and notes about flight that the great man made in his Notebooks. Fact or fiction, it links the town of Fiesole to the wonder that attends nearly everything we know about Leonardo da Vinci, a man whose talents were too many and too universal to be confined to one century but span them all.
With the pandemic now seemingly under control we, like so many others who will be picking up the threads of canceled vacations, look forward to returning to Italy early next year with some time spent in Fiesole. No doubt the swallows will still be darting about in the sky, playing in the soft breezes coming in unobstructed from the wide expanse of countryside. We’ll stand on the grounds of the Monastery of San Francesco and again look out on the same scene that greeted Lorenzo the Magnificent from the terrace of his villa 500 years earlier, and it will be as it was then, Bellissimo. •