The next day I took the hint, or advice if you prefer. I walked up past Santa Maria Novella to the station and boarded a train for Orvieto. At least, I thought, I’ll be warm for a couple of hours.
It was still an autumn landscape, with the vineyards and gentler landscape of Tuscany giving way to the wilder wooded hills and eroded badlands of Umbria. A river snaked along the bottom of a valley and after various short stops, the train pulled up to a bluff that rose over the plain (photo bluff of Orvieto). When the conductor called out Orvieto I grabbed my bag and climbed out wondering how to get to the top of the bluff. There was a cable car right across from the station and in a matter of minutes I was at the top in a rather nondescript piazza. A ten minute walk brought me to the center, Piazza del Duomo, where the cathedral rose up like a Christmas card with its glittering mosaic facade. This was not yet Renaissance, man was not yet the measure of all things, and the charming angels on Maitani’s sculptured panels were commenting, almost slyly, on the Lord’s work of creation.
The wind up here was cold as it hurried across the piazza and I needed to find a place where I could warm up. The hotel il Dottore had suggested was just around the corner. L’Antico Zoppo, the Old Limper. The owner, or at least I supposed she was, let me sit in the kitchen by the fire where chestnuts were roasting on the hearth. Over to one side there was a head of Bacchus on the wall with a tube protruding from his mouth. Up in my town, she told me, there was a man who had installed a faucet in his kitchen, right next to the one for water and it was connected to a wine barrel on the other side of the wall. Seemed to me like the miracle of water turned to wine. She pointed with her nose to a hefty slightly graying man over by the door. “That’s my son” and her pride was almost tangible. The object of our gaze looked at us impassively, refusing to smile. “I was very young when I made him” she added, patting her stomach before adding glowing embers to the brazier by her side. That seemed to be how people kept warm here, or no one ever heard of central heating. You carry this terra cotta pot around with you wherever you go. I found out later that beds too could be warmed by glowing embers, hopefully not setting the bedclothes on fire. A sort of cradle is set under the blankets and it shelters a brazier. I’m told that locally they are known as the prete and the pretessa. The priest and the lady priest. I can’t help but smile as I wonder which is which.
In my art history books Orvieto was known for Maitani and for the Signorellis in the cathedral. Actually it was Fra Angelico as well, although Signorelli’s paradise was not nearly spiritual enough for the guard’s taste.
An imposing 13th-century palazzo in a piazza not far from the hotel had a sign saying tonight was movie night. Since I didn’t have anything else to do I decided to go and found myself watching an American western with James Stewart – and lo and behold he spoke perfect Italian! The Italians, I learned, always dubbed their foreign language movies.
The next morning I wandered down to the same piazza where a group of women, bundled up in sweaters, were presiding over their baskets of greens and eggs, a chicken bound by its legs, and a rabbit dangling by its ears. Even though it was market day, the cold kept most of the venders at home by the fire. I too thought I should go back home, which by now was Florence, and wondered how I was to get back down to the train station. Presumably there was a bus but when it didn’t show up, the giant of a son, who had finally decided to smile, told me not to worry and hailed a friend with a car. My impression of Orvieto? People seemed friendly but it was not a wealthy town and people make do, isolated as they are. It is not perhaps a place I would choose to live in.
So back to my writing, but sometimes I wished I had someone to talk to. The knock on my door couldn’t have been more welcome. “C’è un signore” the girl who helped out, scrubbing the floors and bringing in hot water in the morning, announced. It was Samuel, an old friend from New York who now lived in Rome. “I thought you might like to see Ravenna”, he said very simply. So off we went in a tiny two-seater known as Topolino, or mouse, into which he somehow managed to fold his six-foot frame.
I couldn’t seem to stop talking. “People everywhere seem to be busy trying to get through the day. Yesterday has gone, tomorrow is, well tomorrow, and they’ll think of that then. I suppose it was a matter of surviving from one day to the next during the war. I wonder if they ever ask themselves why. Yet somehow each part of a man’s life is a symbol of some greater cycle. … you know I wish I had been brought up in the church. Not so much that I wish I believed, for I would probably have had to find my own beliefs anyway. But I wish I had the knowledge there behind me. Just as one has a knowledge of the things one learns at school. Yes, it would be fine to be able to believe, but I do not ask that. Although I have much more respect for the formal religions now that I have seen them in France and Germany and here. Ceremony does have its meaning. If people search for life, they must find it in the individual. Not in himself, but as a symbol. Birth and death and marriage are solemn stages. The mystery of life. And there can be no asking beyond this. But simply that it is a continuation. A continuation — but of what?”
Samuel spoke quietly. “Now, don’t tell me, sweetie, that you’re going to be
converted to Catholicism?” Was he laughing at me?
It was a fairy tale world as the mists rolled in and enveloped grey trunks set against brown fields. The grape leaves along the roadside glowed and the trees stood in the golden shadow of their fallen leaves. The river sometimes seemed to run green. Small fields became bigger ones with other fields laid out over them, like a patchwork quilt.
Even after seeing Orvieto, I had almost forgotten that Italy was not just Florence. Yet I had studied Ravenna and the Byzantines, the Emperor Justinian and the Empress Theodora. Florence was Renaissance but here we came to see the courtly world of the glittering mosaics. They were all that we expected. That and more. All day we walked back and forth from one colonnaded church to another. Mosaics are not meant to be seen standing still and the gaze of the Emperor reached into every corner. Moses is caught in the act of removing his sandal, for he walks on holy ground. The jewels of the Empress sparkle in all the borders of her gown. Just who was Theodora?
Originally, a courtesan, and intelligent on a par with her husband. Justinian, the great Byzantine emperor of the Eastern Empire, who drew up codes of law. In the tomb of Galla Placidia the ceiling is covered with curling golden tendrils, like the grapes we had passed along the way. When we got to S. Apollinare Nuovo we found it propped up from all angles, but the two long mosaic processions were still visible. Signs warned one to stand only in the vestibule but finally I found the words, and the courage, to ask if we couldn’t stand just inside by the entrance, just in one place. Grudgingly and with admonitions not to walk around, the construction supervisor agreed. He even decided we were nice people and became our guide, pointing out the bodiless hands still visible on the columns of Justinian’s palace. Hands of figures replaced by curtains and purple ground when the original figures of Arian faith were removed by Archbishop Agnello. We looked long at the elegant Virgins and as we were leaving the supervisor called me over and secretly slipped six tesserae into my hands.
We had gone there through hills of darkness and were now returning through the night and howling wind. But the stately rows of swaying prophets, of gold-bedecked Virgins and courtesans, of the ceilings glowing with a tapestry of stars were not a dream. For I held in my hand six small pieces of colored glass, part of a purple robe, of the gold-weighted border, of the red roof of a palace. Fragments of a dream.
So since we had a car, we decided to drive to Arezzo and Assisi. I had always had a crush on Piero della Francesca. Since it was late November it was dark by five when we arrived. We peered into the church and the lone priest decided we were serious people, turned on the light and let us stay behind the altar while he said mass. So for almost an hour we had the frescoes to ourselves, with their clear rain-washed light so unlike the golden light of Florence.
Assisi was next on our itinerary. It impressed me as being all up and down, a single huge skyscraper with the top of the mountain a solid cap of rock and houses that could be lifted off whole. We climbed up to the Rocca, the fortress, past mourning cypresses and a wailing wind, to the stone fortifications which drop abruptly into the valley far below. I would not have wanted to stand guard up here. We had the same feeling when we climbed from the lower to the upper church of S. Francesco. There was no hint of any outside world, except the hard clean air, in the courtyard in between. We felt as if we were isolated, until we stepped into the upper church with its triumph of color and humanity. As we followed the story of St. Francis, we did our best to keep out of the way of the army of friars sweeping out the church. The city too was full of black and brown robes – usually in pairs. Wrought iron dragons and dragon heads jutted out from buildings in the form of flower holders. The people in a cafe or trattoria were timeless, like the paintings. I was fascinated by the rather large-nosed gentleman swathed in a green woolen scarf and looking like a character from Dickens and hoped he wasn’t annoyed by my looking at him so long. I could have taken a picture but was afraid he would object to this invasion of his privacy. The tables were all occupied by men, only men, no women, playing cards with a flask of wine at hand, or watching television, if there was one. This then is what the men did while their wives were making dinner.
Samuel soon went off to his philosophical studies and I was on my own again. It was time to leave Florence and discover the rest of Italy. While it was good to be with Samuel, he too was full of silences. And he was not Italy. Rome I meant to discover by myself.
To be continued . . .