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A First Journey to the Mediterranean
Peter M. Green
First published in United States of America by Abelard-Schman Limited, 1957
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOG CARD NUMBER : 57 : 5567
Preface 1 Journey to Italy 2 Florence 3 Naples and Capri 4 Sicily: Segesta and Selinunte 5 Sicily: Agrigento and Syracuse 8 10 44 89 143 180
Una giornata come stammatina, Senti, è un gran pezzo che nun s’è piu data. Ah bene-mio! te senti artifatata; Te s’òpre er core a num sta piu in cantina! Tutta la vorta der celo turchina; L’aria orora che pare imbarismata; Che dilizzia! che bella matinata! Propio te dice: cammina-cammina. G. G. Belli l’ardore Ch’i’ ebbi a divenir del mondo esperto, e degli vizii umani e del valore. Dante, Inferno xxvi
HIS IS THE STORY of a journey that I made four years ago, and of which I have only recently come to realise the full meaning. It traces not only my progress through Italy and Sicily, but also the integral change in my own outlook on life that resulted from it: the awareness not only of the permanent immanence of the past in the present, but also of the unifying force and signiﬁcance of a land itself lying behind those who live in it, and shaping them to its own pattern. It is a pilgrimage of the heart from insular naivety to a ﬁnal surrender to what still remains for me the only true reality: the reality of the land, which determines all history and every creed. This awakening was a gradual process, and not completed as simply as my narrative might suggest. But I have tried to portray in these chapters the basic change of attitude that I underwent; and for this some telescoping of events, and the transference of certain experiences that occurred on other later journeys was necessary. In particular, the reader should be warned that the attitude set out in the ﬁrst two chapters represents not so much the writer’s present views as an attempt to capture the outlook on life with which he left this country; the raw material, wretchedly unorientated, which is the common heritage of the mass of people in these lands, and on which the south worked a metamorphosis in the fullness of time. This is why I have written about my travels in lands
Which are better known to a great number of people than they are to me, and which have been described many times before by men whom, as T. S. Eliot says, one cannot hope To emulate - but there is no competitionThere is only the ﬂight to recover what has been lost And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions That seem unpropitious. If my discovery of Italy and Sicily has been less - as it must be - than that made by others, at least it is my own: in that sense these pages represent a unique experience. I would like to record my gratitude to Mr. James Gordon, for persuading me to begin this book; to Mr. R. L. Banks, Signor Fosco Maraini, and the Italian State Tourist Department for the load of their superb photographs; and to Messrs Faber and Faber Ltd. for the quotations from East Coker, The Waste Land, and Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot. I should particularly like to thank Signor Mariani for reading my MS, and thus saving me from many elementary errors of fact. For any that remain I am entirely responsible. Peter Green Cambridge, October 1952
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY
Chapter 1 Journey to Italy
have been a better day. Even the most timorous of Channel passengers - the sort of people who are sick if they go out for an hour’s sea ﬁshing - were cheerful and active. The bar teemed with customers. For the home-coming, French cognac at 1/6 a glass and cigarettes at half a crown for twenty must have seemed outrageous, yet another example of the tyranous British Government’s inroads into the pockets of the oppressed individual. I heard a swarthy Provençal arguing furiously with the bartender, who shrugged his shoulders, whistled between his teeth, and put more insulting gesture into swabbing down his bar than I would have thought possible. But for us who were outward bound it was a symbol of incipient freedom. It was only eleven o’clock: but we downed our whiskies and ﬁngered out cigarettes (wrapped–incredible pre-war luxury-in shining tinfoil) with loving exhilaration. Two obvious undergraduates bought a bottle of brandy, and the wife of a radio comedian began to ﬂirt loudly and outrageously with a wearily impervious purser. I eased my pack oﬀ my shoulders and went up on deck. The air was cool, but there was hardly a breath of wind stirring. Behind us the grey cliﬀs of Newhaven
IT COULD NOT
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY were fading into the haze. Smudged on the horizon was the smoke of an ocean-going liner making for Southampton. The sea was slate-grey, ﬂecked here and there with a touch of the opaque cobalt, as thickly blue as a bowl of washing-dye, that was to become a commonplace in the Mediterranean. The deck vibrated gently above the engine-room, and a faint smell of Diesel oil pervaded the air. At ﬁrst the passengers had swarmed about the deck in aimless excitement, like ants disturbed, or children let out to play. Now they settled down together into small chattering groups. Snatches of conversation came ﬂoating across to my ears. ’Of course, it’s too late to see Paris as you really should ... I remember the plane trees in the Champs-Elysées in spring last year ... and those wonderful pavement artists ...’ ‘Rogers said you can’t beat the A.A. Fixed up the triptych and everything, and they say they’ll pick you up in any country in Europe if you have a breakdown ...’ ‘Funny crowd, the Froggies. Why, they ask for tips ...’ ‘It’s all nonsense about French girls being all right. They’ve all got mothers like Zeppelins ...’ ‘Good God, no. Not the Riviera. There’s a little place near Ventimiglia ... no trippers there last year, but you never know ...’ Sweet wrappings on the deck. A plump mother looking for her children. Two young men in denims poring over a tattered map. A French steward walking round intoning in a high expressionless voice, ‘ Messieurs et mesdames ! Take your place for the ﬁrst sitting now, please. Take your place . . .’ I saw a face I knew wandering uncertainly towards me across the deck. It belonged to a thin, whining, highly harassed woman
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY of about forty, with three horrible children, who had buttonholed me in the boat-train, and succeeded in telling me all about herself between Victoria and Newhaven. She was going to stay with an Italian who had been billeted on her as a prison of war. ’1E was a funny chap. All dark and secretive. Not like us at all. But ’e was clever with ’ands! Wonderful, it was. Made toys for the kiddies and all. And sing! Regular canary, when ’e was feeling ’appy.’ I asked where he lived. It was somewhere south of Rome: she couldn’t remember the name. ‘But we got to get there quick: I only brought four pounds in travellers’ cheques.’ ‘What?’ ‘Well, no point in bringing any more, was there? Mean to say. ’E’s seeing us through it all.’ I asked her if he spoke good English. ‘Oh yes, wonderful, ’e was. Picked it up in no time. Clever, these foreigners.’ ‘Did he teach you any Italian?’ ‘Me? Learn Eye-tye? Not blooming likely. Let them learn English, that’s what I say.’ I made a mental note to keep clear of her at frontiers (or anywhere, for that matter) and retired into a paper. As things turned out, I was not to be lucky. At the bar a smooth young Parisian smiled at me. ‘You are English, yes?’ I admitted it. ‘You are coming to Paris?’ I said I was, but only passing through to Italy. He sighed gently, spread a well-manicured hand over the counter, and ordered two cognacs. As we drank he launched into a long eulogy of the English, especially
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY of English young men. He invited me to dinner with him in his Paris ﬂat. There would be plenty of time before I caught the Milan express. As we went up to the deck he slipped his hand gently into mine. I excused myself rapidly, and vanished in the direction of the W.C.; then doubling on my tracks, came up on the other side of the deck. The coast of France was just visible on the horizon. An hour later we steered slowly up a narrow channel to the Dieppe dockside, through smashed lock-gates, rusting broken gear, and ruined houses. I saw bombed cranes leaning drunkenly over the jetty, and piles of abandoned scrap-iron showed above the greasy water as it lapped round the piles. It was somehow typically French: the harbour was in full working order, but nobody could be bothered to tidy it up. The town itself was busy enough, but it looked as if it could do with a good clean-up and a fresh coat of paint. The Paris express was waiting at the dockside, curving away round the harbour so sharply that it looked as if it would jump the rails if it so much as moved. A crowd of porters in their blue jeans stood on the quayside, yelling hugely and competitively in an entirely incomprehensible argot. A rail-crane fussed backwards and forwards in front of them, manoeuvring cannily for an opening. Half the passengers found that they had forgotten to get their landing-cards, and an interminable queue, weighed down with luggage, formed dismally round the promenade deck. The heat and confusion and general ill-will was tremendous. Out of this maelstrom, to my surprise, order was restored in an incredibly short. As soon as tied
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY up alongside two wide gang-planks were let down, and we were all oﬀ the boat in under ﬁve minutes. No bother, no red tape, and no Customs. The French began to rise in my estimation. The boat-train was nearly twice as long as its English equivalent, and there was plenty of room for everybody. I found to my great delight that French third-class compartments are nearly as good as English ﬁrsts, and that the luggage-racks were built to take large articles. Travelling down from London I had been in perpetual fear of killing the harmless-looking individual opposite. Headlines. Bank Clerk on Spree Brained With Rucksack. Now I stowed it away deeply behind a suitcase, and collapsed into my seat with a sigh of relief. Half the passengers seemed determined not to board the train till the last minutes, but stood around in groups on the quayside arguing with oﬃcials, or chased unide=ntiﬁable porters from luggage-van, to consigne and back again. A grubby child stuﬀed its thirteenth chocolate into its mouth and was cheerfully sick on a buﬀer. Then somewhere to the rear a whistle shrilled, and the whole scene dissolved as if by magic. Everybody was on board in thirty seconds, and dead to the minute the train pulled out. Despite the casualness, the muddle and the je m’en foutisme things seemed to get done eﬃciently enough. Several people crowed into the compartment. An enormously rotund Frenchman in a black suit, with large moustaches and a watch-chain. He looked like a caricature of all the Parisian Civil Servants one had ever seen, and it was almost a relief when he carefully unrolled a parcel of sausage and bread and proceeded
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY to paralyse the atmosphere with raw garlic. Three rather dowdy English women, with suitcases and yes, shopping-bags, who retired defensively into one corner and put up an impenetrable barrier against the world. No one showed much inclination to break it down. They conversed in rapid embarrassed breathy whispers for a while, and then lapsed into a grating silence. At the last minute the door burst open and a young boy of about eighteen ﬂung himself into the compartment, falling over the fat Frenchman as he did so. The latter, caught in the middle of a mouthful of sausage, muttered ’Assassin!’ amiably enough and returned to his meal. The boy sat down next to me and began to read that afternoon’s Paris-Soir. I noticed one of the headlines: it read, ’De Polyphème à Salvatore Giuliano’. I tried to picture the reaction of the news editor of a London evening paper to a caption-writer serving up its equivalent in English. Slowly we negotiated that tremendous curve, at a less-than-walking pace. Then, gathering speed, but still moving sedately, we passed through the grey muddle of Dieppe town. It was a bleak prospect. The French have reduced functionalism to its lowest possible denominator. The exteriors of their houses look appalling: square and uncompromising, undecorated and uncared for, their sole function to be lived in without regard to the eye. French provincial towns at ﬁrst sight seem to be suﬀering from a depressing kind of spiritual mange. I felt the same about their railways. The matter-of-fact way they invade the streets, the prevalence of level crossings, and especially the absence of platforms. I don’t know why this distressed
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY me so much. Probably because the English have always regarded their railways and the land they occupy as a thing apart. The track is carefully fenced in, the train is somehow immeasurably apart from the platform. When you board an English train you enter an odd sort of separate existence. This may account for the strange railway myth that is so sedulously cultivated in this country. The French patronise their railways. They have no formidable ticket-barriers, no gradual admission to a holy of holies. They swarm unthinkingly across the forbidden no-man’s land rather than go by subway; and cheerfully urinate on the bogy of the carriage they travel in. I sat in an abstraction watching the ﬂat green countryside of the Pas de Calais slip past. It was rather like Hertfordshire to look at: mainly lush green pasture, with little land under the plough. In the afternoon light the ﬁelds showed bright and peaceful, striped with sunlight and shadow. I saw hardly any people abroad at all; and it seemed to me that the grass was an indeﬁnable shade darker than in England; as a result the landscape had a permanent faintly threatening quality, as if an unseen storm were about to break somewhere on the rather uncanny stillness. The restaurant-car attendant came down the corridor ringing a bell. I remembered that I hadn’t eaten since early that morning. With some diﬃculty I got out of the compartment and made for the dining-car, past notices proclaiming in four diﬀerent languages the perils attendant on leaning out of the window. As I sat down I noticed someone hovering undecidedly at
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY my table. The car was very full. I looked up: it was the young French boy from my compartment. I invited him to join me, and he sat down smiling. He spoke English with a slight hesitant slur. He told me that he had been staying with an English family au pair in Greenford. They had been very kind. But ... I looked interrogative. He laughed and shrugged his shoulders. ‘I do not think I understand the English very well yet,’ he said carefully. He opened a packet of Gauloise cigarettes and handed me one. The coarse full ﬂavour was pleasant if overpowering. I have never been near an autumn bonﬁre since without thinking of Gauloise: the strong clean astringent smell is identical. ‘They do not talk about things that matter,’ he went on, wrinkling his forehead in puzzlement. ‘Sometimes that’s a relief,’ I said. ‘Yes, but ... and it is true, the joke about weather talk ... and there is no wine. But it is a beautiful place to live in. ...’ He chattered on, perfectly at ease, alert, quick and interested. At seventeen he was a master of the art of conversation. I was tired and rather sleepy: I let him steer the conversation where he would. He sounded me gently in English politics and women, told me about his home in Haute-Savoie by the Lac d’Annecy, enquired about my trip, and ﬁnally asked me to come and stay with him on my way back through France. At the time I was sceptical: looking back I am sure the oﬀer was a genuine one. Meanwhile I ate, in an incredulous way. It was my ﬁrst unrationed meal since the war. The waiter came round with hot scones, with real butter–about half a pound of it, with dark-cured
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY ham that melted as soon as one put it in one’s mouth. Full and happy, I leaned back, lulled by the rhythm of the train, talking gently to the boy, whose name was Pierre, and watching with half an eye the gradually increasing industrialisation of the countryside as we neared Paris. My ﬁrst sight of Paris was the most pleasant I was ever to have. I have never been there in the spring: but it has always seemed to me the most unfriendly and unrewarding of European capitals. The surface gaiety above the blank stare of unrecognition that only recognises the franc. The cynicism and je m’en foutisme. The cruelty, symbolised in the grotesque sardonic gargoyles that grin from the heights of Notre Dame. The hectic shabbiness of it all. Now, however, I had it at arm’s length: the sunset falling in a splendour of red and grey, like the Sunday best of an Irish peasant woman, on miles of roofs, with an absurdly picturepostcard Eiﬀel Tower rising above it all. Sur le toits de Paris. I craned out of the window watching it. With a hollow rumble of girders we thundered over the Seine, ﬂowing grey and ﬂat and shallow round its eroded buttresses; then the train swung into a tunnel with the shriek, as Pierre delicately put it, of a molested virgin. (That, by the way, is another oddity of the French railways: their engines, which are massive creations about twice the size of their English counterparts, and covered with a most impressive system of what look like water pipes., have a shrill ineﬀectual eunuch-like whistle that immediately and for ever picks the bubble of their potent dignity.) The Gare du Nord is a puzzling place on ﬁrst
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY acquaintance. It is rather larger than Waterloo, and is intolerably complicated by an intricate system of levels (I think there are three of them). Most of the station doesn’t seem to be connected with trains at all. There are literally hundreds of oﬃces of all sizes and descriptions: the main hall looks like an arcade in the Ideal Home Exhibition. There are oﬃces to buy tickets, return tickets, collect luggage, deposit it, register it, insure it, and for all I know to seel it. There are tobacconists, cafés, bookstalls, chemists, bureaux de change, hairdressers and fashion-displays. The general atmosphere resembles that of the approaches to a large Hindu temple. I had momentary feeling that at some point I would be requested to take oﬀ my shoes. Pierre steered me perfectly through the crowd. He asked when my train for Milan left. I told him about 9.15, from the Gare du Lyon. ’Bon,’ he said. ‘We Will take Your Christian’s burden to the consigne at Lyon and abandon it. I then invite you to supper with me, and we can talk a little more.’ I accepted gratefully. By this time we had emerged, breathless, but triumphant, outside the main entrance. My ﬁrst impression of Paris at close quarters was of violent movement. People walked fast, faster than in England, all talking cheerfully at the tops of their voices. Endless streams of taxis and the ancient green one-decker Paris buses, with their Daliesque traﬃcators and oddly projecting bonnets, honked and braked their way through the confusion. About twenty newsvendors were shouting hoarsely at once. I surveyed the maelstrom and blinked. ‘How do we go?’ I asked doubtfully. Pierre
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY squared his shoulders. ‘Nous allons par Métro,’ he announced, in the voice of a general taking a major strategical decision; and gripping my arm he dived like a rabbit down a subway entrance that looked as if it led to a public lavatory. The Paris Métro is a unique institution. If the confusion above ground had been great, that below was unbelievable. The atmosphere became hysterical, claustrophobic. Five or six diﬀerent subways, all crowded with workers returning home, led away in varying directions. To add to the warren-like atmosphere, they went up-and down-hill in a completely arbitrary fashion: I would not have been in the least surprised if we had been suddenly precipitated down a vertical shaft. The walls were covered with bewildering maps, the routes outlined in a tangle of red surrounded by a forest of black names; they looked rather like plans of the human arterial system. We studied the nearest. The name of the station at which we were had been nearly rubbed away by ﬁngers tracing their way through the labyrinth, and coming to rest on the one sure point in it. I have heard people complaining of the London Underground, and lamenting that they can never ﬁnd their way around it. They should try Paris. The Underground is at least a reasonably organic growth: one can trace its development by looking at a plan of it, and the system makes some kind of logical sense. The Métro might have been designed by a drunken artist from a ball of wool that had unravelled itself all over the ﬂoor. Like Topsy, it just grew. Whereas the Underground lines seem on the whole to be co-operative, and one can trace a clear line with a
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY reasonable minimum of changes from start to destination, the Métro was clearly produced by about twenty rival companies all starting work at once, and all trying to provide a cut-throat service for the whole of Paris. One can picture them enacting a sort of Klondike gold-rush in their anxiety to stake claims of land, and being forced to take the most curious out-of-the-way routes when they found that a rival had beaten them to buying up the direct right of way. These lines run over, through and round each other: they duplicate routes in one place and leave inexplicable total gaps in another. To get to the Gare du Lyon was comparatively easy: we only had to make one change, at Concorde. There now remained the ﬁnding of the right subway. To complicate matter even further, the authorities of the Métro have decreed that each line shall be known by the name of its terminus: accordingly one has to trace through all the tangle with a patient ﬁnger till one emerges in the comparative clarity of the outer suburbs. At the third shot we got it right, and plunged into an irresistible ﬂow of ouviers all storming down a steep tunnel with the self-immolatory intentness of Gadarene swine. It was as if someone had pulled the plug out of a bath. We were carried through a series of snapping, clanging iron swing-gates that seemed to serve no useful purpose whatsoever, and into immense stretches of subway. Eventually a minatory rumble heralded the presence of an actual train. I had begun to suspect that the whole thing was an elaborate practical joke, and that we should emerge, still on foot, somewhere near Etoile or Madeleine. I got a brief
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY glimpse of a row of lights moving across my line of vision, and then a green metal door began o close, with all the weighty inevitability of the great stone in King Solomon’s Mines. Pierre explained that they had to let passengers on to the platform little by little, otherwise the crowd got so thick that those in front were pushed under the trains. I decided, for once, that these things were ordered better in England. The crowd pressed more and more closely behind us. I tried to light a cigarette, only to ﬁnd that both my arms were imprisoned at my side. the smell of garlic and cheap scent was appalling. Pierre was explaining that to get on a French Métro train one could not behave as on the so polite Underground. I said I could well believe it. It was, he went on, a matter of perseverance and elbows, a ruthless suppression of higher instincts for la politesse. At that moment another train roared out of the tunnel, and the green door grudgingly swung open again. We surged forward, and a wonderful rugger scrum took place round the open train doorway. For once, it was not vocal. We pushed and strained and sweated in an oppressive silence. I found that my pack made an admirable weapon of offence: all I had to do was to swing sharply from side to side, and the ranks divided as promptly as Macaulay would have wished. Eventually we found ourselves standing inside: nobody seemed to be sitting, and in the circumstances this was probably just as well. I found myself wedged between a mountainous Madame in black bombazine and an incredibly bony clerk. The train roared and swayed. At Concorde the whole desperate operation was repeated in reverse. I felt I
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY had never sweated so violently in my life. My shirt clung to my body in damp patches, and my hair fell wetly into my eyes. Much later I was to learn that the simplest way to go between these two stations is by bus: there is a shuttle service that leaves every ten minutes. Meanwhile Pierre and I struggled up the last subway and emerged, breathless but triumphant, outside the Gare du Lyon, which looked to me an exact replica of the Gare du Nord. This resemblance applies to all the big Paris stations. There is none of the sharply marked individuality that distinguishes, say, Paddington from Victoria. We found the consigne and I gratefully relieved myself of my pack. It was 7 o’clock. ‘Now,’ said Pierre, wiping his forehead, ‘we will have a drink.’ We left the station and turned down a small side street that led away from it. Half-way down it was a cheerful looking bistro with a red and white awning. The name read, ‘Café des Allobroges’. It occurred to me as amusing but by no means extraordinary that a Paris café should be named after one of Caesar’s Gallic tribes. We went in. The bartender broke oﬀ from arguing loudly with an enormous navvy and greeted Pierre as and old friend. They looked at my sweat-stained shirt and generally bedraggled appearance and conferred for a moment. Then the bartender said, with all the solemnity of a doctor dispensing a prescription, ‘He will have a Suze.’ Pierre nodded. ‘Indeed, yes.’ he said. ‘A Suze is the only thing.’ The bartender busied himself with bottles. I spotted Italian vermouth and bitters, but the rest eluded me. I tasted the resultant mixture. It was a light straw colour and very dry,
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY and had the questionable value of killing thirst stone-dead. We all sat down and became very friendly. Jacques, the bartender, told us and interminable story about an aunt or cousin–I never managed to make out which–who had suﬀered incredible indignities at the hands of the Germans. His bald head shook, his whole portly body vibrated with elderly indignation. I think it must have been his cousin. We all had another Suze. Then a party of young men came in demanding blondes, and we made our escape. We walked through the streets to the Palace de la Bastille, and found another bistro. This time we sat outside on the pavement. There was a beautiful sunset, scarlet and sooty in the Paris haze, and for a time we sat in silence, sipping our drinks and admiring it. Then, as suddenly as in the tropics, it was dark, and all the lights sprang out, twinkling and gyrating in the night. From far away came the hoot and whistle of trains, and far below us a faint rumble showed where the Métro burrowed its blind way under the pavement. Pierre ﬁnished his drink and ordered another. He was watching the couples walking past, chattering animatedly, with the light quick conﬁdent step of the Parisian. He sighed with a deep note of relief. ‘I am glad to be back,’ he said. ’The English have many qualities that I admire greatly, but a sense of joy is not one of them.’ I protested. ‘No: it is true. I have sat in a café in Piccadilly Circus at such a time as this, and watched the crowds pass. They were shut in on themselves: they were not happy or open. They walked fast to escape from their worries.’ A boy and a girl paused on the pavement and embraced gently. No one took the
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY least notice. Somewhere a little further down the pavement a gramophone was playing an Italian love lyrics. I quoted: ‘Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, And each one held his eyes before his feet’. Pierre’s eyes gleamed. ‘Ah! Eliot,’ he said. ‘I think he understands the English very well. Perhaps because he is an American ...’ I said: ‘What subject have you specialised in at school?’ ‘Chemistry,’ said Pierre. ‘I will go to a technical college after I have done my military service. ‘In England,’ I said, ‘scientists do not often read Eliot.’ ‘Why not?’ asked Pierre: ‘do they not like his religious views?’ I hesitated. ‘No: I don’t think it’s that. They have very little time for literature at all.’ Pierre looked shocked. ‘But are they not civilised?’ I made no answer. Civilised. Civilisé. It is a peculiarly French quality, and diﬃcult to deﬁne. I felt myself being drawn into a complicated argument. There was a short silence. Then Pierre said: ‘And you? What do you do?’ I said, diﬃdently: ‘I read classics at Cambridge.’ ‘Ah. La philologie ancienne. Do you read Homer?’ I ﬁshed a small book out of my pocket and handed it to him. It was Paul Mazon’s Introduction à l’Iliade. Pierre ﬂicked over the pages, made some brief comments. Suddenly we heard a clock strike nearby, and looked at our watches. It was half-past eight. Panic ensued. ‘I have promised you supper,’ said Pierre: ‘and supper you shall have. We will return near the Gare du lyon.’ We departed in some haste. In our hurry we left Mazon behind. Over a month later, when I returned to England, I found a parcel waiting for me.
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY Inside it was the book. Pierre had gone back to the bistro in case I had left anything there: and had forwarded it to the home address I had given him, together with some amusing notes on the argument. In the end we found a little restaurant near our original bistro. The proprietress, an enormous and aﬀectionate sexagenarian, who seemed to be another life-ling friend of Pierre’s, on hearing about the time crisis waddled away into the kitchen with all the speed compatible with her build and dignity. A moment later there came sounds of breaking eggs and hissing fat. Someone unseen said ‘Merde!’ with fervent emotion. A pleasant smell drifted out on the night air. Pierre vanished into the kitchen himself and reappeared a moment later with an enormous bottle of rough ordinaire. He sat down, tilted back his head, and shot a long stream of it down his throat. A smile of peace lit up his face. ‘I have missed it too long,’ he observed simply. ‘Beer is for wind-bellies and farmers. I mean no oﬀence to your country, Peter. But this ...’ Back went his head again. He poured out two large glassfuls. An aged waiter laid the table. Great crisp thick slices of fresh bread. A vast china pot of mustard. We ordered steaks after our omelettes: I felt a little incredulous, there was a sneaking feeling at the back of my mind that they would turn out to be Viennese hash. We ﬁnished the ﬁrst bottle of wine just as they appeared: and they were real steaks, thick and tender, with a faint aroma of charcoal about them. We called for another bottle. Madame re-appeared and hovered benevolently over us while we ate, interrogating Pierre with delightful frankness about his love-life
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY abroad. Pierre said something incomprehensible and slipped his arm around her enormous waist. She crowed with delight. More bread and fresh butter. Demi-sels. Black coffee. The second bottle was long ﬁnished. And then, carelessly, I looked at my watch again. Eight minutes past nine. In a vinous ﬂurry we paid our bill, and ran up the long ramp of the Gare du Lyon with the best part of a litre of red wine each to carry, as well as a Gargantuan supper. The studs on my walking shoes slipped on the stones. At the consigne we found a long queue waiting. Pierre, with a cheerful disregard of queue etiquette, rushed to the front of it with my ticket, and poured out some blistering remarks to the porter. My pack appeared as if by magic. Pierre returned panting. ‘What platform?’ he asked. I didn’t know. We vanished rapidly on to the main-line departure level. ‘Le Simplon-Orient?’ cried Pierre with a grand ﬂourish to the world at large. Another porter yelled incomprehensible instructions. We pelted down the ramp again and on to another level: and found it at last. The train was just beginning to move. Pierre brushed past an expostulating inspector. I made a jump for the last carriage and clambered triumphantly aboard. Even then that wretched pack stuck in the doorway. Everyone inside was convulsed with laughter, and no one made a movement to help me. Somehow I squeezed inside, turned panting, and waved to Pierre as the train gathered speed, Then we swung round a curve in the darkness, and he was out of sight. I fell back wearily into the compartment, only to discover that it was a ﬁrst. I pressed through the
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY tangle of feet to the corridor, still pursued by aﬄuent laughter, and made my way down to the end of carriage. The door was locked. I wandered back. All the seats were reserved, and in any case I had no wish to argue with an inﬂexible French ticket collector. In the end I went back to the end of the carriage, put down my pack and sat on that. It was not uncomfortable: and it was to be by no means the last time that I travelled in such a fashion. But I had made it. I was on a train bound for Italy. I was going to Florence. And afterwards, wherever the fancy took me. I looked out of the window, and watched the suburbs of Paris ﬂashing past in the dark. And then I fell asleep. When I woke it was to a chill night air that made me wish I had brought a sweater, and to porters croaking ‘Dijon!’ in a mournful voice. I got out on to the platform and made my way up the train to a thirdclass carriage. Surprisingly enough I found one that was half-empty: dumped my pack in the darkness, put up my feet and went to sleep again. I found to my pleasant surprise that I was capable of sleeping in the most diﬃcult situations: I have since spent a very pleasant night in a Sicilian train in the corridor, with people perpetually walking over my shoulder and demanded my passport. We had arrived at Vallorbe, the small French town on the French-Swiss frontier. I sat up and rubbed my eyes. My passport was stamped and returned to me. A monotonous voice ran on in my ear asking if I had brought with me any spirituous liquors, silks, tobaccos. ... I laughed sardonically. ‘Je suis Anglais,’ I said, and the voice receded. A moment later
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY it all started again. I thought I was dreaming, then realised that it was the turn of the Swiss. Eventually the noise dried away down the corridor: with a jerk the train began to move again. The atmosphere in the compartment was mephitic. I opened a window and looked out. Dawn was breaking over the Swiss mountains. I saw a changing vista of rugged slopes and tumbling valleys, with tiny chalets and farms clinging to the slopes like dolls’ houses. Every foot of arable land was under cultivation, stepped down in terraces from the snowline. The line curved continuously through rocky gorges and round the sides of mountains, with the result that the sun shone now on one side, now on the other, staining the snow a delicate rose colour, as if a bottle of wine had been emptied into it from the sky. We were travelling at an enormous speed. I put my head out of the window, and the clear cold air hit me in the face. I saw that we had shed our steam locomotive, and now had an enormous electric one, grey and powerful, that tore round the curves with a cheerful disregard for centrifugal force. The scene was barbaric and magniﬁcent: and yet, oddly, the signs of man’s cultivation did not, as they do in many other places, seem an impertinence under the great granite bastions of the mountains: the Swiss have somehow contrived to blend their cultivation organically with the land in which they live: they are an integral part of it. As we approached Lausanne the mountains thinned away till they were no more than a gleaming white reminder of the power of nature on the near horizon, and trim meadows and villages took their place.
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY Somewhere round about eight o’clock we reached Brig. Brig is surrounded on almost every side with gigantic towers of rock, soaring up vertically for hundreds of feet, which overshadow the station with an immense stony gloom. It is at once one of the most exhilarating and claustrophobic places I have ever seen. There is a ﬂourish about these rocks: they are a heraldic annunciation of what is to come. We passed through the Simplon tunnel, and were in Italy. There was nearly an hour to wait before the Customs formalities were completed. I shaved and washed in the toilet, which made me feel immeasurably better, and went out in search of food. The morning air was cold and clean, and the sun was now completely up. Beyond us lay the Lombard plain, and the whole of Italy. I was conscious of a growing excitement. For the English lowlander, who has seldom seen a rockformation more impressive than the Cornish coast, the ﬁrst sight of mountains like the Alps or the Himalayas is an unforgettable experience. I had travelled in the Himalayas during the war, on leave from Burma, and had felt a cold shock at the immensity of them, an incredulous awareness of the violent cataclysmic upheaval that had thrown them up so many thousand years ago and frozen them into a dominant brooding stillness. Their latent power was too huge for man to comprehend: they kept their distance, impressive in the master of every step one look. Not so the Italian Alps. They were closer, more personal: powerful beyond belief, and yet measurable in human
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY terms. Their suddennes came as a peculiar shock. In England one has warning of hills. The ground swells, throws out spurs and slopes, and rises gently, giving one plenty of warning, making a gradual transition from the negative folds of level downland to the polite assertion of ridge of fell: and in general the grass covers it to the very summit. Here the naked rock burst vertically from the soil, springing up and away in great craggy precipices where scarcely a goat could gain a foothold. I suddenly saw why Dr Johnson called a mountain an uncouth object. His cultured sense was shocked by the sudden ﬁerce re-assertion of all the primeval power of nature. So I watched the sun rise in splendour over these gigantic bastions, and made my peace with them. My destination lay before me, and I had a curious sensation of coming home. Far away sounded the faint tinkle of cow-bells as herds moved about the foor of the rocks. An electric locomotive hummed gently to itself in a siding. I boarded the train again, and almost immediately we began to move. So preoccupied was I with my reﬂections that I failed to notice whom I had sat down next to. Then a querulous voice shattered the morning air. ‘I’m so glad you’re’ere,’ it said. ‘I’ve’ad such a job arguing with that blooming foreign ticket collector ...’ It was the woman I had met on the boat. I asked what the trouble was. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘seems as ’ow I came on the wrong train. Seems I oughtn’t to ’ave come through Switzerland at all. But they told me this was the train in Paris. Stupid foreigners ...’ I repressed an urge to tell her that this was probably exactly what they were saying
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY of her. She clearly ought to have gone by Lyons and Modena. One of her children began to snivel. I said: ‘Well, you’ve got so far all right: what’s going to happen now?’ She shook her head doubtfully. ‘That ticket-collector was proper furious, ’e was. Said ’e was going to stay on the train, and I ’ad to pay the diﬀerence for the Swiss fare. But I can’t, can I? Mean to say, I ’aven’t got any money ...’ Her voice died away indeterminately. I wondered who had interpreted all this for her. He had my sincere sympathy. And sure enough, at that moment the Swiss conducteur stuck his head wearily into the compartment and started a long tirade. I smiled at him, with the ghost of a wink. ‘Ecoutez,’ I said. ‘That poor one is a little wanting. She has no money. She is being cared for by friends in Italy. You cannot get money where it is not.’ The conducteur looked doubtful. ‘But all the English have money,’ he said, with the air of one repeating an infallible oracle. I laughed rather bitterly, and decided the only thing to do was to lay it on thick. It was rather amusing watching her face while I slandered her sanity: she clearly thought I was doing my best to champion her. And so, in a sense, I was. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘she is loco, une imbécile simple. The train is not full. The fare is only a matter of formality. No one will be harmed by her presence here. I shall remain here with her till we reach Milan. After that no one will know which train she has come by. It is hard for the poor little ones to travel in such care. They deserve kindness even if she does not.’ And so on. I felt a frightful fool, but it seemed to work. The conducteur shrugged broad
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY Shoulders, grinned, and tapped his forehead suggestively. I hoped she didn’t see it. ‘Alors. he said, ‘ça s’arrange ... I will leave her in your care. ... But I do not envy you. Mon Dieu, quel type ...’ He vanished, muttering good-humouredly about the imbecilities of the English women who travelled in such a criminal state of unpreparedness. The woman thanked me eﬀusively. One of the children said it felt sick. I escorted it to the W.C. and back. The air was beginning to get very hot. Throughout the morning we travelled through the Italian lake district. From the train it had an unreal and breathtaking beauty. After crossing the border we had begun the long descent through the foothills of the Pennine Alps. Far away to the west rose the ﬁfteen thousand foot crags of Monte Rosa. To the east the bastions of Switzerland were still visible on the horizon. The earth began to turn to the rich warm brown of the Lombard Plain, and vineyards and olive groves appeared from time to time, with their dwarfed and twisted trees running in orderly rows to the very edge of the line. Once the rocks closed in again, and I saw a thin silvery waterfall cascading down for a thousand feet, glittering silver in the morning sun and casting up a ﬁne cloud of spray from the river far below. For about half an hour we skirted the western shores of Lake Maggiore. Its waters were blue with that outrageous and unbelievable colour that one normally associates only with travel posters, except where here and there the sun caught its surface, and ﬂakes of gold ﬂickered and darted about like ﬁreﬂies. Tiny islands clustered oﬀshore, thickly covered with cypress and bougainvillea,
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY and on them one could see pink and white villas glistening with their clean cut stone. Sun and sea had brought out the devil in the architects: every period and style mingled there, and yet there was no incongruity in it at all. Far out in the haze snips of white on the blue showed where yachts were sailing. It looked like Paradise. And so, as I found out later, it was: but a playboys’ Paradise. Lake Maggiore, and Lake Como further to the east, are reserved for foreign millionaires and the trippers who have followed in their wake. It is hard to ﬁnd Italian spoken there at all: English is the universal languages. The local inhabitants have turned this lovely resort into the worst kind of tourist are, comparable only to the sophisticated horrors of the French Riviera. But of all this I was ignorant at the time: I only knew that I was at last in Italy, and that it was exceeding my wildest expectations. Occasionally we halted at little wayside stations, often with only a few small white houses and a trattoria between it and the open ﬁelds beyond. The train would stand shimmering in the morning heat while a crowd of peasants and business-men fought for places in the third-class compartments. Young boys went slowly up and down the low platforms wheeling trolleys loaded with rainbow-coloured sweets, Technicolor periodicals, and straw-covered ﬂasks of Chianti, or with trays covered with huge rolls ﬁlled with slices of salami. Notices announced that it was expressly forbidden to cross the tracks. No one took the slightest notice. Someone was always washing a great bunch of grapes at the fountain. As we drew slowly out the air would ﬁll with
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY good-byes and the ﬂutter of waving handkerchiefs. It may not be true to say that all roads lead to Rome, but all railways in Italy certainly do: travelling seems to be the national pastime, judging by the eternallycrowded trains. The capital seems to have as great a lure for provincials now as ever it did in the days of the early Empire. I wondered what bread and circuses drew them. Probably the illusory attraction of good jobs: unemployment in Italy is a chronic problem today; but this centripetal movement has made it worse in Rome than anywhere else. Yet still people pour in hopefully. Rome must today be one of the most overpopulated cities in the world: what it was like in Holy Year I hate to think. Gradually we drew nearer to Milan. We crossed slowly over the triple-span bridge that crosses the sluggish stream of the Ticino, and passed through Gallarate and an intriguingly named town called Busto. The country rapidly became ﬂatter, and soon a level expanse of plain stretched out for miles on either side, broken only by great vineyards with their fruit, ready for picking, loading down the trees in dark abundance, and the silvery-grey gleam of olives, glinting darkly under a merciless sun. The soil was dry and dusty, and the ﬁrst signs of irrigation began to appear, soaring dark channels through the dun-coloured ﬁelds. It was diﬃcult to believe that we were entering the most industrial area of Italy. Somewhere away to the west were the steel foundries of Turin: ahead lay all the factories of Po Valley. But little sign of this crept into the countryside. The Black Country in England heralds itself from miles away with rearing slagheaps
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY and gaunt chimneys: but Italy is agricultural even in her industry. I never remember seeing anything so disﬁguring in my travels through that country as even the approaches to Manchester or Reading. We reached Milan at about midday. My train to Florence was not due to leave till half-past two, and I snatched the opportunity to stretch my legs and get a decent lunch. Milan station was my ﬁrst introduction to modern Italian architecture. It was enormous and pretentious, with a hideous blend of Greco-Roman pillars and the worst excesses of Victorian Gothicism. An enormous ﬂight of steps led down to the street. I could imagine a white garlanded bull being led up it to sacriﬁce. As I took the ﬁrst step down it the studs in my shoes slipped on the polished marble, and I completed the descent with more speed than dignity, my pack bumping after me. A large bag of tomatoes I had bought as a thirst-quencher burst and scattered its contents far and wide. As if by magic, half the population of Milan seemed to spring up from nowhere and begin to laugh, with a Homeric chest-aching abandon that made me laugh too. A woman in a black shawl helped me up and helped me recover my tomatoes. At this moment a policeman came up. There are about four diﬀerent uniforms and carry enormous automatics. Also, they very seldom shave. This one was in khaki, which is the most harmless variety, and mostly concerned with traﬃc problems. I suppose I countered as traﬃc. He began a long tirade about my desecrating the artistic integrity of this so beautiful ﬂight of steps which was the glory of Milan’s municipal authorities.
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY I thought I must have misheard or that he was pulling my leg; and asked him to repeat his remarks. He did, with additions. He said I was a vandal, an artistic iconoclast. I just saved myself from the unpardonable sin of laughing in his face; and entering into the spirit of the thing, made a ﬂowery apology to the municipal authorities, his outraged aesthetic feelings, and the memory of all the great past ﬁgures of Italy in general and Milan in particular, ending triumphantly with a quotation from Leopardi, which he promptly corrected. Honour seemed to be satisﬁed. He saluted, shook hands with me, and marched oﬀ with some dignity. The bag of tomatoes burst for the second time, and I picked them up hurriedly, with visions of my tour beginning with a period of segregation in an Italian jail. Looking back, I think this incident told me more about the Italian attitude to life (which I ﬁnd refreshingly sane in its values) than anything which I have experienced there since. The heat was blistering. I looked round the Piazza Duca d’Aosta, which lies immediately outside the station, for somewhere to eat. It was hardly an inspiring sight: high oﬃcial-looking ferro-concrete buildings, a bewildering multiplicity of streets leading away from them, and not a restaurant in sight. But round the corner in the little Piazza Caiazzo I found what I wanted: with relief I put down my pack and sat down at a gaily-striped table on the pavement. It wa a simple meal: pasta asciutta with Parmesan, bread and cheese, and a half-litre of Chianti: but I had seldom enjoyed one more. Afterwards I bought a packet of Nazionale cigarettes from a nearby kiosk. They looked
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY rather like Gauloises, but tasted even stronger. I was determined to see Milan Cathedral, if nothing else, before I caught my train: and as soon as I had ﬁnished lunch, I set oﬀ down the Via Pisani. To those who arrive by train, Milan is not an inspiring city. The building in this quarter is entirely modern: high blocks of ﬂats, white and uncompromising, that line the road for hundreds of yards without any break or variation. The total eﬀect is of competent and eﬃcient design, but presents very little character. The road is wide and beautifully surfaced: the whole eﬀect is rather of a prizewinning entry in an architectural competition. Every blank patch of wall below shoulder level was covered with lurid posters and advertisements, and where there were no advertisements there were roughly daubed slogans: Long live the King and the Monarchy: Long live Communism: Long live the Italian People. They rubbed shoulders amicably enough: one Communist slogan had been carefully written round a Monarchical one so as not to deface it. (The Italians have a passion for advertisements: every bypass is lined with them, and as one drives along they shriek aloud in every colour and hammer themselves insidiously into one’s mind.) Everything was very quiet: the afternoon siesta was beginning. I walked past the Public Gardens, dusty and dejected in the heat, and turned into the Via Alessandro Manzoni: a darker, dingier street, with solid Victorian buildings that looked as if they had known Garibaldi personally. An unobtrusive and rather shabby façade on he right marked the La Scala theatre. I passed
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY under a colonnade and emerged into the Piazza del Dunomo, the Cathedral Square. It was very still. A few pigeons picked their way across the open expanse: otherwise there were no signs of life. Dominating the square, the gigantic façade of the Cathedral reared itself in Gothic complexity to the blinding sky. Milan Cathedral obstinately eludes analysis, cannot be comprehended with a single eye. Perhaps this is because of the multiplicity of artists engaged on it through the centuries. Begun in 1386 by an unknown architect, it passed, between the fourteenth and ﬁfteenth centuries, into the hands of Italian, French, and the German designers. Tibaldi and Buzzi began, in 1616, the façade that Napoleon was to have ﬁnished nearly two hundred years later. During the centuries the fabric collected—no one seems to know quite how—over two thousand statues of one kind and another. And yet the total eﬀect is of a complete and organic whole: but a whole that splits and divides before one’s eyes, like a mad kaleidoscope. I passed inside, through the great west door. Here for the ﬁrst time, as so often later in Italian cathedrals, I was impressed by the sense of vast spaciousness. This was partly because of the bareness of the ﬂoor: there were no pews, no chairs, nothing to distract from the great massive pillars rising up for sixty feet and more to the dim vaulting of the roof. I suddenly felt an immense humility. In a side chapel, out of sight, came a faint sound of chanting. A woman in black genuﬂected and knelt in silent prayer before an image of the Virgin. Two priests walked quietly across in front of me and vanished in the gloom. There was no incongruity
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY here, no breakage between past and present: here the past was accepted unquestioningly, and each new event imperceptibly altered the pattern of the unbreakable whole. Through the stained glass above the alter the light ﬁltered richly on to the ﬂoor, blurring it with a faint pattern of red and yellow and blue. Time stopped, and distance became immeasurable. The pillars stood like so many reaﬃrmations of a universal faith. From outside came the fragmented hum of traﬃc, the stresses and counterstresses of temporal existence: but every few moments someone would slip in through the doors, and refresh their strength in this place where all struggles had long since been resolved. When I ﬁnally came out again, blinking, into the sunlight, I was amazed to ﬁnd that I had been there nearly an hour. I had almost to run back to the station. The Florence train was very diﬀerent from the Simplon-Orient. For the ﬁrst time I learnt the meaning of Italian third-class carriages, with their open compartments, their slatted wooden seats, their ripe and luxuriant overcrowding. There were only ﬁve minutes to go before we were due to leave. Somehow I forced my way in, pushing past perspiring soldiers and huge bosomy matrons, till I found about a square foot of space in the aisle and planted my pack in it. My shirt, which had dried once, became sodden again. A babel of voices nearly deafened me. Two youths in front of me were having a violent political argument. A woman propped against a stanchion undid her dress, dragged out a huge breast the size of a watermelon, and plugged the nipple ﬁrmly into the mouth of a crooning infant who could have posed as the infant Christ in a
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY primitive: where it remained for most of the journey. Just as the whistle went, there was an upheaval by the doorway, and a slim blond youth, also with a pack, forced his way down to where I was standing. The train began to move. He ﬂicked a cigarette into his mouth from a rather battered pack and grinned at me. ‘Making for Florence?’ he enquired. Oh God, I thought, do I look all that English? Aloud I said, ‘Yes: isn’t this heat hell?’ He looked at me more closely. ‘Aren’t you from Cambridge?’ he asked. I admitted it. It would have to be someone from Cambridge, I thought. Quite suddenly I felt completely alien, an interloper, with TURISMO written in large capitals all over me. He introduced himself. ‘By the way,’ he asked, ‘where are you staying in Florence?’ This was a question that simply hadn’t occurred to me. I said so. He looked at me rather oddly, and then said, ‘You’d better come along to Fabbriocotti: they make a business of collecting tramps like us.’ I said, ‘What or who is Fabricotti?’ ‘It’s a villa up in the north part of the city. Used to belong to a rich family, but they sold out. Now the I.S.S. have taken it over for students.’ I said I was’t sure if I liked the sound of this: I had a vision of being ordered around on compulsory sightseeing tours, or to improving lectures. I had come to Italy to enjoy myself: and my enjoyment was not of the politically academic variety. ‘Good God, no: it’s not like that at all: you can do more or less as you like. Do you speak Italian?’ ‘Yes, enough to go by.’
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY ‘Anything else?’ ‘French and some modern Greek.’ ‘That’ll do. They like you to have an air of being cosmopolitan. Not very fond of the English because of that.’ My opinion of the place rose considerably. * * * *
The journey from Milan to Florence falls sharply into two halves. From Milan as far as Bologna the line runs through the Po valley, crossing the river at Piacenza, and skirting the eastern side of the Apennines for the best part of the way. At Bologna it turns sharply south, and for the whole of the way to Florence ﬁghts a grim and unremitting battle with the Apennines themselves: at least half the distance is spent in tunnels, including the famous Elbow Tunnel, which is one of the longest in Europe. These tunnels are not the neat dark brick aﬀairs to which we are used in England: they are cut clear out of these solid rock, and the marks of the pick are still visible on their walls. After the ﬂat boredom of the Po Valley, with its mile upon mile of vines and olives, interspersed with huge rank growths which I took to be giant sunﬂowers, the run from Bologna to Florence tests one’s nerves to the uttermost. The windows are glassless: and the continuous hammering roar of penned-in echoes deadens your eardrums and frays your temper. For a moment one ﬂashes into a bright valley, hemmed in with dark red rocks: there is a glimpse of houses, perhaps sheep in a ﬁeld or a cart by the roadside: and then the
CHAPTER 1. JOURNEY TO ITALY ominous mouth swallows you up again, and the insensate metal roar opens up again. After an hour of it I was convinced that the whole mad chorus was emanating from my own head; that there was a vast and cacophonus dynamo lodged deep in my brain. It was late in the evening when we emerged from our last tunnel into the valley which is closed at one end by Pistoia and at the other by Florence. The dusk was closing in with that eery suddenness that one comes to expect in the tropics. The last streaks of red were dying away in the western sky towards Empoli, and there was an odd greenish tinge in the air, heightened now and again by vivid purple ﬂashes from our locomotive. We swung round a bend; and there was the Arno below us, ﬂowing thin and dark and sluggish in its ancient bed. I had a brief glimpse of red roofs and chequered walls in the fading light, and then, with a rattle of points, we were moving slowly into Florence station. The tracks reticulated, diverged in all directions. Rows of bright lights swam past us: crowds of people were waiting on the platform. I felt a quite ridiculously triumphant emotion. All I had done was to sit in train for two days: and yet in this moment I felt that somewhere, far up in the darkening sky, trumpets were sounding. The tired porter who took my ticket at the barrier saw only a dog-eared brown slip of paper; yet for me it was a second Golden Bough; my passport to another world. My journey was over: and yet the real journey was only now beginning.
CHAPTER 2. FLORENCE
Chapter 2 Florence
one noticed was the smell. Jostling through the crowd in the entrance to the station I caught a sudden whiﬀ of it, blown oﬀ the hillside from vine and olive and mimosa, and carried in the ﬁne dust that hazes the air of the Arno valley to the streets of the city. Here it mingled with many others: the smell of fruit laid out on stalls under naphtha ﬂares, of hot metal and electricity, the faint scent of incense from the open, curtained doors of churches, the surging smell of people, the apocalyptic, all-enveloping smell of a warm star-lit night. It was new and exciting, yet unaccountably familiar: and then I remembered. It was the smell of Calcutta. For a moment, as I stood in the piazza to get my bearings, with the church of S. Maria Novella looming uncertainly out of the darkness opposite, I felt myself back in India. Even the trams were the same. Wherever I have travelled I have always met the same make of British tram: small, green, solid as Lancashire, grinding its way through scenes of beauty or romance without paying the least attention to them; till in the end, like the stream train in the English countryside, it became absorbed into the landscape. Violent contrasts of light and darkness. Floodlights,
THE FIRST THING
CHAPTER 2. FLORENCE hissing carbon arcs, spurts of ﬁre from the overhead trolley-wires, a dazzling pattern of blinding white points over a background of shifting indigo. The curving tramlines gleamed momentarily, their clean steel ripping as if under water. People moved more slowly here, in paries or groups of three or four, talking, not loudly, but with an intensity that pinpointed each group as the center of a subtly Dantean microcosm. White and grey were the prevailing tones for the men; but the women were in dresses of vivid primary colours, yellow or blue: the fragmentated unpredictable movements of butterﬂies under a kaleidoscope. Many of them had dyed their hair a startling red: they looked unreal, like ghosts from a settecento brothel. There were no street-cries, no shopkeepers bawling their wares: only this ceaseless ﬂow of soft urgent Italian, theme after theme crossing and interweaving into a bright tapestry of sound. After some enquiry we found a tram that would take us nearly to our destination in the Via Vittorio Emanuele. (The Italians, and the Greeks even more, have developed the habit of naming their streets after contemporary notables. In order to preserve political decorum, these names are frequently being changed, which is amusing but bewildering. On the other hand, I felt a certain sadness for the obliteration of the House of Savoy’s royal monogram on every pillar-box with a daubed cross of blue paint.) The tram was alarmingly full: it would be more than an Italian conductor’s life was worth to suggest to the milling crowd at the doorway that there was no room inside; and to do them credit, I don’t think the idea ever occurs to them. This
CHAPTER 2. FLORENCE one sat inside a little cubby-hole in the body of the tram, and did business with whoever was in reach, which saved a good deal of trouble at the expense of numerous fares. We jolted and ground our way through the northern streets of the city. The main impression (not altered by covering the same route in daylight) was one of unrelieved monotony. The houses were grey, secretive and shuttered: only here and there slivers of light shone through the slats, or tables with checked tablecloths, and dwarf cypresses in huge green tubs marked a restaurant. As we passed these a burst of bel canto would come to our ears; sometimes from a gramophone, more often from an American superhet radio. The tramlines stopped at the end of a long road; there seemed something desolate and inconclusive about such a terminus. The driver got down from his perch with a long hook, detached the pole from the wires, and slewed it round for the return journey. My companion and I watched the tram vanish again into the distance. Then we shouldered our packs and turned into the Via Vittorio Emanuele, which ran at right- angles to the tramlines. We passed over two level- crossings, and stopped at a huge iron grille gate in a high wall. This must be it. We rang. After a moment’s pause an ancient and wrinkled janitor, smelling wonderfully of garlic, hobbled out of a small lodge and let us in. He seemed neither surprised nor inquisitive, though by this time we were both like tramps: unshaved and ﬁlthy. The dust had settled on to our sweating faces, and fresh sweat had ploughed grimy channels down our cheeks. We asked, tentatively,
CHAPTER 2. FLORENCE ’Villa Fabbricotti?’ and he nodded, grinning. We climbed the long, winding stone promenade up to the forecourt of the Villa, and walked in. No one took any notice of us. In the ﬁrst room two girls were playing table-tennis; beyond, in a sort of central hall, people sat reading. We looked about, puzzled. At this moment the door of what looked like an oﬃce opened, and a young man in a suit of green denims came out. He was tall and thin and aquiline, with searching grey eyes. He had a faint suggestion of a moustache and looked generally like a very young version of Anton Walbrook. He took us in at a glance, and beckoned us into the oﬃce. Here he plied us with a few sharp questions. What were we in Florence for? What university were we from? What did we do there? Which languages did we know? He switched rapidly into Italian, then French. Later I heard him conducting an animated conversation in German. I never found out anything else about him. The fact that we were English seemed to amuse and annoy him simultaneously. Eventually he gave us a printed form each to complete, and told us we could stay as long as we liked. If we stayed for more than a week, the rates would be reduced. Having said all this, he scribbled a couple of numbers on our cards, called out for one of the Italian maids to show us to our rooms, and left us to our own devices. I was somewhat anxious (rather ungratefully, to be sure) to shake oﬀ my companion as soon as possible, and was therefore relieved to ﬁnd we had been given separate rooms, or rather dormitories. The one in which I found myself was pleasant in the extreme:
CHAPTER 2. FLORENCE high and airy, with ﬁve beds and a friendly multiplicity of cupboards. At the moment it was empty; the maid explained that everyone was downstairs having dinner, and suggested I should do likewise. My shirt was clinging grimily to my back. If I don’t get a wash soon—, I thought. I asked. ’Alas, signore, there is no water tonight. It is the drought, you understand. We are rationed. For an hour in the morning and evening only. But now—’ she spread her hands out expressively. I said: ’Can I get drinking water, anyway?’ ’But certainly, signore.’ ’Where from?’ ’The janitor’s lodge by the gate; I will give you a bottle. But I would advise you, signore, to dine while you may.’ She gave the ghost of a curtsey and withdrew. The thought of climbing those steps again made me rather less enthusiastic for cleanliness. I found I had about a pint left in my own ﬂask. This goes quite a long way when spread on a ﬂannel; especially when you take oﬀ the worst with the shirt you have been wearing. I set my teeth and shaved with a dry razor, and put on a clean change of clothes. In the end I looked quite respectable. I rolled up everything I had taken oﬀ and left the bundle at the foot of my bed, in the pious hope that someone would remove and deal with it without being asked. I found the dining-room without much diﬃculty; if I had kept my eyes shut it would have been just as easy. A roomful of people all talking at the tops of their voices in the same language—say evening hall in a
CHAPTER 2. FLORENCE Cambridge college—is bad enough; this was the Tower of Babel itself. I traced French, Italian, German, and Spanish; and decided that the rest must be Central European—a convenient phrase which always reminds me of Osbert Lancaster’s cartoons. I slipped into an empty place, and addressed myself with some gusto. The food at Fabbricotti is among the best I have had in Italy; and tonight was no exception. I thought I was ravenous; after a piled plate of pasta asciutta and an enormous steak I revised my opinion. Wine, I found to my regret, was not included; I bought half a litre from the maid (the same one who had shown me my room) and set about it in a leisurely fashion. I began to feel that curious excited opulence, both of mind and body, which sooner or later aﬀects every traveller in Italy. There are many people, including myself, who shy away very hard from the word ’tourist’. I always called myself a student, which invariably won me more sympathy; though it was very doubtful whether I had anything in common with either the mediaeval or modern adherents of Bologna or Salerno. All the same, we say indignantly if we take the trouble to learn the language, and have an intelligent interest in not only the antiquities but also the people and their lives and the modern problems of the country, surely that isn’t the same thing? Not the same thing, certainly: but a difference of degree rather than kind. It is a hard thing to realise that, with the best will in the world, the visitor to a country, whether he stays three days or three months, is going to carry away a completely idealised picture. In the ﬁrst place, he is not, and cannot be,
CHAPTER 2. FLORENCE part of it himself. He doesn’t depend on the country for his livelihood. This immediately puts a fence round him; his pocketful of money and lack of obligation suspend time—and judgement—for him. He unconsciously assumes the role of detached observer, wandering (if he is lucky) through an enchanted land; in his relations with local inhabitants an uneasy blend of newspaper reporter, anthropologist, and small boy at the Zoo. We have all heard the joke about the Frenchman who knows London better than the Londoner, and shows his host round his own city; but it took me some time to accept the fact that few Italians had gone out of their way to visit Florence or Siena or Sicily. In fact the joke (like most perennial ones) contains a strong element of truth. When you are assimilated, when you are part of a civilisation, you see with its eyes; you do not so much take it for granted as identify yourself with it. It is only the visitor who stares in wonder and surprise; because he is on the outside looking in, he is detached enough to be objective. For the past ﬁve years I have walked, on the average, twice a day through the Great Court of Trinity College, in Cambridge. I am as sensible as anyone of its unique eﬀect; but I do not feel called upon to stand and goggle at it with a Leica in one hand and a guidebook in the other. I have become part of the corporate life that it represents; and when the summer visitors gather in their motley groups round the Fountain, it is, in a sense, me and all my contemporaries and predecessors that they are including in their lens. By the time I had reached this point in my thought, the litre was ﬁnished and the dining-room empty
CHAPTER 2. FLORENCE except for a couple of grinning Italian girls waiting to clear my table. I trailed upstairs to bed determined, if I had to be an observer, at least to be an intelligent one. That night I dreamed I was standing on top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, in Cook’s uniform, declaiming at the top of my voice on the beauties and history of Italy, while a ring of thousands on thousands of Italians, like a crowd at a football stadium, gathered at the foot of the tower and gaped up at me. On the outside looking in. * * * *
I woke soon after six the next morning. (There may be some good reason why one always wakes at an unearthly hour in a hot climate, but I have never yet fathomed it.) The light was slanting through the half open shutters. I got out of bed, threw the window wide, and stood drawing in the fresh morning air. There was a hint of vine and dust and olive in it still; but now it was soft with the dew, cool after gentle summer night. The sun was already high above the horizon. Directly below me, on the edge of the terrace, was a huge ilex tree, its leaves dusty and dappled. The sky was a melting blue, fading into a brown dancing haze above the distant hills; and all Florence lay spread out before me, red and yellow in the morning light: a fantastic contrast to the sombre uniform grey of London or Paris. Here and there a tall building stood out above the surrounding houses; I picked out the cathedral and its great tower; the chapel of the Medici; the church of S. Maria Novella. Through the
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