I sat on this bench one morning overlooking the hot, dry Tuscan countryside one, in the company of my coffee and of a book which was giving me a different view of my own country. I've read and re-read a few books on Italy this summer, and invite you to take a seat on the bench beside me this week, while I tell you a little about my Italian readings.
A Traveler in Italy by H V Morton (1892-1971), is a beautiful, old-school travel book: a book written by someone who took an impressive amount of time to journey and learn about the history, geography, art and architecture of the places he was visiting in Northern and Central Italy. It helps that he was a (British) journalist, with a trained eye for the telling detail and a gift for research, and a flowing prose style in which he packs all the rich material, making A Traveler in Italy a highly enjoyable and at the same time very informative read.
I first read the chapters that cover the parts of Tuscany we were visiting this summer, and then went back to read Morton's words and observations about Northern Italy, and in both cases, I learned or was reminded of a lot about the history and the art of my country. Take, for example, Northern Italy's intricate system of waterways and their vital economic importance. (The waterways are long gone, having been covered over or filled in over the centuries.)
If anyone who had known Lombardy centuries ago could see it today, nothing would surprise him more than the absence of boats and sails.
The river and canal traffic gave a distinctive flavour to life in Lombardy. The inns were full of boatmen who possessed the inherited knowledge of those who for centuries had humoured a dangerous river. Many early travel writers describe the silence and the ease of gliding through Lombardy by barge and boat.
For someone like me who was born and raised in Lombardy (Milan), and who has only heard about those waterways in conjunction with the building of the Duomo, this description of the ancient waterways was particularly fascinating.
Reading Morton's book as an Italian, though, I couldn't help noticing how oblivious he sometimes seems to contemporary Italy. Morton was mainly searching for the vestiges of antiquity, and one gets the sense that Italy and the Italians of his time (the book was published in 1964) are almost superfluous to his journey and narrative. When he climbs a skyscraper in Milan and looks out over the city, he comments:
it was not possible to trace a Roman pattern in its streets, for no plan of the old city exits.
My Milan had vanished centuries ago.
Still, this book a wonderful read, not only for Morton's great knowledge and appreciation of Italy's history and art, but above all for his obvious love of Italy itself:
The brown, silvery-grey country-side with its chestnut woods, its dark groves of cypress, its red-tiled farms, its outcrop of volcanic boulders, roofed by the blue Italian sky and palpitating to the sound of the cicada, is the most civilized rural scene on earth. It is embroidered everywhere by human living, and there is scarcely a hill, a stream, a grove of trees, without its story of God, of love or death.
This is just the scene I saw from my bench, and Morton helped me to see it more deeply.