Monday, March 07, 2011


My Italian travels

As winter turns to spring here, with heavy rain today steadily shrinking the massive snowbanks, I continue to travel in my books. Italy looms large and I become determined to go there someday soon, to eat and paint and gaze at art.

Two very different views of Italy are presented in the memoirs I recently read, Naples '44 by Norman Lewis (reprinted by Da Capo in 2005) and A Traveller in Italy by H.V. Morton (Dodd Mead 1969). Both are first-person accounts presented chronologically, both descriptive and well-written, both unforgettable, both written by justly famous travel writers, and in both the Italian landscape figures heavily. They are both books of place, but there the similarities end. Naples '44 is a wartime diary, a short book to devour in a day, full of famine, violence, treachery, corruption, and the deeply unbeautiful, a view of one city and its immediate surroundings seen from the point of view of a young British intelligence officer caught in the bureaucracy of occupation. The war is an ugly living reality. A Traveller in Italy takes place over two decades later and is a long ramble around northern Italy, from Lake Como to Venice and down to Florence, a thick book which will take a week or two to read at least, easy to put down and pick up again, full of refined observation, dense history, connoisseurship, and intimate description. The war is a memory and becomes one more link in the long chain of violent events and shifts in power in this fought-over region.

Naples '44 captures a moment. A Traveller in Italy speaks of centuries. Both are highly compelling. I read Norman Lewis with fascinated horror, almost in a state of panic, he shows so clearly what we are capable of under extreme duress. After that, I calmed right down and read H.V. Morton as if strolling hand in hand with the most civilized man I'd ever met. He reminds me that horror passes and what endures is culture, art, the landscape, and generations of people simply living their lives. Generations who might choose not to repeat the corruptions of the past. They probably will, but they might not, and in the meantime, much good happens.

I didn't find Lewis to be quotable. At least, I didn't make any notes while I read, the way I usually do. His whole book was too immediate and blunt. And disheartening, it must be said. Of course, I took several pages of notes from Morton. Here he is on Pliny the Younger's villa, built in 1570 on the edge of Lake Como:

"The charm of Pliny's villa continued to haunt me and it will always do so. I know what my books would look like there, and where I would put my desk. It was one of those places, and they are few, where I knew I could be happy and content until the end of my days." (p.126)

Morton tells us Shelley tried to rent the villa in 1818. (Read his book if knowing little details such as this pleases you - it's full of them - it's what the entire book consists of, really.) In my to-be-read pile are a few more books about Italy. Italian Hours by Henry James is there. I've also started to read selections from Vasari's Lives of the Artists and am in the middle of the wartime diaries of Bernard Berenson, who chose to stay near Florence for the duration. But that's a story for another time. To end today, a bit of fine advice from A Traveller in Italy, something we can all take to heart (p.179):

"...trouble has a way of straightening itself out if you continue to collect books and to read them."

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