I just came home from la bel’Italia, specifically three cities: Orte, Arezzo, and Florence. I’ve never been to Orte and Arezzo before, Florence, however, many many times. As part-Italian, and an art-lover, as a happy speaker of even limited Italian, as a fan of the country’s quirky history and beautiful landscapes, and ever a pasta-lover–my trips to Italy rejuvenate me and send me home after 8-10 days completely satisfied.
There are always snags. This time, I was at my wits end trying to procure b & b’s and even a hotel at the last minute. Luckily, friends who know Orte agreed to pick me up at the train station and chug-chug me up the incredibly high wall face to the old city. They deposited me at the clean quiet B&B I’d reserved, and the second day I took a tour of the enormous city underground – miles of snaking tunnels and deep pools which once formed the city’s water reservoir and delivery system. There were no desiccated bodies as in Rome’s catacombs, but the sense of being in another world, with quivery light, and deep blue water satisfied some desire to try out burial ahead of time.
Arezzo, though also high, is not much like Orte’s almost funeral quiet. Arezzo is a town of youth wearing everything from torn jeans to tiered gauzy dresses. The first evening in a rambling two-room hall, a friend held a retrospective exhibit of her lover’s work. He died three years ago. They kept horses in a stone farmhouse 40 kilometers outside town. She still stables two mares and a filly-in-training for the big time. It was a time of celebration, but full of strangers and maybe on my part, too much wine.
It was the second day, on my own, when I truly gathered a sense of this ancient yet very lively town. High up beside the cathedral, I sat in a very pleasant park under a rim of umbrella pines leaning together to catch the sun. Children ran across an open circle with their dark German shepherd barking after them. When he was leashed and couldn’t follow, he emitted the strangest groans and gurgles I’ve ever heard coming from a dog. Otherwise, in the quiet, I looked into the hills studded with a few quintessential Tuscan farmhouses, three-story, with the bronzed terracotta look of old wood, and topped by an almost flat roof that overhung the entire building, like a sheltering hat.
Coming down from this repose, I found myself surrounded by young men in snazzy suits, pulling and pushing one of their comrades in a bicycle three-seater. He carried a bouquet of huge zinnias. What’s going on? I wondered. Following them as they braked to keep him from zipping down the steep street, I stopped with them before an ancient building renown for its collection of different columns. Then, up from the bottom of the street, chugged a VW bus. Inside sat the bride, dressed in gauzy white, with cheeks as round and firm as a ripe apple. She looked so young, almost like myself, in the photos of my first wedding, the one where I too wore a veil partly hiding my face. Lots of onlookers like myself hung around to see her slowly descend, have her veil spread around her and slowly enter the sanctuary, carrying her own bouquet of red, pink, yellow, and orange zinnias.
Finally Florence with my artist friend Patricia Glee Smith (look for her website). We visited the Uffizi at night, the only way to avoid the crowds. Standing before Leonardo’s “Annunciation,” I was happily transported to my first love affair with this painting, which coincided with falling in love with the back of a young man walking down the aisle of a Minneapolis poetry reading.
Now I give you the poem, published in my full-length poetry collection, Between the Houses (Laurel Poetry Collective, 2004). If you order it from Amazon and read it, please leave a comment on the Amazon page for the book. Here’s the poem, perhaps the one I treasure most:
In Leonardo’s painting, she studies
out of doors, this eminent virgin
in her habitual cloth of red and blue.
Before her on a pedestal table
encrusted with a mollusk shell, lies
an open book from which she raises her eyes
to the boy dressed in swan’s wings, wearing
a cap of curls and carrying a lily wand.
She may have seen him ahead of her
in church, his shoulders and torso
masculine and square, his hair
a tangle of innuendo.
That he comes to her in the garb
of heaven is only an accident
of myth and history, for she needs
nothing announced. The cleft in the palm
of her raised hand anticipates all he means
and she accepts only provisionally,
for he is her inspiration, not a winged
word or an unborn child. This child-man
with fabulous pinions, will cause her
to abandon the protected corner
to crush the low, delicate plants,
and dream his weight will never rise.