by Art Busse
We've caught Tuscany in its last day of winter, prolonged by a late cold spell. At the end of dormancy, the countryside is still wearing its reserved palette of dark colors - rust, red, brown and black -- with the occasional patch of snow still clinging to the sheltered indentations of ground.
It is a poignant moment in this year's cycle of seasons, but there have been so many years. We are immersed in something old here, very old. There is a dignity, a solemnity, a sense that things were settled long ago. Not the overbearing obligation of tradition, just the comfort and resolve that come from knowing how things are. After centuries of strife, Tuscany has achieved an angle of repose requiring no further adjustments. Life goes on but without the questioning, without the need to challenge the basic assumptions. There is change, but it is cyclical and comes around of its own accord. Here one is free, as the olive trees are, to grow, bear fruit and die.
The weather turned on the day we arrived, but the earth has not yet responded, nor have the people. A warm and sunny afternoon on the piazza in the town of Greve finds the locals in winter coats, scarves and boots, with looks that speak of waiting. It will take more than one warm afternoon to change a long winter's habits.
Mira and I have been together for two years now and have reached that difficult moment in a relationship where the wind begins to go out of its sails. We've tracked down our crucial differences and wonder if they might be irreconcilable. The heat of passion is giving way to the heat of friction. We love each other still, and don't want to give up, but can't help feeling dispirited and tired. Our clear line of sight into the future has disappeared around a bend and the loss of forward momentum is dragging us down. Secretly, we have been hoping for intervention.
A month ago, as if on cue, our friends Christian and Roberta Parma unexpectedly invited us to join them for Easter at their Tuscan estate. Three weeks in Italy seemed like a very good idea. We jumped at the offer. Now, jet-lagged and disoriented, staring at the barren Tuscan countryside, something barely discernible is beginning to shift.
Halfway between Siena and Florence, in the middle of the Chianti region, the small town of Greve sits astride a river at the bottom of a natural bowl of rolling hills. Up the east slope of that bowl, past the cleared and terraced hillsides of olive groves, vineyards, and the occasional almond tree, through the late winter haze from fires set to burn off the trimmings of olive branches, at a natural vantage point, the Parmas' thousand-year-old estate commands the Greve Valley.
Mira, herself a writer, had me take up the English Patient as we packed for the trip, thinking that Michael Ondaatje's writing would be a good place to go from Don DeLillo's, whose Underworld I had just finished and loved. Neither of us remembered that it is largely set here in Tuscany at an old villa just over the olive-strewn hills from the Parmas' estate.
So when I've had enough of the hills and villas and people of Tuscany, I retreat to a quiet corner of our castellare and read about the same hills and villas populated by the ghost-like people who survived the winding down of the last great war. I float with them through their reveries of life and death and love and beauty and pain cast out over a nightmarish landscape nearly as dark as the one our medieval stronghold was meant to survive.
Beauty and pain, love and suffering, over and over again, appearing in that form then and this form now, and countless times in countless forms in between. Always recognizable in the way they seize us, cast us out of the tower, then lift up our battered souls on gentle wings.
All are well represented here. Beauty can be found in abundance at the Parmas' dinner parties. There are heiresses, countessas, and Milanese models all preening to the strains of Christian's acclaim. Effusive and enthusiastic, he is set off by the beauty he has surrounded himself with and rolls out a steady and entertaining stream of stories about his hundreds of conquests on three continents. Replete with spontaneous conversions and chivalrous saves, the landscape of his persona has more saints, sinners and miracles than the Church he so lovingly denounces.
Pain, too, has a place at the table, as each reference to the towering beauties and the playboy antics of our host digs deeper into the soul of my smoldering, suffering Mira. Beautiful in her own right, but darker, warmer, softer and smarter, she can excite and enlighten a room with her sensuous insinuation and fresh ideas the way trade in spices brought on the Renaissance. But alas, her virtues, though fully appreciated around the table, are of no comfort to her when she feels passed over for the long legs and blond hair of her competitors.
The following day we have reserved tickets to the Uffizi, Florence's premier art museum, and find that Renaissance painting is the perfect vehicle for processing the previous evening's joys and abuses, bringing us to a deeper and ever more abrasive understanding of what we are as a couple.
I make the mistake of pointing out the resemblance between Botticelli's Venus and one of the dinner guests. Later we come to a painting featuring a sumptuously endowed Florentine matron holding a bowl of ripe fruit just below her exposed breasts as a starving man looks on and drools. Mira, similarily endowed, remarks that it is a perfect rendition of my complaint about her - that she is a little too free in the care and feeding of the other men in our group of friends. When I agree, she lashes out at me for assigning her the matron with the unpleasing face while reserving Venus for the enemy. Then, as we are about to leave, she becomes enraptured with a painting of three women slitting a man's throat, the only painting in the museum done by a woman.
Meanwhile, the only painting in the place that speaks to me is a diptych of Adam and Eve circa 1500. There is something unnerving in Eve's willing engagement with God's separation of the sexes. It's as if she's saying, "If this is why we are here in these opposing forms, then let's get on with it. Give me that apple. Armed with the knowledge of good and evil, with my feet firmly on the ground and this serpent whispering advice in my ear, I'll make this thing happen!" I am reminded of serious-minded thirteen-year-old girls poring over the how-to articles in Seventeen magazine.
Adam, on the other hand, with his dreamy, wistful look, seems a little clueless, a little innocent, a little more connected still to the unformed spirit within. I envy women their grounded nature, their solid connection with the earth, with their bodies. I worry about men. We seem too vulnerable, like deer in the headlights of these practical, determined women.
A band strikes up a song at the outdoor trattoria on the piazza where we lunch after the museum, snapping me out of my reverie and drawing my attention to the musicians: a guitarist, a saxophonist and a violinist, all mature, robust, Italian men, and all sharing a look that says their pride is at stake. It's as if they expect to not be taken seriously, to receive no respect for their musical talents. They play beautifully anyway and suffer.
In the days that follow we are encouraged to visit this town and that, but it is the country that keeps calling. So we pack picnics of prosciutto and bread and cheese and local wines and do our best to lose ourselves down the back roads, looking for the right spots to breathe as deeply as we can of this place, and of each other. They are easily found in the hillside groves and vineyards, and the soft embrace of nature leads easily to our own soft embraces.
But looking up from our love-making, we can't help but notice the looming, somber architecture. It is one of bastion and siege. The high ground has all been taken. On it stand impenetrable castles, ramparts, and towers made of stone pulled from the hillsides and river beds. No doubt there were other architectures from other eras, but that of the Dark Ages was built to withstand all onslaughts, including that of time. So here it stands today, a monument to security, while in the monument's shadow lurks the uneasy implication of the threat that commissioned it.
There is no escaping the symbolism and once again we are reminded of what's troubling our relationship. No sooner do we open, soft and vulnerable, to love, than fear demands we surround it with walls, and what provides safety for one, imprisons the other. Is love a flower that must be protected to grow, or a flame that needs air to burn? These are the questions we travel with. Where are the answers to be found?
Sleep is deep in our medieval keep, but with the body safe from harm, the unconscious is emboldened, producing dreams like dark underground rivers with currents more powerful than the dreamers who loosed them. At the end of winter, with no clear direction forward, no sense of what comes next, no real belief in renewal, Tuscany waits, waits as it has every year, for something in the dirt to stir and take it by surprise. We lie down at the end of our days and are taken by our dreams.
Mira battles sea creatures and snakes, while I follow the elusive glow of a lantern as it recedes just out of sight down around the curve of a stair in a dark castle turret, carried by an ephemeral young woman. And we are not alone in our nocturnal journeys. Dreams fill the castellare. Roberta, our hostess, who by day is surrounded by the most innocent and endearing light, is ferocious in dreams by night. She is a Jungian therapist and our casual breakfasts are the stomping grounds for her carnal archetypes as she recounts her heroic battles with the beasts and horrors of the night before. We join her, pouring out our souls over coffee, fruit, bread and cheese. She shares her arcane books on psychology and mythology, and the three of us forge ahead through our fears. With our time here in Tuscany drawing to a close, it seems that something important is almost within our grasp.
After breakfast on our last day with the Parmas we pull on our boots, head off to explore the land surrounding their estate--and find something extraordinary. Along an ancient Roman road, built over an even older Etruscan path, running beside a tributary creek as it cuts deeper and higher into the hillside skirting the estate's northern boundary, into the woods on the south slope of the narrowing canyon, past the two dogs that come down from the ramshackle compound of stone farm houses above, one all bravado but missing a leg, the other unable to conceal even from strangers her need to be loved, past the old woman in the apron busy gathering wood to fire her forno for the morning bread she is baking, through the compound and down behind it, past the roosts of roosters and hens, to where the trail returns to the creek, up high now, in deep, far away from the town, where memory is outdistanced, and history asserts itself, at the top of the canyon, at the end of the world, spanning the creek and leading to nowhere - there is a bridge.
It would be easy to miss it, as no doubt many have before, for the trail continues past it, following the creek back down on its return leg to town. The creekside brush has grown close in around it and centuries of decomposing leaves have covered its upper surface in a thick layer of earth that has its own growth. From the trail upstream it looks almost as if the creek bed narrows at a certain point and the forest floors on either side reach for and find each other.
Summoning up a little courage, we chance the crossing, let ourselves slowly down the steep creek embankment and, standing downstream at the edge of the water, turn around and look. It's two thousand years old, natural as the forest that provided its stones, perfectly simple, perfectly functional, and perfectly formed in the classic, gravity-defying arch that bears Rome's name, holding the sweet spot between nature, invention, survival and beauty.
Standing together, alone in the woods, in the presence of something so right, puts much to rest. That we are capable of such simple perfection. That what deserves to, endures, while the rest falls away. That there is justice in time. What began to shift within us on our arrival now comes back around fully formed. Dark times, like Dark Ages, come and go, alternating with periods of light. Barren fields will grow again. Summer's bounty will fade. Lovers turn towards and away from each other, in and out of love, on a spinning planet circling a flaming sun hurtling through space.
We relax against each other, like the dry-fitted stones of the old bridge, holding each other up with a force exactly equal to what wants to bring us down. We begin to imagine that, even with nothing more to bind us than the shape of our association, we too may endure. Everything falls into place.
It's Easter, and time to return to Rome for our flight home. All around us on the drive south the Italian countryside, first dormant, then tentative, now bursts into life filling the air with a rush of renewal. Suddenly, it's easy to believe.
|This artical can be found in Lonely Planet's literary anthology, Tales from Nowhere, published in September 2006.|
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