'Molto, Signora': Or, How I Read Winckelmann Under the Tuscan Sun

I hadn’t seen the movie and I hadn’t read the book, but I’d seen the preview and the poster: “The Only Thing More Surprising than the Chance She's Taking ... Is Where It's Taking Her.” That one’s for me, I thought, of all the slogans in all the movie ads in all the world, that one’s for me.

August 29, 2008

I hadn’t seen the movie and I hadn’t read the book, but I’d seen the preview and the poster: “The Only Thing More Surprising than the Chance She's Taking ... Is Where It's Taking Her.” That one’s for me, I thought, of all the slogans in all the movie ads in all the world, that one’s for me. So despite the state of the dollar as compared with the euro, I accepted my friend Dahlia’s invitation to spend a week out of my summer in Cortona, the Tuscan -- actually Etruscan -- village chosen by the author of Under the Tuscan Sun as site of her personal renaissance. Once the grant letter arrived telling me I could indeed spend time in Italy looking at statues on the government’s dollar, I found someone to feed my cats, packed a bag, and headed out the door to catch the evening plane to Rome. Cancel that. I spent five hours in the Newark airport bar because I was offered a $600 voucher to take a later plane to Lisbon, before going onto Italy. I was in a hurry to get to Italy, yes, but I secretly feared that the voucher might be the only surprise that was awaiting me, rather than love, and I didn’t want to come home empty-handed.

I had recently divorced and my romance with a race car engineer was going nowhere. I was depressed and experiencing writer’s block -- couldn’t bring myself to write a Fleur column anymore than I could bring myself to finish an article on 18th-century German art historian J.-J. Winckelmann and his love of images of Antinous, in particular a bas-relief in the Albani (now Torlonia) collection in Rome. That was why I was headed to Rome for a month before my Tuscan jaunt -- to conduct research on Winckelmann, Albani, and a host of other 18th-century Roman museum and church players, and to see some ancient and not so ancient sculpture. Well, that was what I wrote on the grant application, at least. I couldn’t bring myself to write the truth -- that I was applying for a summer romance. For fear of rejection, of course.

Winckelmann is known for having been the first to produce a “history” of art, in this case a history of ancient art that found in absent Greek originals rather than in ever-present Roman copies the Ideal Beauty, the Truth of Beauty, the lost but textually restituted Mothers of All Art. For this, Winckelmann concerned himself with statues -- of gods, of emperors, of Adonis, of Aphrodite. Antinous, the young lover of Hadrian, was a special favorite. The young Greek had drowned in the Nile in 130 AD and was then deified by Hadrian, his face fixed in the moon according to legend. Winckelmann valued images of him (an entire chapter in his tome is called “The Nipple on the Breast of the Antinous”) in part because they reflected the German’s own desire-that-could-not-be-named. Today, he could have married in San Francisco or even Spain, but this was 1756. It was as secretary to the Cardinal Albani that Winckelmann came into his own. Access to Albani’s collection was a daily delight for Winckelmann, unlike for me. I requested a visit to the Villa Albani/Torlonia to see the Antinous; I requested again and again, to no avail. I could thus walk in Winckelmann’s shoes only up to a certain point.

It was the Antinous bas-relief in the Albani-Torlonia collection that intrigued me the most and not only because it represented a link between Albani, Winckelmann, and Hadrian. It was, I knew from photographs and descriptions, a powerful representation of the beauty of young men, a subject that preoccupied me not merely because of my summer romance fantasy, but also because, well, of Beauty. Beauty itself. I had seen ideal beauty twice thus far over the summer: in the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, the Ludovisi Throne was stunning in its gracious female figures and careful drapery; in the Church of St. Cecelia, in Trastevere, the horizontal altar statue of a martyred St. Cecilia, stretched out in white marble with perfectly lovely linden draped around her, a gash in her neck, struck silence in me and turned the church into a tomb of the sublime. Yes, these were figures of women, but these were beautiful. Saint Cecilia had suffered immensely under a third-century Roman emperor, first locked in a sauna for a year and then decapitated three times; the third time did the trick, but only after three more days of suffering. Her incorruptible body was discovered long after her death and immortalized in stone by Stefano Maderno, a Baroque artist, and enshrined in the church. I was not limiting myself, as had Winckelmann, to ancient sculpture, nor was I, I discovered, limiting myself to men.

The weeks passed and it was time to head to Cortona for my week with Dahlia. What I hadn’t learn from watching the trailer to the movie was that one must first go to Camucia before going to Cortona. The rather modern village of Camucia sits down the hill from Cortona and the train stops there, or rather, a mile or two from there. You have to make your way up the hill to truly relax under the Tuscan Sole. Dahlia had revealed this to me and had advised me to take a taxi to her place upon my arrival. No problem. I would arrive at the stazione and line up behind dozens of other movie fans in the taxi line. Wrong. There were no foreign visitors and no taxis. There was a lonely sign that cried out “TAXIS,” but none to flag down. There was a bus stop, but there was only one evening bus to Cortona; I arrived at 6 p.m., the bus would come at 8. I called Dahlia’s place hoping one of the other visitors would come down to pick me up. No one answered; they were Under the Sun by the pool. The only human being left near the station after the very smart Italians jumped into miniscule cars that sped away was a very short and very thin elderly woman with long stringy black hair running a tiny snack bar just along the tracks. The sign in the window read “Biglietti di trena” -- this was where one bought tickets, for there was no one in the station. Thinking she would understand my predicament immediately since she was so used to female American tourists looking for love, I sauntered in and in my garbled Italian asked if she knew how I could get a taxi. She responded without speaking or smiling, handing me a slip of paper from a pile of slips of paper with a phone number on it. I called from inside the station and on the fourth try got hold of someone patient enough to hear me out. If I understood correctly, a taxi would be forthcoming in an hour and a half.

Normally, I would have gone in the Signora’s, this is what I called her of course, asked for a Fanta, and sat on one of her outdoor plastic white chairs to await the taxi. I had notes on Winckelmann to read and an International Herald Tribune—I was set. But as soon as I sat down to drink my Fanta I was reminded of something I hadn’t accomplished on the train that had to be dealt with in much less than an hour and a half. I knew on the train that I should use the toilet and, after all, I had over an hour to do so. But in all my Under the Sun daydreaming, I had not imagined using a stinking train toilet, so I denied myself. I envisioned hopping in a taxi and arriving in Cortona in ten minutes and using my private bath in my private wing of the restored ancient farmhouse. I saw myself washing my hands with olive soap and drying them with a white towel embroidered with the Cortona colors of yellow and dark blue. So I did what my mother always advised me not to do and what I advise my young daughter not to do: I held it. Now I was paying the price. The cramps were not pleasant, the Fanta made me feel more bloated, and the possibly rabid dog pissing on the lamp post near me was throwing me mean spirited “stupid tourist” glances.

I walked, I hobbled, through and around the station but found only an abandoned and hopelessly locked W.C. The Signora was my only hope; surely her place had a bathroom since she sold Fantas, ice cream, and liquor. I was nervous about her, though, since our earlier interaction had been rather cold. I smiled even more broadly than before and commenced, “Ho bisogno di toilette” (I need a toilet, basically), per favore, of course. Her thin and cracked lips moved slowly: No, she had no toilet, it was under restoration, as far as I could tell. She waved her emaciated arms out towards the railroad tracks and at the stazione. I wandered again, even farther down the tracks. Nope, there had not been a public restroom there since the Etruscans. Armed with my most recent report, I told her no, there was no toilet, and that I would be glad to use one under restoration; I had, after all, studied art history. But she resisted. I wondered where she did her own business: Did she close up shop and walk the 20 minutes to Camucia proper? Could I do that? With my luggage, in my condition?

It was time. I knew I had to convey the severity of the situation to her if I was to avoid causing a diplomatic situation. I smiled and slowly advanced to the counter. She once again stared forward, no sign of what was going through her head. “Signora,” I began, “non c’è toilette.” She raised an eyebrow -- in surprise? annoyance? “Ho bisogno.” I need. She was going to shut me down, I thought, and as I hurried to find words to express urgency, she murmured something about urinating behind a building. I searched for how to say Number Two in Italian; what if merda was inappropriate to use in front of a Signora? No other word stood out in my mental dictionary. “Ma, Signora,” I boldly emphasized my words, “Ho bisogno di fare . . . molto.” Molto means “a lot” and that was the absolute truth. I raised my hands and formed a wide oblong shape with them: “MOLTO.” I kept forming and reforming the shape, here was something to separate Number One from Number Two, I was sure. This time both of her eyebrows raised and there was, there truly was, a sudden spark in her eyes, a moment of comprehension, a true connection with me. “Ah,” she replied, chuckling, and then spewed out a string of words ending with giardino. Her hands also formed an object, a rectangle, as she emphasized the word. A rectangular shape in the back of the building, I thought, she is offering me her garden! No, no, I replied, I couldn’t go in her giardino, because I had to do MOLTO. She insisted -- she was now my ally -- it was the only place. It was “privato” she assured, molto privato.

I resigned myself to the situation -- what else could I do? And “giardino” did make it sound better than it could have sounded. Only one problem remained, “Non ho papiere, Signora,” I admitted, making up the word. Her eyebrows raised, she chuckled again; now she was playing the game and she was determined to help me win. She turned her back to me, muttered “carta” a few times, and with a bone thin arm handed a wad of toilet paper across the counter. Just then a client entered and as I repeated “grazie, molto grazie,” she whispered urgently for me to put the paper in my purse, “la borsa, la borsa.” I realized she was not only in on this with me but that she wanted it to remain between us, “privato.” I jammed the paper in my purse as the young man stepped forward and bought cigarettes. Why, she seemed to ask once he left, was I still there? “Ma, dov’è il giardino?” I wanted precision, I wanted her to show me exactly where to do my molto.

Her eyes now lit up with the secret we shared, she led me outside and around the snack bar, across a small grassy area and behind the building -- and there it was, a sunken area surrounded by high shrubs. Litter was strewn in various places. She waved her arm, the world was mine. I hobbled to the most littered corner, to let her know I would respect her garden. Her arms waved me on -- go ahead, go ahead. As she left I finally realized the enormity of it all. Here I was in Tuscany and this was my moment in the Sun. “The most surprising thing about the chance she’s taking is where it’s taking her.”

A few days later Dahlia and I slowly ascended the stone-paved twisting hill to the Church of Saint Margaret of Cortona. This saint had turned her life over to God after the death of her long-time lover, whose murdered body -- he was killed by brigands -- she discovered in the woods. Saint Margaret devoted herself to the homeless, the sick, the mentally ill, and the poor, and for the last few years of her life lived in the ruins of a church on this site, later reconstructed in her name. On the way up, we paused at the Stations of the Cross, the Via Dolorosa, 14 roadside chapels, 14 small benches. We entered the impressive church and Dahlia took me immediately to see the spectacle at the altar: the mummified remains of St. Margaret on display. She was mummified, indeed, but without the wrappings of the Egyptian mummies of museums. She looked like petrified wood, small and curled up, an oblong shape, brown, with pieces of brown rags covering her. I was amazed and sickened at the same time; respectful and yet wanting to crack a smile. I was between the agony of the Stations of the Cross and the absurdity of carbonized remains of a woman placed before a town’s eyes.

I was between St. Margaret and St. Cecilia, between the rotted remains of the day and the sublime. I could do molto al fresco and drink prosecco before dinner, in this land of contradictions. Beauty and decay, I reckoned, as so many had before me, were not polar opposites. I thought of Winckelmann and his love of sculpture and realized it was indeed a love of the body, for him, the young male body of Antinous, for me, the old but incorruptible remains of a female saint. I had read about Winckelmann’s death the night before, in my lovely room with soft colorful pillows and a window looking over the vast illuminated Tuscan valley below. He was murdered on his way from Germany back to Rome; killed in an Treiste inn where no one knew who he was, knifed after showing a newfound companion the delights (his medals from Maria Theresa) that resonated to the robber who did him in. Winckelmann’s body lay on the floor of the inn’s room, already turning pale, already losing the color with which the ancients had decorated their statues of young men. This was the secret of Beauty: the thin line running between the living and the dead, the fresh and the decayed, the incorruptible and the corrupted. This was the truth, the surprise, my summer had brought me and it was worth at least a romance.

I had a Fanta at the Signora’s on my way out of Tuscany and once in Rome walked to Trastevere to pack my bags. It suddenly hit me, deep in my gut. My summer vacation had come to an end. "Addio Roma, addio Cortona," I uttered under my breath. "Arriverderci, Signora. And grazie, molto grazie."


Fleur LaDouleur is the pseudonym of a professor of humanities at a Midwestern university.


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