Fog to Frescoes

Francis O’Neill

In 1948 my family exchanged post-war England, Socialism, fog, over-cooked cabbage, wet tweed, and margarine for sun, frescoes, cathedral bells, and, glory and wonder, ice cream and green gnocchi. That is, we went to Florence for the summer. The center of this was a pretty walled villa in Fiesole, above Florence, where my mother had been sent to finishing school in happy pre-war days. The school, being almost entirely for young English ladies, had seen some lack of purpose during the war. The villa was empty, in spite of being mentioned in the Decamarone. The old headmistress, whom my mother had deeply liked, was alone there, reputedly living on spaghetti. We occupied the school.

We occupiers were my grandfather, the British general, my grandmother and my great-grandmother from Savannah, Georgia, my mother, married to a US Naval officer still with General McArthur in the Pacific (so my father is not in this story), myself, a couple of lady’s maids, my grandfather’s valet, my nanny, and the chauffeur, Peter.  All the ladies spoke excellent Italian. My great-grandmother had been a highly competent sculptress in Rome in Edith Wharton’s time. My grandmother was brought up there. All three ladies journeyed with the fear, not of the strange, but of a memory defiled.

We went by train, of course: the Golden Arrow, 1920’s Pullmans all ormolu and tassels, London to Paris, the Rome Express sleeper Paris to Florence. Oh the fun of a folding bed in a little bedroom on a train! Oh the terror of the long, long dark Simplon tunnel where wolves lurked in the blackness and wanted only to get into the train. My mother took me to the dining car. But worse there! The windows were bigger and the wolves could just vault through. My mother’s beautiful Italian (and she was a very pretty young woman), drew the waiters to cluster in sympathy. My first Italians!  I was six. Oh the joy of a lake with palm trees and peasants on donkeys, and a priest in a dressing gown (it was a ‘soutane’) and a church built all curvy (it’s called ‘baroque’)! Oh the hilarity of the spaghetti man! The Italian railroad tracks had been neglected for four years and bombed for at least two. Bridges hung by a hope. Track looked like play dough. Over this mess the Italian engineers drove their poor trains like demented race drivers. The trains convulsed and writhed like mental patients in the hands of diabolic quacks.  In the dining car a poor fat man by himself ate spaghetti with tomato sauce. But in the convulsion his mouth was never where his fork was. We watched him feed his brow, his neck, his shirt, his nose. He looked only sad. My mother leant over to me and said, “It is quite funny, Francis, but please be polite.”  My first Italian meal!

This is a story of seventy years ago (or a stretch from long before WWI to the end of Viet Nam) in the memory of a little boy who could catch the colors and delight in his exceptionally cultivated family’s recognitions, but could not join them up.  You can call it a tale by an idiot signifying nothing, but that summer in an Italy almost vanished made her my muse and solace all my life, and very nearly gave me a Roman bride. Tiepolo’s

Pulcinelli, Palladio, Monteverdi, Ungharetti’s verse, the Franciscan monks of Fiesole, zabaglione—the closest on earth to the food of the angels—and two of my own novels all caught their first light.

I was also in love.  Adriana, an experienced woman of nine to my six, was a maid in the kitchen, her orphanage having sold her. Somehow we noticed each other, and somehow we came to spend the afternoons under the westering sun sitting on the wall of the villa and watching the serpent curls of the road to Florence almost down to the Arno. The wonder time came each afternoon with the bus up from the city. It was ancient and ill and always packed. It groaned and gasped.  On the last steep grade it usually broke down in a cloud of black exhaust. The horde poured out, gesticulating and shouting, and then, being practical, began to push the bus. Once, somebody dropped a gramophone record, and from our grandstand on the wall we watched it roll and bound halfway down to Florence. While waiting for this theater, we shared cherry tomatoes.  She taught me my very first Italian, as a woman should. (Something is odd about this, for I would never have been allowed to play with an English kitchen maid. In retrospect, I am certain that my grandmother took an interest in Adriana, and arranged for schooling she would not otherwise have gotten. She remained somehow in our view for decades.  She ended teaching elementary school, and married a Carabiniere, a decent man who left her a good pension and a pretty little house. Happiness can bubble up even in the life of, to be drearily accurate, a child slave.)

Unless it were too beautiful to miss a country drive, we went down into Florence nearly every day. Our quarry was churches and museums. The ladies knew them perfectly, as very old friends. (Florence’s war damage had come mostly late, and was mostly from artillery, not bombs. There was visible damage, especially around the Ponte Vecchio, but not the deep black craters still smelling of smoke and sorrow I knew from London. I do not remember that any of the great museums or churches had serious damage.) The Uffizi and the Duomo were first choice. We trailed around the nearly empty galleries, myself and my mother I think bringing up the rear, my great grandmother often in a wheel chair.  The curator quite often joined us, for my great-grandmother’s status as sculptress still held (though her last work was a bronze head of my mother as a debutante before the War). His low and earnest Italian blended with the swish of the wheelchair, and still haunts those galleries when I revisit their crammed selves today. We trailed for hours. Hours and hours and hours, a little boy thought.

Did I ‘understand?’ On some level, I believe I did. I knew that the colors were life risen to a voltage above even Italy itself, which was an order higher than anything I had known. I knew that Venus on her shell, the young Mary with bent head before the angel, the angel playing a lute bigger than herself (not all angels are harpists), the wonderful slashing and wailing in the murder of the Innocents, St. George cool and collected in the dragon’s boneyard, sprang out of life itself like dreams, but unlike dreams (I somehow got this right) had to become form and to be touched and painted and put right and right again and be given obsession, like the wild birds’ eggs in my little collection. Meanwhile my great-grandmother would draw me to her chair and show me with her hands (hands often on the marble, an unthinkable crime today!) how a sculpture worked, and how a balance of weight had to flow through it, and how ideally (drawing from Michelangelo) the form had to be resident in the original block of marble, and what was chiseled and what was polished.  The Curator nodded sagely beside her. I peopled Italy with lumps of stone with heroes inside them waiting to leap out.

At the villa, after the sun was low and Adriana had gone back to scrubbing pots, there was dinner. Italy had come with a promotion: I ate dinner with the grownups, not just with my nanny. Dinner itself was a lovely mystery: a succession of small helpings of odd things (eggplant, green gnocchi, fried flowers, beef with a hole in the bone) much unlike the roast beef and treacle pudding of English Sunday lunch. There were frescoes in the dining room and salone. I don’t think I could tell their quality from the ones at the Uffizi, but I dined in my new life, surrounded by knights and turbans, and angels peeping out of clouds. My grandmother used dinner to tell me all of Shakespeare’s Italian plots, which she told as stories that could easily happen outside in the street, and Boccaccio’s more child-proof stories after Shakespeare’s were finished.   I lived those stories. I lived my great-grandmother’s Dante following Beatrice with his eyes on the very streets we walked ourselves, and the people shuddering at the audacity of Brunelleschi’s dome, under which we parked, five hundred years later, every day.

And Florence herself then, as seen by this increasingly deranged little English boy? Streets lightly walked, although there were almost no cars and the earliest Vespa had barely been invented. There were not many tourists. It was a long way for Americans, though they were the most elegant. Germans were simply not there. Chinese or Japanese? Really! The English wore tweed jackets, and sensible shoes, like normal people, stayed at economical pensions, and were impressed and serious at being in

Florence (and English currency controls left them very little latitude).  There were tour buses, mainly Cook’s from England, but they did not infest and their cargo was not tattooed, nor did it drop used pizza boxes on the street. There were not many restaurants. Those that existed were remarkably like real Italian restaurants today—mouthwatering appetizers and deserts in a glass case at the entrance, the proprietress behind the cash register, conversational waiters. Wine bottles in those days wore hairy overcoats. It was almost unknown to wait in line anywhere.

The summer ended.  My grandfather rather surprisingly took me up the steep hill to the Franciscan friary above Fiesole, where St. Francis actually was and where the cells of the early brothers are kept unchanged. Just outside the cloister garden, green and beautifully cool, we were met by an anonymous friar, that day acting a gatekeeper. He laid his hands on my head. I felt a bolt of electricity pass through me from head to foot, shocking and on the edge of pain. I think I stood stunned for a quite a long time.  My grandfather, military and quite Protestant, was concerned. I have nothing much to say about this. At every moment of doubt or fear that friar’s face has appeared to me, though it is growing dim and tattered now. It is the seed of why, when I revisit my Florence, I go back to her as Catholic and, when I walk up that steep hill to the friary (not quite so easy at nearly eighty as at not quite seven) I walk to Mass. I am very hesitant to connect art with religion. Caravaggio’s Madonna was a local whore, and his life was awful. If the painting confirms your faith, it’s a trick.  There is perhaps one word that fits comfortably with both. It was given to me that summer by my dear family and by the power of the Church in that one anonymous friar. The word is ‘grace.’

BIO: Francis O’Neil is the author of the historical thrillers Agents of Sympathy, The Secret Country, Roman Circus and most recently the historical fiction novel The Poet’s War. His work has been published by Simon and Schuster, Crown, and Putnam. Born in South Carolina and educated in Europe, he received his BA in Modern History at Oxford’s Exeter College. He currently resides in Salzburg, Austria.

Featured photo by: Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

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