The obelisk from the Circus of Nero stands in the middle of St. Peter's Square in Vatican City.
If you are going to Italy for the first time, someone who has already been will tell you where you absolutely must go. If you are just returning from Italy, someone who has also been will tell you where you should have gone. And if you’re a friend of someone who just returned from Italy, you are about to be worn down by tales of where they have been.
So sit tight—I’ll make this as brief as possible.
In the United States, we can’t agree on much (least of all our feelings about foreign nations), but we agree on Italy. “I’ve never had an American come over here and not rave about Italy—which makes our job a little easier,” says Catherine Gardner, a transplanted Scot who with her husband, David, runs Villa Bordoni, a beautiful inn high in the hills above Greve, a Tuscan town in the heart of Chianti country.
But why do we feel that way? We roll our eyes at the mention of England, for example, despite its history of hanging in there as our ally. And we make little effort to hide our contempt for France, which we perceive as having its collective nose in the air. But for whatever variety of reasons we gather Italy to our bosom, give a hearty squeeze, and yell, “Ciao, bella!” at the top of our lungs.
In search of answers beyond the predictable the-food-and-the-people-are-wonderful (the food and the people are wonderful, by the way), my wife and I recently journeyed to the Boot Country, constructing a 15-day itinerary that was, not surprisingly, deemed wanting by more than a few Italophile friends. We spent four days in Rome, three in Florence, two in Cinque Terre, and six back in Tuscany, agonizing all the while about the places (Venice, Lake Como, the Amalfi Coast, Sicily) we were not going to see.
seamless mix of ancient and contemporary
Rome’s municipal offices sit high above the ruins of the Roman Forum. “I go to work every day in the midst of history,” the former mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni, said a few years ago to a group of visiting Americans. Many mayors in our country go to work among ruins, too, only they’re from last week.
For an American, the nearby Colosseum was irresistible long before Russell Crowe got into a loincloth for Gladiator. A whiff of the depravity of the place—where men fought men, animals fought animals, and men fought animals—endures. But we have to concede that had the United States existed in the first century a.d. we would’ve done the same thing and called it the Super Bowl. Not for nothing does our grand annual spectacle include Roman numerals. Spectators at the Colosseum, incidentally, were allowed to vote on whether a defeated gladiator should live (cum missione, or “with a reprieve”) or die (sine missione, or “without reprieve”). We have the same system in place today, only it’s known as sports talk radio.
There is none of that gladiatorial ambience in arty Florence, but the organic link to the past is still present. A warren of side streets leads suddenly and dramatically to the city’s centerpiece, the magnificent Duomo. Even in Athens, where the Parthenon seems detached from the workings of the rest of the city, antiquity and modernity don’t meld as well as they do in Italy.
the sacred and the profane
Nobody is more comfortable with the elasticity of holiness than the Italians. Take the Pantheon, one of the best preserved of Roman buildings, which was constructed as a pagan temple but eventually passed on—as so much has—to the Roman Catholic Church. However, two Italian kings are also buried within the catacombs of this remarkable structure and so an all-volunteer honor guard stands at their tombs. In the States, where we’re still unsteady about this whole separation-of-church-and-state thing, we get this.
We get the Vatican, too. We get the fact that we can go there with either the beatific beam of the true believer or the curled-lip smirk of the religious cynic and still walk away in awe. Our Vatican guide, a pleasant man named Giovanni, says he never gets tired of showing tourists, particularly Americans, around the only sovereign nation in the world that employs Swiss guards on a full-time basis. “Something new always catches my eye,” he says.
art guilt assuaged
You know who you are, you typical American. You should’ve taken an art appreciation class. You should know something about painting besides what you pick up on your once every-five-years visit to the French impressionists at the local museum. Well, in Italy, you bathe in art. No matter how thickheaded you might be about the world’s great art, no matter if you can’t remember whether it was Monet or Manet who painted the ballerinas (it was Degas), you will learn something.
My wife and I were at dinner in Florence one night when the couple next to us began discussing their trip to the Uffizi, one of the oldest, greatest museums in the world.
“The guy who really got me was the real early guy, that Goto,” said the husband. “It’s Giotto, dear, pronounced jee-OH-toe,” his wife corrected. I didn’t laugh. Before my trip to Italy I thought a triptych was something prepared by AAA. My wife and I almost never discuss art, yet it filled our conversations in Italy to a much greater degree than it did during visits to Greece, France, and even Disney World.
Which brings us to the geniuses. On another evening in Florence, we got into a discussion with a waiter (with whom we had bonded over a mutual affection for Tom Petty) about who was the greater Italian, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni or Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci. (Even in Italy they’re just known as Michelangelo and Leonardo.)
Our vote was for Michelangelo, probably because we were just hours removed from gazing at David, the 17-foot sculpture that stands in the Galleria dell’Accademia and is truly the most astonishing human created thing we had ever laid eyes on. We happened to get there on a Sunday when it wasn’t packed, and at one point I called out to my wife.
“I’m on the other side of the statue,” she whispered, “studying his butt.”
But our waiter cast his vote for Leonardo. “Leonardo did so much more,” he reasoned. “Art. Science. Painting. The Mona Lisa. Sculpture. He did everything.”
“But David,” I argued. “The Sistine Chapel. Those alone . . .”
“Here, my father will tell you,” he interrupted. “He does not speak English.” He then queried the old man in Italian.
“Leonardo,” said the father, shaking his head with firm conviction.
At any rate, how splendid is it that the essential Italian character evolved from two geniuses who got their hands dirty, ordinary men driven by an inner vision incomprehensible to the rest of us? We Americans envy the Italians’ paint-and-marble past.
I was willing to switch my vote to Leonardo until our own visit to the Uffizi, where I was stopped in my tracks by Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo. With his representation of a muscular Christ child and Mary as a contemporary-looking woman, it seemed that he had single-handedly propelled Renaissance painting forward by a few centuries. And M. didn’t even consider himself a good painter.
We love Italian food in the United States, so when we come to Italy and eat real Italian food we love it all the more. We love the fact that the Italians love food, and the fact that they love that we love it. We love it that they take the preparation and the history of it so seriously, yet produce food that doesn’t seem serious and is blended so harmoniously into regular life. Put it this way: By rough count, in Rome and Cinque Terre we had five exquisite restaurant meals within sight of hanging laundry.
Entire forests have been denuded by writers going on and on about Italian food, so I’ll stick to describing the cooking class my wife and I took at Villa Bordoni, during which we helped a chef prepare a five course meal that we then ate that night in the dining room.
Nothing that our chef, Ettore (“The last name is not necessary”), showed us was beyond our culinary skills. (I say that even though I shredded a finger slicing up the veal shank.) It was the precision with which Ettore put the dishes together that made them so elegant and stamped him as an Italian master. He spent 10 minutes on the correct way to poach an egg—which he later coated with flour, more egg, and bread crumbs and gently fried, thus creating a crusted egg that hid a soft-centered egg. He spoke sternly about not skimping on the quality or quantity of the chianti. He slaved over the proper way to dice the red onion and garlic and impressed upon us the correct time to add the salt (not at the beginning) used in the peposo alla vecchia maniera. Which was basically a simple beef dish. Which was about the best thing I ever ate.
In short, Americans appreciate Italian food, the simplicity, the freshness, the homeyness of it all, as well as the fact that—no small thing—it’s not French.
Maybe the best thing about Italy is that it’s a land of a million little places, and part of the joy is discovering your own. “Never pass a church when you’re in Italy,” our Vatican guide, Giovanni, lectured us. “You cannot know what you will find inside.” We took him at his word, and I’ll forgo the rundown of all the captivating small chapels and grand cathedrals into which we wandered.
Perhaps your special place will be a small Tuscan town; we loved Colle di Val d’Elsa, which is off the standard tourist map, a two-tiered city (the old-town part sits high on a hill) famous for glassmaking. Perhaps it will hold an Italian character straight out of commedia dell’arte central casting; ours was a bubbly capitalist hawking warm limoncello to parched tourists along a cliff walk between Monterosso al Mare and Vernazza in Cinque Terre. Or perhaps it will be a restaurant. In fact, it probably will be a restaurant.
During a meal in Rome at a family run jewel called La Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, I began talking sports with our waiter, a son of Alessio, the owner. It emerged that he was a passionate fan of Italian pro basketball. So I made a cell phone call to a friend of mine, New York Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni, who was a legendary player and coach in Italy during the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. I put him on the phone with our waiter, who then spent the next 15 minutes walking around the dining room laughing and ignoring customers as he talked with D’Antoni, who remains fluent in Italian. Nobody seemed to care much that service had deteriorated. “Thank you so much,” he told me, returning the phone as if it were a holy icon, “for letting me talk to Mister Mike.”
Our most special spot turned out to be in Tuscany, at a place called Ristoro di Lamole halfway up a mountain. As we drove farther and farther from civilization, my wife and I must have said to each other 10 times, “We might as well turn around,” except that there was nowhere to turn around on this perilous cliff road that led from Greve to the town of Panzano. Suddenly, we came upon the brightly lit restaurant, out there among the distinctive Tuscan cypresses, and were greeted warmly by co-owner Filippo Masini. Later, filled with sausages and wine, I asked Masini why Americans love his country so much.
“I have given this much thought,” he said, sitting down at our table even though the place was still busy. (Perhaps I should have redialed D’Antoni.) “It is because you are like us. You do not think so, but you are. You love food. You love to be outdoors. You love beauty. You love to talk. You are not . . . closed.”
We talked a few more minutes and told him we were leaving the next day.
“Oh, no, you have not seen nearly enough of our country!” he said sadly.“No, no, no! You must stay another week! There are so many more places to go!” Then he started to name them.
You see? Now we are just like him.
Photography courtesy Wikimedia Commons
This article was first published in March 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.