In winter-cold blue light, the bells of Cortona ring louder. The cold iron clapper hitting the frozen bell produces clear, shocked, hard gongs that reverberate in the heads of us frozen ones in the piazza, ringing in our skulls and down to our heels, striking the paving stones. In leafy summer, when softened air diffuses the bells, the clarion call accompanies but does not insist; the bells remind, punctuate, inspire. As a benison to the day, the reverberations settle on those nursing cappuccino in the piazza, then fade, sending last vibrations out to the circling swallows. But in winter, the solitary sounds feel more personal, as though they ring especially for you. I even can feel the sound waves in my teeth as I smile my umpteenth greeting of the morning.
Returning in early March, I'm thrilled to see my friends in the piazza. We greet each other as though I have been gone for a year instead of four months. I love the first trip back into town after an absence. I walk every street, assessing the state of the union. What has changed, who has traveled to Brazil, what's on display at the vegetable market, who has married, died, moved to the country? What's on exhibit at the museum? Half of an enormous cow hangs by a hook in the butcher's, a square of paper towelon the floor to catch the last three splats of blood. Under neon, red meat in the cases reflects a lavender light on the faces of two venerable signoras leaning in to inspect today's veal cheeks and pork roasts. Orange lilies against the glass steam the flower shop window with their hothouse breath, and there's Mario, a blur among them, arranging a row of primroses.
Winter returns Cortona to its original self. The merchants along the main street complain that all winter long the town feels dead. Non c'e nessuno. There's no one. They wonder if the tourists will return this year. "The dollar is broken, the euro likea hot air balloon," Fabrizio says as he whooshes the imaginary balloon into the sky, then spirals his hands. I visualize a striped balloon heading toward Mars. In Italian, part of every conversation takes place without words. A woman on her cell phone in thepiazza paces, gestures, stops, slings back her head, paces again. She says grazie fifteen times, laughs. She's on stage, a monologue actor. When she hangs up, she snaps shut the phone, shoves it in her enormous borsa, and charges ahead toward her shopping.
I pause to look at shoes, then sweaters. "That war of yours. It's costing the whole world," Daria scolds, as though I personally have bombed Iraq. She's sweeping off her already clean threshold. They forget that when the lira converted to the euro, almost everyone abruptly raised their prices; some simply started charging in euros the same amount they'd charged in lire, effectively doubling the cost of their pizza, shirts, coffee, albums, and pasta. Since Italian wages hardly have moved, most people today are feeling more than a pinch. "Not to worry," our friend Arturo says. "There are two Italies. One economy in sight and another whole economy out of sight.
Everyone has their own ways never revealed to the statisticians. You get paid in cash--nobody knows." This, I think, applies more to independent work and less to the shop owners, who have to give receipts. If I walk out of the bar with no receipt for my panino, the Guardia di Finanzia could fine the owner and me. When I buy a chicken, I am astonished--14.65 euros--twenty-threedollars at the current exchange rate. I think of the reconstruction South prices after the Civil War. What is happening to our country? Our dollar is debole, weak, shockingly so.
With the wind that must have originated in the snowy Alps, thirty-five degrees feels like zero. "Che bello, you have returned before the swallows," Lina says. Because it is Women's Day, three people give me sprays of mimosa, which I love for its brilliantyellow in the stony gray air. Massimo offers coffee, and later, so does Claudio. Roberto at the frutta e verdura gives me an extra-large sack of odori, the vegetables and herbs used for seasoning. I see that Marco has closed his art gallery and expanded hisenoteca into the adjoining space. There are two tables for wine tastings and the new display cases are handsome. Still, it's sad to lose the gallery, where many regulars exhibited by the week, hanging their own work and sitting out in the piazza with friendsor making friends, while people wandered in and out. But then I see Roberto in the post office and he says he's starting a new gallery around the corner. The museum will expand to accommodate recent archaeological discoveries at the Etruscan sites and the Romanvilla our friends Maurizio and Helena have excavated. A new chocolate shop has appeared in my absence. It looks as though it landed from Belgium. The hot chocolate tastes creamy and unctuous. An instant hit. The two restaurants that opened last fall are doingwell. One already has the reputation for making one of the best coffees in town. It was there, when I stood at the bar sipping my macchiato, that I overheard two tourists. One said, "I saw Frances Mayes's husband, Ed, driving a Fiat. A Fiat--and one of thosetiny ones. Wouldn't you think they'd have something better than that?" I turned away so they would not recognize me and become mortified. I love my yellow Panda.
To everything its season, and this is the season to replaster, repair hinges, revise menus, clean courtyards and stairways. From the corner table at Bar Signorelli, I watch this spirited activity along the street. Everyone prepares for the spring and summer that they hope will bring back those innocents with a passion for shoes, leather books, dining, ceramics, peaches, Super Tuscans, and all the good things on offer in this lively hill town.
As I stir my cappuccino, I greet the charcoal self-portrait of Renaissance painter Luca Signorelli above the soft-drink fridge. I'm on a Signorelli quest. He was born here, and spent his life painting all over Tuscany, the Marche, and in Rome. Famous,yes, but in my opinion, internationally undervalued. He always presides over my morning-coffee libations. In the local building superintendent's office, I've signed documents under another copy of Signorelli's self-portrait, which shows my man to be blond asan angel, with direct blue eyes and a strong jaw. A main piazza is named for Signorelli. The local museum features his work. Everyone believes that his fall from scaffolding in the chapel of the Palazzo Passerini caused his death.
Without doubt, he spent charmed parts of his life centered on the piazza, where he most likely ran into a friend one rainy morning and heard the news that da Vinci, what a fantasist, has conceived of a flying machine. Someone tells him that Michelangelo has obtained a great piece of marble (destined to become the David), and maybe even that far away a German named Gutenberg just invented a machine to print books. It's easy to see Signorelli in gold-trimmed green velvet, sun glazing his light hair, intent as his neighbor mentions that the Pope has excommunicated Venice, and, has he heard, an ancient statue called the Laocoon has been excavated in Rome. In his spotted painter's smock, he raises a glass in his dim studio and listens as his cousin, just back from Rome, describes the newly invented flush toilet. Going home at night, he bumps into Giovanni, the friar at the Dominican convent, whose sweet ways later earned him the name Fra Beato Angelico. His was a heady era. I know that as a local magistrate he was stopped constantly and asked for favors, just as Andrea, our mayor, is this morning. Signorelli, as a preeminent artist and also as a genius loci presence, continues to rise up through layers of time. He's an old friend by now.
The piazza, for a Roman, for Signorelli, for me, for that baby in the red stroller, exists as a great old savings bank of memory. It is a body; it is a book to read, if you are alive to its language. I could offer Luca a caffe if he would just open the door and with a toss of his yellow hair, stride in. He's here; he never left.
Campanilismo, a condition of being: When you live within the sound of the campanile, church bell, you belong to the place. Command central, carnival ride, conference center, living room, forum--the piazza also is fun. Never dull. Today the barista flourishes my cappuccino to the table. He has formed a chocolate heart in the foam. He shouts to me, "Americans don't drink coffee; they drink stained water."
"Sporca miseria!" I reply, attempting a pun on a mild curse, porca miseria, which eloquently means "pig misery." My wordplay means "dirty misery." I'm gratified with laughs from both bariste.
Lorenzo is just back from Florida. He buys my coffee and I ask about his trip. "Very nice." And then, staring out at the piazza, he adds, "Meglio qui a Cortona." Better here in Cortona. "America," he sighs. "Either empty and there is nothing, or there is too much."
At home in the U.S. of A., I play a CD of the Cortona bells when I feel homesick. Old photos around town show the Allies whizzing in on tanks, liberating Cortona. So familiar is this image, I almost think I was there. The oldest memories, of the Roman forum lying layers below the cobbles, and the even earlier, deeper Etruscan streets, continue to inform the spirit of the place. Memory steams through the baked crust. Old people still call Piazza Garibaldi carbonaia, recalling the place where men brought their charcoal to sell. Via Nazionale to some is still the rough and rustic Rugapiana, flat street.
The rhythms of the piazza are an ancient folk dance. In summer, the doors of the town hall open and the bride and groom descend the steps into the piazza, where we all gather, even for the weddings of strangers from the Netherlands or England. This is where the new life begins. The newborn is strolled up and down. Boys learn soccer by kicking the ball up against the Etruscan Museum. I've been in the piazza at three a.m. in February. Someone with a cell phone wedged between his ear and shoulder leans against the crumbling Ghibelline lion and gestures with both hands. A young man crosses on the diagonal, whistling, or two people are talking, their breath wreathing their heads. The piazza is never empty. And if it were, it still would not be empty. Luca would bethere.
The piazza speaks pure Italian--speaks of who lives here and why. Alberto, my architect friend, and I once tried to quantify the meaning of the piazza in purely practical terms. We measured and analyzed piazzas all over Tuscany, looking at their numbersof entrances, the kinds of buildings and businesses that contribute to the liveliness of a piazza, those that are dead spaces, the patterns of entrances and exits, and still there was something mysterious.
This morning a lone tourist appears, guidebook in hand, bundled in down. In the gelid light, she looks like a just-hatched bird, mouth open as she stares at the town hall clock and the surrounding buildings. She removes her knitted hat and her wispy hair,damp against her head, looks as though a little albumen still sticks to her. She glances toward the antiques in a just-polished window. Two shop owners stand in their doorways, eyeing her movements: the hawks and the fledgling.
I'm done. Buongiorno, Luca. See you tomorrow. My rounds: groceries, book store, post office, many stops to say hello, flower shop for a few yellow roses for my desk. I shouldn't have bothered. En route home, another Claudio gives me a pot of pansies; Gildadrops off camellias, mimosas, and pink hyacinths at Bramasole; and Fabio leaves on the step a handsome creamy cymbidium. Vittoria brings a bouquet of viburnums to our shrine. I've never before heard of Women's Day, a national holiday in Italy, which commemorates lives lost in a New York factory fire in 1912, but I'm overwhelmed by the gifts of so many flowers. By the end of my first day back, flowers ignite every room of my house, giving the impression of warmth to stony rooms that have absorbed the brunt of winter.
The night finishes at Corys, down the road from us at the Torreone crossroad. Renato and Giuseppe, the co-managers of the hotel-restaurant, are busy serving a table of twenty teenagers who now and then break into song. Ah, no, "Volare"--oh, oh, oh, oh. Papa-bear Giuseppe envelops Ed and me together in a grand hug. Of Lebanese background, he was raised in Rome and has brought to Cortona an unerring good taste in food and wine. He always tells us exactly what we are to eat and drink. He brings over a bloodstonered wine we've never seen, from just around the bend near Lago Trasimeno. Renato catches us up on the news. He is building a "beauty farm" in the old stone parish house attached to the church across the road. He is a wiry man with lank black curls and intense eyes, a consummate Italian cynic with a wild humor. He talks with his whole body. Electrical charges run through his veins. I love to watch him, especially when he's furious with the hunters who are parking in his spaces. He almost levitates with anger. I expect him to tear out his hair at any moment or go up in a puff of smoke. Then the anger dissolves and he's joking again.
"A spa and a church together? The body and the spirit?" Ed asks.
"Yes, finally, and the graveyard is there, too, so everything can be taken care of."
Seems surreal, but I can see us heading there for the massages, manicures, and steam bath. "Are we invited?" "Certo, cara"--certainly, darling. "I am building it for you."
After the antipasto table with fifty tastes, and a big plate of ravioli stuffed with pecorino and speck, and chicken cooked under a brick, Giuseppe brings over five boxes of Amedei chocolates for tasting. The beans come from Madagascar, Trinidad, Jamaica,all over the chocolate map. Then with a diabolical grin, he puts down a plate of gorgonzola cremosa so delicious that I'm wanting to lick the scoop. Just as we are about to push back, he pours a digestivo we've never tried, a Barolo Chinato, aged Barolo withwhat we finally figure out is quinine. It's complex and meditative, unlike many digestivi that bring to mind being force-fed cough syrup as a child, my mother prying the spoon between my clenched teeth. We are mellow and commossi, emotionally moved, by the largesse of our friends. As we leave, Giuseppe's young daughter, Leda, brings me a branch of mimosa.