Saturday, December 03, 2011

Memoirs: Chapter Six

Italy, 1958-60

I was very excited to have the opportunity to go to Italy in 1958, a very favorable time. At the end of World War II much of Italy lay in rubble and was occupied by foreign powers.  Yet when I settled there the country was benefiting from great surge of economic growth stretching from 1950 to 1963 and beyond. With startling rapidity the country, particularly north-central Italy, changed from a poor, mainly rural nation into a major industrial power. 

These beneficial changes were due not only the industry and astuteness of the Italian people, but also to a recognition of its strategic role in the Cold War.  The American Marshall plan allocated $ 1,500 million in aid from 1948 to 1952.  Moreover, the creation in 1957 of the European Common Market,  of which Italy was among the founder members, provided more investments and helped with exports.  Boosted by these favorable conditions, the Italian economy moved ahead at an average rate of growth of GDP of 5.8% per year between 1951 and 1963, and 5.0% per year between 1964 and 1973. Much to the surprise of many, including the Italians themselves, Italian rates of growth were second only, but very close, to the German rates. The grounds for this success lay in the small businesses and factories located mainly in north-central Italy.  Chronically in disarray, the government did little to help.

These economic advances notwithstanding, I saw a good deal of poverty in the country, particularly in Rome and the Mezzogiorno (the southern regions).  There was also a kind of semi-employment consisting of make-work jobs for those who eked out a meager living opening doors for people  and watching over parked cars.

The cost of living was about half what it had been in New York City.  For a foreigner drawing a good salary in Italy, it was very heaven, or close to it.  I spent my discretionary income on travel within and outside Italy, as well as on books. I bought books wherever I went. There was also the occasional hustler I picked up on the Via Veneto, then a fashionable promenade.

Of course I did need to show up for work. The Rome office of the New York publishing firm (McGraw-Hill) was run by a lesbian couple, one partner butch and dragonish, the other motherly and helpful. We never discussed our sexual orientation, as discretion was the rule in those days.

At all events, our little office was just one room nested in the larger enterprise rather grandly known as the Istituto per la Collaborazione Culturale. This for-profit organization (owned by the Sansoni firm) was devoted to producing encyclopedias. The then-current one was a fifteen-volume Enciclopedia dell'Arte Universale, to be sold on a subscription basis. McGraw-Hill, the firm I worked for, had undertaken to translate this work into English as the Encyclopedia of World Art, with a few supplementary articles and adaptations addressed to English-speaking readers. When I arrived nothing of this stately set of books had yet been published, so I was in on the ground floor. In the ensuing months and years there were many production delays, owing to the complexity of the project and (for us) the fact that the Italian texts were often rhetorical and florid, to the point of vacuousness. The impoverished writers were paid by the word, and logorrhea reigned supreme.

I had been hired because I combined art-historical knowledge with proficiency in Italian. Moreover, I suppose that being young and accustomed to living as a student, I was an expensive hire - "cheap brains" as I have heard it called - at least by American standards.

In reality I had never taken a course in the Italian language. I had had three years of high school Spanish, though, and possessed a certain flair for languages. As far as reading went, it was fairly easy to convert the Spanish vocabulary to Italian, watching out for the usual hazard of tripping over "false friends" - words that seemed to have the same meaning, but in reality did not. My reading was almost all in art-historical texts, where a general knowledge of the subject matter helped a lot.

Yet speaking and understanding when I was spoken to were other matters entirely, A few days after I arrived, the election of a new pope was concluded. The Italians in the office gathered around a little portable radio as the results were announced. Television sets were still uncommon.  I could hardly catch anything of the broadcast. Someone told me that the new pontiff had chosen the name of John XXIII. I remarked indignantly that there had already been a John XXIII, because I had seen his tomb in Florence on my earlier trip. It turned out that this man was an anti-pope, and didn’t count by the Vatican’s reckoning.


It was sink or swim, and daily communication with the Italians in the office helped. What really made me fluent, though, was my 19-year old boy friend - the first live-in lover I had had. He knew hardly any English, and not being very well educated spoke colloquial Italian, without the embellishments and fancy vocabulary of my coworkers. After I made some progress in the language, people started saying flatteringly; “How well you speak Italian.” This was a diplomatic untruth. I eventually learned that I was truly speaking it well when no one took the trouble to comment: we just talked “a quattr’occhi” - four eyes, as the expression went.

Not long after I moved to Italy, my Rome landlady and I decided to experiment with bleaching our hair. My locks had always been a kind of dirty blond, but with the bleach it became almost blindingly blond. I should have just gone with a few highlights, but I couldn't resist keeping the total blondness, quite a rarity in Italy. Of course the dark roots kept showing. To be fair to myself, this was probably my only excursion into personal vanity. For most of my life I have felt that, while good grooming is important, we need to stick which what nature has given us.

I got around Rome on my Vespa scooter.  I was particularly keen on seeing the archaeological sites and other monuments that had figured prominently in my courses at NYU.  At first I experienced loneliness, as my Italian colleagues were reticent about inviting strangers into their homes.  For a while I palled around with an Ecuadorian girl from a wealthy family.  We did not have sex. (I think she "had my number.")

There were of course same-sex contacts. For a while I was content to go with some of the hustlers I met on the Via Veneto. But there was a more significant attachment as well. I had met Enzo C. when he was a bell boy at the pensione, or boarding house, I lived in after leaving the landlady's premises. Then, after I had moved to my own apartment on a hill top in Trastevere on the other side of the Tiber River, the 19-year old came to live with me (he had been fired from the pensione). Enzo adored Americans, and was what we now term “heteroflexible,” so we got on pretty well in bed. I tried, though without too much success, to curb my lust. He was gorgeous, though.

The whole affair lasted only about eight months. He got involved in a serious auto accident, and panicked out of fear of possible legal consequences. So he ran off to join the French Foreign Legion, and was lost to me. We corresponded for several years, and finally, in 1963, we had an unsatisfactory reunion on the island Corsica, where he was stationed.  I don't know what became of him.


For someone who knew most of the historic monuments only from books Italy was an inexhaustible treasure house of wonders.  When I first arrived I took a room with a balcony looking out over the Pantheon, one of the most remarkable survivals of ancient Rome.  Near the Pantheon was Piazza Navona, built on the ruins of an ancient stadium.  At the piazza's center was Bernini's spectacular Fountain of the Four Rivers, flanked by the church of Sant'Agnese and Palazzo Pamphili.  One of my favorite restaurants was also located there.  Sometimes on my lunch hour I would go and sit on the Spanish Steps or Trevi Fountain.

In and around the city were archaeological sites of all types, stemming from the Etruscans down to the early Christians.  There were countless churches of significance.  I obtained permission to see the illuminated manuscripts in the Vatican Library.  On weekends there were easy excursions to towns like Tivoli, Viterbo, and Frascati.

When I first saw the bay of Naples from the train the sight took my breath away.  During my first Christmas season I did a tour all around Sicily, where as a medievalist I found the Norman churches of Palermo and Monreale of tremendous interest.  Yet I also reveled in the ancient monuments of such sites as Syracuse and Agrigento.

The visit to Assisi, city of St. Francis, I found particularly moving.  Florence and Siena were crammed with things to see.  In one of my undergraduate classes we had studied the cathedral of Modena, so I found that structure, with its Romanesque sculptures by Wiligelmo, well worth checking out in the flesh.  With its Giotto frescoes in the Arena chapel, Padua was a magnet; nearby Venice even more so. I even managed to get to places like Aquileia and Cividale, which were off the beaten track.

I knew that I might never have such opportunities again, and for some things I did not.  Moreover, in recent years the flood of tourists has become almost unbearable.  To see Leonardo's Last Supper requires a special appointment in advance.  When I was in Milan so many years ago, I just walked in to view the fresco.

Art and architecture were my passions. But for many "stranieri" the emphasis was different: it was living the good life. American fascination with Italy was then at its height. In many ways the country, especially Rome where I lived, had replaced France as the place where everyone wanted to expatriate himself, staying as long as possible.  Leaving was at best bittersweet: "Arrivederci, Roma!"

Both within and outside the country Italian films were all the rage. This was the period when Federico Fellini made La Dolce Vita, a lavish 1960 film that captured a lot of what I remember during my Roman sojourn.  Such was the success of Italian films in those days that the city became known in some circles as Hollywood by the Tiber.  Indeed, though this was a little after my time, American movie companies did set up shop there.  One could see stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, and Kirk Douglas strolling along the Via Veneto.

Generally speaking, movies shown in Italian theaters did not have subtitles.  Even the Hollywood ones were dubbed, sometimes with comical results.  I went to the movies a lot, and the experience did much to advance my fluency in colloquial Italian.

My serious reading in that language was limited to dabbling in a few classics of times gone by.  I had developed a curious attachment to the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico, so I bought a scholarly edition of his works.  From their difficult prose I learned little more than I had gathered from English-language summaries. I had heard of Ignazio Silone, whom I once met at the bank.  Of the other writers of the time though, such as Carlo Emilio Gadda, Elsa Morante, and Giorgio Bassano, I knew nothing.  I didn't attend classes at the University because they would have interfered with my work at the publishers.

There were a few galleries showing the work of contemporary painters in the Via Margutta area.  Rome was not a major center of art in those days.  I do recall my first exposure in one of these galleries to the work of the American Robert Rauschenberg.

Above all, the country was cheap.  These were the days, after all, of that ubiquitous Arthur Frommer guide called Europe on Five Dollars a Day. Limiting oneself to that expenditure was easier in Italy than in northern Europe.

Even ordinary restaurants were pretty good, and I could afford to eat out twice a day.  In those days there were very few foreign restaurants in Rome.  But Roman cooking was generally executed to a fairly high standard.  The menu was somewhat monotonous, but I didn't mind, having had to subsist on student grub for so long.  At both lunch and dinner there were two courses.  The first usually consisted of a pasta dish. Unlike in the US the pasta was generally served without meat, though ravioli was an exception. There was red sauce sometimes, but fresh, not the horrendous rancid stuff that is so often served in America.  The second course was a meat dish, which could be veal scaloppini, ossobuco, bistecca (steak), or a few other choices.  Except on Sunday, there were no sweets at the end.  Instead a delicious piece of fruit was consumed.  There was wine, somewhat dubious in quality, but who cared?  Wine at meals, hooray!  The meal finished with a small cup of espresso.  After lunch a siesta was appropriate, but I usually ate late, skipping this ritual.

Meals were not the only treat.  Italian boys could be very sexy, and it didn’t hurt to give them a few dollars after the coupling.  Even if one did, they had ways of making their hands slide into your pockets for a bill or two.

Sometimes, the general poverty was overwhelming, as when I went to the flea market at Porta Portese and saw the pitiful objects that people were forced to sell. Still, there was hope. As President Kennedy remarked, a rising tide lifts all boats. In Italy in those days the tide was rising, somewhat slowly to be sure and not uniformly, but it was rising.

My later experience in visiting developing countries points to a general rule. As a society begins to emerge from dire poverty (and remember that Italy was prostate after World War II), the people experience a sense of relief, almost euphoria at being able to have some economic security and to acquire a few creature comforts. Even though these benefits are spartan by later standards, the recipients are generally content and quite pleasant to be with. Later on, they come to take these advances for granted, and simply focus on getting more, This happened to Italy in the sixties with its dreadful political rancor, punctuated by many strikes. Even today, when the country is truly prosperous, the malaise continues.

Some foreigners who had come to Italy were unable to break the spell, and stayed on after their jobs ended. I could tell that some of these expatriates had been reduced to leading a hand-to-mouth existence, So when my employers in New York asked me to come back and work in the home office on Forty-Second Street in Manhattan I complied.



Post a Comment

<< Home