"Lauro Martines shows us, like William Faulkner, that the past is never dead, it casts a long shadow."
"This enthralling fictional history of three generations of a monied Italian family is rich in secrets and surprises. Lauro Martines lovingly particularizes the novel’s twin settings and in a calm, elegant, learned prose guides his gilded characters through a range of first world dilemmas, about faith, nationality, sexuality, and social and familial obligation."
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“What was he, then, an old guy who didn’t believe in justice? On the contrary, he believed in the need for justice with all his heart and reason, and he could argue the point with total conviction. But he already knew that he would end on the teeter-totter of contradiction.”
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In the days before its floods of tourists, now about seventy years ago, Florence was a cosy place. The old families, and some of a more recent vintage, all knew one another and frequently had ties stretching back to the school days of friends and acquaintances. They were often linked by marriage and professional or business connections.
In that world, good looks and ugliness in families were known throughout the city’s ancient heart. Florentines even had ready comparisons, setting a standard that came down from the Renaissance, as in the claim that a certain Giovanni was “as ugly as the Abbati”, or Maria “as beautiful as a Donati” – two families that went back centuries. An old Florentine saying simply stated: “If you are born beautiful, you are not born poor.”
Lorenzo Castellani came from one of the good-looking families. His people tried occasionally to pass themselves off as descendants of the ancient Castellani lineage, but no one took the claim seriously, because their recent money had originated in two of the city’s best-known pastry shops. One, on the far side of the river, sat in a famous street near the Pitti Palace. The other, in the old heart of the city, was located between the Cathedral and the ancient government palace, a towering medieval bastion.
The young Lorenzo had two older, married sisters, whose husbands loved the business of pastry and confections. This liberated him. It meant that he could comfortably turn his back on the sweet and spicy doughs that had made the family’s fortunes. He had no interest in aprons, ovens, or serving up tasty morning croissants. In love with books and looked upon as clever in his “classical” high school, he entered the University of Florence to study Renaissance art with one of the masters, Roberto Longhi, although in the 1950s art history was still a subject for gentlemen, not for pastry cooks. But Lorenzo did all things social with ease. It was enough to look at him. A smile, a nod, a warm glance, a graceful handshake: these won immediate favour.
Not having been taken to museums or picture galleries as a child, Lorenzo had been accidentally won over by art. During the war, a client had left a splendid book on Renaissance art in one of the Castellani shops and never returned for it. Lorenzo, aged eleven, coming on the book at home, began to leaf through it, and could not put it down. He didn’t look back.
When Adam North, an American from Chicago, crossed the Atlantic to study art history in Florence, he arrived in a city where he would often get the whiff of fresh manure dropped by the horses of the carriages that still did the rounds with visitors. It was a sight that remained a notable feature of the city until the late 1960s. Then mass tourism, with its boxy buses, began to edge out the horse carriages. Much of old Florence passed away with the “horse and buggy”, along with the blessing of not having to wait in endless queues of tourists to get into museums and picture galleries. You walked in, bought your ticket and went directly to the paintings and sculptures.
Adam was immediately seduced by the smells of roasting coffee beans, vanilla, cinnamon, hot croissants, lemons, odoriferous tomatoes, and fried street snacks, which included thin pancakes of sizzling pig’s blood. In the frankness and honesty of life, the old male street urinals emitted the acidic smells of an ancient institution. There was one in the Chiasso dei Baroncelli, just ninety yards from the Uffizi Gallery, and another, three minutes away, near the river, on a little thirteenth-century street, the Via dei Girolami. Here too there was a jolly bistro, the Buca del Orafo.
Lorenzo was the first Florentine to inhabit Adam’s consciousness. Classmates at the University, they got to know each other during the foreigner’s first weeks in the city. What at once struck Adam about Lorenzo was the fact that all his features were prominent: a splendid nose, angular cheekbones, playful or meditative large grey eyes, depending upon his mood, a wavy mass of pale brown hair, strong lips, and a profile as straight as a plumb line. These features went with all the moral furniture of his day, including ample measures of prudent hypocrisy.
In the years after the Second World War, custom in Florence, as in the rest of Italy, kept girls of “good family” under the eye of parents and brothers. When the subject of marriage came up, the importance of maidenheads could not be exaggerated. In the middle classes, dancing cheek-to-cheek in public was not allowed. But not in private either. The mothers of the girls objected. They would be present, looking out for scandalous behaviour. Adam, at the time, knew a married New York couple, who were spending several months in Florence. One Sunday afternoon, to their astonishment, they were ejected from a dance hall for dancing cheek-to- cheek. When they vowed that they were married, holding up their hands to show their wedding bands, attendants scoffed, saying that anyone could claim to be married by flashing phoney rings.
Even if engaged, couples from respectable families were forbidden to go out to dinner alone. A young couple who took such a liberty were already on their way – thus the fear – to putting the girl’s chastity at risk. Never mind that they were engaged; the marriage had not yet taken place. This rule was brought home to Adam when he invited a Florentine couple to dinner, giving them a week’s notice. They had been engaged for six years. She was twenty-three, the daughter of a distinguished lawyer, and her fiancé, some years later, would be a university professor. They came to dinner, but only after Adam took a pledge never to reveal that they had dined with him. Her alibi was that she would be spending the evening with a female friend.
Equally striking was another custom. When family occasions drew guests into a house for hours, none of the girls was likely to go to the toilet. Reserve in that key was decorum, a refinement. There could be no reminder of the fact that unmarried young ladies had private parts.
As their friendship strengthened, Lorenzo and Adam traded more and more confidences but, unknown to either, the young Florentine, led on by his looks and charm, was headed for trouble. But it would be Adam who was the first to learn a lesson the hard way.
Lorenzo made a point of learning English by taking night classes at an interpreters’ school. He picked it up fast. As for Adam, before he ever set foot in Italy, he had spent a summer at a language school in California, doing two months of intensive Italian, although he had first pored over an Italian grammar on his own.
The National Library, facing the river, a two-minute walk from the thirteenth-century Church of Santa Croce, was the scene that would help teach Adam a lesson regarding Florence’s moral climate in the 1950s. Towards the middle of his first year in the city, working, as usual, in the Library, he was at the card catalogues one afternoon, when a friend casually introduced him to another student, Donatella Colombini, “a dark-eyed delight”, as he assessed her. A day or two later, he ran into her in the coffee lounge on the lower-ground floor of the Library. They began to talk, seemed to like each other, and thereafter sought, now and then, to have coffee together. He soon learned that she verged on being engaged to a man selected by her parents and older than herself. Though not really happy about the arrangement, she had more or less resigned herself to it.
In the weeks that followed, he got into the habit, when the Library closed in the early evening, of escorting her to a bus stop, which took them on a slow, fifteen-minute walk through the heart of old Florence, to a point near the Cathedral. On those walks, clearly drawn to one another, they began to exchange various intimacies. But, having sniffed out the air of moral stringency which attended girls, Adam had already resolved to avoid taking things any further. The prospect of flying into the face of definite, if unspoken, rules made him uneasy. Besides, her friendship seemed to him precious enough in itself. He was learning things about Italy, and that learning could come with speed. Thus, one evening, on the way to her bus, he was astounded when, wide-eyed and with a wonderful smile, she suddenly turned to him, took one of his arms, and looking straight into his eyes, said:
“Adam, let’s make love. Let’s make love some time.” Her words leaped up from his diary.
He was flattered, oh yes, but since they had never even held hands, his immediate reaction was to be on his guard. Smiling to keep her in countenance, he replied:
“Just a minute, Donatella. That would be wonderful, wonderful. But why rush at things? And besides, do you think it would be wise?”
“Well, I don’t know that it would be wise, but it feels to me like it would be the right thing to do.”
He made light of her proposal, giving her a chance to do the same thing, and she was soon laughing, but it was also clear that her invitation had been serious. Some days later, she came back to the subject and again made her plea, and again he chose to treat it with gentle humour. He saw no other way to hold on to their friendship.
Early on in their acquaintance, she had asked for his telephone number and he had given it to her. One night, a few days after her second invitation, he got a strange call from her older brother, who wanted to know exactly what Adam’s intentions were. Was he serious about Donatella? Was he courting her? Did he realise that she was soon to be engaged?
Fucking American, the brother must have been thinking, what the hell does he think he’s doing?
Adam replied without any pretence or excuses. No, he said, he was not courting his sister. They were friends, yes, and he sometimes walked her to a bus stop. But there was nothing more than that between them. Whereupon the brother issued a veiled threat and made it clear that Adam would be expected to stay away from her.
The lovely Donatella seemed to vanish. She gave up the Library, until one afternoon finally, about two months later, there she was again, at the card catalogues. Adam walked up to her and said hello. When she turned to look at him, her eyes sparkling with tears, she said quietly but dismissively:
“Adam, you hurt me very deeply.” And turned back to her tray of book cards. He instantly sensed the finality of her emphatic manner. There was nothing more for him to do but walk away. They never spoke again, although he was to catch glimpses of her round the Library. The experience fell more solidly into place for Adam when a German friend of his reported an exchange with a student from Siena. As Tuscan as any Florentine, if not more so, the Siena student had amusingly but seriously warned: “If an Italian girl ever has dinner with you, and you happen not to have your own apartment, you’d better get one, because you’re going to need it.” Adam had rented a furnished apartment on the far side of the river, in a new building on a little street. The site had been damaged towards the end of the war. And he sometimes had dinner there with French or English friends, but never, it would turn out, with a Florentine girl “of good family.”