I’ve been spending a lot of time this past week in Florence. Italy. Not because I actually went there, at least not lately, but because I’ve been reading a wonderful, life-affirming, poetic, gentle, quirky, memorable book, set mostly in Florence. A book that I could not put down, but which I did put down frequently to go do other things because I could not bear to finish it. Seriously. I could not bear to be done with this book. So I put it down, walked away, to do real life stuff. And then later walked back again, to Florence, with a fresh cup of tea in hand to pick up the tale where I had left off. For me this week all roads lead to Florence. Over and over again.Follow my blog with Bloglovin
I started Sarah Winman’s book Still Life over tea and toast one morning. Feet up, in my sunroom, I read of two English spinsters in 1944, “somewhere in the Tuscan hills… eating a late lunch on the terrace of a modest albergo. A beautiful summer’s day, if only you could forget there was a war on.” Two spinsters celebrating “the Allied advance with large glasses of Chianti.”
Two sentences in I was hooked. Spinsters, Italy, the last days of World War II. And a page or so later when I was slightly annoyed at one spinster and entranced and intrigued by the other, I read this: “She blushed and would blame it on the shift to evening light, on the effect of the wine and the grappa and the cigarettes, but in her heart, in the unseen, most guarded part of her, a memory undid her, slowly-very slowly- like a zip.” Oh my. I was captivated and a bit undone myself.
Sarah Winman’s book is one I will not soon forget. If I ever do. I’ve been to Florence. Once. And I so wish I could have dived into her book and seen Florence again, arm in arm with her characters. Among them Ulysses, former soldier and globe-maker. Benefactor of a bequest born of a fateful meeting between a despairing Florentine and a kindly young English soldier in 1944, Ulysses is able to leave post-WWII London, where he is not so much recovering from his war experiences as he is lingering in a kind of stasis, and move to Florence to begin life again. Told in a kind of parallel to Ulysses’ story is that of Evelyn Skinner, Englishwoman, spinster and art historian, lover of Florence, whose random meeting with Ulysses on the road outside of Florence in 1944 changes both their lives.
How amazing to be able to wander the streets of that ancient city with Ulysses, and Evelyn, and their friends and loved-ones, in 1901, in 1944, and 1979… and all the decades in between. To be able to watch as they move through their lives encountering joy and pain, love and disappointment, and tragedy. As they, and Florence, and the world get on with life.
And you know, I kind of did just that. Because this week, as I’ve said, all roads lead to Florence for me. Even as I walked the trail, did laundry, chatted with friends and family, and celebrated my birthday, I knew that later I’d end up, for at least part of every day, tea cup in hand, in Florence.
I also spent a ton of time this past week reading about Florence. Following up on what I learned in Winman’s novel about the art and the history of Florence. Looking at photographs, my own and ones I found online. Thinking about life and travel. And art. And how much I don’t know, and how much I wish I knew.
I even went back and read a little of Dante’s Inferno last encountered sometime in the seventies. Because in the novel when Ulysses and Evelyn first meet she says “fate is a gift. According to Dante anyhow.” Reading Still Life, I came to believe in fate as I watched Ulysses’ and Evelyn’s paths swerve towards each other and away again over the years. Even when all roads lead to Florence for them both, they wander the streets of the same city, never quite meeting up. Until of course they do. Of course they do. It’s fate.
And just now I was telling Hubby how this afternoon, when I was reading about Dante, I’d confused Ravenna, where Dante died, with Ravello which we visited when we were on the Amalfi Coast in 2018. Until I looked them both up on a map. And Hubby said, “Ah yes. Ravenna. We drove near there when we were driving from Venice to Florence. Remember?” He said he’d thought about stopping there because of the ancient mosaics on its buildings. But we had a reservation in Florence and were a bit pressed for time. I guess fate had other plans for us than Ravenna.
So, yeah, fate is an important theme in Winman’s novel. Along with friendship, love, identity, sacrifice, and the importance of art and history. That sentence makes it sound like a pedantic book when it’s anything but pedantic. Sarah Winman is a masterful storyteller, her characters come alive. And she is also a wonderful writer. Her style is beautiful and poetic, at times funny, evocative, and profane in the same sentence. You have to love a writer who can do that.
Like all the best books by the most talented writers (like Kate Atkinson, Penelope Lively, Anita Brookner et al) Still Life leaves us with certain passages rolling around in our head, passages we want to remember, maybe even learn to live by. Like this one: “There are moments in life so monumental and still that the memory can never be retrieved without a catch to the throat or an interruption to the beat of the heart. Can never be retrieved without the rumbling disquiet of how close that moment came to not having happened at all.” How could we read that and not stop to think, “what if I had?” or “what if I hadn’t?” Think about the choices we ourselves made, and the choices we came close to NOT making in our lives.
All the characters in Winman’s novel love Florence. It defines some of them. For them all roads must lead to Florence.
But I have to confess, I did not love Florence when we visited there in 2018. I could see it was beautiful and historic, filled with art and history. But it didn’t touch me like some of the other places we visited on that trip.
Places like Vieste. Where Hubby and I spent a rather idyllic evening.
We wandered up stone staircases, peering down alleyways, and into church doors. Noticing the play of the evening light on old stone. Until we happened upon a restaurant halfway down a narrow set of stairs, with tables set along the side of a building. There we watched a few local residents clatter down the stairs on their way home from work. A woman carrying groceries in a cloth bag stopped to chat to another woman who was leaning over a balcony above her, pulling in laundry from a small clothesline that ran parallel to the building.
We listened to the music that drifted out from the inside of the restaurant. We ate pasta and drank red wine. Maybe it was Chianti like Evelyn and her friend drink at the beginning of Still Life. But unlike Evelyn and her friend, we were not toasting the end of the war, even though a few days later we would visit Ortona where my stepfather fought in WWII. According to friends who have also visited, Vieste has little to recommend it compared with Florence, but we cherish the memory of our one evening there.
Maybe Florence was too much for us to take in. Too much muchness, as a friend once quipped. We walked the old city in the late mornings and afternoons when the streets were heaving with tourists. When the crowds made it impossible to stop and look up at what was around us.
We did not stay in the old centre of the city. But on the outskirts in a wonderful old B&B with stone floors and antiques. As a result we hopped a bus back there in the late afternoon, glad to be out of the melee, stopping for wine and groceries on the way because we could make our own dinner if we wished, and sit in the big old refectory kitchen or on the terrace to eat. So we missed strolling the Florentine piazzas in the evening, looking for a likely spot to stop for a glass of wine and dinner. We missed sitting in a cafe over morning coffee before the bus tours descended upon the city. We missed seeing the old city in repose. Maybe that’s why Florence did not speak to me as it spoke to the characters in Sarah Winman’s book.
I should say that I understand why the characters in Still Life love Florence so much. It’s not just because of the art and the history of the city, but because of what it represents to them. Because of what they know of the Florentine story, the tragedy, and the courage of its people. And how Florence allowed each of them to find something of value in themselves and for themselves.
How wonderful it must have been to travel to Florence, or anywhere really, back in the day. And stay for a month. To venture out each morning to look at this gallery and that fresoe, then have lunch. To sit reading quietly over after-lunch coffee, deciding what treasures one will seek out the next day. Then after a nap and a bath, to wander in quiet piazzas, before deciding about dinner. That sounds idyllic to me.
Parts of our Italian trip were idyllic, even if Florence wasn’t. Eating a truffle feast at a country house outside of Urbino and watching the sunrise over the hills of Umbria from our room the next morning. Walking the empty streets along the canals of Murano under a full moon. Eating seriously good pizza three nights running at a small restaurant in San Lazzaro high above the Amalfi Coast. The bottle of homemade red wine given to us as a goodbye gift by our hosts in San Lazzaro, and which we drank on the rooftop terrace of our hotel in Rome.
And bells. Everywhere bells. I became rather obsessed with the bells on that trip. I have recordings of bells in Venice, and Murano, and Amalfi… and in Florence. The morning we checked out of our B&B in Florence, I opened our window and recorded these bells.
So, that’s it for me tonight my friends. I have waffled on long enough. I hope you read Sarah Winman’s book Still Life. As you may have guessed, I highly recommend it.
And if you have a hankering to read my travel posts from our trip to Italy in 2018, you can read them here and here. And here is a post I wrote when we came home from Italy, about our ideas around travel planning in general. Please note, for some reason the photos in the older posts do not show up unless you click on the photo description.
P.S. The link to Sarah Winman’s book is an affiliate link. If you make a purchase after clicking my link, I will earn a small commission which helps to pay for the blog.