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Viva la Repubblica!

December, 2011
By Anthony Marshall

Berlusconi has resigned. And good riddance! This will be cold news by the time you read this, but as I write it is piping hot news. When I think of billionaire Berlusconi, a dangerous and narcissistic buffoon, I seem to hear my grandmother’s words: “If you want to know what God thinks about money, just look at the people he gives it to.”

Please God, let Berlusconi’s departure signal a fresh start for Italy. It is bewildering to me that this rich and wonderful country, the seventh largest economy in the world, the second largest manufacturing power in the European Union, the home of so much creativity, artistry, and innovation, of Gina Lollobrigida and tiramisu, is now – economically speaking – on its knees.

Others, better qualified than I am, can  – or perhaps cannot  - explain what is going on. As I have recently returned from a trip to Europe, which included five days spent in Italy, I feel I ought to be able to do better than this, but I can’t. All I can say is that Italy felt just the same as ever. If the economy was in the doldrums, it certainly didn’t show on the streets and piazzas, and in the shops and cafes and restaurants of Florence and Fiesole and Siena. Of course not.  Italians have always known how to keep up appearances, to “fare bella figura”. Everything seemed fine. And the buses and the trains ran precisely on time, as, in my experience, they always do: indeed  “La Freccia Rossa” (“The Red Arrow”) which whisked us from Milan to Florence in a couple of hours was a model of efficiency, comfort and punctuality.

The same I cannot report of the Swiss train which conveyed us from Zurich to Milan.

By the time we had reached Chiasso it was running 11 minutes late. You don’t expect  Swiss trains to run late. Perhaps the blizzard which swept over us as we toiled up the Alps had caused the delay. But the delay was a worry. We had allowed a mere 12 minutes for our connection in Milan, and we had an idea that they were not going to hold La Freccia Rossa for us. And if we missed La Freccia Rossa, due to arrive in Florence at 10.30 at night, it was going to mess up all our plans.

Still, our slowish progress had allowed us to drink in the glories of the north Italian landscape – the land and the lakes of Lombardy, Maggiore, Lugano, Como, bathed in spectacular autumn sunshine. I thought of Goethe, Stendhal, Beckford and all the travelers on “The Grand Tour” who had expressed their delight and amazement, as, arriving in Italy from the cold grey North, felt the warmth and the magic of this blessed land south of the Alps. Perhaps Hannibal and his elephants – especially his elephants – felt the same way too.

As our train began to pull out of Chiasso station, I looked out of the window and saw an elderly man, who had just alighted from the train, stumble and fall down heavily on the platform. Two men rushed to help him, as did the guard of our train, who had been standing in the open doorway of our carriage. The guard huddled with the other men round the fallen man, then, realizing that our train was picking up speed and leaving without him, frantically blew his whistle and waved his red flag. The driver either did not see him, or, if he did, ignored him.

All my life I have yearned to pull a train’s “Emergency Brake” or (as it used to be known in English trains of old)  “The Communications Cord”. As a boy I would look with longing at the seductive red chain, beneath its threatening label, printed in red letters: For Emergency Use Only. Penalty for Improper Use – 25 pounds. I would debate with my siblings what exactly constituted “improper use”. Suppose you desperately wanted to go to the toilet, but the toilet was occupied, would that be an “Emergency”? And so on. Sadly no emergency ever did emerge., not even a false emergency with a fine for improper use. 

But here, at last, surely was a real emergency. A man was down, dead or dying; the guard was desperately trying to flag down his train, the train was deprived of its guard, and for it to continue without him could perhaps constitute a capital offence, under Swiss law, for guard or driver or even both. I stood up and with a trembling hand reached for the big lever with its red handle, marked Notbremse. Misbrauch strafbar. (Emergency Brake: Penalty for Improper Use).  At last, at last!

“I’m going to pull the Notbremse,” I said to Simone.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “Sit down.”

“But the old  man….the guard…..”

“The man is being perfectly well looked after, by three men, who will certainly call an ambulance. And we don’t need a guard. And if you pull that brake, the train will stop and we will be delayed a further twenty minutes and we will certainly miss our connection with La Freccia Rossa.”

The logic was impeccable. I sat down. We arrived in Milan still exactly 11 minutes late, and without a guard (or even a replacement guard) and we managed to make our connection with five seconds to spare.

Later I asked Simone in what circumstances she would have approved my pulling the Emergency brake, even if it had meant our missing our connection.

“If the man had fallen onto the rails and was about to be run over by the train,” she said.

So now I know.

We stayed at a hotel in Fiesole, the beautiful village perched in the hills overlooking Florence. In common with many English speakers, I have always felt a strong connection with this ancient place, settled by the Etruscans many centuries before the Romans marched in. In the nineteenth century Fiesole was the home – or playground – of  a whole colony of expatriate English writers and artists: poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning,  pre-Raphaelite painter Holman Hunt, essayist Walter Savage Landor, poet Arthur Hugh Clough and writer Fanny Trollope. English writer Harold Acton was born, lived and died (in 1994, aged 90) at Villa La Pietra in Fiesole. Author of  biographies, histories and a memorable  two-volume autobiography  Memoirs of an Aesthete and More Memoirs of an Aesthete,  Acton was also a big benefactor of The British Institute, in Florence, on Lungarno Guicciardini, where I studied Italian in 1968. (This was only a few years after the great flood of 1966, when the river Arno burst its banks and destroyed many of Florence’s art treasures –  including thousands of priceless antiquarian books and manuscripts, which, unwisely, had been stored in cellars and basements. Volunteers were still mopping up when I was there).

Probably the best-known of Fiesole’s expatriate residents is Bernard Berenson, the American art historian and connoisseur who welcomed to his villa, I Tatti, the literary  and artistic cognoscenti of the world.  Berenson generously bequeathed his villa to Harvard University . How wonderful to be able to go to Fiesole and study (or dream) at the Center for Italian Renaissance Culture. One of  Berenson’s classic books is The Italian Painters of the Renaissance. (1952).  I have a copy, given to me by some Italian students to whom I taught English during my stay in Florence. I treasure this book, not least because of what Berenson says about art: how certain paintings, sculptures and buildings “feed the spirit”. This, he says, is what creative works of real value do. 

Berenson is reputed to have had a brief affair with Lady Sybil Cutting, widow of New York diplomat and philanthropist William Cutting. She was owner of the beautiful Villa Medici, in Fiesole, which she bought in or around 1910. It is featured in Georgina Masson’s book Italian Gardens  (Thames and Hudson 1961) Built in 1458-61 for the Medici family, the villa was a meeting place for the intellectuals of the Florence of Lorenzo the Magnificent: for Pico della Mirandola, Marcilio Ficino and others of their humanist and neo-platonist school. It was in this Villa Medici that Lady Sybil’s daughter, Iris Cutting, grew up. Better known by her married name, Iris Origo is one of the great writers in English on Italian life and literature.  Of her many books, Leopardi: A Study in Solitude (1935) and The Merchant of Prato  (1957) are just two classic biographies.

Whilst in Florence we visited an exhibition entitled Bellezza e Denaro (Beauty and Money) at the Palazzo Strozzi. This illustrated the strong nexus in Florence between wealth, enjoyed by bankers and merchants, and the beautiful things produced by the artists whom they patronized. Europe’s bankers, in the beginning, were Italians – from Lombardy (whence “Lombard Street” in the City of London) and Florence (whence the English coin “the florin”). The Medici and the Strozzi were both banking families, which attained power and prestige in Florence. Today’s bankers have different names, and a different marketplace but … ca change!

In Fiesole there is a Piazza Garibaldi (in the process of being dug up while we were there) and there is a Piazza Mino, the main square, where you catch the No. 7 bus into the city, and also (a hot tip for which you will perhaps one day  thank me) a small osteria called Vinardo. In front of Vinardo’s there is a statue of Garibaldi and the King of Italy. Yes, Garibaldi is (or was) very popular, not just in Fiesole, but throughout Italy (even if one of his compatriots described him as having “the heart of a lion and the brains of an ox”.) If you have ever been to Italy you will surely have seen one of these statues, showing Garibaldi and King Victor Emmanuel II, meeting on horseback. These statues are everywhere.  It’s all to do with the unification of Italy. The two men (and their horses) are caught for all time in the historic and symbolic act of joining the north of Italy with the south, sealing with a handshake the union of the Kingdom of Sardinia (and Piedmont) with the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. (Two Sicilies? Confusingly, the “other” Sicily was the Kingdom of Naples.)

The historic meeting between Garibaldi and the king took place on 26 October 1860, at Teano, a small town some thirty miles north of Naples. But it was not until 17 March 1861 that the Parliament in Turin passed a bill and the Kingdom of Italy, “based on the sovereignty and common nationality of its people” came formally into being. Here I want to make a small historical point:  Berlusconi, having reigned as Italy’s longest-serving prime minister, resigned in 2011, the very year which marked the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the unification of Italy. Bravo, Silvio!

Thus, on 17 March 2011, in honour of Italy’s Sesquicentenary, I unveiled my Italian shop window. ( By coincidence it was also St Patrick’s Day and also, by coincidence, the tricolours of Italy and Ireland are rather similar). What a joy to design a “theme window” of this sort, where I get to showcase pretty books, books with striking dustjackets and shy books which get lost or overlooked in the hurly-burly of the general ruck. And when “Italian” is the theme, mustering the books is no problem. Because there is almost no field of human endeavour in which Italians have not  sparkled and had their achievements documented in books. And a whole new sub-genre of writing about Italy (by non-Italians) has recently sprung up: it is the  “I lived my dream: I bought a wreck of a villa in Tuscany (or Umbria) and transformed it with my bare hands; I’ve got an olive grove and lemon trees and a vineyard and now  I’m going to tell you all about it” sub-genre.  So into the window they go, handfuls of them: Under the Tuscan Sun, Italian Neighbours, Bella Tuscany, Villa Fortuna, A Tuscan Year, Italian Dreams.

On the window glass, in case passers-by didn’t get it, I stuck up a notice saying: “Viva Italia! Commemorating 150 Years of the Italian Republic 1861 – 2011.”  Two days later I took it down, and amended it. A polite but frankly pedantic customer reminded me that the Italian Republic began not in 1861 but in 1946, when the monarchy was abolished, by plebiscite. Up until then it had been a Kingdom. So the new notice read “Commemorating 150 Years of Italian Unification 1861 – 2011.”

Later, in a spirit of vendetta I asked this same smartypants, Felice Rocca, if he would care to sing, or even hum, for me the Italian national anthem. “Haven’t got a clue,” he said, with a disarming shrug. Hands up if you can sing or hum or even mumble the Italian national anthem. Ha! I thought not. Even Italians – or at least  Melbourne people of Italian descent – have difficulty summoning up their anthem . In a scientifically-conducted straw poll of ten Italians whom I stopped randomly in Rathdowne Steet yesterday, two thought their national anthem was Nessun Dorma, one thought it was Funiculi, Funicula, one hummed the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves (from Nabucco) but couldn’t identify it, four had no idea and one (a wag) sang – in a light Neapolitan tenor – I Did it My Way.  The tenth, a gentleman with dark glasses and designer stubble, declined to answer. When pressed he said “Don’t f--- with me” and disappeared into a neighbouring pizza shop.

For your information, Signor Gatto, and for the rest of your Honoured Society, your national anthem is L’Inno de Mameli (the Hymn of Mameli), words written by Goffreddo Mameli (1827 – 1849) and music by Michele Novaro (1822 – 1885). You will see, Signore, that Mameli died very young, aged only 22. Gunned down in a barbershop, perhaps, by your great-great-great godfather?  As anthems go – allegro marziale – it’s pretty good. Operatic, over the top, but too long and too complicated. There’s even a modulation at bar 30, when we go from two flats to three. I know all this because I have a wonderful book in front of me: National Anthems of the World. (ed. W.L.Reed and M.J. Bristow 9th ed. Cassell 1997).

Mameli played a small but important part in the Risorgimento – (the “Resurgence”) – the name given to the Italian Nationalist movement and its struggle for independence: from Austrian Hapsburgs in the north, Spanish and French Bourbons in the south and the Catholic church in the middle. In 1848, the great year of revolutions, in Italy as in the rest of Europe, Mameli took part in the insurrection in Milan, joined Garibaldi’s volunteers and met Giuseppe Mazzini, one of the great leaders of the Risorgimento. The Milan uprising, like most of those of 1848, had no lasting success.  General Radetzky and his troops soon bloodily re-asserted Austrian dominion over Milan, Lombardy and the Veneto and ruled them “with an iron hand.”  Remember this, next time you thrill to the sound of Strauss’s Radetzky March.

A neat summary of the political and military history of the Risorgimento can be found in the Lonely Planet guide to Italy. A longer and scholarly account is given in an excellent book by George Martin: The Red Shirt and the Cross of Savoy: The Story of Italy’s Risorgimento (1748 – 1871)  [Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1970]. This includes much information on the contribution of writers and intellectuals to the Risorgimento, some of whom were not Italian. The English poets Byron, Shelley and Keats were all enthusiastic supporters of the movement: all of them lived in Italy, at some point, and Shelley and Keats died there.  Byron’s poem Manfred was translated into Italian by dramatist Silvio Pellico (1788 –1854) who suffered greatly under the Austrians; was imprisoned, condemned to death, reprieved, and spent more than 17 years in gaol. His Le Mie Prigioni ( 1833) is a moving account of his beliefs and experiences.

The two great Italian poets of the Risorgimento were Ugo Foscolo (1778 – 1827), who was also a political and military activist and Giacomo Leopardi ( (1798 – 1837) who was not. (Leopardi I have written about at length elsewhere, and so has Iris Origo, and he is too important to touch on fleetingly, so I pass over him here.) Ugo Foscolo, believing that Napoleon was the great liberator of Italy, joined the French army; but, like Beethoven, became disillusioned with him, after Napoleon crowned himself “King of Italy” and in 1802 allowed the Veneto to be ceded to Austria. In 1814,  Foscolo sought refuge from Austrian-occupied Milan in London. He translated Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy into Italian. This book is a favourite of mine: not least because, despite the title, it deals with Italy not at all. Why not? Read it and find out.

The outstanding novel of the Risorgimento is I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) by Alessandro Manzoni., first published in 1827 and published in a definitive edition in Florence in 1842. It is a love story (of Renzo and Lucia), set in Spanish-occupied Lombardy in the seventeenth century. It does not require a great leap of imagination to see the struggle of Lombard patriots against their Spanish overlords as an allegory of the Risorgimento, the struggle of northern Italians to free themselves from their Austrian overlords. Rossini’s opera William Tell (1829) is a similar, but subtler allegory.

Alessandro Manzoni, born in 1785, lived long enough to see Italy unified.  In the newly-minted secular state, though a staunch Catholic, he became a senator. When he died in 1873, it was for him that Giuseppe Verdi, who was not a staunch Catholic but a great patriot, composed his thrilling and operatic Requiem. You probably already know this, but in case you don’t, the name Verdi can be read as a patriotic

acrostic. V-E-R-D-I, standing for Vittorio Emmanuele, Re D’Italia. (Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy). Neat, eh? How could the Risorgimento fail, with luck like this?

Manzoni’s novel is also significant, as a milestone in the development of the Italian language. A high-flown flowery literary or academic Italian, used by Dante, Petrarch, Macchiavelli and others, was well established by the time of the Risorgimento. But the ordinary people of Italy did not know it  (around 70 per cent of them were “analfabeti”– illiterate) and they spoke (and in many cases still speak) regional dialects. A Sicilian speaking to a Piedmontese, a Neapolitan to a Venetian, were – and mostly still are – mutually unintelligible. Garibaldi, who was born in Nice, never spoke Italian well. Italian was his third language, after his Ligurian dialect and French. Camille Cavour, first Prime Minister of Italy, never having travelled further South than Florence, was convinced that Sicilians spoke Arabic, and said as much in Parliament. For Manzoni, who spoke French or Milanese dialect at home, Italian was practically a foreign language, learned and mastered only with difficulty. Having done so, he was the first to use and popularize what is now standard Italian, based largely on Florentine usage – lingua toscana in bocca romana – (a gross oversimplification!)  – in a novel which included a lot of dialogue and conversation, and descriptions of everyday life. 

The other great Italian novel of the Risorgimento is Il Gattopardo (The Leopard)  by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, published posthumously in 1958 by Feltrinelli (it having been rejected –  twice – by Mondadori). It is a historical novel of the Risorgimento only in the sense that its setting is Sicily during the Risorgimento.  The story begins in 1860, as Garibaldi and his Thousand, in their red shirts, invade the island, landing at Marsala. It shows, through the eyes of Don Fabrizio, the Prince (a character based closely on Giuseppe’s great grandfather Don Giulio) how the old order reacts to the tide of new liberal ideas brought by the revolution.  It ends in 1883 – “on a note of resignation, almost of cynicism, about the failures of the Risorgimento and the decadence of the protagonist’s family.”

The writer, Tomasi di Lampedusa was himself a prince, his title originating from the tiny island situated far to the south of Sicily, nearer to the African coast than to Sicily. A barren island, it brought the family no good until 1840 when it was sold to Ferdinand II, King of Naples, who feared that the British might snap it up.  It has been in the news in recent years as the first staging post for refugees from Libya and Tunisia, seeking a new life in Italy. .

I have been delighted to read a biography of di Lampedusa: The Last Leopard  (Collins Harvill 1988). It provides plenty of bibliographical chat about The Leopard, how it came to be published and almost wasn’t; and when it did (championed by poet Eugenio Montale) how it became an instant best-seller, perhaps the best-selling Italian novel of all time (unless possibly now eclipsed by Umberto Eco’s Il Nome della Rosa?) First published in November 1958, Il Gattopardo won the Strega prize in July 1959 and by March 1960 it had gone through fifty-two editions. If you have not read  The Leopard which I commend to you whole-heartedly, it’s time you gave it a go.

And if the book does not appeal, then try the DVD.  The film was made in 1963, directed by Luchino Visconti and starred – somewhat improbably – Burt Lancaster. It is a very good film, which captures much of the spirit and the beauty of the original book. And Burt is very good. I once saw him in a shocker called The Swimmer, in which he, the hero, apparently is swimming his way from the west to the east coast of the United States (or possibly vice-versa. It makes no difference). How was this to be achieved? Via the swimming pools of the rich and famous, apparently. At least via those which were oriented east –west. Or possibly west-east. Or so I believe. I’m not sure because after about ten minutes I walked out. If this was an allegory of something it was too opaque for me.

Swimming? I learned to swim in Italy. It was high summer in 1960 and I stayed in a whitewashed villa on Ischia, an island in the Bay of Naples, a sort of poor relation of Capri. (Poor here is a relative term).  Learning to swim in the sun-kissed turquoise sea around the island was a cinch for a water-winged novice accustomed to doing battle with the grim grey waves of the freezing North Sea and the chilly English Channel. Soon I was free of water-wings and frolicking in the Tyrrhenian Sea like a dolphin. After Ischia, I was whisked off to Rome, and watched the Olympic Games, and saw Herb Elliott win the gold medal in the 500 metres, and Piero D’Inzeo win silver in the show-jumping, and I went through the catacombs, and got blessed by the Pope at Villa Castel Gandolfo and everything. What an adventure for a ten year-old!

I was lucky to have had a taste of Italy at such an early age. The beginning of a life-long infatuation. Looking back on it all, I am rather astonished that my parents permitted me to go – solo – on this trip, and were prepared to pay for it, or at least for some of it. The invitation came from my school friend, Robert Allen, an American boy, deposited, for the convenience of his divorced parents, in the English boarding school, where I also, for different reasons, had been deposited. His mother lived in Rome, and had a holiday villa on Ischia. This villa came equipped with two nice men, Joe and Dimmy (short for Dmitri) who took turns in looking after Robert’s mum and looking after us two boys. It worked pretty well.

If there are literary lions associated with Ischia, I don’t know them. But nearby Capri is famous for having been the playground of the Emperor Tiberius and of the writer Norman Douglas. I have not yet read Douglas’s books (notably South Wind, Old Calabria) but I intend to, as they are highly recommended. Besides, I approve of him, because he escaped, as a pupil, from Uppingham School in England, the very same school from which I, (much later) escaped, as a teacher. We both of us found it uncongenial. (So for that matter did Stephen Fry: I approve of him too, mostly, and you can read about the school, and some of my ex-colleagues, in his memoir And Moab Was My Washpot.)

The book about Capri which really enchants me is The Story of San Michele by Axel Munthe. Much more than “a book about Capri”, it is really unclassifiable. To say that it is an autobiography is to do it much less than justice. Let’s just call it a classic. I once met someone who knew Munthe: “a vile man” she said. Well, so what? He writes like an angel. Or, I should say, like an archangel.

Munthe’s son, Malcolm, crops up in Raleigh Trevelyan’s book Rome’44  (Secker and Warburg, 1981). This deals with the situation in Rome in 1944, the Allied landing at Anzio, and the Allies’ drive north, via Monte Cassino, for the liberation of Rome. Major Malcolm Munthe, was an officer in the British army’s SOE (Special Operations Executive and “had been involved in a Prisoner of Zenda type rescue of the philosopher Benedetto Croce from Sorrento just after the Salerno landings.” He was one of the first to set foot on and  “liberate” Capri, which must have been a particularly satisfying moment for the son of Axel Munthe. In this book too, I learned that actress Gina Lollobrigida was a resistance worker in Rome and, at great personal risk, sheltered refugees and escapees in her house in Rome. I have watched on screen many delightful Italian actresses: Sophia Loren, Claudia Cardinale, Monica Vitti, Diane Cilento, Greta Schacchi, but knowing this about “La Lollo” makes her very special.

In his earlier book, The Fortress : A Diary of Anzio and after (Collins 1956) Trevelyan relates his experiences as a junior Guards officer with the invading Allied armies. It contains horrifying eye-witness accounts of the war, but describes also – almost casually – his meetings with writers Alberto Moravia, Benedetto Croce and Luigi Barzini, who happened to be living in the area (and who mistakenly thought he was closely related to English historian G.M.Trevelyan, notable chronicler of Garibaldi and his exploits).  Norman Lewis’s classic Naples ‘44  (Collins 1978) deals with the same campaign and is another diary account, which tells of his experiences as a British officer, in and around Naples, after his landing with the Allies at Paestum, near Salerno. Lewis is a sensitive, intelligent and perceptive writer. These books bring us abruptly into Italy of the twentieth century.

In Fiesole, our hotel was in a street  just off the Via Antonio Gramsci. It was good to see a street sign commemorating a writer of the 20th century. Gramsci was leader of the communist party in Italy and in 1926, after Mussolini’s government had outlawed it, he was arrested and imprisoned. He spent the rest of his life in gaol, and while there wrote his famous Lettere del Carcere (published posthumously in 1947) and considered to be “one of the most important political texts of this century.” In 1926, too, Pope Pius XI,  seizing the day, finally lifted Pope Pius IX’s  ban on Catholics voting in Italian elections, a ban which had been in effect since 1860. It’s a long story, but such was the Church’s opposition to the secular state of Italy that Rome and a large region known as the Patrimonio di San Pietro (now Lazio) were not finally incorporated – by force –  into a unified Italy until 1870. Whereupon Rome finally became the capital of Italy – before this the Italian parliament had sat first in Turin and then, later on, in Florence.)

Nobody has captured better the antagonism between the Catholic church and communism than Giovanni Guareschi, in his series of Don Camillo books. In a small town situated in the Po valley, the Catholic priest Don Camillo is constantly at loggerheads with the communist mayor, Don Peppone. There is plenty of fun – and some pain – as each tries to outfox the other, and gain popular approval. If you have never met Don Camillo, it is not too late. But I suspect that the writing is on the wall for the Communist Party of Italy, once the most active and the most powerful in western Europe.

During my stay in Fiesole, I re-read A Room With a View by E.M. Forster. I found a copy in The English Bookshop in Florence in the Via degli Studi . The story is set in Florence and the critical action takes place in Fiesole.  Forster has a character quote an old Italian proverb: “Inglese italianato, diavolo incarnato.” (An Englishman who has adopted Italian ways is the devil incarnate).  I have tried to find out the origin of this phrase. It is possibly a reference to Admiral Lord Nelson, who met Emma Hamilton in Naples and who, later, perpetrated some atrocities on some Neapolitan rebels, who had been promised immunity by the Bourbon king. Not a great moment in his Lordship’s career. But Nelson was hardly “italianato”. Could it refer to Byron? “Mad, bad and dangerous to know.” I don’t know.

More likely it harks back to the English warrior, Sir John Hawkwood, a condottiere or freelance knight, who in 1361 made his way from France to Italy with “The White Company”, a band of mercenaries, made famous by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his book of that name. Sir John at first took service with Pisa against the Florentines, but later switched sides, and for an annual retainer fought for Florence, until his death in 1394. So he had more than 30 years to become “italianato”. In Santa Croce Church in Florence, on the west wall, you may still see his portrait, painted by Paolo Uccello. He was a devil to the Pisans, no doubt, and to other Italians not from Florence: but the Florentines admired him enough to include him in their Pantheon.

I have some small devilishness of my own to confess. When in Rome, as a ten year-old, at the Olympics, I did not see anyone win a gold medal. I saw no athletics, no show-jumping, no gymnastics, no diving – none of the events that I had yearned to see. (All I got to see was some crummy soccer match between, I think, Switzerland and Austria, which ended in a 0 – 0 draw.)  Nor did I get to see the Pope, let alone get blessed by him. What a disappointment! I was disappointed for myself, but more importantly I was disappointed for my parents. I really wanted them to think I’d had a good time, and that they hadn’t wasted their money. So I made it all up. It was total bullshit. Except for the Catacombs. I can’t help feeling that, if my destiny as an Englishman was to become a devil incarnate, I showed very early promise.

Note: I dedicate this essay to the memory of Kathleen Wiseman, a customer of Alice’s Bookshop, who died in 2011.  On my return from Italy, I discovered that in her will she had bequeathed to me all her books, several hundred in all, including many on Italian life and literature, which I have been able to consult. She lived for many years in Rome, working as secretary of St George’s English School, before returning to Melbourne in the 1980s. I asked a friend if Kathleen had had any children. “No,” she said, “Or perhaps, yes. I think her books were her children.”  R.I.P. Kathleen 

Anthony Marshall is owner of Alice’s Bookshop in North Carlton, an inner-city suburb of Melbourne, Australia. He is a member of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers and author of “Fossicking for Old Books” (Melbourne, 2004).