A vacation allows me to throw away all my usual rules about reading – no novels in the daytime being the most affected. On our long airplane flight to Italy, I began “Niccolò Rising” – the first novel in Dorothy Dunnett’s series “The House of Niccolò.” (Long ago I read Dunnett’s other big series – “The Lymond Chronicles” – delicious historical novels.)
Flying toward 21st century Europe, I walked the streets, adventured with characters from the 15th. When we arrived, the imaginary world in my head was in perfect step. I pictured tiny streets and squares filled with festivals and people of yore, and looked past tourists in tank tops standing by Roman gates to see Niccolò in velvet breeches. Dunnett’s tale is of a young man – a little rascal and a lot goodhearted – rising from poverty in Bruges as part of the new merchant class, and of women smart and brave.
Before I left home I read Frances Mayes’s, “Everyday in Tuscany,” and learned about Vernon Lee. I ended up reading only “Niccolò” at night, on trains, or one happy morning at the villa, but I took Lee’s book “The Spirit of Rome” on my iPad. These home weeks I’ve been loving her book (written in 1898, it’s available in reprinted editions and free on any electronic book).
Lee writes about the Italy of the century before last, in the throes of unification when much construction revealed historical underpinnings – buildings and ruins so accessible to Lee’s wanderings. Reading the book, I’m forever turning to Wikipedia to comprehend her references, but I understand when she says: “Poets really make places.”
Mayes must like that statement. In her first book she wrote about buying an abandoned Tuscan farmhouse, Bramasole. Mayes’s recent books are travel writing, love songs to Italy – about food and sights and her life in Cortona. (They would make great travel guides.)
Back home I read “Bella Tuscany” where Mayes asks rhetorically, what depletes and what replenishes. “What wrings you out and truly, what rinses you with happiness?” She answers: “What comes from my own labor and creativity, regardless of what anyone else thinks of it, stays close to the natural joy we all were born with and carry always.”
A reminder that energizes for all sorts of work – cooking, the garden – a poem.