Emilybooks in-laws have been to stay, and while they were here very little reading ensued, I’m afraid. I have embarked upon re-reading Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, remembering how much I enjoyed it first time round at University and feeling its Florentine setting appropriate to my own Italian adventures, but alas I am not even two hundred pages in, with several more hundred to go… they haven’t even made it to Florence yet! So I’m afraid you must wait until next week for my Jamesian thoughts.
In the meantime, I thought you might like to see a picture of this little bookshop in Pietrasanta, a city just over the hill from Lucca. I say hill, I think I might mean mountain. We drove up there one Saturday evening, thinking it would be another sleepy little Tuscan place, complete with picturesque main piazza, beautiful Duomo and campanile, and we found we had accidentally stumbled upon the centre of the Italian contemporary art scene. We both felt decidedly scruffy as we wandered amongst crowds of women in structured, ‘interesting’ designer dresses and men in jackets, jazzy shirts and light cotton scarves,who spilled out from the various art galleries which lined the streets. Over dinner, we got chatting to a friendly man who hailed from London and had settled out her. He was full of all sorts of surprising information. For instance, he told us that the art gallery he looked after – just next door to our restaurant – would stay open till three in the morning throughout the summer! They don’t even bother opening until early evening and all the deals get done once everyone was drunk late in the night. He also told us a little about Forte di Marmi, the grand beach resort down the road. Apparently everyone is seriously snobby about getting the right spot on the beach, and I was particularly intrigued by the sound of a grand old Italian lady he knew, now in her seventies, who every summer still reserved the same sun bed she’s been frequenting since she was a little girl.
Just a little farther along the coast from Forte di Marmi is Carrara, where vast marble quarries are cut into the mountains. It’s the beautiful white marble that one pictures when someone says marble – used by the Romans, e.g. for the Pantheon, and also the Renaissance sculptors, most notably Michelangelo. Wikipedia informs me that it is also the stone used for London’s dear old Marble Arch.
The husband, being an architect, is rather more interested in things like quarries than most, so booked us on a tour of Carrara. The four of us piled into a jeep, with our lovely guide Stephanie, and Manuela, our formidable driver, who was also a guide but who spoke no English. I had great fun exercising my minimal Italian with her. We drove up the bendy roads into the mountains, which are, we were informed, all marble, and the quarries are where they literally cut huge chunks out of the mountain side. You can just see the quarry nestled between the peaks here. On the roads, which grew increasingly alarming, we encountered lorries with the most colossal chunks of marble on the back. As we pulled over to let one pass, Manuela casually told me a chunk of that size would weigh around 30 tonnes. Soon we were driving almost vertically up a scrabbly track. At the top, we were told it was where they’d filmed a car chase in Quantum of Solace and that the stunt man had at first been too scared to do it. Manuela then laughed heartily and said she was a real ‘stunt woman’ and we zoomed down towards the quarry, clinging on tight.
We went to Fantiscritti, the quarry where Michelangelo used to come to choose his pieces of marble. I found it very uncanny to think of him in the same place as us, only so much higher up, as over those hundreds of years so much more marble has been quarried. Each one of those steps is three metres tall (you get a feel for the scale by the tiny stick figure men in the bottom left). It is exactly the opposite to the feeling one has when seeing the Roman sites, which are of course always lower down than the present day and this lent a peculiar feeling of topsy turviness to the whole experience. Incidentally, I suspect that when T.S. Eliot wrote so scathingly of the women who ‘come and go/ talking of Michelangelo’, they would not have been talking about his awe-inspiring quarry.
Apparently marble dust is the new gold dust, being put in pills as a source of calcium for things like osteoporosis. My thoughts immediately turned to Daphne, who of course needs to be given rather a lot of calcium for her shell. I wonder if we could give her a little chunk of marble to peck away at instead of the calcium powder we sprinkle over her food. I wonder if the husband could chisel a little chunk into a Roman column for her, which would be rather a bling addition to her house. Any tortoise experts care to advise?
Little else to report, really, other than that my Italian seems to be developing mostly in the direction of ice cream flavours thanks to our strict upholding of a daily gelato at four o’clock. Nespola was a recent discovery, meaning medlar. Pompelmo rossa – pink grapefruit – is my longstanding favourite. Mandorla – almond – is a good one, as is zenzera – ginger. The husband is obsessed with fior di latte, literally ‘flower of milk’, which seems ironic given his early stumbling to order a coffee with milk, which some of you might remember.
So back to Henry James I go, with a little piece of roadside Carrara as a handy paperweight.