In Casa Vivante, or a First Stay in Tuscany

My memories of my first weeks in Tuscany are as hazy as the Sears/Willis Tower when rain rolls into Chicago’s Loop. I was nineteen years-old, far from all that was familiar, and immersed in a new language I’d only begun to study seriously a year earlier. I’ve been musing lately about those first six weeks outside Siena, an orientation period for me and 13 other women in my Smith College Junior Year Abroad program; and it’s been hard to reconstruct the pivotal emotions and experiences I had there.

To help jog my memory, I borrowed a book from the Chicago Public Library, The Tales of Arturo Vivante (1990), edited by Mary Kinzie when Vivante was still alive. The Vivante family, headed by Arturo’s parents, Elena and Leone, supplemented their income by hosting paying guests in their huge, pale yellow home, Villa Solaia, and our college group boarded there for six weeks before our program began ‘sul serio,’ in earnest, in Florence.

I knew nothing about the Vivante family when we settled into our rooms at the villa, but when I described them via aerogram (a lightweight letter form many people used decades ago before the existence of email) to my parents back in Chicago, my mother and father were elated. They were avid readers of The New Yorker magazine. Arturo Vivante was a frequent contributor. My parents were overjoyed at the prospect of my proximity to a literary star.

Little did they know that Arturo had no interest in engaging with us college women. He was visiting family from his home in the U.S.A. where he wrote and taught. Elena was living—stoically—with stomach cancer; and Leone, the philosopher-poet, was becoming increasingly vague. Revering his father and adoring his mother, Vivante focused almost entirely on their needs. He rarely recognized our presence and answered our questions perfunctorily.

At the time, I thought Arturo was arrogant and self-satisfied; now, I understand his attitude: we were just another group of paying guests and an unwanted distraction from his concerns about Elena and Leone. Although I haven’t finished the book yet, I am learning so much more about the Vivante family by reading his Tales. In one way or another, many stories refer to his childhood, his adolescence, and his journey into manhood, all in the context of his family, especially his relationship with his mother.

Vivante’s stories are filled with descriptions of the natural world, of hillsides and gullies, seashores and riding horseback, of fields, flowers, and animals, but also of scenes from Villa Solaia, as well as the places the Vivantes lived after 1938 when they were refugees from Fascism. His stories are reviving some of my own memories connected to the villa and its surroundings. 

I recall the villa’s dining room, dominated by a huge, round table, and the scent of olive oil, onions, tomatoes, and garlic as an aged servant woman wheeled in a large crock of pasta for our first meal there. She ladled portions into ample white stoneware bowls, and I savored this unfamiliar but delicious dish, so much bolder and aromatic than my mother’s spaghetti sauced with browned chopped chuck steak and canned tomatoes seasoned with Lawry’s spaghetti powder. Even the pasta was in a novel shape, chewy and chunky, perhaps penne or rotini—my memory fails here.

Elena presided over the meal. Instead of serving Elena pasta, the elderly servant brought her a steaming bowl of rice, a ‘risotto,’and lovingly encouraged Elena to taste it, just a little. She offered a spoonful to Elena who waved it away and muttered she would eat some in a little while.

Elena did have the energy, however, to ask each of us students what we were studying and she smiled at me when I said, “Everything.” I actually did not know what interested me other than speaking fluent Italian. The academic year’s promise was still weeks away. At that moment, I could not imagine the wealth of art, architecture, cuisine, smells, textures, and the music of language I would encounter over the next eight months and with which I would become smitten.

Dessert, however, offered a clue. From fig trees dotting Villa Solaia’s grounds, fruit piled high on a brightly painted platter sat in the middle of the table, next to a few pieces of cheese and slices of country bread. What, no brownies? I said to myself. Elena urged me to try a fig. I watched other—Italian—diners at the table to see their technique. Fork and knife; cut, slice, and eat. I tried it.

Ambrosia. Although I’d never actually tasted food of the gods, my first bite confirmed I had finally enjoyed the privilege. I delighted in this new, sweet, and luscious fruit. I murmured, “Che buono!” how good!  Or did I? How dependable is my memory of that moment? What I do know and remember without doubt is the smell, texture, and taste of a ripe fig, one of many discoveries I experienced as a student abroad. As I continue my reading of Vivante’s tales, I hope his work will evoke many more memories of that extraordinary year in my life.

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