Just Back From
I played soccer with a small boy in Tuscany recently. He was around eight years old, and the iron-wrought gate he was using as a goalpost was roughly two orders of magnitude older. The game, in a little village near the Rosewood Castiglion del Bosco hotel, where I was staying, started accidentally, a feint that turned into a back and forth. It was evening, just late enough that the pale shale side of the local church was beginning to glow orange and locals were gathering on terraces in the square for drinks.
The game evolved, and my competitive instincts took over (embarrassment at becoming competitive with a young boy wouldn’t set in for several hours), and I began to try to score. I dribbled back and forth as I hadn’t done in more than a decade and even made it past the goalkeeper. But when it was time to kick the ball, to score on that iron gate and capture my place in the glorious annals of Child Humiliaters, I hesitated. Not because I thought I should let the kid win but because the gate I could have demolished with a kick was older than the United States, where I live. My years of education told me that such a relic should be respected, perhaps not even touched.
As I paused, the boy stole the ball from me and shot it himself. The ball rocketed from his toe straight into the gate with a ring of victory.
Later, I had a drink on a nearby patio. The kid was nowhere to be seen, the sky had turned purple, and I found myself chatting with my server, who had watched the game. I mentioned my reluctance to risk harming the gate.
“I don’t think you could damage that old thing if you tried,” he said casually, “I used the same gate as a goal when I was younger. It has survived 800 years, and it’ll survive for 800 more.”
Italy is an old country. This I know, as does anybody who has ever read a book and dreamed of fighting in the Colosseum. And its ancient culture is still woven into the people’s lives, not as threads in a tapestry for display in the living room but as the nap of a rug used to clean their feet in the entry. Some of its historic buildings, like the Colosseum, have been preserved as tourist attractions, but the country is covered in mundane vestiges of antiquity—barns, wineries, villas—some a millennium old or older and still as functional as my New York City apartment, though certainly more aesthetically pleasing.
At times I felt as if these ancient villages were part of a theme park, erected as the stage set for a Renaissance reenactment, to celebrate a holiday or tell a story. “See how our ancestors lived!” they say. “See what it was like when we all wore doublets!” “Try your hand at making wine!”
But the longer I stay in Italy, the more I realize that what I am seeing and experiencing is not being put on for an audience. It is authentic—life as these people actually live it, not as I was led to expect it to be by history books and museums. Italy’s culture is ancient, sure, but it is also modern, having evolved as needed while retaining the age-old elements that continue to work.
Related: Tuscany: Look Local
I met a local truffle hunter who lamented how difficult truffle permits were to get this year and how some other foragers have tried to poison his animals to reduce the stiff competition. I met a winemaker, a city woman who had married into the business, run by her husband’s family for several hundred years. Her daughters were in college, but she expected them to take over when they graduated. She showed me the cellar in which the wine was stored, and one of the chambers was painted with frescoes depicting the generations of owners. It was built half a millennium before and still as sturdy as any structure built today. My apartment was built in the 1980s. The bathroom tiles are chipping, and the fire escape rattles.
I think about respect and about that iron gate in the village square in Tuscany. There are two ways to respect a relic like that. The first, which I had thought the most appropriate, is to give it a wide berth, encircling it with ropes and telling people “no pictures.” That’s preservation, memorialization. It’s monumentalization. It’s bronze plaques and museum glass.
The other way is acceptance, integration. It is understanding that the gate has served as portal, as architecture, as child’s goalpost for almost a millennium and that today its utility is not in question. In Tuscany, the lessons of antiquity are not put on a pedestal but built upon. That is how the people respect their past. I see now that I had been treating as a mausoleum a place that is still very much in love with life.
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