Inverno e i russi / Winter and Russians

The cold months around Christmas have always signaled that the time has come again to read Russian classics.

The crisp air, the holidays, warm rooms and chilly paths, short days and long moonlit nights, all seem congruous with my days. Social intrigue, confessions, married couples, shining eyes, nannies and gaggles of noble children. Huge farms and serfs and trains and snowstorms, the train to St. Petersburg.

I am not sure when this habit of mine began, possibly in the late nineties in Seattle with Turgenev, or even earlier, in Strasbourg in 1996, as I plowed through the brick that is The Brothers Karamazov first in French (got about halfway through), then in English. It persisted, and from then on cold weather meant that I should take in hand a volume of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, or Turgenev, or Lermontov or Akhmatova when the mood called for poetry. Anna Karenina, The Idiot, The Torrents of Spring, “Family Happiness,” “Master and Man,” “The Kreutzer Sonata,” more.

Something about the way Russian literature flies a straight path through a narrative, clean prose and insight on board, poetry and poignance when called for, but never overdone, resonates with me more deeply with every passing year The truth that runs through all relationships, between all people, at every age and level, the sensitivity with which inner struggles are described and resolved – or not. The frank portrayal of the spectrum of human passions.

I remember thinking as an adolescent that certain types of fiction were beyond me, and best kept aside for a later date – Hemingway and Fitzgerald seen in middle school but saved for high school, Proust on the radar in college but saved for graduate school, the Russians beckoning toward me through the fog of my mid-twenties but reading like a life manual by my mid-thirties (to a certain extent.) Especially as the occasional squalor of the day-to-day grind, working and dealing with an unwieldy public, my bureaucratic career barely papering over the churning sea of my many hopes, desires, and internal conflicts.

Last year I read more Tolstoy, novellas and short stories, and my holidays were improved considerably by literary insight, as I was at the time in my initial six months of cultural adjustment in Italy. It helped that we drove to the cold mountains of Slovenia for Christmas, the slavic air further contributing to my feeling of being transported and immersed into the whirl of another’s well-painted problems.

Russian perspective is a valuable acquired skill especially in Florence, where the sublime exists in daily company with squalor. Of course, we have the Palazzo Vecchio with its ridged tower and colorful crests, the Loggia dei Lanzi filled with sculpture for public perusal. The duomo, hulking over its piazza and the Piazza di San Giovanni, its tricolor marble trumpeting centuries of economic growth and dominance. Block after block of luxury high-end retail, five star hotels, vaunted restaurants.

Feast your purse on such luxury goods.

And yet poverty, in the form of desperate African immigrants selling tissues and their counterparts from North Africa holding down the market on selfie sticks and knockoff fine art prints, Roma bickering in the street and shouting into cell phones. The crowds that gather for the thrist shop and food pantry at St. James. The easy access to a variety of panaceas to numb the mind and get through the night. The transnational crowd of wealthy tourists, economic climbers from China. Even the occasional Italian parent slapping and spanking their young child mid-meltdown on Piazza della Repubblica makes me wince.

As a friend used to say, life’s rich pageant, hmm?

Two items recently have struck me as stepped from a Russian novel: the aging Italian junkie I see every day, and the English cemetery.

He is about fifty, with a white ponytail. He is slight, and short. He looks like a kind man, if he know what day it was. He wears a blue piumino, jeans, and tennis shoes without fail. I pass him on my bike each evening as he drifts around the intersecting of Via degli Alfani and Via della Pergola, in the middle of some very student blocks. He is there, rain or shine. His eyes are blue, but they do not see; he usually looks strung out in a gaunt, haunted way. He never asks me for money, probably because I am moving too fast on my bike, but his pathos is shared with every pedestrian he sees. I think he must have been a handsome and creative man once, twenty-five years ago. The Florentine intersections are often named on each angle – I like to think this is foresight to assist Florentines from every century to successfully complete their daily rendezvous. The corners are poetically named: Canto dei Candeli, Canto dei Diavoli, and so on. The corner where this hungry ghost rattles his maudlin chains? Canto alla Catena.

The Cimitero Inglese is just a few blocks from our palazzo, on Piazzale Donatello, which is today a huge traffic circle. I know it well by sight, but had never been inside its iron gates; two weeks ago, I jumped at the chance to tag along with a cultural side trip from another language school, and showed up on a very windy, cold day. As the group assembled we introduced ourselves to one another, chatting amiably until the caretaker came to the gate to let us in.

She was straight out of the thirteen century, and spoke fluent Italian with a British accent. A white kerchief was carefully knotted around her head, the front fold pulled down over her brow to make a sort of brim. She was cheerful, and of an age that cared not a whit about her matching white whiskers. She wore a sort of monastic habit, and sandals with socks. She ushered us into her library to tell the story of the cemetery, and the many famous people who came to rest there, especially the headliner – Elizabeth Barrett Browning, long-suffering of tuberculosis, who died of a gradual laudanum overdose administered by her husband Robert. The caretaker declaimed a few Browning poems, first in Italian, then in a beautiful Oxfordian English.

She said it was not just one cemetery, but three, and I am guessing the next two layers down are either medieval and Roman or Roman and Etruscan. The cemetery is a noticeable hill, which must be at least 40 or 50 feet high, and I am sure it is all bones upon layered bones. It became the English cemetery in the nineteenth century, when it was illegal for non-Catholics to be buried within the city wall, and the Piazzale Donatello was just outside that city limit, at the top of Borgo Pinti.

The caretaker also does a lot of work with the Rom in Florence, having invited them to the cemetery to help clean and restore the cemetery. From 1950 to the early 2000s it had fallen into disrepair, and had become an eyesore, a place where drugs were bought, sold, and taken, dirty needles discarded, women’s bodies bought and sold, a suicide attempt. When the cleanup began, though, the scholarly grandmother said, the iniquity seemed to disperse, and the property became a less desperate place.

Following her lecture, we went outside
to look at the graves and stones. The sky had become darker and grayer, threatening a stinging rain. I went off on my own to read inscriptions. I found the Browning headstone ahead of the group so I could take a picture. Many leaders of the Swiss Reformed Church are buried there, along with many artists, statesmen, the last living descendants of William Shakespeare, and more. The memorials themselves are very Victorian, many weeping angels with their hands on their foreheads, and rugged crosses hewn from marble.

The final resting place of EBB, as she’s known here.

I’ve always felt an affinity for stones and bones. It is the history student in me, the intuitive feeler who can close her eyes and inhale and feel the lives lived centuries before. Tuberculosis, smallpox, fever, childbirth. Perhaps heartbreak. Rarely old age. Where did they live, what did they dream? Whom did they love, what did they yearn for? It is another way to read a book, to know history. We all come to rest, sooner or later. I don’t know if I’d want to be squeezed in on that bone-filled traffic island.

Angel for eternity

I thanked the scholarly grandmother for her time and informative lecture. She was keen to talk more to me as she and Jason are social contacts, given their shared research. I told her that I would return with Jason, and some books for her library. I donated to the box that was set out by Rom volunteers to support their continued work as they right the broken and crooked tombstones, and repair the now-flourishing gardens – in the spring the cemetery erupts in a profusion of thousands of purple irises, the gigli that are the symbol of the Florentine commune.

I’ve got a fresh copy of Gogol’s Dead Souls that I will be inhaling as soon as our holidays begin, fortified by fresh images of low and high culture, living the human experience in Florence as close to the bone as life will allow, in parallel with art and history.

And, fortunately, with antibiotics, proper medical care, and immunizations.

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