Chapter 21 – Vignette
Imagining and experiencing Italy in the 1980s and 1990s
Camilla Russell began studying Italian as a child in Melbourne. She first went to Italy in 1994–95, where she lived for 12 months studying and researching at Pisa University. In 1998 Russell was awarded the Newman College Archbishop Mannix Travelling Scholarship, which enabled her to commence doctoral studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. Several awards took her to Italy for research, including a British School at Rome Award (1999) and a Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation Award for study in Venice (2000). Russell is the author of Giulia Gonzaga and the Religious Controversies of Sixteenth-Century Italy (Brepols, 2006), as well as a number of articles on late Renaissance and early modern Italian history. She has taught at The University of Melbourne and at Monash University. Now based in Britain, she lectured at London University’s Queen Mary in 2006–07; she is currently Lecturer in European History at Newcastle University.
A few months ago, I was asked a question by a British academic colleague about my field of research: ‘One thing that puzzles me is: why the Italian Renaissance? How does someone from the antipodes, from Melbourne, come to study the history of Italy during the Renaissance? It’s not an obvious path to me, and I would be interested to hear how you arrived at it.’ What follows goes some way towards answering that question – by describing my formative encounters with Italy, first as a young student imagining Italy in Melbourne in the 1980s, and then as a junior scholar experiencing Italy in the mid 1990s.
There was nothing unusual about studying Italian in the Melbourne of the 1980s. It was an obvious language of choice at primary and secondary schools, especially the Catholic schools that I attended. From the age of eight, I was taught Italian by the children of the first generation of Italian Australians who had settled in large numbers in Melbourne after the Second World War. At secondary school, I realised that a happy by-product of my language studies was the chance to encounter Italian culture: opera, art, history, gastronomy, design, and fashion, all subjects that appealed to a young girl hungry for culture.
I well remember my first contact with Melbourne’s ‘Italy’. At the age of 15 my Italian class set off on a school excursion to Carlton’s Lygon Street, the Italian community’s hub, right next to Melbourne University. To get there, a substantial mental, if not physical, journey was required. From the monocultural, middle-class bayside suburbs where I lived and went to school, we traversed the Yarra River, that great Melbourne boundary that marks north from south, and many other social and cultural identities as well. We landed in a new and tantalising world. I thought that I had arrived in heaven when we were shown (and smelled for ourselves) how coffee beans are ground; when we sampled gelato, and walked past cafes with names like Tiamo, Donnini, and L’Università.
A few years later, and not by coincidence, I was back in Lygon Street and Carlton, this time as a Bachelor of Arts student. I chose Melbourne University as much for its proximity to the Tiamo cafe as for its academic reputation. Here I encountered for the first time Boccaccio, Dante, 1970s Italian feminism, Dario Fo and Luigi Pirandello. Germaine Greer wrote once of how, as a young woman in Melbourne, she sat on trams reading foreign literature in the hope of striking up a conversation with someone interesting and exotic. I adopted a similar strategy, sitting in Carlton’s cafes, studiously reading my Italian novels, their titles prominently displayed, in the hope of encountering someone who spoke Italian or, even better, who was Italian. It was in Carlton, too, that I took my first steps towards travelling to Italy. Without knowing how I would afford it and with what purpose I might travel there (a mere holiday was out of the question), I went to the bookshop on Elgin Street and bought The Rough Guide to Tuscany and Umbria. My purchase represented a grand statement of intent to turn my wish into something more concrete.
On graduating with a degree in Italian and History, and having written an honours thesis about the religious situation in Italy at the time of the Lutheran Reformation, I dipped my toe into the troubled waters of the early 1990s job market. The economy was in recession and I was alarmed at the lack of interesting job opportunities. And so with my Rough Guide as my inspiration, I decided instead to work at any odd job to save for travel to Italy, with a view to continuing my scholarly interests. My Melbourne supervisor, Barry Collett, put me in touch with Professor Adriano Prosperi, Italy’s leading expert in early modern Italian history. Quite remarkably, in hindsight – but consistent with his generous character – Prosperi agreed to oversee my study and research at Italy’s ancient and distinguished university at Pisa. And so began the second phase of my encounter with Italy.
My first impressions of the country formed on the plane from Rome as it began its descent into Pisa. From the window, I saw a series of ugly smokestacks. They were very high and billowing smoke, and there seemed to be a great number of them. ‘Oh no!’ I thought, ‘They talk about the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but no one ever mentions the smokestacks that surround it! I’ve been duped! The fabled beauty of Italy is a hoax!’ But we kept flying, and didn’t land near the smokestacks. Instead, suddenly, there emerged a scene of dazzling beauty: against a backdrop of beautiful hills and mountains there, framed by the plane window, was the delightful, compact, and burnt amber-coloured medieval city of Pisa, with the Arno River proudly running through its centre. On the edge of the old city was the distinctive green lawn of the Campo dei Miracoli, punctuated by its complex of luminous white buildings. For a moment, and as the side of the plane on which I was sitting tilted towards earth, the famous Leaning Tower, cathedral, and baptistery came into focus.
In Pisa, I shared a house on the Via Rigattieri, one street removed from the Arno, right in the heart of the city. I recall that my five flat mates, none of them Tuscan, maintained a general suspicion towards local food, especially Tuscany’s infamous (according to most Italians) unsalted bread. So we ate mainly the delicious cuisines of Calabria and Campania. Our meals seemed to emit the warmth of the south: herbs, tomato sauce, oil, cured meats, salted fish, and lemons. Each lunchtime, we watched The Bold and the Beautiful on television – dubbed into Italian of course. Once it concluded, it was time to do the mountain of dishes. It was generally felt among the members of our household that the Australian was not equipped to wash the dishes as thoroughly as her flatmates (especially at the rinsing stage), which happily meant that I was assigned to dryingup duties.
The cultural clash that resulted in my leaving Via Rigattieri was played out around food and language. First, I was not contributing to the cost of eating. This was painfully embarrassing for me, since I tried almost every day to push money into the hands of my flatmates as my contribution to the food, but the money was always refused. I didn’t know what to do. Much later, it was explained to me by sympathetic friends that money was too vulgar an offering, and that my share needed to be made in kind: that is, with foodstuffs. But I didn’t know what to buy, since there was a general wariness about Tuscan food, and even more worry about the kind of food that might be procured by an Australian! The second problem was language. One day, one of my flatmates blurted out that I wasn’t learning Italian quickly enough. I was mortified. I called an emergency meeting with my Pisan friend Valentina, and we sat together on the walls of the Arno while I cried. Valentina proposed two solutions: henceforth, we would speak only Italian between ourselves (we had been ‘cheating’ by speaking in English: hers was perfect from a year spent at the University of St Andrews); also, we would find another house for me, since, as she admitted, ‘I can’t understand what those girls are saying either.’
Ensconced in my new house a few streets away in Via Sant’Apollonia, my bedroom window afforded a magnificent view of the Borgo Stretto (the main street of Pisa). On Sunday afternoons, I lazily watched tourists loitering at the foot of my window, unsure of the right way to the Leaning Tower. I never called out; I was too afraid of startling them. This was a house very much to my liking. It was quite potty: it had a shower that never worked, which was a shame, since that was the main reason why I decided to live there. The kitchen had no heater, and so we came up with the dangerous solution of turning on the gas oven and leaving it open to warm the room. My housemates were as eccentric as the house, but equally likeable. One was a hippy from the north; another was a delightful woman from the Basilicata region with a penchant for pasta served in a sauce of cream and peas, which she ate contentedly almost every day. Yet another, Francesca, who became one of my closest friends, was not without her culinary peculiarities: once, she cooked me strawberry risotto. It was among the mixed collection of young women in this abode that I became happy. At the same time, I finally became fluent in Italian, and understood that happiness is a key to effective learning.
I observed so many things during my year in Pisa: the manic, collective rush home for lunch just before one o’clock each day; the importance of bella figura (that is, of making a good impression) and of having quality accessories; the infinite time it can take to discuss methods of buying, preparing, and cooking food. Then there was the sound of a lone motorino, motor scooter, in the middle of the night; it seemed to me that it could be heard approaching all the way from Florence, until at last the high-pitched motor zoomed past, almost bursting my eardrums. I will never forget, too, the distinctive sound of clinking cups and saucers, and the exquisite aroma of Italian espresso coffee from the bar across the street wafting through my bedroom window first thing in the morning.
I learnt, as well, about the everyday paradoxes of Italian political and religious identities: one friend, Chiara, lived in a part of Tuscany where every road is named after a communist hero – Via Marx and Via Lenin are favourites – while those same streets played host to a multitude of ancient and much-loved churches and tabernacles. I observed, too, the weight of Italy’s remarkable and magnificent history, which seemed to be worn lightly, even stylishly (if such a thing is possible), but never with indifference or disrespect: I recall a woman and her grandson stepping into the quiet interior of my favourite church in Pisa, the eleventh-century San Frediano, complete with ancient Roman columns. The little boy stopped, took in his surroundings, and whispered in awe and genuine appreciation, ‘che bello!’ – ‘how beautiful!’
In the course of those 12 months in the mid 1990s, I came to know in greater detail both the unprepossessing ‘smokestack’ aspect of life in Italy, and the achingly beautiful side that can be conjured up by the mere mention of the word ‘Italy’. While I had achieved what I set out to accomplish during my stay – acquiring fluency in Italian, and mastery of the historical sources and technical skills necessary for my postgraduate studies – I also became a beginner in the study of Italian mores. I learnt to produce a fine bruschetta, and how to mimic the distinctive Roman accent. What, then, made me, an Australian, decide to study the Renaissance in Italy? I am still, perhaps, not quite sure. But what I do know is that without Melbourne, without the image of Italy I absorbed there, there would have been no ‘real’ Italian experiences for me, no dedication on my part to the academic study of Italy’s past.
This chapter is from Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions, edited by Bill Kent, Ros Pesman and Cynthia Troup (Monash University Publishing: Clayton, Melbourne. 2010). For more information about this book, or to purchase print copies, please go to http://www.publishing.monash.edu/books/ai.html.