California Sketches: Where time stands still

05/20/2012 12:00 AM

08/23/2014 8:39 PM

A gift of time brings me to a hill town in Tuscany this past winter. In the footsteps of D.H. Lawrence, Charles Dickens, Henry James and other artists, writers and travelers, I'm curious. I've come here for five weeks to find out why we search for sensations and connections from this ancient Etruscan place. What makes the Tuscan countryside so extraordinary?

Sixty-five miles southeast of Florence in the Apennine Mountains, an old, straight Roman road crosses a valley and ascends to a hilltop town. Anghiari spills from a medieval fortress, crossing ridges and commanding stunning vistas.

As winter slides into spring, Anghiari provides a perfect base for exploration. Bare forests contrast starkly with verdant fields. Cypress, umbrella pines and olive groves stand tall, their forms repeating in a winter palette more luscious in texture than color. Fields of red poppies and yellow sunflowers won't appear until summer. Knobby hills protrude from alluvial valleys. Vast forests of pine and chestnut cover distant hills. On their crests, the line between sky and forest is indistinct, blurred, a fuzziness that adds softness to a landscape that transcends beauty.

On past visits, I traveled Northern Italy by car, hiked in fear the steep cliffs of the Cinque Terre above the Mediterranean Sea, and have happily gotten lost on the streets of Florence. I've seen photographs and paintings to the point of cliché. This time I wander the countryside.

At a party one evening I drift away, down a lane. I see a farmer in a red tractor and I stop, captivated. The farmer smiles. His plow turns over large chunks of moist earth in a small field, back and forth, back and forth. He personifies what Lawrence referred to as an "ease of movement between ancient and modern." By standing there, the fragrance of his newly turned earth, an earth of antiquity, reaches me and I can feel the timeless magnificence of this land.

With my sketchbook and paints in hand, I meander through a place that insists on a slower pace. Time slows down. Impressions intensify and I respond to the moment. In Siena, light dominates. Each morning, the long cast shadow of the bell tower glides across the sloped floor of the Piazza del Campo like a huge sundial. In the evening, the setting sun casts its illuminating warmth until shadows creep slowly up the bell tower. Can this possibly be captured in a painting? Perhaps only as an impression, as James suggested in the late 1800s, "a precious presented sensibility an infinite vision of medieval Italy."

Early Etruscans flourished in Tuscany from 800 B.C. to its assimilation by Rome in the first century B.C. Fractured bits of pottery, murals and ancient tombs remain as testimony to an innovative and productive culture. From ancient paintings on museums' walls, long noses and lively eyes follow me, evidence of what a Tuscan friend calls "the well-cultivated, pride of old Etruscan blood, an arrogance, an ego."

One day a painter, Vincenzo Calli, invites me to his studio. I look into his face and at the figures and landscapes in his paintings. I realize that Etruscan heritage isn't some abstract concept predating the Roman Empire, that in this region, history isn't something that exists in the past. Calli and his paintings represent talent and skills of a proud Etruscan heritage, a continuity of people, land and nature, or as Dickens observed in 1844, "a simultaneity of past and present."

It's not just the countryside that makes Tuscany extraordinary, it's the people. One day at lunch on a terrace in Monte Santa Maria di Tiberina, overlooking terra cotta rooftops and quilted fields, the owner of the cafe comes out for a break. He sits on the parapet, enjoying the same vista he's always seen. He sees me drawing him and stays, and in the silence acknowledges my appreciation.

These are experiences that can only be discovered by slowing down time. Businesses close between 1 and 4 p.m. for siesta, and leisurely meals are often enjoyed with family and friends seated at a long table. On Easter Sunday, we drive to lunch high in the mountains, where it is so cold that snow is falling on distant peaks. Eight courses, proudly prepared by the mother and presented by her family, feature antipasti, soup, goose lasagna, gnocchi, beef, duck, lamb, ice cream and cakes. It ends with grappa and limoncello, somewhere near gluttony and just short of insobriety.

In Anghiari, Wednesday is market day. In the well-worn public squares, people greet each other enthusiastically and show off their grandchildren. From each market truck, elaborate awnings mechanically unfold. Soon a parade of all ages passes from cheese to vegetable to meat vendors. On sunny days, "the old men of the wall," as my friend Peter calls them, congregate in packs, gesturing and arguing. On rainy days, they huddle together, holding umbrellas to protect each other from the rain. These are a people who live in a town that transcends time, who are deeply engaged in civic life. Prosperity isn't measured materially but in connections carefully preserved.

In Florence, the immense scale of architecture and accomplishments of the Renaissance inspires awe. By contrast, the architecture of medieval Anghiari is intimate, touchable, and of a smaller, human scale. While the walls of Florence are elaborately adorned, medieval towns are textured with a rich patchwork of stucco, stone and brick. The history of a building is visible in its walls, like deep lines on a very old person's face, evidence of a life lived.

When James visited Siena, for example, he described "a world battered and befouled with long use." But since then structures have been painstakingly protected and restored. Open spaces within hill towns are preserved, as are borders between town and farmland. Architectural heritage is guarded by strict code. Sprawl is contained. This is a responsibility that speaks from experience and extends to the future.

I visit a country house that began as a watchtower a thousand years ago. The tower was destroyed in the 15th century but every owner since has contributed to its transformation into a charming country home with stunning views. Lawrence could have been describing these views when he wrote, "soft and swooping, swooping down and up, and glowing with green newness that hill has a soul, it has meaning."

For over 3,000 years, Tuscans have valued connections, preservation and stewardship of the countryside. Civic priorities are reflected in the symbiotic relationships between their homes, their towns and their land. In California, we have radically transformed our landscape in less than 300 years, rushing ambitiously since the Gold Rush. Appreciation for Tuscan values shows us how critical balance in our surroundings is to our sustenance. Time offers the opportunity for thoughtfulness in how we respond to our resources. Maybe we should pay attention to the wisdom of the ancient Italian saying, "make haste slowly." Or in more contemporary terms, slow down and live.

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