Saturday, January 16, 2016

My review: Bella Tuscany by Frances Mayes

MediumFrances Mayes’ Bella Tuscany: The Sweet Life in Italy is an antipasto (appetizer) for a sumptuous banchetto (banquet) at a long table in an Italian oliveto (olive grove). Her descriptions of her and husband Ed’s part-time Tuscan life whetted my appetite to enjoy Tuscany’s culture, sights, smells, and tastes myself someday. Yes, I took some notes on places I’d like to visit. For me, however, the book was more than thoughtful observations, sensory delights, and invitation to travel. Passionate about feasting on vegetables and herbs I grow myself, I felt a kinship with Mayes’ connection to her Bramasole garden. As enamored with French culture as Mayes is with Tuscan culture, I keenly felt her “C’est la belle vie!” observations about the richness of Italian life. And being a writer, I admired Mayes’ style and descriptions. She has a gift for communicating splendor in the ordinary. Bella Tuscany, part travel blog, part personal diary, held my interest throughout. With only words, Mayes has painted beautiful pictures.

One highlight for me was eavesdropping on conversations Frances and Ed had with Tuscan craftsmen helping them remodel and maintain Bramasole. I felt as if I’d gotten glimpses into their colorful personalities. And I saw beauty in their mutual dependence, and even joy in the need to need each other. The Mayeses needed a local team to realize their dreams for their Tuscan home, and their mutual friendships were sweet. Bella Tuscany embodies Frances’ reflections on travel and travel writing, [pages 175 to 180 in my edition] namely how sensing a culture’s heart and soul changes you, whereas just sightseeing doesn’t. The best travel experiences are exchanges.

Exchanges, at some point, require language skills. So I was glad Mayes included a Lost in Translation chapter on her Italian lessons, which encouraged me to blush and laugh at my French blunders rather than redden and despair. I also resonated with Frances’ desire to bring certain aspects of Tuscany home with her in the form of linens, tableware, recipes, art. Over many decades, I have also loved bringing beloved bits of France and North Carolina home with me after my travels. “Over and over, I surrender to the Italian sense of beauty. How to bring the elements I’ve come to love into my own garden? I want Humphrey’s fast and loose arrangements, his rustic sense of comfort and ease. Can I have those along with the Italian geometry and playfulness, those oxymorons that give such a sense of surprise?” [page 126]

I loved Frances’ and Ed’s eagerness to drink in Italian life, culture, history, art, flavors. I could picture the “ziggurat of ripe white peaches” a farmers market vendor had built [page 84] and taste Paolo’s fennel fritters [recipe on page 138]. I could see details of Sansepolcro painter Piero della Francesca’s Madonna della Misericordia, and I appreciated Frances’ framing it in terms of T.S. Eliot’s and Kenneth Clark’s later observations. And Ed notices, “He [Christ in Piero’s painting] emanates the same mystery as his Madonna del Parto.” To this, Frances says, “Yes, he’s looking at what we can’t see.” [page 71] Insightful! And she offers bits of art and socioeconomic history such as “an amazing moment in history when shepherds—and apprentices and clerks and noblemen’s boys—took up the brush or the chisel all over Italy. The middle class was on the rise. The Tuscan vernacular began to be used in literary works.” [page 200]

Bella Tuscany’s Breathing Art chapter ends with the most beautifully evocative passage of the book. In describing how she might, by using watercolors and chalks on handmade papers, portray pleasure, Mayes has described her actual achievement using words on the printed page.

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