The night once had a thousand eyes

On nights when there was a moon, Aldo and I would leave Poggio al Grillo without a lamp. It wasn’t hard to pick our way down the dirt road, and anyway Aldo knew its twists and turns by heart.

Some nights we walked as far as Vito Lippini’s. There we might see, through a door cut into the stucco walls of an outbuilding, the family’s nonna sitting on a stool in a golden rectangle of light, wearing a black dress and headscarf, as silent as Whistler’s mother, staring down the vat of red wine. Some nights we would run into Ernst, the Swiss farmer, on his bicycle, hurrying home to his wife and children from a tryst with the Englishman’s wife. Other nights we stopped in on Nino, who came from Milan only on weekends and brought his mistress with him.

Only a month earlier, it was me whom Aldo had stopped in on. I had just finished dinner and was cleaning up when I heard a deep voice outside. “Cosa succede qui? Chi abita in questa casa scura? (What’s happening here? Who has turned on the lights in the dark house?) I opened the door to find a tall, fit man with gray hair, black eyebrows, and a neat, gray beard, accompanied by a silent German shepherd.

(Upon hearing that I would be traveling in Italy, a Milanese couple—friends from a theater class in Berkeley—had given me their country place in Tuscany for the fall. They hadn’t warned me of this ad hoc night patrol.)

Sono amica degli Riccardi,” I heard myself blurt out. “Non parlo italiano.”

Benissimo!” the man replied. “I leeved two years in Feelahdellfeeah.”

And so we became friends: the twenty-six-year-old American girl, feeling very alone in a sprawling house in the Tuscan hills, and the fifty-six-year-old painter from Milan with his dog Doc. It didn’t take long before we were eating dinner together every night.

After dinner we would walk, leaving the red traces of our wineglasses to seep into the new beech table (“It is too new, too perfect,” Aldo complained) and leaving dishes to soak in the sink (“l’acqua calda soltanto nella mattina”; no hot water till morning.) Often we didn’t stop in on anyone. We just wandered.

On a night when there was just a sliver of a moon, I was taught an Italian children’s rhyme:

Gobba a ponente,

          Luna crescente;

          Gobba a levante,

          Luna calante.

In Tuscany, apparently, the man in the moon was a hunchback. If his gobba protruded to west, the moon was swelling; if his gobba protruded to the east, the moon was diminishing.

On another night, I fantasized about the people of the town, Castagneto Carducci, imagining them as giant blue nudes. Aldo was going on and on about how they were “cut out,” their isolation leading not just to poverty but also to provincial pettiness. Only later did I realize that he was translating tagliati fuori a bit too literally: he meant “cut off,” not “cut out.” His mistranslation took me to Matisse and the cutouts that the aging artist made in his last years in Provence. It didn’t matter to me that these hills were a palette of ochre, umber, sage, and sienna; that night I imagined the townspeople as cobalt cutouts against an all-white background.

On another night, I learned that those same townspeople had taken to calling me la ragazza molto in gamba. “What did they mean,” I asked,  “that I had big thighs?” Aldo laughed. To be very much “in one’s legs,” he explained, was to show pluck.

This must have come in one of our conversations about my writing. At the time, I dreamed of becoming a writer; I scribbled in a journal and suffered from dark self-doubt. I didn’t have a clue as to how to “become” an artist. I had not so much as tasted the kind of success he took for granted. He, after all, was a renowned painter. His studio at Poggio al Grillo (Cricket Knoll) included not just his own landscapes and nudes, but also a Warhol lithograph of Marisa Berenson, a Magritte, and a Picasso—all acquired in trades with other Italian artists. Aldo even prided himself on having once wittily put De Chirico in his place.

“What could you understand,” I jabbed defensively, “about my predicament?”

“Ah,” he consoled. “I know too tenderly the swing of the pendulum. One day: I am a genius! The next: I am a nothing.”

I never called him my lover. It’s not that we didn’t share a bed—in this case, a modernish wood frame of his design that firmly held two independent twin mattresses together. It’s just that that term failed to describe what I found in Aldo. It was as though I had met the person I would have been if I had been born exactly one generation earlier, and in Italy, and a man.

Aldo had the nerve to live ideas I was only beginning to flirt with.

He had never doubted that he was an artist. Not that he didn’t take risks: He had grown up in a bourgeois Milanese family and had forsaken the family legacy for a deeply nonconformist life. He was still a Communist, long after that party had gone out of favor. He had never married. As a young man, he had fled to Philadelphia when he found himself hopelessly in love with his brother Cesare’s wife. The exile didn’t work; Aldo returned to Italy and helped his sister-in-law raise his niece and nephew. The relationship with his sister-in-law eventually foundered, but he stayed close to his brother’s children: During the fall I was with him, he was fretting over the niece’s husband, a heroin addict, and giving the nephew his half of La Gallinella, a stone house he owned with Cesare. (In the kind of symmetrical justice only possible in Italy, by this time the cuckholded Cesare was living in town with a former consort of Aldo’s.)

The subject of freedom—creative, sexual, political—dominated many of our walks. Aldo was militantly opposed to many things. Like monogamy. Like complacency. Like violence. In the bedroom, a small ragged window was set into the wall beside the bed. Aldo had built the stone house by hand, and during a hiatus in the building project, a spider had spun a web in the valley between two stones. Aldo couldn’t bear to destroy the web, so he placed a glass behind the spider and kept building. From the bed, you could stare through the web window, over several ridges covered with olive trees, to the Mediterranean beyond.

One day over lunch, I noticed a very thin steel wire that extended horizontally over my head, from one wall of Aldo’s house to the other. Thinking it might be for hanging underwear on a rainy day, I asked about it. “After I built the house,” he explained, ever the maestro, “I realized that there should be a beam there, for aesthetic reasons. The wire represents the beam.”

Despite the aesthetic attractions of his house, I maintained my own quarters at the Riccardis’. I would go there during the day to write, and to play with arrangements of the paintings Aldo kept bequeathing me. They were all watercolors featuring the hills and the sea, or lithographs of black-ink nudes on bright white paper. As I moved them from bedroom to living room, from the seats of chairs to ledges built into the walls, I examined them for flaws. For imperfection, Aldo insisted, was the soul of art. To him, a perfect painting was merely decorative. A bit of watercolor out of control—or the self-doubt I couldn’t escape—suggested Truth, Life, the Human Condition.

On nights when there was no moon, not even a gobba, Aldo would grab the huge Panasonic lantern that stood sentry next to the front door. We would follow the beam of the massive flashlight down the gravel drive, watch as it animated the pocks in the dirt road, and feel ourselves cradled in a roofless room as the light picked up dusty banks cut into certain curves. I’d be transported to the dark courtyard of an ancient villa, or to the eerie majesty of San Galgano—the ruin of a Cistercian abbey in the Val di Merse whose ceiling and windows had long ago been carried off by the wind, whose walls enclosed a grand abbey now consecrated only to Space.

On one particularly dark night, shortly before I was to leave Aldo, in search of my own truths, the beam stretched indefinitely ahead as we fell uncharacteristically quiet, each lost in thought. Suddenly, in that tenantless night, there rose a porcelain-like tinkle. Aldo jerked the lamp ninety degrees, into the black emptiness. There to our right, frozen in the beam and almost near enough to touch, was a flock of sheep. Hundreds of pairs of eyes glazed red-gold. All of us—the flock, the painter, the lamb of a writer—all of us stood frozen for a few eternal seconds. The wonder! Then one sheep turned its head, sharp hooves made the bone-dry grass rustle, and, in a symphony of bells, they were gone.

—Constance Hale

{This story appeared in Italy, A Love Story (Seal Press, September 2005), The Best Travel Writing 2006 (Travelers’ Tales, 2006), and 30 Days in Italy (Travelers’ Tales, 2006).}

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