Diary (excerpts 1973)

FL with Yates, Taormina 1973 (C.Toraldo di Francia)

FL with Yates, Taormina 1973 (C.Toraldo di Francia)

Florence, 1973

July 18 – Today is my birthday. This morning, to honor the occasion, Yates and I ate our breakfast at Rivoire, then sat in the shade under the Loggia dei Lanzi to watch the piazza. A friendly old woman sat down next to us and started up a conversation with Yates. He is making better progress with Italian than I am. When she asked him how old he was, I looked up in time to see him hold up three fingers. I was busy trying to read in La Nazione about Nixon’s tape recording system. At a certain point, she asked him where his mother was. He acted confused as he pointed in my direction. She glanced over at me and apologized, “I’m sorry dear; it’s just that you look so young!” ” I am young!” I said.

July 20 - As I write, I’m gazing out over the Arno through the green slats of the shutters while Yates plays with Lego at my feet. It’s around two o’clock. There is no movement outside; the whole scene could be a photograph. Even the flow of the river, opaque as pea soup, seems suspended. We used to walk at this hour, keeping to the shadows made by the over-hanging roofs. The streets were deserted and the lull in traffic let us step carefully out onto the pavement every now and then to look at the facades above. Now, it is too hot even for our slow pace.

July 30 -What Yates loves best here is the night. Way past what would be his bedtime in Boston, everyone is down in the piazza moving around, talking, shouting, singing. You can hear children – even very young ones – running around and squealing. Gradually we are conforming to patterns that have been established for good very reasons.
I guess you could say we are learning to be at home since that’s what home is really, not just a roof over your head but a set of rituals that, by being familiar, give comfort to everyday life, no longer having to be worked out one by one.
In some ways, even while we were traveling, we were at home. We had our rituals. Yates had his playtime, I had my reading, then a pause for lunch – a bag of cheese and fruit or a stop at a trattoria. Around nap – time, we made up what he called his “special bed”. This was my old trench coat smoothed out, the sleeve and collar part folded to form a pillow. He got so attached to it that for months later – even in his own bed – he couldn’t sleep without it, flicking the collar point between his fingers before dropping off.
We took local trains so we could get off whenever we felt like it. Visits to museums and churches were usually short and to the point. Maybe because he so recently was one, Yates was always on the lookout for babies in the paintings and sculptures.
In our conversations with strangers on trains, I made up stories about where we were going, meetings with relatives further down the line. It wasn’t that I was reticent but – until recently – I had been so focused on the decision to leave home that I had given much less practical thought to where we were going. I decided on Florence. It had become a dream of mine ever since childhood when I had seen frescoes from Florence temporarily displayed on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum. These had been removed from their original walls so that they could be rescued from the flood. I was awe-struck.

August 16 – When I’d first thought of leaving Boston, a man I know who is a New York artist, invited me to dinner. He showed me his sculptures, big steel boxes that were beautiful in the way a big steel box would have to be. I held off showing him my drawings of everyday objects, children and friends after he insisted that art today had to be impersonal, unequivocal, and a reflection on it’s time.
Time. But it’s my time, I mean my own interior time – what is going on inside my mind – that I really need to reflect on now.

He calls this “avoiding reality” and “escapism”. But isn’t running away a legitimate alternative when nothing else seems to work? Vietnam; I don’t want to think about it but there it is…calling, over and over again, everything we knew and felt strongly about into question. If a person could really understand all that goes into making one do certain things, even the most trivial circumstances – the John Wayne movies – would he be able to avoid that helicopter, that missile, that descent from the sky?

We don’t have a television – one way of keeping reality at bay. The other night in the trattoria, there was a television on but nobody was giving it any particular attention. Some numbers flashed up and I could feel my stomach tighten the way it did for the daily body counts in Southeast Asia, but they were soccer scores. Then several women who looked like showgirls from Las Vegas started dancing on a table (on the television screen, not in the trattoria). Shortly after, during desert, they were followed by a group of men seated around a large table, shouting at each other, sometimes all at the same time. And just as we were leaving, it flashed on – the news that the bombing of Cambodia is officially ended…

August 18 - I’ve always felt like a foreigner. Even growing up in New York. Maybe it’s because family roots in Upstate New York made me feel that our life in the city was temporary, that any day we would leave. I remember, even very young, looking at things carefully, photographing them in my mind’s camera, the way you look around a house you are leaving for the last time…
But being a genuine outsider seems like a good thing for an artist. You can observe and question things that an insider can’t see because he takes them for granted. Besides that, it frees you from the strictures of social norms that can sap valuable time and energy. Once you’re away from the claims of your own society, you can choose to take on just what is essential from the society you join.

20 August - A dog is barking in the street below. There are several dogs joining him now, panting in the shade and looking puzzled, as if they don’t know what to do next or where they belong. You can see the shimmering waves of heat rising around them. Beyond the river and houses lining it, the hills and their geometry of olive grove and cypress look like a blue mirage.

21 August – I am learning to read the landscape – a necessary first step before being able to draw it. It doesn’t belong to me, too different from the landscape of my childhood. I mean the one I carried in my head – made up of stories of Mohicans and yearly visits to the ragged woodland of our old farm in the Mohawk valley. We were constantly – even in the empty lots of Manhattan – looking for wilderness. In our minds we were pioneers.

25 August – The Tuscan countryside really disturbed me at first. It’s harmony oppressed me in the way perfect things do because they leave so little space for a critical response, no where to hide and no chaotic corner I might put in order using my own creativity. Nothing is left to chance – terraces, walls, olive groves – even the trees in the forest are lined up in rows like corn
When I came upon a window in the Uffizzi the other day, I was startled by a sudden view of the countryside because it looked like a painting. All at once, I saw the landscape as a work of art. And as soon as modern farming takes over in Tuscany, that kind of scene will be a precious reminder – like the fresco still adorning a church wall. The same thing is true of the American wilderness that has been completely consumed except for those scattered areas set aside as parkland. Still these two landscapes survive, not just as relics but as ideals, each emblematic of a special approach to life.
I am thinking of art, in particular. In America where novelty is everything, the artist must be a pioneer, constantly staking out new claims in virgin territory. Here, artists seem to employ their history more actively, not just by using traditional techniques, but by consciously elaborating on art from the past, reinvesting it with new dreams.

August 29 – Last night, we saw a different side of Florence. A friend took us to the Festa dell’ Unit√†, a kind of fair to raise money for the Communist Party. I had to overcome a reflexive reaction of fear before entering because there was a huge red hammer and sickle suspended above the gateway.
Inside, there was a long exposition stand with photographs of appalling things that the USA is doing in Chile through the CIA and so on. Even after Watergate and Vietnam, I still find it hard to believe. There were also discussions about the political situation here but I had trouble understanding, not just for the language but due to the amplification of a concert right next to us where the singer looked exactly like Elvis Presley. There were also carnival games (shoot the duck and so on). We won a fern and a teddy bear but didn’t buy chances on a new red car because I was afraid I might win it.
Walking home as the sun was setting, Yates pointed out a star barely visible in the dusk. I told him, since it was the first star he saw that night, he could make a wish on it. He took this very seriously and slowed his pace to a halt. When I asked him, after a few minutes, if he had decided on something, he nodded but still didn’t move. After deliberating for several minutes longer he looked up and asked,” who do you have to see about getting a wish changed?”

September 5 – The apartment we are living in is fairly modern – it must have been built to replace a building destroyed by the war – and is on the sixth floor. We have a really big balcony that we are gradually filling with plants helped by a Persian student of architecture who lives on the first floor. The building has a cage-like elevator with a slot where you need to insert a ten-lira piece in order to make the thing work. It is nearly impossible to find! We have finally found out that stores who sell milk usually have a few – which we hoard jealously. This was one of our more important discoveries.

September 12 – Chile’s democratically elected government was overthrown by a military coup…

September 15 – The Persian student has become a good friend. He is a big help, especially if I need to go out, because Yates likes staying with him. Sometimes we go down to his house to take a shower because – from six o’clock in the morning until late at night – we have no water. This is due to a lack of pressure in the summer. His apartment is very beautiful. The walls and floors are covered with carpets his father sent him from home.

September 18 – Yates has his own room. My old raincoat lies spread out on top of the bedspread.
Yesterday he was so quiet right after going to bed that I called him to find out what he was up to and he answered, “sleeping.” When I went in to check up on him a little while later, he really was asleep. But right over his head – like the caption in a cartoon – there was a big black circle drawn in crayon on the wall. Inside it, there were flowers and cats and what looked like a family, all dancing under a big yellow sun! I wonder if I could extract this piece of wall, save it the way they did with the frescoes… Yates woke up while I was standing there, so I asked him what it was. He said it was his dream.