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Preface & Reader Response

"Perché ti siedi qui ogni giorno leggendo di Firenze quando si puo andare in città e vivere Firenze?"

"Why do you sit here every day reading about Florence when you could go into the city and live Florence?"

More About This Subject:

A couple of features in TennesseeSoul have referred to Vincenzo Amato. In each, his role as a teacher has been prominent, often in the context of gardening. Toward the end of an essay entitled "Socratic Men & the Lads Willing to Listen," Vincenzo figures in a place of honor with other men who, though not related to a pupil by blood, are a significant influence on how a young man's life unfolds and the values he holds dearest all his days.



by Jerry Murley

Florence is a contradiction, a stimulating blend of pungent and sweet organic sights, smells, and sounds. Many of these would be considered objectionable in America: decaying matter; garlic, onions, and wine on every tongue; the odor of bodies after daily work or leisure during sultry days and nights; open markets for beef, pork, fish, poultry, and wild game; butcher shops where puddles of blood slowly spread over linoleum and concrete floors; automobile emissions; noisy scooters and three-wheel delivery trucks; and the fresh, saccharine breeze passing over fields of flowers, vegetables, grapevines, olive trees, and recently moistened soil. In combination, the results are rich, thick, and memorable, sensually stimulating and reflective of the vitality and earth-anchored culture of Italy. This, nevertheless, differs significantly from the coarseness known in corners of urban and rural America. In essence, the main difference is that these poignant ingredients and mixtures are not considered coarse in a dismissive way by the denizens of Italy: they do not preclude selective refinement of social graces, customs, and crafts, but rather tend to ensure advanced tastes by promising to keep hearts and heads mundane. The Italians are proudly defiant in their view of their individual worth and cunning, yet unusually gregarious, cooperative, patient, and brimming with humor.

* * *

Vincenzo Amato – the name speaks to my heart every time I sound it – was a compact man with a magnetic face and charm. His classical stances and earnest public countenance made him statuesque despite his actual stature. A Sicilian transplant in Florence, Vincenzo Amato was, nonetheless, the perfect host and guide to Italy – and to life – for two college boys primed for the world but not quite prepared for it. He was the sun, wind, and water, the smile and practical sense that pushed our minds and spirits, our arms, legs, and backs. He was the big man of earth who lifted us over the wall during our great summer escape from the loving but suffocating bounds of American suburbia in 1972.

For Don and me, near or at twenty-two years of age, Vincenzo Amato was a candidate for a pantheon – if only pantheons honored true men of peace, grit, and wisdom. He was at one with his garden and its plants; he was a vineyard sage. He was our motivator and guide to moving beyond constant study to a world of blended work and play. Besides offering an opportunity to exchange manual labor for lessons in gardening, fresh vegetables, and villa wine, he reinforced in us the values of steady labor, devotion to family, and taking time to let loose. Whether sauntering debonairly attired in a suit jacket on the street carrying his briefcase or outfitted in his beret for work in the worn clothing he stored in his cane hut, Vincenzo was ever of noble bearing and purpose and lively humor.

Stories often recalled deserve repeated recitation. Don's first meeting with Vincenzo is one of the best and most resonant.

Early one overcast Sunday afternoon in May, soon after our move into the villa apartment on Via Senese, Don, breathing excitedly, rushed into our apartment with darkened teeth. He had been in the garden hut of the villa gardener drinking a potent, dark-red wine made by said gardener with grapes from the villa.

Don reported that the man, Vincenzo Amato, while walking to work, had found him lazily reading in the formal garden and asked, "Perché ti siedi qui ogni giorno leggendo di Firenze quando si puo andare in città e vivere Firenze?" In essence, according to Don's translation, Vincenzo had said, "Why do you sit here every day reading about Florence when you could go into the city and live Florence?"

Vincenzo's breezily launched query at the young reader struck like a thunderbolt, more so because of its simplicity. Don says today, "Is that any less profound than [this?] 'You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.' Hell no. Vincenzo's words jolted me that morning more than Camus ever did with his words."

Vincenzo Amato was probably around 60 years of age when I met him. He lived up the street from our villa apartment on Via Senese toward Porta Romana and the center of Florence. Vincenzo was the Signora's gardener and winemaker.

After a short walk along the gravel walk, through the dense, exotic vegetation of the villa's formal garden, one emerged at the downslope edge of the vineyard. There, Vincenzo maintained a small, dirt-floor, ten-foot-by-ten-foot hut, fabricated of scrap wood, sheet metal, plastic, bamboo, and wire, that he used for his tools and supplies – and for respite with companions. The approach to the door of the hut was populated with rough-cut, unruly flower beds and clay pots of various kinds and sizes. In that hut, some five months later, he would store his fresh wine after pressing the grapes in October.

* * *

In general, my days at the villa were simply occupied, much like, but easier than, Vincenzo's. Despite the tumult of the world beyond Italy, there were no issues of mankind that I was initiating, progressing, achieving, solving, or overcoming. I had a crude, novice's garden fashioned from rocky soil in which I spent several hours each day watering, weeding, reading, and basking under the radiant blessings of father sun. Each and every day I was embedded in the primitive aura of the fecund greens of grapevines and vegetables and the sensual deep browns and aromas of newly tilled soil. Acclimated to the beauty inherit in it all, I tossed about in a tropical paganism but was far more intellectually fulfilled than ever before.

Once I came to know Vincenzo, I usually worked in the villa fields in the late afternoon with him. We could scarcely communicate in language, but we sang songs as we labored and drank his homemade wine afterward. He gave us plants for our garden and fresh vegetables for meals. He gave Don and me a bicycle to use while in Florence. I think cooking, walks, and the times passed with Vincenzo will abide forever in my memory as my image of Italy – my view of the perfect life. At times, a few minutes after I worked in the orchards and returned home to prepare a meal with Don, Vincenzo would arrive offering his gift of life, a fiasco of his best wine, made in his little hut. It was beautiful wine. I cannot imagine being in Italy and unimpressed by the food and wine: though hard to assert as a generality, I would still hazard to say that meals were the highpoint of every day.

There were other such warm, but brief, experiences with the people we met in Florence: the Norwegian, Australian, and Austrian villa residents; the Italian young men living in the top-floor apartment above ours; the Italian owners, their family members, and their patrons in the neighborhood bars and stores. But these were unlike the depth of our friendship with Vincenzo. Once, for example, several weeks after our arrival, a Greek shoe-hawker we met at the market at San Lorenzo came over; we drank wine all day, ate a gargantuan anchovy pizza, and afterward were accompanied by recordings of Greek revolutionary folk music as he taught us how to do the dances. We were indeed two young men ripe for the full Italian experience, and that experience meant plenty of contacts with similarly inclined individuals from all over the world. Florence drew us all to it. To know anything of Italian history and culture was to be irresistibly attracted to Florence.

* * *

Vincenzo appeared at our door earlier than usual one Sunday morning. There was an urgency in his voice, eyes, and gestures. He implored us to come quickly to help pick the Signora's apricots at their peak. The Signora was to be way for the afternoon and the time was ripe. The three of us commandeered the villa baskets and available ladders. Vincenzo recruited extra assistants from among the wary but giddy neighbors. The moment was opportune for a harvest. Thus, we waylaid the orchard, snatching every juicy, rosy-ripe fruit at hand as our fellows, holding baskets, looked on from the ground and a few neighbors cheered from nearby apartment windows in victorious gaiety. It was a hurried affair with more than a touch of the festive – and the ancient – about it.

Though Don bade farewell to Vincenzo in late August, after our return from Greece and Turkey, I said a temporary goodbye and pledged to return for grape harvest in October. When I returned to Florence, after Don left Europe and I hitchhiked through Scotland, I was too early for the grape harvest. Vincenzo allowed me to keep my things in his apartment and sleep in the garden hut for a couple of days. Then I went to Spain for a week or so and returned with better timing. While in Granada, I got my hair cut conservatively short. I left the college kid, and my facial hair, behind in Spain as well. This visit, for the first time, Vincenzo allowed me to stay in his apartment, which was situated above his wife's seamstress and baby clothing shop. In part, this option was required because Vincenzo had set up a large vat in the hut for processing the grapes. Vincenzo and his wife were impeccably hospitable. Except for the big outdoor luncheon we had with his family on grape-picking and pressing day, I ate my meals with the two of them. During dinner, Vincenzo and his wife would repeatedly urge me on in astonishment, exclaiming, "Mangia, mangia! Beve, beve!" They were clearly impressed, and perhaps dismayed, watching my heroic appetite after a day of manual labor at the villa. After dinner, Vincenzo's eyes quickly grew droopy with sleep. The apartment was small and quiet, except for the noisy, nutty variety shows on the television set. In short order, all retired to bed. I slept on the couch. During that stay, I did not wear shorts, but jeans and a sweater. Vincenzo had never been fond of walking with Don and me on Via Senese when we were wearing shorts and our hair was long and unkempt.

* * *

Unusual observations with multiple meanings bear rehearing. I have often told the story of Vincenzo dawning a suit jacket and changing trousers in his hut to return to his home in the afternoon for lunch and in the evening. With his briefcase full of lettuce and other vegetables, he could easily be mistaken for a professor. This behavior regarding his public face told me more about the internal workings of his mind than any other details about Italian men gleaned from books or instruction from self-proclaimed experts, Italian or non-Italian.

Vincenzo's public demeanor was consistent with the expressions on display in less-candid photographs of him. However, the stately gravity and dignity perpetually present in his street face and bearing were at complete odds with the ease and humor of his interaction with us in the fields, in his hut, in our apartment, or in his home. In fact, coaching, smiling, laughing, joking, eye-rolling, and teasing were his workaday exchanges. Vincenzo personified the two primary sides of the Italian character seen from my perspective as a young foreigner. In that capacity, I witnessed a postured seriousness counterbalanced by clever delight in response to routine experience. A pose of firmness that could have commercial, political, religious, spiritual, or academic associations barely masked an underlying joy in regarding everyday surroundings and encounters. This intensity often evinced a tint of world-worn fatigue, as well, about the eyes and movements of the actors. For the most part, a light cloak of humane sentiment, wrapped formidably in an integrated, common-sense recognition of the folly and weakness of mankind, guided Vincenzo and countless others down divergent cobblestone roads and dirt paths that sprang comfortably from the same solid center.

* * *

Don saw Vincenzo again in Florence in the late 1970s. In the intervening years, I wrote annual greetings and an update to Vincenzo and Signora Amato, and she sent a Christmas card and a small embroidered item, such as a lady's handkerchief, to my wife and me. Apparently, Don and I were not the only parties to learn something new during that summer experience: Don found out that Vincenzo had taken under wing at least one other young protege, a foreign resident of the villa eager to discover gardening, viniculture, and the mysteries of Vincenzo's wine and wisdom.

Vicenzo is as alive in Don's memory as he is in mine. Concerned that my memories about our relationship with Vincenzo might be faulty and my late-life perspective inflated, I sought Don's recollections. The response that Don offered dispelled my reservations.

Don says, "I can still hear him say 'Giereè' when you arrived at the hut. [He said your name] in the same cadence that Sicilians say Giesù (Jesus). He had a mental point of reference for me. I was a first-generation American like his cousins in 'Brookalina' (Brooklyn). However, he had no way to wrap his head around you. He viewed you as a Nordic specimen placed in his tutelage through the grace of God. It was a master-apprentice relationship, and the hut and fields were the studio and the zappa the instrument."

Vincenzo demonstrated that life was to be found all around us in the outdoors and daily labor. One needn't strain too much for it, but one is required to engage it, drinking in the odors, textures, and dozens of sensations that are the foundation of clear thinking. Vincenzo knew the value of shade, observation, and steady pacing. What wise man of earth doesn't know these things and exude them in his every thought and action? I entered Italy a relative innocent; I left Italy a man of the world ready for its embrace – a new man of earth.

* * *

The thought of such youth and beauty, as was ours for little more than the price of showing up and paying attention, is overwhelming even forty years later. The gorgeous spectacles of Tuscany that I encounter casually in personal photographs, magazines, and movies are a reminder of the overpowering integrity of the place and its people. Delight is too lean a word for it; sublime is more in order but too dull and heavy. Though the solidity of Tuscany in my mind is undiluted, the sensation of remembrance is fragile.

How can one live that way? How can one not? Is youth in possession of all glory? I know for certain that the young have no monopoly, because age is part of the pull of Tuscany. I know it because of Vincenzo Amato, for one. One would aspire in age to find a time when most everything makes sense at last. For Don and me, Vincenzo inhaled and exhaled the wise and rarified glory of age.

If any portion of this portrait that I hold up is myth, I pray that it is never cracked by fastidious fact. Italy taught both the power and the limits of finicky truth. As May ripens, I garden. That is among the many lessons I learned to live by in Italy at the age of twenty-two.


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