The six months I spent as a sophomore at Stanford’s overseas campus in Florence has everything to do with who I have become and how I want to make my life. It wasn’t until I returned to Italy 27 years later that I could appreciate how essential that time had been.
My two best friends from the program were more directly effected. Gregg went from an undergraduate architecture major to become a landscape architect and Linda’s path took her from an earth sciences degree into architecture and lighting design. We had shared many adventures traveling through northern Italy on our breaks, bumping into astonishing art and architecture in small towns, discovering nutella, espresso, chestnuts, gelato, the lake district. I’ll never forget a student we hadn’t liked so much announced that there hadn’t been any important art made in Italy for 400 years. I just looked at her, dumbfounded. Have you been in a fabric store or looked at shoes or seen the vegetables? The attention to making something well was everywhere.
As a student in Florence, I was able to see great art regularly as part of my daily life; it is still my favorite way to look at art when possible. Not to spend hours but to stop by the convent of San Marco on my way downtown to look at my favorite Fra Angelico paintings and frescos, to pause in the beautiful courtyard. I especially love Beato Angelico’s annunciation, the conversation between Mary and the Angel set in the garden of a Italian courtyard. The young woman leans inward and toward the angel, and the air in the garden shimmers.
By that time of my second Italy trip, I was well into writing NOTES ON THE NEED FOR BEAUTY, celebrating and reclaiming beauty a profound and often misunderstood quality. I was not trying to limit beauty to a single definition but exploring beauty as the pathway between the intimate and the immense, the senses and the soul, ourselves and the world. That visit affirmed my commitment to finishing the book and making a life that gave more time to the pleasures of the senses and the soul—good food, good talk, art and music, study and travel.
Although I have forgotten a lot, the Italian language makes me happy. I perk up when I hear it spoken in the US and try to lean in closer; it is fun to speak it. It makes sense to me that Elizabeth Gilbert choose to learn Italian as away to counteract depression in Eat, Pray, Love.
I know that I am looking at Italy as an outsider, romanticizing and overlooking many of the problems Italy faced in its past and now. Yet, maybe not as completely an outsider as I thought. Several years ago a retired relative doing research discovered that we had some Italian roots. Turns out my great-grandfather’s great grandfather was an Italian soldier in Napoleon’s army, and when Napoleon was defeated in Moscow, this guy/the soldier went over to Vilnius and “married a Jewish woman.” More recently a cousin spoke to a rabbi in LA who shares this distant ancestor and learned that our soldier was hidden in a chicken coop, fell in love with the daughter of the man who sheltered him, converted to Judaism. So maybe it makes sense that I started studying Latin in middle school, and built a Roman house out of styrofoam as a class project. In my adolescence when my dad and I were frustrated with each other, rather than fighting we hissed and exclaimed the Italian words we know--mostly foods and painters. BOTICELLI, GNOCCHI, MICHELANGELO, VINO ROSSO, PARMIGIANO, FRA ANGELICO.
About J. Ruth
Causes J. Ruth Gendler Supports
Poets in the Schools
River of Words
Friends of the Earth
Doctors Withour Borders