As Covid-19 brings Europe into lockdown, Julia Bagguley recommends three books, inspired by Italian history, which reveal the humanity and courage of individuals in a time of crisis.
In these difficult times at home it’s always important to think of those worse off than ourselves. As I write the Italians are facing the worst of COVID-19 in Europe with a stringent lock down and closed borders (since writing this, the UK has entered its own lockdown). BUT, despite all that the country has and is still going through, never underestimate the Italian strength of purpose and personality.
‘I love places that have an incredible history. I love the Italian way of life. I love the food. I love the people. I love the attitudes of Italians.’ (Sir Elton John)
Here are three books which illustrate the Italian tenacity in terrible times of trouble. That may sound something of a turn-off, but all the books are ‘page turners’ and simpatico – try.
War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary 1943-44 by Iris Origo (Pushkin Press)
In the 1920s, Iris Origo, an Anglo-American, and her aristocratic husband, Antonio Origo, Marchese di Val d’Orcia, acquired a bleak, destitute estate in southern Tuscany. They worked hard to build and modernise the 50+ tenant farms and land which they turned into a thriving self-sufficient estate to include not just the villa and its garden but the whole estate with a community of farms and the people who worked on it.
During WW2, Italy endured invasion by German armies, civil war and the eventual arrival of the Allies. La Foce was at the centre of the German’s last stand – hardened veterans of the failed Russian and North African campaigns were sent from the north to salvage the Third Reich’s reputation and met with the Allies on their march from the south. It took over a year for the Allies to reach Rome from Naples.
During this time of great uncertainty, Iris Origo kept a record of daily life and of what happened when a peaceful farming valley became a vicious battleground. On the estate, at great personal risk, the Origos and their tenants gave food, shelter and sanctuary to partisans, escapees, deserters and refugees. Origo writes with sensitivity and generosity and a story emerges of human acts of heroism and compassion emerging from the devastation that war brings.
More information about La Foce
La Foce is now run by Antonio and Iris’ daughters and was open to visitors. Monty Don puts the estate into context and conducts a tour around La Foce’s garden, which you can see here.
Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis (Da Capo Press)
In 1944 the young Norman Lewis landed as part of the Allied Army on the beach at Paestum and was sent to Naples as an intelligence officer. The population was starving; women had been driven to prostitution and the black market was king. Lewis and his fellow soldiers gained sustenance from the extraordinary vivacity of the Neapolitans – the lawyer who earned his living by bringing a touch of Roman class to funerals, the gynaecologist who specialised in the restoration of lost virginity and the widowed housewife who timed her British lover against the clock.
All these privations were diminished by the most formidable wonder that nature can deliver: the last great eruption of Vesuvius in March 1944. Lewis observed ‘It was the most majestic and terrible sight I have ever seen, or ever hope to see. The smoke from the crater slowly built up into a great bulging shape having all the appearance of solidity … which, by evening, must have risen thirty or forty feet into the sky, and measured many miles across’.
The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (Vintage)
Lampedusa‘s novel opens in May, 1860, when Garibaldi’s Redshirts land on the Sicilian coast, pressing inland to overthrow the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. This family saga, concentrates on the aristocratic Sicilian Salina family and its patriarch, Prince Fabrizio (the Leopard himself).
The prince foresees the downfall of his family and the nobility in Italy but is unable to change the course of history. He knows that new powers and new ways are needed if there should be any chance of saving some part of the old order. He realises their best hope lies in his charming and resourceful nephew, Tancredi, who knows that ‘everything must change so that everything can stay the same’.
More information about Lampedusa’s The Leopard
You can listen to Lampedusa’s The Leopard on BBC Radio 4, read by the actor Alex Jennings, here. You can also watch the 1963 film by Visconti on Amazon Prime and preview the novel here on Google books.
All my copies of these books have been read over and over again and one, Iris Origo’s wartime diary, is falling to bits. I hope this article inspires some readers and that you will enjoy them as much as I have. They may bring some comfort during these difficult times but, as Iris Origo sensitively puts it ‘These – the shared, simple acts of everyday life – are the realities on which international understanding can be built.’
All three books are available online and via kindle. Click on the links above for more information about the writers and their works.
Feature Image Iris Origo, courtesy of La Foce.