From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 33
The Five Senses

A part of the Ethician Liturgy recited at Sunset Services at the Holy Trinity Wilderness Cathedral in East Texas as well as in Gioviano during our brief tenures begins as follows: “Praise be to God for the gift of sight…”

Those who have encountered life in Gioviano, however briefly, and who are blessed with the ability to see, taste, smell, hear, and touch, will find that their senses spring to life with a new vitality as they are bombarded with every new encounter while visiting the village.

Sight -- Approaching Gioviano from the Serchio Valley in spring, one looks up to see a series of houses surmounted by a tower. Entering the village, an entire pallet of colors greets the eye, from the green backdrop of the forested hills and mountains surrounding the village, to the contrasting hues of the multitudes of flowers that grace the balconies and entrances to the houses.

Over a period of time, the visual senses will observe dramatic sunsets, a canopy of stars, deep blue skies, the blindingly white interiors of clouds that sometimes invade even the interiors of houses if the windows are left open at night. Every few moments a new and different living painting appears.

Walking through the narrow streets, the eye may focus upon a thousand vestiges of the past: Crossbow slits, 14th-century bells high in a tower, 17th-century wrought-iron window grills, an iron cross standing beside a thousand-year-old church, coats of arms over arched doorways, mysterious covered passageways, the vestiges of 12th- and 13th-century doorways, and little vegetable gardens tended by hand as they have been for some two thousand years.

The eye will be alert to movement. There will be swallows flitting about in pursuit of insects to feed to their young. Children will be running through the streets. Old men will be seen painfully hobbling up to their fields to work. Small tractors come and go carrying loads of firewood, building materials, and supplies for the local restaurant.

Dogs and cats amble about, women hang laundry out on sunny days, and on rainy days they will be seen hurrying to the bottega for groceries, crouched under colorful umbrellas. Other movement will be in the form of the surrounding forest that seems to sway in cadence to the mountain breezes, while the laundry happily dances in the wind, and the flowers nod.

Color, form, shadow, light, darkness, design, life, motion, contrast, and texture provide a cacophony of visual stimuli that far exceed anything encountered in any of the great museums of the world, where, except for the patrons, all is static and never changing.

Gioviano is a living museum that stimulates the visual senses in a way that can never be accomplished by book, photograph, painting, movie or any other visual media.

At the end of the day, we return to Casa Giorgio to prepare for bed. I drink a final glass of wine on the little balcony that had been Rosina’s gabinetto (bathroom) watching the lights flickering from Montefegatesi, like faraway fireflies, and then I look down to the terraced fields to watch living fireflies flickering as if to signal the people of Montefegatesi that it is time to go to bed.

Sitting up in our bed, the view from my Tuscan window is of the sparkle of lights representing the village of Lucignana and then upward toward the dark and foreboding peak of Monte Giovo, (Mountain of God) and the ancient pass over the Apennines called the Foce di Giovo, (Mouth of God), silhouetted against the night sky.

Looking to my right and stealing a peak through Susanna’s window, I take one last look at the flicker of lights of Montefegatesi, with its statue of Dante peering down from the highest point in the village. As my eyes close, images from Dante’s Inferno race through my mind, and I drift off into dreamland.

Even in sleep after a day of being bombarded by a million moving and static images, the dream state will continue to bring the village to life in the depths of the mind, with flashbacks to scenes from the past, present, and future.

This morning, I awoke at the crack of dawn. Pink and purple clouds in surrealistic shapes and forms waited patiently for the sun to finally climb over the peaks of Monte Caligi and cast a morning glow on the Alpe Tre Potenze that rises over 6,000 feet above the Serchio Valley. I closed my eyes to catch the last few minutes of peaceful slumber before beginning another day in Bella Italia.

Taste -- While contemplating how to describe the flavors or “Taste of Gioviano”, I Googled up “Taste of Tuscany” and 12,700 hits popped up. Apparently others haven’t had a difficult time verbalizing the multitudinous flavors that one may encounter while savoring the foods of Italy and especially those of Tuscany where food is a dominant theme of life and where lunch alone may last several hours.

Describing flavors is an art as well as a science, and I am not particularly adept at either. I guess having grown up in East Texas, all I ever knew how to describe taste was as being good, bad, or indifferent. So please bear with me while I attempt to conjure up language that will do justice to the flavor of Gioviano and dintorni ( surrounding areas).

Wine comes to mind as an acquired taste. Each October for a good two thousand years or so, grapes have been gathered from the vines growing around Gioviano. For as long as anyone can remember, the grapes have been taken to the cool depths of the lowest cantina under Palazzo Margherita, to be pressed and fermented in a huge wooden vat. The Giovianini, over the centuries, developed a taste for their homemade wine which in recent years has gotten either noticeably better, or I have become such a part of the community that the taste has grown on me.

I am not going to pretend to be pretentious like the oftentimes ridiculous propaganda on the labels of some bottles of overpriced wine, with long-winded descriptions of flavors of currants, ripe blackberries, rich and lingering tannins, vanillas, oak, and a hundred other essences that I nearly always fail to detect.

Simply put, the wine of Gioviano is light, with a rather low alcohol content, and has an aftertaste that might be described as having the essence of a meadow or hayfield. Yesterday, as Giampaolo was delivering a tractor-load of supplies to his restaurant, he invited me in to taste this year’s vintage of his own making. It was not like the excellent “Baby Brunello” that my father used to purchase by the demijohn and bottle himself, but it was quite tasty and refreshing.

When it comes to food, sweet flavors are found in the wonderful red and yellow peppers that Giampaolo bakes in his pizza oven, in the deliciously creamy panna cotta (baked cream pudding) and crema caramella (cream caramel) and in the tree fresh ripe cherries and peaches. Also appealing to those who crave sweets are limoncello (lemon liqueur) often taken as an aperitif or of Vin Santo (Holy wine), taken after dinner.

Breakfast may consist of oven fresh briosce (pastries) filled with rice pudding, baked apples, or chocolate pudding. Many Italians, including Giovianini, use a packet or two of sugar to sweeten their morning cappuccinos. Al Cantuccio isn’t open for breakfast, so many villagers stop at the bottom of the hill at Il Quadrifoglio bar in Piano di Gioviano (lower Gioviano) to satisfy their cravings for sweet flavors to start their day

Contrasting with sweet flavors are bitter ones found in drinks like Campari, or the various amaros served after dinner as a digestive. For at least a thousand years or more, monks would supplement monastery income by making various liqueurs from bitter herbs growing wild in the fields and forests surrounding their abodes. The Italian love of salt is probably based on a pent-up craving for what was once a scarce and essential commodity in mountainous areas far from the sea. As I write this I am looking out one of the 50 windows of the Palazzo, where an old sign is still posted above the door of the bottega announcing that the store is authorized to sell sale e tabacchi (salt and tobacco). Unfortunately, this love of salt sometimes overwhelms and hides the wonderful true flavors of the foods and we have made a habit of asking for our meat to be grilled, “senza sale” or “without salt”.

Lemons grow throughout much of Italy and are an essential ingredient in many dishes. Sliced lemons are almost always provided to squeeze on fish dishes, steaks, and salads. Sauces sometimes have a tart and sour lemony flavor which may be applied to vitella (veal) as well as to risotto (rice) dishes. Tart lemon ice cream and sherbets drowned in vodka are served between courses in some of the more elegant restaurants such as the Circolo dei Forestieri in nearby Bagni di Lucca. I saved “creamy” for last because after ten days in Italy this summer, Anna described herself as a creampuff. It seemed like nearly everything on the menu was drenched in the most mouth-watering panna (cream) sauces imaginable—tagliatelle con panna e prosciutto, panna cotta, salsa di panna e pomodori, asparagi con panna, funghi con panna, and of course creamy gelati (ice cream) topped with whipped panna. By the last day of her stay, we laughed as we read the daily menu at whichever nearby restaurant we happened to visit. It seemed as if we would all become creampuffs if we continued to dine out.

Smell -- The gift of smell can sometimes be a curse rather than a blessing if the olfactory senses are overcome by diesel fumes from the huge trucks lugging their heavy loads of toilet paper from the dozens of factories that line the banks of the Serchio River. Until recently, the “bush factory,” (the name we call the French industry that has virtually decimated the ancient chestnut groves in order to render the wood into tannin) would emit a sickeningly sweet odor representing the death of trees that had been growing well before Columbus sailed off to the New World. Climbing the mountain to Gioviano, one leaves behind most of the odors of the modern age and is greeted by the distinctive odor of the blossoms of the tiglio (linden) trees and of the myriad of wildflowers that grace the sides of the narrow, twisty road. Arriving at the parcheggio one may be greeted by the crisp and clean smell of freshly washed clothes drying on lines strung out on the first terrace above the village washbasin.

Entering the bottega, the various odors of fresh bread cooked over wood fires mingled with the smell of prosciutto (ham) and mortadella (sausage) can almost overwhelm the senses. Fumes wafting into the atmosphere from the various cheeses of pecorino, gorgonzola, mozzarella di bufala, and parmigiano add to the effect. Walking through the streets of the village while families are preparing variations on numerous culinary themes, one may be able to pick out the day’s menu from the odors emanating from the windows, open doors, and chimneys. Because many villagers still cook and heat their water with wood from their own forestlands, the smell of wood fires is perceptible even in summer.

The smells in the streets of Gioviano were not all as pleasant in the distant past. Under ancient statutes each family was required to maintain two goats and every family also kept pigs and chickens to consume any scraps from the table. These animals in many cases lived in stalls and pens in the lower floors of the houses. Certainly the animal odor must have had a somewhat negative impact on the aroma coming from the food cooking over an open fire.

The other problematic scent in Gioviano until recent years was the rather unpleasant odor of sewer gas that was evident from time to time, even inside the house. It wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that indoor plumbing became more or less universal, and such things as P-traps to hold the gasses back were practically an unknown technology. Thankfully, one good aspect of the 21st century is the virtual discontinuance of the medieval gravity-fed toilet and the cesspool. If one is inclined to become like Pavlov’s dog, all that is necessary is to walk past Al Cantuccio, the village restaurant run by Giampaolo and his family, on any day but Tuesday when the restaurant is closed. Nearly everything on the menu is cooked in a wood-fired pizza oven. Some of the thickest, juiciest steaks on this planet are popped into the oven to sizzle until the perfect degree of cooking is obtained—al sangue (rare), medio (medium), or ben cotto (well done). The smell of one of Giampaolo’s steaks is enough to cause even the mouths of vegetarians to water. From the kitchen come the odors of freshly made pasta that literally melts in the mouth along with the various sauces that the kitchen staff produces from ingredients that may have still been growing in the garden that morning. One can detect the refreshing odor of basil, thyme, and rosemary, mingled with that of various creams and cheeses creating a terrible problem for the customers who, by the time they sit at their table, are so hungry that they tend to order far more than is humanly possible to consume at a single sitting. Fortunately Giampaolo’s wife and daughters are more than happy to wrap up what cannot be consumed by those whose eyes were bigger than their stomachs, to be taken home and heated up for lunch the next day.

Just to make sure that I hadn’t forgotten anything essential to this discourse on smells I decided to take a walk around the circular path through the village. Passing the bottega, I detected the odor of fresh fruit. Peering into the open doorway, sure enough, I saw a crate of peaches sitting by the door. Unlike the virtually odorless fruit in America that may have been picked green weeks before being sold, Italians still seem to relish the idea of fruit being picked ripe off of the trees.

Al Cantuccio is closed until evening so as I walked past the closed door, nothing new was detected. Coming full circle back to Palazzo Margherita, I passed a cantina door with an open window that allowed it to breathe. Peering into the darkness, I could smell a combination of earthy mustiness coupled with the smell of fresh cut acacia wood. As my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, I could see the wood neatly stacked and ready for winter.

It is now a quarter of 12, and writing about food has given me an appetite. Susanna should be coming over from Casa Giorgio-Rosina to prepare lunch. Thinking about eating, I can almost smell her aglio, olio, and peperoncino, (garlic, olive oil and spicy pepper flakes) sizzling in the pan ready to be applied to a heaping portion of freshly cooked spaghetti. Her recipe for this tasty dish is found in the Appendix.

Hearing--The sounds of Gioviano are many and diverse. Some are extremely beautiful such as the voices of the populace singing in unison at Mass, at weddings and at village festivals. Some are not so beautiful such as the sounds of large diesel tractors laboring up the steep mountain paths with heavy loads of firewood or the squalling tomcats fighting to determine which will win the affection a female.

The first sounds of the morning before the break of day are, of course, the noisy twittering of the swallows, the whistle of the little train going down the valley to take commuters to Lucca, the sound of traffic picking up along the course of the ancient Roman Via Clodia, and the bells in the clock tower announcing the passing of the hours.

There is a kennel of sorts below our window, and the dogs go into a frenzy at certain times of the day and night. They let out coyote-like howls, followed by yelps and barks. The first outburst is usually at dawn which seems to wake up Daria’s rooster that then begins crowing. Sometimes the dogs go wild around midnight when we suppose their master comes to feed them. We are happy to report that “below our window,” in this case, means clear down near the valley floor so the barking dogs are not really a bother as they might be if they were just next door.

In the 1970s and 1980s the sounds of the farmers working in their fields beneath our window was rather soothing. The hay and other grasses were cut with scythes and sickles. As the scythes were swung in an arc to cut the grass, they would make a swooshing sound. The cadence of the sickles was faster and the sound somewhat different. Today, fortunately for the farmers, but less fortunate for the observer, is the fact that the hand tools have been replaced by motorized weed eaters, which do not make a soothing sound.

Another traditional sound that has all but disappeared is the sound of handsaws cutting firewood and of axes splitting the wood in the streets and courtyards of the village. Today, most villagers either have their own chainsaw or hire people to cut up the logs that are hauled to the outside of the cantina by tractor. Daria even has an mechanical log splitter which makes less noise than an ax, but I miss the traditional sound of the ax of the village of old, even if it is louder than a modern log splitter.

When school is out for the summer or on weekends, the children of the village have a great time running through the streets playing all sorts of games. The sound of their cheerful little voices is music to my ears. The adults are accustomed to talking to each other from great distances. For example, our immediate neighbor often calls out from her patio to neighbors standing on their patios or hanging out their windows several houses away. Likewise, people are used to calling out to their friends or family members working in fields far below the village. As my neighbors sometimes call to me when they see me standing at my window, I have grown accustomed to carrying on conversations from a distance.

On Sundays, a rather tinny and scratchy recording of bells is played to call the people to Mass. Some years ago, we donated money to the Church with the suggestion that an up-to-date sound system with more melodious bell music be purchased. Apparently the needs of the poor or other needs of the Church outweighed the need for prettier bell music, but after all these years I think that I might be rather sad to have Mass announced any other way.

On warm summer evenings, the townspeople love to meet on the streets and piazzas to talk. The discussions can be quite lively. The older men love to sit outside Al Cantuccio restaurant to play cards and discuss politics. Their discussions can also be quite lively. From the restaurant can be heard the voices of the patrons, talking and sometimes singing until after midnight if Al Cantuccio is host to a special festa.

Night sounds that we hear from our bedroom window include owls, frogs, the periodic baying of dogs, cats scrapping, and some birds that behave much like our Texas Mockingbirds, by singing through much of the night. The swoosh of the traffic passing on the highway far below and the whistle of the little two-car train lull us to sleep.

Touch -- The texture of Gioviano is a subject that I had not considered or analyzed until today. So, in order to gain a concept of what one might experience who has not been blessed with the gift of sight, I walked through the Palazzo and around the circular street through the village feeling of various objects in order to describe the texture of the community.

In my mother’s house there are many antiques and other handmade decorative items as well as the elements of the house structure itself. Handmade objects are distinctive in their feel, and each has a personality of its own, reflecting somewhat, that of the maker. The wood that is used in furniture and doors made by hand has a distinctive feel of undulating ripples caused by the use of hand planes to smooth the wood. Opening 19th-century wardrobes and running one’s hand across the wood, it is easy to detect the individual strokes of the craftsman’s tools.

Hand-forged window grills, stair and balcony railings, and andirons can easily be differentiated from machine-made objects. Each hammer beat made by the blacksmith to shape the item can be felt and admired. The same holds true for pots, pans, and other objects handmade from copper. The machine-made pieces are striated whereas one can easily feel the hundreds of dimples made by the craftsman’s hammer.

By touching objects and materials, they can be distinguished by their temperature. The smooth coldness of marble contrasts sharply with the warmth of wood. In places where the sun has been shining into the house, the marble and plaster become warm to the touch while elsewhere in the shadows, marble, stone, and plaster remain cool to the touch, even in hot weather.

Antique terracotta and plaster objects were molded by hand, and by examining the undersides and insides of pieces, it is easy to feel where the maker’s hands shaped the object or worked it into a mold for firing. The faces of dragons and goblins can be felt, as can carvings of similar mythological creatures on wooden furniture.

Many dates have been incised into stone throughout the village including some beginning with an “R” which means that the structure was restored in that year. By rubbing one’s fingers over the dates, it is possible with a little practice to read the numbers. For example, on my mother’s house there are several such dates. The year 1519 appears in the cellar of the Palazzo, and 1703 marks the year that an office wing was added to the building. Another date is 1806, which is incised into the stone columns that replaced the brick and plaster ones during the reign of Napoleon’s sister. The year 1921 is found in the attic, from the period that the Calissi family made some renovations. The latest date is R. 2003 that announced the year that the 1736 Emilio wing of the Palazzo was restored on its exterior by our family.

Walking around the village, various textures of buildings may be experienced. Some are plastered; others are rough-hewn stones. Stone windowsills and doorframes may either be relatively smooth or decorated with incisions cut into the stone. It is possible to feel the features of the stone goblin carved below the coat of arms above the doorway at Capanna Susanna, our second house in Gioviano, where we stayed for over ten years.

Various plants and flowers can be identified by their distinctive texture. One of the easiest is the geraniums that grace so many houses with their rubbery leaves. Other plants can bring quite an unpleasant surprise to the touch, such as the stinging nettles that inhabit the byway. Some people maintain cacti in flowerpots on their front porches and steps. Those too should be avoided.

Last, but certainly not least in Italy, is the texture of food. The first to come to mind is the silky smoothness of panna cotta and crema caramella. The dozens of forms of pasta each have distinctive textures, from the butterfly shapes of the farfalle, to the striations on certain of the penne shapes, to the smooth texture of homemade maccheroni, which is in the form of thin, but wide sheets of pasta.

Even if one can neither see nor smell, one can detect the striking textural differences between homemade, wood-fire baked bread and the bread Americans are used to eating. By closing one’s eyes and concentrating on the texture of one’s surroundings it is possible to gain a new and different perspective into the fabric that constitutes the environment, whether field, forest, mountain, or in this case, Tuscan hill town.

Updated December 21, 2009
Copyright 2005-2009 George H. Russell
Previous Chapter
Back to the Table of Contents
Next Chapter