From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 54
La Città di Morte
During the years that the Al Cantuccio restaurant was open in Gioviano Alto (Upper Gioviano), I would enjoy meeting and talking to the customers who walked up the hill from the parking lot into our little village to eat. For centuries, and even to this day, people from outside the village are considered foreigners, or “forestieri,” so I would usually greet these them as such: “Buona sera cari forestieri. Benvenuti a Gioviano. Da dove venite?”(“Good evening, dear foreigners. Welcome to Gioviano. Where do you come from?”)

One evening about five years ago, two very elegantly dressed young couples were leaving the restaurant when I encountered them in the street. I gave my usual greeting and learned that the men were lawyers from Lucca who had come up for one of Giampaolo’s famous steaks that he cooks in the pizza oven. One of the men then asked me where I was from, suspecting that I, too, was a foreigner.

I responded to his query with “Vengo dalla città di morte”. (“I come from the city of death.”)

With a surprised look on his face, he immediately blurted out in perfect English, “You’re from Huntsville, Texas?”

Italians are shocked and horrified that America still executes more people than any other country in the so-called civilized world-- many of whom are totally innocent of any crime. Contingencies of Italians have visited Huntsville to work with those of us who publicly oppose the death penalty and to formally protest against it.

The last time that the guillotine severed the heads of criminals was in Lucca in 1845. Five of the “band of the seven thieves”, who had terrorized the Luccan countryside, were put to death. The Lucchesi were so mortified that the populace took the blade of the guillotine to Viareggio and threw it into the sea. The scaffold was burned on the city walls. In fact, the executions of 1845 were the last in all of Italy. Italians cannot imagine that Americans are still executing people 161 years after they outlawed the barbaric practice.

A couple of days ago we decided to drive up to the monumental cross on the top of the mountain at Brancoli, from which a vast panorama unfolds from the Apuanian Alps, to the Apennines, to the Luccan plain and the Monti Pisani which form a physical barrier between Pisa and Lucca. On the way up the mountain, we stopped at an incredibly beautiful church dedicated to St. George. Standing at the door was an elderly man wearing a traditional Jewish skullcap. He silently invited us into the church where we saw the most incredibly beautiful Della Robbia ceramic of St. George killing the dragon. I can relate to St. George on at least two levels. One is that I am his namesake, and two I am constantly attempting to slay dragons in the figurative sense. The only difference between him and me is that he was apparently successful, and in my case the dragons almost always win.

Upon leaving the church, the elderly man took us to the side of the church where he pointed out a Longobard lintel from the earliest part of the period of Longobard occupation. I asked him in Italian if he spoke Italian and he said, “no.” Then I spoke to him in French, and he responded. It turned out that he was born in Germany, lived in Israel for many years, has friends in the village in which the church is located, is passionate about history, and now lives in Munich with his female companion. He is, as am I, greatly concerned about bringing peace to the planet and bringing together peoples of all faith traditions on a common mission of saving our biosphere from ultimate destruction.

I never asked his name, but I immediately felt a sense of rapport. His piercing blue eyes literally danced with the kind of inner peace that one rarely detects in the average stressed-out human in this day and age. I told him that he reminded me of our very dear Jewish friend, Gerhardt Feld who had escaped the Holocaust and who retired to Fornoli, and had since passed to “The Promised Land.”

By this time we were both speaking in English, and I invited him to come to visit us in Texas. A look of horror crossed his face, and his sparkling eyes glazed over. He said, “I will never go to America, much less Texas because of Huntsville where the only industry is killing people.”

He had no idea that I had lived in Huntsville for over half a century, and when I told him, he looked at me in disbelief and said that he couldn’t imagine how I could stand to live in a town that was so obviously evil. I responded that it is important that people confront evil wherever they find it, and that there are at least two citizens of Huntsville -- I being one of them -- who actively and publicly oppose the death penalty. He seemed to understand, but even then said that he could come to America only if and when the death penalty was abolished.

I asked him how he had escaped Germany during the reign of Hitler and he said, “That’s a long story,” and we left it at that.

Let us hope that America soon follows Italy’s example of 1845, the year Texas became a State, and takes the gurney of death to the Trinity River and throws it into the deepest water never to be used to kill again.

Revised March 3, 2008
Copyright 2005-2006 George H. Russell
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