Monday, June 23, 2014

Visit Before You Write

JENNIFER ROVA

After reading Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter and two weeks touring the Tuscany region of Italy, it is my recommendation that you visit the foreign country about which you are writing. Your five senses are educated to a degree you could not possibly resurrect from where you are writing be it at home, on the beach, or at the library. Your settings are enhanced by traveling to the location of you writing.

Tuscany sits in the middle western part of Italy. The Mediterranean Sea is on one side, the Apennine Mountains down the middle and the once magnificent city of Florence on the eastern boundary. This does not include Venice and is about 175 miles north of Rome. Beautiful Ruins is set in Cinque Terre (chink qw terr' a) area which is a stone's throw northwest of Tuscany.

 At the beginning of Beautiful Ruins, we are introduced to Pasquale and his dreams which include making his tiny village in the Cinque Terre region on the Mediterranean Sea into a world class resort. The author gives little to developing your ability to feel the area. There are minor descriptions of the flowers, soil, or the ocean and a lot about rocks. I am "not in the zone." Pasquale, one of the too many characters in the book, never blooms in my eye as the studly, handsome, black haired young Italian man you want him to be. The author talks about Pasquales' mama's cooking but you can never smell the Italian herbs, cheeses, bread and red wine that would enhance the feeling Walter was trying to project. He leaves us feeling the area and characters are dull.

Italians possess a different set of values describing who they are. What events we think  that would impact the region did not leave an obvious stamp. The people will mention that Florence was drastically bombed during WWII. But, the city contains ten centuries old duomos (cathedrals), and thousands of precious paintings (The Birth of Venus by Botticelli) and sculptures (Michelangelo’s David) worth untold billions of dollars. Those are what they are proud of and want you to see and appreciate.

The people of Tuscany center on what their ancestors had brought to the world stage. In the late 1300’s and early 1,400’s, the subjects of paintings changed from religious themes to paintings of actual people. Botticelli, Michelangelo (Mick-el-angelo, not My-cull-angelo), Galileo, and Leonardo da Vinci all lived during this time and competed with each other for commissions from wealthy patrons. The renaissance was promoted by the vast wealth and interest in the arts and learning by Lorenzo de’ Medici, or Lorenzo el Magnifico (1449-1492). Many advances in the sciences were developed then as well as democracy and ended by greed. Florence fought Siena, Pisa and Lucca for control of the water ports for trade. Italy was not unified until much later. Many of these cities practice today some of the festivals and pastimes developed then. The Palio in Siena is one horse race that has been enjoyed for since the 1,400’s. That is 600 years! (The race takes 90 seconds and the horse that crosses the finish line, with or without its rider, wins.) Pisa has its leaning tower, Lucca preserved fortress walls 35 feet wide, and Carrera its marble mining.
San Gimignano and vineyards

What Italian offer now are diverse things: their centuries of history in the arts that influenced who they are today; their food, wines and olive oil; the marble quarries; and their unique topography of mountains and rolling picturesque, farmland surrounded by salt water on three sides. They produce a lot of the world’s best wines from centuries old vineyards. The region of Tuscany is noted for acres of olives trees and grape vines carefully tended and harvested. Tuscan wines are enjoyed all over the world. They are proud of these things and live lives within them.

The Italians talk: fast, all at once, and loudly. They talk when someone else is talking. They are pleased when you make an effort if you are a foreigner who says “Bongiorno”, or “Bonasera”, or “Gratzie”. “Due biccheriere di vino rossa, per favore” doesn’t hurt to know either.*

The weather in Tuscany in the summer is HOT. I do not see how they stand it. These old cities and villages are made of centuries old black rock. The houses and businesses are bumped right to the edge of the road on either side with no spaces between buildings while the black rock or brick of the buildings makes the heat bounce off raising the temperature even more.

The food is Tuscany is renown. It is different than other regions of Italy. They use no salt in their many breads, pastries, or pasta. Sliced bread was served with the meals and it was to be used to sop up the left over sauce from the pasta…except they serve about a tablespoon of sauce with a medium sized bowl of rigatoni so no leftover sauce. Dinner is later when it is cooler and one can sit for hours sipping wine and talking with friends. Pastas are thicker and they do not cook them as long as we do. I thought they tasted like wallpaper paste. Pizza is served but not as much as in America. Theirs is very thin crust with little red or white sauce. Beautiful Ruins described none of these things.

I have tried to show the differences I noticed. In my writing, I would not have known that the Palio is such a long-standing tradition in Siena and would need to be part of any story set there. It is often the topic of conversation because the race is run twice a year and seriously competitive. I would not have been able to work in how absolutely marvelous the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence made of Carrera white, pink and green marble is, nor wonder at how the men could have constructed such an edifice with only rudimentary tools they had in 1296.


The countryside has its own scent, as do the little villages and bigger cities, all different. All these traits need to be in your understanding in order to make your story ring true. If you cannot visit a foreign country, fill notebooks full of research and “listen” to what that research is saying to you. Try to experience what you are reading. Cook or bake recipes from the country in your book. I experienced heat exhaustion six times while on this journey. Nobody could have explained how hot Siena is with its black stone. No air circulates so smells and sounds are louder than other places.

Jess Walter in Beautiful Ruins had none of this convincing background. The book wandered from sort of present back to the 1960's and Italy, Hollywood and Scotland. I never liked any of the characters so I did not care what happened to them. I put down the book about half way through and will donate it to the used book sale at my library. I realized how important first hand knowledge is to authentic writing.

*Two glasses of red wine, please.

1 comment:

Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

Yum, yum. Thank you for the heavenly visit to Tuscany.
I, too, read Jess Walter's book, but had a different reaction. To each his own.