On Leave-Taking And Monuments

No one leaves country, home, all he has loved, unless driven by a powerful necessity. In the case of my people, it was poverty that compelled my maternal grandparents from Sicily, paternal grandparents from Calabria. But why three Giovannini brothers left Lucca with their father – Lucca, a rich town in fertile Tuscany – surely could not have been poverty? But, leave they did, five generations ago, for the relatively impoverished settlement of St. Lawrence, in a region later defined as south-eastern Newfoundland, with an economic history tied to mining and fishing. The medieval wealth of Lucca, second only to that of Florence, was based on banking and silk. There remains, to this day, back in Lucca, a Villa Giovannini which advertises itself on the Internet. My Warren Giovannini, five generations later, will return to Lucca with me.

No city in Italy is as quietly urbane as Lucca. Romanesque churches, quiet paved streets, steadfast defensive towers, and numerous museums and monuments – the sort of place, in the words of Henry James, that is “overflowing with everything that makes for ease, for plenty, for beauty, for interest and good example,” from Fodor’s Exploring Tuscany. And the words from the Fodor’s tour book that capture my imagination – “Under the dashing Castruccio Castracani the town dominated western Tuscany, capturing Pisa and Pistoia.” As my dashing Giovannini did capture me, did honour me with his love. Canadian hockey player – saltwater W.O.P. His first name is, incongruously, Warren – given to him by his rebellious, Irish Newfoundlander mother in breach of the tradition of Giovanninis and in particular the Giovannini she married. Giovanninis pass down their paternal Italian names. Warren’s father was named Guglielmo Marconi Giovannini. So these Italian names continued into the fifth generation. Warren’s own brother got the name Enrico, the name of the great grandfather

Enrico, the great grandfather, travelled with three sons, Gregory, Enrico, and Celestine, but left six other sons (nameless to date) behind in Lucca. Their exact time of arrival is not known, but Crown Records in Canada show their first land purchase in 1881, at which time the population of St. Lawrence totalled 553 people. Gregory and Celestine disembarked at St. Lawrence, while Enrico continued on to Rencontre.

From the cultivated fields of the Villa Giovannini, I gather tomatoes and a leafy green vegetable, like kale. Lucia Giovannini, our young hostess and last daughter of her line, owner of the Villa at the age of thirty-nine, has told me I can take whatever I want from her gardens – peaches, pears, herbs, tomatoes.

I make a pasta sauce, first chopping up the fennel, garlic, and blanching this in extra virgin olive oil. The resident farmer who tends her olive grove makes Lucia’s olive oil. I have boiled the skin off the fresh tomatoes that dropped into my open hands, still warm from the vine, and chopped them into the pot with garlic and fennel and added some pesto from the jar, salt, peperoncino, fresh basil from her garden. While the sauce bubbles, I clean and boil the green vegetable, which I do not recognize, but which is so durable, it takes about thirty minutes to reduce. The salted broth it makes is delicious, and I will, that night, boil the pasta in the same water. I add olive oil and remove from the heat.

I make tea and wake my Warren from our tardy siesta at close to 7 p.m. We walk the walls of Lucca. The tree-lined ramparts descend into shaded gardens and the town of Lucca itself. These trees and the breeze blowing overtop the city offer respite from the August heat. I hear someone say in Italian, which I am surprised to comprehend: “I wonder where they are from?” recognizing us as outsiders. Guaranteed that on a Sunday night, tourists are few and far between. The wall takes us just over an hour to circumnavigate. We see families out walking together, older people playing cards in couples, young men jogging together, sixty-something-year-old women in beautiful Sunday dresses on bicycles; old men play chess. The town is socializing.

After the walk, we descend the walls into Lucca and buy beer and wine. Back “home,” I make our pasta and put Warren to work minding the toast in the oven and making bruschetta. I’ve “buttered” the bread with the pesto from the jar and when it’s partly toasted, he adds the cold meats and cheese and melts these. The bruschetta is delicious with the wine, and the spaghetti is also good and healthy with this strange new vegetable. I garnish the pasta (strozzapreti, a corkscrew-type pasta with egg and semolina I have never had before in Canada) with fresh parsley from Lucia’s herb garden, and cubes of cheese (as we do not have a grater for grating the Tuscan cheese). There are peaches marinating in wine, which we will have for dessert.

Warren thinks Lucia is a descendant of one of the nameless six brothers who were left behind.

Giorgio, the cat, visits our window ledge and I give him several pieces of the cheese. He is so thin. Giorgio responds to his name. The farmer’s wife laughs, when I call down to him from the study window. “Buongiorno, Giorgio, come stai?” – whether at the notion of me talking to a cat, or me talking to a cat in Italian. Giorgio talks to us plaintively, now, as we close the windows to keep out the winged insects. The cicadas sing shrilly, reminding me of late August in Canada. We are eating this meal at about 10:15 p.m., as the Tuscan sun retires for another day.

The two Giovannini brothers, Gregory and Celestine, became the first merchants of St. Lawrence. Gregory was my Warren Giovannini’s grandfather. The two brothers purchased land and opened for business. They dealt in foodstuffs, dry goods, fishing gear and other supplies needed at the time by the local people. These supplies were exchanged for fish as well as cash. Produce for the store (cheese, potatoes, butter and root crops) was shipped by coastal vessel from Prince Edward Island. Fish was both capital and currency.

And they built their houses. Gregory Giovannini built a house of four-storeys. Not much is known of his brother Celestine’s house, only that its structure was along the same lines – two-storeys and large in comparison to others in the settlement. Their lifestyle was very different from other people of the community.

They were Italian. Italy could not be extinguished through integration or settlement. Blood has its own memories.

I notice the houses in Lucca – some, three storeys. The Villa Giovannini, where we stay, has three storeys. The osteria where we ate one night, close to the Villa, is a house of four storeys. In the sunken garden, under arbours of fig leaves, we enjoy pasta and the barley tomato salad. I have lamb, Warren his veal scaloppini, and we wipe our plates clean with the heavy Tuscan bread. The vino di casais wonderful and smooth and home made, of course.

“Home” is also the word Warren has used to return to the Villa Giovannini, where we have had wine and broken bread together on the white ornamental iron table in the walled garden, surrounded by potted lemon trees in full fruit – “home” in a deeper sense.

What kind of man, I wonder, builds a house of four storeys?

“Gregory J. [Giovannini] commenced his house and employed tradesmen from England, Ireland and Germany, experienced in various fields to build it. Masons, paper hangers, plasterers, brick layers, were all employed to build a structure which took three years to complete. Until the completion of this house, Gregory resided in a boarding house (the owner being his mother-in-law). The building characteristics were very unlike those of Atlantic Europe’s early settlement, that of being small, simple and consisting of two or three rooms. Rather it was a four-storey house with twelve rooms each having a fireplace (total 12 fireplaces – means lots of heating). The ceilings were scrolled, doors and knobs bordered with intricate designs and walls having various forms of carvings. Sources said it resembled houses built like those of England. This poses the question of whether they took the form of architectural patterns of Italy. The house was not characteristic of rural settlement as the Giovanninis were of urban background and Lucca being too large to categorize into hamlet, village or town.

Thus, we can see urban integration into rural settlement. Gregory moved into the house in August 1889 and died in October of that same year . . .” (From “The Giovannini Family Tree,” Rosalind T. Giovannini, April 4, 1977).

We have breakfast with Lucia, and Giorgio – the cat. Then, off to Lucca, where Warren intends to “dig down” into his ancestry.

With my butchered Italian (a language lost to me, or rather one never learned, for I am third generation), we get as far as the archivio di statistica and manage to get as far back as a book of 1866 – the commencement of the public record. At this point, the bureaucrat helping us becomes particularly unhelpful. “Why do you want to know?

You have to know who you are looking for: first and last names, date of birth, etcetera.” (If we knew their names and dates of birth, the six unknown brothers left behind, we wouldn’t need to look, surely. But what fascinates me is the way she guards The Book, will not even turn it around, so we can look at the names for ourselves, and will certainly not photocopy the page.)

We go to the Tourist Information Office and I suggest to Warren that we ask for a biblioteca pubblica. We get there with the aid of a woman on her bicycle. At the library, in a moment worthy of Alice Through the Looking Glass, we are told to wait here, right here. The official who guards the door will be back in ten minutes, but one never returns. At the next changing-of-the-guard, I ask again, and am led back into the library where I was told I could not enter. There are two rooms, one for professors, the other for students, the woman tells me in a hushed voice, proud and respectful of the work that takes place here – as one uncomprehending, a simple soul. I am amazed at how private this supposedly public library seems. Finally, I am led to the Wizard of Oz, the chief librarian, and manage to communicate, in Italian, the request – per la storia della famiglia Giovannini.

So, she pulls an Enciclopedia Storico-Nobiliare Italiana: Famiglie Nobili E Titolate Viventi. I see several pages on two different Giovannini families. I feel the excitement of an excavator who has stumbled upon ancient remains. The one, a warrior family, of nobili who have lost their lives for country and family; the other, intellectual, of doctors and lawyers. I skim the pages, most of the words incomprehensible to me, except the fact that one of the families came to nobility in the 1500s through heroism in some war. (“Questa famiglia ha dato sin dai più antichi tempi uomini chiarissimi soprattutto per valore militare.”) And this man, my man, now has a context where there wasn’t one before – the gladiator on skates, with a poet’s elegance and soul.

Now, what is out of focus is the motivation of the Giovannini who left Italy. Enrico left, it is suggested, in a period of unrest and warfare, specifically during the conscription of the Garibaldi army in 1860. Left with three sons. Left six sons behind. From what I know of my Giovannini – honourable, loyal man that he is, who takes care of those he loves – Enrico Giovannini would not have left without putting his house in order. He probably left the eldest of the remaining six in charge to protect la moglie and the family fortunes in Lucca. Enrico accompanied his three eldest sons to free them from a forced conscription and to see them launched in life, left two in St. Lawrence, accompanied the third, Gregory, south into America. He would have left with full prescience of the risks, and would have carefully planned all journeys, just as my Warren watches the road and memorizes signage on all our excursions for the way back. Enrico could not have left thinking he would never return.

I emerge from the inner sanctum of the library to the public corridor where Warren Giovannini waits patiently for me. “You owe me,” I tell him, brandishing my pages. “I could have been shopping.”

He rewards me with lunch at the Ristorante L’Olivo – frutti di mare and wine, after which he will take me home to the Villa Giovannini and reward me with the intense joy of his embrace.

– – – 

What did it take to leave country and home in those days – facing years of separation and distant prospect of return – an extraordinary journey for the time? I am told that my maternal grandmother, Nicolina Leone, returned to Vita in Sicily, only once, for the death and burial of her father. She stayed almost a year, accompanied by her two small children, infants under five. She had returned to keep vigil over her dying father and then, upon his death, over his widow, her step-mother. Nicolina’s step-mother was the only person to have ever truly loved her, according to my grandmother. And my grandmother loved her step-mother. Loved, also, her step-mother’s only son. But this son by the first marriage, her father never permitted his Nicolina to marry – married her instead to the man who would eventually take her to Canada, my grandfather. And when my grandmother left Vita that last time, having seen her father honoured with the tomb built with his inheritance to his only daughter, Nicolina left in the horsedrawn wagon, her step-mother running at the wagon’s side. For miles, the stepmother ran. And my grandmother would stop the driver and get down and embrace the old woman, and her stepmother would embrace my grandmother and the children she was certain never to see again. And for as many miles as she could bear, it went on like this, with the old woman running beside the cart, weeping, and the cart stopping and everyone getting out, embracing, weeping, and back in again – struggling to say goodbye in a way the adult women knew to be final. Until at last, the old woman stood still in the dusty road and watched, as they passed out of sight on the road to Palermo, and then to Naples, to the boat that would take them across the ocean, forever.

Forever. Never again. Not ever, in this lifetime. How do you do that, part when you know you will never, ever, see the object of your love, again?

Enrico, Warren Giovannini’s great-grandfather left six sons (nameless to date). He left them behind in Lucca. Never to see them, or Lucca, ever again. He must have known a journey like that could not be undertaken twice.

In Lucca there is a tomb of Ilaria del Carretto (1410). It consists of a raised dais and the sculpted body of Ilaria, much-loved second wife of Paolo Guinigi, one of the city’s medieval overlords – a tomb described by John Ruskin as “the loveliest Christian tomb in Italy.” Ilaria’s graceful hands rest on her rounded womb. Did she die in childbirth, womb still swollen in afterbirth, after the child wrenched the life from her so that the commissioned Sienese sculptor, Jacopo della Quercia, prepared his sketches on that basis? Or did she die, undelivered of the child? She is undoubtedly pregnant. So very beautiful. So very still. There is the touching addition of the family’s loyal dog resting at its mistress’s feet. And so, for all time, and all eyes to visit Lucca through the centuries, Ilaria lays, posing more questions than she answers – pregnant in death. And what does it say of her husband, Paolo Guinigi, that he commissioned this testament to his love, revealing something so very private, that his woman died of his seed in her womb?

“Do you know how beautiful you look, at this moment?”

I look up from my journal, into the eyes of my man. He gazes at me, with that intently male look, beneath his single eyebrow, above the open pages of his New York Herald Tribune. This newspaper he has been devouring for days, and which he says he developed a taste for during his twenties, in Norway, playing in the European hockey league. We are waiting to go to our last supper with Lucia, our hostess. Warren sits on the couch, while I sit at the head of the harvest table in our apartment at the Villa Giovannini, recording the last days. He seems happy whenever I write in my journal. I feel his body relax and expand, from across the room, knowing this is what keeps his woman happy, makes him happy, too, to know that I am keeping our memories. Not all of this shall pass.

Why are you asking?

Is it not obvious? If we knew, would we have to ask?

What kind of man builds a house of four storeys? Dies the harvest October of the August year he moves in, after three years of construction, after accomplishing this testament to home?

“The house is breathing,” Warren Giovannini says to me at 5 o’clock in the morning, somewhere between sleep and waking. Windows knock in the wind. I throw a towel over the heavy wood panel of our second-storey window of the Villa Giovannini. His body is sweet, after a night of love. So lovely when he reaches for me this morning, and curls around me, his chin on my head, my feet barely touching his feet, his strong body a shield for mine. I listen to the cock crow at 4 a.m. and again around 6 and finally again at 7 a.m.

We are off early. Giorgio, the cat, looks lost in the driveway. We wind our way down from the Villa Giovannini and wave at the husband farmer, who is tending the vines, to his wife in the fields. We accompany the waving with our car horn – a celebration sound, as for weddings. Her wave back is energetic and urgent, two arms flailing back and forth, crossing each other – a final parting.

Hours into the journey that will take us back together, Warren to his separate life, I to mine, a series of separations until we accommodate to the routine that sometimes dulls, sometimes sharpens the pain, he asks me: “Do you think Lucia will miss us?” The look in his eyes is surprisingly vulnerable for one so strong, searching mine for answers. “Are we not missing her?” But we ease our heavy hearts, for we will return, must return, of necessity. A flight of hours now separates Canada from Italy. Nothing as those separations, a century ago. We will come again, fully knowing, as I say this, the tendency of hours to slip into years and the way life has of sweeping us away – the risk that promised returns may never happen, never again in this lifetime.

Darlene Madott is a Toronto lawyer and fiction writer. Her most recent collection of short stories, Joy, Joy, Why Do I Sing?, was published in 2004.

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 10.

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