The first home I made for myself was in Italy. I had come there for my senior year of college with the intention of remaining after I graduated and seeing if I could turn myself into a writer. I had decided in high school that I was going to be a writer, and that dream had happily persisted through college without my ever having to do much actual writing. Florence would be my proving ground–without distractions or notoriety or expectations from anyone else, I would give myself a chance to write and see if I could cut it.
I found a job in a tourist store in Fiesole that paid me a subsistence wage, and started looking for a place to live. I didn’t have much money; I had no money, to be honest. But I was absurdly hopeful and knew what I was looking for.
Florence is surrounded by farms that went broke after World War II and were subsequently collectivized. Each of these farms had one or more farmhouses that were now standing derelict and empty. The farmhouses were all hundreds of years old–many of them had no plumbing or running water or even electricity–and the Italians had no interest in them. So the government rented them out, often to foreigners, impoverished poets and painters. I was in that category, so I started asking around, and one day a friend of a friend told me about a friend of his, an Australian painter, who lived in a farmhouse in Maiano, but was being kicked out of the country because she had no visa. That gave me pause, since I had no visa myself, but I contacted her anyway and she arranged for me to take over the remaining year of her lease, at $30.00 a month.
Maiano is a little hamlet north of Florence and east of Fiesole. It contains a bar, a popular restaurant, and about four or five houses. The paved road ends at the bar, becomes gravel for about five hundred yards, and then becomes dirt and ruts, nearly impassable except by foot or motorcycle. Luckily, I had a motorino, and I had feet. My house was a half-mile down that road, at the road’s end.
My house was a huge, two-story casa colonica, over four hundred years old, comprised of four separate apartments, all unoccupied except for mine. For thirty dollars a month I rented five large rooms with brick flooring and lofty beamed ceilings–cool in summer, cold as hell in winter. The Australian had left in a hurry; the apartment was filled with her junk–piles of clothes, broken furniture, and nine or ten bad paintings. I turned one of my rooms into a gallery in honor of my patroness, crammed the rest of her stuff into another room, and with the salvageable furniture moved into the remaining three rooms. I had so much space I could have taken in boarders.
There was electricity, but no running water. However, there was a well out back, and I never considered water a problem. There was a toilet that you flushed with a bucket of water drawn from the cistern out front. On really cold mornings the cistern would be skimmed with ice, which a couple of whacks with the bucket would crack. Of course there was no heat, but the kitchen had a massive fireplace, and during the winter that’s basically where I lived. In the evenings I would sit in a ratty old stuffed chair with my feet propped up on the fireplace, a cat in my lap and a glass of Chianti in my hand, squeezing out tortured poems of loneliness and alienation. It was quiet and isolated, but it was what I had sought.
The kitchen door opened onto a large cortile paved with granite slabs. Above the door, and extending the length of the house, were vines that round the thatch-eves run, heavy with grapes all summer long–in the morning I would grab a handful on my way to work. My cat (his name was Keats, of course) had a distressing habit of getting trapped in the eaves, particularly during torrential rain storms, and I would have to stand on a kitchen chair, water pouring down my back, and pry him, claw by claw, from the tangled vines.
My house sat in the middle of a small valley that radiated north into the hills above Florence. On smog-free days I had a fine view of the city. It was surrounded by fields of ancient olive trees, and I once spent part of a day helping a crew of workers harvest the olives. They would spread a sheet of gauze below the tree, then climb up on ladders and pinch the olives off and let them drop. I thought the poem I wrote the next day was payment enough, but my real reward came months later when I came home from a hard day of selling leather handbags to find a jug of olive oil on my doorstep.
There was a stable to the north, and the horses were often let out to wander freely through the valley; I would sometimes find a small herd gathered at the cistern. On either side of the house was a small copse of woods, and Keats and I would walk there. I guess my cat was as lonely as I was, since he followed me everywhere I went. When we reached the ridge I would sit and pet him, and we’d gaze down at Florence and watch the bats flicker by.
You could see two castles from my house, one at each end of the valley’s eastern ridge: Castel di Poggio and Castello di Vincigliata. Midway between them, hidden from sight, was an ancient little country church, San Lorenzo, where Mass was heard three days a year: on Christmas, and on the feast days of St. Martin and Santa Maria, two saints who were born in Maiano. But the most famous town son was Benedetto, a highly celebrated Renaissance sculptor who died in 1497 and was friends with Ghirlandaio.
When my year was up I was booted out. Italians were beginning to discover those cute farmhouses, and I was told that mine was going to be modernized, converted into condominiums, and sold to wealthy Florentines who were looking for country retreats. I was ready to go. I had learned what I needed to learn about my writing; like the Australian painter, I had filled that old, drafty, beautiful house with a lot of bad art. I was ready to give up and go home.
About ten years later I was watching A Room With A View at home on my VCR and saw my house again. A scene from the movie was shot right where I used to live. My wife and I were both surprised at how excited I got. I dragged out all my old photographs, and we replayed the scene about ten times just to be sure. It was Maiano all right. It was my house. That horny and poetic young man in the film was lying in the grass right where I used to lie, horny and poetic.
The next summer my wife and I vacationed in Italy, and we rented a Vespa and drove up to find out what had become of my house. We saw new gravel in front of the building spread for the movie set, but the house itself had been abandoned. There were no modern condominiums; it was empty and deserted. My kitchen door was slightly ajar and we went in. The apartment was dirty and empty, littered with trash and cobwebs. No neat stack of dishes by the sink, no freshly swept floor, no bright gallery of Australian expressionism. Above the kitchen door the grapevines had mostly shriveled up.
I tried to rekindle some of the magic of my apartment, but faced with all that neglect it was impossible. We stayed fifteen minutes, took a few pictures, and left.
I have seen places I thought were enhanced, ennobled by signs of human failure and withdrawal: abandoned farms in the Ozarks, Mesa Verde, old placer mining camps in the Trinity Alps. Maiano was not one of those. That place seemed pathetically dependent on human love and attention. In the short time I was there and attended, I may have given Maiano as much as it gave me.
Brad Shurmantine lives in Napa, Ca. He spends time writing, reading, tending three gardens (sand, water, vegetable), keeping bees, learning to play the piano, taking care of chickens, ducks, and cats, and trying to be a good companion for his wife. He backpacks in the Sierras and travels when he can, and has a serious passion for George Eliot.