Letter From Italy

Letter From Italy

“It’s as quiet in our street as it was a year ago.”


Florence—It’s been more than a year since Florence locked down for the first time, and the rate of Covid infection has increased by a factor of four. A family friend has been moved from the Santa Maria Nuova hospital to a hotel out of town to continue his recovery. He’s too weak to talk, but his daughter tells me that he wants P.G. Wodehouse novels: anything “non-Jeeves.” (He’s read those.) Or anything funny, for that matter. It proves harder than expected; put on the spot, my books have never seemed less capable of raising a laugh.

I am an outsider in Florence, here because of my husband’s teaching gig. As a voice actor, I am used to working remotely from a home studio set-up. Silence is good for that, but this is eerie. It’s as quiet in our street as it was a year ago. The university opposite used to mean reliable bouts of victory cries from laurel-crowned students, four times a year no less, which is when they graduate. The café on the corner used to cater to a stream of regulars with its affordable lunch menu of homey pasta dishes. Gone also are the students of love—those painfully breaking up in our dark side street. No more agonized crying, shouting, and huffing off over the cobblestones.

For a broader soundscape, 100 yards away is Piazza Santissima Annunziata, former home to megaphoned protest speeches, tourist groups of 50 in matching baseball caps topped with swirly helicopter-blades, dubious brides posing for the camera, Santa conventions, etc. When the pandemic kicked in, the square became home to a soup kitchen set up under the porticos at the top of the steps. People waited to be called up by ticket number to receive their bag of food. It was quiet, apart from the sound of a small transistor radio belonging to a few gentlemen living on the other side of the square, under the portico of the old foundling hospital, now a building owned by UNICEF.

One of the paradoxes of the lockdown has been that Florence, a city of interiors, has had to play out some of its secret games in public. UNICEF has traditionally held a grand, exclusive ball. Last July, the ball was in the piazza, a perfectly socially distanced al fresco affair, with white-clothed tables spaciously placed and cordoned off with plush rope, where bodyguards checked names.

As a consequence of this ball, the wolves were kettled. Just a few days earlier, Chinese artist Liu Rouwang’s installation The Wolves Are Coming, 100 bronze castings of wolves, appeared in Piazza Santissima Annunziata and Piazza Pitti. In various attitudes of rapacious intent, the wolves encircled a statue of a cartoonish hero wielding a paddle-shaped sword, no match for the beasts. Exploding the stereotype of wolves as bad guys in fairy tales, here the hero was a caricature and the wolves looked like natural, powerful, free beings. People interacted with them playfully, sitting on them, posing for selfies.

This encounter with the wild had an unexpected parallel in newly uninhabited spaces in Florence and other parts of Italy. Dolphins appeared in the Grand Canal in Venice, ducks waddled into malls in Florence, and actual wolves are having a major comeback, with as many as 2,000 of them presumed to be roaming the countryside. (The first national census of the Italian wolf was initiated last October.) As ball-goers celebrated in the piazza, the wolves were caged for the night. The men under the porticos also disappeared, but were back the next day. I asked what I could bring them. More triple-A batteries; that’s all.

During the initial lockdown, when we were allowed out one at a time for a valid purpose only, Matteo and I took turns going to the supermarket. Walking under the deserted porticos gave me the sense I was in a de Chirico painting, as if I were part of the city for the first time, inside its body, closer to the famously icy Florentine heart. Without people, each architectural detail is more vivid. The bas-relief sculptures of busts on plinths take on the appearance of figures pressing themselves into the walls, as if trying to socially distance from passers-by. The Duomo, the mothership, has seen it all before. In the summer of 1347, when the plague that would wipe out a third of the population here broke out, it was just being built. Despite the catastrophic blow to the city, construction wasn’t abandoned. Once more the Duomo is a silent witness. A local actor offered his take on a be-plagued and still Florence in a YouTube video of him questing through the streets, stopping to chat with statues of Dante, Brunelleschi, and others, looking for answers.

So much remains uncertain a year later. For stores and small businesses in Florence, the hardship is incalculable. Of the 3,000 restaurants in Tuscany that have closed permanently since the beginning of the lockdown, 100 have been in the province of Florence. A 44-year-old restaurateur in Santa Croce took his life in his restaurant before a restricted evening shift.

I wonder about Rocco, the owner of an after-hours teahouse in the center of Florence. His business appears not to have folded, but I haven’t seen him since the pandemic struck. Back when his cozy cafe was a beacon on the way home, a place to lounge for hours chatting—often with Rocco himself—Rocco purveyed the theory that some Florentines shuffle along under the unbearable weight of the city’s past, kept from new discoveries as if by a transparent domed ceiling. Any idea that flies too high hits the dome and comes crashing back to earth.

Walking through the subdued city the other day, I watched a crane crew’s final effort to secure a 90-foot trompe l’0eil photocollage by French artist JR to the front of Palazzo Strozzi. Called La Ferita (The Wound), it creates the illusion of a gash through the building’s shuttered facade.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends is edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and appears weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy