The 1996 memoir by American author Frances Mayes Under the Tuscan Sun is the New York Times notable book of 1997 and New York Times bestseller for more than two and a half years. The book has been translated into 18 languages ‒ see the reviews at Goodreads ‒ and the film adaptation by Audrey Wells (2003) was a box office success earning $43,610,723 domestically and a further $15,268,000 internationally, totaling $58,878,723 worldwide (here you can find the movie review Restoring a Villa While Repairing the Heart). All of this to say: the story has been read and seen by many people all over the world (and especially in the US).
The book includes several chapters of recipes, and this choice, is tightly connected to the quest for the “authentic” Italian experience ‒ where food & wine are essentials elements of the romantic approach I am trying to depict (see the post Under the Tuscan Sun: Staged Authenticity). But let’s go step by step.
Frances is a writer unable to write; she isn’t sure what to do with her life after her divorce; she is emotionally smashed. How (i.e. where) could she start a new life? Where can she find new existential meanings? What place on earth will favor an emotional rebirth? Where can she come across the contemporary version of the Sangre Reel, a modest private balsam for the soul? The answer is simple: Italy (Tuscany, Florence), of course. George Simmel interprets Florence precisely in the opposite way: the perfect place for those who are in peace with themselves and with their lives, either because they have achieved what they wanted or because they somehow accepted their life as it is.
“The inner boundaries of Florence are the boundaries of art. Florence is not a piece of earth on which to prostrate oneself in order to feel the heartbeat of existence with its dark warmth, its unformed strength, in the way that we can sense it in the forests of Germany, at the ocean, and even in the flower gardens of some anonymous small town. That is why Florence offers us no foundation in epochs in which one might want to start all over again and to encounter the sources of life once more, when one must orient oneself within those confusions of the soul to an entirely original existence.
Florence is the good fortune of those fully mature human beings who have achieved or renounced what is essential in life, and who for this possession or renunciation are seeking only its form” (Simmel 1906/2007, 41, emphasis added).
Yet, the pathway to Italy and Tuscany is readily available and well definite by centuries of storytelling. Patty, France’s best friend, gives to the protagonist a ticket for a two-week tour of the Tuscany region ‒ I would not be surprised to find an agency promoting a tour to Florence or Siena like this: “Your emotional life is in pieces? No problem! Join the authentic Tuscan tour”.
Through a series of (apparently) serendipitous events, France purchases a decaying villa in the Tuscan countryside and ‒ the easy catching metaphor for the reconstruction her Self-identity ‒ decides to restore it. She has, of course, a romance with an Italian man ‒ Marcello ‒ however (obviously, as we will see in a moment) the story does not last. And, again unsurprisingly, the protagonist sentimental itinerary ends ‒ after having experienced the unfamiliar and unknown ‒ with a return back home. Frances at the end of the story falls in love with an American man (who is also a writer): the very familiar, both as belonging to a culture and to a class.
We can find more or less the same protagonist characterization and plot in The Portrait of a Lady (Henry James; film adaptation by Jane Campion, 1996) and in A Room with a View (E.M. Forster; film adaptation by James Ivory, 1985). It is always about a woman (American or English) in search for her Self-identity. And the common theme to all these stories ‒ better, the Grand-Tour-Grand-Theme with its articulations ‒ is a mere dichotomy: the New and the Old World. The modern, rational, civilized, “cold” New World (United States or North Europe) versus the irrational, uncivilized but passional and romantic Old World: Italy (Tuscany, Florence).
Florence and its surrounding landscape ‒ Chianti region included, which is by the way just a small portion of the very diverse Tuscany region ‒ are the idealized places (better: settings or movie ‘locations’) for the psychological/emotional travel toward the past, the roots of the western civilization. It is in this never changing land that the traveler will be able to find and freely express herself again, revitalizing the natural, genuine, primary union with her human nature.
Florence (Italy) is the place where everybody slows down and enjoys life, eating every day with the extended family for six hours (three at lunch and three at dinner): all of my students arrive here with this image and most of them bring it back home intact ‒ despites all of my attempts to deconstruct it or to enrich it. No need (no need?) to say that this is a portrayal of a pre-modern, traditional Tuscany (Italy) that does not exist and, by the way, never existed. No one with a minimal historical education (sense of reality, if you prefer) can imagine an Italian peasant ‒ as any rustic in the world ‒ having so much time and money to slow down and enjoy life. Any person with some equilibrium between the pleasure principle and the reality principle (Freud 1911, 1920), can interpret the romantic traditional Italian image as topos in the tourist gaze.
Nevertheless, this narrative about Italy written centuries ago has its strong hold upon the foreigner experiences of Italy: this self-perpetuating myth becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception come ‘true’. This specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning” (Merton 1948, 195).
Hence, besides its adherence to the social reality, this script is a fundamental framework to understand foreigners’ experiences in Florence. It is the theorem of the definition of the situation that we shall bring at the center of the interpretation as the locus foci: “It is not important whether or not the interpretation is correct… If men define things as real, they are real in their consequences” (W.I. Thomas 1923). And this foreigner Will to Believe (James 1956) is respectable as much as it is acceptable the local controcanto (mine) Will to Doubt (Lloyd 1907). Although it is not the objective of this post to analyze the relation between beliefs and reality, we can point out how people have the tendency to reduce cognitive dissonance by altering existing thoughts or adding new ones to create consistency (Festinger 1956). Moreover, this romantic idea of Florence is reinforced by touristic guides and the locals themselves, who are not the passive receivers of such foreigners’ representations and projections; locals have a different role but they are playing on the same stage: they make money out of the romantic narrative.
- Festinger, L. (1957) A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford: University Press.
- Freud, S. (1911) Formulations regarding the two principles in mental functioning. Collected papers, 4.
- Freud, S. (1920) Beyond the pleasure principle. SE,18.
- James, W. (1956) The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. New York: Dover.
- Lloyd, A.H. (1907) The Will to Doubt: An Essay in Philosophy for the General Thinker. London: Sonnenschein.
- Merton, R.K. (1948) The self-fulfilling prophecy. “The Antioch Review”, 8(2), 193-210.
- Simmel, G. (1906) Florenz, in Der Tag, Erster Teil: Illustrierte Zeitung, 111 (Berlin). Eng. Trans. Florence, in “Theory Culture Society”, 2007, 24: 38-41.