Friday, 7 October 2011

"Tea with Mussolini"

I'm prompted to write about this today as I have just posted, at "Vagaries, Augeries and Encounters", a poem about the Italian hilltown, San Gimignano.  It is a fascinating town, not far from Siena and is featured in the movie "Tea with Mussolini".

I went there first in the 1980s with a tour from the Fine Arts Department at Sydney University, to look at the Early Renaissance frescos.  I returned ten years later with my then husband, John, as described in the poem. Ten years after that, my little son Martin was learning Italian at school.  He loved his Italian teacher and did a great project on Roman aqueducts, but, other things considered, he was having a really beastly time and becoming increasingly depressed.

One evening we watched "Tea with Mussolini" together.  It is a loosely biographical story by the great director Franco Zeffirelli telling how, as the illegitimate son of his father, he was placed in the care of an elderly English teacher, and then sent away to Germany to school, shortly before the outbreak of war.  The story follows the lives of a group of ex-patriot English and American women through the course of World War II.  The women are played by Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Judi Dench, Lily Tomlin and Cher.  After various adventures they find themselves "interned" in San Gimignano, which they strive to protect from the ravages of war.  It is a beautiful and entertaining movie.

Martin was intrigued by the city which has tower-houses, enormously tall houses which were thought to have been built by their owners in competition with each other.  In fact, they probably served the useful purpose of suspending bolts of newly-dyed cloth for drying.  Saffron has always been a major product of the area, and is used in both cooking and as a dye.

So Martin and I went to Italy, specifically to cheer him up!  In Rome he drank from an aqueduct called the Aqua Marcia.  In Florence he was allowed to wave the banner of the city, in a procession outside the cathedral.   In Venice he rode on the public gondola with a dog and a baby in a pram and an old man with two sticks.  And in San Gimignano he was allowed into the little side-chapel where he saw the beautiful fresco of Saint Fina that Judi Dench's character had sand-bagged in the movie.

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