Still sealed in the gray velvet envelope of night, early morning in the Florentine countryside offers the June insomniac stray, loud cars, merciless crickets, and doomsday frogs. These supplant the earlier nightingales, thrashing a capella, as if lured by the glowworms whose light illuminates an equally desperate vanity. By daybreak, a storm begins; not the atmospheric, temperamental, barrels-down-the-stairs kind one gets just about anywhere; but the circumspect, snobbish kind that rumbles interrogatively, putting to the cypress, it seems, Farinata’s eternal question, Chi fuor li maggior tui?—Who were your ancestors? And the cypress, following the other Tuscan’s example, conceals nothing and makes all matters plain.

The window from which I lean out overlooks the gnarled olive trees of L’Ulivello, the Strada in Chianti estate that once belonged to Guglielmo Ferrero, the great historian and political thinker best known for his five-volume account of the self-destruction of the Roman republic and the settlement of Augustus, The Greatness and Decline of Rome (1902-1906). His grandson, my host, belongs to the small and ever-diminishing minority of American academics who, in his own words, “moonlight as thinkers”; he had given me Ferrero’s Ancient Rome and Modern America (1914) to read, and insomnia was the inevitable consequence.

Over breakfast, there is no reason to talk about decline. Leo’s wife, Larissa, is one of the world’s leading Etruscan scholars, but the coffee is incredibly delicious. We do not venture out, not even to Florence, during our stay: let well enough alone, really. The food is simple, a rest after the gastronomic excesses of Rome’s Via Panisperna, where this journey had begun, but the olive oil is heavy, fragrant, and green, the wine not so young, and the bread freshly baked.

In the evening, exhausted by the sunlight, Leo and I talk of this and that, smoke, sit outside. My mind still teems with impressions of Rome, revisited after an absence of some 15 years. How secret that city is! Everything goes on behind closed doors; You stand before a magnificent set of giant double doors in the middle of a crumbling, dirty wall and see a crumbling, dirty staircase leading to another set of doors, beyond which, if you are lucky, you may get a glimpse of some flowering bit of somebody’s private paradise. Larissa says it’s to fool the tax man, but it seems more fundamental than that. It’s definitely to fool someone, though.

The glowworms remind me of a book I’d read before leaving England, Leonardo’s Sciascia’s The Moro Affair. Leo informs me that Sciascia, a Sicilian, used to move in very left-wing circles and is now a spokesman for the fashionable Radical Party, which had just had a professional stripper elected to parliament. I liked the book, and I tell my hosts about it.

Like any art, history abhors the middle ground, and Sciascia understands this. The Moro Affair is nothing less than a history of Italy, from March 16, 1978, when Aldo Moro, president of the National Council of Christian Democrats and architect of a political coalition of unprecedented breadth, was kidnapped by the Red Brigades, to his execution on May 9. Yet the intensity of Sciascia’s obsession with his subject has little in common with the pedantry of an academic who devotes half a lifetime to the study of a single year in the history of a vanished kingdom; this book is controversial, which is why it’s still fresh in my mind. To enlarge the metaphor with which Sciascia’s musings about his nation begin, his is a glowworm’s eye view of history.

What that eye has observed, above all, is the delicate pattern of democracy’s impotence. The eye discerns every successive hypocrisy, evasion, and fabrication which covered up the tragic essence of Moro’s abduction and murder, registering in minute detail the story of his abandonment by those who had hailed him as a Great Statesman until he asked for help like a mere mortal. In the words of the Socialist leader Pietro Nenni, “The Italian State is strong with the weak and weak with the strong,” and it is totalitarianism—as represented by the Czechoslovakia-trained and Bulgaria-armed Red Brigades—that serves to remind us that democracy, in Italy or anywhere else, is worth the fight. The plain truth of The Moro Affair is that many democracies are not equipped for this or any other fight, and it is far easier for their elected leaders to fabricate self-serving myths of omnipotence and omniscience than to face that truth.

In the 55 days of Moro’s ordeal, the Italian police put up 72,460 roadblocks, searched 37,702 residences, checked 3.3 million vehicles and 6.4 million individuals. As Sciascia demonstrates by his anatomic dissection of the police effort, it was all a farce. The police wanted to locate Moro and his kidnappers as little as the Italian government did: They did not want his return because they felt they could not secure it, and they could not secure it because, in the final analysis, nobody wanted it. The government stayed behind closed doors; the people stayed behind closed doors; Moro’s family stayed behind closed doors; the Red Brigades stayed behind closed doors, too.

Sciascia does not mention Lear, but the similarity is striking. Like Lear, once Moro was separated from power, he became a liability to his political family. Their cruelty, duplicity, and indifference compel Sciascia to speak of “the two Stalinisms”: theirs and the Red Brigades’. In his last letters from captivity, the man condemned by one “Stalinism” to die at the hands of the other, the real one, asked that only his family, his natural family, be present at his funeral. That was the last wish of a mere man, but all members of the government turned out for the funeral service: As a mere man, Moro was “not himself,” and these Great Statesmen felt it appropriate to divide among themselves the garments of his reluctant martyrdom.

Leo is grim. He is not moved by my summary of Sciascia’s musings. “They did everything they could,” he repeats.

They all did everything they could to save the olive trees of Chianh in the great freeze of February 1985, and yet the sudden and unprecedented blast of cold weather blighted almost a third of the trees, nearly half if the tally is made for all of Tuscany. Over the past two years, the desiccated trees have been mercilessly pruned, and frequent travelers have observed that the entire landscape of the province, with its slopes of pale green contrasting with the darker shades of cypress and umbrella pine, is now disturbingly different. But this autumn’s crop should be better. Leo presents me with a big bottle of last year’s oil to take back to England, and I am appreciative beyond measure.

This is the oil that turns an indifferent amateur into a great cook by the sheer fact of its presence on his kitchen shelf not the mild Ligurian, not even the golden Sardinian or the delicate, pale Abruzzi, but this green, sharp Tuscan affair. A neighbor of Leo’s still makes it the old way, by crushing the olives in a trough with a large rolling stone, but most owners around here send their crops to a hydraulic press. Still, it is all local oil, and the customary classifications of virginity (according to acidic content: vergine, fino vergine, soprafino vergine, and this, completely neutral extra vergine of the first pressing) seems cynical, rude.

We drift on to another subject. Leo is telling me his impressions of the Sharon trial in New York, which he had attended as an observer. “He knew every building in Beirut,” says Leo, his eyes glistening. “Every house and every street.” This is, then, the happy opposite of the Moro affair, I keep thinking, a success story in democracy. Somehow it all fits in, then, somehow it all comes down to streets and houses, to open and closed doors, to the savage pruning of olives.

But the time is nearly two in the morning, and we must go to bed. We turn off the lights in the library. The volumes of Guglielmo Ferrero are plunged into darkness. Ascending the stairs, I prepare for a sleepless night.