The promontory of Monte Argentario, billowing on the clothes line of the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy like an Hermes shirt held in place by three pins of land, is famous for its summer resort towns of Porto Ercole and Porto Santo Stefano. The shirt, which has been lost so suddenly by so many here in the recent political upheavals, is a suitable symbol of all the historic beachheads of luxury in that furious sea of imprisonments, confiscations, and fines in whose legal depths the betridented tax man has been playing Neptune. As the Italians do everything together, including shopping at Hermes and going to jail, the Argentario’s rivals for his judicious attentions are not many, and all too easy to rumble. Basically, apart from the moneybags encampment on the Emerald Coast of Sardinia, there is only Positano and the rest of the Capri playground to the south, and Portofino, on the Italian Riviera, to the north. The Argentario is somewhere in between, halfway between Genoa and Naples, and the house I am in is perched on a rocky slope across a small bay from Port Ercole.
Formally I am in Tuscany, yet the olive and the vine of Chiantishire seem to belong to an altogether different, far less exotic universe. A few minutes inland by car begin the forests and marshes of the Maremma region, “frontier territory throughout history,” a local guidebook says. “It was here that the last Etruscan strongholds of the Vulci and Volsini met with the advancing Roman legions. It was Maremma that marked the confines of the Byzantine and Longobard states and it was here that the border between the Papal State and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany was drawn. Today, the same land marks the boundary between Tuscany and Lazio.” What this means, in translation from historical euphemism into social topography, is that this is still a refuge for enterprising individualists denounced as brigands, contrabandists, pirates, and thieves. Half an hour away, in the mountain fortress of Capalbio, visitors with a romantic craving for roast wild boar are greeted by an effigy of the bandit Tiburzi, who ruled the Maremma until the turn of the century and knew how to eat well. There are conflicting accounts of who betrayed him and why, but lately I think I’m beginning to get the picture.
Our village is ruled by a man called Franco, whose father opened the only bar and restaurant here when grand villas were still being built by the Romans and the Milanese to accommodate the optimism born of Italy’s burgeoning black economy. He is a handsome man, with eyes just blue enough to pick up the colors of the sea from the restaurant’s terrace, who may be observed sliding a pizza into the oven one minute and talking into one of the three mobile telephones on his corner table the next. Just when he arrives for work is a bit of a mystery, because obviously I’m still asleep, but he never leaves the restaurant before 2:30 in the morning, when we drink our last Averna together. Here I must announce that in the course of the last two years, since I first met him, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that he is the only man in Italy endowed with what a Russian, an Englishman, and an American could all agree is a sense of humor. Hence he is the only Italian I always take seriously, even when he isn’t joking.
Mine is not, I hasten to add, an hysterical case of hero worship, a kind of Patricia Hearst fascination for her own captors or a Soviet housewife’s belief that Molotov is sexually irresistible. Yet the truth is that all the summer rentals in the village are handled by Franco on commission, and the query most often overheard at the beach, second only to “Cosa mangiate?” or “Dove andate stasera?” (we get very few foreigners here), is the vital question of why the wife of this pharmaceutical company president from Bologna or the mistress of that chewing-gum magnate from Turin had been reckless enough to make her own arrangements, instead of “renting through Franco,” only to be reduced to a quivering bundle of nerves even before the season started. This evidence of power, naked enough to make captains of industry and their spouses tremble, has two notable consequences.
One of these is best observed in the Mediterranean sun of the early afternoon. It is difficult to get local color right, of course. That burning white hole in the cool blue enamel, inappropriately, always reminds me of a Russian poet who wrote that he was lonely “as the last good eye / of the man who has gone to live among the blind.”
Anyway, come early afternoon. Franco sits under the canopied entrance of the bar surrounded by past, present, and future clients, dispensing advice and succor in the manner of some medicine man or scribe in the shade of a baobab tree, or a mango grove, or . . . well, you know what I mean. Think the East, think the nexus of India and Africa, think Somerset Maugham, think Asprey of London. Yes, it is notoriously difficult to get local color right. I note, for instance, in a copy of the New York Times Magazine that has floated by me on the beach like a letter in a bottle, that the recipe for Balinese Tuna Salad calls for one and a half teaspoons of kosher salt. Now, that cannot be right. What I am trying to say, I suppose, is that all the prattle of the baobab and the mango is here to suggest that there are some fundamental ways in which Italy is closer to Borneo than to Manhattan.
A pomegranate grove, perhaps? Such trees do grow here, so that is right, but the real point is that those who did not “rent through Franco” shall never enter the pomegranate grove. At least until it is dinner time, while the sun is still high overhead and they are still in their sporty shorts and natty slippers, Italian men are hypochondriac, melancholic, and easy prey for some of the pettiest household paranoias. If their sewer is backing up, they immediately blame their wives for not having “rented through Franco.” Their wives are not far behind when it comes to being suggestible, and if the cistern suddenly has no water one can be sure that the husband will be excoriated, by both the wife and the mother-in-law on the premises, for his characteristic obstinacy in supposing that he knew best when he dealt with the owner directly instead of “renting through Franco.” And so it happens that those who believed they did good, those arrogant men of worldly influence in distant Milan or Bologna, those bejeweled women with perfect blond highlights in perfect blond hair, are now outcasts, pariahs without protection from the vagaries of nature and fate, social flotsam without access to Franco, condemned to the outer reaches of the bar while the meek inherit and have their refrigerators promptly fixed.
The revolutionary, retributive, or at least redistributive overtones of Franco’s enterprise, based though it is entirely on the power of suggestion, account for the second of the observable consequences I mentioned. Everyone, rich or poor, has something to say about him behind his back. Typically, the rich say he belongs to the mafia, and when I object, pointing out that he neither drills holes in people’s cisterns nor sneaks into houses to tamper with their ancient Italian refrigerators, they put on a thin, sad smile and look away.
The poor are less predictable, perhaps because envy is a finer emotion than fear. Recently the master of a nearby riding school, who had been told I was a friend of Franco’s, came up and addressed me as follows: “Buona sera, signore. You are a friend of Franco’s. Well, let me tell you something. I’ve got more brains in this little finger on my left hand than Franco has in his entire body.”
Excuse me, I said, trying to inject as much of the Valley Girl as I could into what was genuine astonishment, e allora? “Well, I’ve known Franco 30 years, and I just wanted you to know that he is not as clever as he thinks he is. He didn’t get where he is by his intelligence.” But don’t you see that he works like a dog, that he’s worked like a dog for all those â€¢)0 years, and that this may have had something to do with his success? “Sure he works. But he’s got the whole village in hand!” Well, he is an aspiring monopolist, which is another name for a good businessman. Without him, there would be nothing here, true? “True,” he conceded grimly, affecting the liplessness of the rich. Because everybody would fight, everybody would quarrel with everybody else, and then the big boys would arrive and build a giant resort hotel for a lot of fat Germans, which would probably close down in a few years. You would have your social justice then, but who would take riding lessons?
I saw that he was unconvinced. In his heart the riding instructor hoped that the whole Argentario would one day be drowned in burning sulfur, if only to prove that the aspiring monopolist was not as clever as everyone thought.
Leave a Reply