The domiciliary organ of the host to which I have now attached myself is the cavernous Renaissance of every spiritual parasite’s dreams, most of it still inhabited, in that Cherry Orchard kind of way which keeps grand English country houses tottering but not always falling to the National Trust, by the descendants of the Florentine merchant prince who, in 1620, bought what was then the Palazzo Acciaiuoli, designed by Buontalenti shortly before he completed the Palazzo Uffizi. Some years later, the family acquired from the waning Medici the much larger Gasino di Parione, which became their principal residence and is today the most important private museum of art in Florence. The lesser palace, however, has a private garden, a Baroque jewel set in box and lemon by Gherardo Silvani, where I can stroll, pick persimmons, and occasionally think of something to say in this letter.
Naive as this may seem to anyone who has made a day trip to Florence or owns an encyclopedia, I do not want to name the princely family. The fig leaves carefully placed, at some sticky historic moment, on all the male statuary in the palace once known as the Casino di Parione, which now bears the family’s name, do not diminish the pleasure of the proceeding. There is a hint in this for our times, one which I myself heeded but little in the course of a perversely frank and shamelessly prolonged adolescence. Now I know better. Unfortunately, I’m joking, but anybody within a hundred miles of Machiavelli’s tomb will tell you that it is a good policy to keep your trap shut until you get out of town.
Anyway, since then the family has produced a capable fifth-period pope and acquired a first-division medieval saint. The fact that this is Stakhanovite even by local standards is illustrated by the following embittered reminiscence. A few months ago, at a drinks party in London, I ran into an outrageously beautiful girl who had two cardinals and a pope in her family, which I thought, and a Roman friend concurred, was as good as it ever gets. And, merely because of this cruel twist of genealogy, even though Paola Aldobrandini was in town all on her lonely own doing a course in computer science, we felt too timid to ask her to dinner that evening. Thank you, Clement VIII.
Now that I am here in Florence, we do not even count the cardinals, who are like the small change of copper-yellow chanterelles in the mossy path of a mushroom picker looking for high-denomination porcini. What are you going to find next if you keep on like this, aldermen?! I must say, however, that the socially impartial daughter of the present princess—to whose lares and penates or, more to the point, apartments overlooking the Silvani maze, I am parasitically attached—lets drop with breezy modesty that a pope in the family is always the hard part. Once you’ve got your pope, she says, he can fix you up with a plausible enough saint, if that’s what you really want, or put your escutcheon on top of a grandiose public monument, if this is your line of ambition. She says the reasons for why that should be so are on the whole pretty obvious, and since the dining room where she says it is dominated by the portrait of her very own St. Andrea, by no less persuasively mythopoetic a hand than Guido Reni’s, all I can muster by way of reply is a feeble nod followed by a sycophantic chuckle.
The princess gets pretty steamed up on hearing of her daughter’s flippancy, or ignorance as she calls it, since the plain fact is that the family saint, who died in 1374 ministering to victims of the plague, was canonized in 1624 by Urban VIII, many years before the family pope was born. The ancestral proverb she quotes as she vents her displeasure is boni sì, ma santi più (which may be translated from the language of the epoch as “Be as good as you like, but let’s not have any more of this saints stuff”), referring to the well-documented story that Pope Urban made the family foot the bill for historical research into the life and miracles of their beatified ancestor, an idler, drunkard, wencher, and gambler who became a Carmelite monk and later bishop of Fiesole. Which is already pretty miraculous, if you ask me.
On the other hand, Urban VIII belonged to the Barberini, who, though originally Sienese, enjoyed an equally well-documented association with their Florentine fellow clansmen that eventually resulted in intermarriage. So maybe the young cynic is not so much off the mark, her flippancy buoyed by the realization that, in a single century culminating in their pope’s prelacy, whammo (which may be translated from the language of the epoch as mirabile dictu), no fewer than three boys in the family grew up to be cardinals. It’s who you know, basically.
But I seem to have strayed. These letters of mine, after all, are not so much about the past as about the present. And the daily question I ask myself is why I am taking such personal interest in all this, and why all the back-and-forth between mother and daughter, and all the family crests and relics and lemon trees and paintings and personalities and faces, should be giving me such a thrill. Why should I, a Russian who has spent half of his adult life in England, be suddenly feeling like an American tourist who accidentally got his snout into some fabulous trough of Yurrupeen eulcha? Is not my England a nation whose aristocracy is still legally a vital agent of the body politic? It is, unlike republican Italy. Is not my friend Harry descended from the Henrys of Shakespearean history? His country estate is every inch as encyclopedic. And what of my London neighbor, Katarina? Queen Victoria is her ancestor on both her mother’s and father’s side. Do I preen like an Upper East Side matron, blab nonsense like a Yale student, and chuckle sycophantically like a homosexual decorator when I talk to them, too?
Because on the face of it, as I say, this way of life is no different from what one can easily find in any number of English country houses—of equal, if not greater, antiquity and distinction—and occasionally even in London. The last time I saw Harry, he was buying ice creams for the children from a vendor in the middle of a trailer park. The first time I saw Katarina, she was cleaning our communal drain dressed in a nightgown and rubber boots. While here, the prince, I have the distinct impression, has grown a beard because there is not enough hot water to shave with in the mornings. Here, the princess is a whirling dervish, fighting wool-eating moths, social-climbing suitors, tax-gouging authorities, and other forms of systemic entropy that threaten the next generation with destitution. Here, old retainers shuffle aimlessly through corridors, ostensibly on their way to mend a curtain or to adjust a fire screen. Here, doors squeak, roofs leak, and letters from Sotheby’s lie unopened.
The young prince runs a country estate that produces an excellent Chianti and olive oil: In England, it would be turnips and rapeseed, unless the place made more money as a conference center. One daughter has married and moved to Rome: This would be London, unless it was New York, Paris, or Rome. The other two daughters, who live here, are painters: just what they would be if they were called Somerset, unless they became sculptors or writers. One is married to a Venetian: She would be married to a Venetian if she were English, of course, unless he happened to be Florentine. In short, what is the difference? Why do I chuckle and blab and preen?
The answer comes to me one morning as Lucia, one of the old retainers who has been doing the washing in the family since the merry days of Pius XI, shuffles up to say that we are out of soap. Since the ensuing conversation is revelatory, I record it in its entirety. LUCIA knocks on the outer door of the study. “Yes?” LUCIA knocks once more on the inner door. “Enter!” Enter LUCIA. She stands by the door, arms by her sides, head slightly bowed.
I: Good morning, Lucia. What is it?
LUCIA (approaching): Good morning, sir. I have spoken to the princess, who has directed me to speak to the lady of your house . . . With whom I already spoke yesterday, but. . . She is not here today, and . . . Will you permit me to speak with you of this matter?
I: Yes, of course. What is the matter?
LUCIA: As you certainly do not know, sir, because you cannot possibly know, although perhaps you do know because it pleases you to acquire knowledge of such matters, I do your family’s laundry. This is done by immersing different things, which we call clothes—although, on occasion, these may be bedclothes, such as sheets, or simply towels, such as you would find in the bathrooms here and there, in short, everything made of fabric that is used, and becomes soiled from one day to the next—into a quantity of boiling water with soap.
I: Very well, I understand perfectly. And?
LUCIA (nervously): I have been doing my job for almost two weeks now. . . . I trust to your satisfaction.
I: Of course, of course. But what is the matter?
LUCIA: The soap is finished.
I: All right then, let’s buy some! We’ll get some more this afternoon. It’s the stuff in big square boxes, right? Powder?
LUCIA: Bravo, sir! May I say, sir, well done! How astonishingly well you understand practical issues! And may I add that the lady of your house, divinely beautiful as she is, understands them equally well. And your child is perfectly beautiful also, and of course sharp as a blade . . . That’s what we say in the country when we want to describe someone as very, very clever.
I: Thank you very much. It’s because we don’t own a television and don’t send him to school.
LUCIA (gasps): Ah, sir. How true it is what you say! When I was a young girl, I did the washing for the Counts N—and it was the same, always private tutors for the young ones. How courageous you are, and what a pleasure it is for me to be working for a master who is so good.
I: Thank you, Lucia, I promise you we’ll get the soap!
LUCIA (retreating); Thank you, sir! And please give my sincerest thanks to the lady of your house when she returns!
I invite readers who may have some doubt as to what makes this exchange so damn revelatory to compare it with a diary entry made ten years ago in The Journals of Woodrow Wyatt, just published in England to much scandalous recrimination. The late Lord Wyatt, a vizier to both Mrs. Thatcher and the Queen, recounts an anecdote about the tenth Duke of Marlborough, next to whose granddaughter he finds himself seated at dinner. The thing to listen for here is Wyatt’s tone of proletarian incredulity, worthy of Pravda in my own grandfather’s day:
That was when Bert Marlborough stayed with his daughter in America and came down to breakfast and said: “There is something wrong with my toothbrush. It didn’t foam this morning.” It was then established that he was travelling without his valet who always put the toothpaste on the brush for him. It seems that he was unaware that this is what caused the foam in his mouth.
I rest my case. I do not think there’s anybody in England—including the oldest retainers in the grandest country houses in the remotest counties who came up to London for the Coronation and have not been back there since—that still talks, acts, and thinks like our Tuscan laundress. And for this reason, even if the aristocracy should legally remain a vital agent of the body politic in England, its eminence is and will always be illusory.
Here it is real, which is why spiritual parasites of every description, from American housewives and homosexual decorators to Chiantishire colonists and itinerant idlers, will chuckle and blab and preen for as long as Lucia’s generation is alive. She is what makes the princess a princess, and Italy—Italy.