Say what you will, there is no dame like an Italian grande dame. Though based on my own experience, this claim is easily supported by any amount of independent observation as the number of subjects to whom it applies, given that the history of the aristocracy in this country resembles schematic representations of nuclear fission in old physics textbooks, is simply vast. Moreover, the rest of Italian women—those who do not fit the type under discussion for all sorts of reasons — nonetheless model themselves, and their defining affectations and aspirations, on die aspect of the female character which is not often illuminated by fashion magazines, television, or Hollywood. In that very real sense in which American women want to be thin, French women want to be clean, and English women want to be elegant, Italian women want most of all to be grand.

There was a grande dame who came to dinner the other day, and she was telling a story. I cannot remember exactly what her story was about, but she was talking about American art and went on to postulate, plausibly enough I should say, that artists like to bite the hand that feeds them, meaning their patrons. At which point I interrupted her, because, as happens now and then, a witticism had begun to form in the back of my mind, and then rolled over to the front of my head like a loose dumbbell, and then I simply couldn’t keep it in any longer and out it tumbled: “The invisible hand, you mean.” Those who sympathize with my predicament will appreciate my reasoning. The patrons are mostly businessmen, right? And business makes you think of Adam Smith, and Adam Smith makes you think of the invisible hand, and the idea of biting a hand which is invisible is pretty funny.

Which, clear as daylight, was the only reason I’d interrupted her, and yes, of course I agree, in the final analysis it’s a stupid joke. But aren’t all jokes stupid in the final analysis? And don’t you think that a friendly chuckle, or at worst an admonitory pause, would be called for at that juncture, even if the interrupted parts had something original and vital to tell about American art and artists? To say that the grande dame froze is like saying that God liked the world. No, she simply turned to stone, which was naturally the costliest kind of marble. I can only compare her with Osip Mandelshtam’s “neoclassical shawl” cascading in bas-relief about Anna Akhmatova’s shoulders unto all eternity. She was Phédre, she was Niobe, she was the shadow of an evaporated mother in Hiroshima. I had interrupted her in her role of grande dame, and to say that I felt like a rotter is like saving there is some good food in this part of Tuscany.

Let me change tack for a moment, because I just came back from the darkest Maremma countryside which I had been scouring for culatello, a kind of ham which literally begins where other hams leave off, to bring back with me to Venice. Every bar, in just about every one-bar town in the mountains that I visited, had the following announcement in die window. I swear I am not hamming it up for effect:

             DENJI SHOW

A One-Hour-long Spectacle.

International Attractions. Jugglers.

A Charming Trained Doggy

Number. A Giant Squid, over 500

kg. of Gelatinous Muscle. An

Anaconda, Strangler of Men.


A young woman cheats death in a

crystal bowl full of scorpions, black

widows, tarantulas, and poisonous

snakes of every description. And,

for the first time ever,

          LIVE PIRANHA!

Here some cynical sourpuss may grumble that the great Denji Show of Orbetello is not so unlike what passes for entertainment in the drawing rooms of Belgravia, to say nothing of the bedrooms of Manhattan. That is not my point, but the carper would be right in a sense, lo be grand, in die sense defined by the history and traditions of Europe, is above all to entertain and be entertained in accordance with established convention, the very principle I had had the temerity to subvert with my dumb joke about the invisible hand. The dumb joke was that it was I who had bitten the hand of civilized custom. The dumb joke was on me.

All of which is to say that the ladies of Manciano, Magliano, and Pitigliano, who come down from the mountains to the noisy and shameless seaside to attend the first performance of the Denji as if it were a season premiere at La Seala, are being grand in a way in which their British or American counterpart, who buys a LWD player instead, cannot even imagine herself wishing to be, to say nothing of being. Because here life is about being grand at whatever social level has fallen to your share. Elsewhere, life is about keeping up with the Joneses.

It is interesting to note in this connection that the Michelin Guide, fat, red, French, and yet the world’s chief justiciar and uncorrupt arbiter of gastronomic achievement, awards stars to just two Venetian establishments apart from the implacable Harry’s Bar (“Patrons are reminded,” Cipriani writes on the menu, “that the ringing of cellular phones may interfere with the preparation of risotto”). These two are Da Fiori, in the fashionable San Polo quarter, and a place called Autoespresso, with the gloomy and slightly’ venal address of Via Fratelli Bandiera 34, deep in the industrial wilderness of the Mestre suburbs.

Whether in Florence or in Venice, in Orbetello or in Mestre, come along and watch an Italian woman, even of the lowliest station, order her morning coffee at the local bar, ticket in divinely manicured hand. Properly considered, and mindful of die algebraic assumption that the x of coffee and the y of milk are the only conceivable variables in am equation describing what she is actually about to order, this really is entertainment to end all entertainment. This is both Maria from Manciano, trembling at the sight of la gigantesca piorra di oltre 500 kg. di musculo gelatinoso, and Violetta from La Traviata on the Milan stage, swooning Swinburneanly among orchids and lilies, in a single burst of blinding theatricality:

“I’ll have mine with just a little foam, please, but not too much foam, and in a glass, and not too hot. No, not a macchiato, just an ordinary cappuccino with a little foam. Just a little bit. And in a glass. And not too hot.”

“Can I have one with approximately half the usual amount of foam, but I would like the foam to be extremely hot, and the coffee not hot at all. Just warm, please. Yes, warm. No, the coffee warm, and the foam extremely hot. No, not a macchiato with very hot foam, just a cappuccino.”

“Do me a favor, make me a cappuccino just the way you made it for the man there, but with less foam, more like a macchiato, but yes, with the chocolate, and I would like the coffee to be near room temperature. No, not a macchiato with somewhat tepid coffee, I would just like a normal cappuccino like the man over there was having.”

“I’ll have my usual latte macchiato. But today, could you make it just a little less strong, and with just a smudge of foam? No, actually I won’t have that. I’ll have a camomile tea, but not too much camomile, like you put yesterday. That was too strong for me. I was going to tell you, but then my sister called from Padua.”

Now compare these glimpses of Italian womanhood with the scene I witnessed last spring at the Florian in Venice. Two American women approach the bar, and one of them says to the barman: “Latte, per favore.” He puts a magnificently appetizing glass of milk, all beady from condensation and reminiscent in its opacity of Bianca Sforza’s pearls in the famous portrait, on the neatly folded and very starched napkin in front of her. “No,” she says loudly, as if speaking to a deaf man, “latte, I wanted a latte.” “But miss,” he replies in English, “latte is milk, no?” “No,” she says, “I mean, latte!” And then, hopelessly, turning to walk out of the most famous cafe in the world: “Aw, forget it.”