Miriam Cosic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Tus­can Places: An­tipodeans Seek­ing More Than Michelan­gelo By Des­mond O’Grady Ar­ca­dia, 203pp, $34.95

From the time of the early En­light­en­ment, the British up­per classes sent their sons on the Grand Tour, a sort of mov­ing fin­ish­ing school through the great cen­tres of clas­si­cal and Re­nais­sance Europe. As Ed­ward Gib­bon wrote in The His­tory of the De­cline and Fall of the Ro­man Em­pire, “Ac­cord­ing to the law of cus­tom, and per­haps of rea­son, for­eign travel com­pletes the ed­u­ca­tion of an English gen­tle­man.”

Young men from other north­ern prin­ci­pal­i­ties also hit the trail, which led south, of­ten through France, to the rolling land­scapes and art trea­sures of Italy: the epit­ome of civil­i­sa­tion.

There is a great Ger­man tra­di­tion of in­tel­lec­tu­als mak­ing the pil­grim­age, too. Goethe trav­elled there af­ter study­ing law, and Swiss his­to­rian Ja­cob Bur­ck­hardt wrote a de­fin­i­tive study, The Civil­i­sa­tion of the Re­nais­sance in Italy, which is still a won­der­ful in­tro­duc­tion for peo­ple ar­riv­ing for the first time.

Later in the 19th cen­tury, when ed­u­ca­tion widened and travel be­came cheaper, more peo­ple were able to em­bark on such trips, still in search of beauty and cul­ture and a way of life that seemed earthy yet charm­ing. Some stayed. Artists in par­tic­u­lar went in search of ed­u­ca­tion and in­spi­ra­tion. Vis­ual artists from the an­glo­phone world flocked to Paris, then the cen­tre of the avant-garde, but some artists, and writers, con­tin­ued to pre­fer Italy.

The roll call of Aus­tralian writers who spent time in Italy in the 20th cen­tury is a grand one and in­cludes such lu­mi­nar­ies as Robert Hughes, David Malouf and Shirley Haz­zard. Their time there deeply in­flu­enced their char­ac­ter as well as their thoughts and writ­ing, and they in turn in­flu­enced us.

Des­mond O’Grady’s book Tus­can Places: An­tipodeans Seek­ing more than Michelan­gelo is an ac­count of that Aus­tralian con­nec­tion.

An early ar­rival was Louise Mack, an Aus­tralian jour­nal­ist who spent 15 years in Florence from 1901, edit­ing the lo­cal an­glo­phone news­pa­per, full of newsy gos­sip, and writ­ing her pop­u­lar fic­tion.

Her po­ten­tial read­er­ship was large. O’Grady writes that at that time the British con­sul es­ti­mated 35,000 British cit­i­zens were living in and around Florence — one-sev­enth of the pop­u­la­tion. And that’s not count­ing other na­tive English speak­ers. They lived in a city within the city: a Protes­tant church, English schools, phar­ma­cies, gro­cers, bankers, doc­tors and den­tists catered to them.

“English-speak­ers were co­cooned,” O’Grady writes. “They had left their own coun­tries but were not wholly abroad. They could get by com­fort­ably without speak­ing a word of Ital­ian. It was a par­adise for ex­pa­tri­ates.”

That uniquely English com­bi­na­tion of provin­cial­ism and su­pe­ri­or­ity, which lorded over Bri­tain’s own Celtic re­gions, let alone non-English-speak­ing for­eign­ers in Europe and, more vi­o­lently, the colonies, was ex­pressed in a qua­train at­trib­uted to Mack: We ought to be very pa­tient And al­ways try to for­get That if Florence was built for the English The Ital­ians are still there — as yet.

O’Grady calls this “drollery”, for­get­ting per­haps the hurt­ful eth­no­cen­trism shown to­wards Ital­ian mi­grants he must have wit­nessed in his home town in the 1950s. What’s more, Mack her­self would have been deemed in­fe­rior by the English denizens of Florence, com­ing from the an­tipodes as she did. Even today Aussies cop flak for be­ing rough, al­beit friendly, in the

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