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