Above: An audience sala in the Vatican with Pope John 23rd. Monsignor George stands 2nd left of Il Papa and I am further to the left, peeping up between the lady with fox fur and man in grey suit!
My 2nd term of Italian studies in Perugia, including art/history excursions to Sienna,Urbino, Assisi.
The Vatican Palace, Rome.
October 3, 1959.
You must admit that I have some pretty interesting addresses, don’t I?
Though there are no plans to make this a permanent one!
We have been waiting here for about an hour now — uncle and I, and about 60 others, right in the heart of the Vatican building, waiting to meet the Pope in person!
This is a wonderful occasion which I certainly hadn’t anticipated. Pope John is not giving very many audiences these days, I believe.
This is the first time that George has had a personal audience, in spite of all his trips to Europe. — He doesn’t seem to be in the habit of asking favours for himself — so it was really good of him to arrange this for when I arrived in Rome – and it was only last night that I arrived here.
I have had to finish this letter on returning to Perugia as the Holy Father’s entrance into the audience chamber interrupted my writing! We had had quite a wait till he appeared.
The actual audience was of fairly short duration but was a truly memorable experience.
The atmosphere built up as we were ushered into the Vatican and through long corridors, with Swiss guards clicking their heels at each end as we passed, then on through large halls each one of which each had splendid decor, first assembling in one sala for a while, and then on to another.
Everyone remained hushed and very solemn and with expectation mounting as we waited and waited.
All the women wore black with mantillas covering their heads (including me), and the men of course wore fine dark suits
and even dress suits and tails.
One little ambassador had a row of medals across his chest that should have weighed him to the ground.
Then there was uncle and a couple of other Monsignori in their shiny magenta robes.
The tension had really built up when finally, after one and a quarter hours wait, John XXIII burst into the room full of smiles and informality.
He moved slowly around this large circle of people, stopping to have a friendly word in either Italian or French to each person –( apparently he doesn’t speak English.) I am told that greeting individuals is quite a rare thing for him to do, and I felt very privileged and moved by it, and was so glad I had learnt enough Italian by now to speak with him. Uncle’s Italian is quite fluent, having studied in Rome years ago.
Uncle introduced me, saying that I came from Australia and was studying at the University for Foreigners in Perugia. He was very enthusiastic about Perugia, said he had been there once,- a lovely city! – but no mention of Australia,
I think that way-off Australia is probably a bit beyond his customary sphere of attention!
He is very short and stocky and wonderfully spry for his age.
I came away with half a dozen pairs of rosary beads, which he had blessed.
I will enclose them in the Christmas parcel for you to hand around.
I also have a wonderful coloured photograph of the whole group of sixty people, which I treasure. I look forward to showing it to you when I return home.
Afterwards we went with Dr.Lucrezio and his wife and the Australian chief migration officer to a fine restaurant in Trastevere (meaning across the river). a famous meeting and eating area for Italians, rather like the Latin Quarter in Paris, and we had a splendid meal together which took up most of the afternoon as Italian meals often do.
I was able to stay that night with the Blue nuns, whose Mother-house and hospital is in Rome.
At the hospital they have a few guest rooms where lucky Australians sometimes stay. It is Uncle’s favourite accommodation when in Rome each year.
In a little garden at the entrance of the building I was delighted to notice a beautiful tall gum tree, the first one I have seen for ages, ( the last ones were in Egypt) – and it really tugged at my heart to find it there.
Now, time to catch you up a bit from the time when I got back to London from Ireland till arriving in Perugia again..
I spent two very hectic days repacking and sorting and saying goodbyes. I was so grateful to have had a room to stay in
with Mavis Fishburn in Cromwell Road right near the city.
Luckily for me her usual flat-mate, Patricia Heaton, who works on the staff of the Duchess of Kent, was travelling with Princess Alexandra for a month.
I had to leave everything very spick and span, and you will be pleased to hear that I also managed to make a tentative booking for the journey home in December on the ss. Arcadia before leaving.
I left London on Saturday morning at 10.30, travelling via Paris and arrived at Trieste in northern Italy at 3.30 the following day. Luckily I had a couchette and slept well.
I was met on arrival in Trieste by the Angelos, a very welcoming older couple from America who work with Uncle’s friend Don Alfredo, the priest who heads the Catholic migration assistance programme in Trieste.
Uncle arrived the next day and we went to visit the refugee camp. What I saw there was a heart-rending experience and a real eye opener for me. We only seem to hear about what’s going on from our end once the refugees arrive in Australia.
60 people fleeing from Central Europe had managed to escape safely over the Yugoslav border just on that day.
There were about 800 people in the camp, mainly young men, waiting dejectedly many with heads bowed in long queues to be screened by the International commission, not knowing whether they would be allowed to stay or would be forced back over the border and made to spend two years in jail. Many had filtered down from a mix of middle European countries.
I have not been able to get the sight of them out of my mind. Most of them looked as if they had already been through the mill, but it was the look of powerlessness and despondency in their eyes that upset the most. The ones who pass scrutiny are being given some sort of training here in various forms of skilled labour, and are then sent on by ship to Australia with the help of our migration programme.
That afternoon I was pleased to have a chance to do some sightseeing; Trieste is built on the Adriatic coast and has a lovely waterfront.
It is a seaport stretching along the strip of Italian territory between the Adriatic Sea and Yugoslavia. The main public buildings are set around a spacious piazza overlooking the sea.
There is a beautiful white castle – the Castello di Miramare, standing on the very tip of the promontory. It was built by the Austrian Emperor Maximilian in the 19th century and is surrounded by beautiful formal gardens.
I really enjoyed Don Alfredo’s company. I couldn’t believe just how much he was like Don Camillo — you remember those wonderful novels about the priest who was always at odds with the Communist mayor!
He had the big build and an even larger than life personality to match.
And there is also the Communist mayor here to complete the picture.
He took us to the border crossing between Italy and Istria, which is a triangular shaped peninsula shared by Croatia, Slovenia and Italy.
He explained that, over many years and especially after the wars, bits of it had been divided up and shuffled backwards and forwards between the three governments, guaranteeing racial problems and ongoing displacements.
Don Alfredo is an Italian Istrian by birth, but after World War II the Yugoslav communist government took over that area, so that now he and many others are cut off from their birthplace.
I won’t forget the sight of him shaking his fist angrily at the sentry, shouting “provisional border”!
Once that was out of his system, he returned happily to more sightseeing, though later there was something else that set him off, – I can’t quite remember what — and this time it was to speak his mind about the misbehaviours of some of the Italian clergy –
” And that goes for the nuns as well” he said.” I really don’t like the way some of them keep sidling up to me!” Father George was trying to look as if he didn’t hear him and I was doing my best to keep a straight face!
He is such a breath of fresh air and has a very big heart and his untiring work for the displaced people in this part of Europe is a real passion for him. He has assured me of a very big welcome should I be able to visit here again before returning to Australia.
As you see on the envelope, I now have a new family to stay with in Perugia and a new address for future letters.
I was pleased to have mail waiting for me when I arrived back from Rome, but very concerned to hear about the ulcer, Mummy. I do hope that with careful treatment, it will soon heal. So do take good care.
I will send you a report about the new course as soon as I have settled in.
Love to everybody
19 October. 1959
I don’t know why it is that time seems to get away from me even more quickly when I’ve become stationary. Perhaps it’s because I am occupied with a busy routine now that I am back at school and these don’t make for newsy letter writing. I can certainly say that I have been very well occupied.
The second term really entails some work this time, usually about six hours of lectures a day. – That is counting the actual grammar and literature lessons of the main course, and then the extra subjects on art, music, history etc from the superior course are available as well.
I am very happy that I decided to take up where I left off last term, however, as I am finally beginning to get something really positive out of it after the initial struggle of learning a new language during the first three months.
For the most part the professors are excellent. The ability of the Italians to express themselves fluently comes in very handy in this profession, and by comparison to the average university professor in Australia, they are real teachers.
I was also really surprised to find how happy I was feeling to find myself back in Perugia.
I had grown quite fond of the place without realising it.
It is a fascinating old city to spend time in, relaxed and not too big, and I think I appreciate it more this time around after several months of travelling, during which time I have become considerably more observant of places – the architecture of the buildings, and the history and personality of each city that goes to make each one unique.
In the history class yesterday, the professor was discussing the raids of the barbarians – (barbarians simply being other races from the north) throughout Italy in the ninth century, This forced people to flee the countryside, and crowd into walled cities.
Houses were crammed together for safety with strong stone walls built around them. A good example of this lack of spaciousness, he said, was the area just down the road near the local cinema! He had the knack of making history come alive right on the spot!
Notice if you translate my address that I now live in the street named after Hannibal the Great – Annibale Vecchi (Actually it literally means Hannibal the old one!) who threatened to conquer ancient Rome, arriving from the north with a great herd of powerful elephants.
The history text that we are studying is a slim paperback with a wonderful title –‘Ventisette secoli della Storia dell’Italia’ which reads as ‘Twenty-seven centuries of Italian history’!
How Italian is that!
The family that I am staying with is very pleasant and kind to be with. There’s mamma and papa in their 50s and a 22-year-old son (another son has migrated to Venezuela).
The husband is very interesting to talk to, but Mamma is inclined to moan about things too much, a favourite expression being ”Blessed are they who haven’t been born!” She suffers from a bad heart, varicose veins and an ungrateful son who spends too much time out with his girlfriend.
What’s more she has a husband who goes hunting all day Sunday and leaves a trail of mud after him all over the house when he returns home!!
Every Sunday, excursions are organised by the history of art professor to various towns in the area.
I rarely went last term, often because there was something I usually wanted to do more of a social nature! but also because I had difficulty understanding him at that stage.
This time I am more motivated and, I am happy to say, better able to catch on to what is being talked about.
It is a wonderful way to combine learning the language, art, architecture and history while being driven through beautiful scenery with a busload of students to interesting destinations around central Italy!
Last Sunday the professor took us to nearby Assisi and we spent the day there. I had already grown to love visiting there with friends. It is such a picturesque town sitting on the side of Mount Subasio to the west of Perugia.
I can actually see its silhouette way across the countryside from my bedroom window when I wake each morning.
It has tiny winding streets and wonderful old churches and always an atmosphere of peace and quiet no matter how many visitors are passing through.
The spirit of St Francis permeates the whole area; the place is full of legends and relics from his life — the crucifix that spoke to him, the rosebush without thorns, magnificent frescoes depicting his life.
His companion, Saint Clare is very present in spirit as well and she has her own basilica at the base of the mountain.
Assisi was a perfect place to begin a practical study of the art and architecture of the whole Umbrian region, in order to understand how its influence spread right throughout Europe, particularly from mediaeval times, just as the message of peace and tolerance was gradually being spread throughout the world by the followers of Francis.
The architecture of the city however had its roots way back in Umbrian and Etruscan times, much as Perugia did.
We learnt that these earlier civilizations were more advanced than general history suggests,
After them, the Romans came and built a centre stretching horizontally along the hillside in the form of terraces. I am coming to appreciate that the Romans were great town planners.
Their settlement later became the foundation for the magnificently creative churches and public buildings that spread from the mediaeval era.
The beautiful Basilica of San Francisco, which dominates the skyline was built in the 13th century as a fitting burial place and monument to Francis as his fame spread worldwide. It has two main levels – the lower basilica, which is huge, is completely covered in magnificent frescoes, mostly depicting the life of Jesus.
The upper basilica is renowned for its stunning Rose Window, and especially for the very simple and moving paintings of St. Francis’s life painted by Giotto along its walls.
His tomb is in the crypt below.
I was also surprised to find an original Roman temple dedicated to the goddess Minerva, which still stands reasonably intact in the Piazza del Commune down below the basilica.
I can’t think of anywhere that I have been so far that has such a unique combination of beautiful art and buildings, tangible spiritual power, historical continuity and a landscape which, just on its own merits, continues to draw people to want to be there.
I have been happy to immerse myself in study these days – it’s probably a reaction to the weeks and weeks of being on the road and in the constant company of other people.
At the same time I certainly wouldn’t have missed a minute of the journey and it has given me a genuine taste for travel that has increased with time.
I was particularly lucky to have had Lucia as a travelling companion and that we got on as well as we did, having very similar interests and tending to laugh at the same things – except when I sometimes teased her about things American.
Once, when we were looking over the beautiful gardens of Warwick Castle, our guide was boasting about the size of the splendid fountain, which he claimed was the biggest in any public gardens worldwide. It certainly was impressive with an exceptionally high spout of cascading water.
I couldn’t resist telling the crowd at large in my best Yankee accent that as fountains go, it was nothing compared to the one back in my home town in Texas!
Lucia didn’t enjoy the joke and didn’t speak to me the rest of the day!
Another little problem arose when President Khrushchev visited the United States last month. You will remember that it was big news in all the papers, being the first time that a Russian President had visited New York, and he was given a welcome parade during which the people had booed him!
I said quite seriously that he showed quite a lot of courage going there in the first place and that I feel sorry for him. That was a big mistake and I was in trouble again- but it didn’t last long. It didn’t seem to bother Nikita too much either. I read that the thing that really upset him was being refused the opportunity to visit Disneyland!
We were both determined to get as much out of the adventure as possible, and the people who had most to put up with from us were the kind ones who gave us lifts or took us home, as they were subjected to cross questioning either by one or other of us, and usually ended up giving us their life history, political views and lots of other tidbits that make for getting to know people.
Lucia has now gone back to New York, and I do hope that we will get the chance to get together sometime and travel some more.
I am hoping that the next letter I receive from you Mummy will be to say that the ulcer treatment is working well for you. — Otherwise I may need to prescribe for you myself!
Lots of love to each one of you
Perugia. November 6th 1959.
I have just enjoyed receiving a batch of letters, one from Leonie, another from Barbie Oliver and yours too Mum.
You made mention of flooding, but not much detail, – tell me more about it.
It’s not easy to imagine Wagga’s Main Street flowing with water and our little lagoon flowing over. How close did it come to the house?
I have had to start thinking about Christmas and mailing already as sending things by ship seems to take so long.
The weather has turned very cold this week, with lots of rain as well. and I have my old winter eczema complaint back again — a little worse than usual, so I went to see a skin specialist and his treatment already seems to be paying off and making me better tempered.
It is a very simple inexpensive treatment, so I will pass it on.
Buy a packet of Boracic acid powder, which is almost insoluble in water. Add a good pinch to very hot boiled water and when dissolved enough, dip in a piece of soft cloth – when cool, apply to the affected area. This reduces the itchiness and in time, the rash disappears.
I have recently added a new string to my bow and increased an already full programme by becoming a tutor as well as a student.
I give three or four lessons a week to an Italian girl called Marisa who is about the same age as me. She has graduated in political science, but because she is engaged to marry, it goes against propriety and tradition for her to pursue her career away from home except in the capacity of a teacher, which is an acceptable alternative -so she is therefore teaching English instead of being a political scientist!
She is preparing to take a special degree in English so it is my task to tutor her and help speed up the English-language skills. She is happy to help me understand many of the social mores and traditions.
I am really enjoying the challenge and she is a very pleasant person to spend time with.
On top of that it provides me with a little pocket money — about 10 shillings a lesson.
She is happy to help me understand many of the social mores and traditions of Italy.
They include chaperoning young single women when they are out and about socially!
Tomorrow I am going with the art professor and students on our next excursion, this time to Siena.
I believe it is a lovely city, – it better be as we leave by bus at 6.45 am – what’s more, the weather isn’t looking too promising. I will give you a full report next time I write.
I had a wonderful letter from Lucia the other day — she is now back in New York.
Before she left London, she had a strong yearning to go back to the west coast of Ireland, which we hadn’t had time to explore properly together.
She said that the time we spent travelling was the best five weeks of pure flicker vacation that she had ever had, and that I had contributed greatly to making it ‘such bloody good fun’.
She spoke of my travel wise mind constantly probing the heart of the matter, and reminisced about lots of things we shared along the way. I felt quite nostalgic reading all that. We actually look quite alike and a couple of times in Ireland we were mistaken as sisters.
The letter was typed – quite a marathon! She said that one problem was that the thumb on her right hand wasn’t hitting the keyboard properly. It kept rising in an upward motion – not too unlike a hitch-hiker’s flag!
I have had a great disappointment in relation to my photos. Remember that I told you that the camera shutter had been broken with the result that I lost all of the snaps of England and Wales. I am still waiting for the photos of England and Scotland to arrive back from Milano.
I have also had a letter from Ivonne, the lass from Holland who made up the threesome here with Lucia during the summer. She has invited me to stay with her sometime, and I certainly hope to have the opportunity to do so. She lives in Amsterdam which I have not yet seen.
I have been to three Italian films recently — all Première winners and all horribly realistic.
The one last night however, was a really fine film,” the Great War” – 1914-18. A lot of the dialogue was in dialect, so we missed the witty remarks, but the rest of it was easy enough to understand. Subtitles are never used with films from other countries — the voices are dubbed. This is well done and it is better than subtitling.
Sometime ago I remember seeing a James Stewart movie and commented to my Italian friends that it was strange for me to listen to someone else instead of his rather singular voice. They said “What do you mean, he always talks like that”.
Obviously they always use the same actor for dubbing each film that Stewart appears in.
The musical concerts have started again. The first one featured a violinist and pianist.
The violinist was Nathan Milstein, a famous Ukrainian – born American virtuoso.
The programme guide claims that he is one of the best violinists of the century. He is a handsome man about 55 years old,and It was a truly marvellous concert
The concerts are usually held on Sunday evenings at 6.30, in other words before dinner.
We students get a special concession — about three and six pence per ticket, and we usually make up about half the audience, so there is often a full house.
There is a possibility that David Oistrakh will be coming soon!
Time for bed! I will write again soon. Love to you all
Perugia. 21st of November 59.
This letter is especially to wish you a very, very happy birthday for the sixth!
This time I am sure that it will get to you in time. I hope that your spell in hospital is well behind you, and that there will be plenty of family and friends around to celebrate with you.
I would really have liked to be one of them.
The time has been flying by — only another month until the course is finished and I will be facing exams again. I don’t have to do them, but the challenge helps me to make the most of the course and bring together in my mind much of what I have experienced and absorbed by following it through quite thoroughly.
This means that I will have to knuckle down to some real study if I’m going to pass them this time as well.
I have managed so far to get to all the lectures, as there are fewer distractions here towards the end of the year as winter draws near.
I haven’t been doing anything much out of the ordinary the last few weeks.
I usually go up to the Avvocato and Ada’s a couple of times a week to watch television with them. (Ada is Peppino’s cousin). Luckily we seem to like the same programmes.
They have a beautiful home and they always make me very welcome even though Peppe isn’t around, and I appreciate this.
We often go to the pictures together too. They begin after dinner at 10 o’clock and usually go on till 12.30!
We have just seen Marilyn Munro’s latest film — I think it was called “Some like it hot”- in English. It was just a little bit hot, but very funny.
The last time that I wrote, I think I was just about to go with the arts group to Siena.It was a three-hour drive in Tuscany to the north of here in truly beautiful surroundings.
The city spreads over three hills and this means lots of winding alleyways and steep steps.
The spectacular shell shaped Piazza Del Campo is set in the centre.
The Palazzo Publica is as much a masterpiece of architecture as the Duomo of Siena adjoining it, and next to it is a very tall circular tower built to the same height as the Cathedral to demonstrate that church and state have equal power!
The tower, which is built in terracotta capped with stone is called Torre di Mangia after its first bell ringer, a nickname that supposedly means earnings eater –mangia means to eat.
I’m sure that knowing all of that will really make your day!
The greatest architects and artists from all over Italy built the Duomo in the 12th century in the Romanesque/Gothic style, and according to the prof. it inspired many great buildings throughout Europe from that time onwards.
It has a beautifully patterned facade of red and green marble.
The Palio is a unique event that really puts Siena on the map. It consists of a wild horse race preceded by a magnificent pageant. It is held every year in the Piazza Del Campo in the centre of the city, with exactly the same traditions and costumes that they used 800 years ago.
Horses and riders selected from the 17 city wards are ridden bareback at great speed around the Piazza in honour of the Madonna and her Ascension.
Enormous crowds come from all over the country and beyond to watch it, though it is apparently all over in six minutes.
Its origin comes from mediaeval games – jousting and bullfighting, horse racing and donkey racing!
The modern race with all its preparation and ritual has been going since the 17th century to replace bullfighting which was finally banned.
Another special place we visited was the sanctuary of St Catherine which also incorporates the home where she lived in the 14th century.
She was a great mystic but she must have had a very practical side to her as well for any woman. She was apparently responsible for persuading the seat of the papacy to return back to Rome from Avignon in southern France where it had been for a while after Rome had been sacked. Perhaps having the stigmata may have given her extra clout.
Siena was a wonderful place to visit in many ways. It was interesting to find out that it was the Sienese school of Art that was responsible for breaking away from the stylized Byzantine way of religious painting such as the one of ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Succour,’ which hung in the top bedroom in our Henty home. to a style that was much more natural and real.
Each Sunday there is an excursion, and I am finding them very valuable and entertaining
but I don’t always go. Last week it was to have been Ravenna north west over the mountains, but the bus trip alone took 10 hours one-way along windy roads, which probably meant carsickness. – A pity. they say the frescoes were something to marvel at.
Your birthday present is included in the Christmas parcel, which should arrive very soon. Mummy wanted to know why I under estimate the prices on the declaration outside the parcel — the reason — to discourage the customs officials from opening it and charging extra duty. I don’t know if it will make much difference, but it doesn’t hurt to take precautions.
Did you save the last lot of stamps I persuaded the Post Office to put on your letter. I will try again this time as well. Fortunately Italian postal officials are usually better tempered than Australian ones.
Much love to all the family and very good wishes to you for the year ahead. Chin up and get well soon.
Perugia. December 1st. 1959.
Dear Mum and Dad,
I have been here just a month and this second course is simply flying by.
It seems strange to think of you all struggling through a heat wave while we are complaining of the cold and wet. There is a tremendous contrast here in Perugia from summer to winter.
In summer there is a very festive air – many students are here in the second term to fill in time with as much fun and as little study is possible.
This term, however, the students are mostly a conscientious lot — there are a lot of Indians and Africans this time with careers in mind. With the cold and the rain, there is very little social life, – just as well, as I have managed to maintain my resolution to attend all the lectures.
My biggest event this week was having my hair cut, though in much the same style as usual. Lately the trend in clothes and hairdos has become very demure – not that one sees much change here, as the Italian girls always seemed to dress that way.
I haven’t bought any new clothes apart from having a skirt made up from a fine piece of Harris Tweed that I bought in Ireland. I am determined to struggle on with the old wardrobe so that I can keep the money for travelling.
A couple of weekends ago I went to the city of Urbino on what will probably be the last of the art excursions. This time I travelled with four Australians by car. We went first on the Saturday to Loreto, where many pilgrims come to visit the famous basilica.
It houses the shrine of what is believed to have been the home of mother Mary in Nazareth.
According to tradition, it was moved from Palestine, possibly via Turkey, then Croatia, finally settling in Italy here in Loreto.
This happened at the time of the Crusaders in the 13th century, just before Saladin expelled them from Jerusalem.
An ancient legend, which is graphically illustrated on the inner walls of the cathedral tells that this little brick house was carried through the air by four angels, though in recent times other more earthly forms of transport have been put forward.
Loreto is a hill town in Ancona in the Marches, the region to the north-east of Umbria. The Basilica della Santa Casa, or Shrine of the Holy House as it is known, stands in the Piazza della Madonna, with the Jesuit college framing it on one side and the Palazzo Communale and Art Gallery on the other.
It is the strangest complex, because inside the large interior is another small white marble church-like structure, covered with sculptured reliefs which tell its story.
There is yet another entrance into its tiny interior, which is said to be the original stone house from Nazareth!
Inside this is a very small altar in front of very faded frescoes, and ancient lanterns hang from the ceiling.
Its walls seemed very old and weathered and darkened by smoke.
It had an atmosphere that was hard to pin down, but which moved me deeply in spite of my scepticism, and I experienced feeling very blessed and enfolded in a mysterious ineffable presence which defied explanation.
A vast number of pilgrims visit here every year, and quite a lot of cures have been reported.
I bought a little medal for Jan and popped it in her letter. I hope it made the journey safely.
From Loreto we travelled on to Fano, a little seaside village on the Adriatic coast near Ancona where we stayed the night.
We ate at a tiny inexpensive looking cafe where we settled the price before eating. It was a good meal. We were the only customers and when we were nearly finished, in came a crowd of locals to watch television.
We were suddenly surrounded and trapped so we settled down to watch the program with them and it all turned out to be quite good fun.
It was a musical quiz which is on every Saturday night, and there is always a guest artist. Recent imports included Gary Cooper, Belinda Lee, Richard Burton and Perry Como — all very popular, as you can imagine.
Next morning we had a quick look around the town — my guidebook told me that it had had a very battered history from way back. The Romans and every other invading army had knocked it around right up to recent times when the Nazis had occupied it and the Allied troops had bombed it!
The good news is that it has a cultural festival every summer – it celebrates its history rather than lamenting it. The day concludes with the locals dressed up in ancient Roman costumes. They have a fine parade in the square and then run chariot races, thus history comes full circle!
On Sunday we went on to Urbino and joined up there with our arts professor and the usual bus-load of students. He certainly knows where to bring us to see the best of Italian art and culture and scenic beauty in this central part of Italy.
Urbino is a spectacular walled city in the Marches, north-east of Perugia.
It is a unique city of Renaissance culture, which flowered in the 15th century; some of the best artists, architects and humanistic scholars came from there.
Much of this came about because of one man, Duke Frederick. He was responsible for it becoming the centre of administrative power in the area.
Today it also contains a splendid galleria, an archaeological Museum and also the Museum of Ceramic art — all far too much to try to absorb in one day.
We did have time to visit the Casa di Raffaello, the home of the great Renaissance painter Raphael. It was wonderful to find his beautiful Madonna and Child fresco there – it made him famous, and is a lovely example of the more naturalistic way of depicting religious figures.
Every now and then, when exploring these galleries you come across masterpieces which you already feel you know very well – it’s almost like meeting an old friend — the originals are always ever so much more impressive than the reproductions, and it’s always been worthwhile to travel quite a distance to see them.
And there is also the great Urbino University, one of the most prestigious in Italy, which has thrived from the 15th century till today.
I think that what makes the whole vast complex of this beautiful city such a masterpiece is how harmoniously it blends into its mediaeval base and physical surroundings.
We learnt that even its walls were rebuilt in accordance with Leonardo da Vinci’s original designs.
Our little car-load of Australians finally returned home that evening, tired and happy after a very full weekend. The only hitch was that one of the group was going through a very religious holier-than-thou phase, provoking me to shock her whenever I could. – By the time we had reached Loreto I was no longer in the right spirit of devotion to be making a pilgrimage.
If the group is making any more holy excursions I think I’d be better going on my own, or, better still, with the Italian lads who can be so irreligious that they make me feel quite holy by comparison!
However, in spite of all I have said, I had a strange and deeply moving experience when I had the chance to have a few moments by myself inside the little shrine. It was completely unexpected, especially as I was originally in a rather sceptical mood.
It was the first time I could remember feeling as if I was in the presence of something very sacred, simply by being there. And the feeling still lingers when I am reminded of it!
Peppino arrived back in town this week from his home in Chieti on the east coast of Abruzzo;
he has returned to make final preparations for his graduation exams.
I didn’t know how I would feel about seeing him again as we haven’t been in touch since the summer, but I found it was good to have him around again.
He has a special knack of brightening everyone up around him, including me!
At the same time he has always been very patient and encouraging when it comes to me learning his language and really understanding the culture of his country.
My exams start on 18 December, but as I haven’t done all the compositions required during the term, I don’t know yet if they will let me sit for them.
It reminds me of when I was studying for the Leaving Certificate, and was often in trouble with Sister Anselm for not completing my essays!
Anyhow, I still have a couple of weeks to prepare, so I will sign off now and get started.
Lots of love to all
P. S. I have been thinking a lot about Jan and wondering if a complete change of scene could help her with the asthma. I know it’s not always practical to give long-distance advice.
The only thing that I have to offer is to support her over here for a while if you thought that might help and you could raise the airfare.
The cost of living is so modest here and the health system seems very good.
I know that this is a rather far out suggestion and probably totally unrealistic but who knows?
Perugia. 16 December 1959.
Last night I realised with a shock that Christmas was so close that if I didn’t get a letter off immediately, you wouldn’t be receiving it by Christmas Day. I’ve probably been slow to take it in because I have felt so little of the Christmas spirit so far.
Fortunately it is much less commercialised here, and it is only in the last week or two that the shops are beginning to look really festive, and there isn’t the same frantic pressure here to buy great presents for everyone — boxes of chocolates, especially the famous Baci, which happen to be made in Perugia, are much more the thing. ( Baci is the Italian word for kisses!)
There are Christmas trees but no Santa Claus- the infant Jesus brings the presents to the little children, and Santa Nicholas comes on the feast of the Epiphany-6th January- and fills everyone’s stockings.
The exams begin tomorrow and I have barely started studying but, with a little luck, I will scrape through. It certainly helps to know that not a lot is riding on it. The most important written paper covers Italian literature, poetry and prose.
It has been a pleasure to explore some of the best Italian authors and poets over the centuries. We had to achieve just a modest understanding of the great writings of Dante, who is as revered by Italians as Shakespeare is by speakers of English.
Mastering the grammar is still a challenge for me, but the oral phonetics exam should be okay. We had a very good teacher, Professor de Santis, a very erudite gentleman, who made the classes pleasurable — that always helps! I love the flow of the language — its musicality and clear sounds, and that has helped me to master the accent.
Apparently that is something that I do quite well. A Rome taxi driver told me how impressed he was that a young foreign signorina spoke ‘the pure Italian’ better than he did! It made my day!
There are two written papers, one tomorrow and one on Friday, and if I pass, there are another three oral exams on Saturday, so I will be doing plenty of cramming in between times.
Last Tuesday was the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is a public holiday here.
One of the advantages of living in a so-called Catholic country is that all holy days are also public holidays.
As usual it was raining as it has done practically every day for ages, but in spite of the
weather we set out in the afternoon for Tito’s home – a farm near Assisi where we used to often go during the spring. He is a close friend of Avvocato Troiani and Peppino and a very generous host.
Just as before, we had a wonderful evening meal together. As far as I can gather, Tito has been married — these things aren’t always talked about — but now he relies on a his wonderful housekeeper to organize his home, and whip up superb meals at a moment’s notice.
One of the things that I have resolved to do on returning to Australia is learning to cook real Italian food, and you will all be the beneficiaries, I promise! No more tinned spaghetti!
The evening was made even more pleasurable because of the great big log fire burning in the living room, the first one that I have seen for a long time. Most of the homes that can afford it have central heating.
I am looking forward to discovering what the traditional dishes for Christmas are. They are bound to vary from one region of Italy to the next. As far as I can gather, it wont be turkey or plum pudding.
I do hope the weather will not be too hot for you to enjoy yours.
I wouldn’t mind being there to share it with you whatever it was and whatever the conditions.
I do hope you all have a very happy day together. Remember to say some prayers for me on Christmas morning. Please pass on my good wishes to everyone I know over the holidays.
Very much love to you all.
Via Abruzzo. Perugia. 2 January 1960.
Dear Frank and all the family,
This letter may arrive a day or two after your big day, so I wish you a very happy birthday week, and lots more besides. At least you received your birthday present in advance in the Christmas parcel. I hope you had a very happy day. And I’d love to hear how things are going for you.
Time has just disappeared since I last wrote, particularly because of all of the celebrations, the constant air of festivity and all the late nights, and I am now feeling the need for a few days rest up.
I loved receiving all your Christmas letters, and I plan to answer them individually later on. Your Christmas Pack hasn’t yet turned up, – It will probably take as long to get from England to Italy as from Australia to England!
The week before Christmas was rather tumultuous, starting with the exams. The most important one on literature didn’t go all that will as the professor chose to ask me to explain the only poem that I hadn’t properly prepared — in fact he even left the room to find a copy as it was the only one that he didn’t have with him — how unlucky is that!
However I scrambled through with a total average mark for the course of 23/30, which is considered quite good and well worth the effort.
Next came the job of getting the Christmas cards finished and searching for presents for everyone.
I was very happy that Peppino’s aunt invited me to spend Christmas with the whole family.
The celebrations consisted of one large meal after another — one advantage over an Australian Christmas being that winter was more conducive to lots of eating.
Traditionally, the day before Christmas is a day of fasting and abstinence , so the evening meal on Christmas Eve was a fish meal — I have never seen such a variety of delicious fish on one table at the one time in my life — some penance!
The Signora’s daughter, husband and granddaughter arrived that day from down south and stayed until today. (The Signora by the way is only 48 and looks no more than 38).
Tito was also there so that made eight of us altogether.
After dinner we each took our presents from the Christmas tree. It was a really beautiful tree with electric lantern trimmings and other decorations. I did very well for myself — three pairs of stockings from Ada and Avvocato Trojani, a pair of fine white kid gloves from Peppino and a box of candied fruit from Tito.
We all then went to Christmas Eve midnight Mass together — that was a first! — said our farewells, wished each other ”Sogni d’Oro”, which translates as Dreams of gold, and then finally home to bed. I was enjoying Christmas already!
The next day everyone assembled again for Christmas dinner.
The first of several courses is traditionally ”tortellini in brodo” which is a sort of ravioli made up of all sorts of meats specially mixed together and rolled in pastry and cooked in chicken broth.
The whole meal had taken hours to prepare and even longer to eat. Lots of good wine to go with it, of course. A memorable feast – really delicious and worth all the effort.
That night a great crowd assembled at Tito’s home in the country to party, and by dinnertime, around nine o’clock, 14 remained to be fed. The meal lasted for about three hours — not that we ate continually — there was much laughter and merrymaking in between courses — but for all that, the courses seemed to be never ending. I won’t attempt to describe the whole menu.
I am having trouble remembering exactly what happened and in what order during Christmas and New Year – when ever we were all together during the three or four days before New Year, the main subject of conversation, or rather argument, was
” Where will we go for New Year’s eve?’’
There were plenty of grand plans that included Firenze (Florence), Roma, one of the nightclubs in the area, and so on.
Finally we ended up back at Tito’s home yet again, where we ate like royalty in a great big dining room with the log fire blazing.
Each place at the table was decorated with a traditional little bouquet of mistletoe tied with red ribbon, as well as a bunch of violets with a sprig of wattle for each lady present!
We danced to records till three in the morning, then returned to Perugia — the older ones to bed,- then Peppi and I went on to the local dance club and joined a party of our friends and batted on till about 5 AM.
The best thing about evenings like this compared with those at home is that nobody ever gets tight!
Yesterday, on top of all of that, I had to move house. My time was up living with the family Miscio because they now had a new boarder for January.
I will miss the signora and her bewailing. One day she confided in me that she was really fed up with her husband’s adventuring and having him tiptoe up the stairs with his shoes in his hands at 3 AM in the morning.
When I asked if she would consider leaving him if he didn’t mend his ways, she replied in surprise ”oh dear me no! Who would want to be married to a man who was not attractive to other women!!”
I have found a new place to stay till I leave. It is in a little street too narrow for cars to pass one another, so it is very quiet and peaceful except for the number of cats around.
I am enclosing the annual membership forms for the pharmacy board and the pharmaceutical Society. They are both a little overdue and I have left my Australian chequebook in London and I would be grateful if you would send each of them a cheque.
The pharmacy society fee is £5.05 – they are in Gloucester St. and the pharmacy board is in Kent Street.
I will let you know where I am off to next when I receive more information from France.
Till then, Lots of loving good wishes to everybody for a happy and peaceful New Year.
17 January 1960.
this letter is especially to wish you a very happy birthday on the 25th.
I loved receiving your Christmas letter and knowing that you liked my present. Congratulations for doing so well in your exams.
Your birthday present that I sent is to add to your collection of traditional dolls that I promised. I will continue to keep my eyes open for a few more.
The days have passed by very quickly since New Year, and I haven’t yet packed my bags for France. It is much harder to make the effort to travel in winter than in summertime. And I have a nice little room now — very snug and cosy, with my own small bathroom and shower and even central heating – best so far.
The nicest thing that has happened lately is the snow. I woke up one morning last week, pulled up the blind and there it was – everything covered with snow, and still falling.
It was a beautiful sight! I was so excited that I just popped back into bed and watched it through the window for the next hour or so. It is fun just walking through it, and it doesn’t feel all that cold – it’s often colder before it begins to fall. It makes me wonder why it never snows in Wagga, as it is really no colder here in winter than there.
We had a snowball fight after lunch yesterday, but it is already beginning to melt.
When there is a quantity of snow on the ground everything is very silent and peaceful — you can hardly hear a footstep, and of course, differently to the rain, it doesn’t make any noise while it is falling. This is fascinating and a little strange to get used to at the beginning.
I have really enjoyed learning Italian, and I am now looking forward to improving my French.
I only learnt to write French at school, which isn’t much use if you can’t speak it.
Perhaps instead of going to Paris to study, I may go to Grenoble, which is in the south of France not far from the Alps separating France from Italy. There is a very good language school there too, and the cost of living is less than in Paris, though I hear that the climate is very cold, being near the Alps.
Perhaps I may go there first, and if I don’t like it I can always go on to Paris.
I received Mummy’s letter today telling me that she and Jan are having a holiday in Sydney together. I hope that you are having a lot of fun in Wagga with your friends and sharing the housekeeping and cooking with Claire, and that you have a great birthday celebration.
I miss you so don’t grow up too quickly. Lots of hugs and kisses for your birthday from your big sister!