Monday, December 12, 2011

I just realized I’d forgotten to mention some other books I’ve read since my Tuscany and Umbria book was published last year that I very much want to enthuse about, but since my last post was a little long, perhaps it’s better that I forgot them. In fact, this post will be a little long, too, and it’s devoted to only one book; but I think you’ll agree that this one, which is rather hard to accurately describe and that makes the word 'unique' sound trite, is worthy of its own post. (And it makes a very wonderful gift.)

I have never, ever seen a book quite like Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town by Douglas Gayeton (introduction by Alice Waters, preface by Carlo Petrini, Welcome Books, 2010), and happily it is a perfect example of a book that will never (or never should, anyway) translate into an e-book format: with a trim size of about 13" across x 11 1/2" from top to bottom, this is a book that's meant to lie horizontally, especially when you come across one of the fold-out spreads that opens to about 36" across. There are just certain types of books -- namely, those covering art and photography -- that simply must be read and viewed on bound pages.

Slow has a generous amount of text but is essentially a book of photos by Gayeton, a multimedia artist who has created award-winning work for National Geographic, PBS, Warner Brothers, and Sony. The book documents the years he lived in Pistoia, among my favorite Tuscan towns and one that many Americans never visit (more about Pistoia in an upcoming post). In the beginning of Gayeton's time in Italy he is dating an Italian woman, and becomes very close to her family; but even after she leaves to live in the States, he maintains a close relationship with her family members and meets many other locals in Pistoia who earn a place behind his camera lens. So there are many people who appear in these sepia-toned photos, and in most of them Gayeton has written in script around the edges of the pages, and around the heads of the people, describing the scenes. This, Gayeton informs us, he was inspired to do after one of his many visits to the Uffizi -- where "I could practically walk through the museum blindfolded" -- and among his favorite works are the smaller, pre-Renaissance paintings that incorporated narrative devices like "words floating in air" and "rays of light emanating from the heads of saintly figures" and "even diagrams and lengthy texts were painted directly on the canvas." When you see this book, you will understand immediately what he's referring to as the text in and around his photos is in English and Italian, and one of my most favorite attributes of the book is Gayeton's use of everyday Italian phrases (many slang) and their translation into English. Among these are A tavola non si invecchia mai (at the table one never grows old, a Tuscan proverb); Fuori dai piedi (literal: away from your feet / figurative: get out of my hair!); Meglio solo'che male accompagnato (better alone than in bad company); Conosco i Miei polli (I know my chickens, an Italian saying); Morto io morto il mondo (when I die, the world dies, also a Tuscan saying); Le morte non guarda infaccia a nessuno (Death looks no one in the face," also a Tuscan proverb); Questa vigna non fa una (literal: this vineyard doesn't make wine / figurative: you can't get anything out of him); Nelle botte piccola c'e vino buono (literal: in the small cask there's good wine / figurative: good things come in small packages); Tutti in piazza (literal: everyone in the town square / figurative: take to the streets); Fare due chiacchiere (literal: to make two (gossipy) comments / figurative: to have a chat); Scopa! (a game of "scopa" halts when the men notice a group of young women crossing the street; the word means a card game, a broom, and to have sex); and Meglio spendere soldi dal macellaio che dal farmacista (better to spend money at the butcher than the pharmacist, an old Tuscan proverb passed down by the father of Dario Cecchini, the colorful, Dante-quoting butcher of L’Antica Macelleria in Panzano-in-Chianti). It doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that, as Gayeton notes, "most Italian sayings had evolved from the wisdom of peasants."

In addition to the fold-outs, there are a few of those pages where you lift the clear plastic to see the unembellished photo beneath, like those current and imagined drawings of Ancient Rome, for example, or Pompeii. I am crazy for this kind of thing, especially in a large format.

The story in the middle of all this family and of Pistoia is food, and Gayeton writes that "when I first moved to Pistoia I discovered that people here lived slow lives without knowing what Slow Food was. They were connected to the land, to the seasons. They not only knew their food but often who grew or made it." On the spread entitled 'Una Scampagnata' (scampare + campagna = to take a walk in the country), we are introduced to Daria, a cook at Villa di Celle, outside Pistoia. Her grandmother taught her how to hunt for wild salad, and Gayeton tells us that "it will take over an hour to pick and another to wash the dirt and bugs out of this salad (that's slow food)." Daria wisely asks, "who will know about such things after we're gone?" Gayeton doesn't have an answer, but a book like this certainly honors the food traditions of Tuscany and of Italy, and I believe that the people who read it are paying attention and spreading the word.

The real gift of this book is that you will learn an awful lot about Italian customs, culture, quirks, and language. You have to look at every photograph and read every surrounding word, and you'll find that even by just turning a few pages a wealth of knowledge is revealed. This kind of book can only be created by someone who is not only extremely observant but who really looks, smells, eats, listens, and ponders, someone who has the advantage of staying for a long while but more importantly sits patiently and soaks it all in. As Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini notes in his Preface, Gayeton's photographs and words "are rich and undeniably authentic, and could only have been made by someone with a deep sensitivity and understanding that goes beyond the boundaries of nations and languages, and represents the principles at the very heart of the Slow Food movement."

Perhaps surprisingly, if only because you expect to read that he still lives in Tuscany, Gayeton now lives on a farm outside Petaluma, California with his wife (who he met in Tuscany, though she's American) and daughter. Laura (his wife) started the first goat's milk ice cream company in the U.S., and they have their own chickens, roosters, goats, and cows. Their neighbors bake their bread, vegetables grow in their garden, eggs come from their henhouse, and Laura knows the people who make the cheese they eat. And when Gayeton received a phone call from the local cafe and learned that hawks had raided the cafe's henhouse and killed all the chickens, he gathered up all of his own eggs and delivered them to the grateful cafe staff. Which sounds an awful lot like life in Tuscany.

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