by Roderick Conway Morris

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An English Artist Discovers Tuscany

By Roderick Conway Morris
13 September 1992



Matthew Spender's Within Tuscany is a blend of autobiography, history, art history and contemporary portrait - the literary equivalent of a leisurely tour through the vineyards, olive groves and woods of the Tuscan hills which, although seemingly rambling and with no particular destination in mind, is both entertaining and enlightening.

The author and his wife Maro Gorky left London 'on a whim' twenty-five years ago and took up residence in a previously abandoned farm house in the Chianti country near Siena. What was at first envisaged as a stay of 'a year or two' turned into a permanent move. Both husband and wife are artists: Spender himself now a sculptor in wood, clay and stone.

For all its undoubted charms, rural Tuscany has been exaggeratedly glamorized for a number of years and imbued with a snob-value that has obscured its real nature. But Matthew Spender, whilst fully appreciating the virtues of his adopted home, is commendably free from such tendencies, partly because long acquaintance has tempered youthful enthusiasm, but above all perhaps because he brings an artist's eye to his subject - clarity of vision and sharpness of focus being arch enemies of the sentimental and the superficial.

Centering on Spender's experiences of everyday life - his efforts to farm the land, keep bees, get his olives pressed (without letting the miller filch a sack or two while his back is turned), and his growing involvement with local people - the book takes us on a series of excursions: to a remote mountain-top, for instance, in search of the cave where Michelangelo quarried his marble (and supposedly carved his initials on the wall); to the room where Lorenzo the Magnificent died (now an office of the local health authority); and to the Palio, the frenetic inter-parish horse race round Siena's main square (a horse can win even after throwing its rider if it is first past the post, and though the Palio takes place only twice every summer, the Sienese remain obsessed with it all year round).

There are other excursions into the past: to the battle of Montaperti in 1260, where (for once) the Sienese trounced and gleefully slaughtered their overbearing Florentine neighbours; to the trial and execution of Savonarola; to the heyday of Etruscan civilization; to the bizarre career of Mino Maccari, a paradoxical, nonconformist Fascist-Anarchist illustrator and polemicist.

Spender writes with skill and wit, providing some memorable anecdotes and vignettes. Having decided to add a back staircase to the house using wood from an old cowshed, he proceeds, Italian style, without official permission. Needless to say, as though by magic Otello, the local foreman of Public Works, appears on the scene: 'Each workman froze in whatever movement he happened to be doing, one with the trowel in mid-air, another with slippy-slop cement in a barrow halfway up a ramp. Silence. 'Oh well,' I said blushing, 'you see this staircase was - ah - falling down.' Otello acquired a strange interior look of serious doubt, then consulted the sky, consulted the ground, and went away.'

Related with his customary self-deprecation, a chapter on the village band, in which Spender has played the clarinet for twenty years, is vivid and humorous, without turning his colleagues into a cast of comic extras. Though he does, indeed, manage to get them employed to provide local colour in a low-grade, low-budget soft-porn movie (their winsome rustic ways fail to impress the ferocious female head of production, who tells them, when they attempt to slink off early: 'You'll not leave the set one minute before seven this evening. After that I'll pay you and kick you out on your arses and with luck I'll never see you again.')

The author's opening reminiscences of the one-room village school attended by his two daughters (born shortly after his arrival in Italy) take a characteristically odd turn. 'The little room,' he remembers, 'had a hatrack by the window, benches, and a closed cupboard called Biblioteca. I looked inside once, to check their collection of books. It was entirely filled with empty beer cans.' Happily for us, Spender goes on to open many other Tuscan doors, making far more refreshing and rewarding discoveries.

A version of this article appeared in the New York Times Book Review

First published: New York Times Book Review

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023