The Song of Lorenzo the Magnificent

In July, 1961, the ATLANTIC introduced to its readers a new young writer, TOM COLE, whose short story “Familiar Usage in Leningradhas been awarded the top Atlantic “First" prize. Mr. Cole is now teaching a course in Slavic at M.I.T. and is working on a novel about Russia.


NOT thinking more than twelve months into the future, we accepted the fellowship money and left for the Mediterranean. Perhaps we believed that our Wanderjahr would decide something for us, that by flipping ourselves like coins into Italy we could land with heads up. I felt like a swindler; I had no definite idea of returning to the Fine Arts Department after the year abroad, but then I had no definite idea about anything concerning myself. I knew only that I was growing tired of myself and my world, and I felt that Janet was growing tired of me. She maintained, a little weakly, that she wasn’t, but I worked on her until she admitted at least that she was pretty tired of hearing me say how tired she was of me. It was in this mood, after sending applications in triplicate to hall a dozen institutions, organizations, foundations, and agencies, that we set sail. Our purpose was art history; the year, 1958.

We found Italy greener and more shapely than anything we had ever seen, but we were hardly prepared for the Italians’ finding us younger, livelier, and better than we ever remember ourselves to have been. Strange that they should have loved us so openly when we had so much trouble liking ourselves; certainly it had more to do with their capacity for feeling than with what we were. Perhaps they loved us because Janet’s hair was blonde and my eyes as dark as theirs. Perhaps they loved our love of Italy, at times more articulate than their own, or our fluent Italian, correct, but not too correct. They were amused by our Swedish car and our thick, bouncy shoes. They were even amused by all the money they thought we had, which was a little paradoxical. Ah, money. Janet’s family was always trying to give us some, so that I could go to medical school if I wanted, or if not, so that we could enter the Fine Artistic world in style. But I was from a poor background and stubborn; as I once overheard Janet saying to a friend, “You have no idea how unpleasant a person from a poor background can be about it.”Clouded was our post-fellowship future.

Still, to the makers of our beds, the servers of our food, to the collectors of our tickets and the chance companions of our walks, we seemed rich and on a perpetual honeymoon. They simply would not believe we had been married almost three years. In our Pensione Speranza in Florence, where we could always be the life of the party by opening our mouths and saying “basta” or “pasta,” we were the only people who did not spend the evening, every evening, hypnotized by the TV set. There was the ceremony of a chuckle all around when we said our “buona notte” at nine o’clock to go upstairs and struggle with Michelangelo’s sonnets or write encouraging letters to friends who were threatening suicide in Chicago or Vienna. “Aha,” the roly-poly cheese salesman would say, “going to bed?” And the cook, not to be outdone, would say, “Aha, going to bed?” We were always gli sposim —“the newlyweds” — or I signori giovam — “the young folks” — never known by name, followed everywhere by wistful looks. How many times the cheese salesman sighed his bad breath at us (apparently he had to eat all the Gorgonzola he couldn’t sell) and said, “America is a young country. Like you. Strong! New!”

For this, Lorenzo the Magnificent was partly at fault. Early in December, excited by our arrival in Florence, nostalgic for the Renaissance, we had memorized his quatrains written tor a masque of Bacchus and Ariadne, beginning

Quant’e bella giovinezza,
Che si fugge tuttavia
Chi vuol esser lieto sia:
Di doman’ non c’e certezza.

That is: “How beautiful is youth, which escapes us ever. Let him who would be happy be so; there is no certainty of tomorrow.” Three glasses of wine, and we could forget about the world ending in a bang or a whimper; a fourth, and we began quoting Lorenzo, feeling fresh, affirmative, proud —a Renaissance lord and lady, we.

The people at the pensione were amused to hear us quote their poetry, so we did it too often. Most of them knew some of Lorenzo’s song more or less correctly, but they smiled when we began the first line, and they picked it up as if they hadn’t dared sing out such verses since school days. However, it did not lead to conversations on the Renaissance; they always turned the meaning back to us: “Ah, yes, how wonderful to be young, to travel, to see beauty, to forget tomorrow.” Or they passed through us to images of themselves: “Ah, yes, we too used to dance and sing and quote poetry, but now that time is finished for us.” As we smiled our way through one coffee bar after another, treating the major, or his wife, or whoever it was, or being treated by them to dozens of cups of espresso laced against the winter air with brandy — “corrected coffee,” they called it — their social imagination created what it most needed. They needed us as a sign that the world was again capable of rebirth; we came to need their easy explanation of what we were, since we seemed to have none of our own that was so desirable.

Numbed by indecisions, pursued by letters that begged me to be doctor or lawyer, silently accused by Janet of wanting to become beggar or thief, I would sit with her amid the cramped, cracked walls of our third-floor room, listening to the Dacron shirts and panties going “drip-dry, dripdry,” and T would make up names for our generation. It was a favorite game of the time. “Unappetizing. Worried. Never Happy or Good. Old Before Our Time. In Need of —

“If you start talking about a moral equivalent for war again, I’m going to scream.”

“The major’s wife will love that. She’ll think you’re having an orgasm. In the afternoon, yet.”

Janet would soften. “Please, darling, you know you always hate yourself after these arguments.” (I strongly disliked remarks of that kind; I wanted to hate myself on my own schedule.) “And you know I don’t really care what you do. It’s you who worry about it. I just want you to decide to do something. What does it matter what you do, anyway, compared with what you are?”

“That’s nonsense. You don’t know what you are until you know what you can do.”

“I wonder where I’ve heard that before? Could it have been yesterday, in this very same room?”

“Noble truths are oft confirmed.”

“But you don’t know yet what you can do.”


“Then you don’t know what you are.”

“Right again.”

“You do seem to have a problem.”

But it was always up to her to find temporary exits from our impasse. “Paul, let’s not completely spoil today because of what’s coming. We’re free, and in Florence.”

“Tall, young, free, and in Florence. You forgot the ‘tall’ and ‘young.’ ”

“Well, that’s what I meant. I won’t even ask you about tomorrow, or next month. Or next year. But what would you like to do now?”

“Drip-dry, drip-dry,” went the Dacron shirts and panties. Across the alley a fat lady would be hanging up her non-Dacron laundry and singing “ Vissi (Parte” which she sang every afternoon about four o’clock.

MEANWHILE, Lorenzo’s stanza was becoming our trademark. As we stayed and December grew on, the pensione regulars began quoting “Quant’è bella giovinezza” right on cue, with our appearance in the living room. It went like one of the themes from Peter and the Wolf — one animal, one theme, and ours that carefree song of youth. The theory that we were basically one animal was indeed current. The old major’s wife — she was the one especially fond of the “I too used to dance all the time” approach — apparently looked on us as one creature with two hearts; while the major himself, the Speranza’s realist, hinted that the beast with two backs was more likely. At any rate, people in the pensione seldom spoke to either of us separately, except to inquire after the other’s health. We were one person, plural only grammatically.

I suppose our un-Italian habit of quietly having differences encouraged the notion that we had none. Our admirers never admitted knowing what every linked pair of travelers knows, whether married, related, or merely friends: that a long voyage provides unlimited opportunities for ruining beautiful experiences. Not that all such experiences will be ruined, but each couple will sooner or later devise its own system of delicate cruelties for occasional use. In Florence, l used our morning system. Sunlight on the coffeestained tablecloth was the setting; then courteous greetings all around; then gulps of coffee served with ordinary bread, butter, and marmalade. We had lived together long enough for me to have learned that, fifteen minutes after her first cup of coffee, Janet is invariably summoned away to the gabinetto, the w.c., or whatever its local designation. Thirteen minutes after coffee, therefore, I would introduce some important remarks. Just as I was reaching the moment of essential truth, she would begin to look embarrassed and say that she was terribly sorry, but could I hold on fora minute? I usually doubted whether I could, but she knew she couldn’t, so she would bolt away, shamefaced, while I rose politely to my feet. The other breakfasters would smile at me and nod at her pretty back. “Ecco, la bella Gianetta goes away.”

On one morning 1 remember well, I was just about to demonstrate how Michelangelo’s Slaves, only half emerging from their rough stone at the Accademia, could tell us more about ourselves than we had ever learned before when Janet made her uneasy departure. The only other person in the room at the time was the wiry little major. As 1 stared at the coffee stains, reminding myself that Lorenzo the Magnificent had been succeeded by Piero the Fool, the major walked over to our table, put his sharp hand on my shoulder, and laughed. He always laughed before he spoke, even the night when he described the mutilation of Mussolini. “Ah,” he began, “even the most perfect couple has a few dark moments.”

“The most perfect couple — that is, us?”

“But, of course. All of us think so. Wherever you go together, you bring back to people their own happy days.”

“Well, it is good to be of service.”

“E come. Just two nights ago, a friend of mine saw you at Da Rosa having dinner. . . . Oh, I have always wanted to ask you one thing. In Italy we have a saying that professors do not eat beefsteak, but evidently, for you it is no problem?”

“Well —”

“But, of course, America is a rich country. There everyone lives better.” He turned to go, but I couldn’t let him have his favorite parting line that morning.

“Excuse me, Major. I do not remember when I told you that I was a professor, but I must confess that it is not completely — umm — true.”

“But la bella Gianetta told me.”

“Oh, she told you that? How interesting.”

“Of course, to us in Italy, it never matters what a person does, but what he is, in his heart. You are sirnpatico, young, with all life ahead of you, like your country. Ah, here comes my wife. She will chat with you. A rivederci. fill this evening.”

The major’s ample wife greeted me with her favorite look, full of generosity, nostalgia, and selfpity. When she asked what we had planned for the day, I was tempted to say we were going to scour the city in search of ourselves. But I didn’t. For one thing, 1 didn’t know the Italian word for “scour.” Then Janet returned, and we all began to talk of Fra Angelico.

Still, on most mornings the human resources of the pensione were devoted to sending us off well. The design for each day of our soggiorno was the concern of all, each in his own way. The roundfaced waitress who had two little children but no husband would bring the coffee with great good cheer, saying, “This evening — nothing!” She meant, of course, nothing on television worth seeing; but on other days she could report in triumph that Lascia o Radoppia, an Italianized Double or Nothing, was on, or that II Mnsichiere was to have that young lawyer from Ancona who knew every popular song ever written. She felt that a clear sense of what evening offered could help us organize the day ahead. The major’s wife was likely to remind us of the joys of that time of life when one dances, and that we must gather in the richness of the present day. The young man at the desk had often a new hint about a half-hidden Peruzzi coat of arms over a doorway, which we might find diverting. The cook and the cheese salesman would chatter for a while about the gustatory adventures we could have in certain quarters of town, and so it would be with the others. The newlyweds, la bella coppia, would go out among the dark or brilliant streets of morning, braced by the good wishes of all, prepared to feel yet smaller before the great works of the [last.

CHRISTMAS season in Florence brought the shepherds down from the Tuscan hills to play bagpipes and reedy flutes for the city dwellers’ silver coins. In all the little churches, nativity scenes appeared in miniature, graced now by electric lighting and circular tracks on which the Magi and the sheep moved in frozen jolts. But the days grew fierce that winter, and so did our tastes. By tacit agreement we returned day after day to the massive stone men of Michelangelo or to the impassive men of Masaccio in the church ol the Carmine; nothing else was strong enough. At the Carmine, we stood transfixed before the images ol Saint Peter, the rude, expressionless fisherman, walking among the poor and sick ol medieval floience. In his russet, his green, and his power, we found a healing force, as if his coins were being offered us. And for a while we seemed to be offering in return coins enough to heal the fortunes ol the dark church, since one hundred lire had to be put into a box to light the Masaccio chapel for each five minutes or so. and we usually stayed for hours. Through American know-how we discovered, however, that a one hundred lire piece could be pushed down into the slot deeply enough to throw the switch and then be retracted lor the benefit of young art historians.

As the brilliant lights came on, I would give my best imitation ol Janet’s uncle, who had once taken us to the Chambord for lunch: “Order the best. The government pays.”Janet was not amused. I had developed an uncanny habit ol offending. After boring her for years about problems of art and vocation, I would see her deep in thought before Peter’s Calling, and I would begin to whistle Jimmy Durante’s old song, “11 Washington needs me I’ 11 answer the call, but they better not cal! me collect.” After which would come a dirty look from her, an irritating smirk from me, her charge that I didn ‘t know what things to take seriously, my charge that her uncle and Jimmy Durante were not things to be so taken, her charge that Masaccio was, and if she ever dared laugh in the presence of art, I would never let her forget it, all leading to silent rage from her, raging silence trom me, and much tapping of fingers and humming over the cutlets and mediocre wine at lunch.

Yet, we would gather golden or graceful moments of Christmas art — Gentile da Fabrianos or Simone Martinis — to discuss over supper at the pensione. We had to present our friends thcie with something shining to cover the confusion of our days. On Christmas Eve we attended the midnight Mass with them at Santa Croce. The choir, the chamber instruments, the frescoes of Giotto, and the fervor of the older people moved us, but, of course, we did not kneel. When the major, who had been eying us constantly, asked us why we hadn’t, I answered in a calloused tone that we were not believers. Perhaps this was another of those moments that I hoped, uncomfortably, might lead to a confrontation. The major only wreathed his face in a smile and took out arms. “Ah, my young friends.” he said.

THE days after Christmas, sometimes rainy, sometimes limpidly mild, Janet and I spent apait. I don’t know what she did — I decided not to ask — but I sat in the Palazzo Strozzi library, reading about the burning of Savonarola. When we met on those afternoons to go back to the pensione, it was already dark. If we dropped in to visit a favorite corner of the Bargello, we could hardly see the marble saints through the murk, and we felt the coldness of the stone floors as if we were standing on our unsheathed bones. In the streets, the headlights from the little Fiats were piercing and hostile; the fumes from their engines were heavy in the damp air. For us, the ending of the year was hardly a festive time.

The pensione, however, surprised us all by serving a genuinely festive New Year s Eve dinner at no extra charge. Every tablecloth was changed. Brilliant whiteness greeted us without the accustomed coffee stains, wine blots, and tomato-sauce driblets. A bottle of deep-red Chianti, the unadulterated vino nero oi the Tuscan countryside, stood on each table in its straw jacket. After the homemade fettucini, we had fish and meat courses, salad, excellent bel paese by courtesy of the beaming cheese salesman, little sweetly frosted cakes with Italian flags in them, fruit served in clean bowls, and fresh coffee. We drank reciprocal toasts to the cities of Italy and America:

“To Reggio Calabria!”

“A Baltimora1”

“To San Sepolcro!”

“A San Francesco, California!”

This went on until we began to feel uneasy about exchanging Jersey City for Perugia and Akron for Verona. There was homey good cheer at all the tables and pride of foster parentage among the Italians as we told droll stories about New Year’s Eve in l imes Square. Our round-faced waitress asked us to stay for the pensioners own celebration in the living room, where they were going to roll up the carpet, dance to records, and drink wine until everyone fell asleep. We refused politely, saying we had plans.

“I understand,” the girl said. You will be going, then, to the big party at the American Consulate?” And she gave us one of her lavorite looks: you are from the big glittering world, and we are just plain little old us.

“Yes,” I answered, resigned to our importance, “we think we ought to go. ”

In truth, we hadn’t heard that there was a party at the American Consulate. We didn’t even know where the American Consulate was. Our plan had been to walk the streets, have a few drinks, feel nostalgic for who knows what, and make a wild resolution or two. It was to be a personal evening, but we could not explain that without sounding boorish. The major’s wife gave us her blessing. “It would have given us great pleasure to see you dance, but on such an important night it is better to dance with one’s own people.”

After a brief discussion of this general truth, we left.

IN THE streets, there was little celebration. There was, instead, a nagging, wet coldness. We had come too far seeking warmth and significance to accept huddling in doorways as our rite for a holiday eve. Even on the slender tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, the torch flames, orange in the night sky, flickered before the onslaught of wind from the mountains. Out along the Arno, bright lights were playing, but the water, swollen by the recent rains, took on the color of old coffee. In the Piazza Signoria we felt our presence to be singularly unnecessary. Whether from custom or the bitterness of the night air, the Florentines were welcoming the new year “in the family.” Under the three great arches of the Loggia dei Lanzi, where Lorenzo had sat to watch masques and pageants five hundred years before, only a few figures passed, muffled against the wind, but warm lamplight shone from the windows of the nearby houses.

We inquired our way to the American Consulate, with the notion of perhaps picking up a crumb of native festivity. After a long walk along the torrential river, we found only a high house built around a courtyard, barred and shuttered . Hearing laughter from some upper window, we hovered about the big door. We decided to go in. We decided not to. Yes, all Americans are supposed to be welcome at these holiday affairs. No, it might be embarrassing. Surely they won’t turn us out? Yes. No. Maybe. But. Finally the gleaming policeman on guard looked at us closely, as if he had seen us many times at Communist tallies. He asked us why we were “circulating” near the Consolato Americano. Janet began to present our case, but I said scusi to the guard and pulled her away, again unwilling to explain. As soon as the Consulate was out of sight, Janet slopped short, exuding waves of indignation and hostility.

“You see?”

“See what?”

“It’s so humiliating and stupid !” she said.

“What? And don’t talk so loud.”

“Every petty decision is impossible. God, it’s sickening. Should we go in or stay out? Should we go to the Uffizi or the Pitti? Should we go to a movie or write letters? Should we order pasta at lunch? Should we go to the American Express now or later? God, all those agonies over nothing!”

So I ‘m neurotic. What else are you trying to prove?”

“If you can’t make the decisions that count, then every trifle is misery. Can’t you see that this could go on forever? You’ll crack up someday because you can’t decide between chicken salad and a BLT.”

“Thank you. Will that be fifteen dollars?”

“But it’s just common sense. Paul.”

“I thought we agreed a few years ago that the time is out of joint, and common sense is hardly —”

“Oh, your head is out of joint!”

We began to walk very fast back to the center of the town. There, in narrow streets between palazzi, we found a series of well-lit bars, each beginning to close as soon as we walked in. Bright lights shut down all around us while we gulped our brandies and exchanged genial, hollow congratulations with men who were dying for us to leave. It was not too much after eleven o’clock when we were again in the cold streets.

Janet shrank within herself against the wet wind. When I tried to comfort her, she pulled away. Her pale hair blew raggedly around her face as she spoke. “Why are we here? Why are we anywhere? Who wants us? What good does it do to reject and reject? Not to live like ordinary people? Why bother reading and thinking and looking at Giotto when all it leaves us with is a holiday like this? Any idiot can enjoy New Year’s Eve. But not us.”

“But we’ve had some good times,” I said. “ 1 hink ol some of the places we’ve seen together.”

“And what does it leave us with? Nothing! A stamped passport and sights we’ll forget in a year. You won’t even take a camera. Just nothing, nothing. God, I m so lonely and miserable.”

“All right, I should have known it all the time!” I flared up. “What you really want is a life just like the one you used to sneer at. Settled like your roommates in a comfortable suburb with comfortable hubby running father’s comfortable business. Well, this is a fine time to tell me! Fin not going to do father’s business. Or anybody else’s business.”

I didn’t say that. My God! Maybe I’m just too stupid. It s marvelous. I’ve tramped all over Europe washing your goddamn underwear so you can tell me I’m selling out to the bourgeoisie.” “Now, wait a minute!”

“You wait a minute. Making great declarations about not going into father’s business. Like a college freshman! I can see you’re not going to do anybody else’s business. Do you think I’m completely blind? You’re never going to do any business at all. You’ll stand in front of Masaccio with your mouth open all your life while I smile sweetly and tell everybody that you’re trying to find yourself. Well, I won’t go on with that kind of life. I can’t stand it! If that makes me an average American housewife, then that’s a thousand times better than worrying about nothing but yourself when half the world is starving.”

“Oh, I see. The world is starving because I like Masaccio, but comes the revolution and you turn into an average housewife, and then everything will be all right.” I noticed that my arms were swinging here and there. “Hunger will be banished from all India! Disease will be no more! Sweetness and light will

Janet burst into tears. “Paul, please, please, we can’t go on like this. It’s all my fault. Its just that it was New Year’s live and I couldn’t help thinking — ”

“You couldn’t help thinking that you want your tree and your daddy and all the pretty toys. That’s your idea of what life is supposed to be. Well, maybe life isn’t a nice little game for all the pretty children. Did you ever think ol that?

“Ah, but youth is beautiful,” Janet said coldly, staring into space.

“Oh, why don’t they take their beauties of youth and stow them in the Palazzo Vecchio?”

We had reached the door of the Pensione Spcranza. I suppose we were headed lor the privacy and comparative warmth of our room. But a cheer from the living room intercepted us. We had forgotten about the pensione party.

Everyone seemed flattered that we had returned in time to contribute our energies to their piccolo, serata. Their party did seem in need of aid. Only one of the three huge flasks ol Chianti on the floor had been opened. Beneath the intersection of the two hanging red ribbons, the round-faced waitress danced listlessly with a gentleman who wore amazingly pointed shoes. I he TV set, which was being used as the stand tor the recotd player but had not been turned around, stared at the room with the accusing anger of the unemployed. On a couch to the side, the cook was tapping her feet vigorously enough to Scusarni, scusarni ancor’, but the major was slumped in his seat while his wife cooed to the cheese salesman and a few invited friends that she was crazy about parties. As soon as we had accepted two brimming glasses of Chianti, the major tried to engage us in a debate on world federalism. Evidently he wanted to take his mind off his weariness of dancing or of the company, but the debate fell somewhat short of brilliance as a distraction. For one thing, we were all in favor; for another, our Italian, among many other skills, was not going very well that night. At last the major turned to us with the bittersweetness of a father to his lovable children and said not to let the old people bore us.

“Dance, dance,” he said. “It is your night, the night for dancing.”

A chant went up from the gathered public for the young Americans to dance. We refused demurely at first, saying that we had only meant to drop in for a few seconds. “Ah, come gli sbosim sono timidi,” said the ladies, “they are so shy.” The difficulty was really not shyness but fear of a ridiculous showing. It was years since we had danced together. Finally we consented in order not to insult our hosts. They jeered happily at my resigned insistence that I wasn’t much of a dancer. Their nostalgia for the antic youth they wanted us to have was irrepressible. It triumphed. Wine was poured around from the second flask; the music was turned up. We danced to Ti diro che tu mi piaci, the inevitable Volare, My Tennessee, That Old Black Magic, Tico Tico Ti, and dozens of other Italian and American records. To the slow music we made circles; to the fast music we did the rhumba.

“What wonderful lines she has.”

“They never get tired.”

“Oh, to be their age again.”

Janet was amused by my improvised steps and air of savoir-faire, and her every step melted the old people into joy. The third flask was opened. No one else danced. I put my cheek next to Janet’s during our slow circles and found softness there as of ages ago. We became a vision to the people circling close around us; we became for the moment, within our power, what they wanted us to be. When the clock struck midnight, I looked into Janet’s wise eyes and said, tentatively, “QuanTe hello giovinezzaT

Everyone picked up the verse immediately in a cheering, singsong rhythm—the major and his wife, the round-faced waitress, the cook, the cheese salesman, the man who ran the office — all quoting happily as if Lorenzo’s words were a traditional New Year’s song, like Auld Lang Syne.

How beautiful is youth,
Which escapes us ever.
Let him who would be happy be so,
There is no certainty of tomorrow.

They crowded close around our dancing bodies, their bodies older but their eager eyes somehow far more youthful than ours, quoting Lorenzo’s song, raising wineglasses, hungry lor what they saw in us and thought we could give, lor youth, strength, glitter, suppleness, and promise.