Saturday, June 15, 2013

Three years ago, I spent a wonderful morning wandering the streets of Arezzo during their famous Fiera Antiquaria, an antiques market that’s held in the city on the first Sunday of each month and the Saturday before. I bought a pair of Italian paintings that day that hang on the opposite sides of my living room window at home in Vermont. Hoping for more good luck, I’ve come to Lucca where there’s a similar fair this weekend.

It’s been a constant refrain on this trip, but once again I’m getting a late start. It’s ten o’clock by the time I sit down for breakfast at the Hotel Palazzo Alexander, and I feel compelled to apologize to the hotel’s manager, who smiles warmly despite the inconvenience and offers to make me a cappuccino to go along with my bacon and eggs. He’s a very nice man.

When I tell him of my plans for the day, he says that the antique dealers and their wares are spread out along a chain of piazzas, and he circles the map to get me started—Piazza Napoleone, Piazza del Giglio, Piazza San Martino, and Piazza San Giovanni. It sounds like a treasure hunt, and I’m hoping to find where X marks the spot.

It’s a perfect summer’s day as I wander through stalls crammed with books and linens and china and urns, but what I really want I spy from the start. It’s a 19th century oil painting of Florence, probably intended for tourists on the Grand Tour. It depicts a group of boaters on the Arno, with the imposing tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and the red dome of Santa Maria del Fiore dominating the city skyline in the background. It’s reasonably affordable as it is, but it’s large and the condition is only fair. I can’t imagine how I would be able to ship it home without damaging the paint surface on the canvas, and even if I could, I’m afraid of what it would cost.

I ponder this for a bit and ask for advice from a helpful Brit who owns a gallery in town. It seems I can mail the painting to myself easily enough, but that requires a skill in packaging I simply don’t have, not to mention the materials themselves. Moreover, it would be difficult to find a local shipping company before I leave for Pisa in the morning. It is the weekend, after all. There are art dealers who handle such things, of course, but that would require the formality of Italian export laws, which treat antiques as cultural assets. He says that it could both time consuming and costly to acquire approval. Inasmuch as I like the painting, I decide not to risk it in the end.

I’m disappointed, but when I don’t see anything else to tempt me, I opt to walk away empty handed, and turn my focus to other pursuits.

I go shopping in the upscale boutiques along Via Fillungo, and visit the church of San Michele in Foro and the San Martino Cathedral. I stop for some macadamia nut gelato at De’ Cotelli, and climb the Torre dell’ Orologio for the postcard views. And, of course, I walk along the city walls, alongside joggers, and bicyclists, and families with strollers. It’s too beautiful of an afternoon to be caught indoors.

By 7:00 PM, I’m back at the church of San Giovanni for a concert, at the suggestion of Diane the night before. One of the great composers of Italian opera, Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca in 1858 and has remained a favorite son ever since. The daily concerts that are offered during the Puccini e la sua Lucca festival appeal unapologetically to the tourist crowd. Lasting just an hour, they are the perfect pre-dinner recital, and the musical selections are largely arias and duets from accessible and well-known operas, including Tosca, Madame Butterfly, and Turnadot. Still, the soloists are first rate and I enjoy it immensely, with one exception.

There is a woman in the row in front of me who insists on videotaping the entire event on her cell phone, probably for bragging rights back home to impress friends and family with her cultured taste. It’s like having double vision, seeing the performers singing live in one eye, while a tiny video simulcast plays in the other. It’s beyond annoying and it would never be allowed at La Scala in Milan or at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but here in Lucca there is a benign and relaxed tolerance for such things.

Because it seems fitting, I have dinner afterwards at Paris Bohème in Piazza Cittadella, so that I can sit facing the city’s bronze statue of Puccini. The night air has grown chilly and I wish I had thought to bring a jacket. I have a bowl of carrot soup and a satisfying plate of tortelli lucchesi in a rich ragù of Chianina beef.

On the short walk back to the hotel, I find myself humming “O Solo Mio,” the encore sung by the two dueling tenors at the concert tonight, to the rousing applause of the audience. It seems appropriate, for indeed, “what a wonderful thing a sunny day…”

Che bella cosa na jurnata ‘e sole,
n’aria serena doppo na tempesta!
Pe’ ll’aria fresca pare già na festa…
Che bella cosa na jurnata ‘e sole.
Ma n’atu sole
cchiù bello, oje ne’.
O sole mio
sta ‘nfronte a te!
O sole
O sole mio
sta ‘nfronte a te!
sta ‘nfronte a te!

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