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Love and death in Perugia

When it is cold and rainy, as it has been for much of the time I’ve been in Perugia, the Piazza IV Novembre, the center of the old town, seems sad and lonely. But when it is sunny and warm, as it was today, it becomes an outdoor living room, a place where people sit for hours at a time at one of the outdoor cafes or on the steps of the duomo, an odd cathedral that is rather ugly inside but quite striking outside.


Photos by David Lansing.

Photos by David Lansing.



I have to give Hardy credit—Perugia really is one of the sexiest small cities in the world. Which makes the fact that it has had such a violent history seem so surprising. According to a guide book I was reading at breakfast this morning, “By the Middle Ages, Perugia…had begun exhibiting the bellicose tendencies, vicious temper, violent infighting, and penchant for poisons that would earn it such a sunny reputation among contemporary chroniclers. When not out bashing neighboring towns into submission, Perugia’s men would put on minimal padding and play one of their favorite games, the Battaglia dei Sassi (War of Stones), which consisted of pelting one another with hefty rocks until at least a few dozen people were dead.”

It gets worse. Evidently back in the 15th century the town was run by the Baglioni family who “turned assassination, treachery, and incest into gruesome art forms. When not poisoning their outside rivals, they killed siblings on their wedding nights, kept pet lions, tore human hearts out of chests for lunch, and married their sisters. In a conspiracy so tangled it’s almost comic in its ghastliness, the bulk of the family massacred one another on a single day in August 1500.”

All this right here in front of the sacred duomo where, as I write this, young lovers wrap their limbs around each other and kiss in blatant displays of public affection. On the very steps of the church where, in July 1216, Pope Innocent III was poisoned by a nun and where, as his body lay in state atop his tomb, the rich garments in which he was to be buried were plundered by Perugians who despised the pope and everything he stood for.

As a medieval chronicler, Jacques de Vitry, who witnessed the pope’s stinking, naked body after the attack noted, Brevis sit et vana huius seculi fallax gloria (“Brief and empty is the deceptive glory of this world”).

I’m going to enjoy the sunshine for as long as it lasts. 

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The Street of Kisses

Before heading back to Perugia, Maura insists on one last stop. In the nearby village of Citta’della Pieve, the home of Perugino, the 15th century artist whose work in the National Gallery I was so quick to dismiss the day I met Maura.

“Do you know why the Madonna always looks the same in Perugino’s paintings?” Maura asks me as we drive through a landscape of hillsides terraced in olives and vines, valleys of sunflowers and fields of grain—barley, spelt, chickpeas, and the small lentils Umbria is famous for.

On her car stereo Maura has slipped in a Katie Melua CD.


If you were a cowboy, I would trail you.

If you were a piece of wood, I’d nail you to the floor.

If you were a sailboat, I would sail you to the shore.

If you were a river, I would swim you.

If you were a house, I would live in you all my days.

If you were a preacher, I’d begin to change my ways.


No, I say, I do not know why the Madonna always looks the same in Perugino’s paintings.

“Because the model was his wife. And he was madly in love with her and kept trying, over and over again, to show the things he most loved about her—her lips, the paleness of her skin, the gracefulness of her hands. But he felt he never got it right. So he kept trying.”

I assume Maura is taking me to the town’s cathedral, where several of Perugino’s paintings are on display, but instead we wander past the church, down Via Santa Maria Maddalena, named after the most famous prostitute of all time, stopping before a narrow street less than three feet wide. The street, Maura tells me, is said to be the narrowest in all of Italy. It is called Vicolo Baciadonne—the Street of Kisses.


The Street of Kisses. Photo by David Lansing.

The Street of Kisses. Photo by David Lansing.



Maura heads down the dark passage with me right behind her. “How did this street get its name?” I inanely ask her.

“Because they say when a man passes a woman in this street, they are so close together they must kiss.”

She stops and leans against the wall in the darkness.

It is warm and moist in here. The air smells heavily of wisteria. My mouth is dry, my hands sweaty. “Where to now?” I ask her.

She smiles. “That,” she says, “is up to you.”

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Nothing inside the Palazzo della Corgna is as entertaining as my coffee earlier with Professore Corrado Fratini. We look at a ceiling fresco that tells the story of the Judgment of Paris and Maura points out the goddesses on the ceiling—Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite—telling me how they forced Paris to decide who amongst them was the most desirable.

I don’t know. I kind of like the professore’s story about the prostitute nuns better.

The professore has another appointment so he says a quick good-by. Maura and I decide to go for a walk along the banks of Lago Trasimeno. I ask her how the lake got its name. She says there was a man, named Trasimeno, who came to the lake and heard a nymph, Agilla, and thought her singing was so beautiful that he followed her into the water. And never came out.

A view of Lago Trasimeno from the palazzo fortress. Photos by David Lansing.

A view of Lago Trasimeno from the palazzo fortress. Photos by David Lansing.

“The story is either tragic or romantic, depending on what you think,” she says. “So what do you think?”

“I think it is romantic,” I tell her. “He is with the woman he loves.”

Maura smiles. “I think so, too.”

On the banks of the lake, the wisteria—or glicine, as Maura calls it—is in full bloom. “It has a big profumo, no?”

Bella,” I tell her. “Molto bella.”

From the edge of the lake we can see the old stone fortress around the palazzo. In the middle is a tall, squat tower that, Maura says, is called a Mastio. “It’s a phallic symbol,” she says. “Rising up in the middle of the fortress. Its name is related to maschio—you know this word?”

The Mastio.

The Mastio.

Machismo,” I say.”

“Exactly. Machismo. The swagger of young men.”

In the summer, Maura says, young couples out for a walk around the lake always seem to end up at the Mastio. “Perhaps,” she says, “because it is a good place to kiss. In fact, I will tell you a secret.” She nods towards the imposing stone edifice. “That’s the place I got my first kiss as well.”

We are both silent for awhile. The breeze from the lake perfumes the air with the sweet scent of wisteria. Maura grabs my arm. “Come on,” she says, “let’s go have a look at this Mastio. It’s been a long time since I’ve been up there.”

Who am I to argue?

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I’ll have what he’s having

Monday, July 21, 2008

Three guys walk into a bar at LAX, a French guy, an Hispanic, and the Anti-Christ (that would be me). Actually, the French guy, dressed from head to toe in black, is already sitting at the bar, and the Hispanic guy, Luis, is the bartender. So, really, I’m the only one who walked into the bar, but you get my drift.

I’m there because I’m two hours early for my flight to Rome and the final round of a golf tournament is on and even though I think we’d be a better society if both guns and golf were banned, I love watching Tiger. It’s not something I’m proud of, frankly, because in all other things, from politics to bull fights, I much prefer it when David beats the living crap out of Goliath (although this almost never happens in bullfights). But I have a weakness for Tiger. If I was at all gay, I’d worry about it.

Anyhoo. I’m hungry, bored, and have lots of time on my hands. A bad combination. So I order a large Sam Adams, which comes in a tumbler that looks like it might also be perfectly suitable as a vase for holding three dozen tulips in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, and the house “special,” a burger with cheese, bacon, onion rings, mushrooms, and guacamole on it. Nobody does excess like an airport bar.

Luis the bartender, not wanting me to get in a bind, informs me that the kitchen is a little slow today and it could be 30 or 40 minutes before I get my burger.  I order it anyway.

Five minutes later, the French guy next to me gets his meal. It’s a plate heaped with ribs, so many of them that he immediately asks Luis for an extra plate to contain the overflow. They look good. Really good. And they smell better than Britney Spears’ Fantasy perfume on a 15-year-old girl (let’s not even go there).

I want some.

Me: “Wow, those look good.”

Frenchie: “Par-don?”

Me: “The ribs. C’est incroyables, no?”

Frenchie: ….

Maybe it’s my accent. Anyway, another five or ten minutes go by. No burger. Tiger has just missed an easy birdie putt. Frenchie is talking on his cell phone to his girlfriend in Paris, no doubt, about his sexy calfskin leather shoes or maybe his D&G glasses which, actually, do look very cool. He’s ignoring the ribs like a pregnant ex-girlfriend.

I’m so hungry

Luis comes over, sees I still don’t have my burger, and shrugs. Obviously he’s sympatico. My beer is gone. I order a Pinot Grigio, which is really stupid. Where do I think I am? Why didn’t I just go all out and order a glass of Condrieu?  Luis comes back with a bottle labeled WHITE WINE and gives me an extra large pour. It’s warm. It’s sweet. It’s the color of limoncello. It’s fair to say it’s nothing like any wine I’ve ever had, including Pinot Grigio.

I thank Luis.

Frenchie: “My omelette?”

Luis: “Que?”

Frenchie: “Omelette. I…order…omelette.”

Luis: “Too late for breakfast, sir.”

Frenchie, petulantly: “But I…order…omelette.”

Luis, obviously a wise soul full of much que sera sera, shrugs. Tiger hits his drive into those gorgeous magnolia trees. On CBS he quite clearly says, “Fuck!”

Me (with all the enthusiasm of a 10-year-old watching Bill Mahrer on cable for the first time): “Tiger just said ‘fuck’ on TV!”

Frenchie: “Fromage…you have fromage?”

Luis: “Just ketchup and mustard, sir.”

Me (sotto voce): “Luis, I think he wants some cheese.”

I smile at Frenchie. The ribs are starting to congeal a bit but they still smell good. I’ll bet they’d be most excellent with my WHITE WINE.

Luis goes into the back and comes out with a black plastic bowl of shredded yellow cheese. I’m not going to call it cheddar because I’m sure it’s not. It’s day-glo orange. The same color as Chee-tos. And shredded. Into rubbery matchsticks.

Me, leaning in towards Frenchie: “I wouldn’t eat that.”

Frenchie: “No?”

Me (in my finest Maurice Chevalier accent): “Ce n’est pas fromage.”

Frenchie: “Not cheese?”

I shake my head. “But, you know, some people will eat anything.” I let my eyes wander over to his plate of uneaten ribs. “Like I’m hungry enough right now to eat cold leftover ribs.”

Frenchie takes his plastic fork and dives into the cheese sticks. He looks at me and smiles, takes another bite. There must be two cups of orange-colored cheese sticks in his bowl and he eats every last one of them. And then, after asking for the check, empties the dregs of his RED WINE on the plate of his uneaten but no-doubt succulent ribs.

Tiger hits into the rough on the 12th hole, flubs his second shot, and three putts.

My burger never comes. Still, because that’s the kind of guy I am, I give Luis a five-dollar tip. The same five dollars Frenchie stuck under his plate of cold ribs before he left.    

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