Life in Italy in the early 1960s was extremely inexpensive. At that time there were decent trattorie in Florence where one could get a good three-course meal for the equivalent of 50 cents. A bottle of the best Antinori Chianti Riserva cost 600 lire, just under a dollar. And shortly after I went to live there, for about eight dollars a month, I rented a room on the piano nobile of the 15th century Palazzo Rustici, behind the Palazzo Vecchio, where Leonardo da Vinci himself had spent some time in 1500 after he fled Milan because of the fall of his patrons, the Sforza family. The palazzo was then the home of one of his pupils, the sculptor Giovan Francesco dei Rustici, and it was with dei Rustici that Leonardo sought refuge.
My room in Palazzo Rustici boasted a graceful white marble fireplace topped by a fresco of Hercules, two arched alcoves that had windows facing the ochre façade of a Romanesque church, and a beautifully worn red brick floor that I kept swept and oiled. Such was the grandeur of my dwelling that I was usually able to ignore the reality that there was neither hot water nor any real source of heat. The fireplace was merely decorative and probably had been for centuries. That winter I bought a series of ornamental but useless stoves at the flea market and was probably lucky to have escaped asphyxiation. However, even when it was cold and damp, sunlight often streamed into the two windowed alcoves, giving the illusion of warmth. And I solved the hot water problem by joining the Canottieri, a rowing club on the Arno just a few blocks away, where I was able to take showers, shave, and maintain a reasonable level of personal hygiene.
The palazzo was a warren of rooms, large and small, rented out to foreigners: students, artists, and among them always a number of young Australians who were making their obligatory jaunt around the world before settling in down under. Next to my spacious room was a small one in which lived William, a pale, skinny, and reclusive young American scholar, who, by living very frugally, had made the funds of a one-year fellowship stretch out to five. A weepy Australian girl, inappropriately named Gay, who also lived somewhere in the palazzo, was obsessed with William and would leave gifts of food and flowers with notes at his door. When she became too intense in her pursuit, William would disappear for a few weeks, no one knew where.
The grand salone next to mine was the studio of a Fulbright artist from California, John Hunter, who was working on a series of huge paintings of Leda and the Swan. The working title he had given the series, which I believe he later wisely changed, was: “Take me to Your Leda.”
In the room above me was John Pozza, an Italian-American former Fulbright scholar from Arkansas who had decided to stay in Florence after his scholarship year was up, and had found a teaching job.An odd bird, but talented, his hobby was making life-sized Renaissance-style angels in papier-mâché, all of which had the face of his Italian lover, whom I often saw, coming and going, on the monumental stairway that went up to the piano nobile. John’s replicas were so authentic looking that once when he tried to ship one to Arkansas, the Belle Arti Commission intervened because they suspected that it was a national treasure. He received authorization for shipment when he scraped a bit off the bottom of the statue’s foot and showed the representative of the Belle Arti that it was actually made from recent copies of La Nazione, the Florentine daily newspaper.
A few years ago, John, living again in Arkansas, sent me his recipe for authentic Tuscan-Style Beans (Fagioli all’Uccelletto), which had been a favorite Florentine dish of ours, not only because it was usually one of the cheapest things on the menu. Here is my version:
1 pound dried navy beans
¾ cup of olive oil
6 cloves of garlic, finely minced or put through a garlic press
1 14 ½ ounce can of whole, peeled tomatoes and their juice
½ 14 ½ can of diced tomatoes and their juice
3 sprigs of fresh sage or ½ teaspoon of ground sage
1 teaspoon of sea salt
½ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
Soak beans for at least 8 hours in enough cold water to cover them.
Drain beans and rinse under cold water, then place them in a large saucepan. Cover them with unsalted cold water and simmer until tender but firm (about 45 minutes to an hour).
Heat the oil in a heavy skillet and lightly brown garlic, being careful not to burn it.
Drain beans and add them, the tomatoes and their liquid and the sage to the skillet and gently simmer until the sauce thickens, and the beans become tender, about an hour. Do not add salt and pepper until beans are done. The dish will be better if it is allowed to sit on the back of the stove for a few hours before it is served.