#171 Florence, Dante and Me
September 18th, 2017
REVIEW: Florence, Dante and Me
(Godwin Books 2017)
Robert Stuart Thomson
by Beverly Cramp
It’s the summer of 1960 and a young UBC student is about to leave Vancouver, then still very much a White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant city. Twenty-year old Robert Thomson had won a scholarship to spend a year studying in Italy.
Italian songs played regularly on the radio: Dean Martin’s That’s Amore!, Frank Sinatra’s Vicino al Mare, Rosemary Clooney’s Mambo Italiano, and Domenico Modugno’s Volare. Movies such as Roman Holiday and Three Coins in a Fountain glamourized Italy and its capital city.
As Thomson remembers in his book about the trip, Florence, Dante and Me (Godwin Books 2017), “Many of my generation were enchanted by the beauty and glamour of Italy, not to mention her distinctive style that could be seen even in everyday things such as Vespa scooters, Olivetti typewriters and “Vesuvius” espresso coffee machines. Italy had panache and style.”
Thomson was keen to leave behind an elitist UBC and a stodgy, small port city. “Vancouver had some culture (in the European sense) but compared to Italy it didn’t amount to much at all. There was one opera company, The Vancouver Opera, but it produced only three or four operas a year. There was a city art gallery but its holdings in Italian Renaissance art were negligible. There was only one good bookstore in town, Bill Duthie’s on Robson St., and probably only one good shop for buying long playing classical records, Len Timbers’, also on Robson.”
Thomson got a measure of stimulation from UBC, where he saw Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia, folk singer Pete Seeger, flamenco dancer Jose Greco, and the Red Army Chorus at a small theatre called “The Old Auditorium”. In one humorous anecdote he describes taking ballroom dance classes to fulfill UBC’s physical education requirements from a dance teacher, Mr. Vincent, who was always in a tux, even for his early morning dance classes.
It was hip to be interested in all things European and Thomson was studying European languages. “Such study whetted one’s appetite for Europe and many students traveled there as soon as they could,” he writes. “Some even went so far as to assume a new identity. I realize now that to some degree this is what I was doing: becoming as Italian as possible.”
What’s intriguing about Thomson’s writing approach is that he bases his text on a cache of almost 50 letters written during his time in Italy to his fiancée back in Vancouver. He wanted to keep the flame alive in addition to recording and reflecting on his experiences. These missives from Italy capture the freshness of a young man’s desire to absorb all things Italian.
His fiancée back home shared highlights from the letters with other UBC students and professors, who read them with some interest at the time. When Thomson found out his correspondence was reaching a wider audience, he took more time describing his experiences. His letters chronicle his delight in discovering the arts, such as the paintings of Botticelli and Caravaggio; sculptures by Michelangelo and Cellini; ancient architecture in Rome and Pompeii; opera houses like La Pergola and San Carlo; and popular singers of the era including Peppino di Capri and Mina. One of Thomson’s biggest revelations was Vittorio Gassman’s 45 r.p.m. recording of Dante’s “Inferno”. Thomson bought the disk and a small record player and spent many hours learning to recite with typical Italian theatricality.
Other passages from Thomson comment on Italian attitudes towards fashion, friendship and child rearing. Readers get to share in the young Thomson’s glee when he hires a master tailor to make him a three piece suit and winter coat. “I finally got my suit and topcoat,” he writes in a letter dated March 15, 1961. “Pure wool and they fit like a glove. The colors are so rich! God, they’re lovely!”
He laments “pseudo-Bohemians” whom he describes as, “people who think they’re European and cool just because they eat cheese and baguettes and drink wine.”
Thomson hopes his book will encourage people to travel to Italy and advises travelers to learn the language of any country they go to, as, “such knowledge will bring understanding of the culture and enable them to connect with people in a more meaningful way.”
Further, spending time abroad, especially as a young adult, greatly enriches one’s life. As Thomson writes, ” I gained insights into my upbringing and education and began to see that they had molded me in a very narrow way. Like Dante, I was lost in a dark wood.”
The letters themselves date from 1960-61; the footnotes, all fourteen pages of them, comment on the letters from the vantage point of 2017. In them Thomson describes his own family of origin issues (lack of moral guidance; destructive, uncontrolled sibling rivalry; mother-son hostility through transference, etc.). These give the book another dimension, that of a confessional, and Thomson credits Dante with being the mentor who guides him of this forest
The letters didn’t achieve Thomson’s goal of keeping his fiancée (whose name he never reveals) from looking for romance elsewhere. By the time he returned home, she had moved on to a new love interest.
Robert Thomson was born in Vancouver, Canada in 1940. He was educated at the University of British Columbia (honors B.A. in French and Italian in 1962) and Yale University (PhD in French and Italian). Thomson taught at both the college and high school levels, took early retirement in 1995, and started a publishing company, Godwin Books, through which he published most of his books: Great songs for the English Classroom, Hot tips for real estate investors, Italian for the Opera, Operatic Italian, Love songs in Spanish for Enjoyment and Learning and his most recent book, Florence, Dante and Me. A major project in Thomson’s life has been to reprint two of George Godwin’s long lost classics: The Eternal Forest (out of print since 1929; Thomson reprinted it in 1994) and Why Stay We Here? (out of print since 1930; it is Godwin’s autobiography of fighting in France during World War I. Godwin (1891-1974) was Thomson’s great-uncle on his mother’s side. 978-0-99587-600-2
Beverly Cramp is an art critic, editor and Associate Editor of B.C. BookWorld. She has been to Italy four times but is more likely to be found in Jamaica.
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As a lover of all things Italian, I enjoyed this book on that level alone, but soon found myself drawn to the young man, his life ahead of him, who has so much self-confidence and finds such joy and some self-knowledge, while making his way by himself in a new country. His youthful enthusiasm and energy leap off the page of this very readable book.
I really appreciate this review and I thank you. For the record, and in spite of what the reviewer says, I have to say that I have never reacted against “elitism”. I have been in favor of it for as long as I can remember. Anti-elitism is part of the Politically Correct agenda and I think it’s nonsense.