Friday, January 28, 2011

A Name So Smooth

San Gimignano View, 2002

I’ve never been to Montepulciano (Monte-pull-chee-anno). It’s one of the hill towns of Tuscany. I’ve been close, as in Sienna. And so far as Italian hill towns are concerned, I’ve made the requisite tourist trek to San Gimignano, which has its charm but is decidedly run over with tourists during the daytime.

But for pure mellifluence, what combination of syllables, consonants and vowels rolls off the tongue as smoothly as “Montepulciano”?

I’m not exactly sure what the name means. My weak Italian and check of the dictionary suggest something along the line of “Mount of the First Names.”

But who cares? I’m pretty sure I first heard of Montepulciano in E.M. Forster’s “Where Angels Fear to Tread.” Montepulcano’s role in the book is to serve as the hedonistic Italian retreat of a repressed British widow. Or at least that’s how the repressed British in-laws of the widow look upon it. If you saw the 1991 film version starring Helen Mirren, you’ll recall how actress Judy Davis’ snit face in the role of the widow’s prim and ever so repressed sister-in-law set a standard so high that I can’t imagine that any other actors playing proper snit-faced British folk will ever measure up to it.

San Gimignano Wall, 2002

Of course, the truth is that Montepulciano is not a hedonistic place. It’s only when Italy’s languid stile di vivere is compared to the prim Victorian standards of England in late Nineteenth Century that it looks that way. (But what place wouldn’t?) British literature of the time is full of louche characters who slink off to Italy to misbehave. Remember Lord Marchmain in “Brideshead Revisited”?

I hope to return to Tuscany some day. Our stay there wasn’t nearly long enough. Mary Chapin Carpenter wrote a song that is a siren call to some of us. The first verse goes like this:

What if we went to Italy

A suitcase of books and one bag a piece for the summer

I don't speak a word of Italian

Except for Campari and soda for two, how much is a Lire

Yes, a villa will do and a breeze, in Tuscany please

You can hear the rest of it here.

Hillside Trattoria, 2002
Towers of San Gimignano, 2002


  1. I never got to San Gimignano in Italy. I was all over Tuscany, and loved it, but never there... I did see it in "Tea with Mussolini." Does that count!? Love the song--I never heard this one before. And I always love Helen Mirren--for some reason she always reminds me of my maternal grandmother.

  2. I've been to both of those towns, and what strikes me is how similar the little cities can be but have such different flavors. Two other wonderful towns are Volterra and Orvieto. Just beautiful.

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  4. Beautiful shots, Chris. I really like the light and the narrative was great, as well.

    Though I traveled extensively in the service it was always everywhere but Europe; all over Asia, the Middle East and even Africa once. a I did make a refueling stop in Wiesbaden once, at night, naturally.

    I guess that's why they referred to our request for assignment forms as "dream sheets". I kept requesting European assignments and they kept sending me everywhere but.

  5. Hi there, lovely post.Love Tuscany.Sadly, San Gimignano ( anmd Siena as well ) has become dreadfully touristy compared to 20 years ago.It was very remote and quiet in the 1980's , but we went back about 5 years ago and I could not believe the amount of car-parks- 4 huge ones in total -and all were totally full.So we left as there was nowhere to park,without being able to set a foot in it and this wasn't even in high season but in October.The road up to San Gimignano and the country side around it is stunning and breathtaking, but I miss the quiet San Gimignano of long ago.Must be much worse for the people who live there by the way.