The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Why We Long to Be Under the Tuscan Sun

Posted on | March 14, 2016 | Written by Janice Cable | No Comments

IMG_2452American minds have a love affair with Tuscany. More than a site of wine, olive oil, pasta shapes or authentic culture, Tuscany and, to be specific, “Tuscan” have become shorthand for a lifestyle aesthetic—and nothing has done so much to make this so as Frances Mayes’ 1996 book Under the Tuscan Sun.

Writing for the New Yorker, travel writer and food critic Jason Wilson considers the long arm of Mayes’ book, now celebrating its twentieth anniversary:

I have sat on Tuscan-brown sofas surrounded by Tuscan-yellow walls, lounged on Tuscan patios made with Tuscan pavers, surrounded by Tuscan landscaping. I have stood barefoot on Tuscan bathroom tiles, washing my hands under Tuscan faucets after having used Tuscan toilets. I have eaten, sometimes on Tuscan dinnerware, a Tuscan Chicken on Ciabatta from Wendy’s, a Tuscan Chicken Melt from Subway, the $6.99 Tuscan Duo at Olive Garden, and Tuscan Hummus from California Pizza Kitchen. Recently, I watched my friend fill his dog’s bowl with Beneful Tuscan Style Medley dog food. This barely merited a raised eyebrow; I’d already been guilty of feeding my cat Fancy Feast’s White Meat Chicken Tuscany. Why deprive our pets of the pleasures of Tuscan living?

Wilson argues that the popularity of Mayes’ book—and her building on its success with sequels and lines of olive oil, wine and furniture—has helped to layer American consciousness with a “crushing” Tuscan bricolage. There’s no denying that Tuscan abounds, as Wilson’s killer opening graf to the piece attests. Everything with an olive and a sundried tomato is sold as Tuscan, even if the olives are Spanish, the tomatoes Mexican, and it’s a sandwich from a New York City bodega. Tuscan is everywhere you look, even if you look no further than your Subway menu.

But while Wilson locates this fixation with the mid-1990s and those “relatively calm and affluent years of Bill Clinton’s second term—with its tech bubble, budget surplus, easy credit, and Pottery Barn,” I’ve got to take a longer view of the world’s love of Toscana in specific and Italy in general. While there’s no question that the comfortable Clinton years gave some folks the ability to indulge their Italian fantasies, we’ve been nurturing those Italian fantasies for decades—even centuries.

IMG_1382Scroll back three to five decades from Mayes’ book and our imaginations were fired by Italian films by Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini, or Luchino Visconti, for example. Whether it’s from watching Italy’s neorealism cinema—those black-and-white films of sundrenched days and impossibly skinkling nights—or the dreamy, surrealist Technicolor movies that followed, Americans learned to see Italy as a shiny object, a place of ineffable glamour and eroticism. Italy was like France but cooler, or so we thought, gobsmacked by Anita Eckberg frolicking in fountains.

But we have a brief attention span for history, and Italy has served as shorthand for sensuality, permissiveness and deliciousness for centuries. There’s a reason why John Keats lived out his last consumptive days in an apartment overlooking Rome’s Spanish Steps, and that is this: Italy, to English minds, was a site of magic, health, and a kiss of sin. Whether the cavalcade of seductive fruit extolled in Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, Robert Browning’s aching “Two in the Campagna,” or Shakespeare, who used Italy as a set-piece for a baker’s dozen of his plays, Italy is a much romanticized place.

IMG_2592All roads lead to Rome, goes the commonplace, and if you’re talking about creating a sense of identity that offers an antidote to American (and British) puritanism that road is long, winding, and endless. Under the Tuscan Sun might be the most famous in the last twenty years—although Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love gives it a run for its money—but for centuries non-Italians have looked to Italy to see how to live a better, more delicious, more indulgent, and more soulful life.

I’m one who bought into the myth. I read E.M. Forster’s Room with a View and saw the movie and would have bought the action figures, if they made them. And as different as visiting Italy was from what I imagined, it was nonetheless transformative. You touch Italy and it touches you. No, your dog isn’t going to be transported to Toscana with his kibble, but that doesn’t matter. Everyone who has been to Italy—including those who’ve only been in their minds—likes to feel a little closer to the Tuscan sun, even if we never leave our couch.

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