It’s Sunday in Civita, a day for traditions, including mass at 11 am.
Before we enter, Tony rests momentarily on the long stone bench facing the piazza, while Josè introduces me to Marcella, who is perhaps in her 60s, with blond coiffed hair, gold-rimmed glasses, and a pearly smile. Marcella uses both hands to shake mine, and I do the same. I like her already. As more join the circle, I sit near Tony to observe the Italian women in their finery.
Last night, Josè dazzled with a yellow skirt, blue patterned blouse, two-toned ink-blue sweater that she knitted herself (she’s always cold, even in the oppressive heat), and a beret — topped, naturally, by her tinted glasses. The arcs of leather on the sides serve to block the harsh light from her sensitive eyes, but they also succeed in appearing oh-so-stylish and, therefore, quintessentially Italian.
Today, Josè is swathed in a delicate pigeon gray dress flocked with lavender-pink flowers, over which she has draped a pashmina of the same pink, a small kerchief-scarf around her neck and string of pearls with earrings to match. After the pearls catch my eye, I then pick up the small flecks of white in the pattern of her dress. Details never escape Italian women – they know exactly what they’re doing from the time they wake.
During mass, as my eyes skip from the statue of Mary to la bella figura de Josè, I begin to wonder about the gender of cities – are places like Civita inherently masculine or feminine?
After the service, I ask Josè if she would like to continue our other tradition, “Posso comprare a Lei un cappuccino alla piazza?” We take our seats and our coffee, diving deep into conversation. (Pero, naturally, she won’t let me pay.) Before walking home, we help Gaia send guests off from Civita; I again enjoy the sensation of being warmly known, as Gaia lightly rests her hand on my back.
We opt to walk home along Civita’s edge to enjoy the breeze and the view of the valley – a clearer path than dodging tourists on the main street. Sweetly, Josè links her arm through mine as we walk slowly, step by step, two women in possession of themselves and one another. In alternating English and Italian, we conclude our discussion of careers, men, divorce, Rome, Venice, and music to focus on Civita.
Josè invites me to see her home, which I discover was renovated by Astra in the mid 1960s – her first renovation here. She and Josè met through another architect, though they quickly realized that they had seen one another on the ship to Italy when Josè returned from university. Secondo me, their meeting was fated.
The footprint of Josè’s home is tiny – perhaps 450 square feet – but it contains four stories. Dining room, kitchen and bathroom on the first floor, Josè’s bedroom on the second floor, a sitting room on the third floor, and a fourth floor bedroom loft. The white-washed walls and wooden doors and window frames are familiar – it is, after all, an older sibling of Il Nuovo.
She stops to point out a myriad of repurposed components, like the tall skinny window on the third floor that was once the means for residents to go the bathroom. (I shudder at the thought of sticking my backside outside a third-floor window on an icy night, but they were tougher people back then.)
My favorite detail is the curved, deep sink built into the corner of the sitting room wall; once used for washing clothes, Astra restored it as an elegant architectural detail. She also punched interior windows to increase the flow of light and air, and small nooks for shelves. Like Il Nuovo, one immediately senses a palimpsest of fresh feminine thoughtfulness atop age-old masculine craft in this home.
On my afternoon walk, I happened to meet Josè again, now outfitted in a blue scoopneck sundress, espadrille sandals, and a light straw hat banded with a dark ribbon. We greet each other with cheek kisses, another tradition, her skin soft and smooth against mine, as she said, “Prendo il sole,” – I take the sun.
We discuss the homes next to hers, grand palazzos owned by wealthy men, both of whom are rarely in Civita to enjoy their Edenic gardens or sweeping views. I considered how much of Civita’s history -past and present- rests in Josè’s mind; not only details and dates of architectural and cultural importance, but knowledge of her fellow Civitonici and their families, especially Astra and Tony.
As I returned to Il Nuovo, I heard a woman punctuate a sentence with, “Mama mia!” and her friend respond, “Madonna,” (always in two syllables: MAH-donna) at the news. At that moment, Civita’s utter femininity revealed itself to me…
…In her grottos and hidden places, a series of wombs.
…In her fertile gardens, whose crops nourish and shade us, like a mother.
…In her church where the statue of Mary is revered center stage, and in whose name the main gate is christened.
…In her soft green edges, clinging vines, and flowers that soften even the hard, ancient stone.
…In her tempests, an exasperated woman who cries furious tears, then is tender and soothing again.
…In Astra, who was pivotal in restoring and rebuilding a place abandoned by men.
…In Josè, an active part of Civita’s social network, who bridges the worlds of yesterday and today.
…And, I realize, in women like me, who pick up where Astra and Josè leave off.
Perhaps, we fellows and our work can be considered the progeny –and renewing legacy– of these potent feminine forces: Astra, Josè, Gaia, Alessandra, Ilauria, Priscilla, nature — and Civita.