In ltalian Days, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison has two purposes: first, to describe various places in Italy so vividly that the reader has a sense of having traveled with her; and second, to explore her own reactions to the country from which both of her parents came, in order better to understand them and herself Because she has the gift of observation, Harrison has succeeded in her first objective. It is her second purpose, however, which gives this travel book its dimension, its direction, and its unity.
Harrison’s parents came to the United States from Abruzzi and Calabria, in southern Italy. Her visits to those areas and to her relatives there were to be the climax of her trip and of her book. Deliberately, Harrison began her stay in Italy in Milan, which was as far away as possible, both geographically and culturally, from the south, where her journey would conclude. Her chapter on Milan is followed by one on Venice and another on Florence. Midway through the book, she is at Rome, the midpoint of her journey south, as well as the place where she feels most serene, perhaps because it is the focal point of her Roman Catholic faith. The four remaining chapters take her to Naples and Amalfi, to Puglia, and to her ancestral areas, before she returns to Rome for her flight back to the United States.
Harrison’s treatment of Milan illustrates the approach which she uses throughout her book. She combines facts with impressions in order to arrive at a sense of place. It is a fact that Milan, an industrial city, is highly polluted; it is also a fact that it rains every day but four during Harrison’s one-month stay. The dirty snow she sees when she enters Milan is not only visual proof of the pollution but also the kind of observation which sums up Harrison’s emotional reaction to a place.
Harrison, however, does not simply respond and move on, as a less thoughtful traveler might do. She stays long enough in each city to produce a balanced picture. For example, although she feels that Milan could be called a male city, aggressive and ambitious, dedicated primarily to making money, she does note that it is not without aesthetic qualities. Harrison admires Milan’s superb craftsmen, the shoemakers and bookbinders, for example. Above all, its people share with their compatriots in the other regions of Italy a passion for food. The author proves her point with detailed descriptions of some of her memorable meals in the city.
In addition to such observations, Harrison includes the historical references which one expects from a well-read travel writer. Her prose is liberally sprinkled with quotations from earlier travel writers, along with allusions to literary works. One would not need to see her extensive bibliography to realize how broad her interests are. As she looks at cafes and cathedrals, airports and art galleries, Harrison ranges through history and literature, commenting on the Middle Ages or World War II, referring to Saint Augustine or Benito Mussolini, quoting Italo Calvino, John Ruskin, or Henry James.
Italian Days is also rich as a collection of people. In the Ambrosiana Museum in Milan, Harrison falls into conversation with an American lady who knows no Italian and is desperate to talk to someone who knows English. In Florence, she spends a considerable amount of time with the cynical T., who despite her recent disastrous affair with an Englishman cannot conquer her natural affinity for good-looking men.
Sometimes Harrison sums up an entire society in a scene which might well have come from a novel. At the Caffe Milano, a group of journalists, artists, and publishers, all of whom are supposedly famous, strut and pose, smugly assuming that the rest of the world is paying attention to them. When Harrison is in Rome, she is invited to a far different gathering, the first communion of an American man’s nephew, followed by a six- hour meal hosted by the local baker and his wife. Each event reflects the values of the participants; it is not surprising that the second was far more enjoyable for the author.
Throughout her travels, Harrison is particularly sensitive to irony and paradox. In Rome, where her own religious faith is heightened, she meets a priest who has...
(The entire section is 1743 words.)