Nostalgic tales set in Italian villas

Two love stories from Italy: one for an elusive girl, another for a house

Readers hoping to bring a touch of Italy to their summer reading lists will have no shortage of books from which to choose. This year there are real and imagined stories of Lucrezia Borgia, a history of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, tales of a year spent in a Calabrian hill village, and even a sobering look at the fate of the body of Mussolini.

But for those who might enjoy finding hopeless romance, sinister deeds, Fascist politics, and the languid beauties of life in Italy all within a single book, a new edition of an older novel offers the best possible solution.

Giorgio Bassani's 1962 classic "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" has been given a beautiful new English translation by William Weaver. Even readers who have encountered this gently tragic idyll before (or seen Vittorio de Sica's 1971 film) should consider a return trip. [Editor's note: The original version neglected to pluralize Finzi-Continis.]

The book tells the story of the Finzi-Continis, an aristocratic Jewish family living in the Italian city of Ferrara just before World War II. The youthful narrator inhabits the same milieu, but comes from a less wealthy family. He has known the Finzi-Continis all his life - and been fascinated by Micòl, the beautiful blond daughter - although always at a distance.

The Finzi-Continis have spent most of their lives alone behind the walls of their villa, enjoying acres of gardens and a house richly furnished with books and art. But in the summer of 1938, when the Fascist government bans Jews from country clubs, they invite all of Ferrara's Jewish community in to enjoy their tennis court.

The summer matches draw the narrator into the world of the Finzi-Continis - and unrequited love for Micòl. The rest of the novel is the story of the futility of his feelings, played out against the backdrop of the hopelessness of all things for this doomed community.

Yet even with the tragic ending spelled out from the start (the book begins in a graveyard, with the narrator wondering if any of the Finzi-Continis - long since deported to death camps - ever found proper burial), the story is full of pleasures for the living.

Bike rides through the stone streets of a medieval town, a missed chance for romance in an old coach house on a rainy afternoon, hot summer evenings idled away dining in the Italian countryside sketch the outlines of a way of life soon to come to an abrupt end.

But the book's tone is nostalgic rather than harsh. One of its most poignant and oddly lovely scenes occurs after the narrator - unequivocally rejected by Micòl and now aware that she is giving herself to his friend - rides his bike alone in the dark. By the light of the moon he sees pairs of lovers embracing in the grass. He passes close enough to graze their feet with his tires, but they don't even notice him, alone, "a kind of strange, passing phantom." Another is a gentle exchange that takes place that same night between the narrator and his father, as the son for the first time is ready to hear the words his father has been waiting to offer him.

In a wholly different tone, but also reaching back into Italy's past, is "Palladian Days: Finding a New Life in a Venetian Country House" by Sally Gable (with her husband Carl I. Gable). It's the true story of the Gables and the Palladian villa outside Venice that they purchased as a second home.

The Gables, who also live in Atlanta, were motivated strictly by love. They meant to buy a summer house in New Hampshire but when they discovered that a villa built by 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio was available (only 18 survive) they couldn't resist the utterly impractical idea of buying it.

In the end, the villa was lucky and so were they. The Gables had the sophistication, resources, and social skills to study up on their new home, treat it with respect, and open its doors to others who share their passion.

Their story is predictably full of nightmarish homeowner stories (there's no heat, the roof needs replacing) and encounters with local wildlife (the house is full of scorpions) and tradesmen (every worker brings assistants and all require frequent breaks). But such accounts are the richer for being interspersed with details about Palladio, the villa, and Italy's past.

Gable's tone throughout the book is brisk rather than sentimental and for the most part free of the type of overboard emotion Italy sometimes provokes in its admirers. What "Palladian Days" serves up is a slice of Italian life not always so readily accessible to tourists.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's books editor.

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