Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

A Boy’s Sweet Life In Italy

Italy and the city of Siena work their charms on a 13-year-old American boy
Lucas at the Campo di Siena, at night

Today Lucas and I woke up at noon, shocked that we had slept so long. Jet lag is a cruel master. Like the Huns threatening a city, the caffeine headache was at the gates of my noggin, so we quickly dressed and hustled up the street to the nearest pastry shop. Alas, they did not serve Italian coffee there, but said they could make me an Americano with their coffee pot. Anything, Signora, anything!

Well. Italian-style coffee is the best in the world, but Italians doing American coffee is like Michiganders doing Tex-Mex. They just don’t have it in them.

We went after that to the museum of the Palazzo Publico, the city hall of Siena, which, when its construction was begun in the 13th century, meant it was the governing palace of the city-state known as the Republic of Siena. Upstairs there are wall murals and other treasures. The best-known is the Allegory of Good and Bad Government, a series of 14th century paintings meant to demonstrate how a city will prosper if governed virtuously, but will come to ruin if governed by vice. Here is the symbol of the Tyrant who governs a vicious city:

For me, it was impossible to look upon this without thinking about Donald Trump. One has learned to expect very little good from this man, but his disgusting tweeting about the facelift of a TV presenter was a new low. It is hard even now to believe that the United States faces so many challenges, but the man who leads it is obsessed with tweeting trash-talk about a TV personality. Character really is destiny. I wish to associate myself with what Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote about this nonsense today. Excerpt:

And Trump has a sense of what [his populist supporters] do care about. Instead of working the phones, steadying nervous legislators, or using the bully pulpit for health reform, he spent some of the crucial time before a final Senate vote tweeting about how Mika Brzezinski rang in the new year by bleeding from her face at his private Florida club. Finally! A new lead image for Drudge.

At least for now, while they have an easily distracted man in the Oval Office, and a Congress that is committed to the usual Republican priorities — tax cuts! — the populist Right is happy enough to see the president use the vast power and prestige of his office to fight the media. It’s a vision of the presidency that’s little more than Sean Hannity’s job, with a few executive orders and judicial appointments on top. Trump is, as much as he can, setting aside the whole responsibility of governance in order to prioritize the Right’s feud with what it sees as the real throne of power, the media. Instead of capturing the media, the presidency channels the Right’s rage at it. Who could possibly care about the executive and legislative branches of the most powerful country on earth? That’s an afterthought when there are idiot elitists who disapprove of us on cable news!

We are in an incredibly decadent period in American life. I use “incredibly” as a meaningful modifier: it is hard to believe that we have descended so far, so fast. Here’s a post that deserves more time from me, but I know I won’t be able to give it as I’m on vacation, but I wanted to bring it to your attention anyway. It’s about the crisis of authority in our time. Excerpt:

Here, I believe, is the source of that feeling of unreality or “post-truth” so prevalent today. Having lost faith in authority, the public has migrated to the broken pieces of the narratives, shards of reality inaccessible to all but a chosen few. Scattered and orphaned, it has sought to cobble together a transcendent truth out of pure will and a very subjective longing for justice and redemption. Truth now has an inside and an outside. The initiated understand the symbolic code. Those outside the tribal patch, however, appear to speak nonsense: they are blatant liars, raving lunatics. Hence Selena Zito’s famous judgment that Trump’s followers take him “seriously but not literally,” while his antagonists reverse the terms of the equation.

The president, as I noted, has been the object of much of the talk about “post-truth” – and not without justification. While, so far, his actions in office have been surprisingly conventional, his rhetorical style is something else. When he speaks of voter fraud, of the size of his crowds, of the unemployment and murder rates, and on many other topics, Donald Trump can’t resist the urge to bend reality to his theme. The world, it appears, assumes whatever shape he wills. As might be expected, his opponents have condemned him as a deliberate liar. Let me put forward another thesis, one I consider more probable but no less problematic. The president may just be a creature of our shattered age: he speaks, symbolically and subjectively, to the chosen who take him seriously (but not literally), from inside a shard of Trumpian truth.

It’s only fair to say that this malady is most virulent among those who most deeply loathe President Trump. “Social justice warriors” have fortified their subjective sliver of the world into a “new religion,” according to Haidt. These young people, weaned on smart phones and the web, share an exaggerated narrative about oppression in the US, and wish to purify our society until only their transcendent truth is fit for polite talk. Deviant perspectives, even in history or literature, make them feel frightened and angry. The response is to hide in “safe spaces” or to shut down the offending speaker. Since Trump’s election, the “warriors” have resorted to violence to silence Republican and conservative opinions. In their actions I discern the possibility of a bleakly illiberal future, in which national narratives are thrown into the bonfire without regret, and the war-bands impose their claustrophobic visions by means of threat and fear.


The recovery of truth requires the restoration of trusted authority. At the moment, that is nowhere in sight. The narratives that bind us together have broken to pieces. The elites who were keepers of these stories have lost the public’s confidence past any hope of redemption. They strike poses of mastery and control, yet deliver mostly failure and decadence. The public has judged them to be empty vessels, and many of them, in their secret moments, would probably agree. I don’t deal in prophecy, but I find it hard to see how this elite class can endure as a cohesive group into the middle age of the Millennial generation.

Let’s grant that the divorce gets finalized. What comes next?

Maybe chaos. Complex systems can fall into turbulence and remain in that condition permanently. The collapse of elite authority could ignite a rolling conflagration, in which every aspect of social and political life is turned into a battleground. That would be the nihilist’s hour. If it ever arrives, even the broken shards of narratives will appear too big, too inclusive for an atomized culture, and our supposed “age of post-truth” will be considered, in hindsight, as a time of supreme self-confidence and certainty.

Read the whole thing. It is significant that Trump’s hardcore supporters do not care about virtue at all; they only care about defeating their perceived enemies. But then, so do Trump’s most ardent opponents. It is hard to know where the rest of us fit into this scheme, except that we do not have the momentum.

Maybe it’s just me, but it is piercing to watch White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her father, Mike Huckabee — both professed Christians — demean themselves in service to a man like Trump. Huckabee père says his daughter didn’t defend Trump’s Mika tweet, but only Trump’s “right to fight back.” Please. Nobody is fooled by this, except fools. A conservative Evangelical friend said to me a month or so ago that Trump was going to destroy the Evangelical Right, which hitched itself to his star with chains of iron. “I think Evangelicals have found their dream president,” said Jerry Falwell Jr. a few weeks back.

Dream a little 140-character dream, y’all:



It’s shameful and disgusting — and it provided the basis for talking with my son about how the medieval murals we saw on the wall today apply to our situation today. Human nature never changes. Only the names do. I was reminded of something a friend told me last week. He said his daughter, a new lawyer, told him that she wonders if that is what God would have her do with her life. He responded by saying that we need solid Christian lawyers now more than ever. “You will need to be around for the rebuilding,” he said.

I would only add to that the observation that many conservative Christians have the false idea that the enemy is outside the Church. It is not. It is manifestly not.

Enough of all that. We are on vacation in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

We had lunch at a restaurant where Lucas ordered a simple bowl of pasta in olive oil, atop which he sprinkled fresh-grated Parmesan cheese. This boy is not an adventurous eater at all, and he’s anxious about eating unfamiliar foods in Italy. It was a delight to see his face light up. I had told him before we came here that in Italy, he was going to taste the most delicious pasta in the world. And now, he had.

“How did you know?!” he asked. Experience, I said.

Me, I had bruschetta, which induced a mystical experience.

After lunch, we met a foreign student studying at the university here. We told him what a privilege it must be to live in Italy. Yes, he said, it’s a beautiful place, but not the kind of place he would stay once he finishes his degree. Why not? I asked. Because everyday life here is hard. The bureaucracy will grind you down. It takes forever to get things done. Italians find it hard to embrace innovation, and don’t ever want to change, even when change is necessary.

“But that’s attractive to some of us Americans,” I said. “We live in a country where it seems like everything is constantly changing. That stability looks comforting to us.”

“Maybe so,” he said. “I’ve never been to America. I’m telling you, though, that Italy looks different when you live here. As a tourist, you only see the most beautiful parts.”

This reminded me of a passage from a 1948 essay by the young Truman Capote:

In London a young artist said to me, “How wonderful it must be for an American traveling in Europe the first time; you can never be a part of it, so none of the pain is yours, you will never have to endure it — yes, for you there is only the beauty.”

Not understanding what he meant, I resented this; but later, after some months in France and Italy, I saw that he was right: I was not a part of Europe, I never would be. Safe, I could leave when I wanted to, and for me there was only the honeyed, hallowed air of beauty. But it was not so wonderful as the young man had imagined: it was desperate to feel that one could never be a part of moments so moving, that always one would be isolated from this landscape and these people; and then gradually I realized I did not have to be a part of it: rather, it could be a part of me. The sudden garden, opera night, wild children snatching flowers and running up a darkening street, a wreath for the dead and nuns in noon light, music from the piazza, a Paris pianola and fireworks on La Grande Nuit, the heart-shaking surprise of mountain visions and water views (lakes like green wine in the chalice of volcanoes, the Mediterranean flickering at the bottoms of cliffs), forsaken far-off towers falling in twilight and candles igniting the jeweled corpse of St. Zeno of Verona — all a part of me, elements for the making of my own perspective.

That has been my experience in the 33 years I have been coming here. And it will be part of my children’s experience.

Then, we made our way back to the hotel, where we were picked up by Daniele Giannini, a Sienese fencing coach, and his assistant coach Adolfo Miawotoe. Lucas has been taking fencing lessons for a year, and has developed a passion for it. When we decided earlier this year to come to Siena for the July Palio, he said to me that he would love to visit a Sienese fencing gym if one exists. I found one on the Internet, and wrote to the information office to ask if it would be possible to meet when we are in Siena. Daniele, one of the coaches there, wrote back to say sure thing, just text him when we get to town. We did, and he came to pick us up.

He had with him Adolfo, who is from Togo. They drove us to the gym, and showed us around, then Adolfo gave Lucas a short lesson. Afterward, Daniele gave us t-shirts and hoodies from the Siena Fencing Club, which for Lucas might as well have been the Golden Fleece. Then we drove out to nearby Monteriggioni, a Tuscan hill town with a 14th-century fortress built by the Sienese to defend themselves against their mortal enemy Florence. In the Inferno, Dante references the fortress, with its ring of towers (which were even taller in Dante’s day):

For, as all around her ring of walls
Monteriggioni is crowned with towers,
so at the cliff-edge that surrounds the pit

loomed up like towers half the body bulk
of horrifying giants, those whom Jove
still threatens from the heavens when he thunders.

(Inferno, Canto XXXI, trans. Hollander)

In that canto, Dante is approaching the deepest pit of Hell. He sees a ring of giants guarding it, which he likens to the ring of towers guarding Monteriggioni. In the Inferno, the giants are signs of demonic pride and a will to dominate. Recall that Dante was made an exile from his native Florence because of the deadly politics of the city. The Commedia is in part the poet’s commentary on how the cities of Tuscany had destroyed the peace with their constant warfare and viciousness. Bad morals lead to bad government, which leads to war! Today, Lucas and I stood in the heart of the Monteriggioni fortress, built by the Republic of Siena as an outpost on its northern border, overlooking the road to Florence.

The fortress of Monteriggioni (DiegoMariottini/Shutterstock)

Here is Lucas walking out of the north entrance, the Florentine Gate. Look at the Tuscan countryside. Beyond that is Florence. A Sienese soldier stationed there would have seen Florentine soldiers marching southward. Today, Monteriggioni is a peaceful hilltop hamlet. Next week, it hosts its annual Medieval Festival, which I would love to see. Next year, maybe!

View from Monteriggioni, Tuscany

Back home, after a rest, we went out for pizza and gelato, and then a stroll up to the Duomo. On the walk back, we passed through the Campo so Lucas could behold the Palazzo Publico at night. What a sight!

As we neared our hotel, Lucas said, “You know what, Dad? The only thing that would make being here better would be if Mr. Marco was here to narrate it all for us.” He is talking about Marco Sermarini, who delighted him in San Benedetto del Tronto. Who could possibly argue with that conclusion? Certainly not me.

Marco Sermarini with one of his spiritual fathers, GKC

Lucas went on:

“I think that all cultured people should move to Siena — not that I consider myself cultured or anything,” he said.

“What do you mean by that?” I said. “What does it mean to be cultured?”

“To know what matters in life,” he said.

“What is it about Siena that makes you say it’s a place for cultured people?”

“It’s not just Siena; it’s Italy. I mean, everybody here is joyful. Everybody is happy to see you. It’s so beautiful. And the food is really good.”

I would say that this Italy trip has been a great one for the boy — and it’s all thanks to the good people who have shown him the best face of this great country.

UPDATE: I forgot to tell you this funny story. The sweet lady manning the cash register at the gift shop in the Palazzo Pubblico museum was impressed that we came all the way from the USA to see the Palio. I asked her which was her contrada.

“Torre,” she said.

Zounds! The archenemy of Onda! I withdrew in mock horror.

“Onda is mine,” I said, portentously.

She gasped theatrically, then put her hands up, as if I had flashed her.

“I was here two years ago for the July Palio,” I said, recalling the infamous victory of Torre over Onda. “Now I’m back for vengeance.”

“Well,” she said, all saucy, “maybe we will beat you again so you’ll have a reason to come back to Siena two years from now.”

We both had a good laugh. Lord, I love this city.



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