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Sarah Winman on Still Life and the Allure of Italy

Posted on 11th June 2021 by Anna Orhanen

Gloriously soaked in atmosphere and a celebration of love in all its forms, Sarah Winman's Still Life tells the captivating story an unlikely friendship that a young British soldier forms with an art historian and alleged spy in wartime Tuscany. In this exclusive piece, the author discusses her love of Italy and the magical power of both art and travel that enables us to reposition and rediscover ourselves in the world.

Travelling, as a portal to transition, exists in all my books. To move a character away from the familiar and offer them the opportunity to start again, or at least to discover something revelatory about themselves is a constant theme. 

This may be because I have always found great freedom and creativity in leaving these shores myself. To struggle with another language and unfamiliar systems requires a surrender of what we think we know about ourselves. To move about without the constraints of one’s history is akin to the shedding of an outmoded skin. 

Still Life is partly set in Italy and I was fortunate to spend time there when writing. It is hard to be in that country and to not soften. It is a country for the soul. A country shaped by its art and poetry, by its Medieval and Renaissance history, by its food and landscape and climate. It is a country that astonishes. The effect of sunlight across a square or across a table during lunch. The squeal of swifts overhead. A particular waft of garlic, freshly cut lemon, newly torn basil, watermelon, coffee. The shadows that fall on a chiselled marble back or breast or brow or veined forearm, are capable of halting breath. Sunrise and sunset and the shift of colour across the River Arno. People arrive and never leave. Or they come back time and time again, searching for that elusive something that is ancient and mysterious and which, for a moment at least, makes them whole.

It is a country that has long attracted the poets and the artists and outsiders – anyone, in fact, who had the means and motivation to seek a life of affordable beauty. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning, Shelley, John Keats, Byron all made a home in this paradise of exiles, after Napoleon’s defeat. 

Shortly after leaving Cambridge as a student, E.M Forster embarked on a year-long tour of Italy with his mother Alice. In Florence, they stayed at the ‘ghastly’ Pensione Simi on the Lungarno delle Grazie in what would become the fictional Pensione Bertolini in Forster’s A Room With A View. The landlady, notably, was a Cockney, something that always intrigued me. How far she was, both culturally and physically, from home. An incongruous counterpoint to the patronising superiority of the middle-class traveller of the time. 

In Still Life, I decided to move some of my characters from the East End of London to Santo Spirito square in the Oltrarno district of Florence. The year would be 1953. Britain was still in a state of brokenness and lack. Italy was being rebuilt using funds from the Marshall plan and a gradual sense of prosperity infused many a city. London was grey, Florence was vibrant with sun and an ochre wash. Flowers grew abundantly and markets were plentiful with fruit and vegetables. Wine was a way of life and Saints’ days came with feasting, and food culture permeated everything. Bells punctuated sighs and thoughts, and the reach of the Catholic Church was long. Erotic sculpture existed in civic squares. Princes lived next to beggars and palazzos rubbed up next to hostels. How startling this would have been to an English eye still reeling from the deprivation of war.

For a visitor this would have been sensuality of unknown proportion, interwoven with everyday life. I wondered if art and beauty could influence by its mere presence, without previous exposure to knowledge or teaching. As Karl Baedeker wrote in his handbook for travellers 1899, “even those whose usual avocations are of the most prosaic nature unconsciously become admirers of poetry and art in Italy.” 

Could anyone become an admirer of poetry and art simply by living amongst it? 

I first met Stella Rudolph, the brilliant art historian, in 2018. I’d not long arrived in Florence, and I phoned her outside the Galileo Museum and arranged to meet her the following day. I brought bottles of wine for her of every shade – I, alas, omitted a rosato frizzante which I came to learn was her favourite - and we sat in the cool dark of her studio surrounded by books and masterpieces with salt deposits left over from the flood of 1966 still visible on the terracotta floor. I loved her immediately. And over the next two years, whenever I went back to Florence for research, we would have coffee together, lunch, dinner or simply wander. She got use to me holding a notebook and suddenly scribbling down her joyous words. And every time I arrived in the stone vestibule of her building, I would hear the clack clack clack of her shoes on the stairway and she would call out to me, “Hello my dear, you’re home!” 

And maybe it was for that brief moment.

One day, I asked her about the nature of beauty. What it does to us, and what, therefore its role could be? She said that beautiful art opens our eyes to the beauty of the world, a world that we most often take for granted. It does something to us on a cellular level. It enriches us, makes us grateful. Gives us wealth without us even knowing it. That is its value, she said. That is how we change.


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env: aptum