Life in provincial Tuscany involves a cast of what seemed at first like supporting characters but, fifteen years in, have become in many ways the people I know best, simply because we’ve been through it all—together.
If you like antiques, you had better like carpenters, of which, here in Siena, there are a confusing variety of specialists. There’s the one we call “quello bravo,” whom we hired to make cabinets out of some three-hundred-year old, massive chestnut shutters. Then, there are the two who repair antiques, one rebuilding the damaged section, the other, called the “shiner,” who buffs or waxes or polishes the reconstructed section so that it blends in with the old. There used to be yet another carpenter, whom we called the “candlestick guy,” because the first time I went to see him was about a pair of termite-stricken antique altar candlesticks. He specialized in anything very old, or very precious, or very small.
When I got a dog last year, all these carpenters seemed pleased. Animal lovers, I thought, until one of them explained, “Dog owners are my bread-and-butter.” I didn’t make the connection until Kaya, my Maremman Shepherd puppy, chewed through the bottom bar of a four-hundred year-old chair.
Masons, too, are a fact of life in stone houses. The good ones are over fifty, expensive and can do vaulted brick ceilings or a stone wall that will hold for a decade without cement. I complain about the fees on principle, but my mason and I restored a cottage together, no architect needed, so in fact, he saved me money.
The smith is a neighbor, to whom I bring pots for refinishing their bottoms, teakettles that have lost a handle or a lid and especially, complicated old locks for which the keys were lost long ago and must be re-forged.
Instead of 1-800-MATTRESS, I call Guillermo with the measurements, and he and his wife sew me one, or un-sew one I want to wash, repair or re-stuff.
Electricians don’t fare well in big, centuries-old houses, wired frantically, cheaply and inexpertly in the 1950s and ‘60s. In my experience, the blackouts are so frequent and poorly timed that five years is as long as an electrician will last. (Their widows, however, don’t forget to collect.) My current fellow is young, and seems to have got the upper hand, because I hardly see him at all.
The plumber survives and survives despite his cigarettes. I can gauge the size of this month’s invoice by the number of butts I find on the gravel. We’ve been through numerous disasters together: water line leaks in the middle of the August holidays, broken radiators in my octogenarian father’s and newborn daughter’s rooms during the coldest week I’ve ever spent in Italy, a damaged pilot light on the morning of a party that threatened to leave everyone to starve. We used to say about him, whenever he fixes something, he breaks something else, to ensure continued income, but I think it’s more a realistic approach to the job: a few years before my divorce, one hot September evening after the grape harvest, when the fridge that cools the fermentation tanks had broken, the plumber had dug up the ground to find a broken tube. He asked me to switch the fridge back on, and though it immediately started working, I wondered aloud if it would hold. “It’ll work for a few years, at least, and after that, what’ll you bet, neither of us will be here?”
Dearest of all is the upholsterer, a drunk, whose handmade sofas of elegant silk fabric, graceful classic form and divine comfort are incomparable to anything store-bought. His “bottega” is right in the center of town, where, impractically, considering his profession, you can’t go with a car, at the bottom of a short, steep street. His glass doors are invariably locked, but you can see in, across mountains of fabric samples and half-finished work. I hike up to the bar at the top of the street, buy him a strong coffee, and explain to him what I want. I let him order the fabric, since his samples are decades old. Needless to say, the delivery date depends on how often I come back and haul him out of the bar and down to work.
Tullio, Claudio and Roberto, the carpenters, the candlestick guy, whose name I never knew, Alit and Sergio the masons, Falchi and Guillermo, Michele, Gabriele and Gallerini, are like my extended family. I met Tullio the day I met my ex-husband, antiquing together in Monte San Savino. Claudio and Roberto helped us redecorate the cottage we restored for my parents. Alit, whose brother runs our vineyard, brought me the raspberry plants that started my berry patch all those years ago. Sergio took me in his ape up into the woods on the day before my wedding and helped me cut the flowers and fronds for the altar. Michele and Gabriele love to gossip, so while I use them to get the latest local news, heaven knows they could tell stories about me, having seen me, thanks to plumbing and electrical emergencies, at all hours of the day or night, in unflattering outfits and in varying emotional states. Gallerini was never one to chat, and lately, the bottega has been dark. A new upholsterer opened at the top of the street, next to Gallerini’s bar, with orderly displays of the latest fabrics and three sober women to show you the possible styles.
But young couples today seem to go for neutrals. They choose sleek sofas from Molteni in beige or grey or white, Schiffini kitchens of burnished steel not painted tiles and carved cabinetry, which is just as well, since when this generation of artisans is gone, I don’t know who will replace them.