In 1994 I was working for a large interdisciplinary travel group. It was my first time in Italy and I was responsible for leading approximately eighteen painters from Montecatini Terme to the little hill town of Montecatini Alto for our daily painting sessions.
Early in our three-week stay I was conducting an informal critique with my students when a blonde woman of about sixty stopped to admire our work. She tried striking up a conversation. From what I could gather she was telling us about her house in the village. “Molto antico,” she said. I also thought that she wanted to show it to us – all eighteen of us, and that she would be waiting in the piazza. I did not think much more about it and went back to painting.
On our way to the bus stop in the late afternoon we passed through Piazza Giusti, the tiny heart of Montecatini Alto. I have been in many piazze over the years, but it is still hard for me to imagine a more perfect one than this. As we entered, there she was, waving to us from a table outside Ristorante La Torre. Claudia Maccioni rushed over and took my arm. She led us down Via Ser Naddo to an ochre colored house.
She pointed to the patches of ancient stones that were intentionally left exposed when the colorful exterior stucco was applied. I am sure her explanation was very interesting, but we understood little of it. We entered the immaculately clean, but dimly lit interior; older furniture, walls hung with small paintings and photos of relatives. My first impression was that it was a somber and gloomy place. Then Claudia threw open the shutters and suddenly the room, really the whole house was transformed with light. The view from the open window literally made our entire group gasp.
In the following days I spent more time with Claudia and came to find out she had recently lost her husband, Leo, and had been battling cancer herself. I also found that language is not the greatest barrier; that affection needs no translation. My wife, Barbara, had been exploring on her own, but began meeting me in Montecatini Alto in the late afternoon. As we grew closer, Claudia begged us to stay at her house for the rest of our trip. I explained as best I could that we could not accept her kind offer, but we continued to spend a portion of almost every day with her. When it came time to leave Italy, Claudia cried. We exchanged addresses and I gave her a little painting that I inscribed to her. She gave me a polo shirt that belonged to Leo.
We have returned to Montecatini many times over the years, often detouring from our real itinerary just to have even a short visit with Nostra Mamma Italiana. We have watched our friend grow frail and extremely hard of hearing. It is sobering to think that I was in my early forties when we met and Claudia was about the age I am now. A few months ago we received an email from one of Claudia’s nephews. It was not news we wanted to hear, but knew it was inevitable.
In June we will take our Arts Sojourn group to Montecatini Alto. We will sit at an outdoor table at Ristorante La Torre, which is owned by Claudia’s nephews. I will raise a glass to our friend Claudia, even though no one but Barbara will know who she was, and be thankful for an almost twenty-five year friendship that bridged thousand of miles.
|Matthew Daub is a professional artist and university professor with works in major public and private collections throughout the United States and Europe. He has been leading plein air painting workshops in Italy since 1994.
In 1999, Matthew and his wife Barbara formed Arts Sojourn as “a vacation for artists and their friends.” The program is designed to appeal to artists of all levels as well as non-artists who enjoy the company of creative people in a slow travel format.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.