Today began with flowers.
We found them in Spello, an ancient Umbrian town known sometimes as the city of the painter Pinturicchio. Spello is also the city of the ‘infiorate,’ or flower art festival. We didn’t know this as we began to climb the steep, narrow streets until we found ourselves surrounded by scarlet geraniums, bunches of impatiens, phlox, delphinium, forget me not, roses of every hue.
Everywhere we looked there were flowers … in pots, in window boxes, in baskets hung from windows high above our heads, weaved into fragrant arches. There were no gardens that we could see… no wonder, considering that Spello is a city of stone. We were looking about in a sort of dazed awe when an elderly lady came walking out toward us.
She explained about the ‘Finestre, balconi e vicoli fiori,’ or flower festival and asked if we liked her garden. We introduced ourselves and explained, in uncertain Italian, that we had come from the United States. “Ah,” exclaimed Signora Lodi, “America. Sono Parisienne, eh? I am a Parisienne. You come from America? Never will I forget ‘til I die that day when the Americans marched into Paris to liberate us. Never! I was fourteen…”
Tears stood in her eyes. The Signora was 93, she told us. Her husband and she had come to Italy forty years ago, but he was gone, now. They had both suffered under Hitler, and she spoke sadly of how there is still killing and war in the world. We talked for a long time mixing languages… French, Italian, German, English… but sharing understanding and laughter. When we said goodbye, the Signora reverted to her native tongue. “Au revoir, mes enfants,” she called out after us as we walked away up the street lined with flowers, “Goodbye, my children.”
Later, we found tables in the garden of a hillside trattoria. There, munching crescia, a crusty flatbread sandwich stuffed with prosciutto, cheese and small artichoke, we agreed that when we return home from our travels it is the people we meet that make the journey meaningful. When we truly connect with strangers, that connection comes straight from the heart.
When we had finished our lunch, we walked lazily to a museum featuring the artist. Pinturicchio as well as other masters. And there, as we wandered among frescoes and depictions of the saints, we found the pieta.
It was small, perhaps two feet in height, made of terra cotta sometime during the sixteenth century. The Madonna was missing an arm. She was not really beautiful or even young—a far cry from Michaelangelo’s magnificent work. But where Michaelangelo’s marble masterpiece conveys grace and a transcendent beauty even in grief, this little statue merely portrayed a mother. I leaned closer to study her, this work of some long dead and unknown sculptor, and saw the wrinkles on her brow and throat, the droop of her lips, the ache of inexpressible loss in her eyes. She could have been any mother of any time and of any country mourning the loss of her son. Perhaps, indeed, she was.
It is the people we meet who we remember most.