The Thrill of the Hunt
The antiques fair in Arezzo, Italy, was the perfect subject for a travel essay.
Posted Sep 30, 2016
This is a version of a travel essay that was published in the Los Angeles Times and San Fransisco Chronicle. I write about the process I went through and the revisions I made in Writing from the Senses, published by Shambhala. Note the sensory details in this piece — shadows of medieval towers; sun warming the sloping piazza; sihouettes of Arezzo's turrets, ochre and rose against a royal blue sky; hand-rolled pici pasta; earthy coffee. I wove these in with facts of the fair.
The Thrill of the Hunt
Prayerful angels carved from oak, grinning terracotta cherubs, and gold pocket-watches with time on their hands. They are stacked on the cobblestones of Arezzo’s Piazza Grande, surrounded by gleaming wood dining tables, paintings, pottery, jewelry, copper pots and Murano glass.
Through the shutters of my hotel window, I watch itinerant vendors unload a treasure trove of antiques. As dusk throws shadows of medieval towers across the square, I go out to reconnoiter, thrumming with the thrill of the hunt. Tomorrow, when the fair opens, I will buy a memento from my Tuscan travels — something artful, affordable, Italian. And small enough to pack.
The next morning, bright sun warms the sloping piazza, silhouetting Arezzo’s turrets, ochre, rose, and natural stone, against a royal blue sky. By 9 a.m. I join the locals and tourists in search of rare finds and bargains. Italian women in skintight jeans and stilettos and Americans in warm-up suits with running shoes peek into armoires and swirl around jewelry displays, trying on diamond and emerald rings, gold and coral earrings.
The Arezzo Antiques Fair, Italy’s oldest and largest, takes place the first Sunday of each month and the preceding Saturday, just 50 kilometers from Florence. With 500 sellers from Calabria to Compania, Padova to Pistoia, merchandise fills the piazza, spills up the hill to the cathedral and down side streets past the Chiesa di San Francesco, home to Piero della Francesca’s masterwork frescoes, the Legend of the True Cross. The jewel-toned frescoes are reason enough to visit Arezzo.
Most items at the fair are 19th and early 20th century, but you can find treasures. A 15th century illustrated hymnal is not the memento for me, but it’s in fine condition, pages intact. A few steps away I admire a beautiful replica of a 17th century Venetian intaglio dining table with three leaves, $2,100.
“If you want the real thing, it’s $17,000 in my shop in Padova,” the owner says. I decline his offer to ship it to me in California.
“Business has slowed,” says Giuglia from Florence, a vendor for the past 16 years. Gesturing to the Dalton figurines and Sheffield plates she imports from England, she sighs, “More Italian women are working outside the home. No one wants to dust or polish. A vase, two sprigs and two rocks — that’s how they decorate now. Minimalista.”
The slowdown can translate into good buys. A couple opening a restaurant scored a dozen slightly beat up but charming old copper pans for the equivalent of $125.
In the antique shops surrounding the piazza, I found everything my imaginary palazzo required, from carved stone mantelpieces to sparkling chandeliers, though not in my affordable, easy-to-pack category.
While best known for the Antiques Fair and the magnificent Piero della Francesca frescoes, Arezzo offers an interesting mix of art and architecture — Medieval, Gothic and Renaissance. Taking a break from browsing, I sit in the shade of a loggia designed by Giorgio Vasari, (1573), spanning one side of the piazza. A perfect place to people watch while enjoying the local, hand-rolled pici pasta with a glass of ruby red Sangiovese, fresh green beans with just-pressed olive oil, and an earthy, dark espresso.
Vasari, whose work in Renaissance Florence included the Uffizi Gallery, Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce, was a native son, as was Renaissance poet Petrach, who popularized the sonnet form. Their homes are open to the public.
After lunch, I walk to the top of the hill, past antique sewing machines, embroidered linens, and musical instruments, to the cathedral, backdrop to a scene in the Oscar-winning film, Life is Beautiful. Roberto Benigni, who created and starred in the movie, was born nearby and used Arezzo locations throughout the film.
In the cool, dark duomo, I trade shopping for art — Piero della Francesca’s fresco of Mary Magdalene and two fine glazed works from the della Robbia workshop. If only I could take these home.
Back in the sun, it seems my search may be over. I am drawn to the warm patina of brass wall hooks arrayed on a table, their curves as voluptuous as Sophia Loren’s. At $10 to $12 each, I buy three. Not antiques, but they look old and lovely. Each time I use them, for a moment I’ll be back in Tuscany.
Their weight is somewhere between an emerald ring and a dining room table, and they are small enough to pack. Artful, affordable, Italian.
Prompt: Add sensory details to a piece you're working on to help readers experience what you're writing about.
Copyright (c) 2016 by Laura Deutsch