That brief moment at the end of February seems like an idyll now. In Rome, we were hearing about the novel coronavirus showing up in various countries, and people all over the world were starting to think twice about their holiday plans. Then on Sunday, February 23, I woke up to the news that there were 152 cases in Italy, most of them in the north, and the authorities were worried enough to close the Duomo in Milan and cancel Carnevale celebrations in Venice. Okay, I thought, this must be serious. But I didn’t think it had much to do with me.
By Monday, the trickle of tourists cancelling visits to Italy was turning into a wave, and universities were calling off study-abroad programs. There was also a notable emptiness to the ordinarily crowded streets in this city where I’ve lived for eighteen years.
I had a train ticket to Florence booked for that Thursday. It didn’t occur to me not to go, with only three cases of the virus in Rome and only one in the Tuscan capital. In fact, it seemed like the perfect time to travel within central Italy, the perfect time to enjoy the sights without the crowds.
I had never seen Roma Termini, the main station, so quiet, with just a few travellers here and there wearing face masks. I stopped for a quick espresso at one of the station’s nearly deserted bars (no masks worn by the staff). I began to wonder if maybe I should have some hand sanitizer, at least for the trip, and so I went to the pharmacy. But it had a sign in the window to say the stuff was sold out.
I’ve been working on a novel set in contemporary Florence, and I’ve been visiting every few weeks. It’s always easier to travel in the off-season, but even in the coldest, rainiest parts of January, the trains are full. When I boarded that morning, I counted just eight people in my car.
After I arrived at Santa Maria Novella station, I walked into the centre of town and stopped at a coffee bar that looks onto the Baptistery across from Santa Maria del Fiore. Usually I pay and then take my receipt to the bar, where I have to squeeze and insistently press my way toward the counter to ask for a cappuccino. That day, things were full but not crowded. We weren’t being told to stay at least one metre apart yet, so we all stood elbow to elbow, remarking to each other on how quiet it was, and how lovely to see Florence like this for a change.
Afterwards, I swung around the other side of the Baptistery to have a quick look at the bronze doors that Michelangelo called the Gates of Paradise. These are replicas, but the originals were made in the early fifteenth century as a votive offering after the bubonic plague.
I carried on to the Bargello museum, where I had arranged to meet my friend Andi, who lives in Florence. One of the things I wanted to “research” that day was an early fourteenth-century fresco attributed to Giotto, which includes an image of Dante. It’s in the Podestà Chapel, which later became part of a prison where men were kept the night before they were executed; it was painted over and remained hidden for centuries, though there were rumours of its existence. Even Giorgio Vasari, in The Lives of the Artists, referred to Giotto’s Podestà Chapel “drawing” of his friend Dante Alighieri.
Andi and I were delighted to be the only people inside that room. We took our time, and we talked as loudly as we wanted to about this youthful portrait of Dante, with his underbite and his straight nose. He looks much less severe than the image I’ve carried of him in my head, thanks to Botticelli’s famous work.
Florence is known as the city of the Italian Renaissance, but it also has a rich medieval history. This period of recurring plague and war, and this turning point with Dante and Giotto, happened just before the Black Death and just as the Renaissance was getting started. And that is the moment that I’m trying to trace in the modern city.
We went to lunch in our favourite restaurant, which was nearly empty. We lingered and chatted amiably over a glass of wine and a plate of pasta. Andi went home to rest, and I did more research on the streets. She told me that some of the large corner shrines to the Madonna originate with a later plague, when people were reminded to stay in their houses and to worship by looking out their windows. I wanted to see some of them and to imagine that sense of peril that must have been present in the streets, that fear provoked by an invisible threat.
Later in the evening, I met Andi and her partner, Andrew, for an aperitivo. We hugged. Then we visited a photography exhibition that was opening as part of Florence’s Black History Month, and I shook hands with several of the organizers. We all laughed a little nervously afterwards, when we remembered that it wasn’t such a good idea to be touching anyone.
I caught another nearly empty train back to Rome that night.
A week later, and all the schools are shut down across Italy. My son has a day to get his room and his laptop set up for, at the minimum, a few weeks of distance learning. His school orchestra trip to Barcelona has been cancelled.
On the second Saturday following my trip to Florence, we invite our friends Moira and Damiano over for dinner. That morning, the newspapers report 5,061 cases of the coronavirus across the country and warn that we might have to change the way we live. We are all anxious about what is happening, so we naturally turn to each other for mutual comfort and support.
At this point, we are observing some of the rules of social distancing. For one thing, we do not kiss each other at the door. It’s a bit awkward. We also spread ourselves out a little at the table. But when Moira and Damiano leave at the end of the night, I walk them out to their taxi, and, in a forgetful moment, I hug Damiano goodbye, though only briefly because Moira screams.
The next morning, we hear that the red zone in the north, where most of the cases of the virus are spreading, has been extended to include Milan and Venice. The whole area is now under lockdown. The news had leaked before the restrictions went into effect, and there had been chaos at the central train station in Milan, as people tried to flee south, away from the virus. As it turns out, many brought it with them.
On Monday night, I take our dog, Lila (pronounced “Leela,” in the Italian way), out for a walk. I notice that the moon is full and that it has a big yellow halo around it. I’ve never seen anything like it, and when I come back to the apartment, I call James, my husband, out to the balcony. “It’s just like a sci‑fi film,” I tell him.
He nods and says that he’s been watching CNN. The Italian government has locked down the whole country. “And we’re locked in.”
Aside from the first few days, when everyone was confused and the shops, cafés, and restaurants were still open, we’ve been mostly closed up at home. I forgive our initial confusion, our naïveté. After all, Italy was the first of the Western democracies to suspend the liberty of its citizens in the interest of public health. I keep repeating the word to myself — lockdown — because it sounds like a door being slammed or a gate clanging shut. It sounds like it can’t possibly have anything to do with me. But it does.
At first, we assumed that only the authoritarians in China would lock their people in their houses as a way of defeating a virus. Now we’re told that there is no other way. Spain follows Italy in shutting things down, then France does the same, and then the rest of Europe, until people in unlocked countries start begging their leaders to act.
I unlock our front door every morning at seven o’clock, when I take Lila out. We used to walk my son to his bus stop, but now that he’s a teenager, he gets himself off to school. Well, he did. Now, he gets up, has breakfast, showers and dresses, and then goes back to his room to attend virtual classes in grade 9 — and to chat with his friends. But the dog and I have maintained our morning schedule and our same route.
We leave our apartment gate, carrying the usual supply of poop bags, along with my Italian identity card and a signed form declaring that I am aware of the restrictions and am walking Lila only near our house. I am legally obliged to fill out one of these each time I go outside, and I must present it to the police if they ask.
We walk onto Largo delle Sette Chiese, where there’s a popular coffee bar. I love the clatter of cups on saucers, the hissing milk steamer for the cappuccino, and the rich smell of espresso. It’s what helps me out of bed and straight into my clothes each morning. But I didn’t consciously know that until now. The dog and I pause near the closed doors, and she sniffs a planter. Trash — old flyers, leaves, plastic bags — has blown in and is piling up between the bar’s iron gate and its glass door. I tug her leash, and we move along the silent cobbled street.
We come upon the apartment building that has E. F. VII chiselled above its centre windows. This means that it was built in the seventh year of the Fascist era, after Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome. In one of the windows, there’s a child’s colourful drawing of a rainbow with the words “Andrà tutto bene” (Everything will be fine).
A little further along, I see wisteria blooming, cascading over a stone wall. This surprises me for a moment, when I realize that everything hasn’t stopped in its tracks after all, that spring has come regardless — and so have our allergies.
It’s not as if this country hasn’t seen misery and death, persecution and destruction, poverty and illness before. But I’ve never seen these things. Maybe I’m getting a bit more of a feeling for the transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, though I don’t know what I’m going to do with this experience.
I’ve been emailing with a friend in Toronto, a novelist, who says he’s also staying at home and trying to keep writing, though he’s given all of his characters a fever.
The dog and I loop our way back home. We’ve been out for twenty minutes, and we haven’t seen a single other person. I take off my shoes and go directly to the bathroom to scrub my chapped hands. I take off her leash and go back to scrub them again.
James has taken over the study for work, since he has to attend virtual meetings and needs to have a door to close. Our son has settled at his desk in his bedroom. I make coffee and bring my laptop to a corner of the dining room table, where I can look outside at the communal garden and toward the monastery beyond. The monks ring the bells at intervals to remind the faithful to stay in their houses — but to look outside and pray.
I go and scan the headlines. The number of cases in Italy passes 120,000 by early April, and while the average number of new contagions each day starts to hold steady, everyone is too afraid to feel much optimism, even though the health minister who delivers the news is named Speranza, which means hope.
Before I resume work on my novel, I open an email from Moira with a plague poem she’s working on. I also reread a note from Andi. Florence used to feel so close, so accessible by train, but I don’t know when I’ll see it again. And I don’t know how it will look after this ordeal. Andi’s messages help to keep it alive for me as I try to keep writing through the uncertainty.
Not long ago, I wrote to Andi and remarked on how cavalier we were when I last saw her. How we were different people then, just a few weeks ago. I reminded her that we hugged. She replied that she didn’t regret our hugging at all, that she was glad we had spent the time as we did. “That day in the Bargello with the sunlight,” she wrote, “I like to think about those two women walking through that Florence.” My memory needs that little nudge to remember the city as it was only recently. “They’ll be back,” she promised me. I wish I knew when, and I wish I knew what we will see, but I’m sure Andi’s right. We’ll be back.