On our free morning at our tiny cooking school in here in Lecce, Italy, just after the guided tour of the city, but before we make fresh sausages from scratch in the afternoon, most folks spend
their free time here, in the park or sculpture garden, a somber green oasis in the centre of our beautiful blond, stone city.
I say ‘the park’ but no one in Southern Italy would ever call it that, as here it’s ‘La Villa’, or ‘La Villa Comunale’, just as many cities in the south don’t have ‘historic centres’ ( ‘La città vecchia’, anziche ‘il centro storico’). It’s yet another one of those little things that charms me deeply about the south of Italy, a tilted slanty look at the world, as if everyone else, everywhere else is just nuts.
But what ‘La Villa’ really should be called is ‘The Sculpture Garden’, as the space has been lovingly set aside for Lecce’s most famous artist, the sculpture Eugenio Maccagnani, born here in Lecce in 1852.
I’ve come to la villa today with the local painter Emilia Ruggiero, who was born nearby and educated in Lecce, using Maccagnani busts as teaching aids. Maccagnani worked mostly in Rome but sent work back to Lecce, including the statues all around us.
His work is now photographed by tourists, travellers and art students, as is this, the villa’s stone gazebo, haunting from just about any angle.
I tell her that I think Maccagnani was fascinating because his working years mark the end of artists being forced to work from live models, that photography had come into its own during his lifetime. I pointed out bored looks the faces of several of his busts.
I think it’s a shame that more people from Lecce don’t really appreciate his work’, she says, handing over the big bottle of beer we’re splitting. We watch as several foreign art students make sketches, each passing lap dog stops to smell their ratty sneakers.
‘I suppose they will as more foreigners take notice’, I say.
‘Please respect your gardens’, read the signs.
‘Is that a good sandwich?’
‘Yes. It is.’
‘What’s on it?’
‘Ham I think. It’s good’.
‘It looks good’.
‘It looks like a really good sandwich’.
The conversation goes on like this for another 8 minutes.
Whenever travelling outside of Latin Europe I’m always surprised to see small packets of fresh herbs for sale in supermarkets. And what folks are willing to pay for them. Here they both grow wild and are cultivated, their scent, the natural smell of the land. Laying in bed at night I can smell my own herb garden, the green, fennelly basil this time of year strong enough to travel 50 paces. From June to September I wake every morning craving my mother‚Äôs vegetable soup, laced as it is with the stuff.
‘If you rode a Christmas tree down a toboggan run you still wouldn’t smell anything like that rosemary’, I say, pointing to the patch.
Giggling children play on the swings, their nearby parents catch up with the world with left-behind newspapers.
We finished the beer and took one more picture, this time with her camera. ‘I have an idea for a really cute picture’, I said, turning around to see Emilia already scurrying up the pedestal.