The Way Back to Florence

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In 1937 Freddie (English), Isabella (Italian) and Oskar (a German Jew) become friends at an art school in Florence where they are taught by the dictatorial but magus-like Maestro and his sinister fascist assistant Fosco. When war arrives Freddie returns to England to become the pilot of a Lancaster bomber. Oskar, now a dancer, has moved to Paris where he escapes the 1942 roundup of Jews and arrives in Italy with his young daughter Esme. Isabella remains in Florence where she continues to paint. Until she is called upon by Maestro to forge an old master painting, apparently at the behest of the Führer himself, and as a result is seen as a Nazi collaborator by her neighbours.
The murderous skies over Germany and a war-torn Italy in the grip of Nazi occupation provide the setting for this novel about the love of a separated husband and his wife and the love of a man for his young daughter. Freddie and Oskar both hope to find their way back to Florence. But Florence’s heritage of preserving the identity and continuity of the past has never before been so under threat.


September 1943

She dips the brush into
the copper pot of balsam. She is still, at twenty-six, experimenting with
mediums, with glazes, with all her manifold materials. She has learned how
untrustworthy the chemicals she needs for her art are. The primers, the
pigments, the sun-thickened oils. They betray her constantly, like unfaithful

     I paint from
nature; I paint what I see.

     She adds medium to the colour she has
mixed on her palette. Her palette with its pageantry of firebrand earth
colours. She squints at the flow of light on the boy’s face. The choreography
of shadow shapes and submerged half tones. She adds another touch of cadmium
red to the colour she has made on her palette. The oily colour glistens pink
like the flesh of a newly spliced watermelon. She holds out her sable brush as
she strides forward. Her narrowed blue eyes move back and forth between the
image on the canvas and the face of the boy by its side. Seeking out the
essence of his form, the lights and shadows of his personality. There is a
rhythm in the act, as if a pendulum swings back and forth in her mind. She
strokes down lines on the air as she walks, quick corkscrewing flourishes of
the brush, rehearsing her intention, marshalling her forces, whipping up her
blood. She stops at her easel. Stands forward on her toes. Makes a new mark on
the canvas. In her idle left hand she holds a dozen brushes, splayed out like a

     Today is a good day. Today she feels she
is the master of her craft. Today she is free of the grinding tyranny of doubt.
The voice that mocks her ambition. The voice that bites and slanders and causes
her more heartache than any other voice. Today she is focused, she is exultant.
Her every brushstroke like a wake of radiance. Today she can move the paint
around the canvas at will. If only painting were like this every day. Without
the sudden extinguishing of light, the collapsing of belief, the cursing and
flailing, the knots and clenched fists in a world gone suddenly dark.

     Sharp lines draw too much attention
to themselves, like vanity. What’s vanity but a series of sharp lines which
have yet to be softened?

     Maestro’s teachings are often in her head.
She hears him deliver them in his clipped fey voice. His critiques. Like
psalms. Psalms they, his students, were expected to learn by heart.

     She picks up
another, smaller brush. Weighs it in her hand. Chews the end while staring at
her picture.

    The boy, Leo, blinks when she studies him.
She senses he has to steel himself against the audacity of her exacting eye. He
sits with the sleeves of his jersey pulled down over his hands.

     There is a physical intimacy when she is
up at her canvas, when they are side by side. His body heat, his heartbeat,
some essence of his being is part of her mood as she lays down paint. She
breathes him in, breathes him out, onto the canvas. Sometimes she feels an
impulse to touch his face, to trace the contours of his skull with her hand.

     She lays down a brushstroke, smudges it
delicately with her finger. There is paint beneath her nails, ingrained in the
lines on her palms. Her smock is a grubby rainbow of fused colours. She wipes
her brushes on the blue fabric. Everything in the studio is peppered with
pigment, smeared with oil paint, sticky with resins. The coins and banknotes in
her purse often have alizarin crimson or raw umber fingerprints on them. Her
ration coupons are crisp with sun-thickened oil stains or blackened with
charcoal dust.

     While she follows the stroke of the brush
over the canvas her eyes narrow to thin slits, her brows wrinkle up, her tongue
darts out frequently and licks at her upper lip or she pulls faces she would be
horrified by if she saw herself in a mirror.

     Up at her canvas she gets a whiff of
rabbit skin glue. A rotting kind of smell that catches at the back of her
throat, that makes her feel queasy. A smell of death among earthroots. There is
a blackened pot of the fudge-coloured solution that she has recently heated on
the stove in the small kitchen.

     She looks at her image in a small mirror
where it seems distant and separate from her, the umbilical cord cut, the
intimate connection severed.

     She frowns. She curses aloud, forgetting
she is not alone. Scrapes away some of the paint she has laid down with a
palette knife. Every decision is measured, is intricate, is fatal.

     But this is pretence on her part, another
trick one part of herself plays on another part. A brushstroke is never fatal.
But it is a vital element of the painting process to pretend this is not the
case. To pretend there is no room for error. She plays countless tricks on the
artist in her. Holds back knowledge from her as though the artist in her is a
child and she the mother, filtering through intelligence only when she is sure
it won’t do any harm. A brushstroke can be erased as though it never existed.
She erases many of the strokes she puts down.

     The air raid siren begins shrieking and
before long she hears the now familiar low drone of planes in the sky. The
grumbling noise gains in intensity. It becomes a sensation in the body, an
irritation on the skin, like a feeding insect. The window frames rattle. All
the jars of primers and pigments and sun-thickened oils on the tables and
shelves jingle. Circles shiver on the surface of the balsam in the pot on her
palette. She goes to the window. Lifts the black drape that keeps out the
reflected glare of sunlight. She tilts up her head as if to receive the gentle
splash of rain on her face. Never have
the planes been this low in the sky before. The metallic insect drone becomes a
skip in her heartbeat. The remorseless roar grows more encompassing. Everything
she thought of as solid vibrates with its own vulnerability.


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Glenn Haybittle