Under the Tuscan sun

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: (Published 02 September 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:579
  1. Kevin Barraclough, general practitioner
  1. Painswick, Gloucestershire

    The heat in Tuscany is quite unlike that in England. In England, no matter how hot the day, there is always that hint of a chill—the merest echo that warns that summer is short and that winter, loaded with the passage of time, is not far away. Here the heat is like a blanket. It wraps away the anxieties of life in a cocoon of enforced idleness and fatigue.

    Holidays do not come naturally to me and I have to work at them. I need to consciously step sideways out of time, leaving the banalities of life at the airport. It is like a meditation. Reading by the pool is not the purposeful reading of real time. It is the adrift reading of childhood. Like the leisured class of earlier generations, you can drift in and out of half finished conversations and ideas.

    The guidebook falls open so you read it because it is there—Lorenzo de Medici was a tolerant leader, a scholar, civilised; Girolamo Savonarola, his enemy, was a religious bigot, a bad guy.

    In the brief cool of this morning we wandered into the village. The frescoes in the church, now faded and patched with brown plaster, capture that time when Europe, under the patronage of men like Lorenzo, was tentatively emerging from a thousand years of bigotry and intolerance. The frescoes, like the renaissance they herald, look fragile.

    The tiny village was also the home of a Franciscan monk called Pacioli. Pacioli, again under the benign patronage of Lorenzo, restarted European mathematics in 1494 with a book that introduced the Hindu-Arabic place-number system.

    It is sobering to think that European learning had effectively ceased in the sixth century when the Emperor Justinian I closed Plato's Athenian academy because he considered it pagan. For a thousand years it was the Islamic world that held the torch of learning and tolerance.

    The outside world briefly re-entered our holiday when the cultured owner of our villa returned from a business trip to Istanbul. The hotel next to his was bombed with three dead. Civilisation, like the English summer, is fragile.

    So what does the guidebook tell me of Savonarola? Not a lot. But you get the impression that, like today's religious fundamentalists, he didn't really see the funny side of life. Maybe he should have taken more holidays.

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