This is an abridged extract from 'An Italian Home - Settling by Lake Como' by Paul Wright, an English trompe l'oeil and mural artist, who moved to Lake Como with his partner from England in 1991. It was the first book I published by another author under the Earlswood Press imprint. You can buy the entire book in paperback through your favourite outlet or as an ebook from Smashwords (in several formats) or for Kindle only from Amazon
Almost three years to the day after we begun house-sitting a four-bedroomed villa in Moltrasio, on the shore of Lake Como, the owners announced they would be selling it. Now, if we wanted to stay in the village, we would have to find a place of our own. After a lot of searching, we found a flat we could afford to rent. It was over a disused butcher's shop on the Via Recchi, in the centro-storico, the old town, overlooking the main piazza. It hadn't been used for years and had only the very basic amenities, but in the few weeks before we moved in, I stripped it all out and fitted proper plumbing and decent kitchen. We also were able to rent the butcher's shop below. I turned this into a studio, and it gave me the great advantage of being able to watch the daily life of the village as I worked.
Usually, the residents carried on with their daily lives, conforming to standards that were acceptable to the rest of the community, but on odd occasions something happened that caused them great embarrassment. Such an incident occurred with Gina, who lived on the opposite side of the piazza. Gina came from the south and was a casalinga, a traditional Italian housewife; short, stocky, uncompromisingly tough and of an indeterminable age. At six-thirty every morning, she would lean out of her kitchen window and hang her washing on a drying frame that extended over the piazza. And because it was permanently on display, her laundry was as much a feature of the centro-storico as the antiquated roof and chimneys above.
Gina's husband, Carlo and their son were builders. The villa in which the family's apartment was sited was old, and to Carlo's detriment, the roof was in a dilapidated state, with a gravity-defying conglomeration of twisted brick chimneystacks. One day, when the spirit moved me, I did a small watercolour of their roof and the interesting chimneystacks. I also happened to include Gina’s washing in the picture. When it was finished, I hung it on my studio wall for sale.
Every Sunday, some of the more senior ladies of the village would follow the same ritual; mass, Sunday lunch, an afternoon snooze and then a passagiata, a stroll around in small groups to visit other senior ladies, chatting endlessly and collecting more ladies on the way. Some of them would stop by my studio, for a rest and a drink of my bottled water rather than to buy any paintings. A couple of Sundays after I’d finished the watercolour of Gina’s apartment, Gina and her group popped in. Following the usual salutations, Gina fixed her attention on my picture of her abode.
Suddenly, she clasped the sides of her face with both hands and yelled, “Jesu Cristo!”
Now this was very strong language indeed for a devout churchgoer like Gina and it received instant attention from her lady friends, who scuttled over to see for themselves what she was swearing about. She began tapping forcefully on the glass of the picture, making it rattle in its frame.
With alarm in her voice, she demanded, “Che cosa è? What is this?”
At first I thought she was pointing out some architectural error, but I followed the line of her forefinger, which was pointing at her washing.
“That’s your washing,” I said.
“Yes I know that!” she replied abruptly. “It’s not that I'm pointing at. It’s those!”
On closer inspection I saw she was pointing at a pair of her mutande, her knickers hanging at the front of her washing display. She said that it was already insulting enough that I’d selected her crumbling roof and chimneys to paint, because for years people around the village had made rude remarks about them.
“It's bad enough being married to a builder,” she went on, “When he’s at home, he sits on his backside watching football on TV, when the house needs re-roofing. He might be a good builder when he’s working for somebody else, but when I need something doing he tells me where to get off.
"But," she continued, “What is so interesting about my knickers that you want to paint them?” And what’s more," she added, "My knickers are not grey! My knickers are WHITE!”
At this, the rest of her group burst out laughing, and, to add insult to injury, one of her friends, Silvana said to her, “Go on then, show us and prove it!”
I tried to calm her down and explain that her undergarments only appeared to be grey because they where hanging under the shadow of her roof, but she turned and stomped out of the studio.
Half an hour later, she returned, with husband Carlo in tow, and we went through the whole performance again. After Gina had berated him, telling him that he should be ashamed of himself for letting their roof fall to bits, he was forced to side with his wife over her disgust at having her underwear on display, and asked me as politely as he could if I wouldn’t mind taking the picture down. Gina became less peeved when I agreed to do so, but she wasn’t content until I'd put the picture, face down in a cupboard in the back room. I was sorely tempted to remind her that, even as she spoke, the real ones where hanging in their usual place outside her kitchen window for every passer-by to see, but I thought better of it. From that day on, when Gina hung her knickers out to dry, they were always placed in a less prominent position on her washing line.
But that wasn’t the end of it. The following Sunday, Gina brought four different women friends along to my studio for a private viewing of the picture. Marching straight into my storeroom, she found it and held it up for her group to see.
“Just look at it!” She declared. “It’s beyond me why he wants to paint my knickers, and this monstrosity of a roof when there are so many beautiful things in the village to paint pictures of.”
I'd already sensed that two of her gang of four had arrived to do battle with me and probably curious to find out if they had a knicker fetishist living amongst them. However, when they actually saw the tiny watercolour and realised that Gina’s knickers were just an incidental part of the picture, and that only Gina had taken offence, they looked at her as if to ask what all the fuss was about. One of them even said she liked it, and told Gina that she considered it as an architectural record of the village.
The following week, Gina brought another group along to give their critical opinions. The good news for me was that the consensus started to turn in my favour and Gina began referring to it as ‘my picture in the cupboard’. After another week and another visit, she allowed me to put it back on the wall again, and then she took me to one side and tentatively asked how much it would cost to buy.
Two weeks later, I sold it to an American gent and when Gina found out, mixed expressions of horror and disappointment passed over her face and she blamed her absent, incompetent husband for not buying it for her earlier. Her friend Silvana continued to tease her, saying, “Your grey mutande are now as famous in the USA as they are in Moltrasio!”
© Paul Wright 2011