La Dolce Vita

The Other Side of the Tiberby Wallis Wilde-Menozzi

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 384p $27

Wallis Wilde-Menozzi’s beautiful meditation on Italy takes the reader on a journey of discovery that transpired over three decades of a life richly lived. The work is at once a memoir, travelogue, history lesson and cultural excavation. The author’s memories of life in Rome, where her journey begins, and ultimately Parma are the foundation for vignettes about the Italian people, art, language, media, religion, rituals, food and landscape. Her reflections are enlivened by liberal references to works of poetry and prose, depictions of paintings and sculpture and her own photography. The book inspires spiritual contemplation, as illustrated by a powerful line that reflects its essential message: “Consciousness of the mystery of life, the existence of good and evil as well as the infinity of love, is a powerful hope.”

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Raised in Wisconsin, Wilde-Menozzi, the daughter of a U.S. senator, broke with societal mores that constrained women’s independence to live on her own in Italy. She first encountered Rome on a hitchhiking trip during her college years in England, and returned four years later, giving up a secure position at the University of Oxford and a first marriage.

She settled in Rome in the mid-1960’s, when the city was animated with excitement about the Second Vatican Council and the possibilities for reshaping the Catholic Church. Wilde-Menozzi worked as a translator, editor, teacher and writer, living modestly in a lively courtyard apartment, where she assimilated and took in the everyday experiences of the residents. Eventually she married an Italian, with whom she had a daughter, and moved to Parma, where her writing career took off. Her book Mother Tongue: An American’s Life in Italy (2003) is a memoir of her life in Parma, and is an insightful companion to the present work.

A number of themes in this new book will resonate with Catholics. Wilde-Menozzi contemplates how her Midwestern Protestant upbringing shaped her experiences in Italy. Her preconceived notions about Catholicism shifted over time. “Although it never happened during the Rome years, the many versions of the Catholic Church as history, intellectual thought, mystical search fell on me, a bit like the spruce that receives fertilization from airborne and invisible sources, and left new seeds.” She comes to understand, for example, the significance of a Catholic’s devotion to the saints and to appreciate the Virgin Mary’s importance for women. Her observations as she comes to terms with life in a Catholic country provide fresh insights for those raised in the religion.

Wilde-Menozzi’s personal journey reveals the layered meanings of sacred spaces. Initially, she views churches, chapels and tombs as repositories of art and lessons in early Christian history. Her visits were sparked more by curiosity than faith. She shares her impressive knowledge of Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Bernini, among many others, and provides vivid accounts of their lives, works and societal influence. Over time, she comes to experience these same places as retreats for reflection and sanctuary, as “utterly ancient shelter.”

The importance of community accompanied by a sense of connectedness is a central theme of this work. The values of forgiveness, compassion and tolerance that underpin Italian laws and cultural practices foster personal connections. Strong communities emerge from shared harsh experiences, as with volcanic eruptions and their human toll. As Wilde-Menozzi notes, “Connectedness that comes from continuity and a sense of humanity takes time to establish and may include identification with suffering.” She explores community life in courtyards, public squares, towns and cities, each with its cast of characters and unifying rituals.

The section titled “Restoration” is a lovely reflection about a Benedictine monk, a Canadian who is out of place in Italy and sought to find meaning in his calling by restoring a dilapidated cell carefully by hand in an ancient monastery. He attempted to create community and common purpose as he struggled with the solitude of his lifestyle. Wilde-Menozzi describes the humility and sincerity he brought to this enterprise, and draws parallels to the journeys of the Trappist monk and activist Thomas Merton and the English poet John Keats.

Wilde-Menozzi is a studied writer, whose thick prose often permits the reader to share sensually in her recalled experience. The Other Side of the Tiber is not a quick read; instead, much like the delicious food she describes, each chapter is meant to be savored.

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