Welcome to autumn everyone. I had a lovely summer break in Lucca, Tuscany, and in this distinctly autumnal air I long to be back amongst the olive groves and grapevines listening to the crickets under the warmth of the sun. I travelled to Tuscany with family and friends and the holiday was light-hearted and relaxing and involved lots of good food and laughter. We stayed at Villa Checco only a ten minute drive from the beautiful walled city of Lucca.
I have been to Lucca before but that time it was a much more rushed scramble to see everything in a day, this time it was a leisurely amble much more akin to how the Italians do it. Passeggiata they call it, like the Victorian promenade, largely unplanned, experiences come to you as you stroll. It’s a writer’s dream. On a just warm enough evening some of our party took the kids cycling around the city walls while my friend Gill and I took a walk around the Palazzo Pfanner and its beautiful ornamental gardens. The bamboo garden whispered in the breeze and the central fountain tinkled delicately as we made our way from the garden into the villa. You can stay in Palazzo Pfanner which was the setting for the film Portrait Of A Lady. We weren’t allowed into the private apartments but the main hall and the rooms adjacent to it have been turned into a mini museum. The Palazzo was bought in 1845 by the brewer Felix Pfanner and used as a cottage hospital for the town by his son Peter. Peter Pfanner’s life sounds worthy of novelisation, a psychologist and brain surgeon with a philanthropic attitude, but it was the dedication accompanying a portrait in one of the bedrooms off the main hall that piqued my interest.
The portrait was of Frederick IV of Denmark. My friend pointed it out to me. ‘Read this,’ she said, ‘and tell me what you think happened.’
Frederick IV King of Denmark and Norway (1671-1730)
In 1692 Prince Frederick of Denmark and Norway stayed in this bedroom during a short sojourn in Lucca. In these rooms the young Prince fell in love with Maria Maddalena Trenta, a gentlewoman from Lucca. Their passionate affair came to an unhappy end. Prince Frederick went back to Copenhagen and was elected King and Maria Maddalena became a nun.
Poor Maria Maggalena. There it was, a whole story of love, passion, disgrace and inequality in a couple of sentences. We looked at the tiny four poster, presumably the location for much of the passion, and digested Maria’s fate. There was no portrait of the lady but Frederick was only twenty-one when he stayed there so she was probably younger. Their affair lasted only weeks and then he went off to be king and she was consigned to a nunnery. The brevity of the story makes it all the more powerful. Like the famous ‘baby shoes for sale, never worn’ it is what isn’t said that provides the emotional interest, we use our imaginations to create the story around it. My friend and I talked about the court, the scandal of an affair between lovers of different religions, the folly of young love, the unfairness of the lady’s punishment and the fact that she was blamed while the man went off to be king without a second thought. This short story made such an impression that I looked up Fredrick IV when I got home. Apparently he turned into a complete womaniser with two unhappy marriages and returned to Tuscany twice, both times visiting Maria in the nunnery and left looking visibly moved. Perhaps Frederick suffered after all, though not the indignity of banishment into religious servitude.
The next day I had a flash fiction published on Paragraph Planet, a website which publishes a 75 word story every day (I’ve mentioned this site before because it’s fun to do, so go and have a go). I told my friend about it. ‘How can you tell a story in 75 words?’ she asked. ‘You can! Think about Frederick and Maria,’ I replied, ‘that was less than 75 words.’ She read my story and told me that it was indeed a story and not just a collection of words. But is it? I posted a link to the story of Paragraph Planet on my Facebook page and a couple of people commented that they couldn’t wait to read the rest. So, can you tell a story in 75 words or can you only start one? I have since reworked DOLL as a poem. I find that I often do this with one paragraph stories. It’s as if the original paragraph is the template for a poem. Maybe the question should be can a poem tell a story? I think the answer to both questions is yes but you may not agree.