You have to duck to get through the front door of the apartment building where Giampaolo Tomassetti has his artist studio, a testament to the height of the average Umbrian during the Renaissance, when the building was built.
It was my fourth visit to Città di Castello, a city of about 40,000 in the northwest corner of Umbria, near the Tuscan border, but the first time I had come just for fun and not for research. The city is surrounded by the walls built during the 16th century, when it was under the dominion of the Borgia family and the Papal State, and it's a short walk through tobacco fields to the Tiber River, il Tevere, flowing milky brown all the way to Rome, 140 miles to the south.
Tomassetti, 60, is an accomplished painter and sculptor, a native Umbrian who lives and works in Città di Castello. His studio is a jumble of frames and paintings and other detritus of the artist's life. In the entranceway is a self-portrait of himself as Don Quijote, and it bears three long diagonal slashes across the canvass over the face, the handiwork of an ex when she was through with him, he explained, and he kind of liked the way it looked so he left it.
There were other self-portraits, and paintings of animals and zaftig women, collages with newsprint and straight-lined buildings, evidence of manic work habits.
"When I get depressed, I work, I paint, I play music," he said, and indeed there were guitars all over the three-room apartment; leaning against the wall was a guitar case that had obviously got in the way of his paintbrushes, I imagine, during an evening filled with wine or rage or rapture.
His pallette looked like the midden of a pack rat on drugs, mounds of dried paint built up over years of art and angst.
"You can see I'm using a lot of yellow these days," he said, pointing to a still-wet glob.
We had interrupted him in the middle of his work day, my friend Roberta and I, but it was no problem, and he bustled around to fix us coffee.
We talked excitedly about where ideas come from. Only later did Roberta, whom I have known for years, let on that Tomassetti was her ex-boyfriend, and I didn't ask if she was the one who slashed the painting, though I knew she was capable of it.
Roberta and some of her local associates had lured me to Città di Castello to write a book about the region, and I did, kind of, with a collection of travel stories I wrote while researching my last novel, which I set in the city. I would go for weeks, spending hours in the main piazza, sitting and watching and listening, gathering conversations and observations to flesh out the book. This time, I was back just to relax.
There are no tourists to speak of in Città di Castello, other than the art aficionados who come to see the two museums dedicated to the artist Alberto Burri, who was born there. One of them is housed in a palace in town, the other in a giant black building that was once a tobacco-drying shed. In October, the Guggenheim Museum in New York will hang an exhibition of his work titled "The Trauma of Painting," to commemorate his centennial.
Città di Castello was the high point of a quick trip that started and ended in Rome.
Tourist Italy can be aggressive. The waiters and staff in the hotels and restaurants that cater to English speakers — which includes tourists from all over the world who speak to each other in English instead of learning each others' languages — can be impatient, even rude. But if you speak Italian — mine is passable — you step into a different Italy. And the farther you get from Rome, the more affordable and friendly it gets.
The truth: I had been to Italy many times, but had never gone to Rome except for the airport and a single dinner there before a flight home. So on this trip I made a point of getting lost in the tangled narrow streets of the old city, stumbling by accident upon the Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona, fighting off vendors trying to sell me selfie sticks, eating panini and porchetta from storefronts, failing miserably to decipher the map I bought, and not really caring.
I asked the bartender at my hotel where she would go for dinner if she were me, then armed with a name and a vague location, I flagged down a cab. The driver was a petite and pretty woman in her 20s with primped and tinted hair. Her car radio blasted Madonna, and she chair-bopped as she drove me to the Trastevere neighborhood, then stopped abruptly at a traffic light and pointed me up a pedestrian walkway to my restaurant, an outdoor cafe where the owner hand-carved the prosciutto. On the piazza nearby, a young woman twirled fire pots on chains and collected euros from bystanders. Then, also at the hotel bartender's suggestion, I descended into a basement bar where no one spoke English except the featured musicians, and only when they sang because they were a Beatles tribute band.
From Rome I went by train to Assisi, a medieval walled city on a hilltop that fills with pilgrims to the basilicas of Sts. Francis and Clare; at night the tourists go home and the empty city becomes mystic in the moonlight. Then: local trains to Città di Castello.
It was like peeling away layers. Life became calmer, food and wine were better and cheaper, service got more friendly, even as the Wi-Fi in the hotels got worse. Dinner for two in Rome, maybe 130 euros. In Assisi 70. In Città di Castello, 25. Breakfast at a cafe on the main piazza was coffee and sweet rolls. How much for the coffee? One euro. The sweet roll? One euro. Those panini? One euro. The next day, the silent old lady behind the counter at the cafe did not seem to recognize me, but the cost of breakfast was half again what it was the day before.
My friends would refuse to let me open my wallet. "This is my town," growled my friend Sandro, and after drinks, he marched me to what he thought was the best restaurant in town, showed me the raw steaks in the meat case and told the owners to take care of me. Roberta did the same with the best place to eat pizza.
On my last night in town, I was walking with a friend to have a nightcap in a bar near the edge of the walled city, when I heard someone call out my name.
It was Tomassetti. He was sitting with friends drinking fine red Montefalco wine at an outside table, and he invited us to join them. The night whizzed by, sometimes in English, sometimes in Italian, and sometimes in sign language. And then the surreal happened. Tomassetti made a remark about Americans and a song popped out of my mouth, "Tu vuo fa l'americano," a 1950s novelty song about Italians who wanted to be Americans, a song so kitschy that it has recently been remixed and launched into cybersharing.
And suddenly, all the Italians were happily singing along with me, there at midnight, on a cobblestone sidewalk in Città di Castello, Umbria, Italy, though I think it was me who wanted to be Italian, not they who wanted to be American.