In THE MASTER OF VERONA, the title ‘Count’ is reserved for my villain, the historical Count of San Bonifacio. But if I were to mention the Count to my wife, she would respond with a smile and a joke about pouring coffee.
She tells this story so much better than I do. So, without further ado, Jan Blixt telling the story of ‘Coffee With The Count.’
David and I got married in 2002. Our honeymoon also served as a research trip for him. Of the three months we spent touring Europe, starting in Greece and ending in London, fully a month was spent in Italy. Of that month, a week was spent in Verona. Thanks to the advice of a friend, photo-journalist David Turnley, he’d been in contact with Antonella Leonardo, an assistant minister of culture. She arranged every meeting we had in Verona. It was June, and Italy was experiencing a major heat wave, so there were a lot of dinners.
The first time we met her, she gave us a list of places to go, people to talk to, and, in passing, handed David a card saying, “And, of course, you'd like to talk to the Count of Serego-Alighieri. He still lives on the estate purchased by Dante's son.”
Well, yes... of course we would... ummm... wow... the Count has a card. Ok.
So we sat on the bed in our hotel room debating just what one should say to a Count when one calls to set up a chat. Finally deciding our natural paralysis was a bit ridiculous, David, in a burst of confidence and devil-may-care energy, called the number we had been given... and reached the Count's teenaged daughter. "Pronto."
David said something like, "I'm looking for the, uh, Count?"
"My father isn't here. Leave your name and he'll ring you back."
Minutes later the phone trilled, and I leapt for it. "Hello?"
"Hello. This is Piere-Alvins, the Count Serego-Alighieri."
"Hi! Um, my name is David Blixt. I'm writing a book about Shakespeare and Dante, and one of the main characters is Dante's son, Pietro. I was, ah, wondering if I could come out and – speak to you."
"How long are you in Verona?"
"Come up tomorrow morning. 10 o'clock. Yes?"
"Yes! We'll be there!"
“Ring the bell.”
That night, David and I had a wonderful dinner with a couple of college professors, true academics and Marxists to the core. The meal was lovely – other than the argument we had when we mentioned our next day's excursion: “Italy is a democracy! There are no Counts anymore!”
Well, okay then... But we were still set to meet the direct descendant of Dante Alighieri at the home and vineyard Pietro Alighieri purchased in 1353! Call us starstruck, but that was pretty cool in our minds. We whispered to each other in the cab on the way home from dinner “And he is SO a Count.”
The next morning we took a cab from our hotel to the address we had been given, many miles outside of the city, down winding country roads. The cabbie stopped the car next to a rather nondescript 15 foot high stone wall. In garbled Itanglish, we asked “Is this it?” He nodded and pointed at the wall.
As the cab drove away, David noticed that there were some buzzer buttons placed high on the wall – the kind you find at the front door of many Chicago 3-flats, little white buttons with little white nametags made on a labeling machine next to them. They said things like ‘Vineyard Business Office’ and ‘First Floor Office’ – in Italian, of course. One said ‘Count Serego-Alighieri.’ Giggling like five-year-olds, we pressed that button. After a moment, a low voice came over a small speaker, "Si?"
Immediately sobering, David said, "Hello. My name is David Blixt and I have an appointment to meet with the Count." After a pause, "Si, yes, turn the corner and go in the Vineyard office."
About 20 feet from the little buttons, the wall made a turn. We walked to that point and saw that where the wall seemed to end was a door into a large, rustic, wood paneled and beamed room full of racks and barrels – the walls covered with bottles of wine and vinegar. There was a counter on one wall with two young women wrapping bottles for shipment, and a desk near a door on the far side of the room with a young man who appeared to be doing accounts. The workers in the room barely glanced up. David and I stood in the dim room nervously waiting – for what we weren't sure.
A moment or two later, the far door opened and a man entered. He was of medium height, slight of weight, and had straight brown hair, greying at the temples, in an expensive cut. He was wearing a linen button-down white shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbows and open at the neck and grey linen trousers. He looked at the two of us and approached with a hand outstretched. “Hello, I am Piere-Alvins Serego-Alighieri and you must be David and Mrs. Blixt.” We nodded and smiled as David shook hands with him and he nodded in greeting to me. “Why don't we go into the house.” And he turned and walked towards the door from which he came.
The Count lead us into a large paved in stones courtyard framed by the vineyard building we had just left, a large square barn-like building, a long, two-storied stone building, and the house.
The house! A lovely Italian stone house that looked both fresh and inviting and also as if it had been there forever, carved out of the countryside. It had large double doors in the center of the first floorthat led us into a two-storied entryway. The marble floor was polished to an almost mirror-like sheen, the center of the floor containing an inlaid heraldic crest. David and I skirted the crest, trying to study it and the rest of the room surreptitiously while following the Count. He noticed our appraisal of the floor and said, “That was updated in the 1470s when the Serego family married the Alighieri. It was originally just the Alighieri symbol – now it is much more.”
David told him that the main character of his book was Pietro Alighieri and that we were very interested in the home that he had built – and were fascinated to discover his descendant still lived there.
The Count smiled briefly. “Then you will appreciate this.” He opened a large cabinet against a wall in the entryway and pulled out a poster-sized piece of parchment. He held it up for us to see, and as we tried to decipher the Italian of the document he said, “The original deed to the property.” Seriously. He just happened to have a document from the 14th century in a cabinet in his entryway. “Let me show you around.”
Piere-Alvins Serego-Alighieri is an elegant man. I can't think of any other word to describe him. He is soft spoken, his low voice easy to hear and relaxed with a lovely Italian accent to his fluent English. He uses his hands occasionally as he speaks – not in the stereotypical Mediterranean style, but simply, casually, with fluid motions from the wrists. He’s the kind of man who seems to use no excess energy as he moves or speaks – he is perfectly balanced and perfectly calm and perfectly natural in the incredible grace of his home. He smoked quite a bit while we were there, but the smoking had a quiet, cavalier quality instead of the rat-like energy most Americans have when they smoke.
We followed him through his home, through rooms that had been decorated in the 14th century and redecorated throughout the centuries since. Antiques from seven centuries lived together in this house. As we walked from room to room, I was reminded of the different villas and homes and museums we had toured in our travels that summer and felt these rooms were no less opulent or stylish, their contents no less rare or extraordinary than the rooms that were blocked off by red-velvet ropes to preserve their treasures. And, interesting to me, mixed in among the 15th and 19th century antique chairs, tables, paintings, and chests were cds and a new stereo system on a console table, family photos in bright plastic frames, and recently published paperbacks and magazines on a sofa here or on a desk there. In the midst of this museum of a house was a home, with a teenaged girl living there. Amazing.
We ended up in a small study (small being a comparative word choice. It was smaller than some of the rooms we'd been in, but larger than our Chicago apartment). This one held the wedding coaches the bride and the groom rode in when the Alighieris married the Seregos. Like the entry foyer, this room had a crest in the stone floor and also a large fireplace and floor to ceiling French doors. We sat on an upholstered settee and the Count sat across a large coffee table from us in a leather club chair.
He and David discussed some of the history of the Alighieri family while I tried not to gape at the room. Apparently, the Alighieri sons had the tendency, in the generations following Pietro, to join the priesthood, and by the late 15th century there were no marriageable males left. At that point in the family's history, there was only one daughter, the sons both having taken holy orders. The daughter was courted by a Count Serego and, when he asked her brothers to marry her, they agreed on one condition – that they not allow the name of Dante Alighieri to die out. They would give the Count their sister if, in return, he took their name and passed it along to their children. It was at this time that the family became Serego-Alighieri.
At this point in the conversation, the Count switched gears and asked, “Would you like coffee?” He then stood, walked over to the door, and called “Marco!” out into the hall. A pause. “Marco!” He then spoke quietly to someone in the hallway and then returned to his seat.
David asked a question about the original size of the land purchase and they continued their discussion. After a few minutes, a man tall man in a suit appeared in the doorway with a tray and silver coffee service. The Count stopped his narrative while the man placed the tray on the coffee table. "Grazie, Marco," he murmured as the man left the room. The Count then picked up his description of the original planting of the vineyards where he had left off.
David and the Count chatted on for a while as I continued to look around the room and admire the small pieces around me. After a couple of minutes, I wondered about the coffee. It was just sitting there on the table between us. The Count's manservant (his manservant!... teehee) didn't appear to be coming back.
And then it occurred to me – I am woman.
Hear me roar.
Oh – and the Count seemed to be waiting for me to pour.
I was sitting in a 14th century villa in the Italian countryside with my husband and a Count and they were expecting me to pour their coffee.
After a few calming breaths and a mental gathering of the all the societal morays I’d culled from Jane Austin's novels, I reached out and took the handle of the coffee pot and asked, “Shall I pour?”
The Count waived assent with one cigaretted hand and continued to talk to David about the outbuildings and when they were added to the original plan.
I sat on the settee with the coffeepot in one hand, picking up the cups and saucers in the other and trying to keep my hands still enough that the china didn't rattle as I asked at appropriate breaks in the conversation, “How do you like your coffee?”
The Count likes his with a little cream.
Somehow I managed to serve, feeling like I was having tea with the Queen. And feeling incredibly American and incredibly 21st century. And feeling a little bit angry with my feminist self who wouldn't shut up and stop whispering in my ear, Why can't he pour his own damn coffee?