Italy Under a Microscope

Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos
A train in Gravina, Puglia, Italy, 1991


An ophthalmologist visiting an exhibition of the artist Chuck Close spotted what he suspected was a serious condition in the eye of one of the subjects of Close’s larger-than-life, hyperrealistic portraits. The doctor left a note for the artist to urge the subject, Close’s own father-in-law, to have a checkup. Sure enough, Close’s father-in-law did have the condition that the doctor had observed. On reading about this incident, I immediately felt that it was a parable about journalism. In observing carefully and rendering detail closely, we may convey more meaning than we know.

Something of this spirit appears to animate two new books by writers who have spent most of their adult lives in Italy. Superficially at least, John Thavis’s The Vatican Diaries and Tim Parks’s Italian Ways have little in common. While both are set entirely in contemporary Italy, they describe two very different countries. Thavis, who was the Rome bureau chief for the Catholic News Service from 1996 until 2012, is concerned almost exclusively with the goings-on in the 110 acres occupied by the Vatican state in Rome, while Parks has written a book that chronicles his experiences riding the Italian train system, only occasionally mentioning the Catholic Church in his almost three hundred pages.

Yet both Thavis and Parks—extremely experienced and knowledgeable writers who have each spent approximately thirty years in Italy—have quite consciously resisted the temptation to write a big summation book about their chosen subjects. Rather than writing an “Inside the Vatican Today book that tries to assess where the Catholic Church stands at the beginning of its third millennium, Thavis has written a series of narrative chapters that capture one or another aspect of life within the Vatican—one about the bell ringer at St. Peter’s basilica, another about an archaeologist’s search for the tomb of Saint Peter, a third about the efforts to canonize the controversial Pope Pius XII, who ruled the church during World War II. “Journalists tend to focus exclusively on the Vatican’s power and its institutional impact,” Thavis writes on his website. “I wanted to chronicle the human side of the Vatican—warts and all—that makes it such a fascinating place.”

Similarly, Parks, a novelist and essayist who has lived in Verona for the past thirty years, offers a portrait of Italy as seen from the country’s railway system, and not a big “Whither Italy?” book. Toward the end he offers a kind of apologia for his method in a conversation he has at a dinner with a group of Sicilians who question his decision to write an entire book about Italian trains. “All Italy,” he tells them,

could be teased out from this [evening] if we examined it carefully, the clothes you are wearing, the way you’ve laid the table, the pleasure taken cooking, the wineglasses…. So if you’re…

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