THEO PANAYIDES finds a world authority on Venice to have found her sense of belonging years after making the move from housewife to academic
I try to steer clear of cheap flattery, but sometimes it comes unbidden: ‘How do you manage to look so young?’ I blurt out truthfully, and Patricia Fortini Brown beams with pleasure. The coiffed hair and delicate features help, I suppose (looking elegant always helps) – but youthfulness comes from within, and the point is her energy. She’s “just so curious about things,” she tells me, adding that she’s here in Cyprus with two friends – she’s the keynote speaker at the annual Othello’s Island academic conference – and the friends are much younger but they still take a little nap in the afternoons, whereas Patricia keeps going. She turned 80 in November.
It’s not like she tries very hard to stay young, if by ‘trying hard’ we mean detox cleanses and hours of yoga. She lives alone, having twice been married and divorced, which may or may not help (it allows her to plan her own schedule, at least). She tries to walk three miles a day, which definitely helps, tramping for an hour – unless the weather is bad – up and down the streets of Princeton, New Jersey, the famous university town where she taught Italian Renaissance art from 1983 till her retirement in 2010. She’s also very prominent in her field, which presumably acts as a confidence boost in old age: later on, she says, she’ll be having lunch with a woman who flew in from Corfu specially to meet her. Back in Princeton, she’s writing a book (she writes four to six hours every morning), has another one in the pipeline and will also be spending the entire month of June in Venice, poring through historical archives. Simply put, she keeps busy.
Venice is her baby, her area of specialisation – though not just Venetian art anymore, having used that as a springboard to explore the city’s cultural history. Her first book, in 1989, was a straightforward art tome called Venetian Narrative Painting in the Age of Carpaccio – but her keynote lecture for Othello’s Island is a discourse on Venetian water problems, ‘Wellheads, Cisterns and Fountains in the Venetian Dominion’, looking at the paradox of a city built on water but without any running water. Art remains a jumping-off point – the wellhead was a key part of Venetian public architecture – but it also draws her to explore the society (and the region) more generally. “You get into it,” she explains, “and you think ‘Well, what about ships? What were the galleys like? What was it like to be on a galley?’ and you kind of go down these rabbit-holes, trying to find out more. ‘What was it like for a woman to live in Cyprus, or in Crete?’.”
It’s rare for an academic (or former academic, though she’s still on the Princeton faculty as Professor Emeritus) to be so expansive. Most tend to focus quite narrowly, and you tend to assume that a specialist in Venetian art will always be a specialist in Venetian art, and has always been a specialist in Venetian art. The difference in Patricia may be due to the fact that she all but drifted into her chosen subject – “I think I picked Italian Renaissance art because I am Italian” (i.e. Italian-American), she admits with a chuckle – and, more unusually, had a whole other life pre-academia, raising two sons before deciding to go back to school in her early 40s.
She wasn’t just a housewife in her ‘first’ life (she worked as an artist, painting mostly landscapes and still lifes), but she was very much a housewife. “You know, I did everything,” she recalls. “I cooked, I baked, I did all my own bread, I made jam the traditional way. I made all my own clothes…” This was in California in the 60s – actually Marin County in the Bay Area, a famously liberal part of a liberal state – but Patricia wasn’t some kind of madcap bohemian. “Not really,” she affirms with a laugh (she laughs often, as a way of oiling the wheels of our conversation). “Not really. I was so straight, you know?”
She married at 20, and already had a baby at 21. Her first husband was a politician, actually the county clerk of Marin County. Her own paintings were mildly successful, but in no way avant-garde. Her college degree (from Berkeley) wasn’t even in Art, but Political Science. Nowadays, she doesn’t paint at all. “I like making things,” she explains. “I sewed my clothes, I made food, I made art – and then, when I started doing writing, that was my baking, and it really took all my energy”. Patricia’s written four books on Venetian culture, been translated into five languages including Korean and Chinese, and published dozens of essays and articles; she’s a world authority on Venice – yet it almost seems like Venice itself was an afterthought. It’s like she just needs an outlet to channel her creative curiosity, whether that outlet is baking bread or researching Tintorettos and Doges.
She also seems to need (or value) security. It’s telling that both her husbands were prominent figures – the first, as already mentioned, a politician, the second a world-renowned historian named Peter Brown (“He is credited with having brought coherence to the field of Late Antiquity,” says his Wikipedia profile). By that time, Patricia was back in Berkeley as a graduate student, having been spurred to change her life by a combination of factors (her dad died, her older son left for college, her marriage was falling apart; “I just thought, if I’m going to do something I’m gonna do it now”). She divorced in 1978 and married Peter, whom she met at a dinner party, two years later. “That marriage didn’t last,” she muses thoughtfully, “it lasted until I was coming up for tenure at Princeton – but Peter was a very good mentor, he read all my work and would comment on it. I was very insecure.”
The search for security seems to be a lifelong refrain; some are drawn to chaos, but Patricia is drawn to order. When she talks of Venice, she talks above all of its stability – “because you knew where you stood”. Venice was a stratified, hereditary society: the children of nobles became nobles, and those of commoners stayed commoners. “Everyone had their role,” she explains – and another academic might take violent exception to such a conservative society, but she’s a lot more forgiving. “I think one has to be very careful not to be anachronistic about it. Like, people are saying ‘Oh, women, they were so oppressed’. Well, it’s what it was, you know? They didn’t expect to go out and get a job! I think you have to take a society for what it is – and, at that time, they had their roles”.
One might also mention a quirk in her own life – an early detour not a lot of girls would’ve taken, even in the 50s when a right-wing religious sect wasn’t really so far from the mainstream. Berkeley is Patricia’s alma mater, but in fact she only finished her degree there: prior to that, she’d spent three years at Brigham Young University, the Mormon stronghold in the mountains of Utah! “I had a boyfriend,” she chuckles – though that doesn’t seem enough to explain why Patricia converted to the Mormon Church at the age of 16. “I was attracted by the Mormons – well, first of all because of that original boyfriend, but their history fascinated me”. She read a lot about that history, wagon trains heading West across the prairies and so on – and, as with Venice, must’ve been attracted by the strictness and conservatism too. “I don’t think I ever really believed it, but that wasn’t important – and it gave me a feeling of belonging to something. I wanted to belong to something.”
Didn’t she have that feeling already?
“Not really. I always felt kind of outside.” She’d attended a big public high school, explains Patricia, “only 10 per cent of my high school went to college. I was one of the smart kids, so I was pretty supercilious” – she laughs again: “I was a piece of work!”. She wasn’t unpopular per se, but “I never felt pretty enough, all that kind of thing… And I felt very secure when I joined the Mormon Church”. She stayed in Utah for three years, then met her future (non-Mormon) husband, turned her back on that life and returned to California.
She can laugh about it now, looking back on that teenage jaunt from the vantage point of an 80-year-old – not to mention a successful 80-year-old who seems to have found the inner peace she’d been searching for. Yet her life might’ve been very different. I ask if she’s ever been depressed, and I’m quite surprised when she answers in the affirmative: “Oh god yes!”. Another laugh: “Yeah, I’ve had some really hard times! Really hard times. There was that year I was coming up for tenure. I got breast cancer that year, and my husband left me – and I was coming up for tenure!”. Wait, what? Breast cancer? Patricia’s body did indeed let her down in that annus horribilis – and of course one never knows, but you have to wonder (especially since the cancer hasn’t recurred in the 29 years since) if there might’ve been a psychological element too. Given how much she craves security, it’s easy to imagine her spirit, and body, having given way amid the chaos of professional uncertainty and marital problems.
Tenure, i.e. permanent appointment, is the academic’s dream – and Princeton, being a top Ivy League college, is extremely hard to get into. Five out of six professors don’t succeed, and no woman had ever gotten tenure in the Department of Art and Archaeology before Patricia. “Send your work to everyone who might be asked about you, because the cardinal sin is not to be known,” advised her husband helpfully (I assume, though she doesn’t say so, that being the wife of a famous historian also added to her name recognition). God knows what might’ve happened if she’d failed – especially since she was sick, and already in her 50s, and Peter had already moved out “with his 72 boxes of books” – but fortunately she succeeded and the rest, so to speak, is history. Or, as she puts it: “Once you get tenure your life changes, because there’s incredible security. It’s incredible”.
All of which brings us (more or less) to today, Patricia retired, esteemed and still very active. The book she’s writing now is a “micro-history” of two Venetian families, the one she has planned is a more ambitious overview of the Venetian presence in the Mediterranean, provisionally titled ‘Venice Outside Venice’ (“My three big islands,” she explains, “are Crete, Cyprus and Corfu”). Meanwhile, Princeton have just opened a Hellenic Studies Centre in Athens, where she’s been invited to teach a course in the autumn – and meanwhile there’s also daily life, writing in the mornings then walking and reading in the afternoons (she’s just finished The Terranauts, a sci-fi drama by TC Boyle). Her family are still in California – two sons, a sister and a teenage grandson – and she visits a few times a year. She has no desire to remarry, though she does have a male platonic friend in the Bay Area who’s “my good friend” and presumably supplies some companionship – but living with someone, day in day out? “I’ve been there and done that.”
Is there a trajectory to Patricia Fortini Brown’s life, or at least its first eight decades? Maybe. There’s an obvious division into chapters – the life pre-academia, the life pre-tenure, and the blessed life since – and perhaps a certain arc of empowerment (or just experience), from the younger woman who felt a constant need for reassurance to the older one who lives her own life and wryly admits to no longer being “a good team player”. And of course there’s an obvious trajectory to the work, from the Renaissance art of Venice to Venice itself, with its castes and social divides. “I always felt I belong in the past,” says Patricia wistfully – and part of her lives in the 15th or 16th century, mapping the fears and desires of long-gone Venetians and immersing herself in the reports of far-flung capitani and provedetori. “Art interests me,” she explains, “but also the people interest me”. Maybe it’s what keeps her looking young.