This piece will be updated with new entries from the artist, who is in Milan.
“Hi, Mum. How are you?”
“I’m good. … And you? Do you have enough food in the fridge?”
My mother was born three years after World War II ended, in a village in the south of Italy. Her generation grew up amid the wreckage of bombed buildings and the anxiety of hunger. For them, food is precious like little else.
When I was a teenager, we had a stash to last for months. I remember that our basement was packed with jars of tomatoes and eggplants, dozens of bottles of wine, any kind of supply. I remember my father was upset every time we threw half a plate of pasta in the garbage because we were full. “Don’t waste food!” he would say.
I’m sure this started as a genuine concern due to his survival heritage. And I’m also pretty sure this became an excuse for him to eat what me and my sister left on the plate.
My parents don’t live in Milan but in a small town about 200 miles from here. For my mother’s 72nd birthday, we gave her and my father tickets to hear a famous singer from their generation. The concert was to take place in Milan on March 3. But by the middle of February, the virus had spread and it became dangerous for older people to use trains and gather in crowds. We decided to cancel their trip.
Italian mothers are exactly as you imagine them: caring and overprotective. Sometimes, it’s hard to have distance because your mother will regard you as her child even if your beard is white. And a mother who grew up after the war will always want to feed you because fat means healthy and skinny means sick.
We are not at war. Seeing people assaulting supermarkets here and in the United States is insane; we won’t starve. The food industry is still producing way more than we need.
But I did thought about our country’s past and my mother’s childhood when I went to the supermarket and found a line today. The new law imposes limits on how many people can be in the supermarket at once: 10, to maintain social distance.
So people spend 15 minutes in the line outside just to buy a salad or a sandwich for lunch, or an orange juice. Automatic doors no longer swing open; there is an employee with a mask letting one customer in as soon another walks out.
She says good morning to everyone, but the tone of her voice says something else — probably it’s not going to be a good morning and not even a good day. Just another day in this bubble, without your mother’s jars of eggplants in the cellar.
I am Emiliano Ponzi. I’m an illustrator and author who lives in Milan, a place lately described as the wealthy economic engine of our country and a place also lately unrecognizable to me and my fellow Italians.
The escalation of infections in our country from the novel coronavirus forced our government to severely restrict our personal freedoms. It is a plan to save 60 million of us by pushing us apart. It is as if we have been suddenly cast in some surreal movie that affects our daily routine, the way we relate to other people and our interior dialogues. Each day, a small but startling bite of our personal freedoms.
Right now, I’m in my studio. It’s 7:34 a.m., and I have this impulse to stand up and go to the coffee shop around the corner, where every morning I eat a handmade chocolate croissant still warm. Habits are hard to kill.
But all the coffee shops and restaurants were forced to close yesterday. The whole country of 60 million went to “Red Zone” on March 9, locked down to the outside, prohibited from travel between cities. By March 12, when 1,266 already had died and more than 17,000 already were infected, daily life shut down, and people were told to stay at home.
None of this is in our nature as Italians, as humans. “I have been thinking of what my friend Umberto, screenwriter of “The Great Beauty,” a 2014 Academy Award-winning movie, told me about how screenwriting had changed.
“We don’t write in advance all scenes as we used to,” he said. Now “we write the scenes as we shoot them … in order to have a more dynamic film.”
This column is an illustrated chronicle of Italy now, sketches and observations about the good actors we need to become as we improvise the new screenplay being written each day.
Emiliano Ponzi has created artwork for The Washington Post, the New York Times, Le Monde, the New Yorker, Apple, Louis Vuitton, Moma NY, Hermes and Der Spiegel. His latest book, “American West,” was published in 2019.