Music and laughter. Good food and good company. Romance, art, and imagination. These are all hallmarks of Forster's Italy. At their best, Forster's Italians know how to enjoy life to its fullest (and totally subscribe to the YOLO philosophy). They're open with their feelings and honest, sometimes to a fault. Most of the action in the novel takes place in a small fictional hill town called Monteriano, which Forster likely modeled on the real medieval town San Gimignano near Florence. Forster's descriptions of the Italian landscape are inspired by his travels in the region of Tuscany in 1901. Lucky duck. We want to go to Tuscany.
The most picturesque depiction of Monteriano appears when Philip journeys to Italy in an attempt to bring Lilia back to England. Philip is tired and grouchy after hours of traveling, but despite his exhaustion, he can't help appreciating the amazing beauty of Italy. This is a long quote, but we needed to include it all because it's so pretty:
They were among olives again, and the wood with its beauty and wildness had passed away. But as they climbed higher the country opened out, and there appeared, high on a hill to the right, Monteriano. The hazy green of the olives rose up to its walls, and it seemed to float in isolation between trees and sky, like some fantastic ship city of a dream. Its colour was brown, and it revealed not a single house—nothing but the narrow circle of the walls, and behind them seventeen towers—all that was left of the fifty-two that had filled the city in her prime. Some were only stumps, some were inclining stiffly to their fall, some were still erect, piercing like masts into the blue. It was impossible to praise it as beautiful, but it was also impossible to damn it as quaint. (2.65)
It's clear that Forster romanticizes Monteriano by describing it as "float[ing] in isolation between trees and sky, like some fantastic ship city of a dream"— there's a cloudy airiness about the town, and the image of the "fantastic ship city" sounds like a cross between Peter Pan's flying ship and Laputa, the floating island in Gulliver's Travels.
In other words, Italy is a place of magic and fairy dust. Philip recognizes that although Monteriano isn't as sophisticated and "beautiful" as big cities like Rome or Paris, it's more than merely a "quaint" provincial town. Beyond the charm and splendor of Monteriano's scenery, Forster portrays Italians as free of the hypocrisy that characterizes English society.
In contrast to the openness of Italy, Sawston is home to the conventional middle-class Herriton family. Forster modeled this dreary town on Tonbridge, Kent, southeast of London, where he had gone to school. A gray place preoccupied with duty, respectability, and tradition, Sawston represents the worst of English repression.
In Sawston, appearances are more important than the realities behind them. And life here is conventional and mechanical—things that seem super important are actually trivial and meaningless. We don't get any detailed descriptions of Sawston's landscape the way we do with Italy, but what we find about Sawston, we learn through the characters that live there.
When Caroline Abbott dreams of the Italian town Poggibonsi (say that five times fast) as a "joyless, straggling place, full of people who pretended" (6.231), she recognizes it as Sawston. The hypocrisy and petty unselfishness of English society stands in direct contrast to the warmth and unselfconscious spontaneity of Italy.
Also, that name. It sounds like a cross between "sawdust" and "Boston." Which—and apologies to all you Red Sox fans out there—just sounds cold and uninviting. We'd take the "ship city" of Monteriano any day.