Friday, 7 October 2016

Road Trip 3 - Va Pensiero

Va Pensiero

Random thoughts from Abroad

On our way back to England, we pay our respects to three great Italians. First we stop at the house where Michelangelo Buonarroti was born.  

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This is a robust building within the walls of a small castle atop the village of Caprese Michelangelo, pretty much in the middle of Tuscan nowhere.  Michelangelo’s father had recently been appointed the Podestà, or Magistrate, of Caprese when his son was born on March 6th 1475.  It is a quiet place, and visitors are few and far between, but at the least it gives a sense of the natural and remote world where the infant artist may have first been inspired.

St Francis's cloak - preserved at La Verna

Not far away, and almost as remote, though in this case with bus parks and places to stay, is La Verna, where St Francis of Assisi received the stigmata (on September 14th 1224) while enduring a forty day fast.  

The mountain, which is in the Tuscan Apennines, was gifted to St Francis by a local landowner and became a place of sanctuary for him and his followers.  It is a much visited, and very beautiful, place, surrounded by mature forests of beech and spruce, and with spectacular views to the west and south.

At the end of the first day of our travel north, we rest in Anghiari, a well-preserved walled town, whose great claim to fame is that it gives its name to a lost painting by Leonardo da Vinci, which is said to hide behind other frescoes in the Palazzo Vecchio, in Florence (at the same time that Michelangelo was working there on the opposite wall).  The subject, of course, is the battle, at Anghiari, which took place between the Florentines (who were victorious) and the Milanese on 29th June 1440.  It was a crucial event in the development of the Renaissance, though despite the fact that thousands of men confronted each other for more than four hours, only one soldier died, by falling off his horse.

Exhausted by so much culture in one day, we have supper at the Ristorante Nena.  Their website claims that We are fans and holders of the taste, we like genuinity of typical tuscany foods, strong taste, but delicate. We put all our experience and care in every single dish, accompanied with a good wine chosen among our wide choice, and they are spot on.  Their ragù is wonderful, and the bistecca di razza chianina superb…. I somehow doubt whether San Francesco would have approved of our indulgence, but have a sneaking suspicion that Michelangelo and Leonardo might have happily joined our table, possibly even forgetting their differences…..

Day two sees us in the Valley of the Po, where, on October 9th 1813, Giuseppe Verdi first saw the light of day.  His father was an innkeeper, and the simple building they lived in is now a monument to the composer.

Many years ago we stayed in a lofty hotel in nearby Busseto, where a great statue sits in the arcaded piazza Verdi. The fine old-fashioned Caffé Centrale is still there, not much changed, though as a sign of the times the name on the receipts in Zheng Liangdi….

In the nearby sixteenth century Villa Pallavicino the Giuseppe Verdi National Museum was opened in 2009, purporting to be a celebration of Verdi’s genius. 

Extracts from the operas waft around the costumed dummies in theatrically decorated rooms, but somehow the Maestro is missing….

He’s not at his home, either, at his villa at Sant’Agata.  

He lived here for fifty years, and instructed in his will that it should remain in the family and be kept unchanged after his death on January 27th 1901.  So, though the cracks are appearing, it is an atmospheric memorial to his private life….

Back in Roncole Verdi, you can see the church where he learned to be a musician from his upstairs window.  

And next door, at the Vecchio Mulino, an old mill also once belonging to the Pallavicini, the Dallatana family now produce Culatello di Zibello D.O.P. one of the delights of Italy yet to be popularised by the mass markets, and they will serve it with delicious local wines….


Paul Halsall, of Fordham University, states that The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, (Va Pensiero), from Verdi's opera Nabucco (1842) attained great political significance. Va Pensiero became the Italians' song of liberation, for, in the oppressed Hebrews, they found a symbol of their own longing for reunification with Lombardy, which was occupied by Austria. The unison chorus (one of the few da capo choruses in all opera) became the underground national hymn. And the composer's name became V.E.R.D.I, a slogan meaning Vittorio Emmanuele Rei d'Italia (Victor Emanuel, King of Italy) - a reference to the sole native dynasty in Italy and the focus of nationalist hopes for unity.

In 1981 the chorus was proposed as a replacement for the Italian National Anthem, though this never came about.  Umberto Bossi’s Lega Nord/Padania, a predecessor of our very own UKIP, however did adopt it in 2009.

In the context of Brexit, the question of sovereignty and the desire for unification in Italy in 1842 would have been a very different issue from that of Europe in 2016.  Verdi was actually born within the borders of the First French Empire.  In 1814 his mother, Luigia, narrowly escaped, according to a plaque on the church wall, with her son, Beppino, from the invading bloody hordes of Russians and Austrians.  The political map of Europe has been a shifting jigsaw for centuries.  The cry, O, mia patria, sì bella e perduta! (Oh, my country, so beautiful and so lost!) is entirely understandable, both in the historical context, and today, but it does not now dictate dissociation from your neighbours…..  Va, Pensiero....

The next day, with mixed feelings, we queue for an hour to drive through the St Gotthard tunnel in Switzerland, emerging into the fantasy world of William Tell and the canton of Uri.  Legend has it that William Tell confronted the Habsburg tyrant Albrecht Gessler in the square of the town of Altdorf.  The lime tree under which Walter Tell stood in 1307 with an apple on his head (split by his father’s masterful shot) was felled in 1567.  In 1582 a chapel in Bürglen was dedicated to William Tell.  In 1780 a monument to Tell was erected in Zurich.  Following the establishment of the nation state of Switzerland in 1848 every town wanted a monument to the founding fathers, and in 1860 Altdorf was presented with its first Tell monument, though the massive statue now in front of the Türmli, created by Richard Kissling at a cost of 142,000 Swiss francs, was not inaugurated until 1895.

What none of this admits is that William Tell didn’t exist, and that despite Schiller’s 1804 play, and even John Wilkes Booth’s citing of Tell as an inspiration for his assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the probability is that the legend goes back to Norse mythology….  This doesn’t mean it’s not a great story; but it is a bit like believing that because the New York born Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson says Brexit will give £350 million a week to the NHS, the UK should unilaterally and without further debate invoke Article 50.

Anyway, after a brief SatNav breakdown, which meant that we drove through a nine kilometre tunnel out of Altdorf twice, we found the tiny, windy and precipitous road up to the village of Isenthal, where we are warmly greeted by Lisbeth, our host, and where we eat deer and drink good wine….. The valley is steep, and green, with the dingling of cow bells in the pastures and children chasing goats down the street. 

We walk to look down on Lake Lucerne and Altdorf, and relax as the sun declines behind the mountains.

The Urnersee, as Lake Lucerne is known here

The rest of our journey back to Brexitland is fundamentally anticlimactic.  We stop the next night in Landgasthaus Wintringer Hof in Kleinblittersdorf, Germany, where we are treated very well by Vito, who is from Calabria….

We visit Trier, which Diocletian made the capital of the West-Roman Empire.  The impressive Porta Nigra 

is awash with grey tourists, but the 4th century Aula Palatina, once the Basilica of Constantine, and now the protestant Church of the Redeemer, is virtually empty, its brick walls towering 33 metres high and 67 metres long…..

Trier was also the birthplace of Karl Marx, and that house is a museum. By the front door the opening times are inscribed on a brass plate in German, English... and Chinese.

We sleep in a grand house by the Meuse, near Namur, in Belgium, but the air is damp and local roadworks impossible.  

The city of Namur suffered badly in both World Wars.  I regret to say that it doesn’t seem to have recovered…..

And so, the spring having gone out of our step somewhat, we approach Calais, where there are still thousands of migrants desperate to reach the UK, and we steam, guiltily, across the channel to that symbol of Brexitness, the White Cliffs of Dover, which gleam at us like some thin-lipped snarl. 

I’ve driven three thousand miles through seven countries, feeling the exchange rate slipping away from us, but encountering generous, welcoming people everywhere, though these are people who simply cannot understand this Brexit business.  An element of distrust hangs in the air, perhaps, like the whiff of an illicit cigarette some hours after it has been consumed.  I feel ashamed and slink home, retiring to bed to nurse my still damaged arm (after the fall as described in Part 1), skulking on my selfish island…..

Ah well....

Va, Pensiero!

As St Francis wrote in his Letter to all the Faithful:

And let us love our neighbours as ourselves, and, if any one does not wish to love them as himself or cannot, let him at least do them not harm, but let him do good to them…..

Or, as Giuseppe Verdi put it, in his vigorous chorus:

o t'ispiri il Signore un concento

che ne infonda al patire virtù.

[though this is much better without translation*.... simply because it sounds so good....]

It is only a barbarous mind that sees other than the flower, merely an animal mind that dreams of other than the moon.

Bashō Matsuo

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches

* though a rough translation is:

or permit the Lord to inspire us
to endure our suffering.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Road Trip 2 - Viva L'Italia

Viva l'Italia, l'Italia liberata

Viva l'Italia

It is Sunday morning. It is wonderful to wake in Italy, with the distant tang and clong of church bells, the mist, the sparkling air….. But I should have thought….. In the land of Brexit, the norm for a Sunday is that all remains quiet until the farmers’ market or the garden centre opens, then the pubs fill with families until dusk or football and eventually  everyone crowds home, irritably filling the roads.

I should have thought.  We are now in Italy. We set out for the Santuario di Oropa and it was quiet and bright – a lovely morning.  Oropa is a major site in northern Italy, and I falsely assumed that we would be well ahead of any crowds….. I should have thought. However, the seventeen kilometres of road winding up from Biella are already busy, and when we actually emerge, at over twelve hundred metres above sea level, the place is seething.  The car parks are full, vehicles lie abandoned on the verges, a full blown market thrives below the sanctuary complex, and a stream of people is slowly making its way up and into the three thousand capacity upper basilica…. Viva l'Italia, l'Italia che resiste......

From the Pharmacy I buy 200g of a Tisane (containing fumitory, alder buckthorn, woody nightshade, dandelion, burdock and sarsaparilla) to purify my blood, and a small bottle of 38% Herbetet Genepy to balance any harmful effects the Tisane may have.... Viva l'Italia!

Then, after genuflection and a sip of fountain water, we spin down to the almost deserted Biella, then on, across the River Po, and up the River Trebbia (deemed the most beautiful river valley in the world by war correspondent Ernest Hemingway) to the town of Bobbio, where, in 615, St Columbanus (from Leinster) died, having founded the abbey which later inspired Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose....  Viva l'Italia!

So, after a fine meal at the Albergo Ristorante Cacciatori (same family since 1909, and unchanged since we last stayed here about twenty years ago) which includes Taglierini di ortica con tre sughi diversi and some excellent local wine,  it becomes Monday, and my satnav has an off day…..

There is no straightforward way to go over the Apennines from Bobbio to the Ligurian sea – Satnav wanted me to retrace our route down to Piacenza and then take the autostrada to La Spezia, but I fancied exploring…..  So satnav, in curmudgeonly rebellion, took us up and over every twist and turn, along narrow passes with sheer drops on one side, and cliffs on the other, through densely wooded valleys and past tiny remote villages, until we were thoroughly sick of the beauty of unspoiled Italy, and we swung down to the autostrada near Pontremoli…..  Viva l'Italia!

We stay at Lerici, paying respect to P B Shelley, who spent the last three months of his life here in a villa on the shore, the Casa Magni, now a hotel, with ghostly inscriptions attached to the walls.  

I eat local oysters in his memory, but also remember being here at bicentenary celebrations in the castle in 1992, courtesy of the Keats Shelley House in Rome, with Adrian Mitchell, Dannie Abse, et al, when we delivered a plaque to the house and had a boat trip to throw roses into the waters where the poet drowned in 1822.  

I now note that older tourists stand in the Gulf of Poets, along the Blue Mile from San Terenzo to Lerici;  it’s a colourful version of Anthony Gormley’s Another Place on Crosby Beach....  

Viva l'Italia, l'Italia che è in mezzo al mare

Next stop Lucca.... l'Italia che non muore.  Here I am attracted especially by the female form, whether it is in the Cathedral, where Jacopo della Quercia’s monument to Ilaria del Carretto lies in the Sacristy, 

cyclists on the walls, 

or tourists in the evening.  

This is a city of beauty, from the garden of the Palazzo Pfanner, to the view from campanile of the Church of San Giovanni

and a meal in the Trattoria Da Giulio…..  

L'Italia con gli occhi asciutti nella notte scura

We move on, to my absolutely favourite place.  High on the slopes of volcanic Monte Amiata, in southern Tuscany, we stop for a drink with Corrado (born here in about 1928) and his wife Concetta, from Calabria.  Conversation is not always easy, due to Corrado’s rapid local dialect, and his habit of telling me stories of his military service, but he wants to know about Brexit, and we struggle to make sense of how this came about.

Up the steep strada Bianca is his birthplace, a simple house lit by candles and warmed by a smouldering wood fire.  Here I arrived one hot day in 1976, three days into my Italian life, and was immediately made at home by our friends, who had acquired the house from Corrado a few years before.

Barely altered from that time, the house has seen me come and go through heat and cold, rain and snow, over the years, and it still holds the magic of L'Italia dimenticata (forgotten Italy) that holds the key to my love of Europe.  With deer hiding in the bushes around, jays cackling through the trees, and a gentle sunset, our friends prepare supper with flambéed guinea fowl, while we rest by the fireplace with some robust vino sfuso from Col d’Orcia.  Aaah!...  

Viva l'Italia

And so, we set off on the last leg of our journey south, driving over the mountain in thick cloud, rain in the distance.  As we move down the Via Cassia, flooded ditches and soaked fields tell of the storm we somehow missed, and then, when we approach our destination, the village of Trevignano Romano, on Lake Bracciano, we see the hazel nuts have been stripped from the trees, and the road is filled with debris.  In fact, the lake shore is awash with nuts, and the villagers are out in force collecting the free feast in plastic bags, like a strange version of Whisky Galore!...  

L'Italia derubata e colpita al cuore

So anyway, the storm has passed, and we are ‘home’ where we lived for more than ten years.  The lake is quiet now, and we enjoy fine weather, some of the time revisiting natural 

and man-made 

wonders in the countryside of northern Lazio;  

at others just lazing on the beach 

or meeting friends.  

The talk is dominated by Brexit, laced with concerns about Italian politics and the weakness of Renzi. But the consensus is that Europe is not perfect, and that Britain is wrong to turn its back on the continent. Divided we fall…..  At a distance, having driven 1,500 miles through three countries, Brexit seems unreal, but we become aware of the weakness of an unwritten constitution, and find it hard to explain how the votes of 37% of the electorate can have determined this situation.  Especially when it would seem that many of the 37% did not understand the full import of their vote…..  

Viva l'Italia!

And then I fell....  (for details, see Part 1).  Or was it that the world fell slightly and I was merely a piece of dust disturbed by the movement? Anyway the beautiful land rushed at me with force, causing a puncture in the skin at the end of my elbow, though this was disproportionate to the spreading purple and yellow bruises up and down the muscles of my arm.  I was incautious.  I was unprepared.  But hey!

Every silver lining has a cloud.....

Viva L'Italia
Francesco De Gregori

Francesco De Gregori, sixty-five year old Roman singer and song-writer, Il Principe dei cantautori, composed this song in the late seventies. It is a hymn to the paradoxes of Italy, the blend of pleasures and pains that forms the country’s complexion.  In the main it consists of opposed generalities, but the reference to December 12th gives it a darker tone, as that was the day in 1969 of what became known as the Piazza Fontana Massacre.  16 people died and 58 were seriously injured when a bomb was detonated at 16.45 on the third floor of a bank in Milan. Over 4,000 arrests were made in the wake of this (and other) bombings and attempted bombings in Milan and Rome.  One of the prime suspects died after ‘falling’ from a fourth floor window of the police station where he was being held.

But that detail is only a part of the picture, and De Gregori does not exaggerate its importance.  Italy is far from perfect, but it has many attractions.  Like Europe as a whole. 

It was first issued in 1979, but has become a standard of his repertoire, and has almost assumed the status of an unofficial national anthem.  It was even adopted  by the Socialist Party (among others) though De Gregori did not agree with this.

The version I have was recorded with Lucio Dalla (who died in 2012) on their 2010 Work in Progress tour. One word is different from the original - povera  replaces nuda.....

Viva l'Italia

Viva l'Italia, l'Italia liberata
L'Italia del valzer, l'Italia del caffè
L'Italia derubata e colpita al cuore
Viva l'Italia, l'Italia che non muore
Viva l'Italia, presa a tradimento
L'Italia assassinata dai giornali e dal cemento
L'Italia con gli occhi asciutti nella notte scura
Viva l'Italia, l'Italia che non ha paura

Viva l'Italia, l'Italia che è in mezzo al mare
L'Italia dimenticata e l'Italia da dimenticare
L'Italia metà giardino e metà galera
Viva l'Italia, l'Italia tutta intera
Viva l'Italia, l'Italia che lavora
L'Italia che si dispera, l'Italia che si innamora
L'Italia metà dovere e metà fortuna
Viva l'Italia, l'Italia sulla luna

Viva l'Italia, l'Italia del 12 dicembre
L'Italia con le bandiere, l'Italia nuda (povera) come sempre
L'Italia con gli occhi aperti nella notte triste
Viva l'Italia, l'Italia che resiste

And in imperfect English:

Long Live Italy!

Long live Italy, liberated Italy,
Italy of the waltz, Italy of coffee
Italy the robbed, Italy the heart-throb,
Long live Italy, the Italy that doesn't die.
Long live Italy, betrayed Italy,
Italy assassinated by the press, and by concrete,
Italy with dry eyes in the dark night,
Long live Italy, fearless Italy

Long live Italy, Italy in the middle of the sea,
Forgotten Italy, Italy to forget,
Italy half garden and half prison,
Long live Italy, all of Italy,
Long live Italy, working Italy,
Italy that despairs and Italy that falls in love,
Italy half responsibility and Italy half luck,
Long live Italy, Italy on the moon.

Long live Italy, the Italy of December 12th,
Italy with its flags, Italy as poor as ever,
Italy with open eyes in the sad night,
Long live Italy, Italy that keeps fighting on.