An unexpected journey to Italy

As I was clearing up old boxes yesterday, I found a text laid out on a few pieces of old paper, stained by water and reeking of mould. I proposed to transcribe it and, since I could not find a more suitable outlet for it, publish it here. The author must remain anonymous, not having given any hints of his identity in the text. All we can say is that he was nel mezzo del cammin, slightly suffering from sciatic pain and a resident of London. The time is not clear either: it could be either the 16th century or any time thereafter. The short exposition appears to be a travelogue, the enthusiastic account of a traveller from London to the Italian Alps. It instantly made me think of Montaigne’s Journal de voyage en Italie, but, naturally, it bears no comparison. If inspired by Montaigne’s, the present journal is a pale and mocking copy of the former. I will let the reader figure out the rest.

Editor’s note: I have tried to stay as faithful to the text as possible. Any errors – solecismus, synchysis, confusions of any kind – belong to the author, not the editor.

After hours on the road, over and under the clouds, witnessing a melancholic sunset somewhere over Germany – and clouds laid out like a wrinkled tablecloth, he arrived in Bergamo. Not quite in Bergamo, but in an age which did away with horses and mules, the expression will do. It was pouring in Bergamo when he lodged at the Cascata. Good lodgings. Messire was pleased to see that the ingress into Italy was welcomed with that magnificent Lombard comfort, the bidet, present in every home, no matter how humble. He wished to dine in town, if only to recall his pleasant stay two years before, but the rain, falling like biblical vengeance, prevented him. He settled for a nearby inn, whose name, now forgotten, had a Yankee undertone (it was later recalled that the name of the inn was Saloon). He was served delicious meats, seasoned with Iranian salt and accompanied by grilled vegetables. The wine was undoubtedly better than what he was accustomed to in his native country. The innkeeper served a nice bottle of 5-year-old Barolo in glasses so large they were suitable instead for minestrone. Messire deplored the foreign influence and recalled other travellers’ notes about glasses in Italy, some of the smallest in Europe.

The lodgings were, as said, fine. There was plenty of room for accommodating one’s transport under the inn. On such a rainy day, Messire found that most convenient and was pleased with the choice he had made. He went to bed tired but contented, and feeling only a trace of the lingering sciatic pain he had long been suffering from. No particular plans were made for the next day, but with the prospect of less vengeful weather, he said he might visit Venice on his way to the rugged Dolomites, the terminus of his voyage.

Intermission. The wave of denunciations of male sexual assults is a terrible thing because it makes one think that men can only abuse women sexually. What about the rest of psychological forms of oppression? Nobody seems in the least worried about that.

The day started on the wrong foot, with more rain and no sign of improvement. Breakfast was light, perhaps too light for Messire’s morning appetite. It was noticed how everyone in Italy eats as much in the morning as the value they place on time. Getting the transport ready and having paid the host, we travelled three miles to the upper city of Bergamo. By the time Messire got there, the rain had stopped and the sun, jealous of Italian hot-temperedness, came out in all its glory. The first station was the Collione chapel with its High Renaissance facade and exquisite workmanship. We marvelled at the delicate decoration and, having speculated about the relationship between power and art, we visited the nearby church of Santa Maria Maggiore, a Romanesque pearl trapped inside a Baroque shell. Messire was corrected in his belief about a particular fresco by a certain Bergamasque gentilhome, who explained that the figure of the hairy hermit was not that of John the Baptist, as Messire thought, but a local hermit whose body was discovered by another hermit and the story told to Giacomo de Voragine, who included it in the Legenda Aurea. The fresco was painted in the mid 13th century, but preserved an unprecedented freshness.

Thence Messire’s train moved to Verona, about 100 miles. We arrived in Verona in the early afternoon, scandalized to enter the city gates together with hoards of mindless tourists, who didn’t even endeavour to preserve an appearance of devotion as they brandished their photographic equipment, raising it on high. Streets in Verona are paved with large slates of granite and are full of antiquities, revealing themselves as readily as a courtesan’s knee, in which the city abounds, as we were told.

Messire made it straight to the statue of Dante, conveniently located near Cangrande della Scala’s monumental mausoleum. Having paid his respects, he went to see one of the ancient city gates, still bearing an inscription dedicated to Emperor Titus.

With the day clearing, decision was made to head to Venice, on account of the few pilgrims ans travellers visiting the city that time of year.

The approach to Venice was made from the sea, Messire having rented a tronchetto. He found the city very pleasant, and the air clear and not too salty. The Jewish quarter, called the Giudecca, was the first stop, and an opportunity to admire the many fine buildings lining the canal. Once landed in Piazza San Marco, haste was recommended as the sun was fast declining. Without further ado, Messire visited the basilica, whose mosaics left him breathless. There were many barbarians in Venice, apparently just as eager to see its wonders as our most respectable citizens.

Venice is the epitome and paragon of glory through decadence, a metaphor for our humanity. The city itself is the complete opposite of that Anglo-Saxon scientific exuberance and lack of interest for metaphysical questions, no mattter how nihilistic or self-defeating, which we can’t hear too much of these days. There is a serene resignation in the Serenissima, and also the sense of a life well-spent, limited yet glorious. What can tell that story better than a city slowly going under the water, capsizing under the weight of its lancet windows, moulded palazzi and stone churches? Nevertheless, above the waterline, there is light, and music, Caneletto and Vivaldi and even Sargent perhaps. Messire found all these thoughts to go well with a cigar in the company of the gondeliers. Thoughts of Marco Polo describing Venice to the Khan crossed his mind. ‘Imagine’, Messire said, ‘all the stories Polo could have told the great Mongol about the city that were as exotic to the latter as stories from the East were to the former.’ There is no city more elegiac than Venice. It had once been said that for every unhappy city there is a happy city. How many unhappy cities are there, we wonder, for Venice’s happiness?

Travelling, Italo Calvino explains, is when one comes to realize one’s true, minuscule dimensions and to learn the things one has never nor will ever possess. Travelling is a descent into resignation. Though everyone can travel, not everyone should.

We left Venice behind us and took the mountain road towards Cortina d’Ampezzo, of which Messire had heard so much and wished to visit. The road was easy but long, and when night fell, we started to wonder whether there would be any inns on our passage. Messire was relieved when we stopped in Longarone at Luigi de Bona, who served us polenta with mushrooms and mountain cheese. Messire noticed this was one of the cheapest meals he ever had, and downed a carafe of Soave in an instant to celebrate this. Before midnight, we arrived, armes et baggages, in Cortina and stoppped at Alnbergo Europa, who had been warned beforehand of our arrival. The city was calm, the roads quiet and the sky starry as a painting.

There are few places in the world like Cortina. Once the morning curtain was drawn and the sun revealed all that eas hidden, it became clear that Cortina has no rival. Set around the mountains like a fortress defended by heavy walls, Cortina reveals its greatest neighbours; the Dolomites, teeth-like mountains grinning in the sun. The valley is long and wide, moisteurised by numerous rivulets, some aspiring to be strict rivers, cutting through stone and ice. The valley is inhabited by gentlefolk who make a living out of grazing their animals on the slopes and catering to eager visitors. Messire was astounded by the quality of the food and the freshness of the wine, though most of it was brought in from the less rugged hills of Veneto further to the south.

Messire insisted that despite the warm weather, he should be given a pair of wooden planks to practise sliding on snow, as he had read in some Norse book. He was fortunate, as some tracks were still practicable under the rushing thaw, and he could slide down ad libitum. Unfortunately, enough caution was not practised, and Messire found himself on the side of the mount, at his foot, away from his mule. He was lucky, however, to find a God-fearing old lasy called Ecaterina who was happy to use her mule to transport him and his equipment back to the inn. On the way, Messire learned the lady lived in the valley, but that her son was making a living in Holland. All this time, Messire spoke to her in fluent Italian. She wishes to know where he had learned the language, and thereupon Messire recited several terzine from Dante. The lady was more annoyed than impressed, and Messire relented. The evening was quiet. Messire spent the rest of the day reading a book about invisible cities, which we all thought was rather inappropriate given where we were. We dined at an unassuming tavern by the main church and then retreated for the night.

Messire woke up the next day to discover that the sciatic pain had disappeared and he quickly credited it to the Dolomite valley. He was no less glad that the temperature had dropped, allowing the landscape to recover some of its hivernal beauty: a note of mystery due to fog followed by a little bit of rain.

Plans were made to visit the area in more depth than one is accustomed to at this time of year. Despite warnings of avalanches and many closed mountain passes, it was arranged to tour the Dolomites in anti-clockwise fashion: moving first to Pieve di Livinallongo through Passo Falzarego and Cernadoi. We lunched at the Klematys, a lonely tavern overlooking some of the most rugged peaks in the region. Food was delicious, the house wine rich in berry fruit and a touch of herbs. The meal was crowned with a Grappa Cumino, a cumin-infused grappa of which Messire asked the host for a bottle to take back with him. Prices were lower than usual, which was strange, considering that these folk put more effort to supply the kitchen in the mountains than elsewhere.

Leaving the Klematys, we made for the highest road in the region, turning west in Arabba. No sooner had our motorised mules taken us 10 miles up the mountain road than we had to turn back, the road being closed ahead, due to the risk of avalanches and renegade marmots. By the time we reached Cortina, it was getting dark and rainy.

We couldn’t miss the chance to see Bolzano, famous for its bread. Indeed, Mess. De Montaigne had once reported that the world’s best bread is sold there. Messire said he cannot confirm this claim or not, but he thought he bread was not bad. Nor was the wine. Messire brought back a bottle of Amarone della Valpolicella, sold to him by a winsom lady who keeps the largest Tuscan wine producers in desdain. A farmer’s market was being held at the time, and Messire bought large quanties of soft and hard cheese, of which one was made by mixing it with winter truffles. The cathedral church has some old frescoes, which we judged to belong to Giotto’s school. Messire was disappointed to see some pews concealing some fine fragments of wall paintings. The return journey didn’t feel as long, but with the night falling last, it became obvious that the road was not as safe as thought beforehand. We dined at a local tavern whose name now escapes us. Messire feasted on deer ribs with polenta. We slept peacefully, with only the occasional gallop on the main road to disturb us.

The next morning was spent making preparations for our return to Milan. As we only had to arrive there late in the evening, Messire proposed, and we all agreed, to take the road through Padua, in order to see Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel and the baptistery frescoes there. It was not meant to be. Having arrived in Padua, it was soon discovered that entrance to the Chapel was blocked by thousands of visitors who, although perhaps not as eager as us, had certainly been far more rigorous in planning their visit. Messire was fuming that we couldn’t see the chapel, and no amount of bribery, threats or supplication was able to make the guards any more pliable to our project. Disappointed, Messire made for the baptistery, where some consolation was taken in the frescoes by Giusto de Menabuoi. Messire was sure that Menabuoi had been one of Giotto’s pupils, something recent scholarship finds doubtful. A couple of hours were spent admiring the ‘creation of the world’ and ‘paradise’, two of the most accomplished and moving scenes of the entire fresco programme. Just as Michel de Montaigne before him, Messire concluded that there are no good barbers in the whole of Italy, which we all found a bit harsh. In fact, Messire was angry that the only barber he found on his way to the stables was due to open shortly, but was still closed an hour later. Perhaps not that there are no good barbers in Italy, but that they are not men of their word.

Our tired horses took us to Milan, and from there back to morose Albion. Messire was already dreaming of other voyages he would soon make to Italy.



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