invited me on an excursion which turned out to be an adventure.
It led us to an isolated and undisturbed region in the mountains,
the Lusigiana, where villages seem to hang between cliffs and the
wild blue yonder. The road had not a single straight stretch. John
was our driver. In the back seat sat Grazia and a friend chatting
and pointing out the details of interest of the region, not Italian
high art and beauties, but rather, here a valley with a small romantic
church, there, up on a promontory, a ruined ancient fortification,
strict and cubistic as was the aesthetic preference of the d'Estes
who were masters of most of the region. The mountain town of Fivizzano
was our destination, fifty kilometers away but it took two and a
half hours needed to drive there. Fivizzano is one among countless
small Italian cities long in decline, bypassed by history, devastated
by losses of young men in the First World War, then the massive
destruction wrought by an earthquake in 1920, then the exodus of
the young, the strong and the gifted through emigration, then the
worldwide depression of the 1930's, then the havoc of the Second
World War with partisans of all stripes warring with one another,
and throughout it all, the poverty.
approached our goal. Before the city gate lies a welcoming plane
with mature shade trees. From this sheltered vantage point, one
can take in the majesty of the surrounding mountainscape with its
panoply of hues quivering in the bright mid day sun. The road leads
us through the gates to the "Piazza Garibaldi" -- what
else could be its name -- with its monument to its fallen heroes
of the first World War, ubiquitous to every Italian city and town.
A narrow street is lined with once beautiful facades, having passed
beyond the beauties of "the patina of age" and into plain
ruin, but nevertheless suggestive of once-upon-a-time grandeur.
A little further along, the street widens into a broad piazza. A
fountain strews the sounds of rushing waters, as it has since the
mid sixteenth century when Cosimo de Medici visited the city and
decided to invest in it. The town after all belonged to the Medicis.
The fountain and the Medici coat-of-arms over the rebuilt gates
tell of those proud times.
we get to the reason why we set forth on this adventure in the first
place. In front of a wonderful and harmonic facade of a palace (designed
by a well known late Renaissance architect from the town of Massa,
we learn) we meet a woman and her young daughter. She is dressed
very conservatively Italian, with light green fitted designer jacket,
and although a German named Engelhardt, speaks and behaves as a
active Italian. Her Italian was so perfect that I could only turn
pale with envy. She belongs to an international club of culturally
engaged women and had organized this event, the purpose of which
was to visit the "Fantoni Bononi Palazzo", a museum displaying
the arts and methods of printing. Gradually, the different impressions
began to come together to learn about Jacopo da Fivizzano. He lived
in this city and began printing books, very early on, 1471, one
year before the first printing in Venice.
we find ourselves part of a group of very elegantly dressed people,
mostly Italian, but nearby a Dane married to an English lady. I
praise the Danish painter Abilgaard, who had spent time in Rome
and was terribly important as an enlightened neo-classical spirit
and am told that neither has he ever heard of him, but that the
two enjoy skiing and gardening which their living in a mountain
village allows them. Typically, the local "gentry" foreign
and native, seize every opportunity to get together and undertake
something of a culturally "elevated" nature. Everyone
is in his or her finery, men in suit and tie, women with make-up
and elegant shoes, their jewelry shining in the sunlight.
we wait, standing about. It is Saturday and some sort of ceremony,
a wedding as we are to learn, is underway at the church on the
piazza. Young altar boys dressed in white stand at its entrance.
We expect something to transpire, but the boys stay as they
are. We all stay as we are. In the church tower, huge bells
hung on the belfry -- not in the belfry but on it, each bell
fastened to a spoked wheel, as if to some instrument of torture,
and half of each wheel overhanging the outside of the tower,
seeming about to topple with its tons of mass crashing onto
whatever unfortunate thing might lie below.
nightmarish wheels begin to move, to force their captive bells to
ring in a sort of disarray, each swinging in an ever increasing
arc, the bells screaming louder, until it seems they are, with a
hellish glee, about to destroy the stone tower that mounts them.
Then, silence as each has become exquisitely balanced and locked
in place upside down, with its open end facing skyward. There is
anticipation, then all are released and begin to tip in unison,
each beginning a precipitous arc, and with a sudden clang, there
begins a kind of orderly, ear shattering descending melody, becoming
more random and mercifully softer as the arcs precess, then the
ascending process repeats itself as the wheels of hell once again
bring each screaming bell agape skyward, hovering in anticipation.
A remarkable opus, these bells, undoubtedly the masterpiece of some
long forgotten genius who perhaps never ventured beyond his native
city. To me, it seemed very threatening. But how could a simple
"glockenspiel" seem so nightmarish? Now, I remember. In
our schoolbook when I was a very young child, there was a picture
of a little girl running for her life and a huge evil church bell
with hands outstretched pursuing her, about to catch her, because
she didn't want to go to church. My younger sister and I were terrified
by this image.
there appeared on the scene an older, very distinguished looking
man with flashing blue eyes and noble nose, in colorful shirt and
suspenders. Doctor Loris Jacopo Bononi. He began to speak and could/would
not stop. A bit later, it was established that the key to the palazzo
that houses the museum was not to be had. Doctor Bononi was beside
himself with fury and shame. He had purchased the palazzo, assembled
the contents of the museum and bequeathed it to the city, and no
one knew where the key could be, even though Frau Engelhardt finally
explained me, in German, that she had prepared everything ahead
of time for the visit. The group waited and waited, for about an
hour, this being Italy, expecting the usual miracle to occur. An
older, friendly man was woodworking in his street level "cantina",
sanding away at an old door as the German lady tried desperately
to reach somebody at the city offices, trying to reach anyone who
knew the whereabouts of the elusive key. But nobody could be reached
and Dottore Bononi became ever more agitated. I was afraid he might
have a heart attack. He was going on about how he had spent nearly
two million euros to preserve the patrimony of Fivizzano through
this gift, and the city was so lacking in foresight that they wouldn't
come up with funds to publicize it, maintain it, or even to cut
the grass in the lovely garden that it includes. He was so disgusted
that he himself even refuses to have a key, and this apparently
made him the more furious. In the mean time, as if on cue, the group,
as one, accepted that there would be no miracle today and moved
on toward the piazza.
woodworker waved at me from across the way and opened a door to
his house and showed me proudly a restored old manufactory in which,
once upon a time, shoes were made by hand. The conditions were rude
and Spartan, but everything of importance to the owner hung on his
wall, from old photos to the framed diplomas of his children, their
passports to the grander world.
the group had commandeered the banquet room of a cafe on the piazza,
the best and likely the only one to be found nearby, and il gentile
Signore Bononi began to hold forth. And now began a treat, to be
addressed by such a fine mind, an educated classical humanist, a
country doctor of good family, then a professor of medicine, then
a researcher in America, in the process making a large fortune.
His passion includes not only rare books, but the entire range of
Italian grandeur and patrimony, now forgotten by a prosaic generation
and fading from memory. He spoke without pause for a full two hours,
with an elegant eloquence approaching poetry, the beautiful poetic
language of a passing generation. From his satchel he drew rare,
leather bound antique books printed by the legendary Jacopo da Fivizzano
himself, one of which, he told us, he located in Connecticut. Each
exemplar he handled with love, holding it like a newborn baby, with
his beautiful slightly shaking hands. Cicero's speeches were among
them. Gradually, his great disappointment came to light, that his
bequest to the city, the museum and its precious contents, indeed,
this very birthplace of movable type printing in Italy is of vanishing
significance in the present age. With greatest passion and pain,
with tears filling his lively blue eyes, he asks what has happened
to culture? to humanism?
else in the room was still as a mouse. At times glances were exchanged.
Not everyone shared the good doctor's prognosis. His excursions
ranged from scandal filled day-to-day Italian politics to annihilation
of Indians in the name of Catholicism. Grazia, a faithful Catholic,
cast a bewildered look my way at this past theme, which I avoided
because I stand on the humanist's side of this issue. Finally, he
read to us a beautiful hymn of his own creation, an ode to "the
book" and the applause broke forth. A gentleman made a short
speech and presented him with a book as a gift, a work about local
cooking traditions. Grazia explained to me how people in poor regions,
like in the Lusigiana are skilled at using herbs to make their simple
fare more palatable. I have some growing and doing well in my window
garden in Barga. Yes, culture and good food, and this beauty all
about that grips the heart.
we finally, toward midnight, arrived back in Barga, we found ourselves
in the middle of a celebration. Young men were standing in open
cars driving by, shouting, honking, flags waving. The city's soccer
team had won an important match, releasing a flow of testosterone.
This prosaic scene would certainly not have pleased old Jacopo Bononi.
He was probably caressing his books, that Jacopo da Fivizzano printed
more than five hundred years ago, as he fell asleep with Cicero's
words in his heart.
English translation by John Urmson