From 1979, in that youthful idyll that one somehow took for granted, I delighted in taking part in the summer music festivals of Montepulciano (Mahler 10!!!),* Batignano (Mozart’s Zaide!!!), Pesaro (Rossini’s Mi manca la voce!!!), and the Arena di Verona. Meanwhile I avidly began exploring the whole region—Florence, Siena, Perugia, Urbino, Pisa, Orvieto, Arezzo, and so on (see also The rake’s progress).
Apart from phrase-books, impressionistically-translated guidebooks can provide much Harmless Fun for All the Family. Among the favourites in my collection is one that I found in the medieval hill-town of San Gimignano, “the Manhattan of Tuscany” (cf. Suzhou, Venice of the East, Balham, gateway to the South, and “palm trees are nothing to us—we’re from Torquay”).
Here’s St Fina (1238–53, sic), patron saint of the town, clasping a model of it (or possibly a birthday cake), as depicted in a series of scenes from her legend on a reliquary tabernacle (1401–2) by Lorenzo di Niccolò Gerini.
Some of these guidebooks are impressively erudite. In English, estimable research like that of Enzo Raffa in San Gimignano by the beautiful towers has been pleasantly garbled, supplementing education with giggles—always a winning combo. It opens with evocative images:
Seen in the distance, it seems an inaccessible town. Going up from the Poggibonsi way, which is the most common, the towers lose their prospective and get down** till disappearing among olive trees. The brown silver color of leaves increases the silence around red bricks of walls. From the Certaldo way, the town is more braggart. Towers are as straight as halberds be they wet by the rain or burnt by the sun, they always keep the very same color and maintain the same soleliness of the black and closed cypresses of these places.
He then goes all Zen on us:
And here, in the space enlarging at a bell’s touch, a strange sensation of surety embraces our soul.
As he takes us through the usual catalogue of medieval strife, some elements in the social picture are timeless:
A few families, the richest ones, try to impose their sovereignty through the joke of reincharges.
With Italy currently a major centre for Coronavirus, some recent articles have made parallels with historical disasters such as the 1629 outbreak in Florence. Still earlier, as Raffa relates, San Gimignano was stricken by the Black Death pandemic:
Where the interior struggles could not get, the pest arrived. The great pest of 1348, the one killing the sweet Laura of Petrarca poet, along with a great number of persons.
And he’s aware of other modern parallels:
For a town like San Gimignano, the destruction of walls would have been equal to the taking off of a suit at the open air in a rigid winter day. […] San Gimignano is refusing.
Once upon a time it was said that San Gimignano had 72 beautiful towers. Only 25 were standing up in 1580. Today there are 14, others may be numbered but they are either included in buildings or docked to a great extent. Their architecture is a speaking sign of the mentality made of surety, of offense and of pride.
As the author explains:
The holes we can still see on the facades were used for the quick building of bridges which could be used either for reaching friend families’ towers or to attach enemy families’ towers.
I’m sure he’s right, but I wonder if anyone spotted a design flaw there.
Piazza della Cisterna.
Elsewhere I read that a common, if one-off, pastime in San Gimignano was to commit suicide by throwing oneself off a high tower. But another popular way of ending it all, in Italy as in China, was by throwing oneself down a deep well. The most elegant method, I surmise, would be to throw oneself off a high tower into a deep well, as Freud and Jung might have suggested—one possible target for the ambitious acrobatic depressive might be the well in Piazza della Cisterna.
Well (sic) might one exclaim, like a duty roster for the Wigan emergency services as read in the voice of Alan Bennett:
Sick transit, Gloria, Monday
Cf. A Bach mondegreen, and Jan ‘n’ Dia—L.A. den “Bhabi!”.
From Assisi, home of Saint Francis, I moved on to Gubbio, enjoying the miracle of the saint taming a wolf that terrorized the town until it meekly offered its paw to him. Actually, it was a peace deal:
- “As thou art willing to make this peace, I promise thee that thou shalt be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as thou shalt live among them; thou shalt no longer suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made thee do so much evil; but if I obtain all this for thee, thou must promise, on thy side, never again to attack any animal or any human being; dost thou make this promise?”
“Giving in to terrorism”, as it might now be called.
The wolf of Gubbio is one of many panels that Sassetta painted from 1437 to 1444 for an altarpiece in San Francesco at Borgo San Sepolcro near Arezzo. And now I can go and admire it, alongside some gorgeous Duccio panels, at Room 52 of the National Gallery in London!
Describing the wolf, my Italian guidebook to Gubbio contained the delightful phrase quadrupede feroce—an expression that later my Italian partner and I always tried, on the flimsiest of pretexts, to shoehorn into our conversations revolving around cuddly domestic pets.
The troubled background of such picturesque old towns can now be neatly packed away under cultural history; and they are not mere cultural playgrounds for tourists—real people have to make a living there through changing times (cf. Venice daily life in a theme park). Still, basking in these guidebooks now, with their lavish illustrations of exquisite medieval archecture and painting, I find it intriguing that only a few years later I graduated to traipsing around grimy dilapidated towns in north China, where little trace has survived of any material culture predating the 1950s (see also Molvania).
Suide county-town, Shaanbei, 2001. My photo.
And the villages are hardly more idyillic: among decrepit single-storey dwellings from the Maoist era, the alleys are strewn with litter. The great compensation, of course, is the expressive culture of rural China.
See also Italy: folk musicking; On visual culture; and The struggle against Mussolini.
* Exclamation marks courtesy of Mahler himself.
** Cf. “get down baby” in Bo Dudley’s Mama’s got a brand new bag.