Rome, the Long Way Round, Part II
The several days we spent at Ulivello vibrate in the memory like an hallucination. Our friend Navrozov has written a beautiful piece about his visit to Ulivello. The reality was a bit grittier and decayed than he described it—less the odor of jasmine than of hay and manure—but no less magical. The food was almost a revelation: pasta, of course, but followed by farm-raised pork, roasted with apples and served with potatoes deep-fried in olive oil.
Ulivello had been a sort of farm, worked by share-croppers, and when the Italian government ended share-cropping, the former croppers stayed on as farmers, but they also helped out with the place. The housekeeper-cook kept dozens of rabbits in the barn, and my children, who had pet rabbits, were curious. “Why so many rabbits, dad?” We ruefully agreed with the rabbit-lover that there would be no coniglio on the table, though a week or so later, when we spent a day in Florence with Prof. Kopff, my wife and friend both ordered rabbit at Il Latini—this was before the place got into the guidebooks and went downhill—while I had to be smart and continue my search for edible tripe dishes.
After the serenity of the Colli Chianti, our beach hotel at Tirrenia was more like any resort. The children made friends with an English girl who quite regularly put the Americans in their place and kept them there. We ate the first night in a seafood joint that seemed remarkably like seafood joints in South Carolina, though the smell of unshelled shrimp with the heads left on and burned on the grill was at first nauseating until I came to associate it with the flavor of properly grilled shrimp. (It is only when we return to South Carolina that I can get the unheaded shrimp grilling requires.) There was a carnival going on nearby, and I began to feel that Federico Fellini was directing our vacation.
The conference seemed to go well. I have never much liked listening to academic papers and resented the hours spent in the very modern Palazzo dei Congressi. When Dr. Kopff and I finished our presentation, the moderator—Jean Irigoin of the Sorbonne—announced that we had to leave without questions because the building maintenance people were going to turn out the lights. I don’t think this was an editorial comment on our paper, but his peremptory manner made me a bit happier that I had taken a teaching job instead of spending a year with him on a Fullbright travel grant. In the back of the hall, an impressive Italian stood up, wearing his jacket in the older Italian manner, with the arms not in the sleeves, and cried out,
“No. Ho un intervento multo importante che debbo fare.” (I have a very important intervention that I must make.)
That was about as much as I understand, though even then I knew that debbo was a rather old-fashioned alternative to devo (both from Latin debeo). From what others told me, the Great Man had shot down my basic thesis. As I waxed indignant, one Italian told me, “You should be very honored. Professor Gentili said that while you were mistaken on a basic point, your work was among the most important research being conducted on Greek poetry.” That was some comfort.
Gentili sought me out, but while he could read English, he could not really speak it, and I could not even read Italian, without a great deal of effort. (In writing my dissertation I had, in fact, checked out Gentili’s writings on the meter of Greek lyric poetry, but technical languages tend to be universal, especially between Italian, which I had not studied, and French, which I could read with ease.) We slipped into academic French, which neither spoke especially well. Growing impatient, Gentili said in parting, “If you ever learn Italian, come see me.” Which I did a few years later, but that is another story.
After two nights at the beach, spending extra money on the children’s room, we decided to move into Pisa, where we booked a four bed room at the Royal Victoria Hotel, always somewhere between ruin and restoration. In 1990 it was closer to ruin than restoration. The plaster was falling off the wall; the plumbing went back to the 1940’s; and the furniture was old and rickety without being charming; but our room overlooked the Arno. The windows had no screens, and I had not yet learned that the late Medieval population of Pisa was cut in half by the malarial mosquitoes that bred in the shallows of the river and marshy areas of the city, which had once been closer to the sea by several miles. In a drawer we found something that looked a bit like the coin slot of a gum machine, and next to it were sticks of what looked like wax. The machine, which had a plug, said Vapomat, and it took us a long night of mosquito attacks before one of us realized that if you put a stick of wax into the Vapomat and plugged it into the wall, it released a scent offensive to flying insects. We felt a bit like Columbus, when he caught his first sight of land.
Inevitably we visited the Piazza dei Miracoli several times. It was the most beautiful complex of buildings I had ever seen, and while I have since that time seen and studied a great many buildings in Europe, there is nothing that has impressed me more than the cathedral, baptistery, Campo Santo, and, of course, the Campanile or Torre. The cathedral was the greatest religious building project undertaken in Italy since the fall of the Western Empire, and it inspired other Tuscan towns to follow in the footsteps of the Pisans--half Crusaders and more than half pirates. The most common Italian word for cathedral is not cattedrale , a perfectly good ordinary word, but duomo, which many visitors to Italy interpret as a reference to the dome on many but certainly not most churches. In fact, it is simply the Italian form of Latin domus, It is generally interpreted as domus dei, house of God, though some would have it that it is domus episcopi, house of the bishop.
The first time I glimpsed the tower, I was walking to lunch with former colleagues in classics. To avoid the crowd, we were going through back streets. I was paying attention to the conversation, but, suddenly looking up, I saw this magnificent balustraded tower falling on me. Since this unfolding reminiscence is supposed to be about Rome, I’ll save anything I might have to say about the piazza for another occasion.
For some reason, wherever I go, I am mistaken for a Frenchman. Walking one day on the other side of the Arno, a group of French tourists stopped me: “Pardon, Monsieur, mais pouvez-vous nous dire où se trouve la tour pendente?” Or something like that. The same thing happens to me in France. To this day, I no idea why, since so far as I know I don’t have a drop of French blood unless you count the Flemings who accompanied William the Bastard.
We stayed in Pisa about a week, and I hated to leave. But who can visit Italy the first time without going to Rome?
To be continued…