Un Piccolo Giro in Padania

June 2000

Milan

Milan is a city of art. There is the indoor and the outdoor variety, but to enjoy even the indoor specimens one does not have to step inside. It is enough to stroll along Via della Spiga or Via Montenapoleone stopping to gaze at the store windows. From Dolce & Gabbana, to Ferre, to Gucci, each window would provoke a binge of heart eating from any member of the Medici clan who had only Ninja-Turtles to satisfy their artistic cravings. It gets even better outdoors. According to The New York Times, each fall for a few days, these streets are overrun by “a herd of unbelievably beautiful beings.” It’s the casting season for models. In truth, all the bounty from della Spiga, Montenapoleone, and similar museum enclaves, gets modeled year round throughout the city by hordes of girls next door, Milanese version. And this is good enough for a regular American Joe. The live art bearers handily beat the competition from traditional Milanese museums (ok, there is a cute Pollaiolo girl at the Museo Poldi-Pezzoli, but what can one girl do?) They also win hands down over the biggest outdoor competitor, a horse. To be sure, the horse is big. It had to be. It’s a mile-long walk from the nearest Lorenzo Lotto station of the Metropolitana. As we rounded the Hippodrome in pursuit of the beast, Ilya muttered: “This horse better be really, really big.” It was. Plus its original design came from the greatest ninja turtle of all, a local engineer called Leonardo. But a horse is just a horse… 

Another art pairing presented itself at the already mentioned Museo Poldi-Pezzoli. A certain Vittore Ghislandi (1655-1743), later known as Fra’ Galgario, a Bergamasque provincial who made it to the capital circles, painted an uncommonly vivid portrait of Cavaliere dell’ordine costantiniano (the time was early settecento).  The cavaliere, full of admiration for his lace-adorned tunic, luxurious tricorn, and his own persona, is fairly dripping with disdain for the rest of the world.  At the entrance of the museum, three beautiful military caps with huge flame-shaped golden cocards were reposing on the table. Their owners, Carabinieri in full-dress uniform complete with swords, agreed to pose for a picture. A Cavalieri vs. Carabinieri match would be a draw (even the uniforms of the two teams were the same blue color!), if not again for the numeric advantage of the zerocento (a.k.a. Y2K) team.

Castello Sforzesco was built naturally enough for the Sforza Dukes of Milan. It is constructed of red brick and has a tall tower with a clock over the main entrance gate. Where have I seen this style before? The fortress was built by Guiniforte Solari, a local architect. Guiniforte’s larger task was to supervise the construction of the Duomo, the cathedral of Milan. The project was so big that he employed his son, Pietro Antonio. P.A. was definitely still at his dad’s side as late as 1476. In 1481 the older Solari died, and soon after, the young man decamped east to join a start-up operation code-named “The Third Rome,” undoubtedly attracted by the Italian-sounding logo.  He was mistaken. The CEO of the budding enterprise, Ivan von Rurik, III, was not of Latin persuasion, and the city he lorded over was not called Rome at all. All the employees were his serfs. But a contract is a contract: Pietro built walls and towers for his new boss. The walls were covered with red brick and a tall tower stood guard over the main gate (a clock was added later). The structure kept the name of its more modest predecessor – the Kremlin of Moscow.

Behind the Kremlin of Milan lies Parco Sempione (Simplon Park). The map showed it all crossed by roads with names like Via Goethe, Via Dante, Via Hugo, and so on. We could not pass up a chance to stand at the corner of Via Pushkin (Puskin in Italian) and Via Shakespeare and take a picture of the signs. The roads turned out to be simple garden alleys with no signs in sight. Carefully following the map we walked through the maze aiming at the Pushkin neighborhood. Two men and a woman were lounging on the grass looking across a pond at the red walls of Solari’s Castello, their pure Moscow accent betraying their recent arrival in the West. We checked our map: we were on Via Puskin.

Leonardo, the CTO for armaments to the Duke, accomplished nevertheless some non-technology projects while in Sforza’s service. He was a renaissance man after all. In fact, it was in Milan that he created his second most famous oeuvre, a fresco in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The Last Supper had recently been restored and, like some other marquee attractions, was enclosed in a high-tech space-age shell. To reach the Cenacolo vinciano one has to pass through several sealed cameras to filter particles and maintain air parameters. Only 15 visitors can be in the room at a time. Not surprisingly, advance phone reservations are almost a must. Almost that is, because I was lucky: I arrived at midday completely ignorant of the procedures, but after 20 minutes of despondently loitering by the door, some cancellations materialized and a few hapless pilgrims were made hapful. The masterpiece was a disappointment: it was really, really clean, but very, very pale. As a result it looked better in reproductions.

The “really big” horse, was another project that Leonardo started but did not have enough “hap” to finish. It was supposed to include a man on top of the beast, his boss no less. Unlike Tony Blair’s Millennium Dome this boondoggle was never completed to the disappointment of Duke Ludovico. It took an American eccentric from Allentown, PA, 500 years later to pull off the trick. The horse was made in New York State and assembled in Milan in July 1999. Somehow, even the perfect mouth of this gift did not enthrall the townsmen of da Vinci. Not only was the statue tucked away far from the center, but nobody had even heard about it a year after the move.

I learned about it the hard way. My presentation at CMG Italia conference took place the following morning at the headquarters of Fast (Federazione delle associazioni scientifiche e techniche) near Via Fatebenefratelli. I started by comparing myself to Leonardo’s horse: we were both presumably “visitatori americani” coming to Italy after a long absence (my slide showed an appropriate picture of a really big horse muzzle). I even included a reference to my listeners’ luck at hearing my stuff directly “from the horse’s mouth” (dalla bocca del cavallo). I could distinctly hear my attempt at humor flopping with a thud. My Italian audience had no idea what I was talking about. I also learned a little later that humor is not really expected on a formal Italian occasion. On the bright side, Ilya, sitting in the first row, did not understand  what I was saying and did not realize how hard I was flopping, hence did not include it in the list of my shortcomings. Well, at least I was able to finish the whole thing and answer the questions.

My report was the opening presentation of the conference and I was glad it was over early. Later, listening to some other speakers, especially professors, I wished I had borrowed some of their neat expressions. Especially useful would have been the word be’ (“well”) which nicely filled all the little pauses and transitions in the entertaining speech of the famous Professor Serazzi (he co-authored a classic book on performance analysis with Domenico Ferrari of Berkeley). The professor also used the word garibaldini which, in translation from Italian, turned out to mean not heroic freedom fighters but dilettantes (well, I have to use another Italian word to translate, which just goes to show how large a debt the world owes to Italy when it comes to artistic expression of disdain). Regrets notwithstanding, my wild and crazy act was an “idiot’s dream” come true for me.  At the evening reception, a tall, dark and handsome guy approached me and reminded that he was one of the two gentlemen (the other being President of CMG Italia) who had invited me to the conference half a year earlier. He revealed that he had not believed me when I promised to make my presentation in Italian. He said, he did now. This was as good as it gets. The dark guy turned out to be Jewish with a mother living in Israel and roots in Eastern Europe. Another guy, this one not dark and indeed a transplanted and Italianized Englishman, told me that many attendees did not understand English very well but they understood my Italian, hence my daredevil stunt brought them a real benefit. (Note: two years later CMGItalia announced the requirement for all papers to be presented in English, the better to integrate the Italian community with the rest of the world. I made it with my outlandish escapade just in the nick of time).

In the meantime, Danilo, Vice President of CMG Italia, and Cristina, the CMG secretary, were getting ready for the raffle. The scene was Ristorante da Angelo in Localita Fumo in what is known in Italy as Oltrepo Pavese. The name means “Pavia (province) beyond Po” (Paviyskoe zapovye). The fertile valley can be considered the rich Italian belly for its abundance of frutti di terra, as well as di mare. The dinner began in the open air courtyard with an aperitivo della casa and then moved indoors. A specially printed menu of the Cena Sociale was placed next to each setting.  The menu contained 20 items and I decided that I would need to make some selections later on. A well-schooled platoon of waiters descended on 60 or so computer geeks, dispensing antipasti and then insalata russa (this was not a misnomer – a real potatoes and mayonnaise salad just like back in Russia). Porcini mushrooms and stuffed tomatoes followed. Then risotto, then tortelli, then pappardelle… I looked at the menu and it dawned on me: each course would be served to everybody! This was the fabled 20 course dinner the likes of which I had only read about in a book describing a visit of the last Russian Emperor to the President of France. And I had screwed up by conscientiously polishing every plate placed in front of me. Ten more courses to go with no room left to pack them. I recalled that my neighbors seemed to skip or go light on some of the dishes but I, oblivious to the hints, followed the habit impressed on me from the childhood: if the food is on the plate, it should be finished. I hit the brakes, but it was too late. By the time profiteroles came around, my glazed over eyes could not even see them clearly much less entice my palate, which was all to the best.

It was OK that I did not win the top prize in the raffle, a laptop bag, since I hate to drag around laptops anyway, nor did I win anything else for that matter.  As the darkened bus rolled through the fecund fields of Oltrepo back to Milan, the British guy from Aosta was telling me how it was impossible to explain to Chinese waiters in Italy, that rice could be served in any way other than before everything else. I appreciated communication in my native tongue, for a change.

On the last evening in Milan bright red posters with the headline Rievocazione della battaglia di Marengo attracted our attention.  200 years had passed since the Battle of Marengo that took place on the plain of Alexandria west of Milan and changed the fate of Northern Italy. The posters promised a huge reenactment by a regiment of carabinieri and we were severely tempted. The most prominent historic character in our hometown’s historic reenactment is Captain Parker (OK, Paul Revere also rides in, but at midnight), while here the main attraction was Napoleon Bonaparte himself and a cast of literally thousands of splendid Carabinieri a cavallo, no mere garibaldini they, quite unlike dentists (including ours) and software engineers who impersonate ragtag Minutemen on the Lexington Green. But a deep-green Mercedes A awaited us next morning ready and certified to go east, so east we went.

When a Europcar reservations guy told me that the only car they had available to go to Eastern Europe was a Mercedes, I was scared. I did not want to drive into the post-communist vacuum fearing a giant sucking sound separating us from a marvel engineered like no other car in the world. Rather, I was quite desperate to blend in. I should not have worried. A class A Mercedes teeny-van had a footprint smaller than a Volkswagen Bug. To fit our modest luggage into its snubtailed behind, moderate karate skills seemed to be a must. As for engineering, the first doubt occurred to me when I turned on the engine. The fuel gauge had a hard time deciding where to rest its tired arm. Concerned about refueling charges I asked the rental attendant how much gas I was supposed to have.  With traditional Italian optimism he assured me that the tank was full and I would not be charged for destroying the gas gauge. He was right: instead I was later charged a mere 100,000Lit for refueling which I presumably had signed for regardless of the contents of the tank on car’s return (to be fair, the American branch of the company annulled the charge after only a month of bickering).

Free at last, we drove off into the streets of Milan ready to take revenge for being pedestrians there for too long. Now, it was our turn to instill the fear of God into poor two-legged creatures impudent enough to try to cross the street anywhere anytime. Life was good… but not for long. A nasty beep emanating from the dashboard startled us from our momentary complacency. The cryptic letters HI appeared next to the symbol of dripping oil. The beeping stopped a minute later but the picture remained. We were almost ready to write off the nuisance when, after a longer than usual traffic light change at an intersection, the beep sounded again. This time, with 1000 miles ahead of us we decided to abort the mission and return to the rental office. The clerk was surprised by our persistence probably marveling at American hang-ups but he had no idea what the signals meant and invited a colleague to marvel at the mystery together. Pushed to the wall, we pulled a manual from the glove compartment and quickly found that HI meant high oil level and that it was a really bad sign for the car we were driving. The clerks accepted the quote from the book about the meaning of HI but disagreed with the assessment of the danger. The car had just come directly from the factory, where everything had surely been taken care of in the most proper German manner. There was nothing to worry about, and, in case there would be, we were welcome to call a friendly Europcar office nearby wherever we were. Thus reassured, and with a thick directory of Europcar locations complementing our regular sightseeing guides, we drove off in search of the way out of Milan, for the second time.

After missing the highway entrance only twice and circling back each time, we finally got on the autostrada with an encouraging sign Venezia 450km. Without traffic lights to wait for, the HI light on the dashboard was there to stay but the beep stopped. We realized only after a while that the picture of the oil can prevented us from seeing the odometer. Thus both the tank gauge and the mileage were unavailable making it possible to run out of gas without knowing it. We decided to count our distances on the map and fill up accordingly. Our little Mercedes kept us alert in more ways than one.

Lago di Garda

Getting on the road in a foreign place is always the most exciting part. It’s the expectation of the materialization of the myth. Growing up I could spend hours at a time looking at maps, the more exotic the better. Later, I found I was equally delighted reading language textbooks. The thrill was completely non-utilitarian: I had no hope of ever going to those places or using those languages. It was like studying geography of Middle Earth or learning to speak Klingon.  They were not of this world and you probably had to die and be reborn to get there – a mythic notion in itself. This is why when you see a road sign to Marengo or Solferino you want to pinch yourself to try to wake up. And if the signs are not fake, not only do these places probably exist but maybe there was a Napoleon and a Garibaldi. And when it turns out that lots of people actually understand the words that the textbook said they should understand – what does it really mean? Could they have simply agreed to pretend, like Klingon or Esperanto devotees, or is Italian their natural language they grew up with?

In the meantime, Città Alta of Bergamo, hometown of Truffaldino, Donizetti, and more interestingly Quarenghi, was rushing past us on the left. Giacomo Quarenghi, like Solari before him, decamped to points east and ended up building another icon for the Czar and the follow-up Evil Empire – the Smolny Institute.  His inspiration, however, was not in his native city, rather he followed the lead of the genius of Vicenza.

Lago di Garda is the largest of the great Italian lakes. It’s shaped as a pear, or more to the liking of the souvenir peddlers, as a violin, so the bottom part of it is a bit too wide to be as strikingly beautiful as its sisters Maggiore, Lugano and especially Como (for some reason all northern lakes have a second name: Verbano, Ceresio, and Lario, with Garda being Benaco). Nevertheless, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was seriously impressed by Garda. But then he started from the northern narrow part which we missed, and truth be told, he never failed to be smitten by a romantic Italian landscape. After all, the guy was the founder of sentimentality, what with the young Werther and his admirable suicide. He was way ahead of his time when it came to being in touch with his inner self and stuff. He is also the undisputed patron saint of the autonomous tourist offices in Northern Italy, at least judging by their web sites, and by the fact that Germans dominate the visitor crowd.

It is the 3 dwellings of former lakeside residents, 2 poets and one warlord, or maybe 1 ½ of each, that are the main attraction of Garda. Two of the structures are in the town of Sirmione. If a pear were cut in half and the center of its bottom were surgically removed, the resulting outline of that little center would represent Sirmione, a narrow promontory jutting out 3 miles into the lake. At the entrance of its old part is Rocca Scaligera, a 13th century castle surrounded by the lake. It looks artistic now and the views from its towers are splendid but it’s hewn from rough gray stone and served as the shelter for the Scaligeri guys with names like

Cangrande and Cansignorio – uberdog warlords both. At the tip of the peninsula, stands a villa, now in ruins, of a more refined vacationer – Catullus, a Roman poet and like his big dog neighbors a native of Verona. It was designed for beautiful views and patrician dolce vita, and young Gaius Valerius (he died at 30) undoubtedly enjoyed both. Centuries later, Roman decay looked even better for Claude Lorraine, an intern in Italy from provincial France, and later still for Johann Wolfgang von G. himself.  Halfway between the poet’s place and the house of the dogs, on the narrow pedestrian drag a work of another local is displayed – the sign of Ristorante Arcimboldo shows the familiar veggie-face created by the forefather of surrealism.

Moving clockwise around the lake and heading towards the “fingerboard part” of the violin, passing through Salò, by coincidence the hometown of the grandfather of violin Gaspare Bertolotti da Salò (he started before Amati and the gang), we reached Il Vittoriale degli Italiani. In the movie Fitzcarraldo the main character tries to haul a big boat across the mountain. He fails. Gabriele d’Annunzio wanted to lift a ship only halfway up, and he succeeded. The proto-fascist romantic dismantled it first and then re-assembled at the top. Madder in a way, and certainly more eccentric than the movie madman, his life was a string of successful stunts. In the air, at sea and on land, d’Annunzio performed acts of daredevilry. He became the dictator of the short-lived Republic of Fiume (now Rieka in Croatia, both words meaning “river”). The ship up on the hill, Puglia, was one of those that waged battles in Dalmatia in 1920, “freedom” for Italian lands around the Adriatic being d’Annunzio’s pet project. The inventor of fascist pageantry including the Roman salute, the “First Duce” was a mentor to the eventual Duce – “Benitushka” Mussolini (Benitushka was what Russian émigré socialists called their teenage apprentice in Lausanne at the turn of the century).  The top of the hill was chosen for Mausoleo – a huge round construction in the style of totalitarian classicism, commemorating the heroes of Fiume   and containing the sarcophagus (a genuine Roman one) of the estate owner himself.

A connoisseur of good things in life – wine, food, art, and especially women – the Byronic poet made sure that the views from his villa down on the lake were marvelous and exquisite. The villa itself, however, is a jumble of fake Roman grandeur and eclectic pieces of genuine and made up stuff, reminiscent of American tycoons imitating European potentates on the shores of Rhode Island and in the hills of New Hampshire. At the entrance to the villa, a souvenir stand had busts and full figure statuettes of the Duce, naturally in black, prominently displayed. Not something to be found in the Bundesrepublic with respect to their own version of Duce.

A ferry from Toscolano-Maderno to Torri del Benaco took us across the lake to a place made famous by wine bottle labels – Bardolino. I know that Valpolicella is also nearby, but late hour and hunger make us stop at Bardolino with nothing more exotic to sink our teeth into than pizza, albeit on the shore of Lago del Benaco (it’s still the same lake of course, if you paid attention a few paragraphs above).  We ended the day at the Crocioni Hotel Rizzi. Booking it on the web I noticed that the owner, Ottorino Rizzi, devoted a special page to his libertarian political project of “gradual but DRASTIC reforms” leading however to “PEOPLE DICTATORSHIP” (LA DITTATURA DELLA CITTADINANZA). Manifestos notwithstanding, nothing drastic happened to us at the hotel, in fact, it was the cheapest yet very comfortable and roomy stay of the Italian segment of our trip. This Otto must be doing something right (his manifesto at http://www.hotelrizzi.com/Docs/frmanif.htm has disappeared by now, and it’s not clear whether a hotel still exists in that place).

Verona

San Zeno Maggiore has a slender campanile and cloisters with quintessentially Italian horizontal stripes. Hailing from the Romanesque 12C it’s much more delicate than its Kaiser Dom contemporaries north of the Alps. The first major piece of art that caught our eye as we entered the basilica was a huge gilded screen with a cross created by two wide grooves, one vertical one horizontal. In the center of the cross where the grooves met, a familiar image was painted in a circular medallion – the trinity, the Old Testament Trinity to be sure. Slightly bowed androgynous heads with halos, in three quarters profile, slim wings and staffs, bright blue, green and red vestments. Andrey Rublev! We looked around. Here was a Byzantine Mother of God – by Feofan the Greek? Christ entering the Temple (a pale green building like Giotto’s Arezzo).

A guy with shoulder-length dark hair and a neatly framed mustache-beard combination walked over to us. His similarly looking companion, minus the locks and the facial hair, joined him. Brothers Cristian and Florin Ungureanu had managed to forsake their native Iasi in the former Socialist Republic of Romania and get a foothold in the fraternal Latin culture of Italy. The brothers speak Italian (my Romanian was too rusty to try) but lament the lack of “culture” in this cradle of European civilization. They also speak a little English and hope to check out America some day (what else is new). Good luck to them in the search for a culture equal to that of exalted Romania. In the meantime they take any local venues that come their way. Apparently, the Russian icon style, slightly modernized, stood them in good stead. They did not look too starved or overly depressed.

Was it the thin drizzle or the fact that certain body parts of the bronze Juliet standing next to her famous balcony were too shiny, polished by love-starved pilgrims (yes, her right breast was the top attraction), but Verona did not knock our socks off as might have been expected. Only by the end of our loop, where Museo Castelvecchio’s crenellated towers and walls morphed into Ponte Scaligero over the Adige, waters from the sky merged with those of the river in liquid harmony. Our reverie on the bridge was interrupted by a small but boisterous crowd.

Marching under colorful flags and banners, not unlike those one would expect at the Palio of Siena, a group of cheerful young people, mostly female, was stepping out firmly on the side of the angels: they were protesting international prostitution rings. An Italian likes to demonstrate just as much as the guy next door (who happens to be French), but while for the French it’s about joie de vivre (e.g., striking nurses dancing their way through Champs de Mars), for the Italians it’s about drama. In Milan, a demonstration against layoffs equated them with the holocaust of Jews and Blacks, complete with cartoons depicting peaked caps and swastika-wearing Nazis of the HR department. Back in Verona, we, no friends of sexual slavery, followed the anti-whoring group for a bit, providing moral support before taking off.

Padua

On my previous visit to Padua, I arrived late in the evening. I had no hotel reservations but my search for lodging was quick. No posh Ostello per la Gioventù with comfy bunk beds like in Florence: I had neither time nor money for that. A few railroad cars detached from the engine on a back track of the railroad station were plenty good. Getting asleep there was a little unnerving – we did not know the habits of Polizia Ferroviaria with respect to sweeping detached cars overnight – but not impossible.  We were lucky, woke up refreshed in the morning, still at Stazione Centrale di Padova (rather than Bologoye) and went on foot to explore the city. The year was 1979 and a concert of works by Tartini to be performed by Leonid Kogan was on the program of Festival Internazionale del Violino sponsored by the local Accademia Tartiniana (Tartini and I have a relationship).

This time around, we drove our baby Benz off the highway and grabbed the first free parking spot on Via Giotto. We figured it could not be too far from the works of Ambrogio, son of Bondone, nicknamed Giotto. Unlike 21 years earlier, one could not just walk into Capella Scrovegni and see the story of three generations of the family of one Yehoshua Ha’Notzri depicted on its walls. With the indomitable progress of science, three glass-enclosed, hermetically sealed lobbies were added to the building raised by Enrico Scrovegni in expiation of the sins of his father Reginaldo placed in the Inferno by Dante himself. The new age pilgrims had to pass through this high tech Purgatory to be cleansed of all worldly impurities to become worthy of being in the presence of the miracle, and then only for 15 minutes. It was also necessary to buy a ticket for a particular time slot in advance. We were lucky in getting tickets for the last entry of the day an hour later. This and much more would have been worth it. While scholarly treatises describe the frescoes as the wellspring of all Western art, I was just as stunned to see them again as I was for the first time. And so was Ilya who had never seen them before.

A brief ride around the city, in the thickening dusk and returning drizzle (this was the end of the day begun in Verona) allowed us to see some local attractions, from the house of Anthonian worshipers – world famous basilica of San Antonio, a favorite son, with the statue of the favorite local strongman Gattamelata in front, to the house of the local reds – a nondescript two-story edifice painted all red except for the yellow five-pointed star with hammer and sickle and a cryptic sign “Ditta Fratelli Domenichelli, Gramigna.”

Before leaving, I could not help stopping at the Stazione Centrale to look for that track and that railroad car. I think I saw one in the dark background, when a luxury overnight train arriving from Venice cut off my view. A yellow plate on the side of the train said Venezia – Palermo. In the well-lit windows, people were getting ready to go to bed for the night.  We still had to drive for an hour in the opposite direction – to Venice.

 

Venice

Unlike Goethe, I did not want to go to Venice. It was a concession to Ilya. He had been too small to see it during our refugee sojourn and wanted to make up for the miss. He was also so naïve that he wondered why we could not drive into the city. He thought it would be like Amsterdam, with actual streets along the canals. I was underimpressed by Venice and its damp dilapidated walls my first time there and wanted to set a specific goal besides just following the usual hordes of tourist invaders. I decided to find the grave of Brodsky.

Having driven across the lagoon from our hotel in Mestre, we dropped the car at the multilevel garage on Piazzale Roma and took a direct vaporetto line to Cimitero San Michele, bypassing all the central crowd magnets. This route led through the Ghetto neighborhood and then bent around the back side of the city of dreams – warehouses, repair shops, delivery boats, and Venetian equivalents of construction trucks without wheels. At Fondamenta Nuove, the vaporetto detached from the shore and turned to the open water on the way to San Michele. The island is completely surrounded by a brick wall interrupted by an occasional flight of columns, sometimes framing a gate leading inside from a short pier. A wall of cypresses rises behind the brick one. No gun carriages can be used to enter this final destination. The last crossing is done by water as if in Charon’s boat over the Styx. The main pier is much bigger and serves as a vaporetto stop on the way to Murano. Through the gate past a chapel along the main brick walk we came to a sign with an arrow that read “EZRA POUND, DIAGHILEV, STRAWINSKI”, and at the bottom, in smaller letters, barely visible scribbled by pencil: “Бродский Иосиф”. The cemetery is divided into sections like Cimitero del Verano in Rome, but the sections are much smaller – this is an island – and feel at the same time languorous and claustrophobic because you cannot see the water from inside the walls. Encouraged by the sign, we rushed directly to the orthodox section.  Stravinsky with Vera were located quickly. Serge de Diaghilew was nearby. Besides flowers, two pairs of ballet toe-shoes were left on his marble monument. We walked around in the hot Italian afternoon, greeted by familiar names of unfamiliar idle ladies: Princesse C. Troubetzkoy (nee Moussine Pouchkine), Princesse Catherine Bagration. But no sign of “Бродский”. The section was less than an acre in size and we decided to divide it between us and comb row by row. 40 minutes later – still no luck. A woman sweeping the paths had heard about a Russian poet but did not know the exact spot and suggested we go to the ufficio to inquire.  It was in the Lutheran section with Ezra Pound that we should have gone to! A flowerbed, a headstone with some pebbles and seashells scattered on the marble top, the name in two languages. “Ni strany, ni pogosta…” Earlier in Milan I had found this paean to Vasilievsky Ostrov on the web and printed it out. Now I unfolded the page and recited the verse, then weighed it down with pebbles on the edge of the flowerbed. Mission accomplished. Would this message survive to be seen? By whom? Would it be understood? As we boarded the vaporetto, three people in their thirties, a woman and two men, stepped off the boat speaking Russian. I knew my first addressees. (For a more complete story see this page “Two Venices.”)

Apparently Venice did not completely forget Brodsky. A poster in a passage not far from the Rialto had a headline Venezia per Brodskij, and listed an extensive program of events commemorating the 60th birthday of the poet. It included contributions by Evgenij Rein, Ashkenazy, Sitkovetsky, and Amherst’s own Viktoria Schweitzer. Unfortunately for us, the events had taken place a couple of weeks earlier.

Back on solid, by Venetian standards, ground we paid a visit to Bartolomeo Colleone, a twin to Paduan Gattamelata. Verocchio’s Colleone is in front of Basilica SS Giovanni e Paolo, whereas Donatello’s Gattamelata has only one neighboring saint – San Antonio. Both equestrian condottieri stand on exaggerated, almost comically tall pedestals, which probably served as a model for Akimov’s poster for “The Shadow” – H.C.Andersen-Schwartz totalitarian fantasy on Italian themes. Andersen, of the enlightened West, had the hero executed by his shadow at the end, while Schwartz who spent his life in a land ruled by shadowy executioners held out hope of defeat of the shadows by the human spirit.

From Ponte di Rialto the Grand Canal widens giving gondoliers a place to stop in mid-stream and regale gaping tourists, paying $50 a pop for the ride, with a standard-issue barcarola.

Palazzo Ducale looks quite manageable from the outside – a rectangular building not much bigger than the Fine Arts Museum in Boston. On the inside it turns into an Escher fantasy first and then into an Escheresque-Piranesian nightmare. The fantasy is created by stairs and passages connecting the many chambers and corridors of power of the old republic. The nightmare begins when you cross the Bridge of Sighs and understand visually what the guidebooks breathlessly proclaim: it was the sighs of the newly imprisoned, not those of languid lovers that gave the name to the bridge. While the original passers-by were led across the bridge, we willingly crossed it to enter the Prigioni Nuove. Unlike the airy hall of the Chillon Castle with a beautiful view of Lac Leman that simply got a bad rap from Lord Byron, the cells of the New Prison were small and dark. In fact, a sign on the wall of one of them said as much, for those who had a flash to light it, CELLA OSCURA.

Looking for a way back to Piazza San Marco, Ilya noticed a tourist with a guidebook in Russian. Sevak was not from Russia, however. He was an Armenian studying in Germany. He joined us for a mad dash across the Piazza for Museo Correr in search of some Flemish variety. Frankly, we got quite tired by then of all the Northern Italian multitudes which besieged us all the way from Milan to the Accademia, except maybe for Tintoretto, whose tints were a bit more exciting. We caught a glimpse of some Breugel’s and Bosch’s under the watchful eye of the museum guards itching to go home, but had no time to see the undoubtedly fascinating exhibition next door entitled Sciamani e Dervisci, Dalle Steppe del Prete Gianni. This was a reference to Priester John, the legendary ruler of a Christian state in Central Asia in medieval times. The show was sponsored by the government of Kazakhstan. Sevak was in Venice with his friends – two Finns and one Bulgarian, with whom he drove from Germany for an extended weekend.  Their common language was German. They asked us for hotel recommendations on the way west but even the cheap and wonderful Hotel Rizzi of the libertarian fame was beyond their means.

Dusk in Venice is supposed to be magical. In our case it also threatened to be wet. Spooked, we ran across the Accademia Bridge to catch a vaporetto back to Piazzale Roma, in view of Palazzo Grassi. A huge sign on the façade of the palazzo proclaimed COSMOS, an exhibition from the Hermitage with the poster painting by the suddenly famous Caspar David Friedrich. Silhouettes of mysterious gentlemen in his paintings are usually topped with toreador-style hats. As if Friedrich’s theatrics were not enough, sound effects were added the moment we stepped on the boat – a subtropical thunderstorm burst out. Squeezed by the tightly packed mass in the middle of the overcrowded vaporetto, we could only see framed images on either side of the canal, but what images they were. Natural strobe lights of the lightning bolts plucked the famed palazzi out of what by contrast appeared to be total darkness and showed them for a blink through the film of a slanted downpour.

Carso

Herr Rainer Maria Rilke was a world-class moocher.  He also possessed a feel for location better or equal to that of a top-performing real-estate agent. His taste ran mostly to castles, and the grandest of them all belonged to the Fürstin Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe (a.k.a. Principessa della Torre e Tasso). Rilke spent several years living in the castle of his friend the Fürstin, in Duino at the northern tip of the Adriatic, and the result was Duineser Elegien, one of the most tightly written chunks of poetry in the German language. Remove one word from a line and it falls apart. It also requires the most frequent trips to the dictionary for a non-completely fluent reader of German. While Rilke is justly acclaimed in the elite circles as the top producer of the 20th century poetry, he is not famous enough to merit a sign on the main highway for Sentiero Rilke, a cliff walk which inspired his opus. A much smaller sign on a back road sits at the entrance to the trail and warns against climbing down the cliffs to the beach in four languages, the fourth one being Slovene. (See my translation of a poem by Rilke.)

Rainer Maria was an easily inspirable person. According to the legend it was the wind that gave him the first line of his cycle, the inquiry about the hearing ability of angels (Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?) Not surprisingly, the wind at Duino spoke German at the time: it was still an Austro-Hungarian possession. This is not to say that Herr Rilke was a one-language wonder: he could write in French and Russian with the best of them and counted Lou Salome and Tsvetaeva as well as Gide and Rodin among his friends and correspondents.

An even more Austro-Hungarian spot lies further down the coast halfway between Duino and Trieste. It is Castello Miramare, the creation and home for a while of the ill-fated Maximilian, the brother of Kaiser Franz-Joseph. Instead of enjoying life at the castle with his lovely wife Charlotte, he was enticed to go to faraway Mexico to become a full emperor. In keeping with the longstanding Mexican tradition, of which a naïve archduke was apparently not aware, he was executed by a firing squad three years after his ascension to the throne. The castle is a pretty creation of white marble in an eclectic style somewhat reminiscent of the Swallow’s Nest in the Crimea, but bigger and not as high on a cliff.

The most interesting of the well-preserved rooms contains portraits of august relatives of the owner from all over Europe, among them Ludwig II of Bavaria (called the Mad for his whimsical castles including the one at Disneyworld) and Alexander II of Russia (called the Liberator for abolishing serfdom). Both ended life badly, just like their Miramare cousin.  At the end of the tour, a modern exhibition of sculpture and prints occupied a specially allocated gallery. The graphics artist was Nikolaus Hipp, but the sculptures were the oeuvre of Gabriela von Habsburg! This was that Gabriela, the daughter of Otto the legitimate heir to the oldest continuous dynasty in Europe, and also a friend of Werner and Ula, a German couple who met her while she was studying art at Harvard (Werner worked with me at Sun). I guess family connections to the owner of the place still mean something even 150 years later. We had just missed the opening of the show and a chance to meet a real Habsburg by a couple of days.

Carso, by the way, is the Italian for Karst, a German word naming the high plateau bordering the Adriatic coast between Duino and Trieste. This, like Geyser or Jura, became a term of geology designating limestone formations prone to erosion, forming caves, underground rivers, and in case of Yucatan – cenotes – the sacred wells of the Maya. Škocjanske jame in nearby Slovenia is the most spectacular of the many caves local to the Karst region.

Trieste

Granted it was a Tuesday afternoon, but Triestine Adriatic waterfront in front of its own version of Canal Grande looked melancholy and deserted. The canal, unlike its Venetian counterpart, was straight and short, bordered on either side by Via Rossini and Via Bellini, and anchored at the far end by a domed church of San Antonio Nuovo distantly resembling the main building of MIT. The banks of the canal were lined up not with gondolas but unpretentious motorboats. The whole style of the center was urban ottocento with encroachments of neoclassicism in some public buildings. Via Bellini was graced by another example of architectural nostalgia – the Serb Orthodox church of San Spiridone (1869), a knockoff of Hagia Sophia style with not one but three and a half Byzantine domes.

Its stone walls were covered with carved exhortations of the following type: “ГОСПОДИ, ДА БУДУТЪ ОЧИ ТВОИ ОТВЕРСТИ ОТВЕРСТИ НА ХРАМЪ СЕЙ ДЕНЬ И НОЩЬ” (Guard, oh Lord, this temple day and night). Not satisfied with appeals directed heavenward, the parishioners placed some printed notices to mortals at the entrance as well. They began thus: “ПОМОЗИМО ДЕЦУ У JУГОСЛАВИJИ” (Help Yugoslavian children!). It should be remembered that it was still three months till the ignominious crash and burn of Milosevic and the meaning of such a notice could be either for or against the dirty Slobo. More likely the former, since another sign mentioned HUMANITARNU POMOC.

The main local celebrity in Trieste is Italo Svevo (the non-local 800-pound celebrity contender is of course James Joyce). Not by accident, his identity is mixed, just like that of his city. Born Aron Hector Schmitz, he became Ettore and then Italo Svevo (Italian Schwab). He grew up mostly on German but then discovered italianità at the age of 17. The son of Franz Schmitz and Allegra Moravia (a relative of Alberto?), also never forgot his Jewishness. So, was Italian literature of the 20th century dominated by Jews – the Levis (Carlo and Primo), Natalia Ginzburg (incidentally, another Levi and another one with roots in Trieste), and our Ettore? Was Alberto Moravia also a Jew? If yes, hold on Pirandello, you are under siege! (The first Duce D’Annunzio cannot of course be suspected here.)

Svevo’s characters also reflect the local mix. The most famous one, Zeno, undergoes psychoanalysis, a hot new Austrian-Jewish fad, but his main problem is a fetish for women’s shoes – so very Italian.  Like Rilke Schmitz was multilingual, although not including Russian, whose literary canon he nevertheless thoroughly studied, even covering Goncharov. As luck had it, his Berlitz-assigned English teacher was a young transplant from Dublin – Joyce. We all should be so lucky with our language instructors. To double the luck, the author of Ulysses later helped push La coscienza di Zeno to the European literary scene.

The hill of San Giusto is decorated with another monument to Italian warriors and another stele to the fighters of the battle of Fiume and Dalmazia, dedicated to them by their orphans. There is also a cathedral, a castle and a view of the harbor. But we had had enough italianità. Mysterious Slovenia was our goal for the end of the day. Italian border guards wanted to make sure that we were not simply eloping with our baby-Benz to the unreachable East. A screed from the rental office and our American passports quickly convinced them of our respectability. Slovenian guards simply waved us through and I crossed the former Iron Curtain for the first time since we had emerged from behind it 20 years earlier. (See my report on Slovenia.)

Friuli

We reappeared in Italy back from the curtain three days later, in the dark of the night, crossing the river Isonzo of Farewell to Arms fame. We were mighty hungry and counted on the town with a sonorous name Cividale del Friuli to provide us with Italian chow (cibo, as the locals say). The town was not so great looking, at least in the dark and finding an open place to eat at 10pm was a challenge.

Vicenza

After visiting the old Baumeister Scamozzi Goethe made a half-hour trip outside the city to see what he calls a luxury mansion (he actually uses the word Luxus). He recognized the beauty but also figured that a noble family could hardly be accommodated there. In other words, this was just a vanity, or one might say a trophy project. Even Goethe did not realize that this was to become the mother of all colonnaded and domed structures the world over (the glorious MIT building again comes to mind). The future Geheimrat was there too early to figure it out, but was it early enough to meet that Scamozzi, the sidekick of the father of all such buildings Andrea Palladio? Not likely, given that Vincenzo Scamozzi died in 1616. Who then? The answer is Ottavio Bertotti-Scamozzi. Not a relative, he was obliged to accept the name of Scamozzi to become the heir to Vincenzo Scamozzi archive as a promising young architect of Vicenza. An honorary fellowship, comparable say to a Fulbright nowadays, provided a Fulbright fellow were required to change his last name to Fulbright. There is no indication that Bertotti resisted and indeed by the time the young Goethe came around, he went simply by his adopted name. Goethe’s youth was of course relative: he was at the age when Mozart and Pushkin were already dead and done with their oeuvre. The Olympian, not a mere wunderkind, still had almost 50 years of Lehrjahre ahead of him.

We went straight for the famous dacha leaving the side dish of the city for later. The narrow Via Rotonda had a high stone wall at least on one and often on both sides for most of its length, giving it a feel of the Italian Mezzogiorno if not the Middle East. A small crowd at one of the gates peering through the grate was a sure sign of the villa. The crowd consisted mainly of women, mostly English speaking, trying to figure out when and even whether the villa would be open that day. Some of the women seemed to be on a prolonged stay in Italy and with a bit of imagination one could fancy them the modern counterparts of the eccentrics from Tea with Mussolini. There was little hope in the air: neither the signs nor the guidebook promised anything definite for the visitors that day. Following the famous advice of the Sage of the NY Yankees, we took a nearby fork when we saw it and were led towards another famous villa “Ai Nani.” The road was even more Mezzogiorno between two uninterrupted walls and only tall Apennine pines were visible to us from behind the walls. The formal name of the villa is Valmarana, after its one-time owner, while the Nani are its main claim to fame. Statues of dwarfs (Nani) of different temperaments and sexes were placed at short intervals on top of the wall along Via Nani. Were they portraits of the house entertainers of the first owner or just a nostalgic memory of earlier simpler times when just having dwarves around was the sign of coolness?

Next to the villa district is Monte Berico topped by a basilica of the same name. The view from the hill on the one side is to La Rotonda, on the other side to the city center. But what attracted our attention more was a crowd gathering at the nearby Sette Santi parking lot. They were holding signs and banners and were apparently preparing to march (did I mention that Italians love crowd manifestations?). They started soon enough for us to stay and see the first sign. It had a drawing of a big red heart resting on two intertwined yellow rings with a red cross in the overlap and an inscription Incontro Matrimoniale. A family convention? The crowd consisting mostly of middle aged men and women, and a few children, marched slowly and solemnly but did not get too far and stopped at the main door of the basilica. The rearguard was brought up by a dozen priests in white vestments, who immediately after reaching the basilica got down to work, i.e., leading prayers and hymns. This crowd was clearly much tamer than the ones protesting female sex slavery and office holocaust we had encountered previously. At the time we were left wondering who this Marital Convention was fighting against – divorce-lawyer sharks? Only later, from their web site (like everybody else it has one: http://www.furore.it/im/cosa_e.htm)  I found out that it is a Week end (the words taken literally from the Italian original) giving married couples an opportunity to examine their feelings, hopes, delusions, joys, frustrations, etc. (insert your favorite pop-psychology  term here).  All this while completely concentrating on each other, that is ignoring hundreds of other couples doing the same thing right next to you (“their presence will be barely perceptible” says the marketing pitch), except of course sharing this profound experience with a specially assigned priest (and by the way, how about those children who were definitely marching – what kind of incontro is this when your kids are tagging along). Has divorce been legalized in Italy, so the church is trying to shore up the crumbling pillar of its influence or has it simply decided to compete in the hot market of Kripalu Centers and Esalen Institutes?

Vicenza’s centro storico is divided in half not by a Via Manzoni or a Via Repubblica but by Corso A.Palladio. In fact the tourist map of the city has a special symbol for his buildings along with the legend for museums, parks, and other attractions. The most interesting of all Palladian creations in town was Palazzo Chiericati with a multitude of columns and rooftop statues – perhaps a predecessor of the Winter Palace. As if on queue, Palazzo Leoni-Montanari around the corner held an exhibition of icons from Museo Russo di San Pietroburgo, once again confirming that one of the two leading exports from the east of Europe is art (the other being whores). Both are surefire cash cows. A march by indigenous artists against cheap Warsaw Bloc art is coming soon to your neighborhood.

Leaving for the last time the din and commotion of an Italian city center, we passed a clerical fashions shop with smart ruby, pearl and cream-colored vestments in the window rivaling the displays of Via della Spiga. A round sign of Lega Nord Sezione Vicenza over a locked door on a back street popped into my eye. A loud noise bursting out from an open entrance next door prompted me to peek in. Behind it was a grassy courtyard with lush greenery. A table with a red-and-white checkered cloth held a few bottles of red wine. The grass in the middle was covered by a few blankets. A dozen or so people were sitting or standing in the back under the palm branches clapping loudly and vigorously, while on the blankets, a long-legged girl in a short pearly dress (yes, the color of a dandy bishop’s cassock) was dancing with abandon. My hands instinctively reached for the camera. Seeing this, people in the crowd waved to me and clapped even harder, and the girl danced even faster.