Sunday afternoon (Sept 28, 2014) near Trajan’s Forum in Rome. Best time of year to visit Rome? Now.
This is an annotated Beppe Severgnini.
And what might that be, you may well ask if you’re not up to date on Italy’s culture today.
Severgnini is one of Italy’s most celebrated journalists and satirists. He writes a column for Italy’s top newspaper, Corriere della Sera, he is an Op-Ed writer for the New York Times, and earlier in his career he was the correspondent from Italy for the Economist. In 2001, he was awarded an OBE from Queen Elizabeth. There’s much more to Severgnini’s resume but if I don’t stop now I’ll have to send him a bill.
You may or may not know that all is not as well as it might be in Italy at present in terms of economic rosiness. I leave you to search for the details on your own, but I can tell you that the eloquent hand wringing of many Italians has increased to the level of Lady Macbeth and her spot removal problem. And not infrequently these Italians are blaming themselves for the hard times.
An example: Recently while out to dinner with some friends at a neighborhood trattoria specializing in fresh fish dishes, I heard one of them mutter between bites of the delicious roasted Rombo overlaid with a crosta of potato she had ordered, “How can we Italians be so good at food and so stupid about politics?” Her fellow country folk at the table immediately made noises of agreement.
In a recent Corriere column, Severgnini chose to provide some inoculation against this outbreak of nationwide self-flagellation. He titled it “100 Reasons we are happy to be Italian.” He offered it as “a list from the heart” to counterpoint the gloom-mongering. It’s a good list, especially for those who are fans of Italy and its inhabitants. But for the many who haven’t the time or patience to read a hundred of anything, I’ve pared the plaudits down to my favorite five.
Here they are, with their original numbering from Severgnini’s list:
5. Because no one else is so skillful at turning a crisis into a party
7. Because we have good taste. We instinctively recognize beauty
9. Because we’re interesting. Tourists, business travelers and Angel Merkel are never bored with Italians around.
28. Because we have our head in Europe, our midriff exposed and our feet dangling in the sea
88. Because we love exceptions and occasionally remember there are rules
And now my annotation.
Numbers five, seven, and nine are self-evident, in my opinion, so much so that if subjected to a planet-wide referendum on their validity they would probably get a happy nod of approval from all the tourists who’ve visited the country. But numbers twenty-eight and eighty-eight may merit some commentary.
Regarding twenty-eight, I submit to you that it is wonderful primarily because you need to be an Italian to know what it means. But the metaphor is interesting, and I’m happy to accept Severgnini’s word that the declaration is true.
As to number eighty-eight, I can here offer the perspective of a former Californian, married to an Italian, and resident in Italy for 13 plus years. Not long ago, husband and I were chauffeuring two friends from San Francisco from their hotel in Rome to a seaside restaurant for lunch. Though the fact isn’t indispensable to this anecdote, one of these friends is a Superior Court judge. So that may be why he mentioned wryly at one point that during the previous 20 minutes, he had ticked off five stop signs that my husband had breezed by without even slowing down.
Which brings me to the second half of Severgnini’s number eighty-eight statement – “…and occasionally remember there are rules.” In the US and in some other parts of the Western world, as we all know who live or are from there, the stop sign is sacrosanct (perhaps too much so — the Italians I know find the four-way stop a particular source of hilarity). And if that slips your mind too often, a police officer will soon remind you, or at the very least your fellow drivers will.
Not so in Italy, generally speaking. For many drivers, I’ve noticed, most stop signs seem to be invisible considering the zero effect they have on slowing forward motion. In my first years here, I often tried (futilely) to elicit some illumination from my husband about this habitual disregard of the stop sign. What was most confusing to me is that sometimes he does observe stop signs. So what is the determining factor in this behavior?
Finally after some time passed I had my answer, though it arrived via intuition rather than via spousal comment. I realized that the stereotypical belief that Italians don’t observe rules isn’t true. Rather, as Severgnini points out, they “occasionally remember there are rules.” What he doesn’t mention, though — a reality I now accept with resignation as we continue to fly by stop signs — is that only Italians seem to know precisely what these rules are.
In this regard, I’ve decided to add one one more favorite from Severgnini’s longish list, number 92:
Because governing Italians is like herding cats (but cats have more personality than sheep).
Yes, and what would the world be without cats?
(Here’s the link to the full list: “100 reasons we are happy to be Italian” May 16, 2014, Corriere della Sera).
Today while reading T.S. Eliot’s (1945) essay “The Social Function of Poetry” I came across a rich passage of thought focusing on Europe, diversity and unity. It struck me as particularly relevant to aspects of the public conversation of our present time.
…I do not believe that the cultures of the several of Europe can flourish in isolation from each other. There have been, no doubt, in the past, high civilizations producing great art, thought and literature, which have developed in isolation. Of that I cannot speak with assurance, for some of them may not have been so isolated as at first appears. But in the history of Europe this has not been so. Even Ancient Greece owed much to Egypt, and something to the Asiatic frontiers; and in the relations of the Greek states to each other, with their different dialects and different manners, we may find a reciprocal influence and stimulus analogous to that of the countries of Europe upon each other.
But the history of European literature will not show that any has been independent of the others; rather that there has been a constant give and take, and that each has in turn, from time to time, been revitalized by stimulation from outside. A general “autarky” in culture simply will not work: the hope of perpetuating the culture of any country lies in communication with others.
But if separation of cultures within the unity of Europe is a danger, so also would be a unification which led to uniformity. The variety is as essential as the unity. For instance, there is much to be said, for certain limited purposes, for a universal lingua franca such as Esperanto or Basic English. But supposing that all communication between nations was carried on in such an artificial language, how imperfect it would be! Or rather, it would be wholly inadequate in some respects, and there would be a complete lack of communication in others.
Poetry is a constant reminder of all the things that can only be said in one language, and are untranslatable. The “spiritual” communication between people and people cannot be carried on without the individuals who take the trouble to learn at least one foreign language as well as one can learn any language but one’s own, and who consequently are able, to a greater or less degree, to “feel” in another language as well as in their own. And one’s understanding of another people, in this way, needs to be supplemented by the understanding of those individuals among that people who have gone to the pains to learn one’s own language.
A note about the citation: I have broken this excerpt into paragraphs for easier reading, and placed quotations around some words that were italicized in the original.
The falling leaves
Drift by my window
The falling leaves
Of red and gold
Although I know only the English version, the much recorded ballad “Autumn Leaves” was originally a French song “Les feuilles mortes” (1945). This version was performed by Yves Montand in a 1946 French film. The following year it was translated and recorded in English in the US and immediately became a hit (Wikipedia).
One of the most famous versions came in 1950 when Edith Piaf recorded the song using a combination of both French and English lyrics. Of course (thankfully) it’s on YouTube, listen here.
A recent version came in 2010 on a CD from Eric Clapton. I recommend it! Listen here.
From time to time some raise the question: “Does poetry matter?”
As counter-intuitive as it seems in a world strafed so often by brute force and brutal chaos, poetry matters most of all.
It’s the poet’s voice that reminds us, for instance, that if you have to murder children to win a war, you’ve already lost a lot more than just the war.
It’s the poet’s voice that restores heart.
From Eliot: Excerpt from “Preludes” (1917)
His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o’clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing…
Rome, September 2013, photo by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
Speck ‘N U is a cartoon series by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato. It is often about books. To see more Speck cartoons, click here.
To see more Speck cartoons, click here.
The Butterfly upon the Sky,
That doesn’t know its Name
And hasn’t any tax to pay
And hasn’t any Home
Is just as high as you and I,
And higher, I believe,
So soar away and never sigh
And that’s the way to grieve —
If you’ve never been to the Garden of Ninfa, now in the month of May is one of the best times of the year to visit. About an hour south of Rome, the English style garden is set in the ruins of a medieval town.
From the Garden of Ninfa official website:
Though in ruins, Ninfa is a rare example of a complete medieval town. Abandoned for five centuries, it was described by the historian Gregorovius in the 1880s as the ‘Pompeii of the Middle Ages’. What we see today are the significant remains of a fortified town, encircled by a double girdle of walls, which reached its peak of prosperity between the 13th and 14th centuries. The urban layout is still clearly distinguishable, giving the garden a setting that appeals to the imagination. The main buildings, not all of them in good condition, are easily identified as the castle, the town hall (converted to a Caetani family house), and the churches of S. Giovanni, S. Biagio, S. Salvatore, and S. Paolo all situated along the outer walls.
The three photos posted here are from my visit to Ninfa last year at this time.
And go here for a quick video peek of Ninfa, provided from the BBC’s Italian Gardens series, hosted by Monty Don.
Excerpt from the memoir “Stet: An Editor’s Life” by Diana Athill (Granta Publications, 2000):
Years ago, in a pub near Baker Street, I heard a man say that humankind is seventy percent brutish, thirty per cent intelligent, and though the thirty per cent is never going to win, it will always be able to leaven the mass just enough to keep us going. That rough and ready assessment of our plight has stayed with me as though it were true, given that one takes ‘intelligence’ to mean not just intellectual agility, but whatever it is in beings that makes for readiness to understand, to look for the essence in other beings and things and events, to respect that essence, to collaborate, to discover, to endure when endurance is necessary, to enjoy: briefly, to co-exist. It does, alas, seem likely that sooner or later, either through our own folly or collision with some wandering heavenly body, we will all vanish in the wake of the dinosaurs; but until that happens I believe that the yeast of intelligence will continue to operate one way or another.
Even if it operates in vain, it remains evolution’s peak (as far as we can see): something to enjoy and foster as much as possible; something not to betray by succumbing to despair, however deep the many pits of darkness.
Publisher’s website (grantabooks.com) and book page here.
* Speck is paraphrasing the first two lines of an anonymous thirteenth century poem, “The Cuckoo Song.” The poem is written in Middle English, so the spellings are odd and the meanings are obscure at times, compared to present day English. (Middle English dictionary here.)
This version of “The Cuckoo Song” is from the textbook “Poems, Poets, Poetry” by Helen Vendler (Harvard University).
The Cuckoo Song
Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude* sing, cuccu! (loud)
Groweth sed and bloweth med* (meadow)
And springth the wude nu.
Awe* bleteth after lomb, (ewe)
Lhouth* after calve cu,* (loweth/cow)
Bulluc sterteth,* bucke verteth* (leaps/breaks wind)
Murie sing, cuccu!
Wel singes thu, cuccu.
Ne swik* thu never nu! (stop)
Though these are the days of clouds and rain in Italy, on Sunday the organizers of the International Orchid Exhibition in the village of Monte Porzio Catone, near Rome, were granted lots of sunshine and fair temperatures for their annual celebration of the exotic blooms.
We dropped by for a few hours to admire the brilliantly vivid displays of exhibitors. I posted my photos of the event at Demotix.com — you can see them here.
I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –
Turbulent waves and high spray yesterday at Ostia Lido, the city of Rome’s Mediterranean seafront, didn’t deter two fishermen from tending to rod and reel. (Photo by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato)
Speck is citing a Guardian newspaper article, “Planck telescope maps light of the big bang scattered across the universe” (March 21, 2013). To see more Speck cartoons, click here.
Speck is paraphrasing a quote from “White Heat” (2008) by Brenda Wineapple, a literary biography about the friendship between the poet Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The full quote is: “No man can measure what a single hour with Nature may have contributed to the moulding of his mind.” (Higginson)
Speck ‘N U is a cartoon series that I do. It is often about books. To see more Speck cartoons, click here.
Speck ‘N U is a cartoon series that I do. It is often about books. To see more Speck cartoons, click here.
Cover of “Charles Dickens A Life” by Claire Tomalin (Penguin Books)
Just finished reading Claire Tomalin‘s lengthy biography “Charles Dickens A Life” (2011). Much recommended for anyone interested in learning more about the work, ideas, passions and human frailties of the great English novelist.
I particularly appreciated the hyper-abundance of details Tomalin lays out about the personal, professional and creative aspects of Dickens’ life. This mass of details of events great and small allows the reader to form his or her own view of Dickens, as well as receiving the particular perspective offered by the biographer.
From 417 pages, plus almost 100 more of Notes and extras, a vivid portrait-photograph emerges. It reveals a blazingly unique human being, passionate, compassionate, often generous and, at times, less than saintly in his relationships.
Click on the video screenshot below to see a short interview with Tomalin about the book.