All times are contemporaneous in the mind (Ezra Pound).
In Italy, time turns to water.
The northern-most Cinque Terre town. You ask a bench-full of elderly ladies basking in the sunset the way to the family villa of Eugenio Montale, the Nobel Prize winning poet who died in 1981. After “Cuttlefish Bones,” his first book, which is set in Monterroso and environs, Montale struck out for Milan and a bigger role in the world.
One of the women, with the prim, sparrow-like presence of a retired schoolteacher, speaks impeccable English. She hooks her arm in yours, Italian style. “I will show you,” she says. Along the way you offer: “He was a great poet.”
“His first book was,” she says, a little starchly. And adds: “At least his mother’s still here,” and cocks her head toward the cemetery.
Shade is precious as water. The traditional architectural and arboreal strategies for shade, reaching back to ancient Roman times, surface in the way a heavy wooden door shudders open into a cave-like entryway of an old apartment palazzo. You close the door, leaving the heat behind. Your hand lingers on the chill iron handle.
The Pantheon, dedicated about 126 A.D. and still the largest, unreinforced concrete dome in the world, seems to have dropped in out of the future. This was merely one of many similarly fantastic buildings in ancient Rome. All roads led to a veritable Xanadu.
Originally a temple dedicated to all the Roman gods, the austere, classical structure was saved when the Christians claimed it as a church in the seventh century.
As a young, Neapolitan soprano begins to sing Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” a slow, hire-wire performance of rare beauty, you look up to the Oculus Dei, 142 feet above the marble floor. The large, round hole in the dome, and the only source of light, frames a cobalt blue sky. As the words “Et in hora mortis nostrae” (And at the hour of our death) pass the soprano’s lips, a baroque, white cloud is drifting through the blue.
The upper-storey room beside the Spanish Steps where the 25-year-old poet John Keats died is the heart of the Keats-Shelley Museum, a contemplative, English-language shrine in one of Rome’s busiest neighborhoods. Had Shakespeare died at Keats’s age, the Bard of Avon would be remembered, if at all, for a few light comedies. Keats was aware of the profound unfairness of his own tragedy: Largely unknown, doubting the worth of what he had written, cut off from the great works waiting to be written, he insisted his epitaph read: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
From that “coffin” of his death room, as he called it, you can hear water plash in the Bernini fountain below. In the months before he died, Keats had endless hours to lie here contemplating a fraught posterity, his separation from the love of his life, Fannie Brawne — and the sound of water.
An Italian man, maybe late twenties, reads “The Divine Comedy” beside Virgil’s legendary — but probably not real — tomb, found in a quiet, green park just beyond the raucous heart of the city.
“Virgil helped Dante through Hell,” he’s told. “I know,” he says, barely glancing up. And in heavily accented English: “I have just been through Hell. That is why I read this.”
Don’t go there, even the Italians say. Too dangerous and dirty.
A net of words can’t slow this chaotic, densely packed city of one million souls laid out by the Greeks. Here, almost everything happens on the street — it’s like one big family without secrets. Traffic is a surreal, synchronized weave where speeding vehicles miss each other by inches, wailing ambulances are cut off at intersections and a helmetless mother guns her motor scooter down a sidewalk balancing bread, vegetables, cigarette and bambino.
The churches, the local saints in a continuous line from Greek and pre-Greek times, the cultic religious devotion (“The blood of Apollo and Aphrodite flow through the veins of Christ and his Virgin Mother” — Norman Douglas), form a kinetic city of slow revelation, where death is its pedal point and joy of life the melody. All conducted below a legendary volcano’s double-cone shadow.
A compact, outdoor restaurant peopled by locals with a half-dozen wooden tables down a narrow alley in the Spanish Quarter. High overhead, the sky is a pale blue slit. From narrow apartment balconies, where the sun reaches less than thirty minutes a day, wash hangs out to dry.
The fare for peppered mussels, more than enough for two, comes to less than seven dollars, accompanied by thick bread. An honest pour of the decent local wine: $2.50 per glass. It would be rude to take pictures of other people here. And there’s not a selfie stick in sight. This is not a “cool dive place” to share among Facebook “friends.” This is civilization.
Naples Fish Market
So many still-lifes: mussels, sea bass, sword fish, anchovies, sardines, shrimp, cuttlefish, oysters, clams, tuna, skate, salmon (trout size) bordered by vegetable and flower stalls. The hoarse shouts of vendors, not always male — careen around the Porta Nolano, as they have for four hundred years.
Acquafredda di Maratea
Noonday silence. An empty, stone village above the sea beneath the Mediterranean sun. A church bell silences the lone cicada, and fades. The cicada stays silent. Somewhere, a door slams.
A woman who summers here and speaks cultured English wishes to talk. She lives on the Aventine Hill in Rome — a prestige address, as the realtors would say.
Slight and fair-skinned, mid-60s, she obviously has means. She tells of the hardships of living in Rome — traffic and tourists — and how Acquafredda, four hours south of Rome by train, is her family’s getaway.
She’s asked about the town of Sapri, a modest-sized, harbor town shining low and white through the blue haze five miles to the north.
“Not a nice place,” she sniffs. “It’s part of Naples. A different culture.”
There’s no point in reminding her Naples is nearly one hundred miles beyond Sapri.
“Spaghetti unified Italy,” Garibaldi famously said.
One of the Lipari group of Aeolian Islands named after the demigod of the winds. Homer described one of the Aeolian Islands as “an isle adrift upon the sea.”
Stromboli’s regular, minor eruptions give it its nickname, “Lighthouse of the Mediterranean.” It’s a rocky, waste place, with little benevolence in the landscape.
Silence returns after the day’s crowded tour boats have departed, leaving behind five hundred or so inhabitants and low, white buildings of the main town trimmed with faded blue paint, a Cubist’s dream constructed from the materials at hand: lava, stone, pumice. Grape vines climb the volcano’s slope, hedged by fields and dark volcanic soil. A sense of abandoned emptiness comes over the island as the first stars come into their own. An island adrift upon the sea.
Outside the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, only the children and old people sitting on sunlit benches feed the sparrows.
A nightingale’s haunting carol from the rim of the ancient Greek theater evokes the sorrowful Philomela myth. Twenty-five hundred years ago, Plato and Archimedes warmed the seats below where a radically updated version of “Medea,” using modern costume and dance, is underway. Shadowy Mount Etna looms as the sun goes down and the sea-light glitters like sautéed olive oil in the distance. The Greeks always built their theaters with a prospect of the sea.
Still the nightingale sings, marking the spaces between the shouted words of “Medea,” as a nightingale might have done more than two thousand years before. “The messenger of spring, the sweet-voiced nightingale” — Sappho.
The hilltop stronghold of 3,200 feet commands imposing views in every direction.
An outcrop, Demeter’s Rock, was the seat of the goddess’s worship. Below, Lake Pergusa is where Hades stole Demeter’s daughter Persephone into the underworld while she gathered flowers.
The crops withered from Demeter’s grief, who was goddess of the harvest. Finally a bargain was struck with Hades: For half of the year Persephone could live above in the sunlit world, an arrangement that gave birth to the rhythm the seasons and harvest. When February’s blizzard of almond blossoms comes, Persephone’s return from the underworld is not far behind.
Virgil said of the almond: “If the fruit abounds, plentiful crops ensue/and heavy threshing follows, intense with heat.” This is Persephone’s season in the upper world.
Enna is considered Sicily’s naval. Sicily is called Persephone’s island. Enna’s patron saint is St. Mary of the Visitation, possibly Demeter’s descendant. Shelley wrote of Demeter, “Sacred Goddess, Mother Earth…/leaf, and blade, and bud and blossom,/Breathe thine influence most divine.”
Enna is an out-of-the way, mountain-top village, not a drop-in place. It’s also known as a destination of private, interior pilgrimage, especially for those women who know what brings them there.
Noto Cathedral, Sicily
A showy, baroque city of honeyed marble arose after the devastating earthquake of 1693. A World Heritage Site: The architectural clock stopped at the 18th century. Far from humble, these squares and streets of massive baroque hewn from golden stone trumpet extravagant grandeur.
And yet, in the cathedral nave: Wooden spars from broken boats are mounted vertically in a niche. The beaten-up wood retains blistered patches of red and blue paint. On the floor before them, a vase of pink lilies is set next to a small sign with the words of Pope Francis in Italian: “Who will weep for the dead?”
The visitor, perhaps lulled by baroque’s ornamental spirituality, is brought to a full, unexpected stop before this quiet memorial to the thousands of Middle Eastern and African refugees who have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Italian soil.
As tourists sift through the nave, taking pictures of the altar, here is where a major knot of people gather in silence before pieces of broken boats.
The Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial at Nettuno, near Anzio, one hour south of Rome
Seventy-seven, peaceful green acres with their ranks of marble crosses and the Jewish Stars of David belie the violence of the Italian campaign during World War II: 7,861 American bodies recovered; 3,095 missing.
Nettuno keeps a place in its heart for the United States.
Near the cemetery gates: Piazzale Kennedy and a modest 9/11 memorial. A large sign points the way to the baseball stadium. Another large sign declares: Nettuno, Cita del Baseball.
On the main drag in town, a tall, buff teenage boy pulls a covered luggage cart full of bats, the plastic cover emblazoned with a Louisville Slugger logo. His blue baseball uniform is crisp; his shorts extend almost to his knees. He hops into a waiting SUV with his similarly outfitted teammates.
It’s a June Saturday in Nettuno. Time to play ball.
Kilroy Was Here.