Note: A revised version of an essay I posted on July 4, 2016 after my wife and I traveled to Italy.
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
—Elizabeth Bishop, “Questions of Travel”
I concluded the “Cathedral Town” essay I posted just before our (my first) trip to northeastern Italy with this sentence: “I wonder what new places will establish themselves in my mind’s geography.” Since returning, Italy has popped up everywhere I turn, a serendipity that manifested itself least expectedly when I happened to read Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (1930).
Acknowledging that most landmarks are lost under later construction, thus preventing history’s layers from being represented in spatial terms, Freud proposes that we think of Rome as “a psychical entity.” In the life of the mind, “nothing which has once been formed can perish … everything is somehow preserved.” Thus:
On the Piazza of the Pantheon we should find not only the Pantheon of today, as it was bequeathed to us by Hadrian, but, on the same site, the original edifice erected by Agrippa; indeed, the same piece of ground would be supporting the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the ancient temple over which it was built.
Contemplating this passage in light of our trip, I reverse Freud’s argument: Archeological layers parallel the ways our minds store experiences. When we’re exploring new places, we’re simultaneously digging for new perspectives on ourselves. One sign is that when I attempt to speak in a foreign language, I’m not the same person I am when rattling away in English, but some version of myself I hardly recognize. Despite this alter ego’s linguistic limitations, I enjoy him.
We didn’t get to Rome on this trip, but we did spend a day in Brescia (pronounced “Bresha”), whose dedication to archeology enables visitors to form a similar psychical sense of the city. Not only has an ongoing excavation site uncovered a hillside Roman temple and theater, but even rarer (I believe), the Museum of Santa Giulia displays restored, mosaic-decorated ancient Roman houses. The houses lacked windows, reportedly because Romans spent the majority of their days out and about. I should have known. Why else in Robert Harris’s Conspirata (2010) would Cicero’s slaves go to the roof to fight off the rabble without needing to defend any other access than the barricaded front entrance?
Now that we’re back home, I’m getting a sense of which other Italian places will take root in my mind. Predictably, one is Venice. We spent three days in this romantic preservation project, a city whose population has declined from its imperial height of 200,000 to today’s tourist-dependent 60,000. Yet the native Venetian spirit thrives through the efforts of its people to promote local industries, from boat building to carnival mask creation, and by resisting the economic toll of day-tripper tourism. The aquatic setting, the eccentric buildings and the opulent interiors are famous, but for those who have never visited, a less-known feature may be the streets. No cars can operate in the city or its neighboring islands, and while the vaporetti (ferry boats) are needed to move from island to island, they have the practical function of subway trains in other cities. The primary means of transportation is feet. You walk through store-lined stone streets the width of the back alleys of my English hometown, Darlington. Periodically you climb six, eight or maybe ten steps to a small canal bridge, take perhaps four or five strides to the other side, then descend an equal number of steps back down to the street. After a while, the way will open out to a piazza, where shade might turn to sunshine and you can always find a café, a Renaissance church and yet more stores. Off to one side might be the Grand Canal or other waterway.
Nor will I forget a balsamic vinegar maker near the town of Modena, with its line of vats decreasing in size from the biggest, containing the most recent “product,” down to the smallest, with its twelve-plus-year product, now dignified with the name “balsamic vinegar.” Downstairs is a small restaurant where we luxuriated over a five-course lunch and sampled how twelve- and twenty-five-year-aged balsamic vinegars affect taste, most surprisingly desserts.
Place is almost always inseparable from people. Part of Venice will always be Vinicio, a waiter at the Hotel Flora who was especially attentive, gracious and funny, and also Hélène, a half-French local tour guide and passionate advocate for the city of her birth. Cremona will be the Israeli-Italian violin maker, Yael Rosenblum, who demonstrated her craft to us. Verona’s Basilica of San Zeno will be the children who lined up on the steps leading up to the cast bronze doors we’d been inspecting. Sensing we’d be in the way, we told their teacher we were just leaving. As we descended the steps, the children, one by one, called out, “Bye,” “Ciao,” “So long.”
In the Italy we witnessed, past and present are equally compelling: the past through its architecture—the arches around its cities’ piazzas—and the present, and also its future, through the expressive, considerate children we encountered in historical sites, restaurants and the streets.
Still, while Italy has diligently recovered its pre-twentieth century heritage, the country seems less open to its recent past. Although our guide for much of the trip was American, he had long since absorbed Italian values. While he happily expatiated on Italy’s Classical, Medieval and Renaissance history, he courteously deflected questions about more modern times. Thus I hesitated to bring up Italy’s most recent experience of barbarism, inflicted by Mussolini and the fascists and, after the 1943 surrender to the Allies, by Hitler. (It seems Silvio Berlusconi has been shrugged off, fitting fate for a narcissist.) However, on our way to Lake Como, I broached the idea of pausing at the place where Italian Partisans had executed the one-time Il Duce. Warned off by another deflection, I didn’t pursue it and told myself that all I needed to do was imagine the location: a small village on Lake Como, presumably like Cernobbio where we stayed three days—beautiful, yes, but surely a discordantly insignificant place for an event of such import.
In truth, my desire to come into proximity with Italy’s recent trauma felt morbid, a discomfort that arises when tragedy has occurred in living memory, while guilt and pain are still palpable. Curiosity about the disasters that befell fifth century Italy carries little such awkward weight. To that extent, history and psychology part ways; the farther back personal trauma, the more troubled we can feel on uncovering it.
Okay, but if imagination is sufficient to visualize the end of Mussolini and fascism, couldn’t I have saved myself the effort and expense of flying to Italy in the first place? Hadn’t I vividly imagined the country all my life? After all, now that we’re back home, the Italian cities we visited have taken residence in my mind, independently of their existence. If, God forbid, Venice sank into the Adriatic tomorrow, it wouldn’t disappear from my memory, any more than my memory of New Orleans before Katrina has.
Yet as the depth of my response to all things Italian since our return proves, immersion in a place gives palpability and dimension to what was once for me pure mental reconstruction. Italy was, of course, no illusion. Layers of history over the course of millennia, not mere centuries, have proven a solid foundation. Italy’s fundamental stability causes us to admire the country even beyond its people’s congeniality and despite its notorious corruption. After a back-and-forth history of fiercely hostile city states and foreign invasions, today’s Italy thrives and even looks forward. It’s a recognition that came to me only because I was there.
Imagination continues on its merry way. Once a place we’ve read about has been transformed by contact with it, a new creative process commences. For me, Venice is becoming the aching adagio of decaying beauty, as it has been for visitors since at least the nineteenth century; Verona the intelligent innocence of childhood; Cremona the unfathomable exactitude of true craftsmanship. Who knows how these and the other places will resolve themselves in my mind in the years to come. In that sense, our trip to Italy has only now begun.