Sunday, August 29, 2010

Italian Hours: Updated

Henry James made fourteen visits to Italy, his first in 1869, his last in 1907. His travel essays were first printed in magazines, and some were collected for Transatlantic Sketches (1875) or Portraits of Places (1883). In 1909 William Heinemann published all the Italy essays as Italian Hours, complete with an index.

Yes, it was a marketing ploy to make the volume something travelers would bring along to consult during their own travels. It's a Lonely Planet guide for crazy English majors!

This intro by James for Italian Hours is manna from heaven for a travel blogger:

"Who shall analyse even the simplest Roman impression? It is compounded of so many things, it says so much, it involves so much, it so quickens the intelligence and so flatters the heart, that before we fairly grasp the case the imagination has marked it for her own and exposed us to a perilous likelihood of talking nonsense about it."

And so, with an authority like Henry James assuring me that it's easy to start babbling about Rome, about Italy, because of their extraordinary nature, let me tell you about my recent vacation.

This visit had a lovely scheme: four days in Rome, then the train to the Tuscan Casole d’Elsa (via Florence to Poggibonsi) for the polyphony workshop and concerts, then back to Rome for another day and night.

My time in Rome is extra wonderful because it’s in the company of my American friend Ric and his Italian partner Mau. They are a witty, engaging couple: Ric is a writer and film buff (when he’s not teaching ESL), and Mau is a composer. They live in Magliana, of Banda della Magliana infamy in the South-West periphery of Rome. It’s a great neighborhood for real life: on the metro line to the airport, great produce even in August when all Italians abandon the city, reasonable parking for the Vespa and car, a balcony on their apartment. In short, la dolce vita attained.

Sperlonga: In the footsteps of Ulysses

We took a day trip to the sea side town of Sperlong, a small, white-washed village on a promontory high above the sea, playground of the international jet set in the 1960s—think Warhol, Bridget Bardoe, Arthur Miller, Marlene Dietrich, Raf Vallone, Lucia Bose— but its deeper nature is ancient and mythical. The emperor Tiberius (AD 14 to 37) built a villa there, called Sperlunca in Latin, around a large grotto that opens to the Tyrrhenian sea. In 1957 an excavation of the site found enormous sculptures that had decorated the grotto, all depicting scenes of Ulysses.

The coast in the Lazio region between Rome and Naples is known as “the Ulysses Riviera” (Riviera di Ulisse), with Roman legend placing many of the scenes from the Greek Odyssey geographically in their own country: so Ulysses was imprisoned by enchantress Maga Circe on the wild slopes of Mount Circe (in Cicerco), and his men where eaten by the giant Laestrygonians in the Golf of Gaeta (or maybe Sicily), but you get the picture. Just as there are Roman versions of Greek myths, there is a geographically correct Roman version of Odysseus’ journey, as well as the Romans version of the hero's name: Ulysses. (I always wondered about that. Not surprising that Joyce, who lived in Italy much of his adult life, chose the Roman over the Greek for his novel.)

The sculptures from the Tiberius villa are in an exquisite museum on the grounds—-the blinding of Polyphemus is the most enormous and dramatic—but the highlight is going into the grotto itself, walking on the very surface that Tiberius and his guests trod, while themselves enthralled by the feats of Ulysses. In a twist of fate, while the emperor was banqueting in his grotto there was a sudden rock slide that killed many of his servants. Tiberius miraculously survived, then abandoned this summer palace and took up residence at another summer palace on Capri, where he will die.

The town of Sperlonga is a series of narrow walkways and stairs high above the beach, perched as a means of protection against the Saracens (and others), a scene which is repainted in the town every year. To get out of the blinding sun we had lunch in a cool, cavern bistro before we walked to the grotto.

On the way back to Rome we stopped in San Felice Circeo for a home cooked meal with Mau’s family. The national park wilderness of Circeo may have seen Ulysses centuries ago—the area certainly feels magical enough for it.

We stopped off at a lighthouse that has been in use since 1866. There was something about its single light that made me think of the blinding of the Cyclops. Those ancient stories, they have a way of sticking with you.


dorki said...

Very nice description M.A. I get descriptions from my wife of her Art History tour of Europe she took years ago. She said that her time in Italy was the most enjoyable.

We must check the dates on our passports!

M.A.Peel said...

thanks dorki. Stay tuned. The polyphony workshop I went to in Tuscany was held in an art school, and to be close to painters and sculptors was utterly fascinating.

y8 said...
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