Monday, November 10, 2008

Perch'i' no spero di tornar giammai, ballatetta, in Toscana...

For readers unfamiliar with Italian, the English equivalent of the present post title would roughly be: "As I don't hope, oh little ballad, to ever go back to Tuscany..."

It is the first line of a well-known poem by Guido Cavalcanti, a Florentine poet and a close friend of Dante Alighieri.

As Dante, Guido was in important representative of the literary movement known as Dolce stil novo which, through poems based on the French troubadours, raised the Fiorentino illustre (noble Florentine vernacular) to standard Italian language, still surviving almost unchanged.

One might wonder what could be the relation between Guido's poem and the following excerpt from Paradise Lost.

Guido probably wrote the poem when he was exiled from Florence and was, actually or poetically, despairing of returning home.

I've always loved Paradise Lost which is one of my preferred poems in the language, together with Dylan Thomas' Collected Poems, Keat's Odes and Lord Byron's Don Juan.

But since I was obliged by my job to move to the outskirts of Rome, the following passage of Paradise Lost has got a new poignancy. As I have never been able to adapt to the new place I have always been longing for my hometown since. Thus, whenever I come across something reminding me of Florence, I feel a sudden pang of nostalgia.

Fiesole - mentioned by Milton - is a small and very ancient town on top of a hill overhanging Florence where I have been many times. It is in its very Roman Theater that I had the honour to play the second obbligato recorder in a performance of Haendel's Serse. During the secondary school, sometimes, with my classmates we played truant and we went to a bar restaurant in Fiesole to spend the morning dancing to the music of a jukebox.

But far more than Fiesole, Galileo is associated with Arcetri where, from 1634 to his death in 1642, he was confined by the Pope because his sun-centered theory. Arcetry is a hill of Florence near the very place where I lived and where I passed hundreds of times during my strolls.

The other reminiscent place in the following excerpt is Vallombrosa, a Benedictine abbey located in the mountains c. 30 km south-east of Florence.

It is a magnificent place surrounded by forests of beech and firs where I have enjoyed so many walks. It is right there that my eldest daughter Héloïse discovered the snow when she was about 3 and almost got her hands frozen.

The power of reminiscence of names is far more intense when they occur in the context of beloved poems such as the following one:

He scarce had ceas't when the superiour Fiend
Was moving toward the shore; his ponderous shield
Ethereal temper, massy, large and round,
Behind him cast; the broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the Moon, whose Orb
Through Optic Glass the Tuscan Artist views
At Ev'ning from the top of Fesole,
Or in Valdarno, to descry new Lands,
Rivers or Mountains in her spotty Globe.
His Spear, to equal which the tallest Pine
Hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the Mast
Of some great Ammiral, were but a wand,
He walkt with to support uneasie steps
Over the burning Marle, not like those steps
On Heavens Azure, and the torrid Clime
Smote on him sore besides, vaulted with Fire;
Nathless he so endur'd, till on the Beach
Of that inflamed Sea, he stood and calld
His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intranst
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa where th' Etrurian shades
High overarcht imbowr; or scatterd sedge
Afloat, when with fierce Winds Orion arm'd
Hath vext the Red-Sea Coast, whose waves orethrew
Busiris and his Memphian Chivalrie,
While with perfidious hatred they pursu'd
The Sojourners of Goshen who beheld
From the safe shore their floating Carcasses
And broken Chariot Wheels, so thick bestrown
Abject and lost lay these, covering the Flood,
Under amazement of their hideous change.

John Milton, Paradise Lost, book I, 283-313


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