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Fall 2007

The Veneto as a Magnifying Glass

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Adam Zagajewski

Imagine that one day you receive an invitation from the University of Padua. The theme of the conference is the Veneto, one of the Italian regions. You don't know that much about the Veneto; you have to check the map, to think... Your inner voice tells you that you shouldn't accept, you're not competent, you'll make a clown of yourself. Still, you love the south of Europe and your personal rule is: if they invite you to Italy, Spain, or Greece you never say no.

So here is my paper for the Veneto conference:

I have in front of me a map of the Veneto: it stretches from Verona to Cortina d'Ampezzo, from Vicenza to Venice. Probably not many tourists heading to Italy in their cars, station wagons, yachts, and jets know the names of the Italian regions. For an average modern European, Italy is a cluster of big cities with fabulous names—Roma, Firenze, Genova, Naples, Bologna, Milan, and of course Venice. And of smaller ones with no less marvelous names: Siena, Mantova, Ferrara, Ravenna, Lucca, Parma, Arezzo, Orvieto, Pavia; but also Padua, the city that is graciously hosting us today. The same Padua, or Padova, where so many Polish writers and noblemen studied in the past—among them, in the mid-sixteenth century, Jan Kochanowski, a great Renaissance poet who at the local university met the humanist Francesco Robortello (nicknamed Canis grammaticus, "the grammatical dog"), and whose colleagues were Lukasz Gornicki, Andrzej Trzecieski, and Andrzej Patrycy Nidecki.

On my Veneto map, I see not only Verona, Bassano, Treviso, Vittorio Veneto, but also the town—or rather small city—of Rovigo. Some fifteen years ago, I wouldn't have had any idea what and where Rovigo was. Even looking it up in the famous green Michelin guide with which we used to travel would be of no help: in the index of the guide there's no trace of Rovigo, nothing there between Rotonda (La Rotonda) and Ruvo di Puglia. But in 1992 a volume of poetry appeared in Poland with this very title: Rovigo. Its author was Zbigniew Herbert, a great poet and a seasoned traveler, somebody who had a passion for Italian cities and towns, who in his Barbarian in the Garden described Siena and other marvels of Tuscany. So—why Rovigo now? Let's read the title poem:

Rovigo station. Vague associations. A Goethe play
or something from Byron. I passed through Rovigo
so many times and just now for the umpteenth time
I understood in my inner geography it is a singular
place though it is certainly no match for Florence.
I never put a living foot down there. Rovigo was
always coming closer or receding into distance.

I lived then in the throes of a passion for Altichiero
of the San Giorgio Oratorium in Padua and also
for Ferrara which I love because it reminded me
of the plundered city of my fathers. I lived torn
between the past and the present moment
crucified many times by time and by place
But nonetheless happy with a powerful faith
that the sacrifice would not be made in vain

Rovigo was not marked by anything in particular
it was a masterpiece of averageness straight roads
ugly houses—depending on the train's direction
just before or just after the city a mountain suddenly
rose up from a plain cut across by a red stone quarry
like a holiday cut of meat draped in sprigs of parsley
apart from that nothing to please hurt catch the eye

But it was after all a city of blood and stone like others
a city where a man died yesterday someone went mad
someone coughed hopelessly all night


Reduced to its station to a comma a crossed-out letter
nothing just the station—arrivi—partenze

and that is why I think of you Rovigo Rovigo

(Translated by Alissa Valles)

As much as I had been in love with Herbert's poetry—and for so many years—I at first didn't pay much attention to this poem. Slowly, though, its meaning has opened up for me. It's still not one of my ten or twenty favorite Herbert poems, but its significance for me has become clearer and more important.

It's a late poem in Herbert's work. The volume it closes was the penultimate one in the poet's bibliography; only Epilog burzy—Epilogue to a Storm—came after it.

So, again, why Rovigo? The poem tells us everything. Rovigo was for the poet a place seen from a train (Herbert was never a driver: in Italy, especially, he traveled by train). And each time he would go south, he'd see the railway station with the name Rovigo. The same while going up north, to Venice or maybe just back home, toward Vienna and Warsaw.

The poem opens with a joke. "Something from Goethe"—apparently it's a reference to Clavigo, Goethe's play, which had nothing to do with Rovigo whatsoever except for the acoustic nearness of the two words (Clavigo has much to do with an episode in Beaumarchais's life). Why Byron, I don't know—Childe Harold, maybe?

The poem opens with a joke but ends in the most serious way. I read it as an inner polemic: we're not coming to Italy to look at ugly houses, to think of a man "who died yesterday"—we're only interested in those who died five hundred years ago. We're not coming here to be reminded of the triviality of life, we're not coming here to think of Berlusconi or Prodi, or of the reform of the health care system; we come here for the beauty alone. But here, in the Rovigo poem, Herbert the aesthete, Herbert who "has a passion for Altichiero" and for Ferrara, "which I love because it reminded me / of the plundered city of my fathers" (apparently Ferrara had for the poet some similarity with Lvov, his native place), somebody who would normally not even notice Rovigo, a banal place, suddenly changes his mind. In the second half of the poem, the non-visitable city of Rovigo changes its color. Quite literally so: the poem becomes red. The red mountain seen from the train and cut in half, like a piece of ham, announces something that's far away from the usual aesthetic pleasures of somebody on the Grand Tour. Suddenly an apocalyptic note enters the poem. The redness of the mountain is the color of the Apocalypse. The mountain is mutilated; it has a huge wound, the quarry in its side (the quarry is like a butcher shop). And yet, since Herbert is a discreet poet, a poet of understatement, he doesn't change his artistic register right away, he doesn't blow into big apocalyptic trumpets. He just mentions, nearing the poem's closure, "arrivi—partenze," keeping the Italian words in the text, and we understand what he means: arrivi—partenze, birth and death, beginning and end.

Rovigo, the station that doesn't invite us to leave the train, reminds us of the human journey's conclusion. Rovigo, a place nobody deigns to visit, a city most probably not deserving even a few hours of our precious time, an ugly place (most likely so, I haven't visited Rovigo either), a place that "vaut pas le detour," to use the language of our green Michelin, is the pole of dullness, and as such is opposed to beauty, to the "bellezza italiana"; and yet its triviality has a metaphysical bearing for the traveler. Still, it wouldn't exist for our poet as an existential marker without Venice nearby, without the pole of beauty. It's hard to imagine a Herbert poem on, let's say, Bytom (one of the ugliest of places, a post-industrial city in Upper Silesia in Poland), because the other cities in the same region don't constitute a sufficient backdrop to it.

The aesthete is defeated here. An end of sightseeing, of enthusiasms fed by museums and churches, is envisioned. The end of everything is envisioned.

Is this the true calling of the Veneto? Is the sobering effect somehow a part of the region's ambiguous charm? Remember Thomas Mann and his Death in Venice; remember Joseph Brodsky's Watermark (also a variation on death in Venice, but in this case the force of destruction is being opposed by the ingenuity of poetry—an uneven duel). Remember hundreds of other novels and poems with Venice at their heart. Rovigo is necessarily much poorer in this respect. Very poor. Poor like disillusion. Miserable like an obituary.

And then, on a more personal note, the funeral of Joseph Brodsky at the San Michele island comes to my mind. This was the second funeral, as his remains were brought to Venice from New York a year and five months after the poet's demise.

A day after the San Michele burial, we (my wife and I) drove to Vicenza and stayed there overnight in a little hotel near the city center, actually right in the middle of it. We got up early and went out, amazed by the beauty of the moment. The day—the morning—was spectacular. It was early in the day in late June; the sky was cloudless, its blue color deep, as in a utopian novel. Everywhere swallows were cutting through the air, whistling loudly in that shrill way which I love so much. You didn't need to know, you could have guessed, that swallows traditionally represented the promise of eternity: they were believed (erroneously, of course) to winter hidden in the earth, and to emerge from their hiding-place in the spring, rejuvenated, dressed in their glimmering elegant black robes, quick, joyous, intelligent, perfect, jazzy.

And suddenly the Veneto (Vicenza, in this case) behaved like a lens again, but this time not a sobering, sad lens bringing home the apocalyptic news—not like Rovigo in Herbert's poem—no, on the contrary, it transformed itself into a vehicle of ecstasy. Maybe this happened because I entered Vicenza in a melancholy mood, in a mood of deep mourning (I was thinking of Joseph Brodsky, his brilliant mind and his early departure, but also of Krzysztof Kieslowski, who, like Brodsky, died in the winter of 1996), and this morning, which seemed to be the first edition of all the mornings in history, had a complex structure that mingled profound sadness with unmitigated joy. For the Japanese a mourning dress is white, and the blinding whiteness of this June day carried for me both despair and bliss. Death was followed by a happiness whose roots and causes were hidden (for of course the blue sky and the swallows' whistling couldn't explain everything).

My Veneto experience started much earlier, though. In 1975 I was given an exile literary prize, the so-called Koscielski Prize for Younger Writers, which still exists. It was an unwritten tradition to splurge the prize money on a trip to Italy, which was an extravagant gesture for young literati from a Communist country, a country which basically had no money at all, only something that vaguely resembled Monopoly token banknotes. The prize money—don't imagine millions, it was equal probably to a month's salary of a streetcar driver in Switzerland early in his career—could have been used much more rationally in Poland itself, for example as a partial investment toward a future apartment. I followed the frivolous tradition and went to Italy. Venice was first on my list, and it became the first stop on my trip (as it used to be for so many writers coming from the North). It was late August; Venice was besieged by tourists—girls in miniskirts (this was the moment when girls' legs went on display, like objects before an auction), young and older men in jeans —everywhere you saw the typical chaotic tourist crowd, people on leave from their offices, from history, from their seriousness, from their sorrows (but not from their gender). Venice was emblematic and enigmatic; palaces were reflected in the murky canal water; the same water seemed to reflect all the poems written about the city. Rilke and Alexander Blok floated in the dark waters. Chateaubriand was walking nearby. Hofmannsthal looked with awe at churches, museums, and human beings. Goethe wrote a letter to Mrs. Stein (not Gertrude Stein). Baron Corvo was hungry and tried to find somebody from England to sponge off. Henry James sat on a bench keeping an upright position. I realized right away (or so it seems to me now, so many years later) that this was one of those mythical cities that cannot be known, can't be perceived. One of those cities that lie in the vapor of their glory, one of those places where symbols interfere with reality, where the water of memory is heavier than a drop of the present tense, a tear of the present. A city where present dramas do not count because a huge burden of the past dwarfs them and mocks them all the time. Unlike Rovigo, where "somebody died yesterday" and "someone went mad," here, in this decaying splendid city, in the city of death, death lost its weight—for a while.

I can't say I hated Venice; I loved it, admired it deeply, but I couldn't understand the nature of my attraction to it. Beauty, yes, an incredible concentration of beauty, nothing but beauty, extravagant palaces, theatrical piazzas, friendly cats. I loved Venice and yet not quite. The feverish city gave me fever; I was impatient, I tried to pierce through its mysteries. I caught the "Stendhal syndrome" (he got it in Florence, not in Venice). The ancients thought a turtle carried the earth; Venice was carried by water. The ancients thought the earth was flat; Venice was flat (with the countless towers rising from that flatness). The bricks of Venice had a warm, friendly color, yet it was difficult to picture the friendliness of the city inhabitants; they were either invisible or reduced to their pragmatic function within the city's tourist economy—reduced to a smile for a tip. Venice, I thought (much later), had no ground, no arché in the Greek sense; water wasn't ground enough. Water was capricious like a child; wind, its omnipresent teacher, could do anything with it, incite it to a rebellion or put it to sleep. Much later I told myself that if I needed my place in Italy, my (imaginary) home in Italy, Rome would be my choice (Veneto, forgive me)—Rome, which had all the riches of the past and also had a solid ground, an immobile arché.

Looking at the Villa Rotonda near Vicenza, I understood that the Veneto is a magnifying glass: it reveals the secret connection between beauty and destruction. In Venice you see one end of this strange tunnel, in Rovigo the other one. Is it an absurd hypothesis?

We don't know the details of the clandestine economy of our planet. We know, of course, why the Antarctic has a cold climate and Africa a hot one; we understand, more or less, the mechanics of volcanos. But do we know why in some rich, peaceful countries the statistics of suicide are so elevated? Do we know why—at least in some epochs, quite recently —the clement light of Paris was so beneficial to painters? And why do the lemmings jump into the ocean?

Maybe in this ancient, unresearched economy of the world, the Veneto has received a special job, a special commission: to be a magnifying glass for our life. In Vicenza, speedy swallows interfere with the classical geometry of Andrea Palladio. I'm sure Rovigo has its swallows too. We go to Venice to meditate on the finitude of everything, seen from the angle of beauty; and then we pass through Rovigo, and what do we contemplate? The finitude again, but this time seen through the prism of ordinariness—of a normal, trivial city, where all the human things happen much as they do in splendid metropolises: arrivi e partenze, partenze e arrivi.

Adam Zagajewski's most recent books include a book of poems, Without End, and a collection of essays, A Defense of Ardor. A new book of poems, Eternal Enemies, will be out in the spring of 2008.

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