A mixed bag

All pix Vercelli

In the green, hilly, valley of Les Charmettes just outside Chambéry, Jean-Jacques Rousseau found another refuge, this time with Madame de Warens, the lover he named “maman.” His “rights of man” politics were dangerous personally – and socially – in many parts of Europe. So he escaped to Chambéry, and founded his ascetic vision of living.

“At this moment began the short happiness of my life,” he writes in book Six of the Confessions. “Those peaceful and rapid moments, which have given me a right to say, I have lived.”

Cities are often the locus of political dissent; retreat from the city for the dissenter and the radical thinker a common theme: in Shakespeare dissent is punished by exile to the “country”. And from Rousseau’s time, not to mention Roman or Greek civilisations, escape, or exile, nurturing time to think, to re-think, has been common.

Unlike Tom, who is captivated by cities – to think that Paris is only his “second”, Turin his “fourth” – and who responds to Milan with an inhuman gust of sight-seeing activity in short hours, brutal running around in punishing heat to catch this church and that arsenal, we tend to follow Rousseau’s way. Modern cities have largely lost that bohemian, intellectual, vigour which challenges and questions the way we are now, replacing it with temples to consumption: contemplative retreat is more likely in Les Charmettes than Les Halles.

There is no problem with this, but it does change the way we see cities, we can’t see them as Tom did: the Left Bank of Paris is now about Gucci, not Gramschi; the coffee-houses of the City of London no longer the locus for Sterne or Idlers or Addisons alongside the merchants and guilds, but men on mobiles shouting “but this is £500 million we are talking about.” In Tom’s time cities were run by courts, often autonomous of what we now call a country or a nation. But factions existed: mild dissent, a poorly judged joke in a Johnson play, might lead to prison. Power radiated out from a Ducal palace, a cathedral; there was a merchant’s area, a marketplace. You were “in” or “out” – or like Tom, and I suspect Ben Jonson and most of the writers, save Shakespeare, “betwixt”.

Cities did once – and will again – ferment a vision of social change in very different ways from the “change” in country regions (which is often about slow population shifts, movements for labour brought about by climate alterations, globalization, the opening up of markets, or the arrival of ski-resorts), but today cities are also harsher environments in which to comprehend and communicate, let alone formulate a new way (even a Third Way). Metaphorically, the endless construction works of the modern city make it harder see the “bigger picture”, let alone find the like-minded. That’s why the internet appeared to offer such metropolitan hope (among many kinds of social spaces) a decade or so ago. The court is still out of whether the webs “social networks” will bring us closer, or merely enable us as individuals to create imaginary worlds in which to swap MP3s, and defeat oppressive warlords with a magic spell …

Betwixt the choice and speed of Turin and, say, the patriarchal torpor of Breteuil in northern France, some large places (Lyon, Chambéry) do seem to find a balance between business, pleasure and civic responsibility, and in creating “nodal” points where communities can meet (of course in Tom’s time this was the provenance of the Church, primarily; though the theatre had its place). And some smaller towns find the balance beautifully (Lodi, Vercelli, Nevers) – but to the exclusion of “excitement”. Or change. And these latter ideas are central to our new conception of a “good life.” It must be fluid, mutable, and “improving”.

Turin was briefly the capital of Italy, ceding first to Florence and with 1848, Rome. It responded to the snub by investing heavily in industry, not so differently from Manchester or Liverpool in similar Victorian times. It grew away from Ducal patronage with democracy, and became the domain of the industrialists. It is not so surprising then to discover also that Turin was a centre of social unrest from the end of the nineteenth century: trade union activity, a strong local Communist party system, lead to many agitations; more recently the Red Brigade often targeted Turin. Turin-based writers such as Pavese, Calvino and his editor, Elio Vittorini, were all active communists; the latter gave up after the Hungarian uprising against the Russians in 1956. And though, as writers such as Imre Kertesz repeat even now, the practice of communism was totalitarian hell in most places, it is worth asking: do any of the egalitarian ideals of communism have a place now? In city, town or country? Last week BBC World suggested the last vestiges of communism were dead. But what now grows on the corpse of the Berlin Wall? “Democracy?” Well, that’s a word and idea which has all the hallmarks of our new modernity, being fluid, mutable, and “improving”, an antidote to “terror” and as vague now as it must have been in Tom’s day. I think this era will be remembered as a great baroque fantasy: a “Shortbus” trip in collective delusion.

Calvino lived in New York for a while, instinctively recognizing himself as a “new yorker” I use the lower case deliberately, in the old fashioned manhattan sense of the city being a cosmopolitan, thoughtful, intellectually rigorous, humanist place of the New School, Columbia, the UN; the city Hannah Arendt came to in 1945, writing a joyous paean to it and the American way, in her “On Revolution”, (see also much of the writing on “exile” of new yorker, Edward Said) rather than a watering hole for Wall Street – which it can seem these days. Though I don’t utterly buy that: for I too am a “new yorker”, and always will be. The myth is enough.

The Old new yorker myth is no different from Rousseau’s Charmettes, or “stylish” Milan, or “liberating” MySpace, or my current romantic views of small towns in France or Italy: the myth is enough to entice travel and to make a place come alive with its hauntings, and so excite thought. How strange (and somehow pleasing) that myth plays no part in the marketing of Vercelli, certainly not overtly.

In a courtyard just off the town’s grand Basilica is a small museum housing a number of wee treasures. Gorgeous chalices, grail-legend stuff: Indy Jones quality. And old. But it is the copy of a tenth century cross, (the original hangs in the Basillica), crafted in bronze and silver that mesmerizes.

“It’s older than my country,” says Philip. He is a twenty five year old Brazilian, currently staying in Vercelli after a year in grad-school here. “I want my Italian citizenship,” he says. “It might take another year. Until then I can’t work, and there is not enough work back home. So I just travel around. These are beautiful things, old. They remind me of history, civilized, history – for this country that’s still an immense thing.” So he wants to stay: we all want somewhere. Else. And a sense of continuity. Thus much of our paradox.

The real cross in the Basilica is the real deal. Its design is pre-Renaissance, pre middle ages: a product of the First Millennium. In the presence of a very human and very tortured Christ, whatever one thinks about God, something – an artistic sensibility, man’s long ability to record emotion – holds out a hand from a past 600 years before Tom Coryat : and in this moment Tom’s world seems suddenly modern. On the brink of Enlightenment, rationalism, science, revolutions, travel, the rise of the nation-state, the citizen, the “self” and the “end of history”…

Here there is the care and craft that is visible behind glass and crowds in any decent art museum, except that nobody, except local worshippers, are around. That the town’s layout is still essentially 15th century helps to burnish the mood of a touching out to a history older than hedge funds; that cars are left somewhere else does too. But finally there is the idea of this cross having moved so many local people, and visitors to Vercelli when it was the regional capital: it is a very modern, human, sensibility we are confronted with – except it is 1000 years old.

As is the second secret of Vercelli: a manuscript brought here under mysterious circumstances, perhaps by one of those “political” exiles, one of those who was forced to escape England – or perhaps it was a pilgrim trying to get to Rome. Nobody knows. The manuscript was ‘discovered’ in the nineteenth century when a German, Friedrich Blume, who was looking for legal manuscripts, came across it by accident. I want to know more about the unknown traveller, and Friedrich Blume. It has been suggested that the ‘compiler’ of this work was someone from a monastic setting who wanted to show his personal interest in “penitential and eschatological themes” and to glorify the ascetic way of life.

“I had always thought of English literature as the richest in the world; the discovery now of a secret chamber at the very threshold of that literature came to me as an additional gift. Personally, I knew that the adventure would be an endless one, and that I could go on studying Old English for the rest of my days.”

Jorge Luis Borges The Aleph, and Other Stories

The manuscript, or the “Vercelli Book”, contains six poems and 23 prose homilies. It is thought it came to Vercelli in the twelth century, but the literature is far older. The six poems are Andreas, The Fates of the Apostles, the Soul and Body, the Dream of the Rood, Elene, and a fragment of a homiletic poem. It is one of the foundations of “Anglo-Saxon” studies.

The “Dream of the Rood” is one of the earliest Christian poems in the corpus of Anglo-Saxon literature, and an intriguing example of the genre of dream poetry. Like all Old English poetry, it is written in alliterative verse. Rood is from the Anglo-Saxon rod “pole”, specifically crucifix. Preserved in the 10th century in the Vercelli Book, the poem may be considerably older, even one of the oldest works of Old English literature.”

The narrator of the poem, known as a “scop”, tells of a dream in which he has a conversation with the wood of the “true” cross. Jesus is portrayed as a kind of warrior, who faces his death with warrior stoicism. The Cross “speaks” as if it were a member of Christ’s apostles, and accepts its fate as “it” watches its Creator die. The Cross then “explains” that Christ’s death was not a defeat but a victory.

“I beheld sorrowful the tree of the Saviour,
until I heard it utter a sound;
it began to speak words, the best of wood:
“That was very long ago, I remember it still,
that I was cut down from the edge of the wood,
ripped up by my roots. They seized me there, strong enemies,
made me a spectacle for themselves there, commanded me to
raise up their criminals.
Men carried me there on their shoulders, until they set me on a hill,
enemies enough fastened me there. I saw then the Saviour of
mankind hasten with great zeal, as if he wanted to climb up on me.”

Modern version by Elaine Treharne, in the “Old and Middle English Anthology”.

This is 800 years before Wordsworth’s pantheism. Why this is interesting is three-fold: Old English poetry was about oral storytelling, an oral craft, and so in this written form, though far from “hearing” voices from the first millennium, it gives us an ear at the door. Sometimes, with Tom, it is easy to wish for just a few more moments at his door…The Dream shows us just a hint of worlds truly unimaginable compared with Tom’s.

Secondly, during the Reformation when monastic libraries were dispersed, “Anglo-saxon” manuscripts were collected by antiquarians and scholars, beginning the tradition that “books do furnish a room”. And thirdly – which brings us back to the end of cities’ hegemony and the arrival of the nation-states and “The Age of Empire” – because Old English was one of the first vernacular languages to be written down, nineteenth century scholars searching for the roots of European “national culture” (more on that in Germany, in August) took special interest in studying Anglo-Saxon literature, and Old English became a regular part of university curriculums.

In a way Ivo Guzzon, Legatore d’arte and a man of Vercelli, brings many of these ideas together. Something or someone must. In a side street, the via Borgogna, he hand-makes books. His tiny practice is a ground floor and a basement: inside are modern riches. His clients are from all over the world, and the prices “cost the world” he says. But they are beautiful, one-offs, “uniquo”. He shows me a book of poems about the Amazon made from Brazillian materials. Often the books are “spiritual” he says, “for collectors.” Somehow a line goes back to the original unknown man who brought a hand-written copy of Anglo-Saxon here. And yet these days Ivo is the radical, the extremist whose ideas challenge our notions of modern publishing.

At the very nice, rather chic, restaurant-bookstore in Vercelli where slick paperback versions of the classics, of Cervantes, Foucault and Calvino are displayed, I ask about the Pavese poem that is used in the tourist literature. The assistant Googles. Not in stock, she offers to order it.

“I’m only here a day.” I say
“Next time then.”

About robhunt510

Writer, artist
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