Just a few hundred metres from Lodi’s Romanesque cathedral – and thus also very close to its centrifugal squares, where the town comes together – is an octagonal church, the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin Mary crowned. It is covered in frescos and paintings, some by ‘Il Bergognone’. What I like though is that is was built on the grounds of a brothel, as a kind of alms house, to try and help the poor and destitute of the town. There is a civic logic to Lodi, roads lead inwards to the centre (and, as these are old streets, by implication to the centre of Godliness).
The same feels very true in Cremona, albeit on a far larger scale. Here there are three large, interlinked squares surrounding the massive cathedral and the highest tower in Italy. In another piece on music I’ll talk more about Cremona but what is so striking there is how early on Saturday morning, St Anthony’s day, the patron saint, these Cremonese squares are marketplaces, by lunchtime they are empty; in early and late evening they are for promenades and romances, and in the middle evening for eating. It is not that there is no other choice in Cremona, though somehow there is a sense of social gravity, that might be construed as “political”, pulling the inhabitants inwards. The squares heave in all the social times, and are vistas of panoramic emptiness at siesta.
In a way the towns, Lodi and Cremona, Vercelli as well, act as macrocosms of the gravitational sway of ‘family’ – it might be thought. Options are available, but home, the centre, is ‘best’. Why? Because these places have kept their historical paths, streets and roads; only on the outskirts where industry and mechanised farming brings motorways and railways, does the history fall away. And history, as Donatella and Milena say, ‘is’ important in Italy.
For an atheist “north” European without children, and used to a different kind of social gravity, one pulling towards achievement and status (that isn’t recognised in the town square, but in print) on one hand, and the labyrinthine connections that come with the digital, and the limitless possibilities of travel, on the other, the ideas of these small towns is more foreign, more difficult to comprehend, to ‘know’, than any city, be it Milan or Budapest or Buenos Aires. I can see “family” in action, Italian style; perhaps discern differences between this style in Lodi and Cremona, if I look hard enough. I can learn histories, talk to people; I could just stop and live somewhere a while, pilling up the data. But truly I am excluded from knowing.
In a fascinating and thought provoking review of Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A search for the six million” Adam Philips, asks many questions, and references Mendelsohn’s striking ideas: somewhere among these ideas are questions for the traveller: for Tom Coryat, me, the “Betwixt”; all of us, really who want to ‘know’ about the way other people live their lives. The quotes are Philips unless obviously Mendelsohn’s.
“What kind of history do we want, history that enables us to live in the past or history that enables us to live in history without living in the past? History as refuge or release, inspiration or consolation? These were the questions in ‘The Elusive Embrace’…[Mendelsohn’s first book, he…] wanted to know – it is his favourite verb in both books – what the desire for history, especially personal history, could be a desire for; and he wanted to know what it was about the lost, the absent, the haunting that recruited him so effectively.”
Mandelsohn is gay, and his writings – from the way Philips describes them – combine autobiographical narrative and self-questioning with the detective-historian’s pursuit of the “story”. In “The Lost”: the holocaust. What is taking place for me walking and travelling in Tom’s footsteps is a pursuit not of the “history-story”, nor even “Tom’s exact footsteps”, it is far more about wanting to try and understand “him”, and yet at the same time “something” – highly intangible, but obsessive – of the places he walked, and the inhabitants of these places but today.
“Proust writes in excruciating detail about the way the desire for knowledge of other people is born of exclusion.”
I think Tom was “Betwixt” many kinds of life, and thus multiply “excluded”: the countryside, the court, England and Christendome; eventually the worlds of Persia and India. What was his need to know about these places predicated on? His travels did not make him rich; and yet he travelled on. What did he want? Was it: not to feel excluded? I suspect that is our generation’s ultimate hang-up; explains much of the culture of ‘self expression’, of ‘reality television’, of…blogging, of course. We must not be excluded.
“The real torment begins when wanting turns into wanting to know. When ‘what can you know?’ becomes the question rather than ‘what do you want?’…”
Philips looks at some ideas from Mendelsohn about his sexuality and how that might affect his vision and his pursuits, both romantically and professionally. This is interesting, I think:
“Women are the future for a man, what Mendelsohn calls a ‘destination’: the object of desire for a gay man is an unending solipsistic past, a closed circle. In this version gay desire is a stalling of history, the gay man is driven hopefully and hopelessly, to find the new thing, to know something other than himself…Gay desire is the desire for the past, and for the past that wants to pre-empt, to foreclose the future. ‘Children are the secret weapon of straight culture,’ Mendelsohn writes later in the book: ‘they have the potential to rescue man from inconsequentiality. Fatherhood has the power to confer authenticity on men; it can be what saves them from being eternal boys themselves.’
“There is something about the quest for knowledge about other people that makes us frantic. History writing, as Mendelsohn both shows and tells, can be a struggle to hold one’s self together.’
“When knowing is what you spend your time doing…you get the need for ‘more space’, Lebensraum.”
And this is where Italian ‘family’, and the ‘claustrophobic’ nature of its domestic rituals can appear to be both alien and alluring; romanticised and contrapuntal to city life. And why writing about ‘knowing’ such a thing – let alone speeding past in a car or a coach and complaining about the locals’ insularity – can seem so “excluding” an activity. Blogging heightens this effect; hours rather than days or months are the period for contemplation; a contemplation based on a little sleep, a little food, and another journey to the next place, endlessly seeking the points of connection, either ‘suddenly there’ in a moment of insight, comparison with life “at home” or via information on the memory stick or found online.
“ ‘Proximity’ he [Mendelsohn] ventures at one point, ‘brings you closer to what happened, is responsible for the facts we glean, the artefacts we possess, the verbatim quotations of what people said; but distance is what makes possible the story of what happened, is precisely what gives someone the freedom to organise and shape those bits into a pleasing and coherent whole.’ This is the conventional view, and indeed the way many men think of their lives: you get the best version when you get away. What makes ‘The Lost’ unconventional is the way Mendelsohn comes to suspect that this very freedom to organise and shape is complicit with so many of the things he fears most: the tyrannies of exclusion, the manipulation of material. However well drawn the characters, however good the story, we are always aware of what has been lost in the making.”
I suppose the lesson of Lodi and Cremona (there’s more Cremona to come) is that in his texts Tom sticks mainly to buildings and observation: in so doing he invents tourism. In following him and asking questions of people about their lives, their children and desires for escape or not, I find an analogy with Tom’s wonder. I simply wonder how and with what glue these cultures hold together. The wonder is, they seem to.
Perhaps it is something to do with having such terrible internet facilities…