Cremona in four movements

Cremona is a music town; likes to think of itself as the centre for the greatest violin making in history. A hundred metres from its cathedral is a museum with examples from Stradivari, Guaraneri dei Gesû; as well as violins made by members of the Amati family, beginning with Andrea Amati, born in 1566.

Tom doesn’t mention the violins, but today, as in 1608, workshops are found all over the town; in the violin museum it is easy to look at the instruments – in glass boxes, under controlled temperatures, with guards strolling and no photography whatsoever – and imagine Amati’s instruments being played in churches here, or in nearby Venice – where Tom does witness, and thoroughly describes, a concert.

Cremona has a musical rhythm: a four movement day, each with themes, developed over time. Mornings are about shopping, markets that arrive with daylight, a blur of colours; of mercantile sounds. Cafés are for breaks in the process, full of men – who will not be moving – sitting over the football papers, and joined sometimes by women in mid-process acquisition (old-school, but true). On Saturday it is the fair of St Anthony, which brings markets to all three of the main squares: get up late though and it will be missed. By one all that is left are white vans taking the unsold clothes and foods away.

The first movement is about bustle and noise, as is the third and some parts of the fourth. Often in these towns, in Lodi, Vercelli, Mantua and Pizzighetonne – merely the ones I’ve seen – the question of where food is bought comes up. Lodi might display its 5000 Euro sofas with some discrete pleasure, where its grocery store is, who knows? Only the local people seem to know, and they keep such secrets with a conspiracist’s joy; often they shop outside, in hypermarkets that we tourist/travellers never see, I suspect.

The open markets change this: an obvious variation. Suddenly cheeses and meats, vegetables and oils are centre stage, along with the shoes and dresses and sunglasses. The result is a Saturday morning of worship, re-acquaintance and bargains. And as the last notes are played, and paid, it isn’t clear, to the uninitiated, what kind of second movement is to come.

In fact what comes is a giant conjuring trick: the market stalls vanish within twenty minutes and so do the inhabitants of Cremona. A few are to be seen having a late lunch, but really the only people on the streets are strangers. Tourists, travellers; and a coach party from America.

To say American tourists are soft targets is a little like saying Stockhausen’s music isn’t particularly easy to consume. In this case horror after horror is perpetrated, said, done: at least the entire “visit” to Cremona only takes 45 minutes, most of which is taken up in an argument about whether “gelato” is ice-cream. The basis of the discussion being that several of the party were sick last night after “gelato”, and they are never sick in the States with ice-cream (do the math yourself). The whole episode is like one of Shakespeare’s vaguely annoying interludes when the clowns come onstage for some audience participation. The group is a kind of base street theatre where despite the appearance of individual and collective confidence and volume everyone – tour leaders, reluctant dads (there are a couple), “chaperones”, “chaperone-groups” [there being a ‘war of terror], texting I-pod kids, the bored, the hungry and the sick – everyone, is nervous. Fearful of difference. “I’ve walked around the entire cathedral [i.e. the central square, a three minute adventure] and there are no take-outs, so if you are hungry: ice cream. Good news is that its food in the hotel tonight in Verona, so we don’t have to worry.”

Young girl: “He said: ‘just find something to eat in one of the streets. But like, does he know where we are?” A question made doubly ironic by the response from a Chinese-american girl. “I want to do something really exotic in Italy, maybe yoghurt and cherry mix with ice cream.”

Americans have become the new “Roma”; gypsies with Gold Cards, welcome because they pay without thinking. “The smaller coin is a ‘one’.” A group leader explains to a 16 year old boy. But scratch the surface in Italy or France and the goodwill that Americans received as a mater of fact in the 1990s, even post 9/11, has eviscerated. It is a great shame; a domino effect. Indifference to and outright displeasure with an American presence leads to a corresponding “siege” mentality, a: “so what, we’re the most powerful?” sense.

I mention them because like me, they are the only ones stupid enough to be out in the blinding heat and sun in early afternoon. Everywhere else, places that in the first, third and fourth movements are a complex arrangement of wind and strings and percussion are now just a fading echo of: “Please join your chaperone group now, please join your chaperone group…”

In the Municipal museum there are more violins, and a great deal of religious art. I am holding fire on art quite deliberately: art and architecture are Tom’s domain, the “principal” concerns of the Grand Tourists, I am trying to only mention these when they are revolutionary. Mantegna is revolutionary; but he doesn’t enter the story until Mantua.

Between 1.30 and five the streets are almost entirely deserted; the large Municipal museum I have to myself – two dogs and five administrators loll about listlessly. Outside the porticoes and the shaded streets are vital; and most shops are closed.

With the reds and greens and oranges (a browny-orange) of pre-supper drinks the town revives. Each of the three main squares has its vibe: the cathedral square, Piazza dei Comune, is older, quieter, content to watch the world wander, rather than pose. Ice cream rules. The piazza Pace is very young; off its exits the children play at sophistication on their bikes, here at the cafés the rituals of the cathedral square and the square are utterly drowned by a street disco, playing Madness, Boy George – an 80s panoply. These are the people who will drink – very slowly, often soft drinks – all evening; whereas in the Piazza Stradivari dinner is part of the process. This is the to-be-looked-at square, a counterpoint of flesh and pouting and cocktails. Woman look like Dominique Sanda; men like Paulo Maldini: a “retro-is-chic”, feel (for a small northern town in Italy – though Italy does have that retro thing everywhere; I think it always has since the 80s). Here the music is “Jamiroquai”: not new, not ancient; danceable yet not techno, neither fashionable not unfashionable. For all those things there are discos, presumably.

By eleven the kids’ square, the Piazza Pace, is a sea of youth-club mixed with high street fashion; Cremona is not the centre of bohemian Italy; it’s only obvious centre is a pub behind the cathedral where students and their teachers argue about Dante, and Capello.

It’s hard to describe the sensation of viewing this shift from almost deserted town to musical riot. I suppose the experience of crossing Italy has acclimatised me to siesta culture, but this is the largest yet: Milan and Turin are different kinds of locations. As with Lodi there is not a seat in any of the squares by eleven, and many just walk around: what was food and clothes market is now meat market, though I don’t see the “market forces” working here, I sense a series of well-scripted family sagas being played out, generation after generation. The themes are much the same as a hundred years ago, perhaps – as Donatella and Milena suggest – things have changed a little, but not so much. By one the kids have vanished, to home, “chez maman” or to the discos; in Cremona’s fourth movement there are twin tracks: the youthful locked in cellars; and the rest of us, lingering, wandering, catching a very late bite somewhere, drinking to watch, to be watched, to talk or to listen. Nowhere does anyone seem to be drinking à la Anglaise. Drinking for Drinking’s Sake seems further away than England or Germany; it is a lifetime away. It occurs to me that Tom might even have found Italy “civilized” in comparison to London. I’ll have to think about that.

About robhunt510

Writer, artist
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