“There is one speciall thing wanting in this citie, which made me not a little wonder; namely, that frequency of people which I observed in the other Italian cities. For I saw so few people here, that I thinke no citie of all Italy, France or Germany, no, nor of all Christendome that countervaileth this is quantity, is lesse peopled: so that were the students removed, the number of whom is sometimes abouve one thousand five hundred…this citie would seeme more than halfe desolate: yet their Praetorium or Senate house that I have before described, I observed sometimes to be pretty well frequented with people. It was tolde me, having inquired the reason of this scarcity of inhabitants, that most of the nobler Patavine families doe live out of the citie, partly in Venice, and partly in their villaes and Palaces of retrait in the countrey, and doe very seldom make their aboad in Padua. But the reason why they abandon the citie, and preferred other places before it, no man told me…”
If Padua is the equivalent of, lets just say, Bath in England, or Chambéry in France, in terms of size and scope and history, then it comes third of three in dealing with the weather. Officially Paduans are bad in the rain. And tonight there is big rain: I’ve brought it from England, no doubt.
Crowds the size of an Inquisition-survivors self-help meeting circa 1610 are on the streets; the mood is sullen, as if Francesco Totti has just missed a penalty in the world cup final. Africans try to sell umbrellas, but listlessly: in Paris, and in far worse May-time conditions, the umbrella business was spectacular. Here there’s not even an attempt at marketing.
Sure Padua has Galileo on the books, then Bath has Jane Austen, Chambéry makes a decent claim for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and how those three Canon-giants stack up is harder to decide. But for a town with a magnificent six hundred year old fresco drama on time and the seasons, it seems very ill-prepared for not-sun. Here I watch the down-side to outdoor culture: climate change, I suppose. I wonder: will all Italians be tucked up at home on front of the computer screen playing online games in two generations?
An hour after the worst of the storm there are precisely 17 people drinking in the main square. I turn around and it is 13. At the next table a woman experiments with a long black cigarette holder: it brings the first laugh of the night. August: out of season Italy. Joy-riders take to driving around the square in their Italian Job 2 Minis. And now I think about it, where are the restaurants anyway?
I’m back in the living world, not the library and I’m reconfiguring my imagined Padua minute by minute. I’m guessing the town hasn’t had its cultural make-over yet. Thus the architects visions of modernity and “future” in the Palazzo della Ragione. Yet I can’t believe I am so close to Venice. Where are the kebab suburbs, and the Chinese restaurants? I’ve walked the town quite well, and seen perhaps seven restaurants: five for the coach-set by St Anthony’s Basillica.
I ask the waiter where the restaurants are. “What you want?” Food. “Go right, right again, then left.” He says. I go right, right, left and expect to find queues. Instead a small place half-full of locals, mostly not eating. There are roly-poly men at the bar talking the talk; and two women describing unspeakably bad male behaviour. It’s barely ten at night and the mood is down-beat.
The plates at the tables are empty, and though there is conversation there’s little volume save the bar-side Bards. I spy a nose ring and feel like Galileo spotting a new planet. Is it the legacy of history, the fact that once these streets were the very fulcrum of intellectual Europe, which makes for such a torpor now?
“No, they’re not in the centre, on the outside more, you have to walk,” says Lucia, a dentist. She thinks I am looking for a university first of all: I’ve done enough of those for the day. She laughs at her friend’s text message, then puts on a pink leather jacket, grimaces at the weather and reminds me not to eat here as she leaves. “There is a place near the centre, but it’s very expensive,” she warns. “If you want Italian meat you have to walk.”
The line sounds like an early Lou Reed lyric, from a song that turns up only on limited edition 4CD boxed-sets. I finish another Campari-spritzer, smile at the roly-poly men, and don’t go in search of Italian meat, but wander home. I feel as if I’ve entered a very private family grief.