For a traveller to Italy from the north, there is no possible way of ignoring the Alps. Whether you are Hannibal, a medieval pilgrim, a Grand Tour pleasure seeker or an airborne tourist of the 21st century, the Alps are the symbol of the transition from ”now” to ”then”, from cold to warm, from winter to eternal spring. If travelling by train, as I did today, the passage over the mountain range forces the journey to slow down considerably, winding its way through tunnels, valleys and passes, just to prolong and thus dramatize the event that is about to happen. I boarded the night train Pictor in Munich, heading for Venice (with additional wagons to Zagreb and Budapest to be disconnected during the night), and prepared myself for being transported in my cocoon compartment through the dark mountains until the morning light outside the window would wake me up in Italy, and the transformation would be complete.
Whichever way one crosses the Alps, the contrast between north and south never fails to strike. Several climate changes occur on the way: from autumn in Germany to sudden snow in the middle of the Alps, only to stumble into verdant spring after having crossed the Italian border. The landscape, the language, the nature, the architecture – the scenery outside the train windows as well as on the train itself shifts and transforms only because of this giant alpine gate-keeper. No wonder that the effect this journey has made on travellers, historically as well as this very day, remains an almost shocking experience, often euphoric, but also sometimes disappointing when the effect for some reason fails. Leaving reality behind, entering eternal Paradise. Leaving identity behind as a worn-out old coat, getting new garments in flowing silk. Leaving troubles behind, filled by peace of mind as white as the blossoming almond trees in the valley.
”Go thou to Rome, – at once the Paradise, the grave, the city, and the wilderness”, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his Adonais – an elegy on the death of John Keats. And several other writers of the 18th and 19th century in fact declare the same: Italy, and Rome, is Paradise. A Paradise on earth, with a mild climate, where fruits and vegetables are abundant, and all troubles dissolve in the warm sun. The travel writer Anna Jameson called Italy ”a sort of Golden Age”, referring to the ancient myth of an archaic period under the reign of Saturn, when mankind lived happily and in peace because earth and nature freely gave them whatever they needed. Jameson seems to indicate that the Golden Age is not a mythical past, but rather a reality rooted in the Italian landscape and which, she argues, creates the stereotypical Italian lifestyle of dolce far niente and idleness. ”At every moment the senses, lapped in delight, whisper – this is Paradise”. Also Mary Shelley in her travelogue Rambles in Germany and Italy from 1844 agrees: southern Italy and its climate is a paradise.
But travellers have, too, sought in vain for paradisiac happiness immediately south of the Alps. The weather, the time of year, what you had for dinner last night, the company, the compartment – as I started to fall asleep in my bed on the Pictor train, I decided that next morning, I would take on the identity of a romantic traveller in search of ”Italy”, asking myself the question ”When and where does Italy begin, and why?”, while trying to find the answer from my own experiences. An experiment. The Italian experiment, carried out to an extreme, indulging in preconceptions and turning back the clock to cultural pre-post-colonialism.
I woke up at seven in the morning; a pale light seeped into the compartment. It was morning, I was in Italy, I knew I was in Italy because I had received a text message from Telecom Italia wishing me welcome to Italy. When I opened the curtain and peeped out, everything outside was grey and brown. Brown muddy fields, grey houses, roads, industrial buildings, a grey river, spindly black leafless trees. Was this Italy? No. I started to think about what Italy was supposed to look like, what I was looking for, waiting for, longing for, needing. I pulled down the curtain again, got dressed and went out in the train corridor, and there they were outside the window: the mountains, the Italian side of the Alps. My compartment window apparently fronted on the wrong direction. The wonderful mountains, blueish, snow over the tops. The mountains made me feel good, alert, happy, full of expectations. The mountains were Italy by means of their beauty, their mild sloping down into an imagined spring from the stern Austrian part of the Alps. The mountains were Italy.
What else was Italy? I looked out the window and scrutinized critically what I saw. The leafless trees? No. Anonymous blocks of flats in the small towns we were passing by? No. Industrial complexes? No. People in black winter jackets on their way to work? No. School kids on the platform? No. Infrastructure? No. Everyday existence? No. I was waiting for pine trees, cypresses, bell towers, villas, ruins, picturesque huts, ochra hues. Italy is nature, but not any nature; certain symbolic species, evergreen, flowery. Italy is history, but not any history; not industrial history, working class history, no, for me, in this outdated character I chose for myself this morning, it is architectural history, archaeology, art history, church history, and all with a tint of Romanticism. Thus, an old stone house overgrown by ivy would do, as would the medieval bell tower. Italy is climate, and, obviously, the milder the better. It would never be foggy in Paradise, not the winter kind of fog, at least.
Well, but would I then like these sceneries to be inhabited? By Italians? Yes. Italians. But not ordinary people, not the everyday persons, no, I would rather like the elderly gentleman reading La Repubblica, the elegant lady in felt hat and cape, yes, probably the too-rich owners of the villas I wished for earlier. In fact, I would not want any everyday scenes at all, other than the ones of the persons who by birth or by wealth loom carelessly high above it all, because they echo my own wish to be at ease in this country. I am here as a colonist, of history, of the arts, of not having a care in the world. I do not want your 21st century civilisation, not your commuting, not your society and not your politics. I do not want your present time, no thank you! I am here to forget and to feel good. I want to see Pan disguised as the gentleman in Italian tweed, I want to see Dea Roma in furs with a Dachshund. In short, I want Paradise, I want the Golden Age, I need a pre-historical vacation, an archaic resort with olives on a plate and a glass of timeless wine in the shade.
I reflected on the fact that poverty is not picturesque any more, as it once was; it is only dirty and hopeless. The poor peasant of the previous centuries is history. Perhaps, I thought, reasoning from my chauvinist/romantic character, it is because the poor are not genuine any more. It is not the rustic inhabitants from the Campagna and the Ciociara mountains that flock the Spanish Steps now, it is globalized poverty, the immigrants and the refugees, who desperately seek any life anywhere. In fact, one might suspect that it is just that lacking rustic element that is the clue. The poor peasants and herdsmen from the fields and the woods somehow are members of the Golden Age myth: they can be terrifying, they are not to be trusted or touched, but isn’t that true of fauns and nymphs as well?
I had to get off the train at Venezia Mestre in order to catch the next train to Rome. Oh, so close to Venice, to Italy, the dreamy waters, the painfully beautiful canal with its palazzi, the very image of Italy, the postcard of Italy, the ”true” Italy, to be so close and yet not be allowed to arrive in Italy. The dull Mestre station, industrial worn-down modern suburb, would not do for my purposes of seeking ”Italy”. But when I dragged my suitcase down and up the stairs to reach the coffee bar at the station I heard the morning rumour all around me, and suddenly I knew: this is Italy, the crowd, the Italian phrases, the sounds of everyday life, extracted to an overall atmosphere. Individuals reduced to a crowd, a timeless crowd doing what crowds always have done: moving and buzzing. The first contact with Italian air, the first steps on Italian ground – although it happens in Mestre, in this case, present-day will do and will do very well, because it is the canvas that the impressions of the senses have to be painted on. When seeking the view, the veduta, only one’s eyes and preconceptions are at play. But sooner or later I, the traveller, have to place my body in the midst of the scene, and then there is no stopping the action of the senses, even if I do not look, and perhaps even more if I don’t. The rumour confirms that this is Italy, and because this is Italy, the views that I am after will eventually show, the climate I seek will appear, the sun will break through the fog and the rain will stop, and after all I need to be out here on the ground, in the field, to meet the history and the arts I know are waiting for me here.
When I entered the Frecciargento train bound for Roma Termini, I no longer looked out the window for views that would confirm ”Italy”. It all became very simple, and yet more inexplicable than ever. In the middle of the chaos, stress, sharp sounds, whirling smells, and pollution on the dull Mestre station I was suddenly much nearer to Italy than ever on the panoramic train bridge to Venezia S. Lucia. It made me euphoric and happy, not because it had anything to do with Paradise, but just because it happened to be the place where I got off the train and into the thick air of reality. Maybe I did not pass the test as a true Romantic traveller; maybe the Paradise thing and its sceneries is just a literary construction, conceived inside a writing chamber in northern Europe; maybe Paradise is made precisely that way – a glimpse of something far off, outside a train window, a beautiful but forever lost ray of light, something to be chased as a rainbow but never found. The result of my experiment: I preferred reality, especially when it included a cup of coffee. Who knows if they have coffee in Paradise? And who knows where Italy begins? If you find out, let me know.