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Published May 2001Become a subscriber
On a soft, sunlit morning in March 1959, just a few days before my twenty-fifth birthday, I stood at the rails of an Italian liner, the Fairsky, and after a five-weeks sea-voyage that had taken me via Singapore, Colombo, Bombay, Aden and Port Said, saw the Bay of Naples open before me, and utterly familiar in the distance the dark slopes and scooped-out cone of Vesuvius – all just as I had always imaged it, like the breaking of a dream.
I had come from the actual south, and for all those weeks had been sailing north-north-west up the globe. But geography, even when we experience it as day after day of looking out on empty ocean and sky, so that distance brings itself home to us as time measured out as children express it, in sleeps and mealtimes – that sort of geography is less convincing somehow than the one we carry in our heads. For me, arriving in Naples after all those weeks of travelling north, was an arrival at last in the south, the true south. Not the city I had grown up in, down there below Capricorn, which was really just another version of Dundee, but the south that Goethe was in touch with when he tapped his poems out on the shoulder of a girl he had just spent the night with. The naked south. The classical south. The pagan south. That south of the spirit, at the furthest pole from Brisbane or Dundee, where the body rules – that ideal state we call ‘Italy’.
I had already been there in books. In Forster’s Where Angels Fear To Tread and A Room with a View, in Norman Douglas’s South Wind, and in poems by Shelley and Keats and Byron and Auden and August von Platen – whose poems I knew through an essay of Thomas Mann. I had caught the breath of it in the works of composers from the deep north, pieces in which lives lived in the cramped world of trolls and kobolds and cod-liver oil and clocks, and the severest notions of discipline and duty, had for a time moved to a more exultant rhythm – pieces called Souvenir de Florence and Harold in Italy and Aus Italien. Now, suddenly, there it was to be walked into, a world of vines climbing up ten-foot poles, oranges hanging among glossy leaves, ‘das Land wo die Citronen blühn’. All open and inviting – dinning with car-horns and voices out of Donizetti, and the promise of a naked shoulder in bed to tap out poems on, the dactyls and spondees of pagan elegies beyond the reach of hymns.
The world of the south, through the long dark period of Christian fear and loathing of the flesh, had somehow kept touch with a pagan view of the body as essentially innocent and good, and it was this that Goethe discovered and had taken home with him from his Italian journey, to quicken the expectations but also the senses of his compatriots. Armed like him with a sketchpad (Goethe had brought back over a thousand drawings of what Italy had revealed to him), they set off in their hundreds for Florence, Rome, Sicily and a world they believed where pleasure, spontaneous joy in the flesh, was legitimised by a tradition going back, on the same soil and under the same blue skies, to remote antiquity.
One gets a good idea of what they were fleeing from in Grünewald’s great altarpiece at Colmar, one of the most impressive but also one of the most extreme expressions of Northern feeling. The big-boned bulk of the crucified Christ, with its ape-like arms and taloned, immense feet, is half shaggy brute and half grounded sky-creature that has been spread-eagled and plucked, its dark meat already rotting. Nowhere in Italian painting do we get such a view of the body, such disgust at its grossness, such a violation of its grace and dignity. Italian Christs are lean Apollonian figures or classical athletes. The men who are nailing them to the cross are ordinary workmen. Not grinners and sadists but fellows doing a job and with their own sober dignity. The body is never brutalised or mangled, it is never dead meat. In its composed agony it glows from within with the assurance of resurrection. The proof of the body’s triumph is that even on the cross its beauty, which is the visible form of its innocence, remains of its very nature inviolable, untouched.
So there it was, Italy: still there, even in 1959. Laid out in all its seductiveness before yet another pilgrim from the world of gloomy fogs as Goethe puts it – even if, in my case, the fogs were metaphorical. With its stacks of oranges and lemons in dark little caverns off the steps in every side-street, its up-turned flagstones and war-time rubble, its barefoot urchins selling dirty postcards from Pompeii and contraband Lucky Strikes, it was utterly of the moment, the Here and Now, no missing that. But it was also, since that is what I, along with Goethe and so many others wanted it to be, the fulfilment of a dream, another and freer mode of being. It was second breath, a new life. Most of all, it was the centre of things, the Mediterranean, the shining middle-point of our world; the world, I mean, of the imagination – Venus Andomene rising naked from the sea, the fons Bandusiae and the fountain of Arethusa, the entrance to the underworld out by the lake of Avernus (a place you could take a bus to), the cave of the Cumean sibyl, and the sort of frenzied dance that can cure a spider’s bite.
Ten years later I published a set of poems on the South and what it meant to those of us who had come, early and late, from the real or notional north. This is one of them. It is called ‘After Baedeker’.
Descend out of the mist, hangover
of a decade of divisions, let it be holy wars, the break-up
of a marriage, a career. Step
through to a middle period like Goethe’s, putting the nine points of
you and the wolves
and sad-eyed Wunderkinder. You must break
all ties with the gothic
north, its kobolds, drill-squares, pogroms,
baths. The first lake
offers you yourselves
in a summer breathing-space, the spider’s poison
will teach you to dance.
Here time is another country, old age
is possible, tombs
are a form of architecture. Enter their silence
in groups: a wall of pious skulls that glow, deep cellarage
under vines and barley-sheaves,
the heels of children playing at blind-man’s-buff,
a nave stretching from Dante’s
exile to the opening of Hernani. Shake
the dust from your clothes and screw
your eyes up in the sun. Take a glass
of grappa among pimps and lemon-squeezers, the passage easy
here into afternoon or an old man’s passionate lyricism.
On their climb to Fiesole
the Germans capture nothing
with their sketchpads of the play
of light on terraced hills. Twelve years later
in the blue dusk of Hamburg, the whole unlikely organism
flares, the landscape shimmers and ascends in an unsheathing
of wings. Posing on worn sarcophagi
among poppies, we have the look
– unbuttoned, ill-at-ease – of the eternal
tourist. The long-jawed locals do it better
in their dark museums. On terracotta couches two by two
between meals, they smile at something over our shoulder:
the present. Un-otherworldly.
At any moment poised for eternity.
Later again I owned a small house in Tuscany – Southern Tuscany, the wild, unfashionable bit – and learned a little of what it was like to test my dream of the south against the reality of living with it for seven days a week, among contadini, small land-owning peasants, who turned out to be even less Catholic and more pagan than I had believed, but also more earthily unromantic. ‘Maladetti Toscani’ as Malaparte called them, ‘bloody Tuscans’, with their wickedly reductive sense of humour and a good strong dash of cynicism about such matters as the durability of love, the importance of money and the good intentions of ordinary men and women as opposed to saints, about whom they were on the whole humorously condescending. This was the real Italy.
There’s a delightful moment early on in Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love when Italian attitudes to love and living are set sharply against the more sentimental and – as the generous-spirited but hard-headed little heroine of that opera, Adina, sees it – bizarre views of the north.
She’s reading an old book of romances. She bursts out laughing. ‘Goodness me,’ she exclaims, ‘what a silly story!’
‘What is it?’ the other girls demand. ‘What’s the joke?’
‘It’s this story I’m reading,’ Adina tells them. ‘Of Queen Iseult and Tristan’s magic potion.’ Adina is too down-to-earth, too ironical, too Italian, to take such stuff seriously. Love philtres, love deaths.
Of course there are forces in the world that really do work like magic on people and change the way they feel. One of them is money. Nemorino, the naïve young peasant of the opera, who is in love with Adina, is astonished to discover how attractive he has become after drinking just a few drops of ‘the love potion of Queen Iseult’, as he calls it, that he has acquired from the travelling quack, Dulcamara – in fact, it’s a quite ordinary bottle of Burgundy. Suddenly every girl in the village is in love with him.
What he does not know is that news has arrived that his uncle is dead. Nemorino, his heir, has become a rich landowner.
That’s one elixir. Another, as Adina tries to tell him, is soft-headed dreaminess and wishful thinking. But another again, as she herself discovers, is real sympathy as it lets itself out in a tender glance, a smile, a furtive tear. Genuine feeling can be unexpected, it springs straight from the heart, but it also keeps its feet on the ground, and it proves itself, not in extravagant gestures like the threat of suicide or by rushing off as a soldier to seek an early death, but in the living. It might make a nice demonstration of the difference between north and south in these matters, the real south, but also the north as the south conceives it, if opera companies gave Donizetti’s warm-hearted and clear-headed little comedy, and Wagner’s soulful study of the joys of dissolution, on alternate nights.
The Alps, that giant wall of rock and ice thrown up by a beneficent nature to divide the continent, seems less like a barrier between warring empires than a demarcation line between modes of being, forms of feeling, that are very nearly irreconcilable. ‘Love is not the same in Bologna as it is in Königsberg,’ writes Stendhal in his wonderful Life of Rossini. ‘Love in Italy is more dynamic, more impatient, more violent, less dependent on dreams and imagination. It is not a gentle and gradual tide which sweeps slowly, but for all eternity, into the farthest reaches of the soul.’
This comes from the part of his book where he is attempting to define the difference between Rossini’s genius and Mozart’s. Mozart’s music is essentially melancholic, a matter of soul, with the power as Stendhal puts it, ‘to sweep away the dreaming, contemplative spirits of this world…and fill their souls with sad, haunting visions; the soul seems directly invaded, drenched as it were, in wave upon wave of melancholy’.
‘Soul’ is not a concept we need to invoke in speaking of Rossini. Rossini’s sphere is the social, he is always good company – spirited, light, amusing – and Stendhal loves him as we all do. His lightness is tonic. We need him. But he has none of the ‘profound spiritual qualities’ we find in Mozart.
What Stendhal is pointing to is the very German inwardness of Mozart’s music, its reaching always for what is authentic and eternal in the realm of feeling. What is ‘amusing’ in Rossini is his free-handed rejection of seriousness. What is miraculous in him is the way his inexhaustible energy and invention raises what in others would be merely superficial to the level of pure spirit. It is this Italian genius for mercurial lightness and inconsequence that the great Mozart lacks.
What then of the collaboration between Mozart and his Italian librettist da Ponte? Doesn’t that strike the perfect balance, isn’t it the perfect marriage, not simply of words and music but of the otherwise irreconcilable spirits of North and South?
Perhaps. But not quite perfect, surely, when we consider the lengths opera directors are forced to, in the case of Cosí Fan Tutte, to gloss over the heartlessness of da Ponte’s libretto and make tolerable its ‘happy’ ending.
Da Ponte’s plot is a machine for demonstrating the fickleness, the superficiality, not simply of women’s affections but of lovers in general. Feelings, even the strongest, are in their nature volatile and not to be taken seriously. Love is essentially ridiculous.
All this will do very well for the cynical Don Alfonso, and for Despina, and might do well enough for Rossini; but a world of feigned feelings and self-deception, or at the best, sentimental self-delusion, will not do for Mozart. He is incapable of writing an aria that feigns feeling. From the first breath a singer takes the feeling is real. It ravishes, it wounds, it expresses the whole person. A Fiordiligi or a Fernando are changed forever by what their newly-discovered feelings reveal to them. Living as Mozart conceives it is continuous. What has been felt, taken into the soul, has a continuing power, and consequences that cannot be dismissed. Let in true feeling, as Mozart does, let in the irrationalism of real sexual attraction, and da Ponte’s comedy, which is intended to be painless because nothing in it is really felt, becomes a work that can have no satisfactory ending – and certainly not the one that da Ponte planned. The characters have learned too much, about themselves and one another, about the true nature of feeling, to go back to being the conventional couples they were at the start.
Da Ponte lived for nearly fifty years after the time he spent as Mozart’s collaborator (he did not die until 1833). He had already lived a good half-dozen of his nine lives before they met. Born a Jew and converted in his childhood to Catholicism, he had been a priest and a professor of literature in Italy, and had established himself in Vienna as a poet and Casanova-like libertine. Constantly making and remaking himself, he slipped from one life to another in the early years of the new century, in London, in Holland, in London again; then, in 1808, took the big leap and emigrated to New York where he was for a time a grocer. (Can we imagine a similar transformation for his great collaborator? Mozart as an immigrant iron-monger in Baltimore?) At last, in 1825, he became the inaugural Professor of Italian at Columbia, and when opera arrived in New York, in the form of a company led by the tenor Manuel Garcia, it was on da Ponte’s advice, as the local expert, that the first work to be performed professionally on American soil was the Barber of Seville, with Garcia singing Almaviva, as he had done at the première nine years before. Rossini, not Mozart.
What are we to make of this odd disloyalty? Was da Ponte being modest? I doubt it. Or had he recognised in Rossini that true spirit of lightness that his poor friend from Salzburg had somehow failed to catch?
Speaking of migrations – I have long since returned to the actual south where I began.
In these last decades, virtually everywhere, from Toronto and Stockholm to Sydney, has taken as its model of the good life some version of Mediterranean, though clearly it is a style that suits some places better than others. My hometown no longer feels like Dundee.
A hundred and fifty years ago, the first Governor of the new state of Queensland, Sir George Bowen, a scholar of Greek who had climbed all three classical peaks, Etna, Parnassus and Olympus, regularly presented his southern fiefdom to his masters back at the Colonial Office in classical terms. ‘Your town,’ he writes to Lord Cardwell, ‘lies in a position analogous to Thermopylae; that is, at the north end of the Australian Epirus.’ The climate of his little capital at Brisbane he recommends as being ‘very like that of Naples’. It is, and so these days is the city itself, at least to the extent that its citizens have become coffee- and wine-drinkers and like to eat their pasta, and drink their lattes and macchiatos, at sidewalk cafés under umbrellas in the sun. No need any longer to take a six-weeks sea-journey, or even a twenty-two hour plane trip, to find the spiritual but utterly pagan and fleshly south. It has come to us.
This is the slightly modified transcript of a talk given on BBC radio on 8 August 2000, in the interval of a London Proms concert, in a series under the general title of ‘The South’.