Now that my mother has moved into a rest home not far from the village of her birth, my trips to Italy have changed accordingly, and I find myself no longer revisiting just my childhood but hers as well. These are places that are very familiar to me but that I only ever visited, as opposed to properly inhabiting. It was my other home, but not quite my home. To Mum, it’s the birthplace she chose to leave so that she could get an education and escape its far-too-narrow horizons. It’s a past we share differently.
That familiarity begins with the shape of the buildings. This is one of the meanings of the word ‘vernacular’ in the language of architecture, and I find it quite appealing: it’s simply the way that houses speak to you in a given place. And in the south-east of Lombardy, the most common phrase – to my ear, at least – may just be the traditional farm-house, beginning with the very precise shape of its barn.
But you could say the same of the residential homes, or the forms that agriculture takes, for that matter. Walking through Villa Poma, I passed near my grandparents’ place, built around 1954. Here’s an old picture of it I found recently. The road wasn’t paved back then.
And here it is now: another common place. A house like so many others in a style that never went out of fashion.
These places don’t change. When I looked at the timetable to work out how to get there from Milan, I found that the trains still left at 20 minutes past the hour every second hour, as they did in 1981, the year my grandfather died and Mum and I took it every weekend. Then at Mantua you had to change, then change again in Suzzara, so that it would take you close to two hours to cover the last 40 kilometers of the journey. This is still the case.
It’s a lattice of small stations on single-track lines. This is Schivenoglia’s.
I love the details, the colours.
Since the stationmasters were let go, however, the ticket counters have all disappeared and the waiting rooms have fallen into disrepair.
On one of the more modern trains, an ad that encourages train users to take action against freeloaders. ‘People who don’t pay hurt you, too. Tell them to stop.’
I didn’t see a single inspector on that line in two weeks. I’m not sure how anyone was supposed to know if I paid for my ticket.
On foot, to cover the last three kilometers of my daily route, I encounter discarded road signs used as target practice for BB guns;
fog. They say it’s less thick and frequent these days;
a couple of retired garden gnomes.
At the edge of Schivenoglia, a small dairy factory
along with signs of that conservation slipping into decay.
And while I was pleased to see that the glassworks outside of Villa Poma – an important local non-farm employer – are still operating,
the For Sale sign on this local industrial building in Schivenoglia seemed more hopeful than realistic.
Which is to say that the business of the superficially unchanging nature of the area is a complicated one. For instance, I was shocked by the extent of seemingly fresh damage almost exactly two years after the 2012 earthquake, including a large piece of stone masonry lying outside the door of a public building in Quistello.
The temporary remedial work is carried out via wooden frames that have become a prominent feature of the urban landscape. They’re now part of the vernacular.
But their reflection on the window of a flash gaming parlour is a reminder that the economic texture of the whole country has suffered. Taxes on gambling are now the Italian government’s single largest revenue item, and slot machine proceeds are the main item within that category.
Whereas sometimes it was hard to tell if one of the old buildings was damaged in the earthquake, or let go over the years like so many others before it.
The rest are scattered impressions, in the vein of last week’s post. It was a difficult time, rendered bearable by the love of family and friends. These pictures don’t show any of that. None of the serious stuff.
Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in London anymore.
Just outside Villa Poma.
The sun in front of the trees.
The Corte Dall’Acqua, Schivenoglia.
This glass of Nebbiolo I had.
Temporary church arrangements. Another common sight after the earthquake.
A good May Day poster will signal that your small town is run by a left-wing council.
Outside the train station in Suzzara. It took me a bit to figure out that they meant to write the English name ‘Charlie’.
Said station is in Piazza Giacomo Matteotti. He was a socialist MP beaten to death by Fascist thugs in 1924. Here he is described in marble as a ‘martyr of the idea’. That idea is socialism. Our institutions no longer speak this way.
London has the doors. Mantua has the windows.
A fresco at Palazzo Ducale in Mantua. The two kissing figures have one nose between them – depending on which end of the room you look at it from, it belongs to one or the other.
A ceiling at the palace.
Outside of the very few homes of the former aristocracy, the style of the province is highly somber and austere. Which makes the rare embellishments – like the curl at the end of this bolt – all the more beautiful.
Finally, a concession to why I was there: me and my mum. She's a quite remarkable woman.