Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Objects to Remember With

When Justine and I left Italy to come to New Zealand, my parents gave us a little bundle of heirlooms, including one that had nothing to do with the family or its history in a direct sense: a small ancient Roman oil-lamp. Its value isn't monetary, nor aesthetic - it is dirt-encrusted and the handle is broken, the little spout chipped, in parts of the country you could find dozens just like it if you knew where to dig - but to me it has come to symbolise continuity and family and home in a way that few other things could. Nowadays we keep it next to a photo of my father in the closest thing we have to a little shrine.

Now that I'm back as always I am forced to ask myself what it is that makes me miss the old, very old and downright ancient stuff that one finds more or less lying around the place. All the more so since Milan lacks the obvious charm of so many other Italian cities, and a good deal of our old stuff isn't of the variety that makes the tourists flock and the cash register ring. Our most iconic building, the Duomo, is a hodge-podge of styles and took centuries to complete - apparently the good people of the city, fond as they have always been of enterprise and commerce, harboured some reservations about the value of its chief monument. The other star attraction, Leonardo's Last Supper, started to peel off the wall when it was barely finished, and the monks who had commissioned it duly proceeded to cut a door through it, just so they could get from the dining hall to the kitchen more quickly. All for the sake of open plan living, you see.

So the city has a less than enthusiastic relationship with its heritage, and perhaps ten years ago I did too. But now I find myself far more attached to the urban landscape than I was, smog-covered warts and all. One could blame the nostalgic sentimentality of a migrant, and I'm sure that it's at least partly the case. But being away also means looking for ways to remain connected, and not just through the magic of Skype, indispensable as that is; one also longs for a sense of place, and for the aura and physical touch of objects that have been around for some time, enough to see the local history unfold around them, as it were. Me, I especially like these eight dudes:

The Omenoni, or big men, have been around since 1565, tucked away in a little street behind Piazza della Scala, quietly observing the human traffic, their porous stone getting impregnated with the sooty dust that we've all been breathing. Like so many of my favourite corners of Milan, they are quirkier than they are charming or beautiful in the traditional sense. They are also solid and hard working, so they fit in well with the local ethos. And one cannot help feeling sorry for them. Joseph wanted to take a picture of the one that seemed the saddest:

Not surprisingly, the young fella is fascinated by the surroundings, and has been full of questions that I've been somewhat over-zealously attempting to answer - having the whole "the Romanesque comes before the Gothic period" conversation with a seven year old ought probably to be regarded as a form of abuse. So oftentimes he lets me drone on while he busies himself taking pictures. I don't think he necessarily does it in order to look at them again in the future - it is simply part of his way of looking. And, like most children his age, he likes to focus on the unlikely details, such as cobblestones or the embossed coat of arms of the city on a cast iron post.

Naturally his pictures, far more than mine, are the ones that capture that ineffable essence of place that makes my memory tingle; shots that I wouldn’t have bothered to frame because their individual parts are unremarkable if not downright ugly, but that taken together make up postcards of the Milan that I know - a city that hasn’t aged as gloriously as some others, and is more well-worn than it is pretty. Not unlike our humble oil-lamp, encrusted with a past that is not ours, but that speaks to us, and becomes an object to remember with, to think of the people and the ways of being and doing that came before.

Mum’s house is full of such objects, thanks in part to the heroic frugality of past generations: I’m thinking especially of the square knife that my grandmother used to cut tagliatelle with, made from the recycled blade of an old scythe, and at least two packs of cards that my parents shuffled into oblivion playing patience in the evening, and that my mother uses to this day, insisting that she has no trouble at all counting the seven diamonds on the settebello through her cataracts. And good on her, perhaps some day I’ll do the same.

Cross-posted at Public Address, with thanks to Russell Brown.


Grunt said...

I think growing up in an old European city (even one as blah as Milan) you take for granted all of the old and yet ordinary things you are surrounded with.

Do you remember the night we met? It was my first night in Milan. I was 19 going on 20 and Francesco brought me to the Sting concert (which had one of the best opening acts I have ever seen and then one of the worst. For the life of me I can not remember the guy who was great. I remember he was black and simply had a guitar and was really good. I remember the horrible opening act was called 29 Palms -- which I supposed I remember because it is the name of a fairly well known military base in California -- and they didn't seem to realize they were not the main attraction. The were English and got heckled really quite rudely. No one can heckle quite like a large number of slightly drunk and very impatient Italians).

But I digress.

The ampitheater it was in was easily built sometime in the early 1800s. We had a picnic on the lawn in the middle as we grabbed a good space to watch the concert. We had lovely crusty sandwiches and beer.

And I remember thinking that there was nothing like this ampitheater at home. Nothing this old. And this was just old-hat for your guys. I asked Francesco how old it was and he shrugged and guessed (now, I know this is totally part of Francesco's M.O. He wouldn't have noticed something like that, he wouldn't have paid any attention) at the stadium's age and kind of looked at me funny. It was just an ampitheater.

But think of all the concerts and sporting events and rallys that had been held there. Think of all the history those walls have witnessed.

Even in a city like New York, which has been an active urban center for well over 400 years now...we just don't have anything like it.

Anonymous said...

What bends the necks of the Omenoni?
Some thought, some sight, some long-worn knife?

Giovanni Tiso said...

Wait... as blah as Milan? That is just not right. Milan is in fact very beautiful, although yes, you need to know where to look. And the Arena is probably as good an example of a place that really has very little to go for it, except for having being there for a bit, as you note. Lots of concerts, sporting events, political rallies there.

Harvestbird: you, on the other hand, are my poet laureate.

Anonymous said...

Ah, but you are providing the substantive materials; I'm just picking off the imagey-goodness.

Grunt said...

Oh no, now I have offended you.

Milan is Blah when you compare it to Venice or Florance or Padua or Turino, or any of a host of other cities in Italy which didn't get the shit bombed out of them in WWII. It is full of 1950s and 60s era crap housing and is very industrial. It's not to say that Milan is a Blah city as compared to Baltimore or Pittsburgh (although both aren't as bad as you might think) it's like being a smart child surrounded by geniuses. The smart child will feel like a moron because the geniuses are so much smarter by comparison.

No one ever though Milan was even the 10th prettiest or most architecturally interesting city in Italy. That's a hard place to be.

But yes, you do have to know where to look. And I happen to love that Arena. After all, I met you there (as my father would say at this point..."mush mush mush mush")