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Genoa Now and Then

 

 

After three years in Florence, we returned to California shortly before the flood of November 1966. We watched our heroic friends in the news, cleaning oily mud from priceless paintings and manuscripts. 

We flew out of Damascus just months before Syria first began to implode in March 2011 and cannot forget the backdrop for the human and historical disasters of the past seven years.

This spring we happened to spend some time in Genoa, not entirely by choice, but that’s another story.  In fact, we had always wanted to explore this live, functioning port on the other side of the Italian boot from Venice, our alternate reality. Arriving and departing from Genoa Brignole by train, we never had reason to cross or even to view the deadly Morandi Bridge.

The tragedy of the bridge’s failure, the death and destruction, was immediately blamed on every political or institutional body extant in the past fifty years. The left chalked it up to the corrupt privatization of the Italian infrastructure. Before long the lion’s share of the blame settled on defective maintenance by Autostrade per L’Italia, a division of Atlantia SpA.  Atlantia’s owners are the Benettons, whose dossier also includes the 2013 collapse of a Bangladeshi clothing factory that killed 1,134 workers. You may remember the Benettons from a cloying ad campaign touting the putative diversity of the “United Colors of Benetton”. (A rags-to-riches family from Treviso, they might have done better to invest in local prosecco vineyards.)  

Autostrade per l’Italia’s license to manage the Italian freeway network may (or may not) be revoked. Atlantia has offered 500 million euros toward helping the victims as well as a quick reconstruction of the bridge. The Italian government is (or may be) debating nationalization of the whole highway infrastructure, which may (or may not) result in less corruption and safer roads and bridges.     

“Genoa is fragile, but nobody cares,” said native son Renzo Piano in an interview discussing the collapse of the Morandi Bridge, in a rainstorm. “I do not know what happened, but I can say that I do not believe in the fatalism that considers nature, lightning and rain uncontrollable. Nobody can come and tell us that it was an accident.”

We stayed in the eastern part of Genoa, where the old city slopes down the hill to the port. The quarter is still called the Maddalena, after the winding street where women have been marketing themselves all day and all night for several centuries. Recent municipal efforts to restore the ancient neighborhood have apparently not affected the puttane.

As early as the 1300s, the Maddalena was the financial center of the city. Now the narrow streets near the harbor are home to various mild-mannered immigrant communities. We were often lost in the web of alleys, threading our way past dark-skinned people clustering at markets and sitting in rows in doorways, all much more interested in their own pursuits than in us. There seemed to be no mendicants, perhaps because of a large police and military presence, also mild-mannered, not to mention a 75-euro fine for begging. Last year a conservative anti-immigrant city administration was elected.

(Note: Beppe Grillo, the comedian who founded the populist Five-Star Movement, is from Genoa.) The new Italian government is headed by an uneasy coalition of the Five Stars and the neo-fascist League.

Five hundred years ago, there was no Italian state to be consumed by conflicting interests or rampant xenophobia.  In the vicious battles among the merchant republics of the Renaissance, Genoa’s mercenary soldiers and ships for hire brought enormous wealth to their city.  Genoa had at that time the greatest concentration of successful bankers on this planet. Their families built the outsize columned and marbled palaces along the Strada Nuova, the new street. They paid Rubens, Van Dyck and Caravaggio to paint portraits and decorate walls, and local artists imitated them quite successfully.

Of their famous shipyard (in no way a rival to the Venetian Arsenale) they have made an excellent naval museum, with myriad mythological and literary allusions to the sea, interactive historical maps, and the reconstruction of a full-size galley. In the entry is Renzo Piano’s blueprint for a new waterfront. Meanwhile, he left a large glass sphere and the Bigo panoramic lift, modeled on the old derricks for loading and unloading merchandise in the port.

 

Since the early 20th century, funiculars have run up and down the steep slopes of the city. Whether or not their cost is justified by commuting residents, tourists are happy to find pleasant restaurants at the top. However, panoramic views of the city have been cut in half by the construction of cheap public housing and a huge belt of highway above the waterfront. This is not unlike the situation in San Francisco, before they decided to demolish their Embarcadero freeway–rather than rebuild it after the Loma Prieta quake.  

Of course blue jeans originated in Genoa, not San Francisco. Denim was a twill fabric of Nîmes (de Nîmes) manufacture that was used for sailors’ trousers in Genoa (Gênes in French). Levi Strauss only added the rivets.

In the Gold Rush years and after, San Francisco and the north-central coast were settled by  Italian immigrants, the first wave largely Genoese fishermen and farmers. 

My mother grew up in the fishing town of Santa Cruz, California and went to school with the Stagnaro boys  whose fathers came from Riva Trigosa near Genoa.  When my father went overseas during World War II, she returned to her home town with her small children. Another young “war widow “with a child lived across the street, and her Italian in-laws often invited us all to Sunday lunch at their farm in Soquel.  Mrs. Conrado made delicious ravioli and memorable marinated artichoke hearts–although my mother had trouble downing the roasted uccelletti.  

Many of the Italians who came to San Francisco left the city for the suburbs as soon as they could. Among those who stayed, some entered politics, others ran popular restaurants, and still others did both.  But Little Italy in North Beach has been nearly absorbed by the growth of Chinatown, which now counts for more than 20 percent of the San Francisco population.

In 2014  Genoa’s immigrant population was 55,000 of almost 600,000.  18,000 came from Ecuador, the rest from Albania, Bangladesh, China, India, Morocco, Peru, Roumania, Russia, Senegal, Sri Lanka, and Ukraine. Most recent immigrants come from North African and sub-Saharan countries.

Given that the Genoese have the lowest birth rate in Italy and the oldest population in all Europe, the fast-growing immigrant presence will play an increasingly important role in the city’s future, for better or for worse, depending on one’s political views.

Immigrants, anyway, cannot be blamed for the failure of the Morandi Bridge.   

What’s the old Chinese curse?  May you live in interesting times!

 

 

Rings of Fire

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In May this was a Tuscan landscape at sunset,  an etching by the friend of a friend.  Yesterday, our copy, fresh from the framing shop, had morphed into a row of blackened trees in the foreground of an inferno.

In the interim, we had spent several days on the Mendocino coast, just a few hours from what became the largest fire in the recorded history of California. We had rented a house with gas grill, bird feeders, and wifi. We watched the birds, grilled salmon, combed the beaches, hiked Fern Canyon under a blue sky. Upstairs we identified orioles and woodpeckers and kept track of the fire news and presidential gaffes, while others below stairs engaged the video screens and hot tub.  Meanwhile, the west wind kept the coast gloriously clear as it continued inland to feed the flames.

We had also been watching the Carr Fire’s progress above Redding and around the Whiskeytown Lake. The fire had begun in French Gulch, a former stagecoach stop southwest of our family camp on Scott Mountain. We heard that the local Van Ness cousin, a kindly fellow with a deep voice and a long, weedy beard, a legendary grasshopper fisherman, had been burned out.

The good news was a photo of my Smith cousin, one who had, like us, been exiled for decades. She was astride the ceremonial cedar stump in the middle of the camp, smiling through the smoky haze.

The several hundred thousands of incinerated acres would have been many more if not for tens of thousands of firefighters from as far away as New Zealand.  Some 3,500 of them were firefighters from California’s prisons. The women receive two days off their term for each day of service, two dollars a day for active firefighting.  After they are released, it might reasonably be assumed that these incarcerated but experienced firefighters would find work as professional firefighters, who make $73,000 annually, but they are presently excluded from this possibility. Governor Brown may or may not be presenting a bill to change this. He has a lot on his plate.   

Naturally wildfires would be political. The Oakland firestorm of 1991 was blamed partly on the local defense of flammable stands of non-native eucalyptus from the east bay hills.  

“I go with what the Australians say about eucalyptus — they call them ‘gasoline on a stick,’” said an Oakland resident who had watched a flaming eucalyptus grove explode just yards away from her family van, stuck in a line of evacuating cars. But other residents still want to preserve the ridgeline pines and eucalyptus, although those that survived the 1991 fire are yet more flammable today, and many more have matured since.

 

In other news, I read, not long after midnight last Thursday, that shortly after Thursday midday,  a third major earthquake had struck (or would have struck) the island of Lombok, Indonesia.

Indonesia has three time zones, and Lombok appears to be in the middle longitudes, so let’s say that the Lombok quake struck about fourteen hours ahead of the hour that I read about it on the Pacific coast. WIB (Western Indonesian Time) = GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) + 7 hours.

I boated once along the Thames to Greenwich, the home of GMT, Greenwich Mean Time.  The Old Royal Observatory was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, an astronomer better known for his architecture, and of course I had my photo taken astride the Prime Meridian.

Not actually my tennies

In 1851, Sir George Airy established the Royal Observatory as the zero degree line of longitude. His line is the starting point for longitudinal lines that run north-south, the measurements that form the basis of our geographic reference grid.

And yes, I do accept the concept of global time zones, but there’s that occasional seismic disjuncture that fogs the brain.  Along with global time gaps, anxiety about the Indonesian temblors led me to look up the so-called “Ring of Fire,” the horseshoe of active volcanoes and faults around the coast of the Pacific Ocean. 

More specifically, I was wondering about the chain reaction among quakes, faults, and volcanoes along the Ring of Fire, flames and faults colliding along the horseshoe and curving south along the Pacific Coast. This line of insomnia may seem on a par with anxiety about our president’s late-night tweets, but I live with my near and dear atop the Hayward Fault, recently assessed as more dangerous than the San Andreas Fault that ravaged San Francisco in 1906.   

In 1989 the Loma Prieta quake clocked in at 6.9:  I was sitting in a corner of the living room, complacently perusing proofs of my novel, when the house began to shake, wrenching around like an unbalanced washer. On TV, cars were hanging off the broken Bay Bridge. Husband returned, having felt nothing on campus, but noting plume of fire downtown, where our car, in for a new headlight, had been incinerated in the body shop. Calls began to arrive, from children across the bay, from Italy, from Prague.  

Somewhat earlier in the century, at my Girl Scout camp on Loma Prieta in the Santa Cruz Mountains, my counselor’s camp name was Cedar. I l loved that camp, the hikes and the singing, and would gladly have spent the whole summer there.  Cedar was smallish and acerbic, with short hair and a sharp jaw. One night she helped us insert a dead rattlesnake into the sleeping bag of the head counsellor. The backstory of my own encounter with that rattlesnake is perhaps too well-known in my family.

This summer the youngest grandson stoically suffered several weeks of camp, but was reported early on for having filled his water bottle (twice) with dirt. An older grandson actively resented the interruption of his electronic pursuits but kept his water bottle potable. At his age, his big sister had already assembled her own earthquake survival kit. 

Our president has at latest count nine grandchildren. He doesn’t seem to tweet about them or their future on this dirty, shaky, and ever hotter planet.      

 

WAITING FOR VERDI

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Last month I was in Italy, where summer had steamed in early and politics had moved into operatic extremes of drama and imbroglio only slightly leavened by farce. Finally running the new coalition government are the boy wonder of the Five Stars populist movement, founded by a comedian, and the head of the proto-fascist League, who is no longer a joke. The two chose as the new premier an amiable law professor with a  CV padded by drive-through sojourns at prestigious universities in Europe and the U.S.

Five Stars leaders

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Luigi di Maio and Matteo Salvini

While peculiar politics also reign in my own land, in Italy we tend to see their aberrations as a familiar comedy rather than a dark threat to the survival of the planet. Hard to remember that our Yankee republic was founded almost a hundred years before the bickering regions of the Italian boot could be laced together.   

At least Italy’s revolution was accompanied, if not actually orchestrated, by music—with Giuseppe Verdi as its figurehead.  Verdi’s poignant chorus from Nabucco, “Va Pensiero, sull’ ali dorate,” sung by homesick Hebrew slaves, has come to symbolize the patriotic fervor that led finally to Italian unification.

  Waiting for Verdi is the title of a long-awaited new book by Mary Ann Smart, a music historian who writes brilliantly about opera and society. The title clearly contains an ironic reference to Samuel Beckett’s play, but also  to the high anxiety shared by struggling Risorgimento patriots, artists and revolutionaries as they struggled toward Unification.

 

     Often as Verdi’s work is linked to Italian revolution, A Masked Ball  is set instead in colonial Boston, replete with an a doomed romance, an assassination, and a dusky-skinned fortune teller. Not very diligent research has revealed that the original libretto required Ulrica, the fortune teller, to be played by a “negro.”

Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial

Thus the Metropolitan Opera debut of the sublime contralto Marian Anderson, in 1955 the first African-American to sing there.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nabucco was also playing at the Vienna State Opera when I was a student living with the family of an impoverished baron just a block from the opera house. But the concert and opera posters reminded me of periodic tables, and knowing next to nothing about opera, I went to the Richards, Wagner and Strauss, but never to Nabucco. Little did I know that it was a thrilling tale of King Nebuchednezzar, proprietor of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and featured madness, passion, betrayal, and wanton destruction of selected temples and gods.

In 2015, the Greco-Roman Temple of Bel at Palmyra, 32 CE, was destroyed by ISIS vandals soon after they had beheaded Khaled al Asaad, Palmyra’s much respected chief of antiquities. The Temple of Bel, according to another archaeologist, Khaled’s friend, had actually been a kind of a monument to religious coexistence. The main altar of the temple had been used for sacrifices to different gods, sometimes even side by side. The archaeologist also pointed out that ISIS had announced the destruction of Palmyra well in advance of the fact, but the international community had done nothing.

ruins of the Temple of Bel, 2015

In any case, peaceful coexistence in Syrian lands is hardly even a memory. Now the best expectations are that some 75,000 Syrian refugees fleeing Daraa—where the so-called civil war began—can be sheltered in Jordan. Four million other Syrians are still homeless.  

Meanwhile, the tragic histories of the ancient Middle East have fueled many operas besides Nabucco. How many works of art and music will commemorate the refugee flights of this century, and to what end?  

For some years it has been proposed, and rejected, that Italy’s national anthem be replaced by “Va Pensiero,” the haunting Hebrew slaves’ chorus in Nabucco. Only recently it has been adopted by the far-right League, as its official hymn.  Matteo Salvini and his League are committed to  labeling and expelling all immigrants, including thousands of Roma who are legal citizens. Here, whatever Verdi’s politics were, we could use the intervention of the Anvil Chorus.    

 

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