Italy prodigiously abounds in well-preserved walled villages, towns and whole cities reflecting the frequent turbulence between neighbouring states or even neighbours in mediaeval and renaissance times (and today too?)
One can get quite blasé about this and almost ignore the uniqueness of one walled town when compared with another. In the area where I live I find that, regarding the mediaeval period when firepower had not been developed, the walls of Castiglione di Garfagnana are outstanding and that, after the invention of firepower, Lucca’s walls can hardly be bettered for their completeness of defunct defensive features like low, sloping walls and bulwarks.
Imagine our surprise then, when, on a last-minute detour because of some snippet of information I’d read about in an old guidebook, we, so used to walled towns, were quite bowled over when we encountered the ramparts of Gradara (which surely must be familiar to anyone who has spent some time in Rimini, unlike us two who, after trying desperately to locate Malatesta’s temple, gave up the struggle and decided that Rimini, anyway, was too drab a place for anyone to spend their summer holidays in).
The completeness of Gradara’s machicolations, the ingeniousness of the towers, the finesse of the reddish brickwork, inhabited by lucky doves, and the impressive crowning of the whole complex by a massive and magnificent fortress is, to use that over- used expression, truly awesome.
Gradara, indeed, seemed all set and ready to go in for the backcloth of some bloody and amorous mediaeval epic – it just needed to be cleared of a group of noisome, excited schoolchildren and, of course, the usual souvenir shops, to be replaced by battle-axes, swords, daggers, basquinets, chain-mail, battering rams and siege-ladders.
Indeed, the love story of Paolo and Francesca, as beautifully described by Dante, is supposed to have occurred here, and I felt Tchaikovsky’s brilliant tone poem on the same subject (perhaps even more passionate than his “Romeo and Juliet”) could have made some appropriate background music. Tchaikovsky was a great lover of Italy and even those not particularly attracted to his music must know his “Italian Caprice”. For my part, I worship this composer and love to pass by the villa he stayed in Florence’s Via San Leonardo which bears this memorial plaque:
which roughly translates as “In this villa in 1878, coming from the vast Russian plains to the sweet Tuscan landscape Tchaikovsky nourished his immortal harmonies from both landscapes.” I never found out whether this greatest of Russian composers wrote his great string sextet, “Souvenir de Florence” in this attractive house. It’s a nice thought if he did.
In case, anyone doesn’t know the details of the intense love affair, Francesca (da Rimini), officially betrothed to Giovanni Malatesta “the limp”, and, on the side, seeing “bel Paolo”, fell in love with him while reading together the story of Sir Lancelot’s secret love affair with Queen Guinevere of King Arthur’s court.
All Italians know the immortal lines: “Galeotto fu il libro e chi lo scrisse” which roughly translates as “The book was a pander and he who wrote it was one too”.
In modern terms it might mean a bloke taking a girl he is madly in love with to a particularly heated film and dropping her a kiss at the appropriate point in the feature, or perhaps taking a new flame to admire a lovely beauty spot and then…
I think we all have highly affectionately regarded moments of this sort in our lives and it was really sad that Dante (for me, still inexplicably) put both lovers in Hell – but then isn’t there always an element of hell in uncontrollable love affairs? As Dante again puts it in Francesca’s words: “amor ch’a nulla amato amar perdona…” (A love that allows no loved one to be excused from loving.) – it’s the same type of irrepressibly and painfully ecstatic love like the great poet felt for his angelic Beatrice.
Our gratitude for the present brilliant condition of Gradara’s complex of mediaeval fortifications must go ultimately to a civil engineer named Zanverotti who bought the castle in 1920 and spent much of his time restoring the whole medieval town. Thankfully, he had taste, technical skill and restraint, and so Gradara has not suffered the way that a few other mediaeval towns have had to endure through over-zealous ideas about what a mediaeval town should look like (I’m thinking about San Marino and the like). In 1983 Zanverotti’s wife, Alberta Porta Natale, bequeathed her castle to the Italian state.
We greatly enjoyed our unplanned detour and then realised that our “ancient” guidebook suggested other walled towns to visit like Brisighella and Montanara and Palmanova and …
We began to realise that the only way to visit any country properly was to renounce any claim to a fixed lived-in property and, instead, turn ourselves into a band of wandering gypsy-scholars for at least the next couple of hundred years, since every night would lead us in our peregrinations to more and more ancient wonders in the form of castles, fortresses, abbeys, hermitages, monasteries, cathedrals, palaces, mills, mansions, (quite apart from palatial gardens and the landscape itself).
In desperation, we decided that it is much better to see a few things well than many things badly. There can never be any hope in scratching more than the surface of even the greatest wonders in any area of Italy. The proof of that surely is in my and other people’s blogs where post upon post can be easily concentrated on subjects of the greatest interest just outside one’s front door or even seen though one’s windows – which reminds me that, at this very moment, not very much can be seen through my window as a rain-cum-hail storm is raging furiously and making me wonder about the poor vines which should not have to suffer this sort treatment just when May is around the corner, and even my newly planted zucchini ,which are kilometres away from where I find myself now.