Sunday, October 9, 2016

The surprise of Cremona

I am seduced by Edith Templeton, or at least by her amazing The Surprise of Cremona which I secured from ebay Australia, in local bookshops I guess because it was a Readers Book Club selection in 1955. A racy selection at the time.

I value this book because it is fun and intelligent, but especially because its sharpness offers points of irreverent entry into the mythologies of Italy. So much tourism in Italy slides on a deep, overdone lacquer of tritely trotted guidebook patter. It's nice to get a fingernail under the shellac. You plainly don't have to agree with everything she says ... and she would find you beyond boring if you did.

Templeton has a razor wit and sense of irony and the naughty haughty of Czech background, reminiscent of I Served the King of England and other wonders of Czech cinema.

But her life of aristocratic origin, French education and marriages to Englishmen giving her a different trajectory from the central figure of that film and a capacity to arrive in Cremona in the early 1950s with a gigantic knowledge – and immediate experience, born in Prague in 1919 – of history and philosophy and outrageous confidence and self-protective sarcasm, plus a world-weary warmth. 

With a local history professor as real or notional source she places Frederick II, who for a time headquartered his Holy Roman Empire in Cremona, on a pedestal (yanks him off when she gets to Parma); takes wonderful potshots at Virgil, Goethe and Dante and admires Pontius Pilate, miscast in a cathedral performance on Good Friday..

Of Virgil
His famous gentle melancholy, which lends itself superbly to pastoral elegaic poems, and which was imitated by all Europe in all ages, was not the picturesque which one might think it to be
but rather a pent up anger at the Roman army's confiscation of his peasant parents' farm between Cremona and Mantova. He ate his heart out in his writing, then
During his last days he went to live in the country near Naples... Why didn't he go and live on the banks of his native Mincio instead, among the barren stones, the slimy marshes and the bitter willows, over which he had shed his heart-blood...
On Good Friday she is appalled that a angelic young tenor is cast as Pontius Pilate in a performance in the cathedral with "three hundred yards of choir boys"
This was quite wrong of course, Pilate was an impeccable high Civil Servant, nothing unearthly about him. ... he could not afford another uprising, all because of a new religion. New religions were two-a-penny in those days. I think he retired to the south, when he was pensioned off, to Naples or Sicily... Pilate is my favourite figure in the New Testament. He is the model of a detached, fair, and judicious colonial governor who hesitates before making a move and prefers tact and negotiation to violence.
Of the pope's triple excommunication of Frederick II she writes:
I think this reckless excommunicating is silly. It is bound to lose its effects after the first time.
She reports of Dante's visit to Cremona and his finding sufficient time there to quarrel with a nobleman Cavalcabo. Having earlier admired greatly the traditional buildings of Cremona and disparaged buildings with added-on baroque facades she notes that
The Cavalcabo Palace still stands. It is one of those well-bred buildings whose beauty derives from superb craftsmanship and proportions, with no trimmings, substantial and discreet, like a well-tailored suit. The Cavalcabo family still live there. 
Cavalcabo was 'black', that is, he was Guelf and supported the Pope, whereas Dante was 'white' and supported the Emperor. This is, of course, just what one would have expected of Dante. He would quarrel with anybody if he possibly could. It was merely a matter of giving him enough time.
... and then a wonderful summation of history and its writing:
The professor tells me that Dante's faction, the Whites, were called in Dante's time, the 'accursed faction'.
"Was it true?" I ask. "Did very nasty people belong to it? Or was it called Accursed because it was against the Pope?"
The professor regards me with astonishment. "Oh, no. It was only called Accursed because it lost."
Then an account of how Dante fell out with the Whites, concluding (and this may have been a novel expression then):
If [Dante] had lived today, he could have held his Annual Party Meeting in a phone box.
This is such a cut across the conventional weaving of Dante into so much hortatory carry-on in Italy. We have a glimpse of the Cremona mind, albeit through a turbulent Czech mind.

Whereafter the professor begins the most interesting part of Cremona's history: the story of the Surprise of Cremona, for which you must find your way to page 45 of my edition.
St Sigismondo
I have a book hard to put down. And very hard to quote in brief.  I note two things:
• we could go to Cremona one hour by train from Mantova to see a stylish town whose best buildings by this account are pre-baroque, some much older.
• and then 15 minutes by bus to the edge of Cremona we could see St Sigismondo. Templeton is enraptured on entering.

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