Chapter 16 – Vignette
Antonio Pagliaro was born in Melbourne. After schooling at Xavier College, he completed studies in Classics and Italian at The University of Melbourne (BA Honours; MA). He was awarded an Italian-Australian government exchange scholarship and completed postgraduate studies in Rome at La Sapienza. During a study period in the 1980s, he re-discovered a copy of Raffaello Carboni’s lost poem Gilburnia at a bookstand on Via del Corso; in 1993 he published a new edition of the work, with commentary and English translation. Pagliaro’s research has also focused on the correspondence of Swiss-Italian miners during the Australian gold rush, and on various areas of Italian literature. He is at present collaborating on an English language edition of the letters written by Margherita Datini to her husband Francesco, the well-known merchant of Prato, during the period 1384–1410.
My parents met on a passenger ship of the Lloyd Sabaudo line bound for Australia some time around 1930. My mother, Patricia, was born in Melbourne of an Australian pioneering family in 1907. She had a keen interest in Italy and had taken Italian lessons in the 1920s with Elvira Nibbi, the wife of the Italian writer and bookshop owner Gino Nibbi, who had recently arrived in Melbourne. My father, Silvio, was Italian and the ship’s medical doctor. After corresponding with Silvio for a while, my mother accepted his proposal of marriage, and travelled to Italy. My parents were married there in 1932, and stayed in Italy until 1937, when they decided to take their two sons Piero and Giuseppe (Beppo) to Australia. On arrival, my father set up a medical practice in Melbourne; he started practice at 33 Collins Street. By the time his third son, Andrea, was born in August 1940, Italy was at war and my father had been interned as an enemy alien. He was accompanied by guards from Loveday, South Australia, to Melbourne’s Mercy Hospital to see my mother and the baby. Presumably a sense of mischief – alluding to an unlikely Italian victory – led him to give Andrea ‘Vittorio’ as a second name. On the way back to South Australia the guards got thoroughly drunk and drove their truck off the road. My father had to hold their rifles while they resolved the situation. After a very tedious stay of 40 months and much letter writing he was released from internment at the end of 1943 and ordered to work at the Austin Hospital in Heidelberg. More children followed: Maria in 1944; Antonio (that’s me) in 1945; Lorenzo in 1946; Teresa in 1950.
My two eldest brothers had started life as Italian speakers. However, according to the science of the era, the stuttering which had affected the eldest, Piero, might have been caused by bilingualism. Therefore, we of the post-internment generation grew up as English monolinguals. My parents spoke to each other in Italian – particularly if they did not want us to understand – and to us in English. But in postwar Australia there was no place for foreign languages in public, so we children shrank and were embarrassed when our father spoke loudly with his strong accent (though he used a vocabulary that was probably far wider than that of his interlocutors); or when he insisted, quite irrationally, that it was his right at the greengrocer’s to choose the fruit, since he was paying for it. So we grew up in Melbourne speaking English and going to respectable schools where we were tolerated, despite our defect of obviously being Italian. In our last years of school we of the younger generation also began Italian lessons, for one hour a week each, in Wattle Road Hawthorn. These were taught by our mother’s teacher Elvira Nibbi, who prepared us for the intermediate, leaving and matriculation exams. She was a charming woman, and for me the long and incomplete path towards comprehending Italy and Italians really began then.
After leaving school, I chose to study geology, but I had a catastrophic year in Science and was excluded from the Faculty. In the meantime, the asthma brought on by my father’s past as a heavy smoker, which had been tormenting him for three or four years, eventually caused damage to his circulation, as indeed he had foreseen. He was taken by ambulance to hospital one night in September 1963, and operated on for thrombosis. On that occasion he was brought back from the brink, but he died the following March, aged 63. For the rest of that year I worked as a laboratory assistant in the Biochemistry Department at Melbourne University, and as a labourer for the Forestry Commission. Then I enrolled in an Arts degree, combining Classics and Italian.
My time as an Arts student was a very enjoyable period in my life. Students were treated with great respect in tutorials. In the Classics Department we were addressed as ‘Mister’ and ‘Miss’. Such respectfulness was a great motivating force for me, and gave me the deluded impression that every comment I offered in tutorials would be a grand contribution to Knowledge. Graduation came four years later, and then enrolment for an MA in Classics. My mind turned to the future.
In the pre-computer era, the departmental noticeboard provided essential information, and served as a meeting place, enhancing inter-student contact. It was even a place for declarations of love, as testified by the lipstick kiss planted on a notice beside the signature of one Classics lecturer. Uninspiring blank spaces on the noticeboard were filled with posters from overseas universities. The attractions of overseas study were enhanced in these posters by an eye-catching graphic style: a line in red perhaps, or the use of italics, suggested novelty – even transgression.
I eschewed the attractions of Alberta and North Carolina, McMaster and Dublin. I had a preconceived image of the English as frigid and unwelcoming, so the prospect of study there was not appealing. My attention was drawn by a poster for the Scuola Normale di Pisa. My intention was to combine my interests in Greek and Italian through a study of Southern Italian dialects. So I applied for a government exchange scholarship to Italy. The scholarship consisted of one return shipboard passage and an allowance of 100,000 lire per month.
My application was successful, so I proceeded to the Italian Consulate, then gathered together the required documents. Having inevitably taken their instructions too lightly, my return visit did not bring all to fruition. Italian bureaucracy was far more exacting than an ingenuous postgraduate student could imagine. I had to procure more documents and photos, then other ones. No short cuts here: an official university transcript is a worthless proof when another piece of paper – the degree itself – has been specified. However, eventually all seemed ready.
When I had recovered from a farewell party organised by a generous friend, I passed by the Consulate to collect my ticket. Despite its precision in other areas, unfortunately the staff had forgotten to book my passage! So I busied myself for another three weeks awaiting the next ship to Italy. At Melbourne University I focused on my MA thesis in the Baillieu Library, trying to avoid those who confronted me with the question ‘What are you doing here?’ It felt somewhat compromising to have a farewell party and then fail to disappear.
Eventually I departed on the Angelina Lauro. Its passengers consisted of many Italian emigrants returning home after years of hard work, and an equal number of nurses and typists bound for temporary jobs in London. After we left Perth, an announcement was made that propeller repairs were needed, so we would not be disembarking at our destination, Naples, but at Southampton instead. The announcement caused some lively scenes on board, but no change in the captain’s plans. A long crossing of the Indian Ocean was required, as the Suez Canal was filled with ships stranded and sunken because of the Israeli-Egyptian war. The sea was shrouded in mist; the horizon was never visible. Tourist class accommodation was almost entirely sealed from the outside world and enshrouded in its own suffocating fog of cigarette smoke. I looked longingly at the lengthy open decks of First Class and decided in desperation to transfer, whatever the cost. In fact, it cost very little! Just 20,000 lire (about A$30.00 at the time) gave me a four-berth cabin all to myself, the possibility of walking outside and, I should add, the company of some very congenial young Australian graduates from Adelaide. After two more brief stops, just six hours each in Cape Town and Tenerife, we pressed ahead straight to Southampton. Surprisingly, while we were leaving the ship in Southampton, other passengers were already waiting to board; the ship was reloaded in a hurry with English passengers, mainly emigrants I imagine, and set sail while its ejected passengers were still awaiting their transport via alternative means to sunny Italy.
At the Ministero degli Esteri in Rome I was told that the Scuola Normale di Pisa was out of the question, since its quota of students had been filled. I decided to stay in Rome; after obtaining the necessary approvals, I attempted to enrol in Italian studies at the University of Rome, La Sapienza. As a foreign student, to begin my chosen course I needed permission from Natalino Sapegno, the head of the Istituto di Filologia Italiana – also the famous editor of Dante. He seemed to be impossible to locate. After searching several times in vain, I was advised by a doorkeeper to come early in the morning, about 8 o’clock, on the following day. I did so, but missed Professor Sapegno again. I had a brief discussion with a very open and cordial Arrigo Castellani (whose works on early Tuscan dialectology had accompanied me in the third and fourth years of my studies). He suggested I write to Sapegno in order to arrange an appointment. I did so, but on returning days later no reply or acknowledgement had come. At this point I thought to take a nostalgic wander through the Istituto di Filologia Classica. A group of young graduates I met there were welcoming and friendly; a few were interested in Hellenistic poetry, and impressed to learn that my MA supervisor was K. J. McKay, whose work was well known to them. These students told me they were organising additional seminars for their postgraduate Diploma di perfezionamento and invited me to join them. I accepted with relief.
On arrival in Rome I had contacted the Marino family. Immediately I was invited to their home, and received like a long-lost son. Filiberto Marino and his wife Antiope had been my father’s friends since the early 1920s, when he, still a medical student, had sat up in their house night after night nursing their first infant child, who had been born with a fatal respiratory defect. As she recounted this story Antiope was overcome, and wept. The friendship had continued and, after my father had somewhat unconventionally married an Australian, ‘la signora Patrizia’, the two families had lived as neighbours for a time in Via Flaminia. When very young, my two elder brothers and the Marino children had played together. Then my parents had decided to move to Australia. In their conversations Filiberto and Antiope reconstructed the era and my parents’ lives in Italy one piece at a time. I began to understand how all those aspects of my father’s lively character which were unusual – or unappreciated – from an Australian perspective took on an utterly different meaning in Italy. His humour and word play, as well as his warm-hearted concern for others, could only have reached their full expression and appreciation in the Italian language and environment. Lucilla Marino, daughter of Filiberto and Antiope, told me of her father’s response when he heard after the war that Silvio had been interned: Filiberto had retreated silently to his study and locked the door behind him, overwhelmed with emotion.
I was able to stay with the Marino family for several days, but they were now old and frail. Filiberto guided me through the accommodation advertisements of the Rome daily, Il Messaggero. He recommended the centre of Rome. I suspect he saw it as an opportunity for me to live the life of la Bohème, as he had done before the Great War.
I found accommodation in a pensione in Via del Boschetto, a narrow street in the historical centre off Via Nazionale. Among my fellow boarders was Umberto, a clerk employed by the State. He was wealthy enough to have a small black and white television in his room, which he spent most evenings watching. Pier Angelo and Saro shared a room; they were artists who spent their days selling paintings in Piazza Navona. Oscar was a well-off Uruguayan student enrolled at the Rome film school. There was also a university tutor in philosophy, who was a friend of the poet Sandro Penna. The atmosphere in the pensione was not altogether pleasant as mealtimes were marked by insistent and tedious criticisms by Umberto of homosexuals. He wandered into the tutor’s room and had his worst suspicions confirmed by finding pornographic male images in magazines there.
One day Sandro Penna rang the pensione. He wanted to leave a message and I did not catch his name so asked him to repeat it. Colin McCormick, head of the Italian Department at Melbourne University, was certainly a lover of Italian poetry; moreover, the most famous contemporary poets were included in the undergraduate syllabus at that time, but I had never heard mention of Penna and his homoerotic verse.
‘I am the famous poet Sandro Penna.’
I was unimpressed. ‘Who says you are famous? Do Montale and Saba agree?’
‘Of course. Montale, Saba, everyone.’
‘Who publishes you?’
‘Mondadori of course.’
Poetry also marked the life of another of my fellow tenants. Paolo Prestigiacomo was in the last months of his compulsory military service. He had taken a room to use occasionally when he had free moments, so that he could change into civilian clothes and frequent literary circles. Certainly a short military haircut and checked sports jacket gave him the air of being anything but a cultivator of the muses. He was delighted to find a potential reader and presented me with a volume of verse he had just published, Relitti del mare. His literary career was slowly starting to develop. He had a poem or two accepted for publication in the literary journal Nuovi Argomenti founded by Alberto Carrocci, Alberto Moravia, and Pier Paolo Pasolini; he had made the acquaintance of the elderly writer Aldo Palazzeschi (formerly a poet of Futurism) who graciously received Paolo in his home one day. Afterwards I heard every detail of this exciting encounter.
Our landlady at the pensione, Signora Morosi, cooked us two modest meals a day. Like most people in this category, she was a major practitioner of petty economies. The evening meal was a single meagre dish together with some bread rolls, if there were any left over from lunch. The light globes in each room were probably about 25 watts and rendered reading at night a difficult enterprise. Pier Angelo, who needed to maintain the production line of impressionist-style flower paintings for American tourists at Piazza Navona, overcame the problem by purchasing himself a globe which might have lit a tennis court. If the Signora knocked at his door to collect the rent or do the cleaning, he had to play for time while juggling a hot light and replacing it with the standard issue. One night Signora Morosi’s hungry tenants raided the fridge, so she had it fitted with a large chain and padlock. The phone was also fitted with a lock so that it could be used for incoming calls only. Early in summer I caught a train to Munich to meet my cousin. On my return I found the Signora in a state. While she had been away, someone had cunningly made a series of reverse charge calls to the pensione from Germany – and she was convinced it was me. However, as I pointed out regretfully, there was no-one left at the pensione during summer whom I knew or could have wanted to ring.
From Via del Boschetto it was a short bus ride to the Università degli Studi di Roma. The atmosphere at the university was one of continuous tension. Dozens of carabinieri (military police) sat in the back of trucks near the university gate – just past the conveniently located anti-rabies inoculation centre – ready to intervene with their batons in the event of over-lively protest. Now and then groups of students would congregate on the steps of the Facoltà di Lettere, prepared for demonstrations or scuffles with their political opponents. The classrooms inside were liberally daubed with slogans in red paint extolling Chairman Mao, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Lenin and other revolutionary heroes, or calling for the liberation of Pietro Valpreda who had been in jail for some time awaiting trial for the 1969 Piazza Fontana bombing.
Special postgraduate seminars were offered at the request of the students I had met. Ettore Paratore taught several on Latin literature; Cesare Questa taught on the exotic (to me impenetrable) field of Plautine metrics, and Augusto Campana offered classes on the study of codices. Campana had an immense reputation in his field. Rather than joining the Fascist party – which had been a prerequisite for a university position – he had spent the years of Fascism in the Vatican library acquiring an unparalleled knowledge of its manuscripts. At the Istituto di Filologia Classica he showed his strength of character in another way. At around 8pm during his seminars the caretaker of the Istituto would begin turning off the lights, in preparation for locking up and going home. Campana took absolutely no notice. Eventually the lights would be turned off for minutes at a time, but this made no difference. If Campana had something to say it was going to be said, and he certainly would not yield for any trivial reason. Ettore Paratore, author of a large history of Latin literature, had an encyclopaedic knowledge of his field, though he also frequently published articles on Italian and other modern European literatures. While we delivered seminar papers, he would sit on the edge of the chair, listening apparently with the greatest interest and attention. Paratore was no friend of student revolution, but was renowned for having once set a passage from Mao’s popular Little Red Book – necessary reading for university students of the ’60s and ’70s – for translation into Latin.
Classes in Byzantine Greek literature were taught to a small group of about 15 students by Professore Giuseppe Schirò. Slowly we read through the Chronicle of Ioannina – that is to say, he read. And whereas in my undergraduate classes in Melbourne we had been encouraged to discuss interpretations of texts, and dissent from them, Giuseppe Schirò was an elderly deliverer of Truth ex cathedra. I remember a fellow student asking whether a particular passage might be construed in a different manner from that enunciated. Schirò was shocked. ‘No’, he said, ‘I have read this passage and reflected’ – ‘Ho riflettuto.’ Quite simply, there was no discussion. On another occasion he stepped into the classroom while we sat around the table – and again he was sorely grieved: ‘I have been teaching for many years at this university. Today for the first time the class has not stood up when I entered the room.’ It seemed curious that while violent protest raged in the university and in the streets of Rome, none of my fellow students seemed even slightly inclined to utter the ’70s Italian equivalent of ‘Get real!’ But of course these students needed to survive oral exams, and to progress through the Italian educational system by accumulating as many potential allies or ‘santi in paradiso’ – ‘saints in Paradise’ – as possible, in order to strengthen their chances for whatever opportunity might present itself in their future lives.
However, where the lecture theatre was large or where anonymity was guaranteed, occasionally some students came with protest in mind, depending on the real or imagined political view of the lecturer. I remember a particular class taught by the romance philologist Professor Aurelio Roncaglia, when a young man walked slowly and noisily down the steps of the lecture theatre, and exited through the door in an equally rowdy manner. The illustrious scholar did not seem to have understood that protestors are not usually enrolled in the courses they interrupt. ‘If that person presents himself at the exam, I’ll send him away’ – ‘gli dico che se ne vada’, Roncaglia said to us fairly pointlessly, though he probably believed that he had struck a blow for academia.
Enrolment itself still took many months and numerous queues at the university offices. About a year after arriving in Rome I finally encountered the famous and elusive Natalino Sapegno, because one of his roles was to vet foreign students for their knowledge of Italian. About a dozen of us gathered in his study, and sat around on armchairs and sofas while he signed a few forms stating that our Italian was adequate – and that was that.
Among the most welcoming of academics was Enrico Rossi, a professor of Greek. He had spent some time at Oxford University, and his pipe and tweed jacket certainly evoked English academia. At times he went to dinner with his students, and even invited a fair number of us to his house one evening – most unlike any other professor I met in Rome. Professor Rossi also organised various seminars with visiting academics. At one of these, after I had been in Italy only a couple of months, I met again a fellow student from Melbourne, Frances Muecke. This proved a lucky meeting for me, as at that time I knew hardly anything about Rome. Frances guided me around the backstreets near Piazza Navona, and introduced me to Palazzo della Cancelleria and other renowned buildings when my appreciation of architectural styles was non-existent.
Most of my study, however, took place in specialist libraries: in the German Archaeological Institute off Via Veneto, or at the American Academy, which is set in verdant gardens on the Janiculum Hill. Lucilla Marino was deputy librarian at the American Academy: intelligent, witty and cultured, and with a wide range of friends in academia, she and her friends were part of an exceptional generation which had graduated from a leading classical liceo (secondary college) in Rome. At least once a week I enjoyed dinner at Lucilla’s house, and met there numerous interesting and highly intelligent personalities, most from academia, some from politics. It was a unique experience. We engaged in intense arguments and discussion far into the night, and I learnt far more about Italian life, politics and language than would have been possible anywhere else.
Of course each of the libraries had their illustrious elderly scholars. Amongst these at the American Academy was Gisela Richter, formerly curator of antiquities at New York’s Metropolitan Museum. She had chosen her favourite spot in the Academy library, and if she found it rashly occupied by a stranger she did not hesitate to exceed her authority, asking them to move on. Occasionally Dale Trendall, the renowned expert in ancient pottery, would visit Rome from Australia, and Miss Richter would arrange a little reception for scholars ‘to meet Mr Trendall’. A couple of years later, shortly before her death, she wrote a fascinating, brief account of her early years; it was printed as a small booklet, and illustrated with family photos. I saw photocopies of it at the time. But after her death it became apparent that Miss Richter had thought the better of this self-indulgence and no copies were to be found in her library.
One of the great advantages of living in Rome was the accessibility of literature; that is, all of the European classics were available in paperback editions, and frequently in parallel texts. The works of T. S. Eliot were cheaper in Italy than Australia. I was living just a short walk away from the Rome Opera where ‘lateral’ seats could be obtained for only 400 lire (about A$0.80 cents). It cost even less to go to classic film showings at the Farnese cinema in Campo dei Fiori.
As summer progressed, the thick walls of the pensione gradually warmed up and maintained the heat in our rooms throughout the night, as might a baker’s oven. I longed for space, privacy and the possibility of choosing the size of my meals. Clean air was another desideratum. In those days, when the centre of Rome was open to all cars, a regular event was total gridlock for a couple of hours at a time, providing an extraordinary combination of noise from horns and dense clouds of black fumes. Consulting Il Messaggero, I discovered a suitable flat for rent. On speaking to the shady accountant who was looking after the matter, it became clear that he was leasing out an undeclared property belonging to an unnamed member of parliament. I was pronounced an acceptable tenant. So after paying a large deposit, I moved out to a little way beyond the Vatican, off Via Baldo degli Ubaldi. Here the fresh breezes blew in summer evenings. Here was liberty and privacy. Here, with the Presbyterian Women’s Cookery Book (sent by my kind mother), I began my undistinguished culinary career: tuna with breadcrumbs; fish fingers; frozen peas.
Knowing that I was seeking work as an English tutor, my fellow students suggested to Professor Campana that he employ me on a temporary basis to teach English to students of Classics, to enable them to read works of English scholarship. After an interview, in which he ascertained that I did indeed know English, classes began. I made a couple of very good friends among these students and finally my social life began to flourish. About a year after arriving in Italy I finished my MA thesis for Melbourne University; after about two years I completed my Diploma di perfezionamento for the University of Rome. Eventually the time came to choose between staying in Italy or returning. The desire to be with my family prevailed. Therefore with Gianni, Lucilla’s friend and a cancelliere (chancellor) of the courts, I went on what promised to be a formidable mission – the attempt to recoup my deposit on the flat. It remains an enduring joy to recollect how the smile on the face of the accountant froze when he opened his door and saw that I was not alone. Every reason he gave as to why the deposit could not be repaid in full, as well as every claim of additional expenses, were skilfully countered by Gianni, who himself managed a condominium and proved himself a genius in mental arithmetic. Within a few days I had spent that money too – then I flew back to Melbourne.
I was offered some part-time tutoring in the Italian Department at Melbourne University, and enrolled in a PhD. With its vast empty streets and enormous sky, Melbourne still seemed a sluggish city, yet some improvements were clearly evident. With the advent of Gough Whitlam’s prime ministership a cultural revolution had taken place; multiculturalism was on the move and it was no longer outrageous to speak in a foreign language in public. Even so, keeping in touch with Italian events via just one medium, my subscription to L’Espresso, was a difficult task in the pre-electronic age, and it was a frustrating process trying to follow events through the years of the Red Brigades, the kidnap of Aldo Moro and the rise and fall of Bettino Craxi. However, in the era of cheap airfares it was still possible to return to Italy in the summer every year and benefit from some semblance of contact. Now of course, it has become even simpler. My work as a lecturer keeps me in touch with Italy and my family’s friendship with the Marino family continues – which naturally says more about them and my father than anyone else.
This chapter is from Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions, edited by Bill Kent, Ros Pesman and Cynthia Troup (Monash University Publishing: Clayton, Melbourne. 2010). For more information about this book, or to purchase print copies, please go to http://www.publishing.monash.edu/books/ai.html.