A great tradition revisited
Born in Brisbane, Peter Porter has lived in London since 1951 while now regularly returning to Australia. One of the foremost poets in the English language today, he has published over 20 books of poetry, most recently Afterburner (2005). Porter has won numerous prizes and awards, among them the Whitbread Poetry Award (1988) and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry (2002). It was in his early 40s that he first travelled to Italy but he has been a frequent visitor ever since, bringing with him a wide and deep knowledge, experience and appreciation of Italian art and music.
I begin in medias res with a poem. One of the most recent I’ve written, it’s called Henry James and Constipation. A title out to shock, perhaps. But the poem itself is moderation incarnate. I consider James’s collected travel pieces about Italy – a good number of which he wrote later in life, after he traversed parts of the South in a motor car – to contain some of the finest insights into Italian life penned by an English-speaker. I’ve tried to make my poem echo both James the First and The Old Pretender, to make reference to an academic joke about James’s increasingly elaborate style. In these psychosomatic days it’s also a good idea to remember that our bowels are our fellow travellers.
Henry James and Constipation
The mail creeps into Florence with the sun
And I, along these lotus-lettered tiles,
Touch at the door of disappointment; smiles
Of fellow-guests I am ashamed to shun
Adorn the corridors and I assume
The living William’s in a letter in my room.
Your strictures, William, if I call them thus,
Are Medical Injunctions, similar
To that one body-mind self-avatar
We hold is Moral Truth. The impetus
Of our distinct decorums, like our bowels,
Stays with the Signoria and the men with trowels.
Why do we quit our shores of sense to seek
Something no better, but much longer known?
Their mason’s trowels! We think, perhaps we’ve sown
The present with the past. Is Boston weak
In wanting to declare a glorious pose
Just truths a waiter winks or scholar might disclose?
Dear Henry, says the word-within-the-words,
You’ve eaten Europe, now digest it well:
Alice, yourself, all Jameses should dispel
Inheritance, as migratory birds,
Wingspanned enough, approach the classic coasts
Of Excellent Ambush, hangmen’s shadows, faction’s ghosts.
The pills are packed, small dictionaries of hope,
Encyclopaedias encroaching on
The atlas where the motorist may swan
The shore. Old Europe’s by new Huxleyan soap
Made clean. One half-Swiss hint from Burckhardt and
All art lies open like an oyster in the hand.
In Rome one day at Carnival a flour-
Bomb surprised me, covering me in white,
A proper suiting for the Church of Night,
If somewhat vulgar. Climb the tallest tower,
View any landscape here, its sepulture
Is cold retention, derogated, anal, dure.
De Quincey had my trouble – opium
For him; for me, inaction, looking on,
The bathroom stalled, the crucial moment gone.
The Bread of Culture, eaten crumb by crumb,
Chokes off all other appetite, and we
Who will one day be prints exist in effigy.
The picture of itself, the Great Good Land,
Which waits your passage in the sired boat,
Is not so truthful as a brother’s coat,
Your many-coloured words. We understand
Each other who were not made here, but seek
The broad bestowing stream fed by clearskin creek.
The mail leaves town, I’ve often noted, by
The Porta Roma, wheels retarded, carrying
Enchantments far back home, the marrying
And dying, gossiping – this claimed life’s wry
Postmark of ancient lore and new device
Is Advent of Degree, point made, distinction nice.
I trust this poem may act as a key signature to enable you to follow the poems that follow, which are products – as James himself most certainly was – of attempted sophistication, not wonder-filled naiveté. When we write poetry about Italy we are more egotistical than sublime: we are looking for insights into ourselves. I’m sure most of us love Italy, though our love is more relevant to our works and careers than to the inhabitants. But to show that there can be, even within a mannered way of writing, a description of an Italian site which aims at objectivity, I refer to a short poem, a sonnet in fact, about a church in the Val d’Arno. We foreign visitors come into it, but perhaps in the way that a pencil sketch by John Ruskin of the Arche Scaligeri in Verona unavoidably suggests an English Art School. The poem’s title is the name of the church, San Pietro a Gropina. This small, tenth-century Romanesque building near Loro Ciuffenna, off the Autostrada del Sole, is one of my favourite places. A lapsed Protestant, if such a thing is possible, I seem compelled to spend hours soaking up the feeling in ancient churches, but I can do this best in Italy – seldom in England or Australia.
San Pietro a Gropina
What spaceship, UFO, gantry movie hulk
has beached along the silvery Val d’Arno
ready to show what’s left when gods below
return to heaven? Their starry sinews sulk
in passionate resentment of our slow
but forcible commandings – tripwires go
to the pagan in us but we buy in bulk
any baptised hope. Louche or chaste,
bold carvings of the seminal devout
will hold us here a while, then tourist haste,
which by the stoop observes the suckling church
as sow and farrow, seeking God’s check-out
for special offers, finds its eye enticed
by vines replenishing the blood of Christ.
Objectivity, you wonder? Well, the carvings in the church include some sexy scenes as well as the sow and farrow – not as explicit as those found in Kilpeck church in Herefordshire, but more direct than would have been acceptable in the Renaissance – and the local cantina, or cellar, sells a fine Chianti, supplied by the fields round the church that are given over to vineyards. The shape of the sonnet is closer to the pure Petrarchan form than to anything Shakespearean. I have been criticised for describing the sonnet as the Italian language’s revenge on English, and here I pay the price with a certain prosodic roughness.
The ‘great tradition’ that Australians like myself have inherited and have been revisiting constantly is one of plunder. Of course this is plunder in its metaphorical dress. Reading history promotes a strong sense of irony: the Romans can be said to have civilised the whole world while meaning perhaps to do no more than conquer it. In a sense they brought the purer Greek culture with them on the ends of their swords. But then in turn waves of barbarians descended on the Roman Empire and here we are today, ourselves descendents of those hairy ones the Romans conquered, arriving in Italy to be civilised in our turn. I apologise for such a broad statement. Consider, though, why invaders came to Italy. For Hannibal it was a struggle of martial strength – when the Empire began to break up around the start of the fifth century, the reason was desire for riches, territory, and so forth. Yet even the famous exchange between Attila and pope Leo the Great suggests that the Empire continued to strike back. ‘Take the world, but leave me Italy’, Leo’s general sings in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera. Generations of usurpers called themselves New Romans. The Holy Roman Empire, Frederick the Second, Stupor Mundi, and so on, took legitimacy from their Italian sojourn. Italy continued to civilise the world in other ways. You could argue that the communes of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were the societies closest to the democratic ideal since the time of Athens – although we love and praise the despots who followed because they coincide with the Renaissance.
Enough potted history. From Geoffrey Chaucer onwards English writers have been coming to Italy to get culture on their thighs like so many bees. The trickle turned into a wave in the eighteenth century. Thomas Coryate made England think of Venice as Marco Polo’s city, but it wasn’t really until the likes of Mary Wortley Montagu and thousands of others rich enough to take the Grand Tour that Italy became a place of pilgrimage for Anglo-Saxons. I think we English-speakers have been lucky in always coming late to Continental enthusiasms. Lord Burlington and the rest were panting after Palladian architecture 150 years after Andrea Palladio’s death. The lords who went home with trophy portraits painted by Pompeo Battoni are then replaced by the exiles of Napoleonic Days. Perhaps only Sir William Hamilton in Naples tried like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu truly to understand Italian life. ‘Paradise of Exiles’ was almost enough for Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley ‘and Co.’, though they all spoke Italian. The traffic began to go in reverse at this time also, with England offering refuge to Rossetti père, Ugo Foscolo and others. London had for years been the chosen place of work for Italian musicians. George Frideric Handel was stylistically baptised in Italy and Francesco Geminiani and Giovanni Battista Viotti flourished in England and Ireland. What makes the nineteenth-century English-speaking exiles different is their concern for the fallen political state of Italy itself: Byron supported the Carbonari. Arthur Hugh Clough jokily (and the Brownings seriously) praised the Risorgimento.
Time for some poetry. Looking through the poems of Lord Byron and Robert Browning, I see that both men knew a lot about Italian painting and refer to it in their work. Both had read Giorgio Vasari, while Byron took from Luigi Pulci the stanza he immortalised in Don Juan, the ottava rima. Historical aesthetic awareness begins at this time – a good while before Jacob Burckhardt. And this is where my next poem comes in. It’s a fantasy after Vasari, called The Painters’ Banquet. I’ve always considered the appropriate symbol for pictures, especially the opulent sort painted in Venice by Paolo Veronese and in Florence by Quattrocentro masters such as Andrea Castagno, to be banquets. Our eyes come to the galleries for a good feed. I wrote this poem for the Australian painter Arthur Boyd who owned a country house, Il Paretaio, outside Palaia, in the Val d’Era. Arthur and I composed four books of poems and pictures and this poem comes from our Narcissus (Boyd and Porter 1984).
The Painters’ Banquet
They came with their gifts of the senses
And of the groves planted for them by God
In the retina; they knelt by sandy waters
And saw a violin shore, a fronded region
Of high responding light, rosella afternoon;
They gossiped in laps, lay under umbrellas
Of the tumid shade; they told colours
In every story. When the pelican glided,
They overcame light, where the daisy unpeeled
They saw graveclothes. There were many
With eyelashes like Veronese’s fans,
Others sat solitary as meat on a plate
Waiting for heaven to happen. Change,
Said some, was the way of their world,
Animals answering the call of light
Under Hyperion’s crag. But, said several,
It is the unchanging we celebrate,
Sirocco afternoons, gods hard-pressed
By their abstract eyes. Dangerous modes
In all weather when obsessionals walk
To a favourite spur above the land –
Below them kingdoms boil and they find
Twisting paths through middle space.
This is the sumptuous gallery of those
Who have eaten the world. Oh the ochre,
Burnt siena, the pulverising red
Which rocks have earned from the sun –
In little spaghetti-making towns,
The dead artificers’ creations burn
All sophistry from pilgrim’s eyes.
It was a wonderful party to be at.
We write our thank-you letters
In the world’s far-reaching galleries.
Who will clean up now? All the water
In the reservoirs won’t remove the stain
From Golgotha. We think back instead:
Little Andrea has drawn a sheep
With a bright stone upon a smooth-faced rock.
Lucky for him a Medici is passing.
Soon the banquet will be set again.
Somehow the Australian parrot, the rosella, got into the text. Vasari distributes the story of the doodling shepherd boy into the lives of several Florentines, but I like to think it belongs to that tough guy Andrea del Castagno, whiling away the hours watching his flock beside Monte Falterona. Then I put that faded fresco by Alesso Baldovinetti in the first cloister of Florence’s Santissima Annunziata into the poem as well – it shows the view down to the city from Settignano. The spaghetti-making town is Borgo San Sepolcro, Piero della Francesca’s birthplace – outside is a large Buittoni pasta factory.
Imagination can go two ways – we (I include Shakespeare in this) can imagine life in Italy. But why not imagine some remarkable Italians in our own country? Of course they stay themselves, but they also notice things about our landscape and life. The American poet Louis Simpson states that ‘grave by grave we civilise the ground’. But why not try Resurrection as well as burial? So I have imported Piero di Cosimo, that extraordinary fantasist, to the banks of the Shoalhaven River in New South Wales, and Luigi Boccherini to play his cello at a Music Camp in Mittagong. Piero should be quite at home on the Shoalhaven, one of the most European stretches of broadwater in Australia. The poem is sited on the stretch of river adjacent to Arthur Boyd’s house at Bundanon. Arthur and I had both observed how similar this bend of river is to the sandy riverbank in Piero’s famous allegorical scene in the London National Gallery, sometimes said to be a depiction of Cephalus and Procris. Piero would not have met any satyrs or murders in New South Wales but pelicans, labrador-type dogs and water nymphs abound. Here is a poem, Piero di Cosimo on the Shoalhaven.
Piero di Cosimo on the Shoalhaven
Through a banksia’s cone the fire passes,
Aphorisms of the deities of time.
Here on a broad river’s side, my glasses
Squandering the sun, I put rhyme
Into paint, Vulcan’s and Venus’s trespasses.
On a rock orchid, the roundness and gloze
Of a lapith’s bum! Men hauled cedars
From these forests before their blood froze,
Making a camp for gods – our leaders,
We sighed, as we looked inside the rose.
My eggs boil on the electric stove –
Reincarnation of madness: one
Takes a mainline trip to Comfort Cove,
Another paints the rain forest in the sun,
A murder and a mating in a grove.
Drongo the dog is barking at a thing
Washed up on a sandbank by the tide –
A nymph, a suicide, something decomposing
Which his nose loves, and at its side
The mercenaries of life converging.
Up river the water skiers puff and plane;
I could not imagine more blended beasts.
The gods are husbanding our pain
Like all good settlers – the men of feasts
Will come, a Medicean super-strain.
Neither Adam nor Jesus ever laughed
But the serious earth is quite hilarious.
This is Eden as the cattle go past
The electric fence; the faces are so various
Of flower and shadow, which will last?
Only work can save us from night coming.
Newly-planted trees attest the faith.
On its dorsal, a monster is drumming
Messages for the new world – each wraith
Is a spirit of old Europe slumming.
Here I put a duck-billed wallaby,
A swimming jackass, abo-centaur:
So old a place has so much still to see.
There must be ghost traps. Shut the door
On dying, become a lamenting tree.
When I first went to Borgo San Sepolcro it seemed a sleepy town off the beaten track. We were motoring over the hills from Urbino, and to access the small pinacoteca at Borgo San Sepolcro – the picture gallery which was then about the size of an outback School of Arts – you sought a custodian in a bar; in a singlet, he opened the gallery with a great set of keys. There, ahead of you, was Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection. This may seem overly legendary and touristy since, 40 years before I saw the picture, it was written up by Aldous Huxley as the greatest painting in the world. San Sepolcro is very different today. It has a smart new gallery, but the Piero is still there. I’ve also noticed that the shops rival Florence or Rome for designer chic. Last time I visited, I looked at one of the display cases beside the paintings. It was the town’s Libro dei Morti, open at the page recording Piero’s death, and I wrote a poem about this. I called it Neighbours for reasons which will be apparent when you read this poem, but I was surprised when introducing it at a reading to discover that my audience thought I was conjuring up the famous Australian TV program set in Melbourne’s suburbs. I like coincidences: I’ve been castigated for recording in another poem the fact that the day Piero died in San Sepolcro was the day that Christopher Columbus made landfall in the Caribbean. Perhaps we should ask ourselves – who are our neighbours?
I am Ceccho de Cecchi
who died in 1493
and I apologize now
for troubling you.
This is my chance to speak,
all because a book
is open at my entry –
that’s my name, a key
record for the month, but nobody’s
heard of me I’ve been dead
so long. I was important, I led
a useful life and was a devout
Christian, true husband and
a businessman of good repute.
You who read my name,
quite a few of you will be nobodies
compared to me – please
understand how I long
in this dark to be back among
my fellows and my reputation,
how lonely it is here
where we are forgotten. Days, I know,
must lengthen into shadow,
but let me talk to you.
I remember we’d sing Mass
and beyond our voices we would hear
the cries of pigs being slaughtered
for the coming feast. We listened
to our own ends but we felt
only the excellent wind
of fortune which fans the young.
Now time has torn out my tongue.
On the opposite page, level with me,
is another faded entry –
for October 1492 –
in the Libro dei Morti
of Borgo San Sepolcro –
‘died on the twelfth, Piero
di Benedetto di Francesco,
painter’. Pray for me
and for all immortality.
It seems odd that Cecchi, which means blind, is a surname in Italian, attached to people who can see – but such is the case. I once joked with an American colleague that we had lost our sharp sense of identity now that we weren’t known by the town or territory of our birth. I wanted to lay claim to being Pietro da Brisbano, along the lines of Giuliano da Sangallo or Mino da Fiesole. Or just perhaps named for a bridge or a place, like Jacopo Carrucci, one of my favourite painters, who is known as Pontormo, since he hailed from a village with a bridge over the river Orme. This is close to Arthur Boyd’s place, and I remember taking Arthur to the village of Carmignano to see the greatest of Pontormo’s paintings, The Visitation, which sits squarely in a frame on the side of the parish church of San Michele. You can just walk in and view it. I’ve tried to find out about Pontormo, a little more than can be found in Vasari or the textbooks, but his diaries and commonplace books have never been translated. Lauro Martines told me that Pontormo wrote sonnets, but then corrected this and said that the writer was actually Agnolo Bronzino. So I felt justified in making up a character for Pontormo, as Browning did for Lippo Lippi and Andrea del Sarto. Pontormo is the subject of this next poem, titled Pontormo’s Sister.
The world’s face is a woman’s
who died early, the smoothnesses of life
waiting on a ruled horizon –
Consider this in profile even
in my Visitation, the four ages of Woman
unable, like God, to be anything but themselves,
and in Mary it seems lit within,
myself there, swept by darkness.
All my people are the same person,
as every artist shows: there grows a face
as hedgerows grow, as water shapes
in droplets when it falls, as we emerge
from the doors of dreams to be ourselves.
Piero’s faces never vary, did he perhaps
have a sister who died too young to marry?
That’s how I found technique,
a way of bending Nature to the line
of my depression. We say at twenty
and at forty and at sixty, there are
measures and distinctions you call art –
but no, we’re in the shambles
with our little sisters and our parents,
we’re tied to flesh and death forever
while we live, and out of it our masters ask
‘Make me Veronica, the dogs and boys
grape-picking, Jesus faltering beneath
the cross’s weight.’ I can paint a word
if the word is death, but what I cannot do
is show it to you
unless I wrap it in a nimbus.
O little sister dressed in death,
I have painted you in everyone
and now I beg you draw the veil
across my eyes. It is time for me
to sketch God’s face, a smudge of grease
on old familiarity. This is the message
of the mannered style: God looks like
anyone who ever lived, but more so.
Both Pontormo and Piero della Francesca seem to insist on the faces of their subjects having a family likeness. Perhaps similar to the shape of Mozart melody.
When Australians come to live in Italy their experiences are seldom different from those of Anglo-Saxons. And flying in on an Alitalia jet along with Italians who have settled in Australia returning home on holiday is a reminder that Italy is not inhabited only by the descendents of Renaissance artists or Risorgimento heroes. The same goes for the modern descendents of Shakespeare and Shelley on English streets. But perhaps Australians are not as guilty of loud behaviour as British and Germans sometimes are – none of that shrillness of Gloucestershire matrons hailing each other in some Chiantishire shop. There is an Australian habit which it may seem snobbish to identify but which I think is both natural and endearing – and the opposite of culture-vulturing. It is that of standing above the confluence of the rivers Neckar and Rhine and declaring, ‘just like the view over Maroochydore’, or, while queuing in the Cathedral Museum in Siena, it is to hear an Australian voice remark to its companion while stopping in front of a Quattrocentro celebrity – ‘he looks just like Les Murray’. We are all just like somebody. I have stayed as a guest in David Malouf’s house in the southern Tuscan village of Campagnatico and felt both at home and alienated. I now think my discomfort stems from Christianity. Modern Italians tend to go to church only for christenings, marriages and burials, yet the whole landscape has been so baptised it will always seem different from the materialism of Australia. This is the subject of my next poem, The Cocks of Campagnatico.
The Cocks of Campagnatico
The heart grown old can’t fake its scholarship
And won’t essay that glib insightfulness
Which once it made a moral landscape from:
This village, half its human figures and
Its cats and dogs enthroned in windless sleep.
Law’s brutal now – a German bus deep-parked,
A gang of no-ones-in-particular
Kicking to death a pigeon – how may they be mapped?
Only within the self can scales be hung.
Ignore mere detail says the ageing conscience;
Encourage emblems any mind can hail.
And so the roosters of the valley stir
As if to answer such a challenge, though
They’re late, their tubs of sun already full,
And beautifully redundant to themselves
Propose and repropose the Resurrection.
I had written a previous poem of greater length titled The Cats of Campagnatico, which approaches the same subject from a different angle. It was more concerned with the landscape of the contado as prescient of death rather than transcendence. Indeed, everywhere I go in Italy I find sententiousness bubbling up in my mind. Nowhere more than in Florence, the first Italian city I ever visited. Here are precedents galore. I’ve mentioned my fondness for the painting of Andrea del Castagno, but I love the gentle Fra Angelico just as much. Remember this is the city that keeps the uncorrupted body of its San Antoninus under glass in the church of San Marco – uncorrupted but decidedly unattractive. All those exiles who spent their lives in Florence may have been in the right – in the poem The Sweet Slow Inbreak of Angels I indulge in present-day captiousness. Today’s artists I suggest are no patch on their predecessors.
I was a relative latecomer to Italy, and like many of my kind had swotted up the history and art of the country in books. I well remember my arrival in Florence in 1971. For the next three years my first wife and I roamed around the peninsula, leaving our children at home. This coincided unhappily with her increasing disturbance and her eventual death in 1974. When I wrote an Exequy for her, our Italian epiphany featured prominently in it. Lamenting her absence, I recorded parts of our travels.
I think of us in Italy,
Move in a trance through Paradise,
Feeding at last our starving eyes,
Two people of the English blindness
Doing each masterpiece the kindness
Of discovering it – from Baldovinetti
To Venice’s most obscure jetty
And, oh my love I wish you were
Once more with me, at night somewhere
In narrow streets applauding wines,
The moon above the Appenines
As large as logic and the stars,
Most middle-aged of avatars,
As bright as when they shone for truth
Upon untried and avid youth.
This is an abbreviation of the lament, but it may do to illustrate how much Italian scenery rises in my thoughts when I write. The longest poem I am going to refer to here is about one of the greatest discoverers of Italy and Art – unfortunately one I consider a crook – Bernard Berenson. My poem is called Berenson Spots a Lotto, and I suppose it is the closest I can come to Browning’s Andrea del Sarto or perhaps his Bishop Blougram, who is a reverend cheat, which Sarto wasn’t. I won’t try to explain the poem: while it is complicated, its general drift is clear. And I end up against my will almost admiring the old deceiver. I consider Berenson’s writings about Renaissance art dishonest, but in his youth he was a true pioneer and trawled the whole country in search of forgotten masterpieces. There’s one oddity in my poem. For no very good reason I included a parody song in the style of James Joyce which should be sung to the tune of ‘Sweet Betsy of Pike’. This is a rhymed formal poem but the rhymes are sufficiently far apart so you may not notice them.
Berenson Spots A Lotto
It takes me back to my beleaguered youth,
Chiming across an Italy where carts
Rocked down dirt roads and crones without a tooth
Unlocked the doors of chapels, and bleeding hearts
On banners, flung aside, revealed an altarpiece
Whose dim and long-dead donor thought to win
A sort of immortality, his Fleece
Of Gold in Heaven, sitting painted in
A flock Annunciation or some ghetto
Holy Family. Year after year I roamed
The provinces from Como to Loreto,
But this was just the fieldwork: I had homed
In on the big boys from the start and knew
That not just railway magnates but the scholars
Wanted certainties, the only true
Account of Europe, and beyond the dollars
A secret map of Christianity
Waited projection by a doubting Jew.
So these my lonely forays were for me
And for my conscience: I felt the world askew
But told it straight: as Burckhardt was the first
To show, the art of Europe’s a crusade
And universal culture is a thirst
In conquerors whose vanities have made
Our palaces and charnel houses grow –
The story must be written, heroes found,
Masaccio, Piero, Michelangelo,
A triumph set to pass its native ground
And bear the Western spirit into space,
With me its true evangelist, the one
Who’ll say authoritatively a face
Is duly a Farnese, but not shun
The central mystery, the major-key
Colossi, men whose grandeur connoisseurs
Can only blink at – thus it falls to me
To play commander, wear the holy spurs.
And, yes, you’ve heard my word’s corrupt, my voice
In grading minor masters built my villa,
And somebody has rhymed me à la Joyce,
A prophet, Teste David cum Sibylla.
I’m the greatest art expert the world’s ever seen,
I make attributions for Joseph Duveen,
From tycoons and bankers I draw a fat fee,
So here’s to Vecelli and Buonarotti.
The grandeur falls away and Duveen’s dead,
And Europe sinks once more into Avernus.
It’s good in one’s old age to leave one’s bed
And young again to stalk such joys as burn us,
The glorious anarchy of what we love,
All stupid scales of value tossed aside
So that a Dosso Dossi seems above
A Titan and we’d die to prove our pride
In Credi or Melozzo: exhausted now
With rugs about my knees, in a wheelchair,
On this my final pilgrimage, I vow
To praise the greatness of that inner air
Which blows about the spirit: they said I’d find
The cutest Visitation in this glum
And barrel-chested church, so, wined and dined,
I’m here and have to laugh – it seems I’ve come
Full circle to the proving-ground of youth:
I’m bang in front of something I adored
When as a thrusting expert seeking truth
I first encountered it: the Virgin bored,
The Baptist’s mother a strange shaft of blue
And two dogs fighting round their feet, the limbs
Half spastic but in everything a hue
Collated from the spectrum’s antonyms –
Lorenzo Lotto, my first darling, I
Assigned you half a page in my big book
But more than ten years seeking-out – are we
Then reconciled – you with your beaky look,
Your death’s pre-echo and me at the gates
Of terror and oblivion? Your luck
Was to be provincial in the Papal States,
Not smart enough for Venice where they suck
Up gold from mud and splash it on the stars –
You worked a density that fashion loathed
And paid the price of it, your avatars
The quirky poses, matrons overclothed
And cats astounded by angelic draughts.
Old friend, I’m with you now, I’ve done with fame
If never quite with money – Arts and Crafts
I leave to Night School mumblers and the same
For those grand galleries and owners – let
Them examine sizes, pigments, drapes, x-rays,
I’ll give a provenance in a minute
They won’t unseat – and Lotto, our last days
Can be the sweetest; you in the warm wind
From the Adriatic fixing the bizarre
With daily habits; me, more sinning than sinned
Against, and princely in a chauffered car,
Doing my lap of honour coast to coast,
Detesting Modern Art, unpenitent
Of theft or fraud, the last admiring ghost
Of Europe’s genius, all passion spent.
This poem is filled with a sense of an ending. Indeed the farewell, the threnody, the Abschied attract poets: we all want to play Prospero and break our staff and drown our book. Leaving a place may not necessarily be a paradigm of leaving one’s life but there is always an overhang of this kind in any sense of departure. Such is present in the last poem I refer to – Leaving Mantua. It is still a very literary poem, as are all the poems I’ve included. Or perhaps they are art historical rather than literary. But something of contemporary life gets into this poem. Mantua is a sombre city, without the relief of pleasure-seeking which redeems the equally sombre Ferrara. The lakes formed by the Mincio river offer gloom as well as mosquitos. The Palazzo del Te has lots of sexual shenanigans on the walls but the Reggia is grim apart from Mantegna’s cosy scene of the Estense family. I refer to a poem by the American poet James Wright who in turn quotes Virgil, whose hometown was Mantua. John Milton’s eulogy of Virgil gets a mention. Despite the way I end this piece, I look forward to seeing Mantua again soon; I don’t want my farewell – in 1977 – to be the final one.
I woke up early as I invariably do
when I have an early train to catch –
a dream-master has no need of clocks.
The night before I’d argued in my language
with two Italian ladies who might have been
happier in theirs: had I been rude or thoughtless?
One was wrong, undoubtedly, to think Shakespeare’s
works were written by the Earl of Oxford
but they both resided in Mantua and I
Was in exile from myself, or so I told myself,
looking at the stallions on the wall
of the Palazao Te: ‘here is for me no biding’.
And wasn’t I as grossly opinionated
about Italian painting as she on Shakespeare?
My head hurt after a thick wine they’d been happy
To leave to me, and I’d toyed with beetroot-coloured
strips of meat once more maintaining
our Northern barbarism – drink ahead of food.
Struggling past the desk (I’d had the sense to settle
the bill the night before) I pushed my case to the street
sheeted from eave to cobbles in soup-thick mist.
Where in this Dantesque gloom might the station be?
I knew I’d find it and that in the meantime
I’d enjoy the sense of apprehension.
Some text-book facts were circling in my mind:
the lakes formed by the Mincio which made Mantua
unhealthiest city in all Italy,
The midday gravitas which even bold Mantegna
found obsessively marmoreal, the grim
abutting jokes which Giulio proved sexy.
Yet the Gonzaga, as their Estense neighbours,
lived in the sun and left it up to Shakespeare
to conjure terror for us from their name.
I’d seen King Charles’s pictures bought from
Mantua’s sack, or what we have of them
after Cromwell sold them off – I’d followed
A troop of noisy children just to view
the Pisanello frescoes in the Reggia.
I’d been in Mantua only once before,
And that had been a time I was unhappily in love
and yet felt hopeful – hope meant now just
images and archives and a muffled street.
At last in the swirling vapour of a Bogart movie
I bought my ticket, registering I had
to change at Fornovo, and ate a warm brioche.
I was leaving Mantua. I was curiously content.
I thought of James Wright, who in a sense
I’d wronged, and of his rescue of a bee
Imprisoned in a pear beside the gasworks
outside Mantua, and of his Virgilian tag,
‘the best days are the first to leave.’
As the train pulled out we entered total mist.
We choked along an isthmus, so I thought,
wholly immersed in whiteness like a veil.
‘Smooth-sliding Mincius, crowned with vocal reeds,’
harsh-sliding train carrying one man
beyond all Lycidases to his Luna Park.
Last to leave! May this be my inscription!
Light and no vision, such was better than
a dream, more reassuring than oblivion.
Ahead the Apennines and knowledge that
the sun would penetrate the mist,
the soul, that passenger, stand at last
With few regrets on Platform One, changing trains,
willing to see Mantua again, hoping to make
the last days best, fleeing fast or slow.
Boyd, Arthur; Porter, Peter. 1984. Narcissus. London: Secker and Warburg.
Porter, Peter. 1999. Collected Poems. 2 vols. Oxford and Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
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.