Poetry, Passato and Wolf Teats at Italy’s 150th Compleanno in NYC

02/23/2011 11:24 AM |


A suite of three large, glimmering, gilded chandeliers dangled lightweightily above a handsomely quiet, reserved, attentive crowd last Tuesday in a rather majestic, high-tastefully neoclassical salone in the American Academy in Rome’s Manhattan quarters, where a seasoned audience of readers, writers, translators and scholars had gathered to pay homage to famed Italian poet and Nobel laureate Eugenio Montale through variably voiced, bilingual readings of a thusly doubled couple dozen poems, more or less, culled from several of the writer’s most renowned collections.

The calm run of the evening ebbed and flowed, one might say, like a versified sentence.

Standing between a lectern and an antique, gold-framed mirror—itself hung betwixt two of the room’s many Corinthian-topped, gilded mural pilasters—actor Fausto Lombardi imbued the full sequence of Italian texts with particularly buttery, mezzo-baritonal gravity. The English versions, meanwhile—less oleic, naturally, though exquisitely rendered and presented nonetheless—were read by two of Montale’s most noted translators, Jonathan Galassi and Charles Wright, and by Rosanna Warren, editor of William Arrowsmith’s Montale translations. The alternating vocal registers and reading styles lent themselves well to Montale’s at times oscillatory poetic modes.

Few extraneous comments were made. Each reader presented a different version of “L’Anguilla” (“The Eel”), among other texts. The pacing was slow, fluid, deliberate. The listeners, composed, transfixed. A girl taking photos at stage right was almost the room’s lone source of meta-lecternal motion. Another source, however, just above us all, was the middle of those three ornate chandeliers. Something had somehow, so subtly, set it ever so slightly asway. The gentle stir of metered words, perhaps.

Then wine and fine comestibles in an adjacent room that featured, in its center, a replica of Rome’s mythic Lupa, the She-Wolf, whose teats—typically tug-tended to by plump infants named Romulus and Remus—instead hovered fixedly above a lavish spread of treats. A curious placement, to be sure, though perhaps logical as well, for the evening’s readings and reception might well be summed up as the tits.


While gilded décor and metered words led one to think of Tuesday’s gathering as classy, a related event on Thursday—whose presentational words were meted out, perhaps even censored with a different sort of care—could be called, quite simply, brassy. The third in last week’s succession of gatherings commemorating the 150th anniversary of Italian unification—the second gathering being a Montale conference on Wednesday—Thursday’s lecture, held at the Italian Cultural Institute of New York, was the one intended to most directly address political and historical themes. Helmed by Giuliano Amato, a former parliamentarian and two-time prime minister of Italy (1992-93, 2000-01), with introductions by Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata, Italy’s Ambassador to the US, and Richard Gardner, a former US Ambassador to Italy, the evening’s talk, billed as “Italy: An Old and Unfinished Nation,” was a very delicately parsed, very textbook-like presentation more devoted to the first part of the title than the second. In other words, the lecture was much more about Italy being “old” and storied as opposed to crisis-ridden or “unfinished.” Quite surprisingly, to say the least, Amato and his fellow presenters hardly even alluded to the many deep, indeed potentially grave sociopolitical challenges Italy confronts today. One heard a great deal about how common pasts, common cultures, common sacrifices, common heroes and common horizons are commonly crucial factors in the creation and endurance of nations—all of which is as enduringly rhetorical as it is consistently heartening, particularly in light of today’s various uprisings—yet one heard nearly nothing about the one thing we all have invariably, in some sense, in common: the present tense.

As a result, Amato offered no prescriptions for how Italy might overcome her current woes. This was certainly intentional, for the evening might have otherwise transitioned quite quickly from commemorative to caustic—moreover, Amato’s lecture was essentially under the aegis of the Italian Consulate, whose representatives might not have been awfully keen on the idea of hosting dissenting opinions, as evidenced by the introductory remark that no questions or discussion would be permitted after the talk—but such lacunae were curious, at the very least, and rather unfortunate. Currently a professor of constitutional law in both Italy and the US, and known as an extremely keen and erudite expert on political matters various and sundry—Gardner introduced him as “the most learned man I’ve ever known”—Amato, a stalwart center-leftist, must certainly have sharp opinions on the Italy of today. And for at least some of the evening’s attendees, his insights would have been very welcome.

Instead it was mostly the Italy of yesterday, like Tuesday’s lightly pendular chandelier, that held sway in the commemorative events held last week.

Patrimonies of poetry and culture beneath history’s She-Wolf teats. And B-word-elephants in stately rooms with double-bunga’d feet.

Tuttavia, don’t forget to wish Italy a happy 150th on March 17th. Auguri!