It was a relief to come to Pisa, though the train trip was enlivened by a pair of Africans vendors, returning to Cascina, shouting their native language into their cellphones. I politely signaled to one of them by putting by finger to my lips. He turned his shouting to me and informed me "Sto parlando al telefono," as if that justified him in driving people crazy. I shook my head and told him, "meno rumoroso" and, though he vociferously denied any obligation to be quiet, he did cut the volume in half. His traveling companion could not quite figure out how to work the headphones on his not-too-smart phone and periodically we were treated to blasts of what sounded more Arab or Egyptian than African music. They seemed too dark to be Somali, but, then, what do I know.
The sun was shining in Pisa, the queen of maritime republics, and we did little more than ensconce ourselves in a pleasant and sunny apartment on Via San Frediano. Frediano is one of those Tuscan saints (like Santa Reparata), who got displaced in popularity by more universally known figures, though he is still a strong presence in Lucca. I don't recall anything of him except the fact that he was a 6th century Irish bishop of Lucca, who (I believe) is credited with diverting a river, to the benefit of Lucca at the expense of Pisa. The Pisans appear not to have resented the miracle, and the church of S Frediano is only a few doors down. I intend to visit it as soon as I find it open.
We are staying almost across from the street from our favorite cheap restaurant in Pisa, La Tana, which, with its wood-fired oven makes pretty good pizza. The first time we went there--with two children back in 1988--the place was dominated by EMT workers and city employees with some sort of credit system. Over the years, it has grown, and there is even a rather modern large dining room I don't like. I am hoping the food has not gone down in inverse proportion to their growth in prosperity and opulence.
Last night we ate at one of the places we are going to use for the group, the Osteria del Tinti, in an alley just off the Borgo Stretto (the ancient narrow arcaded shopping street). I'd walked by this place dozens of times and decided against trying it--from the outside it seemed a bit scruffy. When I poked my head in about 6:30, though, to check if they were open Sunday evening, it seemed decent enough, though just as scruffy. We dined well and fairly cheaply. Srdja Trifkovic drove over from Lucca, and he talked me into a zuppa of ceci (chickpeas) and baccalà, reminding me of the times when he would drive up from Chicago during Orthodox Lent and prepare wonderful seafood dinners. Finally a priest friend, Father Dennis Pavicevic, informed him that Lent was really not designed to encourage extravagant fish dinners. I could not finish the zuppa--perhaps it was all the lampredotto I'd eaten for lunch--and was content to take a piece of my wife's pork. Srdja, amazingly, finished off a large plate of cinghiale in the Maremma style and some of one of our companions' pork. I was awe stricken when, after refusing un dolce, he got talked into a sort of gelato which was really frozen panna (heavy cream). I contented myself with the usual grappa. The wine was a simple red from Pisa, "Aliotto," mostly San Giovese. I had never thought much of Pisan reds, but this was more than drinkable.I walked my wife to her Italian school early this morning. We stopped for coffee with a friend, also attending the school, and the waitress scolded him for spending only a week. In my wife's defense, she has been doing a good deal of study for the past two years. After walking her to the first day of Italian kindergarten, I took a stroll. I have always found the Arno beautiful, looking upstream from the Ponte Solferino. For years, I thought that this was my own secret, how beautifully the river curved, until I read Leopardi's famous remark.
"L'aspetto di Pisa mi piace assai più di quel di Firenze. Questo lungarno è uno spettacolo così bello, così ampio, cosô magnifico, così gaio, così ridente che innamora: non ho veduto niente di simile ne a Firenze ne a Milano, ne a Roma, e veramente non so se in tutta l'Europa si trovino vedute di questa sorta."
Shelley's best poem was written from what used to be the next bridge toward the sea. I'll have more to say, later, on both Leopardi and Shelley in Pisa, but here is Shelley's poem, with one line unfinished. I've tried to finish it and even came up with a line with a rhyming word Shelley had used in the past, but he really had boxed himself in.
EVENING, PONTE AL MARE, PISA
The sun is set; the swallows are asleep;
The bats are flitting fast in the gray air;
The slow soft toads out of damp corners creep,
And evening's breath, wandering here and there
Over the quivering surface of the stream,
Wakes not one ripple from its summer dream.
There is no dew on the dry grass to-night,
Nor damp within the shadow of the trees;
The wind is intermitting, dry, and light;
And in the inconstant motion of the breeze
The dust and straws are driven up and down,
And whirled about the pavement of the town.
Within the surface of the fleeting river
The wrinkled image of the city lay,
Immovably unquiet, and forever
It trembles, but it never fades away;
You, being changed, will find it then as now.
The chasm in which the sun has sunk is shut
By darkest barriers of cinereous cloud,
Like mountain over mountain huddled - but
Growing and moving upwards in a crowd,
And over it a space of watery blue,
Which the keen evening star is shining through.
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.