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The Grit, the Grime, and the Glory

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By:Thomas Fleming | January 08, 2014
January 8
 
I first came to Pisa in 1988. Christian Kopff had persuaded me to apply to make a joint-presentation of work that grew out of my dissertation on the colometry of Aeschylus.  Feel free to skip this tedious pedantic digression:
 
What is colometry? Perhaps it is better not to ask, but, properly speaking, colometry is the measurement and thus analysis of the lyric lines of Greek dramatic and lyric poetry. My thesis was that nearly all modern work on colometry was based on false historical assumptions that left the entire field open to idle and fruitless speculation of the sort practiced by the most important scholars in the field. With historical evidence, I argued, it was better to say nothing. However, there was historical evidence that could be disinterred from Byzantine manuscripts, which are confirmed for the most part my ancient papyri. Even friendly scholars scoffed--"There's nothing in it," Lloyd-Jones told me, because Wilamowitz and company had proved that all evidence of 5th century music had disappeared. After our presentation, a strong objection was made by the great Bruno Gentili, who did concede that while my thesis was probably incorrect or overstated, the work we were doing was of the utmost importance. Since then, dissertation after dissertation has confirmed my thesis. For a time I was treated as a grand old man, but more recently the younger PhD's take it all for granted. That is how you know you have won.
 
Even in that first week some 25 years ago, I noticed that there were really two Pisas. I don't mean in the ordinary sense that Pisa has a centro storico, an industrial zone, university neighborhoods, shopping streets, etc., but that more than any comparable city I know Pisa is divided between one great tourist attraction--the Piazza dei Miracoli--and everything else, including churches, university, and shopping. Most visitors either arrive by buses that park in a lot a few blocks outside the northern wall of the city and spend only a few minutes running the gauntlet of tourist shops and bad restaurants to get to the Piazza or by train in which case they either take a bus or cross the bridge and walk up the Via Santa Maria, running the gauntlet of greed and cynicism typical of places like Assisi, the Vatican, and the Campo in Siena. Of course, the piazza is worth the walk and the ugly spectacle, because duomo, baptistery, campanile, and Camposanto constitute probably the most beautiful collection--and most appropriately sited--buildings in the world.
 
But today I am going to talk a bit about the other Pisa, which is not well maintained and does not have efficient ticket offices, posted hours, and guided tours. The other Pisa, the everyday Pisa is grimier and grittier, albeit almost as beautiful in its down-market and neglected way. The city is kept fairly clean, true, but even Palermo is more busily restoring its old buildings. The neighborhood near the station is typical. There is a fine Posta and some unusual buildings, but also some dirty alleys and the 2 star Hotel Roseto where I spent two uncomfortable and hot days over 20 years ago, smelling the family's unTuscan cooking and hearing their TV at all hours.
 
Why do I prefer unrestored broken down cities to Rockefellerized fantasies like Williamsburg or that painted ugly delusion known as Southern California? Partly it is because the object of restoration, as my late friend Thomas Molnar once wrote, is to wipe out the intervening centuries, between the time a work of art or building was finished and the present. In the case of some masterpieces, the attempt is reasonable, but restorations are often flops. Da Vinci's Last Supper was not merely damaged by the restorers: It was completely ruined and will never be seen again. (It's a long story.) The restoration of the island of Ortygia, on the other hand, was long overdue, and there is still enough grime to remind you where you are (Sicily). As Tennyson's Ulysses boasted, "I am a part of all that I have met," and this includes the violent and the ugly--and what could be uglier than aging?-- then I for one am willing to embrace it all, warts, grey hairs, failing eyes, stiff knees, grimy painting, crumbling neighborhoods--all. Yes, I take glucosamine and vitamin supplements and keep active--in the same way I applaud the clean-up of neighborhoods and the cautious restoration of buildings. But the way these moderns go about it, it's as if they are trying to wish away time and, ultimately, death. Una nox dormienda.
 
In the other Pisa, no one sells you a ticket and rarely bothers to open anything up according to posted hours, that is, if there are posted hours. Yesterday, for example, after depositing my student-wife, I walked for over two hours, first in "Kinzica"--the altrarno part of the city across the river from the university and the Piazza. Sant'Antonio? Chiuso. San Domenico? Chiuso. San Sepolcro, the curious octagonal church just off the Arno? Chiuso. Well, most of them are better on the outside, anyway. I did make it into San Martino and then, after walking through the Giardino Scotto near where the Shelleys lived, I crossed the river to walk by Byron's residence, now the State Archive, and wandered around San Francesco (a spacious Franciscan church) and Santa Caterina, with its lovely stained glass windows and the tomb of a Dominican magnificently crafted by Nino (son of Andrea) Pisano.
 
By then it was time to pick up the student, and we wandered around the public mercato off the Borgo Stretto, where we went into Carne Maurizio and bought a chicken--head, guts, claws and all--for supper, as well as some prosciutto. At a vegetable stall we got some potatoes, some tangerine-like fruit, and capocchini (a multi-colored salad green with strong flavor), bread, prosciutto. Maurizio asked if we wanted "nostro prosciutto" or prosciutto di Parma. I interpreted "nostro" as locally made and answered "il locale," which he corrected by saying with just a slight emphasis of pride, "Che io ho fatto--è più saporito" (Which I made--more flavorful.) As, indeed, it is. At a very nice shop our son the chef photographed two years ago, we got salami we did not need, a loaf of excellent Tuscan bread, and some pecorino toscano. Later we returned for some vin santo and biscotti (brutti/buoni and cantucci). Gail, after dismembering and disemboweling the chicken with a dull steak knife, made an excellent simple dinner for the three of us (Jim Easton is with us here). No pasta, no grappa.
 
Pisa was always a gritty place. They made their living off trade, piracy, and war--not always distinguishing among these three. They carried courage and independence to an extreme that seemed insane to their neighbors. More on this point later.

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