Stories by the “Creative Curious Travellers 2017” about the city of Pistoia. Thanks to: Giorgio Tesi Group | Discover Pistoia | NATURART | La Sala | FAI Giovani – Pistoia | BrickScape.it | Brandini – Pistoia | Comune di Pistoia | Pistoia Italian Capital of Culture 2017.
PISTOIA In the tropical Butterfly House in the gardens of Villa Garzoni there is a piranha. I stand staring for a few moments at the fish with the deadpan face, shimmering reddish yellow scales and huge eyes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a piranha at such close range. Briefly, and with some trepidation, I touch the glass of the aquarium, the glass which separates me and it, the glass which the warmth of my hand and the sweat of my palm seem to stick to. On the other side there is a fish, staring, immobile. A piranha. We exchange looks as if exchanging words during the brief, toxic meeting of two people who hate each other. I can kill you, says the piranha, still immobile. You are nothing. I could chew my way into the innards of that sweaty body of yours in seconds. Do you remember when you made fun of my tiny teeth? Those teeth can skin you live. You feel comfortable and safe on the other side, don’t you? Why don’t you smash the glass?
I remove my hand, as if charged with electric shock, and I have no words. I have no reply to these taunts. I just stand and stare. And just as I think I have something clever to say, the piranha abandons me and moves to another corner of the aquarium. I feel lost. I notice now that there are butterflies all around me. Amazingly beautiful and graceful, of various sizes and colours, they fly in and out of the branches of the tropical trees, some sitting still with their wings glued together, others huddled close, all in a row, sucking on a slice of fruit left for them by their kindly guard in this make believe tropical paradise. The sight of the butterflies eases the pain, slightly – the pain I’ve endured during my encounter with the piranha, a pain as sharp as a deep gash on my skin. For a moment, I imagine that my hand is bleeding and that, upon closer inspection, I can see small teeth marks on it. I decide to admire the butterflies, it’s much safer. And on my way out, avoid looking at the aquarium again – but I know the piranha’s smirking.
At the bus stop, I keep looking at my watch and hope that a bus will arrive, and soon. Buses in the Italian countryside are not so regular, I’ve been told. And very often, nobody really knows when the next one is coming. If you can’t drive on this side of the road, take a chance and take the bus, they said, half-jokingly. You might get to Collodi – and back – in a day. About twelve minutes later I am relieved to see a bus approaching and thankful that it stops. I hop onto the bus at 15:50 and try to explain to the driver, in my broken Italian, that I have no ticket. That there were no shops open, that I asked everywhere and nobody knew where tickets were sold. In my bag I have a little souvenir, a Pinocchio keyring, official merchandise from the Pinocchio Park visited earlier. I want to reassure the driver that I am no liar, that the story really did take place as I told it. I met a piranha, I almost blurt out, and as if he’s read my thoughts his eyebrows shoot up – is it a nervous tic or a gesture of disbelief ? – I am not sure, still being a novice in the art of Italian gestures. In any case, I get on and, piecing together the few words I understand in what he tells me, I figure that I’ll have to get a ticket when we get back to the train station in Pescia.
Once I’ve sat down, I close my eyes and try to take it all in. To remember things that people have told me and start taking mental notes. My mind travels back to Pistoia and the past two days: I have two cats, said the Italian woman. One is blind, the other is the leader. They’re always together. Then I remember that near the Piazza San Francesco there was a heated argument among a group of men. One thin and dishevelled, who looked as if he hasn’t slept or eaten for days and another two who seemed to be reproaching him for something he had done – or not done – ma vai, ma vai, but go, but go, I mentally translated. But go, because you are not telling us what we want to hear.
I am living, on a bus back to Pescia, the story of Pinocchio, the cat, the fox, the liars, the leaders, the led, the misled, Pinocchio’s longing for freedom and the tut-tut-tut of the blue-haired fairy. I told you so, we told you so, ma vai, ma vai… You will pay for the good life you are leading. You will pay for all this, little Pinocchio. And when you hold onto the tunny fish which leads you to the shore, you will think of the piranha at Villa Garzoni, and you will become a real boy.
On my numerous walks in the narrow back streets of Pistoia, in the sweltering heat of July, I long for a drink. Something cold in a tall glass, with ice. Limonata, I ask for in the bar. They offer me Lemon Schweppes. It fizzes out of the can and I think of characters, places, anecdotes. A young Italian couple told me this story: they visited Saint Petersburg last May, a group of twelve of them. They were supposed to have dinner at the hotel restaurant every night, and not a single one of them would touch the food on the dinner table. I had the image in my mind of twelve Italians staring at plates filled with bread, potatoes, cabbage, unable to move their arms to towards this food, to put it onto their plate, to raise their arms, to put the fork into their mouths and eat. The whole eating process was paralysed by this group of twelve Italians who refused to eat food that was not to their standard, twelve Italians whose mouths were watering at the thought of homemade pasta and sauce and red wine. Anything but this. They were probably longing, too, for those rolling Tuscany hills, taken for granted and yet now sorely missed. The young man who recounted this story came from Napoli. He spoke Italian with that slow slur of the south, Godfather-like, reminding me of the films where the Godfather imparts infinite wisdom to his children, grandchildren, relatives, sotto voce.
On the bus to Pescia, I am also revisited by the image of Pasquale, the barman in Piazza della Sala, in blue T-shirt and straw hat, who explained to me that the two qualities that make Italians Italian are that they feel things with passion and that they are furbi. I’m not quite sure what ‘furbi’ means, nor can he explain it to me in English. And the only way to express emotions is to sing, he says. And insists: You must try the panini baked by my nonna. They’re simply the best. And then in the process of the conversation, while trying to explain his thoughts on religion, he tells me something seemingly out of place but incredibly wise: “Imagine a fish in a fish tank in somebody’s living room, in a fish tank positioned in such a way that the fish is in constant view of the kitchen door.” All its life, that fish will see that kitchen door in the same place, every day, opening, closing but nevertheless, a door which will never move or be unhinged, the end of the fish’s point of view. I am reminded, with a shudder, of the piranha.
At an art gallery we try to see things which were expressed by the artist from his or her point of view. However, it is not always possible. Sometimes, it is impossible. At the Marino Marini museum in Pistoia there are horses and riders, and women who represent Mother Earth. He simplified the horse so much that they are no longer recognisable. The cavalieri, the acrobats, the women. I remember the smell of lemons in that museum and a group of handicapped children noisily taking part in an art workshop where they have to reproduce a Marini exhibit in their own way. Their own point of view. In “Prospetto” (1944), there is a curvaceous nude seen from behind, a breast hanging, a cherry-like nipple visible. Seen from a certain angle, who knows, what else the nude has to offer. Life is so long when you look at art.
In the garden of the museum there are groups of Italians speaking loudly on both sides of me – on the left a group of young girls, on my right a group of older women hidden behind a bush. I’m not sure that they are older because I can’t see them, but you can always tell an older voice – even on the phone you can tell an older voice. Even when you can’t see the person, you have some idea about their age. In front of my feet is a plant of red flares reminiscent of geranium and yet it is not geranium. “Hydrangea Paniculata Grandiflora”, says the sign. Geraniums were highly popular accessories when I was young. My friends and I would lick their petals to make them stick onto our nails, allowing us to enter the glamorous world of adult womanhood where all women looked beautiful and had long, long nails glossed with bright pink, bright red, nail varnish. We had no idea back then that we were perhaps becoming the acrobats, young girls dressed as lurid women with colourful stockings, walking the streets of Pistoia at night, young girls entering the night.
Now, sitting in the shade of the tree with enormous roots, facing the ochre walls of the Marini museum, the windows and the arches, I think of the one photo which I’m sure I’ll remember for the rest of my life. It’s the photograph of the artist and his wife at a mountain resort, smiling, their feet sinking in the snow. Mercedes, aka Marina, his partner in life, art, crime, is wearing a huge fur coat. I am haunted, too, by a recording of her voice in the museum. An old woman’s voice has its creaks and halts, like a door whose hinges needs oiling. Marina Marini steps out of the photograph and walks down to the garden to have coffee with us. How do you do? she asks, a little breathlessly. Did you like my husband’s work? This used to be our garden… how do you like it? Hidden deep inside this earth, this garden, there is the figure of the mother earth, with her legs open, we buried her here with my husband. She says enter me, enter me, as if you enter life. Here you were conceived, and here you will die.
A young man joins the group of girls. He shakes hands with them and kisses them all in turn. When he sits down, he offers them cigarettes. Some decline, some accept, and the girls carry on talking as before. A young man and his harem, and I have no idea what they’re talking about. They could be having a Turkish bath invisible to the others. They are totally naked, the girls are laughing, the young man is touching their necks, arms, breasts, thighs. They are Italian and live passionately. To get to the Turkish bath they have been on the path which starts off with ‘eaven, leads to purgatory and ends up in ‘ell. I smile as I remember the exact instructions given to me by the receptionist, a few days ago, at Grotta Giusti in Monsummano Terme. “Five minutes in ‘eaven, Signora. Then five minutes in purgatory, and forty minutes in ‘ell. Please make sure you are back in fifty minutes.” Two hundred metres below the earth, in the miraculous cave, with rivulets of sweat running down my body I felt as if I was being emptied of everything that ever weighed me down. And yet, to the naked eye, I was suffering. The piranha was laughing. I was roasting in hell.
Butterfly House, Collodi – Pistoia | photo: Federica Santini