Un Matrimonio nel Mezzogiorno

Notes on an Italian wedding

Rome/Vallo della Lucania, June 2021

The show seemed familiar enough. Shiny-faced contestants, under the unremitting glare of the studio lights, stood on a neon stage answering questions in pursuit of a cash prize. The contestant, a young man with inky hair and a winning smile, was doing well. His task was to fill in the blanks of a half completed word after having been given a clue by the host, who sported the familiar expression of the TV quiz-show compere: part rictus grin, part barely concealed impatience at the contestant’s obtuseness, part incredulity at having accepted the gig.

The novelty came when the young man arrived at an impasse. As the clock ran down, he stared open-mouthed at the clue. Nothing. The host perked up and started to exude genuine excitement. 15 seconds. Desperate answers were proffered. Sbagliato. Incorrect. The host counted down. 5 seconds. The young man’s face became contorted into a grimace. 3, 2, 1…zero. A klaxon, a flashing of lights and then the ground beneath the benighted youngster gave way, and he plummeted through the floor out of sight, presumably onto a heap of hapless ex-contestants. There followed a slow-motion replay of his descent and a touching interview with his mother, disappointed but indisputably proud. Roll credits.

This was Caduta libera (Free Fall), broadcast by Mediaset, Italy’s largest media corporation (founder: Berlusconi). Much has been written about the tawdry sensationalism of Italian television, and much of this criticism is spot on, with Mediaset having for years doled out the kind of trash with which viewers of US and British television are now accustomed. And indeed the show somehow felt like an avatar for modern Italy, a microcosm of the country in light and in shade. Frivolous, a bit silly, even at times ridiculous – but for all that, colourful and exuberant and unpredicatable.

Valentina and I were in Italy for the wedding of Anelina, Valentina’s sister, in their hometown Vallo della Lucania, in the Cilento region of Campania. The trip was laden with expectation. This was our first time in Italy since the pandemic and its attendent lockdowns. After 15 months, it felt like a homecoming, a return to Rome and to the south, a festive occassion after a year and more of tedium and life lived only virtually. I didn’t want adventure, I wanted normality; those pleasures, like seeing family and foreign travel, which had formerly been taken for granted, were now luxuries, the nonchalant beneficence of an ancient deity. During the bleaker days of 2020, of which there were far too many, there was ample time to reflect on that which made life rich and valuable. Along with the obvious, it was Italy – its culture, its language – which stood out for me as that which brought contentment and purpose.

Italy’s brutal pandemic added further significance to our visit. The announcement of the death toll from the country was, back in April 2020, a frightening nightly ritual which was eventually abandonded in the vain hope that by ignoring it, it would go away. Now that we have grown accustomed to the virus, it is easy to forget how terrible those early weeks were. Later, living under the second or third of Britain’s national lockdowns, my mind would return to a news item I had seen in Italy in March, just as the pandemic was getting underway in earnest. It was a report from the Venice carnival: the carnival’s organiser was defiantly resisting calls to cancel the festivities on the grounds of public health. Total Italian deaths at the time were 7. Now, we were returning to a different Italy, one chastened and fearful and jumpy. I was eager to discover whether the country’s inherent ebullience had endured.

I’d been to a wedding in Italy before, but never to an Italian wedding. This, I felt sure, would be different, though I had no clear notion of what to expect. By the week’s end I was capable of producing a how-to guide for foreign guests at Italian weddings. Consider the following a useful précis: smile, don’t neck the wine and say thank-you.

The Vittoriano as seen from Trajan’s Forum

Before we headed south for the ceremony, a few days in Rome. The Eternal City has a curious smell. It’s a mixture of cigarette smoke, rubbish, cooking oil and petrol. I adore it. Smell is apparently the sense most effective at stimulating memory, and this noxious mixture reminds me that I am where I want to be. Another staple of the city of which I am fond is the stone pine, a lanky but elegant fixture of Roman streets. Native to North Africa and the Levant, it hangs over the city’s cobblestones like an elderly patrician guardian, aloof and aristocratic, a reminder of former glories.

We were staying in Monti, on the steep hill overlooking the Colosseum. The Euros were on, lending a vague sense of restless energy to the city’s bars and restaurants. As an unabashed football fan, who with predictable ease finds himself every two years swept up in the mania of international tournaments, I was tempted to plonk myself in front of the tele and watch the games. I even kidded myself that by watching the matches here in Italy, I’d be able to learn the language a little better, too. But my conscience didn’t let that one slip past, and anyway time was scarce. Off to see the sights it was, then.

Velázquez, Portrait of Innocent X (c. 1650), Galleria Doria Pamphilij

Today, the Barberini and Borghese families linger on, though the palaces which their forebears built and which beautify Rome are no longer in their possession. But the Doria Pamphili remain the custodians of their handsome palazzo on the Via del Corso. Their collection contains works by Caravaggio, Bernini, Titian and Velázquez, whose Portrait of Innocent X is kept apart in a room of its own, with only the exalted company of Bernini’s portrait bust of the same pope for company. It’s hard to overstate how powerful it is to see this work up close. Innocent – Giovanni Doria Pamphili – told Velázquez ‘È troppo vero!’ (‘It’s too true!’) upon its completion. Velázquez’s genius is in giving us a portrait that captures not just the likeness of the sitter, but also that sitter’s character: proud, belligerent, suspicious, brimming with intelligence but no stranger to dirty tricks. It took effort to come away from it.

Another piece in the Doria-Pamphili stays with me. Caravaggio’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt is a strange work, containing one of the few glimpses in any of the artist’s oeuvre of landscape. The Holy Family, fleeing Herod’s decree, pause for rest, exhausted. An almost-nude angel plays the viol before a beleagured, haggard Joseph, who holds up the angel’s sheet music. It is not among Caravagio’s most admired works, but it features one of the most delicate and tender depictions of the Virgin and Child I’ve ever seen, with the Virgin embracing the infant Christ with palpable motherly love.

Caravaggio, The Rest on the Flight Into Egypt (c.1597), Galleria Doria Pamphilij

Florence, Ken Clark wrote in Civilisation, is a city of ‘hard heads, sharp wits, light feet, graceful movement’. Rome, meanwhile, is ‘a city of weight, a city that is like a huge compost-heap of human hopes and ambitions, despoiled of its ornament, almost indecipherable, a wilderness of imperial splendour’. To move from the former to the latter is to abandon the place of ‘free and active men’ and arrive in ‘a world of giants and heroes’. In antiquity, these giants and heroes were Apollo, Minerva, Jupiter and Venus. From the end of antiquity until the twentieth century, these luminaries were supplanted by martyrs and saints, with homes in the forms of basilicas erected in their name. One honorific church, Sant’Ignazio, is one of those enormous baroque churches in which Rome specialises, its façade larger than the piazza over which it towers. At midnight on our final night before we ventured south, we found the doors open and, in that tentative, self-conscious air that one always adopts in a church, wandered in.

Sant’Ignazio is Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, renowned for their counter-reformation zealotry. Being English, and therefore considering suspect anything that smacks of ostentation, it took a while to adjust to the church’s extraordinary decorative schema. The interior is vast, like the hull of a great ship; massive pillars divide the nave from the yawning aisles and elaborately decorated chapels, each strewn with relics, portrait busts, canvases, effigies, crucifixes, columns, altars and gilded statuary combined in a bric-a-brac of Baroque energy. The trompe l’oeil ceiling fresco by Andrea Pozzo exacerbates the sensation of having entered an exalted sphere, an unworldy abode. Magnificent as the church was, walking among the effigies had a depressing effect, and it was a relief to return to the hustle of life outdoors.

One of Rome’s special areas is its Jewish quarter, the Ghetto. The last of Italy’s Jewish Ghettos to close, it runs from the Theatre of Marcellus to Arenula, and features kosher restaurants, a Jewish school and the Tempio Maggiore, Rome’s great square-domed synagogue. For hundreds of years the area was walled off, and Jews were forced to live, work and die in overcrowded, filthy conditions, among other regular indignities. It was therefore intensely moving to see on a Saturday night a line of Jews filing into the Tempio. Jews have lived in Rome for thousands of years, and their treatment has for great swathes of that time been appalling. So it was heartening to see their perseverance and survival. Though it is unsurprising, there should be far more indignation and outrage that Jews still, in the 21st century, have to worship under armed guard in Europe. It is disgraceful that an army truck should have to be present to ward off the deranged and that this should be accepted as normal. The army and police presence is understandable; but there ought to be more shame that it is still considered necessary. I left Rome the following day acutely conscious of the leaden weight of history in Italy that still makes its presence felt in daily life.

Mezzogiorno means ‘midday’, but it is also doubles as a synonym to describe the regions and provinces that make up the south of Italy, where the steady, unrelenting heat of the noon sun is most potent. Southern Italy is so riven by cliché that its gastronomic and social offerings are renowned world over: pizza, sun-drenched piazzas, geriatrics propped up by walking sticks. This was only my second visit, and my first in the summer. I wondered, as I boarded the train from Roma Termini, the degree to which my preconceptions would be challenged.

Every now and again, it is a relief and a pleasure to have one’s stereotypes confirmed. The sun was without mercy, the food was fresh, tasty and dished out in generous portions and the people were hospitable and warm, eyeing me with curiosity but without malice. Ambitious young Italians born in the Mezzogiorno usually flee, either to the more prosperous north or abroad. The majority of the younger wedding guests were either coming from France, the UK or Bologna and Milan. Older guests lived locally.

A place can be transformed by seeing it a different season. On a previous railway journey to Naples on a December afternoon, the squat, rusted apartments flanking the tracks looked beyond redemption. Tired and old, the windows were like sockets without eyes, and the clothes hanging pathetically from makeshift washing lines looked like bandages covering a withered body. In the suburbs, the train slowed as if anxious lest it make itself conspicuous. Mid-afternoon on a weekday in June and these same suburbs appeared less formidable. In the light of the summer sun, the crumbling façades now seemed deliberate, an emblem of easy idleness conveyed in brick and mortar.

Vallo della Lucania, too, was prettier and more wholesome in the summer. Though nothing like Naples, there was something subdued and resigned about it when I first visited on a Christmas Eve. This time, disembarking from a coach that wound through hillsides blanketed in trees, the intensity of the sun was like a welcome hug. Vallo’s main square, piazza Vittorio Emanuele, was full of life, something especially welcome after a year of forced isolation, the old sitting around chatting, the young in the bars and the kids playing football till late by the piazza’s fountain. It was a Hollywood version of rustic Italian life, but better because it was real and without affectation.

Vallo della Lucania at dusk

Drifting around Vallo, I encountered the irredeemably foreign. Posters announcing the deaths of family members, usually accompanied by an image of the Madonna or Padre Pio, and occasionally Christ, adorned noticeboards across town; a PA system that blared out, every evening, the service at the cathedral of San Pantaleone; the easy cohabitation of the shared civic space by the young and the old.

Of course, there were other, more prosaic reminders that I was on foreign soil. These tended to be more in the form of absences and omissions. At 1am, for instance, the revellers in piazza Vittorio Emanuele were talking amongst themselves with easygoing charm over cocktails. Where were the brawlers, the police, the inebriated insults? Whither the paramedics tending to teenagers sprawled on the pavement, the curry sauce stained t-shirts and the wail of sirens? Being irremediably English, I cannot claim to be entirely disconnected from such behaviour, nor to have had no part in perpetuating our reputation abroad for uncultured boorishness. But it was striking just how different young Italians went about having a good time in contrast to their English contemporaries. I noted that I was free of that slight trepidation that accompanies any night out in an English town.

That pervasive feeling of difference was also manifest on the wedding day itself. It was a novelty to attend a wedding reception where the chief objective of the bride, groom and guests was not to set about getting plastered. The atmosphere, I discovered, was convivial, calm and respectful. The head waiter introduced the wines to the assembled company as if introducing distinguished guests. Each bottle was lifted aloft as the merits and demerits of matching it to certain dishes was loving explained. Mindful that I was a stranger to most present, I was on my best behaviour. Nevertheless, I still had to smother the sensation of panic that flared within me when I realised that the absence of beer was not, as I had thought, a temporary oversight, but merely a reflection of it being deemed surplus to requirements. The habits of a lifetime in England, even in continental surroundings, remained diligently attached to the roots of my being. I quickly got over my wobble by tucking into the nine-course meal that ensued. It was around dish number seven, lemon sorbet, that I began to flag. When a peppercorn steak was lowered before me seconds later, I grasped the seriousness of my situation. The torpid air of the late afternoon was not helping. I limped outside and, resisting the urge to tear off my braces and shirt (the buttons of which were almost audibly creaking), kick off my shoes, and collapse face down in the shade, managed to rally and returned revitalised for further food and more wine.

The bride and groom, following the ceremony at Vallo’s town hall

And that was that – no dancing, no boozy revelry, no drunken uncle doing the worm across a dancefloor. It was understated, and full of…restraint. The guests left the wedding reception in the late afternoon having exerted – contrary to the stereotype – no overwhelming display of emotion or sentimentality. I’m minded to think, probably incorrectly, that most English weddings were once conducted in something like a similar fashion.

Provincialism, in England, is a dirty word. In Italy, as elsewhere in Europe, it doesn’t pack quite the same pejorative punch. At the close of his excellent The Pursuit of Italy, David Gilmour quotes at length the journalist Beppe Severgnini on the qualities Italians look for in their towns and villages.

In a small town, we don’t just want a congenial barber and well-stocked news-stand. We want professionally made coffee and a proper pizza. We want a couple of streets to stroll down, an avenue to jog along, a pool to swim in and a cinema for entertainment. We want a functioning courthouse, a reassuring hospital, a consoling church and an unintimidating cemetery...We want football fields and town councillors we can pester in the bar. We want mountains beyond the level crossing when the weather’s good and the air is clear. We want footsteps on cobbled streets in the night, yellow lights to tinge the mist and bell towers we can recognize from a distance. We want doctors and lawyers who can translate abstract concepts into our dialect – my father can – and people with a kind word and a smile for everyone.

All of which, though no doubt quixotic, seem perfectly reasonable human ambitions. These goals are shared by many Italians, and they reveal much about their national character, which includes a reluctance, so often absent in northern Europe, to go about destroying their architectual heritage. This same spirit of reason and clearheadedness was in evidence at the wedding. It was not unwelcome to find my expectation of grandiosity and emotional incontinence punctured by a ceremony that with deliberate simplicity, celebrated love.

Jake Plenderleith

Writer and editor, passionate about Rome.

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