travelers-tales

By Gary Singh

Seventeenth Annual Solas Award Gold Winner in the Travel & Transformation category

At the Casa Pascoli Museum in San Mauro, Italy, I found a posthumous ally.

Over the years, I had written several travel stories “walking in the footsteps” of deceased writers. Abandoned buildings and old haunts, long-gone locales, gravesites, and the outskirts of history all inspired me more than contemporary attractions. I didn’t care about four-star restaurants in Venice. I wanted to raise the ghosts.

Many of these stories were contrivances—art for art’s sake—but something about the process must have served a healing purpose. I never thought about it, therapeutically speaking, until I explored Casa Pascoli.

One of Italy’s most famous poets, Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912), devoted numerous lines to his birthplace, a humble family house with a colorful aromatic garden. He spent the first seven years of his life in this house, about 12 miles from the Adriatic Sea. Much of it was reconstructed following WWII, but one room remained intact, just as it was at the time of the poet’s birth.

I had no idea what to expect when I arrived. In front of the house, the street ran almost flush with the cobblestone sidewalk. The building wore a solid white façade with dark green shutters. Above the front door, just to the right, I noticed a century-old plaque embossed with faded lines from Pascoli’s poem, Casa Mia: “A house silent in the pure evening, as roses climbed the wall.” To the left of the house, a wrought iron gate flanked by brickwork led directly to the garden.

Since Pascoli helped launch the entire trajectory of modern Italian verse in the 20th century, the house was declared a landmark in 1924. Eight years later, his home town was renamed San Mauro Pascoli. Even today, almost every native Italian can rattle off a few lines of Pascoli, if not entire poems, but he remains relatively unknown in the English-speaking world.

Inside, text panels and somber sepia photographs explained Giovanni’s life story throughout several rooms. Above all else, it was his tragic childhood that enlightened my visit. When Giovanni was 11 years old in 1867, his father Ruggero was gunned down as he rode home alone in a horse-drawn carriage. The assassin crouched behind a bush and then waited for the carriage before pulling the trigger. The horse, a dapple-gray mare, remembered the way home, so she continued for another several minutes on what was then a dirt road, eventually arriving with Ruggero’s corpse, leaving the family to discover the tragedy. The killer was never brought to justice.

As if that were not enough, Giovanni also lost his mother and three of his siblings, all before he was even 21. It’s said his mother died of heartbreak. His father’s death formed the central core, with each subsequent loss rippling outward like emergent waves after one throws a stone into the water. The resulting trauma helped shape his poetic oeuvre for the rest of his life.

Decades earlier, I’d lost my own father when I was 16. He was already close to drinking himself to death when we discovered him on the sidewalk in front of our suburban California tract house after he’d fallen. What’s more, my dad was not the only tragic loss in my life. Eleven years later, my best friend during college collapsed unexpectedly while watching television. Thankfully, learning about Giovanni’s life in the house where he was born did not reopen old wounds. In fact, I was inspired.

On one hand, at least from my experience, you never totally heal from emotional trauma. You just develop a more productive relationship with it. Even though I’d long since learned how to manage these things, various flavors of abandonment still agitated my nervous system every so often. Trivial rejections might elicit vastly disproportionate dimensions of heartbreak. Over the years, though, I’d discovered through my own writings and travels that whenever I encountered other notable writers who transformed similar losses into creativity, it helped me improve my own rapport with trauma. Just learning about the person’s journey generated a tremendous sense of relief, a reminder that I wasn’t alone.

Although the culprit who shot Giovanni’s father Ruggero was never found, the Pascoli family always claimed they knew who ordered the hit, which is why one entire room of the museum was now dedicated to the story. So I dove in.

A touch-screen display was laid out horizontally in the middle of the room, encased within a white table. The display revealed computerized line-based imagery of dirt roads, green shrubbery, various farming estates, nearby community buildings and the surrounding landscape—all allowing participants to trace the entire course of events from the fateful night of August 10, 1867, via clickable nodal points along the path taken by the carriage. On the wall, several more posters and accompanying text panels explained the details.

No one would explore this room and come away a fan of Pietro Cacciaguerra, a land baron who supposedly wanted Ruggero Pascoli bumped off so Cacciaguerra could replace him as administrator of the Torloni Estate, which he later did. Ruggero was also sympathetic to the monarchy, putting him out of favor with Cacciaguerra’s circle of operators. There were land battles, nobles who did business with the pope, and mafia-style syndicates that ran goods from town to town. From his administrative position, Ruggero was a threat to all such activity, so Cacciaguerra needed him dead, plain and simple.

As a result of the family losses, Giovanni dealt with tremendous pain for the rest of his life. Trouble never seemed far away. He drew attention from the police for his interest in the fledgling socialist movements of his time. He went to jail for a few months in Bologna, where someone poisoned him. He received anonymous letters threatening any investigation of his father’s murder. It took nine years for him to get a university diploma.

All that talk about the absentee father syndrome leading to the son’s rootless, directionless life of indecision? Yeah, maybe that was me too—11 years of college in my case—although I’d never really dwelled on this detail. Until now.

There was more, of course. Giovanni’s relationships with his remaining sisters were forever strained. He didn’t attend one sister’s wedding. Another one perpetually tried to sponge money off him. Even with a prestigious university teaching position, his life was troubled. He never married and eventually died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1912.

Despite it all, Giovanni went down in history as a beloved poet of memory, of simple things, of landscapes, objects and aromas, especially in his early work. Even though he taught Latin and Greek, he had no use for academic language or flowery prose. Instead, he prioritized the beauty of the everyday. His first book, Myricae, after the Latin word Tamerici—Tamerisk in English—took inspiration from invasive bushes that produced gorgeous flowers. Referencing Virgil, Pascoli subtitled the collection with, “arbusta iuvant humilesque myricae,” dedicated to the ordinary shrubs and humble tamarisks that “no one likes,” but nevertheless deserved their glory—my kind of metaphor.

Even as Pascoli achieved household notoriety for decades, nothing assured me of his posthumous popularity more than one particular room, where I saw signatures from numerous Italian politicians who had stopped by to leave their regards throughout the course of the 20th century. Along the length of one wall, right next to an old black radiator heater, I saw an ornate wooden museum-style display dresser, about six feet long and three feet high, with four slanted panes of glass on top. Underneath the glass were various photocopies of museum letterhead. Each piece of regal-looking parchment, taken from visitors’ logs over the decades, listed several signatures.

The roster was impressive. Prime Minister Aldo Moro stopped by sometime in the 1970s, before he was later kidnapped and murdered. Pietro Nenni, the writer and socialist politician, a legendary figure of the Italian left, dropped by in 1967 while serving as Deputy Prime Minister. Sandro Pertini came over in 1972, just ten years before he famously attended Italy’s victory in the 1982 World Cup Final as president of the country. King Umberto II also signed the visitor’s log. His name was right there among the rest. In 1924, Mussolini even rode his bicycle over to the house and signed his name.

The selection of signatures was a haunting testimonial, as if the entirety of 20th century Italian political history was right there in front of me, all united around an appreciation of Giovanni Pascoli. Poetry clearly triumphed over politics.

The tragic murder of Pascoli’s father and its impact on his poetic career had never left mainstream Italian consciousness. Every native I met seemed to know at least the basic story. Conspiracy theories still percolated. Throughout the 20th century, movies, plays, novels and goth websites all riffed on the narrative. More recently, in 2017, to mark the 150th anniversary of Ruggero’s murder, a mosaic monument of a horse was installed right at the intersection where the homicide took place, just a few miles down the road.

The rest of the house was eerie and gorgeous. Maybe it was the cold stone flooring. Or the somber family photos in their faded sepia glory. Or the period-era writing desk and framed funeral notices. In one corner there was even an empty children’s bed with a clean white sheet turned over at the corner, as if waiting for me to slide in.

I took a deep breath because now it all started to make sense. There was a reason I walked in the footsteps of so many dead writers, a reason I contrived those types of stories. I was learning how to experience people like Pascoli as ancestral allies. They didn’t need to be literal ancestors. They were creative ancestors, poetic ancestors, whose journeys helped me improve my relationship to my own loss, my own dissociation. It felt productive. I had not wasted a second of my life. Sure, feelings of loss and trauma would never completely disappear, they would still emerge every so often, but my relationship to them was friendlier these days.

I didn’t spend 15 hours on airplanes and another few on trains just to stand here and work on my own trauma. But learning more about Giovanni’s early experiences with death and heartbreak, and how it all continued to surface in his poetry, not only reinforced the universality of grief, but also the transcending of that grief through the artistic journey, a natural process deployed by people of all generations, cultures and languages. I was in the right place. I was on the right path in life. I was meant to be here.

The cold white walls of Casa Pascoli reminded me that we were all in the same skin. The museum was not just a destination for Giovanni’s fans. It was also cathartic and liberating for anyone who’d experienced heartbreak at a young age. If I could transport myself back to the turn of the century, I would tell Giovanni it’s possible to improve one’s relationship to trauma. One shouldn’t expect a perfect arrival point where everything is healed. You just gradually became better buddies with the grief. A hundred years later, Giovanni’s journey would still inspire people. That’s what I’d tell him. His journey deserved to be heard, not just in Italy, but everywhere.

I walked back out the front door, veered right, went through the gate and into the garden. The sun was high in the sky, throwing shadows every which direction. A slight breeze blew through the yard. Giovanni was not buried here, but a large bust of him was perched on a six-foot-tall marble plinth in the middle of the garden. A knee-high wrought-iron fence surrounded the plinth, with red roses and greenery filling in between.

Various colors and flavors of foliage populated the garden. At one bush, I lifted a flimsy branch of leaves to my nose and breathed in a strong lemon scent. A placard nearly obscured by the bush told me it was cedrina. Pascoli always remembered this scent from his youth, the lemon scent. As a kid, his clothes were often dirty, so his mom used this flower to clean his clothes. He mentioned the scent in poems. For many years he even carried with him a small jar containing the cedrina herbs, just to retain the memory of his boyhood home and his deceased parents.

This made sense. I too had saved a few artifacts from my dad’s life, so I related to these emotions, but I never really thought about it until I stood in the garden outside Casa Pascoli.

The ghost of Giovanni had cleared a path for me to arrive and wander around this house and this garden, the same places he later immortalized in his work. He knew I was coming. He was a posthumous ally.

Before leaving, I took one more whiff of cedrina and yanked off a few leaves to put in my pocket. I closed the gate and made my way down the road.

~~~

Gary Singh’s byline has appeared over 1400 times, including in newspaper columns, travel essays, art and music criticism, profiles, business journalism, lifestyle articles, poetry and short fiction. He is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy and was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. An anthology of his local newspaper columns, Silicon Alleys, was published in 2020.

Read more of Gary’s writing at www.garysingh.info