#14 developing the story…

It was a beautiful spring day in the year of our Lord 1849, during the brief life of the Roman Republic. A group of soldiers arrive in a village in the Sabina region, in search of young men to fight with Garibaldi against the French troops, in defence of the new republic… There follows a brief encounter between the soldiers and the townspeople, between different stories and experiences, and conflicting ideas of belonging…

It was obvious that the story could not be contemporary. The only possible contemporary story would be the story of the ‘foreigner discovering the town’. Mercifully, that is an act of self-centredness I would not entertain. Setting the story historically was the obvious solution, and I thought it needed to be sufficiently far in the past that there would be no living memory of the period. My knowledge of that past time would then be gained in the same way that Italians do, through history, through reading.

I already knew quite a bit about the Risorgimento, although I would acknowledge now, I knew less than I thought I did! I did not know much about life in the Sabina region during that period, so finding out about that constituted much of my research. Some of the events in the long history towards Italian unification took place in this region, and fortunately for me, several concerned the defence in 1849 of the Roman Republic, an impressively liberal republic that survived only six months, but became, at least for a time, highly symbolic. These historical events provided a background for a story that was fictional, but neither unrealistic nor unlikely. 

I chose the idea of an encounter between locals and soldiers to emphasise their different ideas about place. I knew that a common Italian word for town paese was also a possible word for country. (I slip a direct reference to that into part eight of the story.)

This had to be a short story. Given the constraints on publishing (and reading) a story in the street, I set the word limit at 10,000. I decided there would be around ten locations in which the story would be published, and that each ‘episode’ would need to be relatively self-contained, clearly linked to the rest of the story, but with its own time-frame. So it would be possible to read the story over several days, coincidentally, the period during which the events take place.

The characters had to be central, and they needed to be quickly established and vivid. None of them could be given elaborate or long descriptions or introductions. It was an highly enjoyable challenge for me, given that I normally allow myself plenty of words and time for this task.

The soldiers came first, they were easier to create: idealists and romantics mainly, most relatively educated, and the passion of youthful imagining, the desire for the heroic, the sense of being part of history as it unfolded. There had to be a poet, of course, someone who delighted in words, but that, was also historically accurate. Literature and writers were such an important part of the Risorgimento.

The townspeople were harder: there was always a danger of making them more current (in attitudes or language) than they would have been, or, on the other hand, making them so historically accurate that their language and attitudes would seriously alienate the reader today. A further challenge was of developing female characters who could influence events…

Of course, there is a lot of me in here: the comedy, the irony, the references to larger contexts, the chance happenings that change lives or do not, and our common naivety at thinking that we know how things are, that we know how things will turn out…

On Saturday (more on this later) the project will be launched with a reading through the streets of Casaprota. Antonio Mercadante, one of the actors who will give the reading, (both actors are called ‘Antonio’), described the story as being a bit like a circus: with clowns and trapeze artists and dancing elephants and lion tamers and the beautiful girl on the back of the horse… and a little bit of Shakespeare, too. I’ll settle for that.

È una bella giornata primaverile nell’anno di nostro Signore 1849, nella breve vita della Repubblica Romana. Un gruppo di soldati arriva in un villaggio della Sabina, alla ricerca di giovani volontari da arruolare per combattere con Garibaldi contro le truppe francesi, in difesa della nuova repubblica…

Ovviamente, non ho potuto scrivere un racconto contemporaneo per questo progetto, perché non conosco né Casaprota né la regione. Il racconto doveva essere storico e ambientato in un’epoca di cui gli italiani conoscono solo da leggere la storia italiana, un’epoca di cui non c’è nessuna memoria d’uomo.

Ho già conosciuto la storia del Risorgimento, ma non quanto come ho creduto. Non ero a conoscenza con la vita a Sabina in quell’epoca o con la storia del governo pontificio; avevo bisogno di fare delle ricerche.

Ci sono stati alcuni eventi storici del Risorgimento che hanno accaduto nella regione, di cui ho scelto la marcia dei Garibaldini da Rieti a Roma nel 1849 per difendere La Repubblica Romana, perché i soldati avevano marciato lungo la Via Salaria vicino a Casaprota. Anche la repubblica m’interesse molto, perché era stata così politicamente avanzata.

Dovevo scrivere un racconto che sarebbe immaginato ma credibile, un racconto che sarebbe potuto accadere in un villaggio sabine, in quell’epoca. Ho scelto l’idea di un incontro, per porre un accento le esperienze diverse tra i soldati e paesani, e le idee di appartenenza contrastanti. Conosco i significati diversi della parola «paese», che sembrano riflettere queste idee diverse di appartenenza.

Era necessario di scrivere un racconto breve, meno di 10,000 parole, dato la difficoltà di pubblicarlo nelle strade e piazze del paese. Ho deciso che sarebbero dieci luoghi in cui il racconto sarebbe pubblicato, e ogni parte del racconto sarebbe quasi autonoma, in modo che, sarebbe possibile di leggere il racconto durante alcuni giorni, lo stesso tempo in cui l’azione del racconto si accade.

I personaggi dovevano essere importanti, vivaci e abbozzati in poche frasi. Questo è stato una sfida per me, preferisco delineare i miei personaggi lentamente. I soldati sono stati più facili a creare. Anche se c’erano opportuniste tra i Garibaldini, la maggioranza erano idealisti, inspirati da Garibaldi e la visione dell’Italia unita. Potevano vedere l’importanza di questo momento di storia, volevano essere parte. Uno di soldati doveva essere poeta, perché la letteratura era veramente importante al Risorgimento.

I paesani sono stati più difficili a creare. C’era il rischio di renderli più attuali in atteggiamenti e linguaggio di quelli che sarebbero stati, o di renderli storici con precisione in modo che il loro linguaggio e atteggiamenti avrebbero alienare i lettori di oggi. Un’altra sfida era di scrivere personaggi femminili che potrebbero influenzare gli eventi…

Anche c’entra lo scrittore nel racconto, vale a dire: la commedia, l’ironia, i riferimenti a contesti più grandi, gli eventi casuali che cambiano la vita o non, e la nostra ingenuità comune a pensare che sappiamo come stanno le cose, come andranno a finirle …

«È come un circo…», ha detto Antonio Mercadante, uno degli attori che leggerà il racconto sabato sera. Ci sono artisti di trapezio, elefanti danzanti, pagliacci, una bella ragazza sul dorso di un cavallo – e un po’ di Shakespeare! Sono d’accordo.

#13 che cosa serve una mappa di Casaprota?

I have been distributing some of the brochures to those groups of locals who sit out in the evening to chat. Casaprota is full of places to sit, especially where you can catch the late afternoon sun. Yesterday evening I chatted with two women about the project and gave them each a copy of the brochure. They were immediately transfixed by the map.

‘Look’, said one, ‘There’s Via del Mattatoio!’ ‘Yes’, said the other, ‘and there’s Via Sant’Angelo!’ And the two explored the map, naming each street in turn. ‘I live here’, one pointed out to me, ‘And I live here!’, the other explained. We were sitting exactly halfway between their homes. It is not too much to say that they were ‘marvelling’ at the map, and it dawned on me then that they had never seen a map of their town before.

And why would they have? The only reason I have seen a map of Casaprota is that I made one for my project. They would have no need for such an abstract thing as a map drawn on a piece of paper, the map they have is one carried around in their heads, built up since childhood through walking the town, made through the experience of a lifetime living here.

It is a map of buildings and street corners and small balconies with washing hanging on Thursdays, and seats where certain people always sit on sunny afternoons. It is a map of daily living, of routines and rituals, of stories they were told, stories they now tell, it is a map of memories of special occasions.

This was another lesson for me about the relationship to place, one I thought I already knew.

Ieri sera, camminando per il paese, ho incontrato due donne, anziane, sedute al sole chiacchierando. Mi sono presentato il mio progetto e glielo ho spiegato. Hanno aperto il pieghevole e immediatamente erano affascinate dalla mappa.

«Guarda!» ha detto una donna, «C’è Via del Mattatoio!» «Sì!», ha risposto l’altra, «E c’è Via Sant’Angelo!» Poi le due hanno esplorato la mappa chiamando ogni strada l’una dopo l’altra. «Abito qui!», una mi ha detto, e l’altra, «E io qui!» Eravamo seduti a metà strada tra le loro case. Allora mi sono reso conto che le donne non avevano mai visto una mappa di Casaprota prima!

Ma che cosa serve una mappa di Casaprota? Ho una mappa di Casaprota, ma io l’ho fatto per il mio progetto, e senza il progetto, io non l’ho bisogno una mappa… Le donne non hanno mai avuto bisogno di una mappa astratta del loro paese, loro hanno una vera mappa nelle loro teste. È una mappa che s’inizia in infanzia e costruisce durante tutta la vita. È una mappa degli edifici e angoli di strada, dei balconi con il bucato appeso di giovedì, e delle panchine, dove persone sempre siedono al sole nelle sere. È una mappa della vita quotidiana, delle storie che hanno sentito, delle storie che ora loro raccontano, una mappa dei ricordi delle occasioni speciali.

Questa è una lezione per me, una che ho pensato che la già sapevo.

 

#12 il racconto non è scritto in inglese

The story is not in English.

I was taken aback by the query by some of my colleagues here. They seemed to find it quite strange that the story was not in English given that I was a native speaker of English. They were so looking forward to reading it, they said, and then…! The fact that we were in Italy, and more importantly, that we were in a small town where most people did not speak English, (and do not need to), did not seem pertinent to them. An American explained: “English is the international language. Everyone should be speaking it.” To not speak English is to be “uneducated”…

The story is not in English.

The story is about an historical Italian event, even if the story itself is fictional. To write it in a language other than Italian would seem perverso. Without the Italian context, it is hard to see how it would make much sense to an English person, even less so to an American.

The story is not in English.

The story is published in Casaprota, a small Italian town, with the aim of having the townspeople walk through their very familiar environment and engage with it slightly differently by reading a fictional story about it, seen through the eyes of a foreigner.

The story is not in English.

Later, when the story is published in book form, it will definitely include an English translation. The book is intended to accompany a walk around this beautiful town, that will be a walk that could be undertaken by anyone who happens to live here, or happens to visit. (A visit is highly recommended!) But until then…

The story is not in English.

#10 Come scegliere i luoghi?

L’incontro è «un racconto da camminare», per così dire, un modo da vedere il paese attraverso un evento immaginato. Il racconto sarà pubblicato nei vari punti del borgo in cui l’azione si svolge

Allora, come scegliere i luoghi?

Ho scelto i luoghi mentre ideavo il racconto. Era importante che la passeggiata non ci voglia molto tempo, che l’itinerario debba essere semplice, che la mappa sia chiara, e che la passeggiata inizi e finisca nel centro sociale nel paese, vicino ai bar Micarelli e Daff.

5. Palazzo Filippi

Alcuni dei luoghi erano scelte ovvie: la Piazza del Municipio (1), la Chiesa dei Santi Domenico e Michele (10), il Palazzo Filippi (5). Questi sono i luoghi più importanti nel paese. Ho dovuto scegliere la nostra residenza, il Palazzo del Gatto (2), che si trova la metà strada tra la piazza e il centro storico.

2. Palazzo del Gatto (con gatto)

Il palazzo era costruito nel 1891, quattro decenni dopo il racconto è ambientato, ma fortunatamente c’è un altro palazzo dietro al Palazzo del Gatto. Questo è più vecchio e quindi diventa la casa del personaggio, Capitano Bassetti.

A metà del racconto, si cammina nei vicoli stretti del centro storico (5, 6) e poi si cammina al piede della Strada della Fonte (7, 8), dove c’è un’altra vista meravigliosa. Per terminare il racconto si torna, attraversando il centro storico (9), alla chiesa dei Santi Domenico e Michele (10), dove il racconto si conclude. Non ho potuto scrivere il racconto come un giro più semplice senza interrompere la storia.

7. «il porcile abbandonato»

C’è solo un luogo inventato: un fienile derelitto in via Circonvallazione. Cercavo un edificio che sarebbe immaginato come «una stalla infestata di fantasmi» ma questo fienile non poteva mai state «una stalla» perché si situa sul lato di una collina. Così, «la stalla infestata» è diventata «il porcile infestato», pieno di porci terrorizzati una volta.

Ci ho messo 15 minuti per fare la passeggiata, così penso che ci voglia un’ora e più per «camminare il racconto» che è circa 10,000 parole. Va bene, mi sembra che nessuno a Casaprota sia in fretta!

1 & 10 Piazza del Municipio dalla Chiesa dei Santi Domenico e Michele

#9 choosing sites

The project (see post#1) results in a story being physically published in those parts of the town in which the action of the story takes place. Reading begins a process of “walking the story”, marking out the place of Casaprota through this imagined event. I choose the sites for the story as I mapped out the narrative. Some of the sites chosen were distinctive, while others could be interchangeable, where multiple sites were appropriate.

My brief for walking the narrative included that it couldn’t take too long, otherwise people wouldn’t do it; that it couldn’t be confusing; that hopefully the walk would be a loop around the town, and that the map that guides the reader should be easily recognisable. It was most important that the walk began and ended in the social centre of the town, conveniently next to Micarelli’s bar and bar Daff.

So some sites chose themselves: the Piazza del Municipio (1) and the church of San Domenico and San Michele (10), which fronts onto the piazza, and in the centre of the original town (the centro storico), the Palazzo Filippi (5) with its dominant tower, (dating from 1200), was another “must”.

2. Palazzo del Gatto (with cat)

I felt I had to use the Palazzo del Gatto (2), which is the home of the SabinARTi resident artists, and is conveniently located halfway between the Piazza del Municipio and the Palazzo Filippi. That turned out to be a small problem, as the building wasn’t constructed until 1891, well after the period in which the story is set. But behind the palazzo there is another, that existed at the time, so that became my focus. I simply dropped the name “Palazzo del Gatto”.

5. Palazzo Filippi

6. Mario finds Alice…

Leaving the piazza we pass the Palazzo del Gatto, head onto the back entrance of the once productive gardens of the Palazzo Filippi. Halfway through the story we find ourselves in the narrow alleys of the centro storico (5 and 6), we head out again to take in the fabulous views for the denouement (7 and 8), and then head back through the centro storico for one short scene (9) before the tale comes to its conclusion on the steps of the main church, again with some superb vistas.

I couldn’t get a complete loop, shuffling the sites would have upended the narrative flow, but the resultant path is not at all confusing.

7. “The haunted pigsty”

There is only one completely invented site, an abandoned farm building (there are many in the region) that I have imagined as haunted. My original vision was for haunted stables, and there are ruined stables in the gardens of the Palazzo del Gatto and probably elsewhere, but the building I had to choose could never have been imagined as stables, it is on the side of a hill, so it has become a derelict pigsty, the fictional home of terrified pigs.

Walking the route takes me 15 minutes, and reading the story, (it’s about 10,000 words) will take it to an hour plus, I suspect, and that’s fine here, the people of Casaprota are not in a hurry.

1 & 10 The main piazza from the steps of the church

#8 il nido del falco

This week began with a visit to one of the most remarkable places here (in a region full of remarkable places). Il nido del falco (Falcon’s nest) is, as the name suggests, high up, and has commanding views the Sabina landscape. There is an old three-storey casalore (isolated house in the mountains) that sits against the hill and gazes out over the visual splendour  of the Sabine hills. (I forgot to ask Adriano, our host, how old it is, but I suspect it’s an eighteenth century building.)

Adriano de Cupis is an appassionato of Giuseppe Garibaldi, and that was the reason for our visit. ‘Garibaldini’ fighters are central characters in the story for Casaprota, L’incontro. Adriano is a the great grandson of Filippo de Cupis, close friend and fighter with Garibaldi, and is the founder of the wonderfully named Garibaldini del terzo Millennio, (the Garibaldi of the third millennium), and the custodian of many original documents and memorabilia from the period, including photos and original letters from Garibaldi.

Diorama with Filippo de Cupis (far left), Garibaldi (partly obscured) and Anita Garibaldi.

The story of the discovery of this treasure trove of historical material is told in Adriano’s book Il cassetto chiuso (Portofranco 2011), the story of a locked and secret drawer, that was only opened after his father’s death to reveal its amazing contents. This is the sort of material that is normally in national archives, available only to accredited researchers, but there we were examining these originals in this beautiful old house. Yes, I was blown away by it (and apparently that was obvious!) It was way too much to take in with just one visit.

What did I learn? I have been developing a far greater appreciation of Garibaldi over some time, so much of what I learnt on Monday reinforced what I already felt I knew, that is, the importance of ideals in the story of the Risorgimento. Garibaldi’s vision for Italy was of a republican Italy dedicated to liberty and social justice, and I wonder whether there is some embarrassment today about that. There has been some concerted efforts to denigrate Garibaldi in Italy over recent decades apparently, especially from the political right. Is it that idealism, optimism and altruism sit so at odds with the cynicism of contemporary politics, that is makes us embarrassed by the contemporary absence of thinkers and visionaries?

Susanna and I join the Garibaldini…

There is, happily, a video about il nido del falco on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNWsNo3MJYI

photos courtesy of Susanna Emili and Adriano de Cupis