An orange, natural wine from the Veneto (and my very own mimetic desire)

Above: One of my favorite places in the world, a scene from Petrarch’s house in the hilltop town of Arquà in the heart of the Colli Eugenei (the Euganean Hills) in the province of Padua. One of my mentors, Professor Vittore Branca, believed that Petrarch spoke with a northern cadence, even though he was born to Tuscan parents in Arezzo. Petrarch spent most of his life in southern France, Milan, and Arquà. (Photo courtesy Padova Cultura.)

Nearly every Italian who’s ever heard me speak Italian will remark that I speak Italian with a simpatico Veneto accent. Some will place it in Padua, others (when I’ve got a belly full of wine) in Treviso (non è vero, Briciole?). But the many years I spent of study and touring with my Italian-based band in the Veneto profoundly informed and shaped my “Italian” identity.

When I saw that Franco had posted about what must be a truly wonderful orange, natural wine from my beloved Euganean Hills outside Padua, I couldn’t resist the mimetic desire it stirred in me.

Were they not the site of countless Sunday evenings spent with friends eating roast pollastro and patatine fritte, accompanied by side-splitting joke-telling in Veneto dialect and carafes of Malvasia and Cabernet Franc! Were they not the home to some of the most unique, distinct, and distinctive wines produced in the Veneto! Did they not abound with a dolce aura, a sweet air, and immense beauty!

The Euganean Hills would still hold a special place in my heart for it is there that my beloved Petrarch spent the last years of his life, under the protection of the Carraresi family, the lords of medieval Padua, and it is there he finished the final notes of the transcription of his autograph and idiograph version of the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (Fragments of Vernacular Things), his song book, his 366 poems devoted to the blond-haired and fair Laura (a laical breviary, with a poem for every day of the year and a proemium). Today, that beautiful book — singular also for its humanist script and the unusual binding format — resides in the Vatican Library (Codex Vaticanus 3195). It was the subject of my doctoral thesis: I have examined it myself, I have held it in my hands and run my fingers across its vellum leaves and scrutinized their pores, and I have felt its aura.

O to see those hills again! Someday, I’ll take Tracie B to visit them and and breath in their dolce aura, to see Petrarch’s house, and to taste the wines.

And I will tell my sweet Tracie B (my Laura and my dolce aura, with her fair skin as white as ivory, her eyes as blue as the fresh, clear water that flows in the streams of trans-Alpine lands)… I will tell her the same thing the vecchiette, the little old ladies, in Monselice at the foot of the Colli Euganei say as you begin your ascent to Arquà: non dimenticare di salutare la gatta del Petrarcadon’t forget to say hello to Petrarch’s cat

Above: The famous “gatta del Petrarca,” Petrarch’s female feline, who, as Modenese poet Alessandro Tassoni wrote in the 17th-century epic poem, The Rape of the Bucket, still bars the tops from crossing the dotta soglia, the erudite threshold. (Photo by Arquà Petrarca.)

Someday Tracie B will see it, too. In the meantime we can only dream of natural skin-contact Garganega and roast poissons.

Click here to read my translation of Franco’s post.

Buona domenica a tutti!

Petrarch and the unbearable thought of life without the wines of Burgundy

From the “Sunday poetry” department…

Above: In this Renaissance illuminated manuscript (painted book), Petrarch and Laura appear on the banks of a river. Laura, the river (the Sorgue), and the laurel tree (also depicted) are central to Petrarchan iconography. Petrarch knew the wines of Burgundy well but he liked the wines of Italy better.

Petrarch (1304-1374) knew the wines of Burgundy well. He spent most of his early life in and around Avignon, where his father followed the Babylonian exile of the papal court, and where the wines of the Côte d’Or already enjoyed considerable fame. It wasn’t far from Avignon where he first saw Laura, for whom he would write 366 poems, later gathered in his Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (Fragments of Vernacular Things, the title he gave to his Canzoniere or Song Book). Their first meeting took place in Vaucluse in 1327 (according to his own mythology).

Petrarch spent much of the latter half of his life trying to bring the papacy back to Rome. After one of his appeals to Pope Urban V, some of the cardinals argued that a return to Rome would be unthinkable: how could they survive, they told the pope, without the health-enhancing properties of the wines of Burgundy? Petrarch responded with one of his most famous political letters and a passage, often cited but seldom revisited, in which he chastises the gluttonous cardinals. But in the same stroke, he invites them to experience the wines of Italy:

    Is it not a puerile ambition to malign the many types of wines, so plentiful, found in all parts of Italy? … Let them come and see for themselves — all those for whom life would be unbearable without the wines of Burgundy! They will find copious amounts of grain, olive oil, wines, plants, and fruits. Here there are fruits unfamiliar to you and unknown in your [colder] climate. The woods, beasts, wild animals, game, and food and spices are so abundant that no one dies of hunger…

    Seniles 9, to Pope Urban V, August 1366 (translation adapted from Aldo Bernardo)

In last week’s Sunday poetry post, Petrarch flowed the rivers of the world together in verse. Laura is absent and he longs for the river where she appeared: no other river, he cries, could quench the fire burning in his soul.

In this week’s post, he happens upon Laura by a river, innocently washing her veil. She is more beautiful than the huntress goddess Diana who turned Acteon’s dogs upon him when he happened upon her bathing nude in a river.

Magridal 52 is one of the most exquisite compositions in Petrarch’s Rerum. As summer temperatures rise here in Texas, there is a someone special in my life, too, who can still make me “tremble with a chill of love.”

    Not so much did Diana please her lover when, by a similar
    chance, he saw her all naked amid the icy waters,

    as did the cruel mountain shepherdess please me, set to wash a
    pretty veil that keeps her lovely blond head from the breeze;

    so that she made me, even now when the sky is burning, all
    tremble with a chill of love.

    (translation by Robert Durling)

    Non al suo amante più Diana piacque
    quando per tal ventura tutta ignuda
    la vide in mezzo de le gelide acque,

    ch’a me la pastorella alpestra e cruda
    posta a bagnar un leggiadretto velo
    ch’a l’aura il vago e biondo capel chiuda;

    tal che mi fece, or quand’egli arde’l cielo,
    tutto tremar d’un amoroso gelo.

Poetry for Sunday: Petrarch’s musical rivers

People seemed to enjoy last week’s Poetry for Sunday so I thought I’d try another one this week…

A quick search online revealed this wonderful gallery at the Beinecke Library (Yale) site. Petrarch’s script inspired a generation of Northern Italian amanuenses and calligraphers who developed what would later be called “humanist script.” The inscription at the top of the folio reads: “Here happily begin the songs in verse in elegy of Laura by the illustrious poet Francis Petrarch.”

When I lived in Italy in the 1990s as a graduate student, I had the great fortune to meet a number of twentieth-century Italian poets, including Giovanna Sandri, whose poetry I translated for a collection of modern poetry published by my dissertation adviser. One day, when I was doing research for my dissertation at the Vatican library, she invited me over for a lunch of rice and baby shrimp — “translation and risotto di gamberetti” she wrote playfully in a dedication she signed in a copy of one of her books that she gave to me. Her primary literary interest was the group of Roman poets and the Gruppo 63 poets among whom she had come of age literarily and literally. But when she asked me about my studies devoted to Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, fourteenth-century Italian poet and humanist) she fondly remembered her favorite sonnet. She loved the way that Petrarch ingeniously listed the great rivers of the world in meter (in this case, rhymed hendecasyllables — eleven-syllable lines, the classic meter of Italian medieval lyric).

The following is Robert Durling’s translation of the sonnet and the original Italian. Even if you don’t read Italian, try reading the lines out loud to hear the music of Petrarch’s verse.

The tree in the poem is central to the body of poetry and the new poetical language that Petrarch created for his beloved Laura: the laurel tree (do you hear the paronomasia between Laura and lauro or laurel?), the tree so dear to Apollo the god of music and poetry (among other things) because his beloved Daphne had been transformed into a laurel tree so she could escape his amorous advances.

    Not Tesino, Po, Varo, Arno, Adige, or Tiber, Euphrates, Tigris, Nile, Hermus, Indus or Ganges, Don, Danube, Alpheus, Garonne, the sea-breaker Timavus, Rhône, Ebro, Rhine, Seine, Elbe, Loire, or Hebrus —

    not ivy, fir, pine, beech, or juniper — could lessen the fire that wearies my sad heart as much as a lovely stream that from time to time weeps along with me, and the slender tree that in my rhymes I beautify and celebrate.

    I find this a help amid the assaults of Love, where I must live out in armor my life that goes by with such great leaps.

    Then let this lovely laurel grow on the fresh bank; and he who planted it, let him — in its sweet shade, to the sound of the waters — write high and happy thoughts!

    Non Tesin, Po, Varo, Arno, Adige e Tebro
    Eufrate, Tigre, Nilo, Ermo, Indo et Gange,
    Tana, Istro, Alfeo, Garona, e’l mar che frange,
    Rodano, Ibero, Ren, Sena, Albia, Era, Ebro —

    non edra, abete, pin, faggio o genebro —
    poria ‘l foco allentar che’l cor tristo ange
    quant’un bel rio ch’ad ogni or meco piange
    co l’arboscel che’in rime orno e celebro

    Questo un soccorso trovo fra gli assalti
    d’Amore, ove conven ch’armato viva
    la vita che trapassa a sì gran salti.

    Così cresca il bel lauro in fresca riva,
    e chi’l piantò pensier leggiadri et alti
    ne la dolce ombra al suon de l’acque scriva!

What does wine have to do with any of this? In his prose, Petrarch wrote famously about wine and in particular about the wines of Burgundy, but that will have to wait for another post. Today, let’s just enjoy his musical rivers.

Thanks for reading…