The pull of the past in Italy

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - HE­LEN TRINCA

It’s Easter Sun­day in Cor­tona, the basil­ica is packed and we’re get­ting our se­ri­ous faces on, tourists try­ing to do the right thing. Not that the Ital­ians are both­ered.

They are not so much do­ing the right thing, as do­ing their own thing. Some are slid­ing into the con­fes­sional — two ser­vices for the price of one, so to speak. Oth­ers are cut­ting across the traf­fic head­ing for the body and blood of Christ, and mak­ing for the side al­tars to light can­dles.

It is vaguely chaotic, but no one seems to mind there are mul­ti­ple agen­das un­der­way. We noted sim­i­lar prag­ma­tism on Good Fri­day.

Thirty years ago I saw a Ven­erdi Santo pro­ces­sion through the dark­ened streets of a south­ern city — all black robes and hoods and fire in a thrilling mix of pa­gan and Christian rit­ual. I was hop­ing for more of the same.

But here in mid­dle-class Tus­cany, the pro­ces­sion proved a dif­fer­ent an­i­mal. The lo­cals turned out, the young men and women hoisted the cross and the stat­ues on their shoul­ders. But it felt more like a com­mu­nity event than re­li­gious ob­ser­vance, a re­minder the past 30 years have brought as much change to Italy as any­where.

I have changed too and am see­ing this coun­try, which I have vis­ited many times, through new fil­ters. From Cor­tona to Florence to Si­enna to Mi­lan to Lake Como and fur­ther north, I think of how Ital­ians live against a back­drop of nat­u­ral and built beauty. In­deed, I am hav­ing trou­ble curb­ing the su­perla­tives on Face­book. It’s a cul­ture that takes for granted sub­lime art and ex­tra­or­di­nary land­scape. It can af­ford to: you may never see in­side the Duomo in Florence, but if you are one of the 1600 peo­ple in my fa­ther’s vil­lage of Grosotto, in the Val­tel­lina, you can pop in any day of the week to a 17th-cen­tury church crammed with art and one of the most im­pres­sive al­tar pieces, carved and gilded and 15m high, you will ever see.

I have been pop­ping in since 1975 but, on my knees this chilly morn­ing for week­day mass, I can’t take my eyes off the mas­ter­work, and I think how these are the things that do not change. My fa­ther, and his fa­ther and all the moth­ers and fa­thers be­fore them in our family knelt be­fore this al­tar piece.

Now I am along­side my cousin’s wife and soon we will walk back home to break­fast in their cosy kitchen, where the ex­quis­ite wooden bas relief work he has taken up in re­tire­ment hangs ca­su­ally on the wall. Later, we will go in their four-wheel-drive up the moun­tain to marvel at the views and the baite, the stone huts that have been there for gen­er­a­tions.

My fa­ther, like all the boys in the vil­lage, spent sum­mers in these huts while the cow owned by each family grazed on the slopes. Some of the baite have changed a lot, re­built as hol­i­day houses. Some look the same, re­minders of an­other time. And I am think­ing that the one where my fa­ther slept on those sum­mer nights al­most 100 years ago is still one of my favourite places in Italy.

Su­san Kuro­sawa is on leave.

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