The pull of the past in Italy
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.