Slice of an old world


The Gulf Today - Panorama - - Contents - By Prathap Nair

At first look, Ce­sena in the rus­tic north of Italy reach­ing out to the Adri­atic Sea looks a lit­tle bit like a city where your old aunt lives. She sur­vives on pen­sion, her chil­dren have moved away and are re­luc­tant to visit her. That’s not to say she’s charm­less and not worth pay­ing a visit. She is filled with sto­ries to tell — pleas­ant and un­pleas­ant, both. Her pi­az­zas, monas­ter­ies and churches are noth­ing short of ar­chi­tec­tural splen­dours and her pi­ad­ina — an Ital­ian que­sadilla, if you will — is to die for. And it’s not dif­fi­cult to get to know her bet­ter, you only have to try.

One morn­ing, at the su­per­mar­ket near where I was holed up at, I saw an old woman scru­ti­n­is­ing a row of milk car­tons, with her scrunched up eyes and raised eye­brows. “I’m 87. Eight, seven. I can’t eat

too much fat, you know,” she said in her boom­ing, Ital­ian-grand­mother voice. “I used to, in those days, but I can’t now,” she added. “What am I say­ing; we had noth­ing to eat in those days,” she cor­rects her­self quickly and laughs heartily.

With su­per­mar­kets in ev­ery neigh­bour­hood, she need not worry about food short­ages of the past any­more. As Italy’s econ­omy still reels un­der pres­sure, Ce­sena’s lo­cal econ­omy got a mild boost when 15 years ago, the neigh­bour­ing Univer­sity of Bologna de­cided to scat­ter its fac­ul­ties in cities like Forli, Ravenna and Ce­sena. Now, as many as 15 fac­ul­ties are in Ce­sena alone, fu­elling a stu­dent pop­u­la­tion. “Lot of the build­ings that were empty ear­lier are now oc­cu­pied by stu­dents and busi­nesses that cater to stu­dents,” said my host Gian­carlo Amadori. “I had rented out a cou­ple of my rooms to stu­dents too,” he added.

Multi-storey mar­vels

Ce­sena’s rep­u­ta­tion in en­gi­neer­ing seems to solely lie with the Trevi group founded in the city and cred­ited with “build­ing and ex­e­cu­tion of mul­ti­storey au­toma­tised and un­der­ground car parks,” one of which is lo­cated just op­po­site the Malat­es­tiana Li­brary, a 15th cen­tury li­brary, touted to be the world’s first pub­lic li­brary with a re­mark­ably pre­served read­ing room and manuscripts from far back as 1104. When in Italy, it was all but im­pos­si­ble to avoid re­li­gion.

One day, I walked into an ex­hi­bi­tion high­light­ing ex­trem­i­ties around the world in the name of re­li­gion. It was in a church, and I had my doubts. Soon I re­alised that cru­el­ties meted out to Chris­tians was the theme. At the en­trance of the ex­hi­bi­tion was a jar with an ap­peal for do­na­tion for the Chris­tians of Syria and Iraq.

Not sur­pris­ing, con­sid­er­ing Ce­sena is a strong­hold of Catholi­cism, hav­ing pro­duced as many as three popes — Pope

Pius VI, VII and VIII. Only a week be­fore my visit, Pope Fran­cis made a rather po­lit­i­cal state­ment by vis­it­ing a refugee cen­tre in the city of Bologna and meet­ing young mi­grants.

Face of fas­cism

Cu­ri­ously, a few me­tres away from the same ex­hi­bi­tion was artist Mario Sironi’s ex­hi­bi­tion. Sironi’s work, during his ac­tive years, was ex­hib­ited out­side Italy since he was a sub­ject of cold-shoul­dered scru­tiny by art his­to­ri­ans, for his close as­so­ci­a­tion with fas­cism.

Re­ced­ing from the exhibitions that per­pe­trated re­li­gious ex­clu­sion­ism was a street food fes­ti­val where Ital­ians queued up to eat re­gional spe­cial­i­ties and wash it down with two-euro drinks in plas­tic glasses. After tak­ing a spin of the fes­ti­val and tast­ing aranci­nis from Si­cily and ch­est­nut torte from Mo­dena, I sat on the grand stairs lead­ing to a pi­azza, sun­ning my­self along with the lo­cals.

After a week of trav­el­ling in and around Ce­sena, where no buses seem to dis­pense a truck­load of tourists, I mes­saged a friend: “It’s gritty grungy and the right amount of crazy I can han­dle.”

But on a cold and rainy evening as I waited for the train and it pulled over, I saw pas­sen­gers swarm­ing at the gate even be­fore the gates opened. The swarm raced ahead of the per­plexed pas­sen­gers wait­ing to alight, leav­ing a preg­nant woman, with a pram and a baby, dis­tressed. This act of self­ish­ness shocked me. Per­haps not just “the right amount of crazy I can han­dle” after all, I sur­mised.

The 15th cen­tury Malat­es­tiana Li­brary is counted among the great­est in the world.

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