Wednesday, June 20, 2007

In Nietzsche's Footsteps

In January I took part in a conference, "Interpreting Equal Respect" in the amazing Medieval Italian city of Pavia, in the state of Lombardy. Our genial host, Ian Carter, pointed out to me that the church of San Michele Maggiore (Google Earth photo at left), which was next door to the Villa Gloria a San ichele, the restaurant where we had dinner twice, was where the kings of the Lombard League were crowned here after they made Pavia their capital in 572. Actually, now that I have been able to do a little research, I see that these coronations must have been in the Lombard church that earlier stood on this site. San Michele was built in the late eleventh century. But it was plenty old enough to please me in any case. More importantly, the facade was decorated, not just with saints and angels, but with animals and weird monsters, now sadly eroded by time and attempts at cleaning, like swan-necked dragons and lion-headed men. They weren't designed merely to edify or browbeat the viewer, but to some extent to delight and entertain. It certainly is odd to think of Christians designing a church that way. It upsets my stereotype.

I decided try to make Romanesque churches the theme of the rest of my trip, in which I would visit coastal Liguria (Genoa and points south) as a grateful guest of my old friend, Valeria Ottonelli of the Università di Genova. Churches, plus soaking up the ambience the Nietzsche loved so much. That does sound like an odd combination, doesn't it -- Nietzsche and churches?

Here are a few pictures I took with my cellphone. They are small, uncropped, and badly exposed, but they're all I've got.

A vast area in the center of Genoa is Medieval, a labyrinth of twisting streets and narrow, cave-like alleys. No wonder they drive those funny little toy cars. (Well, there's also the whole conserving-petroleum thing.)

Through this inconspicuous door in a gloomy alley, with no sign to indicate what it was, we entered the most delightful candy store I've ever been in. I asked if we were going into the rear of the store. No, Valeria said, this is the store itself. Inside is a simple counter, with two women, obviously mother and daughter. Over their shoulders you can see the little kitchen which they made their wares: tray after tray of -- all sorts of things dipped in chocolate as dark as sin. My favorite was the chocolate-covered orange peel. The Italians know their candy. They are also the only tribe on Earth who know how to make coffee properly: "strong enough to float a horseshoe," as they used to say out west.

This is the Church of San Donato, in Valeria's neighborhood in the center of the medieval part of the city. It was built in the eleventh century, but the black and white striped portal, which unfortunately dominates the facade, was added in 1888.

Inside San Donato. There are several rooms that are basically an art museum, with paintings displayed simply as paintings. I asked Valeria about the guy who painted one of them, "The Holy Family." She said, "Why that's Paoli!" She seemed to be thinking, "Sheesh! Don't you know anything?" I hadn't heard of him. When she was growing up, they learned all about the Genoese painters (Genoa is her home town - how lucky can you get!), of whom this Paoli guy was one. For my part, growing up in Stockton California -- either there were no Stockton painters and writers, or they didn't matter. Probably the former.

The places that were most important to Nietzsche were a little further along the coast, on and around a little peninsula called either the Promontory of Portofino or the Promontory of Capodimonte. He wrote in Ecce Homo that the whole of Part One of Zarathustra, above all the character of Zarathustra himself, came to him while taking daily walks from Rapallo out to the tip of Portofino in 1881 and 82. Though he moved to Nice, further up the Riviera, after that, he did return to live in the area again. The preface to the second edition of "Dawn" was dated "Herbst des Jahres 1886," below the phrase"Ruta bei Genua." Ruta is a hamlet high on the slopes of the Capodimonte itself. The "Monte" is a huge loaf of dark igneous rock, pushed up to a height of 610 meters by tectonic action, which forms the spine of Portofino. Scattered on its craggy sides are stone houses, an occasional church, small orchards, and much half-wild forest. It's Nietzsche's kind of country. When he walked around the Capodimonte, he was indulging the same passion that had brought him to Switzerland: his love of mountains and climbing. ... Above you see Genoa, looking west from the west side of the Capodimonte. The stuff that looks like clouds on the far horizon is actually the snow-covered Alps.

Rapallo is not what it used to be. Valeria said there is now an Italian verb, "rapallizare," which means "to build up a once quaint and interesting place as a destination for swarms of tourists." We drove to Rapallo, got an eyeful of the tourists, then headed back to the area near Ruta. Valeria parked her cute little yellow toy car near the hamlet of San Rocco, and we started down stone-paved path toward the water. We saw this little shrine along the way.

This is the wall of a sort of snack bar, set in a little cave in the rock of the pathway. I noticed this inscription. As you see, it says "dai mûagetti." "Good Lord!" I said, "What language is that?" Valeria said, "Genovese!" (I haven't been able to figure out what that phrase means.) Genoa has a regional language! It's said to be a remnant of the language of the ancient tribe of the Ligures, who were here before the Romans. This is one great virtue Europe has: the localities are often very, very local. Like different countries.

Further down the path is the Romanesque church of San Nicolò di Capodimonte. Above, Valeria approaches it on the mountain path.

The main altar of San Niccoló. Here you see Saint Nicholas himself, in his pre-Thomas-Nast days. He already has his red robe trimmed in white, but hasn't lost his pointy bishop's hat.

View just to the left of the shot above this one. Mary's halo was the only light in the place that was turned on.

On one wall of the church, not shown, it said "Ave Maris Stella," hail star of the sea (Maris Stella being an epithet for Mary, from a Medieval hymn). For centuries this church served the fishermen who launched their frail wooden boats from the rocky shore just below us.

Though we were only about four miles from the congestion of Rapallo, this whole area was deserted. While we were in the church, no one else was anywhere in sight. Though the doors were unlocked, there wasn't even a priest or attendant anywhere about. Near the door of the church was a table with brochures and postcards, and a box to pay for whatever you took. (I now have a Saint Nicholas medal on my key ring.) I was amazed and touched that these people, total strangers, were trusting me not to rob them blind. I hope it stays this way too: just the way it should be.

Returning to Genoa, I briefly visited the Genoa Cathedral. Valeria waited outside. Cathedral? She'd seen cathedrals! As you can see, the facade is not Romanesque but snazzy new Gothic. The building was partially rebuilt and modernized when it was damaged by a fire caused by a fight between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Darn those Guelphs and Ghibellines!

So that was my visit to one of Nietzsche's favorite winter haunts. Hope you didn't mind the pictures too much!

Thanks Valeria! You're the best!


Craig D said...

Hey, thanks for the travelogue!

"Honey, get the slides while I set up screen for our guests..."

Anonymous said...

Interesting photo-essay!

By the way, the sidebar's link to this has a few duplicated letters, an extra set of "http//", so it doesn't link without excision.

Lester Hunt said...

Robert, Thanks! I've repaired that problem.

Anonymous said...

I'm a former student of yours from your Nietzsche class a few years back and longtime reader of your blog. Your course helped inspire a similar trip when I traveled to Germany in the summer of 2005. I visited Nietzsche's birth house and grave site at Röcken and traveled to Naumburg to see the Nietzsche-Haus where he lived with his mother and aunts. Nietzsche and churches isn't such an odd combination after all Professor. As you know his father was a pastor at the village church in Röcken, and you might be surprised to hear that the birth house and church that was built in the 1400's are still standing! Though, I don't know how much longer. I recently heard a mining company wants to demolish much of Röcken. It was like a ghost town when I visited and there wasn't a human in sight. At the Naumburg Nietzsche-Haus they had several early editions of his works and copious amounts of Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche pictures and books. Nietzsche posters for sale as well. In Nietzsche's own bedroom upstairs they did an interesting thing and dedicated an entire wall to all the women who were ever in his life - Pictures and blurbs about Wagner's wife, Salome, etc. I found this slightly ironic and interesting at the same time. Next time I go back I want to visit the Nietzsche-Archiv in Weimar in addition to these sights once again. Röcken is only a 40 minute ride by cab from the cultural hub of Leipzig and Naumburg is extremely close to Jena if you ever get a chance to visit those areas. Thanks for the course on Nietzsche during my undergrad days and for your blog as well. Always an enjoyable read.

Lester Hunt said...

Very interesting, Matt! I didn't know most of that stuff. Also, it's great to know my little course had an impact! I sure hope the Nietzsche birth house doesn't go under.

Harald said...

Regarding Röcken. According to wikipedia, the mining plans were dropped. I hope to take a Nietzsche vacation myself someday, so this is very good news.