A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I made a vague promise in my last piece about Edith Templeton’s The Surprise of Cremona that I might come back with more Travels With Edith. My latest Italian adventure was a trip to Lombardy, based in Cremona and Milan. Naturally, I took my indispensable guide The Surprise of Cremona with me. It all started awfully well when the first person I met at the airport on the same tour revealed a taste for Edith Templeton before we’d even got on the plane. So I unexpectedly had the pleasure of someone with whom to share Edith Moments, of which there were many, and not just in Cremona. As when I went to Ravenna and Urbino with Edith in my backpack, I had the company of a congenial group of people and an excellent and expert guide (Edith would have called him an Owl) to the art, architecture and townscapes of the Duchy of Milan. As before, travelling with Edith meant fastening our seatbelts for a rather bumpy night. This time, she was only really of any direct help with our couple of days in Cremona – thereafter we went back to Milan and the places we saw have no place in her guidebook, more’s the pity. Compared with her treatment of the sights of Ravenna, though, she didn’t make too many places up from scratch in Cremona, merely exaggerated for effect from time to time.
Cremona is the first stop on Edith Templeton’s tour of Northern Italy, and it is the chapter in the book where she establishes for the reader just what her approach to travel is going to be: fiercely independent, voraciously curious, wildly opinionated, and best of all, always prepared to be highly amused. As ever, while she really wants to be original and controversial, I found myself agreeing with her a lot, and seeing the same things that she did. She seems to be spot on so often in her observations – even when exaggerating for effect. I just wish I could be as fiercely independent etc. etc. One day, maybe – though I could never bring her idiosyncratic depth and breadth of learning to bear on what I see. She turns up in these cities, ostensibly completely uninformed about their history and what they have to offer, and she delivers that information to the reader through the adventure she has in finding out.
Cremona is charming and beautiful, I can vouch for that, but maybe not quite as exciting as Edith anticipated. Certainly, she finds nothing to rival the astonishing effect of the 5th and 6th century basilicas of Ravenna and their mosaics. The city’s centrepiece is the main square with an enormous cathedral and its tower that is the tallest in Italy, baptistery and town hall. The city is harmonious and its streets delightful to walk, lined as they are with austere but elegant palazzi. It has a long history back to pre-Roman times, and (absolutely magnetic to Edith, who likes nothing better than to show off her encyclopaedic knowledge of him), home to Virgil’s parents and the site of his lost ancestral estates.
Strangely, the one thing that most people know about Cremona doesn’t mean very much to Edith – and strangely it didn’t figure largely in the programme for our tour, either. The name of Stradivarius is mentioned in the book only once, in passing, as a previous owner of the governor’s palace where, in Edith’s version, the actual Surprise of Cremona took place (in the early 18th century, the Austrian army, led by Prince Eugene of Savoy, caught the French garrison napping and entered the town without opposition; but the REAL Surprise of Cremona was that the Prince and a few men then entered the governor’s palace at night, found him in bed with someone who probably shouldn’t have been there, and captured him. The French later retook the town, but the Austrians kept the governor, which gave rise to much ribaldry from which his reputation never recovered). Neither did we have a scheduled tour of any place that had to do with the violins and other stringed instruments that have made the reputation of Cremona, though on request we had a fascinating informal visit to a violin-maker’s workshop. Art history, which with literary history were Edith’s specialities, can be very compartmentalised.
So Edith gives us a number of set-pieces to liven things up a bit. The chapter starts, as I pointed out in my original review, with the devastating portrait of her Valkyrie-like fellow-passenger from Calais to Milan. Later on, it is close to Cremona that she meets the extended family of prosperous Italian farmers, where the haute couture and stunning pearls worn by one of the daughters excite Edith’s envy. One of the delights of the book lies in her imaginative portrayals of the people she meets, not always, in fact hardly ever, flattering, but hugely vivd and entertaining. In Cremona, her hotelier is a dramatically handsome woman she nicknames Medea, given to infusing all her utterances with a tragic sense (‘Don’t turn up at five,” she says, “be late. Waiting for someone who does not turn up is worse than dying.” It is, of course, just like Medea to bring death into every sentence.). She befriends a waiter in a cafe in the main piazza, who tells her a tale that could be lifted out and made a short story all by itself, an ‘arsenic-and-old-lace’-like tale about two sweet elderly ladies of impeccable morals and virtue, suspected of a little light poisoning. Edith credits the waiter with Maupassant-like storytelling skills. We find out why she begins and continues to call her academic informants and guides ‘Owls’, and we meet a bookish owl, a picture owl and a musical owl (who despite being in Cremona specialises in pre-Gregorian chant). She ruthlessly exploits the musical owl and his friends to drive her around and show her the sights. She speculates on the dangerous nature of one Sicilian cafe proprietor as a potential ravisher and murderer of women and fears she might succumb to his lurid attraction. Thus did she embroider her time in a city that I think pleased her well enough but failed to capture fully her imagination.
So, what did I see through Edith’s eyes? First of all, the landscape. The plain of Lombardy and the Po valley, are, like Norfolk (yes, I do know…), very flat. This gives it its attraction for many Italians, and we were constantly invited to admire its beauties. However, in England rather we’ve been taught to think of the picturesque as rocks and mountains, so Edith and I tended to agree on this:
I take the train [from Milan] to Cremona. The countryside we are traversing is part of the Lombardic Plain and I do not think much of it. Meadows of thin, watered down green and fields are crossed and bordered by canals of water and narrow rivulets which come and go without linking anything in particular or holding anything together. It is a messy landscape, all in bits and pieces, like an unmade bed.
I imagine the angel who fashioned it came running up to God every five minutes and whined: ‘What shall I put in now?’ And God yawned and said: ‘Oh, just another field’.
However, there are the wonderful great big skies, on a fine day, to make up for the flat fields and the straight watercourses.
Edith saw, literally, behind the facades, and, prepared by her, so did I. Cremona cathedral is immense, sturdy and brick built, with aisles and apses and this enormous tower, the tallest in Italy (the Sicilian seducer offers to escort Edith, to prevent her from going up alone and casting herself off the top, but she declines the kind offer). But the magnificent facade does not fit – at the top and sides it covers empty air, and its upper galleries and openings bear no relation to the architecture underneath. This is typical of many churches we saw in this part of Italy, if not possibly all of them, so it is apparent that the facade has a different meaning and function from what we are accustomed to. It takes a little getting used to, and Edith took agin it. Inside the cathedral she quite rightly appreciated the spectacle and beauty of a high mass more than the decoration of the interior, which has been ‘baroqued’ beyond bearing (for anyone who does not enjoy that style).
Finally, by accident, Edith is exhorted by a bank clerk, of all people, to see the church of S. Sigismondo, if she possibly can. It is a long way outside the city, it is not on her itinerary, and her guide book dismisses it as unimportant – but it was on ours, and so I was able to share her enjoyment of an interior by the Campi dynasty of Cremona painters, decorated on all its surfaces by frescos and reliefs with biblical scenes on the walls and festooned with flowers and fruits on the pillars. Edith’s one serious exaggeration (that I spotted, that is) relates to these frescoes – she speaks of every fresco having a charming dog in it. I spotted one, and charming it indeed was, my fellow Edith-fan found a couple more, but that was the top and bottom of it. Just about worth a detour for dog-lovers, but only just.
Hilary now just has Parma, Mantua and Arezzo to go in her bid to retrace the footsteps of
Edith Templeton: The Surprise of Cremona. London: Pallas Athene Arts, 2001. 245pp
First published: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1954.