Saturday, July 3, 2010

Five - See Naples

The next morning dawned bright and sunny, a perfect springtime day that promised unseasonable warmth as the hours unfolded. Following breakfast, admirably prepared and served by Fiametta, Maria and Giovanni waited quietly in the front room of the house for Rico’s arrival.

Promptly at nine-thirty, he was there, in a hired open carriage, “The better to see the views!” Rico grinned. “Il mattino ha l'oro in bocca! The sun brings gold in its mouth!” They set off, a jolly party, leaving the narrow streets and emerging on the broad Via Roma. From the Via Roma, they explored the compact center of the city, filled with its palaces, churches, convents and monasteries. All along the way, Rico and Giovanni told facts and tall tales about the places they were passing. Maria admired the Via San Carlo with its endless rows of elegant buildings, each dressed in deep colorful awnings. The colorful electric trolleys and black carriages of the wealthy hurried past them, contrasting with the slower pace of the pushcarts of street vendors and peddlers.

They came upon the imposing arches and columns of the Teatro San Carlo. Rico made a few remarks, but left it to Giovanni to complete the narrative. “The venerable Teatro San Carlo is 41 years older than Milano's Scala and 51 years older than Venice's Fenice. It has been the home of some of the best music in Italy since its beginning in 1737.”

“And when will you be singing here, next?” Maria asked Rico pleasantly. She did not see Giovanni shaking his head, cautioning her away from the delicate question. But Rico shrugged and then answered truthfully.

“Here, Naples? Campa cavallo! Never again will I sing opera at the Teatro San Carlo!” Rico was adamant. “The critics stirred up the people about my singing this past January. Bah! What do they know? From now on I will only come to Naples to eat a plate of spaghetti! Well, yes and to sing for my own enjoyment, in those small rooms where my true friends may be found.”

“The hurt they have done you, you must feel it still, in your heart?”

“Yes, but I have found a way to move beyond it. For example, I have made a set of recordings. In Milan.”

Maria looked puzzled.

“You know, a gramophone. It takes down your voice like the photographer takes down your image. It is a new marvel. And perhaps someday the world will recall that I made these recordings. Who knows! Now that they are made, my voice can be heard anywhere in the world. I can be here or there, but my voice can go everywhere.”

“So you will stay here, now?”

“No by no means, I am off to South America soon, to sing there. But for sentimental reasons, I had to touch the pavements of Naples before I set off. And how glad that I came! For now that I have been able to show it to you, I will forgive Naples all its mulishness, in your honor. I will have nothing but love for her. See what you have done to soften my heart! Not that I will ever sing a note of opera here again.”

Giovanni was eager to change the subject, “We are so grateful to you, Rico, for this charming conveyance! But how in the world are you managing the expense of this carriage for the whole day?”

“Ah my friend as I told you I made my recordings—and for this is was paid handsomely. I am in funds and happy to share them with you and Miss Fucci.”

Rico had shown Maria the gigantic Galleria Umberto I, with its many fashionably dressed men and women hurrying to and fro. The gleaming white statues of the Piazza Vittoria. The Piazza del Plebiscito, with the clustered domes and outstretched arms of the colonnade of the Basilica di San Francesco di Paola.

“But now we will go to the highlight of the day, in every sense of the word. To the Mount Vesuvius Funicular, the first railway track in the world built on an active volcano!”

They left the city and approached the grim mountain. East of Naples, a short distance from the shore stood the humpbacked mass of Mount Vesuvius, conspicuous in the beautiful landscape. It grew larger and larger. The carriage made its way along the winding road to the cone’s base, up the steep, narrow curves. Maria was unnerved when she looked at the sheer drop to one side, so she kept her eyes instead on the top of the mountain, the thin funicular track and the station house which was their immediate destination.

Soon, they arrived at the lower station a cluster of buildings painted in a crisp bright white. What a contrast, Maria thought, to the sides of the mountain all black with ash. Barren. Wasteland.

When it was their turn, they boarded the carriage, set on its incline, with four stair step levels of seats. The capacity: four adults on each of the lower two levels, two more on the third level, with the driver up front on the highest level. The carriage was open on both sides, with only a metal awning type of roof supported by slim uprights.

“Is it safe?” Maria asked.

“Quite safe,” Rico assured her. “Why, my dear Miss Fucci, people have been ascending the mountain since 1880 by funicular. And all of them, coming back down to tell the tale! Before that they had to be carried up in sedan chairs! Can you imagine that! Of course it was only for the very rich. So the bearers must have worked extra hard. Think of it! All those fat rich people up and down, up and down, all day long! Ooof, ooof, ooof!”

Maria giggled in spite of her apprehensions. Then, with a blast of a small hand, held horn, the funicular driver announced their departure. “Andiamo!” “Avanti!” several of their fellow passengers shouted.

All at once , the car lurched forward, upward, and they were off. The carriage emerged from the station, reaching higher, passing lampposts every so often to mark their progress. The rush of cooler air made Maria feel very exposed, as did the lack of sides to the carriage. Other than the iron armrest of her bench, there was nothing between her and the precipitous slope of the mountainside.

“As we ascend on high,” said Giovanni all at once, “we really must sing the happy song that goes with this ride. And with that he produced a small concertina, and began to play as well as sing. At once, Rico joined in, and Maria as well, the song written two decades before, to celebrate the very funicular on which they were now riding:

Ieri sera, Nannina, sono salito
tu sai dove…Tu sai dove…
Dove, questo cuore ingrato, più dispetti
farmi non può…Farmi non può!
Dove il fuoco cuoce, ma se scappi,
it lascia stare…Ti lascia stare.
E non it corre dietro e non it distrugge
solo a guardarlo…Solo a guardarlo…

The others in the carriage joined in –of course everyone knew the words by heart—and so they sang along with verve as the carriage ascended the mountain:

Andiamo, andiamo,
sopra andiamo, andiam…
Andiamo, andiamo,
sopra andiamo, andiam…

At that point the descending carriage came within sight and then earshot—and the passengers therein, catching the tune of the ascending passengers, joined in:

Funiculí - funiculá, funiculí - funiculá...
Sopra andiamo, andiam…funiculí - funiculá....!

Just as quickly, the descending carriage passed them by, with much waving of hands and handkerchiefs and singing, and they continued their own ascent.

At last they arrived at the upper station, much smaller than the one below, built of vertical wooden siding. They emerged from the station onto a strange, sloping scene—with frozen lava swirled about, and high above, the summit of the mountain. The other tourists who had preceded them up the slope were moving about slowly, cautiously, on the unsteady ground, disporting themselves among the floes and ridges. There were some twenty or thirty well-dressed men in suits and women wearing showy dresses with gigantic hats trimmed with feathers, all taking in the eerie scene. Maria, Giovanni and Rico and the others who came up on their carriage soon joined them, and turning round for the first time, beheld the unparalleled view of all of Naples, the Bay and what seemed to Maria the whole world.

“Now, dear lady, you have seen the Bay of Naples as it must be seen!” Rico announced. “I place it as a gift, at your feet. Everything that you behold, Miss Fucci, is yours!”

“And half the Mediterranean, as well,” Giovanni puffed. He was winded from the excitement of the place and dizzy from the thin air. He sat down as soon as he could find a place.

Maria walked on ten or more paces and then she, too, perched on a small boulder-like piece of the lava floe and gazed upon it all, and then closed her eyes and wondered if she were dreaming. Rico sauntered up behind her, so quietly that she had no idea he was there. And then, as if it were just a bit of a song, he whispered, “Ti voglio bene" ... I love you.”

Slowly, Maria opened her eyes. Rico was still standing behind her. She looked down at the bay and the city, the dots of islands, the boats in the water, the distant haze. What should she say to him in return? He loved her. She loved…or did she? There was a time when she thought she had loved J’vill, but he was only a dream. She had loved Tanio and then he was gone. Like a dream. Was this also a dream?

“Did you hear me, Maria?” Rico whispered in the same low, musical tone.

She nodded.

“I sense that I must not press you for an answer, as much as I long to hear it,” Rico said. “But can you give me some sign of your feelings?”

Maria knew she could hesitate no longer. “You must know that I am pledged to go to America,” she began, with much regret in her tone. “There, I will be part of my brother’s household. I am to share in the work that my sister-in-law does, and in return, to experience what freedoms that America has to offer.” Maria turned her face toward Rico’s. “Rico, I find you charming and your expression of love has touched my heart. Even so, it would be wrong of me, at this moment, to tell you that I love you, because of the promises I have made.” Here, Maria was thinking of the promise to go to America but also about the promise she had made to Giovanni just the day before.

“Naturally,” Rico nodded. “After all,” he said, “what am I? Not much for a woman as wonderful as you, Maria. A big chest, a big mouth, ninety percent memory, ten percent intelligence, lots of hard work, and something in the heart."

“You do yourself a disservice,” Maria answered. “You are an exciting whirlwind of energy with a voice like an angel and a love of life that is a marvel. You have shown me some of the most amazing things today but nothing compares with the fact that it is you who has shown them to me. Naples is fantastic and breathtaking and today Naples has become the dearest place on earth for me. But Naples would be nothing at all, if you had not shown it to me.”

“Maria,” Rico replied, “I will say nothing more, just now. I admire your dedication to the plan to go and be in America. You are a woman who keeps her word. Here, let me tell you what I have not told any living soul. Not long from now, I will be in America too. And when I am there, I will come and see you. And see how you are faring, there. And I will see if this tenderness in my heart for you is, as I know it will be, even greater. If such a thing were possible. May I make this promise, to come to see you?”

“Would you?” Maria asked with genuine thankfulness and anticipation. “It would mean everything to me.”

“Then it is my pledge and my promise to you,” Rico said.

As they were talking Giovanni had been walking toward them, choosing his route carefully since the ground was most uneven and strewn about with pebbles and rocks. They had fallen silent by the time he came within earshot.

“So Maria,” Giovanni called, while he was not yet at their side. “Have you seen your fill of the view?”

Maria shook her head, “No, dear cousin, I do not think I would ever be able to have my fill of this view. It seems strange, though, to be up here in this place of sunlight and calm when I know that it also has so many sad historic associations.”

“True,” said Giovanni. For example if you look jus there, you can see the profile of Capo Miseno, ancient Misenum, at the northwest end of the Bay of Naples, from which Pliny first saw the terrible eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.”

“Where?” Maria asked.

“Just there,” Giovanni pointed. “You see the jutting mound? Look where the sunlight is falling on that honey colored stone wall, and where the cedars are standing so stately and tall. That is the place where the sad story began.”

“What happened?” Maria could tell that Giovanni was longing to tell her.

“Pliny, and by this I mean the Elder, uncle of Pliny the Younger, was at that place because he was commander of the fleet. Sometime in the afternoon of the twenty-fourth of August, his sister drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance, emanating from where we are standing now. He was resting after dinner, reading his books. But this curiously prompted him to action. So he asked for his shoes, and then climbed up to a place from which he could get the best view. The great man was interested in all things marvelous and this had caught hold of his imagination.”

“You mean he was not afraid?” Maria asked.

“Quite the contrary, my dear girl,” said Giovanni. “He was like Rico when he steps out on the stage! A lion in the forest, afraid of nothing!”

Rico smiled and said, “Even a lion might be a bit cautious around this unpredictable mountain, though.”

“As well it should be,” said Giovanni. “Pliny should have shown more care, himself. For, you see, the sight of the ominous plumes of the volcano filling the sky over Naples made the scientist in him determined to see it from closer at hand.”

“No!” said Maria.

“Sadly, yes,” replied Giovanni. “This is what he did next. He ordered a boat made ready. He urged his nephew and namesake to go along, but he happened to be at his studies and so declined.”

“No one should ever complain of homework,” Rico quipped.

“Indeed, it is what saved the youth,” Giovanni agreed. “But the uncle went on as if driven by some unseen hand. It was further tipped by a letter that came from Tascius' wife Rectina, just as he was setting out. She was in her villa at the foot of Vesuvius. She had no means of escape except by sea. She begged him to come and take her away to safety. So Pliny modified his plan; he would go and rescue the fair Rectina, and all with her.”

“Brave fellow!” Rico said.
“Brave and rash,” Giovanni added. “So, he made haste, to go to the place while others were fleeing. He set his course directly into danger.”

“Was he afraid?” Maria asked.

Giovanni shook his head, “It seems not. The ash fell, darker and denser the closer they came.” Giovanni reached down, took up a handful of the debris as his feet, and held it before his listeners. “It was this, bits of pumice, but hot, blackened, burned and shattered by the fire. The
helmsman urged him onward with the words, ‘Fortune helps the brave! Head for Pomponianus!’"

“Pomponiasas was at Stabiae, on the other side of the bay, just there,” Giovanni continued. “He had loaded up his ships. He planned to put out as soon as the contrary wind let up. That very wind carried Pliny in, where he embraced the frightened man and gave him comfort and courage. Then he did something remarkable, to lessen the other's fears.”

“What was that?” Rico and Maria asked.

“He embodied nonchalance, by asking to be taken to the baths!” Giovanni told them. “There, he bathed and dined at leisure, seeming to be without a care in the world.”

“Calm under calamity,” Rico said.

“Or foolhardy beyond hope,” Maria observed.

“Some of both, I think,” Giovanni went on. “To make the long story short, the ash and pumice and shaking of the earth all increased. They went out of doors with pillows on their heads for protection. The rocks were coming down. The daylight turned to darkness. Pliny stood up, but immediately collapsed. It is said that he died from the dust-laden air. When daylight returned after two days, his body was found untouched by the fire, in the clothing that he had had on. He looked more asleep than dead.”

Maria shuddered involuntarily. Rico saw it and said, “Time to descend, I believe.”

“…There were thousands who perished in that eruption…” Giovanni continued as if he had not heard Rico.

“And we shall all perish of hunger, my old friend, if we do not go down at once, and find a place for dinner,” Rico said loudly. Giovanni heard him and got the point that it was time for his narrative to conclude.

The reader is invited to check this blog often to be able to read the next chapters as they are posted.

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