Many years ago, back in my early dancing days, I was contracted to appear in Italy, firstly at the prestigious annual Song Festival in San Remo:
and then, afterwards, in a TV Spectacular, ‘Penso, Corrido e Canto’ which was to filmed at Cinecittà Studios in Rome.
But that was during another period of strikes and austerity and we arrived in the Eternal City only to discover all TV studios and theatres were ‘dark’. Stars of the show included the renowned dancers Renato Greco and his wife, Maria Theresa dal Medico, the singing group ‘Ricchi e Poveri’ and the host was the (still!) ever popular TV personality: Pippo Baudo. So the decision was taken to take the show on the road and to the people instead. For this, a huge circus tent was commandeered (minus the acts and performing animals, I hasten to add!) and the entire cast and crew, plus a full orchestra, spent the next few months travelling around the country, pitching up and entertaining the masses as we went.
Our adventure began in the eastern seaside resort of Pescara and from there we slowly made our way south, through the ports of Bari, Barletta, Brindisi etc and occasionally venturing inland to towns such as Manfredonia, San Severo, Lecce etc.
Mostly we followed the coastline around the heel of Italy and we ended the first tour in Taranto, which is where I eventually left the company.
It was a magical time and provided a wonderful opportunity to see a side of Italy that few tourists, at the time, had ventured anywhere near. We stayed no more than 2 or 3 nights in each town, in decent but basic accommodation (mostly provided by the ‘Hotel Jolly’ chain – a name which continually reduced us to giggles, for ‘jolly’ they certainly were not! Apart from the wonderful reception we received wherever we went, the camaraderie – not to mention the occasional disaster – all added to the wonderful over all experience.
One such ‘disaster’ was also as a result of the austerity measures. Some evenings. without warning, the hotel’s water supply would be temporarily disconnected (usually just as we were about to take our showers and get ready for the evening show!) One memorable night I was rudely awoken at 5.00 am by my room-mate sitting crossed legged on her bed, mimicking a gondolier rowing and singing at the top of her voice: “Venezia, La luna E Tu!”
“What on earth are you doing?” I screeched, frantically scrambling out of bed, only to step straight into 3 feet of ice cold water which was racing like a torrent around the room, carrying all our possessions; shoes, make up, music cassettes, books etc like flotsam and jetsam, along with it.
Panicking, we raced to open the door and found a river gushing down the stairwell from above, gathering momentum (and water!) from each floor as it went. It seems the water had been turned back on while we slept but we (and most of the company too) had inadvertently forgotten to turn off our ‘dry’ bathroom taps……
Apart from the actual show, my happiest memories are of the ‘after show’ meals; each small local Trattoria would welcome the entire company, bustling us into a large rear room where blinds would be lowered and we’d be ‘locked’ in for the duration. Between midnight and 3 or 4 am, course after course of delicious homemade Italian food would appear in front of us on a large communal table, always beginning with an amazing pasta dish and ending with a giant bowl of oranges. The wine flowed freely and much laughter, animated conversation and heated debate was conducted throughout the meal – and over many a card game of ‘scala quaranta’ which lasted long into the night. Ah, Happy Days…….
I was sorry I was unable to continue with the second tour which was to cover the north of Italy; Milan and most especially Venice.
It was to be many years before I got to realise that particular dream but when I did, it lived up to every expectation!
Films such as the eerie thriller ‘Don’t Look Now’ (with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) and ‘Death in Venice’ (with Dirk Bogarde) had both left indelible impressions on my young mind (I still feel incredibly moved by Mahler’s 5th Symphony, the soundtrack to the latter) and they accompanied me, enveloping me in a deep sadness, as I explored the narrow streets and canals.
Majestic as the great Venetian palaces are, their faded grandeur, peeling facades and rising waterline emit a tangible sense of lost days of glory – it pervades the whole city …..
Perhaps this was more pronounced because we visited in a dark and gloomy November (a wonderful anniversary surprise from my husband) but despite the bitter cold and damp, we were thankful that it meant we had the city almost entirely to ourselves (I dread to think how it must be with the crowds and heat during the summer!)
Especially in the normally packed St Mark’s Square.
The Doges Palace was simply magnificent and, as an artist, I was in awe of the sheer beauty that confronted us at every turn:
It was a totally unforgettable experience which, even years later, inspired me to paint this:
and to pen these few words:
Instantly recognisable, your famous skyline majestically rises
Above the misty lagoon. Strangely, it holds no surprises:
But to recall how Turner saw you, I must look inside my head
To see beyond the crass commercialism that confronts us now instead.
Yes there’s St. Marks, the Doge’s Palace, the Rialto and Bridge of Sighs,
But with stucco peeling, tho’ your lofty palaces appear to rise,
With dignity not defiance, above the singing gondoliers
All along the Grand Canal, there flows your salty tears:
For, all the while, deep down, you are silently drowning, drowning…..
With dogged desperation, you cling to beauty that’s fast fading
And although, as you’ve always done, you’re still proudly trading.
Alas, it’s no longer in exotic silks and spices from the East.
No, now you trade on the grandeur of glorious days, long since ceased.
Where once, behind proud merchants’ doors, your coffers were filled with gold
Today, only worthless trinkets lie, begging to be sold,
To ‘keep your head above water’ (literally!) in order to survive,
You’re selling your soul, your integrity, just to stay alive:
For, all the while, you are slowly sinking, sinking…..
You mesmerize us still, fascinating each new generation
That treads your ancient mosaics while unwittingly wearing away
Yet another layer of your proud history that’s sinking into the clay.
A culture so richly embedded in an Empire long past,
You’re slowly being eroded and, like your beautiful Murano glass;
Those multi-faceted jewels, that dazzle in the light,
You’re profoundly complex and fragile – and no less sparkling in the night
Yet, all the while from within, you are quietly cracking, cracking….
I should have never seen you in this state. l try to hold on somehow
To your image in films like ‘Death in Venice’ and ‘Don’t Look Now’.
But like the masques of the Commedia dell ‘Arte, grotesquely evil in a way,
Which are sold on every corner, of every crisscrossed water-way,
However grandly embellished with feathers, faded velvet and gaudy gold leaf,
They are just a façade. Foolish, they fool no-one. They don’t command belief.
So too you continue to smile your broad, vacant, papier-mache grin.
and while no tears breach the gaping holes where bright eyes were once set within:
All the while, inside, your soul is hopelessly crying, crying……
Now, seeing you at last, through older experienced eyes,
I see only a life that’s built on a raft of lies.
I’ve tried to live my life, with honesty, truth and pride,
to avoid such compromise and inevitable emptiness inside.
I’ve refused to sell my soul for superficial gain,
For drowning in a salty sea is no honourable type of pain.
Have you no regard for the others that will come after?
Can you find no other way to ensure their love and laughter?
Than hiding from the truth and persistently lying about the fact you’re dying…
We’ll all succumb to age, despite preserving as best we may
The lives we invest so much in, to see another day.
It’s hard to face the truth head-on and watch life slip away
When the heart still quickens and yearns for the youth of yesterday.
I look to you, dear Venice, filled with sadness and decay
And think perhaps, that after all, yours is not the way.
And so from now I will endeavour to find the strength inside
To age, if I can, more gracefully and hope I’m not denied.
Even though I know, like you, one day we’ll all be dying, dying……..
I came away with a beautiful 18th century water-colour which hangs in pride of place in the stairwell at home. I pass it every day and it serves as a constant reminder of a truly beautiful city, a wonderful occasion and another dream fulfilled.