Friday, October 27th.
Here for a very small conference, about 20 of us plus spectators, of whom there are a fair number. A conference on the Major and Minor Prophets. I’m here under false pretences. Or at least so everyone will think. I am here because I wrote a response to Ehud (Ben Zvi) and James Nogalski, who have been clashing for twenty years over the existence of a Book of the Twelve Minor Prophets. If anyone has any trouble with insomnia, try reciting the names of the Minor Prophets 100 times. My response, from a literary perspective, was quite good, I think, now that I’ve read it, and the organizers maybe wanted me to speak on that. But I didn’t realise, and I didn’t think we three would be the only North Americans, so I’ve written a paper on the Prophetic Trap which will go down like a lead balloon, or which will trap me howling in my own devices. Or perhaps I’m here because I really like one of the organizer’s, Guido Benzi’s, book on Isaiah and he might like my work also.
So I arrived on Wednesday after a typically exhausting journey from Victoria, with a nearly five hour wait in Frankfurt. They are treating us royally, or one should say episcopally. I was picked up at Verona airport and driven one and a half hours to Mantua. Mantua a lovely UNESCO cultural city, tucked between three artificial lakes. They pride themselves on ravioli di zucca (pumpkin), which is a speciality of Mantua, but in fact it is just like the butternut squash ravioli we get in Ottavio’s.
I just got back from my typical jet-lagged early morning walk in this magical city. I tried to find the lake (one of the three lakes in which the city is enclosed: in the twelfth century they were artifically created as defences). It was cold and beautiful.
Perhaps breakfast soon. Not very much for breakfast,I’m afraid. A few croissants and things. A machine for making coffee.
Yesterday I rented a bike. A disaster. I wanted to cycle around the lakes. But I went off int the wrong direction, lost my map, got stuck in pedestrian areas, was terrified by traffic, pulled a muscle.. what else? Brought the bike back before the conference, but of course the seller was on a break and took about five or ten minutes to get back. And I’m incapable of speaking Italian.
The conference began about 3.30 or 4. A nice paper from Georg Fischer from Innsbruck, who drove on his motorbike 300 kms and then drove straight back. Shades of Willi. Gave his paper largely on the differences as well as commonalities between the Major and Minor Prophets. A very nice and interesting person. And a long flamboyant largely improvised one by a man called ,magnificently Simone Paganini on the Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts and the the major and minor prophets, and I kept nodding off in the question period, but fortunately was able to have an espresso in the break, and then one from Guido’s friend, Donatalla Scaiola, also an organizer, on the different orders of the Prophetic books and what they might mean. – I really liked. All this took place in the Bishop’s Palace in the most beautiful square I can remember, and then we had a four course meal in the room next door – and a fabulous (and hilarious) visit to the giant Basilica late in the evening.
Here is the square where the meeting takes place and the entrance into the Bishops Palace with guardian angels in suggestive poses.
Saturday, October 28th.
Am out earlyish and having a cappucino and a cornetto with crema in a cafe down the road. The hotel breakfasts are of an unbelievable awfulness. Now the cappucino in this little cafe/bar at 6 in the morning is fairly large, so another of my illusions about Italy has been disabused. But it is very nice. In the hotel there are a large number of rather stale pastries and a coffee machine which produces cappucinos as blah as any in North America, or indeed cappucino machines all over the world. I miss Caffe Rutkowski.
Bennett has come home with Vika, the new dog from Greece. She is timid but has been exploring the house with great interest. Bennett took her out to have a pee, and intends to give her short walks.
All this is to avoid talking about yesterday which was of great length, from 8.30 a.m. to 11.30 p.m. and great fun, but now suffering under a cloud of jetlag. In the morning Ehud spoke – his title was almost as long as his paper- but it has already disappeared into the cloud of forgetfulness. I’ll have to ask him for a copy. It was rather good, that’s all I remember and I asked a question. Then a talk read at breakneck speed by someone called Anneliese Guida, on confessions, and the “I” voice in the prophets – we English speakers had a text but it was difficult to follow because it followed the syndrome of reading too quickly and without emotion except how can I possibly get through it as quickly as possible. And there was a rather nice talk by someone clerical on Prophets and Sibyls in the Sistine chapel and in a cathedral church in Asola – Michelangelo’s motivations, whether his image of Jeremiah is a self-portrait. It was rather strange the prophets who were chosen (David, Isaiah, Daniel, and Jonah). A very gorgeous youthful Jonah about to be swallowed by a fish, which did not look especially gigantic. And Guido (Benzi) spoke about the relationship of Isaiah 1 and Hosea 1-3, which was good – though at times I wonder.
And after lunch in a local restaurant, Alphonso Groenewald who had travelled all the way from South Africa with mother and friend on Isaiah as trauma literature. Yes, OK, and he sees everything as post-exilic, but I found also something disappointing. I should talk to him. There wasn’t enough there. And Jim Nogalski, on the big trajectories in the Minor Prophets and the Major ones, OK, quite good – though I feel somewhat disconnected from it. He wants to see big patterns and wholes, and I just want to see whorls.
I was starting to feel nauseous, I think lack of sleep, and tried to sort out the forms – but I managed to give my paper. I was really pleased when someone behind me said Bellissimo. I think it was performance and writing. But I was also feeling a bit like an old war horse. But I had been anxious about it. And then a really nice paper by someone called Mario whose second name escapes just for the moment about language and the body, with bits of Lacan and Freud – it was really on the notions of falsehood and truth. Isn’t that nice to have.
Lovely people here.
And I went back to the hotel to rest and then back to the restaurant for dinner (zuppa di fagioli, spada (swordfish) and salad, a sort of cream with wonderful ginger-syrup preserved lemon peel, or was it citron?) and then a public evening in the Gonzaga family chapel, big enough to fit a football stadium, where there were greetings, and an interminable speech about a biblical scholar in Mantua who had died 25 years before, and by the end we started wondering whether zikhrono livrachah was right, and perhaps it was time he was forgotten. And then a lovely concert of Renaissance music from the Mantova court, with a Barekhu and Barukh Ha Ba Beshem Adonai from Salomone Rossi, the great Jewish composer from Mantua, and and also Orlando de Lasso. I didn’t know that Solomone Rossi’s sister was one of the first great opera singers (about 1600), and that they both died either in the Austrian conquest of Mantua in 1630 or in the plague the Austrian troops brought with them.
The ducal palace – on the opposite side of the square from the Bishop’s one.
Then there were a couple more lectures – on the Prophets (read by the nice Elena di Pede who is one of the organizers, since the priestly author was ill) and by a spruce professor of art on prophets and sibyls, yet again. But I was too sleepy and headachy by then, and Ehud, who was sitting next to me, even more so. But it was a magnificent family chapel.
Nice to be in a little unpretentious cafe, just like in Cortona.
Love to all. I’ll try to attach some pictures.
Sunday, 29th October
Last day. Feel a bit sad and liminal. When we get home I will get to meet our new, shy dog.
Yesterday morning was the last session of the conference. It was pretty well on Jeremiah. It began with Benedetta Rossi on links between Jeremiah 26 and Jonah 3, and the issue of divine repentance. It was very well thought out, but I somehow thought a bit too evolutionary. She is a sister (of St. Mary), teaches in Rome alongside Donatella…Then there was Patrizio who teaches (or is) near Bergamo, on Habbakuk and Jeremiah… and Yair Zakovitch gave a beautiful presentation, as always, on Joel’s reversals of Isaiah, and how both reverse Exodus – he has such a gift for intertextual comparisons and grand pictures That has been one of the pleasures of the trip, knowing Yair again (after many years), also Benedetta – and I spent some time this morning talking to Annaliese, from Napoli – and of course Donatella, and Guido, though also a great sense of the unknowns, the people not talked to, the ones whose names I forget, the slow erosion of age. And finally there was a long paper by a participant called Roberto (I think local, if I remember) who said that there was no English translation, because there were too many mistakes, but there didn’t really seem to be an Italian one, either, only a handout, and he spoke extremely slowly and deliberately about Jonah, and it was really quite interesting, talking about Jonah from Kristeva’s theory of the abject and Seneca’s analysis of the passions – only it was the last paper of an exhausting conference, and it was very slow,and we were waiting for the end. For lunch and sleep etc.
In the afternoon we had a guided tour of part of the ducal palace. It is immense: something like 950 rooms, and it was more or less a city within the city, with all administrative functions. We went round and round, in a kind of blur… so many paintings, so many ceilings, so many courtyards, so many carvings, so much mythology, so many treasures of the dead, such as Isabella d’Este, who collected huge quantities of curios and 2000 carvings, and left them in little drawers in her studies. What it must have been like to be a Gonzaga. Some rather bloody and dramatic pictures, like the Gonzaga overthrow of the previous ruling family in 1390 something…but it was all too much…
And in the evening the President of the synagogue and his wife opened it for us. I found it very sad: they don’t have a minyan and very few services, maybe for Barmitzvahs and on Yom Kippur. It is a beautiful old synagogue, the Norsa one (a tale in itself) dating from 1543. Here are some photos: A bench behind the pulpit, the Ark, a screen for the women’s gallery:
And here is the river at night:
Monday, 30th October – Frankfurt Airport
The wretched thing i.e. WordPress is misbehaving.
I was going to talk about my fabulous visit to the Palazzo del Te yesterday. The Palazzo del Te was the Gonzagas’ summer palace and recreation centre on the outskirts of Mantua, where they bred horses, fished in fishponds, had beautiful formal gardens, entertained distinguished guests, and got away from the business of governing. It was built and decorated over ten years by Giulio Romano and a horde of subcontracted artists. It is an extraordinary display of Renaissance art, display, wit, learning and trome d’oeil – officially mannerist for its learned divergence from classical formalism. I walked through the quiet streets and queued up for a little and wandered out into the formal gardens
and then to the secret garden, right at the end of the gardens, where the Duke (Frederico II) had his private retreat and his grotto. Every duke needs a grotto. The garden is decorated with stuccos of Aesop’s fables and his favourite puppy is buried there. Then back through room after room of fabulous frescos, floors, fireplaces, the room of the horses with statues of all the duke’s magnificent horses, some of which can be identified and some not – this is the biggest room, for formal dances and dinners, and was laid out with chairs for a lecture. It seems i cannot put up pictures in this airport. Then there was a room of the winds, and the room of Cupid and Psyche – where the Emperor Charles V visited in 1530 and 1532, and the Pope came several times. Cupid and Psyche represented (according to the audio guide) Frederico and his frustrated love for Isabella Biachesti, a match of which his mother disapproved. It is roughly based on Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, though with details changed. And i forget other chambers = there are 25 of them. and beautiful fireplaces with different kinds of marble. But the Chamber of the Giants is something else: a room in which the corners have been entirely erased to give the impression of a single round composition, of Zeus and Hera hurling thunderbolts from Mt. Olympus when the giants tried to scale it. What it all meant, goodness knows. And the enormous artistic effort and sense of design – all under the direction of Giulio Romano, all over a space of ten years – is unimaginable.
Then off by train to Verona, after waiting a bit, and then to the airport hotel in a magnificent sunset by taxi, and then straight to sleep, at about 6.30 or 7, and then I woke up about 12.30 to leave at 4.30 for the airport. And now here in Frankfurt waiting for the flight to Vancouver.
And what does it all mean? I was talking about this with Ehud the other night. Ehud was a bit surprised that I’ve only just started to be invited to join the circus of going here there and everywhere, and me too – I think it is a bit of Ehud’s doing, and also a bit of people catching up with my work – and as Ehud says, we can only do it for a few years as the grass grows on the pasture. But the overwhelming feeling is that I want to be put to bed, as one puts a garden to bed in the autumn, to put life in order and say, there, that’s done. But I wonder what it will be like, in ten years, or twenty.
So now I go home to see Bennett, who is recovering from a bad cold, and Vika, the new dog, who is very scared of people and other dogs. Poor thing.
Funny that there is such a short time on earth for this extraordinary thing of a human or animal consciousness, and then it is over for ever and ever and ever.
It was lovely to be Mantua with these very interesting, lively, thoughtful people. I appreciated their generosity so much. I liked going into a cafe, and seeing the endless flow of chatter between the clients and the server.
This morning, early, early, in the cafe at Verona airport there was a young woman taking orders, speaking perfect English, making coffees, serving them, clearing dishes, rushing here there and everywhere with perfect cheerfulness, when she must have been half asleep, and I admired her so much.
What are my favourite words: Allora. I think that is my favourite. There are others, but i’ve forgotten them. My Italian was disappointingly hopeless. If I tried very hard and people were very patient I could slow piece together a sentence. But I learnt a lot in a way. And of course my passive ability was much better.