5 maggio 2023
by Francesco Palmieri

We are all sailors

Gardens and statue of Emperor Augustus on Capri
Gardens and statue of Emperor Augustus on Capri

“It looks like wine," said Nenè, the rude and highly intelligent child whom Leonardo Sciascia describes as the little tyrant on an interminable train journey from Rome to Sicily. "It looks like wine," he says, looking out of the window at the sea, but it is the author who is talking, his voice disguised as that of a child to awaken among adults an uncertain memory, taken little seriously, of the famous oinops póntos by Homer.

That they, the grown-ups, have perhaps already heard... but then who knows.

It is the ancient color of the Mediterranean, or it is how ancient eyes perceived it and we no longer do, and then "perhaps it is also color-blind" the child Nene, or perhaps "it has grasped something of the truth: perhaps the effect, like wine, that a sea like this has. It doesn’t intoxicate: it takes hold of thoughts, arouses ancient wisdom.”

This sea is "an immense archive and a deep tomb," noted the Croatian writer

Predrag Matvejević in his Mediterranean Breviary, perhaps the densest and most intense literary guide ever compiled on our sea; probably the most beautiful, where even the lighthouses, bollards, ropes and buoys become poetry.

Therefore, when writing fails to meet the demands of the chronicles, or scientific documentation, we are reminded that it has the pleasant duty to reawaken the doubt, or certainty, of another intellectual dimension: a "deep tomb" the Mediterranean has been indeed, and not only today, but from the beginning of History, and everyone will have at least one case, one spontaneous example taken from those pages that only due to the distance of time we no longer call “chronicle.” For those who were born or grew up in Southern Italy, genetic memory, if not certain physical connotations, testifies to exchanges, conflicts, contaminations and treasures both material and cultural that were taken or lost, stolen and given away.

Foods, fairy tales, folk legends and linguistic etymologies are recordings of the past on faded tapes that can sometimes be rewound and certain parts replayed. We need the untainted eyes of Nene, Sciascia's small boy, that is, we need to rediscover the clean view that forgetting everything can recall Homer and see "the color of wine" in that sea that in textbooks and Google Maps is shown as a conventional, unnatural fake blue. Or we have to venture into ancient languages and, in a corner if not untouched at least only minimally violated, experience – like Professor La Ciura in Tomasi di Lampedusa's masterpiece The Siren – the privilege of meeting a mermaid and then we with her are beyond time. With the momentary abolition of History.

"The Mediterranean," again says Matvejević, "has erected monuments to faith and superstition, greatness and vanity." Indispensable and terrible, between progress and blood. On certain early mornings, I used to return to the Neapolitan church of Santa Caterina a Formello near Porta Capuana, fascinated by the display of the hundreds of beheaded skulls of the Martyrs of Otranto that were moved there from Puglia, imagining the dreadful scene of that mass execution in the scorching August of 1480, ordered by an admiral of Sultan Mohammed II to punish the refusal to surrender and then to convert. These events are imprinted in the collective memory: the arrival of the "Turks," the landing of the Saracens recounted by a seventeenth-century song, Michelemmà, symbolized by a rat and rape. And which Gioachino Rossini, in the early nineteenth century, softened and downplayed in the gallant arrival of The Turk in Italy. Within the music, it is also fascinatingly easy to find – in the musical scales of the Neapolitan school, or in the calls of the street vendors gathered in the nineteenth century – the Arabic lilt that remind us of the significant cultural debt towards that world both friend and foe, executioner and victim, with which it traded and fought, which it taught and from which it learned over the centuries.

For long before, from the Greeks to the Egyptians, the East had landed on southern shores not only with goods but with religious practices: cloths and spices but also the appearance of Isis, Mithras, a sacred crowd so great that Petronius, writing about Naples, said that it seemed to him "easier to meet a god than a man" in this city reached from the East by Virgil, magical protector of Parthenope who with his body arrived from Brindisi; where again from the East arrived the virgin Patricia, granddaughter of emperor Constantine and future joint patron saint of the city alongside Gennaro. For there is an obsession with a lunar virgin that crosses this sea from the shores of Islam to Gibraltar, and allegedly exploded in Naples with the "black" Madonnas: the Madonna del Carmine or Vergine Bruna [Brown Virgin], the Madonna di Montevergine or "Mamma Schiavona” [Mother Slave] because of the dark complexion of her face (please excuse the sudden jump from the sacred to the profane and from virgins to divas: but how can we forget that the two great icons of beauty, Sophia Loren and Claudia Cardinale, were born one in Pozzuoli and the other in La Goulette, an outport of Tunis?).

As with traces in language, the toponyms reveal the layers of a history, a popular culture that even if it continues in latent form acts on the collective imagination, so that in the heart of Naples, and with its name baptizes certain streets, we find the statue of the god Nile standing where an Alexandrian colony was established

As with traces in language, the toponyms reveal the layers of a history, a popular culture that even if it continues in latent form acts on the collective imagination, so that in the heart of Naples, and with its name baptizes certain streets, we find the statue of the god Nile standing where an Alexandrian colony was established. It endured in name and in marble among the churches and conversions, in a process of natural integration that is also "immense archive" that makes the Mediterranean our father and mother, genetics, DNA, memory even when on the saddest days it would seem only "a deep tomb." We didn’t need to be told by a great English poet, but it was good of T.S. Eliot to remind us in The Waste Land that Phlebas the Phoenician's death by water is food for thought for anyone, "Gentile or Jew."

Sometimes, reading Matvejević, it seems he went too far when he said: "Europe was conceived on the Mediterranean." Then it happens that a small Neapolitan publisher, Langella, publishes for the first time in Italian The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen's sojourn in Naples, and reading the passage on the Blue Grotto, which the Danish author visited with a German guide, you realize that that was the very day that the idea for the Little Mermaid came to him, sprouted in the waters of Parthenope, on the waves of the Mediterranean that had bewitched Professor La Ciura: "What a fairytale world there is in there..." began Andersen's entry on Thursday, March 6, 1834. And then yes, you know, and you think back to the very long list (recomposed recently in a guide by a German journalist who fell in love with Capri, Stefanie Sonnentag) of Nordic artists and intellectuals who were inspired by or found shelter in those waters, rocks, creeks from where they would depart carrying regret, like Goethe, a fairytale like Andersen; and so yes, Matvejević is right, he is not exaggerating when he says that on this sea Europe, at least a certain Europe, is periodically conceived or reconceived.

There is a famous song by Eugenio Bennato, Che il Mediterraneo sia [Let it be the Mediterranean], which offers a good or better description of this sea: “Tra la storia e la leggenda/ Del flamenco e della taranta/ E tra l’algebra e la magia/ Nella scia di quei marinai./ È quell’onda che non smette mai/ Che il Mediterraneo sia.” [Between history and legend/ Of flamenco and taranta/ And between algebra and magic/ In the wake of those sailors./ It is that wave that never stops/ Let it be the Mediterranean.] We who are by fate – and let us confess, we would not want any different – “affacciati alle sponde dello stesso mare/ E nisciuno è pirata e nisciuno è emigrante/ Simme tutte naviganti” [facing the shores of the same sea/ And no one is a pirate and no one is an emigrant/ We are all sailors], even if we have never set foot on a boat, we are still certain that in the darkness of generations past at least one of our forgotten ancestors, one of our ancestors who is now dust amidst the sand and coral, memory of the fish, lost froth of the sea, we are still certain that she once sailed somewhere. She once landed somewhere.

That is why our sea is untamable even for those who experience only the “mild and tame” water of the city, as described by the writer Giuseppe Marotta; even if it is only the sea in which Raffaele La Capria used to dive from Palazzo Donn'Anna, or with his Leoni al sole from a boat in Positano on a beautiful summer day. To all, even the unaware, the Mediterranean imposes an awareness of universal sharing where nothing that happens there can really be far away. Nor has it ever been. “We are all sailors.”

And Phlebas the Phoenician is the hidden brother of all.

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