Literary traces of the Cinque Terre


(Continuing from the previous article on the artistic legacy of the Cinque Terre, here is a short piece on literary traces of the area. Just as the earlier misses out many voices so does this one. I’m hoping to write a more complete article on this elsewhere)

In this book, the boats sail; the waves repeat their song; the winemakers come down from the hills of the Cinque Terre on the Genoese riviera; in Provence and in Greece the olives are beaten down from the trees; the fishermen bring in their nets from the laguna of Venice; the carpenters build their boats- the same as those from yesterday…And once more, watching them, we find ourselves outside of time.

Braudel’s mention of the Cinque Terre as one of the symbolic landscapes of the Mediterranean is one that I value due to a certain undeniable campanalismo. Amongst those winemakers he mentions were my grandparents and great grandparents. I still remember the texture of some of the grapes and their different forms and tastes: uva del bosco, trebbiana, regina, moscato. Many of the terrains now lay fallow and the dry-stone walls slowly crumble replaced by the macchia mediterranea. There is enough left of the old terraced lands to charm the tourists (and even to claim proudly that if put side by side they would rival the Great Wall of China in length) but not enough to sustain the villages economically. The villages are slowly filling up with overpriced fast food places, sushi bars and souvenir shops while the price of essentials are so wildly exaggerated that few inhabitants (those at least not making their money from tourists) can ever afford to shop locally. Tourists directed here by mass market American tour guides and a surge in tourism also from middle aged and middle class Europeans, Americans and now also Indians, Russians, Koreans and Japanese have meant a generational shift of massive proportions. A few decades ago in my relatives village a single hotel would cater to those visitors having a rather more organic and rather faithful relationship to the location (spending most or all of their summers here). This reality has been lost but in many ways the Cinque Terre has often been conceived as a kind of ‘lost realm’ in descriptions of the place.

In fact this is the title of one of collections by the forgotten author, Ettore Cozzani, who could be said to be one of the twentieth centuries most important authors from these parts. A native of La Spezia, Cozzani spent many summers in the Cinque Terre and wrote extensively about them whether in his work Il Regno Perduto (The Lost Realm) or in his Racconti delle Cinque Terre (Tales of the Cinque Terre). Much of his ambitious epic poem Poema del Mare (Poem of the Sea) was said to have been worked on during the twenty summers that he passed in the Cinque Terre. Cozzani has not had the fortune of having been reprinted in recent years and so his books lie in old local and regional libraries.

If Cozzani has become a forgotten voice there is one twentieth century figure who has immortalized the landscape of the Cinque Terre in his poetry and whose voice is unlikely to be forgotten. According to the Russian poet Jospeh Brodsky Montale is a poet of such order that he replaced the Dantesque dolce stil nuovo in Italian poetry with his own amaro stil nuovo and is indebted to nobody. Brodsky is full of emphatic praise in his essay on Montale including this one where he places Montale in extremely impressive company:

A contemporary of Apollinaire, T.S. Eliot, Mandelstam, he belongs more than chronologically to that generation. Each of these writers wrought a qualitative change in his respective literature, as did Montale, whose task was much the hardest.

Montale who would spend his summers at his family-owned villa in Monterosso went beyond merely describing the landscape in his poetry. The Cinque Terre expresses something more universal as the landscape is presented in action as a dramatic force. For the author of a book on the three most important Italian poets, Joseph Cary, the Cinque Terre expresses a massive, dumb resistance, a “long patience” ‘laconic always, refractory”. The dryness or aridity and roughness and stoniness of the landscape becomes transfixed in Montale’s language. A number of the poems in his first (and, in many ways, major) collection Ossi di Seppia (Cuttlefish bones) are intimately linked to the paesaggio of the Cinque Terre (as are some poems of his subsequent works like Le Occasioni.

A number of Montale’s poems explicitly refer to places in and near the Cinque Terre such as the poem La Punta del Mesco and Portovenere (outside of the Cinque Terre but in many ways more intimately related to it than the nearby Lerici in the equally significant Golfo dei Poeti). There are then those remnants of the landscape : the agave on the rock, the lemons – relics thrugh which the landscape speaks and the epiphanies of vision and existence reveal themselves. The landscape is at once both physical and metaphysical in which fluidity and possibility vie with a sense of what Cary calls “blockade”. As well as the many features of the landscape – the trees burnt by the scirocco and the aforementioned lemons and agaves- in the section Mediterraneo it is the sea which takes centrestage. The sea’s vastness, its multitudinarian and fixed nature as well as its implacability addresses itself as a father to the poet
Piccino fermento/ del mio cuore non era che un momento/ del tuo
(the tiny ferment/ of my heart was only a moment/ of yours)

The poet struggles with his sense of unworthiness and his sense of helplessness before the ever present chaos. The struggle, though, brings little regret as those small moments of abandonment of consciousness bring their own ecstasy, even if they are only moments. In Montale the richness of his dual physical and metaphysical vision of the landscape and seascape of the Cinque Terre is almost impossible to condense. It seems doubtful whether the Cinque Terre will ever have a more powerful voice in literature. However, it is worth noting that many before Montale evoked these parts. Dante, himself, compared evoked the landscape in order to describe Purgatory and those who have described or referred to its wine include Boccaccio, Petrarcha, d’Annunzio and Cervantes himself in one of his Novelas Ejemplares. Montale, himself, was to write that the sciacchetra’ consumed in locus was far better than the ‘pharmaceutic wine’ of Porto.

And yet surely there is a need for a retreat into the everyday reality of the location. Far from the metaphyisical and elegaic tones there is a need to people this area as one has so far spoken of abstractions and not the concrete. In this sense the small manuscript which the macchiaiolo Telemaco Signorini wrote entitled Riomaggiore is a fine start. For an artist whose landscapes of Riomaggiore like the one from Montenero are amongst the most immortal portraits of this village, his account of his travels to and time spent in Riomaggiore in the second part of the Nineteenth Century is remarkably peopled. He offers at his first glance a rather Orientalist perspective emphasizing a portrait of ‘enchanting primitiveness’ of the inhabitants. But then the account begins to inhabit itself with real characters and their stories. Reflections on both painting along with an observation of the villagers with whom he has come into contact with serve as a fine portrait of late nineteenth century life in one of the Cinque Terre.

In more recent times the portraits have come from the inhabitants themselves. It would be hard to say that there is any kind of school or pool of writers but there are precious testimonies of the Cinque Terre in the Twentieth Century. This is often captured through a collection of portraits of people in interaction with their environment and which illuminate aspects of national and global history reflected in local histories. One of the best volumes is Dario Capellini’s Per Quell’Amor di Cose… (For that love of things…) Subitled Characters, Customs and Life in the Cinque Terre, Capellini’s book is a tour de force of that minor genre of a collection of sketches on disparate facts which made up the genuine history of a locality. The arrival of modernity refracted through wars and fascism is not highlighted rather than silenced but told through the destinies of individuals. Capellini who was from Manarola played his part in the resistance in both the Apuan alps and in the Cuneo region and represented an ideal interlocutor between the blockaded world of the Cinque Terre and the outside. Bringing to his native Manarola a whole group of painters – and above all Renato Birolli- for an annual Festa dei Pittori in the 1950s and 1960s he did more than others to join worlds in an authentic and integral way. His book, too, is a paean to that idea of Pasolinian progress rather than capitalist development which could have marked the Cinque Terre. Capellini as well as authoring this splendid collection of sketches also transcribed the memoirs of Pietro Riccobaldi whose account of his global odyssey as an anti-fascist political emigrant is one of those essential accounts of that all too rarely remembered history.

A memorial plaque to the author Dario Capellini in his native Manarola.

An account in the dialect of Riomaggiore of the life of a returnee who escaped to America to avoid the reprisals of the local fascists is given in Siro Vivaldi’s Ginti e fatti de Rimasuu (People and Events of Riomaggiore). Vivaldi has carried out an indefatigable struggle to preserve the history and traditions of his village through a collection of studies, dictionaries as well as a literary output in both prose and poetry. Ginti e fatti… in fact is a bi-lingual book (dialect and Italian) which starting from an individual explores the small and large events around which life was lived out in Riomaggiore in the past. The characters and the events are real whereas the dialogues are imagined. Writing in dialect may indeed be a losing struggle as present and future generations are surely losing the will to preserve this tongue and yet as a document this is and will remain invaluable for a future philologist of the Mediterranean. Other books of his include a collection of fairytales of the Cinque Terre.

The cover of Siro Vivaldi’s book of Fairy tales of the Cinque Terre

About afoniya

I am a translator, language teacher, independent film scholar who is interested in many aspects of culture. I have my own blog on Russian and Soviet cinema at and I have also written for journals such as Film Philosophy and Bright Lights as well as Ribbed magazine. Outside of film my interest runs to language, politics, literature and my world is centred around the Meditteranean, Russia, Southern Ukraine as well as the UK.

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