Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him

I've been busy. Nooo, not writing another blockbuster, but very much entangled in words. In fact I've been going nuts with words.

Ever walked into an Italian church which is just dripping with marble and angels and columns and symbols and layer upon layer of history you know you should understand? And how about being asked to translate a text about this from Italian to English. A text with bits in Latin, funeral inscriptions, a shift in architectural styles according to the evolution in fashion and technical prowess, and tastes of a myriad of pushy nuns at the helm of a convent complex?

The Sibyl Cumana in Raphael's Sistine Chapel
It was deep. But I think I will remember my favourite bits for a long time. The four sibyls - Samia, Tiburtina, Frigia and Cumana. Don't you just love those names? I could have four more daughters just to use them.

According to legend the Sibyls were prophetesses of the ancient world, who pronounced oracles in a state of ecstasy. These prophetesses lived in remote caves and nearby springs and were sometimes described as the priestesses of Apollo, or his favourites. It is said that when Apollo asked the Sibyl Cumana to choose a gift, she asked to live as many years as the grains of sand she held in her hand. However, she failed to asked for continued youth and became a shrivelled, old woman. When children asked 'Sibyl, what do you want?' she used to answer, 'I want to die.'


Creepy.. Oh and I also just found out that Sibyl is a UK-based confidential Christian spirituality group for transgender people. Gosh! The endless tail-chasing that goes on once you hop online...

And what about this:

VIVITE VICTVRE MONEO. MORS OMNIBVS INSTAT 

LIVE, YOU WHO STILL HAVE THE FORTUNE TO LIVE. DEATH DESCENDS UPON US ALL.

In 1550, these words were inscribed on the tombstone of Camillo Pigafetta, Knight of Jerusalem, husband of Margherita, father of 14 children. And there is an even longer inscription on that of his illustrious nephew Filippo Pigafetta, whose achievements included performing in the inaugural production of Sophocles' Oedipus in Palladio's Teatro Olimpico, circumnavigating the globe (in a bucket!), taking part in both naval and land battles from Hungary to Persia, being Pope Innocent IX's secret messenger... The list of Pigafetta's achievements nearly fills a page and makes me wonder about how soft and cerebral our lives are today. Can you imagine setting off to Jerusalem and Mount Sinai on a horse? A boat? Another horse? Delivering the Pope's scrolls up and down the continent?

You know, when I translate historical stuff I always try to imagine these people, living with them for a stretch, just like you live with the characters in your novel or short story. Sometimes I swear I can see them - tinier men and women with folksy clothes and caps and greasy hair, talking crazy dialect. I even saw that Caterina used to be Chatelina. Chattel? Moi?

Then I imagine I can see the unpopulated hills about our town, the dirt roads and wagons pulling into theatrical porticos with columns and manservants in Duran Duran shirts. Everything is smaller except the massive entranceways and church facades which must have been all the more belittling. Horses plop in the street. There are bonnets. It's so tangible, the way the centuries can roll away in a small Italian town and you are standing there, amongst the underwear and ice cream shops, the unsightly McDonalds, imagining this.

The ever-present past and here we are all clutching our mobile phones to our cheeks.

13 comments:

  1. I loved this piece! It made me think about all the local historical influences on us all...some barely perceptible in the modern maelstrom of communication...where people seem to be further & further away from their roots...I traced my mother's family back to the 1620s in deepest Surrey...just 25 miles south-west of here...nearly 400 years & we've moved nowhere!...and everywhere! A chap at Coulsdon,just 6 miles from here, has just won £108,000,000 on Euromillons...he may be a distant relative! Makes me think...is blood thicker than water! Are all my rellies in Oz,Canada & U.S.A... rootless in paradise?

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    1. Fascinating isn't it? And in Italy you seem to be breathing it all the time!

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  2. I'm glad the name Pigafetta did not inspire you!

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    1. Oh but Pigafetta is The Man in Vicenza (okay apart from Palladio). On the facade of his home you can read 'Il n'est pas rose sans ├ępines' - there is no rose without thorns. I'll show you next time!

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  3. Wow, this is beautiful, Cat. I love the translation about the Sibyl Cumana---like the story of the monkey's paw, no?

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    1. I just read the story of the monkey's paw - I didn't know it! I think it's even more disturbing no?
      It was a hefty translation and I'm so glad it's behind me !

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  4. I adore your writing - I can smell the horse plop, in the best sense of the, um, sense.

    I'm sure you've brought the translation in to technicolour life - oh, hang on, I have a call from someone named Sibyl....

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    1. Did you really have a call from someone named Sibyl? Now I just hope they pay me quick smart!

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  5. Hi Catherine, you write so well. Always a pleasure to read. When I was in high school back in the last century I chose languages over history. Now since my love affair with Italy began I am aware now of how much I missed out on. But, it is fun learning it now.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed Lyn. I studied languages AND history at high school, and at uni too! I guess I just couldn't get enough. Still find them both so thrilling.. and Italy is crammed with both!

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  6. Beautiful post, Catherine. Long ago, I took an art history class - a semester just on the Sistine Chapel ceiling - and it was fabulous. And I love that learned people of the time would know all these stories, like the wonderful tale of Cumana you wrote about. Ha, living in Italy does that to one, doesn't it? A constant reminder of those who came before us, and all the history surrounding us. Thanks for the great post!

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    1. Kimberly when I work on books like these I just wish I knew more. There is so much symbolism around us - that we walk past every day - as you know. Endlessly fascinating !

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