Within minutes on foot you can leave the centre of Como and be walking up through tranquil woods to either Brunate to the east or within the Parco Spina Verde to the west. The city’s particular topology provides this sudden transition from town to country. With little effort, you can come across the most timid of wildlife including boar, ibex and deer living within hearing distance of the city. These very special characteristics were what attracted the Milanese poet Alda Merini to spend so much time revisiting Como and her paternal grandparents’ home in Brunate. Now, to honour Alda and to give greater expression to the inspirational qualities of the area, the footpath that leads up from Como, past the Sanctuary of San Donato and on to Brunate, has been renamed ‘Sentiero Alda Merini’.
Alda Merini seems to be kept in very fond regard in Italy and in particular in her home town of Milan where she was born in March 1931 and died in November 2009. She had a modest background with a father who worked for an insurance company and a mother who cared for the family. Her father encouraged her interest in language but discouraged her from writing poetry for economic reasons. Her mother did not want her to consider any other future other than as a housewife. Yet in spite of this and also in spite of suffering the first symptoms of bipolar disorder at 16, she went on to write her first verses at 15, to publish these at 19 and to continue publishing poetry and prose until 2007. She attained numerous prizes and great acclaim for her poems and aphorisms.
Alda writes in direct, relatively simple language with an honesty conveying a total lack of social or artistic pretension – rare qualities which may in part be due to her ancestry on her father’s side. Her paternal grandfather, Giovanni Merini, was initially a count from an aristocratic Como family. He however fell in love with Maddalena Baserga, a peasant girl from Brunate. He was disinherited the moment he married his peasant bride. Alda’s father did not as a result inherit much money but he was well educated and passed on his love of culture to Alda gifting her a dictionary at the tender age of five.
Thus Alda Merini, who spent most of her life in her beloved Milan, had a very special link with Brunate and to that footpath which for centuries has linked that village known as the balcony over the Alps with Como. That path facilitated the love match between the young Count and his peasant bride. It may also have encouraged Alda’s love of nature which even took on a mystical aspect in later life.
The renamed footpath was first described here as one of those quick escapes out of the city. Now it has been given a definite name and been adorned by some of Alda’a aphorisms and excerpts from her and other poets. The novelty is that these are all accompanied by an English translation for which I for one am very grateful. Poetry is not so easy to internationalise but an American poet, Susan Stewart, has produced translated versions of Alda’s poetry and aphorisms which are available on Amazon. I have included Alda’s poem ‘Night, if it is not swift’ translated by Susan Stewart to give a sense of her style:
Night, if it is not swift
Night, if it is not swift,
has no time to cover the dream.
My eyes are lanterns and you
the breath that clouds them.
You sleep on everyone’s heart
oh little asphodel
and as soon as the fingernails
have scraped the winter cold
you will return, a blossoming arunculus,
to make me happy.
Eager your ivory cups
eager your testicles of desire
and the fingers filled with plums
blossom into vast perfumes.
I have always had a tricky relationship with poems – so many seem to require too much effort to understand their intention, or perhaps even more fundamentally, there simply don’t seem to be the right moments or opportunities for taking the time out to read and consider them. Yet, when an opportunity does present itself, I love at least some of them. So thanks to the local organisation ‘Sentiero dei Sogni’ for campaigning to rename the Brunate footpath and for providing the inspirational excerpts on the wooden boards. They have certainly added a further element of enjoyment to my walks up the hill. For example, I never knew that Alessandro Volta, Como’s famous scientific inventor of the battery, also wrote poetry if only for his own pleasure.
And, not only do the boards carry an English translation, one of them even has a quote from William Wordsworth, whom it appears did once wander ‘cloudlike’ along the lake’s paths, although not precisely here in Brunate.
Wordsworth was travelling in 1790 with a friend from University, Robert Jones. Having passed through Paris, Lyon, Geneva and Chamonix, he then crossed the Simplon Pass to reach Locarno and on to Porlezza on Lake Lugano to arrive in Menaggio on Lake Como. He then headed north along the lake to Sorico before continuing up the Val Chiavenna to Splugen. He later recorded his journey in verse published as ‘Descriptive Sketches’ – one of his earliest publications. Here are some excerpts relating to Lake Como:
From ‘Descriptive Sketches’
More pleased, my foot the hidden margin roves
Of Como, bosomed deep in chestnut groves.
No meadows thrown between, the giddy steeps
Tower, bare or sylvan, from the narrow deeps.
— To towns, whose shades of no rude noise complain,
From ringing team apart and grating wain —
To flat-roofed towns, that touch the water’s bound,
Or lurk in woody sunless glens profound,
Or, from the bending rocks, obtrusive cling,
And o’er the whitened wave their shadows fling —
The pathway leads, as round the steeps it twines;
And Silence loves its purple roof of vines.
The vineyards around the lake have diminished greatly since his time yet he may have had Domaso in mind where wine production has successfully returned in recent years.
He goes on to express a certain young man’s desire and frustration on seeing so many beautiful maidens labouring on the terraced slopes until he recovers his equilibrium sufficiently to portray what was to become a repeated romantic trope:
From ‘Descriptive Sketches
Yet are thy softer arts with power indued
To soothe and cheer the poor man’s solitude.
By silent cottage-doors, the peasant’s home
Left vacant for the day, I loved to roam.
But once I pierced the mazes of the wood
In which a cabin undeserted stood;
There an old man an olden measure scanned
On a rude viol touched with withered hand.
As lambs or fawns in April clustering lie
Under a hoary oak’s thin canopy,
Stretched at his feet, with stedfast upward eye,
His children’s children listened to the sound;
– A Hermit with his family around!
This passage reminds me of the quite long episode in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein when in the Creature’s Narrative, he describes living alongside but hidden from the peasant family living in the woods. Mary Shelley herself spent time on Lake Como renting out the Villa Pliniana with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, when it was in a poor state and certainly not as luxurious as in its current incarnation as a super luxury hotel. Clearly the Romantic Movement found and shared inspiration from the natural beauty of Lake Como!
Unable to freely appreciate the Italian verse of Alda Merini, I was drawn to how many similarities there seem to be between her and England’s so-called peasant poet, John Clare – a Romantic poet and contemporary of Byron and Shelley but a self-taught son of a farm labourer. John Clare shares the same simplicity and honesty of language and feeling with Alda and incidentally, also suffered from long bouts of mental illness. I have reproduced his poem ‘I am’ to show some of the similarities with Alda and as a contrast and antidote to the flowery language of the early Wordsworth quoted above:
I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.
The Sentiero Alda Merini forms only part of what the association ‘Sentiero dei Sogni’ hopes will one day be a complete ‘Lake Como Poetry Way’ highlighting the literary tradition of the area. The project is ongoing and foresees a walk starting off from Cernobbio, passing by the Villa del Grumello, through Como and then following the section already dedicated to Alda Merini to finish up in Brunate. This idea was born out of the ‘Passeggiate Creative’ initiative of local poet and journalist Pietro Berra. More information on the project is available from the association’s website.