29 November 2009

Greetings from Saronno

SARONNO, Italy - It wasn’t until someone asked me where they could buy postcards of Saronno that I realized there are no postcards of Saronno. There aren’t any stickers that say I heart Saronno, or Go Saronno soccer banners either. And as far as I know absolutely nothing ever happened here that anyone would want to know about. I also realized that is what I like the most about this place.

Saronno is an old, unpretentious market town that has been around since the days of the Romans. If the name rings a bell, it’s probably because of Amaretto di Saronno liqueur and Lazzaroni cookies, which both come from here.
 Otherwise absolutely nothing of any importance ever happened here, no one famous was ever born here or even visited here, not even Cecilia Gallerani and she was the Countess of Saronno.

“Who?” said my neighbor. “There was a Countess of Saronno?”

“They would know who she is if you showed them a picture of The Lady with Ermine," said her husband who clams to know about these things. "That is what Leonardo daVinci named the portrait he painted of her in 1490,” he says. “Saronno was a gift to Cecilia from her lover, the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. He is the one who lived in the castle and the one who started construction on the Basilica of Milan. Actually the Duke gave Saronno to their son Caesar, who was born in 1491,” he continues, “the same year the Duke married Beatrice d’Este.”

“The Duke and Cecilia had a baby and then he married another woman? And what about Cecilia?” I ask, “what happened to her?”

“Nothing,” says my neighbor. “The Duke eventually married her off to his best friend and moved them into a palazzo just outside of Milan. The Duke and Cecilia continued to see each other, even after she was married, but then he got involved with another woman, Lucrezia Crivelli, and that was that.”

“His poor wife,” I say. “So what year was that?”

“Around 1492,” he says. “A few years later the Duke was defeated by the French and for the next couple of years Saronno and Milan, and the rest of his Dukedom was under French control. But then the Duke formed an alliance with the Pope, and with the help of the Pope’s army and Swiss, German and Spanish mercenaries he was able to recapture his Dukedom. Then the bubonic plague hit.”

“Didn’t anything nice ever happen here?” I ask.

“Not that I know of,” he says. “Actually, most of the old people you see in Saronno now weren’t born here, they came from Milan during World War II, like me. I was only a little kid but I remember it very well. It was the summer of 1942, the year I was suppose to start school that the British began bombing Italy. By the autumn of that year, they had dropped more than 1,600 tons of explosives on northern Italy. Milan was in shambles: block after block of apartment buildings and businesses were reduced to smoking piles of rubble, the roads and bridges were totally destroyed. It was terrible. We lived in constant fear. We had no food. I remember my mother standing in long lines clutching the coupons that we were given for our daily ration of flour, sugar and other essentials. That’s how we lived, on those rations. My brothers and I often went to bed hungry. Sometimes at night my mother would pull us out of bed and with the wail of air raid sirens in our ears, she would rush us into the basement of our building. Everyone in the building would be down there and we would huddle around a short-wave radio listening to Radio London and the Voice of America, praying for the news that the Americans had landed. When that happened, we moved out here, to Saronno because my mother knew they would be fighting in the streets of Milan, and that’s exactly what happened.”

After that conversation I began looking at my neighbors differently. I even felt more kindly toward Father Franco and his cackling chickens. Feeling guilty I decided that maybe the chickens were not such a big deal after all, and then I realized that I hadn’t heard them for a couple of days. They were gone.

“Don’t worry about it,” said my neighbor. “It wasn’t you. There’s a town ordinance that doesn’t allow farm animals to be kept in residential areas. It just takes a while for things to happen here.”

Maybe it’s just as well. It sounds to me like enough has happened here already.

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