12 January 2014

LIFE: Now That I Think About It

CHIAVARI, Italy – Before I moved back to the Italian Riviera last January, I lived in a small town about 20 minutes from Milan, called Saronno. I lived there for about 12 years. In the beginning I worked as editor of an English language magazine and then, since Milan is all about fashion, I moved on to Women’s Wear Daily, a somewhat influential newspaper dedicated to the fashion industry. 
 Sforza Castle, Milan, Italy
After 12 years in Saronno I figured I knew the town pretty well, but it wasn’t until someone asked me where they could buy postcards of Saronno did I realize that 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 there that anyone would want to know about. I also realized that was what I liked the most about the 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 there, or rather came from there. Seems to me the production plants have moved south, but I may be wrong about that.

What I’m not wrong about though is that absolutely nothing of any importance ever happened in Saronno, no one famous was ever born there or even visited there, not even Cecilia Gallerani and she was the Countess of Saronno.

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

“You would know who she is if you saw a picture of The Lady with Ermine," said her husband who claims to know about these things. "That is what Leonardo daVinci named the portrait he painted of her in 1490,” he says. “The portrait, and the town of Saronno was a gift to Cecilia from her lover, the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. He is the one who lived in the big brick castle in the center of Milan and the one who started building the Duomo di Milano, Milan’s massive cathedral. Technically the Duke gave Saronno to Caesar, the son he had with Cecilia in 1491,” he continues, “but of course Cecilia had control of it as Caesar was a newborn baby. That all happened the same year the Duke married Beatrice d’Este.”

“The Duke and Cecilia had a baby and then he married another woman a few months later?” I ask.

“Yep,” says my neighbor. “He had arranged it with Beatrice’s father when she was born and by the time they got married the Duke was 39 and I think Beatrice had just turned 16.”

 And what about Cecilia?” I ask, “She couldn’t have been too happy about that, having just given birth to his baby. 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 they were both married to other people, but then he got involved with another woman, Lucrezia Crivelli, and that was that.”

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

Ludovico Sfoza, Duke of Milan
“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.

“Well, how about important people. Are there any important people here?“

“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. It was the summer of 1942, the year I was supposed 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. Our neighborhood in Milan was in shambles. I remember my mother clutching her food coupons and standing in long lines, stepping over piles of rubble from the buildings that had been bombed. That’s how we lived, barely lived to tell you the truth. My brothers and I went to bed hungry more often than not. And it was scary. Sometimes during the night the air raid sirens would go off and my mother would pull us out of bed and rush down us into the basement of our building.  Everyone 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 finally happened, we moved out here to Saronno because my mother knew they would be fighting in the streets of Milan, and she was right.”

After that conversation I began looking at my neighbors a little differently. I even started to feel more kindly toward Father Franco and his cackling chickens and feeling a little guilty about reporting him to the Mayor’s office for harboring a public nuisance. I had nothing against Father Franco but those damn chickens, and especially the rooster who woke me up every morning at 4 AM, had to go. Then I realized that I hadn’t heard them for a couple of days.  

I asked my neighbor if he thought my letter had provoked the eviction of the entire chicken population over at Father Franco’s, even though all I had asked for was that they get rid of the rooster.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “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 there already.

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