By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
September 01, 2010
Even as a teenager I was attracted to the arts. When I participated in the Arts Festival (I think that was the correct name) that preceded the Better Village Program inaugurated by Dr. Eric Williams in 1964, I acted under Errol Hill, learned public speaking with his sister Jean Herbert and choral-speaking under David King, a true village patriot of Tacarigua. These stalwarts labored in the artistic vineyards to produce a more responsive citizenry and to cultivate a more rounded aesthetic sensibility that was appropriate for a nation that was coming into being.
Around 1961, I was selected to recite (we called it public speaking then) “the Snake” and “Bats”, two poems by D. H. Lawrence, for the festival. However, although Lawrence was more famous for his novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I took on my assignment cheerily and practiced arduously for the big occasion.
Performance night came and I was an utter failure. I forgot some of the lines. The prop at the side of the stage whispered directions but to little avail. What promised to be a big night turned out to be a fiasco. My embarrassment was palpably.
In spite of my embarrassment, some of the lines of the poems remained buried in my memory. The opening lines of “Bats” read: “At evening, sitting on this terrace,/When the sun from the west, beyond Pisa, beyond the mountains of Cerrara/ Departs, and the world is taken by surprise…./When the tired flower of Florence is in gloom beneath the glowing brown hills surrounding…/When under the arches of the Ponte Vecchio/A green light enters against stream, flush from the West,/Against the current of obscure Arno./ Look up, you things flying/Between day and night.”
Last week, I spent three days in Italy. The names of these places rushed back into my mind as I recalled the delight of my teenage years. I landed at Pisa, famed for its hanging gardens, before proceeding on an hour-long trip to Florence where I stayed at Hotel Lungarno located on the side of River Arno, no more than a hundred feet from Ponte Vecchio. Youthful fantasy merged into adult reality. On the bank of the Arno, I recalled lines from William Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality.” They were: “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:/The soul that rises with us, our life’s star/Hath elsewhere its setting… And cometh from afar.”
Warm and irrepressible memories of youth came back to me as I ensconced myself in the luxury of Hotel Lungarno where I admired the “silent flowing river, the enchanting light, beauty emanating from art and charms from the drawing rooms and terraces. The atmosphere is simple magical.”
I began to compose this reverie in the hotel’s drawing room. Entranced by the beauty of the Arno, I got up and went out to the terrace to explore the morning’s magic more closely as the lights from the buildings played along the surface of the river’s calming watery presence. I steered in wonderment.
From the terrace I cast my eyes on Ponte Vicchio enraptured in the lights that threw their glow upon the old bridge, the pride and joy of the city of Florence. This bridge holds a special pride of place in the hearts of Florentine citizens. It was the only bridge that was not destroyed by the Germans during World War II.
Today, this bridge is known as the gold market of Florence. Anyone wishing to visit this exquisite market of fine gold made to specification for any occasion is asked to leave their spouses, girlfriends, mothers, sisters, or daughters at home. They are guaranteed to make one leave the place many Euros shorter than that with which one came so likely are they to be overcome by the exquisite workmanship of those goldsmiths.
Hotel Lugarno is owned by the Ferragamo family, one of the most famous shoe designers in the world. Salvatore Ferragamo, the founder of the brand, made shoes for women such as Marilyn Monroe and Eva Peron. Every piece of art on the wall of this hotel is original. It includes pieces by Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Eugene Delacroix and Edouard Manet. Yours truly sat beneath a Picasso sketch (1952) as I composed this article. No art lover could ask for anything more.
As I looked at Ponte Vecchio I remembered other lines I learned at the tender age of eighteen that Lawrence used to capture the movement of bats at evening time as they replaced the swallows who took possession of the bridge during the day: “Dark air-life looping/ Yet missing the pure loop…/A twitch, a twitter, an elastic shudder in flight/ And serrated wings against the sky,/ Like a glove, black glove thrown up at the light,/And falling again…”
In that onomatopoeic use of language I pictured the movement of bats as they darted from one end of the bridge to another; from one of the houses atop the bridge to another. My friend who accompanied me on this short journey accuses me of being a literal rather than a visual person. I’d rather read about a thing rather than experience it. In Florence, at that time of season, at that moment of rapture, I preferred to experience the artistic beauty of the town, a virtual libratory of artistic wonders pieced together when art mattered and its products were central to people’s lives. All over the town there were small museums; artistic renderings and the displays of the latest fashions. It is a shopper’s paradise.
In my short life, I have seen many European towns: Paris, Luxembourg, London, Madrid, Berlin, Amsterdam and a few others. In terms of sheer beauty and elegance, Florence surpasses them all.
So many years had passed; so many summers had gone by but as I departed Ponte Vecchio I could not help but think of Wordsworth who, on reflecting on his youth and the passage of time, exclaimed: “The child is father of the Man;/ And I could wish my days to be/ Bound each to each by Natural piety.”
We carry our memories with us wherever we go. They have the power to bewitch and to enthrall. They also have the power to bring enormous joy that enraptured my soul at Ponte Vecchio. Like Wordsworth I was forced to confess, “The thought of our past years in me doth breed/Perpetual benediction.”