Pippo - from A Place in Italy


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Amongst the growing number of people with whom we were on familiar terms there was, of course, our very first acquaintance, the woman who ran the flower shop next to the Municipio. One afternoon when I had just returned from work Connie informed me that I had been summoned.

'Her husband. We've got to go and meet her husband.'

'Why? I'm tired and I've got things to do. What do I want with a flower lady's husband?'

'She said that she might be able to help us with accommodation. We've got talking to each other. I told you how villages work. Now you have to meet the husband.'

And so we shut the house and walked to the little square inside the main gate. Flowers spilled out from the shop as though from a cornucopia, bringing a splash of garish colour to the sombre piazza.

'Salve!' cried Grazia. Amongst the stolid natives she was unmistakably a creature from the south, from the place where people made a noise, lived their lives in public, shouted and wept and laughed across streets. 'Entrate! Entrate!'

We passed into the narrow shadows of her shop between tubs of lilies and roses and peonies. The air was heavily perfumed.

'Gli stranieri,' Grazia announced to a figure seated in the darkness. 'Ecco Pippo!'

Do I imagine it now or did her rough, Neapolitan voice have an edge of mockery to it as she announced her husband's presence? She gestured towards the dark figure and it was like going to see some exhibit, the fat woman perhaps or the man with two heads, in a country fair: there, ensconced in shadow, enthroned amongst flowers, he waited.

Pippo was a grotesque. One has to consider him in parts and carefully, and then hold all those parts in your mind at once to get the whole. It is an unnerving undertaking. He appeared to be composed of elements that were constantly at war with one another, features and contours that struggled incessantly for dominance over the battleground of his body. He was diminutive, but vast; his black hair hung in ringlets to his shoulders, but on top he was running to baldness; his face was as huge as a pumpkin, but his feet were tiny almost to invisibility; his expansive upper lip was decorated with a moustache of razor thinness and precision, but his manifold chins were rough with stubble; his expression was cunning but his eyes were those of a simpleton. Somehow he gave the appearance of being at the same time both the organ grinder and the monkey.

'Piacere,' he rumbled. The hand that he thrust out to shake ours was be-ringed with gold and blackened with grime. The nail of his little finger was carefully cultivated to a length that would have done a Balinese dancer proud; needless to say, no other feature of his body seemed even to be made of the same substance as a Balinese dancer.

I noticed that his glance kept going to a mirror that hung on the wall, just to make sure, I presumed, that he really did look as magnificent as he thought. For Pippo was nothing if not self-deluding. He imagined that he was rich, he imagined he was un bel uomo, he imagined that he was cunning and clever - the word, and a very important concept it is too, is furbo - he imagined that he was powerful. He was none of these, but the important thing is the belief. He probably also believed that he was virtuous, although that is one quality he never boasted of to us. On the other hand he did so on behalf of his first wife and, as it is the Italian female who usually acts as a kind of surrogate for her husband in the matter of religious observance, I suppose it amounts to the same thing: ' 'na santa,' he would say of her. A saint. And tears, real tears, would start to his eyes. One could not deny their reality, nor the reality of the emotion that underlay them. Contrary to the popular image that holds sway in Anglo-Saxon countries, the Italians are a hardheaded nation, a nation of doers, of workers, of earners and savers. There is nothing profligate about them - except when it comes to emotion. They spend emotion readily enough because it is free. 'My wife was a saint,' he told us later, when we had been invited home for lunch. 'She died in my arms, my arms' - holding them out in case I had missed them - 'and as she died she said to me, 'Who will look after you when I am gone, Filippo? Who will keep you from harm?'

'There is Grazia,' I reminded him.

At my words he glanced resignedly at his second wife standing over the pasta, enveloped in steam. 'Grazia,' he repeated without conviction. Grazia, you see, was not a saint. She was all too humanly Neapolitan. He could betray Grazia without compunction; but to betray his first wife required real commitment. ' 'Na santa, nel nome di Dio 'na vera santa.' Not poor Grazia.

Out of that first encounter and the invitation to lunch came our new flat. 'You can't go on living in that hole in the ground,' Grazia said with a disparaging tilt to her chin. 'It's not fit. You need somewhere modern, a bit of room.'

'Room for babies,' added Pippo. 'Like this place.' He waved his arms proudly. Their own flat, outside the centro storico of course, occupied the top floor of a small palazzo that Pippo owned. 'A place with a bit of room. Room for babies,' he said, grinning lasciviously at Connie across mountainous plates of spaghetti. Red sauce glistened on his chin. 'How long have you been married?' he asked.

'Three years,' said Connie.

He tutted and shook his head. Spaghetti disappeared into the great maw. 'You know what we say? Eh? You know? If a tree doesn't give fruit' - he raised his chin and drew a grimy thumb across his neck - 'cut it down!'

Grazia looked at him reproachfully from her place at the log fire in the corner of the kitchen. They had been married for eight years now and there were no children. In Pippo's eyes Grazia was a barren tree; but then he had no children by the saint either. Perhaps, I reflected, the barrenness lay in the workings of Pippo's own body.

'Anyway,' said Grazia, 'you must come and live with us.'

Was she suggesting the spare room? 'With you?'

She roared with laughter and pointed towards the floor with a fork. 'Giù. In the flat downstairs. We've just had it fixed. You can move in there. Into our palazzo.'

It is all too easy to find cause for amusement in a foreign language when none really exists: the word palazzo needs some explanation. It is not hyperbole. The Italian palazzo is not only the English 'palace', a vast mansion for the exclusive occupation of princes or dukes or Snow Whites, although it may be that as well. The Italian palace is the direct heir of the renaissance town palace that tourists gawp at in Florence or Venice or Rome, the noble building which had artisans' workshops on the ground floor, the great family's apartments on the piano nobile, and above that, in a warren of further rooms and floors, the homes of lesser relatives and client families. This kind of palace is something organic, something that grows both in time and space, a place in which families of every class may live and a multitude of trades may be pursued. In spirit, if not in superficial appearance, it is a thing far removed from mere 'block of flats'. It was thus with the Palazzo Doria in Rome and the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence; and was thus with Pippo's palazzo in Avea: on the ground floor a diminutive grocery store and a motorcycle repair shop, on the next floor the tenants, and above all - the only change from the traditional form - above all, the apartment of the padrone, an apartment which gleamed with pink marble and dark, varnished wood. There was a plaster model of the Madonna and a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as well as a large, soft-focus photograph of Pippo's first wife looking every bit the plaster saint. The kitchen where we ate would have housed a snooker table with ease. Un palazzo.

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Jacket illustration by Clive Birch

 

Simon Mawer 2008 - 2015. This website is written and maintained by the author.