If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Can you describe the mood of Vicenza as you feel/see it?
The mood in Vicenza is at once melancholic, serene, provincial, and contemplative. There’s enough emptiness in the slowed time of Vicenza to allow room for serenity. Or you might find melancholy instead. The architectural harmony can make you more contemplative. This can bring on musing on the past or appreciating the metaphysical present. Vicenza still lives in a strong embrace with nature, as underscored by the jagged profile of the Little Dolomites in the distance, with hills and forests slowly descending into the maize and soy fields of the plains. It is in this attempt to tame nature that people here have molded their character. Farmers are by vocation exploiters, driven by the need to extract every possible benefit from nature. And this is why this agricultural personality is interwoven with the character of the more urbane Vicentini, who are forever attempting to distance themselves from such inescapable humbler origins.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
At the beginning of this millennium, I had a relationship with a young woman who lived in Vicenza, a budding poet. Her goal was to become a recognized author and to start a family. I later found out that she published a book with a well-respected publisher but died of cancer before being able to see her book with that house’s logo.
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?
The thing about Vicenza is that it is itself a detail. It is not sufficiently famous to be considered a major Italian city or one of the top three Venetian cities. It is probably the least known, along with Treviso, overshadowed by Verona and Padua. So the most extraordinary detail that goes unnoticed is this most elegant city herself, not yet ruined by mass tourism. And I hope very few people will discover it so I may continue enjoying it as it is.
What writers from here should we read?
Goffredo Parise’s Sillabari (Abecedary) can be compared to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, although Parise is much more modern in his style and themes. Mario Rigoni Stern’s Uomini, boschi e api (Men, Woods, and Bees) is perhaps not his best-known title, yet it has an intense slow poetry to it. It explores the rhythms of nature’s contemplation among humans, forests, and bees of the Asiago plateau, part of the powerful nature surrounding Vicenza. Guido Piovene’s essays and short stories, Antonio Fogazzaro’s Piccolo mondo antico (The Little World of the Past), and, of course, and Antonio Pigafetta’s Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo (A Narrative Account of the First Voyage Around the World) are all testaments to the literary quality and, at times, penchant for exploration of the Vicentini writers. But the prose of these three might not entertain contemporary readers enough. For such taste, it’s much better to discover Vitaliano Trevisan’s dreamy and dark Un mondo meraviglioso (A Wonderful World).
Is there a place here you return to often?
Vicenza is associated with my mother’s house, where I inhabit a very small guest room with a few hundred of my books. It’s a little studio flanked by two large terraces, one facing southeast toward dawn and the city and its bell towers, and the other facing northwest toward my mountains and the striking sunsets. This is the epicenter of my Vicenza experience. The stunning Piazza dei Signori is the most obvious meeting place, and Parco Querini is where I go for silent walks whenever I can.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
The fact that the two main arteries of downtown Vicenza are named after an author and an architect is something I find comforting, although I feel that today we are so far away from recognizing the worth of these two professions. Corso Fogazzaro will lead you to the Corso Palladio. At the intersection, you will find uninteresting discount clothing stores and, sometimes, gifted street musicians. If you turn left, you’ll end up at the Teatro Olimpico, designed by Andrea Palladio. All along the way, the palazzi will bring to mind the feasts of the Most Serene Republic of Venice. Best to walk here at 3 a.m. Sober. Or not.
Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
There is a little talked about the city within the city in Vicenza. At the beginning of the twentieth century, this area, which starts in the Saviabona and ends in the Anconetta neighborhood, was nicknamed “la Caienna,” because it was inhabited by former convicts and gangsters who developed their own slang, understood only by robbers and drug dealers—the “caianese.” La Caienna was the poorest of the poor neighborhoods and, to this day, it retains some of that decadent charm.
Where does passion live here?
Certainly not in public. The behavior of the Vicentini, traditionally, is more reminiscent of the old-school, pre-cool Britannia English than that of the Italians. Fear of the brutta figura is so strong that conformism and controlled behavior, resulting in repressed personalities, was always the norm here. In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, things have relaxed somewhat, but this is still not a place where you’ll find too much passion displayed publicly. Behind closed doors there’s lots of domestic violence (just read the accounts in the Giornale di Vicenza to discover the horror), and there’s a thriving business of lap-dance bars and swinger clubs.
What is the title of one of your works about Vicenza and what inspired it exactly?
I tried to cure my obsession for the dark side of Vicenza in my novel-in-progress, Castamàn, inspired by some people I have known in this city. It’s the story of a local rich industrialist with a wife who is betraying him with an ambitious young communist architect. A night-taxi driver recognizes that the industrialist used to be a drug lord thirty years earlier and slowly the story unravels, revealing the deep greed of most of the characters, except for a few redeeming exceptions. What inspired it was the clear contrast between the elegance and harmony on the exterior of this charming provincial town, and all the darkness, abuse, and violence I discovered when I spent enough time here to witness the revelation of very human battles. My first novel, Criminàl, is set in my hometown of Valdagno, twenty miles from Vicenza, but it excavates similar themes and also provides an in-depth look at the genius loci of the province of Vicenza and of the Veneto.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Vicenza does an outside exist?”
Is it possible to ever fully outgrow the place that first left its mark on you? The town, city, or village where you lived for the first fifteen years of your life? I don’t think so.
Carlo Pizzati is the author of two novels, two memoirs, a non-fiction book, and a collection of short stories. He has worked for over sixteen years for the Italian national daily newspaper La Repubblica, corresponding from New York, Rome, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and Madrid. He’s covered the Northern Ireland strife, guerrilla warfare in Colombia, the drug trade in the Andes, illegal immigrant smuggling in Mexico, civil rights battles in Chile, pro-environment militancy in the French atoll of Mururoa, and the GMO battle in Europe and the US. He currently lives with his wife near a fishermen’s village in India where he writes about Asia for the national dailies La Stampa and The Hindu. Pizzati teaches communication theory at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai and is developing a project with his teenage son to produce affordable football shoes for Indian girls. His travelogue, Bending Over Backwards, was recently published by HarperCollins.