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Interviews

The City and the Writer: In Assisi with Maria Borio

By Nathalie Handal
Translated from Italian by Danielle Pieratti
Mario Borio talks with Nathalie Handal about technology, ecosystems, and living literature in Assisi.
Black and white portrait of writer Maria Borio
Photo copyright Dino Ignani

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 Assisi as you feel/see it?

The city that’s in my heart is a place where you live with body and mind, one that generates energy but also creates an oasis of quiet. For me, a city is a place you truly inhabit, where the inside and the outside are in sync, like an ecosystem made of live architecture: a place where the environment lives and is lived and where an authentic life is possible for us as a species. Assisi has existed since medieval times, and it could inspire the development of this kind of urban project. As in many towns in central Italy, a project like this would be enhanced by innovative materials, and be well-connected to the rest of the world. But my vision extends far beyond Italy—with its sky so aptly captured by Giotto—because this vision has no limits. A city should be sized for people, not the other way around. The city and the person should exist in communal transparency, and this is true everywhere on the planet.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

In a city the size of a person I’d want my most intense memory to be a kind of moment of harmony between energy and silence. Renovation, the creation of new things, is energy. Silence doesn’t mean the absence of sounds or music, but a dimension that lets you think—not just do, but think and ponder yourself, and feel at home. That’s how I’ve felt when I’ve walked around Assisi at night: like the walls and the streets had something wonderful that united nature with human things. This city is full of history, it’s a place of the past, but its dimensions could still be duplicated in a new city, one built with materials like glass, wood, or certain metals, or enhanced by digital systems that are integrated with nature. The memory that a city should leave you with is human equilibrium.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The union between nature and technology: the ability to live with cutting-edge technology in a beautiful, natural landscape.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

The Cantico delle Creature (Canticle of the Sun), by Saint Francis of Assisi. To me this poem represents one of the first literary representations of an ecosystem. If we can manage to contextualize its religious dimension—one that’s appropriate to the genre of medieval songs of devotion—then we discover a hymn to the integration between human, animal, and vegetable species, a naturalistic meditation against anthropomorphism that frames the meaning of terrestrial survival as human love situated in nature and not exclusively limited to man.


Is there a place here you return to often?

To all of the city’s high places, from where I can see a panorama, see far. In this “far” I see a planet full of things that are happening and that will happen. From up high, when I’m above everything, I’m able to put myself in tune with the landscape, as if I could place an ear on its surface, as though the air were a flexible screen. I feel how the landscape moves and vibrates. I feel miniscule. I feel like the landscape and I have some common biological substance. I feel fragmented inside. I feel that only by breaking myself down into the substance of the landscape can I truly re-find myself.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Saint Francis composed the Canticle of the Sun on the outskirts of Assisi, where the Latin poet Propertius was born. Not far from there, in Spoleto, is the Clitumnus River, with its temple cited by Lord Byron, near the famous Ponte delle Torri bridge. I wish, however, that these places’ iconic statuses weren’t just linked to stories and famous people from the past, to this elegiac tone, but instead that one might perceive the living literature that exists in Italy. In this corner of Europe, so many places have a humanist significance that’s truly contemporary, made of beauty and nature, in harmony with global change. I often ask myself what the image of Italy is, how it’s seen elsewhere. I have this fear of never managing to be truly seen by others. But whoever makes literature must—and today’s literature more than ever dictates that we must.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The places that attract me are those in which there are structures made of transparent materials, that have fluid forms, and are integrated with nature; they might even house artistic installations. A glass elevator that climbs the side of a historic wall and overlooks a landscape of hills and woods tells a story: it carries the dedication of whoever designed it to be both functional and natural, for the beauty of what’s new and the value of what’s old. We can’t take this for granted. If a planetarium had the structural characteristics of a factory, we would never be able to visualize the stars from a projection of the night sky. A diorama isn’t enough to understand how animals nourish themselves and reproduce in nature. Whoever puts artifice in the service of nature has an ability that rarely gets mentioned: we may talk about the aesthetics or functionality of his design, but many overlook his attention to living things . . . just like with earnest writers who, I believe, dedicate themselves to the living. 


Where does passion live here?

The passion of the future, of imagining and loving the future while also loving the past, because this makes us recognize and love our now: our authentic beings.


What is the title of one of your works about Assisi and what inspired it exactly?

“Perspective” is a poem about a voyage on a high-velocity train called the Frecciarossa (“red arrow”). I imagined that the train was an arrow marking an aerial perspective that was very precise, like those that Piero della Francesca painted centuries ago for The Baptism of Christ. I imagined that the train, transformed into an arrow, would cut across an external perspective—from the train tracks to a vanishing point—and an internal one—aroused in my mind from my perception of the train’s speed in the middle of the woods. Between the exterior and the interior, I felt a short circuit: I was motionless inside a car going 300 kilometers per hour through a nature as motionless as I was. Between outside and inside a kind of transparency was generated in which the speed, my heart, and the leaves of the trees were beating simultaneously. 

 
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Assisi does an outside exist?”

What exists are the walls of one’s house and one’s body. Ancient cities had fortified walls that protected them. Today’s cities have walls created by the wealth of certain neighborhoods and by the poverty of others, economically accessible only to those who can pay. I remember a city where the train tracks created this dividing line: on one side you could see the red bricks of precarious houses and on the other the white plaster of mansions. I’ve never known a truly intimate community, like that of a family or village; it’s not easy to find today. I should have been born in another time. I was born in the eighties in Italy, a country that, much more than other European countries, is filled with “inside” and “outside.” Despite a limited surface area, there are many regional differences; there isn’t one country but many. In contrast with the French or Germans, the Italians manage to coexist, to feel linked as one people, only with difficulty—even after centuries. I’m convinced, however, that many works would be meaningless if there were no attempt to go from an “inside” toward an “outside.” Then there’s the internet, where these boundaries are determined only by algorithmic variations: with just one change to a number, the parts are transformed. The web and social media have made our perspective elastic, we’ve become osmotic beings, fluid. In the metaverse, as I think I understand it, no external exists, just an immense, instantaneous internal: the minds of all people can squeeze into one huge environment or digital container. In virtual space, the problem of inside and outside doesn’t exist. We can inhabit the virtual world in a continuous manner. But only when we manage to truly experience other dimensions of reality, and not distance ourselves or run away from ourselves, can we say we have achieved it, have surpassed ourselves. If we can acknowledge, whether with the mind or with the body, the difference between inside and outside, we may also recognize that we are here and not somewhere else, that is, that we are authentic and human. That is no small feat.

 

Tell us about your journey with your translator, Danielle Pieratti.

My journey with Danielle helped me understand certain dynamics in my writing. I was able to reflect on the way I had used certain rhetorical figures. Translating a metaphor from Italian into English is like putting the words between a concave and a convex mirror and observing the resonances between the two languages. I remember fondly the way in which Danielle and I were able to find the right translation for the word “rosa”: in English it’s literally “pink,” but in the poem that Danielle had just translated the color referred to the luminous atmosphere of a sunset in the woods, so “pink” would have given too sharp an impression of the atmosphere. Instead, Danielle came up with the word “scarlet,” which I liked a lot. “Scarlet” feels softer, more delicate, with a gradual outpouring, whereas “pink” gives a sense of shouting at high volume, like in an advertisement or a cartoon, not like in a true interaction with nature. 


Translated from the Italian by Danielle Pieratti

Maria Borio is a poet and literary critic. She holds a BA and a PhD in Italian literature. Her poems have been published in several journals and literary websites. A selection of her works entitled Vite Unite was included in XII Quaderno italiano di poesia contemporanea (2015). She published the collections L’altro limite (pordenonelegge-lietocolle, 2017), and Trasparenza (Interlinea, 2019), which was translated by Danielle Pieratti into English as Transparencies (World Poetry Books, 2022). Borio is the editor of the poetry section of the journal Nuovi Argomenti, previously directed by Alberto Moravia and Pier Paolo Pasolini. She has written on the poetry of Vittorio Sereni and Eugenio Montale, and her most recent monograph is Poetiche e individui (Marsilio 2018).


Copyright © 2023 by Maria Borio. Translation © 2023 by Danielle Pieratti. All rights reserved.

English

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 Assisi as you feel/see it?

The city that’s in my heart is a place where you live with body and mind, one that generates energy but also creates an oasis of quiet. For me, a city is a place you truly inhabit, where the inside and the outside are in sync, like an ecosystem made of live architecture: a place where the environment lives and is lived and where an authentic life is possible for us as a species. Assisi has existed since medieval times, and it could inspire the development of this kind of urban project. As in many towns in central Italy, a project like this would be enhanced by innovative materials, and be well-connected to the rest of the world. But my vision extends far beyond Italy—with its sky so aptly captured by Giotto—because this vision has no limits. A city should be sized for people, not the other way around. The city and the person should exist in communal transparency, and this is true everywhere on the planet.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

In a city the size of a person I’d want my most intense memory to be a kind of moment of harmony between energy and silence. Renovation, the creation of new things, is energy. Silence doesn’t mean the absence of sounds or music, but a dimension that lets you think—not just do, but think and ponder yourself, and feel at home. That’s how I’ve felt when I’ve walked around Assisi at night: like the walls and the streets had something wonderful that united nature with human things. This city is full of history, it’s a place of the past, but its dimensions could still be duplicated in a new city, one built with materials like glass, wood, or certain metals, or enhanced by digital systems that are integrated with nature. The memory that a city should leave you with is human equilibrium.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The union between nature and technology: the ability to live with cutting-edge technology in a beautiful, natural landscape.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

The Cantico delle Creature (Canticle of the Sun), by Saint Francis of Assisi. To me this poem represents one of the first literary representations of an ecosystem. If we can manage to contextualize its religious dimension—one that’s appropriate to the genre of medieval songs of devotion—then we discover a hymn to the integration between human, animal, and vegetable species, a naturalistic meditation against anthropomorphism that frames the meaning of terrestrial survival as human love situated in nature and not exclusively limited to man.


Is there a place here you return to often?

To all of the city’s high places, from where I can see a panorama, see far. In this “far” I see a planet full of things that are happening and that will happen. From up high, when I’m above everything, I’m able to put myself in tune with the landscape, as if I could place an ear on its surface, as though the air were a flexible screen. I feel how the landscape moves and vibrates. I feel miniscule. I feel like the landscape and I have some common biological substance. I feel fragmented inside. I feel that only by breaking myself down into the substance of the landscape can I truly re-find myself.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Saint Francis composed the Canticle of the Sun on the outskirts of Assisi, where the Latin poet Propertius was born. Not far from there, in Spoleto, is the Clitumnus River, with its temple cited by Lord Byron, near the famous Ponte delle Torri bridge. I wish, however, that these places’ iconic statuses weren’t just linked to stories and famous people from the past, to this elegiac tone, but instead that one might perceive the living literature that exists in Italy. In this corner of Europe, so many places have a humanist significance that’s truly contemporary, made of beauty and nature, in harmony with global change. I often ask myself what the image of Italy is, how it’s seen elsewhere. I have this fear of never managing to be truly seen by others. But whoever makes literature must—and today’s literature more than ever dictates that we must.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The places that attract me are those in which there are structures made of transparent materials, that have fluid forms, and are integrated with nature; they might even house artistic installations. A glass elevator that climbs the side of a historic wall and overlooks a landscape of hills and woods tells a story: it carries the dedication of whoever designed it to be both functional and natural, for the beauty of what’s new and the value of what’s old. We can’t take this for granted. If a planetarium had the structural characteristics of a factory, we would never be able to visualize the stars from a projection of the night sky. A diorama isn’t enough to understand how animals nourish themselves and reproduce in nature. Whoever puts artifice in the service of nature has an ability that rarely gets mentioned: we may talk about the aesthetics or functionality of his design, but many overlook his attention to living things . . . just like with earnest writers who, I believe, dedicate themselves to the living. 


Where does passion live here?

The passion of the future, of imagining and loving the future while also loving the past, because this makes us recognize and love our now: our authentic beings.


What is the title of one of your works about Assisi and what inspired it exactly?

“Perspective” is a poem about a voyage on a high-velocity train called the Frecciarossa (“red arrow”). I imagined that the train was an arrow marking an aerial perspective that was very precise, like those that Piero della Francesca painted centuries ago for The Baptism of Christ. I imagined that the train, transformed into an arrow, would cut across an external perspective—from the train tracks to a vanishing point—and an internal one—aroused in my mind from my perception of the train’s speed in the middle of the woods. Between the exterior and the interior, I felt a short circuit: I was motionless inside a car going 300 kilometers per hour through a nature as motionless as I was. Between outside and inside a kind of transparency was generated in which the speed, my heart, and the leaves of the trees were beating simultaneously. 

 
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Assisi does an outside exist?”

What exists are the walls of one’s house and one’s body. Ancient cities had fortified walls that protected them. Today’s cities have walls created by the wealth of certain neighborhoods and by the poverty of others, economically accessible only to those who can pay. I remember a city where the train tracks created this dividing line: on one side you could see the red bricks of precarious houses and on the other the white plaster of mansions. I’ve never known a truly intimate community, like that of a family or village; it’s not easy to find today. I should have been born in another time. I was born in the eighties in Italy, a country that, much more than other European countries, is filled with “inside” and “outside.” Despite a limited surface area, there are many regional differences; there isn’t one country but many. In contrast with the French or Germans, the Italians manage to coexist, to feel linked as one people, only with difficulty—even after centuries. I’m convinced, however, that many works would be meaningless if there were no attempt to go from an “inside” toward an “outside.” Then there’s the internet, where these boundaries are determined only by algorithmic variations: with just one change to a number, the parts are transformed. The web and social media have made our perspective elastic, we’ve become osmotic beings, fluid. In the metaverse, as I think I understand it, no external exists, just an immense, instantaneous internal: the minds of all people can squeeze into one huge environment or digital container. In virtual space, the problem of inside and outside doesn’t exist. We can inhabit the virtual world in a continuous manner. But only when we manage to truly experience other dimensions of reality, and not distance ourselves or run away from ourselves, can we say we have achieved it, have surpassed ourselves. If we can acknowledge, whether with the mind or with the body, the difference between inside and outside, we may also recognize that we are here and not somewhere else, that is, that we are authentic and human. That is no small feat.

 

Tell us about your journey with your translator, Danielle Pieratti.

My journey with Danielle helped me understand certain dynamics in my writing. I was able to reflect on the way I had used certain rhetorical figures. Translating a metaphor from Italian into English is like putting the words between a concave and a convex mirror and observing the resonances between the two languages. I remember fondly the way in which Danielle and I were able to find the right translation for the word “rosa”: in English it’s literally “pink,” but in the poem that Danielle had just translated the color referred to the luminous atmosphere of a sunset in the woods, so “pink” would have given too sharp an impression of the atmosphere. Instead, Danielle came up with the word “scarlet,” which I liked a lot. “Scarlet” feels softer, more delicate, with a gradual outpouring, whereas “pink” gives a sense of shouting at high volume, like in an advertisement or a cartoon, not like in a true interaction with nature. 


Translated from the Italian by Danielle Pieratti

Maria Borio is a poet and literary critic. She holds a BA and a PhD in Italian literature. Her poems have been published in several journals and literary websites. A selection of her works entitled Vite Unite was included in XII Quaderno italiano di poesia contemporanea (2015). She published the collections L’altro limite (pordenonelegge-lietocolle, 2017), and Trasparenza (Interlinea, 2019), which was translated by Danielle Pieratti into English as Transparencies (World Poetry Books, 2022). Borio is the editor of the poetry section of the journal Nuovi Argomenti, previously directed by Alberto Moravia and Pier Paolo Pasolini. She has written on the poetry of Vittorio Sereni and Eugenio Montale, and her most recent monograph is Poetiche e individui (Marsilio 2018).


Copyright © 2023 by Maria Borio. Translation © 2023 by Danielle Pieratti. All rights reserved.

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