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Interviews

The City and the Writer: Wallis Wilde-Menozzi in Parma

Wallis Wilde-Menozzi talks with Nathalie Handal about elegance, secrets, and facades in Parma.
Portrait of Wallis Wilde-Menozzi

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 Parma as you feel/see it? 

Parma is an elegant, intimate city: its ancient bell towers and domes magically define the skyline. On clear days, the Alps and Apennines lift it to the heavens. The economy based on Parma ham, Parmesan cheese, advanced food production technology, and a fine, nearly thousand-year-old university keep it growing, with bustle and prosperity. Inward-facing courtyards and gardens hold much life behind plain wooden doors on the streets. Secrets and facades are commonplace, because people know one another for life. The mood after COVID is cautious, commonsense; many businesses are closed. Skepticism is a common defense against precipitous action. New languages swirl as bus riders shout into cell phones to compatriots who seemingly are far away. More than 40,000 immigrants and their children are legally settled in the territory.

 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The area around the Pilotta palace in the city center was bombed by the Allies in 1945. A solution was never found for its restoration. After more than fifty years of political debate, an Italian Swiss architect, Mario Botta, designed it as a green space, created a reflecting pool, and added a ribbon of water running along the perimeter. The statue of a Partisan soldier with a rifle, standing on a dead soldier, was reinstalled on his little mound. The Piazza della Pace inspired unforeseen protests: cars were driven over the green space, leaving it gouged and muddy. The Partisan statue stood a few centimeters higher than before, and the opposition demanded that it be corrected to its original height. The buried divisions and memories, hatreds, ideologies, and class conflicts were exposed as if by an X-ray.

 

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

Reminders. 

Street names constitute a lively call to consult Wikipedia: Via Madre Anna Maria Adorni, 1805–1893, reformer for women; Via Maria Gotti, 1913–1998, obstetrician; Via Riccardo and Pietro Barilla, 1880–1947, 1913–1993, entrepreneurs.  

 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Everyone should read the classic The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendahl (of course, he is French), even though he narrates a partially invented city. Attilio Bertolucci’s The Bedroom is an original lyric novel in poetry and has been translated into English by Luigi Bonaffini. Bertolucci’s sons, Bernardo and Giuseppe, became prominent filmmakers. Bernardo’s Novecento narrates the chronic political tensions between peasant and landowner here. The Don Camillo books by Giovannino Guareschi—a fixed world of melodramas containing two adversaries, Mayor Peppone, a communist, and Don Camillo, a Catholic priest, both composites created from the author’s life—became one of the most translated series of the twentieth century. The human stories in their little world transcended the ideological blocs partitioning the globe.  Giuseppe Verdi, though not a writer, is another creative giant from this land. American Mary Jane Phillips-Matz spent more than twenty years documenting his life in a brilliant biography. The themes of land, social classes, and their passions root deeply in work generated here.

 

Is there a place here you return to often?

San Francesco del Prato since it finally reopened its doors. Built in the 1200s, the church was sacked by Napoleon, who used it as a prison. The city then expanded the building’s capacity to retain male and female prisoners, and used it for nearly two centuries. Reconsecrated in the 1990s and reopened in 2021, with three floors of prison cells removed and many windows unbricked, it is a modern place, full of distant gothic light, the walls scarred and defined by the ambiguities of human hope and human failings.  It is a good place to sit.

 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Correggio painted three masterpieces in Parma—in the Cathedral, the church of San Giovanni, and a room in the convent of San Paolo. The latter, known as the Camera di San Paolo, is situated in a historical convent where abbesses self-governed from the eleventh century to the sixteenth. Correggio’s secular depiction of Arcadia summarizes the power of the Renaissance revival of learning and defiance of religious thought. Giovanna da Piacenza, the governing abbess, commissioned its green boughs and rebellious contents to complement earlier commissions portraying women and the arts. Eventually ensnared by larger political struggles, she lost her ongoing personal battle with three popes attempting to rescind the women’s five-hundred-year-old concession to independent governance. Tragically, Giovanna and her order were cloistered in 1524. When one visits her room, the women’s gains and losses still resonate.

 

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

Slightly to the south of Parma, among century-old trees and roaming white peacocks, is an enormous estate, the Museo Magnani Rocca, structured as a foundation by its last owner, Luigi Magnani. A collector and friend to artists, he left Titian, Piero, Ghirlandaio, Goya, Dürer, Cézanne, Morandi, de Chirico, Burri, and Filippo Lippi paintings on the walls of his mansion, where visitors can contemplate an extraordinary collection quietly offered, much like Henry Frick’s, as if visiting a friend’s home.

 

Where does passion live here?

Because people generally stay rooted and often have little professional mobility, hobbies are deeply felt. The butcher has no problem becoming an expert on Verdi operas. The third-grade teacher, no issue with studying linguistic analysis to bring it to her students. Sophisticated cooking is a creative and competitive passion here. The preparation and sharing, as well as the laughter from meals spilling late into the night, reflect Parmigianis’ love of conviviality and pleasure.

 

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

Mother Tongue: An American Life in Italy is a memoir entirely dedicated to Parma and my first years of integration as a writer, the wife of an Italian Catholic, and a mother. When it appeared, in 1997, readers expecting a surface description of a romantic life were surprised by its content. Language and culture, their power to define identity, was the book’s dialectic. Giovanna’s room, for example, had never been explained as a woman’s story. Mother Tongue was reissued as an “underground classic,” “passionate and fierce,” with an introduction by Patricia Hampl, in 2020.

 

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

As an American who has lived more than forty years in Parma, I can say, of course it does.  Now, with Internet, all of us, wherever we live, have been carried into a new understanding of fragmentation. We all know an outside exists, and very often it moves so fast we cannot grasp how the pieces fit.

 

Tell us about your journey with translation.

Early on in Parma, I was offered the job of being the exclusive translator of a prominent Italian writer. However, I needed to find my own stories and didn’t want to become the invisible voice of a man. Translation is a strange and wonderful apnea. You do surface, but if you are any good, you must release someone else’s voice.

 

Wallis Wilde-Menozzi’s work is a high-span bridge between Italy, the US, and what is seen by living and dreaming in both cultures. Her memoir, Mother Tongue: An American Life in Italy, was reissued in 2020 with an introduction by Patricia Hampl.  The Other Side of the Tiber (2013) and Silence and Silences (2021) were also published by FSG. walliswilde-menozzi.com


Copyright © 2023 by Wallis Wilde-Menozzi. 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 Parma as you feel/see it? 

Parma is an elegant, intimate city: its ancient bell towers and domes magically define the skyline. On clear days, the Alps and Apennines lift it to the heavens. The economy based on Parma ham, Parmesan cheese, advanced food production technology, and a fine, nearly thousand-year-old university keep it growing, with bustle and prosperity. Inward-facing courtyards and gardens hold much life behind plain wooden doors on the streets. Secrets and facades are commonplace, because people know one another for life. The mood after COVID is cautious, commonsense; many businesses are closed. Skepticism is a common defense against precipitous action. New languages swirl as bus riders shout into cell phones to compatriots who seemingly are far away. More than 40,000 immigrants and their children are legally settled in the territory.

 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The area around the Pilotta palace in the city center was bombed by the Allies in 1945. A solution was never found for its restoration. After more than fifty years of political debate, an Italian Swiss architect, Mario Botta, designed it as a green space, created a reflecting pool, and added a ribbon of water running along the perimeter. The statue of a Partisan soldier with a rifle, standing on a dead soldier, was reinstalled on his little mound. The Piazza della Pace inspired unforeseen protests: cars were driven over the green space, leaving it gouged and muddy. The Partisan statue stood a few centimeters higher than before, and the opposition demanded that it be corrected to its original height. The buried divisions and memories, hatreds, ideologies, and class conflicts were exposed as if by an X-ray.

 

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

Reminders. 

Street names constitute a lively call to consult Wikipedia: Via Madre Anna Maria Adorni, 1805–1893, reformer for women; Via Maria Gotti, 1913–1998, obstetrician; Via Riccardo and Pietro Barilla, 1880–1947, 1913–1993, entrepreneurs.  

 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Everyone should read the classic The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendahl (of course, he is French), even though he narrates a partially invented city. Attilio Bertolucci’s The Bedroom is an original lyric novel in poetry and has been translated into English by Luigi Bonaffini. Bertolucci’s sons, Bernardo and Giuseppe, became prominent filmmakers. Bernardo’s Novecento narrates the chronic political tensions between peasant and landowner here. The Don Camillo books by Giovannino Guareschi—a fixed world of melodramas containing two adversaries, Mayor Peppone, a communist, and Don Camillo, a Catholic priest, both composites created from the author’s life—became one of the most translated series of the twentieth century. The human stories in their little world transcended the ideological blocs partitioning the globe.  Giuseppe Verdi, though not a writer, is another creative giant from this land. American Mary Jane Phillips-Matz spent more than twenty years documenting his life in a brilliant biography. The themes of land, social classes, and their passions root deeply in work generated here.

 

Is there a place here you return to often?

San Francesco del Prato since it finally reopened its doors. Built in the 1200s, the church was sacked by Napoleon, who used it as a prison. The city then expanded the building’s capacity to retain male and female prisoners, and used it for nearly two centuries. Reconsecrated in the 1990s and reopened in 2021, with three floors of prison cells removed and many windows unbricked, it is a modern place, full of distant gothic light, the walls scarred and defined by the ambiguities of human hope and human failings.  It is a good place to sit.

 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Correggio painted three masterpieces in Parma—in the Cathedral, the church of San Giovanni, and a room in the convent of San Paolo. The latter, known as the Camera di San Paolo, is situated in a historical convent where abbesses self-governed from the eleventh century to the sixteenth. Correggio’s secular depiction of Arcadia summarizes the power of the Renaissance revival of learning and defiance of religious thought. Giovanna da Piacenza, the governing abbess, commissioned its green boughs and rebellious contents to complement earlier commissions portraying women and the arts. Eventually ensnared by larger political struggles, she lost her ongoing personal battle with three popes attempting to rescind the women’s five-hundred-year-old concession to independent governance. Tragically, Giovanna and her order were cloistered in 1524. When one visits her room, the women’s gains and losses still resonate.

 

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

Slightly to the south of Parma, among century-old trees and roaming white peacocks, is an enormous estate, the Museo Magnani Rocca, structured as a foundation by its last owner, Luigi Magnani. A collector and friend to artists, he left Titian, Piero, Ghirlandaio, Goya, Dürer, Cézanne, Morandi, de Chirico, Burri, and Filippo Lippi paintings on the walls of his mansion, where visitors can contemplate an extraordinary collection quietly offered, much like Henry Frick’s, as if visiting a friend’s home.

 

Where does passion live here?

Because people generally stay rooted and often have little professional mobility, hobbies are deeply felt. The butcher has no problem becoming an expert on Verdi operas. The third-grade teacher, no issue with studying linguistic analysis to bring it to her students. Sophisticated cooking is a creative and competitive passion here. The preparation and sharing, as well as the laughter from meals spilling late into the night, reflect Parmigianis’ love of conviviality and pleasure.

 

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

Mother Tongue: An American Life in Italy is a memoir entirely dedicated to Parma and my first years of integration as a writer, the wife of an Italian Catholic, and a mother. When it appeared, in 1997, readers expecting a surface description of a romantic life were surprised by its content. Language and culture, their power to define identity, was the book’s dialectic. Giovanna’s room, for example, had never been explained as a woman’s story. Mother Tongue was reissued as an “underground classic,” “passionate and fierce,” with an introduction by Patricia Hampl, in 2020.

 

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

As an American who has lived more than forty years in Parma, I can say, of course it does.  Now, with Internet, all of us, wherever we live, have been carried into a new understanding of fragmentation. We all know an outside exists, and very often it moves so fast we cannot grasp how the pieces fit.

 

Tell us about your journey with translation.

Early on in Parma, I was offered the job of being the exclusive translator of a prominent Italian writer. However, I needed to find my own stories and didn’t want to become the invisible voice of a man. Translation is a strange and wonderful apnea. You do surface, but if you are any good, you must release someone else’s voice.

 

Wallis Wilde-Menozzi’s work is a high-span bridge between Italy, the US, and what is seen by living and dreaming in both cultures. Her memoir, Mother Tongue: An American Life in Italy, was reissued in 2020 with an introduction by Patricia Hampl.  The Other Side of the Tiber (2013) and Silence and Silences (2021) were also published by FSG. walliswilde-menozzi.com


Copyright © 2023 by Wallis Wilde-Menozzi. All rights reserved.

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