Italian Interlude

Messer Paolo Gianocci Recalls Labarra
(Northern Italy, c.1565).

From plains of candled asphodel
the Titian mountains soar
to raise their haughty, serried heights
against empyrian’s door;
and up their cheeks and shoulders
the grey-blue pinewoods climb,
but brushstrokes in the distance,
and hazy strokes, and fine.
While crowded in the plainfold
mimosa’s bolder hues
compete with dark acacia
and juniper; and strewn
with darkest ivies
the ancient farmhouse stands,
a monument to crowded time
in a time-enshrouded land.
God bless the ancient farmhouse –
God bless the people there.
And look! The crimson dragonfly
now rides Labarra’s air!

[From Journeys in Time]

Nothing is known of Paolo Gianocci other than what appears in a letter of Donato Selimbeni of Siena, physician to Cardinal Legate Pandolfo de’Nerli in the year 1532. In this later letter Messer Selimbeni mentions Gianocci as a friend of Pompeo del Bene, painter and organist of Florence, and that Gianocci was a native of the region about Lake Garda. From this brief I have constructed the backdrop to the poem, in which Paolo, in conversation with Pompeo,  revisits his boyhood home of Labarra (the place-name is invented for the poem, and the date 1565 from juggling with what very scant evidence exists for Salimbeni and del Bene) perhaps while both were contemplating an actual or planned work by the artist.

Asphodel:  Although it entered the English language via a different path, ‘daffodil’ (Middle English affodil ) derives from the same etymological root (i.e., Greek asphodelos) as ‘asphodel’. As the daffodil  (Welsh cennin Pedr, ‘Peter’s Leek’) is one of the two national plant emblems of Wales – indeed, it has become the national flower – readers might find this linguistic connection to be of interest. The Yellow Asphodel, or ‘King’s Spear’ would slot very nicely into the picture.

I began looking into the etymology of the asphodel around thirty or more years ago in connection with my (still unfinished!) story The Armoured Isle, to which references (notably several poems) have previously appeared in ‘The Ig-Og’. Specifically the connection is with a locality in the story which was part of a larger region of volcanic ash known as ‘The Plain of Candles’ from its profusion of tall asphodel ‘candles’. Now the above-mentioned Greek asphodelos/*hasphodelos derives ultimately from spodos, ‘ash’, and the principal source of my then research – a real, live, old-fashioned, hold-in-the-hand book, I might add – appropriately and picturesquely suggested that from its ashen-grey leafage and yellow bloom the name would mean ‘emberflower’. It was both surprising and pleasing to find how neatly this explanation fitted in with my imaginary scenery. The ‘Asphodel Meadows’ figure in Greek mythology as a region of the underworld reserved for a certain class of souls of the departed, and which might find reflection in the later Christian half-way-house’ of ‘Purgatory’.

5 thoughts on “Italian Interlude

    1. Thanks, Wyn! This one was another of the short interim pieces I’ve been obliged to post recently. Glad you liked it.


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