Italy's Generous Heart

By Bradford, Robert H. | The Saturday Evening Post, October 1984 | Go to article overview

Italy's Generous Heart

Bradford, Robert H., The Saturday Evening Post

The northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna has a problem. All its roads seem to lead to important cities situated elsewhere, and travelers routinely flit by on their way to Milan or Venice or Florence. But those with taste are advised to stop and explore this little-advertised area between the Adriatic and the Apennines, for here they will enjoy the most abundant helping of the good life available anywhere in Italy. Emilia-Romagna has been called "Italy's generous heart," and no one will argue the point that it is the country's gastronomic capital. Its cities--Parma, Piacenza, Modena, Ferrara, Ravenna, Forli, Bologna--may offer less striking images than Venice or Rome, but their residents enjoy Italy's highest standard of living, and to visitors the provide a cultural feast generously peppered with works of genius from all areas of Italian art.

Such contemporary Italian film makers as Fellini, antonioni, Pasolini, Zavatini and Bertolucci grew up here under the magical atmosphere of the region's misty, picturesque landscapes, its medieval settings and the intense real-life drama of its people.

From Emilia-Romagna's sophisticated musical environment have emerged legendary performers, composers and conductors: Frescobaldi, Toscanini, Verdi, Tebaldi, Pavarotti and Anna Moffo. Operatic audiences here are the world's most demanding and so intolerant of bad form that even the native son Pavarotti was booed off a Parma stage following his unbecoming role in the cornball film Yes, Giorgio and Anna moffo was forbidden to perform in several leading Emilia-Romagnan opera houses after "indiscretions" in another silver-screen disaster.

Other arts and letters are represented by the likes of Correggio, Dante, Parmigianino, Bellocchio, Cavani and Savonarola. Industry and science have been represented too by the inventive talents of Galvani and Marconi. Maserati, Fiat and Ferrari's own streamlined works of art snarl and roar along the Emilian Way, an autostrada that has always been this region's central east-west spine. The ancient Romans designed it as the Via Aemilia for their rumbling chariots almost 200 years before Christ.

Tangible history begins in Emilia-Romagna with the earliest Etruscans and continues through a patchwork of Roman domination, barbarian takeovers, Byzantine conquests, independent city-state dynasties, papal control in the 1500s and, more recently, Austrian-Hapsburg, then French, occupation.

One historic stopping point along the resort-studded Adriatic coast is Ravenna. Its "mosaic-city blend" of Hellenistic-Roman and Byzantine architecture includes the aisles and soaring arches of remarkably well-preserved sixth- and seventh-century churches. From the luminescent interiors and elegant belltowres of the San vitale and Sant'Apollinare in Class, "a sweet and solemn rhythm still seems to flow," Dante once observed. And so it does to this day. Dante's bones themselves rest in a stately tomb nearby. Outiside this bustling little town and its Venetian-style square stand whispering pine forests described by Byron and Dante.

An hour's drive north from Ravenna is Ferrara, holdover from the Middle Ages, when individual city-state dynasties--Pallavinci, Bentivoglio, Estensi--were the law of the land. Ferrara is Europe'sl first example of true wide-scale city planning, accomplished in the 14th century, when the channel of a mercurial Po Delta tributary altered course dramatically. Among the most arresting structures here are the stunning Romanesque-Gothic style cathedral, San Giorgio (which has graced the cover of more than one classical Italian music album), the Estensi family's diamond-shaped palace and the brooding 13th-century Estensi castle--a classic medieval military fortress. At least one of the dukes must have been a voyeur, it seems, since many of the interior high ceilings are frescoed with sporting naked figures.

But most notable about Ferrara are the seemingly perpetual mists that hang upon the community like a shroud, a reminder of the sorrowful events that have occurred here over the centuries.

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