Memories of my days in Italy, exploring the country, painting and sketching, and making new friends.
Ever since the news of the rising number of victims of coronavirus starting pouring in, I have been worrying about the welfare of my friends in different cities of Italy, especially in Rome, which itself means ‘love’.
My earliest interest in Italy was aroused when that “soldier” (of ours) who had fought on the Italian front took me around in his tonga (as narrated in an earlier dispatch). As luck would have it, I had just submitted my doctoral dissertation in Istanbul, when I got an invitation from UNESCO’s Centre for Conservation of Cultural Property (Architecture) to participate in a programme in Rome. It was like a dream come true. It was for the first time that a Pakistani had been admitted to ICCROM.
With a cheque for just two hundred dollars sent by a friend of mine from the US in my pocket, I boarded the Orient Express from Sirkeci train station in Istanbul, confident of getting a Unesco grant for which I had sent my application to the Education Ministry in Islamabad. After a long and arduous three-day journey, passing through Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, I entered Italy through Ljubljana. The map of Italy is more like the lower part of a human leg — starting from Trieste it extends to its heel in Brindisi and Bari; Rome being more or less in the centre. Venezia, or Venice, is a major railway junction, from where I had to catch a connecting train due to arrive and depart within minutes. Since I was moving lock, stock and barrel, I struggled with my books, painting easel and an ancient typewriter. Fortunately, a Turkish lady, surprised by my command of her mother-tongue, volunteered to share my ‘weights’. Together we threw my clutter into the compartment and she pulled me up into the moving train. Upon disembarking at Stazioni Termini in Rome, she even lent me some Italian liras.
I deposited my extra luggage at the warehouse service and headed for ICCROM, located at 13 Via San Michele, Trastevere. Finding my way came easy, as if everybody was waiting for me.
Rickety trams from pre-Mussolini days were still operating there. As I boarded one and struggled with the Italian liras in my pocket, a grandmotherly lady paid the fare. I later boarded a double-decker bus and reached the Tiber River, locally called Lungo Tevere. A monk from Santa Maria del Orto walked me to the Centre and waved an “arrivederci” (goodbye) to me, to which I reciprocated with a “vederla” (see you!). (Soon I found it prudent to refresh my Italian: Reverend Dr Butler back in Lahore had taught me that it is pronounced exactly as written, that there are no silent letters, all words end in vowels; the masculine ones end in Os and feminine ones in As; and that its grammar is regular. Moreover, a Punjabi accent helps.)
It was as if my course mates were already waiting for me. There were 25 of us from 19 countries — Vlasta from Yugoslavia; Richard from UK; Richard Ortega, Marly, and Andy from USA; Serafim from Sarajevo; Aabid from Jordan; Shazi from Greece; Georgia from Colombia; Jukka from Finland; Nobuo Kamei from Japan; Alhassan Isaka from Ghana; Simonetta from Italy; Krishna Murti from India; Ferdinando Upali from SriLanka; and Ifigenia from Sweden are some of the names that are still fresh in my memory. All of us soon forgot politics and religious affiliations became a personal matter. We were all like descendants of the same Adam and Eve. Tidbits from all corners of the world also came to be shared and enriched.
The Centre had advised us to bring books, publicity materials and colour slides of historic monuments from our respective countries to deliver lectures and participate in seminars and discussions. And it was requested that all these be donated to the Centre.
In the meantime, the much-awaited letter from Islamabad arrived, which I joyously opened and had the shock of my life. It read, “The Ministry nominates candidates only when a specific offer has been made through normal channels. Your application is returned herewith.” It turned out that Unesco had only wanted my application to be channelled through the government of Pakistan. The opportunity was later availed by India, as this scholarship was meant for South Asia. Krishna Murti, who was no match for me, joined later.
With my dwindling Turkish and Italian liras, I hastened to the bank to get the 200 dollars cheque cashed. The manager told me to wait till the money had been realised from the States (it could take several weeks in those pre-computer/e-mail days). When I told him in my rudimentary Italian that I was a student, he became sympathetic and scribbled something, and I was paid right away. I said, “Mille grazie!” (a thousand thanks).
Later, I visited our embassy at Via Navi. There I met Sartaj Aziz, one of our most upright politicians, who was the president of Pakistanis’ Association. He remembers me to this day.
What worried me most was that my money was not going to last long. Finally, I asked the Centre director to let me deliver a lecture about the monuments of Lahore, with diapositives, before I left. The administration was surprised at our government’s refusal to forward my application which was just a formality. After the lecture in which they were enlightened about Shalamar Gardens, now on the Unesco’s World Heritage list, and which is a prototype of Baroque garden extravaganzas, I was told to stay over. The following day I was handed an envelope which I opened rather nervously. It contained my monthly stipend. This helped me get my Resident Permit.
I availed the opportunity to paint the many monuments of Rome, during the long Italian siesta breaks. Most of them were sold enabling me to stay comfortably in a reasonably good hotel and eat at restaurants and get my laundry done. I travelled extensively, exploring the country, painting and sketching. “You must visit Napoli before you die,” they said. I told them that visiting Lahore was a reincarnation of sorts.
Saint Marcs, with its five domes, topped by bronze horses as stolen by Napoleon and later returned, was reachable when the tide was low. I visited Pompeii at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, the eruption of which had buried and frozen the city life in a moment in 69 AD. The frescoes on the walls of its luxurious villas illustrated the way of life of these people.
Pompeii Prohibited remains the best-selling tourist book, profusely illustrated just like the one selling at Khajurahu. The fossilised human figures in various postures and even some dogs and other animals tell much about the calamity that suddenly and tragically befell the culturally rich people.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa from the top of which Galileo had dropped two objects of different weights to prove his point, is a sight to behold. This tower had started leaning while it was being built.
Apart from the Roman era, Italy is a living museum of all arts from all periods — Romanesque to Renaissance and Baroque. All this is available in various voluminous encyclopedic illustrated references, but a visit tells us more about its tangible ambience.
I had the unique opportunity to paint its walled city and busy outskirts. People would cast a brief look at my canvas and hurry away so as not to disturb me. Some commercial art critics offered me expensive packages, much to my disdain. Towards the end of my stay, I exhibited my work not at any commercial gallery infested by culture vultures, but at the ICCROM. The exhibits included some street scenes from Lahore and many from Rome. The idea was that these are twin cities.
It was simply declared open, with no red-tape to cut. I did not invite any chief guest. To me all who cared to come were guests of honour. Just as people started pouring in, I learnt that someone was looking for me. I was really glad to see that the ambassador of Pakistan, His Excellency JC Khan, was there along with his lady.
Finally, it was time to say adieu to Roma, my amore. I wanted to shout “Roma, ti amo.”I visited Fontana Trevi and painted it. I have kept the canvas with me as a lasting memento where I had dropped a coin in its vast pool like hundreds of thousands of others who wish to visit Rome again. To show my gratitude, I presented some of my watercolours to the staff there and a large painting depicting the marble pavilions of Lahore Fort to the director who had told me on that nervous day to stay on. Later, I learnt that he had given it to the Centre. Years later, a lady, Signora Rosemary who worked there wrote to me: “You don’t know me but I think I know you.” She had noted down my address from the frame. It would have been more poetic in Urdu thus: tum to mujh ko nahin jaante ho, magar mera khiyaal hai me tum ko jaanti hoon.
My dear Italian friends, wherever you are, I still remember the vino rosso and bianco and pizza Napolitana and lasagna you served me at the carnivals. We in Pakistan wish you all a happy return to normal life.
(This dispatch is dedicated to Signore Franco Gatti from Bologna. Italians monuments, Vatican and Roman era catacombs shall be discussed later.)