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The City and the Writer: In Lugano with Fabiano Alborghetti

By Nathalie Handal

Special Series / Switzerland, 2014

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 Lugano as you feel/see it?

Hard to say: Lugano is a three-sided die. One side is the most popular: Lugano is a bustling financial market, but this lurks under the surface. The second is the one seen with tourists’ eyes: the marvellous lakeshores covered in flowers and trees, the boats arriving and departing, the mild climate most of the year (the Swiss Germans call the Canton Ticino Sonnenstube, or “the sunny spot”). Pure lightheartedness! The third side reflects the Swiss-Italian attitude: shyness and high spirits, a strong attachment to their roots but an openness to other cultures. A huge number of people still speak the local dialects as their primary language as well as perfect German or French (in the past, universities were only available in the internal parts of Switzerland). There’s a tremendous amount of diversity coming together. A paradox but in a very positive way.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

There are two actually. The first time I visited the apartment of the woman I married a year later. From one window there was a full view of a glowing Lugano by night, and the lake, dark and calm. The hills around the city were covered in small patches of light. And from the other windows, other people were possibly watching an equally surprising view, each involved in his/her own life. The second memory is the day I left the hospital after being checked for suspected meningitis (it wasn’t). That day, while I was waiting for my future wife to pick me up, I stood on one of the balconies and watched the city from the hospital, which is in an elevated part of Lugano. I could see our house on the other side. I was going back home. It was raining. I saw that rain as tears—of relief.

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

It’s a small statue in a private garden. The statue of Elisabeth von Wittelsbach (1837-1898), Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary (better known as “Princess Sissi”). She became known around the world in the 1950s with the movie trilogy starring Romy Schneider. The statue is by the Swiss-Italian sculptor Antonio Chiattone (1856-1904), and in one of the gardens you can find the original plaster cast. The marble statue was erected in Geneva in 1902 and is still there (it took almost eighteen tons of Carrara marble to make it). The plaster cast was left in Lugano, where Chiattone had his studio. My Princess Sissi wears a fairy-tale dress embellished with a nineteenth-century floral jabot around the neck. Her right hand lies in her lap holding a book, with a finger used as a bookmark. The other hand is holding her face. She looks like she is pondering, a bit gloomy or melancholic. The statue is downtown, a step away from one of the most congested streets in Lugano: the garden and the statue are visible from the sidewalk, behind a beautiful railing. No one seems to know about it, no one notices this amazing beauty.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

There are many. My favorites: Fabio Pusterla (Days Full of Caves & Tigers), Alberto Nessi (A Broken Life. Selected Poems (1969-2009), Pietro De Marchi (Here And Not Elsewhere), Giorgio Orelli and Giovanni Orelli.

Is there a place here you return to often?

The Liceo Lugano 1, a high school. My wife works there. It's a superb building, finished in 1904: it represented an extraordinary innovation for its time and still its charme remains intact. Liceo Lugano 1 is opposite the Biblioteca Cantonale (the main city library) which was built in 1942 by the architects Carlo and Rino Tami, a place that still shines for its modernism, and for containing 186 incunabula and a massive number of medieval codices. Despite their differences, these two buildings converse with each other. There’s also a Kebab place downtown I return to very often, but that’s another story . . .

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The poet and writer Francesco Chiesa was the Rector of Liceo Lugano 1 from 1914 to 1943 and Carlo Cattaneo was a teacher there for a long time. Probably the most famous place I suppose is in Montagnola, right behind Lugano, the house where Hermann Hesse lived almost his entire life. It’s a museum now. Lugano has been a haven for many authors, from Alessandro Manzoni to the Nobel laureates Eugenio Montale and Borges. Finally, I have great expectations for the LAC (Lugano Arti Contemporanee—Lugano Contemporay Arts), a giant expo center a step away from downtown. It’s scheduled to open in 2015. The Council kept the original façade, which dates back to 1800 (it belonged to a Grand Hotel) and had it restored. The façade is incorporated into a high-tech building containing a theater, several exhibition spaces, and so forth. I like the way roots merge with innovation, how the memory of a place is preserved with respect for the people of that place.

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

One is the Libreria del tempo (Library of Time) in Massagno, a district of Lugano. All the walls are covered with shelves and filled with dusty old books. I found some great editions in the dust. But what seduces most, more powerful and intriguing than anything else, more inspiring too, is sitting in any café, possibly outdoor, watching people, listening to people. Every person contains a world.

Where does passion live here?

Passion lives everywhere here. Curiosity is given a chance to challenge people here.

What is the title of one of your poems about Lugano and what inspired it exactly?

I wrote only one poem about Lugano, entitled “lugano paradiso.” The title is a play on words—Lugano as a paradise, and Paradiso is the district of Lugano where I live. It’s a very short poem, four verses, and it was inspired by my first trip to Lugano. I came to give a reading, and the person who was originally meant to pick me up at the Railway Station had an emergency and couldn’t come. Someone else came instead—not at all involved in poetry or the festival. That’s the day I met my wife for the first time.

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

There’s an outside if one is willing to welcome and face diversities.


Fabiano Alborghetti was born in 1970. He is the author of five poetry books. He founded and runs, for Radio Gwen, the only show dedicated to poetry on web-radio in Switzerland; and with the support of the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, he officially represents Switzerland in festivals all over the world. He is the Artistic Director of the PoesiaPresente festival (Switzerland and Italy) and the Editor in Chief of the poetry journal Atelier. His work has been translated into many languages, most recently, Registro dei fragili (Registre des faibles, translated into French by Thierry Gillyboeuf, Editions d’En Bas, Lausanne) and Directory of the Vulnerable (translated by Marco Sonzogni, Guernica Editions,Toronto, 2014).

Published Mar 10, 2014   Copyright 2014 Nathalie Handal

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