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The City and the Writer: In Salerno with Giorgio Sica

By Nathalie Handal

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 Salerno as you feel/see it?

The mood of my hometown is quite weird. Like many little cities of southern Italy, Salerno is stuck in a kind of medieval heritage, which is not just architectural, but mostly a way of living. We never got over our Catholic sense of guilt, especially when it comes to pleasure; so even if Salerno is blessed with sunshine, many things happen in the twilight.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

My first heartbreak was in front of the sea. I was nineteen years old and going to study in Bologna while my girl was staying in Salerno. It was a hot spring afternoon, and I could hear my sobs against the cry of the seagulls.


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

On the very top of the old town, there are stairs to a tiny bridge that leads to a hidden farmhouse surrounded by a lush garden. If you go up at night, in the darkness, by the bridge you will get one of the most amazing views of the gulf.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Il Novellino by Masuccio Salernitano—a local Boccaccio—and the wonderful poems of Alfonso Gatto, one of the best Italian poets of last century.


Is there a place here you return to often?

I always return to the seafront, which has been my shelter for many years.

I also love to sit and read in the cloister of the Cathedral, shaped with ancient columns from the temples of Paestum and Pompeii. And a superb Arab-Norman gallery of polychromatic inlays.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

In the old town, close to the house where Alfonso Gatto was born, street artists recently painted the walls of Fornelle—a working-class neighborhood—making it one of the largest city art districts in Italy.


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

The old town, especially its upper part. It’s a hidden city inside the city, with its Norman labyrinth of alleys, gardens, walls, and terraces. When I was a teenager, it was completely abandoned. We only began to rediscover it in the last twenty-five years. It is one of the most charming places in Italy, and a perfect place to get lost.


Where does passion live here?

We usually complain that Salerno has few attractions for the young, and most of the talented musicians and artists move elsewhere. But Salerno is romantic.


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

All my works are in one way or another related to Salerno. I am ambivalent toward it. My second book, Versi di mare e d’orto, was written while I was living in Raito, a wonderful little village on the Amalfi Coast. There, I tried to garden for the first time in an old mansion suspended over the sea. My third book, Breviario per vagabondi, has a section entitled Kabir sul lungomare, written on the seafront while I was reading the Persian master and watching people walking. But even when I am writing elsewhere, the light, sea, and sounds of the waves of Salerno are at the core of my verses.


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

Outside Salerno there’s a hot and surprising and dangerous world. But once you know Salerno, you will always miss the perfect quietness you find by its sea. 

Giorgio Sica was born in Salerno, fifty kilometers south of Naples. He graduated with a PhD in modern literature from the University Federico II of Napoli. He is the author of three poetry collections: L’altra stanza della voce; Versi di mare e d’orto; and Breviario per vagabondi; and a nonfiction book, Saudade, about fatherhood and breakups. Sica has translated into Italian the Brazilian poets Manoel de Barros (Il libro sul nulla) and Paulo Leminsky (Trivio); and into Portuguese the Italian poets Alfonso Gatto and Rocco Scotellaro. He is presently editing an anthology of American poets with Ron Padgett.  He has also written two books on the reception of Japanese aesthetics in the Western world: Il vuoto e la bellezza. Da Von Gogh a Rilke, come l’Occidente incontrò il Giappone Guida and Una catena tra oriente e occidente. Octavio Paz, la poesia giapponese e il Renga di Parigi. He currently teaches comparative literature at the University of Salerno.


I met Francesco Durante last year in Salerno. He was the artistic director of the incredibly vibrant Salerno Literature Festival, which he invited me to participate in along with Alane Mason, vice president and executive editor at W.W. Norton, and Giorgio Sica.

Salerno is in the Campania region, southeast of Naples, and about one and a half hours from Rome by train. The night I arrived, we dined near the Salerno Duomo, built in Neapolitan Baroque and Rococo style. The usually quiet seaport was lit and lively. The city, part of the festival. We spoke about literature, summer secrets, food and wine. The magic of the Salerno, the festival, and Francesco were all unfolding. The following evening I spent with Francesco, Alane, Jay Parini, and Angelo Canmavacciuolo. It was one of those moments you know you will never forget but aren’t sure why yet. As we walked through the narrow streets, Francesco told Alane and me about his plans for when he retired from teaching, and we discussed all the exciting things we would do together culturally.

About a month later, Francesco passed away.

I was stunned.

Francesco had the energy of the sun.

He was born in Anacapri and lived in Naples. He is the author of the monumental book Italoamericana: The Literature of the Great Migration, 1880–1943 (Fordham University Press, 2014), as well as Naples: Scuoro (Mondadori, 2008), I napoletani (Neri Pozza, 2011), and, with Rudolph J. Vecoli, Oh Capitano! La vita favolosa di Celso Cesare Moreno in quattro continenti (Marsilio 2014). He translated works by Bret Easton Ellis, Raymond Carver, John Fante, William Somerset Maugham, and others; was editorial director of Leonardo, the publishing house of Leonardo Mondadori; Italian fiction consultant for the publisher Neri Pozza; and editor in chief of Il Mattino and Corriere del Mezzogiorno. Durante was also the literary curator at the Festival di Ravello, the director of the Festival delle Generazioni di Firenze, and artistic director of Festival Salerno Letteratura. He taught at the University of Naples.

Months later, secluded in my Queens apartment as a pandemic struck the world, Salerno returned. And I understood why that moment there was unforgettable. It was a wave showing me the distance of the sea.

I could hear Francesco whispering: death is our most astonishing adventure.

Published Aug 4, 2020   Copyright 2020 Nathalie Handal

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