More on the Labyrinth: According to Edith Hamilton, expert on Mythology, King Minos of Crete had the great architect Daedalus build a labyrinth around a nasty secret: his wife had fallen in love with a beautiful bull, given him by Poseidon, god of the waves, and given birth (because her love for the bull was prohibited) to a monster, half bull, half man. This Minotaur waited at the center of the labyrinth for the tribute that came from Athens every year: seven beautiful youth of each sex. (Makes me think of the world wide web where daily, youths wander until they’re poisoned and fall asleep for 1000 years–no, no, I’m mixing up my myths.)
The king of Athens, Aegeus, who was determined to end this harrowing of his country’s youth, sent his son, the renowned Theseus, among the next contingent. Once in Crete and paraded before the King, Theseus took the heart of Minos’ daughter Ariadne who couldn’t bear that he enter the labyrinth and be eaten by the Minotaur. It was she who contacted Daedalus, the great “fixer,” and received the thread from him which she sent with Theseus.
Theseus did as he promised: killed the Minotaur and returned, spooling up the thread to the exit. So much like walking the Christian labyrinth in reverse. He and Ariadne left Crete for Athens, but she perished on a southern shore where he soothingly had rested her, I imagine, because she suffered terrible seasickness. Distraught, he forgot to substitute a white for the black sail, a sign of success arranged before with his father. Now it was the king’s turn to fall victim to this convoluted story: despairing of his son, he threw himself into the sea. And Theseus ruled gentle and democratic, one imagines, because his trials had tutored him to avoid high-handed defiance of the gods.
All this by way of turning again to Ferrara where one of the strangest and most enticing palaces in the world sports tiers of exotic frescoes. Palazzo Schifanoia or “Banish Care.” At the top, as I remember, run images of court life with beautiful blond women, elegant men, rabbits (for fecundity), greyhounds and horses (for hunting), banquets, dancing, lolling on streams and lounges, flirtation, hazards and rewards. On another tier sparkle the signs of the zodiac, for there were necromancers and stargazers at the court of Count d’Este. Studying these beautifully painted images is a bit like standing in true dark and throwing back one’s head to identify the constellations, named so often for Greek mythological figures, at least in our Western tradition. What did the astronomers of Islam call their star-gazing discoveries? Maybe I’ll find out on my up-coming trip.
In Ferrara, also, lived one of 20th-century Italy’s finest writers: Luigi Barzani, who write The Garden of the Fitzi-Continis. It’s been made into a compelling film: I recommend it. Set in the 1920s, the wealthy, gated community of Italian Jews sport away their golden youth–the Fitzi-Continis–until an outsider from the more mercantile and studious class of Jews enters–a bit like threading a labyrinth to the center–fails in some obscure ways to understand what is going on, is lucky enough to exit, as the Holocaust breathes its hot, killing breath over the Alps.
I won’t tell you how the story ends except to say it’s tragic. What remains is the golden stone wall surrounding what was the real life family estate, the model for the Fitzi-Continis. With its canals and bicycles, its huge old plane trees and intriguing layers of architecture, Ferrara reminds me of how insulated the Italian city states remained virtually up to the unification of Italy in the 1860s-90s. They’re still separate little kingdoms, each with its own civic style, locomotion, dialect, favorite restaurants (no chains, thank heaven), foods, art and architecture, on and on.
Who knows what will strike me this time as I stand before the frescoes in the Palazzo or before the portal where my father entered and left, day after day, in the late 1920s. I promise a report.