The Labyrinth & Ferrara

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Margotlog: The Labyrinth and Ferrara

In Crete, a king secreted a bull in the middle of a labyrinth. Captured maidens sent in to dance with the bull flung themselves over his horns, but eventually the bull trampled them, for once they got in, how could they get out? Only Ariadne with her thread escaped. Eventually heroic Theseus stabbed the bull and ended what we might call a “sex trade” between warring Greece and Crete.

Medieval Christendom transformed the labyrinth into an alternate pilgrimage route, a home version of the expensive journey toward Jerusalem in its sea of Islam. I was surprised to discover a labyrinth carved on an exterior column in Lucca. This medieval Tuscan town was an early Roman settlement with amphitheater and all; also visited by traders from the east. Above the church portico leered strange beasts, half human, half bird; with monkey faces and terrible claws. Many of us know the more famous labyrinth in the bowels of Chartres, or grassy labyrinths drawn in appealing rings beside Catholic schools or religious houses.

Last weekend I walked a labyrinth at Villa Maria. I know it sounds Italian but this Villa Maria faces huge Lake Pepin where the Mississippi lolls its way south between Minnesota and Wisconsin. Villa Maria, now a retreat center. was once a convent/school, founded by Ursaline Sisters from St. Louis, whose ancient Christian community was established in Brescia Italy, during the mid-1600s by Angela Merrisi, a peace-maker.

This labyrinth, lucky for me, was inside, out of the pouring rain which was flooding Southern Minnesota. As I turned north, then south, east and west, walking the complicated loops of the labyrinth to its beautiful lobed center (both tree and trefoil), I pondered a trip I’ll take soon to Italy. I’ll revisit Ferrara, near the opposite coast of Italy, the Adriatic. I’ve been there twice before, but not for years. Each time I’ve searched out the home where my father boarded in the late 1920s. It was on Via Saracena. To medieval Italy, the Saracens meant the Turks with their onion-domed mosques and secluded harems, their architecture that turned inward around walled gardens, but kept their faces veiled, blank to the street.

Paradise means a walled garden. We like to think that “western civilization” sprung “di nuovo” meaning fresh and new from the forests of Western Europe, but it ain’t necessarily so. Try walking the twisting medieval streets of Florence or Ferrara, and you’ll believe in labyrinths imported from the east. My father’s history in Ferrara began when he was not yet twenty. Sent to the Instituto Frescobaldi to study the violin, he boarded with an Italian family on Via Saracena. The only clue left of that first sojourn was a photo of him and his father and brother, holding up their family’s saggy female middle. My father lifts his face to an imaginary wind; light touches his features and turns him into a Greek statue of Adonis. If I’d met him then, I’d have “drooled,” as we used to say when I was a teen. In fact, my first real boy friend looked something like him.

Another turn of the labyrinth, and this time I am holding the tiny journal where he recorded impressions on his much later return in the early 1970s. His handwriting sprawls across the tiny pages. He has found the house again and recorded the address, thus letting me, in the mid-1990s, stand in front of it. It has a modest Renaissance facade with two peering eyes, a nose and a welcoming mouth–not blank and suspicious at all. A bar is open nearby where I stop and ask in my halting Italian who lives there. I don’t remember the response.

Now a sudden turn: the labyrinth faces me toward a startling vista. Between his second visit and mine later ones, my father and sister went to Ferrara together. I knew they’d taken off because he and I had met in Naples, driven into the mountains to his father’s hometown. Then returned a few days later to sit with my sister at a seaside cafe drinking and chatting. What he and she did after that, I hadn’t bothered to find out. “I thought he’d get us completely lost,” she told me, “but he took me directly to the house in Ferrara where he’d lived as a young man. And standing there looking at it, he began to cry. He said something about falling in love with the daughter of the family, years ago, a blond beauty. ‘How different my life would have been,’ he said and tweaked my cheek.”

My sister’s voice softens into that affectionate humor which also infects mine when I recall his familiar gesture. “‘Your mother and I have never been entirely happy,’ he said” my sister continues. “I was shocked.”

How can she not have known? My parents’ troubles with each other have been obvious to me for years since I was a teenager living with them. How can she, two years younger, not have noticed.

“‘I think we should separate,'” he said,” and my sister’s voice quivers. “He asked me ‘What do you think?'”

What she thought, I don’t believe I remember. Or maybe I do. Maybe I can still hear a touch of pride in her voice which signals that she believes she is now the favored daughter. He has revealed his inner soul to her; something he’d never do to me, after our years of conflict. Yet, as I tread the labyrinth, turning this way, then that, I’m not so sure about that. Because a vague memory stirs: I hear myself responding in shocked determination: “I hope you told him how stupid that was! He could never make a life for himself at this point. Can you imagine him trying to live on his own?”

When I reach the starting point, I have decided that all the above is true. My sister’s response, mine to her, ours to our father, his to Ferrara. The only voice missing is my mother’s.

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