No Ideas but in Things

Newsletter 34 (27 December 2016)

My grandchildren move through Units of Enquiry. They start with a ‘provocation’ in which the teacher finds out what they already think and know. Nia’s unit was ‘Sameness and Difference’. She came home and set about her own self-provocation: a picture, a debate and a meditation.

   There are two tall houses drawn in pencil. The left one is wide and has two roofs superimposed (it may even be two buildings, one standing in front of the other). The lower roof is robust and equilateral; the higher roof slopes to the right and is kinked like a witch’s hat. Doors and windows are sketched in. The building on the right is tall and thin with many windows, a skyscraper perhaps. The roof also slopes to the right, a tall witch’s hat again, but without the kink. A yellow sun shines above the left-hand building.

       ar The hausis The seim
       no yes yesor no anser ar ar They
       The seimar Thear difrint and
       not difront.
       Wai ar Theem
       bicos they ar hai The seim
       and Theyar The seim Bicos
       The ruf is the seim.

    Written Italian is completely phonetic, so that Italian children find the spelling of English impossibly difficult, with reason. At five Nia had to battle with sameness and difference at every level of language, whether English or Italian. There are words and the spaces between them, not all easily identifiable in speech. There are lower case and upper case letters. What cacophony and conundrum. But can anything be more necessary in life than grappling with these complicated issues of sameness and difference, whether opposites or nuanced in their similarity? Are the houses the same? No, yes; yes or no? Answer: are, are they the same? They are different and not different. Is not this kind of argument at the root of every choice, decision and act?

    People often ask me which is my favourite Italian city. They have so much in common with each other: a medieval centre, squares with cafes, a palazzo pubblico, a campanile, a duomo, streets dedicated to Garibaldi or Cavour or Vittore Emanuele, as well as many lesser known figures, and so on. They are all different and not different. I love their multiplicity, and their distinctness. One day I shall find myself thinking I’m in Bologna when I’m in Siena (two brick-built cities, though the colour of the bricks is quite different); or in Florence when I’m in Rome; or wherever. One day I will lead a group astray and we will find ourselves in the post office rather than the promised art gallery. Are these buildings the same? No, yes; yes or no? They are high the same, and they are the same because the roof is the same. That will be when I have
to stop running trips. In the meantime, there are still cities to enjoy.

    According to the historian Arnold Toynbee, in mediaeval Italy there were more city-states than there are countries in the world today. Imagine being summoned by the great bell of the campanile to learn what the rulers of the city are intending to do about the enemy army encamped outside the city walls. War after war between neighbouring cities, treaties and alliances, weak or strong, bands of condottieri — mercenary thugs in the pay of any city with the cash — as well as foreign armies, French or Spanish, seeking to assert the power  of kings and emperors. In 1322 the great bell called Il Leone was cast for the tower of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. For this a master bell-maker, Lando di Pietro, was paid three hundred gold pieces, triple Giotto’s annual salary when he was in charge of the Opera del Duomo. In 1530 Duke Cosimo finally gave up pretending he was not a dictator (a long-running Medici charade), and had the bell ceremonially smashed in the square as a symbolic execution of the Florentine republic.

    Cosimo brought all Tuscany under his control. A large number of cities, including the old enemy, Siena (victorious over Florence at the terrible battle of Montaperti in 1260) became subject to Medici rule. There had always been contact between the cities: Lando di Pietro was Sienese. Yet, in provincial Italy, given the hundreds of years of enmity between Florence and Siena, it is not surprising to find that the inhabitants still seem to distrust each other. Is this the reason why the superstrada linking the cities is so narrow and treacherous and badly looked after? Why the trains between the cities are slow and infrequent?

    These divergent and convergent histories make Italian cities so interestingly themselves; so much like each other, yet unique. There are still plenty of places for me to discover, I am pleased to remark: Viterbo, for example.