Ever walked into an Italian church which is just dripping with marble and angels and columns and symbols and layer upon layer of history you know you should understand? And how about being asked to translate a text about this from Italian to English. A text with bits in Latin, funeral inscriptions, a shift in architectural styles according to the evolution in fashion and technical prowess, and tastes of a myriad of pushy nuns at the helm of a convent complex?
|The Sibyl Cumana in Raphael's Sistine Chapel|
According to legend the Sibyls were prophetesses of the ancient world, who pronounced oracles in a state of ecstasy. These prophetesses lived in remote caves and nearby springs and were sometimes described as the priestesses of Apollo, or his favourites. It is said that when Apollo asked the Sibyl Cumana to choose a gift, she asked to live as many years as the grains of sand she held in her hand. However, she failed to asked for continued youth and became a shrivelled, old woman. When children asked 'Sibyl, what do you want?' she used to answer, 'I want to die.'
Creepy.. Oh and I also just found out that Sibyl is a UK-based confidential Christian spirituality group for transgender people. Gosh! The endless tail-chasing that goes on once you hop online...
And what about this:
VIVITE VICTVRE MONEO. MORS OMNIBVS INSTAT
LIVE, YOU WHO STILL HAVE THE FORTUNE TO LIVE. DEATH DESCENDS UPON US ALL.
In 1550, these words were inscribed on the tombstone of Camillo Pigafetta, Knight of Jerusalem, husband of Margherita, father of 14 children. And there is an even longer inscription on that of his illustrious nephew Filippo Pigafetta, whose achievements included performing in the inaugural production of Sophocles' Oedipus in Palladio's Teatro Olimpico, circumnavigating the globe (in a bucket!), taking part in both naval and land battles from Hungary to Persia, being Pope Innocent IX's secret messenger... The list of Pigafetta's achievements nearly fills a page and makes me wonder about how soft and cerebral our lives are today. Can you imagine setting off to Jerusalem and Mount Sinai on a horse? A boat? Another horse? Delivering the Pope's scrolls up and down the continent?
You know, when I translate historical stuff I always try to imagine these people, living with them for a stretch, just like you live with the characters in your novel or short story. Sometimes I swear I can see them - tinier men and women with folksy clothes and caps and greasy hair, talking crazy dialect. I even saw that Caterina used to be Chatelina. Chattel? Moi?
Then I imagine I can see the unpopulated hills about our town, the dirt roads and wagons pulling into theatrical porticos with columns and manservants in Duran Duran shirts. Everything is smaller except the massive entranceways and church facades which must have been all the more belittling. Horses plop in the street. There are bonnets. It's so tangible, the way the centuries can roll away in a small Italian town and you are standing there, amongst the underwear and ice cream shops, the unsightly McDonalds, imagining this.
The ever-present past and here we are all clutching our mobile phones to our cheeks.