Scenes From a Pandemic: 49

26 04 2021

by Daisy Cockburn

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

Portico (photos: Daisy Cockburn)

Letter From Italy

Florence

It’s been more than a year since Florence locked down for the first time, and the rate of Covid infection has increased by a factor of four. A family friend has been moved from the Santa Maria Nuova hospital to a hotel out of town to continue his recovery. He’s too weak to talk, but his daughter tells me that he wants P.G. Wodehouse novels: anything “non-Jeeves.” (He’s read those.) Or anything funny, for that matter. It proves harder than expected; put on the spot, my books have never seemed less capable of raising a laugh.

I am an outsider in Florence, here because of my husband’s teaching gig. As a voice actor, I am used to working remotely from a home studio set-up. Silence is good for that, but this is eerie. It’s as quiet in our street as it was a year ago. The university opposite used to mean reliable bouts of victory cries from laurel-crowned students, four times a year no less, which is when they graduate. The café on the corner used to cater to a stream of regulars with its affordable lunch menu of homey pasta dishes. Gone also are the students of love—those painfully breaking up in our dark side street. No more agonized crying, shouting, and huffing off over the cobblestones.

For a broader soundscape, 100 yards away is Piazza Santissima Annunziata, former home to megaphoned protest speeches, tourist groups of 50 in matching baseball caps topped with swirly helicopter blades, dubious brides posing for the camera, Santa conventions, etc. When the pandemic kicked in, the square became home to a soup kitchen set up under the porticos at the top of the steps. People waited to be called up by ticket number to receive their bag of food. It was quiet, apart from the sound of a small transistor radio belonging to a few gentlemen living on the other side of the square, under the portico of the old foundling hospital, now a building owned by UNICEF.

One of the paradoxes of the lockdown has been that Florence, a city of interiors, has had to play out some of its secret games in public. UNICEF has traditionally held a grand, exclusive ball. Last July, the ball was in the piazza, a perfectly socially distanced al fresco affair, with white-clothed tables spaciously placed and cordoned off with plush rope, where bodyguards checked names.

As a consequence of this ball, the wolves were kettled. Just a few days earlier, Chinese artist Liu Rouwang’s installation The Wolves Are Coming, 100 bronze castings of wolves, appeared in Piazza Santissima Annunziata and Piazza Pitti. In various attitudes of rapacious intent, the wolves encircled a statue of a cartoonish hero wielding a paddle-shaped sword, no match for the beasts. Exploding the stereotype of wolves as bad guys in fairy tales, here the hero was a caricature and the wolves looked like natural, powerful free beings. People interacted with them playfully, sitting on them, posing for selfies.

This encounter with the wild had an unexpected parallel in newly uninhabited spaces in Florence and other parts of Italy. Dolphins appeared in the Grand Canal in Venice, ducks waddled into malls in Florence, and actual wolves are having a major comeback, with as many as 2,000 of them presumed to be roaming the countryside. (The first national census of the Italian wolf was initiated last October.) As ball-goers celebrated in the piazza, the wolves were caged for the night. The men under the porticos also disappeared, but were back the next day. I asked what I could bring them. More triple-A batteries; that’s all.

During the initial lockdown, when we were allowed out one at a time for a valid purpose only, Matteo and I took turns going to the supermarket. Walking under the deserted porticos gave me the sense I was in a de Chirico painting, as if I were part of the city for the first time, inside its body, closer to the famously icy Florentine heart. Without people, each architectural detail is more vivid. The bas-relief sculptures of busts on plinths take on the appearance of figures pressing themselves into the walls, as if trying to socially distance from passers-by. The Duomo, the mothership, has seen it all before. In the summer of 1347, when the plague that would wipe out a third of the population here broke out, it was just being built. Despite the catastrophic blow to the city, construction wasn’t abandoned. Once more the Duomo is a silent witness. A local actor offered his take on a be-plagued and still Florence in a YouTube video of him questing through the streets, stopping to chat with statues of Dante, Brunelleschi, and others, looking for answers.

So much remains uncertain a year later. For stores and small businesses in Florence, the hardship is incalculable. Of the 3,000 restaurants in Tuscany that have closed permanently since the beginning of the lockdown, 100 have been in the province of Florence. A 44-year-old restaurateur in Santa Croce took his life in his restaurant before a restricted evening shift.

I wonder about Rocco, the owner of an after-hours teahouse in the center of Florence. His business appears not to have folded, but I haven’t seen him since the pandemic struck. Back when his cozy cafe was a beacon on the way home, a place to lounge for hours chatting—often with Rocco himself—Rocco purveyed the theory that some Florentines shuffle along under the unbearable weight of the city’s past, kept from new discoveries as if by a transparent domed ceiling. Any idea that flies too high hits the dome and comes crashing back to earth.

Walking through the subdued city the other day, I watched a crane crew’s final effort to secure a 90-foot trompe l’oeil photocollage by French artist JR to the front of Palazzo Strozzi. Called La Ferita (The Wound), it creates the illusion of a gash through the building’s shuttered facade.

Daisy Cockburn is a voice actor (under the name Daisy Tennant) based in Petrolia, California. She was confined to Florence during the long lockdown. Daisy, who spent many girlhood summers at Tree Frog Farm, is a longtime friend of Kopkind.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on April 21, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: From Brazil — The Sounds of Life

“O Que é Que a Baiana Tem?”, written in 1939 by composer Dorival Cayymi, is one of the most beloved sambas in the world. A former Kopkind/CID Film Camper, São Pãolo native Daniela Broitman, has made a documentary on Cayymi, titled Dorival Cayymi The Sounds of Life. Daniela talked about making the film earlier this year with Sounds and Colours, around the time the film was being shown virtually for a limited time:

Daniela: Culture and art are seen today by a good part of society as something expendable, and what these people do not realise is that they live culture and breathe art for a large part of their day: during their entire leisure time, or even on a journey to work, or while waiting in a doctor’s office. Imagine the world without art, without culture, can you imagine people’s despair?! So, imagine Brazil without [artists from Bahia] Dorival Caymmi, João Gilberto, Caetano [Veloso], [Gilberto] Gil, Gal [Costa] and [Maria] Bethânia?

Caymmi revealed Bahia to the world in the voice of Carmen Miranda; he contributed to making Brazilian music known worldwide. He revolutionized Brazilian song-writing and influenced generations of musicians, paving the way for movements such as Bossa Nova and Tropicália. He is the symbol of a powerful, diverse, creative, exuberant, sensual, avant-garde, charismatic and affectionate Brazil. It is the image that I want to convey about our country, which has suffered a lot with so much political greed. I want Brazil to be remembered again for all this beauty and cultural richness, and I hope that Dorival Caymmi – The Sounds of Life will be able to show this.

See the full interview here. Daniela’s beautiful trailer is below.


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