O Venusta Sirmio

Bust… as Catullus remarked on returning thankfully from a period of diplomatic activity in the Middle East. (Nothing changes much after more than two millennia, alas.) I’m not sure when it was that airports began to (re)name themselves after people rather than places: John Lennon, JFK, etc. But they do it in spades in Italy. Here is a short quiz: what cities do the following serve? Aeroporto Antonio Canova; Aeroporto Guglielmo Marconi; Aeroporto Federico Fellini; Aeroporto Luigi Ridolfi. (Answers at foot of page.)

Although I had flown into Verona airport before, I had forgotten that it is named after a fairly ancient famous son, Valerio Catullo (as opposed to, say, Romeo e Giulietta, da Guglielmo Shakespeare chi tutta la gente sa essere in realtà italiano). And because I have People (Him Indoors, to be precise) to do the due diligence before we go anywhere new, I was not quite sure what to expect (except a large lake) when we turned up in Sirmione on Lake Garda, ‘paene insularum … insularumque ocelle’, a few days ago.

View across Lake Garda.

View across Lake Garda.

I had never really tackled Catullus in my distant youth, beyond the basic two or three ‘essentials’, though I had read the whole oeuvre in the Penguin translation by Peter Whigham with the gorgeous, plausibly sensitive-looking young man from Greco-Roman Egypt on the cover.

Note the price: 25p. O tempora, o mores ...

Note the price: 25p. O tempora, o mores …

I was (you will not be surprised to learn) the class nerd: when the disaffected crowd of bullies, who most resentfully had to do Latin O-level to make up the number of their GCEs to what the school required, learned that we would soon be ‘doing some Catullus’, I was plagued by teasing. ‘Ooh Caz, we’re going to be doing a really filthy poet soon, I expect you know all about it and understand all the really rude bits because you’re so good at Latin …’. Why this upset me as much as it did at the time, I can no longer begin to imagine.

I see that Whigham did not in fact translate some of the most notorious phrases of poem 16 (on which see Mary Beard here): he is upbraided for this on Amazon by a modern purchaser, but when the edition was first published in 1966, I imagine he and Penguin could still have been prosecuted for obscenity? Anyway, between embarrassment and great problems with understanding the metre(s), I always found Catullus difficult: except of course for the bits everyone remembers: ‘nox est perpetua una dormienda’, ‘atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale’, ‘qui nunc it per iter tenebricosum / illuc unde negant redire quemquam’.

What I had not realised when we arrived here was that among the various holiday towns around the shores of Lake Garda, Sirmione stands out for its thermal baths.

The public spa baths.

The public spa baths.

There is a huge public bath (inevitably, ‘Terme Catullo’), many of the dozens of hotels offer spa treatments, and the car parks where the drivable road ends at the Scaliger castle are as full of Swiss, Austrian and German cars as they are of Italian ones. (You can rent apartments either for holidays or for ‘thermal cures’.)

Not merely a holiday rental ...

Not merely a holiday rental …

It’s altogether a genteel place, mostly elderly couples like us toddling around eating ice-creams (though we did come across some rotund and hairy ‘Evel Bikers of Switzerland’), and, impossible though it be to believe, there are more jewellery and knick-knack shops per square metre than even in Venice.

The Catullan references are everywhere: hotels (the Hotel Clodia is on a dead end: very ironic, symbolic and all that), restaurants, streets, parks.

Very symbolic ...

Very symbolic …

But especially, of course, the huge, palatial Roman villa at the top of the peninsula, is known (since after its collapse it vanished into vegetation for nearly two millennia) as ‘le grotte di Catullo’, the caves of Catullus. The site was first scientifically excavated in 1953, and has still not been completely explored.

The remains of immense substructure supporting the terrace.

The remains of immense substructure supporting the terrace, seen from the lake.

It was built (probably by a very rich person indeed from nearby Verona) about the non-existent date of 0 BCE/CE (i.e. 50 or so years after Catullus’ death), and is a most extraordinary feat of architecture and engineering: the remaining visible ruins are almost all part of an immense, hollow substructure built to create a flat area on the top of a precipitous rocky outcrop. (This was presumably the lesser engineering challenge in a pre-gunpowder age than levelling the plateau.) However, as a consequence, when the building collapsed at some point towards the end of the second century (not clear why: fire, earthquake?), very little of the actual living quarters survived, though fragments of painted plaster and moulded stucco show how luxurious they would have been.

The coin timeline shows that parts of the ruin were again inhabited briefly in the fourth century, but huge amounts of masonry were clearly robbed, and when the Scaligeri of Verona (in this case the Mastiff (Mastino I della Scala) as opposed to any of the Dogs) built their own spectacular castle, they chose a site further down the peninsula, with its own built-in harbours areas (darsene = arsenale), since pirates were apparently a problem on the lake.

The Scaliger castle, with the characteristic swallow-tail crenellation.

The Scaliger castle, with the characteristic swallow-tail crenellation.

The small (left) and large (right) harbours below the castle.

The small (left) and large (right) harbours below the castle.

Looking back down the peninsula from the central tower of the castle.

Looking back down the peninsula from the central tower of the castle.

Bizarrely, but appropriately, one of the most memorable sights in Sirmione was the sparrows.

Looking expectant at breakfast …

... and later in the day, a baby takes a healthy dustbath.

… and later in the day, a baby takes a healthy dustbath.

I do not propose to consider here the various metaphorical interpretations of Catullus’ ‘sparrow’ poems, though I have long wondered (and I see I’m not alone ) whether ‘sparrow’ (also used in the AV, Matthew 10:29-31) is in fact the correct translation of ‘passer’. But at our lakeside hotel, they were everywhere on the terrace, snatching crumbs, perching on chairs and tables, almost landing on one bald gentleman’s head. It’s years since I’ve seen so many (and so bold) in one place. A nice coincidence …


PS: answers to quiz: Antonio Canova = Treviso; Guglielmo Marconi = Bologna; Federico Fellini = Rimini; Luigi Ridolfi = Forlì (Forum Iulii, useful for Ravenna).

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2 Responses to O Venusta Sirmio

  1. Pingback: Object of the Month: May | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

  2. Pingback: The Dunnock | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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