The rose returns to bloom,
though seemingly withered at first.
‘Just now?’ So to say, ‘Earlier, just a little while ago.’
But can one use the words “a little while ago” for all the same moments in time,
amorphous, one following upon another monotonously?
I’m talking about the re-flourishing
of a convalescent, of a rosier cheek, a bit less pale,
if I can use that old word that smells somewhat moldy,
but instead of a livelier eye,
indeed of a glance.
This, the only remaining flower,
with thanks to your mountebank Dulcamara.
All you must do is step onto a scale to see those few milligrams, added on because you were not able to undergo your seasonal training which would have had them disappear.
And now, you can start flying again, no longer like a heavenly cloud, but as an earthly creature.
This does not mean, though,
that the heavens do not notice it.
It is enough that someone is surprised that your flower is blossoming again in a wondrous way.
No small thing this, in a time
in which ballets seem to be parades of death.
The Exhausted Dancer
A poem dedicated to the ballerina, Carla Fracci – Eugenio Montale, 1969
Poetic Paraphrased Translation
The recent ‘Montale Prize Fuori Casa 2019’ was awarded at Milan’s Alessandro Manzoni House to Carla Fracci. The world-famous étoile, 83 years old this 20th August, received the honor not for dance, but for music. An unusual nomination for a star ballerina who has enthralled the world with her ethereal and hypnotic dancing, but certainly not for the fact that her career was followed step by step by the 1975 Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Eugenio Montale. Before devoting himself entirely to poetry, Montale became a collaborating journalist for the influential Milanese daily, the Corriere della Sera, only to edit the Literature pages two years later. To this, we add his position as a music critic for the Corriere from 1954 to 1967. Many of his famous articles were published in Opening Nights at La Scala (Prime alla Scala), a collection of his reviews, including those related to ballet.
By then, the poet Montale loved music and dance. He first saw Carla Fracci perform on March 5th, 1955, in her performance of Farewell Steps (Passo d’addio) for La Scala’s Ballet School. His admiration continued from the moment Fracci entered into the “Corps de Ballet” to when she became a protagonist on the international scene, including a 12 year stint with the American Ballet Theatre in New York. As Eugenio, nicknamed Eusebio, fortified his position at the Corriere della Sera, his bond of friendship with her culminated in a summer stay in the Tuscan sea-side town of Forte dei Marmi. Fracci herself recalls that time as ” … a journey with the Maestro; the most beautiful journey of all my life.” There with her director husband, Beppe Menegatti, she was a guest of Anna Maria Papi, “… a writer who had a large house built by the renowned architect Giovanni Michelucci.” Fracci organized a trip with a group of friends, including Montale … “in search of days gone by.” The last stop was Siena to attend the Palio horse-race on August 16th. “I was then pregnant with my son Francesco,” recalls the étoile, “surrounded by paparazzi who wanted to photograph me with my big belly. Montale detested the whole scene; he felt that one should never make themselves the center of attention.”
“Fortunately, our journey was documented by personal photographs that I guard jealously. There is also a dedication by the poet in my personal copy of his Ossi di seppia. The photographs portray me next to his silhouette, with his inevitable Nazionali cigarette between his fingers … how nostalgic.” After a pause to reflect, Fracci continues her engrossing story. “It was decided that the stops along the way had to be of little distance between them, only a few miles. We travelled on foot, just as did the theatre troupes of other centuries, observing tight schedules. And so it was, a trip of 18 or 20 miles at the most, using the car as little as possible so as to take in the beauty of the places. A morning arrival, followed by long visits to the scheduled sites; then a quick lunch, afternoon rest and finally dinner, from eight in the evening to midnight.”
The next destination after Forte dei Marmi was Pisa. Fracci recalls how Montale, a failed baritone and opera fanatic, chose to visit the famous cemetery not far from the Leaning Tower as the scenery for Mayerbeer’s Robert le Diable (an opera with a ballet in which the famous dancer Maria Taglioni performed), and, yes, he began singing in French. Another performance was improvised on the penultimate stop of the journey, Certaldo. Here, after several discussions about the tomb of Boccaccio, Montale began singing from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, in duet with another friend of the group. The idea of combining each stop with a little theatrical entertainment before dinner was not at all planned, our storyteller assures us. But the relaxed atmosphere and the inspiring beauty of the places led those creative members of the group to identify themselves in a specific role, as would a true thespian, and not only a roaming pilgrim. Carla Fracci, who still today enjoys being witty (imagine how she was in 1969!), sang along with Montale, also dancing about, imitating Maria Taglioni, her favorite Romantic dancer so often evoked in her triumphal performances. But their singular journey through ancient Tuscany had not exhausted its charm here.
“The stop in Certaldo, following those in San Gimignano and Volterra, was particularly fascinating,” Fracci continues. “We arrived at the foot of the city and proceeded slowly upwards to reach the Town Hall and, above all, the inn next to it that was to host us. I believe it still exists.” She and her co-travelers recall the feeling of retracing a path already traveled by others. “At that moment, we were really like ancient wayfarers on foot, captivated by the landscape, ready to set down our small luggage as soon as possible. I realized almost immediately that the inns were magical places to visit, especially so as true traditional dinners could be ordered, just like at the ‘Lanterna’ of San Gimignano. The meals were planned as integral parts of the journey. Don’t think of lavish banquets with one course after another, but rather of food prepared and seasoned with the same pungent, spicy ingredients as those of the seventeenth century. We dined with a laid back cheerfulness, departing early the next morning. It was a truly wonderful experience. Once abandoning the main road, one becomes immerged in the Middle Ages, and there, far from the beaten track, uncontaminated Nature and civilization appeared.”
Carla Fracci is convinced that such an adventure “in search of those days gone by” is still possible today, in the era of super-speed traveling that allows you to go around the world in just four days. She recommends stopping to contemplate national treasures, perhaps at those times of the year when they are less crowded with tourists. Possibly, the places are no longer as secluded and enchanted as they were fifty years ago,” she admits, “but all the same, we try to enter on tiptoe, looking for what poetry remains.” But how many of us will ever have the privilege of traveling with a Maestro like Montale, “awe-inspiring in everyday life; taciturn amidst large groups, but yet very talkative when in the company of a few people?”
Our most honored ballet star now becomes a bit angry. “The opportunity to get to know true Maestri, to meet them at the right time in one’s life, when one is just beginning to understand things, seems to be an authentic rarity today. I get a bit choked up if I think that my son, an architect and already a father, may miss out on meeting great people. Once, he missed the chance of traveling with the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez. They tell me he was a jovial man, a simple man who loved sitting down at a table with friends, eating fried frogs. And there I was, rubbing elbows with a man like Montale, and not only for vacations. “
For Carla Fracci, “The most beautiful trip of my life” was not an intellectual one, but a bourgeois journey. “I want to give this French word the noblest and highest of meanings, one perhaps lost today. To talk about art and omelets with the poet who drew small landscapes with the matches of his countless cigarettes dipped in red, to discover his moral amorality, to learn through him to not only appreciate beautiful things, but to also endear oneself to the important, to things which will remain for their value.”
Along with the rosy memories of that 1969 Tuscan summer in the company of Montale, the artist also recalls a small incident which caused her regret and a bit of pain. “On August 16th, everyone happily arrived in Siena, guests of Gianni Guiso, a generous person who had a house on the Piazza del Campo. All was prepared for us to watch the Palio from his balconies. Among the guests, there was Montale, Albert Bruce Sabin (the renowned discoverer of the polio vaccine) and I, while downstairs there was Margaret, the sister of the Queen of England. Just before the start of the race, the crowd recognized us, better said, it recognized me (perhaps because of the recent photos immortalizing my fat belly) and Princess Margaret. There were greetings, applause, fuss-making that, to my great embarrassment, did not involve Montale or Sabin at all. No one had recognized them, and I felt myself freeze from that unjust indifference. Montale, being himself, was not at all displeased.”
And now, a last bit of news from the packed salon of Casa Manzoni to celebrate Montale’s “musical” Fracci. “I remember a furious discussion between the poet and my husband that took place in the large kitchen of Papi’s house at Forte dei Marmi just before embarking on the journey. The poet spoke of Luchino Visconti’s famous La Traviata of 1955 with Maria Callas, a production which marked an epoch. He stated that in his review for Il Corriere d’Informazione, he had not even mentioned the name “Verdi”, as it had for him become already too publicized. As I said, Montale avoided petty popularity. My husband, on the other hand, argued that he would not have found peace until he saw the silhouette of the poet on the cover of the very popular magazine Sorrisi e canzoni TV, which mostly talks about TV stars and gossip. This is something that happened regularly when Montale had first won the Nobel Prize. Our summer trip was intertwined with these disputes and other heated discussions. Literature, Art, Cooking, but above all our work activities were the favorite subjects. Time flowed harmoniously, a natural pleasantness without anything seeming forced. This is something I have never forgotten.”
Meanwhile, Montale was elaborating his “tired dancer” poem, speaking about her return to dancing quickly after becoming a mother, something very rare in those days (“And now, you can put on your wings again”). No ballerina ever dared to have children, risking ruining her shape, but it was not so for the go-against-the-current Fracci. The poet, at the beginning, presented her almost as a sick woman (“I’m talking about the re-flourishing of a convalescent.”) in the process of healing. Montale does not want to diminish her motherhood – on the contrary! The poet wanted to say that as soon as she was fit again, Fracci would return to fly (“You just need to put your feet on a scale to see those few added milligrams because you were not able to undergo your seasonal training, which all the same would have had them disappear.)
She will no longer be a heavenly creature (“for having given birth to a son“) but rather a terrestrial one. And ever special, as everyone will realize that she has returned. Without her, ballet seems to be a parade of the dead (“white défilés of death.”)