While visiting my friend Mario I noticed a National Geographic from 1916, the same as his birth year. Italy in 1916, the year my Aunt Mary and Aunt Josephine were born. They are all still alive and well. Here was a magazine with many great images of the Italy that both of their parents had left. Fascinating stuff, looking back at Italy some 93 years, to see how it has changed. The photographs on this post are from that issue.
Oddly, I think many of us want to find those back roads (and wines) of Italy in 1916. A return to a day when things seemed so much simpler and easier. But then one needs to factor in that time. 1916, World War I, with 37 million casualties (16 million deaths, 21 million wounded), an incoming influenza pandemic that killed 40-100 million people world wide, many younger than 45 years old. So, it wasn’t all rustic charm and simpler times, for those who lived through it.
Not to dwell in the past, especially one which, one might argue, has little significance for the new generation, folks from 14-30. There were barely paved roads, or toilets. Nano I-pods? Bluetooth? How about a toothbrush? No, it was like it happened a million years ago, to the inheritors of the future.
The oldest Italian wine in my possession is a 1936 Est!Est!!Est!!! Amabile. It will never be opened. It sits there, twenty years after the National Geographic issue, in the time of Mussolini, at the edge of another World War.
Wines in those times. Now we see them nostalgically, their wild yeasts and oxidation-rich profiles, and we’re not talking micro-oxidation either. A shame, because we talk about the heritage of great wine from Italy, but is there really much to ponder on before 1945, when the world experienced a change on such a level that in the Olden Times it would have been called Biblical? We sexy it up and call it “quantum change” as if the atomic age affected winemaking. Which it did, if not directly.
The linear acceleration of agricultural progress hasn’t been without its casualties though. The story teller, the master and the apprentice, the craft of the wine business, all this has morphed into some 15 minute superconducting version, where, in their place, now, young sommeliers walk on water in restaurants across the planet. I was there too, man. We have all been there before.
Maybe I should get out my Andre Simon, C.E.Hawker and T.A.Layton and read them now. These were writers telling the story of wine from a time long forgotten by followers of Galloni, Meadows and Vaynerchuck. It worked for Merlin, to travel through time from the future to the past; maybe with wine it would be equally magical. From what I read it sure seems folks want to find something that has gone missing.
When it comes to Italy, one can actually do this quite easily. Calabria or Liguria would be a great place to start looking for those core experiences in the Italian landscape.
Or, if you want something simpler, something a little less “nano”, you could read the old books, find the random National Geographic from a million years ago, or you could sit back, pour a glass of ancient Marsala and crank up the Rossini and let your imagination take you away.
I’ve found the Italian of our imagination and our dreams can be a better substitute Italy than the reality on the ground now or 93 years ago.
But if you want to go for the experience of Italy, and you have had your share of visiting museums and restaurants and churches and Autogrills, next time, choose the slow train from Rome to Catanzaro and take a trip back to an Italy that linear time has not accelerated with the rapidity of modernity. You can find vestiges of Pythagoras, Federico II, and Mascagni. You might even find a piece of your Italian soul which you have been looking for.