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Sprezzatura in Cinque Terre, The 5 Villages of Effortless Beauty

by Nicole Kennedy

The Italians have an expression for art that the English language has still not found an equivalent for: sprezzatura.  Sprezzatura is the ability of an artist to make his work seem effortless.  It is the soft yet precise curves of The Davidor the color contrasts of a Monet; it’s enough to make me think that even I am capable of creating such brilliance.  Essentially, it is the physical manifestation of talent.  Cinque Terre on the Italian coast seems to have an abundance of it.

Cinque Terre are five fishing villages in the province of La Spezia, nestled in the region of Liguria on the northern coast of Italy.  The five towns, Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore, are connected by a scenic, and at points, treacherous 400 km hiking path.  Each village has a different energy and a different niche.  While one will invite hungry hikers to dine along the shore, another has tiny shops and cafes with local specialties (after all, Liguria was the birth place of pesto), and others with fresh morning markets.  Even after only a day spent in the region of Cinque Terre, I could deeply relate to how the colors, flavors, and energy of this area inspired Italian poet Eugenio Montale.  Sprezzatura comes to mind with not only Montale’s poetry, but his subject matter.

Montale populated Monterosso, the village known for its extensive beaches and lemon trees, for the first thirty summers of his life.  Cinque Terre provided the setting for Cuttlefish Bones, his first book of poetry published in 1925.  Montale’s years in Cinque Terre shaped him into the writer, artist, and accomplished man he became.

After dabbling in singing, he entered the army as an infantry officer.  Later in his life, he became a staunch supporter of the anti-fascist movement, and was also the director of the Gabinetto Vieusseux, a distinguished cultural institution of Florence.  The passion, talent, and insight that filled the pages of Cuttlefish Bonesforeshadow who he was meant to become.

Cuttlefish Bones helped define Montale as a departure from traditional Italian poets.  His writing did not resemble the decadent art created by his Italian contemporaries.  Montale, instead, was interested in conveying a sense of the longing he felt during his years in Cinque Terre.  He spoke of wanting Cuttlefish Bonesto come closer than those (works) of the other poets I’d read.  His work reflects a certain needing, wanting, and desire for more – he found  all of this while living in a village that time had excused.  Montale’s relationship to the meandering dirt paths of the fishing villages of Cinque Terre is a necessary complement to his writing.

I embarked upon my trip to Cinque Terre assuming the role of a tourist, but soon realized I could only enter this space as a visitor.  There is a subtle yet important distinction between a visitor and tourist; a tourist scratches the surface of his chosen destination, whereas a visitor must actively engage with the land.  To be a tourist in Cinque Terre would be trespassing on sacred territory.  You have to earn the right to engulf yourself in the raw quality of the five villages through rigorous hiking.  Unlike the south of France, for example, where one’s senses are oversaturated in pretty, the Cinque Terran visitor must earn every vista he encounters.  The 800 meter elevation tests its visitors.  I passed children, elderly, and canine visitors who agreed it was worthwhile quest.  Although many of the foreign hikers and I did not share a common language, we conversed through shooting one another sympathetic smirks while scaling the cliff walls, making room for a fellow hiker to pass.

While it is not difficult to imagine Montale’s existence in Cinque Terre, now visitors can actually tour the places he wrote about on a Parco Letterario.  In the early 1990s, former Italian president Stanislao Nievo created and allocated funds to creating Parchi Letterari, itineraries celebrating famous places and cultural events that inspired writers in Italy.  Thus, I did not feel like I was merely observing Montale’s childhood scenery, I felt like I was living it.

My legs were painted brown from splashes of mud (yet it hadn’t rained in weeks) and there were several moments along the hike that I was certain I would plummet to a beautifully tragic untimely death; yet the sounds of water on the harsh cliffs and the aroma of flowers encroaching onto the paths revived me.  Montale could not have only written about Cinque Terre’s beauty even if he had attempted.  This is not a place of complacency.  The cliffs are jagged and drastic and the land seems to reject the pathways humans carved for former military usage.  There is a unique contrast between the invitation of the scenery and the rejection of human influence.  The presence of nature is overwhelming.  Even if Cinque Terre hadn’t been declared a national park by the Italian government, I do not think it would have allowed developers to consume its virgin land.  Montale’s poetry plays with this struggle between inhaling the excruciating beauty and feeling its omnipotent powers:

Every moment brings new leaves to you,
amazement overwhelming every other
fleeting joy: life comes on headlong waves
to this far garden corner.
Now you stare down at the soil;
an undertow of memories
reaches your heart and almost overwhelms it.
A shout in the distance: see, time plummets,
disappears in hurried eddies
among the stones, all memory gone; and I
from my dark lookout reach
for this sunlit occurrence. 

Montale writes of his loves in this region and his love for this region.  When  walking the paths alone, you can feel tangible romance in the haze.  On a “Lover’s Walk” trail called Sentiero dell’Amore, one can stroll through an underpass graffitied with proclamations of love through various languages, images, and hearts.  Lovers also bind their amoreto this region by fastening locks onto the railing.  I am guessing Montale was not into graffiti and I did not have a lock to physically transfix myself to the path, but I think we could both empathize with the connection between Cinque Terre and love that these gestures implied.

Standing on the dramatic cliffs of Cinque Terre, I have no wants, needs, or concerns.  I am simply coexisting with the land.  The air is cleansing and looking down I see vegetation speckled with houses and a few restaurants and I think, this is life in its most basic components: beauty, food, and nature.