- Ariosto, the Great Metaphysician
In the early summer of 1917, summoned to his native Greece as a translator for the royal Italian army, Andrea de Chirico left his elective homeland on a steamboat, like a modern Jason. He and his brother had no passport, and even if they were conceiving Italy’s most distinctive and influential contribution to modernism after Futurism, some military service was still the only failsafe way to officially become subjects of Vittorio Emanuele, whose grandfather’s equestrian monument still looms in Giorgio’s Turinese canvasses and in Andrea’s Chants de la mi-mort. Among the small crew of vanguardist flâneurs that were sharing, within the Renaissance ramparts of Ferrara, the same seminal aesthetic vision, the younger de Chirico (better known by his nom de plume, Alberto Savinio) is the first to abandon the intellectual battlefield of the metaphysical city to get to an actual frontline, but his adventure is just another dreamlike flânerie, utterly incomparable with the eagerness of futurist chronicles or the pomposity of D’Annunzio’s war poems. By the end of the conflict, such a mental and material navigation from the “first really modern city of Europe”1 to one of its [End Page 135] most ancient ports—Thessaloniki, where most of the author’s legendary childhood took place—is going to pass through his pen as a new, visionary Argonautica that will later fill five chapters of Hermaphrodito, the protean debut book of metaphysical literature.
On the spur of the moment, however, even before actually departing on the train to the port of Brindisi, a more concise, more ironic prose of wryly tranquil absurdity came out of Savinio’s escritoire, and the poet Francesco Meriano managed to publish it immediately, in July, on his avant-garde journal La Brigata. Almost an impromptu for typewriter, it is simply titled “Ferrara … Partenza” (“Ferrara … Departure”) and it opens on a note of dreamy familiarity.
I looked at it again, as a usual phenomenon: in the middle of that square sliced like a solar quadrant, I saw the very high marble column; on the top of the stem the adventurous poet, lived and died smacking of bourgeoisie.(69)2
There is a passer-by, a common bystander re-looking at an obvious object in a well known urban landscape: the statue of a poet, on a high pedestal, in the center of a nameless square. Yet it is hardly the object per se—which is, according to the letter, not the statue of a poet but il poeta tout court, the poet himself—that is qualified as habitual and familiar. What appears consueto, usual, is rather a “phenomenon” immediately described with the same denotative panache.
As if a sapper wind was blowing—but it was not—I looked at the enormous tubular shaft: it was swashing … washing … washing and it bent. It traced the fourth part of an ideal circle in the sky. It descended, like a benevolent white finger that intended to indicate, on the horizon: all clear, en avant, route!
Phlegmatically, without any noise, it tamely laid down on the grass, where it broke and loosened into a number of tambours that slowly rolled. They waited for a bit; then they liquefied like snowy drifts in the hollows of little valleys.(69)3 [End Page 136]
The same old column, probably met a thousandfold in its proverbial stasis, is now curved, out of the blue, by an engineer-wind that does not even blow; it lands on the lawn, it cracks, and its fragments melt: everything happens quietly on the page, in plain light, even “noiselessly,” “senza rumore,” while the urban wanderer contemplates the scene in flawless nonchalance. It is this impossible, yet unsurprising vision, this Nietzschean dream “dreamt with open eyes, at the height of noon, in the face of inexorable reality”4 that is “looked at again,” incongruously, as a “usual phenomenon.” And the marvel continues:
The poet in marble jumped off the pedestal on which the boredom of centuries had detained him for much too long, with the gliding pirouette of a telegraph deliverer bolting from a moving tram.
(‘la patria,’ written in black, stayed there...