Desire (Once in Livorno)

Being one’s self in Livorno consists of a particular way of life that is quite unusual compared with other Italian cities.

Terrazza Mascagni in Livorno
Terrazza Mascagni, Livorno. Photo (edited): Gianluca Bei on Unsplash.

If you are in Tuscany you might want to go to Livorno to see the sun. The suggestion might sound absurd or ridiculous until you get to the port city on the western coast and realize that what we’ve always taken for granted is there alive, compelling, generous, eloquent; suddenly you become aware of a certain desire.

As you ride the bus from the train station through Viale Carducci you begin to ponder about this desire in the faces of the Livornesi—the daily commuters who take the same bus ride every day. You notice it in their eyes: a kind of rebelliousness: the desire to be one’s self. (I am sitting across a beautiful green-eyed girl and I am reminded of the paintings of the legendary Livornese artist Amedeo Modigliani).

Being one’s self in Livorno consists of a particular way of life that is quite unusual compared with other Italian cities. Go to Terrazza Mascagni and observe that there are more locals than tourists strolling on a normal work day. The locals don’t wait for a Saturday or a Sunday to enjoy the bounties of dolce far niente. They live according to the energy and conviction of the sea people that life must be lived outside, beneath the sun. Besides, who would not want to saunter along the elegant waterfront terrace whose pavement recalls an immense chess board and contemplate the beauty of the open sea, only to learn that life is not a game of chess—a strategic process of patterns for conquering your enemies until the grand victory. No, says the invincible warmth of the sun. Life can also be lived easily, that its familiar pleasures are themselves a kind of triumph. Maybe what we need is not victory but a little romance: watching the sunset on one of the semicircle benches while your body starts to loosen, the mind lets go and you are in this world only once. You can stay here. Loving the outdoors, the Livornesi hate theories.

A kind of rebelliousness. Livorno the so-called the divorce capital of the country for its remarkable high rate of divorce cases. Meaning, falling in and out of love are colliding obsessions for the locals. It is the strenuous force of desire that there is always the third party to love; even to the point of betrayal. Long before divorce became institutionalized the great Livornese composer Pietro Mascagni had put into music—the one-act opera Cavalleria Rusticana—this salacious thrust of desire. The truth of art knows its people better than psychologists and historians.

I am standing on a bridge in front of the historic Porto Mediceo, the sun is up high brilliantly. On the left side is the view of the newly constructed commercial center Porto a Mare where no one seems to be enthusiastic about. On the right, the panoramic red-bricked Fortezza Vecchia (Old Fortress). Below me are the stagnant tiny white boats; more than a century ago on this very site one could glimpse the raucous steamships, sailing ships, brigantines, navicelli and becolini immortalized in the painting of Guglielmo Micheli which is on display at the Museo Civico Giovanni Fattori, named after the Livornese master.

The liveliness of the port city has never left. One can smell it in the air—the perfume of frittura (deep fried fish) coming from the food stalls along the port. If hunger assails you go to the historic sandwich shop in Via del Cardinale and try their exquisite local specialty: focaccia stuffed with chickpea pancake with a fresh glass of spuma (local soda) and find a corner outside to eat.

From the Porto walk all the way to Quartiere La Venezia (Venice Quarter) and a feeling of being transported to Venice gets into you with its charming canals and bridges snaking through housing buildings and churches and squares. But unlike the stress, freneticism, and costliness of Venice caused by the vulgar menace of excessive tourism, the Venice Quarter in Livorno has maintained its authenticity; a quarter for working class people where local restaurants remain delicious and affordable; where boats are used not for tourism but for the slow paced everyday life; and where every August a folkloric event called Effetto Venezia matches the surreal festivity of Venice with its concerts, theatrical shows, night markets, gastronomic stalls, boat ridings, and light effects.

Soon after you find yourself in Via delle Madonna, where old and young offer an essential clue to what this desire is all about. The old sit either at the tables outside the bars or on the benches arguing how fucked up the country has become, while the children of mixed origins (Moroccan, Chinese, Albanian, Romanian, Filipino, African…) play ball in such harmonious playfulness as though unity is still possible.

Or maybe you find yourself in front of an edifice where once stood an old theatre, Il Teatro San Marco. Suddenly you are transported in 1921 on a cold January day where men and women, young and old gathered in this dilapidated building to desire a better world. Nothing is left of the old theatre, the dreamers were long gone, the desire seems to have been defeated but if you look into the glass window you’ll see a couple of trees standing in the middle of the courtyard. Something true and real are growing. Not everything is lost. Livorno, the rebel city, was and still is one of the strongholds of anti-fascism in all of Europe.

As you walk beneath the arcades of Via Grande surrounded by bars and restaurants, shops and shopkeepers smoking outside, you begin to access the inner consciousness of this city. Desire, as a result, adheres to that burning graffiti on the wall: Vita lunga ai ribelli! (Long live the rebels!). The sea and the sun have done something to you as if your heart has been gently prised open and you discover you have no need to be superior or to exercise power or to take pleasure in hierarchic ritual, in formalized emblems of order and control, but to surrender to openness, to generosity, to revealing selflessness embodied in the felt presence of the sun.