I have this habit of visiting a place, and not truly knowing where I have been until I am home.
Sometimes this is is a tad terrifying. Like when I cajoled my travelmates into swimming at a mysteriously empty, remote beach near an abandoned gold mine in Aruba, only to learn later that the spot was named “Shark Feeding Beach”. Other times, as in the case of the small town of Vizzola Ticino in Italy, the sensation of having passed through something fascinating without knowing until much later just why I was fascinated, is close to magical. Admittedly it also brings on a hectic, close feeling – like claustrophobia – as the impossibility of wandering through the place one more time, right now, to look more closely, pushes in.
I went to Italy this past summer with one main purpose; to bike over the mountain passes of the Dolomiti mountains. Pretty fancy purpose, I know… but it was my honeymoon trip, and we like hills. The town of Vizzola Ticino was just about the least emphasized location on our entire trip. In fact, I only saw the name of the place on a map because we needed to pass through it – it was a negligible side note on the route between the boring airport-hotel town of Gallarate and an obscure bike path that we rode as a warm-up, waiting for some other cyclists to fly in. “Vizzola T” appeared on a number of humble traffic circles that we rode through repeatedly, and for the most part the town seemed unremarkable and like the suburbs around it. It’s inhabited part was just the size of a neighborhood and looked like a planned community… flat grid of roads, white convenience stores primarily selling ice cream novelties, flapping notices on the white community center, tiny houses with kind of startling electrical gates at the end of their car-length driveways.
What put Vizzola T. on my radar at all began with a few unexplained attractions that sprung up after we passed the “center” of town. A vast field with a completely empty farm building at its center. Old rock walls and gates to nowhere. A tall stone column bearing the town name beneath a crumbling eagle, in lettering old enough to boggle my sign-paintery, new-worldy mind.
The part of Vizzola T. that followed this sign was breathtaking and strange; beautiful, so old, and completely empty. Aged doors stood open, leaf choked. Intricately painted property walls drifted towards dust. Again, we were just supposed to be passing through, looking for a bike path somewhere on the left, near a canal that I found it impossible to find for three consecutive days. We were traveling with people who’d been to this area repeatedly, and no one mentioned anything about the town being worth note. I figured that was because in context, in this country that I’d never stepped foot in before, completely abandoned old villages were par for the course. Indeed, I even felt a little silly when I kept asking to pull aside and peek through a crack in a wall or take a photo.
Once home, I think my research into the town started because of the lettering in some of the photos above. I thought I might put together a collection of hand painted text from other countries, or repaint one of these phrases myself, and that I should know what they said. As soon as I googled the phrase above, “Senza Cozzar Dirocco”, I started finding some pretty remarkable stuff.
Turns out Vizzola T. was the original site of the home and factory of the famous aircraft innovator and manufacturer, Caproni. The now-empty town we were passing through once housed the aircraft factory’s employees… the tumbledown farms provided their food in an unprecedented model of agricultural efficiency. Even the strange, low canal we’d ridden along with the source for a now-closed hydroelectric plant. The empty fields had seen test flights, bombings in World War II, a school of aviation from which flew the first female Italian pilot. Some of the most famous planes in the world were made here, in what was once one of the area’s most profitable industries.
(Senza Cozzar Dirocco was the motto for the Caproni family and company BTW, given them by the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. The internet at first tried to tell me that it translates to the rather inelegant “Without touching the ground they destroy their targets”, but I’ve since found that most translations agree on “Without Clashing, I Demolish”. You know. Like a bomber plane. From the sky, without taking a hand to a hand.)
Suffice it to say I’ve worn out my pitiful Italian on aviation history websites, and bought a few great books. I won’t write at length about the Caproni family or aircraft manufacturing history, because I have such a scant grasp on what I’d be talking about that it would read like a 5th grader’s plagiarism of the World Book, and because if you are interested you will look into it yourself. What I suppose I’m writing about instead is the simple and universal experience of stumbling upon a place thick with palpable history, and the disparate ways that different people – and different countries – react to those places.
The strangest thing to me, as an American, is the way the whole area has been allowed simply to be. The way, decades and decades past Caproni’s move and eventual dissolution, buildings just crumble and barns stand open, vine bound, bent on obliteration. There are no plaques, no pretenses at preservation (admittedly there is a restored villa and an aviation museum in a nearby town, but I didn’t see it). There’s also no graffiti, no vandalism, no sign of squatters in the vacant blocks, just… vacancy. There was no reappropriation of factory dorms for luxury condos. It’s fantastic for someone like me who likes to (wrongly, borderline-insanely) imagine that they’re the only one to have stumbled upon a place. There was nothing to stop me taking home the stones of a historic barn, or breaking my neck within the skeleton of a leaning water tower.
I have spent my entire life working out this preoccupation with historic and haunted spaces – wavering between a preservationist’s instinct to save, and a more visceral, naturalist instinct that they should be allowed to pass and decay and leave only psychic marks on the landscape – and I understand that it’s not at all a unique pursuit. I’m drawn like anyone to storied but obsolete industrial landscapes, empty houses with things still in their closets, bottles and metals buried in river silt. I think this all started when, on a poke through the woods near my house at about age 6, I stumbled upon an old foundation nowhere near any road and I was struck permanently dumb by sudden thoughts of the Once-Was and the Had-Been and all Gone-Befores. I’ve tried awfully hard to create stories from the depths of any number of forests and basements, and have been profoundly unsure what to make with these stories, or what constructive thing could be done with my interest in them.
Like a lot of the people I know, I’ve studied urban planning, geography and psychogeography, worked for preservationists and in repurposed mills. I’ve petitioned to save historic properties at times, and at other times wished parts of my own city could be allowed to sink down into the rising, Lovecraftian port waters, unmolested and unmarked. I’ve investigated any number of careers that might be even vaguely connected to a passion for the inexplicable spirit of places, I’ve worked with geocoding and survey-taking, and of course I’ve traveled and documented, but still I don’t hold a full-time job in any of these fields.
What do I do with my preoccupation instead? I “drive” the Google street view car around on my laptop at night, and by day I paint things.
Someday perhaps I’ll do more. But for now, here…
Two paintings inspired by Vizzola Ticino. These feature large mountain goats (stambecco) that are common in the region – I did not see any – and that also happen to be the animal on the Caproni family crest.
Within each painting are some of the towns ghostly structures, some movement, some light from different times, and some scraps of the motto: Senza Cozzar Dirocco.
Maybe these paintings are about conflict, about clashing, about demolition and preservation, or just about a place.
I’m certainly not going to be the one to decide.