Seacoasts of Dreams

One white-hot July morning, I took the train from Bologna to Ravenna.

1930 travel poster for Enit railways by Giovanni Guerrini

The train dropped me off at the foot of Viale Farini, a short distance from Ravenna’s centro storico, or historical center. Across the rail yard, I could see the beginnings of the city’s zona industriale, with its long canal and miles of warehouses and chain-link fences. I learned later that Michelangelo Antonioni filmed most of Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso, 1964) here, in the city’s industrial zone. (The fact that the whole movie was set in Ravenna, largely in the zona industriale, was a fact that largely escaped me when I saw the movie in college, because at the time, I’d never been to Italy, or Europe, and for me, the concept of European geography remained a hazy abstraction until my early twenties.) But I’d come, not for the Port of Ravenna, which still lay some distance to the east, but for the famous mosaics, basilicas, and other monuments that my guidebook romantically described as the last remnants of Byzantium on Italian soil. The walk from the train station to the old historical center was not particularly long, but under that blazing summer sun, it felt endless. Viale Farini bridged new and old Ravenna. A wide boulevard terminating in a circular piazza, Viale Farini bears all the hallmarks of Mussolini’s rationalist urban planning. It is a miniature version of Rome’s Via della Conciliazione, the grand boulevard cut through the Borgo to create a striking visual axis linking the Vatican to the city of Rome. 

In Rome, the scenography was clear. But what was being staged, here, in Ravenna? The old city center, though beautiful, does not share the Vatican’s grandeur and opulence. Ravenna had no Bernini, and consequently, Viale Farini does not terminate, as Via della Conciliazione does, in a grand plaza bordered with soaring colonnades, with St. Peter’s dome floating above. Instead, it takes you into the old city, with the same narrow streets and piazzas as any other central Italian city, with the same arcades and churches and cafe tables. To see the mosaics of Ravenna, I walked with my back to the Adriatic, away from the port and the industrial zone, away from the massive, polluting petrochemical plants that were once Ravenna’s future, and were now consigned to its past, away from the cranes lifting containers from cargo ships, and the terminals where cruise ships dock en route to Venice.


“Old” Ravenna, as it appears in Red Desert.
1928 tourist poster promoting Ravenna’s beaches and marina

Ravenna used to sit closer to the sea. Over time, the sea has retreated away from the city, leaving marshes in its wake. Now, factories and chemical plants and other industrial structures separate it from the Adriatic. It is a low-slung city, built of pale stone the color of vanilla or butter. On that July day, it was almost unbearably hot and bright. When I left Bologna that morning, I thought I would spend some hours looking at mosaics in Ravenna, and then continue on to the beach. 


I never made it to the beach. 

Instead, I spent my entire day in that strange town, whose old historic center was now dwarfed by the immense, monumental industrial structures to the east. There was a dark edge to Ravenna’s beauty. Back then, I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe the strange, sad anxiety that dogged me in Ravenna and so many other Italian towns. I thought it was personal sorrow. Those were hard years for me. I was living la dolce vita, always one step away from a total breakdown.


I’ve never made it to any Italian beaches. The closest that I ever came to a beach was in Venice, when I walked to the outer edge of Castello and looked across the water to the Lido.

I only visit Italian beaches in books, or in dreams. 

In another time, I imagined that 2020 would be the year where I would pack up all of my sundresses and sandals, and spend those honeyed late summer days on beaches drenched in golden light. But fate has a mind of her own, and instead of seeing the actual Positano, I settled for a vicarious visit through Goliarda Sapienza’s novel, Meeting in Positano.


Positano is the opposite of Antonioni’s Ravenna.

1960s promotional poster for Alitalia Airlines

The Italy that we encounter in the first pages of Goliarda Sapienza’s Meeting in Positano is the Italy of la dolce vita. This is the Italy that shaped the dreams of generations of Anglophone tourists–the beautiful, golden Italy, replete with timeless beauty, leavened by the picturesque qualities of il colore locale. This Positano is a place of pleasure and ease.

The golden spell does not last. The novel turns strange and gothic. It is set in the decades immediately after the Second World War, in roughly the same time period as Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin (1949), Cesare Pavese’s The Moon and the Bonfires (1949), and Natalia Ginzberg’s Family Lexicon (1963). All of these novels try to understand recent Italian history by narrowing the focus to the constraints of individual, private lives. They rely on the device of lightly-fictionalized autobiography, autofiction avant la lettre. Unlike the other three novels, which were written fairly close to the events they describe (both Malaparte and Pavese were dead by 1960), Meeting in Positano was written from a great distance, in 1984, when neither the real nor fictional Goliarda were still young. But Meeting in Positano is a young person’s story, bittersweet, and despite the story’s gothic horror, it is a story full of a kind of self-confident optimism, and innocence, that only belongs to the young. And because of this, there is a fable-like quality to the novel. Money transforms Positano. The war ends. The Americans arrive. And then, piece by piece, the town is transformed: the road arrives, and then new hotels, bigger hotels, restaurants, even the Germans and Austrians return, on holiday and not on campaign. Everything is different. Everything is the same. The story begins as it ends, with that golden Mediterranean light falling on Positano, and the town itself a gilded setting for those who come seeking pleasure and ease.


Tourists in 1960s Positano

That golden Italy was never really my Italy. 

I was too poor, too anxious, and too much of an obvious outsider. 

When I arrived in the early 2000s, Italy was losing another kind of war–an economic one. The glory years of postwar growth were long gone. There was unemployment, and stagnation. Class mobility was a mirage. The switch to the Euro brought problems. In those years, there was already plenty of talk about the failed promise of the European Union. This, following the failed promises of liberalization and reform after the Years of Lead, and the failed promises of the postwar reconstruction–it was talk piled onto lots of old talk, old complaints over the failures of previous Italian states. And it seemed that there was not one single Italy, but hundreds of them, thousands even. With each new town, I learned a new language. 


When I first started going to Italy, I was training to be an art historian. This provided me with an easy out whenever someone asked me why I’d come to Italy. Having an easily legible answer was helpful. It disarmed my interlocutors. Because I was Asian, my ethnic identity became a frequent topic of conversation. 

Those were the years before Chinese mass tourism really took off. Tourists were “Japanese.” Workers were “Chinese.” By the early 2000s, Italian factories were employing large numbers of Chinese laborers, and there were Chinatowns in most major Italian cities. Prato is the city most commonly associated–at least in the Anglophone media–with this phenomenon, though since the coronavirus crisis, Chinese workers have been leaving Prato and other Italian cities, a reverse migration as China’s economy rises and the Italian economy sinks deeper into recession. 

But I occupied a grey area, I was neither really a tourist, nor was I a worker. I amused my Italian acquaintances because I already knew two useful languages–English and Chinese–but instead of putting those to good use, here I was in Italy, learning a useless language (“Where can you use Italian, except in Italy?”) and looking to the past when I should be looking to the future. Those my age often seemed worn down by the economic stagnation and high unemployment. What were their prospects? They envied my possibility of a larger future. As for themselves? Without wealth or connections, they lived in the eternal present.


Photo by Duemila/Federiz/Francoriz/Ko/REX/Shutterstock (5880492m) Monica Vitti Il Deserto Rosso / Red Desert – 1964 Director: Michelangelo Antonioni Duemila/Federiz/Francoriz ITALY

Both Antonioni’s Red Desert and Sapienza’s Meeting in Positano take place largely during the years of “il Boom,” the postwar years of economic expansion. Between 1950 and 1962, the Italian GDP doubled. Red Desert is filmed literally on top of the industrial apparatus that helped facilitate this boom. In Meeting in Positano, Positano’s transformation into a major tourist destination serves as an allegory for the opportunities–and the costs of–living for the future, and of chasing after modernization and prosperity. In a passage that foreshadows the fate of the beautiful princess, Erica, Giacomino (whose own livelihood and prosperity, as patissier and cafe owner, depends on the fortunes of Positano’s tourist economy) speaks of “the money god that the Americans have foisted on the world, of Ezra Pound whom he met, and of how his own Positano will be destroyed by the wide road that local merchants have decided to open at their own expense, cutting through the mountains.” (11-12) Giacomino describes the road, constructed in the 1920s, as a “wound” that has yet to heal:

He’s had me stand up and look at the mountain. Perhaps due to the evocative sadness that has taken hold of his voice, I feel like I can even see it bleeding up there where an asphalt line cuts through carob, olive, and orange trees, with no regard for the wild chaos of massive rocks. The mountain is still beautiful, but how much longer can it last? When they’ve widened the road, who will save us from the landslide of cars and people hungry for pleasures once reserved for the few? (12)

Ravenna’s petrochemical plants and waste, film still from Red Desert

Red Desert, too, portrays the Boom as a process of decay and destruction. The Ravenna in Red Desert is a toxic landscape, aesthetically sublime, but physically wretched. The Boom brought economic prosperity and material abundance– witness Monica Vitti’s elegant wardrobe, and the beautiful, modern, well-appointed bourgeois domestic spaces that Vitti inhabits — but at great cost. Ravenna’s shoreline and water, polluted with industrial effluence, appear either covered in black crude oil, or tinted in lurid, unnatural colors. In the movie’s final scene, Vitti’s character, Giuliana, takes a walk with her son outside of her husband’s factory. Valerio points at the factory’s smokestacks, belching yellow smoke, and asks his mother why the smoke is yellow. Giuliana tells her son that the smoke is yellow because it is toxic, and Valerio replies, “Then if a little bird (uccellino) flies through it, it will die.” No, Giuliana tells her son, “By now the little birds know that, and they don’t pass through it anymore.”


Manager’s office, petrochemical plant, film still from Red Desert

Contemporary Italy has an uneasy relationship to the memory of postwar Italian affluence. By now, everything that was new is old. The buildings and roadways that were modern in 1962 are now aged and crumbling. Temporary compromises, made in the name of progress, became permanent. Exigencies have ossified into custom. Where did the wealth go? What happened to the promise of a better tomorrow? From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, it can feel like Chronos has eaten his children. 


After waiting for what felt like an eternity in a post office in Rome in order to mail a handful of postcards, my cousin turned to me and said, “It’s worse than the Taipei of our childhood!”

And then I realized why Italy felt like home. I assumed it was because Italy resembled California — the same light, the same landscape, the same dry, herbal scent — but it reminded me of home because it reminded me of another place broken by the war, another place that never quite came to a full reckoning with history.

I felt this resonance most keenly in the new parts of Italy, the parts of the old world ruined by war and forcibly brought forward into the new.

In both places, there was a sense that the systems broke one day, and never recovered. Or maybe there were no systems to begin with, only a pantomime. After the war, there was an attempt to instill order, or at least, in Taiwan’s case, an authoritarian fever dream of order, but in reality, everyone just kept going in anarchy, only this time the anarchy was confined within carefully marked-out boxes. 

We had our Boom, too. We left the land in droves, to work in the cities, emptying out entire regions, and erasing local cultures in a single generation. And we, too, are left with the decaying remains of once-futuristic factories. If plastics were the next big thing in 1960s Italy–as illustrated in Red Desert--they came to Taiwan in the 1980s. The garment industry has come and gone. And so have other industries. We have each borne the brunt of manufacturing for a global market. Some of us reaped the wealth. Most of us paid the cost. Will we remember what we paid? Or will we turn and shrug, and continue, like the fable of the uccellini who have learned just enough to avoid the toxic smoke, but not enough to change their lives? Will we be the Positanese in Sapienza’s novel, and bend the story to our will, because to tell it straight would be unbearable? Or, to put it in other terms, to tell it straight would force us into a reckoning that we neither want nor can afford? So we tell it this way, instead: 

It seems that sometimes she comes out of her old house and wanders through the town, light on her naked feet, even more beautiful than she was in life, and happier, too–and of course she is, because they say that she always has three little girls with her, who laugh as they run in front of her, or follow behind her calling Mamma! Mamma!

The beautiful princess, so good and yet so unhappy, has now joined the ranks of the many myths and ghosts that populate the Amalfi coast. An important reason is that everyone is convinced that if she had stayed in Positano forever–as she often said she’d like to do–she would not have killed herself. They have unanimously erased that little truth, convincing themselves instead that she took her life in Milan.

Life is for the living. And the living must continue on, building and making and producing and earning, riding the same cycle of production and consumption, until we run out of time.

Ravenna” by Gastone Celada, Printed by Ind. Grafiche G. Foschini, Massalombarda (Italy) for ENIT railways 1947

“Seacoasts of Dreams” is part of a longer work, currently in progress, that interweaves history and memoir.

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