When the port of Ischia was the lake of baths

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text Dario Della Vecchia

For those who arrive on the green island during an afternoon rosy sunset, the entrance to the oncecalled “Lake of Baths” is announced by the luminous intermittence of its lighthouse. Situated at the end of a solid and high piece of rock, extended toward North East, the lighthouse of the port of Ischia represents the safe haven for the men of the sea, the return to the warmth of the hearth of the home, the farewell to the sea from whom you can’t stay too long away. It was with Ferdinand of Bourbon in 1854 that the salty lake disclosed to the open sea, transforming the quiet area of the “Villa de’ Bagni” (Villa of Baths) in a centre that started from that moment to proliferate of life. So it was no longer just thermal baths near the salty shore, but laborious activities that started to prosper along with the tepid but more and more persistent, continuous and unstoppable stream of goods and people. Toward and from the island they arrive and they set sail, today like yesterday, people and travelers, sailors, fishermen and who makes goods out of his work. Who affascinated by the expectation of relax, nature and good air, spreads out and straggles on the island with desire of discovery. Who reaches its coasts and makes himself even adopted by the tiny streets, churches and traditions, that have become place of rebirth in a new life. Who also, maybe, never heard about the Grand Tour, let himself kidnapped by places, scents, tastes and colours of luminous and blue days that will never make you imagine of gloomy days. The Vesuvian pavement, black, hard, once sharp but today with softened features, chiselled by rapid movements of agile hands, leads us to the circled crowning of the piers taking the sight, almost by hand, all around.
201405-10mThe noisy slamming sound of some sails left in the sun to dry on the mast by gentle breeze. The summer green of the Montagnone, vigorously exposed, reflexes itself in the sea surface. The balconies with colorful shutters of the “Riva Destra” and the hill of San Pietro framed in blue. The Ambra House, the initial band of wine known by Dalmatians, Triestins and Genoans. The Aquarium in that small red house that, near the entrance of the port, Anthon Dohrn wanted it as separate branch of the Zoological Station of Naples. It breaks right in the middle the gentle movement of the Vulcanic curve, it is the colonnade of the Church of Santa Maria of Portosalvo. If opening the lake appeared to the king as an act of worship towards a place that used to donate him rest reinvigorating the body, the Church represented the way to regenerate the soul. Situated on the axis of the entrance of the port, it develops its length in a central aisle that pushes your sight toward the painting of the “Assunta di Portosavo”. An assumption that inspires security in those Virgin’s open arms, that rises toward candid clouds in a multitude of angels right from the Lake of Baths, not long ago transformed into port. Breathing these places, this fascination, only the continuous proliferation of external life twists the bright stare to liturgical places of such regal beauty. And, like it usually happens in all the ports, the frenetic back and forth of people who arrive and set sail, it reduces the “research with the eyes” into a quick, ephemeral, distracted gesture. A not so careful look toward that circle shape that jealously hides, underneath her blanket of water, ancient roots of volcanic dynamism. Testimony of agitated activities of a distant past is a rock that, a first sight it is only an obstacle to a safe sailing, tells, inspires, and makes sigh those who were born on its shores. Noble speeches like those of princes between Marcus Aurelius talking with curiosity to his tutor Fronto. And today the strange fact of thinking about an island in the centre of a lake, which is in turn contained into a bigger island, fascinates lots of people and not only the future Emperor of that ancient time. As the major island protects the lacustrine one from sea storms, so the Emperor protects the prince from troubles that only the Roman government could cause. And Marcus Aurelius got to experience it. A vision that still now enchants those who – knowing this story – stops and recreates those conversations and those sceneries. The simplest photographic reproductions until early ‘90s, so as the first black and white pictures, make travelers, even the most rushed ones, wonder about that circle, about its meaning and sometimes about its utility. Maybe meaningless questions under certain aspects that receive mute answers when it comes to the journey of mind. From Philipp Hackert to Gabriele Smargiassi, from Federico Mancini to Giacinto Gigante and, also, Aniellantonio Mascolo, Luigi De Angelis and Antonio Macrì, they all have told this rarity again and again with abundance of details and emotions, like if it’s done with the tip of a small brush, describing it with feelings that only art knows how to communicate. Watercolours, oil paintings and xylographies, portraits, terracottas and simple charcoal drawings are the instruments through which the port of Ischia comes to a never ending life with its circle and its colours all around it. That rosy sunset, touched by the indigo of a night that is already arrived, we can catch a glimpse of it from the tables of a restaurant. At this time everything seems muffled in noises and frenzy life that only piers can tell about. It is on them, postponing until the day after efforts protagonists of a day passed by, that we find the relax of conviviality in tinkling of happy glasses. Steps of walks chasing themselves to amazingly taste the beauty of holding hands. Impatient waits for tasty food that is going to satisfy appetites burned by the sun of sandy beaches. Harmonious sights relaxed by morning thermal baths. Laughs of a sincere friendship that make unconditional love out of jokes. Angry screams of jealousy and misunderstanding of old times. Nights that we spent on these piers remind us of a past time that leaves a bit of nostalgia in the heart of those who narrate. And, like on an immaterial screen of a film of words and fantasy, images flow in Technicolor or in black and white. It’s right here, at “A’ Lampara”, restaurant now gone but once myth of the island night life at the beginning of its Belle Époque, that we could glimpse the “Maestro”. In a luminous double-breasted coat surrounded by his friends of Ischia, among them Luchino catch a sight of the young Helmut. Big laughs typical of Neapolitan style become bigger as soon as someone starts telling about Liz Taylor’s long vents, “the Egyptian”. Without her queen clothes, her angry nature could get to the bollards of the port in an explosive way. Clothes, maybe diamonds, various items, given to her along the path from Ischia Ponte to the port, without twisting but with Olympic efficiency, they reached the bottom of the sea in everyone’s amazement, not only Richard Burton’s. Still now some people can hardly forget it. If the time to go home is revealed by a not bored yawn, the idea of a possible sad awakening does not cheer our hearts up. Each age has its own actors, we do know, who make that scene unforgettable, and for some aspects, unrepeatable. But what could affect our dreams, made of memories but also of future expectations, are recognizable acts that nowadays men cannot completely perform. A practical sense, hard to be looked for, that could represent the same scene again, but obviously with different nature, worth of the memory of an old man not yet old, seems like it does not belong to the nowadays actors. Now a steel dock, in substitution of a wooden one built during “Italia ‘90” prevents the special island shape to that circle that not only tells about the inconvenience of an uncomfortable maneuver. Temporary pyramids, protecting travelers from the sun in August or from a winter continuous rain, have not too much to do with Cleopatra of Taylorian memory. Structures that are useful, if there is no other solution, but they oppress, hide and disfigure the vision, not only detailed, of the colonnade which made the Church of Portosalvo the first vessel docked in a safe harbour. Disused docks, left to time drift, lay tired, like skeletons at anchor, waiting for someone to bury them respectably. Until now not much has come out of meetings of local administrators who legitimately ask for decency to the Region department that owns these places and specific competency about the destiny of a unique scenery. The typical, classical, and over and over repeated, in the recent history of Italy, speech between deaf people. These docks have not only witnessed to scenes of massive disembarkations, of whom the entire island has taken advantage in the last sixty years. Often we have seen in the past, and unfortunately these days they happen again, painful departures. Who decides to start a new life somewhere else in Italy, Europe or in the world, has to pass by here. The must. But we are sure that some images of decay, hopefully temporary, can never delete the identity and the love for the own country from the eyes of those who grew on this island. The wish is that knowledgeable administrators, first of all the ones of the Region, could imagine for one moment this area, this place with the eyes of who, knowing the stories here happened, could make new ones. Stories that maybe are going to be represented with new aspects and that will taste of hard work and sweat of effort to build a sustainable future, made of protection of the environment and relationships among people. Still to be told stories that from the ‘50s make out of the welcome, like a safe haven of a journey, the only reason of life.

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