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la ragazza col turbante

23 july 2018

La ragazza col turbante, Marta Morazzoni's first book, is a collection of five historical fictions. They vary in their attachment to documented reality. Two feature real-enough characters (Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte). Two feature invented characters with connections, respectively, to Vermeer and to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The fifth seems entirely invented. But as one of Morazzoni's later titles has it, all narratives participate in The Invention of Truth.

Like The Invention of Truth (which obliquely connects John Ruskin and the Bayeux Tapestry), much of La ragazza col turbante is about art of various kinds, and is deliberately undramatic. Normally I don't care for undramatic stories, but I enjoy Morazzoni's. They give a strong sense of mysteries beneath the surface; they show powerful emotions at work, but at work unsentimentally and undemonstratively.

The first story, "La porta bianca," ("the white door"), shows Mozart with composer's block, entertained in a gilded cage of sorts by a cryptic patron. Or "forse Mozart," as the back of the 2008 Guanda edition has it; maybe it's Mozart; he's unnamed. Of course there are not many old-before-their time 18th-century Viennese musical prodigies with wives named Costanza, so if it's not Mozart it's pretty close. At a key juncture in the story, the spurned Costanza tells the composer "Come siete diventato vecchio" (18): how old you've gotten. "Aveva perso un compagno di giochi" (19), she's lost a playmate. The narrator goes on to characterize that loss: the marriage has undergone an irremediable shift simply because one of the couple has changed with time. She can never get him back, and her superficially nasty remark is a deep acknowledgment of change.

Lorenzo, in "La dignità del signor Da Ponte," isn't suffering from writer's block, but his career has hit a wall just the same. He's come to Vienna, obsessed with getting into court circles. The composer Salieri suggests that they do an opera together. As anyone who's seen the movie Amadeus knows, this collaboration isn't going to be Da Ponte's ticket to immortality, and the central interest of the story is to see how the librettist deals with his frustrations.

Luis Quisada, the invented protagonist of "L'ultimo incarico" ("the last burden"), is summoned by the abdicating Charles V to run his household at the monastery he's retiring to. Quisada is a character torn between his senses of duty and protocol, and his own desire to be free of court complications forever. Much of the action, and thus the mystery, of this story revolves around a rather inexpressive woman that Quisada keeps meeting in the woods on his trips to secure provisions for his master. I'll spoil this story a little by noting that the relationship between Quisada and the mystery woman comes to nearly nothing: as so often, Morazzoni is interested in setting up tensions, not resolving them.

In "L'ordine della casa" (something like "a well-ordered household"), the patriarch of a fin de siècle Vienna family falls victim to a stroke. This is not a good thing, but Morazzoni weaves a picture of a man shut into his own mind and finding a kind of comfort there that he never got from society (or, one presumes, from that family, who seem mostly concerned about the possible embarrassment of carting Dad around in a wheelchair). Morazzoni imagines Karl Kölner in his sickbed feeling as if he's "raccolto dentro una fortezza impenetrabile, al sicuro" (161): drawn up safely inside an unassailable stronghold.

The title story is the most opaque in the volume. A Dutch merchant named Bernhard Van Rijk embarks on a trip for the purpose of selling a single painting to a Danish nobleman. It's a really good painting; in fact it's The Girl with the Pearl Earring, as we know from the title (which gives the picture's alternate name, "Girl in a Turban"). The seller and buyer have never met, only corresponded; they meet in a kind of fairy-tale-castle atmosphere and conclude the bargain for the painting only after much circumlocution. Nothing really happens in the story for a long time; the picture isn't even described (not that it perhaps needs to be, for a modern audience). Here, I think, we see Morazzoni seizing on the long gap in the provenance of this now-pervasive image, trying to imagine the existence the canvas must have had during part of its centuries in exile from the public consciousness.

In fact, that imagination is the main project of La ragazza col turbante. Rather than re-tell the history we know, or can at least look up, Morazzoni speculates about the life that must have gone on in the interstices of written history. Pietro Citati, quoted on the cover of the Guanda edition, compares her to Hugo von Hofmannsthal and to Karen Blixen. I would add Penelope Fitzgerald, the great English storyteller who, like Morazzoni, imagined lives parallel and oblique to historical lives, in settings far from her home. Their art is disciplined, comprehensive, and rewarding.

Morazzoni, Marta. La ragazza col turbante. 1986. Parma: Guanda, 2008.