In 1820 Maria Luisa of Bourbon-Spain awarded the dignity of an autonomous comune to a sparsely populated town that had been saved from malaria a few decades previously. Just two years later Pauline Bonaparte built a villa not far from that town, among the still wild dunes. It seems that Maria Luisa, having been granted the title of Duchess of Lucca after the Congress of Vienna, was keen on sailing and for this reason encouraged the construction of the first dock.
On the other hand we know for certain that the Villa Paolina was conceived as a place devoted to the pleasures of life, from theatre to music – and to the sweet company of musicians of which Pauline was enamoured. That all this was planned just beside a beach that was still deserted now seems entirely natural, though at the time it was thought to be highly eccentric.
I do not think I can be accused of excessive politicalcorrectness if I say that Viareggio was therefore the result of the far from banal intuitions of two women. It was Maria Luisa and Pauline who created the two souls that would distinguish our city in the two centuries that were to come: the languid and dreamy one of the sea seen from the soft sand, and the hard-working one of the naval shipyards and the far-of f solitudes of seamanship. One on the beach and the other beyond the mole, to pay homage to the gospel of the Viareggini, and to one of the loveliest titles that ever appeared on the cover of a book.
Also in 1822, at the dawn of the new city, ill fortune and the Tyrrhenian sea washed up on the beach the corpse of Percy Bysshe Shelley. It is not an exaggeration, or not much of one, to see in the English poet the point of contact and of synthesis between the two souls of Viareggio. Or rather, in what that shipwreck signified for the construction of Viareggio’s identity, when the simple inhabitants of the town attended in astonishment the burning of Shelley’s remains. It was a pagan ceremony, one never seen before and full of exotic and even archaic elements. It made such an impression as to give rise to a locution in the popular language, expressing a desire utterly opposed to the Church’s doctrine of the resurrection of the body: in Viareggio many people began to say ‘When I die I want to be burned like the Englishman’. But obviously it was not only that. The young English poet, the rebellious son of a baronet and a product of the rich upper class, was appreciated even by Karl Marx for his libertarian and subversive vision: he had all the characteristics to please both the cultivated elite of the first seaside villas and that other aristocracy, that of the shipwrights beyond the Burlamacca canal. And in fact, in the name of this hero of free thought, secular Viareggio found itself united, at the end of the nineteenth century, in dedicating a monument to Shelley, i.e. to an anarchist, a foreigner, a professed atheist who died moreover in concubinage (to spell it out: he had run away with an underage girl). It is worth recording that at that date such honours were generally reserved for saints, kings or commanders (poets as well, but Italian ones).
Almost a century after the death of Shelley, as though history gave appointments regulated by clockwork, the rebellious spirit of the old town – which had now become a small city – broke out in the famous Red Days of May 1920, a spontaneous popular revolt that even declared a constitution for the Republic of Viareggio. It was all snuffed out within a couple of hours, as was inevitable, fortunately without bloodshed. But it presaged a new dark age. From then on, Fascist violence would crush any aspiration for social justice, in Viareggio just as in the rest of Italy.
So it does not seem by chance that a city like Viareggio should find in the carnival the ideal expression of its two souls that are often in conflict. The carnival was the whim of a few well-to-do people that rapidly became the people’s holiday, the patrimony of everyone on both sides of the mole. The carnival is when the Utopia of a life without suffering takes the stage and the rebels take power (at least in the imagination, which is something). It is when roles get mixed up, and when the mask replaces the uniform – often invisible – that we all wear. The mask, with all its mysteries and its
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