On Tradition by Jeff Tolman

“If all else fails under the exhausted sunburned deserted Hope that accompanies us through our lives under different capitalized names of different timely religions, we can be sure of one afterlife, especially so if you live in Italy- the during life, afterlife of tradition.”

Welcome to Italy, where each tradition is literally a story within itself.  A story that was hand-crafted through generations, whether Dante or the Mafia roam the streets, these stories are always in the background as a constant reminder of a culture’s traditions.

Immediately when I arrived in Italy I noticed one thing: everything is old.  Not a bad, green bread old, but a comforting and intriguing old.  An old which reminds you that the floors you walk on, tip-toeing late at night, have been previously walked on by some of the noble families of Florence. The house you stood in today was built in the 1600′s, and the man who is pouring your wine is a relative of a noble family from the 1100′s, famous for their Chianti which must lie in a steel chamber for eight years and then remain in its bottle for one month before it is ready. To top it off, the wine pourer’s family once had to flee to this very spot in the Chianti region because they were a rival of the Medici family, one of the most powerful and well-known families of Italy.  

Last week, the majority of Florence gathered along the sidewalks and bridges of the Arno River for an extended fireworks show to celebrate the anniversary of St. John’s birthday, the patron saint of Florence.  As the fireworks echo like a slamming door across the Arno, over the Ponte Vecchio Bridge and through open shutters into the ears of a young Italian boy, the Florentines remember St. John once more. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jI0NeHgnoas) **the bridge ahead is the Ponte Vecchio.

This tradition is everywhere.  It lines the streets where beggars play Italian classics on portable music boxes at 9 in the morning hoping to awake potential customers for a coin or two.  Guitarists and singers join in occasionally with their own renditions of the new Italian classic “Time to Say Goodbye.”  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dw_aRSHIcIo) Tradition lines the rows of grapes across the Italian countryside.  At some wineries, owners still put a rose at the end of each row of vines to attract the bugs to the rose instead of the precious Italian grapes.  This is proof of the extent Italians cherish their wine.  Sacrificing even the rose, the world’s most widely accepted symbol of love, for their own valued traditions.

In Venice, we visited one of the last five gondolier builders.  He spoke to us of the importance of tradition in front of a black and white photo of his father hanging on the wall.  His family’s gondola blueprint, which is crafted not for speed but maneuverability, has been passed onto him by his great great-grandfather.   He explained that although the work is very hard and painful on the hands, he does not use machines or modern tools because the instruments his predecessors used work just fine.  After all, he says, the design has changed very little since his great great-grandfather because it, like all enduring things, is perfect.  He lightheartedly adds that the design is perfect like a woman, and he smiles.  Later, as he explains about the five different types of Italian wood he uses to construct a gondola, his son, and apprentice, runs in to tell him that the gondola he is working on has flipped over into the canal and all of the belongings inside have fallen in the water.  Angrily, he tells us that he must call the fire department to collect the things from the bottom of the canal. Then he laughs telling us that the water is very cold.

Tradition embellishes every detail of Italy. As my professor Molly Morrison tells us, we must look and wonder at these details.  And though, in some great churches, the priests have been replaced at the doors by modern beggars who hum incoherent prayers to the rattle of coin, through those hollow doors the echo travels just the same as before.  

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