Grado, Italy: In the Footsteps of Biagio Marin
Naked we come
in the great harbor
all in the same manner
the great journeyers
With the tourist season several weeks out, the tiny island community of Grado, Italy, seemed remote and spartan. Dozens of dormant sailboats rested in the marina, their naked masts reaching for the skies. The desolation was inspiring.
Grado distanced itself from the Italian mainland by a skinny mile-long bridge, the Ponte Matteotti. One reached the island by driving in from Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, a swath of land stretching from Venice to Trieste, as it arched over the top of the Adriatic Sea with Austria to the north and Slovenia to the east — a part of the world drenched in military history, political skirmishes and ethnic composites leftover from fallen empires. Germanic, Slav and Italian influence fused into a breathless aura of ghosts. Dead novelists, poets and exiled artists seem to stalk the landscape.
A few miles eastward, across the gulf in Trieste, one could conjure up numerous literary troublemakers that once roamed the streets — James Joyce, Svevo, Stendhal, Sir Richard Francis Burton or Casanova — and use their vibrations to harmonize the current day, but I never expected to find any such posthumous companion in the island community of Grado. Yet I did.
On our way back from dinner around 11:30pm, we sauntered down an empty street. As the rest of the group continued back toward the marina on the northern side of the island, where our waterfront hotel waited, I stopped to glare at a three-story mansion leering at me from behind a wrought-iron gate. Clean brickwork and maroon shutters punctuated a gray, somber house while stems of ivy snaked across the facade like a road map.
To the left was another gate, a more petite chain-link contraption, plus an old rectangular plaque, nearly obscured by foliage drooping over the wall from the other side. “Casa di Biagio Marin,” was all it said. Standing in the desolate nighttime, I became obsessed with this Marin character.
Biagio Marin was Grado’s most favorite son, who before passing away in 1985 wrote volumes of poetry in the local dialect, often simple words about the sea, the flowers, the colors of the lagoon, and the wide expanses of light across the sky. The mysteries of Grado, Marin’s native village, were his muses. His legacy still reverberated across the island, both in physical space and in linear time. That’s all I knew, but it was enough to trigger a feeling of camaraderie with Grado, a serene, isolated place that seemed to necessitate poetic longing.
From the sidewalk, I stuck my head through the wrought iron gate and looked into the yard, where piles of rubble, a few concrete urns, and old lumber were strewn about the grounds. Garden hoses tumbled out of stone ornaments. Weeds encroached over walkways. Wooden pallets and rectangular slabs of stone leaned up against parts of the building, as if leftover from a landscaping job that someone quit before finishing.
Recently-installed telephone wires crept along a trellis and up into a first-floor window, indicating that human activity of some sort was underway, yet each window seemed from a different era. Some of the shutters were closed, while others were covered with iron bars. Additional windows featured new frames on the outside, but were hidden with paper on the inside to prevent anyone from scoping out the interior.
Upon further look, the house definitely wasn’t abandoned. The pathway to the front door had been cleared, yet postal mail overflowed from the mailbox.
Obsessed, I wandered around to the left side of the house, where a tiny street called Via Leonardo da Vinci dead-ended into the rear entrance of the building next door, Grado’s public library. A modern angular structure, white-gray in color, the library was named after Falco Marin, whom I assumed was a member of the same family.
Since it was nearing midnight, a poetic silence enveloped the landscape. I seemed like the only person prowling around on the street. Almost on cue, erratic slivers of warm drizzle began to fall. I felt more connected to this old house then I did to my hotel room.
And when I made it back to my room, still obsessed, I stayed up for a few more hours researching Biagio Marin online as the rain picked up outside. He lived in that house during the final decades of his life, before dying at the age of 94, I discovered. After his death, his private library of several thousand books were transferred to the town library next door, an institution Marin founded in 1963 and named after his late son, Falco, who had died in WWII. His grandson, Guido, committed suicide in 1977 at a very young age.
Echoes of Biagio Marin still illuminated much of current-day Grado. In addition to the library, there was a school, a research center, an auditorium, a public piazza and a statue. Marin was the town’s iconic hero, the creative voice of the island, writing poetry in order to serve the mysterious forces rather than achieve power over them. He was inseparable from Grado’s past, present and future. And he left much more than a shadow. He was everywhere. Still.
My newly found obsession drove me to revisit Marin’s house after breakfast early the next morning. Downstairs in the lobby, I inquired with the concierge, asking who lived in that house nowadays. She didn’t seem to think anyone did. At least not to her knowledge.
I had a few moments to kill, so before convening with the rest of my group for a boat ride, I ambled along Riva Brioni, the waterfront street following the lagoon and the sleeping sailboats. It was early morning and nobody else was on the street. As I walked, leisurely gusts of wind sliced up the silence with a few scattershot blankets of warm rain that tumbled onto the pavement, harmonizing the echoes of my footsteps.
As the short waterfront lane came to an end, it curled into Via Aquileia, leading me through a small grid of streets and stacks of pastel-colored housing, each tiny yard filled with children’s toys, potted plants or cooking equipment. The streets were named after Italian cities — Udine, Pisa, Genova, Trieste — each one spoken with the rolling syllabic rhythms that made Italian such a musical language. This cluster of residential behind the waterfront hotels almost felt like Grado’s back side, since the old town area was half a mile away, on the southern side of the island, facing the Adriatic.
Within five minutes, Via Aquileia turned into Via Marchesini, leading me right back to Casa di Biagio Marin, where I again poked around the outside. I noticed another plaque facing the sidewalk, a rectangular memorial embossed within the stone wall, both of which were a sepulchral gray. A row of bricks underlined the plaque. Even in the morning light, I had to move up close to read it: The composer Antonio Smareglia had died in this house, at dawn, on April 15, 1929. The plaque had been installed on the 50th anniversary of his death in 1979 and also listed what I assumed were his compositions: Di Nozze Istriane. Falena. Oceana. Abisso.
My obsession then extended to Antonio Smareglia and why he wound up dead in Grado. I began to imagine the presence of some twisted Italian equivalent of Lorca’s duende, a dark form of creative struggle surfacing to remind me of my own mortality. Or in a positive sense, duende could be understood as an electric circuit, a spiritual current — in this case a posthumous membrane connecting Biagio Marin to the veins of his creative descendants decades later, in order to carry on the poetic tradition. I was meant to be here. I was meant to keep writing and never give up. The ghosts of Grado had cleared the way for me.
Back at the hotel, I met the rest of my group, where a psychological convergence then emerged, a subtle signpost solidifying another reason why I traveled: the phenomenon of synchronicity. We were then scheduled to visit a restaurant named after Biagio Marin’s first book of poetry, Fiuri de Tapo. I hadn’t known this ahead of time. Marin published the book in 1912 when he was 21 years old.
I had not come to Grado planning to discover Biagio Marin’s story. My hosts, when they booked a restaurant named after his book, didn’t know that I, by then, would already be under his spell. Even the most inconsequential coincidence, even the most random dose of serendipity, can rewire the psyche and improve one’s feelings of rootlessness. Or at least indicate a heightened sense of awareness. This wasn’t a grand-scale coincidence on the level discussed at conspiracy theory conferences, but it was all I needed. It was enough. I had found, or become reacquainted with, my calling in life: to travel and write and serve the muses of synchronicity.
Naked we come
in the great harbor
all in the same manner
the great journeyers
Even though Marin’s first book never appeared in English, Fiuri de Tapo roughly translated to “Flowers of Cork,” referring to a lavender wildflower that grew throughout this region. My hosts might never have told me about any of this, but as we headed for the boat dock in downtown Grado, I mentioned my new obsession with Marin’s life and the mystique of his old graying house. Our guide then burst into a spirited history of Marin, his service in the Great War, his connections to the arts intelligentsia of Trieste, his friendship with the director Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Marin’s use of the local dialect in his poetry. It was there and then that the guide told us the restaurant was named after Marin’s first book.
The serendipity of the moment was subtle yet dramatic, mind-blowing yet comforting, reassuring me that I was “in the zone” so to speak. I was meant to visit Grado. I proclaimed myself an honorary creative descendant of Biagio Marin and vowed to return.