There are a range of museums that collect poems in Italy. Poems not written with words, but with daily objects. They are places full of the same things that populate the verses of so many lyrical compositions.
The “Plain Things” that Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges celebrated in his famous poem:
A walking stick, a bunch of keys, some coins, / a lock that turns with ease, useless jottings / at the back of books that in the few days left / me won’t be read again, cards and chessboard, / […] So many things – / a file, an atlas, doorways, nails, the glass / from which we drink – serve us like silent slaves. / How dumb and strangely secretive they are! / Past our oblivion they will live on, / Familiar, blind not knowing we have gone.
They are the “Good Things in Bad Taste” listed by Turin-born Guido Gozzano:
boxes without comfits, / Marble pieces of fruit protected by glass bells, / A few unusual toys, chests made of valves, / Objects with the warning ‘hail, remembrance’, coconuts…
They are the old things Bertolt Brecht poetically catalogs as his favorites:
Of all the works of man I like best / Those which have been used. / The copper pots with their dents and flattened edges / The knives and forks whose wooden handles / Have been worn away by many hands: such forms / Seemed to me the noblest. / […] these / Are happy works. // Absorbed into the service of the many / Frequently altered, they improve their shape, grow precious / Because so often appreciated.
Let’s now visit some of these evocative and special museums in Italy: we have selected six.
We start with the Eyeglass Museum in Pieve di Cadore, in Veneto – realm of lenses, pince-nez, scissor-glasses, lorgnettes, binoculars, and telescopes (as well as boxes, sticks, snuff boxes, fans and other objects).
The Museum was founded in the 1980s, based on an intuition by Enrico De Lotto (who unfortunately passed away long before his dream could come true), and gathers various collections that give an excellent representation of four centuries of eyeglasses, from the 1500s to the 20th century.
Among the thousands of pairs on display, the only ones missing are probably the glasses imagined by Dippold, the optician in “Spoon River Anthology”, made with a light “making everything below it a toy world”.
The wonderful Umbrella and Parasol Museum in Gignese (Piedmont, province of Verbania-Cusio-Ossola) also lacks one famous, imaginary specimen: the umbrella belonging to Miss Hennessy, which is
carved out of wood and looks exactly like a real one even to the little button and the rubber string that holds it together. A perfect umbrella,
except when it rains, American author Gertrude Stein adds with irony in her “Everybody’s Autobiography”.
Admiring the magnificent pieces collected in this museum – founded in 1939 and since 1976 in its current location – you will immediately understand the importance of umbrellas not only for protection from the sun or rain, but also as status symbols with a long history, dating as far back as the 12th century BC in China, India and Egypt.
Charles Baudelaire would certainly have appreciated the Paronelli Pipe Museum in Gavirate (Varese). The French poet had one of these splendid objects talk in a famous poem from “Flowers of Evil”:
I am the pipe of an author; / One sees by my color, / Abyssinian or Kaffir, / That my master’s a great smoker. // When he is laden with sorrow, / I smoke like a cottage / Where they are preparing dinner / For the return of the ploughman […] // I give forth clouds of dittany / That warm his heart and cure / His mind of its fatigue (translated by William Aggeler).
Over 30,000 pieces including pipes, terracotta, porcelains, utensils and machines from the whole world make this museum a treasure trove of art and beauty, which even non-smokers will enjoy.
Who knows what Burchiello – a Tuscan poet from the 1400s, born Giovanni Domenico – would say if he could visit the Lorenzi Razor Museum in Milan’ famous Fashion District. A barber by day, he metaphorically “groomed” his verses while actually working with razors to pamper his clients and please their sense of aesthetic.
Poetry and razors argue in a tailed sonnet of his, which starts with, “Poetry fights against the razor / […] she tells him, ‘For what reason / do you take my Burchiel away from his desk?’”
Perhaps the two contenders would find a truce in Via Montenapoleone, in the museum inaugurated in 1929 by Giovanni Lorenzi, a knife maker originally from Trento. Perhaps they would even sign a peace treaty before the 3,700 razors on display in this poetical museum.
Lorenzi Razor Museum
Via Montenapoleone, 9
Tel.: +39 02 76022848
Giorgio Cavallotti opened the Button Museum in Santarcangelo di Romagna, in the province of Rimini, in 2008. The son of a haberdasher, Gavallotti wanted to showcase the thousands of buttons that filled two walls of the store his father opened in 1929.
He sewed them on some four hundred panels, arranging them rationally according to chronological and geographical criteria, but also in relation to the materials used to manufacture them and to the importance and rarity of some pieces (such as those depicting Napoleon’s son and the examples of Japanese netsuke).
The great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva once wrote a poem all about a button, turning it into an ironic symbol to elaborate on the analogies between poor people, criminals, and artists: “All order and existence are held / on a button.” And this museum just might prove her right.
Our tour ends at the Toy Museum, located inside the prestigious Palazzo Rospigliosi in Zagarolo, outside Rome. Inaugurated in 2005, it extends over 1,400 square meters and 14 different rooms, where approximately 800 objects from the whole world are gathered to give a visual representation of how Italian children played in the 1900s.
There is everything from outdoor play to war games, from educational toys to carousels, dolls, puppets, trains, cars… all the way to the famous PlayStation of the late 20th century.
And each toy tells a story, like “The Little Trumpet” in Corrado Govoni’s poem: “Here is what is left / of all the fair’s magic: / that little trumpet, / made of blue and green tin, / played by a little girl / as she walks barefoot in the fields. / But in that strained note, / there are white and red clowns; / there is the noisy golden band / the carousel, the organ, the lights…”