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The Firefly

To Ernest Hemingway

 

The theoretical philosophy lesson finished at six. Prof. B. said goodbye to us one by one on the doorstep – there were just a few of us – and the university corridor was dark and cold and very inhospitable. Usually it was foggy outside, and I would say to Remo on leaving: actually, he is intelligent, he’s really nice, and Remo would reply that yes, B. was smart. But Remo had understood everything and I almost nothing of the gnoseological question of knowledge. Corso Roma was covered in thick grey fog which became even thicker in the Bottonuto park, and sometimes, arm in arm, without talking we would walk to Via Chiaravalle where yellow lamp posts cut through the fog. In the building the corridor tiling was white and oozed dampness. The smell was the same as the smell of fog, except it was more pungent and less welcoming and there was a lot of lighting and heating. That winter I got a car, a 509 Mille Miglia dad bought for 1,000 lire and it had 100,000 km on it. It was yellow and had red rims of which some were chrome and others rusty, and there was a hub to remove the wheels which was rusty too. The Pirelli tyres were very worn but still good. It was a two-seat convertible, and there was space in the back for a third passenger, but you could fit two even, if they squeezed tight.

After a few days Beppe and Filippo got really good. They would lie on the front fenders and Renzo would ride the spare tyre, the very worn spare tyre which was in shreds, so much so that you could see the brick-red inner tube here and there. Mario was worried about that tyre, but I was laughing happily and Albertino said that it didn’t matter, that it was enough to last a few kilometres until we reached the first garage.

However, we never ended up having to change a tyre, although secretly we really wished we had to. bz were the half-faded letters on the plates, but at night the white and red light of the back lights lit them up well, so our arrivals in Chiaravalle were bold and adult-like, and full of cockiness. From that moment Remo became less introverted and the philosophy professor no longer was our topic of conversation. We talked about cylinders and boring without knowing what they were. He said the car was ridiculous but useful, and Mario christened it Firefly.

I said that yellow wasn’t so bad a colour after all and that anyway the brakes were good. – Look, I said. – Remo, Mario and Tullio were all inside the Fly and I pushed it up to 70 km an hour along Via Bellini and hit the brakes three metres before a Bianchi bicycle which was stopped in front of the gates of Via Livorno, but the Fly kept going and the Bianchi flew forward, then forward again after its second bump.

Finally, the Fly stopped in front of the gates with a few dents on the radiator which started leaking a bit of water. – Oh God – said Remo. – Goddammit – cursed Mario. Tullio was laughing. – What the heck – I said, shaking my head. I got out of the car to see but nothing major had happened and the tyres had held on. – These Pirelli – I said. We were amazed.

That night we drove to the Continental to the party of the Fascist University Youth. Girls were waiting for us. We were wearing black tuxedos and the girls’ shoulders were bare and they smelled good. There were always seven of us in the Fly. With the engine roaring we stopped in front of the revolving doors and the doorman welcomed us with a great bow, in the same way traffic wardens at crossroads acknowledged us. They recognised the Fly and laughed. – Look – they would say – it’s those with the bz plates. – So they laughed and never fined me. Only once did they fine us, when the Fly stayed all night at the entrance of Via Paolo da Cannobio, outside the tradesmen’s entrance of the Lirico theatre. It blocked the road and many horns hooted to go through, but we were sitting in Sora Amelia’s trattoria courting Elsa. Giorgio had drunk a bottle of Chianti and was throwing up the wine, spaghetti and tuna in a corner with Sora Amelia shouting and Pelosini screaming at Valli because he didn’t know the card game. Mario, Remo and I ate Tuscan beans and Elsa wouldn’t let us touch her, not even her hand… The police left four tickets on our windshield, one every couple of hours, but no-one paid the fine, nor do I know where they ended up. We didn’t even go to court.

In December that year – 1932 – it was very cold, foggy and snowy over the barren land, and only a few farmers were working the dark soil beneath its white coat. Mario, Tullio, Albertino and I decided we absolutely had to shoot a film for the lictors. Castellani, who ran the Fascist University Youth cinema, said that it was a great idea and we should prepare the subject and script, and we would see.

The Fly took off like a rocket on Piazza Giovinezza, like a bullet in the Christmas traffic all the way to my house. – Hooray, we’re shooting a film, the best film in the world and it has to be social – declared Albertino. – Sure – I encouraged him. Battleship Potemkin; Old and New; The Lower Depths. Mario got the idea of setting it in a locomotive warehouse. – A printing factory would be better – I said. –I understand –replied Tullio. It was settled. But Remo said he thought it was all so stupid and refused to play the main part.

Clelia, whom everybody liked – she was beautiful even if she was aloof and intellectual –, accepted to be the main actress; there were some who said yes and others who said no. Why not? said Giorgio, I will take care of the dialogue. We were pleased because he was an anti-fascist who knew the working class and was against the bourgeoisie. – Those filthy bourgeois – said Mario, and went on to recite the Sepolcri poem, all agitated like his father. The Fly was very useful during that period. It carried us to the outskirts of Milan when we were looking for locations. The Pirelli tyres screeched on the shiny tarmac around bends and gripped the road even at 70 km an hour. There were trees dripping with black on the outskirts and poor people who warmed up around hot chestnut carts. It was a bad winter, they said, and we would get out of the Fly with everybody in awe, chit-chatting, and we would gesticulate in the same way we’d once seen Blasetti do. – The camera goes here, and a nice long shot here – said Albertino. – Yes – I said – then you immediately want to go for a close-up of Clelia bundled up in a man’s scarf. We felt warm in our feeling of joy, like poor people. The wretched of the earth, sympathised Mario, while Giorgio was taking notes so some of the dialogue would be “realistic”. Holding a bottle of cognac, he said he went to Chiaravalle to look for ambience and the Fly would wait outside in the fog, all damp and happy in its yellow and red, which became faint in the gloomy and distant headlights.

The following month was a hostile and freezing January. There was wind on the plains and extreme cold. We decided to take a drive to Verona to my father’s printing house, in order to find again real locations and get an idea of the masses. – You need to know the masses very well – said Giorgio – to get into their psychology. Tullio and Albertino paid attention respectfully. – Of course – said Tullio with conviction. – And we have to find extras – added Mario. – Oh, good God – I said – but we have to bring Clelia along. Yet, Clelia had said no, that she wasn’t going to come alone to Verona with four young men, and Remo laughed saying we were stupid.

– We’re going anyway – I decided.

– What do we care about her – said Mario.

– We’ll get another hundred – I said, angry and disappointed. – We can find another hundred, Maria, Isa, Laura… maybe even Lulù, the most beautiful girl in Chiaravalle.

– If she wants, she can join during shooting – said Albertino.

– Are you mad? said Mario – What do we care?

– Really, – said Tullio – we don’t care.

We left at dawn, it was grey. The sky was like brownish milk. The motorway was covered in frost, a dirty ivory ribbon splitting the opaque and shiny white fields in half. Far off in the distance were blue mountains near fields; only half-dark, with super white peaks pointing to the sky. More mountains further away, but less high, ugly and yellow. At the foot of those mountains were white plains covered in rows of bare trees and people were safely indoors like cattle, horses and tractors. The Fly ran along that dirty ribbon. – It drives well – I said, satisfied. – Really well, confirmed Mario, and in the back seat Tullio and Albertino remained quiet for fear of freezing their tongues, although we had put up a jute screen which blew inwards with the cold wind of that frozen winter. The wind was bad and there was fog and dirt and melancholy across the plains. – Everything alright? – I shouted at the top of my lungs without turning around, and from the back I heard animal-like muttering. – They’re fine – decided Mario. – You go on. So I pushed the accelerator with my foot, happy to feel the Pirelli tyres grab the tarmac mixed with white slush. – What a car – I said. – What a car – reiterated Mario proudly. But past Bergamo the Fly started feeling tired. It made a whistling sound, as though it were a wheezing horse. – Good God – I said. – Goddammit – cursed Mario – it’s making a hell of a noise. Albertino peeped over the screen, red-nosed and stiff-lipped. – It stinks, it stinks a lot – he said. –Goddammit – went on Mario, and Tullio quietly cringed.

– Stop – said Mario.

– No – I insisted. – It’s nothing, the carburettor is faulty.

– But it stinks – said Albertino.

– You stink – I said, annoyed.

– Stop, stop. – shouted Mario – Break!

– Stop what? You stupid – I said.

– The Fly, stop.

– The Firefly – grumbled Tullio, and Mario punched him over the jute screen.

– It stinks, goddammit, stop.

I stopped. The damp fog fogged up the windscreen and the sun looked like an orange in the grey and streaked sky.

– Open up – I told Mario.

– No way, you open up.

– Don’t be stupid – said Albertino – let’s open up the bonnet.

A lot of black, stinky smoke came out and it soon mixed with the fog; the engine made a “tru… tru… tru” choking sound, and it was leaking oil everywhere, a blackish smelly oil. There was black smoke all around and so much fog that trees merged with the sky and plains full of sadness and laziness.

– The carburettor. – I said confidently after a while – Unless there’s something wrong with the ignition.

– Well – said Mario – where’s that oil coming from then?

Tullio lay down under the Fly and shouted that the exhaust was incandescent.

– You idiot. – said Albertino – What do we care about the exhaust?

Tullio came back out, his face all dirty and oily, his eyes two black lost circles, and he suddenly told Albertino to measure his words because he wanted respect. Mario was watching and had many doubts; I insisted that the carburettor was the matter.

– Or the ignition – said Mario.

– Unwind the coil – suggested Albertino.

Tullio kept quiet – he was offended. Being morning, no-one was passing by. It was almost daylight beneath the yellow clouds and birds were flying soft and low over the countryside. An Alfa and then a Balilla drove by and we kept on arguing, all worried and tired and cold, like everything around us.

– Where’s the coil? – I asked.

– You tell me – said Mario, shrugging his shoulders.

– No, I am asking Albertino, who studied at the Polytechnic.

– In architecture you don’t need to know where a coil is – confessed Albertino. Tullio agreed and told Mario and me to quit being silly and showing off. Then a lorry stopped, of the kind with a long trailer, and a big arrogant man got out who took a look under the bonnet, pulling his hair behind with his greasy forearm. It’s the bushings, said the pig, the bushings melted, he added, with a distracted, pedantic air. He climbed back up into the lorry which was high above our heads and left us there with those two words while the lorry disappeared in the fog and smoke was still coming out of our bonnet even with the engine stopped. The man had disconnected the wires saying we were mad, barking mad is what he really said, and burnt oil slowly trickled down to the ground where a slimy puddle formed on the dirty white surface of the motorway, and even more blue and stinky smoke from the lorry’s exhaust lingered, and the plains had turned blue.

– Who is taking us home now? – asked Tullio desperately.

– Your grandmother with her wheels – I said. Tullio got angry once again, saying his grandmother had none. – Quit that and go and flag a car down. Wouldn’t it be better if you were a woman? At least then lorry drivers would stop. – No-one stopped with that fog for two hours. After which the sun came out, the fog lifted. It was midday and we were hungry and cold, so Albertino pulled out a bottle. – You idiot – yelled Mario. – Why are you so stupid? – I said – Now you wait. – Sure – replied Albertino – I will wait for us to be tired. So we drank the cognac straight from the bottle, and it went down warm to our feet.

– A lorry, a lorry is stopping – announced Tullio excitedly, staggering drunk under a bridge.

– It’s so small – said Mario.

– But it’s red, said Alberto.

– Go on, go on – I said – don’t waste time.

– Ask him if he will tow us – said Mario.

So we were towed – 20 km an hour speed – back to Milan and the cold was cutting our faces and the tyres made noises similar to hands slapping water in a blue, freezing cold fountain. At times the driver would look behind and laugh.

Eventually the Firefly was sold as spare parts. I bought a Balilla and then a 1100, but I no longer melted the bushings and when it was foggy there were bright incandescent wires on the windscreen. Today the car is heated, there are fog lights, a defroster, lots of switches on the dashboard. The Pirelli tyres still turn and grip tarmac, snow and ice, and get to 100, 130 an hour, 150 even, if you know how to handle it. The tyres grip the motorway so tight, which in December is yet again a filthy ribbon separating rugged, tired fields beneath a white snow-filled sky.

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