I have no theory of my own on “La Padania” [the Po Valley], but I do know its villages and inhabitants fairly well. I have no theory of my own on mountain or plains dwellers, who have their own histories and contrasting or dissimilar mythologies. I do, however, recognise that people may often embody a sense of belonging that differs greatly from their geographical origins. Without our being aware of it, perfect sea-farers may even be aboard our morning tram alongside us in Milan or Turin. […] Only a few fortunate persons know the true homeland of their spirit and their destiny, and this might explain why the world is populated with an infinite number of exiles. This could explain why in certain circumstances persons may cultivate revolutionary desires, manifested through dreams or poetry far-removed from their daily lives or geographically defined destiny. […]
Like someone possessed
It may seem strange that I pen these words when tasked to narrate the life of a race car driver, but I write to try to penetrate the inner-life of an apparently taciturn person, his eyes veiled by melancholy and illuminated by a mysterious inner existence.
A friend of his, standing close by when I was speaking to him, or to be more precise, attempting to interview him – the questions we ask are often very different from those we would really like to ask – said to me: “You should see him in certain moments. He is like someone possessed”. Instead, I found no trace of demonism at all in the person standing before me; that silent and somewhat shy person did not smell of brimstone. I am convinced that his true life was different from that narrated in the standard format of sporting news and published in hard-to-find and terse volumes dedicated to his biography, full of numbers and precise timings of his various sporting successes.
Similarly, I did not agree with the platonic demonic image proffered by his friend, just as I would later find myself to be in complete disagreement with other images of the sportsman portrayed in the brief but widely read biographies – which nonetheless were later to prove invaluable – that an admirable work companion found in his own archives.
[…] I tried to delve more into the intimate side of the champion, something that perhaps not even he could help me with. I therefore offer my apologies if he finds little of what I asked and what he replied, and even less of the language that pervades the headlines and rolls of honour of the sporting world.
Underneath the surface, I started to see the plain where he was born, and hence my attempt to portray him uses that plain as a backdrop, its still-unexplored lands and secrets which I referred to before in my seeming meanderings.
In ancient times this plain was a sea, and its land still today has conserved its broad horizons; no more movement, its hidden depths laden with infinite maritime essences. I believe that during the night, under the stars, or during the calm of those lazy stifling August afternoons, from the subsoil of the Po Valley – the remote cerulean peaks of the Alps on one side, and the grey-green contours of the Apennines on the other – distant and epic marine spirits emerge. Perhaps this contributes to the profound souls of its inhabitants, leading Virgil to his epic poetry and Georgic verse, so that he saw under the same lodestar those heroes of the times of Aeneas and men persevering in their agrarian toils, guided by the secret, eternal and mellifluous rhythms of the seasons.
A mysterious gallop
[…] Before today I had often met that small, thin man, whose secret portrait I was attempting to depict and whose secret life I was attempting to understand, along the banks of that lake that the Padania-born Virgil called the /Benacus marinus/. The man I knew was seen in racing tracks surrounded by black fields of spectators; the man that I knew was caught up in whirlpools of velocity and cyclones of engines. I sometimes saw him walking silently along the banks of that lake that befriended him with its long, forgetful silences. On those banks – when he could – he would try to relax and cure that sickness that would afflict him during his races, caused by the toxic fumes that fed the engine. Immersed in that calm lakeside air he would combat the poisons of those countless races, which he had raced with his steady eyes and nerves. This slight, thin man with greying hair would walk in silence, sometimes with a friend; he would walk past the lakeside flower beds in this little holiday paradise. Are his thoughts filled with screeching engines and dizzying racetracks? I don’t know.
These are probably his underlying thoughts, as his entire life has been a dizzying equilibrium of fast-rotating wheels obeying the explosions of a motor and the firm grasp of a hand on a steering wheel or handlebar. The greater part of what are called interviews are made of useless questions, and this is why I have never asked Nuvolari anything when meeting him on his lakeside walks where he sought relaxation. I have happened to hear his calm and understated voice from afar and see his thin, delicate features engrossed in deep thoughts, his face simultaneously embodying the sentiments of joy and melancholy, as if veiled by the delicate brushstrokes of a painting by an Old Master.
The servant in the gorge
This is an image that has appeared to me under two different forms. The first is Leonardesque as being part of the myth of Leonardo, but this does not mean that I dress my protagonist in the colourful clothing of a man of the 1500s. Do you remember the legend – perhaps even a true story – of Leonardo’s faithful servant, or more friend than servant, who was witness to the Maestro’s long studies on the flight of birds? Imitating the wings of those birds, Leonardo had constructed two large contraptions considered suitable to support a man in flight, and he kept them stored in one of his studios, still doubtful whether to test them or not. In secret, drawn by the genius of his master, the servant decided to try them out, and so he courageously tied them to his shoulders and threw himself from a high hill. As the story goes, he was found by his master in great pain and with broken bones at the bottom of a sheer drop. Perhaps if born in the 1500s – my fantasy told me while I considered this little silent man walking between the geranium-filled flower beds of the silent and serene lakeside – undoubtedly my protagonist without hesitation would have attached Leonardo’s wings to his arms and jumped from a mountain top.
I have another more recent image, but still pertaining to the reign of the skies. The figure of that slight physique moulded from sinews and with cautious, studied movements struck me when he was talking to me about his habit of avoiding any useless gesture, because every small movement behind the steering wheel is multiplied by the mechanical workings of the car. I remember old prints of the early conquests of the skies showing the manoeuvres of the first flying machines of Besnier, Degen, and finally in 1896 – when my protagonist was still a child dressed in a smock – those of Chanute, Pilcher and Lilienthal; little men who dreamt or even attempted to challenge space by grasping wing-like contraptions made of bamboo and silk in the form of a swallow’s wing or even that of a bat. I said to myself that Nuvolari was the man needed by Chanute and Lilienthal in their early trials with the first wings, lighter than those of the stag beetle or even of air itself. If he had been there then, we would today have his portrait in some old and rare incision in wood, of a more Gozzanian nature [Guido Gozzano, poet, writer and member of the Italian Crepuscular literary movement].
Almost a jockey
I asked Nuvolari if he had gone horse-riding. His physique is that of a jockey or even that of a jouster of times gone by. His eyes lit up at my question and answered, “When I was a boy, I thought of becoming a jockey”.
And so, this is my image of Nuvolari, with a background of horses in his countryside childhood in Padania. […]
The petrol-drinking carriage
A race driver is neither a historian nor a collector of old prints.
In his far-off memories, Nuvolari, smiling, pulls out a name that belongs to the heraldry of racing cars, something akin to the history of the Crusades: Hupmobile. This is the name of the first car that he ever drove, the first brake he ever used, the first pedal he ever stepped on. Perhaps he had already forgotten the time of horses, or when he rode the bicycle of his father or his uncle, both Italian cycling champions in those times when in order to race all that was needed was the desire to win a medal.
Then, from where or how we don’t know, the Hupmobile arrived. In the tranquillity of the long straight roads of Padania – until then accustomed only to the slow gait of our Virgilian oxen – it passed by and stopped and Tazio at the age of thirteen surreptitiously tried out that “petrol-drinking carriage”.
This was contemporaneous with the first electric light, with the first news of an American who had flown, with the news that an Italian had invented the telegraph, which meant that wireless communication was possible between two sides of the ocean. Then the arrival of an automobile that, stopping in front of the farmhouse in Casteldario, marked the destiny of that young 13-year-old scamp, caught up in the infantile evasive aspirations towards something that required daring and conquest. […]
Velocity is instinctive for Nuvolari and it flows in his veins. This instinct has always driven him to seek greater velocity, starting with the horse, his childhood bicycle, his uncle’s old motorbike that he would ride in secret along the rows of willow trees lining the fields; and then the first cars and aeroplanes. If he had dedicated his energies to flying, he would have been a fighter pilot and undoubtedly would have invented the first aerial acrobatics; the first barrel rolls, dips and loops passing under the arches of the Eiffel Tower. But only the road gives that dizzying sensation of velocity. […]
On the asphalt blade
Velocity increases with him; from the blustering boneshakers of his adolescence to the fiery-red single seaters; mechanical instruments improve, highways are widened, the unpaved and dusty roads of the 1800s become shining black or grey asphalt ribbons of the 1900s. The race of champions goes hand-in-hand with the race against velocity; the limits are determined by the extreme resistance of materials, and the extremes of danger. His survival is determined by the nervously wavering indicator of the speedometer.
Every period has its own hermits and its own religion. I hold that Nuvolari is the hermit of velocity.
Certainly no man is more alone than when in a racing car, when the foot has been raised from the brake and the vehicle lunges forward with that angry screech of the engine hungrily seeking velocity.
Hundreds of thousands of people are watching from the side of the roads, looking onto the race tracks, but all those gazes and all those people waiting for the drivers to pass are nothing more than a blurred hedge of people; not even the voices inciting the driver can be heard above the engines. There are no racetrack grandstands, nor man-made structures, nor men, nor nature, sky or earth; everything disappears. The driver has only the ever-narrower ribbon of the road on which he has to calculate a delicate equilibrium as it is eaten up under the wheels, and suddenly it deviates and capriciously winds, first climbing and then falling to straighten out like an arrow, and then burrows into the grey stone-bordered thoroughfares of the city.
At the steering wheel the driver is more than a hermit in the desert, more isolated than if he were in a snowbound grotto or perched on some rocky cusp above a ravine.