Up and down the gentle slopes just outside Modena, before the Appennines, after the valley, my colleague and I are looking for a magic place where we have been told there are rooms full of treasures. I have phoned at the specified hour and took an appointment, I wrote down the address and skipped the explanation about how to get there because I don’t understand the dialect. I thought I could understand it, I have some childhood memories where my beloved Signora Armanda and the other old people in the small town spoke dialect and I understood them, but many years have passed since then and the dialect is now an unknown language with a familiar sound. We asked all over the neighbourhood for information, up and down the gentle slopes just outside Modena, and we arrived there on a day when it was raining heavily and the sky was grey. She was looking for bottles. I was looking for frames, perhaps, but most of all for an interview.
As soon as I parked my car, a metal door opened. A man in his seventies got out and looked at us without saying a word. Are you him? I asked. Yes, I am. Come in, what are you looking for? he said. We’d like to buy some stuff... we answered. And he let us in. Room after room, in a maze of furniture, lamps, frames, cups, vases, irons, toys, boxes, suitcases, bedside tables, chairs, stools, beds, wardrobes. Room after room. With just enough space to move and a thread of light to see around. It’s raining. You can’t see things clearly today, you need to come here on a beautiful sunny day, he explains. There is no electric light, but anyway you couldn’t distinguish a functioning lamp from those on sale. Maybe there is one, somewhere, but it got lost over time, the light bulb blew out and nobody could find it anymore or better reach it to change it. Lunch time has just passed and smelling his breath I know he has drunk some Lambrusco. I love to guess what people have eaten looking at their body, smelling their breath, looking at their eye contour area or, as in this case, at the faint blotches around the nose. I imagine him sitting at the table, dipping a piece of Ferrara bread into the sauce and drinking two or three bicér ad vin. He asks us what we are looking for and, after mentioning the bottles, I hand him the last ILLUSTRATI issue and tell him that I would like to interview him. He does not even take a look at the magazine. No. He says. I am not interested. Am pias mia. The tone of his voice makes me understand that I won’t convince him.
So I ask him for permission to photograph him and the rooms. No. Just no. Nothing more. It doesn’t matter, I think as I move forward through these small rooms and catch wonderful glimpses. It doesn’t matter, when each corner becomes a picture I won’t take. All these objects piled up against the walls, on the ceiling, in the corners. It doesn’t matter, I keep thinking, when the transparency of the glass which is dark green as I like it is clouded by the dust, but not so much as to stop me from wishing to touch it. I spot a little black and yellow tin car with red seats, I had one just like that when I was a little girl, it was propelled by a spring and it was useful because I could make my little dolls seat on it and move them to and fro in the room. I recall the attic of the old country house I used to live in, where I used to spend all the time when I wasn’t in the garden. The smell of humidity, of dust, of the damp soil coming from outside, the autumn light. I take courage and while my colleague searches for bottles, I start chatting with him, trying to make him say something that I can use to write my piece all the same, without including names nor pictures. Moreover I am not good at searching, I immediately lose my temper, I like things coming into my hands, or directly into my heart through my eyes, but I never rummage. He does not give interviews. I do not rummage.
Are you interested in lamps? he asks while I am looking upward. I say that I am, just to make him talk. And why don’t you like to be interviewed and photographed? I insist. I don’t want any publicity. Now tell me what you like... he changes the subject. He doesn’t want to talk. He never leaves us alone. I see that he is struggling to stand up straight, he is always leaning on something, I wonder whether his eyesight is OK. What is the quality you like to look for in bottles? I don’t know, I say, just ask her, she’s the one looking for bottles. I have five kinds of bottles, he tells me. They are about forty years old. Vuèter... he calls us... come on right here and I will show you that I have plenty of them. I spot a small frame with a picture of the Pope who preceded Pope John Paul II. Straight on... he guides us. Go ahead. Do you live here? I ask. Me son semper libér. On Saturdays and Sundays I am here tut al dé, he answers without looking at me. I say something to arouse his curiosity, but he doesn’t seem to be interested, he is close off, like the caps of the bottles he shows us. Here everything is slow, nothing moves, except the three of us who are careful not to break anything. Mountains of stuff filling room after room of this house that doesn’t seem to ever end. I ask him whether he has any heir. What he thinks would become of all that stuff after his death. If he likes his job. How he started. But he only tells me he has some grandchildren and invites me to look to the right or to the left to see other things that I don’t care about. I ask him how much something costs and he answers easy, later when we go downstairs, he tells me, come in, he invites me. Have you got brothers or sisters? he asks me all of a sudden. If things could answer, I would swear it’s them he is addressing, but he is actually asking me. Yes, I have a brother, I say. Is he also fond of stuff? he asks me. No. I don’t think so. He loves computers and chess. Then he falls silent again. He looks like the light that appears at times, enlightens one corner I haven’t noticed before and then a cloud arrives and covers everything again. Vuèter should come during the day... have a look there too... I see a strange small night table made of old iron. It’s a little heater, the ladies used it to warm up the food. You have to put wood inside it. They warmed up the food in there. È vecia quella lè. There are many people coming here, people fond of old stuff, of course, you need passion to do something. Your brother wouldn’t come here... he laughs. Do your parents live in Modena too? Then he falls silent again. Another cloud. We go ahead and I refuse to walk on, I am afraid this corridor is too narrow for me, I say, you need to be quite slim... You are OK, he tells me, ne grasa ne megra... Silence. Maybe he doesn’t talk to me because I don’t understand his dialect.
I have been collecting stuff for thirty years, he lays bait. Do people call you? I take the bait. Well... sometimes, ma as cata poco. The markets have ruined everything, they have ruined everything by buying and selling stuff. The flea markets... they have ruined everything! Old people go there and ask them how much is that stuff? And they say eight times the real price and they do not buy anymore. There is nothing to do, I know what the trade is like. A man outside the window asks me, Is the big boss in? I turn around to look at him, he has heard those words and he is smiling. The big boss... he repeats to himself. He is looking for me, he tells me, let him wait, you look around, he will wait... and does not make a move. So you’re not interested in anything, are you? But I’m not interested. My colleague has chosen five bottles and we have to pay for them. He moves them, puts them on the windowsill in order to look at them in the light, he plays for time, he asks us about some vases, he tells us that he has plenty of stuff and we can come back... vuèter quando volete vignìr ... he shows us other bottles, maybe we haven’t bought enough things. It takes patience, he tells us, and after as much as five minutes I ask him once again: But if I promise I won’t promote you, would you allow me to take a couple of pictures? NO, I’d rather you not and he talks me about the glass cupolas for the little Madonnas. We wait, then I pull out a drawer and say I knew it! There is something inside any piece of furniture and inside any box, you have to look everywhere, as if you participated in a scavenger hunt without clues, but only a providential and divine ray of light. So how much is it? I break the silence. I break the slow flowing of time. Here, I will make a very good price for you, look at that beautiful rocking chair back there... I’ll make a very good price for everything... 120. One hundred and twenty euros? we ask, surprised. My prices are always expressed in liras, not euros, I can’t talk about money in euros, whereas it takes me a minute in liras. He opens the iron main door that leads to the garden, slow heavy and noisy. The other man is outside, waiting. It seems to have stopped raining, doesn’t it? Yes, it has stopped, thankfully, he says, thankfully, we say.