Portovenere in Poetry: an ode by Eugenio Montale

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Portovenere and the Gulf of La Spezia have bewitched innumerable writers throughout time – to the extent that the area is today known as the Bay of Poets. One artist in particular captured the essence of the town in a poem dedicated to Portovenere. Eugenio Montale (1896 – 1981) was an Italian poet, prose writer and editor. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1975.

Eugenio Montale (1896 – 1981) was an Italian poet, prose writer and editor.Despite the fact that Eugenio Montale produced only five volumes of poetry in his first fifty years as a writer, when the Swedish Academy awarded the Italian poet and critic the 1975 Nobel Prize for Literature they called him “one of the most important poets of the contemporary West,” according to a Publishers Weekly report. [Poetry Foundation poetryfoundation.org]

Portovenere (1925), Eugenio Montale
— The poem in Italian

Là fuoresce il tritone
dai flutti che lambiscono
le soglie d’un cristiano
tempio, ed ogni ora prossima
è antica. Ogni dubbiezza
si conduce per mano
come una fanciulletta amica.

Là non è chi si guardi
o stia di sé in ascolto.
Quivi sei alle origini
e decidere è stolto:
ripartirai più tardi per assumere un volto.

— English translation of the poem

There – comes Triton
from the waves that lap
the threshold of a Christian
temple, and every near hour
is ancient. Every doubt
takes you by hand
as if by a young girl friend.

There – no one’s eyes
nor ears are bent on self.
Here – you are at the origins
and deciding is foolish:
re-begin later to assume a nature.

The Christian temple cited in the poem refers to the Church of St. Peter (Chiesa di San Pietro), a gothic-style building that stands sublimely on the cliff overlooking the sea just above Byron’s Grotto.

Montale’s poem gives imagery to the feelings that a meditative visitor senses upon arriving in Portovenere, suspended between nature, history, myth and blissful beauty!

Lord Byron's Grotto in Portovenere, Liguria Bay of Poets
Lord Byron was another poet that fell in love with Portovenere. It is said that he would meditate in a cave located under the Church of St. Peter. “Grotta Arpaia” is today also known as “Grotta Byron”. The sign that welcomes you to this magical place reads “This grotto was the inspiration of Lord Byron. It records the immortal poet who as a daring swimmer defied the waves of the sea from Portovenere to Lerici”.


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