Of all the Russians who ever set foot on the Italian soil, he was probably the only one worth speaking of in merciless mockery. The deadly mix of seductive nature and important architecture only encouraged him to talk about his adventures with humour. Some of his friends were confused, others - appalled. Who could not fall in love with the heavenly land? None of them seemed to know the deeper truth behind his words. Since that moment and until such time that his personal letters became public, the Russian nobility baptized Anton Chekhov as allergic to Italy.
The first time the famous writer travels to Italy is in March and April of 1891 at the age of 31. The route chosen for his first visit is classically Russian and unchanging: Venice, Bologna, Florence, Rome and (the least likely to be on the list) Naples.
Venice produces an etched impression on him. Following his famous trip to Russia’s dark and oppressive Sakhalin, which to him represented the idea of hell, Chekhov embarks on a life-changing journey to Venice. Spilled on countless tiny islands interconnected with one another by elegant strings of bridges, bleached by the sun and eroded by water, Venice rises above the waters of the Adriatic like a mirage, representing heaven. Everything appeals to Checkov in a city where palaces seem to have been intricately carved out of stone. Contrary to what he says to his friends, his heart yields to beauty.
In a letter to his brother Ivan he writes:
“ I am now in Venice. One thing I can say: I have never in my life seen a town more marvelous than Venice. You float in a gondola and see the palace of the Doges, the house where Desdemona lived, homes of various painters, churches. And in the churches there are sculptures and paintings such as we have never dreamed of. In fact it is enchantment. And the evenings! My God! One might almost die of the strangeness of it. One goes in a gondola…warmth, stillness, stars. There are no horses in Venice, and so there is silence here as in the open country. Gondolas flit to and fro… then a gondola glides by, hung with lanterns. In it are a double-bass, violins, a guitar, a mandolin and cornet, two or three ladies, several men, and one hears singing and music. They sing from operas. What voices! One goes on a little further and again meets a boat with singers, and then again, and the air is full, till midnight, of the mingled strains of violins and tenor voices, and all sorts of heart-stirring sounds… If you ever happen to come to Venice it will be the best thing in your life.”
Having left the atmospheric Venice, Antoine Chekhov (as he calls himself in his letters) travels further into the central part of the country. His prime location, a long time favourite among other famous visiting Russians, is Florence. It provides him with the quintessential – art. Despite the pleasure in visiting the city’s most widely recognized landmarks and attractions, Chekhov’s experience is somewhat disconcerting and ambivalent. In his letters we sense that he cannot help but compare the formal Florence to the lively ambience of Venice.
“I am in Florence. I am worn out with racing about to museums and churches. I have seen the Venus of Medici, and I think that if she were dressed in modern clothes she would be hideous, especially above the waist… I have seen everything and dragged myself everywhere I was told to go… But meanwhile I feel nothing but exhaustion and a craving for cabbage-soup and buckwheat porridge”.
The formal atmosphere of Florence has him feeling trapped and dizzy like someone who has been wearing a very tight suit for a long time. He decides to abandon Florence and Rome for the city that has cemented its reputation as bizarre, chaotic and absolutely irresistible. It is Naples.
In Naples, the fabled city held by the loving arms of the Mediterranean, Chekhov is alive. His long dormant feelings are awakened to the contagious energy surrounding him. He takes long walks along some of the liveliest arteries of the city and visits catacombs and abandoned houses of Pompeii, so fervently emptied by Vesuvius in 79 AD.
After visiting Pompeii, Chekhov enjoys a remarkably delicious lunch accompanied by exquisite red wine, which inspires a dream that every Russian nurtures while standing at the foot of the proud Vesuvius – it is a dream to tame the volcano.
“After viewing Pompeii, I lunched at a restaurant and then decided to go to Vesuvius. The excellent red wine I had drunk had a great deal to do with this decision… The crater of Vesuvius is a great many yards in diameter. I stood on its edge and looked down as in a cup. The soil around, covered by a layer of sulphur, was smoking vigorously. From the crater rose white stinking smoke; spurts of hot water and red-hot stones fly out while Satan lies snoring under cover of the smoke. It is very terrible, and at the same time one has an impulse to jump right into the crater. I believe in hell now.”
The strange chemistry he has for Naples translates into a memory of a passionate love with Lika Mizinova. His heart is captured by the city that resembles a dark-haired beauty he once used to kiss. A woman who burned his heart to ashes just like Vesuvius did with Pompeii. These strong feelings of longing are impossible anywhere but here. The reserved, sensitive soul, as he is, Chekhov begs to be loved by effusive surroundings, which inevitably bring his flesh back to life.
Surrounded by friends, Chekhov will be more careful in expressing his admiration. They describe him as indifferent to beauty and even ironic. But could things be more complex than what they “appear” to be? Sometimes, when we look closer, we realize that very often under the mask of indifference lies a passionate heart and a sensitive soul of a man who opened himself to love that destroyed him like lava.