7 Sounds From Italy That Will Fill You With Wanderlust
Buongiorno from the land of La Dolce Vita.
Inside the Doge’s Palace, with St. Mark’s Basilica in the background. Jim Dalrymple II
Italy may be the most European place in Europe. Given its history, the beauty of its cities, and richness of its cuisine and culture, it’s hard for anywhere else to really compare.
While visiting northern Italy last fall, I made a series of audio recordings of street performers, church bells, and sometimes just ambient noise. The recordings are short and presented here essentially unedited, but hopefully they capture a bit of Italy’s simultaneously warm and exotic essence.
1. Church bells near St. Mark’s Square in Venice.
Venice began as a swamp. As the Roman Empire destabilized, settlers began fleeing in earnest to a muddy lagoon at the north corner of the Italian peninsula in the 5th Century. Over the centuries, the Venetians drove millions of wood pylons — columns made from alder trees — through the mud and into the underlying limestone. Venice was built on top of those pylons, which are still submerged and holding the city up today.
The result is that nearly every surface in Venice is either stone, brick, plaster, or water. There’s no grass, and aside from a few planter boxes for trees, virtually no dirt. And because all the surfaces are hard and wet, sound in Venice has an entirely unique quality. Particularly in the more remote parts of the city where crowds are non-existent, the ever-present echoes of church bells and footsteps flit and dart through the old stone piazzas.
The Grand Canal in Venice. Jim Dalrymple II
2. A trumpeter warming up for a performance in Piazza dei Dignori, Verona.
On a cloudy-but-warm autumn day last year, Piazza dei Signori in Verona epitomized the conviviality of an Italian public space: children ran and played, bicycles clattered by, and a trumpeter warmed up for a performance in the square later that night.
Verona is most famous as the setting of Romeo and Juliet. The Shakespeare-related tourist sites in the city are made up — Juliet never lived in a house that now bears her name — but the city is ancient and charming anyway.
Verona, Italy. Sandra Cohen-Rose // Creative Commons / Via Flickr: 73416633@N00
3. A trio of buskers play Cielito Lindo near a market in Padua.
Padua — or in Italian, Padova — is an ancient Roman city that today is most famous for two things: the Basilica of St. Anthony and the University of Padua. The university was founded in 1222 and hosted some of the most famous minds in history, including Copernicus and Galileo. Construction of the basilica began in 1232 and towers over a small square that technically belongs to the Vatican, not Italy.
Padua’s illustrious history notwithstanding, it feels very much like a college town today. Walking around at night, the streets are filled with students eating pizza and drinking beer. During the day, students stage performance art beneath old, arcaded sidewalks.
The result is that Padua offers a string of surprising juxtapositions; in the recording above, for example, a trio of street performers plays “Cielito Lindo,” an iconic Mexican song.
The old market in Padua. Lorenzoclick // Creative Commons / Via Flickr: lorenzoclick
4. Children playing outside a synagogue in Venice’s jewish ghetto.
The audio in the clip above was taken late on a Saturday, just before sunset. A group of adults had gathered outside a synagogue while their children ran free in the square. In a city as famous for its foreign crowds as its history, the scene was remarkable — and beautiful — for how ordinary it was.
Venice’s ghetto dates back to the 1500s, when local rulers forced the Jewish population into a neighborhood on the city’s northern side. At night, they locked the gates. Over time, the ghetto population grew, which produced the relatively tall and tightly packed buildings that still stand today.
The origin of the English word “ghetto” also likely traces back to this neighborhood; originally, the area was the site of a foundry, or in Italian, a getto.
The main square in the Venetian Ghetto. Kenton Forshee // Creative Commons / Via Flickr: kentonforshee
5. A violinist playing in the rain in a quiet Venetian alley.
Venice was an economic superpower from at least the 1200s to the 1400s, but eventually underwent a centuries-long decline due to globalization, wars, plagues, and other struggles. Today, tourism is a major part of the Venetian economy, as it has been for literally hundreds of years.
Many of the people who perform on the street for Venice’s millions of tourists are professionals or semi-professionals. They have business cards and websites and CDs. And they’re wonderful. But the lone violinist in the recording above was not that. Instead, he had only an open violin case to collect money, a few handwritten signs, and an umbrella balanced over his head to keep out the rain.
A street musician in Venice, Italy. Jim Dalrymple II
6. Trains arriving in Verona.
To travel in Europe is, almost inevitably, to travel by rail. Trains in Europe are efficient, and romantic; from the storied Orient Express to films like Before Sunrise, they’ve given rise to an entire culture and mythology.
On the Italian peninsula, the first rail line opened in 1839 — decades before the modern nation of Italy became unified — and has been evolving ever since. The fascist period leading up to World War II in particular saw significant rail expansion in Italy, and today the central station in Milan stands as a striking example of totalitarian architecture.
The recording above comes from Verona’s Porta Nuova station, but includes many of the sounds that epitomize rail travel across Italy: the announcement of arrivals and departures; the whistle of a station attendant; and the clatter and squeal of iron wheels pulling up to the platform.
Milano Centrale, the central train station in Milan. David McKelvey // Creative Commons / Via Flickr: dgmckelvey
7. Monks singing in a Venetian church.
Like many old Italian cities, only probably even more so, Venice is filled with ornate churches. The neo-classical Church of San Giorgio Maggiore sits on a tiny island of the same name that’s a short ride on a vaporetto (i.e. a Venetian water bus) from the rest of the city.
The church hosts a Gregorian chant daily. While the crowd is a mix of locals and tourists taking pictures, the music still the washes over vaulted church like an ancient and celestial baptism.