Missions to the Moon – Ariosto and Calvino








In the age when the world was as yet new
when early humans lacked experience,
without the shrewdness of the present day,
beneath a lofty mountain, with a peak
that seemed to touch the sky, a people, whose
name I do not know, lived on the valley floor
who watching oftentimes the changing moon,
now full now hollow, with or without horns,
travel her natural course across the skies,
thinking that from the summit of the mount
it would be possible for them to reach
her and discover how she waxed and waned,
began, some carrying baskets, others sacks,
to scurry up the mountain slopes racing
each other in their urge to have her first.
Then, seeing she remained forever far,
exhausted they collapsed upon the ground,
wishing in vain they had remained below.
Those on the lower hills, viewing them so high,
believing they could see them touching her,
went chasing after them with hurried strides.
This mountain is the wheel of Fortune
on top of which, the unenlightened crowd
believe that all is peace, and yet there’s none.

Translation Phillip Hill 2017

Listen here: 

This is a section of the 3rd Satire by Lodovico Ariosto (1474-1533), which is generally known as “The Fable of the Moon”. (For the original Italian click here) Anybody who knows something about Ariosto, hearing a mention of the moon, will probably think of his wonderful and very funny epic poem, L’Orlando Furioso, where the moon is presented as the place where all lost things end up. (It would have been wonderful if the Apollo missions had come across a cache of odd socks). When the eponymous hero Orlando goes mad for love, another knight called Astolfo flies to the moon to recover Orlando’s lost wits.

But when I first read this poem I was reminded of something else. I knew that Italo Calvino (1923-1985), one of my favourite Italian authors, had been a great admirer of Ariosto (he wrote a book where he narrated the story of Orlando Furioso in prose with selections of the poem) and I was immediately reminded of a story of his, the first one in the collection entitled The Cosmicomics. In this book, Calvino takes his cues from various cosmological and astronomical theories to piece together a set of extremely fantastic stories narrated by an ancient individual called Qfwfq. The story I am referring to is called “The Distance of the Moon”.

This is how it begins (I’m quoting the translation by William Weaver):

At one time, according to Sir George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth. Then the tides gradually pushed her far away: the tides that the Moon herself causes in the Earth’s waters, where the Earth slowly loses energy.

How well I know! — old Qfwfq cried,– the rest of you can’t remember, but I can. We had her on top of us all the time, that enormous Moon: when she was full — nights as bright as day, but with a butter-colored light — it looked as if she were going to crush us; when she was new, she rolled around the sky like a black umbrella blown by the wind; and when she was waxing, she came forward with her horns so low she seemed about to stick into the peak of a promontory and get caught there.

Qfwfq goes on to explain how he and his fellows climbed onto the Moon.

There were nights when the Moon was full and very, very low, and the tide was so high that the Moon missed a ducking in the sea by a hair’s breadth; well, let’s say a few yards anyway. Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up. The spot where the Moon was lowest, as she went by, was off the Zinc Cliffs. We used to go out with those little rowboats they had in those days, round and flat, made of cork. They held quite a few of us: me, Captain Vhd Vhd, his wife, my deaf cousin, and sometimes little Xlthlx — she was twelve or so at that time. On those nights the water was very calm, so silvery it looked like mercury, and the fish in it, violet-colored, unable to resist the Moon’s attraction, rose to the surface, all of them, and so did the octopuses and the saffron medusas. There was always a flight of tiny creatures — little crabs, squid, and even some weeds, light and filmy, and coral plants — that broke from the sea and ended up on the Moon, hanging down from that lime-white ceiling, or else they stayed in midair, a phosphorescent swarm we had to drive off, waving banana leaves at them. This is how we did the job: in the boat we had a ladder: one of us held it, another climbed to the top, and a third, at the oars, rowed until we were right under the Moon; that’s why there had to be so many of us (I only mentioned the main ones). The man at the top of the ladder, as the boat approached the Moon, would become scared and start shouting: “Stop! Stop! I’m going to bang my head!” That was the impression you had, seeing her on top of you, immense, and all rough with sharp spikes and jagged, saw-tooth edges. It may be different now, but then the Moon, or rather the bottom, the underbelly of the Moon, the part that passed closest to the Earth and almost scraped it, was covered with a crust of sharp scales. It had come to resemble the belly of a fish, and the smell too, as I recall, if not downright fishy, was faintly similar, like smoked salmon. In reality, from the top of the ladder, standing erect on the last rung, you could just touch the Moon if you held your arms up. We had taken the measurements carefully (we didn’t yet suspect that she was moving away from us); the only thing you had to be very careful about was where you put your hands. I always chose a scale that seemed fast (we climbed up in groups of five or six at a time), then I would cling first with one hand, then with both, and immediately I would feel ladder and boat drifting away from below me, and the motion of the Moon would tear me from the Earth’s attraction. Yes, the Moon was so strong that she pulled you up; you realized this the moment you passed from one to the other: you had to swing up abruptly, with a kind of somersault, grabbing the scales, throwing your legs over your head, until your feet were on the Moon’s surface. Seen from the Earth, you looked as if you were hanging there with your head down, but for you, it was the normal position, and the only odd thing was that when you raised your eyes you saw the sea above you, glistening, with the boat and the others upside down, hanging like a bunch of grapes from the vine.

Qfwfq explains that the purpose of jumping onto the moon was to collect moon-milk.

Moon-milk was very thick, like a kind of cream cheese. It formed in the crevices between one scale and the next, through the fermentation of various bodies and substances of terrestrial origin which had flown up from the prairies and forests and lakes, as the Moon sailed over them. It was composed chiefly of vegetal juices, tadpoles, bitumen, lentils, honey, starch crystals, sturgeon eggs, molds, pollens, gelatinous matter, worms, resins, pepper, mineral salts, combustion residue. You had only to dip the spoon under the scales that covered the Moon’s scabby terrain, and you brought it out filled with that precious muck. Not in the pure state, obviously; there was a lot of refuse. In the fermentation (which took place as the Moon passed over the expanses of hot air above the deserts) not all the bodies melted; some remained stuck in it: fingernails and cartilage, bolts, sea horses, nuts and peduncles, shards of crockery, fishhooks, at times even a comb. So this paste, after it was collected, had to be refined, filtered.

Calvino had a prodigious imagination but, in view of his great love for Ariosto’s works, I couldn’t help thinking that this story had been triggered by the fable of the naïve people living in the valley who thought they could reach the moon.

I think my favourite book of Calvino’s is The Baron in the Trees (Il Barone Rampante), which is set in North-Western Italy in the years straddling the 18th and 19th Centuries, about a child who climbs up a tree because he rebels against being served snails for dinner and lives in the forest for the rest of his life never coming down to earth again. A lot of history passes by beneath him and many events occur among the treetops.

I just wonder whether Ariosto ever wrote a poem about climbing a tree.

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