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Caretakers and "Falsies": Villetta di Negro
Saturday, 03 January 2009

So in our never-ending search for good location-based stories, I have always thought that mobile tours of “sites of conscience” would be apropos. “Conscience” is bit guilt-laden for me, maybe sites of scrutiny? Anyway, I do think travelers are interested in “justice,” even if it’s sandwiched between shopping and bar hopping. Hey, the Alcatraz mobile guide made Antenna Audio happen, and for two decades it’s been an attraction in and of itself, where else can you really begin to feel what solitary confinement is like?

Concentration camps, battlegrounds, firebombed Dresden, etc. are all places where calamitous things happened, and the markers, plaques, statues, and monuments do little to tell the story of those tragedies. Mobile stories then become an excellent medium to juxtapose historic video, images, and voices with an otherwise nondescript landscape of pain.
So that all makes perfect sense, but on a recent trip to Italy I discovered an interesting offshoot of this idea, a more subtle sister to “sites of conscience.” Our constructed “happy places,” over time, can become sites of horror in how they reveal delusions, fakes, and pomp of societies. Scanned carefully, our parks, zoos, and recreation areas can speak volumes to what went wrong, especially when these places have lost their cheer.

And on a recent early morning jog in Genova, I stumbled upon such a place, a villa-cum-zoo-cum-greenspace-cum-museum space called Villetta di Negro, just that name is already freaky and dark. So too are the DeCordova’s, Laumeiers, and other phat land grants that bear the incongruous names of their givers.

DiNegro was a 19th century Genovese noble who must have had THE pad in Genova, perched on a hill overlooking the port and the peons, it was known as a “Pacific Refuge (It. Asilo) for the Muses.” It’s where he entertained Dickens, Washington, and a stream of beloved botanists. Shortly after his death, in 1863, the city acquired the Asilo, trying to bring a piece of paradise to the locals, who were rapidly being sucked into the fledgling Republic of Italy. This magnificent topographical protrusion went through a lot over the next 145 years, trying its best to play the part of paradise through allied bombardments, natural history museums, and onslaughts of bored youth and graffiti artists. What remains is an overgrown home to Di Negro’s many plant species and a 1950’s concrete construct to house the Oriental Art museum. All of these old plants and priceless vases sit there desperately trying to hold up their exotic chins in the face of decay. I think it’s a wild little park, and its artifacts are testament to how Italians and many Western cultures have prided themselves on international connections, which in our “glocal” age seem strikingly…quaint. A few details:

Image of the Waterfall and Collateral "Falsie" Hovel, Villetta di Negro, Genova

The first thing you notice as you begin to wind up the park’s steep lacings of asphalt is the multi-level waterfall cascading over those fossilized rocks, yeah, those ones that are amazingly bumpy and craggy, like in a…ZOO. In fact, one of the early 20th Century incarnations of this jewel over Genova was as a zoo. There are still two screened in grottos built into the sides of the upper level of the waterfall which used to be bird cages. The workers now store sacks of cement and such in them.

To the left of waterfall, the joy ride continues through a series of hovels, which I can only liken to the Swiss Family Robinson exhibit at Disney World. You can see one of them in the photo here and they are encircled in catwalks and fake wood railings, which on closer inspection reveal cracking stucco over rusting steel rods. When I was poking around this Gilligan housing development I noticed numbers on the doors. Do people live here? Might this be the caretakers residence or even private condos?

Peering through stained, shaded windows in the early morning light, I found the interiors to be surprisingly clean, with possibly a mattress or two on the floor. I was fascinated and began to envision a radio show featuring reports each week from caretakers of fallen parks and fallow amusement zones. This mishmash of neglected plants from a long-dead Count/horticulturalist, abandoned zoo, and now strange homes mixed in there made the place exotic in its baggage, more than its treasures.

In some ways the “fakies” and castaway fantasy of Di Negro park are much more “real” Italy than what the Uffizi or Colosseum can show you. The fantasy of escaping Italy must have been strong through the trying years before and after WWII. An island adventure, steeling a kiss in the grotto under the waterfall, looking out over the musty port at sunset from under the Villa. Many Italians got to play out their fantasy’s here and in its confused decay we might see how that fantasy is no longer relevant in a country where you just up and move if the place doesn’t seem to hold much for you.

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