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PISA'S CAFÉ DELL'USSERO:
A RENDEZVOUS FOR ARTISTS AND PATRIOTS

by Marta Curreli

In May 1845 John Ruskin prolonged his stay in Pisa in order to draw the early 15th -century Palazzo Agostini on the Lungarno, or river bank, of the Tuscan city.


L'Ussero Poster"There is nothing like it in Italy that I know of", he said; and, writing to his father, he added: "They have knocked a great hole in the middle to put up a shield with a red lion and a yellow cock upon it for the sign of a consul, and they have knocked another at the bottom to put up a sign of a soldier riding a horse on two legs, with inscription All'Ussero Café."

The sign mentioned by Ruskin was short-lived, since it was thrown into the River Arno the following year by liberal students who could not even stand the sight of that Hussar. It reminded them of Austrian rule over partitioned Italy; but the Café, one of the oldest in Europe, is still there. It has been there since 1775, as attested by copies of documents, letters, and contracts exhibited on its walls, which mention the presence of a Café on the ground floor of the late-Gothic brick Palazzo Agostini in the very heart of Pisa, next door to the oldest hotel in town, the Victoria, patronised, among others, by Ruskin and Dickens, and even by British royalty. Several police reports in the local Public Records Office reveal that for over two centuries this historic Café has been the favourite resort of radical Mazzinian students and of the more open-minded dons from the nearby University, who used to convene there not only to sip a cup of coffee and play billiards, but also to discuss political issues and comment upon gazette reports on revolutionary movements in the Papal States or in the Kingdom of Naples, then under Bourbon rule, and which had been the subject of Shelley's "Ode to Liberty", or his "Sonnet on the Republic of Benevento". Contraband translations of such works of Byron as The Prophecy of Dante or The Lament of Tasso were also circulated and read in the Café, and they inflamed the minds of students like F.D. Guerrazzi and Giuseppe Montanelli, who were later to play an important political rÛle in the Italian Risorgimento.

Other students who were to become some of the most renowned nineteenth-century lyric poets and satirists in verse, such as Giuseppe Giusti, Renato Fucini, and Giosuè Carducci - the first Italian to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1906 - made their first improvvisazioni in the lively atmosphere of the Caffè dell'Ussero, as was the case with Antonio Guadagnoli, who, according to Giacomo Leopardi, had made a fool of himself by improvising playful verses on his own long nose in the Accademia dei Lunatici, the literary salon of Madame Mason, formerly Lady Mountcashel, who had played host to Percy and Mary Shelley, and particularly to Claire Clairmont, during their stay in Pisa.

By the turn of the century, this literary Café had been transformed into a Café-chantant, and then into one of the first cinemas in Tuscany, only to be restored to its original function at the end of the First World War. In the twentieth century the Caffè dell'Ussero resumed its literary and artistic vein, and it was attended by artists like Marinetti, the founder of the Futurist Movement, Guglielmo Marconi, Charles Lindberg, opera singer Renata Tebaldi, and scores of Pisa University students, who were later to distinguish themselves in a variety of professions; some of them, such as Enrico Fermi and Carlo Rubbia, were to win the Nobel Prize, while others would become Prime Ministers or Presidents of the Republic.

These and other interesting facts and figures are richly illustrated in the recent L'Ussero: Un Caffè 'Universitario' nella Vita di Pisa, an original collection of essays by six contributors, published in May 2000 by Edizioni ETS of Pisa, in a handsome large-format volume of over two hundred pages, at 45 thousand lira, the equivalent of 15 pounds sterling.

Caffé Dell'ussero
di Tarcisio Bront
Lungarno Pacinotti, 27 - 56126 Pisa
Tel: 0039-050-581100


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