How likely is it that you’ve heard of Vercelli?
It isn’t a village. It’s Wikipedia article puts its 2009 population at 47,720. If you’re lucky enough to have sat (or are cursed enough to be sitting) your Preliminary Examination in English Language and Literature, Early Medieval Literature, c. 650–1350 (you’re definitely part of the in-crowd), you might know the Vercelli Book, because The Dream of the Rood is in there, and that’s one of the set texts for the commentary you will blindly grope your way through next summer (don’t worry, you’ll pass it, even if you don’t understand why).
Here, it probably ends. At some point, someone left their manuscript in Vercelli, probably while on a pilgrimage to Rome. A minor stop on a longer journey. Yet, like that pilgrim, name lost, I’ve been through Vercelli too, our trinity on a miniature Grand Tour.
I’ve even had to write about it before, in fact to write a lot about it relative to the day I was there, in service of proving that the money college gave to go to Italy really rounded the three of us out (that we actually became the complicated, humanist types that we were on a grant application, also long lost, sooner forgotten). We had to prove that at some point in our lives, preferably while in Italy, we’d experienced thoughts about Ruskin, and the Keats-Shelley House, and the Vercelli Book. None of these thing are lies, I’ll add. It’s only that the learned depth of our enthusiasm was perhaps a little performed.
The phrase ‘mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’ meant little to me, until the train from Milan dropped us in a town devoid of human life. Then, because life doesn’t freely benefit the wild claims of literature, or songs by Noël Coward, a few cars drove past while I thought about that. The museum which held the nominal purpose of being there wouldn’t be open for another few hours, and having no idea about anything else that could well be in Vercelli, we decided to find a place that sold ice-cream.
I want to dwell on this for a while. As a warning, in case you were impatient for some solid discussion of Old English manuscript culture, I’m going to pretty much skip out the Vercelli Book part of the day in this. While interesting in itself, it’s had plenty of people write about it, including me, compared to its long-term home.
Having no idea about anything else that could well be in Vercelli, we decided to find a place that sold ice-cream.
For various reasons, Italy last summer was the first time I’d left the UK. Everything fascinated me. The plane taking off put the fear of God into me, the Old Testament God, the God who people wrote the Psalms about, the Psalms which strongly emphasise your need to fear God. People spoke Italian in the streets, which while obvious, is just incredible–people speak Italian in Italy. The little turquoise journal I have is full of frantic script to trying encode all of this, as if it might melt otherwise. But biggest of all was the fact that ice-cream shops were everywhere. Ice-cream shops, with slushie machines, sometimes with a dark, rotating drum, destined to flavour you with cherry. Such thought have I put into ice-cream shops that I’ve used the title of this article before, naming a poem which I won’t share (because it’s pretty awful, or just needs more drafting, not sure yet) ‘An Ice-Cream Tour of Vercelli’.
Our day was essentially spent like this, and I’d list the coolest locales for acquiring superior ice-cream, but to my recollection you would never be more than a few feet from one, and they would all be as perfect as each other. You may only lament for the fact that your but-mortal life, never mind a day, would never allow you to taste each combination. Yet one specific place I can mention is the Basilica di Sant’Andrea, which, in another amazing fact of travelling, proved that it’s very easy to break into a monastery.
We’d just partaken of a new round of dairy, or dairy-free substitutes to dairy, when we wandered past a pair of its doors, and, full of sugary initiative, found them unlocked (maybe this doesn’t count as a break-in, but it was new to me). Here was actual silence. An empty set of Romanesque cloisters, which, pure speculation would suggest, hadn’t changed in centuries. Doubtful that we were supposed to be there, but doubting anything bad would come of that, we took the time to get some pictures, only to be confronted by miniature, and, thank God, friendly nun. Our picture tour expanded, with her highlighting particular artworks, before she, along with the rest of the order, were scheduled to retreat for prayer, leaving us in the (open to the public) outer church. I don’t recall having an ice-cream at this point, but I prefer the image, being guided through the ancient treasures of Christendom clutching a strawberry-and-fudge double cone.
After running through several medieval streets, screaming like the world was going to end, laughing at our own hubris, we took shelter in a stationers.
Eventually, we did go see the Book, the actual book, because the librarian was nice enough to let us handle the centuries-old manuscript (no food was present), which, not to sound tragic, was a genuine moment of appreciating literature, history etc.. There’s some adorable pictures of a trio of young students, idealistic, maybe a bit sun-stroked, on the Foundazione Tesoro del Duomo Vercelli Facebook page. The weather was changing when we left, the sky darkening, and, like the switch to spirits at sunset, we switched from ice-cream to focaccia (which deserves its own article). The café was unfortunately suffering from a mosquito problem, like everywhere else in Italy in the middle of summer, and, in another discovery, I am a deeply unattractive man to mosquitoes, coming home without a bite to my name. The clouds had broken, but we were English. We could handle it.
After running through several medieval streets, screaming like the world was going to end, laughing at our own hubris, we took shelter in a stationers. We each bought little relics to take away with us, mine being a new, brown-and-green journal. It remains empty to this day, and I intend to fill it at some point, but for now the only writing is found inside the front cover, fixed there from our train out. This is the part, and forgive me for this, where I share some poetry, mistaken capitalisation of ‘Bought’ and all:
‘The Vercelli Book– / Bought in the city / of that name, / 13.06.16, while / taking cover from / the rain in a shop / for stationary. / This is my manuscript.’