One of the most powerful of many memorable sequences in the Visconti film of Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) is when the hero and heroine – Tancredi and Angelica (acted by Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale) – run, frolicking, through the attic rooms of an immense and ornate Palermo palazzo. Dust-laden, discarded candelabra, trunks, coffers, worm-nibbled chests and wardrobes lie forlorn under the rafters, waiting. For what? These are only the remnants of other peoples’ past. Their lumber.

I have just been staying with a friend in a similar semi-abandoned palazzo. She lives alone in room after room crammed with what generations have left behind them. Junk, to some. Chuck it out? Where? Down three storeys of wide stone steps, across a cobbled courtyard and into trucks to be taken to rubbish dumps and picked over, dismembered and ultimately discarded as useless?

I offered to help sort out a room or two. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘please do’. But nothing practical came of it. Perhaps it hurts too much to unpick the past, centuries of it, left for others to deal with. As one room filled up, anything needed was removed into the next one and the door closed behind it. There was living space elsewhere. Lumber rooms keep hidden secrets that intrigue in anticipation but may be better left undisturbed.

Pictures were left stacked against the walls waiting – for how long? – to be hung or removed. Where? The Napoleonic Code requires property to be divided equally among the heirs. Every room had tantalising objects on chests with half open drawers or tables with a map scrolled back and held in place by a globe, waiting for the perusers to return. In the dining-room you can feel the diners have just left the villas and gardens frescoed on the walls. The doors are ajar, windows half open, curtains billowing – yesterday or decades ago.

How does one clear out the past? In one fell swoop, to create clean, sharp lines – a modern, uncluttered feel? Or leave it like lumber in rooms with memories – or clutter?

Recently I went to see an Italian accountant. He did have a computer, but bundles of manila files were piled on shelves and in heaps on the floor, while others invaded an outer room of documentary chaos. There was just enough space to walk through it into his office. He explained he was about to retire and pass the business – in its bureaucratic chaos, presumably – to his daughter. Like my friend in the palazzo, she might spend the rest of her lifetime wondering where and how to begin sifting out her inherited past.

 

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