Paolo Conte, a jazzman from the hills of Astigianistan and therefore a neighbor of mine, in a way, wrote a song about the lure of the sea on the staid Piedmontese farmers that live in these lands. A sea that speaks of distant places that are at the same time scary and exciting. It’s called Genova per noi, and it’s not the subject of this post.
The subject of this post is a typical example of the lure of the sea on the Piedmontese peasantry in years past and, maybe, also today.
Fact is, you see, I’ve got a job, part-time and occasional: I write articles about little-known Piedmontese historical characters. Unsung heroes, adventurers, artists and explorers, people that contradicted with their example the cliché that wants the Piedmontese to be cheerless, stubborn peasants too busy working on their land to lift their gaze and watch the stars.
Here’s the story of one of my first subjects…
Giacomo Bove was born in Maranzana, a small village just out of Asti, in 1852; the fifth son of a vineyard owner and wine-maker, he left the country for the city of Genoa and the navy school, from which he came out a fresh lieutenant in 1872.
Did he feel the lure of distant lands, or was he just looking for a way out of a life of hard work and little rewards?
For sure, he found a berth on the Governolo, an Italian ship leaving for a two-years scientific cruise around the globe. In those two years, navigator and cartographer Bove visited Malay, Philippines, China, and Japan. He mapped the coast of Borneo and doubled as an ethnographer, and also mapped the sea currents in the Pacific and the China Sea.
Young Giacomo’s results made him very popular in scientific circles, and after a short cruise mapping Scylla and Caribdis, as to say, the sea currents in the Messina strait, he was offered a position as chief cartographer on the Vega, on a cruise financed by the Danish government and planned by Finnish explorer Nils Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, to map the North-Eastern passage.
The cruise took two years, ten months of which the crew of the Vega spent trapped in the ice – a time during which the scientists on board lived in an igloo and conducted a series of experiments and anthropological studies.
Bove, as the man responsible for the maps and the on-board chronometers, was involved in a series of astronomical experiments.
When the Vega finally completed its 35.000 kilometers adventure in 1880 – having touched Siberia, Japan, China, Singapore, and Ceylon – Bove was cheered as a hero of science, and awarded a medal by the Danish government.
Bove immediately started working on his own project – a complete circumnavigation of Antartica, complete with mapping of coast and sea currents, meteorological and astrophysical experiments. But the Italian government was not interested – claiming a lack of funds due to the recent (20 years before) effort for the unification of Italy.
The government of Argentina was much more receptive and financed two expeditions, one between 1881 and 1882 and one in 1883. But the Argentinians were not so interested in Antarctica as in getting better maps of their own territory – and Bove ended up drawing maps and exploring Tierra do Fuego, Patagonia, and the Falkland islands.
Not what the explorer had planned, but still another colossal scientific achievement, that brought him more fame and awards – and even the membership honoris causa in the Italian Academy of Science that had refused to finance his project.
But finally, in 1885, the Italian government decided to finance an expedition for Giacomo Bove – a mission in the Congo Basin.
Nothing could have been farther from the interests of the explorer, but the Italian government was interested in determining the feasibility of a colonial venture in the Congo basin, and so the Congo basin it was.
The expedition was a fiasco: not only the explorer and his men had to drag themselves for weeks in a barren wilderness devoid of anything of scientific or economic interest, but they had to admit that the foreign presence in Congo was already so strong and widespread, that imply there was no room for an Italian colony.
Also, Bove fell ill and had to come back before time.
His report, about the impossibility of setting up a colony in Congo, made him persona non grata with the Italian government.
Weak from his mysterious illness and worried it could be his undoing, rejected by his government and disillusioned about the possibility of setting up another, proper exploration, Bove accepted a post in a courier company – La Veloce – where he was assigned a desk and sent on “missions” to take care of difficult clients.
In the grip of a strong depression, Giacomo Bove committed suicide in the August of 1887, aged thirty-five.
Today a small volunteer-managed museum holds his things, and his memory alive, in Maranzana. But there are a glacier, a river and a cape named after him in Argentina.
And at this point, here’s the song about the sea and us Piedmontese, and our fear “of that dark sea that moves even at night, and is never still” – and its melancholy is to me so fitting with the story of young Giacomo Bove.