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Home Culture The traveler María Belmonte invokes the nymphs to immerse the reader in a cult and disturbing walk through the fountains | Culture

The traveler María Belmonte invokes the nymphs to immerse the reader in a cult and disturbing walk through the fountains | Culture

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For her fourth book (all published by Acantilado), María Belmonte, the cultured traveler or the cultured traveler, has chosen the beautiful theme of sources. Although anyone who knows and has read the author knows that what awaits in her pages always goes beyond (and the word is worth it) the title, because Belmonte (Bilbao, 70 years old) is good at confining her imagination, her adventures, her readings and his prose in a limited space. In fact, The murmur of water (2024), which is the name of the book, is subtitled “fountains, gardens and aquatic divinities”, so the playing field opens up far beyond the main topic and Belmonte can talk about whatever he wants, always of interesting and beautiful things.

“I was inspired, in that mysterious moment when you start a book, by the 1949 work Delight (Placer), by JB Priestley, in which the author described the pleasant things that made his life happy, and the first were the fountains!” explains Belmonte at a table in the Alma hotel in Barcelona. On the other side of the window are the gardens and the writer pours the contents of a bottle of mineral water into her glass, so we are in the mood. “My favorite font? Basically, I wrote this book to finally visit the Villa Pliniana, next to Lake Como, which had eluded me, and the fountain inside it. The Plinios, uncle and nephew, were fascinated because it is intermittent, it stops three times a day and we don’t know why. Leonardo was also subjugated, and Shelley. It is an impressive site. I was finally able to get in, by appointment. When I was manaba, he did not stop.”

Once again, at the center of the book, which has been publishing it in the middle of a drought and soon, in Jungian synchronicity, water does not stop sprouting everywhere, are the author herself and the invitation she makes to us to visit with her places that They move her, interest her, amaze her or even scare her. Distant Greek grottoes, fountains in Roman squares, secret Renaissance gardens (“initiatory places where you rub shoulders with the shadow of the Neoplatonists”), hidden nymphaeums. Water that flows from cracks, from the mouths of statues, from pipes or from books. To walk with María Belmonte is to do so not only with her hand, but with that of the many authors (there they are again, in addition to the Greek and Latin classics and the poets and travelers of the 18th and 19th centuries, her beloved Patrick Leigh Fermor, Robert Macfarlane, Murakami… ) that she conjures and that—refined reader—are more important in her suitcase than guides and maps.

Palma the Elder (Jacopo Negretti). ‘Two nymphs in a landscape’ (Jupiter disguised as Diana seducing Callisto).Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

Shortly after starting the book, Belmonte puts us under the patronage of nymphs, referring us to the much-missed Roberto Calasso (The madness that comes from the nymphs) and becoming—one might say—a nymph herself to drag us into her aquatic domains full of amazing stories, of liquid and fluid knowledge, in which she pleasantly drowns us. “My nymph friends appear, yes, desirable and terrible, because they can be very bad,” she laughs quietly. The writer collects, along with the names and legends of nymphs such as Aretusa, Salmacis, Callisto, Egeria, Albunea, Ambra, all beautiful, of course, the concept of the nympholeptoi, those taken or captured by the nymphs, something that can be applied to all (and all) of us who drink in these beautiful pages and to whom the author makes us victims of nympholepsy, the melancholy (alas), that the nymphs infect. Belmonte takes the opportunity to remember in the conversation the controversy over the beautiful painting by Waterhouse Hylas and the nymphs which the Manchester Art Gallery considered could hurt feminist feelings. “What will remain in the museums!” she deplores. Regarding the initial coincidence of her book with the drought, she points out that she did not want to become apocalyptic but rather to reveal her concern and nostalgia for the abundant sources, from many of which in Catalonia “still only a trickle emerges.” In any case, she emphasizes, “my book is a celebration of water.”

The writer María Belmonte and her dog, 'Rocco', in an image provided by the Acantilado publishing house.
The writer María Belmonte and her dog, ‘Rocco’, in an image provided by the Acantilado publishing house.

Accounting for the breadth of the journey is impossible. Belmonte, a hunter of moments, says at the beginning that she is going to talk to us about the fountains she has been next to throughout her life, “magical and liminal places that you have to go to without haste like someone who is going to visit a friend”. Sources, so important for a great and unredeemed walker like her, that “sing and speak directly to our subconscious.” The fountains of childhood and school canteen, those of the Garden of Eden, that of eternal youth, that of Apollo, Castalia; that of Kanathos, in Nafplion, which had the power to restore virginity; the Hipocrene spring, in Boeotia, created by a kick from Pegasus… But then she turns on the tap and everything comes out. Vitruvius and hydraulic architecture, the sewers of Rome, the aqueducts “apotheosis of the fountains”, the novel Pompeii of Robert Harris, the Plinys, the Lake of Nemi and The golden branchthe myrobalan with which the Neoplatonists perhaps placed themselves in their gardens, Bernini’s friendship with water and the stone jet of the Four Rivers fountain, suicide à la Cato the Younger of Borromini, throwing himself on a sword. Also the disappointments and frustrations, the fascinating places turned into tourist attractions, the tourist buses invading Hipólito de Este’s villa in Tivoli, the post-Stendhal syndrome exhaustion overcome with bags of chips (“when you are traveling you have to stop being squeamish and gain strength with whatever comes your way”) and bottles of mineral water. There is even space for a dissertation on The great beauty by Paolo Sorrentino and his “a lot of water”.

A line of subtle eroticism runs through The murmur of waterfrom the naked body of the woman represented in art as a symbol of fountains and springs, of fertility, as The fountain by Ingres—Belmonte recalls that Simon Schama pointed out in reference to Courbet that the cavities from which the waters flow allude to the female sex—to Anita Ekberg “transformed into a nymph” in the Trevi Fountain in The sweet life by Fellini and calling the “faun” Mastroianni (“Marcello, come! Hurry!”). Without forgetting the “wet dream with a Neoplatonic ending” of Polífilo—protagonist of the enigmatic Renaissance book. Hypnerotomachia Poliphili—consummated at the foot of the statue of naked Venus in its sacred fountain.

'Hylas and the Nymphs', by John William Waterhouse.
‘Hylas and the Nymphs’, by John William Waterhouse.

In the book, intimate moments of Belmonte emerge unexpectedly here and there: the memory in Como of her deceased husband, Javier, or that of the also deceased Jaume Vallcorba, the story of her first trip to Rome, in her early twenties, a backpacker and accompanied by a friend with whom they read the Aeneid in the ruins of the Forum, getting great and feeling like they were travelers on the Grand Tour (“everything was wonderful because we were young and we were in Rome,” he writes with a Conradian breath). Or the fascinating story (Belmonte does not exclude a next step into fiction) of the traveler’s relationship with the exuberant British redhead A. on the excursion to the Coricia cave, the den of the nymphs, which extends through the depths of Parnassus . TO.? “Alison, I haven’t heard anything from her, we were both young, she with her fiery red hair and I with brown hair,” he says, unconsciously touching her white hair. “Those wonderful things only happen in Greece, she was like a spirit of nature. And we were in Delphi, big words, even the tourist with less baggage feels that there is something there, the atmosphere awakens a very pleasant fear, Pan is always nearby.

On the journey you must know how to always be open to the unexpected.”

Much melancholy in The murmur of the water, from the numinous circular temple in ruins, among the forests next to the water, of The pool (c.1777), by Hubert Rover, which illustrates the cover. “It arises when you review everything you have experienced. I have toured Greece on foot and you are always following in someone’s footsteps. In a fountain at the foot of Taygetus when you refill your canteen you think that Paddy Leigh Fermor did the same gesture. And maybe Chatwin too. The readings and presences accompany us. Traveling, Calasso said, is basically going to places that no longer exist.” It is a very intense book in its beauty. “I am a very perfectionist, and I have to know everything about what I write.” Any advice for travelers who want to be pilgrims of beauty like her? “It’s not that I have a method, every trip is a mystery and a discovery, one thing leads you to another, you have to know how to be open to the unsuspected.”

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