Stefano Rotta

However often you walk in the high water bed of the river there’s always someone, century after century, telling us with their hands that we are made of water and earth, that the sunset is blood and the world is love. On the river bed , on the beach, in a boat  on the river itself which hides, welcomes but never stops.  Antonio Ligabue used to be around these parts but now the King of the Po is Alberto Manotti with his Cathedral of 10,000 wooden posts brought on the current of the great river, gathered up and cleverly arranged around a willow tree, like an enormous house for people who come and go. Ligabue with his oils and small statues, Manotti with his wood: we will only, and then certainly understand his art upon his death.  The death of one who will never die.  For the time being he works all day every day, for a dream as great as his imagination.  And he talks, and talks and talks…..while he works he is a river in full spate with his words, never stopping.  Nailing and caressing his wood, telling stories and giving us his view of a world where he has carved out a small corner for himself just beyond the Brescello bridge.
“ Doing nothing means  you’re ready for the cemetery”, this is how he starts: contemplation has no value for the river, it could even be something to hide.  For the last 41 years Manotti has been moving about in the most inaccessible areas of the river, taking home the soaking wood where he leaves it to dry. “ If a piece of wood has been in the water for years and years coming from who knows where, there is no chance of it breaking”, he cuts you short as he remains suspended 5 metres above ground at the top of his Cathedral’s mast where there is a red flag with the words ‘King of the Po’.  To get there, you have to climb three flights of stairs and you can see the mastery with which he has created the thrust and counter thrust of the weight of the material in a precarious colossus with terraces and lounges with river views, and live willow branches showing through the suspended walkways.  Inside there is also a ship made entirely of  driftwood (he says that each piece beckons him) which he is currently completing.
The willow which holds up the entire structure is young, “I planted it myself about ten years ago in the sand” he says: the willow has been worshipped and used for its healing properties since ancient times and is one of the most characteristic trees of the Po river valley, even more so than the white poplar.  Just think of the nearby village, Pieve Saliceto.  The hands are spadelike, humped and powerful with the skin of the thumb worn away and soft.  But they can still hold a notebook and laboriously write: “The first time the King is over the flag”.  He climbed standing on the highest of the pieces of wood so that Marco Gualazzini, himself suspended high up in a tree, could photograph him.
Nothing is missing in the enchanted garden on the beach: a wooden motorbike, a game of cords and buckets down to the river, toys for children, a wooden octopus (drawn by the river !) a fresh hut with nails beaten by hand hundreds of years ago and an invisible underground  cold store for cooling wine.  His grandson Lorenzo comes here to do his holiday homework and at dusk his grandfather takes him in the boat rowing upstream with his knowledge of the river.  Sometimes they get stuck in funny little canals and the old man has to think fast so as not to lose face (and hang on to his image half farcical and half solemn) and throwing himself into the water with sheer force he pulls the boat into the main stream of the Po.
“When there isn’t much water I’m in charge but when it’s in full spate, then he takes over”  This is how he summarises the alternating periods of high and low waters, but he assures us that if the river ever gets here, and sooner or later it will, everything will hold because” I am the King of the Po”.
He offers cool water to passersby in a glass which has never been washed but which is generous and opens his house to visitors saying “This is the observatory and the way you see the stars from here………”
He imparts a sense of balance and gravitas, dignity and genius, solid of body yet tender of mind; absolute faith in a strange theory: anyway, you lie down, wherever you put your arms and legs, up here you are comfortable and comforted.  Out of time. Suspended, In the air and in the world.  “It takes away your worries and bad thoughts, doesn’t it ?” he whispers happy that someone is relaxing on his wooden chairs four metres above the water which flows just ahead.  “It is the eighth wonder of the world……….”
At sea, sailors of sailing ships call yachts “irons”, he calls motor boats “parasites” yet without malice.  “They’ve all gone mad, when they were children they used to row but now they are all sitting on cushions playing with a lever.  I’m the only one left who rows”.  Driftwood made smooth by time and distance which began its journey maybe in an Alpine valley, half French, half Italian which has arrived here to keep a dream together.  Mad shapes, improvised  off cuts, buttresses all held together with a few large nails in the right place.  “There’s nothing like it in wood.  If you find anything like it I’ll fall apart”. He raises his hands, smooth like his railings, and says with a shamanic tone  “If you don’t come back, I’ll draw a square around you in the sand.  Our word above all, between men”.
Just ahead the huge lorries pass over the Po towards Lombardy and remind us that we are still in an age of diesel oil.