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Beautiful Sirmione!

Sirmione on Lake Garda is a gorgeous place – peaceful and unspoiled. It is also the subject of the Work of the Week explored in this article. However, the initial inspiration for this article was not a classical world one. Classical music, certainly. Today (02/12/2023) the wonderful Greek-American soprano would have turned 100 years old. She has been my favourite since I was 10. Sirmione was one of her favourite retreats from the operatic limelight. Her abode was an exquisite yellow villa on the path from the little port towards the hill-top that looks out over the lake and the park opposite is named after her. It is the view over the lake that inspired this Work of the Week.

I went to Lake Garda with my parents after my GCSEs. Even though we went to the opera at Verona twice, Sirmione was the highlight of the trip as it united two of my greatest loves, opera and Latin (I had not started Greek, as yet). And so I come back to the hill over the lake. At this point, there is a ‘grotto’ with a view. Grotto is something of a misnomer. It is rather bigger and was once the retreat of Roman poet Catullus. Catullus was clever, cheeky, moving, and deeply passionate, which is the quality that shines in the poem I wish to share here. Catullus exquisitely praises the beauty of ‘Sirmio’. It was the first work I read as I started on my reading list for university.

Why is this poem so special to me? It is partly the place, but it is deeper than that. The description of the place itself moves and charms me and echoes my own memories of that exquisite little location. However, it also reveals more about why Classics matters and what it can show about the depth of human experience and the beauties of the world. We identify with people who lived two millennia before us when we experience and rejoice in the same sights that moved them. And so, without further ado, here is Catullus on Sirmio/Sirmione.

Catullus, Poem 31:

paene insularum, Sirmio, insularumque

ocelle, quascumque in liquentibus stagnis

marique vasto fert uterque Neptunus,

quam te libenter quamque laetus inviso,

vix mi ipse credens Thuniam atque Bithunos

liquisse campos et videre te in tuto.

o quid solutis est beatius curis,

cum mens onus reponit, ac peregrino

labore fessi venimus larem ad nostrum,

desideratoque acquiescimus lecto?

hoc est quod unum est pro laboribus tantis.

salve, o venusta Sirmio, atque ero gaude

gaudente, vosque, o Lydiae lacus undae,

ridete quidquid est domi cachinnorum.

Sirmio, little eye of the peninsulas and islands,

which each Neptune bears

in the flowing likes and wide sea,

how gladly and how happily I come to see you again,

scarcely believing that I have left behind

Thynia and the Bithynian plains,

and that I see you again in safety.

Oh, what is happier than when cares are cast off,

when our mind lays down its burden, and when

weary with toil abroad we come to our hearth,

and take rest in the longed-for bed?

This is the one thing which repays so many toils.

Greetings, o lovely Sirmio, and rejoice

with your master who rejoices, and you

waves of the Lydian lake;

laugh whatever laughs there are at home.

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