Xylocopa violacea (EN)
The male digs, the female designs. He opens a passage by devouring the wood of bamboo stems, she constructs a multitude of tiny cells. He watches over the entrance to their house, she separates the cells from one another by constructing extremely thin partitions out of mucus and saliva. He makes sure that the inside walls of the stems are sound; she, with great regularity, lays one egg in each little cell. And in each of the little cells, next to the egg, she deposits a minuscule supply of pollen. The life of the Xylocopa violacea (the Linnaean name, as of 1758, for the violet carpenter bee) seems governed by a perfect division of family labour: the male an engineer, the female an architect. Both are guided by a single, blind purpose: to perpetuate the survival of the species. But there is no guarantee, of any sort, that, in the infinite cycle of life and reproduction, everything will proceed without a hitch. All it takes is someone, or something, that decides to put a spoke in their wheel – even a pebble or a blade of grass will do it – and the whole mechanism breaks down. In the case of Xylocopa (order Hymenoptera, subfamily Xylocopinae, family Apidae) everything depends, for example, on the dwelling in which the male and female decide to live. As long as it's a bamboo stem, a hollow trunk, or a dry branch, the rules of family and superfamily, order and superorder, kingdom and subkingdom come together one after another in the inexorable chain of life. But what happens if, one stormy day, the wind transforms the builder male's usually straight flight trajectory into a little aerial maelstrom and carries him far away from the convolutions of his architect mate? And if he, by fateful mistake, should slip into a most unfamiliar piece of wood, shaped like a woman's back, with two rounded curves, a narrowing at the hips, and four steel lines stretching from top to bottom? And if the unfortunate engineer, once he has realized his error, understands that he is no longer able to get across the grid of the strings, or reach the sky again, and that he is in fact imprisoned in a cell of silver fir that was absentmindedly left on a window sill? This is the painstaking diary, as exact and accurate as a seismograph, of the sensations and thoughts, the motions and torments of a Xylocopa violacea, prisoner (as fate would have it!) of a viola. His eye – a probe, his legs – a periscope, his wings – a mirror, have transformed the interior to an exterior, opening up the instrument like a flower: who before him had ever revealed the innards, the organs, the inmost body of a viola d'amore?
Il sonno di Atys (Atys asleep)
"Troubler le silence". Here the insect attempts to construct a nest for himself. He has taken shelter by the walls of the sound-post, between the belly and the back, just where the base of the bridge presses against the highest string. And from the viola's archivolt the violacea traces short, blind paths, not right-angled, as insects do, but slightly curvilinear. Methodically, patiently, with a will to explore that strange den, that tomb made of wood into which he has fallen. A sort of surveying, somewhat exact and somewhat not, partly like divining and partly based, instead, on probability theory or perhaps on calculation, using his memory of the information he acquired while flying. At times the xylocopa gives way to a strange fatigue, an exhaustion with deep breaths, but the way insects breathe, imperceptibly, without moving their muscles or veins, which are probably unknown to them...
"Sangaride (il faut laisser suspendre)". Now his method of measuring space changes, all at once: his flights are longer, more extended, perhaps with the secret intention of drawing an accurate map of the prison. And so the xylocopa begins to slide delicately down the ribs, letting himself be carried along by the soft curves of the two S-shapes that mark the outline of the viola. And he starts to let out calls, like a bat, in the hope that the sound, as it comes and goes, may bring back some data from beyond, from the space outside the prison, so that the prisoner can form some idea of the length and width of his cell. Without vibrating, keeping his voice steady, an unstated function. But at a certain point, he can hear a song in the distance and it sounds familiar – an echo, or perhaps not, just an illusion, a trompe l'oreille. But no, the song is really there, just beyond the belly, his roof: it's the prison that is starting to sing, it must be a sounding trap, a musical box.
"Le sommeil". So it would be better to listen, without seeking angles and straight lines. Find a corner, fold one's legs, bend one's antennae and hear what's happening through the roof, the walls and the pavement of the cell. There's a perfect listening-post down here, just where the two ƒ's are, the two wounds that pierce the wooden skin. From here you can even see a little scrap of sky, and everything is brighter: you can hear the wind quite clearly, the wind that rushes over the plain, from the scroll to the bridge. But the air current seems to encounter surprising obstacles in its path: a string that rears up like a snake and cries in a shrill voice, and a rough, stony road with pebbles that roll about a bit and then stop. A hollow, a fissure, a cleft, and once again the phantom of the familiar sound that comes from afar and washes away the singing, shakes it off, as if it were someone else's skin. So at the end all that remains is the wind blowing on that strange rough plain that lies out there. If there's anything at all, out there.
Yes, there is something, out there, but it isn't wind, it's not even a plain, nor is it a grid of strings. It's as if, above the belly, over the cover of the sound body, following the line of the bass bar, there were someone amazingly similar to the creature underneath. The xylocopa tries to turn himself over, to walk upside down, but he feels, he senses that above him, there are legs identical to his, and their every step corresponds to every step of his, foot against foot, as if in a pas de deux in which, however, the dancers cannot see each other. What a pity that the roof isn't transparent, because otherwise one could see the perfect understanding, the impeccable correspondence of each of their movements, right wing against right wing, left against left, and then the antennae that vibrate together, as if in mirror images.
Etudes in depth
"Francesca's rose". Now the insect climbs up to the heel of the neck, where he prepares an address, a speech about escape, a discourse on the concrete possibilities of breaking out of prison. A treatise on the infinite ways of fighting against confinement, complete with arguments pro and contra, and a philosophical dialogue on the creative properties of incarceration and the dangers of liberty.
"Lungo la notte illune" (Throughout the moonless night) (G. Gozzano). Impelled perhaps by a sudden fear, the xylocopa now walks along the inlaid purfling, where light wood and dark intertwine their fibres. And the speech about escape now seems to produce its own echo. Above or beneath the belly, who knows at what distance, someone is repeating the very same words, but it is not an imitation, nor is it a parody. No, it's as if, between the two speeches, there were an enormous distance, such as between continents, or planets even, and thus between the lines of sound there is perforce an infinitesimal delay, an almost imperceptible difference in timing. But the more distant speech becomes, at a certain point, strangely authoritative, almost doleful, coaxing, overflowing with experience, and yet experience that does not inspire confidence: instead it breaks to bits, crumbles, without managing to put together a series of words, but only word dust, echoes of words.
"En plein air". Now the insect slips, there is nothing solid underneath him, he stumbles, his legs get entangled and his flight is no longer straight, but neither is it circular: he seems instead to be falling, falling ever lower, although inside, in his prison, there may not be any 'lower'. His downward flight stops only when he reaches the bottom of the sound body, where the crescent of the button seems to form a strange smile.
"Study of Flowers by Egon Schiele". But now the insect perforates, or rather, desperately tries to perforate the walls of his prison, he devises a pointed beak – not something he has – he constructs tiny wood-boring instruments, complex systems of awls and sharpened tacks. He attacks the button at its root, where it's let into the block, he scrapes furiously at the red Norway spruce of the belly and the black ebony of the fingerboard. And he is careful, methodical, with the odd rhetorical outburst in his desire to cross the threshold, but keeping his will to dig intact, almost heroic, humble.
This is the moment set aside for the investigation of materials. "Wood", the xylocopa declared in his speech about escape. But is the sound body really made of wood? The insect launches a probe: along all the edges he spreads different kinds of chemical reagents, as if they were rat poison; then he takes little samples and lays out the collected findings in long rows. He measures the coarse grains of the cedar and the concentric grains of the rosewood, he calculates the growth indices of the Norway spruce and the sycamore. The analyses reveal an astounding fact: the sound body is actually a prism, each side of which is different from all the others: one is made of dark metal, another of shining steel, one is an incandescent copper and another a star-spangled mirror, one is made of dust, another of light...
Last Desire Cadenza
Now the xylocopa is restless, feverish. He moves with short steps along the theoretical line of the diapason, making his way like a tightrope walker across the invisible cord that connects the upper edge of the sound body to the roof incision for the two ƒ's. And so he marks off the briefest of routes: glimmers, luminous phosphenes, one-way trajectories. He begins to construct a multitude of tiny, indeed minuscule, cells as places of shelter against the storm that he can feel building up inside himself. The wave of sound is ever closer, more intelligent, more meticulous: maybe the shelter won't withstand it. And indeed the mass of detritus invades the space, growing, rising, filling: it's both solid and liquid, hard and incandescent. It pushes and pushes and crushes the insect against the walls, it deafens and blinds him, but just one second before the end it stops, allowing the prisoner the chance, the (tragic) luck, of a last breath.