Writing the Journey
Click here to read Pane & Pecorino: Living the Simple Life in Tuscany from her forthcoming memoir on Tuscany Postcards of a Tuscan Interior
A wooden arrow pointed the way to my destination. A gravel track descended, snaking through glinting olive groves and salt-glazed vineyards couched low upon the ground. The entire landscape was finely powdered with chalky dust from a nearby gypsum quarry eating a hole in the mountainside. Wearing an ankle-length granny dress and red hiking boots, carrying a second-hand suitcase that weighed a ton, I started down... Read this essay Returning to Mochlos @ Transitions Abroad
For nearly ten years, I have lived in Vitorchiano, a medieval town an hour's drive north of Rome, carved in gray-flecked tufa, perched on the edge of a dizzying gorge. This area of Italy, called the Tuscia, remains untouched by tourism. Here the local people still live by ancient trades: cutting wood, tending sheep, producing wine and olive oil, quarrying peperino,the volcanic stone which has provided the town's livelihood for centuries.
This is Etruscan territory. Beneath the quiet meadows blanketing the countryside
lies a honeycomb of tombs extending for miles on end. Most have never officially been excavated, but are well-known to local tombaroli --grave robbers.
Under the Etruscan shade lies a realm of mystery and eerie legend. With its abundant banquets of figs and wine, and its red-painted, sacred dancers, the Etruscans' vision of the afterlife was one of richness and fulfillment. D.H. Lawrence, who came to the Tuscia in search of spiritual renewal, believed he had discovered here a fount from which he might draw new strength. Lawrence's vision of the Etruscans in Etruscan Places is among the chief inspirations for my novel, The Etruscan, published in July 2004, by Wynkin deWorde, a small literary press in Galway, Ireland.
This novel is set in the 1920s, in the era of Lawrence's visit here. The heroine, Harriet Sackett, a feminist photographer, comes to the Tuscia to photograph Etruscan tombs and finds herself entangled with count Federigo del Re, occultist and self-proclaimed Etruscan spirit. It's the story of an irresistible attraction between the modern, advanced woman and the archaic- minded, patriarchal male, between the cultures they represent, America and Italy, and ultimately, between the worlds they embody: the temporal and the timeless.
While working on my novel, I lived in a farmhouse outside the gates of the old town, with a window overlooking a gorge where dozens of tombs have been hollowed out of the rock face. You cannot live in a such a place for long without unconsciously absorbing its mystique. Researching the background for my novel, I soon learned that it was quite common for local people, from aristocrats to farmers, to believe they were somehow in touch with the vanished Etruscans.
In the course of my research, I met dowsers and healers who trace their occult powers back to the Etruscans. I met a controversial scholar who has dedicated a lifetime to studying monuments that remain unexplained by the academe. I met a geologist who showed me a hidden spot in the woods where strange magnetic phenomena occur, a tombarolo who invited me to explore with him, a paranormal researcher who has recorded strange echoes in caves, and a painter who studies the lay of the land from a balloon. I met a chef who cooked me dishes he believed were surely of Etruscan origin. A countess unveiled for me her secret collection of Etruscan artefacts illegally assembled by her grandfather. I met a designer who creates hats based on Etruscan designs and a sculpture who peoples his life with terracotta sphinxes of Etruscan inspiration. I listened to folk tales and dreams recounted, all telling of the underworld, and like Harriet Sackett, I have sat for hours in dank tombs, pondering the door of the soul separating this world from the next. The fruits of all this research and reflection are to be found in my novel The Etruscan, in which I hope readers will discover the same fascination that I have found in the spirit of the Tuscia.