My first typewriter in Italy was a Lettera 22 Olivetti
Persephone in Bomarzo
The Mermaid with Two Tails
The Chimera of Arezzo, subject of Ugo Bardi's Il Libro della Chimera
The Hell Mouth of Bomarzo
A New Mystery Novel Set in Bomarzo published in 2013 by Caravel Books, an Imprint of Pleasure Boat Studio
Runner up in Fiction, New York Book Festival, 2010
"Haunted... vivid... entrancing"... Kirkus Reviews
Click here to read reviews, watch videos, and download the free Readers' Guide for Book Groups. The revised edition is now on KINDLE
"A dazzling bit of fictional sorcery" David Lynn, editor Kenyon Review
A new novel about the lives of Katherine Mansfield
and her circle
Gold Medal Winner in Historical Fiction, IPPY Awards
Writing Women's Lives
Essay on the life of the artist, Jeanne Hebuterne, wife of Modigliani
An essay about Katherine Mansfield
February 15, 2017
Here are some notes on this tradition and some writing exercises and prompts celebrating masquerade, disguise and masks.
Pietro Longhi Carnival in Venice
Masquerade nowadays is often considered to be an entertainment for children, usually at Halloween, when we impersonate spirits and ghosts. In earlier times, however, ritual masquerade was primarily for adults and performed important social and spiritual roles especially in the period known in the west as Carnival. This tradition lives on today in Catholic countries in a few world-famous celebrations such as the carnivals of Rio de Janeiro and Venice, and the Mardi Gras of New Orleans.
The Christian tradition of Carnival situates it sometimes right after Christmas lasting till the Tuesday before Lent, Ash Wednesday. These weeks were a time of feasting and transgression, when the vital needs of the body and the flesh ( "la carne") were celebrated and gratified without restraint.
In some areas, Carnival has blended with local traditions – as in Sardinia where indigenous folklore combined with vestiges of the earlier Phoenician culture to create a unique Carnival parade known as the Mamuthones.
In this festival, zombie –like creatures dressed in sheepskins and wooden masks march through the streets, while brightly- clad figures capture onlookers with lassoes. To be lassoed during the parade is considered a lucky event, but this custom is thought to derive from a Phoenician ceremony in which sacrificial victims were chosen.
In Tuscia, the feast day of Saint Anthony kicks off the Carnival period. On this day animals, both pets and livestock, are blessed in church and huge bonfires are lit in public squares in memory of ancient propitiatory and purification rites hearkening back to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia.
During this celebration, people of all classes could mingle and slaves and masters changed places for a day. Businesses, public offices, and schools shut down as the routines of daily life were set aside. Gambling, drunkenness, licentious behavior were allowed. All this served to help drive out the winter spirits of darkness, revitalize the natural cycles, and prepare the way for the sun to return.
The Christian Carnival tradition borrowed three practices from the ancient Roman Saturnalia. Firstly, a focus on food –with pancakes or fritters being a typical dish -- along with the overconsumption of meat, sweets, and alcohol. Secondly, an emphasis on sex and fertility. Social rules regarding sexual behavior were temporarily loosened. Lewd pranks and bawdy humor set the tone for popular entertainment in street circuses and pageants where fertility symbols were prominently displayed. Thirdly, “misrule” – the suspending of social hierarchy. Breeches of propriety, etiquette, and piety, insults, and challenges to authority -- all were permitted. Political satire was, for this brief time, not subject to censorship and control. The world was turned upside down.
Misrule played a key role in maintaining public order – for those few days the more oppressed classes could vent frustrations which might otherwise have festered into social rebellion. The Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, who has studied the carnivalesque in literature, held that
the impious and free-thinking attitudes permitted at Carnival unleashed powerful creative forces into western culture that were later manifested in art, literature, and politics.
The social freedoms of Carnival were made possible by yet one more custom inherited from the Romans: the wearing of a mask at this time. However, this had some negative consequences: while wearing a mask, it was easier to conceal signs of disease from others or to perpetrate crimes anonymously. Narratives set in Carnival time often involve criminal acts committed in disguise, or sometimes death by transmittable diseases, such as the plague, which happens in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Mask of Red Death.”
Disguise and masks remain a popular form of adult entertainment. We may play out fantasies by donning a wig or a domino, the hooded cape of the Venetian carnival, used by both men and women, hiding the whole body in voluminous folds. Stanley Kubrick’s erotic thriller, Eyes Wide Shut,
adapted from a novel by Arnold Schnitzler, employs dominos and other iconic Venetian masks to portray darker instincts hidden beneath facades of propriety. Lawrence Durrell, describing the carnival in his masterpiece, The Alexandria Quartet,
writes “ What stamps the carnival with its spirit of pure mischief is the velvet domino – conferring upon its wearer the disguise that each man in his secret heart desires.”
Iconic Venetian Mask
Masks are power-charged artifacts
Masks can be receptacles for the projection of what Jung called the shadow -- the darker sides of ourselves – fear, loathing, desire, impulse, transgression, otherness, which we cannot acknowledge openly and which appear in our nightmares.
Masks may also express emotions in a pure state – like the Greek comic and tragic masks, or idealized icons of beauty or ugliness. They may embody the spirit of a place or people. They may manifest archetypal figures or character tropes. As ritual objects they may serve to connect us to other levels of reality: the underworld, the world of animals, magical beings. As vehicles of impersonation, they allow us to take on the identities of celebrities or imaginary characters we admire or envy.
Masks are power-charged artifacts: Hannibal Lecter’s iron muzzle invokes in us an instinctive fear. The white Guy Fawkes mask popularized by the movie V and adopted by protest movements everywhere - speaks of challenge to tyranny and the vindication of the rights of the oppressed.
WRITING EXERCISES Variations on disguise
It can be frightening to see a masked person when we don’t expect it. The recent panic over clown sightings in the US and Europe is an example. We may imagine the worst if we find a masked person standing on our doorstep – but we may have got his intentions wrong. Write a scene in which a masked person , intending no harm, turns up in an inappropriate place.
It can be equally unsettling to be the only unmasked person in a crowd of disguised and anonymous revelers. Write a scene in which an unmasked person tries to recognize or find someone in a crowd of masks.
In carnivalesque literature, the rules of daily life don’t apply – as in Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.
Write a scene involving two couples who are matched with the wrong lover.
Write a scene in which a natural or supernatural force shapeshifts into a human being.
Write a story with a disguised traveler as the narrator.
Write a scene in which a person removes a mask or disguise while being observed by a stranger.
Write a scene in which a person removes a mask or disguise while being observed by a spouse or family member.
CONVERSATIONS WITH A MASK
This exercise is best done with any form of mask made to be worn on the face, and not a merely decorative object. It can also be done with a mask you have made yourself.
Ask yourself these questions and jot down your responses
What is it made of? Where and when was it made – in what context was it created?
What powers or feelings does it evoke?
Take some time when you are alone. Put the mask before you on the table. In a passage of free association ( or speaking out loud), address the mask directly asking it a question ( for example : Tell me your name?) and ask it to reply.
Write down its answer. Ten minutes
Put the mask on and look at the world through the slits of its eyes, then at yourself in the mirror. What do you see? Be prepared for surprises
Write down your response. Take as long as you wish for this exercise
More exercises like this are found in The Soul of Place – A Creative Writing Workbook.
October 12, 2016
Katherine Mansfield's passport photo
Whenever I am in Paris, I make a private pilgrimage to Katherine Mansfield’s grave in the cemetery of Avon, near Fontainebleau. Recently in town for a reading and a workshop, I take a day out of a hectic schedule to make a trip to Fontainebleau. It’s a fitting moment of the year for my visit, the Day of the Dead is upon us. Moreover, it was at this moment of the autumn that Katherine first went to Fontainebleau to stay at Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, where she died. Today the air is crisp and cold, with a damp chill from the forest where the trees have taken on a hint of red and ochre.
A row of driverless taxis waits outside the Fontainebleau-Avon train station. It’s lunchtime and the drivers are probably all at table. Each taxi displays a sign with a mobile number to call should the driver be absent, but I am informed by an American couple ahead of me in line that only one has answered their calls, promising to come “tout de suite,” nearly an hour ago. Chatting with them I learn that they are from California and that they too are on a pilgrimage to the cemetery of Avon, to visit Gurdjieff’s grave there. We decide to share a taxi, should one arrive, and within moments, voilà, an unlicensed taxi pulls into the stand and we strike a deal with the driver for a tour.
The cemetery of Avon, located at the end of “Rue de Souvenir” is beautifully kept. The black marble tombs are polished to a mirror’s perfection and decorated with bright bursts of yellow chrysanthemums and flares of purple heather. Wandering back to an older part of the cemetery, I find Katherine’s grave – simple, stern, unadorned except for a small vase of ivy set at the head. The name “Katherine Mansfield” is etched in large letters. This is the name by which the world knew her, but not the one printed on her passport, “Kathleen Mansfield Murry.” Beneath appears the title by which she longed to be known, “wife of John Middleton Murry.” Barely legible today is the epitaph: “Out of this nettle danger, we pluck the flower, safety,” summing up the contradictions and tug of opposites within Mansfield’s life, character, and writing.
Not far off, just “next door,” as it were, is the Gurdjieff family plot, a large rectangle of green turf edged in yellow pansies, surmounted by two rough hewn menhirs, and shaded by a gnarled cedar. The graves are unmarked but the tourist board has added an unobtrusive sign briefly explaining who Gurdjieff was and his connection to Avon. My fellow pilgrims film the grave from every angle. We stand a while in silent reflection and then return to our taxi.
Although our driver has lived in Fontainebleau for all his forty-some years and is fiercely proud of this fact, he is perplexed as to our request to visit the Chateau du Prieuré des Basses Loges where Gurdjieff’s institute was housed. He is unsure where it is exactly. The Californians have a map, which indicates a building at the end of Rue de Katherine Mansfield, but it turns out to be a modern nursing home. I have been to the Fontainebleau once before, while doing research which would later develop into my novel, Katherine’s Wish, based on the last five years of Mansfield’s life, and I know that it is not easy to find the Prieuré. The modernization of this area of the town, the division of the old estate, taller walls, and a certain reticence concerning Gurdjieff and his school make the place hard to spot, but at last we find it, secluded behind an imposing stone wall.
We follow the wall to a front gate and peer in. Since my last visit, the place has been transformed into an elegant residential complex. No plaque on the gate denotes the presence of Gurdjieff’s school in the 1920s, or Katherine’s death here in 1923, or even the name by which this historical building was formerly known. Skirting the wall, we come to a side entrance leading to a parking area. The gate is locked, but a young woman in a track suit, noticing us on her way to her car, comes to enquire if we are looking for someone.
Quite simply we tell her we are looking for the place where Katherine Mansfield once lived, and where Gurdjieff had his school. She seems puzzled and tells us that she thinks Mansfield lived elsewhere, down the street perhaps, and has never heard of Gurdjieff. However, she lets us in, shows us how to open the gate to let ourselves out again and apologizes for not being able to help us on our search. “I have only been living here for a couple of months,” she says, before driving out the gate.
We go in and walk around the grounds, to what is now the rear of the building facing south, where the great lawns and flower beds once extended, now parceled off today with fences. There are few trees save a large plane tree shedding its yellow leaves on the shaggy lawn. It must be nearly a century old and was surely standing here in Katherine’s time. I picture her in the elegant room she occupied on the upper floor of the Chateau, known as The Ritz to pupils who stayed in more Spartan quarters. I imagine her standing at the window, looking out at the lawns, at this tree, feeling the autumn sun on her chest and eyelids, desiring to become, as she wrote in her diary, “A Child of the Sun.”
A large dog bounds out of the bushes toward us. Luckily he is friendly, but we take this as a sign that we should not prolong our visit. Slowly we circle the house, pause to examine the fountain with blue tiles out front, now drained, then discreetly slip back out to the street.
There are many accounts of the intense, whirling life that went on in this place –from C.S. Nott’s Journal of a Pupil, Fritz Peters’ delightful memoir, Boyhood with Gurdjieff but none are more moving than Katherine’s own letters written in the last weeks from the her little writing table upstairs.
It seems strange to me that the drama of this writer’s last days, which has touched so many readers for four generations, should remain completely unknown to the people who now eat, sleep, and carry on their daily lives in the place where Mansfield died. But that is Paris and its environs – rife with ghosts, layer upon layer, who unseen breathe upon us.
August 10, 2016
Books and Travel
One day, when I was about ten years old, my parents brought back a children’s book in French from the Kingsport Public Library. This thin red book, whose title I cannot remember, told the story of two children about to set sail from New York to France on an ocean liner. In the first chapter, they packed up their things into a steamer trunk. Successive chapters dealt with boarding the ship, departure, misadventures on board, and finally arrival in port followed by a Parisian escapade with croissants. Throughout the voyage, the children wore blue-and-white-striped French sailor shirts and although they were American, spoke French.
Of the hundreds of library books for children transiting our home, this one has stuck in my mind for more than fifty years. It galvanized my play sessions: for months afterwards, I enacted scenes from the book and the most exciting part was the preparation for the voyage. There was an old steamer trunk in the spare bedroom in our house. Emblazoned with the initials of my mother’s maiden name, smelling of mothballs, it was crammed full of memorabilia–faded photographs of her Polish relatives from before the war, a Mexican tooled-leather handbag wrapped in plastic, purchased on her honeymoon. These items too held a trace of the exotic, of other places and times. I picked the lock with a hairpin, unpacked the contents, and used this trunk as the main prop in my playacting. I would spend hours happily filling it with my clothes, shoes, books, dolls, pretending I was about to leave on a long sea voyage to Europe, with Paris as my final destination
Fifty years later, I find myself a confirmed Francophile, living in Europe, speaking another language than the one I was born to, and a passionate fan of sea journeys. That little book which had come into my life quite by chance shaped my conception of travel and aroused in me an implacable desire for visiting foreign places, influencing my entire existence.
The power of books to transport us elsewhere, inspiring us to travel and framing our experience of place, is the topic of an intriguing, multidisciplinary study by two Australian academics from La Trobe University, Warwick Frost and Jennifer Laing, entitled Books and Travel
This broad study investigates the nuanced ways that reading and day dreaming about places stimulate our imagination and construct our idea of travel. The English travel writer Vernon Lee, friend to Henry James, would have heartily agreed. She once wrote:
“For the passion for localities, the curious emotions connected with the lie of the land, shape of buildings, history and quality of air and soil, are born, like all intense and permeating feeling, less of outside things than our own soul… The places for which we feel such love are fashioned before we see them by our wishes and fancy; we recognize rather than discover them in the world of reality.”
The relationship between literature and travel, the tourist’s gaze, the history of literary tourism, travel as self-actualization and liminal experience, literary/ heritage tourism and territorial branding are among the many subtopics discussed in this fascinating study which draws on theoretical perspectives from many fields.
The authors offer a detailed analysis of diverse tropes and plot structures underpinning much travel literature (quest, adventure, pilgrimage, hidden worlds, time travel, escape, transformation) applied to dozens of classic and popular works of fiction and nonfiction for which short synopses are given. Although all media — photography, film, television, social media, computer games — may contribute to constructing our sense of a given place, it is the more immersive and intimate act of reading that lets us lose ourselves completely in an imagined place, recreating characters, stories and settings in our minds through a deep, solitary process of identification, often predisposing us towards a transformative conception of travel.
The process starts early. The authors argue “that the genesis of adult travel behavior can be traced in part to the books we read as children, and their influence is profound and long-lasting.” Many classics of travel literature both for children and adults have strong mythic or archetypal structural elements related to the hero’s journey. “Far from being lightweight fare, these books…start us on an imaginative pathway where travel is mysterious, magical, and often life changing,” they write.
This book is a must-read for anyone involved tourism studies as it provides a brief but perceptive analysis of the diverse motivations and aspirations that compel us to travel and an illuminating glimpse at how literary – cultural heritage tourism attempts to satisfy, exploit, and sometimes deny those aspirations and desires. I also highly recommend this book to all writers whose work, fiction or nonfiction, deals with travel and place. Frost and Laing’s discussion of transformative travel and the tropes associated with texts of this type provides rich insights into the magic and craft of story-making and into the psychological rewards readers hope to find in an absorbing book.
BOOKS AND TRAVEL will inspire you to reread many old classics and revisit your own personal mythology of travel and imagination, to decide for yourself if travel has been a transformative experience in your own life and to understand the factors which have shaped your sense of elsewhere.
If books you read in childhood have influenced your experience of travel, please leave a comment below and tell us how.
May 18, 2016
As you drive along the Via Aurelia towards the sea, near the turn off for Capalbio, a flash of psychedelic color catches your eye, emerging from the silvery blur of olive groves and ilex trees on the scrubby, Maremma hillside. Prominently displayed are the tip of a red rocket aimed at the sky, a decapitated tower with a bicycle wreck at the top, and a huge, blue laughing clown face with a waggling hand growing straight up out of its head. Other gaudy figures peep out from beneath the tree tops, resembling the rides of some crazy carnival that has just pulled into town, but instead this phantasmagoria happens to be one of the twentieth century’s greatest landscape artworks, the Tarot Garden created by the French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 -2002). For Saint Phalle, this garden was a corner of paradise achieved through an inner itinerary of sacrifice and spiritual growth.
The giant figures, some of which are inhabitable buildings, represent the 22 Major Arcana of the Tarot, refashioned according to Saint Phalle’s understanding and experience of them over the arc of a lifetime. The tarot is not just a card game, Niki claims, but conceals a philosophy of life. Key cards for her are the Hanged Man, Strength, the Magus, the Sun, the Empress ( manifested in the garden as a sphinx whose breasts are rooms you can live in – where indeed Niki did live while working on the garden), and the Angel of Temperance, who became her spiritual guide.
Entering the austere enclosure of tufa walls that form a barrier to the outside world, you step into a dream, inspired not only by the Tarot, but by fairy tales and the art works of Matisse, Miro, and Picasso. The figures are covered with mosaic tiles, mirrors, and ceramics in lollipop colors, arranged in kaleidoscope patterns, bedazzling and bewitching, changing by the minute in sun and shadow.
The spark for creating this garden came when Niki visited Gaudi’s Guell Parc in Barcelona in 1955, an experience so overwhelming that it made her tremble with a sense of destiny. “ I knew someday I would make my own Garden of Joy,” she wrote. She dreamed of her garden for years, seeking the right spot, which she thought might be Africa or South America, a place that would contrast starkly to the urbanization of contemporary life. By chance or fate, the chosen spot turned out to be a former quarry in the Tuscan Maremma, on land belonging to the brothers of a friend.
There could have been no better place than here in Maremma, just over the border from the province of Viterbo where several of Italy’s greatest esoteric gardens are located : Villa Lante, the Sacred Grove (aka the Park of Monsters) of Bomarzo, the gardens of Villa Farnese in Caprarola. By placing her garden here, Saint Phalle had connected up with the local tradition of landscape narratives and healing gardens. In the mannerist tradition of the sixteenth century, those gardens were to be “read” with the heart and mind as much as they were to be enjoyed by the senses. The placement of fountains, trees, and sculptures obeyed a narrative strategy that might reveal a secret doctrine, heal an illness, enhance political power, point out the route to spiritual enlightenment, or simply alter fate. Such gardens were magic books hewn in stone, in which the visitor, while wandering about, became the actant or performer of an ever-changing story, a necessary element in the garden’s magic.
As you explore the Tarot Garden, you will note allusions to Bomarzo. For example, the Empress who greets you with melting, blue mosaic stairs flowing from her open mouth, -- vividly evokes the Hell Mouth, the signature sculpture of Bomarzo. Unlike the Bomarzo cavern carved of dark tufa with its unsettling tomblike atmosphere, this is a gushing fountain of life. The glassy green dragon guarded by a maiden, representing the arcanum Strength, resembles the dragon of Bomarzo. But here the atmosphere is playful and joyous, the beast is kept in check and does not threaten us. By contrast, the Sacred Grove of Bomarzo seems steeped in a twilight gloom, yet it too was meant as a healing itinerary for its original creator, Pier Francesco Orsini, suffering from deep depression after his wife’s death.
Niki de Saint Phalle financed and built her Tarot Garden, costing millions of dollars, mainly by herself, although she was helped by fellow artists, workmen, friends, local people, lovers, admirers, and enthusiasts. Along the way, she encountered many obstacles, including illness. Severe rheumatoid arthritis disabled her from working for long periods. She also struggled with the fervent opposition of local residents who objected her project, which, it turned out, had been undertaken without first receiving official building permits from the town government. In the end, a white knight appeared as in all fairy tales to rescue what is good and true: Mitterand saved the garden from Italian bureaucratic censure – and possibly from being torn down -- by declaring it a national monument of France, and therefore not subject to the Italian building code.
Paths seem random through the Garden, and, at Niki’s request, there are no guided tours. The point of this garden is to discover it yourself, and while doing so, discover yourself. There are however two main routes to explore – one departing from the Sun, takes you up a wide, easy, well-paved path. The other is harder to find. You must climb over the dragon’s tail, then follow a narrow, slippery trail. From here you encounter more directly the Moon, the Devil, and Death, with whom the artist had to come to terms. Hardship, love, enthusiasm, obsession went into making this garden, writes Niki, but above all, faith. “Nothing and no one could have stopped me.”
This garden engenders joy and delight in children and adults, and teases our thoughts as to its meaning. But upon exiting her magic world, you will also feel a deep gratitude to the artist for never giving up until the garden was done, and for her generosity in sharing her vision.
July 21, 2015
Here is a list of favorite books for a summer read, at the beach, or under a shady tree in a piazza, or sitting @ your favorite taverna watching fishermen return from the island... Highly recommended fiction and nonfiction with a Mediterranean setting
Domini, John, A Tomb on the Periphery
Mystery and Suspense §
Durrell, Lawrence The Alexandrian Quartet postmodern classic of literary fiction
Forster E.M., Where Angels Fear to Tread modernist classic literary fiction
Forster E.M. A Room with a View modernist literary fiction
Hazzard, Shirley The Bay of Noon literary fiction
Hazzard, Shirley, The Evening of the Holiday literary fiction, romantic
Hellenga, Robert The Sixteen Pleasures
§ contemporary literary fiction
Jess, Walter Beautiful Ruins contemporary fiction
Lappin, Linda The Etruscan
§ mystery and suspense, literary fiction, gothic
Lappin, Linda Signatures in Stone
§ mystery and suspense, gothic
Leyland, Joanna The Goddess Trilogy
fantasy –thriller with irony
MacDonald, Elizabeth House of Cards
: literary fiction- short stories
Bedford, Sybille Pleasures and Landscapes contemporary classic
Durrell, Lawrence Bitter Lemons postmodern classic
Durrell, Lawrence Prospero’s Cell postmodern classic
Kalfopoulou, Adrianne, Broken Greek
Kalfopoulou, Adrianne, Ruin : Essays in Exilic Living
Lawrence, D.H. Sea and Sardinia modernist literary travel writing
Lawrence, D.H. Etruscan Places modernist literary travel writing
Gilbert, Sari My Home Sweet Rome
Wilde-Menozzi, Wallis Mother Tongue literary memoir
Wilde-Menozzi, Wallis, The Other Side of the Tiber literary memoir
July 20, 2015
An Etruscan Tomb in Tuscia
D.H. Lawrence returned to Italy in 1927 after a soul-searching pilgrimage through Mexico, the American Southwest, Ceylon, Australia, and New Zealand. Gravely ill with tuberculosis, unaware of how little time he had left (he died three years later at the age of 44), Lawrence sought an ideal land where he might flourish as a "whole man alive" and find an antidote for the alienation of industrialized society.
Lawrence's last pilgrimage led him to the Etruscan ruins north of Rome. His idea was to write a travel book about the twelve great cities of Etruscan civilization. (The Etruscans were a sophisticated people who settled in the Italian peninsula between 900 and 800 B.C. and brought with them commerce and industry, greatly influencing the rise of the Roman kingdom.) Lawrence rejected the contemporary, scholarly views of the time: that Etruscans were inferior to the ancient Romans. Lawrence's approach to the Etruscans was highly personal and unscientific, yet his book, Etruscan Places,
has shaped modern readers' ideas of this vanished people more than any other text.
Traveling on foot and by mule cart, Lawrence explored Tuscia-a wild, wooded area between Rome and Tuscany, where the center of Etruscan culture was located. He visited the frescoed tombs of Tarquinia and the rougher rock tombs of Cerveteri, as well as the sites of Vulci and Volterra. In the Etruscans, Lawrence found a life-affirming culture which exalted the body and which saw death as a journey towards renewal. The art decorating their tombs, eloquently described in Etruscan Places, bears witness to their faith in an unending joy.
The tombs Lawrence admired are easy to visit today, well-connected to Rome and Florence by a system of trains and buses. In Vulci and Volterra, museums offer informative displays on Etruscan history. In the frescoes of Tarquinia, pipers play on as red-skinned dancers perform to the delight of thousands of tourists per year. And copies of Etruscan Places
are for sale everywhere. The mystery Lawrence relished may best be found off the tourist track-in the rock tombs carved along the ravines at Cerveteri and neighboring areas.
To get a sense of what these sites were like in Lawrence's time, while doing research for my novel. The Etruscan
set in Lawrence's era, I recently visited one of the lesser known areas-out in the countryside, off the main road. Covered with ivy, the huge tombs carved in cliffs face out upon a ravine. Wandering through the tall weeds, I approached a tumulus where a tall doorway led into a chamber hollowed in the rock. There at the back stood the fake door, which Lawrence called the door of the soul, as it had no real opening and was only painted or carved on the wall surface. I think of Lawrence sitting in a chamber like this one, contemplating the door of the soul-a barrier for the body, but not for the imagination. More than a travel book, his Etruscan Places
is a spiritual testament celebrating the power of the imagination to carry us into other dimensions in search of the source of life.
July 7, 2015
a labyrinth on Crete
1. I stroll barefoot on the beach at Spinalonga across the crushed luminescence of tiny abalones. Scanning the shore for pocketable souvenirs, I note a cube of rock, striped with bands of red and green. An inscription appears as I look closer: spidery white script engraved upon the bands of red, and thick, black gothic strokes across the green. The inscription runs along four sides of the chunk in an unbroken stream of notation.
I dip the rock into the sea to refresh its colors. A few letters leap out, unmistakable: alpha, theta, but the rest are illegible. On the lowest band is a row of white triangles resembling a highly stylized delta, all identical and evenly spaced, as if punched in the rock with the same carving tool. I am standing only a few feet from the crumbling Venetian bastions of the last leper’s colony in Europe, shut down over a half century ago. Could this have been scratched by an inmate on those dilapidated walls? Or has it been washed up from some far more ancient, sunken ruin of Byzantium?
Excitedly, I show it to my husband who stares at it amused and says I am imagining things. He sees nothing but the scribbling of sediment and sea worms on metamorphic rock. The inscription I see is merely an illusion, not archaeological artifice, he claims, and points out the rough edge where this piece has clearly broken off from a larger slab. The squiggles I call writing also appear on the part which would have been inside the slab. If you break this piece in half, he suggests, you’ll find the same squiggles and triangles inside, too.
I consider this argument and gradually yield to his logic. The shapes of the letters are transformed beneath our scrutiny, becoming less regular and defined, indeed less like writing. What I imagined as an inscription is not a text to be read by human eyes.
Not willing to give it up completely, I drop the rock, weighing about ten pounds, into my beach bag and drag it back to the car where I toss it in the backseat, along with piles of salt-stiffened beach towels, bricks of olive oil soap, bags of pungent oregano and mountain tea. As we drive around the Crete, I take out the rock whenever we stop, douse it with water and examine it anew. Sometimes the signs align themselves into script, but mostly they elude recognition. When the water dries, the markings fade.
We are on our way to walk a labyrinth. This being Crete, what better place? This is the home of the labyrinth, the maze built by King Minos’ architect, Dedalus, to imprison the Minotaur, his monstrous stepson, who demanded a sacrifice of Athenian youth every nine years. To put an end to all that, Theseus slayed the Minotaur and escaped the labyrinth, thanks to Mino’s daughter, Ariadne, who had taught him how to find his way out using a ball of thread. Abandoned by Theseus, Ariadne was courted and wed by the god Dionysus. Dedalus emigrated to Sardinia, where he imparted the art of spiral architecture to the native people there. The labyrinth remained bereft of its celebrated resident, but continued to resurface in art, dance and narrative in every continent.
Mythologists, archaeologists, philosophers, and mathematicians have debated the meaning of the labyrinth for centuries. The myth arose, claim some, from the thick mesh of passageways and cubbyholes beneath the palace of Knossos, laid bare in the last century by the excavations of Sir Arthur Evans. No claim others, it is a model of an anthropomorphized universe, a map of how nourishment moves in our entrails or of how synapses fire in our brain. By no means, claim the symbolists, the labyrinth is a universal symbol of gestation, death, rebirth, or a depiction of the underworld. Above all, it must be experienced in movement. Its meanders were designed to guide dancers along a ritual path, poised between sky and earth, beginning and ending in the same spot. Lastly, the labyrinth is associated with the Mother Goddess, she with the naked breasts and conical skirt, gripping two writhing serpents in her upraised fists, icon of Minoan culture.
For years, I came to Crete nearly every summer, to traipse through the mazelike rooms of Knossos and pay my homage to a small ceramic sculpture of the goddess on display in the Heraklion museum. From there I took a bus to the same village which over twenty years grew from a cluster of stone houses unwired for electricity to a sprawling town of air-conditioned supermarkets. A hiatus of ten years followed, during which I sought shores closer to home – Sardinia, Etruria, then one day woke with the obsession that I had to go back. In the meantime, I had heard, a group of German women had built a labyrinth there, assembled out of stones gathered from those sun-scorched hills laid out in the pattern of the Chartres cathedral labyrinth. I knew I had to walk it. So we packed the car, bought ferry tickets, and set off from the Italian port of Ancona.
A friend has told us where to find the labyrinth: not far from a threshing floor on the barren hillside on the outskirts of the village. There were several circular threshing floors in this village once, slabs of concrete edged with paving stones, last used perhaps thirty years ago at harvest time. On summer nights I often sat within that magic space stargazing at the frothy spirals of the milky way and in the day time, sometimes, I danced. No other landscape had ever inspired me to dance with joy as Crete did when I was twenty-five. Observed by no one but the rocks and a friendly donkey tethered nearby, I whirled in a purple granny dress and flung my arms out towards the cobalt sea in gestures of longing, benediction, and pure delight. I did not know then that dance was a form of worship in ancient times, but something in the landscape spoke directly to my body and my feet.
Today, we scour the hillside in search of the rocky spiral, and at last find it, though heavy winter rains washing down the mountain and grazing goats have wreaked havoc of its pathways. Goat droppings sully the sacred center. Under the blazing sun, we set about reconstructing the trails, brushing away rubble and debris with fragrant twigs of thyme, lining up the scattered rocks to mark the turnings. When it is complete, we begin our walk.
The first few steps draw me near the center, creating the expectation of easy arrival, but then I must rotate on my axis , as I am propelled to the outermost edge and spun a hundred and eighty degrees to the far side, like a drunken planet wobbling in and out of an uncertain orbit before being drawn swiftly back towards the sun. You cannot really see the pattern when you are inside it. What feels like a deflection, a wrong direction is only one folding of the weft.
As I walk the loops, I try to bear in mind the three phases of the labyrinth prayer. Concentrate on a question or need as you wind towards the center, open yourself to higher forces when you reach the heart, release your desire or need to the cosmos as you exit the boundary back to ordinary space where answers shall be forthcoming. I am uninspired it seems, I have come thousands of miles to thread this labyrinth yet no illuminations rush in. But when I step across the line back into linear time, I know that I must leave the strange rock I found in Spinalonga here inside in the labyrinth. I return to the car to fetch the rock, reenter the loops and seek a place to put it, noting as I do that in the strong sunlight, the inscription seems to have disappeared.
Poets and philosophers have often remarked on the sublime solitude of the Greek landscape, where, despite desolation, you feel you are not alone – you are watched, sometimes scrutinized, protected, recorded even, as if you were a piece of narrative unfolding in its terrain being read by a greater eye. This sensation of being observed comes to me as I set my rock in place and slip a newly minted EU coin underneath, wondering when, if ever I will be back to look for it. Perhaps it is then that the illumination comes. I have added a small sign to the overall design, participated with those women who first assembled it years ago, who have moved on to other things in their lives, as I will, too when I leave this island. We are part of a story although we can’t see the design, intended for a reader whose consciousness infuses these rocks, hills, stones, the crows circling overhead. Although I move more slowly now than I did thirty years ago, now I see the meanders linking far flung places and people in my life to this one spot, and although it seems I have traveled far from the center, the next turning will surely bring me back to the core of pure delight.
June 30, 2015
Several readers of my mystery novel, Signatures in Stone, winner of the 2014 Daphne Du Maurier Award for mystery writing, have asked about the sources for some of the concepts concerning the Sacred Grove of Bomarzo that I incorporated into the story. Below is a brief glimpse at some of the books and ideas that influenced me.
Since its creation in the mid 16th century, the “Sacred Wood” or “Monster Park” of Bomarzo near Viterbo has continued to astonish visitors and puzzle scholars who continue to debate such key issues as the precise dating, artistic attribution, and meaning of the bizarre sculptural composites it contains – a hell mouth concealing a secret room which resembles the interior of an Etruscan tomb, sculptures of giants, dragons, elephants, sirens, and a small leaning palace designed to throw you off your balance. No certain evidence remains to document the names of the artists and workmen who designed and sculpted these creatures or, more importantly, to testify to their creator’s intention, and a number of interesting questions remain open to interpretation. Was the garden the brainchild solely of its patron, prince Vicino Orsini, a fanatical hemeticist and alchemist, or was the whole designed by a single artistic genius? Were the individual sculptures executed by rough local workmen, by Turkish prisoners , or by a group of artisans connected to an illustrious school in Rome? Were these strange beasts plucked from Vicino’s imagination, or perhaps, from some of his worst nightmares? Or are they meant to be symbolic? Various scholars have interpreted them as: representations of the seven cardinal sins, illustrations of Italian epic poetry, witty allegories of important political events of the period, pictograms of the milestones in Vicino’s personal life and career, alchemical symbols linked by an esoteric itinerary of initiation.
Another mystery concerns the relationship between the sculptures. How are they to be read? Is there a prescribed order to follow in viewing them? Do they conceal Christian meanings or are they rebelliously anti-Christian and pro-pagan? These are only some of the unresolved issues, but several recent and not so recent publications offer curious angles of interpretation which are worth exploring to anyone who has fallen under the spell of this place of dark enchantment.
Enrico Guidoni’s Il Sacro Bosco nella Cultura Europea, (Vetralla, Davide Ghaleb Editore, 2006: www.Ghaleb.com ) is bound to shatter some conservative views of the Sacred Wood. Guidoni has painstakingly pieced together textual and iconographic evidence which would suggest that the Sacred Wood was by no means an isolated experiment sprung from the maniacal imagination of its princely patron, but a complex sculptural composite conceived and designed by Michelangelo and technically executed by a group of artisans closely linked to the era’s greatest sculptor. The text includes an alphabetical “bestiary” with entries dedicated to each of the sculptures and major decorative elements, explaining their basic symbolism. The book is handsomely illustrated with photographs from diverse periods dating back fifty years,offering a rapid glance at the deterioration to which the garden and its environment have been subject. Given the importance of this study, one hopes that the publisher will bring forth an English edition.
Maurizio Calvesi instead, in Gli Incantesimi di Bomarzo: Il Sacro Bosco tra Arte e Letteratura, (Bonpiani, 2000) reads the sculptures in relationship to the poetry of the era. His research focuses on literary allusions incarnated in the weird figures and explores the significance of the many cryptic inscriptions which appear throughout the park and in nearby palazzo Orsini.
Whereas the focus of Peter Lamborn Wilson’s essay, "Oneiriconographia: Entering Poliphilo's Utopian Dreamscape," in issue 5 of the review Alexandria , is Francesco Colonna’s emblematic Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (The Strife of Love in a Dream), he relates his reading of this cryptic text to his explorations of Bomarzo and other sites outlying Viterbo, which had been suggested to him by a Roman alchemist as stations in an initiatory journey. For Lamborn Wilson, the absence of Christian symbols in the garden ( with the exception of the octagonal temple) would confirm Vicino’s rebellious attitude towards the ecclesiastical hierarchy. His garden is written in an alchemical code which makes use of the language of emblems, bypassing linguistic discourse to communicate meaning to the unconscious mind. Francesco Colonna’s emblems invite the reader to interpret their meaning on multiple levels simultaneously, and to read himself/herself into the narrative, to become a performer of the text, reenacting Poliphilio’s dream- quest. This intriguing idea could be applied to the Sacred Wood itself, in which each visitor plays the role of quester, re-enacting the search for the philosopher’s stone amid these giant emblems hewn in stone.
One wonders who Lamborn Wilson’s Roman alchemist might have been, but one possibility is Elemire Zolla of the University of Rome, author of many works on archetypes, hermeticism, and alchemy, including “Bomarzo: Il Santuario Neoplatonico” an essay offering a guide to the park as an arena of initiation. Art history scholar Antonio Rocca picks up this thread in his Bomarzo Ermetica: Il Sogno di Vicino Orsini, with an intriguing analysis of the park’s symbolism read within the context of Giulio Camillo’s theatre of memory.
June 16, 2015
Over a year ago, the comune di Roma distributed to its residents in the IV circoscrizione little green plastic carrying bags to separate our garbage into recyclable sets to be carried out to the appropriate dumpster: glass, plastic & metal, paper, organic, and indifferenziato into which most people just throw everything in together, as they always used to do. We have made a point of separating what we can only to have our efforts rendered useless by the scores of people rummaging through all the dumpsters everyday looking for things to salvage and sell, mostly, rather than for food, and scattering everything they don't want along the sidewalk, where bags of rotting, organic refuse tend to pile up, melt, and stink.
Usually it's my husband who takes out the garbage, but the other day I decided to give him a break and lug ten pounds of varied garbage up to street level and over to the dumpsters lined up along the road across from my sixth-floor windows. He had said something about glass, metal, and plastic all going in the same dumpster, which is the strategy employed in my hometown in the USA. So after disposing of the organic and the paper, I look for the bin designated for glass, and alas, find nothing. There are three dumpsters for plastic and metal, with bottles overflowing from the top, but nothing for glass. Gingerly, in my summer sandals, I walk along the bed of crushed glass strewn on the street, and study the stickers affixed to the dumpsters. The signs on the ones for metal and glass clearly read Non introdurre vetro -- Do Not Put Glass here. So where the hell am I going to put these twenty water, wine, and tomato conserve bottles, along with the strawberry jam and dijon mustard jars?
I walk up and down the whole row of twelve dumpsters two complete times. There is, incredibly NO dumpster for glass. Then it occurs to me to walk down the other side of the row, the one facing the sidewalk. Here I discover that the very same dumpsters marked "Do Not Put Glass Here" on the street side all say "Put Glass Here" on the reverse side. I peer into the dumpster thinking maybe, it's somehow divided into compartments. But it isn't. All the stuff just goes into the same pile. So I toss in my bottles and jars, all of which won't fit anyway.
Why does this No Glass, Yes Glass on the same dumpster remind of Alice Through the Looking Glass and her Eat Don't Eat mushroom?
Could it be that the logic of the city administrators is dictated by Lewis Carroll, or perhaps his Queen of Hearts? Come to think of it, Mayor Ignazio Marino does rather resemble the March Hare. Or is it the White Rabbit?
January 23, 2015
This little corner outside Siena is a microcosm of Italian history and culture. The hill on which the tower stands was once an Etruscan necropolis, not far from Sienavecchia, an early Etruscan settlement situated near copper and iron deposits. In those days a network of roads connected the mining areas with the valley of the Merse river, winding all the way to the Tyrrhenian coast. Pieve is one of many pulse points along that ancient road. The Etruscans were succeeded by the Romans, although little trace of them is left, some inscriptions and tombs ; a few coins, vases, and iron weapons of Roman manufacture lying in a dusty museum. More traces remain of the early medieval period when a few abbeys and churches were first being built in the area, while, not far away in the woods outside the town of Rosia, just down the road from here, a community of hermits dwelled, seeking union with God. With the eleventh century came a building boom spurred by the expanding population and the need to cultivate more land to enhance the food supply.
The oldest buildings in Pieve have been standing here for over one thousand years, and date back to just prior to that moment of expansion. The main theory of their origin is that they were part of a monastery complex, one of many throughout the area, which were established at the time of the first millennium. The tallest building of the complex is a squat tower, four stories high, poised on the crest of the hill overlooking the plain, where the lights of the town of San Rocco can be seen twinkling at night. The hillsides of central Italy were once covered with towers like this one, which served not only as defense and as a nodes in a communication network, but as status symbols representing the power and economic prosperity of the villages and their leaders. They were emblems of the consolidated and ambitious self, an “I” erected towards the sky.
Thick walls once extended from the base of this tower to gird the whole complex within their protection. Those walls tumbled away centuries ago. The large rectangular building opposite the tower has gothic windows, a typical feature of sacred architecture which suggests it might have been a monastery. One of the old timers who lives in the newer village below Pieve tells the story that his own grandfather claimed he could remember a time back in his childhood when two very ancient and emaciated monks with beards down to their navels, dressed in ragged robes were living there, growing cabbages and turnips. A rough calculation would place that period back to the mid nineteenth century, or perhaps earlier.
There is some debate as to the origin of the building where the apartments of Alice and Duccio are located. Duccio claims it once housed a community of nuns in the late middle ages. After all, documents exist proving the presence of monks in Pieve, so why not nuns? For hundreds of years the whole territory was teeming with religious activity. In medieval times, the woods were full of hermits living in caves, like San Galgano and San Leonardo al Lago, whose rustic dwellings were incorporated into the crypts of churches built to honor them, and later Cistercian abbeys and Benedictine monasteries began to spring up like mushrooms all over Tuscany. Over a dozen ruined chapels, convents, and monasteries are scattered throughout the woods, including the hermitage of Santa Lucia not far from here. All these places were under the jurisdiction of the nearby abbey of Torri, just down the road, and probably served as major stations in the pilgrims route connecting France to Rome, the Via Francigena once traveled by thousands of people on foot each year.
Alice’s kitchen was probably the refectory, says Duccio, and proof of this was supplied by Guido, a neighbor recently deceased at the age of ninety, who could remember years ago during his childhood having seen a stone relief above the fireplace showing people eating at a table, which may or may not have been a representation of the Last Supper. The relief disappeared sometimes after the Second World War, when the house was occupied by German soldiers. Only religious buildings would have had such sculptural decorations, unthinkable in the house of peasants or simple laborers. Besides, Duccio claims, he hears ghostly bells at night, haven’ t I heard them? He pierces me with his wandering eye. I smile and shake my head, then remember the wind chimes that woke me before dawn on my first night in this house.
Nonsense, counters the engineer, who has published a book about the history of Pieve and loves to talk about his research. There are no nun’s ghosts fretting in Pieve. The building where Duccio and Alice live was not a convent at all, but a workshop of the wool-workers guild. Siena, unlike Florence, had no rivers or streams to provide energy, thus its industries developed outside the town, in the Val di Merse, an area rich in water resources. The monks of Torri, master hydraulic engineers, quickly harnessed the Merse, draining the marshland, creating canals, and building the mills whose ruins lie hidden deep in the woods today. When these works were completed, the monks made a deal with the craftsmen of Siena to allow them to use these facilities. In return the City of Siena promised to protect the monks and their land. The masters of the art of wool were based in Stigliano just down the road, where fulling mills operated along the streams, to clean and thicken wool. The houses in Pieve may have served their guild as homes, storage areas, or workshops.
Of a more romantic vein, I like to think of the nuns in this house : a handful of women living according to Benedictine rule. Saint Benedict ordered his followers to spend seven hours a day in manual labor, either in the fields or in a library transcribing books, and two hours of spiritual study. Here perhaps these women lived tending cabbages and carrots, pursuing a life of inner search, although their spiritual and intellectual instruction was probably imparted orally, for most women during the middle ages could not read. Perhaps they sat in this very kitchen, taking their meals together after the day’s work.
Once again I wake in early morning to the faint, far away yet distinct sound of chimes. Ding ding ding and then all is silent. Is it the nuns rising for prayer in the early hours of the morning?