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A Writer's Life in Rome & Tuscia

DH Lawrence and The Etruscan Door of the Soul

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. Read More 
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Rediscovered Readings on Bomarzo

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.  Read More 
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Book of the Beast: Ugo Bardi's Il Libro della Chimera

"We are all Chimeras" -- Ugo Bardi

Not too long ago, I made a trip to Florence to visit an old friend who has dwelled in my unconscious for a very long time, ever since I first laid eyes on her at the Archaeological Museum: the Chimera. This bronze statue, cast in one piece, depicting a three-headed beast composed of a lion, a goat, and a snake is considered by many art historians to be among the major masterpieces not only of Etruscan sculpture, but of all ancient religious art that has come down to us from anywhere the world over. After years of absence, she does not disappoint, radiating electrifying power and intensity.

The sculpture, eighty centimeters tall, shows a regal beast on the defense, with a jagged mane of spikes, its sinuous body tensed to pounce, ribs protruding from its sleek, gaunt sides, suggesting hunger. Its open jaws roar in pain and fury. The extremely realistic, flat-eared goat head sprouting from its spine leans downwards, shedding drops of blood on the base of its neck. Soulful eyes gaze out helplessly as a vicious serpent, which is the Chimera’s own tail, stretches out to strike, seizing the goat’s horn in its jaws.
The Chimera, as notes Ugo Bardi distinguished chemistry professor at the University of Florence, environmental blogger, and author of a study on the beast, Il Libro Della Chimera, (edizioni Polistampa, Florence, 2008,) is portrayed in a moment of suffering. She is a fighter, but she is losing.
Bardi goes on to say that the Etruscan artist who made this Chimera, roughly in about 400 B.C. may have wanted to express the fate of his people who at that time were gradually being overcome by the Romans. Or perhaps he wished to express his own destiny, that of all human beings, who will eventually be overcome in a final, individual battle. “We are all chimeras,” Bardi suggests.

Once face to face alone with this astonishing creature your first desire is to reach out and caress its smooth sides and haunches, then to run your hand across the cold bronze spikes of its mane and hackles and test the sharpness of the claws. But your next immediate response will be a question: But what does it mean? for this curious three-headed combo must mean something. What Ugo Bardi sets out to do in his thought-provoking study is to illuminate that meaning on many levels.

First, he provides us with a historical account of its discovery unearthed by workers digging outside the Arezzo city walls in 1553, her transferal to Florence where she captivated Cosimo I De Medici, and soon became a symbol of Tuscan cultural and political identity. He describes the vogue for Etruscan culture to which she contributed, as scholars tried to link the undeciphered Etruscan language to Hebrew and sought traces of the mysterious race who were the forefathers of the Renaissance Tuscans, rivals to the Renaissance Romans. He explains why indeed she is not a fake, as some have claimed. He investigates her mythic background as a fire-breathing female creature who laid waste the land of Lycia until she was slain by the hero Bellerophon, riding on Pegasus. To kill the Chimera, Bellerophon shot a wedge of lead to the animal’s throat, where it melted on contact with her fiery breath, causing her to die of suffocation. Bardi reminds us that the Chimera was no monster but a goddess. Later accounts attempted to rationalize the myth, by claiming that she represented a volcano.

Readers will find all this and more in Bardi’s exhaustive study which includes a fascinating essay on the origins of the myth of the Chimera and the female archetype it represents, akin to both the Sphinx and the Great Mother. Citing both Freud and Joseph Campbell, he traces the recurrence of this archetype in religion and art from Mesopotamia to the present day, offering a psychoanalytical interpretation for the myth as an Oedipal rite of passage.

Thus far, we might say that in the Libro Della Chimera Bardi has assembled all the known facts and lore about this mystifying beast, along with a beautiful selection of photographs and drawings, but he goes even further, to make a momentous discovery of his own which may indeed lead us to solve the enigma of her essential meaning.

When the Chimera was pulled out of the earth, she was found to have a word engraved on her right foreleg TINSEVIL, which over the centuries has been interpreted in dozens of ways, related to the Etruscan god of thunder, Tin. Bardi conducts his own linguistic research on this term and finds connection with one of Europe’s most ancient and mysterious languages: Basque. From this he derives an extraordinary theory as to the Chimera’s true meaning and identity.

In many cultures letters and words are sacred, not mere abstract symbols of sounds, but seeds from which may germinate emotions, visions, entire universes. When spoken aloud or merely formulated in the mind, words can conjure gods and demons, materialize blessings or curses, shatter a brick wall into fragments or even make the limbs of a statue shudder to life. Such power may lie dormant in the word TINSEVIL, for it has also inspired Bardi’s newest literary project, a novel, about which soon I hope the world will have news.

Il Libro della Chimera is at present only available in Italian but much of the material can be found in English on his wonderful website Ugo Bardi Chimera Site
The book in Italian may be purchased here
www.polistampa.com/asp/sl.asp?id=4441
Ugo Bardi, one of the most followed environmental bloggers in Italy, writes beautifully in English on some very scary topics about which he is expert: collapsing systems and planet plundering. Follow him here
www.cassandralegacy.blogspot.it  Read More 
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The Last Room at the Hotel

The Last Room at the Hotel

For years, my favorite hotel in Paris was the Hotel Les Degrés de Notre Dame just steps away from Place Maubert, a squat, sturdy building located on a place shaded by spindly trees and scattered with tin café tables beneath an awning.
Inside, its three dark floors were connected by a spiraling staircase of creaking boards. On each narrow landing three doors led to small rooms, crammed with scarred furniture, fussily decorated with gilt mirrors, rich, old velvets, ancient carpeting. Every free inch of wall space was occupied by a mirror or a painting rescued from someone’s attic. The ceiling beams and wood floors were thickly coated with strong smelling varnish, perhaps to discourage woodworms. The walls were thin and the door hinges unoiled. All night you would be awakened by the traffic on the stairs, as revelers straggled in, kicked off their shoes, and threw themselves into bed. No air conditioning, fridge, serviceable wifi, or elevator. Beneath the telephone was discreetly tucked a detailed list of things you were not allowed to do in the hotel. But I have never stayed in a cozier place. Its funkiness was its appeal.
On the ground floor, a glass door led to the restaurant with tiny tables pushed against the walls. You could hardly fit inside when wearing a winter coat. And yet what atmosphere! Lamps with orange and red shades cast a warm glow over well-worn red upholstery where you could sit and sip drinks with a lover or husband for hours. Behind the bar of burnished wood gleamed row upon row of Pernod and Campari bottles arranged before a spotless mirror . Attached to one side was a covered patio with more tables, always packed at mealtimes. From afternoon till evening, in a corner near the back, or sometimes out along the street at the only smokers’ table, the Algerian owner of this establishment, Monsieur Kamel, would sit, alone or in company, surveying with keen eye his clientele.
Kamel was a handsome man with olive complexion, graying hair, and as years progressed, a bit of a paunch contained by a snug fitting pinstripe gilet. His mask-like countenance combined shrewdness and benevolence, radiating a philosophical calm. He seemed to observe you without observing you, like a Buddha, sizing you up with thickly lidded eyes. When you saw him sitting there, drinking tea, or perusing accounts with his full, pursed lips, you felt that all was right in the world.
The restaurant was justly famous for its Moroccan dishes, prepared express by the handsome, swarthy staff darting about in white jackets while well-nourished cats prowled underfoot. The tajine arrived steaming on a huge terracotta platter, hidden beneath a tall brown clay cone, like a magician’s hat. As the cone was lifted to reveal sizzling braised lamb , the heady scent of spices --ginger, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and cumin, mellowed by apricots and pears--was unleashed into the air. But my favorite were the plainer French dishes. On cold winter days ,onion soup or a blanquette de veau . In summer, a filet à point with mushroom sauce, accompanied by their Moroccan salad: finely chopped onion, romaine, tomatoes, cucumbers with a dusting of cumin. And their desserts! Their crème caramel was so light you were afraid it might float away before you could sink your spoon into it.
They catered to regulars. You’d see the same people eating there, week to week, year to year. An elderly man, reputedly a count, who munched sugar cubes as he drank his coffee by spoonsful. A set of elderly identical twins who were there every day at lunchtime and ordered identical meals. Babies in cumbersome prams, big shaggy dogs, shoppers with huge bags in tow were welcome, no matter how much space was needed to accommodate them.
The only thing amiss with the place was the lock on the bathroom door, at the bottom of the narrow stairs in an odorous cellar. That lock was so efficient you sometimes couldn’t open it again, and would have to bang, rattle, and shout till someone heard you and let you out, much to your embarrassment, after you returned up the stairs to the restaurant, having disturbed everyone’s meal. It happened to me twice, and once to a friend, who had to be rescued by monsieur himself.
Last autumn while briefly in Paris, I dined there often but noted something strange. Some days the restaurant was deserted, but on others, it was a frenzy of people coming and going, hugging and cheek-kissing, laughing and toasting from one table to another. People driving by would honk their horns and wave. Monsieur Kamel, rather than sitting like a pasha, was seen driving about in a van, looking rather harried.
A short time ago, I returned to Paris for a conference and found a room at the Degrés.
“It’s our very last room” the clerk told me on the phone when I called to book. Those words, “last room” held a meaning I had yet to discern.
I arrived after midnight and the attendant whom I had always remembered being there, carried my bag up to my room. I arranged for an early wake up call, and reserved a table for the next night for eight people, as I was inviting some friends for dinner. Next morning I dashed out without stopping for breakfast, and returned at two for lunch. Stepping into the restaurant, expecting a homey, filling meal, I found the place empty, the lights all off and the kitchen closed. A tall elderly Japanese man appeared from the shadows, puzzled to see me there. He didn’t speak French or much English, but managed to tell me that service for lunch had ended, if indeed it had ever begun. As we talked, a young Japanese man entered and watered a bonsai at the sink.
I went to have lunch across the square, and when I came out again, I saw sitting outside, at the table where Monsieur Kamel used to sit watching the street with a bemused half smile, four young Japanese men clad in white chef coats. With their long, thin, elegant legs drawn up under the tiny table where a bonsai had replaced Monsieur Kamel’s ashtray, they gazed up and down the street, distractedly. One wore a white surgical mask.
The place had obviously changed hands. But what had happened to Monsieur Kamel? I anxiously enquired with the staff of the neighboring restaurant. Last night was their last night, someone explained. While I had slept a revolution had taken place. All the old people had cleared out. Kamel had sold the place and retired to Morocco. A young chef specializing in Japanese/ French fusion had taken now over the restaurant. I was assured that the new food was “fashionable and exciting”. That night was opening night.
I had to rush back to the conference but returning before dinner, I was approached by one of the genteel Japanese boys who bowed to me and asked apologetically, “Are you certain you wish to reserve a table for tonight, for eight?” as though he couldn’t believe such a thing. It was too late to change now, I had no idea where to go, and besides, it seemed rude to say no.
That night our little party of eight were the only people dining there, served by a staff of six. There was nothing French on the menu, but lots of sushi, which alas, I am not fond of, but we all found something to order. I had exquisite shrimp tempura and fried cochon. We had to acquaint the new proprietor with the local tradition of cheaper house wine served in a pitcher, but eventually we managed. The dinner was delicious, if nearly twice what we would have paid under the previous regime, but each dish was artfully prepared. One of my friends remarked that the Japanese beef he had ordered was the best he had ever tasted.
I was sad, though, in all these years, I had never had a chance to tell the old proprietor what a wonderful place he ran. Monsieur Kamel who is probably sitting in a sundrenched Moroccan square drinking mint tea, has certainly earned his rest. But I feel homeless in Paris, another piece of an old world is gone.
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The Lost Library of Villa Webber

For centuries, the “Grand Tour” brought writers and artists down across Northern Europe to Italy. Among the great writers inspired by Italian antiquities, art treasures, and landscape were Montaigne, Goethe, Sterne, Dickens, John Keats, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Edith Wharton. The itinerary of the Grand Tour touched the pulse points of Renaissance and Baroque culture: Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples — with a jaunt to the isle of Capri. Only the more adventurous headed further south, or to the wilder islands.


Among those wilder, windswept isles is the Maddalena Archipelago between Sardinia and Corsica. Sculpted in pink granite, these rough islands offered thrilling seascapes, choppy sailing, and few amenities. Yet in the 19th century, this spot welcomed an odd assortment of errant Englishmen straying from the prescribed routes of the Grand Tour. Among them was Daniel Roberts, poet and navy man, companion at arms of Admiral Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar, intimate friend of Shelley and Byron. After leaving the navy, Roberts settled down in this forlorn oasis of goatherds and fishermen. Here he could not only contemplate endless sunsets on the sea--- but also, surprisingly, consult one of the best- stocked poetry libraries in the Mediterranean.


The library was housed in the Villa Webber, built by James Webber, a wealthy London hatter who came to La Maddalena in the 1850's . Webber’s serendipitous arrival evokes the plots of both The Tempest and Robinson Crusoe. En route from Australia to London, he was shipwrecked off La Maddalena.. Safely ashore, he fell into a deep sleep, and the morning after found himself miraculously cured of all the ills, physical and moral, from which he had suffered for years. When his ship was repaired and ready to sail, he chose to stay behind.


Webber constructed a sumptuous villa in Moorish style on the cliffs facing Corsica. His pride were his art gallery — consisting of paintings of the Neapolitan school, and his poetry library - with hundreds of preciously- bound volumes by the great English, French, and Italian poets. The library soon became a local landmark. All travelers who dared make it down this far, such as the writer Speranza Von Schwartz, called on Webber at the Maddalena to spend a few hours in his library, while gale winds battered the windows. Webber was so jealous of his books, he refused to let his servants touch them and insisted on dusting them himself. Yet he welcomed those who came to study in his library.


Many myths have sprung up about the mysterious hatter. Was he only an eccentric merchant or perhaps a British spy? At his death, the artistic patrimony he collected was scattered and destroyed. The villa’s furnishings and paintings were carted away — all the books were lost. Today, stripped of its contents, Villa Webber stands concealed behind thick tangles of prickly pear, off limits to visitors - a relic of a former time when travelers braved tempestuous seas for the pleasure of a good book of poetry.  Read More 
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