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A Writer's Life in Rome & Tuscia

Story of an Old Tuscan House from Postscards From a Tuscan Interior

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?  Read More 
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Linda Lappin reviews Pamela Sheldon Johns CUCINA POVERA

Review by Linda Lappin
Title: Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking
Author: Pamela Sheldon Johns
Publisher: Andrew McMeel Publishing, LLC
185 pages (in English)
Hardback. 185 pages Price $21.99
ISBN-13: 978-1-4494-0238-9

During my thirty year romance with Italy, I have caught a few glimpses of the rustic life as it must have been lived once, not so long ago, before the sharecropping system was disbanded in the Italian countryside and the massive migrations to the cities began in the nineteen sixties. Decades later in most rural areas, old traditions lingered, and still linger today: old ways of doing things, old remedies and recipes, handmade tools passed down from generation to generation, along with an even older wisdom of survival that comes from living off the land. Stepping into an old house in Tuscany, Umbria, or Tuscia today is still like stepping into a story book. You are likely to find a sink hewn from stone, a pan of castagnaccio –pudding cake made from chestnut flour -- steaming on the hearth, tarnished copper pots hanging on the wall by a wood stove, or fragrant bunches of dried fennel or lavender suspended from the ceiling beams. In any Tuscan village, you’ll still find someone who can tell you what herbs will soothe a burn or a fever, what phase of moon you need to plant, prune, bottle wine or cut your hair. You’ll be offered the best red wine, olive oil, cheese, bread, bean soups, pasta, and prosciutto you’ll ever taste, and maybe some porcini mushrooms and truffles as well, prepared according to some grandma’s recipe which she in turn got from her granny’s granny, dating way before the Napoleonic wars, and maybe as far back as the Etruscans. And of course every recipe has its own story, history, and secrets. ,  Read More 
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A Visit to Santa Lucia, a Hermitage in the Tuscan Woods

Secluded by a dense wood of ilex, oak, and beech trees, high on a ridge just a few miles southwest of Rosia stand the crumbling ruins of the hermitage of Santa Lucia. To visit this place, you leave your car along the road near a medieval bridge, the Ponte della Pia, that arches gracefully across the torrent of Rosia and takes you straight into the thick woods. The winding trail up to the hermitage is well-marked by red arrows painted on the barks of trees.
I pay my visit to the hermitage this cold winter morning dedicated to St. Lucy, patron saint of the blind, whose saint’s day, December 13th, was traditionally considered the shortest day of the year, after which the light returned. In most homes tonight, candles will be lit before her icon, showing a young woman bearing a plate on which two eyes rest, symbolizing the miraculous restoring of her eyesight.
Icicles drip from the bridge and glisten along the frozen stream. Heading into the woods, beneath the soft layers of leaves baked in frost underfoot, I glimpse the paving stones of the road which once brought pilgrims to this place. Like the nearby abbey of Torri, the hermitage of Santa Lucia was located along the detour that sidetracked away from the pilgrims’ road, the Via Francigena. Across the centuries, this spot served as a rest stop along the way to Rome. ,
It is a twenty minute walk up through the thick of the forest. The trail is lined with wild asparagus and butcher’s broom, a showy scrubby evergreen shrub with bright red berries. When I reach the top of the hill, I come out into a sunny clearing you would never expect to find in such dense woods. Before me rise the moldering gray ruins of Santa Lucia, like a decayed jewel box, or a half-eaten, petrified wedding cake.
The Hermitage of Santa Lucia is believed to have begun as a community of hermits living in caves in these woods centuries ago, dedicating themselves to prayer, contemplation and the practice of austerities. Eremitism, the vocation of religious hermits, was a religious movement which began in Egypt in the third century, then spread from the East throughout the Christian world. By the end of the third century, Italy was full of such people dwelling in the most spectacular surroundings, deep in the woods, in caves above waterfalls, high on the cliffs of far flung islands, wherever the Spirit was to be found in the contemplation of rock, forest, or water. Far from the turmoil and luxury of Rome, far from the control of ecclesiastical authorities, hermits flourished, doing it their own way. Though one thinks of hermits as shying away from other human beings, the isolation of these men and women was not total, for they frequently met together to share meals or to worship, forming a very loosely banded community. What distinguished these groups was the lack of any regimentation and hierarchy. There was no religious superior or leader supervising the inner or outer lives of the community.
The original community of hermits here in Santa Lucia is said to have been founded by Augustinian anchorites who came from Africa in the fourth century and followed the rule of Saint Augustine, practicing charity, poverty, detachment from the world, silence, fasting, and abstinence. When they reached Tuscany, the group split into five small groups and each went off in a different direction to found a new community of hermits in the forest, and one group came to what is now Santa Lucia.
This community of hermits managed to exist for over five hundred years, living in caves and later in shelters made of leaves and branches. In the mid tenth century, when hermits throughout Christendom were being pressured by the Church to organize into monasteries, the first permanent structures were built in these woods and the hermits submitted to monastic rule. Up until that time, their communities were self-regulating according to each individual’s conscience. All this ended when they became monks.
Five hundred years is a long time for a community of hermits to exist in the woods before building a permanent structure and becoming monks. It was obviously a way of life one could take a liking to, although it was a hard life, and many died young, like San Galgano. Today, there are still a few hermits in isolated spots in the Apennines who follow the austere teachings of Saint Augustine and the blessed simplicity of Saint Francis. This I discovered while on a bus, eavesdropping on two older women who were traveling to their jobs as cleaners in the city, and were chatting about a hermit of their acquaintance named Padre Rubino.
From their conversation, I learned that Padre Rubino lives in an unspecified spot in nearby Umbria. Well into his nineties, he spends his days in a hut high up in the mountains, fetches his water from an icy stream, and leaves his seclusion only once a year, when he comes down to say mass in a tiny mountain chapel that should have been declared unsafe decades ago. And indeed, it may have tumbled in the last earthquake. Many elderly people from the surrounding area visit him for advice at that time, undertaking a rugged climb up a steep, stony trail all the way to the chapel. They revere the old hermit as a saint, as a relic of their ancestral past. Padre Rubino inhabits the inaccessible, timeless realm of their imagination, linking them to memories of their childhood, of stories perhaps they heard at the fireside of saints and pious monks.
Like a figure in an icon, Padre Rubino does not change, except perhaps that he does become gaunter and frailer, his beard longer and whiter , with age. He does not go in for check ups or wear a hearing aid. He dispenses with taxes, doctors, and retirement funds. He lives without television, telephone, internet, news, heating, or running water, and somehow gets his living tilling a small square of stony mountain soil, warming himself in the winter with brushwood. His way of life, like that of Saint Francis, of an old Zen monk, or of a Tibetan recluse, is a purely spiritual exercise. It was men like him who first flocked to these woods over a thousand years ago in search of some direct contact with what they defined as spirit, a calling still heeded by some.
-- From an upcoming memoir, A Tuscan Interior  Read More 
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