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A Writer's Life in Rome & Tuscia

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
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The Mermaid with Two Tails

My work in progress MELUSINE draws inspiration from another legendary figure in Tuscia, the twin-tailed mermaid.

Twin-tailed snakes and their cousins, twin-tailed mermaids, often decorate Etruscan tombs where, indeed, they may be placed as guardians near the entrance, as in the Siren tomb of Sovana, near Pitigliano, in the Tuscan Maremma area. These snake-ladies or mermaids are believed to be a guides for the souls of the dead. Their double tail suggests their mastery of two realms, earth and the underworld, or earth and the sea, as well as the giving and taking of life. In the Ancient Greek tradition, Persephone, the goddess of Spring, had sirens or mermaids as attendants who accompanied her to the underworld when she was kidnapped by Hades, the king of the dead.
The twin- tailed mermaid resurfaced as a popular icon in the religious art of the twelfth century, when sculptors began carving her on doorways, columns, and pulpits in churches and cloisters, throughout Europe, especially in France, Spain, and Italy. These artists favored a particularly provocative rendering of this mysterious figure, portraying her as long-haired and topless, holding the ends of her tails high in her raised hands. Different authors have suggested very different explanations for the mermaid’s appearing in holy places, such as on church altars, and for the accentuated display of her female attributes. In one interpretation, the mermaid is a symbol of perdition, the illustration of a moral lesson for church-goers or monks to contemplate while listening to sermons or studying scripture: the capture of a human soul through sin. Other authors claim that the mermaid, which may have been originally a pagan symbol of fertility, is an emblem of female ambivalence and lust, a counter figure to Mary, whose grotesque shape was intended to evoke physical disgust and fear in the viewer. A third subtler, interpretation suggests that the twin-tailed mermaid is a Christian symbol of human generation, and that is why she so often shows up as a decorative detail in sacred architecture. In order to follow Christ, one must be born human, passing through the narrow gates of a woman’s womb. We all come into the world from the great ocean of unbeing in which the mermaid swims, passing through the birth canal which she lifts her tails to let us see.
Modern interpretations suggest that the double tail and double nature of the half -snake or half- fish lady represents feminine duality viewed through the medieval mind, for which women were both mothers and temptresses. Nowhere is this clearer than in the medieval legend of Melusine, a beautiful maiden who agreed to marry the Duke of Aquitaine on condition that he never enter her chamber on Saturdays when she took her weekly bath. Tormented by jealousy and curiosity, he broke his vow, played peeping tom in his own house and spied on his wife in the tub, discovering that when she bathed, her upper half was human, but the lower belonged to a twin-tailed serpent. Furious at his betrayal of her trust, she terrified him by turning into a dragon and vanishing instantaneously.
The twin- tailed mermaid is also a heraldic emblem and alchemical symbol, where it represents the union of earth and water and may be a symbol of the unification of opposites, enlightenment, and of the world soul: that is the anima mundi, the totality of the energies of nature. Her human half dwells on dry land in earth time, the fishy half partakes of the eternal realm of the sea or ocean, while the coiling serpent’s tail may be a reference to cyclic time. She may be a symbol of dreaming, a mediator between dreams and waking, between the visible and the invisible. The people of antiquity and of the middle ages had a very different concept of dreams than our own. They believed their dreams did not originate from within themselves, but were truly a form of communication between their souls and a higher power or in some cases demonic one. The mermaid suggests that contact with another realm of being.
Half hidden and half revealed, suggesting sensuality, enlightenment, imagination, dreams, the twin-tailed mermaid is the perfect symbol of the artist or writer’s creative spirit, and of the interior life.  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 Monsters of Bomarzo and Signatures in Stone

Just twenty-minutes from my house in a medieval village in Central Italy stands a 16th century sculpture garden which still today represents an enigma to art history scholars: The Monster Park of Bomarzo, also known as the Sacred Wood. Peopled by monstrous creatures sculpted directly from outcroppings of volcanic rock, half-hidden by a thick fringe of ferns, this park is unique in the history of Italian garden design. The brainchild of Duke Vicino Orsini, the Sacred Wood has been interpreted variously as a pagan itinerary of initiation, a sculptural representation of Orsini’s weirdest dreams and nightmares, an allegory illustrating his political career, or a series of emblems concealing an alchemical formula for making gold. Some of the structures in the garden have been ascribed to the architect Vignola; others are believed to have been sculpted by inexpert pupils of a local atelier or perhaps by Turkish slaves. Scholars are undecided if the layout of the park is a random arrangement or whether it conceals a design intended to create a certain effect on the visitor’s mind. For the great gardens of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque era were more than just collections of plants. They were models of the universe and even instruments for changing the awareness or destiny of those who held the key to these gardens’ secret meanings. Today the park of Bomarzo stands off the beaten track, occasionally visited by busloads of tourists, when the tiny ribbon of a road through this hilly country allows. In recent years, the road has often been washed out for months. The Sacred Wood unfailingly excites the imagination of all those who wander in among its terrifying figures caught in moments of extreme violence or emotion, who seem to come at you as in a dream, popping up from behind masses of vegetation or crumbling walls. In centuries past, the local people believed that the stone figures moved about at night.

The Monster Park/Sacred Wood of Bomarzo inspired the story and setting of my new novel, Signatures in Stone. This mystery novel recounts the misadventures of Daphne Dubois, an aristocratic detective writer with a hashish habit, who stumbles into a private hell and then finds redemption after being accused of murder when her rival is found strangled in the park. Daphne’s solution of the case depends upon her intuitive gift for reading “signatures,” signs and omens of future and past events scattered on the scene or embodied in the sculptures themselves. While solving her own mystery, she also solves the mystery of the park’s origins and meaning.

In writing this novel, I was deeply influenced by the local soul or spirit of place. Still today, the general area, called Tuscia, an hour’s drive north of Rome, remains the heartland of Etruscan culture. The landscape here is riddled with Etruscan tombs, gashed by dramatic canyons, strewn with moldering ruins: Etruscan, Roman, and medieval walls & towers; ancient altars like step pyramids furred with moss; abandoned convents overgrown by vines all set in amid hazelnut and oak groves. In Tuscia, Etruscan lore has blended with the medieval belief in witches, devotional cults of angels, folk customs of dowsing and healing, and with the intellectual neo-paganism of the Renaissance to create a rich and fertile terrain of imagination, very much alive in popular superstitions and local customs. I have roamed and researched this territory for over twenty years, finding in the soul of Tuscia an inexhaustible treasure. My first mystery novel The Etruscan ( Wynkin deWorde 2004), set in the same time period as Signatures in Stone
( the 1920s), celebrated the peculiar effect that these Etruscan vestiges had on an American photographer who had come to Italy to research Etruscan sites for the Theosophical Society. In Signatures in Stone, I once again take up the question of psychic influence transmitted through art and through locale across centuries to show how the primordial spirit of place sometimes moves our actions, colors our dreams, and fires our hearts. The novel also ekes out the fine line between illusions and reality, and illustrates how waking life, intuition, and dream are much more interfused than we normally admit. Read More 
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An interview with Thomas E Kennedy

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing a writer who has been a mentor to me since we met at the Ploughshares Writing Workshop in the Netherlands nearly two decades ago, Thomas E. Kennedy, for Gently Read Literature, the online magazine. That interview will be coming out in the May issue. In the meantime, however, somewhat unexpectedly, our conversation continued concerning a workshop he will be giving this summer in Andros Greece at the Aegean Arts Circle , and for those of you interested in finding out more about his approach to workshops, you may find some information in the interview below.
LL : “Do you take a particular approach when conducting fiction workshops? Are there some aspects you emphasize especially?”
Thomas E Kennedy When I was a student in an M.F.A. program, I particularly wanted to hear what the workshop leader had to say. After all s/he was a published writer and presumably had much more to say than me, so I tried mostly to listen. Not that I didn’t ask questions also. With that in mind, I try to impart what I have learned to participants in my workshops. I want to talk about specific topics – verisimilitude and sensory evocation, narrative flow, the need for revision and how to revise, the use of intuition, point of view, structure, and so forth. And I find that participants – as I did when I was a student – want to hear about the nuts and bolts of being a writer, how to submit a manuscript, what the writing life is like, etc. I also do a lot of one-on-one with student manuscripts – a student of writing can learn as much from hearing a professional critique of another writer’s manuscript as of his or her own. But I need to have the manuscripts in advance – I need to contemplate a piece of prose before I know what I think about it.
But there is room for spontaneity also; the generative approach is something I find very useful – with writing prompts. It is amazing what a participant in a workshop can produce on the spot by being prompted by the leader with a little presentation – e.g. on sensory evocation, on cut-ups and rotations, or simply by setting a scene – and then the leader calling on the participants to write. The results are usually quite exciting. The very first writing exercise I took – about thirty years ago – led to one of my first published stories.
LL : What is the most important thing (or things) that workshops can give developing writers?
Thomas E. Kennedy: Well, I think one of the important things to remember is that in the workshop setting the participant is among equals – more or less equals of professional accomplishment – but is being guided by an experienced professional. So the participants can open themselves and trust – can read her or his work out or show it without fear because we are all in this together. We are all trying to help the participant to solve his or her writing problems and uncertainties, to try to help them go forward with a little more certainty than s/he had before. Immersing myself in the workshop at Vermont College was the best thing I ever did for myself as a writer. Hanging around with other writers, discussing formally and informally in workshop, talking shop and being unashamed of it – these all give potential for growth within the writer, for understanding of what s/he is trying to discover in taking on the vocation of writing.
I remember feeling when I went to my first extended workshop residency that suddenly I was among people who spoke my language – I understood everything that was said to me and everyone understood what I was saying. It was a great relief, suddenly to have people interested in matters I had been holding to myself for years.
And I see that in the participants where I teach, at Fairleigh Dickinson University, too, and the participants in the residency seminars and workshops I lead – they all profit from this same thing. The generosity of some of my mentors was incredible. Most writers like to talk about what they’ve discovered in pursuing their craft and their art. And as a participant in a workshop, I quickly became aware of that and opened my ears as well as trying to formulate questions.
In one of the first tutorials I ever experienced – in my early twenties – I had become obsessed with the fact that I did not know what a story was. And I sort of blurted out to the mentor – “I don’t even know what a story is!” It seemed like a stupid question and I felt extremely stupid and worthless for asking that, but he took it seriously – and I will never forget his answer: “Well a story is just something that happened. And you try to give it some kind of artistic shape, even if that artistic shape intimates the shapelessness of life.” A pretty good definition which satisfied my uncertainty. There are no stupid questions in workshops.
LL: . In your past as a student of writing, what were some of the memorable workshops you attended?
Thomas E. Kennedy Well, that one – with Edward Hoagland at the City College of New York – was important to me. Not only did he build up my confidence by answering my “stupid” questions, but he also let me look over his shoulder as he ran through my manuscripts and edited them – extremely instructive! And those tutorials were only 20 minutes long, but what a valuable 20 minutes! With my teachers at Vermont College, I think I learned as much in workshop as at dinner or at night when many of us sat around and talked. As I think the students and teachers learn at Fairleigh Dickinson University by exchanges with mentors and among themselves.
Visit the Aegean Arts Circle for more information on their upcoming workshops

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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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Fra Angelico and a Tuscan Interior

The Annunciation, Fra Angelico, Convent of San Marco, Florence
My next stop is the former Dominican convent of San Marco , a monument to the interior life containing some of the greatest religious art ever created, painted by the hand of a monk known to us as Fra Angelico or Beato Angelico. The names translate as “the Angelic Brother” and the “Blessed Angelic,” but his real name was Guido di Pietro and he was known to his contemporaries simply as Brother John of Fiesole. The convent was established by Cosimo the Elder De Medici in 1438 on the site of a previously existing monastery inhabited by Benedictine Silvestrine monks who were literally chased out to make room for the Dominicans. Although the Silvestrine order is devoted to poverty, silence, and hospitality, it seems the ones in San Marco had been misbehaving, running up debts, hoarding goods on the sly, and other unacceptable behavior which is why they were replaced by the more austere Dominicans. , Cosimo had the old monastery, dating from the thirteenth century, completely rebuilt, entrusting the job to the Florentine architect Michelozzo Michelozzi whose design included two cloisters, a chapter house, two refectories, and workrooms where the monks labored over illuminated manuscripts, all on the ground floor. Upstairs on the first floor is a dormitory with forty-two individual cells. The decision to provide the monks with private accommodations in single cells was an innovation in their living arrangements, for prior to that time, shared dormitories were the most common form of sleeping quarters in Italian convents and monasteries. There is also a library upstairs, a long, narrow room with elegant columns and abundant natural light , the first public library of the Renaissance, where today you may admire exquisite illuminated manuscripts on display under glass cases.
These two innovations, private cells for the monks and a public library of devotional tomes are by no means insignificant details in the overall organization of this convent, but point to important developments in the concept of the Christian spiritual vocation, which has always sought a balance between the meditative life and active service within the community of Christ. They clearly suggest that the balance was tipping back towards the former, a tendency also corroborated by Cosimo’s wish to have each cell decorated with a fresco illustrating a major episode from the life of Christ.
With the exception of two double cells, one of which was set aside for Cosimo’s own personal use while on spiritual retreat at the convent, the monks’ cells are tiny, hardly big enough for a cot, writing table, and window. Yet on their bare white walls, each one contains a large, ethereal fresco in magical colors, painted between 1440 and 1445 by Fra Angelico, resident friar and acclaimed painter of the era. Although it was customary for monks to have sacred images, usually small icons, among their very few possessions, which might also have included a rosary, hair shirt or other articles of clothing, one or two books, and maybe a skull for the purposes of contemplation, the decorating of each cell with such a splendid fresco was yet another innovation. The frescoes were intended not only as a visual means of religious instruction and spiritual enhancement for the community at large, such as the scenes of the crucifixion or annunciation, placed in areas where the monks convened as a community, in the chapel, cloisters and refectories, but also as a guide to individual prayer and inner life. The prior of the convent had indeed instructed his monks to kneel before these pictures and contemplate them in the privacy of their cells. Perhaps they were also used as a memory aid to imaginative prayer, a practice of meditative visualization which would later be described in great detail in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola .
This same period in the mid fifteenth century witnessed throughout Christendom a return to stricter observance of monastic rule, which in some convents had gone a bit lax, with too many papal dispensations which may have allowed some monks to be distracted by worldly affairs. The new rigor brought a reaffirmation of the value of contemplative life and withdrawal from the world, as outlined in Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. This devotional work, published between 1418 and 1427, second only to the Bible in Christian readership, emphasized that the spiritual life was to be sought in solitude, study, and prayer. "I have sought everywhere for peace, but I have found it not save in a little nook and in a little book,” Thomas a Kempis writes, emphasizing prayer and meditation over good works in the world.

One of the most famous frescoes by Fra Angelico in the convent of San Marco is the large Annunciation along the corridor, just at the top of the stairway, which greeted the monks, day in and day out, as they ascended from the ground floor to their cells and to the library. The fresco shows the Virgin seated on a humble wooden stool, resembling a milking stool, under a lovely loggia whose airy vaulting and handsome columns resemble those of the convent’s own library. The Virgin is listening to an angel who has alighted on her porch, the edge of which borders a garden full of leafy, low-growing plants, very much like the salad greens and medicinal herbs which might have been cultivated in the cloister for the convent’s use. The garden is enclosed by a wooden stake fence separating it from a wood with tall, lush trees and stark, spindly cypresses so common in the Tuscan countryside. The scene resonates with quiet joy.
Before painting this fresco, Fra Angelico had painted other Annunciation scenes, such as the one now in the Diocesan Museum of Cortona, which are quite different from this one in mood and spirit. In the Cortona Annunciation, painted a decade earlier and intended as an altarpiece, the Virgin, dressed in unadorned garments of sumptuous red and blue, sits on a chair upholstered in gold brocade. A golden dove floats above her head, symbolizing the divine energies about to enter her body to work the miracle of the immaculate conception. Behind her, a red curtain has been pulled across a doorway, limiting our view of the interior of her home. The angel, clad in a pink gown with ornate, gold embroidery, presses towards her in a dynamic, even perhaps aggressive pose, as if about to spring towards her, pointing at her with his right index finger, while his left hand gestures upwards towards heaven. His message appears in little gold words tumbling from his mouth through the air. Mary, with a book in her lap, seems quite taken aback, even terrified by the unexpected visitor. Although there is no fanfare of trumpets or cherubs, as we sometimes find in gothic representations of the Annunciation, the angel’s stance and gestures, the gold trimming and opulent colors, all hold a strong emphasis marking this extraordinary moment when the divine and human merged. The use of gold and rich fabrics denotes the spiritual elevation of the figures. As future queen of heaven, it is quite appropriate that Mary should be seated upon a brocade cushions, as emissary of God, it is equally appropriate that the angel should be garbed in luxury.
Nothing could be further from the austere beauty of the San Marco Annunciation, although the settings of the loggias, arches, trees and garden with salad greens are almost identical in the two paintings. In the San Marco Annunciation, the colors are more subdued, Mary’s drab, black and white garment is much plainer than the dress she wears in the Cortona scene, recalling the sackcloth robes worn by the Dominican friars of San Marco. Gold has been sparingly employed only for the halos of the two figures, the modest trimming on the angel’s gown, and in a few bits of glitter sprinkled throughout his rainbow wings which twinkle randomly, depending on the light in the corridor. The wings seem to be inspired by those of a butterfly or bird and are the most colorful detail in the painting. The use of perspective invites the eye to follow the vanishing point through a door in the background and to a window beyond that, which, very similar in shape to the windows in the convent cells, must face out over the trees. But what is most extraordinary is the attitude of the two figures, bowing towards each other gently, in mutual recognition, in a moment of deeply intimate exchange. The angel seems to be confiding something to the Virgin, a secret perhaps. There are no outward displays of glory, no outer emphasis, only the record of an intensely personal experience. It is all interior.
The prominent positioning of this fresco at the top of the stairs, where it would be seen every day by all was chosen to capture the attention of the monks and strike home to their hearts, reminding them that they too had received the good news of the annunciation which had led them to choose a spiritual vocation. They were not only climbing a staircase made of marble, but also one of the spirit, which required them to make ceaseless efforts in order to progress. “There is no harder fight than the struggle to overcome oneself,” wrote Thomas a Kempis.
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A Visit to the Witches of Montecchio

A Visit to the Witches of Montecchio

High Tuscia, a rugged terrain of woods and canyons nestled between Rome and Tuscany is well known as homeland to the mysterious Etruscans as well as the headquarters of a revolutionary secret society of the 16th century which practiced occultism and masked its anti-clerical and reformist agenda behind pagan symbols. The great villas and sculpture gardens of the area, with their symbolic statues, fountains, landscaping and iconography all bear testimony to the Tuscia’s occult connection. Few people know, however, that rougher forms of female magic were practiced in those woods in the long centuries following the decline of Etruscan culture up until relatively modern times. In the woods outlying Villa Lante, the 16th century garden of extraordinary fountains built by Cardinal Gambara, replete with pagan symbols of rebirth and regeneration -- there stands a wooded hill called Montecchio where wild women convened to dance around a fire, perform magic rites, and embrace winged beings.
Local legend knows them as the Witches of Montecchio or as the Daughters of the Moon. On this day of Halloween, it seems fitting to pay a visit to their sacred spots.

For centuries this hill was considered taboo, maledetto, cursed, and thus avoided by hikers and chestnut or porcini gatherers so frequent elsewhere in these woods. Here on Montecchio only a hunter or two would venture, well-armed, in the boar season. A shadow seems to hang over the place - as it does in many similar sites I have visited in the Tuscia – such as the pagan altars just outside the Monster Park of Bomarzo, totally abandoned and enveloped by vines and scrub; or the strange cave dwellings of Corviano perched perpendicularly on towering cliffs, or the mouldering step pyramids thickly furred with moss hidden amid lonely hazelnut groves near Vitorchiano. Secluded, silent, luxuriantly overgrown, these woodland places stand so near to built up areas, highways, villages, all out of sight just over the next ridge. The hiker may take heart that the safe and familiar world is within reach and yet these eerie places of the Tuscia radiate a chilling isolation. Leaving my car by the roadside and stepping in amid the trees, I can feel myself entering a time warp.

The track runs steep up a grassy slope, weaving in among scrub, thorns, and waist high weeds that tear my clothes. Boar tracks riddle muddy patches where rain has collected.
Pink and purple flares of cyclamen stretch on for yards, poking up through grass and dead leaves. Here at night, under the moonlight, the daughters of the moon ran heedless, with hair streaming, through these branches up to the sacred plain at the very top of the hill. Here fire-blackened outcropping of rock indicate the site of their ancient bonfires, recently resuscitated, probably by boar hunters or by the curiosity seekers who have preceded me. Further along I find the sacred spot I have been seeking: the throne where the queen of the witches, or better, the high priestess ---presided. Her throne is a niche carved in cold stone atop a mossy mound of rock, earth, and lichen. It is not a place to sit – here she held court by lying down. The cross-shaped niche, reminiscent of an angel’s form with outspread wings, perfectly contains a supine human body – with lateral troughs at right angles just designed to hold your arms uplifted at the elbows. Local legend claims that this was the queen’s nuptial bed, where she embraced a great winged spirit who impressed the shape of his wings upon the stone. Or perhaps she merely lifted her arms in a ritual gesture, reaching up to the moon and stars and the shape of the troughs helped her maintain such an awkward position at length. Perhaps 9 months following this ritual embrace, in this niche she gave birth to a new daughter of the moon. Her throne may have been a place of sacrifice, an altar, or a place of healing or birthing. Candle stubs and melted blobs of wax on nearby stones show me that the place is still frequented at night.

Who were the witches of Montecchio? Historical findings indicate there was indeed a community of women living in these woods in the middle ages: a religious community of female hermits tolerated by the church. Local legend though brands them as witches, who however, practiced usually white magic, but on occasion ensorcelled the menfolk of their rivals, causing them to run out from their homes in the night to join the moon daughters in their revels.

Who knows if on this night of Halloween, they will return to this hill – either in the flesh as contemporary neophytes or as shades of an archaic past to celebrate the goddess of earth and moon and woodland who once reigned supreme in these parts. I touch a charred rock – still warm to touch – and am convinced tonight too here in this spot, orange flames will lick the jet black sky and around that flickering light and heat, a ring of wild women will be dancing till dawn.

Note: The sacred and pagan places of Tuscia have been a topic of my research for many years, and are featured in my novel The Etruscan (Wynkin deWorde, 2004) and in my forthcoming novel, Signatures in Stone, set in Bomarzo.

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Anxieties of Otherness

7:45 on a Monday morning finds me waiting for the bus in the square outside the medieval gateway of a village in Central Italy, where I live part of the week. Waiting with me are cleaning ladies, farmhands, workmen, and a few older locals on their way to town. I make a point of saying good morning. Some reply; others don’t, but they all know who I am: La straniera. One of a handful of foreigners who have moved into their territory, buying up old houses nobody wanted at prices nobody local would pay. Attitudes towards foreigners, especially Americans, are always in flux in a village like this one, where the word itself “straniero” is interpreted in the narrowest sense. Even people from the village a mile down the road are considered as “outsiders.”

That being the case, there is nothing I can do except wear this status with a smile. As an expat American, I am and will always be, an outsider here, although I have been living here for ten years, and for half that time, have been the owner of a house in the old village.
Across from the bus stop, a fountain splashes. The fountain was put there only a few months ago, replacing an implausible but “simpatico” Easter Island statue. That statue had been a gift to the village from Easter Island sculptors who had been invited here to demonstrate their sculpting technique, for, due to some curious coincidence in geological time, Easter Island and this village in Tuscia are both built on bedrock of the exact same volcanic stone. The statue was carved here from local stone by a family of Rapanui carvers. Initially, it was seen as a goodwill ambassador, linking this landlocked village with a remote Pacific island, connecting two peoples whose livelihoods depended on stone.

For eighteen years it stood outside the city gate. Children and tourists loved it; the local priest, perhaps disapproving of its pagan associations, did not. Over a decade, the openness to what it represented—a people of a different race, religion, and culture—gave way to suspicions. After years of grumbling, “That thing has nothing to do with us,” it was moved out of town. Its banishment makes me remember I am a guest here and could at any time receive similar treatment. Recent problems: unchecked immigration, unemployment, economic crisis have caused people to shut up their doors—both physically and metaphorically. Even here now there are burglaries. The local people and politicians have no doubt: the culprits are “foreigners.”

A group of men outside the café are staring at me. A woman, fiftyish, in a masculine hat, who carries a brief case, goes to work by bus, but comes back in a taxi, I must be an amusing spectacle, if not an outright provocation. Here few women work outside the home and unemployment is rife. What right have I, a foreigner, to have a job and what’s more – a job requiring a brief case rather than a broom and apron? Only penniless “nobodies” take the bus; everyone else drives to work; on the other hand, travelling by taxi is to their parsimonious minds, not only an unthinkable extravagance, but almost a sin. Between these two extremes, it is hard for them to place me, even though rain or shine, for the last ten years, they have seen me here at the bus stop, every Monday and Friday morning from September till June.

I know I am observed when I walk through the village. People note what I wear and what I buy and how much money I spend or don’t spend at the local shops. People note who I talk to on the street, especially if I speak to someone of the opposite sex. When friends come for dinner, when a workman comes for a repair, when my husband and I argue, there will be someone listening, or watching with nose pressed to the glass. The first thing I see in the morning when I open my door is my neighbor, leaning out her kitchen window, smoking the first cigarette of the day and peering into my kitchen. It’s up to me to say “good morning” first, before she ducks her head back inside. It is not that we have been singled out. It is the way of life here, the way of life in a village where everyone is related by blood or marriage to everybody else, except, of course, for “the outsiders.”

Negotiating these social relationships is one of the challenges of expat life. The other big challenge when your status changes from prolonged tourist to immigrant is living in another language twenty-four hours a day at work, at home, in your leisure time, and in emergencies. It has taken me years to reach the point where I can express myself in Italian in any situation comfortably, intimate or formal. It was tough at first: being a writer, being able to express myself in my native language articulately on any subject but deprived of this capacity in a country where I did not have the same control of the language. I felt that I ought to have the same command of Italian, and that if I didn’t I was a failure. I try to remember this now when teaching English to university students. That sense of inferiority is a self-inflicted handicap you have to let go of.

I still make mistakes and get tongue tied, and when I open my mouth to speak to a stranger, in a shop where they don’t know me, in an office, I sometimes still elicit a certain response in the person I address, which may vary from a slight frown to a scrunching up of their features, belying their anxiety. Other expats have told me they have experienced the same thing. This frown may vanish as the conversation continues, or it may linger. I sometimes wonder if this response is triggered by something I am projecting because I am shy about talking to strangers or worried about being understood. And when someone “foreign-looking” stops me on the street to ask me something, do I also unconsciously frame my face in this way? I do at times wear a “street face” I catch myself in—a hard “don’t mess with me” look I adopt when I have to walk alone in an area where I sense a threat. Yet I know how crushing it can be to see such an expression reflected in a stranger’s face simply because you asked him or her a question.

A shopkeeper I know in the village sometimes puts her fingers in her ears and wags her head from side to side to show tourists who have strayed into her shop that she can’t understand them when they try to ask for cheese or bread in English. That absurd gesture devastates, frustrates, or angers the receiver. It’s hard to remember that it is borne of her fear of difference, of otherness, an ancestral fear we all carry with us, a self-chosen burden.

The bus arrives; we all climb on. The ride to town reminds me why I love this place. Rolling hills dotted with sheep, ancient oaks, vineyards, a swatch of bright yellow—a field of mustard plants abloom in late winter; and a niche in a grotto with candles guttering before a rough icon of the Virgin. This is the old Italy, the quaint Italy, tradition-bound, where every old house and tower, cypress tree and winding gravel road are woven into a harmonious whole. Beyond those hills lies Bolsena Lake, and ridge after ridge of Etruscan tombs carved in cliffs and steeped in legends. It was this atmosphere, this spirit of place that inspired my first novel, The Etruscan, and now my more recent one, Signatures in Stone. And it is these very people riding with me on the bus, watching me from the corner of their eye, and the generations before them, who have made it that way, who have coaxed the fruits from the land and preserved its unmatched beauty. Travel writer Lawrence Durrell once said that people are an expression of their landscape. My fellow passengers are as hardy, rough, suspicious, as their remote Etruscan ancestors probably were, not only with outsiders, but also with each other, as I have learned to keep in mind.

A little story will illustrate this point. In return for a small favor, a neighbor invited me to drop by last week so that she could give me some fresh eggs. Here it is customary to make gifts of eggs as a gesture of good-neighborliness. Around seven p.m. I went to her house, just around the corner. The narrow cobbled street was deserted; the streetlights weren’t on and there was no one about. Answering the door, she whisked me inside by the elbow. “Come in quickly. Otherwise they’ll see us,” she warned. Inside, the woodstove was lit. There was an intense smell of chestnut pudding steaming on the stove. “They’ll be watching. They’ll be wanting some too, if they see me giving you some,” she said as she wrapped up the eggs in a sheaf of newspaper. I was only inside five minutes before she ushered me out again, with my packet tucked well out of sight. I was startled to see in a dimly lit window across the street, a face peeking out from behind a lace curtain: a long nose and two bright eyes had been observing the scene. The face retreated as I stared back. For the owner of that face, imagining what transaction had just taken place in the kitchen across the street was probably better than watching television.

Today the bus crowd is livelier than usual, almost like a mobile club house or a town hall, with everyone joining in the conversation. They are talking about the U.S. elections. Naturally, they all identify with the underdog, the dark horse, Obama. “Let’s hope he can solve all the problems. The war. The economy.” one woman says wistfully. I smile and nod. As we trundle past the banished Easter Island statue, I reflect that this victory, which has given hope to so many, perhaps depended partly upon one thing. Maybe enough people have begun to learn that “otherness” is just an illusion we can easily discard.  Read More 
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