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A Writer's Life in Rome & Tuscia

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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Katherine Mansfield at the Prieure

On January 13, 1923, George Ivanovic Gurdjieff, the much-discussed spiritual leader of the last century, publicly inaugurated his Study House, a refurbished airplane hangar erected on the grounds of the Prieure des Basse Loges, a former Carmelite monastery in Fontainebleau outside Paris which housed Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. Gaily decorated with arabesques, spread with rich, oriental carpets, furnished with a small fountain illuminated by multicolored lights, this exotic corner of the East transported to the environs of Paris exerted a magnetic attraction over a great number of intellectuals, writers, artists, dancers, musicians who flocked there to witness the extraordinary performances of Gurdjieff’s Sacred Dances and Movements, accompanied by stirring, melancholy piano music composed by Thomas deHartmann with the master Gurdjieff.  Read More 
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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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