Home of the Saints
Legend has it the Samnites arrived in the Molise region of southeastern Italy riding down the ridge-line of the Apennines on the great ox bequeathed to them by the gods. Where the ox stopped they built their settlements, shielding them behind imposing fortresses of rough-hewn mountain stone that the Romans, after years of bitter war, finally destroyed. Some say the region’s history has remained marked to the present day by that ancient conquest–the Romans, remembering their own early defeats at the hands of a people more skilled than they in mountain warfare, were determined when victory came to leave in their wake a wasteland; and forever afterwards the arteries of their empire avoided this region that had so injured their pride.
But on entering Molise today–well-serviced now by a network of highways and superhighways leading east off the Rome-Naples expressway, and less than two hours’ drive from either of those cities–the impression is one not of barrenness and waste but of pastoral allure, the mountains stretching away in almost Tuscan gentleness and the hilltop towns sitting postcard-perfect in their sun-drenched ochres and whites where once the fortresses of Samnium stood. It is hard to read in this first glance the intervening millenia of poverty and neglect, of feudal servitude, of flight, or to gather why even now the flight continues, to the cities, to the north, a slow unpeopling of a landscape whose apparent charms have never been quite enough to hold its offspring in place. Wedged diminutively along the lower backside of Italy’s boot between the mountains of Abruzzo to the north and the Gargano spur of Puglia to the south, Molise remains perhaps Italy’s most forgotten region, with still the air of having been passed by; and as the towns and villages empty, becoming more and more simply the summer retreats of former residents, a way of life is quietly fading away here, one whose origins reach back well beyond the ancient Samnites to the oldest stirrings of humankind.
The first highways of Molise were the tracks formed in prehistory by the seasonal migrations of herds between the northern highlands and the southern plains. Those tracks, tratturi, hundreds of miles long and sometimes hundreds of feet across, became the lifelines of the region, their history linking the first hunters who stalked them for prey to the shepherds who within recent memory still followed them with their flocks in the twice-yearly transumanza between mountain and plain.
When my parents, natives of Molise, brought me to visit the region in 1971, it was not yet far removed from the history inscribed in those ancient paths. I remember from that trip the jarring otherworldliness of my parents’ hometowns, my first child’s disgust at the flies and the dung-slicked streets, the backwardness, and then the slow seeping into me of the life there like something I’d known once but forgotten. In my mother’s village, Villacanale, perched above the Verrino valley along the northern slopes of Alto Molise, the sheep still passed at dawn on their way to pasture and the mules at dusk returning hay-laden from the fields. Our days there revolved around my grandfather’s house, which sat with its thick stone walls and balconied windows overlooking the valley from the village’s lower slopes; and within the cool of its kitchen in the midday heat and its smokey fireplace warmth at night we seemed slowed to some older, more instinctive rhythm, the world beyond our tiny familiar one receding like a dream.
Years later the images from that trip came back to me when I began writing fiction, Villacanale as I first saw it taking on in imagination the primordial fixedness of an archetype. But in real life the village has changed, under the twin forces of modernization and a creeping desolation. Its single phone at the village bar and its single television put out on a balcony for the other villagers to gather around have given way to all the modern amenities, the TV now a constant chorus to gatherings and meals and the houses redone in gleaming ceramic and stainless steel. But many of these houses stand empty for most of the year now, their owners fled to Naples or Rome or the north and returning only for their month of vacation in August, when the village will briefly assume a festive air before returning again to its usual sleepy calm.
My grandfather’s house, passed on after his death to relatives in Rome, has been turned into a sort of condominium, rusting rails and rotting windows replaced with aluminum and the plain stone of its façade layered over with stucco and fresh paint. But hard up against it stands a house in ruins, the sign of a more permanent desertion; and throughout the village this sight is repeated, refurbished homes sharing walls with abandoned ones in a patchwork of tidy brightness and decay. In the lower part of the village I come on a house whose doorway arch has been redone in beautiful inlaid marble, the keystone reading 1960; but the rest of the house stands in ancient abandonment, the arch seeming to hold the hope of some imminent return that never occurred.
But as I wander the streets the initial sense of desertion slowly gives way to one of affable welcome, people emerging from the dark of kitchens and stables to find out who the newcomer is. There is the first establishing of lineage–I am quickly placed as the grandson of the podestà, the title bestowed on my grandfather when he served as mayor under the Fascists; and then comes the inevitable listing of relations and sub-relations in America, intricacies of kinship I usually can’t follow though always the faces before me seem ghostly doubles of ones I’ve known in Canada. If I’m invited in I make excuses, trying to follow out the complex rules of hospitality here, the expected tussle of insistence and required refusal; and if the insistence grows aggressive I finally acquiesce, never sure at what point my refusal turns from politeness to insult.
My instructor in these rules is my Aunt Maria. At 76 she remains as tiny as a girl of twelve, with still a hint of girlish devilment beneath the mournful cast of her features. I try at one point to give her money to pass on to her sister-in-law, who is letting me stay in an unused house she owns up the street.
`Don’t be silly, she won’t take it,’ my aunt says, balking at the outrageousness of what I’m suggesting. But then a impish gleam comes into her eyes. `I’ll tell you what, you make a show that you want to give the money to her. That way she can tell everyone about how you wanted to pay her to stay in her house.’
And to get by it seems enough to grasp this simple fact, that courtesy is as much in the gesture as in the act.
During the course of my stay I catch only fleeting glimpses of Aunt Maria’s husband Luigi–it is the grapevine-tending and hay-cutting season, and, like many of the villagers, Uncle Luigi is out in the fields. If I rise early enough I can see people making their way out, most of them well past the usual age of retirement but still living as they always have, farming their few plots of land scattered pell mell across the countryside. The continuance seems merely a sort of reflex now–people make their wine in the fall, have their olives crushed at the local press, but few of their goods are actually sold for profit, most either holed away in cellars or given to relatives in the city.
One might think this ongoing work would at least keep people healthy, but nearly everyone I meet has a chronic ailment of some sort, arthritis, ruined limbs, wrecked backs, their bodies marked by the long years of working the area’s difficult slopes.
`Just when you reach the point when you could relax and enjoy your life, your body betrays you,’ someone says to me. `Ma non possiamo lamentarci.’
That is the usual closing to the lists of ailments and struggles, non possiamo lamentarci, we can’t complain, a statement that at once affirms and denies its opposite; and in the sense of lament implied in the Italian lamentare there seems always a remembering of some more general pain, the whole history of peasant long-suffering and woe stretching back to the darkest recesses of time.
That sense of shared history runs deep here. It comes out first in the nicknames people have for one another, passed down through the generations, the only way of ordering a world so long inbred that surnames have lost the power to differentiate; and it comes out as well in the land, every hollow and fold of it known and named, Bellavigna, Bottavento, Valle del Porco. Aunt Maria’s son Umberto, a pharmacist now in nearby Agnone, speaks with a proprietorial fondness of the setting where he grew up.
`Everyone talks about Rome’s seven hills,’ he says, `but no one mentions Villacanale’s.’
And he proceeds to point out and name them, each with its particular lineage and story. One, Colle Pulito, still shows on its flank the now overgrown track of an ancient tratturo; another, the highest, Colle di Papa, probably served as an outpost for the Samnites, fires lit on its summit alerting surrounding settlements of the approach of an enemy.
The earth here is layered with the evidences of this history. My cousin Nicolino–himself a living reminder of the past, his blond hair and blue eyes remembering the blood of foreign conquerors–tells me that while doing some digging for his uncle in the contrada of San Cataldo he came upon an old altar-piece in terracotta, and beneath it a trove of human bones.
`I wanted to call the authorities,’ Nicolino says, `but my uncle didn’t want the government to stop him from using his land.’
Everyone seems to have a tale of this sort, a suit of Samnite armour discovered near Castel di Croce but then dispersed, a mysterious chamber found in the mountainside near Villacanale during road construction but its unknown treasures gone before officials had had a chance to inspect it. History here has always this evanescent aspect, felt in the bones and yet something that can never quite be pinned down; and where history will not serve, legend is always quick to slip into the breach. Aunt Maria brings me to a room above Villacanale’s church where there is a 17th century statue of the village’s patron, St. Michael, that was discovered on a nearby hill; but the story goes that it was never installed in the present church because at every attempt to do so it fled to the hill it had been found on, apparently so remembering an older church that had stood on that site. Always at the end of historical fact there is this slight embellishment, as if history itself were not yet quite true enough without the greater truth only myth can provide.
Contention between saints and their wards is a common motif in stories here. In Larino, a town of nine thousand in the lowlands of Basso Molise, there is the story of San Primiano. According to historical account, his remains were stolen from Larino by the citizens of nearby Lucera after Larino was sacked by the Saracens; and the Larinesi, going out to reclaim their own, made off instead with Lucera’s San Pardo, returning home with him in an ox-cart wreathed with flowers. In legend, however, it was San Primiano in the flesh who fled Larino, pronouncing a curse on its citizens; and that slap in the face now accounts for San Pardo’s primacy here, his remains housed in Larino’s 12th century cathedral while San Primiano is relegated to a chapel on the town’s outskirts.
Every year now, at the end of May, the triumphal entry of San Pardo into Larino is celebrated with a three-day festival, its central event the procession of the carts. I am there the evening of the first day, the carts just filing down toward the cathedral to collect San Pardo’s remains. There are some 120 carts in all, each pulled by two oxen in ceremonial garb and each covered over in intricate lace decked out with electric lights and with hundreds of bright paper flowers, made new each winter by the women of Larino in their hearthside anticipation of spring.
The first sense on seeing this procession is of a tourist display, with its electric lights, its carts done up with plastic-framed mock-ups of Byzantine cathedrals. But then slowly the spirit of the evening sinks in. One feels very close here to the pagan origins of such feasts–the look of the oxen with their brutish faces and muscled thighs, the hopeful passage of tiny brightnesses through the dark. At one point in the evening the procession stops for the animals to be watered and fed, and families gather around their respective carts to eat as well.
`When you start out following the carts you worry about getting your shoes dirty in the muck of the oxen,’ says Domenico Pellegrino, a doctor by profession but also the cultural secretary of one of the region’s provincial governments. `But by the end of the day, eating there with the animals like that, you want to mess your shoes up in the muck.’
It is Pellegrino who takes me to the site near Isernia where in 1978 were discovered the oldest evidences of human life yet unearthed in Europe, dating back some 736,000 years. The discovery was made by chance by an amateur archeologist, who one day noticed the fossilized bones of large animals protruding from the wall of an excavation for the Naples-Vasto expressway. Since then, work on the area has been extensive; and while no human remains have yet surfaced, the tools and weapons found there alongside the abundant animal remains suggest a hunters’ campsite of some sort, on the shores of what was then a marsh or lake.
`Whatever the differences in the plant and animal life, the landscape then was more or less as we see it now,’ Pellegrino says. `That means that what we discover here is how our first ancestors accomodated themselves to the land.’
The circle seems to close, the distance between past and present to narrow. In feasts such as the one at Larino it appears possible to read now not only the pagan vegetation rites just beneath their surface but, scratching further, the primitive hunters gathered round their sputtering fires in the encroaching dark, treading the paths their unthought-of descendants would find still engraved in the land hundreds of thousands of years beyond them.
Some maintain that Molise is going through a resurgence now, that its rural calm is slowly drawing people back as Italian cities become more and more unliveable. Villacanale, certainly, has made a comeback–a few years ago the village found itself in a situation where its school, then its single store, then its single bar, then finally even its church, had closed down. But now, under the efforts of the Associazione Culturale Nuovo Villacanale, the bar has been re-opened, the church has been refurbished, and the school has been turned into a group home to care for the elderly and the infirm.
Nicola Mastronardi, a journalist who lived for several years in Florence, is one of those who has returned, working now for the regional magazine Molise.
`I’ve always been very fond of this area, too fond,’ he says, with a mixture of pride and self-deprecation. But even he admits that, in the lack of any solid industrial base here, the only hope for the region is tourism.
There are signs that tourism is in fact beginning to take root here, as evidenced by the modern hotels and restaurants springing up on the newer outskirts of towns and by the refurbishing of the more rustic ones in the historic centres. But the inevitable irony is that this new tourism takes at least some of its appeal from exactly the way of life it will replace, a life which is slowly beginning to take on the air of a thing recreated rather than real. Even in Villacanale there is a sense of being on display: coming here as a writer I find a quickness in people to share their stories that shows already the instinctive packaging of local colour for the outsider; and when the Destinations photographer comes, there is after the first unease that same half-mocking readiness to be in the picture, to show the outside world how things are done in this colourful backwoods. One afternoon the photographer and Aunt Maria and I go down to Uncle Luigi’s farm for some shots, with the warning from my aunt, who has been conspiring with me as to how to gain her husband’s compliance in this matter, that Uncle Luigi doesn’t like to be photographed in his working clothes; but when we arrive, my uncle, who is cantankerous at the best of times, is suddenly all mischievous pleasure and agreeableness, basking in this opportunity to put on a show for the foreigner. When his wife suggests he might want to change before being photographed, he scoffs.
`A farmer’s not supposed to wear good clothes! I want people in Canada to see the truth, they’ve never seen a thing like this before!’
My uncle, perhaps, is a special case–he spent twenty-four years in Canada, living in a tiny shack and shoring up his earnings and pensions to return to his wife and son, one of the few of those that left here after the war who actually came back. Now 83, he still spends his days in the fields, bringing his dog Lillo and his mule Rosie along for company and making his midday meals in a shed modelled after the shack he lived in in Canada; and his greatest pleasure, apart from his farm, seems to be when some new arrival from Canada gives him the chance to use his broken English. Yet in his pride now, and in the stooped memory of hardship beneath it as he leads us around to his tiny garden plots and through his carefully tended vines, he seems somehow a symbol of the passing life here, come back to recreate it for himself just as he does for the photographer with his delighted offering up of rustic poses.
My final night in Villacanale there is a festival. The occasion is the end of a transumanza, in this case the movement of some 500 head of cattle from their winter pastures in Puglia to their summer ones in Alto Molise. Normally these movements are done by truck now, but this one will be done in the traditional way, along two hundred kilometres or so of still-existing tratturi.
The move is being orchestrated, in part, by journalist Nicola Mastronardi, who together with his brother Lino runs a riding stable called Agrotrekking that conducts tours of the region on horseback. With the transumanza the two of them will be combining the practical job of moving cattle with their more usual role as guides, bringing along with them some half dozen or so experienced riders, mainly from the north, who have paid to share the experience of reliving this traditional passage. After leaving the cattle off at their pasture near Frosolone the group will continue on horseback to Villacanale, where a reception is being prepared in the square featuring a bonfire and a meal of liver and tripe.
It is about seven when the horses arrive. Though it has been raining on and off, most of the villagers have gathered in the square, and during a brief respite in the weather it proves possible to light the bonfire provided for by the villagers’ donations of bundled twigs and dried gorse. For several moments the fire burns bright and fierce, the group of us lit up around it in the falling dark like huddling sojourners while the horses hover behind us with their animal rustlings and smells. But later, when rain forces us inside and the dancing begins, the horses and their passage seem already forgotten, merely an excuse for this untroubled coming together. What seems important now is just this, being in from the rain, being warmed from the wine, the way my Aunt Maria, diminutive and charming and sad, takes my hand with a heartbreaking shyness, and asks me to dance.
© 1993, 2003 Nino Ricci. Reproduction or use without the author’s written consent is prohibited by law.
First published in Destinations Magazine, October 1993.