free web hosting | free website | Business Web Hosting | Free Website Submission | shopping cart | php hosting

ISERNIA FOLKLORE

 

Abru17.gif (236973 bytes)

"Through the Apennines

 and the Lands of the Abruzzi Landscape and Peasant Life"

  Described and Drawn by Estella Canziani Houghton Mifflin Company; The Riverside Press Cambridge 1928

Chapter XVIII.
Isernia and the ‘little old woman.'

Voio nzegnia' la fratta a ru lu' pe? Wantet thou to follow the wolf over the hedge?

We next went to Isernia, where we arrived late at night. Our baggage was put down by the roadside. I walked up and down beside it while my father went to see if he could find rooms. These he secured, and also a semi-raw steak floating in warm oil. I peered into the darkness, but could only just distinguish olive orchards and what looked like stone-pines, and in the distance the mountains. Next morning was a festa, and early I saw the peasants passing beneath my window in the costumes of their different villages. Both men and women wore thick white knitted stockings with coce the thongs of which were bound up their legs as far as the knee. The one narrow street of the place was crowded with peasants coming and going from market. When we went to the piazza we found it full of peasants and goods, and even the church steps were covered with crockery which was for sale. There was also a small merry-go-round, swings, and other entertainments. We went down the street, and found parts of it so narrow that one could shake hands across it. Most of the peasants wore immense elongated heart-shaped silver clasps five or six inches in length, with complicated designs, which were fastened to their shoulders to hold up their  richly-embroidered, gold and silver lace-covered bodices. These bodices were very brilliant, and they also had rosettes and bows of different coloured ribbons all down the sleeves. The peasants wore two or three rows of gold and silver beads, and they had gold earrings hanging right down on to their shoulders. Most of the earrings were large crescents and stars, and I saw one woman with a big triangle of gold hanging under the crescent. They wore rings on their fingers, and altogether they gave one the impression of being covered with gold and silver and colour. The headdresses were quite small, white handkerchiefs with wide borders of rich lace. Some of them were a deep cream colour, but I saw one blue one with orange stripes. Later on in the day, just before Mass, the market place became even more crowded with peasants buying and selling and amusing themselves at the different swings and other entertainments. After a time a queer dark man in a long old brown coat set up a broken chair on a stand. On the ground in front of it he put a small cardboard box. He said his wife was a clairvoyant and called her. She mounted the platform, sat on the chair, and the man blindfolded her eyes with a handkerchief. A crowd of peasants encircled the platform, and then the man hypnotised her, or pretended to do so, and she began muttering and shouting what was going to happen to the various peasants. The man got out a reed pipe, and, almost squatting on his heels, he began piping strange long drawn-out notes to the cardboard box as he bent over it. He swayed with this music, and said that a little animal was underneath and that when it heard the sound of the piping it would move the box and come out. We watched this curious crowd for some time, until the box moved, and the hat was passed round and coins put in. The bell then rang for mass, and a great number of the peasants went into the church, chattering and gesticulating as they went. We wandered down the narrow village street to the open country. It was the hottest time of day, and we sat down on the edge of a vineyard. There was a trickle of water down a steep bank, the side of which was overgrown with tall bamboos. To the left were olive orchards, and in front, close by us, were groups of large stone-pines. All round us were the mountains, with here and there a village perched on the steepest slopes. It was refreshing to be in the quiet after the stuffiness and noise of the market-place. Curious clouds like the most beautiful plumes and delicate net-work, and others looking like thin white witches with pointed wands and lances, rose behind the olives, and for a long time we lay and watched them change their shapes and melt away. The sound of distant voices and the tread of feet reached us, and we looked down the road between the stone-pines. Families of peasants were slowly coming along. Women in white head-dresses rode on mules and donkeys with children and babies, and their husbands, armed or carrying long poles and coloured umbrellas, walked by their sides. The women who walked carried their babies in a kind of sling, and the husbands rods; other children were learning to ride, sitting on the haunches of the animals. They were all going to market to buy or sell goods, and had come from far away in the mountains. Men folk will not let their women folk come alone, and, as the latter also will not let their husbands come alone, the result is that the whole family comes together. We followed them, and presently came to a bank by the roadside with steps leading to a piece of dried-up grass on top. There was a high cross on a stone pedestal, and steps round its base, and beyond were the cream and white plaster walls which encircled the convent garden. A door opened in this wall, and the Mother Superior, who was so old and bent that she could scarcely walk, tottered out. They brought a chair and a table, and the Mother Superior sat down, bottles and bandages were put on the table, and the nuns stood round. Then the sick and the crippled, who had been sitting and lying by the roadside waving their broken and diseased limbs towards us and asking for alms, struggled up the steps to her to be attended to. Their silent, pathetic appeal, the Eastern character of the country with the hot sun beating down, and the gentle way in which the Mother Superior bandaged their limbs and gave medicine, made me think of the Healer of long ago, wandering amongst the peasants of Palestine. Gratefully the peasants went on their way, but some stopped to rest in the shadow on the steps of the cross. There was one old blind woman, covered with sores and wrapped in a brown cloak and led by her old husband, who sat there a very long time. Other women with sores had cotton wool on their foreheads stuck on with sticking plaster, always in the shape of a cross, one arm of which came down the nose. The families of peasants nearly all brought offerings for the Mother Superior,---eggs, fruit, or whatever they had. The mother of the family took them to her, or sent one of the children. At the flight of steps they crossed themselves, bobbed, and then took their offerings, when they again crossed themselves before running off after their animals. Some had no offerings, and they just bobbed and crossed themselves at the steps and then went on. There was one family of most extraordinary people, a man and two women. They had evidently come from a village very far away, and were more frightened and shy of us than any of the others. Their faces were rather thin and pointed and a deep olive, and quite different from any other types we had seen. The women had thick black hair parted neatly, and a white Eastern-looking material bound round a little above their foreheads and hanging down their backs in two long streamers. They had very coarse bulky skirts and bodices of brown woollen material, cut rather low, with standing-out pointed flaps and cuffs lined with scarlet, which they used as pockets. They had narrow, coloured aprons in front, and small aprons behind, also of some Eastern-looking stuff woven in coloured stripes. The whole costume, including the streamers of the headdress, was bound down below the hips with a thick piece of a light blue kind of flannel. The women also had short trousers, white stockings, and the thongs of the coce wound up their legs. The man had baggy purple velvet trousers, coce, and white stockings, a blue shirt, brown waistcoat, and deep leather belt with red, green, and yellow tabs and laces, and a brown slouchy hat. We tried to make friends with them, but they kept turning their backs to us and looking on the ground, and finally they went off to the market. They were from Gallo, and tradition tells how the origin of their costume was because a great sinking took place in the middle of the village, threatening its destruction. The population in despair made a vow henceforward to dress with the same cloth as that of the friars, but, as they did not fulfil their vow, the sinking came again, and stopped only when the vow was kept.

On our way we passed a chapel with prints of hands on the plaster walls. They were all left hands, and only on one side of the chapel. I had noticed this in several villages. It was explained to me that men and boys dip their hand in something black and then put it flat on the wall, to leave a print of the whole hand. They do this for luck when they grow up, or before going on a journey, or before marriage. In some cases some of the fingers were missing, and one or two had only the palm and the thumb. I believe occasionally they make a print of the left hand before marriage, and then add the right hand after marriage, but the peasant who told me this did not want to say much about it, and was rather indefinite. He said that at the village of S. Cosimo dolls are sold in the saint’s honour, and all draw their hands on the church walls and on the entrance pavement, with pencil, chalk, or a nail, and they also write their names and the date.

We went out into the country at the other end of the village, and wandered through the olive orchards. From the road we heard the continual shout of "Ah, Ah." As the peasants and their animals returned to the mountains.

Looking towards the sunset, the road led away into the mountains, which were already becoming purple, for the sun was sinking. The mountain ranges formed an amethyst rampart cutting off the magic country of the Abruzzi from the world beyond. Twilight was descending, and then we met the "little old woman" (vecchiarella) who had promised us the stories. She greeted us with,---"When thou hearest words of hope, say,---‘Let the angel pass, Amen,’ but if wrong is expected, cry out ‘Let God’s angel not hear it.’"  The "little old woman" invited us to her house to hear what she had to tell us. We went up her creaky wooden stairs by the light of a dim old lamp of Roman shape to a small dark room in an upper storey, The street which it looked out on was so narrow, one could shake hands with one’s neighbour in the opposite window. The "little old woman" was keen to tell all she knew. She sat down, drew her chair close up to me, put a hand on each of my knees, and talked as hard and as fast as she could, and almost as if she were reciting a lesson. She described how, at Lent, a puppet is made up of black rags about twenty inches high, with a ring inside the skirt on which are hung samples of the food eaten during Easter,--- cod, bloaters, crowns of dried figs, chestnuts, nuts, and a small bottle of oil. An orange or a potato is hung in the centre, with seven feathers stuck in it. These are pulled out on each consecutive Sunday. In its hand the puppet hold a distaff and hemp, which is taken away on Sabbato Santo (Easter Saturday). Carnival is also represented by a woman doll cut out of paper with seven feet, one of which is taken away every Sunday. It is put under the chimney with a basket of fish over its head and a distaff at the side (S. Pelino). Sometimes a doll with seven feathers is hung from a rope between two houses. In some villages the puppet is made of an orange, a doll’s head, and forty feathers stuck in for the skirt. Each day in Lent a feather is pulled out, and finally the orange is taken away and thrown into the Tiber. I was told there was more of this custom, but could not trace it, and I could not definitely make out to which villages in the Abruzzi it belonged. At mid-Carnival, when the bells are rung, there is a tradition that the old woman is being sawn.

On the last day of Carnival, the Carnival figure is dressed as a shepherd in sheepskin and large hat, with a stick. The Easter figure is dressed in old worn-out clothes with a frying pan. They go round with the figure singing,---

Mi sono impegnato il cantenaccio I have pawned the door bolt
Per comperarmi un gallinaccio To buy a turkey
Easter answers:  
"Io son tanto poverella I am so poor
Ho impegnato la padella I have pawned the door bolt
Per comprar una sardella To buy a sardine

Finally a straw puppet is made, put on a ladder, or a bar, and carried round, a mock Requiem Mass said upon it with lighted candles (moccoletti), and "E morto il Carnevale" (Carnival is dead) is sung.

At Easter the priest comes to bless the different houses and the pizza (a kind of tart of eggs) is made, which he blesses, together with salami (sausages), eggs, and sheep. On Easter Day, before eating the pizza and the other food, a paternoster is said.   At S. Biagio, wine bottles, bread, and salt are blessed during Mass.

On Giovedi Santo (Holy Thursday), pots of corn, lentils, flax, and lupins are taken to the Easter Sepulchre in the church. The plants are grown in boxes and kept in the dark to make them pale, and heated by braziers to quicken their growth. They are tied in bunches with coloured ribbons and are left in the church from Wednesday evening until Good Friday evening, when they are carried in procession, by the women and the children sing "Stabat Mater Dolorosa, Juxta Crucem lacrymosa." Shops are open and show their wares. The butchers have a large quantity of lambs and kids killed for the occasion, the carcasses being decorated with ribbons. The windows of the village are illuminated, the shops are full of sugar lambs and chocolate eggs, and all cradles, basins, conche, glasses, pails, amphore (jars), and other utensils are decorated. The plants which have been blessed are kept religiously, and then left in the middle of the fields, because they bring good fortune and ensure good crops.

The following day, Good Friday, the Easter Sepulchre in the church is guarded by two or four guards in armour, with swords or spears, representing the Jews. They begin to go to sleep and suddenly fall with a great noise (bocconi), flat on their faces, until the priest, when taking the Sacrament, sings the "Vexilla."

Then they rise, look into the Sepulchre, and not finding Our Saviour come away, following the procession with the points of their swords and spears pointing downwards.

On the Saturday of the Resurrection, guns and mortars are fired, bells rung, and peasants scream and sing and make a great noise to expel the devil from the houses, where on the death of Our Saviour he has taken refuge. On this same morning many do not light the fire unless the priest lights it in solemn ceremony. Neighbours bring firewood, which is kindled from the priest’s fire. Some of the ashes are put in a hole outside the wall of the house, and the rest put in a tree to keep misfortune away from the house and fields. The ashes of the last fire lighted are put in the fireplace and in the water for the minestra. They are a protection against sore throats, and if three drops of wax from the three candles lit by the priest for the new fire drop on anyone’s hat, that person is safe against lightning, provided he keeps his hat on.

On the eve of Ascension Day an egg is put on the windowsill outside. When it is blessed by the passing of the Madonna it remains for ever sound.

Finally, on Ascension Day all the owners of animals, (cows and goats), compliment each other by exchanging their milk. With this they bake their minestra of paste or rice. This is in honour of the festivity, because our Saviour ascended to heaven distributing milk. During the procession a large pail of milk is kept in the piazza, and the clergy and other drink it from a ladle, wishing good luck to the cattle and the sheep returning from Apulia.The light in the little room became more uncertain, for the oil from the small lamp was burning low. I hoped it would last, for I felt the least disturbance would check the talk. Several peasants, who had heard we were up in this little room, had climbed the rickety wooden stairs, which creaked in spite of their care not to disturb us. They stood in the doorway, smoking and listening, then they entered and also joined in the conversation; they had lost their fear of the stranger, and were so interested, and themselves intent on what they were saying, that they continued regardless of time or surroundings, and we sat on listening long into the night. One of them was from Chieti, and another from Ortona. They had come for the market, and it was fortunate for me that they were in Isernia just at this time. Giuseppe of Accumoli said that in the time of King Ferdinand of Bourbon there was a schoolroom facing the Municipality, where the Satan ball was danced at the Carnival. All danced in their shirts, and when the clock struck midnight every light was put out. A certain Valegnani, when the clock struck twelve, went from the room, leaving his partner alone. The following evening he again went to the ball; when the lights went out, the woman who was his partner the previous evening had him put into a sack and rolled down the steps of the entrance. The same man was afterwards accused, tried, and shot under a tree, in the wood of Difesa Vecchi (1860). During the night his children hid his body, first burying it under a manure heap, and then in the carnajo (common grave).

Carlo, one of the peasants, asked if we knew how the peasants on 1st May make the lessata (stock-pot) with Indian corn, oats, peas, beans, big beans, wheat, etc., and distribute it among their neighbours for a pledge of abundance. Those who ask for it say,---

Padrona, dammi la lessata di majo Mistress, give me the lessata of May
Possa far piei grano che paglia, Mayest thou make more corn straw
Se tu non me la vuoi dar, If thou wishest not to give it me
ossa fare tutta paglia. Mayest thou make only straw.

"At Pescocostanzo, on the 1st May, children carry on their heads baskets, in the centre of which there is an old onion in flower. They stop at each singing,---

O cute majo O May,
Fiore di cavallo Flower of the horse
Fiore di montone, Flower of the sheep
Se saluto alla padrona Salutation to the mistress

"And the mistress then gives them a plate of grain."

Carlo also said that, when sowing in October, peasants give their embers to light other people’s fires, as otherwise their wheat would suffer from the befana and their maize from the tizzone (two diseases, tizzone meaning "brand").

From October to May, nearly all the men of Capracotta take their flocks to Apulia. Others go to Latium or Calabria to make charcoal in the woods or to sell their speciality, saddles made with hooks for carrying things. Their wives complain of their absence in song, "Marito me’nce pozzi ariveni, Vuo’bene chiu all’ aino che no a mi." (Husband, canst thou not return, Thou lovest more the lamb than me.) The husband answers,--"Mogliera me’ te puozze consula, senza dell’ aino non se po’ campa.." (My wife, thou canst console thyself, without the lamb we cannot live.) Winter is very hard at Capracotta, which is 5000 feet above the sea and is the highest village of the Abruzzi. The houses are often blocked by snow or ice, and the only way to get out is to climb through the windows. The women wear their stockings over their boots, so as not to slip, and sing,---"La luna di Jennaio" or "La campana di Maggio." ("The moon of January" or "The bell of May.") The "bell" means the "din don" of the return of flocks.

In Capracotta the church (Chiesa Madra) and the small chapel of the Madonna di Loreto are a mile from the village. Behind the altar of the chapel there is a Madonna in a blue gown, with diadem and necklaces covered with jewellery, and silver and gold ex votos. She is hidden by a curtain, which is pulled aside for her to be seen. Her body is the upper part of the trunk of a tree cut down in the forest, the pedestal being the lower part of the trunk, the Madonna having appeared on this tree in the wood. When the rumour of her apparition spread, the trunk was taken to Chiesa Madra, but the Madonna herself again returned to the wood. The feast of this Madonna is every three years on the 8th September, and at the same time as that of the mules. The Madonna is taken round the village, escorted by draped mules, to the Chiesa Madre in procession. In the evening of the third and last day of the feast, the mules, mounted by their master, form a semi-circle before the church, and follow the procession, with lighted torches, carrying the Madonna and stopping at the houses, in front of which small tables are arranged with lighted candles for the donations and ex votos which are given to the Madonna on her return to the chapel.

It grew very late. The oil lamp had flickered out. A brilliant square patch of moonlight fell on the floor, its reflected light dimly illuminating the faces of the peasants, who still puffed away at their pipes. My "little old woman" had drawn her ancient shawl closely round her, for there was a freshness in the night air blowing from the distant hills. There were queer noises in the loft overhead, from rats. But I was accustomed to rats running along beams and rafters while I slept, and I scarcely noticed them. They too were part of the world of legend. I looked up at the little patch of sky visible between the roofs of the opposite house. In spite of the bright moonlight the stars were brilliant. "It is bright as the night of Christmas," said "the little old woman," "and those rats, they make a noise, but thou knowest before Christ all animals spoke; now, they speak only at Christmas and Whitsuntide nights, and both animals who speak and those who listen to them die, and the stables and bed of the animals are therefore made ready before the Ave Maria. It is the moment when the Bambino was born they talk, and all donkeys kneel and the ends of the horns of the cattle become luminous, but no visits are paid at Christmas, because only witches born on that night go about."

"What happens when the stars fall?" I asked. "Everyone has their star," she answered, "and the strong have the bright ones. Falling stars are departing souls; when anyone dies a star is extinguished, and where they fall they bring misfortune. Children, when they die, are innocent, and go ‘to marry God’ (sposare Dio), and from the windows we throw confetti on to the coffin." I was still looking at the stars---"When thou praisest or admirest, mention God (Ddi l’abbendiche) or there will be misfortune," she said.

Next day we were leaving for North Italy and  home,---London. The modern world was a far-away dream, and my thoughts dwelt on our present mediaeval surroundings, the amethyst hills, and the crimson sunset, and these simple peasants whose confidence we had gained and who were now our friends. Outside in the moonlight was the distant range of mountains, the faint whisper of the night breeze in the stone-pines, and beyond?

***********

Just as I had finished this book a young Abruzzese, now tall and sunburnt, who was a child at the time of the earthquake in 1915, sleeping out on the mountain side, came to see me. He has settled in England, and has married. He brought me a piece of wedding cake, some silver sugar bells, and sugar confetti with almonds to wish me "Good Luck."



 A Traveller in Southern Italy  by H.V. Morton
Chapter 6  Pages 20 to 27

I know of only two books in English about the Abruzzi; one is Keppel Craven's Excursions in the Abruzzi (1835), which is a straightforward account of a horseback tour, and Through the Apennines and Lands of the Abruzzi, by Estella Canziani (1928), which describes a sketching expedition undertaken by the young artist and her father in the autumn of 1913.  The author was interested in persuading the women to sit for her, and in gathering stories, legends and poems, in which she was successful.   Reading this admirable narrative one is astonished by the changes which have taken place in the Abruzzi during the fifty odd years since the author was there.  Estella Canziani saw a mediaeval society.  All the women, old and young, wore regional costume, and there were few roads.  She and her parent travelled by train, then on to the mountain villages by carrier's cart or by mule or on foot.  Hotels did not exist in most places, the food was foul and often bedrooms swarmed with vermin.  The author never reflects that she was in the country of the Marsi, indeed she appears to have been unaware of it; nevertheless the uninhibited way her casual acquaintances discussed the spells and incantations, witches and sorcery, werewolves, and maloochio, the Evil Eye, proved that the region possessed its ancient link with magic, as it still does.

This is how some villagers not far from Aquila greeted the author: 'By this time it had gone round that two strangers had come, and that one of them (myself) wore a strange white hat, and the whole village came to inspect us, saying nothing like my panama had ever been seen before.  While our things were being carried up, they felt me all over, both my skirt and clothes and hat, and then they picked up the pencil, knife and scissors which hung on a chain from my belt, and wished to know if I were a tailor.   Next they wanted to see my hair, so to satisfy them I took off my hat, and to their amazement they found it was not black like theirs, and that my cheeks were not nearly so brown.  They tried to pull down my hair, because they were surprised to see that it was not all worn away by tight nets and head-dresses, but I escaped by saying "Un'altra volta".  They promptly said that I must come from a very long way to be so different, that I should certainly be ill in their barren and rough ugly mountains, for there was no beautiful food.'

Since that extraordinary scene there have been two wars, new roads have been built over the mountains, the village motor bus has arrived, and so have radio and television.  It is inconceivable that such a scene could ever occur again, even in the most remote village of the Abruzzo.
The author describes the frightful sleeping quarters which she and her heroic parent often endured.  'I went to bed early, but I had been only in bed ten minutes when I felt something nibbling my toes, and I caught five large bugs.  I got up, and put up the livinge, a kind of calico sack one ties oneself in, with a mosquito curtain top with canes to keep it away from one's face, and I got into it and went to bed again.  But it was suffocatingly hot, and I spent nearly the whole of the night watching thirty bugs rushing up and down in the moonlight trying to find a hole through which they could get at me.  I do not know what happened to my father.'  She mentions a photographer who had to fly for his life from villages because soon after he had taken a photograph a thunderstorm broke over the mountains, followed by hail that flattened the crops, which the peasants put down to the Evil Eye of his camera.

The area of Estella Canziani's explorations was confined to Aquila and Sulmona and a few of the neighbouring villages.  Among those which the author painted and described were S. Stefano and Castel del Monte, both of them only a few miles from Aquila.  Thinking that I should like to see what these places are like today, I set off one afternoon and motored east to a little town called Barisciano, where a secondary road winds and twists over the lower slopes of the Campo Imperatore, with the snow-dusted mass of the Gran Sasso d'Italia beyond.  What a landscape it is!  To the north there was nothing but the uninhabited wilderness of the Campo Imperatore above whose tough grasses two peregrine falcons were hunting, while to the south rolled pointed hills, each one bearing upon its summit a white village like an illustration from a Book of Hours, I was never out of sight of these picturesque hill towns and villages, and I rarely travelled a mile without meeting peasants with their mules or seeing them in the small fields, packing meagre crops of hay into sacks which were then loaded upon the backs of mules or donkeys.  And women, always women, were working away with rakes or sickles, their heads tied in handkerchiefs, their black skirts blowing in the wind, their legs in thick black knitted stockings, and their feet in hob-nailed boots.  Old and lined at thirty, and bearing upon their shoulders, with apparent willingness, the whole burden of life, those patient women amazed me by their industry.  Sometimes they would be seen walking behind a laden donkey, not idly but knitting as they walked.  As the road climbed, long stretches which are subject to snowdrifts in the winter were marked out with lines of tall striped poles.  How different, I thought, are the gentle hills of Tuscany from this wild Abruzzo land, all the difference between a man of the Renaissance and a man of the Middle Ages.

On this beautiful late spring afternoon with the warmth of summer in it, I came at last to the little mountain village of S. Stefano, piled on a height whose slopes descended almost sheer into the valley.  In 1913 Estella Canziani said it 'looked like a fairy town', and to me on this afternoon fifty-three years later it had the same look, indeed I thought of the palace of the Sleeping Beauty, for everywhere was silence.  I drove to an embattled gateway where I had to leave the car.  I saw upon the archway a shield of the Medici, six palle beneath a ducal crown once the entrance to a palace.  Mediaeval and Renaissance buildings stood everywhere in narrow lanes, silent and deserted, some with delightful stone window frames, others with balconies.  I recognized the oriental-looking street of archways painted by Estella Canziani in which she shows a group of women, each one in regional costume.  Now there was not a soul to be seen.  That life still existed in the village was proved by hens and chickens which ran about the streets and by a mule or a donkey in a stable whose gateposts were of marble.  While I was admiring the picturesque flights of steps that led to some of the houses, I saw an old man watching me.  He wore a battered felt hat, and he looked a cheerful kind of person, I spoke to him but could not understand his reply.  Then he replied with obvious delight in what was, remotely, English, or rather American-Irish.  He was what is known as an 'Americano', one who had spent some years in South America or the United States and had returned home.  He told me his name was Domenico Necco and that he was seventy-three years old.  he had worked in the United States for twenty-six years, for some of the time as a coal miner in Pittsburgh.

I told him that I had read a book written about fifty years ago in which S. Stefano was described as a town full of people.  Yes, he said, that was so, but now the inhabitants had descended to the valley and only a few like himself and his wife continued to live in the old houses.  He stood aside and indicated a stone stairway that led up to his house and asked if I would like to enter.  An old woman came out wiping her hands on her apron and asking who I was, at the same time rebuking her husband for introducing me at a moment when she was so untidy and so busy, though I was not intended to hear this.  I entered a small room whose window was set in a wall about two feet thick.  In front of a wood fire sat a speckled hen that had recently hatched a clutch of eggs.  Some of the first-born were peeping out from her wing feathers, and one ran lost about the kitchen peeping miserably while the hen clucked in maternal dismay.  Though the room was so old there was electric light, and, an incongruous touch, a spotless white electric stove.

I was shown into an adjoining sitting-room whose window offered a splendid glimpse of the distant valley.  There were pictures of saints upon the walls, but the chief decoration was one of the large dolls with its foolish smile, the sister of the doll in the castle of Celano, still in its cardboard box, upright upon a chair.  I looked at its mass of brassy blonde curls and thought what an odd possession it was for an aged couple.

We sat at a table while Domenico produced two glasses and his wife entered with a jug of pink juice which he told me he had pressed from his own grapes in a vineyard in the valley.  She refused to join us and bustled away.  I thought the drink was fruit juice, but it was more potent.  Domenico was full of reminiscences, none of them really of interest, about the United States and the money that could be earned there, but he knew nothing about the history of S. Stefano.  He had heard that there was once a splendid castle there - perhaps the medici gateway had been a part of it - and he thought that some of the old houses may have been formed from its rooms and built in its courtyards.

I told him I was going on to Castel del Monte and he said he would like to accompany me.  his wife objected, saying he was far too untidy, whereupon he vanished for some moments to reappear wearing a new felt hat.  This appeared to mollify the old woman, and we set off across the mountains.

From a distance Castel del monte appeared to be an enchanted town from the world of Merlin, but when we arrived the magic soon disintegrated in a depressing, but not unexpected, way, and we found ourselves trudging up steep cobbled streets between stark stone houses where children played in the gutter and learn cats slunk swiftly from door to door.

It was here that Estella Canziani was awakened at two o'clock in the morning by a screaming girl and thinking that she had been attacked by wolves, flew to her bedroom window and asked the girl if she needed help.  She replied that she had been delayed in the mountains and was only trying to awaken her family.  'I could see from my window.'  I saw neither wolves nor sheep in Castel del Monte, but I did see a fine selection of dogs which included a Dobermann Pinscher with a long tail, a liver-coloured retriever that might have ingratiated himself out of an eighteenth century aquatint, a number of the little Carpaccio dogs and most interesting of all, a tough Abruzzo sheepdog like a white St. Bernard, wearing a spiked collar to protect him from wolves.  But we have them only in the winter, said a local man, speaking of wolves, as if referring to influenza.

Estella Canziani had a gruesome story about the church here.  She wrote that there were caves below in which the dead were buried dressed and seated on cane chairs.  One day a man making some alterations to his cellar broke into one of the caves and was horrified to see a dead priest seated there, wearing a big hat, his chin supported by a wooden fork.  In 1912 bricklayers at work in the church broke into the caves by accident and were so appalled by what they saw that they ran for the schoolmistress.  She lighted a piece of paper and threw it into the cave to illuminate the scene and so set fire to the skeletons, which burned so furiously that a hose had to be laid on from the public fountain.  But the fire was not put out until every skeleton had been destroyed.  The caves were then filled with earth and lime.   The villagers I spoke to had no memories of this, or did not wish to discuss it, or believed that I may have had some ulterior motive in mentioning it.  I began to wish that I could meet some of the uninhibited creatures who spoke so freely to Estella Canziani half a century ago.  This town was then completely isolated.  The village bus which drew up in the piazza was still in the future; the television aerial which sprouted from the roof of a café was an unimaginable revelation, and the parents and grandparents of the modern inhabitants belonged to another world.  While I was wondering whether they were any better off, or happier, than their fierce and arrogant forebears, old Domenico was greeted fulsomely, slapped on the back and kissed by a friend of his, a lorry driver, who insisted that we should visit his house.  he was a much younger man and, I think, a relative.  We descended from the town and walked up a steep hill on the outskirts, coming at last to a stone cottage with a superb view of the town, lifting itself, tier upon tier, to culminate in the dome and campanile of the church, now outlined against the sunset.  I wondered what to expect as we mounted some stairs to a room on the first floor.  Was I to see one of those picturesque peasant gatherings visible half a century ago?  I entered a spotless suburban parlour where three women were chatting while their children played on the floor.  I never discovered who they were, for there burst into the room an elderly woman of such exuberant vitality that she entirely dominated everything and everybody.  She was the lorry-driver's mother.  After a few questions about me, she opened her arms and greeted me as if I were a long lost member of the family.   She darted away and returned with a bottle of anisette and some small glasses.   her expressive eyes in her lined face gave the impression that a gay young woman of twenty was entombed within an old woman.  I could not understand a word she said, but her gestures and expressions were a language anyone could read.  I thought that she was the type of peasant woman who sometimes in history has ruled kings and held the destiny of nations in her hands, given intellect; without it, of course, such vivacious females can become a public nuisance.

It was dusk when I dropped Domenico in his silent mediaeval town.  He stood wearing his new hat, a small cigar between his lips.  He looked as if he had been up to no good, yet I was witness to the blamelessness of our little outing.  It was dark when I reached Aquila.

TOP
Home ]  Site Map
     MapBack ]    Up ] Chronology