Ghosts in Love

INTRODUCTION

It’s good when people read your blog and put a “like” below a post.

It’s even better when readers put a nice comment too.

But it’s wonderfully unexpected when someone reading your post actually gets inspired to write a short story about it. This is what happened to us when we visited Pontremoli, described in our post at:

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/on-or-off-the-rails-to-pontremoli/

and where we entered, quite by accident, into one of the most beautiful abandoned palazzi we’ve ever seen in Italy.

Maurizio Bardi is a writer, journalist and publisher, passionate about saving Italy’s beautiful neglected princesses of palaces from complete neglect and decay. We consider ourselves privileged that he wrote this short story after reading our post. It’s not just a ghost story or a fairy tale: it also carries a particularly strong punch regarding some local political situations in present day Pontremoli. We’ve translated his evocative Italian prose into English. Thank you Maurizio! Read on and enjoy.

PREFACE

They visited Pontremoli. They entered into the Palazzo Damiani. They took some photographs and asked themselves some questions. Then they posted their thoughts on their internet blog. And if Alexandra and Francis were ghosts returned in search of their home after nearly three hundred years? Maybe…, Everything else, however, is true, including the history of the theatre curtain.

On July 11, 2014 an English couple, Alexandra and Francis, on a visit to Pontremoli, entered by chance into Palazzo Damiani and published their disenchanted thoughts on the internet. This event inspired the following short story.

Maurizio Bardi

GHOSTS IN LOVE

We felt a great wish to return to our room, in our building. Dozens of palaces, monuments of great beauty sited between two rivers, were built in eighteenth century Pontremoli.

Our building is open and unattended. Outside in the street some young people playing football, a strange game involving kicking a ball, shout and break the silence. They upset us. Farther along the horn of an iron wagon they now call a car is booming.

Nearly three centuries have passed. Why has the pleasure of silence disappeared? We are no longer able to listen. Where are those friends who frequented our palace, those intelligent souls who told us about new ideas from Paris, who spoke about the Enlightenment wandering from one place to another? Did they disappear along with Nicolò Contestabili’s frescoes, along with the collapsing walls and windows, along with our conversations in front of the fireplace?

Alexandra, my beloved, says to me: “Look at our ‘Dawn’; the fresco is now unrecognizable because of its abandonment. Remember when, under ‘Dawn’, Stefano Bertolini read us his preface to “The Spirit of Laws,” which had been requested by Montesquieu? Or do you recollect when he told us of his commitment to the legislative reforms of eighteenth century Tuscany?”

“Do you recall how the Pontremoli nobles criticized my ideas about the Enlightenment? They called me the revolutionary, the Palazzo Damiani revolutionary.”

We look for our room in the twilight. Its alcove is crumbling. The frescoed ceiling is collapsing. The walls and the plaster are collapsing. The world is collapsing. How painful! Even we, ghosts, grieve and suffer!

Francis is lost. Pleasure, which was the basis of his philosophy of a carefree and light-hearted life, has been stolen from him; that philosophy emanating from the works of Natali and Contestabili, those eighteenth century painters who gave Pontremoli its splendour.

“What can we do?” Francis asks Alexandra.

“I’ve already done something, but it was useless!”

“I don’t understand.”

“I’ve been to the mayor’s office and I made a painting fall down …”

“And the mayor?” Was she scared? “

“No. So I made it fall down again.”

“And what did she do?”

“She thought it was an attack by her political enemies. She called in a security guard and ordered him to stand still, fixed in front of the painting and guard it, day and night. I made the picture fall down again. Then the guard understood. He started talking about ghosts, but no one believed him. The guard is the only one who understands but just as he starts talking about ghosts they tell him to stop drinking. “

“So?”

“So”, continued Alexandra, “I went to the Town Hall, in the room of a type of foreman. He’s the person taking care of the city’s palaces. I looked for the file on Palazzo Damiani and upset the sheets of paper on his desk, just to make him irritated.”

“Very good!”

“When he returned and saw the papers scattered everywhere he began to shout. He yelled at his deputy foreman in the room next door. He screamed that he must stop touching his documents when he wasn’t there! His face reddened, he took all the files and began to throw them about. Gradually every space in the room was filled with white sheets. He looked like a ghost! “

“Leave it well alone. If we get involved, it could also happen that the whole building collapses. Definitely.”

“Why do you say that?”

Francis’s voice saddened: “Do you remember our wonderful theatre by the river, the Rose Theatre, also built with funds from our family? They renewed it. It was he, the master builder, who was works-manager. I was happy, so I went to have a look. I looked for the terracotta floors hand-made with Terrarossa clay. I looked for the walnut doors of the master carpenters behind which we hid during the festivals. I looked for the painting before which guests arriving at the theatre remained enchanted. They are no longer there. Now they are elsewhere. But where?

I then looked for the vast theatre curtain painted by Contestabili whose creation we saw being completed day by day – a great work of art. I looked all over until I flew up into the attic. I found the curtain there in the corner, huge, curled, dying, and rotting. A great masterpiece that once had enthralled audiences was now abandoned, and before long it will be completely decomposed. “

“I can’t believe it.”

Perched on the alcove railing, exhausted, Alexandra falls asleep. I gaze out of the window that looks over what was once a small pleasant, gentle garden surrounded by arches and think about our longing, our desire to create a world which is, however, beyond that barrier that we ghosts cannot surmount.

“Let’s go”, Alexandra whispers in a soft voice. “We can’t do anything and perhaps it’s better that way.”

Then, suddenly, as if it is resurrection night for ghosts, she confronts him: “Francis, wake up! There’s no time to lose, you must tell. It’s true we are ghosts, but with the internet we ghosts can become something else!

Maurizio Bardi

Alexandra and Francis’s blog is at:

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/on-or-off-the-rails-to-pontremoli/

Topolino – alias Mickey Mouse

Our train from Aulla to Filatteria was slow but not slow enough to stop there. We had, therefore, an unplanned halt at Pontremoli waiting for the next train to take us back to Filatteria. During our break we visited parts of the town we hadn’t seen on our previous visit last July and did some shopping.

For elevenses we had a piece of focaccia which we ate in a small play-garden.

This area for me strangely summed up everything which is both right and wrong about Italy. In its present uncared-for state the garden was quite depressing but it must have been a pleasant place once.

Overgrown grass was littered with beer bottles and cans (fortunately we didn’t notice any syringes as in some other places).

The play equipment was hopelessly out of date and dangerous. Unmaintained and without any chance of a soft landing for the children, it looked suicidal.

In the centre of the garden was a round pond with lots of large goldfish in it. At one stage an old gentleman came and fed the fish with some bits of bread. At least there was a little sign of love in this forlorn place.

Our attention was then drawn to a statue at the garden’s far end. Was Mickey Mouse looking at us? Surely not!

But it was Mickey with Donald and Pluto – Italian style and cast in bronze over a marble plinth which had an inscription.

Translated this reads:

The “City of Books” foundation donates these Walt Disney characters to the city of Pontremoli grateful to “Arnoldo Mondadori” publishers who have genialy offered them to Italy”s children.

There are two cartoon booklets respectively called “Topolino” (Mickey Mouse) and Paperino” (Donald Duck) in Italy which are not only read by kids but by adults too. The booklets have the adventures of the Walt Disney characters, often in serial form, and introducing new characters which, in the English-speaking world, are unknown. All the stories are written and drawn by Italians.

When the “Topolino” booklet first came out in 1949 (there had been a Topolino comic strip in newspapers during the 1930’s but in WWII,  with fascism and in an anti-US campaign, Mussolini ordered “Topolino” to be changed into a non-mouse character – but with similar characteristics – called “Tuffolino”) it was immediately a great hit and has remained so ever since. It’s certainly my favourite reading on a lazy beach afternoon.

There have been notable cartoonists working for “Topolino” – two of the best were Guido Martina e Giovan Battista Carpi. The stories are always fun to read and also very useful for those learning Italian! To date I’ve never found any Mickey Mouse cartoon magazine approaching anywhere near the quality of the Italian equivalent, so “Topolino” it is!

But how did the Italian publishers get away with copyright restrictions imposed by the Disney Company? By putting their own copyright on the name “Topolino”, which has a double meaning. “Topolino” means “little mouse” and “Topo Lino” means a mouse called Lino.  There is more information at http://www.topolino.it/

Looking out from the gardens was this once proud doorway with FIAT written at the top (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino) – once proud because FIAT is no longer based in Turin but now forms part of the US Chrysler Corporation (Sic Transit…)

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To return to the statue(s) in Pontremoli’s forlorn play garden – I’m thinking of writing to Disneyland to see if they can help spruce things up a little for the children in this part of the world. It’s so sad that this once happy and proud little corner of Pontremoli has been reduced to such a sorry state – a hang-out for alcoholics, stray cats and this elegant collared dove:

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The Magical Steles of Pontremoli

We continued our walk towards Pontremoli Main Square where the famous steles, which were the main reason for our visit, are housed in the undercroft of the town hall. We’d so much wanted to see them and now we were so close to them!

The streetscape was delightful as was the main square. There were many noble palaces which had been tastefully restored and some rather unusual balconies too. The old town gate showed traces of a portcullis:

We crossed a charming bridge over the river Magra which had to be reconstructed after the Germans blew it up in April 25th  1945. As the war in Italy finished on April 27th, with the hanging of Mussolini in Piazzale Loreto in Milan, this bridge must have been one of the last casualties of that war. Apart from this, we saw very little of war damage such as virtually flattened Aulla further down the valley. Indeed, the streets we passed through were full of character and reminded us that Pontremoli was once an important staging post for pilgrims on the via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome, and obtained much wealth from important pilgrims.

One of its past travellers was Sigeric, who was abbot of Glastonbury. In 990 Sigeric  travelled to Rome to receive his abbot’s authority from Pope John XV and the diary he kept of his itinerary provides one of the most valuable documents about the via Francigena and its precise route. On his death Sigeric was buried in Canterbury cathedral.

The steles are normally on display in the castle of Piagnaro, just above the town, but since this was undergoing restoration they had been moved to their present location.

Our initial disappointment at not being able to visit the steles in the castle were quickly allayed by the fact that they are displayed in a rather more suitable location here, in the deep recesses of the mediaeval undercroft of the palazzo municipal rather than being huddled together in a brightly lit room in the castle.

What are these steles and what do they tell us of the civilization that produced them? They are classified into three groups A, B and C depending on their style and provenance, which is generally in the upper Lunigiana region. They unmistakably are burial memorials, very much like the traditional graveyard stones one gets in old English churchyards, and represent either male or female forms.

The males always carry some dagger which is a symbol of their temporal power and class – the females have small petite breasts which indicate their importance in fertility ceremonies. Some steles have necks, others don’t. Some have even lost their heads, although their necks show evidence of jewellery, like torques. Eyes are downcast, faces are highly stylised and mouths are hidden, perhaps because they were considered the entrance to the soul which had to be heavily protected.

More than this not much is known about them except that the steles extend in age from over four thousand years ago to the beginning of the Etruscan period around 300 BC. (One of these later ones has an inscription in a Ligurian-Etruscan language on it).

Are there any connections between these steles and the rest of stone and bronze age Europe? A chart at the museum illustrated dolmens from Wales and the ring of Brodgar from Orkney, both of which we had visited, but stated that these other monuments had no human or anthropomorphic representations on them, although they were clearly part of a huge megalithic culture with frequent contacts between each other from as far afield as Malta to Orkney.

However, both my wife and I were sure we’d seen something like these particular steles before. We racked our brains and realised that we’d seen comparable stones on an island in Lough Earne, Co.  Fermanagh, Northern Ireland – Boa Island – which we’d visited in distant 1992 during an extensive visit around the emerald isle. In both cases the human shape is much stylised, and emphasis is given to the upper limbs. In both cases too, a few steles, appear to have been deliberately damaged or disfigured – in the case of Pontremoli by cutting some of them in half. Several of these steles were even used later as building stone for subsequent buildings and were discovered and recovered from them as recently as twenty years ago.

Why the deliberate destruction? My opinion is that the steles, both Italian and Irish, represented the cult of ancient pagan gods which were subsequently deemed as unbecoming with the growth of Christianity. They became considered works of the devil and were either hidden or damaged.

Whatever power they possessed once, whatever methods were used to disposess them of their esoteric powers the steles continue to hold an immense presence today. We both fell under their arcane magic and received strange pulsations from looking into their eyes, counting the fingers of their hands and just being with them alone. For there were few other visitors around when we met these petrified people from another age.

Such is the supremacy of great and profound art –it communicates without having to be understood. We didn’t know the names of the gods these people worshipped, let alone their own personal names. We had no idea of their beliefs and yet, in some unfathomable way, they were expressing to us things about themselves that our subconscious was receiving. The great Seamus Heaney put it well in that poem he wrote about the Irish steles on Boa island:  “January God”:

……..

God-eyed, sex-mouthed, its brain

A watery wound. 

In the wet gap of the year,

Daubed with fresh lake mud,

I faltered near his power —-

January God. 

Who broke the water, the hymen

With his great antlers —-

There reigned upon each ghost tine

His familiars,

The mothering earth, the stones

Taken by each wave,

The fleshy aftergrass, the bones

Subsoil in each grave. 

 

………

 

 

 

 

On (or off?) the Rails to Pontremoli

What’s the point of always using the car to visit places in Italy when, with a little careful planning and consultation of the Trenitalia web site, one can enjoy beautiful countryside, not worry about crazy roads (and crazy drivers) and reach one’s destination refreshed and ready to explore on foot? Train travel is still incredibly cheap in this country if one avoids all those high speed express trains and uses the much more enjoyable local branch lines which fortunately have been largely saved the terrible fate which Dr. Beeching imposed on their UK versions.

When yesterday promised good weather, we decided to visit Pontremoli which is famous for its prehistoric steles (more of that later.). We took the train from Bagni di Lucca and changed at the superstation of Aulla where there are no human station attendants in sight but where we met a friendly station barman with an attractive train set (0 gauge) running all the way round the well-equipped refreshment room’s upper walls. Unfortunately, the trains were not working on that day in the bar because of a derailment. We hoped this was not a sign that the full-scale Italian railways we were using were going to run into a similar spot of bother.

Interestingly, the rolling stock of this enterprising barman’s railway was modelled on the Austrian Zillertal railway which coincidentally has also supplied some of the rolling stock for the Welshpool and Llanfair Caereinion light railway in Powys Wales which we are very familiar with, having resided on-and-off in that area for close on twenty years.

There were going to be more strange coincidences between this part of Italy and the Celtic parts of the British Isles, including not only Wales but also Scotland and Ireland, as we were later to discover that day.

There’s a lot more to Pontremoli than its museum of prehistoric finds as we found out. The old centre has some picturesque corners in varying state of attractive decay. Almost immediately, for example, we were invited through an unlocked door into an abandoned baroque palace of unimaginable splendour. Every room on the piano Nobile was a majestic and enthralling display of beautiful frescoes and also of great sadness as the vandals had already been there and ripped out many fittings including what must have been glorious fireplaces. This mixture of grandeur and decay, of majesty and misery touched us with both astonishment and melancholy.

Why was this palace abandoned? What was life in it like once? What grand soirees, what ladies flouncing crinolines and gentlemen in periwigs, what orchestras playing gavottes and minuets, what flunkeys adorning the walls, what mountains of venison and jellied fruits, what amorous trysts were enacted under those mythological ceilings populated with angels and loving gods and goddesses? Imagination ran riot as we entered one dusty, empty room after another and more and more rubble surrounded our path.

Our little adventure in the unknown territory of Pontremoli had begun and a lot more was to follow that day …..