From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 61
Mysteries of Gioviano
The Mask that Cried Tears of Blood

Back in the days when the entire family had to squeeze into tiny Casa Giorgio, we purchased a set of bunk beds for Anne and Jane to sleep on in the upper room, which was reached via a steep ladder with a rope handrail. One of the items that we hung on the wall as a decoration in the children’s room was a terracotta mask of a female character from a Greek tragedy.

Her eyes were vacant, holes, and her mouth had a pained expression. You might be asking why we would want to torture our children with something that might be frightening, but at the time, we really didn’t perceive the mask to be anything other than an interesting decorative item.

Soon after it was hung on the wall, Anne climbed up into her room and started yelling, “The mask is bleeding!”

“What are you talking about? Have you gone nuts? That’s impossible!” I yelled back as I climbed up the steep stairs to see what she was hallucinating about.

There on the floor leading to the room was a trail of red drops with the consistency of blood, and there were what appeared to be tears of the same substance that had streamed down her cheeks. For some mysterious reason, none of us were especially frightened by this strange phenomenon. It was decided after scrubbing the floor that the tragic figure was unhappy having been hung in that particular room.

We took her down to the patio and hung her on the outside wall of the house in a position that allowed her to look out over the valley. We hung a horseshoe next to her for good luck, and she hasn’t cried blood since that day many years ago.

The upper room is sort of a mystery in and of itself. It was not built as a part of Casa Giorgio, but was originally part of a much older house that predates Casa Giorgio by two or three hundred years. Perhaps the mask, having been molded into a tragic expression, felt that something even more tragic had occurred in that ancient room sometime in the past, and that was what brought the bloody tears to her eyes.

Other things that frighten not only our children but me as well, are clowns. To us they are just about the creepiest creatures on earth. Anne and I torment each other with clowns as gifts. I bought two Murano glass clowns and placed them on Anne’s sink in her dungeon bedroom in the Palazzo as a surprise, which may be another reason that she refuses to sleep alone in that ancient fortress. One of the clowns has an especially sinister glare, and his eyes seem to follow you as you walk from one side of the room to the other.

The Royal Stemma at Capanna Susanna

One of the most remarkable features of the house that we call Capanna Susanna is the fabulous stone door frame surmounted by a royal stemma (coat of arms) featuring a double-headed eagle and a royal crown on it as well. At the top, a third feature has been knocked off, and we never knew until this year what it had been.

The reason that we call our second house in Gioviano, Capanna Susanna--since the term, “capanna” is usually reserved for little huts found out in the forest--is that the house itself is extremely simple. It is the type of house that would normally have a very plain doorway and certainly no coat of arms, especially a royal one.

I have tried in vain for at least a quarter of a century to determine the origins of this remarkable architectural feature that graces a simple peasant house, but I have yet to know the entire story. Mariella once showed me a Barsanti document with that same double-headed eagle on it, and according to oral tradition, the doorway was once the principal entrance to the huge Barsanti Palazzo, which now has been divided into numerous apartments.

As the story goes, the palazzo was built sometime in the 15th century. The family had two sons, and as was the custom of primogenitor, the elder son would inherit the family title, if any, and the family fortune. The other would be expected to join the priesthood or seek his fortune in other ways. The elder son, it is said, inherited the huge palazzo, and the younger son became a priest and moved into Capanna Susanna, which is adjacent to the church of Santa Maria Assunta. As a token of the family’s esteem for the younger son, he was given the monumental doorway with its royal coat of arms which was then installed on the simple little house of the priest.

Umberto, one of Gioviano’s fiercest defenders of the village heritage and history, recently solved the mystery of the missing part of the stemma. About 40 or 50 years ago, a man came to Gioviano to work on the church. He spied the impressive coat of arms which at that time was surmounted by a beautiful stone eagle with outstretched wings. He then took his hammer, knocked the eagle off and carried it away with him. Umberto went on to say that the man virtually stripped Gioviano of its vast legacy of museum quality furniture, paintings and other antiquities. Many of the citizens were in need of money, others were emigrating, and, in some cases, the houses had been abandoned with their priceless furnishings intact

The mystery of the origins of the Barsanti family and the meaning of the double-headed eagle with the royal crown are still unsolved. At one time I believed that there might be a connection with some of my mother’s ancestors, the d’Este family, who for several centuries controlled the Garfagnana. However, my research indicates that the frontier was just about a mile from Gioviano, and thus the d’Estes never owned our village.

Labyrinth of Secret Tunnels

When we purchased Casa Giorgio, there was a stone archway below the lowest level of the house that was filled in with stone. I often wondered if that had been one of the ancient entrances to the castle or just an architectural feature to stabilize the wall. During the restoration of the house, a stone buttress wall was built that covered up the archway. This was done because the wall of Casa Giorgio was leaning outward precariously over the valley, and the buttress was necessary to keep the house from tumbling down the mountain.

Stories abound of secret tunnels and passageways that have been sealed up for centuries under some of the more ancient palazzi in Gioviano. I have personally been taken into the bowels of two of these ancient buildings and have seen the sealed doorways. Not only are the doorways to have led up into the castle but also all the way down to the valley floor below the village. This is extremely plausible in that there are literally thousands of miles of ancient tunnels in the area, some dating to Etruscan times. These tunnels resemble labyrinths, which were built either to confuse and outwit invaders or to offer avenues of escape in times of siege throughout the Italian peninsula.

Palazzo Margherita retains secrets and mysteries that may never be revealed. For example, just above the current 18th-century principal doorway, there is a stemma with a strange little goblin that stares down as one enters the Palazzo. In addition, there is a trace of an early stone archway left exposed on the façade of the building that dates perhaps from the 10th or 11th centuries. At the bottom of a flight of 48 stone stairs, there is a huge, sealed-off medieval archway which lead from the servants’ quarters down to the fortified dungeon. When converting Anne’s dungeon into a bedroom suite on the floor above, another medieval archway was discovered behind the plaster.

Just outside our Palazzo, a set of stairs descends to a 35 foot-long tunnel under my office, which then intersects with another path going down to the parcheggio. Inside the tunnel on the left, there is an archway behind a wooden gate that leads to another stone tunnel going under the library, under my father’s office and under the front vestibule of our Palazzo. This tunnel reaches all the way into the bowels of the Palazzo Lotti next door. Perhaps strangest of all is the set of stone steps in the cantina of the Emilio wing that leads to nowhere.

The Emilio Wing

When I bought the Palazzo Calissi in 1989, (now Palazzo Margherita) one of the great mysteries was when and why the Emilio wing was sealed off from the main part of the home. We were finally able to purchase this wing a few years ago in order to reunite it with the earlier parts of the building and to try to learn its secrets. The date over the door of the wing reads 1736, making it the newest addition. Sometime around 1890, a cabinet had been built and installed in order to block the passageway that connected the Palazzo to the principal floor of the 50 foot-long Emilio wing.

I spent many an hour contemplating the cabinet and its history. Did the family at that time need money and thus sell the wing? Did the eldest child of one generation inherit the main Palazzo and the youngest child inherit the wing? Upstairs, the wing had been sealed off from the main palace with terracotta tiles. A corner of one of the tiles was missing, and I would sometimes stare through the tiny hole into the mysterious attic rooms wondering if the wing would ever be reunited with its mother.

After purchasing the Emilio wing, we joyfully removed the cabinet that had separated the two parts of the house for over 100 years. Even my father, who was 92 at the time, helped hammer out the tiles in the attic so that the old Palazzo could once again be whole.

In 1675, there were around 16 Barsanti houses in Gioviano as well as other palazzi of families with large landholdings during this period of the late Renaissance. As far as I have been able to determine, Villa Bernardini and Palazzo Margherita are the only two great houses that are intact. One former Barsanti palazzo has been divided into at least seven apartments. Another was subdivided again just a year or so ago and now contains three apartments. This sort of thing is happening all over Europe. The days of the great houses in their original form seem to be numbered.

The Mystery of the 1806 Columns

While dining on the upper loggia of the Palazzo, I sometimes contemplate the events surrounding the replacement of the brick and stuccoed columns of the 1600s, with the current pietra serena (stone) columns. There is the date “1806” inscribed on the base of one of the five columns. Just two years before, in 1804, Napoleon’s mother, Letizia Ramolino, and his sister, Paolina Borghese, spent the summer in Bagni di Lucca, at the Villa Mansi. The Villa could have been seen from the loggia in Gioviano if it were not for the hill on the left bank of the Serchio that forms half of the Gorge of Calavorno, opposite Terzone.

The front portico of the Villa Mansi is graced with pietra serena columns identical to those on our Palazzo. Could it be that “keeping up with the Jones’s” precipitated the upgrading of the columns? Then, the mistress of the Palazzo at that time could brag that her Gioviano home was far grander than the Villa in which the Emperor Napoleon’s mother had resided. A few years back, the Villa was for sale, and we visited it. It seemed dark and gloomy compared to our home. I do believe that the Pierottis or whoever the lord of the Palazzo was at that time had indeed trumped Napoleon’s mother.

Another coincidence is that in 1805, Napoleon gave to his sister, the Princess Elisa, the Province of Lucca over which to rule. In 1806, the year that the new columns were installed on our terrazza, Elisa gave birth in nearby Marlia, to a little girl that she named Napoleona. It is plausible that Napoleon’s mother and two sisters were friends of the owners of our Palazzo and that the columns were installed and dated to commemorate the birth of little Napoleona. Is it possible that the child was invited over to Gioviano on a breezy and sunshiny summer’s day to play on the terrace while her mother had tea with the lady of the house? The dated column is just one more mystery that will never be solved.

The African Kings

During our first visit to Gioviano, one of the things that fascinated me the most was the carved stone head of an African on the wall of one of Emanuela’s houses. For years I contemplated why someone around the 15th century or even earlier would have fashioned the head of an African slave out of stone and placed it in a prominent place on the facade of his house.

I know that Tuscan traders traveled to all parts of the known world and that many African kings sold men, women and children that had been captured from enemy tribes to European slave traders. However, I couldn’t fathom that anyone in Gioviano would have purchased a slave and then honored the slave with a stone bust.

A few years ago, Giampaolo excavated the ruined part of his 13th-century house while restoring it and converting it into the first Al Cantuccio restaurant. He came upon a similar African head sculpture and placed it on the exterior wall of the restaurant above an ancient stone window that was also found during the restoration work.

This year, while contemplating the various mysteries of Gioviano, it finally dawned on me that the sculptured stone heads of Africans are not those of slaves but kings. Each head is graced with a large amber necklace, an object of value and importance that a captured slave would never have been allowed to retain.

One explanation is that sometime in the Middle Ages, Gioviano was perhaps visited by a Christianized African King making a pilgrimage to or from San Pellegrino in Alpe or beyond. However, that implausible explanation only adds to the mystery of the two African Kings’ sculptured heads in Gioviano, especially considering the fact that they are the only sculptured heads in the village. There are no heads of Romans or Longobardi -- not even a head of Dante or Garibaldi such as those that grace literally hundreds, if not thousands of Italian towns and villages.

Mysterious Fires in the Camposanto

Last year, I told one of the Giovianini about our Ethician Family Cemetery in Texas and about how we bury the dead wrapped in a shroud or a simple pine box without embalming the corpse. The woman told me that as a child, before embalming or sealed caskets became the norm in Gioviano, new graves could be seen burning throughout the night in the camposanto. It was a strange and mysterious sight, indeed.

Imagine that the explanation for this phenomenon is this: After a person was buried, the grave would be decorated with not only flowers but candles as well. The decomposing body would release methane gas, and the flames of the candles would ignite the gas, which would give off an eerie glow as the gas burned off. Although I think that I have solved this mystery, it is still rather spooky to contemplate.

Last night we drove the electric carrozzina to the graveyard to see the thousands of lightning bugs flickering along the way. This sight makes the ride in the pitch dark a thing of wonder, especially when coupled with the dozens of tiny electric candles that light each of the tombs.

Where Have All the Bodies Gone?

During the Middle Ages, the bodies of the dead were buried next to the church in what is now the piazza facing Capanna Susanna. Sometime in the past, the cemetery was moved to the present camposanto which lies along a little pathway on the way to the Romanesque Church of San Bartolomeo. The cemetery is very small and has been full as long as I can remember. In addition, all of the graves seem fairly recent.

Gioviano has always been relatively small. Yet, I think that we can accurately assume that there was a population that fluctuated between 20 and 500 souls depending on wars, famine, plague, and emigration to reduce the numbers from time to time. There would perhaps be an average of 100 persons over a period of 2,000 years or more. Assuming an average life expectancy that only in recent decades has exceeded 50 years, I think we can speculate that, over the last 2,000 years--with its constant wars, infant mortality, and sicknesses--there would be an average of 100 or more deaths every 40 years. Two thousand years equals 50 generations, which conservatively, in my mind, equates to at least 5,000 bodies, so where are the bodies?

I just returned from the camposanto where I encountered a woman watering the flowers on her family burial plot. She solved some of the mystery but only a small part. The oldest grave dates back to 1904 and the next oldest is from 1908, but at least half of the tombs are relatively modern, with porcelain photographs of the departed and bronze statues of Jesus or angels. Because of the limited amount of space and because of the need to bury other family members, the old grave or graves are dug up and the bones placed in small containers that are then reburied with the new body.

The cemetery contains around 150 burial plots, and not all of them indicate that there have been multiple burials in the same plot. The most I counted in one grave was five burials. The average seems to be about two , which would indicate a total of 300 or so. I also learned that there had been a second cemetery in the small lawn in front of the recreation room of the Church of San Rocco and that the bodies were moved, but the woman didn’t know where.

I was told that there are no bodies or bones in the small chapel at the back of the cemetery. However, there is supposed to be an underground crypt under an unmarked cement slab to the right of the chapel, which is said to contain the mortal remains of the Braccini family.

By my estimation, we can only account for less than ten percent of the bodies of the Giovianini who have died over the centuries. I ask the villagers, “Dove sono le osse delle migliaia di Giovianini morti negli ultimi duemila anni?” (“Where are the bones of the thousands of Giovianini who died over the last two thousand years?”) They just shrug their shoulders and continue about their daily chores.

Argia and the Other Ghosts in the Palazzo

Dina and Argia were extremely close, and Dina still feels the presence of Argia when she visits the Palazzo. Upon leaving, she tells Argia goodbye. My mother made friends with the ghost, but Argia is quite a trickster, and she has had the best time tormenting my mother in a playful way. She would move things around, even to different rooms from where they had been. My mother thinks that Argia may have moved to Texas with her and blames Argia every time her computer acts up when it shouldn’t. I believe the ghost of Argia is still in the Palazzo.

The presence of Argia or other ghosts walking about in the rooms or sliding furniture over Anne’s room in the dungeon, is one reason that she doesn’t like to sleep in the big house alone. The ghosts even bother her in her room by blowing things about when the windows are closed. None of the ghosts seem to be malevolent. They do seem to enjoy company and don’t want to be forgotten, so they make their presence known.

Sue has even heard what sounded like people walking about in the attic of the Palazzo during the day. One noon when she was preparing lunch in the kitchen, she heard footsteps overhead that sounded like Anne with her high-heeled shoes on. However, neither Anne nor I had been upstairs, and no living person had access to the attic. Was that you, Argia?

As an adult, I have been really fearful of ghosts on only one occasion. In 1968, Sue and I were living in the jungles of Toledo District in British Honduras (Belize), about 175 miles from the nearest telephone at the end of a dry-season-only dirt tract. There was a ditch in our town of Punta Gorda that was said to be haunted and that couldn’t be crossed after dark without serious consequences. I didn’t believe the story so crossed the ditch to save a long detour to our little one-room house.

After falling asleep, the drums of the witchdoctors began beating in the middle of the night, I could feel the hair rise on my arms, and a cold sweat enveloped me. After a very restless night, I asked the townspeople how I could placate the spirits that I had offended and was told to give the Catholic Priest $5.00 so that he would come and bless the window that had allowed the evil spirits to enter. That $5.00 was one of the best investments that I have ever made. After the priest sprinkled the window with holy water and said his exorcism ritual, I was able to sleep like a baby without fear even with the blessed window open. I never again crossed the haunted ditch at night though.

We had also been told never to sleep with our windows open at night in Gioviano, or the evil spirits could enter, but I always sleep with our windows open. Even here in our small village I am scolded for doing so, because the damp night air is said to be harmful. Daria can’t get over the fact, that even after 33 years of her telling me to shut our windows at night that I still refuse to follow her advice. I love the night breezes and the occasional lightning bug that comes into the room as well as the rare times that pipistrelli (bats) fly in one window and out the other in pursuit of insects. Also, I can hear Daria’s rooster crow with the windows open-- if or when he decides to wake me up.

I have been working on this book in the Palazzo sometimes until 2 a.m. when the entire village is as still as death, save for the peeping of the baby swallows. Occasionally, I will go down the darkened stairs leading to the fortified dungeon. Once last week I felt a strange presence on the stairwell. A chill ran down my spine, and the hair stood up on my arm. I hurried up the stairs and away from the ghost who was probably quite happy to have put a little fright in me.

Revised March 3, 2008
Copyright 2005-2006 George H. Russell
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