Agnone - From where the Bell Tolls
Updated: Mar 29, 2020
An early rise sees us take a dawn ride to the old town of Agnone in the foothills of Northern Molise, home to the oldest company in Italy, and one of the oldest in all the world!
The early bird gets the worm, as they say. In Italy, he gets the bus. For should one wish to travel beyond the great cities of the Peninsula, one's options may be limited when in want of railways. Our intrepid studies had revealed the rural north of Molise to be faithful to that Italian adage, with a bus at a quarter to seven in the morning, another fifteen minutes later and the third being at an hour when one may take the journey as a rest after lunch. We sought the towns of Pietrabbondante and Agnone, both around fifteen miles from Isernia. To our great joy, both lay along the same route, and so we went to bed after our memorable dinner at Osteria Del Paradiso, setting our alarm to the regrettable hour of fifteen minutes shy of six.
Dawn appeared, lightly and slightly hazily, over Isernia, as the ringtone chimed with a deeply unpleasant shrillness. Never mind, the view over the roof tiles of the building over the street made getting up worthwhile already.
Old Isernia had been anything if not relaxed the day before, yet by early morning it had embraced that Molisana quality we had come to love - a trance-like peace which holds the perception of a ghost town at bay. Unencumbered by baggage, and swiftly reanimating as the pure morning air began to work on us, we ascended the long slope which defines the Isernian ridge.
When one must take a bus, one must ever be anxious as to the location of the bus stop, even if people one asks are not. "Non ti preoccupare, la vedrai", ("Don't worry, you'll see it"), one fellow merrily replied, when we asked of it. It is a beautiful thing, to wield that quiet confidence that comes in one's own town. Quite the opposite, when coming from afar, knowing that to miss that bus could rob one of the chance it brings for quite some time, if not forever.
Our anxiety was, as ever, unfounded, as we purchased our biglietti (tickets) from the cafe in front of the train station. In Italy, the standard hunt for bus tickets begins at a cafe, or better, a tabaccheria (tobacconist). The helpful lady, who surely had risen earlier than we, gestured across the piazza with a decisiveness which inspired confidence, and we came across a lane which from a distance appeared to have been abandoned some decades earlier, or else rust had by now acquired an artistic charm. A few minutes of trepidation, waiting on the kerb, were rewarded with that magnificent feeling of relief, when a coach rounded the corner. It was a most comfortable arrangement, neither too new so as to be out of place, nor too old so as to be hard on the skeleton. Rome, we came to learn, had imbued in us the disagreeable habit of bracing for the deafening din of such transport, the ill-fitting chassis sheets of her own beleaguered bus fleet rattling in all directions, with such violence that it even hurts your feelings.
We had intended to visit the small town of Pietrabbondante first, but it appeared that only the bus which had left a quarter of an hour earlier stopped there, this being an autobus scolastica (school bus). Not to worry, we would see it on the way back, and with character. What formed the interlude between us boarding the bus, and disembarking fifteen miles later, was nothing short of breathtaking beauty. This was Alto Molise (Upper Molise), a curious salient that the Region forms along its northern border with the Abruzzo it was once brother to. All but a lost world of forested hills and grassy valleys, the smallest of towns dotting the crests with such perfection one would think that a painter, not Mother Nature, had composed the land. Satyrs, fawns and nymphs could have danced into view and we would scarcely have questioned it. What a country to call home, and what a valley to cross on the school run. Every village or hamlet our little bus stopped in was an image of charm, from humble Pescolanciano, pouring out from a castle built by Charlemagne himself, some say, to the even more wondrous Carovilli. The latter, when it came into view upon cresting a hill, seemed to have been lifted straight from the canvas of 18th century landscape painters, who crafted heavenly pastures to charm the halls of their enlightened royal patrons. Straddling a ridge overlooking the meadow below, with the distant mountains yonder, the small town appeared as though it were the frame of a love letter to Alto Molise. Let he who doubts the worth of this forgotten Region stand here, and stand corrected.
The latter stretch of the road to Agnone is majestic build to the town itself. Running along and down the slopes of an emerald hill, it suddenly soars across the valley floor atop a more modern viaduct, the town approaching from above. The Molisani, it appears, held a particular fondness for building their towns long rather than wide, as Agnone too proudly thrusts out into the valley in the form of an anvil. Like Isernia, the old town occupies the more defensible upper crest, the new town the plateau behind. Like Isernia, Agnone stands on ancient ground, settled by the Samnite peoples and Oscan speaking tribes of deep antiquity. But five thousand souls inhabit the town today, where mighty Rome hosts near five million. How the quirks of fate, time and ambition raise some cities high and strike others down. Yet it was not always so. Royal Naples esteemed Agnone dear, and along with fifty five other settlements across the South, the town was granted the honour of Royal City, able to appeal directly to the King outside the ordinary feudal bonds of the day. There is latent greatness here, wrapped in the terracotta tiles and potted plants of rural Alto Molise.
Agnone seems a lively place, when we step out into Piazza XX Settembre, yet initial instincts may oft be deceiving. As we set off deeper into the centro storico, into Agnone's past, we find ourselves increasingly alone with the town. One long street carries us to the heart of the town, dotted with butchers' shops, florists and enticing delicatessens, some closed for the festa (holiday), others open yet somewhat sleepy. The houses that run down both sides are all of the same height, giving a wavy symmetry to the place, punctuated only by the occasional campanile (belltower). At a curve in the street we come across an unassuming façade, that of the Chiesa dell'Annunziata. It is the first such church in Agnone that we find with the door open, and keen to follow this encouraging lead, we enter. Built long before the vibrant extravagances of the Italian Baroque, the church is austere, unpretentious, and sobering. Yet a glance to left catches a flash of crimson. Christ in his agony, spread upon a cross the size of a door, blood pouring from his wounds, cannot fail to transfix the viewer. It is the most ancient and enduring symbol of the faith of Rome, yet its power remains beguiling. No horror of the cruelty of crucifixion is spared, yet the face, blackened by the centuries, betrays a certain serenity in his face. That no other was present in that holy place made its power radiate through us, silence reigning supreme, dust falling from the rafters caught by the golden sunlight pouring in through the windows.
If there is a main piazza to Agnone, it is surely Piazza Plebiscito, yet it is modest for such a designation. A charming fountain serenades the patient visitor, punctuated by the occasional intrusion of a passing van. We spotted an oddly modern looking cafe atop a shallow flight of steps, commanding the view of the piazza, and found it to be named the Caffè Letterario. Despite its name, there seemed to be far more varieties of hot chocolates than books inside, including an exquisite white chocolate and blueberry beverage, a resistance to which James could not muster. Whatever guilt there may have been was swiftly conquered by the knowledge that an early rise permits an exceptional indulgence.
The western quarter of Agnone is a curious plot of land. Both well organised and anarchic, with its pristinely curved streets, alleys darting off hither and thither and the unusually uniform street fronts broken by medieval church façades. A great many of these churches were closed, yet the hour was neither late nor early. Whether it was due to the festa, differing hours of mass or shrinking congregations, we could not say. Barely a soul had crossed our path since Piazza Plebiscito, and here no tourist trod. A little further up lay a playground, overgrown with smatterings of buttercups and daisies. A swing leant foreword and back gently in the breeze. Perhaps a young child had laughed and screamed, reaching for the skies, merely days earlier, yet it could have been abandoned for some time, too. When at last there was no more of Agnone left to traverse, the valley opened up suddenly, a deep bowl of green hundreds of feet below. A lone fellow, middle aged yet spritely of step, bade us good morning, and walked on. The growing chorus of birdsong, and dancing butterflies could not leave one feeling alone, however, as the domain of Mother Nature so abruptly announced its glorious arrival.
Nature soon made her presence felt in other ways, as the experience had reared something of a voracious hunger, and in Agnone, there was one thing in particular which could and would do the job. Back in Piazza Plebiscito, we spied a lone shop open, alongside a fruit seller and just across from the not entirely aptly named Caffè Letterario. With the ring of a bell we entered into a modestly sized and brightly illuminated delicatessen. The owner, Francesco, was an enthusiastic chap. He merrily showed us the pride and joy of the Alto Molise culinary scene - the Caciocavallo cheese. To the Anglo-Saxon traveller, the form of this particular cheese may seem most curious, being a golden orb tied at the top with fine cord. A rim of cheese dangles back over said cord, as the belly of a well nourished man might droop over his belt. The custard yellow cheeses hung from the ceiling in one long row, giving one the impression that a children's birthday party had transpired, and all the balloons were clinging to the ceiling. Caciocavallo is an ancient craft, some say brought to these shores by the Dark Age Greeks, eight centuries before Christ. Others that it takes its name from the eastern word kashkaval, a word which hailed from the lands of the Ottoman Turk. Yet its antiquity brings no complication, nor pretension. Francesco kindly allowed us the pleasure of a taste, revealing caciocavallo to have a delicate, slightly sweet flavour, the kind that nobody could truly dislike and which could comfortably accompany any sandwich. That was indeed our plan, as we all too happily bought ourselves our very own caciocavallo, and two etti (two hundred grams) of prosciutto crudo, to enjoy for lunch.
Francesco lit up when he discovered our Australian heritage. He too, was to visit the Southern Continent before long, and was greatly excited for it. Yet he was adamant too - Agnone was his home, and a fine home it was. It is a fine thing when, unshackled with the pressures of mass business, a shop owner pours forth his knowledge, and neither side feels the duty to buy or to sell. He told us that we simply must visit the Borgo Veneziano, or Venetian Quarter. How peculiar, a Venetian Quarter, in Agnone? Our new friend enlightened us, painting colours onto our rough sketch of Agnone that paper research could muster. It is no chance that the largest church in Agnone is dedicated to St. Mark. Popular legend has it that Venetian settlers came to these parts when fleeing the grip of the plague which struck the City on Water, "Ma non è vero"("But it isn't true"), Francesco pointed out. They in fact came, he told us, from the 12th century on, when gold was discovered in the river below. If there was one thing which defined the Venice of old, it was her ruthless ambition, and keen eye for new markets. Thus was Agnone changed forever by the influx of her northern brethren. "È 'na piccola Venezia" ("It's a little Venice"), he said with a smile, and we gratefully followed his outstretched finger, pointing the way. An elderly agnonese lady just outside beckoned us on, making sure we kept on the straight and narrow. "Vai di la, fino a quando ci sono delle leoni" ("Keep going that way, until you see the lions"). Seldom have we received such eccentric directions, though what she meant was clear, for the symbol of Venice, for a thousand years and more, is the winged lion of St. Mark the Evangelist, now proudly staring out defiantly from many a fortress in the Eastern Mediterranean, roaring defiantly at the new masters they find themselves shackled to.
Sure enough, the town indeed took on a new quality most atypical of an inland settlement of the South. For he who has seen the islands of the Venetian lagoon beyond Rivo Alto will not find himself out of place here. The elegant façades, one or at most two stories high, are indeed not so far away from the dwellings of Murano, Burano or Mazzorbo. Sprouting forth from the occasionally second piano (second floor) was indeed a lion passant, a nod to the Mother City far away. There was an order and civic pride to the area, a district that will be forever Venice. The Corso Garibaldi, opened out onto what is undoubtedly the most elegant piazza in Agnone, and certainly that with the most spectacular backdrop. Distant Poggio Sannita lays atop a ridge in the far distance, the most breathtaking valley in between. At the root of it all, the river Verrino snakes its way from town to village, the river which caught the eye of Venice. It is a beautiful place, whose tranquility could not even be spoiled by the sudden arrival of Agnone's gardeners to trim the lawns.
It was with some reluctance that we rose from the peaceful bench, but rose we had to, for the greatest fame of Agnone was still to see. Extraordinarily beautiful though this town is, and blessed with the most pristine of surroundings, its name today largely lies in the tones which are struck across Italy, tones forged here in Agnone. The world's oldest bellmaker finds its home here, and we had to see it. Back across the town, and ironically into the newer part of town, we followed the brown signs to search for the Ponteficia Fonderia Marinelli (Marinelli Pontifical Foundry). Further up Via Roma, the entrance was somewhat tricky to find, there being no obvious trail of tourism. With slight anxiety, we remembered that it was open to the viewer only at 12 o' clock, and our reckoning read 11:58, but soon enough, and thankfully enough, a vast structure sprang suddenly into view, somewhat modern yet functional. Intrigued, we spied a bell in the distance, and with a sigh of relief, approached.
Set against a vast pile of chopped wood, there stood two rows of bells, no two the same and arranged as though a Russian doll prised apart. Each one was a work of art, from the delicate and rounded edges of the handles, to the figures and floral motifs around the waist. Some bore engraved scripture, others more ornate. All were beautiful, greened as they were with age.
Just then a fellow emerged, and bade us enter, along with perhaps five or six other Italians, and a two children. At first he seemed rather stern and perhaps a touch world weary, but he soon became more animated as we listened with rapture. He began to tell of his company, Europe's oldest, and perhaps the world's oldest too. Certainly the oldest which has remained in the same family. Italy, after all, is a family affair, why not her business too? The exact age of the Foundry seems to depend on whom one asks and where one reads, but it is generally believed that the Agnone Foundry began in earnest in the early eleventh century, around the time when Edward the Confessor was King of England, Constantinople was the greatest city in Christendom, and much of Iberia prayed to Allah. The Foundry has remained in the Marinelli family ever since. It is the oldest manufacturer of bells in the world, and one of but twenty which still remain in Europe.
Our ever more cheery guide lead us next door to the foundry proper, a hive of activity, as workmen blackened with dust and soot came to and fro, the dirt floor of the workshop no reflection of the pristine images of Saints which donned the walls. A silver haired fellow stepped forth, and gestured towards a large pit, some ten metres across. It was here that the molten bronze would gush forth at that sacred moment of casting, the dirt floor necessary to contain over a thousand degrees of fiery heat. The children were most terribly excited at this thought, and it was they, not us, who were armed with a legion of questions. The curious lads eyed up a row of bells chained to the foundry ceiling, and the artisan saw their gaze. Brandishing a hammer, he beckoned us over, and at once struck the great bells with precise, well-aimed and well-judged strikes. The hills rang to the thunderous tones which emanated forth. After all, one tends to hear bells ring from the high towers of churches, rather than from a few feet before one's eyes. Clearly a master of his own art, he serenaded our reverberating eardrums with a variety of compositions, his hammer finding the bronze of many a bell of many a size. The melody of Ave Maria, a tune we hear daily from the belfry of Sant Andrea della Valle a stone's throw from our Roman home, came next, followed by a most unusual rendition of Il Canto degli Italiani ("The Song of the Italians"), the Italian National Anthem. We wondered if its notes would ever cease to ring in our ears after so mighty a performance.
Likely speaking somewhat louder than one would perhaps normally do, our guide lead us on and upstairs, recounting the singular honour of the Foundry's bonds to Rome. It was His Holiness Pope Pius XI who granted the official patronage of the Vatican to the Foundry in the 1924, yet it was the visit of His Holiness Pope John Paul II in 1995 which was affectionately felt and remembered. Five years later, the dearly held Pontiff would commission the Marinelli family to cast the great Jubilee Bell for the Great Jubilee of 2000, a bell which stands to this day in St. Peter's Square. The family over the centuries have cast bells for the great and good, for many a belfry across Italy. No less an enterprise than the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or the Great Monastery of Montecassino and indeed the Cathedral of Buenos Aires, ring out to the sound of the bells of the Marinelli. Our guide informed us that the Foundry largely produced bells for the Americas today, and on a well chosen question from one of the children, revealed that the process "ci vuole più o meno tre mesi, di solito facciamo cinquanta campane all'anno" ("it takes roughly three months, normally we produce fifty bells a year").
The Marinelli method is the oldest among all bellmakers, involving the production of a brick model of the bell, slightly smaller than the final bell, upon which a clay mold is spread. The secret to the decoration lies in the curious use of wax, pre-carved and modelled in the negative, which is applied to the clay, followed by a further layer of clay. The bell is then heated, melting the wax and leaving an impression, into which the molten bronze is then poured. This final moment is an intensely spiritual moment - the birth of a bell. After all, the bell will ring the sound of prayer, and worship to God. A man of the cloth is always present at the casting, and blesses the majestic instrument. In the words of the Marinelli themselves, in that moment, a soul is imparted to the bell. Faith is of deep significance to the workmen and bellmakers of Agnone, how could it be otherwise, for the men who craft the bells of the Bishop of Rome? As a curious detail, our by now smiling guide points out that all bells are, by design, flawed. A pregnant pause followed this unusual declaration of professionalism. Laughing, he drew our attention to the shape of a bell, elegant, curved and classical. For a truly perfect tone, every bell would need a ridge of bronze roughly three quarters of the way up the side. The absence of this means that all bells are slightly off key, and therefore unique. "Ma perché?" ("But why?"), a young boy pipes up. "Perché così vengono considerate più belle" ("Because they are considered more beautiful like this"), he knowingly replied. No need to have perfect functionality when you can have perfect aesthetics. Thus has the bell of Agnone become an emblem of much in Italy. Beauty first, details second. But what does a pious bellmaker fear above all else for his proud work? Rain? Nay, for bronze cannot rust. "Gli escrementi dei piccioni sono terrificanti" ("Pigeon droppings are horrendous"), is the unglamorous and swiftly delivered answer, for the excrement of the pigeon is corrosive to the bronze, and that, more than any other phenomenon, leads to the periodic need for the replacement of bells.
Armed with this newfound respect for the machinations of the most common bird on Earth, we departed the Foundry for the bus to Pietrabbondante with a smile, and a small bell of our very own. Our visit had been a memorable one, for our ears, eyes, and minds. Rather like Agnone herself, an eccentric, yet deeply beautiful relic which lives today, and indeed defies such crude labels as 'relic'.