Of Middle Age Molise and Samnium of Old
Our first full day sees us awake in the 19th century and go back through time, with a detour to the 4th century BC!
When we awoke to an ethereal turquoise glow, as sunlight poured through the balcony window and reflected onto our vintage and pastel walls, we were struck at once by its beauty, yet also by that most un-Italian of desires. The desire for a hearty breakfast.
Our kindly host Dorothy had suggested to us the day before that we take breakfast in the palazzo, assuring us of an enviable home-made spread of bontà (gastronomic goodness). Being utterly unknown for our ability to refuse such offers, readily did we accept this hospitality. When we came down to the Sala Pompeiana (Pompeian Hall), we delighted once more in our choice of lodging. Crimson shades of ochre, worn by time and candle, washed the walls from floor to ceiling, cracked in places, lesioned in others, yet homely still. A candelabrum stood upon the service, a chandelier hanging from the cream stuccoed vault. Traces of Rome dotted the walls, as forms of beasts and classical deities danced hither and thither, all inspired by the frescoes of Pompeii. At the table we sat, as dishes were brought, bearing cheeses and honeys, jams and meats. A surreal peace reigned, as we took breakfast in our historic setting.
Soon after a couple joined us at the table, a newly wed Australian husband and wife, as fate would intriguingly have it. They were honeymooning, visiting an impressive number of sites in Italy, and we laughed together at the mysterious coincidence or not that saw us dining together in modest Venafro, they but two weeks after exchanging vows, us just shy of eight.
When our hunger had been cast so gracefully from our minds, Dorothy led us across the marble staircase, and through an inviting door. Before us a corridor of colour led the way, the palazzo's State Rooms opening up before our eyes, with all the panoply of glory festooning the sight. Exotic birds frescoed beside, blazing windows beyond, and a glimmer of burgundy shining ahead. The splendour was inexorable, yet so too the inviting warmth. "My goodness", we thought, as the Salone Rosso (Red Room) was suddenly upon us. Damask silk adorned all walls, furnished from the finest weavers of San Leucio. Gilded furniture from the carpenters of Naples. A bright powder blue frescoed ceiling vaulted above, the coat of arms of the Del Prete family triumphantly displayed. Imagining the life of the Marquis Del Prete many years ago, one could not help but feel a certain peace, imagining a learned gentleman of stature, reading at leisure to the sound of naught but the strikes of a clock. Yet, these halls had been restored this way in 1860. How cruel fate was, when in the very same year, such tumultuous times would descend. For within months, Garibaldi would lead his thousand redshirts on his both lauded and condemned quest to tear asunder the status quo, sealing the fate of the once great Kingdom of Naples.
Burning sun beckoned us out onto a spectacular balcony, adorned with simple potted plants, yet commanding a breathtaking view across the Valley of Venafro. Few were the hints of the twenty first century, save a factory distant, a hazy intrusion upon a terracotta past. As the Marquis saw the arms of Piedmont approach, so now the Venafrano sees industry encroach. Dorothy tells us of the town and life there, and of her early days as a girl in Naples. Now an honorary Venafrana, she is proud of Molise. She asked us what brought us to Venafro, and we told her of the adventure we had in store. She appeared pleasantly intrigued by our choice of Molise for the first stop. Her assistant Maria entered the scene, merrily trimming the potted plants, while chatting with a smile. One had the impression that these two had many stories to tell, of how things are and how things were. Dorothy pointed to a craggy rise to the south west. "Da lì sopra, si possono vedere entrambi i mari"("From up there, one can gaze upon both seas"), she knowingly declares. For on a clear day, from atop that peak, one may spy the Tyrrhenian Sea to the West, and the Adriatic to the East. All Italy in her girth would lay before one's eyes. We had heard of such fabled points along the spine of Italy before, yet never had we seen it with our own eyes. It was indeed an exceptionally fine day, and our thoughts were cast to that lofty peak. Guarding the mountain pass into Campania and Lazio, it was the very wall of Molise. But scaling the foothills of the mighty Apennines would be still to come.
The march of time hastened its cadence, and knowing a train awaited us just shy of two o'clock, we had a castle to see. We bade farewell to Dorothy and Maria fondly, for their company had been a wonderful welcome to this wonderful Region, and we hoped that we would meet again.
Standing at the apex of the town, a formidable castle looms. Even for the pedigree of Italy, the Castello Pandone is old. It was the Longobards, the Teutonic conquerors of Italy, who first fortified this place in the 10th century. The High Renaissance then saw the Counts of Pandone, the Lords of Venafro, raise its citadel high. Yet Count Enrico had one passion far above others, and that was the breeding of horses. As we crossed the viaduct to the fortress gate, and higher we climbed, deeper into another world we trod. Passing under the vast coat of arms, we come across an elderly fellow, seemingly having a humorous conversation with another.
It is general wisdom, across many cultures, that the language spoken by their elder folk is of an oft revered, almost classical eloquence, lamenting of the barbarisation of their words perpetrated daily by the young. Yet upon acquiring familiarity with the Italian tongue, one soon learns to assume nothing of age, and that one's ears may be set upon by the the most extraordinarily and exquisitely graphic language, a barrage of profanity that strikes as a broadside across the years, all launched by the most unassuming of nonne (grandmothers). Thick was the dialect, and adequate was our understanding that perhaps not entirely elegant was the vocabulary these men now deployed. Smiling at each other at this Italian eccentricity, we suddenly came across a young lady, in a seemingly freshly restored ticket office. Despite the citadel's antiquity, one had the impression that it ran today as a well oiled machine.
Not a moment had passed before another young venafrana had taken us under her wing, and off we went into the stony keep. The Count's pride and joy embraced us from every wall, as room after room was decorated with the painted relief image of every horse he had owned. Each noble steed stood defiantly out against the whitewashed walls, a painted inscription below each telling of its life and fate. We spy one that reveals a steed that the Count gifted to no less a figure than Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Spain, and the world's most powerful man in the middle years of the sixteenth century. Exalted indeed were the circles of Count Enrico, and a sign this was that Venafro had not always been the quiet foothill town of today. Yet quiet were not the Count's later years, for an opportunistic and ill sought alliance with the arms of France against his Imperial master would bring about his ruin. Thus ended ignobly the life of Count Enrico Pandone, decapitated on a wintery Neapolitan day in AD 1528. Now his horses are all that remain of him, silent witnesses to the five centuries that have passed. Castello Pandone is an atmospheric place, and the visitor to Venafro would be well-advised to explore it.
Descending from the citadel heights to the alleys of the centro storico, we saw traces that, perhaps for a day, Venafro would radiate beyond the borders of Molise once more. Seven weeks earlier had seen a General Election in Italy, whose results saw the traditional parties and status quo cast furiously aside, as new forces had begun to rise. Yet the nation lurched, as no majority had been won, the new order now a tug of war between the Movimento 5 Stelle (The Five Star Movement), and La Lega (The League). Perhaps not since the fateful referendum of 1946, which saw the overthrow of the House of Savoy and fall of the Italian Crown, had the Italian Peninsula been so starkly divided, industrial North against rural South. Here in Molise, the two battle lines met. While negotiations took place in Roman palazzi, Molise bore witness to her own local elections, and the nation looked upon her, a microcosm of the new Italian state. Posters flew from many walls, some put up and others ripped down. Fair play, it seemed, had taken leave, as rival parties had covered the faces of certain candidates by a threateningly plain black and white sheet which declared 'Affissione abusiva' ('Abusive poster'). In war, truth is the first casualty.
Yet Molise was known to Rome long before, for it once went by another name, as the ancient region of Samnium, the rugged home to the warlike Samnite tribes, who taught Rome how to fight. Few foes would live in Roman infamy as the Samnites, who so famously humbled Roman arms at the Caudine Forks in 321 BC.
James being deeply passionate about Italy's formidable ancient heritage, we decided to pay a visit Venafro's archaeological museum. At the foot of the hill, a seventeenth century convent cast us into shadow. Once dedicated to the veneration of Santa Chiara, its white cloister and halls now held the traces of a world already ancient when Count Enrico took up residence in Venafro. Stepping under the arched vault which spanned the entrance, we were struck by the brilliantly lit arcade, with sunlight pouring through the openings in the stone, dappling the grass in the cloister a golden green. The museum of Venafro is a pleasant visit, around a rabbit warren of twists and turns, housing a collection of the most surprisingly impressive pieces. From a section of the aqueduct which fed Augustan Venafrum, to tesserae of the mosaics of Byzantium, to the stained glass shards from nearby monasteries, to the polished white marbles of Classical Rome. We were surprised to find that a sizeable collection had indeed been donated to the museum by the Del Prete family, in whose palazzo we had been staying. We wondered if we would remember to ask about it the next time we came.
Creeping up a flight of stairs within the heart of these hallowed halls, a pure white figure of a woman came into view. What remains of her arms attempts to shield her modesty, in a telltale image of the goddess Venus. The marble flesh of Venus glowed under the soft light above, eerily reaching out into the relative darkness of the hall. Not one other soul was there. Few more wonderful artefacts could Venafro have found, when Venus was liberated from her earthy grave some fifty metres from the amphitheatre we were about to hunt for, in 1958.
The abrupt strike of a distant bell coarsely dragged us from our trance, the next step of our journey through Samnium of old beckoning ominously. Yet there was a lingering doubt which we simply could not ignore. James had seen an image days before of an elliptical piazza, a form whose location satellite mapping had revealed. Yet due either to a somewhat ghostly mist, or either some artful filter, the piazza's apparently atmospheric existence in reality or in digital reconstruction was nothing if not unclear. Research on the hoof yielded little clues as to the eventual fate of Venafro's arena, stage to death where theatre is stage to drama. Due to fate or some other twist of urban planning, the mysterious piazza stood a stone's throw from the station, and so off we set, our luggage in hand and sense of adventure in heart.
Departing neither entirely cobbled nor fully paved streets, new Venafro fell upon us, as cafés and tabaccherie (newsagents and corner shops widespread in Italy) lined our route. Blinding sunlight could not fully cast out the thought that aesthetics in city design had somehow lost their way in 1945, as uneven condomini (blocks of flats) rose harshly, roped across streets by a spider web of cabling.
Fortunately for our legs, and skeletal integrity, the shortcut was brief and required traversing but one busy road, reassuringly lined with crash barriers. Woe betide the traveller who seeks to explore this part of the new town under the cover of night. One had the feeling that the daylight here keeps more than darkness at bay. Yet soon enough, the buildings gave way to a rather simple path, slicing through unkempt grass, the sight of yellowed stone and evergreen just beyond. We risked setting down our suitcases for but a few minutes, and stepped forth into the beyond.
The piazza's floor was the gladiator's grave. The arena of old ran around us, buckling under the weight of time. Weeds pushed through mortar, trees through flagstones, and grass hid all the rest. Not a soul around once more in this living ghost town, and ghosts there were aplenty, with windows boarded up and gateways sealed all around. It transpired that the seventeenth century had seen the venafrani take residence in their amphitheatre of old, the sport of Rome having been a mere memory for a thousand years. Where once flowed blood, there then flowed soapy water from washing clothes, Caesar's thumb giving way to a nonna's (grandmother) disapproving gaze. Yet that world too was now gone. Abandoned when, we could not say. No sign or words stood there to guide us. Just wonder and curiosity in their rawest forms. The eagle eye of Katrina spotted that the trees bore more than leaves, as a bounty of figs burst from their many branches. Grasses, untamed by human hands, soared to the height of doors. Somehow some faint trace of life remained, in a place abandoned by man and seized by nature.
It was with a modestly relaxing melancholy, yet rapidly emerging tan, that we then at last returned to the station which had welcomed us just twenty four hours before. So much had we seen and lived in so short a time. But for now, Venafro fell behind us, as the train sped us on, deeper into Molise. The adventure had begun, and we could scarcely wait for what the next stop would hold in store, in the regional capital of Isernia.