This is the ninth installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some Twizzlers, and join in on the conversation.
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust
They say if you really want insight into a country and its culture you have to spend some time in its kitchens and bedrooms. Well, I’ve visited innumerable kitchens in my years living in Italy (and far fewer—ahem–bedrooms) and though you can certainly glean a trove of useful information in those places, I think to really put your finger on the pulse of this nation you need to go where the pulse beats no more: the cemetery.
It may seem odd, but three of my favorite haunts (sorry) near Assisi are its cemeteries. Here’s why:
Italy’s cemeteries are lovely, in that way that old European monumental cemeteries often are. Generally, Italians of any import were buried underneath churches for centuries, until a Napoleanic edict at the beginning of the 19th century ordered the closing of crypts and subsequent burials to be done in cemeteries outside of the town walls. Thus, in most cemeteries in Italy, it’s difficult to find graves that date any earlier than the 1800s.
That said, a stroll through an Italian cemetery is an excellent mini-course on the progression of architectural styles over the past two hundred years. From the faux-Romanesque and the neo-Gothic, past the elaborate rinascimentale stonework, to the linear modern post-War styles: in just a few steps you can get a taste of what architectural schools have blown in and out of fashion over the past few generations.
Many of the more elaborate family mausoleums are also richly adorned with sculpture and bass relief work–in many cases of excellent quality—or flourishes of elaborate wrought iron or stonework. Noble, serene seraphim and angels, finely detailed reliefs of saints or busts of the deceased, delicate ironwork on gates and grilles, the odd mosaic or majolica tile…when you walk the stone and pebble paths in these campi santi you get as much eye-candy as a trip down an Italian town’s main street.
In this, Assisi’s pretty cemetery–just a kilometer from town outside the Porta San Giacomo city gate near the Basilica of Saint Francis—is no exception. An easy, shady walk from the historic center (some of the most beautiful views over the surrounding hills are from this cypress-lined lane and the cemetery itself), it is one of my favorite places to take a leisurely stroll on a beautiful day. The pink Assisi stone, the various stone and bronze statues of Saint Francis, the artisan iron- and stone-work: all the trademark details of the town itself, in miniature.
Though the beautiful mausoleums are certainly one of the reasons I have always been drawn to the Assisi’s main cemetery, it is her tiny, hidden country graveyards that I love the most for the sense of family and community that is so strong there.
In centuries past, almost each mountain parish had its own cemetery set back behind the small, stone country church. In the early 1900s, many of the rural cemeteries closer to town were closed, the deceased moved to the main Assisi cemetery, and the plots abandoned (or, in the case of our own parish at Costa di Trex, converted into surprisingly fertile vegetable patches). Tucked here and there in the more remote hills around Assisi, however, there are still the last hold-outs against this “urbanization” of the dead, and in Santa Maria di Lignano, a tiny group of farmhouses dominated by an incongruously large stone church about 15 minutes from Assisi in the Appennine foothills, there is still a miniscule, walled country cemetery.
It is here I see the soul of Assisi. The names on the stones that repeat over and over, underlining how generations live out their lives in this patch of land. The carefully tended graves, which are the work of the country women who make weekly visits to freshen flowers, polish marble, and—let’s be honest—catch up on the local gossip. They tenderly touch the portraits attached to the graves and quietly greet their loved ones, keeping them up to date on family news, how the crops are getting along, and their own aches and pains.
I especially love visiting this cemetery on the Festa dei Morti, when all the plots have been tidied up for this special day of remembrance and this usually quiet place is buzzing with visits not only of old women, but their men, children, and grandchildren. The cemetery becomes a momentary piazza as greetings are exchanged by distant relatives and neighbors who have moved away–down to the valley close to businesses and schools–and don’t make it back up to these remote hills very often. The elderly reminisce and the younger boast, children are admonished to “say hello to Nonno” as their hands are placed on headstones, and the cycle of life-death-life becomes complete.
I am, as I have mentioned many times in my writing, a non-believer. I have cobbled together a patchwork of ethics and principles to give me some sort of bearing in life—more or less the same Judeo-Christian model with which most of the Western world has been raised—but my feelings about what may or may not happen to us after death run more along the lines of molecular physics than resurrection.
That said, there is one thing I do believe: life is a gift. A gift. Every sunrise we witness, every breath we draw, every moment of joy or desperation, abundance or hunger, confusion or serenity is a miracle brew of science and serendipity and just dumb luck. Unfortunately, at times life gives me such a shaking down that I lose sight of this immense, inconceivable (The Princess Bride just popped into your brain, didn’t it?) gift I have been given, and that’s when I know it’s time for me to head to the English War Cemetary in the valley below Assisi.
More than 900 allied soldiers were laid to rest there in late 1944, most of whom were killed in the battles between the Germans and the rallying Allied troops, who had taken Rome in June and were continuing their advance north through this region. The precisely trimmed lawn and disciplined rows of identical headstones give this graveyard an unmistakable Anglosaxon look, and from here visitors get a breathtaking views of Assisi on the hillside above.
But I don’t come for the lawn or the views. I come for my secret place: the bench at the back of the cemetary, the one under the big oak tree. In my bleakest moments, I make for that bench, winding my way through the rows of markers, each one with a name, an age, and a country. James, 19, United Kingdom. George, 21, Australia. Thomas, 24, New Zealand. Jacob (with a Star of David), 20, Canada. Peter, 28, South Africa. The names go on and on, calling me, mocking me, as I make to my bench. “You think you’ve got problems, lady? I didn’t live long enough to have your problems. I didn’t have time to fall in and out of love, lose sleep over my kids, worry about paying the bills, or health problems or aging parents or sagging buttocks. You think your life is hard? Well sit yourself down on that bench over there and look out over all of us and consider the alternative.” And I do. And I wail for them, and for myself, and for whatever curveball pitch I struck out on that has driven me here to my secret place.
And then I shake it off, and stand up again, and walk back out of the elaborate cemetery gates. Back to life.
Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.