Bella Italia, il nostro sogno medioevo


(Beautiful Italy, our medieval dream)

I’ve been in love with Italy from the first time I was there with the Paul Winter Consort fourteen years ago. At that time, we literally had only a few hours to see Rome after our performance on a television program. Between the hours of midnight and 4AM we crowded our five bodies into a small rental car and sped through the city, stopping at magnificent places every few minutes. I’ll never forget seeing the Coliseum with a full moon shining overhead, and how silent and mysterious this place was in these early morning hours when there were no tourists but ourselves.

Years later, when I had met my soon-to-be husband Lee, I discovered that he also had a special affinity to Italy, having previously attended the North American College in Rome for four years. Having recently moved from Connecticut to Michigan, we were in the process of planning our wedding and resolved we should just keep moving forward into the future by getting married in neither location. Instead, we decided to throw ourselves into the romantic arms of Italy. After endless paper work with the Italian and American Embassies to make this “official”, we left for our blissful trip. In a picturesque medieval village called Fara in Sabina within the small, ancient chapel of St. Clare, we not only married each other, but a piece of Italy at the same time. It was the very wedding we had previously only dared to hope for, like a medieval dream.

That was four years ago. Two years ago, Lee’s father Leo gave us a beautiful gift of inheritance that would further that dream, though it was up to us how to actualize this. We decided exactly how we would best honor Leo while expanding our life’s adventures at the same time, so we traveled to Italy and found a house to call our own! That is the short story, of course, since it took about 30 showings of houses until on our last viewing, literally, we found OUR house. About one hour north of Rome in a beautiful medieval village called Roccantica, right in the center of the town-carved-from-a-mountainside, there it was. The whole time we were viewing various properties, I kept asking myself what it was we were really looking for, since we already owned our house in Michigan. It was only when we saw this place that I had my answer: we were looking for an experience—a place that makes your heart jump from the moment you arrive. The streets of Roccantica reflect its ancient beginnings (around 700 AD) and are designed so narrowly that cars cannot drive within its gates. This is part of the silent charisma offered to its residents: without the noise of traffic, we are present to the purity of beautiful bird songs and an occasional ringing of an ancient church bell.

If that weren’t extraordinary enough, it happens that there is a Medieval Festival every August in Roccantica, celebrating the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. All year long the town’s residents prepare for this festival. From flag throwers (Sbandieratori) to drummers (tamburini–all male tom drum players in their festive, matching medieval garb), to planning and rehearsing the medieval plays whose themes illustrate Good versus Evil. There are about 500 residents in the village, and everyone from young to old participates in the festival. If they aren’t one of the many varieties of entertainers, they are probably one of the remarkable cooks of wild boar (cinghiale) for the festive dinners served out in the village piazzas during the break between the evenings’ events.

Still others help to outfit all the town residents with the exquisite costumes which are worn for the Procession at the beginning and conclusion of the festival, with each color of garments distinguishing a particular noble family. There exists more costumes than residents, with an entire separate store to house all these remarkable outfits. Every single garment is hand made to perfection, and the pains taken for authenticity result in stunning beauty. Women’s dresses have trains ten feet long, some even longer, dragging these heavy velvet fabrics along the cobblestone streets. When draped with this clothing, one feels enveloped in the true medieval era as if it were the era of the present moment, and I saw this mysterious time swap reflected in all the town’s people. In fact, it seemed to me that this was the one time of year that they were “permitted” to be their true selves, an un-contemporary, un-modern village of people where true beauty and social elegance were paramount, and technology was primitive, faint, or completely undetectable. (Life seems exactly opposite, nowadays). Of course we know that the medieval era, roughly from the years 544-1250 AD, was anything but romantic, but this clothing seems to capture and retain an elegance that I believe would have been present then. In the grand scheme of this ‘Medioevo in Festa’ are nobles, peasants, soldiers, fools, children, musicians, and entertainers—just to name a few—and all become who they are by the clothing they don. It is nothing short of magic, walking along these ancient cobbled streets among the chiseled stone buildings by the light of burning torches propped high on the walls throughout the village. Yes, it is the year 1100, in the year 2004.

I was privileged enough to be invited to play my flute at this Medioevo in Festa last August on several different occasions, as well as in the town of Rieti in a subsequent event. Playing music brings the meaningfulness of the experience that much deeper, a language only the soul knows, with the added benefit of it being a universal language that all can understand, each in their own way. The audience is packed 6-deep in standing room, and sardine-like on the risers lining the edge of the entire village wall. I performed solo a few times directly to the audience, and in a trio of stellar musicians who were playing recorder and lute (Carlo and Claudio Bernabei) for “the Queen” as part of one of the plays. What I remember most while playing was the overwhelming feeling of enchantment that the whole festival invoked within, and the bright, full moon high over the village wall, without.

The entire festival ends on the fourth night at the midnight show with a Grandioso Spettacolo del Fuoco—a grand fire spectacular. Having never witnessed anything like this before, it was absolutely mesmerizing. During the previous several hours, many of the village men were coating giant metal wheels, maces, bells, and swords with kerosene. When the time arrives, these apparatus were alight with blazing fire. Fire eaters (mangia fuoco), like blow torches, spit flames into the air. They came so close to the audience that the heat they generated was palpable. The narrator spoke of the ‘reverence for fire, separating light from darkness, day from night, and life from death’. Thus is the medieval era summed up in such an axiom. At the final moment, a cascade of fire fell like water from the far wall, where there hung a sheet of fireworks falling like an endless meteor shower. It illuminated the whole piazza with its brilliance. The emotional impact of the display brought me to tears.

The whole experience was like a Medieval Dream. This year we will get to participate in this ‘Medioevo in Festa’ once again, when it celebrates its 10th anniversary, give or take a few millennia.

Rhonda Larson