A bittersweet saga in Sicily

An innocent visit to an "ancient" village fertility fest reveals a multilayered history of feuding families, conniving communists and failing farms.

Published October 9, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Oct. 9, 1999

Monte Alburchia, Sicily:

Our object was plain enough: to wind our way into these most superstitious and least touristed of mountain towns, the homeland of the Sicilian banditry that had helped give rise to the Mafia, to witness what had been described as a pagan harvest and fertility festival whose roots could be traced to Roman times, or possibly earlier.

Claudio, a Neapolitan architect friend of more than mildly pagan impulses, had been telling me about these simple festivals -- most of them Catholic underlain with obvious pagan elements -- since I first met him in Naples six years earlier. He had once taken me on a walk through the back streets of old Naples, where shrines to those suffering in the heat of purgatory mark nearly every block. "No Neapolitan really believes he will go to hell," Claudio had said, his voice twinkling, "so we suppose those people who have had some troubles will stay warm a while in purgatorio until the spirit world releases them." Although he called himself an atheist, he confessed that he had always been captivated by the icons and rituals dedicated to invisible spirits and other worlds -- which is why he often found himself drawn into ecstatic religious processions and ancient festivals. I knew immediately we were kindred spirits.

Our plan was to meet in Palermo and drive up into the Madonie range, through exquisite towns with names like Polizzi Generosa and Petralia Sottana and Castellana where hotels and restaurants hardly existed, over roads that 50 years ago were barely paved and often were in fact simply ditched and graded wagon trails, to an impossible shale mountain covered by a honeycomb of rock houses and alleyways called Gangi.

The festival was called La Sagra della Spiga and was dedicated to the great mother goddess of grain and fecundity, Cerere -- Ceres to us, or to the Greeks, Demeter. Of all the local town festivals we had found in newspapers and on the Internet -- some dedicated to a local bread or a particular olive, one celebrating the annual tuna slaughter at Trapani, as well as the famous Catholic feast days where often shoeless men walk across the scorching summer pavement bearing enormous, heavy monuments to the Virgin -- only this festa in Gangi was directly dedicated to the pagan gods of ancient Rome. And more, the advance program for the festa was a toney four-color, 6-by-8-inch, three-panel brochure, accompanied by a slick, heavy-stock photo magazine celebrating the town's architectural, archaeological and artistic heritage, including tantalizing essays from prominent university scholars -- all plainly produced with promotional lire sent from Rome. Dazzling and magical.

Turning the mountain bend that grants first sight of Gangi is equally bewitching, but as you rest there at roadside studying this solitary, thousand-foot hill town, there is also something strange, unsettling, about the place. The closer you come to Gangi, the stranger that feeling becomes.

To drive up the front of Gangi, through the web of cobbled walls and streets, promises almost certain failure. Rising and falling with the terrain, the medieval passages become stairways or else grow so narrow that even a Fiat 500 would drop its axle over the outer edge if it advanced another yard, leaving the hapless driver to back up over the dusty stones to the second or third previous division point in this interconnected dreamway that only those born to it can navigate with confidence. To ascend the front of Gangi it is better to walk. Hoof yourself up past the ancient Norman tower and the Capucine monastery and the criss-crossing stairs that replicate the stations of the cross, to the 17th century palace of the Bongiorno noblemen that is now home to the town council, where, panting and parched and wet with sweat, you find yourself unsure whether the stone silence that surrounds you is a measure of the town's tranquility or its suspicion of almost anyone whose great-great-great-grandparents were not born there.

There lies the conundrum of Gangi and scores of remote jewel towns like it, for as suspicious as the eyes behind the curtains are, this is at the same time as warm and generous as any place could be. Only after you step into the cafe bar and talk to Cicio, home from his studies in Palermo, do you begin to understand that both your gut reactions have been correct, that -- as an old friend of Sicilian parentage put it to me -- everyone in Sicily exists on parallel planes.

Maria Rita is Gangi's official publicist. She, her parents, her grandparents, their grandparents, everyone for more than 200 years had grown up in Gangi. They were, in a phrase, "tutti Gangitani." Though she and her husband live outside the town, she works, part-time, inside the Bongiorno palace, blithely showing off eight rooms full of 18th century ceiling frescoes and trompe l'oeil paintings on mostly classical themes completed for the last of a set of grand academies located in Gangi, this one the Academy of the Industrious! At the peak of its baroque power, Gangi was indisputably industrious. The elegance of its masonry alone, on slopes that make San Francisco seem flat, marks the town as an architectural and engineering wonder. Inside the churches and palaces rest thousands of tons of luminous inlaid marble, totems to the powerful who ruled here.

Now, of course, all that remains is the marble, the architecture and the art. The power, the commerce, the academies -- the energy -- are all gone. That absence settled over Maria Rita, like a faded veil.

"Yes, the Sagra della Spiga, well, it's a wonderful festival, yes, but really, personally, I don't care so much about that," she started. "It's very nice, I'm sure you will enjoy it, but the really important thing here, the thing that has been too much forgotten, the thing that is so important to the history of Gangi, is at the mountain. There!"

She gestured firmly with her right arm, through one of the baroque windows, out across the rolling plowed fields, to a broken peak a few miles away.

"Monte Alburchia." She paused a beat. "It is on Monte Alburchia where my uncle first uncovered the ruins, yes, so many things, little things of course, like plates, and pots, amphoras, candle-holders and, of course, the little statues carved to Cerere."

Her uncle had been a local teacher and something of an amateur archaeologist. The first ruins had been noted by one of the Bongiorno nobles, in 1761, who found ceramic fragments, coins, a few oil lamps and cremation tombs that clearly dated to early Greeks and Romans. Her uncle had been the first to pick up the trail in the desperate years after World War II, when almost no one in Gangi had any money. Despite a brief flurry of interest, the town fathers had relegated the ancient artifacts to a locked warehouse. Now, of course, she told us, smiling, we could see them in the civic museum.

If her resentment was only barely detectable, it became clearer the more she began to talk about her children and the life that was so plainly disappearing all around her in this failing farm town. They would of course have to go away, to Palermo or to Catania, "or even to Italy," she said -- reminding me that Sicilians still see Rome as a ruler, only slightly more congenial than the Arabs and the Normans and the Spaniards who ruled them in earlier centuries. "No, nothing anymore is really they way I remember it when I would go in the summer to my grandfather's farm. The smell of the hay after a rain, I can't catch that smell anymore. Or, if I can say this, the color of the shit the cows make is somehow different, and even its smell is different. I suppose it's from what they feed the cows now. And the smell of the milk and its texture. Now it's not so thick, even on the farm, as I remember it because it doesn't give so much cream."

Sentiment for lives gone by, for the memories of childhood in the disappearing village life of farm communities, is universal -- it even led the French some years ago to try to preserve village culture by regulating the numbers of supermarkets that could be opened. In Gangi, the layers of fantasy and remembrance seem richer, deeper and darker: our fantasies as foreign visitors (informed at least in part by Francis Coppola and Robert DeNiro) about what lies inside this utterly improbable rock of a Sicilian town, where secret and forgotten passageways are said to be carved deep beneath the surface; the Gangitani fantasies that somehow the old and superficially tranquil life of a farming town will miraculously survive the megalithic machine of global agriculture; the fantastical memory-faith in the mysterious powers that we each silently imagine might still emanate from a distant mountain where artifacts of the great fertility goddess can still be recovered; and, finally, the fearful fantasy that should tourism, or agriturismo, actually come to Gangi in time to save it, that Maria Rita's life and the lives of all her friends would gradually turn into a sepia-toned movie life, that her own words would be snatched away as its script, or as Claudio put it, Gangi would become a sort of rustic Venetian museo vivante in the mountains.

"No! No e come Venezia!" she answered. Yes, people had to leave Gangi, but then they would come back. Always, they come back, and some day, her children, after they had grown up, they would come back, too.

One of her 6-year-old twin sons was standing beside her as she spoke.
"So, yes, you could say that all of this life is kind of like a film. The things that I have known in Gangi, the tranquil place where I could play and ride my bike when I was a little girl, the aromas of the farm, and the way we lived then, even if it was a little hard: These things I can only tell my boys about, but they will never smell the atmosphere that I did. I can take this one" -- and she patted her son on the shoulder -- "out to our little piece of land, and he can sit on a mule for a few minutes, but of course it's not at all the same. The experiences you have lived are only that. They are what you have lived. After that, it's over."

As to the Sagra della Spiga , the pagan festival honoring Cerere that had lured us to Gangi, it was a splendid festa , certainly, she said, but the true festival is the week before. "That is the Christian harvest festival, the Festa della Burgesi , when the farmers bring in offerings of grain to Chiese Madre (the central church) in thanks to God. It is much older and much more important."

We thanked Maria Rita and promised to stop back the next day to pick up some archaeological materials she was preparing. Politely, she asked where we were staying.

"Gangivecchio, the old converted convent ..."

"Oh, yes," she answered, her smile and her voice hardening by half a note. "I'm sure you will be very comfortable over there." Then she added, "Well, if you really want to know about the origins of the Sagra della Spiga , I suppose you need to talk to Constantino Muschara. The communist. He invented it."

Gangivecchio is behind Gangi. Literally "Old Gangi," Gangivecchio is a converted abbey of the 14th century, now a restaurant and inn. It is the nearest thing to a Tuscan estate you could find in Sicily: a crumbling courtyard, russet-colored plaster walls, fig and lemon trees, giving on to long, tree-covered, sun-dappled walkways and a friendly, elderly, wild boar lounging in his own pen. After the Benedictines gave it up, the abbey and its lands went to the Bongiornos (their town palace became the town hall) who affixed their noble seal to the entry arch, and then it went to another aristocratic family, the Tornabenes.

Giovana Tornabene, blond, 50ish and free of either obvious wrinkles or make-up, carries the presence of a duchess. Her younger brother, Paolo, quieter, the front half of his hair missing, his jeans almost too baggy for Italian hips, avoids attention. Wanda Tornabene, their mother, rules. Together, they converted what was left of a once enormous feudal estate into an inn and restaurant. "I always say," Giovana opened our conversation, "that to live in a house like this is to have your feet in the past and your head in the future."

As is so often the case in southern Italy, and in many poor territories, it fell to the women "to save the goat" -- a Sicilian idiom for saving the farm. After the war, while the peasants were literally starving, even the landed aristocrats were in trouble. Wanda had come from Tuscany to marry Sr. Tornabene and was for the most part scandalized by the conditions of the peasants living on the estate -- many of whom huddled in shacks with the sheep to stay warm in winter. From her husband's point of view, theirs was the lot that fate had dealt them, and indeed his steadily declining fortunes he took as equally fateful. The Tornabenes lived by selling their patrimony. By 1978 the original 1,600 acres had shrunk to 140 acres, and the family had begun selling off its heirloom furniture. Wanda, famous among the gentry for her spectacular Sicilian dinners, followed the advice of a visiting priest who urged her to convert the old abbey into a restaurant and country inn.

Her husband was aghast.

"Are you crazy? How can we ask people to pay to come into our home? My ancestors will turn over in their graves."

Tougher and more resilient than her noble husband, Wanda answered, "If we don't do this, they will turn over for other reasons."

Giovana, who at the time was studying classics and archaeology in London, recounts the story often and even included it in the memoir/cookbook she wrote in English with her mother, "La Cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio." The book, which won the 1998 James Beard award, has not been translated into Italian and is unavailable in Sicily.

Dinners at Gangivecchio are famous throughout Italy, so much that Prince Charles and a small entourage even came for lunch one day. The restaurant has been written up in the food section of the New York Times. Few of the diners, however, seem to come from Gangi. Giovana spoke about the ongoing spiral into which the Gangitani have fallen one evening after dinner.

"We are a little bit sad here in Gangi, it is true," she began. "Although I think dissatisfied is a better word. For the farmers it's terrible. The government says to plant olives, so everyone does, but there is no support. Now this is the second year we have been in a drought. You can talk to any of the little farmers around here. No one believes he can survive -- only the big company farms down below Catania."

"That's a bit like what Maria Rita said, whose grandfather used to own a big farm ..."

"No, no, he was not a farm owner," Giovana corrected me. "He was what we call a soprasanta, a kind of hired boss. Those people were the worst ones. They held the fate of all the peasants in their hands."

Her voice, still elegant in English, was rising.

"They were the mafia, a kind of mafia. They controlled everything. They decided who could work and who could not. Well, and that means who could eat and who could not."

She reclaimed her temper.

"All these aristocrats with their enormous land, acres and acres, you cannot imagine, and everyone so poor, after the war, they were ... lost. It is a sad story, truly sad, but it's our history."

Later, about midnight, we drove into town. It had been tomblike the previous noon, but now it was aflame with music and dance. Great circles of contra dancers spun and twirled and snaked along a wide straight paved street at the top of the town. Some 70, some 40, some 17, these were not tourists from France or England, or even from Palermo. They were country people with burnished faces dressed for a country party, such as you might find at a county fair Kansas or Indiana, save for the characteristically green Siclian eyes flashing beneath thick forests of black hair.

That night had been the reenactment of the marriage ritual, a ritual that a young woman named Tiziana explained still existed as recently as 40 years ago. The code was this: A young man who wanted to marry a girl would leave a small log outside the main door to her parents' house. If in the morning, she picked the log up, it meant that she -- and most importantly her family -- accepted his marriage bid. If when he returned that night the log was still at the door, it meant that he had been rejected.

"It all went very well," Tiziana said, "if everyone knew what was going on and agreed. But sometimes there could be confusion or mischief. Once, a girl's family who wanted her to be married to a rich boy, placed the log out themselves, then told people that it was the rich boy who had given it. It didn't matter that he swore he hadn't put the log in front of their door. The girl's mother swore she had seen the boy, so it looked like he would have to marry her. It seems a lot like folklore and very old-fashioned, but really it's how things were still done here just a few years ago."

Tiziana and her boyfriend, Giuseppe, both of whom could have been Calvin Klein models, were deeply involved in the Sagra and its folkloric fanfare. Both were students at the University of Palermo, she in biology, he in agricultural technology, and they both knew that except for summer visits from school, neither of them would likely ever live in Gangi again, unless it was as retirees to a town that had turned genuine local festas like these into some form of agriturismo the way the Tuscans have. When we cited the example of Gangivecchio as a possible model, Tiziana's face colored even more sharply than Maria Rita's.

"We Gangitani aren't so welcome out there." Real spite fired her words. "I remember when some friends and I went to see the abbey once. We just wanted to see this historic site that's supposed to be where Gangi was started. They screamed at us to get out. Anyway, it's too expensive for anybody here to go there to eat." Then she brightened. There was dancing and fun to be had, and Giuseppe was holding her hand, and these costumes and steps and rhythms and smells she cared about more than dwelling on the latest chapter of an ancient grudge between the peasants and the nobles.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Constantino Muschera, the communist -- really the head of the farmers union, which had a historic connection to the now-defunct Communist Party -- lives a few hundred yards down the street from the piazza at the Biongorno Palace. He is 62, unmarried, and lives with sister, Maria, a friendly but ill-fortuned soul with a bristly goatee, large eyes, a number of moles and sparse hair, best cast as one of the three sisters at the opening of "Macbeth." She took us across the street to the union office which, even on a Saturday afternoon, was bustling.

Constantino had heard we were in town. Even at festival season Gangi doesn't host many tall, angular Anglo-Saxons accompanied by rangy Neapolitans with bedroom eyes -- and even fewer asking nosy questions. Constantino's manner and appearance were as disarming as his sister was disturbing. He seemed unable not to smile.

"Of course, the Christian festival is the most important one," he agreed with Maria Rita. "But you see, back then -- 35 years ago -- we were a group of students when we invented the corterdo di Cerere, the pagan procession of the old gods. You know, there were these archaeological things that had been found, and we decided it wold be a good story to tell. But really, it was just an invention, something we thought might be good for the farmers."

And the priests? The Church? Had they said nothing about a pagan procession? At that time, after all, the Christian Democrats were, as we now know, both a mouthpiece for the church and very nearly an arm of the Mafia.

Another smile.

"There was no political purpose?"

"Perhaps. Perhaps you are right that it was this way. Perhaps we just wanted to give the people an example of something outside of Christianity. Give people the idea that perhaps it wasn't right to have all the politics and cultural events be tied so closely with Christianity, because, you know, for the common people all politics then was connected with religion, and we wanted to offer, perhaps, a different example." As we talked other union workers were busy at two of the three computer terminals, and the stream of visitors all nodded warmly, and respectfully, to the silver-haired union leader.

"OK, but do the common people, the farmers and mechanics, really feel connected to those old gods, Pan and Bacchus and Cerere, the fertility divinities? Do you think ordinary Gangitani think about the ancient temple of Cerere and whether the ruins at Monte Alburchia are from that temple?"

His answer was elusive. "It depends. If you're over 50 ..." Maria wandered in, calling to him, distracted, and he quieted her.

"For those of us over 50, we all know there is a kind of mystery out there that surrounds Monte Alburchia. For the younger ones, I don't know. But we know that Monte Alburchia is a magic mountain. In two ways. There's the archaeological aspect, whether the pieces that have been dug up show that it was the site of the ancient fertility temple, whether the mythical Cretan town of Engyna, which the Romans wrote about, was there, and if it was why the Greeks should have come here so deep into the mountains, so far from the sea.

"And there are popular mysteries, too, like the legend that every seven years there is a midnight market of ghosts and phantoms where one time a poor farmer came and bought a basket of oranges, only to discover they were cast of gold. And the necropolis. All these mysteries still remain on the mountain, and so people of a certain age anyway are maybe even a little bit scared of the mountain."

It wasn't an answer, exactly. Surely the promotional information we had found on the Internet about a town that retained a celebration of its ancient pagan roots was more fanciful than true. Gangi was far from some anachronistic corpuscle of pagan fertility worship. Except for the parents of the schoolchildren dressed up as one of the gods or the wood nymphs, it was likely that few people could tell us anything about the old divinities. On the other hand, most of the exquisite churches of Gangi, like most churches in Italy, are locked, empty, awaiting restoration money from Rome -- which, if it ever arrives, will convert those once sacred temples into highlights for the Michelin Guide. Farmers who wait on grace from either Cerere or Mother Mary (the images of the two divinities are nearly interchangeable) will be hauling empty wagons.

Tomorrow, Sunday, would be the great procession, the capping point of the festa. Friday night farmers had brought in huge, black kettles into which they would pour soaked grain -- eight different grains from their farms -- to be cooked over open flames into a porridge. By Saturday the town was beginning to buzz. A few kids and some people in their 20s were trying out the old folkloric costumes -- black wool pants, dark leather vest, white shirts, red kerchiefs for the boys; long, white, blousy dresses and short waistcoats for the girls. Sunday morning would arrive with cows and draft horses and intricately carved carts covered in brilliant colors with painted faces and armored bodies, serpents, animals, ancient and medieval, a dream storm of Sicilian images.

Late on Sunday afternoon -- two hours late -- the divine procession would begin: a somewhat porky Bacchus bearing plastic grapes, a skinny Pan proud of his first scraggly goatee, a flock of pretty wood nymphs in gold satin, two groups of Tarantella dancers who not only knew the old steps well but betrayed none of the embarrassed self-consciousness that would shadow American teenagers at a square dance, and, finally, Cerere, the mother goddess of fertility, a buxom high school beauty queen carrying a white spear and seated on a wooden sled drawn by ornery oxen. All with horns and drums and flutes and plaintive concertinas.

The young would pile themselves on the wall against the upper side of the hill. Their parents and grandparents would crowd the sidewalk and the low wall across the street, the fertile valley several hundred feet below. If there were any other tourists present, they would be well disguised: This event was still a festival locally made and locally loved, even if it carried the color of a high school history pageant.

All that would come later, but now it was time to visit Monte Alburchia. The sun was falling, the 95-degree August heat breaking. On our way we passed a shepherd, a youngish man herding his flock up the road. We pulled over to ask directions, and the driver behind us lay on his horn, forcing his SUV through the bell-clanging sheep. The conversation lingered. Once he had had his own small place and his own sheep; he had made some cheese, the shepherd said in thick Sicilian. But that was over. Now you had to have a big building. Pasteurization equipment. Millions of lire. So he was working for another farmer, tending his sheep, through probably he wouldn't be doing even that too much longer.

And the legends of the mountain, we asked.

He knew of them. He shrugged his shoulders. He had been there once. We would have no trouble climbing to the top.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Hollow, vertical squares are about all you can see on the trail to the top these days, though still no formal, modern archaeological excavation has yet been carried out.

Claudio and I sat there for quite a while, perhaps an hour, listening to the wind, catching the occasional patter of a far off diesel tractor. The entire humped hill of Gangi lay directly before us.

"You know," Claudio said, "it would be easy for us to say that it is all a fraud. Even at the museum, they don't seem to believe that there was ever a real temple to Cerere here. But there was something. Something that was lost, probably destroyed in the earthquake that shook away half this mountain. And now for the last 700 years there has been something again, another town that had been rich and powerful, and like the one before it, may be disappearing from sort of economic earthquake. Surely it's still a Christian town, though with most of the churches closed ..."

He stopped for a moment.

"You know, when you're a writer, writing a play or a novel, you're always looking for suggestion. In the air and the earth all around you. This Sagra della Spiga is an invention, but don't you think that when Constantino and his student friends were inventing it, they were, maybe without really knowing it, going through the same kind of procedure you go through when you invent a new story? They were drawing from the spirit of this place, from old divinities as well as new ones, from their old memories and legends, from the archaeology of this mountain, and from the fantasies they need to make sense of their lives.

"You could say it's kitsch. OK. But you could also say it's a kind of artistic performance. And you know, I think at last that it's fantastic! So simple, but so fantastic!"

By Frank Browning

Frank Browning reported for nearly 30 years for NPR on sex, science and farming. He is the author of, among other books, "A Queer Geography" and "Apples."

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