Sunday, November 17, 2013

Italian stories excel at holding visitors like me interested and eager for more

Manresa Castle
A few years ago, Lucy and I stayed in Port Townsend’s Manresa Castle. The rooms were nice, the food excellent, and Port Townsend is a great city for strolling about. If you do an Internet search for Manresa Castle, you come up with numerous results endorsing Manresa as one of the top haunted spots in Washington—but curiously the location’s official website has nothing to say about lurking ghosts.

The other websites talk about a broken-hearted young woman who jumped or fell to her death while waiting and watching for the return of her sailor man. Another story tells of a Jesuit priest who committed suicide by hanging himself in the attic during the years the place was used as a monastery. So why doesn’t the castle’s website mention these stories?

While dining in the Manresa restaurant, we asked a waitress about the haunted reputation, and she readily admitted that the stories were fabrications made by a former cook in the restaurant to add some verbal spice to his dinners. I have to confess feeling a little disappointed to hear such a stark admission, as one of the pleasurable facets of being a tourist is hearing the interesting stories of the places one visits—even if the stories are of questionable origin.

Lucy and I recalled some of the unusual stories we heard while visiting Italian cities, stories that were steeped in legend but still stirred the imagination. Tourism is among the top industries in Italy, and one reason for this is the long-standing Italian knack for inventing creative fables to keep tourists amused. While the United States boasts stunning natural wonders, such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park and giant redwoods, Italian tourism blows America out of the water when it comes to bizarre historical accounts, some factual and some imagined.

Of course, Italy has a big advantage of having a couple thousand years of recorded history, providing more time for the accumulation of legends. Another factor in its favor is that many of the stories were initially promulgated when there were no fact-checkers. wasn’t around to debunk some of the wilder accounts that were passed along by rumor mills, and now there are no other sources to cite in opposition to the legends.

One of the finest and most elaborate examples is the story of the Volto Santo, the Holy Face, a
wooden crucifix now located in the Cathedral of Santo Martino in Lucca. It was noted as an object of veneration for pious tourists as early as 1065, and it still inspires pilgrimages today. One reason for its popularity is a document published in the 11th century explaining the miraculous origins and the incredible story of how the Volto Santo came to Lucca.

Attributed to an author called Leboino, or sometimes Leobino, the treatise goes into great detail concerning the history of the crucifix. It was carved by a disciple named Nicodemus, presumably the same man who had a conversation with Christ in chapter 3 of the Gospel of John. Nicodemus was not able to carve the face, however, and he left it unfinished, but angels came down at night to complete the work. Nicodemus hid the crucifix to keep it safe, but angels pointed out the location many years later to the Italian bishop Gualfredo while he was on a pilgrimage in Jerusalem. He carried it to Jaffa (Joppa) and put it on an unmanned ship, which was steered by angels to Luni, once a powerful city on the coast not far from Lucca. The residents of Luni were not able to board the ship, though, because each time they drew near to it, the ship moved further out to sea.

Informed of this problem by angels, Bishop Giovanni of Lucca went to Luni, and the ship came
to shore to meet him. Still, the Lunensi argued that the Volto Santo should be housed in Luni, so Giovanni proposed that it be placed in a lavish cart attached to two oxen which had never before pulled an oxcart. The bulls went straight to Lucca and the Lunensi went home, and this is known as the “proof of the indomitable bulls.” This took place in 782, according to the account, and the Volto Santo has been kept in Lucca ever since.

Every year the city holds a grand festival on September 13 called the Luminaria di Santa Croce, in which the wooden figure is carried through the streets in an impressive torch-lit procession. The residents dress in historical costumes while candles in windows add to the mystical atmosphere. The day is concluded with a spectacular fireworks display

Just who revealed all the details to Leboino is never stated, but with all the angelic intervention along the way, perhaps even the story itself was disclosed to him by supernatural sources. In any event, it’s not really possible to dispute the account—and true or not, it’s an entertaining tale and the centerpiece of Lucca’s most important relic and annual celebration. How mundane would it be if the citizenry of Lucca just said they had no idea who made the Volto Santo or how it arrived? What if they said that some guy just made up a good story to add some spice, as the waitress told us about the ghosts in Manresa Castle?

Italy is chock full of fascinating tales, and the guides know them all and utilize them to liven up their tours. If a city doesn’t have a good story to justify having a festival, it will invent one and add new details throughout the years. A prime example of this is the northern town of Ivrea, which hosts one of the largest food fights in the world, the Battle of the Oranges, during the traditional carnivale days of February. According to Wikipedia, “The festival’s origins are somewhat unclear. A popular account has it that it commemorates the city’s defiance against the city’s tyrant, who is either a member of the Ranieri or a conflation of the 12th-century Ranieri di Biandrate and the 13th-century Marquis William VII of Montferrat.  This tyrant attempted to rape a young commoner (often specified as a miller’s daughter) on the eve of her wedding, supposedly exercising the droit de seigneur (right of the lord). His plan backfired when the young woman instead decapitated the tyrant, after which the populace stormed and burned the palace. Each year, a young girl is chosen to play the part of Violetta, the defiant young woman.”

During the
annual celebration, teams of “Aranceri” (orange handlers) on foot throw hundreds of thousands of oranges (representing ancient weapons and stones) against Aranceri riding in carts (representing the ranks of the tyrant). The oranges are smashed, mulched and stomped on throughout various battles during the week-long event. During the French occupation of Italy in the 19th century, representatives of the French army were added to the tyrant’s crew. One source I find says the oranges of the battles represent the head of the marquis and the pulp and juice are his blood. Another adaptation of the story has the oranges used to symbolize the removed testicles of the tyrant.

Note that the historical details are extremely hazy and
additional legends have been added over the years. All it takes is for one author to suggest an explanation and then every writer ever after can say, “Some claim the oranges represent the spattered brains of the oppressors,” and the legend gains validity through repetition. The stories are amusing and nobody wants to be the wet blanket who questions their accuracy. As a matter of fact, oranges are not even grown in Ivrea or the surrounding areas. They are imported from Sicily and were not used in the festival until the mid-20th century. Before that, if the unnamed sources can be trusted, beans were used because “feudal lords gave pots of beans to the poor, who began throwing the beans back into the streets out of disrespect for such meager charity.” It all reminds me a bit of the Nixon supporter who famously said during the Watergate hearings, “Don’t confuse me with the facts.”

This may be the noose in the attic of Manresa
Castle where a priest hung himself after a tragic illicit love
affair. Of course, it also could just be a random photo I found
on the Internet.

While I take all the stories with a large grain of salt, I have to confess that I love hearing them. They entertain and stimulate the imagination, and then there is the fun of debating which parts might actually be true and which are certainly fiction. I kind of wish the waitress at Manresa Castle had played into the game at least a little. Especially after we heard all that baleful moaning in the vacant room above us during our stay, and our lights kept flashing off and on, and objects in the room kept moving around seemingly under their own
power . . .