Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Witches, puppets and Nazis, oh my! Quercione near Collodi inspires wonder, mystery and legends

We’ve lived in Montecarlo part time since 2011, yet it wasn’t until this year that I realized we live just 10 minutes away from a 600-year-old oak tree that has been named the most beautiful in Tuscany by the cultural association Amici Degli Alberi (Friends of the Trees). I had heard mention in passing of the Quercione, but I didn’t grasp what a rare and beautiful sight we have been missing, nor how close it is to Montecarlo. Not only is it a delight for the eyes but it has an intriguing history.
The Quercione and Lucy.
Fake news? Or was this really taken at the oak of the witches?
In centuries past, local streghe—witches—used the Quercione (which means big oak tree) as part of their witchy rituals and incantations. In either dancing on the tree or using parts of it for their magic, they broke branches off the top of the tree and are responsible for its unique shape, or so the legends say. It is a species (Quercus pubescens, or downy oak) very common in central Italy, but these trees normally grow taller than they are wide. The Quercione, instead, is about 50 feet tall and has a crown of more than 130 feet in diameter. Its lower branches alone are larger than many other oak trees found in the surrounding woods.

Photo by Lucy
It is not unusual that witches would get credit for the shape of the tree. Italy, although the cradle of Catholicism, has a strong history of belief in the occult, originating from the folklore of the Etruscans and Greeks, indeed probably even from prior civilizations. And in Italy, not all witches are evil. Consider the Befana, the witch from whom expectant children still receive treats on the eve of Epiphany.

The tree has yet another claim to fame. Author Carlo Lorenzini spent a good part of his childhood in Collodi, which is about a mile and a half from the Quercione. He would later take on the pen name Carlo Collodi and, while living in Collodi, write The Adventures of Pinocchio: The Tale of a Puppet. Published in 1883, the book describes the mischievous escapades of an animated marionette and his father, a poor woodcarver named Geppetto.

Some sources maintain that Lorenzini wrote part of the book under the branches of the Quercione, and furthermore that the oak is included in the story. Pinocchio, with four gold pieces hidden in his mouth, was pursued by two assassins, a cat and a fox. They caught up to him and tried to force him to open his mouth, but he refused. Here the story reads:

“There is nothing left to do but to hang him,” said one of them to the other.
They tied Pinocchio’s hands behind his shoulders and slipped the noose around his neck. Throwing the rope over the high limb of a giant oak tree, they pulled till the marionette hung far up in space.
“Tomorrow we’ll come back for you and you’ll be dead, and your mouth will be open, and then we’ll take the gold pieces that you have hidden under your tongue.”
Perhaps Carlo Collodi sat here
when he wrote Pinocchio.
It takes only a glance at the Quercione to see how easy it would be to tie a rope to its numerous and hefty horizontal branches. Given that the tree had already achieved local fame and that the author grew up nearby, it’s obvious that Lorenzini would have seen it, and it’s easy to believe that he had it in mind when he wrote Pinocchio.

Because of its ties to witches and Pinocchio, the Quericione is often referred to as the Quercia delle Streghe and the Quercia di Pinocchio, and, because of its location, sometimes as the Quercia di Capannori. It is relatively healthy, although it has suffered some damage and threats during its lifetime. Vandals broke some of its branches while sitting in the tree more than 100 years ago, and an even greater threat came during the Second World War. Nazi occupiers planned to use it for firewood, but the inhabitants of nearby San Martino in Colle mobilized to thwart these efforts. In the 1960s, lightning struck the Quercione, causing significant damage, and in recent years its roots have been threatened by the trampling of tourists. It is also colonized by insects that nest in its truck.

The fact that it is currently not included in many tourist guidebooks and that the signage directing visitors to its location is poor may be blessings in disguise for the Quercione. It’s located on private property, but it is beside a little traveled public road. From Montecarlo, head north on SP31. After about two miles, turn at the sign for San Martino in Colle. Follow signs for Alloro (a bed and breakfast). Shortly after you pass Alloro, you’ll come to a T in the road, where you will instantly see the Quercione.
Photo by Frank Frattaglia of Villa Basilica.

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