Four fires and six souls

by Camilla Ferrari

"Through these few pages and images, of yesterday and today, you will understand that the testimony of Civita is not over, but it will last over time, because Civita still has a message to carry: respect and care for everything that is destined to die."
G. Medori, Civita di Bagnoregio, 2014

The panorama binoculars on a terrace in the town of Lubriano look at the belvedere on a January afternoon and, hidden between the climbs and the rocky slopes of the Calanchi, a bell tower stands out in the valley: Civita di Bagnoregio, a village of six inhabitants on the border between Lazio and Umbria, connected to the rest of the region only by a narrow footbridge.

"The dying town". This is how one of his most famous inhabitants, Bonaventura Tecchi, defined it. The tufa rock that supports the village loses about 7 centimeters every year due to the weathering erosion.

This fragile condition has transformed the village into a tourist attraction, for which you pay the entrance ticket, to the point that more than a million tourists have crossed the bridge of Civita in the last four years, 40,000 only at Easter this year and the number is constantly increasing.

Tourism has inevitably changed the life of the village: Ivana, Mario, Tony, Rossana, Antonio and Felice still live in Civita with a sense of precariousness between the solid past of a farming village and the unknown future of a collapsing ground. Realino, the poet of the valley, sings memories of a place long gone, filling a landscape that has changed forever with the echo of his voice.

Rather, what has been lost is the memory of the everyday life of the past. Until a few decades ago Civita lived only through cultivation of pulses in the valley and those having a pig to feed the family were considered lucky. The children used to go down into the valley to play among the wheat fields that glistened at noon.

Now, hidden among restaurants, shops and bed and breakfasts, only a few of Civita's houses are still inhabited by the original people of Civita, called Civitonici. To reach them, it is necessary to cross the bridge that leads to the Porta Santa Maria, the only access point to the village.

Immediately to the left, a cave dug in the tufa rock - which once was the guard-house of the fortress-city – there’s the souvenir shop run by Ivana, one of the six inhabitants of the village. In the square facing the shop, there are still facades of buildings now collapsed, windows that give a glimpse of the blue sky or the thick winter fog. Walking through the narrow streets of Civita is like taking a trip back in time, step by step, at times abruptly interrupted by the arrival of buses filled with tourists who come from all over the world to discover this magical village - which is said to have inspired the suspended city of Laputa, created by Miyazaki in his marvellous animated film "Castle in the Sky".

Driving along the main street of the village, an Ape Car blocks the beginning of a small street: Tony’s home. Tony Costa Heywood and Astra Zarina, two architects of the University of Washington, fell in love with Civita at first sight. At the beginning of the Sixties they decided to move permanently and to play an active role in the community: Tony and Astra, just like the long footbridge, connected Civita to the rest of the world. Even today, the Civita Institute, created by them, promotes artistic and cultural exchange between United States and Italy, hosting foundation members and students to deepen their studies on the territory. Thanks to them and their students, many researches were made on the village, including mapping and measurements, up to real restoration. Tony says that the same house he lives in now, structured on three floors, was nothing more than a pile of ruins almost sixty years ago. When he and his wife arrived in the village, many buildings were uninhabited. There was no water or electricity. Today there is an American man hidden in a magical concealed corner of Italy. Even if loneliness can scare many, it is precisely what Tony appreciates of his quiet dwelling overlooking the valley.

A small glass door, hidden behind a wooden gate, serves as the entrance to the house; climbing the stairs some mannequins appear – they probably belonged to Tony's wife, passed away in 2008. In the bedroom there is still her mirror with some perfume bottles. On a chair, a pile of brown shoes - "They don’t fit anymore, and I cannot walk, but I have not thrown them away yet," Tony says, putting his socks on. His legs are not as strong as they used to be.
Downstairs, a stack of newspapers occupies the table in the living room, both Italian and American. Every day Tony devotes himself to reading, sipping a glass of local red wine, stroking Figaro, one of his ten cats - eleven, if you also count Felice's cat who runs away every afternoon to get more food. In his home on an island immersed in the fog, Tony ignites the fire, measures blood pressure and keeps himself updated about the world, accompanied by the radio that broadcasts the opera.

OOn the other side of the street, Felice, with his brown cloth cap, that never leaves his head, is busy pruning his apple tree: it is up to him to take care of the garden until his wife, Margarita, will come back from El Salvador. Margarita splits her time between Central America, where she comes from and where her family lives, and Civita di Bagnoregio. She met Felice right during a visit to the city, thanks to a common friend. When she is in town she lovely takes care of the plants and the flowers crowding their terrace over the valley, accompanied by her three meowing cats.
Felice looks after these vestiges of the past with the love and the dedication you have for those things able to resuscitate images and emotions you thought were lost.

Within the fragile and evanescent rock of Civita, Felice's cave communicates solidity, the ineradicable strength of a bound that still keeps intact all of its intensity.   Going down the stairs of the cellar, the room is filled with the presses for oil and wine, an oil mill, ancient tools hung on the walls.

Objects that have been part of the village’s life but especially Felice’s, who has known the agricultural tradition since childhood, helping the family in the fields and breeding.

Through the years Civita slowly but inexorably transformed from an agricultural town into a touristic destination crowded, almost invaded by commercial activities. This transformation saw at the same time both the proliferation of restaurants, shops, hotels and services and the progressive depopulation of the town.

Civita, with all the objects that inhabited Felice's childhood, today for most people represents not a home, but a workplace to spend a season in, and then to abandon again. Also Felice adapted to this change and started working in the field of electricity. But he stayed, and he is one of the few who still calls Civita “home”. Once he retired, Felice finally reunited with those objects that accompanied his youth, and that now he wants to show to everybody.

With love and nostalgia he tells the story to passersby and, when the days are quieter, he leaves the cave to admire the panorama of the valley. He knows every corner, every rock, every creek, and from the top he observes them like an endless theatrical show: "Have you seen how blue the mountains are today, back there? Few times I have seen them like this".

Fond of his town, Felice says that in the days of thick fog, looking out the window, he can only see a wall of grey blanket of mist. Crossing the bridge is like traveling to the void. But that travel to the void described by him has the same reassuring familiarity of the way home.
"Do you see that rock? It is the Montijone". It partly crumbled, recently. You can still see, from the balcony of the cave, the fresh rock, just collapsed, hidden in the greenery.

The wind will erode it and will create holes, as it happens with many of the fallen rocks, powerless at the mercy of the action of the gusts.

It seems Felice does not care about the recent mutilation of the rock: for him that boulder still represents everything it has always represented. "Today the two horses are not here. One is white and one is black. They are always on the hill, who knows where they ended up today". He is pleased, almost comforted when he sees them finally appearing under the light of the sun, a few hours later.

Noises of gunfire can be heard in the background: it is the season of hunting wild boars and pigeons. When the weather permits, Felice takes his shotgun and vanishes into the green of the valley that has hosted his childhood memories. He moves away from what Civita is becoming and plunges in what only he, and few others, are still able to see, through the thick lens of the years.

Later, walking along the main street of the town, you can hear some laughter together with the sound of clinking glasses and a loud “Cheers!”: Felice is having lunch with the carpenters and the bricklayers who everyday restore the buildings of Civita. They are working, after many years, on the last decrepit building in the square, that will be reborn as a bed and breakfast or another kind of touristic activity.

Like Felice, Antonio and Rossana have always lived in Civita di Bagnoregio. They manage a restaurant with the help of their daughters. While the husband takes care of the business, Rossana takes care of the house, populated by rosaries and photographs of parents and relatives.

The noise of the television keeps company to the fire crackling in the fireplace. Antonio quickly eats his lunch before starting the service in the kitchen, still impregnated with the smoke from the pots. Rossana talks about her numerous interviews with Italian, German, French and even Brazilian televisions and newspapers, who knock on her door insistently for news and curiosities about the famous "dying city". It is not with this name that Rossana calls Civita, the town in which she lived her entire life and that was the home of her parents before her. The rooms of his house, which now hold photographs and memories of times long gone, have seen repeated customs and traditions handed down from generation to generation, and that have a profound importance in the life of his family still today.

In the days leading up to Easter, Rossana helps the priest and the confraternity to prepare San Donato’s church for the Good Friday Procession: together with Ivana, also of civitonic origin, she prepares the vecciato, a typical tradition of the Easter Sepulchres, planting grain seeds in some vases and letting them grow in the darkness of the cellar, as a symbol of the passage from darkness to the light of the Resurrection of Christ. On Holy Thursday, before mass, the vases are placed at the foot of the crucifix inside the ancient cathedral, which is located a few steps from the Porta di Civita and is the centre of the village.

The church, where Father Luca celebrates mass every Sunday at the presence of a handful of those faithfuls, is also the starting point of the Good Friday Procession, one of the most ancient re-enactments of the Passion of Christ in Lazio, a custom celebrated and respected for four hundred years. The ceremony has its roots in the Civita of 1600 and even then, it was attended not only by the clergy, but also by the confraternities of the village and the population. However, the procession was subsequently moved from Civita to the town of Bagnoregio, due to the progressive depopulation of the village. From that moment, during the procession, the confraternity of Civita - dressed in white clothes - carries the wooden crucifix on a coffin, across the bridge, to reach the town of Bagnoregio.

From there, a procession of three hundred figures, dressed in Roman costumes expertly sewn by Bagnoregio’s tailors and masters of leather, reaches the square of Sant'Agostino to pay tribute to the crucifix and the brotherhood of Civita. The story of the crucifix is ​​told by the tradition but also by the legend: according to the belief, to avert the danger that the village will be hit by an earthquake, as in 1695, when a strong tremor destroyed the city, it is necessary that the crucifix comes back Civita's church before midnight. If this does not happen, the crucifix will be given to the Bagnoregio’s citizens: an inconceivable idea for the Civitonici, who celebrate the profound love for their country through the respect for the traditions and symbols that represent it.
But the importance of the Procession does not lie only in its history and its folklore: it is one of the last occasions in which the two cities of Civita and Bagnoregio come together. For many young people from Bagnoregio - and not only the younger ones - Civita is indeed becoming part of an ever farther panorama, an image increasingly hidden in the fog.

This year the unpredictable happens: a torrential rain prevents the procession. It is the first time in 10 consecutive years. San Donato's Church, that until that moment was ringing with the Easter songs of the faithfuls, is suddenly invaded by a concerning buzz. Everybody are waiting for the final decision: despite attempts to protect the statue of the crucifix with plastic sheeting and security ropes, the priest reports that the confraternity will not leave the church.

The expression of disappointment and despair that is painted on the faces of those present might seem almost comical to a stranger. But the cancellation of the procession has a very serious meaning in the lives of all the people involved. For months, in Bagnoregio, the Committee for the Good Friday Procession led by Giordano Fioco had been taking care of every detail. Despite the fact that rain was almost a certainty, the confraternity had prepared every element, as is tradition. While the men were intent on setting up the statue of the Virgin Mary, the clothes had been divided by type - men, women and soldiers - and were waiting to be worn in the nursery rooms of Bagnoregio.

The wigs had been combed with utmost precision, following the traditional designs that describe each element of each costume. The holy iconographies, which make up the folklore part of the procession, had already been placed in order in the warehouse, ready to be transported by children and boys lit by candles on an open flame. The sound system was ready to accompany the participants with the evocative soundtrack typical of the ceremony.

But the cancellation of the procession is a lost not just in terms of time and energy put into it: there is the sense of community and of the participation of the Civitonici at stake. The procession is an opportunity for communion and interaction, one of the last moments of that social life that in Civita is inexorably crumbling. Now that this year the procession will no longer take place, it is as if another 7 centimeters suddenly disappeared under the feet of the inhabitants.

Back home, the Civitonici reluctantly return to a solitary daily life, bringing with them the regret for the long-awaited ceremony, dissolved in a few seconds in the rain. Ivana’s eyes flicker with tears while she describes to me how her husband Mario should have lit the fire in the square after the return of the crucifix, like every year. But not this year. In Ivana’s words there’s an immense respect and pride for the Civitonic traditions, mixed with a sweet melancholy for a time long gone, for a village whose culture is slowly fading but which stands up also thanks to the help of tourism. This bittersweet feeling is a constant in the words of the inhabitants, who feel a sense of deprivation and at the same time gratitude for those who cross their streets with eyes full of wonder.

Ivana, who spent her entire life in Civita, playing in the village's main square with her cousins, now owns a souvenir shop right at the entrance of the village. Every day she welcomes rivers of tourists, intrigued by the reproductions of Etruscan pottery and small typical objects scattered here and there in the shop. Sometimes some family friends come to say hi and to keep up-to-date on the latest news about the village and the city.

Her husband Mario, now retired, has spent his life working as a blacksmith. When they do not work, they rest in their home, just above the shop, reading a book in front of the fire. Above the fireplace, a collection of bells collected on trips with her husband, or brought by her son and her grandchildren.

For every errand, from shopping to going to the post office, Ivana - like the other inhabitants of Civita - must walk along the long and narrow bridge to reach Bagnoregio. Every day, she must leave her car in the parking lot at the beginning of the bridge, and prepare for the climb, observing the landscape that has looked after her and hosted her since she was a child.

The love for Civita does not only bring the inhabitants of the village together: there is also someone who, although he is not a real Civitonico, feels strongly linked to the village hidden in the valley: Realino, nicknamed by all "the poet of the valley", was born in Campo Grande, a small village lost in the Calanchi. At the census, which defined houses as fires and inhabitants as souls, he was born in Civita, where he "received baptism with that water from clay soil, purified by the labours of man", as Professor Medori recounts in the introduction to one of Realino’s collections of stories.

Although he now lives in Lubriano, on the other side of the valley, Realino spends his days being inspired by the small village, to which he dedicates most of his verses, as well getting involved in Civita’s traditions - such as the Living Nativity and the Good Friday Procession, during which he disguises himself to embody various traditional characters.

Enthusiastic to tell his story, Realino begins to narrate legends and historical events that happened in the valley, climbing the narrow gravel roads with his red Ape Car: he passes through disused mills and dried water sources, reciting his verses between one stop and the other. Here and there, among the trees, on the crumbling walls, on the rocks, small squares frame the poems written by Realino over the years. He shows them with pride, along with his books that tell his story and his origins. He tells how his father called him Realino in honour of a soldier who saved his life in Albania, his experience in the army, the house where he lives with his wife. He tells about his passion for vintage motorcycles, carefully kept in his garage in Lubriano. In the room next to the garage, the trophies of literature and poetry stand out, gleaming.

He then tells about how, once, those hills were of a golden colour, because of the wheat sparkling in the sunlight. About how he never felt alone, because he yelled his name from the top of one of the rocky ridges, and the valley answered him with the echo of his voice.

Now, these valleys that welcome throngs of tourists in search of tranquillity with patient resignation, ring with the secret echo of Realino’s poems, which nostalgically preserve a past long gone.

by Camilla Ferrari
Graphic project by: Sara Salmoiraghi