Once upon a time, when I was a boy, day and night were distinct: one was the time of light, of sounds, of work, the other was the time of dark, silence, rest.
During the night the darkness and silence were not frightening, even when a thunderstorm broke out with heavy rain and the wind whistled strongly. Then it was instinctive to curl up between the covers and this was enough to feel safe.
In these places, darkness was also a measure of time: here it is not said “I worked from morning to evening”, but “from dark to dark” or “from one dark to another“.
Then came the widespread electric lighting, night clubs, nightlife, discos and the night became a rough appendix of the day.
And the silence? Disappeared!
I regret these lost dimensions, lived and experienced in Sorano, a town in the Tuscan Maremma, built as if by magic on the sides of a tuff spur, launched like the bow of a ship in a valley crossed by a river of clear waters.
A town framed by an incomparable landscape made of canyons, precipitous walls, huge boulders and ridges emerging from green valleys.
In such a Far West scenario it was easy to fantasize.
We boys have grown up running around the cliffs, the ridges, the valleys, regardless of the dangers, indeed facing them strengthened us in physique and character. How many times on the edge of a precipice did we stop to contemplate the natural wonders around us and in such an environment none of us has ever suffered from vertigo.
But for us kids there was also an extraordinary historic town centre, furrowed by a few streets and many alleys that intersected from top to bottom, with connecting stairs and semi-hidden squares and with an underground world made of cellars, warehouses, stables , ancient cave dwellings.
Here our games developed, many invented by ourselves, stimulated by this particular environment in which we were immersed every day. Even a universal game like “hide and seek” here was not the same as elsewhere.
The town of Sorano is a rare example of spontaneous architecture, created from an original local culture: the “tuff civilization“. Many anonymous masons have followed one another over the centuries, passing on the same construction methods, creating a homogeneous whole and so well integrated into the landscape that today no architect, even a famous one, would know how to make it.
Sorano is like a kaleidoscope, which changes with the changing colours of the vegetation with the passing of the seasons and with many different points of view: if you look at it from the west it looks one way, if you look at it from the east it looks like another town. If it were not for some specific points of reference: the Masso Leopoldino and the Fortezza Orsini.
The Masso Leopoldino is a gigantic cliff, which emerges in the centre of the town, smoothed over by the Soranesi “scavini”, at the tip of which is the Clock Tower, which pairs with the bell tower of the nearby church of San Nicola.
The Orsini Fortress, powerful and robust, stands high with its bulk so much so that it managed to impress the plenipotentiary minister of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who came in 1608 to take possession of the Ursinea County ceded to the Medici:
“And above (in Sorano) there is a most noble and beautiful fortress, which stands above it like a falcon, seen easily from afar, and when you are on the Earth, it seems astonishing to admire a structure so high that almost it seems that the eye gets lost up there”.
This fortress, which made Sorano impregnable despite the many sieges suffered over time, was the main reason for the military and strategic importance of the small County of Pitigliano, dominated by the Orsini from the XIV to the early XVII century.
Sorano’s social environment was like a big family. We were almost all poor, but nobody touched anything of other people’s things. It was the time when the could be left untouched in the front door.
However, there were those who were even poorer: a man, who possessed nothing, except for a miserable hovel and barely survived with a little charity. Everyone called him “Cenciapane” because he often said: “Even today I live without bread (senza pane)”.
One winter day at lunchtime a piece of hard bread was being peeled off on a bench in front of the tavern, from which pleasant scents came from the kitchen; a Soranese passed who said to him:
“What are you doing there in the cold, go to your house to eat”,
“Oh no!” answered Cenciapane “at least here I eat bread and can smell the aromas!”.
This character was also known because one day, tired of his indigence, he exclaimed: “I want to go away from this Italy that sucks, I want to go to Rome!”
His sense of humour and the joke, even paradoxical, never failed and made relations with others pleasant.
We children often listened to anecdotes and stories of adults, a real oral heritage, among which there were the stories of the nocturnal “fears”, linked to particular places such as the “Grotte del Purgatorio” (ancient cave dwellings) or the traditional Quarry streets, ancient roads cut into the rock, used to overcome the steep differences in height of the valleys around the town.
Passing there during the day one had the impression of entering arcane and mysterious places, let alone at night!
The “fears” we spoke of did not correspond to the “fear”, that is the one that makes “disturbance of the soul, which arouses strong fear”, but they are something vague, indefinite, a meeting with the unreal, which creates a sense of restlessness or fright.
The “fears” can occur in various forms: a tree that twists and turns into a hideous monster, a fire that winds along a wall and is not consumed, diaphanous figures that appear in the middle of the fog and so on.
I, too, once experienced it. My uncle had taken me with him to a nearby town for certain commitments, but we were late and left to return almost at night.
We walked on foot, accompanied by a beautiful moonlight, the “full moon of the hunter“, when suddenly a large white dog appeared on my side and started walking with us, without us knowing if it could be hostile or not.
We were disconcerted and we were seized with a certain fear, hearing that the dog growled at intervals. I felt that my uncle was worried and at one point he took me by the arm and moved me, placing him between me and the dog.
We went on with bated breath for a time that seemed infinite to us, then suddenly the dog disappeared as it had come. So I started saying:
“But that dog …” and my uncle immediately replied: “It was a fear!”. I didn’t say anything else.
Even this dimension suspended between the real and the imaginary, once the patrimony of our people, is now lost in the current technological society.