A Rogue Carver on the Loose in Italy
Part 6, Massa to Myselfa
It was the Sunday prior to Easter and after having enjoyed a prolonged spell of beautiful weather I awoke to leaden skies and a dull damp chill in the air, the first inclement weather I had experienced in the two weeks I had been in Italy and the vista had the immediate but fleeting effect of dampening my spirits – clearly I needed a revised plan.
I had intended to head into the mountains to explore more of the hilltop villages that proved so fascinating over the previous few days, but one look at the mist-covered peaks persuaded me otherwise.
More by chance than choice I found myself in Massa, just a short 15 minute drive directly north of Pietrasanta; a town I knew practically nothing about aside from the few snippets of information I had garnered from a free tourist map – even my Lonely Planet Tuscan guide book made absolutely no mention of the place. But being a fairly prominent city in the region I figured it must have something to contribute to my Tuscan adventure and so parking the car in a near-empty lot I picked my way through a series of nondescript streets lined with four and five story buildings that served to forge a vertical-sided urban canyon towards the direction I assumed contained the city center – although it was difficult to tell I was on course until a huge gate told me I was on the right track..
Strolling through the gate I had scant idea as to just what I would find on the other side, but what became immediately clear was the fact that whatever there was to discover I would have the place all to myself!
Making my way through the deserted streets, my footsteps plainly audible in the damp still air, I had justifiable cause to wonder where exactly the population had hidden themselves, and although it wasn’t actually raining at that precise moment the air was so laden with moisture a dampness began to form on the outer shell of my jacket.
The oppressive air, the almost complete lack of human beings, the silence, the low leaden skies, all gave cause to make me wonder just why exactly I was there? My interest somewhat perked however when I caught sight of a massive square, fronted along one entire side by an enormous pink palace. I’m not quite sure just how many football fields it must have covered but to my utter astonishment this too was completely deserted. ‘Curiouser and curiouser’.
The massive plaza was ringed with orange trees (later I plucked one and it actually turned out to be a quite bitter tangerine; a cunning plan no doubt to keep the bright beautiful fruit on the trees and out of the local juicers), but what immediately caught my attention was the gargantuan centerpiece to the plaza consisting of four huge great lions guarding four water spigots… I wouldn’t call this a fountain by any means but together they presented an impressive spectacle.
Aside from their truly gargantuan proportions what immediately captured and held my attention was the oddly animated expression the sculptors had managed to apply to each individual lion: proud, indignant, curious and tormented. Clearly its prominent position – slap bang in the middle of the city’s main square, the carvers responsible for this massive edifice were no doubt given full access to real actual live lions, unlike the provincial sculptors who fashioned the lions adorning the quite stunning pulpit I discovered on my trip to Barga a few days earlier. For while their anatomic proportions seemed entirely correct to my eye the various expressions appeared distinctly human. The sheer skill and ingenuity involved in combining such subtle elements with the style and panache displayed on such gigantic scale immediately won my sincere admiration. And as always with sculpture of this magnitude I marveled at the sheer physical amount of work that went into quarrying the blocks, transporting them, roughing them out, and slowly chiseling the delicate features that combine to produce such an absolutely stunning piece of inventive art.
From the lion’s den I made my way over to the huge, pink, palatial building. In keeping with the mood of the city however I found that it too was sulking: locked, shuttered and utterly devoid of life.
Pondering my predicament I was at a complete loss as to what to do next. Ambling my way down a side street chosen at random I, or rather my nose, caught the drifting aroma of the most delicious kind: food… seafood to be precise. And so following my instinctive curiosity of all things gastronomically delightful I was lead, cartoon style (but with no visible wavy lines) into a small courtyard and ultimately to the doorway of a building skirted by a row of potted plants on one side and an A-frame on the other announcing the name of the establishment, ‘La Conca’, and boasting seafood as their specialty.
However as I made to take a step inside the narrow entrance I was immediately greeted by a rather severe, handsome, very well dressed middle-aged gentleman who seemed quite taken aback that I had chosen to cross the threshold of what I rightly assumed to be his establishment, rather than slinking away into the damp afternoon air. “I only use fresh fish” he replied to my request for a table for one… “Fresh fish, you understand?” “You mean its expensive” I shot back, to which his stern features vanished in an instant and replaced with broad smile, “Wait here a moment” he commanded, tapping me in the chest with a gesture that gave me the impression I had passed some sort of test.
A few moments later he was back, “Follow me”. I was lead down a short dimly lit passage and into a modest sized room fronted by floor to ceiling windows shrouded from the outside by several layers of curtains that served to subtly deflect prying eyes while shading the light to a comfortable level, and shown to my table for one. The only other customers consisted of one large group of perhaps a dozen or so seated at a long table stretching the full length of the wall on the other side of the room. Moments later an extremely handsome, nay quite beautiful young man appeared at the table and although he spoke no English whatsoever together we arrived at the decision that I would opt for sparkling water as opposed to the plain ordinary variety.
It wasn’t long before the proprietor, whom I was later to learn went by the name of Alessandro, arrived not with a menu but with a series of questions designed to ascertain just what exactly I would care to eat? Immediately I had the distinct feeling that I had stumbled into a restaurant of the variety that far exceeds the budget of a rogue carver like myself and so after we had mulled over the various options, and established my preference for one sea creature over another, I felt compelled to ask: “So, how much is all this going to cost me as I only have around 50 euros in my wallet?” Instantly he recoiled with laughter, “For you I make a beeg meal, for a leetle price”.
Moments later he was back. Leaning in slightly he presented a silver platter upon which several species of marine life lay prone and ready for my inspection, some familiar and some resembling props from ‘10,000 leagues under the sea’. Sure enough these unfortunate creatures were as fresh looking, and smelling, as I had been assured on my entry and one by one he named them, explaining precisely how his chefs were going to prepare them along with the nature of the dish in which in which they were to be consumed.
Big it was, and little was the price, but what an exquisite, delectable gastronomic delight it was; seven savory dishes in all, each one a revelation on the palate, each one sublime in texture and imbued with a subtlety I have rarely if ever encountered, especially and particularly when it comes to seafood… perhaps the most nuanced cuisine of all.
Desert of melt-in-your-mouth tiramisu followed, my generous glass of light airy sparkling wine duly topped in order to aid and assist with the enjoyment and digestion of my final course; then cappuccino; and finally the nirvana bliss that follows all such gastronomic feasts: I was again at one with the world, no longer at all concerned by the dark dank dismal afternoon that went its dreary way on the other side of those curtains, I was in heaven.
So, the bill? Making my way towards the cash register I had passed but not noticed as I was lead in barely an hour previously I braced myself and made ready to hand over my 50 euro note quite convinced of the bargain I had been handed by my genial host. For a while he crunched some numbers, accompanying the complex math with some eyebrow gymnastics, thought about it for a moment or two more: “Twenty-five euros”. Twenty-five euros? “You’re sure?” Yes, “Twenty-five; a beeg meal for a leetle price” he joked.
In a vain attempt to repay my indebtedness I insisted that I leave a tip for the waiter, whom it must be said was superb throughout. To this Alessandro immediately called the young man over to the register and I promptly surrendered all the coins I could muster from my pockets, at which point I was informed that this strikingly handsome young man was in fact his son, the pride etched across his face. And when I inquired whether I could take a photo he immediately threw his arm around the lad and feigned a comic attempt to lift himself onto his tiptoes, “Yes, I do the same in photographs with my own son” I joked “only my toes are no longer long enough”.
More laughter ensued until Alessandro insisted that I be introduced to his chefs, at which point, turning around, there directly behind me was a bright immaculate modern kitchen (another feature I had failed to notice during my self-conscious arrival), and in it two smiling bashful women who immediately suspended their closing duties to pose for a picture.
“So”, I said to Alessandro by way of a parting statement, “I will endeavor to return one day”, knowing full well his prices would be several times the bargain basement 25 euros my lunch had cost me. “Only for dinner” he shot back, “I’m only open for dinner, this is a dinner house, you understand?
“But”, glancing up at the clock, “It’s lunchtime” I stammered, clearly confused. “Ah yes, but this is a private party” he replied with a knowing look. It seems the only other guests had consented to this strange lost-looking soul gatecrashing their private celebrations!
Back on the street the drab scene had altered very little during the time I had spent in gastronomic heaven but I cared not one jot. Floating as if on air I sauntered back in the general direction of the car, noting with interest the quite exquisite bas relief adorning many of the buildings along the fashionable streets fanning out from the square towards the cathedral when my attention was captured by the sight of several people struggling with what appeared to be a coffin as they carefully negotiated the precipitous steps. Closer inspection revealed that it was nothing of the sort – it actually turned out to be a period piece harpsichord that I would very soon hear accompanying the orchestra and choir as they rehearsed a variety of extremely strenuous operatic pieces to the seeming ire and outright disappointment of the tetchy and impatient conductor.
The beautiful, broken, interrupted operatic accompaniment lent a strange but pleasant air to the atmosphere inside the cathedral, and I listened to these obviously talented musicians being berated, cajoled and chastised with various degrees of indignation as I focused my attention on the quite incredible Rococo extravagance of this over-the-top cathedral. Quite literally nothing had been left unadorned; even the adornments were adorned, and I imagined this to be a sort of Disneyland of its Medieval day, with all the attendant implications associated with such an idea. When all of a sudden, sopranos in full voice, the conductor had clearly had enough and to the obvious bemusement of chorus and orchestra alike he abruptly announced the rehearsal over and hurriedly fled the scene. But while I was a little sad to have such beautiful musical accompaniment to my daydreams suddenly muted the floor was now cleared for my further inspections of the business end of the cathedral, and stepping up towards the alter I was left to marvel at a one of the most impressive bas relief sculptures I have ever laid eyes upon.
Truly, this epic masterpiece was a wonder to behold. Carved almost in the round, the full scope of which could only be truly appreciated from an oblique angle, I was simply taken aback at the skill the carvers had displayed in creating such a stunningly graphic and realistic depiction, the subject matter and significance of which however being quite lost on me. Just how long had it taken to carve? How many pairs of hands were involved? And just how exactly was it physically carved? Were questions that had me staring at it in dumb silence for long enough that I eventually became conscious of the fact that my mesmeric trance-like state may just be interpreted as rather strange behavior by those around me, and so pulling myself away I immediately stumbled upon the next treasure trove of good fortune when I discovered a pair of glass doors that lead to a small hallway festooned with the most graphic illustrations sculpted, from what I could gather, from clay tablets and used presumably in the education of an illiterate audience.
Just when they were made I had to surmise as there was no information whatsoever to accompany them, but I suspect they were fairly recent creations (as in a hundred or two years!) as indicated by the use of Arabic numbers as opposed to Roman numerals. However, I was utterly impressed by the compelling nature of their storytelling and the artistic sophistication of their execution: graphic, vivid and frighteningly realistic the artist employed not only detailed and accurately sculpted techniques in order to tell the various stories, but also made ample use of optical illusion to imply details that the viewer supplied via his own imagination. Indeed many of these panels would, I feel, make themselves right at home in even the most contemporary of modern art galleries.
But just when I began to think that this most flamboyant of cathedrals has offered up its last surprise I discovered a doorway that lead me into a dimly lit chapel that quite clearly predated the Rococo treasure chest of the main cathedral. The room was so dim in fact that it actually took several minutes for my eyes to adjust to the change, but gradually out of the gloom arose statues, grave stones and associated imagery that appeared to confirm my initial impression that this was indeed at one time a free-standing chapel of its own accord, most likely dating far back before the Medici family tacked on the flamboyant theme park of a cathedral now standing at the entrance that once opened directly onto the street.
How this barnacle of a building has survived quite so unmolested was a question I pondered the entire time I spent exploring the spooky nooks and crannies that seemed to hold pockets of ancient air. Ghostly statues, gargoyle-like carvings and mysterious inscriptions loomed out of the gloom.
Until next time,
All the best,