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Travel Journaling Made Easy

Travel writer’s block?

You’ve seen them sitting in cafes or on park benches, or streaming along in high-speed trains, young travelers, earnestly bent over their notebooks or Ipads, writing intently as the cup of coffee at their elbow grows cold. Maybe there are maps spread on a table beside them or a little pile of postcards. You envy them – they have found their focus. They are succeeding at what you meant to do, but didn’t – attending to their travel journals.

And yet you came prepared. Here in your bag, you have your moleskin notebook along with some colored pens and your smart phone is full of stunning photos and amusing selfies. On your walk this morning, you stumbled upon three interesting things to write about: a political protest in the piazza, a puppet theater in the park and some discarded mannequins in a trash bin behind the bowling alley. But when you finally sit down to write, the inspiration evaporates. You gaze at the blank page then put the notebook away, thinking there will be another opportunity for this later.

Very likely when your trip is over, your notebook will return home still virgin. Next summer, next year, when you want to remember something of your journey, you will curse yourself for not having had a more disciplined approach. Sound familiar?

Keeping your journal

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Failing to keep up your journal is a special kind of writer’s block – here are some tips to overcome it and turn your blank-paged notebook into a scintillating record of your trip– even if you are not a writer.

Firstly, consider “Why?” you want to keep a journal before you consider “How?” Remember your intention is to create a document that will reflect authentic glimpses of your experience. Encapsulating experiences in words of our own is different from snapping a photo. It casts a warmer, more intimate light on a fleeting moment. Think of it this way; you are writing a letter to the most important person in your life, your future self, to preserve precious memories that will otherwise fade away and vanish.

Find time

When rushing off to airports or out to see the sights, it can be tricky to schedule writing time, especially if you are traveling in company and must accommodate other people’s rhythms. Perhaps, when you finally have a moment alone, you’re just too tired or overwhelmed by new impressions to collect your thoughts. Try opening your notebook throughout the day, whenever you have some downtime, even if you aren’t intending to write. You might be surprised to find yourself inspired.

Experiment with different settings – try writing in an art gallery or historical museum, on a bus or in a taxi, at a shopping mall, train station, hairdressers or restaurant. Explore the city streets as a flaneur, jotting down the bits of life swirling around you as they happen, or take your notebook on a slow nature walk, pausing to study and describe in detail the wild life you encounter.

Remember, you aren’t writing a novel. Don’t worry too much about grammar and form. Take it lightly, start with a ten-minute assignment with this sure-fire prompt: make a list.

List life

Lists are a very evocative literary device. From Homer’s catalogue of ships in the Iliad, to James Joyce’s inventory of the objects in Bloom’s drawer in Ulysses, lists are tools for world building. Novelist and critic Umberto Eco has praised lists as the origin of culture, for they impose order on chaos; we love lists, he claims, because we don’t want to die. Through lists we reconstruct the contents of our mind and environment.

Here are some ideas for list making while traveling:

Five ways the local people look, dress or act differently from you

Five items (clothing or other necessities) you should have brought but didn’t – and why you need them

Five foreign words or local expressions you learned and the circumstances in which you learned them

Five children you have encountered on your trip

Five unfamiliar objects you have come across and what they are used for

Five doorways you have passed through or windows you have looked out

Five place names with a story to tell

Five appealing/unpleasant smells, tastes or sounds you experienced that you wouldn’t find at home …

Once you start the process, you will see that one list leads to another and every item on each list can grow into a longer, richer narrative.

If list making got your creative juices flowing, go on to the next step. Choose some items in your list and turn them into “ tweets.”

Tweet

Even if you don’t have a Twitter account, you can still use the 140-character format as a guideline for producing short, pithy texts resembling haikus, superflash fiction, or even koans. To compress an experience in 140 characters is no small feat. The formal discipline will help shift your prose into a poetic mode.

Try to draw a picture in words, render an atmosphere, zero in on a detail that speaks for the whole, chart an itinerary, capture an action, frame a portrait or landscape. Experiment with understatement, overstatement, humor, surprise, the quirky and the uncanny.

Combine each tweet with a photograph or other visual accompaniment. Your journal will sparkle with these shards of observations and, if you use social media, you can share them with friends and readers.

Go deeper

Lastly, bring it all together with a unifying device – a deep map.

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A deep map by Tamra Duvall

The term “deep map,” was first coined by Native American Writer William Least Heat-Moon to describe his research method in writing a book of travel essays, PrairyErth. “Deep map” is now used by geographers, travel writers and urban planners to describe a multilayered map of a space, collecting information from multiple sources, time periods and perspectives.

Heat-Moon made his map by staking out a county in Kansas and exploring it from every possible point of view: by hiking and driving across it, interviewing locals, studying legends, scientific research, historical archives and old newspapers – even by dreaming about it. He matched his findings with the quadrants of geographical survey maps and then wrote about his journey section by section.

To make your deep map, find a map to paste into your journal or use Google maps or other apps like Story Map or Scribble Map to create and annotate a digital one. Trace the rough outline of your itinerary and then add layers: lists, tweets, quotes, journal entries and other texts, photographs, sketches, drawings, and vintage maps. If you are using a paper or plastic map, add mixed media: cut outs, clippings, receipts, postcards, tickets, menus, money and any other talismans of place. Do this as you go, or just gather pieces in a plastic envelope to assemble when you return home. As you flesh out your deep map with layers, stand back to reflect on the bigger picture. Themes, patterns, cycles, and changes will begin to appear, and your trip will take on new meaning. Use these insights to write a final entry on what you have learned and how you have been transformed.

 

 

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Shelley Buck’s EAST: A Woman on the Road to Katmandu — a review

 

London, 1971 found me clad in  floral granny skirts and red hiking boots, spending several hours a week washing dishes for my work scholarship  in the underground kitchen of the Eckerd College Gower Street student residence, staring through a window at  feet shuffling by.  My many free hours were taken up with rambles on Hampstead Heath, nights at the Paris Pullman, countless visits to the British Museum and V&A, and general street haunting.  Russell Square and the adjacent area were packed with Oriental booksellers and antiquarians which drew me like a magnet. I acquired an Arabic dictionary, a Buddha statue and a map of Tibet.  I also purchased Overland to India  by Douglas Brown,  the hippy guide to land travel across the Eurasian continent through Turkey,  Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to India.  Although I dreamed of dropping out of college and making that  journey – a few of my friends had done so,  I only got as far as the eastern tip of Crete, before backtracking to Italy where I have been based ever since.  I didn’t have the guts or the funds  to undertake such a trip alone.  But Shelley Buck, author of  EAST: A Woman on the Road to Katmandu, did.

Her book opens with a bizarre coincidence right out of a fairy tale.  Researching material for this memoir of her 1972 journey, she searches for the out-of- print Overland  guide which she had once owned but discarded.  The densely annotated, used paperback she finally locates turns out to be her very own copy, which launched into the ocean of time, now washed up at her feet. What more proof could you want  that synchronicity –the mysterious quality of time which fuses unrelated events into cohesive, magical meanings –actually exists?

Being in the right place in the right time  — traveler’s luck — is important in her story, embodied in the talisman she picks up : an ancient coin stamped with the blurred face of Alexander the Great.   And luck will follow her as she sails unharmed through danger– clashes with border guards, interrogations by secret police in Iran, unwanted attention from grabby men, hepatitis.   Like Alexander, she is moved by a deep yearning or Pothos to go east, to see palaces and princes dreamed about in childhood.

While saving money for her trip, the author worked in a lab in California, studying diseased tissues from cadavers.  One day it’s a breast she must dissect, and she  is struck by how much it resembles a Tibetan stupa.  This epiphany is a prompting from Kali, the goddess of great transformations, urging her not to delay, and underlining the nascent feminism in her journey. Stunned when a young man refuses to travel with her—because he is afraid they will be hassled, she sets out on her own to prove to herself that she can do it and  indeed she triumphs —  like Alexandra David Neel on her harrowing trip to Lhasa, she shows the world that a woman can make it through.

Throughout her travels, Buck is sensitive to the condition of women in these eastern countries,  of  the physical and mental freedom she enjoys as a westerner.  In Herat she buys a decorative strip of a nomad’s veil, patterned with geometrical figures representing dancing women.  This handwoven textile, testimony to women’s work and status, invites her to interrogate her own place in the dance and her kinship with strangers.  She asks: “Was I somehow in that dancing line, too, though in so many ways my life was so different from the lives of women who tended camels and tents?  ….Was I at core so different?”  Later, trying to communicate with a Tibetan woman across the language barrier, she writes   “For a few seconds, we gaze at each other across about a thousand years.”

Shelley Buck writes with  immediacy, wit, vivid color, and verve weaving in strands of history alongside wry observations on herself and her traveling companions.  East  is a compelling and delicious book to take along on a journey, or just while armchair dreaming, evoking exotic atmospheres and the joys and mishaps of traveling very rough.  This was all long before the advent of special  garments and accessories, like the she-wee, made life a bit easier on the road for women travelers.  The squeamish will squirm at some of the sanitary conditions she describes with humor, and also graphic details.

Many of the places she visited with such freedom are inaccessible to most western travelers these days,  and dangerous for men as well as women.  Wandering into territories explored by Peter Levi in The Light Garden of the Angel King, Buck sweeps you up on an exciting vintage adventure, in the  heroic days of backpacking when young people struck out on  solo adventures in a world where borders were thresholds to new experiences, not locked doors.

—  Linda Lappin

Title:  East: A Woman on the Road to Katmandu.  Author:  Shelley Buck

Publisher  http://epicaro.com/epicaro_press.htm

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Celebrating Judy Witts Francini’s Secrets from My Tuscan Kitchen

Judy Witts Francini begins her seminal cookbook Secrets from My Tuscan Kitchen   

with advice from her mother-in-law:  “Spend more time shopping and less time cooking” — to emphasize the rule observed by great cooks everywhere: the secret of delectable food lies in the careful selection of the freshest ingredients.  This collection of  classic Tuscan dishes ranges from the rustic and humble (panzanella  or pappa al pomodoro) to the exotic  (cinghiale in dolceforte — i.e. wild boar with chocolate sauce– or cacciucco, the Tuscan fish soup made with red wine)  simply explained  with easy- to-follow instructions, all calibrated for the American kitchen. From favorite antipastos like chicken liver crostini and fettunta (known in Rome as bruschetta) to luscious desserts like pannacotta and torta della nonna, you will learn to prepare and serve delicious, authentic Tuscan meals delighting friends and family, and yourself, of course.  This book offers a no-nonsense and no fuss crash course in the very basics of Tuscan eating.

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The freshest produce makes for the most delectable meals

In her short introduction, the author tells us that she has received many of these recipes from members of her Italian family, passed down from mothers and aunts, ordinary housewives and professional cooks.  Cookbooks are a rarity in most Italian homes, except for an occasional stained sheaf of scribbled notes, held together with paperclips or rubberbands. Italian cooks tend to dispense with precise measurements or cooking times when preparing daily meals.  “Quanto basta,” is the norm – as much or as long as it takes. Butter is often measured  in quantities such as “a walnut,”  rice by handfuls, liquid by fingers or glassfuls.  Judy Witts Francini makes it easier for you to follow by translating this oral tradition into American measurements.  Once you get the hang of it though, you’ll see these recipes lend themselves to the “ad occhio” approach –gauging measures and proportions  by eye, instinct, and taste. At that point, she suggests, you will find that an old yoghurt container will serve as a measuring cup.

Other recipes in this collection were instead “picked up” at markets and shops, through conversations with butchers or fishmongers, or simply plucked out of the air, for wherever  you go in Italy, recipes are the focus of animated discussions. Not only while waiting your turn to be served by the salumaio or baker, or while your anchovies are being filleted or your cuttlefish cleaned, but also while riding on the bus or waiting in line at the bank or the post office,  all around you recipes and cooking methods are compared, often between strangers. It’s illuminating to eavesdrop on such exchanges —  which can take the form of challenges, contests, barters, or selfless acts of sharing. Perhaps this is a second meaning to her mother-in-law’s advice, for if you keep your ears open as you go about your shopping, you can acquire an encyclopedic knowledge of Italian cuisine.

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Keep your ears open while out shopping to pick up cooking tips and recipes!

In addition, the author provides a list of basic ingredients, most of which are easily found at your supermarket – with the exception of the wild boar, for which a good cut of beef might substitute.  Admittedly, the requirement for  vine-ripened tomatoes might be more difficult to satisfy these days, even in some areas of Tuscany, unless you grow your own.  Also enlightening is her explanation of a typical day in Tuscany with an hourly breakdown from the gastronomical point of view. Alas, here too, changes have occurred over the last decade, especially in urban settings, where lunch is no longer a family meal on weekdays.

Judy Witts Francini writes with authority, simplicity, and verve – and this reader wished she had provided a little bit more about herself, her life,  the people and places connected to these recipes – which I am sure would make for fascinating reading.  But that’s not what she is interested in –writing about herself. She is really focused on the task at hand: transmitting the basics of Tuscan cuisine.  On that point, she wisely and generously advises: “The first time you try a recipe, it is new. The second time, you correct it. The third time you make it, it is yours.” In other words,  cherished recipes are not something locked in a box possessed by exclusive owners, but particles in a great stream belonging to all.

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Magic Library of Bomarzo’s Test Kitchen

Judy Witts Francini has gone on to publish other books, maintains a website dedicated to Italian cuisine http://divinacucina.com/  and has a youtube channel providing excellent videos on specific techniques. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7yncVso5NG8mDB7ObGVfKvQ1lL_ps8kx

She organizes cooking classes and gastronomical tours in Italy.

Secrets from My Tuscan Kitchen was recently made available at reduced price on amazon kindle to celebrate the tenth anniversary of its first publication.

For more cookbook reviews by Linda Lappin, see her Review of Prospero’s Kitchen, Island Cooking of Greece, by Diana Farr Louis and June Marino 

and  Review of Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking by Pamela Sheldon Johns both appearing in Alimentum Literary Journal.

For a guide to place, travel, and food writing, see Lappin’s prize-winning  craft of writing book: The Soul of Place – A Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci.

For more on Tuscan cuisine by Linda Lappin, see Pane & Pecorino: Living the Simple Life in Tuscany @ Travelers Tales

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Paris Expat Paints the Soul of Place

On a crisp Paris morning some years ago, my friend  P. woke up in hospital after collapsing in a diabetic coma.  Am I in prison?  were reputedly her first words upon opening her eyes as she stared at the unfamiliar grey  walls around her.  A doctor reassured her that she had not been incarcerated, however, she had just had heart surgery and several stents had been put in place. After a short hospital stay, she was allowed to go home.

At that time P. and her husband had been living in Paris for several years, occupying a fourth floor apartment at an enviable address along Boulevard Saint Germain. From the balcony of her flat  jutting over the plane trees below, you could just catch a glimpse of the Eiffel tower. A retired journalist from Florida who nurtured a creative streak, P. had always been very active in the expat writers community in Paris, attending the readings, workshops,  and Shakespeare & Co. events that fill the datebooks of  literary-minded expats. She is  well known for the emotional and practical support  she  has generously offered to her many writing friends, including the feeding of hungry crowds at holiday time.

Her period of recovery entailed the reorganization of priorities, cutting back on some social events and on her expectations.  Prior to her surgery, her main form of creative self-expression had  always been  writing. Her assignments as a journalist had often involved social issues and required field research.   The rational side had always been in charge.

But as she adjusted to  her new lifestyle,  an unexpected passion was born: painting. She began to feel hunger to express herself through  shapes and colors. Words were too grey. They weren’t enough.

She found an artist who kept an open atelier and joined the group of older French women who were  attending lessons there once a week.  Her progress has been astonishing.  Her technique is instinctive, naif, and impressionistic. Her verve and sense of color are an explosion of joy, and her compositions have a satisfying focus, balance, and movement.  Rather than representing an image as a pre-constructed idea, she recreates a feeling connected to her subject – a landscape, portrait, or still life.

I have often thought that P. would have fit right in back in the 1920s on in the late 1960s, two art-loving eras which have much in common.   Part pixie, part southern belle, part bohemian and yet a practical soul, with artless aplomb, she sports sparkly, knitted caps, voluminous vintage coats, and pastel socks. Her personal style expresses  an artist’s underlying playfulness.  Certainly she never dreamed of becoming a visual artist when she moved to Paris, but by some miracle that has happened.  Now making pictures is as vital to her as writing once was.

One of my  favorite pieces of her work is a typically Parisian scene:  A bridge and houses along the Seine.  In the foreground, dark  trees composed of daubs and swirls form a proscenium  through which we view a row of houses  à la Hundertwasser .  The river flows red and orange along a quai, where two tiny figures with umbrellas  are swept along a powerful diagonal towards the point where the quai and river join.

I never tire of looking at this painting which is a celebration of life and of what I love best about Paris,  just the flaneur’s pleasure of walking around and looking at things. The fiery Seine is the great creative energy, like lava,  flowing through this city and through all those who have been touched by it.  This painting, like many of P.’s others,  testifies to the creativity and capacity for joy that we often hold inside, unbeknownst to ourselves.

It also brings me back to ruminations on the soul of place. Certainly, an appreciation of beauty and the compulsion to make art are deeply rooted in the genius loci of Paris which draws thousands of visitors every year, hungry for artistic experiences at many levels.  Sometimes,  as in P’s case, contact with the genius loci can be life-transforming.  Paris has bestowed upon her the gift of seeing as artists see and has given her the basic means to express it.

Who wouldn’t envy that?

Who knows what talents might be unlocked  if we opened our doors of perception to the soul of place?

For more on the soul of place and creative expression see Linda Lappin, The Soul of Place Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci (Travelers Tales, 2015)

The Soul of Place

Has it ever happened to you to fall in love with a place–your own neighborhood or an exotic locality glimpsed from a train while on vacation? There’s just something in the atmosphere that has an irresistible appeal compounded of colors, scents, sounds, textures, even the taste of the air.

Maybe, taking a wrong turn in a strange city, you have come upon a shady square or a house for sale that captured your imagination, but you can’t really say what attracts you so much.

That row of yellow bicycles parked by a crowded café with live music playing, those red geraniums on a windowsill where a sleek, black cat is snoozing and a green shutter is half-open, the chic nonchalance of people passing by with baguettes tucked under their arms?

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The scene triggers a fantasy in your mind: If you could just move there, something truly interesting would happen, and the story of your life would change.

Perhaps there are cherished locations in your past, the view from a mountain peak, a beach house overlooking a raging surf, or a rocking chair by a fireplace that made you feel content and at peace, or empowered and adventurous. Some places, whether indoors or outdoors, make us feel cozy and safe, inclined to daydreams. Others lift our spirits to unthinkable heights, urging us to go beyond our limits, physical or mental.

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There are sacred sites that can cause us to weep with remorse and humility, infuse us with joy, even make us feel immortal.

Then there are other sorts of places where we become uncomfortable, on edge, oppressed, even panicky, anxious to get out of there quick—If we stay too long, who knows what bad things could happen to us there?

If you have ever had experiences similar to these, chances are that you have been touched by the power of place.

Some anthropologists suggest that our attraction to (or repulsion for) certain places derives from a deep, unconscious attunement to our environment, hearkening back to when we were all nomads, in search of suitable habitats and dependent on our instincts to lead us to water, fertile hunting grounds, or other sources of food. Back then we had a much more visceral response to our universe; we sensed where we were likely to thrive, and where not.

That instinct is not dead in us today, but we may not pay enough attention to it. Perhaps that’s because much of our lives, at least in industrialized countries, is played out in what French anthropologist Marc Augé has called “nonplaces”: those anonymous, deracinated spaces of shopping malls, airports, computer screens that look the same all over the world.

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Typical ugly nonplace

Yet the desire to be rooted in or connected to a real place on the earth, a community, a physical world of our own, stems from a very basic human need.

The power of place isn’t necessarily life-enhancing. It can be threatening or devastating, pulsing with negative and positive charges that may change valence according to our personal point of view. Architects, city-planners, garden-designers, interior decorators, and before them priests, shamans, and geomancers have always known that our environment  can be shaped to elicit certain feelings and moods, promote health or sicken us, or encourage certain behavior.

They have also been aware that in modeling the landscape or constructing a building they must work with a creative force inherent in the land itself, known in the ancient classical world as the genius loci, usually translated as the “soul” or “spirit of place.”

Most people today might define this term as the atmosphere or ambience of a locality or as the emotion or sensation that it evokes in us. To the ancient Romans, instead, it referred to an entity residing in a site and energizing it. It influenced all life forms present on a site and  was manifest in everything existing within its range of action, from bodies of water to houses, social customs, patterns of speech, artifacts, recipes, and works of art.

Have a look around your neighborhood, your house, your workplace – what  energies are operating there and how does it influence you?

Writers and artists, whose job it is to interpret and recreate reality,  have long been intrigued by the concepts of the genius loci and the power of place. Through different artistic media, they have sought ways to capture the qualities or mood of a location, to find the links between landscape and identity, to show how places can shape our personality, history, and even our fate.

At the same time, many literary and artistic movements have tried to illustrate how the outer environments of human beings mirror their inner ones. Writers and artists know that whether we are looking outward or inward at our surroundings, they have a lot to reveal to us about ourselves, our present, past, and future.

Consider for a moment a place that you love or hate, or that you feel emanates a power. How would you describe or define its genius loci? If the soul of place had a voice, how would it sound, what stories would it tell?

If you are a writer or artist — how can you feed your creativity by attuning yourself to the soul of place?  Here’s a preliminary exercise to try.

WRITING EXERCISE NURTURING PLACES

Gazing at green hills and golden wheat fields from the ramparts of an old Etruscan town, D.H. Lawrence remarked that the view not only was beautiful, but had meaning. This English writer, often considered the founder of the modern novel, was a keen believer in the soul of place and thought it derived from biological, chemical, and cosmic influences operating in a site, affecting the psychology and behavior of individual human beings and entire populations living there. In Lawrence’s view, our well-being and creativity depend on the life-force manifested in our habitat, but centuries of technical progress have separated us from that force and shattered our wholeness, resulting in the aridity of modern life. One theme of Lawrence’s fiction is the sacred link between identity and place and the devastation that follows when that link is broken.

Still, he believed it is possible to reconnect to that power and absorb into ourselves, if we can just find our spot on the planet. Much of Lawrence’s writing career, which he once defined as a savage pilgrimage, was a search for the fountainhead  of the life-force: Italy and New Mexico were among the places where he found it.

Are there places that give you a sense of wholeness and empowerment, or where you feel really you? Others where you feel depleted, sad, or even anonymous? Make a list for both categories then choose one from each category to work with. Reflect on the essential qualities of each place and the origins of those qualities, then write a short text of 200 words for each place you have chosen. Describe the atmosphere, narrate an episode that happened there, describe your feelings, or simply make a list of impressions, people, or things you associate with it.  Put your texts  aside for a few days, if possible, revisit the site you described, then go back and re-read what you wrote. Have you learned something new about yourself?

(adapted from The Soul of Place, by Linda Lappin)

 

Read more in The Soul of Place A Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci  (Travelers Tales, 2015)  by Linda Lappin.

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D.H. Lawrence’s Etruscan Places and The Etruscan

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The Etruscans are not a theory or a thesis. If they are anything, they are an experience. DHL

Near the end of his life, DH Lawrence returned to Italy in 1927  after a soul-searching journey through Mexico, the American Southwest, Ceylon, Australia, and New Zealand. Gravely ill with tuberculosis, unaware of how little time he had left (he died three years later at the age of 44), Lawrence sought an ideal land where he might flourish as a “whole man alive” and find an antidote for the alienation of industrialized society denounced in his fiction, particularly in Lady Chatterly’s Lover.

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D.H.Lawrence in Tuscia

Lawrence’s last pilgrimage led him to the Etruscan ruins north of Rome. His idea was to write a travel book about the twelve great cities of Etruscan civilization. Lawrence rejected the contemporary, scholarly views of the time: that Etruscans were inferior to the ancient Romans. Lawrence’s approach to the Etruscans was highly personal and unscientific, yet his book, Etruscan Places, has shaped modern readers’ ideas of this vanished people more than any other text. etruscan-places-dh In the Etruscans, Lawrence found a life-affirming culture which exalted the pleasures of the body and viewed death as a journey towards renewal. This is the main theme of  one of his greatest poems, “The Ship of Death.”  He also believed that  Etruscan culture was based on equality between the sexes, and this idea influenced his  portrayal of the relationship between Connie and Mellors in  Lady Chatterly’s Lover,  his last and best-known novel.   For Lawerence,  Etruscan culture was infused with the joy of being and and informed by a  superior level of consciousness.

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In Etruscan Places,  he wrote: “To the Etruscan, all was alive, the whole universe lived, and the business of man was to live amid it all.  He had to draw life into himself , out of the wandering, huge vitalities of the world.”  … [The Lucumones were]  The life-bringers and the death-guides. But they set guards at the gates of life and death. They keep secrets and safeguard the way. Only a few are initiated into the mystery of the bath of life and the bath of death: the pool within the pool within the pool  wherein when a man is dipped, he becomes darker than blood and brighter than fire…”

Traveling on foot and by mule cart, Lawrence explored Tuscia-a wild, wooded area  where the center of Etruscan culture was located. He visited the frescoed tombs of Tarquinia and the rougher rock tombs of Cerveteri, as well as the sites of Vulci and Volterra. The tombs Lawrence described  are easy to visit today, well-connected to Rome and Florence by a system of trains and buses. In Vulci and Volterra, museums offer informative displays on Etruscan history. In the frescoes of Tarquinia, pipers play on as red-skinned dancers perform to the delight of thousands of tourists per year. And copies of Etruscan Places are for sale everywhere.

The mystery Lawrence relished may best be found off the tourist track-in the rock tombs carved along the ravines at Cerveteri and neighboring areas.

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To get a sense of what these sites were like in Lawrence’s time, I recently visited one of the lesser known areas-out in the countryside, off the main road. Covered with ivy, the huge tombs carved in cliffs face out upon a ravine. Wandering through the tall weeds, I approached a tumulus where a tall doorway led into a chamber hollowed in the rock. There at the back stood the fake door, which Lawrence called the door of the soul, as it had no real opening and was only painted or carved on the wall surface. I think of Lawrence sitting in a chamber like this one, contemplating the door of the soul-a barrier for the body, but not for the imagination.

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Etruscan Places  has been read as Lawrence’s attempt to reconcile himself with his own mortality. For the Etruscans, he believed, death was a continuing celebration of life, or so he learned from studying their tomb art.  “What one wants,” he wrote in the closing pages of Etruscan Places, is not a lesson about the Etruscans, but direct “contact.”   It is this contact he believed he found and which he now tries to pass on to us.

Lawrence’s vision of the Etruscans in Etruscan Places is among the chief inspirations for my novel,  The Etruscan, set in the 1920s,  in the era of Lawrence’s visit here.  The heroine, Harriet Sackett, a feminist photographer, comes to the Tuscia to photograph Etruscan tombs and finds herself entangled with count Federigo del Re, occultist and self-proclaimed Etruscan spirit.  It’s the story of an irresistible attraction between the modern, advanced woman and the archaic-minded, patriarchal male, between America and Italy,  and ultimately, between the worlds they embody: the temporal and the timeless.

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The Etruscan, 2010 

While working on my novel, I lived in a farmhouse outside the gates of the old town, with a window overlooking a gorge where dozens of tombs have been hollowed out of the rock face. You cannot live in a such a place for long without unconsciously absorbing its mystique.  Researching the background for my novel,  I soon learned that it was quite common for local people, from aristocrats to farmers, to believe they were somehow in touch with the vanished Etruscans.

In the course of my research, I met dowsers and healers who trace their occult powers back to the Etruscans. I met a controversial scholar who has dedicated a lifetime to studying step pyramids and altars in the woods north of Rome that remain unexplained by the academe.  I met a geologist who showed me a hidden spot in the woods where strange magnetic phenomena occur, a  tombarolo who invited me to explore with him, a paranormal researcher who has recorded  strange echoes in caves, and a painter who  studies the lay of the land from  a balloon. I met a chef who cooked me dishes he believed were surely of Etruscan origin and the author of a cookbook whose grandmother ran the trattoria where Lawrence liked to dine. I met a woman who leads tours to a secret place where witches gathered in the middle ages.  A countess unveiled for me her secret collection of Etruscan artefacts illegally assembled by her grandfather. I met a designer who creates hats based on Etruscan designs and a sculptor who peoples his life  with terracotta sphinxes  of Etruscan inspiration. I listened to  folk tales and dreams recounted, all telling of the underworld, and like Harriet Sackett , I have  sat for hours in dank tombs, pondering the  door of the soul separating this world from the next. The fruits of all this research and reflection are to be found in my novel The Etruscan, in which I hope readers will discover the same fascination  that I have found in the spirit of the Tuscia.

The Etruscan was originally published in July 2004, by Wynkin deWorde, a small literary press in Galway, Ireland.  Released in the USA in 2006 under the FRANK imprint, made available for the first time on kindle in 2010, The Etruscan was runner-up in fiction at the New York Festival of Books in 2010,  a finalist in the 2011 Next Generation Indie Awards, and received honorable mention at the Paris Book Festival of 2010. Kirkus reviews called it “Haunting, Vivid, Entrancing…”

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The Etruscan, first edition

A chat with best-selling mystery writer, Gigi Pandian, about Bomarzo

Linda Lappin, prize-winning author of SIGNATURES IN STONE: A BOMARZO MYSTERY, interviews novelist GIGI PANDIAN, author of the Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mystery Series, during Gigi’s recent visit to Italy while researching her new book, MICHELANGELO’S GHOST, set in Bomarzo’s fabled Monster Park.

Linda Lappin, author of SIGNATURES IN STONE: A BOMARZO MYSTERY, winner of the Daphne Du Maurier award for best mystery of 2013,   interviews mystery novelist,  GIGI PANDIAN author of the  Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mystery Series, during Gigi’s recent visit to  Italy  while researching her new book, MICHELANGELO’S GHOST,  set in Bomarzo’s fabled Monster Park, a.k. a.  The Sacred Grove.

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A Bomarzo Sculpture

L.L.:   Gigi, how did your writing career begin and what attracted you most to the mystery genre?

Gigi:  It never occurred to me that I could have a creative career, but at 25 I was in a PhD program and miserable. Something had to change, so I dropped out with my Master’s degree, got a part-time job and started taking art school classes, and in my free time began toying with a novel.  A few years later, I discovered National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo),  the challenge to write a 50,000-word draft of a novel in 30 days. It was the push I needed to finish a novel. I submitted my rough draft to the Malice Domestic Grant competition for unpublished mystery writers, and much to my surprise, I won their grant that year! That’s what got me to take my writing seriously. I joined writing groups, took classes, and put in the time to turn a good idea into a well-executed novel.  I’ve always loved mysteries, starting with Scooby Doo and Encyclopedia Brown. It’s one of those unquantifiable things, where I’ve always been drawn to the mysterious in all aspects of life, such as seeking out gargoyles, ruined castles, and ghost stories when I traveled. Though my childhood home was lined with books of all genres, it was the mysteries I was drawn to.

L.L.:   I had the pleasure of meeting your parents, I know also that your father is from India, perhaps the greatest story-telling culture of the planet and that your mom is an anthropologist. In what ways did your family heritage contribute to your writerly imagination?

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Gigi’s Early Travels to Mysterious Places

Gigi: It was such a treat that it worked out for us to visit you in your medieval village in Italy! There’s no way I’d be a writer without my parents. In addition to my house being filled with books, my mom took me on academic research trips with her, starting with a trip to Scotland when I was 10 years old. I’ve also traveled to India several times with my father, to visit family and see the country.  I’m an only child, so I created my own adventures and made up stories on those trips. My parents were both cultural anthropologists before retiring, and they told me great stories from all over the world, so my own stories were building upon ideas they’d already exposed me to.

L.L.: In what ways does the spirit of place – the genius loci – come into your inspiration or your writing?

Gigi: It’s essential for me to understand the spirit of the places I write about. My books are set in places ranging from San Francisco and Portland in the US to Scotland, France, India—and next up is Italy. I’ve lived in or visited all of the places I write about. The Internet is great, but there are questions, happenstance meetings, and sensory feelings that will never occur to you unless you’re experiencing a place first-hand.   I love writing puzzle plot mysteries, and some of my best twists are from unexpected experiences when traveling. My second novel, Pirate Vishnu, is set half in San Francisco and half in India. I’d already written a draft of the book when I returned to India on an unrelated trip. We got lost driving between Trivandrum and Kochi, and the combination of a local map and the generous people who helped us find our way gave me a great idea to solve one of the problems with the book, as well as adding a symbolic layer.

L.L.:  In addition to being a USA Today bestselling author, you also have a day job in the so-called real world.  Would you like to say something about balancing these two aspects of your life?

Gigi: I have to be very disciplined! In addition to the fact that I set my alarm and get up early every day of the week, one of my sacrifices is that I gave up the Sunday New York Times. I’m very protective of my writing time. At the same time, I don’t want to get burned out. I never work during the evenings. That’s my time to relax with my family and friends.

When things started happening with my writing, I took a three-month sabbatical from my day job. I learned that with all the time in the world, I wasn’t any more productive. It’s a compelling motivation when you know you have to be somewhere in a few hours—you’ll sit down at the computer rather than dawdling for “just a few minutes,” which inevitably turns into much longer. I’m very glad that I didn’t quit my job, because during that sabbatical I learned just how much I missed my co-workers, the work I do in my job (at a civil rights organization), and having structure in my life.

L.L.: We met after you posted a  Goodreads review for my mystery novel  Signatures in Stone  after which I emailed you and we met up in person. How important are social media to writers these days, in your experience?

 Gigi: I’m so happy you reached out to me after I posted my review. Our experience is a perfect example of the wonderful things that can come from of social media. It’s not possible to know when a small gesture, such as leaving a review of a book I enjoyed, will lead to so much more. My philosophy is that it’s impossible to know what works for promotion, so I’m going to focus on what’s fun.

I’m on Goodreads primarily as a reader, to keep track of all of the great books I’m reading and would like to read. I enjoy Twitter to get news about subjects I’m interested in, I post updates about my books on my Facebook author page, but my email newsletter is the main thing I use for promotion. My newsletter subscribers are readers who want to hear updates about my books, and unlike fleeting social media (such as how Facebook only shows a post to a fraction of people who’ve liked a page), my newsletter is a way to make sure I reach people who want to hear from me.

L.L.:  I know you are writing about the Monster Park of Bomarzo now, a place that also has inspired me. We met after your visit there.  Could you tell us briefly about your experience of that place? What thrilled you the most about it?

Gigi : The imagination of people who lived during the Renaissance was amazing. I love the mysteries surrounding the creation of the fantastical creatures that adorn the Park of Monsters. I did research ahead of time, learning about the theories why the stone monsters were constructed in such a manner and with enigmatic Latin inscriptions. Scholars assert theories, but there are no definitive answers.

Once I arrived in the Park of Monsters, the power of the towering stones was captivating. In spite of the fact that I visited during summer when lots of families were enjoying the park with their children, the carvings retained their powerful aura of mystery. I filled my notebook jotting down notes so I could capture that feeling for my next Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mystery, which is set at the park.

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Michelangelo’s Ghost, a new release from the pen of Gigi Pandian

L.L.: What advice would you give to a young aspiring author of mysteries?

 Gigi: Don’t be in a rush. Having a career in writing is a marathon, not a sprint. Have fun learning, exploring, and finding your voice. If you write mysteries, Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America  are fantastic organizations, providing both camaraderie and useful information on the craft and business of writing mysteries.

An example from my own experience: After my early work was awarded the  Malice Domestic Grant  for unpublished traditional mystery writers, I was in a hurry to send my book to agents. I thought I needed to strike while the iron was hot. I was wrong. The book wasn’t ready, so in spite of winning a prestigious grant, agents rejected the book. They were right, even though I couldn’t see it at the time. I had to step back and learn the craft of writing. Once I allowed myself that room to breathe, learning about writing became much more fun, and that’s when I was able to find an agent and ultimately two three-book deals from two publishers.

L.L:  Aside from your new book set in Bomarzo, what are your other recent projects?

Gigi: I can’t quite believe that my fifth mystery novel came out this month. The Masquerading Magician is the second book in my Accidental Alchemist mystery series about an ancient alchemy book, a living gargoyle who’s slowly turning back into stone, and an accidental alchemist who never set out to find the Elixir of Life. I’m currently writing the forth Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mystery, set at Bomarzo. My treasure hunt mysteries are traditional mysteries about an Indian-American historian who solves present-day crimes linked to historic treasures surrounding India’s colonial history.

Thanks so much for getting in touch, for inviting me to your beautiful Italian home, and for conducting this interview!

Gigi
Gigi Pandian, USA Today Bestselling Mystery Author

The Talking Heads of Giuseppe Utano in Bolsena

The fanciful sculptures of Giuseppe Utano body forth from the dark pagan heart of Italy pulsing beneath Lake Bolsena…

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The Bolsena Sphinx

One morning a cryptic message flashed across my cell phone: “Have you met the Sphinx in Bolsena yet?”

The text was from a friend who owns a house near  Italy’s secret jewel:  Lake Bolsena, Europe’s largest volcanic lake and the spiritual hub of many cultures. For the Etruscans, this lake was the omphalos, the world navel, where once a year high priests congregated to perform rituals of renewal in the dense woods fringing its banks.  The medieval pilgrim route to Rome, the Francigena, looped around its black, pebbled shores. In May each year in the village of Marta, pagan and Christian traditions interweave in the opulent blessing of the Fish. The dainty footsteps of a saint are pressed upon a miraculous stone beneath an altar in a lakeside church and an island out in the middle was once believed to be the portal to the underworld.  With such a history behind it, I could surely believe sphinxes inhabited Bolsena,  the town from which the lake takes its name, known in Etruscan times as Volsinii.

“Not yet,” I texted back.  “How can I find her?”  Sphinxes are, generally, feminine.

Her reply was puzzling. “Just follow the pot-heads to the castle.”

??Pot heads??

My friend, a genteel English lady of aristocratic bent,  was probably  unfamiliar with the associations that the word “Pot-Head” might have for someone growing up in the seventies.  I wondered if perhaps she had made a  typo and that “Pot heads” might be “Potter Heads” – referring  perhaps to  a book publicity event celebrating the magical escapades of H. Potter, who might have felt quite at home in Bolsena’ s labyrinthine,  medieval streets.

Nevertheless, one cold spring day, we were intrigued enough to set out in search of the sphinx. The air was crisp, the lake unruffled  indigo where  chattering water birds floated and dived.  We parked along an avenue fronted by pastel villas, shaded by stout  linden trees and six-foot high hydrangeas.   Once we had stepped through the gates into the old town,  we  immediately ran into the pot-heads. These were, literally, clay pots shaped like life-size heads whose faces recalled Etruscan gods and ancient Roman ladies, strung up all along the street, suspended by  macramé ropes.  In place of hair, scraggly ferns and ivy sprouted from the tops.

We followed the bobbing heads all the way up to the Etruscan museum , where  a lusty, terracotta sphinx planter crouched at the bottom of a steep flight of steps.  Upon enquiry, we learned that this remarkable creature had been made by a local artist who kept a shop on the main street.   Finding the museum shut,  we climbed back down to look for his shop, but  that was closed as well. So we went off to lunch at Il Moro, a trattoria built over the water, where you have the illusion of being on a  houseboat, and  after a leisurely lunch of local fish,  we wandered back to the shop,  still shuttered tight. “You’ll probably find him in his studio,”  advised the shopkeeper next door, explaining how to get there.  We set off again in the direction of the castle, and when we came to a small yard strewn with terracotta sculptures, we knew we had arrived.

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Inside Mr. Utano’s studio

We rang the bell once, and after a long wait, the artist, looking as though he had just woken up from a nap, answered the door, and graciously invited us in. While he put on a pot of coffee,   we sat down on worn leather chairs drawn up to a  worktable spattered with daubs of dried clay. Row upon row of dusty heads – satyrs, goddesses, nymphs, gargoyles  seemed to observe us as we sipped our espresso.  I could very well imagine Mr. Utano carrying on long conversations with this army of heads.  It occurred to me that when no one was there at night, all those heads chattering together probably made one hell of a noise.

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That was our first trip of many trips to the shop and studio of Mr. Utano, whose fantastical creatures now fill my home and garden.  Utano, a transported Sicilian who studied marble sculpture at the Carusi Workshop in Carrara, has also worked as a painter and restorer, and has even tried his hand at acting.  His fanciful sculptures body forth  from  the dark  pagan heart of Italy pulsing  beneath Lake Bolsena, and from the sun-drenched, temples of Magna Graecia in his Sicilian homeland.

For an artist like Giuseppe Utano  who fishes for iconic figures in the great sea of the unconscious, Bolsena and the surrounding areas of Tuscia and Maremma are a rich terrain for research.  Etruscan tombs with their satyrs, mermaids, chimeras, and masks –  gothic gargoyles and bestiaries,  baroque sculpture gardens, like Villa Lante or Bomarzo, with their sculptural itineraries of enlightenment, alchemy, and transgression are situated within a short drive from here, as is one of the twentieth century’s greatest esoteric sculpture gardens, the Tarot Garden of Niki de Saint Phalle.  There is just something in this myth-saturated landscape, in these mossy old stones blunted with time,   that  conjures beautiful monsters to the mind.

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In baroque garden design, some scholars believe, the sculptures embodied human consciousness and emotion.  Proper placement could alter fate, or  transmit an epiphany  or even ecstasy to visitors to the garden.  Utano’s better pieces crackle with emotion, wit, and sensuality. Some smile benignly, while others snarl, howl,  laugh, beguile you with a penetrating stare.  Some chastely hold candles, others flaunt conical breasts, or ripple sexy mermaid tails.  The bolder ones display Utano’s theatrical genius for the grotesque and the demonic, evoking that  great spirit of gardens and nature, Pan.  What must be remembered is that the energy irradiating from a work of art  is conferred to matter by the artist’s hands  — it’s that spark that gets lost in mechanical reproduction.  Each of these pieces is unique and not mass produced in series.  That’s what gives them their peculiar lifelikeness.

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Placing gargoyles, masks, or monsters outside homes or sanctuaries was a way to warn intruders or the evil-intentioned.  With that in mind, we commissioned Utano to make us  a Gorgon to protect the gate of our private courtyard which we wished to shield from indiscreet gazes.

“Some people tell me they think this one is too ugly,”  he said,  pointing out a boyish satyr with a seraphic expression.

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We couldn’t disagree more.

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Mr. Utano at work
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Our protective gorgon

Mr. Utano’s shop is now called La Medusa.   For instructions on how to find it, click here.

Copyright Linda Lappin, author of The Etruscan, Signatures in Stone: A Bomarzo Mystery, and The Soul of Place: A Creative Writing Workbook.  Photo credits, L. Lappin, S. Baldassarre, G. Utano.

 

The Tarot Garden of Niki de Saint Phalle

The Tarot Garden of Niki de Saint Phalle -a place to discover yourself

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As you drive along the Via Aurelia towards the sea, near the turn off for Capalbio, a flash of psychedelic color catches your eye, emerging from the silvery blur of olive groves and  ilex trees  on the  scrubby, Maremma hillside.  Prominently displayed are the tip of a red rocket aimed at the sky,  a three-tiered gilded onion dome, a decapitated tower with a bicycle wreck at the top, and a huge, blue laughing clown face with a waggling hand growing straight up out of its head.  Other gaudy figures peep out from beneath the tree tops, resembling the rides of some crazy carnival that has just pulled into town, but instead this phantasmagoria happens to be one of the twentieth century’s greatest landscape artworks, the Tarot Garden created by the French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle  (1930 -2002). For Saint Phalle, this garden was a corner of paradise achieved through an inner itinerary of sacrifice and spiritual growth.

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The Tower

The giant figures, some of which are inhabitable buildings, represent the 22 Major Arcana of the Tarot, refashioned according to Saint Phalle’s understanding and experience of them over the arc of a lifetime.   The tarot is not just a card game, Niki claims, but conceals a philosophy of life.  Key cards for her are the Hanged Man,  Strength, the Magus,  the Sun, the Empress ( manifested  in the garden as a sphinx whose breasts are rooms you can live in – where indeed Niki did live while working on the garden), and the Angel of Temperance, who became her spiritual guide.

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The Priestess, a female Hermit

Entering the austere enclosure of tufa walls that form a barrier to the outside world, you step into a dream, inspired not only by the Tarot, but by fairy tales and the art works of Matisse, Miro, and Picasso. The figures  are covered with mosaic  tiles, mirrors, and ceramics in lollipop colors, arranged in kaleidoscope patterns, bedazzling and bewitching, changing by the minute in sun and shadow.

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Arcade

The spark for creating this garden came when Niki visited Gaudi’s  Guell Parc in Barcelona in 1955, an experience so overwhelming that it made her tremble with a sense of destiny. “ I knew someday I would make my own Garden of Joy,” she wrote.  She dreamed of her garden for years,  seeking the right spot, which she thought might be Africa or South America, a place that would  contrast starkly to the urbanization of contemporary life.  By chance or fate, the chosen spot turned out to be a former quarry in the Tuscan Maremma, on land belonging to the brothers of a friend.

There could have been no better place than here in Maremma, just over the border from the province of Viterbo where several of Italy’s greatest esoteric gardens are located : Villa Lante,  the Sacred Grove (aka the Park of Monsters) of Bomarzo, the gardens of Villa Farnese in Caprarola.  By placing her garden here, Saint Phalle had connected up with the local tradition of landscape narratives and healing gardens.   In the mannerist tradition of the sixteenth century, those gardens were to be “read” with the heart and mind as much as they were to be enjoyed by the senses. The placement of fountains, trees, and sculptures obeyed a narrative strategy that might reveal  a secret doctrine, heal an illness, enhance political power,  point out the route to spiritual enlightenment, or simply alter fate.  Such gardens were magic books hewn in stone, in which the visitor, while wandering about, became the actant or performer of an ever-changing story, a necessary element in the garden’s magic.

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Above: the Magus, Fountain Below: The Empress

As you explore the Tarot Garden,  you will note allusions to Bomarzo. For example,  the  Empress who greets you with melting, blue mosaic  stairs flowing from her open mouth,  — vividly evokes the Hell Mouth,  the signature sculpture of Bomarzo.  Unlike the Bomarzo cavern carved of dark tufa with its unsettling tomblike atmosphere, this is a gushing fountain of life.  The glassy green dragon guarded by a maiden, representing the arcanum Strength, resembles the dragon of Bomarzo. But here the atmosphere is playful  and joyous, the beast is kept in check and does not threaten us.  By contrast, the Sacred Grove of Bomarzo seems steeped in a twilight gloom, yet it too was meant as a healing itinerary for its original creator,  Pier Francesco Orsini, suffering from deep depression after his wife’s death.

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Bomarzo: The Hell Mouth

Niki de Saint Phalle financed and built her Tarot Garden, costing millions of dollars, mainly by herself, although she was helped by  fellow artists,  workmen,  friends,  local people, lovers, admirers,  and enthusiasts.  Along the way, she encountered many obstacles, including illness. Severe rheumatoid arthritis disabled her from working for long periods.  She also struggled with the fervent opposition  of local residents  who objected to her project,  which, it turned out, had been undertaken without first receiving official building permits from the town government. In the end, a white knight appeared as in all fairy tales to rescue what is good and true:  Mitterand saved the garden from Italian bureaucratic censure – and possibly from being torn down —  by declaring it a national monument of France, and therefore not subject to the Italian building code.

Paths seem random through the Garden, and, at Niki’s request, there are no guided tours. The point of this garden is to discover it yourself, and while doing so, discover yourself.  There are however two main routes to explore – one departing from the Sun, takes you up a wide, easy, well-paved path.  The other is harder to find. You must climb over the dragon’s tail, then follow a narrow, slippery trail.   From here you encounter more directly the Moon,  the Devil, and Death, with whom the artist had to come to terms. Hardship, love, enthusiasm, obsession went into making this garden, writes Niki, but above all, faith. “Nothing and no one could have stopped me.”

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The Hanged Man, symbolizing the artist’s perspective

This garden engenders joy and delight in children and adults,  and teases our thoughts as to its meaning.  But upon exiting her magic world, you will also feel a deep  gratitude to the artist for never giving up until the garden was done, and for her generosity in sharing her vision.

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Strength, “La Forza,” The maiden tames a fierce dragon

text copyright Linda Lappin, author of Signatures in Stone, A Bomarzo Mystery , The Etruscan, and The Soul of Place – A Creative Writing Workbook    

Photocredits  S. Baldassarre and Linda Lappin