Food writing, focusing on the personal experience of food — combining memoirs, recipes, technical information, and history in a literary or journalistic text, is a relatively recent genre, popularized in the 20th century in the USA by the incomparable MFK Fisher — although there have been some notable precursors, such as Marcel Proust. In turn, it has given rise to one of the most creative and remunerative forms of blogging today. A quick glance at Instagram or Twitter feeds will show that we are obsessed with our food and with what other people are eating and cooking. That should be no surprise: a great deal of human history has focused on food.
From a psychological point of view, food is our connection with our mothers, with our most archaic identity as a newborn for whom the very first physical sensation as an independent being is hunger. Food and hunger define who we are.
To write about food is to write about our evolution, our feelings, and our deepest identity, or as some might say, our soul.
Below are seven food writing prompts to investigate your food memories.
I was delighted to see that critic and writing teacher Walter Cummins, mentor to generations of writers, included his review of my first novel The Etruscan, originally published in The Literary Review, in his new anthology of reviews and essays Knowing Writers (2017)
His generous review cuts through to what is for me the essence of the novel: the clash and fusion of the mythic and the temporal, gothic and modernism, romance and reality, Italian cynicism and Yankee yearning for spirit and beauty. My own life plays out, frazzled but energized, in the midpoints of those binaries.
This novel grew out of my exploration of the storied Etruscan landscape and my sojourn in an ancient house. It was nurtured by my literary studies of the Brontes and the gothic, DH Lawrence and Italy, Henry James, Vita Sackville West, and Daphne Du Maurier, as well as by my research into the lives of early twentieth century women travelers.
“Among the pleasures of The Etruscan are a compelling plot, intriguing characters, vivid sense of place, strong descriptive writing. But Linda Lappin’s principal achievement – and greatest challenge – may be found in her realization of Count Federigo Del Re and the strange power he exerts over the novel’s heroine, Harriet Sackett.
Lappin’s task -or that of any writer who wishes to create a Federigo Del Re- is convincing the reader to share Harriet’s complex, almost otherworldly, obsession with the man. In The Etruscan she succeeds.
While the novel has a twenty-first century publication date and a twentieth-century setting, many of its narrative strategies are Victorian, with the Gothic overtones found in writers like the Brontes. Del Re is clearly a Byronic figure in the tradition of Rochester and Heathcliffe. Mystery lies at the heart of the story-for much of the novel the question of what happened to Harriet in Italy and, even after the final page, the nature of what draws her to Del Re.
Two realities are contrasted, that of Edwardian perspectives of Wimbly, the Hamptons, and the Hampton’s housekeeper, Mrs Parsons, and that of Harriet’s immersion in another realm. Lappin presents the attitudes and perceptions of Wimbly, the Hamptons, and Mrs Parsons in close third person. But Harriet emerges directly through her first-person diary, a document like that found in many traditional novels. The physical diary itself becomes an object of contention, with Stephen trying to burn it, Mrs Parsons rescuing it, and Sarah preserving the final, torn out page until its content is revealed on the very last pages of the novel. The Italian settings are certainly Gothic, the ancient homes, the treacherous landscapes, the Etruscan tombs. Because of Lappin’s exact descriptions, they are very convincing” –Walter CumminsKnowing Writers: Essays & Reviews
It’s just like a presepe, people say of the village where I live half the year – a massive hunk of chiseled grey rock on which hundreds of tiny stone houses, domes, and towers have been built, with cellars hollowed deep into the rock face itself. Approaching from the old road snaking through hilly terrain, you catch sight of it, checkered window squares aglow above a mossy canyon.
Presepe is the name given to the Nativity Scene – the Christmas crèche, where by Italian tradition, the figurines of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the wise men and farm animals are placed in rustic settings –with the backdrop of old stone barns and houses, like the ones still standing here. St. Francis has been credited with creating the first presepe in 1223, at the Appenine hermitage of Greccio. St. Francis’ presepe wasn’t a fixed tableau assembled from life-sized figures or miniatures. Wanting worshipers to see “with the eyes of the flesh” Jesus’s birth in a humble manger, he set up a straw-filled crib, placed a portable altar on it, brought in an ox and a donkey, and celebrated mass there on Christmas eve. From there the tradition caught on, mingling faith, folk-art, local traditions, and pageantry, eventually becoming the heart of the Italian Christmas.
In the past, Christmas trees were a rare sight in Italian homes. The presepe was the household Christmas decoration. You built it yourself, changing it every year, out of brown paper, cardboard, moss, pebbles, and twigs, mirrors, electric lights, star-studded dark blue paper for the night sky. The more ingenious equipped them with running water, mechanical figures, and music. In addition to the main players, dozens of extras were attendance – angels, shepherds, huge flocks of sheep, and often the figures of wood, plaster, or papier maché, were passed down like cherished heirlooms. In celebration of the medieval corporazioni, many statuettes represent the different tradespeople bringing offerings to the newborn Christ: the chestnut vendor, the woodcutter, the laundress, the wool spinner, the weaver, the baker, the fishmonger. Presepi from different regions and artistic periods have their distinctive flavors, with Naples being the queen of presepi, with an entire street, San Gregorio Armeno, dedicated to the artisans who produce the settings and figurines, some still authentic, but most, these days, made in china.
making your own presepe
In Naples, where life=theater and theater=life, the presepe mingles the sacred and the profane, for each year celebrities are added to the crowds of worshipers scattered around the crib. Obama, Sarkozy with Carla Bruni, Osama Bin Laden, Francesco Totti, the football player, are some of the past stars, embodied in collectible statuettes you can buy in the shops along Naples’ presepe street. Most recently, Donald Trump, Pope Francis, and Kim Jong-un have made an appearance, slipped in among the Three Kings.
The presepe may actually have pagan origins, for the figurines are akin to the Penates, the statuettes that the Ancient Romans kept in their kitchens, symbolizing gods of abundance, which they put on the table at dinnertime. They are also related to the Sigillum, literally “small image” of the Lares, the ancestral spirits celebrated in Ancient Rome and Etruria on December 20th in a festival known as the Sigillaria, when figurines representing spirits of dead loved ones were exchanged, and often displayed at home in miniature settings.
The presepe has also been at the center of our Christmas celebrations, too, ever since we rediscovered our passion for miniatures and pageantry after a visit to San Gregorio Armeno, where my husband renewed his connection to his Neapolitan roots. Our presepe is constructed from odds and ends collected over the months, like Styrofoam cubes, soup bowls, candy boxes, and is dedicated to a changing theme related to the year’s travels or place-based obsessions. We’ve had Tibetan stupas, Sardinian nuraghi, Etruscan necropoli, and New Age menhir sanctuaries. For the last few years, though the emphasis has been on the Cyclades!
In addition to the regular characters present at every Christmas pageant, we also have a turtle, a unicorn, a pilgrim from St James’ Way, a tiny elk, several pigs, Saint Michael the Archangel, and an E.T. all gathered to celebrate the birth of the semi divine human spirit, born the very same day as the Mithraic Sol Invictus!
Presepi designed by S. Baldassarre, Photos by S. Baldassarre, Linda Lappin, and Leah Cano
“This is a book about how to enhance our awareness of places and find in the environments around us inspiration and material for artistic and writing projects . It’s very much a personal journey, retracing my own creative process and discoveries as a writer, reader, teacher, and traveler. Its most basic premise is that there is a power or energy at work in certain places that speaks directly to our imaginations and nourishes them.
Many writers, artists, photographers, psychogeographers have recorded eloquent testimonies of the ways particular places have inspired them, and it would take to long to share even a few. They boil down to a few concepts: “Landscape is character,” in the words of Henry James. For Lawrence Durrell, “We are expressions of our landscape.” And the houses and rooms we live in, are analogues for the self. We keep up an ongoing dialogue with the places we live of which we are totally unaware. Houses and landscape inhabit us just as much as we inhabit them.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.