26 October 2014

LIFE: The Cursed Island of Gaiola

CHIAVARI, Italy - La Gaiola is a tiny island off the coast of Posilipo, Naples. It is a beautiful private island surrounded by sparkling clear water and spectacular views that   would make anyone’s heart go pitter pat. For the reclusive millionaires who have owned it; it probably seemed like the perfect place to hide from prying eyes.  

 Gaiola Island
Perfect yes, yet this idyllic Mediterranean retreat remains abandoned. Its buildings are crumbling, and its sun kissed cobbled streets are in ruin. No one dares to live here anymore. The grim tales that have been told of suicide, murder, illness and financial ruin that have dogged previous owners prove that no one is safe here. Fear rules.

In the early 1800’s a hermit nicknamed “the Wizard” lived on the island. He kept to himself and survived thanks to the generosity of local fishermen. No one seems to know what happened to him, but after May 26, 1805, which is when Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France and King of Italy, the Wizard was gone and the Isola la Gaiola had become a defense stronghold to protect the city of Naples.
A Stone Bridge Connects the Two Islands of Gaiola  
Towards the end of the nineteenth century the island was purchased by Luigi de Negri. It was De Negri who built the white villa that still stands on the island today. He owned a successful business, but not long after he built the villa his company went unexplainably bankrupt.  Then, in 1911, sea Captain Gaspar Albenga was piloting his boat around la Gaiola and mysteriously disappeared. No trace of him, or his boat, was ever found.

People talked about the tragedies connected to the island but it wasn’t until the 1920’s that the roll-call of doom really began. It started when owner Hans Braun was murdered. It wasn’t long after that that his widow drowned in the sea near the island. The next owner, Otto Grunback, suffered a fatal heart-attack and the owner after Grunback committed suicide in a Swiss mental hospital. 
There is Beauty From Every Angle
The next two island dwellers didn’t die but suffered other tragedies. The Baron Karl Paul Langheim ended in total financial ruin while Gianni Agnelli, the head of Fiat, lost his only son to suicide. Agnelli’s troubles continued when his nephew Umberto, whom he was grooming to take over Fiat, died from a rare form of cancer at the age of 33.

Next in line for a Gaiola misfortune was the eccentric tycoon, John Paul Getty. In 1973 his 16 year old grandson, John Paul Getty III, was kidnapped by the ‘Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia. Getty refused to pay the ransom because he suspected it was a hoax. The kidnappers then sent Getty a lock of the boy’s hair as proof … along with one of the boy’s ears and Getty paid up. A few years later, after struggling with drug addiction and depression, the boy, who was now a man, committed suicide. It was rumored that he had never really recovered from his frightening experience.
 All the Steps Lead Down to the Sea
The last owner of the island was jailed on fraud charges when his insurance company folded in 1978. All just coincidences you say? Maybe.

But there is also this: la Gaiola is full of ruins from the Roman era. Up until the nineteenth century a submerged Roman building called the School of Virgil was clearly visible in the waters near the island. In the interpretation of a medieval poet-magician, this was the place where Virgil taught the mystical arts. If it is true that this is where enchanted potions were concocted and magical rites were performed it's understandable why there has been esoteric interest in this part of the coast. One theory is that the water around the island has been permanently polluted by the potions created here centuries ago and that is the reason the curse is always directed towards those who linger here for too long. Or . . . . .
 A Private Paradise
Going back to a time before Luigi de Negri bought the island, an archaeologist William Bechi owned the property. The year was 1820. Bechi began several archaeological digs on the island and brought to light some Roman buildings that had been buried for centuries.  At his death, his daughter sold the property to de Negri, who in 1874 built the now infamous white villa. However, when de Negri went bankrupt the entire property was put up for auction and purchased by the Marquis del Tufo.

As the years passed, there were two more owners after del Tufo, one being the British Admiral Nelson Foley, brother of Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and the second was the family of Italian Senator Guiseppe Paratore.
 A Gorgon
In the mid 1960’s the Senator’s nephew made a startling discovery. While organizing a bookcase in the living room of the island’s villa, he found a square of canvas attached to the wall. Behind the canvas he discovered a fresco depicting a frightening large female head with snakes for hair.  A Gorgon. The Senator, who understood the evil implications of the Gorgon, was frightened by the prospect of bringing bad luck to his family and ordered his nephew to cover the face. His nephew did as he was asked but not before he had photographed it.  

After seeing the photographs of the Gorgon mask, a member of the Institute of Restoration in Rome classified it as a type of fresco called impressionistic late Roman and dated it between the 2nd and 3rd century AD. The expert also confirmed that some of the frescoed walls in the original Roman villa found on the island had quadrilateral cuts in them, so it is likely that the mask had been removed from its place of origin and affixed to the wall in the villa.

Perseus Holding the Decapitated Head of Medusa
This was a significant revelation as Gorgons were popular in both Greek and Roman mythology as a protective deity. Gorgons are depicted as ugly women with snakes for hair and power so strong that anyone who looks at them is turned to stone. The best known Gorgon may be the decapitated Medusa, revered by both the Greeks and the Romans.

Gorgon representations were put on anything the Romans felt warranted protection against the evil eye, from the baths they built in England to shipments of wine to the breastplates of Roman soldiers. And perhaps it was the removal of that protective Gorgon symbol from the original Roman villa on la Gaiola by someone who didn’t understand its meaning or power that is the root of all the evil that has plagued this beautiful place for centuries.  

Or Maybe There Something Supernatural About the Water
Chances are we will never know the real reason why this island has such a dark past. If you are superstitious you may not want to contact the current owners, the Campania Region authorities, and make an offer on the property, but that doesn’t mean you can’t visit. 

The island is easy to reach both by car (exit Fuorigrotta Naples ring road) or public transport. There are buses to la Gaiola from the Naples railroad station and the regional volcanic park of Campi Flegrei. There is also a walkway to the Underwater Park of Gaiola and the adjacent Visitor Reception Center.  


This Italian Life now has a Facebook Page. You can get there by clicking the Facebook badge on the right hand side of the page or going to https://www.facebook.com/thisitalianlife.  I’m still working out the kinks, and the badge is kind of crummy, but it will take you to daily updates of life in Italy. Today you'll find more info about Gorgons and the Roman baths in Bath, England. I hope you’ll check it out, leave a comment or two, and while you are there it would be nice if you gave the page a Like. Right now there are only 3 likes and one of them is mine. Thanks. 

19 October 2014

Life: Cowboy Phil and the Buttari Redux

CHIAVARI, Italy – As a kid one of the things that fascinated me about my father, who was born in Italy, was that he had been a cowboy when he was in the army. I would listen to his stories of riding out into the vast hinterlands of America’s west, rounding up wild horses and turning those bucking broncos into serviceable animals the U.S. Calvary could use.
 The Butteri of the Maremma
He would tell tales of how he learned to stand up on the bare back of a galloping horse, like the Roman gladiators did at spectacles held at the Coliseum for the Emperor.  And he was proud of being able to reach down and pick a handkerchief up from the ground while his horse barreled along at top speed, a trick that required not only skill, but a large amount of courage as well.

It was all true. He had the photos to prove it. But it wasn’t until we went to Argentina and were invited to have lunch at an estancia, outside of Buenos Aires, that I saw it for myself. It happened quite by chance, my father had been talking about his experiences in the Calvary, and the next thing I knew we were saddling up for a ride into the countryside with our host and some of the gauchos.  
 Maremmana Cattle
I watched as my father, who was in his seventies, slipped his foot into the stirrup of one of the largest horses I’d ever seen, take hold of the reins and levitate into the saddle as if gravity had been suspended. He sat that horse like he had just saddled up the day before instead of 40 years ago.

It wasn’t until I moved to Italy and visited a cousin who lives in Lazio, near the border with Tuscany, that all the cowboy stuff came together. His leg was in a cast, an injury sustained while riding his horse and that was how I learned about the Italian cowboys of the Maremma, the butteri. It was then that I realized that my father, city boy that he was, had spent his early years around horses, and that explained everything.   
 A Buttero's Life
Unlike my cousin and my father, the cowboys of the Maremma work with cows. Big cows, enormous cows that weigh up to 2,500 lbs and have very large horns, and they do it on horseback with only a long wooden stick with a hook on one end to help them.

There are not a lot of butteri left in Italy, but then again there are not a lot of Maremmana cattle either, only about 7,500 according to the last cattle census, although they are making a comeback. 

  Not Your Everyday Kind of Cowboy
While the Maremmana are gaining in numbers, they have been listed by the European Union as potentially at risk of extinction. They are not, in fact, endangered, but having that status entitles the farms that raise them to subsidies that help assure the breed’s survival. And with an increase in the number of cattle, it is hoped the number of butteri will increase as well, continuing a tradition that goes back to the days of the Etruscans.

Today, men, horses and cattle roam the thousands of acres of recovered marshlands that run along the coast of Tuscany and Lazio. Maremmana cattle are raised primarily for their meat, which is sold in selected butcher shops in Tuscany. It is also on the menu in Tuscan universities, but difficult to find anywhere else.

It is generally believed by the locals that saving the cattle will also preserve the century-old traditions of the butteri and increase related farm jobs. Others think it will promote tourism. One state owned farm already offers tourists early morning horse rides with the butteri, and will soon have the cowboys teaching riders how to knot the butteri’s rope.  
 At the Merca

The butteri still participate in many local festivals including the Festival of Sant’Antonio Abate on January 17th when animals are blessed and paraded in the center of Tarquinia, Tuscania, Marta and Valentano, in Lazio. In April a rodeo, merca in Italian, is held at the Roccaccia, not far from Tarquinia as well as in Blera and Monte Romano in Lazio and Alberese in Tuscany. The Festival of Sant’Antonio Abate is also celebrated in many other towns in Italy, primarily in rural areas.