Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Meditations on Mortality

It seems that lately, I’m haunted by thoughts of Ischia and Castello Aragonese in particular. Castello Aragonese, a kind of Italian Mont Saint-Michele, dominates the Island of Ischia located just off the Neapolitan coast. The castle has a complicated history beginning around 474 BC. We can only imagine the intrigue and number of times its ownership changed hands over the centuries since then. Beginning with the Greeks, Cumaeans and then Romans its story extends on through a history of plunder and domination by various tribes, some of which we only have vague memory of … the Parthenopeans (the ancient inhabitants of Naples), Visigoths, Vandals and Ostrogoths. It is a familiar story, however, with each interloper sculpting and reshaping the features of the island’s fortress to its needs. Come and go as they may in the tides of who was on top or in favor at the moment, it must have been confusing to the fishermen and local contadini (peasants) with their simple ways and simple needs. I recall a comic moment once in a movie where a victimized civilian, caught between vying forces, flipped over a framed picture on his wall. One side portrayed the severe face of Hitler and with a flip of political correctness, a smiling Eisenhower, representing his current overseer, showed forth.

First and always a fortress and only later a convent and still later a prison, Castello Aragonese is today home of an exclusive hotel, ‘Albergo Il Monestero’, accessible from Ischia Ponte proper by means of a long stone causeway.

The Convent of Our Lady of Consolation (Santa Maria della Consolazione) was founded in 1575 by abbess Beatrice Quadra. It hosted, or I should say housed, about 40 nuns of the Clarisse order, an order in lockstep with the strict lifestyle rules of St Francis of Assisi, to include poverty and seclusion. The isolated, almost prison-like nature of the fortress couldn't have promoted the need for poverty and seclusion better. One can only wonder if this citadel was really in place to keep people out or inside. It can be surmised that this lifestyle choice was not made by them of their own free will since most of the nuns, being the firstborn daughters of wealthy noble families, were destined from birth to a cloistered life in order to leave the family inheritance to the firstborn male. This was, unfortunately, a sad but true practice in their day.

One bright, severe-clear morning, we ventured from our Ischia Porto hotel for the neighboring seaside settlement of Ischia Ponte. From there, intent on exploring what lay inside the castle, we walked the 720 foot man-made Ponte Aragonese causeway leading out to the fortress, itself an island or islet, which dominates the waterfront panorama. Along the way, we chanced on a fisherman with a treble-hooked line as he hauled in an octopus and, as uncomfortable as it might seem, saw a number of leather-skinned sunbathers perched on any reasonably sized flat rock bathing in the heat. It was a million-dollar, dazzling day. The sun glinted like dabs of lustrous mica in sand off the surface of the sea while jet-set teens drew circles in the water as they orbited their private yacht on overpowered toys.

Looking at the island fortress from a distance, I’d wondered how anyone managed to make it to the top. Stairs again? God help me - only one of my prayers that day! We were relieved to find a long tunnel just beyond the ticket concession leading, thankfully, to a tiny, though modern, ascensore (elevator) in the heart of the mountain. Exiting into the daylight once again, we soon found ourselves looking back across the causeway and the enchanting Bay of St. Anna from our newfound towering perch. We had become part of that spectacular waterfront panorama.

The Clarisse Convent made this their home beginning in 1575. The order focused heavily on the spiritual nature of the body, not the temporary, worldly body of flesh-and-blood. Their daily lives, we learned, were dedicated to the contemplation of death and life afterwards; a kind of meditation on mortality. So fundamental was this ‘spirit over body’ theology that it took on what by today’s standards would be consider a strange ritualistic rite. We tend to perceive the past steeped in the paradigms of our own time, not those of our ancestors. We even go so far as to sometimes revise history according to our present day perceptions and mores (or lack thereof). Call me guilty then. I certainly thought what I saw was bizarre. I wonder if it was considered so at the time? Doubtful. In a closed society such as theirs, even the morbid practice I will describe could be considered normal, for who was there to call it into question or say otherwise? The idea of a whistle blower, free spirit or someone with an ability to live between the lines was unconscionable in their day. Their entire lives fell undoubtedly more on the side of controlled than in control. Call it a venial assumption on my part. Then again, this was their world and their time, not ours.

Essentially, no lasting memorial to the deceased was sanctioned. There was little space for a cemetery on this rock of a place for a cemetery anyway. What is called the ‘nun’s cemetery’ is really a subterranean series of eerie chambers located beneath the Cathedral.

Let me describe what I saw. Following a nun’s death, her now lifeless body was positioned, seated upright, on a stone throne, called a ‘scolatoi’. There were many of these seats built into the perimeter of the chamber. Side by side in this ‘cemetery’, this collection of chairs could simultaneously accommodate possibly a dozen dead nuns. Whether of recent times, I’m not sure, but you could see the wax remains of spent candles on the cement armrests of these last resting places. Apparently a vigil of sorts was kept in a wake of interminable length.

There was something, however, unique to these stone settees. Instead of a cushion to sit upon, there was a depression in the chair seats resembling a large bowl. A drain opening in the bottom of the bowl led to a space beneath each chair where a collection basin could be positioned. As a body decompose slowly over time, body fluids gradually drained through the seat and into the collection basin. As you can imagine, this was a slow, slow process that went on for years. Long enough indeed until only the dried skeleton of the nun remained seated in her chair. At this point, her bones were added to a communal pile of bones of earlier deceased nuns in the adjacent ossuary. After all, they were just remains. This custom of denying an individual nun a funeral, followed by burial, negated the ability to identify any particular nun and thus give her corpse undue honor. It also vividly reinforced their conviction that the body was simply the temporary container of the immortal soul and of no value or worthy of any respect or veneration following death.

Strange though this in itself may seem, it got stranger. For a portion of each day, a nun’s regiment included time spent in a candlelit vigil of prayer and meditation in what can only be imagined as the unhealthy environment of this so-called cemetery, brought on by the gradual decomposition of their fellow nuns. Symptomatic of what undoubtedly was an unhealthy situation, this behavior may have even accelerated their own demise. The entire practice was enough to make Alfred Hitchcock, master of the macabre, shiver. I sure felt squirmy and wanted to get out of these subterranean confines pronto. Once it sunk in on us what had gone on at this spot, just about continually for almost 300 years, we quickly retraced our steps through a labyrinth of staircases and passages in hasty retreat. Maybe it had something to do with the darkness, the silence, the confining space or the stark 'electric chair-like' d├ęcor of the interior that added something far beyond what you feel while touring the Coliseum, for example, where appalling events sometimes occurred. This was somehow different. The props were still here just as if Sister Maria had just been relocated from her longtime throne to the aggregated remains of Sisters X, Y and Z.

Theirs was what I can only describe today as a cloistered solitude of extremes - from a predestined beginning to an equally ordained end. This practice continued until 1810 when in opposition to their longstanding accumulation and tenure of land, the Suppression of Convents decree proceeded to suppress all religious orders and confiscate their property.

The sun still shown brilliantly when we emerged and soon afterwards departed Castello Aragonese, now wiser on one aspect of what went on there. The annals of Italian history are undoubtedly replete with equally bizarre episodes of which, thankfully, I'd prefer to forever remain ignorant.

The Rogue Tourist,


For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled "Meditations".