Monday, June 30, 2014

The Delightful Escape of Pasquetta

The Delightful Escape of Pasquetta

            The day following Easter is yet another holiday in Italy called Pasquetta or Little Easter.  As it had on Easter, the sun managing to once again wedge itself into an otherwise bleak stretch of bad weather.  Easter, ever the harbinger of spring, even the weather understood enough to produce a glorious sunny day that Pasquetta morning.  Along with some friends, we were going for a ride, a tour, maybe two, and seeing the weather was so obliging, hopefully include a picnic.  I sat next to Antonio who was behind the wheel.  Also along for the adventure were back benchers Maria Elena and English friends Bernie and her visiting chum, Sarah.  It was traditional that the day after Easter was a time when Italians enjoyed the outdoors and celebrated with a picnic.  We were "GO" for the entire four “P” package – Pasquetta, Padula, Picnic and Petrosino!  We hadn't heard of either, Padula or Petrosino, but day's end they'd be familiar names!  
We were familiar with much of the route from lofty Calitri for it followed the path we took on occasional visits to Sicily.  I’ve said it before how much I enjoy this toboggan ride through this mountainous chute.  On one side of the deep valley south from Lioni until Contursi Therme, steeped in the scent of sulfur, we retraced a familiar route between Monti Eremita to our right and Monti Picentini towering to our left.  Upon reaching Highway E45 we were soon bracketed on our left by Monti Della Maddalena and glancing right, hemmed in by the Parco Nazionale Del Cilento where mountains join the sea, nature meets up with history and beautiful landscapes mix with the fragrant smell of wild plants.  
This region, which hugs coastal Campagna, is well known for its extra virgin oil renowned for its brilliant grassy green to earthy straw-yellow color, its pale artichokes, sweet chestnuts, tear-drop shaped caciocavallo cheese and of course the food of the gods itself, the exclusive porcelain-white buffalo mozzarella.  Ah, buffalo mozzarella, but that was another story, wasn't it (read Where Buffalo Roam, Jan 2014).  Being I wasn't driving this time, I took the opportunity to notice things I hadn't seen before, which Mare was quick to inform me had always been there! As we got closer to our objective, I could make out a town clinging to the side of a mountain.
Padula is a town in the Campania region of south-western Italy.  Its existence reaches back to at least the ninth century when local people used the hilltop area for defense against Saracen marauders.  It sits in what is known as the “Cilento Region”, which stretches from the Vallo di Diano south of Salerno on the Tyrrhenian coast to the foot of the Apennines in Campania and Basilicata.  What distinguishes Padula from other neighboring towns is that it is the home of the Carthusian monastery, Certosa di San Lorenzo, and if that were not enough, its favorite son, Joe Petrosino. 
Nestled at the base of the mountain near the picturesque hill town of Padula we arrived at the Carthusian monastery, also referred to as the Certosa di Padula. The Monastery resides within a building of baroque design extending over 50,000 square meters making it one of the largest monasteries in Italy.  Looking at it front-on, however, all this would be hidden from you.  Only a bird's eye high above could take it all in and appreciate its dimension.  The entrance, located at the base of a long flight of stone stairs adjacent to the road, continued the deception by making only a modest statement in comparison to the complex of buildings and courtyards that awaited us inside. 
           Our first order of business was to purchase tickets and meet the guide we had reserved.  As we waited our turn in line we had ample time to appreciate the masterful wall and ceiling paintings adorning the entire area.  Though much of the paint is missing, their power is still unmistakable.  A little confusion at the ticket window, where we were thought to be senior EU citizens like Sarah and Bernie, saw us also get in for free.  I know I look foreign, but British?  We then met our guide in the nearby gift shop.  Her name was Fosca, a good fit since hers is a name associated with someone fond of stories and fascinated by legends.  Fosca was a young woman of thin frame and accommodating personality that I’d guess to be in her late twenties.  From the ground up, which since she was very short wasn’t far at all, she wore knee length leather boots and a pale purple pleated dress whose frilly sleeves extended from her black zippered jacket like trumpet flowers looking for sunlight and ended at her neck in a rolled turtleneck affair.  Her face was framed in long dark brown hair and the bridge of her nose supported bright orangey glasses she must have thought in vogue or at least stylish.  For me they were something on the order of a facial piercing that for the life of me I personally can’t understand in terms of their appeal to either wearer or observer.  But then, for at least this tour I was a foreigner, disguised as British, intent on observing and noting everything however critical that sometimes might be!
Exiting the biglietteria with tickets in hand we entered the monastery proper through a cobble paved courtyard.  The monastery's layout was divided into two major areas.  One, the "lower house", was more in touch with the outside world.  The cobblestone outer courtyard we were passing through was representative of the lower house.  Common activities took place here in support of the Carthusian community.  Quite large, the courtyard was known as the "Domus Inferior" and served as the public area of the monastery; a place for meetings, surrounded once by the homes of lay brothers as well as workshops, an apothecary, stables, barns, warehouses, a mill, an in-wall fountain, and an olive press and granaries.  Today some of these spaces are occupied by gift shops and a cafe.  Greatly missed are the lay brothers, for the fountain is non-functional and the cobbles uneven and in need of rescue from weeds.  
Coming in from the cobbles it was time for a cappuccino and morning spuntino (snack) anyway!  Our purchase of refreshments also provided us cover for a bathroom stop, even more of interest than the cappuccinos!  There at the opposite end of the court, the greatness of the massive 16th century main entrance facade, again of Baroque style, still remains.  This marked the entrance to the "high house" with the spaces for the community life of the monks (church, kitchen, refectory, the treasury and the chapter rooms) as well as the once strictly controlled cloistered areas organized around the great monk's cells, private gardens, the library and apartment of the Prior.  In a niche high above, to this day, the Virgin still keeps watch over the courtyard.  She undoubtedly notes the changes through the centuries unfolding below her.  At her feet, atop the portal, you can make out the words "Felix Coeli Porta" (Heaven's Gate) for this spot served as the border between the public areas and private areas reserved only for monks.  Uncertain of my exact status, British monk or British layman, we entered.
The monastic building was founded by the Sanseverino family and then donated to the Carthusian monks in 1306, who over time went on to expand the original structure extensively.  The expansion of this incredible complex was largely funded beginning in 1342 by the wealthy Florentine banker, Niccolò Acciaiuoli.  As the story goes, it was his guilt at having amassed so much money, considered sinful even in today’s secular "have and have-not" world, that with the creation of such a structure to honor God, his remorse was at least temporarily eased.  Someone should let Warren Buffett know!  A heritage preserved from the Middle Ages, this Monastery, known as the Certosa (or Chapterhouse) di San Lorenzo served as a center of enlightenment and influenced the cultural development of the entire area.  Today, the Monastery is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I began to wonder who these devout men had been; these souls of a vanished time centered on the spirit verses our present day tendency to focus on stuff.  Things were used then while people and family were loved, not the other way around.  Clearly life as a monk in a monastery had to have been preferred to the drudgery of life as a peasant, yet even here, all was not perfect, all was not easy.  As in the society outside its walls, there was an order to things in the form of a strict regiment.  Monks were separated from lay brothers, their assignments posted daily.  Each in fact had their own separate meeting rooms and observed the stringent rules of the order.  Their wooden seats were all connected and lined three walls of these chambers.  The last wall, which they faced in a U-shaped fashion, held a single honorary chair, apparently that of their master or Prior.  Curiously, beneath each seat was a pull-out drawer.  In answer to my inquiry they were used to hold a spittoon!  I doubted they chewed tobacco.  Apparently consumption, better known as tuberculosis, was prevalent.
We also got to visit, but I soon realized not touch (or that other form of touch, i.e. open), two major wooden choirs fashioned with inlaid artwork, one reserved for monks, the other for lay brothers arranged under a groined or double barreled vaulted ceiling itself embellished with ornate golden paintings.  In another large assembly room, on the idea of a Joint Session of Congress, both groups occasionally met. 
          One particularly interesting area was the apartment of the Prior.  He enjoyed a very large space of many rooms including a private chapel.  His rooms, like all the others we saw, were emptied of their furnishings.  One feature which couldn't be removed, even when the Chapterhouse was emptied of its treasures by Napoleon, was a grand veranda overlooking a walled garden.  The walls outside, to either side of the entrance onto this terrace, were heavenly painted with accents of cherubs in an ornate fashion.  They depicted scenes of galleons, castles and village life in a manner giving them physical depth and dimension.  Each was presented so as to appear as additional views from the veranda seen through arches supported by imaginary painted columns.  Even the stone railings in the scenes matched the actual veranda railings, which overlooked the garden (see photo album).  It had to have been a beautiful space in its time, though today, the elements and time have taken their share of its splendor.  One sight from the terrace I know neither the Prior nor Napoleon had ever seen, just over the wall in the forest to the left, was a gigantic, red, circular "You Are Here" marker, like those you see at rest areas on wall-maps to pinpoint your location.  No need to remind the Prior anyway, he knew was in Heaven.
The entire time we were there we never saw a religious, neither monk nor brother.  Doubtful there are any there today, other than tourists like ourselves, since it was abandoned as a monastery in 1866.  Times have changed vastly since the days when monks spent almost all their time inside their cells (twenty-four of which are intact to this day), praying, studying and meditating.  Also of curious interest were the monks' cells.  Their secluded mini apartments consisted of 3-4 rooms.  Though hard to believe with our mindset, the monks could spend most of their lives tending their own private gardens without dealing with any other monks.  Our guide pointed out openings where food could be delivered, others to admit light.  When food was slid into their apartment, in the truest embodiment of cloistered religious life, only shards of candlelight from inside indicated that the occupant was still alive!  To me this gave it all the characteristics of a prison cell, absent any bars, while to them it gave opportunity to achieve closeness with God.
             At the entrance to the library we’d glimpsed a spiral staircase that seemed to corkscrew up to infinity without any supports, yet to the rear of the monastery rose a huge and spectacular octagonal tower that eclipsed even this masterful stairway.  The tower encloses a majestic marble staircase accented by grand openings overlooking the countryside.  These long vertical breaches in the tower wall framed scenes of the gardens and countryside that gave the illusion they were actual paintings.  Every few steps we would hesitate as we spiraled upward to turn and look at what new vista had been captured in these architectural apertures.  Even Napoleon had been unsuccessful in stealing them!  The day of our visit this impressive stairwell led to a second floor museum that depicted one example of how the use of the Chapterhouse and its grounds had changed over time.  At a time during WWI, for instance, it served as a prison for captured Czech soldiers.  This display detailed the life of these prisoners through models, photos, and actual artifacts and memorabilia from their time there to include uniforms.  In the process of these changes the Chapterhouse has suffered, yet even today it remains a magnificence tribute to the vision of its builders. 
One especially interesting room was the kitchen complex, something often overlooked in places like this.  I find them interesting.  Considering the number of mouths to feed daily, it had to have been a large space and it was.  Within its walls the kitchen hall retained two novel features: a giant chimney and a butchering area.  The rest of the expansive kitchen space was empty but in the day must have been filled with tables, pots and stores with sous-chef brothers, (or possibly monks?), busily preparing for the upcoming meal.  The still sooty chimney flared from its wide base above a mammoth fire pit.  Hooks, chains and hooks within hooks hung from the mouth of the chimney like some giant escaped fish, its mouth still snagged by gnarly fishing tackle.  Near one corner of the room stood something on the order of a stone altar though close inspection revealed it wasn’t.  Although flat like an altar it had depressions, like troughs, cut in the stone and running along all its sides, apparently to gather any fluid when an animal was being butchered or the surface was being washed.  On the floor was a similar arrangement of channels leading to a drain.  On the wall behind this sacrificial dais were a series of smaller slabs and adjacent basins.  What was especially interesting, however, were the wall tiles.  Many of them still retained their bright yellow sheen, which Fosca explained was an early form of bug repellent, for their color was believed to ward off flying insects.  On 10-12 August of each year, this kitchen come alive again when a celebration is held.  According to legend, the Carthusian Monks once created a 1,000-egg omelet for King Charles V's visit to the monastery.  A special giant iron pan expressly made for the occasion fashioned the "Frittata delle mille uova" (1,000-egg omelet) for the king who oversaw a vast empire so large it was said “the sun never set” on it.  What better than a grand omelet would be fit for a man with such a voracious appetite for conquest and dominion.   Could the pan, gone now, have fallen victim to Napoleon?
Outside, a covered walkway called the "Grand Cloister", surrounded an inner grassy area as large a soccer field.  Among the most spacious in Europe, this rectangular lawn occupies 12,000 square meters and is encircled by a covered arcade of 84 columns.  From this huge gallery, the eastern horizon is dominated by a view of the city of Padula rising in alternating rows of white colored homes and clay tiled roofs flashing orange.  Though we had given it a good try, we couldn't see it all … 320 halls, 52 staircases, 100 fireplaces and 41 fountains.  We’d hardly made a dent when it was time to leave.
              Our visit to the monastery complete and it being early afternoon by then, we converged on a nearby small restaurant adjacent to the parking area for lunch.  Never having attended a Pasquette picnic, I would still estimate that ours was exceptional.  Each of us had brought along enough food for ourselves and more, enough to constitute a true picnic.  Wine, chips, sweets, cheeses, grapes, salami, sandwiches, you name it, we probably had it.  The owners employed a cleaver concept.  I'm sure they hoped you'd buy something from them and I'm sure some did.  No 1000 egg omelets however!  For those of us who hadn't purchased something, there was a small fee of 2 or 3 Euros for the use of their facility, which included an open space of shaded picnic tables.  

         Our lunches well consumed, we gathered our new strength and headed for Padula itself.  Padula is like many Italian hill towns.  Streets of steep grade see the weaker fall behind, which may have been the idea when the town was constructed on the mountainside to protect against marauding Saracen pirates even this far inland from the sea.  Beyond hoping for tired pirates, Padula has the special distinction of having a favorite son of international renown, Giuseppe Michale Pasquale "Joe" Petrosino, not to be confused with Peter Petrocelli famed shortstop of our Boston Red Sox!   Let me tell you his story.
Joe was born in Padula in August of 1860 and by 1872, along with the rest of his family, became part of the great Italian immigration to the United States.  His life remains one of the greatest immigrant tales New York City has ever known.  As a young boy, nearly straight off the boat, Petrosino sold newspapers and shined shoes outside the NYPD Headquarters, then on Mulberry Street.  At night he studied English and by 17 had become an American Citizen.  He eventually was noticed by a police commander and in 1883, at age 23, joined the force.  By 1890 he'd risen to became the first Italian American to be awarded a NYPD Detective Shield.  During his service he become friends with Theodore Roosevelt, who at the time was New York City's police commissioner.  On July 20, 1895, Roosevelt promoted him to detective sergeant in charge of the department's Homicide Division, making him the first Italian American to lead this division.  He went on to become a fearless criminal investigator and legendary crime fighter.

            A burly man, all grit, gallantry and guts, Joe was a pioneer in the fight against organized crime, especially Italian and Sicilian criminal groups then emerging in the U.S.  His expertise at undercover disguise and knowledge of Italian dialects were soon recognized by the department then waging a campaign against the "Black Hand", a loose association of Italian mobsters and precursor to the Mafia. 

            A man of many firsts, he pioneered various crime fighting techniques during his career, many still practiced today by various agencies in their fight against crime.  To conceal his identity, he perfected the art of undercover disguise using hairpieces, fake mustaches, glasses, hats and clothing.  He also pioneered the infiltration of criminal organizations and the creation of files containing information and images of criminals internationally.  To accomplish this, in 1904 he established the first Organized Crime Task Force, a group of ten handpicked men.  The pinnacle of his career came in December 1908 when he was promoted to lieutenant and placed in charge of the "Italian Squad", an elite corps of Italian-American detectives assembled specifically to deal with the criminal activities of organizations like the Black Hand, as well as founding the NYPD Bomb Squad, the first of its kind in the U.S, to counter the use of explosives in carrying out extortion threats.

            One of his notable crime-fighting exploits during his stint with the Italian Squad was when the Pavaratti of his day, Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, was performing at the New York City Metropolitan Opera.  The Blank Hand attempted to blackmail Caruso by demanding money in exchange for his life.  It was Petrosino who convinced Caruso to help him catch those behind the blackmail attempt.  Another notable case involved his penetration of an Italian-based anarchist organization involved in the assassination of King Umberto I of Italy.  During this operation, he discovered evidence that the organization intended to assassinate President McKinley during his upcoming trip to Buffalo.  Petrosino warned the Secret Service but McKinley ignored the warning even when Theodore Roosevelt, then Vice President, vouched for Joe.  The world was shocked when his warning became a reality and McKinley was assassinated by anarchist Leon Czolgosz while meeting the public inside the Temple of Music during his visit to Buffalo's Pan-American Exposition on September 6, 1901.
            Realizing the danger of the Mafia phenomenon, Lt. Petrosino stubbornly sought out those who ordered the first Mafia murders in New York history.  This led him to Sicily.  In 1909, Petrosino made plans to travel to Palermo on a top secret mission.  His cover as they say "was blown", however, when due of the incompetence of the then New York's police commissioner, the New York Herald learned of Petrosino's mission and published the story just days before his departure.  Even though he was aware of the danger because of this "leak", Petrosino headed to Palermo as planned, a decision which would prove fatal since he wrongly believed that the Sicilian Mafia would not kill a policeman, since they had not done so in America.  So much for foolhardy wishful thinking!
Following his now well announced arrival in Palermo, Petrosino received a message from someone claiming to be an informant, asking the detective to meet him in the city's Piazza Marina to give him information about the Mafia.  Foolishly, Petrosino arrived at the rendezvous point in Piazza Marina in the Garibaldi Garden alone.  He had refused the services of a police body guard offered him by the Palermo Commissioner of Police.  It was a trap and the trap was set.  While waiting for the so-called informant, Petrosino was shot to death by Mafia assassins.  His murder in Sicily on 12 March 1909 at the age of 49 give him the posthumous distinction of being the first NYPD officer to lose his life abroad in the line of duty.  On its return, his body was received by a police honor guard and he was given a hero's funeral by the city.  Today, Joe is a New York City hero in the truest sense of the wordYes, he did his job but he went far beyond what was required, even expected.
            We learned all this that day.  All of it at the Petrosino homestead in Padula, today a "casa-museum".  It was easy to find since signs throughout the town pointed out the direction to Via Giuseppe Pertrsino, 6.  The home, built in 1768, is representative of a typical emigrant home of the late 19th century.  Its contents are original right down to a suitcase Joe left behind when he stopped off on his way to Sicily on that fateful mission, intent on retrieving it on his return.  Everything had been preserved by Petrosino's niece, Guilda Petrosino.  Gilda's son and the great-nephew of Joe Petrosino, Nino Melito, realized the importance of documenting the life of this famous native son and distinguished NYC policeman.  To preserve Joe's memory, Nino started the museum we toured that day.  A combination "Believe-it-or-Not", shrine, "Madame Tussard's" and local preservation society, in true barker fashion Nino wove his tale in theatrical fashion, raising and lowering his voice for dramatic effect to relate the Petrosino story.  It was in Italian but fortunately our friends Antonio and Gerardina translated for us.  Moving from tiny room to tiny room, he described the contents and implements used in daily life back then, which filled each room.  Walls were wallpapered but they need not have been for they were otherwise covered with every manner of news article, photo, anything however remotely related to Joe.  Nino saved most of his colorful melodramatics for his climactic crescendo of a finale at the assassination portion of the story.  A promoter himself, he had all the makings of a P. T. Barnum presenting his version of the "Greatest Show on Earth", the Petrosino story.
        By all measure, our first Pasquetta outing had been a success!  We had withstood a springtime tradition now turned national Italian holiday on an especially joyous day filled with sunshine and the fresh beckoning breezes of springtime.  This day following Easter, with its diminutive ending etta added-on to denote little, was nothing of the sort.  Our trip deeper into the Campania countryside had uncovered four iconic Ps - Pasquetta, Padula, picnic, and Petrosino!  It led us to Padula's grandiose monastery that is no longer, though still remarkable in its story and scale.  Suitably awed, we'd then survived a marathon of food, somewhat shy of 1000 eggs, at an outdoor picnic feast where our band of travelers had shared their surprises from baskets, pouches, bags and bottles.  Once again recharged, in an attempt to prolong the joyful spirit of this Italian experience, we then explored the hilly streets of Padula, throughout the day visible on the near horizon.  There we'd discovered the once home, now museum, of a New York City police hero, Joe Pertosino, whose fame and exploits continue to be enthusiastically maintained and recounted in nick-knack detail by his descendants.  La Pasquetta and the British part of me is now entwined in my memory, not soon to be tossed out like yesterday's paper or fade with that day's setting sun.  Any first-timer would return to Pasquetta, after Pasquetta  and we will, to bask in this early springtime day and joys of the Italian countryside!      
From that Rogue Tourist

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “Pasquetta”.