01 July 2012

LIFE: The Curse of Montecristo

SARONNO, Italy – There is a small island, about 40 miles off the coast of Tuscany, called Montecristo. It’s coastline is rugged and rocky, the black volcanic stone riddled with dark caves. Nothing grows there, no one lives there, no one has ever been able to live there although many have tried. That is the curse of Montecristo.
Tuscan  Island of Montecristo  (photo AP)
Over the centuries the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Spaniards and Genovese desperately tried to colonize Montecristo, just as they had colonized other islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea, islands like Capri and Ventotene. But to no avail. Montecristo, like a wild stallion, refuses to be tamed.

In the glory days of the Roman Empire, a Roman senator once built a summer villa on the island. but they say he never lived there. He was fascinated by the island's wild beauty, and believed Roman mythology which said Montecristo was one of the seven jewels that fell from Venus’ headband when she bathe in the Tyrrhenian sea.
 All That Remains
It sounded like an earthly paradise to the Senator, but he soon fled in desperation from the huge rats that dominate the island. The rats fascinate me. They are the true keepers of the island. They have been there forever, and they are still there. Every method conceived by man has been tried to eradicate them, including bringing in snakes to dropping poison pellets from airplanes. The rats always win. Could it be that they are the reincarnation of dammed souls, forced to live out eternity on a speck of volcanic rock in the middle of the sea? Are they the manifestation of the curse of Montecristo?

So many questions, with no real answers. But nonetheless man has persisted in his effort to conquer the dark forces of nature that are at work there.  In 1852 an Englishman, George Green Taylor, spent a fortune fixing up the island for colonization. But after eight years of struggling to complete his project,  he gave up. They say the final blow came when a band of pirates set fire to all he had created, but other rumors say he had given up long before that, defeated in his effort to break the curse.
Thirty years later the Marquis Carlo Ginori-Lisci thought the island would make a good private hunting ground and so he stocked it with wild game. For reasons we will never know, he then gave the lodge to Italy’s King Victor Emanuel II to use as a royal retreat during World War I. The Marquis told the King about the island’s ancient curse, but the King went ahead and built a 26 room palace anyway, only to abandon it several years later.  

Then an Italian construction engineer, Dino Vitale stepped in. He too saw potential in the island, but once again the problem with the rats surfaced. If only he could find a solution, a way of getting rid of them permanently. He spent a lot of money to refurbish the King’s old palace, but then the project stalled.  Viale, who had managed to acquire the title of Count became the first  Count of Montecristo. There was another, a fictional Count, immortalized by the French writer Alexander Dumas in his swashbuckling tales of the Count of Monte Cristo. While Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo gets rich and destroys his enemies, Vitale, the real Count of Montecristo, suffered a fatal heart attack leaving behind a dire warning of the island’s dreaded curse.  
 Perfect Hide-a-Way for Pirate Treasure
The Italians, who are very superstitious, have given up on trying to populate the island. Instead they have given in to nature and created a protected nature reserve. Only 1,000 visitors per year are allowed to visit the island, and only during specific periods during the year (from April 1 to July 15 and from August 31 to the end of October). The Italians are very clever and never openly discourage visitors, but in order to visit the island you must apply in advance for a special permit and then sit through a lecture on the environment of the island the day before the trip. The word curse never passes anyone’s lips.

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