26 October 2014

LIFE: The Cursed Island of Gaiola

NAPLES, Italy - 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 for a summer villa, the perfect place to play and indulge in their vices far from prying eyes.  

Island of Gailoa, (Naples, Italy)
It is 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.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, in 1874 to be exact, Luigi de Negri purchased the island. It was de Negri who built the white villa that stands on the island today. He was a successful businessman but not long after he built the villa, his company unexpectedly went bankrupt. This once very rich man was suddenly very poor.
A Stone Bridge Connects the Island's Two Sections
In the spring of 1911, sea Captain Gaspar Albenga was piloting his boat around Gaiola, pondering the idea of buying the island. He never returned, and no trace of him, or his boat, has ever been found. 

Over the years, people have 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. Not long after that his widow drowned in the sea not far the island. The next owner, Otto Grunback, suffered a fatal heart-attack while on vacation there, and the owner after Grunback committed suicide in a Swiss mental hospital. 
 From Above it Seems an Idylic Paradise
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 thought it was a hoax. When the kidnappers realized they were not being taken seriously, they sent Getty a lock of the boy’s hair along with one of his ears.  Getty paid up.
Stone Steps Lead to the Sea
The last owner of the island was jailed on fraud charges when his insurance company suddenly closed its doors in 1978. All just coincidences you say? Maybe.

But there is also this: 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. It was generally believed that this was the place where Virgil taught the mystical arts. That may be why there has been so much interest in this part of the coast in the past.

One theory is that the potions created here by Virgil and his pupils have permanently polluted the water, and that is the reason the curse affects those who linger here too long.
The Island's Secluded Dock
Or, if we go back to 1820 when archaeologist William Bechi owned the property, we find that Bechi began several archaeological digs. The digs brought to light several Roman buildings that had been buried for centuries. When Bechi died, his daughter sold the property to Luigi de Negri, the man who built the villa.

After De Negri went bankrupt, the property was put up for auction and purchased by the Marquis del Tufo. 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.

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 books. Under the canvas there was a fresco depicting a large female head with snakes for hair, a Gorgon. According to Greek mythology, their power is so strong, they can turn anyone who looks at them into stone.

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.  
Silent Stones of Gaiola
He took the photographs of the Gorgon mask to a member of the Institute of Restoration in Rome, who dated it between the 2nd and 3rd century AD. The expert also confirmed that it was quite possible that the mask, popular in both Greek and Roman mythology as a protective deity, had been removed from it’s original location on the island, and affixed to the wall in the library of the villa.

And just maybe, moving that protective Gorgon symbol by someone who didn’t understand its meaning or power is the root of all the evil that has plagued this beautiful place for centuries.  

We may never know the real reason why this island has such a dark past, but today it is part of a marine protected area under the jurisdiction of the Region of Campania. You can visit if feel brave, here’s their web site. http://www.areamarinaprotettagaiola.it

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.