Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Man in the Rock

Sandy and Fabio 'Indiana Jone' Astone

Alburni cattle of the podolica breed

The trail to the top of the knob

The view from the top

Luigi De Felice

L'Antece, The Man in the Rock

Carved basin, perhaps for libations

Lunch break

And a snooze

Panoramic views

Trouble brewing on Monte Chianello

Today, bright and early, we headed out with Fabio and Luigi for the Monti Alburni once again, but this time to visit one of the strangest monuments in the Cilento, a part of Italy replete with wonderful things. This time we were going to commune with the Man in the Rock.

Going anywhere with this crew is a treat.  By now if you’ve read any of these blogs you know Fabio and Katiuscea.  But you may not know Tio Luigi and Tia Cornelia.  Luigi is Filomena’s brother and Fabio’s maternal uncle, Cornelia Luigi’s beautiful German wife and Fabio’s aunt.  Luigi, like so many bright southern Italians, saw his future elsewhere when a young man.  He was good with languages, became fluent in German, and emigrated to Baden W├╝rttemberg where his language skills allowed him to work in international shipping. And also allowed him to fall in love with a stunning young blonde emigrant from northern Germany. He worked on Scandinavian ships for several years where he became fluent in English as well (English was the lingua franca of the very international crew), and now works promoting luxury Italian products, especially foods, in Germany.  In that capacity he makes frequent trips back to his homeland to seek out wonderful artisinal products to promote.

For us, Luigi’s command of English is a luxury, especially for Sandy, with whom he flirts shamelessly.  But the real luxury is just being around these two, so full of life and good cheer, constantly joking and bouncing crazy ideas around.  Luigi and Cornelia own a villa just up the hill from the Astone’s, a summer home to which they hope to retire next year.  We’ve had the pleasure of a couple of cookouts at their villa where the vista is, impossibly, even more panoramic than here below.  Luigi once explained how much he had paid to have the lot terraced to create that eye-popping vista, and it was an eye-popping figure as well. But worth it. The De Felices and sometimes one or both of their sons spend half of July and all of August there.  And every year they make a pilgrimage to the Man in the Rock.  Luigi and Cornelia are into New Age spirituality, and they insist that just being in the presence of our guy reenergizes them, puts some zing in their marriage, and fills them with good vibes.  I know that last phrase sounds trite and perhaps dismissive, but I mean it quite literally and with a great deal of respect, incapable as I may be of understanding much of this spiritual feeling.  Sandy’s sister-in-law Chris, on the other hand, would be in heaven at this place.

I must explain, the Man in the Rock, better known as Antece, “The Ancient One”, is a stone figure of a warrior carved into a limestone face of the famous white limestone pillars in the Monti Alburni, so-named for those very white limestone pillars.  We basically retraced a previous giro, north along SS18 for 15 miles, then east through the Paestan Plain and then along the northern flank of Monte Soprano to and through Roccadaspide, then down into the valley of the Calore River and up onto a spur of the Monte Alburni to the town of Corleto Monforte.  From Corleto we turned due north on a local road and drove some 8 miles up onto what we call in North Carolina a ‘knob’, a small spur of the mountains that has become detached from the main range through erosion.  We parked the car near a picnic pavilion at about 3000’ of altitude and then followed a farm road, past a herd of those beautiful Alburni milk cows and their very protective guard dogs, then accessed a quiet silvan trail around the back of the knob and up to the very top at 3487’.  And there was our guy, looking out  over the huge vista westward toward the sea.

The site of the rock warrior has been inhabited for some 40,000 years.  There is evidence here of Neanderthal occupation, and there is some evidence of continuous occupation right through to Neolithic times.  The actual remains of a village, Castrum Palumbi, date from the 8th century BC and belong to the local Alburno tribe, a branch of the fearsome Sabellian warriors who eventually descended into the lowlands and became the Lucanians who vied with Rome for hegemony in southern Italy.  But once again the surface scatter was huge, and Fabio, Luigi and I found pottery fragments from the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1200 BCE in this area), the Iron Age (ca. 900), the Etruscan period (ca. 700-600), so there’s a good chance the site was occupied continuously for over a thousand years if not more.

The figure itself is quite striking, though it has to be viewed from several angles in succession to bring out all its severely weathered features.  It is the figure of warrior dressed in his battle tunic, a belt at his waist in which is a short sword.  In his right hand he holds a long spear, and at the base of the spear leans a round shield.  In his left hand he holds another weapon, badly weathered, but perhaps a long sword or an ax or a club.  On his head he wore a crested helmet.  The figure has been interpreted as a pagan warrior god of the Sabellian people, and this remote village a religious sanctuary and perhaps a pilgrimage center.  I say ‘wore’, because some time ago a local shepherd came up and hacked off much the the warrior’s face and helmet out of some perverted notion that this was a pagan god and his was an act of piety.  Just a sad reminder that Christian bigots have been just as capable over the millennia of murder and genocide and the wanton destruction of irreplaceable cultural artifacts, as have the Taliban or Isis.  And, though the standard view is that the warrior is a Sabellian or perhaps a Lucanian, two Italic peoples who inhabited this area, Fabio insists there is evidence he is in fact Villanovan, the northern Italic peoples who were forerunners of the Etruscans.  For reasons that I shall not disclose here until he has published the article he has nearly finished.  But whatever Antece's provenance, he is deeply moving.  Just touching a figure that was carved by the hand of man well over two thousand years ago gave me an indescribable sensation.

We made our obeisance to the Man in the Rock, examined a beautifully carved basin in another hunk of limestone, perhaps for sacrifices, then skirted the top of the knob to a slightly lower field where some scrubby elm trees gave us shade, and enjoyed a delicious lunch of pannini that we had procured in Agropoli, along with bottled water and cute little bottles of Campari, whose bitterness was a perfect counterpoint to lunch.  Then Fabio and Luigi stretched out in the shade and were soon snoozing away peacefully. 

   Sandy and I took the occasion to explore the whole top of the knob.  The most affecting element of this magical place for us was the views, a reminder that the Greek word from which we get panoramic literally means ‘seeing all’.  You could literally stand and rotate 360° and see unobstructed, gorgeous mountains everywhere. I’d say it’s a good bet that one rotation encompassed easily 900 square miles of territory.  Easy to see why this was such a strategic location as well.  To the north and west was the Paestum Plain and access to the Tyhrennian Sea.  To the south were the valleys of the Calore and Tanagro Rivers, gateways to Italy’s deep south.  And through a pass we could easily see, there was access to the Valle di Diano, a broad, flat rive plain on the site of an Eocene seascape which gives access to Basilicata and thence to the gulf of Taranto, the Ionian Sea and Greece.  I’d like to think Antece is a defensive god, guarding the trade routes that brought the intense cultural interchange which ultimately made this area one of the cradles of civilization in the western Mediterranean.

Our sleeping beauties roused, and Luigi hooked up his CD player and earbuds and ambled back to the top of the knob to listen to music as he communed with The Man.  At one point we saw him standing, singing at the top of his lungs as he spread his arms wide from a bluff overlooking the Calore Valley.  Meanwhile Fabio did his archaeologist thing.  It seems that there is a little vole which lives in these mountains who, when he digs his burrow, digs several escape routes to dart away from the hawks and eagles that scan the ground for him as they ride the thermals.  But as these little guys eject soil from their burrows they also strew small pebbles...and sherds of pottery!  It’s strictly illegal to dig at such sites, of course, but there’s certainly no harm in perusing the tailings (sorry about the pun) of our little mousy excavators.  And pottery and adobe bricks were everywhere there.

Fabio and I looked for the site of a small cave down the western flank of the knob, without success.  It seems that Fabio discovered it in December when much of the scrub was gone, and it was impossible to locate it amidst that thick Mediterranean macchia.  But as we skirted that flank, we noticed two huge thunderheads rising over Monte Soprano and Monte Chianello to the southwest and south, and it wasn’t long before the fireworks began on the latter.  What an awesome experience it might have been to be in the midst of a thunderstorm in the company of Antece, here in this spirit-haunted place, so close to the elemental forces of nature...if you survived.  But we were not quite ready to join our Villanovan or Sabellian or Lucanian ancestors, so we opted for ‘the better part of valor’ and made our way back down to the car.

I don’t mean to emote here, I think it diminishes the experience.  But I will tell you that communing with Antece was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.  And that I somewhat understand now how so many young people can say that they are not religious, but are deeply spiritual.  There was an undeniable power in that place, and I think I am better for my contact with it, whatever it may be.  And if you want to call it ‘God’, well, that’s OK with me too.

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