From North to South, from East to West, Italy is a beautiful chest filled with mysterious treasures. Bones of dragons and alchemic doors, secret symbols to warn against the Devil and dark ladies of the Renaissance, our trip through the less common and the unknown of the Bel Paese let us partake some well kept secrets of Italian history and tradition.
The Southern regions of the country are the last stop of this fascinating trip. In the wild and wonderful Sardinia, stone giants evocative of those on Easter Island guard the land; in Puglia, popular and reassuring trulli sport esoteric symbols painted on their roofs and mysterious apparitions haunt Monte Sant’Angelo.
Sardinia: the Giants of Mont’e Prama
Immensely beautiful cradle of ancestral culture and traditions, home to the most longevous people in the world, Sardinia has more still to bestow upon her many enamoured estimators, something of a mysterious, fascinating nature. It was 1974 when farmers of the Mont’e Prama area, in the province of Oristano, unearthed large sculptural fragments of unknown origins from their fields.
The large, round eyes that characterize them - one of the features they do not share with the Easter Island statues - evoke artistically Asia Minor and the aesthetics of Phoenicians and Etruscans
They belonged, it soon appeared, to statues of enormous size. Kolossoi, called them the first archaeologist working on the findings, Giovanni Liliu, known at the time for his work on the Nuragic civilization of Sardinia. Imposing, hieratic, with straight noses, the giants of Mont’e Prama are reminiscent of other mysterious stony faces, those of Easter Island: just like them, they probably represent important members of a long gone society and, just like them, they are surrounded by a thick aura of historical mystery.
The statues of Mont’e Prama reach 2 and half meters in height (just above 8 feet), can weight up to a staggering 400 kg (almost 900 lbs) and are entirely carved in granite. The large, round eyes that characterize them - one of the features they do not share with the Easter Island statues - evoke artistically Asia Minor and the aesthetics of Phoenicians and Etruscans. The art of the latter, in particular, seems to have very much been an inspiration. What makes the giants so interesting is the fact they are likely to belong to a an unknown, post Nuragic civilization, about which modern historians still don’t know anything.
The excavation carried out after the first fortuitous discovery of the statues brought to the surface a 2800 year old monumental necropolis, very likely sacked in previous centuries, as demonstrated by the presence of empty tombs. Our enigmatic giants used to stand high on them, their awe-inspiring allure possibly a memento of those buried underneath. What do we know of the people who sculpted the giants? Who were they and where did they come from? By the size of their statues, we can assume they were a fairly evolved society, wealthy and powerful, the mystery of which , however, remains largely kept in the eyes of their granitic, silent giants of stone.
Puglia, esoterism and holy apparitions
Alberobello and its trulli are in the mind of all those who visited Puglia at least once: a true symbol of the region, especially of its central and southern areas. Trulli are a typical form of Pugliese dwelling, one that experts believe to have roots as far back as prehistory, even though the oldest ones still extant date to the 14th century.
Alberobello and its trulli are in the mind of all those who visited Puglia at least once
Trulli were the typical homes of local rural communities, their white washed walls and dark, conical roofs remind us still today of fairy tales villages. However, keen observers may notice the presence of large, white, hand painted symbols on the black slates of their roofs: Jewish candelabra, holy hearts, crosses, holy wafers. Many of these symbols have a religious origin, but others are pagan and rooted in a much more ancient tradition, of which we know very little: indeed, we don’t really know why farmers would draw them on their homes and all we can do is guessing. Historians agree these symbols had a propitiatory role and that locals would use them to bring prosperity and protection upon their households. There’s more than 200 of them in Alberobello, often recurring among the members of the same family: an interesting piece of trivia for local history and lore lovers, with enough mystery to keep us guessing and wondering about their true significance.
Puglia is also home to the famous Santuario di Monte Sant’Angelo, in the Foggia province, known for being the location of several angelic apparitions. The first seems to date back to 490 AD when a local lord, attempting to kill a bull, shot an arrow into a cave only to have it thrown back at him and being hit. A few days later, Archangel Michael appeared to the man declaring the cave was holy and should be consecrated to the Lord: quite an act, in an area still profoundly pagan. In fact, local bishop Lorenzo Maiorano decided not to follow Saint Michael’s advice for that very reason.
Michael appeared once more two years later, when the area was devastated by the hoards of Odoacer, granting protection to locals; indeed, the Barbarians were chased away, yet bishop Maiorano still refused to enter the cave and recognize it as a holy place. He decided to travel to Rome and consult with the Pope instead, who suggested to carry on with the cave’s consecration. But Saint Michael, certainly not one to wait on a frightful bishop to do what’s needed, appeared a third time to state there was no longer need to bless the cave: he had done it himself already. Apparently, a fourth apparition took place in 1656, when Puglia was devastated by the plague: Saint Michael spoke once again to the local bishop, suggesting to carve crosses on the cave’s stones to free the area from disease. And so, believers say, this quaint little corner of Gargano won over pestilence and never experienced it again.
Just like art, good food and magical sceneries, mystery and the unknown are another thing bringing together the North, the Centre and the South of Italy, an ideal line creating yet another interesting series of itineraries to discover more about our amazing country.