As soon as we set our backpacks down in Fivizzano, where we were house-sitting for a month, we began hearing tales of black magic. Apparently, this corner of northern Tuscany in the Lunigiana region is long famed for the inhabitants’ spell-conjuring ways. Superstitions and suspicions run high here and it’s no wonder with such dramatic history.
For centuries, the area’s most prominent families wrestled for control of property and power. Battles were waged, backs stabbed, and victors emerged…at least until the next battle commenced.
Turns out our quiet home in Fivizzano was a mere few kilometers from the epicenter of intrigue.
CASTELLO DELLA VERRUCOLA
Noble Heart, Artisan Soul
Navigating relentlessly curving roads through the imposing black mountains isn’t for the faint of heart when rain isn’t pounding down. Which seems a rare occurrence here in winter.
Needing a break from white knuckling the roadway, we ducked into a cafe for an obligatory afternoon spritz. We had just visited one of the region’s most famous castles, Castello dell’Aquila in Gragnola. With high spirits after such a grand experience, we felt like celebrating our good fortune. So, when a friendly local invited us to join his table of companions, without hesitation we said, “yes!”
Turns out that white magic force known as serendipity runs strong in this region too. An owner of yet another of the region’s famed castles was among the new friends at our table.
Before our spritz ran dry we had an invitation to join him in the castle – his home – for what he called “a simple lunch” the next day.
I will admit, we were nervous on the hour-long walk from our home to his in Verrucola. Matt and I had both spied the imposing fortress while cycling and running through the valley. To say it seemed forbidden seems an understatement.
The impressive walls and soaring towers exude power. It’s not difficult to imagine why families, friends, and foes battled for control and ownership of the castle for centuries. (The plot lines and location are begging for an HBO mini-series.)
But where the castle seemed distant, the young owner Jacopo Cascella was exactly opposite. Charming and elegant, his openness and generosity were apparent, as was his desire to connect and share this legacy. After all, he was generous enough to invite two total strangers into his home, not to mention cook for us.
A Gallery Space Like No Other
Entering the walled city, we went in search of the church. Our instructions were to call our host when we reached the portico. With panoramic views of the grounds, we waited only a few minutes before he appeared and ushered through the massive doors like old friends.
We entered into what is known as the “Arm’s Room,” which today serves as the grand setting for large-scale models of the work of Pietro Cascella, Jacopo’s late father and one of Italy’s most famous artists.
Pietro Cascella has created works on display from New York to Paris. He is most acclaimed for the monument he created at Auschwitz as well as the “Gate of Peace,” in Tel Aviv.
It was truly amazing to see and touch the models for these famous works along with dozens of others on display. One of the grandest is the piece most Italians mention in connection with the artist: the private mausoleum, designed to house up to 36 members of Silvio Berlusconi’s family.
As we advanced to the living quarters, the impressive exhibition continued. Jacopo’s late mother, Cordelia von den Steinen, was also a celebrated artist. Pieces of her terra cotta sculptures, from intricate palm-sized works to six-foot statues, graced the living room.
Alighting every wall and tucked into every corner is a painting or sculpture created by our friend’s grandfather and grandmother, or a famous uncle, or talented grand uncle.
We joked if you didn’t show artistic promise at an early age, you were surely no longer considered a Cascella. With each new piece of artistic eye candy, I began asking, “Which relative created this one?”
Without that question, we probably would not have been told about our host’s own contributions to the gallery. Modestly, Jacopo acknowledged his paintings, large works bursting in vibrant color and a strong sense of place.
Feeling calm, knowing the family’s rich artistic legacy would live on, we began to think about another life-enriching activity: eating.
Dining with Dante
The evening before, as soon as it was established we would be visiting the castle, everyone wanted to make sure we knew the Dante connection.
Legend has it that the father of Italian language and celebrated poet Dante Alighieri once lived in Castello della Verrucola. Some say he even wrote a portion of his most celebrated work, The Divine Comedy, while there.
With rumors of Dante’s antics echoing through the halls, we moved upstairs into the personal chambers for lunch.
As with the other spaces, the grand-yet-cozy room was packed full of the family’s creative endeavors, although the pieces here took a more practical turn. An enormous wooden cabinet covered with intricate terra cotta carvings, designed by his mother, housed serving ware. A kitchen island, designed by his father, included built-in stations for grinding and carving, served as the kitchen’s focal point.
For lunch, we were being joined by other friends from the prior evening, a fascinating cast of characters, including musician and television personality, Romeo Orsi, and the British owner of a celebrated London magazine.
Lunch was far from “simple” as anticipated, a delicious pasta with tomatoes and parmesan along with a cleverly-presented course of buffalo mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes. Accompanied by the region’s finest wines and desert from our favorite cafe in Fivizzano.
Conversation, conducted in a smashed-up mix of English and Italian, centered on life in Lunigiana, Italian politics, and cuisine. Our companions asked questions about our life in the U.S. and our travels.
We each new topic, discussion always seemed to return art’s ability to connect and inspire people of all backgrounds. We quickly discovered a shared passion for bringing artists of different genres together and for breaking down barriers to artistic participation and understanding. Before we knew it, we were plotting a project together to bring artists and audiences to the castle. Who knows what the future may bring. Vediamo (We will see.)
The afternoon, filled with warmth and laughter, felt like many such meals shared with friends at home. Sharing ideas and cuisine, simultaneously modest yet extraordinary.
Striking that balance seems to come easy at Castello della Verrucola, which is in itself a glorious form of artistic expression.