Last came Domenico. Before him was Giuseppe, and before Domenico, and once again, Giuseppe. Generations of men, all with the same names. Giuseppe’s father name? Domenico. So on, for decades. In the centuries past, noble families used to call their heirs with the names of their grandfathers. In this case, Arcano was their last name. Arcano means arcane, and once I found out some of the history of this family, I thought arcane was the right word to describe them. They were the Barons Arcano and had many properties, a palace, and the respect of the town they ruled. Gerace, Calabria, Italy.
Don Domenico was the last Baron of the Arcanos and my great great grandfather. His picture stands on the top of the book shelf in my living room, the copy of a half-length sepia picture of a man and the hint of a smile. He has high cheeks and deep, black eyes. That picture was probably taken before his son’s death and the loss of his properties because he still looks pretty young in spite of his big black beard. His son, Giuseppe, the only son he had, died at the age of 23 of meningitis, but not before squandering all the family’s money in gambling and prostitutes. Giuseppe had 7 sisters. One of them was Maria, mother of Silvana, mother of Vincenzo e Vittorio, my uncle and my father. Virginia, Vittorio, Silvana, Maria, Domenico, Giuseppe, Domenico, Giuseppe, Domenico…My family line could have gone on for centuries.
I am a third-generation Roman, from my father’s side. My father was born in Rome, and Silvana, his mother, as well. Great-grand mother Maria Arcano married Vincenzo Foti and then moved to Rome because of my great-grand father’s job. Vincenzo was a bourgeois: definitely not a blue blood and since the title got lost with her uncle Giuseppe and his passion for promiscuous women, there was no reason to stay in Calabria, wondering about how life could have been if Giuseppe didn’t live in such a dissolute way.
Nowadays, Calabria, the toe of Italy, is a precious land in the hands of the ‘Ndrangheta, the Mafia. A land of sea and mountains, of delicious food and centuries of traditions, lost in the government crisis and the slowness of economy. There are not many opportunities for young people in Calabria, most of them move North or to Rome, the capital. Because of Calabria’s crystal clear sea and its rock beaches though, the region comes back to life in the summer. Summer is also the worst time of the year to go because in the South, between June and September, the temperature hits 104 every day.
Of course we decided to go to Calabria on August 5th.
Uncle Vincenzo and Aunt Fausta go to Calabria every summer for two weeks. I have been wanting to go for several years, asking my father to take me there to discover my roots.
“But there is nothing left there of ours.” He used to complain.
In the summer of 2010, I gave up on my father and decided to go with my sexagenarian uncle and aunt. My three female cousins, their daughters, have been to Calabria at least six times each, and cannot stand to hear any more of the Arcano story. They didn’t want to go again and a full week by myself with my uncle and aunt didn’t sound like much fun, but I needed to know where I was from, and the story of my ancestors.
The day before leaving for Calabria, my father showed up with a new car, claiming that it needed a trial stage.
“What can be better than a road trip?”
But I know that my father’s decision to go with me was the result of many discussions with my mom, who didn’t want me to feel like an orphan adopted by her benevolent uncle and aunt.
700 kilometers and 9 hours later, I’m looking at a crystal sea, my feet painfully sunken in the gritty, my parents at my side. We are looking at the Ionio, the Calabrian sea. My mother looks at me, I look at my father, the man who is back to the land of mountains and seas, the land of his ancestors.
I know it took him a great effort to go back to Calabria. Going back to Gerace made him really sad, knowing of past glories, past riches, past titles, past everything. Not that he would have cared. I believe he would have just loved to go back where his parents met for the first time, and where his ancestors lived for 400 years, and be able to call that place home. My father is a Vitalone. From head to toe, to his Mediterranean, Roman nose, that he ungraciously passed down to me. It’s the Vitalone’s nose. We are part of the same family, and I, I belong to them.
Gerace is a medieval town on top of rock hill, 500 meters above the sea. 10 kilometers under Gerace, at the bottom of the hill, there is Locri, in the past called Gerace Marina, Marine Gerace. Gerace is where the magic happens. Drive a few miles up that mountain, and you are back to the 18th century. Among Italians, Calabrians have a bad reputation. Their dialect is hard to understand and they have a propensity for spicy food that they insist on offering to their guests. My mom believes that Calabrians are so rude to other people because most of them live in isolation of the mountains in the inland of the region, but what I see around me is just a bunch of laid back Italians enjoying summer.
It’s late afternoon when we meet my uncle and aunt, and the sun has not yet stopped heating the narrow streets of the Calabrian town of 12,000 people. Locri is where most of the Gerace people have moved. My parents are staying in a nice farmhouse a little outside town while I am at cousin Salvatore’s house with my uncle and aunt, in Locri. Salvatore is my cousin. No, he is not my cousin, he is my father’s cousin, or maybe his 2nd cousin. Salvatore and Ester, his sister, are the only one left from the Arcano side of the family in Gerace. Anyway, we are related, somehow. I still struggle to identify who’s who in my father’s family. Too many cousins, too many uncles and aunts, and they all use nicknames like Peppina and Memè, and so many of them have passed away, and I’ve never even known their real names.
In the South of Italy, if you are not complaining about the politics and you are not sleeping, you are eating. And that’s what we start doing, as soon as we change from our sweaty clothes.
A stranger, that I later identify as the owner of the restaurant, has shown up to our table.
“Honorauble Vitalone, what a pleasure to have you here again!”
I forgot that my uncle Vincenzo is a judge. Another interesting aspects of Calabrian people is that, when they find each other somewhere outside Calabria, they built a strong camaraderie and invite each other over for dinner all the time. That man surely remembers my uncle is one of the most powerful men of the roman judiciary because immediately food that we have not even requested is set on our table and my aunt is greeted with bows and hand-kissing. Uncle Vincenzo keeps talking about the niceness of the people from the area, but to me that behavior sounds a lot like ingratiating. As soon as that man realizes that we are related to uncle Vincenzo, we receive the same treatment. Uncle Vincenzo is in his element, while my father is still rigid on his chair. We have dragged him there and he is not sure how to act. He almost looks like the little brother who has not been invited to play with his big brother and his friends. My father swears that he and his brother have never fought. They would occasionally beat each other up when they were kids, but nothing serious. They lost their father when my father was 8 and my uncle was 10. I guess they found that fatherly presence in each other. While I’m lost in those thoughts, I try something from my plate. I forget everything else.
Olives, eggplants dishes, prosciutto, cod in every sauce and with every side dish you can think of, sword fish, homemade pasta and stuffed eggplants. I also recognize ‘Nduja, the extremely spicy spreadable pork sausage that I see at my uncle and aunt’s house every Christmas but that I particularly avoid every time. When I say spicy, I mean spicy. A jalapeno would cry in front of a piece of ‘Nduja. My uncle is reciting the qualities of the Nduja he is eating, so happy to finally be able to eat that spicy stuff in his hometown. My father eats a tiny bite of it spread on a piece of bread of the size of his hand: he can consider himself done with traditions for that evening. Red and white wine abound on the table, and the sea food that has just arrived is already seeing its ending in our stomachs. We have probably been sitting for two hours in which the owner of the restaurant has showed up at least fifteen times, making sure we didn’t need anything. In the South, you don’t stop eating when you are done eating: you stop eating where you start fearing the day after because you know you’ll have a stomachache. I think I have tried everything on the table beside the ‘Nduja and a green salad with capers in it. I hate capers. My mom adds them here and there in the dishes she makes, but I keep telling her that capers do not look nor taste good. Capers are useless.
“So are we going to Gerace tomorrow?” I ask my uncle.
“Cousin Salvatore will come with us and will explain us everything. We’re also meeting a friend of mine who used to live here, specialized with the histories of the noble families of Gerace.” He explains.
Of course we are going to meet one of his friends. He seems to have friends everywhere he goes. He is a judge, as I said. He is shorter and fatter than my father. I don’t have any bad memories of him. He is the good uncle that makes everybody laugh and that gets his Sunday shirt dirty with sauce every time. He is also a powerful man, and I don’t understand how the sweet and loving man I know as uncle Vincenzo can also be Honorauble Vitalone, the important judge that everybody in Locri and Gerace fear or admire.
My father is laying back on his chair. He enjoyed the meal, but he probably won’t admit it. My mom is already thinking of how she can reproduce those dishes at home, while my aunt, who claims to be on a diet on every given day, is still eating. She is who keeps the family traditions going. She has embraced the Calabrian tradition with enthusiasm. Too much enthusiasm, my mom claims. Sometimes my aunt narrates the family history like the Arcano blood runs in her veins. There has always been rivalry between my mom and my aunt. Mostly is because of my grandmother, Silvana, and the high standards she wanted for the wives of the ones who could have been barons. More than 25 years have passed since Silvana’s death, and things have gotten better. But what people say about Mothers-in-law? It’s all true. I am just enjoying my life. I am stuffed as a pig, the sound of the waves of the sea make me want to fall asleep, I’m with my family and tomorrow I will finally see Gerace.
My mom is from Puglia, the heel of Italy. She comes from a humble family, and the Arcano story, with their palace and lands has never belonged to her. She has married a Vitalone though, and she has married my father’s traditions with him. My mom appreciates history, and is thrilled to find out more about Don Domenico. My father despises a story that could have been ours today, but got lost over a century ago. He cannot go over the fact that he cannot walk into the palace, and call it home. This is one of those cases where if you cannot have something, you just start hating it, to protect yourself. My father was protecting himself from the pain of the loss of that history, that land, that holy ground. His love for me was that big, that he was ready to reopen the wound closed 20 years ago.
Once Giuseppe Arcano squandered the family money and died, Don Domenico Arcano, his wife and their daughters, sold the palace in Gerace and moved to Locri, to a smaller palace. It was mid-1800. The daughters grew up and got married and they all went different ways. Great-grand mother Maria and Great-grandfather Vincenzo, of Calabrian origins as well, wanted to make sure their 7 kids grew up knowing about Calabria and its traditions, so they used to spend the summers in Locri. When the Locri’s family palace was inhabited by my family, it must have been a nice place where to live. Three floors, several balconies and a wood front gate that must have been fancy, but is now time worn. A few steps from the palace, on the other side of the street stands a yellow hotel called “Nuova Messina.” According to my uncle, at the corner of the street, right in front of the hotel, my grandparents met for the first time. Grandmother Silvana must have been my age at that point. I am so thrilled I cannot explain it. My grandmother died few years after my parents got married and my grandfather died when my father was 8- years- old. I never met them but I wish I had, especially now that I can imagine them greeting each other few years before World War II.
It’s just the corner of a street, but to me it means the world. I glance at my father, whose last time in Locri was in the 1980’s. The Vitalone’s men don’t show too much emotion. The last time I saw him crying was when he scratched his back on some rocks while he was swimming in Sardegna. That was 10 years ago. No, he didn’t cry at that corner street, but I knew from his expression that he wanted to. I think I wanted to go back to that corner to discover not only my roots, but to discover my father. My father is like an old oak, impenetrable. His love is endless, but there is that vulnerable part that I would have love to see in him. I saw a glance on it, but after few instants, it was already gone.
The way to Gerace is steep. 10 kilometers going up between rocks, and the packed car with the five of us is having a hard time making its way through the dust. I can see the profile of Gerace from Locri. The people of the area call it the Unconquerable City because before any enemy could ever reach the walls of the city, the Gerace inhabitants would have already picked up their swords and cannons and sent them away. I get dizziness looking down from the overlook of the city; you can see that the overhang on which the city is built is a vertical wall of rocks. The area was already inhabited when the South of Italy was Magna Graecia, 25 centuries ago. I later found out that the city became a Byzantine fortification in the 10th century and resisted to the Arabs’ attack every single time, for years, and got the name of the Unconquerable.
It’s August 6th and we arrive at the walls of Gerace around 3:00 pm. The city is on a higher level than Locri so we get a break from the heat. In Locri the steam seems to come out from the street itself but in Gerace, a hot wind blows from the mountains but the tempearture is tolerable. The Calabrians must have missed the memo that suggest eating light meals when it is really hot outside, because for lunch cousin Ester serves us meatballs and fried eggplants. So while we are all trying to digest, we are also looking for the gates to the city.
The city was built on different layers; the Arcano’s palace is on the higher level, facing the main square and the cathedral. We finally find the main entrance, Porta delle Bombarde also called Porta del Sole, the Sun Gate, because it opens to east, and to the rising sun. We pass the gate and I remain speechless. Thousands of white flowers with purple-colored, long stamens are hanging out from the top of the gate. At a second glace, I realize that they are everywhere in the town. Hanging from the balconies, in the public gardens, outside cafes and restaurant. Not all flowers need water. Of course, there are cactus and such, but these are actual flowers, looking so delicate and fresh that for a second I imagined a patient gardener going to water all these flowers overnight. But these flowers need no gardener, in fact, they prefer a warm temperature and very little rain.
Caper flowers. Capers do not look good and do not taste good. Little, tiny balls used by audacious cooks that don’t want to remember the rest of us, poor human being and our hatred for capers. But these flowers! How can such ugly buds make flowers this beautiful? So I decided to give capers another chance. If the flowers were so pretty, the buds must have had a purpose in life as well. The people of Gerace, the Calabrians, are like capers. From outside, they are ugly, purposeless. I cannot tell you one good reason why capers exist. But as I found out that summer, capers actually bloom. And their flowers! When the caper flowers bloom, you know the wait was worth.
The main square of the city is smaller than I thought. Walking up from Porta del Sole, the church of Saint Francis in front of house with its colossal wooden gate. The portal, a triple archway, is decorated with Arabic, geometric friezes. The church was built in the XIII century, but still stands tall and proud in the main square and it’s the home of many of the weddings celebrated in town. On my left there is a postal office and a restaurant with tables out on the street and right next to the church’s right side there is a narrow alley that goes up the hill.
“Look Virginia, that is the palace Arcano.” my aunt says. With my eyes I follow her hand to the right side of the square.
In their house, there is a painting that my uncle and aunt commissioned many years ago in their house that shows the front gate of Palace Arcano. In the painting, the gate is open. You cannot see what’s inside the gate, but how can that even matter, since what used to be is no longer more. This is how I always pictured the palace: with the gate open.
The gate is closed.
“Once Don Domenico sold the palace, the city divided it into smaller apartments and sold it to private owners.” Salvatore says. He surprises me because I’m busy staring at that gate. I didn’t feel any sadness knowing that my family lived there for 400 years but lost everything, except respect. That family, the Arcano, must have gone through so many things, yet in the picture on our bookshelf, I could have swear Don Domenico was smiling.
Once again, I glance at my father. He is staring at the gate next to me, the eyes semi-close from the glare of the sun. He is standing firm on his feet. 20 years later, he is back to his origins, and I am too.
I get closer to the gate, and I realize there are some decorations in the stone above the portal that time has not yet completely cancelled. Uncle Vincenzo’ friend is explaining the meaning of those decorations: “The gate represents the life cycle” he says. I look closer and I see the carved face of a baby. The stone is worn but the baby’s face is still pretty easy to see. Above the kid’s face there is the face of a teen and on the very top of the portal, the adult with his mouth open, in the act of talking. Going on the right, death is represented by a skull and on the very bottom right, agaves leaves symbolize the eternity of life.
The palace is square shaped, with three floors and a long wrought iron balcony in front of the two main windows, above the portal. It’s not the Disney castle. This palace is from the 16th century and therefore is simpler, with no towers or other features of the medieval castle. The Italian flag waves from the third floor’s window. I don’t know who lives there now, and uncle Vincenzo’s friend is not able to tell us as well.
My sandal breaks. There is nothing to do. My right sandal is completely torn apart. I didn’t see that coming, but that’s what you get for buying a pair of ten euro-sandals. I guess our cultures can’t build things to last. Because there is nothing to do to fix them, I throw both of them away and I start walking barefoot. It’s not clean, that’s for sure, but the whole town’s streets are paved. While I walk, I start thinking about me, walking barefoot in the town of my ancestors. I guess there is something unique about it. At the end of the day my feet will be dirty, but at least I will feel the sensation of being home with my bare skin.
The man keeps explaining. “In 1753 Palace Arcano became headquarter of the Arcadia’s section of Gerace. The Academy of Arcadia was a literary academy founded in Rome in 1690 by some of the most famous writers, poets and literary men under the patronage of Queen Christina of Sweden, who abdicated the Swedish crown and moved to Italy. The Arcadians wanted to preserve the Italian poetry and bring it back to its origins with the inspiration of the pastoral literature of Ancient Greek.”
I remembered the few handwritten books on the book shelf in my living room. Written with ink and quill feathers and twice as big as a normal book, those books must have been at least 200 years old. The author was Domenico Arcano. Was it the same one of the picture, the father of the crazy son or it was his grandfather? Because the men of the family were all called Domenico or Giuseppe, it’s hard for me to understand in which years they lived.
The members of the Academy of the Arcadia used to have nicknames. Domenico Arcano’s nickname was Morgete Arisbico.
The man goes on: “Some of the inhabitants of Gerace started wondering if some of the Arcadians of the area were also associated with the freemasonry. History doesn’t say much about it, but the tradition reports that Baron Don Domenico could have been one of them.”
I don’t know much about freemasonry, but the idea that the last patriarch of my family could have been one makes me smile. The more I know about this Baron Arcano, the more I feel honored to be one of his descendants. Later that day, we go back to Locri, to cousin Salvatore’s house. Walking into the living room, I almost have a heart attack. Three huge people are staring at me. They are not real: they are paintings. Three painting take the whole left wall of the room. A woman with a black dress, on a three quarter view. It’s a half- length portrait, so beside her shoulders I can see her hair, austerely tight in a chignon. A young man is portrayed in the painting in the middle. He seems sick, with skinny shoulders and bags under his eyes. I know the man in the third painting. Ten times bigger than in my living room, Don Domenico Arcano, my great-great grandfather, member of the Arcadia and last Baron of the Arcanos is looking at me next to his son and his wife. We stare at each other. He doesn’t stop smiling, so I smile him back. I am finally home.