Silent & Forgotten

by Hal Trussell

With only the agenda of finding delicious food while traveling in Tuscany, I was completely surprised to discover profound evidence of the WWII liberation and its effect on the Italian psych, when, high on a mountaintop top surrounded by hillside farms, I stumbled upon a ruined church alone and forgotten.

I was staying at Villa Volpi, a small hotel that had once been a farmer’s villa. Re-fashioned into a charming boutique hotel situated high among lovely steep hills and green valleys, just 30 minutes outside of the medieval city of Lucca. 

That first morning, captivated by early October’s morning light that shown through my window, my eyes drifted across the soft shadows and yellow-green leaves of a nearby grove of budding olive trees, and out over the valley and beyond.   Sprinkled among the tilled fields and tree groves were the homes of local farmers and more recent elegant second homes of prosperous city-dwellers.

Here and there I could discern a lovely swimming pool, when I noticed what appeared to be ruins atop the highest hill.  “What might this be?”, I wondered, and made a mental note to visit this ancient site.

But later, when I inquired in the hotel, everyone shook their head and said there were no ruins around this area.  Their answer dumbfounded me.  I could clearly see through my camera’s telescopic lens a rectangular ruin or foundation on the top of that hill.

I realized later that even though the word ruins meant to me anything that had fallen down over time, to them the word conjured up only those structures two and three thousand years old from Etruscan and Roman times.

My curiosity piqued nonetheless, off I drove in my tiny rented 7-speed Fiat.  Zigging, zagging, twisting and winding, I quickly came to realize where Italians get their lust for speed and driving.  There were no straight portions longer than 50 meters on this winding road. Hairpin curves over tiny stone bridges were the exciting norm.  Yet when asked, everyone along the way replied with the same shake of their head: there were no ruins there. 

Almost everyone, that is.  Thirty minutes later, I reached the end of a long narrow little lane, high on a hillside — the same hill, I thought those ruins were on.  But the only road that continued beyond was a two-rut wagon road through someone’s farm.  I stopped the car and got out.   Perhaps I could find someone to direct me.

Where this road ended, three homes were clustered together.  Looking across the fence to the first hours, I was trying to figure out if anyone was at home, when a woman wearing an apron appeared at the gate to the second one, calling to me in a very stern voice, saying I could not park my car there.

I couldn’t imagine why in the world she thought I was going to park there, but quickly assured her I was only stopping for directions, and how might I get higher up to the “ruins”.  “Would that farmer’s road by any chance lead there?”

“Oh, that’s where you want to go,” she responded, now more friendly.  “Yes, that’s exactly the way to the church.” 

“Church?,” I thought to myself.  The way she said the word was so matter of fact. I guess everyone had been right.  There were no ruins.  Well, I thought, I’ve come this far, let’s see what it is.  And with that I was into the dirt ruts. 

Soon I was out of the pasture and following the ruts up a steep hillside. Ever more steep, I passed through a pine forest, and through a changed climate, away from the sun, wet and muddy.  Finally I crested the hill and found myself on a little parking area at the top. 

And there it was: an old stone church in ruin, overtaken by grass, vines, and silence. The view of the valley and the other mountains was gorgeous.

I couldn’t get over the oddity of the little church, it’s commanding view of the countryside, and the fact that it wasn’t really that old, maybe only a hundred and fifty years at the most.  Why then was it in such ruin now, in a country so seeped in religion?

As I explored around and inside the walls,  I was aware of a distinct feeling; or maybe better put, a lack of it. A lack of warmth.  It was strange.  In certain parts of the architecture there was a strong sense of warmth and happiness. I am referring in particular to the main door to the church, and to the wall behind the alter, where the bell would have hung.  But elsewhere, throughout the church and the ground surrounding it, there was a cold, barren feeling.

I walked around and took several pictures.  On the outer wall, near the door, was a plaque.  I could only translate some of the words.  It commemorated the 40th anniversary of the liberation, it was dated 23 September 1984.  A faded wreath had fallen from its stand. 

Who built this church?  Surely it would have been built to serve the nearby village, or at least the nearby farm families.  And why now is it suddenly deserted, left in ruin?  And why —once upon a time — was it memorialized for September 23, 1944?

I took a deep breath.  The air was clean and fresh.  The October day had warmed.  The sun shown brightly and the valley beckoned me.  I walked over to the fallen wreath and placed it upright next to the plaque.

It was all very puzzling.  Then that odd feeling crept over me again.  In the silence, midst the fallen walls and roof, I sensed a feeling of finality.  Something had happened here.  There was some story, there was some reason.  I walked back to my car, took a final look, and followed the ruts back down the mountain.

The rest of my morning was delightfully Italian. In the tiny village of Aquilea I walked among the local homes, saw fresh laundry drying in the sun, had an espresso, watched old men sit in the sun, playing a game of cards.

Later, driving along a narrow mountain road, I parked off the side and walked among young olive trees on a terraced hillside. I took pictures of wildflowers , discovered a very large portabella mushroom,and wondered if it might end up on someone’s dinner table that evening.

My meal had been so magical the night before at the hotel restaurant, I decided to indulge again tonight.  During the lovely dinner, my mind still burning with curiosity, I inquired of the restaurant staff about the ruins.  Their response was the same as everyone’s.  They even asked each other, then slowly shook their heads  — until a young man who was one of the new assistant waiters heard the question.  “Oh, yes, I know the story”, he blurted.  Everyone turned to him in surprise, “You do?”

He was a student at the local university, studying biology, and he had been told the story in history class.

After D-Day, as the Allies fought their way toward Germany from the shores of Normandy, there soon followed another Allied invasion from the south.  This was the invasion of Sicily that would lead eventually to the invasion of Naples, and eventually the liberation of Italy.

The church was located in a perfect position for artillery and machine gun nests to prevent the American troops from moving father north along the valley.  The American commanders, facing high casualties, ordered the church bombed.

Mystery solved. Yet I was left wondering why those who lived around the ruins had chosen to forget the story.  Pain from the past, I assumed. 

A few years later, I learned a much deeper, more painful memory associated with this battle for freedom.   It happened on the 12th of August, 1944, just five weeks earlier than the dedication plaque on the Aquilea church.  German troops had marched into the village of Sant’Anna di Stazzema, just 18 miles away.  They were a battalion of the SS Panzer Division. Their mission was to set an example and to stamp out support for the Italian resistance movement.  The village priest was shot at point blank, the machine guns were then turned on the 100 villagers gathered nearby.  In all, 560 men, women, and children were rounded up and executed by machine-gun, grenades, and bayonet. 

The bodies were thrown onto a bonfire fueled by the church pews, all the livestock were slaughtered, and the entire village was set on fire.  The soldiers then sat down and ate lunch.

One can imagine how quickly this tale of horror spread across the farmlands and villages.  So it is understandable that, a mere five weeks later, when the church at Aquilea was bombed by aircraft, there was no sense of remorse among the local inhabitants.

A pain so deep sometimes needs to be forgotten.