I am always one to wholeheartedly support actively seeking moments of solitude. If you take a ride on the lumbering Italian regional train just past the Tuscan border, into Umbria, such tranquility can be found in a place that time forgot.
Paciano is a tiny medieval storybook of a town that is built around three parallel streets which are still enclosed in 14th century walls. There are three gates and six looming towers. The village, called one of the most beautiful in Italy in a “claim to fame, we made it into a magazine” moment, is home to less than 1,000 people. On a day with chilly temperatures and the threat of rain when the only coffee bar in the walls closed, it is a post-apocalyptic ghost town.
At the center of Paciano is the 11th century church of San Giuseppe, where you can spend some time alone with Benedetto Bonfigli’s Madonna della Misericordia. Painted after 1475, it shows the remaining vestiges of the Middle Ages. She’s gorgeously stoic and flanked by the usual posse of angles, saints, and would be sinners. One can’t help but wonder, shouldn’t this be in a museum?
Bonfligli did not enjoy the fame of Filippo Lippi or Fra Angelico, but that doesn’t seem to matter here. This is a proud displayed of a beloved saint standing in majesty over a depiction of 15th century Paciano that looks remarkably just like the one outside the door; it offers a striking glimpse at timelessness.
The coffee bar was tightly shuttered, but the door of this church was open, barely. After about 10 seconds spent considering the 10 rules I might have been breaking. I pushed it open far enough to slide inside the dark church. No one in Italy follows the rules anyway, I reassured myself. Rules might have been made for suckers but there was not a soul in sight. In my solitude, I took to photographing the remaining fragments of an original fresco capturing a colorful boarder, and a random foot. Visions of Instagram danced through my head as the door opened with determination and a short woman, who lived close enough to the church to arrive without a coat on, shuffled in. I was rather ashamed to be caught invading this church, so I awaited a reprimand. But, she moved quickly to a fuse box and began turning on lights while barking instructions to proceed beyond the ropes across the nave to enter what I now saw was clearly a museum space.
The nave was populated by display cases containing religious artifacts. Mostly chalices and votive figures. Nothing particularly old (by Italian standards) or unique but, no longer alone and under a watchful eye, I dutifully read the signs. As my benefactor stepped next to me I expected to get an earful about the significance of the local collection. Rather, she retorted that some idiot had installed these three glass cabinets which were too small for the space with doors that opened on the side which allowed access to clean the shelves rather than in the front which would make her life so much easier. She shook her head with a tremendous sigh. Nodding in agreement, I noted that the lights were nice, but obviously one big cabinet with front access would have been ideal. Now that she knew I was friend not foe, she motioned me over to a sign under a large wooden Madonna. “Read that”, she said with her arms folded across her chest. “Madonna with the black hair”, I said dutifully. This seemed okay, until I looked up to see a Madonna with brilliant red hair staring back at me. My guide cringed visibly. Obviously, the same idiot was in charge of making signs. We both stood there in abject horror muttering under our breaths that bishop would surely have a stroke. At the top of a nearby staircase, was a small dusty case full of pre-Roman pottery which caught my eye, but Gabriella was herding me with the skill of a sheep dog to a map on the wall so that she could give me a geography lesson. The map contained a “new” Paciano which I recognized as the walled village that I was standing in, but in the corner of the map was “old” Paciano. Apparently old Paciano was up the hill toward the next town of Panicale, where nothing but the old church remains. An earthquake caused great damage and they rebuilt here. New and old in Italy exist on a different timeline all together.
Passing from the map through a narrow but heavy doorway, two women found themselves standing in a sacristy. Well, that’s one way to stick it to the patriarchy. Gabriella paid the sacred space little scared mind, and immediately lamented that the vestments I was watching sparkle in a well-lit glass case were very heavy due to their silver thread. Half of the time she came in here to find they broke their hanger and landed on the floor of the case. That must be annoying, I retorted. Glancing around, as if to make sure we were alone, she made her way over to a big wardrobe and flung open the doors to reveal a rainbow of hanging vestments. Obviously hand sewn, and hundreds of years old, they were covered in striking embroidery. Flecks of pink and green flowers glowed with silver threads. It was reminiscent of the mantel of flowers in Botticelli’s Primavera. Mesmerized, I couldn’t help but reach out to touch the delicate fabric that my guide proudly displayed. It looked like the impossibly deep closet in “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” and I daydreamed for a moment about emerging in Narnia. Before I know what is going on, there was a flurry of draws opening under the wardrobe and cloth being presented. Is this what the emperor felt like when he was given all his new clothes? I was so drunk with delight, that I wondered where I could sign up to wear such things. I know I am out of my mind when the priesthood seems like a good idea. Her face darkened when she opened a chest high draw. Closing it quickly, I was curious. Are those just table clothes for the altar? I asked eagerly. Apparently not. She reluctantly pulled out a red polyester vestment out that looked like it could have come from Kohl’s; it was obviously new and poorly made. “THIS” she said with a hiss while holding the garment out like a dirty tent and directing her accusatory tone to it “is what the priest insists on wearing”. I couldn’t think of anything nice to say, so I just shook my head. He’s young, she lamented which I took to mean and he “doesn’t know any better”. He looks like a pipistrello in this thing. A bat. The priest looks like a bat in his favorite outfit. I couldn’t help but burst out laughing, while promising her that the next guy is sure to love the beautiful ones.
Leaving Bruce Wayne’s cave, I thanked her with earnest enthusiasm. It never seems enough for the epic kindness so often shown by Italian strangers. She asked if I could please sign the book. I had never given her my name. “Cristina”, I said with a hand extended. “Gabriella”, she said as she firmly took my hand. On a no longer blank page that I hope will stay in this church for the next 1000 years, I wrote Christine Contrada from New York by way of Florence. Putting down the cheap ball point pen that was cold to the touch, it wasn’t lost to me that her namesake was the angel Gabriel who appeared mysteriously in the bible with some pretty serious announcements. Such as, Mary, yes you’re a virgin, but you’re pregnant with the son of a god. Turning from the book I paused waiting for Gabriella’s announcement, but she simply smiled silently and with an approving nod disappeared out the front door of the church. I left the door just slightly ajar for the next soul who may come in here seeking a solitude and instead find the hilarious angel of Paciano.