Ischia’s creative graves

Art, construction and redemption

Post and pictures by our guestblogger Mario Trani

The island of Ischia, pearl of the Neapolitan Gulf, holds a secret.
It’s a sort of exaltation, a deviant behavior caused by the very limited living space or maybe by an instinctive desire of marking the territory: it’s the plague of frauca — the unauthorized construction, in infringement of all local building regulations.

The Ischian resident, in order to be (or to think of himself as) respected, has to build, construct, erect.
It might be just a screed, a dry stone wall, a second floor or a small living quarter for his son who’s about to get married. All rigorously unauthorized, these supplements to the house are built in disregard of those strict and suffocating rules he feels are killing his creativity; and which often force him to demolish what he so patiently constructed.

No family is without an expert in this field, and often more than one member is mastro fraucatore or mezza cucchiara (nicknames for a master builder).
But the free zone, the real no man’s land where all the islanders’ construction dreams come true is the graveyard.

To walk through the avenues of the Ischia Municipal Cemetery means to discover surprising tombs the relatives of the deceased decorated with materials found around the island: lava stones from the volcanic Mount Epomeo, polished rocks from the many beaches, sea shells and scallops; stones from the Olmitello creek or pizzi bianchi of carsic origin.

conchiglie della mandra

tronco d'albero tagliato nella sua sede originale come verticale della croce

pietre levigate del bagnasciuga

pietre bianche dei pizzi bianchi

conchiglie e pietre levigate del bagnasciuga

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pietre levigate del torrente olmitello

Other tombs incorporate remainings and leftovers from unauthorized constructions, such as unused bricks or decorated floor tiles.

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No grave is similar to another, in this array of different materials and colors. But there is a specific niche of funeral art, reserved to those who worked as fishermen.
To honor the deceased who, during their lifetime, bravely defied the sea for the catch of the day, granting the survival and well-being of their family, a peculiar grave is built in the shape of a gozzo, the typical Ischian fishing boat.

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This is a touching way of saying a last goodbye, and looking at these hand-crafted graves one cannot help but appreciate the genuine creativity of these artisans. But the tombs seem to be the ultimate, ironic redemption of the heirs of Typhon: a payback for that building urge, that longing for cement and concrete which was constantly repressed during their lifetime.

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The island that wasn’t there

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Umberto Eco writes in his Book of Legendary Lands (2013):

There have been lands that were dreamed, described, searched for, registered on maps, and which then disappeared from maps and now everybody knows they never existed. And yet these lands had for the development of civilization the same utopic function of the reign of Prester John, to find which Europeans explored both Asia and Africa, of course finding other things.

And then there are imaginary lands which crossed the threshold of fantasy and stepped right into our world, as improbable as it seems, bursting into shared reality – even if for a brief time.

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In 1968, Rose Island stood some 7 miles from the coast of Rimini, bordering international waters.
It wasn’t a proper island, but rather a man-made platform, which had taken ten years of work and sacrifices to build. Why did it took so long to erect it? Because Rose Island had something different from other marine platforms: it was constructed bypassing or ignoring laws and permits, in a constant fight against bureaucracy. It wasn’t just an extreme case of unauthorized development, it was a true libertarian project. Rose Island declared itself to be an independent Republic.

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This micronation‘s President was Giorgio Rosa, born in 1925, who had been an engineer since 1950. In 1958 he began to shape his dream, his life’s accomplishment. Among economic and technical difficulties, in the following ten years he succeded to plant nine pylons out in the sea, on which he then had the platform’s structure built: 4,300 squared feet of reinforced concrete, suspended at 26 feet above the water level. Rosa and his accomplices even found a freshwater aquifer under the sea bed, which proved useful for the island’s supplies and to create a protected space for docking (which they called “Green Harbor”).

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The idea Giorgio Rosa had was somewhat anarchic and pacific at the same time: “my initial project was to build something that could be free from any constraint, and wouldn’t require a lot of money. On dry land, bureaucracy had become suffocating. […] We wanted to open a bar and a restaurant. Just eat, drink and watch the ships from Trieste passing close by, sometimes even too close. My fondest memory is that of the first night, on the island under construction. Along came a storm, and it looked like it would tear everything apart. But in the morning the sun was shining, everything seemed beautiful and possible. Then trouble began“, he recalls.

Yes, because bureaucracy started fighting back, in a war to chase the rebels who attempted to live over the waves, without paying the government its due.
As the second floor of the platform was finished, Rose Island gained notoriey, while ships and motorboats called there, driven by curiosity. Worried by the growing traffic, port authorities, Italian finance police and government were already on guard.

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That’s how, in the (desperate) attempt to free himself from Italy and its prohibitions once and for all, Rosa unilaterally declared his Island independent on May 1, 1968. Even if he was quite distant from hippies and countercultures, his move was in tune with the fighting spirit of the times: a couple of days later, to the cries of “Banning is banned“, the rebellious civil unrest of May 1968 would begin to take place in Paris.
The newly-born “nation” adopted esperanto as the official language. It began printing its own stamps, and was about to coin its own currency.

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But suddenly things took a bad turn. Points of order were put forward in Parliament both by right and left wing, for once united against the transgressors; Secret Services were sure that the platform actually concealed a base for soviet submarines; others thought the whole thing was an obscure Albanian maneuver.
Once the media event broke out, authorities responded ruthlessly.

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On February 11, 1969, all the concrete parts were demolished, the steel poles and joints were cut, and 165 lb of explosive were detonated on each pylon. On the impact, Rose Island tilted, bended over… but refused to collapse.

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Then, two days later, artificers applied 264 lb of charge to each pillar – a total of more than a ton of explosive. Yet once again, the Island resisted, tilting forward a bit more. Like a dream stubbornly refusing to surrender to the blows of a tangible reality.
It was not to the military that Rose Island eventually decided to give up, but to a violent storm, sinking into the Adriatic Sea on February 26, 1969.

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Today, after 40 years of oblivion, the Insulo de la Rozoj – the esperanto name of this micronation – is the object of renewed attention, through documentaries, novels, theatre plays, shows and museum exhibits, Facebook pages and blogs devoted to it. There are those who doubt the idealistic nature of the project, suspecting that the entire operation was nothing more than an attempt to build a tax haven (Rosa never denied the commercial and turistic purpose of the Island); those who, like the curators of the Museum of Vancouver, find connections with Thomas More‘s writings; and even those who think that Rosa’s feat prefigured the collapse of faith in representative democracy through a mix of political activism, architecture and technology.

Giorgio Rosa is now 90-years-old, and seems amused by his adventure’s revival. After losing his war (“the only one Italy was ever able to win“, he sarcastically stresses out) and having paid for the cost of demolition, he went on with his engineering career. “Don’t even bother to ask me, I’ll tell you: no more islands!

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But if the interest for his experiment is well alive and kicking, it means that we still find that dream of freedom, escape and independence seducing. We could ascribe its modern appeal to our impatience towards the ever more suffocating bureaucracy, to the alluring idea of escaping the economic crisis, to our disillusionment towards institutions, to fear of authorities interfering with our privacy; but maybe the truth is that Rose Island was the realization of one of humanity’s most ancient dreams, Utopia. Which is both a “perfect place” (eu-topia), away from the misery and malfunctions of society, and “non-place” (ou-topia), unreal.

And it’s always pleasant to cherish an impossible, unattainable idea – even though, or provided that, it remains a fantasy.

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Giorgio Rosa’s quotes are taken from here and here. (Thanks Daniele!)

Schlitzie

Fra tutti i freaks, pochi sono stati amati come Schlitzie. Chi l’ha conosciuto lo descrive come un raggio di sole, un folletto del buonumore, un individuo meraviglioso capace di intenerire anche il cuore più granitico, e a cui era impossibile non affezionarsi.

Le sue origini sono ancora oggi ammantate di mistero. Secondo alcuni il suo vero nome sarebbe stato Simon Metz, ma non si sa con precisione quando sia nato (la data più probabile è il 10 settembre 1901), né chi fossero i suoi genitori; molto probabilmente lo vendettero a qualche sideshow già in tenera età. Schlitzie – questo il suo nome d’arte – era affetto da microcefalia, un’alterazione genetica che comporta una circonferenza cranica di molto inferiore al normale. Il cervello, così costretto, non può svilupparsi pienamente e possono insorgere diversi impedimenti cognitivi e psicomotori, a seconda della gravità. Nel mondo dello spettacolo circense, in cui fin dall’Ottocento venivano esibiti, gli individui microcefali venivano usualmente chiamati pinheads (“teste a spillo”). Nei sideshow, i pinhead erano presentati come “anelli evolutivi mancanti” (fra la scimmia e l’uomo), “meraviglie azteche”, “esseri da un altro pianeta” o anche in spettacoli chiamati più semplicemente “Che cos’è?”.

Schlitzie questi fantasiosi appellativi se li passò tutti, durante la sua sfolgorante carriera con i più grandi circhi del mondo. Spesso presentato come una donna in virtù delle ampie tuniche che gli facevano indossare (in realtà per mascherare la sua incontinenza), all’apertura del sipario lasciava tutti a bocca aperta per il suo aspetto; eppure bastavano pochi minuti perché il pubblico mettesse da parte ogni timore e si sciogliesse in fragorosi applausi.
Le folle lo adoravano, ma mai quanto i suoi colleghi. Schlitzie aveva, dicevano, il cervello di un bambino di tre o quattro anni: parlava a monosillabi, non poteva badare a se stesso, eppure forse era più intelligente di quanto si pensasse, vista la sua capacità di imitare le persone e la sua incredibile velocità di reazione. Mentre si aggirava fra le carrozze e le tende dei circhi sembrava uno spiritello sempre allegro, gioioso, che non vedeva l’ora di ballare davanti a qualcuno pur di attirare l’attenzione su di sé.

Negli anni ’30 i maggiori circhi se lo contendevano: Schlitzie si esibì per i famosi Ringling Bros., nonché per il Barnum & Bailey Circus, poi vennero il Clyde Beatty Circus, il Tom Mix Circus, i West Coast Shows… e la lista sarebbe ancora molto lunga. Anche il cinema lo corteggiò: apparve nel classico Freaks (1932) di Tod Browning, e in Island Of Lost Souls (1933) di E.C. Kenton con Charles Laughton e Bela Lugosi.
Dal 1936 Schlitzie fu legalmente affidato a George Surtees, un allevatore di scimpanzé per il Circo Tom Mix; Surtees divenne il padre amorevole e premuroso che Schlitzie non aveva mai avuto, prendendosi cura di lui fino alla sua morte. E fuproprio con la dipartita di questo “angelo custode”, avvenuta negli anni ’60, che cominciarono i veri problemi per Schlitzie: la figlia di Surtees, infatti, non se la sentì di tenerlo in casa e decise di affidarlo a una clinica.

Così Schlitzie scomparve.
Per molto tempo non si seppe più nulla del pinhead più celebre del mondo, finché un giorno il mangiatore di spade Bill Unks, che alla fine della stagione teatrale lavorava come infermiere, lo riconobbe in un reparto della clinica in cui prestava servizio. Schlitzie era tristissimo, depresso e soprattutto ammalato di solitudine. Gli mancavano i suoi amici, gli mancavano gli spettacoli, gli applausi, gli mancava il sideshow.
Bill Unks riuscì a convincere le autorità che farlo ritornare a esibirsi sarebbe stato essenziale per la sua salute.

Schlitzie rientrò con grande entusiasmo nel sideshow, e praticamente vi rimase per il resto della sua vita.
La grande famiglia dei carnies, cioè la gente del circo e degli spettacoli itineranti, lo riempì di attenzioni e affetto e infine comperò per lui un appartamento a Los Angeles dove visse i suoi ultimi anni: molti lo ricordano mentre dava da mangiare ai piccioni, si meravigliava per qualsiasi piccolo aspetto della vita, da un fiore a un minuscolo insetto, o danzava per chiunque si fermasse a parlargli.
Morì nel 1971 all’età di 71 anni, ma ancora eterno bambino; oggi la sua figura, fra le icone più riconoscibili della storia del circo, continua ad ispirare artisti di tutto il mondo.