L'Argilla Sotto i Piedi.
Clay under feet. (And between toes). The site of Lago di Castel San Vincenzo (Lake of Castle Saint Vincent) is an enchanting one: the Apennines hem in ones periphery and truly make one feel cloistered, secluded, transported to a different time--or at least a place where time slows its pace somewhat. That's exactly how I felt as I floated on my back in the middle of the lake, staring up at the passing cloud formations, watching a storm billow over the not-so-distant-seeming fence of mountains. I've never been great at floating, so it was more like letting my body relax until only my eyes and nose remained above the surface of the water, my trunk and legs more vertical than horizontal.
[Caption: The shore of Lago di Castel San Vincenzo, with a juniper bush on the left.]
The first thing one notices upon driving up to the lake is the unfathomably bright turquoise of the water. I have never in my life witnessed, nor swam in, such vibrant water. Why is the water so turquoise?...I wondered. For comparison, the ponds and lakes I have been accustomed to swimming in, having grown up in New England, have always been dark, mostly brown water. The water is so dark mostly from the tannins leached out from the dead leaves and forest detritus (called 'duff' I believe) that has sunk to the bottom over the countless seasons of centuries and millennia. My best friend, painter Kevin Gilmore always likens it to swimming in a giant cup of tea. Which makes sense. Hmm, but turquoise water? Lago di Castel San Vincenzo is so marvelously radiant and turquoise because its lake bottom is entirely clay: dazzlingly white clay. The same clay used to make ceramics (like vessels, tiles, sculptures, etc.) for millennia. The same clay that almost refused to let me leave the refreshing turquoise as I squished and squelched and not-too-gracefully stumbled back to shore to dry off in il sole Molisano (the Molisan sun). [Interesting aside regarding that sole Molisano: besides making the waters of the Lago appear turquoise as the blue from the sky reflected off the water's surface, seemingly backlit from the white clay underneath, for the first time in my life the sun agreed with me. That is, despite spending more time outside in direct sunlight, hiking the mountain paths, sitting reading/writing/hanging my laundry out to dry on the terracotta-tiled porch (no dryers in Italy), than I had the previous month back in the US, and despite being a very sunburn-prone person, I slowly began to tan. Which brought out feelings of confusion, disbelief, and finally mild amusement and satisfaction, as I had not packed any sunscreen lotion. It made me feel more connected to this land, this water, these mountains, this sun, to the enchanting, forgotten, and distant Molise. I thought of my ancestors, and how perhaps on an imaginarily-genetic level my body and the sun must have said something like, "oh, hello there, old friend." But I digress.]
Not far from the shores of the Lago sits the Abbey of San Vincenzo al Volturno, whose ruins date back to the 8th century CE. It was known for active industry, including the manufacturing of ceramics and glass (for stained glass windows). Buried somewhere close by (perhaps directly underneath) are the archaeological remains of a Samnite village and cemetery. One can imagine the significance of the Lago to the ancient Samnites: a place that provided drinking water and fish, perhaps sustaining the surrounding communities; a place that provided vibrant clay for making everything from everyday cooking vessels, funerary urns, religious votive figurines, and building materials like bricks and roof tiles.
[Caption: The ruins and monastery of the Abbazia di San Vincenzo al Volturno.]
As a child I loved clay. It was perhaps my favorite medium. I distinctly remember during Winter breaks and Summer vacations being dropped off at clay camp, and coming home at the end of each week with glazed, fired vessels or sculptures, usually weird, imaginary creatures or dinosaurs. Most of these are still around, sitting in a curio cabinet at my parents' house. I continued to pursue sculpture, and studied ceramics in college for an entire year in Florence, Italy. [As another tangential aside: upon my departure from Italy in 2011 at the end of my studies in Florence, I had wanted to bring my final ceramics project home, from a gallery installation consisting of 500 stained earthenware onions. Preparing to transport this precious end-of-semester work in my checked luggage, I carefully packed up these ceramic onions inside of every pair of socks in my possession (except the ones on my feet). In my haste I had underestimated the weight allowance of checked luggage for the airline. So, when I got to the luggage kiosk, I quickly found out mine was vastly overweight. I was completely broke and down to the bottommost dregs of my enthusiasm for air travel, so instead of just paying an extra fee for overweight baggage, I made my way as inconspicuously as I could to the nearest trash receptacle and proceeded to deposit the onion-containing socks. When I returned home, I realized I only had one pair of socks. And they weren't even clean. However, the week prior I had had enough foresight to ship a few of the ceramic onions home with some of my other artwork. But I digress, again.]
[Caption: The sun shines through the clouds of a passing storm in the mountains around Lago di Castel San Vincenzo.]
And so, as the many connections to be made within this oeuvre revolving around the Ancient Samnites winds and weaves its way around, one of several hypotheses of mine is rooted in this very same clay (that of the Lago di Castel San Vincenzo, that is). Discovered at the theatre-temple site of Pietrabbondante was a clay roof tile presumably from one of the many buildings at the site. On one side of this tile is an inscription, made in the wet clay before being fired. There are two inscriptions: one in Latin and the other in Oscan. From their words, we see that the Latin-speaker's name is AMICA and the Oscan-speaker's name is DETFRI (Oscan: 𐌠𐌃𐌚𐍄Ǝ𐌓). In between both are four sandal prints, two made by each of the inscribers. Not only their names, but their feet have been frozen in time. I thought of their feet as I swam in the Lago, and as I felt the smooth, fine, white clay squishing between my toes.
[Caption: Clay tile found at Pietrabbondante, 67cm wide x 94cm long x 5cm thick, c. 100 BCE. Image credits: Imagines Italicae and Katherine McDonald.]