November 19, 2018
Culture
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Italy
In This Citadel of Christian Power

I’d never felt that a building was evil before.

By Thomas McMahon

Under the lip of the hill, where it sits in semi-darkness as the sun blazes over the town, Villa Aldobrandini sinks into the decline behind it, confounding any attempt to hold it in focus and to clearly catch its shape.

It stares down from behind its shrouded windows over the town of Frascati, on the outskirts of Rome, and out onto the plain on which can be seen the distant dome of St Peter’s.

The dirty plaster of its facade, studded with the scabs of shutters, evokes decay. And they are too far apart, those shutters. There is too much space hidden from the light-giving windows: entire rooms could be sequestered in the dark gaps out of the sun, on the dark side of the hill. The triangular cap and shoulders of the main building hint at the shape of a star. The grounds are locked behind intimidating fences that warn of undesirable consequences for those entering.

I have never felt that a building was evil before, but this one was possessed with a hypnotizing malodor that left me feeling giddy, excited and inebriated — like the little girls and boys paraded in
their carnival costumes of princesses, animals and witches, waving their magic wands and scattering confetti under the town’s bare-armed trees.

The town itself seems marked by the same wrongness. The plants are too green and too angular. The angles of the stones used in the ancient steps and walls around the park are too sharp. The graffiti on them is of the sort you find in every town, but punctuated with unmistakably occult and satanic signs, for the town in the region of Castelli Romani is a well-spring of the occult and of satanic worship.

In the 1990s the police were called by panicking residents to the nearby ruins of the ancient city of Tusculum, destroyed by jealous Rome a thousand years ago after centuries of neighborly rivalry. A
black mass was being celebrated, and investigators discovered red wax, the habit of a nun, upturned crosses and other satanic paraphernalia, along with sheets of cellophane intended for the participants to lie on during the ceremony.

A Papal Nephew’s Display of Power

The villa got its name in the sixteenth century, when Pietro Cardinal Aldobrandini, the nephew of Pope Clement VIII, purchased and rebuilt the structures erected by Monsignor Alessandro Rufini. It was a display of power by one of the most influential families in Christian, Renaissance Rome, but it was made only a few miles from the grove of Nemi, well-known from the famous opening to J.G. Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” as the site where the priest of Isis would stay awake day and night to defend himself against anyone who would try to take his crown by murdering him.

It was Frazer’s scandalous implication that Christianity was a usurper of the pagan tradition of the sacrificed King. Perhaps modern-day occultists have been inspired by the classical heritage of
the area to a similar conclusion. Or perhaps it is a desperate rebellion against the dominating power of the church expressed by the massive villas and the vast city of St Peter, lying like an ocean
under the scattered little towns in the hills, like a reminder of the judgment of time that will eventually swallow us all.

The website of the local church bears witness to the reality of this peculiar pasttime. Numerous pages address questions like “Why is magic forbidden?” and “What is the difference between white and black magic?” Very little, seems to be the answer.

Santana, Santana

When I walked the road out of town that passes through the scrub covering the long steep incline leading into the hills, I came across a stone archway marked with the name of its builder, and the Roman
numerals of its 18th century date of construction. Behind the dirty iron gates that were locked with crude, brightly-sheathed padlocks was a tree that had been so weighted down with age and so twisted from its natural course that it had to be held up in two places by specially-laid piles of bricks. On the stone buttress of the gate was scrawled Satana, Satana, Satana.

Kids messing about, perhaps. But when we descended into the little restaurant down a side-street off the square, my companion wanted to leave. Red glass reflected the red and browns of the walls, decorated with crude smears like those made by fingers, with what appeared to be the figures of native American Indians, holding indecipherable instruments, passing through vales of trees. I was too hungry to be put off by the incongruous decor. As we sipped at our first glass of wine, I pointed with a little leap of laughter at something on the shelf opposite us. It was a dried gourd in the shape of a penis. The laughter was brief. It wasn’t a joke, we realized: it was a fertility token.

As we hurry down the hill past a little chapel with a death’s head painted on its wall, the sun retreats behind the hills. The flora of the countryside is dry and dead: wiry trees and discarded shrouds of muddy leaves. We descend a slick hill of cobblestones and pass the police headquarters in the old stables of the villa. As we pass through a narrow alley marked with black circles crossed with scrubbed-out marks that may have once been arrows, a wet-jowled giant of a dog hangs his face over the wall at us.

When we reach the bottom of the hill and looked back up, we notice the statue on top of the crooked, modern spire of the parish church. It is a robed Madonna, which we see from behind, holding aloft in its arms a child in a gesture of donation to the plain below, to the city of Rome, and to all mankind. But such is the oddity of Frascati, that one’s vivid impression is that the figure is poised to dash the child to the earth.

Journalist Thomas McMahon is based in London.

One comment about “In This Citadel of Christian Power”

  1. Frascati: looking down on Rome from the ancient hills « Swerve of Shore says:

    [...] You can find a piece I wrote about my visit to Frascati in Big World Magazine. Share this:DiggRedditEmailStumbleUponPrintFacebookLinkedInTwitterMoreTumblrLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Search this blog [...]

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