“Zio, passa le fave per favore” I said to my uncle without receiving a reply. I looked over at him and to my surprise, three white butterflies fluttered by our table outside at the ‘La Fontana del Borgo’ restaurant, nestled into the castle of Valsinni. “È Isabella” Uncle Mario muttered with wide eyes as the mysterious insects disappeared into the winding roads of the borgo. “When you see three white butterflies”, he explained before grabbing a handful of toasted fava beans, it’s the spirit of Isabella Morra.
It took an extra portion of lagane pasta with ceci (chickpeas) to convince him to tell me the story of Isabella, but he eventually agreed.
“Allora” he began, as all Italian stories begin, “Isabella Morra is the poetessa of Valsinni. She lived in this castle in the 1500s”, he gestured above us with his fork. “She grew up here with her loving father, a poet who taught her his ways. But when he had to leave for French court, Isabella was confined in the castle walls by her cruel brothers. You see, it was uncommon for women in medieval times to speak their minds through poetry as she did. Back then, there was no dam (diga di Senise) and the river Sinni (previously called Siri) was deep enough to sail through. It gave Valsinni its name and often comes up in her poems.”
Here once again, O hell-like wasted valley,
O Alpine river, shattered heaps of stone,
spirits stripped bare of all goodness or pity,
you will hear the voice of my endless pain.
I, your daughter Isabella, often look out
hoping for a wooden ship to appear,
Father, that will bring me back news of you.
Zio took a swig of local Aglianico wine before continuing, “Since she couldn’t leave the castle, the only way to educate herself and get close to the incredible cultural capital of Naples was through a private tutor. He brought her books from Naples and letters from nearby poets. One of these poets was a Spanish man, Don Diego. Of course the Spanish were very hated by Italians in that periodo, and as Isabella sent letters back and forth to him, her evil brothers became suspicious.” I took a sip of my Aglianico this time – the story was getting good. “As they continued to write each other, the situation became dangerous. Isabella’s brothers assumed they were having an affair and caught her tutor on his way into her chambers. They found letters from Don Diego in his bag and killed him immediately. Then they continued up to Isabella, took her outside and stabbed her with a letter opener. After that, her body was never found, so that’s why we look for the three butterflies that represent the spirit of a young 26 year old girl who suffered a tragic death.”
Turbid Siri, heedless of my pain,
now that I sense the end is drawing near,
please tell my father all that’s happened here,
if destiny should bring him back again.
Explain how I, in dying, could abate
misfortune and a miserable fate
by my rare example: his unlucky daughter
consigns her sullen name to your dark waters.
Moods a bit low, we began on our secondo of Stinco di Maiale cooked with mirto (myrtle) leaves, which are known to help in the digestion of animal fat and are found in the forest surrounding Valsinni. “Lo vedi ”, said my Aunt Modesta, the restaurant chef and queen of the borgo as I like to call her, “that’s why we continue to cook medieval piatti. To think that Isabella ate the same fave from this valley and the maiali that lived on this land – it connects us to her and to our history. Every August during L’estate di Isabella we celebrate her and watch theater performances telling the story of her tragic life. Every night that month we eat with the serenades of the menestrelli echoing through the vicoli of the town, singing songs of how life was here, hundreds of years ago.” As Modesta got up to get some of her homemade cheese from the refrigerator she said, “Vai sopra to the forest near the teatro. That’s la valle delle donne where, if you listen closely, you can still hear the sounds of medieval lavandaie singing softly as they wash their clothes in the fountain.”
Every small or forgotten small town or ‘borgo’ in Italy has its own story that is often still being told, silently, through a medium that everyone understands: food. So, I encourage you to listen when you taste. Speak to the local people however you can, whether it be with words or hand gestures, and write down what you hear. It’s the only way to conserve the culture of our ancestors before it’s lost forever. You may be surprised what you learn.
Valsinni is a small town of about 1,000 people in the southern Italian region of Basilicata. La Fontana del Borgo is its main restaurant nestled into the castle of Isabella Morra. Every August the town celebrates ‘The Summer of Isabella Morra’ all month long. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.