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In Roman times, there stood a fortress on the promontory of Poggio del Molino, in the province of Livorno, originally built as a defence against pirates before being transformed into a farm and later into a luxurious seaside villa. It is a marvelous places that Archeostorie® and the cultural association Past in Progress are planning to transform into a PArCo, a ‘Park of Community Archaeology’ where anyone will be able to spend their free time alongside archaeologists at work. We have been speaking about the project in the News section, but here we would like to tell the place’s history, in our own way.
Vaglio, M.G. 2018. Medusa, the goddess of Poggio del Molino. Archeostorie. Journal of Public Archaeology. 2: pp. 129-132.
“Master, we must go now…”
“Just a moment, Manius, just a moment…”
The old Manius raised the collar of his cloak, holding back a gesture of irritation. The humidity rising from the sea as a thin mist in the midst of the bluish dawn penetrated into his very bones, making them creak. But, being a slave, his destiny was to obey the orders of his master, even when these were incomprehensible and lacked all common sense, as was now the case.
For that matter, his master had never possessed much common sense, and even less business acumen. He had known him since he was born, and his master had always been thus: not a bad man, not at all, but useless, and essentially unsuited to his times and circumstances.
Mild, well-mannered, and absent minded, he had always been lost in his fantasies and dreams, poring over tomes of mythology and history rather than account-books. And the consequences were what they were. Caecina Largus, the last descendant of a line that reached all the way back to the ancient Etruscans and that, barely a century earlier, dominated the sea all the way to the island of Elba from its villa on the promontory, now stood there, in the midst of his forebears’ triclinium presently reduced to ruins. He wore a cloak of coarse wool and shoddy shoes barely worthy of a beggar and was now about to set off for Rome to implore a distant senator cousin of his for some minor position that would allow him to survive.
“The road is long, Domine…”
“You’re right,” Largus sighed, his voice seemed to emerge from a distant, undefined place. “But I cannot separate myself from her, bid her farewell… I’ve always considered her the spirit of this house and I can’t bear the thought of not seeing her again. Don’t you also find her beautiful?”
Manius felt a shiver pass down his spine, but this time it had little to do with the fog. His glance moved along the flaking floor, passed over the infinite cracks and spots of cement, used to patch up the pieces of mosaic that time had degraded and that the owners — Largus, most recently — had not been able to restore. Finally, his glance reached her as she stood out in the cold and dark shadow of the hall: the Medusa with blue eyes and snakes for hair. The old man barely refrained from crossing himself to invoke the protection of Christ. He knew his master would not have appreciated the gesture.
Not that he had anything against Christians: Largus was tolerant of and even curious about all sorts of religions, perhaps because — as his servant thought with a hint of contempt — he secretly considered them all bizarre. Even before him, in the domus of the Caecinas, slaves and servants could always practice any religion without running the risk of being punished. Even when, before Constantine some thirty years earlier, adhesion to the Christian faith was considered a crime. But the tolerant and peaceable Decimus Caecina Largus would not have been able to forgive such a flagrant affront to his Medusa. Manius remembered him, as a child, crouched on the floor, following with his finger the outline of the mosaic’s tessellation, as if those signs were roads that could lead him to a greater form of knowledge. He had never understood the fascination that that monster exerted on the family of his masters. Perhaps, he told himself, it was because of their Etruscan origins, because the ancient Tyrrhenians believed in a mysterious religion, in which half-human and half-bestial demons were the lords of nature and the cosmos, of life and death. But to him that figure had always resembled a hellish manifestation, a breath of the devil that corrupted with its miasma the air of that house.
“You hate it, I know,” whispered Largus all of a sudden, with a voice resigned to defeat.
“No, I understand. You believe in your god, and at times I envy your fate… You know, I think that’s exactly why the gods of Olympus weren’t able to withstand the arrival of your Christ. They were so pale, so distant, so enclosed in their marble temples, and so far from life. They were evanescent, somewhat like myself. Not she, however. She is not at all detached or distant. She is a divinity, of course, but one of flesh and blood: she is a goddess dirty with life.
Do you know how she became a goddess, according to legend? Because at first she was a mortal like us. But then one day, Poseidon, who lusted after her because of her beauty, found her praying alone in the temple of Athena and, with no regard for the sacredness of the place, raped her. Instead of helping the poor girl out, what do you think Athena did? She took offence and transformed Medusa into a monster with serpents for hair!”
Largus shook his head with a sigh: “You understand now why you can’t trust the Olympians, why we’ve stopped believing in them? Because that’s how they are: fickle, unjust… But not Medusa, no! She has suffered and knows injustice and abjection, both human and divine. That’s why she is the ideal guardian of a household: because only one who knows evil, Manius, can recognise and defeat it!”
“She’s always protected us, you know? Initially, this wasn’t a seaside villa for vacationing. It was a farm where my forebears produced garum for the seasoning of foods. The Caecinas mixed the innards of fermented fish in their basins… Even the ancestors of the noble senator whom we’ll visit in Rome did so, mind you! Then, a century ago, when they wanted to affirm themselves as great lords living an aristocratic life — and mostly when producing garum in Italy no longer made sense because the Spanish version was much cheaper — they decided to transform the farm into a seaside villa. And who can blame them? Where else could you find a hill like this, overlooking the sea? The panorama that extends all the way to Corsica, the gulf to the south, the coastal lake… And so they transformed the giant fish-basins into luxurious baths, full of marble statues. And yet, perhaps it was merely my imagination, but I swear that ever since I was little, after I had heard this story, I’ve always sensed a smell of rotting fish in the baths, as if it had remained as a ghastly breath, a vestige of the past.”
Manius shook his head: “Master, phantasms have nothing to do with it. It’s that since the times of your grandfather we’ve never had the money to clean the piping…”
Largus burst out laughing. “Of course, you’re right, how foolish of me! You know, it’s when this place became a villa that my forebears wished to have a mosaic of Medusa here in the triclinium. It has always been with us, a testament to the long-begone times when we were rich, but also to our ruin. Do you see these cracks? They are the signs of an earthquake that happened almost a century ago. Half of the house collapsed, all of a sudden, and we were never able to restore it to its former splendour. That’s when the decline started. Little by little, year after year, we hardly even noticed. Our revenue decreased, as did the family’s vivacity. Before, we were shrewd and unscrupulous merchants, and before that, who knows, maybe even fearsome Etruscan pirates. Then gradually we became like me: peaceable, settled, inept. I know that you consider me a fool, Manius, a useless human being who was unable to revive the destiny of his family and household. Perhaps you’re right. I’m incapable of such a thing; I have neither the temperament nor the ingenuity for it. Power and riches belong to the audacious, and I am not one of them. I have nothing left, not even the esteem of an old slave who comes with me out of obligation rather than affection.
All I have left is her, my Medusa. She has accompanied our entire family history and has remained intact throughout the centuries, giving in neither to wars, nor revolts, nor even earthquakes. She has been the best guardian we could have chosen. In her blue eyes, you discern a threatening look whereas I, on the contrary, have always seen a protective force. As if she, who had suffered so much, wished to protects us from suffering. That’s why my heart weeps to leave her here forever. I can’t.”
“But you can’t bring a mosaic along, Master!” exclaimed Manius in exasperation.
Largus smiled: “I know I may be mad, but not to that extent. We will take a little piece along. A single tessel to protect us on your journey and keep perils at bay along the way and when we’ll be in Rome.”
He leant down and picked out with his nails a small glassy stone from the eyes of Medusa, raised it to make it glimmer in the sunlight, and then enclosed it in his palm, like a talisman.
“Alright, we can go. To Rome, forever.”
Old Manius shook his head, hurriedly crossing himself, furtively.
De Tommaso, G. (ed) 1998. La villa romana di Poggio del Molino (Piombino – LI). Lo scavo e I Materiali. Rassegna di Archeologia 15, pp. 119-348.
Megale, C. 2015. Il forte tardo repubblicano di Poggio del Molino: controllo e difesa di un territorio. In Di Cola, V. & Pitzalis, F. (eds), Materiali per Populonia 11, pp. 245-257. Pisa: Edizioni Ets.
Megale, C. & Genovesi, S. 2012. Economy and production in Late Republican Settlement of Poggio del Molino, Populonia. In Bombardieri, L. et al. (eds), Identity and Connectivity: Proceedings of the 16th Symposium on Mediterranean Archaeology, Florence, Italy, 1–3 March 2012. BAR International Series 2581 (II), pp. 901-908. Oxford: Bar Publishing
Megale, C. & Genovesi, S. 2016. The Roman Settlement of Poggio del Molino: the Late Republican Fort and the Early Imperial Farm of Poggio del Molino. Preliminary data. FOLD&R, n. 347. Available at: http://www.fastionline.org/docs/FOLDER-it-2016-347.pdf.