Though I am perfectly happy to have been born in the mid-twentieth century, 1952 to be precise, when many of the conveniences we now take for granted, such as cars, air conditioning, central heating, modern plumbing, reliable medicine, health care, the telephone, movies and TV, were already in place, or on the way to being so, I have nonetheless, as far back as I can remember, been fascinated by things medieval. These would especially be knights, squires, monks, friars, pilgrims, horses, abbeys and castles. Above all castles! These mysterious and usually massive structures have always impressed me in descriptions and pictures of daily life in the Middle Ages.
“Life on a Medieval Barony,” by William Stearns Davis, was a book in my mother’s small library at home that I read sometime during grade school, and it completely captured my imagination. It was first published in 1923, and covers such topics as: how a castle wakes, baronial hospitality, religion, games and diversions, falconry and hunting, clothing and other aspects of medieval life in the thirteenth century. What could be more fascinating than all that? At least to an eleven year old boy in suburban Portland, Oregon, the book provided plenty of fodder for feeding my imagination and thinking of how wonderful it would be to have lived six hundred years earlier. Maybe that is why I majored in English literature (think, “The Canterbury Tales”) in college and eventually became a monk! The close connections between “things medieval” in both instances, my studies and lifetime commitment, are now more obvious to me.
Today I am more realistic and realize that things were not so idyllic in medieval Europe, but probably there is no harm in dreaming otherwise. This past summer two aspects of my juvenile fascination with castles and chivalry converged in a lovely way. While taking some time away from the blistering heat of Rome in August, I was in the area of Parma, Italy. Most famous, perhaps, for its cheese, called “Parmigiano” in Italian, or “parmesan,” in English, the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna is home to the city of Parma, where one of the oldest universities in the world, the University of Parma, still operates. A river runs through Parma, whose name is derived from the Etruscan word that describes a circular shield used in battle, called a “parma.” The population of Parma today is approximately two hundred thousand people.
In my life, adding to fascination with things medieval, a film appeared in 1985, the year I began studies in Florence, Italy, and eventually Rome, when I was thirty-two years old. The movie was called “Ladyhawke,” and if I recall correctly, I was able to “catch it” in town (Albuquerque) before leaving for studies in May of 1985. Ladyhawke’s action-packed portrayal on screen of European medieval life was a delight to me, and I’ve pondered over it during the subsequent years.
The plot of Ladyhawke follows a young thief, named Philippe Gaston, called “the Mouse” (played by Matthew Broderick), facing execution, who breaks out of a dungeon and eventually makes friends with a mysterious stranger, named Captain Etienne of Navarre (played by Rutger Hauer). It turns out that Navarre and his lady-love, named Isabeau d’Anjou (played by Michelle Pfeiffer), were cursed by the corrupt bishop of Aquila (played by John Wood), who in fact is also in love with Isabeau.
The curse that Navarre and Isabeau are under prevents them from ever meeting as man and woman, since by night Navarre is turned into a mammal, more specifically, a wolf, and by day, Isabeau is turned into a hawk. Not a happy situation in this completely fictitious fairy tale, but with an intriguing plot that finally finds its complicated matters resolved. There is even a slightly mad monk thrown into the mix, whose name is Imperius (played by Leo McKern), who is instrumental in the resolution of the dilemmas.
If you haven’t seen the film, it is certainly worth watching. As an aside, it went on to win an Academy Award for Best Sound Mixing and an Academy Award for Best Sound Editing. I think the awards were well-deserved. The movie is very funny in places as well as serious, and I very much like that the protagonist, young Philippe, speaks to God in a candid and familiar manner, as if to a dear friend. The film is beautifully photographed, and while it is certainly not the best movie ever made, with some critics panning it heartily and others praising it, the film is an enjoyable diversion, especially for one who loves things medieval.
One of the finest visuals of Ladyhawke is its use of a medieval Italian castle, still standing, at a place called “Torrechiara,” not far from the city of Parma. Several scenes from Ladyhawke were shot in and around the Castle of Torrechiara, called in Italian “Castello di Torrechiano.” It was a fifteenth century mansion of Pier Maria Rossi, completed in honor of his beloved, Bianca Pelligrini. Rossi rebuilt and expanded an existing fortress.
Torrechiara Castle is composed of four enormous rectangular towers connected by high walls and the building sits on a hillside overlooking a river and valley below, a stunning combination of nature and man-made structures. It’s a modern reminder of the beauty of the medieval world. Today tourists can visit Torrechiara Castle and see some of its many rooms, courtyards, gardens and chapels. Originally a fortification built for military purposes, the castle eventually became a private dwelling of the Rossi family. The surrounding valley and castle building form an unforgettable spot in another “bellissima” (very beautiful) place in Italy.
The friends who took me to Torrechiara they had no idea I was a fan of the movie Ladyhawke, and I had no idea that we would be seeing the castle (though only from the outside) during an outing we were making that August afternoon earlier this year. The main purpose of the excursion that day was to see the Benedictine monastery of Our Lady of the Snows at Torrechiara, a dependent priory of Saint John the Evangelist Abbey in the center of Parma. Our Lady of the Snows monastery is now occupied by a small group of Benedictine sisters, and from their monastery they can easily see Torrechiara Castle.
As autumn returns to Rome and thoughts of sitting in front of a fireplace, curled up with a book of medieval times, such as, “Life on a Medieval Barony,” or the film, “Ladyhawke,” easily come to mind. I shouldn’t be surprised, living as I now do in a building from the late Middle Ages in the middle of Rome.