Graeme Wood

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The Italian Underground

 

Residents of Vidracco (pop. 500) knew the newcomers were different. Since 1977, they had been showing up one-by-one in the little Piedmontese valley, marching in from Turin like bugs following a trail of syrup. They kept to themselves. Their chitchat, when it came, zoomed right past the commonplace – nothing on the latest Juventus game, or the sorry state of farming in the valley. Instead, they spoke eagerly of “esoteric physics,” astral-plane travel, and Vidracco’s remarkable “synchronic energy lines,” supposedly unique on earth. And they rarely came out at night.

One day in 1992, Vidracco found out why. Backed by carabinieri and motivated by a tip, a magistrate showed up and demanded that the newcomers unlock a nondescript wooden door in the side of the mountain, next to their compound (called “Damanhur,” after the ancient Egyptian city). Inside, a cramped passage led to a section of wall decorated in pharaonic themes. The Damanhurians pointed a garage door opener at the flat stone surface, and clicked its button. Gears whirred, and a wall-section fell away.

 

Damanhur’s handful of citizens – dozens at first, but by now 330 — had been working in shifts, under cover of darkness, scratching at the earth with picks and shovels, and building shrines deep in the steep, forested mountain. Behind a series of false walls lay a revelation as mysterious as King Tut’s tomb, but grander — as ethereal as the Sistine Chapel, but weirder. In all, they had dug out over 8000 cubic meters, a space larger than Big Ben, excavated mostly by hand, with neither building permits nor technical expertise. They had decorated these “Temples of Humankind” with a rainbow of wall paintings, Tiffany stained glass, and mosaics. Endless halls snaked around the innards of the mountain, lit with candles and reeking of incense and paint.

 

The magistrate halted construction, and authorities pondered destroying the Temples, for fear that their amateur construction would collapse and kill someone. But in time the Temples earned recognition as a strange cultural patrimony. The Damanhurians, now a sprawling community of about 800 spiritualists in Vidracco and neighboring towns, have since opened them to the public.

 

It is, of course, only a small slice of the public that finds their blend of New Age mumbo-jumbo and artistic devotion appealing. To me it sounded  cultish, something like a cross between an arts-and-crafts camp, Jonestown, and a coalmine. Their revered spiritual leader is former insurance salesman Oberto Airaudi, they believe in forest-sprites, and they sell CDs of music played by chestnut trees, cyclamens, and rhododendrons. It didn’t help that when I emailed to request a viewing of the Temples, the Damanhurian who replied was named “Sunset-Butterfly Pineapple,” and the driver she sent to meet me in Turin a week later introduced himself as “Sparrow Elm-tree.”

 

What I found, though, seemed not cultish at all, but wholesome, friendly, and inspiring. This, in spite of my hardly fitting their target demographic: the photos I saw of the Temples looked gaudy to me, and the spirits I favor tend to be single-malt. Other visitors to Damanhur — the place receives fewer than a dozen each day — shared my skepticism. Five Dutchmen arrived and somewhat cagily told me they were there for “the experience.” Once we escaped earshot of Magpie Goldenrod, a Damanhurian at their welcome desk, one of them confided that he had doubts about the Damanhurians’ sanity. He flaunted his rationalist street-cred: a Harvard MBA and a c.v. that included a stint cutting throats for Shell Oil, before he entered Dutch Parliament.

 

Sunset-Butterfly arranged for two citizens of Damanhur to show me around. Like her and all other Damanhurians, they had given up their birth names and taken the names of animals (real and imaginary) and plants, to realign their relationships with nature. Ant Coriander, the 45-year-old mother of Porcupine, joined Damanhur 24 years ago, after abandoning an career as an electrician in Florence. She looked like Laura Dern, and she rose to become Damanhur’s “queen” for six years (an elected position), along with her husband, King Gorilla Eucalyptus. My other guide, Crowned-Pigeon Lotus, a stylish Venetian of 35, naturalized as a Damanhurian six years ago.

 

Damanhurians call themselves “citizens,” Crowned-Pigeon explained, and they think of their arrival in the community as a political landfall as well as a spiritual one. Damanhur has its own money – the “credito,” pegged to the Euro – and once even issued its own passports. Damanhurian citizenship requires a financial commitment to the community, as well as abandoning certain spiritually harmful vices (chiefly smoking).  Citizens live communally in one of a few dozen “families,” or group homes, spread around the valley. Airaudi, the leader — known as “Falcon” — started a political party, Con Te Per il Paese (“With You for the Country”), and advocates autonomy in the EU for groups such as Damanhur, including freedom from taxation. In the last decade, the party has won local elections.  The mayor of Vidracco, Bison Oak, is Con Te.

 

Wrapped in scarves, Ant and Crowned-Pigeon led me up a winding road, alongside which their fellow citizens had erected totems and little terra-cotta figurines, dancing in the brush like Cottingley fairies. The babbling of a little stream was interrupted now and then by dynamite blasts – miners, Ant said, tearing apart the mountainside for olivine, a deep-earth mineral with applications in electronics. She said this with a look of pain: The Damanhurians maintain a strong interest in planetary stewardship and preservation of life, and they had made as much of their operation self-sufficient as possible. In the valley, Damanhurian buildings are identifiable by their solar panels.

 

At the top of the road, Ant showed me a large mural, my first taste of strange, garish art that marked nearly every Damanhurian structure. It depicted two citizens in a field of enormous flowers, surrounded by sunshine and butterflies the size of pterodactyls. One man was waving, and the other was abseiling. Both grinned broadly. Ant explained the big flowers: “It’s a way to change our point of view,” she said, saying that the two men, Bear Lichen and Moose Beech-tree, had died in road accidents years ago. “It reminds us that humankind is not the center.” The massive plants, each the size of a large man, reminded me of the six-foot cucumbers in Woody Allen’s Sleeper.

 

After a day of orientation, Ant and Crowned-Pigeon handed me off to their colleagues, Platypus Sycamore and Owl Mandrake, to visit the Temples. We drove up a mountain road so narrow that when we met a farmer coming the opposite way on his tractor, we had to backtrack and pull aside to let him pass. At the surface, no hint of the Temples exists, except a chalet inhabited by a Damanhurian family. They opened a steel gate, monitored with cameras, and cleared me to enter.  Owl gave me plastic bags to put over my boots, to make sure I didn’t track in stones and score the floor mosaics.  We descended about 45 meters in an elevator constructed since the opening of the Temples, and then passed through a short hallway that smelled vaguely of must, despite a system of copper tubes along the wall to drain away water.

 

The first temple, the Hall of the Earth, was crypt-silent. The lights were on, and they exposed two round rooms, linked in the center like a figure-eight. Each is the size of a racquetball court, and the first has a pillar in the middle, with a naked man and woman carved into it. The paintings that cover the walls – colorful, with a huge variety of landscapes and people — made me feel as if I had stepped onto the cover of a Sixties fantasy novel, a Tolkien knock-off that had somehow gone out of control and acquired the cast of characters of a Russian novel. The natural world dominates each section of the painting, and it includes peculiar hybrids of plants and animals, such as trees whose trunks are half palm and half walnut, and which bear the leaves of oaks, figs, and olives.

 

“The paintings are a way to synthesize the varieties of life-forms on the planet,” Platypus said, pushing his rimless glasses back up his nose. He explained that the scenes depicted all the cycles of life on earth, and pointed to a scene of childbirth, and a boatman symbolizing death.

 

The plants in the paintings are not of this world, but the humans are. I looked beneath a tree: there, wearing a purple muu-muu, stood Magpie. Hobgoblin Appletree, who over minestrone the previous day had expressed admiration for Barack Obama, wore the armor of a Roman soldier. And the faces of countless other Damanhurians appeared when I looked closer — people I saw in the valley’s restaurants, shops, and farms. There was Ant, Sunset-Butterfly, and Falcon himself. To become a citizen meant not only to join the collective effort of building the Temples. It meant immortalization in the art itself, to be fixed in the firmament, like Greek gods in the stars.

 

The centerpiece of the Hall is a vast medieval battle-scene in which the Damanhurians fight against an army of gray, identical, naked musclemen. Among the Damanhurians, Ant led the first wave of attack. Some of her colleagues wore battle attire, others have on something more comfortable, such as a sundress; one wears what looks like a Wonder-Woman costume. What’s most surprising, and even a little unsettling, is that the Damanhurians all look happy – not just eager but absolutely thrilled by the fight. These are not the grimaces of men and women rushing into the breach, but of kids skipping to get fudge.

Platypus and Owl said the army of grayness represents an aspect of ourselves – all that limits us, that makes us dull and indistinguishable – and that Damanhurians believe humor, laughter, love, as well as art, will vanquish the grayness and make them distinctive. If the goal was to be distinguishable, the Damanhurians had clearly outdone themselves.

 

They took me through several other chambers, each with the same zest for color, and with the same bizarre, eerie images. The Hall of Metals included eight stained-glass pieces, showing the ages of man, and a Pompeiian floor mosaic of a nude figures in various states of distress; the Hall of the Spheres, Damanhur’s most sacred shrine, had nine glowing orbs – fixation points for meditators. In an adjoining hall I spotted a doctor’s table, with what looked like a large half-assembled antique X-ray machine on top, sprouting coiled copper wires and a little electric motor. They said it was for “therapy,” but no longer in use.

 

We emerged through the same hidden door the magistrate had used almost 15 years ago. The Egyptian theme, Owl said proudly, had been a hoax – a decoy temple to distract from the real ones underground. She pointed, on the way, to other Egyptian themes, in deeper reaches of the temples; these too were hints there was more.  A wall tilted down to reveal a stairway into another chamber, and so on. The other giveaway of a secret passage, she said mischievously, was paintings of children. Here and there I noted these moppets along the ceiling, peering down with knowing smiles, like Alice in Lewis Carroll’s photographs.

 

That evening, back on the oxygen side of the earth’s crust, Inti Cinchona, a graying Peruvian who arrived in 1982, told me about the early days of digging. “I won’t lie: it was dangerous,” he said. “We didn’t know how to use wooden beams to support the excavation, and I had to teach myself about dynamite.” I wondered how long I would last, with nothing but a truckload of TNT and a Dummy’s Guide to Demolitions, and reflected on how lucky they had been not to have had, by their account, a single death during construction. “We became close – closer than brothers, closer than sisters. It is like we shared some kind of secret, a profound complicity.”

 

Ant sighed fondly at the memories of her arrival at the age of 21, and the hard work of digging out the mountain – the blisters, the hardhats, the endless nights with buckets of stone. “It was dedicated to the conquest of ourselves,” she said. They worked in squads, each trying to lug out one more heavy bucket than the previous, for over a decade.  They spread the dirt and stone over the ground and made terraces out of it.  To this day, the Damanhurians refer figuratively to their devotional work — any community service performed for the glory of Damanhur — as terrazzatura, or terrace-making.

 

“When they showed us the secret,” Ant said, “they said they wanted to make something great, something for the world, something as great as ancient Egypt.”  The nearest city, Turin (about 40 minutes away), has an Egyptian connection. Known best to me as the holy site of a well-known Shroud, and the even holier site of the caper at the center of Michael Caine’s original Italian Job, it boasts a world-class Egyptology Museum, which may have inspired Falcon’s original interest in the occult.

 

On a Friday night, I went to a meeting with Falcon, hoping to discover what had motivated him. He holds chats with visitors every week or so, and this week the crowd consisted of me, the Dutch skeptics, and a few British spiritualists. The session started with a British woman’s urgent question about an apocalyptic event she expected in 2012, when we will all be “cut off from the center of the galaxy.” She asked Falcon what she could do to persuade him to send help – there was mention of dispatching vans – when the disaster struck.

 

He took her question seriously, but answered without details. He championed the cause of the self-governing zones, of ethnic regions, rather than homogenizing nation-states, and suggested that self-sufficiency and agrarian federalism might make our communities more robust if we faced disasters of any kind.

 

Falcon had a strange fear of extinction, and of catastrophe. Inti Cinchona told me that Falcon had predicted nuclear disaster just before Chernobyl, and that afterward, Damanhur redoubled its efforts to sustain itself independently, in the event that civilization outside the valley failed. He gave even odds for such an apocalypse in the next few years, and suggested we all be cautious. The images back in the temples – of the cycles of human life, of the Damanhurians immortalized on the walls – suddenly seemed more urgent, and more worrying. Perhaps they were not only a work of joyous creation, but also a vault – a record of the earth and its stewards, safeguarded underground to survive Armageddon when human life would not.

 

But Falcon had calmer and more optimistic counsel, too. He resisted the British woman’s invocations of the supernatural, and stressed the importance of living well, and in paying attention to dreams. “If someone can’t dream, he can’t do anything. He can’t work properly in business, or in a state, or even in a community,” he said. From others that would sound puffed with platitude, but Falcon’s dreams had been the genesis of the magnificent temple complex I had seen that day.  There was something awfully impressive about that, even if the man literally believed in fairies.

 

Then a youngster with a buzz-cut and a working-class British accent piped up from the group. “I would like to build a really big statue out of recycled materials,” he said, in the same matter-of-fact tone I would use to announce my intention to eat a hamburger, or clean out my garage. He wanted to know whether Falcon ever doubted his own sanity during the early days of the project, how he knew the urge to built the temples weren’t a crazy delusion.

 

“I knew,” Falcon responded instantly, “because I did it. I know many people with big ideas, and they will take those ideas to their graves.” Falcon told the statue-builder that he will know he is not delusional when he actually builds the statue. But he warned that he could not do anything great alone. “You have to help and serve others,” he advised, and the effort to build the statue “has to become a dream for them, too. It has to tell a story to be alive.”

 

Here I saw a glimpse of a man not only of dreams and goals, but also of genius for inspiration and leadership. Falcon had built a community of a thousand, had turned his own dream into theirs, and had demonstrated that the most preposterous ambitions were not only feasible but a joy to fulfill.

At the end of my visit, I stopped by “Damanhur Creates,” a co-op where Damanhurians hawk their art, and where their farms sell organic cheese and ham.  One wing of the building — a converted factory of Olivetti, the typewriter company — houses Falcon’s paintings, which look like the work of a psychedelically enhanced Jasper Johns.  He paints with fluorescent colors, and although most are abstract, some canvases have recognizable hand and human forms.  Spaceships are a common motif.

 

The curator bragged that his gallery is only one in Europe to make extensive use of strobe-lights.  But the art – a tiny fraction of the literally thousands of canvases Falcon has produced, and reportedly sold to Japanese collectors for a tidy sum – left me unmoved, in comparison with what I had seen underground.  They were the lesser hobby of a great man.  And as the gallery’s music, a synthesized remix of Italian grand opera, pumped into my ears, and the blinking lights stoked a migraine, I marveled at how a talent like Falcon could produce such undistinguished work on his own, when his leadership of a thousand others had built something so great — a monument for the centuries, wonderful, miraculous, improbable.

 

Originally appeared in the May/June 2008 issue of Culture+Travel.

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