Living in the Italian Hilltop Town of Calcata
The Village of Artists
Article and photos by David Farley
|The medieval hilltop town of Calcata, Italy.
“Calcata,” yelled the bus driver as we came around the bend. He hardly needed to make the announcement. Besides being the only one on the oversized blue bus, this village of 100 people, rising 450 feet above a verdant valley, has a way of announcing itself. It sits like a cupcake atop a mound of volcanic tufo stone; the rickety-looking houses are made from the same material from which they sit, giving the appearance that the structures had simply sprouted from the rock during some ancient magical age we are now far removed from.
As I hopped off the bus, slung my backpack over my shoulder, and began sauntering up to the village, I reminded myself that I was here to stay a while—about a year—and did not know a soul here.
If Calcata’s commanding position and stomach-tingling silhouette—accented by its church spire and rook-like castle tower—were its only attraction, it would alone be enough to warrant a visit, which is accessible by bus from outer Rome’s Saxa Rubra bus station (or by car). But pass through the narrow stone gate (the only entrance and exit to this fully pedestrianized fortress town), ascend up the S-shaped passageway, and you’ll find yourself plopped in the middle of one of the most unusual spots in Italy.
That’s because Calcata is a village of artists, a paese di artisti. If it happens to be a weekend, the village’s most active time of the week, then you’re in for something special. Here you might find Costantino Morosin, a prolific sculptor, lounging on the church steps, his bow tie and wide-rimmed red hat drawing attention; he might be sitting next to his long-time friend, the pony-tailed painter Giancarlo Croce. Maybe red-haired sexagenarian writer and sculpture Athon Veggi, who lives in a cave with a dozen crows, will be chatting them up. There’ll be other locals mulling about the square, some sitting on the marble benches that line the periphery (which give the space a living room-like feel), many of whom prefer saris and other subcontinental-style clothes.
The origins of Calcata’s era as a village-wide artists’ colony can be traced back to 1906 when an earthquake in Messina, located just across the strait from the “toe” of the Italian peninsula, approximately 450 miles south of Calcata, killed hundreds of thousands of people and nearly flattened the once-bustling southern Italian metropolis. Afterwards, the Italian government began going around declaring certain towns and villages potential earthquake hazards. Calcata got the label in 1935, its residents ordered to abandon the village as soon as new town was established nearby. As the law dictated, the old medieval village would then be destroyed, completely wiped from history.
|La Grotta dei Germogli restaurant inside the old town of Calcata.
The new town, Calcata Nuova, wasn’t actually completed until the late 1960s. And as the residents of Calcata slowly migrated to their new home a half mile away, something interesting happened. Hippies and artists heard about this nearly abandoned medieval hill town near Rome and began gravitating there. The locals were all too happy to sell their former soon-to-be-destroyed houses in the medieval village at bargain-basement prices. The hippies considered the village theirs. They put on plays in the square, they opened art galleries, cafes, and restaurants.
Eventually, the new Bohemian residents of Calcata lobbied to have the village’s death sentence rescinded, rightfully arguing the original claim in the 1930s was politically motivated. And so today, with the assurance that one of Italy’s best preserved medieval hill towns will be around for centuries to come, the residents of Calcata have settled in.
But Calcata was hardly a “normal” Italian village before that. In 1527, a German soldier turned up in the village and—because he’d just helped sack Rome with a huge army (and simply because he was a “barbarian”—he was imprisoned in a cave-cum-cell in the village. He didn’t tell the authorities in Calcata he was carrying booty that he’d swiped while helping to sack Rome. And when he was released—fearing further punishment—he stashed the small silver box under a pile of manure in the cave. The soldier was injured and died a short time later, but that silver box remained hidden in the cave until 1557 when a priest was digging around and found it. The contents turned out to be one of the most unusual holy relics in history: the Santissimo Prepuzio, the most holy foreskin, the prepuce of Jesus Christ (and the only piece of flesh Christ could have conceivably left on earth).
The relic remained in Calcata for centuries. It brought a smattering a pilgrims to the village, even after it was officially banned by Pope Leo XIII in 1900. (Fearing it would inspire “an irreverent curiosity,” the decree declared that anyone who speaks of or writes about the Holy Foreskin will face excommunication.) When the relic disappeared (under rather mysterious circumstances) in 1983, the village was no longer on the weird relics map. But thanks to the hippie inhabitants, it was still on the weird villages map.
Which is why it’s a popular day and weekend trip for Romans. They come to stroll the short, twisty alleyways and pop into the handful of art galleries that are sprinkled throughout this half-football-field-sized piece of rock. They come to stroll through the valley below the village. There’s no hotel in Calcata, but I Sensi della Terra rents out rooms and apartments scattered around the village. Marijke van der Maden, a Dutch puppet maker and owner of the café and art gallery Il Granarone, also rents out a large apartment, which is good for small groups. If you ask around, it’s not hard to find a vacant apartment for longer-term rentals.
I came to Calcata for a long period of time and it didn’t take long before I felt like a local. On the weekends, I’d frequent my favorite restaurant, La Grotta dei Germogli, an eccentric eatery fashioned out of a cave that’s run by a charming American named Pancho Garrison. His longtime friend and fellow Calcata resident, Paul Steffen, can be found here on weekends. Steffen, 87 years old, was a famous choreographer and dancer in Hollywood and Rome before moving to Calcata in the 1980s and enjoys talking about all the legendary 20th century figures he’s known in his intriguing life.
For something a bit more traditional to eat, Il Gato Nero and Tugurio are two popular Calcata restaurants serving up Roman and northern Lazio specialties like wild boar-topped polenta.
I would often sit on the square watching the day trippers, chatting with the resident artists, as the robust Italian sun would beat down on me, and wish I could never leave this exact spot. I wanted to be frozen there—perhaps have Costantino sculpt me in that place. But I too had to abandon Calcata. I left—now knowing the entire village—but physically leaving the same way I arrived: I got on the big blue bus and watched the bewitching silhouette of Calcata disappear from behind the hills.
For more information, check out this information on Calcata.
David Farley is the author of An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church's Strangest Relic in Italy's Oddest Town and co-editor of Travelers' Tales Prague and the Czech Republic: True Stories. His writing appears in The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic Adventure, Slate.com, and Afar.com, among other publications.