As I stand on the terrace, I reflect on our day. A day that connected me with Paolo. If not for Paolo, the trip might have ended before it began.
One of our Italian friends, a property attorney in Lecce, recommended Paolo as a guide during my stay. There was an instant liking and trust as Paolo and I corresponded across the miles. The only problem was Paolo had already booked his vacation to the States. He would be leaving a couple of days after I arrived in Otranto. He was astoundingly generous to give me a day and a half before he left on his long-awaited vacation. It would have been infinitely better if I could have had an expert on hand my entire stay, but I was lucky to snag time with Paolo.
Paolo has a degree in art history. He’s been in the tourist business since 2000, forming his own company in 2006. During the summer he works in tourism, but during the rest of the year he manages a traveling theatre company. As a personal favor to our mutual friend, Paolo will be spending time with me instead of tackling all the last-minute things he needs to do before he departs for the States.
While I was making arrangements with Paolo, I was simultaneously scouting the area for a place to rent. Eventually the perfect one surfaced with only one large obstacle: the owner didn’t speak English. Our correspondence was awkward and unsettling with huge lapses in time.
Once Paolo said he would work with me, I asked if he’d speak to the apartment owner for me. Things moved rapidly once Paolo made contact. Paolo was told that the owner’s wife would
meet us at Aragonese castle, which is close to the apartment. We only had to text when we arrived.
Ray and I departed for Italy, spending three weeks with our friends Angelica and Stefano at Agriturismo Faena in Fratta Todina. After leaving Umbria, we spent another week slowly driving down the east coast to Puglia and the across to Matera to meet Paolo in Matera. From there we traveled to Otranto with Ray and I following Paolo. We’d arrived in Otranto with plenty of time to check into the apartment and spend the afternoon touring the village. As it turned out, we spent most of the day trying to check into the apartment.
The confusion was intense, and without Paolo’s assistance I fear I would have been out on the street. Paolo somehow managed to understand the owner’s wife, who spoke haltingly in a guttural dialect while jiggling a screaming baby on her hip.
We formed a disjointed circle in front of the castello. Paolo translated for us as she spoke,
“The apartment was rented unexpectedly before your arrival. The cleaning is only now taking place.”
With considerable effort, Paolo persuaded the young woman to give us a set of keys. “We’ll be back at four o’clock,” he informed her. “Please have the apartment ready.”
She nodded, shifting the still-screaming infant to her other hip while a steady stream of words flowed out of her mouth.
“Don’t let this upset you,” Paolo said to us in a gentle voice, “she doesn’t mean to be unkind. She says you can leave your luggage in the apartment. Then she wants to show us how
the elevator works before we leave. After that, we’ll have a nice lunch with cool drinks. Then I’ll show you Otranto.”
Although we are hot and tired and had hoped to rest before starting our exploration, we don’t want to squander the small amount of time we have with Paolo. The woman indicates we’re to follow her. The elevator is at the other end of the courtyard. As she speaks, Paolo explains to us that the only way to reach the apartment from the front entrance is to take the miniature glass-enclosed elevator. A private elevator housed inside a courtyard in Otranto, Italy, is both unusual and daunting.
I had expected the front door to the apartment to be right off the courtyard, but it’s on an upper level. Looking up, pass the elevator, I see a staircase. It meanders in a direction that can’t be viewed from the courtyard. The lady and squalling baby move toward the tiny elevator. I reluctantly follow. The closer we get, the smaller it becomes and the more obvious the corrosion.
Continuing to speak and still jiggling the screaming baby on her hip, she motions all of us to get into the elevator. Clearly it’s not big enough for four adults and a baby, but there isn’t another option. I cram myself along with Ray and Paolo into the death capsule. During the elevator lesson, I learn it’s mandatory to stand in the middle to ensure weight is evenly distributed. If this isn’t done, the elevator might get stuck between floors. I learn the big red button has to be pushed and held down continuously during movement. If pressure is released or you remove your finger too soon, the elevator might get stuck between floors. The woman says not to worry if the elevator bumps around a bit because it’s old and needs some adjusting, which may or may not be done anytime soon. I picture myself stranded in the elevator between floors, slowly starving to death.
Instant relief floods my sweating, exhausted body when the elevator shudders to a stop. We unpack ourselves, spilling onto the small landing. I’m thrilled when I realize that the stairs I saw from below lead from the front door of the apartment to a back door opening into an alley. I vow on the spot that this will be the only entrance I’ll use during my stay.
While Ray and Paolo explore the apartment, I inspect the back entrance. The back door has a sturdy deadbolt lock and is solid, although it’s seen much wear and tear. There are large cracks and a coat or two of paint is desperately needed. The door opens onto a small, narrow path that extends into the upper part of via Castello. When I open the door, graffiti sprawling across the whitewashed outer walls jumps into my face, leaving me to wonder how safe this entrance might be. Empty food containers, cigarette butts, and miscellaneous debris are scattered along the narrow, vine-choked lane. Quickly closing the door I call up the steps saying all is in order. In the confusion of the cleaning people, the heavy dialect, and the screaming baby, no one else checks the back entrance.
In our brief viewing of the apartment, Ray is satisfied I’ll be safe. He declares the apartment a perfect fortress. Its heavy wooden doors, surrounding walls, and solid stone structure cannot, in his opinion, be penetrated.
When I look at the same thick walls, my eyes envision the coolness they will provide during the hot, tropical days; the strength they’ll offer when storms hurl off the sea; and the warmth they’ll supply as the last vestiges of fall’s warmth flows into winter’s start. We are both happy with the apartment.
Ray and Paolo are ready to leave all the confusion behind. I stall, explaining I need a few minutes to visit the terrace. And what a surprise it is when I open the door and three tiers rise to
greet me. The first terrace is partially covered. It’s a cozy, welcoming area. This is where I’ll spend time with my computer and music; the second terrace is straight out of an Arabian Nights scene. It will be my spot to sip wine and dream; the third terrace gives me the gift of the sea, a prerequisite when I was looking for a place to stay. This will be my sanctuary, the place where I’ll begin each day with beauty and reflection.
Ray calls from below asking if I’m ready to leave. I place my dreams on pause, knowing they’ll remain here on the terrace waiting for me. We cram back in the elevator, making a slow, tortuous descent to the courtyard. We follow Paolo out the door, leaving the young woman and the still squalling baby behind.
Our exhaustion flees as Paolo’s stories turn every corner of the old village into an adventure. The hours waiting for the apartment ease into an afternoon of entertainment. After a grand lunch and a cooling Aperol spritz, Paolo escorts us through the town while he dispenses history and stories, keeping us intrigued and laughing.
In late afternoon I receive a text, saying the apartment is ready. We return to find the front door encased in a steel shutter. During our earlier visit, the metal shutter had been raised, so we didn’t know it existed. Now we stand before it looking for a solution. It takes all three of us searching before we discover a small crevice with buttons. Ray is thrilled with this added layer of protection.
As we open the door on stillness, with no owner or cleaners in sight, I tell Paolo I haven’t paid anyone for my stay. He says not to worry. I promise myself I won’t, but that would be a drastic change for me. Before leaving us for the evening, Paolo walks us swiftly through the
apartment, explaining how everything works. We droop, half-heartedly following, without much attention to the details.
Paolo understands our weariness and our need for privacy. He says his goodbyes and promises to return in the morning. Then we’ll continue our tour of the town and the cathedral. After Paolo leaves, our first action is to search for wineglasses. Ray opens a bottle of Agriturismo Faena’s red that we brought with us from our friends’ vineyard in Umbria. Climbing to the top terrace, we sip our wine and witness our first magnificent sunset in Otranto.
I linger on the terrace in the evening breeze while Ray changes for dinner. My senses are filled with new smells, new noises, and new sights. On Sunday Ray will leave for home. My spine shivers with anticipation and delight. Soon my journey alone will begin.
Our tiredness propels us to arrive early at a local restaurant. The evening meal in Southern Italy don’t usually begin before nine. Normally we adhere to the local practice, but tonight we are exhausted, requiring sleep more than food. The restaurant owner welcomes us. We’re the only people on the small patio as the red-streaked sky shades into mauve. Our meal is scrumptious and the service delightful. Arm in arm we amble back to the apartment under the star-bright night.
We stand on the terrace embracing the stars, the sound of waves cresting against the black horizon. We listen to the tingling of chimes in the sea breeze. We crash into sun-kissed sheets without unpacking or familiarizing ourselves with the apartment.
Paolo e Il Duomo
Paul and the Cathedral
The night passes peacefully. We awake invigorated. Paolo arrives early, suggesting we have cappuccino before we begin a more thorough tour of Otranto. As we leave the apartment, Paolo directs us to a bar around the corner. Once inside, Paolo introduces us to the owner. He tells him I’m a writer from America, and I’ll be staying in town for a month. The owner doesn’t speak any English, but I can tell from his lukewarm greeting he isn’t impressed.
Paolo’s English is excellent, interspersed with pleasing Italian idioms and phrases.
When we leave the bar, he says to me, “Donna, you must find a special place to have cappuccino each morning. It’s the Italian way. Do not be satisfied with this place or any other. You will know when you find the right place, the place that is just for you.”
His words ease me back into the Italian way of life, where the bar you frequent for un cappuccino is as important as choosing your stockbroker or your primary care physician.
Paolo leads us on an extensive tour of the old walled town through narrow streets and alleyways. We marvel at the well-designed maze of confusing twists and turns. White mice in a long-ago psych lab dash through my mind. I wish I had been more empathetic to their wild-eyed, frantic attempts to find their way. Their bewilderment and frantic scrambling, repeated over and over echoes through the narrow, twisted alleyways. When I’m on my own, I wonder how long I will anxiously ramble before I learn the intricacies of this place.
We tour the town inside and outside the old walled village as Paolo points out the castello, the hill of the martyrs, grocery stores, pharmacies, and the train station. He knows Otranto, its back alleyways, its seaside, its churches, and its history. He regales us with stories both old and new. We return to the piazza and stand by the warrior woman as she gazes out to sea. Paolo tells us his heart belongs to Puglia.
“I am not myself when I am away from this place. The sea gives me all I need to regroup before returning to life’s responsibilities. I cannot be away too long,” he exhales, as the sea breeze refreshes us as we gaze out across the water. I understand.
The color of the sea switches from emerald to cobalt in the intense morning sun. My need to be near water is as strong as his. Its restorative powers have soothed me through many of the unasked-for challenges life has thrown my way. The three of us stand united but lost in our separate thoughts before turning from the sea to stroll through the village.
Paolo is knowledgeable, quick-witted, and easy to be with. He fills my head with interesting tidbits I won’t remember. But I’ll remember the pure pleasure of listening to his rich, warm storytelling voice. I don’t bother with camera, notebook, or recorder. I don’t wish to be distracted, even if it means I’ll forget most of what I see and hear today. I simply want to listen to his old way of storytelling. I want to hear the stories of Otranto over and over until they become my stories and my truth.
Gradually we make our way to the cathedral and stand in the piazza. Its massive doors beckon me, but Paolo touches my arm indicating to wait before entering.
In his best theatrical voice he begins, “Questa cattedrale was built to be the most outstanding church in Puglia. It symbolizes the gateway between the East and the West. Many
pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem stopped in Otranto. The cathedral was built when the town fathers decided it was necessary to have an important church to minister to these sojourners.
“The Basilica Cattedrale di Santa Maria Annunziata was erected on the remains of a Roman domus, a Messapian village, and an early Christian church. All of this was discovered during excavations carried out from 1986 to 1990 when the ancient mosaic floor was being cleaned for the first time.
“The foundation of the church was laid in 1080, under Papa Gregorio VII, and was completed in 1088 and consecrated under Papa Urbano II. Those were years of splendor for Otranto.”
Out of the corner of my eye I notice a few tourists lingering outside the church, inching their way toward us. Once within range of Paolo’s magnificent voice, they pretend indifference or busy themselves with inspecting the cobbled street or an architectural aspect on a nearby building. It’s obvious to me that Paolo’s voice and regal composure are what attract them to cluster within hearing distance of his voice.
Paolo is impressive. It’s not just his towering height of six four, but also his entire demeanor. His glossy black hair parts in the middle and hangs naturally below his ears. A day-old dark stubble and light-colored eyes attract attention before he speaks. His stage-trained voice projects as emotion rolls off his tongue. His voice modulates according to the story he weaves, and his theatrics endear him to those within his voice range. His warm, golden tones resonate across the cobbled street, bouncing back at me from antiquity. Sonnets roll from his lips as he grows into a character from some long-ago time.
More people congregate. Irritation causes my attention to wander as I think angry thoughts. This is my guide. I don’t want to share him. But then I look at the faces spellbound by his storytelling. I can’t blame them for wanting to hear what he has to say. I’d do the same.
When I tune back in, Paolo is describing the different periods of church history and how the architectural aspects of the church, both inside and out, were perfectly blended from early Christian, Byzantine, and Romanesque. He doesn’t notice the gathering crowd as he says, “But, what truly makes this cathedral unique is the magnificent mosaic floor.”
He turns, leading the way. We trail after him through the doors of the cathedral. Paolo waits until the small crowd of tourists disperses before continuing his Broadway performance.
“Molti anni fa,” he begins.
His rhythmic voice casts a spell. I fall into its current, drifting with the musical notes
accompanying the ancient story.
“There was a time when the people of the land could not read or write. During this time,
pictures were used to explain the past, the present, and the future. The people were poor, living off the land or the sea, so the priests used symbols the people could easily recognize. The early church understood how instructing people would ensure not only loyalty to the church, but also and ensure payment to its coffers. As with everything, there are good or enlightened instructions as well as evil or dark aspects to teaching.
“This mosaic floor was created by the great monk Pantaleone around 1163. The church’s goal was to teach the uneducated people through the mosaic pictures and patterns. However, the church wasn’t smart enough to understand how enlightened Pantaleone was or that he had his own ideas to express in this grand mosaic floor.”
Paolo pauses as we make our way from the main entrance through the smaller door into the narthex.
He stops, turns to us, and says, “We’ll start here at the beginning with the tree of life. You will notice that it is a rootless tree standing on the backs of elephants from India. Pantaleone begins the mosaic with inclusion: Christian, pre-Christian, and non-Christian scenes coexist along with all the monsters and heroes. There are biblical characters as well as those from literature, history, and mythology.
“This floor represents judgment and redemption—evil and good. The people were taught good things about how to live in community and harmony. Through the pictures they learned how to support one another, how to obey the law, and how to uphold justice and fairness.
“The dark or evil side is how the church sought to control the thoughts of uneducated people. The church limited what the citizens could learn, and they imposed guilt as the main lesson to the faithful believers. They judged the people harshly and told them them the only way for salvation was to pay with money to cover their sins—then they would be forgiven.”
Paolo pauses and says directly to us, “It’s a sad religion that tells its followers salvation comes with a price tag instead of freely through the Son of God.”
Distant voices rumble through my thoughts—Carl’s anguish and Sandy’s pain reawaken in me along with angry words from family members. The sadness living in my soul from these events loosens its grip a little as I consider the troubling role religion has played in my own life.
We move forward until we stand at the base of the mosaic, and Paolo continues, “The people were only allowed inside the church if they paid enough money. The rich people paid the most and were allowed to sit up front close to the altar. The merchants paid enough to sit
midway. The farmers and laborers, who could only afford a small amount, stood in the back. The very poorest people were only allowed to stand outside the doors in the piazza because they didn’t have money to pay to come inside.”
“Paolo,” I interrupt, “who could read and write during this period?”
“Only the enlightened monks and popes—sometimes bishops and priests could read and write, but not always. And sometimes the very rich could read and write, although the universities were not yet established. The University of Bologna was founded around the same time this mosaic was being created, so it’s still many years before opportunities for education became available to anyone who was not from a very wealthy family. Often rich people purchased books to show others how wealthy they were. For most people, the only way of getting information or education was through the teachings of the church. But the price was high, and judgment was abundant.”
My throat closes around the word judgment—a dark word, one that limits and taunts people into believing they are not worthy. The puritanical teachings of my childhood religion cluster into my thoughts. I remember Mother telling me the story of how I, at three years old, asked her why God was so mean. She used the story as an example of how this is a sinful question. For me, it was the innocence of a child hearing and understanding a tone of condemnation instead of love. Mom and I were never on the same page with our spiritual lives. She stayed in the shadow of the fundamentalist past. I raced ahead to a more expansive view of spiritualism.
Paolo points out Pantaleone’s signature and moves ahead. I linger, marveling at the work and the sheer immenseness of the mosaic. Kneeling on the floor by Pantaleone’s bold mosaic
signature, I study the tiny bits of dark brown marble spelling out the Latin Pantaleonis. My fingers tingle as they trace the bits of mosaics creating his name almost nine hundred years ago. Tears gather as recognition of this time and place whisper to me. I open myself to this journey. I understand that pain, sadness, and fear might accompany me as I examine the fragmented pieces of my life. The old cliché, “darkness before dawn,” resonates. On the other side, joy waits for my reclamation. A puff of air touches my cheek, sending chills across the back of my neck. A presence hovers in this place. I stand up, thinking it’s my vivid imagination and scurry to catch up with Paolo and Ray.
“Pantaleone started this eight-hundred-square-meter masterpiece with these two grand elephants,” Paolo continues. “For me, the tree of life symbolizes the humanity of us all. This mosaic gives us lessons to follow for all times, for all ages, and for all people. It tells us that every day we choose between light and dark. It’s always our choices that determine our journey.”
Paolo touches my shoulder and points midway up the aisle. “Look further up and you will see how the trunk splits into two paths. Do you see? The split in the tree shows us we can choose either sinistra, which here represents the left, the dark, the evil; or we can choose destra, the right, the light, the good. Sometimes we choose dark over light. But it’s important to remember that at any moment we can change our life and move out of darkness to choose the path of light.”
My thoughts weave in and out of his words. This story he’s telling intertwines with my decision to come here. I want to walk on the path of light again, reigniting and reclaiming joy as my own.
Paolo’s voice calls me back to the mosaic floor. “Now I must tell you about Pantaleone and the marvelous imagination he had. He was a very unusual monk for the twelfth century. He
was headmaster of the school of painting in Otranto. He was an expert in philosophy and theology, Hindu hermeticism, mythology, and mystical interpretations. He excelled in Jewish, Arabic, and Oriental metaphysics and mysticism. He belonged to an order of both Greek and Italian monks. Above all, he was a creative and amusing monk. He included humor throughout his design.
“Pantaleone mixed all the religions of his time, plus politics and ideological thoughts to convey that we are one large world of many cultures, religions, and values. He believed living together in harmony is life’s most important journey. I often think the church hierarchy did not fully understood Pantaleone’s intention when he was commissioned to do this work. Some say the church fathers were not culturally knowledgeable. Perhaps Pantaleone was aware of this.”
It’s as if Paolo is speaking only to me, offering a hand to guide me. My choices have led me to this time and place. The recent buildups of grief and pain blinded me to this known wisdom. My eyes and ears open to the story until a door slams, diverting our attention.
More tourists come into the church chatting. We move to the side aisle where Paolo can continue without disruption. I move in close so he doesn’t have to raise his voice.
Paolo continues, “Right above the elephants is a naked male and female symbolizing Adam and Eve, with a little son who is portrayed as Jesus, the Son of Mankind. God is far away at the altar. Can you see the elaborate silver frontal?”.
As I view the ornately carved silver altar, I think, Wow, am I ever happy not to be on the altar guild. It would take hours or even days to keep this large silver structure polished.
“Look at these pictures,” Paolo says. “They tell us what we must do to reach God. Here at the beginning, Adam and Eve are naked and have hearts of light. Soon their hearts turn dark
because they make choices the church says are evil. For me, it’s hard to understand why Adam and Eve finally arrive at the altar fully clothed, which you will see when we reach that point in the mosaic.
“According to the church, reaching the altar is called enlightenment. But don’t you think it would be better to arrive at the altar naked as the day we are born and the day we die? Wouldn’t that indicate we are as pure of heart as the day we arrived in the world? I think it’s the laws and judgment of the church that required the human race to cover everything up. Without knowledge, we are held captive in the dark.”
Paolo leans against the rope, pointing out the strange mixture of symbols and scenes depicted in the Old Testament, in mythology, in the zodiac, along with monsters and strange animals. “Look at this—a donkey playing the harp; and this—a monkey playing cymbals. Over there is Alexander the Great, born before Christianity was even a thought.”
Paolo’s eyes smile when he speaks. “Pantaleone placed into his creation many characters and symbols that are not biblical in nature. This one has griffins from long ago when they pulled Apollo’s chariot. Do you remember the griffins from the Harry Potter books?”
“Of course,” I respond, loving the connection with my favorite YA books.
“Allora,” says Paolo, “I think Pantaleone believed the church fathers wanted the mosaic
to only reflect sin and judgment. This did not suit his temperament, so along with the Bible stories, he added humor, history, literature, and mythology.”
The shuffle of tourists being herded out of the church signals it’s late, and we must move on quickly.
Paolo turns to me and says, “You will come back often to study this floor. You must pay attention to the symbolism. When you do, you will begin to see many different patterns. Imagine yourself in this time, on the day the floor was unveiled. Think about all the people who have stood here where we are standing. Interpret the mosaic for yourself.
“I think it was Pantaleone’s intention to unite us across the centuries. Even today, we are still faced with the same choices between good and evil. Pantaleone tells us it doesn’t matter if we are pagan or religious, because all of us still have to make these choices. Today, if anything, the choices are harder. We work less, we worship many things other than God, and we think we are enlightened by our modern technology. Let me tell you one last thought about the mosaic before we leave,” he says.
“It is not necessary to understand this mosaic in the context of today’s environment. It’s an icon that is over nine hundred years old. Think about the Facebook icon in nine hundred years. It will be discovered by people who will not understand what the symbol represents. Another generation will try to guess the Facebook meaning just as we do with this mosaic floor. It’s a great mystery that perhaps we are not meant to understand. Although we try to move the ancient meaning into the modern circumstances, it’s not possible. We were not there. We do not know Pantaleone’s mind. So we must leave the ancient where it is and value it for what it represented in that long-ago time and place. What we do need to understand is that this magnificent tree of life mosaic transcends the division of paganism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as all other religions. This gift of inclusion is the greatest gift Pantaleone has given to us.”
These powerful words dwell in my thoughts as Paolo’s story ends. Such a simple lesson to learn but so difficult to embrace. In the pause that follows, we observe the priest rushing tourists out of the church as the steeple bells ring out the hour.
Our time in the church with Paolo seems like minutes. We are the last ones to turn away from Pantaleone’s mosaic. The priest is fussing with a large ring of keys and motions us to hurry. Since I am not Lot’s wife, I turn back to feast upon the magnificent mosaic one last time before the door closes on me.
Sunlight torches the center of the tree of life, spilling brilliance onto the right side of the mosaic while obscuring the left side in darkness. Light and dark, good and evil—the story lives on as new and fresh as the day it was created.
Our day with Paolo ends. The promised day and a half is now whittled down to two half days when Paolo receives a phone call as we leave the cathedral. His mother has fallen and broken her arm. With hugs and promises to stay in touch, he rushes away.