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11 February 2014

Discovering the “village that does not exist” following in Prof. Pierìn’s footsteps.


         For a long time, Prof. Pierin, a glottology teacher at the University of Padua, considered the idea of carrying out a study on Verzegnis, the village that does not exist. He was intrigued by its strange name, but above all the fact that the name does not correspond to a settlement. Verzegnis is the name of a municipality made up of several villages, and is not the main village, as usually happens. There is not even a single house that can be indicated by that name. Why?

          In the summer of 1944,in Padua, the supporters of the Republic of Salò were attempting to keep Mussolini’s hopes of reconquering Italy alive. The Germans were resisting, in the hope that they could reverse the tide of the war with the new arms that they were preparing. In Southern Italy, the Anglo-American troops were advancing, enabling Italians to restore democracy. Cities were not the best place to live, as they were bombed by all armies. It was at that time that Prof. Pierin had the idea of combining work with pleasure. He withdraw to Mount Verzegnis with the excuse of carrying out his studies on the village, but he was actually escaping the war.
          He found hospitality in the first hamlet of Verzegnis, Chiaulis, at the house of a lady named Caterina, who tried to make ends meet by letting rooms. He immediately realised that he had jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. The war was fought also in the mountains. In Padua there were airplanes, but in Verzegnis there were the partisans. Not Garibaldi partisans with the red scarf (i.e. a symbol for communism), but Osoppo partisans, who wore a green scarf. It was right there, in the Church of Pozzis that the Osoppo partisans were founded on Christmas night on the advice of don Graziano, the parish priest of Verzegnis. Among them was also poet Giso Fior, who, in the building where they were accommodated, in the summer of 1944 wrote the immortal words of Cencia Sunsùr, in which the desire for the end of the war becomes desire for death:


O ce biel inscindalasci                                               O che bello andarsene
Di chiest mont cencia sunsur                                      da questo mondo senza rumore
E savèi che domo l’aria                                               e sapere che solo l’aria
Si è indacuarta ch’a si mur                                          si è accorta che si muore
E murì cussì, tun stali                                                 e morire così in uno stavolo
Con ch’a si à ciapàt il sum                                          quando s’è preso sonno
E no vèi rancors di sorta                                             senza rancori di nessun genere
E no fa sufrì nessun                                                   senza far soffrire nessuno


          The headquarters of the Osoppo brigade were located in the Pielungo castle, and once they had crossed Sella Chianzutan, the Osoppo partisans reached Verzegnis and turned it into their outpost in the Tagliamento Valley. Carnia was a free territory, since the Germans had withdrawn to Tolmezzo. But the territory of Verzegnis borders with that of Tolmezzo, and thus Verzegnis had become the front of the Free Carnia area, which intended to besiege Tolmezzo, with all the consequences that implied.
          From the first information that he received, Pierin realised that he was in a place where there were hot-heads. On 6th March, to give the impression that they had turned themselves in, partisans set the town hall and its archives ablaze, and thus all the history of the village went up in smoke. Maybe they wanted to take inspiration from another native of Verzegnis, Agostino Frezza, who was hanged in Udine in 1859 as a rioter, a martyr of the uprisings that had led to the creation of the Kingdom of Italy, as Pierin, who had started studying the history of the village, thought.
          Fortunately there was Caterina’s friendly hospitality. He would dine with the family, her husband, who worked at the marble quarry, and her brother, who was a land surveyor, and listen as they told how they had spent the day. Her brother worked for Todt, the organisation set up by the Germans for the purpose of employing local youngsters as an alternative to military service. Until the year before they had worked on the Lictorium defence wall (Vallo Littorio) project, the defence system created by Mussolini to be used against the German troops, in the event that his alliance with Hitler ended. Now they were working side-by-side with the Germans, to transform the walls into the Germans’ ultimate trench in Italy, in case of retreat …
          Caterina’s husband worked at the Lavoreit red marble quarry, and even though it was forbidden, as it was too dangerous, he used the cableway that transported marble blocks from the quarry on top of the mountain down to Sella Chianzutan to go up and down.
One Sunday, he invited Prof. Perin to visit the quarry, and having noticed that he was interested in curious things, he took him to see Crist di Val. He had already read that the sculpture of the crucifix dated back to 1300, but seeing the place he could not help thinking that the mystery of that cave could also be linked to the mystery of the village that does not exist. He immediately imagined that the history of the cave went back to time immemorial, when, in a protohistoric period and in a different climate, the first inhabitants settled in Carnia.
           This conviction led him to intensify his research, and as a result he discovered a reality that he never believed could exist.
He realised that it was not a coincidence that there was a name without a village, as he felt there was “something that does not exist” in the village. He was already fascinated by the history of the Celts, and was intrigued by the belief they held that there are two realities: one visible and another one invisible: everywhere we are surrounded by the spirits of those who have passed away. He had confirmation of that the day he visited the Mazeit hill, where, as is said, a Celtic village once stood. Mazeit, derived from “macerie” (debris), was the name that he had read in a booklet published by the Parish, but his landlady told him that the place was also called Castle or Broilàtz. Such a variety of names strengthened his interest even further, and thus also his desire to visit the place.
          While he was observing the remains of the buildings, and thinking of the hard work of those who had brought those stones there, he thought he felt the wing of a bat brush against him. But not one of those little animals that we usually see flying at night. He thought it was the wing of a huge animal, as he felt hit by an intense wave of air. He was sure that it was invisible people who wanted to announce their presence, and even though he considered himself a rational person, who could not be influenced by the superstitious beliefs of uneducated people, he started to run along the street leading to the village of Villa, and felt safe only when he was surrounded by houses and people.
          Walking towards the church, once he had started breathing again, he came across a peculiar person, who started to talk about his idea of creating an Art Park. He was trying to forget the experience that he had had in Mazeit, and therefore he thought that anything, even the oddest speech, could be useful, so he stopped and listened to the idea of creating a contemporary Art Park in the form of an open-air museum …
          Passing by the Church of Villa, and noticing that it was open, he decided to walk in, as if the air of that holy place could free him from the wind that he had felt in Mazeit. Standing near the holy-water stoup, he was admiring the architecture of the church, when he thought he heard a moan coming from the holy-water font.
          “What’s going on?” he whispered, as if praying.
          “Everybody can hear us, but nobody admits it.”
          “What do you mean?” he asked, looking at the holy water, which seemed to ripple like the surface of a pond under the influence of the night breeze. He looked around, hoping that nobody could see him talk to the holy-water font. Fortunately he was alone. But even though there were no witnesses, he was puzzled by the fact that he was talking to holy water!
         “We are the souls of the possessed women!” It is easy to imagine the expression on his face and how fast he walked out of the church as he heard those words, and rushed to the room that Caterina had rented him. While he was walking, he calmed down a bit, trying to find an explanation to what was happening: it was only his imagination. He had just read the diary of a certain man named Mr Billiani, in which mention was made of a phenomenon called “hystero-demonopathy” that had affected the village at the end of the 19th century. When at dinner he asked his landlady: “Have you ever heard of the possessed women?” She replied, “Of course I have” and briefly told him the story of the possessed women from Verzegnis.

         Once he had heard the story, Pierin mustered the courage to talk to his landlady about what he thought he heard in the church and also the feeling he had in Mazeit.
          “You must be very sensitive. The invisible ones trust you,” was her comment.
          “So I should consider myself lucky!” he mumble to himself. “But now what can I do to get rid of them?”
          “The tour of the four churches,” replied Caterina immediately. “Besides some other smaller churches and several chapels, there are four main churches in Verzegnis, like the four cardinal points, the four tips of a cross used to sprinkle holy water on a dead body. Next Saturday, when they are all open, you should visit them all. And in each of them leave an offer for the souls of Purgatory. You’ll see: they won’t bother you any longer.”
          And that is what he did, and as Caterina had told him, he freed himself of the presence of the invisible ones.

          It was only later that he discovered that the idea of withdrawing to Verzegnis to escape the war was not such a good one, and that was when the Cossacks arrived in the village in October. It was the 27th, and the territory was invaded by 1,567 Cossacks who were accompanied by465 horses, 58 cows and 20 camels. Their  commander, a certain man named Zimin, took accommodation at the Quadrifoglio inn, right in front of his room’s window, and every morning poor Prof. Pierin heard the movements of the Cossack soldiers in the yard under his window.
         Never mind the Cossacks, who looked like Mongols… but camels grazing in the pastures of Verzegnis, who could have expected that?
         On the following 12th February ataman Krasnov, commander of all Cossacks, also arrived in Verzegnis with his wife Lidia and stayed at the “Stella d’Oro” inn in Villa.

         In spring tensions eased. The Anglo-American troops were advancing, and everybody started to feel that the war was drawing to a close. In March, on sunny days, it was tempting to go for a walk, and Prof. Pierin started to take strolls in the area around the rio Ambiesta creek, the hamlets of Assais, Fuignis, Dueibis and Pusea, on the mountain on the right bank of the creek. He was intrigued by its name, which recalled that of Segesta (now Sezza),which had been the capital of the Karns; he was attracted by the atmosphere of the place, with two mills, a sawmill, a small power station, and the plants that used the creek’s water. He had heard of an ambitious project, which included the construction of a dam, in order to create a lake that would end up covering the two mills. He regretted that the place would change, but if the inhabitants of Verzegnis could obtain an economic advantage from that, thanks to the availability of low-cost electricity, even though at the price of environmental damage, maybe it was worth it. At least so he thought!

          Every day he would go to the Acqua del Paradiso (Heaven’s Water) fountain to drink, and he greatly benefitted from it, which made him understand why it was given such an important name.
         His landlady’s brother also took him to see the caves situated in the village that does not exist. Underneath the real villages there seems to be another dimension, a system of caves connected to one another. As they were walking toward the Alverman cave, near the hamlet of Assais, he told him a story, according to which the bell of a cow that had disappeared in a valley near Casera Val – at an altitude of almost one thousand metres above them – had been found inside the cave.
        Since he loved climbing, he also took him to see the Cretons Cliffs.

        One day April 1945, a few days before the end of the war, thinking that it was over, Prof. Pierin decided to leave, and unfortunately no traces of him have ever been found since. Killed by partisans? The Germans? His mysterious disappearance made him become a legend. And as often happens, fiction and reality mingled: the legend of a glottologist at the discovery of the true history of the village that does not exist. 

         But beyond the legend, what actually remains is Caterina’s son, whom she named Pierin, in memory of her disappeared friend. After spending his entire life travelling around Italy as a sales representative for Zanussi, Pierin, who is now retired, in memory of his mother that let rooms and of the legend, has created “LA GERLA  BLU” as a point of reference for all those who want to follow in Prof. Pierin’s footsteps, hear the story of the village, discover the enchanting landscape, and admire the endless shades of green that gently cover the foot of Mount Verzegnis...

          Now Pierin has decided to share with his son Oscar his dream of making La Gerla Blu the starting point of a journey leading to the discovery of the village that does not exist. In line with the best Carnia tradition, he has put a wicker basket on the shoulders of his daughter-in-law, Ergida, wishing her a pleasant walk, but with the promise of following her and his son as they take their first steps....