"I protect" Anna Martinenghi
to hear the story
narrator Roberta Taino
sound engineer Alessandro Cecchinato
"The following story is dedicated to the Rocca Sforzesca of Soncino, to it - which I have always looked at as if it were flesh and blood - it is freely inspired. Since it is a play of the heart and the imagination, in many places it is disrespectful of history and the facts that really happened. For this, and for the presumption of having told a legend, I ask forgiveness to all." Anna Martinenghi
Don't call me a castle.
I am female. Female without frills and without a crown. Made for warriors, not for kings. My walls are as solid as the hips of a woman who knows how to use them, my towers stare at you questioningly, my belly holds spears, arrows and catapults. I don't know what to do with blue princes and happily ever after. Here you live uncomfortable and on the alert. Night and day. Sun or rain. The enemy is at the gates. Always.
I am the fortress.
The last bastion.
I will hurt to protect those I love.
I offer my chest to more spears and arrows and catapults.
I am made of earth, water and fire. I am red, red as the earth of my bricks, red as only a few women are allowed to be. Earth of my land: iron clay roughened by stones, worms and roots. I am the damp of my fog, the water of my river and my ditches, I am the tears of the rain that run down to the seed of the field. I am not stone, I am living sustance shaped by the hand of man. The bricks of which I am made passed through the fire of the furnace, or that of hell, which is all the same. They quickly got used to what awaited them. Another fire of burning pitch, of burning meteors, another fire of bilious men.
Here I am. Challenge my walls if you will. I will see you coming from afar, even at night. I will smell your scent, hear the beating of your hearts, feel your fear. I have none. I protect. Even if I fall, fall apart, return earth to earth, water to river, fire to hell, my people will rebuild me new, red, more impressive. For here there is no fear even of death. "I still don't despair," they say. I still don't despair I say.
I have lived a thousand lives: I have been as dangerous as I have been reassuring, many times violated and humiliated. Never surrendered. Beneath my belt of bricks I have seen troops of enemies and tourists pass by, all head turned upwards in a time that mixes and mingles in the slow flow of centuries. Reduced to a woodshed, prey to mosses and burglarizing vines. I have been plundered, gutted and torn apart, then propped up again, fixed, resurrected.
I'm not comfortable, nor am I yielding; they tried to tame me, to pretend I was a palace to live in, but I'm not. Too bad for them. There are those who have known my dungeons and have never re-emerged, there are those who have been on the chain, hungrily wishing to tear apart one of those rats that made fun of them. No, I have no mercy for those who are hostile to me, but I am an angel and defender for my own people.
I know of sun and I know of rain. I learned the languages of those who conquered me, I have made them my Esperanto, the sweet and diffident speech that includes everyone, but rewards only those who understand what I keep silent. I know your tears, the sound of your laughter, and all I preserve. I have heard the touch of mourning bells and seen the fireworks of joyous evenings. I am generous with the children who use me for their plays. I recognize their need for authenticity even if they have wooden swords, their desire for something to happen, their desire to be part of a true story: their own. That's why the flutter of a bat in the dungeon, a sudden creak, the lazy awakening of the barn owls with their blind gaze in the last light, scares them and electrifies them with silver cries.
I have towers with sharp corners. Of my four only one is female of curves, mystery and a spiral that leads to the sky. Of the Cylindrical Tower and the Captain's Tower, I can tell the true story: he was a captain of fortune, young, charming and of noble lineage, sent from Milan to govern my walls and to garrison the troops against the enemy. We will call him Valente, although working of fantasy, because his name was lost along with his wits, because of a love that vanished too soon. She, Nives, was born on a snowy night, as white as the snowflakes that gave her an uncommon beauty. Nowadays you would call her rare beauty an illness, but at the time nothing was known about that disease. Nives had milky skin, curly hair of dazzling white, and two icy lakes for eyes. Her complexion was so delicate that even a timid ray of sunlight left deep burns on her body, so that the young girl was forced to wear a large dark cloak in every season. Her father did not allow her to go out during the day, for fear that she would get burned, so the girl, after her childhood years spent in the solitude of the four walls, began to sort at night, when everyone in her house was asleep. She was not afraid of the dark, which she felt as a friend and protector, so in the middle of the night she went for walks that became longer and longer and more daring. She liked to observe the sky, the weak and cold light of the stars and the wonderfully silvery light of the moon, which attracted her as if it were her own. On a night of full moon, lost in her reasoning, she found herself unwillingly along my paths. She usually avoided them with care, because she knew that the soldiers were on guard day and night. Too late. "Who goes there?" shouted the patrol. Not even time to answer that the guards brought her to me, intending to segregate her. Captain Valente, trained to sleep with one eye open and his ears stretched out as one does on the battlefield, heard the commotion at that unusual hour, got up from his bed and threw something on his back to meet the two soldiers who were holding a tiny figure wrapped in a cape. Fearing it was a young boy sent by the enemy to spy beyond the defenses, the Captain pounced on the poor unfortunate, removing the hood in a bad way. Love was a matter of the first glance: the immediate recognition of each other, like being in front of a mirror that reflects the soul. The two young people were already in love before they even spoke to each other.
The Captain, whom no enemy could intimidate, felt like dying in front of those glacial eyes, he blushed with embarrassment for the violent gesture he had made and for his very poor clothing. "Leave me alone with the prisoner" he said, trying to recover his demeanor "...and bring me a cloak, it's freezing out here!"
Having resumed his dignity, Valente to whom his heart seemed to go at breakneck speed, attempted to calm Nives, who could no longer distinguish fear from the emotion of being near the handsomest young man she had ever met. "Who are you?" he asked her, trying to stifle the drums in his chest, "Why does a girl go alone at night in such great peril?" Nives made no mention of her delicate skin, of which she was so ashamed, and answered instinctively, "I am no one." The Captain shook his head and said, "I've never met anyone so important."
Nives told she had gone out because she could not sleep for the moon that flooded her bed with light. The two spent the rest of the night sharing their stories and it seemed they had known each other forever and not just for a few hours. At the first light of dawn Nives said: "I must go now, my father is about to wake up, he will be worried about my absence and he would be furious if he knew that I disturbed even the Lord". Valente made her swore that he would see her again immediately, a few hours later in the day, and that he would come himself to introduce himself to his father, with a promise of marriage. At these words, Nives was full of joy. They agreed to meet at noon and the girl flew home. She did not tell her parents and siblings about the event, but only announced that a great visit was waiting for them that day. She spent the rest of the morning styling her hair, braiding it with daisies and cornflowers the color of her eyes and asked her sister to lend her a light gauze dress, the most beautiful dress the family owned. At the time agreed upon, Captain Valente, with his entire escort of horses and riders, appeared at the door of Nives' father, who almost had a fit because of the mess I won't tell you what expression his face took on, when Valente told him what he had to say: the poor man became more pale than his daughter. Nives was there in full sunlight, beautiful and dressed like a bride, in the ecstasy of those words. No one had noticed how long she had been there. She was too full of love to distinguish the warmth of her heart from what the sun was bringing to her whiteness. The unfortunate woman fainted, burning with fever because of sores and burns and after two days of agony, she left forever the land she had known only by night. Valente went mad with pain. It is said, and I am a witness to this, that he ordered that Nives' funeral take place on that last night of full moon and that the girl be buried in the secret room of the cylindrical tower, in front of his Captain's Tower. There was no more news of him: it was said that he disappeared with his pain, throwing himself from the terraces and I will remain silent here out of modesty. Just know that in my Male and Female towers live the hearts of two lovers who never left each other since the day they met. And if you'll notice, since then the full moon no longer sets on the horizon, but every month it slips into the Cylindrical tower from the Lumachino to illuminate the bed of the beautiful Nives, while from the depths of the Captain's Tower comes the song of a man in love.
So I carry within me their love, their memory and protect them. The towers, horses and woman move together on the chessboard to defend my heart. If I were to be reduced to dust and melt into tears I would return to feed the flowers, the daisies and cornflowers, the green fields, the bark of plane trees and poplars, with the strength I have within me.
And just as I can open my clay arms, spread my doors wide, smooth the fur of cats and let pigeons and doves rest, so I can close myself. I am a Chinese box -no, don't make the usual joke too, I've killed for less! -: I squeeze past my pits, I isolate my courts, I barricade my drawbridges, I raise my defenses, I make myself an oyster around the pearl. I protect. And if that's not enough, I set free those I love along secret paths that run through me. I reveal my escape points only to those who trust me completely, I let myself be crossed in the most hidden corners, narrow for heaven's sake, claustrophobic, but liberating. Only the one who crosses them will be able to remove himself from siege, gaining the way to the place of the Graces. Then, empty and still victorious, I will offer myself to those who want to set my bones on fire and while I burn I will smile with satisfaction because I protect.
I have seen soldiers die and lovers kiss on my stands. I protect. I know how to keep secrets in my bowels, how to steal pieces of starry sky within my walls and then leave them to the summer nights, how to look at the horizon from the top of my towers, how to make myself small and then huge, welcoming and cruel.
I have known war, the ice of winter, the raw evenings of fog, but in times of peace I am a place of a thousand meetings: look for me in the wedding albums of my people, in the Sunday outings, in the carnival dances, in the nights of All Saints. I know how to protect all the inclinations of feeling, because I have learned that the hatred of the enemy can disappear, submerged by the affection of those who love me.
I have had the love of poets and artists, I have become a stage, a theater, a museum, a temple. I treasure music, art, poetry, history. I am in the eye of painters, photographers, filmmakers, in the memory of thousands of phones, but more than anything else I am part of the heart of those who were born here and who, looking up to my stands, feel at home, not imprisoned, but embraced, not isolated, but delivered to the world by a land that knows how to wait for their return and waits patiently for them peering from the top of his Rock.
Because I protect.
Soncino, January 17, 2021, Anna Martinenghi