Villa Collepere

by Massimo Roscia

Before the dawn’s red sky reflected off the horses’ blue bridles, golden rows of carriages, chariots and sedan chairs were already lined up, and in procession, through fields of sods, flourishing groves and fertile vineyards, heavy with grapes, slowly descended like tears on a cheek, the grassy hills from Fabriano to Camerino. And by mid-morning, even the last cheerfully painted carriage, pulled by three pairs of Andalusian steeds, had reached the destination. 

In a nutshell, here is the reason for this grandiose and spectacular gathering; Sir Carlo, Viscount of Castelraimondo and Lord of Collepere, was known to gather at his country villa the most renowned poets, writers, painters, musicians and inventors of the Marche region, to adjudicate and reward the best work of art. On this occasion, the announcement of this particular contest had spread well beyond the borders of Matelica. The contenders, eager to earn glory and add to their fortune, had arrived in large numbers from all over: Gagliole, Selvalagli, Stroppigliosi, Castel Santa Maria, Pioraco, Esanatoglia, Fiuminata, Braccano, Rustano, Cerreto d’Esi, even the distant Arcevia. 

On that special day, the countrymen too had left their fields and livestock, and in their finest clothes, rushed to take a closer look at those illustrious men parading between rows of ancient poplars and mulberries on the sides of the road. Shouting, whistling and making sounds that echoed in the distance, like crashing waves in a storm, the countrymen cheered on this colourful spectacle of the numerous elegant gentlemen and ladies, notaries, pharmacists, jewellers, merchants and other citizens, too many for me to list them all. 

Sir Carlo himself, respectfully and cordially welcomed the guests, accompanied by his lovely lady, his children, the trusted right hand, Beniamino, and a host of servants in green livery. The guests, captivated by the kind manners and by the beautiful setting, eagerly entertained themselves in the magnificent garden among oaks, elms, holm oaks, vine-covered pergolas, plants and flowers, so enthralling in their beauty and scent. 

Some soaked in this paradise by resting body and spirit, some by walking around the grounds, some by admiring the game stored in the well, some by picking cherries, pink apples and other seasonal fruits, some by relaxing on the soft lawn, some by drinking a good glass of Verdicchio, and some by nibbling on tomatoes with wild fennel, ricotta, ham, ciauscolo, pork tenderloin, and thousands of other subtle flavours, greatly appreciated by their taste buds. The scene was characterized by joy and brotherly love, because in Collepere, festive hospitality was much more than just duty; it was a sacred value, an honour, one of the most natural acts of love. 

But before we begin, let me introduce you to Sir Carlo and his lovely family. Sir Carlo was a wise, generous and refined gentleman. He was accustomed to hard work, revered and esteemed by all, for his pragmatism and composure. But no matter how serious he was, he had a witty sense of humour. Good looking and of medium height, thin but strong, his blue eyes shined like beams of sunshine. His fine silver hair glistened in the light, a perfect match for his dignified demeanour. 

His beloved companion was Madonna Marilena, a woman of innate elegance and virtue, a soul rich in very rare talents, whose purity surpassed even that of lilies. Her maiden name was Gagliardi and, having grown up among the tastes of a refined Lombard farmstead, she loved the arts and all that was beautiful and rare. She had a delicate little body and red cheeks that blended into her white skin. Her gentle eyes possessed a sort of austere seriousness, mixed with a natural sweetness, and her blond hair, mostly kept loose, framed her pretty face, or was tied back behind her neck. 

Finally, their two sons completed this beautiful, lovely family. Both tall and handsome. Both polite, good students and tennis players. The first son, Nicolò, almost thirty, had thick hair the colour of a spring chestnut, but a thin beard, which hardened his features. He played the guitar and was a talented architect. He designed hospitals and public works, and commuted between Matelica and Odense. The second son, Filippo, twenty-four, had a cheeky tuft flying about his forehead, eyes as black as ripe olives, a straight nose and a bright smile that revealed his wholeheartedness. He believed in freedom, equality, justice and progress. He studied political science and had a burning love for theatre, reading and for his beautiful land. But now, my dear readers, let me go back to telling you our story, one that I’m sure will leave a smile on your faces. 

At exactly noon, Franca, a blonde woman, excellent cook, rang a bell, signalling that lunch was ready. The hungry guests left the garden in a hurry and moved into the elegant banquet hall, decorated with magnificent tapestries, frets and stuccoes. Only when everyone was seated was the food served. The table was set, laden with bread, pies, soups, vincisgrassi, carpioni (pickled fish) and cheeses of all kinds. Also, thanks to Sir Carlo’s work, there was certainly no shortage of wild boars, chickens, roast capons, boiled turkeys, ducks on a spit, sage uccelletti and pigeons stuffed with eggs and minced meat. 

It is no surprise that, before all that good food, the first person to plunge his hands into it and fill his belly was Friar Calandrino, a greedy cleric who always favoured a dish over Christian piety, whose only major charisma consisted in stuffing his face. Once they saw the voracious friar take a bite out of the head of a kid, like a wolf, all the other diners also began to eat, and did so happily and for a long time. Laughing and joking, eating a whole pheasant and a rabbit in porchetta, drinking white and red wine, time passed so fast that none of the people there noticed it. And when they finished such an unforgettable feast, all tables were removed to begin the contest which, after such a long preamble, I can finally start telling you about. 

While the butlers served trays full of marzipan, Italian meringues and other typical exquisite sweets such as frustenghe and cresce fogliate, accompanied by generous amounts of various liqueurs, the jury gathered, led by Sir Carlo himself and five other respected individuals: Simona, a gentlewoman with good manners and a happy soul; Matteo, a journalist and expert in anything related to the past; Antonio, a renowned Sicilian master of drawings and frescoes; Renzo, an owner of various estates, with his good looks and exquisite personality due to his respectable upbringing; Sergio, a pleasant man, always eager to show Matelica to the whole world. 

The first to perform was Maestro Rogerio, a painter of Belgian origin, whose eyes were often half-closed. Upon Madonna Marilena’s gesture, he awoke from his apparent slumber, went up on stage, grabbed the drape and uncovered the canvas. The painting was none other than the portrait of his wife, a charitable woman with whom, however, fate had been very unkind. In fact, her face was wrinkled and scarred like a peach pecked by birds, she had messy, yellowish hair, a hooked nose, was cross-eyed, plus the other eye was swollen. In short, she was so ugly that anyone who dared to look closely at her recoiled in horror. But, with the strokes of his brush, the talented painter had corrected each and every flaw, so that his bride appeared to be a genuine embodiment of beauty. “His courage should nonetheless be rewarded, despite the result,” said Antonio, making the ladies laugh. 

The second contender, Gentilino (gentle little man), in the name and in fact, was from Rocca d’Ajello. His hair was nicely combed, he had lively eyes and his lips were so big and brown that they looked like liver sausages. An expert with gouges, planers and chisels, he presented a beautiful mosaic composed of more than a hundred pieces of perfectly carved precious wooden tiles, decorated with malachite, turquoise and lapis lazuli stones. The jurors stood up to admire this marquetry masterpiece, and dismissed the ebony carver with a round of applause. 

Then it was the third contender’s turn, Bandello, a great connoisseur of the laws of musical harmony and player of various instruments. Once the ovation subsided, the musician took off his hat and cloak, sat down in front of a harpsichord and began to play. He did it so delicately, that a sweet, persistent and clean melody immediately flowed throughout the room, like water from the springs of the Sibillini Mountains. His performance was, of course, repeatedly praised by all. 

Then, moving from notes to verses, it was Bertocca’s turn. He was a big, bearded man, a poet by passion and a butcher by trade, who had become quite famous for his taunting acts. The controversial artist wanted to challenge the jury with a vicious sonnet. “Gentle spirit, who’s put out so many flames with glee, is it true what I now hear and what I now see? Hearing such notes off-key, my poor ears suffer, as if it were cold in winter and hot in summer. Gentle spirit, if I am too bold and careless, I apologize and humbly ask for forgiveness, but I am tired of talking about works of art, with those who couldn’t tell two apart. Gentle spirit, here I am, of culture the sole proponent, certainly not like that mediocre painter, the noisy musician or the carver opponent. Kind spirit, I don’t know if I still have the patience to endure perjury from a jury, and if you didn’t like my opinion, it must mean I have only wasted pen and paper. I now bow to you before being booed.” Hearing such verses, biting but truly offensive, the jurors and the other guests did not wait to be asked twice, and gave the insolent poet what he expected; a loud, jeering dismissal. 

Hence the challenge continued, with a thousand artists: writers, rhymers, singers, dancers, philosophers and bizarre inventors, all building up the competition. Suddenly, in the middle of the afternoon, when it came time to deliberate, Sir Carlo’s sons asked to speak. They said, with a respectful gesture, “Father, Mother, Ladies and Gentlemen, we bow before you to ask to let us too participate in the contest,” said Nicolò. “We’re not asking for a handout, but only to show our work so that you can evaluate whether or not it is worthy of appreciation,” added his brother Filippo. 

“My dear sons,” Sir Carlo said, “although, as a father, all I want is to fulfil your request, as the impartial judge that I am today I would be saddened to see undue favouritism that could turn into an advantage for you and into damage for the other contenders. And this is not an easy decision,” he replied, without answering. Still, after such vague words, the elegant and astute Madonna Marilena said, “My beloved Sir, in respecting your authority and while understanding your prudence, I believe that our contest, however serious, is after all just a game.” Upon hearing her sound advice, Sir Carlo agreed and the jury, who had until then remained as silent as a musical instrument with broken strings, gave their verdict. “Given that there is no impediment to the regular running of the contest, Nicolò and Filippo are allowed to participate.” 

With their approval, the duo went up on stage and, when asked, “Hence, what is your work of art?” Nicolò replied, “Our work comes from a small, tight grape, with greenish veins, a fleshy and crunchy pulp and an almost transparent and sugary berry.” And, while servants distributed clean glasses to the shocked guests, Filippo promptly added, “Our work is wine.” 

“Wine?” asked the listeners in unison. “Yes,” said Filippo. “a new, good wine, which we, ourselves have created, with passion and care, with the precious help of Roberto da Urbisaglia. You are all aware of his reputation, he’s a great connoisseur of grapes, musts and vats.” “Wine, though, is not made with passion and care, but with the pressing of the grapes!” shouted a rough host from Matelica, his nickname Flasker, creating laughter among the present. 

Not at all bothered or frightened by such mockery, the two persevering brothers began to discuss the best ways to prune a branch, organize the rows or manage the vineyard to reap an excellent harvest. Then, while their cousin Davide, a brilliant and practical young man, showed the jury sketches of tables, drawings and machines, similar to those of Da Vinci, Nicolò and Filippo started talking about selecting grapes, destemming, reductions with dry ice, soft pressing, thermo-conditioned fermentation, clarifications, filtering and more devilry than I, myself, despite being a very educated man, had ever heard of. And down they went with other words, so obscure that an already half-drunk Friar Calandrino, convinced that the two boys were possessed by the devil, swiftly put his hand on the crucifix, blessing everyone in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. 

“More than ingenuity, this work seems to me to be the result of madness,” commented doctor Battiston de’ Balsami who, stingy by nature, had arrived from San Venanzo solely for the free food. “Dear doctor, madness is not always the opposite of knowledge,” Nicolò replied in kind. More gentlemen soon began feeding into the mockery and, only once the glasses were filled and the guests had drunk, did the mockery give way to praise. 

“This wine sparkles like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” said Matteo looking at the glass against the light. “It has scents of broom, hawthorn, acacia and chamomile flowers,” was Sergio’s praise after taking in a deep breath. “And aromas of apple, apricot and ripe peach,” Simona continued. To the sound of praises, glasses were filled several times with that clear, fragrant and sweet wine, that some drank in small sips while others downed quickly. Everyone definitely enjoyed that great taste, and the satisfied looks of Sir Carlo and of the entire jury, a definite sign of approval, confirmed this. 

And when the time had come to declare the winner, there was no doubt; of all the competing works, that Dionysian juice was definitely the best. Born from the merry combination of new techniques and the ancient art of wine. And so our short story comes to an end. I let you now meditate on the moral of this nice tale and on how, thanks to wine made with both heart and reason, Nicolò and Filippo won both the prize and honour.