A Gathering of Pipes and Men
There are many beautiful small Italian towns. I live in Sarnano, Le Marche, population 3,000, and it is magic. The current of time in the village is strong. Approaching on a secondary highway, the centro storico fills the sky. The church tower points to heaven and the echoing bells are music. Sarnano’s millennium’s memory into an unknown future is an impressive visual silhouette on winding roads.
Twice a century as convenient there is a gathering in Sarnano, a participation of pipes and men. To be clear, these are smoking pipes in meerschaum, carved as men and women with a few nymphs and other creatures in pleasure or resting in repose. In the event transport is required, a horse in the same material is tied to an iron ring embedded low on the brick wall. There is a small bale of hay and a bowl of water. No advertisements are posted in the town on framed boards or at the comune. Nothing is recorded in the Macerata newspaper that reports sport scores and entertainment news.
These meetings take place in my home on a cobble-stoned lane in the historic center, built a thousand years ago to protect inhabitants from marauders and the plague. The address is difficult to locate. The police are unable to find the house, the entrance with the arch over bridge connecting the buildings or the small hidden cortile. Some days the entrance is blocked by a barrier of mist and you can see young angels dancing on raindrops.
In earlier epochs around this country, phantoms, goblins and ghosts were commonly accepted. Forms of the demi-gods in stone were part of everyday life and those they represented were considered good neighbors, some of whom should not be offended Gods continue to exist in our temples today, as many are permitted and encouraged by chuch and state for marketing and a tranquil populace. Think of the giant bronze bull on Wall Street in New York and the monuments to insurance companies and tech companies. We have exchanged idols.
The twentieth century has ended. It was and remains today a time of fear and faith. The core of men remain hidden in shadows and the darkness of our souls. The pipes have their gathering and there is no impropriety or evil intent. It is an honest meeting where wisdom, anecdotes and pleasant conversation are exchanged; good will in an appropriate venue. Sarnano respects the association of men and meerschaum.
Representing man, possibly not the best examples, are myself and one other, a younger man who has shown interest in the unusual facets of life and a disregard for conventional thinking after an education of classical literature and philosophy, minors in sociology, natural history and sports medicine. All from different universities and various countries about the globe. It is hoped that he will continue these meetings when I have left the earth. The pipes appreciate a congenial, familiar residence and company into forward centuries.
The pipes number about thirty. That is as much space allows for comfortable seating and movement. Each pipe has his own chair lined with silk or velvet. For those of aesthetic temperament, hard oak and a thin rug.
There are warriors from different ages. No weapons are allowed. Norsemen and Knights of the round table attend. Barbarians from the east. Mongolians who rode on small ponies. British red shirts in battle dress. Romans, centurions and legates are represented. There are French cavaliers and exhausted troops from the American civil war, one from the south and one from union’s army. Looking at the ground and holding walking staffs are farmers and an American Indian crouching. Wild Bill Hickok stands, missing his beloved springfield trapdoor rifle, left at the door. He is the latest addition to the group, traveling from the United Kingdom. No one has offered an explanation as to how he crossed the western ocean and the English channel.
Here is Tuck of Robin's band, a cardinal in ceremonial dress with goatee and tonsure, fresh from obeisance to the pope, a pipe smoking Irish man with Latakia tobacco in the bowl, dirt on his hands and wild hair. There are bearded Arabs, thin nubians with clean chins, sailors with bowed legs and traders who clutch bills of lading. An Empress Dowager and a Pathan who watched Alexander’s elephants stands alone, looking at the Sibillini mountains through glazed windows. He may be thinking of the Northwest Frontier, green valleys and the rocky mounts through which the British fled.
There is no agenda at these meetings, secretaries, votes take or conclusions reached. Subjects are not declined or prohibited. Each pipe may speak or be silent in with courtesy and temperament, understanding they will meet again. All wish to be on good terms. Though of different shades of skin, appearance and language, there is no discrimination and none are superior to the other. As men they were buried in elaborate caskets of polished walnut and labeled brass or left on the ground for scavenging animals. They fell to disease, age or sword; they now share what passes for Eternity. They look as they did in their strength, the way they wished to be seen, known, remembered. They are locked into their age.
The soldiers speak of conquest and the fine points of combat and strategy, attack and withdrawal. The traders whisper of commerce; the priests of God, converts and Rome. The seafarers talk of dragons, Patagonian Giants and landfalls which ascend from the blue green sea and host the fragrance of cinnamon. There are mermaids for every taste and perversion.
The talk goes back and forth without rancor. The pipes are pleased to be present and have moments to see swallows swoop through the sky, feel the freshness of air, taste the scented sweetness of flowers that come into the centro from the mountains, funneled through the narrow pathways. They talk of meerschaums known and honored, broken or lost, of time's fluid shape, their affection for this village between the sea and mountains. They are content and will remain here in silent purpose.
They agree that wars are constant, empires grow and wither, religion benefits some and is against many, that the Inquisition was a bad thing with some excess. They know nothing of wars that engulf the earth. They speak of beauty, art, wonder and affection without imagination’s limit, of Titian, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Monet.
The pipes would like something to eat but there are too many cuisines to prepare. Spirits are proffered, wine and juice, the sailors grog. A few decline liquid refreshment but accept cheeses, all local to the province. Honey is drizzled on the Pecorino.
Men, some foolish, believe they have exclusive ownership of memory. The unfortunate and ignorant argue that these pipes are inanimate. They are wrong. The pipes have spirit and life carved into them; vision, grace and soul transferred through the artist’s hand with fine tools and a perfect eye, sadness and joy cut into the deep mined Turkish clay, perfection in each figure. Who dares say otherwise? The workmen were creators equal to Da Vinci and Sanmartino. Each pipe was modeled with flaws and the glory of God. In a builder’s moment the divine slipped into them, embedded in a fragment of space. They gather as proof of always. The artisans are unknown, gone to their rest, yet the pipes have come for peace and as a step closer to forever, to escape, hide, listen to a slowing heart, sharing a world that might be understood. They live in brotherhood. Sarnano is a good place.
The meeting lasts for hours. Night arrives and shade deepens into black. Views continue to be exchanged. The growth of Empire is admired and regretted. Flesh and stone decay. Capitalism fails, the American experiment is flawed. Authority is the constant. The cost of bread and salt increases. Where man and beast walk, the paths are thickened with the brown blown dirt of centuries.
Two hours after midnight under a clear sky and full moon, toasts are raised in amber Vino Cotto, embraces exchanged and tears well in eyes. The figures bid adieu. It has been a meeting of friends and it is time to rest.
In the morning the room is cleaned with a light rain outside. The pipes are touched with a soft cloth to their lips and brows. Cases are closed, bringing a smile to the custodian. The sun is warm; a rainbow touches rooftops in the piazza alta.
If the gentle reader wishes to attend a meeting, I offer an invitation to Sarnano and long life. He may bring a guest if it be smoked.
In this quiet corner of the centro storico, the lavender petals of spring have dropped. The leaves absorb the heat of the day. The caretaker puts records on the turntable, Madeleine Peyroux singing The Summer Wind and Ida Sand – Maybe you’ll be there. With an early glass of straw-yellow Pecorino wine, the older man looks at the masterpieces in meerschaum with amber stems, closes his eyes and dances slowly, circles on the tiled floor, arms around a woman he knew in youth, when the world was young.
As I say, Sarnano is a magical place.
May 22, 2023
First published in italicsmag