It would be hard to pinpoint Noepoli on a map, although it is there to this day, hidden in the instep of Italy’s boot.
To the outsider’s eye, Noepoli is one of the more picturesque villages in the Southern Italian region of Basilicata, which was and had long been the least-visited, most obscure region of Italy, in the province of Potenza, a land that time and recorded history blissfully forgot or cautiously neglected for untold ages.
In a small house in a twisting street in the town of Noepoli, Italy, in 1882, Maria was born, the daughter of Joseph Fucci and his wife Grace Esposito. On the day of Maria’s birth, Noepoli could claim upward of a thousand residents.
Noepoli rises like a dream, dramatically on its high hill near the base of Mount Calvario. Maria, as all children who grow up here, felt as if they were the blessed cousins of the birds of the air. The gray-golden stone and rose and ochre stucco village dominates the higher area surrounding the Sarmento River, which is itself a tributary of the River Sinni. From afar, Noepoli resembles a fortified hill that has over the centuries overgrown its castle walls, accommodating newer homes by allowing them to tumble down the hillside. This is precisely the case. All of the tall, narrow homes have handmade red tile roofs; architecturally they are not unlike the famous homes that grace the villages of the Cinque Terre or Portofino. But Noepoli is far inland, in a region prone to earthquakes, in a province that time seems to have forgotten.
Noepoli was not always so remote. In the medieval period, the village was the seat of a Benedictine monastery; some of its stones may be seen in the fields surrounding the town. But that was before it was called Noepoli. The origins of its name date from the fifteenth century when it was granted authority to be the “State of Noia” (hence its town was literally Noia-poli or Noepoli) after which it was called Terranova di Noia until the middle of the nineteenth century, when the name Noeploli was adopted. The village was later ruled by the Pignatelli family. In 1863 Noepoli assumed its present name.
Those who take the twisting, upward road all the way through the town are rewarded at last with the only piazza which is surrounded on all of its sides save one with ancient homes and the pale pink church with its asymmetrical tower. The longest side of the square, however, is framed only by a low stone wall, over which the immense valley with its great distances may be appreciated.
Noepoli is a collection of ancient stone arches and well-worn stairways, deep window recesses, lanterns on iron brackets, some of these well-cared for and some crumbling. A combination of gorgeous sculpture fragments and dizzy heights; of narrow streets contrasted with vast distances. Some of the back alleys remind the visitor of forgotten corners of Venice.
Noteworthy landmarks in the village of Noepoli include the Church della Madonna delle Grazie which boasts a valuable Florentine-school painting dating from the 18th century, depicting the Madonna delle Grazie and St. Lorenzo Vinovo. Also of great artistic interest is the parish church dedicated to St. Francis of Paola, which was built in the 16th century and then restored in 1930. The church is home to a 17th-century altarpiece by an unknown artist and an 18th-century painting depicting the Virgin Mary, St. Dominic and St. Catherine, as well as a handsome wooden crucifix, a baptismal font in stone, the lid of a sarcophagus of the 16th century and frescoes and marble relief from the fourteenth-century.
Also in the historic city center there are visible the remains of the feudal castle. A circular tower is the chief feature that remains; yet, it is built upon the site of the ancient Lucani city (a Greek colony of the sixth century BC). Among the finer residences are the Palazzo Rinaldi (from the nineteenth century) in Via A. Rinaldi, and the Palazzo De Cicco.
Not very far from the village on the top of Mount Catona, it is possible to admire the ruins of a Basilian monastery of great age.
From the village, which is situated in the National Park of the Pollino, one can hike along the Serra Dolcedorme, the Serra delle Ciavole up to Mount Pollino. The lush vegetation of beech and chestnut woods is typical of this territory which is a tourist attraction during summer and the ideal place to pick mushrooms during winter.
It is also possible to admire the "Pino Loricato", (a type of pine growing in Lucania) one of the most important trees in Lucania from an environmental and scientific point of view. Its scientific name, "Pinus Leucodermis" means "white skinned" and refers to the white silver-colored dry bark. It is commonly called "Pino Loricato", a name deriving from the similarity between its bark and the "lorica", the cuirass used by the Roman centurions.
Maria’s father, Joseph worked for one of the landowners and is perhaps best described as a farm laborer. Joseph took care of someone else's sheep and cattle, or, more often, considering the region, goats. Joseph would sometimes bring home from his work fresh ricotta cheese. From time to time, he had access to the milk that made the ricotta. When what was left over could not be sold, due to the lack of any means of preserving it, he sometimes brought it home as a special treat for his family.
With this rare delicacy, his wife Grace would make a dish of pasta with ricotta which must have been very delicious, since Maria savored it as a child and told the story of it often in later years. Joseph and Grace had four sons and three daughters. In future years, Maria, their oldest son Giacomo (Jim) and two other sons would depart for America. Maria would be one of two of the three girls who left Italy. Her oldest sister would go to South America with her husband. The third sister would remain in Noepoli to care for her parents in their old age. As with most of the women of Noepoli, Grace Esposito Fucci lived her long life as daughter and sister, wife and mother, as homemaker, and never strayed more than twenty miles from her home town.
Such was not, however, Maria’s story.
Noepoli was dominated by the old castle, the church and the Palazzo Rinaldi. Maria grew up with the ancient stone faces of the Palazzo Rinaldi as her life’s companions, as silent secret friends. She would visit the façade of the palace often, and imagine who they were and what they would say to her. Over the doorway of the palace was carved the date 1845 and a woman’s face, with arching eyebrows and thick lips, wearing a coronet and supporting the Rinaldi coat of arms, which to Maria looked like Adam and Eve separated by the Tree of Knowledge at whose base rested the dove of the Holy Spirit.
These Rinaldi were dominated by women it seemed to the young Maria, or held them in high honor, for elsewhere on the palace were carved the faces of other women. One of them Maria had named “Grazie”—Grace—for she was the fairest of them all, with a heart-shaped face, perfectly combed hair and large earrings Maria was sure were pearls. Regal, Grazie seemed, and serene.
The other carved visage seemed slightly older; her features were softer, rounder; with a braded topknot bun of thick hair that had been parted in the middle. She pursed her lips slightly at Maria, bearing a perpetual expression of bemused disapproval. “Lucia” she called this one, after the famous patron saint of Italy.
The stone faces of the Palazzo Rinaldi listened. Kept Maria’s secrets.
Another of her ancient stone companions was the knight Jacuvill. The grave stone of Jacuvill dated back to the fifteenth or sixteenth century and on it was a carved relief representing the sleeping warrior, called Jacuvill.
Maria often wove tales of romance about Jacuvill and herself—wherein she was always the fair maiden of the ancient castle fortress, or alternating of the palazzo Rinaldi. Jacuvill she would see coming across the valley—a dashing, heroic figure of the “dintorini”. He would know where to find her, he would rescue her from whatever the danger might be, and take her off to the pretty pink church where they would in due course be married. Her parents would be elevated to a high station, thanks to the magnanimousness of Jacuvill and his love for Maria. All of Noepoli would smile upon them and all of the ranking girls of the town would tacitly acknowledge Maria’s superior status, as the lady Jacuvill, the bride of such a noble knight.
And he would whisper to her his love in words poetic and true: "Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare la donna mia..." "So kind and so honest my lady appears to me.”
Not all of Maria's friends were imaginary; nor were they all made of stone. There was Rosa Savino of the flashing eyes and fealess spirit. Also there was Lisabetta Bellafaccia, Maria's best friend since the day that they had been born. Often the three of them would gather by the public fountain, to talk of their day, to plan their tomorrow, to dream of their future.
And there was Lisabetta’s brother, Tanio Bellafaccia. They had grown up in sight of one another’s homes. Tanio was always the clever one, but kindness itself. He would show just the right way to tie a knot or make a reed of grass into a whistle. No one in Noepoli could whistle better than Tanio and none of the other boys could run as fast.
As Tanio grew he took on a saintly expression that hid a fiery soul. The skin on his face was almost golden and the brows above his eyes arched just so and were filled with expression. Tanio by now had the beginnings of a beard, which only partly hid the dimple at the center of his chin. Maria told no one how happy just the sight of Tanio’s large brown eyes made her feel.
How could she? The Bellafaccias were acceptable as friends but she knew, as an unspoken rule, that they could not be more than friends. There was something in the far past that the Fucci and Bellafaccia families remembered that kept them at a cordial arms length.
Until the day that Tanio told Maria about the secret spring.
They were at that time nearing age sixteen—with Tanio a few months older than Maria. He had grown into a strong youth, just under average height but about the same height as Maria herself. They stood, as he said, eye to eye. That is how Tanio stood, that afternoon at the fountain, as they were stopping for a cup of water on the way home.
“This is not as sweet as the secret spring,” Tanio whispered to Maria so that no one else could hear him.
“What spring is that?” Maria asked, curious but at the same time dubious.
“Down in the valley west of town,” Tanio said. “Not far, but it is a wonderful place. Quiet. Filled with strange and beautiful flowers that do not grow anywhere else around here. Such colors! And the water is sweet as honey. You should see it! You should taste that water!
“I have been all over that country, there is no spring there,” Maria replied.
“So I thought, too, but when Nino went astray and I had to bring him back. Then, I stumbled upon it. So now I call it Nino’s Spring in his honor.”
“Show me?” Maria asked.
“Sure, let’s go,” Tanio answered. They scrambled down the side stairways that led the quickest to the outskirts of the town. Halfway down they came across Maria’s father, on his homeward way up the hillside.
“Well, Maria,” Joseph said. Where are you and Tanio off to in such a hurry?”
“When Nino goes missing, Tanio has to look for him,” Maria said quickly. “I said I would help find him.”
Her father nodded. “Go. But do not be late.”
They hurried onward.
“That was quick thinking,” Tanio said when they were out of earshot.
“I knew he would not refuse my lending a hand. He is very fond of Nino.”
“Who isn’t?” Tanio said. “I just hope your father does not run into him around the next corner or we will be summoned back!”
By now they had reached the bottom of the hill. They both laughed and ran on toward the open countryside.
About a mile further they came to the old abandoned farmstead called by the locals the “Fattoria di Mistero”. This was a building long neglected, not large, with gaping windows, crumbed walls and a tumbled in roof. It was set into the hillside, in such a way that the two story house was only a one story house at the back—one could enter above or below. The small barnyard was surrounded by a low stone wall; the small barn adjoined the house, as with all farms of this age in the region. The house was nestled in the hill around it. there were some old trees nearby and all the bushes were overgrown. The “Fattoria di Mistero” must have been a fine, cozy place a century or so ago but no one had lived there as long as anyone could recall.
“The spring of Nino is just here,” Tanio said.
Taking a route that seemed to lead nowhere, Tanio went between the old house and the wall to the barnyard and then between some overgrown hedges. Beyond was a rocky hillside.
“Here take my hand it is dangerous,” Tanio said and without waiting, took Maria’s hand in his own. She felt a little jolt, a kind of a shock, not unpleasant but as if one had been stung by a particularly kindly bee.
What was this? She looked down at Tanio’s hand and noticed it in a way she had not before. The long, articulate fingers, broad nails and the soft brown hair on the back of his hand. It was not a boy’s hand. But a man’s. Maria saw this all in a glance and then she looked up at him. Tanio wore an odd expression. He was still looking at Maria’s hand, as if he had caught some rare songbird. Then he shook his head in the same way a man does to get water to fly away after bathing. It was just a moment, and then he looked her in the eyes and smiled.
“I wondered what your hand felt like. It is soft and warm and very nice.”
Maria smiled. “And yours is strong, so hold on to mine and lets go down the hill together.”
They did and at the bottom there were more bushes. “Watch for snakes,” Tanio said.
“Stop it, Tanio, you are making me afraid,” Maria scolded.
“No need to be, I am here,” and with this, Tanio squeezed her hand. “Besides, they are more afraid of you than you are of them. We made enough of a racket coming down the hill they are all probably half way to Matera by this time!”
“Why would a snake go to Matera, silly?”
Again, the two laughed at their little joke. Just then, they came through the underbrush and all of the sudden were at the spring.
“Oh!” Maria said, “It is beautiful!”
“I told you so,” Tanio agreed. Look at the flowers. Have you ever seen such color outside of a church? And that pool. Well, it is cool and deep and perfect to swim in. I know because I did so only yesterday. We can today too. But first you must taste this water.”
He led her to the source of the spring and letting go of her hands, cupped his together and then brought them up to her lips. Maria took one sip, looked at Tanio and then drank more deeply. “Yes, it is sweet,” she said. Now your turn. And repeating Tanio’s courtesy, she offered him a drink from her own hands. So close together that they could feel each other’s breath and she could smell the musty, leather scent of Tanio, and then he said, “Look, what kind of a bird is that?” He pointed to the treetops away from the pool.
Maria turned and scanned the area where Tanio was pointing. “What bird, I don’t see it?” Maria said.
“Keep looking,” Tanio encouraged her, “He is just there, at the top of that tallest tree.”
Maria did as Tanio said, until she heard a loud splash, behind her. While she had been looking for the bird, Tanio had run to the edge of the pool, shedding his clothing on the way, and dove into the water.
“Come on, we must have a swim!” Tanio yelled neck deep in the water. He disappeared and then surfaced almost at once, turned around and said, “See this is the life! Come on in and swim!”
Maria shook her head.
“Why not? It feels good and it is not so deep. I am standing here in the pool. Look! And he stood so that his chest and shoulders were out of the water. The droplets sparkled against his skin.
“Next time,” Maria said. Now we are almost late and I do not want to arrive at home with my hair wet.”
“What next time?” Tanio said, pouting. “Tomorrow?”
“No, tomorrow is too busy, too full.”
Tanio drew nearer, as if he were about to emerge from the water. She knew that Tanio would be wearing nothing at all so Maria turned away, quickly.
“Put on your things,” Maria said with her back turned. I will wait for you at the farmhouse.” She clambered up the hill and did not look back.