Teacher Ivan Teobaldelli and Monica Dengo

A weekend of mysticism and calligraphy.
Ivan Teobaldelli (translated by Kit Sutherland)

Monica Dengo first came up with the idea while she was showing me the splendid catalogue and video of her latest show at the Correr Museum in Venice. An artist who uses calligraphy to explore the poetics of space, she has lived and worked in San Francisco and Japan. She concludes her courses with group work where stroke/writing and material/paper come together graphically and via the letter press.
She had liked my piece on Alice Franchetti as well as the show, Un bacio alla rosa selvatica and wanted me to write something for her. I was already travelling in another literary space: mystic writing by women, a subject which might well interest the all-woman group from the Veneto -Padua, Cittadella and Mestre - signed up for this workshop in Arezzo from May 27-29. It opened with a wide-open welcome, in the home of a friend.

Cobbled and ancient, Via XX Settembre connects Arezzo’s medieval museum with Giorgio Vasari’s splendid house, recently transformed into a gem of a museum. If you want to visit one of Arezzo’s best hidden marvels, you’ll have to ring the bell so the custodian can open the great door. Behind you, on the other side of the street, there’s a wrought iron fence cloaked with jasmine and begonias and, behind it, two palm trees growing in a tiny garden. They screen the early twentieth century house where Maria Pia Mancini welcomed the group from Veneto on Friday evening. An aperitif smoothed the formalities and started a series of lively exchanges, no doubt encouraged by the beautiful home, a series of bright, open areas on split levels, hung with Maria Pia’s huge disks, eclipses, and steel steles which you go past on the way to the hanging terrace where you can chat with the cats in Vasari’s garden.

The programme begins by my introducing mystic writing by women. We are in the tiny, inner courtyard sitting with our backs against a wall of hydrangeas. It’s not supposed to be a keynote speech but rather a simple conversation open to questions and explanations. It takes its cue from an article on the origins of human language which I’d read a few days earlier. The theory was intriguing: unlike ape-like primates which carry their offspring, the babies clinging to their fur, human primate mothers put their babies down so they can forage for food and defend themselves. Talking was a way to keep in contact with the little ones and reassure them. This led to the articulated development of the human language. When we say that the first language we learn is our mother tongue, the expression is pregnant with meaning and history. Despite this, with the exception of Sappho, women’s writing was only accepted into mainstream western literature at the end of the first millennium. Then, a German Benedictine nun, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) came forcefully onto the scene, taking up correspondence with Bernard of Clairvaux and coming up against his former patron, Frederick Barbarossa. Hildegard was like an incarnation of Hypatia of Alexandria. A cosmologist and naturalist, she conceived the notion of veriditas to define the vital energy that flows between man and nature. We are all part of the same organism, the mystical synergy which, in The Tree of Life, the latest film by Terence Malik, relates the volcanic magma and the movement of the galaxies to the closed, heartbreaking mourning of an American family in Waco, Texas. Hildegard imagined the universe to be like a gigantic man. His head and eyes were the sun, the moon and the firmament; his chest was where the winds originated; his belly gave rise to the seas and his feet were the Earth. It followed that illnesses could only be treated according to the founding principles of what would later become holistic medicine. Hildegard tested these cures on herself because, in spite of her name – she who protects the battle - she suffered from very poor health. Fragile, stiffened by arthritis and racked by various ailments, she like to say she was the shade of the living light, or a feather buffeted in the wind by its trust in God. Yet, in spite of these handicaps, she travelled all over Europe, disputed with the powerful of the time and wrote ponderous texts such as Scivias, ( Know the Ways) Liber Vitae meritorum and Liber divinorum operum. She was also a musician. Her works, collected under the title of Symphonia harmoniae celestium revelationum speak of hitherto unheard music which she received by divine revelation. Among other curious things, I note that she became the patron saint of Esperanto because she invented an unknown language with an original alphabet of 23 letters, a forerunner of the utopian universal language. She even ended up on the screen in Margaretha von Trotta’s 2009 film entitled Vision – Aus dem Leben der Hildegard von Bingen.


Our conversation continues over glasses of Chianti, with questions and a lot of note-taking as a golden sunset fills the patio. As usual, I’m winging it, flying via suggestion; I steer towards two female archetypes: Penelope and Shahrazade who opened the way for the voices of women.
I connect to Lea Melandri’s 1970 autobiography which she entitled la memoria del corpo, the body’s memory. She referred to that deeper place where the roots of identity and especially the confusion and bullying between the sexes can be traced.
Hiding the lives, the psychic lives of women, is paramount to erasing them. By writing about herself, Melandri was given the means to illustrate her theory through her own lifestory, injecting the power of emotion into reason.
As Penelope weaves the threads of her life, I think of the kilim from South Morocco. Woven by illiterate girls and sent like postcards to the bespoken grooms, they outline the dowry in numbers of animals, acres of land, springs of water, fruit trees and even the style of tattoo she will paint in henna on her body for the wedding day.
However, Penelope is a revolutionary. At night-time, she undoes her weaving so she can start another story the day after. Her task is not to make but to unmake – to make anew. Penelope is patience, she embodies the time of waiting. There was also Cassandra who could only hear the sound of the storm in her ear.
But Penelope’s natural evolution, her complement, is Shahrazade, the one with initiative, the one who knows how to work things out.
You remember the story? There was a king called Shahriyar who reigned over his subjects wisely and respectfully. But, one day, coming home to his palace, he surprised his beautiful wife in the arms of Masssud, her black slave. Drawing out his sword, he killed them both. From then on, his mind poisoned by the memory of it, Shahriyar demanded that a virgin share his bed with him every night and the following morning he would kill her. The killing continued for three years until not a single unmarried girl was left. When the king demanded his customary virgin, the vizier couldn’t find one. Stricken with anxiety, fearing his sovereign’s wrath, he went home where he was met by his young daughter, Shahrazade. Seeing his worried face, she asked what the matter was. When the vizier told her what the king wanted she replied: “Let me marry this king. I’ll live, or with my sacrifice, I’ll save the muslim daughters. “
We all know how it ended. For hundreds of nights, Shahrazade drew the king through a scintillating labyrinth of stories which she cleverly left unfinished each night so as to keep his curiosity going. She saved herself with her knowledge and wise story telling.
There’s a marvellous book by Fatima Merisi, entitled Shahrazade Isn’t Moroccan where she talks about the mother of all battles, Umm al Maàtik , the democratizing of knowledge and the war on female illiteracy. The Arab Spring which broke out over the last few months relied on young people, men and women, using the Internet, Twitter and cellphones, which only serves to prove the point.


After the digression, I take up the thread again, the mystic ferment which found fertile ground especially in Umbria and Tuscany. I begin with Angela of Foligno, a married woman with children who, during a pilgrimage to Assisi in 1291, was struck by a vision of Saint Francis. Out of this came Liber, dictated to her spiritual advisor in her own Umbrian tongue and entailing her craze for God. She was probably the most significant mystic conscience in the whole of the Middle Ages.
Then I talk about Catherine of Sienna, last but one of a dyer’s 25 children. Despite being illiterate, she contacted all the courts of Europe as la fanciulla universale, the universal maiden, preaching the universality of love, the totality of happiness and sadness, the sense of nothingness and of God.
I rapidly skip over Maddalena de’ Pazzi, a Florentine aristocrat, over Clare of Assisi, and Humility of Faenza; as well as Caterina Fieschi, Gemma Galgani, Lucia Mangano and Itala Mela.
In all these women, most of whom were illiterate, mystical language goes beyond literary conventions, ecclesiastic forms and even everyday speech. The thinking of these women mystics is unstoppable, speeding on beyond aesthetic or compositional concerns. Irreverent, unsophisticated, it draws upon ancient forms. A loving knowledge, where the body becomes evanescent and the soul becomes flesh, it manages to express the ineffable, celebrates the luminescence of shadows, the deepest darkness of light. Psychology and sentiment go by the way, give way to an emptiness that is impossibly full. It asks not to know but to be, to live more than to see.
All this is found in the diaries of Ursula Giuliani, who, very young, taking the name of Veronica after the Passion, entered the very strict Capuchin Poor Clares convent in Città di Castello in 1667. The meeting was not rosy. Her judgement was cutting: the abbess was indiscreet; her teacher was incapable; her sister nuns blind to her genius. Soon extraordinary things began to happen: signs of the Passion appeared on her body, she subjected herself to frantic penitence. She is reported to the Holy Office and subjected to humiliating body inspections. Five times she is made to write her autobiography. It grows to fill 20,000 pages. Each batch of pages has to be written without corrections and handed over without being reread. She never sees them again. The woman visionary writes only at night time and in uncomfortable positions. Almost illiterate, she learns writing as she writes. Her language is essentially oral. But it is fascinating, vehement and disquieting. For the extraordinary happenings, levitations, wounds, and visions, she has a fabulously rich, invented vocabulary. (The grace of the three graces) She recounts the unsayable – pain cannot be written in words – voices that which cannot be known or said. I say, I say again and I say nothing becomes her motto. Her last words to her sister nuns on her deathbed were: “Love has become found, This is the cause of my departure. Tell everybody! Tell everybody!!”
So ends my excursion through women’s mystical writings. It is 9 o’clock in the evening and in the dining room awaits a delectable buffet dinner. Maria Pia and Paolo have spread out a triumph of Tuscan delicacies: pasta with garden vegetables, Arezzo’s famous zolfini beans, fresh, spreadable sausage, prosciutto and the famous maialai from Abruzzo, wild leaf salad, cheeses, strawberry pie and cherries stewed in sugar. The ladies from the Veneto need no encouragement. They are straightforward, friendly and enjoy life. Everything is exquisite. Ahead of them lie two days in Monica and Massimo’s typeset workshop ( with its hand-press, inks, typeset letters, bookbinding methods and paper of various thicknesses. I am curious to know what they thought of my talk, what ferment it will cause. And now, looking at the photos - published here – I can see.

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