THE MIRACLE OF WATER
Karel Blechen, The Valley of the Mills
by Giacomo Ricci
I’m talking about a dip in the past. Just like we have the time machine.
We’re going to climb on it and head back. In the High Middle Ages.
Do you want to follow me on an extraordinary journey in Amalfi Coast?
And when I say “extraordinary” I mean it.
I want to talk about the Valley of the Mills of Amalfi.
Have you never heard of it? Do you know about it but don’t know where it is?
Then it’s time to know.
The medieval Amalfi, which even down the coast, organized tourism often tries to evoke in its distant splendour, in the Valley of the Mills survives with surprising clarity of form and flavour.
It’s all there, right in front of us, still available to us.
An environmental museum, widespread, open, completely involuntary. Disconnected from the organization of men. That by chance survives. On its own.
In fact, if there is still it is precisely because men have not yet set their eyes on it. Because it is difficult and tiring to get there, there are no roads and you have to follow rough paths uphill and on foot.
And because some old forestry commissioner who loves his job does everything he can to keep these places far away, strangers at large. And if you want to go in there, they need to take you. They’re watching you.
No one likes to be watched on sight. But in this case, the foresters do well. There’s a piece of nature, living creatures that need to be protected by us humans. Because we are dangerous.
Especially when blinded by the desire for profit, profit.
The Valle dei Mulini lies along one of the many large fractures that cross the rocky banks of the coast from the sea to the interior. Those around here called “Walloons”.
The valley of which we speak has the city of Amalfi at its end, overlooking the sea. Then, going inland, you pass through the Valley of the Mills and, higher up, towards the highest mountains, there is the Valley of the Ironworks.
It is in this last part that it is forbidden to go. It is necessary to warn the forester, make an appointment and be accompanied by a guide.
The measure was never more useful.
We can never be completely sure.
We have to do it soon, before someone thinks about it and the horrible disaster of the “recovery” of the environment and its tourist restructuring takes place. If we make time we can still attend this show in person. Before the next disaster next. That’s for sure coming.
And you will see the image of a civilization that used the energy that was at its fingertips. That it knew how to take advantage of nature and what it had to offer him.
Today we can say that men in the past modified the environment well. Of course they did not do it for good grace. But because they had no other option. And they used technologies that were absolutely less devastating than ours.
No plastic, oil, gas, atomic power. No electricity, light bulbs, fridge, washing machine, dishwasher. No phosphorus detergents that permanently pollute water, dioxin or hydrocarbons. And especially no cement. Let me tell you, architect.
They mixed stones with lime, sand, in some cases lapillo, fragments of brick and … wisdom. These are the techniques, these are the materials of the scattered buildings of the Valley of the Mills that today survive as ruins.
And then, just the water and the sun. The forest and the rock.
Here in the valley of the mills is celebrated, when the traveler has ears capable of listening, an incredible symphony. Made of the sound of the water of the river Canneto flowing downwards, infiltrating creeks, falls, ravines, fissures, forming pools, ponds of water, waterfalls, rivulets that slip into the ground and suddenly come out under the feet, among the rocks, in the grass, in the great bushes and among the trees of the highest trunk. Of the song of the birds and the hissing of the wind that slips between the branches and the crevices in the rocks, slips and climbs up the rocks and then rolls down.
And since we are very far from the roads and the residues of the combustion engines, everything smells. Fresh grass, moss, undergrowth, wild.
And, on the sides, tall trees. So thick that we can only glimpse the blue sky and the rocky walls that drop down from Pogerola and Scala, plunging into the intense green of the forest. An environment that we never thought could exist in the Amalfi coast, so authentic and wild.
The feeling is to be far away. In a lost world, out of time.
In the middle of August, when the temperature by the sea exceeds forty degrees, here, immersed in the thick green crossed by the fresh and fast water, a shiver runs along the back and the breath becomes deep, captures every scent, every mood that surrounds us.
The pleasantly cold breath of the trees flows on our skin and the scent of herbs and hedges fills our lungs, almost numb.
So much so that, with time, space also becomes far away.
At this point I want to sit down. And I do it. A step away from the river that flows down. Towards the city. Slipping into hidden passages, passing under wooden bridges, between trees.
The noise of the water and its particles that go in suspension in the air crossed by the light that filters through the branches and decomposes in its colors is a miracle.
The miracle of water, one of the principles well known by gardeners architects of the past who built the most beautiful architecture in the history of man on this element and its movement. You do not build a garden of enchantment without water.
But the true miracle of the Valley of the Mills I have not yet described. A moment of patience that we get there. I got carried away. I ran too fast.
The anxiety of the water and its contemplation have kidnapped me. But we must get to the water, little by little. Climbing over the Scala mountain along a long path. Before we sit on the sides of the river we have to make a long route.
Let’s go back. I’ll describe, as I can, every element of it.
You can reach the Valley of the Mills starting from the bottom. From Amalfi, that is. From the beach. Cross the Port of Marina, pass through the Duomo and, after a marvellous look at the golden mosaics of Domenico Morelli high in the tympanum, continue along Via Marini, always straight. And you climb, climbing up the valley.
But it is a road that I do not recommend. It is a path suitable to know Amalfi, but not its valley which is much higher, at the foot of the mountains. It is more suggestive and less tiring to get there from above and go down.
The Valley of the Mills and the path from Pontone.
You go to Pontone, a hamlet of Scala, and climb towards the Valle delle Ferriere, taking “shoulders”, so to speak, Amalfi and its Valle dei Mulini.
The starting point is the Piazzetta San Giovanni di Pontone, in front of the small church dedicated to the same saint.
It is a special place. I have to tell here its unique story.
In Pontone, since the early Middle Ages, wool was worked.
The raw material came from Apulia and, loaded on the galleys of the republic, reached the port of Amalfi. From here the wool was transported, in massive bales on the back of a mule, by hanging paths and stairs to Pontone.
The wool was then gathered in the square San Giovanni. To be washed. Because the small widening is built in such a way as to turn into a tub in which to wash the wool. Here was poured water, throughout the night.
The water reached it by a network of canals that descended from the mountains of Scala. The canals were a work of intelligent engineering designed not only to divert the water from the springs to the square but also to distribute it wisely in the farmland of the district to irrigate them.
And we understand how the wisdom and cunning of men have been able to exploit the difficulties of the rough, impervious and inhospitable terrain of the Coast, as opportunities, creative potential, with ideas, in some way, genius.
The basic idea, which transforms this tiring nature into a powerful ally of man, revolves around the water and the way of using its energy. Intensive, intelligent and brilliant employment.
Water falls from above and runs fast: in physics it is said that it has a potential energy and a kinetic, two ways to restore the natural vitality it acquires in its long journey.
So the water from the mountain filled the square that turned into a pool used to soak raw wool.
For the duration of a day the wool was reshuffled and washed with soapy herbs and animal urine. It was then poured into pools of hot water while the dirty water of the pool square was drained away through a long canal that ran on the side walls of the church and then, crossing the countryside and the rocks, down, until reaching the Reed.
Those who are for the first time in Piazza San Giovanni and observe the facade of the church do not miss a curious architectural detail.
Pontone – Church and bell tower of San Giovanni
A half-column is inserted into the main wall not far from the entrance. What is striking is the fact that the column is placed in an “unnatural” manner, so to speak, because it comes out horizontally from the wall, just like a shelf to which something hangs.
And one cannot help but wonder why.
The last time I was there I met Francis.
«Who is he?», you will ask.
He is a friend of mine, engaged in the politics of Scala, his Commune of birth. But he is, above all, a passionate lover of the history of his country.
Every time we meet we have many parties. He offered me coffee in the small bar on the stairs leading to the Valle delle Ferriere.
From there I saw again the curious “horizontal” column.
He looked me in the eye and guessed my thoughts.
He took it from a distance, as if he wanted to create some suspense in the story he was about to tell me.
«I profess’, you’re wondering what that curious column is doing to us, alone in the middle of that facade of the church?».
«It serves as a shelter», he said, with a clever face, of those who were sure that I would not understand.
«The column? Better a pergola to shelter from the water» I said, playing the fool. So he tried more taste to tell me the story. That, I sensed, had to be somehow intriguing.
« And when was the water on the coast ever a problem? Our grandparents have lived thanks to the water. Water is always a blessing for the farmers. Especially for our people who lived in the strait. The ground of the terraces is always little and poor. The water in great quantity blesses him» he said with a wide smile.
«Water is blessed around here. It’s energy. It’s life. Everything moved, since the Middle Ages, thanks to water. Do you see this square? Here, with the piss of cows and goats and water, wool was washed».
«I know it. You have already told me before a good glass of wine».
Some time before, in a pleasant summer evening and in a table of friends in a land near the ruins of Sant’Eustacchio, he told me the whole story of wool and lanaiuoli medieval Scala.
«You never told me anything about the column», I added.
«It’s only one to save space and money». I had to make the face of those who didn’t understand.
I had to make the face of those who did not understand.
« As you can see, the church does not have a porch. It was built by the masters of the Wool Corporation in place of a real porch. That would take away space from the square and its functions and that would certainly cost much more. Many centuries ago, the corporation was an institution for the Scalesi. Everything was governed by the wool masters. All civil life».
«Are you telling me that, unlike the whole of southern Italy, enfeoffed and violent, here, in the shadow of the Republic of Amalfi there was a working-based municipality that had nothing to envy to the free cities of Europe and to the municipalities of central Italy?».
« Professor, how nice it is to be around smart people. You’ve got it all figured out. The Corporation defended Scala, the citizens, the women, provided to lend something of money to those who found themselves in difficulty and to the dowry of the girls as husband and also to those who sought political asylum. “Chella meza culonna”was just for this».
He remained for a moment in silence like the experts narrated in ancient times. He kept me on the rope.
«So what?» I was curious.
He who was persecuted, by anyone, by any man, by the law of a puto putente, put himself under a culonna. Which had the function of a porch, which always covers a protected territory. Accusing the persecuted on duty was safe. They could not touch him. He had entered under the protection of Lana. He relied on the Guild of Lanaiuoli of Scala. And they gave him justice. With their tribunal, in their land, within the church that was our public place, our tribunal, our house of Saint Calesi, was judged impartially. And he deserved it, he enjoyed the protection of the entire population. So much for the powerful of the earth. Have you understood, professed, why Chella Culonna is important to us? It is the symbol of our people, of our memory, of our freedom.
That half-column delimited a space below, in which the right of asylum was valid.
Whosoever shall be persecuted by the law, or by a mighty man, or by the law of a mighty man, in the height of evil, Had he been placed under this column he could not be arrested until after a regular trial governed by impartial judges who would have been appointed by the same persons in charge of the Wool Guild.
I learned that the order of wool was also responsible for the foundation of a “Pio Monte dell’Arte della Lana” which had the aim of protecting, from the economic point of view, the members of the corporation, in case of illness, death and constitution of the dowry for daughters.
«Then are you going to the paper mills?» Francis asked me.
«Yes. It’s the first time I go there».
«What a beauty! You are about to make a great discovery. And experience a great emotion» he said proudly. With the anxiety of someone who has jewels in their safe and kept them just to show them to a dear friend. A collector of paintings and beauties who enjoys seeing them and showing them.
He introduced me to a friend of his who at that moment had appeared at the bar door.
The gentleman you see is a commissioner of forestry. We’re on our way to an inspection of the Valley of the Ironworks. We’ll take a long road together. Then at the crossroads, we will continue upwards and you will fall down towards the old Ferriera building and from there, you will descend towards Amalfi».
Our journey therefore started from the church of the Baptist to head along the path that led out of the houses of Pontone, and headed towards the ironworks of Amalfi.
Continuing in this direction we walked along a mule track that continues slowly and after an initial uphill stretch, along which we met old farmhouses and thick pergolas of grapes, the dirt path descended downwards, skirting the Valley of the Mills.
Along the way I discovered bluebells, aromatic herbs, special plants, ancient ferns, and bumblebees, insects intent on collecting pollen. Those who were there before our eyes, immersed in a spectacular bundle of fragrant lavender, belonged to the family of the Bombus pascuorum.
I saw in the eyes of the old forest ranger a feeling of emotion as he showed me how that incredible insect with a round and massive body, yellow in gold, He jumped from one petal to another and collected pollen in the small pockets that he had tied to his hind legs.
They spoke to me of this species as a miracle of the wood and of the countryside, widespread in the coast, a pollinating hymenopter without which nature would immediately enter into crisis and of how they were precious for many cultivations.
Francesco and his forestry friend were moved to see them in action, passing from flower to flower.
They dwelt on everything. And they told me. They showed happy the riches of the territory.
The valley of the mills now, at that point of our journey, it was seen from above, narrow between the two rocky limestone sides.
We could hear clear and distinct the sound of the river’s water rushing downwards, towards Amalfi and the sea. Every now and then, in the trees, a building appeared, a ruin, a torn roof, a pitched roof. It was the paper mills, the ones I was gonna see up close, what’s left of them.
Paper mill ruins
We continued on the way. Later, after rounding a bridge and a small cottage with a lava stone window, dating back to the first installation of the Amalfitan aqueduct of the fascist era, we reached the crossroads. Here we broke up.
I continued alone. And after a while, the old ironworks of Amalfi appeared to me. What I saw was not the building but a set of ruins completely immersed in the woods.
And here I witnessed the miracle of water.
I glimpsed the course of the river that descended from above and widened into a wide pool of transparent water, between tall trees and, in the background, the mountains and the high valley of the ironworks.
Here boys in a group sat, joked, watched, enjoyed that environment that seemed taken from an ancient story.
The ruins of the ironworks were crossed by water and green.
The Reeds slipped everywhere, flowed on the ancient roofs of the factory, inside, below, came out from many places and fell, noisy, inside dark rooms like caves, in a thousand streams that rejoined, lower, in the bed of the river.
Even the old fall bridge, which originally served to set in motion bellows and hammers, was still crossed by the water that was thrown, in the end, downstairs. A bridge that, according to the building tradition of the ancient workers of the coast, shows the arches of private support of the rinfianchi, in an essential and sophisticated structural simplicity, unusual but not devoid of its sober beauty .
And the trees went through rooms, rooms and windows, completely covered with moss and bushes. Only the imagination made it clear that these were old works made by the hand of man. Nature takes over the space again, bends everything to its dominion, invades, climbs, slips, covers.
I walked slowly. I looked. I felt wonder.
I felt out of this world. Almost stunned by the scent of the forest and the sound of the great fluid mass that fell below, towards the valley.
I had the feeling of being in one of the many watercolors painted by visitors of the nineteenth century. Karel Blechen, Carelli, Gigante. I saw from the truth what they had portrayed in their famous paintings.
And, suddenly, the clear mind of every thought, I felt happy.
I understood Thoreau and his life in the woods. The irrepressible desire to run away.
The irrepressible desire to run away.
Karel Blechen, The Valley of the Mills
In the background the ironworks
It was clear to me that you can also escape from our world, from the collectivity of men. That sometimes you can no longer. That we built a trap and called it civilization.
But, in these cases, words are not worth it. There is only an ancient feeling. A desire to escape.
Out. Away, away.
Clear the mind, the soul flees away. It chases I don’t know what thoughts and archaic feelings that still survive within us.
Deep down. Buried. Secret cravings and forgets.
And I felt close to my Irish friend Leo who, occasionally, goes to live in a cave in the mountains of Agerola.
Alone. Away from everyone.
With his watercolours, his thoughts and the desire to stay apart, far away.
And I also understood Mauro Corona and his damned desire to stay outside. To write about ancient and simple things. Mountains, forests, animals and men that go alone along the paths of ancient woods.
Thomas Ender, The ruins of the Amalfi Ironworks
The Ironworks of Amalfi stopped working in the mid-eighteenth century.
Built at the beginning of the fourteenth century, it enjoyed the special privilege of not being subject to the state monopoly of iron and was also served by the efficient port of Amalfi. In any case, then, the Amalfitans were skilled sailors, able to escape any form of sea control. The inaccessibility of the place where the plant stood, lost at the bottom of the valley of Amalfi, the ancient privileges and cunning of the Amalfi navy decreed its success for about four centuries and beyond.
Valley of the Mills, engraving of Redmond
I went down and met the other buildings. First, a hydroelectric power station with a rectangular plan, lying along the path of the Canneto, with the roof completely breached. The position was the right one to allow his dynamos to fish in the river, to spin and thus generate energy.
Inside I saw the remains of electrical components and, outside, an old metal pylon.
The facade towards the valley showed two levels above ground and brought a sign in which I was able to read again the inscription “Power plant”.
Around the body of the factory the water of the reeds was divided into numerous ducts and streams.
The large rotor of an old dynamo was still visible in the lower room.
And I wondered why a non-polluting electricity generation system in that location was abandoned and not, on the contrary, upgraded. The water continues, even today, to flow downwards with all its unchanged vigour.
I don’t want to do complicated calculations. But would not installing a series of such units provide, if not to ensure all the energy consumption of Amalfi, at least a substantial contribution? And wouldn’t that be a source that’s still out there, still usable without a shot? But there is little to ask about the meaning of man’s actions. The answer is always the same.
Our age is essentially animated by a bully and unfortunate lust for convenience. The immediate one, under the eyes, of ready consumption. Without thinking about the greater and greater conveniences.
Solar, Valley of the Mills
But now that the things of the planet are taking a bad turn of scarcity of resources and colossal fall it would not be right to think back to installations of dynamo rotors in cascade that no damage would bring to the environment? Could we not, once again, take advantage of the river Canneto and of the clean energy that its luxuriant flowing downstream could offer us?
Going down, you meet the paper mills.
Almost all now irretrievable ruins.
Originally, in the Middle Ages, here were planted fulling mills and mills. Then, with the discovery of paper and the primacy of the Amalfitani and the people of Fabriano in the manufacture of this precious material, all the old factories were transformed into paper mills and the production of Amalfi paper began.
How a paper mill works I’ll talk about elsewhere.
Too interesting and complex the speech to force him in this my telling that chases another end.
The buildings that I saw and that survive along the reeds assume, today, a strong meaning of other nature. They contribute to the definition of a wide-ranging landscape and cultural environment that has much to teach.
Gonsalvo Carelli, The Mills of the Valley
Just the way it is. Based on the strong contrast: the paper mills like ruins, remnants of a glorious past, of a past greatness, definitively set and the landscape, the nature that survives and overwhelms, overbearing and obstinate.
A complete realization of a romantic principle, pursued for decades by most European artists. That of the “landscape with ruins”, the sense of the past that is irretrievably lost. Of which only the remains survive.
Here everything happened by chance. As in life. As by a curious whim of destiny.
And therefore it is marked by a particular beauty, by an unprecedented strength.
In this way the Valley of the Mills honours the memory and theories of artists such as William Turner, Dante Gabriele Rossetti, William Morris and thinkers such as John Ruskin. And above all it responds to an improbable fantasy that follows an entire historical epoch and tries to reconstruct its flavour. The medieval craft, a dreamy and improbable era, lived only in their bright fantasies of romance, made in a completely invented style, that neo-Gothic that marked an entire creative season of England that took its first steps into the era of modernity, that style, I said, is here, in the valley of mills, a historical fact.
Unrepeatable whim of destiny that reassembles, from the fragments of the story of a sunset Republic and its successive vicissitudes, an entire geographical region, an environment just with the same spirit of a watercolor by Turner, or of a ruin dreamt of by the many landscaping-gardeners architects who moved on the suggestions of those great artists-intellectuals who foreshadowed, in modernity, the opening of an entire season of horrors directed against nature and then against humanity itself.
The Valley of the Mills is therefore, today, an involuntary work of art – and therefore infinitely more beautiful and suggestive than that due to the imagination of a single creator – the result of the whim of destiny and the lack of attention to the business mentality of the contemporary era.
Certainly, John Ruskin would have been one of the most staunch supporters of the Valley’s particular beauty if he had passed through here.
But this meeting did not happen. He made time, in just one afternoon, to see the lower part of Amalfi, the coastline that represented in a famous watercolor, pride of all Amalfi, continually mentioned and represented.
A view of the city from the perspective of the Tower of San Francesco. A quick watercolor, a fleeting and strong impression of the forms of the urban profile, just mentioned, under a colored sky, diaphanous, lost in blue on the mountains above the bell tower.
John Ruskin, View of Amalfi
The English poet who loved Venice and its history would have gone mad if he had descended along the Reed and had seen the ruins of the paper mills as they appear to us today.
But at the time, all the paper mills would still be in operation.
His theory of restoration that wants buildings as living beings, equipped with a life cycle at the end, here is a singular confirmation. Beauty is not eternal but also transitory, ephemeral, just like the existence of men, destined for an end.
The buildings, Ruskin says, must be allowed to die even if, like the living, it is necessary to give them all the care to assist them and help them to live as long as possible.
A singular coincidence with what happens in the Valley of the Mills that seems, therefore, a real hymn to the romantic philosophy, delicate and somehow desperate, the great English intellectual author of The stones of Venice, who admired, much more than the Italians, our land and its extraordinary beauties.
I continued to descend along the stream. As I went on I saw the old buildings one after the other.
The paper mills appeared to me as old dead bodies, ghosts of a time gone by.
The first was that of Filippo Milano, a building still in good condition, covered by a double pitched roof and a small terrace on which you could see a grape pergola.
It was closed. I then knew that inside there were still all the ancient instruments of the paper production cycle but in a state of abandonment. Debris and dust-covered remains.
Later I saw what was left of two nearby paper mills, Nolli and Treglia, abandoned in the sixties. They had been plundered of everything, all these years, from furniture and furnishings of all kinds to machinery. Even the fixtures were torn off the walls.
I went down and was struck by the suggestion of two singular buildings, also semi-destroyed, belonging to the Lucibello paper mill. Two daring bridge structures, which, crossing the river, joined the banks.
The original wooden roof trusses had collapsed and time had done the rest. Here it was worked until the forties.
Later, another construction, the confetti factory owned by the Pansa family. Its very elongated planimetric shape allowed its reuse to produce paper. His condition, despite his state of neglect, did not seem desperate to me.
At the end there was, almost in the urban fabric of Amalfi, the paper mill De Luca, owned, in the past, the family Confalone, in good condition.
And then, along the road leading to the marina, the Museum of Paper, that is still today in the building of the paper mill of Nicola Milano, the last working, in order of time.
Then there is, of course, the paper mill Ferdinando Amatruda, the only one in Amalfi still in full swing. Its current shape retains remarkable similarities with the image depicted in nineteenth-century paintings and watercolors.
At the end I returned to the life of Amalfi, noisy and cheerful, in its alleys, stairs, calluses and underpasses dark and fresh.
All that nature and past history had entered me with arrogance under my skin.
But also the meaning of life and its flow.
And I thought that places like the Valley of the Mills are to be preserved as-are, without touching anything, not even a blade of grass. They’re there for a purpose, even if we often pretend not to notice. To teach men, young people, scholars the obstinacy of past generations, their heroic character as Ruskin argues, the strength and humility they had towards nature.
In a word, they are our memory, our meaning, our continuity.
I came out of the Valley even more convinced of my idea. And with the feeling that, somewhere, there was an order, a construct. It eluded me but it was there.
The sense of its presence was there everything. Even if we persist, sometimes, to turn our heads elsewhere.
There is a world, an order, plants, animals, air, water, essences that deserve our respect. To live as they choose. Without suffering our arrogant will to gain.
As Kipling wrote, nature takes revenge and reappears in what has been taken from her with strength and determination.
And I told myself that I had been lucky, very lucky to take that long walk and to witness a part of that place’s life and that past history.
I took a deep breath.
Suddenly the sadness of the things that went down passed me. I felt good.
As if I were part of something. Although I knew that I would never fully understand what.
The mind trespasses in philosophy sometimes. And then there is a remedy. Infallible.
And I ran to get a coffee, a good coffee in the Panza bar, just below the Duomo.
We’ll talk about the Duomo, maybe. But later.
For now, let’s pay attention to our coffee restaurant.