SPIRITS OF THE MOUNTAINS
by Judith Fein
photos by Paul Ross
In the region of Umbria, in central Italy, in the mountains above the medieval town of Spello and the nearby city of Foligno, there is a tiny village with a total population of eight. This represents a population explosion, because, until recently, the population was a mere five. Surprisingly, there is a huge baroque church in the village, and locals say the church was built by “donations.” They also refer mysteriously to the “father and son healers who live in Cancelli.”
PilgrimMaurizio Cancelli, who lives in the village by the same name, is a robust man of about fifty with wild hair, broad gestures, and a twinkle in his eyes. If you ask him if he is a healer, he will deny it, although he acknowledges that people come from all over Italy for his help. When pressed, he agrees to tell visitors his most unusual story.
“Legend has it that the apostles Peter and Paul came through here two millennia ago to spread the gospel. The Cancelli family lived here, and they were simple shepherds. There was an ancient town near here called Civitella, so it wasn’t as out-of-the-way as it is today. Civitella was a walled city, and when the apostles arrived it was night, the gate was closed.”
Cancelli takes a deep breath, and then continues his story in rapid-fire Italian. “So the apostles came to Mr. Cancelli and asked for hospitality. At the time, the Cancelli family lived in a hut, but Mr. Cancelli took the apostles in for the night.”
In the morning, the grateful apostles did a service for Mr. Cancelli. He was suffering from rheumatism or arthritis and they performed a hands-on healing, in the tradition of Jesus. Miraculously, Cancelli was healed. The apostles told him that whoever had faith in them–and therefore faith in Jesus or God–would be healed.
“From that day on,” Cancelli says, “the gift of healing has remained here in the village and has been passed on from father to son. But they have to live here. You see, the gift of healing is linked to hospitality and receiving people. They can travel, but if the person with the gift leaves Cancelli, the healing just won’t work.”
Maurizio Cancelli was raised with this tradition. He learned the healing from his father, and he has taught it to his son. “I say the prayer in Italian,” Cancelli reports, “but I found out from my friend, a Benedictine monk, that the prayer was originally in Hebrew, and it was the prayer fathers said to bless their sons. This helped to validate the story about the apostles for me. It was a sort of proof.”
Cancelli is a down-to-earth man, who was taught the technique by his father when he was ten years old. He grew up, got involved with politics, city government, raising a family and developing his skills as a fine art painter, so he didn’t have the free time or peace of mind to attend to the family legacy. Instead, he let his father and his own son carry on the tradition. “But now my father is old and his memory is gone. He can’t do it any more. My son is 25 years old, and I hope he will stay here, but it’s hard for him. We’re in the middle of nowhere. So the responsibility lies with me.”
Every week, people seek out Cancelli for surcease from suffering and pain. He usually does his healing work in the church, which was entirely built from donations left by people who were treated. But the church suffered damage during an earthquake in 1997, and is closed for restoration. So now Maurizio Cancelli works in a wooden hut–which is probably closer in spirit to the kind of house the original Cancelli lived in.
Cancelli decided that he wanted to find out if the family legend was true, so he began to do research. He found out that in the mid 1600’s, there was the council of Trent, and the church, which was trying to control people, forbid the healing practice by his family; they saw it as a possible threat to their power. “The bishop in nearby Foligno wanted to stop it, so he ex-communicated one of my ancestors,” Cancelli reports.
The ex-communicated ancestor put a curse on the bishop for stopping him from healing people. The malediction went something like this: “You will fall sick and have to come to me to be healed.” And so it happened. The bishop needed Cancelli’s help, and Cancelli was soon back in business, so to speak, even though there was never any exchange of money between the healer and his patients. It was always strictly a matter of donations.
In 1840, Pius IX was bishop of Spoleto and often came to Cancelli. Then he became pope and went to live in Rome. He developed a serious case of arthritis and sent two Swiss guards to fetch Giovan Battista Cancelli, who was the carrier of the gift at that time. Cancelli was out cutting wood to make charcoal, and he was dirty from head to toe. He was picked up and put in the pope’s carriage; understandably, he was terribly frightened. No one explained to him where he was going or why. He thought that he was being arrested.
To Cancelli’s amazement, he was deposited in the Vatican, cleaned, bathed, and taken to the pope. He worked his magic on the pontiff, and then the latter asked him, “What should I do now?” With great simplicity and innocence, Cancelli replied, “Have faith.”
The next day, the pope was healed. He granted an audience to an English gentleman who asked for a blessing for his sick wife. The pope referred the request to Cancelli, and the wife was healed. The story spread about Cancelli’s gift.
How did Maurizio Cancelli find out about this story? “The pope’s secretary wrote to the bishop of Foligno saying he should instruct Cancelli in proper Christianity because he had the nerve to tell the pope to have faith! So there was a written record.”
Cancelli has traced the family tradition back to the 1200’s. “It makes me shiver that since that time, there has been no interruption in the lineage. The gift has been passed down, always to a male, father to son.
Cancelli pauses again, and reflects that people who live in close contact with nature have higher powers and great insight. This is what made him become a shepherd, and he now keeps forty-five sheep on the hills of the small village. “My ancestors were simple people, ” he says. “They had no sophistication but they had contact with nature.”
When Cancelli was in his 20’s, he was skeptical about the family powers. He reluctantly accompanied his father to see a critically ill man in a faraway village. After a hands-on healing, neither the elder nor the younger Cancelli thought the man would survive. Some time later, they were visiting the same remote village, and they stopped in at the man’s house to see if he was still alive. To their astonishment, the man’s wife answered the door and said that the day after the healing, her husband had gotten up and gone to work in his fields.
“It was a shock to me, almost like a slap in the face,” says Cancelli. “That was the event that made me drop my skepticism. Now I am committed to remaining here. I am an artist. I have had offers, and I have had doubts, but I was never seriously tempted. Doctors come here for help. Poor people come here for help. This is what I must do.”
Cancelli leads visitors who have come for help into a small wooden hut with a simple altar and portraits of the two apostles on the wall. He lights a candle, beckons the person seeking a cure to kneel on a small stool, and then Cancelli runs his hands lightly over the person’s shoulder, spine, legs, feet. He intones a prayer as he does this.
After the healing, Cancelli refuses to explain his work or speak any more about it. It’s almost as if he is afraid that saying too much will disturb the healing energy. He willingly talks about his wonderfully vivid paintings, that are combinations of nature and classical architecture. The architecture SEEMS logical, but it is as whimsical and impossible as the works of Escher.
In the family tradition, Cancelli offers guests hospitality. He has opened a restaurant called “Locando dei due Apostoli” where divine food is served at lunch time and dinner time at very affordable prices. A typical meal might include antipasto (with fresh, home-made prosciutto), pasta with truffles, grilled sheep that is raised in Cancelli, rocciata (an Umbrian speciality made of nuts, walnuts, apples, pine nuts, raisins, sugar and bread crumbs), a local liquor called Alchermens, and wine.
In nearby Le Due Torri (Two Towers), there is another mountain man who has a wonderful tale to tell. Fabio Ciri explains, in excellent English, that in this remote place there is “a spirit speaking through the wind.” The two tall stone towers on his property harken back to medieval times, when they served as fortified watch towers.
Ciri, a thoroughly modern man, studied the history of the region, and developed a passionate interest in pilgrims. After the fall of Rome and the barbarian invasions, the population endured centuries of devastating war and destruction, and they scattered into the countryside and woods, where they lived and eked out a meager existence from the land.
Slowly, but with increasing intensity over time, people began to feel the need to gather together again. Villages and towns began to emerge, churches and castles and fortifications were built, and a religious fervor swept through all social classes throughout Europe. People were driven by spiritual goals, and they set out for Holy destinations to erase their wordly sins and save their souls. In Jerusalem, in Santiago de Compostela and in Rome, they hoped to obtain plenary indulgence.
By the year 1000, an astounding twenty million European pilgrims took to the religious trails (out of a total population of forty million) and the boom in ancillary services catapulted humanity from ancient and barbarian times to the Renaissance and modern times. Food, wine, clothing and shoes were needed. Merchants and traders offered religious items to holy trekkers, which they would sew into their cloaks as they undertook the long voyage home. Carpenters and builders had to build inns, dwellings, hospitals and religious structures. As a response to unsafe roads between towns, fortified walls and towers and castles were constructed. Le Due Torri is a vivid reminder of those times.
Ciri comes out from one of the l8th century farmhouses on his property to show visitors the ancient pilgrim footpaths that wind through the valley. He gets a faraway look in his eyes, and he contemplates the mystical past and those who walked the land in search of salvation.
If prodded, Ciri will ceremoniously don the traditional, period pilgrim garb which he has laboriously reconstructed. He holds a pole with seashells from Santiago de Compostela, keys from Rome (reminiscent of St. Peter), a palm leaf from Jerusalem, and bells to announce to locals that he is on the pilgrim path (this would help to ensure safety from robbers). His body is draped with a robe, he wears simple sandals on his feet, and his head sports a hat to protect him from the elements. He carries a gourd for water, and a large pouch sewn into his robe serves as his only “suitcase” for personal belongings.
In medieval times, there were rules of hospitality that developed around the lives of the spirit seekers. Pilgrims were hosted for free for three days in hostels that dotted the pilgrim trails, generally 10 to 20 kilometers apart (the distance a pilgrim could cover in one day). Ciri has researched the property of Due Torri and it was a place where hospitality was offered for holy walkers on the ancient Flaminian road that led to and from Venice, Padua, Ancona and Rome.
To preserve the tradition, Ciri has opened the Due Torri stone farmhouses up to agriturism–farm hospitality that is a burgeoning new wave in Italian tourism. Visitors can stay overnight, or for several days, and Ciri offers breakfast and half-board. He has installed a pool, a childrens’ playground, a bocce field, table tennis and table football. There are also country touring and mountain bikes, and his sister Manuela, a highly qualified naturalist and botanist, leads hikes upon request.
“If people are interested in pilgrims,” Ciri says,” then I can offer them an authentic pilgrim meal. I am learning more and more about the pilgrims–what they ate, how they lived, and what those long, long walks were like. Just imagine–even royalty took to the trails. Personal spirituality was serious business.”
Both Cancelli and Les Due Torri offer travelers respite from the hectic pace of tourism. They can relax, eat, learn from their hosts, and even be healed. There is a mystical history to both places that still permeates the present and visitors with an open heart and mind will certainly feel the connection.
IF YOU GO:
From Foligno or Spoleto, drive to San Eraclio and follow the signs to Roviglieto or Cancelli. Restaurant dei due Apostoli in Cancelli:Tel: 0742 632600 or fax: 0742 632590
LE DUE TORRI: www.seeumbria.com firstname.lastname@example.org Telephone: 39-0742-651-249
For visitors wishing to spend time in Umbria to explore other sacred and religious sites, apartments and villas can be rented from The Parker Company, www.theparkercompany.com 1-800 280-2811
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT UMBRIA:
www.umbriabest.com www.umbria.org/eng/default.asp (or you can just go to www.umbria.org and select the English version icon) www.initaly.com/regions/umbria/umbria.htm
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