In Lisa Clifford’s new book, she counts down the lead up to the murder of Artemino, brutally killed a century ago in a small Tuscan village. With each turn of the page, Lisa provides insights into the way the lower class Tuscans lived back then.
Each week, Artviva offers the chance to meet Lisa, and listen to her explain the process of writing her latest book ‘Death in the Mountains’. But for those of you who cannot attend our Artviva Festival each Tuesday and Friday (until the end of October), we have this wonderful article by writer Lisa Clifford about ‘Death in the Mountains’.
Whilst reading the article is certainly not the same as attending the Artviva Festival, and we cannot provide you online with a glass of prosecco as we do upon arrival to the festival, the article does still give you a good idea of the process Lisa went through to write her fascinating book!
BY LISA CLIFFORD:
I don’t remember exactly when my Italian mother-in-law told me that her grandfather was murdered. I’ve known my husband’s mother for almost thirty years, so it must have been during the early part of my romance with her Florentine son that she mentioned how her grandfather had been beaten to death in the family barn. What I do remember however, was how surprised I was by her casual attitude towards the killing. With a shrug and a ‘bo!’ (which is Florentine for ‘who knows?’), she told me that the murder had never been reported to the police, had never been investigated and that no-one had any idea who would kill her grandfather or why.
‘Maybe it was the mafia?’ I suggested in my naivety, not sure whether the Sicilian camorra had a treacherous arm that stretched as far as Tuscany. ‘Or,’ I tried again, ‘maybe he owed someone money?’ All my mother-in-law would say was, ‘no, no, you don’t understand. It happened one hundred years ago when life was cheap in Tuscany. We were poor farmers. No-one could have cared less about my grandfather.’ So though I don’t recall when I was told, I’ll never forget how surprised I was that my Italian husband’s family could so nonchalantly dismiss their grandpa Artemio’s murder as ‘that was just the way things were.’
Following a long distance relationship that see-sawed my boyfriend and I between Sydney and Florence for eighteen years, we finally married and I have been living in Tuscany now for twelve years. But instead of accepting grandpa Artemio’s killing as a closed murder case, I found that the passage of time only served to increase my interest in nonna’s revelations. The circumstances surrounding the killing did not make sense. How strange that someone could be attacked in their own barn and no questions were ever asked or answered. How soul destroying for Grandma Bruna to battle on alone, with seven children, without her husband. I couldn’t let the mystery go. So, with nonna’s permission, I began to investigate the killing myself.
Firstly, I had to understand the old Tuscan farming community. According to the Communita Montana del Casentino, up to seventy percent of rural Tuscany was farmed under the mezzadria farming system when Grandpa Artemio was killed in 1907. Whole families worked as sharecroppers who paid half of everything they produced to their land’s owners. Once the owners had been paid, the food left over for the mezzadro (the farmer), was barely sufficient to avoid starvation.
And so the first pieces of the puzzle, and the focus of my book, Death in the Mountains, the True Story of a Tuscan Murder began to fall together. Once I realised how few people really grasped the level of poverty in Tuscany, only one or two generations ago, I felt compelled to tell the farmers’s stories. The desire to recreate my husband’s family, so as to help people see what country life was like, consumed me for another reason too. There is enormous international focus on Tuscany and its glamorous villas that are renovated and turned into luxury holiday destinations. But how many foreigners truly understand what went on behind those solid, rustic walls, before they were restored? Buying and re-building the Tuscan villa has been romanticized in so many novels and magazines. My husband’s family, like hundreds of thousands of other Italian families, was forced to abandon their country home in favour of the city in a bid to make a decent living. Knowing this, I felt a strong need to honour all those forgotten rural men, women and children. The Tuscan villa, or casa colonica, is what it is today because of them. Yet, in contemporary English literature set in Italy, their stories are rarely mentioned.
Interestingly, while writing the book, it was not Grandpa Artemio who so captured my imagination. It was Grandma Bruna. It was through her that I was really able to give my readers the feeling of Tuscany one hundred years ago. Grandma Bruna had a strong spirit and almost all the family stories that were passed down concerned her, not Artemio. She bound her babies from armpits to ankles until they were eighteen months old to ‘straighten their legs’ and because it was the only childcare (apart from the rabbit’s cage) that she could afford. The Tuscans called these babies ‘salaminos’ – because they looked like little salamis, all wrapped and swaddled. It was Grandma Bruna who on Sundays rose at dawn to attend a six o’clock mass, said especially for the housewives, so that she could go back home and spruce up her family for a later service, which she missed because she had to stay behind to cook the Sunday lunch. Grandma Bruna was a complex mix of superstition and religious faith, a woman who cared fiercely for her children and the land and animals that sustained them. She gave me an insight into why the traditional Italian woman of today appears submissive to her husband, yet is not at all malleable.
In an emotional sense, writing Death in the Mountains gave me more than I had bargained for. The killing of Grandpa Artemio was a big event in the family village, which is located in Casentino, the north-eastern, mountainous area of Tuscany, north of Arezzo and east of Florence. When I talked to the old people, cousins and elderly farmer folk who still live nearby, they recalled with great clarity what their past relatives had said about the famous murder of Artemio Bruni. In 1907 almost everyone who worked the land was illiterate, so there was a lot of gossip, but no letters or journals to go by. It was only by talking with people that I could figure out what happened in the months leading up to Grandpa Artemio’s murder. Three years passed in this fashion, chatting and then reinventing the characters of Artemio and Bruna from the anecdotes and memories of those around me. Subsequently, I became so entranced by this long ago family, that I almost forgot my main aim was to discover the murderer. Who would have thought, after years of trying to imagine their thoughts and reactions, that I would have grown to love them both so much? Perhaps that’s what all writers feel for their characters as their novel takes shape; a growing tenderness as you nurture your protagonists from imagination to the page. Still, nothing prepared me for the genuine grief I felt when one day, fate led me to the one cousin who held the key. He told me who killed Grandpa Artemio and why. It was a heart wrenching moment, discovering the assassin’s identity. Nonna was with me and I felt her sadness keenly.
In view of that, did I have a right to write this book? Many times I felt as though I was interfering, trespassing on emotionally sensitive land that was better left unexplored. What right did I have to go around talking to people, opening old wounds? Metaphorically speaking, who was I to disturb the grave of a century old murdered man? To proceed towards publication was out of the question if my husband’s family did not want me to. But nonna supported Death in the Mountains from beginning to end. She enjoyed my interest in her ancestors. She talked through her memories of growing up hungry on her father and grandfather’s farm, while I sat by watching my children play, with notebook in hand. Sometimes, when she thought of how poor her family was, she was sorrowful. Mostly though, the memories of her teenage years, tending the sheep in the woods in solitude, making the ricotta and pecorino cheese, made her smile.
When we eventually, and surprisingly, discovered who killed Grandpa Artemio, nonna shrugged her classic, ‘bo!’ but then she told me to go ahead and write Death in the Mountains. Nonna felt that it was a story that should be told. But she insisted that her real name never be used. She said it was important not to upset the family of the man who killed her grandfather.
You see, they still live nearby and to this day they have no idea that their grandfather murdered Grandpa Artemio.
To hear Lisa Clifford speak more about the process of writing her book and uncovering a 100-year-old murder mystery, come along to the Artviva Festival each Friday throughout October. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on Italy +39 055 264 5033.