Rome: from Third to First

This is a story about one of Nikolay Gogol's trips to Italy during 1843, one of the least researched years in the life of this writer and visionary. The first volume of 'Dead Souls' had been completed in Rome and published in St. Petersburg. At the summit of his fame the Russian writer leaves for Rome again in order to recuperate and work on the second volume of the novel.

However Gogol has a plan his biographers know nothing about. In Rome he is supposed to meet with Padre Lorenzo Sforza, a Franciscan monk with a Gift of exorcism. From two letters – a letter from Padre Lorenzo to Señor Nicolo and a response of the Russian writer Nikolay Gogol that are reconstructed and displayed at the Moscow Museum exhibition – we learn about their mutual interest in the underground complex Grotte di Frasassi and a fate of a small XI c. chapel. Due to unknown reasons these structures had been abandoned. Padre wrote about an epidemic of demonic possession in these places…

Compositionally the project consists of two parts. The first part tells about an accident that happened on the 13th mile of the dusky Russian highway. During the hour between dog and wolf the troika stops at the sound of a howling pack of wolves. The writer and the driver with arms in their hands are ready to withstand the attack… The challenge of the Russian gothic brings us to the second part of the project. In Italy Gogol in melancholy wanders about noble ruins of the Eternal City, before or after conversations with Padre Lorenzo. He is looking for places for watercolor sketches and he ponders over dead and alive souls. These contemplations will be included into the second volume of his Opus Magnum. The photoprints show the way of Nikolay Gogol to Padre Lorenzo.

This story is represented in a series of 24 photoprints created with XIX century technology. The mystification atmosphere is supported by Baroque dub-ambient composed by Igor Vdovin. A borderline between worlds is demonstrated in a 10-minute video. Gogol is leading the shaft horse by the reins showing to the Troika (in a staged allegorical form) the inescapable way from the Third Rome to the First one.

'Lead and Cobalt' Partnership: Elena Samorodova, Sergey Sonin, Gleb Volodich, Dmitry Khvorostov, Grigory Kalinin

Composer: Igor Vdovin


Honorable Señor Nicolo!

I am saluting and blessing the time of the day when my letter will be delivered to you! I hope it will reach you in the last preparations and readiness to another journey to the Italian land. I hasten to learn how your health and mind is, what do you eat? Do you enjoy the great success of your Opus Magnum in your homeland, the echo of which roaring reached Rome already? your life and literary work you not once met direct metaphysical challenges thrown down to you as a Russian nobleman and a literary man. In the current case I am affronted with this challenge not only as a Benedictine, a servant of God, but also as an Italian aristocrat from the old Patrician family. I felt the first inner thrust and, probably, inner illumination, when I read a letter with the command from the General of my Order (Abbot Primus) who grudgingly described the events happening near Ancona with a demand to go to those places taking all necessary precautions, since the Pontifical power is still exhausted with the despoliation by the merciless Corsican and it has not returned ultimately; gangs cut up rough everywhere, starting from Gallic and Austrian marauders to other motley robbers and smugglers, and monks reconnoiters often disappear without leaving a trace... Within a mile from a small village at the bottom of the Apennines there was a gipsy camping ground. Members of the nomadic tribe again started entering the Papal States, benefiting from the weakness of the power and circulation of disruptive ideas of nihilistic libertinage and support of the Carbonari by the population, and simply from superstitious fears that are incurable among peasants. (And we are not talking about following encyclics of Leo XII and our Pontific Pope Gregory XVII, in addition the state of churches and attitudes is lamentable).

I was travelling from Rome to Acona for two weeks, in distressing apprehension and expectation of the unknown, over the Italian lands devastated by the second epidemic of cholera and wars, until I reached, by the grace of God, a small village over the Frasassi gorge. From this place there was an old road to the mountains, almost lost in juniper bushes, it takes you to an inconspicuous entrance to the grotto where in the XI century Benedictines built Capella Santa Maria del Frasassi, and fifteen years ago they built a basilica by the order of Pontific Leo XII. The Vatican returns its lands in order to maintain God's work everywhere. On the second day of my stay in the village, during hora sexta, my invisible stigmata began burning and itching unbearably.

…When I was coming out of the outskirts of consciousness and a host of dismal visions, I was praying, sweating and trying to focus on a darkened crucifix below the intersecting ceiling beams in the room of the previous podesta that I had been given. Sometimes the door to my room was opened by a deaf and mute old woman with a jar in her hands, who was looking at me remaining in the dark. Then she would leave the jar with water by the entrance without stepping into the room. I crawled to it from my corner and drank greedily.

...having noticed us, the gipsy snatched their knives. Someone shouted to them and an old heavyset gypsy man stepped forward. There were no doubts that he was a chief. In his knotty hand he was holding a torch illuminating his black-bearded face. In the flash of fire I noticed that he had a brand. He looked at us quietly and darkly, and then he addressed me directly. He was speaking confidently and vaguely using words from different dialects, but I understood him. The physical tension from the look of his black oily eyes, in which reflected sparks were dancing slowly like fire salamanders in an alchemist laboratory, returned the burning feeling of stigmata and rooted me to the spot.

...walking around juniper bushes I heard goats bleating and quiet singing. I stopped and listened, I could not distinguish the words and I did not know the language. The singing pierced my heart and in the tune itself there was an ominous inescapability. I took a step in order to follow the voice, but I tripped on a rock and fell down. I dropped the torch and it went out. .

... I crawled into a narrow grotto that was getting wider with my movement, and I found myself on the rim rock. And at this moment recognition of the events began returning to me and I saw myriads of moving lights that, like ignis fatum, were illuminating a great karst hall created by the raging will that was presented by the parting galleries of stalagnates. This is when the Nature itself, fantastically and at times in a sinister way, combines stalactites and stalagmites in karst strains hidden at the foot of the mountains and going up into the depth of mountain rocks. And in these wet and cold shadows, in the shining of the moving lights, a girl was dancing among the calciferous architecture. She was naked, her skin was of the color of ancient dull marble, and her loose hair was garlands of braided grass nests. She was moving slowly around the columns. Her eyes were open, as if upside down, and cast…, ghastly moving over the basal part of the dome. Life was only in the lights' movement. This grotto was an organ. A hydraulicon. But who was that Ctesibius who had created it? In order to depict and describe it, a new Markus Vetruvious Pollio will be needed! This slow and suppressing music, as a refined eternal torture, was created by water moving through endless limestone voids and howling of winds inside the columns.

...and at this moment the air was rent by a piercing shriek, I was attacked by thousands of creatures that were drumming their webbed wings and sweeping past me at the same time scratching my hands over my eyes. The flying denizens of hell were returning to their grotto after the night hunt. I felt the taste of my own blood and lost consciousness right at the entrance.

…he threw me something that glistened in the first morning light. He again laughed, turned around and went up over the ridge. Without turning back he shouted over his shoulder: 'Padre, take it as a memento about us!'... Goats were bleating as they left.

...on the dry stony ground there was a blind salamander drying in the rays of the rising sun. What was happening to me was slow and it resembled a dream, as if I was watching from the sidelines.

…gunshots were heard from far away in the valley, there were voices and horses neighing. I sat down on the ground with my back to a pine tree. I was so exhausted I could not walk towards them.

…I was still utterly speechless.

...I could listen and words and meanings penetrated me. The Podesta told me that above that place, he meant the grotto local peasants were scared to enter because they thought it was condemned, there used to be a pagan sanctuary where sacrifices were offered and things sacrificed to idols were eaten. During the turmoil time and wars paganism is released in dark souls and it develops into pandemic. The Lord gave us the best and verified remedies: the Fire and the Word protecting the Divine Law. They are able to withstand tactical attacks of Hell.

...I saw carcasses of burnt carts and several bloated corpses of horses, and vultures were sitting on them tearing the decaying flesh. They did not pay any attention to us. The Podesta said that gendarmes had killed the chief and several men who refused submission to arrest, other people had been taken away. I faced away and said a prayer. The carriage moved on. We did not talk about what had happened and we were silent all the way. From Ascona I sent all necessary letters and received an order to return to Rome. And right before my departure I am writing to you, Señor Nicolo. My gown does not allow me to think about writer's laurels, but maybe you found in my story something worthy your contemplation about similar things that you shared with me when we met.

I am setting out to Rome where I will serve, pray for you and wait for our meeting. I am sure that walks over the Hills will inspire you for new watercolors, and you will have your appetite back as soon as you find yourself in a mile from osteria La Vecchia Lepre which you liked so much, where for two centuries everything remains unchanged!

Salve Señor Nicolo and let your journey to Rome be undisturbed!

Padre Lorenco Sforza, monk

Salve Señor Lorenzo! Salve padre!

Your letter was delivered right on the wake of the pre-Lent week of Maslennitsa, when all packing and preparations for the trip had been finished, having taken the stuffing out of me. But my hardships fade in comparison with Your ordeal and, allow me, my soul, with all this impertinence, a breathtaking description of adventures that fell on You.

The faithful faith, this is what led and preserved you. «The faithful faith» is wordplay, of course, much of a muchness as we say. But if we say fight fire with fire and a double hayfork, our wordplay on double safety is in line with other sayings.

And now You, thank God and your own perfections, are out of danger, you are alive and you can continue working in your field, helping to liberate the possessed and the fallen who are suffering from the mundane and who are consumed by hell which is below us and often inside us.

During the hour between dog and wolf that we – the Slavs and the Romans – perceive differently, my dexterous valet Semyon, on tip-toes but with a great clatter, solemnly brought in a letter. I was wakening from thick uneasy dreams, wiping the perspiration on my face with the night cap. I had a dream that I was a squirrel running away from a weasel, and then that I was a weasel chasing a squirrel on fur-tree tops clinking from February frost. When I almost reached the squirrel it doubled and its two halves ran every which way.

...It is never good to sleep before sunset.

But do we often follow our vows?!

I was late with my departure because things were totally disarranged, the «success» turned out to be a soap bubble, a slap in the face, it led to total exhaustion and hallucinations. I had to amuse and terrify myself pointing a finger to the mirror: Oh, you transparent mummy!.. Right away you start laughing at yourself, burning your skin with hot wax from a candle.

...And then, it seemed, all my troubles and worries were gone, the imperial permit and travelling papers were received and I only had to call a fraternity party and next morning to set off with post horses.

It is only on the Road where I feel serenity, as precious stones of prompts and conceptions spin around peacefully and widely.

But there happened a challenge of common life: I was without means for the journey (I am not going to bore You with details). I was ready to fall into despondence and that indifferent «black melancholy» that You, Señor Lorenzo, were writing about.

And at that point, with all his natural tact, my august ruler and benefactor, Nikolay Pavlovich, whose portrait I am taking to You as a gift, remembered me and eventually there was no surrender to circumstances, as the unexpected obstacle was removed. In his own right my sovereign ruler is the First Knight of Europe, the Apostle of Faith, Law and Sacred Order. But in our age he is given not hosannas, but pamphlets and caricatures. And inside our wide-reaching Homeland, secretly, in an underhand way, in their circles, for the sake of sneer and vile damnation from the basement and the vicious and arrogant Fronde of saltimbanco cloaks; and they already have grand intentions outside the Empire!.. This is how their nature is exposed.

At the end of your haircurling story in the letter you mentioned my favorite osteria La Vecchia Lepre, and I got so hungry! I am sending regards to an old wizard of cuisine, a real Roman and Patriciate don Luca, and here I attach my own recipe for hare with juniper berries. Let him cook a welcome dinner!

With hope and anticipation,

Your N.G.

p.s. And for the finale, before the Road, I will have a stirrup cup: whom the good lord a hand lends, no one in the way stands, and trust only a roasted hare.

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