There is now a renewed interest in the phenomenon which happens in Barga twice a year ( weather conditions permitting) of the double sunset – as the setting sun reappears momentarily through Monte Forato. A book on the subject was presented here in Barga a couple of years ago ( article here) which once again put forward the theory that the position of the Duomo in Barga Vecchia was in some way connected to the double sunset – a theory which was also put forward in 2010 by professor Stefano Borsi in his book – “Le origini di Barga e il culto di San Cristoforo” (Libria di Melfi, 2009)
Borsi believes that Barga’s origins and religious practices are ancient indeed, predating the arrival of both Christianity and the Greco-Roman deities it replaced.
The vast, austerely rectalinear nave of the Duomo, surveyed by the towering oak statue at its eastern end, officially dates back “only” a thousand years or so. Yet its form and some of its foundation stones appear to be far older than that, and to walk into the Duomo is as close as a modern traveler can get to the actual sensation of entering a temple dedicated to the giant forest and river gods of Italy’s lost Celto-Ligurian civilization, circa 800 BC.
In a fascinating passage of “Le origini, Borsi explores the likelihood that the Duomo’s earliest predecessor was a sanctuary devoted to solar worship. How else, he notes, to explain the careful orientation of the site to achieve a “distant dialogue with Monte Forato” – the face of the celebrated Uomo Morto (“dead man”) crowning the ridgeline of the Apuan Alps across the Serchio River. The purpose, Borsi maintains, was to allow the sanctuary’s priests to make exact observations of the sun’s annual passage, divided in half by the eerie double sunsets over the Uomo Morto that still draw townsfolk to the Duomo terrace twice each year.
Twice a year just before the sun sets it shines right through the main door of the Doumo and lights up an area on the left hand side which is for most of the year is kept in shadow and unlit.
A small bas relief carving near to the top of the dividing wall now becomes very visible. Once upon a time it would have been even more noticeable as the outline would have been surrounded by black inserts but at some time in the past, the dark material has been chipped away and cleared leaving the carving more or less invisible for most of the year.
And what is startling image it is – a bare breasted twin tailed mermaid or Melusine. – (article by Frank Viviano)
This morning Selma Sevenhuijsen a researcher from Amsterdam, Holland along with a dozen companions arrived in the city to specifically see for themselves that image in the Duomo.
She has already written one book on the subject and another is just about to be published (her blog is here)
This creature is associated with numerous stories and legends, and is imbued with symbolic meaning in alchemy. The most common iteration of the siren is as Melusine, a creature from medieval legend. Melusine (sometimes, Melusina) was, according to legend, beautiful woman with a disturbing tendency to transform into a serpent from the waist down while bathing; it is the discovery of this nature that triggers calamity.
As the story is most often told, the cursed maiden is discovered in the forest by Raymond, the Duke of Aquitaine, who begs her to marry him. She agrees, on condition that he never disturb her on a Saturday, when she bathes. Raymond eventually grows suspicious of his young wife, and spies on her- and his shocked reaction to her true appearance reveals his betrayal to Melusine, who transforms herself into a dragon and departs in a shrieking fury. This story can be viewed as a metaphor for sexuality, and the contradictory duality of the female nature as viewed through medieval eyes.
The same dual-nature symbolism is also at work in alchemy, which employs the siren as a more benevolent emblem of enlightenment- the siren of the philosophers. Alchemically, the siren’s two tails represent unity -of earth and water, body and soul- and the vision of Universal Mercury, the all-pervading anima mundi that calls out and makes the philosopher yearn to her.
The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects points out that a double-tailed siren, a baubo siren is a cross between a mermaid and a sheila-na-gig and according to them, the suggestive pose refers to female sexual mysteries and the lure of temptation for any simple-minded fellow. The sheila-na-gig is rooted in paganism and the worship of evil spirits.
The group were also here in Barga following in the footsteps of Matilda di Canossa
Matilda, countess of Tuscany as the heir of her father Boniface, margrave of Tuscany, was the major imperial feudatory in Italy and the major secular supporter of the reform papacy through a long life, 1046-1115.
After Boniface’s death, Matilda’s mother Beatrice married her cousin, Godfrey, duke of Upper Lorraine, and Matilda married his son, Godfrey. When the elder Godfrey died in 1069, Matilda and her mother assumed the rule of Tuscany together; after the deaths of both her mother and her husband in 1076, Matilda ruled both Tuscany and Lorraine alone. Matilda held the counties of Reggio, Modena, Mantua, Brescia, Verona, and Ferrara, as well as Tuscany and Upper and Lower Lorraine.
Because of her vast holdings and her support of the papacy, Matilda was a subject of attention to contemporary chroniclers and poets. Those who were sympathetic to her positions were lavish in their praise: Ekkehard called her the wealthiest, most famous woman of our times and most distinguished in virtues; Hugh of Flavigny said “at this time only countess Matilda was found among women who scorned the power of the king, who opposed his cunning and power even with military conflict, so was deservedly called ‘virago,’ who surpassed even men by the virtue of her spirit.” Bardone in his life of Anselm of Lucca speaks of “the single and only one who remains in the faith, with zeal for God and obedient to pope Gregory, the duke and countess Matilda”
Selma in her forthcoming book on the subject has put forward the theory that there is a good possibility that the faces sculpted near to the pulpit in The Duomo are in fact the faces of Matilda, her mother Beatrice and her father Boniface.