The Thursday afternoon lecture was delivered by Dr. Piercarlo Grimaldi, a dean at the Università and a cultural anthropologist. The title of his talk was “Peasant Magic” and he told us the story of the discovery of two anthropomorphic stones in the Langhe region of Italy. Dr. Grimaldi spoke in Italian and his talk was ably translated by Serena. At first Dr. Grimaldi would speak a sentence or two in Italian, and then pause to allow Serena to translate. As the talk progressed, however, his discourse lengthened from sentences to paragraphs, and we all marveled at Serena’s ability to capture the content of his talk and place it in a context that we could all understand. At the same time, many of us paid rapt attention to the Italian, to see how much of the language we had learned in the short time we have been here.
The two stones are the remains of headposts placed at the end of vineyard rows. When the vineyard was in operation, as many as 20 head posts supported the vineyard rows. The stone posts were either destroyed or removed during World War II, and these two stones were all that remained. These stones were carved in the image of a male figure and an obviously pregnant female. It was believed that they were carved by traveling stonemasons who would work for the vineyard owners in exchange for food. Perhaps these human figures were carved by the same stonemasons who would have also produced more utilitarian items such as sinks or basins for feeding animals. In fact, stone posts have been found in other regions of Italy outside of Langhe.
What is the purpose of the stone headposts? A practical reason might be found in noting that stone headposts are found in vineyards at high altitudes. Stones absorb heat during the day and release it during the evening. In this manner, temperature fluctuations that would interfere with grape ripening are prevented. But Dr. Grimaldi, noting that magical belief was strong in the rural areas, and that stone in particular was believed to have magical powers, particularly in regard to fertility, had an alternative hypothesis. In the later part of the 19th century, phylloxera attacked and destroyed the roots of the vineyards first in France, and then in Italy. In order to save their livelihood, Europeans imported phylloxera-resistant rootstock from America and grafted indigenous vines onto this rootstock. Digging up the diseased vineyards to prepare the land for the new rootstock must have been back-breaking work. Perhaps the owner of this particular vineyard asked an itinerant stone mason to carve these head posts and to make them particularly special, to give them faces, to fashion the female headstone so that she appeared visibly pregnant. These head posts would not support the vines but would instead stand guard at the edge of the vineyard and would bless the new vineyard with its foreign rootstock and ensure its fertility and the livelihood of the vineyard owner and his family. Dr. Garibaldi noted that it is interesting to note the juxtaposition of both scientific and magical explanations for natural phenomena.
A lively discussion followed, with much applause to Dr. Grimaldi for a stimulating talk and to Serena for her superb translation.