The Place

Words by Achille Filipponi
Photographs by Luca De Santis

At the entrance to the church, the dark, towering door. Closed, it looks as if it’s leaning backwards; it makes you feel dizzy. Entering the pathway inside, you can make out a dark courtyard at the side. To the north, it’s surrounded by ferns, like an abandoned space waiting to be explored. I’d find it again a few days later to go and read on a mouldy chair. To get to the main garden that looks over the valley, you have to walk right through the place, step through a small separating doorway and go up some worn stairs, little obstacles to arrive at the goal, a majestic yellowy maze. Then they’d confirm: no pruning, here everything has to run its course. They’re not wrong. On entering the monastery of Saint Francis, you feel a denseness, everything here is painful, it makes you feel small. As beings, we’re too simple and the monastery is too complex a space, made of visible layers. The truth is, a place is only totemic when you clearly realize that it’s better than you. Then it becomes a magnet, a retreating shore that you can’t quite grasp even if you’re inside it. That’s what the monastery’s like. It’s like gazing at a body from the inside. Ten days and we’ve not been anywhere. You don’t need to go away, when you’ve already gone. 

We got there and you like me were 
outside the terrible arena of reality.

Some of the next mornings, the sun would be relentless. When you went back into the big kitchen after crossing the large garden, your eyes couldn’t see anything, your pupils still had to adapt and the only thing you could make out in the dark was the knives twinkling and the dull reflection of the marble worktop. We’re in a splendid and ruined tropical oasis. The palm trees all around are dying, reluctant brides making their debut, each one crying for their own different reason. Every day goes by in the same way and makes us think of the lives we’re forgetting. Everyone talks about the past, everyone wants to retrieve something they don’t want to lose forever. Memories cram our thoughts like passed-down jewellery. We caress them, we’re getting into tune with the reality of the monastery which means we have to slow down, and when you slow down, what’s happened becomes clearer, you can make out its compartments, the causes behind it. We explore the place but we’re inside something that can see us moving. The things in this monastery are bundles of energy, the empty corners lie in wait and the corridors breathe in their own silence. Staying here would be like a love story, you go in shattered, you give it your all, and you come out changed forever.

She folds a napkin in the same way she played with her toys,
with a curious and virginal slowness.

The decay proceeds silently. Because of the change in temperature, the walls crumble mainly at night, like the bark coming off a birch tree. Here the salt has peeled the surface off everything, right into the bedrooms, and the coppery light of evening shows all the wounds in their aching beauty. Sacred sunlight enters the hall above all. Every afternoon a sweet fragrance spreads around the decayed and refined scene, because of that same light bathing the hundreds of immobile books honed by a thousand eyes. Everything is still. Only the crossed patterns of the windows, which disappear whenever a cloud goes by, move like a fair ride along these highest of walls. You could stay here for hours given that yes, it is hot, but by now the day is at its end, and if you’ve been in the sun for a while, the heat in here is more of a gentle warmth. The book in your hands, your eyeball follows a nail as it glides along, the words flashing by underneath like the broken lines on the motorway towards le rassurant de l’équilibre, c’est que rien ne bouge. Le vrai de l’équilibre, c’est qu’il suffit d’un souffle pour faire tout bouger.1

– The others? You’re talking about yourself.
– Yes, I miss my father.

The lunches are long, varied. The place primes us to do our best as cooks, servants, lovers. Suddenly, we like listening, everyone seems to be telling a survivor’s story. We’re loving and inspired, everything interests you when you’ve got an unexpected blanket around you. Some reopen their eyes after sleeping in a bed of shadow, some swim. Sometimes we don’t talk at all for hours. Here, even the silence is appreciated, intelligent, it’s filled with a dense and positive substance, it’s not the joyless wait on a chair next to someone we don’t know, or the pause of a thoughtful gaze towards the ceiling when we’ve just woken up. This is how the placid time of mild, wavering, dazed introspection goes by. Everything surrounds us and we’re the variable element. We know that the long and unexplored oven chimney, the fresh leaden pipes, the architectural device of the fountain, the countless hinges painted in a matching colour, the emptied altar of the deconsecrated church, the wasps’ nests we haven’t found yet, all these things will go on after us. Here we’re an extra, we’re inadvertently bathing in humility. 

It clears the air like thunder,
raising the silence that will follow her to a masterpiece. 

The swimming pool is a straight, light-blue sliver deep in the wood. We’re all around it like cats. We move round with the shade. At times it’s too hot or windy, but there’s no shifting us, we all stay put. The wind in Corsica is a show of strength. Every so often it goes off like an alarm to underline that a world where nothing moves would be an inferno. Wandering behind the trees on almost the last day before we left, I discovered an immense rose garden, silent and stern. The plants repeat themselves in tangled clumps and the roses are mainly white. In certain points there’s no smell at all, in others it’s extremely strong. It’s an expanse blurred by brambles and the roses that have grown in the middle are absolutely untouchable, but then again, the same goes for a rose in your hand too. There’s a rose in the rose, one that we can’t touch, we can’t see. We can’t see the end of the flower, it’s a papier-mâché sculpture that turns around on itself a thousand times, made of a damp velvet, curling deeply, darkly to the end. 

There in her silence she’ll have had some brilliant idea,
like interviewing her mother and recording it all.

Next to me the world, I thought as I wandered in the garden. And I’m more and more convinced that I’m right. This place, that too, has proved me right once again. In the end, empathy disconnects, misaligns, and every time it pushes backwards, towards an even greater empathy, verging on an epiphany. Falling over and over again, it distances you from everything. There exists a becoming sound, a tonal centre, a deadly and swollen note that makes things worse little by little, retreating wave after retreating wave. It’s a repeated law of day-to-day events. Instead, total momentary involvement in something or someone is the false note which sets everything off track: the beauty it flings over it is not a dominating variable, it won’t save us, it’s always the exception, another dose of stamina against that median rule. Every time it’s the thing that won’t come back. Its number, its closed triangle, is one. Wonder is always an epilogue with no encores. I won’t come back here, never again. It wouldn’t be the same.

1 The reassuring thing about balance is that nothing moves. But the truth is, all it takes is a breath to make everything move.

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