top of page

Witches Brew: Machiavelli, Tarkovsky, Cefalù, Aleister Crowley, and Aci Trezza

August 16th, 2020 Ravenna, Italy

Witches Brew: Machiavelli, Tarkovsky, Cefalù, Aleister Crowley, and Aci Trezza

In Chapter 18 of The Prince, Machiavelli wrote the following: “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are,” which, in the author’s sense, means that a ruler should strive for virtue if the circumstances allow it, yet, at the same time, be prepared to act in a completely opposite way when another situation demands immoral behavior; this foxlike cunning is what Machiavelli described as the oft-misunderstood concept of virtù—translated as virtue in English, which incorrectly conveys the traditional overtones of moral goodness. In reality, virtù was Machiavelli’s way of emphasizing the wide spectrum of personalities that a good prince should have, all of which would allow him to keep order in his domain and by extension continue maintaining power there. For our purposes, however, I would like to interpret this particular quote in a different way, using the sentence before it (“men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you”) as a guiding point for departing on a different course of discussion; again, the meaning is ambiguous, as it connotes both light and dark—no one can touch me in the sense of absolute power, and, likewise, it’s been so long since I’ve been touched in terms of love or even artistic inspiration.

For a fleeting moment, I’d like to see Machiavelli from the perspective of creativity and affection (towards someone or something) because that’s where life really starts for people and how this journey through Italy began for my brother and I in the first place. From Ravenna, we left our apartment in a total mess and departed on a two-week tour throughout the mainland and Sicily. In all, we covered a total of 2,000 km on land, sea, and air, using all the modes of transportation in the process—an automobile, ferry, plane, and lots of trains. In this sense, I’d like to think that after having spent a total of one year here, I’ve come a bit closer to really knowing what this country really looks like, who its people actually are, and what its character is all about.

I’ve touched and been touched by everything I’ve seen during the past two weeks on the road and this intimate contact has made me realize that I do want to stay—that I do love this country despite the challenges I’ve faced and will continue to face. What I’d like to do, thus, is offer a different glimpse into this beautiful, yet complicated place—the hidden features that not many will see or even know about. By extension, there’s really no way to recreate the rush one feels upon encountering a great city for the first time—its impressive culture that everyone knows about; this article, however, will not discuss the Roman Forum, Colosseum, or carbonara; there’ll be no insights into Pompeii (a grand archaeological site overrun by tourists); in terms of Sicily, it’s equally pointless to discuss the Palermo Cathedral, its amazing castles, cannoli, or even arancini because those are things everybody experiences without really feeling the island’s true essence, so to speak; indeed, I saw and tasted all of those aforementioned sights and foods within their respective regions; nevertheless, I learned more about myself and Italians by closing my eyes and seeing with my hands, rather than witnessing everything from a distance.

Unlike Machiavelli, who was deliberately exiled—neither too close nor too far from his beloved Florence (on any sunny day he could’ve seen Santa Maria del Fiore’s dome)—I came to Italy out of my own volition. I arrived with the romantic idea that life would be “easier” here, that I would at last escape the insanity of Los Angeles, and finally find some peace and quiet; it must be said that I both knew and didn’t know that things never turn out that way, that people who move for precisely those reasons never fail in finding other difficulties to preoccupy themselves with, and, invariably, the need to escape them always returns. Upon entering the room in which Machiavelli wrote his most famous work, I felt relieved that exile wasn’t my own fate, that I didn’t have to write a work dedicated to someone who belonged to a family that was responsible for sending me to a place from where I would rarely fail to see the object of my affection—from a distance, always from a distance, never having the opportunity to touch what I so loved.

It’s by this window, in a little town called Sant’Andrea in Percussina, that Machiavelli wrote The Prince with the aim of getting himself out of banishment, attempting to curry favor with the family who had driven him out by dedicating the work “To the Magnificent Lorenzo Di Piero De’ Medici.” Eventually, Machiavelli did return to Florence and died in the arms of his treasured city.

The benevolent fate of perishing on home soil wouldn’t grace Andrei Tarkovsky, considered the greatest Russian filmmaker of all time. Having made his first five films in the Soviet Union, the avant-garde director became increasingly unsatisfied with the repressive atmosphere of Soviet censorship, which began to take a toll on him until finally in 1979, after authorities stopped one of his projects midway during filming, Tarkovsky abandoned the project and traveled to Italy in search of more creative freedom; it’s here where he made perhaps his best movie, Nostalghia, released in 1983.

Unlike Machiavelli, Tarkovsky never returned to his home country, despite the fact that he likewise attempted to portray himself as a man who didn’t have a problem with the people who ultimately did everything in their power to alienate him from his own people. According to a NY Times obituary, when Soviet authorities refused to grant him permanent stay in Italy, Tarkovsky renounced his homeland’s citizenship—still, he stated the following: “I am not a Soviet dissident. I have no conflict with the Soviet Government.” Nevertheless, as Peter Wagstaff writes in Border Crossings, “Tarkovski encountered fierce resistance within the Soviet film establishment, even to the extent that in Cannes in 1983 Sergei Bondarchuk, the head of the Soviet delegation, actively (and successfully) campaigned against the award of the Palme d’Or to Nostalghia.” The great director died of lung cancer in Paris at the age of 54 and it’s long been suspected that he didn’t, in fact, die of natural causes but that his disease was really a product of poisoning which occurred during the filming of Stalker.

Anatoly Solonitsyn, an actor who appeared in many Tarkovsky movies, along with the director’s own wife, Larisa Tarkovskaya, died of the same cancer. Tarkovsky’s sound designer at the time, Vladimir Sharun stated the following in an interview: “We were shooting near Tallinn in the area around the small river Piliteh with a half-functioning hydroelectric station. Up the river was a chemical plant and it poured out poisonous liquids downstream. There is even this shot in Stalker: snow falling in the summer and white foam floating down the river. In fact it was some horrible poison. Many women in our crew got allergic reactions on their faces. Tarkovsky died from cancer of the right bronchial tube. And Tolya Solonitsyn too. That it was all connected to the location shooting for Stalker became clear to me when Larissa Tarkovskaya died from the same illness in Paris.” Coincidence? Maybe. Let’s not get into that, however. Life is life.

Tarkovsky continues to be a major influence on not only avant-garde cinema but movies in general. My brother and I were lucky, thus, that by pure chance, on our way up to Piazzale Michelangelo, we spotted the director’s former residence on a somewhat quiet Florentine street. The plaque was quite high above the door but still big enough for me to get a decent picture. Standing there for a considerable amount of time, it proved difficult not to contemplate what the director must have done and felt walking around his neighborhood.

In eerie Tarkovskian fashion, his name was still on the door and we thought about ringing the bell and asking for a moment of the good director’s time, but for some reason we decided against this and let him enjoy his self-imposed exile without any disturbances from fellow countrymen.

After all, it’s enough for a great filmmaker to be seeking asylum in a foreign land only to end up in a Latina refugee camp. In a documentary about the approximately 80,000 refugees who were housed in the so-called “Rossi Longhi” center, Italian journalist Emanuela Gasbarroni uncovered a document which proves that Tarkovsky did, in fact, pass through there—a fact perhaps “forgotten” by biographers. Even the memories associated with the camp, according to the la Repubblica article, are something that authorities are trying to remove from people’s recollections. Damnatio memoriae is clearly affecting not just Tarkovsky but all others who’ve had to endure self-imposed exile or forced migration.

Tarkovsky fled Russia because of censorship and a stifling creative atmosphere. Generally speaking, it’s not a surprise that those in power are rarely comfortable with views that challenge their own dominance; what’s more interesting, however, is the so-called woke phenomenon which is currently sweeping across the US and also all over social media. Anything challenging the current dominant liberal stance is met with illiberal liberal denunciation—you know, cancel culture. The way it’s very easy for parents to love children who always behave and do what they’re told, so it’s very convenient to “tolerate” and “encourage” speech that satisfies the agenda of the dominant political class. There’s no freedom of expression anymore if you’re only free to support the status quo and to dissent even the way a ruling class sees appropriate. In one sense, contemporary American activists, for example, have achieved a lot in “exiling” the Confederate legacy from its historical homeland; on the other hand, this process has led to a type of intolerance rarely seen in a country like the USA.

Today, even small amounts of “unsanctioned” disagreements can led to being ostracized, along with loss of employment and status. By no means does this argument serve as an excuse for people to say what they wish—that’s not freedom of speech. Indeed, controversial comments should be protected, but when they have no merit or intellectual value—when they’re simply made to inflict pain, people who live by utilitarian principles of maximizing society’s happiness should invariably recognize these comments as pain, instead of “speech.” In his article “Worlds Apart: Reconciling Freedom of Speech and Equality,” UC Berkeley professor John A. Powell distinguishes which kind of controversial speech is acceptable and which is not: “Assaultive racist speech functions as a preemptive strike. The racial invective is experienced as a blow, not a proffered idea, and once the blow is struck, it is unlikely that dialogue will follow. Racial insults are undeserving of first amendment protection because the perpetrator’s intention is not to discover truth or initiate dialogue but to injure the victim.” Walking the streets of Rome, I was confronted with the very challenge Powell highlights. Take a look at this photo taken not far from the Colosseum. Tell me: Does it offend you?

In the US, such an establishment would probably have already been burned down, but would that have served the First Amendment’s interests or gone against its core values? I’m really not sure at this point, but I think we have to do a better job in confronting the past, and by confronting it I mean something akin to carefully removing the poisonous plants within a forest, not simply writing off the entire organism by uprooting every tree just because that particular environment has produced harmful substances within a place that ultimately represents something bigger than the considerable problems it simultaneously constitutes. Although I was startled when I first saw it, ultimately, I’m now okay with this particular establishment and also business concept in general, precisely because as a US citizen I value freedom of speech; furthermore, in this case, I don’t think the messages or depictions are meant to assault anyone. These are a series of dictator wines and among the detestable Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin varieties, there also appear Che Guevara, Lenin, Marx, and Churchill—figures who are far more complex than the previous three, meaning their intellectual pursuits and achievements make it harder to fit them neatly inside the classic dictator archetype.

In reality, it’s not necessarily about despots, repression, liberalism, freedom, or even the difference between Europe and the US; what it’s really about is the human tendency to see everything foreign, mystical, and strange as a threat. Even the most liberal people or countries will seek to avoid that which disturbs the harmony of their environment.

Nowhere in Sicily did this become more apparent when Mussolini, in 1923, told Aleister Crowley—the infamous occultist and poet—to leave the city of Cefalù. Crowley was a controversial figure in the early twentieth century, claiming that he was the prophet of a new age called the Aeon of Horus. He developed the religious philosophy of Thelema after experiencing a vision in 1904; supposedly an entity called Aiwass had contacted Crowley in Egypt and dictated the text known as The Book of the Law, which would go on to serve as the foundational ideology for the entire belief system. One of the core principles of this religion can be seen in the following picture I took inside the abbey.

After renting the house, Crowley was known to have driven the landlords crazy by painting murals on the walls and supposedly some of the graffiti is original, but I have my doubts about the latter point; locals would’ve probably whitewashed everything shortly after Crowley left; the reason for this is precisely because he believed that people had a so-called True Will which was unique to them and it was their duty to follow it; hence, like stars, which occupy both a distinct time and space in the universe, Crowley believed that humans too were both dependent and independent of time—that they were part of the universe yet possessed a path and destiny which was unique to them. Yeah, kind of crazy, to be honest, which is why I was so interested in seeing this place. I mean look at the alien behind me.

Crowley was a notorious drug user and hedonist in general. Locals didn’t take kindly to his presence and his reputation certainly preceded him. The infamy surrounding the man reached such an extent that even the well-known Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia wrote a story about him called “Apocrifi sul caso Crowley.” The work is in a form of letters exchanged between Mussolini himself, a general, and the commissioner of Cefalù. With my rather limited Italian and some help from Google Translate, I realized the story is written in a satiric tone and probably for good reason, given how flamboyant Crowley was—it wouldn’t be wrong to think of him as the twentieth century Oscar Wilde, one that also thought he was a prophet, however. As the pictures show, the abbey is in complete ruin and locals couldn’t care less about preserving it, which is a good thing because we really don’t need any more men (or women, in fact) believing they’re prophets.

Another reason the premise is best left in a state of disrepair is because it’s more interesting this way and also much harder to find. There’s nothing I love more than walking through ruins; this pursuit always demonstrates to me the frailty of human endeavors. In Ortygia, for example, I saw the Temple of Apollo, dating back to the sixth century before Christ; as I looked at what was left, it was clear to me that this was once an impressive structure but what was even more majestic was feeling the presence of time walking among the ruins, slowly picking up rocks and putting them into its bottomless pockets. Crowley’s abbey, on the other hand, is one hundred years old and looks worse than what the Greeks built so long ago. I think it’s, thus, safe to say whose legacy time is giving a much harder time when it comes to being removed from the face of the earth. There’s perhaps a greater amount of stone left at the Abbey of Thelema, but on any given day you’ll find more people admiring the Temple of Apollo, meaning the Greeks are still with us while Crowley has largely been forgotten.

Speaking of the Greeks, we can perfectly make the transition to Odysseus, the legendary king of Ithaca who fought in the Trojan War and was stranded at sea for over ten years before finally returning home. The first stop our great hero and his men made on their long journey home was in Sicily; in fact, one of the most important and recognizable events of the myth are said to have occurred in the town of Aci Trezza, about a twenty minute car ride from the hometown of my university classmate Emanuele and his sister Valentina, both of whom I consider very good friends. They were gracious enough to host my brother and I for the duration of our stay in the Catania region and also took us to Syracuse.

Meeting people like Emanuele and Valentina is a fortune filled with the greatest happiness and sadness—happiness because you’ve found genuine people in a world where it’s difficult to do that and sadness because it’s so difficult to find genuine people in a world where everyone is supposedly looking for happiness. Hence, it’s both very easy and very challenging to have friends like Emanuele and Valentina—easy because they’re the most understanding and generous people in the world and challenging because you don’t want to do anything that will upset them, making you second-guess every action and emotion; in fact, a funny thing related to what I’m speaking about happened the morning my brother and I were supposed to fly out of Catania. While sitting in the courtyard of their house having breakfast, enjoying a cake their mom had prepared for us, I tried making a little jest to show how good it was by telling them I wanted to take the whole thing with me; they thought I was being serious and started wrapping it for me; immediately I told them this wasn’t necessary, and we all had a good laugh about the matter.

Nevertheless, having said all that, the cake still ended up flying from Catania to Bologna because Valentina packed it for her boyfriend and then forgot to take it out of the car before our farewells—in these circumstances Emanuele drove us to the airport; on the way, I didn’t miss the opportunity to tell him I was putting it in my bag, and, in fact, I’m eating the cake right now as I write this article; indeed, life is really all about that—misunderstandings that lead to understanding; confusion that leads to clarity; missed opportunities that bring new opportunities and sometimes these revelations also work the other way around, meaning not in your favor. In the end, however, I think I should accept that life is beautiful and every second of it is worth living, even when nothing makes sense and it seems like the whole world was designed to work against you. Maybe this is what we were all thinking here after having climbed up to the dome of Chiesa della Badia di Sant’Agata in Catania. Maybe we’re no longer seeing with our eyes but looking at the world the way it really is—perhaps even coming so close as to touch it.

Photo by Valentina Ventura

Let’s return, however, to Odysseus and the town of Aci Trezza; as Emanuele told me, not only is it the city where Giovanni Verga‘s novel I Malavoglia is set, but there are a number of places which begin with Aci in Sicily; it goes back to the Ancient Greek myth of Acis, a mortal, and Galatea, a sea nymph. When the Cyclops Polyphemus (yes, the same one who traps Odysseus) becomes jealous of their love, he kills Acis; in her grief, Galatea transforms the object of her affection into an immortal river spirit; it’s thus in the town of Aci Trezza that Odysseus runs into Polyphemus. The Matterhorn-shaped rock I captured in this image (there are about three or four in the vicinity) is supposed to be one of the stones which that angry Cyclops threw at Odysseus after he escaped the cave and began taunting the giant; locals call them faraglioni dei Ciclopi.

Unlike Odysseus, however, we left the island on better terms with Polyphemus. We finished our last day in Sicily by eating granita e brioche catanese at Gran Cafè Solaire, one of the best spots in the area for it and afterwards Emanuele drove us to the airport. Now back in Ravenna, I already miss Sicily; as with everything good, I feel both happy and sad—happy because I know that I’ll be back and sad because I don’t know when. Sabbinirica, my friends.

Photo by Valentina Ventura


bottom of page