Castiglione de Lago

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Professore Corrado Fratini and I are sitting outside a café in Castiglione de Lago waiting for Maura. As usual, she is late.

Maura has invited the professore to join us in looking at the frescoes in the Palazzo della Corgna because he teaches medieval art and Maura has coyly suggested I might learn something interesting from him. 

While we are waiting, two nuns walk by; the professore smiles and nods at them in greeting. “In the Middle Ages,” he says, following the nuns with his eyes as they walk up the cobblestone street, “prostitutes started very young—maybe before 13. So they aged quickly. Most of them died. But if they managed to survive into middle age, they would often become nuns. But a special order of nuns. Kept behind walls.”

Waiting for Maura.

Waiting for Maura.



No! I say. Is this true?

“Yes, of course. There were two orders of prostitute nuns, one called Incarcerate and the other Murate. The Incarcerate were more or less imprisoned while the Murate were walled off from the rest of the community. Neither could have any contact with the outside world. Which is amusing, don’t you think, considering their past.”

Religion and sex—“They have always been intertwined,” the professore says, explaining how as far back as 400 B.C. Umbrians used to travel to a pagan temple in Spello where they’d employ sacred prostitutes.

“What’s a sacred prostitute?” I ask him.

It means, he says, that if a man had a sexual relationship with a priestess, the money you gave her was given to god. “It was put in a special chest and used for building temples, feeding pilgrims, building roads. It was a stimulus plan,” he says, laughing. “Sleeping with a priestess paved the way to Rome.”

We have finished our coffee. Maura has yet to arrive.

“Later,” the professore says, “during Christianity, prostitutes were officially condemned but well tolerated. In fact, during the Middle Ages, there were prostitutes of the court who were part of high society, women who were paid richly by noble men for their services and were quite well respected.”

The professore stands, stretches, looks up the street to see if there is any sign of Maura. “Inside the palazzo,” he says, nodding towards the castle-like home a block away, “we’ll see a wonderful medieval painting of the Virgin Mary in an oval-shaped frame. This was a direct reference to the shape of the vagina.”

Just then, Maura comes rushing up the street, apologizing for being late. She gives me a kiss on one cheek and then the other. Before she can greet the professore, he finishes his thought: “You see,” he says with great earnestness, “in the Middle Ages, the vagina wasn’t considered lewd. From the vagina, comes life!”

Maura gasps. “I was going to ask what you two have been talking about but I don’t think I want to know,” she says.

“The Professore has been educating me,” I tell her.

She raises an eyebrow. “Well, perhaps we should go into the palazzo before you receive any more education.”

And that’s just what we do. 

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Nothing inside the Palazzo della Corgna is as entertaining as my coffee earlier with Professore Corrado Fratini. We look at a ceiling fresco that tells the story of the Judgment of Paris and Maura points out the goddesses on the ceiling—Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite—telling me how they forced Paris to decide who amongst them was the most desirable.

I don’t know. I kind of like the professore’s story about the prostitute nuns better.

The professore has another appointment so he says a quick good-by. Maura and I decide to go for a walk along the banks of Lago Trasimeno. I ask her how the lake got its name. She says there was a man, named Trasimeno, who came to the lake and heard a nymph, Agilla, and thought her singing was so beautiful that he followed her into the water. And never came out.

A view of Lago Trasimeno from the palazzo fortress. Photos by David Lansing.

A view of Lago Trasimeno from the palazzo fortress. Photos by David Lansing.

“The story is either tragic or romantic, depending on what you think,” she says. “So what do you think?”

“I think it is romantic,” I tell her. “He is with the woman he loves.”

Maura smiles. “I think so, too.”

On the banks of the lake, the wisteria—or glicine, as Maura calls it—is in full bloom. “It has a big profumo, no?”

Bella,” I tell her. “Molto bella.”

From the edge of the lake we can see the old stone fortress around the palazzo. In the middle is a tall, squat tower that, Maura says, is called a Mastio. “It’s a phallic symbol,” she says. “Rising up in the middle of the fortress. Its name is related to maschio—you know this word?”

The Mastio.

The Mastio.

Machismo,” I say.”

“Exactly. Machismo. The swagger of young men.”

In the summer, Maura says, young couples out for a walk around the lake always seem to end up at the Mastio. “Perhaps,” she says, “because it is a good place to kiss. In fact, I will tell you a secret.” She nods towards the imposing stone edifice. “That’s the place I got my first kiss as well.”

We are both silent for awhile. The breeze from the lake perfumes the air with the sweet scent of wisteria. Maura grabs my arm. “Come on,” she says, “let’s go have a look at this Mastio. It’s been a long time since I’ve been up there.”

Who am I to argue?

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