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Notes from Italy: A Homer of the Dolomites

Non-Fiction Reviews

Notes from Italy: A Homer of the Dolomites

Filettino Italy

The Fanes, in Italy’s Dolomites [Photo by Werner Dapunt, St.Linert]

Some say that the story of the Kingdom of Fanes is an epic that goes back to the Bronze Age in the Dolomites. How could such a story come down to us? No one in those parts knew writing, three thousand years ago or more. We don’t even know what languages people spoke then in the Dolomites.

And what kind of kingdom could that have been? My wife and I have walked many summer miles across the Fanes. It is a lovely upland that lies between Cortina d’Ampezzo and the Val Badia; it is over six thousand feet above sea level, higher than any town or village in today’s Dolomites, and it is surrounded by still higher mountains. There are summer pastures, and trees grow there, but certainly crops could not. The only summer inhabitants are a few cowherds and the people who tend the two big huts for hikers, the Rifugio Fanes and Rifugio Lavarella, and all of them go down to town in September when the snows are coming. These huts are really well-furnished small hotels; they reopen in winter for skiers who ride there by snowcat. Yes, but what was the climate, say, three thousand years ago, when the Bronze Age was nearing its end? Let me come back to that, later.

We do have two other epics from the European Bronze Age, the Iliad and Odyssey. Ulysses lived at the onset of the Iron Age, but although he and his contemporaries knew iron, they still used weapons made of bronze. So did the gods. When Athena flew down to Ithaca she “took her mighty spear, tipped with sharp bronze.” Whether or not there was a man named Homer, the two Homeric epics were—unlike the Fanes tales—written down very early, perhaps 800 years before Christ, only several hundred years after the destruction of Troy. Outside Greece, at least one other old European epic, Beowulf, was written down long ago, around 1000 A.D., after what may have been no more than four centuries of oral transmission.

On the other hand, in several parts of Europe (Serbia, Russia, and Finland, if not elsewhere), peasant singers continued to transmit old epics orally down to modern times. We do not know whether there were such singers in the Dolomite valleys, to pass on the Fanes cycle; but there were other means of oral transmission, as the Homer of the Dolomites found.

This was a modern European named Karl Felix Wolff. He was born in 1879 to an Austrian artillery officer and an Italian noblewoman, in what is now Croatia but was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When he was a little boy the family moved to Bozen in the heart of the Dolomites, which were also then Austrian territory. At the age of eight Karl Felix fell ill, and was confined to bed for long months. A nurse was brought in, a Ladin woman from the Val di Fiemme who spoke Ladin to him and told him old Ladin tales. She had a profound effect on the boy.

By the time Wolff was in his twenties he was spending his summers wandering the five isolated Ladin valleys, asking the cowherds on the mountain farms to tell him the old stories that they knew—and they knew many. His was a labor of love but it was not easy. He learned Ladin, but the dialects differ from valley to valley; at Cortina d’Ampezzo, for example, the sun is soroio, while in the Val Gardena people say suredl.

Wolff’s rambles came before the advent of recording devices that could be taken to the field and capture exact texts, to be transcribed and published later. Nor is it clear how assiduous Wolff was at trying to write down exactly what he heard. As an educated man he was, I think, aware of what Elias Lonnrot had done in Finland, some decades earlier.

Lonnrot was a country doctor who made seven long song-collecting trips over the years between 1828 and 1842, through the countryside from Helsinki north to the Barents Sea and east as far as Archangel; what is now the northwest corner of Russia then contained a Finnish as well as a Russian population. In the back country there were many pairs of Finnish peasant singers. Two men would sit down, join their arms, and sing for hours on end, alternating after each half-verse. Their repertoire was old songs about folk heroes and villains. Many of the songs dealt with the same mythical characters. Lonnrot arranged and melded what he had heard and written down—adding, he admitted, some lines of his own—into a single composition of 23,000 lines that became the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. Lonnrot helped inspire the Estonians, just thirty miles across the Gulf of Finland, to put together their own epic, the Kalevipoeg. Each epic built national pride, and a thirst for independence, at a time when each nation was still a part of the Tsarist empire.

What Wolff worked up from his wanderings was quite different from Lonnrot’s work, and he was not trying to stir up the Ladins. Wolff was after all an Austrian German, not a Ladin; nor could the few thousand Ladins ever think that they amounted to a nation, or dream of independence. Or could they? San Marino, surrounded by Italy, with just thirty thousand inhabitants and an area of not quite 24 square miles, claims it has been independent since 301 A.D. It is certainly, as Abraham Lincoln once wrote its two Captains Regent, an “interesting republic.”

In 1913, as Europe was heading toward the First World War, Wolff published a slim volume in German of Ladin tales that he entitled Dolomitensagen. He survived military service, although a million men died in the bloody conflict between Austrians and Italians in the Eastern Alps and the lowlands of the Veneto. He also wrote chauvinistic wartime articles claiming that culture in Italy was authored entirely by the Germanic peoples who had migrated south across the Alps. (There was chauvinism on the Allied side, too. Stanley Cooperman describes novels that portrayed American soldiers “carrying the banners of Christian faith against a simian foe.”) After the war, with Wolff’s town of Bozen now Italian Bolzano, he published still more Ladin stories while working as a journalist. Wolff survived the Second War as well as the First, and died full of honors at 87, in 1966, in Bolzano/Bozen.

There are many beautiful tales in Wolff’s collections, but none more compelling than his Fanes cycle. The people of the Fanes are also nobler types than, say, characters like the smith Ilmarinen in the Finnish Kalevala. A lot of magic is reflected in both epics. A main difference is that the Kalevala is largely about the adventures of individuals, while the Fanes tales recount, or purport to recount, the history of a whole people (though clearly not a very numerous one).

The Fanes tales begin with a girl named Moltina, who is raised in the Fanes region by an anguana, one of those nymphs who live near streams and springs. There are many marmots in the neighborhood and Moltina, as she grows older, learns their language and even how to turn herself into a marmot. She marries a prince who, seeing that the men of the Fanes are poor at fighting, trains them and leads them to victory in battle. He is made king, and he and Moltina live in a stronghold—perhaps not quite a castle—with a marmot painted on its walls.

Many years later, the couple’s descendant, a Fanes princess, marries a foreign prince who is allied with an Eagle. There had been a curious exchange of infants between humans and marmots, and now there is another between humans and eagles; eventually the marmot painted on the wall is replaced by an eagle. Scholars hypothesize that the change of totems (and it is clearly that) may reflect a change in this people from peaceful herders to warriors.

A new princess, Dolasilla, is born. As a baby she is taken by a servant to see the Eagle. On their way home they are attacked in the darkness by a sorcerer who is called Spina-de-Mul, or “Mule Skeleton,” because he can assume the frightening aspect of a half-rotten mule carcass. A sharp-eyed young stranger, on his way to the royal residence in hopes of becoming a warrior, drives away the sorcerer, who thereupon gives him a name he will keep: Ey-de-Net, or “Eye by Night.” Ey-de-Net finds a splendid gem called the Raietta that the sorcerer had lost, and gives it to the baby Dolasilla to stop her crying. Once she is home and safe, he leaves.

Years later Dolasilla is a warrior princess who leads her people to many victories, and is crowned with the Raietta. Spina-de-Mul wants his jewel back, and succeeds in getting Ey-de-Net to join him, together with a contingent of Duranni, in attacking the Fanes. Ey-de-Net has no idea that the Fanes princess, Dolasilla, is the child whom he once rescued, and he agrees to join the sorcerer, on the condition that the princess herself shall not be harmed. In the battle, however, Spina-de-Mul wounds Dolasilla. Ey-de-Net then turns against him and the Fanes folk prevail.

Ey-de-Net becomes Dolasilla’s protective shield-bearer, and they fall in love, but never marry. Instead the kingdom is attacked by “southern peoples” and Dolasilla’s father, the king, in his greed betrays the kingdom to them. In the end Princess Dolasilla dies in battle, Ey-de-Net leaves the country, and the Fanes people suffer a final defeat at the hands of a coalition of enemies from all parts of the world. The last queen of the Fanes goes to the Lake of Braies, a spectacularly beautiful body of water east of the Fanes, and disappears, to sleep at the bottom of the lake until the “promised time” comes when all will be resurrected and live in peace.

This is only a cursory account of a long and detailed series of tales, in which scholars have taken an interest ever since they were first published. Few if any think they are simply the invention of Ladin farmwives and cowherds. If not, what real happenings are reflected in them?

There is reason to date the people with the marmot totem to around 1000 B.C. when, as shown by a study of Greenland ice cores and other data, the northern world experienced an unusually warm climate for some centuries. It may well have been possible then for a pastoral people to live, year-round, up in the Fanes; it has never been possible since then.

By 850 B.C. Europe was turning colder and wetter, and this may have contributed to a series of population movements. To defend their pastures and mountains the peaceful Marmot people may have had to become the warlike people of the Eagle. The palaeo-Italic peoples were expanding, and it was perhaps some of these who helped extinguish the Fanes kingdom. The tales identify one group of foreign warriors as Duranni. It has been suggested that the Duranni were that gifted people of uncertain origin who showed up in central Italy about that time, whom the Greeks called Tyrrhenoi and whom we know as the Etruscans. A people who spoke a language we call Raetic, which may have been close to Etruscan, left a number of scanty inscriptions in Dolomite valleys not far from the Fanes. For all we know, the speakers of Raetic may have called themselves something like Tyrrhenoi or Duranni. But this is all speculation.

How much farther can we go? Testing of mitochondrial DNA shows that people in today’s Ladin valleys are genetically different from other inhabitants of Italy. That says exactly nothing about an ancient people in the Fanes who, if they existed, left no remains…no remains, that is, that we have found.

Are there remains yet to find? Two climbers came upon the body of the Ice Man as recently as 1991, on a mountain ridge along the border between Italy and Austria, just forty miles northwest of the Fanes. The Ice Man lived early in the Bronze Age, five thousand years ago, but his body—which is now displayed in a Bolzano museum—had been well preserved because it stayed frozen. More recently, a pair of shoe inserts and long woven leggings—but no body or bones—were found farther east in the Dolomites, preserved by the cold at nine thousand feet above sea level; they date from the early Iron Age, perhaps 800 B.C., soon after the possible dates of the Fanes people. The Fanes is too warm for woven things to be preserved there, but one can hope for other finds. Fanes people would not have lived in fine stone palaces, any more than Arthur did at Camelot; but we can hope to find someday the traces of wooden houses or perhaps large cave dwellings, somewhere in that lovely upland. A few searches have been made, without success.

The Ladins themselves believed that the Fanes stories were much older than their other tales. That does not tell us whether it was possible for such an account as this to be transmitted, orally, for as long as three thousand years. I am not a student of folklore, but among the speakers of Indo-European languages, spread out from Europe to India, there are tales with similar themes, heroes, and heroines. Some of these languages diverged millennia ago; maybe some Indo-European tales have done so as well?

Still it is difficult to understand how such a string of stories, which contain much more detail than I have given, could be transmitted over the millennia from the Bronze Age to modern times. The Ladins are not known to have had singers of epics like the Finns, Russians, and Serbs; but perhaps they once did. We do know that as late as the twentieth century, in the Val di Fassa, people would gather in a home on winter evenings to hear narrators of old tales. Wolff thought that once—before he came along—they might also have had players who acted out the stories, somewhat like the mummers and guisers in England, or the mojiganga procession that my wife and I saw one afternoon in a village in Panama’s Ocu Province. This was a procession of teenage boys; one wore a bull’s head and another was dressed as a very pregnant woman, with a soccer ball under his skirt. They stopped when they saw us, but we saw enough to convince me it was the remnant of a pre-Christian fertility ritual, brought no doubt by their ancestors from Andalusia. (Interesting place, Ocu. Our maid Sabina, who came from that province, had an aunt who could turn into a deer.)

There is no need to believe that the Fanes cycle is based entirely on things that really happened. Surely not just totemism but old myth and pre-Christian religion are mixed in. Clearly changes and insertions were made over the centuries; just as clearly, there is a central core to the stories. I am left, as I think most others are, with the conviction that in this core are memories of real events.

These Fanes tales are fascinating, whatever reality may lie behind them. Tales of such old peoples, historical or not, have long been popular. One thinks of the 1890 novel The Roots of the Mountains by William Morris of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, about an ancient people living under some mountain range in Europe, where they are attacked by Huns. From there it is an easy jump to The Lord of the Rings (and J.R.R. Tolkien was inspired in part by Morris). The Fanes cycle inspired an opera performed without success in Innsbruck in 1928, and a ballet performed with considerable success in Italy in the 1930s. In recent decades tales of the Fanes have been told more than once on Italian television. A year ago, a group of young Ladin filmmakers produced a movie on the Kingdom of Fanes, which won an award at the 2007 British/Spanish Renderyard film festival; the film’s music got an award at the 2008 Garden State Film Festival in New Jersey. A Fanes novel has been written by a devotee of the kingdom, Adriano Vanin.

In any case, the Fanes exists and it is a beautiful place. As my wife and I walked across those uplands, one warm August day, I very much wanted to believe that it had been the land of a real-life Dolasilla.

Our day in the Fanes was a long one. We were staying in an apartment we had rented at La Villa, a village in the Val Badia. We left the village at seven in the morning on a good marked trail that went up and up. After doing three-plus miles and more than three thousand vertical feet we reached the Forcella Medesc, 8300 feet above sea level, a cleft in a rocky ridge beyond which the Fanes opened up below us. We spent six hours walking across those rolling green alps, stopping at midday at the Rifugio Fanes to buy a beer and eat our sandwiches in the sun.

It must have been four o’clock in the afternoon when we went up another long steep pitch to the Forcella Santa Croce, the pass that led out of the Fanes. I thought I had seen that the contour lines on our map indicated a steady descent from the pass to the sanctuary of Santa Croce and thence back down to our village. Not so; we must have climbed an additional fifteen hundred feet to reach Santa Croce. The church and hospice were closed—and by now we had run out of water. At least the trail began to turn downward. It was a long way downward, two thousand vertical feet in two miles’ walk, to reach our apartment home. We were footsore and parched when we arrived.

Not much over an hour later, after hot showers and a few glasses of cold water, Mary Jane and I were at dinner in nearby Corvara, wolfing down our first course, a delicious beet-filled pasta dish called cajenci. All in all, I told my wife, today we must have walked more than eighteen miles, and climbed over six thousand vertical feet. Dolasilla and Ey-de-Net would have been proud of us.


For detailed information on the Fanes see the website of Adriano Vanin.

Peter Bridges is a former ambassador to Somalia and cofounder of the Elk Mountains Hikers Club in Colorado. He was born in New Orleans, grew up in Chicago, and studied at Dartmouth College and Columbia University. Aside from CLR, his articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in the "Christian Science Monitor," "Foreign Service Journal," "Los Angeles Times," "Michigan Quarterly Review," "Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London," "Virginia Quarterly Review," "Washington Times," and elsewhere. Beyonce Net Worth



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