The Hand on the Wall

16/10/2019

I will never forget my first encounter with the Baroness of Carini. I was five or six; too young to understand her story, but the image of her bloody handprint always stayed with me. For years to come, I would see that mark in every stain on a wall. Even the shape of my own childish hand in purple dye on the smooth surface of our upstairs corridor turned from a sign of misbehavior into the visible manifestation of dark forces at work. I became convinced the gruesome death of the baroness had taken place right there, in my home, in the narrow passage that separated my room from that of my parents.

 

In reality, Baroness Laura Lanza lived and died centuries before my house was built, though not very far from the place where it would be raised: only a little further south, across the strait of Messina, in the Sicilian town of Carini. The castle of Carini was, and still is, perched on a hill, enclosed by the bleak profiles of mountains and sharp cliffs that only afford an azure glimpse of the Tyrrhenian sea. In the 16th century, before it became the stage of my childhood’s nightmares, this lonely fortress was the home of Vincenzo La Grua, Baron of Carini. On the winter solstice of 1543, young Vincenzo welcomed his young bride, Laura Lanza, the eldest daughter of the Count of Mussomeli, to his castle. Laura had been born, 14 years earlier, in her father’s castle at Trabia, surrounded by gleaming waters and golden sands, and had been raised among the grandeur and gaieties of Palermo. Carini was beautiful, though secluded, haunted by Greek legends of bereaved heroes and ill-fated courtesans. Bored by the provincial setting, her husband often travelled to Palermo, leaving Laura, still young and beautiful and full of life, alone in the castle. Later songs, sung by troubadours all over Sicily, would describe her melancholy figure standing on the ramparts of the fortress, her gaze lost in the darkness of the night, “looking like the moon mirrored in the sea: a moon in the sky, another on the balcony.

Castle Carini

But the castle wasn’t always empty. In the following years, Vincenzo returned from Palermo often enough to father six children, and Laura would sometimes host members of their families at Carini. One of them was Ludovico Vernagallo, a cousin of the baron from nearby Montelepre; he too (“a handsome knight, with gentle blood and all the confidence of youth”) was destined to be remembered by the troubadours. On his bay horse, he would roam the lands around the castle, “like a bee in April, humming about the flowers to sip their nectar,” his eyes straying to Laura’s windows. Beneath those windows, the story goes, Ludovico would play the mandolin for his beloved, the notes rising to the starry sky of Carini – an ominous anticipation of songs to come, telling of their love and their death…

 

On a cold winter’s night in 1563, the baron caught Laura with Ludovico. A shot reverberated though the castle, followed by cries and shouts and the rushing of feet, as servants and relatives raced to the scene of the crime. The crime in question was the adulterous relationship between the baroness and Ludovico Vernagallo. The shot was the noise of the baron trying, and failing, to exercise his right to kill them. Unfortunately for the lovers, however, one of those who arrived on the scene was Cesare Lanza, Laura’s own father, and the only other man who could lay claim to that same right.

The crime in question was the adulterous relationship between the baroness and Ludovico Vernagallo. The shot was the noise of the baron trying, and failing, to exercise his right to kill them.

A letter to the king, buried in Palermo’s State Archives, relates what happened next. “Having gone to visit his daughter the baroness at the castle of Carini, as it was his custom, he found his son-in-law the baron in great distress because he had just found in his room Ludovico Vernagallo, her lover, with the baroness. For which reason the aforementioned, moved by rightful indignation, together with the baron, went and found the baroness and her lover in a tight embrace. And therefore, at that very moment, they were both immediately killed.” In this document, 20th century writer Leonardo Sciascia would catch a glimpse of the baron, a figure whom – “in his weakness and cowardice, in his malice” – the poets had found unworthy of characterization. The letter to the king, an unlikely concoction of denouncement and self-justification, also suggests the peculiar position of the killers. According to the laws of the time, the murder of an adulterous woman must take place in her husband’s or her father’s house for it to be excusable. It must include her lover, with whom she must be found in flagrante delicto. The pleonastic, almost obsessive restatement of the timeframe of the murder (“just,” “at that very moment,” “immediately”) was essential for the absolution of the killers by their king. The act of killing one’s women under the pretext of protecting one’s honor was an indulgence that Italian men were accorded well into the 20th century. Until 5 September 1981, attenuating circumstances were acknowledged for the killing of a man’s “spouse, daughter or sister discovered in the act of illegitimate carnal relations.” Just like in 1563, the woman and her lover (whose murder was deemed a “crime of honor”) had to be killed “in the state of anger determined by the offence caused to the man’s honor, or to that of his family.”

Inside Castle Carini

Yet, recent studies of “l’amaro caso” (“the sad business,” as it has been known in Italian chronicles in the interceding four centuries) suggest that Laura and Ludovico’s lives were not ended in a surge of rage by the “rightful indignation” of a cuckolded husband and a shamed father. According to historian Calogero Pinnavia, the two lovers were actually killed for the financial gain of Vincenzo La Grua and Cesare Lanza. Based on some 1st century AD Roman law, the former would inherit half the holdings of his wife’s lover, while the latter, who owed Vernagallo money, would rid himself of a creditor. The whole sad business, it seems, had nothing to do with honor, and much to do with greed. The story was twisted beyond recognition, and turned into legend by Sicilian troubadours. By the time 19th century doctor and scholar Salvatore Salomone-Marino collected its over 400 versions, the legend had swallowed the truth. Ludovico and Laura had disappeared behind the handsome knight and the maid as fair as the moon, killed to wash away in blood the sin of their passion, forever haunting the castle that witnessed their happiness and their demise. So was it all a lie? Were the songs of the Sicilian troubadours no more than beautiful shrouds woven around a sordid little corpse? Contemporary critics seem to derive a perverse pleasure from telling this version of the story, as though this more cynical motive automatically grants their theory greater historical value. We may never know the truth, but, whatever her killer’s motives, the tragedy of the Baroness of Carini remains.

 

There seems little reason to doubt, though, that it was Cesare Lanza who swung the axe that killed his daughter. It came down on her and on Ludovico Vernagallo on a December night, crushing their bones, severing their young lives. As she drew her last breath, the Baroness of Carini raised a hand, in plea or accusation, or perhaps in a last desperate effort to stand up to her father. Then she fell down again, slowly, the hand smudged in her own blood leaving a scarlet trail on the wall of her husband’s castle.

 

In the months and years to come, Baron Vincenzo La Grua would invest considerable resources into renovating the home. Macbeth-like, he strove forever to erase the mark of his guilt, which stained not his hands, but his wall, in the form of a slight, feminine, blood-red palm print. Yet, the hand on the wall, so the story goes, would always reappear. No amount of paint would conceal it, no scraping went deep enough to erase it. As a last resort, the baron had his obsession with purification carved in immaculate letters, like an exorcism above his doorways: “Recedent vetera,” his marble lintels recite to this day, “et nova sint omnia” – “Let old things retreat, and let everything be new.” But this was wishful thinking, a lie the baron wrote all over his house to help him sleep at night. For a bloody hand is still said to appear on the wall of the castle of Carini on every 4th December, in the same spot and at the same hour that Laura Lanza died.

A bloody hand is still said to appear on the wall of the castle of Carini on every 4th December, in the same spot and at the same hour that Laura Lanza died.

I will never forget my first encounter with the Baroness of Carini. I was five or six, and I was watching television with my mother. Of the 1975 miniseries “L’Amaro Caso della Baronessa di Carini” I would remember the bloody mark of a hand on a wall, and the sorrowful notes of a troubadour’s song: “Love who hold me in your sway: where, sweet love, where are you leading me?” I was too young to understand Laura’s story, to know that she had been killed for honor or for money by the men in her life. I didn’t know that women in Italy were lawfully murdered for the same offence until less than 20 years before. I couldn’t imagine that, 20 years later, the most common murderers of women in Italy would remain their partners or male relatives.

 

With this in mind, and Laura’s song in my ears, I close my eyes. Instead of blocking out the image that has long haunted my nightmares, I strive for the first time to conjure it. I try to picture a hand on the wall, red and sticky, for each of those women. And what I see is that our walls, like those of Carini, are covered in blood.

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