Pescocostanzo’s entrance promenade looks like a backgammon board made of chocolate and vanilla brick. It’s a welcome visual metaphor for a leisurely day making whatever moves you choose.
On my last visit, I parked just outside the town’s pedestrian center and followed the inviting game board into the city’s heart, toward the central square with its Currier-&-Ives clock tower set against the jaggy peaks of the Maiella mountains.
I was there primarily on a shopping mission, but I ducked into the 11th-century Basilica di Santa Maria del Colle for a few minutes. I soaked in the magnificent altarpieces of colorful inlaid marble and the carved and gilded wooden ceiling before moving on to the real reason for my visit: the crucifix. Portrayals of the crucified Christ in Italy range from the muscular and masculine to the downright effeminate. But in this unpretentious (though quite historical) parish church is, I believe, the most memorable crucifix I’ve seen. Of carved and painted wood, it depicts with rawness and immediacy a tormented Christ whose skin is torn and who is crying in agony. (A priest alongside me remarked that this image was not dissimilar to that depicted in “The Passion of the Christ.” I had to agree.) A veteran of Catholic schools and Good Friday Stations of the Cross, I think this is the first crucifix ever to make me tear up on sight.
I’d entered the church just after the morning service had ended, while 15 or so women and children lingered, talking or quietly romping as age dictated. As in much of Italy, church services here are the province mainly of women, men on the whole preferring to be in attendance only as baptizees and corpses. Presently a bent old priest, listing at about 30 degrees as he walked, appeared mysteriously from the sacristy and, without uttering a word, beat the podium several times with his open palm. The locals evidently recognized that as a command to clear out, and I took my cue with them.
Outside, I passed two dusty dogs who were sunning themselves on the church steps. Like most little burghs in this country, the town has its village dogs — sweet-tempered, bedraggled souls who meander the streets and rely on the kindness of familiars and strangers alike for their daily bread. They make such intense eye contact that I marvel nobody is willing to give them a home. It seems the rewards would be rich.
Through the open windows of homes festooned with pots of bougainvillea, I could hear pans banging in kitchens as the locals prepared lunch. I hoped there’d soon be some good leftovers put outside for the dogs. In the meantime, I bought them some meat.
Pescocostanzo’s shops are relatively few, but worth the trouble. Artisans today still practice trades handed down to them from the Middle Ages. The quality of goods like decorative wrought iron, gold filigree, and lace is unmistakable; you can buy off-the-rack, so to speak, or commission truly distinctive traditional pieces.
I’m not a huge fan of lace, but the Scuola Comunale di Merletto a Tombolo is a real find for anyone who is. It serves triple duty as school, museum, and shop. On display are intricate lace and embroidery in centuries-old motifs and ancient instruments of seasoned olive and pear wood on which artisans – many of them engaged girls who were creating their own trousseaus – once worked their pillow designs. The style of lacework is called fuselli su tombolo, the tombolo being a cylinder of wood from which little wooden rods, or fuselli, each connected to a thread, guide the lace. The trade, and the Scuola, are enjoying a renaissance among young people who hope to make a living while remaining in the village of their birth.
I am a fan of wrought iron, and had come back to buy a pair of sconces I’d been eyeballing for awhile at a garage-like shop called Nicolo’. Once inside, I spotted an iron headboard in a geometric design and toyed with the idea of taking that, too, until I remembered that I had no way to transport it. I walked out with the two bronze sconces whose distressed, rusty finish suited my master bedroom well.
I wasn’t planning to stop for a sit-down meal, so I sailed into a bakery and announced that I’d like some supplizio for takeaway. I’d meant to say suppli, those chewy fried rice balls the size of oranges, but had pulled a Norm Crosby as I sometimes do in Italy. Supplizio is a slightly archaic word for torture, so the shopkeeper was understandably confounded at first.
Inside a jewel-box shop called Trine d’Oro, I put my snack away and watched goldsmith/designer Roberto Colamarino as he bent over his work reinterpreting some of the region’s classics. He does so to dazzling effect, introducing tiny rubies, sapphires, and emeralds into delicate pieces of gold or gold thread. I’ve bought several from him over the years, including a bracelet wound of gold thread that I was hoping to replace. Unfortunately, there wasn’t another and I wasn’t looking to order one. Colamarino speaks rapid-fire Italian, so you really have to be up for the experience. Unless you’re quite adept, you should probably be prepared to point and buy or trot out some eloquent charades moves.
A matter of steps from Colamarino’s shop is the oreficeria of A. Domenicano. Ten or so years ago, the eponymous goldsmith had shown me a timeworn notebook of designs crafted by his grandfather in the early 1900s. After perusing the printed loot, I’d settled on a ring in a butterfly filigree, which he custom-made in my size. (The ring, which cost about $300 at the time, has bedazzled friends and strangers alike and left even snooty Bergdorf’s clerks agog.) I asked to see the book again.
As I flipped through its pages and landed on the one showing my very ring, Mr. Domenicano told me with a whiff of disapproval that an American woman had once ordered just such a ring and lost it.(I’m noticing there’s a pattern here. I do seem to lose jewelry.) She’d sent her friend back to order another exactly the same. I held my hand out by way of confession* and tried to ingratiate myself by telling him that I was often stopped on the street in New York by strangers who’d caught sight of the ring (which was true).
The downside to custom orders at A. Domenicano is that you need to arrange for pick-up when they’re ready, and it won’t be tomorrow. This time, I simply added a gold and emerald bead to a traditional necklace I’d bought several years before. Typically, one’s husband adds beads through the years to mark his growing love. I didn’t have a husband to do that, so self-indulgence had to pass for love.
In the late afternoon, the two dogs were once again sunning themselves outside the church. I felt like they recognized me, so stopped to bid them goodbye and then began walking to my parking spot outside the pedestrian center. They shuffled after me for a few steps, then simply stopped and watched me go. They were still watching when I turned the corner and ran to my car.