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Sebastiano Vassalli: Marco e Mattio [Marco and Mattio]

Sebastiano Vassalli’s speciality is writing fictionalised stories of real people, most of whom we (by we, I mean those of us from English-speaking countries) have never heard of. I had certainly never heard of Mattio Lovat, who is the subject of this book. However, he has featured in an English language work Narrative of the Cruxifixion of Mattio Lovat, Executed by his Own Hands at Venice, published in pamphlet form by someone imaginatively called The Pamphleteer in 1814, who translated it from a work called Storia della crocifissione di Mattio Lovat da se stesso eseguita by Cesare Ruggieri (a professor of clinical surgery, who was the last person to treat Mattio). (It was also translated into Dutch, French and German.) You can read the text in Google books. It was in reported in a periodical called The Mirror. For the morbid, there is even a drawing of it. Vassalli tells us in the introduction that the cause of Lovat’s”madness” was pellagra, a disease caused by niacin or tryptophan deficiency, usually due to poor diet. This disease has been a huge problem in many areas but was a problem, in this case, in the uplands of Northern Italy at the end of the eighteenth century. As we see in the book, a combination of factors – climate (very cold winters, droughts in the summer), deforestation by charcoal-burners and widespread poverty – were all contributory factors.

Though Mattio Lovat’s father was called Marco, he is not the Marco of the title. Indeed, we meet the Marco of the title before we meet Mattio. The book opens on 18 April 1775 in the Zoldo Valley (now a ski resort (link in Italian)). A mysterious man arrives at the small town of Pieve. He is brought in to Don Giacomo Fulcis, in charge of the priests in the area (archpriest in the Italian). The stranger has a letter from the Bishop of Belluno so cannot be ignored. He is called Joseph Markus Stromer, from Ingolstadt in Bavaria, a priest and theologian. The letter states that Stromer wishes to stay there for a while, as he had been suffering from tuberculosis and the mountain air will help to cure him. He also wishes to improve his Italian (which is already excellent) and carry out studies of the local fauna and flora. Fulcis is very reluctant to accept him, though he knows he has little choice, but when Stromer produces money, Fulcis is more willing. He asks to be called Marco and, of course, he is the Marco of the book’s title.

The locals do not take kindly to him; indeed, they are somewhat frightened of him. It soon becomes apparent that he is the Devil or, at least, a devil but a devil with charm. Certainly, many of the locals think so. He tells Fulcis that he has treated the insane – he is a medical doctor as well as a priest – and this is where we first learn of the insane people in the region, those who are, in fact, suffering from pellagra. Because of his devilish aspect, the locals are reluctant to guide him on his nature walks but two boys agree to do so, one of whom is Mattio Lovat. But there are more criticisms of Marco. He does not come to church. He eats snake and now he is accused of practising black magic. He seems to spend his time with an unruly band of gypsy-like characters. However, eventually the weather gets colder and the valley is likely to be snowed in, so Fulcis suggests to Marco that he might wish to leave before this happens. He concurs and eventually leaves – or seems to.

One cold, winter’s morning, while it is still dark, Mattio and two of his brothers set out for church service in Pieve. They hear someone coming, so hide behind the trees. They see three men in masks, carrying a large chest. As they pass, the masks of one of the men slips and the face of Don Marco is revealed. The three boys hurry into the town and Mattio goes into the priest’s house, telling his brothers to go and find the sacristan. In the house, he finds complete turmoil. The place has been turned upside and down and much has been destroyed. The place where we know Fulcis kept his valuables has been opened (we had earlier seen Don Marco watching Fulcis open it). He does not find Fulcis but he does find Rosallina, Fulcis’ niece who works for her uncle, tied to a bed, clearly having been raped and then brutally battered to death. When help arrives, Fulcis is found. He had seen the men arriving and had hidden but is now frozen. He is alive but never fully recovers and soon dies. When Mattio reports what he saw, no-one believes him, as it is well known that Don Marco has left and could not possibly have returned. The murder is never solved.

Mattio is the son of Marco and Vittoria Lovat. They have five children. He works much of the time as an itinerant cobbler, travelling around the countryside and taking advantage of the various women customers he has. The rest of the year, he works as a charcoal burner. Mattio follows in his father’s footsteps but does not like the long hours and hard work of charcoal burning. However, when Marco’s mule dies, he cannot travel around so his wife persuades him that he must do as others have done and go and find work in Venice, which he eventually does. After a while, he returns, accompanied by a friend and clearly not in a fit state to work. He has pellagra and shows symptoms of insanity. Things are not helped when Mattio falls ill (the symptoms seem to indicate smallpox, not pellagra). He gets worse and worse Giacomo Fulcis offers his services but when the only service he offers is bleeding, Vittoria declines. One night, when things seem bad, he is taken by a couple of men, one of whom is clearly Don Marco, They take him away and say that he will be cured and will be a new person. He wakes up in his bed, recovered. Was it a dream?

Mattio’s younger brother, Florian, is the next with problems, as he behaves badly, fights and screams all the time Is he possessed by the devil? Mattio, Vittoria and Florian head off to Belluno when he can be exorcised and, indeed, that is what happens. The pellagra spreads and, of course, the priests blame the people for turning away from God and inappropriate behaviour. While people were well aware of the disease, they did not know that its cause was diet-related. Mattio, meanwhile has taken over his father’s tasks as a shoemaker and charcoal-burner. At the latter job, he becomes very close to Michiele, perhaps too close, though we do know that he falls in love with a rich woman (who, of course, marries someone else). His brother, Angelo, gets a job in Venice and Mattio takes him there and, while there, he again comes across Don Marco, albeit under the somewhat different name of Markus Sturz. He is warned away from him.

Back in Pieve, the next major event is the Napoleonic invasion though, while this is quite apparent, it does not have a big impact on the local population. Indeed, of far more importance, is the arrival of a strange food crop which looks totally unsuitable for human consumption. It comes from America and is called the potato. Napoleon goes but the Austrians take over. However, for the people of Zoldo, the major problem is the taxation imposed by Belluno. Much of the rest of the book concerns the post-Napoleonic political turmoil, including revolutionary activity. Mattio is very much involved in this. Inevitably, he comes across Don Marco again. However, pellagra strikes him and this time it is more serious. One of the manifestations of insanity is a religious fervour, in which he believes he is Christ reborn. This leads him not only to the self-crucifixion we know about but to another act of violence.

This is another first-class book from Vassalli. Though, on the face of it, it is concerned with pellagra, the madness it caused and the ignorance of what causes it, Vassalli is dealing with other themes. One of his favourite themes is the abuse of power by those in authority, including the church, and we see this with Giacomo Fulcis, who has been hoarding money and valuables, which tempted Don Marco to steal from him, the authorities in Belluno who raise taxes on the already impoverished peasants and the various occupying authorities. Bringing in the devil in the form of Don Marco is a fascinating touch, not just because he is contrasted with the essential goodness of Mattio but also because he is shown as one of the representatives of the evil, grabbing authorities. Vassalli’s sympathy is, as ever, with the ordinary man – Mattio and his family – and their sufferings but he does not make saints out of them, as they generally tend to have their foibles. Overall, this is a superb book which sadly has not been translated into English.

Publishing history

First published 1992 by Einaudi
No English translation
Published in German as Marco und Mattio die Reise des heldenmütigen Retters der Menschheit und seines mysteriösen Weggefährten in den Wahnsinn by Blauband in 2012