The Langhe are a large hill region in the north-west of Italy, a land of full-bodied wines and people accustomed to hard work, a scene of many wars, from the Napoleonic campaigns to the partisans’ Resistenza.
In a July of many years ago, traveling along one of the roads that climb up the ridges of those hills, near the town of Sale San Giovanni (the “Sale” in the name is a memory of an ancient salt route), I noticed a stone chapel dating back to 1000. The wooden door of the little church, built on top of a hill painted bright yellow by the sunflowers, was closed, and by looking inside you could see some ancient frescoes.
While peering through the small apertures in the wall, and guessing aloud the possible history of the chapel, from a hidden point among the sunflowers, as if from nothing, a man rose with a straw hat on the head and a palette of colors in the hand, as if Van Gogh had reappeared in the Langhe. The man introduced himself as Pierre (Pyotr) Chakhotin, and sent me to a house nearby to take the heavy iron key that opened the door of the church (“tell them that the Russian painter has sent you”).
Entering into the chapel, Chakhotin told me how, years before, he and other volunteers discovered and restored those frescoes, earlier covered with lime (as in the course of centuries the chapel, desecrated, was also used as a barn), and in particular a Quattrocento fresco depicting St. Anastasia of Sirmium, a saint whose cult was alive in the past both in the Christian West and East.
The painter told me how, after the recovery of the frescoes and on the initiative of a committee composed in the name of St. Anastasia, during the Yugoslavian war two icons, representing the saint, traveled around the Earth aboard the Mir space station as a harbinger of peace.
At the end of that afternoon of images and words, as I descended the hill and both the chapel and the painter disappeared from view, it seemed to me that this unexpected encounter was a mirage caused by the sun and by the impression of the place; only the weight of the iron key in my hand linked it to the reality.
Years later I met again and by chance that name, Chakhotin: it was on the cover of a book written by the Russian Sergei Chakhotin on the catastrophic earthquake which in 1908 devastated the city of Messina and Reggio Calabria, killing about 160 thousand people (source: Michele Squillaci, Il disastroso terremoto e maremoto in Sicilia e Calabria del 28 dic 1908).
Sergei Chakhotin was a really unique person: a scientist, a collaborator of Röntgen – the discoverer of X-rays –, an assistant of Pavlov, but also an anti-Nazi propagandist in Germany in the 1930s, a friend of Einstein and a founder of the Movement for the Peace.
And he was the father of the painter Pierre/Pyotr.
In 1908 Sergei was in Messina, and he was buried under the house where he lived and which was destroyed by the earthquake. He managed to escape by digging a route through the rubble.
St. Anastasia is called, in Russian, Uzoreshitelnitsa, the one who frees from the bonds, and thus a protector, among others, of those who remain buried under the rubble caused by an earthquake.
At this point the circle is closed.
Assuming, of course, that all this was not in fact just a midsummer day’s dream.