In the heart of the Lazio Mountains, barely an hour from Rome, lies a medieval village. Its stone houses cling to the side of gorge, spreading across the rock face like a tamed, civilised extension of the mountain itself. Thick outer walls lend the look of a fortress. Inside, there are quiet squares, silent churches, cobbled streets: the very image of a gorgeous Italian village. On the outskirts there’s the Arcangelo Michele shrine, built in the fourteenth century. To get there, you have to trek along the side of the Cimini Mountains, where you can admire olive trees, pine trees and an imposing Moai statue. Hold on! Rewind a second. What on earth is a monolithic sculpture by the Rapa Nui doing in a medieval Italian village? The key to this anachronistic enigma is to be found in the need for cash, the properties of a certain stone and a television programme.
The Moai are mysterious sculptures believed to possess magical powers. They were created on Easter Island between 700 A.D. and 1600 A.D. as burial monuments, it is thought. By the 1990s, almost 900 different statues had been registered. But from that time onward, another example, located in a small Italian village, had to be added to the list. And it’s the only Moai sculpture anywhere outside Easter Island.
Its story begins in 1989, when a delegation of 12 Rapa Nui people from the Atan family, the island’s nobility, travelled to Vitorchiano to celebrate the twinning of this village with Easter Island. Their motive wasn’t so much to discover new cultures but to preserve their own: they needed to finance restoration work on their sculptures, some of which were in a dire state of repair. The unusual group visited the village and, quite unexpectedly, found something in common with their home. A shared feature, present in the silent churches, the cobbled streets and Vitorchiano’s mighty walls. It was a volcanic rock that goes by the name of peperino. “It’s really hard on the outside and soft inside, which makes it perfect for carving and ideal to stand erosion over time,” explains Luca Della Rocca, a member of the ArteCitta Viterbo collective. Through this association, Della Rocca promotes the region’s attractions, which, since a few years ago, include a rather peculiar monument.
Peperino has been used for centuries by Vitorchiano’s builders. There are plenty of examples from Ancient Rome too, such as the Cloaca Maxima or the base of the Castel Sant’Angelo. What nobody knew was that this material is incredibly similar to the rock used 14,000km away to create some of the most famous sculptures in the world.
This likeness surprised the Rapa Nui visitors and, keen to raise awareness of their cause, they accepted the invitation to create the only known Moai outside Easter Island. A film crew from Alla Ricerca dell’Arca, a programme on Italian public television, travelled to the tiny village. It’s hard to imagine the magnitude of this whole event. For a month, a group of visitors from the most isolated spot on the planet moved into the village while a television crew got the whole of Italy watching. “It was a really beautiful experience,” says Della Rocca, “a genuine cultural exchange. During that entire month, the Rapa Nui people stayed in the village, visited the bars and mixed with the locals.” Beyond the artistic legacy, this historian underlines the shared experience and cultural exchange between two completely different communities. Over the month of December 1989, Easter Island and this little Italian village were closer than ever before.
Friendships and bars were fine, but the Rapa Nui folks had work to do. They decided to create the statue directly in the peperino mine close to the village. To carve it, they refused to use Western technology, opting for their own traditional tools to ensure that the end result was as authentic as possible.
The sculpture came along at a lively pace despite its dimensions. It measures six metres in height and weighs 30 tonnes. The carving is crude but effective, expressive and enigmatic. When they finished the colossus, it was transported by crane to the village’s main square and inaugurated with a somewhat atypical ceremony: there was no red ribbon cutting or children-kissing for the photo. The celebrations drew on Rapa Nui customs, complete with ancient rites and ceremonies from the island.
After a number of years, an exhibition requested the statue be included, so it was temporarily relocated. It never returned to its original site. Vitorchiano residents were divided on the best location and the new town council found an alternative spot on the outskirts of the village. It was much less majestic and, most importantly, broke the most fundamental of rules governing these statues: they should never be moved, as whoever does so will be cursed. All of this happened in 2008 and Vitorchiano seems to be just as calm, peaceful and perfectly alive as ever. The curse has been proved false. And life in this village goes on, before the attentive gaze of the last Moai.