Photo: Corrie Pappas
My friend Alberto told me a ghost story once I’ll never forget. He works at the 12th-century Castello del Trebbio, outside of Florence. I wanted to find out more about the Pazzi family, who lived there in the 15th century. They were a banking family who ended up on the wrong side of the Medici.
He told me about a former owner of the castle, Antonio Baldini, who had lived there in the early 20th century. He lived with a ghost in the castle, Alberto said. “The doors would slam, the furniture moved, you know.” Sure, I thought, everybody knows what ghosts do. Their behavior is more or less consistent, even if they are not believed in.
Alberto told me that the ghost disappeared when Baldini sold the house. I didn’t understand. Didn’t ghosts haunt buildings?
“You have to know that it’s not strange, because there are two kinds of ghosts—what you call ghosts and what you call spirits. The difference is that the spirit is connected with the family; it is one of the family and it has nothing to do with the building . . . But a ghost is in a building forever. When you say a house is haunted, that’s because new people come and go; [the owners] don’t tell you that there is a ghost in there. But in this case, it was a spirit. When the Baldini family sold the castle, this spirit disappeared. So today there are no spirits in the castle.”
As Alberto told me this story, we were sitting in his office, a modern loftspace above the wine shop (the property includes vineyards and olive groves). Keyboards clicked away, the lights shone brightly. He asked if I wanted to see the dungeon where the prisoners were kept. Oh, yes!
He took me first to see the private chapel in the castle. Memorial plaques of previous owners lined the walls. Stones for the Baldini family were there, including several infants’, some who died only days old. It’s odd, how distance in time can cast a macabre shadow over a story, when really the mother of these poor children surely felt something akin to what my own mother must have felt when she lost her baby, after he was born, before me, in the late 1960s. That mother was just a human being, suffering, just like my mother.
We walked through many beautiful but chilly rooms. In the dining room, family photos decked the side table and on the ceiling someone had painted coats of arm of all the former residents. We then stood for a while in the “Conspiracy Room,” where, legend has it, the Pazzi family members conspired to kill Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici. The assassination attempt was made in the Florence Cathedral, on April 26, 1478. Members of the Pazzi family were subsequently killed in various, gruesome ways.
Alberto stood over a spot in the middle of the room, under a thick rug, and started jumping a little. “Ah, I think this might be one of those trapdoors,” he said. He’d told me earlier that the Renaissance owners of the castle used to invite their enemies to dinner, and then, at just the right moment, press a button and “pop,” deposit them swiftly into the dungeon. He also showed me where the current residents spend most of their time, in a cozy room about the size of a spacious studio in Brooklyn, complete with a kitchen and warmed from the recent use of the large stone fireplace. Finally, we walked through the bright courtyard, and descended the stone steps that led to the wine cellars and the dungeon.
Immediately what gripped me was the cold, the dankness, and the dark. It was a cellar, after all. It felt like a cave. It must have had to do with the switch from the high ceilings above to the low ones down below. We walked by rows of huge wine barrels, each bordered by a cherry red line, and the wine’s specific varieties were written in big, black handwriting on the front. This added some normality.
But it was the other rooms that got me. To get to the dungeon, we had to walk through darker, smaller rooms, filled with stacked layers of unlabeled, dust-covered wine bottles. You might bump into one if you weren’t careful. Poe and his “Cask of Amontillado” instantly sprang to mind. There was a room off to the side of one of these rooms, with a door half open. I can’t explain why, but I wanted to see what was in there. I had a feeling that it wasn’t just more wine bottles. I sensed it was an even smaller room. Alberto said it was okay if I checked it out. He didn’t tell me what was inside. I approached slowly, as if I were the wife in “Bluebeard,” dangerously curious about the most secret room in the house. When I got to the entryway, all I could see were dark shapes. Maybe they were storage for materials or equipment? It could have been anything. I felt for a light but didn’t find one, so I walked back to Alberto, my curiosity unquenched.
As we entered the dark dungeon a few rooms away, actually a small room, Alberto reached for the light but it wasn’t working. “Huh, that’s strange.” He fidgeted with the bulb. Horror/suspense aficionados will recognize this as the moment in the story just before everything goes horribly wrong. It’s formula, but it works every time. His lighthearted “Huh, that’s strange” is the perfect setup for the quick disaster/death to follow.
“I’ll have to get Mario to fix that,” he said with a smile. Mario, who has since passed on, was the gatekeeper for the castle since 1953; he was also the keeper of the legends. When Alberto had introduced him to me earlier in my visit, Mario told me about a previous resident who was so cherished by his family that they preserved his body (from the torso up to his head) in a glass case, which they kept on the chapel’s altar for 40 years.
“Anyway, here are the rings where they used to fasten the prisoners to.” Iron rings punctuated the walls and were placed at a height where the prisoners’ arms would be reaching up, slightly.
And of course, nothing unusual happened. We stayed there only a moment or two, and then moved on to happier rooms, and soon upstairs out into the bright sunshine again.
What difference is there between my imaginings and a spirit? Both are more fun to believe in than believing we live in a cold, meaningless universe whose creatures have a penchant for cruelty.
Even if no spirit roamed that castle, the fact is that babies drew their last breath there, conspirators likely plotted a dramatic murder, and men’s bodies languished on iron rings, their wrists bloody from the chains (or so I imagine). All beyond terrifying. Time may conjure spirits out of the stories, but isn’t that just a safe way to look the dark in the face?
Cheryl Pappas is a writer from Boston. Her work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Juked, The Chattahoochee Review, and more. She is the author of the flash fiction chapbook The Clarity of Hunger (Word West Press, 2021). Her website is cherylpappas.net and you can find her on Twitter at @fabulistpappas.