Don’t Call Me Bertha

The Gorgon's Gaze

Outside the city limits, everything becomes anonymous. These were my thoughts while looking out of the taxi on our way to Fiumicino. The center of Rome, despite its decadent air, still reigns in fascination. And the traffic creates a stop-start motion that gives one the possibility to look out the window and focus on details. Such as the bas-relief figures over doors and windows. Those stoned faced creatures make me think of Judy Garland chanting in The Wizard of Oz but instead of lions and tigers and bears there are medusas and eagles and masks. Then, once on the autostrada, the magic ends and the taxi driver begins to drive as if practising for the Grand Prix. The vast area between the city and the airport is a no man’s land without identity, an ocean of nothingness, a blur. Finally, at the airport, luggage checked in, and seated on a plane with a 30 minute delay, I pulled out my book: Jean Rhy’s Wide Sargassa Sea.

Jean Rhys in Jamaica

Jean was born in Dominica, another victim of British imperialism. When she moved to England and read Jane Eyre for the first time, Jean was indignant. So much so that many years later she decided to write the story from the point of view of Bertha, the mad woman in the attic.

Jane Eyre seems to be such a romantic story that, initially, it’s difficult to believe it could upset anyone. But reconsidering, it does have some rather alarming elements. Jane works as a governess for Mr Rochester and falls in love with him despite the fact that he is ugly, nearly twice her age, and totally alien to her social status. Even though he already has another girlfriend, Rochester blatantly flirts with the vulnerable Jane. Jane, orphaned, feels alone in the world and longs to be loved. Emotional needs distort her perception. Finally Jane agrees to marry Rochester but, once at the altar, discovers that he is already married. Rochester’s real wife is hidden in the attic. He claims she is mad and for this reason has kept her locked up. The name of his wife is Bertha.

Bertha Mason

As nowhere in Jane Eyre is Bertha given a chance to speak for herself, Jean decides to tell her story for her.

Antoinette Cosway aka Bertha grows up in Jamaica. Initially her family is very rich thanks to their sugar plantation. But then the slaves are emancipated and the Cosway family, unable to exploit free labour, is economically ruined. The father dies and Antoinette’s mother ends up as a victim of her own fragility. When the mother dies, too, Antoinette is encouraged to marry Rochester which she does. Once married, Rochester insists that they go to live in England. And here Antoinette learns that marriage is a trap.  Rochester not only gains control of his wife’s property, he takes on lovers, locks his wife up in the attic, and, when she rebels, claims that she is crazy. Antoinette, already alienated from her country and her culture, is not allowed to look in mirrors and her husband begins to call her Bertha. He does what he can to demolish her identity.

”Mad” is the term used for women who refuse to conform. But the true madness is patriarchal.

In England, up until the end of the 19th century, coverture was the common law of England. That is, a married woman and anything she owned was considered her husband’s personal property. She had no identity other than that given to her by her husband.

Antoinette, in order to regain a sense of control over her life, burns down her husband’s house then commits suicide. Some say she was crazy. Others say she was simply using the only power she had left—that of physically ending her life.

Wide Sargassa Sea

The title of Jean’s book comes from the Sargasso Sea, the only sea without a coastline. It’s also known as the Sea of Lost Ships as many ships are found there mysteriously drifting with no one on board.  Experts blame the dense seaweed that covers the sea’s surface. For women, a patriarchal society is like this seaweed. It traps you, inhibits your mobility, and eventually keeps you from navigating your own life.

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Jim Morrison’s advice to women

Jim Morrison was more than a singer. He was a poet and a philosopher. As a high school graduation present, he asked for the complete works of Nietzche. Morrison was also influenced by William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud, Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsburg, and others. The Door’s song “Riders on the Storm” (a take on “Ghost Riders in the Sky” by Stan Jones) shows the influence of Heidegger. The phrase “into this world we’re thrown” comes from Heidegger’s concept of thrownness describing human existence.

But in this song, Morrison also makes reference to the role of women and the female consciousness:

Girl, you gotta love your man. Take him by the hand, make him understand. The world on you depends.”

Even Jim understood that the world is too masculinized and needs a maternal touch for its salvation. Unless women respect their female consciousness and help to impose this consciousness with the same force men have imposed theirs, the world will be destroyed.

The Lizard King

The Lizard King

The Lizard King


(from THE AGE OF RECONFIGUARATION, Cynthia Korzekwa © 2019 )


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Hendrik Christian Andersen Museum

He was born in Norway but grew up in the U.S. Here Hendrik Christian Andersen not only sculpted but learned how to attract wealthy patrons such as Gloria Vanderbilt. Andersen developed a passion for monumental sculpture and, since the best marble and the best stonecutters were in Italy, in 1893 he moved to Rome. In Rome he created a studio-home in the splendid Villa Hélène.

Hendrik Christian Andersen Museum

Andersen was somewhat of a megalomanic and believed himself to be a gifted urban planner. He designed the “World City”, an ambitious project for a city that, he claimed, could bring about world peace and harmony.

In 1899, he met Henry James who was visiting Rome, the two became very close although James was bored with Andersen’s insistence that James, too, participate in the “World City”.

Andersen died in Rome in 1940 and is buried at the city’s protestant cemetery. He bequeathed Villa Hélène and its contents to the city of Rome. Villa Hélène is now a museum (located near piazzale Flaminio at via Pasquale Stanislao Mancini, 20).

Hendrik Christian Andersen Museum

Hendrik Christian Andersen Museum

Related: Museo Hendrik Christian Andersen


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Tossed but not Sinking

The collapse of a spire has made me change my plans for this morning. There are tons of chores on my To Do list but Notre Dame has changed all of that.

Life without beauty is merely existence. And even if we don’t share the same criteria for beauty, we know we need it.  That’s why works of art such as Notre Dame are fundamental—to remind us that, despite our differences, we all have something in common.

Notre Dame di Paris

Below I’ve posted the last photos I took of Notre Dame in 2015.  They were meant to be a memorandum for a blog post but now they have another value. In the background of one photo, the spire is barely visible but it’s there still upright. The other photos are of the Rose window over the main portal and of a statue of  the Madonna and Child standing on top of Adam & Eve.


All around Paris you can see representations of the city’s coat of arms—a boat with the inscription “Fluctuat nec mergitur” meaning “She is tossed by the waves but does not sink”. And Notre Dame is just like that boat—wounded but not destroyed.

In these times of division where we focus on differences, the sorrow we feel for Our Lady has united us. Maybe that’s why it’s said that God moves in mysterious ways.

Fluctuat nec mergitur


Related: Stories set in stone +  4 Days in Paris

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Oreste Fernando Nannetti

Oreste Fernando Nannetti

Volterra Psychiatric Hospital c. 1986

Many years ago, while still living in Maremma, a friend of mine took me to visit the abandoned mental hospital at Volterra closed since 1979 thanks to the Basaglia Law. The law recognized the need to change the standards used to treat mental patients.  And that the best way of getting started was to close down the old to make room for the new.

But before the hospital was closed, it was the home of Oreste Fernando Nannetti (1927-1994). Born in Rome, at the age of seven little Nannetti was dumped in a charitable institution. Being abandoned as a child is overwhelming and can distort your perceptions. And, as Yeats said, too much suffering can turn the heart to stone. The emotionally scarred Nannetti started manifesting aggressive behaviour that eventually led to his internment at the hospital in Volterra.

Every day for 9 years, Nannetti would use his belt buckle to engrave symbols and signs on the courtyard walls.  The result—180 meters of graffiti describing his imaginary world full of space ships, telepathic contact with aliens and the magical power of certain metals.  He often wrote postcards to a non-existing family sometimes signing himself as Nanof or N.O.F. 4.  Looking for someone to love, Nannetti tried communicating with aliens via telepathy.

Oreste Fernando Nannetti

courtyard where Nannetti worked on his murals…you can see the broken plaster in the background

Then the hospital was closed, and Nannetti’s engraved mural abandoned. Luckily, Aldo Trafeli, one of the hospital’s ex-nurses, recognized the intensity and importance of Nannetti’s work and commissioned a photographer to document it.

By the time I saw the walls (c. 1986), the murals had greatly deteriorated. Despite my lack of photographic skills, I took what photos I could and placed them in a box. Recently, while decluttering, I rediscovered them and, before they get abandoned again, have posted them here below.

Oreste Fernando Nannetti

Oreste Fernando Nannetti

Oreste Fernando Nannetti

Oreste Fernando Nannetti

Related:  N.O.F. 4 Il Libro della Vita, a cura di Mino Trafeli, con le trascrizioni di A. Trafeli e le foto di Pier Nello Manoni (book with photos about Nannetti’s murals now difficult to find) + of interest, Inclusione Graffio e Parola Onlus FB page + NOF4

Oreste Fernando Nannetti

Sometimes you write just to feel in the void. (from Bebina Bunny’s Cabinet of Curiosities)

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