Late one evening, Gian Franco, the Prince of Soragna’s trusty maître d’hôtel retired early to his bedroom on the second floor of the castle of La Rocca di Soragna. There was little work for him to do because the prince and his family were away at their château in Burgundy, inherited from some French ancestor. But Gian Franco didn’t have the heart to go out and enjoy his leisure, for he knew that far away in France the prince was very ill.
It was August 1983, and the night was stifling hot. Sleep eluded Gian Franco. Soft sounds wafted through his open window from the romantic park around the house. Suddenly he sat up: somewhere in the house doors and windows were beginning to flap. He tried to work out where the noise was coming from and concluded it must be the stucco drawing room, the one “she” liked best. Before long, doors and windows were banging in unison in the first-floor galleries, the frescoed loggias of the second floor, the throne room, and the great princely apartment with its heavily gilded armchairs. Gian Franco, shaking with terror, found himself unable to move. The din became deafening: it was as if the heaviest pieces of furniture, the marquetry commodes and the ornamental cabinets, were being pushed and shoved and slammed, from the basement to the attic, against the walls of the great house.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the din ceased.
The night was as silent as before. Gian Franco rose, dressed hastily, and hurried down the stairs. In the ground-floor servant’s hall he found the rest of the staff routed from their beds, like him frightened and shaken. Gian Franco gravely uncorked a bottle of grappa and poured everyone present a stiff drink. They all knew exactly what the phenomenon meant, and now they sat in silence with their glasses, waiting. A few minutes later, what they knew would happen, happened. The telephone rang, and a faraway voice informed Gian Franco that the Prince of Soragna had just breathed his last, across the Alps in Burgundy.
For centuries, every death in the Soragna family has been heralded in this way, and with particular violence when the person concerned was the head of the family. And on every occasion those left alive have all murmured the same name: “Cassandra.”
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In June 1991, I happened to be in Soragna filming a television documentary. The camera crew and I had crossed the heavily populated, board-flat, oven-baked plains south of Milan. The village of Soragna seemed to us more like a small township, and our fist move upon our arrival was to plunge into the joyous bustle of the weekly market.
A short distance away rose the silent silhouette of La Rocca, a giant cube of brick, unadorned and mortifyingly severe.
But as I soon discovered, La Rocca’s treasures, like those of the great palaces of the Orient, lay concealed out of sight. Inside, the spacious rooms frothed with Baroque stucco and the long galleries abounded in idyllic landscapes. I walked through frescoed loggias and gilded, sumptuously furnished ceremonial apartments. I saw portraits of resplendent ancestors and passed vaulted salons decorated in the purist Mannerist style of the Renaissance. Above all there was the supreme luxury of sweet, cool air, in which the succession of rooms, corridors, and deserted staircases were exquisitely steeped.
A servant showed us into the prince’s office: it was a dimly lit, high-ceilinged, and vaulted room. Maps, framed diplomas, and a few photographs decorated the walls. The prince received us with a warmth that belied his austere surroundings. He lit a cigarette as we settled into a pair of well-used armchairs.
Diofebo Meli Lupi, Prince of Soragna, comes from a long line of Italian princes. His family, which has been famous since the high Middle Ages, at one point succeeded in building up its own independent state in Italy. The Soragnas struck their own coinage and administered their own justice, and their castle of La Rocca still boasts an authentic red-and-gold throne room. In the basement there is a vaulted dungeon that was routinely used as a torture chamber, with curtains dangling from the ceiling and, in one corner, a frescoed niche that served as an oratory for the poor wretches facing execution. Today this dungeon is a cellar stuffed with good wine.
The convulsions of the Renaissance enabled the shrewd lords of Soragna to entrench themselves in their region, but in the following centuries the new order imposed by the great powers—along with Italy’s growing decadence—trimmed away their power and independence even as they amassed fresh titles and honors.
The present head of the family is a thoroughly contemporary individual. Courteous, hospitable, and good-natured, he is an ardent motorcycle buff, an impenitent pursuer of fur and feather, and a tireless traveler. He has never been afraid in the great castle, where he lives entirely alone. Yet he not only believes in the ghost of Cassandra, but also has a radically different opinion of her.
About twenty years ago, while he was doing his military service, Diofebo was out on maneuvers with some fellow cadets when a force he compares to a “muscular hand” grasped his shoulder and forced him to bend forward. At that very instant, a salvo of machinegun fire loosed by and inexperienced soldier passed so close overhead that he felt the wind of it. The “muscular hand” had saved him from certain death.
Later, he was riding his motorcycle very fast along one of the dead-straight roads around Soragna when for some reason the machine abruptly slowed. He applied the accelerator without any effect; something was holding the bike firmly in check. At that moment, a tractor chugged out of a hidden gate and entirely blocked the road: by all rights, Diofebo should have hit it fair and square. He was entirely convinced that in this case, too, Cassandra’s hand had intervened to save his life.
Since that time, Diofebo’s links with his ancestor Cassandra have grown closer and closer; the relationship is now so warm that one wonders if today this curious ghost isn’t just about his favorite companion.
“I know she’s just as attached to this house as I am. Cassandra is a friend, almost a sister to me.” Thus, at La Rocca di Soragna, where the atmosphere seem unchanged by the passage of time, the bon vivant latest scion of the family cohabits affectionately, even lovingly, with his invisible yet entirely present ancestor.
Who is Cassandra? A frightful messenger of death, or a ghost hopelessly besotted with her own descendant? I went to consult the prince’s secretary, archivist, and family historian. This person’s realm was the enormous castle library, several rooms packed from floor to ceiling with venerable books, parchment volumes, and family papers. He was the one who told me what I wanted to know.
Cassandra Marinoni lived in the sixteenth century. She belonged to a family of minor but absurdly wealthy aristocrats, and married the present prince’s namesake, Diofebo di Soragna, who at the time was a marquis with the rank and privileges of a sovereign.
Cassandra had one sister, Lucrezia, with whom she was very close. Lucrezia married Count Giuliano di Anguissola, a gambler, adventurer, and Lothario, who married her for her mountain of gold coins. But as it turned out Lucrezia was deaf to his demands for money, which led in short order to furious scenes and eventually a complete separation. Anguissola went his own way and Lucrezia remained in her Palace at Cremona, often visiting her beloved sister in Soragna. “And so their lives went on, until that fatal afternoon on June 18, 1573,” lamented the librarian.
Shortly before this tragic day, Anguissola, now appearing quite gentle and charming, sought a meeting with his estranged wife; Lucrezia was convinced she had been right to hold him in check. Cassandra pleaded with her to be suspicious and remain guarded, but Lucrezia didn’t want to hear it, and even invited her sister to be present at the meeting, during which Anguissola would seek reconciliation. Cassandra, despite her misgivings, went to Lucrezia’s palace in Cremona. Anguissola was to arrive in the evening. It was a particularly hot day.
After lunch, Lucrezia and Cassandra retired to a nice cool room refitted for the summer. They changed into lighter clothes and dozed off. The whole city seemed to be taking a siesta. A strange silence fell upon the city. Stranger still, was the fact that Lucrezia’a palace had gone completely silent, as if all the servants had disappeared. Cassandra, unnerved, pointed this out to her sister who begged her to be quiet and let her sleep.
All of a sudden, Cassandra heard something rustling about. She could hear the faint footsteps of someone making their way up the stairs. Perhaps it was the chambermaids, but the steps were heavy and cautious. Soon, Cassandra sensed a presence outside the door; she was paralyzed with terror. Lucrezia, showed no sign of fear. She too had heard the steps and was simply curious to know who it was. Abruptly, the door burst open. The sisters let out loud cries as the strangers threw themselves upon on the two women. Some held the sisters down while others began stabbing at them. Blood went everywhere, loud cries rang out. The mayhem passed quickly, a mere matter of minutes, yet for some time afterwards the assassins continued to stab the lifeless bodies. Clearly it had been a set up. Anguissola had been in need of money, and as Lucrezia had refused to give him any more, his solution was to kill her in order to inherit from her.
Cassandra was the major obstacle for Anguissola. He was well aware of her distrust of him. If left alive, she would immediately suspect him of the murder and wouldn’t cease to see him tried and executed. They would have to die together. As for Cassandra’s husband, the Marquis of Soragna, he was much too prudent to involve himself in such a scheme. Anguissola wouldn’t have risked approaching him and revealing his plan, for fear of being exposed. However, Anguissola was well aware of the marquis love for money, and with Cassandra’s death, he stood to inherit an immense fortune. Anguissola gambled that the lure of money would keep sealed the lips of the marquis, and he was right.
The newly widowed marquis held a magnificent funeral service for Cassandra. The bier was nearly as tall as the church itself, and a forest of candles burned on its steps. Soragna placed crowns everywhere he could to display his rank. During the ceremony, he let himself go just to the point of crying. Anguissola, for his part, was immediately named the ringleader, but had already disappeared.
Many years later he reappeared and encountered no difficulties. In the meantime, he had inherited from Lucrezia and enjoyed his fortune. The marquis showed his indignation and demanded justice, while knowing all along nothing would come of it. It was a tactic that eased his conscience and secured his wellbeing.
It was the marquis’s descendants that Cassandra sought to terrorize, much more than those of Anguisolla, who had ended quite miserably after blowing through his ill-gotten fortune. No, it was the marquis’s hypocrisy that revolted Cassandra. Thus did she begin to manifest herself and terrorize any and all who were close to the Soragnas. The marquis himself, however, remained quite unassailable, and died quiet peacefully in his bed, adorned with titles and honors, fabulously rich, and surrounded by his loving family. And so Cassandra decided to seek vengeance on his descendants, who proved to be much less indifferent to her manifestations. That is, until the time of Diofebo, the current reigning prince, when her thirst for vengeance subsided, and she grew to love the prince, as well as protect him.
Excerpt from my book, Living with Ghosts: Eleven Extraordinary Tales, Norton, 1996.
All photographs by Justin Creedy-Smith unless otherwise noted