In the Langhe area of Piedmont, centuries before the international fame of wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco, wine and wine growing has been an inherent part of farmers’ life. The intimate connection between vine and man has been depicted in various folkloric sources and local art styles throughout history. One example of this symbiotic relationship is to be found in the pagan tradition of placing stone sculptures in the vineyard as totem symbols aiming at bringing prosperity and good growth to the vineyards. The habit of placing stone sculptures at the end of each vine row was present in Piedmont from ancient time and kept alive as late as until the beginning of the 20th century, after the phylloxera plague had ruined major parts of European vineyards, forcing grape growers to dig up the old plants and replant new ones on American rootstock. In the 1970´s in the vineyard Camongin in Vesime, in the province of Asti, two of these guardian angels were found in the soil. Archeological studies revealed that the Camongin vineyard used to consist of over 20 pairs of these sculptures, but only two figures, one male and one female, remained as physical traces of the ancient tradition. The two stone statues depicted to deities: one female, with a rounded pregnant belly, representing fertility and future, and a male statue of a fallic shape, being a symbol for power and manhood. Unfortunately the female sculpture disappeared with time and only photos remain as a testimony of it, but thanks to the sculptor Fernando Gallo, a copy of the female deity was created through an ancient piece of stone and the couple thus has been reunited in the vineyard. The two statues, perhaps not used for the magic purposes that they once were, now “guard the vines in silence”, as the former president of the University of Gastronomic Sciences Piercarlo Grimaldi poetically expressed it on a Terra Madre conference.
In modern times we rely on technology and viticultural practices to increase the productivity and health of the vineyards, and sculptures and art in vineyards, when they do exist, serve the purpose of honoring of our cultural heritage or as an aesthetic addition to the landscape. But today, with intense monoculture and a challenging future of climatic changes, the wine making areas of the world might be more in need than ever of some of that pagan magic.
Modern totem sculptures, Fontanafredda vineyard (above): “Gli occhi chiusi”/“Eyes closed” and “La prosperitá femminile”/“The female prosperity”, below, Michele Chiarlo vineyard and Art Park La Court.
Read more about the vineyard statues in Vesime here.