Words and photographs: © Helen Miller
Let me begin with the key to our house, which was handed to my husband Sam one foggy November day when Italy still had lire. La chiave di paradiso (the key to paradise), claimed the elderly farmer who owned the house and surrounding twenty acres of abandoned woodland. The key was rough, elegant, worn smooth by working hands and from it dangled a piece of dirty twine. To Sam it was a beautiful object and he was smitten before the key was in the door.
Fortunately the house was as covetable as the key. A late seventeenth century farmhouse, nothing changed, nothing missing, apart from a road, electricity, in fact any services at all. There was nothing whatsoever to connect the house to the modern world. So we signed the deed, swept the floors and moved in.
That was then, which now seems a lifetime away so great has been the adventure. Living in a remote, wild place is just one part of it, but that is another story. The part that absorbs me most is the house itself. How we have evolved together these past years, what we have learned from living here and what Sam has created for us.
I do not think of our house as being restored. In fact it is us that have been restored and the house has merely been modified. At first glance it may appear that we have done nothing, when truthfully modern intervention has occurred. But there have been no builders here, not one. We dismissed the very idea. The atmosphere we felt when we first entered the house was precious indeed. We were standing in a house made entirely from the materials of this hillside by the people who lived here. Within these walls was a profound sense of belonging. It was this we needed if we were going to flourish in a foreign land.
Niente ti turbi, nienti ti spaventi, tutto passa (Let nothing trouble you, let nothing frighten you, all things pass). This is what it says above our bed, inscribed into a clay tile by one of the men who built our house. Sam found these words on the roof, upturned to the sky. It's a prayer, written by Saint Teresa of Ávila, and it seemed like good advice during our first winter when the nights were long and dark, snow lay deep and wild boar snuffled at our door.
It was during that winter I grew to love the darkness and I became fascinated with the moon. I had never seen moonlight properly before, never needed it. Now every full moon I could lie in bed and read, my pages perfectly visible in its silvery light. I began to chart the moon's progress, anticipating its pathway across my piece of sky. I would calculate the appearance of the full moon, waiting for a huge milky planet to appear from behind the mountain. I would stand with the oak trees waiting, often for hours. Suddenly the first glimmer would be there, reassuringly just as expected, yet always breathtaking.
I asked Sam if I could take his portrait in the moonlight. I recall the exposure was so long, us both standing so still, a badger wandered in and out of the picture. When I saw the first Luna Piena Portrait I knew it held something of what we were experiencing in this place. There was an otherness to the quality of time that was separate from the world we had left. Yet here we were in central Italy just over the mountains from Rome.
Our house not only had no lights, but little furniture. We had inherited a few possessions left by the former owners most of which were made by hand and had a useful purpose. What was attractive about these objects was not so much their outer appearance, but the fact that they had once been something else. The transformation from cigarette packet to lantern made the lantern more charming. Cardboard box to fan, made the fan feel more of a luxury. A cheese grater was clearly once a tin of tomatoes. This inventiveness, this thriftiness, we read as a reminder that it takes a creative mind to be resourceful.
As he makes this house our home, Sam uses a similar language to the people who lived here before us. He never goes far for what he needs. He transforms one object into another. When we need a cupboard it is made with the same spirit as the person who made the cheese grater, the difference is now the materials are in the hands of an artist. The house has become his measure. If he brings something inside and it looks right, it stays. If it looks wrong, he starts again. The final appearance of each object depends on an intangible combination of things; what he gathers, the time of day, indeed the sight of a buzzard could influence the shape of a doorway.
Before any electricity came we used the cigarette-packet-lanterns to find our way in the darkness. When the first light bulb was switched on we turned it off immediately and fled outside to the fireflies. We needed to see to read, but we did not want to light up the shadows. It was the unlit spaces of the house that held its history, its secrets. Too much light and they would be gone. Besides, the owls might leave. So gradually gentle lamps were made to shed some light, but not too much, until one winter's night a magnificent chandelier appeared complete with tinkling ribbons and boats for many candles. Sitting down to dinner beneath its flickering glow you cannot see much at all, but you can feel the spirit of the house alive all around you.
Some of the things Sam makes for the house are not useful at all. Like the folded paper sculptures that hang from the beams. "They are in my mind and I need to see them", is all he says, hanging them from the ceiling in what I call The Universe. We were once visited by a neighbour who gazed in astonishment at the white luminous forms above his head, claiming Sam had seen an 'Ooo-foe' (UFO) passing over our house. He left most excited.
News travels fast in the Sibillini Mountains. "An artist is here, he has chosen our village!" the local people exclaimed. Their welcome was an honour and we knew we could stay. So I shipped our furniture from London. In the move we had kept few, but what seemed at the time, important things, including anything we had made, family objects, books, photographs and the piano. The rest we had given away. But when the van arrived we realised what little we had and that there was nothing soft to sit on.
Although we needed furniture Sam needed to draw and he began with what was around him; a flight of swifts, an arch in the grotto, a swarm of bees. These drawings led to objects, some practical, some not. He and the house were getting to know each other and however much a sofa was needed there was no rushing this process. Looking back, this unhurried approach to furnishing our house was unconscious, but he knew it was the right thing to do.
A sofa did arrive, but not intentionally. One summer's day we had gone to the beach for a swim. It began to rain so we fled for shelter beneath a palm tree. And there they were, a pale green satin sofa and chairs, abandoned on the promenade, their fancy fabric getting all wet. Staring at the plush satin cushions we realised we hadn't sat on a comfy chair for two years. And so they came home with us to the mountains, all dressed up in their seaside finery.
Our house has influenced Sam profoundly or perhaps it's the other way round. All I know is that they are now inseparable. In all that he has done so we could live here, he has been careful not to destroy what he cherishes most about the building; its belongingness. It is crucial to him that this feeling remains intact. Every modification, every new object could tip the balance and what is of value be lost forever.
My adventure in Le Marche has not turned out the way I thought it would. I never thought I would have drawings of bees before a bathtub and that would be the right way round, that I would sleep with owls and a prayer above my bed and feel protected. What I have learned is that a house needs time, like the moon. These things cannot be rushed like a storm. The home Sam is making has a deep sense of being from this place. It makes me feel I belong here, and for now perhaps I do.
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