After a morning spent in the archives, studying an eighty–page Will and Testament left by a feudal lord of the 14th century, Elena Corbellini and I stop off at Il Sagrestano, a comely restaurant just outside Cecima, for some well deserved tagliatelle in braised duck-breast sauce and a glass or two of Bonarda. I realize that, although we’ve been working together for four years, I actually know little of Elena’s story.
“Can’t you tell me something about yourself? Maybe a fifteen-minute interview?”
“Fifteen minutes? Of course not! At least two hours…”
Born in Bettola, in the green hills of Piacenza, as a girl Elena passionately wished to become a ballet dancer. Her father wasn’t able to take her all the way to Piacenza, and to the only ballet school in the area, several times a week, and so tried to distract her with piano lessons in the village. Indeed, her parents always encouraged Elena and her sister to engage in creative and artistic activities. Her mother was a French teacher, and from her Elena learnt very early just how effectively speaking foreign languages can broaden ones horizons. Her father, on the other hand, was a primary school teacher. He had interrupted his university degree in literature because of the Second World War, just before he could finish. He had just one exam left to sit at the time: the philology of romance languages.
Ironically, after completing high school at a Liceum specialized in classical studies, Elena went to careers counseling in order to help choose her university degree. As part of the process, she sat aptitude tests. The results were firm and conclusive: she was destined to be a mathematician. Shocked, for even the simplest equations had always driven her to extremes of nauseated boredom, Elena nearly fainted, and then chose to study literature at the University of Pavia. Much to the dismay of her parents. One of the few career options for literature graduates was teaching, and like all teachers (my own mother included) they had always done their utmost to discourage their children from taking up that career path. Her father reluctantly admitted it was destiny when she chose her major: the philology of romance languages.
Elena became fluent in Latin through sheer conscientiousness. Her degree thesis was on a medieval text (Saint Hieronymus’ Gradus) that was a sort of collection of quotations of other authors. Her mission was to identify each and every one of the authors quoted, which meant reading her way through literally hundreds of medieval texts, all in Latin. Anyone else would have identified two or three of the quotations and then called it a day, acquitting themselves with a change of title from ‘the complete sources of…’ to ‘selected sources of….’. Elena, however, once went to the lengths of packing a bag with a thermos, sandwiches and a torch, and hiding beneath some shelves in an attempt to have herself locked into the University Library at closing time – right inside the hall containing the immense Patrologia Latina!
After graduating she surprised everybody by embarking upon a career in journalism with local radio and tv in the Province of Piacenza, and working as an editor and occasional contributor with local newspapers. She even wrote lyrics for jazz composers and screenplays for documentaries. Finally, however, in search of economic security, she bowed to the inevitable and became a Latin teacher at a high school in Pavia, and bought a holiday house in Butrio, the village just a few hundred meters away from the Abbey of Sant’Alberto. That was when she encountered among the locals the legend of Edward II at the Abbey, and in the 1990s she published a beautiful book of fairytales, Racconti dell’Agrifoglio. One of them was the story of the English king at Sant’Alberto. And so it was only destiny that, more than ten years later, Elena should become an integral part of the Auramala Project.
Elena has been the official reader and translator for texts from the Staffora Valley itself. Among the fascinating topics she has shed light upon, we find the origins of the oral legend in the valley, the history of the precious candlesticks of Sant’Alberto, and the history of the tomb thought to be that of Edward II. But these are all details to be revealed further on down the line….
We will soon be posting an introduction to another crucial member of the team, Professor Stefano Castagneto. But before that, we’ll finally begin announcing some of our research results.