Grotta Gino: In The Lair of The Stone People

Article by guestbloggers Alessia Cagnotto and Martina Huni

It is a fine October day, the sky is clear and the sun warms us as if we were still at the beginning of September. We are in Moncalieri, in front of a building that seems to have been meticulously saved from the ravagings of time. The facade is uniformly illuminated; the decors and windows cast very soft shadows, and the Irish-green signs stand out against the salmon pink brick walls, as do the white letters reading “Ristorante La Grotta Gino“.
The entrance shows nothing strange, but we do not let ourselves be deceived by this normality: we know what awaits us inside is far from ordinary.

Upon entering the small bar, we are greeted by a smiling girl who shows us the way to the fairy-tale restaurant.
On our left we see a few set tables, surrounded by ancient pots and pans hanging from the walls, old tools and photographs: our gaze follows these objects unto the opening of the lair that will take us inside another world.
Here we see standing two dark red caryatids, guarding the entrance of the path, and beyond them, the reassuring plaster gives way to a dark grey stone vault, as our eyes wander inside the tunnel lit only by a few spotlights stuck to the ceiling.

Once past the caryatids of the Real World, in order to proceed inside the cave — as in all good adventures — we see a moored boat awaiting to set sail; we soon find ourselves floating on a path of uncertain waters, aboard our personal ferry. Feeling at ease in Jim Hawkins‘ shoes, we decide to enjoy the trip and focus on the statues lined up on both sides of the canal.

Behind a slight bend along the way (more or less 50 meters on a stream of spring water), we meet the first group of stone characters, among which is standing the builder of the cave himself, Mr. Lorenzo Gino, together with the Gentleman King and a chubby cupid holding an inscription dedicated to King Victor Emmanuel.

The story of the Grotta is incredible: over a span of thirty years, from 1855 to 1885, Lorenzo Gino excavated this place all by himself, on the pretext of expanding his carpenter shop. The construction works encountered many difficulties, as he proceeded without following any blueprint or architectural plan, but were nonetheless completed with this amazing result.
In 1902 his son Giovanni dedicated a bust, the one we just passed by, to his father and his efforts; many journalists attended the inauguration of this statue, and a couple of books were published to advertise the astounding Grotta Gino.

Back in the days, the public already looked with wonder at these improvised tunnels where Gino placed depictions of real characters, well-known at the time.
The light coming from above further sculpts the lineaments of the statues, making their eyes look deeper, and from those shady orbits these personified stones fiercely return our curious gaze.
Proceeding along the miniature canal, we eventually dock at a small circular widening. A bit sorry that the ride is already over, we get off the boat and take a look inside the dark niche opening before us: two mustached men emerge from darkness, accompanied by a loyal hunting dog holding a hare in her mouth.

We realize with amazement that we’ve just begun a new adventurous path; we climb a few steps and stumble upon another group of statues standing in circle: they happily dance under a skylight drilled in the vaulted ceiling, which lets some natural sunlight enter this dark space. These rays are so unexpected they seem almost magical.

New burrows branch off from here. On our right there’s a straight tunnel, where calm waters run, reflecting wine bottles and strange little petrified creatures nestled in the walls. The half-busts, some gentlemen as high as their top hats, and an elegant melancholic dame all lean out over the stream, where a bratty little kid is playfully splashing around.

We smile perhaps, feeling in the belly of a whale. Our estrangement is intensified by the eerie lighting: very colorful neons turn the stone red, blue, purple, so we observe the surroundings like a child watches the world through a colored candy paper. The only thing that could bring us back to the reality of the 21st Century would be the sound coming from the radio, but its discrete volume is not enough to break the spell, to shake the feeling that those creatures are looking at us, amused by our astonishment.

We make our way through the tunnels as if searching for a magic treasure chest, hypnotized by the smallest detail; everywhere wine bottles lie covered in dust, while human figures carved in stone seem to point us towards the right way. We enter a semi-circular lair, filled with a number of bottles; we observe them, label after label, as they tower over us arranged on several levels: the bottles decorate a series of recesses inhabited by little, bizarre smiling creatures leaning over towards us. In the middle of this sort of miniature porch, stands a young man of white stone, even more joyful than his roommates, forever bound to celebrate the wine around him.

We keep moving in order to reach a new group of statues: this time there are more characters, once again arranged in a circle — gentlemen sporting a big moustache and high top hats stand beside a playful young fellow and a well-dressed lady with her bulky outfit; the shadows of the fabric match the mistress’ hairstyle. In the dim light, these statues suggest a slight melancholy: we can recognize mankind’s everlasting attempt to sculpt Time itself, to carve in stone a particular instant, a vision that we wouldn’t want to be lost and consumed; a mission that is unfortunately bound to fail because, as the saying goes, “the memory of happiness is not happiness”.
Four a couple of minutes, though, we actually manage to join this Feast of Stone, we walk around the partygoers, following the whirl suggested by their frozen movements.
We eventually leave, in silence, like unwanted guests, without having understood the reason for this celebration.

The burrows take us towards a slight rise, the moist path turns into a stairway. We climb the stairs, accustomed by now to the impressive half-busts keeping us company through the last part of our adventure.


A narrow wrought-iron spiral staircase, green as the signs we met on the outside, leads us back to our current era. Its very presence contrasts with one last, small statue hanging on the opposite wall: a white, fleshy but run-down cupid remains motionless under a little window, sunlight brushing against him. From his niche, he is destined to imagine the world without ever knowing it.

Our trip eventually reaches its end as we enter a big circular dining room, under a high dome. This is the place where receptions and events are usually held.

The way back, which we reluctantly follow, gifts us with one last magical sight before getting our feet back on the ground: seen from our boat, the light coming from outisde, past the red caryatids, appears excessively bright and reverberates on the water creating a weird, oblong reflection, reminding us of depictions in ancient books of legends and fables.

Upon exiting this enchanted lair, and coming back to the Real World, we find the October day still tastes like the beginning of Spetember.
With a smile we silently thank Mr. Lorenzo Gino for digging his little fairy tale inside reality, and for giving substance, by means of stone, to a desire we all harbor: the chance of playing and dreaming again, for a while, just like when we were kids.
When we could turn the world into something magic, by looking at it through a sticky and colorful candy paper.

“La Grotta Gino” is in Piazza Amedeo Ferdinando 2, Moncalieri (TO). Here is its official website and FB page.
On the blog of the speleological association Egeria Centro Ricerche Sotterranee there is an article (in Italian) mentioning the mystery of a second Grotta Gino near Milan.
Take a look at the beautiful photographs taken by the authors of this post: Alessia Cagnotto and Martina Huni.

Shrek, la pecora ribelle

Sheep Resting Upon the Rolling Hillside, Kaikura, South Island, New Zealand-537855

Le pecore, in Nuova Zelanda, sono un’istituzione. Fino agli anni ’60 la lana rappresentava un terzo dei ricavi di esportazione, e anche se oggi queste cifre si sono notevolmente abbassate, i greggi ovini sono ancora parte integrante dei bucolici paesaggi dello stato insulare. Ma se pensate che tutte le pecore siano “pecoroni”, ovvero docili e senza un vero carattere, la storia di Shrek vi farà ricredere.

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Shrek era un montone castrato della specie Merino, nato e cresciuto nella fattoria di Bendigo, vicino alla piccola comunità pastorizia di Tarras, nell’Isola del Sud. Le pecore Merino sono allevate per la loro lana di primissima qualità, e vengono dunque regolarmente tosate dai loro allevatori: questo processo non è violento, ma probabilmente piuttosto fastidioso per l’animale, che viene tenuto fermo in posizioni per lui innaturali. Gli agnelli e le pecore più giovani scalciano e combattono durante la tosatura, ma con il passare degli anni capiscono che non c’è nulla da temere; gli animali più vecchi hanno imparato dall’esperienza e non oppongono più resistenza quando vengono alleggeriti dai diversi chili di lana che li ricoprono. Un buon tosatore, infatti, impiega soltanto tre o quattro minuti per portare a termine l’indolore operazione.

Shrek, invece, non ne voleva proprio sapere di essere tosato – ed evidentemente mal sopportava anche la vita all’interno del gregge. Un bel giorno, decise che ne aveva vuto abbastanza e lasciò i suoi simili ovini per darsi alla macchia. Era il 1998, e nonostante le continue ricerche dei proprietari, per sei lunghi anni nessuno seppe più nulla di lui.

Infine, il 15 aprile del 2004, la sua “latitanza” giunse al termine quando il suo padrone riuscì finalmente a scovarlo: Shrek si era nascosto per tutti quegli anni in una grotta. Ma ormai non assomigliava nemmeno più ad una pecora.

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Secondo le parole del pastore che lo trovò nella caverna, “sembrava una creatura biblica”, un Behemoth o una bestia mitologica. Il suo vello infatti aveva cotinuato a crescere e crescere, senza controllo, fagocitando praticamente l’intero corpo dell’animale.

Shrek the Sheep Photo: STEPHEN JAQUIERY

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La curiosità scientifica che sta dietro a questo episodio è piuttosto sorprendente: per quanto riguarda le pecore domestiche come le Merino, se il pelo non viene tosato continuerà a crescere all’infinito. Si tratta di un’evoluzione dovuta proprio alla pastorizia, e all’interazione con l’uomo: infatti le pecore selvatiche perdono gran parte del vello in maniera naturale durante l’anno, cosa che succede anche ai capi allevati esclusivamente per la loro carne. Soltanto le pecore da lana producono pelo durante tutto l’anno, senza sosta. In questo senso, sono divenute dipendenti dall’uomo perché senza tosatura andrebbero incontro a seri problemi di salute. Nelle stagioni estive, la mole di lana può portare a stress da calore; il pelo non curato causa problemi di motilità, tanto che in alcuni casi impedisce alla pecora di rialzarsi da terra; inoltre anche gli occhi potrebbero venire ricoperti dalla lana, rendendo di fatto cieco l’animale.

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Certo, Shrek era comunque un’eccezione. Il vello di una pecora Merino pesa in media circa 4.5 kg, e in qualche raro caso arriva fino ai 15 kg; ma il pelo che Shrek aveva prodotto durante i sei anni di fuga aveva un peso assolutamente straordinario – 27 kg, sufficienti per cucire 20 completi da uomo.

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Diventato immediatamente una star per i neozelandesi, sempre orgogliosi delle proprie pecore, Shrek venne infine tosato in diretta TV nazionale. La sua lana fu messa all’asta per beneficienza, venne stampato un libro per bambini, e la famosa pecora incontrò perfino il Primo Ministro, Helen Clark, al Parlamento. Si stima che questa pubblicità abbia fruttato all’industria nazionale dell’esportazione approssimativamente 100 milioni di dollari.

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Per celebrare il suo decimo compleanno, a 30 mesi dalla prima tosatura, ecco un’altra trovata: Shrek venne nuovamente tosato, ma questa volta su un iceberg, galleggiante al largo della costa di Dunedin. Ancora una volta lo scopo di questa impresa era a favore di un ente benefico per la cura dei bambini, e per promuovere la lana neozelandese. Ma probabilmente fu tutt’altro che un compleanno memorabile per Shrek, a cui vennero addirittura applicati degli speciali ramponi da ghiaccio perché non scivolasse lungo i freddi pendii dell’iceberg.

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All’età di 16 anni, nel 2011, su consiglio del veterinario Shrek venne sottoposto ad eutanasia. Le sue ceneri furono sparse sulla cima della montagna più alta del paese, Mount Cook, a simbolo e memoria dell’insegnamento che, a detta dei neozelandesi, questo testardo animale ci ha lasciato: se non vuoi fare una cosa, lotta con tutte le tue forze per evitarla.

Ma, a voler essere davvero cinici, dalla storia di Shrek si potrebbe anche dedurre l’esatto opposto – non importa quanto tu ti batta, alla fine la tosatura arriva per tutti…

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0w50Zv6YF8]