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Illustrating the Mysteries of Italy

By Charles Purdy

One of Italian illustrator Francesco Bongiorni’s latest projects is an eerie, evocative series that illustrates a new book titled The Atlas of the Mysterious Places of Italy (Atlante dei luoghi misteriosi d’Italia), which explores Italian locales tied to mysterious legends, strange stories, and dark folktales.

An illustration of the “Republic of Rose Island” is one of the atlas’s illustrations that Bongiorni particularly likes. On May 1, 1968, an Italian engineer, Giorgio Rosa, proclaimed the independence of the new micro-nation “Republic of Rose Island”—on a platform he had built in the Adriatic Sea.

Bongiorni, who worked on the book in collaboration with the writer Massimo Polidoro, says he has always been interested in bizarre legends and inexplicable mysteries. Living in Spain for the past decade has allowed him to start to see his native Italy through the eyes of a tourist, and he has become more curious about the legends and mysteries of his native country—which led naturally to him wanting to illustrate some of those fascinating stories. He adds, “Since I wasn’t being offered this opportunity, I knew I would have to create it.

He got in touch with Polidoro, a well-known expert on mysteries; together, they created an illustrated journey to some enigmatic Italian places whose history is shrouded in mystery or attached to otherworldly stories. The almost 30 illustrations in the atlas are beautifully spooky, thanks to the artist’s unusual somber color palette shot through with powerful strokes of pink light.

EXPLORING PLACES SHROUDED IN MYSTERY

In doing research for this project, Bongiorni journeyed anew to many of the places in the atlas—including Consonno, an abandoned, half-finished Italian “Las Vegas” not far from Milan; the supposed spot of Dracula’s tomb in Naples; and the Park of the Monsters (the Sacro Bosco, in Bomarzo).

Polidoro and Bongiorni also researched the legends together. Bongiorni says, “These studies fascinated me—and I was able to discover an unknown, and certainly not very touristic, part of my country…. We managed to discover secret places and legends that are very little known even by Italians.”

An illustration of the “Tatzelwurm,” a mythical creature you might encounter on an Alpine holiday.

One story that especially fascinated Bongiorni was the legend of the “Tatzelwurm,” a monstrous cryptid (often said to have the body of a lizard and the face of a cat) that menaces the Alps. “For years I would go on holidays in the Alps, and discovering this story so close to me was amazing,” says Biongiorni. “The curious thing is that this creature would have been sighted in places and times very distant from each other. Is it possible not to be fascinated by stories like this?”

From left to right: The supposed tomb of Vlad the Impaler (also known as Count Dracula), the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, and a scene from the Park of the Monsters (the Sacro Bosco, in Bomarzo).

SEEING OLD LEGENDS IN A NEW LIGHT

The illustration of “Dracula’s tomb” is one of Bongiorni’s favorite images. Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula—the title character of Stoker’s famous gothic horror novel—was largely based on the 15th-century Wallachian Prince Vlad the Impaler, who died doing battle against forces of the Ottoman Empire. According to legend, his head was sent to Constantinople, while his body was laid to rest near Bucharest. But recent research points to Vlad’s having been interred at the Santa Maria la Nova church in Naples.

The tower of Curon’s 14th-century church, rising out of an icy lake, is all that remains of the village.

Another illustration that Bongiorni particularly loves is of the last visible remnant of the old village of Curon, in Trentino-Alto Adige. The village was intentionally razed and flooded decades ago, when a dam was built to power a hydroelectric plant. Today, all that’s left to be seen is the bell tower of the village’s ancient church, rising from the icy waters of a lake and creating a melancholy scene.

Bongiorni’s drawing process typically begins with photographic research followed by quick sketches on paper. After that, he says, he starts drawing directly in Adobe Photoshop CC. Once the design is finished, he applies textures to the image. He explains, “The textures I use are created, for example, by painting on wooden boards or by printing plates with a press—I have a large texture database. I love Photoshop because it allows you to integrate digital images with hand-painted parts. That ability to merge digital and analog techniques is very exciting and stimulating.”

The Atlas of the Mysterious Places of Italy was originally scheduled to be released in mid-October of 2018, but the large amount of black in Bongiorni’s images caused a slight delay. “The amount of ink caused the pages to dry more slowly,” he says, “so the publisher decided to postpone the release. With that delay, the book ended up being released on October 31—Halloween. Was that really a coincidence?”

In the 16th century, the Italian town of Triora, now known as “the Salem of Europe,” saw dozens of women tried for witchcraft. At least four are known to have been executed.

Check out more of the illustrations from The Atlas of the Mysterious Places of Italy (Atlante dei luoghi misteriosi d'Italia) on Bongiorni’s Behance page.