Essay Non-fiction Revival Uncategorized

The Legacy of Santa Lucia

A pilgrimage to Holly Stratton's remote old family home in Italy leads to revival – but not as she was expecting...

by Holly Stratton

As the brush sweeps across the terracotta tiled floor the soapy water cuts through grit and grime, revealing the beautiful deep red tones hidden beneath.

Methodically I make my way across the tiles. I finish and sit up on my knees. Sunlight streams through the tiny window, outside I hear wind rustling through the pine trees and birds chirping. My muscles feel hot and raw, my body is covered in sheen of sweat but as I look across the floor I feel something I have not felt for years: a growing sense of contentment.

The floor belongs to my old bedroom in my family’s house: Santa Lucia. Santa Lucia is approximately 400 years old and was originally a convent before being converted into a house and passing through many pairs of hands until finally my parents bought her in 2003. Despite the lack of wifi and being completely isolated, I spent many happy family holidays there, surrounded by nature and true peace and quiet.

When I started pursuing a career in film and had my first adult relationship, I stopped visiting. I forgot about Santa Lucia. My parents separated and Santa Lucia became a burden in the middle of nowhere that none of us had the energy to deal with. Then at twenty-three I found myself in a mess. My relationship was breaking down, my career was going nowhere and I was stone cold broke.

Contemplating my life as I commuted home, Santa Lucia flashed through my mind. I called my mum and announced I needed a change so I was going back to Santa Lucia to write. Confused, Mum gently reminded me how bad the roads were, how cold it was there in February and that I didn’t speak any Italian. Despite these very sensible warnings I knew had to go.

After a terrible journey, lots of tears, late night panics and encounters with snakes and bugs I got down to writing. To the surprise of no-one but myself, having written nothing but texts and e-mails for a while I found I couldn’t string two words together. My master plan had failed.

When I noticed how far Santa Lucia had fallen into disrepair I began cleaning things up. It was not a conscious choice but looking back it was the first decision I had made that wasn’t because of how it would look to other people, it was a purely internal choice.

“I forgot about Santa Lucia. My parents separated and Santa Lucia became a burden in the middle of nowhere that none of us had the energy to deal with.”

One day I was cleaning a painted tile in the hallway that depicts Santa Lucia, a beautiful blonde woman holding a plate with two eyes on it. Her image is both grisly and beautiful. Santa Lucia, also known as Lucy of Syracuse, is the patron saint of the blind. A devout Christian women, she refused to be married because she wanted to live a life of servitude and give her dowry to the poor.

Because she would not marry, Lucy was forced into prostitution, tortured and put to death. In other versions of the narrative, her eyes were ripped out and later healed by god, which explains her  relation to the blind.

As I cleaned her tile, I started to wonder about the countless nameless women who Santa Lucia had sheltered and who like Santa Lucia had taken vows of chastity and obedience to give themselves to God.

When I chopped wood, cleaned or painted, I sensed I was connecting to their legacy. Aside from the women who would have had no choice but to live this way, like many women still do today, I could sense another kind of woman, who was seeking a different possibility. Maybe for some women this spartan, tough life provided an opportunity. Maybe Santa Lucia for them place where they could live free from men, where they could contemplate and where they were only accountable to each other and to God.

I started to realise that instead of my work reviving the legacy of Santa Lucia, the exact opposite was happening. These nameless women were allowing me to walk in their footsteps. With every room I restored I reconnected with the simple power of my physicality. After feeling so lost I could see the impact I was making, I could feel my mind clearing and I could sense a newfound spirit, a sense of self I had never encountered, emerging. I was experiencing a life where I was only accountable to myself and this nascent independence was reviving me, shining light on parts of me I hadn’t even noticed were weary and depleted.

As I sat on the front steps in jeans covered in dirt, my hands blistered from my axe, drinking coffee and watching the blood red sun dip behind the mountains I finally understood the gift I had been given.

Santa Lucia and the mythical host of women working through her, had completely revived me.


Holly Stratton | @hollylouisarose

Holly is a content creator living in London. She creates all manner of things for her company A New Look At and organises artists residencies through the Santa Lucia Collective, founded at Santa Lucia in Italy.

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