The University of Arizona is partnering with an Italian town to create a museum and exhibition center showcasing the area's storied history — a history that includes a devastating disease outbreak, witchcraft and magic.
Over the next year, UA architecture students will design, create and install exhibitions that tell the story of Lugnano in Taverina, a commune in the province of Terni in the central Umbria region of Italy that was hit hard by malaria in the middle of the fifth century.
Their work will be displayed in two churches in the community, which were built in 1587 and currently are being used for storage, pending their renovation.
Sixteen architecture students — 14 seniors and two master's students — will travel to Italy in the fall to begin the design phase of the project. They'll be there as part of the UA's largest study abroad program, Arizona in Italy Orvieto Study Abroad Program, offered through the UA's Office of Global Initiatives.
The museum project was conceived by David Soren, a UA Regents' Professor of Anthropology and Classics, who also founded the Orvieto study abroad program in 2001. Since 1986, Soren has worked on archaeological excavations in the Lugnano area, where his efforts have earned him honorary Italian citizenship.
Soren proposed the museum project to Lugnano mayor Gianluca Filiberti as a way to celebrate the town's history and educate locals and tourists.
"I love the town, I love the people, and I love the mayor and his wife," Soren said. "When I approached them with this idea, they said, 'Let's go for it. Let's do everything we can do to create something for our town.' Their vision is that there will be all these towns in Umbria that have beautiful museums and cultural exhibitions, and you could make a circuit of them as an American tourist, and this is beginning to happen right now across Umbria."
The project is being funded, in part, by a grant of 170,000 euros (about $187,000) from an Italian consortium of towns — or comuni — that includes Lugnano. An additional $50,000 to restore the church roof will come from the Tucson-based Joseph and Mary Cacioppo Foundation.
Working closely with the local government in Lugnano, Soren is co-leading the project with Darci Hazelbaker, a lecturer in the UA College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture.
"It will be a design-build project, which is very popular in architecture education because it allows architecture students to engage with the community and begin to have real-world experience," Hazelbaker said. "It goes beyond the idea of 'paper architecture,' which is just a studio with an idea that may never actually come to fruition."
In Italy this fall, Hazelbaker and her students will visit the future site of the museum and exhibition center, document artifacts to be housed there, and meet Lugnano residents to better understand their expectations for the project and its potential to revitalize tourism in the area. They also will study the work of Italian architecture masters, such as Carlo Scarpa, and visit some classic works to draw inspiration for their own designs.
"The plan is that by the end of the fall semester, these students will come up with design development and then will present it to the community and get their blessing," Hazelbaker said. "We want this to be a source of pride for this community. This is their history and their place, and they really would like to show that off to a broader audience."
Malaria and Magic
Part of what students will be tasked with communicating in the museum is the haunting history of Lugnano.
Soren's many years of excavations there — with collaborators from Yale, Stanford and elsewhere — have uncovered a number of intriguing, often grim, finds. Their discoveries over time led to the revelation that Lugnano, about an hour north of Rome, was the site of a deadly malaria outbreak in the mid-fifth century.
While excavating the ruins of a sprawling and elegant villa — built around 15 B.C. and the size of a modern shopping mall — Soren and his colleagues made a gruesome discovery. The building, which had been rendered useless by foundational cracks by the mid-third century, had come to serve a new purpose by the middle of the fifth century: as a cemetery for infants and unborn fetuses.
The escalating pattern of infant burials at the site indicated an epidemic had hit the area and rapidly increased in deadliness over a short period of time, with the deceased buried together in an isolated area, probably because of fears of contamination.
Bone analysis would show that those buried there had likely fallen victim to Plasmodium falciparum malaria, or "blackwater fever," a mosquito-borne illness that is particularly deadly to infants and unborn children. The disease may have found its way to the region through trade with Africa.
The archaeological evidence suggests residents of Lugnano, desperate to control the outbreak, turned to traditional black magic and sorcery for help. Soren and his colleagues found the remains of 13 puppies, which appeared to have been sacrificed in line with the belief that puppies can ward off evil. They also found two copper cauldrons filled with ash from possible offerings, as well as burials that included a toad and raven's claw — common weapons of witchcraft against disease and evil.
The oldest child found at the site, estimated to be 2 to 3 years old, had stones and a large tile weighing down her hands and feet, probably placed there to keep her from rising from the dead. Archaeologists also found an abundance of honeysuckle, which was once used to treat fever and enlarged spleen — a condition that can be caused by malaria.
Soren wrote in detail about his discoveries at Lugnano in the book "A Roman Villa and a Late Roman Infant Cemetery: Excavation at Poggio Gramignano, Lugnano in Teverina," published in 1999 with his wife, archaeologist Noelle Soren.
"The thing I found really interesting, and I wrote about it in my publications, is the response of the community to crisis," said Soren, who holds faculty appointments in the School of Anthropology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, as well as the Department of Religious Studies and Classics in the College of Humanities. "Their children are dying, people are dying, aborted fetuses — it's a horror story. And the community is responding in the only way it knows how: with magic and ritual. All of that is quite a story that this exhibit can tell."
Gaining Professional Experience
Among the UA students charged with telling Lugnano's story is Ana Pearson, a senior majoring in architecture.
This will be Pearson's first time in Italy, and she looks forward to working in an environment that is architecturally very different from the Arizona desert, where design elements such as shade and water harvesting often have been top-of-mind in her work.
"This involves students to design a project that will actually be built in the future, and that's not an experience a lot of architecture students can get," she said. "It will help me to be a better architect in the future."
Once Pearson and her classmates return from Italy, a new group of UA students will take over the project in the spring, beginning on fabrication in a School of Architecture lab. Some of them will then head to Italy to work with local craftsmen to complete the installation in summer 2018, Hazelbaker said.
"We teach students that architecture can change the world, and it can impact community in more ways than you would typically think," Hazelbaker said. "So I think, for them, the idea of creating a museum that's culturally beautiful and will benefit people in the long run gives them a sense of pride and value to what they're doing."
For Soren, whose time in Lugnano has endeared him to the community, the project is personal.
"I really like setting things in motion where the result is something positive and lasting," he said. "That gives me a great deal of personal satisfaction, and especially helping communities. The feeling you get from doing something like that is something money can't buy."