If, as previously demonstrated, the menus are the best history books of Rome, then the streets are the best museums.
Just outside of the Villa Borghese, there is an area of shaded oak trees and benches, good for wandering and hiding from the sun. Wander towards the Villa Borghese, and you find a courtyard full of the same statue- a man with tightly curled hair and a tower of fruit on his head. Grapes and pomegranates for sure, and possibly some citrus. I was mentally turning the statue’s head into a delicious fruit salad, when an older Milanese gentleman came up to me and hit me with a stream of Italian. I caught the repeated word “marconi” or “marghoni.” I shook my head. “Inglesa,” I apologized. “Francesa?” he questioned. “Ah, oui,” I smiled. And having settled into French, Miguelo told me the story.
In the time of the ancient Romans, the Romans of the Coliseum and the forum, Villa Borghese was the wild countryside. Every year, the Romans would find a beautiful, young girl from the surrounding villages and bring her here, to the very land we were walking on. Then they would kill her as a sacrifice to Marghoni, the god of agriculture.
As Miguelo was talking, we were strolling towards a square clearing in the woods. “And, her, here is where it happened. Mussolini not only reconstructed the statues, he also reconstructed the plaza area. They would build a big, big fire, and throw the sacrifice on top of it. You know, for a good harvest, for a lot of… of… fruits! A lot of fruits for the year.”
So, I was thinking, maybe soak the fruit in brandy for a few hours, then set it on fire? It would probably be very pretty. I imagine interesting things happening to the sugar in the fruits. Caramelization, and so forth. I’ll call it Marghoni Fruit Salad, and I will feed it to unsuspecting people, and they will never know they just became a tiny part of a centuries-old pagan ritual, where the burning flesh of a human girl were meant to nourish the land so that the land would feed the people. Just as I nearly never knew that I was walking over the place where she was burned.
Except that, since that conversation with curly gray-headed Miguelo, I’ve found no outside evidence of Marghoni. I looked him up online and found nothing, possibly because I have no idea how to spell the name Marghoni. I showed my friend who studied and works with antiquities the statue of Marghoni, and he said that was clearly Dionysus, Bacchus in the Greek, the god of wine. Later, in London, I scoured the British museum for evidence of human sacrifice by the Romans. There was a display entitled “sacrifice,” but all of the artifacts illustrated animal sacrifice. And I found this online: Roman religion did not as such really practice human sacrifice. I hate this sentence. If only it said, “No evidence exists that the Roman religion ever practiced human sacrifice.” Why the as such? Why the really? And why, if it was false, was I told this story by a stranger?