At the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, northern Italy’s high-density cities were struggling to contain both the virus and its more insidious counterpart: social isolation. As restrictive quarantine measures swept the region, streets were deserted, funeral homes swelled to capacity and individual families huddled together in apartment blocks above the cities of Bologna and Milan. In the alps of Piedmont however, a spiritual community less than an hour north of Turin was having a different experience.
Historically the idea of communal living has been met with scepticism. We imagine a perpetually shoeless population, frolicking through forests with kaftans fluttering in the breeze. Interesting, then, that while we endure a life barricaded by coronavirus restrictions, we’ve embraced a return to the simple pursuits we imagine these communities might enjoy. We’re baking exponential amounts of sourdough, dreaming about the simple act of hugging, adopting chickens for company and finally surrendering to the lure of crafting.
In the Federation of Damanhur, a community tethered to the verdant Chiusella Valley, citizens share more than an appreciation for the simple existence we currently crave. Former insurance broker Falco Tarassaco (born Oberto Airaudi) began erecting this alternative model of society in the mid '70s and in the decades since, it has become a self-sufficient collective of hundreds who devote themselves to modest communal living and bettering humankind.
"We believe in the fact that in every human being, there is a divine spark that can be reawakened," Formica Coriandolo, a warm, persistently positive Damanhurian of 36 years tells me. "We believe in human beings, in the potential that we have, the goodness that we carry."
In addition to adopting new animal and plant-inspired names (Coriandolo’s choice translates as 'ant coriander'), Level A Damanhurians – those who live onsite full-time – share large communal homes with up to 25 multigenerational 'family' members, each sequestered in separate bedrooms. Responsibilities of cooking, cleaning, farming and childcare are shared between the members of the nucleo.
"Life before the coronavirus was already set in this very efficient way," says Coriandolo. "You have to be a harmonious part of the chain."
This unique societal structure meant few changes to physical closeness were necessary even as coronavirus began to ravage nearby cities. When lockdown became law, nucleos were able to quarantine together with their extended family, sharing meals, working their gardens and meeting regularly to discuss family matters as usual. The community had long braced for impact from a medical standpoint, explains Damanhurian GP and Level A member Balena Piantaggine. She says that there are five onsite doctors who had been researching coronavirus since the preceding December and had begun prescribing preventive programmes for members of their community, including information on 'immunity-boosting diets' and hygiene tips, before any cases were reported in Italy.
Careful preparation and social solidarity couldn’t shield everyone in the community, however. When two elderly members of Piantaggine’s nucleo did fall ill, the house was divided into the sick and not sick, with the latter taking care of the household while strictly observing hygiene practices. The couple, who were diabetic and had pre-existing heart conditions, later died in a nearby hospital.
"It was a shock," Piantaggine says quietly. "I think we still need time to [deal] with this experience."
Loss of loved ones is certainly not the only wound to be inflicted by the virus; for Italians, the pain of economic fallout will take a long time to heal. Even here, Damanhur's solutions sound impressive. As Italy’s social welfare system buckled (millions of Italians are still waiting for financial aid cheques and an estimated 3.5 million 'shadow workers' failed to qualify for help at all), Damanhurians reorganised their economic structure, scaffolding the furloughed members with the income of those whose employment stayed intact. Before #ClapforNHS, many of us in this country would have struggled to pick out a neighbour in a lineup; the idea of paying their bills is almost inconceivably altruistic.
Much of the community’s resilience comes from its work ethic. Contribution through work is an important pillar of Damanhurian life, an expression of the foundational principle of diversity, with no Damanhurian left behind. Whether members have a job in Milan as a lawyer or work within the community at the local hair and beauty salon (sustainable, of course), their contribution is equally valued. Now a site of pilgrimage for the curious as well as the spiritually adrift, the federation also previously generated its own revenue from tourism, offering education in everything from cosmos connection to plant communication, as well as running tours of its breathtaking subterranean temples. Travel restrictions have all but decimated this revenue stream. Teachers like Coriandolo are now offering their courses online.
"In Damanhur, difficulties are always being lived as opportunities because this is a philosophy of living," Coriandolo says. "We want to be resilient. In moments of difficulty, we know that that's the most important opportunity we have to change and to adapt ourselves and transform."
Like many who are now emerging from brutal lockdowns, Damanhurians are also examining the lessons learned from their experience of life amid a pandemic. In step with the global community, Zoom has become integral, with Italian Damanhurians conference calling other citizens dispersed around the world – members are spread from Japan to Israel.
"Through Zoom, we have increased the connection with all the people in the world," Coriandolo says. "We are more aware and we are more attentive to really allow them to feel integrated."
A renewed appreciation for closeness is also a common theme among Damanhurians, with families emerging more united than ever. This positive outcome might be helped by the community’s methodology regarding conflict resolution. If disputes arise, community members are constitutionally bound to offer each other 'one more chance' while also having access to three members of the 'Colleges of Justice' – elected representatives who mediate upon request if things get out of hand. "They are the ones we trust and they are in charge of any situation or conflict that the people are not able to solve by themselves," explains Coriandolo.
There are also new commitments to slowing the pace of life.
"We had a meeting in my community and we said now that this epidemic is changing, what do we want to transform in our life?" Coriandolo recounts. "People were saying, 'Okay, I want to stop working at this time so I can be at home to take care of the chicken'," Coriandolo laughs. "Everybody's in love with this [new] chicken!"
First and foremost however, the crisis has proven the strength of their community, with both Piantaggine and Coriandolo pledging to appreciate more deeply their unique way of life.
"Our people are what makes the difference in life," says Coriandolo. "Every one [that] has been impacted by this has grown, has faced their fears. Each of us and all of us together have lived this experience that has strengthened each of us on an individual level and collective level."