Saturday morning on the island of Sant’Antioco, off the southwest coast of the island of Sardinia. Walter and I are in the breakfast room at Bed and Breakfast Le Terrazze in the main port town of Sant’Antioco. The group of taciturn Italian surfers have cleared out to hit their boards.
What shall we do today?
We scan a tourist brochure in Italian and find a listing for the Museo del Bisso (Bisso Museum). “What’s bisso?” we ask simultaneously.
Our host, the mellow Nello, clearing plates and cappuccino cups, offers an explanation in Italian. We don’t quite grasp what bisso (byssus) is even though we’ve had no problem understanding Nello up until now. (Our here-to-fore comprehension is almost entirely due to Nello’s patient and measured delivery.)
He says the proprietor of the museum, Chiara Vigo, is an old friend and that she’s famous for her work. He thinks we’ll find it interesting and offers to phone Vigo to check if the museum is open. He reaches Chiara and she gives us the green light.
The “Museo” is not even a five-minute walk and turns out to be a storefront workshop just a bit down the hill from the Basilica of Sant’Antioco.
A flyer inside the front window announces a crowdsourced fundraiser to finance a new space for the Museo del Bisso. A hand-lettered notice states La Fretta Non Abita Qui (in-a-hurry doesn’t live here); another announces Qui Non Si Vende Niente (here, we don’t sell anything).
We walk past a loom, displays of needlework crafted with golden thread, framed memorabilia, and press clips of Vigo. Seated toward the back of the room at her worktable, Vigo greets us warmly in her husky voice. It’s as if she’s been waiting her entire life for us to show up. Her comfy attire is gray sweats and knit sweater adorned with a jaunty lacquered fruit pin. Her pepper-and-salt hair is pulled back from her striking face.
A Sea Witch’s Tale
Vigo spins the yarn of her life-long vocation to bisso, the brown filament excretions of the Mediterranean bivalve Pinna nobilis — known as noble pen shell or fan mussel — as she holds up a translucent half shell on which her nonno had painted a scene. Accustomed to diminutive bivalves like edible mussels, we gape at the length of the Pinna nobilis shell. It is at least 2-feet tall. Some grow as long as 4 feet.