Giulio Ciarrocca, a physicist and health consultant for various hospitals throughout Italy, first became interested in the English poet Edward Lear when he was a student at Imperial College, London, in 1964. Ciarrocca was fascinated by Lears Book of Nonsense, his whimsical poems such as The Owl and the Pussy-cat, and the limericks with their sly and raunchy undertones that reminded him of the rollicking ballads sung in the osterie of his native Italy.

However, it wasnt until four years ago, when he re-read Lears Illustrated Excursions in Italy, that he realised there was an unexpected link between the poet and himself.

In 1846, Lear published the fascinating diary of his travels through what were some of the least known and virtually inaccessible areas of Italy. He explored the mountains and valleys of Abruzzo on three different occasions between July 1843 and October 1844 for a total of 99 days. In the entry for 4 August 1843, after a long and arduous trek through rocky mountain passes just south of LAquila, battling with thick dust and the hot sirocco wind, he describes his arrival at the small town of Rocca S. Stefano. The poet and his travelling companion (described throughout as K) were greatly cheered to be greeted by some respectable people who came from a big house on the edge of the road and insisted that they and their horses take a rest. These good people, recounts Lear, gave them biscuits and fresh lemonade and invited them to stay on in the town. Lear was tempted to accept, but he decided instead to press on to the next stop on their tour.

Ciarroccas family have been the leading family in the former Medici town of S. Stefano di Sessanio (the Rocca S. Stefano in Lears journal) for several hundred years. Ciarroccas hunch is that the respectable people who were so hospitable towards the English travellers were, in fact, his ancestors. The imposing family town house, with a sculpted corncob (the origin of the Ciarrocca name) over the door, stands right at the beginning of the town on the edge of the road which the 19th-century travellers would have come along.

Local historian Professor Mario Marcone, former librarian of Sulmona, supports his theory. Marcone possesses a large private collection of original books about Lear and other foreign writers and artists who travelled and lived in Abruzzo in the 19th and early 20th century. He claims that the description of the incident in some of the letters Lear wrote to friends clearly points to the Ciarrocca family.

The remarkable coincidence of the poets meeting with his forebears inspired Ciarrocca to found La Compagnia della Contentezza, a cultural association that aims to recreate Lears whimsical spirit, and to organise the first festival in the poets honour in the region.

The event, which also commemorates other European travellers and artists in Abruzzo between the 18th and 20th century, will be held on 23 April in the picturesque walled town of S. Stefano di Sessanio. In the last few years, this jewel of mediaeval town planning, situated near the well-known ski resort of Campo Imperatore, has made international news thanks to the efforts of Italo-Swedish entrepreneur Daniele Elow Kilhgren. Kilhgren has restored a number of the old buildings to create a highly unusual hotel, with accommodation inside the old peasant houses and a restaurant and conference hall inside the old Opificio sotto gli archi, the former town grain store.

The festival starts in the Opificio at 09.30, with a series of talks on the various foreign artists who have left their mark on the region. In addition to Lear, participants can make their acquaintance with the works of English-born artist Estella Canziani who lived in Abruzzo in the 1920s, and the Scandinavian artists colony that was established at Civita dAntino (also in the province of LAquila) in 1906 and came to an abrupt and tragic end with the disastrous earthquake of 1915.

Lear is best known as the writer of nonsense poetry, but he was also a very fine illustrator. The sketches and paintings he published in his Illustrated Excursions in Italy earned him such wide acclaim that he was offered the post of drawing instructor to Queen Victoria. During the festival, prints of some of his works will be exhibited in the ancient Palazzo del Capitano, the former residence of the captain of the guards, along with some 30 works by Canziani and the Scandinavian group.

After a lunch based on local products, the afternoon will be dedicated to Lear, with readings of his poems and limericks followed by a concert of classical and traditional music.

Lears humour will be introduced to the greater part of the Italian public at the festival for the first time, with the presentation of a new translation of his Book of Nonsense. Translator Carla Muschio, who tackled the daunting task of converting the poets whimsy into Italian, will be travelling from Milan for the event.

Lear is not very well known in Italy. And his unique sense of nonsense can be difficult for Italians to understand, says Ciarrocca, who admits that many of his fellow Italians may have trouble appreciating the English poets special brand of humour. However, I think life has become too serious. We could all do with a bit of nonsense in our lives.

For information regarding the festival call Laura Aprati,

tel. 329618252, or Mirella Succhiella,

tel. 086289679/89361.