A plea for peace in white goes dark

Times Staff Writer

A few people remember catching a glimpse of her on that late morning in late spring, a young woman lingering by the gasoline pumps while traffic blasted past a truck stop in this nondescript industrial town, her white bridal gown, layered like a wedding cake, fluttering in the breeze of the passing cars.

Giuseppina Pasqualino di Marineo, a 33-year-old Italian performance artist who called herself Pippa Bacca, had come to Turkey on a quixotic quest: hitchhiking through the region to promote Middle East peace. The wedding dress, which she planned to wear throughout her journey, was meant to signify the "marriage" of cultures and the building of mutual trust.

"She was idealistic -- naive and idealistic," said Beral Madra, an Istanbul artist and curator who had offered support and advice to Bacca and her friend Silvia Moro, 37, as the two embarked on the Turkish leg of their performance-journey.

She warned the pair of the project's dangers in a country where women face violence daily. Never travel alone, she advised. Go where women congregate. Take rides only from the bus station, and always make sure someone is watching, taking note of any vehicle you get into.

For whatever reason, Bacca didn't heed the warnings.

Bacca came early to her wanderlust.

The third of five sisters in a close-knit family, she was raised by a free-spirited mother who inculcated in her daughters a love of travel and a taste for exotica.

The first of many journeys with her family was in 1987, when Pippa was 12. Her father was long gone. The six of them traveled to Santiago de Compostela, along the famed Spanish pilgrimage route in Spain, on foot, by bicycle and by thumbing rides.

"I hitchhiked a lot," her mother, Elena Manzoni, said later. "It is the best way to get to know people and places. Pippa got that from me."

Bacca, whose plain, strong-featured face was transformed by a ready smile, had an artistic pedigree as well: Her late uncle was the well-known sculptor Piero Manzoni. She worked hard to establish her own artistic reputation, with more than a dozen exhibitions and gallery shows of her conceptual art to her credit. One piece, called "Surgical Mutations," consisted of a single leaf displayed in a wooden frame.

She and Moro had conceived their project more than a year earlier, talking about how they could dramatize their peace message. They wanted to incorporate a road journey, in part to symbolize the ways in which minds can travel toward compromise. Their wedding dresses would evoke the sense of hope and life-changing possibility that a bride might feel on her wedding day.

And their principal mode of travel -- hitchhiking -- would embody the notion that sometimes one must make a leap of faith.

It wouldn't matter, they believed, that they didn't speak the language of each country through which they would pass.

They would have no set timetable. They would require very little in the way of funding. They would make new friends everywhere. They would, in the largest sense, be free. When they arrived in Istanbul, Moro and Bacca were two weeks into their journey. They had already traveled by road through the Balkans; after Turkey, they were heading to Syria and Lebanon; their final destination, still weeks away, was Israel. There, they planned to stage an exhibition whose centerpiece would be the white gowns they had worn on the road, tattered and tattooed with the dust of the long journey.

Although the project was simple in concept, it had the usual high-tech accouterments: a website on which the two charted their progress -- www.bridesontour.fotoup.net -- a regular schedule of text-messaging to stay in touch with friends and family, a far-flung network of Facebook friends who provided accommodation and contacts wherever they went.

Those who met them during the days they spent in Istanbul described the women as exhilarated, even giddy.

Istanbul was a highlight of the trip; the ancient city has a thriving contemporary-arts scene and is the frequent venue of prestigious international arts festivals. In chic galleries and unpretentious eating-and-drinking spots called meyhanes, Moro and Bacca found artistic kinship and kindred spirits.

Fellow artists considered their project, with its costume-driven allusions to peace and conflict, gender roles and sexual politics, to be provocative, but by no means outlandish. Several artists recalled a recent performance piece in which a woman in an all- encompassing chador jogged through Istanbul's streets trailed by a camera crew. People barely batted an eye.

In their flowing wedding gowns, Bacca and Moro traipsed the cavernous covered alleyways of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. They posed on the shores of the Golden Horn, silhouetted against the sparkling blue water and a fairy-tale backdrop of the spires and minarets of the Old City.

In some of the pictures and video, passersby can be seen doing double takes at the sight of the two "brides." But mostly, the looks the pair attracted appeared to be friendly and curious, amused or bemused.

No sign of hatred. No hostility. No threat. In Turkey, hospitality is so deeply ingrained in the culture that its absence is considered shameful.

Even in Istanbul, where the yammering hucksterism of any tourist capital is on ready display, visitors are overwhelmed by the degree of kindness and courtesy shown them. A simple request for directions is often answered with an invitation to tea or to lunch. An outsider in obvious distress in all likelihood will be surrounded by strangers offering aid.

Spending days in this milieu, Bacca and Moro might have developed a false sense of security, some who met them say. And this might have led to a fateful decision: to part ways for the next leg of the journey, with plans to meet up in Beirut.

On the morning of March 31, Bacca was dropped off by friends on the outskirts of Istanbul and began hitchhiking. She headed east, crossing over the soaring Bosporus bridge, with a final glimpse of the toy-sized boats far below, and on to Turkey's Asian landmass.

By midmorning, she had made her way as far as Gebze, about 40 miles to the southeast, a gateway to the conservative Anatolian heartland.

The town dates to Byzantine times, but these days, it is an unlovely landscape, scarred with belching factory smokestacks and prefabricated buildings housing heavy manufacturing.

Bacca made a credit-card purchase in Gebze, police said later. And she was spotted at the rest stop near the town's edge, where many motorists paused for a quick meal at the McDonald's or a fill-up at the busy, well-kept gas station, with its long rows of pumps.

"We were surprised to see her -- we couldn't understand what she was doing, dressed as she was," said Kemal Acikgoz, a pump attendant. "But if she had seemed worried or frightened in any way, someone would have helped her."

It seems that she found a ride without difficulty. The driver, police later established, was an itinerant laborer and convicted thief who lived in Gebze, not far from the truck stop.

He was 38 years old. His name was Murat Karatas. The first hint of unease, friends said, was when Bacca did not check in by text message that evening with her fiance, Giovanni Chiari. They weren't unduly alarmed; after all, her phone battery could have died. But she did not answer calls the next day, or the next.

Local artists raised the alarm with Turkish authorities. Police began searching. By week's end, her family had appealed to the Italian Foreign Ministry for help. Officials there passed the message to Stefano Canzio, who has served as the Italian consul in Istanbul for seven years.

Days already had passed, so Canzio understood the matter's urgency and quickly brought his many contacts to bear. He arranged a Turkish-language appeal on the country's most-watched TV station. He conferred with senior law enforcement officials. He looked after Bacca's sister Antonietta and her fiance, Chiari, who had arrived to help with the search.

The blog that Moro and Bacca had used to describe their journey became a forum for appealing for information about her whereabouts.

"Pippa Bacca, dove sei?" it asked. "Where are you?"

The days wore on. The police were hunting intensively, but the search could be narrowed only so far. Although Bacca's planned route was known, and sightings of her confirmed, no one could remember seeing her get into a particular vehicle.

Then came the break police had been waiting for: Karatas used her cellphone to make a call, apparently not realizing that the signal could be traced even though he had thrown away her SIM card.

The authorities pounced. The road east out of Gebze, in the direction of the little village of Tavsanli, winds its way into verdant countryside, a nature reserve. Bacca would have realized that this was not the main highway to Ankara, the capital. But the driver could have lulled her with assurances: a shortcut, a detour.

In any event, she could have understood very little of what he said, or he her. Dressed as she was, this foreign woman might have appeared to him to be unbalanced, confused, vulnerable.

At times, the road twists in such sharp switchbacks that it would seem someone in fear for her life could have jumped from a slow-moving vehicle. Cars must pass one another so closely that a passenger could be seen if she screamed or gesticulated for help. But no one saw such a scene.

Bacca might have heard the calls of birds, the skylarks and starlings for which the reserve is known. She might have seen blooms of color at the side of the road, the season's first wildflowers. Bright red. Karatas, the driver who picked up Bacca, had led a troubled life. He had done jail time for theft and a fatal accident while driving his truck. While still married, he had moved in with another woman, into an apartment in a grim concrete-slab building in a run-down district of Gebze.

When the police caught up with him, tracking the phone's signal, Karatas quickly confessed. After picking up Bacca at the truck stop, he told them, he drove her to a remote part of the reserve. He sexually assaulted her. He strangled her when she tried to resist. She was dead, he said, within an hour of encountering him.

The wedding dress that had been torn from Bacca's body during the assault was recovered. Police refused to say whether it was found at the scene or among her killer's effects.

After it was entered as evidence, they said, it would be returned to Bacca's family. In her hometown, Milan, hundreds of people turned out for the funeral at the landmark basilica of San Simpliciano.

Mourners were asked to wear or carry something green -- the color Bacca, a vegetarian and environmentalist, liked to wear. The fabric draped over the casket was green; so were candles and balloons.

Manzoni, her mother, told weeping mourners that the best tribute to her daughter was to treat one another with "openness and friendship."

"Pippa carried, with great happiness, a message for peace," she said. "I would like Pippa to be remembered for her work, not her death."

The family knew that many in Italy, while sympathizing with their pain, believed Bacca had courted death by her actions. Manzoni saw it differently.

"A monster like the one who hurt Pippa can be found anywhere," she said. Her daughter's journey, she said, "was a test of faith in peace, and in the welcoming spirit of people. This tragedy doesn't make us renege on ideals."

In Turkey, Bacca's death came at a sensitive moment, when the country's bid to join the European Union is faltering and there is a hypersensitivity about its image in the outside world.

"Pippa, forgive us," the Sabah newspaper said in Turkish and Italian on a black background.

Moro, Bacca's collaborator, promised that the pair's performance piece, now freighted with somber meaning, would be completed. In early May, she e-mailed artist friends to say that finishing the journey would be the most fitting tribute to Pippa.

Like a ghost in the machine, the photos of the abortive journey's ebullient moments are still posted on the Internet. In one, Moro and Bacca are seated side by side on the deck of a ferry in the waters off Istanbul, wearing their wedding dresses, complete with billowing veils.

The sea wind tugs at the filmy material, and Bacca's face is obscured. But its contours are visible. The curve of a smile can be seen.

She looks happy.

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laura.king@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson and researcher Maria De Cristofaro in Rome contributed to this report.

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