New York Times Op/Ed Writer Weighs In On Tourism In The Mezzogiorno, Or Lack Thereof

new_york_times_building_ap_328

In an Op/Ed piece from this past week in the New York Times, Beppe Severgnini offered up his thoughts on why so few travelers venture south of Italy’s “Mason-Dixon” line, i.e. Rome. He points out that only 13 percent of tourists visit the Mezzogiorno, citing failed infrastructure, bureaucratic disorganization (well that’s redundant), and blown tourism budgets, leading to a lack of real promotion of the region. It probably hasn’t helped matters that some knucklehead in the U.S. government was a few years ago quoted in a Wikileaks document referring to Southern Italy as a “failed state,” but for its attachment to the rest of Italy and Europe. These factors, plus the region’s poor economy and the continued presence of the Mafia, all make for great deterrents to Frank and Alice Fannypacker from Dubuque when planning their Italian dream vacation. (The Mafia is about as likely to harm a tourist as it is to start its own LinkedIn page.)

The great irony here is that so much of the Italian culture with which we’re familiar in the New World was brought to us by southerners – mostly Sicilians, but also Calabrese, Pugliese, Napolitani, etc. Theirs are the cuisines, traditions, languages, indeed even the facial features and clothing we think of when we think “Italian.” That’s not to detract from the great destinations of the north, nor is it to say that people can’t differentiate or don’t know who the Medici or Michelangelo were. I only mean to say that by writing off the south, people are missing out.

Part of me wants to tell Mr. Severgnini to dummy up, that the first rule of traveling to the Mezzogiorno is you don’t talk about traveling to the Mezzogiorno. It’s not that I want to rob the region of tourist dollars, but I’m reticent to see Palermo and Cosenza and Bari become flooded with trinket-peddlers and consumers in an approximation, however unlikely, of Rome, Florence and Venice-style tourist trap-ism. (To say nothing of the inevitable price inflation and corporate chains that would come with it.) We already live in a world where every place is starting to look like anyplace, so as much as I’ll tout the south’s great qualities and attractions, here’s hoping that its natural and man made beauty doesn’t become spoiled in pursuit of the Almighty Euro. In Texas’ capital they say “Keep Austin Weird.” Well, let’s keep the Italian South Southern.

 

 

The Arbëreshë – Pre-Ottoman Albanians In Italy

tradizioni1In the 15th Century, the surging Ottoman Empire was pushing into the Balkans. The troops of Sultan Mehmet II in 1453 famously toppled Constantinople and slayed the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI. In the meanwhile it was making its presence felt in Albania and along the Adriatic in a more gradual, but no less dramatic fashion. By the turn of the 16th, the land had been ceded, and an Albanian exodus was already in motion; most of these exiles fled across the water to – guess where? – Italy.

The descendants of these refugees live on today as the Arbëreshë people. Found in pockets mostly over Southern Italy and Sicily, the Arbëreshë are distinct from modern Albanians in that their customs, language, cuisine, and other traditions bear greater resemblance to the Albania of 600 years ago. Thanks to their stubbornness and, more recently, Italy’s embrace of its minority cultures and languages, even the Arbëreshë language is closer to pre-Ottoman Albanian than what’s spoken in modern Albania. In fact, “Arbëreshë” was the name the people of Albania called themselves before the invasion.

Today there are roughly 100,000 Arbëreshë spread out over 50 different communities in Italy, mostly in the south and in Calabria. Although many of their names may have been Latinized, they were allowed from the outset to practice their Orthodox brand of Christianity in this Catholic land. Thus in many of the Arbëreshë dwellings, the town has two main churches, one Latin and one “Greek.” (Albania today remains half Muslim, either in spite of or because of the best efforts of its national hero, Skanderberg.)

Arbëreshë is not considered an official language in Italy, it has been fiercely preserved along with the customs, food, and traditional garb brought over centuries ago. Not to mention it also gave us this awesome Italian-Albanian hybrid flag.

Flag_of_the_Italian_Arberesh

Although the straight-up Albanian flag is even more badass.

Albanian_Flag_by_MondiG

List of Arbëreshë settlements in Italy.

esplorazionicosentineLa cultura arbëreshe nella biblioteca Bellusci

New York Mayor-Elect de Blasio Maintains Strong Italian Roots

deblasioOf course Bill de Blasio won’t be New York’s first Italian-American mayor, but the man elected to that office last week has shown great pride in, and strong connection to, his ancestral homeland.

The New York Times ran a story yesterday discussing de Blasio’s grandfather’s birthplace, Sant’Agata de’ Goti, outside of Naples in Campania.

Mr. de Blasio has become something of an Italian sensation, within and beyond this town’s medieval walls. A Neapolitan artisan fashioned a terra cotta figurine of Mr. de Blasio, with tricolor sash; a pizza-maker wrote “Napoli Love de Blasio” in mozzarella on a pie. In New York, candidate de Blasio offered interviews in Italian; his campaign staff jokingly designated a press aide who spoke a bit of the language as the “Italian desk,” and on election night, 15 journalists from Italy showed up to cover the festivities at the Park Slope Armory Y.M.C.A.

According to the article, de Blasio is an Italophile through and through. He’s visited Sant’Agata de’Goti half a dozen times, given his kids Italian names, he practices speaking Italian, and of course keeps plenty of fresh mozzarella at home. As for Sant’Agata, residents have reciprocated this pride, hanging American flags from balconies, naming a cake for him, and at least a few said they plan to come to New York for his inauguration.

EDIT – The good people over at the Italian Dual Citizenship Message Board have determined that Mr. de Blasio is most likely an Italian (dual) citizen by birth, through ancestry.

The New York Times – His Roots in Italy, de Blasio Now Has Fans There

Blitz Quotidiano – Sant’Agata dei Goti festeggia l’elezione di Bill de Blasio

The Kenosha-Calabrese Connection

postcard

The influx of immigrants to America from Southern and Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries is not just well-known history, it’s a part of our common pop cultural memory. These immigrants’ stories come to us In books like Ragtime and films like The Godfather Part II, in the recounting of sensational trials like Sacco and Vanzetti, in landmarks like the Tenement Museum in New York, and of course in the reminiscences of those who endured the experience.

It’s especially common to hear their stories of squalor and struggle in New York’s Lower East Side, or perhaps in ethnic enclaves in Boston or Philadelphia. Of course, they didn’t all settle on the Eastern Seaboard. The supply of labor went where the demand was, and that was essentially anywhere in the industrialized U.S.: The Pittsburghs and Clevelands and Toledos, yes, but also the Dearborns and the Youngstowns and the Eries. These small and midsized cities on Midwestern rivers and lakes were, a century ago, the booming “tech centers” of their day, humming with industry and opportunity for the skilled and unskilled alike.

Kenosha, Wisconsin, was just such a city. Situated on Lake Michigan on Wisconsin’s southern border with Illinois, Kenosha is one of those random American cities, like Duluth or Fort Wayne, whose name you’ve probably heard but aren’t sure why. Nearly equidistant between Chicago and Milwaukee, it was an emerging industrial port city, home to company factories like American Brass, Cooper Underwear (now Jockey), and Nash Motors, which was later absorbed into AMC and Chrysler (and lives on today with the Jeep lineup).

It was into this setting that Southern Italian immigrants arrived in Kenosha. First, it was a few brave pioneers; later, as news of job opportunities (and perhaps cash) reached their impoverished Mezzogiorno hometowns, family and friends followed. As was and is often the case with immigration, a great many of them from one specific place relocated to another. Kenosha attracted many Italian immigrants from Calabria, mostly from the Cosenza area. This included a great many Maranesi, that is from two Cosentino hillside towns called Marano Principato and Marano Marchesato. It is unlikely the first of these poor hilltoppers who came to the Midwest had ever previously heard of Kenosha, but they most likely had heard of Chicago. As the Marenesi in Kenosha website explains,

Paesani had settled in the Italian colony in Chicago beginning in the 1880s, and the earliest arrivals made their way to Kenosha on foot, courtesy of their jobs on section gangs with the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. Many of the immigrants moved from railroad labor to indoor manufacturing jobs in the tanneries and foundries which required large amounts of unskilled labor. Other Maranesi followed from Chicago when they heard of the job opportunities in Kenosha.

Eventually the Maranesi began flocking straight to Kenosha, skipping any stopover in Chicago altogether during their fortnight-long trip via steamship and rail. Kenosha became such a magnet for immigrants that in the four censuses taken from 1890 through 1920, its population grew by an average of 78%. (To be certain, many Maranesi settled in Chicago as well. And of course Italians from other regions landed in both places.)

garden

Tomato garden in the backyard of first-generation Maranesi, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Today it’s difficult to comprehend leaving romantic Italy for the flat landscapes, brutal winters, and staid Protestantism of the American Midwest. Even the Italian South, still struggling mightily, seems to us as a never-ending painting of olive groves, vineyards, deep blue waters, and a kind of idealized, simpler life. Those characteristics may have existed then as now, but as one Sicilian man is quoted in John Keahey’s book Seeking Sicily, “Well, you can’t eat quaint.” Italy circa 1900 was a picture of abject poverty. The South, its richest region prior to the 1861 unification, was hit particularly hard with the collapse of the feudal system. By the turn of the last century, the Mezzogiorno was a place where it was still not uncommon to live in a cave, where to be a brigand paid better than to be a farmer, where a child stood a good chance of enslavement, and where seven in ten people were illiterate. By contrast, a life in Kenosha (or anywhere in the northern U.S.), with its proliferation of jobs and the possibility of owning property – perhaps even an automobile -  must have sounded like paradise.

(And in fact, Wisconsin was settled by French explorers, and its larger cities were and are among the most Catholic places in the Midwest.)

Whatever the drudgery of daily working life, the Kenosha Maranesi found pleasure and solace in familiar institutions – family, church, community, and the like. The first Italian Catholic Church was built there in 1904, with other churches and social clubs to follow. But by far the center of gravity for Kenosha’s (then) west side Italians was Columbus Park, a seven-acre plot that served as an outdoor community center for the city’s developing Little Italy. In the introduction to the cookbook, A Taste Of Memories From Columbus Park, Catherine Tripalin Murry writes of the eponymous playground,

It was a place for children to play, yet be carefully watched from graceful wood front porches that outlined the old west side park. It was an area of grass and trees for neighborhood gatherings and church events and, throughout the four seasons of the year became a field to test the athletic endeavors of competitive youth…These were the makings of Little Italies throughout America and Kenosha was no exception. Columbus Park became an enclave to return to each evening to be among friends.

Except for a brief lull during World War II, Italian immigration continued into Kenosha well into the 1960s. Although Italians no longer dominate the old west side as they did, today people of Italian descent still make up about 12% of Kenosha’s 100,000 residents. (World-famous Little Italy in New York City counted about 5% of its population as Italian-American in 2010.) It’s a much different place now, another Rust Belt city trying to rebound. Factories like Chrysler’s are long gone. The lakefront has been revitalized, and antique trollies run through the city’s center. An enormous casino is currently being planned. But if you look around, you’ll see signs of its Calabrese past, in places like Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, or the Italian American Club, or Tenuta’s Deli. Or perchance on a stroll through Columbus Park.

Going Southward

Originally posted on arytee:

I love my mixed roots. Though I’m 100% Italian, my origins are scattered around the peninsula.
My father is from Calabria, the very tip of the boot (as Italy is commonly called), my mother is Venetian, with a Venetian mother and a Sicilian father.
This mix is lethal. I can tell you. Calabrian people are known for being stubborn. Verrrry much. And I proudly am, just like my father. From my motherly side I inherited pride for being Venetian, stubborness (again!), passion and impetuosity for everything I care about and a (unfortunately) bossy attitude.
I love to go to Calabria fo my summer holidays; my grandparents’ house is in a quiet and breath-taking area, where tourism hasn’t quite arrived yet. Nature is still kind of wild, sun shines for months in an amazing shade of blue sky and the beach is empty.
Good food, sun, clear water and no crowd?…

View original 146 more words

Cosenza’s Buried Treasure: The Lost Gold of Alaric

Alaric_entering_Athens

Alaric I in Athens.

Everyone loves a story about a buried treasure, and the legend of Alaric’s Gold hits on all the intriguing notes: Pillaged gold from a once-great empire, a mysterious and herculean burial, and a never-recovered booty possibly located somewhere underwater in one of Western Europe’s poorest regions. It sets the imagination alight.

It certainly piqued George Gissing’s curiosity. An Englishman and author of By The Ionian Sea, Gissing in 1897 traveled to Cosenza in Calabria, the supposed location of the treasure of Alaric I of the Visigoths. “Ever since my first boyish reading of Gibbon, my imagination has loved to play upon that scene of Alaric’s death,” he wrote with juvenile enthusiasm. The death of Alaric is steeped in myth. After sacking beleaguered Rome a third and final time in 410 A.D., Alaric and the Visigoths marched south into Cosenza (nee Cosentia). There the 40-year-old king fell ill and died. His body, along with his gold, is said to have been buried under the confluence of the rivers Busento and Crati. According to legend, the course of the Busento was temporarily redirected in order to inter Alaric and his wealth, and all of the enslaved laborers involved are supposed to have been slaughtered to ensure the secrecy of the location.

The story may play to the imagination, but it defies logic. As Gissing wondered, was all of Cosenza then wiped out? In any case, the rivers have no doubt changed course over the centuries, and their beds have been filled in many times by earthquakes. And that’s if the treasure was even buried under the river (as opposed to the Sila Mountains nearby) or buried at all.

Death of Alaric.

That hasn’t discouraged people from looking over the years. The blog Esplorazioni Cosentine writes that Alexandre Dumas arrived in Cosenza shortly after a major earthquake in the early 19th Century. The quake had drained the Busento and Dumas witnessed scores of Cosentinos digging for the Roman plunder. The treasure naturally attracted the attention of Heinrich Himmler and the history-conscious Nazis but to no avail. It remains one of history’s mysteries.

We do know that Alaric’s successor Ataulf turned the Visigoths around and headed toward Gaul, ending what was to be a march through Sicily and Africa. Knowing what we know about the military then as now, it’s difficult to imagine tens of thousands of soldiers (who had endured a vicious storm at sea en route to Cosenza) tolerating or obeying such a ludicrous wish from a dead king. In spite of the histories/propaganda written by Cassiodorus and later edited by Jordanes, if I had to guess I’d say the money was used at least in part to pay the army and keep its morale high for the Visigoths’ push into France and Spain.

But if you prefer less skepticism and more romanticism, I’ll leave you with George Gissing’s closing thoughts.

Do the rivers Busento and Crati still keep the secret of that “royal sepulchre, adorned with the splendid spoils and trophies of Rome?” It seems improbable that the grave was ever disturbed; to this day there exists somewhere near Cosenza a treasure-house more alluring than any pictured in Arabian tale. It is not easy to conjecture what “spoils and trophies” the Goths buried with their king; if they sacrificed masses of precious metal, then perchance there still lies in the river-bed some portion of that golden statue of Virtus, which the Romans melted down to eke out the ransom claimed by Alaric. The year 410 A.D. was no unfitting moment to break into bullion the figure personifying Manly Worth. “After that,” says an old historian, “all bravery and honour perished out of Rome.”

Cosenza and the Busento River as Gissing saw them in 1897.

Cosenza and the Busento River as Gissing saw them in 1897.

The Oenotrians: Calabria’s Ancient, Wine-Loving Pioneers

Gaglioppo_in_Calabria

Photo by Fabio Ingrosso

They gave wine lovers an identity and one of them gave Italy its name. Beyond that, not much is known about the Oenotrians, an ancient society that dwelled in the Calabrian hills and pastures prior to Hellenization.

The Oenotrians first came to the lower peninsula as early as the 11th Century BC, by way of the Pelopennese. They are considered “pelasgian” people, a catch-all term to describe those who came from Greece before it was, well, Greece. Led by Oenotrus, the Oenotrians cultivated the land and built towns from Campania to Calabria. Unlike the Etruscans, not much physical evidence seems to exist that documents the times of the Oenotrians. (An archaelogical dig at Timone della Motta on a Calabrian hill has offered some possibilities, including an 8th Century BC Oenotrian temple). We have to rely instead on the histories of men like Sophocles, and Antiochus of Syracuse, both of whom wrote of the Oenotrians in the 5th century BC. Another historian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, claims that the Oenotrians left Arcadia for Italy “seventeen generations before the Trojan expedition,” to put their arrival in some kind of perspective.

The Oenotrians were famous for their vineyards, and thus were given their names by Hellenic Greek colonizers centuries later based on the Greek term for wine (oinos). Today we refer to a wine lover as an oenophile.

Their contribution to the modern language didn’t end there. Eventually there was an Oenotrian king named Italus, and from his name was derived the term Italy to describe the region and of course the nation as it stands today.

According to Antiochus, Italus’ successor Morges later partitioned the kingdom into three parts: His own domain (the Morgetes), the Italians, and a kingdom for his friend Sicelus – the Sicels.

How much of this is accurate is anyone’s guess. After all, it was claimed that Oenotrus was a descendant (son, perhaps) of Lycaon, King of Arcadia who in Greek myth served Zeus his own dismembered son for dinner to test his omniscience. In our sense of history, the Oenotrians, ancient inhabitants of Calabria, straddle the border between history and legend. Next time you open a bottle of wine, drink to their legacy.