Well, not exactly. I just always wanted to play off of the famous headline. Pope Francis did visit Calabria on Saturday, and the family of a 3-year-old victim of a stray mob bullet, to let the mafia know they are “excommunicated.” It’s the latest in a string of courageous and/or interesting stances from the Holy See, who has softened the papal position on homosexuals, paid lip service to a zero-tolerance policy on child abuse in the church, and offered to baptize extraterrestrials. His anti-Mafia proclamation is easily his riskiest move to date, unless aliens take umbrage at being baptized and vaporize Earth. It’s no secret that the Vatican has a history of, shall we say, turning the other cheek when it comes to organized crime. Although the mafia in the U.S. has been greatly diminished, in regions like Calabria the ‘Ndrangheta is still a dangerous force. That probably doesn’t scare Francis, who in Argentina bore witness to the “Dirty Wars” in which the government there swept away tens of thousands of dissidents and Jews. It’s been alleged Francis’ role in that pogrom was less than noble; perhaps he’s atoning. Whatever the case, he’s proved himself a very different pope in just over one year wearing the big hat.
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.)
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.
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.
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.”
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.
As I mentioned in my previous post on the Griko dialect and people, Florentine Italian may be the “standard” language of Italy, but it still has to compete with, and often takes a back seat to, scores of local dialects. These dialects have survived, and were no doubt changed by, centuries of conquest and trade. They remained distinct enough in the 20th century that Benito Mussolini implemented a plan of “deregionalization,” the rationale being that if the nation of Italy were to compete and succeed, it could not do so a modern-day Babel. We like to think of everything a fascist does as being fascist, except enforcing punctual trains, but he probably had a point. Italy had been fractured for so long, its dialects were essentially distinct languages. Whether one agreed with the politics of unification or not, the fact was Italy was unified, and there had to be some effort to get everyone on the same page.
Fortunately, Rennaissance-style Italian was accepted only begrudgingly, and regional dialects are still in use today, though that use may be diminishing. Sensing their endangerment, today’s Italian government has made efforts to preserve rather than discourage these local tongues. After all, as the saying goes, a dialect is simply a language without an army. Naturally, many of the northern dialects share something in common with the tongues of countries these regions border – France, Switzerland, Slovenia – and the southern ones are peppered with Arab and Greek influences. But they were all Latinized centuries ago, well before the refined times of Dante and the Medici.
One example is the Cosentino dialect, found in northern Calabria in the area surrounding the city of Cosenza. Cosentino differs from Italian and even from southern Calabrian. Take a look, for instance, at these translated versions of the Lord’s Prayer, first in English as a guide and then in Italian:
Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth,
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
Padre nostro che sei nei cieli,
sia santificato il tuo Nome,
venga il tuo Regno,
sia fatta la tua Volontà
come in cielo così in terra.
Dacci oggi il nostro pane quotidiano,
e rimetti a noi i nostri debiti
come noi li rimettiamo ai nostri debitori,
e non ci indurre in tentazione,
ma liberaci dal Male.
And now compare the Italian version above with Cosentino:
Patre nuastru, ca si’ ntru cielu,
sia santificatu u nume tua,
venissa u règnu tua,
si facissa a vuluntà tua,
cumu aru cielu d’accussì sup’a terra.
dùnani oji u pane nuastru i ogni juarnu,
e perdùnani i piccati nuastri
cumu nua ii perdonamu ari nuastri dibbitùri
e ‘un ni lassa’ jire ntra tentazione,
ma lìbberani d’u male.
As you can see, there are a lot of u’s in place of o’s, something we also see in the Sicilian dialects. Another distinction, not evident in the prayer above, is the substitution of “dd” for the double-L sound. Thus cavallo (horse) in Calabrese is cavaddu. In this case the “d” sound is something called voice retroflex plosive, a linguist’s term for bringing the tongue up and curling it back. (If you took Spanish in high school, you may remember being taught to soften your “d” sound to sound less like a gringo. It’s somewhere between a “d” and an “l.”) That’s as technical as I can get on the subject – if anyone with greater expertise wants to comment and correct me or add to this, I welcome that.
But can we find languages like Cosentino in use today? Absolutely. Take a look at the menu below for a pork festival at Ristorante Pizzeria Macrito, located in Marano Marchesato, outside Cosenza.
I’ve tried to identify some words here, but cuisine is always tough since a lot of terms are localized and/or slang (see: sub, hoagie, hero, grinder). Puarcu is certainly pork (porco in Italian, so we also have a diphthong – ua – in use). Suffrittu would be “fried,” and Purtugalli must refer to something from Portugal. And I’m guessing l’osse du puarcu is pork bone (rib?), but then there is a word like cuajiri and I have no idea what that means. Minestra e cappucciu is probably cabbage soup (cavolo cappuccio). But again I get lost – frittule is fritters I think, but what’s ‘ccu? I’ll have to reach out to the restaurant to get a translation.
The website ConPaola.it has assembled a glossary of random words, most likely Cosentino but possibly even more localized, i.e. the Marano (or Meranu) dialect from hillside towns outside Cosenza. It’s translated into Italian, not English, but email me if you’d like to see a rough English version I cobbled together using Google Translate.
Like a lot of European countries, Italy is as much a collection of dialects as it is a unified people. Certainly by now, 152 years since unification, Florentine “Italian” is standardized and spoken everywhere in the country. But Italians are stubborn and continue to hang on to their many local dialects. As recently as 2006, 48.5% of Italians spoke their local dialects at least in conjunction with regular Italian in their domiciles; of that group, one third spoke only, or at least prevalently, dialects in lieu of Italian when at home!
It’s no surprise that variations of the language continue to exist, but what fascinates me is that mixed among these Latin-based Italic tongues there still exist pockets of Greek-based language. In a few comuni, there remain people who speak Griko, a corrupted form of the Greek language imported to the peninsula thousands of years ago.
Greeks first arrived in Italy around 750 B.C., and colonized mostly its coastal areas in much the same way Europeans would later colonize the Americas. “Magna Graecia” was Greece’s “New Land,” and Syracuse eventually became its most powerful city. The Romans of course eventually swept through, but pockets of Greek-speaking people survived the Latin wave. They were probably bolstered by Byzantine Greek immigrants up to and after the Siege of Constantinople (1453), but the Griki are nevertheless believed to be descendants of those ancient Greek immigrants.
Pockets of Griki can be found today in a handful of comuni in the Salento area of Apulia (Graecia Salentina), and in the Bovesia area of Calabria (Graecia Calabria). I plan to make the Bovesia area part of my next trip to Calabria so I can explore this fascinating culture in person. If anyone reading this has any insight or experience in Graecias Salentina or Calabria, I’d love to hear about it. In the meanwhile, here is a brief film on the Griko of Salento:
And for good measure, a music video in Griko, performed, naturally, on an Imperial Star Destroyer.
Welcome to In Bruttium, my new blog about Calabrese, and other “Mezzogiorno” or Southern Italian, culture, history, and destinations. I decided to start this blog as an ongoing project to uncover more information on this region, for a couple of reasons. First, Calabria is, I believe, one of Italy’s least-known and least-understood regions, especially to outsiders. It is not a major travel destination like Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, or even Naples. It lacks the Hollywood-generated recognition of Sicily, and even the randomness of Sardinia. I plan on covering Sicily and Sardinia to some extent here too. But my main focus will be Calabria – rural, impoverished, wild, ancient, and a bit of a mystery.
My other reason is more personal, as I am of Calabrese descent. I’m only 25% “Italian” – more on the sarcastic quotes in another post – but it’s a big 25%, and it’s all Calabria. My great-grandparents came to America from the Cosenza area, and although this heritage has been watered down over generations, I still feel it in me. It’s mixed in with Irish and German and English, but as the most recently immigrated of my European lines, it stands out. I suppose Italy and Italians have a habit of standing out anyway. From the food to the conversation style to the clothing to the flag colors to the auto traffic, Italy is, well, loud. It begs exploration.
I’ve only been to Italy twice and to Calabria once, but my goal is to return at least a couple of times to seek and report on its hidden treasures, unique stories, odd trivia, varied cuisine, and interesting people. I hope to hear from readers with similar curiosities, who may have interesting information of their own to share. So begin our adventures In Bruttium.