A Whirlwind History

Events preceding the departure of the Strazzi Family in the novel Restoration

By Joe Costanzo


     Golden rays from the rising Greek sun reached the shores of southern Italy sometime around the middle of the 8th Century B.C., and under that brilliant light and from that nurturing soil sprouted seeds of thought, commerce, and conflict that eventually proliferated over a great expanse of Western Civilization.
     With the founding of the port at Cumae, Greek merchants and adventurers established a lucrative trade with the disparate peoples of the peninsula. From Cumae, they sold Greek goods and gods and the Chalcidic alphabet to the rustics of primitive Rome; spread southward and founded Pozzuoli and Naples; colonized Reggio at the toe; and controlled the Straits of Messina, the “Scylla and Charybdis” of lore. Dorians sailed to and settled Brindisi and then crossed the heel and built the city that would be called Taranto. Across the Gulf of Taranto, the Achaeans founded Crotone and the opulent, short-lived Sybaris.

     At Crotone, Pythagoras created a new world of science and philosophy, and there, too, lived Milo the Wrestler, the strongest man in all of Greece, and, therefore, in all the world. Around and up the toe was Elea, where Xenophanes scoffed at Pythagoras and advocated a philosophy whose principles became the foundation of the Eleatic School, out of which emerged Parmenides and ideals that would mold the mind of Plato and entitle Elea, had it survived, to call itself the birthplace of metaphysics. The colonists at Locri, west of Crotone, possessed the first written code of law in the history of Greece. And north of Elea, the Greeks erected the magnificent city of Poseidonia, now Paestum, with spectacular temples overlooking the sea. The sun over Magna Graecia was at its zenith.
     But the natives of Bruttium – Rome’s unkind name for Calabria – were restless. Gazing down upon the coastal splendor from their mountaintop hamlets, the Bruttians, Lucanians, Samnites, and other tribes saw no reason not to harvest the fruits of their soil. The Romans, meanwhile, set out with imperialistic fervor to fulfill the prophecy of the Greek’s own Sibyl of Cumae and take possession of the southern territory.
     In the year 280 B.C., King Pyrrhus of Epirus sacrificed his armies to the defense of Taranto, which by then was about all that remained of Greece on the peninsula, but his initial Pyrrhic victories only delayed the inevitable capitulation to destiny.

    Eventually, the south was Rome’s to govern and defend, and also to reconquer from time to time, as it was obliged to do when the Bruttians allied themselves with Hannibal. Rome succeeded in confining Hannibal to Bruttium, from where he was subsequently recalled to Carthage, to disaster, at the battle of Zama in 202 B.C, whereupon the Bruttians suffered the consequences of their treachery. Rome confiscated their lands, denied them privileges and restricted their role in the glorious Roman army to that of servant.
     In time, Rome itself fell to Alaric, the ferocious king of the Goths, who sacked the greatest city the world had ever known and trundled south with its wondrous treasures, intent upon despoiling northern Africa. He was stopped short, however, by a peaceful death at Cosenza in 410 A.D. He and his Roman loot were laid to rest in the bed of the Busento river, which was temporarily diverted for that purpose by unsuspecting slaves whose immediate massacre ensured the perpetual concealment of the fabulous tomb.
     Saint Augustine, who was then Bishop of Hippo in northern Africa, looked out at the whirlwind that had been stilled at his door by the hand of God, and in it he divined the condemnation of corrupt, worldly Christians who would defile the metaphoric City of God as they and their pagan perversions had defiled the Holy City of Rome. The great Latin Father of the Catholic Church perished in the devastating pagan gust of 430, when Gaiseric the Vandal, picking up where Alaric left off, laid siege to Hippo.
     It was left to another pagan king, Theodoric the Ostrogoth, to restore order to the temporal cities of God in western Christendom. Raised as an honored hostage of Byzantium in the latter decades of the turbulent 5th Century, he carried enlightened rule to southern Italy, spread peace and prosperity far up the peninsula and brought Saint Augustine’s church under his barbaric protection.
     One of Theodoric’s most loyal ministers was a faithful Christian named Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus, who in retirement at his  Calabrian estate, founded a monastery and initiated the habit of copying manuscripts, a practice which other monasteries imitated, leading to the preservation of much of the classical literature, secular and sacred, through the coming Dark Ages.

 
    Byzantium illuminated that maligned epoch. It adorned and decorated its Eastern empire and restored the luster of Magna Graecia in the West. Even its iconoclastic persecutions benefited this Risorgimento by driving many artists, artisans, and learned monks out to its southern Italian frontier, where they and their sanctuaries persevered in creative tranquility until the coming of the Normans in the 11th Century.
     From visits to an Apulian cavern sanctified by the reported apparition of the Archangel Michael, Norman pilgrims brought home provocative descriptions of the vulnerable Byzantine territories surrounding the shrine. Noble Normandy cast an acquisitive eye at the bottom of Italy, and Tancred de Hauteville, who was encumbered with more heirs than holdings, dispatched three of his sons – William, Drogo, and Humphrey – to this promised land. The sons of Hauteville fought valiantly to wrest the kingdom from Byzantine and Saracen hands – William with a ferocity that earned him the surname Ferrobraccio (Ironarm) – and were followed by their half-brother Robert Guiscard (the Wise), who brushed aside a nephew, the more legitimate heir, to complete the conquest and claim the new Norman realm for himself. He became Duke of Calabria, Apulia, and Sicily, although as a solider of fortune, a condottieri at heart, he did not so much rule his dukedom as rob, pillage, and plunder it. His successors, including Roger the Hunchback, William the Wicked, and William the Good, kept the patrimony in the family until 1186, when a Norman daughter, Costanza, transmitted it to the Hohenstaufens of Germany through marriage to Prince Henry VI, the son of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.
     Meanwhile, from inside a Calabrian hermitage, a Cistercian mystic named Giovanni dei Gioacchini di Fiori sent Christian zealots everywhere into a frenzy of repentance and flagellation with his divinely inspired calculation that the world was due to enter a period of calamity and tribulation to be followed by the prophesied Second Coming in the first dawn of the year 1260. Many believed that the self-crowned King of Jerusalem and excommunicate Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, the son of Costanza and Henry, was the Antichrist whose unholy reign would usher in the apocalyptic years. But Frederick died ten years too soon for that, bequeathing southern Italy and no end to strife, chaos, tyranny, and war to his heretical offspring. Either the doomsaying abbot or God had erred.
     To oblige Pope Urban IV, who was being tormented by Frederick’s son, Manfred the Bastard, Charles of Anjou rid Italy of the Hohenstaufens. The Bastard was killed in battle in 1265 and Frederick’s grandson, Conradin, was beheaded in a Neapolitan piazza three years later. For his services, Charles received southern Italy, which was now the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily. The Sicilians, however, rebelled. They slaughtered every  Frenchman they could find, including those still in the wombs of Sicilian women, and then when Charles swore everlasting vengeance, they wisely presented their island to Pedro III of Aragon, who, as they had anticipated, came to the defense of his new subjects.

     In the 15th Century, King Alfonso of Aragon rescued southern Italy from the falling House of Anjou and reunited it with Sicily in the bosom of Spain.
     By the 17th Century, some Calabrians had grown weary of foreign rule, and one of them, the radical Dominican monk Tommaso Campanella of Stilo, advocated revolt and the establishment of an independent Calabrian republic. A traitor to Spain, a heretic to the Church, he was marched before the Inquisitors, tortured, and thrown into prison for twenty-seven years. He used his time in captivity to refine his heresies and to write “City of the Sun,” a vision of a communistic utopia, which further antagonized Church and State. The subversive monk declared that he was the “campanella” – the little bell – that would toll the new dawn. Harbored by France the last five years of his live, Campanella died politically unrepentant, but at peace  with God, in Paris in 1639.

     After Spain came Austria, followed by a Spanish-Austrian Hapsburg-Bourbon seesaw of rule, and then came Napoleon, who gave southern Italy to his brother, Joseph. Two years later, in 1808, he promoted Joseph to the throne of Spain and replaced him at Naples with his brother-in-law, Joachim Murat. When Napoleon seemed doomed, the opportunistic Murat deserted him and contrived a separate peace with Austria. Then when that pact was annulled, Murat tolled anew the campanella, calling for a popular uprising against all foreign rule, though he, of course, would be king of this sovereign Italian state. An Austrian army destroyed his fantasy in a battle at Tolentino. Vanquished, Murat fled to Calabria. He was captured and executed at a castle in Pizzo.
     The Napoleonic usurpers were gone; the despotic Bourbons of Spain were back.
     Then in 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi and his Thousand Red Shirts finally expelled the foreigners from southern Italy. A grateful populace asked its liberator to rule, but Garibaldi faithfully presented the dominion to King Vittorio Emmanuelle II.

    
     “Giuseppe Garibaldi marched into the city of Naples on the seventh day of September in the year 1860, but word did not reach us here in Roccamonti until two days later,” Sandro Travicelli would recall in his old age. “Oh, but then we celebrated.”
     Invariably, someone would interrupt and remind Sandro that he himself was born on September 7, 1860, and, therefore, could not possibly remember anything about it.
     “I remember, I tell you!” old Sandro, though flustered, would insist. “My Zio Ugo rang the bells of Santa Prisca for an hour, an entire hour without cessation. I hear them even now, the church bells as they sounded that day: BOM-DOM BOM-DOM BOM-DOM. They have never sounded quite the same again. Perhaps Zio Ugo cracked them, or perhaps it is true that there were angels in the bell tower that day. BOM-DOM BOM-DOM: They sang like that for an hour.”
     “BOM-BONE BOM-BONE,” someone would then say for a laugh, a bombone being a teller of tall tales.
     Missing the jest, Sandro would correct them – “BOM-DOM” – and go on.

     “It was a beautiful day, a happy day, and there was a grand celebration that night. Everyone danced around a bonfire in the piazza. Zio Ugo was drunk, everyone was drunk, but Zio Ugo was very drunk, and he fell into the fire. Oh-oh, Zio Ugo!” Here, Sandro would slap his knee and laugh and wipe tears of loss and laughter from his eyes. “Oh, no-no, he was not hurt, not burned. A bit singed, that’s all. Oh, that Zio Ugo!”
     After the joyous celebration Sandro’s Zio Ugo waited and waited for life to improve in Calabria. If anything, though, conditions worsened, or seemed to worsen when compared to the reports of great economic progress and social reform streaming down from the north. As the years passed, so did Ugo’s optimism. Disillusioned, he packed a bag and left Roccamonti. Young Sandro, who loved and admired his uncle, accompanied him as far as the River Savuto. Along the way, Ugo recounted the story of the bells and the bonfire, which his impressionable nephew never tired of hearing, and spoke with passion about what he perceived as the betrayal of Calabria.
     “They have forgotten us up north,” Ugo said. “They have abandoned us to poverty and disease. It is hopeless here. Get out, Sandro, get out of here as soon as you can.”
     Sandro wept when they parted at the river and walked back to town with the borrowed memories that he would come to claim as his own by right of senility.
     Ugo went on to the coast, up to Naples and across to America, becoming the first Roccamontese ever to emigrate to the New World. He was killed in a coal mine explosion somewhere in Utah years later. Long after his death had ceased to be news, the people of Roccamonti continued to discuss the somewhat exaggerated success he had achieved in that far-away land. An uneducated man in his late middle years, Ugo had gone to an uncivilized country halfway around the world and in his first year there had earned more than he would have made working ten in Calabria, assuming, that is, that he could have found work in Calabria. Could anyone be as fortunate, people wondered, or had the gift been Ugo’s alone? One adventurous youth decided to find out for himself, and someone followed him…and the course was charted for the children of the 20th Century.
    

 

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