Showing posts with label Basilicata. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Basilicata. Show all posts

5 June 2018

Carmine Crocco - soldier and brigand

Bandit seen by peasants as Italy’s ‘Robin Hood’

Carmine Crocco nurtured a hatred for people of wealth and nobility
Carmine Crocco nurtured a hatred
for people of wealth and nobility
Carmine Crocco, whose life of brigandry was driven by a hatred of what he saw as the bourgeois oppressors of the poor, was born on this day in 1830 in the town of Rionero in Vulture, in Basilicata.

Crocco fought in the service of Giuseppe Garibaldi in the Expedition of the Thousand but was no supporter of Italian Unification and spent much of his life thereafter fighting on the side of the ousted Bourbons and of the peasant people of the south, many of whom were as poor after unification as they had been before, if not poorer.

He assembled his own private ‘army’, including many other fearsome brigands, which at one point numbered more than 2,000 men.

For this reason, he is regarded as something of a folk hero in southern Italy, where there is a popular belief that he robbed the rich to give to the poor in the manner of the legendary English outlaw, Robin Hood.

Nonetheless, when he was arrested for the final time he was tried and convicted of 67 murders and seven attempted murders among many crimes, having led a life of violence.

After his initial death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment with hard labour, which he served partly on the island of Santo Stefano, off the coast between Naples and Rome, and later on the island of Elba, off the Tuscan coast, Crocco wrote his memoirs.

He described how his hatred for the wealthy upper classes stemmed from an incident he witnessed as a boy, when his brother, Donato, killed a dog that was attacking the family’s chickens and was then beaten by the dog’s owner, a young lord called Don Vincenzo. When his pregnant mother tried to defend her son, she too was violently attacked, losing her unborn child as a result.

An 1864 arrest warrant for Crocco and two of his accomplices
An 1864 arrest warrant for Crocco
and two of his accomplices
Soon afterwards, after Don Vincenzo was threatened with a shotgun, Crocco’s father was arrested and convicted of his attempted murder. Some years later, it was proved that he was not the person with the gun, although by the time his father was released he was old and sick.

Carmine's antipathy towards the privileged classes was hardened further by an incident that occurred when he was an adult. He had been serving in the army of Francis II, the bourbon King of The Two Sicilies, but deserted after killing another soldier in a brawl.

Returning to Rionero, he found that his sister, Rosina, was the subject of slanderous stories spread by a nobleman, Don Peppino, whose advances she had declined. He sought out Don Peppino, who responded to Crocco’s questioning by hitting him with a whip, at which Crocco drew a knife and killed him.

He hid in nearby woods, where he met other outlaws. They formed a gang and began to carry out robberies. Crocco was caught and sentenced to 19 years in prison in 1855 but escaped from the jail, in Bari, four years later.

His decision to join up with Garibaldi was purely out of self-interest, inspired by the Sardinian general’s promise to grant amnesty to any deserter who joined his cause.  Crocco fought bravely, taking part in the important Battle of Volturno, but was denied his pardon. He was arrested and imprisoned again.

He was released after intervention by a noble family from Rionero in Vulture who argued his case, but felt badly betrayed by the Sardinians driving the push for unification. When the new Kingdom of Italy imposed heavy taxes on the peasants while maintaining the privileges of the elite, who had switched their loyalty from the Bourbons to the new country, Crocco called on other former soldiers and fellow outlaws and was able to form an army of 2,000 men, their goal to support Francis II and to aid and encourage peasant uprisings.

Telemaco Signorini's painting of a visit to the prison at  Portoferraio on Elba. Crocco is on the end of the right-hand row
Telemaco Signorini's painting of a visit to the prison at
 Portoferraio on Elba. Crocco is on the end of the right-hand row
With the help of the Spanish general José Borjes, sent by the exiled Bourbon government to provide tactical input, they enjoyed considerable success, recapturing many towns across Basilicata and conquering parts of Campania and Apulia. Many noblemen and some politicians were killed, quite a few by Crocco himself.  This gave him a reputation as “a liberator” but his motives were those rooted in his own past.

The ultimate target was to recapture the city of Potenza, which had become an Italian army stronghold. But it was here that the campaign began to go wrong. First, Crocco broke his alliance with Borjes, distrustful of his promise of Spanish reinforcements. Then Borjes, en route to see Francis II in Rome, was captured and killed by Piedmontese soldiers.

Crocco went back to robbery and extortion to raise funds but his army had been weakened by numerous battles.  He was invited to surrender by the Italian Army but refused, going into hiding with the aim of using guerilla tactics.  Ultimately, though, his whereabouts were betrayed by a traitor within his own ranks, the Italian Army brought in reinforcements and he was defeated. Many of his lieutenants were captured and executed.

His own reaction was to flee to Rome, hoping for help from Pope Pius IX, whom he knew had expressed his support for the southern uprisings and his opposition to unification.  But he was detained by papal troops at Veroli, 100km (62 miles) southeast of Rome and handed over to the Italian authorities. This time there would be no escape.

The natural amphitheatre of the Grancia forest park
The natural amphitheatre of the Grancia forest park
Travel tip:

The life of Carmine Crocco is celebrated each year in the village of Brindisi Montagna, in the province of Potenza, with an open-air musical drama entitled La Storia Bandita, staged in the natural amphitheatre of the Grancia forest, featuring more than 400 actors and dancers, plus horses, donkeys, oxen and ducks among other animals and multiple special effects, including the illusion of lightning created by more than 600 reflectors.  Among a number of famous actors who have taken part is Michele Placido, who claims to be descended from Crocco through his father, who was born in Rionero in Vulture.

The Palazzo Fortunato in Rionero in Vulture
The Palazzo Fortunato in Rionero in Vulture
Travel tip:

The most important building in Rionero in Vulture is undoubtedly the Palazzo Fortunato, built in the early 18th century, when Carmelo Fortunato, an ancestor of the anti-Fascist politician Giustino Fortunato, moved to the area. It was subsequently extended by other members of the family.  Notable people to have stayed in the palace include, in April 1807, the sovereign Giuseppe Bonaparte - brother of Napoleon - Ferdinand II of Bourbon in 1846 and prime minister Giuseppe Zanardelli in 1902. The building currently houses the municipal library.

Also on this day:

1412: The birth of condottiero Ludovico Gonzaga

1898: The birth of shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo


3 February 2016

Giuseppe Forlenza – eye surgeon

Napoleon recognised brilliance of eye specialist

This portrait of Giuseppe Forlenza by Jacques-Antoine Vallin is  housed in London's National Gallery
This portrait of Giuseppe Forlenza
by Jacques-Antoine Vallin is
housed in London's National Gallery
Giuseppe Forlenza, an important 18th century ophthalmologist and surgeon, was born on this day in 1757 in Picerno in the province of Potenza.

He became famous for performing successful cataract surgery and for his treatment of eye diseases.

Forlenza was born in the region of Basilicata, which at that time was part of the Kingdom of Naples. His father and two uncles were all surgeons.

He went to Naples and then on to France to study surgery. He spent two years gaining experience at St George’s Hospital in London and then returned to France where he concentrated on treating eye diseases.

Forlenza carried out eye surgery at a retirement home in Paris and performed many remarkable operations on soldiers returning from fighting in Egypt who were suffering from eye problems.

He was recognised as a leading eye surgeon by Napoleon, who in a royal decree assigned him to treat eye disease throughout France.

Forlenza eventually returned to Italy where he performed many free operations in Turin and Rome and he wrote what was considered at the time to be a forward thinking medical work about the treatment of eye disease.

Forlenza died in 1833 in Paris at the age of 76.

A tower still survives from Potenza's ancient castle
A surviving tower from an ancient
castle is an attraction in Potenza
Travel tip:

Potenza is the capital of the Basilicata region in southern Italy, built on high ground overlooking a valley in the Apennine mountains of Lucania. A tower from an old castle and three gates from the former city walls still remain and there are the ruins of a Roman villa to see.

Travel tip:

The University of Naples was founded in 1224 by the Emperor Frederick II. One of its most famous students was the theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas who went on to lecture there in the 13th century. A former college built in the 16th century in Via Paladino, in the area of Spaccanapoli, has been the main university building since 1777.


4 January 2016

Carlo Levi – writer and painter

Author and doctor who highlighted poverty in southern Italy

The anti-fascist writer, painter and doctor, Carlo Levi, died on this day in Rome in 1975.

Carlo Levi wrote Christ Stopped at Eboli based on his experiences in exile in Basilicata
Carlo Levi, anti-fascist writer and
author of Christ Stopped at Eboli
He is best remembered for his book ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’ (Cristo si è fermato a Eboli), an account of the time he spent in political exile in a remote, impoverished part of Italy.

Levi was born in Turin in 1902. His father was a wealthy Jewish physician and Levi went to the University of Turin to study medicine after finishing school.

While at University he became active in politics and after graduating he turned his attention to painting.

But he never completely abandoned medicine and moved to Paris to continue his medical research while painting.

After returning to Italy, Levi founded an anti-fascist movement in 1929. As a result he was arrested and sent into exile to a remote area of Italy called Lucania (now renamed Basilicata).

He encountered extreme poverty, which had been unknown in the north where he grew up. As well as writing and painting while he was in exile, he served as a doctor to help the poor villagers he lived among.

When he was released from his political exile he moved back to France but on his return to Italy he was arrested again and imprisoned in Florence.

After the fall of Mussolini he was released from prison and he wrote ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’ about his experiences living in Lucania.

At the end of the war he moved to Rome where he continued to paint, work as a political journalist and write books.

He died of pneumonia at the age of 72 on 4 January, 1975.

In 1979, ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’ was made into a film directed by Francesco Rosi.

Aliano is the town near Matera in Basilicata upon which Carlo Levi based his fictional town of Gagliano
The hill town of Aliano in Basilicata was the
inspiration for Levi's fictional town of Gagliano
Photo: Michele Pinassi (CC BY 2.5 IT)
Travel tip:

Aliano, a town about 90 kilometres from Matera in the region of Basilicata, was the inspiration for the fictional town of Gagliano in Levi’s book ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’. Located on top of rocky hills, it was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1980. Many residents still speak alianese dialect and keep up ancient traditions to bring themselves good luck and ward off ‘the evil eye.’ For more information visit

Travel tip:

Turin University in Via Giuseppe Verdi dates back to 1404 but officially became a university after reforms were made to it by Victor Amadeus II of Sardinia in the 18th century. The Faculty of Medicine attended by Carlo Levi is proud of its 600-year history, which it counts back to 1412 when it was founded by a local doctor, Antonio Cusano.


31 December 2015

Festa di San Silvestro – Feast of Saint Sylvester

Celebrating with a meal of pork and lentils for a prosperous New Year

New Year’s Eve in Italy is known as the Festa di San Silvestro in memory of Pope Sylvester I who died on this day in 335 in Rome.

People gather in squares all over Italy to celebrate the arrival of the new year.
New Year celebrations in Rome
Photo: Zabbo (CC BY-SA 3.0)
It is not a public holiday in Italy but it is a festive time everywhere, with firework displays, concerts and parties.

One custom still followed in some parts of Italy is throwing your old things out of the window at midnight to symbolise your readiness to accept the New Year.

The bars and restaurants are busy with residents and visitors enjoying drinks and meals before seeing in the New Year in the main square when the bells ring at midnight.

Popular menu items include cotechino (Italian sausage), zampone (stuffed pig’s trotter) and lenticchie (lentils).

Pork is said to represent the fullness or richness of life, while lentils are supposed to symbolise wealth or money. Many Italians believe the coming year could bring prosperity if these foods are eaten on New Year’s Eve.

The President of the Republic delivers an end of year message from the Quirinale in Rome, which is shown on most Italian television channels during the evening. There are live concerts in the open air in many squares throughout Italy, some of which are televised.

Sylvester I was pope from 314 until his death in 335, an important time in the history of the Catholic Church.

Some of Rome’s great churches, the Basilica of St John Lateran, the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem and the old St Peter’s Basilica, were founded during his pontificate.

The Basilica of San Silvestro in Via del Gambero in Rome
The Basilica of San Silvestro
in Via del Gambero in Rome
Travel tip:

San Silvestro in Capite, the Basilica of Saint Sylvester, is a church in Rome dedicated to Pope Sylvester I. It is in Piazza San Silvestro on the corner of Via del Gambero and Via delle Mercede, on the other side of the Tiber from St Peter’s. Dating from the eighth century, it was bestowed on English Catholics by Pope Leo XIII in 1890. It is now known as ‘The National Church in Rome of Great Britain’ and mass is regularly celebrated in English there.

The southern Italian hill town of Matera in Basilicata
hosts the 2015 New Year's Eve convert on Rai Uno
Photo: Giuseppe Rinaldi (CC BY 2.5)
Travel tip:

Piazza Vittorio Veneto in Matera in the southern region of Basilicata will be the location for the New Year’s Eve concert, ‘L’Anno Che Verrà’ (‘The Coming Year’), which will be shown live on the Italian TV channel Rai Uno from 21.00 tonight (31 December, 2015.) The historic city of Matera is to be the European capital of culture in 2019.