Book Week: The Pope Who Quit by Jon M. Sweeney

PopeWhoQuitThose of you who know my interests in history won’t be surprised at all that I was eager to read a book about Pope Celestine V, elected in 1294. And with the recent resignation of Pope Benedict, Celestine’s abdication has been mentioned in news stories, editorials, and blogs around the world.

From the time I first heard of this book, a year or more before its 2012 publication, I felt an affinity with Sweeney. I spent years researching the events surrounding Celestine’s election and resignation, as I’m sure Sweeney did. And considering the wide-ranging sources and research on the subject, it’s not too surprising that we came to slightly different conclusions about some of the characters involved.

The book is essentially a biography of Peter of Morrone, who took the name Celestine as pope. Thorough, well-written, and not too densely academic, I enjoyed reading it very much–burning my Nook late into a few nights to finish it. Little is known about Celestine’s early life, and even up to middle age he was a man of obscurity, seeking a life of isolation. Sweeney presents this unusual life in a well-0rganized yet lively way.

My disappointments came with his presentation of corollary characters: namely, the succeeding pope, Boniface VIII, and the King most directly involved with Celestine, King Charles II of Naples. I admit, I have a bias against Boniface. (I am certainly not alone in this.)

My fists went up in the prologue when Sweeney describes Boniface (Cardinal Benedict Gaetani, prior to becoming pope) as Celestine’s “trusted adviser”. I suppose, technically, this is true. Celestine trusted his advice on various things, and depended on his help in carrying out his desire to resign. But in light of the subsequent betrayal–imprisoning Celestine for the rest of his life–the term “trusted adviser” stuck in my craw.

Then there is the negative portrayal of the king of Naples, Charles II. Here is a weak king, and a man at the mercy of the papacy. An earlier pope had established Charles’ father as “King of Naples” in exchange for fighting some of the papacy’s worldly battles, and his kingdom (which initially included the island of Sicily) was subject to the pope as overlord. Charles II himself spent years as a prisoner of war in those battles. While Sweeney presents Charles as manipulating Celestine, he omits entirely the fact that Charles’s three sons, including his heir, were prisoners in Aragon for the previous five years. Only the pope could confirm a treaty to free them, and by the time Celestine was elected, there had been a vacancy for more than two years in the papacy. The previous pope flatly refused to approve the treaty that both kings involved had agreed to. I view Charles as a man desperate to free his sons, and doing all he can to gain influence with the one man who can help him.

Yes, I know. I’ve slipped from book review to historical rant. As you can see, what happened in history is far from settled, even though the events are long past. The true motivations of those involved are rarely known with certainty, and always subject to nuances of interpretation.

The end notes are thorough and interesting, mentioning numerous of Sweeney’s sources. There is no bibliography or index, but that’s not unusual in a book presented for public rather than scholarly interest. I most appreciate Sweeney bringing Celestine into the public view, more than he has been in a while. And I suppose I should thank the former Pope, Benedict, for his recent resignation which revived the interest in Celestine even more.

The Pope Who Quit is a worthwhile read for anyone with an interest in the thirteenth century, church history, or the medieval Kingdom of Sicily/Kingdom of Naples.


The Baroness will see you now: Family history

Just looking at this Italian birth record should convince you to hire a professional for Italian genealogy! Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Just looking at this Italian birth record should convince you to hire a professional for Italian genealogy! Image from Wikimedia Commons.

I’m getting revved up for my trip to Italy in a few months, and one of my preparations this time will be to have some genealogical research done for me before I get there. My Italian language skills aren’t adequate to do it myself, and my knowledge of the systems of records in Italy is even worse. Some relatives are pooling resources with me to hire the help, and I’ll share the results when I get home.

I was preparing for an earlier trip to Italy when Anna Maria responded to a post I made online, seeking my Italian relatives. She is one!

The last time I saw cousin Anna Maria (right) was 2009. I'm looking forward to seeing her again this summer!

The last time I saw cousin Anna Maria (right) was 2009. I’m looking forward to seeing her again this summer!

We met in person in Italy, and she came to my home a few years later, but I have not been able to document our family relationship. For now, we are just “cugini”, cousins. One of my goals is to discover the family lines that connect us. This year, I’m looking forward to spending Ferragosto, that ancient Italian holiday, with Anna Maria and other family members in our ancestral village.

We have learned a few things about our Italian roots as my sister and I have researched over the years. Some are in the category of family legends.

1.  Josephine Gualtieri was an old maid at 21 when she determined she would marry any man who asked her. The man who asked was Francesco Arcuri,

Josephine and Francesco, about 1910 in New York

Josephine and Francesco, about 1910 in New York

a man already 50 years old, and three years older than Josephine’s father. We learned that Josephine’s mother had died and her father remarried. Did she not get along with her stepmother? What other factors shaped her life?

2.  There is a Palazzo Gualtieri in Josephine’s home town, which (we were told) was gambled away by an ancestor. While “Palace” is somewhat of an overstatement in describing the derelict building, I’d be interested to learn more of that story!

My mom, Win Perman, at the door to the Palazzo Gualtieri in Scigliano.

My mom, Win Perman, at the door to the Palazzo Gualtieri in Scigliano.

3.  Raffaele of the B&B Calabria in Scigliano gave me a book about the history of Scigliano–in Italian, of course! However, I have been able to determine that at one time there was a “Baron Gualtieri” in Scigliano. I’d really love to know who he was and how he might be connected to my family line. And can I now start calling myself a Baroness? Please??

Looking for Italian roots?

I discovered an Italian genealogy research outfit today, and thought I’d share a link. Initially I emailed Cherrye at My Bella Vita about some research interests because I know she does Heritage Tours in southern Italy. She referred me to Roots in the Boot, and I was very excited to find their website and the services they offer.

You can find suggestions for research compiled on websites like’s page about genealogy, and there’s a lot to learn at

Have you found useful websites for Italian family history? Please do share in the comments!

Salvatore and the Priest (Part 2 of 3)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast week’s post introduced Salvatore and our serendipitous meeting.

So how did this 80-something retired Latin teacher from a remote town east of Naples learn English? “I learned from an American priest,” he told us. “The priest who saved Piedimonte Matese!”

We walked along a street that climbed one side of a valley. As we walked, he told us about the priest. As a young man in America, he converted to Roman Catholicism, and was rejected by his Protestant family because of it. They wanted nothing to do with him. But he felt called to the priesthood, and eventually studied in Rome. He was assigned to serve in Piedimonte Matese in the 1930s. His family in America cut him off completely, but he loved his life and work in Italy as a priest, and he taught English to those who wanted to learn, including Salvatore, who was a young teenager at the time.

Then the war came. Mussolini joined the Axis powers in 1937, and as war gradually engulfed Europe, life in Italy became more and more difficult. The German presence in Italy grew to an oppressive level, and life was further disrupted by food shortages and military conscription. With the potential of American involvement in the war, the church and community authorities urged the priest to return to America, but he refused. Italy was his home, and he had no family waiting for him.

Then came Pearl Harbor, and the United States entered the war.

Salvatore paused on the sidewalk and pointed across the valley to another section of the town. “Do you see the palazzo over there, the biggest building? That is where the priest stayed during the war.”

The ducal palace, highest building in this photo.

The ducal palace, largest building in this photo.

Because it wasn’t safe for him to continue his service, the authorities prevailed upon the local duke to take him under his protection. Within the Palazzo Ducale, the priest was safe, but he could not leave the palace without risk of capture and imprisonment as an enemy alien.

Almost two years later, in the fall of 1943, American and British forces began making their way north up the Italian peninsula. The Germans had established a camp west of Piedimonte Matesa, near the Volturno River, and as the Allied forces approached in October, the Germans began a slow retreat, destroying bridges, roads, and supplies in their wake.

American forces continued their approach, shelling locations the Germans had occupied, causing additional damage to the war-ravaged town. The citizens were caught in the crossfire.  The priest knew the Germans had all withdrawn from the town, and wanted to let the approaching Allied forces know.

He attached a white flag to a pole, and set out for the American line, over the protests of the local citizens. When they realized he would not be dissuaded, a couple of them joined him as he walked down the main road directly into the Allied attack, waving the white flag and calling out to them in English. Finally, the shooting stopped.

“He saved our town,” Salvatore told us with tears in his eyes. “He was a hero to us.”

The Allies set up a camp where the Germans had been, and helped restore some order to the area. They needed help communicating with the local officials and citizens, and the priest recommended his young student, Salvatore, as their translator. Each day an army jeep driver picked up Salvatore to help with translation, and he was granted permission to be out after curfew so he could give Italian language lessons to the soldiers in the evenings. His father’s house had been bombed, and the soldiers helped them begin rebuilding.

“You see,” Salvatore said, “we owe a lot to Americans.”

I took photos of the palazzo across the valley, and we started back down the road. “Now, I’d like you to come to my house. I have made some liqueur I would like you to try.”

Come back next week for Part 3!

Italian Bagpipers: the Zampognari

A vintage post card image of Zampognari.

Who knew Italy had it’s own version of the bagpipes, and a Christmas tradition surrounding them? I’m referring you today to another article in the British magazine “Italy” online, which explains the history of the zampognari, shepherds who came down from the mountains to spend Christmas with their families, and stopped at shrines and nativity scenes to play their carols.

The instrument itself is strange looking, with the air bag sometimes shaped alarmingly like the lamb or sheep it was probably made from. And like Scottish bagpipe music, a little goes a long way for most people.

Are you ready for a visit from the zampognari? Play the video:

Guest Post: Sicilian Puppets, a Living Tradition, by Tinney S. Heath

Tinney S HeathI’m delighted to welcome Tinney Heath to the blog today. Tinney is the author of A Thing Done, a novel set in 13th century Florence, and a fellow blogger at Today, Tinney takes us to Sicily.

“We might have been in the Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, but instead of flickering images projected in black and white, we watched knights in shining armor stride across the stage, less than 3 feet tall, their colorful plumes bouncing and their shields clanking.  Backstage a tenor sang out ‘Allarme, allarme, allarme,’ gruff voices challenged menacing Saracen warriors, and the puparo’s [puppeteer’s] wooden sandal stomped out a battle rhythm, as one by one the pupi [puppets] crossed swords with the infidel, lopping off heads and splitting torsos, or took a swipe at a passing dragon to rescue a damsel in distress.”

Charlemagne's knights

Charlemagne’s knights

That’s Mary Taylor Simeti, longtime resident of Sicily and the author of On Persephone’s Island and Travels with a Medieval Queen, describing a traditional puppet show in Palermo in 1964.

The show that night was one of 271 installments of the Paladini di Francia, a serialized story loosely based on the 11th century French epic poem “Chanson de Roland.”  It tells of the adventures of Charlemagne and his knights as they battle against Saracens, sorcerers, dragons, devils, monsters, and occasionally each other.  The Charlemagne tales are the mainstay of this art form, though other traditional stories can also be seen, including shows based on Shakespeare, Homer, and the Bible.

The Franks, ready for action.

The Franks, ready for action.

The handcarved puppets, of dense chestnut or cypress wood, have expressive painted faces and realistic glass eyes.  Each puppet character has its unique clothing, armor, coat of arms, and a distinctive style of movement, making them easy to identify.

Shows are played against elaborately painted backdrops, and to the accompaniment of music, often from a barrel organ or a player piano.  Dialogue is spoken by the puppeteers and usually improvised; certainly there were moments while watching a show in Palermo that I wished I could understand Sicilian dialect, because judging from the reaction of the locals in the audience, I had managed to miss something very funny.

Commedia d'arte, with puppets

Commedia d’arte, with puppets

Simeti observes that each show includes two things.  One is a council, to show characters talking together and let the audience get to know each one and the values he or she personifies.  Once we know who the good guys and the bad guys are, it’s on to the second element:  the battle scenes, which occupy most of the show.  Battles are vivid, colorful, and violent, and characters are slain, often spectacularly.  Puppets doomed to this fate are constructed so as to lose limbs or a head in battle, or even to split completely in two.

Depending on which Sicilian tradition they come from, puppets can be around 3 feet high (Palermo) or closer to 5 feet (Catania).  Palermo’s smaller puppets have articulated knee joints, which the Catanian marionettes don’t, and they are capable of sheathing and unsheathing a sword, thanks to an ingenious and intricate system of strings, rods, and wires.  It can take years to learn to manipulate a marionette to its full potential.

A peek backstage.

A peek backstage.

Although Sicily’s tradition of marionette theater took on its present form in the 19th century, Sicilian puppetry actually goes much farther back.  The chivalric legends may have been acted out by puppets as early as the 16th century, and in fact Simeti tells us that Sicilian puppeteers performed in Athens in Socrates’s day.  Sicilian puppets are said to have fascinated Goethe, Anatole France, George Bernard Shaw, and Mario Puzo, and the great Italian semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco was appointed to serve on the board of Palermo’s Museo Internazionale delle Marionette (where all the photos in this post were taken).  This traditional art form has a venerable past, but the question now seems to be, does it have a future?

It’s been pronounced dead before.  First the cinema, then television, were said to herald its demise, and indeed, many theaters have closed over the years.  Families boasting multiple generations of proud puppeteers have had to go into other lines of work.  It is probably the tourist trade that keeps the remaining theaters in business.  But in 2001, UNESCO declared Sicilian puppetry part of the “Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity,” and has set in motion training programs for puppeteers, festivals, and awards, in an effort to keep this rich tradition alive.

Laurel and Hardy in Palermo.

Laurel and Hardy in Palermo.

When my husband and I visited Palermo, our rented apartment was part of the magnificent palazzo that had been the final home of the great Sicilian novelist Giuseppe di Lampedusa, author of Il Gattopardo (The Leopard).  The palazzo is now owned by the author’s adopted son, Gioacchino Tomasi, Duke of Palma and a well-known musicologist and theater director, and Tomasi’s wife, Duchess Nicoletta Polo, a renowned expert on Sicilian cuisine who teaches cooking to tourists and whose recipes appear in cookbooks and cooking magazines.

The Duchess told us that when her husband was in New York as a cultural attachė, they decided to import both puppets and puppeteers and produce an authentic Sicilian puppet show for a small New York audience made up mostly of diplomatic personnel from many different countries.  Children were, of course, especially welcome.  A Chinese diplomat who was unable to stay for the performance dropped off his small daughter, a tiny porcelain doll of a child, and anxiously asked Nicoletta to keep a close eye on the little girl in case she was frightened by the clamor of the swordfights.  The child settled comfortably on the Duchess’s lap at first, but once the action began, within seconds the porcelain doll was bouncing up and down excitedly, screaming, “Kill him!  Kill him!”

We saw another puppet-child interaction in Palermo that charmed us.  After the show, members of the small audience – only seven or eight of us – were standing backstage watching while a puppeteer demonstrated his marionette for us.  A little boy, maybe four or five, was utterly fascinated, and Puppet Orlando was just about his height.  The puppeteer made Orlando draw his sword and wave it about wildly while the child giggled, and then suddenly Orlando dropped his martial posturing, lurched up to the boy, and gave him a big hug, to the delight of everyone.

You can find many videos of Sicilian puppet shows on YouTube.  Some are quite slick and professional, with educational commentary.  To give you a taste, though, I’ve chosen this one, taken from the audience, because it captures the feeling of being at one of these shows, and makes it clear how much the audience is enjoying it.

Tinney Heath’s historical interests can best be described as
Dantecentric: if Dante lived it, wrote about it, or consigned it to the
Inferno, it’s fair game. When not writing about Dante’s Florence, she
spends a lot of time playing medieval and early Renaissance music with
her husband on a variety of early instruments. She loves to travel to
Italy for research (not to mention art, music, and pasta). Her
background is in journalism. To learn more about her work, see her

Book Review: The Generosity of Strangers

Thomas Antonaccio heard stories all his life about his mother’s childhood experiences in the village of Fornelli in central Italy. A few weeks ago, he published “The Generosity of Strangers: When War came to Fornelli” which retells many of those stories in the first person, through the voice of Lucia, the little girl who lived them.

Lucia is introduced as a young child with a fascination for the simple life in her rural village. She loved catching butterflies, and loved to hear her father play the concertina and sing. When World War II breaks out, taking many people away from the village and bringing others in, life changes dramatically. Lucia’s story let’s us see the historical events from a new perspective.

The storytelling is simple and suits the character of Lucia. The book is described as a children’s non-fiction history book. It would be a good way to introduce children to significant events of 20th century history in Italy. It is a fairly quick read, available on Amazon for Kindle.

Historic changes to Italian provinces

The current provinces and regions of Italy.

The Italian government has decided to abolish several provinces with smaller populations, combining and redefining them, as part of a streamlining effort to save money. Not everyone is happy about it. This article from the Guardian (UK) gives some of the reasons.

The number of Italian provinces has almost doubled, from 59 when Italy became a nation in 1861, to 109 today. The reorganization of provinces will take place in 2014, and affects provinces throughout the country. Last month the English language version of Italy’s Corriere de la Sera ran this article about the axing of 36 provinces.

The provinces are not to be confused with regions, the better-know subdivisions of Italian government. For example, Calabria is a region with five provinces. However, after reorganization, the provinces of Catanzaro, Crotone, and Vibo Valentia will be combined into one, leaving Calabria with three provinces.

The functions of provincial level governments include planning and zoning, police and fire protection, and transportation matters such as car registration and road maintenance.

Some proposals have called for the complete abolition of provinces, with the regions taking over all the governmental functions. Others want to protect the unique cultural or historic character of a place, such as Benevento, which is scheduled to throw its lot in with Avellino despite Benevento’s ancient Samnite history.

These changes are likely to spark some protests around the country, and are expected to be challenged in court. However for most visitors to Italy, the impact is expected to be minor. Look around and see history in the making.


Caserta, the Versailles of Italy

My research in Italy in 2004 focused on thirteenth and fourteenth century history. As our visit came to an end, we didn’t want to return our rental car in a city, with all the crazy traffic, so we chose–and I can’t recall why–to drop it off at Caserta, north of Naples, and take the train back to Rome from there. I knew nothing about Caserta, because its major claim to fame developed about 450 years after the history I was most interested in.

File:CasertaNorthernAspect.jpgAcross the street from the train station, a few hundred yards away, we could see a massive building, certainly palatial, and we looked with some curiosity but no spare time, wondering what it might be. Our view was not the one you see above, but from the other side of the building, with no hint of the wonderful canal and park.

Now I know. The Reggia di Caserta, the royal palace built by the Bourbon kings of Naples in the 18th century. In fact, the largest palace contructed during that century, and among the largest buildings built in that period, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With 1200 rooms, it is the largest royal palace in the world.

It is on my itinerary for Italy next year!

The palace was conceived and construction begun by King Charles VII of Naples, but he inherited the throne of Spain in 1759, and ceded Naples to his son Ferdinand who was only eight years old. After a period of rule in Naples through regents until he reached his majority, Ferdinand occasionally lived at Caserta from its completion in 1780 until his death in 1825. This included the turbulent Napoleonic period during which Ferdinand was deposed and restored three times. The Bourbons continued to rule until 1861, when Italian unification dissolved the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

Fast forward to World War II, when the palace again served a prominent purpose as the headquarters of the Supreme Allied Commander. In April of 1945, the German surrender in Italy was signed at Caserta.

In more recent years, the palace has been used as a movie filming site for a couple of Star Wars movies, and for scenes from Angels and Demons. In Mission Impossible III, the square where the Lamborghini is blown up is one of the inner squares of the palace.

Visitors today note that the palace is completely unfurnished, and a bit run down, but it is still a popular tourist stop. The grounds are as much an attraction as the palace itself, with a three mile long “Royal Park” considered by many to be superior to the park at Versailles.

Here’s a video peek at some of the Baroque wonders of the palace and park: