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:


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:

History denied me: Old stuff I can’t figure out.

Exploring Sorrento on foot, Vern and I followed a road that crossed a deep ravine. Looking down, among the thick undergrowth, I saw a ruin, a former mill or factory, it appeared, covered in creepers and moss.

That kind of thing just gets my head spinning. What was it? When was it built? Who worked there? Why was it abandoned? I’m sure that some research could turn up the answers to these questions, but I had higher priorities at the time. Still, that picture catches in my imagination now and then.

The trouble with Italy (and of course there are other places) is that it is filled with these bits of time gone by, wherever you go. Bits of ancient columns built in a new(er) stone wall. Arched “doorways” forty feet above the beach on a cliff face. Roman mosaic fragments dug up during remodeling.

Sometimes when I see such things, a story simply comes to me, and I wonder how close to the truth it might be.

The other Norman invasion: The Italian South!

Be careful who you ask for help. That might be the lesson from the story of the “other” Norman invasion, the Norman conquest of southern Italy and Sicily.

Early 19th century print by Lemercier

According to the chronicle of William of Apulia (written about 100 years later), Norman pilgrims returning from the Holy Land stopped in Salerno in 999, and during their stay the city was attacked by Saracen raiders. When the Lombards quickly capitulated, the Normans berated them, took matters in their own hands, and rallied to defeat the Saracens. The Lombard prince, Guaimar, offered them many incentives to stay in Salerno to provide protection, but the Normans returned home with promises that they would spread the word about Guaimar’s need.

About fifteen years later, a band of Normans visiting the Gargano Peninsula shrine to Archangel Michael joined forces with the Lombards to throw off Byzantine control. By 1020, various Norman mercenaries had joined forces with leaders of various principalities and duchies in the southern peninsula. By 1042, the Normans had gained enough power that a leader was selected from among their own: William Iron Arm, the eldest son of Tancred d’Hauteville, was given the title of Count of Apulia, and married the daughter of the Duke of Sorrento. William and several other Norman leaders were granted lands around Melfi.

The Norman castle in Melfi now houses a wonderful museum.

In 1043 William and his younger brother Drogo began campaigns to bring Apulia and Calabria under their control, and in time their younger brother Robert Guiscard joined in their efforts. Guiscard is not a surname–it is his nickname variously translated the Fox, the Wily, the Resourceful, and the Weasel. He was initially, in 1048, granted a castle in Calabria by his brother, but soon became restless for greater conquests.

By the 1050s, the Lombards regretted inviting the Normans to their lands, and with the help of Pope Leo IX, launched an alliance against them, with Swabian and Byzantine support. On June 18, 1053, Humphrey, Count of Apulia, led the Normans to victory in the Battle of Civitate, which cemented their power in the Italian south. Gradually, by the end of the century, the Normans gained control of the entire southern mainland and the island of Sicily.

The Norman kingdom lasted another 100 years, until it went to the Hohenstaufens by marriage in 1194. The Norman presence is still marked by many castles and churches built during their reign.


Pacentro’s annual barefoot race

Not too many years ago, the annual “Irrigation Festival” where I live in Washington state celebrated its 100th year. It is touted as the longest running continuous community celebration in our state, and we celebrated along with our neighbors. And when I grew up in Alaska, my family made the annual trek to Seward for the July 4th Mount Marathon footrace, in the midst of Independence Day revelry. I like community celebrations with some history.

Pacentro towers at dusk

So when my friend Cesare invited us to Pacentro (a place whose castle towers would have been reason enough) for their annual celebration which included a footrace, we were happy to go.

Pacentro is perched on the east side of the wide valley wall south of Sulmona in the central Apennines. We drove up the stony ridge, already crowded with cars, and squeezed into one of his typical, impossible, parking spots. By this point in our travels, I had been immersed in Italian for about a month, and understood more and more of the conversation around me. Cesare and his wife led us to a street overlooking the valley to the south. On the opposite hillside, a large Italian flag appeared to be spray painted on a large rock, marking the start of the race course.

An alleyway in Pacentro, filled with flowers.

A public address system, strung up to a high eave, broadcast tinny announcements that could be heard for several blocks. As the racers climbed the hill to the starting line, Cesare told about the origins of the race, when gypsies camped outside the city saw an enemy approaching, and ran barefoot down the hill, across the valley, and up to the hilltop town of Pacentro to warn them, allowing the town to fend off the danger. In honor of the “Zingari”, or Gypsies, who saved Pacentro, the annual Corsa degli Zingari, (Race of the Gypsies), is celebrated every year. It has become a coming-of-age ritual for the young men of Pacentro. The prize seems odd–a bolt of cloth. But this was the fabric used to make his first suit of clothes as a man, and young men still compete vigorously for the title, running barefoot across the rough terrain.

A band greets the runners.

As the two or three dozen racers got in place, fireworks echoed in the valley, and the noisy crowd grew around us. I struggled to hear the announcements, and to understand them. But I was sure I had misunderstood when the announcer welcomed everyone to the 556th running of the Corso degli Zingari. Wait… 556th? That puts it back into the early 1400s. Really? Yes, Cesare assured me, I had heard him correctly.

I was still absorbing the historical shock when the ringing of bells signaled the start of the race. We watched them run down the rocky, forested hillside, disappearing into the pines, and reappearing to the cheers of viewers around us. By the time they begin to arrive in the town, within fifteen or twenty minutes as I recall, they are blistered and sometimes bloody. From the finish line, racers are paraded through the narrow crowded streets on the shoulders of their friends.

The victors are paraded through the streets

We stayed for a while, walking through the narrow, medieval streets and admiring the towers before heading back to Sulmona as the sun set . My sense of history had been properly tweaked, a reset button in my brain changing just a little bit how I viewed the “longstanding” Irrigation Festival (only 117 years old this year) and the Mount Marathon race in Seward (where they wear shoes, for Pete’s sake!).

To see a glimpse of Pacentro and the race, here’s a video from 2009. If you plan to be in Italy in September, you might enjoy attending this very much off-the-beaten-track event.

Stupor Mundi, Wonder of the World

One of the most fascinating people in the history of the Italian south, Frederick II, is a figure of contradictions. An orphan, emperor, crusader, excommunicate, expert in falconry and author of an innovative legal code. Born in 1194, Frederick’s father was Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, and his mother, Constance, was heir to Sicily, a kingdom which at that time included the southern half of the Italian peninsula.

Here are a few things Frederick is best known for:

His birth:Frederick was born in a public square near Ancona, Italy as his mother traveled south from Germany. She chose this public birth to forestall any doubts about her son’s origin. His father died when Frederick was two years old, and his mother died when he was four; Pope Innocent III became his guardian, overseeing his education and his kingdom during his childhood.

The birth of Frederick II

Crusading: In 1228, after several delays which resulted in his excommunication, Frederick went on crusade. Because he was excommunicated, the local authorities and military orders refused to help him, but Frederick opened negotiations with the sultan Al-Kamil. The two agreed to a truce, and to Frederick’s coronation as King of Jerusalem in March of 1229. Though he never established an effective rule over Jerusalem, his success was admired by some leaders in Europe, though the church was further antagonized by his actions taken without church support.

Legal reforms: The Liber Augustalis, also known as the Constitutions of Melfi, which Frederick promulgated in 1231, set in place a great reform from the feudal system previously used in his kingdom and much of Europe. The reforms made the king’s rule sovereign, required royal permission to carry a weapon, restored Roman “equality before the law” for all citizens, forbade independent city-states which were common in the north of Italy, and set up provincial governments answerable to the king. Although the new laws also made heresy illegal, at the request of the pope, the church frowned on the statute putting the clergy under civil authority.

Castel del Monte, Apulia

Castle design: In 1229, Frederick commenced the construction of a castle of his own octagonal design. Castel del Monte was completed shortly before his death in 1250, and remains the source of some debate as to its intended purpose. Many say it was built as a hunting lodge. It remains today a beautiful landmark in the Apulian countryside.

Writer: During the 1240s Frederick wrote a treatise on falconry, a scientific book with detailed illustrations, dedicated to his son Manfred. Titled (in Latin) “The Art of Hunting with Birds”, the book includes Frederick’s own observations and experiments, and is organized with scientific precision. 

Frederick loved Sicily and spent little time in his German realms. He is known as a patron of the arts and sciences, and a man ahead of his time. If all this has whetted your appetite, there’s plenty written about him. For a historian’s view of his life, I recommend David Abulafia’s biography, Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor. If you prefer fiction, you might try Cecelia Holland’s book Antichrist: A novel of the Emperor Frederick II.



Anagni: Walk through the city with me..

This entry gate to the city of Anagni looks like a great portal for time travel to me. And it’s easy to feel you’ve been transported to the medieval era in Anagni, as so much of that period is preserved.

The city has very ancient origins, and was part of a confederation attacked and defeated by Rome in 306BC. Since that time, Anagni has been an ally of Rome, and a strong supporter of the Roman church. It became an important city during the Middle Ages, and in one 100-year span covering the 13th century, four men from Anagni were elected pope.

On an outer wall of the city’s cathedral hangs a statue of the most famous of those popes, Boniface VIII. You can see it in the upper right corner of this photo.

Boniface’s palace is open for tours, and as we walked through it I could imagine the lavish furnishings this wealthy, powerful man might have enjoyed there. Today the contents are quite sparse, but there are remnants of the thirteenth century paint on some of the walls, in a pattern that reminded me of wallpaper.

The city is open for auto traffic, with many one-way streets and tight spaces. I was glad we found a parking spot outside the walls, and walked through the narrow lanes. Walking also allowed us to take in more of the atmosphere, even though the chilly rain dampened us a bit.

The cathedral has beautiful Cosmati tile work on the floor, and the crypt is decorated with Romanesque/Byzantine frescoes in brilliant color and very well preserved.

The modern buildings surrounding it stand in stark contrast to the medieval center of Anagni. I recommend a visit for history lovers, and anyone interested in medieval buildings and design.

An Italian in old Seattle: Joe Desimone

From vegetable farm to international airport!

You never know where the Italian South will crop up! I made my first visit to Seattle’s Museum of Flight last weekend, with some friends from out of town. It’s a beautiful facility directly adjacent to Boeing Field, Seattle’s first international airport. In the photo, the museum buildings are nearest to the airfield, and some of Boeing’s buildings are in the foreground.

Turns out, in the late 1920s when the Boeing company was in its early stages, William Boeing was looking around the country for another location because Seattle did not have a suitable airport to meet the company’s needs. When news of the search got around, immigrant farmer Giuseppe “Joe” Desimone made Boeing an offer he couldn’t refuse–a big tract of land south of downtown Seattle, for one dollar, to keep the company in Seattle. Today the airport is bordered by dozens of Boeing facilities, and both the company and the airport continue to play significant roles in the life of Seattle.

Very cool!I thought, and made note of his name to learn more about him for a blog post. We finished our tour, and continued sightseeing, including lunch and a wander through Pike Place Market. And guess what!? Joe Desimone was one of the earliest participants in the Market, gradually buying shares until he owned the place. His family remained in ownership after Joe’s death in 1946, until the Market became publicly owned in the 1970s.

Joe Desimone taking vegetables to market.

Joe immigrated from the Naples area at the age of 18 in 1898, and by 1910 was a thriving farmer in King County. His stall features prominently in this historic video footage of Pike Place Market–you can see his name on the sign at about the one-minute point, and again at three minutes into it, but I don’t know which of the men in the movie is him.

Italian Roots: Some ideas for finding them

Josephine and Francesco Arcuri, my great-grandparents from Calabria

Tracing Italian ancestry can be a challenge, and records online for genealogy in the Italian South are sparce. The subscription research website recently added new records for Italian genealogy in America: records from the Sons of Italy (Order of the Sons of Italy in America, or OSIA). These new records are added to others already on Ancestry, which include civil registrations (birth, marriage, death) from several cities in Sicily, and a few southern cities on the mainland.

An internet search turns up thousands of references to Italian genealogy, and connecting online is a great way to pool research efforts with distant family members. I’ve recently been corresponding with a distant cousin across the country who is digging into our Italian roots. I’ve been able to share results of my past research, even though I am not actively researching at this time.

Who would have imagined a few years ago that today we would have a television series dedicated to genealogy? A couple of episodes of “Who Do You Think You Are?” may set your own genealogical wheels in motion to learn more of your heritage–whether it is Italian or not. And this week PBS launches a new series by Henry Louis Gates called Finding Your Roots. His previous shows, African-American Lives and Faces of America are available for viewing online at PBS, and might stoke the fires of your own search for your roots.