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.



Book Review: That Summer in Sicily

In this atmospheric, evocative memoir, Marlena de Blasi draws us into a mysterious Sicilian villa, a world apart and a world with its own secrets. Ultimately, its own love story.

De Blasi went to Sicily with an assignment in the summer of 1995: Write an article about Sicily’s interior, for a scholarly magazine. She and her Italian husband venture forth, with appointments and plans in place, for several weeks in the south. There, they hit a wall of silence. She was stood up for every appointment. In the heat of summer, baking in the Sicilian highlands, the assignment was abandoned. They decided to seek a couple of days’ refuge, an inn or pensione, and rest befor returning to Venice.

A policeman directs them to Tosca, the owner of the Villa Donnafugata, the house of the fleeing women. A world apart, where black-garbed women chant while washing their laundry against stones. Where crenillated towers and juliet balconies stand guard over wheatfields and goatpens that would have looked the same a hundred or a thousand years ago.

And there, intending to leave nearly every day, but drawn or induced or wooed to stay for weeks, de Blasi hears Tosca’s story. You should hear it too, and I can only urge you to read this book.

I read it during the first couple of days of a vacation to the tropics, and I’m glad I did not have a work schedule to maintain, as it would have gone by the wayside for the higher priority of Tosca’s story. Her transformation from nine-year-old starving peasant girl to mistress of a villa supporting dozens of laborers who are her closest friends is a journey worth taking.

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.

New View of Italian Roots

For this month’s travel post, I welcome guest blogger Vienna Lionberger, my daughter, with some thoughts from her recent trip to Italy:

Vienna Lionberger stands guard in Pompeii

All my life I have heard about Italy. My mother has studied Italian history and language, visited Italy for a few months, and taught me to make torcetti, an Italian pastry, from her grandma’s recipe. Though I am only 1/8 Italian, it has been the predominant culture (or at least the loudest one) in my life so I have always felt more Italian than anything else.

Despite my blue eyes and blonde hair (thanks to my dad), I take great pride in telling people I’m part southern Italian, from near Cosenza. Because I have felt so Italian, I was very excited to go there for part of my honeymoon.

Our first Italian stop was at Palermo in Sicily. I have to admit, I thought I would step off that boat onto Italian land, tear up with an upwelling of emotions and start hugging people simply because they were Italians too, and they, of course, would understand and hug me back. I actually stepped off the boat into horse manure. And I definitely wasn’t going to hug the first people we saw because they were the Italian authorities and they had guns and looked like they had had just about enough of tourists for the summer. Although the feeling of belonging I had expected wasn’t there, we enjoyed taking a horse-drawn buggy tour, eating sweet pastries, then savory ones, walking through the market, and touring some Spanish ruins. Back on the boat I thought, “The other ports will be where I feel at home, since, alas I am not Sicilian but southern Italian.”

A week later we stopped at Naples. Again I stepped from the boat, certain this time

Vienna Lionberger, center, with Filippo and Julia in Naples

there would be tears and hugging. Our Italian friend Filippo met us at the dock. There were hugs, and tears came to my eyes—tears caused by the sweet, vinegary stench from piles of garbage all over the city—piles the size of a semi-truck load every couple of blocks. Filippo told us the garbage pickup was run by the “criminali” in Napoli. They let the garbage sit there for weeks until it became so unbearable that people would pay more to have it removed, basically extorting a whole city. Every couple of months the army was called in to get rid of the garbage because, oddly enough, no other garbage pickup company wanted to take over the contract.

Filippo took us to Pompeii in the morning – which was completely and totally awe inspiring. In the afternoon we went to the best Napolitano pizza place: L’Antica Pizzaria da Michele. They served only two kinds of pizza: Marinara and Margherita. I had a Margharita and never want to eat anything other than that again. We stopped for dessert and espresso, and I rolled onto the boat with a full and happy stomach, and a full camera card. But other than my stomach, I had no feeling of national pride or belonging.

At the end of the cruise, we returned to Rome to meet Filippo and his girlfriend Julia, and travel south with them to his family’s home in Benevento. We arrived late one evening. Filippo’s mother, Angela, knowing I loved mozzarella di bufala, had made fourteen pizzas mostly topped with mozzarella di bufala and tomatoes and basil from their garden. They pulled the pizzas from their brick pizza oven as we arrived. Beside the house where Angela and Dario, Filippo’s dad, live, six houses are clustered together. In these houses live aunts, uncles, brothers, cousins, grandparents, great aunts and great uncles. They all came to greet us, bring more food, sing some “country” songs with Jack, put on a magic show (seriously, a cousin did card tricks for us), drink some wine and simply just be with the family for the evening. Perhaps it was a bit livelier because there were guests, but the sense of family community coming together for the evening seemed a regular occurrence. It was a beautiful night and we went to bed satiated in every way.

The next day, a Sunday, we went to explore Filippo’s home town. The main boulevard was blockaded to cars. It looked as if everyone in town was there walking up and down the street chatting with friends, family and neighbors. No one rushed away to watch a football game or get back to work. Kids played in the fountains and ate gelato. Men congratulated one another on the big soccer win the night before. Women chatted on benches while watching their kids. The scene was an Italian version of a Norman Rockwell print.

We tore ourselves away from this slice of perfection and went back to the house, where Angela had prepared a delicious lunch. Afterward we enjoyed splashing in the full-size pool as the day got warmer. I toured the garden with Angela, who doesn’t speak English. My horrible Italian and her hand gestures allowed a little bit of communication. She showed me her chickens, the fig trees and how they got the figs from the high branches, the olive trees (not quite ready for harvest), the garden with
tomatoes, peppers, basil, carrots, broccoli, arugula, squash, strawberries, and the orchard with lemon, grapefruit, pomegranate, orange, and kumquat trees. (I have a new-found love for kumquats straight off the tree.) Kiwi vines shaded the picnic area.

As we walked she asked about my family. I told her that my mother’s family was from Scigliano near Cosenza. She grabbed my face with both hands, a big smile on her face, kissed my cheeks and said, “You Italian!” She released my face with a force that almost knocked me back, and went down the path to the kitchen to prepare us yet another meal.

Finally, the recognition I had been waiting for, but my feelings had changed. I felt less and less Italian every day as I struggled with the language and saw how different my life was from theirs. I ate my kumquats under the kiwi vines looking over the beautiful countryside thinking back on all of our Italian experiences. The thing I loved most was the feeling of family on that little farm, of being close to the land and people I love.

I am part southern Italian and I’m proud of that. I hope to go back and maybe one day even show my kids a little part of Italy, but until then I will focus on my family and being closer to them. I concluded that I shouldn’t label myself, no matter how fanciful it seems in my mind. I am a mix of many backgrounds with a flavor all my own, and that is ok.

The Link of Lampedusa

North African refugees flee to Lampedusa, photo from

Americans are likely to think of “boat people” as coming from Cuba or Vietnam, desperately clinging to life and hope in a rusting, listing, failure of a boat.

In Italy, the boat people come from Libya and Tunisia. Their landing place is Lampedusa, a dry rock in the Mediterranean, closer to Africa than to Sicily.

Tens of thousands have fled Africa for Lampedusa in the past decade, overwhelming the island whose Italian population is about 5,000. More than 50,000 migrants have arrived this year, escaping upheaval in North Africa, looking for some safe haven, a link on the way to a new life.

Last January the BBC reported on the feel-good story of a Calabrian village whose mayor turned immigration to advantage, keeping the town of Riace alive. Mayor Domenico Lucano was nominated for the World Mayor award for his efforts to reverse population loss by welcoming immigrants. But Lampedusa has not been so welcoming.

News reports over the past year tell of refugees being turned away by island

Refugees set fire to immigration center in Lampedusa, from

residents, Italian premier Berlusconi promising a clean sweep of the illegal immigrants, and in recent weeks violence has broken out when Italy announced a decision to repatriate the boat people.

Now, an Italian film on the subject, called Terraferma, has been selected to represent Italy in the Academy Awards. Perhaps this is where most North Americans will learn of the struggles on Lampedusa. I hope a better solution is found than the one pictured here.

Giuseppe Garibaldi, Hero of the Two Worlds

Giuseppe Garibaldi

His name is everywhere in Italy, found on streets, piazzas, and monuments throughout the country. He is also renowned in the western hemisphere for his military successes in Brazil and Uruguay.

Between May and September of 1860, Garibaldi captured the island of Sicily for Victor Emmanuel II, and marched up the Italian peninsula toward Rome. Along the way volunteers swelled his forces from an initial 800 to about 24,000. He played a crucial role in uniting Italy, and is considered a national hero.

But after this famous march, at the outbreak of the American civil war, Garibaldi offered his services to President Abraham Lincoln. Here is how Wikipedia summarizes his offer: Garibaldi was offered a Major General’s commission in the U.S. Army through the letter from Secretary of State William H. Seward to H. S. Sanford, the U.S. Minister at Brussels, July 17, 1861. On September 18, 1861, Sanford sent the following reply to Seward:

He [Garibaldi] said that the only way in which he could render service, as he ardently desired to do, to the cause of the United States, was as Commander-in-chief of its forces, that he would only go as such, and with the additional contingent power—to be governed by events—of declaring the abolition of slavery; that he would be of little use without the first, and without the second it would appear like a civil war in which the world at large could have little interest or sympathy.

According to Italian historian Petacco, “Garibaldi was ready to accept Lincoln’s 1862 offer but on one condition: that the war’s objective be declared as the abolition of slavery. But at that stage Lincoln was unwilling to make such a statement lest he worsen
an agricultural crisis.” On August 6, 1863, after the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued, Garibaldi wrote to Lincoln: “Posterity will call you the great emancipator, a more enviable title than any crown could be, and greater than any merely mundane treasure.”

Had Lincoln and Garibaldi come to agreeable terms, we Americans would no doubt be more familiar with his name.

5th Friday Surprise: Blog tour of the Italian south!

Like the light at the end of this street in Salerno, the Italian south draws me to explore.

Join me today on a tour that will leave your hungry for more. I’m sharing some of the other blogs about southern Italy that have inspired me.

Michelle Fabio’s is a favorite–she moved from Pennsylvania to her family’s ancestral village in Calabria, and stayed!

At, Bonnie shares all things Naples, from transportation strikes to church services, in the city she describes as “beautiful, chaotic, unbending, romantic, confusing”. Get to know this vibrant, gritty city better!

If Sicily tugs at your heart, visit for a smorgasbord of Sicilian topics, like kid-friendly sightseeing, festivals and holidays, natural wonders, and lots more.

Mary at shares a lot about food, as the blog name suggests, but there are plenty of other topics sprinkling flavor throughout her posts.