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       Dedicated to my children, Anthony, Julie and Victor and all the Capistrano descendents around the world.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT

 

The following chapter has been mostly quoted from the book, THE COIN FROM CALABRIA: DISCOVERING THE HISTORICAL ROOTS OF MY CALABRIAN PEOPLE, by award-winning author, Michael Caputo. The book details many enthralling events in the history of Calabria, a magical Region in Southern Italy, all the way back to the sixth century B.C. THE COIN FROM CALABRIA is a very enlightening book  for people who find their roots in Calabria,  that want to know more about their ancestors' history. It is also enlightening  for anyone who is interested in exotic lands and cultures.

Both the paperback and e-book versions are available on Amazon in your country.

NEW BOOK ABOUT CAPISTRANO AND CALABRIA:  

UNDER A LION SUN: Childhood Days of Joy and Sorrow in Old Calabria

Read info at the end of this page.

 

 
 
     
 
     
 

 

THE COIN FROM CALABRIA

DISCOVERING THE HISTORICAL ROOTS OF MY CALABRIAN PEOPLE

 

 

 

 
 
 
 

DESTROYED BY NAPOLEON’S ARMY

     This detail in Capistrano’s history was discovered late in my search. It had been mentioned, very briefly, in Manfrida’s work, but in a limited historical context. In time, and with the help of various other sources, I was able to put the pieces together and make sense of this other major trauma that befell my town, as well as other Calabrian towns.

     In 1806, Napoleon’s forces conquered southern Italy with little effort. Over time, thousands of Calabrians, supplied with arms by the British, rebelled against the oppressive foreign rulers and attacked Napoleon’s soldiers whenever they could. The casualties were high on both sides. The Calabrian rebels fought ferociously. Napoleon’s commanders responded with vengeance and brutality. “The most serious revolts took place in Calabria and Abbruzzi in the years from 1806 to 1811. It took the French over five years to suppress them, and cost them twenty thousand casualties…Reynier was pursued by 8000 calabresi…but he burned and sacked every village on the way from which he thought the masse (The rebels) might derive assistance.”[35]

     Napoleon’s advice to Joseph, his brother, who ruled Italy under him, was to be strong, harsh and unforgiving. The following is a portion of his letter to his brother detailing how southern Italians were to be treated. "There must be no forgiveness. Have at least 600 rebels shot…Burn down the houses of thirty of the principal inhabitants in the villages, and share out their property to the army. Disarm the people and have five or six large villages given over to pillage. Give away the communal property from the rebel villages and give 11 to the army."[36]

An unknown number of rebels who opposed Napoleon's army, led by their leader, Papasidero, took refuge in Capistrano and there the French general, Lucotte, confronted him and defeated him. One hundred and fifty rebels were killed. Capistrano was sacked by the troops….[37] [38] Virginio Ilari informs us of the details. "In Capistrano a large band of rebels commanded by Papasidero, dared to confront the French commanded by General Lucotte; the fight took place from house to house and finally the town was burned and razed to the ground to flush out the the Royalists that disappeared in the nearby mountains."[39]

     Capistrano was a small village with a population of about one thousand people in those days. Seeing hundreds of rebels approach the village may have been perplexing for many. Seeing, afterwards, a large numbers of French soldiers approach the village from the coast may have been terrifying.

Some young men may have joined the rebels to fight the foreigners. A large number of cautious villagers may have hid far away. Some may have watched the battle from the safety of the nearby mountain. The battle must have been fierce and the gun battle must have been deafening, as hundreds of gun shots echoed through the valleys all around my town. After a brutal and bloody struggle, the gun shots came to a end… and then silence.

  Upon reflecting upon the events of that time, it dawned on me that the streets I know so well, that I played in as a child, during that bloody event were strewn with dead and injured bodies. If 150 rebels were killed, how many of Napoleon’s soldiers met the same fate? How many rebels were captured and then massacred, so as to teach other rebels a lesson, as Napoleon demanded? Lastly, how many villagers were caught in the cross fire and killed?

    That fateful day, blood was flowing down the steep Sant' Antonio road, in the Four Corners, in the piazza, in Via Zotta and the Via Tripona and especially down the Corso. Some of the houses in which my people still live today may have been strewn with lifeless bodies. The blood-curdling cries of severely wounded rebels and many of Napoleon’s soldiers filled the air. Death embraced Capistrano that day and held many to its cold, dark chest and and carried them away.

     On April 22nd, 1806 Napoleon wrote a letter to his brother to congratulate him for having burned down a village. It probably was not my village but, perhaps, the first of several southern Italian villages that were yet to be destroyed. The following was Napoleon’s attitude toward such senseless destruction, which he enjoined on his brother:  "My Brother,—I have received your letter of April 5th. I see with pleasure that an insurgent village has been burnt down. Severe examples are necessary. I suppose the village has been given over to the-soldiers for plunder. That is the way to treat all revolted villages. It is not only the right of war but a duty enjoined by Policy." (April 22nd, 1806)[40]

     My village was to be one of the villages Napoleon condemned to death from another land. The senseless destruction was willed by a megalomaniac who cared little about human life and human suffering and who sought only glory for himself and his family. My people had rebuilt their town just twenty-three years before after the 1783 earthquakes. Just about two decades later they had to return to work again to rebuild their homes, and this they did with the same tenacity they had shown during the previous disaster and the many others that had afflicted my area.

 Again the coin may have been there to witness the most deadly time in the history of Capistrano. Which family possessed it, while hundreds of soldiers battled from house to house and while the stubborn heroes of Calabria fought back the relentless invaders?

     Perhaps it was in the possession of the Bongiorno family, the leading and ruling family in town, around which revolved the history of Capistrano for three hundred years.

THE BONGIORNO FAMILY

     The Bongiorno family, which originated in Mantova, in Northern Italy, was for centuries the political and economic power of our town. The first Bongiorno, Don Francesco Bongiorno, originated from the town of Girifalco, not far from my town. He moved to my area in 1686, after having married “the magnificent Eleonora del Bosco.” [41]

     Don Francesco according to an very old tradition bought the well known area named, Maconi, and later went on to build a palazzo in baroque style. The palazzo was completed in 1707, as one can still read on as stone of the main entrance.[42]

     The palazzo was completely destroyed by the 1783 earthquakes and was later rebuilt from 1830 to 1850.[43] It is this building one can still see not far from the church, in the street known to us Capistranesi as the “Corso.”

     The Bongiorno were not true feudal Lords. They never received any investiture in that regard, but they certainly acted as such given the extent of their wealth and they considerable administrative power over our area.[44]

     The Bongiornos  through the centuries proved to be both benefactors and abusers. They intervened on behalf of the poor and needy on manifold occasions  while, at other times, they took advantage of my people with incomprehensible callousness.

     For instance, during the famine of 1794, Don Pasquale Bongiorno, the family head, bought about 25 possessions (houses and lands) from poor familes who were struggling to survive. This trend continued at a rate of 5-6 per year, until the end of the century by which time they had become the undisputed rulers of the town, under whom my people lived in quasi-servitude for close to two hundred years. [45]

     When an assessement of their possessions was made, after the 1783 earthquakes, records show that they had ammassed a great fortune, not only in our town, but in other localities as well.[46]

The Bongiornos turned a very large tract of land on the south-west side of town into an envious complex made up of a palazzo and a vast garden lined with exotic plants and classical statues. The palazzo was decorated with expensive art works and was furnished with very expensive furniture.

Don Pietro Bongiorno, one of the best known Bongiorno leaders, could be both generous and calloused. For instance, he showed kindness to our people by by being the major financial contributor to the rebuilding the main church which had been destroyed by the 1659 earthquake.[47] On the other hand, Don Pietro could be incomprehensibly cruel. At one point in his life, he allowed the local priest to build a modest house across from his palazzo. When the house was completed, he decided that it was blocking his view and thus ordered the house demolished, in spite of the fact that beside the priest it would have also housed the priest’s niece and her four fatherless children. The terrified priest left town and later was transferred to Naples.[48]  

Today one can find an impressive statue of Don Pietro on one of the inner walls of the main church, looking in devotion towards the Madonna, on the main altar.

Dr. Manfrida, concluded that on the whole their merits were grater than their demerits, mostly because of their “example of their great religious faith, and, also, of their sincere attachment to the Cathoc Church.”49

Manfrida also informs us that two Bongiornos chose the priesthood, Don Camillo and Father Onofrio, as well as two women, Alfonsina and Maria Carmela who became nuns.[50]

In the year 1920 Don Camillo Bongiorno became a “Marquis,” and as such he would sign documents and insisted on being called by his subordinates. The townspeople referred to him as the, “Signorino,” or the “Lord.” This title was later passed on to his son Francesco.[51] 

     The family had the primacy in our town, until the first half of the last century. The last direct member of the family, was the above-mentione,Francesco Bongiorno, who never married and, having fallen seriously ill, died at the age of 33. A significant portion of his property was left to create a charitable organization created to help needy children or needy elderly.

     Soon after Francesco’s death, the palazzo and the remaining property ended in the hands of a young nephew who, impatient to turn the possessions into money, sold the palazzo, an enviable library of very old and valuable books, large valuable paintings, vast tracts of land and, later, reportedly, went on to squander much of the money on a life of self indulgence.

 The palazzo and the gardens behind it are now in the hands of the Brizzi family. The palazzo and the church are living testimonies to the Bongiorno family’s presence in my town for over 300 years. Nowadays, the palazzo and its gardens may be visited by invitation only. The probability that, therefore, they may have owned and protected the coin over the centuries is a possibility.

 

 
 

 

Don Pietro Bongiorno looking with devotion at the statue of Mary on the main altar. Underneath is Don Pietro's Cenotaph.

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MY PEOPLE SPOKE GREEK?

     In reading Giovanni Manfrida’s book about my town’s history, one detail left me very perplexed: my people had spoken Greek up to 400 or so years ago and, since then, Greek was gradually replaced by a latinized dialect. Surprisingly, my dialect still contained words from the Greek language. It is also fascinating -- and this was not noted by the book -- that we also have retained the same sound for G and K, as pronounced in Greek.

     The fact that Greek had been my people’s language (and the language of all of Calabria) up to a few centuries ago was another major reason why I continued my historical search. Like my childhood dig in the ravine to look for ancient coins, it, too, had to be systematic. I had to tackle the new dig one layer at a time, even though, at times, I would have been tempted to by-pass some layers -- and I was. But for it to be truly meaningful and reliable, each layer had to be explored in depth, so as to make sense of the connections with preceding layers.

Like my search for coins, I would have had to dig patiently, since for some layers material seemed to abound, while for others I would have had to dig with greater effort.

THE VILLAGE BEGINS

     According to Dr. Manfrida, the author of the Capistrano book, the town started about 1200 years ago when a small number of Basilian, Greek-speaking monks had left areas of the Bizantine Empire, and Sicily in particular, so as not to be under Muslim rule. They chose a location far away from the coast where they could work the land and live their life of reflection and prayer in relative safety.

     They were part of a massive exodus of Basilian monks that moved to various parts of Calabria from different parts of the Byzantine Empire, as a result of Muslim conquests. In Calabria they created a large number of monasteries of various sizes.

     But the monasteries led to another development: the creation of small communities that gathered around them and slowly grew over the centuries to become villages and towns. My possibly town began as a small group of farming familes gathered around the small abbey located on the north side of town in the area known today as, “La Batia,” a derivative name of the Italian word “Badia,” which means “Abbey.”[42] It is also conceivable that a small hamlet may have already existed in the area and that the monks settled near it. For certain, the arrival of the Basilian brothers led to further growth.

     According to Manfrida, the group of monks must have been small; perhaps two or three. Nevertheless, they would have provided comfort and solace for an anxious people that had moved away from the dangerous coast where Saracen attacks were common. In that safe location, they would have worked the promising land, while receiving spiritual nourishment from the monks.

   Finally my people would have experienced some peace. Many friends and families, though, chose to stay behind in the fortress on the Rocca Mountain by the Angitola River, next to the coast. Contact muct have been relatively easy, and ongoing due to the proximity of the two locations.

     My coin may have been brought over by those struggling peoples, or, perhaps, it may have been the possession of someone in the Rocca Fortress, who was waiting to move inland later, when the need would have arisen.

 

 
 

 

The Batia Fountain. Capistrano began in this area around the year 850 AD.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TO READ SECTION 4, CLICK HERE  (SECTION 2, CLICK HERE)

   

       NEW BOOK ABOUT          CAPISTRANO AND CALABRIA

Under a Lion Sun: Childhood Days of Joy and Sorrow in Old Calabria (M. Caputo)

Available as paperback and downloadable versions on Amazon in several countries. If not available in your country, you may order from AMAZON.COM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enter another world through the eyes of Michelino (Meekehleeno), a boy who grew up in Calabria, the southernmost Region of Italy, during the fifties and sixties. Discover a society built on rigid expectations, where family and honor were paramount and where violence was all-too-often the favourite way to solving some of the painful challenges of life.

In this book you will also learn about Calabrians' attitude toward food, discipline, education, destiny, the supernatural, exorcism, suicide, mental illness, the handicapped, crime, etc.

You will also meet, among others, the following unforgettables: Maestro Fera, the teacher who had been an officer in Mussolini's army, who ran his class like a battalion. Nino, the Mafia Boss, who collected lovers like trophies and who was feared and revered by young and old. Toto' the brilliant mind who will never have the opportunity to excel, due to having been born on the wrong side of the fence. Salvatore, who was tortured by life since childhood, in ways that most people will never imagine. Tommasino, the gentle giant whose life was ended in a most shocking and horrendous way.

If you are a descendent of Calabria, you will return in time to the moments when your ancestors were torn apart by the curse of emigration, and you will become aware of the forces that shaped your ancestors and that may have also contributed to shaping you.

But the book does much more. It also traces how Calabrian customs and beliefs have evolved up to our time and how Calabrian society has moved forward in some respects while remaining fixed and immutable in others.

By the end of this book, you will know Calabrians--their strengths and their weaknesses. You will grow to appreciate a people undaunted by life's many challenges; a people who takes pride in their stubborn spirit and their unwillingness to admit defeat, even if confronted by penury and great suffering.

M. Caputo

 

© Copyright, Michael Caputo, 2011 (This work may not be reproduced in part or in full without the permission of the author.

 

 

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