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
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.”
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."
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….
 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
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
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)
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.
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,
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.”
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
The palazzo was completely destroyed by the 1783 earthquakes and was later
rebuilt from 1830 to 1850.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.