Friday, July 8, 2011


Wow, two castles in two days! But this one surrounds, not a derelict palazzo, but a beautifully restored abbey.

We had been to Castellabate several times last trip, but either in the late evening or at night, when it was difficult to explore. So yesterday afternoon we took a break from establishing our ancient Roman vineyard and loading pictures and video and headed for this nearby town. Actually, there was some concern this time we might not see it again until night; at a roundabout I managed to take the wrong turn four out of three times! That’s a record so far! But, as so often in Italy (and in life), it’s the wrong turns that often lead to the most interesting places. We ambled through the little town of Santa Maria all’Castellabate, the little seaside village below the mountain on which the main town is located. Now very touristy, but most of the hordes from Naples are back home now, so there were lots of locals getting off work and heading to the spiaggia for a nice swim and a rest before tackling that 9 o’clock dinner. We came upon a shipyard with a huge davit on wheels at a local pier, a monster which could be driven (two separate cabs with controls) down to and astride the pier so that slings could be run under seagoing vessels and powerful winches gently hoist them out of the water and they could be taken to dry-dock for repair or cleaning.

We tootled down the shoreline to the south, admiring a series of beaches created by breakwaters formed by huge concrete blocks. Lots of caffe bars, restaurants, pizzerie, all at the foot of the little village.

Finally we found the main road again and the juncture to Castellabate and zigzagged our way up a series of switchbacks to this gem perched on the rocks. Castellabate is a little medieval town located on the headland of a ridge, some 900 feet above the sea. The town was founded as an abbey by Costabile Gentilcore, a Benedictine monk who began a new monastery in this gorgeous but austere place in 1123. Abbeys in Medieval times were repositories for considerable wealth, and a castle was built around the abbey to protect it from pirates. Hence Castrum Abbatis, Castle-of-the-Abbot, Castellabate. Costabile died and was sainted before he saw the abbey completed by his successor as abbot, Simeon. He would have been proud. Last year we happened to be here when the abbey was opened to the public for a concert and we could explore to our hearts’ content. The abbey is a large, four-story rectangular facility surrounding a beautiful cortile, courtyard, with passageways that lead to the Aragonese towers at the corners of the surrounding ramparts. Perhaps it was this building that gave me the forlorn hope that the Palazzo in the castle at Agropoli might someday be restored. This one has been lovingly refurbished to a polished gem and is now a cultural center for the little town. When we were there last year a New Age group was performing in the cortile and, though I have to admit some of that style music drives me batty with its sonorous repetition, here amid those ancient stone walls with a half moon floating overhead, it was hauntingly pretty. Much of the third floor was devoted to exhibition of local art and there were some stunning sculptural pieces at the time. I admire anyone who works in bronze, it’s such a demanding medium with such an ancient pedigree, and there were several bronze pieces that, to my untrained eye, were on a par with anything we’ve seen at our state art museum. But they were being upstaged! Every ten feet or so was another window, open to admit those delicious maritime breezes we usually have at night, and the lure was irresistible: that panoramic view of the mountains or the bay..or both! And that moon! What artist could compete with that?

This time we parked near a little piazetta on the lower side of the town, grabbed caffe from a bar across the street and sat and admired the views over the mountains. Monte della Stella, one of the two highest peaks in the Cilento, was immediately before us. This piazza had been donated by Francesco Matarazza, a local boy who emigrated to Brazil at the beginning of the last century, made a fortune as an industrialist, and became a patron for this area. He had also bought and donated to the lower town a palazzo which is now a cultural center for the whole area. I don’t know why I think of the United States as the great melting pot but other new-world countries as homogeneously Hispanic. Huge numbers of Italians, not to speak of other European nationalities, immigrated to all those South American countries, and folks from this area seem to have chosen Brazil as there ticket to a better life.

After idling in the piazza for a while we deliberately made our way up through the center of the old Medieval town. Not a street in the whole area that would legitimately be called a street in America! Tiny little viali meandered sinuously, leading to cul de sacs or wee little courtyards. And above us those gorgeous old sandstone and limestone buildings, rugged, austere, but everywhere adorned with window boxes of geraniums, bougainvillea clinging to the corners, oleander in huge terracotta pots. And all the little volunteer flowers. To say that flowers love this climate is a ridculous understatement.

We came to the Church of Santa Maria de Giulia, built in the twelfth century, rebuilt and expanded in the late eighteenth, and promoted to a papal basilica in 1988. The padre was outside in the piazza taking a reading break, which added a nice touch of authenticity, not to speak of humanity, to the scene. The interior of the church is that pretty early gothic style with the simple nave and side aisles and wooden trussed ceiling. But there was an impressive cupola above the altar and the altar piece was a pretty wooden triptych in the Byzantine style, obviously preserved from the Medieval church. One of the side aisles housed a chapel with a rather kitschy illuminated bust of a pope, I presume the one who gave the church its promotion, but above him on the ceiling of the apse was a brilliant mosaic depicting the adoration of Madonna and Child. Outside we strolled on up past the church and admired the roof of the cupola, cleverly built with compression rings like the Pantheon, but this time the compression rings were festooned with rings of roof tiles which gave the whole thing a frilly effect. Perfect in this environment.

After reaching the Abbey and paying our respects to St. Costabile and ogling those spectacular views of the coastline from the belvedere we made our way back down through the old town by a different route, just to savor more of that incredible Medieval flavor. And I found my dream house! Oh, it’s a fixer-upper for sure. Most of the front part of the ground floor is pretty much gone, including part that has collapsed into the basement. And, truth be told, much of the upper floor of the back of the house looks none too safe, including two insanely tottering chimneys. And what a nightmare to repair it would be, hauling building materials by handcart through those impossible streets. But, oh friends, that top floor opens to a terazza which runs out for a good thirty feet along the southwest flank of the town. And the views from up there must surely be spectacular! If I had running water and a kitchen and I could sip my morning espresso on that terazza overlooking the sea and those wooly old mountains, I’d probably be so distracted I’d be content to let the rest of the house collapse.

PS: I'm sure it's obvious that these little ramblings are just a way for me to clarify my thoughts about this amazing experience and perhaps serve later as a reminder of it in my rapidly approaching senility. But I'd still love to hear some feedback from any readers. What do you like, what do you not like, what has intrigued you, what have you wondered about. Really whatever you'd like to say.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


We are lucky here in Agropoli to have a real, honest-to-goodness castle. Yesterday Sandy and I were out having a piccolo paseggiato (short stroll) through the centro of the town and made our way to Il Castello and found it open to visitors. Last year we managed to come once when it was open, but large portions were closed to public viewing, under restoration, so this was a real treat for us. And we were not disappointed.

First of all, the views are spectacular from the castle, as you might expect, since castles were sited to provide a lookout over as much territory as possible. It was easy to see why Agropoli was an almost inevitable spot for settlement; the Bay of Salerno spreads out in a semicircle below you, providing shelter and calm waters for marine vessels. But the rock on which the Castle sits, along with a small point at Trentova further south, creates a smaller bay within the bay and a perfect harbor. Today these waters are some of the cleanest and most crystalline in all of Italy, consistently earning the Blue Flag with which Europe’s best beaches are graded. There were beachgoers as far as the eye could see.

The Castle itself is a beauty, though one showing the ravages of time. I’m cribbing here from the tourist brochure that a lovely and very helpful signorina provided us. The first castle here was built in the fourth century CE by Byzantine Greeks. You’ll remember from that Western Civ class that Constantine, first Christian emperor of Rome, had founded a new capitol for the eastern part of the Empire on the site of the small commercial town of Byzantium, located strategically on the Bosporus between the Dardanelles and the Black Sea. And modestly renamed the town Constantinople after guess who? And the center of power shifted eastward. Even as early as the fourth century the Western Empire was crumbling inland under the ravages of Vandals, Goths, Lombards, and others, but the Byzantines were able to control much of the coastline of southern Italy and large parts of the Adriatic because the barbarian invaders had no navy. It was these Byzantine ‘Greeks’ (who, by the way, thought of themselves as Romans) who gave the town its modern name, Acropolis/Agropoli, ‘High City’.

The real threat during this Byzantine phase and for many centuries thereafter were Saracen pirates, fearsome Islamic raiders, based primarily in Spain, who ravaged the Mediterranean coasts from France to Macedonia. It was natural that Christian abbeys, strongly built and often in inaccessible places, would become redoubts for the Christian populace of the West. In 599, under the pontificate of Gregory the Great, one of the greatest of the early popes, the diocesan seat was transferred from Paestum to Agropoli, so much more defensible. Later the Castle was transferred to the bishop of Capaccio, the town on the flank of the mountain which overlooks Paestum, another defensible site.

In 882 the Saracens successfully besieged the Castle and it was in their hands until 915, when it was retaken, first by the Normans, then by the Swabians, then the Angevin French. In 1110 a treaty was signed in the Castle which formalized the parts of the territory of the Cilento which would belong to the Benedictine monks of Cava dei Tirenni (northeast of Salerno) and which to the Bishop of Paestum. In 1116, during the reign of King Manfred of Sicily (this whole area was part of the Kingdom of Sicily off and on, right up until the time of the creation of modern Italy), the Castle was taken into lay jurisdiction and an indemnity paid to the Bishop. Later the Castle fell to the Bishop of Capaccio again.

By now the Angevin French and the Spanish Aragonese were fighting for supremacy of the west, and the Castle was rebuilt in Aragonese style. A new technology had forced the change: gunpowder. The Castle in its current form is basically triangular, with three towers at the angles. Today these towers have the classic conical bastions at their bases which we associate in our minds with castles. But these are actually later additions. Stone balls shot from catapults and trebuchets, some of which have been used to decorate the sides of the Corso in Agropoli, will not penetrate a cylindrical wall, but an iron cannonball will. The conical profile of the towers deflects a cannonball, sending it ricocheting over the ramparts.

In 1443 King Ladislav of Durazzo, who had bought the Castle from Pope Gregory XII at a knock-down price (partial settlement of war debts), ceded it to the powerful Sanseverino family, who owned it for the next hundred years.

By now the piratical threat was from Turks based in North Africa, as interested in human booty (slaves) as gold. Their last raid occurred in 1630, when a large contingent of the locals managed to defeat the Turks decisively. After a short occupation by the French, the Castle at last was left in peace.

Today it is a delight to visit. Two of the towers are almost completely accessible, and you can make your way down the ‘escape route’ from the ramparts of the castle to ground level, climb the spiral stairs to the three levels of gun ports in each tower, peer out the gun ports, on hands and knees, over the Bay or the mountains to the south of Agropoli, and make your way up to the crenelated top of the tower for an especially spectacular view. A cylindrical hole in the middle of the tower reaches all the way to the ground, providing air and light and an easy way to hoist arms and ammunition to its upper levels. Stroll along the northern rampart and look along the coast to the west to see the Torre del San Francesco and to the east the Torre San Marco, watchtowers from which the alarm could be raised that attack was imminent. In the Castle’s keep you will now find beautiful gardens, a large salon which is rented out for wedding receptions and was being fitted out when we were there for a showing of some impressive modern art. Along the northwestern rampart, tiers of seating have been created for a small amphitheater for lectures and concerts.

Unfortunately, the crowning glory of the Castle’s retirement years, the Palazzo of the Sanfelice family, a Renaissance gem lavishly decorated and furnished, is now in a state of complete disrepair. Abuse by soldiers and scavenging by local farmers for building materials have left the old palace gutted. But the walls are still there, as solid as ever. And in my imagination I see it restored and reused as a civic center for the citizens of our little town. It seems only appropriate that this architectural gem which owes its birth and life to centuries of human suffering should reinvent itself as a bastion of culture.

Sunday, July 3, 2011


Sorry, guys, but there’s nothing fluffy about this one. But I hope you’ll read on. One of the benefits of travel, especially travel in a foreign culture, is that it forces us to re-examine our presuppositions and prejudices. And there is a presence lurking here in Southern Italy which few Americans think about, a presence lurking in the distant background but always here, like some eminence grise. And his name is Benito Mussolini. The legacy of Mussolini here in the south is profound, it’s ubiquitous... and it’s mostly good.

Please don’t misunderstand, practically everything bad you’ve heard about Il Duce is true, and even his ardent supporters here are perfectly aware of that. But there is a reason Mussolini gained and kept power for 21 years. Part of the reason was sheer hokum, but part was absolutely comprehensible.

A little background. Benito Mussolini was born in a small town in Emiglia-Romagna, the area of Italy north of Tuscany which includes the city of Bologna. Mussolini was the son of a blacksmith who dabbled in radical politics at a time when, basically, the feudal world in Europe, including Russsia (Bolshevism), was giving way to the modern world. That was certainly true in many parts of Italy where families were still bound, for example, to landlords in a custom that practically reduced them to the status of Medieval serfs. The young Mussolini, intelligent and ambitious, completed a high school education and began teaching, at the same time dabbling in socialist politics.

He moved to Switzerland to work on a socialist journal, was arrested for stirring up trouble, jailed for several weeks, deported to Italy, returned and stirred up even more trouble, and was finally deported for good under threat of instant arrest if he returned. By this time he had gained a reputation as a socialist firebrand, but began leaning more and more toward a nationalist form of socialism at a time when most socialists deplored this devotion to a particular country.

Mussolini served in the First World War and became convinced that it was the socialists themselves through their idealistic folly who had led Italy into a disastrous position. He turned violently against his former allies and formed the National Fascist party, deliberately evoking the nationalist fervor of the Roman Empire. The symbol of fascism, for example, the bundle of rods bound around the ax, was the symbol of political sovereignty and martial powers of a Roman dictator, an elected office which gave the holder unlimited powers of martial law for a limited time during national crisis. Julius Caesar had been elected dictator several years in succession, then for five years, and finally for life.

Mussolini was elected prime minister of Italy in 1922 and began to cultivate a cult of personality as a focus for extreme nationalism. In 1925 he adopted the title of ‘Il Duce’, ‘the leader’, an obvious reference to Julius Caesar and the revolutionary change that Roman leader had effected. At a time when radical change was desperately needed in Rome, it must be said. Rome at the time of Caesar had basically the government of a city state when she controlled most of the Mediterranean basin. I think of it as a model-T Ford supercharged on jet fuel (the vast sums of money pouring into Rome from her provinces), careening down a mountain road at breakneck speed while a half-dozen men fight for control of the wheel and the poor kids in the back seat are about to die. By 1936 Mussolini styled himself emperor and espoused nationalism, corporatism, anti-socialism, and social progressivism.

It was this last element that earned Mussolini the lasting devotion of millions of Italians. We’ve all heard the old saw about how Il Duce “made the trains run on time.” Mussolini not only made them run on time, he practically invented a modern transport system in Italy. He poured money into public education, public health, and most importantly public infrastructure. For example, many coastal areas of Italy had been abandoned because bradyseism (the volcanically induced rising and falling of land masses) and neglect had made them swampy and malarial. Mussolini devised schemes for draining, channelizing, and irrigating these areas and thus opened up literally thousands of square miles for settlement and agriculture. For example, the Pomptine marshes in southern Lazio had been drained and channelized by the Romans in the first century BCE, but neglect had returned this land to swamp. Mussolini reinstituted a drainage scheme that put some 300 square miles back in production, not to speak of the health benefits to the local inhabitants who persisted there. If you look on the map of Italy in the vicinity of Terracina, you’ll see a grid system of roads, improbably straight, that he built to service the farms.

And the same thing was done here in the Cilento. The Paestum Plain just north of Agropoli was another malarial backwater after the fall of the Roman empire. Today as you drive through the countryside you see everywhere irrigation channels, levees, dykes along the river Sele. All Mussolini. And today the Paestum Plain is one of Europe’s premier produce baskets, due to this incredibly rich land and the temperate climate for which Campania has been famous since antiquity. The town of Battipaglia where our friend Rita lives was practically built from scratch by Mussolini, in that unmistakable art deco Fascist style that you see everywhere in this area. Rita’s mother is a public school teacher who until recently, when it became too decrepit to repair, taught in a school that Mussolini built.

Mussolini also solved the ‘Roman Question’ at long last. For 80 years the status of the Pope and the former Papal states was an intractable problem. Before the Risorgimento, the church had owned huge parts of Italy, but the revolutionists were virulently anticlerical and all those lands were arrogated to the Italian state. Such was the rancor, according to our tour guide Oshri, that the state tore down anything remotely connected to the church across the Tiber River in the vicinity of St. Peter’s, and deliberated oriented new streets so that it is impossible to see this huge basilica from any distance. Mussolini strong-armed a final resolution which recognized the Vatican as a sovereign nation and made token restitution for the loss of papal property.

Mussolini’s role in archaeology is incalculable, if ambivalent. Millions of dollars were poured into Roman archaeology at a time when most archaeologists went begging. The Roman Forum was excavated, the imperial fora, the Roman port town of Ostia Antica, the beautiful Ara Pacis along the banks of the Tiber River was excavated and brilliantly restored. All so that Mussolini could evoke ‘Romanitas’, the glory of the Roman Empire which he claimed to have restored as well. But, at the same time, if scholarly considerations interfered with his grandiose schemes, he was relentless. One of his most heinous crimes against human knowledge, for example, was the construction of the Via dei Fori Imperiali, The Street of the Imperial Fora, from the Colosseum to the Capitoline Hill so that Il Duce could celebrate a real Roman triumphus, not a victory as the name would suggest, but a victory parade voted to successful Roman generals. Most ironically named, as one scholar has wryly pointed out, since, in the process, Mussolini destroyed huge parts of the Forum of Julius, of Augustus, and of Vespasian. La Via dei Fori Distrutti, as it were.

About Il Duce’s final years in power, there is no ambivalence at all among my southern Italian friends. His antisemitism in collaboration with Hitler's 'Final Solution' is universally reviled, not to speak of his brutality, indeed murderous impulse, in eliminating anyone who stood in his way. Mussolini even had murdered his first-born son and namesake.

So it was with relief and anticipation that Southern Italians greeted the Allied forces during the invasions of 1943. For one thing, many families here had relatives in the states, including sons of brothers, sisters and cousins who served in the invasion itself. For another, the Germans, especially after Il Duce was formally deposed in 1943 and they had propped him up with a puppet government in the North, imposed a brutal regime which was deeply resented here. But perhaps most important was simply the conviction that the Allies would inevitably win the war, and the sooner they gained victory in this area, the sooner the shooting war would be over for these long-suffering people.

People who feel politically powerless have always turned to forceful leaders. You can't understand Berlusconi until you understand Mussolini, and ultimately Julius Caesar. I suppose many older Italians look back to those times with a combination of nostalgia and embarassment. Especially since Italian democracy is, if possible, even more dysfunctional than our own.