Monday, August 24, 2009

Castrum Calitri

In the imaginings of my mind, I could picture a day that had once dawned clear over Calitri. A cool breeze cascaded over the houses that crowded the mountainside helping to cool ‘L.S.’ and a few of his brawny friends as together they strained to muscle a hewed stone block into place across a doorway in Vico Ruggiero. The year was 1875 and I doubt whether ‘L.S.’ or any of his friends knew or cared that Alexander Graham Bell had just made his first voice transmission, that Japan and Russia had ratified the Treaty of Saint Petersburg ending their border dispute, or on a less significant note, that the worlds first roller skating rink had just opened in London.

While these ancillary events are well documented in history, who exactly ‘L.S.’ may have been is veiled in timeless ambiguity. L.S.? L.S.? I often wonder what those initials stood for, if they were initials at all. Could he have been a Lorenzo, a Leonardo or possibly a Luciano? As for a last name, I haven’t a clue. Yet each time we enter our little Italian get-away, we pass beneath these inscribed letters and the date with the only certainty being that long, long ago L.S. wanted to be remembered. Whoever he was, his initials along with the year 1875 are today as distinct as the day they were painstakingly chiseled into the block. But while I am uncertain who “L.S.” may have been, I’m sure his was but a replacement for an earlier entranceway predating 1875 for this place is medieval (even predating medieval). Well before L.S., serfs, tied to a lord in their feudal relationship, roamed these very same narrow streets and alleyways.

Not many streets and interconnecting stairways above ‘Casa della Ferritoia’, which is what we have come to know L.S.’ former residence as, the lord overseer of the region surveyed the feud of Calitri from his Castle situated there on the brow of the mountain.

It seems that many of the places in the medieval Calitri borgo have catchy names, which I want to believe, have some relationship to an earlier use or feature and convey as much by their names.

Examples include:

House of the Bread Maker, House of Heaven, House of the Cypress

The name of our home, which translates to ‘House of the Arrow Slit’, seems to have reverence positioned as it is so close to the Castle. Could it at one time have been part of the outer defenses of the Castle? I’d like to think so. Could there once have been narrow, though tall, openings in the walls facing down the mountainside from which an archer could sight an approaching foe? Though I have looked, no evidence today remains of “arrow slits”, yet I want to believe they were once there. What does remain in evidence, however, is the Castle, which by its very name bristles with arrows in my mind and which is mentioned positioned there atop Calitri mount as far back as the 13th Century. We know it today as the ancestral home of the Gesualdo and later of the Mirelli families but in this earlier time the fortress belonged to the Holy Roman Emperor as part of the defensive line of Southern Italy.

There is no mention of the "Castrum Calitri" in the early Middle Ages (VI-XI centuries), when the city of Conza, to which it belonged, became the capital of the vast Gastaldo Longobardo located on the southeast fringes of the Duchy of Benevento.

Beginning around 1266, the French Angevin dynasty, with the help of the Pope, replaced its German predecessor and spread eastward from Naples to the Ofanto valley and 'Castrum Calitri' became one of forty castles in what was then called the subdivision or province of Benevento.

If the Castle could remember, it would recall that in 1276, King Charles of Anjou granted the Castle to the French Baron of Fleury as his feudal home. The property and its holdings then went to Raymond of Baux and, in 1304, it was sold to Matthia Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, who held it until approximately 1636 with the death of the last heir. Italy at the time was a patchwork of independent towns and small principalities whose borders were drawn and redrawn by battles, diplomatic negotiations and marriage alliances.

In 1636, the castle was purchased by Nicholas Ludovise who for financial reasons later sold it to new landowners, the Mirelli family. Sometime before the end of the eighteenth century, the feudal Mirelli had a survey conducted to evaluate the damage to the Castle following the earthquakes of 1688 and 1692. Historian, one Castellano, who visited the Castle in 1691, exalted on the beauty of the buttressed structure, surrounded by four large corner towers, turrets and other fortifications including arrow slits, four gates, two drawbridges and over 300 hundred rooms. For the record, at least then, "arrow slits" were in evidence!

However, the tragic earthquake of 8 September 1694, almost completely razed the Castle, as well as causing widespread damage in the surrounding countryside - the dead numbered about 300 with thousands more injured. The dead included most of the Mirelli family, guests at the time visiting the Castle and the entire servant staff. As a result, the Mirelli family abandoned the ruins for a baronial mansion lower on the mountain close to the former Convent of the Benedictine Sisters, today the home of the town hall.

Terremoto (earthquake), ever the persistent nemesis of the Italian peninsula and its ensuing destructive aftermath, had become the bane of the Castle. The most recent earthquake occurred on the morning of 23 November 1980. Evidence of this catastrophe is still vividly apparent on the face of the clock just outside our windows where its needled hands were paralyzed that day at exactly 7:37 pm. In the opposite direction, just beyond our “L.S.” inscribed doorway across a small and still unshared courtyard, a metal mesh screen bars all from climbing the stairs to the ‘morta’ zone, still there, above us on the mountain.

This zone is yet another place where time stands still. It is a place still claimed by the recurring terremoto , which over the centuries like a sea monster, every so often surfaces and reeks havoc on man. For the time being, man has given up on this place for this is where the intense destructiveness of the monster, try as it does to erase the creations of man, is still visible.

No barrier like a moat exists. Instead, metal fences with appropriate warnings attempt to keep the curious away. Collapsed roofs and shattered terra cotta tiles blend, as never intended, with colorful floor tiles in an upside-down world of forfeit and compromised integrity. No longer civilized, this barbarian landscape of unrelenting natural devastation is the haunt of feral cats and feral teens, neither of which pay attention to the warnings.

It is a gray lifeless area void of man although evidence of man is everywhere. There is beauty to it yet, where the footprint of man and the fractal creep of nature intermingle. Here unkempt arbors each year dangle their grapes in a tempting harvest which no one picks and where broken abandoned homes, mysterious in their decay, stand as sentries below the abandoned castle walls whose most constant visitor is the wind.

Centuries of recurring terremoto have essentially changed the silhouette of the Castle. In the many repeated efforts to repair the damage following each subsequent earthquake, details have been lost to the extent that today there are no drawbridges and nothing approaching 300 hundred rooms. In fact, some structural details were recently revealed when, with the removal of debris from collapsed homes along Corso Matteotti, an original rounded wall of the Castle was unearthed.

For some years now, funding from the European Union has been dedicated toward the repair of the Castle. Like ants busy about their sandy cone dwellings, oblivious to the forces about them, so men today busy themselves with the monumental task of repairing this historic landmark. The superb craftsmanship of a handful of stone masons is evident especially along Corso Matteotti, running as it does along the base of the Castle.

Occasionally, you can visit the Castle and glimpse the progress being made along with the remaining work ahead. We were fortunate to be in Calitri on just such an occasion and on a blistering hot, brilliant afternoon eagerly queued-up with some curious fellow visitors for a tour.

Unfortunately, we missed much of the information because this was an all-Italian tour with our guide speaking only in Italian. Even with the language barrier, we could piece many of the points being made and the feature being described.

From its description, the Calitri Castle was once of a classic design with fortified battlements and not one but two drawbridges. Much of this has been lost to us, just as the supposed “arrow slits” in our home, due no doubt to the ravages of time and to the continued rebuilding following earthquakes. The grandeur of its once 300 rooms had diminished. In fact, there were nowhere near 300 rooms any longer.

We moved through a complex of unfurnished rooms, beginning with a basement area of caverns burrowed into an earthy material of lightly cemented yellowish sand, that featured olive and wine presses. In an outside open area beside a domed cistern used to collect water it was impressive to see how a horizontal tie-rod had been artistically adopted. The reinforcement rod, which spanned an open space between adjacent walls, had opposing life-size figures of men partially imbedded in the wall, each grasping his respective end of the rod. The figures faced-off against each other in classic tug-of-war fashion, each antagonist apparently straining to pull his opponent to his side. Windswept tattered scarves that completely covered their heads masked their faces (see photo album). I wondered if these functional artforms, motionless in static standoff, might represent the struggle between man and nature or more appropriately here, man and the terremoto monster?

Close by, from the battlements, the view from this height of Calitri proper and the surrounding countryside spread out far below was breathtaking and like none other. It must have been a grand vista indeed for the lords and ladies to take in and realize that everything in view, even beyond, was theirs to control and dominate.

Back inside, we hesitated to look up at hundreds of small hollow terracotta cylinders, capped on either end. About the size of a Coke can, they joined together side by side in a mortar paste to form the vaulted ceilings. This ancient engineering technique provided lightweight strength to the domed ceilings visible in many of the rooms we visited.

The return on the investment from the repeated clanks of the mason’s chisels was evidence everywhere in the wonderful stonework throughout the castle compound. An apparent solitude of extremes existed between what had been repaired and the yet untouched areas, conspicuously cordoned off.

In this surrealistic no-where place of today, high atop of our mountain, it is hard to believe it was once the vibrant taproot where Calitri originated - where once a fortified stronghold on an austere windswept plateau became a keep and then a full-fledged Castle. From it gradually spread a feudal infrastructure of simple homes and hillside grottos, which cascaded down the mountainside along hallway-like streets like a lush vine to eventually become Calitri and home to L.S. and today of Paolo and Maria Elena. I prefer to remember it not like it is but like it once was and especially on that day of lost distinction when red rough hands stolen from some field helped L.S. hoist his lasting pendent not above castle walls but above a doorway, undoubtedly his castle.

Take what the gods bestow and be thankful, for life is good.

Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Look for and click on a photo album entitled "Calitri Castle".