Saturday, October 31, 2015

Discovery in Canosa

Discovery in Canosa

This is a story of a shot in the dark, where you shoot from the hip on the chance you have judged someone and the situation correctly and take a chance all will go OK.  It is also a wonderful testament to how place, time and circumstances can come together in a big bang sort of way to form a friendship.
It happened when we were once again on the Piana del Sele (Sele River plain) near the jet-setter Amalfi coast, staying at a relaxing seaside resort.  We were out by its inviting pool absorbing way to much sunshine.  We'd been about it for some time that afternoon, much to our dermatologist's admonition, if only he found out.  The dying sun by then was fading into the sea, casting angled rays
of light that added long shadows to scurrying geckos.  Our daughter and her family were relaxing, elbowed to the sidewall of the pool for support, talking back and forth among themselves when another guest, seated nearby and overhearing their English conversation, jointed in with a remark.  It had something to do with a book they were discussing.  His daughter, seated beside him, was reading a novel our granddaughter had recently read.  
 It was just enough of a spark to kindle a continued back and forth that resulted in making the pleasant acquaintances of Pietro and his teenage daughter, Ilaria.
They, along with his wife, Vincenza and their young son, Cosimo, were on summer holiday from Canosa di Puglia, located the width of Italy away, near Bari on the Adriatic Sea.  Pietro, who we learned was an accountant, spoke enthusiastic English with something close to an English accent.  He enjoyed conversing with English speakers whenever the opportunity presented itself.  Pietro explained that only by using his ability to speak English did he expect to remain proficient­­ - a clear case of use it or lose it.  He was doing just fine, at ease speaking English, in my estimation in no danger of losing his English skills.
It wasn't long before our granddaughter, Gabriella, and Ilaria, who also spoke English very well, were talking about books they'd read … Hunger Games, Divergent, Harry Potter ... while Jamie, our daughter, was discussing with Pietro everything from teaching to how children learn to read.  Over the few days we were together poolside, following our chance meeting, we only got to know each other better.  One evening, outside on the hotel’s patio for one final dinner under a blizzard of stars, Pietro came to our table and passed me a note with his address and asked that Maria Elena and I visit them in Canosa.  With so much to see, they also wanted us to stay overnight as their guests. 
It was about a month later, after our daughter and family had departed, that we were able to visit and only after one attempt had to be aborted due to a pulled back muscle.  Yes, another pulled back in a saga of back issues, but this time, not mine but Maria Elena's!  Simply bending to brush her teeth had been enough - one of those unplanned moments known as real life.  Once she had mended, we were ready to give it another try.  It was not before we’d given it some thought however.  No doubt Pietro and family had their equivalent conversation.  We wondered, did we know these people, as nice as they were, well enough to stay overnight, only god knew where?  Did they really know us well enough to invite relative strangers into their home?  The adventurer in me, who loves to experience the unexpected, said let’s go, while Mare’s initial instinct hesitated.  We ultimately decided to see what awaited us in Canosa, but when we entered the address we were given into Margaret, our GPS, she hadn’t the foggiest idea on the whereabouts of the street Pietro had provided.  This only added to Mare’s uncertainty.  Already on our way by then, we only looked at each other and wondered what lay ahead as we drove into a rising sun. 

     It was an easy one hour ride by highway first eastward along A16 toward the Adriatic into neighboring tomato-rich Puglia, then another hour following the coast south toward Bari.  Short of bari, we took the Canosa di Puglia exit and rendezvoused with Pietro at a nearby gas station.  We stayed close as we followed him to his home in a high rise apartment building, the modern architecture of today's Italy that materialized on a street, per Margaret, that wasn't supposed to exist.  Any doubts had evaporated. 
Pietro had the day well planned.  With the help of a guide, we’d first prowl many of the archaeological sites for which the area is so well-known, stop briefly for lunch, and then continue with a few more sites, time permitting, before returning to Calitri.  First, we would stop by to meet Pietro’s mother, Renata.  She wanted to meet us and was disappointed we were not staying overnight because she wanted to prepare a tacchino (turkey) dinner for us.  After coffee and sweets, she led us on a tour of her home.  It was filled with elegant Italian furniture, the kind I only wish we had in our Calitri home, beginning, if only we could find one, with a classic Italian bed with the image of the Madonna on the headboard.  Like I said, classic Italian.  She would also look after little Cosimo while his mom, Vincenza, visited her mother who at the time was unfortunately in the hospital.  Well-nourished and family matters addressed, Maria Elena, myself, Ilaria, and Pietro were soon on our way to explore Canosa’s archeological heritage.
Pietro and his family live in a place that inhabits the past.  Sun bleached and stark white, Canosa di Puglia rests atop an archaeological treasure trove.  Like a sponge, the land beneath Canosa, has absorbed centuries upon centuries of history.  It is difficult to remove a shovelful, let alone excavate, without unearthing something of historical significance.  Fraught with regulation, it has to be a nightmare for the modern developer.  Yet with proper stewardship and investment, this reclaimable glorious past, being unearthed almost daily, could serve as a beacon, attracting visitors to this wall-less open-air museum.
Its richness is understandable considering that this is one of the oldest continually occupied cities in Italy, having been inhabited since Neolithic times (6000-3000 BC).  Since, like Rome, it was settled on seven hills, it was once known as “Little Rome” and like early Rome, Canosa knew a blend of cultures, each of which left its mark.  This whirlpool of civilizations ranged from the early Daunians, the mysterious Peucetians, and more recent in the annals of time, the familiar colonizing Greeks followed on their heels by the arrival of the conquering Romans.  All these arrivals occurred long before the frequent wars of conquest, the chaos, and additional transformations introduced with the appearance of the dominating Europeans (Normans, Swabians, Angevins, and Aragonese).  It’s a wonder that in this culture of ambiguous rule from so many foreign overlords anyone survived the gusts from the revolving door!
Our guide that day was a young volunteer named Renato, Renato Tango to be exact.  We picked him up downtown at the Sinesi Palace, home to the Canosa Archaeological Foundation.  Along with his bona-fides, he brought along an oversized ring of keys bordering on what a jailor might have.  Our first few stops were to a series of ancient underground multi-room tombs known by their Greek name, hypogea.
The Hypogeum Scocchera B is a Dauni tomb located beneath the city proper.  It was discovered almost by accident in 1895.  Renato flipped to the right key and swung the entry door open. Walking
down a ramp, we entered the tomb itself after passing between columns supporting a capital that still exhibited traces of original painted scenes.  In addition to the main chamber directly ahead and across a small vestibule, there were additional rooms, one to either side.  The tomb today, as you might expect, is empty, but when it was first opened, in addition to the deceased, interestingly often found in a fetal position, it contained a funeral dowry.  The dowry to my thinking was on the order of what Egyptians placed in their pyramids, only on a much much smaller scale.  The catalog of this tomb’s dowry consisted of decorated pots, glass cups, earrings, statues of worshippers, a bronze breastplate, an embossed Celtic helmet and a gold scepter … all of which, since their reported discovery, have been lost.
The next tomb, known as Hypogeum Cerberus, was
another indigenous Danui tomb, this one named for the third century BC fresco of the Cerberus, still visible as you pass below the doorway to enter.  Weak as I am with respect to Greek myths, I learned that the Cerberus was a three-headed mythological dog with a serpent's tail, a mane of snakes and the claws of a lion whose job was to guard the entrance of the Underworld.  It was a one way trip, for while the Cerberus allowed the dead to enter, it proved an excellent guard-dog, for no one ever got out.  Its presence in the tomb is a testament to the depth of influence Hellenistic
culture had on the area.  Far from the sense of condescension sophisticated minds of today might see it as, for the people of the time, the Cerberus was real.  From additional frescos of a hoplite citizen-solder and a horse, the tomb has been associated with someone of the equestrian social rank.  
We next drove to an above ground monument that Renato explained was the Traian Arch.  Emperor Trajan is remembered as a successful soldier-emperor who presided over the greatest military expansion in Rome’s history.  He was so loved for his social welfare policies, public building
programs and humanitarian governance that the Senate declared him optimus princeps (the best ruler) upon his death in 117 AD.  Canosa erected this archway in his honor.  Travelers to what the Romans referred to as Canusium entered the city passing beneath this monumental archway located along the ancient Via Traian.  This triumphal arch, dating from approximately 109 AD, marked the boundary between the so-called city of the living and the dead.  Similar to other Trajan arches in Benevento and Ancona, it today is part of a well-manicured garden.  The marble veneer and artwork, which once adorned its surface, have long disappeared. What remains are the bare rudiments of Rome’s glorious existence - elongated, rather flattened, fired clay bricks that built an empire.   
Not far from the arch was a ruin called the Bagnoli Mausoleum.  Today little remains of this mausoleum whose multi-colored bricks once rose two stories and was capped by a double sloping roof.  The discovery of an epigraph links it to Annia Regilla, wife of Herodes Attico, an important Greek figure in Canosa’s history.  This once grand tomb may have been in symbolic reparation, if not outright political expediency, for it is alleged that Herodes, in fact, kicked his pregnant wife to death or had her murdered in this manner.  Whether or not justice was served, he was later acquitted in Rome.
We then traded talk of shovels and excavations for forks and knives and visited Osteria La Capannina for lunch.  No ruin here, this was the place for authentic Canosa dishes along with local wines to help wash down the accumulated dust of the ages, though I was already intoxicated with anticipation before I crossed its threshold.  Our host, Pietro, let it slip that he'd actually had another place in mind, if only we'd kept to the original plan.  Unfortunately, it was closed the day we finally arrived.  None the worse for the loss, La Capannina was an excellent stand-in.
With all of six to eight tables, the osteria presents a cozy atmosphere.  Now joined by Vincenza and Cosimo, we were in the caring hands of owner Gianni Di Pinto.  A burly man like myself, his was of a mind to please each customer who filled his tables.  I don't recall ordering anything in particular, but simply went unscripted with Gianni's judgment.  We soon realized that the only thing holding us back were the sizes of our stomachs.  Our meals began with a seemingly never ending number of hot and cold house delicacies ranging from mozzarella appetizers, eggplant parmigiana, peperoni ripieni (stuffed peppers), focaccia, an olive caponata salad, zucchini, and more than I can recall - when the forks finally settled, maybe 15 all told.  With the arrival of each new appetizer, sometimes two at a time, we mooed and moaned I suspect as pretense to cover our secret delight.  You'd think that might be enough but then the primo piatto and secondo piatto followed in close pursuit. 
even seeing a menu,
Gianni presented us with bowls of cavatelli pasta (which look like miniature hot dog buns) along with cauliflower and fried croutons.  The second plate, better yet, plates, held yummy grilled lamb chops.  Whenever I eat lamb, I can't help but recall the line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where Aunt Loula, upon learning that the boyfriend is a vegetarian, says "He don't eat no meat?  Oh that's OK, I make him lamb!"  Forgive me, I think I may have said it when the lamb arrived!  Dessert included slabs of anguria (watermelon) and tasty trifle-like zuppa inglese.  I must admit, I was satiated by meals end.  No amuse-bouche sampling, this had been a heavy meal marking the Capannina clearly as a place for big appetites.  If this was the backup choice, I can't imagine where else Pietro could have taken us as delightful and filling, but I'm always willing to try.  A few vintages later, as we were leaving, the osti, Gianni, presented me with a hardbound book on Pugliesi restaurants with La Capannina prominently featured among its pages.  No need to bookmark it, because I will never forget it.
Reinvigorated, our intrepid group of tomb-raiders again rendezvoused with Renato to continue our tour of Canosa’s past.  The day had gotten hot by then so it was with some relief that we entered the shaded interior of the San Giovanni Baptistery,
dating from the 6th century.  The Baptistery, dedicated to John the Baptist, even in its ruined state, remains an impressive structure.  The main chamber of this twelve-sided high vaulted building contained the remnants of a baptismal font, front and center.  It had been a large pool in its day, clearly suitable for baptism by total immersion just as John the Baptist had practiced in the Jordon River.  What appeared to be terraced sides, like steps, aided in access.  The columns that support the arching ceilings, as you might expect, have been damaged over time.  The walls and ceilings have lost the gold mosaics that once covered much of the interior surfaces.  But the lack of decorative trappings hasn't stopped discovery.  Recent excavations under the
Baptistery have uncovered evidence of an early Christian church, likely built atop even earlier ruins.  In a side chamber, from a suspended walkway, we were shown an open grave.  In it skeletal remains were clearly visible.  Hard as it was to believe, this skeleton was the original thing, well over a thousand years old.  Its skull rested on a stone block, its ribs, along with hips, were worn flat, legs bent and spread wide as though trying to fit the available space.  Due to the length of the bones and an analysis of the remains it was learned that this individual was unlikely of local origin.  He had been tall, too tall to be of the indigenous Italic-Grecco people of the area.  Surprisingly, we learned that he is thought to be of African origin, likely from Carthage in present day Tunisia.  To be buried in such a place of honor, he is believed to have been a high ranking soldier from the Punic Wars with Rome, perhaps a general, telling from the items found along with him.  And then I remembered Hannibal and the Battle of Cannae that occurred just miles away and it made sense, for many of the survivors of this ancient angst had sought refuge in Canosa di Puglia.  It just might be.
We then moved on to the Saint Leucio Archaeological Area, a hilltop Basilica discovered in 1925.  This is one of the greatest examples of early Christian architecture in all of southern Puglia.  Here, as was often the case, this early example of a Christian Basilica was built using the partial remains of a Hellenistic temple (318 BC) dedicated to Minerva (Greek Athena) and a more local goddess.  This focus on dual deities was a clever effort to politically ally local princes with Rome.  Today’s visitor sees the leveled remains of the Christian Basilica built between the 4th and 5th centuries AD.  Its construction reused the already existing walls, columns and capitals of the pagan temple.  Only a few columns of this once extraordinary structure still stand - tall stanchions amid an ancient grove of olive trees - along with figured plastered capitals, painted columns, and mosaic floor decorations.  Following our tour of the site, Renato expertly flipped through his hoard of keys and produced just the one that let us into an adjacent museum, where artifacts removed from the site are displayed.  One noteworthy item was a scale model of the pagan temple featuring a removable roof.  Also housed there were unusual column capitals, neither of the Doric, Corinthian, nor Ionic sort we learned of in school.  Like none we had ever seen, these featured a female face, most likely of the goddess, maybe both goddesses, coiffed in a rather modern looking hair style.
Our final site visit was to the Hillside Domus Montescupolo.  This excavation, beautifully showcased beneath suspended walkways for its preservation, is testament to present day Canosa’s archaeological consciousness, for it lies beneath a modern downtown building.  With a street featuring actual stone pavers, stairs, a well, and building foundations, it provided us a glimpse into neighborhood life among the ancients.  Especially noteworthy was the footprint of a multi-room Roman home complete with wall paintings and thresholds leading to a large central atrium wedged in among the pre-existent remains of earlier dwellings that included the workshops of prior craftsmen who once occupied the same space.  Its presence, practically downtown, speaks to the storehouse of history just underfoot.  It also speaks to the efforts taken, undoubtedly in a clash between ancient and modern, to preserve these historic traces of Canosa's story.
This concluded our day as budding archaeologists.  Only blocks away, we returned to the historical society’s headquarters to say goodbye to Renato and visit exhibits of funerary objects found in various excavations, many of which we’d visited.  The multi-room displays, especially of armor,
helmets and decorated pottery, were breathtaking, almost as though we were first, like Schliemann when he discovered Troy, to move stones aside and enter a tomb.  
By the time we’d finished for the day, Renato still had many keys he hadn’t used.  It was evident there was so much more to see in a city where past is so intertwined with present.  Like the half-life of a radioactive object, whose radiation decreases by half ever so slowly, Canosa, even after all these centuries still radiates an abundance of history, too much for a single day.  We could understand why Pietro thought it necessary to remain overnight in order to visit all the available sites.  It was clear he wanted us to stay and he did his best to convince us to reconsider, right up to the moment we departed.  Unfortunately, we had to return to Calitri for the annual SponzFest events and entertainments, something we’d purposely come to Calitri to experience.  Like grave robbers, however, we would take our discoveries along with us.  There had been many finds in Canosa di Puglia that day.  Departed Calitri that morning clutching a hand-scrawled note that served as a map, we'd discovered a treasure without need of a museum, guide, or set of keys to showcase. 
Beyond Canosa’s real-world outdoor museum where time's continuum of artifacts are just about underfoot, additional discovery and treasure, more valuable than exhibits of fine pottery and gold-leaf tiaras, lie in people like Pietro and his family.  We were humbled by their excitement to have us visit and the hospitality they extended us, to the point of not allowing us to pay for a thing.  The word “guest” for them indeed holds special meaning.  When Maria Elena made a comment during lunch about how much she enjoyed the flavor of the olive oil in the salad, it was enough for Pietro to later present her with a container of the oil after secretly learning its name from Gianni and somehow stealthily managing to purchase it somewhere.

     Intuition and a dollop of trust had come through for both the host and the hosted.  Curiosity about America and a desire to speak English, along with my passion to experience everything Italian and understand the world beyond where we lived, had combined to fashion a new friendship.  We'd live with our goodbyes until together once again.  Until that day, we Skype and our granddaughter and Pietro's daughter, seeing that the cursive days of the pen-pal have been outmoded by digital ones and zeros, converse via email.  Hopefully, ours is a burgeoning friendship, spanning the globe and our lifetimes - something inconceivable to the ancients.
Someday, centuries from now, someone may dig into centuries more of accumulation beneath Canosa di Puglia and just might unearth a keyboard.  How primitive they may conclude and add it to some museum display.  Yet like all the other inanimate accumulations, the trappings of life, displayed in present and I'd imagine future museums, it would speak little of the people who used that keyboard and the messages of friendship it once conveyed.

From that Rogue Tourist


For related photos, click here on "Eyes Over Italy".  Look for and click on a photo album entitled “Discovery in Canosa”.