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Annalisa Monfreda - reporter


reportage > Italy, April 2006
Euromed Journalist Prize 2006 Euromed Journalist Prize 2006
Special Mention Euromed Heritage Journalistic Award 2006
Special Mention Euromed Heritage Journalistic Award 2006


Geo Italy - n. 04

The free song
of the
There is an Italy where priests get married, the streets are called udha and rock bands sing in a language similar to Albanian. Between the mountains of Calabria and Basilicata, lies Arberia: a place where 100,000 people live. A population that has preserved its identity for five centuries.

August 1991. Twenty thousand Albanian refugees get their first view of the port of Bari from the deck of the ship Vlora. A man awaits them on the dock. He is 34 years old, his name is Angelo Longo and he speaks Albanian. The department of Civil Protection has taken him on as a volunteer, to act as interpreter. He was born in Calabria and learned Albanian from his mother Giulia, who in turn acquired it from grandma Rosina, and so on through the years, as far back as the fifteenth century, when the first Albanians landed in Italy. Now Angelo is face to face with a drama that has filled the pages of the newspapers for months: thousands of people fleeing from post-Communist Albania have journeyed together, crowded on tramp steamers, struggling to catch sandwiches dropped by helicopters. When they get within sight of the port, they hurl themselves into the water and proceed to swim. For some of them, Angelo has a "gift" in store that they are not expecting. He sets out, taking a hundred or so refugees with him: they cross Puglia, climb up the Lucania side of the Pollino Massif and make their way over the pass to Calabria. They reach Civita, Lungro and Firmo. An archipelago of villages clinging to the rocks. Here the streets are called udha, and icons are borne in processions. The residents speak a strange idiom that resembles Albanian, and priests get married. This is the gift that Angelo holds in store for these refugees: a bit of Albania in Italy. Isolated and protected through the centuries by these mountains. Arberia.

The end of the fifteenth century. Hundreds of Albanians land in Puglia. They are fleeing a country that is surrendering, city after city, in response to incursions by the Turkish armada. They bring with them weapons, clothing and an oral collection of rhapsodies that have been handed down from father to son up until this day.

They sing of their hero Skanderbeg, the valiant commander capable of uniting the princes and captains of Albania to form a league against the Ottoman forces. The echo of his exploits resounds throughout Christian Europe: the popes praise him as athleta Christi, "Champion of Christ", and the King of Naples offers him financial and military support. But in 1468, Skanderbeg succumbs to malaria, and with him dies all hope of driving back the Ottoman advance. And so the Albanians flee. But the fact that they are welcomed to the Kingdom of Naples with open arms is once again due to Skanderbeg, who years before had come to the aid of Ferdinand I of Aragon in his struggle against the Angevins, receiving in exchange eternal recognition and a number of large estates. The Albanians push on to Basilicata, Sicily and Calabria in particular. It is here that the King of Naples urges them to emigrate, with the aim of repopulating territories devastated by the war between the Angevins and the Aragonese. Deserted regions and ghost towns such as Lungro appear before the refugees. Abandoned feudal estates such as Firmo. And rubble-filled villages such as Civita and Plataci, destroyed by the earthquake of 1456. All around them are forests cut down to sell the wood, advancing marshland, and plagues decimating the population.

Year after year, the Albanians brought life back to the Calabrian mountains. Following that first arrival, there was a succession of seven migrations, the last in 1774. Over a hundred towns were repopulated or founded ex novo. Today, there are about fifty towns in which it is possible to retrace the language, religious traditions (Catholic faith, Greco-Byzantine rite) and customs of the original settlers. These towns extend from the Apennines of the Abruzzo to Sicily, though the majority are in Calabria. Their population numbers 100,000. The people who live there are called arbëresh, that is, Italo-Albanians, and they are the most numerous ethno-linguistic minority in Italy, second only to the Tyroleans. They are the clan most studied by anthropologists, starting with Italian philosopher and anthropologist Ernesto De Martino (1908-1965).

On board one of the first tramp steamers headed for Italy in 1990 is Josif Droboniku, destitute and famished, with a wife and two daughters: ages 6 and 12. No one would know it to look at him, but he is the most celebrated official painter of Socialist Realism in Albania. The 1600-foot mosaic that today still adorns the facade of the National Museum in Tirana is his work. As are those of the Palace of Culture and the University in the Albanian capital. In them he portrayed heroes, warriors and triumphal episodes of the country's history.

Today in Lungro, in his studio, I find him surrounded by angels and saints. For sixteen years, under the Communist government, he had not been able to paint a sacred subject. He had not even been able to set foot in a church. Instead he had had to subjugate his art to celebrating the regime. In July of 1990 he fled in order to find a place where realism could be transformed in the blissfulness of Greek images. He roamed through Italy with a tourist visa until one day, in a train, a young Sicilian from Piana degli Albanesi spoke to him in a language very similar to his own. He was an arbëresh. The young man told him that in Italy there were towns made up entirely of Albanians. Where the Greco-Byzantine rite was still preserved. He urged Josif to go to Lungro and look up Bishop Lupinacci. Which he did. And here he is now, transformed into a renowned iconographer. In fifteen years he has completed the Universal Judgment mosaic in the cathedral of Lungro, the iconostasis in the church of Santa Lucia of Frascineto and dozens of works in the towns of Arberia, as well as in the rest of Italy. Today, his studio is a continuous coming and going of young men who come to learn the art of icons from him.

Josif has realized his own dream. But also that of a community that for nearly a century strove to revive the iconic art of the ancient eastern Church. Monsignor Ercole Lupinacci, bishop of Lungro, tells me how that art was lost: "When the Albanians arrived in the Kingdom of Naples it posed an ante-litteram ecumenical problem: how could the Greco-Byzantine rite be made to co-exist in a Latin context? In reality, Southern Italy still bore strong traces of Italo-Greek ritual, having belonged to the Byzantine Empire. But that was not sufficient to safeguard the specificity of the rite. Especially after the Council of Trent, when the eastern communities were deprived of autonomy and brought under the control of the Latin bishops". As a result, over the course of centuries, statues of the saints came to replace icons, and Latin mingled with the Greek. But the arbëresh experienced a Renaissance as well. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Italo-Albanian poet Girolamo De Rada became the spokesman for his culture's rebirth. "The arbëresh vociferously demanded that Pope Leo XIII grant them autonomy", the bishop continues. "They obtained it in 1919, with the establishment of the first eparchy (the eastern Church's equivalent of a diocese) in Lungro, that brought together the 27 Italo-Albanian parishes of continental Italy. In 1937, a second eparchy was formed in Piana degli Albanesi, for the arbëresh of Sicily. That same year the monastery of Grottaferrata was transformed into a district abbey. And so the Italo-Albanian church saw three ecclesiastical districts recognized, independent of any local authority and directly subject to the Holy See. Catholic through and through, but of Greco-Byzantine rite".

Since that time, the only liturgical language has been Greek. Angela Castellano still remembers her arrival in Lungro, fifty years ago. Having just turned twenty, she had left her native Turin to marry an arbëresh. Imagine her surprise when she entered the church and heard farmers and shepherds singing the Mass so naturally in Greek. She who had studied it for years in books, in one of the best schools for the humanities in Turin, found herself in the mountains of Calabria listening to Greek, alive as never before. Filled with emotion she wrote to her mother: "It is wonderful here. Even the illiterates sing in Greek". In the 1960's, after Vatican Council II, Albanian was coupled with Greek as a liturgical language, while readings and sermons were permitted in Italian. Even today each parish intermingles the three languages in complete freedom, at the discretion of the papas, the priest.

It was much more complicated to revive the architectural norms of the Greek rite. Beginning with the iconostases: no church at the time had a wall covered with icons such as that which characterized the Byzantine churches. But how to go about accomplishing this? The towns were poor and the local artists did not know where to begin. Papas Vincenzo Matrangolo, priest of Acquaformosa, did not lose heart. In 1939 (at the age of 26) he asked Giambattista Conti, one of the foremost iconographers of the time, how much an iconostasis might cost: 12,000 liras, the artist told him. Acquaformosa's attorneys, doctors and professors promptly rolled up their sleeves and went through the town knocking door to door to take up an unusual collection. Their efforts managed to scrape together a mere 600 liras. Still, papas Matrangolo did not give up. He went to Rome and did not come back until he had found the 11,400 liras that were lacking. Thus in the course of a few years Acquaformosa had its iconostasis, but this was not enough for the priest. Today, as I enter the church of San Giovanni Battista, I have to hold my breath: the walls, the ceiling, the columns, every inch of this space is covered with gilded mosaics. All except one small side wall. "In 1987, after almost fifty years of priesthood, papas Matrangolo resolved that the church would be entirely covered with icons", Giovanni Capparelli, a local history enthusiast, explains to me. "The citizens of Acquaformosa watched that masterpiece grow tile by tile. Until November 18, 2004, when Matrangolo died. The funds came to an end. And one wall, the last square yards of that dream, is still covered with cellophane".

Today nearly all the churches in the eparchy have an iconostasis, but they also continue to display statues. "Icons and statues are two important expressions of our community. One is part of the rite, the other is a tradition established through time", papas Mario Santelli explains to me, as he closes up his parish church of Santa Maria Assunta, in Firmo, and heads towards home. I set out with him, following his long black garment and the calimafion, the tall cylindrical hat on his head. His wife and daughter come to meet us. The last act of purification of the Byzantine rite is before my eyes: the elimination of priestly celibacy. The first to attain it was Nicola Villotta, papas of Castroregio, in 1967. All hell broke loose: journalists poured into the small Calabrian village, while half of Italy rejoiced and the other half were shocked by the first priest to be married within the Catholic church. Perhaps such an uproar did not please the higher spheres. What is certain is that only in the 1980's did a second married priest appear. Today there are eight of them: the most recent, ordained in January 2006, is Vincenzo Carlomagno, with two children, ages 16 and 22.

I continue my journey through the archipelago of Arberia as far as Civita, a small village of stone suspended over the gorge of the Raganello river, with fifty chimney pots, each one a different shape. A surprise awaits me at the bar: for the first time I hear arbëresh spoken in a public place that is not a church. I approach one of the two speakers: Pietro La Cattiva, 65 years old, has a broad face from which two bright eyes peer out. Most likely he does not have more than a fifth grade education, but in simple words he is able to trace for me the parabola of this language over the course of his life. Scene one: his grandmother, Domenica Zuccaro, born in 1876. She never went to school and spoke only arbëresh. She married someone from the village and for her entire life had no contact with the outside world. With one exception: the itinerant peddlers who came from nearby Castrovillari and with whom she tacitly established a very thorough sign language. Scene two: he himself, Pietro La Cattiva. He speaks and thinks in arbëresh, but he does not know how to write it. In school, they taught him to read and write Italian. Scene three: his grandchildren. They go to elementary school already speaking Italian: they learned it from television. In school, if they want to, they can spend two or three hours in the afternoon learning to speak and write that strange language that their grandparents and parents use at home: arbëresh.

"The isolation of these villages has preserved the language for centuries", explains Italo Costante Fortino, instructor of Albanian Language and Literature at Naples Eastern University. "The breakdown occurred with mass schooling and the advent of television". Today, 20 percent of the 100,000 arbëresh have already lost the language and the phenomenon appears to be unstoppable. A natural barrier to this process is offered by geography: in Frascineto, a traffic hub on the Salerno-Reggio Calabria road, arbëresh is spoken only in the home; in Plataci, with its protected mountain location at the border with Basilicata, children playing pinball urge each other on in arbëresh. But it's not enough: "Today you can no longer rely on oral transmission to keep a culture alive", Fortino continues. "You must create a written culture, and find modern channels to preserve it. This is the great challenge facing intellectuals".

Lucia Emanuele, born in Plataci in 1938, has made this challenge her life's mission. "When I was little, the teachers beat the living daylights out of us in order to make us speak Italian", she says. "As soon as I became a teacher, I did the exact opposite. After attending a course to learn to write arbëresh, in 1973 I obtained permission from the principal to teach it to the children". Around the same time, Demetrio Emanuele, concerned about the progressive loss of traditions, founded the Italo-Albanian magazine Katundi Ynë. Later, in 1999, law number 482 was passed, promoting multilingual diversity through the creation of local, public information branches, for the preservation of the linguistic heritage of minorities. "The result is that today, with respect to the past, there are more people who know how to write arbëresh, and less people who are able to speak it", Emanuele explains. That is also what has happened with traditional dress: no longer worn, but protectively safeguarded in wardrobes, it is dragged out only on feast days. Just like the singing: no longer spontaneous, but studied, recorded and performed in an organized setting. Not much different, in the end, from the operation accomplished at the end of the nineteenth century by the father of the arbëresh Renaissance, Girolamo De Rada: the poet who gave written form to the rhapsodies that for centuries had been handed down orally, lest they disappear forever.

Today, the new Italo-Albanian Renaissance bears the features of numerous young arbëresh.
1994: Angelo Conte and his band Peppa Marriti participate in Arezzo Wave, the most important Italian outdoor rock festival, singing in arbëresh.
2003: Daniela Moccia marries San Benedetto Ullano, wearing typical Italo-Albanian dress, something that had not occurred in 25 years.
2004: Pino Baffa, a student, forms the folk group Avulli in Santa Sofia d'Epiro, rediscovering traditional song and dance.
2005: Francesco Scorza graduates from college with a dissertation on traditional arbëresh attire. His grandmother, Maria, 80 years old, shows up at the university on the occasion of his thesis defense: pleated silk skirt, embroidered bodice, wool, long-fringed shawl, gold braid at the shoulders and wrists. No question, a grandson's graduation requires full ceremonial dress.

Text by Annalisa Monfreda © Geo Italy, April 2006
Photographs by Paolo Verzone
English Translation by Anne Milano Appel