Geo Italy - n. 04
The free song
of the Arberësh
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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".
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
the new Italo-Albanian Renaissance bears the features of numerous
1994: Angelo Conte and his band Peppa Marriti participate in Arezzo
Wave, the most important Italian outdoor rock festival, singing
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.
by Annalisa Monfreda © Geo Italy, April 2006
Photographs by Paolo Verzone
Translation by Anne Milano Appel