Re-Imagining Southern Italy Part II, Calabria

As we crossed the Strait of Messina, I suppose I had pretty much reconciled the discourse within me, confronted the duality of holding two Sicilies, and now two Calabrias in my mind at the same time. Like my friends “who travelled to Florence before going to Tuscany,” [sic] I decided that I was also stopping at Reggio, the location of the famed Bronzes of Riace, before going on to the rest of Calabria. After all, before me, those two other Brits had managed to hold the two Calabrias in their minds at the same time: George Gissing in By the Ionian Sea (1901) and later Norman Douglas in Old Calabria (1915). They went in search of the South’s rich classical heritage, from Magna Graecia to the Romans. But they never failed to be realistic in their wonderful accounts of life in Calabria at the turn of the last century. Just before Gissing began his trek, he told a Neapolitan couple that he was going to Calabria. They were shocked that anyone would actually want to go to the “wild South.” Gissing writes, the two French-speaking Neapolitans would “as set out for Morocco as for Calabria.” While pursuing the sites of that idealized Magna Graecia in what he calls, in one chapter, “The Land of Horace,” Douglas is still clear-sighted enough to write that contemporary Calabria, in spite of its ancient heritage, is a “desert of ‘politics,’ roguery and municipal corruption.” As Gertrude Slaughter wrote in 1939 in Calabria: The First Italy, “Nobody goes to Calabria for pleasure.” Nevertheless, as I stood on the bow of our ferry on that bright June day, “that changing jewel of Calabria,” as D.H. Lawrence described it in Sea and Sardinia, was our destination.

With the unfortunate decline of classical education, which informs both Gissing’s and Douglas’ view of Calabria, the region’s rich history is underappreciated, at least by Americans. After the Greeks, and then the fall of Rome, came wave after wave of invasions and colonization: Normans, Muslims, French, Germans, and the Allies, followed immediately by Hollywood, of course. The history of Magna Graecia and the succeeding centuries have been overwritten by the image of a South characterized by pagan ritual and grinding poverty, a region that is plagued purportedly by lethal brigands lurking along every road. Giovanni Verga’s stories, Saverio Strati’s remarkable Calabrian novels, and Carlo Levi’s famous Christ Stopped at Eboli have all contributed significantly to this degraded image of the South, Calabria in particular. When he was in the village of Gagliano in what is now the region of Basilicata, Levi wrote that the peasants told him “We are not Christians…Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli.” Levi writes that the southern villagers had a “hopeless feeling of inferiority.” They believe that they “are not human beings.” Though not widely read today, Strati’s remarkable novels, such as Terra Rossa and Empty Hands, are stunning, realistic accounts of a Calabria totally bereft of hope, a condition which sent millions of young men to that imaginary paradise called America. At the end of Terra Rossa during a disastrous flood that destroys the village, one of Strati’s characters says, “Even God has deceived us. Terrarossa has collapsed and only the poor have died.”

Paramount in just about everyone’s mind, the South’s cultural landscape is as fallow as its uncultivated fields. Before we left California, I told as many people as I could that we were going to the South. The response that I received only reinforced what Slaughter had written more than sixty years ago: just about everyone has an opinion of Calabria, but few have ever visited the land. That stereotype of the South as an impoverished land of struggling, uneducated peasants – the land of the archetypal Southern cafone – is still predominant, especially among Italian North Americans. But when I questioned them, they could not name the village or even the province from which their grandparents emigrated. Their reaction was much like that Neapolitan couple’s response to Gissing. I was warned to be careful. We could be robbed or kidnapped. Making matters worse, according to newspaper reports covering a recent gangland killing, the Calabrian “’ndrangheta has now supplanted the Sicilian Mafia as the most powerful criminal organization in Italy.” In his essay, “A Nice Place to Visit, But…” [see Accenti 5], Joseph Pivato writes that a student from the University of Calabria has been denied his Ph.D. for years “because of bureaucracy, inefficiency and corruption in Italian academia.” We have to ask, what has changed in Calabria since Strati?

But Calabria defies those negative images that persist in the popular imagination. I had visited it several times before this trip. I knew that I would not see members of the ‘ndrangheta roadside holding long-barrelled shotguns or the legions of homeless people I see on the downtown streets of Los Angeles or on the Promenade Santa Monica. Nor would I see burnt offerings or animal sacrifice on our village church’s altar in Centrache.

When our ferry docked at the port in Calabria, we headed north past Reggio on the autostrada. As we drove, I was concerned again, as I had been in Sicily, over the frame that I was bringing to Calabria. In my mind’s eye, I still held those images of my grandparents’ historic battleground derived from oral family history. It is a complex history for me: part Strati novel and part Magna Graecia, part pagan and part Christian, part hope and part despair.

Ironically, complicating the history of that impoverished South is that one of the first things those Italian immigrant peasants did upon arriving in the land of opportunity was to sentimentalize their bel paese. Ever since, that term has become an iconic sign in the mouths of Italian North Americans suggesting those archetypal images of our imaginary collective heritage: settlement, serene village life, family values, and a pastoral landscape that produces copious amounts of cheese, wine and fruit. But given their radical dislocation, their sentimental recollection of their homeland is understandable. When those immigrants landed in Eden, most settled in gritty urban centres, a cultural venue light-years away from their rural moorings in Southern Italy. Through that emotional haze that clouded their backward view of their villages, they quickly re-framed and idealized their Southern landscape, even though it was the place of their historical exploitation and impoverishment.

From my view of the landscape, it was easy to see how they could have reconstructed an idealized view of Calabria. Right before me, Lawrence’s ever-changing “jewel” began to unfold. As we drove north along the autostrada, to the left of us, more than two thousand feet below, was a breathtaking view of the mar Tirreno. Between us and the sea were villages in coves, and pristine beaches, there for those who knew enough to avoid the maddening crowds that flock to the well-known, tourist resorts along Italy’s Amalfi coast or the now famous Cinque Terre. More interesting yet, to the right was the densely forested Calabrian Apennine Range, a green carpet of trees and impenetrable undergrowth. The difficulty was photographing the forest because the growth of ferns at the shoulder of the autostrada was too high to shoot over. Nowhere was there evidence of that archetypal South, a depleted landscape that supported only rocks and onions.

To reach Centrache in the provincia di Catanzaro we turned east at the junction, away from the sea, driving deeper into the Calabrian Apennines. Again, that iconic image of the beleaguered South was honoured more in its breach than in its fulfilment. The fern-choked forest was replaced by productive fields of grain, alfalfa, cactuses, olives, peaches, apricots, and other crops. Lawrence’s image was appropriate: the landscape began to display its many facets. The green alfalfa fields and late spring foliage of the fruit-bearing trees contrasted with the harvested yellow grain fields. Lying in those fields were giant rolls of hay for livestock, which reminded me of an image from Slaughter’s history. They were so large they looked as though Hercules himself had baled them for the cattle of Geryon after he had driven them into Calabria. Everywhere was productivity.

Along the eastern edge of the Apennines up from the Soverato Lido is a series of villages, beginning with Squillace, the site of Cassiodorus famed sixth-century cloister. Myth once had it that, after the fall of the Roman Empire, Cassiodorus, secretary to the emperor Theodorus, had painstakingly copied and preserved the history of Western culture there in his cloister before it was revived in the Renaissance. But James O’Donnell in his biography, Cassiodorus, has revised Cassiodorus importance and has given us a more realistic view of his role.

From there we passed the villages of Monte Pione, Centrache, Olivadi, Cenadi, and Chiravalle, at the crest of the mountain, where we stayed. As we passed these villages there was no evidence of the grinding poverty that otherwise characterizes the popular conception of Southern village life. What the traveller sees is the order and serenity of village life: its quotidian rhythm that begins with morning activity, then the afternoon siesta, and finally the early evening re-awakening, with congregations of both the young and the old on front door stoops, at sidewalk cafes, or on street corners. It is easy, of course, to sentimentalize life in a small village, as all those nineteenth-century English and American painters did. I had to keep telling myself that, hidden beneath the surface of that peaceful village, this was a region that had one of the lowest per capita incomes in Italy. How could those children we saw find jobs and remain near their families?

The site of my ancestral beginnings, Centrache, is a good example of the condition of these villages. Its origins date from before the eleventh century. Centrache escaped damage in the devastating earthquake of 1908, which killed over 100,000 people in Calabria. In the summer of 2007 on the quake’s 100th anniversary, the villagers honoured its protettore, St. Onofrio for protecting it. St. Onofrio, most certainly his Christian name after he was co-opted into Catholic service, was an Egyptian pagan mystic who had given away all his worldly possessions and had gone off into the wilderness to live and meditate. Animals became his only friends. Besides his image in the church, his statue in one of the village’s two squares includes a deer at his side. Levi’s image of the pagan-based South is only reinforced by such images. But what village in Italy doesn’t have its annual festa in honour of a patron saint? Moreover, since Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bow and Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, no one disputes the pagan basis of Christianity.

At the village’s annual festa, my relatives who were born in the village return from Milan, Florence, and Rome, as well as Florida and Boston, for the week-long celebration.

Over the last three decades that my wife and I have visited the village, little has changed, at least on the surface. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Centrache’s population was about 2000 residents. Today, after nearly a century of emigration and northern migration, it is approximately 500 – about where it was in 1972, the time of our first visit.

The older generation of first cousins has died. However, the family apartments remain – in one case modernized and used weekly and annually by the visiting siblings.

There are still signs of the effects of emigration and northern migration over the last century. As the four of us walked the village’s narrow paths, we found several apartments vacant and boarded up. Judging from the condition of the exposed beams and masonry, they had been vacant for decades. They are in a state of complete ruin. Their windows and doors are gone, the wood rotted, and the masonry honeycombed by the elements. They seem ready to topple in the slightest temblor.

The well-kept church is the cornerstone of the village. The ambulatory on either side of the nave is lined with the usual covey of saints, typical, of course, of Southern Italian Catholicism. The village, however, was not untouched by civilization: Christ may have stopped at Eboli, but at least the famous Calabrian late Renaissance artist, Mattia Preti, did not. One of my cousins proudly explained to me years before that at least one painting and the church’s ceiling frescoes were painted by the famous Preti. When we entered the church that day in June, a daily mass was in progress, with fewer than ten parishioners, mostly women.

The future of villages such as Centrache is difficult to assess. The signs are contradictory. Though the population has declined over the decades, development has not stopped in the village. To accommodate the procession of St. Onofrio each August the village has paved a new walk from the church to the newly remodelled piazza at the centre of the village. Once just a badly paved open space, the new piazza has been raised and walled off, just below my relatives’ newly remodelled apartment.

Most important of all, Centrache now has a new cemetery. Thirty years ago, the cemetery was little more than tiny plot of ground where graves were presumably exhumed or obliterated after a generation or two to make room for more deceased. There were few markers identifying any of the long deceased. Any records that did exist were out of sight in the church or the municipal archives.

So after a tour of our relatives’ apartment overlooking the new piazza, the gracious Angela (Vinci) and Raphael Scarfone, took us for ices at the local bar. Then we were asked if we wanted to go to the cemetery for a visit. I cannot resist pointing to the archetype: Where else but in Italy would you be invited by well meaning relatives to make a family visit to the village cemetery? A visit to Centrache’s cemetery was an obligatory stop, not a choice. In my everpresent discourse with Italian culture, if “enjoyable” cannot describe a visit to a cemetery, at least by North American cultural standards, our visit was extremely informative, both personally and historically. While in the cemetery, we got closer to that past we were after than we could have in any other place in Calabria.

The newly expanded cemetery is now a series of large concrete and marble family mausoleums, built to last a thousand years. The dates on the crypts indicate that only the recently deceased, within about the last three to four generations, are entombed. Their remains were presumably exhumed and placed in their new permanent locations. Under that bright June Calabrian sun, my brother and I walked along the narrow paths between the mausoleums. On the faces of those mausoleums, we were able to read the approximately one-hundred- fifty-year history of our various family names – Varano, Vinci, Murgida, Molea, DiFilippo, Vatalaro, Papadaro – like an historical timeline.

But beyond our profound personal interest in the record before us, it occurred to me that for the first time in over its one-thousand-year history, Centrache had finally established a visible register of its past. Over thirty years ago on our first visit, we visited the cemetery and found a small, weed-infested narrow plot of land that had few grave markers and virtually none of my family’s names. The condition of the cemetery spoke volumes about the North’s abandonment of the South and the fatalism that Southerners expressed about their own cultural and historical circumstances.

Seemingly in defiance of the region’s past neglect, the village built an historical site, a permanent record of its existence as a community. Centrache has memorialized itself for all future generations to celebrate.

But I will not fall into the trap of trying to say what this portends for the future of Centrache, including all those other villages in the area. Who among the next generation will want to remain in a small village without job opportunities?

Having dispensed with the intensely personal goals of our Southern tour, my brother and sister-in-law departed for Rome, while Carole and I undertook the final leg of our journey. After Calabria, Carole and I wound our leisurely way through Basilicata, Puglia, Molise, Abruzzo, and then across Lazio into Rome. It would be redundant but not irrelevant to my theme to give further details of the stunning, productive landscapes that we passed through in these provinces. If Calabria is a “jewel,” so is the rest of the South in its many and varied facets. The problem was trying somehow to absorb it all. I did think of Stendhal and his famous entrance into Florence. I had to ask Carole though, as we drove along in our car, if it is possible to suffer from the “Stendhal syndrome” in Southern Italy.

It would be easy to say that if you have not been to the South, you have not seen the real Italy. After all, historically, in Slaughter’s words, Calabria was the first Italy. But that would be terribly chauvinistic of me. Contrary to those cultural stereotypes, what we saw in the South was the complexity of modern Italy. Yet viewing the modern face of the South, it is still impossible to forget its past. As one Calabrese proverb states, “Fare u fissa pe ‘un jire a ra guerra.”* (Pretend you’re a fool to avoid going to war.) Is there imbedded in that proverb, not only the South’s historically conditioned suspicion of governments and their invading armies, but the willingness of a Southerner to impersonate that archetypal cafone, which he is certain will be convincing to any outsider?

Travelling through Calabria and the South in general is indeed hazardous for the modern traveller, but not for the reasons I was warned about before I left. The problem is that the landscape stands in stark contrast to its troubled history and neglect. As a result, it is perilous attempting to write about such a complex cultural experience. It would be easy to overstate the great beauty of the landscape at the expense of Calabria’s very real historical and contemporary social problems. My only consolation is, given the abundant literature on Calabria, that I am not the first to try to write about this complex land. I am comforted by the Calabrese proverb: “U fissa parra sempre pe primu.”* (A fool is always the first to speak.) However, I am greatly troubled by the obvious wisdom of another: “A meglia parola è chilla ca ‘un se dice.”* (The best word is the one left unspoken.)

*From L’antichi dicìanu: Piccolo dizionario di proverbi calabresi by Antonio Coltellaro. Catanzaro: Calabria Letteraria Editrice, 2003. 

Kenneth Scambray’s most recent books are Surface Roots: Stories (Guernica) and Queen Calafia’s Paradise: California and the Italian American Novel (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press). His poem “Piece Work” recently won the 2007 Editor’s Choice Award in the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Contest sponsored each year by The Paterson Literary Review. Part I of “Re-Imagining Southern Italy, Sicily” appeared in Issue 12 of Accenti. 

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 13.

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