July 29, 2009

How the 800 Martyrs of Otranto Saved Rome

The Entry of Mahomet II into Constantinople
Painted by Benjamin Constant
On July 29, 1480 an Ottoman invasion force landed on the shores of Otranto, a small town in the Salento peninsula in Apulia. The assault on Southern Italy was supposed to spearhead the Turkish conquest of Western Europe. Violent Islamic incursions into Europe have been going on since the Mohammedans first exploded from the Arabian Desert, and continued well past their expulsion from Southern Italy, but what makes this event unique was the heroic sacrifice of the 800 captives who chose death before dishonor and apostasy.


I’m reprinting the excellent essay, How the 800 Martyrs of Otranto Saved Rome by Matthew E. Bunson, from "This Rock," in remembrance of those who fell defending Europe.


A little-known historical episode took place in an obscure Italian seaport in 1480. The event illustrates the significant threat to the West posed by Islam and the Turks. But it also reveals an ageless truth: The profound courage of a small group of faithful Catholics, who chose to die rather than renounce Christ, can alter the course of history.

By Matthew E. Bunson

On August 14, 1480, a massacre was perpetrated on a hill just outside the city of Otranto, in southern Italy. Eight hundred of the city’s male inhabitants were taken to a place called the Hill of the Minerva, and, one by one, beheaded in full view of their fellow prisoners. The spot forever after became known as the Hill of the Martyrs.

In medieval warfare, the bloody execution of a city’s population was commonplace, but what happened at Otranto was unique. The victims on the Hill of the Minerva were put to death not because they were political enemies of a conquering army, nor even because they refused to surrender their city. They died because they refused to convert to Islam. The 800 men of Otranto were martyrs, the first victims of what was fully expected to be the relentless conquest of Italy and then all of Christendom by the armies of the Ottoman Empire. Because of their sacrifice, however, the Ottoman invasion was slowed and Rome was spared the same fate that had befallen Constantinople only 27 years before.

Mehmet the Conqueror

On May 29, 1453, the venerable city of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire since it’s founding by Constantine the Great in the fourth century, fell to an army of 250,000 Ottoman Turks under the personal command of the 21-year-old Sultan Mehmet II. Earning his title, el-Fatih ("the Conqueror"), Mehmet completed the centuries’ old war against the Byzantines and made the once-great Christian city the new capital of his Islamic empire and the launching point for his grand plans of dominion over the West.

Ottoman armies were soon once more on the march, this time headed straight for the heart of Europe. Mehmet laid siege to the city of Belgrade, but his troops were repulsed by the Hungarians. Even so, the campaign ended with the Ottoman occupation of Serbia and a strategically strong position to push into the rest of the Balkans, including Wallachia (Romania) and Moldavia. Mehmet was relentless in his next efforts. Defeated in 1475 by Stephen the Great of Moldavia at the Battle of Vaslui, the Sultan merely waited until the next year to launch yet another army into the field. This time he crushed the Moldavians at the Battle of Valea Alba. More progress would have been made had Mehmet not been checked in the mountains of Wallachia by a foe even more determined and just as merciless: the Wallachian prince and one-time vassal of Mehmet, Vlad III Tepes, known to history as Vlad the Impaler, or Vlad Dracula.

Rebuffed for the moment in the Balkans, Mehmet turned to completing a task he had set himself back in 1453. After the fall of Constantinople, Mehmet claimed one other title alongside that of el-Fatih. He called himself Kayser-i Rûm ("Caesar of Rome") on the basis that he was successor to the throne of the Byzantine Empire and also a descendant of Theodora Kantakouzenos (daughter of the Byzantine Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos) who had been married to Sultan Orhan I (r. 1326-1359). Mehmet announced his intention to invade Italy, capture Rome, and bring together both halves of the Roman Empire. The campaign would also mark the final defeat of the Christian cause in Europe by the conversion of the city of the popes. St. Peter’s Basilica would serve as a stable for the Ottoman cavalry.

The Sultan Aims for Italy

Mehmet halted the ongoing siege of Rhodes—brilliantly defended by the Knights of Rhodes—and ordered large elements of the Turkish army and navy there to set sail for the Italian peninsula. The fleet comprised at least 90 galleys, 15 heavily armed galleasses, and 48 lighter galliots carrying over 18,000 soldiers. Their initial target was the Italian port city of Brindisi, in Puglia (or Apulia), the southeastern corner of the peninsula along the Adriatic Sea. The city was an ideal choice as it offered a large harbor for the ships. The commander of the Ottoman force, Pasha Ahmet, was one of the most formidable of Mehmet’s generals. He intended to capture the port and then advance immediately north toward Rome while Ottoman reinforcements arrived to consolidate the seized territory.

The movement of the fleet was aided considerably by the absence of resistance by the maritime power of Venice. The Venetians and the Ottoman Empire had been fighting each other off and on for dominance in the eastern Mediterranean and Adriatic since 1423. Much to Mehmet’s pleasure, the two powers signed a peace treaty in 1479 that ended hostilities, at least temporarily. The Sultan thus attacked Rhodes and then launched his campaign on Italy without fear of the Christian state of Venice blocking the progress of his armies.

The Adriatic’s weather did not cooperate, however, and the famous winds forced the fleet to land not in Brinidisi but some 50 miles to the south, at Roca, near the city of Otranto. The city is located on the eastern shore of the sub-peninsula of Salento, the small bit of land that juts out from the larger Italian peninsula and that has been described as the "heel" of the Italian "boot." In 1480, the area was Neapolitan/Aragonese, meaning it was under the control of the united kingdoms of Naples and Aragon. Otranto’s cathedral dated to the late 11th century and had been the scene, ironically, of the enthusiastic blessing of some 12,000 Crusaders under the leadership of Bohemond of Taranto just before they set sail to take part in the First Crusade (1095-1099).

The city’s walls afforded a wonderful view of the Adriatic, but on the morning of July 29, an ominous sight appeared on the horizon: The Ottoman fleet had landed nearby. Thousands of soldiers and sailors began marching toward Otranto, where the garrison of soldiers numbered only around 400. Messengers were sent north to alert the rest of the peninsula of the danger that had arrived from the sea.

The castle had no cannons, and the garrison commander, Count Francesco Largo, was aware of the limited supplies and water. Medieval warfare, even after the emergence of cannons, was predicated on stark and often grim choices on the part of the defenders of any city or castle under siege. The defenders could either hope to hold out (especially if a relief army was on the way), or they could negotiate a surrender. Surrender was an option to be considered as early as possible, for the longer a siege went on the harsher the terms might become. Should a city or castle fight to the last and have its walls breached, staggering violence usually followed as the conquering force pillaged, vented its pent-up frustration, and searched for loot and treasure.

Surrender or Die

For the citizens of Otranto, the siege of Constantinople was still well known. When that city fell, Ottoman troops were allowed to pillage parts of the city, but the key moment came when they reached the famed church of the Hagia Sophia. After breaking down the church’s bronze gates, the Turkish troops found inside a huge throng of Byzantines who had taken refuge and who were praying that the city might be delivered by some miracle. The Christians were seized and separated according to age and gender. The infants and elderly were brutally murdered; the men—including some of the city’s most prominent senators—were carted off to the slave markets; and the women and girls were taken by soldiers or sent into a life of slavery.

At Otranto, the terms of the Pasha were ostensibly generous. If the town surrendered, the defenders would be permitted to live. Otranto was forfeit. The answer to the Pasha’s demands was firm: The Christians would not surrender. When a second messenger was sent to the walls to repeat the demands, he was met with arrows from the walls. To settle the issue, the leaders of the castle defense climbed to the top of the tower and threw the keys of the city into the sea. When the determined defenders awoke in the morning, however, some of the soldiers had fled by climbing down the walls and running for their lives.

The few hundred inhabitants of Otranto now faced 18,000 fierce Ottomans with barely 50 Neapolitan soldiers. The siege engines and Ottoman cannons brought down a relentless torrent of stones, and waves of Ottoman soldiers crashed against the walls and tried to climb up to get at the frantic defenders. The people of the town boiled oil and water to pour down upon the enemy while others hurled rocks, statues, and furniture.

The struggle went for nearly two harrowing weeks until, in the early morning of August 12, the Ottomans breached a part of the wall with their cannons. A spirited defense was waged amid the rubble of the broken wall, but the people of Otranto were hopelessly overmatched, lacking any training in vicious hand-to-hand combat, and exhausted by the ordeal of the siege.

Slaughter, Sacrilege, and Slavery

Turkish troops slaughtered the stalwart defenders and then rushed through the city killing anyone in their path. They made their way to the cathedral. As in the Hagia Sophia, the invaders found the church filled with people praying with Archbishop Stefano Agricoli, Bishop Stephen Pendinelli, and Count Largo. The Ottomans commanded the archbishop to throw away his crucifix, abjure the Christian faith, and embrace Islam. When he refused, his head was cut off before the weeping congregation. Bishop Pendinelli and Count Largo likewise would not convert and were also put to death, reportedly by being slowly sawed in half. As was the custom, the priests were murdered and the cathedral was stripped of all Christian symbols and turned into a stable for the horses. The Ottomans then gathered up the surviving people of Otranto and took them as captives. Their ultimate fate was in the hands of Pasha Ahmed.

The people of Otranto faced the same end as the Christians of Constantinople. All of the men over the age of 50 were slaughtered; the women and children under the age of 15 were either slain or sent away to Albania to be slaves. According to some contemporary sources, the total number of dead was as high as 12,000, with another 5,000 pressed into slavery. (These numbers are almost certainly an exaggeration as Otranto did not likely have a population that high.) Nevertheless, worse was still to come.

Death before Apostasy

The Pasha Ahmet ordered the men of Otranto, 800 exhausted, beaten, and starved survivors of the battle, to be brought before him. The Pasha informed them that they had one chance to convert to Islam or die. To convince them, he instructed an Italian apostate priest named Giovanni to preach. The former priest called on the men of Otranto to abandon the Christian faith, spurn the Church, and become Muslims. In return, they would be honored by the Pasha and receive many benefits.

One of the men of Otranto, a tailor named Antonio Primaldi (he is also named Antonio Pezzulla in some sources), came forward to speak to the survivors. He called out that he was ready to die for Christ a thousand times. He then added, according to the chronicler Giovanni Laggetto in the Historia della guerra di Otranto del 1480:

My brothers, until today we have fought in defense of our country, to save our lives, and for our lords; now it is time that we fight to save our souls for our Lord, so that having died on the cross for us, it is good that we should die for him, standing firm and constant in the faith, and with this earthly death we shall win eternal life and the glory of martyrs. [Author translation]

At this, the men of Otranto cried out with one voice that they too were willing to die a thousand times for Christ. The angry Pasha Ahmed pronounced his sentence: death.

The next morning, August 14, the 800 prisoners were bound together with ropes and led out of the still-smoking battleground of Otranto and up the Hill of Minerva. The victims repeated their pledge to be faithful to Christ, and the Ottomans chose the courageous Antonio Primaldo as the first to be executed.

The old tailor gave one final exhortation to his fellow prisoners and knelt before the executioner. The blade fell and decapitated him, but then, as the chronicler Saverio de Marco claimed in the Compendiosa istoria degli ottocento martiri otrantini ("The Brief History of the 800 Martyrs of Otranto"), the headless corpse stood back upright. The body supposedly proved unmovable, so it remained standing for the entire duration of the gruesome executions. Stunned by this apparent miracle, one of the executioners converted on the spot and was immediately killed. The executioners then returned to their horrendous business. The bodies were placed into a mass grave, and the Turks prepared to begin their march up the peninsula toward Rome. Otranto was in ruins, its population gone, its men dead and thrown into a pit, seemingly to be forgotten.

The Second Siege of Otranto

All of Italy was by now in a state of alarm. Pope Sixtus IV was reportedly so concerned for the safety of the Eternal City that he renewed the call first made in 1471 for a crusade against the Turks. Hungary, France, and a number of Italian city-states answered the plea. Not surprisingly, Venice refused, still bound by its treaty. The pope also made plans to evacuate Rome should the Turks arrive near the gates of the city.

Time was now of crucial importance to the safety of the Italian peninsula, and the king of Naples, Ferdinand I, quickly gathered his available forces and charged his son Alfonso, duke of Calabria, with the campaign. The two weeks that were purchased through the sacrifice of the people of Otranto became the key to organizing an effective response to the invasion, for the Neapolitan forces now had the chance to bottle up the Turks in Apulia rather than battling them across Italy.

Toward the end of August, Pasha Ahmed sent 70 ships of the Ottoman fleet to attack the city of Vieste. Turkish troops pushed on and destroyed the small church of Santa Maria di Merino and in early September set fire to the Monastery of San Nicholas di Casole. The monastery’s famed library was reduced to ashes.

In October, the Pasha attacked the cities of Lecce, Taranto, and Brindisi. He left behind a garrison at Otranto of 800 infantry and 500 cavalry. But time and the weather were now against the Turks. Ahmed had lost his chance to strike northwest, and he was finding supplies and food difficult to find in Apulia. He was also aware of the impending advance of the Neapolitan forces. He therefore decided to set sail from Italy before the winter storms in the Adriatic cut him off completely from all communication with Constantinople. The garrison at Otranto would remain, and the Pasha intended to return after the winter with an even larger army.

Duke Alfonso led his army into Apulia in the early spring of 1481. He was assisted by a force of Hungarian troops that had been dispatched by King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary, a longtime foe of the Turks and a monarch eager to deliver them a defeat in Italy. Like the people of Otranto a year before, the Turkish troops retreated to the rebuilt defenses of the city as the Christian army arrived at the gates on May 1. The city was thoroughly invested. The siege of Otranto continued apace for several months, culminating in two large assaults, in August and then September 1481. The city fell with the second attack, but the last vestiges of Otranto were destroyed in the vicious fighting. None of the Ottoman troops were left alive.

The Sacrifice That Saved Italy

While the siege engines of the Neapolitans rained down on the Ottoman defenders, across the Adriatic on May 3, 1481, Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror died suddenly at the age of 49 at his military headquarters at Gebze, while planning his next war. It was believed that he had been poisoned, perhaps by the Venetians.

Any thought of a relief force sailing from the Ottoman Empire for Italy died with Mehmet, for his heir, Bayezid II, was forced to engage in a bitter struggle with his brother Cem for the throne. Pasha Ahmed fell out of favor at the court and was recalled to Constantinople by Bayezid and imprisoned. On November 18, 1482, the one-time great general was executed at Adrianople.

The Ottoman ambitions in Italy were ended. Had Otranto surrendered to the Turks, the history of Italy might have been very different. But the heroism of the people of Otranto was more than a strategically decisive stand. What made the sacrifice of Otranto so remarkable was the willingness to die for the faith rather than reject Christ.

The martyrs of Otranto were not forgotten by the people who returned to Apulia after the fighting was over. The bones of the martyrs were gathered up, placed in reliquaries, and installed in a chapel just off the main altar in the restored cathedral. Some of the relics were also sent to the church of Santa Caterina in Formello at Naples.

On October 5, 1980, Pope John Paul II visited Otranto and said Mass in honor of the martyrs in the cathedral. Twenty-six years later, in July 2006, Pope Benedict XVI gave his formal approval for the promulgation of a decree by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints that the Martyrs of Otranto were killed out of "hatred for the faith" (in odium fidei) in Otranto on August 14, 1480. This was the formal recognition that they were martyrs.

In speaking of the sufferings of the martyrs of Otranto, Pope John Paul II touched upon the challenges of martyrdom for Christ, but he also stressed the example of the 800 to modern Christians, especially those enduring hardships and sufferings in hostile lands where persecutions and even death are commonplace. He declared,

Many confessors and disciples of Christ have passed through this test in the course of history. The Martyrs of Otranto passed through it 500 years ago. The martyrs of this century have passed and are passing through it today, martyrs who are unappreciated, otherwise little known, and who are found in places far away from us. [Author translation]

Matthew E. Bunson is a contributing editor to This Rock and the author of We Have a Pope: Benedict XVI (Our Sunday Visitor, 2005) and more than 30 other books. He is a consultant for USA Today on Catholic matters. He is the general editor of Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Almanac, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and a moderator of EWTN’s online Church history forum.

July 16, 2009

Masaniello and the Revolt of Naples, 1647-1648

Tommaso Aniello
(b. June 29, 1620 - d. July 16, 1647)
by Onofrio Palumbo
By Giovanni di Napoli
"The Revolution, like Saturn, devours it's children" – Georg Buchner
The Revolt of Naples began on July 7, 1647 when the fruit-vendors of Pozzuoli refused to pay an excessive tax on produce imposed by the Spanish crown. The rebels' leader was Tommaso Aniello d'Amalfi (nicknamed Masaniello), a poor fisherman from the slums of Vico Rotto al Mercato. During a mock battle between the Neapolitan lazzaroni (lumpenproletariat) and “Saracens” at the Festa della Madonna del Carmine, Masaniello and his lieutenants (dressed in Muslim garb) instigated a riot among the participants. Crying, "Long live the king and down with bad government!” they set fire to the hated tax station in Piazza Mercato.  
Other disgruntled tradesmen soon joined the insurrection, and like a spark in a tinderbox the revolt quickly spread throughout the provinces. Reprisals were meted out to the most abusive lords. Amongst those targeted by the mob, was the reviled Don Giuseppe Carafa. Torn to pieces, his mutilated corpse was dragged through the streets. The violence was immortalized in a painting by renowned Neapolitan artist, Domenico Gargiulo, better known as Micco Spadaro (1609-1675). 
Appeals were made to King Philip IV of Spain, but money was desperately needed for the war against France. The Spanish viceroy, Rodrigo Ponce de León, the Duke of Arcos, and his retinue took refuge in the Castel Nuovo. In fear of losing the colony the Duke conceded to the Neapolitans' demands and abolished the tax. Masaniello was elected Capo del Popolo and the riots were momentarily quelled.
The murder of Don Giuseppe Carafa by Micco Spadaro
At first the modest fisherman appeared to be the right choice for leader. When offered a gold chain by the viceroy, Masaniello graciously refused: "I thank his Excellency, but this is not a thing for me, because, once this business is over I want to go back to selling fish." On another occasion, when a group of curious nobles wished to see the popular leader up-close he reportedly threatened them: "Gentlemen, leave here, otherwise I will have your heads chopped off because I want no other company than simple barefoot people, like myself." (1)
After meeting with the viceroy, however, Masaniello soon changed his tune. He began making outlandish demands and behaving irrationally. Mad with power (or, as some believe, from poison) the people's captain was struck down and beheaded on July 16th by his own supporters. His body discarded, Masaniello’s head was impaled on a stake outside the Fosse del grano. Believing the threat was over the viceroy prematurely revoked his concessions. More rioting ensued and Masaniello's body and head were recovered and given a funeral fit for a hero. "They have become so insolent", complained the viceroy, "that they took him to be buried that very night according to the rituals that are reserved for deceased generals; and they even took him before the windows of the palace." (2)
The Punishment of Thieves at the Time of Masaniello by Micco Spadaro
Unable to put down the rebellion, the Duke of Arcos was replaced by Juan José de Austria as viceroy. After bombarding the city he fought the insurgents to a stalemate. On October 17, 1648 the rebels declared the end of Spanish rule and naively appealed to France for help. Five days later, under the leadership of Gennaro Annese (Masaniello's successor) and the inept French Duke of Guise, Henri II of Lorraine, the short-lived Neapolitan Republic was born.
Spanish reinforcements soon arrived with another new viceroy, the Count of Oñate, Iñigo Velez de Guevara y Tassis. Exhausted and without able leadership, the populace offered little resistance to the Spaniards. Appeasing the people, the Count of Oñate cut taxes and granted amnesty to the rebels. Predictably, he broke his promise and had the leaders of the fledgling Republic, including Gennaro Annese, executed. Henri of Guise remained imprisoned until 1652 before being allowed to return to France.
Thus ended the revolt of Naples. It was not until 1735, with the ascension of HRH King Charles of Bourbon, the great restorer, that the ancient Kingdom would regain its independence and freed from provincial servitude. 

Addendum:

Masaniello's Wife


by Ferdinando Russo (1866-1927)

The Spaniards now are back in town,
the good times are finally through;
now the young girls walk forlorn
down Marinella avenue.
And the queen of the eight days
is reduced to being a maid
cares and worries are here to stay
a tax on fruits now must be paid.

That fine dress, all inlaid
with fine silver and with gold,
our good queen has had to trade
for the tattered dress of old.
The splendid crown in gold-wrought lace,
what is now? a crown of thorns!
All the sequins of her necklace
are no longer being worn.

The Spaniards now are back in town
yet more scornful and arrogant,
among the soldiers she is known
as the queen of mendicants.
And they give her a light hit,
and they let word go by,
and they pull her skirt a bit...
All alone, she starts to cry.

Darkened bread and bitter tears,
bitter tears and darkened bread
walk in step and go in pairs
like monks marching in their stead.
From the Palace then she came
behind Borgo and now sells love;
she's acquired a bad name
but it's pain she's dying of!

In the slum of the poor woman
now the regiment is moving;
her good luck is finally gone,
and an evil wind is blowing.
She became so wholly mired
in a hungry and wretched life,
she who once was so admired
as Masaniello's wife. (3)

(1) Quotes from Representing the King's Splendour by Gabriel Guarino, Manchester University Press, 2010
(2) Quoted from The Revolt of Naples by Rosario Villari, Polity Press, 1993
(3) Quoted from Dialect Poetry of Southern Italy edited by Luigi Bonaffini, Legas, 1997


Amended October 22, 2016

Vincenzo Gemito

Il Pescatore at the Museo Civico
in the Maschio Angioino, Napoli
By Giovanni di Napoli

A year before his death the great Neapolitan sculptor Vincenzo Gemito wrote, "If the artist lacks knowledge of the past, he will never be able to make masterpieces." (1) As with art, this rule also applies to people. Without historical memory there is no shared identity or vision. This is why we study our history and keep our ancestral folk traditions alive. A people cut off from their past are enervated. Those who don't know their history will never be able to fulfill their destiny. Gemito's genius is a source of inspiration and a reminder of the potential that is still in us.

Vincenzo Gemito was born in Naples on July 16th 1852. Abandoned at the wheel of the Santissima Annunziata by his mother, with only his ear pierced for protection against the evil eye (Jettatura), the charitable sisters of the foundling hospital took him in and named him Vincenzo after a nearby piazza. The child was given the surname Gemito, meaning “to whimper”, because of the pitiable mewling sounds he made.

An excerpt from Ferdinando Russo’s (1866-1927) poem, The Wheel at the Annunciation reveals the pervasiveness of child abandonment at the time:
Night and day one went and another came;
never did that wheel ever tire!
It turned always... always it turned and turned... (2)
Giuseppe and Giuseppina Baratta, a poor couple grieving the recent loss of their infant son, adopted him on July 30th. A former monk, Giuseppe worked as a house painter, but died when Gemito was only six-years-old. To help support his foster mom the young scugnizzo sold coffee in the streets. Giuseppina eventually married Francesco Jadicicco, another poor house painter, with whom Gemito had a loving relationship. He affectionately referred to his new stepfather as Masto Ciccio.

The boy worked with Francesco as a house painter until the age of nine when he became an assistant to the sculptor Emanuele Caggiano (1837-1905). Astounded by the boy's natural ability, Caggiano encouraged Gemito to pursue further art instruction. In 1864 Gemito enrolled into the Real Istituto di Belle Arti (Royal Academy of Fine Arts) where he became lifelong friends with the Roman painter Antonio Mancini. Together they studied in the workshop of Stanislao Lista (1824-1908), a prominent artist whose realistic style significantly influenced contemporary Neapolitan sculpture.
Testa di ragazzo at the Museo Civico in the Maschio Angioino, Napoli
During this period Gemito joined a colony of artists who set up a workshop in Sant'Andrea delle Dame, an abandoned monastery in the old city center. He would often explore the Via San Gregorio Armeno — famous for its workshops producing figurines for the Neapolitan presepe (Nativity scenes) — and the coast of Posillipo, observing the young scugnizzi at work and play. Naples' street-urchins were a popular subject with Gemito, one in which the artist would often return to in his career. In addition to the inspiration he found in everyday Neapolitan life, he'd often visit the Museo Archeologico to study the Greco-Roman sculpture excavated from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

At sixteen Gemito presented his Il Giocatore, a wonderful rendering of a young card player, at the Promotrice di Belle Arti in Naples. The statue was so well received that King Vittorio Emanuele II of Italy purchased a bronze cast for the Museo di Capodimonte, a former Bourbon palace and one of Europe's great museums.
Museo di Capodimonte, Napoli
The young artist quickly gained a reputation as a master portraitist. While only 22 years of age he cast the now famous bust of Giuseppe Verdi, capturing the brooding composer in a moment of deep contemplation. Gemito's love for his people was reflected in the many portraits he did of the Neapolitan peasantry. His Il Malatiello (The Sick Child) is a wonderful example of the artist's ability to fuse Classicism with Realism. Among Gemito's most celebrated works are his remarkable portrayals of his friend, the great Neapolitan painter Domenico Morelli (1823-1901) and the Spanish Romantic painter, Mariano Fortuny y Carbo (1835-1874). Perhaps his most famous portrait is his stoic Il Filosofo (Bust of a Philosopher), said to be inspired by the Hellenistic bronze Pseudo-Seneca discovered at Herculaneum. It is presumed that Masto Ciccio was the sitter for this piece.

In 1873 Gemito met Mathilde Duffaud, a Parisian model who posed for several of the artist's friends. Although nine years older than him they fell instantly in love and moved in together. He modeled at least four sculptures of her. They traveled to Paris (with Mancini) in 1877. The following year Gemito presented his Il Pescatore, a statue of a Neapolitan fisher boy securing his catch, at the 94th Paris Salon. His success won him international recognition.
Another look at Il Pescatore
During his stay in the French capital, Gemito befriended the celebrated artist Jean-Louis Ernest Messonier (1815-1891) and was given space to work in the Frenchman's atelier on the Boulevard Malesherbes. Gemito modeled two portraits of his host, a bust and statuette, as well as exquisite life-sized studies of Messonier's hands, holding paintbrushes, a rag and part of a palette.

After three years in France, Gemito returned to Naples. With the help of a wealthy Belgian industrialist, Baron Oscar de Mesnil (1855-1897), he set up a foundry for lost-wax casting on the Via Mergellina. The quality of work produced at the foundry is considered his finest. An imposing bronze bust of his patron (said to have been completed in just twelve hours) can be seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Bust of Baron Oscar de Mesnil at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
In the spring of 1881 Mathilde died from tuberculosis in Resina. She was 38 years of age. Deeply upset over her death Gemito went to the Isle of Capri to recover. He produced several drawings and a silver portrait of a local peasant girl, which he later named La Caprese.

That same year he created Il Acquaiolo (The Water Vendor) for Francesco II di Borbone, the exiled King of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Worried that Queen Maria Sophia would be upset by the statue's nudity, the King asked Gemito to tailor a pair of silver pants to cover the figure. In 1882 Gemito presented a second version — con pantaloni (with trousers) — at the Paris Salon. In 1885 the statue, plus several portraits, won him a first class medal at the Universal Exposition at Antwerp, Belgium.

In 1882 Gemito met Anna Cutolo working as a model in Domenico Morelli's studio. She is believed to be the sensual figure immortalized in Morelli's Dama con ventaglio (Lady with a fan) now housed in the Museo Diego Aragona Pignatelli Cortes in Naples. They quickly married and in 1885 their daughter, Giuseppina, was born. Anna was the subject of many drawings, including the hauntingly beautiful Coserella. In 1886 he rendered a terracotta portrait of Anna from which, several bronze and marble versions were made. Masterfully executed, it is a deeply personal piece exuding the tender love the artist felt for his wife.

At age 35 and at the height of his career Gemito was commissioned to sculpt a marble statue of Charles V, which stands in the facade of the Palazzo Reale in Naples. The work troubled him greatly and upon its completion he suffered a nervous breakdown. He entered the Fleurant clinic in 1887, but soon withdrew into isolation in his apartment on the Via Tasso. He was unable to complete the silver Trionfo da Tavola, an elaborate table decoration incorporating allegorical figures of Naples, commissioned by King Umberto I of Italy. For over two decades the troubled artist abandoned sculpting, devoting himself entirely to drawing. Anna supported him until her death in 1906.

Charles V Palazzo Reale, Napoli
Gemito resumed sculpting in 1909. His taste developed towards a more Classical aesthetic, best represented by his La Sorgente (The Source), an idealized version of the artist's Acquaiolo motif. Although many of his works from this period depict mythological (The Young Neptune and The Sibyl) and heroic characters from antiquity (Alexander the Great), he continued to draw inspiration from the people of his native city. His magnificent Busto di Fanciulla Napoletana (Bust of a Neapolitan Girl) and Acquaiolo Storto (Crooked Water Vendor) are notable examples.

In his later years Gemito spent much time between Rome and Naples, visiting his daughter, Giuseppina, and four grandchildren, Annita, Bice, Carlotta and Alessandro. In Rome he studied the works of Renaissance and Baroque masters, sketching many of their famous masterpieces. He was especially fond of Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), even going so far as to try and acquire the Florentine's workspace underneath the Castel'Sant Angelo in Rome. Producing fewer and fewer sculptures Gemito dedicated his time mostly to drawing and smithing highly prized small-scale pieces in precious metals, including a silver relief of the great cosmocrator and gilded head of the gorgon, Medusa.

Vincenzo Gemito died on March 1, 1929. Old black-and-white photos in the Museo Pignatelli collection show thousands of people attending his funeral procession along the Piazza San Ferdinando in Naples. He was admired by many of his contemporaries, most notably the warrior-bard Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938) and poet Salvatore Di Giacomo (1860-1934), who wrote the artist's first biography, Vincenzo Gemito: La vita, l'opera (Life and Works), in 1905. Gemito is considered by many to be the most important Italian sculptor and draughtsman of the late nineteenth century.

Photos by New York Scugnizzo

(1) Quoted from A Chisel and a Brush: Vincenzo Gemito 1852-1929, Antonio Mancini 1852-1930, from the Gilgore Collection, 2000, p. 58

(2) Quoted from The Bread and the Rose edited by Achille Serrao and Luigi Bonaffini, Legas, 2005, p. 146

The following sources proved invaluable to this post:

• Vincenzo Gemito: Drawings and Sculpture in Naples and Rome by Emanuela Ricciardi, Kate Ganz USA, 2000
• A Chisel and a Brush: Vincenzo Gemito 1852-1929, Antonio Mancini 1852-1930, from the Gilgore Collection, 2000
• Vincenzo Gemito: Drawings by Bruno Mantura, Trinity Fine Art, 2008

July 13, 2009

Il Regno & Friends' Weekend of R&R


Just some of the many mushrooms we discovered on our "hunt"
(WARNING: Do NOT forage for mushrooms without expert supervision. Some mushrooms can kill you!)

Members of Il Regno (NYC) took to the hills this weekend to escape the hustle and bustle of the urban jungle.

Saturday — Under the attentive supervision of mycological experts we spent a pleasant day foraging for mushrooms and learning about edible plants and roots. Excursions into sylvan tranquility, such as these, always makes this city-slicker feel more in tune with nature and closer to God.

Unfortunately, inclement weather cancelled our planned evening boat trip on the Hudson River. However, the rain did not dampen our enthusiasm because we were able to enjoy good company, some fine wine and, of course, our fungi (cooked to perfection in a wild mushroom frittata).
A musician from Caserta and folk dancers at the Westchester festival

Sunday — NYC not being the haven for Southern Italians it once was means sometimes traveling to ethnic enclaves outside the metropolis to celebrate our culture and heritage. We visited the annual Italian Heritage Festival at Kensico Dam Plaza near Valhalla, Westchester. We were treated to a enjoyable day of food, folk music and dancing.

If all this wasn't enough, upon returning to Brooklyn we stopped by the Feast of San Paolino di Nola and Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Williamsburg, for zeppoles and espresso to cap off our relaxing weekend.
The Giglio and the Madonna of Mount Carmel
(All photos courtesy of New York Scugnizzo)

July 4, 2009

The Garibaldi–Meucci Museum

Portrait bust of Giuseppe Garibaldi (left) and Antonio Meucci monument
July 4, 2009 marks the 102 anniversary of the day Antonio Meucci’s cottage, now the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum, was moved to its present location on Tompkins Avenue in Rosebank, Staten Island. The museum is a National Landmark owned and operated by the Order Sons of Italy in America.
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My recent visit to the Staten Island Garibaldi-Meucci Museum did little to improve my opinion of Giuseppe Garibaldi. In fact, it confirmed a lot of what I already thought about the so-called "Eroe dei Due Mondi" or "Hero of the Two Worlds," and if anything, it actually lowered my opinion of him, something I thought impossible. 

Not surprisingly, there was very little pertinent information about the Risorgimento, the forced unification of Italy, on hand. It was mostly the usual hyperbolic comparisons with George Washington and discredited propaganda about “liberating the South” and “Italian independence.” There was no shortage of illustrations, plaques and medals glorifying the exploits of the Red Shirts and their famous leader.
Masonic medal of  Giuseppe Mazzini (left) and Antonio Meucci's death mask
The museum also doesn't hide the fact that Freemasonry played an important part in Italian unification but does little to explain its subversive character. As usual, there is absolutely no mention of Southern Italy’s hardships and oppression following unification.

To the museum’s credit it actually has a few artifacts that belonged to Garibaldi. His red shirt and Turkish fez, along with a rifle, bayonet and saber from that period, are on display.

The museum's other namesake, Antonio Meucci, was a far more interesting figure to me, if only because I knew so little about him. The Florentine was a brilliant inventor, engineer and chemist, and according to the museum it was Meucci rather than Alexander Graham Bell who really invented the telephone. (Personally, I'm still not convinced.)

Like Garibaldi, Meucci was a Mason and conspirator in the Italian Unification Movement. He was imprisoned in 1833 and 1884 for revolutionary activities. In October 1835 he and his wife Ester fled Florence to Havana, Cuba. They left Cuba in 1850 for Staten Island, New York, and eked out a living as candle makers. It was here that Meucci befriended the exiled Garibaldi before his fated conquest of the independent and sovereign Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. 
Masonic memorial plaque for Giuseppe Garibaldi
Photos courtesy of New York Scugnizzo
The museum also offers Italian lessons, which in itself is not a bad thing. Many people could benefit from them. However, it reflects a greater problem at large: so-called “proper” Italian is replacing the vernacular of Southern Italians. Often dismissed as vulgar dialects — Sicilian, Neapolitan, Calabrian, etc. — they are all in danger of becoming dead languages. It is simply another example of the cultural leveling taking place in modern Italy.

With all that said I would also like to point out that the history of the Meucci homestead and the relics it contains are interesting. The staff was courteous and professional. I only wish that they were more objective about Garibaldi and the Risorgimento.