February 13, 2010

A Matter of Honor

In Days of Old when Knights were Bold….
Actors recreating the legendary ‘Challenge of Barletta’.
(Photo courtesy of www.DisfidadiBarletta.net)
By Niccolò Graffio 
“Whoever would not die to preserve his honor would be infamous.” – Blaise Pascal: Pensées, III, 1670. 
History and Geography were always my two favorite subjects in school. No doubt the fact I was so good in them was a factor (I never received less than an “A” in either of them). The overriding factor, though, was my lifelong fascination with peoples and places from the past. I must confess to having a special attachment to Greco-Roman history, but given the enormous contributions of ancient Greeks and Romans to the history of Western Civilization, it should be understandable. 
In my salad days I was introduced to those periods in history known as the Middle Ages and the Renaissance by attending a Renaissance Faire in upstate New York (Sterling Forest, to be exact). This is not to say I did not learn about these periods while in school. I did, but they were such quick and dry reading (thanks in large part to the politically correct curricula of the New York City Dept. of Education), they really didn’t pique my interest. Standing there in Sterling Forest, however, surrounded by medieval trappings (melded with the crass commercialism of modern-day America), opened up a whole new world for me. 
Since then I have attended a number of similar events in other areas of this part of the country. Wherever I have gone, I couldn’t help but notice these events had a Medieval-Renaissance England theme to them. This is understandable, given the Anglo-Saxon roots of America, but Anglos are not the only people living here, and they are certainly no longer the majority. With notable exceptions of places like say, Minnesota (which has festivals celebrating the Norse ancestry of many of its inhabitants), one walking through one of these Renaissance fairs would be tempted to believe no one outside Anglos and Celts was doing anything of any significance during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
This, of course, would be grossly inaccurate. From my readings (independent of the public fool system) I learned, for example, that during the 15th and 16th centuries Poland-Lithuania was a sprawling empire that covered much of present day Eastern Europe. The University of Kraków, located in the empire’s capital, was a famous center of cosmopolitan learning that attracted scholars from all over Europe. I never learned any of this in high school or college and certainly I have never seen anything to indicate this at any Renaissance festival! One would think the Poles would at least deserve an honorable mention, especially since there are millions of Polish-Americans.
Truth be told, I cannot fault Anglo- and Celtic-Americans for celebrating their heritage. Rather, I am dismayed at the lack of interest in most others for their roots. I am especially disconcerted at the level of apathy in Southern Italians for our ethnic heritage. The process of deracination, begun with the conquest and destruction of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies by Northern Italians in the latter half of the 19th century, was given further impetus to refugees who fled here by the natives who demanded immigrants assimilate into the great melting pot that is the United States of America. Hyphenated Americans simply could not be tolerated, even though, ironically, the new arrivals were relegated to the same second class status they were afforded in the new “nation” of Italy.
Under those circumstances, it should hardly be surprising our people have in large part lost sight of their identity and their history, medieval or otherwise. Today, Southern Italians in America are either continuing the process of assimilation at a frightening pace, or else making caricatures of themselves like the fools who parade around the boob tube in shows like Jersey Shore.
On the other side of the Big Pond, however, things are a bit different. Even though Piedmontese soldiers suppressed the political Brigante movement with a brutality that would not be seen again on the continent of Europe until the rise of Bolshevism and World War 2, they could not stamp out its memory completely. Embers of nationalist sentiment continued to burn quietly in forgotten corners of the so-called Mezzogiorno down to the present. Now that dissatisfaction with the policies of the hopelessly corrupt government of Italy are growing in both North and South, these embers are slowly coalescing into a reawakening of ethnic memory in the minds of many Southerners, like the fiery Phoenix of ancient Egyptian mythology.
Part of this reawakening consists in the rediscovery, retelling and reenactment of events in our people’s past that serve as a source of national pride. Those that do these things understand that tradition, honor and pride are necessary and good in instilling a sense of self and belonging in people. This is something “guidos” and “guidettes” will simply never understand! One of these events I learned about only recently; an event in the history of our people known as “The Challenge of Barletta”.
Some background information is in order. In 1458, Alfonso V, King of Aragon (now in Spain), died. He had earlier conquered the Kingdom of Naples and reduced it (along with the island of Sicily) to the status of dependencies of Aragon. Upon his death, the Kingdom of Naples passed to his illegitimate son, Ferrante (King Ferdinand I). John II of Anjou, Duke of Lorraine, disputed this and invaded the kingdom, attempting to reassert his family’s ancestral claim to the land. With the help of allies he was ultimately able to defeat John and secure his throne. His reign, though, was wracked by wars and rebellions. In 1489, the Ottoman Turks, under the rule of Mehmed II, captured the city of Otranto, murdering most of its inhabitants in the process. The city was recaptured the following year.
Ferrante’s reign was oppressive and corrupt. His death in 1494 was the pretext for the invasion of his kingdom by King Charles VIII of France. Charles invoked a vague claim to the throne through his paternal grandmother, Marie of Anjou. Thus began the period of history known as the Italian Wars. Charles’s army reached the city of Naples on February 22, 1495, deposing Ferrante’s son and successor, Alfonso. Charles’ victory would not last, however. The speed and success of his invasion of the Italian peninsula galvanized the Pope and many local Italian rulers to form an alliance, the League of Venice, against him. By the end of 1495 most of his armies had been forced to withdraw. He never returned.
In 1498, Charles VIII of France died without a male heir. Louis XII, a descendant of King Charles V, succeeded him. A tough, capable, and energetic ruler, Louis overhauled the French legal and political systems, while setting his sights on Italian real estate. He had particular interests on the thrones of Milan and Naples. This set the stage for the second phase of the Italian Wars (1499-1504). After sweeping victories in the north, he signed an alliance with King Ferdinand II of Aragon (Ferdinand I of Spain), agreeing to divide the territories of the Kingdom of Naples with him. Naples fell before them in 1501. Soon afterwards, however, a quarrel broke out between the two kings over how to divide the spoils. The erstwhile allies quickly became enemies and hostilities broke out between Spain and France. Italian rulers scrambled to choose sides.
The Spaniards, under the command of the legendary General Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba (“El Gran Cápitan”), barricaded themselves in the city of Barletta in the Duchy of Puglia. The French advanced on the city but were repulsed in battle, with many being taken prisoner, including their commander, General Charles La Motte.
After the battle the Spaniards prepared a banquet in honor of the Italian knights allied with them. La Motte took the occasion of the banquet to rise and insult the honor of the Italians, charging them with cowardice in battle. For a split second you could have heard a pin drop, then shouts of anger rang through the banquet hall. Accusations and insults were hurled by both sides. The Italians demanded an apology; the French refused. This stain weighed heavily on Italian honor. Talking it over amongst themselves, they agreed it could not be forgotten or forgiven. Two knights, Giovanni Capoccio and Giovanni Brancaleone, were chosen to deliver the obligatory challenge to the French camp. Under the rules of knightly behavior, the French had no choice but to accept. Both sides agreed to the following terms:
• The knightly battle would consist of a series of jousts between the French and the Italians
• Each side would have 13 knights
• The contest would be to the death!

The call was put out by the Italians for men to come forward to defend the honor of their people. Thirteen men readily stepped forward.
The French side was commanded by La Motte, the man whose mouth started it all! The Italian side consisted of the following:
Ettore Fieramosca – a condottiero (mercenary warlord) and noble from Capua, Campania who had previously distinguished himself in battle against the armies of Charles VIII of France. He led the Italians.
Ludovico Abenevole – called “Animal” due to his ferocity in battle. Like Fieramosca, he hailed from Capua. The historian Cesare Caracciola described him as a “knight of highest merit”.
Mariano Abignente – born in Sarno, Campania. Documents attest both to his noble origins and his ties to the Neapolitan Royal Family.
Guglielmo Albamonte – born in Palermo, Sicily. He moved to Capua after the Challenge. He was captain of the cavalry at the Battle of Ravenna.
Giovanni Brancaleone – his real name was Giovanni Bracalone. Born in Genazzano, outside the city of Rome.
Giovanni Capoccio – both the cities of Rome and Spinazzola in Puglia claim him as their own. Tradition has it that he was the “strongest Italian champion after Fieramosca”.
Marco Corollario – born in Naples. Sadly, the only thing known for sure about him is he had a daughter named Cassandra.
Bartolomeo Fanfulla – a veteran of the siege of Pisa and the Battle of Bibbiana. Born in Lodi, Lombardia.
Ettore Giovenale – born in Rome. Like the rest of his companions, a veteran of the Italian Wars.
Ettore de’Pazzis (aka Miale) – though some believe him to have Tuscan origins, most modern historians state he most certainly came from Troia in Puglia. This fact is confirmed by his family’s coat of arms.
Pietro Riczio – aka Riccio. Born in the city of Parma, Emilia-Romagna. In documents that have survived, he was dubbed “a valiant man”, which leads some historians to surmise he had earlier distinguished himself in combat.
Romanello from Forli – according to the historian Pietro Gasparino, Romanello was the nobleman Martino Schiacca. Like Riczio, he hailed from Emilia-Romagna.
Francesco Salamone – born in the town of Sutera, Sicily. At the time of the Challenge, he was in the service of Inigo Lopez.

Thirteen Italian knights, with seven, possibly eight, being Southerners, stepped forward to defend the honor of their respective peoples from the stain of the French insult.
Both sides met on a neutral field between the cities of Andria and Corato in Puglia at dawn on February 13, 1503. The Challenge, which consisted of a series of chivalrous battles on horseback, lasted all day and well into the night. Witnesses said the din of weapons clashing and men shouting was deafening. When it finally ended, the Italians had won all the contests! The stunned French were forced to concede defeat, and General La Motte had no choice but to swallow his pride and apologize to his betters. Afterwards the French withdrew from the area.
News of the victory spread over the whole of the Italian peninsula and into Sicily. There can be no doubt the feeling of pride it instilled in many Italians, Northern and Southern, emboldened them in their many future battles against the French. Such is the power of emotion in shaping and focusing human behavior. The ecstatic citizens of Barletta erected a monument to commemorate the occasion. To this day, Barletta is nicknamed Città della Disfida (“City of the Challenge”).
Three centuries later, when the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Caesar, invaded the Kingdom of Naples in their disastrous attempt to subjugate that area of the world, French soldiers entered the city of Barletta. When they saw the monument, the French soldiers did their knightly ancestors proud…they toppled it! After French withdrawal from the area, the locals rebuilt it.
In recent years, in the spirit of Renaissance fairs everywhere, the locals hold a festival twice annually (in February and in the summer) to commemorate the Challenge. It has apparently become quite an attraction as actors from as far away as Ireland have come to play parts in the recreation. One day, soon, I plan to visit Barletta to see it. When I do, dear readers, there will be pictures to post. I promise you.
Here in New York City, the closest our people, the expats of Due Sicilie, have to a celebration of our heritage is the annual Columbus Day parade in October. Unlike most of our kind, I do not look forward to this “celebration”. Why? I fail to see what the exploits of a Genoese sailor, in the service of Spaniard monarchs, has to do with us. The parades in Manhattan and Brooklyn serve only to illuminate the cultural genocide that has been done to our people in this country, both by the locals and us.
It is particularly galling (and noteworthy) to observe the differences in the floats and costumes of the various peoples of Italy. Northern Italians are usually decked out in the finery of their Renaissance-era nobility. One has to seriously wonder how many of them are, in fact, directly descended from nobles. Nevertheless, their attempts to exalt personages from their peoples’ past through mimicry speak volumes of them and their collective mindset.
Southerners, on the other hand, are invariably dressed in the folk costumes of the classe contadina. Costumes of the nobility and learned scholars of Due Sicilie are conspicuously absent. Small wonder then we are often referred to as a “peasant race”. As with Northerners, this speaks volumes.
If I sound like an elitist, there’s a good reason for it…I am! While peasant origins are nothing to be ashamed of, neither are they something to celebrate. Medieval and Renaissance-era European peasant life was harsh, even by today’s standards. Infant mortality, poverty and illiteracy were widespread, and the life expectancy was dismal. Keep in mind, also, the great advances of the times were invariably done by members of the upper classes, not the lower ones. Peasants were often brutally treated by their noble overlords and the law. What could there be to celebrate in such misery? Where is the honor in exalting the baser members of society?
If we as a people were truly in touch with our ethnic heritage, there would be a place in such processions for the peoples who, through back-breaking physical labor, fed the nation. That place, however, would be behind those who through creative genius rather than physical labor, helped shaped the world we live in today. That place is where it ought to be. Anyone who cannot understand that has their priorities in disorder.