November 28, 2012

Italian American Museum Presents 'A Presepe For New York'

Presepe Napoletano (Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
On Display Now through January 13, 2013

Nearly every Italian town has a Presepe but after the events of 9/11, New York received its very own.  Named "Il Presepe della Pace" (The Nativity of Peace), craftsmen at the famed Ferrigno workshop in Naples created this 18th century style Presepe that represents everyday Neapolitan life symbolically surrounding the Holy Family.

Naples has been the center of Presepe design for almost 300 years and today workshops line its most famous street, Via San Gregorio Armeno. This Presepe has been displayed at the Westchester Italian Cultural Center in Tuckahoe, New York, Casa Belvedere in Staten Island and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in the Bronx. The Italian American Museum is proud to be its home for the 2012 holiday season.

The President of the Region of Campania, Antonio Bassolino donated this Presepe to the Federation of Associations of Campania in the Untied States, whose President is Cav. Nicola Trombetta. It has been sponsored for display at the Museum by the Società Solofrana ed Amici S. Michele Arcangelo, Inc.

Italian American Museum
155 Mulberry Street
(Corner of Grand and Mulberry Streets)
New York, NY 10013 

Tel. (212) 965-9000

Reprinted from the Italian American Museum press release

November 20, 2012

Staten Island Sandy Relief Benefit

Concert and Neapolitan Nativity Unveiling
to Benefit Staten Island Relief Effort

Usher in the Holidays!
Join us for a magical Italian-Style afternoon that celebrates the
TRUE Spirit of Christmas...
The Admission/Sponsorship form is available online at
When making an online payment to attend or sponsor this event, please indicate "Sandy Concert 2012" in the comments box

Donations Welcome

Also see:

Poetry Reading at Cornelia Street Café

Featuring Maria Terrone, Claudia Serea and George Held

Maria Terrone
Monday, Dec. 10th (6 PM)

29 Cornelia Street
Greenwich Village, NY 10014
(212) 989-9319

Claudia Serea is a Romanian-born poet who immigrated to the U.S. in 1995. Her poems and translations have appeared in 5 a.m., Meridian, Harpur Palate, Word Riot, Blood Orange Review, Cutthroat, Green Mountains Review, and many others. A two- time nominee for the 2011 Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, she is the author of To Part Is to Die a Little (Cervená Barva Press), Angels & Beasts (Phoenicia Publishing, Canada, 2012), and A Dirt Road Hangs from the Sky (8th House Publishing, Canada). Visit her blog at

A seven-time Pushcart Prize nominee, George Held publishes widely both online and in print. Some of the journals where his work has appeared include Commonweal, Confrontation, Notre Dame Review, The Pedestal, Rain Taxi, Rattle, Right Hand Pointing, and Garrison Keillor’s A Writer’s Almanac. His sixteen poetry collections include Beyond Renewal, After Shakespeare: Selected Sonnets, and Neighbors, a children’s book, with drawings by Joung Un Kim. Forthcoming in 2013 are a sequel, Neighbors Too, and Culling: New & Selected Nature Poems.

Maria Terrone is the author of two poetry collections: A Secret Room in Fall (McGovern Prize, Ashland Poetry Press, 2006) and The Bodies We Were Loaned, as well as a chapbook, American Gothic, Take 2. Her work has appeared in magazines including Poetry, Poetry International, The Hudson Review and Notre Dame Review and in 20 anthologies by such publishers as Knopf and Beacon Press. Visit her at

$8 admission includes a drink

Also see:

The Westchester Italian Cultural Center Presents La Storia del Natale, Presepio Napoletano

Cart with riders from Reggia di Caserta
(Photo by New York Scugnizzo, not part of the exhibit)
Monday, December 3, 2012 (6:30 PM)

Professor Giuseppe Spedaliere presents la Storia del Natale on the occasion of the Opening of Presepio Napoletano. The growth and evolution of this holy day will be traced from the earliest Christian times to modern day. Join us in commemorating those religius and culinar traditions which define this darkest and coldest of seasons as one of the warmest, most endearing moments of the Italian holiday calendar.

Registration Fees: Members $10, Non-Members $20
Registration Details: Must register in advance and prepay.

Exhibit opens Tuesday, December 4, 2012 through Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Nativity scenes are very popular in Italy and are generally found in every household during the holiday season. The nativity originated in Italy in the 13th century when Saint Francis of Assisi asked Giovanni Vellita from the Village of Greccio to create a manger scene. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the nativity was turned into an art form in Naples and included representation of daily life in Naples at that time.

Today many artisans are dedicated to the craft of creating handmade figures for presepi. Presepio Napoletano represents our rich cultural and spiritual traditions. It portrays a bustling village located at the base of Mount Vesuvius. The landscape is handcrafted in wood, cork and paper mache. The figures are made of terra cotta, hemp and wire many of which stand more than a foot tall.

Suggested donation: adults $12, children 18 years of age and under and seniors $6

Westchester Italian Cultural Center
One Generoso Pope Place
(24 Depot Square for GPS and MapQuest)
Tuckahoe, New York 10707
For more information or to schedule a guided tour or group visit please call (914) 771-8700

Tuesday through Friday 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM
Saturday 10:00 AM to 12:00 Noon
Hours subject to change
Reprinted from the Westchester Italian Cultural Center event calendar

November 17, 2012

Monacello Returns in Geraldine McCaughrean's 'Wish-Bringer'

By Lucian

During my research for an article about the Neapolitan folk legend 'O Munaciello, I came across a children’s book written by Geraldine McCaughrean. I was impressed that such a celebrated and prolific author chose a Southern Italian legendary figure for the focus of one of her books. It was called Monacello, The Little Monk, and while it was less frightening than some of the variations of the legend, it did manage to capture the tone of the character in the traditional story quite well.

Keeping our traditions and culture alive is important, and the only way to do that successfully is to pass them on to our future generations. A book like this is a perfect tool for doing just that. So imagine my delight when Ms. McCaughrean came out with a sequel titled The Wish-Bringer. I enjoyed reading it even more than the first. The Wish-Bringer goes deeper into the dual nature of the Munaciello, and how he is viewed by Neapolitans as both good and bad luck. Further elements of the legend are included, such as the significance of his black and red caps, and the possible circumstances of his origins.

Any fear that I had of Munaciello becoming too sanitized were dispelled by the types of mischief he becomes involved in. Even some of his attempts at good deeds were shocking enough to do the legend justice. Yet the author manages to keep the hero/anti-hero lovable throughout his escapades. Wonderfully illustrated by Jana Diemberger, the Wish-Bringer has me eagerly anticipating the next book about Monacello and his adventures.

I’m thankful that Geraldine McCaughrean felt that the legend had potential for children’s books, and that she was willing to further pursue the story.

I’ve previously done a short review of the author’s works for Il Regno, and more comprehensive information can be found on her website:

November 16, 2012

Second Annual Neapolitan Solidarity Crèche at Casa Belvedere 

Figure by Giovanni Sinno
(Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
December 2, 2012 
to January 6, 2013
Sponsored by the Italian Cultural Foundation at Casa Belvedere

Second Annual exhibit of The Neapolitan Solidarity Crèche (Il Presepio Della Solidarietà), a gift of friendship and solidarity from the Naples, Italy Chamber of Commerce to The New York City Fire Department in honor of the victims of 9/11 and the brave Firefighters, Police and EMS workers that made the ultimate sacrifice. This handcrafted work of art was created by master artisans of the Campania Region in Italy and is consistent with techniques that date back to the seventeenth century. It occupies an area of approximately fifty-four square feet and is comprised of 120 pieces, including 83 figurines and 28 animals, etc. The majestic set is the work of Master Giovanni Sinno, and the figures were modeled by master artisans Alfredo Molli, Ulderigo Pinfildi and Giovanni Sinno.
Admission: free; open to the public

Casa Belvedere, The Italian Cultural Foundation, Inc.
79 Howard Avenue
Staten Island, NY 10301
Tel: (718) 273-7600
Fax: (718) 273-0020

November 15, 2012

Sicilian Sex Ghosts at Morbid Anatomy Library

An illustrated lecture and slideshow by Empire of Death author Dr. Paul Koudounaris.

Over 400 years ago, the monks of Palermo’s Capuchin monastery began mummifying their own brothers and prominent local citizens, and displaying their bodies in subterranean galleries. The result was one of the world’s most haunted sites. But many of these ghosts were not content to simply roam the passageways rattling chains–death had apparently not quelled their sexual appetites, and with libidos in overdrive they took to the streets of the city to fulfill their lecherous needs. Dr. Koudounaris will explore this fascinating folklore in a uniquely bizarre lecture, illustrated with his own photographs of the mummies still preserved in Palermo.

Dr. Paul Koudounaris holds a PhD in Art History (UCLA) and has taught classes at numerous universities and published in magazines throughout the world. He is the author of The Empire of Death, the first illustrated history of charnel houses and religious sanctuaries decorated with human bone. Named one of the ten best books of 2011 (London Evening Standard), it has garnered international attention for its combination of unique historical research and stunning photography.

Tuesday December 11 (8 PM)
Admission: $12
Produced by Morbid Anatomy

Morbid Anatomy Library
543 Union Street
Brooklyn, NY 11215

November 12, 2012

Peppe Voltarelli at Brooklyn's Barbès

Peppe Voltarelli
By Giovanni di Napoli
Peppe Voltarelli kicked off his month long residency at Barbès (376 9th St., Park Slope, Brooklyn) Saturday night in spectacular fashion. Billed as "a one-man musical monologue," the Calabrian singer-songwriter regaled the packed house with samples from his biographical project, Il viaggio, I padre, l'appartenza (The Voyage, the Fathers, the Longing), intimately retracing the journey from his native Southern Italian homeland to Northern Italy, Germany, Argentina and America. Voltarelli also paid tribute to some inspirational giants of Italian song, including Roman cantante Luciano Rossi. The set included outstanding renditions of Sta cittá and (my personal favorite) Marinai, as well as standards from his early folk-rock days.
Voltarelli will perform again at Barbès on November 17th, 24th and December 1st (7 PM). He will also appear at Drom (85 Avenue A) in Manhattan on December 8th (9 PM) before heading to Argentina.
Photos by New York Scugnizzo

November 10, 2012

Val d'Akragas Folk Group at St. John's University

The Art of Making Do in Naples, a Lecture by Jason Pine at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute

The Art of Making Do in Naples is 
available for pre-order at
Thursday, December 6, 2012, 
(6 PM)  
Jason Pine, 
Purchase College, SUNY
Anthropologist Jason Pine will present his research on neomelodica, a musical form from Naples that combines traditional songs with contemporary stories of love, betrayal, loss, and violence. Neapolitans' artistic and economic ambitions are sometimes forced to contend with local crime forces, notably the Camorra. Exploiting the vulnerability of impoverished would-be performers, crime bosses frequently serve as managers and performance impresarios, ultimately ensnaring young singers with money and drugs to control not only their work but their lives. In his book The Art of Making Do in Naples (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), Pine recounts how his ethnographic work also depended on the careful handling, and sometimes even the aid, of these forbidding figures as he became partially caught up in a web of shadowy and complex relationships that create and foment this music.

John D. Calandra Italian American Institute
25 West 43rd Street, 17th floor
New York, New York 10036
(Between 5th and 6th Avenues)

Free and open to the public. RSVP by calling (212) 642-2094. Please note that seating is limited and we cannot reserve seats. 

For more information visit

Reprinted from John D. Calandra Italian American Institute press release

November 9, 2012

Acclaimed Neapolitan Singer-Songwriter Simona De Rosa to Perform at the Italian American Museum

Photo courtesy of
Thursday, November 15, 2012 (6:30 PM)

Italian American Museum
155 Mulberry Street
(Corner of Grand and Mulberry Streets)
New York, NY 10013 

Please join us for a night of Neapolitan music at the Museum.  Neapolitan singer Simona De Rosa will present her upcoming album “Maschera”, a work entirely dedicated to the Neapolitan song.

Simona, an acclaimed jazz singer from Italy, graduated from Federico II University and studied voice in Naples, Rome and New York. Her vocal versatility allowed her to perform a number of different genres all over Italy and in New York City with many well known and respected musicians. Her debut album, “Inside Quartet” featured some of Naples’ best jazz musicians. 

Simona has a strong will to spread her roots all over the world. She says, "There is a main theme between New York and Naples, due to the music and to the history."

The event will also feature Italian pianist Marco Di Gennaro. Simona's performance will include Neapolitan standards from the 19th century and earlier.

Suggested donation of $10 per person


To reserve a place for this event, 
please call the Italian American Museum
at (212) 965-9000 orcemail:

Reprinted from the Italian American Museum press release

Roberto Ragone's Birthday Celebration Fundraiser

Dear Friends and Lovers of Sicily:

As many of you know, Roberto Ragone has been running an online campaign to raise money to publish and promote a historical novel entitled Trinacria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily by Anthony Di Renzo under the sponsorship of the Italian Foundation of Casa Belvedere.


Lets join him — host, producer, agent, and birthday guy, along with Louis Calvelli the Executive Director of The Italian Cultural Foundation at Casa Belvedere — the book sponsor — and a host of supporters, collaborators and Siciliophiles to have some fun. Meet old friends (make some new ones) and help promote Italian Culture and this wonderful project…

Thursday, November 29, 6:00 PM – 11:00 PM
Umberto's Restaurant
132 Mulberry Street New York, NY
(between Canal and Grand Street)

Proceeds to support the design, printing, publication, promotion, and distribution of Trinacria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily

$15 in advance paid online at
$20 at the door

There will be a small complementary appetizer spread during the evening and a discounted price on a specific red and white wine.

All online donations of $15, made between now and November 29, will entitle you to a Trinacria kitchen magnet and a gold decal, symbolizing both the wheat of the Conca d’Oro and prosperity for this book campaign. To get your gifts:

1. Visit and click the “Contribute Now” bar at the bottom of the webpage.

2. Select the “No Perk/Just a Contribution” button and enter $15.

3. The campaign automatically will confirm your donation and fill your order.

If there are any questions, Roberto can be reached at 917-923-4765 or

Here is more information about what the novel is about that you can pass onto others:

Trinacria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily
Witten by Anthony Di Renzo --

Sponsorship Campaign by The Italian Cultural Foundation of Casa Belvedere --

Prospective Publisher: Guernica Editions --

The book's title derives from the ancient Greek name for Sicily. Trinàcria refers to the island’s triangular shape and the three-legged gorgon on its regional flag. It is also the nickname of the novel’s narrator and protagonist, Zita Valanguerra Spinelli (1794-1882), Marchesa of Scalea ---notorious beauty, ferocious wit, secret murderer, and reluctant businesswoman -- whose turbulent life mirrors Sicily’s rocky transition from feudalism to capitalism.

The story begins when a Hollywood film crew invades Palermo to shoot an epic about the Italian Revolution. Researching the past, the director visits the city’s Capuchin catacombs. Preserved in the catacombs among over eight thousand mummies is Marchesa Spinelli. Dead for eighty years, she remains haunted with memories, and her spirit recalls her complicated relationships with her scientist father; a British wine merchant, whom the Marchesa failed to marry; her patriotic and rebellious granddaughter; and Giacomo Leopardi, the doomed Romantic poet.

Also see:

November 8, 2012

SEA/CILY by AcquAria

Clara Aich presents: SEA/CILY by AcquAria

A special event at The Music Room
218 E. 25th Street, New York, NY 10010
November 14th (8 PM)

An exclusive theatrical performance of the authentic musical heritage of Sicily. The program draws from a rich tradition of songs in praise of the sea, sung by those whose music connects them to the water.

RSVP by November 10th

Hors d'oeuvres and wine will be served from 7 PM
Due to video recording the show will begin promptly at 8 PM

$20 contribution is appreciated

For reservation:
Tel: (212) 686-4220

Michela Musolino
A vocalist known for her repertoire in Sicilian roots music
Vincenzo Castellana
A noted performer and a master of the Sicilian frame drum culture

Also see:

November 7, 2012

Calabrian Cantautore Peppe Voltarelli returns to New York City

Southern Italian singer-songwriter, composer and actor Peppe Voltarelli makes his New York City concert return in the form of a 4 week Saturday residency at Brooklyn's Barbès and a final Saturday show at Manhattan's Drom running 5 weeks from November 10th through December 8th.

Born in Italy's troubled Calabria region, the 43 year old Voltarelli's work is a modern Italian's musical take on the diaspora of tightly linked Calabrian immigrant communities that continue to thrive throughout Europe and the Americas, and their common experience in a land plagued by criminality and constant political and economic crisis.

At Barbes and Drom Voltarelli will perform a set drawn from "Il viaggio, I padri, l'appartenenza" (the Voyage, the Fathers, the Belonging), a one-man musical monologue in which the artist recounts his own journey from the South to North of Italy and on to Germany, Argentina and America.  Combining his own songs with works from influences such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Roberto Saviano and Domenico Modugno, Voltarelli accompanies himself on guitar and accordion in a tour de force of new "Canzone Italiana" offering a satirical social commentary on Italian identity in today's world.

Saturdays, November 10, 17, 24, December 1 at 7pm   
376 9th Street, Brooklyn, NY
(347) 422-0248

Saturday, December 8 at 9pm   
85 Avenue A, New York, NY
(212) 777-1157  $10 Adv. / $15 Doors 

Peppe Voltarelli's New York City residency immediately follows a sister series in Buenos Aires at the noted CAFF (Club Atlético Fernández Fierro).  Voltarelli's latest studio album "Ultima notte a Malà Strana" features Argentine-American singer-songwriter Kevin Johnansen and won Italy's prestigious Tenco Prize for Best Album in Dialect.

Reprinted from press release

November 5, 2012

Plato’s Stepson: Tommaso Campanella – Renaissance Philosopher

Tommaso Campanella by Francesco Cozza

By Niccolò Graffio
“Man is not born crowned like the natural king
Of beasts, for beasts by this investiture
Have need to know the head they must obey”— Campanella, Tommaso:  XVI, What Makes a King; The Sonnets of Michael Angelo Buonarroti and Tomaso Campanella: Now for the First Time Translated into Rhymed English. 1878
With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD large swaths of territory in that part of Europe suffered massive political, economic and social upheavals that were to last centuries.  Cities emptied either due to migrations or disease.  Trade between various parts of Western and Southern Europe declined dramatically.  Hordes of uncivilized Germanic tribesmen left their ancestral homelands in the north to settle the warmer climes farther south.  Under these circumstances, it was hardly surprising the production in art, music and literature suffered.  Many to this day remember this time as the “Dark Ages”.

The so-called Dark Ages, to those who still hold onto the term, lasted from roughly the 5th century AD to the 10th century AD.  Due to its negative connotations, plus the fact intellectual and cultural activities still existed in the Byzantine and Islamic-controlled areas of Southern Europe, many historiographers prefer to use the term “Early Middle Ages” to describe this period, instead.
The advent of the so-called “High Middle Ages” (c. 1100-1300) witnessed a population explosion across Europe.  With this sizeable increase in population (and an end to barbarian invasions) came renewed commerce between various areas of the continent. This commerce made many merchants and local rulers quite wealthy.  They, in turn, “shared the wealth” by promoting a number of artisans and intellectuals.  As things progressed, it seemed to suggest the whole of Europe was on its way to a flowering of civilization not seen since the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West.

Alas, it was not meant to be!  The Late Middle Ages (c. 1300-1500), which should have witnessed the flowering of cultural and intellectual endeavors, instead saw a major regression of civilized activity as the continent of Europe was plunged into a series of crises.    
The Battle of Mons Lactarius by Alexander Zick. Decisive battle fought near Naples (553 AD), in which the Byzantine army defeated the Goths. 

The Medieval Warm period (c. 950AD-1250AD) freed up large expanses of arable land.  The abundance of food that resulted caused a tremendous surge in population across the continent.  With the end of the period Northern Europe experienced successive years of bad weather and crop failures.  The result was the Great Famine of 1315-17.  

The famine stretched across the whole of Northern Europe from the British Isles to Russia.  It affected everyone from peasant to nobleman.  Peasant farmers were forced to butcher their farm animals and eat seed stock in order to survive.  Chroniclers of the time reported cannibalism was widespread.  Many parents were even forced to abandon their children and let them fend for themselves.  The horrors of the Great Famine survive as echoes in children’s fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel.  

Though the Great Famine ‘officially’ ended in the summer of 1317 it would be another eight years before crop yields would rise sufficiently to allow population increases once more.  Modern historians estimate the death toll at between 10-15% of the population of Northern Europe.

The effect on European history was manifold.  In addition to the large loss of life, criminal activity increased in every country as people not normally inclined to crime did literally anything they could to feed themselves and their families.  Governments passed and enforced more draconian laws to deal with lawbreakers.  Even warfare became more brutal than it had been in the previous two centuries of prosperity.

Europeans had scarcely put the Great Famine behind them when they were rocked by an even greater nightmare.  Though Europe had suffered large scale warfare and famine in the centuries following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, it had been spared disease pandemics since the middle part of the 8th century AD.  All that would change in the early to mid part of the 14th century.

The Black Death is believed to have begun in either Central Asia or China proper.  It is now believed to have consumed ¼ of the population of China in the early part of the 14th century AD.  Trade routes with the West guaranteed the spread of the disease into Western Asia. 

In 1343 it had reached the Crimean Peninsula. There, a Mongolian khan by the name of Yannibeg was laying siege to a Genoese colony in the port of Kaffa.  The plague struck the khan’s army, devastating it. The Khan, determined that his enemies would share in his men’s suffering, ordered the bodies of plague victims flung with catapults into the city.  

The Genoese abandoned the colony, fleeing by ship to the Sicilian port of Messina.  From there the disease spread rapidly into the heart of Europe and from there, to the four corners of the continent.

Conservative estimates put the European death toll at over 30%, with others going much higher.  It is believed the population of France alone was reduced by as much as 60% in only a four-year period!  Unlike the Great Famine, the Black Death hit Southern Europe much harder than it did the north.  Some modern historians put the death toll in Spain, the south of France and Italy as high as 75%!
The Triumph of Death (1446),
fresco in the Regional Gallery of Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo
Attempts to halt the spread of the plague were futile as the disease spread so rapidly it often quickly consumed those who were trying to help.  Pope Clement VI, in an attempt to ease the (spiritual) suffering of the afflicted, issued a decree that stated anyone who died of the plague would automatically receive remission of sins.  Otherwise, secular and religious authorities were at a loss to explain the cause of the outbreak or how to stop it.

The rapid death unhinged many, who resorted to blaming anyone they could in an attempt to find a cause.  Lynch mobs roamed the European countryside attacking anyone even remotely suspected of being a vector for the disease.  Beggars, lepers, Gypsies, foreigners, etc were all singled out for destruction.

One group particularly targeted for “special treatment” was Jews.  This was especially true in the areas comprising modern Germany.  Fear-crazed mobs were easily led by religious fanatics who accused Jews of “poisoning Christian wells”.  Ignorance of the Germ Theory of Disease, which was unknown at the time, helped fuel the rampage.

Though the Black Death eventually “burnt itself out” after several years, it would return periodically to haunt Europeans over the next several centuries.  It would thankfully, though, never again churn out the number of bodies it did in the mid-14th century.

Thanks to advances in modern biotechnology, the consensus among epidemiologists today is the Black Death was caused by variants of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the bubonic plague.  Though modern antibiotics (plus increased sanitation) have put the plague on a very short leash, medical researchers point out that as antibiotics lose their efficacy, the plague could return as a significant health problem.

The changes upon European society wrought by the Black Death were far more reaching than those that occurred during the Great Famine.  For starters, the deaths of so many millions of peasants caused a severe labor shortage.  The cost of labor subsequently went up.  Governments attempted to enforce wage and price controls but these measures were of limited success.  

It has been argued the Black Death put the nail in the coffin of feudalism.  While historical evidence shows feudalism was already slowly on its way out, there can be no argument the plague sped up the process.  By how much, though, remains a source of debate among historians.

The dearth brought about by the Great Famine and the Black Death, plus changing climatic conditions due to the Little Ice Age, caused widespread political, economic and social instability in Europe.  Open warfare in the 14th and 15th centuries was the result.  Whether it was civil war between nobles or war between nations, Europe’s history during this period was painted a dark red.

Among the more sanguinary conflicts of this time was the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between England and France.  In addition, during this timeframe there were no less than nine conflicts between the Kingdom of Poland and the Teutonic Knights.  Ottoman Turks at this time began expanding into Europe.  In 1453 a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions occurred when the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, long a bulwark against Asiatic encroachment into Europe, fell to the Ottoman swine Mehmed II and his hordes.
The Entry of Mehmed II into Constantinople by Benjamin Constant 

One positive that occurred at this time in history was the Russians, under the leadership of the Grand Prince Ivan III, forced a large Tatar-Mongol army under the command of Akhmat, Khan of the Great Horde, to withdraw from their encampment on the banks of the Ugra River in what is now Kaluga Oblast (1480).  This act ended forever Tatar rule over Russia and signaled the beginning of the end of the Turko-Mongolian Empire.

While all this upheaval was occurring throughout the continent of Europe a remarkable cultural movement was beginning on the Italian peninsula in the city of Firenze (Florence).  Though Italy was devastated by the Black Death, almost paradoxically the survivors and their descendants wound up being better paid and better fed than those who lived prior to the plague.  The surplus monies meant more people could buy luxury goods.  This stimulated artisanship.  

In addition, negative perceptions of the Church, brought about by all the plague deaths, caused a decrease in influence of that ecclesiastical body.  This stimulated a renewed interest in learning not seen since the heyday of the Roman Empire.  This interest was furthered along by an influx of learned Greek scholars who were refugees from the collapsing Byzantine Empire to the east.  Finally, the lean times of the 14th century caused a shortage of investment opportunities.  As a result, many rich individuals who might otherwise have invested their wealth in business chose instead to put their monies in art and culture. 

This climate of interest in art, learning and culture is remembered today as the Italian Renaissance.  What began in the city of Florence spread out to cover the whole of the Italian Peninsula and the island of Sicily. Eventually it would spread to the rest of Europe.

When one today in America reads up on the history of the “Italian Renaissance” one usually winds up reading only what happened, culturally speaking, in the northern part of the peninsula.  This is in large part due to the cultural hegemony practiced by our northern conquerors, who would have everyone believe the Renaissance was exclusively a phenomenon of the north.  Of course, longstanding Anglo-American perceptions of Southern Italy as a ‘backwater’ contribute to this, as well.

Those of us who have undertaken a study of the history of this area of the world know better.  We know of the artistic genius of Antonello da Messina, the famed Sicilian Renaissance master whose paintings were so renowned they influenced the Venetian School!  What about the great Neapolitan Renaissance philosopher and cosmologist, Giordano Bruno?  Dante Alighieri, the famed Florentine writer and poet, praised the Sicilian School of Poetry.  

The city of Naples was unquestionably the center of Renaissance learning in Southern Italy.  During the Renaissance (and afterwards) Naples was a must-visit place on the “Grand Tour” of Europe.  In fact, before the infamous Risorgimento in 1860 it was the third largest city in Europe and quite possibly the richest!  It attracted men of learning from across the continent.  It also helped to produce one of the most important philosophers of the late Renaissance.

Tommaso Campanella

Giovanni Domenico Campanella was born on September 5th, 1568 in the town of Stilo, Calabria in what was then the Kingdom of Naples.  Though of humble origins, at an early age he displayed considerable mental prowess.   By the time he had reached the age of 12 he had mastered nearly all the Latin authors his teachers had presented to him.  A year later he was already writing prose and poetry of a caliber in excess of his years.

At the age of 14 he entered the Dominican Order in part to pursue his love of learning.  He took the name Tommaso in honor of Thomas Aquinas.  While there he came under the influence of the teachings of Bernardino Telesio, a philosopher and natural scientist from Cosenza who inaugurated the Renaissance empiricist reaction against the practice of reasoning without reference to concrete data.  Telesio rejected revealed knowledge and believed instead that all knowledge was sensation; that what we call “intelligence” was a collection of isolated data provided by our senses.  For this heresy, after his death his works were placed by the Church on the Index of Forbidden Books

Tommaso traveled to Naples in 1589 without having received permission from the Order to do so.  While there he published Philosophia sensibus demonstrata (1591; “Philosophy Demonstrated by the Senses”).  Like the works of his mentor, it reflected concern for an empirical approach to philosophy.  It stressed human experience as the basis for philosophy and rejected the hierarchically united worldview of Scholastic Aristotelianism.  For this he was arrested, tried, convicted and spent a brief time incarcerated for heresy.

Released from prison, he subsequently traveled to Padua where he was again arrested, this time charged with sodomy (1593), acquitted, but then arrested again later and tried for debating a Jew over matters of Christian faith.  Sent to Rome in 1596 for trial, he avoided imprisonment by denouncing the heresy for which he had been arrested.

By the summer of 1598 he was back in Stilo where he became involved in a plot against the Spanish, who at that time were the rulers of the Kingdom of Naples.  The following year two members of the conspiracy were arrested, and under torture, revealed the existence of the plot plus Campanella’s involvement in it.  The Spanish quickly sent troops into Calabria to suppress it. Campanella was arrested and brought back to Naples in chains.  

Forced under torture (and crippled) to admit his leadership in the conspiracy, he was imprisoned and would most certainly have been executed but for the fact he convinced his jailors he was mad by setting fire to his cell.  He was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment and kept confined in various fortresses including the Castel Sant’Elmo and Castel Nuovo in Naples.
Castel Nuovo (Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
The Aragonese triumphal arch and cenotaph, added in the fifteenth century by Alfonso I, is considered one of the great architectural masterpieces of the Renaissance. (Photos by New York Scugnizzo)
He would spend a total of 27 years in various states of confinement.  While there he affected a return of sorts to Roman Catholic orthodoxy.  It was also during his imprisonment he composed the bulk of his writings, laying the groundwork for his philosophy.  This included his greatest work, La città del sole (“The City of the Sun”).  This important, early utopian work was inspired by Plato’s Republic.  In it, Campanella envisioned a unified, peaceful society governed beneficently by a theocratic monarchy.  In this society, goods, women and children were to be held in common.   

Two things about Campanella’s utopia that struck readers – the painted walls that surrounded his city. The walls not only enclosed and protected the city but the paintings upon them illuminated the arts and sciences for the citizenry. Campanella was greatly interested in the learning and spread of knowledge. In his utopian world there would be no books.  All the writings would be inscribed openly for all to see!

The other was his advocacy of the community of goods and women.  Campanella believed only the community of goods could relieve the poverty that perpetually plagued mankind. He also thought it stupid people paid great attention to the selective breeding of dogs and horses but not to other humans.  The City of the Sun would presage the later scientific socialism of Karl Marx and the eugenics of Francis Galton.

The City of the Sun was first written in Italian in 1602.  It was later rewritten in Latin in 1613-14.  While in prison Campanella was visited by a learned man from Saxony by the name of Tobias Adami who smuggled some of his most important works (including The City of the Sun) to Frankfurt where they were published 1617-23.  In addition to his philosophical works, Campanella wrote a great number of sonnets and lyrical poetry. Sadly, most of these are now lost.  Those that have survived are considered by some critics to be the most original poetry in Italian literature for that time.

While in prison he also wrote a celebrated defense of the Pisan astronomer Galileo Galilei, who at the time was having his own troubles with the Inquisition.  However, due to Campanella’s own poor reputation with the “Holy Office”, it is highly doubtful Galileo would have wanted the help.

King Philip IV of Spain 
by Diego Velázquez
(Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
He was finally freed from imprisonment in 1626 by the intercession of Pope Urban VIII, who appealed to King Philip IV of Spain for his release.  He was taken to Rome where he was kept under house arrest by the Inquisition until 1629.  He succeeded in ingratiating himself to Pope Urban VIII (who was a very superstitious man) by his impressive knowledge of astrology.

Soon, however, he found himself embroiled in new scandals.  One of his pupils, Tommaso Pignatelli, was fomenting rebellion against the Spanish back in Calabria.  In addition, Campanella’s enemies in Rome accused him of engaging in superstitious practices (astrology), threatening to compromise the Pope.  As a result, he was “persuaded” to leave Italy.  With the aid of friends he was able to flee to France, where he was received warmly at the court of King Louis XIII and especially by the redoubtable Cardinal Richelieu, who gave him his protection and secured for him a generous pension from the King.

He spent his last days living in safety and comfort at the convent of Saint-Honoré in Paris, where he continued his writings.  His last work was a poem celebrating the birth of the Dauphin, the future King Louis XIV of France.  He died on May 21, 1639.

In truth, Tommaso Campanella was neither an original or systematic thinker. Yet he is important in the study of Western thought for the simple fact he stands as one of the precursors of modern, empirical science.  In addition, his philosophy foreshadowed and no doubt influenced the later, more influential ones of René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza. 

Further reading:
• John M. Headley: Tommaso Campanella and the Transformation of the World; Princeton University Press, 1997
• Tommaso Campanella (Author) & Sherry Roush (Editor & Translator): Selected Philosophical Poems of Tommaso Campanella: A Bilingual Edition; The University of Chicago Press, 2011
• Tommaso Campanella: The City of the Sun; Wilder Publications, 2008