February 25, 2012

The Good Italian

Benedetto Croce: The “Soul” of Italy
Benedetto Croce
By Niccolò Graffio
“Unless a capacity for thinking be accompanied by a capacity for action, a superior mind exists in torture.” – Benedetto Croce
Benedetto Croce was born in Pescasseroli in the Abruzzi region in the ruins of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies on February 25, 1866. The disaster which befell his homeland did not have much of an impact on his family, as they were people of considerable wealth. The Croce family had so much wealth, in fact, that from the day of his birth to the day of his death, Benedetto Croce never had to engage in any form of manual labor in order to survive. In that, he differed considerably from most of his countrymen.
Devout Roman Catholics, his parents sent him at an early age to Naples to be schooled in the tenets of their religion. By the time he reached mid-adolescence, however, Croce had decided he had no use for Catholicism, or any religion, for that matter, preferring instead a type of spiritualism of his own making to which he adhered for the remainder of his life. In 1883, while on vacation with his family in the village of Casamicciola, Ischia, a strong earthquake struck the area, destroying the home they were living in and tragically killing his parents and sister. He was buried (severely injured) under the rubble for several hours until rescuers were able to free him. Continue reading

February 24, 2012

Titan of the South: Il Cavaliere Calabrese

Mattia Preti, the Knight from Calabria
Saint John the Baptist Preaching
Photos by New York Scugnizzo
By Giovanni di Napoli
Mattia Preti was born on February 24, 1613 in Taverna, a small town on the slopes of la Sila Piccola in Calabria. In 1630 the young artist followed his older brother Gregorio to Rome (who arrived two years earlier), where they studied painting at the Accademia di San Luca. There, he became familiar with the works of Caravaggio and his followers. His initial paintings are reminiscent of the dramatic chiaroscuro style of the Lombard master. 
The success of Preti's early works opened up many opportunities for him and he soon acquired important commissions in the Duchy of Modena, most notably the frescoes for the apse and dome of San Biagio. In 1641 or '42 Urban VIII admitted him into the Order of St. John of Malta as a Knight of Obedience. This earned him the moniker Il Cavaliere Calabrese, or the Knight from Calabria. According to his often-quoted biographer Bernardo De Dominici, Preti also traveled to Venice, Spain and the Netherlands, broadening his techniques and developing his skills. Many historians, however, doubt the validity of these travels. Continue reading

February 23, 2012

Giambattista Basile and the Literary Fairy Tale

Giambattista Basile 
Photo courtesy of il portal del Sud
By Giovanni di Napoli
"Whoever reads Basile's tales can't fail to see the direct ties they have with southern Italian folklore. And we should remember with pride the debt that the European imaginary owes to both our culture and Basile. But we should remember above all thatThe Tale of Tales is more, and to this it owes its present and perennial greatness." — Carmelo Lettere (1)
The distinction for composing Europe's first collection of literary fairy tales belongs to Giambattista Basile, a Neapolitan soldier, poet and courtier. His Lo cunto de li cunti, overo Lo trattenemiento de 'peccerille (The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones) contains the West's earliest literary versions of some of the most celebrated fairy tales, including "Cinderella," "Rapunzel," "Sleeping Beauty" and "Hansel and Gretel." Sometimes called Il Pentamerone, the collection was written in the early seventeenth century and published posthumously in 1634-'36. Basile's Tale of Tales predates Germany's renowned Brothers Grimm by nearly two hundred years.
Because he wrote his tales in Neapolitan, Basile's magnum opus remains fairly unknown today. After Italian unification in 1861 Neapolitan was officially replaced with the so-called "Italian language" (i.e. the Florentine vernacular) and undeservedly relegated to the rank of "dialect." The literary works written in the languages of the South have suffered as a consequence and Basile's Tales fell into obscurity. Neapolitan, like the other regional tongues of Italy (e.g. Sicilian), continue to decline in importance due to the cultural leveling taking place in Italy. Continue reading

February 18, 2012

Parentalia — Honoring Our Ancestors and Family

Lares Familiares
By Lucian
"The normal conception of the spirits in Roman animism would seem to be that of neutral powers, who might be hostile, if neglected, but, if they are duly placated and receive the offerings which they require, will be friendly and give the worshipper health and prosperity." (Bailey p. 40)
During Rome's expansion, the spirits of the dead gradually became more individualized in conception. This is thought to be a result of Greek cultural influences, which not only affected the Roman State religion, but also the more ancient taboo and superstitions that were practiced at the family level.
There were several festivals and religious practices dealing with the dead in ancient Southern Italy just as there were several Mediterranean tribes that contributed to them. The Greeks, especially from Attica, brought Anthesteria to Magna Gracie, but the best known holidays of this type are the Roman Lemuria and ParentaliaLemuria, (celebrated May 9th, 11th and 13th) had a darker tone and dealt more with banishing hostile spirits. Parentalia (Feb 13th - 22nd) was similarly dedicated to spiritual purification, but also involved the honoring of ancestors, and became more cheerful over the centuries.
"On the days in February known collectively as the Parentalia no temple might be open, no fire might burn on the alters, and no marriages could be performed. The magistrates laid aside their official dress for the day and wore that of ordinary citizens." (Burriss p.83)
The first part of Parentalia were for private ancestral rites. The rituals began on the Ides of February. Offerings were made to the spirits of the dead, which normally included salt, wheat, beans, wine, milk, and flowers.
February 21st was the last day of Parentalia and a closing ceremony called the Feralia took place. The shades of the dead were thought to walk the earth this day, and their living family members would picnic at their tombs and give further offerings of foodstuffs and wine. The placation of the dead was seen as mutually beneficial, but at midnight, now Feb. 22nd, the rituals ensured that the spirits were forced back to the underworld. Ovid considered the Feralia a more ancient and primitive event than the Parentalia as a whole.
February 22nd was the holiday Caristia, also known as Cara Cognatio, it was a state holiday but was based on the ceremonies of the family. It was a communal repetition of the familial funeral feast and rites, and also a family reunion. All family quarrels were to be rectified, and an offering was made to the Lares, the Roman household gods.
During Parentalia, an empty chair was left for the deceased relatives, similar to the practice of leaving an empty chair for the bella 'Mbriana, a Neapolitan house spirit still invoked in some households. It also bears resemblance to the Catholic feast of St. Peter's Chair, which is curiously held on February 22nd.
Skulls from the Fontanelle Cemetery, Napoli (Photo courtesy of napoliunderground.org) Click link to visit Napoli Underground's slideshow
The relationship of the Romans to the spirits of the dead is in some ways comparable to the Neapolitan cult of the skull or the Southern Italian interpretation of All Soul's Day, where the spirits in purgatory are prayed for, but also asked favors. It is also theorized that elements of Feralia were incorproated by the Celts into their holiday Samhain, and through that to Halloween; bringing us back to All Saints and All Souls day.
An understanding of the past is necessary to understand the present; and familiarity with our own past and traditions help us realize who we really are. Be wary of those that insist you forget the past or forsake your ancestors, because ignorance is not bliss. Whether or not we agree with the ancient traditions of our people, we should know about them, and make sure that this knowledge is available to everyone.
I consider myself lucky to have a family, not everyone does, so never take it for granted. This year I will not only honor my ancestors but will speak of them to the next generation of my family, so that they will know them too.
• Phases in the Religion of Ancient Rome by Cyril Bailey, published 1932, reprinted 1972 ISBN 0-8371-4759-X
• Taboo, Magic, Spirits A Study of Primitive Elements in Roman Religion by Eli Edward Burriss, published 1931, reprinted 1972 & 1974, ISBN 0-8371-4724-7
• Prolegomena to the study of Greek Religion by Jane Harrison, published 1903 & 1922, reprinted 1962 &1980, ISBN-10: 0691015147; ISBN-13: 978-0691015149

Tarantella di Carnevale at the IAM

Rhythms, Songs and Dances From Southern Italy
Wednesday, February 22, 2012 (6:30 pm)
Italian American Museum
155 Mulberry Street
New York, NY 10013 

A Hands-On Tambourine Workshop by Alessandra Belloni

The purpose of this workshop is to introduce general audiences to a rich tambourine and folk dance culture that is still practiced in Southern Italy today.  The workshop focuses on the origins of the Tarantella trance dance and rhythms as an ecstatic dance in honor of Dionysus, god of ecstasy and wine, still celebrated all throughout Italy during Carnival. 

During the tambourine workshop, the participants will learn:

• The basic technique of holding the drum, with emphasis on arm movement, wrist and elbow technique, which requires strength to create the bouncing sound of the triplets.
• Hand technique with the palm and the fingertips in both a basic and accented fast 6/8 rhythm.
Tammorriata: a 4/4 rhythm played on the large drum called the Tammorra, originally from Naples with a strong African influence in the rhythm.
Tarantella alla Montemaranese: a carnival dance from Montemarano (Naples) played on the smaller tambourines with a very unusual syncopation on the 6/8.  This rite of Carnival dates back to the Roman celebrations in honor of Bacchus, the god of wine.

Featured Songs: 

• Sicilian Fisherman chant LEVA LEVA, done by fishermen when fishing for tuna and accompanied by tambourines.
• The ancient Neapolitan chant JESCE SOLE, sung in order to bring forth the healing energy of the sun.

Suggested donation $10 (Correction: $50)

** Seating is Limited **
To reserve a place for these events please call the Italian American Museum at (212) 965-9000 or email: ItalianAmericanMuseum@gmail.com
** Please Specify Event Attending **

Reprinted from the Italian American Museum press release

February 16, 2012

To the Shores of Tripoli

The Story of the Unsung Hero of the First Barbary War
Burning of the frigate USS Philadelphia
in the harbor of Tripoli, February 16, 1804,
by Edward Moran, painted 1897
By Niccolò Graffio
“It would be unjust of me, were I to pass over the important services rendered by Mr. Salvatore Catalano, on whose conduct the success of the enterprise in the greatest degree depended.” – Lt. Stephen Decatur: writing in his official report on the burning of thePhiladelphia; February, 1804.
Piracy is an ancient plague of mariners and coastal-dwelling peoples. For as long as men have taken to the seas in the name of commerce there have been those who have taken it upon themselves to prey upon them. The earliest mentions of pirates in history are found in the chronicles of the ancient Egyptians who spoke of the depredations of the “Sea Peoples” which disrupted the shipping lanes of the Eastern Mediterranean in the 13th century BC. Continue reading

February 14, 2012

Happy Valentine's Day (Lupercalia)

Eros (Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
In the spirit of Valentine's Day I'm posting Tears of Love ('E llacreme d'ammore...)(1) by the great Neapolitan poet, Salvatore Di Giacomo (b. 1860–d. 1934). The accompanying photo of Eros the Greek god of love and son of Aphrodite (taken at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) is a 3rd century B.C. terracotta figurine from Taras (modern Taranto), a major city of Magna Graecia founded in 706 B.C. by colonists from Lakonia. Some believe Saint Valentine's Day sprung from the Roman Lupercalia (Feb. 15th), an ancient festival of purification and fertility.

Tears of Love

The tears of love are not salty
to those who are crying alone.
The taste of love is not bitter
when you purge the heart of wronged love.
Better to cry than not to love.

You know it's true, you laugh it off.

Don't brag because your eyes are dry,
there is tinder in your face;
ardors of love consume us all,
how will you quench your light amours?
Ah! you are not bothered at all!

You never cried, never loved.

'E llacreme d'ammore...

'E llacreme d'ammore
so' ddoce pe chi 'e cchiagne.
Ammore è nu dulore
ca, quanto cchiù se lagne
chi 'o prova, cchiù è felice.

E 'o ssape — e nun 'o ddice.

Nun t'avantà, si asciutte
tènere st'uocchie saie!
D' 'o ffuoco c' arde a tutte
tu pure abbambarraie!
Tu, ca nun si' felice.

E 'o ssaie — ma nun o' ddice...

(1) Reprinted from Salvatore Di Giacomo: Love Poems (A Selection), translated by Frank Palescandolo, Guernica, 1999, p. 106-107)

February 13, 2012

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 Niccoló 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. Continue reading

February 9, 2012

Remembering a Titan — Frank Frazetta

Self Portrait
By Giovanni di Napoli
For as long as I can remember, I've been drawing. One of my earliest memories was a water color painting I did of the Red Baron's triplane soaring through the sky. It was nothing special, but my parents made so much of a fuss over it that I never forgot. I was fascinated with soldiers and war and as I grew older, my pictures grew more graphic and detailed.
An early influence in my life was Frank Frazetta. I'll never forget the first time I saw his work. A friend showed me the cover of his uncle's Molly Hatchet album featuring Frazetta's "Death Dealer", a fierce warrior mounted on a nightmarish black steed. It was like an epiphany. I sought out other works by the artist, which led me to the jacket covers of several science fiction and fantasy novels, sparking my interest in the stories of Robert E. Howard (Conan) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan).
Imitating Frazetta, my own renderings became more fantastic, yet more realistic because I began to focus on anatomy. I also started to include scantily clad damsels in distress to my drawings which, predictably, got me in trouble on several occasions in Catholic elementary school. Continue reading

Paolo de Matteis

Andromeda and Perseus (ca. 1710) by Paolo de Matteis
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
By Giovanni di Napoli
Paolo de Matteis was born in Piano del Cilento, near Salerno, on February 9, 1662 in the Kingdom of Naples. According to the Neapolitan biographer Bernardo De Dominici (1683-1759) the young Paolo showed great promise as a painter. His parents encouraged him, providing him with art instruction, though his father wanted him to pursue a more distinguished career in liberal arts. Brought to Naples he studied philosophy and mathematics under the guidance of some of the Kingdom's leading intellectuals, including Lionardo di Capoa and Tommaso di Cornelio. Paolo's natural talent, however, was painting and he was allowed to return to it. Continue reading

Ferdinando Carulli: A True Guitar Hero

Ferdinando Carulli
By Giovanni di Napoli
Ferdinando Carulli (b. Naples 1770 - d. Paris 1841) was perhaps the most significant composer and instructor for the guitar in the Nineteenth Century. Highly prolific, many of the virtuoso's works, including his "Harmony Applied to the Guitar," continue to be used today to train students the classical guitar.
According to most sources he was born on February 9th, others claim the 10th. His father, Michele Carulli, was originally from Bari and a distinguished statesman in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies; his mother, Patrizia Federici, is believed to be Neapolitan, but more information about her is lost. He was raised on the Via Nardones near the Palazzo Reale in Naples.
Carulli learned the basics of music from a priest, which was not unusual at that time. The Cello was his first instrument, but at twenty he discovered the guitar and made it his life's passion. Because no suitable instructors were available at the time, the Neapolitan was principally self-taught and formulated his own guitar technique. Continue reading

February 7, 2012

Sicily’s ‘Friendly Giant’

Mt. Etna of Sicily
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
By Niccolò Graffio
“What time does the volcano erupt?” – American tourist on Mt. Etna in 2000
When I was but a young lad there were two things (besides toy soldiers) that had my interest – dinosaurs and volcanoes.  Looking around at other people’s children I could see I was hardly alone in that regard.  As time went by I eventually lost my interest in both toy soldiers and dinosaurs, but not before I could rattle off the names of “terrible lizards” with the best of them!  

I never overcame my fascination with volcanoes, though. The sight of these majestic, rumbling mountains still transfixes me to this day.  Why I never became a volcanologist remains a mystery to me.  The idea of getting up close to these beautiful but dangerous geologic phenomena is something I’ll probably never shake.  It’s on my bucket list to visit an actual erupting volcano before I die, and there’s one in particular that has always held a special fascination for me.

Mt. Etna is the only active volcano located on the island of Sicily and one of only three active volcanoes in all of Italy.  It is situated close to the cities of Messina and Catania on the eastern side of the island.  

Etna is the tallest active volcano in Europe, being 2.5 times larger than Mt. Vesuvius located outside Naples.  It is also the highest mountain located in Italy south the Alps, standing around a majestic 3,329m (10,922 ft) high.

Etna is also considered by many volcanologists to be one of the most active if not in fact the most active volcano in the world!  The Sicani, one of the three ancient peoples of Sicily present at the time of Greek and Phoenician colonization of the island, where keenly aware of the presence of this volcano.  The first eruption of Etna in recorded history, which began around 1,500 B.C., is believed to have been so intense it drove the bulk of the Sicani from the eastern part of Sicily to parts farther westward.  The lands they abandoned were later occupied by the Siculi, the last of the peoples to settle Sicily before the coming of the Greeks and Phoenicians.

The mountain has erupted scores of times since; the last eruption beginning in 2007 and continuing to this day.  

The ancient Greeks who settled the eastern part of the island wherein the mountain resides looked upon rumbling Etna as an object of wonder!  Numerous, fanciful tales arose to explain the cone’s almost non-stop activity.  Hephaestus, the Olympian god of fire and the forge, was believed to have kept his workshop inside the vents of the volcano, hence his epithet Aetnaeus by the Greek colonists of Sicily.

Another story goes that mighty Zeus trapped Typhon, the “Father of all monsters” underneath Etna after an epic battle between the two.  Still another holds that Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and battle arts, buried the giant Enkelados underneath Etna after defeating and wounding him during the Gigantomakhia, the titanic struggle between the Olympian gods and the Gigantes, a race of giants, over universal supremacy.  Greek parents on Sicily would tell their children that whenever Mt. Etna erupted it was merely Enkelados groaning in pain from his wounds.  It should be noted to this day in Greece an earthquake is often called a “strike of Enkelados”.

There is disagreement over the etymology of the name Etna.  Some believe it originated in an ancient Greek phrase which means “I burn”.  Adrian Room, author of the book Place-names of the World, believes it actually had its origins in the Phoenician word attuna, which means “furnace”.  Given the fact the Phoenicians, to my knowledge anyway, never occupied that part of the island, I’d like to know how he came up with that one.  More than likely it had its origins in the indigenous Sicilian phrase aith-na, “the fiery one”, which subsequently passed into the vernacular of the Greeks who supplanted the Sicani and Siculi who came before them.

However, there can be no doubt this mountain was the archetype for all other volcanoes documented since then.  The ancient Romans, like the Greeks, believed their fire god kept his forge in Etna.  His name was Vulcan, and it is from his name we get the word ‘volcano’.  
The Forge of Vulcan by Luca Giordano
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
The natives of Sicily like to refer to Mt. Etna as the “friendly giant” because its eruptions, at least in modern times, have rarely been harmful.  This is in stark contrast to Etna’s sister, Mt. Vesuvius, the “Evil Old Lady of Italy” to the north in Campania.  In fact, Etna’s eruptions have been quite beneficial to the people living around its base.  As is the case with many other volcanoes, the slopes surrounding it are covered with fertile, mineral-rich soil.  The locals have taken advantage of this to create an extensive agricultural system that includes orchards and vineyards.  The Plain of Catania, a recipient of a large, ancient lava flow from Etna, is noted for the bounty of its fields.

To be sure, Mt. Etna wasn’t always this friendly.  In geologic terms it is what is known as a stratovolcano or composite volcano.  This is a volcano that is formed in alternating explosive and effusive eruptions.  The result is a cone that towers over 10,000 feet high!  

Geologists estimate the first eruptions associated with Mt. Etna began almost 500,000 years ago.  Over ensuing millennia the volcano’s center shifted until about 170,000 years ago when it reached its present location.  In the interim there were numerous phases of mountain-building that always ended in massive eruptions causing the collapse of the crater, forming calderas.  

Between 35,000-15,000 years ago the volcano went through an especially intense phase of explosive eruptions causing large pyroclastic flows over much of the eastern part of Sicily.  Ash from these eruptions have been found as far north as Lazio, about 800km (497 miles) away!

Around 8000 years ago a particularly massive eruption caused the eastern flank of the volcano to collapse, forming what is now known as the ‘Valle del Bove’ (It: Valley of the Ox).  This eruption also triggered a mega-tsunami that caused extensive flooding throughout the eastern Mediterranean.  Friendly giant indeed!

Etna’s most destructive eruption in recent centuries occurred on March 11, 1669 when lava flows from the volcano destroyed a number of villages before reaching the walls of the city of Catania on April 15th, damaging some outer parts of the town.  Thankfully, no one seems to have been killed.
Mt. Vesuvius (Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
Though casualties have been few in recent centuries, Etna’s habit of erupting, plus its past blow-ups, have authorities taking no chances.  Mt. Etna is one of 16 volcanoes that has been designated a Decade Volcano by the UN.  A Decade Volcano is a volcano that, due to its destructive past history and proximity to large populations, is worthy of close study.  Vesuvius, Etna’s bad-tempered sister to the north, is another one.

Speaking of Vesuvius, when I visited Rome and Southern Italy in the fall of 2010 I had the thrill of standing at the base of this now (thankfully) quiet volcano.  I hope it stays that way forever.  If the Fates decree that one day it should again awaken, let us hope it does so in a more agreeable manner, like its sisters Stromboli and Etna.

In the meantime, however, I am saving my money while staring at travel folders for the island of Sicily, thinking about the days when I can soon stand on the slopes of her friendly giant, looking and listening for the rumblings of Enkelados.  My camera is ready.

Further reading:

1) George Farrer Rodwell: Etna.  A history of the mountain and its eruptions…With maps and illustrations; British Library, Historical Print Editions, 2011

February 1, 2012

The Coming of the Cro-Magnon

Early Modern Man Arrives in Southern Italy
Cro-Magnon skull, Museum of Natural History
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
By Niccolò Graffio

According to archaeologists, the first humans in Europe to show Neanderthal-like traits appeared on the scene over 350,000 and perhaps as early as 600,000 years ago.  The first true Neanderthals apparently showed up around 300,000 years ago and “strutted their stuff” across Eurasia for about 170,000 years.  Many questions concerning them are unanswered, as they undoubtedly will remain forever.

Did they have a spoken language?  According to some archaeologists, based on analysis of Neanderthal remains the answer is “yes”.  However, there is no consensus on that point.  Were Neanderthals a separate species of humans (Homo neanderthalensis) or merely a sub-species of our own (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis)?  Opinion in the scientific community seems to change constantly on that last question.  

I’m old enough to remember when most scientists were of the opinion they were a separate species, and then opinion changed in the early 1990’s over papers published which seemed to show enough morphological differences to justify classifying them as a separate species.  Now with evidence of Neanderthal DNA found in the gene pool of modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) the pendulum is swinging back in the other direction.  Whether it remains in that direction remains to be seen.

The most nagging question is undoubtedly what became of them.  Here again, opinion is divided, though the subject of this article no doubt played a pivotal role in their demise.

Science is constantly correcting itself, and that is a good thing.  That is the cornerstone of progress.  Our knowledge of the world around us is not absolute and until it is, corrections will be in order.  Would that politics worked as well as the sciences, but I digress.  

Raquel Welch, One Million Years B.C.

When I was a lad one of the things I enjoyed reading were tales of prehistoric humans, or “cavemen”.  Hollywood likewise fed my interest by churning out movies like the laughably awful One Million Years B.C. Today it’s hard to believe anyone could have taken such an egregiously historically inaccurate movie seriously (though in retrospect, watching a nubile Raquel Welch prancing around in a cave girl outfit wasn’t so bad).  Our present-day knowledge of our remote ancestors should tell us these stock characters were in no way representative of early modern humans.

When one thinks of these cave-dwelling, modern-looking humans, one is probably thinking of peoples who at one time were collectively referred to as Cro-Magnons.  Today, however, most paleontologists prefer to use the term European Early Modern Humans (EEMH).  Early modern humans in general are usually referred to by the appellation Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH).  Some people, probably out of a sense of romanticism more than anything else, still use the term Cro-Magnon when referring to these EEMH.  Since I am something of a stick-in-the-mud, and since this topic deals with early southern Europeans, I shall stick to calling them Cro-Magnons.

The oldest remains of AMH found to date are a collection of bones from Omo National Park in southwestern Ethiopia and dated to about 195,000 years ago.  Beginning around 125,000 years ago a number of these peoples began leaving eastern Africa and migrating into the Arabian Peninsula.  These migrations undoubtedly continued over a long period of time.  According to archaeologists the first successful migration (whose migrants left descendants) occurred about 60,000 years ago.  

Until several years ago it was believed the first Cro-Magnons wandered into Europe from the Near East a little less than 38,000 years ago.  This belief was based on the discovery of a jawbone found in a cave in Romania and dated to about 34,000 to 36,000 years ago.  As mentioned in my previous article, however, a discovery made in a cave in southern Italy is changing that belief.  Two teeth, previously believed to have belonged to a Neanderthal, are now in fact believed to have been in the mouth of a Cro-Magnon who died between 40,000-42,000 years ago!  This would make this fellow the oldest known “modern” European!

The existence of the Cro-Magnons is something that has been known among the scientific community for quite some time.  The first Cro-Magnon remains were discovered by French geologist and paleontologist Louis Lartet in 1868 in the commune of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil, Dordogne, France.  It was later carbon-dated to around 27,680 BP (Before Present).  One interesting factoid about the skull is its cranial cavity measure 1,600 cubic centimeters.  The skulls of modern humans measures between 1,200-1,700 cubic centimeters.  Archaeologists point out that though Cro-Magnons stood about the same height as modern Europeans, their brains, on average, were slightly larger.  They also had a somewhat more robust physique.  It looks like we lost something in the interim.
Female Cro-Magnon skull, Museum of Natural History
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
In physical appearance Cro-Magnons possessed a number of features in common with modern Europeans (at least according to paleontologists).  They had wide faces with long, fairly low skulls and moderate to no facial prognathism (jaw protrusion).  They also had prominent noses like many modern Europeans and were the first humans with prominent chins.  Figurines discovered by archaeologists reveal many Cro-Magnons had straight hair, as well.  The noted Russian anatomist Mikhail Gerasimov, who made a name for himself reconstructing the faces of ancient and modern humans from their skulls, remarked that Cro-Magnon Man was “in his way good-looking”.

Less certain is the pigmentation of their hair, eyes and skin.  In the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries Nordicists were fond of painting Cro-Magnons with a wide Nordish brush in terms of physical appearance, giving them blond hair, fair skin and blue eyes.  On the flip side, Neanderthals, their supposedly more primitive, brutish antecedents, were of course portrayed as being swarthy.

Today’s researchers, however, armed with advances in population genetics and evolutionary biology, are less inclined to accept these contentions.  It has been pointed out Neanderthals lived in Europe for over 150,000 years under mostly ice age conditions, that is more than sufficient time for peoples to develop the light hair, eyes and skin needed to match the rigors of their surroundings.  Cro-Magnons, on the other hand, wandered into Europe a little over 40,000 years ago from the sun-baked Near East where their ancestors had been living for about 20,000 years.  From this many deduce they were of a decidedly darker complexion. 

It is also well worth mentioning the noted biological anthropologist C. Loring Brace, after an extensive examination of skeletons of both ancient and modern Europeans, came to the conclusion Cro-Magnons, if they existed today (which by the way, they don’t) would be more closely related to southern Europeans than ones from the north.

Evidence for the presence of Cro-Magnons in Southern Italy comes from a number of sources.  As mentioned previously, teeth found in the Grotta del Cavallo in Apulia have been identified as being Cro-Magnon in origin.  They have been dated as being 43,000-45,000 BP which would make them the oldest known fossils of modern man found in Europe!   The site is associated with the so-called Uluzzian Culture of tool-making.  Specimens of tools of the Aurignacian Culture, another period of Cro-Magnon tool-making, have been found in the Fontana Nuova di Ragusa rock shelter in southeastern Sicily, just south of Siracusa.  These have been dated to <34,000 BP.

Likewise, there is genetic evidence to establish the existence of Cro-Magnons in Southern Italy.  Skeletal remains of a Cro-Magnon man were found in the Paglicci cave site near Rignano Garganico in Apulia.  This individual’s remains, dubbed Paglicci 23, have been carbon-dated to 28,000 BP.  mtDNA extracted from his bones belongs to Haplogroup H, a haplogroup that remains very common in Europe and  still found among a number of Southern Italians.  Researchers point out this and other evidences clearly shows Cro-Magnons were our distant ancestors!

Though the Cro-Magnons themselves as a distinct group no longer exist, their legacy survives in us, their children.  They gave us their tool-making technologies and their DNA.  We are undoubtedly more deeply indebted to them then to the Neanderthals who preceded them, for they supplanted them.  In future articles we will deal with later peoples who established the foundations for what would eventually become the great civilizations of the Mediterranean! 

Further reading:
1) Brian Fagan: Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans: Bloomsbury Press, 2011
2) Robert Leighton: Sicily Before History: An Archaeological Survey from the Paleolithic to the Iron Age: Cornell University Press, 1999

Italy to America: Photographs of Anthony Riccio at the The Bellarmine Museum of Art

My Daily Prayer by Anthony Riccio
Italy to America: Photographs of Anthony Riccio
February 1 — March 30, 2012

Opening Reception
Wednesday, February 1
5 — 7 p.m.

Riccio documents the rich tapestry of the Italian-American immigrant experience through stunning images of the daily routines and seasonal rituals of communities in Southern Italy as well as in Boston's North End and New Haven's "Little Italy." See our website for a full schedule of the dynamic programming designed to complement this exhibition.

Fairfield University
The Bellarmine Museum of Art

1073 North Benson Rd.
Fairfield, CT 06824

Free and open to the public
Hours: Mon. — Fri., 10 a.m. — 3 p.m.
when the University is in session.

Reprinted from Fairfield University press release

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