October 28, 2009

The Lioness of the South: Michelina De Cesare

Michelina De Cesare
Oct. 28, 1841 — Aug. 30, 1868
By Giovanni di Napoli

On March 17, 1861 the Kingdom of Italy was born. The events that led to its birth are many but most are hidden behind the myths of the Risorgimento, a romanticized, but false, version of Italian unity. Portraying themselves as liberators, the House of Savoy effectively annexed and colonized the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and Papal States. It didn't take long after unification that the lies and false promises of the Northern conquerors become apparent. The new rulers not only continued the unjust policies they promised to eliminate but in many cases they exacerbated them.

Betrayed and desperate, the people of the South rebelled against the Piedmontese and their collaborators. For well over a decade the Northern invaders waged a bloody war of repression against the Southern insurrection, deceitfully referred to as "the war against brigandage." The occupational forces committed many atrocities against the so-called "brigands," perhaps the most famous of which were the Pontelandolfo and Casalduni massacres. The Southerners retaliated by exacting retribution whenever possible. At its peak, over 100,000 soldiers were needed to suppress the revolt. Tribunals, roundups, deportations and summary executions were an integral part of Italian nation building.

The flames of rebellion burned across Southern Italy but some regions were hotter than others. Terra di Lavoro, the northern province of Campania, was one of these hotbeds. Waging a guerilla war against their foreign oppressors, partisans consisting of former Bourbon soldiers, loyalists and a desperate peasantry fought not only to defend the legitimacy of the Bourbons but also to protect their families and way of life.

Coat of arms for Terra di Lavoro
One of the region's more famous bands was the Guerra Gang. Under the able leadership of Francesco Guerra, a former Bourbon soldier and veteran of the Battle of Volturno (1860), they committed many daring acts of sabotage and resistance. Like many other Southerners, Francesco went into hiding for draft-dodging because he refused to serve the new state. They were branded brigands by the government and hunted down like common criminals.

None of this however, is out of the ordinary; there were many such men fighting across the Mezzogiorno. What really makes the Guerra Gang famous was the presence of "La Brigantessa": Michelina De Cesare. Many women were involved in the Southern resistance movement, so having a female member was not in itself what made them famous. What made Michelina special was that she was also one of the group's leaders and primary tacticians, and was well respected by the men who followed her into combat.

Official Italian history purposely disparages the female fighters by falsely describing them as simply the lovers or relatives of male brigands. Michelina proved otherwise.

"La Brigantessa"
Born in Caspoli on October 28, 1841, she grew up poor. Embittered by experiencing life under Northern occupation, Michelina decided to do something about it. At the age of 20 she met Francesco Guerra and joined the resistance in 1861. They became lovers then secretly married in a small church in Galluccio. It is said she was as fearless as she was beautiful and would always accompany the men in battle. For seven years she and her fellow partisans attacked and harassed the occupational forces, earning a well deserved reputation among both the Southern people and the oppressors.

A serious effort was made by the Piedmontese to eliminate the partisans which included monetary rewards but also threats of mass deportation and violence, a common practice used by the conquerors against the people they supposedly "liberated."

On August 30, 1868 a group of Carabinieri and National Guardsmen scoured the slopes of Monte Lungo, in Mignano, in search of the Guerra Gang. Betrayed by an informant, the rebels’ whereabouts were divulged. Unwilling to miss an opportunity, the soldiers braved a violent thunderstorm to catch their prey off guard. During the search a flash of lightning revealed the group’s position. The heavy rain and thunder helped conceal the soldiers approach. At about ten o'clock at night they ambushed the unsuspecting camp. The soldiers opened fired and massacred the rebels. Francesco Guerra, James Ciccone and Francesco Orsi were slain.

The work of the "Liberators"
Michelina was captured alive, tortured for information, gang-raped, then murdered. The violent interrogation was unsuccessful; at age 27 she died heroically while refusing to betray her comrades. Her naked and mutilated corpse was exposed to the nearby villagers as a warning. However, instead of deterring the people, the outrage reinforced their support of the rebellion. Even in death she contributed to the cause.

Michelina De Cesare, the Lioness of the South, has earned her place in the pantheon of Southern Italian rebels, which includes the legendary Masaniello and Fra Diavolo, among others.

"Meglio na buona morte ca na mala vita."
("Better a good death than a bad life.": Neapolitan proverb)

October 21, 2009

A Day of High Culture

(L-R) Terracotta statuettes of dancing women (3rd-2nd century B.C.),
Terracotta head of Artemis (3rd century B.C.),
Terracotta heads of wreathed women (3rd century B.C.)

(Left) Campanian Bronze statuette
of male figure (ca. 500-450 B.C.),
Bronze statuette of Siren (ca. 500 B.C.)
Last Sunday I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art to pay homage to the great Neapolitan Baroque painter Luca Giordano for his birthday. While I wandered through the museum's galleries and contemplated the eclectic collection I found myself being drawn back to the Art of Southern Italy, as if summoned by the Siren's seductive song. No matter how many times I visit the museum I never get tired of it. I always discover something new.

I took some photos of their Southern Italian collection and I thought I would share a few of them with you.

By New York Scugnizzo

Bronze helmet (mid 4th–mid 3rd century B.C.),
Apulian terracotta vase with Gorgoneion (late 4th–early 3rd century B.C.), Terracotta hydria from Campania (ca. 350-320 B.C.)

(L-R) Pilate Washing His Hands by Mattia Preti (1613-1699),
Self-Portrait by Salvator Rosa (1615-1673)

Landscape with Mercury and Argus by Salvator Rosa (1615-1673),
Tobit Burying the Dead by Andrea di Lione (1610-1685),
Lucanian wall painting of a mounted warrior (mid-4th century B.C.)

Photos by New York Scugnizzo

October 18, 2009

Luca 'fà-Presto' Giordano

San Nicola in gloria (Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
By Giovanni di Napoli

[The following article was originally posted on October 18, 2009. I've since added photos of San Nicola in gloria (Museo Civico) from my visit to Naples in 2010, Saint Sebastian Cured by Saint Irene from the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2011, King Tiridates Before Saint Gregory the Armenian from the Boston Museum of Art in 2012 and The Flight into Egypt from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I inadvertently left out the first time around. Also included, for illustrative purposes, is a reprint of a photo of Giordano's St. Benedict and the Miraculous Sacks of Grain from the Abbey of Montecassino, destroyed in 1944. For more on the lost works from the Abbey see, "Montecassino" by Robert Enggass, p. 41-55, A Taste For Angels, Yale University Art Gallery, 1987.]
The Annunciation (New York Scugnizzo)
Today I treated myself with a trip to New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The occasion was in celebration of one of my favorite Southern Italian artists, Luca Giordano. I thought I would pay homage to the Baroque master on his birthday by viewing some of his works in person.

Luca Giordano was born on October 18, 1634 in Naples. He was the son of Antonio Giordano, who was also a painter. At an early age he apprenticed for Giuseppe Ribera during Spagnoletto's ("the little Spaniard's") Neapolitan sojourn. After Ribera's death the young artist traveled to Rome, Florence and Venice where he studied the work of Pietro da Cortona and other Northern masters.
The Flight into Egypt (New York Scugnizzo)
Giordano returned to Naples in 1653 to continue his studies. By 1665 he was painting again in Florence and Venice for the likes of the Medici. His frescoes in the dome of the Cappella Corsini in the Church of the Carmine and the Grand Gallery of Palazzo Medici-Riccardi are just some of his many works to be found in Northern Italy.

The Neapolitan's brilliance was internationally recognized. In 1692 Giordano was summoned to Madrid by Charles II of Spain and served as court painter until 1702. His masterpieces from this period grace the walls of private collections, churches and palaces across Iberia.
Saint Sebastian Cured by Saint Irene (New York Scugnizzo)
After his patron died Giordano returned triumphantly to his beloved Naples and helped support local struggling artists. He was highly prolific and influential. The Neapolitan giant is best remembered for his prodigious skill and quick painting technique, which earned him the nickname, Luca fà-presto or Luca work quickly.

Luca Giordano died in Naples in 1705.
St. Benedict and the Miraculous Sacks of Grain 
(Courtesy of A Taste For Angels, Yale University Art Gallery, 1987)
Unfortunately, on February 15, 1944 some of his majestic work was lost during WWII when the Allies destroyed the ancient Benedictine monastery of Montecassino. Sadly, they mistakenly thought the abbey was an Axis stronghold when in fact it was a refuge for local women and children fleeing les Goums Marocains, the atrocity prone French Auxiliary soldiers from Algeria and Morocco who raped over 7,000 women, children and men during the invasion of Italy.
King Tiridates Before Saint Gregory the Armenian (New York Scugnizzo)
The Met is home to his Annunciation, a beautiful painting depicting the revelation of Mary by the Angel Gabriel. This painting is a clear example of the artist's vibrant style and ability and, in my humble opinion, it dominates the gallery with its beauty and excellence. This is no small achievement considering it shares the room with works by renowned Southern Italian artists like Massimo Stanzione, Mattia Preti and Salvator Rosa, among others.

For a little taste of Southern Italian high culture, I highly recommend a visit to this prestigious museum.

October 14, 2009

Columbus Day 2009 revisited

Here are few bonus pix to supplement my previous post on Columbus Day.

A contingent from Padula salute hero cop and native son, Joe Petrosino.

More examples of the various regions represented in the parade.

It's not a party until the pipers arrive.
The Irish participants (above) and the Arbëreshët (below) prove that Italo-Americans don't have a monopoly on Columbus Day.

Arbëreshët beauties from 2008 Columbus Day Parade.

Photos courtesy of New York Scugnizzo

October 12, 2009

2009 Columbus Day Parade Observations

I celebrate Columbus Day because I'm a European-American not because I'm an "Italian." Despite some claims to the contrary, Columbus Day is an American celebration not an Italian-American holiday. While the Genoese may rightfully claim special pride in their countryman, the great explorer belongs to us all the same way Homer, Beethoven and Shakespeare do.

These days Columbus Day is always surrounded by controversy. The disputes range from his role in colonialism by American-Indian groups to his recognition as the first European to discover the New World by Scandinavians, who correctly point out that the Vikings arrived here before him. I'll take this opportunity to add to the controversy by pointing out the differences among Italians in their celebration of the great explorer.

Every time I attend New York City's Columbus Day Parade I can't help but notice how the participants from Italy, with few exceptions, are organized by their regions and not as Italians. This, of course, is in stark contrast to Italo-Americans who mostly march together as Italians. Granted, the Americans march according to their job affiliations (Police, Fire Department, Sanitation, etc.) and by location, but for the most part they consider themselves one people, unlike their Italian counterparts. How do I know this? Quite simply, the Americans wave Italian flags while the Italians fly their regional bandiera.

In a time when the American concept of assimilation is being rapidly replaced with "diversity" perhaps the example of our guests from Italy, both North and South, will help Italian-Americans once again feel comfortable enough to reconnect with their regional roots.

The Venetian float declares: "The Great Masters of Veneto" accurately describing them as Venetian instead of Italian.

The Masonic Garibaldi Lodge is shown marching with a modified Italian flag. The likeness of Garibaldi along with Masonic symbols are superimposed over the Italian tricolor, openly flaunting the Masonic connection to the Risorgimento.
The Garibaldi Brigade as represented by historical reenactors reminds us of their part in the American Civil War, apparently the American South was no safer from them.

Sicily was well represented, the parade would not be complete without a traditional Sicilian cart.

People enjoyed traditional music and dance from Campania.

The cold weather was no match for the festive Calabrians.

These reenactors from Lerici, Northern Italy show the obvious benefits of preserving the past.
Photos courtesy of New York Scugnizzo

October 10, 2009

The Voice of One Crying Out in the Wilderness: The Life and Death of Giordano Bruno

"The Nolan" Giordano Bruno
(1548-February 17, 1600)
By Niccolò Graffio

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, which effectively ended Classical Antiquity, the light of higher learning was for the most part snuffed out over most of Europe (the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire notwithstanding).  Though progress was made on a number of fronts in succeeding centuries, real devotion to the arts and sciences on the continent was not seen again until the time known as the Renaissance, which began in Italy during the 14th century.

This is not to say that in the interim Europe was a backwater.  Far from it!  During the period known as the Middle Ages, Northern and Western Europe were urbanized for the first time in their respective histories.  Kingdoms were also established that would eventually evolve into many of today’s nation-states in Europe.

However, the rise during the Middle Ages of the socio-economic system many today call Feudalism put into place an orderly but static social structure that left little opportunity for advancement to those on the bottom rungs of the ladder.  Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church, whose archives ensured the survival of many ancient manuscripts that would otherwise have been lost to us today, ironically in many cases was the impediment to advancement as it struggled to maintain its control over the hearts and minds of peasant and nobleman alike.
The Renaissance saw a renewed interest in Classical learning, thanks in no small part to the influx of Greek scholars who fled the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 and who subsequently flocked to the courts of Italy.  The era also saw social and political upheaval, in part due to the infamous “Black Death,” which forever changed the demographic landscape of Europe.

While this period saw educational reform and advances on a number of fronts, it was still a dangerous time to live in for heterodox individuals.  One such individual was Giordano Bruno. 

Filippo Bruno was born in 1548 in the town of Nola, a small town outside Naples.  The son of a soldier, he took the name of Giordano when he entered the Dominican Order in Naples at the age of 17.  He became an ordained priest at the age of 24.  It was during this time he first came to the notice of his superiors for his intellect…and his outspokenness.  

Bruno developed a mnemonic system, which, together with his high intelligence, allowed him to set to memory large amounts of information.  With his keen intellect and thirst for knowledge, Bruno might have enjoyed a successful career in the Church, but for the fact he preferred the writings of men like Copernicus, Plato and Hermes Trismegitus to official Catholic doctrine.  In truth, Bruno was not a Christian at all, but what we today would call a pantheist.

By the year 1576 Bruno was forced to flee Naples to escape prosecution at the hands of the infamous Inquisition.  Shortly afterwards, he fled Italy altogether and the Dominican Order as well.  Over the next 12 years, he wandered over Switzerland, France, England and Germany.  It was during this time, thanks to the largesse of wealthy patrons, that he wrote his most famous texts, outlining his beliefs on such topics as heliocentrism, philosophy, theosophy, mnemonics, among others. Bruno also wrote satire and poetry. 

It is a matter of record that Bruno was one of the earliest and most outspoken proponents of the heliocentric theory of Nicolaus Copernicus.  Copernicus’s view of the solar system fit in quite nicely with Bruno’s cosmology, which saw our own sun as merely one in an infinite number of suns, each with its own world orbiting it, inhabited with intelligent beings.  In this he anticipated the Many Worlds Theory of quantum physics by almost four centuries!

Bruno monument at Campo dei Fiori
Photo courtesy of New York Scugnizzo
That Giordano Bruno was a brilliant man and a true polymath there can be no doubt.  However, as is the case with all men, Bruno had his faults, his abrasive personality being chief amongst them.  Wherever he settled, Bruno’s outspokenness, controversialism and abrasiveness eventually cost him friends and benefactors.

For whatever reason, Bruno eventually returned to Italy (Venice) in 1591.  He was betrayed to the Venetian Inquisition the following year by a former benefactor.  Initially he appeared to defend himself quite well against the many charges lodged against him.  However, the Roman Inquisition, upon learning of his capture, demanded his transfer to that city and the Venetians eventually (and reluctantly) agreed.

During his incarceration and trial (which lasted seven years) Bruno initially seemed to at least partially recant some of his beliefs.  The particulars of the trial (was he tortured?) are unknown, as Vatican officials claim Bruno’s file is “lost” (interestingly, Galilei’s file is still around).  In the end, he refused to recant the gist of his personal philosophy, and was condemned to death by burning, the punishment at the time for heresy.

Faced with his imminent doom, Bruno, rather than submit to his executioners, allowed his famous abrasiveness to the fore.   Upon hearing the sentence of death, he is said to have uttered: “Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.”  Quickly remanded to the secular authorities, on February 17, 1600 Giordano Bruno (his mouth sealed with a wooden vice) was cruelly burned at the stake.  Recalcitrant to the very end, he is said to have pushed a crucifix away in scorn when one was offered to him in his final moments.

Scholars to this day debate the legacy of Bruno.  To some, he was a martyr of science.  To others, he was simply someone who had the misfortune of espousing heretical ideas at an inopportune time in history.  I prefer to think of him as a martyr of free ideas; a true son of the taxon physical anthropologists (in less politically correct times) were allowed to call the Mediterranean subrace of mankind.

Whatever the truth, his legacy, like his life and death, remains controversial.  From everything I’ve ever read about the man, I think he would have preferred it that way.

October 7, 2009

Remember Lepanto

Don Giovanni D'Austria
By Giovanni di Napoli

On October 7, 1571 off the coast of Greece, near the Gulf of Lepanto, the greatest sea battle in history took place between the fleets of the Holy League and the Ottoman Empire. With the blessing of Pope Pius V the Christian armada under the command of Don John of Austria dealt a terrible blow to the massive Ottoman flotilla preparing to invade the Italian peninsula. The Christian armada consisted of ships from Spain (which, at the time included the viceroyalty of Naples and Sicily), the Papal States, Venice, Genoa, and the Knights of Malta. 

Since the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 the Ottoman Turks were steadily advancing across the Mediterranean with few setbacks. Desperate to stem the tide of the seemingly invincible onslaught the European powers wisely set aside their differences and joined forces in a rare display of unity to save and avenge Christendom from the constant attacks by Moslem raiders. In fact, Venice was still stinging from its recent loss of Cyprus in 1570.

After the island's capitulation, the Venetian commander Marcantonio Bragadino had his nose and ears cut off and was forced to crawl mutilated before his tormentors. Bragadino was then flayed alive; his skin was stuffed with hay and sent back to Constantinople as a ghoulish trophy. Thousands of others were raped, butchered or sold off as slaves for the galleys and seraglios across the Islamic world. All Europe faced a similar fate if the Moslem threat was not stopped. 

Outnumbered, the men of the West met their foe at sea; the fate of their homelands lay in the balance. With great determination and ferocity they punished the Ottoman fleet. The canons roared and sailors fought in hand-to-hand combat; the sea red ran with blood. When it was over, hundreds of Ottoman vessels were destroyed or taken, as many as 25,000 Saracens were slain or captured (to only 8,000 Christians), and some 13,000 European slaves were freed. The Turkish admiral Ali Pasha was beheaded on the spot. At least for the moment, the Moslem threat was smashed.

The Southern Italian contribution consisted of thirty ships and crews from Naples and ten from Sicily. One of the many heroes of the great battle was the Sicilian captain Giovanni Cardona da Palermo. His ship, Capitana di Sicilia, unfathomably engaged sixteen Turkish galleys alone and is credited with preventing the Christian fleet from being encircled by the Ottomans during a critical moment in the battle. 

Europeans were pessimistic about their chances to defeat the Ottoman war machine. The Pope himself urged all Christians to say the Rosary every day for our crews, on whose desperate actions the fate of Christendom rested. In fact, the miraculous victory was attributed to the intervention of Our Lady Queen of the Rosary, later called Our Lady Queen of Victory. Today, I can never look at the Rosary without remembering the spirit and the indomitable will of the men who fought and died for our faith at Lepanto.

Islam's defeat at Lepanto spared Southern Europe the same cruel fate as the Balkans or a repeat of the horrific crimes committed by the Ottomans at Otranto, Apulia in 1480. We should never forget the sacrifice our forefathers made to defend our civilization, a sacrifice criminally neglected today by Europe's poor excuses for leaders and churchmen, who out of greed and corruption are surrendering our birthright without a fight. 


A reader sent me information on this interesting festival and I thought I would share it with you.

Camjuzzu i focu (The Burning Camel)

Reprinted from Villaggio Hotel Tonicello 
Stemma di Tropea

The tradition of the “Camjuzzu ì focu” is part of the surviving ritual which protects against negative influences by means of the exorcism of the Turkish invading enemy. In fact, the dance “U Camjuzzzu i Focu” (the Burning Camel) symbolises the expulsion of the Moslems who, for a period ruled Tropea and its hamlets and travelled around on their camels collecting tributes. But, more generally speaking, it symbolises resistance to arrogance and exploitation. The dance is “performed” by a rudimentary camel made of hollow canes with gunpowder and explosives placed inside at regular intervals. Towards the end of the evening the camel is hoisted onto the shoulders of a man who begins a dance to the deafening sound of tambourines; he goes backwards and forwards along the path chosen for the dance, while the lighted gunpowder spreads smoke and flames which alternate with the bangs. The dance continues until the last spark of gunpowder sets off the explosion of the Catherine-wheel in the camel’s tail.

The dance of the “Camjuzzo i Focu” (the Burning camel) is the conclusion of the festivities and has its origins in the burning of the Moslem ships by the Christian fleet during the battle of Lepanto.

October 4, 2009

Ponderable Quote From "The Ruling Class" by Gaetano Mosca

Gaetano Mosca
April 1, 1858 – Nov. 8, 1941
The most insidious enemy of all aristocracies of birth is undoubtedly, idleness. Idleness generates softness and sensuality, stimulates frivolousness of mind and creates an aspiration to a life of pleasures unaccompanied by duties. When there is no daily pressure from an obligation to do a set task, and when the habit of work has not been formed in early years, it is hard to escape the traps of that deadly enemy. Yet aristocracies that cannot defend themselves adequately from idleness decline rapidly. They may succeed in retaining their ranks and offices nominally for some time, but when such functions are actually exercised by subalterns, the subalterns soon become the actual masters. It can only turn out that the man who acts, and knows how to act, will eventually succeed in commanding.
(Reprinted from The Ruling Class by Gaetano Mosca, p.421, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1939)