February 25, 2010

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.

After inheriting the family estate he traveled to Rome with his brother Alfonso to pursue a career in Law at the University of Rome. While at the university, he reacted positively (and strongly) to the lectures on moral philosophy by Prof. Antonio Labriola, a prominent Italian Marxist theoretician. Deciding against pursuing a career in Law, Croce left the university in 1886 to return to his family’s palazzo in Naples. It was at this time he began to pursue a career as an independent scholar, buttressing his personal research with trips to places such as England, France, Germany and Spain.

Starting out as a historical writer, his books and articles were noted for transcending simple Positivistic philosophy by inquiring into the nature of art and history. He became heavily influenced by the writings of Georg W.F. Hegel and Giambattista Vico. He shared the latter’s view that history should be written by philosophers. Though initially (largely through the influence of Labriola) a dilettante Marxist (1895-99), he ultimately rejected this philosophy, and socialism itself, in his works Historical Materialism and Marxist Economics (1900). While he shared Hegel’s preoccupation with the nature of spirit, as revealed in historical and artistic activity, he was careful to distance himself from the Hegelian notion of the nation-state as the organic unity responsible for the development of the spirit. Instead he found understanding in the self-conscious, free exercise of historical enquiry.

In 1896 Croce began a long and productive collaboration with the Sicilian philosopher and educator Giovanni Gentile, the man who would later come to be known as the philosopher of Fascism. With Gentile, Croce edited such works as Classics of World Philosophy, Writers of Italy and The Library of Modern Culture. In 1903 he founded the bimonthly magazine La critica, an influential journal of cultural criticism which he edited until 1937 and to which he extensively contributed.

In 1908 Croce began his long and legendary debate with Sicilian dramatist and novelist Luigi Pirandello on the subject of the aesthetic sources of humorism. This debate would last many years, growing increasingly vicious (on both sides) as time progressed. Though it started as a philosophical dialogue, it eventually assumed a decidedly personal dimension. Both men made it unmistakably clear they disliked the other.

As Croce’s fame increased, he was pushed by friends and colleagues into politics, much to his opposition. He was made Minister of Public Education for a year, then in 1910 was appointed a lifelong member of the Italian Senate.

When World War One broke out in 1914 he vehemently opposed Italian entry into it, considering the conflict a suicidal trade war. His popularity suffered as a result. After the war’s end in 1918, however, his fame reignited and he eventually became a well-loved public figure.

In 1922 Benito Mussolini, Il Duce, became Prime Minister of Italy after his “March on Rome”. Croce was subsequently sacked as Minister of Public Education by Mussolini and replaced by Giovanni Gentile. Though initially supportive of Fascism, Croce quickly drew away from it…and Gentile. In time he became a vocal opponent of the totalitarian policies of the regime; a position which put him in some personal danger. He received death threats; his home and beloved library were raided by Fascist “Blackshirts”. Though his popularity in Italy kept him out of prison (or worse), he was officially blacklisted by authorities, who refused to publish his works. He was also kept under close surveillance by the Fascist OVRA, Mussolini’s secret police. This harassment would last the whole of the Fascist tenure of Italy.

In 1943, with the restoration of parliamentarianism in Italy, Croce became Minister without Portfolio of the new democratic government and member of the Constituent Assembly, and from 1943 to 1947, he was President of the reconstituted Liberal party. In 1947, after retiring from the politics he disdained, Benedetto Croce established the Institute for Historical Studies at his palazzo in Naples, where he kept an extensive library. He died in Naples on November 20, 1952.

Almost as interesting as Croce’s life was his “fall from grace”, so to speak, after his death. In his lifetime Benedetto Croce was unquestionably the leading intellectual of the country of Italy, and by the 1940s was one of Europe’s best-known public figures. His literary journal, La critica, can be found to this day in almost every American research library, along with many if not most of the 80 books he authored on such topics as philosophy, history and aesthetics. His ideas on political liberalism were discussed in American circles until well into the 1960s. Proponents of democracy throughout the world respected him for his outspoken opposition to Fascism. In 1937, Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, an influential Sicilian writer and expat living in the United States, called Croce: “…the most famed Italian abroad, at least in the scholarly world, since the days perhaps of Galileo."

Yet in spite of all this, by the 1970s Croce had been almost completely forgotten in American intellectual circles. No less a personage than the late René Wellek pointed out, shortly before his death in 1995, that in movements influential at various points since Croce's death…from Russian formalism and structuralism to hermeneutics and deconstruction…Croce "is not referred to or quoted, even when he discusses the same problems and gives similar solutions."

The question begs: why? Part of the problem lies in the fact that when Croce (and Gentile’s) ideas were first introduced to the American scene in the 1920s, both men were immediately typed as neo-idealists and neo-Hegelians by Anglo critics. In truth, Croce was neither (though Gentile was certainly both). Nevertheless, this typing made it difficult for Croce’s innovations to penetrate American thought, and it is partly to blame for his never garnering a significant American following.

Another factor no doubt was Croce’s opposition to egalitarianism. In the decades following the fall of Fascism (and Nazism), many if not most Western intellectuals promulgated it and the Anglo brand of liberal democracy. Croce, on the other hand, had mixed feelings about democracy. A proponent of constitutional monarchy, Croce supported democracy in principle, yet he also wrote: “"Sound political sense has never regarded the masses as the directing focus of society…" According to Croce, if democracy had any value, it was in allowing free intellectual discourses. The masses would ultimately benefit from this, but they lacked both the cognition and erudition to understand and appreciate them.

Though Croce was the leading anti-Fascist intellectual in Italy, ironically, here in America he was bitterly criticized by Italian émigrés such as Giuseppe Antonio Borgese and Gaetano Salvemini for (at least inadvertently) laying the groundwork for Fascism.

Finally, there can be no doubt a thread of anti-Italianism, that wonderfully ubiquitous Anglo tradition, had a hand in Croce’s passing to obscurity. By the end of WWII, Benedetto Croce had become the leading moral authority in Italy. Though Croce was arguably the most cosmopolitan European intellectual of his day, many Anglo-American intellectuals regarded him as a local Italian phenomenon and not really part of the European mainstream. Even “sympathizers” such as John Crowe Ransom viewed him and his work as part of a “provincial” Italian culture. That Croce had been heavily influenced by German intellectuals such as Hegel and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and in turn had influenced noted German scholars such as Erich Auerbach, Rudolf Borchardt, Eugen Lerch, Karl-Julius Schlosser and Leo Spitzer, as well as British philosopher Robin G. Collingwood and Anglo-American philosopher John Dewey, was of no importance.

Unlike his contemporary (and intellectual adversary) Luigi Pirandello, who inherited his parents’ everlasting loyalty to i Due Sicilie, Croce “forsook his people” and instead embraced the pan-Italian philosophy of their conquerors. For this reason, it is tempting for this writer to dismiss him out of hand, or worse: ignore him. To do so, however, would be to perpetrate an egregious injustice against an intellectual giant who helped shape the modern world. Whatever I or anyone else may feel about him, no one can deny he truly was a “Titan of the South”.

Further reading:

1) Myra Moss: Benedetto Croce Reconsidered, (1987), UPNE
2) Fabio Fernando Rizi: Benedetto Croce and Italian Fascism, (2003) Univ. of Toronto Press

Note: for a more in depth reading of Benedetto Croce’s philosophy (too voluminous to cover in such a small article):

February 24, 2010

Il Cavaliere Calabrese: Mattia Preti, the Knight from Calabria

Saint John the Baptist Preaching
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
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.
Nevertheless, it is generally agreed that it was in Naples (1653-60) that the artist reached the zenith of his career. After the plague of 1656 wiped out approximately sixty percent of the city's inhabitants—including many of Naples' eminent artists (e.g. Bernardo Cavallino)—Preti was commissioned to paint massive votive frescoes for the city's seven gates. Now lost in time, only two bozzetto, housed in the Capodimonte Museum, give us a glimpse at the illustriousness of these works.
Pilate Washing His Hands, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
The same year Preti painted five canvases, including the powerful Christ Thundering Satan Down from the High Mountain (Museo di Capodimonte) for the important Neapolitan patron, Diomede Carafa, Duke of Maddaloni. His crowning achievement during this period in the southern capital was a series of ten paintings for the church ceiling of San Pietro a Maiella. Despite the fact that local artist like Luca Giordano were critical of Preti and other "foreigners" the Calabrian's influence on Neapolitan art is unquestionable.
Detail of Our Lady of the Rosary, Museo Civico di Castel Nuovo, Napoli
In 1661 Preti settled in Malta where he worked diligently for nearly forty years. He became a Knight of the Order of Jerusalem and was commissioned to do many projects, including the monumental decorative series for the ceiling of the Cathedral of St. John in Valletta. Tradition has it that his baroque masterpiece in the Cappella di Aragona of Saint George and the dragon (painted in Naples) was a test to see if he was worthy to paint the vault.
Turkish Boy Cutting a Block of Tobacco, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
His time on the beautiful isle of Melita was among the artist's most prolific. From the tiny Mediterranean jewel he continued to supply his patrons in Naples and his hometown of Taverna (to which he returned on occasion) with plenty of art.

Mattia Preti died on January 3, 1699 in Valletta, Malta.

February 23, 2010

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 that The 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.

Unfortunately, we have very little information about Basile's childhood. We do know, however, that he was born in Posillipo, on the outskirts of Naples, circa 1575, and had as many as seven brothers and sisters by Cornelia (née Daniele) and his father, surnamed Basile. According to Benedetto Croce, they were "respectable although not well-to-do." His sister Adriana would go on to become an accomplished singer and composer, using her popularity to help promote her siblings.

Unable to find a patron in his native Naples, Basile sought his fortune abroad. He arrived in Venice around 1600 and served as a soldier of fortune in Candia, defending Venetian interests against the Ottoman Empire. In 1607 he fought in a naval battle against the Turks near Corfu. During his service Basile began writing poetry and befriended the Venetian nobleman Andrea Cornaro. An important historian, poet and hero of Lepanto, Cornaro invited Basile to join his prestigious literary society, the Accademia degli Stravaganti

Adriana Basile
Photo courtesy of il portal del Sud
Homesick, Basile returned to Naples in 1608. Thanks to his sister's connections he served as a courtier, writing verse for his patrons, including madrigals, odes and villanelle, a popular music genre originating in Naples a century earlier. A series of letters dated from 1604 and an ode to the A lo re de li viente (King of the winds) are his earliest known works. They were later used as a forward in La vaiasseide (The Epic of the Servant Girls) by Neapolitan poet Giulio Cesare Cortese. 

In 1611, under the patronage of Prince Luigi Carafa of Stigliano, Basile published Le avventurose disavventure (The Adventurous Misadventures), a semi-autobiographic marine pastoral set in his native Posillipo. Soon after, he founded the Neapolitan Accademia degli Oziosi, with one of Naples' leading poets Giambattista Manso, the Marquis of Villa.

Basile traveled north again in 1612 to join his sister Adriana, who, due to her immense success as a singer, acquired an estate as part of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga's court in Mantua. He gained the favor of Duke Ferdinando (Vincenzo's son) in 1613, and served as court poet. Here, Basile published his Opere poetiche (Poetic works), which was comprised of many of his earlier writings.

Later that year Basile was back in Naples bouncing from post to post, providing administrative services for various nobles. He was in Montemarano in 1615, Zuncoli in 1617, and Avellino in 1619. His frustration with the uncertainty of "public life" and the lack of appreciation from certain court lords was revealed in his letters and Le Muse napoletane. Thanks to Adriana's influence with the viceroy Duke Antonio Alvarez de Toledo, Basile obtained the governorship of Anversa in 1626. And finally, in 1631, he was appointed governor of Giugliano. 

At the height of his success, and following an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, Giambattista Basile died on February 23, 1632 during a virulent flu epidemic. He's buried in Santa Sofia Church in Giugliano. After his death, Adriana was instrumental in getting some of his most important works published, including his Del Teagene, Le Muse napoletane and Lo cunti de li cunti.

Basile and fellow seicento poets Cortese and Felippe Sgruttendio (almost certainly a pseudonym) are often credited with the evolution of Neapolitan, one of Italy's oldest and richest vernaculars, into a literary language. His Tale of Tales would also be instrumental in influencing the development of the fairy tale genre throughout Europe, inspiring such notable storytellers as Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. Inexplicably, the work would not be translated into English until 1847 by John Edward Taylor and into Italian in 1925 by Croce. While many today would consider the original stories to be inappropriate for "little ones," they continue to be told in sanitized versions and loved by children around the world. The Tale of Tales is a must read for anyone interested in Southern Italian cultural history.

(1) Quoted from his "Illustrator's Note" in The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones by Giambattista Basile, translated by Nancy L. Canepa, Wayne State University Press, 2007, p. xxvi

Further reading:
The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones by Giambattista Basile, translated by Nancy L. Canepa.

February 22, 2010

“Stress the positive, fight the negative”

Andrè DiMino
Last Thursday (Feb. 18, 2010) members of Il Regno attended the Coalition of Italian American Associations (CIAA) monthly dinner meeting in NYC’s Little Italy. Guest speakers included “two outspoken critics of MTV’s Jersey Shore,” New York Post columnist Linda Stasi and UNICO National President Andrè DiMino. The Master of Ceremonies was the distinguished Dr. Joseph V. Scelsa, Professor Emeritus, Queens College (CUNY), and founder and president of the Italian American Museum.

Speaker Linda Stasi made some good points about the show “Jersey Shore.” Perhaps the most important thing she said was that to stop media outlets and advertisers from supporting anti-Italian stereotypes and slander you need to hit them where it hurts the most, their wallets. These entities care about profit, interfere with that and you get their attention. This is nothing that many of us haven’t said before, but coming from a familiar and “mainstream” public figure that message will reach more people. 

She also read from her Dec. 10, 2010, column “Italian exec behind ‘Jersey Shore’”:

"('Jersey Shore' furthers) the popular TV notion that Italian-Americans are gel-haired, thuggish ignoramuses with fake tans, no manners, no diction, no taste, no education, no sexual discretion, no hairdressers (for sure), no real knowledge of Italian culture and no ambition beyond expanding steroid- and silicone-enhanced bodies," … "Would that programming ever have been allowed if the group were African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Jewish people?"

She also encouraged Italians to contact and link up with the anti-defamation organizations of other racial and ethnic groups and get them to support our cause. This sounds logical, but the reality is that if these aggressive and influential groups truly cared about anti-Italian discrimination, then MTV would have already pulled their offensive show off the air. There might be some effort that I am unaware of, but as far as I know only Italian ethnic organizations have taken any interest in stopping the latest defamation of Italians.

Dr. Joseph V. Scelsa
From what I understand The National Council of La Raza, a somewhat militant Mexican ethno-cultural organization, managed not only to stop MTV from doing a similar derogatory show about Puerto Ricans, but actually received donations from MTV as an apology. They crossed an ethnic barrier, and went beyond their nationalist policies to assist their fellow Hispanics in this effort. Good for them, but you don’t see them helping Italians under similar circumstances, and I don’t believe that you will any time soon.

Other ethnic groups are not going to do our fighting for us; the cavalry isn’t coming. If we are unwilling to defend ourselves then we cannot expect others to stand by us, or respect us.

The second speaker was more in tune with this perspective. Andrè DiMino, the UNICO National President was well spoken and very clear about his organization’s position and goals. I could not have been more impressed.

He didn’t just focus on MTV’s derogatory “Jersey Shore.” He brought to light several other recent instances of Italian defamation, illustrated how this has been an ongoing problem for generations, and how UNICO National was formed 88 years ago to fight against it and promote a positive view of Italians and their culture.

One of the many points he made was how a negative stereotype of Italians could affect a young adult on a job application or interview. Some people may not take this seriously, but it happened to someone close to me and I assure you that it is very real. As Dr. Scelsa stated, perspective affects everything. If people believe a negative stereotype about you then they will treat you accordingly.

I personally feel that this concept can be applied to other things as well: if people don’t think that you’ll defend yourself, then they will bully you. Bullies like their victims to be helpless, they like them to beg, they avoid people who fight back. UNICO National refuses to be bullied. The point is not just about defending Italians against defamation, it is to make people understand that we will not tolerate it. The more people understand this the less they will attempt to disparage us.

Entirely too many people have gotten so used to being abused that they see fighting back as something wrong. Well, it isn’t wrong, it’s normal and when other groups of people do it they are praised for it. We can take a lesson from them. It was mentioned that UNICO National doesn’t just dwell on the negative things, that they also promote a positive image of Italians and their culture. I must say that defending your people and culture against defamation is a positive thing, not a negative one. So the way I see it, everything I learned about UNICO National during this event was positive.

Dr. Scelsa said it best: “If you don’t fight the negative people will not listen to the positive.” UNICO National does both, and I’m happy that they do.

~ Submitted by Lucian

February 16, 2010

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 TripoliFebruary 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 the Philadelphia; 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.

Early Greeks and Romans likewise frequently joined “the red brotherhood”. Later on, of course, when the Romans established themselves as the supreme power in the Mediterranean, piracy was brutally suppressed. After the fall of Rome, invading Norsemen, Slavs and Muslims revived the practice. In spite of often draconian measures by lawful powers, by the beginning of the 19th century piracy was still a major international problem.

In spite of the swill that has historically been spewed out by Hollywood, there is nothing “romantic” about pirates. They are by nature not only thieves, but rapists, slavers and murderers, as well! It is no accident that captured pirates were frequently the recipients of unpleasant deaths; they usually deserved it! In terms of rapaciousness and cruelty, there can be no question the worst pirates in history were the Barbary Corsairs; the pirates of central and western North Africa.

For about 1,000 years, from the 9th to the 19th centuries, they preyed on peoples from as far south as Western Africa to as far north as Iceland. Thousands of European ships were destroyed by them. Modern historians estimate that between the 15th and 19th centuries anywhere from 800,000-1,250,000 Europeans were captured by these fiends, winding up at slave auctions in Northern Africa. Most of these hapless victims were from places like Spain, Sicily and Southern Italy. So many pirates raided Southern Italy and Sicily many if not most of the coastal regions of these areas (outside of large towns) were abandoned and not settled until the 19th century. In fact, some historians believe the present-day poverty of the Mezzogiorno is in part due to this legacy of piracy.

The early years of the American Republic coincided with the wane of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. In earlier centuries, Northern Africa from what is now Egypt to Algeria was in thralldom to the sultans of Istanbul. By the beginning of the 19th century, however, the “Sick Man of Europe” was rapidly losing its control over these territories to local Berber despots who became the de facto rulers of their respective domains, anxious to rid themselves once and for all time of their Turkish overlords. Despite this, these Berber tinpot rulers had no problem continuing with the profitable and gruesome trade of piracy.

Though the Sultanate of Morocco ‘enjoyed’ a reputation as a haven for pirates, it alone of the Barbary States opened its ports to American merchant ships during the American Revolutionary War and offered them the sultan’s protection. Relations were formalized between Morocco and the United States in late 1786 with the signing of the Morocco-American Treaty of Friendship, which was formally ratified by the Continental Congress in July, 1787.

The other Barbary States, however, offered no such gestures of friendship, forcing the nascent republic to pay an annual tribute of $1 million. To give the reader a grasp of the enormity of that figure, in 1800 that represented fully 20% of the annual expenditures of the U.S. Federal government!

While John Adams was opposed to paying the tribute, nevertheless he felt there was nothing America could do until such time as a sizeable navy could be constructed to stop the pirates. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, felt that America’s future lay westward, and strongly spoke out against paying tribute of any kind.

From 1530 onward the Order of the Knights of Malta had fought the Barbary Corsairs throughout the Mediterranean, earning the enmity of the Ottomans and the respect and admiration of Christian Europe. Much ill-gotten pirate loot found its way into the coffers of the Order, aiding them in their never-ending war against the Corsair scum. Sadly, the Knights’ tenure on Malta ended in 1798 when Napoleon Bonaparte treacherously attacked the island, looting it and leaving behind a large garrison.

When Jefferson became President in 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli demanded an immediate tribute of $225,000. Deciding enough was enough, Jefferson refused to pay it, whereupon the Pasha declared war on America. In response Jefferson sent a group of frigates to the Mediterranean to protect America’s interests. While Congress never officially declared war, it passed a series of acts authorizing the President to use whatever means necessary to keep the Corsairs at bay.

In 1803 President Jefferson put Commodore Edward Preble, a hero of the American Revolutionary War, in charge of naval operations against the Barbary pirates. Toward this end he put him in command of the 3rd Squadron with the USS Constitution, a 44 gun frigate, as his flagship. Preble and his ships saw little action against the Muslim pirates. Apparently they preferred attacking defenseless merchant vessels and coastal towns to heavily-armed warships. In no time American vessels were able to affect a blockade off Tripoli.

On October 31st, 1803, the USS Philadelphia, a 38-gun frigate under the command of Captain William Bainbridge, gave chase to a Tripolitan gunboat. To the horror of captain and crew, the ship foundered on an unchartered reef off Tripoli harbor. All attempts to refloat the vessel while it was under fire from shore batteries and enemy gunboats failed. In spite of the fact his ship sustained no battle damage, Bainbridge surrendered. He and all the men on his ship were immediately made slaves of the Pasha.

The loss of the Philadelphia was a severe blow to American naval capabilities and prestige. A decision was made to either recapture the vessel or to destroy it. Under no circumstances would it be allowed to remain in the hands of the Barbary pirates! A mission was conceived to allow a small vessel filled with daring sailors to sneak into the harbor and board the vessel. Pivotal to the success of this mission was finding a pilot who spoke the fractured dialect of the Tripolitans and who was familiar with navigating through Tripoli harbor.

King Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies allowed American vessels to moor in Naples and Palermo to aid them in their war against the Corsairs. During this time numerous Neapolitans and Sicilians signed up to work on board these ships to fight alongside the Americans against the hated common foe. It must be mentioned that in all my years studying Western Civilization and American history in school (before those subjects were basically expunged from the curricula) I never heard about these facts!
Salvatore Catalano commemorative coin, private collection
One of those Sicilians who signed up was a man named Salvatore Catalano. Catalano’s origins are shrouded in mystery. His exact date of birth is unknown. Given the times that was hardly unique. Based on the records of his personal physician (years after the war), it is believed he was born in the year 1767. He himself gave the place of his birth as Palermo, Sicily. As it turned out, Catalano was not only an experienced pilot but he also spoke Tripolitan and was familiar with the waters around and in Tripoli harbor. The Americans had found their pilot!

Commodore Preble had made the decision the Philadelphia had to be destroyed, since in his opinion it was too risky to try to save it. On February 3rd, 1804 the USS Intrepid, a small maneuverable boat, left Sicily to sail for Tripoli harbor. It carried 69 officers and men, including a squad of Marines, all hand-picked by Preble. It also carried pilot Salvatore Catalano and Lt. Stephen Decatur Jr., the ship’s captain and son of the man who had once captained the Philadelphia.

The Intrepid arrived at the entrance of Tripoli harbor on the night of February 10th. Pilot Catalano, sensing a change in the wind patterns, urged a delay. The men on the Intrepid, unfamiliar with the weather patterns of the Mediterranean, wished to proceed. Lt. Decatur wisely decided to call for a personal inspection of the entrance of the harbor.

Catalano was lowered into a small boat along with Midshipman Charles Morris, who acted as a second observer. Morris agreed with Catalano’s assertion the waters in the entrance were too rough to navigate safely. The crew of the Intrepid, however, was less than thrilled with the report. Their anger gave way to gratitude, however, when gale force winds whipped up shortly afterwards, forcing them to retreat to calmer waters. Had they proceeded against Catalano’s advice, there is no doubt the winds would have dashed their craft against the rocks, killing them all!

The storm would last five days. The Intrepid entered Tripoli harbor on the night of February 16th. Pilot Catalano was at the wheel dressed as a Maltese merchant. Lt. Decatur was right beside him, in similar disguise. On deck were six crewmen, dressed likewise. The rest were in hiding, armed to the teeth and ready to attack!

Up ahead Decatur and Catalano could see their prize: the Philadelphia! The ship was strategically place under the shore batteries of Tripoli harbor. As Catalano moved the Intrepid closer, the sentry onboard the Philadelphia called out to him in Tripolitan.
Anglo-American historians have gone out of their way to emphasize that in the ensuing dialogue between Catalano and the sentry that Decatur was giving Catalano verbal instructions. I shall go on record as stating that is an outright lie obviously meant to minimize the Sicilian’s vital contribution to the success of this mission! Such a conversation demanded quick thinking. Catalano certainly spoke little if any English at that point in his life and there is no record of Decatur being able to speak either Sicilian or Tripolitan. I might add nowhere in his official report did Decatur ever mention giving such instructions. Another slap in the face to our people by our so-called “friends”.

Catalano explained to the sentry that he and the crew were Maltese traders who lost their anchors in the storm. He asked for permission to tie his ship’s line to the anchors of the Philadelphia for the night. The sentry begrudgingly agreed.

The ruse worked! While Catalano kept the man busy with small talk, the crew of the Intrepid tied another line to the ring bolt on the bow of the ship, pulling their smaller craft alongside it, and immediately began boarding. By the time the sentry realized he’d been played for a fool it was too late; dozens of crewmen jumped onto the deck of the ship, Decatur and Catalano among them!

The ensuing fight was brief, lasting all of ten minutes. Most of the Tripolitans on the Philadelphia jumped into the water. Those that didn’t, 20 in all, were cut down.

Once in control of the ship Catalano thought it might be possible to take it and set sail. Lt. Decatur, however, hearkened to the orders of his superior officer and commanded the ship be destroyed in all due haste. As an experienced seaman it must have pained him in no small measure to destroy what was once his father’s command, but it is a testament to his discipline as a sailor he did not hesitate to put aside personal feelings and carry out his orders.

Within minutes the Philadelphia was in flames. The men literally dove onto the deck of the Intrepid to escape, Decatur being the last to arrive. The Intrepid set sail as the shore batteries of the Pasha opened up on them. Miraculously, they escaped with no casualties. The Intrepid itself was hit only once by cannon fire in one of its sails.

News of the success of this bold mission took the world by storm! The fledgling American Republic now earned respect in the eyes of military commanders across the globe. Britain’s legendary flag officer Horatio Nelson, when he heard of what happened, called it “…the most bold and daring act of the age.”

Upon their return to America, Congress voted to give Lt. Stephen Decatur Jr. a gold sword and promoted him to captain. Every man on the ship was given two months extra pay. Salvatore Catalano himself was rewarded with American citizenship. On August 9th, 1809 he was appointed a Sailing Master in the U.S. Navy. It would be a position he would hold until he died in January, 1846 in the city of Washington, DC.

The crew of the Intrepid produced several other notable figures in American history. James Lawrence, hero of the War of 1812 who is chiefly remembered for his battle cry of “Don’t give up the ship!” Charles Morris was called one of the ablest officers of his day.

Sadly, Stephen Decatur’s life would not be a long one. He was shot and mortally wounded in a duel with Commodore James Barron, though he only intended to wound his opponent. In what is a fitting epitaph, as he was carried off the field, he is said to have murmured: “I wish I could have died in defense of my country.” Though his funeral was attended by many of Washington’s elite, after his death the memory of his heroism at Tripoli dimmed considerably. The memory of the brave Sicilian, Salvatore Catalano, all but disappeared except in the most obscure texts.

Finally, how did America reward the considerable aid and friendship shown to it by the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies? I quote:
“A half century later Americans repaid the debt to Catalano in his own Sicily. William DeRohan of Philadelphia, through private subscriptions and voluntary donations, obtained supplies and equipment for Garibaldi’s expedition and shipped them to Genoa, where he transferred the cargo to three ships which sailed for Sicily under the American flag. The American minister, John Moncure Daniel, descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, dispatched a message to Captain Palmer of the Iroquois, an American warship in the waters off Palermo, urging him to assure safe passage to these three vessels. They arrived in Palermo at the very moment that Garibaldi’s need was the greatest, enabling him to continue the battle until he captured enough of the enemy’s supplies to carry him to the ultimate triumph.” – Michael A. Musmanno: The Story of the Italians in America; pg. 267, Doubleday & Co. Inc., 1965.
The rest, as they say, is history. Sadly, this would not be the only time in history America showed such “gratitude” to its benefactors.

Further reading:
  • Michael A. Musmanno: The Story of the Italians in America; pgs. 19-21, Doubleday & Co., Inc. 1965.
  • Louis A. Lepis: Italian Heroes of American History; pgs. 51-55, Thomas J. Nunziata & Co., 1992.