July 11, 2011

A look at "Old Puglia"

By Giovanni di Napoli 
"It is clear that the God of the Jews did not know Puglia, or He would not have given His people Palestine as the Promised Land." — Emperor Frederick II (quoted from Old Puglia)
In the conclusion of my critique of Norman Douglas' Siren Land (Dodo 2008), I stated my desire for books "that not only reveal the tragedy behind the Risorgimento, its aftermath and true legacy, but also expose the fallacies of books like Siren Land." I wrote this, of course, before reading Old Puglia: A Portrait of South Eastern Italy by Desmond Seward and Susan Mountgarret (Haus Publishing 2009), a wonderfully informative book that more than satisfies my requests.

The book's title, Old Puglia, appears to be an allusion to Douglas' other Southern Italian travelogue, Old Calabria, written in 1915. Far from a tribute to the British literary traveller, the authors refer to Douglas as "a deplorable figure, a sponger and a paedophile," but admit (as do I) that he is also "undeniably amusing and learned." (Old Puglia, p. 11)

Besides having similar titles, both books extensively quote the musings of earlier travelers. This, however, is where the similarities stop. Douglas rambled through a destitute South during the height of Italian emigration and, keeping with the lies and misinformation of the Southern Question, blamed the region's backwardness on the previous Bourbon and Spanish rulers. Seward and Mountgarret on the other hand, travelled through a relatively "fashionable" region and hold the Risorgimento primarily responsible for the South's recent troubles.

In the Forward they write: "The Risorgimento of 1860 was far from being a 'liberation'. During the late nineteenth century, new speculator landlords reduced Apulian laborers to near slavery, one in ten leaving after the Second World War." (Old Puglia, xvi) Again later, while discussing the history of Andria, an ancient town on the eastern slopes of the Murgia plateau, they note:
"The dying King Ferdinand II stayed at Andria in January 1859, apparently in the Carafa palace. He was on his way to Bari, inspecting Apulia for the last time, and came here to see the San Ferdinando agricultural colony. Very much a benevolent despot, the king had established the colony over twenty years before as a refuge for laborers whom he had forcibly evicted from the Barletta salt marshes, to save them from the lethal malaria. In contrast to Ferdinand's paternal approach, the Risorgimento would bring poverty and despair." (Old Puglia, p. 71)
Far from perfect, especially after the chaos of the Republican interlude, the Bourbon record is not above scrutiny. However, I was more than a little surprised to read something other than the usual less-than-flattering rumors about them. Especially because, as we all know, the winners write the history books and the Bourbons serve as a convenient scapegoat for the failures of the House of Savoy and Italian unification. To their enemies no atrocity was beyond them, consider Henry Nelson Ferrybridge's spurious Naples and Sicily Under the Bourbons, A Series of Sketches (Nabu Press, 2010) which erroneously claims that King Ferdinand I dashed his newborn grandson on the ground when his daughter-in-law, Archduchess Maria Clementina of Austria requested the release of Luisa Sanfelice, a female political prisoner sentenced to death for treason. (p. 101-102)

Harold Acton reports the incident in his Bourbons of Naples (Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1957), simply saying there are several versions of the story. He does quote General Pietro Colletta's account: "the King threw the baby back on its mother's pillow and left the room without another word", which is a far cry from Ferrybridge's description. Acton goes on to tell us how the "news of the Prince's birth and orders for public rejoicings" were brought to Naples and how "Political propagandists made a martyr of this ill-starred light of love [Sanfelice]. Truth was so blended with fiction that fiction prevailed." (p. 434)

In fact, throughout Seward and Mountgarret's book the Bourbons are portrayed as benevolent tyrants, which runs counter to almost everything we ever read about their regime in popular studies. Part XIV of Old Puglia, entitled "Risorgimento?" deserves special attention, particularly the chapter, The Death of the Regno:
"King Ferdinand of the Two Sicilies died on 22 May, 1859, two months after his last visit to Bari. His death paved the way for the Risorgimento. Nowhere would he be more regretted than in Apulia where, like Emperor Frederick and King Manfred, he had hunted in the forests. If he did not build castles, he keenly encouraged New Bari's development, besides giving Apulian titles to three of his sons, the Counts of Bari, Trani and Lucera.

"Nicknamed 'Bomba' for supposedly threatening to shell rebels into submission, a lie spread by enemies, Ferdinand was hated by Liberals. He kept the absolute monarchy he had inherited, imprisoning his opponents. Mr. Gladstone described his government as 'the negation of God', conveniently ignoring England's own prison-hulks and record in Ireland. Yet no Southern ruler has been more popular. ...A Southerner to his fingertips, who spoke and thought in Neapolitan dialect, and whose staple diet was pasta, he always listened to petitions, granting generous pensions. If he was superstitious, making St. Ignatius a field-marshal on full pay, so were his subjects.

"Under his firm rule, the South prospered. Despite lower taxes than other Italian states, it had more money in circulation than any, with the biggest gold reserves; 443 million in gold lire in 1859 compared with Piedmont's 27 million. In the same year the Royal Navy of the Two Sicilies included ninety-five steam ships, far more than Britain's Royal navy, though admittedly most of them were tiny. His government built the first Italian railways, steamships, electric telegraph and lenticular lighthouse. Dockyards at Naples and Bari were the most modern in the peninsula. So were the new roads. 'Anybody who avoided subversive politics enjoyed complete freedom and could do what he liked', Giacinto De Sivo wrote in 1868, 'Countless foreigners prospered so much that they settled here', he adds bitterly. 'Then Gladstone came and ruined us ... unbelievable calumnies were repeated in newspapers all over the world.’

"The men of the Risorgimento had once hoped Ferdinand would become King of Italy, but he refused, from respect for the rights of other Italian sovereigns, especially for those of the Pope. Had he lived longer and, however unwillingly, granted a constitution and Sicilian autonomy, the South might have been much happier. But he died at forty-nine from a mysterious disease – probably diabetes – which, characteristically, he ascribed to the Evil Eye." (Old Puglia, p. 395-397)
A little further on the authors provide a glimpse of the brief, but tragic reign of King Francis II (Ferdinand's successor) and Garibaldi's invasion:
"In April, however, Garibaldi landed in Sicily where Palermo had risen in revolt. The late king had put down an earlier Sicilian rising and would certainly have known how to deal with this one, but his twenty-two year old son, Francis II, did not.... After Garibaldi overran Sicily in May, Francis granted a constitution, only hastening the regime's collapse.

"Many Southerners lost confidence in their inexperienced young king. When Garibaldi landed on the mainland in August a handful of liberals tried to start risings, supported by a few business men eager for new markets in the North and by peasants who hoped naively that the great estates would be shared out. Foggia declared for Garibaldi, but in Bari and the other Apulian cities royalist mobs routed similar demonstrations.

"In September King Francis abandoned Naples to Garibaldi, withdrawing to the fortress city of Gaeta to concentrate his troops. Piedmont, saddled with an astronomical national debt, realised that it could take over the rich Southern kingdom. In October a Piedmontese army invaded the Regno, occupying Naples and besieging Gaeta, bribing generals and officials. Even the most loyal despaired and at the end of the month, in a carefully rigged plebiscite, Apulians voted with the rest of the South for 'unity.'" (Old Puglia, p. 397-398)
To some the Risorgimento's sacred tenants (as with other secular religions) are beyond reproach, but Seward and Mountgarret offer a more sober assessment of the nineteenth century political and social movement for Italian unification:
"The Risorgimento must be judged by its fruits, and for Apulia they were very bitter indeed. Far from improving conditions, the destruction of the ancient Regno made them much worse, just as de Sivo claimed. ...Few dreams have ended in such disillusionment as the Risorgimento did for the Mezzogiorno. Too late, Southern Italy realised that, far from being liberated, it was the victim of another Northern conquest, by arrogant invaders who sneered that 'Africa begins south of Rome.' The Duke of Maddaloni (head of the great Carafa family) protested in the new Italian parliament, 'This is invasion, not annexation, not union. We are being treated like an occupied country.' That was what the death of the Regno meant to Apulia." (Old Puglia, p. 398-399)
The authors close the chapter with a sentiment shared by many Southerners today:
"If brought up to date politically, the Borbone monarchy could have offered the Mezzogiorno a chance of becoming a self-governing, prosperous Southern Italy. Instead, the Risorgimento handed over the South to Northern asset-strippers, to be misgoverned from a far away capital. What had been a prosperous country soon became an economic slum in which the Apulians suffered as much as anybody. Some of them, however, were not going to give up without a fight." (Old Puglia, p. 399)
The next two chapters — The Brigands' War and A War of Extermination — go on to describe the violent conquest of the seven hundred year old Regno by the Piedmontese invaders and the stubborn resistance offered by Southern loyalists. I was very interested to learn that Spanish Carlists joined the struggle on the side of the South and read with horror about the atrocities committed by the combatants. "The cruelties of the Piedmontese armies to the Neapolitan royalists," wrote the Earl of Malmesbury, "were unsurpassed in any civil war." Anyone unfamiliar with the true story of Italian unification and is looking for more than the orthodox version should read these chapters. They are a real eye opener.

I would like to point out that despite my focus on the Risorgimento, Old Puglia is not a Bourbon apology. According to the authors the project began as a travel book, but because "almost nothing about the region has been published in English since the days of Norman Douglas and the Sitwells" they decided "to fill the gap by providing a simple readable account." (Old Puglia, xiii-xiv) They accomplished this with great success. The book is packed with many fascinating and memorable anecdotes normally left out of other histories, including captivating narratives about Paolo di Ribeco's uprising in Bari, King Ferrante's coronation at Barletta and the duel at Ostuni between Count Cosmo and Duke Petracone Caracciolo. I especially enjoyed the story about Don Cirò and his murderous cadre of revolutionaries who were hunted down and executed by the Bourbon Colonel Richard Church and his corps of Greek and Swiss irregulars.

I highly recommend Old Puglia; it is well written, very entertaining and filled with a wealth of information. My only criticism (if you can call it that) is that 420 pages were not enough. I wanted more! Now I wish someone will write the story of "Old Campania," "Old Basilicata," "Old Molise," and the rest of Southern Italy with the same erudition and passion Seward and Mountgarret did for Puglia.