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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

Calabria: What's that?

February 5, 2017

Tags: Calabria, Mezzogiorno, Cosenza, Crotone, Catanzaro, Vibo Valentia, Reggio, Norman Douglas, Capo Colonna, Eudora Welty

Hera's column, Capo Colonna


When I began this project, I quickly ran into a problem I had not anticipated. “What’s that?” a writing friend answered when I told her that I was working on a book about Calabria. It is an all too familiar reaction. Although millions of Calabrians have made the United States their homeland for more than a century, Americans are clueless about the place. Even other Italians--northerners--often go blank when I mention Calabria. When I mention Calabria to newly- arrived Italians living in San Francisco and the Bay Area, their comments, usually with no-no shakes of the head, are almost predictable. “It’s a mystery to us.” “It’s a dark place.” One Silicon Valley tech brat from the North boasted, “I’ve never been there.”

Calabria came out of the dark, however. In 2017, in its annual survey of the best places to visit that year, The New York Times singled out Calabria.

So this quick picture of its landscape and a criminally brief history of its origins orients you. Calabria comprises the lower quarter of Italy’s iconic boot, the toe that kicks Sicily into the Mediterranean. While the Mediterranean’s seas (the Tyrrhenian and the Ionian) surround Calabria on all three sides, what geologists call the “Calabrian arc” has a large impact on the lives of its people. This spine of rugged mountains in the Apennine system extends from Calabria’s border with Basilicata down to the tip of its toe. The terrain is seismically and volcanically active and regularly experiences earthquakes. Four ranges in the arc are part of Italy’s park system and draw skiers and hikers. From this spine, the mountains slope and sometimes plunge down to narrow plains where agriculture is possible and two seas, the Ionian to the east and the Tyrrhenian to the west. Unruly coastlines, as if drawn by a child, define Calabria’s iconic profile. Calabria is about the size of Connecticut but with half the population; it is 154 miles long and 31 miles wide, at its narrow center. From some of the central towns, including Catanzaro and Marcellinara, one can see across Italy to both seas.

Calabria might be mysterious, but it is not dark. The region is Italy’s Deep South, the Mezzogiorno (“middle of the day”) and enjoys nearly 250 sunny days a year; in winter, bright sunshine breaks even through the winter rainy season.

About two million people live in Calabria, and they have always been a motley collection. Italy retains regional dialects, despite universal education and widespread telecommunications that tend to standardize language. Calabrians continue to speak dialects specific to their cities and towns. When my father, a native speaker of Italian, visited Milan in the 1960s, he complained that he could not understand a word that people there spoke. I feel the same about Venetians. The region is one of twenty national administrative units and comprises five provinces, from north to south: Cosenza, Crotone, Catanzaro, Vibo Valentia and Reggio. Travelers often skip over Calabria and much of South Italy, preferring the Roman and Renaissance glories of Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio (Rome) and other northern regions. Italophiles stoke their passion or buy up farmhouses in Tuscany, Lazio (Rome), Umbria and occasionally Sicily. Their preferences hearken to the Grand Tour of Italy, which was de rigueur for gentlemen, intellectuals and aristocrats of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Sophisticated travelers began dribbling into the South in the eighteenth century in search of its classical antiquities, but not all made it to Calabria. Mozart visited Italy three times between 1769 and 1773, and on one trip he got as far South as Naples and spent a month there. Goethe was another famous European to visit the South, but he too avoided Calabria and sailed directly from Naples to Sicily in 1786. In Italian Journey, the book he wrote about his adventures, Goethe called Naples “a paradise in which everyone lives in a state of intoxicated self-forgetfulness.”

Alexandre Dumas dove into Calabria wholeheartedly, visiting several times in the 1830s and completing his book Capitaine Arena in 1835, which contained his report on the trip. He also wrote several stories about the Calabrian brigands (outlaws) that appeared in his newspaper Il Independente, which he founded and directed in Naples where he lived for three years, supporting the Italian independence movement. Dumas described Calabria as “a magnificent region; in summer it roasts as in Timbuktu, and in winter, it freezes like St. Petersburg. Moreover one doesn’t mark time only in years or in centuries as in other countries, but according to earthquakes.”

In April 1841, Arthur John Strutt, an English painter, writer, engraver, and archaeologist, set off from Rome and walked through southern Italy to Palermo and back to Rome a year later. His book A Pedestrian Tour in Calabria and Sicily was published immediately. George Gissing’s By the Ionian Sea, published in 1901, remains in print and is one of his best-known works. Writers and artists were not the only visitors to the South. Because of the merchant traffic through the port of Naples, the United States had maintained diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Naples, which included the entire south except Sicily, since 1796. When business picked up U.S. President James Madison appointed a consul general to the Kingdom in 1809. In 1816, with Sicily joined to Naples, consular relations continued with the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

I have taken the title of this book from Norman Douglas’ Old Calabria. For English-speakers, Old Calabria remains must reading, even though now it is one hundred years old. It has remained in print continuously since it was first published in 1915 and was most recently reissued in 2010. No one can write about Calabria without reference to Douglas’ magnificent work. More than a travelogue, this compendium of history, sociology, archaeology, natural history reaches deeply into the region. He uncovers Italy’s most complex historical layers¯ not just the Greek and Roman but also the Muslim, Jewish, Gothic, Norman, French, Spanish, Albanian, and native.

At the end of Old Calabria’s 300-plus pages, Douglas sums up the region and his ambivalence about it. He takes us to what is left of the Temple of Hera Lacinia (Juno), the patroness of women and childbirth, at Capo Colonna, on the Gulf of Taranto. When the Greeks built it in the fifth century BCE, the structure had 48 such columns and a roof of marble tiles; even then, it was considered the most splendid temple in Magna Graecia’s mainland. Located near the busy and thriving port of Kroton (today’s Cotrone), the temple’s purpose was more than religious; it also provided a comforting landmark for passing sailors who could spot it on its promontory overlooking the sea. In the sixteenth century, Bishop Giovanni Matteo Lucifero plundered the temple to obtain marble and other materials for his residence in Cotrone.

The temple had mostly vanished by the time of Douglas’ visit. A single valiant column had survived vandalism, earthquakes, wars, and other misfortunes, and he took a photo of it. Reflecting on this solitary place, Douglas offered some advice for travelers: “Calabria is not a land to traverse alone. It is too wistful and stricken; too deficient in those externals that conduce to comfort.” But then he calls on us to visit, because “the joys of Calabria are not to be bought, like those of Switzerland, for gold.” In the closing paragraphs, he summarizes what pulls him to Calabria: “Such torrid splendor, drenching a land of austerest simplicity, decomposes the mind into corresponding states of primal contentment and resilience. There arises before our phantasy a new perspective of human affairs.”

When I arrived at this off-the-beaten-track site in mid-winter, it was deserted, as was the Capo Colonna Archaeological Park, which has a small but smart museum built into the earth to minimize its environmental impact. A stiff wind stirred wild grasses growing in the temple’s yard and battled for dominance with the heat of brilliant sunshine. Hera stands valiantly, although authorities have built a wire fence around her. Nearby is a modern lighthouse nearby, and beyond that, miles of wind farms that collect the energy of Aeolian currents that buffet the coast.

Anyone writing about Calabria enters into the midst of things, in medias res, not from the beginning but surrounded, like Hera’s column, with past, present and future. We must begin somewhere, however. Calabria is one of the oldest outposts of the European experience. Its “civilized” or organized past extends back to at least 10,000 BCE and blazes through the stream of antiquity into the major currents of world history. Calabria’s future could vault the region forward in unexpected ways. Calabria moves slowly, however, almost glacially, despite a past bursting with innovation and passion, soaring success as well as failure. From its crucible of human events much of Western civilization bubbled and flowed onto the planet. But Calabria’s corruption, organized crime, and racism have been and are deep and repulsive. Poverty and social conditions that drove Italians to the United States, Canada and other points on the globe still exist and continue to drive young Italians, both north and south, elsewhere. Nonetheless, a new generation is holding on, wanting to make their lives in the South, a place from which their ancestors and more recent predecessors fled. As they are plant themselves into Calabria, firmly and in some cases defiantly, they are meeting their tangled roots.

To find my personal history submerged in the many flavors of the Calabrian concoction thrills me. Douglas is right: No one should traverse Calabria alone. Anyone who does visit is never alone, because it is filled with its many “shades” whose imprints are visible in today’s Calabrians. From the moment I first read Old Calabria, Douglas has been a companion. He has not so much pointed me in one direction or another but rather expanded my senses to what is around me. He himself has been part of that deep draught of what he called “a new perspective of human affairs.” Indeed, as I write around the time of his book’s centennial, I am astounded at how much of it is still relevant to Calabria’s dynamic life today. The place remains a potent brew of heroes, villains, great artists and scientists, courageous young people and humble strivers, a “torrid splendor.” Especially in Calabria, the present is straight line out of the past. Visiting this place is an adventure beyond the stereotypical view of Italy as art and food (though Calabria includes plenty of both). Eudora Welty has said, “One place understood helps us understand all places better.” The reader who understands Calabria’s history, people and contemporary life gains insights into a civilization.