between History and Legend
with Edmondo Marra, Physician, ex-Mayor, Author
Maria Teresa De Donato
I am very happy to introduce to you again my friend and colleague-author Dr.
Edmondo Marra, Physician, Writer, and ex-Mayor of Volturara Irpina (AV), whom I
have already had the pleasure and honor of hosting on my Blog and Virtual
In our previous article, therefore, we
discussed Irpinia, an area as beautiful as it is poor; mentioned his love for
historical and genealogical research, an aspect that we will deepen in this and
other future interviews; considered the problem of brigandage and his beautiful
publication Maledetto Garibaldi e la sua Italia: pagliuchella (=Cursed
be Garibaldi and his Italy: pagliuchella), whose decidedly provocative title we
have already clarified. Since his books are very numerous and, therefore,
impossible to consider them all in just a couple of interviews, today I would
like to focus on those of a purely historical nature or linked to local
legends, postponing those relating to genealogy and to the many families that
have followed and marked the history of Volturara and its surroundings to a
future interview (or more than one).
MTDD: Hi Edmondo and welcome again to my Blog and Cultural Salon.
Thank you also for taking the time for
our second interview.
morning to you, dear Teresa, for making Culture like an impetuous stream of our
mountains to drink from and feel good and happy about.
as you well know, my ancestors also originated from your land, being my
mother's family from the province of Benevento and my paternal-maternal branch
from Volturara Irpina. I remember the stories my grandmother Rosa used to tell
me in her colorful Neapolitan dialect when I was a child: very interesting,
sometimes sad other funny and yet full of details and characters that I never
managed to understand if they were only the fruit of her imagination, or rather
events that really happened to people who did exist, or a mixture of both. When
I would ask her about them, she used to reply smiling "Who knows!"
leaving everything wrapped in an aura of mystery ... This was the reflection
that I made while thinking about your book Il tesoro dei Crociati (The
Treasure of the Crusaders).
Would you like to tell us about it?
EM: Il tesoro dei Crociati (The Treasure of the Crusaders) is a mixture of historical rigor and legends transmitted orally over the centuries and that reached our times, when the rapid change of customs and life risks making every trace of our past disappear, seasoned with a little fantasy that honors these beautiful and unknown places. The first part describes the events related to the Normans in southern Italy and Irpinia from their arrival in 1016 until the death of Queen Constance in 1198. The second part refers to a treasure hidden in the Serpico castle, near Volturara. It sounds as an invented fairy tale, but over the centuries people have always spoken of this treasure. I remember when I was a child and asked my father for money that he would often say "Go to Sièrpeco, to Santa Catarina, there you will find it". I knew it was a denial, but I couldn't understand what that expression meant. I decided then to ask my grandfather for clarification and one winter evening near the fireplace in his farmhouse under the Forest, he told me of a treasure hidden for many centuries inside an enchanted castle, guarded by the devil who would have granted it only to those who would have brought a teenage girl of their own blood with them. I forgot about that story until one summer evening in 2008, when, while having a
small talk, the legend of the treasure of Sièrpeco came back to our mind. And someone told the story of Elizabeth [daughter] of the fool, which occurred a century earlier, in the early twentieth century. Originally from Sorbo, she lived in Volturara, and used to cross the mountain of Serpico every day to return home. She knew about the legend of the treasure and often talked about it with her husband, but she was afraid to take her daughter with her for a possible unpleasant reaction from the devil that could have brought irreparable consequences to the girl. She decided to focus on a stranger and with a well thought-out excuse she went to get the daughter of a certain "sciacquarulo", then she showed up on the mountain of Serpico with the girl. The devil immediately noticed that it was not blood of her blood and threatened her, hence she ran away as fast as she could. Of the treasure of Santa Catarina, between wars, earthquakes, mass emigrations and time passing slowly and inexorably, nobody spoke about it anymore. Brambles and thorns, perhaps forever, cover the gathering and ruins of the ancient castle. And the story of the immense treasure, carried between these mountains lost by the Crusader knights and their master a thousand years ago, is lost in the streams of human forgetfulness.
MTDD: "An indomitable
people arrived in southern Italy after the year 1000 and drew the story of a
unity that lasted until 1861". With these words, our friend Journalist
and Author Eleonora Davide begins her presentation of your book Norman: Epopea dei Normanni in Italia (Norman: Epic
of the Normans in Italy) that we read on Amazon, a text that above all lovers
of the Middle Ages will surely appreciate.
can you tell us about it?
EM: Mighty and courageous warriors, the Normans escorted pilgrims and merchants throughout
and as far as the Holy Land or relied on some gentlemen they would come across
as mercenaries. In one of the many trips they stopped in Salerno, dominated by
the Lombard Prince
III, and contributed to his victory against the Saracens who had besieged the
city. As a
they were content with gifts in kind and some jewels, but a few decades later
they took over all of southern Italy, chasing away the Byzantines and the
Saracens who had shared it with them for many centuries and the same Lombards
who had called them to their aid were deprived of all their possessions and
relegated to the sideline. Their history is identified with the story of one
family, the Altavillas, who from generation to generation, between wars against
all and often among themselves, managed to strengthen their leadership and
maintain power until their extinction due to the lack of male heirs. With their
disappearance, the Norman period ended, although the subsequent Swabian rulers
retained part of their blood, inherited from Costanza d'Altavilla who had
married the German Henry VI, son of Federico Barbarossa. In 1130 they unified
the entire South from Lazio to Sicily in a single kingdom that would have
lasted seven hundred and thirty years, until 1861, when the Unification of
Italy took place. During their rule, the Crusades began to free the Holy
Sepulcher (1096), the Order of the Templars was established (1118), the use of
surnames to be added to the names spread, the national languages and the
first Italian poets were born, it consolidated the identity of the countries,
divided into fiefdoms and managed one by one by their trusted and faithful countrymen.
The first regulations for the defense of property, respect for social rules,
the defense of women were ratified and the Duchy was also coined for the first
time, a coin that will last over seven centuries. Alone against everyone, hated
and feared, they managed to win battles against far larger armies, with audacity
and timing that also make one think of something supernatural or better yet predestined.
As if a higher will had wanted their entry and their history in our nation for
a specific purpose. Fervent Catholics, but ferocious as wild animals, ambitious
without restraint, but respectful of alliances, they took advantage of the
slightest mistake to change political strategy and seize the feud or kingdom of
the ally that would not honor an agreement. Suspicious by nature, they always acted
alone and alone won almost all the battles either by force, by cunning or by
improvising, something that would confuse every opponent. Friends of the
Byzantines against the Saracens, they became friends of the Lombards against
the Byzantines, and in the end, after four centuries of uninterrupted
domination, they also extinguished the Lombard history, remaining unchallenged masters
of southern Italy for over a century. When Roberto d'Altavilla called [Roberto]
il Guiscardo, in 1059, managed to make the qualitative leap by being elected,
with the Pope's blessing, Duke of Puglia, Calabria and Sicily, who was still in
the hands of the Saracens, they became an unstoppable train and fierce that
made people of every country or district cry "a furore normannorum
libera nos Domine" (deliver us, O Lord, from the fury of the Normans).
Devastation and total submission were the iron law that spared no one and that
in a short time brought them to the rank of absolute masters, against whom
nobody dared to rebel. The arrival of his grandson, Ruggero d’Altavilla, known
as the Norman, to the throne was the apotheosis of their rise and the beginning
of a new era. It
was 1130 and until the end of the century it was a continuous expansion of
their sphere of action which in the second half of the century also reaches
Africa and Asia. During the Norman epic, characters of great human and
personality significance are highlighted and deserve to be mentioned and
analyzed for they represent the faithful mirror of the society of the time and
play the role of immortal and timeless icons. Servants, traitors, heroes, and
women with strong personalities who rode and determined events and situations
of great political and social relevance. The moral firmness of Guido di Conza
was an exception in a world where arrogance and brute force always and only
prevailed. Unconditional loyalty to the King leads Richard of Aversa to the
ultimate sacrifice, faced with dignity and determination. The tactical acumen
of Saracena della Trinità is a universal example of maternal love and its ride
throughout the XII century is a milestone in the events of Irpinia, even if
forgotten and relegated to the dark and black background of the chute of
obstinacy of Gisulfo from Salerno or the audacity of Rainulfo count of Avellino
and Caiazzo or better yet the cunning Ulysses of Roberto il Guiscardo novice in
Italy are split of life that can enter the immortal scene in human history from
the main door. Nor can we forget the epic of the Marra family, who, after a
hundred years of loyalty to the Altavilla, at the end, chooses the wrong and
losing side, and pays the consequences until they disappear from the political
and military scene, fleeing to Germany or hiding among ordinary people
originating the current Marra [family]. It is necessary to think that from one
of them several thousands of descendants were born who now live in the current
society miles away from each other and who will never know that they are
relatives and have a common chromosome. Last but not least, the fundamental
importance that the battle of Civitate of 18 June 1053 had in the history of
Italy, which is the cornerstone of Norman rule in our peninsula and prepares
the rise of the Altavilla family to power. 3000 Norman knights with 500 infantry are
lined up and in front of them an imposing army of 6000 and pontifical soldiers
recruited in half Europe by a Pope who for the first time in history places
himself at the head of an army with the banner of Peter and harangue the
soldiers before the battle invoking upon them the blessing of Heaven. It is a holy
war that had to annihilate the Normans and erase them forever, instead it is
the day of the dioscuro Roberto il Guiscardo who, disarmed three times by his
enemies, gets back in the saddle and massacres the Swabians, inciting his
soldiers to the rescue, in a moment of serious difficulty. Had it gone differently
the history of our districts would not have been the same in the following millennium.
But what makes this battle unique and mythical is both the military strategy
put in place, which allows David to defeat Goliath and the subsequent political
strategy to submit to the defeated Pope and recognize him as a referent and
leader. An admirable series of circumstances and events, without missing a
single blow, which leaves many historians who have faced and written over the
centuries of the adventures of the heirs of the Vikings in southern Italy
perplexed and thoughtful.
MTDD: Volturara Irpina:
Storia e storielle nei secoli (Volturara Irpina: History
and Legends over the centuries) is another publication of yours whose title
intrigues and entices being, by your own admission, "the history of
Volturara Irpina through anecdotes and stories in the last 1000 years".
indicating too many details or revealing the end, can you mention a couple of
anecdotes and/or stories you came across during the writing of this work of
EM: It's not exactly an
anecdote, but I am going to mention this passage so that you can understand who
your great-grandfather was.
In praise of Vincenzo Pasquale for the departure of Vincenzo Pennetti in public
City council, who died at 33.
I wholeheartedly join the Mayor's proposal and all the proposals they [the members of the council]
will make to honor the not quite late fellow citizen Vincenzo Pennetti, Attorney-at-law, because the
honors made to those, who are inspired by truth and beauty were always from all peoples considered
not as a simple act of courtesy, but of sacred duty; and this duty I feel in me, I see it in you, in all
population, to which our beloved fellow citizen was dear, of whom, if I begin to speak, I do not
intend to make an apology with a speech because I lack the energy, and for a long time I do not feel
but I will say a few words that the truth and the heart will be able to dictate to me. First, I would
betray the truth by not commemorating Vincenzo Pennetti as a strong and loyal political fighter,
although the goal of his struggle was always in opposition to the sentiment of the absolute majority
of the country, yet he was always loyal, disinterested and honest, as the sentiment of his country
was always honest as well. Today that the business has become infected in large and small towns,
the schools of Casale have created the so-called leaders who, doing their pro, have intruded into all
affairs of all colors, Vincenzo Pennetti strong contempt for these abominable miseries, crossing the
street cluttered with mud and putrefence with a firm foot, he came out unhindered; and this is an
invaluable virtue and superior to any policy; and since any opinion must be worthy of respect, it
follows that any partisan hatred must go out in front of the honest man, who with strong studies
became the honor of the family, the country and the Province. He only lived to be thirty-three, too
little; and he would have made a great deal of money if the inexorable death beforehand had not
ruthlessly abducted him to the affection of his inconsolable consort, to the dear little children who
cry and bless his memories, to the desolate parents who overwhelmed by pain praise his actions, to
the country that today, in a certificate of esteem and affection, honors and praises his virtues, with
which he was able to deserve the applause and esteem of those who knew him, and to conquer with
his high ingenuity a modest honored place among the illustrious lovers of literature and legal sciences.
To pay ever more homage and honor to the memory of our dear departed one, I propose that a decent
funeral should be paid by our Municipality in suffrage of his soul who was always inspired by beauty
and truth, by the love of the country, of his loved ones and of his relationships. On December 5, 1900,
he died while Christianily mourned by everybody leaving in the hearts of us all a painful wound that
can never be healed and a disheartening void that painfully forces me to exclaim "Ouch the men whose
world is unworthy, rare pass on Earth, and soon return to Heaven!"
MTDD: This pandemic caused by
COVID-19 has reminded many of us of other plagues that have also hit Italy in
the past and decimated its population. One of the most famous, sad to say, was
the plague, the theme of your book La Peste 1656: la clessidra della Storia
(The Pest 1656: the Hourglass of History).
did Italy and especially Irpinia experience that tragic moment?
EM: During the Middle Ages,
the plague was endemic and recurred at close dates causing decimations and
suffering. But two epidemics in particular changed the history of Italy and
Europe. The first was in 1347-48, described admirably also by Boccaccio, of which
we have no local news, and the second was the one that shocked southern Italy
in 1656. I read many documents on this catastrophe, also finding the names of
the deceased day by day. I made a novel out of it to understand both events and
human behavior in the face of this scourge. The current social distancing was not
applied then, indeed they all met in the Church or in the square to decide what
to do with continuous processions in honor of San Carlo and San Sebastiano. In
the end in three months out of 1000 inhabitants, 400 remained, mostly women.
The doctors died, the ‘sindico’ (mayor as he was called back then), the notary
of the town and finally also the Archpriest. In Irpinia and Avellino the
situation was catastrophic as well and entire villages and districts disappeared.
MTDD: La Clessidra
dell'amore, 1656 (The Hourglass of Love) is your novel set at the time of
the plague of 1656. In the book synopsis you state "If you came into
this world it is because your ancestor of that time was one of the few
survivors of the catastrophe that destroyed 70% of the population. How many
scientists, poets, writers, artists were never born for a fault that is not
Can you tell us something about the protagonists of this
novel of yours and the extreme serious situation, due to the plague, they faced
as well as all those who were living at the time did?
common thread is the story of a boy son of peasants, Cosmo, who was to become a
priest and who decided to abandon the toga, after having fallen in love with,
and being reciprocated by Alba, a girl daughter of notables. The envy and tares
of the villagers upset their love story, which ends in a short time. Alba
marries a rich young man from Avellino and goes to live in the city. After much
suffering, Cosmo marries his peer and adapts to the life of the fields, between
memories and regrets.
MTDD: La secolare
storia di una bonifica: Volturara Irpina ed il lago Dragone (The centuries-old story
of a reclamation: Volturara Irpina and the Dragone lake) by Nicola De Meo is a
book you are the editorial curator of. Any article or story you read on Volturara
Irpina always mentions the Dragon lake.
exactly does the Dragon represent for a Volturarese?
EM: The Dragone is in summer
a plain of almost 1000 hectares full of grass where thousands of cows graze, in
winter it becomes a lake that brings water to all of southern Italy. In past
centuries, the abundant rains and snowfalls raised the water level that reached
the country, creating fear and damage. Therefore, we have always tried to
reclaim it, channeling the water to bring it out of the plain and to grow the
grass, but the works have never been done definitively, finding political and
administrative obstacles of all kinds.
MTDD: Thanks Edmondo for participating in our interview. Would
you like to remind our readers how they can buy and where they can find all
your publications or get in touch with you should they so wish?
EM: My books are all on
Amazon. They are not works of art, but rather testimonies of different eras
that have built the history of our districts, poor, but rich in great humanity,
without prominent protagonists, where the joy of choral singing in the fields
served to mitigate the tiredness spade and where wine allowed to overcome inhibitions
and efforts. Ultimately, my country has participated in every historical event
of the kingdom in the last ten centuries, sacrificing the lives of many
faceless and nameless young people, not in defense of an ideal, but by
subjection and belonging to the master of the moment. And my message is that it
is necessary to give importance and scholastic visibility to the local history
which represents the chromosomal set of thousands and thousands of people who
have brought us here to experience the emotions of nature and the misfortunes
of men on our mother Earth, that it may not even bear us if we continue to
offend her with our behavior. Those who do not know the history of their land
and the events of their ancestors will always miss something in their lives.
MTDD: See you next time to deepen the genealogy topic ...
EM: It is a field that I
like and have devoted decades of research to.