From Caves to Castles- Exploring Southern Italy’s Cultural Treasures

BY KRISTIN D’AGOSTINO

At 26 years old, having finished a five-month stint working as a nanny in Salerno, I celebrated my newfound freedom by renting a Fiat with a friend and heading south. The rocky Amalfi Coast’s bustling port towns gave way to verdant hills dotted with olive trees and farmhouses. My companion, a cheerful New Zealander named Arian- na, was also a nanny whom I’d met just a few weeks earlier when we were both flirting with the same Italian guy at the local tourism office. No romance came out of our efforts, but a much- needed friendship formed. Finally, after a long summer of raucous family dinners where my Italian vocabulary ran out before the pasta was served, I had found an English-speaking friend to share the joys and challenges of navigating Italian culture.

Our first stop was Alberobello, a UNESCO site known for its 14th century limestone houses—or trul- li—whose conical rooftops resemble mushrooms. Thousands of trulli filled the narrow streets, forming a white- washed wonderland, each one bearing its own rooftop symbol painted in white on the gray stones. Suns, hearts, and moons decorated the rooftops. What did they mean? During my brief visit, I never learned.

Arianna and I rented a trullo for the night—the perfect cozy setting for sharing stories. Red wine flowed along with tales of failed romances and pointed remarks on Italian families.

“Why do they call it a matrimonia bed anyway?” I asked, plopping down on one of the full-sized beds. “It’s not just for couples. In the house where I lived the entire family slept together every night. Two parents, one cat, and three kids!”

Late into the night our laughter filled the one-roomed chamber, echo- ing off the round stone ceiling. For the first time in five months, I felt warm, connected, and at home.

Now, nearly two decades later and cooped up during the pandemic, my memories of this road trip spark wanderlust. What would a road trip through the south be like these days? What other architectural wonders lay waiting to be discovered? To shed light on my wonderings, I consulted Art and Architecture Professor Rocky

THE CAVE CHURCHES OF MATERA

The south is unique, D’Andria says, because it forms a crossway between East and West. Many cultures have dominated this area through the cen- turies—Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Ottomans, Germans, and Spanish. All have left their mark on the south’s art, culture, and traditions.

No visit to the Deep South would be complete without a visit to Matera, situated in the Basilicata region on the instep of the boot’s heel. Narrow streets climb up to this otherworldly city built on a hill, its houses formed within ancient caves. Matera’s re- semblance to Jerusalem has earned it a place in many Biblical films and Classical with North-European Cistercian Gothic. The majestic build- ing is a testimony to Frederick’s fas- cination with astronomy and science. Shaped like an octagonal prism, the castle is located in a carefully chosen manner to invite symmetries of light during the winter and summer sol- stice. Frederick’s love of numbers is also evident, as both of the castle’s floors contain eight rooms and an eight-sided courtyard forms the heart of the castle.

No one knows exactly why Frederick constructed Castel del Monte. It has no moat, no arrow slits, and no drawbridge—it was not built to serve as a fortress. With its octagonal union of a square inside a circle, some specu- late it was built to be a celebration of the interconnecting relationship between humanity and God.

throughout the years. The city’s cave dwellings, or sassi, date back to the Paleolithic period more than 2.5 mil- lion years ago. Despite unseemly living conditions, up to 12 family members lived together in one room. The sassi were inhabited up until the 1950s, when the government stepped in and forced people to leave their homes and move into a newly constructed neighborhood. In later decades, the sassi received a facelift, and now most of its 3,000 caves serve as home for the city’s inhabitants while many oth- ers function as restaurants and hotels.

Lovers of antiquity will no doubt enjoy simply wandering the city’s many serpentine alleys and climbing its winding staircases. But to get the full experience, one must duck inside one of many cave churches. With their shadowy stone chambers rich in frescoes, they are a mix of haunt- ing and holy, beautiful and beatific. The largest of them, San Pietro Bari- sano, dates back to the 12th century and is particularly spooky as its altar was plundered in the 1970s and the surrounding statues were rendered headless. Visitors are greeted at the church entrance by frescoes of the Annunciation and the saints. Explor- ing the underground area where a

labyrinth of stone niches forms an ancient catacomb, one can say they’ve truly experienced Matera—the Citta Sotterranea, or Underground City.

FREDERICK II’S CASTLE

The Puglia region’s culture and architecture have been greatly shaped by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Though he had German and Nor- man blood, Frederick II lived in Bari for many years and considered Italy, particularly Puglia, his home. During his time as emperor, he transformed Puglia’s landscape by having numer- ous castles constructed throughout. By far, the most magnificent of these is Castel del Monte, located northwest of Bari.

Frederick II, besides being a skilled hunter and passionate traveler, was a great lover of art and science.

“He was an enlightened man,” says Art and Architecture Professor Rocky Ruggiero. “The fact that he settled in Bari meant that artists and musicians came there. There was a 13th-century flowering in that area because of the presence of the imperial court.”

Castel del Monte, which is pic- tured on Italy’s one-cent Euro coin, is unique because it combines diverse styles of architecture, mixing Islamic

Southern Italy may not contain Tuscany’s Renaissance treasures, but it boasts its own version of Florence and a cathedral that rivals Florence’s finest frescoed churches. The city of Lecce has been called “The Florence of the South” with its baroque old town adorned with noble palaces, charming squares, baroque churches, and Roman monuments.

The Basilica di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria in Galatina, a town south of Lecce, has an array of vibrant 14th-century frescoes. The church was built by the Franciscans, whose patron was Frenchwoman Marie d’Enghien de Brienne. De Brienne was married to Raimondello Orsini del Balzo, a wealthy noble who traveled to Mount Sinai to visit the relics of Santa Cateri- na. After kissing the dead saint’s hand, he bit off a finger and brought it back to the basilica as a holy relic. Though the finger has since disappeared from the basilica, del Balzo remains—as it is where he’s buried.

The cathedral exhibits a mix of Romanesque, Gothic, Norman, and Byzantine architecture. Its interior is entirely covered in frescoes painted by Neapolitan artists, which are said to rival Giotto’s frescoes in the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi. One of the most unique frescoes depicts angel musicians holding an array of medi- eval instruments—the oldest recorded depiction of harps, double flutes, and lutes in Europe.

The trulli of Alberobello

THE TRULLI OF ALBEROBELLO

But what about Alberobello’s mystical dwellings and their strange symbols? According to Ruggiero, the

houses began as small agricultural con- structions built by shepherds tending their flocks in the fields. Constructed by placing rock over rock, the impro- vised huts protected them from the blazing southern sun.

“Later,” D’Andria continues, “the town’s peasants adopted the trullo’s construction when the King of Naples imposed a tax on new constructions.”

“It was then necessary to build something temporary, easy to dis- mantle, that could not be considered a regular permanent home,” D’Andria points out. The townsfolk adapted the shepherds’ trullo to their needs, the weather and everyday life. Being superstitious, the homeowners added symbols on the conical rooftops to protect them from the evil eye and bad luck.

“The symbols can be very differ- ent,” D’Andria says. “A cross, a dove, a sun, moon, star, menorah, a letter, a tree, but they all have the same aim: to protect the trullo and its inhabitants.”

Architecture aside, the regions of Puglia and Basilicata offer many gas- tronomical treasures for foodies and wine lovers. Ruggiero, who lived in Tuscany for 20 years, said he prefers to buy his olive oil from Puglia. In Tuscany, olive trees are trimmed to a smaller size yielding a more refined taste, whereas in Puglia they’re al- lowed to grow wild resulting in a fruitier, spicier flavor. Dotting the southern landscape, the olive trees are architectural gems all their own.

“Giant, gnarly, centuries old … they’re like works of art,” Ruggiero says. “The form they take is breathtaking.”

Click the link below to read Caves to Castles in Italian America’s Summer 2021 issue

Tutti a Tavola!

After the chemo

all you want to do is watch cooking shows.

We bask before the television

as before an oven on a cold day

watching Lidia toss onions into a pan of glittering olive oil.

Our noses strain to smell her pot of marinara simmering

as we drift to another kitchen far away,

Grandma in tennis shoes and a ruffled apron

layering slices of fried zucchini with sauce and parmesan.

Your taste buds these days have turned.

Ziti tastes like wood chips;

pizza like a paper bag.

Still, like a child you savor the sight of food

watching pizza commercials

eyes wide as pepperoni as you lament,

“Just look at that dripping cheese!”

Kale smoothies be damned,

we chase away the pain of the present

by recalling meals of the past

chanting recipes like prayers:

Shrimp Scampi with shallots and butter,

Veal Parmesan with marinara,

Pasta Fagioli with garlic and cannelloni beans,

and suddenly, with a pinch of basil,

a table springs up before us,

Great grandmother’s silver set beside

the gold-rimmed china with pink flowers.

So absorbed are we in culinary magic

that when Lidia announces her meal is finished

and calls to TV viewers

“Tutti a tavola! Come to the table!”

we are not surprised to see

our own ghosts of the hearth

creeping in from the room’s dark corners:

Great Grandma Anna and her sisters,

Uncle Tony, Louie, Nicodemo,

Fred and Laurel.

Smiling, they take their seats

and pick up their forks,

ready to taste,

to savor,

to embrace one more meal.

This poem appeared in the Paterson Literary Review June 2021

Imogen

by Sir Henry Newbolt

LADIES, where were your bright eyes glancing,

Where were they glancing yesternight?

Saw ye Imogen dancing, dancing,

Imogen dancing all in white?

Laughed she not with a pure delight,

Laughed she not with a joy serene,

Stepped she not with a grace entrancing,

Slenderly girt in silken sheen?

All through the night from dusk to daytime

Under her feet the hours were swift,

Under her feet the hours of playtime

Rose and fell with a rhythmic lift:

Music set her adrift, adrift,

Music eddying towards the day

Swept her along as brooks in Maytime

Carry the freshly falling may.

Ladies, life is a changing measure,

Youth is a lilt that endeth soon;

Pluck ye never so fast at pleasure

Twilight follows the longest noon.

Nay, but here is a lasting boon,

Life for hearts that are old and chill,

Youth undying for hearts that treasure

Imogen dancing, dancing still.

What I Wanted When I Was Twelve

For Mom and Beth to move back home

For Dad to stop smoking

For him to be happy again

To be able to do a cartwheel like Tammy

To curl my bangs into a fan shape without burning my forehead

To know how to talk to boys

To get Mike Taylor to like me

To hold his hand during “Couples and Trios”

To skate backwards like that head-banger guy to Welcome to the Jungle

To know all the words to “Ice, Ice Baby”

A pair of Hammer pants

To start my own Babysitters Club.

C and C Music Factory’s single “Everybody Dance Now”

To dance like Sarah Jessica Parker in “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”

Frosty pink lipstick

A ride to the mall.

A “Coed Naked” t-shirt

For my chest to grow so I can stop pinning shoulder pads inside my bra

To sing like Wilson Phillips.

To watch all the Halloween movies

To not have to babysit my sister after school

To perfect dance moves with Tammy to Van Halen’s “Jump”

To be Becca from Life Goes On.

To see my poem published in the National Library of Poetry’s book (I paid $30).

To sit with Kathleen Kennedy at lunch

For fat Sabrina Wimbsatt to stop following me around

For Nicole Ellis not to stare at me on the bus with her snake eyes and say she’s gonna beat me up

For everyone to believe the name with hearts I wrote all over my books was really my boyfriend’s.

To stop crying so much

To go back to my old school

To go back to church

For Mom to leave Jim

To be able to see her again without us fighting

For her to understand why I’m mad at her

For Dad not to be gone so much

For it always to be like on car-rides to New Jersey when I have him to myself

To have him to myself

To have him

Round and Round

At the hospital like Persepolis I stepped
out of time’s familiar landscape
and left the light behind,
creeping down death’s long hallways,
past room after room, each one
a box holding within it a life honeycombed,
memories stored like the scent of clover
within a bale of winter hay.
Finally, I found you, lying still,
unable to speak. Staring into your eyes,
I saw my face caught like a moth
inside a glass,
my life beating inside your life,
your heart inside mine,
as we sat eye to eye
within my heart’s deepest chamber.
At ten you gave me a small brown box
that belonged to you as a child.
Inside was a smooth round stone
surrendered by the sea,
and a time-worn coin found buried
in your grandmother’s garden:
One child’s treasures passed to another
across time. The brown box disappeared
into the shadowy depths of my childhood,
lost in a move or swept away during the divorce.
Father, now that you’re gone,I long to take it in my hands,
to touch the coin and discover its ancient secrets,
to turn the stone round and round
rubbing away at the jagged edges of time like the sea
until I see you, a boy once again,
opening a drawer,
pulling out the brown box,
taking the stone into your hand,
turning it round and round.

Grasping

As we drew to a stop
in the white atrium’s light,
museum paintings swirled around us
like carousel horses,
manes flying
and his words were like mirrors
hung to distract,
yet I did not grow dizzy swirling
among pearls of light,
nor on the mesmerizing grind of calliope.
I reached for what was beneath;
I wanted the brass ring.
Leaning toward him I saw it
in his eye:
a skull staring back,
mute, grinning.

New online Writing Workshops I’m teaching this summer

for all levels beginning June 4th. See below for details.

Poet’s Companion Writing Group

June 4-June 25, 2021, Fridays from 2-3pm on Zoom

Each session of this four-week workshop will focus on exploring a different writing prompt, allowing us to take time to write separately before coming together to share what we’ve written. Working from the book The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux, we’ll aim to spark ideas for more in-depth poems as we support and encourage each other.  This hour-long workshop is geared toward writers of all levels.  Poet and journalist Kristin D’Agostino currently teaches writing at New England College. Her work has been featured in The Paterson Literary Review, on Poets Online and on Vermont Public Radio.

Cost: $32 through Charlotte Senior Center. Email me at k.dagostino@gmail.com for more information or to sign up.

Exploring Your Roots Memoir Writing Workshop

August 5- September 9, 2021, Thursdays, 2-3:30pm on Zoom

In this six-week memoir-writing class we will read poetry, graphic novels and memoirs by well-known writers including Colette, Marjane Satrapi and Maria Mazziotti Gillan that explore various cultures through the lens of family, foods and tradition.  We will then write and share our own memoirs with the aim of exploring our own family heritage. Writer and educator Kristin D’Agostino writes about Italy and her Italian-American roots for Italian America magazine.

Cost: $72 through Charlotte Senior Center. Email me at k.dagostino@gmail.com for more information or to sign up.