Category Archives: Features
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
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
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.
Laugh lines: Celebrating the Beauty of Aging
These are photos I took of residents at Cathedral Square Assisted Living a few years ago, which feel particularly meaningful these days when so many older people have been socially isolated. I had the pleasure of working with these people daily as an activities coordinator, so I got to know their many faces and moods. The first woman “Dolly” joked when I asked if she’d like to pose: “You mean with my clothes on?” The second man “John” totally hammed it up for the camera, posing with a favorite scarf. He ended up posing with an old childhood photo of himself with a boy, which you can see if you scroll down, and which I found really powerful. The woman with her hand in the air, “Maria” was so proud because after many months of waiting (without any teeth at all!), she’d just received her dentures. (Scroll down to see her dentures in action.) The woman in red, “Bonnie” was in the last stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. She came to life whenever music came on the radio and could sing the lyrics to any Beatles song by heart. I treasure the memory of this photo shoot and hope I succeeded in capturing everyone’s inner essence and spark.
Secrets of the Vespa Sisterhood
“Secrets of the Vespa Sisterhood” was written for The Boston Globe, 2004 and is available at archive.boston.com
Excommunicated from his church, pastor draws praise and condemnation from pagans and Christians
Pastor Phil Wyman would be the first to agree that he’s a black sheep among clergy. An expert on Wicca, a well practiced interpreter of dreams, Wyman has been an avid participant in the city’s annual Halloween celebration, supporting a holiday many Christians believe to be a symbol of darkness and the occult.
A little over a year ago Wyman was excommunicated from his church, accused of getting too amicable with the city’s Wiccan community because of controversial missionary tactics that included operating a pagan-Christian discussion forum, offering Web site links to pagan sites and fostering personal friendships with witches.
Today the church continues to operate, although it no longer has a parent church, and has about 45 members.
Wyman’s mission is to break stereotypes about Christians and Wiccans. He says many Christians don’t realize Wicca is a nature-based religion.
“Christians have a National Enquirer view of pagans,” he says. “They think they must be worshipping Satan or sacrificing babies … or they view the pagan community as a well organized machine that’s after the church. That’s a sad picture. In turn, because a few Christians have taken advantage of that to make money in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the pagans have a bad view of the Christians. We want to break that.”
Wyman, 49, is an amber-bearded man, with longish hair and a friendly face who looks like he could be a member of a Grateful Dead tribute band. He is matter-of-fact when talking about his excommunication from the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, a Pentecostal Christian church whose congregation has 4.5 million members worldwide and is known to speaks in tongues while worshipping. (Calls made to Foursquare leaders have not been returned.)
Since October 2006, when Wyman was cut off from his church, not much has changed. He hasn’t lost any members of his congregation and, if anything, his newfound freedom has allowed him to offer more experimental programs at his Essex Street church, The Gathering — things like Lectio Divina, a type of ancient meditation using the Bible, meant to build two-way communication between the reader and God.
And Wyman is still running the same program he began when he moved to Salem from California with his wife and son eight years ago, an e-mail discussion group between pagans and Christians called Circle and Cross Talk. He’s continued to grow his church’s array of controversial street theater events, offered during the month of October, things like dream interpretation; psalm readings, where a costumed monk confesses the ancient sins of the church; and the Brimstone Chronicles, where participants “travel” through Dante’s heaven and hell and are forced to face their own mortality.
Spreading the word
In his ministry Wyman insists he is not out to convert anyone, but to act as an educator for pagans and Christians alike. In fact, the California native flinches at the word “convert,” though he admits he sees himself as a missionary. “That is one of my philosophical differences with a number of Pentecostal and evangelical people,” he says. “I don’t look at conversion as something I’m trying to make happen, I think it just happens in life … when someone says ‘I like what you’re doing and I want to be a part of it.’”
He continues, “… If I get a call on my home phone and I say I’m not interested and the guy goes on … and I feel rude because I have to hang up on him. That has become the model of evangelism. American Christianity has taken on the cultural perspective of intense capitalism. We think we have to sell what we have.”
Some Christians see being a missionary as a street campaign with brochures, Bibles and the plenty of opportunities to speak of heaven and hell. Each Halloween for decades, Christians of different stripes have been coming to Salem in hopes of converting the pagan community.
Michael Marcavage, 28, is the founder of Repent America, a Philadelphia-based organization of missionaries that spent five days in Salem this October spreading their beliefs via brochures and amplified talks on the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall. This, Marcavage believes, is the proper way to go about spreading the gospel.
“Jesus began his ministry by saying repent or perish,” he says, admitting that Wyman has spoken to him in the past to criticize his gloom-and-doom approach. “Jesus preached in the open air and declared truth. That does in fact call for people to either accept or reject it.”
Marcavage accuses Wyman of affirming the pagans’ beliefs. “Is he reaching out to them?” he asks. “He has no division from them … They’re so comfortable with what he’s doing they haven’t taken issue … The word of God invites confrontation.”
Instead of preaching about heaven and hell, Wyman chooses to explore wider topics and compare the spiritual basis of Wicca and Christianity.
“Why should we as Christians be limited to talking about heaven and hell?” he asks. “Jesus didn’t say ‘follow me or go to hell,’ he had many other things to say. It’s not that it’s not a part of what we say, it’s just not everything.”
Which man has been more successful in his ministry? Marcavage says his people talked to thousands on Halloween day and made a meaningful connection with at least 10 people who signed up to start an e-mail dialogue. Wyman says he’s attracted only a few pagans to his congregation since he moved to Salem nine years ago. He seems unconcerned about this, saying he sees Christianity as a viral thing that is passed on and “caught instead of taught.”
Two sides of the coin
Despite his blasé approach, or maybe because of it, he’s gained the respect of one of the leading members of the Wiccan community, Christian Day, 38, a witch and psychic who says he is able to communicate with the dead.
“If ever there was a person that could make me want to become a churchgoing Christian it would be Phil,” Day says. “Not because he’s tried to convince me that witchcraft was evil, or hell is fire and brimstone, but because he leads a life of honesty. He’s one of the most honest people I know … and I’m a psychic. I look at people and I see their dishonesty.”
The two men have been friends since Wyman contacted Day back in 1997 when he was considering moving to Salem to minister to the pagan community. Though he’s never been to a church service, Day often stops by The Gathering to say hi to Pastor Phil and says he’s attended several church events.
“I go to church to break bread with them,” he says, admitting he often enjoys the company of Christians more than his own community, which he considers “full of gossip and innuendo.”
It is easy to see why Day and Wyman get along so well. In addition to sharing a theatrical flare and offering the community psychic services (Wyman dream interpretation, Day psychic readings), both men have in the past two years had experiences that resulted in them being ousted from their spiritual communities. With Day, the schism came last year when he was accused by a fellow witch of planting raccoon remains at downtown shops, a false rumor that rippled through the pagan and Wiccan community.
Because of these common experiences, perhaps, the two men have fostered a symbiotic relationship. Wyman donates dozens of church chairs to Day’s annual psychic fair on the Museum Place Mall. And Day offers the pastor free marketing advice for his church events.
“If I can sell Jesus, I can sell anything!” he says. Recently Day admits, he donated $200 to The Gathering.
“I don’t believe in Moses and the Red Sea,” says Day, “but I believe in doing good for the community. Maybe evangelicals will vote for things I don’t agree with but they do good things for humanity.”
“Excommunicated from his church, pastor draws praise and condemnation from pagans and Christians” originally appeared in the Salem Gazette newspaper, 2008