Heart of Light and Enchantment of Stone
At the break of dawn, Calascio evokes the magical dimension of fairy tales.
La Rocca is a torch, lit up above the valley, the town a handful of lights
spread over the slopes of the mountain
Text by Franca Fulgenzi
Photographs by Luciano D'Angelo
English translation by Jackie Silvestri
The highest point of the ancient Barony of Carapelle is a fortress of white stones, rising around the towers, a warning amidst the barren setting of the limestone mountain -- arid, silent, bowing only to the circling flight of the hawk, which from time to time seems to glide down to the unexpected blossoming of the broom shrubs that explode with a yellow perfume along the hillside.
Below, along the street which climbs like a white trail from the Plain of Navelli, Calascio is a closed and secretive spot. The road advances amongst the memories of the past millennium of proud monks and of cruel barons, of generous emperors and of shepherds, masters of life and death. Rising from Capestrano to the left of San Pietro ad Oratorium, and further above the walled city of Bominaco with ramparts built by the Benedictines, suspended between the agrarian and pastoral economy of the castrum, and the mystical
contemplation of the voice of God, to the right Santa Maria del Cintorelli and the memory of the transhumance (seasonal shepherding of the flock from summer to winter pastures) that lived like a dimension of existence, and, above, the lands of the Carapelle, each one a cluster of houses leaning on one another, wherever the cliff widens into a small plain.
The feeling that seems to transform the trip into a return to the past is strong, the more that the street, distancing itself from contemporary road conditions, takes the form of a dizzying silence. Norman stories come to mind about Robert, candidate to the succession of Guglielmo II of Altavilla, and those of Riccardo Acquaviva and Matteo del Plessiaco, followers of Carlo d'Angio (Charles of Anjou). And above all these stories float the activities of Jacovella. The men of his lifetime re-emerge: Iacopo Caldora, Leonello Acclozzamora, strong captains in whom Jacovella placed his complete trust, and, even more, the affront of Ruggerotto returns, elder son to whom his mother offered no more resistance than a disdainful silence. But this impression is foreseeable and disregarded, however, in the past few years, this same impression has transformed the street and La Rocca into a study of outdoor revival. Calascio has provided the scenery for the magical fables of the movie "Lady Hawke" and of that unendingTV drama, "Piovra".
In the direction of the Madonna della Pieta, the wind rises between earth and sky as an imperceptible thread of dust, like a material line along the horizon which delineates the border between the imaginary and the physical: barons and actors alike improvise on a mythical stage.
Calascio is the destination: 1200 meters in altitude, cold in the winter, cool in the summer, on a plateau of gray stone facing a vast expanse of fields, at one time cultivated with grain, potatoes, wheat -- all the typical mountain crops -- and in the spring, full of almond trees in bloom that promise a rich harvest that, now, no one collects.
The inhabited area is an unexpected succession of stone houses, one or two stories high -- tower houses, the ground floor of which, until recently, still housed a small wealth of the family's farm equipment, or the shops of merchants or craftsmen. The aristocratic houses or churches are on each piazza; the convents and oratoria are found on the outskirts of the urban center.
Around 1530, in the time of Carlo V (Charles V), the number of earthen hearths in Calascio was 339, with 201 in La Rocca, which correlate to about 1,491 inhabitants for the town and 884 for the fortress. It was the golden era of the sheep-tending in Puglia. The noble families began to form the hereditary estates that, some centuries later, would give life to the intellectual ancient Neapolitan aristocracy that spread from the mountain centers to all of the Abruzzo. Then earthquakes, plagues, and famine gradually reduced the
Meanwhile, however, Calascio enriched itself with sturdy palaces, and each saint had his own precious altar, most predominantly San Leonardo, the oldest among the town's churches, located on the street that leads to Castel del Monte, and built (or more properly, renovated) in 1263, as verified by an inscription found at the base of the bell tower. In the 18th century, it had an annual income equal to 12 ducats. A festival was celebrated there every November 6th. It was a type of hostel, a shelter for pilgrims and wayfarers, but it did not have the benefit of ecclesiastical immunity.
Next is the church of San Nicola di Bari (Saint Nicholas), patron saint of the town and, especially, of the shepherds and their flocks. In the 1700s, the devotion of the rich families built this church and endowed it with six chapels along the lateral walls, each more splendid than the last. Today it is truly a treasure of works of art beginning with the wooden portal (carved with scenes of the Old testament and of the life of Saint Nicholas), to the confessional, the baptismal font, the high altar (also of carved wood), and The Annunciation by Teofilo Patini on the ceiling. Even the rural class wanted its protectors, it seems.
Overlooking the common threshing floor, on the western part of the inhabited area, the Church of Sant'Antonio Abate (Saint Anthony The Abbot) was built in 1645. Soon it was enriched with other altars, among them that of the Souls of Suffrage. After two centuries of abandonment, Patini, simultaneously with the restoration work, embellished it with an emotional representation of The Temptation of Saint Anthony in the Desert, now substituted with a copy by Patrignani while the original is now part of the Frasca private collection.
There are also churches in La Rocca, mythical like the rest of the place, the very air of these stones is mythical. The Madonna delle Grazie, elementary and simple, with its miraculous Virgin and an archaic armed Saint Michael sculpted in local stone by a shepherd artist, like perhaps the lamb engraved on an external wall that recalls in its shape the ancient civic coat-of-arms. Then, halfway up the street, between the town and the castle, the Madonna della Pieta, in an octagonal design that seems to have been built in 1451, according to the record of a bloody battle that took place on that spot between a band of brigands from the Pontifical State and soldiers of the Piccolomini.
Nowadays, for liturgical functions, the parish church is sufficient, the church where, for nearly 60 years, on a daily basis, Don Giovanni Giallonardo has become an institution, overseeing baptisms, weddings, and funerals. The other churches are, as has been said, above all a stunning museum, allowing us to re-read the history of the Abruzzesi. But Calascio is not only an art town, a dead town made of stone. And neither is it an artificial town, like a picturesque backdrop, lacking depth, created to represent a cinematographic
vision of life.
Calascio has a past, a present, and a future, and it is considered and appreciated for all three components. It's a town where, each morning, the children catch the mail truck to go to school in L'Aquila and then, in the summer, act as guides for the tourists who want to visit La Rocca. It's the town of Claudio Fulgenzi, miller and historian, 88 years of memories and records. He knows everything about Calascio. He knows the worth of every stone. He's prepared to recount the mysteries, the secrets, the events that the centuries have dried up and diminished. His house is an archive of old letters, of images, of objects. In the midst of all that others have lost or forgotten, Claudio moves with untenable quickness of mind and organizes the records and the stories into a type of fresco which transcends the centuries and recaptures time.
Calascio is the humble homeland of Domenico Ciccone whom
everyone calls Mimi. Each morning he gets up and takes his flock into the
mountains. The sheep-herding dogs (i.e. guaglioni) that watch over the herds come from
overseas. And it doesn't seem strange that, in these times of the global
village, bucolic nomadic life returns from the myths of Arcadia. No more
is the sun-dried "micisca " (some type of food) or oil rationed in an
oxen's horn. Mimi eats at home, with banker's hours, but the patterns of time
and space are different. The lifestyle of the shepherd's staff has an ancient and
unchangeable heart: the land designated as pasture is still called
"defensa". In September, the ewes become pregnant and the lambs are
born between January and April, and La Rocca is always a possible improvised
refuge. Below, La Rocca, the highest point in the Barony, with its cylindrical
fortified towers, rises by now as a symbol of the mountain and of its people.
The first mention (of La Rocca) arises in the 12th century when the high-elevation cluster acquired the military characteristics of a fortified town. In fact the oldest section seems to be the square-based central part of the towers, whose original function may have been that of a watch tower. The town developed around this, reaching its maximum expansion in the time of Leonello Acclozzamora in the second half of the 14th century. The entire defensive apparatus is composed of three parts: the town walls, the narrow urban area, and La Rocca (the fortress). Despite the crumbling caused by abandonment and by the years, the inhabited district maintains its original character. The covered streets remain, with their connected tower-houses that generally had one floor partially underground, covered at one time with stone, while the ceilings of the upper floors were in wood. The various levels are connected by external stairs and the masonry is typical of the L'Aquila areas of Abruzzo, made of heaps of stone bound with mortar and reinforced at the corners with squared blocks.
The Tower rises in the northern summit of the defensive area,
dominating over the inhabited area. Mistakenly defined as a castle, it is in
reality a walled tower, or a citadel watch tower, going back to the 10th
century, like numerous other towers in the area equally visible and used to
transmit danger signals. Constructed in two different types of masonry, the
lower part, to a height of 8 meters, is in squared blocks of stone, in order to
build a very solid structure. The upper part is slightly receding, with two
openings for archers. In time, the tower has undergone many transformations,
including the realization of a squared enclosure with the four circular towers
in the corners. The stories, always half history and half legend, speak of
hidden treasures, secret passageways, strategic connections directly with
castles by the sea and, in effect, the parallels of the structure of the towers
of Rocca Calascio with the castles of the Piccolomini of Celano, of Capestrano,
of Ortucchio, of Balsorano, and with the Aragon castle of Ortona, reinforce the
shadows and the conjectures.
Besides, La Rocca is an island of longing: no telephone, no lights, no water. Instead, in Calascio, in the middle of the main square, there was a monumental fountain and its story is long and bizarre, and interwoven with that of Lady Filonilla Frasca. One needs to know, in fact, that having water has always been the desire of the Calascini. The carsic nature of the ground absorbs the water from the tops of the Gran Sasso mountain range and impedes the formation of steady springs below. The town has always suffered from thirst and, for a long time, the people were forced to get their water supply from a small lake near the town. The only means of provisions in the inhabited center were the wells which collected snow and rain water with a system of stone-worked canals and decanting ponds. Naturally only the houses of the rich and aristocratic could possess a well, and all others were often forced to pay. Even in today's slang there exists the expression "A house with a well" to indicate a structure with all the amenities.
Soon after the Italian unification in 1866, the Town
Council proposed to resolve the problem, and began to effect research within the
territory to find a spring. Finally one was identified near the foot of Mount
Prena, at an altitude of 2600 meters. The commission for the work was given to
the architect Donato Ricci, but the cost for such work was too much for the
communal coffers. When the water seemed it would be an unattainable mirage, Lady
Filonilla Frasca, whose family had accumulated enormous riches with herding
activities, and within whose palace, as a sign of distinction and opulence,
existed numerous wells at which the Calascini were often sent to draw water,
probably paying for it, generously offered 40,000 lire, a veritable fortune at
the time when it was given. To cover the expenses, the remainder was contributed
by emigrants, donations from other families, and volunteered labor by the
Calascini. The first reservoir was created at Fonte Canala on the slopes of
Monte Prena, where there is sometimes snow even in the month of June, and where
the workers spent the night to survey their efforts, for fear of storms and
floods. With a conduit which is about 20 kilometers long, crossing up and down
hills and valleys, water arrived in Calascio in 1911. For the occasion, a
monumental fountain was constructed, and a hymn was written praising water and
Lady Filonilla, and the industriousness of the mountain people.
Today the wells are an archaeological curiosity, and all the houses of Calascio have water. The kitchen where Vittoria Antonacci makes her cheese is ancient and impressive. The ash pit, the "callaro," the sacks of rennet, the wicker baskets, the drying boards -- all remains as before, but at the same time everything is changed. There is water. Vitoria opens the faucet, washes her hands and begins to squeeze the barely solidified mass. Her imaginary universe is one of saints and stories.
Like that of King Marrone. In the days when fairies spun beneath the oaks -- says Vittoria -- and when they returned to their secret houses, they wove a cloth so supple, on a loom with combs of gold and heddles of silver, King Marrone lived at Rocca Calascio. He owned 36 castles in Capitanata and 100 towers of the Barony of Carapelle. He was the owner of the most beautiful flock of sheep that had ever been seen in these parts: sheep, rams, lambs, formed more than 100 herds at the head of which were giants "massari" taller than three rifle-lengths, followed by guaglioni with black eyes and bony horns across their shoulders, full of oil and salt.
The cheese-maker worked the cheese in a copper kettle as big as the cupola of the church of San Nicola. The cheese of King Marrone was the most flavorful of all the farms of the mountains, and the wool of his sheep was the whitest and softest, so much so that, when market time came around, merchants came from Naples to come and buy his cheese rounds and his ricotta (cheese). Every year, the King of Portugal would send his three sons to La Rocca, with a retinue of pages and knights, to attend to the May shearing, which was the most precious and the only one worthy of filling the cushions, the quilts, and the mattresses of the royal bed.
At San Marco, however, the King of Crowns was the owner. He too had towers and castle, soldiers and encampments, farms and villages, sheep and mules, but he enjoyed none of his riches because he was envious of the fortune of King Marrone. One day the King of Crowns found an excuse to begin an altercation, and over a question of pastures and precedence, he began an unhappy war against King Marrone with violent battles and long sieges that lasted for years and years.
King Marrone resisted, closed within his castle for more than ten years, during which he consumed all of the riches within his storerooms. First he ate the ricottas, then the cheese, then even the horses and mules, and finally the sheep and the lambs. By now there was absolutely nothing left for him to eat. In the granary, the wheat was gone; the mills had nothing left to grind and the wells were dry, also because it hadn't rained for many months, so that even the grass had dried up in the fields. The soldiers were growing old and all had long white beards.
Then King Marrone had an idea. He gathered together all the people of La Rocca. He had them milk the remaining sheep, but there was still too little milk. So he called together all women who were nursing babies and he begged them to express the milk from their breasts into the kettle. The cheese-maker, for his part, went to work and succeeded in making 12 rounds of cheese, huge and round, such as were usually only seen in better times. King Marrone called all his soldiers to the highest tower and commanded them to roll the cheese rounds into the valley, while the old women and children made a great show of parading up and down the walkways as if they were having a festival.
Upon seeing this, the King of Crowns couldn't believe his own eyes. Even his people were beginning to get low on supplies and instead La Rocca had enough foodstuffs and resources that the people could throw cheese away into the valley! He thought that King Marrone must be invincible, and since his soldiers were now tired and at the end of their strength, he withdrew his siege and sent ambassadors to negotiate peace. The cheese of Vittoria, which tastes of pastures and fairy tales, nourishes the mind and the spirit. The magic of Calascio, a town 1200 meters in altitude, between the Preto Coast and the Vuto Plain, is the capacity to transform the past into present and future.