Calascio Today

by Silvio Germano

Translation by Paul Zelus and Alex Frasco

The territory of Calascio extends in length for approximately 16 Km, from the summit of Mount Prena at 2561 meters to the plain of Capestrano.  Throughout this expanse one finds a series of climatic conditions and natural habitats that have accommodated many different types of inhabitants over many thousands of years.

Approximately 80,000 years ago, during the period of Neanderthal Man, a group of hunters was found to have rested in the caverns of the Grottos of Calascio located at an altitude of about 670 meters.  Around the ancient small lakes fed from the glacier of the Gran Sasso are traces of hunters from the Paleolithic era.  There is evidence at the present site of Rocca Calascio of an active farming culture from the Bronze Age.  During the Iron Age the local Italian population built a series of dry earthen walls to serve as fences and defenses along the summits and ridges.  Some of these earthen defenses are still visible today.  For example, those at the Hill of the Circle (Colle del Cerchio) and the Cross of Picenze (Croce di Picenze), both near P. Picenze, are still visible to the trained eye.

Also still visible are the Mount of Crosses (Monte delle Croci) near Rocca Calascio and the Battle Hill (Colle della Battaglia), both located between Calascio and Castel del Monte.  All of these fences and earthenworks mark one of the types of separation that existed between "the fertile low lands" used for farming and crops, and "the highlands" used for pasturing.  

Most likely during the Roman Age there was a tower or some other escarpment situated at the site of  the current castle of Rocca Calascio, located as it was in a dominant position at an altitude of 1460 meters.  It was easy to defend, and was a perfect location to accommodate a lookout post.  The site commanded a view of the huge area under control of the Vestini during the period around 300 C.E.

Relative peace and tranquility was guaranteed throughout the valleys by the presence of small scattered Roman troops.  There were concentrations of Roman troops in Peltuinum near Prata d' Ansidonia, and in Aufinum, located between Ofena and Capestrano. From this outpost in Aufinum derives the name “Aufinates Cismontani”.  These are the same people that the emperor Augustus called the “Sabines and Samnites” during the fourth century.  

On the mountain road, that goes from the Via Claudia Nova to Santo Stefano and then leads you toward the pass of Cap di Serre, there was situated the Vicus di S. Marco that, with its necropolis and the adjacent Italian necropolis has produced precious archeological discoveries.

With the end of the Roman empire, raids from barbarians forced the native populations to seek shelter in the higher altitudes, and these concentrations of population made up the first nucleus of the villages we now know as Castelvecchio, Santo Stefano, Rocca Calascio, and Castel del Monte. 

During the domination of the Lombards, the entire area of the valley of Tirino was controlled by the Duke of Spoleto.  In 756 the Monastary of S. Peter extended its influence to Oratorium, and the Monastary of S. Vincenzo extended its control to Volturno, both controlled in turn by the great Abbey at Montecassino.

The populations of the surrounding villages were placed at the service of the monasteries and the monks, but several peasant rebellions during the eighth century demonstrate that the monastic rule was not always tolerated.

In 782 the name Calaso or Calasio, perhaps referring only to the highest point and not to a village, appears in a directory or gazetteer of place names within the vicinity of the monastery of S. Peter (the Chronicon Volturnense).

Towards the latter part of the ninth century there were many incursions by the Saracens to the interior, and the local populations fortified themselves with towers and walled towns.  But it was only toward the end of the first millennium in 1000 C.E. that the power of the monasteries began to be replaced with the first signs of the feudal age.  

It is generally agreed that the Barony of Carapelle existed by 1300, consisting of the towns of Castelvecchio, S. Stefano di Sessanio, Calascio and Rocca Calascio, with the people of that region all referred to as Carapelle. 

In 1154 Carapelle was under the influence of Oderisio of Collepietro, and at the beginning of the thirteenth century we see references to the Count of Celano as the ruling feudal lord.  

Carlo of Angiou assigned the Barony in 1271 to Matteo of Plessiaco, and in 1284 the lands of Capestrano, Ofena and Castel del Monte became the faithful followers of Riccardo Ascuqviva. In 1382 Carlo III assigned control of the previously mentioned places to Peter of Celano, and in a document from about 1380 we see the first reference to the Tower of Rocca Calascio, understanding it to be an isolated watchtower to be seen from a great distance. 

In 1579 Costanza Piccolomini, the last one of his feudal family, sold the Title and Barony to the Marchesa di Capestrano, and sold the lands of Ofena and Castel del Monte to Francisco Maria De' Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, for 106.000 ducats.  Then, in 1591, the Count of Celano sold the Barony to Camilla Peretti, sister of Pope Sixtus V, in order to satisfy numerous creditors.

So we see that from an original family of Pienza, near Siena, the possession of the Barony of Carapelle thus moved to another great Tuscany family. The rule of the Medicis can be characterized as having great concern for architecture and building, and at the same time a relative disinterestedness in the lands and their subjects who were so far away from Florence.  Their ownership of the region ended in 1743 with the death of Anna Maria Luisa, the last one of the Medici family.

The Barony of Carapelle and the Principate of Capestrano (which had the status of Marchese since 1584) thus passed on to become a part of the personal wealth of the King of Naples, Carlo III of the House of Bourbon.  The end of the Barony occurred in 1806, when Joseph Bonaparte abolished the feudal system by a royal decree.  The territory of the old Barony was divided between 5 countries.

In 1703 a disastrous earthquake demolished the castle and the countryside around Rocca Calascio: the houses on the lower part of the mountainside survived, and many inhabitants preferred to relocate to the area of Calascio, well below the castle and the effected area.  A progressive reduction has reduced the population of Rocca Calascio from approximately 800 inhabitants in 1600 to zero in 1957. Calascio, in its turn, had begun its decline around 1800, enduring the effects of the massive emigration in the first decades of the 1900’s. The population of Calascio was approximately 1900 inhabitants in 1860, and had fallen to 299 by 1982.

The village of Rocca Calascio consisted of a rather limited number of houses that were connected one to the other, constituting one encircled defensive arrangement on the summit of the mountain. One terrible century forced the population to face the plague of 1348, followed by a great earthquake in 1349, from which it was said “stone was left upon stone”. 

The origins of Calascio, located as it was on the flank of the mountain and therefore difficult to defend, comes later in a more peaceful age.  It was at first a crossroads across the mountains, and some churches and inns offering hospitality probably sprung up there to serve the travelers.  Very consistent with the above theory is the hypothesis that the calascini, when in danger, left their relatively unprotected houses for refuge between the walls of Rocca Calascio.  

With the death in 1418 of Count Nicola, the last of the Berardi, the title and property were inherited by Iacovella, his only daughter who was then in her 30's. The succession was not approved by the Queen Giovanna II who assigned the county to Giordano Colonna and put Iacovella under the protection of Pope Martino V, the purpose of which was to make the young woman the wife of his nephew Odoardo Colonna in order to validate his possession of the county.

Freed at the death of the Pope, Iacovella married in 1439 to the elderly local commandant Iacobo Caldara, and in 1441 in a second marriage with Leonello Acclozamora she produced two children. She remained a widow while her son Ruggero attempted to claim the county of Celano and, with the help of the "captain of fortune" Iacobo Piccinino, Ruggero apprehended his mother and imprisoned her, and also deprived her of all of her property.

The papal forces sent by Pope Pius II (Enea Silvio Piccolomini) then intervenned and recovered the county.   In 1463 it was by King Ferdinando I of Aragon to Antonio Piccolomini, the King's son-in-law and the nephew of Pius II.

In 1478 Antonio Piccolomini had accumulated the property of Castel del Monte and Ofena, so that that area had now also been returned to the possession of the Acquaviva family.

To Antonio Piccolomini must be attributed the building of the 4 towers around the original tower of Rocca Calascio, about the year 1480.  He is also credited with building the town-walls around the countryside, and the reconstruction of a great part of the town that was destroyed in the furious earthquake of 1461.

Interesting similarities to the Rocca Calascio castle can be found in other castles credited to Piccolomini -- Capestrano, Ortucchio, Balsorano and Celano -- all were influenced by the Aragonese constructive models applied to the Rocca Calascio castle.

With the domination of the Aragonese there was instituted the "taxes on the seasonal movement of sheep to Puglia."  These taxes became the principle source of revenue for the Regno. 

It was therefore a remarkable development for the Barony to have possessed in 1470 more than 90,000 sheep, and to have supplied huge quantities of valuable "carapellese wool" to cities like L’Aquila and Florence.

And so started the slow decline that characterizes the depopulated smaller communities today.  Calascio has stopped the trend and has tried to reverse it with the help of numerous organizations and assistance from citizens no longer residing in Calascio.  The village of Rocca Calascio is also changing in appearance, involved now in a complex plan of recovery.  There is anticipation that a return to functionality for the castle will be especially symbolic, beyond provoking interest in the old place among students of archeology, to a resurgence of the region that will elevate the Appennine chain and perhaps the entire Italian Pensinsula into a new age.