In this part of Italy that seems so blessed today, despite its poverty, it is easy to forget how much human suffering has shaped the landscape. I suppose that has always been the case. This is ‘Megalla’ Hellas, ‘Magna’ Grecia, ‘Greater’ Greece in both senses of the word. Greek traders from the Mycenaean period who saw this landscape must have been agog at the rich agricultural lands and the relative abundance of water. Settlement followed several hundred years later in the spectacular form of Greek colonies everywhere along the coast of southern Italy and Sicily. But the very elements that have made the area ‘great’ have also made it a target of human depredations and there is a 2,500 year history of periodic misery to witness. Add to that the vagaries of nature and you have a situation where human populations are constantly on the move, looking for simple security and a modicum of peace and quiet. And that has given rise to a number of spectacular ghost towns here, one of which we visited yesterday.
Cappacio Vecchio is one of no fewer than four towns associated with the name. The first settlement on the southeastern flank of Monte Soprano was Caput Aquis, from which our town derives its name. Monte Soprano is richly blessed with springs of delicious, healthful water (it still has a huge water reservoir on its southern flank), and this was the ‘Source of the Waters’ for the aqueduct which supplied the Greek city of Poseidonia, which we know in its Roman guise as Paestum, home of the rich archaeological remains.
But as bradyseism, that relentless rise and fall of the lands here powered by seismic pressures, led to the gradual siltation of streams and the creation of huge swamps in the Plain of Paestum, the city of Paestum became an unhealthy, malarial environment. People naturally sought the slopes of the hills and mountains some 5-10 miles inland. Then there were the depredations of the Saracens, as early Christians called the Muslim armies from the east. The Saracens famously occupied Agropoli itself in the tenth century and made its fortress the headquarters from which they launched raids on surrounding towns, including Paestum. Even then Paestum was an important city, the seat of a diocese of the early church. Last night Fernando showed me paintings of the Medieval town and photos from the early excavations which clearly suggest that the reason we call the Temple of Hera the ‘Basilica’ is because that is what it was, at least after Rome Christianized. The temple was converted into a basilica in the paleochristian sense and the bishop’s palazzo can clearly be seen next to it. But in the eleventh century the bishopric was moved to a new location up on the mountain, somewhere close to the Roman waterworks, and Paestum further declined as Cappaccio, as it was now called, grew.
Perhaps it was at this time as well that a shrine was built to the Madonna of the Garnet, Madonna del Granato, where the modern Sanctuary that we visited is now located. Here are more ties to old Paestum, where Hera was worshiped as a mother goddess and giver of fertility. Hera is repeatedly shown seated on a throne with a pomegranate, symbol of fertility and eternal life, in her right hand. Just as is the Madonna. Some people find those resonances of paganism in Christianity disturbing, and I suppose I can understand that point of view. But to me it is a sign of the genius of early Christianity that they could assimilate so many elements of the old religion. The modern sanctuary is stunningly beautiful, as usual, a Medieval jewel with nave and side aisles, two lovely chapels in the side aisles, a gorgeous stained-glass window behind the altar of the nave, and several precious remnants of the original Medieval frescoes.
A road just to the north of the church leads along the flank of Monte Soprano about 900 yards, where a huge concrete water tank and a sign direct you to the trail up the side of the mountain and to the Medieval city, Cappaccio Vecchio. ‘Trail’ in the loose sense of the word. Ms. Sandy almost balked several times as she confronted the sad condition of the trail, now little more than a cowpath, complete with pies. Add to that the fact that there were thunderstorms abroad in the lowlands, which we could easily see over Salerno and along the sea. But, listening to her idiot husband yet again, she scrambled to the top of the ridge, where a somewhat better trail conducted us west to the crag which defines the promontory of Monte Soprano and where the Castle of Old Cappaccio nestles up against the imposing rock.
The Castello, as so often, is in a perilous state of ruin, which somehow makes it all the more romantic and suggestive. The castle was besieged by Frederick II of Suebia in 1246 when Cappaccio joined the so-called Confederacy of the Barons against Suebian rule. Some four months later it was taken and put to sword and fire and the houses of the town razed to the ground. Today the only testimony to the little town are segments of the citadel walls and the monumental city gate plus a huge scatter of stones from the houses themselves. And everywhere among the scatter are marble and sandstone on this mountain where neither occurs. I’d say it’s a safe bet that at least 30% of ancient Paestum is up here, recycled from the old town to build the ‘new’.
Today the town is completely deserted. After the devastation wrought by Frederick the inhabitants moved some three miles to the southeast, but still some 1300 feet above sea level. That is a town we have visited several times because of its spectacular vistas of the sea and the Paestan Plain, as well as its breezy coolness when the temperature soars down in Agropoli. But once again Cappaccio is on the move. The little town is absolutely stunning and it is to be hoped that the fresh air, incredible panoramas and ease of auto travel will retain the old and perhaps even attract new population. But it doesn’t appear so. Everywhere there are signs of desertion. And a new town, Cappaccio Scalo, has grown up back down on the plain, close to the superstrada, to stores and restaurants and the beach. And to old Paestum. It seems that Cappaccio wants to return to its birthplace.
Yet another ghost town that we hope to visit soon is Romagnano al Monte, perched on a vertiginous slope above the rivers Bianco and Platano. The town is first recorded in 1167, but it certainly was the site of its own castle several centuries before. A pestilence in 1656 wiped out half the population at a stroke. Famine and brigandage made life tough in the following centuries, and in 1857 the town was struck by a massive earthquake. In 1881 the town reached its largest recorded population, some 950 inhabitants, and four churches were built and maintained. But on November 23,1980, the earth shook for 90 terrifying seconds. Many of the houses collapsed, most others were seriously damaged. And the little town was abandoned forever, its inhabitants establishing a new town in the lowlands at Ariola. And there on this mountain aerie still perches the beautiful little Medieval town, quietly basking in the sun. That story is repeated again and again in the Cilento: Roscigno, Sacco Vecchio, Casel Velino.
In a way it's sad that the Medieval towns are being deserted. At least to a pampered American living in a nice house with all the modern amenities. And little worry about the chances of deadly earthquake or pirate attack. In another way it is an entirely hopeful sign. Of course Cilentans now prefer to live in modern houses which, by law, are earthquake-resistant, and have all the modern amenities, in towns with streets wide enough for two cars to pass in opposite directions, with access to modern stores. The most hopeful signal of all is that Italians now base their choice of home on hope and aspiration rather than misery and fear.