Our understanding of this little corner of Italy comes slowly and often in unexpected ways. Sometimes we’re baffled by behaviors we thought were based solely on cultural difference. Now we’ve come to realize that history is deep and memories are long here. This shared history continues to shape contemporary behavior, especially in a place where change is experienced slowly and often with great trepidation.
When we first landed in Puglia over 19 years ago, we were just passing through. Then we fell deeply and irretrievably in love and consummated our new relationship by putting down new roots. As we dipped our toes in this new, unfamiliar water, new friends were eager to share their advice, a rich stew of local lore that addressed almost every aspect of daily life.
In particular, they were careful to tell us about country roads and neighborhoods to avoid, mostly because of their isolation. We are generally pretty compliant, but unaccustomed to taking everything on faith, we readily ventured into these no man’s lands, expecting to find menacing denizens lurking behind the olive trees. Mostly, though, we just scratched our heads. We couldn’t figure it out. These places looked identical to the bucolic, pastoral landscapes in the “good” areas, complete with rolling hills, charming stone houses and postage stamp gardens and olive groves. So we put it all down to “campanalismo,” that particularly Italian concept that the sound of the bells from one’s own town’s church tower is far superior to that of the neighboring town’s chimes. But we were at least partly mistaken. After a country walk and a lesson on the history of banditry
and brigands (briganti) in southern Italy in the 1800s, the foundation of their concern was illuminated.
Last Sunday, we joined a group of young Martina Franca residents for a walk led by Antonio Serio in the scary countryside we’d been warned against. This group, called Arte Franca Laboratori Urbani, has formed an organization devoted to making local culture and history relevant to a younger generation through walking tours that visit unlikely places in search of the people’s history. Yesterday’s walk focused on the storied brigands, male and female, who roamed these hills in the mid-1800s, attempting to disrupt a feudal system that held the peasantry in absolute poverty but wreaking havoc among the citizenry all the while.
Although brigands were already well established in the early 1800s here, it was after the conquest of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1861 that brigandage in the area around Valle d’Itria and the hills and plains north of Taranto really took hold. Extreme social unrest, particularly among rural farmers who worked the estates of absentee landowners without pay or a share of farm profits, drove young men to join roving Robin Hoodesque bands because Italy’s unification was seen to
benefit only the middle and merchant classes. These bands, led by often colorful, charismatic figures, sought shelter between friendly fortified farms (masserie) while attacking farmers, shepherds and travelers who weren’t among their confidants. These forays made the country roads especially unsafe at night; the masserie secured livestock and family members inside tall stone walls and hoped for the best.
The newly formed Italian government treated the brigands harshly. These popular figures had the potential to tip the fledgling state into the abyss of anarchy, so brigands and those who provided them with aid and comfort were often condemned to death. Peasant farmers were compelled to hide poison in the food they gave the brigands, since often these unfortunates found themselves between a rock and hard, hard place and risked death at the hands of the brigands if they didn’t acquiesce to demands for food and shelter. The situation became almost ungovernable, forcing peasants to flee some areas for protection. Not surprisingly, almost 150 years later, these are the areas that we were warned against. I’m happy to report a total absence of swashbuckling brigands in our backyard, but these stories die a very slow death. More commonly, they typically persist without a contemporary understanding of the historical context that gave rise to them.
Our walk ended at Masseria Pilano, a restored farmhouse now used to breed prized Pugliese cattle and Murgese horses. It is the site of a famous brigand battle, but today the bucolic setting seems far removed from the bloodshed. The youngest generation lives these centuries-old buildings, nurturing the family business. They even helped found an organization called “Le Cento Masserie” (The Hundred Farmhouses) dedicated to preserving these historic sites while ushering them into the modern, brigand-free era. They welcomed us warmly, leading us through their home, fields, olive groves and stables while sharing their knowledge of the past. We still shiver as we walk over Masseria Pilona’s limestone courtyard, the scene of brigand mayhem long ago. Now, at
least, we understand the nature of contemporary local nervousness still connected to their heavy footprints.