Skip to content

Briganti

Brigand country of old due south of Martina Franca.

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.

The oldest section of Masseria Pilano located on the plains below Martina Franca.

The oldest section of Masseria Pilano located on the plains below Martina Franca.

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

This well-work track was traversed by the brigands of old along with the shepherds who followed the transumanza, the seasonal movement of cattle and sheep from the mountains to the sea.

This well-work track was traversed by the brigands of old along with the shepherds who followed the transumanza, the seasonal movement of cattle and sheep from the mountains to the sea.

and brigands (briganti) in southern Italy in the 1800s, the foundation of their concern was illuminated.

Arte Franca Laboratorio Urbani is a terrific organization founded by young Martinesi who want to connect locals and visitors to the rich and varied history and culture of Martina Franca and its backyard.

Arte Franca Laboratori Urbani is a terrific organization founded by young Martinesi who want to connect locals and visitors to the rich and varied history and culture of Martina Franca and its backyard.

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

A rogue's gallery of bridands who roamed the  countryside south of Martina Franca.

A rogue’s gallery of brigands, these three roamed the countryside south of Martina Franca (Photo credit: http://www.iltaccodibacco.it). .

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 brigand business provided equal opportunity for women in a time when opportunities were non-existent. Female brigands, called brigantesse, were colorful figures who contributed substantially to the brigand story in Italy.

The brigand business provided equal opportunity for women in a time when opportunities were non-existent. Female brigands, called brigantesse, were colorful figures who contributed substantially to the brigand story in Italy (Photo credit: http://www.diavoleggo.com) .

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.

PIerpaolo Palmisano demonstrates an antique drill press used to repair ceramic pottery at his family's masseria.

Pierpaolo Palmisano,  demonstrates an antique drill press used to repair ceramic pottery at his family’s masseria.

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

Colorful terracotta pots from nearby Grottaglie line the steps to the terrace at Masseria Pilano.

Colorful terracotta pots from nearby pottery capital Grottaglie line the steps to one of the terraces at Masseria Pilano.

least, we understand the nature of contemporary local nervousness still connected to their heavy footprints.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gil #

    I love having my own personal tour of Italy delivered to my desk at home. Thank you for another great post.

    January 31, 2014
    • So happy to hear you’re enjoying nuovastoria. It is such a pleasure to know that you find these Italian cultural stories as engaging as I do when I discover them. Thanks for getting in touch–I love to hear from you.

      February 1, 2014
  2. Really interesting about Arte Franca…thanks for sharing!

    February 1, 2014
    • Hi Peggy–Arte Franca IS interesting because it was formed by a group of passionate young Martinesi who want to make sure that their culture, stories and shared experience is valued and shared with locals and visitors alike. We hear a lot about the lack of opportunity in Italy, particularly in southern Italy, and the reality is doubtless pretty sobering. But then there are young people who are just coming in their own with innovative, creative ideas that they are launching, admittedly without an awful lot of help from the Italian state. I love their enthusiasm and energy and try to support them at every turn. So glad you liked hearing about this particular example of hope for the future.

      February 4, 2014
      • Yes! Thanks for the extra info! I found them on Facebook and hope to continue to hear about what they’re up to. I studied cultural management in Bologna, so we all might even have some fiends in common!🙂

        February 4, 2014
      • Cultural management—what a fantastic field. And so much to manage here in Italy . . . ! Please do stay in touch. I’d love to share anything more I uncover about unique approaches to sharing these treasures with a larger audience.

        February 10, 2014
  3. Jan #

    Really interesting post. Can’t wait to explore Puglia in person.

    February 2, 2014
    • Hi Jan–Come visit! You will love it here. There are layers upon layers of history, a phenomenal food and wine culture and the gorgeous sea. What’s not to like? Let me know if you are planning a trip and I’ll share my favorite tips.

      February 4, 2014
  4. Reblogged this on mrssandramac.

    February 10, 2014
  5. i am eager to explore Puglia, especially after your enlightening post. I’m tickled to read about the young people using their creativity to create jobs for themselves and a lifestyle.

    February 21, 2014

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

The $tingy Sailor

DIY trailerable sailboat restoration and improvement without throwing your budget overboard

Gracefully Global Blog

Where travel adventures never begin with a trip to the local monument.

My Sardinian Life

photography, expat tales and short stories from a wandering waitress

Married to Italy

Big city Texan girl meets small town Italian boy. Chaos ensues.

Zester Daily

Zester Daily

Nancy Harmon Jenkins

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"

A different point of view on travelling, living and loving Italy.

In Puglia and Places

My experiences living in Puglia and other places

Girl in Florence

A Tuscan Texan immersed in Florentine life: passionate about food & wine | random moments | and travel

News : NPR

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

outil de négociation

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Eater SF - All

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Eater Portland - All

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Food : NPR

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Chocolate & Zucchini

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Bon Vivant

Life's simple pleasures

Culinate Main Feed

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

stylishmews

A resource and running commentary on stylish London

Puglia Kitchen

sapori, profumi e visioni culinarie made in puglia

Cantine Menhir

News from Salento... where the sun warms the spirit, water refreshes the mind, food whets the palate, land feeds the soul, and the wine... awakens the passion.

What Katie Ate

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

smitten kitchen

Fearless cooking from a tiny NYC kitchen.

A Cup of Jo

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Orangette

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

%d bloggers like this: