a vantage point at Capaccio, you can see the entire
gulf of Salerno spread out before you all the way to the
Amalfi coast and the Isle of Capri out at the end, marking
the entrance to the next gulf up the coast, that of
Naples. If you had been up on that point a few thousand
years ago and started one of those neat time-lapse films
going —maybe a frame every couple of years— you could
watch prehistoric tribes give way to the city builders of
Magna Grecia, the Rise and Fall
of the Roman Empire, the Gothic
Wars, the violence of the Middle Ages, the drudgery
of feudalism, the coming of the
Spanish, the Bourbons,
the unification of Italy, and the WWII
Allied invasion of the gulf. (All of this, of
course, much too quickly in that ant-like time-lapse
scurrying to and fro. I figured it out: at one frame every
two years and a standard projection rate, the film would
last about 25 minutes. Yes, jerky but entertaining —like
most films with Time
Machine in the title! You'd have to be patient;
they didn't start making popcorn around here until around
The modern town of Capaccio is 50 km (30 miles) south of Salerno at the beginning of the mountains at the northern end of the Vallo di Diano national park in the Cilento area of the Campania region of Italy. The town sits at 440 meters (1440 feet) above sea level on a spur of Mt. Calpazio (Calpatium to the Romans). The name Capaccio is either derived from the name of that mountain or from the Latin, Caput aquae, meaning "head of the waters," in reference to the aqueduct that supplied the ancient city of Paestum.
Indeed, the history of Capaccio, its very existence, is connected with that nearby Roman coastal city of Paestum (built by the earlier Greeks as "Poseidonia"), for Capaccio grew up as a haven for refugees from the perilous ups and downs of coastal living after the Roman Empire. These vicissitudes included the Gothic Wars, malaria (from the swamping up of the Paestum plain) and, later, Saracen invasions; thus, the people fled to the hills. In the course of the early Middle Ages, Capaccio became a walled town and assumed a certain political importance with the presence of families of the nearby dynasty in Salerno, which was itself an independent Duchy before the formation of the Kingdom of Sicily (which then became the Kingdom of Naples).
Historically, there is an Old
Capaccio and a New Capaccio. One of the only reminders of
Old Capaccio is the rebuilt version (from 1710) of the
sanctuary of the Madonna
del Granato (photo, right), built on the original
site, perched on a promontory of Mt. Calpazio, well above
the Sele river with a view of the
entire Gulf of Salerno. The church was originally the
cathedral of the ancient diocese of "Caputaquis" and was
first mentioned in a papal bull from 967 as S. Maria Maggiore sul
Calpazio. It was built by those fleeing the
Saracens and contains an interesting display of syncretism
—a mixture of traditions from various religions— that has
led to the interesting newer name, Madonna del Granato
[pomegranate]. There is an ancient Greek
temple of Hera on the plain, nearPaestum. The
site of the temple was rediscovered by archaeologists in
the 1930s. If you like mythological derring-doers, one
ancient source (Strabo, Geography,
book 6) tells us that the temple was built by
Jason and his heroic band of Argonauts on their quest for
the Golden Fleece. Representations of Hera
often show her holding a pomegranate, a fruit symbolic in
many ancient cultures of fruitfulness and righteousness.
When the inhabitants of Paestum became Christians, they
incorporated the icon of that fruit. When they moved into
the hills, they took that bit of ancient Greece with them;
indeed, within the church, the 14th-century wooden
sculpture of the Madonna holds a pomegranate (photo,
New Capaccio is higher up but just a short distance away. There is no longer an Old Capaccio because the nearby castle (photo, top of page), situated a few hundred feet above the church. All old castles have a tale to tell —some feature a lovely princess and a very lucky frog, but some tales are ferocious. [Spoiler alert: the tale of the castle at Old Capaccio will curdle your blood or make it run cold, whichever comes first. Your mileage may vary. Turn away now if you are faint of heart.]
Royal Palace, Naples.
The castle was the last stronghold of the plotters involved in what is called the Capaccio Conspiracy or Barons' Revolt,*note an organized move by feudal lords in 1245 against Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II. As background, it is important to realize the enmity between the Guelphs and Ghibellines of those days, and specifically between the Papacy and Frederick (the most powerful of all medieval emperors). (For some of that background, see The Empire Strikes Back and The Constitution of Melfi.) Briefly, Frederick had reorganized the kingdom in 1230, (1) creating the forerunner of the modern European nation state, and (2) making enemies of feudal kingpins who saw their power much reduced. Frederick also made enemies of a few Popes since his new constitution (see link, above) placed clerics under civil law.
The plot was hatched by Bernardo Orlando Rossi, brother-in-law of Pope Innocent IV. In scope, the plot involved the participation of what was essentially a Who's Who of Feudalism in Southern Italy; it aimed at (1) deposing the emperor or (2) even better, killing him. That would be brought about by a general uprising throughout the south of all feudal lords with loyal troops at their command. At its most conspiratorial (though historians are divided on this) the plot was really cooked up by the Pope, himself, who was, like his predecessors, bitter enemies of Frederick. Some sources say that the Pope saw the plot as a trial run for what was to be a grand anti-Ghibelline invasion of the Kingdom of Sicily (Southern Italy) by the forces of the Papal States. The most generous (to the Pope) interpretation is that the Pope was not an instigator of a plan to kill Frederick but that he knew about it. He later wrote letters to a few of the conspirators who had managed to flee the grisly aftermath of the failed conspiracy, congratulating them on having escaped. Frederick, of course, was convinced that the Pope had been behind it all along; after all, the conspirators, themselves, later admitted to Frederick that they had acted to protect the Church and the Faith.
The plot was half-baked and too
ambitious. Frederick may have been off hunting while the
rebellion was brewing, but he was still the Holy Roman
Emperor, powerful and larger-than-life to his followers,
of whom there were many. When the news leaked, as it
usually does, that rebellion was in the wind, he returned
from his Tuscan holiday and rounded up an army, which was
more than the rebels could do. With no uprising to support
them, they fled to the hills above Paestum, specifically
to Sala Consilina, Altavilla Silentina, and Capaccio, all
within the mountains of the Cilento region.
Frederick's army destroyed the first two towns, killed or captured the conspirators, and then turned on Capaccio, where the rebels had taken refuge in the "impregnable" castle in the above photo —an immovable object. The irresistible force, Fredrick, lay siege to it for three months. Very little combat took place; Frederick sabotaged the castle cistern and waited. Without water in the heat of August, 1246, the 150 rebels came out. That was a mistake; they should have drunk the Masada Kool-Aid. Who knows what they thinking:
Vinnie: C'mon, he'll understand. He's the
Stupor Mundi —the Wonder
of the World. He founded the University of Naples... he
wrote a constitution by himself... he speaks five
languages ...he writes books about birds!
Guido: He doesn't write about tweety-birds. He's
an expert on falcons. You know, that rapacious thing
that claws your eyes out. That gets my attention. Maybe
he's trying to tell us something.
Baron Vinnie: OK, but he's a man of reason. It's all a misunderstanding! Whaddya think?
Guido: Well, staying with the bird metaphor —or is it a simile?—
I think our goose is
cooked. You go first. Here's the white flag, and don't
him our grievances. Does He know how hard it is to find
good serfs these days?!
The aftermath was short and gruesome. As they used to say in the 13th century, Etiam stupor mundi perversus filius meretricis esse potest, si eum prodis. ("Even a Wonder of the World can be a nasty sonuvabitch if you cross him.") (If that's not quite correct, remember, this is corrupted feudal Latin of the 1200s.) Some of the conspirators were punished by being blinded and then mutilated, others were hanged, burned alive, dragged to death behind horses, drowned, or sewn up in sacks full of poisonous vipers. The 20 or so women that had been in the castle were apparently spared all of that, but they were sold into slavery. To Turkish pirates.
It is not clear if the castle and town of Capaccio were then destroyed by Frederick or if that happened somewhat later in the century during the Angevin power crisis known as the The Sicilian Vespers. In retrospect, the effect of the rebellion on Frederick was substantial. After 20 years of nation building, he wound up knowing he couldn't trust those around him. Many of the conspirators had been those he had installed in powerful positions in his kingdom.
You can see all that from Capaccio.
afterthought, I am amazed at how alive the Middle Ages
still are in the minds of some people. Not university
profs —just plain people. Once upon a time, a simple
coachman trotting me around Pisa referred to "that Dantaccio"
(the pejorative suffix on the name of the author of the
turns the expression, roughly, into "that bastard,
Dante") for having dared to defame Pisa in the year 1300
as "...vituperio delle
genti..." ["...shame of all
peoples..."]. In that same sense, the proprietor of a
pharmacy in Capaccio followed me out of his shop after I
had suggested that Fred had been less than conciliatory
with the rebel barons, to remind me that "those bastards
got just what they deserved!"
And as an after-afterthought, Frederick may
have killed a few feudal lords, but he didn't kill
feudalism. At his death in 1252, southern Italy was
thrown into a vicious struggle between his heirs and
armies of Angevin France trying to take the kingdom,
which they eventually did. The barons naturally sided
with the anti-Frederick forces and to a large extent
returned to their positions of power once the Angevins
were victorious. Many of the feudal castles and
fortresses that one sees in the hills of southern
Italy, indeed, stem from the early years of Angevin
rule (that is, the late 1200s).
*note: Barons' revolt. The term is also used for other episodes in Neapolitan history, principally the revolt against Ferrante of Aragon in the late 1400s. (See that link.)
[See also: The Hill Towns of Cilento.]