Naples:life,death &
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he Capitanata & Gargano

watercolor by W. &  J. Blaeu from 1645           
Five hundred km (300 miles) below Venice on the Adriatic coast of Italy you find a most curious pieces of terrain sticking out at you. Really. This is the so-called sperone, the spur of the boot of Italy, beyond which there are another 300 km/200 miles to the tip of the heel, curious in its own right, I suppose. Then you have the big toe and the bone spurs and corns of southern Italy —but one venture at a time into geo-podiatry. The spur is about 50 km/30 miles across and juts out from an imaginary straight line at the base of the spur about 40 km into the Adriatic. The spur, itself is called the Gargano, the name of the mountain range at that point, the bit of the eastern Apennines that actually protrudes. The Gargano spur is a large part of the province of Foggia, the northernmost of the six provinces in the modern Italian region of Puglia.

Though Puglia is the correct name of the province, it is still common to hear and even read in official documents the term "Capitanata" as a synonym. That term is, in fact, the old name for the province before the unification of Italy (1861), when it was one of the provinces of, first, the Kingdom of Sicily, which then became the Kingdom of Italy (also the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) in its various versions over the centuries. I was all prepared for Capitanata to mean something like "Land of the Captains," a name that really starts Alfred Newman film music swelling up in my mind's ear. I was right! Well, maybe half-right. Apparently, our word "captain" comes from elsewhere, the Latin caput (head), which may or may not have anything to do with the German kaputt, but if you think geo-podiatry is complicated, forget etymology. Capitanata is from the Greek Catapano (also Catepano), meaning "one who is above"; it was the term used for a Byzantine official before the Norman conquest of southern Italy (just after the year 1000) when the Catepanato (the pre-Norman Byzantine holdings) covered a vast area, virtually all of the modern regions of Puglia, Calabria, Basilicata, and much of Campania, extending up to "northern enclaves" such as Salerno and Naples. In any event, the letters p and t got transposed in a process that linguists in their quaint jargon call a "mistake," and we wound up with Capitanata instead of Catepanata. The Capitanata was formalized as an administrative unit through the Constitution of Melfi in 1231 under emperor Frederick II.

The Romans took over the area quite early in their expansion throughout the Italian peninsula, having colonies there in the 3rd century BC. The Romans, too, called the spur "Garganus"; for them it was part of Samnium, so named for their fierce rivals, the Samnites, an Italic tribe whose original sphere of influence was, in fact, that portion of the Adriatic coast and the rugged inland terrain. So the Samnites held the spur before the Romans, but even before that the area of the Gargano and a bit into the inland was called Daunia, a reference to one of the late Bronze Age tribes (11th-10th centuries BC) settlers from across the Adriatic, who created the so-called Iapygian civilization in Italy, distant enough from the areas of Magna Grecia on the southern and southwestern peninsula to have had a separate anthropological and linguistic history.

from the Int. Space Station, by Paolo Nespoli, 2011
The province of Foggia is remarkable geographically and contains a high plain as well as the Gargano National Park and the Tremiti Islands (23 km out in the Adriatic to the north of the spur). The park has been protected as a national park since 1991. It has an area of 118,000 hectares (460 sq. miles), most of it wooded, including, at 800 meters, the so-called Foresta Umbra (from the Latin, meaning dark, shady). The park is marked by extreme changes of altitude from sea-level to 1000 meters over short distances.
[More info on the park in the section below.] The historical town of Manfredonia is on the southern coast (on the left in the adjacent space station photo, in the "crook" of the spur); the delightful fresh water Lake Varano (visible on the right) and the Lesina lagoon are in the north. The area has a vast array of flora and fauna as well as areas of geological and paleontological interest. In Arpinova, a suburb of the city of Foggia, for example, there is one of the few Neolithic archaeological parks in Italy that may be visited. The site is dated to about the 5th millennium BC and claims to be the place where agriculture in Italy first took hold, brought onto the fertile high Foggia tableland west of the Gargano spur by settlers from the Middle East. The site was uncovered through aerial photography in WWII.

The province of Foggia (named for the capital city) is the second largest in area in Italy. It is however, sparsely populated; the entire province has only 650,000 inhabitants, of whom 150,000 live in the provincial capital. Within the boundaries of the Gargano park, itself, the coastal town, Manfredonia, has a population of about 50,000. The dozen or so other towns along the coast as well as inland on the Gargano spur typically have populations of four or five thousand although some are larger. Each of these towns has something unique to offer. Monte Sant'Angelo (pop. 13,000), for example, is called "sacred mountain." It sits at 831 meters and is the highest town on the spur. It is also the site of the oldest sanctuary in western Europe dedicated to the Archangel Michael. It was one of the important sites of early Christianity and is, in fact, one of the seven sites on the UNESCO World Heritage list dedicated to the Longobards in Italy, Places of the Power (568-774 A.D.), "... seven groups of important buildings...throughout the Italian Peninsula...[that] testify to the high achievement of the Lombards, who migrated from northern Europe and developed their own specific culture in Italy where they ruled over vast territories in the 6th to 8th centuries."

trabucco rig at Rodi Garganico   
There is great activity focused on the preservation of the natural and cultural heritage both secular and religious of the entire Gargano, This includes preserving the unusual fishing technique known as "trabucco," (image, right) once practiced all along the coast of the Gargano as well as elsewhere on southern Adriatic and Tyrrhenian coasts. A trabucco is essentially a massive fishing platform anchored to the coastal rock. The platform juts out over the sea and has suspended from it two or more long arms that support a large narrow-mesh net that can be lowered into the water and then raised with the catch. Fishermen could take advantage of the relatively deep water along the coast to ply their trade without faring out to face the sea, itself. Cultural preservation includes attention to things that exist only faintly in the collective memory of the area, such as the remains of a delicate little church, all that is left of the town of Bayranum (from whence the modern name of Lake Varano). The town is said have been of some relevance in the Middle Ages before it fell victim to one of the frequent Saracen raids that occurred at many places along the Italian coasts. Inhabitants of  Ischitella, near the lake, are devoted to a crucifix mounted such as to be on the surface of the waters of Lake Varano, itself. Experts have dated the crucifix to the late 1200s. And much more recently, the town of San Giovanni Rotondo (pop. 27,000) (see map below, just below dead center of the graphic) was the home for fifty years of one of the most remarkable figures in the modern history of Roman Catholicism, Francesco Forgione, now Saint Pio of Pietrelcina (image, left) and known simply as Padre Pio (1887-1968). A church devoted to him was dedicated in San Giovanni Rotondo in 2004, and the town is also known for a hospital and medical research center, the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza (Home for the Relief of Suffering) founded by him. It was dedicated in 1956 and is considered one of the most modern and efficient in Europe. *footnote

And of the truly weird? I don't know if I believe this one, but I really want to: in Carpino (pop. 4700), the church of San Cirillo has a weather-worn engraving over the entrance, part of which is said to be a prehistoric version of the swastika of the kind hitherto known only in northern Finland among the Lapps! Divers and sundry professorial greybeards with many letters after their names are heatedly discussing this even as we speak and, we hope, even throwing things at one another.  Meanwhile, down at Manfredonia, named for one of most fascinating figures in the history of the Italian Middle Ages, Manfred, son of Frederick II, the flatlander harbor folk enjoy the colorful floats and costumes of the Carnevale Dauno [note the use of the ancient name], one of the best known in Italy.

The Gargano National Park

I noted, above, that the Gargano promontory is now the Gargano National Park, founded in 1991. The land surface area of the park is just over 121 thousand hectares (c. 470 sq. miles). Additionally, the Gargano National Park includes the Marine Reserve of the nearby Tremiti islands. The towns within the park boundaries are Apricena, Cagnano Varano, Carpino, Ischitella, Isole Tremiti, Lesina, Manfredonia, Mattinata, Monte Sant'Angelo, Peschici, Rignano Garganico, Rodi Garganico, San Giovanni Rotondo, San Marco in Lamis, San Nicandro Garganico, Serracapriola, Vico del Gargano, and Vieste. The largest of these is Manfredonia (pop. 50,000), on the coast, much larger than any of the others. (The harbor provides boat service to the Tremiti Islands.) Largest inland town on the promontory include Monte Sant'Angelo (15,000 and S. Giovanni Rotondo. The others are divided roughly evenly between smaller inland towns and coastal towns that dot the perimeter of the promontory, a rocky coast running for about 120 km/75 miles from Manfredonia on the south side to the end of Lake Lèsine on the north side. The interior has elevations as high as 1000 meters near Mt. Sant'Angelo and as low as sea-level along the rim of the two lakes, Varano and Lèsine.

The park has a variety of different habitats: rocky coasts, valleys rich in rare flowers and wildlife, the central beech woodlands and concentrations of Mediterranean and Aleppo pines, some specimens of which are centuries old. Wildlife on the promontory include boar, roe deer and several kinds of woodpecker. The Gargano also claims to be the richest location of orchids in the Mediterranean basin. "Trans-Adriatic" species of flora and fauna are also present, that is, species from the Balkans. Particular attention is paid to the wetlands around the lakes as they provide sustenance for amphibians and reptiles and are in a strategic position on the migratory routes of aquatic birds between Africa and central-eastern Europe. The Foresta Umbra is well-known: it is on the center-eastern part of the promontory at about 800 meters and covers an area of 400 hectares (almost 1000 acres). The Foresta Umbra contains thick stands of beech, maple, and oak as well as recently reforested section of black pine and chestnut. The most famous tree "citizen" of the forest is the 300-year-old holm-oak in front of the Franciscan church in Vico del Gargano. Taxus baccata (the European yew tree) is also present. It is notoriously poisonous, and local legend has it that Frederick II took advantage of that to whip up deadly cocktails for lovers that he had grown tired of. What can I say? It's good to be emperor.

Thus, the entire spur is now one of the growing tourist attractions in Italy, yet still relatively unknown; indeed, I would feel guilty if I did anything to change that. Stay home.  

add (Oct 2015): the park is the site of one of the most important prehistoric caves in Europe, the Paglicci Grotto.
add (Mar 2016): Coastal Caves of the Gargano
add (Oct 2022): home of the delicious almond-filled Communion Wafer!

[If you have come directly from another page, this note refers to Padre Pio, mentioned above.]

footnote -
I don't know how large the bibliography on Padre Pio is. In various languages, there are certainly many dozens of biographies and hundreds, probably thousands, of shorter articles. They range from enthusiastic Roman Catholic sources to the totally skeptical. For purposes of this note, I am neither one. I present the following because it is (1) interesting, (2) directly involves the Gargano, and (3) relates to my statement in the text that Padre Pio was "one of the most remarkable figures in the modern history of Roman Catholicism." Most longer sources on Padre Pio include at least a mention of an episode in which he purportedly made good on his promise to protect his town and the inhabitants from harm in WWII; it is summed up in this exchange of notes I came across on the internet. I have adjusted formatting for legibility, edited the material for length and, in the case of non-native-English, made some adjustments to grammar and syntax:
web discussion on the 97th Bomber Group & St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina

"I am a writer from San Giovanni Rotondo, the city where Saint Pio of Pietrelcina lived.  I am interested in knowing what happened during WWII in the skies above my city.  They say that the pilots of the USAF were not able to release bombs on San Giovanni Rotondo:  a monk with his arms open [appeared] on the clouds and prevented it. After the war some pilots came here and recognized that monk in Padre Pio. Unfortunately no one remembers the pilots' names. Were any of you or your relatives, witness to this extraordinary episode in the mountains of the Gargano in Italy? The pilots might have been from the 12th United States Army Air Force, the 97th and 99th Bomber Group  (that bombed the city of Foggia). Thanks for any answer you can give me."

"Mr. -----,
I am doing research here in The United States for the same thing. A friend of mine and I are doing a documentary film to benefit The National Centre for Padre Pio here in Barto, Pennsylvania. I can help you with some backround information. From what others on this forum have told me, the entire 5th Bomber Wing of the 12th Air Force participated in a raid on San Giovanni on 16 July, 1943. So it was not only the 97th and 99th Groups, but also the 2nd and 301st as well. Looks like a total of 112 sent that day. I have copies of official U.S. Army Air Corps telephone and after-action reports from the 97th & 99th Groups. They claim "they hit their targets", but it came out later that they saw "The Flying Monk" image of Padre Pio preventing them from getting through. I also have a copy of the flight log from a navigator in the 414th Squadron, 97th Bomber Group. His name was...2nd Lieutenant Lawrence F. Craven, serial # 0-797274. He was from Long Island New York. According to Lt. Craven, they didn't talk about what happened right away, but it came out later and was mentioned in an article in "Stars & Stripes". I haven't seen that article yet, but am trying to find it...

Mike ----"

"Dear Mike,

Today I joined the AAF forum in search of any information that would give me a better understanding of my Dad's involvement in WWll...

I see your post regarding Padre Pio and I can affirm that it was true as you have described it. My Dad had written his sisters in July 1997 describing the event that occurred in 1943 and this is what he said. 'I almost killed Padre Pio.....the enclosed flight record of bombing raids, shows that Villa San Giovanni was scheduled to be wiped out with 150,000 pounds of bombs. Allied Intelligence had information (erroneous) that German troops had occupied the hospital, friary and town of San Giovanni. Two minutes from dropping the bombs, the Colonel in the lead aircraft saw an apparition of a Monk, 30,000 feet tall, and broke off the bomb-run and proceeded to the secondary target. The Colonel was a Protestant, and when he was later shown a photo of Padre Pio said that was the apparition.' I have many of the names of the crew members but since I have only begun my research I can't be sure of their whereabouts. My Dad died in December 1997 (the year he wrote the letter)...

Larry Craven           

[Also see The Lombards, Monte Sant'Angelo & the Sanctuary of St. Michael.]

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