Interview with Edmondo Marra
by Maria Teresa De Donato
Today I am very happy to introduce to you again my friend and colleague-author Dr. Edmondo Marra, Physician, Writer, and ex-Mayor of Volturara Irpina (AV), whom I have already had the pleasure and honor of hosting on my Blog and Virtual Cultural Salon.
A history and genealogy enthusiast, during our previous meeting (https://holistic-coaching-dedonato.blogspot.com/2020/04/neighborhood-and-sense-of-community.html), Edmondo stated “In a country without historical memory I have tried to bring to light events and characters from the past that deserve praise and attention and which until now were covered by a blanket of fog and forgetfulness. … “
In our previous article, therefore, we discussed Irpinia, an area as beautiful as it is poor; mentioned his love for historical and genealogical research, an aspect that we will deepen in this and other future interviews; considered the problem of brigandage and his beautiful publication Maledetto Garibaldi e la sua Italia: pagliuchella (=Cursed be Garibaldi and his Italy: pagliuchella), whose decidedly provocative title we have already clarified. Since his books are very numerous and, therefore, impossible to consider them all in just a couple of interviews, today I would like to focus on those of a purely historical nature or linked to local legends, postponing those relating to genealogy and to the many families that have followed and marked the history of Volturara and its surroundings to a future interview (or more than one).
MTDD: Hi Edmondo and welcome again to my Blog and Cultural Salon. Thank you also for taking the time for our second interview.
EM: Good morning to you, dear Teresa, for making Culture like an impetuous stream of our mountains to drink from and feel good and happy about.
MTDD: Edmondo, as you well know, my ancestors also originated from your land, being my mother’s family from the province of Benevento and my paternal-maternal branch from Volturara Irpina. I remember the stories my grandmother Rosa used to tell me in her colorful Neapolitan dialect when I was a child: very interesting, sometimes sad other funny and yet full of details and characters that I never managed to understand if they were only the fruit of her imagination, or rather events that really happened to people who did exist, or a mixture of both. When I would ask her about them, she used to reply smiling “Who knows!” leaving everything wrapped in an aura of mystery … This was the reflection that I made while thinking about your book Il tesoro dei Crociati (The Treasure of the Crusaders).
Would you like to tell us about it?
EM: Il tesoro dei Crociati (The Treasure of the Crusaders) is a mixture of historical rigor and legends transmitted orally over the centuries and that reached our times, when the rapid change of customs and life risks making every trace of our past disappear, seasoned with a little fantasy that honors these beautiful and unknown places. The first part describes the events related to the Normans in southern Italy and Irpinia from their arrival in 1016 until the death of Queen Constance in 1198. The second part refers to a treasure hidden in the Serpico castle, near Volturara. It sounds as an invented fairy tale, but over the centuries people have always spoken of this treasure. I remember when I was a child and asked my father for money that he would often say “Go to Sièrpeco, to Santa Catarina, there you will find it”. I knew it was a denial, but I couldn’t understand what that expression meant. I decided then to ask my grandfather for clarification and one winter evening near the fireplace in his farmhouse under the Forest, he told me of a treasure hidden for many centuries inside an enchanted castle, guarded by the devil who would have granted it only to those who would have brought a teenage girl of their own blood with them. I forgot about that story until one summer evening in 2008, when, while having a small talk, the legend of the treasure of Sièrpeco came back to our mind. And someone told the story of Elizabeth [daughter] of the fool, which occurred a century earlier, in the early twentieth century. Originally from Sorbo, she lived in Volturara, and used to cross the mountain of Serpico every day to return home. She knew about the legend of the treasure and often talked about it with her husband, but she was afraid to take her daughter with her for a possible unpleasant reaction from the devil that could have brought irreparable consequences to the girl. She decided to focus on a stranger and with a well thought-out excuse she went to get the daughter of a certain “sciacquarulo”, then she showed up on the mountain of Serpico with the girl. The devil immediately noticed that it was not blood of her blood and threatened her, hence she ran away as fast as she could. Of the treasure of Santa Catarina, between wars, earthquakes, mass emigrations and time passing slowly and inexorably, nobody spoke about it anymore. Brambles and thorns, perhaps forever, cover the gathering and ruins of the ancient castle. And the story of the immense treasure, carried between these mountains lost by the Crusader knights and their master a thousand years ago, is lost in the streams of human forgetfulness.
MTDD:“An indomitable people arrived in southern Italy after the year 1000 and drew the story of a unity that lasted until 1861”. With these words, our friend Journalist and Author Eleonora Davide begins her presentation of your book Norman: Epopea dei Normanni in Italia (Norman: Epic of the Normans in Italy) that we read on Amazon, a text that above all lovers of the Middle Ages will surely appreciate.
What can you tell us about it?
EM: Mighty and courageous warriors, the Normans escorted pilgrims and merchants throughout Europe and as far as the Holy Land or relied on some gentlemen they would come across as mercenaries. In one of the many trips they stopped in Salerno, dominated by the Lombard Prince Guaimario III, and contributed to his victory against the Saracens who had besieged the city. As a reward, they were content with gifts in kind and some jewels, but a few decades later they took over all of southern Italy, chasing away the Byzantines and the Saracens who had shared it with them for many centuries and the same Lombards who had called them to their aid were deprived of all their possessions and relegated to the sideline. Their history is identified with the story of one family, the Altavillas, who from generation to generation, between wars against all and often among themselves, managed to strengthen their leadership and maintain power until their extinction due to the lack of male heirs. With their disappearance, the Norman period ended, although the subsequent Swabian rulers retained part of their blood, inherited from Costanza d’Altavilla who had married the German Henry VI, son of Federico Barbarossa. In 1130 they unified the entire South from Lazio to Sicily in a single kingdom that would have lasted seven hundred and thirty years, until 1861, when the Unification of Italy took place. During their rule, the Crusades began to free the Holy Sepulcher (1096), the Order of the Templars was established (1118), the use of surnames to be added to the names spread, the national languages and the first Italian poets were born, it consolidated the identity of the countries, divided into fiefdoms and managed one by one by their trusted and faithful countrymen. The first regulations for the defense of property, respect for social rules, the defense of women were ratified and the Duchy was also coined for the first time, a coin that will last over seven centuries. Alone against everyone, hated and feared, they managed to win battles against far larger armies, with audacity and timing that also make one think of something supernatural or better yet predestined. As if a higher will had wanted their entry and their history in our nation for a specific purpose. Fervent Catholics, but ferocious as wild animals, ambitious without restraint, but respectful of alliances, they took advantage of the slightest mistake to change political strategy and seize the feud or kingdom of the ally that would not honor an agreement. Suspicious by nature, they always acted alone and alone won almost all the battles either by force, by cunning or by improvising, something that would confuse every opponent. Friends of the Byzantines against the Saracens, they became friends of the Lombards against the Byzantines, and in the end, after four centuries of uninterrupted domination, they also extinguished the Lombard history, remaining unchallenged masters of southern Italy for over a century. When Roberto d’Altavilla called [Roberto] il Guiscardo, in 1059, managed to make the qualitative leap by being elected, with the Pope’s blessing, Duke of Puglia, Calabria and Sicily, who was still in the hands of the Saracens, they became an unstoppable train and fierce that made people of every country or district cry “a furore normannorum libera nos Domine” (deliver us, O Lord, from the fury of the Normans). Devastation and total submission were the iron law that spared no one and that in a short time brought them to the rank of absolute masters, against whom nobody dared to rebel. The arrival of his grandson, Ruggero d’Altavilla, known as the Norman, to the throne was the apotheosis of their rise and the beginning of a new era. It was 1130 and until the end of the century it was a continuous expansion of their sphere of action which in the second half of the century also reaches Africa and Asia. During the Norman epic, characters of great human and personality significance are highlighted and deserve to be mentioned and analyzed for they represent the faithful mirror of the society of the time and play the role of immortal and timeless icons. Servants, traitors, heroes, and women with strong personalities who rode and determined events and situations of great political and social relevance. The moral firmness of Guido di Conza was an exception in a world where arrogance and brute force always and only prevailed. Unconditional loyalty to the King leads Richard of Aversa to the ultimate sacrifice, faced with dignity and determination. The tactical acumen of Saracena della Trinità is a universal example of maternal love and its ride throughout the XII century is a milestone in the events of Irpinia, even if forgotten and relegated to the dark and black background of the chute of History. The obstinacy of Gisulfo from Salerno or the audacity of Rainulfo count of Avellino and Caiazzo or better yet the cunning Ulysses of Roberto il Guiscardo novice in Italy are split of life that can enter the immortal scene in human history from the main door. Nor can we forget the epic of the Marra family, who, after a hundred years of loyalty to the Altavilla, at the end, chooses the wrong and losing side, and pays the consequences until they disappear from the political and military scene, fleeing to Germany or hiding among ordinary people originating the current Marra [family]. It is necessary to think that from one of them several thousands of descendants were born who now live in the current society miles away from each other and who will never know that they are relatives and have a common chromosome. Last but not least, the fundamental importance that the battle of Civitate of 18 June 1053 had in the history of Italy, which is the cornerstone of Norman rule in our peninsula and prepares the rise of the Altavilla family to power. 3000 Norman knights with 500 infantry are lined up and in front of them an imposing army of 6000 and pontifical soldiers recruited in half Europe by a Pope who for the first time in history places himself at the head of an army with the banner of Peter and harangue the soldiers before the battle invoking upon them the blessing of Heaven. It is a holy war that had to annihilate the Normans and erase them forever, instead it is the day of the dioscuro Roberto il Guiscardo who, disarmed three times by his enemies, gets back in the saddle and massacres the Swabians, inciting his soldiers to the rescue, in a moment of serious difficulty. Had it gone differently the history of our districts would not have been the same in the following millennium. But what makes this battle unique and mythical is both the military strategy put in place, which allows David to defeat Goliath and the subsequent political strategy to submit to the defeated Pope and recognize him as a referent and leader. An admirable series of circumstances and events, without missing a single blow, which leaves many historians who have faced and written over the centuries of the adventures of the heirs of the Vikings in southern Italy perplexed and thoughtful.
MTDD:Volturara Irpina: Storia e storielle nei secoli (Volturara Irpina: History and Legends over the centuries) is another publication of yours whose title intrigues and entices being, by your own admission, “the history of Volturara Irpina through anecdotes and stories in the last 1000 years”.
Without indicating too many details or revealing the end, can you mention a couple of anecdotes and/or stories you came across during the writing of this work of yours?
EM: It’s not exactly an anecdote, but I am going to mention this passage so that you can understand who your great-grandfather was.
1900 In praise of Vincenzo Pasquale for the departure of Vincenzo Pennetti in public City council, who died at 33. I wholeheartedly join the Mayor’s proposal and all the proposals they [the members of the council] will make to honor the not quite late fellow citizen Vincenzo Pennetti, Attorney-at-law, because the honors made to those, who are inspired by truth and beauty were always from all peoples considered not as a simple act of courtesy, but of sacred duty; and this duty I feel in me, I see it in you, in all population, to which our beloved fellow citizen was dear, of whom, if I begin to speak, I do not intend to make an apology with a speech because I lack the energy, and for a long time I do not feel but I will say a few words that the truth and the heart will be able to dictate to me. First, I would betray the truth by not commemorating Vincenzo Pennetti as a strong and loyal political fighter, although the goal of his struggle was always in opposition to the sentiment of the absolute majority of the country, yet he was always loyal, disinterested and honest, as the sentiment of his country was always honest as well. Today that the business has become infected in large and small towns, the schools of Casale have created the so-called leaders who, doing their pro, have intruded into all affairs of all colors, Vincenzo Pennetti strong contempt for these abominable miseries, crossing the street cluttered with mud and putrefence with a firm foot, he came out unhindered; and this is an invaluable virtue and superior to any policy; and since any opinion must be worthy of respect, it follows that any partisan hatred must go out in front of the honest man, who with strong studies became the honor of the family, the country and the Province. He only lived to be thirty-three, too little; and he would have made a great deal of money if the inexorable death beforehand had not ruthlessly abducted him to the affection of his inconsolable consort, to the dear little children who cry and bless his memories, to the desolate parents who overwhelmed by pain praise his actions, to the country that today, in a certificate of esteem and affection, honors and praises his virtues, with which he was able to deserve the applause and esteem of those who knew him, and to conquer with his high ingenuity a modest honored place among the illustrious lovers of literature and legal sciences. To pay ever more homage and honor to the memory of our dear departed one, I propose that a decent funeral should be paid by our Municipality in suffrage of his soul who was always inspired by beauty and truth, by the love of the country, of his loved ones and of his relationships. On December 5, 1900, he died while Christianily mourned by everybody leaving in the hearts of us all a painful wound that can never be healed and a disheartening void that painfully forces me to exclaim “Ouch the men whose world is unworthy, rare pass on Earth, and soon return to Heaven!”
MTDD: This pandemic caused by COVID-19 has reminded many of us of other plagues that have also hit Italy in the past and decimated its population. One of the most famous, sad to say, was the plague, the theme of your book La Peste 1656: la clessidra della Storia (The Pest 1656: the Hourglass of History).
How did Italy and especially Irpinia experience that tragic moment?
EM: During the Middle Ages, the plague was endemic and recurred at close dates causing decimations and suffering. But two epidemics in particular changed the history of Italy and Europe. The first was in 1347-48, described admirably also by Boccaccio, of which we have no local news, and the second was the one that shocked southern Italy in 1656. I read many documents on this catastrophe, also finding the names of the deceased day by day. I made a novel out of it to understand both events and human behavior in the face of this scourge. The current social distancing was not applied then, indeed they all met in the Church or in the square to decide what to do with continuous processions in honor of San Carlo and San Sebastiano. In the end in three months out of 1000 inhabitants, 400 remained, mostly women. The doctors died, the ‘sindico’ (mayor as he was called back then), the notary of the town and finally also the Archpriest. In Irpinia and Avellino the situation was catastrophic as well and entire villages and districts disappeared.
MTDD:La Clessidra dell’amore, 1656 (The Hourglass of Love) is your novel set at the time of the plague of 1656. In the book synopsis you state “If you came into this world it is because your ancestor of that time was one of the few survivors of the catastrophe that destroyed 70% of the population. How many scientists, poets, writers, artists were never born for a fault that is not theirs.”
Can you tell us something about the protagonists of this novel of yours and the extreme serious situation, due to the plague, they faced as well as all those who were living at the time did?
EM: The common thread is the story of a boy son of peasants, Cosmo, who was to become a priest and who decided to abandon the toga, after having fallen in love with, and being reciprocated by Alba, a girl daughter of notables. The envy and tares of the villagers upset their love story, which ends in a short time. Alba marries a rich young man from Avellino and goes to live in the city. After much suffering, Cosmo marries his peer and adapts to the life of the fields, between memories and regrets.
MTDD:La secolare storia di una bonifica: Volturara Irpina ed il lago Dragone (The centuries-old story of a reclamation: Volturara Irpina and the Dragone lake) by Nicola De Meo is a book you are the editorial curator of. Any article or story you read on Volturara Irpina always mentions the Dragon lake.
What exactly does the Dragon represent for a Volturarese?
EM: The Dragone is in summer a plain of almost 1000 hectares full of grass where thousands of cows graze, in winter it becomes a lake that brings water to all of southern Italy. In past centuries, the abundant rains and snowfalls raised the water level that reached the country, creating fear and damage. Therefore, we have always tried to reclaim it, channeling the water to bring it out of the plain and to grow the grass, but the works have never been done definitively, finding political and administrative obstacles of all kinds.
MTDD: Thanks Edmondo for participating in our interview. Would you like to remind our readers how they can buy and where they can find all your publications or get in touch with you should they so wish?
EM: My books are all on Amazon. They are not works of art, but rather testimonies of different eras that have built the history of our districts, poor, but rich in great humanity, without prominent protagonists, where the joy of choral singing in the fields served to mitigate the tiredness spade and where wine allowed to overcome inhibitions and efforts. Ultimately, my country has participated in every historical event of the kingdom in the last ten centuries, sacrificing the lives of many faceless and nameless young people, not in defense of an ideal, but by subjection and belonging to the master of the moment. And my message is that it is necessary to give importance and scholastic visibility to the local history which represents the chromosomal set of thousands and thousands of people who have brought us here to experience the emotions of nature and the misfortunes of men on our mother Earth, that it may not even bear us if we continue to offend her with our behavior. Those who do not know the history of their land and the events of their ancestors will always miss something in their lives.
MTDD: See you next time to deepen the genealogy topic …
EM: It is a field that I like and have devoted decades of research to.