The Borgo of Melfi

Melfi is surrounded by the majestic landscape of the territory of the Vulture, and as you approach the entrance to the city, you understand that this is a unique and magical place.

Melfi is a city divided into two parts. The first place you encounter is the more modern town, lying peacefully at the foot of an ancient village set on a hill, protected by ancient city walls and a Norman Castle.

The historical center was the reign of the Emperor Federico II of Swabia, rising high above the valley and the city below, with a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside.

The castle, one of the most majestic and imposing in the region, overlooks the borgo’s Medieval houses and the Cathedral with its bell tower, but the other side of the castle offers a view of a completely different world, full of wild valleys and semi-desert terrain, dotted with aromatic Mediterranean shrubs.

Melfi is a mosaic of Medieval streets and narrow stone lanes running downhill to the valley, where from time to time, in the most unexpected corners, you are surprised by small statues depicting children intent on playing games of yesteryear.

The streets, the city walls, the small and gracious houses of Melfi all invite you to walk, explore, and discover, finding yourself before modest and simple homes with small plaques recalling their historical past. Such as the one indicating the home of Pier delle Vigne, and a little further on, a pale blue house that was the birthplace of the statesman, Francesco Saverio Nitti.

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The Melfia flows past the foot of this ancient village, and it is to this small river that Melfi owes its name.

The origins of the city remain uncertain and rest on various hypotheses. Historical evidence has indicated the presence of human settlements dating back to the Iron Age, which over the passing of time became home to the civilizations of the Dauni  and the Samnites.

The most reliable hypothesis concerning the foundation of Melfi is that of the local historian Apulo,

who states that in around 1018, the Byzantine captain of southern Italy, Basilio Bojohannes, ordered the reorganization of Puglia’s defensive structures and the construction of new city-fortresses, which included the founding of Melfi.

The beginning of a period of development for the borgo dates back to the arrival of the Normans, who conquered Melfi in 1041, a year later raising it to the rank of municipality. After the construction of the fortress, Melfi became the capital of the county, which was then held by several different rulers, among them Emperor Enrico III and Pope Leone IX.

The Norman, Roberto il Guiscardo had the merit of reinforcing the defensive walls and constructing the first cathedral in the town.

In 1059, Pope Nicolò II convened the  First Council of Melfi, with the aim of restoring the autonomy of the church, removing it from the influence of the Germanic factions. In this way, Melfi became the frontline of the Norman conquests, reinforced by the nomination of Roberto il Guiscardo as the Duke of Puglia and Calabria, as well as the convocation of four other councils. In 1089, the Council of Melfi imposed the obligation of celibacy for the clergy, the “Holy League” was instituted, and preaching for the First Crusade began.

In 1130, a Parliament was convened in Melfi, ordaining Ruggero II as the King of Sicily and the Duke of Puglia and Calabria, initiating an absolutist policy that culminated in the shift of central power to Palermo, sparking a series of popular revolts in the city.

A new splendor dazzled Melfi with the arrival of the Swabian rulers, in particular the enigmatic genius, Emperor Federico II, who chose Melfi as his summer home. In 1221, Pope Onororio III convened an ecclesiastical assembly in Melfi which included the highest offices of the clergy and civil society, which in essence, represented the inevitable meeting between the Emperor and the Pope.

The assembly was held in a climate of tension, due to the imminent departure of the Emperor on the Second Crusade. With Federico II at the helm of the Catholic army, the enterprise was not carried out as the Pope would have wished. Federico II envisioned a multicultural, religiously tolerant empire, and so, instead of conquering the Muslims, Federico managed to reach a diplomatic agreement with the Sultan. As thanks from the Pope, this almost impossible accomplishment led directly to his excommunication.

Back in Italy, Federico II opened a school of logic in Melfi, with the aim of finding suitable people to draft his ‘Constitutiones Melphitanae’, which was issued in 1231. The Melfitan Constitution is an one of the most exemplary legislations ever drafted in Italy, because the Emperor succeeded in encompassing the politics of his entire kingdom in a single code, finding the perfect balance between the edicts of Roman and German law. While the new laws were met favorably by his people, the Papacy turned up its nose once more, interpreting the constitution as yet another attempt to usurp Papal power. In fact, Federico II had passed legislation in matters that at the time were under the jurisdiction of canon law, and therefore the exclusive competence of the Church, inciting the Pope to excommunicate him a second time.

Despite Papal discontent, the Swabian Emperor succeeded in creating a unified empire based on enlightened principles. Federico II again chose Melfi as the location for important institutions such as the Chamber of the Kingdom, the Chamber of Archives and the Chamber of Finance. Moreover, thanks to the Second Crusade, which was led once more by the Emperor, the Sultan Al Kamil donated the first giraffe in Europe to the Zoological Garden of Melfi.

The successive arrival of the Angevins brought a period of political repression to Melfi, imposed by King Charles of Angevin himself. This is the beginning of the city’s decline, with the only parenthesis being the acquisition of feudal power by the Caracciolo family, who opened the threshold of the court of Melfi to important artists and writers and launched urbanization projects, causing the borgo to be known as “the second Naples” .

In 1528, Melfi was dragged into the war between the Spanish and the French, and the latter ended up ransacking the city.

The fief of Melfi was ruled by the Doria family until 1806, but in the eighteenth century the situation in the city was precarious. Factors contributing to its decline included several epidemics of the Plague and a series of earthquakes, three of which (1694, 1851, 1930) caused the collapse of important buildings, destroying priceless testimony of  Melfi’s historical and artistic heritage.

Melfi has always been an important point of reference for Basilicata. It was the “capital” of the Melfese, one of the four districts of the region, and since the Unification of Italy the city has been championing its right to become a province.

The Norman-Swabian Castle

Today, as you walk through the rooms of the Castle of Melfi, you can admire the important archeological finds displayed in the National Archeological Museum of Melfese, and above all you can imagine all the adventures and historical events that took place in this fortress. But let’s start at the beginning.

In the year 999, the Normans arrived in the South of Italy, and in 1014, Melfi found itself under their dominion as well. Under the Normans, the city became a county, and city walls and a fortress  were constructed with the central nucleus of the castle developed as a square layout with angular towers.

With the beginning of the Swabian domination and the rise of Federico II as Emperor, Melfi became a central stage for important historical events. Within the castle walls, four councils were summoned, the First Crusade was launched, and an ecclesiastic assembly was held. For the Emperor, it was the ideal place to pass his summers and to organize hunting trips. Federico loved to fly his hawk from the second story window of the castle.

Thanks to the establishment of his school of logic, the Emperor succeeded in finding suitable men to draft the first unified code of law in the Middle Ages, and in 1231 the ‘Constitutiones Melphitanae’ was issued from the castle. Federico II also remodeled and enlarged the castle, as did the Angevins who followed, and then the Caracciolo family who ruled the fief of Melfi from 1416 onwards.

The Castle of Melfi is built on a square plan, surrounded by ten towers. Originally, there were four entrances, which followed the cardinal points. Today, two entrances have been walled up and two remain open: the North Gate, which opens onto the countryside, and the gate that faces the borgo, the most commonly used. Initially, this entrance could only be accessed by a drawbridge lowered  over the moat, only later was the stone bridge we see today constructed.

For some years now, the castle has hosted the National Archeological Museum of Melfi, safeguarding important archeological finds discovered in the territory of the Vulture, as well as a gallery exhibiting paintings of hunting scenes belonging to the Doria family, who ruled the fief of Melfi for four centuries.

Among the most important findings in the museum is the famous sarcophagus of Rapallo, named for the city where it was found, a majestic white marble tomb, ornately carved, with a reclining woman depicted on the lid of the sarcophagus.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta

The bell tower of the Cathedral of Melfi can be seen from afar. Previously, there was another cathedral built on the same point by Roberto il Guiscardo, which was then entirely destroyed.

The existing cathedral dates back to 1153, commissioned by Ruggero II, but few of its original features remain. As Melfi has suffered several severe earthquakes which compromised the structure of the church, various remodeling interventions were necessary over the years. Restoration work brought about the substitution of the Romanic style with that of Late Baroque, but other styles dating back to later periods are visible as well.

Today the church has a white façade and austere features, divided in two parts by a cornice. The entrance is distinguished by a portal surmounted by two angels and by a particularly prestigious portal with six fine bronze-work panels depicting the Annunciation, the Assumption of Mary, the Pentecost, the four Papal Councils held in Melfi, the Martyrdom of St. Alessandro, and the pastoral visit of the bishop.

Crossing the threshold, you leave behind the white candor of the façade and find yourself immersed in world of rich colors and decorations. The interior  is in the Latin Cross layout with three naves. The entrance is distinguished by three paintings by an unknown artist, among which a painting of the Last Supper stand out for its extraordinary beauty and grandeur.

The walls of the church are embellished with numerous chapels decorated with magnificent paintings and elegant Baroque altars, the most important being the altar to San Alessandro, the patron saint of Melfi. The chapel dedicated to him holds a reliquary containing the remains of the saint.

The high altar was crafted with an inlay of different marbles, carved to create the rounded forms typical to the Baroque style. Behind the altar, a reliquary displays the body of San Teodoro.

Behind the main altar, you can glimpse the carved wooden choir dating back to the 1500’s. Other elements of value in this corner of the church are an eighteenth century pipe-organ and a throne commissioned by bishop Spinelli. Of Neapolitan origins, the bishop had a major influence on the construction of the church, and his family emblem is on the ceiling of the central nave, which is characterized by a beautiful painting of the sky and coffered wooden ceilings decorated with gold motifs.

The Episcopal Palace and the Museum of the Diocese

The Episcopal Palace of Melfi is adjacent to the Cathedral and continues its simple and sober lines, distinguished by an important central portal and a pale stone façade characterized by soft harmonious lines and a flowing central balcony.

From the ground floor, you gain access to the cloister, where you can admire the central fountain with sinuous curves in Baroque style. The Italian Garden is certainly one of the most magnificent features of the Palace, the brilliant green of the lawn exalting the white of the central driveway and the finely carved half busts embellishing its course through the grounds.

An imposing staircase leads to the noble floor of the building, where you can admire the magnificently frescoed rooms, immersing yourself in the historical setting of the throne room, with its collection of rare books and its beautiful Palatine Chapel.

For some the years now, the Episcopal Palace has become the seat of the Diocese Museum. The ground floor displays furnishings and objects in silver and gold which were used in liturgical functions and the most important rites celebrated by the bishop. The upper floor houses the art gallery, where you can admire paintings and sculptures from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century.

The Rupestrian Church of  Santa Margherita

Following the rise of the Byzantine Empire in the South of Italy, Byzantine monks settled all around Southern Italy. In the area of the Vulture, the monks’ presence had an important spiritual, historical and architectural influence.  From the religious point of view, the Byzantine monks strongly contributed to the diffusion of the cult of San Michele, St. Michael, which is still very much present in the territory. On the cultural and architectural side, the monks left numerous crypts and underground churches, the most important being the rupestrian church of Santa Margherita.

This ancient rock church is located just outside the town of Melfi along the road leading to Rapallo, near the Ognissanti Cemetery. This subterranean church is entirely carved in the volcanic tufaceous rock and has a single nave and arched ceilings. The central altar was carved in a small, lower recess, making it similar to a small chapel. The church of Santa Margherita is known for the numerous frescoes along its walls, with one that particularly attracts the curiosity of visitors, known as “The Contrast between the Living and the Dead”. On one half of the painting, three skeletons are depicted, with worms in the stomach area, on the other half are three human figures, which are purported to represent Emperor Federico II of Swabia, his wife Isabella and his son, Corrado IV. According to the most accredited hypothesis, the painting symbolizes what awaits us after crossing the threshold of earthly life.

Francesco Saverio Nitti

Francesco Saverio Nitti was born on July 19, 1868, in a modest home in the historical center of Melfi. Francesco Saverio began his studies in his home town, but in 1883, moved to Naples to finish high school and then obtain his Law degree. Thanks to the influential connections made at university, he was able to launch his career as a journalist, first in local papers and then later at the national newspaper, Il Mattino.

From his first publications onwards, Francesco Saverio Nitti dedicated his attention to the South and the problems gripping the territory. In 1888, he published his first book,  L’emigrazione italiana e i suoi avversari,(Italian Emigration and its Adversaries), in which he supported the need to encourage farmers from the south to emigrate abroad, to escape being crushed by the abuses of the ruling class.

He published a vast body of work which gave him the reputation of being a champion and defender of Southern Italy. The most important and well known publication is the  Il bilancio dello Stato dal 1862 al 1896-97. Nord e Sud., which analyzes the State Budget.  Regardless of its flaws, the paper is characterized by vivid and original theses, opening the debate on the “Southern Question”, the important issues of moving capital from the North to the South, the damage caused by the appropriation of ecclesiastical assets, and the high tax rate generated by protectionism.

His first appointment in Parliament was in 1906, becoming a deputy at the age of thirty-six, siding with the ranks of the diverse and heterogeneous opposition party. Despite this, Nitti never proved truly hostile to the reigning Giolitti political party, and often collaborated with them.

During this term, Nitti was summoned to join the Commission of Inquiry investigating the conditions of farmers in the South. He was appointed as head of the subcommittee of Basilicata and Calabria, and was so dedicated to the issue that, together with deputies Antonio Cefaly and Giovanni Ranieri, he toured all through the two regions, interviewing the farmers to understand their plight firsthand. The result of their investigation revealed that these lands suffered from problems caused by severe earthquakes and also the intense deforestation of the Calabria-Basilicata Dolomite Mountains, hence the widespread collapse of buildings and also spread of malaria which had brought the area to its knees. To resolve the emergency, for one, the study recommended the replanting of the deforested area.

In 1911, Nitti became the Minister of Agriculture in the Giolitti government, and set to work implementing the measures he had advocated during his investigation. In 1917, he was appointed  Minister of the Treasury in the Orlando government.

From 1919 to 1920 he was the head of the Italian government, and in these years he attempted to resolve the Italian economic crisis by launching a loan plan and reducing military spending. Unfortunately, problems of public order and lack of support from the Catholic and Socialist factions led him to resign.

In 1943, he was captured by the Nazi Gestapo and deported to Austria, where he wrote, Meditazioni dell’esilio, (Meditations from Exile) which was published in 1947. In 1945, he was liberated by the French army and returned to Italy where, together with Benedetto Croce, Bonomi and Orlando he promoted the Italian Democratic Union, continuing his career as a senator of Law. He died in Rome on February 20, 1953.

Pier delle Vigne

Perché mi scerpi?

non hai tu spirto di pietade alcuno?

Uomini fummo, e or siam fatti sterpi

“Why do you torment me?

Have you no pity whatsoever?

Once we were men, and now we are made of weeds.”

The great poet Dante, imagines Pier delle Vigne uttering these words in verses 35-37, in the thirteenth canto of “The Inferno”. We are in the middle of the Divine Comedy, at the point where Dante Alighieri and Virgil meet the souls who have used violence against themselves, that is, those who committed suicide, and included among them is Pier delle Vigne.

Pier della Vigne was born in Capua in 1190 to a wealthy family. In 1220 he began his profession as a notary in the service of Emperor Federico II of Swabia, who a few years later appointed him as judge of the Imperial Magna Curia.

Pier delle Vigne belonged to that intimate circle of people who wrote documents for the Emperor, not only bureaucratic documents, but also letters distinguished by the elegant stilus supremus

writing style. Besides these duties, Pier della Vigne was also a very active writer in his own right at the Emperor’s court, and also wrote for the University of Naples. In fact, the document sanctioning the university’s foundation was probably written in his own hand.

In 1239, he became Grand Judge of the Imperial Court, a role that placed him above all the other notaries at court, rendering him the custodian of the seals of the Empire. In this new role, he participated in the commission that drafted the Costitutiones Melphitanae  (1231), the most sweeping civil and criminal legal code ever issued in the Middle Ages, enacted by the Emperor himself.

In 1230, he began his career as Imperial Ambassador, which led him to travel around the towns of Northern Italy and Europe. In England, he celebrated the marriage between Henry the III and Isabella of Castile, and as thanks was nominated Royal Vassal.

Disgrace fell upon him in Cremona in 1249, when he was accused of treason and arrested. However, it is probable that Pier dell Vigne was the victim of a conspiracy aimed at usurping his influence. Regardless, it is was beloved Emperor Federico II himself who punished him for his alleged betrayal, blinding him in the public square in Pontremoli. Shortly after, Pier della Vigne died, probably by suicide, for the shame of the unfounded accusations.

It was Dante Alighieri himself who symbolically defended him from the outrage he received. In the Divine Comedy, he is placed in the Forest of Suicides and deprived of his human form, as dictated by the law of retribution for one who has abandoned his body taking his own life. Nonetheless, Dante absolves Pier della Vigne, for never having betrayed his emperor.

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“Calzoncelli di Melfi”

The traditional cuisine of Melfi is based on easily found local ingredients, such as chestnuts, and food derived from sheepherding, an activity practiced in the past by many residents. This is why some of the typical dishes of this borgo are chestnut lasagna and “il pane del pastore”, a type of sheep’s cheese.

The traditional recipe we propose today is a sweet, cookies/biscuits to be exact, which are traditionally prepared at Christmas time: the “Calzoncelli di Melfi”.

Ingredients for the pastry dough:

  • 600 gr of flour;
  • 100 gr of refined sugar;
  • 2 eggs;
  • 200 ml of white wine;
  • 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil;
  • a pinch of salt.

For the filling:

  • 400 gr of peeled roasted almonds;
  • 250 gr of refined sugar;
  • 200 gr of dark chocolate;
  • Lemon rind.

Preparation:

On your work station, create a mound with the flour, leaving the center empty. Pour the eggs, lightly beaten, into the middle, together with the salt and sugar, and then slowly pour in the oil and the wine. Knead the dough until it is soft but not sticky, then wrap in cellophane and let it stand for one hour at room temperature.

In the meantime, to prepare the filling, combine all the ingredients and mix them together in a blender until you have a homogenous paste to be rolled into a sausage shape. With a cookie cutter or a knife, slice the “sausage” to make individual pieces for the filling.

When the dough is ready, roll it until it becomes a fine sheet. Position the pieces of filling on the rolled dough, cut each one and cover it with another layer of the rolled dough to create a ravioli shape.

Heat the oven to 180° centigrade, and then bake the calzoncelli in phases of 15-20 minutes each, taking them in and out of the oven until they are golden brown.

Enjoy!

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