Basilicata and Craco
During the late
19th century, Italy was a unified country but in disarray. A
north-south divide existed with northern Italians contemptuous of
the backwards south. The south was resentful and paranoid about
prospects of exploitation from the north. By the end of the century,
millions of Italians were leaving their homes for America, some for
political reasons but most for economic opportunities.
Southern Italians were barely surviving in the
hardscrabble agrarian economy. They were trapped in a feudal land
system with no hope of progress as absentee northern landlords
drained their earnings. In the late 1880 this misery was compounded
by plagues of malaria, phylloxera (plant lice that destroyed the
grape crop), earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions.
Added to that were negative effects of the Italian
Revolution. In attempting unify Italy, one of the first acts of the
new Italian government was to eliminate the Roman Catholic Church
from the new nation’s education system. For the North where a public
school system already existed there wasn’t much of a problem; in the
South there was no educational system except for the Church. Like
most simple people of the time parents believed a craft was far more
important than general literacy. If children were to be lettered
they must enter religious life or in the secular world it meant
going far away and great expense. So large numbers of southern
Italian youth born in the 1880s were raised “percho analfabeti” –
without letters - but skilled in crafts and trades that allowed them
Not only was the south separated from the rest of
Italy by politics and economics, but the combination of its
dialects, geography, and history made it a world apart. To this day,
while still rooted in tradition, it is wilder and more backward than
Known as “Mezzogiorno” (land of the midday sun) by
Italians, the area it is marked by lonely villages and empty
untrammeled landscapes. Clichéd images in rural areas still prevail
with shepherds driving herds of sheep across stony hills, black-clad
peasant women, washing hung across streets, and classic passions of
food, family, love, and religion. Poverty, crime and other social
ills are amplified here along with Old World ideals of honor and
hospitality. These images and ideals were strong influences on the
inhabitants who would pass them along to their families.
Geography molded the character of the region by
placing it far from markets and unable to support industrialization
or large scale agriculture. Climatically, during the summer months
it bakes under an almost African sun impeding agricultural
development and in areas away from the coast the winter is bitter
and cold. The poor soils are unsupportive of agricultural
development and the mountains are devoid of raw materials.
Historically, the region was endlessly conquered by
Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans,
Swabians, Angevins, and Bourbons. For centuries it remained in a
feudal system and finally in the hands of Spanish rule, a stagnation
settled in that continues to this day. This system of land ownership
known as “latifondi” where large estates employed landless laborers
was exacerbated in the 1860s by confiscation of church lands during
Italian unification. During the next 20 years conditions for
peasants declined further as more land went to private owners who
deforested it, increasing the spread of malaria and landslides. In
the 1880s Europe suffered an agrarian crisis which brought ruin to
many of the southern Italian landowners and also diminished the
economic situation of the peasants. In the 1880s fewer than half the
children lived past the age of 15!
The region known as Basilicata would not match the
images most people have of Italy. Small and mostly mountainous, the
region is situated at the “instep of the boot” in southern Italy. It
has large tracts of barren and eroded wasteland resulting from
systematic deforestations over the centuries. The enormous
emigration of the past has left it is under populated. The economy
is mostly based on subsistence agriculture, though the eastern and
central areas are almost desert-like. Industrial development is low,
but there are some flourishing craft sectors, such as ceramics,
woodwork and textiles. Tourism is mostly along the Tyrrhenian coast.
Archeological findings show areas around the region’s
rivers were inhabited since Paleolithic times. In the 13th
century BC the Lyki, (probably the origin of the name Lucani, which
is another name for the people of the area) came from the Danube
area of northern Europe settling the region. In the following
century they were enriched culturally by the Greeks, who colonized
the area. The Lucani established a strong military state and fought
against the other inhabitants of Apulia for centuries. After
being allied to the Romans, they sided with Hannibal in the Punic
wars. Under the Roman Empire the region was called Bruttium.
In the Napoleonic era it was under the control of Naples which was
allied with the French. After 1815 it was part of the Kingdom of Two
Sicilies which was under Bourbon control. Then between 1932
and 1945 the region was renamed Lucania, and to finally become
"Basilicata" under the Republic.
Today Basilicata is divided into two Provinces:
Matera and Potenza. Potenza serves as the administrative
center for the region and is the major town associated with it.
The Italian province of Matera has in it the “comuni” of Craco, the
hometown of over 1,500 families who left there between 1892 and 1922
for opportunities in North America.
Located about 25 miles inland from the
Gulf of Taranto at the instep of the “boot” of Italy, the medieval
village of Craco is typical of the hill towns of the region with
mildly undulating shapes and the lands surrounding it sown with
wheat. Craco was built on a very steep summit, in medieval times for
defensive reasons, giving it a stark and striking appearance and
distinguishing it from the surrounding lands which are characterized
by soft shapes. The center, built on the highest side of the town,
facing a ridge runs steeply to the southwest where newer buildings
exist. The town sits atop a 400 meter high cliff that overlooks the
Cavone River valley. Throughout the area are many unique
vegetation-less mounds formed by intensive erosion that are called
"calanchi." See photo at left.
Around 540AD the area was called
“Montedoro” and inhabited by Greeks who moved inland from the
coastal town of Metaponto. Tombs have been found dating from the 8th
century suggesting the original settlement dates back to then. The
town’s name can be dated to 1060 when the land was the possession of
Archbishop Arnaldo, Bishop of Tricarico, who called the area
“GRACHIUM” which means "from the little plowed field." This
long association of the Church with the town had a great influence
on the inhabitants.
From 1154-1168 the control of the
village passed to Eberto who established the first feudal control
over the town. Then in 1179, Roberto di Pietrapertos became the
landlord of Craco. In 1276 a university was established in
town. During this period in the 13th century the landmark castle was
built under the direction of Attendolo Sforza. In 1293 under
Federico II, the Castle Tower became a prison. By the 15th century,
four large plazas had developed in the town:
Palazzo Maronna near the tower
Palazzo Grossi near the big church
Palazzo Carbone on the Rigirone’s
The inhabitants of the town went from
450 (1277), to 655 (1477), and 1,718 (1532) until reaching 2,590 in
1561; and averaged 1,500 in succeeding centuries. During 1656 a
plague struck with hundreds dying and reducing the number of
families in the town.
By 1799 there was enough impetus to
change the feudal system and Innocenzo De Cesare who had been a
student in Naples returned and promoted an independent Municipality.
This led the town to come under the control of the Italian King but
was followed by a period of French occupation. By 1815 the town was
large enough to divide it into two districts:
To view a map of Craco from 1807, click here.
With the unification of Italy there
was a growth of “brigands” in the area who plagued the town until
the mid-1860s. With the end of the civil strife the greatest
difficulty the town faced became environmental and geological.
During the mid-twentieth century,
recurring earthquakes began to take a toll on the viability of
the town. Between 1959 and 1972,
the village were severely damaged and rendered uninhabitable by
a series of frana, or landslides. The geological threat to
the town was known to scientists since 1910, due to Craco's location
on a hill of Pliocene sands overhanging the clays, with ravines
causing progressive incisions. Now, Craco is uninhabited. In 1963,
the 1,800 inhabitants were transferred to a valley in a locality
called Craco Peschiera. That population is now down to about
a map of Craco Vecchio, circa 1939, click
The Piazza di Largo
Vittorio Emanule II, circa 1962.
War Memorial in Craco Vecchio, circa 1960.
Churches are central to the town’s
history with its founding stemming from monks. Noteworthy
buildings include the church of the Observant Friars Minor dedicated
to St. Peter, which dates back to 17th century and has now been
partially restored and used as a conference center.
The church of Santa Maria della
Stella, a small chapel built on the hillside is part of an active
association paying homage to the Virgin Mary. The site of the chapel
is the location where the statue of the Virgin and Child was
miraculously discovered in a body of water by a shepherd. The statue
of the Virgin is still housed there, although the original infant
was stolen and replaced.
There is also a small new church in
Sant’ Angelo, the only remaining section of the hilltop that is
still inhabited, which houses the religious relics of the mummified
body of St. Vincenzo - the martyred patron saint of the town. It is
actively attended to with fresh flowers brought into the church
daily. San Vincenzo was a soldier in the Legion of Tebea, the
army of General Massimiliano in 286 CE who was martyred because he
refused to renounce Christianity and worship the Emperor Marco
Aurelio. His relic was brought to the town in 1769 and moved
to the new little church after the old town collapsed. A story
is told of another town, Pisticci, claiming the relic should be in
their town and a group from there tried to take the relic. It
became too heavy for them to carry very far and was abandoned on the
road where the people of Craco found it and returned it to the town.
Relic of San Vincenzo
here for more information about San Vincenzo, patron saint of
There is one other church in the town old town,
Chiesa Madre (di
San Nicola Vescovo - St. Nicholas Bishop). Its arched dome stands
above the skyline just below the Tower and was the largest church in
With the collapse of the old town, the statuary
and interior fixtures were moved to the new church building which in
now at the center of the new town, Craco Pershiera.
modern in appearance on the outside, the old statues inside from the
original church provide a transition to visitors that give them the
atmosphere of old Craco.
S. Nicola Vescovo in Craco
This strong religious connection in the town generates many
regularly scheduled festivals:
- Madonna della Stella Festival – first Sunday of May in Craco
- San Nicola Festival – second Sunday in August
- Madonna della Stella Festival – second Sunday of August in
- Madonna di Monserrato Festival – third Sunday of September
- St. Vincenzo Martire Fair – fourth Sunday of October
- St. Vincenzo Fair – fourth Saturday of October in Craco
The agricultural traditions of the town also
continue with a local market held in Craco Perschiera each month.
CRACO COAT OF ARMS
An arm with three grain ears in hand
Today, the old village majestically rises with
its Norman Tower visible in the surrounding valleys, retaining a
special charm that attracts tourists as well as old inhabitants.
Thanks to Fred Spero for his
contribution to this page.