Dawn in Campobasso
With the coming of dawn, and the passing of the storm, sunshine falls on the Molisan Capital, and a day like no other!
Mercifully, the arrival of Monday brought respite from the tempest, as sunlight pierced the blinds once more. Such was the blaze of Apollo that the basalt slab streets of the city centre bore no trace of raindrops from the deluge mere hours before. Our thoughtful host, fearful that the nearby cafè would be closed for the festa, had generously granted us a discount on our stay, humbly apologetic that our hunt for breakfast could prove problematic. A fearful prospect indeed, when one's wife is in need of coffee above all else, upon morning's banishment of night.
We had a couple of hours before our coach would bear us into the wild. Thus we enthusiastically took our leave of the twenty first century, and entered the embrace of the nineteenth. While the steep hill of the castle is quintessentially medieval, and not greatly unlike the motte and bailey fortifications of old, the lower town is almost entirely the fruit of the ottocento (19th century). The winding alleys of the rabbit warren of the old town give way to the vast boulevards and monumental public buildings of which the 19th century Frenchman was so fond. One says Frenchman not as a comparison, but as an observation, since the butchers of Paris would wreak their revolutionary misery upon Italy with great ferocity. Thus it was that that 1801 would bring calamity upon the once glorious kingdom of Charles III, as for fourteen years, the South would be the plaything of Bonaparte and his kin, the throne of Naples reduced to a mere chip on the gaming board of Europe.
Though the machinations of France may have birthed the ruin of Southern Italy, one must concede the usurpers credit for their sanitary urban planning, or at least acknowledgement of it. When Emperor Napoleon violated Naples once more in 1806, and with shameless audacity thrust his own brother upon its now sullied throne, the kingdom was redrawn from Gaeta to Reggio Calabria. The Campobassani might have given praise for the benignity of their new King Joseph, from whose decree the Province of Molise was born, and this city, Campobasso, became a capital for the first time. They might too have rejoiced at the creation of the first corps of firemen seen on Italian soil since the days of the Caesars. Yet when the whims of the Emperor saw the South yield Joseph to Spain but two years later, they must surely have been bemused when their third king in as many years, the vain yet courageous Joachim Murat, a man who dressed for war as a gentleman might dress for a ball, would dispatch the architect Berardino Musenga to Campobasso to build a new town. Credit for the city's look to this day remains with Murat, though it is scarcely known even in Molise that the idea was in fact birthed by the rightful King Ferdinand IV, some years earlier, whose ability to then begin work was denied by the great Gallic theft of his throne. Streets of the like had never been seen before this side of the Po, as the new Borgo Murattiano (Murat Quarter) began to take shape, in the last days before Waterloo. It is this work of Musenga which the visitor to Campobasso in our own times enjoys, as he strides forth with the Castello Monforte to his rear.
The Sun already glared from high above on this most unusual of Mondays. It was to be unusual, quite simply, because of Tuesday. Tuesday would bring the first day of May, and thus a day of greatly treasured rest. Traveller be warned, what the Englishman might think of as a rather quaint day of Spring revelry, with Morris dancers prancing gaily before a ribboned Maypole, is to an Italian a rather less innocent affair. The Italian knows the date as the Festa dei Lavoratori (Workers' Day), a day in which red flags are brandished, chants are bellowed and rights are called for, all with a whiff of Bolshevism. So much so that, just as the apostate Cromwell banished merriment from the British Isles, so too would the Duce martyr the Italian May Day, the Roaring Twenties in Italy roaring as they did in very particular directions. Yet when Italy fell under the influence of Uncle Joe in '45, the Festa returned, with a militant soul that an Anglo-Saxon observer, ever loathe to observe or cause a scene, cannot help but find distant. But to all else, a public holiday it remains all the same. Now when a public holiday falls thusly, on a Tuesday, the Italian will excitedly declare that it is a ponte (bridge). Nay, traveller to Italy, he speaks not of feats of logistical engineering, but a chance to enjoy a long weekend, by taking the Monday off and getting two for the price of one. Woe betide the Italian who has not booked, or has forgotten to book, his Monday off where one could have a ponte. It is a sure sign that one is either sfigato (desperately unfortunate), negligent or secretly German. For who else would scorn leisure for work?
Today was one such ponte, and the city was all the more radiant for it. Thankfully, no garish banners with cringeworthy slogans were to be found, just simple joys, laughter and peace. Cafès burst into the boulevard, with characters of all ages, shapes and dispositions seated all about. One moustachioed fellow yawned broadly, his eyes mere slits, "Ma che bello fare nulla, eh?" ("How wonderful to do nothing, right?"), he uttered, before having finished his yawn. That, dear reader, is Campobasso on ponte.
There is a certain enchantment which stands between a crowded place, and a dead place. Days earlier, Venafro had it. Today Campobasso had it too. It was certainly refreshing to take our cappuccinos and cornetti at a table, curiously finding no difficulty in locating either tables to sit at or people to watch. All with a windless 20 degrees. Marvellous.
With Katrina's coffee bean demons momentarily in custody, and James's eye having snapped back from the pastry trays and onto the road, we went for the most traditional of Italian pastimes, the passeggiata (promenade). Only we came to a halt barely a few steps later, as the white façade of Campobasso's Cathedral of the Holy Trinity suddenly came into view, somewhat hidden before by the staggered buildings before it.
It is a rare thing in Italy for a cathedral to be so modern as to be Neoclassical, and to see one generally indicates one of two things. Either the town was wealthy, and could afford to indulge the caprices of modern taste, when the somewhat austere Neoclassicism supplanted the extravagance of the High Baroque around the turn of the nineteenth century, or the town was forced to build it by necessity. Campobasso has yet to experience prosperity, and her Duomo (cathedral) is the consequence of calamity.
Some hours after dusk it was, on the 26th day of July, 1805, two months after Napoleon usurped the Italian crown, that all seemed peaceful in Molise. The War of the Third Coalition may have been raging beyond the Alps, but here in Central Italy, it was a starry night like the finest of Summers' eves. A moment of serenity reigned over the Bay, and Kingdom, of Naples. Yet a mere instant was all it took. Let us allow the great polymath Giuseppe Saverio Poli recall it best, he who lived that day:
"l'aria in Napoli era in perfetta calma, ed il Cielo tanto sereno, che potevansi francamente scorgere tutte le minute stelle, levossi di repente un vento fresco, ed impetuoso, che rendendosi a celeri gradi più violento e gagliardo fino a divenir turbinoso, e furente, fu accompagnato da uno spaventevole rombo, il quale al fremito di un turbine univa un orrendo fragore simigliante allo scoppio di una batteria, di modo che io credei in quell'istante, che in vicinanza della mia casa, per la ricorrenza della festa di S. Anna, si sparasse un gran fuoco d'artifizio. Altri l'han rassomigliato ragionevolmente allo strepito di un greve carro, che trascorresse rapidamente sovra una strada lastricata..."
"The air in Naples was in perfect harmony, and Heaven so serene that frankly, all the most minute of stars stood out, when a cool, and impetuous, breeze began to gather pace to such a violent degree that it became turbulent and furious, accompanied by a terrifying rumble, which united the power of a whirlwind with a terrible roar as though from the blast of cannon battery - so much that, in that moment, I believed that near my house the Feast of Santa Anna was being celebrated once more, with some great firework. Others have most reasonably likened it to the racket of a heavy cart, which swiftly ran over a paved road..."
Deep in the memories of this part of the world is the dread sound which cleaves the air before the ground begins to shake. It is the trumpet blast of Mother Earth which heralds the coming of Death. So it was that it began on that night, when, for forty five seconds, the land raged, its power striking most true some seven miles west of Campobasso, and death and destruction stalked the land. Thousands were the towns and villages which were laid waste, and thousands were the dead which the terror claimed.
When Dawn arrived, the reckoning had become clear, and the Madonna wept. Fully one third of the structures of Campobasso were obliterated by the earthquake, and not even the 16th century cathedral was spared, for it too buckled and fell, razed to the soil from whence it had risen. Courtesy of the tumult within the Kingdom of Naples wrought by France, much of Campobasso would remain rubble for several years.
Thus it was that when Musenga descended upon the city, by order of the Dandy King Murat, he had something of a clean slate upon which to build, and build he did. The Cathedral took shape once again, though the Campobassani would have to wait twenty four years before it could hold mass once more. Pearly columns shot up to support the minimalist vault, and new Stations of the Cross were painted. The cathedral of Musenga is a symphony of white, brighter by far than most Italian cathedrals, though undeniably less exciting. It reflects something of the Borgo Murattiano outside, in that it is clean, angular, and functional yet with a touch of elegance.
Of the Borgo Murattiano, we can say that by light of sunny day, there is scarcely a town in Molise which can match it for charm. Passing Piazza Guglielmo Pepe, one turns onto the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, named for Naples' seventh king in as many decades. As we did so, passing fruit sellers and newsagents who appeared to belong to the 1920's, we could not help but be taken in by the jovial atmosphere. The road broadened out to a wide avenue, with low buildings on the right, and open piazze and parks on the left. Whether it was pedestrianised, or that the Campobassani have few cars or had left them at home, we could not tell. The result was a quite stunning promenade, passing cafés and patisseries on the one side, and children of all ages playing and sunbathing on the grass on the other. The occasional balloon did little to dampen the carnival atmosphere, as we irresistibly made our way further down.
Campobasso is home to a university, which holds a particular focus toward the Agricultural Sciences and Humanities, and it seemed many budding alumni had quite rightly taken leave of their notes for the day, and engaged in the no less worthy pastime of admiring their city. We merrily followed their example, as we indulged in rest upon one of the patches of lawn which form the park of Piazza Regina Elena. In these parts, on such a day, Campobasso is the equal of any of the boulevards of the North, but closer to the Sun's embrace.
The entire street is a joy to tread, and one which may be punctuated by refreshment at one of the many thriving establishments which flank it. The clink of glasses landing upon counters, and the scrape of ceramic cups upon each other as the barista piled them up in the sink, poured out onto the street.
A true treasure of Campobasso, however, may be found at the climax of the Corso. As we alas reached the rather ordinary crossroads, which seemed to be the end of the town, we would have turned back had it not been for the sole allure of greenery in the distance. We were certainly pleased to have persisted, as yet more beauty awaited.
The visitor is well advised to persevere through the traffic and make a valiant dash up Viale Ugo Petralla, whereupon he will find, as we did, a rather imposing gate, beautifully adorned with green metalwork. Despite being somewhat out from the heart of Campobasso, it bore no hint of neglect nor rusty padlock, and indeed from within emanated the oddly reassuring buzz of a hedge clipper. Upon passing the welcoming threshold, some sixteen thousand hectares of bucolic bliss unfurled before us, with barely a soul in sight bar a gardener, who was so utterly prepared for his profession that he appeared as ready to weld on the Hubble telescope as he did to trim the topiary. After a modest fit of the giggles at this bizarre sight, we began to take in the beauty of this place, the Villa De Capoa.
The magnificent garden is a rare relic of the Settecento Campobassano (eighteenth century in Campobasso), that most glorious age when men did not merely dream of paradise, they sought to realise it on Earth too. Once the grounds of the now defunct Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, the De Capoa family here crafted an emerald gem on the city's southern flank. From the gates, an inviting path led us deeper into the lush flora, punctuated by classical statuary and vases. Should the parks along the Corso prove inadequate to the visitor to Campobasso, who would rather seek the company of a forest, he should make haste for this Villa. In the resplendent sunshine of the day, the paths and leaves all dappled in light were a wonder to behold, and it was in this moment that the oft bemused looks of Romans, when told we were going to Campobasso, seemed at their most detached from reality. Campobasso is a city of modest size, and may struggle to compete with the Titans of other regions in the field of the fine arts, but does not choke in oceans of tourism either, and thus what it does have may be appreciated that much more. It does not demand the visitor's admiration, and thus earns it more honestly.
Where once the monks cultivated plants and herbs for their sustenance and medicinal cures, today one might quietly read a book, or simply relax. When the Countess Marianna De Capoa bequeathed the Villa to Campobasso in 1875, she hoped that it might preserve its calming spirit, and that it be looked after. Campobassani might lament that it could be better kept, but there are gardens in Italy in far worse a state, and it has at least been spared the unsightly litter which plagues many others. We learned that funds were being sought to build a playground for disabled children in the Villa, and that such initiatives are being pursued was a heartening reassurance that not all bequests are fated for neglect in modern Italy, that civic pride may yet bear fruit even beyond the wealthier regions, and that a site of historic beauty need not be transformed into a museum in order to be valuable.
Cedars of Lebanon sprout up hither and thither in the Villa, and evergreens beyond, marble punctuates it and atmosphere pervades it. There is an undeniable hint of the fairytale to be found too, including a fine hedge maze, and a wonderful marble balustrade which would make a spectacular stage for some summer dance or recital. Dirt and dead leaves cloak the latter’s checkered paving, but do not dull its majesty. So little would it take to revive the eighteenth century splendour it once knew, and so it was that a fine hour in pure relaxation was passed in Villa De Capoa, almost to ourselves. One can but hope that more may yet come.
But time waits for no adventure, and o did we have a mighty one to come. For the hills and plains around Campobasso hold more than fine foodstuffs and rural retreats. We sought traces of more ancient glories, and thus we hurried on to Campobasso station, unsure as ever whether the bus stop or even schedule were correct. Fortunately, the turning circle before the railway station is sufficiently small that we could not miss our wheels when they arrived. “Questo va ad Altilia.... o Sepino?” ("Does this go to Altilia... or Sepino?"), we asked, with a well rehearsed apprehension. The driver gave a nod, but only hours later would subsequent events show this gesture to be comically ingenuous.