Basilicata/Lucania Immigration


BY:   TOM FRASCELLA                                                                                                                     February.   2012



The modern State of Basilicata lies in the south of Italy. It is composed of approximately 10,000 sq kilometers and is bordered by Campania to the west, Apulia to the north and east, and Calabria to the south. It has a short southern coastline on the Tyrrhenian Sea, and a longer one on the Gulf of Taranto on the Ionian Sea. It is the Italian State which sits directly above the arch of the boot shaped Italian peninsula. The modern State of Basilicata has two provinces which roughly divide the State in half, the Northern Province is Potenza, in which San Fele is located and the Southern Province Matera. The present population of the State is between 500,000 and 600,000, essentially equally divided between the two provinces. It is the least densely populated region in Italy, with only one small city, Potenza the State capitol has a population of between 80,000 and 100,000 people.

 Most of the State’s population traditionally resides in small towns and villages scattered throughout the State, farming is the chief commercial activity. However, the State presents poor soil conditions. It is by percentage the most mountainous State in southern Italy. The southern Apennines run through the State and 47% of its territory is classified as mountainous, 45% hilly and 8% is made up of plains. For the last 500 years it has been economically the poorest region per capita in Italy.

 In addition to presenting poor farming conditions it is a very geologically active area. Located within its borders is the highest peak Mt. Vulture and extinct volcano, and the region has many active geysers and geothermic hot springs. There are also two major geologic fault lines in the State one running near Melfi and Potenza and the other in the South near Mt. Pollino. On our recent trip one of the guides in Venosa, a town situated in Province Potenza near Melfi, remarked that the area has suffered a major earthquake on average every fifty years for the past 500 years. The last major earthquake was in 1980. The earthquakes have often caused great destruction to property and great loss of life.

 The region has a very long history of habitation with traces of human occupation going back to the Palaeolithic Period with archeological findings relating to Homo Erectus. Early Homo Sapiens, modern man, also found a home there as evidenced by cave paintings from the Mesolithic Period that have been found near the modern town of Filiano.

 Excavations have revealed that people began living in communal hut villages in the Basilicata region as long ago as seven thousand years. Southern Italy including Basilicata lies in the middle of the trading lanes of the Mediterranean Sea. Examples of early trading villages along the coast have been excavated and dated to the Bronze Age.

 By the time the Iron Age came along the area was home to a number of large villages located on plateaus at the borders of plains and rivers. Agriculture and the breeding of livestock especially cattle were particularly successful regional activities. From around 1,500-1,000 BCE tribes belonging to the Samnite/Osco language group began filtering down from central Italy and became dominate in the southern third of the Italian peninsula.

 The Greeks began arriving in southern Italy around eight hundred BCE as traders and eventually settlers. There were some clashes with the native predominately Samnite/Oscan people but generally peaceful mutual interaction was achieved. The Greeks had a profound cultural impact on the less advanced Samnite culture and the cross cultural blending of the two cultures is evident in the region’s archeological record. It is believed that the word Italoi meaning calf land in Greek was applied to the southern peninsula region by these early Greek traders as cattle farming in the many mountain valleys was prevalent at the time. It is from this word that the modern Italia derives and was eventually applied to the whole of the peninsula and adjoining islands.

 It is somewhere around five hundred BCE that the area roughly corresponding to modern Basilicata became known as Lucania and the people therein Lucani. There are several theories as to the origin of the word, first from the Greek word Lykos meaning “wolf” as the mountains of the region are home to a considerable population of wolves to this day. The other most common theory is that the name comes from the Latin word Lucus meaning “sacred woods”. During this period the region was covered with dense mountain forests.

 Between 500BCE and 350BCE the Lucani were allied with and closely associated with the various Greek settlement s in the area. This was so much the case that southern Italy and Sicily were during this period considered a protectorate and part of Magna Graecia. The one common language spoken and written in southern Italy and Sicily during this period was Greek. As we found on our recent trip to the region in its local museums artifacts demonstrate that the area directly around Venosa, and  Melfi are in ancient culture, art, armament and architecture closely associated with the so called Doric Greek style and culture.

 As Rome began to expand southward around 300 BCE its approach and conquest was resisted by the Samnite tribes who allied with the Greeks. However, Lucania fell under Roman dominance in 272 BCE. During the period of Roman dominance of the region roughly from 272 BCE until 500 AD, Rome considered Lucania a conquered province where Greek was the most common first language and Latin second. In fact the Romans often referred to the people of the region as Greek. In the region around Melfi and Venosa the wealthy Romans built many “hunting Villas” for recreation and escape from the stifling summer heat. The forests of the region abounded with deer and wild boar.

 Around the fourth century AD the Roman Empire split into two parts a Western and an Eastern Roman Empire. The Eastern Empire became known as the Byzantine Empire. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century AD southern Italy asked for protection from Constantinople and for the next five hundred years was a protectorate of the Byzantine Empire. It is during this period that Lucania became known as Basilicata from the Greek word basilikos meaning “imperial”. It has born that name ever since with the exception of the era of Mussolini who reapplied the older Lucania title to the region. After W.W.II the name Basilicata was reinstated. Interestingly, the people of the region today prefer to refer to themselves as Lucani.

Poverty, civil strife and natural disasters have in the last two hundred years contributed to substantial emigration from the area. In fact, the region from 1860 through to the present has had the highest per capita rate of emigration of any region of Italy. Therefore it should not be surprising that substantial emigration was occurring as early as the beginning of 19th century. Starting in the mid 19th century immigration to the U.S started and continued in ever increasing numbers. Encouraged by job opportunities and democratic principles people from the area began immigrating to the U.S in surprising large numbers early on.

 Because of the harsh conditions of the region Basilicata has traditionally been the least populated State on the peninsula. As a result the total numbers of those leaving were not as impressive as those leaving from more populated regions. Therefore, it is easy for those writing about the overall Italian immigration to view the region’s contribution to the Italian immigration story in a minor light. I think this has contributed to a misperception that the Lucani hold only a small place in the Italian immigration story.

 As is widely reported approximately 4.5 million Italians immigrated to the U.S. between the years 1850-1930. Eighty per cent or 3.6 million of those immigrating were from southern Italy an area that includes Basilicata. Of the 4.5 million who arrived on U.S. shores only 6 percent or 250,000 came from Lucania/Basilicata. So, as a percentage of the whole Lucani made up only a small fraction of the regional patchwork that makes up Italian American heritage and place of origin.

 However upon closer examination the numbers tend to also reveal a different story. Eighty percent or 3.6 million people of Italian origin that immigrated to the U.S. arrived in this country in the thirty years between 1900 and 1930. During that period half or approximately 125,000 Lucanians arrived in that massive wave of immigration from which most Italian Americans’ have ancestors. This shows that during the greatest period of Italian immigration to the U.S. only 3 per cent were coming from Basilicata. So, Lucanians were only the smallest part of this immigration wave. When about ninety per cent of all that is written about Italian immigration focuses almost exclusively on the 1900-1930 time period it is easy to see why Lucanians do not draw much attention.

 If on the other hand you look at the pre-1900 numbers you realize that of the approximately 900,000 Italians that immigrated to the U.S. in the fifty years between the years 1850 and 1900 approximately 125,000 came from Lucania.  The story and impact of Lucania’s immigration on Italian settlement in the U.S. becomes quite different. An inspection of the earlier phase of Italian immigration reveals that approximately 14 per cent of these early Italian immigrants were coming from Lucania/Basilicata. Another way of putting it is that after 1900 only one out of 33 Italian immigrants arriving was from Basilicata. But from the earlier period 1850-1900 you find that one out of every seven Italians arriving in the U.S. was from Lucania, A radically different position in terms of the overall source and proportion of those arriving.

 As a result, as we record the history of our own San Felese ancestors’ immigration to the U.S. we find that the story starts very early in both the history of the United States and the history of Italy, earlier than is usually written about. Also immigration in the mid 19th century was very different than what was experienced in the early 20th century. The world and the perceptions of the world transformed and evolved quite a lot during that short time frame.

 The immigration from the area had significant impact on both the culture of the receiving nation, the U.S. and on the social and culture of Basilicata. Many of those early perceptions and cultural adjustments were very much associated with our Lucanian ancestors’ reception in the mid 19th century. Some demographics can help to illustrate the scope of the population changes that resulted from the emigration over the past 150 years; 



                                                                            HISTORICAL POPULATION STATS


 For reasons that I will discuss in other essays on the website the population figures for Basilicata over the past two centuries are directly related to what was going on there. As previously indicated the overall population in terms of number of people per square kilometer has historically been low. However, between 1820 and 1850 Basilicata and the rest of rural southern Italy experienced a sharp 30% increase in population. Basilicata’s population figures show a decline in the 1850’s due primarily to a tragic natural disaster. After 1860 the two major circumstances affecting population in the area were emigration and deaths related to civil strife.


The Initial Immigration Figures for 1860-1900


1860                                                                  509,000

1870                                                                  524,000

1880                                                                  539,000

1900                                                                  492,000


 As you can see from the numbers the region’s previous growth rate at almost 10% per decade slowed starting in 1860.  As the emigration accelerated the slowing population growth actually began to decline as it reached a point around 1880. The outflow of young healthy people impacted the birth rate and it could no longer match the numbers of people leaving..



1910                                                                486,000

1920                                                                492,000

1930                                                                514,000



The greatest outflow of people clearly occurs in the forty year period between 1880 and 1920. After 1925 the U.S. severely limited immigration slowing it to a trickle and after 1930 Mussolini cut off emigration altogether. Emigration did not start up again until the 1950’s. As can be seem from the statistics when emigration was stopped the resident population did recover somewhat.


1940                                                                575,000

1950                                                                628,000

1960                                                                644,000

1970                                                                603,000

1980                                                                610,000

1990                                                                611,000

2000                                                                598,000

2010                                                                587,000



The figures however fail to show that rather than simply being a loss in total population, the figures are showing is a loss in the youth from the area. The energy and vitality of the community has been placed and continues to be placed a risk. As can be seem the population numbers again began to decline after 1960 reflecting once again a large outflow of people. Many Lucani have sought job opportunities throughout Italy and Europe. Many others have been immigrating to job opportunities in Canada and in particular Australia. In the predominately Italian “Five Docks” area of Sydney for example roughly 40% of the Italian-Australian population is Lucani.



© San Felese Society of New Jersey

Contact Us         Home