Regional History Part 2   1275 to 1700 A.D.   

by Thomas Frascella


Installment 3

With the death of Don Ferrante another chaotic political chapter opened for the people of southern Italy. Control of the Neapolitan southern mainland area became contested between the royal family of France and Don Ferrante’s heirs. Initially Ferdinand King of Spanish Aragon stepped in supporting his cousins Don Ferrante’s children. With their abdication King Ferdinand himself pressed his claim. The entry of King Ferdinand’s influence into the politics of southern Italy extended the edict requiring conversion to Catholicism or exile into the fabric of southern Italy. As had happened in Spain and Sicily a few years before, roughly half the Jewish population of southern Italy chose exile rather than conversion. It should be noted that the Jewish population of the Vulture, among the oldest Jewish communities in Italy and made up largely of descendants of the Jewish rebellion against Rome, was the last to leave the south in 1494-1495. The departure of the Jews who did not convert ended over 1,800 years of religious tolerance toward Judaism in southern Italy.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain had a daughter Joanna who succeeded her mother as Queen of Castille upon Isabella’s death in 1504. Joanna had married Philip of Austria in 1496 heir to the Habsburg/German crown. Initially Joanna lived with her husband in Germany but returned to Castille to be recognized as Isabella’s rightful heir in 1502 after the second of her older siblings died.  Her marriage to Philip was successful in producing six children including an heir Charles born in 1500. After Joanna was recognized as Isabella’s heir she returned to her husband until the death of her mother. Joanna had begun to exhibit substantial emotional issues starting around 1500. These problems grew progressively worse with time. When she returned to Spain after her mother’s death her father acted as her guardian. Prince Philip her consort however stepped in as co regent in 1505 and helped rule Castille as well as his own estates in Germany. Unfortunately Philip died in 1506 when Charles was only six years old. Charles, who was being looked after by an aunt in Germany, then inherited his father’s princely estates in Germany. The death of Philip was more than Joanna could emotionally handle, and she became known as Joanna the Mad. Ferdinand once again stepped in to administer Castille which he would continue to do until his own death in 1516.

The discoveries of Columbus and subsequent access to the vast riches of the Americas launched a frenzy of European exploration after 1492. In the mid 1490’s in an attempt to peacefully divide the new found territories the Pope, a Spanish Borja or Borgia as the name is written in Italian, divided control to all the newly found land between Portugal and Castille. This did not stop exploration by France, England and Holland. Those other European countries and the discoveries that were made under their flags were largely captained initially by navigators and sea captains who were Italians. Among those initial explorers was Cabot who landed in what is now Canada in 1497, Vespucci’s who explored  the coast of Brazil in 1499, and Verranzano who first entered what is now New York harbor in 1524. It is from Verranzano’s exploration that France traced its claim to a portion of the north American territory.

As previously noted in 1516 King Ferdinand of Aragon died. Queen Joanna was his natural heir and did receive his titles including those of Sicily and southern Italy. However, due to her mental state, with some political push her son Charles was made co-regent even though he was only sixteen. The period beginning with Charles ascendency to the Crown is the beginning of the Spanish Habsburg Dynasty. Generally history skips over Joanna and states that the Spanish crowns were unified in one monarch for the first time under Charles the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella. Shortly after he became King Charles entered into a treaty with the King of France giving him the Kingdom of Naples while retaining Sicily. However he subsequently thought better of it and broke the treaty setting into motion more conflict with France over their Italian claims.

Around 1518 Charles sponsored five ships for a voyage of global exploration under the command of Magellan. Several of Magellan’s ships returned about four years later successfully navigating around the world for the first time.

In 1519 the German King and Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, died. Charles was also his grandson and heir and at nineteen years of age assumed the titles Maximilian I  including the title Holy Roman Emperor. During his lifetime Charles would become the first monarch to rule an empire which stretched around the entire globe. It was during his reign that the phase “the sun never sets on his empire” was first coined and used to describe the scope of the Empire. It should be recognized that Charles who had unprecedented power also had unprecedented administrative issues to deal with. He is generally regarded as a competent monarch who had responsibilities thrust upon him at an early age. For his time he was considered well educated, stable, fluent in about a half dozen languages, and a good political strategist.  On assuming the German Crown Charles was faced with many unique challenges as well as traditional ones. The traditional independence of the German nobility which faced all German monarchs was suddenly coupled in part with as a growing Catholic reform movement in parts of northern Germany lead by a monk named Martin Luther.

Under pressure from the Vatican in the early 1520’s Charles declared the heresy a capital offense. This reinforcement of intolerance to under Charles encouraged the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition started by Charles’ grandparents. All forms of religious “Christian” expression other than fundamental Catholic doctrine were considered heresy and subject to severe punishment. It is also during Charles’ reign and the continued conflict with France that Henry VIII of England’s marital problems surfaced leading to the English Church’s break with Rome.

In the heavily blended cultural melting pot of southern Italy the imposition of strict fundamental religious doctrine presented a dangerous circumstance for the population.

It is an historic fact that while most of the population’s religious observances are Catholic and “Christian” the ceremonies and rites often have roots in older traditions as well. The possibility that such religious observances would be declared heresy by colonial Spanish authorities was ever present. This was particularly true as it applied to the “Conversos” Jews who had been baptized Christian.

As previously written when Ferdinand and Isabella required conversion to Christianity or expulsion from Spain and southern Italy about half the resident Jewish population chose to “convert”. However an explanation of what in fact occurred is warranted. What has been understated in history is that most “Conversos” acceptance of Christ as the Messiah did not alter the fact, in their minds, that they were Jews and subject to Jewish religious law. It would be difficult to prove by family histories but some Jews who had resided in southern Italy had accepted the belief that Christ was the Messiah since the earliest beginnings of Christianity. Continuation of Jewish religious practice by baptized Jews, who continued traditional Jewish religious practices, came to be viewed by Spanish authorities as heretic which the Inquisition vigorously attempted to eradicate causing untold suffering. The persecution led to further exiles and among those who did not leave a deeper submergence of their roots. The clash between imposed imperial religious fundamentalism and local cultural religious identity has led through the years to the very difficult to understand local attitude toward faith and religion.

In the 1530’s war flared up again between France and Spain over dominance in Italy. Spain emerged triumphant in large part because Genoa under the leadership of their famous war admiral Andrea Doria switched allegiance to Charles and Spain. Among the many rewards that Admiral Doria received for his part in turning the tide of battle was the bestowing of the County of Melfi, which neighbors the County of Balvano to Admiral Doria in the year 1538. Doria took to himself the title Prince of Melfi and Descendants of this branch of the Doria family remained the Princes’ of Melfi into the nineteenth century.  At the same time the County of Balvano, including San Fele, was transferred by Charles to the well placed Caracciolo family. In essence the taxing authority for the region passed to absentee colonial landlords in 1538.

In 1561 another massive earthquake hit the region. This one appears to have been more centered in the Vulture region with the death toll estimated to be between 20,000-30,000 people. There are documents surviving where the Count of Balvano sent his administrators into the county to check on the damage. He was in his palace in Naples an was unaffected by the quake. According to records there was extensive damage in Balvano with four towns listed as leveled including Muro Lucano which suffered a partial collapse of its ancient fortress in this earthquake. There is no direct mention of damage in San Fele but that may be because of the extensive damage that had not been recovered from in the earthquake of 1456.

Its population crushed, its buildings in ruins, its economy in shambles and its taxes being siphoned off by absentee landlords working for foreign powers the residents of Basilicata that were still alive somehow found the courage to start to rebuild. As a result of the impact of these two earthquakes it is estimated that unlike the rest of Italy ninety-five per cent of all of the structures located in Basilicata were constructed in the sixteenth century or later. Also unique to Basilicata, because of the extreme devastation from the earthquakes the population was forced to rebuild by reusing the crumbled ruins of what had existed incorporating the stone into new and often significantly more modest new structures. Pierce the stucco skin of the homes of San Fele for example, and a jigsaw puzzle of stone elements from many older structures are part of the walls of homes and churches throughout the community. Probably the most visible example of the use of recycled construction materials is Palazzo Frascella. Within the walls of the structure can be found stone work from the Otto’s fortress, and the Church of St. Sabastian. In addition the cylinder shaped Norman Bell tower which was the only structure at the mountain top to survive the 1456 earthquake was incorporated into the Palazzo’s design. Every piece of stone that had been a part of Otto’s Fortress was dismantled, removed and reused for other purposes. The major buildings on Monte Castello, including the Church of the Madonna of the Oak, Palazzo Stia and Palazzo Faggella  all date from the 1500’s are also examples of this reuse of building materials common to the whole of Basilicata.



View of Tower incorporated into Palazzo Frascella                                                    Second view of Tower
     former site of San Sabastiano's Bell Tower                                                     Photo courtesy of Walter Librano
            Photo courtesy of Walter Librano




              View of steps inside of tower of Palazzo Frascella                     Ancient stonework incorporated into modern structure
                       Photo courtesy of Walter Librano                                                      Photo courtesy of Dr. Daniel Frascella



                                                                         Monte Castello & Palazzo Frascella
                                                           Cleared area above Palazzo is site of Otto's Fortress.
                                            Cross at top of mountain marks area as "Holy or consecrated ground".


In the late sixteenth century a child was born in Genoa by the name of Girolamo Grimaldi-Cavalleroni. A descendant of several of the most powerful families in Genoa, he also traces his maternal line to San Fele as a descendant of the baron of that town. In time Girolamo would realize a religious vocation holding a number of important offices in the Church and eventually being appointed a Cardinal Archbishop. He was one of four Grimaldis to attain the rank of Cardinal of the Church.



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