I recently took a step back in time and had the opportunity to visit the hallowed grounds of my paternal grandparents.
In 1890 my grandfather, Pietro Roccanova, left Naples seaport in third class steerage for the arduous trip to America. He settled on the lower east side of Manhattan and was eventually followed by my grandmother, Maria Latorraca, who stayed in a convent until they could be married in 1899.
Life was rough for them in America, too. Here, they settled in a 4-room tenement apartment. He worked as a shoemaker; she was the homemaker taking care of their 8 surviving (of 14) children.
I never knew them. He passed long before my birth and she 6 months after, but some of their history is legend among families who emigrated to the U.S. during that era – especially those from Southern Italy which was rife with poverty and all sorts of hardships.
Let me tell you about Craco.
It’s a small commune about an hour’s drive from Matera in the province of Basilicata. Craco’s history dates back to 540AD when Greeks moved inland from the coast and created a settlement on a rock formation built high into the landscape above the surrounding hills.
It is said that the population grew from 450 in 1277 — to about 1800 in succeeding centuries. However, in the year 1656, a plague killed hundreds of people and reduced the population.
Then, later, in the 19th century, when the town reached its expansion limit and coupled with severe famine due to poor agricultural conditions, there was a mass migration of about 1300 inhabitants to North America between the years 1892 and 1922.
Over the years (centuries), Craco was an agricultural community that eventually created a monastic center, university, castle, church and plazas. A flourishing society existed and was enjoyed at some point in its history, as evidenced by the remains of this fresco … but it was not without undue hardship and strife that preceded and followed it.
It was particularly eye-opening to juxtapose the remains of a centuries’ old fresco with the remains of a not too distant in the past kitchen where people enjoyed their families and lives.
Though Craco suffered through many occupations and plagues, it was natural disaster* in the form of gradual and continued landslides from the 1950s-1970s (accompanied by periodic earthquakes) that eventually destroyed it completely.
In 1963, the last residents were forced to leave Craco for safety reasons and were ultimately relocated, although they had to live in tent cities for an extended period. Today, sadly, it remains abandoned, inhabitable and inaccessible to the public (except with permission — and hard hats!)
*Although no one died due to these geological occurrences, it’s been said that the real culprit was “human error” because the threat of landslides was known to scientists since 1910 and, due to political and ruling factors, proper measures were not taken to thwart it. Sad! Triste!
A few more photos here.