The Arbereshe: An Italian “Anthropological Miracle” In the Name of Scanderbeg

Prof. Françesco Altimari. Sept. 29, 2019. New York City. Courtsy of the author.

This speech was presented by Professor Françesco Altimari at the Arbëreshë Seminar co-presented by Albanian Institute and Casa Italiana, New York University (NYU) on September 29, 2019 in New York City.

Why this title for my conversation tonight? Firstly, I’ll say that the subtitle, an “anthropological miracle,” is not mine, but rather is how this community had been defined by the great Italian intellectual of the 20th century, Pier Paolo Pasolini.  He was in conversation with papas Giuseppe Faraco after a conference on Minorities and School, organized in Lecce in October of 1975 – that is, 2 weeks after his tragic death. And because of the extraordinary history and rich culture produced by this community with Balkan origins, spanning six centuries since settling on the Italian Peninsula, the Arbëreshë continue to take pride in being Albanian as well as take great pride in being essentially part of – neither other than or different from – the Italian community.

Last year was the 550th anniversary of the death of Albanian national hero Giorgio Castriota Scanderberg, whose legacy, over the years, revived the friendship and solidarity between the two counties –Italy and Albania. The Arbëreshë have been fierce defenders and, as I will describe, active builders of this relationship. They further centered the presence of this minority language by organizing a historic meeting between the two presidents, Sergio Mattarella of Italy and Ilir Meta of Albania.

It was the first of its kind over half a millennium of history of Albanians in Italy, and was set in a place that symbolizes our identity: Italian-Albanian College of Saint Adrian in San Demetrio Corone on November 7th last year. Pope Francis, in celebrating the 550th anniversary of the death of Scanderbeg, held a special court hearing in his name on November 19th, 2018, dedicated to the representation of the Albanian community.

The Albanians of Italy, a nearly singular case in the European context, have been protagonists of two Risorgimenti throughout their history – the Italian unification and the Albanian. The community represents, in the context of historical linguistic minorities of our country, an emblematic model of happily and peacefully realized, full integration.

The law n.482/1999, “Rules on the Protection of Historical Linguistic Minorities,” applies articles 3 and 6 of the Constitution of the Italian Republic. Since this law was passed, the Arbëreshë are today recognized as a historical linguistic minority alongside 11 other Italian minorities. Unfortunately, many rights have still been disregarded which the law itself establishes. Our rich linguistic patrimony and our cultural heritage run a serious risk of disappearing, additionally, because of emigration and the deep social and economic crisis which involves them as our hubs, though displaced across remote areas of Southern Italy.

The destinies of our community and those of other “internal” linguistic minorities, still lacking adequate safeguards, are truly in danger: these silent witnesses of Italian national history seriously risk not only dying out, but also risk the loss of the extraordinary cultural wealth for which they are gatekeepers. This characteristic of our country would be irrevocably compromised.

It’s about time that all citizens, including those from minority communities, would finally have equal rights, so that there would also be no disparity between minorities in the North and those in the South. Here, I want to remember how, even in Scanderbeg’s century, the great Northern cities, Venice in particular, generously opened their arms to welcome the refugees of the time.

This reestablished a fundamental principle of Humanism which inspires European civilization: respect for others and for their rights. For these reasons the figure of Giorgio Castriota Scanderbeg is more relevant than ever, just as he has been consistently in the past.

Two great journalists and scholars Enrico Mascilli-Migliorini and Antonio Talamo asked “who is Scanderbeg?,” in the first documentary produced by the Calabrian branch of RAI, “The Last of Scanderbeg,” in 1962. Since the early 1960s, the two documentarians noticed the deep and enigmatic connection felt by the Arbëreshë.  They declared themselves as Scanderbeg’s rightful heirs, even ultimately identifying directly with him as they would say: “He is Arbëreshë!” How was it possible that an entire community would identify themselves with the name of Scanderbeg?

Giorgio Castriota Scanderbeg (1405-1468), united with his people for a quarter of a century – from 1444 to 1468 – resisted the advances of the Turks. He became not only a leader symbolizing that heroic resistance, but also one of the political and diplomatic protagonists of a new European consciousness.  Not by chance, this consciousness was forged in the refined and cultured intellectual laboratory of Enea Silvio Piccolomini, a supporter and good friend of Scanderbeg. He was the leader who, having distinguished himself in the resistance against the Ottoman invasion, better embodied the humanistic ideals and Christian values that supported the modern Europeanist vision of future Pope Pius II.


For these reasons, the Arbëreshë, also as witnesses to this resistance, elected Scanderbeg to the rank of myth, foundational to their identity. They identified themselves with the myth of a hero or even, as we just heard, with the personalization of that same myth. This is what the Arbëreshë did: when the memory of Giorgio Castriota Scanderbeg had been blurred (so as not to say forgotten) in the Balkans, Europe, on the contrary, reawakened it.

For their part, the Arbëreshë in Italy perpetuated the figure and the epic of their hero in perfect harmony with Italian Renaissance culture. In fact, the Great Era for the Arbëreshë corresponds with the “Moti i Madh,” an expression coined in the 19th century by the genius of Girolamo De Rada. He was referring to Scanderbeg’s time, defining the historical memory of the Albanian community in Southern Italy, a sacred time which is preserved, almost unchanged, in the name-day and in the popular traditions.

Scanderbeg’s memory is conserved and lives today in the “Valle” of the Easter period in the communities of Civita, Eianina and Frascineto. They take us back to ancient rituals, of pre-Christian matrix, to the memory of the ancestors who marked the cycle of secular and religious rites of spring, from the Saturday of the Carnival to the Saturday of Pentecost.

In December 2016, through the “Francesco Solano” University Foundation (established in 2011 to commemorate the founding father of the chair of Albanology of the University of Calabria), the two chairs of Albanology from the Universities of Calabria and Palermo presented the proposal which nominates immaterial Arbëreshë culture, symbolized by the rituals of the Moti i Madh, as a universal heritage of UNESCO.

The historically-settled Albanian community is distributed today throughout seven regions of Southern Italy (Sicily, Calabria, Basilicata, Campania, Puglia, Molise, Abruzzo). This is the list of Albanian-speaking communities in Italy, reported according to the Italian official denomination and according to the popular denomination in Albanian language.

At one time the Arbëreshë communities, which were originally Orthodox, were united by the profession of the “Greek Rite.” During the time of the Counter-Reformation, strong pressure from the local Catholic Church forced many communities to adopt the Latin Catholic rite, causing the uprooting of many cultural traditions of Albanians of Italy, such as that of the Easter “Valle.”

Today, the Arbëreshë communities of the Byzantine rite (25/50) are administered by two Eparchies: that of Lungro, Calabria, (est. 1919) and that of Piana degli Albanesi, Sicily (est. 1937).

The “Greek rite” decisively contributed to strengthening the Arbëreshë identity, whose preservation was guaranteed by the role played by the Collegini Corsini in Calabria (1732) and the Italo-Greek-Albanian Seminary of Palermo in Sicily (1734). The two institutes became training centers for most of the clergy and Arbëreshë intelligentsia until the end of the 19th century. [The religious inheritance has therefore passed to the two Eparchies Arbëreshë – that of Lungro in Calabria and that of Piana degli Albanesi in Sicily. Meanwhile, the cultural one has passed to the two chairs of Albanology, established respectively in 1931 at the University of Palermo and in 1973 at the University of Calabria].

The Corsini College played a very important role in spreading the ideas from the Risorgimento in favor of Italian Unification, as well as of Albanian independence. In 1794, after transferring from the monastery of S. Adriano to San Demetrio Corone, the College assumed the title of Corsini-S. Adriano, initiated by bishop Francesco Bugliari who was then killed by the sanfedisti. It was Bishop Domenico Bellusci who radically changed the educational and training structure of this institute, which had among its students Domenico Mauro and Girolamo De Rada. They were two of the most illustrious representatives of the Southern Romantic movement born and developed within the walls of the College, the same “Calabrian Natural Romanticism” of which critic Francesco De Sanctis speaks.

Girolamo De Rada (1814-1903), from Macchia Albanese, had the great merit of inserting Italo-Albanian literary culture into the wider circuit of national and European romanticism, transforming it into a vigorous modern expression of committed and militant literature. Thanks to his rich artistic production, De Rada became a tireless promoter and inspirer of the “Rilindja” movement (Italian-Albanian rebirth). With his works and newspapers, he effectively contributed to project the “Albanian question” in Italy and in Europe (Quoting the judgment of the most famous contemporary Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, who was nominated many times for the Nobel Prize in Literature):

“Jeronim de Rada is not only a great and unrepeatable Albanian and European poet. He is also one of the creators of the lost homeland, one of those who, in the midst of darkness, kept alight the lamp of Albanian poetry and culture when Albania, immersed in darkness, needed him so much. 

Along with that flame, Jeronim de Rada kept alive the Albanian dream for the freedom and the dream of Albanian’s return in Europe, the maternal continent. This colossus of poetry and love is part of those missionaries who have returned the lost papers of the nobility to this homeland. This is why his name, as well as his work, will be immortal over the centuries.” — Ismail Kadare. Paris, 7 October 2003

Numerous generations of Arbëreshë intellectuals from different regions of southern Italy followed the example of De Rada. For Calabria, I limit myself to mentioning Francesco Antonio Santori (1819-1894), whom we have commemorated these days in the bicentenary of his birth, and Giuseppe Serembe (1844-1901). For Sicily, Gabriele Dara (1826-1885) and Giuseppe Schirò (1865-1927), poet, intimate friend of Luigi Pirandello, owner of the first chair of Abanology in Europe at the Oriental Institute of Naples.

Francesco Crispi was another protagonist of Arbëreshë origin of the Risorgimento movement and of post-Risorgimento Italian history. Together with Pasquale Scura and Luigi Giura, he was a member of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s dictatorial government.  With regard to Crispi, this is how great Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci expresses himself, «[…] being Albanian by origin was not brought into play because Crispi was also Albanian, educated in an Albanian college and who spoke Albanian […]».

Gramsci’s family had not arrived from Epirus in Sardinia after the outbreak of the Greek Revolution in 1821, as Antonio had erroneously written in his Letters from prison. Rather, he was originally from the Arbëreshë community of Plataci, in Calabria, as some recent archival research shows, promoted by the Hon. Mario Brunetti.

In addition to actively participating as protagonists in the Risorgimento, the Albanians of Italy have also made a significant contribution to Italian contemporary and democratic history. Here, I’d like to mention some representative figures such as: Attanasio Dramis from Calabria (1829-1911), and Nicola Barbato from Sicily (1856-1923), who took on the role of the true avant-garde in the civil and democratic renewal movements of Southern society. Right in the plateau of Portella delle Ginestre near Piana degli Albanesi, where Barbato harangued the crowds, 11 unarmed peasants, including many Arbëreshë, were slain in a massacre on May 1st, 1947.

Another important figure in the Arbëreshë community who has played a leading role in more recent Italian history is that of Costantino Mortati (1891-1985). He was also a pupil of the Italian-Albanian College of San Demetrio Corone and is now included among the more authoritative Italian jurists and constitutionalists of the 20th century. He also took part in the work of the “Commission of the 75,” which drafted the Constitutional Charter of today’s Italian Republic.

Another important figure of Arbëreshë origins, who played a leading role in Italian culture, politics, and society over the past few decades, was Stefano Rodotà (1933-2017) – one of the most authoritative jurists and undisputed protagonist in the battles for the defense of civil rights in our country. He was also a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic.

A well-known Arbëreshë in literature are Carmine Abate, Fabio Stassi, Enrique Cadicamo, Ernesto Sabato, and in music, Harry Warren.

With the propulsive thrust of support for the movement towards Italian Unification exhausted in 1861, many Arbëreshë intellectuals began to turn their commitments (e.g. literary, cultural, and political) in favor of Albania, the ancient homeland of their ancestors. The soul of the Albanian national Rilindja (Renaissance) was Girolamo De Rada. He succeeded in gathering hundreds of Arbëreshë intellectuals around his numerous initiatives in favor of Albanian independence. These included, for the first time in their history, the Municipal Administrations of Albanians of Italy, who joined the deradian political agenda.

I would like to recall a few Arbëreshë intellectuals who played an important role in the history of Albania in the first half of the 19th century: Anselmo Lorecchio (1843-1924), founder and director for approx. 27 years of the journal La Nazione Albanese which brought forward the ideas of his teacher G. De Rada. Also, Terenzio Tocci (1880-1944) is of note.

Today, these once “foreign” communities do not feel at all “other,” distinct and separate from either the regional communities or from the Italian national community where they’ve belonged for 6 centuries. Instead, they feel proudly an integral part of Italy, having shared history and destinies, dramas and hopes. Equally, they proudly continue to feel part of the Albanian nation, of the “Gjaku ynë i shprishur” (Our Blood Displayed).

When the Albanians of Italy, experiencing the tragedy of a second emigration, relocated to even more distant lands in the New World, as did many Italians, they continued to maintain the same attitude, defend the same open identity, integrating but not assimilating, giving life to a truly unique phenomenon that friend and fellow anthropologist Mario Bolognari has happily called the “Diaspora of the Diaspora.”

Between the end of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century, we witnessed a massive exodus from the Arbëreshë community towards North America and towards Latin America. In this American diaspora, we also find important intellectuals and writers: Giuseppe Serembe (San Cosmo Alb. 1844 – San Paolo Brazil 1901), who published The Veteran Soldier (lyric ballad) in New York in 1895; Felice Tocci (Vaccarizzo Albanese 1840 – New York 1918), a former student of the Collegio di S. Demetrio who emigrated to the USA in 1872 where he opened a Banking Institute (1872) and bought the newspaper L’Eco d’Italia (1880); furthermore, Giuseppe Cadicamo (San Demetrio C.1842 – ?), a pupil of the College of S. Adriano and friend of G. De Rada, whom Felice Tocci called to the USA in 1888 to direct L’Eco d’Italia for three years (1888-1891). In 1891, Tocci founded the Dante Alighieri boarding school in Astoria, Long Island and published several works. Another Arbëreshë intellectual of this new diaspora was Antonio Argondizza (San Giorgio Albanese 1839 – San Giorgio Albanese 1918), also a pupil of the College of St. Demetrius and of De Rada. He published a newspaper in New York entitled The Italian Emigrant. Finally in 1921, Pietro Scaglione from Piana degli Albanesi (Lercara Friddi 1906 – Palermo 1971) published Historia e Shqiptarëvet t’Italisë me parathënie prej prof. Josef Kadikami and me përhyrje prej Lumo Skendo (History of the Albanians of Italy with a preface by Giuseppe Cadicamo and introduction by Lumo Skendo) in New York. In the same year, he directed the bimonthly Afrimi, and in 1929 he founded a new newspaper, Albania.

Traces of the impact of the mass migration to the US are still found in the language of the Albanians of Italy: we recall the many Anglicisms still in use, such as: suerë (sweaters), bllakaman (blackmen), buxhet (budgets), xhob (jobs), kot (coats), mashinë (machine) etc.

From this very brief history of the Arbëreshë, I cannot exclude an evaluation of the historical lessons offered to us in the present. The generous hospitality received from the populations that welcomed them – first in Italy and then in the New World – was repaid by those ancient immigrants in the only way possible for them: by contributing with their efforts and with the hard work of their arms, but also with their civil and intellectual commitment to regenerate and enrich the countries they would learn to love as their new homelands.

To conclude my speech, referring to both the first Italian diaspora and the second American diaspora, I dare to say that in the history of the Arbëreshë community, the prophetic message of the great Greek poet of the twentieth century and sincere soul of our Mediterranean, Iannis Ritsos (1909-1990), had made a prophetic statement through an extraordinary verse of his poem, If the Stranger Arrives (1958). He reveals a profound truth that I want to share with you as a hope for our future: “And the stranger was the most us among us.”

*Speech that was delivered by Francesco Altimari (University of Calabria) on September 29, 2019 at New York University’s, Casa Italiana Zerilli – Marimò

Edited by Klodiana Kastrati.

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