I wanted to stand where Italy ends, at the tip of the heel of Italy’s boot,  the “peninsula within a peninsula” known as the Salento. I heard someone say you could see the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet there, a green sea funnelling alongside and mixing with a blue sea, and that seemed to me like a sight worth seeing- a symbolic meeting and merging on one of Europe’s original frontiers with the East.


The train journey from Naples to Lecce, where the rail line ends, took seven hours with two changes. Once across the central mountains, the terrain became flat and laid out in vineyards covered in plastic sheeting, like the contents of some enormous outdoor house whose owners had gone away. Vines alternated with groves of vigorous ancient olive trees, their trunks as thick and gnarled as pillars, standing in red earth or in fields of scarlet poppies. A lot of the land was scrub. Concrete blocks littered it, under forests of electric pylons, or were piled up on the outskirts of the towns to make crude apartments, like Eastern Block housing that had migrated south. The stations at Taranto and Brindisi were utterly deserted in the afternoon sun. At Taranto, the buffet was closed “for reasons of family” and the toilets were too filthy and encrusted to use. The cleaner raised her bucket to show me her brand-new brush and cleaning materials but, she said, she had no water to clean with.


Each time we changed trains, they got smaller and slower until, just outside Brindisi, our handful of carriages ground to a stop for half an hour in a weed-filled siding beside some abandoned, gutted factory buildings. Two tall Africans who had been pacing restlessly up and down the aisles of the coach opened the door, jumped down on to the track and walked off across the fields. They were itinerant tobacco workers, riding the rails while they looked for work.


It was late Saturday afternoon when we finally reached Lecce.The taxi from the station to the hotel careened through dusty, empty streets, everything shut up for the siesta under a flat, orange light and with the torpid feeling you get in the deep South. We unpacked and washed up. By the time we went out for a stroll, the town had revived for the evening. We found ourselves in the middle of a serata, the Southern Italian version of the Mediterranean passagiata which bears about the same relation to the original that a modern Hollywood blockbuster, stuffed with sfx, does to a silent movie. What seemed to be the entire 100,000 population of Lecce had walked in, ridden in or driven in to the city centre where they parked and strolled up and down the pedestrian-only main street greeting friends, talking and eating ice cream and packets of candied nuts. In places, the crowd was so thick it was difficult for anyone to move. Darkness fell, we ate dinner at a restaurant, we walked back to the hotel and at ten o’clock at night they were all still there, a crowd almost a mile long whose sole object and only form of entertainment was itself.


Next morning, we hired a car and drove over the spanking-new freeway to Gallipoli- the Italian Gallipoli not the Balkan battlefield- where the old town’s whitewashed cubes with blue doors are the same shape and colour as English seaside latrines. Then we turned south again along the narrow coast road. Southern Italy-and the Salento in particular- has always been a border region, and borders are interesting places. In retrospect, we tend to see them as melting pots where different cultures and civilisations overlapped and influenced one another in creative ways. During the period when they are in history’s eye, though, they’re often areas of conquest and migration, tension and conflicts. In short, war zones.


In its day- a day that lasted some two thousand years- the Salento was the border region to trump all border regions. Its peninsula was the medieval equivalent of a failed state,or no state at all. A flat limestone tabeland squeezed between two seas and wide open to attack, the Salento evolved a unique defensive landscape. We drove on empty tracks among olive groves and vineyards belonging to great feudal-style estates, all perfectly maintained and tended though you never saw a soul working in them. Here and there among the trees squatted trulli (peasant) huts, which in this part of Puglia are made of piled stones, like stone tents. A larger version of trulli looks like the trapezoidal concrete bunkers spread around Europe during World War Two, although they are much older. Largest of all local structures are the masserie, fortified farmhouses that used to double as country houses for landowners who lived in town but moved out to spend the summers. With their high walls and massive keeps, they look as if they’d been built as trial essays or maquettes for the familiar, full-sized medieval castle.


Around the U of the Salento’s coastal strip a chain of watchtowers stand in windswept isolation, austerely elegant in their ruin, concave and turreted like the “castle” pieces on a chessboard.


John Julius Norwich in his history of the Norman kingdom in Italy, describes South Italy during the 11th century as “a great cauldron….surrounded and pervaded by the constant clashing of the four greatest powers of the time, torn apart by the warring claims of four races, three religions and an ever-varying number of independent, semi-independent or rebellious states and cities.”[1] If the key to Northern Italian history is that the rebels succeeded, at least for long enough to create the patchwork of city-states that produced the Italian Renaissance, the key to history in the South is that the rebels failed. For almost two millennia, from antiquity to around 1500, Southern Italy was conquered and colonised by, in rough succession, the Greeks, the Romans, Byzantium, the Lombards, Byzantium again, the Normans, the Holy Roman Empire in the person of Frederick II, “stupor mundi”, the Angevins and the Aragonese, before finally settling down after 1500 as part of the kingdom of Naples, to be ruthlessly exploited for a further three and a half centuries by the Spanish followed by the Bourbons (with brief interruptions from the Austrians and Napoleonic France) .


In addition, for 600 of those 2000 years, between the 9th century AD and the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 that ended the threat, the Salento was repeatedly raided and sacked by marauders from the Islamic world, first the Saracens (a generic name for Muslim pirates based in North Africa), then the rising power of the Ottoman Turks.


Bernadetto Croce called South Italy a land without a history, meaning that its history was not its own but belonged to the history of its various conquerors. He could have gone a step further and pointed out that, even in the annals of its various rulers, South Italy was never central, never more than a sideshow, a means to some greater end. The real action was always elsewhere. For the Romans, it was Rome. For the Normans, it was Sicily. For Frederick 2nd, it was the struggle of the empire with the papacy. For the Angevins, it was the Papal side of that same struggle. For the Aragonese, it was the politics of the Holy Roman Empire, and so on. After 1500, the Kingdom of Naples, of which Salento was a remote province, was known as “the Spanish viceroyalty” which captures the essentially absentee nature of their rule, while the Bourbons who succeeded them might as well have been absent, their presence merely a guarantee of careless and profligate autocracy. As for the powerful aristocrats who made up the Neapolitan court and owned South Italy’s estate, they grew more feckless, irresponsible-and absentee- with each passing century.


 If the Salento still feels half-empty, the reason is not only because it is a distant and provincial territory, Italy’s literal dead end. The Salento’s emptiness is also feudal, political. To the Romans, it was a granary, worked by slaves. To most of their successors, it was a tax farm populated by peasants. Along with its island extension in Sicily, South Italy is home to the most super-exploited peasantry in Europe, and a living proof of the deeply destructive and perverse consequences of colonisation and repression. Historically, the North-South divide bedevilled the unification of Italy in the md-19th century, became the “problem of the mezzogiorgno” in the mid-20th and returned to wreak terrible havoc in the 1990s when the full entanglement of Southern Mafia with national government began to be exposed- exposed but not eradicated. Psychologically, the consequences of that geographical split which is also a political fissure (bridging it by corrupt co-operation between Rome and the Mafia turned out to be the key formula of postwar Italian electoral politics) linger in the feelings of individuals like my Umbrian neighbour Pasquale. In his prime, Pasquale left his native village to find work building roads all over the country. He was part of the great road-building programme that opened much of rural Italy to the wider world in the 1950s. But when the autostrada reached Naples, Pasquale quit and came home. “I wouldn’t eat south of Naples,” he said with a scowl of distaste, using the old-fashioned expression that means he wouldn’t go south of Naples even to earn a living (literally, to make the money to eat). “They’re different down there. We Italians,” he told me, reserving nationhood for the north, “we Italians are honest and open, we welcome strangers, but not down there. They’re rotten people.”


These days, the South’s very history of repression and isolation has made its inhabitants into favourite subjects for sociologists, anthropologists, folklorists and other academic researchers. Puglia, and the Salento in particular, have been called “a stop on the anthropological tourist map”. One of the earliest works in this genre- before it became a genre- was Christ Stopped At Eboli, Carlo Levi’s famous account of his internal exile under Mussolini, when Levi found conditions in the South in the 1930s essentially unchanged since the Middle Ages. Admittedly, the village where Levi was exiled was in Basilicata, in  the central highlands, an even more inaccessible and impoverished area than the Salento (Basilicata today remains the smallest and poorest province in Italy). Admittedly too, Levi has been accused of exaggerating for effect, making the the peasants he lived among sound more superstitious and simple-minded than they really were. But Levi’s book, unlike many of his more “scientific” successors, has the great merit of not ignoring politics. Quite the opposite. 

 It’s through politics that Levi is able to bring his own Northern world of learning, culture, conversation and the daily doings of men and affairs, out of which Mussolini’s police tore him, together with the timeless peasant world of darkness, ignorance and animal-like labour in which he finds himself exiled. In the end, he realises that the “problem of the South” his Northern friends are always puzzling over is only the problem of the North writ large.There is no North-South split, only less or more extreme versions of the same situation. The two problems are the same problem, the problem of Italy itself.


Levi’s own suggested solution- reinventing the Italian state from the bottom up on the basis of autonomous rural communities- has found no takers. But Levi got the big things right in his book. He understood the chief traits of repressed peasantries, above all, their impulsive revolts against their fate, which are also inchoate attempts to gain power for themselves. The jaquerie is the archetypal peasant protest. “These downtrodden folk have always been given to wilful and ephemeral explosions. Some human mischance arouses their age-old repressed resentments, and they may set fire to a tax office or a barracks or cut the throats of their overlords. For a brief moment, a sort of Spanish ferocity is awakened in them, and they break loose in search of a freedom to be bought only with bloodshed and violence. Then they are led off to jail in stony indifference, like men who have released themselves in a single second from the burden of centuries.”[2]


Except, of course, they’ve done no such thing. Jaqueries offer only psychological release (and that brief). Politically, they are impotent gestures, easily defeated by the authorities and incapable of changing the basis structures of exploitation. Jaqueries are rural versions of the urban riot. Equally impotent to change things is what happens to the revolutionary impulse in between jaqueries, when it is expressed by the boldest (often also the most vicious) personalities among the peasants, who become outlaws or brigands, their revolt collapsing into crime.


Brigandage is a univeral phenomenon, of course, but South Italy was its classic European home (along with Spain). As recently as 1955, there were 160 “outlaws” reported at large in Reggio Calabria while the last kidnapping in Sardinia, whose mountainous core forms the second great refuge for Italian brigands, was a mere 13 years ago.[3] But the golden age of the freelance outlaw, the dashing cutthroat who took to the forest with a small band of followers and set himself up as the Italian counterpart to Robin Hood, has been effectively over for a century. Even Carlo Levi in the 1930s found only memories and a few ancient survivors of the bands. The great brigands were legendary figures, “primitive rebels” in Eric Hobsbawm’s influential phrase, both admired and feared among their fellow peasants who saw some of them at least as their champions against the oppression of wealth and power, supplied and protected the outlaws from the police, and turned them into myths in song and story when they were captured or killed.[4] The brigands were symbols of revolt, if not the thing itself. They were Robin Hoods, if you like, but they were the bloodthirsty real-life version, murderers and thieves, ferocious and doomed, not the childrens’ storybook character who robbed the rich to pay the poor and operated according to the ethics of an English public schoolboy.


Politically speaking, brigandage is an even more impotent style of revolt than the jaquerie. Rather than giving birth to radical political organisation, it tends to evolve into the criminal kind- into Mafia rather than revolution. Only in South Italy did brigands come close to leading a modern social and political revolution, after 1860 and the unification of Italy, when the North and the South clashed in a now-forgotten civil war with all of the atrocities, massacres and brutalities common to civil conflicts. It was a mixed-up war at that.The brigands fought against the new national Northern forces and in the name of the old reactionary Bourbon regime that had ruled the South, their political confusion typical of pre-modern conditions as well as one of the reasons why the brigands lost (another reason was their general inability to transform themselves into a disciplined military force). As Eric Hobsbawm wrote, “They rose not for the reality of the Bourbon kingdom-many of them had indeed helped to overthrow it a few months previously under Garibaldi- but for the idea of the ‘good old’ society naturally symbolised by the ideal of the ‘good old’ church and ‘good old’ king. Bandits in politics tend to be revolutionary traditionalists.”[5]


 Apart from these particular forms of violence, the other trait Carlo Levi identified among his peasants was superstition. On the face of it, jaqueries and magic seem like opposites. In fact, they are mirror images of one another, twin responses to repression. The first is a physical protest against powerlessness. The second is a secret way of gaining power by manipulating the world mentally (and spiritually). The first is an active, violent revolt, a reflex of rage that erupts after one humiliation too many. The second has its psychological roots in a passive, depressive embrace of fate that finds its release in fantasies of power. Levi’s village was a world of magic manipulated by local women who were witches. Witches (and sorcerers) are the settled, pastoral equivalent of shamans among the hunters and nomads- often mentally unstable individuals (or, in Levi’s account, sexual outsiders who had had children by various men) who heal themselves by gaining power over their lives and circumstances. Most of the magic Levi encountered was to do with healing illness or with love potions, although there was also a black magic, curses to harm or kill an enemy. At this level, magic is not the alternative to politics, as it’s often thought to be, but a position on a pre-political spectrum of resistance that goes from jaqueries and brigandage across to superstition, magic and cult.


It’s tempting to associate the violent end of this spectrum with men and the magical end with women but it would be a mistake to do so. For one thing, not all brigands were men: there were a number of famous female brigands or Mafiosi. We also have Levi’s own example as a warning: he writes of his surprise when he found that peasant life- in his part of southern Italy at any rate- was much less straightforwardly patriarchal than it was reputed to be. Geography seems a more viable distinction here than gender, with the mountainous Southwest more associated with the brigands and their modern successors, the Calabrian Mafia, while the Southeastern plain, Puglia and the Salento, may be more associated with magic and its greatest creation, tarantism.


Tarantism is a system of magical healing. “Victims” bitten by tarantula spiders fall into a morbid state but heal themselves through compulsive, trancelike dancing that can go on for three or four days before the dancer collapses from sheer exhaustion. The dancing, which over the centuries took on ritual elements, like hiring professional musicians to accompany it, has been described by eyewitnesses as “solitary and compulsive and monotonous, rather than hysterically wild, performed by the victim joylessly and gloomily and sluggishly and endlessly”.[6] It’s certainly very old. The earliest written reports of the custom date from the 14th century, and it was apparently a controversial practice right from the start. Although tarantula spiders are found in Puglia, their bite is relatively harmless, unlike the South American variety. Moreover, it wasn’t long after tarantism was reported that people began to notice that the self-selected “victims” all tended to come from the same social group of unmarried women.


Here then is magic that did have a sexual element as well as a mental health one: tarantism was a kind of psychic self-help, an early music and dance therapy for the depression that, along with rage, is a natural reaction to ineluctable fate,to the grinding, daily burden that characterised peasant life in the South. It’s probably fair to say that more men tend to express themselves through rage and more women through depression, though anyone who has been in therapy will testify to the way each state of mind flows into, and reveals itself as the obverse of, the other. Tarantism has some obvious historical comparisons, both ancient and more recent. A recent one is with hysteria, which was widespread among 19th century bourgeois women living very restricted and codified lives, and whose diagnosis and treatment formed the beginnings of modern psychiatry. A more ancient comparison is with shamanism. The “tarante’s” victims were seen as sick and somewhat shameful (as the mentally ill are still often regarded) but at the same time as individuals to be respected, the possessors of a special, secret knowledge. Shamans have a similar profile.


Whatever else tarantism was and perhaps still is- the books are all careful to say it is “largely extinct” or has “virtually died out”- it was an enormously successful magical invention, a symbolic system that touched deep psychological chords and whose influence reached far beyond its actual practitioners. Tarantism was a magic that combined healing, love (or sex), trance states and a quasi-public performance that, like an individual form of carnival (or a peaceful jaquerie) briefly turned the intolerable everyday world upside down. Over time, tarantism’s music and dance (collectively called the “pizzica”), along with its sexual overtones, split off and entered wider Italian (and Mediterranean) culture. The dance of the tarantella is Italy’s version of the Argentine tango, and it comes with the same heavy cultural baggage. In the 1930s, when tarantism was still a living practice in the Salento, Carlo Levi was a hundred miles away in Basilicata, where he described young peasants dancing the tarantella as if it was just a popular dance, though his description makes a telling, unconscious reference to its origins. “The two lovers,” he writes, “had an instinctive feeling for the dance as a sort of religious rite.”


So famous has tarantism since become around the world that when Karen Lutdke arrived in Puglia in the mid-1990s to do field research for her Oxford Anthropology Phd she was “often greeted as yet another foreigner curious about the mythic tarantula. ‘You too are here because of tarantism. Everybody comes to study tarantism!’”. As Ludtke soon discovered, she had landed herself in the middle of a culture war. The whole subject of Tarantism is now a “‘hot’ and disputed issue of local intellectual,, musical and political discourse”, she reported in an article about her experiences-  an unholy mix of taboo and trend. After being “widely perceived as a source of shame, representative of the South’s backwardness”, by the 1990s the signficance of tarantism had reversed itself, becoming a “roots” phenomenon, a badge of regional identity and point of pride. The change of attitude by no means affected everyone, with many locals still seeing the tarante as an embarrassing secret. At the same time, the new mood attracted all sorts of opportunists hoping to jump on the tarante bandwagon. Ludtke ended up restricting public access to her finished thesis, though reading her rather tortured musings on this decision, it’s not clear whether her primary motive was protecting the privacy of her sources or the value of her copyright.[7]


Peasant politics (or pre-politics) begin as confused protests against the way things are, then become all too easily co-opted by the forces of power and authority which twist them into additional props for the status quo. Thus jaqueries collapse into brigandage which becomes the background of the Mafia, whose sub rosa alliance with the Christian Democrats underpinned the post-war Italian state- and corrupted it. Thus magic and superstition transmutate into the various cults of saints, martyrs and miracles that make up the popular face of the South’s obscurantist and authoritarian Catholicism.[8] To this day, South Italy lives and breathes a faith that exists on the very borderline with superstition- one of the borders the regional tourist authorities aren’t so keen to talk about- whose representatives are people like the lady taxi driver who drove us from our hotel to the station at 5.30am on the day we left. She had been up all night, she said. She had just returned from a pilgrimage, twenty kilometres, hundreds of people, a wonderful experience. She herself had worn shoes but those who “really hoped for and expected a miracle” had gone barefoot. She couldn’t stop talking as the car careened through the empty town while her retarded son, the putative beneficiary of her devotion, slumped silently beside her in the passenger seat.


That was at the end of my stay in Lecce, when the same hotel was invaded by a conference of Italian shrinks debating new approaches to treating schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Ten minutes walk away, at the Duomo, the 20th Diocesan Conference on the Eucharist had been going on all weekend, a full-dress Catholic affair with three cardinals, the Archbishop of Palermo, television coverage, and, on Sunday morning, a mass that was a cacophony of flash bulbs. Half the congregation had hired local photographers, in the same way they’d hire them for a wedding (in all probability they were the same photographers). But on Sunday the snappers worked through the Eucharist, taking people’s souvenir close-ups at the exact moment they received the host from the Archbishop.


It struck me that the two rival conferences were like bookends for Italy’s inner life, which has long been split between the secular and the sacred. The farther south you go, the more religious the atmosphere, and I was in the Deep South now. For someone from a northern Protestant country, it felt like being back in the Middle Ages, which first put a Christian gloss on pagan superstitions of the sort that Carlo Levi catalogued in his exile village. Later on, during the evangelisation of the New World, the local superstitions trumped or overwhelmed the Christianity to produce Latin America’s parallel, magical religion, Santerria. But during the original conversion of Europe and its long drawn-out religious settlement, Christianity successfully subsumed superstition. Nevertheless, as much as the Roman Church moulded the old pre-Christian world, so that world in turn influenced the church which grew into a vast system of mediation, based on the three Ms- Martyrs, Miracles and the Madonna- rather than on Christ and His passion. Such a church is intimately interwoven with the lives and concerns of its people, like a second skin. But such a church also tends to be seen by those selfsame people as a machinery for producing earthly miracles. To put it another way, the church becomes an alternative to, or a substitute for, the old beliefs rather than sweeping them away. At the Italian grassroots, and in South Italy in particular, Roman Catholicism can have the aspect of a second, superior magic.


This is a genuine North-South divide, literally set in stone in the difference between the Gothic cathedrals of France and the multiple Baroque churches of Lecce. In the north, in France, the superstitious impulse gets distilled into “pure” Marian worship and the drive behind the building of the great cathedrals. The North has Chartres. The South has Lecce where, 400 years after Chartres,  Zimbaldi’s superabundant baroque mingled cherubs, or putti, mythical beasts, and the heads of classical gods and nature spirits in with Christian symbolism, then brought them to life in the local honey-coloured stone that carved like butter. Scattered throughout the city centre, its “wedding cake” religious buildings make Lecce look like a kind of Mediterranean Oxford, an Oxford that has thrown aside all architectural restraint, only with churches and convents instead of colleges.


 The two saints that count in Lecce are St.Oronzo and Padre Pio. The first is a purely local saint, Lecce’s first Bishop, credited with saving the city from the plague, though his rise to cult popularity was far from spontaneous but the result of some early Catholic spin-doctoring[9]. The second I happened to have heard about already, back in London, where there is a small, cluttered Padre Pio bookshop on Vauxhall Bridge Road. A couple of the Padre’s female devotees run the place and their large dog sleeps in its aisle. All three do their best to discourage casual customers. The shop gives no hint of the Padre’s movie star status in Italy. A stigmata-priest who built a huge hospital and cathedral complex in northern Puglia, on the Gargano Peninsula, before he died in 1968, Padre Pio’s cult broke out of its regional base to become a national phenomenon. In the 1960s, it used to be said that all Irish Catholics had two pictures in their homes, one of the Pope and the other of John F. Kennedy. Today, for Italian Catholics, it would be the Pope and Padre Pio- and, if they had to choose between the two, most would choose the Padre.


The hardcore emphasis on miraculous healing is typically Southern.[10] Even Padre Pio, for all his command of modern-day public relations, was only a supercharged version of Giuseppe Moscati, the so-called Holy Doctor, who has an entire wing of the Gesu Nuovo(Jesuit) church in Naples to himself, complete with re-creations of his study and bedroom.[11] Covering the walls of his chapel are hundreds, maybe thousands, of silver ex-voto body parts, miniature mass-produced lungs, wombs, hearts, legs etc.depicting the illnesses that their grateful donors had healed after praying to the Doctor-Saint. But miracle healing is only the extreme element in an everyday popular piety that is still woven into the fabric of Italian life. With the Virgin at their head, a panoply of saints populate the Italian countryside at what sometimes seems the rate of a fresh saint for each village, figures who are the Christian successors and thinly veiled substitutes for the old animal and nature spirits.[12] The major vicissitudes of life, such as health, are their principal concerns, but there are enough saints to cover every minor eventuality and social sub-group too. San Giuseppe is the patron saint of students and (USA only) aeronautics; the brother saints Crispin and Crispinian are the patron saints of leather-workers; St. Ivo is the patron saint of lawyers; and so on.



An hour’s drive took us from Gallipoli to Santa Maria de Leuca, from the top to the bottom of the Salento. Along the Ionian side of the peninsula, the road runs through a series of ugly-modern seaside towns, that were still shut up tight in mid-May, while the sea itself looked cold and empty. In recent years, Italians have discovered this part of the South for seaside holidays during July and August and the visitors have brought a new affluence, changing the Southern stereotype of poverty and deprivation. Lecce itself looks like a prosperous town these days with plenty of new cars and new clothes, and prices to match. Meanwhile, back in England, estate agents have begun describing Puglia as “the new Tuscany” to prospective second-home owners, glossing over the Southern attitude to strangers as well as the Neapolitan-style dirt and squalor that litters Southern beaches with cigarette packets and plastic bottles and turns all too many bucolic bays and coves into rusting, abandoned building sites. We passed through tiny villages with jerry-built concrete harbours and esplanades and elongated breakwaters that were far too big for them, like a small woman with a Victorian-size embonpoint. The breakwaters are the marine equivalents of the motorway spurs anfd flyovers dotted around the South that end abruptly in mid-air, and go nowhere. They are the legacy of decades when Italian governments poured billions of tax lire into the region, much of it wasted in corrupt or pointless construction projects, now quietly crumbling in the sun.


Where the road ends, or rather curves to head back north up the Adriatic coast (more cliffs and private properties, less beach and Benidorm), a jumble of white villas overlook one such grandiose and deserted marina. Santa Maria di Leuca is also known by its Roman name of E Finibus Terrae, which, like everything in that imperial tongue, sounds much more portentous and important than the plain English translation “Land’s End”. On the far side of town, a steep hill winds up to the actual, terminal headland. Land’s Ends are usually disappointments, and Italy’s is no exception. There is a pillar with a statue of St.Peter himself, set up to mark the spot where all the Christianising began. Supposedly, it’s the spot where the Apostle first set foot on the European mainland before commencing his mission to convert the West to the new faith. It sounded impressive until I discovered that several towns around Italy’s coastline make the exact same claim.

A large, modern basilica and a monumental plaza surround St Peter on his column, along with a lighthouse shaped like one of those glass salt cellars with a metal tip. In the morning sun, the effect of so much bare stone was blinding. My plan had been to stand on the cliff edge itself, since I’d been told the Ionian and the Adriatic meet off its tip, but the lighthouse and the promontory turned out to be closed to the public, a “Zona Militaria” behind wire and locked gates. Later, I found a map that showed the two seas meeting officially (and rather conveniently) not off the point but in the centre of the harbour below, in which case the story about their different colours is false and I can testify that both waters are indistinguishably blue.


Next door to the basilica is either an old people’s home or a mental asylum (I never discovered which) together with a bar. A priest unlatched a gate in the high wall, peered out and promptly shut it again. But the bar was open for business. It was a rather tatty bar with an out of season feeling. The only other customers- the only other people anywhere in sight- were two Italian couples, obviously tourists like ourselves. They kept the manageress busy, ordering elaborate plates of antipasto and quizzing her about the local wines.


Driving back down along the seafront, we spotted an open door signposted “Tourist Information Office”. The “office” was in an abandoned church, a single cavelike room with a battered table and a kitchen chair standing in the middle of an earth floor. A grizzled toothless old man, looking like a refugee from the basilica’s hilltop sanitorium, sat watching a hospital soap on a portable black-and-white TV, propped up on bricks. There was no one here, he told me, it was too early in the year, I should come back in a couple of months. The sea was still too cold for bathing. Reluctantly, he got up from his seat and staggered out on to the front steps. He pointed up to a long low building, half-ruined and swathed in scaffolding, on the cliffs just below the headland, overlooking the town. Mussolini built it as TB sanitarium , he said, then it was a hospital for English and American soldiers in WW2, finally the state had it for an orphanage for years, but it fell into disuse. Now the commune wanted to turn it into a hotel.  “The Last Hotel In Europe”. The old man cackled. He showed me some tattered newspaper cuttings to this effect pinned to a noticeboard outside the Tourist Office. When would it be finished? I asked and he shrugged. Work hadn’t started. There was a dispute between different levels of government- region, province, commune, other state agencies. The money was “bloccato”. You can hear the same story all over Italy.


Modern-day M. di Leuca, and the Salento Peninsula as a whole really did seem like the end of the earth to me, silent, depopulated places where nothing important ever happens and days are whiled away under the sun.But the truth is, their present-day torpor is hard-earned, the stasis of old battlefields. If the Sanctuary on E Finibus Terrae looks like an uninteresting 18th- 19th  century hulk, that’s because it’s not the original church on the site: Saracen and Turkish marauders razed no fewer than five earlier versions to the ground. If the most exciting thing on show to modern-day travellers is a local eyesore, that wasn’t always the case. Just up the road at Otranto, the port which staples the Salento’s Adriatic coast to the rest of Italy the way Gallipoli does on the Ionian side, seven glass-fronted cabinets in Otranto Cathedral hold the remains of 800 men beheaded by the Turks when they took the city in 1480. News of the massacre stunned Italy, like a seismic shock, the 9/11 of its time. There are those who claim that the history of Europe as a separate entity only started when the rise of Islam divided the classical Mediterranean world, permanently divorcing its northern shores from its southern and eastern ones. That divorce was born in fear and it took place here on the Salento. Rather than spurious stories about St Peter, it’s the Salento’s pivotal position, its role as a prime target for an expanding Muslim world, that gives the area its serious claim to be where Europe began.


The Salento has other lessons to teach us about the encounter of East and West, Europe and Asia, Christianity and Islam. For one thing, it teaches that encounter has never been solely a matter of blood and fire. Around the lungomare at Leuca and in the hilly roads behind the harbour, you can find a handful of extraordinary villas built for Neapolitan aristocrats and rich bourgeoisie at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, when Leuca was briefly a fashionable resort. The villas mix Chinese, Medieval, Moorish, Art Nouveau and Greek elements in a unique seaside vernacular, created by three builder-architects from Naples. It’s a vernacular that works- the only one I’ve ever seen which can incorporate Greek columns without looking ridiculous and overblown. Or can build a house like a Moorish Red Fort without it looking like a copy. This is the same kind of theatrical architecture you get in Los Angeles but whereas the Southern Californian version is sham, movie-set building, Leuca’s villas pull it off naturally and unself-consciously.


Leuca’s villas are the happy, domestic end of a tradition of eclecticism that runs like a thread through the Salento, and which consists of various cross-fertilisings and creative combinations of East and West. The most important single influence in that tradition is Greek or Byzantine, stemming from the 9th century re-conquest of South Italy from the Goths by the Eastern Empire, a victory Byzantium sought to consolidate by pouring in a second, cultural army of Greek monks in the wake of their military one. Although the Normans soon expelled the Empire in its turn, the Westernization of the church in the Salento ended up being a slow business which gave the Greek and Byzantine elements time to strike deep roots. According to one guidebook, “the slow but sure westernization process begun by the Normans was completed by the Angevins, together with the Franciscans, in the second half of the fourteenth century”. Elsewhere it extends the timescale still farther, writing that “the fact that the Greek form of worship survived in the Otranto religious tradition until the 17th century tells us much about the lasting influence Byzantine culture had on the area.”


The true syncretic glories from this lengthy cultural collision, or rubbing along together, are not found on the mainland but in Sicily, where the Norman kingdom had its headquarters. That makes Salento’s more modest treasures are all the more delightful because you don’t have to share them with crowds: in fact, you can often be the only visitor. I wasn’t so lucky at Otranto Cathedral- that same cathedral  whose gruseome human remains mark the tipping point, the moment when the relationship between West and East ceased to have any productive outcome and turned homicidal. There was some sort of ceremony about to take place on the afternoon we reached Otranto. Rows of chairs had been set out in the nave that I tried to peer between, because the floor was what I’d come to see. The entire cathedral floor is a single, 600-metre mosaic, the work of a monk named Pantaleone and his team, who were the religious interior decorators du jour in the 12th century. You called them in and they did you a floor. In fact, they created several church floors around Puglia but the one in Otranto is the only one to have survived.


The result looks a bit like the Bayeux Tapestry gone metaphysical, as if the cast of stick figures we’re familiar with from Bayeux- Harold with the arrow in his eye, the Norman knights on horseback- had taken off their armour and travelled down here for an out-of-town engagement, switching mediums from tapestry to mosaic along the way as actors nowadays switch between the theatre and film work. Only this time around, flush with success, they weren’t content to portray a single battle; they decided to stage the whole of Creation, the Incarnation, the Redemption and the Resurrection, complete with elephants, fantastic beasts, the signs of the zodiac and the labours of the year. Solomon and Sheba next to Alexander the Great. Adam and Eve alongside King Arthur. Figures from classical mythology appear beside old favourites from the Bible like Noah and Jonah. Everything and everyone is depicted on Otranto’s floor somewhere. No one has managed to interpret it (probably because it doesn’t have a coherent message) but the whole thing comprises a comic book encyclopaedia of early medieval narratives, from secular to spiritual, from Latin to Greek, and for this reason some people have read it as a prototype (generous, inclusive, multi-cultural) for the idea of a united Europe. Yet, Otranto is an Adriatic port that faces East rather than West. The mountains of Albania are clearly visible across the strait. The town of Otranto itself has the dusty patience of changeless Eastern poverty, inish Allah, except for the bright geraniums in its window boxes.


If Leuca’s villas represented one end of the Salento’s cultural thread then Otranto’s mosaic lies at the other end, eight centuries earlier. Both were made with the same unselfconscious, playful amalgam of disparate elements. Both seem modern, or perhaps even postmodern. Both are only conceivable in this forgotten frontier zone where great abstractions like “Europe” and “The Orient” grow fuzzy, meet and meld their separate identities like the two seas, where the news of their separation and final, fixed boundaries never quite penetrated. Those were the thoughts I was toying with as we drove the short distance back from Otranto to Lecce, along some of the best and emptiest roads in Italy (another result of Rome’s generosity, or its political payoffs, depending on your point of view). We got lost trying to re-enter Lecce itself, which, though not large, is an urban maze of one-way streets and traffic diversions. At one point, we found ourselves in a sunbaked squalid neighbourhood I hadn’t seen before, where the poverty suddenly became visible and menacing, one of those sudden shifts from the First World to the Third that can happen when you travel in the South. Lecce, outside its central core of baroque masterpieces, consists of faceless concrete boxes, as if it had tried to emulate more important cities like London or even Rome but without having the activity to justify it, so that the concrete here is stained, the pedestrian plazas have no pedestrians, the shops have never opened or have gone bankrupt within days of opening, the mail piles up on the mats, and the tenantless office suites yawn behind their drawn blinds and silted windows.


Eventually, by pure chance, we popped out of a junction opposite our hotel, which was a so-called “business hotel”, an old-fashioned Italian concept that dates from the days when commercial travellers made up the majority of people who travelled in Italy. Business hotels have all the facilities of real hotels- the restaurant, the elevators, the staff behind the desk to prepare your bill- but they’ve never grasped the concept of what a “hotel” is supposed to be about. They have no notion of service. Business hotels consider the absolute limit of their responsibility to be providing a room to sleep in where at least one of the windows opens, some of the wardrobe doors don’t stick, the bed and the décor are not more than fifty years out of date, and the shower sometimes works, even if it produces a jet of water so fierce it floods the bathroom. Complaints to the management are met with incredulity, since who would bother complaining about a place you go to work in, that is merely an extension of your office? In such circumstances, any complainant must a troublemaker who doesn’t understand the rules, and while, since we are in Italy, no one is impolite enough to say so, complaints are heard, written down and promptly ignored, and the hotel continues doing what it exists to do: provide jobs for local people who would otherwise be unemployed, give them uniforms and respectable titles, and make them part of an institution whose honour and pride they can defend against all-comers, and against their ungrateful clientele in particular.


We ate in the hotel restaurant that night, too tired to go out. It was one of those cheerless, featureless dining rooms that make you wonder why you left home in the first place while making up your mind to return there without delay. There were maybe half a dozen other diners. The shrinks from the convention had left town and the ten or so staff contrived to keep just busy enough to avoid actually having to serve anybody. Then, once we got his attention, our waiter wouldn’t leave us alone. He was a short, balding bantam of a man, nut-brown, and with black wings of hair. In his waiter’s uniform of yellow collarless jacket, black trousers and polished pumps, he moved about the tiled floor like a dancer.

            “English? American?” he asked me. “I know America- Florida. Miami.”

            “You were on the cruise ships,” I guessed, as common a personal history in Italy as Pasquale and his road-building.

            “Cruise, yes. The Caribbean. All over.”

            “But this is your home?”

            “Yes. Twenty minute from Lecce, in a village. I have children, my wife, my mother is old woman, and she’s not too good.”

  In no time at all, Orlando was our friend, and he was hustling us. Politely, respectfully, even deferentially, he could tell I was a busy man because he’s a busy man too, we’re both men of the world, but he had something he needed my help with. There was this family land. He and his brother had put together a project for a first-class hotel and holiday homes to sell to people from London or New York or maybe Rome- a big development, worth millions of euros. He wanted us to drive out to see the land, only then could we appreciate what a great location he owns, and his wife will make us lunch, she cooks the best pasta in the Salento.

 We had no idea what this is to do with us except Orlando thinks we can sell his development for him. Just because we come from London and we’ve somehow found our way all the way to Lecce we must know rich people. We must move in the world that Orlando wants to be part of. He may be only a waiter, but he’s all set to be a multimillionaire like Berlusconi- I’m sure Berlusconi is his idol, he even looks like a thinner and older Berlusconi-he has the plans that he smuggles to our table inside his jacket when he brings us coffee. All he needs is someone to pay him four million euros in return for the land, architect’s drawings, planning permission- well, almost planning permission “We have it but then they change, the region take over from the commune. Always in Italy it’s like this. So they look again at our project next week, but we already know, no problem. Everything is OK, no problem.”

 Of course it is no problem. And of course the world is full of entrepreneurs dying to hand over four million euros to a waiter and his brother who have spent countless hours and probably a fair amount of their own money to produce this plastic-covered folder with the tables of figures and the drawings that are getting a bit dog-eared now and that have, or almost have, or are virtually assured of having, planning permission. Italy is full of Orlandos, peasants who think their derelict family plot is like a lottery ticket to the modern world, the world of skyscrapers and air travel and beautiful women they watch on their TV screens and that has now turned up on their doorstep with the first trickle of foreign tourists. Suddenly, their worthless land is a ticket, and not just any ticket either but the guaranteed winning ticket. All they need is somehow to get it entered in the draw. All they need is someone like you to enter it for them and, hey presto- or rather, bingo- they’ll be rich because that is how the modern world works. It’s a world of unlimited wealth and opportunity so long as you have the right ticket. Nor is it any good telling them you don’t have any money either, that you struggle just like them to pay the rent, or even that, in a sense, they are better off than you are since you don’t have land to sustain you if times go bad, to grow your food, to keep a couple of animals, to have olives for oil and grapes for wine.

Besides, I can see from the map where Orlando’s land is, we passed close to it on the way back from Otranto, and it’s the middle of nowhere. Not the most promising location for a vacation paradise and world-class, state-of-the-art resort.

            “I don’t think I’m the right person,” I say, and I try to pass the folder back to him.

            “No. For you. You keep,” Orlando says, pressing it into my hands.

            “I really don’t think I’m any good for you,” I repeat.

            “Yes,” he insists, a little sadly now, “You go back to London. You talk to people. You tell them to buy from us.”      




[1] John Julius Norwich, ‘The Normans in Sicily’ (London, Penguin books omnibus edition, 1992).

[2] Carlo Levi, ‘Christ Stopped At Eboli’ (London, Penguin Books, 1982).

[3] Dr. Franco Staffa of Sardinia’s Italian-British Institute in 2006.

[4] EJHobsbawm, ‘Primitive Rebels, Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries’ (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1959). Hobswbawm’s thesis has been challenged but not fundamentally disproved over the years since he first stated it. Hobsbawm himself deals with the criticisms in his later ‘Bandits’ (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2000 edition). It’s important to realise that Hobsbawm never meant his notion of “social banditry” to apply to all, or even to most, brigands, only to those who fitted “the essence of the bandit myth, social redistribution and justice for the poor” (Bandits, p.171).

[5] Hobsbawm, ‘Bandits’ p. 31.

[6] Paul Holberton, ‘South Italy: A Traveller’s Guide’ (London, John Murray, 1992). Holberton admits he never tried to witness tarantism himself- such things don’t interest him-but is reporting accounts by others.

[7] Karen Lutdke, ‘Ethical Webs: Some Reflections on Writing Up and Publication’ in Anthropology Matters Journal, 2001. www.anthropologymatters.com/journal/2001/ludtke_2001_ethical.htm

[8]  South Italy forms a kind of living laboratory for the intertwining of politics and religion in pre-modern Western societies. Although the two have tended to separate under modern conditions, South Italy’s distorted and anachronistic social development has made their separation incomplete and subject to mutations. Social banditry and millenarianism not only go together historically, as primitive forms of reform or revolution: both have persisted in South Italy into recent times. Hence EJ Hobsbawm’s comment that “religious ferment among southern peasants is merely one aspect of their endemic revolutionism”. Hobsbawm’s example was the Gargano peninsula in the 1930s with the spread of heretical (extreme Protestant and in one case Judaic) sects. Today, the cult of Padre Pio is based on the same peninsula, and represents a later co-opting of that ferment by the Catholic church, in a sort of localised Counter-Reformation or counter-revolution. The Moscati/Padre Pio cults of miracle healing stand in the same relation to earlier unorthodox religious enthusiasms and superstitions that the modern Mafia stands (or stood) to social brigandage- as an extension in organisation and complexity that also involves a reversal in political meaning.  EJ Hobsbawm, ‘Primitive Rebels’ passim and quoted p. 72. 

[9] St. Oronzo’s cult is a recent (17th century) and deliberate creation by church authorities, who wrote a report on the necessary strategy. Among other measures, they commissioned a new painting of the saint, which was so successful it was reproduced as a miniature printed card that spread throughout the province- a state of the art PR campaign for the time!

[10] . Miracle healing is also a feature of American evangelical churches, whose core constituency is similarly Southern, rural and redneck. Viewed in this light, the recent political alliance between US Christian fundamentalists (ie extreme Protestants) and US Catholics may not be as surprising as it seems.

[11] Details of Giueseppe Moscati’s career are on the Jesuit website www.gesuiti.it/moscati

[12] Marina Warner gives a magisterial account of how this syncretistic process, whereby Christianity adopted and subsumed the old gods, nature spirits and pagan powers, worked in the case of the Virgin Mary herself in ‘Alone of All Her Sex’ (New York, Vintage/Random House, 1983). Warner is also clear on its political significance. She writes that by the 12th/13th centuries, when the cult of the Madonna emerged in full flower, “the Virgin Mary was an establishment prop”.

dwmbygrave@icloud.com. All contents © mike bygrave 2014