I am starting this
book on Dec. 31, 2009, around 5 PM, in a suburb of a North American city.
The New Year is fast approaching. Soon some family members will come to have
dinner with my family. Before the evening begins, I would like to start
something that is near to my heart: a book about a coin, the search to find
its origins and the thrilling discoveries that followed.
I have asked myself why I would want
to write and publish such a work and I have concluded that there are three
First of all, I want my children to
know, in detail, and in greater depth a story that I shared with them
several times, but never did in a complete and orderly way. It would also be
a wonderful opportunity to teach them about their ancestors on their
I also want to
help the great many who share the same genetic and historic roots to get to
know their enthralling ancient past and who are presently part of our
Diaspora around the world.
Lastly, I would like this book to
become a source of inspiration for all who crave to know more about their
ancient roots. As I will show in this book, patience, determination and a
systematic approach can lead to uncovering wonderful nuggets about one's
ancestors; nuggets that now more than ever can be uncovered with the help of
rich libraries and the Internet.
I hope my labour will prove to be
enlightening to my children, my relatives and all of those with whom I am
genetically related. Equally, I hope that all who will read this book will
be stirred to dig through the various historical layers that are waiting to
amaze the determined digger.
Many years have gone by, since the
events you will read about in this book took place in a far away location.
I lived in that location as a child until age 14, when I left for another
land. Since then I have been welcomed by another people that treated me like
a son. I have been cared for and have been given many wonderful
Life has been good to me in Canada. I
have a wonderful teaching and counseling profession; I am financially
comfortable and I have been able to raise a special family. But, often, my
thoughts fly back to a little town in a country far away where some of my
happiest years were spent and where I had some of my most unforgettable
One experience hangs in the most
central part of my mind. It started on a hot summer day and it gave rise to
a chapter in my life that keeps on being written to this day.
ONE BORING DAY IN CAPISTRANO
The story begins in 1963, or 1964. I
was either ten or eleven. It was another very hot and uneventful summer day
in the town of Capistrano, in the last southern region of Italy, named Calabria. I had made my usual morning tour of the piazza nearby; I had
strolled north and south on the main road, the Via Nazionale. I stood on the
edge of the Via by the waist-high stone wall that kept us kids from falling
down into a steep ravine below. I looked down the long, meandering valley
and then raised my eyes toward the Rocca Angitola Mountain
and the distant blue Mediterranean, as I had done a thousand times before. I paused to inspect the
digging in the ravine below. The eager workers
were clearing the area for the high pillars that would have held up the
Mayor’s house, and that would have brought it to road level.
It was just another boring day, with little to do but wait until, as usual, one of us kids would have thought of something to do, to add some fun to the
monotony of another summer’s day.
Then the boredom suddenly ended…
“LOOK AT WHAT I FOUND!”
I remember being in front of my house,
near four corners, when one of my young friends approached me, all excited.
Was it Raffaele, or Modesto or maybe Mimmo? I don’t recall. I do recall,
though, that one of them came to announce a dramatic, life-changing event.
He had found some old-looking coins in the ravine where the Mayor’s house
was to be built.
My friend looked elated, as he
recounted the visit down the steep ravine and his amazing find. Filled with
childhood curiosity, he had gone to simply look around and, upon glancing at
the moist, dark dirt, he saw something he had never seen before: an
old-looking coin. He stooped down, looked attentively and then collected it
with excitement; but there were more – several more. He continued looking
and finding for quite some time. When there were no more to be found, he ran
hastily to share the stunning news with his closest friends -- and I was one
of his lucky friends.
It was not a kids’ trick meant to
break the day’s monotony; the evidence was there, in his trembling hands.
Sure they were dirty and very old looking, but they were real and they
looked like nothing we had ever seen before. A close scrutiny revealed that
they were old, Italian coins. The heads on the coins were those of past
Italian kings. The names were visible and so were the dates. The newest
ones, showing the last King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, were just a few
decades old; the oldest ones showing Victor Emmanuel II went back about one hundred
I stared at the coins mesmerized. I
had never seen such amazing, old coins before. To my delight, my friend let
go of them one by one, to let me touch them, to read the names and the dates
as evidence that he, indeed, was the proud possessor of an amazing treasure.
Within minutes, the group grew and so
did the excitement. We all agreed that the ravine must have had more coins
waiting to be found and, as we had done so many times before, we went on to
tackle our newest adventure.
The ravine was nearby. The fastest way
to get to the bottom was the stone and concrete staircase beside my house.
We ran quickly down the steps and reached the promising area within seconds,
ready to search and find more coins.
All of us looked around
with eager eyes and soon found what we were looking for. In spite of all the
coins already found by our friend, the dirt offered us many more.
We searched for a long time and, to
our delight, we found many more. Each time our eyes landed on another coin,
we proudly yelled, "I found another one," for all to hear. Soon our pockets
were full and our young hearts were filled with joy.
Then the coins became rare and, when
it became clear that could not find any more, we left satisfied. We then
walked to the nearby fountain to wash the bounty thoroughly and to check the
By late afternoon the unavoidable
competition began. Who had found the most coins? Who had the oldest coin?
Unfortunately, as I vaguely recall, that honor was not mine, though I did
have in my possession several old coins.
We went back the next day and maybe
the day after. A few more coins were found but, in time, the coins dried up
and, since digging was too time consuming for our impatient group, the
search came to an end --- except for me.
You see, I was the lucky one; I lived
right next to the ravine. In fact my bedroom faced the very spot where the
coins had been found – and I was very persistent.
PERSEVERANCE PAID OFF
ten-year old logic told me that more coins were waiting to be found. So I
conceived a system that was quite ingenious for a ten year old. I would dig
a hole around half a foot deep. I would then create a small vertical wall on
one side of the hole and I would slowly scrape the dirt off the wall with a
twig. It would have taken time and much patience – but I was in for the
Being totally alone, I could focus on each grain of dirt and each pebble. I
treated the miniature wall with the respect one owes to any fragile object
and dug slowly and
The dark, moist dirt scraped off easily. I inspected closely anything that
looked like a clump of dirt. I knew that the dirt would have built up around
anything hard, especially metal coins.
Dirt, stones, twigs and other parts of indefinable objects had been
deposited over a great many years, layer after layer, by the flood of water
that would gather from the upper part of town into a vertical tunnel beside
the main road. There it would drop several feet and then flow into an arched
tunnel under the road, where it would flow to the edge and then drop about
ten feet into the ravine where I was digging.
I continued looking at
everything I found closely and with intensity. The search went on for awhile
and then it happened…
I felt the twig touch something hard. I looked closely. Was it just another
pebble, a clump of hard dirt or was it something else? I pushed the twig
gently behind the promising clump and pushed it out of the surrounding dirt.
I then picked it up with eager fingers and inspected it closely.
At first glance, it looked like a dirt-encrusted button; but it felt heavier
than a button. I rubbed my fingers against both surfaces, but the crust was
very hard and would not come off.
I was so intrigued by my find that I stopped the dig. I rushed up the steps
on the side of the ravine and I walked hastily toward the nearby fountain. I
washed and scrubbed and washed some more. Gradually the hardened dirt wore
off and my hopes were validated. It was not a button -- it was another coin.
The irregular circle framed what looked like an ancient face, like the ones
I had seen in history books. On the other side appeared what looked like a
horn-like shape. I became quickly convinced that it was a very old
coin; without doubt older than all the ones that had already been found.
Proud of my discovery, I rushed to show it off to my friends. Without doubt,
I had suddenly become the undisputed winner of the coin war and I wanted all
to know. I shared the find with all my friends and they looked at my coin
with tangible envy. This time, victory was mine.
Given the amazing find, we probably
went back for more but the search may have been in vain. I do not recall
sharing my technique with anyone. I probably guarded it jealousy for future
I returned another time and continued the search but, finally, even the
technique failed to produce more fruit. Happy with my find, I rested on my
after, deep holes were dug into the ravine’s dark ground and, afterwards,
the workers poured cement into them. Tall wooden casings were nailed
together and finally pillars rose to road level. Soon the first floor was
shaped and finally the location became inaccessible. Some of us hopeful kids
continued seeking down the rugged valley past the Mayor’s house and found a
few more rusty and consumed old coins, but nothing more.
Finally the search for ancient coins was officially over. In the few days
that followed, the excitement of the finds gradually waned. The time had
come for another adventure. Someone suggested a related activity: searching
for old stamps. We all found it to be a great idea and another adventure
began which kept us busy for several more weeks.
UNCOVERING THE TRUTH
The coin was
still covered with a brown film that would not wash off. Its total
beauty and specific age were yet to be uncovered. But soap and water had not
been enough; something more powerful had to be found.
One day my parents went to visit the city of Vibo Valentia, the largest city
in our area. My father and mother went to shop at a store on the main
street. Nearby I noticed a hardware store. I told my parents I would have
gone next door to buy something and they allowed me to go. I quickly went to
the hardware store, walked to the back and asked a clerk if he had anything
strong enough to clean metals. He did.
He looked on the shelf behind him and found a small bottle. I bought the
promising bottle which contained a milky substance. I was eager to go home
to try the miracle liquid, to see what else was hiding behind the dark-brown
film which still covered my precious coin.
Once home, I
immediately poured a few drops of the promising white, thick substance on
one side and quickly wiped it off with a cloth. A black stain appeared on
the cloth, while, simultaneously, a stunning, clearly formed head of a woman
appeared on that side of the coin.
I turned to the coin to the other side and repeated the process. The horn
suddenly became more pronounced and something unclear appeared as if coming
out from it. It wasn’t just a horn -- it was a "Cornucopia," otherwise
known as a “Horn of Plenty.”
I do not recall if I repeated the process more than once. I vaguely remember
being concerned that such a potent substance could have eaten into the coin
and could have damaged it; so I stopped using it.
no doubt about it. The head was that of someone ancient; perhaps someone
from ancient Rome. At that point I knew for sure that I had a real winner
but, unfortunately, I could not see any date. The only thing I could see was
what looked like a “5” or an “S” on both sides.
than ever, I put the coins in a small metal box and I hid them in a
The coin and
stamp collecting phase may have come to an end but we children were soon to
enter the most exciting time of year: the Madonna celebrations which took
place the second Sunday in August that all of us Capistranesi, young and
old, longed for
every year. The special celebration is known to us as, “La Festa della
Madonna della Montagna” (The Feast of the Madonna of the Mountain), also
known as “La Festa della Madonna di Polsi” (The Feast of the Madonna from Polsi).
a joyous, yearly event meant to honor Mary, the mother of Jesus and her
statue found on the central altar of the main church. The statue is dressed
in a stunning, shining, light-yellow, flowing dress and a blue mantle,
both of which, without doubt, are made of high-quality cloth. The crowned
Mary sits with a regal posture inside a glass niche illuminated by soft,
warm lights; her face is pink, soft, youthful and loving. Her baby Jesus
stands erect on her left leg, clothed with a shimmering, somewhat feminine
yellow baby dress, but with a confident, divine demeanor.
Most Italian towns
worship Mary but with slight variations. They are all given a somewhat
different name; they have a somewhat different look; their dress is somewhat
different. Yet they all have the same reassuring and very loving, motherly
special Madonna was, “Mary of the Mountain.” She was “our” Mary and to us
she was special above all others. To us Capistranesi she was the ultimate
source of comfort and we all took time to visit her in the church, whenever
possible, to bathe in in her warmth and in her love.
Of course, we
tried not to give much importance to the fact that our Mary had, in
actuality, been imported from another Calabrian town and, thus, her other
name: “La Madonna di Polsi” (The Madonna from Polsi); Polsi being the name
of the town it had been worshipped in, long before it began being worshipped
in our town.
Now, how did this overlap occur? This is the story:
One of the most
popular traditions tells us that in 1144 a farmer, in the Polsi area, was
desperately searching for his lost bull and finally found it kneeling on the
ground, before an iron cross it had dug out of the ground. The farmer, moved
by what he saw, got on his knees and started praying and, while doing so,
Mary appeared to him and shared with him her wish that a church be built on
The church was built; a very heavy statue of Mary was sculpted and she has
been worshipped in Polsi ever since. In the 1700’s a priest by the name of
Don Domenico Zerbi was assigned to serve in Capistrano. In July of 1757, he
went to Polsi on a pilgrimage and brought back to Capistrano various icons
of the Madonna, which were placed in the local church for worship.
In time a statue was commissioned. The sculptor who took on the job was
maestro Antonio Reggio, who came down from Naples to accomplish the task.
The very beautiful statue was finally delivered and was consecrated the
Sunday after Easter, in 1759.
Since then the statue has become the most beloved sacred object in our town.
The image remains chiseled in the hearts all of the Capistranesi around the
world who have retained their Catholic faith. Most of them return home, when
possible, to see their families and their special mother, during the time of
the “Festa della Madonna della Montagna” (The Feast of the Madonna of the
Mountain), which takes place the second Sunday in August.
who grew up in the town, no matter how long we’ve been away, vividly
remember the Madonna Festa from days gone by. We treasure the images of the light-covered
arches constructed over the major streets for the occasion; the round stage
in the main Piazza, covered with its wooden dome adorned with streams of
lights shooting upwards toward the peak. We fondly remember the bands that
came to perform for the occasion, the singers that livened the evenings with
classical and popular songs and, most of all, the procession through the town.
On Sunday afternoon, the glimmering statue was slowly carried by strong men
through the major streets, while the band played the unforgettable, lively
tune, taking turns with the ladies who sang the brief prayer of intercession
to their heavenly advocate.
to this statue is so strong that the two biggest Capistrano communities
abroad have each commissioned a replica of their beloved Madonna and, on the
second Sunday of August, they gather in parks in both Toronto, Canada and
Melbourne, Australia to celebrate “their” heavenly mother, as they did back
But, not very long ago, the story has taken an unexpected twist. A few
Capistranesi in the Australian community who read Jehovah's Witnesses'
material, concluded that one of the
the worship of statues and pictures. As a result, they stopped participating
in the Madonna's celebrations, and then went on to share their beliefs with
others in the community who also embraced their ideas. The number of
Capistranesi who left Catholicism apparently became so large that the
Melbourne celebrations stopped altogether.
In the future, will the
same fate assail the Toronto community, and their Madonna celebrations? Time
ALMOST ROBBED OF MY TREASURE
probably not long after school started, I brought my ancient coin to school.
I had shown it off to my fellow students. I believe I also wanted to show my
teachers how special I had become.
I told a male teacher about the coin and he immediately asked to see it. As
expected, he too was mesmerized by it. He looked at both sides intently and
repeatedly and then, unexpectedly, he went on to pronounce himself as to its
identity: “This coin is a Roman coin,” he told me with confidence; “This is
a Roman Sextersius.”
I heard the words pour out from his
lips like magical sounds and I quickly stored them in my mind so as to never
forget them. Finally I had the pronouncement of an "authority;" finally I
knew for sure it was a very old “Roman” coin and that it was a, “Roman Sextersius.”
“Authority” did not stop at simply informing me about my coin. After sharing
his precious knowledge with me, he paused for an instant and, with a wily
smile, he said invitingly, “Why don't you give it to
I may have
been only ten or eleven, but I was not the kind of kid who would separate
himself from his treasure simply to ingratiate himself with a teacher. I
knew instantly what he was up to and refused to go along with his game.
“No!” I said
firmly, with a pleasant but fake smile. That was "my" coin and no one
was going to take it away from me, and that included the one who had finally
given it an identity.
did not insist. He knew when a "no" was a definite, "no" and I made it very
clear that my "No!" was very definite. From that day on, I never again
brought my coin back to school and, never again, as far as I can recall, did I
show it to anyone else in my town.
RENOIR IN CAPISTRANO?
The new school year began. New
teachers appeared. My new art teacher, Franco Natale, a local teacher, was
wonderful to have. He was brimming with energy; he was confident, creative
and always warm and friendly. He belonged to the Natale family, a family of
exceptionally gifted people, artistically and musically. His grandfather was
Maestro Natale, who many years ago had been the town’s Postmaster, the
town’s Mayor and the Maestro of the local band. My father, who knew him
well, described him as eccentric, intense and brilliant. His genes clearly
were passed on to several of his descendents who later excelled in various
Franco was particularly gifted in art.
He had discovered his artistic talents while in the police force. Later he
became an art teacher and I had the privilege of being one of his students.
Little did we know that tall, dynamic and enthusiastic man, many years
later, would have become a successful artist who would have won several art
One day Mr. Natale shared with us
something which, by the look on his face, appeared to be particularly
important. He announced to us grade sevens something he had concluded about
the, “Baptism of Jesus'” mural found on the wall behind the baptistery of
our main church. His conclusion was that it had been painted by a man whose
name we had never heard before: “Renoir.”
We had no idea of who Renoir had been, but we knew that he had to
have been an important painter. It was also evident by the name that he was
not Italian. What was a foreigner, who obviously had to have been very
important, doing in a small town located among olive groves, in a far away
land? It was a puzzle, but at our young age we did not really care.
Mr. Natale announced that he was
planning to ask the people from the Ministry of Fine Arts to come and look
at the mural, so as to validate his views. I stored the announcement in the
same location of my mind where the name of my coin had been stored, so as
not to be forgotten -- and it was never forgotten.
Probably the summer that followed,
while I was playing in the piazza, I saw Mr. Natale, Don Nicolino Manfrida,
our parish priest, and two authoritative-looking people enter the church. I
was quite sure Mr. Natale was showing them the mural. I do not recall how
long they stayed in the church, but I immediately suspected that they had to
have been the people Mr. Natale was hoping to get to come and investigate.
Of course, I had no way of validating my suspicion and to today I have no
idea as to who they were.
I heard nothing about their verdict.
But I did not forget the evolving story. I kept all the details stored in my
mind. The verdict was finally rendered several years later.
Upon my return home, many years later, I found that Mr. Natale's views had been validated. The
consensus was that Renoir, the famed French impressionist painter, had
indeed come to our town and that he had totally re-painted parts, or all of
the mural, as his son had written about in his biography, Renoir my
I have recently
discovered that, in reality, Mr. Natale had not been the first one to
conclude that Renoir had visited and had done some work in my town. Two
teachers by the name of Giovanni Curatola and Giuseppe Pisani, who were
teaching in Capistrano, and a journalist by the name of Sharo Gambino had
reached this conclusion before Mr. Natale, upon reading Renoir's biography.
Mr. Natale was informed of the possibility by his two colleagues and he too
quickly became a firm supporter of that view.
aforementioned biography, Renoir’s son describes
his father’s trip to Calabria intended to visit a priest, whom had met while
in Naples. The priest described to him the beauty of Calabria
and that inspired Renoir to travel south to visit the area. “While in
Naples, Renoir stayed in a little inn patronized especially by the clergy.
‘When we sat down to eat spaghetti with tomato sauce, I was the only not
dressed in black.’”
He then shares that his father, “had great discussions on theology
with a man next to him, a gaunt priest with a huge nose.” He continues, “The
priest in question was from Calabria, and his
description of his part of the country gave my father a desire to see it.
And so Renoir set out with a letter of introduction from the bishop, which
his friend had obtained.”
Because there were few railroads and
roads in Calabria, “he did part of the journey in a fishing boat, going from
one port to another and the rest on foot.”
During his trip to Calabria, the
French painter used the bishop’s letter to help him find accommodations in
priest’s homes along the way, who showed him much kindness. “Often a parish
priest who had only a pallet to sleep on would turn it over to him, and go
himself to sleep in the stable with the donkey.”
What left Renoir astounded about
Calabria was the poverty of the area. Yet in spite of their poor condition,
Calabrians welcomed Renoir warmly and did their best to make his visit as
comfortable as possible. “The poverty of the region was almost unbelievable.
Yet everyone put himself out to receive the visitor.”
The food eaten by our ancestors
consisted of a few basics. “The meals were more than simple. In some
villages the inhabitants lived entirely on beans, and had seldom tasted
spaghetti or macaroni...”
Because of lack of bridges, Renoir had difficulty crossing some
rivers swollen by heavy rains. In one case he told his son that he had no
way of crossing one particular river. The solution was offered by a peasant
woman who saw him unable to cross. She called a dozen or so other peasants
who were working in the fields nearby, and “they all came to the rescue,
laughing and chattering in their dialect…” The peasants came up with an
ingenious solution. “They picked up my father and his baggage, waded into
the river, and forming a line across it, passed him from one to another like
a rugby football.”
Renoir was touched by all the kindness
our people and wanted to reciprocate. They were not particularly interested
in his money, but they gladly accepted a portrait of their “bambino.”
Renoir’s son then shares with us the
most relevant detail: “In a mountain village Renoir restored the frescoes,
which had been destroyed by humidity.” Renoir told his son that he had no
experience in fresco painting nor did have the necessary paints to do the
job. Being resourceful, he found what he needed at local mason’s. “I didn’t
know much about fresco painting. I found some paints in powder form, at the
mason’s in the village.” Given the low quality of the material used, he
asked himself, “I wonder if what I did lasted.”
His stay in Calabria and my town must
have been exceptionally positive. His final assessment of my people gives me
a deep feeling of sadness and pride. “All the Calabrians I met were generous
and so cheerful in the midst of their poverty.”
Though Calabrians in those challenging days lived in abject poverty, they
coped with the paucity in their lives with cheerfulness and were very kind
and giving people toward strangers.
According to Pino La Serra, a local
artist, art restaurateur and President of the Renoir in Capistrano
Association, Renoir went to my town and, upon visiting the local church
in the company of Don Francesco Bongiorno, the town's wealthiest man, he saw
behind the baptistery a mural badly damaged by humidity. Renoir was shocked
by the condition of the fresco. Don Francesco asked him if he could repair
it. After at first refusing, he promised him that, upon his return from his
trip to other southern areas he would have fulfilled his wishes. Renoir kept
his word in May of 1882 when he returned to Capistrano and completed the
promised work in the space of three days. Among other proofs, a drawing
titled, “Calabrian Landscape” by Renoir was offered by Pino as
further evidence that Renoir had indeed come and worked in my town. The
drawing shows Capistrano as it looked in the late 1800’s, as seen from the
Batia area, with our church clearly represented in the distance.
In recent years more evidence of Renoir’s visit to Capistrano and of
his work on the “Baptism of Jesus” and other murals has been offered by the
local artist-philosopher, Mario Guarna,
in his book Gli affreschi di Renoir a Capistrano (Renoir’s Frescos
In his book, Mario proposes interesting stylistic evidence to support the
presence of Renoir’s touch in some of the frescos found in the church.
The fact that Renoir came to
Capistrano and that he left his artistic witness in the main church became a
source of great pride for my people who had, up to that point, so little to
be proud of. The square where I spent so many special moments as a child was
renamed, “Piazza Renoir.” Presently tourists that tour our area of Calabria
are, on occasion, taken to see the Capistrano Renoir, to the delight of many
READ THE REST OF THE CHAPTER IN THE BOOK, THE COIN FROM CALABRIA,
CONTINUED IN SECTION 2 --
Under a Lion Sun: Chilhood Days of Joy
and Sorrow in Old Calabria
Available as paperback and
downloadable versions on Amazon in several countries. If not available
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another world through the eyes of Michelino (Meekehleeno), the
in Calabria, the southernmost Region of Italy, during the fifties
a society built on rigid expectations, where family and honor were
paramount and where violence was occasionally used to solve
some of the
challenges of life.
book you will also learn about Calabrians' attitude toward food,
education, destiny, the supernatural, exorcism, mental illness, the
also meet, among others, the following unforgettables:
Fera, the teacher who had been an officer in Mussolini's army, that
like a battalion.
the Mafia Boss, who collected lovers like trophies and who was
by young and old.
the brilliant mind, who will never have the opportunity to excel,
due to having
born on the wrong side of the fence.
Salvatore, who was tortured by life since childhood, in ways that
most people will
are a descendent of Calabria you will return in time to the moments
ancestors were torn apart by the curse of emigration, and you will
become aware of
forces that shaped your ancestors that may have also contributed to
book does much more. It also traces how Calabrian customs and
up to our time and how Calabrian society has moved forward in some
remaining fixed and immutable in others.
end of this book, you will know Calabrians--their strengths and
weaknesses. You will grow to appreciate a people undaunted by life's
people who takes pride in their stubborn spirit and their
unwillingness to admit
even if confronted by penury and great suffering.
You may reach the
author at, firstname.lastname@example.org
© Copyright, Michael Caputo, 2011 (This work may not be
reproduced in part or in full without the
permission of the author.)
You may reach the
author at, email@example.com
© Copyright, Michael Caputo, 2011 (This work may not be
reproduced in part or in full without the permission of the author.)