23 December 1999

On 12 April 1894 Giuseppe Corte Cannizzaro left the west central Sicilan village of Poggioreale and emigrated aboard the SS Montebello drirectly from Palermo, Sicily, 22 days to New Orleans, Louisiana. His son, Giacamo born 11 years later in Vicksburg, Mississippi eventually moved to Jackson, Mississippi and his son Robert, born Christmas eve 35 years later, is my father.

Poggioreale means either Royal springs or Royal hill. It was named that because in the 17th century when the Spanish kings wanted to colonize the forested interrior of Sicily to challenge the few Arab towns that were there. They promised a title of nobility to anyone who founded a town -- and the guy who founded Poggioreale became a prince. (And the splendid views allowed from its position 3/4 the way up Monte Elimo didn't hurt either.)

On 23 January, 1968 there was a devastating series of earthquakes in west central Sicily. Three towns were completely leveled. Poggioreale was at the epicenter. Fourteen years later the remaining residents (about half of the former population) moved into a brand spanking new town 8 kilometers away and 120 meters below the ruins. The street layout and town center were designed by a famous Italian architect -- they look like a work of art. There is a striking view of the ruins high up on the mountainside from much of the new town.

I have heard about Poggioreale all my life. I have heard stories about the earthquake and the destroyed, fenced off old town for many years -- it is a powerful part of the tapistry of my childhood and my life. It was almost overwelming to find myself standing amongst the huge stone piles that once were the town square of Poggioreale late on a cold Sicilian Christmas Eve, under the brightest full moon in 133 years.

We were being led by Leonardo Cannizzaro, my 3rd cousin, through the remains of the crumbling buildings. We had driven up the winding roads from his home in Castlevetrano to New Poggioreale and beyond to the ruins to see the traditional live Christmas scenes. The Presepe, a creche or manger, with people posing as Mary & Joseph & the Wise men from the east is staged at the edge of the ruins every year. In addition, there are demonstrations of crafts and houses from Sicily 2000 years ago. It was facinating to wander among the firelit displays with the moonlit the crumbling buildings behind them. After visiting each display, and steping briefly inside the oldchurch to see the model of the town before the earthquake, Leonardo suggested that we wander down the main street into the town. As we walked in the moonlight, careful to stay away from crumbling walls and holes and rocks, Leonardo told us what each building used to be and told us what he remembered from the day of the earthquake.

The following day we returned to the ruins so he could show us around more extensively -- but he was quite surprised to find that the gates were locked. They were locked because in the last few weeks there have been a couple of small tremors and a lot of rain. The mayor (Leonardo's childhood best friend) had decided that the ruins were not safe and ordered the gates locked. Leonardo was disappointed. After standing around for a few minutes staring over the fence he looked at us slyly and smiled under his thick beard. "Unless you want to go up the wall." He said in his moderatly passable English.

We were willing to go, and with only a small jab from a cactus, Leonardo, Cheryln and i all made it over the fence. As we wandered the main street, now in the bright light of day, he pointed out the house he lived in and the school he went to. We joked about how when we were kids we always wished that our school would crumble to the ground -- and he responded by telling us how, in the middle of the night, he pulled up the stakes on the school tent in the months after the earthquake. He also took us to the house that my Great Grandfather Giuseppe had lived in before he emigrated. We saw the post office, three churches, the theater, town hall, the new houses and the oldest house. And he told us of the abandoned village atop the mountain which was built by the Indigenous people 4000 years ago, and abandoned 2000 years ago.

The town is in a stunning location, with long views from three sides down into the valley. The new town in the valley and sheep meadows up the valley in one direction, and the ruins of Gibellina and Salapaluta the other way, the former just a field of white squres -- the artistic memorial to the town was to cover the ruins of each house with a slab of concreate!

Poggireale was a beautiful tight, village layed out around the square, built all in stone. Most was all at one elevation, but the main church (there were 7, even in this tiny village!) was up a grand set of steps from the square. It is very eerie walking around this abandoned town which clearly was thick with people 35 years ago. I'm sure it is even stranger for Leonardo, who lived there until that day when he was 14!

When we left the town we walked around the building at the edge and didn't have to climb the wall. We drove down the hill to the new town to the house of his Parents. The new town is beautiful, but much more spread out. The old town was tight and cozy, easy to get around. The winding streets in the new town are appealing, but it covers a great deal of area and is difficult to get around. It is hard to believe that only half as many people live there as did in the old town. It was clearly built with cars in mind more than people and there is a frustration about that. The town square is gorgeous, but seems under utilized. We expect to be there on Sylvester, (the evening of December 31) -- i am looking forward to it. Being in a tiny town in the mountains of Sicily, far away from the big events (and crazy people). And i know my Great Uncle Joe will be very envious about spending such an auspicious occation in the Cannizzaro ancestral home town!

My Cousin Elaine adds: The Morso family, proprietors of Gibellina and the surrounding area, Salaparuta excepted, got the rights to found Poggioreale as a way to house all the folks who worked on their land (i.e. peasants, serfs) closer to the land they worked. Poggioreale was located in the ex-feudo Bagnitelli (meaning the area had a lot of springs, many of which dried up after the earthquake) near one of the Marchese's country palazzos. that was in 1642, one year later it became a principate but still under the control of the Morso family. in 1779 Poggioreale got religious and political autonomy (still reporting to and paying loads of taxes to the Morso/Naselli family) for which all of the heads of families had to sign a petition or whatever (interesting tidbit: of 511 heads of families, only 32 could sign their own names, one of the literate ones happened to be our 5G grandfather Leonardo Cannatella).

© Copyright Mark Canizaro 2000

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