Monday, November 15, 2010

Off the Beaten Trail: San Nicola, Isole Tremiti

San Nicola
Isole Tremiti, Foggia, Italy

The past of the island of San Nicola is rich in history, but also shrouded in legend and mystery. In my previous post, Off the Beaten Trail: Tremiti Islands, the ancient Romans dubbed them Insulae Diomedeae. The legends do not end there, however. The island was later named San Nicola. San Nicola is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, children, laborers, scholars, students, and many others in the Catholic and Orthodox Christian religions. Legend has it that San Nicola was buried on the island, or at least his relics were. It continues to say that each time someone tried to remove the remains from the island, a ferocious storm brewed, preventing the voyage.

With all legends aside, San Nicola was first inhabited by the ancient Romans in the 2nd millennium BC, which was the transitional period between the Middle and Late Bronze Age. During Roman times, the island was used as a place for confinement for Emperor Augustus' niece, Giulia Minore, who lived there in exile on charges of adultery. She remained there for twenty years until her death. In the 11th century AD, the islands prospered under the leadership of abbot Albericus. By 1045, the abbey church of S. Maria di Tremiti was constructed. Around the early 1050s, Benedictine monks of Montecassino took over the abbey, which was later passed onto the Cistercian monks in 1237.

During the 11th and 12 centuries, S. Maria di Tremiti became one of the most important monasteries of its time in its location. It was recognized as an artistic and cultural center, and thereby contributed to the formation of Romanesque architecture. Not only was it known for contributing to the history of architectural design, but it was also seen as a means for trade. For over two hundred years, privateers and traders flocked to the port of San Nicola, allowing the monks to accumulate vast amounts of wealth. With the Cistercian monks in control, construction had once again begun with the building of a new cloister, the remodeling of the church of S. Maria, and elaborate fortification walls. Along with the fortifications, a man-made rift was made in the rock between the fortified walls and the remaining unused land of the island. This was done to provide further protection should there be an attack.

By the 14th century, the island was sustaining relentless attacks by Slavic pirates. In 1334, a group of privateers tricked and slaughtered the monks. Defeated, those who survived the attack resorted to abandoning the island. San Nicola remained deserted until Pope Gregory XII ordered a revitalization of the island in 1412. This revitalization led to an extensive rebuilding of the fortified walls. With the new ability to defend itself, little San Nicola was able to ward off attacks by Turkish fleets in the 15th and 16th century. Its history continued with more struggles in regards to political power, causing San Nicola to be under the rule of King Charles II of Napes. Finally, in 1782, all monastic life ceased on the island.

San Nicola's struggle to remain important in the eyes of more current political leaders did not rest. During WWII, the fortifications were used to imprison political prisoners. It is also said, though denied by  Mussolini, that homosexuals were sent there to isolate them from the rest of Italy. In modern-day Italy, the island possesses the bulk of the tiny community's population. It is also the administrative center of the Tremiti Islands. Tourists can be seen roaming the grounds of what must have been a beautiful tiny town, full of riches, so long ago.

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