Naples:life,death & Miraclecontact: Jeff Matthews

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lbanians in Southern

I grew up with a view of Albania totally shaped by the Cold War—that is, Albania was a Communist state ruled by Enver Hoxha from 1944 to his death in 1985. I knew that Hoxha's favorite pastime was berating the backsliding Chinese Commies and building hideous one- or two-person bunker/bomb-shelters (photo, right), most of which still fester on the Albanian landscape. During Hoxha's forty-year leadership of the People's Socialist Republic of Albania, over 700,000 of these concrete toad-stools from Hell were built in that nation—one for every four inhabitants. I had a cleric friend in the Anglican church here in Naples who visited Albania frequently; he told me that small plaster models of these things were about the only tourist trinket for sale to the few tourists who ever visited Albania in those years. The only opinion I ever formed on any of this was that the pronunciation of the name Hoxha was very similar to that of Hodja, the name of the fool/wise man—sort of a Pulcinella figure—of Turkish folk lore, one who, they say, still wanders the countryside challenging the citizenry, yea, even on this very question with bons mots such as, "You can't hear the difference? What, are you deaf?!"

I also knew approximately where Albania was—on the Adriatic. (Otranto, the Italian port city at the bottom of the boot of Italy is only 80 km/50 miles from the Albanian coast.) Albania was among all those places we used to think of as Yugoslavia but never part of it. Indeed, Albanians were not a Slavic people and had a separate and distinct linguistic and ethnic history. Albania is not really that old as a national concept, meaning that there was no "ancient Albania" in the sense that there was an Ancient Greece or Rome. The region made up part of the Roman province of Dalmatia, a part that had to do with the history and mythology of ancient Illyria. The area stayed under Roman or Byzantine control until the Slavic migrations into the area of the 7th century, and was part of the Bulgarian Empire in the 9th century. "Albanians" first appear in the historical record in Byzantine sources of the late 11th century, and it is from that point that we may speak of Albania as a separate entity, ethnically and linguistically, if not politically. Most of the territory of modern-day Albania later became part of the Serbian Empire. Then, in spite of periods of Christian rebellion such as that mentioned below (under Skanderbeg), Albania gradually fell under Ottoman control and remained so until 1912 when there became an independent Albania for the first time.

Red patches are areas of Arbëresh population.
The names on the map are a mixture of Italian
Arbëresh terms.

Albanian is an Indo-European (IE) language spoken by about 7.4 million people. (Just under three million speakers live in modern Albania; the rest are scattered nearby in the Balkans, in Italy, and, indeed, around the world as part of what has been termed the "Albanian diaspora.") The language is IE, yes, but is grouped by itself within that large family (as is Greek, for example). That is to say that there is no extant language that is to Albanian as, say, Spanish is to Italian or as German is to English. To the point of this entry, there are a lot of Albanians in southern Italy. The Arbëresh villages (to use the old Albanian term for "Albania") have two or three names, an Italian one as well as native Arbëresh names by which villagers know the place. The Arbëresh communities are divided into ethnic islands in different areas of southern Italy. Today in Italy there are 50 communities of Arbëresh origin and culture spread across seven regions of southern Italy—Calabria, Molise, Puglia, Basilicata, Campania, Abruzzi, and Sicily—forming a population of over 260,000. (Of that number, those who still speak fluent Arbëresh is debated. Probably around half.) In Italy, since the 1980s there have been efforts to preserve the cultural and linguistic heritage of the Arbëresh language, described in many sources as an "archaic" form of southern Albanian, by now divided into dialects that are not necessarily mutually comprehensible as you move from one "ethic island" to another in the south. The language was in decline but is now undergoing somewhat of an "Arbëresch Pride" revival, including in print and electronic media, as well as instruction in school. In general, the treatment of Albanian as a minority language corresponds to the situation with other such languages in Italy as defined in 1999 by Law n. 482 of that year: "Safeguarding Historic Linguistic Minorities." The law stipulates that "...the Republic shall safeguard the culture and languages of the Albanian, Catalonian, German, Greek, Slovenian and Croatian populations as well as of those who speak French, Franco-Provencal, Friulian, Ladino, Occitanian and Sardinian." Other provisions of the law provide for instruction in schools to be carried out, at least partially, in minority languages.

[see related item here]


       portrait in the Uffizi, Florence
How all these Albanians got to Italy is something else I knew nothing about. I had not heard of Skanderbeg, had not seen the epic 1953 Russian film about him, nor read the passages of Byron and Longfellow that praise him:

"Land of Albania! where Iskander rose,
Theme of the young, and beacon of the wise,
And he his namesake, whose oft-baffled foes
Shrunk from his deeds of chivalrous emprize:
Land of Albania! let me bend mine eyes
On thee, thou rugged nurse of savage men!"

 —Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage 

Nor had I ever heard the opera Skanderbeg that Vivaldi composed, nor this nor that nor the other things. And, alas, I didn't know that there is also in Rome a Palazzo Skanderbeg. It houses a pasta museum! I missed all that, so blinded was I by my nostalgic disdain for comrade Hoxha.

George Kastrioti (1405-1468) was called Skanderbeg (from Turkish: İskender Bey, meaning "Lord Alexander") and is Albania's most important national hero and one of the greatest military leaders of the European Middle Ages. (In the poem, note the comparison in "namesake" to another Iksander, Alexander the Great. High praise, indeed.) For twenty years Skanderbeg defeated at almost every turn the expansionist goals of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans. He was, at the time, viewed by much of the rest of Christian Europe as the model for heroic Christian resistance to the onslaught of Islam. Some alternate history buffs like to point out that he saved Europe! All of that, yet when I wrote the name for the first time from memory, I spelled it Skanderberg [sic] and thought "How neat. A Swedish Albanian." I'm mortified.

His connection to Naples is that in 1459 he led an expedition to the Kingdom of Naples to bail out king Ferdinand I (alias Ferrante) of Aragon. The Aragonese had just taken the kingdom from the Angevins and were now being threatened with an Angevin reconquest. (This link provides a time-line of dynasties.) Skanderbeg led a combined Neapolitan-Albanian army and effectively defended Naples. The Albanian soldiers were rewarded with land east of Taranto in Apulia, land enough for about 15 villages. That started the Albanian influx into Italy. Skanderbeg died in 1468, and without their larger-than-life military leader, the Albanians were no match for the Ottoman Empire. That set off a large flight of Christians across the Adriatic from Albania to Italy (the Kingdom of Naples). Further waves of immigration followed over the next few centuries, often sparked by similar historical events, such as single battles; thus, corresponding pockets of Italo-Albanians sprung up in many places in the south. Today, the presence of such communities is not necessarily that obvious to the casual observer, but there are indicators: Many Albanian communities in southern Italy still maintain their Byzantine Orthodox religious rites; folk music and dances are also distinctly and traditionally Albanian; and, more mundanely, traffic signs may be bilingual to indicate place names. Ironically, the Albanian settlers were later also part of the great impoverished wave of emigration away from southern Italy in the early 1900s, depleting the Arbëresh culture further until the recent revival. That emigration has been partially made up for by very recent immigration from Albania in the wake of the Balkan wars of the 1990s. There are major differences (and some conflict) between the old Arbëresh and the new Albanians. (Newcomers use the modern word for their mother country, Shqipëria, and if that doesn't cause conflict, I don't know what will!)  I know nothing about the further disposition of those concrete bunkers back home, but I hope the new folks didn't bring any as carry-on.

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