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main index    © Jeff Matthews     entry Sept. 2003

(There are two entries on this page: 1. The Other Norman Conquest, 2. Aversa)

1. The Other Norman Conquest


Roger the NormanBy the year 1000 Italy south of Rome was a hodge-podge of Lombard duchies plus a number of small city-states such as Naples as well as various Byzantine provinces; there was also a massive Arab presence on Sicily and the southern mainland. Into this already complicated setting rode the Normans, only a few generations after wading ashore in France as the feared warrior-race, the Vikings. 

The nicest thing ever said about the Vikings was that, yes, they were ferocious, cunning and absolutely ruthless—completely given to pillaging and plundering—but not because they liked it! It was because they realized that ruthless pillaging and plundering was the most efficient way to get what they wanted: namely, the property and possessions of others. 

If the Vikings were only half as nasty as their reputation, it is little wonder that within 150 years of their first raids on Britain and the continent they had maneuvered the French king, Charles the Simple into the wise move of ceding to them in 911 the land in the north of France which would become known as Normandy, named for them, the Northmen or Normans. The real wonder of it all is that they decided to settle down, and even more wondrous was that in a few generations' time, all their fire and rage would be diluted by southern climes, and their empire in southern Italy would be known for its tolerance, culture and laid-back way of life. But that is precisely what happened. 

If you stand in front of the royal palace in Naples and look at the statues of the rulers of the city, Roger II, the Norman, is the first one (photo, above). He is the monarch who represents the beginning of modern history in Naples. He was the beginning of what might be called a European dimension in southern Italy. 

The feudal redistribution of land in Normandy had meant that a number of young Norman knights wound up with nothing, so they sought their fortunes elsewhere. By the early eleventh century, bands of them were already wandering around this area, fighting for anyone who would pay them—Lombards, Byzantines, the Papacy, the Dukes of Salerno, Capua or Naples. In return for helping the Neapolitan Duke, Sergio IV, in 1029, they were given the hill-fortress in Aversa with its dependencies, and that area soon became a jumping off point for Norman adventurers who wished to take part in the struggles going on for control of the south. In the middle of the eleventh century they were fighting for and against everyone, managing to take over piecemeal much of what had been Lombard land. By 1090 they had taken Sicily from the Arabs. 

Robert of Hauteville arrived in 1047. He was described as very tall with eyes that all but emitted sparks and a voice that put his enemies to flight. His ambition and lust for adventure are said to have been an inspiration to William ("the Conqueror") back home and so, at least second hand, he may have played a part in the invasion of Britain in 1066. [Also, see this entry about Robert's wife, Sichelgaita - Warrior Princess - and then some!] 

The Papacy, originally glad to have Norman help against the Byzantines and Lombards, realized that the Norman tail was now wagging the Papal dog. Normans were raiding monasteries in Italy with as much abandon as had their Viking grandfathers a few generations before in Britain and France. The Normans consolidated their gains in a victory over the combined Papal forces of Lombards, Italians (from the Papal States) and German mercenaries at Benevento in 1054. The Pope as well as the Western Empire were forced to ratify Norman gains. It was a brilliant move by the Normans: they now pledged allegiance to the Church, in return for which, of course, the Papacy consecrated the Norman Empire in the South, now virtually all in Norman hands, anyway. 

By 1060 there were three separate Norman holdings: Aversa, Capua and Apulia, the last of which was the most important, because it was from there that the Normans, under Roger I, (Robert's brother) went on to take over Sicily and, by default, all Norman holdings in the South. 

Shortly after William the Conqueror had successfully invaded Britain, Robert, who saw himself as eventual lord of the whole Mediterranean went on to try and mop up the entire Byzantine Empire in Greece, and failed. His less ambitious sibling, Roger, stayed on in Sicily. Roger's third son became Roger II, and was crowned King of Sicily in 1130. 

Roger II marched north in a campaign to unify Sicily with the southern Italian mainland. He entered Naples in September 1140. Story has it that he got on the good side of his Neapolitan subjects immediately by calling them together and asking them how long the city wall was. No one knew, so he personally marched it off at 2,373 paces and announced that he was going to enlarge it for the good of Naples and it citizens. 

The city thus lost its independence, but gained a king who called himself Rex Siciliae et Italiae, and membership in an ambitious empire, one with designs on North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. The capital was Palermo, one of the richest and most opulent cities of the day, efficiently and benevolently ruled by a mixed aristo-bureaucracy of Greeks, Sicilians and Arabs. It was a place where your god, language and race took a back seat to whether or not you could get the job done. For a brief period, the overused phrase "Golden Age" truly applied to this empire, as the collective voices of centuries of Mediterranean cultures joined together almost as if to announce the coming of the Renaissance 

Roger died in Palermo in 1154, and a few years later the Norman Kingdom of the South fizzled out because of lack of male issue. One of Roger's granddaughters had married the son of the German emperor Barbarossa. Their child would become Frederick II and, thus, the Kingdom of Sicily (eventually to become the Kingdom of Naples and then the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) would pass to German rule. (There is a chronological chart of dynasties here.)

It was a strange end for the Normans. In the South they were victims—fortunate ones, perhaps—of their own flexibility. They started out as almost caricatures of themselves: ferocious, aggressive, asking no quarter and certainly giving none. They wound up as a blend of cultures, languages and faiths, a society apparently ruled by "an aristocracy of talent" (to use Thomas Jefferson's choice phrase) In hindsight, coming as it did on the eve of that atrocity known as The Crusades, their rule here seems to have been one of the last great periods of understanding and tolerance in European history, one in which there was a fortunate and rare reversal of the roles described by Yeats: This time it was not "the worst," but "the best," who were "full of passionate intensity".

[to next in history series: Swabian Naples]


entry - April 14, 2017

2. Aversa
— Children of a lesser Norman                        

From the above account of the Norman conquest of southern Italy, we see that the most important part in the consolidation of the south was played by the Norman “county” of Apulia (modern Puglia—the southeast) and not Capua or Aversa. If historical events had been slightly different, Italian history might have unrolled quite differently over the last 1000 years, and certainly the history of the town of Aversa would have been very different.
Image, right: The "entrance" to Aversa is this arch called the Naples Gate. The image is taken from within the city facing south towards Naples. The arch is the symbol of Aversa. Further details below.
As it is today, Aversa is known as a town just north of Naples, but in the province of Caserta. It is called the “city of 100 churches” and (presumably unrelated!) is also known as the site of the first insane asylum in Italy. (On the premises of the Magdelene Convent and Church, built in 1269, it was turned into a psychiatric hospital under the French rule of Murat in the early 1800s. It was closed in 1999.) As for rest of the long history of Aversa, both before and after the Normans, it remains just on the periphery of our historical memory. Aversa may originally have been Etruscan, the name deriving from the as yet undiscovered Etruscan town. That, of course, is very speculative, but dead certain is that there was on the site a chapel or church called Sancti Pauli ad Averze, to honor the presence of Paul the Apostle, who stopped there on his way to Rome in 61 AD. Also certain from the symmetrical layout of ruins of ancient Roman walls is that they are typical of 1st-century Roman “centurionization,” the granting of parcels of land throughout Italy to veterans returning from foreign wars. This pattern of land distribution had a dramatic effect on Roman society. The square parcels of land still seen in many places on the peninsula are directly traceable to Roman land-grants under Augustus. Aversa was alive and well during the height of the Roman empire.
Image, below, left: it isn't hard to tell that these people came from somewhere
else. This is an engraving of St. George and the Dragon, famed in northern
mythology. It is engraved in the Aversa duomo - the cathedral.
Aversa reappears (after the agony of the Gothic War and relatively benign Longobard rule) with the arrival of the Normans in the 11th century. Of the three Norman counties in Italy, it was the first one, founded in 1029 by Rainulfo Drengot. The Normans of Aversa conducted successful military operations against papal forces to the north (they even captured pope Leo IX—but gave him back!) and conquered their nearby Norman cousin county of Capua. They were good, but not as strong as the Normans of Puglia, who, history shows, get the credit for consolidating southern Italy as the kingdom of Sicily (later, kingdom of Naples) in the mid-1100s. Aversa settled into its role as a small but important local capital, stuck up in the north, about as far away from the capital of Palermo on Sicily as you could get, but still on the way to central and northern Italy. It had no large port, and that may have been crucial to later history. When the Angevins moved the capital of the kingdom from Palermo to Naples a few centuries later, the importance of Aversa was greatly reduced.

Aversa stayed up there and gathered architecture in the form of beautiful churches, convents and monasteries, theaters, administrative buildings and beautiful artwork within those structures. The layout of the city is easy to discern. There is a straight main road (now called via Rome ) running exactly north-south with rationally laid out blocks on both sides—maybe they thought they were going to be a “planned city” and capital some day.


Image, below: Among the many hundreds of art works to be found in
the churches of Avera is this one: The Blessed Virgin and St. Bonaventure
by Francesco Solimena.


The didn't happen, but between the founding of the Kingdom of Sicily/Naples until the mid-1700s, Aversa became the repository for the many waves of architecture that rolled through Italy over the centuries. Original Lombard and Gothic were rebuilt by Renaissance architects, then by the Spanish Baroque, then by the classical lines of Vanvitelli in the 1700s. After all that, you have such marvels as the cathedral of Aversa, built in the late 1000's—before there was a kingdom. It is dedicated to St. Paul for obvious reason; the church of St. Francis (mid-1200s, modified in the 1600s); and the Royal Sacred House of the Annunciation, a charitable institution that goes back to the 1300s, also greatly modified. That last one is hard to miss if you come up from Naples; it is on the right (east) side of that main road and you pass beneath the large entrance arch to the city, the symbol of Aversa (from 1734) joined over the road to a belfry (in the top photo, it is on the left). That arch is called Porta Napoli (Naples Gate) Note the date; that's the year the Bourbon dynasty took over the kingdom. Local lore says that the belfry was made extra strong or extra holy or extra something because the masons used local wine instead of water to mix the mortar. I don't know, but I like it. (Now I know why the clock above the arch is almost never right.)

Speaking of “planned cities” and “future capital”, that idea is all it took to finish off whatever aspiration beyond 100 churches Aversa may have had. Charles III decided to build a new capital of the kingdom, Caserta, giant palace and all, perfectly laid out by the king's main man, Vanvitelli, and leading via a marvelous boulevard into Naples (to be relegated, of course, to “second city”). Neapolitans were not happy about the idea, just as the folks in Aversa weren't. That's the way it goes. I listed three landmark religious structures. You've got 97 to go. And in between one church and the next, pass by and pay your respects at the monument to Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801) the most highly respected Italian composer of his day and native of Aversa.


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