Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews       entry Feb 16, 2016

The Vulture Historical Geographical Region

The light yellow area is the region (state) of Basilicata. The red dot is Mt. Vulture. The Vulture historical area is all in the general vicinity of the mountain. The three visible bodies of water are the Tyrrhenian sea (lower left) where Basilicata is bounded by the Campania region on the west and Calabria on the south; the Ionian Sea (lower right) the 'sole of the boot', and the Adriatic (upper right), with the Puglia region of Italy in between. The entire image is about 110 km/70 mi across.

"Extinct volcano" is a dark, leaden phrase. Maybe it conjures up visions of smouldering cinders and an underground pyroclastic zombie brooding down there, just aching to have another go at it. Wrong. That would be "dormant volcano" —Mt. Vesuvius, for example. "Extinct" means dead, at least geologically. In a biological sense, however,  Mt. Vulture is anything but; it is alive with flora, fauna, lakes, you name it. It's as wonderfully alive as they come. Vulture (pronounced Vool-too-ray  accent on the first syllable) is a traditional geographical and historical region in the northern part of the province of Potenza, in the Basilicata region. The Vulture area is also known as Vulture-Melfese or Bradano.

There are two provinces in Basilicata:
Potenza (left) & Matera (right).

Such traditional regions are not formal administrative divisions such as provinces and regions, but simply local names used for centuries. For comparison, the Campania region (of which Naples is the capital) has similar areas such as Cilento, Sannio, Irpinia, and Matese. There are many dozens of such areas throughout Italy. The name Vulture is a cognate of the English word spelled the same way; indeed, the Italian term for the bird called “vulture” in English is very similar—avvoltoio. This vulture, however —this historical area— takes its name from the extinct volcano Monte Vulture (1326 m/4350 feet) (image, right). It is 56 km (35 mi) north of the city of Potenza and is unique among large Italian volcanoes in that it is east of the Apennine mountain range, the "spine" of Italy. At the summit is a caldera: that is, a crater resulting from the collapse or explosive removal of the top of the volcano. Such an eruption is extremely powerful and the resulting crater can be many miles across. (There is one in Naples. See this link.) The Vulture caldera is not really symmetrical, but, depending on where you measure it, is about 5 km/3 mi in diameter; it was a major part of the mountain-building geology of the Apennines and formed about 800,000 years ago with the last eruption taking place 130,000 years ago. True, the entire Apennine chain is the result of tectonic plate movement; that takes many millions of years. Volcanic eruptions, however, play a big role, as well. Compared to tectonic movement, they happen in a heart-beat.

The entire area shows signs of stone-age habitation as well as of a later Indo-European Italic civilization called the Dauni in the  8th and 7th centuries BC. The towns (comuni—i.e., with their own municipal administration) in the Vulture are Atella, Barile, Ginestra, Melfi, Rapolla, Ripacandida, Rionero in Vulture, Maschito, Venosa, Ruvo del Monte, Rapone, and San Fele. Most prominent historically among these is Melfi, one of the headquarters of medieval emperor, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, still marked by his castle, now the home of a national archaeological museum. It is where the Constitution of Melfi was drawn up, the foundation document of what is often called the forerunner of European nation states.

The general area contains a number of protected nature refuges: the WWW Wildlife reserve of Pantano di Pignola; a protected (and very unusual) habitat for a rare species of butterfly; the two lakes of Monticchio within the caldera (image, left); and the entire densely wooded area on the slopes within the caldera and on the slopes. The administration of these areas has provided at least 14 marked hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty, including one that will take you above the lakes to the abbey of St. Michael the Archangel (image, above right), the construction of which can be traced to the 8th century AD.

  - The Undergound City & More -

Shown in red: the Italo-Albanian sections of
  southern Italy. Vulture is just above Potenza.

Just down from the slopes in the immediate area, the town of Melfi is about 5 km (3 mi) away, as is the town of Barile with its unusual array of "cellars", row upon row of entrances to what is essentially an underground city (image, right) dug into the soft limestone. Interesting is that these are not necessarily of recent construction and many of them are interconnected by internal passages. To the extent that are not natural karst grottoes, they were dug as dwellings into the soft limestone in the 15th century by Albanian refugees fleeing the spread of Islam in the Balkans; they then came to make up the so-called
"Arbëresh" communities, Italo-Albanians in southern Italy, who to a certain extent have managed to retain their language and ethnic identity. Today some of these underground spaces may be used for general agricultural storage, but many of them are wine cellars, some with amenities such as historical markers and places to dine. (More on the Arbëresh at this link.) After all, Vulture is the home of L’Aglianico del Vulture, Basilicata's best-known wine (you'll need a break from lakes, monasteries, hiking and imperial castles!). Parts of the Vulture area are so authentically ancient looking (or at least they were in the 1960s) that Pierpaolo Pasolini used them (as he used nearby Matera) for location shots to simulate Palestine at the time of Christ for his 1964 film, The Gospel According to Matthew. I'm not sure you can still do that, but the L’Aglianico del Vulture is still pretty good.

Historically, nearby Venosa has Jewish catacombs and the town was the birthplace of the Roman poet Horace (65-8 BC) (and even sponsors a nationwide Horace-translation competition!). Manfred (1232-1266), Frederick II's son and would-be successor (that didn't quite work out), was born there, as was everyone's favorite composer of madrigals, Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1633). (He was the one who murdered his wife and got away with it. Read all about it.) Even worse,
in 493 AD Venosa was sacked by a group of Danish barbarians (c'mon, they're such nice people!) called the Heruli and whoever heard of them? They apparently gave up after a while and went back to Denmark.

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