Crumbs of Truth (in a story set in Calabria)

frances fahy


The procession of events and people that we term History is, in theory, a defined time, winding steadily away from us back to an unidentified, misty curiosity known as Prehistory. How difficult it is to grasp this ‘defined’ time. We watch the players who, in turn, seem to be watching us and smiling at our futile efforts at understanding who and what has modelled our past. Events and personalities continue to multiply in a lengthening procession making it more and more arduous for the protagonists of the moment to hold centre stage. They are elbowed further and further away as others replace them. Only a few of the Greats remain relevant, their blades and crosses, their crowns and mitres, scalpels and compasses, their pens and brushes standing out so that each new generation can ponder their greatness. They are surrounded by the throngs whose identities and contributions have long been forgotten and who have mingled into oneness in an ever-increasing ant-like procession before our confused eyes, part of the river of humanity flowing into the recesses of timelessness and only now vaguely significant.

From time to time, however, someone in that throng raises his or her eyes, winks and beckons mischievously to the observers and invites them to glance at their lives. There are warnings, there is resignation, there is sadness as they watch us heading down those paths they, too, once mistook for gold-paved avenues. Some smile benevolently and reassuringly. Others are simply mocking us for our folly.
They whisper:
«You, jostling to be noticed and hoping to become even a tiny speck on the big picture, you, too, will soon join the tail of this procession where you will be absorbed and obscured by the throng. If you could only understand! Your message will have little impact until you realise that communication is meaningful only when it’s out of time and out of space. Real events are governed by the one reality that you cannot now grasp, by the absence of the very markers that now make sense to you, the markers of time and space».
Then they fade away, back into the vagueness of chaos. And we retreat into our comforting certainties.
Until the next time when someone else in the unending throng will beckon and give us to understand that, if we probe into their existence for some kind of answer, we may well be rewarded for our efforts.
Who knows, maybe somewhere, sometime, someone else may find crumbs of truth in our story, crumbs waiting to be picked up.

I skimmed over the lines in a history book and something made me look deeper.
“……in order to keep the Ruffo dynasty of Maida intact and on the wishes of her maternal grandmother, Donna Ippolita d’Avalos d’Aragona, Ippolita, the fourteen-year old daughter of the deceased Baron Carlo Ruffo, marries her uncle Nicola, her father’s brother in 1772… in 1783 an earthquake destroyed the town.”
These words hinted at a remarkable story which, told today, serves as a reminder that earthquakes, floods, storms and calamities destroy not only towns and villages, they destroy the lymph of life, sometimes in whole countries and sometimes for generations, buried beneath the mounds of earth that once gave them their life’s sustenance.
But they do not destroy humanity’s love for life, even at its most humiliating.
How does a community raise its head time and again when nature seems hell bent on bringing it to its knees and when wars, hatred and greed are eager to complete the devastation?
1315 Famine; 1348 Plague; 1484 Plague and famine; 1578 Plague; 1609-1635 seven quakes of various magnitudes; 1656 Plague; 1668 Plague; 1783 two earthquakes. Just some of the major natural calamities that rained on the townlands of Maida, decimating its population in just a few hundred years in its history. Not to mention wars, invasions, rebellions, the weight of unbearable taxation laws and a local system of eye-for-eye justice.

As we zoom in on one of these events and recreate the din of daily living on narrow streets, the peel of church bells and the rhythms of the seasons, we do so with discretion and reverence, remembering that, while the cycle of life continues, there will always be stories, happy and sad, in the making.
Maida now nestles in the tranquillity of a hillside, the mild Mediterranean climate caresses its orchards, vineyards and olive groves. People stroll through the relics of its much tried past. It is easier to forget, and to believe that the tribulations belong to yesterday.

But whatever is in store, its ruins, walls and ghosts will continue to whisper that the human spirit is resilient against adversity.
If there is a lesson to be learned from this page in the history of Maida, it is that, while we can sometimes parry the blows, it is useless to brave the Elements when they unleash the full power of their destructive energy.
All we can do then is run for shelter and wait. Because, no matter how relentless the assault, Nature always proposes a truce. It lets us come up for air, so to speak, and start all over again. The more the odds seem stacked against us the more humanity refuses to be cowered and to surrender. Maybe it’s nature’s way of sporting with us.

From Frances Geraldine Fahy, The Last Duchess: The life of Ippolita Maria Ruffo di Bagnara (Introduction), Lipordu editore 2021 (kindle in Amazon).

The Last Duchess is loosely based on a true story set in Maida in the Calabria region of Southern Italy during a period of great change and unrest in the then Kingdom of Naples. Maida was one of the homes of the Ruffo Dynasty of Bagnara, also in Calabria. Baron Carlo Ruffo dies in 1761, leaving three young daughters and no male heir. His wife Anna Cavaniglia leaves the children in the care of the sisters at the Convent of Santa Veneranda and of their paternal grandmother Donna Ippolita d’Avalos d’Aragona and goes back to her native San Giovanni Rotondo where she remarries. Donna Ippolita manages the estate until 1772 when she makes a dramatic decision. In order to keep the Ruffo line in the hands of the first-born’s heirs, she arranges for Carlo’s eldest daughter, the fourteen-year-old Ippolita Maria, to marry her uncle Nicola, Carlo’s younger brother.   This decision has the approval of the clergy. We follow the fascinating story of Ippolita Maria, first in Maida as the Duchess of Bagnara where she tries to grasp the intrigues of Court and has to renounce love over duty towards her husband. We see Maida and much of Calabria devastated by an earthquake in 1793. Later, we watch Ippolita Maria’s efforts at adapting to a more modern environment in Naples where she transfers after the fall of the Dynasty of Bagnara.