February 17, Cusano Mutri, Italy, John

We left Sorrento for the short drive to Cusano Mutri, population 4,025, just 73 miles, but into the center of Italy at the top of the Apennines a bit NE of Naples and close to a mile in altitude.  Mount Mutri is a bit over a mile high at its summit which looms over the village.  It is literally at the end of the road and until after WWII there were two bridges to cross to reach Cusano and they were both destroyed by the locals to stop any occupation by the Germans.  This may have been a bit of over-reaction because the only attractions were sheep and mushrooms, and the wool industry had been moribund since the early 19th century. Benevento is the nearest city, 25 miles away, with a population of 60,000 and an important place since Roman times and before as a center of the Samnite culture.


Cusano, Italy Cusano, Italy Cusano, Italy Cusano, Italy Cusano, Italy Cusano, Italy Cusano, Italy Cusano, ItalyThe Samnites were a tribal people who fought with the Romans until around 200 BC when the Romans finally incorporated them into full citizenship.  The Samnites left a cultural imprint in Roman history and in their own art depicting themselves as fierce fighters, both among their respective city states and against the Romans.  Because of the terrain they were able to defend their territory and to preserve cultural and political independence for a long time.  In my musings my relatives were heirs to this ancient culture.  At the time Samnites were independent, the Etruscans were living in Pompeii and around much of the coastal regions of Southern Italy.  We often think of Italy as exclusively Roman, but Roman dominance did not cement itself until around 200 BC.  A fact that proves out the superiority of Rome through its engineering and political brilliance.

Cusano is now noted for a mushroom festival each fall which is attended by well over 100,000 people.  The visitors are day trippers because there is no infrastructure to accommodate overnight guests in this quantity.  We stayed in one of three inns, Piana La Gatta (the little cat) and it was beautiful and graciously hosted with an abundant breakfast even including American style pancakes.  The other outstanding feature of Cusano is that it is one of the few medieval villages still intact in this part of Italy due to the destruction of so many others due to earthquakes.

Cusano is a treasure of Middle Ages architecture, but more so for me the treasure was in finding family.  We were hosted by my cousin Maria Luisa Maturo (soon to deliver her first child) and her mother for a wonderful lunch including the Easter delicacy, Apizza Gaine (a type of Italian quiche in full crust).  I met over 20 cousins and among them most notably four male cousins of my generation.  The bonds were strong despite the separation of an ocean and over 100 years.  Family traits (genetics) proved the family relationship through small but telling behaviors.  One cousin noted that I was like his father in using my pocketknife to cut a piece of cheese and in the way I drank my wine.  These commonalities were clear despite no common language.  Heidi was my interpreter because my cousins spoke French, but no English.

I became Giovanni like my father and grandfather and my namesake cousin.  It is pronounced like Johnnie and so I understand why my Italian-American aunts and uncles and cousins called me Johnnie.  This has always been a bit of an oddity for me because I was always called John outside of this Connecticut clan.  I grew up in Michigan among my mother’s German-Scottish family.

The warmth of our reception has made me determined to learn enough Italian so on a return visit I can be part of the conversation.  The clear mountain air, the rugged naked slopes of mount Mutri above the tree line, the vineyards and olive trees in the valley below belonging to my cousins, my family long unknown, call for a return.  To know for the first time, really know, my history did not start when my grandfather came to the United States, but that it reaches back to ancient times in these mountains is deeply moving.  My grandfather walked out of these mountains to find a train in Benevento to take him to the port of Naples and then a steamship to New York City and the greeting of the Statue of Liberty.  Out of poverty and rudimentary education, courage, determination and intelligence forged a life and family in New Haven and created a legacy that allowed grandchildren to attain the Ivy League.  For the first time I truly understand how I came to be.  Families have characteristics of strength, humanity, and intelligence and what came before allowed us to be what we are in this time.