Pizza, Pasta, Fascinating History

What do you think of when you think of Italy? Pizza? Pasta? Roman ruins? The Sistine Chapel? Why not the Greek city of Naples or the Celtic colony of Turin? Italy presents us with a history as rich and diverse as any on the planet, and more than most. I’ve just begun to dip my toe in it, driven by the necessity of novel writing, of course.

Situated on a vast peninsula stretching into the Mediterranean, Italy possesses world-class ports, rivers, and mountain strongholds that were the envy of the ancient, medieval, and, yes, modern worlds. This came to me forcefully on a recent trip to Ravenna, a city that was capital to three empires or kingdoms due to its strategic location and port.

Mosaic of Justinian, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

Mosaic of Justinian, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

Ravenna became the capital of the Roman Empire in 402 before the small communities to its north (those that established remote lagoon trading posts) had even begun to pull together into what would

become Venice. It served as capital of the Ostrogoth kingdom under Theodoric. When the Byzantine emperor Justinian flexed his muscles to retake much of the old Roman Empire in the sixth century, Ravenna served as its western capital. The churches and other buildings of this period still stand. Their spectacular mosaics predate the Sistine Chapel by a thousand years.

Did you notice I called Naples Greek? Ovid’s term for Greater Greece, Magna Graecia, refers to the colonies established in the southern regions of Italy by the Greek city-states in the third and fourth centuries BC. They included the modern cities of Naples and Syracuse, much of Sicily, and the modern regions of Calabria and Apulia. The Romans absorbed them. An Arab emirate ruled Sicily and Calabria for over 250 years beginning in the 9th century.

Greek Pinax, Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia

Greek Pinax, Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia

As to Turin, its founders, the Taurini, were a Celtic people, and Celtic peoples also lived in what is now Milan and other northern towns. The Roman Empire absorbed the north by the first century BC. Roman remains in Turin date from that period. It is the traditional capital of the Piedmont. The House of Savoy ruled it in 1820 as “the Kingdom of Sardinia,” since their territory included the Island of Sardinia. The historic Duchy of Savoy, however overlapped borders along the alps. At one point in time it include parts of what are now France, Italy, and Switzerland and all of the Piedmont region.

So Classic Greeks, Lombards, Goths, Celts, Byzantine Greeks, and Latini (AKA Romans): is that diverse enough? The Normans (the same ones that conquered England in 1066) ruled Naples and the French handed Venice to the Austrians after 1797. Padua, sacked

by the Huns, the Goths and the Magyars, answered to the Germanic Franks throughout the Middle Ages.

Monastery of Saint Onofrio (Gentile da Rocca, 13th century)

Monastery of Saint Onofrio (Gentile da Rocca, 13th century)

Rome, of course lay in what became the Papal States, the buffer between the Kingdom of Naples and the states to the north and fought both for independence and territory. The miracle is that Italy ever achieved unity at all.

Novelists love diverse and chaotic history. My novels, all set during England’s late Georgian/Regency period, mine Italy’s in a variety of ways. While researching female Greek poets for Dangerous Works, I came upon Magna Graecia. Dangerous Secrets, set primarily in Rome, gave me the opportunity to get acquainted with the Piedmont and its capital, Turin. Dangerous Weakness, to be released in September, includes a swift visit to Malta with reference to the seas around Naples. After visiting Venice, I’ve taken an interest in the time George Gordon, Lord Byron lived there. I feel a holiday novella coming on.

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