Otherworldly screams? Laments from the afterlife? The bloody hand of the devil? The poor town of Pentedattilo on the edge of the Aspromonte Mountains in the southern tip of Calabria has seen it all. Earthquakes and precarious shifting of soil lent the final blow. But this cluster of edifices clinging to a strange rock formation, finally abandoned completely in the 1960s, seems to have been biding its time. Perhaps this ghost town just wasn’t ready to give up the ghost, of whom it is said, there are many.
THE FIVE FINGERS OF PENTEDATTILO
But before the characters of this unsettling story of horror came upon the scene, the jagged outcropping set amidst rugged, correspondingly disjointed hills already had a considerable history under its belt. Its shape has surely attracted attention of all who have passed, and the ancient Greeks, who settled the area in the 7th-century B.C. are responsible for its name that has survived to this day.
Pentedattilo: penta + daktylos = five fingers. In the local greco-calabro or Greek-Calabrian dialect, the town’s name is Pentadattilo. This area still has strong ties with its Greek heritage, which is reflected in the language and customs.
The name undoubtedly matched the image from ancient times right up through the last few hundred years. The hand greeted the Romans, the Byzantines and a good many people throughout its long feudal history.
IMAGES OF PENTEDATTILO
Edward Lear, British artist and writer, clearly saw the hand back in 1847. He included an image and description of the formation in his book Journals of a Landscape Painter in Southern Calabria: “The appearance of Pentedatilo is perfectly magical … Wild spires of stone shoot up into the air, barren and clearly defined, in the form (as its name implies) of a gigantic hand against the sky, and in the crevices and holes of this fearfully savage pyramid the houses of Pentedatilo are wedged, while darkness and terror brood over all the abyss around this, the strangest of human abodes.”
Norman Douglas, another British writer who visited the area half a century later, had a different take on the image. From his Old Calabria, published in 1915: “The sea is visible once more, and there are fine glimpses … into the destructive and dangerous torrent of Amendolea. Far beyond it, rises the mountain peak of Pentedattilo, a most singular landmark which looks exactly like a molar tooth turned upside down, with fangs in air.”
M. C. Escher, the Dutch graphic artist, traveled to Calabria in 1930 and produced a number of lithographs and woodcuts of the region. He spent a few days sketching in Pentedattilo, and his images depict more or less what one sees today. Without a doubt, the many earthquakes suffered by the area have taken their toll on the five fingers. The most devastating was in 1783, triggering the start of a steady emigration away from this precarious hillside down to Melito Porto Salvo, located along the coast. In 1811, Pentedattilo lost its autonomy and became part of Melito. The population continued to dwindle; however, even before this emptying out of the residents, the town already had an eeriness due to a savage past with a homegrown horror tale to rival any other.
THE MASSACRE OF PENTEDATTILO
This story reaches back many centuries in time. It has become a legend and is recounted with variations, but the thrust is roughly the same. The tale tells of two noble families. The Alberti family were marquises of Pentedattilo and residents of the local castle, while the Abenavoli family were barons of the nearby town of Montebello Ionico. As often seems to be the case with neighboring landowners, they didn’t get along and harbored a longstanding dispute with regard to property borders. Romantic interest pushed the conflict way over the edge.
It was Easter in the year 1686. The Baron Bernardino Abenavoli had his heart set on marrying Antonietta Alberti, who had been born into the family of his archenemy. Not only was he in love with her, but a union between them might have helped heal the feud. Her father, the family’s patriarch, the Marquis Domenico Alberti, had recently died and her brother Lorenzo had just married Caterina Cortez, daughter of the Viceroy of Naples. This marriage brought Antonietta in contact with the son of the Viceroy, Don Petrillo Cortez, who also fell in love with her, asking her hand in marriage. Lorenzo, the new marquis, granted permission, much to the fury and indignation of the Baron Abenavoli.
Basta! (Enough is enough.) The baron snapped, and on Easter night, the 16th of April in 1686, he and his group of armed men, entered the castle with the help of Giuseppe Scrufari, servant and traitor to the Alberti family. The slaughter began with the Marquis Lorenzo Alberti, who is said to have been shot with a harquebus (predecessor to the musket), which either didn’t do the job or the multiple stabbings that followed were posthumously inflicted out of sheer rage.
Baron Abenavoli and company didn’t stop there, however. They weren’t satisfied until almost the entire enemy household was killed, including a 9-year-old younger brother. The heinous incident is known as the Strage degli Alberti or the Slaughter of the Albertis.
FLIGHT FROM PENTEDATTILO
The baron spared the object of his desire, Antonietta Alberti, and married her a few days later. Her recently intended, Don Petrillo Cortez was taken in hostage, most likely in fear of his father, the Viceroy. Abenavoli holed up with his captives in his castle at Montebello Ionico until forced to flee when the Viceroy sent down a military convoy from Naples. Many of his cohorts were captured and executed, but the slippery baron managed to escape, running off first to Malta and then Vienna.
He left Antonietta behind in a convent. She eventually had her marriage annulled and lived out the rest of her time, what must have been quite haunted, in a nunnery in Reggio Calabria. The baron carried on a new life for a while as an officer in the Austrian army, and finally died in battle.
PENTEDATTILO: A GHOST TOWN BEFORE ITS TIME
The ill-fated Pentedattilo was left with its fantasmi (ghosts). Old timers maintained that the bloody handprint of Lorenzo Alberti could be seen into the last century on a crumbling wall of the castle. Its form spookily resembled the five fingers of the outcropping.
This large hand has been said to belong to the devil, especially in the light of certain reddish sunsets – well, either to the Prince of Darkness or the evil Baron Abenavoli, himself. There was also the fear that the oversized mitt might just come down on the residents as retribution for crimes perpetrated – an understandable fear in such an earthquake- and mudslide-prone zone. And when the wind picked up, Lorenzo’s screams howled through the rocks.
What is this paese fantasma (ghost town) like today? Well, in addition to the fantasmi, there is also the presence of living human beings, at least one even resides there.
Pentedattilo is in the Province of Reggio Calabria, about 30 kilometers southwest of Reggio Calabria, the region’s largest city. Visitors need to be in decent shape as it’s a little bit of a steep, uphill walk to the village from the parking area. Exploration is on foot, but well worth a ramble through the abandoned lanes of this phantasmal landscape.
The steeple seen from a distance is that of the Chiesa di San Pietro e Paolo (Church of Saint Peter and Paul), located at easy reach in the center of the village. This church, which is pretty basic inside, can be visited, and on guided tours is often the place where the cicerone sits the group down to recount the tale of the infamous slaughter of the Alberti family.
Some of the buildings have been renovated and in the summer and on weekends, the visitor can get a cup of coffee and browse in a few gift shops selling local wares. A summer highlight is the International Pentedattilo Film Festival of short films, and those with an excess of energy can follow in the footsteps of Edward Lear and hike the old mule trails of the area.
Today, the castle is almost completely destroyed, but the legend lives on. Man returns, over and over, to both see and feel this paese fantasma that continues to capture the imagination.
The delightfully playful sculpture Pentedaktylos “La strage degli Alberti” (pictured above) is one of many works by Nicola Tripodi and his studio Arghillà l’arte delle terre in Reggio Calabria. These artistic pieces hearken back to ancient times from whence the soul of Calabria emerges. Visit the Arghillà l’arte delle terre Facebook page and website.
Read more about Pentedattilo in Calabria: The Other Italy, my non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in a fascinating southern Italian region. This in-depth look at the beautiful land in the toe of the boot is available in paperback and e-book versions. Would you like to visit Pentedattilo? Join my Calabria Tour!
Do you like ghost towns? Check out my blogpost about a ghost town very near to Pentedattilo: The Castle of Amendolea, A Ghost Town in Calabria. Posts about other towns with Greek heritage include Gallicianò: Greek Culture in Calabria and Palizzi: Yesterday and Today.
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