Sardinian History – The Middle Ages
Some characteristics of the Sardinians—and especially of Barbagia’s populace—are now becoming clearer and have more consistency. The path toward Grazia Deledda’s work continues together with history, step-by-step, each time adding some feature, a key to understanding or a reason why.
At the moment, I’d like to emphasize those ancient generations of people, so able and determined, so brave and worthy of undying glory, who were instead sentenced to invisibility and oblivion. With nothing written down and no names known it is difficult to retain any reminiscence. Memories live within and through language. For example who were the heroes who defeated the Romans many times, the invincible Roman legions? We cannot picture even one face, one suit of armour, the tactics. Yes, we can visualize the Roman armies, their weapons and movements, flags and banners, consuls and orders. But, you see, as soon as you stare at the other side of the battlefield, the opposing army fades and disappears. You cannot discern either the whole picture or the single details. It is a ghost militia indeed. Who were the commanders, the captains? Did they have horses, saddles, spears or bows? Or were they able to materialize so close to the Roman soldiers that they could kill them using a short bronze sword only? Was it a magical military force then, a supernatural one guided by fairies, goblins or demons? My grandmother told me about some green horses, tall and powerful, which live hidden near the Giant’s Mountains. If you ride one of them, my son, you will be the king of Sardinia and nobody will defeat you.
No, I cannot imagine bodybuilders, generations of men so strong and sturdy that they could slaughter groups of Romans as if the latter were puppets. The brave soldiers of the glorious Brigata Sassari during the First World War were slim and short, sharp and nervous, silent. More than thirty per cent of them would die in battle during the first war years, fighting near the Isonzo River. The noble Piedmontese generals used the brave Sardinian soldiers as cannon fodder, because they never surrendered, never withdrew in front of the enemy, never talked or complained. Then they fought near the Piave River and then on the Asiago plateau. In the end, more than twenty per cent of the entire Brigata Sassari—twice as much as the Italian army average—would die. Another infantry force that disappeared erasing a generation of young men. They gained six Military Orders of Savoia, eleven golden medals, four hundred and six silver medals, five hundred and fifty-one bronze medals, and were called Dimonios, Demons. And they died like flies, for the glory of a state they didn’t understand.
As I have said, there is a link between the ancient and the modern inhabitants of Sardinia. It is clear the thread hasn’t been broken. And thinking about the past, I don’t see men with exceptional physical abilities or extraordinary powers. I prefer to evoke something supernatural or metaphysical, yes, which after the battles became canes and oaks again, and dust and light. An army of sad spectres capable of passing through the centuries, indomitable. Gifted or sentenced to invisibility.
And when you read Grazia Deledda’s novels, her heroes have the same features: they can pass through time, invisible not because they are badly described—on the contrary, they are sculpted from rock, and are well-marked and coherent—but because they live in themselves, without an institutional contraposition, a divine judgment, a present God, a reaction from the world outside their circles. Their journey, their pain, their possible redemption is only and always internal. Inside them there is the beginning and the end of everything, of every story. Each man is an island, or a nuraghe or a simple stone. And often, in Barbagia, this entity is invisible from outside.
Salvatore Satta, the famous author of Il Giorno del Giudizio, in his deep article Lo Spirito Religioso dei Sardi, Genoa, August 1951, remembered a trial in which he assisted as a child, in the penal court of Nuoro. A witness, a shepherd short and black, interrogated by the judge, declined to answer. The judge asked him whether he was scared. The man answered: “Scared of what? President, dead I, dead a dog!” The President didn’t understand the metaphor and, embarrassed, dismissed the man.
Now, a step ahead and read the wonderful and profound book Il Principe e il Giurista, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa e Salvatore Satta, by Alessandro Carrera, published by Pieraldo Editore, which is an intensive analysis, literary, historical and anthropological, of a post-colonial period. The works of Lampedusa and Satta are a smart re-elaboration, made by two masters of unique and singular novels, of the typically island features that claim a lost, somehow mystic identity.
Is it necessary to read Salvatore Satta and Tomasi di Lampedusa to understand Grazia Deledda? Yes, absolutely. We are talking about history, about Piedmontese colonialism and downtrodden identity, about an Italian ethnocentric culture without a centre, a spirit, or a common and shared ideal. By entering the modernity of Italy finally united, you have to renounce your identity, your soul, even if you are gods (“They are coming to teach us good manners, but won’t succeed, because we are gods” Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa). This is the drama, the lesson by Lampedusa and Satta. In contrast, Grazia Deledda’s characters don’t repudiate or discuss their roots in some anthropological or existential way; they have no choice, immersed in a hopeless and grey colonialism, like men in a dark well or a concentration camp. They are a defeated race, and their fight is against the monsters of their self, the regret, the shame, the guilt of impotence. The difference is clear, evident, and by comparison with Lampedusa and Satta you can better appreciate the reason why of Grazia Deledda’s stories.
I would follow with that interesting book by Alessandro Carrera, which introduces the Byzantine period of Sardinia and the Middle Ages. Always remember though, that we are describing two different parts of Sardinia: Barbagia and the rest of the island, and two divergent paths of history.
The Byzantines put an Archon (Arconte) in Cagliari, a sort of king of the island. The Archons were the final heads, after the roman quaestors and proconsuls, who pretended to govern Sardinia. Their lives were without particular glory or events, and their formal oversight faded more and more as we head from the coast to the interior. Actually, as I said in the last article, things didn’t change for Barbagia. Nobody dared invade Barbagia, but, of course, contact between the populations grew year after year. That sort of natural osmosis allowed a progress and recognition, it is correct, but in any case Barbagia continued to follow its own rules. Yet, any information about the organization and governance of that people is missing: the curse was still working.
So, let’s focus for a while on Sardinia, which was beginning its most glorious historical period, from the first part of the eighth century to the fifteenth century. The Byzantine Empire, corrupt, too large and ineffective, started to understand that Sardinia wasn’t defensible. The Saracen bands raided villages and towns for slaves and food, disrupting agriculture and normal life. Eventually, the Archon of Byzantium decided to give up, dividing Sardinia into four parts, with each assigned to a Judge: there were four Judices, or Judge-kings to govern the four Giudicati, or districts. Now the details of history become complicated, but Sardinia faced an interesting period of general improvement, ending with the enlightened reign of Eleonora d’Arborea. She was the Judge-king of the district of Arborea, but practically she governed the entire Sardinia thanks to her charisma, her heroism (she led her soldiers on the battlefield), and her intelligence. However, after the Saracens, after the assaults of the Maritime Republics, Genoa, Pisa, Amalfi and Venice, and then the Aragonese, another terrible enemy was in sight, poor land: the Church.
So, Regnum Sardiniae et Corsicae, the kingdom of Sardinia and Corsica, was officially instituted by the Pope in 1297, according to some historians, or in 1299 according to some others. The precise date is not important: in any case, that act was a watershed in the history of Sardinia. It was possible to resist the Romans and the other invaders but not the Church. Because the Church brought a strong and ineffable concept, legitimacy, capable of breaking any wall and tilting the historical balance in the wrong direction. I’ll come back to the effect of legitimacy in the next chapters.
The official act of institution of the Regnum Sardiniae et Corsicae asserted that the kingdom belonged to the Church (this is the force of legitimacy: you can appreciate how strong is it), but (there is always a ‘but’) the kingdom itself was given in perpetuo, ‘forever’, by Pope Boniface VIII to the kings of Aragon, Spain, in return for an oath of vassalage to the Church (there is always a religious angle) and a yearly payment (there is always a price for betrayal).
You can argue over the term ‘betrayal’, but you already know that in Sardinia a legitimate kingdom already existed, the Giudicato d’Arborea, which in the end was governed by Eleonora d’Arborea, the great queen I was talking about. She defended her land for several decades and she was famous for the Carta de Logu, the first example of a constitution in the world. Sardinia was truly enlightened by the greatness of Eleonora, who reigned with modernity and wisdom. The picture above is the cover of the book by Giuseppe Dessí, published by Ilisso.
Her decision to abolish slavery (in 1390) and to set up the first army entirely constituted by Sardinian men and not mercenaries was ahead of the times. While Italy was a land of fighting, poverty and corruption, following the examples of the perverted and simoniac Popes, Sardinia was able to formulate the Carta de Logu, which remained an efficient and modern constitution until the nineteenth century. Eleonora d’Arborea was an extraordinary historical figure, but not well studied because Sardinian culture has never existed—as you already know.
Pope Boniface VIII, who sold Sardinia to Spain, was one of the most controversial figures among the wide variety of controversial Popes. He was accused of imprisoning and murdering his predecessor Celestine V, and of using magical practices to prolong his life and attack his enemies. He bought the title of Pope using simony. One of the best examples of his character and dishonesty is the destruction of the city of Palestrina, ordered in revenge against his enemies, the Colonna family. Although Palestrina surrendered to the Pope, he demanded that it be razed to the ground. Not completely satisfied, he ordered the soil to be ploughed and then scattered with salt.
The Franciscans called him the Antichrist.
The war between the kingdoms of Aragon and Sardinia lasted for more than one hundred years, until 1420. In the end, Spain won, thanks to the plague that decimated the Sardinian population and its army. Eleonora d’Arborea died in 1404, killed by the plague too.
The curtain falls.