Sardinian History – Towards the Modern Period
There are two turning points to recall first—I risk becoming pedantic, I know, but some events are really historical milestones that you have to know. In 1713, but some historians give 1702, the Regnum Sardiniae et Corsicae, or Kingdom of Sardinia, was remised by the Spain to the Kingdom of Augsburg, Austria. If you have read the previous article, you may object that Sardinia belonged to the Church—or rather the Church unilaterally decided that—and was given in perpetuo, forever, to the Spain, in 1297 or in 1299, and you’d be correct, but so what? Sardinia in the meantime had become a pawn in a game that was beyond its borders and capabilities, a simple bargaining chip. And there is nothing more variable than a political treaty.
In 1720, the Kingdom of Augsburg reached an agreement with the Duke of Savoy, exchanging the Kingdom of Sardinia for the Kingdom of Sicily, for reasons of opportunity and location.
So, in circa 300 years Sardinia passed from being the site of the most modern and enlightened kingdom in the Mediterranean to the status of a colony, economically, socially and administratively impoverished or rather disaster-stricken, conferred to one of the most provincial dynasties, the Savoy. The rise and then the decline of a civilization is a law of history.
Now, some information about the main towns on the island, assembled using a Nuoro-centred view—the same perspective followed in all my articles since I was born in Nuoro and my pride is stronger than my historical precision, I confess.
The University of Cagliari was founded in 1606 or in 1620 “along the lines of the old Spanish Universities of Salamanca, Valladolid and Lerida”. Actually, the royal ordinance of Philip III of Spain (Felipe el Piadoso) established the University of Cagliari in 1620.
The University of Sassari was founded in 1562—other historians say 1558, and you already know that these discrepancies are usual in the blurred history of Sardinia—by Alessio Fontana who was a member of the Imperial Chancellery of Emperor Charles V. Actually, in 1558 Alessio Fontana left his assets as an inheritance to set up a college. The Jesuits ran the college first and then the university. In fact, in the seventeenth century King Philip III of Spain—who held the title, among other titles, of King of Sardinia—granted the status of Royal University to the Jesuit college.
So, an insignificant and mediocre king, whose only virtue was a complete lack of vices, was able to introduce the official culture into Sardinia. And this official, foreign culture was a source of great pride for both of the main cities on the island.
Alghero was a Spanish colony from 1353 to 1713. Before the final victory of the Aragonese in 1420 against the decimated army of the Kingdom of Arborea, Alghero surrendered to the Aragonese captain Bernardo de Cabrera and to King Pietro IV of Aragon, called the Ceremonious, and, as history reports, the city “would later grow thanks to the arrival of the Catalan colonists”.
Who cares if those colonists were criminals and prostitutes released from Spanish jails? For 360 years Alghero was a Catalan colony. For 360 years, every day at 6 pm, the town bells would ring and the royal criers shout: “Affora sos sardos!” (Sardinians get out!). The indigenous people, who had the most humble jobs during the day, had to leave the town at night and sleep in the suburbs. The Catalan colonists closed the portals and reopened them in the morning when the flow of Sardinian workers was ready to begin again.
The people of Alghero were proud of this glorious history. They were delighted that the town was declared in the late sixteenth century the “King’s City” (ciudad de l’Alguer) by Spain, and that Emperor Charles V, having noticed some discontent, to say the least, in the Sardinian population during his visit to Alghero in 1541, leaning out of the balcony declared: “Sed todos caballeros!” (You are all knights!). It was a clever way not to change anything, giving the same false title to everybody. The people of Alghero, slaves of prostitutes and criminals for 360 years, were convinced they were noble too.
And Nuoro, Nùgoro? Its origins date from the Nuragic era and civilization. Near the nuraghe of Tanca Manna there are the remains of a village consisting of 800 primitive dwellings, circa 2000 BC. Many Nuraghi surrounded the granitic tableland under Mount Orthobene where Nuoro grew: Tanca Manna, Ugolio, Biscollai, etc, and there are several Giants’ tombs and Domus de Janas. Nuoro was the biggest village in Barbagia. Now, all the archaeologists coming to Barbagia—especially from Cagliari—have tried to prove that there was some kind of exchange between Barbagia and the rest of the island. It is true; there was a continuous osmosis between the two civilizations. But the point is that Barbagia continued to follow its own rules and codes, in spite of all the different invaders of Sardinia. Some finds, for example, a little bronze lion probably Etruscan, pearls made of Balkan amber, Byzantine buildings, etc., are nothing proof of an obvious interchange during the centuries.
Pope Gregory I (590–604) wrote about the two Sardinias: the first Romanised, Christian and Byzantine, that of Provinciales; the second characterized by a strong ethnic identity, a pagan and idolatrous religion, a federation of several villages, that of Gens Barbaricina. In the Pope’s letters, for the first time a Barbagia’s man is named, Hospiton, who was apparently the head of the population.
There is a footprint, a note about Nuoro written during the Aragonese dominion: “La encontrada de Nuero tiene 4 villas Y la primera Villa de Nuero 1434 Fuegos, Villa de Orgosolo 1162 fuegos, Villa de Loloy 83 fuegos, Villa de Locoy 54 fuegos“, while a rare hint in a Papal bull of 1779 says: “Nuoro conta 589 famiglie e 2782 abitanti, vi sono 5 case di cavalieri e oltre 30 di gente civile e benestante, qualche laureato e otto notai…”
Nuoro, from the heights of its stronghold, imposed its rule on the neighbouring villages by means of systematic raids, bardanas, made by bands of balentes, brave horsemen. These raids lasted until the beginning of the twentieth century, Grazia Deledda’s period.
Actually, those bands travelled as far as the suburbs of Sassari and Cagliari, as a demonstration that the people of Nugoro were not afraid of anybody in Sardinia, that Nuoro was the true capital of the region, with good reason. But usually a raid lasted only a couple of weeks. The horsemen carried dried meat and bread in their bags, and their servants who would take home any captured animals.
Nugoro was then a gothic crow’s nest, and, if you had lost your flock, you were forced to climb the steep and winding paths to reach the high-most point, your courage failing step by step. When you arrived in the main square, grey and windy, you were ready to accept all the terms that those harsh and ruthless people would dictate to you. This was Barbagia’s law and it lasted for centuries.
However, nearing the modern period, this population faced a great threat that was, like a subtle leak of water, advancing in silence, centimetre after centimetre, in the hidden depths, eroding the solidity and then the stability of the walls. Once again, it was the Church introducing new messages, perspectives and a new language, mysterious and evocative, this time through its emissaries, the priests. Starting right from Pope Gregory I—who drew up a peace treaty that contemplated the presence of the priests in Barbagia—the Church continuously sent priests into the most secluded parts of Sardinia, building chapels and churches. What the Romans were unable to do, conquer Barbagia, the Church did, following its quite invisible and falsely unthreatening ways. Over the centuries, this capillary presence became a real counterpower, packaged in the dogmas of spirituality—very strong in Barbagia, together with the supernatural—and in a sort of transcendental legitimacy, of which I have already talked.
Finally you have to visualise Barbagia like a fortress with strong roots and attitude, with an exceptional history behind, but with an intrinsic, explosive fragility. The compactness and the solidity of its bastions were no longer valid because of a myriad of quite invisible cracks, like woodworms holes, weakening them night and day. Particularly after the Regnum Sardiniae et Corsicae was remised by Spain, the priests intruded everywhere. In each story from Nuoro, in each bandit’s legend, there is the figure of a priest, generally a bad figure, and there are the sons and daughters of the priests—one of the most common offences in Barbagia is even now fizz’epreri, or ‘you are a priest’s son’.
This fortress—with 4,000 years of civilization behind it, with its metaphysical imprinting and peculiar atmosphere, with strange people and beliefs, a fortress now fragile—was about to face its final killer: the Savoy dynasty.