photo © Tonino Bernardelli
History of Fontechiari
Fontechiari assumes its name from the numerous fresh water springs that are found in this area. In 1732 the main water source was known as Fontana Reale or Fons Clara. It collects other steams in the area and is a tributary of the river Fibreno. These streams were once used to power two mills, today only their ruins remain.
Until the year of 1862 the village of Fontechiari was referred to as Schiavi. Some say that this refers to a population of slaves belonging to Caius Marius, a Roman general from Arpino. Alternatively it may refer to the immigration of Slavs in the area, from Schiavonia.
This territory had been populated since prehistoric times, and artefacts have been discovered that date back to the Bronze Age. It was later populated by the Volsci before being taken over by the Romans in around the 4th century BC. The remains of some rustic villas, dating from the 1st and 2nd century AD, have been unearthed.
After the fall of the Roman Empire the area was submitted to regular invasions, by the Barbarians and the Longobards. The Longobards settled in the area from the 8th century. In 915 the region was sacked and pillaged by the Saracens, but fortunately Schiavi evaded the devastation. Also around this time a small community of Basilian monks arrived from the south and built the Hermitage of of Sant’Onofrio.
The earliest documents referring to Fontechiari date back to 937 AD. The first fortification was built during a period when the village belonged to the Duchy of Spoleto. In 1075, Count Landone di Sora gifted the town to the Monastery of San Benedetto. In the year 1160 the town was destroyed by Bernardo, Lord of Alvito, and was almost immediately rebuilt. At the behest of the Abbot of Montecassino, a small castle was built in the territory to control the communication routes that linked Sora, Alvito and Arpino.
After the area was conquered by the Normans in 1062 Schiavi went on to be ruled by a succession of feudal lords. It first belonged to the County of Sora and it was gifted to the Counts of Aquino, who were of Longobard origin. They built a tall watchtower that was able to send smoke signals to the other fortified castles in the area of the Val di Comino. Schiavi was further fortified with a town wall. In some places these were built on stretched of pre-existing megalithic polygonal walls. Possession of Schiavi then passed to the Dukes of Cantelmo of Alvito, then to the D’Avalo’s, and on to the Dalla Rovere family. In 1580 it was purchased by the Boncampagni family of Isola del Liri, who retained possession for about 200 years. The Boncampagni transformed the remains of the castle into the Palazzo Viscogliosi and in 1796 the town became integrated into the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples.
The arrival of the troops of Napoleon led to the abolition of feudal laws, but France required money for wars. Land and property of the church were auctioned for cash and sold to the usual baronial families. At Fontechiari, only one family of Casalvieri managed to redeem 80 percent of the agricultural land and the town became a large estate managed by the Agostini family. Under the Mezzadria system the landowner would supply a family with a home and agricultural tools for his family to work in the fields. The peasant was forced to share half of his crop with the landlord.
Many peasants rebelled and took part in a social war against the Unity of Italy. On the 9th May 1862 a band of brigands lead by the notorious Chiavone (Luigi Alonzi) who was loyal to the Bourbon King Francis II, besieged the town. However eventually he and his men were defeated and driven out, and for many peasants this began the start of mass emigration. Over the space of 100 years, over 5,000 people from the Fontechari area chose to emigrate which resulted in almost a total depopulation of the town. They travelled to the distant lands of France, the United States, Canada, Australia and Argentina.
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