San Donato Val di Comino © Lauro Apruzzese

photo © Lauro Apruzzese

The History of San Donato

San Donato Val di Comino has an ancient history. This area is known to have been occupied by the Samnites who had a fortified settlement near here known as Cominium. The remains of some polygonal walls can be seen in the San Fedele district. The Samnites were finally defeated by the Romans in 293 BC.

The Medieval Era

With the disintegration of the Roman Empire in 476 AD the Val di Comino was subjected to a series of raids and looting by the Barbarians. Then in 568 the area was invaded by the Longobards.

The town takes its name from the shrine of San Donato, a place of sacred pilgrimage. This was first documented in 778 when the Lombard Duke of Spoleto donated the shrine to the monastery of San Vincenzo al Volturno. The first sanctuary was founded and dedicated to the cult of San Donato, the bishop of Arezzo, who was martyred in 362. Two centuries later it was donated to the Benedictines of Monte Cassino.

San Donato’s turbulent history continues. In 915, during the time of the Battle of Garigliano and Saracen attacks, many people living along the Tyrrhenian coastline fled inland and people living on the plains moved to higher ground. Thus the first urban centre of San Donato was created surrounded by protective walls. In 1150 the Normans conquered the whole of the Val di Comino. In  1270 possession of the town passed to the  Counts  of  Aquino.   They  built  a formidable  fortress  in the  area of  the Sanctuary,  with  high walls, towers and secure gateways. This community was named Castrum Sancti Donati.  The town prospered and in 1349 San Donato was declared a Baronry.

Plaster Plaque from Villa Gallio Showing a View of San Donato © Tonino Bernardelli

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From the 15th Century Onwards

However, from the 15th century there followed a period of considerable instability, as the territory was disputed by the feudal lords of  Cantelmo, Navarro, Cardona and Borgia and between the Papal States and the Kingdom of Naples.  A report of this period describes the inhabitants of San Donato as being “industrious hard workers producing fine woollen cloth which attracted merchants from Florence Umbria and Tuscany”. Thus the local economy prospered. Indeed, over the centuries this land was traversed by many a trader, mule train, soldier, monk, pilgrim, traveller and bandit. In 1595 the territory passed into the hands of the Gallio family of the Duchy of Alvito and remained so for the next 200 years.

In 1669, due to a terrible plague, the population that totalled 2,344 was reduced to just 640 people. During the 17th and 18th centuries San Donato underwent considerable economic and urban development. Palaces were enlarged, squares built and churches renovated and enlarged.

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Mining

In 1774, on the slopes of the Monte Meta, when excavations were carried out, material rich in iron oxide was found. Then in 1852 new deposits of limonite and haematite were discovered in this area. The Bourbon King Ferdinand II funded the mining as he required more metals to forge armaments for his artillery. The raw materials were transported down to San Donato by mules, or women who would carry them down in baskets balanced on their heads or on their shoulders. The workers were paid according to the weight of the material, and it was then transported to the Ferriera or Iron Works in the Rosanisco area of Atina for smelting. However following the Unification of Italy, both the mines and the Iron Works were closed down and subsequently abandoned.

In 1806, the Val di Comino was invaded by French Napoleonic troops, which lead to the abolition of feudalism. There followed yet another unsettled period when notorious brigands and bands of robbers ran riot and plagued this area.  With the Unification of Italy, the current name of “San Donato Val di Comino” was granted by permission of King Vittorio Emanuele II, on the 14th December 1862.

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During The Second World War

During World War II, the Germans set about rounding up the Jews. The men were arrested and the women and children were removed from their homes and sent to live together in small groups in isolated places under strict police control. This was arrangement was known as confino libero (free internment). In the summer of 1940 a group of 25 women and children (German speaking) was sent to San Donato, they were originally from Hungary, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Austria. 16 Jews were also posted in Picinisco, coming from Germany, Poland and Turkey. They were forced to live under strict regulations, and had to obey a curfew and report to the police each morning.  Relations with the local inhabitants of San Donato were generally good, and some of the locals worked hard to help them by destroying original identity documents and re-issuing counterfeit ones. However with the Armistice of 8th September 1943 the Val di Comino came under German occupation.  In early April 1944 German soldiers began to round up the Jews in the community. Fearing being deported to the extermination camps many of the Jews went into hiding. Some citizens of San Donato risked their lives in helping to hide the Jews (and also some Allied soldiers) and supply them with food.  Finally however, 16 of the Jews were captured. They were first sent to Rome, then to the national transit camp at Fossoli, and finally to Auschwitz. One was a little girl named Naomi Levi who was less than two years old. So as not to forget this sad chapter in San Donato’s history a Memorial to their memory has been erected near to the Town Hall.  Read more here … 

During the Second World War San Donato was positioned very close to the German Gustav Line and the Germans occupied the town.  In the area between Monte Pizzuto and Valle d’Acero they constructed an defensive system, consisting of an anti-aircraft post in a trench known as the Roccia dei Tedeschi, and other shelters and several other fortifications were dug into the rock.

San Donato also took in many refugees, fleeing from the shelling and bombardments of the Allied Forces.

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Earthquakes

Over the centuries the territory of San Donato Val Di Comino has been subjected to numerous earthquakes, the most recent being in 1984, when the epicenter was in the directly in the town. It caused extensive damage to many buildings in San Donato and the Val di Comino, but thankfully no fatalities.

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Emigration

Many citizens of San Donato emigrated to the USA and settled in  the USA: in Nonantum in Massachusetts, New York, Wilmington and Delaware in Philadelphia. Others chose to settle in Canada in Toronto, Ontario. San Donato is twinned with the towns of Newton, Massachusetts and with Greccio in Italy, home of the first nativity crib, created by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223.

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