View of Picinisco © Louise Shapcott

photo © Louise Shapcott

The History of Picinisco

The  area of Picinisco has been inhabited since ancient times. It was once the territory of the Samnites before being seized by the Romans in 293 BC. Several roman remains have been found in this area. Later the area was siezed by the Lombard Duchy of Benevento who in 744 gifted it to the Monastery of Monte Cassino. In 866 it was passed to the Benedictine Abbey of San Vincenzo di Volturno. One of the first settlements in the area was the hamlet of San Valentino, which is known today as Immoglie.

However San Valentino was sacked and destroyed by Saracen invaders.  The town of Picinisco was first documented in 1017 when the Princes of Capua gave the hamlet of San Valentino “in the locality of Picinisco” and its surroundings to their brother, the abbot of Monte Cassino. From then the local people began to move to the higher reaches

of the Val di Comino when under attack, where they were better able to defend themselves. The first reference to the community of “piciniscana” was in 1150 in a document by King Ruggero II of  Sicily.  It is believed that the town’s name, and that of  the nearby village of San Biagio Saracinisco, may well have some reference to the Saracens.

Mural of Saracen Invaders © Louise Shapcott

The construction of Picinisco’s castle was started in 1054 by the two counts of the Marsi, Oderisio II and Rainaldo III.  The fortress was further developed over the years and had four towers. In addition the town was protected by a ring of formidable fortified walls. There were five gates that lead into the town: the Porta Saracina, Porta Codarda, Porta Rione, Porta della Prece and Porta della Piazza.

Picinisco was ruled by the Counts of Aquino before passing on to the families of Cantelmo, Borgia, Navarro, Cadorna, Matteo di Capua and finally to the Gallio’s. It later came under Bourbon rule and formed part of the Kingdom of Naples and the Two Sicilies.

Castle of Picinisco Italy © Louise Shapcott
Old Defence Tower in Picinisco Italy © Louise Shapcott

From ancient times, in the nearby Valle di Canneto, there had been mining activity as deposits of iron, gold, silver and copper had been discovered.  An iron works was built here.  In 1632 Picinisco prospered with the creation of several water mills and a paper mill along the river Melfa. Due to this economic development several of the town developed, ancient churches were restored, and several elegant palaces were constructed.  In 1832 the Bartolomucci brothers opened a newer, more modern cartiera in the Castellone district, which employed a number of local workers.  The paper produced by this mill became famous throughout Europe.  In recent years this building has been converted into apartments.

Other local industries included the production of wine, cheese, olive oil and carpets made of wool. There were areas where ice was taken from the mountains and sold in the cities of Rome and Naples.

For a period the local area, was plagued by bands of brigands and criminals. Also, following the unification of Italy there was a spate of unrest as much of the land had been claimed by rich land owners. Under the Mezzadria system local peasants struggled to feed their families in times of great poverty and hardship.

As a consequence this lead to large numbers of the population being forced to abandon their home town in search of work in distant lands. Many emigrated to Scotland, but others settled in England, Belgium, Canada and America.  Some found their way to London where they worked as street musicians or ice-cream makers. 

Others found work as artists’ models, such as the Colarossi family. Angelo Colarossi (senior) was the model for Lord Frederick Leighton’s sculture “An Athlete Wrestling With A Python”.  His son, also named Angelo, was a studio boy and assistant to the artist and sculptor Alfred Gilbert. He posed for Gilbert’s statue depicting Anteros, that has become known mistakenly as Eros in London’s Piccadily Circus. 

Bronze An Athlete Wrestling with a Python, by Frederic Leighton 1877

Another such model was Antonio Cervi who posed for Lord Leighton, as well as Millais. Cervi persuaded the author DH Lawrence to visit him in his native village of Picinisco. Lawrence used this setting in his book The Lost Girl and he based the character of Pancrazio on Antonio Cervi.

During the Second World War the town and local area was situated on the German Gustav Line and occupied by the Germans. During this era the people suffered greatly. Many of the local houses were requisitioned and the Germans utilised the castle’s keep as an observation post, and set up anti-aircraft guns around the town.  In January 1944 the castle was bombed by the Allied forces, and local houses were destroyed with a loss of civilian lives.

Following the war, due to the severe economic crisis, there was a renewed exodus of the local people. Many hoped to make their fortune and then return home. Each summer many of the descendants of these migrants return to visit their ancestor’s town of origin.