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Balvano is a village in Basilicata, in southern Italy, and is located on a spur at 450 meters and is surrounded by mountains, sometimes harsh and sometimes wooded but always spectacular. From its position it commands the valley where the Melandro river flows and the Romagnano Gorge is sited.

Just near the station of Balvano you can still see the Hannibal Bridge where, according to a local tradition, Hannibal passed on his trip to Italy during the Second Punic War.

There are many opinions on the origin of the name Balvano which according to some derives from its position as a ‘fortress’ guarding the valley and therefore a bulwark. This potentialr is also reported in the emblem of the country which shows a tower among the rocks. According to others, however, the name derives from the name of the Balbia family who lived in this area.

There are a few traces of the long Roman period, including a 1st century AD tombstone. of the priestess Giulia Celerina, and the presence of an ancient road and a bridge suggesting that there could be a small community, perhaps for a change of horses. The Romans lived in the valley bottoms, near the commercial networks and where the land was cultivated: Roman history had been peaceful for many centuries.

The history of the current village, however, begins in the Middle Ages when, after the fall of the Roman Empire and the arrival of the barbarians, people took refuge in a fortress on a hill. The first nucleus was a tower with a wall around which then, over the centuries, turned into a castle.

The first to arrive to give administrative order after the fall of the Roman  empire were the Byzantines who introduced Orthodox worship, followed later by the Lombards of the Duchy of Benevento, that was called the Langobardia Minor. At the same time the church divided the territory into bishopric dioceses and Balvano was included into that of Muro Lucano, while Benedictine monks formed small monasteries. The monks had a fundamental role in maintaining knowledge in agriculture and they were custodians of ancient knowledge.

Balvano entered the Principality of Salerno, which was formed by the division of the Duchy of Benevento and around 1100, the Normans arrived in southern Italy, and became unchallenged lords for a certain period.

The Normans were supported by the church that wanted to eliminate the Orthodox rite in favour of the Catholic one. They divided the territory into fiefdoms and that of Balvano was given to the Balbia family of French origin.

During this period the castle was fortified and the town expanded. The castle extended over a large area and had two entrances, one upstream into the main castle and the other further downstream into the internal courtyard.

With the arrival of the Swabians of Frederick II and then of the Angevins, Balvano was given as a fiefdom first to Matteo de Chevreuse and then to the Alemagna family, of Provencal origin who had arrived in Naples with Charles I of Anjou.

Giorgio di Alemagna had been on the regency council of the royal court after the death of Giovanna II of Naples and was also count of Buccino and lord of Basilicata. For his support to the conspiracy against the Aragonese of 1460, however, he was stripped of the title of lord of Basilicata.

A large earthquake destroyed the town on July 31, 1561.

The Caracciolo di Sicignano family then took over the control of this area, but in the seventeenth century they found themselves in debt and sold everything to Domenico Giovine. Those were difficult years for Basilicata and Domenico was killed in 1647 by a popular uprising.

Two other earthquakes in 1649 and 1694 contributed to make the situation even more critical and many turned to banditry and forms of protest against the harassment of the feudal lords. The personages of Gerardo Luongo and Donato Marando are legendary.

For a period Balvano belonged to the Marquis Parisi family until 1757 when it returned to Duke Vespignano Giovine. With the arrival of Napoleon, feudal laws were abolished in 1806, but the situation did not improve much and the land was not redistributed.

An important episode in Balvano’s life occurred during the unification of Italy and the attempt of restoration by the Bourbons. In 1860 Josè Borjes, the Catalan general to whom the Bourbons had asked to organize a revolt, arrived in Balvano. The general had landed in Calabria and passed through Basilicata on his journey north, but not finding Bourbon troops waiting for him, he collected various bandits such as Carmine Donatelli, called Crocco. The bandits’ goal was, however, above all to take revenge on the lords for harassment but they were all defeated at Muro Lucano. The general stopped one night in Balvano and it is said that the population displayed the Bourbon flag and began to shout “life for Francesco II and death to Vittorio Emanuele!”.

In his diary, Borjes narrated that the lords and the bishop sought shelter in the castle, perhaps not so much to escape the ire of the bandits who did not make a move against them, as much as to maintain a double role in case of victory of the Piedmontese. The bishop Valerio Laspro was however brought before the court for supporting the Bourbons.

In November 1861, the small troop left Balvano heading north where they would be defeated at Sante Marie in Abruzzo.

After the unification of Italy, a cholera epidemic broke out which brought even more despair by increasing the phenomenon of banditry. There was a first wave of emigration in search of fortune to America which would repeat itself after each of the world wars.

Palazzo Laspro, in the centre of the town, hosted King Vittorio Emanuele II, Queen Margherita and Francesco Saverio Nitti.

Between 2 and 3 March 1944, one of the most serious railway accidents in Italian history occurred in Balvano which resulted in the death of 626 people. It was the convoy 8017 that went from Battipaglia to Potenza and had 47 freight wagons, on which, however, about 600 people had boarded in search of food during the war.

The convoy had two steam locomotives at its head and stopped inside the ‘Delle Armi’ tunnel which had a significant slope. The smoke from the two locomotives filled the tunnel and intoxicated the train drivers and almost all the passengers unconscious and they subsequently died. Only those on the last two carriages that had not entered the tunnel were saved.

After the disastrous earthquake of 1980, which also destroyed much of the castle, the town was once again rebuilt with all its infrastructure.


Traveller's Guide to Italy