The REAL Benevento

noce_di_beneventoIs Benevento a real place? What’s so special about it?
Benevento is a very real place. What’s special about is that—for thousands of years—Benevento has been famous for its witches.

Real witches?
The Romans sure thought so. When they conquered the area in the 3rd c. B.C. they changed its name from Maleventum (which they took to mean “bad event”) to Beneventum (“good event”). Most important to them was that Benevento was a place of crossroads. The city stood where the Appian Way forked and the Sabato and Calore rivers came together. Crossroads were the special domain of the goddess Trivia, protector of witches. (Tri-via meaning “three roads”.)

What is the famous Tree of Benevento?
The Tree of Benevento is said to have been a walnut tree that stood on the banks of the Sabato River, and the place where all the witches of the world came to gather. (This probably had something to do with the Lombards, who controlled Benevento after the Romans and—in their pre-Christian days—venerated trees.) The Bishop of Benevento, hoping to wipe out what he considered pagan practices, ordered the tree be pulled up by its roots in the 7th c.
That might have been the end of it, except it wasn’t.

What does that mean?
For hundreds of years after it was uprooted, legend had it that the tree re-appeared on nights of the witch’s sabbats, the parties where supernatural folk gathered. This surely had some benevolent origin in the old local religious practices, perhaps in the Games of Diana. (One theory is that the followers of Diana were Dianara, or Janara.) The Inquisition sure didn’t see it that way, though. They made every prosecuted witch “confess” that they had flown to Benevento to do ill-deeds, no matter where the poor person was from.

Is there anything else to know about Benevento?
In the 1700s, Englishmen and others traveling Italy on the Grand Tour would stop at Benevento to look at its remarkable Roman architecture, specifically the Arch of Trajan and the Theater, some of which had been destroyed in the 1688 earthquake. (Some tried to find the Tree; none did.)

Is Benevento a part of Italy?
It is now, but Italy didn’t exist until the 1860s—before then, “Italy” was mostly just an idea and the name of a peninsula. Instead, Benevento went from being an important Lombard duchy to a principality sometimes owned by the kings of Sicily and Naples, but mostly it was the property of the popes.
In 1806, however, the conqueror of Italy, Napoleon, gave the Principality of Benevento to the infamous Talleyrand, the architect of his empire. Prince Talleyrand sought to make Benevento a model modern state, introducing such strange and foreign concepts as schools and vaccinations. With the fall of Napoleon, however, all that stopped. This was much to the relief of its citizens, who went back to living the way they had lived pretty such since Roman times.

So what was Benevento like when the series begins?
Benevento in the 1820s was a place lost in time, tucked away in the heart of one of the most “backward” parts of Europe. The region was ruled by a governor of the pope, but stood within the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The city itself stood a mere day’s travel on the public coach from Naples, just about the largest and maybe the liveliest city in the world, but a place few Beneventans would ever visit. (It was against the law to leave your home city without a visa, and even if you got one, the fear of bandits on the road was too much for many to bear.) For them, Benevento was the only world they would ever know.