The vast territory of the Pollino National Park, the largest in Italy stretches for 192,565 ha and includes two regions – Calabria and Basilicata – and two seas – Ionian and Tyrrhenian. From antiquity it was the inevitable meeting place for populations of different origins. The traces of different cultures that followed and crossed each other are clearly visible today in these mountains.
The oldest evidence of man’s presence in the Park area was discovered in Celimarro di Castrovillari, a site situated along the valley of the River Coscile. This place has revealed amidst the layers of a travertine ledge, stone artefacts dating back to the Lower Palaeolithic period mixed with fragments of the remains of mammals, including the aurochs or wild ox (Bos primigenius), extinct for centuries.
Of major importance are the Palaeolithic finds in the cave of Romito, in the municipality of Papasidero, one of the most important prehistoric sites on the peninsula. A limestone boulder at the entrance to the cave bears the engraving of the magnificent figure of a bull, dating back to approximately 12,000 years ago. This is the largest cave drawing from that period in Italy and is considered one of the most important pieces of evidence of prehistoric art in Europe. Other bovine figures have been found on the same boulder, as well as some burial sites near the cave.
During the Metal Ages, the area was assiduously occupied. Proof lies in the funerary accoutrements from the Iron Ages from Laino Borgo and Castello – along the Lao valley, an ancient waterway used for travel and movement – the Enolithic settlement of the cave of Donna Marsilia in Morano, Bronze Age pottery discovered in Senise and Castelsaraceno.
The foundation on the Ionian Sea of the Achaean town of Sybaris links the massacre of the Pollino area to the Greek colonisation of Magna Graecia. The trading and commercial exchanges of the Sybarites developed along the routes over the passes and along the valley bottom as far as the Tyrrhenian Sea, where they founded the town of Laos, which played a fundamental role in the relationships between the Sybarites and the Etruscans. The Hellenisation of the indigenous communities of the Pollino led to the flourishing of towns of Italic civilisation, including that of Cersosimo
Soon, however, cohabitation between the indigenous populations and Greek colonies became difficult. A period of bitter clashes began, which only ended when Rome conquered the entire area. A few years after taking this area, the Romans built the Via Popilia, the first road to cross the heart of the massif to connect Reggio Calabria and Capua. It established one of its stationes in Morano and another in Rotonda, the ancient “Nerulum”.
Via Popilia continued to be used throughout the Middle Ages as a fundamental artery of communication. However, it also became part of the route the pilgrims used to reach the Holy Land. It crossed the pass of Campotenese and in the area of Morano passed through the mediaeval settlement of Sassone, the remains of which nowadays constitute an impressive archaeological site.
The arrival of Norman rule led to the creation of large monastic centres, which soon played a central role in the socio-economic dynamics of the individual territories. The need to cultivate and make their land productive forced the monks to favour colony settlements that were exempt from taxes and free from the harshest duties. Thus, some towns grew up around these religious structures. This was the case, for example, of Francavilla sul Sinni – founded for the presence of the Certosa di San Nicola – and San Basile, serving the Byzantine monastery of San Basilio Craterere.
Between 1470 and 1540, numerous exiles arrived from Albania, fleeing from their homeland invaded by the Turks. They settled on these mountains and established small communities that carefully kept the language, customs and traditions of their homeland. In subsequent years, as a result of other waves of migration, they consolidated their presence and founded numerous little towns: Civita, San Basile, Lungro, Acquaformosa, Plataci, Frascineto, San Costantino Albanese and San Paolo Albanese. The Albanian community of the Pollino is one of the largest in Italy. In Civita and San Paolo Albanese you can visit the museums of the Arbëreshe Civilisation, which hold numerous objects, tools and local customs and objects of great religious interest from the Greek and Byzantine rite.
The number of places of worship grew considerably in the same period. Some of these were built, as in the past, in a very beautiful landscape. Particularly noteworthy is the Church of Santa Maria di Costantinopoli in Papasidero, set in the gorges of the River Lao, the Sanctuary of Santa Maria delle Armi in Cerchiara, with significant examples of Renaissance art perched on a steep rocky cliff, the Sanctuary of Santa Maria dello Spasimo in Laino Borgo, better known as Santa Maria delle Cappelle for its fifteen tiny chapels frescoed with scenes from the life of Christ.
Numerous noble palaces and fortified structures also stand next to the sacred buildings in many towns within the Park. Chiaromonte is a splendid example. During the Middle Ages, the town began to look like a walled land as the ancient fortress was transformed into a proper castle with the construction of a powerful surrounding wall with three gates.
There are numerous castles: the Aragonese Castle of Castrovillari dating back to 1478, an extraordinary example of military architecture attributed to Francesco Giorgio Martini, handed down to us almost intact; the Norman castle of Senise, part of a defence complex created to defend the valley below; the feudal castle of Episcopia (14th century), with a thirteenth century tower which, although altered by subsequent interventions, has maintained its original imposing aspect.
The historic town centres contain a considerable number of noble palaces, mainly built between the 16th and 19th centuries. Some of the most beautiful include Palazzo Dolcetti, Lauria and Di Giura in Chiaromonte; the original Palazzo Mazzilli in Calvera, embellished on the outside with a cornice depicting the four seasons, the noble houses Frabasile and Verderosa in Episcopia, Palazzo Amato in Rotonda and Palazzo De Filpo in Viggianello.
Despite the numerous, continual earthquakes, many villages have preserved their original structure and have truly magnificent historic centres. Some of these worthy of note are Aieta, Civita, Morano Calabro and Viggianello, included among the most Beautiful Towns in Italy.