Personal History

June 10: Monteverde — Borgo nella Iripinia

Siamo sulla stada alla citta natale di mio nonno, Monteverde. Da Napoli e’ lontano tre ore di macchina sull’ autostrada (161 km) o (100 miglia). 


We are on the road to Monteverde, my grandfather’s hometown. It’s about a three hours drive on the Autostrada from Naples by automobile, some 161 kilometers or 100 miles.

I’ve been to Monteverde on three occasions. First, in 1963, before the building of the superhighway, then the town was very remote. I went there on a sweltering Sunday morning, with my cousins Father Guido D’Amore, and Philip D’Ambola. Monteverde and that day impress on me how these were my own roots, watching young boys and girls coming back from the fertile fields. That scene and those young people could have been me.

Many years later, in 2011, I teamed up with my friend Robert White, whose expert skills in Italian were essential to making the most of a visit to where my grandfather is buried. So I had cracked the code of this magical place, and the following year, my cousin Walter Steinmann, the family historian, joined Robert and me to witness this place of our common ancestry.

Monteverde e’ nella regione di Iripina e della Provincia di Avellino e ad est di Napoli.


Monteverde is in the Iripina, that region of the Province of Avellino to the east of Naples. Time stands still here, and once off the autostrada, and despite Google Maps, you see the countryside with the scattering of windmills for electric generation is mostly pristine and untouched by tourists.

Io sono qui con mio cugino Walter, come procedendo verso Monteverde.



I’m with my cousin Walter, as we make our way toward Monteverde. He’s the son of my father’s youngest sister, Aunt Edie. Once we arrived in the town, to my amazement, our relatives still living there, knew the names of my Dad’sDad’s three brothers and four sisters.

For the record, my grandfather, Mike Russo, at the age of twenty-eight, left Naples aboard the Principe di Piemonte, arriving in New York City on October 3, 1907.

Al confine tra Puglia e Basilicata, Monteverde e’ uno splendido borgo nel cuore dell’ Appenino campano.


Monteverde is at the boarders of Puglia and Basilicata, and one of the beautiful hill towns of the Apennine countryside. Nearby is the city of Melfi; two years ago, movie director Francis Ford Coppola opened a small resort with a spa. His maternal grandmother came from Melfi. Also, we are close by Benevento, and the town of Sant’Agata de Goti, the ancestral home of New York Mayor Bill deBlasio’s family.

Qui si vede Monteverde a distanza.


You can see Monteverde at a distance. The “borgo” is behind us with its fortress and tower that have guarded this countryside for centuries. Invasions came from north and SouthSouth of the Italian peninsula, and the small town, so close enough to the ancient Appian Way, made it a way station for the movements of armies, merchants, preachers, and bandits.

Monteverde è costituito da 900 cittadini durante l’anno. Ancora, nei mesi estivi molti altri del suo popolo ritornano da tutta Italia così come Svizzera e Germania.


Monteverde is made up of 900 citizens during the year. Walter tells me it’s more like 726, to be precise. In the summer months, many more people from all over Italy return as well as those Italians living with Swiss or German citizenship, like our cousins Benito and Carmela, who live in Geneva during the winter months.

Il castello domina il paese Monteverde. La struttura e tipica dell’architettura quattrocentesca del periodo argonese. Nel corso dei secoli, hanno transformato la forma originale. Oggi, il castello e un museo.


The castle dominates Monteverde. The structure is typical architecture of the 14th century “Aragonese” period. In the centuries, it has been transformed, and today the castle is a museum. There is more history here with people who have a more profound respect for the centuries and their own identity.

Once I pulled out of the college library, the “Cambridge Short History of Italy.” In the paperback edition, the entire opus is ten volumes, so Italy has more history than most nations combined. I cannot imagine what the “Cambridge Complete History of Italy” may entail if there is such a work?

Colline e della campagna circostante rivelano una fitta trama di terra e laghi. Qui vincino si trova il piccolo cimitero dove è sepolto mio nonno.


The surrounding hills and countryside reveal the land and the lakes. Nearby you find the small cemetery where my grandfather is buried.

I traveled to my grandfather’s gravesite in 1963. However, the 1980 earthquake (6.9 magnitudes) did extensive damage to the region, and the cemetery had undergone extensive repair.

When Robert White and I arrived in the town in 2011, late one Saturday afternoon, the cemetery was a totally new space and unfamiliar. We had come so late in the day that there were no grounds people nor was the office opened for inquiry.


We asked several women attending graves, and they directed us to crypts with the name Russo. One of them, a “Mike Russo,” had died recently, and so he was not my grandfather. Instead, this man’s photo on the gravestone really looked like an image of my own father. We were close but not there yet.

After an hour or more of searching, I prayed: “Grandpa Russo, we know you’re here, but cannot find you.”

Disappointed, we left the cemetery. Just up the road, we noticed the sign for a coffee/pastry shop. The store was open, and Robert and I went in. As I had to go to the facilities, Robert asked the young women behind the counter whether there were Russo’s still living in Monteverde.

Now we could have been the most conspicuous sight in the town, with our rented Mercedes Benz. Nonetheless, a man and his grandson were sitting together on a bench. The young lad was eating an ice cream cone when the short, muscular man came forward to tell us that his wife was a Russo.

At that point, I said to myself, “Really?” This cannot be true?

Robert, much more attuned to the language and culture, noticed a genuineness and sincerity that only those who really speak Italian understand.

Robert said, “Yes, let’s go to your house and meet your wife.”

We arrived at their Swiss chalet-style home, and into the back garden when Benito called out to Carmela to come and greet us.

As she walked out the door, instantly, she had the glow of a genetic copy of my cousin Jackie who was back home in New Jersey.


Carmela recalled the names of my grandfather’s children. Deep within the recesses of memory, she grew up with this uncle who had left his American life and his children behind.

Most astonishing, in the living room, she showed us a prized possession, her uncle’s steamer trunk. There it was – I recall the very same chest the day my father loaded it onto a van in Newark that went to the Hudson River pier, and onboard the ship to Naples, that brought my grandfather to his treasured home.

Carmela took us to the cemetery to locate the vault, which was next to her father, Donato. There, together the Russo brothers rested.

AnotherRussoIf I had explored the cemetery for weeks, there was one factor, no one would have figured. After the earthquake, the graveyard was rebuilt, and the family simply identified my grandfather’s crypt as “R.M.” Shorthand, for “Russo, Michele,” a most understated tribute to eternal life.


One of the graces in these situations is that when I arrived home, I spoke with Aunt Lonnie, my Dad’s sister, and showed her photographs. Then she asked whether Walter and I might go back to Monteverde to place my grandfather’s full name and his photo on the crypt.

The next summer, to fulfill this simple request, Walter and I returned to Monteverde. On another Saturday afternoon in the Mezzogiorno, we sat in a lush garden restaurant and spoke with her on the cell phone speaker. What was such a distant place for her was now so much closer, and her father and his memory not remote to his grandchildren.

Lo storico romano Tito Livio cita un villaggio di Sammite, “Comimum Ocritum” durante il periodo della seconda guerra punica (218-201 A.C.). Qui è una parete di calcare antico di fuori di Monteverde che risale a questa epoca.


The Roman historian Titus Livy refers to a village of the Samnites’ “Comimum Ocritum” during the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.). Here is an ancient limestone wall nearby Monteverde that dates from this era. While you may have the impression that the locals in the region welcomed the Romans, instead their Greek heritage was at risk, and often allied with Rome’s enemies, including Hannibal and his armies. The Samnites carried their aggression into the fierce combat of the gladiatorial games in the Roman Colosseum.

Nel IX secolo, Monteverde era una diocesi con un vescovo e la Cattedrale. Con il suo castello e la Torre per controllare la zona, Casa Savoia e la famiglia Grimaldi di Monaco governarono la città.


By the 9the Century, Monteverde became a diocese that housed a bishop and a Cathedral. With the castle and the tower in control of the region, the House of Savoy and Monaco’s Grimaldi family of Monaco governed the city.

Here’s a big surprise — where the genealogy becomes fascinating or maybe fictional. My mom and Dad followed Frank Sinatra and Artie Shaw during the Big Band era, and into the 1960s. At the time of Grace Kelly’s marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco, my Dad was a Prince Rainier “look-a-like.” For someone interested in family history, the idea that Grimaldi’s of Monaco had a connection to my grandfather’s hometown is a bonanza! For the record, the last of the Monteverde barons died in the 1930s.

Monteverde ha cinque chiese. La Cattedrale contiene una statua lignea della Madonna dal 1200 D.C., che si crede di aver salvato la città da un’epidemia di colera nel 1854   


Monteverde has five churches. The Cathedral contains a wooden statue of the Madonna from the 12th Century A.D. that is believed to have saved the city from a cholera epidemic of 1854.


Saint Michael the Archangel plays a pivotal role in the religious culture of Southern Italy. Their devotion to this saint comes from the Gargano peninsula on the Adriatic. In the middle ages, monks from Mont San Michele in Normandy traveled down to their monastery in Italy and planted the devotion on Italian soil. The statue of St. Michael conquering the devil has an additional reference to the battle by Christians defending against the Ottoman Turks. They in 1480 brutally attacked seaports towns of Southern Italy. Consequently, the name “Michael” remains among the most popular first names.

San Gerard Majella è onorato ogni anno presso il Carnevale estivo acqua di Monteverde. Lo spettacolo con le sue luci, canto e danza attira 30.000 persone provenienti dalla regione.


Saint Gerard Majella is honored each year at Monteverde’s summer water carnival. The spectacle with lights, songs, and dance attracts 30,000 thousand people from across the region.

Saint Gerard is the local saint and Redemptorist preacher of the 18th century whose followers brought his fame to New Jersey, where at Saint Lucy’s Church in Newark, there is the national shrine in the United States. He is the patron of expectant mothers.

A landmark in Monteverde’s town square honors those Italian Americans of Newark. They had supported Italy during World War I. The migration that took my grandfather to the United States is evident both in the devotion to the local saint and the public acknowledgment of assistance when Italy and the United States were allies.

La zona circostante fa parte di un parco di nazionale. Lago di San Pietro, i boschi di Pietrapalmoba, la foresta di Mezzana con alberi di quercia, faggio e pino, così come il cervo, cinghiale e il lupo, il simbolo di Iripina.


The surrounding area contains a national park and Saint Peter’s Lake, the Pietrapalmoba woods, and the Mezzana forest with trees of oak, beech, pine trees, as well as the deer, wild boar and wolves, the symbol of Iripina.

La foresta e la campagna, durante il periodo del 1860 e l’unità d’Italia, è diventata il luogo ideale per banditi. Carmine Donatelli, conosciuto come Il Crocco, l’italiano “Robin Hood” trovato rifugio a Monteverde e fino ad oggi rimane una figura in folclore, canzoni e film.

The forest and the countryside, during the period of the 1860s and the Italian unification, housed bandits. Carmine Donatelli, know as “Il Crocco,” was the Italian Robin Hood who found refuge in Monteverde and even today remains a figure in folklore, songs, and film.


This is an example of Southern Italy and its own self-determination. When Giuseppe Garibaldi came up with the Italian boot through Basilicata, he was met with local assistance to defeat the Bourbons. This arrangement did not last long since the domestic economy of the South had soured. Carmine Donatelli, not afforded the honors coming to him from Garibaldi, broke rank and rejoined his former rulers. Il Crocco took from the rich and gave to the poor of Melfi, and hid with his men in Monteverde, and the surrounding countryside.




Iripina è nota per suo formaggio—Caciocovallo, Mozzerella, Pecorino; i salumi…—Soppressata; frutta locale—Figo di San Mango sul Calore. Con le vecchie ricette accompagnati da vini locali—Fiano di Avellino e Greco di Tufo.



Iripina is noted for its cheese, Caciocovallo, Mozzerella, Pecorino; salami, Sopprassata; local fruits, including Figs of San Mango of Calore. Old recipes are accompanied by local wines, Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo.


Most interesting, the Iripina region’s wine production has grown because the land to the north, in Umbria and Tuscany, has become so valuable. Consequently, the vineyards for grapes have moved to these southern regions.


L’influenza primaria sulla lingua parlata di Iripina è Napoli e le città locali di Avellino e Benevento. Risalente al v secolo prima di Cristo, l’antica lingua Osca è stato scritto nell’alfabeto greco e latino. Oggi la lingua locale contiene ancora elementi di greco, il dialetto napoletano, come pure coloro che avevano regnato come casa Savoia con spagnolo e francese.


The primary influence of the language spoken in Iripina is the Neapolitan language and the local cities of Avellino and Benevento. Going back to the fifth century before Christ, the ancient Oscan language was written in an archaic alphabet composed of Greek and Latin. Today the local language contains elements of Greek, the Neapolitan dialect, as well as characteristics of the region domination by the House of Savoy with both Spanish and French influences.

In 1963, I recalled accompanying Father Guido D’Amore and his brother-in-law, Raffaele Romaniello, to Raffale’s remote home town in the Salerno region, nearby the ancient ruins of Paestum. At the time, I recognized the spoken language differed significantly from Italian and sounded more like Greek. Similar to someone first hearing Portuguese, and knowing that clearly, it is not Spanish.

Mio nonno, Mike Russo tornò a Monteverde dopo la seconda guerra mondiale. Ha seguito la propria passione e stabilito una recital hall e Teatro di film di Monteverde, la propria “Cinema Paradiso.” Oggi è ricordato come “the American”. Il suo baule dai suoi molti viaggi rimange nella casa dei miei cugini Benito e Carmela, i cittadini di Monteverde.

My grandfather, Mike Russo, returned to Monteverde after the Second World War. His wife Michelina had died, his house at 52 8th Avenue and sections of the Italian neighborhood of the old First Ward in Newark had been reclaimed for public housing. He retired from his job as a machinist at the Edison plant in West Orange, because, by now, his children were Americans.

In his hometown, he found a passion and established a tiny movie theater and recital hall, his very own “Cinema Paradiso.”


Remembered in Monteverde as “the American,” his steamer trunk, the one the had made so many journeys, rests in Benito and Camela’s home, citizens of Monteverde.



One thought on “June 10: Monteverde — Borgo nella Iripinia

  1. Mike, this commentary is a treasure. especially the notes about the steamer trunk. And the Italian is very impressive! Wish I were with you!
    Sr. Sharon at San Carlos


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