The Arberesh: the Christian Albanian emigration to Italy



Year CXLI – N 139 (42.777), Vatican City,Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Part One

If we attempt to highlight the Albanian emigration taking place in the early 1990’s due to the long politico-administrative crisis of the Enverist government, we can make a connection between the mid-XV century and 1774 which represents the consolidation of the Arberesh nucleus in Italy.

The first Albanian soldiers arrived in our country (Italy) under the orders of Dhimiter Reres, who was called upon by Alfonso I il magnonimo, King of two Sicilys, (1442-58, V dí Aragona 1416-58), to intervene in Calabria against the adversary of the Iberian monarch. Alfonso II delegated to Reres political responsibilities in Ulterior Calabria (1448). Dhimiter’s sons, Gjergj and Vasil, established themselves in Sicily thus giving life to Albanian communities in the provinces of Agrigento, Catania and Palermo. The intensification of the relationship between the kingdom of the two Sicilys and that of the Albania of Gjergj Kastrioti Skenderbeg soon helped Ferdinando I il Bastardo (1458-94) in his fight against Angioni, obtaining lands in Puglia. Because of the acceleration of the Turkish offensive in Albania after the demise of Skenderbeg in 1468, numerous of his soldiers remained in Ivi to which others were added who took refuge in Italy with other Christians thereby giving life to Campomarino, Casalnuovo Monterotaro, Casalvecchio of Puglia, Chieuti, Martino, San Marzano of San Giuseppe, San Paolo of Civitate, Santa Croce of Magliano, Sternatia, Ururi and Zollino. Skenderbeg (1405-68) until his death fought to ensure the freedom of his country in an epoch during which the Ottoman Turks threatened the entire West from the gates of Vienna (in a museum in that city to this day, Skenderbeg’s helmet and his sword are still preserved). Skenderbeg was a highly educated man, (he knew five languages). He was a catholic, an extraordinary diplomat, and the originator of guerilla warfare. In 1461, Pius II (1405-64) had sought his help in the common fight against the Turkish enemy.

In 1470 after the marriage of Irena Kastrioti to the prince of Bisognano (a great feudal lord of Calabria), many of the Albanians of Puglia moved with the noble Irena to the land of her consort, thus populating Macchia Albanese, San Cosmo Albanese, San Demetrio Corone, San Giorgio Albanese, Spezzano Albanese and Vacarizzo Albanese. After the fall of Kruja (1478), the legendary capital of Scanderbeg’s resistance against the Turks, new Albanian arrivals inhabited the towns of Acquaformosa, Castroregio, Cavallerizzo, Cervicati, Cerzeto, Civita, Falconara Albanese, Firmo, Frascineto, Lungro, Mongrassano, Plataci, Porcile, Rota Greca, San Basile, San Benedetto, Ullano, San Giacomo díAcri, San Lorenzo del Vallo, San Martino di Finita, Santa Caterina Albanese, Santa Sofia díEpiro, Serra d’Aiello, etc.

The great Albanian emigration of the half second millennium concluded in 1533-34 when Albanian families began settling in Naples, on the island of Lipari, with the majority settling in Melfi, Brindisi, Montagna, Farneta, Maschito, and San Constanto Albanese Afterwards, other refugees arrived in 1467 (Barile), 1744 (Villa Badessa), and in 1774 (Brindisi Montagna). Other groups of arberesh settled in the territory of Parenzo and in the village of Peroi (Istria e Pola); the colony of Peroi rose after a concession from Venice which welcomed some families that were commercially connected with Serenissima. Albanians between the fourteenth and fifteenth hundreds settled in Bari, Bosco Tosca and Pievetta Dogana Po (Piacenza), Cardevole (Corsica) and Rimini.

Some Albanians preferred to enlist in the Spanish army to fight heroically in Europian wars. The most well-known was the Albanian cavalry of Venice, the so-called Stratiotes, and the Albanian infantry of Naples, the Real Macedone, created by King Carlos VII [1734-59, III of Spain: 1759-88]).

The Albanian refugees were considered Catholics by the local ecclesiastical authorities. Latinization, or the threat of such a measure, let alone the form of a mixture of Latin and Byzantine liturgies, was imposed on many Albanian colonies. However, the reigning pontiff of Albanian origin Clemente XI (infra) under the initiative of the arberesh priest, Stefano Rodota, accepted a proposal to establish a college of the Byzantine rite in Calabria as well as the nomination of a bishop assigned to the clergy of this now firmly established rite. The opposition of the Latin bishops delayed to a great extent this activity but, in 1732, Clement XII (1730-40) granted to whoever would undertake the project the goods of the Abbey of San Benedetto Uiano along with a considerable donation of money. Through the disposition of the Holy Father, the Byzantine bishop was given complete authority at the college along with full rights to administer the clergy of the Byzantine churches. Yet, the clergy of the Byzantine rite remained under the supervision of the Latin hierarchy. This is the reason that for the Albanians of Sicily was established a college in Palermo by Carlo VII and Ferdinando IV (1759-1806, 1815-25) who assigned to that juristiction a bishop seated in the Sicilian capital (1784).

The activities of the Albanians to obtain official acceptance of their Byzantine rite were finally granted during the second half of the 1600s in an authoritative document by Pompilio Rodota titled “The origin, progress, and present status of the Greek rite in Italy.” This arberesh identity was further recognized by Leone VIII (1878-1903), who eliminated all liturgical additions that were incompatible with the Byzantine rite. Afterwards in 1919 during the pontificate of Benedetto XV (1914-22) the (Byzantine) diocese of Lungro was founded in Calabria, and in 1937, under the leadership of Pius XI (1922-39), the diocese of Piana degli Albanesi in Sicily, and, at the same time, the diocese of the Abbey of Saint Mary of Grottaferrata (Rome).

Part Two

Pope Clement XI and the Albani Family

The ongoing objective of Clement XI (Gian Francesco Albani, b. 1649, 1700-21) to unify Christianity had significant results in Albania where the Catholic and Orthodox churches were united for a period of time. Clement XI, after becoming aware of his Albanian origins, became very interested in the political and religious rebirth of his fatherland. During this period the “First Albanian National Council” (1703) took place which decisively proclaimed clerical guidelines relative to dogmatic, moral, canon and pastoral questions. Meanwhile there was good news even for the orthodox church. After a first attempt to arrive at some sort of unification did not work, a second attempt was made to establish archbishoprics in Ocrida and Skopje. From 1628, a mission of Byzantine rite had already taken hold in Himara. In the 18th century in the northeastern and central areas of Albania appeared the phenomena of crypto-Christianity, which is present even in our time (in particular during the Enverist period). Among those who embraced Islam, many preferred the sect that was the most heterodox and closer to Christianity – the Bektashi.

The Albani family was founded by two Albanian brothers, George and Fillip of Michele deí Lazi, previously fighters under Skenderbeg. They found refuge in Urbino, where Federico and Guidobaldo from Montefeltro entrusted them with diplomatic matters during wartime. They took the last name”Albanesi” that Altobello (1445-1564) son of George, changed to “Albani.” The Albani family, besides Clement XI, produced other illustrious personages — cardinals, diplomats, and important statesmen: Giovanni Girolamo, (1509-91), cardinal, vice commander of armed forces of the Serenissima Republic, in two conclaves candidate in Soglio di Pietro, stereograph and personal judicial consultant of Gregorio XIII (1572-85) and Sisto V (1585-90); Orazio (1576-1653): diplomat, appointed senator of Rome by Urbano VIII (1623-44); Anibale (1682-1751): canon of St. Peter, president of the Apostolic Council, secretary of Memoriali, cardinal (1711) and extraordinary diplomatic representative in Vienna, where he worked for the ratification of the election of Emperor Carlo VI (1711-40), representative of St. Romana church, arch-priest in Vatican Basilica, bishop of Sabina and then of Porto and Santa Rufina, vice doyen at the Sacred College; Alessandro (1692-1779); at the age of fifteen colonel of the armed pontificate who gave up a military career, secretary of Memoriali, correspondent in Vienna, cardinal (1721), librarian in St. Romana church, Austrian ambassador in Rome, protector of the Sardinian kingdom, protector and friend of Winckelmann, constructor of the Albani Villa, and an extraordinary patron; Gian Francesco (1720-1803) cardinal (1753), protector of Polish Affairs, participated in the negotiation with Caterina II (1762-93) to regulate the situation of Catholics in Russia, bishop of Sabina then of Porto and Santa Rufina until in 1775 when he became doyen of the Sacred College, bishop in Ostia and Valletri, defender of the Pontific State against the French revolution and supporter of the election of Clement XIII (1758-1769) and Pius VII (1800-23); Giuseppe (1750-1834): representative of the counsel of Pius VI (1755-99), was sent to Vienna to get the blessed strip for the baptism of archbishop Ferdinando who afterwards became Emperor (1833-48), cardinal (1801), protector of the Austrian Empire, pre-secretary of Brevi and the League of Bologna, Secretary of State for Pius VIII (1829-30), librarian in Santa Romana church, bishop of Urbino and legate of Pesaro and Urbino. In 1852 the family tree was extended with Filippo. In the East, we find another great Albanian family of royal vizirs of the Ottoman Empire, contemporaries of the Albani in XVII-XVIII century: the Kepryly (Koprulu).

Even before Clement XI, we find there were three other pontiffs of Albanian origin: Saint Eleutherius, (175-189), Saint Caius, (283-296) and John IV (640-642).


General Yearbook of the Italian towns and villages. ICI Milan, 1980; (Pontific Yearbookî, Editorial Libraries, Vatican City, 1999, p. 1161; Giuseppe Castellani (dir), History of Religion, UTET, Turin, 1971, 6th ed, vol. IV, p. 645; Catholic Encyclopedia, Vatican City, 1948, vol. 1, pp. 636-50, Italian Encyclopedia, Rome 1949, vol. II, p. 92; Vincenzo Fucci, On the Origins of Albanians of St. Giorgio Lucano, “Basillicata Region ñ News”, Potenza, n. 1, 1996, p. 79-84 Hubert Jedin (dir), History of the Church, Juca Book, Milan, 1993, 2nd ed, vol. IX, P. 445-6, Allan Kruja, Kosovo, The Survival of a People, The right historic causes of a conflict, Illiria Edition, Rimini, 2000, 2nd ed, p. 52-4, ìLibertyî, Piacenza, August 22, 1990; Angelo Masci, discussions on Albanians of the Naples kingdom (1807) Marco Lungro, 1990; Mona, Pelzer (dirr), Ecclesiastical Dictionary, UTET, Turin, 1953, vol 1, p. 76; Bruno Pancini, A minority of Albanian origins in the province of Piacenza? Credible research conducted at the end of 400 or at the beginning of 500 shed light on the settlement of two family trees: the Toscs and the Albanians, “Albanian Reality”, Rome I (1990), n. 1 April, p. 23-4; Ivana Tanga, The story of the Albanian community in Ivi, Italy. p. 24.

Frosina thanks Franka Misho for her translation from the original Italian into English

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