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What to see in Calabria: discovering Tauriana and Saint Fantino

2020-06-05 12:35

Dr. Domenico Bagalà

Costa Viola, palmi, what to see in calabria, san jockey, archaeological park of the Taurians, Taurian,

What to see in Calabria: discovering Tauriana and Saint Fantino

Discovering Tauriana. One of the largest and most important cities of Magna Graecia


and saint, FANTINO


Tauriana, in its long, ancient history, changed its name several times: the Italics called it Taurianum, the Romans Tauriana, the Byzantines Tavriana /Tavriano, then it became so identified with its eldest son that for centuries it was called S. Fantino. From the beginning of the twentieth century, on the initiative of the historian Antonio De Salvo, it took back the ancient name of "Taureana", as well as Gioia "Tauro" was added and Iatrinoli and Radicena "Taurianova".

We know that Tauriana was the mother of many villages in the plain and that in the Roman period its territory became ager publicus and seat of Prefectura; it was an Episcopal seat since the IV century. It was an Episcopal seat since the 4th century and also "capital of the Eparchy of the Saline" (today's plain of Gioia Tauro), then, in the Byzantine period, its importance was such that one of its bishops (Teodoro) signed, third after the Pope and the Empress of the East Irene the Athenian, the acts of the Ecumenical Council Niceno II of 787, called by Pope Adriano I, which condemned the iconoclasts and sanctioned the lawfulness of the images in the Churches.


ON SIDE: stamp on Taurian bricks




The mystery of the Taurian Thesunti


ON SIDE: Tabula Peutingeriana (medieval copy of the Roman one)




Archaeological research has revealed the historical presence of an unknown and mysterious civilisation, the 'populus dei Tauriani', which can be identified, in a broader historical-geographical context, with the Italic people of the Brettii (the rebels), who occupied what is now Calabria. The first historical information (known to us) about this population is given by a passage from Cato's Origines, in which the seven rivers are highlighted: "The Thesunti Tauriani, he says, derive their name from the river that flows nearby. Their city was first possessed by the Aurunci and then by the Achaeans, who were returning from Troy; their territory is crossed by six rivers and a seventh, which is called Pecoli. Orestes is said to have come here, together with Iphigenia and Pilades, to atone for the murder of their mother. Until recently, one could see a sword stuck in a tree, left there, it is said, by Orestes' [1].


The presence of the Taurians south of Metauros is attested by historical sources around the middle of the 4th century BC. C.. In the 1st century B.C., they strategically chose to negotiate annexation to the Empire, which allowed Roman soldiers to enter Tauriana peacefully. Thanks to a good relationship established with the Romans, they gained political and administrative autonomy that allowed them to have their own territory, between Rhegion (Reggio) and those under the jurisdiction of Lokroi (Locri), which had created an outlet on the Tyrrhenian Sea with the foundation of Medma (Rosarno).



[1]Thesunti Tauriani vocantur de fluvio, qui propterfluit. Id oppidum Aurunci primo possederunt, inde Achaei Troia domumredeuntes. In eorum agro fluviisunt sex; septimusfinem Rheginum atque Taurinum dispescit: fluviinomen est Pecoli. E o Orestemcum I phigeniaatque Pyladedicuntm aternam necemex piatum venisse, et non longinqua memoria est, cum in arboreensemviderint, quem Orestes abiens reliquisse dicitur (from book III of the Origines).



The northern boundary between the two territories on the coast was the Metauros (Petrace) river and to the south the Sfalassà di Bagnara stream; inland, the boundary was along the pre-aspromontana strip where, following archaeological excavations, their presence has been ascertained in contrada Palazzo, Torre Cillea and the village of Mella in Oppido vecchia; to the south at Serro di Tavola above the Sfalassà stream in the territory that is now S. Eufemia d'Aspromonte, where there was a military post. At this time it is clear that the Taurians completely abandoned their subordinate status to the Reggini, even equipping themselves with their own currency [3] .

The Romans, however, due to pockets of resistance, were forced to occupy by force and perhaps destroy another important Taurian town located near the present Oppido in contrada Mella[4].

4] The Taurians, history tells us, were tall, alert and active people and, when threatened, fought off possible invaders well. Tauriana, their main town, which had an important harbour, was from ancient times well integrated in the territory, with an important economic and social exchange, proof being the trade in large bricks with stamps from their kilns.

Taureana became the only centre that manifested the social inheritance of those people and perhaps also benefited from the material inheritance of the destroyed territory, if in this way we can interpret the remarkable presence of bricks with the seal of the Taurians in Greek and Latin characters and in Oscan (the Italic language) in the crypt of San Fantino [4]. Certainly, Taureana was a flourishing town during the late ancient and early Byzantine periods, as shown by its ruins, which are still the subject of archaeological research ([5], its many tomb inscriptions from the 4th-5th centuries AD and above all the crypt of San Fantino, which is the oldest place of worship in Calabria, dedicated moreover to the oldest Calabrian saint. 

Its prosperity was dealt a severe blow towards the end of the 6th century, due to the Lombard incursions, as evidenced by some letters of Pope Gregory the Great. Prof. D. Minuto, on the occasion of a visit in 1993 to the site of Pignarelle in Palmi, promoted by us, declared that after that event the town of Taureana was temporarily abandoned and the population took refuge in a rocky settlement that certainly coincides with the one visited, which is located downstream of Palmi, in the locality of Pignarelle: a remarkable archaeological complex that was presented by the writer to the scientific community in 1993, and still awaits systematic study.


[2] (cf. D. Castrizio "Hellenistic Reggio" Publisher: Gangemi Series: Meridione Year of edition: 1995)- (see Gangemi Collection of the Foundation Piccolo Museo di S. Paolo - Reggio Calabria).

[3 Liliana Costamagna, Il popolo dei Tauriani e l'abitato di Mella presso Oppido Mamertina, in "Klearchos" 149-156, 1996-1997, pp. 115-134.

4] Felice Costabile, Il ninfeo romano ed il complesso monastico di S. Fantino a Taurianum, in "Klearchos" 69-72, 1976, p. 105.

[5]Cf. Francesca Zagari, Una testimonianza di Tauriana bizantina: un sigillo plumbeo da S. Fantino in territorio di Palmi, un territorio riscoperto. Revisioni e aggiornamenti. Fonti e ricerca archeologica, edited by Rossella Agostino, ed. Rubbettino, Soveria Mannelli 2001.





 Nineteenth-century church partially rebuilt by Pietro Militano on the ruins of the 1552 church built by Count Pietro Antonio Spinelli.



The city of Tauriana, however, continued to progress even after the Roman decadence and reached its peak in the Byzantine era.

In the following centuries, however, the prestige of the city went waning in favour of Seminara, which rises near, but is more distant from the sea, because it is situated behind the first hill strip; also the memory of Tauriana and the episcopate were transferred to this new centre. In the meantime, many Saracen incursions wreaked havoc and destruction on the ancient city, and the temple of the saint also suffered. This is clear from the fact that today the crypt has shreds of Byzantine frescoes in the last layer of plaster, which seem to date back to the 10th-11th century, a sign that it had returned to use as a main place of worship. On the other hand, while the crypt has come down to us almost entirely intact in its wall structure, there are only a few ruins left of the basilica frequented during the age of Peter, hidden by the earth and by the modern church that was built over the crypt and above the basilica with a different orientation and plan that was not without elegance. The temple was probably destroyed by the fury of looters and was never rebuilt (today these archaeological remains are visible, thanks to an excavation campaign promoted by the San Fantino Cultural Movement and conducted by La Sapienza University of Rome with the active presence of the Archaeological Superintendency of Calabria and the Municipality of Palmi).





 The Norman document - Naples Historical Archive - Ruffo di Scilla Collection







The Normans, at the beginning of the second millennium, removed the bishopric from Taureana in favour of Mileto, which shared with the bishopric of Oppido the pastoral care for the whole Saline territory.

The new church was built in 1552 by Count Pietro Antonio Spinelli of Seminara for his devotion to St. Fantino and the Madonna of the High Sea, and in memory of that pious narration still alive in the stories of the elderly, who recall the powerful and miraculous help given by St. Fantino to protect his devoted fellow citizens, not only in the presence, but under the advice and guidance of the lady dressed in purple, whom we now venerate with the loving appellation of Our Lady of the High Sea.




Historical Reference: Century VII - Taureana 24 July



The episode is historically ascertained and is contained in the oldest hagiographic text in Calabrian literature, written by Bishop Pietro di Taureana in the 8th century, in which he talks about the life and miracles of San Fantino.



The captured Hagareni

(Usual designation of the Saracens, descendants of Hagar, Abraham's slave girl).




on side: 

Gulf of Taureana - the stones of the ships

Attilio Zagari, oil on panel, 18 August 1911

To complete the narrative, I will add an episode that I was about to forget. Almost all the inhabitants of this town talk about it, because they have heard it told by their fathers.

It is about the following prodigy. Once upon a time the atheistic Agarenes came from Africa with ships and many militia to ravage and plunder the cities and region of the Christians.

It was the day of the holy memory of the Saint during which all the local people were gathered as usual for the mass religious commemoration and the great feast on the occasion of the Saint's feast day, which is celebrated on the 24th of July. It then happened that some of the boats of these atheists raged against this territory, and one of them appeared in front of the Saint's temple. Immediately, a whirlwind swept across the sea.

Then the ship, driven by the violence of the wind and the waves, crashed against the rocks and broke up. Of the warriors who occupied it, some perished at the bottom of the sea, others were captured alive by the Christians who had rushed there. They reported to those who had taken them prisoners that, as they approached the place, they had seen a man on the rock, very young in age, holding a smoking embers in his hand. Next to this young man was a woman dressed in purple. At a sign from the woman, he threw the smoking embers in his hand at the ship in a threatening manner, and it immediately sank completely. On hearing this account of the Agareni, those who were participating in the celebration of the Saint glorified God.  And the captured Agarenians, because of the miracle that had happened to them, believed, were baptised and became Christians and never wanted to return to their countries.

The episode, centuries later, has left its mark on the toponymy of the area.





"Scoglio delle Navi' (Rock of Ships), today's Island - site of the apparition of St. Fantino together with the Madonna, 8th century

formerly called Πέtραι υήες (petre nees) or Stones of the Ships, (Saracen ships)

which took on the name Petri Niri (Black Stones) in dialect.

It is known to all fishermen and connoisseurs of the sea as 'a sicca i San Fantinu' (the shoal of San Fantino) a few miles to the harbour in the direction of the Temple of San Fantino. This is where the miracle of the sinking of the ships occurred (miracle no. 18 - bios of San Fantino).


Later, in 1552...

The Count of Seminara, Pirro Spinelli, wanted to remember this prodigy which, "it is said, was learned from their fathers, who had learned it from their ancestors and had left it as an inheritance to their children", setting up various initiatives, among which: the reconstruction of the church dedicated to St. Fantino and the Madonna Maria Santissima dall'Alto Mare and the creation of a painting in which the Madonna is depicted between St. Fantino and St. Philip, surrounded by a cycle of Saints. In the centre is the town of Taureana from the 1500s with the castle, the 'Temple of the Saint' a reliquary (S. Fantino), a fountain representing life, a well representing the Aghiasma (the holy spring), the sea with the sailing ship, representing danger but also progress, at the bottom the coat of arms of the Spinelli family.  




the 1552 painting commissioned by Count Pietro Antonio Spinelli, on the side the sketch of the same painting which was reproduced in the 19th century by the San Biagio print shop of the bookshops in Naples, and circulated among the people of Taureana.





Taureana is the town of San Fantino. His presence fills the town so intensely that at one time the village of Taureana and even the promontory now known as Sant'Elia were also called San Fantino (cf. the 'Portolano Rizo' - Venice 1490).

The crypt of the saint, which is the oldest church in Calabria, was built here. Moreover, information on the bishopric of Taureana is among the oldest in Christian Calabria and Fantino is the oldest saint in Calabria, as is his biography, written by Bishop Pietro many centuries after the saint's death, the first of the many hagiographic biographies in Greek in early Calabrian literature. Fantino is said to have been in the service of a pagan lord called Balsamio: he therefore lived in an age that was still partly pagan, probably in the 4th century AD.



ON THE SIDE: Saint Fantino the horseman

His task was to take care of a horse farm, an open way of life that involved frequenting many pastures, in the hills and surrounding mountains, in perfect solitude, interrupted above all by the works of charity that this early Christian saint performed in favour of poor farmers. The specialisation of the work of the servant Fantino is part of a millenary experience, attested here and in the contiguous Poro range, the territory of the ancient Hipponion, from the time of the ancient Greeks until the last century, when a host of horsemen rode from Lubrichi, which rises in the mountains, to Taureana to honour the Saint. Who Fantino's fellow-citizens were, the numerous tombstone epigraphs in Taureana tell us. The fact that his cult is very ancient is testified by the miracles of the Saint which, according to the narration of Bishop Peter, occurred after the ancient practice of incubatio, that is, sleeping near the venerated tomb.


He spent much of his time in solitude, along the valleys of the Petrace and its many tributaries. Solitude is loved by ascetics because it helps them to talk to God without being distracted. The humble and uncomfortable life, to which he was forced by his service, is also sought after by ascetics, because it helps them escape the demon of pride and selfishness. Fantino was also attentive to the needs of others, and therefore, having noticed the life of toil and hardship that the peasants led, he began to help them, committing the master's herds to this work. Someone, once, bothered to warn Balsamio, accusing Fantino because he tired the mares. But when the master, prompted, ran into the country to see what Fantino was doing, he saw him lying down, with the mares grazing: in fact the saint, by touching with his whip the sheaves that the animals were dragging, had transformed them into grasslands. The accusations became more and more insistent and Balsamio came back again, suddenly, to inspect the work of that charitable man: this time Fantino was caught unawares and decided to run away with all the animals, pursued by Balsamio, who was more and more furious. When he reached the Metauro (Petrace), he found it in flood. Immediately afterwards, praying fervently, he calmly spurred his horse on, holding the rod in his hand, and with it he touched the water and said to the river, as if it were animated: "Stop, Metauro. Pass Fantino, the servant of God!" The river split on one side and the other, and the saint passed with the mares as if it were dry land. At this sight, Balsamio began to beg forgiveness from his servant; he converted and became an ascetic saint himself. Therefore, still today, in the village of San Fantino on the outskirts of Chorio di S. Lorenzo (RC), the saints Fantino and Balsamio are venerated together.

The feast of Saint Fantino in Taureana is celebrated on 24 July according to the Italo-Greek calendar and from 1994 until 2008 it still retained, after so many centuries, the original characteristics of the Byzantine tradition with the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in Greek and with Byzantine chants handed down orally, reintroduced in 1994 at the proposal of the Saint Fantino Cultural Movement. Today, unfortunately, only the blessing of the horses and riders of St. Fantino remains, with the procession of the saint's icon to the crypt. The cult of the saint still exists in many towns in Sicily and Calabria, and also in Venice, where a church was built around the 9th century on the island of San Marco, opposite the 'La Fenice' theatre, also called 'Teatro San Fantino' until the 18th century.



Saint Fantino and Saint Balsamio miracle on the Metauro River

(Bios cover)



Knights of San Fantino

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