In the shadow of Naples, far from the glitz of the Amalfi Coast, the chic islands of the Gulf and grandiose Royal Palace of Caserta, is Benevento, a city that is certainly off the beaten track, but which preserves an important historical and artistic heritage well worth discovering. It was the Samnites, Romans and Lombards who made Benevento what it is, defining its urban layout and proud, determined character. The old town center is compact, orderly and contains the most important treasures of the city. The city’s seductive charm is perhaps due to its self-effacing, shy and discreet nature, or to the fact that, to reach Benevento, one has to go into the inland areas of Campania, and across the mountainous Irpinia region. If you add in the city’s mysteries and legends of witches that have inspired a liqueur and a literary prize, then there is no doubt: Benevento is indeed a bewitching city.
Strega Liqueur and Spazio Strega
Centuries ago, under the great walnut tree on the banks of the Sabato river, broomsticks flew through the air, blasphemous rites were performed, spells were cast and potions were concocted: these were the Sabbath gatherings of the Benevento witches, known as Janare, Zoccolare and Manolonghe. And it is from this legend that Strega, the yellow liqueur of Benevento whose name translates to witch, was born. The recipe is top secret, although we do know that it is made of natural ingredients – about 70 herbs and spices imported from all over the world, including Ceylon cinnamon, Florentine Iris, juniper from the Italian Apennines, Sannio mint and saffron. The liqueur was invented in 1860 by Giuseppe Alberti who, just one year later, opened the industrial plant near the railway station of Benevento – a strategic trade area. It did not take long for the product to win over the public and for its success to cross national borders. The twentieth century saw the introduction of advertising posters designed by Dudovich and Depero and the appearance of the signature yellow bottle on the silver screen, featuring in Sam Wood’s Kitty Foyle (1940) and Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione(1943). Today Strega knows no bounds. The company is now run by the sixth generation of the Alberti family, which continues to produce the liqueur according to the age-old recipe combined with up-to-date technology, selling it in 50 countries. The history of the liqueur and the brand is all housed in the Spazio Strega, set up right inside the factory. An interesting visit during which you can steep yourself in the production methods of the liqueur and explore its collection of 400 counterfeit bottles. There is also a room dedicated to the Premio Strega, a prestigious literary prize established by Guido Alberti and Maria Bellonci in 1947: a literary salon that keeps Italian culture alive through the works of great Italian authors. The event takes place in the splendid location of Villa Giulia in Rome, in a suburban Mannerist villa commissioned by Pope Julius III and built in 1551-55 based on designs by Giorgio Vasari, Bartolomeo Ammannati and Vignola, which is now also home to the National Etruscan Museum. Ennio Flaiano, Elsa Morante, Umberto Eco, Alberto Moravia, Sandro Veronesi, and Margaret Mazzantini have all passed through here and emerged as winners. The covers of the books that have won the award are displayed along with the legendary score-keeping blackboard in the museum hall.
What to see in Benevento
Corso Garibaldi, a parade of elegant eighteenth-nineteenth century buildings, cafes and stores, is the perfect starting point, followed by the church of S. Bartolomeo with the remains of the patron saint and Piazza Matteotti – one of the most enchanting corners of the city, with the bell tower and the church of S. Sofia. Then, there is the Duomo, a place where witchcraft and spirituality meet. First built in the seventh century, modified several times, and rebuilt after the bombings of 1943, the facade with Roman and Byzantine fragments, the crypt and the bell tower with the bas-relief of the Calydonian boar, the symbol of the city, have all survived, as has its bronze door, with panels illustrating the life of Jesus. The interior is barer and colder, but the crypt has a beautiful fresco that portrays the conversion of the Lombards to Christianity. It was St. Barbato, in fact, who destroyed the walnut tree from which the viper – symbol of the devil – emerged and under which the witches of Benevento gathered. The city is also home to the Hortus Conclusus, an original open-air art exhibition, the Arch of Trajan, built in 114 AD from limestone and marble and adorned with sculptures and reliefs that recall the life of the Emperor Trajan, and the Roman theatre, inaugurated by Hadrian in 126 AD and completed by Caracalla in 200 AD.
Last but not least, there is the Museum of Sannio where the Gianni Vergineo room hosts the permanent collection of works entitled “Le streghe di Benevento e il Gobbo di Peretola” (The Witches of Benevento and the Hunchback of Peretola). The collection was donated to the museum by Strega Alberti and copies can also be admired in the Spazio Strega. The paintings depict the legend of the Hunchback of Peretola, who lost his way one night and ended up at the walnut tree of Benevento, under which the witches were dancing. One of the witches asked him to join their dance and the hunchback willingly accepted, dancing with such grace and proficiency that the witches repaid him by sawing off his hump without causing him any pain. One of his neighbors, also a hunchback, who saw him return to Peretola standing perfectly straight, decided to try his luck as well. With hope and envy filling his heart, he went to see the witches. However, the hunchback addressed the witches so rudely that they took his neighbor’s hump and attached it to his chest.