La Daunia


Daunia is the area now covered by the present day province of Foggia, but in antiquity, it extended as far as the region of Molise.

Divisione dell'antica Daunia

Ancient sources speak of Puglia being divided into Daunia, Peucetia and Messapia after being settled by the Iapigii, a mix of Cretans and Illirians, who supposedly drove out the Ausonians (who, in turn, inhabited Southern Italy along with the Sabines, Lucanians, Pelinnians, Brutii, Campanians, Equii and Sannites).  The most recent historical research has proven that towards the end of the second millennium BCE, three indo-european Illiric groups established themselves in Puglia: the Dauni in present day Foggia, the Peucetii in the land of Bari, and the Messapii in the Salento.  The first Dauni settled on the Gargano promontory where there have been human settlements since the Old Stone Age, and then successively they spread to the plains and other areas.

A group of these Balkan races was headed by the legendary Daunos, who conquered the land between the River Biferno in Molise to the north, and the Olfanto in the south.  Assisted by the Cretans, he attempted to conquer new territories in the south, and founded several important cities.

According to the legend, the Greek hero Diomedes helped Daunos to reach power, and married his daughter, Drion.  Diomedes was buried on one of the Tremiti Islands, as they are known today, but which were named the Diomedee Islands in his honour. Indeed, Diomede’s first contact with the Daunia would have been his landing at the islands which were supposed to have taken his name, Insulæ Diomedee.  He then disembarked where Rodi is today on the Gargano promontory, in search of more fertile terrain.  He then moved south, where he encountered the Dauni, who took their name from their king, Daunos, son of Licaon, and brother of Enotrius, Peucetius and Japix.  Diomedes earned the favour of King Daunos who gave him his daughter, Drionia, or Drion in marriage.  In recognition of his help and military valour in the war against the Messapi, Daunos gave Diomedes a part of Puglia in dowry, the so-called Diomedean Fields.

As legend would have it, the city of San Severo was founded by the Greek hero Diomedes, with the name of Castrum Drionis (Casteldrione).  Diomedes built two temples in honour of his wife Drionia , one dedicated to Calcas, the other to Podalirius.  Casteldrione remained pagan until 536, when Saint Laurence Majoranus, the Bishop of Siponto made famous by the miraculous apparitions of Archangel Michael in the Holy Grotto of the Gargano, imposed upon the city the name of a fictitious governor Severo whom he had converted to Christianity.

San Severo was founded in ancient Daunia, and in the countryside around the city, several Neolithic settles have been discovered.  In the Middle Ages, the area does not seem to have been occupied by stable or easily identifiable settlements.  Between the Longobard and Byzantine periods, Benedictine monasticism spread out from the monastery of Cassino, and with it came the veneration of the Holy Apostle of Noricum, Severinus, a fifth century abbot and forerunner of Saint Benedict.  Thanks to the continuous flow of pilgrims heading to the Holy Grotto of Monte Sant’Angelo, and the movement of troops and merchandise, a simple chapel was built along the route of the Via Sacra Longobardorum, about which, in around the year 1000, there formed the present city, originally called Castellum Sancti Severini. The urban settlement developed rapidly thanks to its convenient location for merchants and soon rose to considerable importance.  It became the base for merchants from the Veneto, Florentines, Saracens and Jews.  Previously subject to the Benedictine abbots of the Monastery of Saint Peter of Terra Maggiore (where Abbot Adenulfus wrote the famous Charta Libertatis in 1116), in 1230 the town rebelled against Emperor Federick II, who, after he had punished the town by demolishing the city walls, handed San Severo over to the Templars.  Later, it became a royal city, and played host to several monarchs, amongst whom were Giovanna I and Ferrante d’Aragona. 

Antica mappa di San Severo

In the sixteenth century it was the headquarters of the Governor of the province of Capitanata and Molise, where it was also the regional administrative centre, and became  the seat of the Royal Court of Hearing.  In 1534, Emperor Carlo V visited the city, and on that occasion he instituted the Council of Forty, a demonstration of the might of the powerful military families.  In this period, the city minted its own money, the extremely rare tornese.  A few years before, in 1528, a great miracle had taken place: In the dead of night, the Spanish army made a surprise attack on San Severo, intent on taking it by force and pillaging it, when all of a sudden, the glorious Patron Saint, Abbot Severinus, appeared on the city ramparts dressed as for war, with a red flag in his left hand, and a sword in his right.  Followed by a terrible celestial host, he put the terrified invaders to flight, and saved San Severo from irreparable damage.  Professing its eternal gratitude to its mighty protector, the city solemnly proclaimed him as Defensor Patriæ (Defender of the Fatherland), and chose the image of the Saint as their coat of arms just as he had appeared to the Spanish soldiers.  For his feast day, the 8th January, the city made an oath to make an offering to Saint Severinus of a hundredweight of candles.  In 1557, there was the miracle of the Madonna of Mercy:  Groups of pilgrims were wont to lodge in a particular rest house in the city, the one abandoned in Market Square and dedicated to the Madonna of Mercy.  A few of these pilgrims were gambling, when one of them, having lost everything he owned at dice, angrily turned upon the image of the Virgin that was painted on the wall of the hostel, and lashed at her left cheek with a knife.  Immediately, the cut began to bleed.  Following the miracle, the Church of the Madonna of Mercy was built, and later, it was extended by the wealthy and prestigious Confraternity of the Death.

In 1579, whilst it was at the height of its fame, but also in an advanced state of economic decline, the city was sold to Duke Gian Francesco di Sangro, who obtained for his heirs the title of Princes of Sansevero.  It was the beginning of the end, despite the fact that in 1580, the city was promoted to an Episcopal See. For on the 30th July, 1627, catastrophe struck as an earthquake razed the city almost completely to the ground.  Reconstruction was slow, but in the 1700’s, once it had returned to being a centre for trade, and especially agriculture, San Severo blossomed again in Baroque style to see magnificent buildings rise up, such as residences for the nobility and middle classes, the monumental monasteries of the Celestines, Franciscans, and Benedictine nuns, and a number of new churches.  Meanwhile, in the very first years of the century, the Curia set a new protector at the side of Saint Severinus, with equal dignity: the bishop Saint Severus.

The flourishing Baroque age came to traumatic end with the sacking of the city by the French in 1799.  The Republican army bloodly repressed a violent reactionary rebellion against the Jacobites, who were slaughtered by a furious mob.  The crowd, misunderstanding the egalitarian aspirations of their young, revolutionary fellow citizens, cut down the Freedom Tree.  This was the symbolic beginning of a new political and social direction that changed definitively the economy and society of the city.  In 1811, the city became headquarters of the Sub-Prefecture, whilst in 1819, the Civic Theatre “Real Barbone” was inaugurated.  It was one of the oldest in Puglia, with a rich Italian-style auditorium that had been converted from the old government building, once the offices had been transferred to the closed-down Celestine monastery in 1813.  In 1854, the Civic Gardens (Villa Comunale) were opened, and 1858 saw the inauguration of the Ferdinand Library (Biblioteca Ferdinandee), nowadays named after the great Sanseverian publisher, Alessandro Minunziano.  The previous year, the Madonna of Succour was elected as Patroness of the city, to stand alongside Saint Severinus and Saint Severus.  In 1864, the Royal Gymnasium and Technical Schools opened their doors, and in1866, the Infant Nursery School opened.  Shortly afterwards, a passion for music lead to the foundation of two bands that were set for glory: the Bianca in 1879, and the Rossa in 1883.  Both bands were winners of numerous, prestigious, international awards.

In the 19th Century, the city acquired an ever more modern appearance.  In 1915, the new Civic Hospital opened, and in 1923, the splendid Prince of Savoy school buildings were inaugurated in the presence of the heir to the throne, Umberto di Savoia.  In 1937, the new Civic Theatre started its activities.  One of the largest theatres on the Italian peninsula, it was designed by the nationally acclaimed academic Cesare Bazzini, and decorated by the artist Luigi Schingo.  This monumental structure is today named after Giuseppe Verdi.  In the second half of the century, in a climate rich in cultural activity, personalities such as the writer Nino Casiglio, and the brilliant cartoonist Andrea Pazienza were based in San Severo.


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