Thousands of ancient watchtowers – “torries” in Italian – survive along the coasts of Italy, but very few people (even those who live near them) know much about their fascinating history and purpose. “Barbarossa and the Towers of Italy,” a new documentary film reveals the never-before-told story of their rich history. No one can say for sure when the first coastal watchtowers were built along the shores of Italy’s Ionian and Tyrrhenian coasts and on the islands of Sardegna and Sicily. The cone-shaped watchtowers built by the Nuragic people on Sardegna date back to 1500 BC. The more modern ones built by the Greeks are from 350 BC.
These watchtowers are situated in some of the most beautiful and spectacular places on the planet and have survived attacks by man and nature for thousands of years. Many have been restored and are in use today as modern day B&Bs, restaurants, and hotels.
Narrated by veteran tv and film actor Alex Cord, the film begins by visiting the history of the more ancient watchtowers then focuses on history of the Torres constructed by the so-called Saracens and the Normans who built them to guard against the invasion from each other’s armies and also as a defense against marauding pirates roaming the Mediterranean Sea. Thousands of Torres were constructed, each one in view of the next. But they are all based on the defense system originally developed by the Nuragic tribes. Every speck of the sea was guarded by the watchful eyes of those in the Torre. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the Torre Vigili looked for the first telltale sign of sails appearing on the horizon, and whenever invaders were spotted, they sounded the alarms that struck terror in the hearts of all who heard them.
The famous Torre at Velia on the southern coast of Campania built by the Greeks around 340 BC, was round in shape. The early Italian/Roman towers like those constructed on Sicily and Sardegna were also circular. It wasn’t until around 1100 AD, and then for about 500 years thereafter, that square Torres were built by the Normans and the Spaniards. Most of the Torres featured in the film are square. Some of the larger fortress towers would house people from the village, smaller ones acted as watchtowers only.
Who were the sentries of these towers? Were they soldiers or local volunteers? How did they exist while on these remote promontories? Information on the life of the Torre Vigili from the early periods is rare, but by visiting many individual villages, the producers were able to gather information on the towers located in each area. Historian Angelo Guzzo has been honored with national awards by the Italian governmant several times for his work regarding the history of the Torres along the southern coast of Campania. He explains the duties of the people that lived and worked in the Torres in his book, “Sulla Rotta Dei Saraceni” (On The Road Of The Saracens). According to Guzzo, the operation of Torres required sentries, horsemen, boatmen, soldiers, and officers. Guzzo describes the sentries as being older people or people with physical handicaps. The reason for this is unknown, but one could assume it was because sentries merely had to watch for signs of sails, while others sounded the alarm by riding into the countryside, rowing small boats to warn communities along the seacoast, starting fires, ringing bells, and had other responsibilities that required agility and strength to perform.
The film takes the viewer over centuries of time through the eyes of the Vigili of the towers and the ferocious line of “Saracen Pirates.” Re-enactments of the life of the Vigili in the Torres and pirate attacks are based on historical accounts. Many of the locations with the most dramatic and beautiful surroundings and the most interesting Torre history are featured.
The re-enactment of the attack on the town of Ispani was shot in Ispani, which has changed little since the 1500s. Many of the local extras are decedents of survivors of pirate attacks.
There were many pirates down through the ages with the name of “Barbarossa,” (Red Beard) but none were more famous than the “Barbarossa Brothers.” These four brothers were the sons of an Albanian seaman who was captured by Turks on the island of Lesbos, circa 1470. When given the choice of becoming a galley slave or converting to Islam, he quickly became a Muslim and raised his sons to become known as “the Barbarossas.” Only his son Aroudj had the red hair and beard that qualified him as a “Barbarossa,” nevertheless the Europeans referred to them all as “The Barbarossas.” But the Moors referred to the other brothers by their given names: Elias, Isaak, and Khayr Ad-Din. Elias, the first to die, was killed while fighting off the coast of Crete. Aroudj was captured by the Knights of Rhodes but was released when the Governor of Aladia paid his ransom. After his release, he joined with his brothers Isaak and Khayr Ad-Din, and the three became the most daring and bloodiest Corsairs to attack and pillage the southern coasts of Italy during the first part of the 16th century. After the death of Aroudj circa 1518, Khayr Ad-Din in an act to honor his brother, dyed his hair and beard with henna and became a Red Beard, a “Barbarossa.” Khayr Ad-Din was feared more than any other pirate of that time period.
The entire Mediterranean Sea was his hunting grounds. Khayr Ad-Din would attack whole fleets of ships. He was bold but clever, never attacking without all of the information he needed to succeed. He seized Tunisia and became the Pasha of Algiers. Later he became an Admiral of Suliman’s navy and commanded up to 135 galleys. It was his exploits that marked his family in the annals of time. Even today, as Turkish warships leave Istanbul, they fire canon shots in his honor as they past his tomb and memorial statue.
An example of some of the more interesting aspects of the history along the southern coast of Campania is the Cilento area, designated as a World Heritage Site. Covering hundreds of square miles, it has dozens of medieval towns and an ancient ruin, like the city of Paestum, built around the middle of the 5th century and for hundreds of years was thought to be a mythological Greek city. But around the beginning of the 19th century ruins were found, and a hundred and fifty years later major excavations were started.
The Torre at the ancient city of Velia, which now sits on a hilltop hundreds of yards from the seacoast, 2,300 years ago sat at the port where the sea lapped at its base.
What makes this film so exciting, is that the story of the Torres has never been told and is unknown to the world. The success of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” will make this true to life Pirate saga a must see for all ages.