A few years ago, an acquaintance told me a story about his search for his family’s roots in Italy. He had tracked down some distant cousins through the internet, and he and his wife made plans to travel to Italy and meet his relatives. Off they went—affluent Americans laden with gifts, off to the coastal town from which his forefathers had sailed to America. When they arrived, they were greeted warmly, gifts were graciously received and a fine feast was laid out in celebration. Language was a minor barrier when hearts were so expansive. Still, the local priest, who spoke fluent English, was summoned to translate.
The grandmother of the family bade the Americans sit at the table she had prepared with her best linens and silver, while she served them the specialty dishes of the region: octopus, mussels, orecchiette, calzoni and fried polenta. When the priest arrived, he attempted to trace the family connection. Almost immediately it became obvious, not only that the Americans were not related, but also that they were kin of a rival family. The matriarch didn’t hesitate. Picking up the corners of the tablecloth, she whisked away the food, plates and all and shoved the bewildered Americans out the door. She kept the gifts.
I found this story so hilarious, in so many ways, that I became determined to write it as a short story—and I did. But during the process, I uncovered another story, one so compelling, that I couldn’t ignore it. Here’s how it happened…
I needed a setting for my story. In a different life, my husband had been to Italy to visit the relatives of his then girlfriend, and he suggested I place my story in Bari, a port on the southern coast of Italy. He remembered an old section of the city that had been standing since the heyday of the Roman Empire, and a medieval basilica that housed the relics of St. Nicholas. Perfect for my family and my priest. But that was just the beginning. The more I researched Bari, the more fascinating I found its history. How did the bones of St. Nicholas—the popular saint of Christmas—come to rest in Bari, when he lived, died and was buried a thousand miles away in the town of Myra in Lycia, now Turkey? And there were other questions, questions about Bari’s more recent history, questions about the bombing of Bari during World War II that changed the city and its people forever. I had to find the answers. And the answers called for something more than a story. They became a novel.
One of the great joys of writing a novel is the need to do research—it gives you a guilt-free respite from having to actually write and, as a bonus, you get to learn about all sorts of neat stuff. “Secrets of Bari” required research into two completely distinct eras of history, covering dress, speech, technology, religion, geography, weapons and weather, as well as momentous historic events. I travelled to Italy where I met with an anthropologist, an archeologist, Dominican and Resistanza historians, and a priest who is a world-renowned authority on the life of St. Nicholas. For the modern story, experts on and off the internet shared with me copious amounts of data about robotics, prosthetics, and medical conditions.
It is truly amazing how many details you can unearth about life seventy or even nine hundred years ago. The bombing of Bari during World War II is a little-known event, but a few excellent books and online articles by survivors of the disaster gave me a window into the shock and horror of the experience. The Middle Ages, on the other hand, have been described in countless books, movies and TV shows down to painstaking detail—except for one thing: Italian merchant ships in the late 11th century.
A key portion of “Secrets of Bari” takes place on the Mediterranean Sea in 1087, and recounts the experiences of a young boy aboard a ship bound for the Lycian town of Myra (now in Turkey) for the purpose of stealing the remains of St. Nicholas. When Tom and I travelled to Bari for the Festival of St. Nicholas, Dr. Antonio Brusa, professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Bari, took us into the restricted archives of the Museo della Cattedrale where we were thrilled to watch him extract antique parchments from a drawer marked 1087. Later, Fr. Gerardo Cioffari of the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari was kind enough to direct me to two detailed accounts of the translation of the bones to Bari, one written the week the remains arrived, the other in the 13th century.
I was excited to discover that the Basilica archives even contain a manifest with the names of all the sailors who were on board during that fateful voyage. There they were, sixty-two sailors, priests and merchants listed by name: Commandante Alberto, Stefano Tarantino, Gittagno, Summo, Leone Pilillo, Disigio and Matteo or Matthew, the sailor who smashed through the bishop’s crypt and bathed in the oil from his bones. All at once my characters came alive, their quest no longer just a story, but the adventure of real men who lived and died and who lay beneath my feet, having been honored for their service with burial under the Basilica. It was a week of such discoveries, so I was surprised that no one was able to shed light on the number or names of the ships that participated in the quest, or even the type of ship. What to do?
Popular culture has planted some ideas in our minds about old ships. If you were asked to picture an ancient Roman or Greek ship, you could probably conjure up a fairly accurate image of a long boat with a sweeping prow, a single mast and rows of oars issuing from the sides. Likewise, an ancient Viking ship would be easily imagined as a narrow, shallow vessel with tall posts at each end crowned with ferocious serpent or dragon heads. Descriptions and images of these ships abound in books and online, as well as in epic films about Biblical times, going back two and three millennia. You are probably familiar with later ships too—the ships that carried Columbus to America, carracks and caravels with raised decks and deep holds and three or four sails.
I scoured the library and the internet for information on the history of ships, but like the images in my mind, there was a frustrating gap about ships during the specific time and place of my story. Archeologists have not found any shipwrecks dating from that period, so we are in an area of what is delicately known as historical speculation. Was Matthew’s ship clinker built with overlapping planks or carvel-built with planks laid edge-to-edge over a skeletal frame? Was it powered by a square or lateen sail? Was it long and narrow like the northern hulk or flat-bottomed with towers fore and aft, like the cog? The next 300 years would be a time of transition for shipbuilding throughout Europe. In a few years, travel would expand with the first Crusade, and developments in navigation would lead to the building of faster, more sophisticated merchant ships with multiple masts, greater storage capacity and navigation techniques making them capable of extended voyages on the open sea. In 1087, however, single-masted ships navigated by the stars at night and crawled along the coast by day.
In Secrets of Bari, the vessel that carries Matthew and the Barian crew to Myra is modeled on earlier Roman merchant ships, with some features, such as the raised forecastle, that were developing in Northern Europe at the time and would soon be common in the region. Both square and lateen sails were used during the period; I’ve chosen the lateen, or triangular sail, because it was popular on ships venturing into the open sea, as it allowed a vessel to tack into the wind. Thus, we have Matthew’s ship—a hybrid of the boats of the earlier part of the millennium and the rapidly evolving ships of the later Middle Ages.
Research into real people, places and historical events can yield fabulously enriching discovery and detail—or frustrating dead ends. But thankfully, novels are by definition fiction, and where evidence is in short supply, we can use what we know to make an educated guess about the mysteries that still prevail.
I’ve been asked about the title of my novel, Secrets of Bari. What are its secrets? First, and most horrendous, is a true but little known episode in its history that resonates appallingly today.
Chemical weapons have headlined the news lately, with the United States in the forefront condemning their use. I’ve cringed to hear reporters and commentators declare that the US has never employed chemical agents in warfare. Though technically correct, this statement fails to acknowledge that the US is responsible for the largest chemical weapon disaster in history and the only known deaths due to chemical weapons in World War II. Today, few people are even aware of the German attack on Bari Harbor that exploded an American Liberty ship secretly carrying poisonous mustard gas. The Allied nations were transporting large quantities of the toxic chemical for use should the enemy use gas first.
The news about Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons conjures up what I believe to be the most horrific of ways to destroy life. Of course, the idea of mass destruction (how blithely we use that term) is repugnant in any form, but there is something about the poisoning of the very air we breathe that is particularly chilling. Victims of Sarin, the nerve agent suspected of being used in Syria, die a ghastly death as organs shut down and they experience diarrhea, vomiting, seizures, and convulsions. The situation in Syria is complex—but one fact remains clear: it has been against international law to make, stockpile or use any chemical weapons since the Chemical Weapons Convention, effective 1997. The use of gas in WWII was banned by the Geneva Protocol, yet every warring nation produced stockpiles to have on hand in case they needed it. In Bari, that policy proved deadly.
Bari is a port city on the heel of the boot Italy forms on a map. On December 2, 1943, a few months after the Allied armistice with Italy, Bari Harbor was so crowded with supply ships that they were lined up perpendicular to the docks.The German air force had been depleted and was no longer considered a threat, so harbor security was lax. Lights blazed as personnel worked into the night to unload the trucks, Jeeps, bombs, weapons, ammunition and hospital supplies needed for the offensive operation into Northern Italy. The scene was set for disaster, and at 7:30 pm, disaster struck.
In the most destructive bombing of Allied shipping since Pearl Harbor, German planes swept across the port, destroying or severely damaging 40 of the approximately 50 ships waiting to unload and devastating the surrounding town. The worst was yet to come. As fires blazed across the oil and gas-covered harbor, ships, heavy-laden with tons of bombs and ammunition, exploded throughout the night. The contents of one ship, the SS John Harvey, vaporized in an explosion so catastrophic, it was felt 20 miles away. No one remaining alive in Bari knew that the ship had been carrying 200,000 lbs of mustard gas. The toxic chemical mixed with the muck in the harbor and hung heavily in the air over the port. An estimated 2000 military personnel and civilians died in the attack, but countless others suffered the terrible effects of the noxious mustard gas.
Why have so few people heard of this attack? The answer is nightmarish in its simplicity. It was covered up. As casualties streamed into hospitals and clinics, doctors and nurses struggled to treat them, without knowing what they were dealing with. Had they known, many lives might have been saved. But officers were sworn to secrecy about the attack, and information was not forthcoming. The word had come down from the top—from Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt—Bari never happened.
Three enlightening non-fiction books tell the story of the bombing of Bari: Nightmare in Bari by Gerald Reminick, Disaster at Bari by Glen Infield, and Poisonous Inferno by George Southern, all from the point of view of the occupying forces.
In one part of my novel, Secrets of Bari, I tell the story of the raid through the eyes of four friends who grew up in the section of the city known as the Old Town. The attack on Bari changed the direction of their lives in ways unimaginable only hours before.