Traces in history
Ursus arctos marsicanus. You might justifiably assume from the sub-species label “marsicanus” that the Marsica area is the original and only home of “our” bear. But it is actually where the animals retreated to under pressure from human expansion. Their territory was once much larger, reaching as far north as the Sibylline mountain range (in the Apennines near Perugia in Umbria) and as far south as the region of Calabria (the “toe” of Italy). So, it is accurate to talk about a brown bear of the Apennines, even though recent genetic analysis suggests it originated in the Balkans.
Several place names testify to the historic presence of bears in the Sibylline mountain area, such as Grotta dell’Orso [Bear Grotto], Fonte dell’Orso [Bear Spring], Valle Orsara [Bear Valley], and many more. Bears are also mentioned several times in local historical records:
On 16 July 1514, the council of Castelsantangelo sul Nera approved a bear hunt in honour of Giovanni Maria Varano.
In 1587 Innocenzo Malvasia, a papal commissioner inspecting the prefecture of Montagna di Norcia, reported that it was the custom for local nobles to hunt bears and mount their heads as trophies in their palace halls.
In 1654 the village council of Bolognola offered a reward of three silver coins to anyone who killed a bear, as a reaction to attacks on livestock.
A bear even made an unusual 15th century gift. The governor of Todi presented one to the city of Spoleto, which he had a strong connection with. This gift was so welcomed that the duchy decided to keep and feed the bear at its own expense.
On 29 June 1750 two bears were killed by Diadato Antonelli in the forest of Monte Costa Comune near Opagna in southern Umbria.
Bears eventually disappeared from the Sibylline mountains due to the impacts of habitat change, woodland clearances and firearms. The last survivor is believed to have been killed in 1870 in the district of Statte, according to Anna Maria Aringoli Herbst (the author of a guide to the nearby town of Camerino in 1954).
In 1925 the author Ettore Ricci claimed: “The bears that still remained in the Sibylline mountains in the first half of the last century have now completely vanished, having been driven south onto the plateaus of Abruzzo.” 1
The first mention of bears in Abruzzo comes in documents from the 15th century. In the 18th century there were numerous sightings recorded in a variety of locations. The animals were seen near the city of Sulmona, on the Salviano massif (Avezzano), in the surrounds of the town of Scanno, on the Teramo side of the Gran Sasso massif, in the woods of Matese, on the Majella massif in the outskirts of the town of Roccamorice, and in the Roveto valley on the border with what was then the Papal States. In addition, many details about the presence of bears in the Abruzzese mountains were recorded around the turn of the 19th century by the author Lorenzo Giustiniani in his series of books about the Kingdom of Naples. According to these books the animals were seen in Accumoli, Bisegna, Cagnano, Capistrello, Cappadocia, Colli di Macine (CH), Collelongo, Forcella, Gioia dei Marsi, Leonessa (RI), Monte Sabinese, Masellara (CH), Ortucchio, Pennapiedimonte, Pereto, Pescasseroli, Pettorano, Pizzoli, Tagliacozzo, Trasacco and Villavallelonga.
In effect bears occupied a roughly crescent-shaped zone with one point at Accumoli, on the northern border of the Kingdom of Naples, and the other on the eastern Majella massif between Pennapiedimonte and Palombaro. They were more numerous in two areas in particular: the mountains stretching from Tagliacozzo to Capistrello above the high River Liri valley and the mountains encircling the southern edge of what used to be Lake Fucino. Local government archives record further bear sightings in the Morrone Woods between Popoli and Sulmona, in Salle, Gamberale, Caramanico, Carsoli, Civita d’Antino and in all the towns and villages in the modern-day National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise.
The 20th century brought the first pseudo-scientific study of the Marsican bear. Published in 1921, it made the distinction between Ursus arctos and Ursus arctos marsicanus. The author, Giuseppe Altobello, published his definitive study of the fauna of Abruzzo and Molise in that year. The Marsican bear was detailed in the fourth volume, which dealt with carnivores. The first area where bear hunting was banned was also created in 1921, after the “Pro Montibus et Sylvis” Association (the Latin phrase means “For the Mountains and Forests”) leased 500 hectares of land in the Val Fondillo valley. The association permitted hunting in special cases such as bears seriously harming livestock or crops nearby, but under no circumstances could cubs be killed. The area was officially inaugurated as the National Park of Abruzzo in 1922 and its creation was ratified by the Royal Decree of 1923.
As for areas in the Lazio region, particularly the Ernici mountains, there are the usual bear-related place names – such as Valle dell’Orso [Bear Valley], Vado dell’Orso [Bear Ford], Grotta dell’Orso [Bear Grotto]. There is also this Latin extract from a 1716 letter written by Father Francesco Maria Casaleta, a Carthusian monk in the monastery of San Bartolomeo di Trisulti (which is located in Collepardo near Frosinone), to the Abbott Pietro Antonio Corsignani about his “Marsican palace”: “ Unicuique nostram satis cognitum, perspectumque est, inter Hernicos Montes in Marsorum tuae Provinciae, confinibus, (et) foranibus detrae, (et) in caverna maceriae, dictam Sacram Domum Trisultanam, a munduna conservatione sejunctam, haud imperito jacere, quasi Cedrum, exaltatam in Libano, quasi Cypressum in Monte Sion; ni a Lupi et Ursis, aliisque, feris habitatam, (et) ex omnibus partibus per circuitum nemorosis, asperisque vallatam montibus, ac speloncis imaginem horroris, (et) vastae solitudinis proesefert …” 2
The Cistercian monk Don Atanasio Taglienti also records finding three handwritten sheets of parchment in the Trisulti monastery, bearing the words: “No memory exists that could attest to when this small land [Collepardo-Frosinone, editor’s note] was created. … ellipsis … in time more houses joined the ones that were originally built as permanent homes for the inhabitants … ellipsis … to safeguard them from the dangers within those wild crags teeming with bears, wolves, boar and wild cats”. 3
Again, evidence that bears lived in the woods of Calabria long ago comes from place names. There are several scattered across Calabria, particularly in more mountainous, forested and impenetrable areas. This is the surest indication that while bears may have ranged widely in ancient times, in the era of recorded history they were forced to keep more and more to forested areas that humans found difficult to penetrate. Listing just place names featuring the word ‘orso’, we find: “Timpa dell’Orso” [Bear Slope] on the Pollino massif, “Orsara” close to the Tafuri Woods near Parenti; “Serra d’Orso” [Bear Range] close to Cozzo Cacanella (Confluenti), “Ursara” near Rossano; “Ursiello” in the Sersale area, “Macchia dell’Orso” [Bear Scrub] in the Mesoraca area. 4
1 The information relating to the Sibylline mountains is drawn from:
-Dell’Orso M, Forconi P., 2007 – “La presenza storica dell’orso sui Monti Sibillini” – VOCI DEL PARCO, periodico d’informazione del P.N. dei Monti Sibillini, n°1.
2 The information relating to Abruzzo and to a part of the Lazio area is drawn from:
-Tarquinio G., 2001. – “Testimonianze storiche della presenza dell’orso bruno Marsicano in Abruzzo e nelle aree limitrofe”, pp.80 – GRAFITALIA Edizioni, Sora
3 Taglienti A., 1984 – “Il Monastero di Trisulti e il Castello di Collepardo”, pp.529 – TERRA NOSTRA Ediz., Roma
4 Pesavento A., 2005 – “La presenza del cervo e dell’orso in provincia di Crotone” (published in Crotoneinforma nr. 1/ 2005)