In 1934 Michele Castagna, a farmer from Capestrano, was preparing a small piece of land for planting a vineyard. When his hoe hit something hard in the soil, he thought it was just a big rock but, trying to remove it, he realised it was a huge stone sculpture. Determined to get his work done, he carried on a few steps further from the mysterious statue, but the hoe’s fork hit something hard once again – a large stone disk. As it turned out, the farmer had come across an ancient necropolis. In the years following the discovery, archaeologists unearthed tombs and artefacts dating back to the 6th century BC, which they connected with Aufinum, an ancient settlement of an Italic tribe called Vestini. More recent excavations on the site brought to light almost one hundred tombs and hundreds of priceless archaeological finds that give us a glimpse of a culture long gone.
One of the ancient Italic tribes which once lived on the territory of the modern Abruzzo, Vestini occupied a large area stretching from the northern banks of the Aterno River, near the Gran Sasso mountain range, to the Adriatic coast. The first mention of Vestini dates back to the 4th century BC when they joined other Italic tribes in the fight against the Roman rule. After a quick defeat, the tribe entered into an alliance with the Eternal City, while maintaining independence for a while. In the course of the following few centuries, the Vestini territory was gradually colonised by Romans, their local dialect was replaced with Latin and their ancient traditions were slowly forgotten.
One of Vestini’s cities, Aufinum, occupied the area where the town of Ofena is located today. The necropolis found below Capestrano was, most likely, part of that settlement. The numerous artefacts from the burial grounds — which were typical for the ancient Vestini tribe — are displayed in The National Archaeological Museum of Abruzzo – Villa Frigerj in Chieti: fragments of funerary statues, weapons, buckles, sandals, ice crampons, and bronze tableware that reveals a tradition of banquets. The funerary statue of the Warrior of Capestrano is the largest and most impressive find from the site.
Who was the Warrior?
Historians named the statue the Capestrano Warrior (Il Guerriero di Capestrano). Carved from a single stone block, the Warrior is over two metres (6.5 feet) high with 135cm (4.5 feet) wide shoulders. He is wearing a large disk-shaped hat with a crest, elaborate armor with protective disks and a tunic. The statue’s face features are sketchy or, according to some historians, could be covered by a shield or a funerary mask. In his hands, the Warrior is holding weapons: a sword, a dagger and an axe, which are decorated with intricate carvings of animal figures. In some places, you can clearly see marks left by the sculptor’s tools. Red pigment is still visible in some parts, which lead archaeologists to believe that the sculpture was originally painted.
“The statue clearly depicts a leader, a warrior with the armor and weapons indicating his social rank,” explains Valentina Belfiore, director of the National Archaeological Museum where the Warrior of Capestrano is displayed. “On one of the columns that support the warrior’s figure is an inscription, which in itself is a sign of distinction. It is in a paleo-Sabellic language and says something along the lines that the work is by an artisan called Aninis for a prominent member of the community, possibly a king called Nevio Pompuledio.”
The inscription, “MA KUPRI KORAM OPSUT ANI..S RAKI NEVI PO…M. II “, seems to say the work was commissioned for a king, but it is not possible to read his exact name because the letters are illegible.
“It is likely that the statue was a victim of memory damnation and voluntary destruction that we often see happen in history with the arrival of a new ruler and cultural shifts. Artefacts like the Warrior were the first ones to be destroyed because people didn’t want to see any symbols of the previous power. It could explain why the king’s name, the statue’s ankles and some other parts were damaged,” says Valentina Belfiore.
The fact that the writing on the statue is not clear leaves room for interpretations. Some historians say that Aninis is not the name of the sculptor but rather of the person who commissioned the funerary statue. A few years ago, an article in National Geographic suggested that the Warrior could be the legendary Numa Pompilio, the second king of Rome. Some have suggested that the sculpture depicts a woman rather than a man, while others, with untamed imagination, even tried to explain the inscription using Kabbalah as a proof that the Warrior might have come from space. The jury is still out but for the moment, the most widely accepted version of the translation is this: “Me, a beautiful image made Aninis for King Nevio Pompuledio.”
A strong and gentle hero
The Capestrano Warrior is one of the best-preserved sculptures from early Italic civilisations and a testimony to Abruzzo’s rich history. It has become a symbol of Abruzzo and its images can often be seen on the region’s promotional materials. The enigmatic Warrior has inspired songs, poems and books. Daniela Del Ponte, a singer and musician from Chieti who has written a book, “Io, il Guerriero” (2019, casa editrice “Il Viandante”), a fictionalised account of Nevio Pompuledio’s life narrated by himself, says that the Warrior has a strong sentimental value for the people of Abruzzo. “He was a king of Vestini tribe, part of this land’s identity, who stood tenaciously against conquerors, including the powerful Rome,” explains the author.
Her book talks about life in the ancient city of Aufinum, the Warrior’s family, friends, and the difficulties they had to face, such as harsh weather, battles, famine and epidemics. Daniela imagines what Nevio’s wedding could have been like and narrates a poignant story of his wife, Ninis, commissioning an imposing beautiful funerary statue when her husband was killed in battle. One of the most moving scenes in the book is a bear hunt, an initiation ritual marking the passage to adulthood for young Nevio: “Thunder clapped over the horizon and we could smell the wet soil at a distance. I, a small man, moved forward fearlessly, surrounded by so much beauty, ready to battle to the last drop of blood with my worst nightmare. The enormous animal was hiding somewhere, ready to fight, win or die. My spear trembled. I could feel an insolent courage growing inside me, abating my fear but, above all, it was the desire to return victorious that pushed my fragile boy’s limbs forward.”
In the book, the Capestrano Warrior is a hero of his time with an almost feminine sensibility, which echoes the modern sentiment of this land. “For us, people of Abruzzo, il Guerriero symbolises our proud, strong and gentle nature,” says Daniela Del Ponte.
By Anna Lebedeva
The article was published in the May issue of ABRUZZISSIMO Magazine