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History and Folk Traditions
19th century Gallipoli
The Mediterranean capital of lamp oil
Its port was first in the exportation of lamp oil which reached the seaports of all Northern Europe.
In the subterranean oil mills of Gallipoli, Salento, and Terra di Bari this precious liquid was produced, the best of that age.
The special feeling with the British
by Nicolò Carnimeo
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Gallipoli (Lecce). View of the old part of the town. Photo Archivio Fotogramma

There was a time in which olive oil was as valuable as gold and the subterranean cisterns of Gallipoli were full of it, just as the mines in Klondike. We are talking about lamp oil, which was needed to light up lamps in the homes of the bourgeoisie or sumptuous chandeliers in palaces and aristocratic mansions, or it ended up in the wool mills in Great Britain or, transformed into soap, among the puffs and powders of the great ladies of Paris. Apparently from the by-products of Salento’s oil mills the famous “Marseilles kitchen soap” was made.

The olive oil from Gallipoli was the best in the Mediterranean, the most popular. Its price was fixed in Naples and London, as if nowadays it was rated on the stock exchange. From the 17th to the 19th century ships and freights crowded the port of Gallipoli, tens of them every day, loading that precious amber-colored and transparent liquid that reached the seaports in Northern Europe and from there the steppes of Russia. This was because this oil, thanks to its purity, was the only one allowed to burn, together with incense, in front of the resplendent icons in the orthodox churches in Moscow. Even the famous Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg was only lit up with the lamp oil from Gallipoli, which made less smoke as compared to other oils and apparently it gave more sheen and a particular strong light to the vast salons with mirrors and polychrome marbles. The czarina Catherine herself made an order of lamp oil and several times sent envoys to try and discover the secret.

The secret had its origin in the ancient subterranean oil mills and does not just depend on the quality of the olive trees – not only those in Salento because the oil embarked in Gallipoli came also from the Terra di Bari – but also and, above all, on the stone in the cisterns in which it was often stored for long periods. The carparo (tuff) stone filtered the oil, giving it that special pureness. When one goes down inside these ancient subterranean oil mills in the historic part of Gallipoli and strokes the rough stone, one has the impression that the scent of the olives blended with the saltiness from the sea below remains in one’s hands.

Only in the old town center of the “città bella” (the beautiful town) there were about thirty oil mills, which were often to be found beneath aristocratic palazzi. However, it was not only the production of olive oil (which in the 19th century employed about 8,000 workers from October to May) that had developed, but also a number of satellite activities, such as the production and marketing of casks, whose wood was aged in salted water so as to make it more resistant and ideal for long voyages. A rich class of craftsmen and traders established itself, which made investments in the restructuring and building of new churches. A donation of the “dockers” was the church of Santa Maria della Purità, and the lamp oil trade gave the town of Gallipoli an international atmosphere. The ships that loaded oil brought to the town all sorts of goods, which even came from the New world, from England, France, Germany, from Venice and Trieste, trays from Sheffield, Limoges porcelain, glasses from Murano, cheese from Bavaria and foreign wines. All European languages were spoken on the quays of Gallipoli and merchants and consul authorities alternated in the town, although the British were the ones to play a leading role. The trade of lamp oil was controlled from London, that exactly in Gallipoli, as in the other most important commercial towns of the age, had a vice-consul. This can explain why in Salento even today we find the descendants of numerous families with English surnames, now authentic Salentini, and that the relations between the United Kingdom and this far corner of Puglia have been close throughout the centuries. One can have a full understanding of this in the interesting book by Nicolette S. James Inglesi a Gallipoli. Sofia Stevens 1845-1876, published by Edizioni Il Grifo, in which the history of the Stevens family is retraced who for three generations had the British Consulate. In this work one reads that almost all the ships that transported oil toward the North of Europe were English and that the landing harbors were Dordrecht, Saint Petersburg, Liverpool, Falmouth, Stettin, Hamburg and Nice. The price of the lamp oil from Gallipoli was published by Tooke in London which denotes its importance. Another British family, or more precisely Scottish, that lived in Gallipoli were the Macdonalds who settled in the first half of the 18th century and their forefather Nicholas married Marianna Caracciolo. These English people worked as translators in oil commercial transactions. Thus, thanks to lamp oil one can write or perhaps rewrite a piece of the history of Gallipoli or one can simply look with different or more understanding eyes at the fascinating old part of the town, the quays of a port that for centuries was one of the busiest in the Mediterranean.

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