The Province of Cosenza in Calabria is one of the most populated provinces in Italy and covers over 44% of the area of Calabria, essentially the northern and entire central parts of the region. Calabria’s singular landscape is characterized by mountains and hills. It runs from the Ionian Coast in the east to the Tyrrhenian shores in the west and has a total of 367 miles of coastline, yet the breadth of the province is characterized by great variety, from plateaus to plains and valleys. To the south, it borders the provinces of Catanzaro and the Crotone, with the region of Basilicata to the north.
The capital of the province is also its namesake. Cosenza is an ancient town and is the seat of the Cosentian Academy, the second academy of philosophical and literary studies to be founded within the Kingdom of Naples (1511) and one of the oldest in Europe. To this day, the city remains a cultural hub in southern Italy, with museums, theaters, libraries and the University of Calabria, which in area, is the largest university campus in Italy.
The ancient town of Consentia was the capital of the Italic tribe of the Bruttii. These people fought against the influence of the Greeks onto their soil and in 331 BC, in the Battle of Pandosia, defeated Alexander the Great’s uncle, Alexander of Epirus. Over the centuries, Cosenza maintained a distinctive and independent character, even as it came under the rule of the Roman Empire. Under Emperor Augustus, it became an important stopover on the Roman route Via Popilia, which connected Calabria to Sicily.
In the centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the area was conquered by the Visigoths and then was bitterly disputed for centuries by the Saracens and the Lombards. But by the first half of the 11th century, it became a feudal dukedom of the Normans, with Cosenza as its capital. Subsequently, under the Hohenstaufen rule, the town became the seat of the Court of Calabria and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II took keen interest in the growing city, promoting construction and economic development. The Emperor was a learned man who spoke six languages, including Latin and Sicilian and was an avid patron of science and the arts. He played a major role in promoting literature in both Calabria and in Sicily. Wherever he went, Frederick left a trail of castles, including numerous ones in the province of Cosenza.
In 1500, in spite of resistance, Cosenza was occupied by the Spanish army. In 1707, the Austrians succeeded the Spanish in the Kingdom of Naples, followed by the Bourbons, but Cosenza fought hard against French domination and for decades, fought for independence that was finally reached in 1860, when Calabria joined the new Kingdom of Italy, following months of heroic efforts by Garibaldi’s troops.
There are many old, historic villages to explore in the beautiful countryside. There is the university town of Rende, Coriglian Calabro with its ancient ruins and the village of Rocca Imperial clinging to a hillside near the border of the region of Basilicata.
The city of Cosenza is situated on seven hills in the valley of Crati, where it meets the Busento River. The old city is characterized by steep and narrow alleyways and during recent years has experienced a renewed vibrancy. The historic center is one of the most beautiful and ancient in all of Italy, with monumental buildings, palazzos and a labyrinth of streets around the old buildings and churches. The new town is now an agricultural and commercial center of great importance to the region and the city is awash with cultural activities. Theatrical events are held in locations such as the traditional Teatro A. Rendano, the historic Cinemateatro Italia and the Teatro Stabile d’Innovazione of Calabria, while the Accademia Cosentina promotes cultural, artistic and scientific activities.
The Brettii Museum which officially opened in 2009 within the 15th century monumental complex of Sant’Agostino, represents the city’s cultural heart. Included in Cosenza’s cultural endowments are the Museum of the Rimembranze and the Bilotti Open-Air Museum. Situated along Corso Mazzini’s pedestrian area between Piazza Bilotti and Piazza dei Bruzi, it is dotted with works by numerous artists, including Salvador Dalí. It is named for art collector and entrepreneur Carlo Bilotti, who donated his art collection to his hometown.
The city also contains Calabria’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site – the Duomo. The first cathedral of Cosenza was built during the first half of the 11th century. It was destroyed by an earthquake in June 1184, but the rebuilding progressed steadily. It was consecrated by Emperor Frederick II in 1222, who presented a precious Stauroteca to commemorate the occasion. Visitors can still admire this reliquary containing fragments of the Cross of Christ. Over the centuries, the character was changed to Baroque, then neo-Gothic, but restoration to the original Romanesque-Benedictine style was completed in the mid-20th century. The extraordinary Baroque-style marble Bishop’s Throne that that for centuries graced the Duomo was moved to the Cathedral of Salerno in 1900, near where it had been carved by craftsmen from Campania.
The Castle of Corigliano Calabro, in the town of the same name, is a fortress dating back to the 11th century, later to become a ducal palace. It has been described as one of the most beautiful and best preserved castles in southern Italy. It was granted to the Sanseverino family in 1192, destined to become one of the richest and most powerful families of the Kingdom of Naples, who kept their power in Corigliano until 1616. Through the centuries is was expanded and made more opulent, altered in the 17th century by the Saluzzo family and in the 19th century by the Compagna family.
The castle became a national monument in 1927 and is a cultural and historical art museum. From 1988 to 2002, the castle underwent extensive renovations. Fortress-like on the exterior, its interior is one of the wonders of southern Italy. Visitors are fascinated by the tour of rooms including the Chapel of St. Augustine, the bedrooms of the baron and the baroness, the fantastic Hall of Mirrors, dining room, monk’s prison and the tower keep with its remarkable iron spiral staircase that winds up four stories through the height of the tower, each ceiling beautifully decorated with frescoes by the Florentine artist Girolamo Varni.
To the north of the province bordering Basilicata is the town of Rocca Imperiale, named for its imperial castle. The old Calabrian town sits high up on a panoramic promontory about 650 feet above sea level. Its steep winding streets lead to a massive medieval castle built by Frederick II in 1225 that overlooks the Ionian Sea and borders with Basilicata.
Rich in history and proud of its independence, the Province of Cosenza is a fantastic place to visit, whether one wants to bask in the wealth of cultural sights or simply lounge on the beautiful beaches. Perhaps the toughest question for the latter is whether to choose the Tyrrhenian or Ionian Sea, but you will be quite pleased with either.