Far from the hectic urban centres and with no cosmopolitan pretensions, the peaceful town of Mantua in the western Cuban province of Pinar del Río retains memories of the days when shipwrecked Italians came looking for a permanent place to settle.
According to stories told from generation to generation in this region, some of them compiled in the late 19th Century by a priest named Nicanor Suárez Cortina, it all started sometime between 1605 and 1610 when a ship with Italian sailors smashed against the reefs at the western tip of Pinar del Río’s northern coast.
Research conducted by distinguished Cuban historians Emeterio Santovenia Echaide and Professor Enrique Pertierra Sierra indicate that the wreck of the Mantua, with Captain Anatolli Fiorenzana at the helm, occurred near the Los Arroyos port.
That’s where the shipwrecked sailors arrived in small boats and began a rough journey inland looking for a safe place to settle.
Some say that the wreck happened because the Italian sailors were trying to escape British ships pursuing them, apparently mistaking them for pirates.
The name Mantua is derived from the Italian city of Mantova in Lombardy, Italy. During the 17th Century Mantua was under the rule of the Gonzaga family, whom historians believe sent the brig Mantua to remote areas of the New World in search of riches.
Another element of the Italian origin of this picturesque village, declared a Cuban National Monument, is the large Catholic population devoted to Our Lady of the Snows, the patron saint of the Mantua ship.
According to historian Pertierra’s research, the Gonzaga family was very dedicated to Our Lady of the Snows, witnessed by her image on banners, insignias and the galleys of the fleet belonging to the Duchy.
But perhaps the most indelible Italian traces in this Cuban town are the surnames of its inhabitants. Among the baptismal certificates in the region’s churches are 13 Italian surnames, including Dolden, Quesol, Ferrari, Rizzo and Pittaluga, the most common in the Mantua region.