Part 1 out of 7
BY NORMAN DOUGLAS
I. SARACEN LUCERA
II. MANFRED'S TOWN
III. THE ANGEL OF MANFREDONIA
V. LAND OF HORACE
VI. AT VENOSA
VII. THE BANDUSIAN FOUNT
VIII. TILLERS OF THE SOIL
IX. MOVING SOUTHWARDS
X. THE FLYING MONK
XI. BY THE INLAND SEA
XII. MOLLE TARENTUM
XIII. INTO THE JUNGLE
XVI. REPOSING AT CASTROVILLARI
XVII. OLD MORANO
XVIII. AFRICAN INTRUDERS
XIX. UPLANDS OF POLLINO
XX. A MOUNTAIN FESTIVAL
XXI. MILTON IN CALABRIA
XXII. THE "GREEK" SILA
XXIII. ALBANIANS AND THEIR COLLEGE
XXIV. AN ALBANIAN SEER
XXV. SCRAMBLING TO LONGOBUCCO
XXVI. AMONG THE BRUTTIANS
XXVII. CALABRIAN BRIGANDAGE
XXVIII. THE GREATER SILA
XXX. THE SKIRTS OF MONTALTO
XXXI. SOUTHERN SAINTLINESS
XXXII. ASPROMONTE, THE CLOUD-GATHERER
XXXIII. MUSOLINO AND THE LAW
XXXV. CAULONIA TO SERRA
XXXVI. MEMORIES OF GISSING
XXXVIII. THE SAGE OF CROTON
XXXIX. MIDDAY AT PETELIA
XL. THE COLUMN
I find it hard to sum up in one word the character of Lucera--the effect
it produces on the mind; one sees so many towns that the freshness of
their images becomes blurred. The houses are low but not undignified;
the streets regular and clean; there is electric light and somewhat
indifferent accommodation for travellers; an infinity of barbers and
chemists. Nothing remarkable in all this. Yet the character is there, if
one could but seize upon it, since every place has its genius. Perhaps
it lies in a certain feeling of aloofness that never leaves one here. We
are on a hill--a mere wave of ground; a kind of spur, rather, rising up
from, the south--quite an absurd little hill, but sufficiently high to
dominate the wide Apulian plain. And the nakedness of the land
stimulates this aerial sense. There are some trees in the "Belvedere" or
public garden that lies on the highest part of the spur and affords a
fine view north and eastwards. But the greater part were only planted a
few years ago, and those stretches of brown earth, those half-finished
walks and straggling pigmy shrubs, give the place a crude and embryonic
appearance. One thinks that the designers might have done more in the
way of variety; there are no conifers excepting a few cryptomerias and
yews which will all be dead in a couple of years, and as for those
yuccas, beloved of Italian municipalities, they will have grown more
dyspeptic-looking than ever. None the less, the garden will be a
pleasant spot when the ilex shall have grown higher; even now it is the
favourite evening walk of the citizens. Altogether, these public parks,
which are now being planted all over south Italy, testify to renascent
taste; they and the burial-places are often the only spots where the
deafened and light-bedazzled stranger may find a little green
content; the content, respectively, of _L'Allegro_ and _Il Penseroso._
So the cemetery of Lucera, with its ordered walks drowned in the shade
of cypress--roses and gleaming marble monuments in between--is a
charming retreat, not only for the dead.
The Belvedere, however, is not my promenade. My promenade lies yonder,
on the other side of the valley, where the grave old Suabian castle sits
on its emerald slope. It does not frown; it reposes firmly, with an air
of tranquil and assured domination; "it has found its place," as an
Italian observed to me. Long before Frederick Barbarossa made it the
centre of his southern dominions, long before the Romans had their
fortress on the site, this eminence must have been regarded as the key
of Apulia. All round the outside of those turreted walls (they are
nearly a mile in circumference; the enclosure, they say, held sixty
thousand people) there runs a level space. This is my promenade, at all
hours of the day. Falcons are fluttering with wild cries overhead; down
below, a long unimpeded vista of velvety green, flecked by a few trees
and sullen streamlets and white farmhouses--the whole vision framed in a
ring of distant Apennines. The volcanic cone of Mount Vulture, land of
Horace, can be detected on clear days; it tempts me to explore those
regions. But eastward rises up the promontory of Mount Gargano, and on
the summit of its nearest hill one perceives a cheerful building, some
village or convent, that beckons imperiously across the intervening
lowlands. Yonder lies the venerable shrine of the archangel Michael, and
Manfred's town. . . .
This castle being a _national monument,_ they have appointed a custodian
to take charge of it; a worthless old fellow, full of untruthful
information which he imparts with the hushed and conscience-stricken air
of a man who is selling State secrets.
"That corner tower, sir, is the King's tower. It was built by the King."
"But you said just now that it was the Queen's tower."
"So it is. The Queen--she built it."
"What Queen? Why, the Queen--the Queen the German professor was talking
about three years ago. But I must show you some skulls which we found
_(sotto voce)_ in a subterranean crypt. They used to throw the poor dead
folk in here by hundreds; and under the Bourbons the criminals were
hanged here, thousands of them. The blessed times! And this tower is the
"But you called it the King's tower just now."
"Just so. That is because the King built it."
"Ah, sir, how can I remember the names of all those gentlemen? I haven't
so much as set eyes on them! But I must now show you some round
sling-stones which we excavated _(sotto voce)_ in a subterranean crypt----"
One or two relics from this castle are preserved in the small municipal
museum, founded about five years ago. Here are also a respectable
collection of coins, a few prehistoric flints from Gargano, some quaint
early bronze figurines and mutilated busts of Roman celebrities carved
in marble or the recalcitrant local limestone. A dignified old lion--one
of a pair (the other was stolen) that adorned the tomb of Aurelius,
prastor of the Roman Colony of Luceria--has sought a refuge here, as
well as many inscriptions, lamps, vases, and a miscellaneous collection
of modern rubbish. A plaster cast of a Mussulman funereal stone, found
near Foggia, will attract your eye; contrasted with the fulsome epitaphs
of contemporary Christianity, it breathes a spirit of noble resignation:--
"In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate. May God show
kindness to Mahomet and his kinsfolk, fostering them by his favours!
This is the tomb of the captain Jacchia Albosasso. God be merciful to
him. He passed away towards noon on Saturday in the five days of the
month Moharram of the year 745 (5th April, 1348). May Allah likewise
show mercy to him who reads."
One cannot be at Lucera without thinking of that colony of twenty
thousand Saracens, the escort of Frederick and his son, who lived here
for nearly eighty years, and sheltered Manfred in his hour of danger.
The chronicler Spinelli [Footnote: These journals are now admitted to
have been manufactured in the sixteenth century by the historian
Costanze for certain genealogical purposes of his own. Professor
Bernhard! doubted their authenticity in 1869, and his doubts have been
confirmed by Capasse.] has preserved an anecdote which shows Manfred's
infatuation for these loyal aliens. In the year 1252 and in the
sovereign's presence, a Saracen official gave a blow to a Neapolitan
knight--a blow which was immediately returned; there was a tumult, and
the upshot of it was that the Italian was condemned to lose his hand;
all that the Neapolitan nobles could obtain from Manfred was that his
left hand should be amputated instead of his right; the Arab, the cause
of all, was merely relieved of his office. Nowadays, all memory of
Saracens has been swept out of the land. In default of anything better,
they are printing a local halfpenny paper called "II Saraceno"--a very
innocuous pagan, to judge by a copy which I bought in a reckless moment.
This museum also contains a buxom angel of stucco known as the "Genius
of Bourbonism." In the good old days it used to ornament the town hall,
fronting the entrance; but now, degraded to a museum curiosity, it
presents to the public its back of ample proportions, and the curator
intimated that he considered this attitude quite appropriate--
historically speaking, of course. Furthermore, they have carted
hither, from the Chamber of Deputies in Rome, the chair once
occupied by Ruggiero Bonghi. Dear Bonghi! From a sense of duty he used
to visit a certain dull and pompous house in the capital and forthwith
fall asleep on the nearest sofa; he slept sometimes for two hours at a
stretch, while all the other visitors were solemnly marched to the spot
to observe him--behold the great Bonghi: he slumbers! There is a statue
erected to him here, and a street has likewise been named after another
celebrity, Giovanni Bovio. If I informed the townsmen of my former
acquaintance with these two heroes, they would perhaps put up a marble
tablet commemorating the fact. For the place is infected with the
patriotic disease of monumentomania. The drawback is that with every
change of administration the streets are re-baptized and the statues
shifted to make room for new favourites; so the civic landmarks come and
go, with the swiftness of a cinematograph.
Frederick II also has his street, and so has Pietjo Giannone. This
smacks of anti-clericalism. But to judge by the number of priests and
the daily hordes of devout and dirty pilgrims that pour into the town
from the fanatical fastnesses of the Abruzzi--picturesque, I suppose we
should call them--the country is sufficiently orthodox. Every
self-respecting family, they tell me, has its pet priest, who lives on
them in return for spiritual consolations.
There was a religious festival some nights ago in honour of Saint
Espedito. No one could tell me more about this holy man than that he was
a kind of pilgrim-warrior, and that his cult here is of recent date; it
was imported or manufactured some four years ago by a rich merchant who,
tired of the old local saints, built a church in honour of this new one,
and thereby enrolled him among the city gods.
On this occasion the square was seething with people: few
women, and the men mostly in dark clothes; we are already under Moorish
and Spanish influences. A young boy addressed me with the polite
question whether I could tell him the precise number of the population
That depended, I said, on what one described as London. There was what
they called greater London--
It depended! That was what he had always been given to understand. . . .
And how did I like Lucera? Rather a dull little place, was it not?
Nothing like Paris, of course. Still, if I could delay my departure for
some days longer, they would have the trial of a man who had murdered
three people: it might be quite good fun. He was informed that they
hanged such persons in England, as they used to do hereabouts; it seemed
rather barbaric, because, naturally, nobody is ever responsible for his
actions; but in England, no doubt--
That is the normal attitude of these folks towards us and our
institutions. We are savages, hopeless savages; but a little savagery,
after all, is quite endurable. Everything is endurable if you have lots
of money, like these English.
As for myself, wandering among that crowd of unshaven creatures, that
rustic population, fiercely gesticulating and dressed in slovenly hats
and garments, I realized once again what the average Anglo-Saxon would
ask himself: Are they _all_ brigands, or only some of them? That music,
too--what is it that makes this stuff so utterly unpalatable to a
civilized northerner? A soulless cult of rhythm, and then, when the
simplest of melodies emerges, they cling to it with the passionate
delight of a child who has discovered the moon. These men are still in
the age of platitudes, so far as music is concerned; an infantile aria
is to them what some foolish rhymed proverb is to the Arabs: a thing of
God, a portent, a joy for ever.
You may visit the cathedral; there is a fine _verde antico_ column on
either side of the sumptuous main portal. I am weary, just now, of these
structures; the spirit of pagan Lucera--"Lucera dei Pagani" it used to
be called--has descended upon me; I feel inclined to echo Carducci's
"_Addio, nume semitico!_" One sees so many of these sombre churches,
and they are all alike in their stony elaboration of mysticism and
wrong-headedness; besides, they have been described, over and over
again, by enthusiastic connaisseurs who dwell lovingly upon their
artistic quaintnesses but forget the grovelling herd that reared them,
with the lash at their backs, or the odd type of humanity--the gargoyle
type--that has since grown up under their shadow and influence.
I prefer to return to the sun and stars, to my promenade beside
the castle walls.
But for the absence of trees and hedges, one might take this to be some
English prospect of the drowsy Midland counties--so green it is, so
golden-grey the sky. The sunlight peers down dispersedly through windows
in this firmament of clouded amber, alighting on some mouldering tower,
some patch of ripening corn or distant city--Troia, lapped in Byzantine
slumber, or San Severo famed in war. This in spring. But what days of
glistering summer heat, when the earth is burnt to cinders under a
heavenly dome that glows like a brazier of molten copper! For this
country is the Sahara of Italy.
One is glad, meanwhile, that the castle does not lie in the natal land
of the Hohenstaufen. The interior is quite deserted, to be sure; they
have built half the town of Lucera with its stones, even as Frederick
quarried them out of the early Roman citadel beneath; but it is at least
a harmonious desolation. There are no wire-fenced walks among the ruins,
no feeding-booths and cheap reconstructions of draw-bridges and
police-notices at every corner; no gaudy women scribbling to their
friends in the "Residenzstadt" post cards illustrative of the
"Burgruine," while their husbands perspire over mastodontic beer-jugs.
There is only peace.
These are the delights of Lucera: to sit under those old walls and watch
the gracious cloud-shadows dappling the plain, oblivious of yonder
assemblage of barbers and politicians. As for those who can reconstruct
the vanished glories of such a place--happy they! I find the task
increasingly difficult. One outgrows the youthful age of hero-worship;
next, our really keen edges are so soon worn off by mundane trivialities
and vexations that one is glad to take refuge in simpler pleasures once
more--to return to primitive emotionalism. There are so many Emperors of
past days! And like the old custodian, I have not so much as set eyes on
Yet this Frederick is no dim figure; he looms grandly through the
intervening haze. How well one understands that craving for the East,
nowadays; how modern they were, he and his son the "Sultan of Lucera,"
and their friends and counsellors, who planted this garden of exotic
culture! Was it some afterglow of the luminous world that had sunk below
the horizon, or a pale streak of the coming dawn? And if you now glance
down into this enclosure that once echoed with the song of minstrels
and the soft laughter of women, with the discourse of wits, artists and
philosophers, and the clang of arms--if you look, you will behold
nothing but a green lake, a waving field of grass. No matter. The
ambitions of these men are fairly realized, and every one of us may keep
a body-guard of pagans, an't please him; and a harem likewise--to judge
by the newspapers.
For he took his Orientalism seriously; he had a harem, with eunuchs,
etc., all proper, and was pleased to give an Eastern colour to his
entertainments. Matthew Paris relates how Frederick's brother-in-law,
returning from the Holy Land, rested awhile at his Italian court, and
saw, among other diversions, "duas puellas Saracenicas formosas, quae in
pavimenti planitie binis globis insisterent, volutisque globis huo
illucque ferrentur canentes, cymbala manibus collidentes, corporaque
secundum modules motantes atque flectentes." I wish I had been there. . . .
I walked to the castle yesterday evening on the chance of seeing an
eclipse of the moon which never came, having taken place at quite
another hour. A cloudless night, dripping with moisture, the electric
lights of distant Foggia gleaming in the plain. There are brick-kilns at
the foot of the incline, and from some pools in the neighbourhood issued
a loud croaking of frogs, while the pallid smoke of the furnaces,
pressed down by the evening dew, trailed earthward in a long twisted
wreath, like a dragon crawling sulkily to his den. But on the north side
one could hear the nightingales singing in the gardens below. The dark
mass of Mount Gargano rose up clearly in the moonlight, and I began to
sketch out some itinerary of my wanderings on that soil. There was Sant'
Angelo, the archangel's abode; and the forest region; and Lesina with
its lake; and Vieste the remote, the end of all things. . . .
Then my thoughts wandered to the Hohenstaufen and the conspiracy whereby
their fate was avenged. The romantic figures of Manfred and Conradin;
their relentless enemy Charles; Costanza, her brow crowned with a poetic
nimbus (that melted, towards the end, into an aureole of bigotry);
Frangipani, huge in villainy; the princess Beatrix, tottering from the
dungeon where she had been confined for nearly twenty years; her
deliverer Roger de Lauria, without whose resourcefulness and audacity it
might have gone ill with Aragon; Popes and Palaso-logus--brilliant
colour effects; the king of England and Saint Louis of France; in the
background, dimly discernible, the colossal shades of Frederick and
Innocent, looked in deadly embrace; and the whole congress of figures
enlivened and interpenetrated as by some electric fluid--the personality
of John of Procida. That the element of farce might not be lacking, Fate
contrived that exquisite royal duel at Bordeaux where the two mighty
potentates, calling each other by a variety of unkingly epithets,
enacted a prodigiously fine piece of foolery for the delectation of
From this terrace one can overlook both Foggia and Castel
Fiorentino--the beginning and end of the drama; and one follows the
march of this magnificent retribution without a shred of compassion for
the gloomy papal hireling. Disaster follows disaster with mathematical
precision, till at last he perishes miserably, consumed by rage and
despair. Then our satisfaction is complete.
No; not quite complete. For in one point the stupendous plot seems to
have been imperfectly achieved. Why did Roger de Lauria not profit by
his victory to insist upon the restitution of the young brothers of
Beatrix, of those unhappy princes who had been confined as infants in
1266, and whose very existence seems to have faded from the memory of
historians? Or why did Costanza, who might have dealt with her enemy's
son even as Conradin had been dealt with, not round her magnanimity by
claiming her own flesh and blood, the last scions of a great house? Why
were they not released during the subsequent peace, or at least in 1302?
The reason is as plain as it is unlovely; nobody knew what to do with
them. Political reasons counselled their effacement, their
non-existence. Horrible thought, that the sunny world should be too
small for three orphan children! In their Apulian fastness they
remained--in chains. A royal rescript of 1295 orders that they be freed
from their fetters. Thirty years in fetters! Their fate is unknown; the
night of medievalism closes in upon them once more. . . .
Further musings were interrupted by the appearance of a shape which
approached from round the corner of one of the towers. It cams nearer
stealthily, pausing every now and then. Had I evoked, willy-nilly, some
phantom of the buried past?
It was only the custodian, leading his dog Musolino. After a shower of
compliments and apologies, he gave me to understand that it was his
duty, among other things, to see that no one should endeavour to raise
the treasure which was hidden under these ruins; several people, he
explained, had already made the attempt by night. For the rest, I was
quite at liberty to take my pleisure about the castle at all hours. But
as to touching the buried hoard, it was _proibito_--forbidden!
I was glad of the incident, which conjured up for me the Oriental mood
with its genii and subterranean wealth. Straightway this incongruous and
irresponsible old buffoon was invested with a new dignity; transformed
into a threatening Ifrit, the guardian of the gold, or--who
knows?--Iblis incarnate. The gods take wondrous shapes, sometimes.
As the train moved from Lucera to Foggia and thence onwards, I had
enjoyed myself rationally, gazing at the emerald plain of Apulia, soon
to be scorched to ashes, but now richly dight with the yellow flowers of
the giant fennel, with patches of ruby-red poppy and asphodels pale and
shadowy, past their prime. I had thought upon the history of this
immense tract of country--upon all the floods of legislation and
theorizings to which its immemorial customs of pasturage have given
birth. . . .
Then, suddenly, the aspect of life seemed to change. I felt unwell, and
so swift was the transition from health that I had wantonly thrown out
of the window, beyond recall, a burning cigar ere realizing that it was
only a little more than half smoked. We were crossing the Calendaro, a
sluggish stream which carefully collects all the waters of this region
only to lose them again in a swamp not far distant; and it was
positively as if some impish sprite had leapt out of those noisome
waves, boarded the train, and flung himself into me, after the fashion
of the "Horla" in the immortal tale.
Doses of quinine such as would make an English doctor raise his eyebrows
have hitherto only succeeded in provoking the Calendaro microbe to more
virulent activity. Nevertheless, _on s'y fait._ I am studying him and,
despite his protean manifestations, have discovered three principal
ingredients: malaria, bronchitis and hay-fever--not your ordinary
hay-fever, oh, no! but such as a mammoth might conceivably catch, if
thrust back from his germless, frozen tundras into the damply blossoming
The landlady of this establishment has a more commonplace name for the
distemper. She calls it "scirocco." And certainly this pest of the south
blows incessantly; the mountain-line of Gargano is veiled, the sea's
horizon veiled, the coast-lands of Apulia veiled by its tepid and
unwholesome breath. To cheer me up, she says that on clear days one can
see Castel del Monte, the Hohenstaufen eyrie, shining yonder above
Barletta, forty miles distant. It sounds rather improbable; still,
yesterday evening there arose a sudden vision of a white town in that
direction, remote and dream-like, far across the water. Was it Barletta?
Or Margherita? It lingered awhile, poised on an errant sunbeam; then
sank into the deep.
From this window I look into the little harbour whose beach is dotted
with fishing-boats. Some twenty or thirty sailing-vessels are riding at
anchor; in the early morning they unfurl their canvas and sally forth,
in amicable couples, to scour the azure deep--it is greenish-yellow at
this moment--returning at nightfall with the spoils of ocean, mostly
young sharks, to judge by the display in the market. Their white sails
bear fabulous devices in golden colour of moons and crescents and
dolphins; some are marked like the "orange-tip" butterfly. A gunboat is
now stationed here on a mysterious errand connected with the Albanian
rising on the other side of the Adriatic. There has been whispered talk
of illicit volunteering among the youth on this side, which the
government is anxious to prevent. And to enliven the scene, a steamer
calls every now and then to take passengers to the Tremiti islands. One
would like to visit them, if only in memory of those martyrs of
Bourbonism, who were sent in hundreds to these rocks and cast into
dungeons to perish. I have seen such places; they are vast caverns
artificially excavated below the surface of the earth; into these the
unfortunates were lowered and left to crawl about and rot, the living
mingled with the dead. To this day they find mouldering skeletons,
loaded with heavy iron chains and ball-weights.
A copious spring gushes up on this beach and flows into the sea. It is
sadly neglected. Were I tyrant of Manfredonia, I would build me a fair
marble fountain here, with a carven assemblage of nymphs and
sea-monsters spouting water from their lusty throats, and plashing in
its rivulets. It may well be that the existence of this fount helped to
decide Manfred in his choice of a site for his city; such springs are
rare in this waterless land. And from this same source, very likely, is
derived the local legend of Saint Lorenzo and the Dragon, which is quite
independent of that of Saint Michael the dragon-killer on the heights
above us. These venerable water-spirits, these _dracs,_ are interesting
beasts who went through many metamorphoses ere attaining their present
Manfredonia lies on a plain sloping very gently seawards--practically
a dead level, and in one of the hottest districts of Italy. Yet, for
some obscure reason, there is no street along the sea itself; the
cross-roads end in abrupt squalor at the shore. One wonders what
considerations--political, aesthetic or hygienic--prevented the
designers of the town from carrying out its general principles of
construction and building a decent promenade by the waves, where the ten
thousand citizens could take the air in the breathless summer evenings,
instead of being cooped up, as they now are, within stifling hot walls.
The choice of Man-fredonia as a port does not testify to any great
foresight on the part of its founder--peace to his shade! It will for
ever slumber in its bay, while commerce passes beyond its reach; it will
for ever be malarious with the marshes of Sipontum at its edges. But
this particular defect of the place is not Manfred's fault, since the
city was razed to the ground by the Turks in 1620, and then built up
anew; built up, says Lenormant, according to the design of the old city.
Perhaps a fear of other Corsair raids induced the constructors to adhere
to the old plan, by which the place could be more easily defended. Not
much of Man-fredonia seems to have been completed when Pacicchelli's
view (1703) was engraved.
Speaking of the weather, the landlady further told me that the wind blew
so hard three months ago--"during that big storm in the winter, don't
you remember?"--that it broke all the iron lamp-posts between the town
and the station. Now here was a statement sounding even more improbable
than her other one about Castel del Monte, but admitting of
verification. Wheezing and sneezing, I crawled forth, and found it
correct. It must have been a respectable gale, since the cast-iron
supports are snapped in half, every one of them.
Those Turks, by the way, burnt the town on that memorable occasion. That
was a common occurrence in those days. Read any account of their
incursions into Italy during this and the preceding centuries, and you
will find that the corsairs burnt the towns whenever they had time to
set them alight. They could not burn them nowadays, and this points to a
total change in economic conditions. Wood was cut down so heedlessly
that it became too scarce for building purposes, and stone took its
place. This has altered domestic architecture; it has changed the
landscape, denuding the hill-sides that were once covered with timber;
it has impoverished the country by converting fruitful plains into
marshes or arid tracts of stone swept by irregular and intermittent
floods; it has modified, if I mistake not, the very character of the
people. The desiccation of the climate has entailed a desiccation of
Muratori has a passage somewhere in his "Antiquities" regarding the old
method of construction and the wooden shingles, _scandulae,_ in use for
roofing--I must look it up, if ever I reach civilized regions again.
At the municipality, which occupies the spacious apartments of a former
Dominican convent, they will show you the picture of a young girl, one
of the Beccarmi family, who was carried off at a tender age in one of
these Turkish raids, and subsequently became "Sultana." Such captive
girls generally married sultans--or ought to have married them; the wish
being father to the thought. But the story is disputed; rightly, I
think. For the portrait is painted in the French manner, and it is
hardly likely that a harem-lady would have been exhibited to a European
artist. The legend goes on to say that she was afterwards liberated by
the Knights of Malta, together with her Turkish son who, as was meet and
proper, became converted to Christianity and died a monk. The Beccarmi
family (of Siena, I fancy) might find some traces of her in their
archives. _Ben trovato,_ at all events. When one looks at the pretty
portrait, one cannot blame any kind of "Sultan" for feeling
well-disposed towards the original.
The weather has shown some signs of improvement and tempted me, despite
the persistent "scirocco" mood, to a few excursions into the
neighbourhood. But there seem to be no walks hereabouts, and the hills,
three miles distant, are too remote for my reduced vitality. The
intervening region is a plain of rock carved so smoothly, in places, as
to appear artificially levelled with the chisel; large tracts of it are
covered with the Indian fig (cactus). In the shade of these grotesque
growths lives a dainty flora: trembling grasses of many kinds, rue,
asphodel, thyme, the wild asparagus, a diminutive blue iris, as well as
patches of saxifrage that deck the stone with a brilliant enamel of red
and yellow. This wild beauty makes one think how much better the
graceful wrought-iron balconies of the town would look if enlivened with
blossoms, with pendent carnations or pelargonium; but there is no great
display of these things; the deficiency of water is a characteristic of
the place; it is a flowerless and songless city. The only good
drinking-water is that which is bottled at the mineral springs of Monte
Vulture and sold cheaply enough all over the country. And the mass of
the country people have small charm of feature. Their faces seem to have
been chopped with a hatchet into masks of sombre virility; a hard life
amid burning limestone deserts is reflected in their countenances.
None the less, they have a public garden; even more immature than that
of Lucera, but testifying to greater taste. Its situation, covering a
forlorn semicircular tract of ground about the old Anjou castle, is _a
priori_ a good one. But when the trees are fully grown, it will be
impossible to see this fine ruin save at quite close quarters--just
across the moat.
I lamented this fact to a solitary gentleman who was strolling about
here and who replied, upon due deliberation:
"One cannot have everything."
Then he added, as a suggestive afterthought:
"Inasmuch as one thing sometimes excludes another."
I pause, to observe parenthetically that this habit of uttering
platitudes in the grand manner as though disclosing an idea of vital
novelty (which Charles Lamb, poor fellow, thought peculiar to natives of
Scotland) is as common among Italians as among Englishmen. But veiled in
sonorous Latinisms, the staleness of such remarks assumes an air of
"For my part," he went on, warming to his theme, "I am thoroughly
satisfied. Who will complain of the trees? Only a few makers of bad
pictures. They can go elsewhere. Our country, dear sir, is _encrusted,_
with old castles and other feudal absurdities, and if I had the
management of things----"
The sentence was not concluded, for at that moment his hat was blown off
by a violent gust of wind, and flew merrily over beds of flowering
marguerites in the direction of the main street, while he raced after
it, vanishing in a cloud of dust. The chase must have been long and
arduous; he never returned.
Wandering about the upper regions of this fortress whose chambers are
now used as a factory of cement goods and a refuge for some poor
families, I espied a good pre-renaissance relief of Saint Michael and
the dragon immured in the masonry, and overhung by the green leaves of
an exuberant wild fig that has thrust its roots into the sturdy old
walls. Here, at Manfredonia, we are already under the shadow of the holy
mountain and the archangel's wings, but the usual representations of him
are childishly emasculate--the negation of his divine and heroic
character. This one portrays a genuine warrior-angel of the old type:
grave and grim. Beyond this castle and the town-walls, which are best
preserved on the north side, nothing in Manfredonia is older than 1620.
There is a fine _campanile,_ but the cathedral looks like a shed for
Along the streets, little red flags are hanging out of the houses, at
frequent intervals: signals of harbourage for the parched wayfarer.
Within, you behold a picturesque confusion of rude chairs set among
barrels and vats full of dark red wine where, amid Rembrandtesque
surroundings, you can get as drunk as a lord for sixpence. Blithe oases!
It must be delightful, in summer, to while away the sultry hours in
their hospitable twilight; even at this season they seem to be extremely
popular resorts, throwing a new light on those allusions by classical
authors to "thirsty Apulia."
But on many of the dwellings I noticed another symbol: an ominous blue
metal tablet with a red cross, bearing the white-lettered words
Was it some anti-burglary association? I enquired of a serious-looking
individual who happened to be passing.
His answer did not help to clear up matters.
"A pure job, _signore mio_, a_ pure job! There is a society in Cerignola
or somewhere, a society which persuades the various town
councils--_persuades_ them, you understand----"
He ended abruptly, with the gesture of paying out money between his
finger and thumb. Then he sadly shook his head.
I sought for more light on this cryptic utterance; in vain. What were
the facts, I persisted? Did certain householders subscribe to keep a
guardian on their premises at night--what had the municipalities to do
with it--was there much house-breaking in Manfredonia, and, if so, had
this association done anything to check it? And for how long had the
institution been established?
But the mystery grew ever darker. After heaving a deep sigh, he
condescended to remark:
"The usual camorra! Eat--eat; from father to son. Eat--eat! That's all
they think about, the brood of assassins. . . . Just look at them!"
I glanced down the street and beheld a venerable gentleman of kindly
aspect who approached slowly, leaning on the arm of a fair-haired
youth--his grandson, I supposed. He wore a long white beard, and an air
of apostolic detachment from the affairs of this world. They came
nearer. The boy was listening, deferentially, to some remark of the
elder; his lips were parted in attention and his candid, sunny face
would have rejoiced the heart of della Robbia. They passed within a few
feet of me, lovingly engrossed in one another.
"Well?" I queried, turning to my informant and anxious to learn what
misdeeds could be laid to the charge of such godlike types of humanity.
But that person was no longer at my side. He had quietly withdrawn
himself, in the interval; he had evanesced, "moved on."
An oracular and elusive citizen. ...
THE ANGEL OF MANFREDONIA
Whoever looks at a map of the Gargano promontory will see that it is
besprinkled with Greek names of persons and places--Matthew, Mark,
Nikander, Onofrius, Pirgiano (Pyrgos) and so forth. Small wonder, for
these eastern regions were in touch with Constantinople from early days,
and the spirit of Byzance still hovers over them. It was on this
mountain that the archangel Michael, during his first flight to Western
Europe, deigned to appear to a Greek bishop of Sipontum, Laurentius by
name; and ever since that time a certain cavern, sanctified by the
presence of this winged messenger of God, has been the goal of millions
The fastness of Sant' Angelo, metropolis of European angel-worship, has
grown up around this "devout and honourable cave"; on sunny days its
houses are clearly visible from Man-fredonia. They who wish to pay their
devotions at the shrine cannot do better than take with them
Gregorovius, as cicerone and mystagogue.
Vainly I waited for a fine day to ascend the heights. At last I
determined to have done with the trip, be the weather what it might. A
coachman was summoned and negotiations entered upon for starting next
Sixty-five francs, he began by telling me, was the price paid by an
Englishman last year for a day's visit to the sacred mountain. It may
well be true--foreigners will do anything, in Italy. Or perhaps it was
only said to "encourage" me. But I am rather hard to encourage,
nowadays. I reminded the man that there was a diligence service there
and back for a franc and a half, and even that price seemed rather
extortionate. I had seen so many holy grottos in my life! And who, after
all, was this Saint Michael? The Eternal Father, perchance? Nothing of
the kind: just an ordinary angel! We had dozens of them, in England.
Fortunately, I added, I had already received an offer to join one of the
private parties who drive up, fourteen or fifteen persons behind
one diminutive pony--and that, as he well knew, would be a matter of
only a few pence. And even then, the threatening sky . . . Yes, on
second thoughts, it was perhaps wisest to postpone the excursion
altogether. Another day, if God wills! Would he accept this cigar as a
recompense for his trouble in coming?
In dizzy leaps and bounds his claims fell to eight francs. It was the
tobacco that worked the wonder; a gentleman who will give _something for
nothing_ (such was his logic)--well, you never know what you may not get
out of him. Agree to his price, and chance it!
He consigned the cigar to his waistcoat pocket to smoke after dinner,
and departed--vanquished, but inwardly beaming with bright anticipation.
A wretched morning was disclosed as I drew open the shutters--gusts of
rain and sleet beating against the window-panes. No matter: the carriage
stood below, and after that customary and hateful apology for breakfast
which suffices to turn the thoughts of the sanest man towards themes of
suicide and murder--when will southerners learn to eat a proper
breakfast at proper hours?--we started on our journey. The sun came out
in visions of tantalizing briefness, only to be swallowed up again in
driving murk, and of the route we traversed I noticed only the old stony
track that cuts across the twenty-one windings of the new carriage-road
here and there. I tried to picture to myself the Norman princes, the
emperors, popes, and other ten thousand pilgrims of celebrity crawling
up these rocky slopes--barefoot--on such a day as this. It must have
tried the patience even of Saint Francis of Assisi, who pilgrimaged with
the rest of them and, according to Pontanus, performed a little miracle
here _en passant,_ as was his wont.
After about three hours' driving we reached the town of Sant' Angelo. It
was bitterly cold at this elevation of 800 metres. Acting on the advice
of the coachman, I at once descended into the sanctuary; it would be
warm down there, he thought. The great festival of 8 May was over, but
flocks of worshippers were still arriving, and picturesquely pagan they
looked in grimy, tattered garments--their staves tipped with
pine-branches and a scrip.
In the massive bronze doors of the chapel, that were made at
Constantinople in 1076 for a rich citizen of Amalfi, metal rings are
inserted; these, like a true pilgrim, you must clash furiously, to call
the attention of the Powers within to your visit; and on issuing, you
must once more knock as hard as you can, in order that the consummation
of your act of worship may be duly reported: judging by the noise made,
the deity must be very hard of hearing. Strangely deaf they are,
The twenty-four panels of these doors are naively encrusted with
representations, in enamel, of angel-apparitions of many kinds; some of
them are inscribed, and the following is worthy of note:
"I beg and implore the priests of Saint Michael to cleanse these gates
once a year as I have now shown them, in order that they may be always
bright and shining." The recommendation has plainly not been carried out
for a good many years past.
Having entered the portal, you climb down a long stairway amid swarms of
pious, foul clustering beggars to a vast cavern, the archangel's abode.
It is a natural recess in the rock, illuminated by candles. Here divine
service is proceeding to the accompaniment of cheerful operatic airs
from an asthmatic organ; the water drops ceaselessly from the rocky
vault on to the devout heads of kneeling worshippers that cover the
floor, lighted candle in hand, rocking themselves ecstatically and
droning and chanting. A weird scene, in truth. And the coachman was
quite right in his surmise as to the difference in temperature. It is
hot down here, damply hot, as in an orchid-house. But the aroma cannot
be described as a floral emanation: it is the _bouquet,_ rather, of
thirteen centuries of unwashed and perspiring pilgrims. "TERRIBILIS EST
LOCUS ISTE," says an inscription over the entrance of the shrine. Very
true. In places like this one understands the uses, and possibly the
origin, of incense.
I lingered none the less, and my thoughts went back to the East, whence
these mysterious practices are derived. But an Oriental crowd of
worshippers does not move me like these European masses of fanaticism; I
can never bring myself to regard without a certain amount of disquietude
such passionate pilgrims. Give them their new Messiah, and all our
painfully accumulated art and knowledge, all that reconciles civilized
man to earthly existence, is blown to the winds. Society can deal with
its criminals. Not they, but fond enthusiasts such as these, are the
menace to its stability. Bitter reflections; but then--the drive upward
had chilled my human sympathies, and besides--that so-called breakfast.
. . .
The grovelling herd was left behind. I ascended the stairs and,
profiting by a gleam of sunshine, climbed up to where, above the town,
there stands a proud aerial ruin known as the "Castle of
the Giant." On one of its stones is inscribed the date 1491--a certain
Queen of Naples, they say, was murdered within those now crumbling
walls. These sovereigns were murdered in so many castles that one
wonders how they ever found time to be alive at all. The structure is a
wreck and its gateway closed up; nor did I feel any great inclination,
in that icy blast of wind, to investigate the roofless interior.
I was able to observe, however, that this "feudal absurdity" bears a
number like any inhabited house of Sant' Angelo--it is No. 3.
This is the latest pastime of the Italian Government: to re-number
dwellings throughout the kingdom; and not only human habitations, but
walls, old ruins, stables, churches, as well as an occasional door-post
and window. They are having no end of fun over the game, which promises
to keep them amused for any length of time--in fact, until the next
craze is invented. Meanwhile, so long as the fit lasts, half a million
bright-eyed officials, burning with youthful ardour, are employed in
affixing these numerals, briskly entering them into ten times as many
note-books and registering them into thousands of municipal archives,
all over the country, for some inscrutable but hugely important
administrative purposes. "We have the employes," as a Roman deputy once
told me, "and therefore: they must find some occupation."
Altogether, the weather this day sadly impaired my appetite for research
and exploration. On the way to the castle I had occasion to admire the
fine tower and to regret that there seemed to exist no coign of vantage
from which it could fairly be viewed; I was struck, also, by the number
of small figures of Saint Michael of an ultra-youthful, almost
infantile, type; and lastly, by certain clean-shaven old men of the
place. These venerable and decorative brigands--for such they would have
been, a few years ago--now stood peacefully at their thresholds, wearing
a most becoming cloak of thick brown wool, shaped like a burnous. The
garment interested me; it may be a legacy from the Arabs who dominated
this region for some little time, despoiling the holy sanctuary and
leaving their memory to be perpetuated by the neighbouring "Monte
Saraceno." The costume, on the other hand, may have come over from
Greece; it is figured on Tanagra statuettes and worn by modern Greek
shepherds. By Sardinians, too. ... It may well be a primordial form of
clothing with mankind.
The view from this castle must be superb on clear days. Standing there,
I looked inland and remembered all the places I had intended to
see--Vieste, and Lesina with its lakes, and Selva Umbra, whose very name
is suggestive of dewy glades; how remote they were, under such
dispiriting clouds! I shall never see them. Spring hesitates to smile
upon these chill uplands; we are still in the grip of winter--
Querceti Gargani laborent
Et foliis viduantur orni--
so sang old Horace, of Garganian winds. I scanned the horizon, seeking
for his Mount Vulture, but all that region was enshrouded in a grey
curtain of vapour; only the Stagno Salso--a salt mere wherein Candelaro
forgets his mephitic waters--shone with a steady glow, like a sheet of
Soon the rain fell once more and drove me to seek refuge among the
houses, where I glimpsed the familiar figure of my coachman, sitting
disconsolately under a porch. He looked up and remarked (for want of
something better to say) that he had been searching for me all over the
town, fearing that some mischief might have happened to me. I was
touched by these words; touched, that is, by his child-like simplicity
in imagining that he could bring me to believe a statement of such
radiant improbability; so touched, that I pressed a franc into his
reluctant palm and bade him buy with it something to eat. A whole franc.
. . . _Aha!_ he doubtless thought, _my theory of the gentleman: it
begins to work._
It was barely midday. Yet I was already surfeited with the angelic
metropolis, and my thoughts began to turn in the direction of
Manfredonia once more. At a corner of the street, however, certain
fluent vociferations in English and Italian, which nothing would induce
me to set down here, assailed my ears, coming up--apparently--out of the
bowels of the earth. I stopped to listen, shocked to hear ribald
language in a holy town like this; then, impelled by curiosity,
descended a long flight of steps and found myself in a subterranean
wine-cellar. There was drinking and card-playing going on here among a
party of emigrants--merry souls; a good half of them spoke English and,
despite certain irreverent phrases, they quickly won my heart with a
"Here! You drink _this,_ mister."
This dim recess was an instructive pendant to the archangel's cavern. A
new type of pilgrim has been evolved; pilgrims who think no more of
crossing to Pittsburg than of a drive to Manfredonia. But their cave was
permeated with an odour of spilt wine and tobacco-smoke instead of the
subtle _Essence des pelerins_ _aes Abruzzes fleuris,_ and alas, the
object of their worship was not the Chaldean angel, but another and
equally ancient eastern shape: Mammon. They talked much of dollars; and
I also heard several unorthodox allusions to the "angel-business," which
was described as "played out," as well as a remark to the effect that
"only damn-fools stay in this country." In short, these men were at the
other end of the human scale; they were the strong, the energetic; the
ruthless, perhaps; but certainly--the intelligent.
And all the while the cup circled round with genial iteration, and it
was universally agreed that, whatever the other drawbacks of Sant'
Angelo might be, there was nothing to be said against its native liquor.
It was, indeed, a divine product; a _vino di montagna_ of noble
pedigree. So I thought, as I laboriously scrambled up the stairs once
more, solaced by this incident of the competition-grotto and slightly
giddy, from the tobacco-smoke. And here, leaning against the door-post,
stood the coachman who had divined my whereabouts by some dark masonic
intuition of sympathy. His face expanded into an inept smile, and I
quickly saw that instead of fortifying his constitution with sound food,
he had tried alcoholic methods of defence against the inclement weather.
Just a glass of wine, he explained. "But," he added, "the horse is
That quadruped was equal to the emergency. Gloriously indifferent to our
fates, we glided down, in a vertiginous but masterly vol-plane, from the
somewhat objectionable mountain-town.
An approving burst of sunshine greeted our arrival on the plain.
Why has the exalted archangel chosen for an abode this reeking cell,
rather than some well-built temple in the sunshine? "As symbolizing a
ray of light that penetrates into the gloom," so they will tell you. It
is more likely that he entered it as an extirpating warrior, to oust
that heathen shape which Strabo describes as dwelling in its dank
recesses, and to take possession of the cleft in the name of
Christianity. Sant' Angelo is one of many places where Michael has
performed the duty of Christian Hercules, cleanser of Augean stables.
For the rest, this cave-worship is older than any god or devil. It is
the cult of the feminine principle--a relic of that aboriginal obsession
of mankind to shelter in some Cloven Rock of Ages, in the sacred womb of
Mother Earth who gives us food and receives us after death.
Grotto-apparitions, old and new, are but the popular explanations of
this dim primordial craving, and hierophants of all ages have understood
the commercial value of the holy shudder which penetrates in these
caverns to the heart of worshippers, attuning them to godly deeds. So
here, close beside the altar, the priests are selling fragments of the
so-called "Stone of Saint Michael." The trade is brisk.
The statuette of the archangel preserved in this subterranean chapel is
a work of the late Renaissance. Though savouring of that mawkish
elaboration which then began to taint local art and literature and is
bound up with the name of the poet Marino, it is still a passably virile
figure. But those countless others, in churches or over house-doors--do
they indeed portray the dragon-killer, the martial prince of angels?
This amiable child with girlish features--can this be the Lucifer of
Christianity, the Sword of the Almighty? _Quis ut Deus!_ He could
hardly hurt a fly.
The hoary winged genius of Chaldea who has absorbed the essence of so
many solemn deities has now, in extreme old age, entered upon a second
childhood and grown altogether too youthful for his _role,_ undergoing
a metimorphosis beyond the boundaries of legendary probability or common
sense; every trace of divinity and manly strength has been boiled out of
him. So young and earthly fair, he looks, rather, like some pretty boy
dressed up for a game with toy sword and helmet--one wants to have a
romp with him. No warrior this! _C'est beau, mais ce n'est pas la
The gods, they say, are ever young, and a certain sensuous and fleshly
note is essential to those of Italy if they are to retain the love of
their worshippers. Granted. We do not need a scarred and hirsute
veteran; but we need, at least, a personage capable of wielding the
sword, a figure something like this:--
His starry helm unbuckled show'd his prime In manhood where youth ended;
by his side As in a glist'ring zodiac hung the sword, Satan's dire
dread, and in his hand the spear. . . .
There! That is an archangel of the right kind.
And the great dragon, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, has
suffered a similar transformation. He is shrunk into a poor little
reptile, the merest worm, hardly worth crushing.
But how should a sublime conception like the apocalyptic hero appeal to
the common herd? These formidable shapes emerge from the dusk, offspring
of momentous epochs; they stand aloof at first, but presently their
luminous grandeur is dulled, their haughty contour sullied and
obliterated by attrition. They are dragged down to the level of their
lowest adorers, for the whole flock adapts its pace to that of the
weakest lamb. No self-respecting deity will endure this treatment--to be
popularized and made intelligible to a crowd. Divinity comprehended of
the masses ceases to be efficacious; the Egyptians and Brahmans
understood that. It is not giving gods a chance to interpret them in an
incongruous and unsportsmanlike fashion. But the vulgar have no idea of
propriety or fair play; they cannot keep at the proper distance; they
are for ever taking liberties. And, in the end, the proudest god is
forced to yield.
We see this same fatality in the very word Cherub. How different an
image does this plump and futile infant evoke to the stately Minister of
the Lord, girt with a sword of flame! We see it in the Italian Madonna
of whom, whatever her mental acquirements may have been, a certain
gravity of demeanour is to be presupposed, and who, none the less, grows
more childishly smirking every day; in her Son who--hereabouts at
least--has doffed all the serious attributes of manhood and dwindled
into something not much better than a doll. It was the same in days of
old. Apollo (whom Saint Michael has supplanted), and Eros, and
Aphrodite--they all go through a process of saccharine deterioration.
Our fairest creatures, once they have passed their meridian vigour, are
liable to be assailed and undermined by an insidious diabetic tendency.
It is this coddling instinct of mankind which has reduced Saint Michael
to his present state. And an extraneous influence has worked in the same
direction--the gradual softening of manners within historical times,
that demasculinization which is an inevitable concomitant of increasing
social security. Divinity reflects its human creators and their
environment; grandiose or warlike gods become superfluous, and finally
incomprehensible, in humdrum days of peace. In order to survive, our
deities (like the rest of us) must have a certain plasticity. If
recalcitrant, they are quietly relieved of their functions, and
forgotten. This is what has happened in Italy to God the Father and the
Holy Ghost, who have vanished from the vulgar Olympus; whereas the
devil, thanks to that unprincipled versatility for which he is famous,
remains ever young and popular.
The art-notions of the Cinque-Cento are also to blame; indeed, so far as
the angelic shapes of south Italy are concerned, the influence of the
Renaissance has been wholly malefic. Aliens to the soil, they were at
first quite unknown--not one is pictured in the Neapolitan catacombs.
Next came the brief period of their artistic glory; then the syncretism
of the Renaissance, when these winged messengers were amalgamated with
pagan _amoretti_ and began to flutter in foolish baroque fashion about
the Queen of Heaven, after the pattern of the disreputable little genii
attendant upon a Venus of a bad school. That same instinct which
degraded a youthful Eros into the childish Cupid was the death-stroke to
the pristine dignity and holiness of angels. Nowadays, we see the
perversity of it all; we have come to our senses and can appraise the
much-belauded revival at its true worth; and our modern sculptors will
rear you a respectable angel, a grave adolescent, according to the best
canons of taste--should you still possess the faith that once
requisitioned such works of art.
We travellers acquaint ourselves with the lineage of this celestial
Messenger, but it can hardly be supposed that the worshippers now
swarming at his shrine know much of these things. How shall one discover
their real feelings in regard to this great cave-saint and his life and
Well, some idea of this may be gathered from the literature sold on the
spot. I purchased three of these modern tracts printed respectively at
Bitonto, Molfetta and Naples. The "Popular Song in honour of St. Michael
" contains this verse:
Nell' ora della morte
Ci salvi dal!' inferno
E a Regno Sempiterno
Ci guidi per pieta.
_Ci guidi per pieta. . . ._ This is the Mercury-heritage. Next, the
"History and Miracles of St. Michael" opens with a rollicking dialogue
in verse between the archangel and the devil concerning a soul; it ends
with a goodly list, in twenty-five verses, of the miracles performed by
the angel, such as helping women in childbirth, curing the blind, and
other wonders that differ nothing from those wrought by humbler earthly
saints. Lastly, the "Novena in Onore di S. Michele Arcangelo," printed
in 1910 (third edition) with ecclesiastical approval, has the following
noteworthy paragraph on the
"DEVOTION FOR THE SACRED STONES OF THE GROTTO OF ST. MICHAEL.
"It is very salutary to hold in esteem the STONES which are taken from
the sacred cavern, partly because from immemorial times they have always
been held in veneration by the faithful and also because they have been
placed as relics of sepulchres and altars. Furthermore, it is known that
during the plague which afflicted the kingdom of Naples in the year
1656, Monsignor G. A. Puccini, archbishop of Manfredonia, recommended
every one to carry devoutly on his person a fragment of the sacred
STONE, whereby the majority were saved from the pestilence, and this
augmented the devotion bestowed on them."
The cholera is on the increase, and this may account for the rapid sale
of the STONES at this moment.
This pamphlet also contains a litany in which the titles of the
archangel are enumerated. He is, among other things, Secretary of God,
Liberator from Infernal Chains, Defender in the Hour of Death, Custodian
of the Pope, Spirit of Light, Wisest of Magistrates, Terror of Demons,
Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the Lord, Lash of Heresies, Adorer
of the Word Incarnate, Guide of Pilgrims, Conductor of Mortals: Mars,
Mercury, Hercules, Apollo, Mithra--what nobler ancestry can angel
desire? And yet, as if these complicated and responsible functions did
not suffice for his energies, he has twenty others, among them being
that of "Custodian of the Holy Family "--who apparently need a
protector, a Monsieur Paoli, like any mortal royalties.
"Blasphemous rubbish!" I can hear some Methodist exclaiming. And one
may well be tempted to sneer at those pilgrims for the more enlightened
of whom such literature is printed. For they are unquestionably a
repulsive crowd: travel-stained old women, under-studies for the Witch
of Endor; dishevelled, anaemic and dazed-looking girls; boys, too weak
to handle a spade at home, pathetically uncouth, with mouths agape and
eyes expressing every grade of uncontrolled emotion--from wildest joy to
downright idiotcy. How one realizes, down in this cavern, the effect
upon some cultured ancient like Rutilius Namatianus of the
catacomb-worship among those early Christian converts, those _men who
shun the light,_ drawn as they were from the same social classes towards
the same dark underground rites! One can neither love nor respect such
people; and to affect pity for them would be more consonant with their
religion than with my own.
But it is perfectly easy to understand them. For thirteen centuries this
pilgrim-movement has been going on. Thirteen centuries? No. This site
was an oracle in heathen days, and we know that such were frequented by
men not a whit less barbarous and bigoted than their modern
representatives--nothing is a greater mistake than to suppose that the
crowds of old Rome and Athens were more refined than our own
("Demosthenes, sir, was talking to an assembly of brutes"). For thirty
centuries then, let us say, a deity has attracted the faithful to his
shrine--Sant' Angelo has become a vacuum, as it were, which must be
periodically filled up from the surrounding country. These pilgrimages
are in the blood of the people: infants, they are carried there; adults,
they carry their own offspring; grey-beards, their tottering steps are
still supported by kindly and sturdier fellow-wanderers.
Popes and emperors no longer scramble up these slopes; the spirit of
piety has abated among the great ones of the earth; so much is certain.
But the rays of light that strike the topmost branches have not yet
penetrated to the rank and seething undergrowth. And then--what else can
one offer to these Abruzzi mountain-folk? Their life is one of
miserable, revolting destitution. They have no games or sports, no
local racing, clubs, cattle-shows, fox-hunting, politics, rat-catching,
or any of those other joys that diversify the lives of our peasantry. No
touch of humanity reaches them, no kindly dames send them jellies or
blankets, no cheery doctor enquires for their children; they read no
newspapers or books, and lack even the mild excitements of church
_versus_ chapel, or the vicar's daughter's love-affair, or the squire's
latest row with his lady--nothing! Their existence is almost bestial in
its blankness. I know them--I have lived among them. For four months in
the year they are cooped up in damp dens, not to be called chambers,
where an Englishman would deem it infamous to keep a dog--cooped up amid
squalor that must be seen to be believed; for the rest of the time they
struggle, in the sweat of their brow, to wrest a few blades of corn from
the ungrateful limestone. Their visits to the archangel--these vernal
and autumnal picnics--are their sole form of amusement.
The movement is said to have diminished since the early nineties, when
thirty thousand of them used to come here annually. It may well be the
case; but I imagine that this is due not so much to increasing
enlightenment as to the depopulation caused by America; many villages
have recently been reduced to half their former number of inhabitants.
And here they kneel, candle in hand, on the wet flags of this foetid and
malodorous cave, gazing in rapture upon the blandly beaming idol, their
sensibilities tickled by resplendent priests reciting full-mouthed Latin
phrases, while the organ overhead plays wheezy extracts from "La Forza
del Destino" or the Waltz out of Boito's "Mefistofele"... for sure, it
must be a foretaste of Heaven! And likely enough, these are "the poor in
heart" for whom that kingdom is reserved.
One may call this a debased form of Christianity. Whether it would have
been distasteful to the feelings of the founder of that cult is another
question, and, debased or not, it is at least alive and palpitating,
which is more than can be said of certain other varieties. But the
archangel, as was inevitable, has suffered a sad change. His fairest
attribute of Light-bringer, of Apollo, is no longer his own; it has been
claimed and appropriated by the "Light of the World," his new master.
One by one, his functions have been stripped from him, all save in name,
as happens to men and angels alike, when they take service under
What is now left of Saint Michael, the glittering hierarch? Can he still
endure the light of sun? Or has he not shrivelled into a spectral
Hermes, a grisly psychopomp, bowing his head in minished glory, and
leading men's souls no longer aloft but downwards--down to the pale
regions of things that have been? And will it be long ere he, too, is
thrust by some flaming Demogorgon into these same realms of Minos, into
that shadowy underworld where dwell Saturn, and Kronos, and other
cracked and shivered ideals?
So I mused that afternoon, driving down the slopes from Sant' Angelo
comfortably sheltered against the storm, while the generous mountain
wine sped through my veins, warming my fancy. Then, at last, the sun
came out in a sudden burst of light, opening a rift in the vapours and
revealing the whole chain of the Apennines, together with the peaked
crater of Mount Vulture.
The spectacle cheered me, and led me to think that such a day might
worthily be rounded off by a visit to Sipontum, which lies a few miles
beyond Manfredonia on the Foggia road. But I approached the subject
cautiously, fearing that the coachman might demur at this extra work.
Far from it. I had gained his affection, and he would conduct me
whithersoever I liked. Only to Sipontum? __Why not to Foggia, to Naples,
to the ends of the earth? As for the horse, he was none the worse for
the trip, not a bit the worse; he liked nothing better than running in
front of a carriage; besides, _e suo dovere--_ it was his duty.
Sipontum is so ancient that it was founded, they say, by that legendary
Diomed who acted in the same capacity for Beneven-tum, Arpi, and other
cities. But this record does not satisfy Monsignor Sarnelli, its
historian, according to whom it was already a flourishing town when
Shem, first son of Noah, became its king. He reigned about the year 1770
of the creation of the world. Two years after the deluge he was 100
years old, and at that age begat a son Arfaxad, after whose birth he
lived yet another five hundred years. The second king of Sipontum was
Appulus, who ruled in the year 2213. . . . Later on, Saint Peter
sojourned here, and baptized a few people.
Of Sipontum nothing is left; nothing save a church, and even that built
only yesterday--in the eleventh century; a far-famed church, in the
Pisan style, with wrought marble columns reposing on lions, sculptured
diamond ornaments, and other crafty stonework that gladdens the eye. It
used to be the seat of an archbishopric, and its fine episcopal chairs
are now preserved at Sant' Angelo; and you may still do homage to the
authentic Byzantine Madonna painted on wood by Saint Luke,
brown-complexioned, long-nosed, with staring eyes, and holding the
Infant on her left arm. Earthquakes and Saracen incursions ruined the
town, which became wholly abandoned when Man-fredonia was built with its
Of pagan antiquity there are a few capitals lying about, as well as
granite columns in the curious old crypt. A pillar stands all forlorn in
a field; and quite close to the church are erected two others--the
larger of cipollino, beautified by a patina of golden lichen; a marble
well-head, worn half through with usage of ropes, may be found buried in
the rank grass. The plain whereon stood the great city of Sipus is
covered, now, with bristly herbage. The sea has retired from its old
beach, and half-wild cattle browse on the site of those lordly quays and
palaces. Not a stone is left. Malaria and desolation reign supreme.
It is a profoundly melancholy spot. Yet I was glad of the brief vision.
I shall have fond and enduring memories of that sanctuary--the
travertine of its artfully carven fabric glowing orange-tawny in the
sunset; of the forsaken plain beyond, full of ghostly phantoms of the past.
As for Manfredonia--it is a sad little place, when the south wind moans
and mountains are veiled in mists.
LAND OF HORACE
Venosa, nowadays, lies off the beaten track. There are only three trains
a day from the little junction of Rocchetta, and they take over an hour
to traverse the thirty odd kilometres of sparsely inhabited land. It is
an uphill journey, for Venosa lies at a good elevation. They say that
German professors, bent on Horatian studies, occasionally descend from
those worn-out old railway carriages; but the ordinary travellers are
either peasant-folk or commercial gentlemen from north Italy. Worse than
malaria or brigandage, against both of which a man may protect himself,
there is no escaping from the companionship of these last-named--these
pathologically inquisitive, empty-headed, and altogether dreadful
people. They are the terror of the south. And it stands to reason that
only the most incapable and most disagreeable of their kind are sent to
out-of-the-way places like Venosa.
One asks oneself whether this town has greatly changed since Roman
times. To be sure it has; domestic calamities and earthquakes (such as
the terrible one of 1456) have altered it beyond recognition. The
amphitheatre that seated ten thousand spectators is merged into the
earth, and of all the buildings of Roman date nothing is left save a
pile of masonry designated as the tomb of the Marcellus who was killed
here by Hannibal's soldiery, and a few reticulated walls of the second
century or thereabouts known as the "House of Horace"--as genuine as
that of Juliet in Verona or the Mansion of Loreto. Yet the tradition is
an old one, and the builder of the house, whoever he was, certainly
displayed some poetic taste in his selection of a fine view across the
valley. There is an indifferent statue of Horace in the marketplace. A
previous one, also described as Horace, was found to be the effigy of
somebody else. Thus much I learn from Lupoli's "Iter Venusinum."
But there are ancient inscriptions galore, worked into the masonry of
buildings or lying about at random. Mommsen has collected numbers of
them in his _Corpus,_ and since that time some sixty new ones have been
discovered. And then--the stone lions of Roman days, couched forlornly
at street corners, in courtyards and at fountains, in every stage of
decrepitude, with broken jaws and noses, missing legs and tails! Venosa
is a veritable infirmary for mutilated antiques of this species. Now the
lion is doubtless a nobly decorative beast, but--_toujours perdrix!_ Why
not a few griffons or other ornaments? The Romans were not an
The country around must have looked different in olden days. Horace
describes it as covered with forests, and from a manuscript of the early
seventeenth century which has lately been printed one learns that the
surrounding regions were full of "hares, rabbits, foxes, roe deer,
wild boars, martens, porcupines, hedgehogs, tortoises and wolves"--
wood-loving creatures which have now, for the most part, deserted
Venosa. Still, there are left some stretches of oak at the back
of the town, and the main lines of the land cannot change. Yonder lies
the Horatian Forense and "Acherontia's nest"; further on, the glades of
Bantia (the modern Banzi); the long-drawn Garganian Mount, on which the
poet's eye must often have rested, emerges above the plain of Apulia
like an island (and such it is: an island of Austrian stone, stranded
upon the beach of Italy). Monte Vulture still dominates the landscape,
although at this nearness the crater loses its shapely conical outline
and assumes a serrated edge. On its summit I perceive a gigantic
cross--one of a number of such symbols which were erected by the
clericals at the time of the recent rationalist congress in Rome.
From this chronicler I learn another interesting fact: that Venosa was
not malarious in the author's day. He calls it healthy, and says that
the only complaint from which the inhabitants suffered was "ponture"
(pleurisy). It is now within the infected zone. I dare say the
deforestation of the country, which prevented the downflow of the
rivers--choking up their beds with detritus and producing stagnant pools
favourable to the breeding of the mosquito--has helped to spread the
plague in many parts of Italy. In Horace's days Venosa was immune,
although Rome and certain rural districts were already malarious.
Ancient votive tablets to the fever-goddess Mephitis (malaria) have been
found not far from here, in the plain below the present city of Potenza.
A good deal of old Roman blood and spirit seems to survive here. After
the noise of the Neapolitan provinces, where chattering takes the place
of thinking, it is a relief to find oneself in the company of these
grave self-respecting folks, who really converse, like the Scotch, in
disinterested and impersonal fashion. Their attitude towards religious
matters strikes me as peculiarly Horatian; it is not active scepticism,
but rather a bland tolerance or what one of them described as
"indifferentismo"--submission to acts of worship and all other usages
(whatever they may be) consecrated by time: the _pietas--_the
conservative, law-abiding Roman spirit. And if you walk towards sunset
along any of the roads leading into the country, you will meet the
peasants riding home from their field labours accompanied by their dogs,
pigs and goats; and among them you will recognize many types of Roman
physiognomies--faces of orators and statesmen--familiar from old coins.
About a third of the population are of the dark-fair complexion, with
blue or green eyes. But the women are not handsome, although the town
derives its name from Benoth (Venus). Some genuine Roman families have
continued to exist to this day, such as that of Cenna (Cinna). One of
them was the author of the chronicle above referred to; and there is an
antique bas-relief worked into the walls of the Trinita abbey, depicting
some earlier members of this local family.
One is astonished how large a literature has grown up around this small
place--but indeed, the number of monographs dealing with every one of
these little Italian towns is a ceaseless source of surprise. Look below
the surface and you will find, in all of them, an undercurrent of keen
spirituality--a nucleus of half a dozen widely read and thoughtful men,
who foster the best traditions of the mind. You will not find them in
the town council or at the cafe. No newspapers commend their labours, no
millionaires or learned societies come to their assistance, and though
typography is cheap in this country, they often stint themselves of the
necessities of life in order to produce these treatises of calm
research. There is a deep gulf, here, between the mundane and the
intellectual life. These men are retiring in their habits; and one
cannot but revere their scholarly and almost ascetic spirit that
survives like a green oasis amid the desert of "politics," roguery and
The City Fathers of Venosa are reputed rich beyond the dreams of
avarice. Yet their town is by no means a clean place--it is twice as
dirty as Lucera: a reposeful dirtiness, not vulgar or chaotic, but
testifying to time-honoured neglect, to a feudal contempt of
cleanliness. You crawl through narrow, ill-paved streets, looking down
into subterranean family bedrooms that must be insufferably damp in
winter, and filled, during the hot months, with an odour hard to
conceive. There is electric lighting, of course--a paternal government
having made the price of petroleum so prohibitive that the use of
electricity for street-lighting became quite common in the lowliest
places; but the crude glare only serves to show up the general squalor.
One reason for this state of affairs is that there are no quarries for
decent paving-stones in the neighbourhood. And another, that Venosa
possesses no large citizen class, properly so called. The inhabitants
are mostly peasant proprietors and field labourers, who leave the town
in the morning and return home at night with their beasts, having
learned by bitter experience to take up their domiciles in the towns
rather than in the country-side, which was infested with brigandage and
in an unsettled state up to a short time ago. The Cincinnatus note
dominates here, and with an agricultural population no city can be kept
But Venosa has one inestimable advantage over Lucera and most Italian
towns: there is no octroi.
Would it be believed that Naples is surrounded by a towering Chinese
wall, miles upon miles of it, crowned with a complicated apparatus of
alarm-bells and patrolled night and day by a horde of _doganieri_ armed
to the teeth--lest some peasant should throw a bundle of onions into the
sacred precincts of the town without paying the duty of half a farthing?
No nation with any sense of humour would endure this sort of thing.
Every one resents the airs of this army of official loafers who infest
the land, and would be far better employed themselves in planting onions
upon the many miles of Italy which now lie fallow; the results of the
system have been shown to be inadequate, "but," as my friend the Roman
deputy once asked me, "if we dismiss these fellows from their job, how
are we to employ them?"
"Nothing is simpler," I replied. "Enrol them into the Town Council of
Naples. It already contains more _employes_ than all the government
offices of London put together; a few more will surely make no difference?"
"By Bacchus," he cried, "you foreigners have ideas! We could dispose of
ten or fifteen thousand of them, at least, in the way you suggest. I'll
make a note of that, for our next session."
And so he did.
But the _Municipio_ of Naples, though extensive, is a purely local
charity, and I question whether its inmates will hear of any one save
their own cousins and brothers-in-law figuring as colleagues in office.
Every attempt at innovation in agriculture, as in industry, is forthwith
discouraged by new and subtle impositions, which lie in wait for the
enterprising Italian and punish him for his ideas. There is, of course,
a prohibitive duty on every article or implement manufactured abroad;
there is the octroi, a relic of medisevalism, the most unscientific,
futile, and vexatious of taxes; there are municipal dues to be paid on
animals bought and animals sold, on animals kept and animals killed, on
milk and vine-props and bricks, on timber for scaffolding and lead and
tiles and wine--on every conceivable object which the peasant produces
or requires for his existence. And one should see the faces of the
municipal _employes_ who extort these tributes. God alone knows from
what classes of the populace they are recruited; certain it is that
their physiognomy reflects their miserable calling. One can endure the
militarism of Germany and the bureaucracy of Austria; but it is
revolting to see decent Italian countryfolk at the mercy of these
uncouth savages, veritable cave-men, whose only intelligible expression
is one of malice striving to break through a crust of congenital
We hear much of the great artists and speculative philosophers of old
Italy. The artists of modern Italy are her bureaucrats who design and
elaborate the taxes; her philosophers, the peasants who pay them.
In point of method, at least, there is nothing to choose between the
exactions of the municipal and governmental ruffians. I once saw an old
woman fined fifty francs for having in her possession a pound of
sea-salt. By what logic will you make it clear to ignorant people that
it is wrong to take salt out of the sea, whence every one takes fish
which are more valuable? The waste of time employed over red tape alone
on these occasions would lead to a revolution anywhere save among men
inured by long abuses to this particular form of tyranny. No wonder the
women of the country-side, rather than waste three precious hours in
arguments about a few cheeses, will smuggle them past the authorities
under the device of being _enceintes;_ no wonder their wisest old men
regard the paternal government as a successfully organized swindle,
which it is the citizen's bounden duty to frustrate whenever possible.
Have _you_ ever tried to convey--in legal fashion--a bottle of wine from
one town into another; or to import, by means of a sailing-boat, an old
frying-pan into some village by the sea? __It is a fine art, only to be
learnt by years of apprenticeship. The regulations on these subjects,
though ineffably childish, look simple enough on paper; they take no
account of that "personal element" which is everything in the south, of
the ruffled tempers of those gorgeous but inert creatures who, disturbed
in their siestas or mandolin-strummings, may keep you waiting half a
day while they fumble ominously over some dirty-looking scrap of paper.
For on such occasions they are liable to provoking fits of
conscientiousness. This is all very well, my dear sir, but--Ha! Where,
where is that certificate of origin, that stamp, that _lascia-passare?_
And all for one single sou!
No wonder even Englishmen discover that law-breaking, in Italy, becomes
a necessity, a rule of life.
And, soon enough, much more than a mere necessity. . . .
For even as the traveller new to Borneo, when they offer him a
durian-fruit, is instantly brought to vomiting-point by its odour, but
after a few mouthfuls declares it to be the very apple of Paradise, and
marvels how he could have survived so long in the benighted lands where
such ambrosial fare is not; even as the true connaisseur who, beholding
some rare scarlet idol from the Tingo-Tango forests, at first casts it
aside and then, light dawning as he ponders over those monstrous
complexities, begins to realize that they, and they alone, contain the
quintessential formulae of all the fervent dreamings of Scopas and
Michelangelo; even as he who first, upon a peak in Darien, gazed
awestruck upon the grand Pacific slumbering at his feet, till presently
his senses reeled at the blissful prospect of fresh regions unrolling
themselves, boundless, past the fulfilment of his fondest hopes------
Even so, in Italy, the domesticated Englishman is amazed to find that he
possesses a sense hitherto unrevealed, opening up a new horizon, a new
zest in life--the sense of law-breaking. At first, being an honest man,
he is shocked at the thought of such a thing; next, like a sensible
person, reconciled to the inevitable; lastly, as befits his virile race,
he learns to play the game so well that the horrified officials
grudgingly admit (and it is their highest praise):
Yes; slowly the charm of law-breaking grows upon the Italianated Saxon;
slowly, but surely. There is a neo-barbarism not only in matters of art.
There has always, no doubt, been a castle at Venosa. Frederick
Barbarossa lived here oftener than in Sicily; from these regions he
could look over to his beloved East, and the security of this particular
keep induced him to store his treasures therein. The indefatigable
Huillard Breholles has excavated some account of them from the
Hohen-staufen records. Thus we learn that here, at Venosa, the Emperor
deposited that marvel, that _tentorium,_ I mean, _mirifica arte
constructum, in quo imagines solis et lunce artificialiter motte, cursum
suum certis et debitis spatiis peragrant, et boras diei et noctis
in-fallibiliter indicant. Cuius tentorii valor viginti millium marcarum
pretium dicitur transcendisse._ It was given him by the Sultan of
Babylonia. Always the glowing Oriental background!
The present castle, a picturesque block with moat and corner towers, was
built in 1470 by the redoubtable Pierro del Balzo. A church used to
occupy the site, but the warrior, recognizing its strategic advantages,
transplanted the holy edifice to some other part of the town. It is now
a ruin, the inhabitable portions of which have been converted into cheap
lodgings for sundry poor folk--a monetary speculation of some local
magnate, who paid 30,000 francs for the whole structure. You can climb
up into one of the shattered towers whereon reposes an old cannon amid a
wind-sown garden of shrubs and weeds. Here the jackdaws congregate at
nightfall, flying swiftly and noiselessly to their resting-place. Odd,
how quiet Italian jackdaws are, compared with those of England; they
have discarded their voices, which is the best thing they could have
done in a land where every one persecutes them. There is also a dungeon
at this castle, an underground recess with cunningly contrived
projections in its walls to prevent prisoners from climbing upwards; and
The cathedral of Venosa contains a chapel with an unusually nne portal
of Renaissance work, but the chief architectural beauty of the town is
the decayed Benedictine abbey of La Trinita. The building is roofless;
it was never completed, and the ravages of time and of man have not
spared it; earthquakes, too, have played sad tricks with its arches and
columns, particularly that of 1851, which destroyed the neighbouring
town of Melfi. It stands beyond the more modern settlement on what is
now a grassy plain, and attached to it is a Norman chapel containing the
bones of Alberada, mother of Boemund, and others of her race. Little of
the original structure of this church is left, though its walls are
still adorned, in patches, with frescoes of genuine angels--attractive
creatures, as far removed from those bloodless Byzantine anatomies as
from the plethoric and insipid females of the _settecento._ There is
also a queenly portrait declared to represent Catherine of Siena. I
would prefer to follow those who think it is meant for Sigilgaita.
Small as it is, this place--the church and the abbey--is not one for a
casual visit. Lenormant calls the Trinita a "_Musee epigra-phique"--_so
many are the Latin inscriptions which the monks have worked into its
masonry. They have encrusted the walls with them; and many antiquities
of other kinds have been deposited here since those days. The ruin is
strewn with columns and capitals of fantastic devices; the inevitable
lions, too, repose upon its grassy floor, as well as a pagan altar-stone
that once adorned the neighbouring amphitheatre. One thinks of the
labour expended in raising those prodigious blocks and fitting them
together without mortar in their present positions--they, also, came
from the amphitheatre, and the sturdy letterings engraved on some of
them formed, once upon a time, a sentence that ran round that building,
recording the names of its founders.
Besides the Latin inscriptions, there are Hebrew funereal stones of
great interest, for a colony of Jews was established here between the
years 400 and 800; poor folks, for the most part; no one knows whence
they came or whither they went. One is apt to forget that south Italy
was swarming with Jews for centuries. The catacombs of Venosa were
discovered in 1853. Their entrance lies under a hill-side not far from
the modern railway station, and Professor Mueller, a lover of Venosa,
has been engaged for the last twenty-five years in writing a ponderous
tome on the subject. Unfortunately (so they say) there is not much
chance of its ever seeing the light, for just as he is on the verge of
publication, some new Jewish catacombs are discovered in another part of
the world which cause the Professor to revise all his previous theories.
The work must be written anew and brought up to date, and hardly is this
accomplished when fresh catacombs are found elsewhere, necessitating a
further revision. The Professor once more rewrites the whole. . . .
You will find accounts of the Trinita in Bertaux, Schulz and other
writers. Italian ones tell us what sounds rather surprising, namely,
that the abbey was built after a Lombard model, and not a French one. Be
that as it may--and they certainly show good grounds for their
contention--the ruin is a place of rare charm. Not easily can one see
relics of Roman, Hebrew and Norman life crushed into so small a space,
welded together by the massive yet fair architecture of the
Benedictines, and interpenetrated, at the same time, with a
Mephistophelian spirit of modern indifference. Of cynical
_insouciance;_ for although this is a "national monument," nothing
whatever is done in the way of repairs. Never a month passes without
some richly carven block of stonework toppling down into the weeds,
[Footnote: The process of decay can be seen by comparing my photograph
of the east front with that taken to illustrate Giuseppe de Lorenzo's
monograph "Venosa e la Regione del Vulture" (Bergamo, 1906).]
and were it not for the zeal of a private citizen, the interior of the
building would long ago have become an impassable chaos of stones and
shrubbery. The Trinita cannot be _restored_ without enormous outlay;
nobody dreams of such a thing. A yearly expenditure of ten pounds,
however, would go far towards arresting its fall. But where shall the
money be found? This enthusiastic nation, so enamoured of all that is
exquisite in art, will spend sixty million francs on a new Ministry of
Justice which, barely completed, is already showing signs of disrupture;
it will cheerfully vote _(vide_ daily press) the small item of eighty
thousand francs to supply that institution with pens and ink--lucky
contractor!--while this and a hundred other buildings of singular beauty
are allowed to crumble to pieces, day by day.
Not far from the abbey there stands a church dedicated to Saint Roque.
Go within, if you wish to see the difference between Benedictine dignity
and the buffoonery which subsequently tainted the Catholicism of the
youth. On its gable sits a strange emblem: a large stone dog, gazing
amiably at the landscape. The saint, during his earthly career, was
always accompanied by a dog, and now likes to have him on the roof of
The Norman church attached to the Trinita lies at a lower level than
that building, having been constructed, says Lupoli, on the foundations
of a temple to Hymenaeus. It may be so; but one distrusts Lupoli. A
remarkable Norman capital, now wrought into a font, is preserved here,
and I was interested in watching the behaviour of a procession of female
pilgrims in regard to it. Trembling with emotion, they perambulated the
sacred stone, kissing every one of its corners; then they dipped their
hands into its basin, and kissed them devoutly. An old hag, the mistress
of the ceremonies, muttered: "tutti santi--tutti santi!" at each
osculation. Next, they prostrated themselves on the floor and licked
the cold stones, and after wallowing there awhile, rose up and began to
kiss a small fissure in the masonry of the wall, the old woman
whispering, "Santissimo!" A familiar spectacle, no doubt; but one which
never fails of its effect. This anti-hygienic crack in the wall, with
its suggestions of yoni-worship, attracted me so strongly that I begged
a priest to explain to me its mystical signification. But he only said,
with a touch of mediaeval contempt:
He showed me, later on, a round Roman pillar near the entrance of the
church worn smooth by the bodies of females who press themselves between
it and the wall, in order to become mothers. The notion caused him some
amusement--he evidently thought this practice a speciality of Venosa.
In my country, I said, pillars with a contrary effect would be more
popular among the fair sex.
Lear gives another account of this phallic emblem. He says that
perambulating it hand in hand with another person, the two are sure to
remain friends for life.
This is pre-eminently a "Victorian" version.
THE BANDUSIAN FOUNT
The traveller in these parts is everlastingly half-starved. Here, at
Venosa, the wine is good--excellent, in fact; but the food monotonous
and insufficient. This improper dieting is responsible for much
mischief; it induces a state of chronic exacerbation. Nobody would
believe how nobly I struggle, day and night, against its evil
suggestions. A man's worst enemy is his own empty stomach. None knew it
better than Horace.
And yet he declared that lettuces and such-like stuff sufficed him. No
doubt, no doubt. "Olives nourish me." Just so! One does not grow up in
the school of Maecenas without learning the subtle delights of the
simple life. But I would wager that after a week of such feeding as I
have now undergone at his native place, he would quickly have remembered
some urgent business to be transacted in the capital--Caesar Augustus,
me-thinks, would have desired his company. And even so, I have suddenly
woke up to the fact that Taranto, my next resting-place, besides
possessing an agreeably warm climate, has some passable restaurants. I
will pack without delay. Mount Vulture must wait. The wind alone, the
Vulturnus or south-easterly wind, is quite enough to make one despair of
climbing hills. It has blown with objectionable persistency ever since
my arrival at Venosa.
To escape from its attentions, I have been wandering about the secluded
valleys that seam this region. Streamlets meander here amid rustling
canes and a luxuriant growth of mares' tails and creepers; their banks
are shaded by elms and poplars--Horatian trees; the thickets are loud
with songs of nightingale, black-cap and oriole. These humid dells are a
different country from the uplands, wind-swept and thriftily cultivated.
It was here, yesterday, that I came upon an unexpected sight--an army of
workmen engaged in burrowing furiously into the bowels of Mother Earth.
They told me that this tunnel would presently become one of the arteries
of that vast system, the Apulian Aqueduct. The discovery accorded with
my Roman mood, for the conception and execution alike of this grandiose
project are worthy of the Romans. Three provinces where, in years of
drought, wine is cheaper than water, are being irrigated--in the teeth
of great difficulties of engineering and finance. Among other things,
there are 213 kilometres of subterranean tunnellings to be built; eleven
thousand workmen are employed; the cost is estimated at 125 million
francs. The Italian government is erecting to its glory a monument more
durable than brass. This is their heritage from the Romans--this talent
for dealing with rocks and waters; for bridling a destructive
environment and making it subservient to purposes of human
intercourse. It is a part of that practical Roman genius for
"pacification." Wild nature, to the Latin, ever remains an obstacle to
be overcome--an enemy.
Such was Horace's point of view. The fruitful fields and their hardy
brood of tillers appealed to him; [Footnote: See next chapter.]
the ocean and snowy Alps were beyond the range of his affections. His
love of nature was heartfelt, but his nature was not ours; it was nature
as we see it in those Roman landscapes at Pompeii; nature ancillary to
human needs, in her benignant and comfortable moods. Virgil's _lachrymae
rerum_ hints at mystic and extra-human yearnings; to the troubadours
nature was conventionally stereotyped--a scenic decoration to set off
sentiments more or less sincere; the roman-ticists wallow in her rugged
aspects. Horace never allowed phantasy to outrun intelligence; he kept
his feet on earth; man was the measure of his universe, and a sober mind
his highest attribute. Nature must be kept "in her place." Her
extrava-gances are not to be admired. This anthropocentric spirit has
made him what he is--the ideal anti-sentimentalist and anti-vulgarian.
For excess of sentiment, like all other intemperance, is the mark of
that unsober and unsteady beast--the crowd.
Things have changed since those days; in proportion as the world has
grown narrower and the element of fear and mystery diluted, our
sympathies have broadened; the Goth, in particular, has learnt the knack
of detecting natural charm where the Latin, to this day, beholds nothing
but confusion and strife.
On the spot, I observe, one is liable to return to the antique outlook;
to see the beauty of fields and rivers, yet only when subsidiary to
man's personal convenience; to appreciate a fair landscape--with a
shrewd worldly sense of its potential uses. "The garden that I love,"
said an Italian once to me, "contains good vegetables." This utilitarian
flavour of the south has become very intelligible to me during the last
few days. I, too, am thinking less of calceolarias than of cauliflowers.
A pilgrimage to the Bandusian Fount (if such it be) is no great
undertaking--a morning's trip. The village of San Gervasio is the next
station to Venosa, lying on an eminence only thirteen kilometres from
Here once ran a fountain which was known as late as the twelfth century
as the Fons Bandusinus, and Ughelli, in his "Italia Sacra," cites a deed
of the year 1103 speaking of a church "at the Bandusian Fount near
Venosa." Church and fountain have now disappeared; but the site of the
former, they say, is known, and close to it there once issued a copious
spring called "Fontana Grande." This is probably the Horatian one; and
is also, I doubt not, that referred to in Cenna's chronicle of Venosa:
"At Torre San Gervasio are the ruins of a castle and an abundant spring
of water colder than all the waters of Venosa," _Frigus amabile. . . ._
I could discover no one in the place to show me where this now vanished
church stood. I rather think it occupied the site of the present church
of Saint Anthony, the oldest in San Gervasio.
As to the fountain--there are now two of them, at some considerable
distance from each other. Both of them are copious, and both lie near
the foot of the hill on which the village now stands. Capmartin de
Chaupy has reasons for believing that in former times San Gervasio did
not occupy its present exalted position (vol. iii, p. 538).
One of them gushes out on the plain near the railway station, and has
been rebuilt within recent times. It goes by the name of "Fontana
rotta." The other, the "Fontana del Fico," lies on the high road to
Spinazzola; the water spouts out of seven mouths, and near at hand is a
plantation of young sycamores. The basin of this fount was also rebuilt
about ten years ago at no little expense, and has now a thoroughly
modern and businesslike aspect. But I was told that a complicated
network of subterranean pipes and passages, leading to "God knows
where," was unearthed during the process of reconstruction. It was
magnificent masonry, said my informant, who was an eye-witness of the
excavations but could tell me nothing more of interest.
The problem how far either of these fountains fulfils the conditions
postulated in the last verse of Horace's ode may be solved by every one
according as he pleases. In fact, there is no other way of solving it.
In my professorial mood, I should cite the cavern and the "downward
leaping" waters against the hypothesis that the Bandusian Fount stood on
either of these modern sites; in favour of it, one might argue that the
conventional rhetoric of all Roman art may have added these embellishing
touches, and cite, in confirmation thereof, the last two lines of the
previous verse, mentioning animals that could hardly have slaked their
thirst with any convenience at a cavernous spring such as he describes.
Caverns, moreover, are not always near the summits of hills; they may be
at the foot of them; and water, even the Thames at London Bridge, always
leaps downhill--more or less. Of more importance is old Chaupy's
discovery of the northerly aspect of one of these springs--"thee the
fierce season of the blazing dog-star cannot touch." There may have been
a cave at the back of the "Fontana del Fico"; the "Fontana rotta" is
For the rest, there is no reason why the fountain should not have
changed its position since ancient days. On the contrary, several things
might incline one to think that it has been forced to abandon the high
grounds and seek its present lower level. To begin with, the hill on
which the village stands is honeycombed by hives of caves which the
inhabitants have carved out of the loose conglomerate (which, by the
way, hardly corresponds with the poet's _saxum);_ and it may well be
that a considerable collapse of these earth-dwellings obstructed the
original source of the waters and obliged them to seek a vent lower down.
Next, there are the notorious effects of deforestation. An old man told
me that in his early days the hill was covered with timber--indeed, this
whole land, now a stretch of rolling grassy downs, was decently wooded
up to a short time ago. I observed that the roof of the oldest of the
three churches, that of Saint Anthony, is formed of wooden rafters (a
rare material hereabouts). Deforestation would also cause the waters to
issue at a lower level.
Lastly, and chiefly--the possible shatterings of earthquakes.
Catastrophes such as those which have damaged Venosa in days past may
have played havoc with the water-courses of this place by choking up
their old channels. My acquaintance with the habits of Apulian
earthquakes, with the science of hydrodynamics and the geological
formation of San Gervasio is not sufficiently extensive to allow me to
express a mature opinion. I will content myself with presenting to
future investigators the plausible theory--plausible because
conveniently difficult to refute--that some terrestrial upheaval in past
days is responsible for the present state of things.
But these are merely three hypotheses. I proceed to mention three facts
which point in the same direction; i.e. that the water used to issue at
a higher level. Firstly, there is that significant name "Fontana
rotta"--"the broken fountain." . . . Does not this suggest that its flow
may have been interrupted, or intercepted, in former times?
Next, if you climb up from this "Fontana rotta" to the village by the
footpath, you will observe, on your right hand as you ascend the slope,
at about a hundred yards below the Church of Saint Anthony, an old well
standing in a field of corn and shaded by three walnuts and an oak. This
well is still running, and was described to me as "molto antico."
Therefore an underground stream--in diminished volume, no doubt--still
descends from the heights.
Thirdly, in the village you will notice an alley leading out of the
Corso Manfredi (one rejoices to find the name of Manfred surviving in
these lands)--an alley which is entitled "Vico Sirene." The name arrests
your attention, for what have the Sirens to do in these inland regions?
Nothing whatever, unless they existed as ornamental statuary: statuary
such as frequently gives names to streets in Italy, witness the "Street
of the Faun" in Ouida's novel, or that of the "Giant" in Naples (which
has now been re-christened). It strikes me as a humble but quite
scholarly speculation to infer that, the chief decorative uses of Sirens
being that of fountain deities, this obscure roadway keeps alive the
tradition of the old "Fontana Grande"--ornamented, we may suppose, with
marble Sirens--whose site is now forgotten, and whose very name has
faded from the memory of the countryfolk.
What, then, does my ramble of two hours at San Gervasio amount to? It
shows that there is a possibility, at least, of a now vanished fountain
having existed on the heights where it might fulfil more accurately the
conditions of Horace's ode. If Ughelli's church "at the Bandusian Fount"
stood on this eminence--well, I shall be glad to corroborate, for once
in the way, old Ughelli, whose book contains a deal of dire nonsense.
And if the Abbe Chaupy's suggestion that the village lay at the foot of
the hill should ever prove to be wrong--well, his amiable ghost may be
pleased to think that even this does not necessitate the sacrifice of
his Venosa theory in favour of that of the scholiast Akron; there is
still a way out of the difficulty.
But whether this at San Gervasio is the actual fountain hymned by
Horace--ah, that is quite another affair! Few poets, to be sure, have
clung more tenaciously to the memories of their childhood than did he
and Virgil. And yet, the whole scene may be a figment of his
imagination--the very word Bandusia may have been coined by him. Who can
tell? Then there is the Digentia hypothesis. I know it, I know it! I
have read some of its defenders, and consider _(entre nous)_ that they
have made out a pretty strong case. But I am not in the mood for
discussing their proposition--not just now.
Here at San Gervasio I prefer to think only of the Roman singer, so
sanely jovial, and of these waters as they flowed, limpid and cool, in
the days when they fired his boyish fancy. Deliberately I refuse to hear
the charmer Boissier. Deliberately, moreover, I shut my eyes to the
present condition of affairs; to the herd of squabbling laundresses and
those other incongruities that spoil the antique scene. Why not? The
timid alone are scared by microscopic discords of time and place. The
sage can invest this prosaic water-trough with all its pristine dignity
and romance by an unfailing expedient. He closes an eye. It is an art he
learns early in life; a simple art, and one that greatly conduces to
happiness. The ever alert, the conscientiously wakeful--how many fine
things they fail to see! Horace knew the wisdom of being genially
unwise; of closing betimes an eye, or an ear; or both. _Desipere in
loco. . . ._
TILLERS OF THE SOIL
I remember watching an old man stubbornly digging a field by himself. He
toiled through the flaming hours, and what he lacked in strength was
made up in the craftiness, _malizia,_ born of long love of the soil. The
ground was baked hard; but there was still a chance of rain, and the
peasants were anxious not to miss it. Knowing this kind of labour, I
looked on from my vine-wreathed arbour with admiration, but without envy.
I asked whether he had not children to work for him.
"All dead--and health to you!" he replied, shaking his white head
And no grandchildren?
"All Americans (emigrants)."
He spoke in dreamy fashion of years long ago when he, too, had
travelled, sailing to Africa for corals, to Holland and France; yes, and
to England also. But our dockyards and cities had faded from his mind;
he remembered only our men.
"_Che bella gioventu--che bella gioventu!_" ("a sturdy brood"), he kept
on repeating. "And lately," he added, "America has been discovered." He
toiled fourteen hours a day, and he was 83 years old.
Apart from that creature of fiction, the peasant _in fabula_ whom we all
know, I can find little to admire in this whole class of men, whose talk
and dreams are of the things of the soil, and who knows of nothing save
the regular interchange of summer and winter with their unvarying tasks
and rewards. None save a Cincinnatus or Garibaldi can be ennobled by the
spade. In spleenful moments, it seems to me that the most depraved of
city-dwellers has flashes of enthusiasm and self-abnegation never
experienced by this shifty, retrogressive and ungenerous brood, which
lives like the beasts of the field and has learnt all too much of their
logic. But they have a beast-virtue hereabouts which compels
respect--contentment in adversity. In this point they resemble the
Russian peasantry. And yet, who can pity the moujik? His cheeks are
altogether too round, and his morals too superbly bestial; he has
clearly been created to sing and starve by turns. But the Italian
peasant who speaks in the tongue of Homer and Virgil and Boccaccio is
easily invested with a halo of martyrdom; it is delightful to sympathize
with men who combine the manners of Louis Quatorze with the profiles of
Augustus or Plato, and who still recall, in many of their traits, the
pristine life of Odyssean days. Thus, they wear to-day the identical
"clouted leggings of oxhide, against the scratches of the thorns" which
old Laertes bound about his legs on the upland farm in Ithaka. They call
On occasions of drought or flood there is not a word of complaint. I
have known these field-faring men and women for thirty years, and have
yet to hear a single one of them grumble at the weather. It is not
indifference; it is true philosophy--acquiescence in the inevitable. The
grievances of cultivators of lemons and wholesale agriculturalists,
whose speculations are often ruined by a single stroke of the human pen
in the shape of new regulations or tariffs, are a different thing;
_their_ curses are loud and long. But the bean-growers, dependent
chiefly on wind and weather, only speak of God's will. They have the
same forgiveness for the shortcomings of nature as for a wayward child.
And no wonder they are distrustful. Ages of oppression and misrule have
passed over their heads; sun and rain, with all their caprice, have been
kinder friends to them than their earthly masters. Some day, presumably,
the government will wake up to the fact that Italy is not an industrial
country, and that its farmers might profitably be taken into account again.
But a change is upon the land. Types like this old man are becoming
extinct; for the patriarchal system of Coriolanus, the glory of southern
Italy, is breaking up.
This is not the fault of conscription which, though it destroys old
dialects, beliefs and customs, widens the horizon by bringing fresh
ideas into the family, and generally sound ones. It does even more; it
teaches the conscripts to read and write, so that it is no longer as
dangerous to have dealings with a man who possesses these
accomplishments as in the days when they were the prerogative of
_avvocati_ and other questionable characters. A countryman, nowadays,
may read and write and yet be honest.
What is shattering family life is the speculative spirit born of
emigration. A continual coming and going; two-thirds of the adolescent
and adult male population are at this moment in Argentina or the United
States--some as far afield as New Zealand. Men who formerly reckoned in
sous now talk of thousands of francs; parental authority over boys is
relaxed, and the girls, ever quick to grasp the advantages of money,
lose all discipline and steadiness.
"My sons won't touch a spade," said a peasant to me; "and when I thrash
them, they complain to the police. They simply gamble and drink, waiting
their turn to sail. If I were to tell you the beatings _we_ used to get,
sir, you wouldn't believe me. You wouldn't believe me, not if I took my
oath, you wouldn't! I can feel them still--speaking with respect--here!"
These emigrants generally stay away three or four years at a stretch,
and then return, spend their money, and go out again to make more.
Others remain for longer periods, coming back with huge incomes--twenty
to a hundred francs a day. Such examples produce the same effect as
those of the few lucky winners in the State lottery; every one talks of
them, and forgets the large number of less fortunate speculators.
Meanwhile the land suffers. The carob-tree is an instance. This
beautiful and almost eternal growth, the "hope of the southern
Apennines" as Professor Savastano calls it, whose pods constitute an
important article of commerce and whose thick-clustering leaves yield a
cool shelter, comparable to that of a rocky cave, in the noonday heat,
used to cover large tracts of south Italy. Indifferent to the scorching
rays of the sun, flourishing on the stoniest declivities, and sustaining
the soil in a marvellous manner, it was planted wherever nothing else
would grow--a distant but sure profit. Nowadays carobs are only cut
down. Although their produce rises in value every year, not one is
planted; nobody has time to wait for the fruit. [Footnote: There are a
few laudable exceptions, such as Prince Belmonte, who has covered large
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