Part 2 out of 7
stretches of bad land with this tree. (See Consular Reports, Italy, No.
431.) But he is not a peasant!]
It is nothing short of a social revolution, depopulating the country of
its most laborious elements. 788,000 emigrants left in one year alone
(1906); in the province of Basilicata the exodus exceeds the birthrate.
I do not know the percentage of those who depart never to return, but it
must be considerable; the land is full of chronic grass-widows.
Things will doubtless right themselves in due course; it stands to
reason that in this acute transitional stage the demoralizing effects of
the new system should be more apparent than its inevitable benefits.
Already these are not unseen; houses are springing up round villages,
and the emigrants return home with a disrespect for many of their
country's institutions which, under the circumstances, is neither
deplorable nor unjustifiable. A large family of boy-children, once a
dire calamity, is now the soundest of investments. Soon after their
arrival in America they begin sending home rations of money to their
parents; the old farm prospers once more, the daughters receive decent
dowries. I know farmers who receive over three pounds a month from their
sons in America--all under military age.
"We work, yes," they will then tell you, "but we also smoke our pipe."
Previous to this wholesale emigration, things had come to such a pass
that the landed proprietor could procure a labourer at a franc a day,
out of which he had to feed and clothe himself; it was little short of
slavery. The roles are now reversed, and while landlords are
impoverished, the rich emigrant buys up the farms or makes his own terms
for work to be done, wages being trebled. A new type of peasant is being
evolved, independent of family, fatherland or traditions--with a sure
haven of refuge across the water when life at home becomes intolerable.
Yes; a change is at hand.
And another of those things which emigration and the new order of
affairs are surely destroying is that ancient anthropomorphic way of
looking at nature, with its expressive turns of speech. A small boy,
whom I watched gathering figs last year, informed me that the fig-tree
was _innamorato delle pietre e cisterne--_enamoured of stones and
cisterns; meaning, that its roots are searchingly destructive to masonry
and display a fabulous intuition for the proximity of water. He also
told me, what was news to me, that there are more than two or three
varieties of figs. Will you have his list of them? Here it is:
There is the _fico arnese,_ the smallest of all, and the _fico
santillo,_ both of which are best when dried; the _fico vollombola,_
which is never dried, because it only makes the spring fruit; the _fico
molegnano,_ which ripens as late as the end of October and must be eaten
fresh; the _fico coretorto ("_ wry-heart "--from its shape), which has
the most leathery skin of all and is often destroyed by grubs after
rain; the _fico troiano;_ the _fico arzano;_ and the _fico vescovo,_
which appears when all the others are over, and is eaten in February
(this may be the kind referred to in Stamer's "Dolce Napoli" as deriving
from Sorrento, where the first tree of its kind was discovered growing
out of the garden wall of the bishop's palace, whence the name). All
these are _neri--_black.
Now for the white kinds. The _fico paradiso_ has a tender skin, but is
easily spoilt by rain and requires a ridiculous amount of sun to dry it;
ihe _fico vottato_ is also better fresh; the _fico pezzottolo_ is often
attacked by grubs, but grows to a large size every two or three years;
the _fico pascarello_ is good up till Christmas; the _fico natalino;_
lastly, the _fico ----_, whose name I will not record, though it would
be an admirable illustration of that same anthropomorphic turn of mind.
The _santillo_ and _arnese,_ he added, are the varieties which are cut
into two and laid lengthwise upon each other and so dried (Query: Is not
this the "duplex ficus" of Horace?).
"Of course there are other kinds," he said, "but I don't remember them
just now." When I asked whether he could tell these different fig-trees
apart by the leaves and stems alone and without the fruit, he said that
each kind, even in winter, retained its peculiar "faccia" (face), but
that some varieties are more easy to distinguish than others. I enquired
into the mysteries of caprification, and learned that artificial
ripening by means of a drop of oil is practised with some of them,
chiefly the _santillo, vollombola, pascarello_ and _natalino._ Then he
gave me an account of the prices for the different qualities and seasons
which would have astonished a grocer.
All of which proves how easy it is to misjudge of folks who, although
they do not know that Paris is the capital of France, yet possess a
training adapted to their present needs. They are specialists for things
of the grain-giving earth; it is a pleasure to watch them grafting vines
and olives and lemons with the precision of a trained horticulturist.
They talk of "governing" _(governare)_ their soil; it is the word they
use in respect to a child.
Now figs are neither white nor black, but such is the terminology.
Stones are white or black; prepared olives are white or black; wine is
white or black. Are they become colour-blind because impregnated,
from earliest infancy, with a perennial blaze of rainbow hues--
colour-blinded, in fact; or from negligence, attention to this
matter not bringing with it any material advantage? Excepting that
sign-language which is profoundly interesting from an artistic and
ethnological point of view--why does not some scholar bring old lorio's
"Mimica degli Antichi" up to date?--few things are more worthy of
investigation than the colour-sense of these people. Of blue they have
not the faintest conception, probably because there are so few blue
solids in nature; Max Mueller holds the idea of blue to be quite
a modern acquisition on the part of the human race. So a cloudless sky
is declared to be "quite white." I once asked a lad as to the colour
of the sea which, at the moment, was of the most brilliant sapphire hue.
He pondered awhile and then said:
"Pare come fosse un colore morto" (a sort of dead colour).
Green is a little better known, but still chiefly connected with things
not out of doors, as a green handkerchief. The reason may be that this
tint is too common in nature to be taken note of. Or perhaps because
their chain of association between green and grass is periodically
broken up--our fields are always verdant, but theirs turn brown in
summer. Trees they sometimes call yellow, as do some ancient writers;
but more generally "half-black" or "tree-colour." A beech in full leaf
has been described to me as black. _"Rosso"_ does not mean red, but
rather dun or dingy; earth is _rosso._ When our red is to be signified,
they will use the word "turco," which came in with the well-known
dye-stuff of which the Turks once monopolized the secret. Thus there are
"Turkish" apples and "Turkish" potatoes. But "turco" may also mean
black--in accordance with the tradition that the Turks, the Saracens,
were a black race. Snakes, generally greyish-brown in these parts, are
described as either white or black; an eagle-owl is half-black; a
kestrel _un quasi bianco._ The mixed colours of cloths or silks are
either beautiful or ugly, and there's an end of it. It is curious to
compare this state of affairs with that existing in the days of Homer,
who was, as it were, feeling his way in a new region, and the propriety
of whose colour epithets is better understood when one sees things on
the spot. Of course I am only speaking of the humble peasant whose
blindness, for the rest, is not incurable.
One might enlarge the argument and deduce his odd insensibility to
delicate scents from the fact that he thrives in an atmosphere saturated
with violent odours of all kinds; his dullness in regard to finer shades
of sound--from the shrieks of squalling babies and other domestic
explosions in which he lives from the cradle to the grave. That is why
these people have no "nerves"; terrific bursts of din, such as the
pandemonium of Piedigrotta, stimulate them in the same way that others
might be stimulated by a quartette of Brahms. And if they who are so
concerned about the massacre of small birds in this country would devote
their energies to the invention of a noiseless and yet cheap powder,
their efforts would at last have some prospects of success. For it is
not so much the joy of killing, as the pleasurable noise of the gun,
which creates these local sportsmen; as the sagacious "Ultramontain"
observed long ago. "Le napolitain est pas-sionne pour la chasse," he
says, "parce que les coups de fusil flattent son oreille." [Footnote:
I have looked him up in Jos. Blanc's "Bibliographic." His name was C.
Haller.] This ingenuous love of noise may be connected, in some way,
with their rapid nervous discharges.
I doubt whether intermediate convulsions have left much purity of Greek
blood in south Italy, although emotional travellers, fresh from the
north, are for ever discovering "classic Hellenic profiles" among the
people. There is certainly a scarce type which, for want of a better
hypothesis, might be called Greek: of delicate build and below the
average height, small-eared and straight-nosed, with curly hair that
varies from blonde to what Italians call _castagno chiaro._ It differs
not only from the robuster and yet fairer northern breed, but also from
the darker surrounding races. But so many contradictory theories have
lately been promulgated on this head, that I prefer to stop short at the
preliminary question--did a Hellenic type ever exist? No more, probably,
than that charming race which the artists of Japan have invented for our
Strains of Greek blood can be traced with certainty by their track of
folklore and poetry and song, such as still echoes among the vales of
Sparta and along the Bosphorus. Greek words are rather rare here, and
those that one hears--such as _sciusciello, caruso, crisommele,_
etc.--have long ago been garnered by scholars like De Grandis, Moltedo,
and Salvatore Mele. So Naples is far more Hellenic in dialect, lore,
song and gesture than these regions, which are still rich in pure
latinisms of speech, such as surgere (to arise); scitare (excitare--to
arouse); e (est--yes); fetare (foetare); trasete (transitus--passage of
quails); titillare (to tickle); craje (cras--to-morrow); pastena (a
plantation of young vines; Ulpian has "pastinum instituere"). A woman is
called "muliera," a girl "figliola," and children speak of their fathers
as "tata" (see Martial, epig. I, 101). Only yesterday I added a
beautiful latinism to my collection, when an old woman, in whose cottage
I sometimes repose, remarked to me, "Non avete virtu oggi "--you are not
_up to the mark_ to-day. The real, antique virtue! I ought to have
embraced her. No wonder I have no "virtue" just now. This savage
Vulturnian wind--did it not sap the Roman virtue at Cannae?
All those relics of older civilizations are disappearing under the
standardizing influence of conscription, emigration and national schooling.
And soon enough the _Contranome-_system __will become a thing of the
past. I shall be sorry to see it go, though it has often driven me
What is a _contranome?_
The same as a _sopranome._ It is a nickname which, as with the Russian
peasants, takes the place of Christian and surname together. A man will
tell you: "My name is Luigi, but they call me, by _contranome,_
O'Canzirro. I don't know my surname." Some of these nicknames are
intelligible, such as O'Sborramurella, which refers to the man's
profession of building those walls without mortar which are always
tumbling down and being repaired again; or O'Sciacquariello (acqua--a
leaking--one whose money leaks from his pocket--a spendthrift); or San
Pietro, from his saintly appearance; O'Civile, who is so uncivilized, or
Cristoforo Colombo, because he is so very wideawake. But eighty per cent
of them are quite obscure even to their owners, going back, as they do,
to some forgotten trick or incident during childhood or to some pet name
which even in the beginning meant nothing. Nearly every man and boy has
his contranome by which, and _by which alone,_ he is known in his
village; the women seldomer, unless they are conspicuous by some
peculiarity, such as A'Sbirra (the spy), or A'Paponnessa (the fat
one)--whose counterpart, in the male sex, would be O'Tripone.
Conceive, now, what trouble it entails to find a man in a strange
village if you happen not to know his contranome (and how on earth are
you to discover it?), if his surname means nothing to the inhabitants,
and his Christian name is shared by a hundred others. For they have an
amazing lack of inventiveness in this matter; four or five Christian
names will include the whole population of the place. Ten to one you
will lose a day looking for him, unless something like this takes place:
You set forth your business to a crowd of villagers that have collected
around. It is simple enough. You want to speak to Luigi So-and-so. A
good-natured individual, who seems particularly anxious to help,
summarizes affairs by saying:
"The gentleman wants Luigi So-and-so."
There is evidently some joke in the mere suggestion of such a thing;
they all smile. Then a confused murmur of voices goes up:
"Luigi--Luigi. . . . Now which Luigi does he mean?"
You repeat his surname in a loud voice. It produces no effect, beyond
that of increased hilarity.
"Luigi--Luigi. . . ."
"Or the figlio d' O'Zibalocchio?"
The good-natured individual volunteers to beat the surrounding district
and bring in all the Luigis he can find. After half an hour they begin
to arrive, one by one. He is not among them. Dismissed with cigars, as
compensation for loss of time.
Meanwhile half the village has gathered around, vastly enjoying the fun,
which it hopes will last till bedtime. You are getting bewildered; new
people flock in from the fields to whom the mysterious joke about Luigi
must be explained.
"Luigi--Luigi," they begin again. "Now, which of them can he mean?"
"I never thought of him," says the good-natured individual. "Here, boy,
run and tell O'Cuccolillo that a foreign gentleman wants to give him a
By the time O'Cuccolillo appears on the scene the crowd has thickened.
You explain the business for the fiftieth time; no--he is Luigi, of
course, but not the right Luigi, which he regrets considerably. Then the
joke is made clear to him, and he laughs again. You have lost all your
nerve, but the villagers are beginning to love you,
"Can it be O'Sciabecchino?"
"Or the figlio d' O'Chiappino?"
"It might be O'Busciardiello (the liar)."
"So he is. I quite forgot. Well, then it must be the husband of
A'Cicivetta (the flirt)."
"He's in prison. But how about O'Caccianfierno?"
Suddenly a withered hag croaks authoritatively:
"I know! The gentleman wants O'Tentillo."
Chorus of villagers:
"Then why doesn't he say so?"
O'Tentillo lives far, far away. An hour elapses; at last he comes, full
of bright expectations. No, this is not your Luigi, he is another Luigi.
You are ready to sink into the earth, but there is no escape. The crowd
surges all around, the news having evidently spread to neighbouring
"Luigi--Luigi. . . . Let me see. It might be O'Rappo."
"O'Massassillo, more likely."
"I have it! It's O'Spennatiello."
"I never thought of him," says a well-known voice. "Here, boy, run and
"Never mind the G---- d---- son of b----," says a cheery person in
excellent English, who has just arrived on the scene. "See here, I live
fifteen years in Brooklyn; damn fine! 'Ave a glass of wine round my
place. Your Luigi's in America, sure. And if he isn't, send him to Hell."
Sound advice, this.
"What's his surname, anyhow?" he goes on.
You explain once more.
"Why, there's the very man you're looking for. There, standing right in
front of you! He's Luigi, and that's his surname right enough. He don't
know it himself, you bet."
And he points to the good-natured individual. . . .
These countryfolk can fare on strange meats. A boy consumed a snake that
was lying dead by the roadside; a woman ate thirty raw eggs and then a
plate of maccheroni; a man swallowed six kilograms of the uncooked fat
of a freshly slaughtered pig (he was ill for a week afterwards); another
one devoured two small birds alive, with beaks, claws and feathers. Such
deeds are sternly reprobated as savagery; still, they occur, and nearly
always as the result of wagers. I wish I could couple them with equally
heroic achievements in the drinking line, but, alas! I have only heard
of one old man who was wont habitually to en-gulph twenty-two litres of
wine a day; eight are spoken of as "almost too much" in these degenerate
days. . . .
Mice, says Movers, were sacrificially eaten by the Babylonians. Here, as
in England, they are cooked into a paste and given to children, to cure
a certain complaint. To take away the dread of the sea from young boys,
they mix into their food small fishes which have been devoured by larger
ones and taken from their stomachs--the underlying idea being that these
half-digested fry are thoroughly familiar with the storms and perils of
the deep, and will communicate these virtues to the boys who eat them.
It is the same principle as that of giving chamois blood to the
goat-boys of the Alps, to strengthen their nerves against
giddiness--pure sympathetic magic, of which there is this, at least, to
be said, that "its fundamental conception is identical with that of
modern science--a faith in the order or uniformity of nature."
I have also met persons who claim to have been cured of rachitic
troubles in their youth by eating a puppy dog cooked in a saucepan. But
only one kind of dog is good for this purpose, to be procured from those
foundling hospitals whither hundreds of illegitimate infants are taken
as soon as possible after birth. The mothers, to relieve the discomfort
caused by this forcible separation from the new-born, buy a certain kind
of puppy there, bring them home, and nourish them _in loco infantis._
These puppies cost a franc apiece, and are generally destroyed after
performing their duties; it is they who are cooked for curing the
scrofulous tendencies of other children. Swallows' hearts are also used
for another purpose; so is the blood of tortoises--for strengthening the
backs of children (the tortoise being a _hard_ animal). So is that of
snakes, who are held up by head and tail and pricked with needles; the
greater their pain, the more beneficial their blood, which is soaked up
with cotton-wool and applied as a liniment for swollen glands. In fact,
nearly every animal has been discovered to possess some medicinal property.
But of the charm of such creatures the people know nothing. How
different from the days of old! These legendary and gracious beasts,
that inspired poets and artists and glyptic engravers--these things of
beauty have now descended into the realm of mere usefulness, into the
The debasement is quite intelligible, when one remembers what
accumulated miseries these provinces have undergone. Memories of
refinement were starved out of the inhabitants by centuries of misrule,
when nothing was of interest or of value save what helped to fill the
belly. The work of bestialization was carried on by the despotism of
Spanish Viceroys and Bourbons. They, the Spaniards, fostered and perhaps
imported the Camorra, that monster of many heads which has established
itself in nearly every town of the south. Of the deterioration in taste
coincident with this period, I lately came across this little bit of
evidence, curious and conclusive:--In 1558 a number of the country-folk
were captured in one of the usual Corsair raids; they were afterwards
ransomed, and among the Christian names of the women I note: Livia,
Fiula, Cassandra, Aurelia, Lucrezia, Verginia, Medea, Violanta, Galizia,
Vittoria, Diamanta, etc. Where were these full-sounding noble names two
centuries later--where are they nowadays? Do they not testify to a state
of culture superior to that of the present time, when Maria, Lucia, and
about four others of the most obvious catholic saints exhaust the list
of all female Christian names hereabouts?
All this is changing once more; a higher standard of comfort is being
evolved, though relics of this former state of insecurity may still be
found; such as the absence, even in houses of good families, of clocks
and watches, and convenient storage for clothes and domestic utensils;
their habits of living in penury and of buying their daily food by
farthings, as though one never knew what the next day might bring; their
dread of going out of doors by night (they have a proverb which runs,
_di notte, non parlar forte; di giorno, guardati attorno_), their lack
of humour. For humour is essentially a product of ease, and nobody can
be at ease in unquiet times. That is why so few poets are humorous;
their restlessly querulous nature has the same effect on their outlook
as an insecure environment.
But it will be long ere these superstitions are eradicated. The magic of
south Italy deserves to be well studied, for the country is a cauldron
of demonology wherein Oriental beliefs--imported direct from Egypt, the
classic home of witchcraft--commingled with those of the West. A
foreigner is at an unfortunate disadvantage; if he asks questions, he
will only get answers dictated by suspicion or a deliberate desire to
mislead--prudent answers; whoso accepts these explanations in good
faith, might produce a wondrous contribution to ethnology.
Wise women and wizards abound, but they are not to be compared with that
_santa_ near Naples whom I used to visit in the nineties, and who was so
successful in the magics that the Bishop of Pozzuoli, among hundreds of
other clients, was wont to drive up to her door once a week for a
consultation. These mostly occupy themselves with the manufacture of
charms for gaining lucky lottery numbers, and for deluding fond women
who wish to change their lovers.
The lore of herbs is not much studied. For bruises, a slice of the
Opuntia is applied, or the cooling parietaria (known as "pareta" or
"paretene"); the camomile and other common remedies are in vogue; the
virtues of the male fern, the rue, sabina and (home-made) ergot of rye
are well known but not employed to the extent they are in Russia, where
a large progeny is a disaster. There is a certain respect for the
legitimate unborn, and even in cases of illegitimacy some neighbouring
foundling hospital, the house of the Madonna, is much more convenient.
It is a true monk's expedient; it avoids the risk of criminal
prosecution; the only difference being that the Mother of God, and not
the natural mother of the infant, becomes responsible for its prompt and
almost inevitable destruction. [Footnote: The scandals that
occasionally arise in connection with that saintly institution, the
Foundling Hospital at Naples, are enough to make humanity shudder. Of
856 children living under its motherly care during 1895, 853 "died" in
the course of that one year-only three survived; a wholesale massacre.
These 853 murdered children were carried forward in the books as still
living, and the institution, which has a yearly revenue of over 600,000
francs, was debited with their maintenance, while 42 doctors (instead of
the prescribed number of 19) continued to draw salaries for their
services to these innocents that had meanwhile been starved and tortured
to death. The official report on these horrors ends with the words:
"There is no reason to think that these facts are peculiar to the year
That the moon stands in sympathetic relations with living vegetation is
a fixed article of faith among the peasantry. They will prune their
plants only when the satellite is waxing--_al sottile detta luna,_ as
they say. Altogether, the moon plays a considerable part in their lore,
as might be expected in a country where she used to be worshipped under
so many forms. The dusky markings on her surface are explained by saying
that the moon used to be a woman and a baker of bread, her face gleaming
with the reflection of the oven, but one day she annoyed her mother, who
took up the brush they use for sweeping away the ashes, and smirched her
face. . . .
Whoever reviews the religious observances of these people as a whole
will find them a jumble of contradictions and incongruities, lightly
held and as lightly dismissed. Theirs is the attitude of mind of little
children--of those, I mean, who have been so saturated with Bible
stories and fairy tales that they cease to care whether a thing be true
or false, if it only amuses for the moment. That is what makes them an
ideal prey for the quack physician. They will believe anything so long
as it is strange and complicated; a straightforward doctor is not
listened to; they want that mystery-making "priest-physician"
concerning whom a French writer--I forget his name--has wisely
discoursed. I once recommended a young woman who was bleeding at the
nose to try the homely remedy of a cold key. I thought she would have
died of laughing! The expedient was too absurdly simple to be efficacious.
The attitude of the clergy in regard to popular superstitions is the
same here as elsewhere. They are too wise to believe them, and too
shrewd to discourage the belief in others; these things can be turned to
account for keeping the people at a conveniently low level of
intelligence. For the rest, these priests are mostly good fellows of the
live-and-let-live type, who would rather cultivate their own potatoes
than quarrel about vestments or the Trinity. Violently acquisitive, of
course, like most southerners. I know a parish priest, a son of poor
parents, who, by dint of sheer energy, has amassed a fortune of half a
million francs. He cannot endure idleness in any shape, and a fine
mediaeval scene may be witnessed when he suddenly appears round the
corner and catches his workmen wasting their time and his money--
"Ha, loafers, rogues, villains, vermin and sons of _bastardi cornuti!_
If God had not given me these garments and thereby closed my lips to all
evil-speaking (seizing his cassock and displaying half a yard of purple
stocking)--wouldn't I just tell you, spawn of adulterous assassins, what
I think of you!"
But under the new regime these priests are becoming mere decorative
survivals, that look well enough in the landscape, but are not taken
seriously save in their match-making and money-lending capacities.
The intense realism of their religion is what still keeps it alive for
the poor in spirit. Their saints and devils are on the same familiar
footing towards mankind as were the old gods of Greece. Children do not
know the meaning of "Inferno"; they call it "casa del diavolo" (the
devil's house); and if they are naughty, the mother says, "La Madonna
strilla"--the Madonna will scold. Here is a legend of Saint Peter,
interesting for its realism and because it has been grafted upon a very
The apostle Peter was a dissatisfied sort of man, who was always
grumbling about things in general and suggesting improvements in the
world-scheme. He thought himself cleverer even than "N. S. G. C." One
day they were walking together in an olive orchard, and Peter said:
"Just look at the trouble and time it takes to collect all those
miserable little olives. Let's have them the size of melons."
"Very well. Have your way, friend Peter! But something awkward is bound
to happen. It always does, you know, with those improvements of yours."
And, sure enough, one of these enormous olives fell from the tree
straight on the saint's head, and ruined his new hat.
"I told you so," said N. S. G. C.
I remember a woman explaining to me that the saints in Heaven took their
food exactly as we do, and at the same hours.
"The same food?" I asked. "Does the Madonna really eat beans?"
"Beans? Not likely! But fried fish, and beefsteaks of veal." I tried to
picture the scene, but the effort was too much for my hereditary Puritan
leanings. Unable to rise to these heights of realism, I was rated a
pagan for my ill-timed spirituality.
_Madame est servie. . . ._
The train conveying me to Taranto was to halt for the night at the
second station beyond Venosa--at Spinaz-zola. Aware of this fact, I had
enquired about the place and received assuring reports as to its hotel
accommodation. But the fates were against me. On my arrival in the late
evening I learnt that the hotels were all closed long ago, the townsfolk
having gone to bed "with the chickens"; it was suggested that I had
better stay at the station, where the manageress of the restaurant kept
certain sleeping quarters specially provided for travellers in my
Presently the gentle dame lighted a dim lantern and led me across what
seemed to be a marsh (it was raining) to the door of a hut which was to
be my resting-place. At the entrance she paused, and after informing me
that a band of musicians had taken all the beds save one which was at my
disposal if I were good enough to pay her half a franc, she placed the
lantern in my hand and stumbled back into the darkness.
I stepped into a low chamber, the beds of which were smothered under a
profusion of miscellaneous wraps. The air was warm--the place exhaled an
indescribable _esprit de corps._ Groping further, I reached another
apartment, vaulted and still lower than the last, an old-fashioned
cow-stable, possibly, converted into a bedroom. One glance sufficed me:
the couch was plainly not to be trusted. Thankful to be out of the rain
at least, I lit a pipe and prepared to pass the weary hours till 4 a.m.
It was not long ere I discovered that there was another bed in this den,
opposite my own; and judging by certain undulatory and saltatory
movements within, it was occupied. Presently the head of a youth
emerged, with closed eyes and flushed features. He indulged in a series
of groans and spasmodic kicks, that subsided once more, only to
recommence. A flute projected from under his pillow.
"This poor young man," I thought, "is plainly in bad case. On account of
illness, he has been left behind by the rest of the band, who have gone
to Spinazzola to play at some marriage festival. He is feverish, or
possibly subject to fits--to choriasis or who knows what disorder of the
nervous system. A cruel trick, to leave a suffering youngster alone in
this foul hovel." I mis-liked his symptoms--that anguished complexion
and delirious intermittent trembling, and began to run over the scanty
stock of household remedies contained in my bag, wondering which of them
might apply to his complaint. There was court plaster and boot polish,
quinine, corrosive sublimate and Worcester sauce (detestable stuff, but
Just as I had decided in favour of the last-named, he gave a more than
usually vigorous jerk, sat up in bed and, opening his eyes, remarked:
This, then, was the malady. I enquired why he had not joined his
He was tired, he said; tired of life in general, and of flute-playing in
particular. Tired, moreover, of certain animals; and with a tiger-like
spring he leapt out of bed.
Once thoroughly awake, he proved an amiable talker, though oppressed
with an incurable melancholy which no amount of tobacco and Venosa wine
could dispel. In gravely boyish fashion he told me of his life and
ambitions. He had passed a high standard at school, but--what would
you?--every post was crowded. He liked music, and would gladly take it
up as a profession, if anything could be learnt with a band such as his;
he was sick, utterly sick, of everything. Above all things, he wished to
travel. Visions of America floated before his mind--where was the money
to come from? Besides, there was the military service looming close at
hand; and then, a widowed mother at home--the inevitable mother--with a
couple of little sisters; how shall a man desert his family? He was born
on a farm on the Murge, the watershed between this country and the
Adriatic. Thinking of the Murge, that shapeless and dismal range of
limestone hills whose name suggests its sad monotony, I began to
understand the origin of his pagan wistfulness.
"Happy foreigners!"--such was his constant refrain--"happy foreigners,
who can always do exactly what they like! Tell me something about other
countries," he said.
To cheer him up, I replied with improbable tales of Indian life, of
rajahs and diamonds, of panthers whose eyes shine like moonbeams in the
dark jungle, of elephants huge as battleships, of sportive monkeys who
tie knots in each others' tails and build themselves huts among the
trees, where they brew iced lemonade, which they offer in friendliest
fashion to the thirsty wayfarer, together with other light
"Cigarettes as well?"
"No. They are not allowed to cultivate tobacco."
"Ah, that _monopolio,_ the curse of humanity!"
He was almost smiling when, at 2.30 a.m., there resounded a furious
knocking at the door, and the rest of the band appeared from their
unknown quarters in the liveliest of spirits. Altogether, a memorable
night. But at four o'clock the lantern was extinguished and the cavern,
bereft of its Salvator-Rosa glamour, resolved itself into a prosaic and
infernally unclean hovel. Issuing from the door, I saw those murky
recesses invaded by the uncompromising light of dawn, and shuddered. . . .
The railway journey soon dispelled the phantoms of the night. As the
train sped downhill, the sun rose in splendour behind the Murge hills,
devouring mists so thickly couched that, struck by the first beams, they
glistered like compact snow-fields, while their shaded portions might
have been mistaken for stretches of mysterious swamp, from which an
occasional clump of tree-tops emerged, black and island-like. These
dreamland effects lasted but a brief time, and soon the whole face of
the landscape was revealed. An arid region, not unlike certain parts of
Yet the line passes through places renowned in history. Who would not
like to spend a day at Altamura, if only in memory of its treatment by
the ferocious Cardinal Ruffo and his army of cut-throats? After a heroic
but vain resistance comparable only to that of Saguntum or Petelia,
during which every available metal, and even money, was converted into
bullets to repel the assailers, there followed a three days' slaughter
of young and old; then the cardinal blessed his army and pronounced, in
the blood-drenched streets, a general absolution. Even this man has
discovered apologists. No cause so vile, that some human being will not
be found to defend it.
So much I called to mind that morning from the pages of Colletta, and
straightway formed a resolution to slip out of the carriage and arrest
my journey at Altamura for a couple of days. But I must have been asleep
while the train passed through the station, nor did I wake up again till
the blue Ionian was in sight.
At Venosa one thinks of Roman legionaries fleeing from Hannibal,
of Horace, of Norman ambitions; Lucera and Manfredonia call up
Saracen memories and the ephemeral gleams of Hohen-staufen; Gargano
takes us back into Byzantine mysticism and monkery. And now from
Altamura with its dark record of Bourbon horrors, we glide into the
sunshine of Hellenic days when the wise Archytas, sage and lawgiver,
friend of Plato, ruled this ancient city of Tarentum. A wide sweep of
history! And if those Periclean times be not remote enough, yonder lies
Oria on its hilltop, the stronghold of pre-Hellenic and almost legendary
Messapians; while for such as desire more recent associations there is
the Albanian colony of San Giorgio, only a few miles distant, to recall
the glories of Scanderbeg and his adventurous bands.
Herein lies the charm of travel in this land of multiple
civilizations--the ever-changing layers of culture one encounters, their
My previous experiences of Taranto hotels counselled me to take a
private room overlooking the inland sea (the southern aspect is already
intolerably hot), and to seek my meals at restaurants. And in such a one
I have lived for the last ten days or so, reviving old memories. The
place has grown in the interval; indeed, if one may believe certain
persons, the population has increased from thirty to ninety thousand
in--I forget how few years. The arsenal brings movement into the town;
it has appropriated the lion's share of building sites in the "new"
town. Is it a ripple on the surface of things, or will it truly stir the
spirits of the city? So many arsenals have come and gone, at Taranto!
This arsenal quarter is a fine example of the Italian mania of _fare
figura--_everything for effect. It is an agglomeration of dreary
streets, haunted by legions of clamorous black swifts, and constructed
on the rectangular principle dear to the Latin mind. Modern, and
surpassingly monotonous. Are such interminable rows of stuccoed barracks
artistic to look upon, are they really pleasant to inhabit? Is it
reasonable or even sanitary, in a climate of eight months' sunshine, to
build these enormous roadways and squares filled with glaring limestone
dust that blows into one's eyes and almost suffocates one; these Saharas
that even at the present season of the year (early June) cannot be
traversed comfortably unless one wears brown spectacles and goes veiled
like a Tuareg? This arsenal quarter must be a hell during the really not
season, which continues into October.
For no trees whatever are planted to shade the walking population, as in
Paris or Cairo or any other sunlit city.
And who could guess the reason? An Englishman, at least, would never
bring himself to believe what is nevertheless a fact, namely, that if
the streets are converted into shady boulevards, the rents of the houses
immediately fall. When trees are planted, the lodgers complain and
finally emigrate to other quarters; the experiment has been tried, at
Naples and elsewhere, and always with the same result. Up trees, down
rents. The tenants refuse to be deprived of their chief pleasure in
life--that of gazing at the street-passengers, who must be good enough
to walk in the sunshine for their delectation. But if you are of an
inquisitive turn of mind, you are quite at liberty to return the
compliment and to study from the outside the most intimate details of
the tenants' lives within. Take your fill of their domestic doings;
stare your hardest. They don't mind in the least, not they! That feeling
of privacy which the northerner fosters doggedly even in the centre of a
teeming city is alien to their hearts; they like to look and be looked
at; they live like fish in an aquarium. It is a result of the whole
palazzo-System that every one knows his neighbour's business better than
his own. What does it matter, in the end? Are we not all "Christians "?
The municipality, meanwhile, is deeply indebted for the sky-piercing
ambitions which have culminated in the building of this new quarter. To
meet these obligations, the octroi prices have been raised to the
highest pitch by the City Fathers. This octroi is farmed out and
produces (they tell me) 120 pounds a day; there are some hundred
toll-collecting posts at the outskirts of the town, and the average
salary of their officials is three pounds a month. They are supposed to
be respectable and honest men, but it is difficult to see how a family
can be supported on that wage, when one knows how high the rents are,
and how severely the most ordinary commodities of life are taxed.
I endeavoured to obtain photographs of the land as it looked ere it was
covered by the arsenal quarter, but in vain. Nobody seems to have
thought it worth while preserving what would surely be a notable
economic document for future generations. Out of sheer curiosity I also
tried to procure a plan of the old quarter, that labyrinth of
thick-clustering humanity, where the Streets are often so narrow that
two persons can barely squeeze past each other. I was informed that no
such plan had ever been drawn up; it was agreed that a map of this kind
might be interesting, and suggested, furthermore, that I might undertake
the task myself; the authorities would doubtless appreciate my labours.
We foreigners, be it understood, have ample means and unlimited leisure,
and like nothing better than doing unprofitable jobs of this kind.
[Footnote: here is a map of old Taranto in Lasor a Varea (Savonarola)
_Universus terrarum etc.,_ Vol. II, p. 552, and another in J. Blaev's
_Theatrum Civitatum_ (1663). He talks of the "rude houses" of this
One is glad to leave the scintillating desert of this arsenal quarter,
and enter the cool stone-paved streets of the other, which remind one
somewhat of Malta. In the days of Salis-Marschlins this city possessed
only 18,000 inhabitants, and "outdid even the customary Italian filth,
being hardly passable on account of the excessive nastiness and stink."
It is now scrupulously clean--so absurdly clean, that it has quite
ceased to be picturesque. Not that its buildings are particularly
attractive to me; none, that is, save the antique "Trinita" column of
Doric gravity--sole survivor of Hellenic Taras, which looks wondrously
out of place in its modern environment. One of the finest of these
earlier monuments, the Orsini tower depicted in old prints of the place,
has now been demolished.
Lovers of the baroque may visit the shrine of Saint Cataldo, a jovial
nightmare in stone. And they who desire a literary pendant to this
fantastic structure should read the life of the saint written by Morone
in 1642. Like the shrine, it is the quintessence of insipid exuberance;
there is something preposterous in its very title "Cataldiados," and
whoever reads through those six books of Latin hexameters will arise
from the perusal half-dazed. Somehow or other, it dislocates one's whole
sense of terrestrial values to see a frowsy old monk [Footnote: This
wandering Irish missionary is supposed to have died here in the seventh
century, and they who are not satisfied with his printed biographies
will find one in manuscript of 550 pages, compiled in 1766, in the Cuomo
Library at Naples.] treated in the heroic style and metre, as though he
were a new Achilles. As a _jeu d'esprit_ the book might pass; but it is
deadly serious. Single men will always be found to perpetrate
monstrosities of literature; the marvel is that an entire generation of
writers should have worked themselves into a state of mind which
solemnly approved of such freaks.
Every one has heard of the strange position of this hoary island-citadel
(a metropolis, already, in neolithic days). It is of oval shape, the
broad sides washed by the Ionian Sea and an oyster-producing lagoon;
bridges connect it at one extremi-y with the arsenal or new town, and at
the other with the so-called commercial quarter. It is as if some
precious gem were set, in a ring, between two others of minor worth. Or,
to vary the simile, this acropolis, with its close-packed alleys, is the
throbbing heart of Taranto; the arsenal quarter--its head; and that
other one--well, its stomach; quite an insignificant stomach as compared
with the head and corroborative, in so far, of the views of
Metch-nikoff, who holds that this hitherto commendable organ ought now
to be reduced in size, if not abolished altogether. . . .
From out of this window I gaze upon the purple lagoon flecked with
warships and sailing-boats; and beyond it, upon the venerable land of
Japygia, the heel of Italy, that rises in heliotrope-tinted undulations
towards the Adriatic watershed. At night-time an exquisite perfume of
flowers and ripe corn comes wafted into my room over the still waters,
and when the sun rises, white settlements begin to sparkle among its
olives and vineyards. My eyes often rest upon one of them; it is
Grottaglie, distant a few miles from Taranto on the Brindisi line. I
must visit Grottaglie, for it was here that the flying monk received his
The flying monk!
The theme is not inappropriate at this moment, when the newspapers are
ringing with the Paris-Rome aviation contest and the achievements of
Beaumont, Garros and their colleagues. I have purposely brought his
biography with me, to re-peruse on the spot. But let me first explain
how I became acquainted with this seventeenth-century pioneer of aviation.
It was an odd coincidence.
I had arrived in Naples, and was anxious to have news of the proceedings
at a certain aviation meeting in the north, where a rather inexperienced
friend of mine had insisted upon taking a part; the newspaper reports of
these entertainments are enough to disturb anybody. While admiring the
great achievements of modern science in this direction, I wished
devoutly, at that particular moment, that flying had never been
invented; and it was something of a coincidence, I say, that stumbling
in this frame of mind down one of the unspeakable little side-streets in
the neighbourhood of the University, my glance should have fallen upon
an eighteenth-century engraving in a bookseller's window which depicted
a man raised above the ground without any visible means of
support--flying, in short. He was a monk, floating before an altar. A
companion, near at hand, was portrayed as gazing in rapturous wonder at
this feat of levitation. I stepped within and demanded the volume to
which this was the frontispiece.
The salesman, a hungry-looking old fellow with incredibly dirty hands
and face, began to explain.
"The Flying Monk, sir, Joseph of Copertino. A mighty saint and conjuror!
Or perhaps you would like some other book? I have many, many lives of
_santi_ here. Look at this one of the great Egidio, for instance. I can
tell you all about him, for he raised my mother's grand-uncle from the
dead; yes, out of the grave, as one may say. You'll find out all about
it in this book; and it's only one of his thousand miracles. And here is
the biography of the renowned Giangiuseppe, a mighty saint and----"
I was paying little heed; the flying monk had enthralled me. An
unsuspected pioneer of aviation . . . here was a discovery!
"He flew?" I queried, my mind reverting to the much-vaunted triumphs of
"Why not? The only reason why people don't fly like that nowadays is
because--well, sir, because they can't. They fly with machines, and
think it something quite new and wonderful. And yet it's as old as the
hills! There was Iscariot, for example--Icarus, I mean----"
"Pure legend, my good man."
"Everything becomes legend, if the gentleman will have the goodness to
wait. And here is the biography of----"
"How much for Joseph of Copertino?" Cost what it may, I said to myself,
that volume must be mine.
He took it up and began to turn over the pages lovingly, as though
handling some priceless Book of Hours.
"A fine engraving," he observed, _sotto voce._ "And this is the best of
many biographies of the flying monk. It is by Rossi, the
Minister-General of the Franciscan order to which our monk belonged; the
official biography, it might be called--dedicated, by permission, to His
Holiness Pope Clemens XIII, and based on the documents which led to the
saint's beatification. Altogether, a remarkable volume----"
And he paused awhile. Then continued:
"I possess a cheaper biography of him, also with a frontispiece, by
Montanari, which has the questionable advantage of being printed as
recently as 1853. And here is yet another one, by Antonio Basile--oh, he
has been much written about; a most celebrated _taumaturgo,_
(wonder-worker)! As to this _Life_ of 1767, I could not, with a good
conscience, appraise it at less than five francs."
"I respect your feelings. But--five francs! I have certain scruples of
my own, you know, and it irks my sense of rectitude to pay five francs
for the flying monk unless you can supply me with six or seven
additional books to be included in that sum.
"Twelve _soldi_ (sous) apiece--that strikes me as the proper price of
such literature, for foreigners, at least. Therefore I'll have the great
Egidio as well, and Montanari's life of the flying monk, and that other
one by Basile, and Giangiuseppe, and----"
"By all means! Pray take your choice."
And so it came about that, relieved of a tenuous and very sticky
five-franc note, and loaded down with three biographies of the flying
monk, one of Egidio, two of Giangiuseppe--I had been hopelessly
swindled, but there! no man can bargain in a hurry, and my eagerness to
learn something of the life of this early airman had made me oblivious
of the natural values of things--and with sundry smaller volumes of
similar import bulging out of my pockets I turned in the direction of
the hotel, promising myself some new if not exactly light reading.
But hardly had I proceeded twenty paces before the shopkeeper came
running after me with another formidable bundle under his arm. More
books! An ominous symptom--the clearest demonstration of my defeat; I
was already a marked man, a good customer. It was humiliating, after my
long years' experience of the south.
And there resounded an unmistakable note of triumph in his voice, as he
"Some more biographies, sir. Read them at your leisure, and pay me what
you like. You cannot help being generous; I see it in your face."
"I always try to encourage polite learning, if that is what you think to
decipher in my features. But it rains _santi_ this morning," I added,
"The gentleman is pleased to joke! May it rain _soldi_ tomorrow."
"A little shower, possibly. But not a cloud-burst, like today. . . ."
THE FLYING MONK
As to the flying monk, there is no doubt whatever that he deserved his
name. He flew. Being a monk, these feats of his were naturally confined
to convents and their immediate surroundings, but that does not alter
the facts of the case.
Of the flights that he took in the little town of Copertino-alone, more
than seventy, says Father Rossi whom I follow throughout, are on record
in the depositions which were taken on oath from eye-witnesses after his
death. This is one of them, for example:
"Stupendous likewise was the _ratto_ (flight or rapture) which he
exhibited on a night of Holy Thursday. . . . He suddenly flew towards
the altar in a straight line, leaving untouched all the ornaments of
that structure; and after some time, being called back by his superior,
returned flying to the spot whence he had set out."
"He flew similarly upon an olive tree . . . and there remained in
kneeling posture for the space of half an hour. A marvellous thing it
was to see the branch which sustained him swaying lightly, as though a
bird had alighted upon it."
But Copertino is a remote little place, already famous in the annals of
miraculous occurrences. It can be urged that a kind of enthusiasm for
their distinguished brother-monk may have tempted the inmates of the
convent to exaggerate his rare gifts. Nothing of the kind. He performed
flights not only in Copertino, but in various large towns of Italy, such
as Naples, Rome, and Assisi. And the spectators were by no means an
assemblage of ignorant personages, but men whose rank and credibility
would have weight in any section of society.
"While the Lord High Admiral of Castille, Ambassador of Spain at the
Vatican, was passing through Assisi in the year 1645, the custodian of
the convent commanded Joseph to descend from the room into the church,
where the Admiral's lady was waiting for him, desirous of seeing him.
and speaking to him; to whom Joseph replied, 'I will obey, but I do not
know whether I shall be able to speak to her.' And, as a matter of fact,
hardly had he entered the church and raised his eyes to a statue . . .
situated above the altar, when he threw himself into a flight in order
to embrace its feet at a distance of twelve paces, passing over the
heads of all the congregation; then, after remaining there some time, he
flew back over them with his usual cry, and immediately returned to his
cell. The Admiral was amazed, his wife fainted away, and all the
onlookers became piously terrified."
And if this does not suffice to win credence, the following will
assuredly do so:
"And since it was God's wish to render him marvellous even in the sight
of men of the highest sphere, He ordained that Joseph, having arrived in
Rome, should be conducted one day by the Father-General (of the
Franciscan Order) to kiss the feet of the High Pontiff, Urban the
Eighth; in which act, while contemplating Jesus Christ in the person of
His Vicar, he was ecstatically raised in air, and thus remained till
called back by the General, to whom His Holiness, highly astonished,
turned and said that 'if Joseph were to die during his pontificate, he
himself would bear witness to this _successo.'"_
But his most remarkable flights took place at Fossombrone, where once
"detaching himself in swiftest manner from the altar with a cry like
thunder, he went, like lightning, gyrating hither and thither about the
chapel, and with such an impetus that he made all the cells of the
dormitory tremble, so that the monks, issuing thence in consternation,
cried, 'An earthquake! An earthquake!'" Here, too, he cast a young sheep
into the air, and took flight after it to the height of the trees, where
he "remained in kneeling posture, ecstatic and with extended arms, for
more than two hours, to the extraordinary marvel of the clergy who
witnessed this." This would seem to have been his outdoor record--two
hours without descent to earth.
Sometimes, furthermore, he took a passenger, if such a term can properly
So once, while the monks were at prayers, he was observed to rise up and
run swiftly towards the Confessor of the convent, and "seizing him by
the hand, he raised him from the ground by supernatural force, and with
jubilant rapture drew him along, turning him round and round in a
_violento ballo;_ the Confessor moved by Joseph, and Joseph by God."
And what happened at Assisi is still more noteworthy, for here
was a gentleman, a suffering invalid, whom Joseph "snatched by the hair,
and, uttering his customary cry of 'oh!' raised himself from the earth,
while he drew the other after him by his hair, carrying him in this
fashion for a short while through the air, to the intensest admiration
of the spectators." The patient, whose name was Chevalier Baldassarre,
discovered, on touching earth again, that he had been cured by this
flight of a severe nervous malady which had hitherto afflicted him. . . .
Searching in the biography for some other interesting traits of Saint
Joseph of Copertino, I find, in marked contrast to his heaven-soaring
virtues, a humility of the profoundest kind. Even as a full-grown man he
retained the exhilarating, childlike nature of the pure in heart. "_La
Mamma mia_"--thus he would speak, in playful-saintly fashion, of the
Mother of God--"_la Mamma mia_ is capricious. When I bring Her flowers,
She tells me She does not want them; when I bring Her candles, She also
does not want them; and when I ask Her what She wants, She says, 'I
want the heart, for I feed only on hearts.'" What wonder if the "mere
pronouncement of the name of Maria often sufficed to raise him from the
ground into the air"?
Nevertheless, the arch-fiend was wont to creep into his cell at night
and to beat and torture him; and the monks of the convent were terrified
when they heard the hideous din of echoing blows and jangling chains.
"We were only having a little game," he would then say. This is
refreshingly boyish. He once induced a flock of sheep to enter the
chapel, and while he recited to them the litany, it was observed with
amazement that "they responded at the proper place to his verses--he
saying _Sancta Maria,_ and they answering, after their manner, _Bah!"_
I am not disguising from myself that an incident like the last-named may
smack of childishness to a certain austere type of northern Puritan.
Childishness! But to go into this question of the relative hilarity and
moroseness of religions would take us far afield; for aught I know it
may, at bottom, be a matter of climatic influences, and there we can
leave it. Under the sunny sky of Italy, who would not be disposed to see
the bright side of things?
Saint Joseph of Copertino performed a variety of other miracles. He
multiplied bread and wine, calmed a tempest, drove out devils, caused
the lame to walk and the blind to see--all of which are duly attested by
eye-witnesses on oath. Though "illiterate," he had an innate knowledge
of ecclesiastical dogma; he detected persons of impure life by their
smell, and sinners were revealed to his eyes with faces of black colour
(the Turks believe that on judgment day the damned will be thus marked);
he enjoyed the company of two guardian angels, which were visible not
only to himself but to other people. And, like all too many saints, he
duly fell into the clutches of the Inquisition, ever on the look-out for
victims pious or otherwise.
There is one little detail which it would be disingenuous to slur over.
It is this. We are told that Saint Joseph was awkward and backward in
his development. As a child his boy-comrades used to laugh at him for
his open-mouthed staring habits; they called him "bocca-aperta"
(gape-mouth), and in the frontispiece to Montanari's life of him, which
depicts him as a bearded man of forty or fifty, his mouth is still
agape; he was, moreover, difficult to teach, and Rossi says he profited
very little by his lessons and was of _niuna letteratura._ As a lad of
seventeen he could not distinguish white bread from brown, and he used
to spill water-cans, break vases and drop plates to such an extent that
the monks of the convent who employed him were obliged, after eight
months' probation, to dismiss him from their service. He was unable to
pass his examination as priest. At the age of twenty-five he was
ordained by the Bishop of Castro, without that formality.
All this points to a certain weak-mindedness or arrested development,
and were this an isolated case one might be inclined to think that the
church had made Saint Joseph an object of veneration on the same
principles as do the Arabs, who elevate idiots, epileptics, and
otherwise deficient creatures to the rank of marabouts, and credit them
with supernatural powers.
But it is not an isolated case. The majority of these southern saints
are distinguished from the vulgar herd by idiosyncrasies to which modern
physicians give singular names such as "gynophobia," "glossolalia" and
"demonomania"; [Footnote: Good examples of what Max Nordau calls
_Echolalie_ are to be found in this biography (p. 22).] even the founder
of the flying monk's order, the great Francis of Assisi, has been
accused of some strange-sounding mental disorder because, with touching
humility, he doffed his vestments and presented himself naked before his
Creator. What are we to conclude therefrom?
The flying monk resembles Saint Francis in more than one feature. He,
too, removed his clothes and even his shirt, and exposed himself thus to
a crucifix, exclaiming, "Here I am, Lord, deprived of everything." He
followed his prototype, further, in that charming custom of introducing
the animal world into his ordinary talk ("Brother Wolf, Sister Swallow,"
etc.). So Joseph used to speak of himself as _l'asinelio--_the little
ass; and a pathetic scene was witnessed on his death-bed when he was
heard to mutter: "_L'asinelio_ begins to climb the mountain;
_l'asinelio_ is half-way up; _l'asinelio_ has reached the summit;
_l'asinelio_ can go no further, and is about to leave his skin behind."
It is to be noted, in this connection, that Saint Joseph of Coper-tino
was born in a stable.
This looks like more than a mere coincidence. For the divine Saint
Francis was likewise born in a stable.
But why should either of these holy men be born in stables?
A reasonable explanation lies at hand. A certain Japanese statesman is
credited with that shrewd remark that the manifold excellencies and
diversities of Hellenic art are due to the fact that the Greeks had no
"old masters" to copy from--no "schools" which supplied their
imagination with ready-made models that limit and smother individual
initiative. And one marvels to think into what exotic beauties these
southern saints would have blossomed, had they been at liberty, like
those Greeks, freely to indulge their versatile genius--had they not
been bound to the wheels of inexorable precedent. If the flying monk,
for example, were an ordinary mortal, there was nothing to prevent him
from being born in an omnibus or some other of the thousand odd places
where ordinary mortals occasionally are born. But--no! As a Franciscan
saint, he was obliged to conform to the school of Bethlehem and Assisi.
He was obliged to select a stable. Such is the force of tradition. . . .
Joseph of Copertino lived during the time of the Spanish viceroys, and
his fame spread not only over all Italy, but to France, Germany and
Poland. Among his intimates and admirers were no fewer than eight
cardinals, Prince Leopold of Tuscany, the Duke of Bouillon, Isabella of
Austria, the Infanta Maria of Savoy and the Duke of Brunswick, who,
during a visit to various courts of Europe in 1649, purposely went to
Assisi to see him, and was there converted from the Lutheran heresy by
the spectacle of one of his flights. Prince Casimir, heir to the throne
of Poland, was his particular friend, and kept up a correspondence with
him after the death of his father and his own succession to the throne.
Towards the close of his life, the flying monk became so celebrated that
his superiors were obliged to shut him up in the convent of Osimo, in
close confinement, in order that his aerial voyages "should not be
disturbed by the concourse of the vulgar." And here he expired, in his
sixty-first year, on the 18th September, 1663. He had been suffering and
infirm for some little time previous to that event, but managed to take
a short flight on the very day preceding his demise.
Forthwith the evidences of his miraculous deeds were collected and
submitted to the inspired examination of the Sacred Congregation of
Rites in Rome. Their conscientiousness in sifting and weighing the
depositions is sufficiently attested by the fact that ninety years were
allowed to elapse ere Joseph of Copertino was solemnly received into the
number of the Blessed. This occurred in 1753; and though the date may
have been accidentally chosen, some people will be inclined to detect
the hand of Providence in the ordering of the event, as a challenge to
Voltaire, who was just then disquieting Europe with certain doctrines of
a pernicious nature.
BY THE INLAND SEA
The railway line to Grottaglie skirts the shore of the inland sea for
two or three miles, and then turns away. Old Taranto glimmers in lordly
fashion across the tranquil waters; a sense of immemorial culture
pervades this region of russet tilth, and olives, and golden corn.
They led me, at Grottaglie, to the only convent of males now in use, San
Francesco, recently acquired by the Jesuits. In the sacristy of its
church, where I was told to wait, a slender young priest was praying
rapturously before some image, and the clock that stood at hand recorded
the flight of twenty minutes ere his devotions were ended. Then he arose
slowly and turned upon me a pair of lustrous, dreamy eyes, as though
awakened from another world.
This was quite a new convent, he explained; it could not possibly be the
one I was seeking. But there was another one, almost a ruin, and now
converted into a refuge for a flock of poor old women; he would gladly
show me the way. Was I a "Germanese"? [Footnote: Germanese_ or
_Allemanno = a_ German. _Tedesco,_ hereabouts, signifies an Austrian--a
detested nationality, even at this distance of time. I have wondered,
since writing the above, whether this is really the place of which Rossi
speaks. He calls it Grottole (the difference in spelling would be of
little account), and says it lies not far distant from Copertino. But
there may be a place of this name still nearer; it is a common
appellation in these honeycombed limestone districts. This Grottaglie
_is_ certainly the birth-place of another religious hero, the
priest-brigand Ciro, who gave so much trouble to Sir R. Church.] No, I
replied; I came from Scotland.
"A Calvinist," he remarked, without bitterness.
"A Presbyterian," I gently corrected.
"To be sure--a Presbyterian."
As we walked along the street under the glowing beams of midday I set
forth the object of my visit. He had never heard of the flying monk--it
was astonishing, he said. He would look up the subject without delay.
The flying monk! That a Protestant should come all the way from "the
other end of the world" to enquire about a local Catholic saint of
whose existence he himself was unaware, seemed not so much to surprise
as positively to alarm him.
Among other local curiosities, he pointed out the portal of the parish
church, a fine but dilapidated piece of work, with a large rosette
window overhead. The town, he told me, derives its name from certain
large grottoes wherein the inhabitants used to take refuge during
Saracen raids. This I already knew, from the pages of Swinburne and
Sanchez; and in my turn was able to inform him that a certain Frenchman,
Bertaux by name, had written about the Byzantine wall-paintings within
these caves. Yes, those old Greeks! he said. And that accounted for the
famous ceramics of the place, which preserved the Hellenic traditions in
extraordinary purity. I did not inform him that Hector Preconi, who
purposely visited Grottaglie to study these potteries, was considerably
At the door of the decayed convent my guide left me, with sundry polite
expressions of esteem. I entered a spacious open courtyard; a well stood
in the centre of a bare enclosure whereon, in olden days, the monks may
have cultivated their fruit and vegetables; round this court there ran
an arched passage, its walls adorned with frescoes, now dim and faded,
depicting sacred subjects. The monastery itself was a sombre maze of
stairways and cells and corridors--all the free spaces, including the
very roof, encumbered with gleaming potteries of every shape and size,
that are made somewhere near the premises.
I wandered about this sunless and cobwebby labyrinth, the old woman
pensioners flitting round me like bats in the twilight. I peered into
many dark closets; which of them was it--Joseph's famous
"He tormented his body so continuously and obstinately with pins,
needles and blades of steel, and with such effusion of blood, that even
now, after entire years, the walls of his cell and other places of
retirement are discoloured and actually encrusted with blood." Which of
them was it--the chamber that witnessed these atrocious macerations? It
was all so gloomy and forlorn.
Then, pushing aside a door in these tenebrous regions, I suddenly found
myself bathed in dazzling light. A loggia opened here, with a view over
stretches of gnarled olives, shining all silvery under the immaculate
sky of noonday and bounded by the sapphire belt of the Ionian. Sunshine
and blue sea! Often must the monks have taken pleasure in this fair
prospect; and the wiser among them, watching the labourers returning
home at nightfall, the children at play, and all the happy life of a
world so alien to their own, may well have heaved a sigh.
Meanwhile a crowd of citizens had assembled below, attracted by the
unusual novelty of a stranger in their town. The simple creatures
appeared to regard my investigations in the light of a good joke; they
had heard of begging monks, and thieving monks, and monks of another
variety whose peculiarities I dare not attempt to describe; but a flying
"The Dark Ages," said one of them--the mayor, I dare say--with an air of
grave authority. "Believe me, dear sir, the days of such fabulous
monsters are over."
So they seem to be, for the present.
No picture or statue records the life of this flying wonder, this
masterpiece of Spanish priestcraft; no mural tablet--in this land of
commemorative stones--has been erected to perpetuate the glory of his
signal achievements; no street is called after him. It is as if he had
never existed. On the contrary, by a queer irony of fate, the roadway
leading past his convent evokes the memory of a misty heathen poet,
likewise native of these favoured regions, a man whose name Joseph of
Copertino had assuredly never heard--Ennius, of whom I can now recall
nothing save that one unforgettable line which begins "O Tite tute Tati
tibi----"; Ennius, who never so much as tried to fly, but contented
himself with singing, in rather bad Latin, of the things of this earth.
_Via Ennio. . . ._
It is the swing of the pendulum. The old pagan, at this moment, may be
nearer to our ideals and aspirations than the flying monk who died only
yesterday, so to speak.
But a few years hence--who can tell?
A characteristic episode. I had carefully timed myself to catch the
returning train to Tarante. Great was my surprise when, half-way to the
station, I perceived the train swiftly approaching. I raced it, and
managed to jump into a carriage just as it drew out of the station. The
guard straightway demanded my ticket and a fine for entering the train
without one (return tickets, for weighty reasons of "internal
administration," are not sold). I looked at my watch, which showed that
we had left six minutes before the scheduled hour. He produced his; it
coincided with my own. "No matter," he said. "I am not responsible for
the eccentricities of the driver, who probably had some urgent private
affairs to settle at Taranto. The fine must be paid." A fellow-passenger
took a more charitable view of the case. He suggested that an inspector
of the line had been travelling along with us, and that the driver,
knowing this, was naturally ambitious to show how fast he could go.
A mile or so before reaching Tarante the railway crosses a stream that
flows into the inland sea. One would be glad to believe those sages who
hold it to be the far-famed Galaesus. It rises near at hand in a marsh,
amid mighty tufts of reeds and odorous flowers, and the liquid bubbles
up in pools of crystalline transparency--deep and perfidious cauldrons
overhung by the trembling soil on which you stand. These fountains form
a respectable stream some four hundred yards in length; another copious
spring rises up in the sea near its mouth. But can this be the river
whose virtues are extolled by: Virgil, Horace, Martial, Statius,
Propertius, Strabo, Pliny, Varro and Coramella? What a constellation of
names around these short-lived waters! Truly, _minuit praesentia
famam,_ as Boccaccio says of the once-renowned Sebethus.
Often have I visited this site and tried to reconstruct its vanished
glories. My enthusiasm even led me, some years ago, to the town hall, in
order to ascertain its true official name, and here they informed me
that "it is vulgarly called Citrezze; but the correct version is 'Le
Giadrezze,' which, as you are aware, sir, signifies _pleasantness"_
This functionary was evidently ignorant of the fact that so long ago as
1771 the learned commentator (Carducci) of the "Delizie Tarentine"
already sneered at this popular etymology; adding, what is of greater
interest, that "in the time of our fathers" this region was covered with
woods and rich in game. In the days of Keppel Craven, the vale was
"scantily cultivated with cotton." Looking at it from above, it
certainly resembles an old river-bed of about five hundred yards in
breadth, and I hold it possible that the deforestation of the higher
lands may have suffocated the original sources with soil carried down
from thence, and forced them to seek a lower level, thus shortening the
stream and reducing its volume of water.
But who shall decide? If we follow Polybius, another brook at the
further end of the inland sea has more valid claims to the title of
Galaesus. Virgil called it "black Galaesus "--a curious epithet, still
applied to water in Italy as well as in Greece (Mavromati, etc.). "For
me," says Gissing, "the Galaesus is the stream I found and tracked,
whose waters I heard mingle with the little sea." There is something to
be said for such an attitude, on the part of a dilettante traveller,
towards these desperate antiquarian controversies.
It is an agreeable promenade from the Giadrezze rivulet to Taranto along
the shore of this inland sea. Its clay banks are full of shells and
potteries of every age, and the shallow waters planted with stakes
indicating the places where myriads of oysters and mussels are
bred--indeed, if you look at a map you will observe that the whole of
this lagoon, as though to shadow forth its signification, is split up
into two basins like an opened oyster.
Here and there along this beach are fishermen's huts constructed of
tree-stems which are smothered under multitudinous ropes of grass, ropes
of all ages and in every stage of decomposition, some fairly fresh,
others dissolving once more into amorphous bundles of hay. There is a
smack of the stone ages, of primeval lake-dwellings, about these
shelters on the deserted shore; two or three large fetichistic stones
stand near their entrance; wickerwork objects of dark meaning strew the
ground; a few stakes emerge, hard by, out of the placid and oozy waters.
In such a cabin, methinks, dwelt those two old fishermen of
Theocritus--here they lived and slumbered side by side on a couch of sea
moss, among the rude implements of their craft.
The habits of these fisherfolk are antique, because the incidents of
their calling have remained unchanged. Some people have detected traces
of "Greek" in the looks and language of these of Tarante. I can detect
nothing of the kind.
And the same with the rest of the population. Hellenic traits have
disappeared from Tarante, as well they may have done, when one remembers
its history. It was completely latinized under Augustus, and though
Byzantines came hither under Nicephorus Phocas--Benjamin of Tudela says
the inhabitants are "Greeks"--they have long ago become merged into
the Italian element. Only the barbers seem to have preserved something
of the old traditions: grandiloquent and terrible talkers, like the
cooks in Athenasus.
I witnessed an Aristophanic scene in one of their shops lately, when a
simple-minded stranger, a north Italian--some arsenal official--brought
a little boy to have his hair cut "not too short" and, on returning
from a brief visit to the tobacconist next door, found it cropped much
closer than he liked.
"But, damn it," he said (or words to that effect), "I told you not to
cut the hair too short."
The barber, immaculate and imperturbable, gave a preliminary bow. He was
collecting his thoughts, and his breath.
"I say, I told you not to cut it too short. It looks horrible----"
"Horrible? That, sir--pardon my frankness!--is a matter of opinion. I
fully admit that you desired the child's hair to be cut not too short.
Those, in fact, were your very words. Notwithstanding, I venture to
think you will come round to my point of view, on due reflection, like
most of my esteemed customers. In the first place, there is the
ethnological aspect of the question. You are doubtless sufficiently
versed in history to know that under the late regime it was considered
improper, if not criminal, to wear a moustache. Well, nowadays we think
differently. Which proves that fashions change; yes, they change, sir;
and the wise man bends to them--up to a certain point, of course; up to
a certain reasonable point----" "But, damn it----"
"And in favour of my contention that hair should be worn short nowadays,
I need only cite the case of His Majesty the King, whose august head, we
all know, is clipped like that of a racehorse. Horrible (as you call it)
or not, the system has momentarily the approval of royalty, and that
alone should suffice for all loyal subjects to deem it not unworthy of
imitation. Next, there are what one might describe as hygienic and
climatic considerations. Summer is approaching, sir, and apart from
certain unpleasant risks which I need not specify, you will surely agree
with me that the solstitial heat is a needlessly severe trial for a boy
with long hair. My own children are all cropped close, and I have reason
to think they are grateful for it. Why not yours? Boys may differ in
strength or complexion, in moral character and mental attainments, but
they are remarkably unanimous as to what constitutes personal comfort.
And it is obviously the duty of parents to consult the personal comfort
of their offspring--within certain reasonable limits, of course----"
"Lastly, we come to the much-debated point: I mean the aesthetic side of
the matter. No doubt, to judge by some old pictures such as those of the
renowned Mantegna, there must have been a time when men thought long
hair in children rather beautiful than otherwise. And I am not so
rigorous as to deny a certain charm to these portraits--a charm which is
largely due I fancy, to the becoming costumes of the period. At the same
The stranger did not trust himself to listen any longer. He threw down a
coin and walked out of the shop with his son, muttering something not
very complimentary to the barber's female relations.
But the other was quite unmoved. "And after all," he continued,
addressing the half-opened door through which his visitor had fled, "the
true question is this: What is 'too short'? Don't cut it too short,
you said. _Che vuol dire?_ An ambiguous phrase!
"Too short for one man may be too long for another. Everything is
relative. Yes, gentlemen" (turning to myself and his shop-assistant),
"everything on this earth is relative."
With this sole exception, I have hitherto garnered no Hellenic traits in
Visible even from Giadrezze, on the other side of the inland sea and
beyond the arsenal, there stands a tall, solitary palm. It is the last,
the very last, or almost the very last, of a race of giants that adorned
the gardens which have now been converted into the "New Quarter." I
imagine it is the highest existing palm in Italy, and am glad to have
taken a likeness of it, ere it shall have been cut down like the rest of
its fellows. Taranto was once celebrated for these queenly growths,
which the Saracens brought over from their flaming Africa.
The same fate has overtaken the trees of the Villa Beaumont, which used
to be a shady retreat, but was bought by the municipality and forthwith
"pulizzato"--i.e. cleaned. This is in accordance with that
_mutilomania_ of the south: that love of torturing trees which causes
them to prune pines till they look like paint-brushes that had been out
all night, and which explains their infatuation for the much-enduring
robinia that allows itself to be teased into any pattern suggested by
their unhealthy phantasy. It is really as if there were something
offensive to the Latin mind in the sight of a well-grown tree, as if man
alone had the right of expanding normally. But I must not do the City
Fathers an injustice. They have planted two rows of cryp-tomerias. Will
people never learn that cryptomerias cannot flourish in south Italy?
Instead of this amateurish gardening, why not consult some competent
professional, who with bougain-villeas, hibiscus and fifty other such
plants would soon transform this favoured spot into a miniature paradise?
The Villa Beaumont and the road along the Admiralty canal are now the
citizens' chief places of disport. Before the year 1869 the Corso
Vittorio Emmanuele, that skirts the sea on the south side of the old
town, was their sole promenade. And even this street was built only a
short time ago. Vainly one conjectures where the medieval Tarentines
took the air. It must have been like Manfredonia at the present day.
This Corso, which has a most awkward pavement and is otherwise
disagreeable as looking due south, becomes interesting after sunset.
Here you may see the young bloods of Taranto leaning in rows against the
railing with their backs to the sea--they are looking across the road
whence, from balconies and windows, the fair sex are displaying their
charms. Never a word is spoken. They merely gaze at each other like
lovesick puppies; and after watching the performance for several
evenings, I decided in favour of robuster methods--I decided that
courtship, under conditions such as the Corso supplies, can only be
pursued by the very young or the hopelessly infatuated. But in the
south, this gazing is only part of a huge game. They are not really in
love at all, these excellent young men--not at all, at all; they know
better. They are only pretending, because it looks manly.
We must revise our conceptions as to the love-passions of these
southerners; no people are more fundamentally sane in matters of the
heart; they have none of our obfuscated sentimentality; they are seldom
naively enamoured, save in early stages of life. It is then that small
girls of eight or ten may be seen furtively recording their feelings on
the white walls of their would-be lovers' houses; these archaic scrawls
go straight to the point, and are models of what love-letters may
ultimately become, in the time-saving communities of the future. But
when the adolescent and perfumed-pink-paper stage is reached, the
missives relapse into barbarous ambiguity; they grow allegorical and
wilfully exuberant as a Persian carpet, the effigy of a pierced heart at
the end, with enormous blood-drops oozing from it, alone furnishing a
key to the document.
So far they are in earnest, and it is the girl who takes the lead; her
youthful _innamorato_ ties these letters into bundles and returns them
conscientiously, in due course, to their respective senders. Seldom does
a boy make overtures in love; he gets more of it than he knows what to
do with; he is still torpid, and slightly bored by all these attentions.
But presently he wakes up to the fact that he is a man among men, and
the obsession of "looking manly" becomes a part of his future artificial
and rhetorical life-scheme. From henceforth he plays to the gallery.
Reading the city papers, one would think that south Italian youths are
the most broken-hearted creatures in the world; they are always trying
to poison themselves for love. Sometimes they succeed, of course; but
sometimes--dear me, no! Suicides look manly, that is all. They are part
of the game. The more sensible youngsters know exactly how much
corrosive sublimate to take without immediate fatal consequences,
allowing for time to reach the nearest hospital. There, the kindly
physician and his stomach-pump will perform their duty, and the patient
wears a feather in his cap for the rest of his life. The majority of
these suicides are on a par with French duels--a harmless institution
whereby the protagonists honour themselves; they confer, as it were, a
patent of virility. The country people are as warmblooded as the
citizens, but they rarely indulge in suicides because--well, there are
no hospitals handy, and the doctor may be out on his rounds. It is too
risky by half.
And a good proportion of these suicides are only simulated. The wily
victim buys some innocuous preparation which sends him into convulsions
with ghastly symptoms of poisoning, and, after treatment, remains the
enviable hero of a mysterious masculine passion. Ask any town
apothecary. A doctor friend of mine lately analysed the results of his
benevolent exertions upon a young man who had been seen to drink some
dreadful liquid out of a bottle, and was carried to his surgery,
writhing in most artistic agonies. He found not only no poison, but not
the slightest trace of any irritant whatever.
The true courtship of these Don Giovannis of Tarante will be quite
another affair--a cash transaction, and no credit allowed. They will
select a life partner, upon the advice of _ma mere_ and a strong
committee of uncles and aunts, but not until the military service is
terminated. Everything in its proper time and place.
Meanwhile they gaze and perhaps even serenade. This looks as if they
were furiously in love, and has therefore been included among the rules
of the game. Youth must keep up the poetic tradition of "fiery."
Besides, it is an inexpensive pastime--the cinematograph costs forty
centimes--and you really cannot sit in the barber's all night long.
But catch them marrying the wrong girl!
POSTSCRIPT.--Here are two samples of youthful love-letters from my
1.--From a disappointed maiden, aged 13. Interesting, because
intermediate between the archaic and pink-paper stages:
"IDOL OF MY HEART,
"Do not the stars call you when you look to Heaven? Does not the moon
tell you, the black-cap on the willow when it says farewell to the sun?
The birds of nature, the dreary country sadly covered by a few flowers
that remain there? Once your look was passionate and pierced me like a
sunny ray, now it seems the flame of a day. Does nothing tell you of
imperishable love?" I love you and love you as (illegible) loves its
liberty, as the corn in the fields loves the sun, as the sailor loves
the sea tranquil or stormy. To you I would give my felicity, my future;
for one of your words I would spill my blood drop by drop.
"Of all my lovers you are the only ideal consort _(consorto)_ to whom I
would give my love and all the expansion of my soul and youthful
enthusiasm _(intusiamo),_ the greatest enthusiasm _(co-tusiamo)_ my
heart has ever known. O cruel one who has deigned to put his sweet
poison in my heart to-day, while to-morrow you will pass me with
indifference. Cold, proud as ever, serious and disdainful--you
understand? However that may be, I send you the unrepenting cry of my
rebellious heart: I love you!
"It is late at night, and I am still awake, and at this hour my soul is
sadder than ever in its great isolation _(insolamende);_ I look on my
past love and your dear image. Too much I love you and (illegible)
without your affection.
"How sadly I remember your sweet words whispered on a pathetic evening
when everything around was fair and rosy. How happy I then was when life
seemed radiant with felicity and brightened by your love. And now
nothing more remains of it; everything is finished. How sad even to say
it. My heart is shipwrecked far, far away from that happiness which I
(Three further pages of this.)
2.--From a boy of 14 who takes the initiative; such letters are rare.
Note the business-like brevity.
"DEAR MISS ANNE,
"I write you these few lines to say that I have understood your character
_ (carattolo)._ Therefore, if I may have the honour of being your
sweetheart, you will let me know the answer at your pleasure. I salute
you, and remain,
"Signing myself, "SALVATORE.
"Prompt reply requested!"
One looks into the faces of these Tarentines and listens to their casual
conversations, trying to unravel what manner of life is theirs. But it
is difficult to avoid reading into their characters what history leads
one to think should be there.
The upper classes, among whom I have some acquaintance, are mellow and
enlightened; it is really as if something of the honied spirit of those
old Greek sages still brooded over them. Their charm lies in the fact
that they are civilized without being commercialized. Their politeness
is unstrained, their suaveness congenital; they remind me of that New
England type which for Western self-assertion substitutes a yielding
graciousness of disposition. So it is with persistent gentle upbringing,
at Taranto and elsewhere. It tones the individual to reposeful
sweetness; one by one, his anfractuosities are worn off; he becomes as a
pebble tossed in the waters, smooth, burnished, and (to outward
appearances) indistinguishable from his fellows.
But I do not care about the ordinary city folk. They have an air of
elaborate superciliousness which testifies to ages of systematic
half-culture. They seem to utter that hopeless word, _connu!_ And what,
as a matter of fact, do they know? They are only dreaming in their
little backwater, like the oysters of the lagoon, distrustful of
extraneous matter and oblivious of the movement in a world of men beyond
their shell. You hear next to nothing of "America," that fruitful source
of fresh notions; there is no emigration to speak of; the population is
not sufficiently energetic--they prefer to stay at home. Nor do they
care much about the politics of their own country: one sees less
newspapers here than in most Italian towns. "Our middle classes," said
my friend the Italian deputy of whom I have already spoken, "are like
our mules: to be endurable, they must be worked thirteen hours out of
the twelve." But these have no industries to keep them awake, no sports,
no ambitions; and this has gone on for long centuries, In Taranto it is
always afternoon. "The Tarentines," says Strabo, "have more holidays
than workdays in the year."
And never was city-population more completely cut off from the country;
never was wider gulf between peasant and townsman. There are charming
walks beyond the New Quarter--a level region, with olives and figs and
almonds and pomegranates standing knee-deep in ripe odorous wheat; but
the citizens might be living at Timbuctu for all they know of these
things. It rains little here; on the occasion of my last visit not a
drop had fallen _for fourteen months;_ and consequently the country
roads are generally smothered in dust. Now, dusty boots are a scandal
and an offence in the eyes of the gentle burghers, who accordingly never
issue out of their town walls. They have forgotten the use of ordinary
appliances of country life, such as thick boots and walking-sticks; you
will not see them hereabouts. Unaware of this idiosyncrasy, I used to
carry a stick on my way through the streets into the surroundings, but
left it at home on learning that I was regarded as a kind of
perambulating earthquake. The spectacle of a man clattering through the
streets on horseback, such as one often sees at Venosa, would cause them
to barricade their doors and prepare for the last judgment.
Altogether, essentially nice creatures, lotus-eaters, fearful of fuss or
novelty, and drowsily satisfied with themselves and life in general. The
breezy healthfulness of travel, the teachings of art or science, the
joys of rivers and green lanes--all these things are a closed book to
them. Their interests are narrowed down to the purely human: a case of
partial atrophy. For the purely human needs a corrective; it is not
sufficiently humbling, and that is exactly what makes them so
supercilious. We must take a little account of the Cosmos nowadays--it
helps to rectify our bearings. They have their history, no doubt. But
save for that one gleam of Periclean sunshine the record, though long
and varied, is sufficiently inglorious and does not testify to undue
A change is at hand.
Gregorovius lamented the filthy condition of the old town. It is now
He deplored that Taranto possessed no museum. This again is changed, and
the provincial museum here is justly praised, though the traveller may
be annoyed at finding his favourite rooms temporarily closed (is there
any museum in Italy not "partially closed for alterations"?). New
accessions to its store are continually pouring in; so they lately
discovered, in a tomb, a Hellenistic statuette of Eros and Aphrodite, 30
centimetres high, terra-cotta work of the third century. The goddess
stands, half-timidly, while Eros alights in airy fashion on her
shoulders and fans her with his wings--an exquisite little thing.
He was grieved, likewise, that no public collection of books existed
here. But the newly founded municipal library is all that can be
desired. The stranger is cordially welcomed within its walls and may
peruse, at his leisure, old Galateus, Giovan Giovene, and the rest of them.
Wandering among those shelves, I hit upon a recent volume (1910) which
gave me more food for thought than any of these ancients. It is called
"Cose di Puglie," and contains some dozen articles, all by writers of
this province of old Calabria, [Footnote: It included the heel of
Italy.] on matters of exclusively local interest--its history,
meteorology, dialects, classical references to the country, extracts
from old economic documents, notes on the development of Apulian
printing, examples of modern local caricature, descriptions of mediaeval
monuments; a kind of anthology, in short, of provincial lore. The
typography, paper and illustrations of this remarkable volume are beyond
all praise; they would do honour to the best firm in London or Paris.
What is this book? It is no commercial speculation at all; it is a
wedding present to a newly married couple--a bouquet of flowers, of
intellectual blossoms, culled from their native Apulian meadows. One
notes with pleasure that the happy pair are neither dukes nor princes.
There is no trace of snobbishness in the offering, which is simply a
spontaneous expression of good wishes on the part of a few friends. But
surely it testifies to most refined feelings. How immeasurably does this
permanent and yet immaterial feast differ from our gross wedding
banquets and ponderous gilt clocks and tea services! Such persons
cannot but have the highest reverence for things of the mind; such a
gift is the fairest efflorescence of civilization. And this is only
another aspect of that undercurrent of spirituality in south Italy of
whose existence the tourist, harassed by sordid preoccupations, remains
This book was printed at Bari. Bari, not long ago, consisted of a dark
and tortuous old town, exactly like the citadel of Taranto. It has now
its glaring New Quarter, not a whit less disagreeable than the one here.
Why should Taranto not follow suit in the matter of culture? Heraclea,
Sybaris and all the Greek settlements along this coast have vanished
from earth; only Taranto and Cotrone have survived to carry on, if they
can, the old traditions. They have survived, thanks to peculiar physical
conditions that have safeguarded them from invaders. . . .
But these very conditions have entailed certain drawbacks--drawbacks
which Buckle would have lovingly enumerated to prove their influence
upon the habits and disposition of the Tarentines. That marine situation
. . . only think of three thousand years of scirocco, summer and winter!
It is alone enough to explain _molle Tarentum--_ enough to drain the
energy out of a Newfoundland puppy! And then, the odious dust of the
country roadways--for it _is_ odious. Had the soil been granitic, or
even of the ordinary Apennine limestone, the population might have
remained in closer contact with wild things of nature, and retained a
perennial fountain of enjoyment and inspiration. A particular kind of
rock, therefore, has helped to make them sluggish and incurious. The
insularity of their citadel has worked in the same direction, by
focussing their interests upon the purely human. That inland sea, again:
were it not an ideal breeding-place for shell-fish, the Tarentines would
long ago have learnt to vary their diet. Thirty centuries of
mussel-eating cannot but impair the physical tone of a people.
And had the inland sea not existed, the Government would not have been
tempted to establish that arsenal which has led to the erection of the
new town and consequent municipal exactions. "The arsenal," said a
grumbling old boatman to me, "was the beginning of our purgatory." A
milk diet would work wonders with the health and spirits of the
citizens. But since the building of the new quarter, such a diet has
become a luxury; cows and goats will soon be scarce as the megatherium.
There is a tax of a franc a day on every cow, and a herd of ten goats,
barely enough to keep a poor man alive, must pay annually 380 francs in
octroi. These and other legalized robberies, which among a more virile
populace would cause the mayor and town council to be forthwith attached
to the nearest lamp-post, are patiently borne. It is _imbelle
Tarentum--_ a race without grit.
I would also recommend the burghers some vegetables, so desirable for
their sedentary habits, but there again! it seems to be a peculiarity of
the local soil to produce hardly a leaf of salad or cabbage. Potatoes
are plainly regarded as an exotic--they are the size of English peas,
and make me think of Ruskin's letter to those old ladies describing the
asparagus somewhere in Tuscany. And all this to the waiter's undisguised
"The gentleman is rich enough to pay for meat. Why trouble about this
kind of food?"...
And yet--a change is at hand. These southern regions are waking up from
their slumber of ages. Already some of Italy's acutest thinkers and most
brilliant politicians are drawn from these long-neglected shores. For we
must rid ourselves of that incubus of "immutable race characters": think
only of our Anglo-Saxon race! What has the Englishman of to-day in
common with that rather lovable fop, drunkard and bully who would faint
with ecstasy over Byron's _Parisina_ after pistolling his best friend
in a duel about a wench or a lap-dog? Such differences as exist between
races of men, exist only at a given moment.
And what, I sometimes ask myself--what is now the distinguishing feature
between these southern men and ourselves? Briefly this, I think. In
mundane matters, where the personal equation dominates, their judgment
is apt to be turbid and perverse; but as one rises into questions of
pure intelligence, it becomes serenely impartial. We, on the other hand,
who are pre-eminently clear-sighted in worldly concerns of law and
government and in all subsidiary branches of mentality, cannot bring
ourselves to reason dispassionately on non-practical subjects. "L'esprit
aussi a sa pudeur," says Remy de Gourmont. Well, this _pudeur de
l'esprit,_ discouraged among the highest classes in England, is the
hall-mark of respectability hereabouts. A very real difference, at this
particular moment. . . .
There is an end of philosophizing.
They have ousted me from my pleasant quarters, the landlady's son and
daughter-in-law having returned unexpectedly and claiming their
apartments. I have taken refuge in a hotel. My peace is gone; my days in
Taranto are numbered.
Loath to depart, I linger by the beach of the Ionian Sea beyond the new
town. It is littered with shells and holothurians, with antique tesserae
of blue glass and marble fragments, with white mosaic pavements and
potteries of every age, from the glossy Greco-Roman ware whose
delicately embossed shell devices are emblematic of this sea-girt city,
down to the grosser products of yesterday. Of marbles I have found
_cipollino, pavonazzetto, giallo_ and _rosso antico,_ but no harder
materials such as porphyry or serpentine. This, and the fact that the
mosaics are pure white, suggests that the houses here must have dated,
at latest, from Augustan times.
[Footnote: Nor is there any of the fashionable _verde_ _antico,_ and
this points in the same direction. Corsi says nothing as to the date of
its introduction, and I have not read the treatise of Silenziario, but
my own observations lead me to think that the _lapis_ _atracius_ can
hardly have been known under Tiberius. Not so those hard ones: they
imported wholesale by his predecessor Augustus, who was anxious to be
known as a scorner of luxury (a favourite pose with monarchs), yet spent
incalculable sums on ornamental stones both for public and private ends.
One is struck by a certain waste of material; either the expense was
deliberately disregarded or finer methods of working the stones were not
yet in vogue. A revolution in the technique of stone-cutting must have
set in soon after his death, for thenceforward we find the most
intractable rocks cut into slices thin as card-board: too thin for
pavements, and presumably for encrusting walls and colonnades. The
Augustans, unable to produce these effects naturally, attempted
imitation-stones, and with wonderful success. I have a fragment of their
plaster postiche copying the close-grained Egyptian granite; the oily
lustre of the quartz is so fresh and the peculiar structure of the rock,
with its mica scintillations, so admirably rendered as to deceive, after
two thousand years, the eye of a trained mineralogist.]
Here I sit, on the tepid shingle, listening to the plash of the waves
and watching the sun as it sinks over the western mountains that are
veiled in mists during the full daylight, but loom up, at this sunset
hour, as from a fabulous world of gold. Yonder lies the Calabrian Sila
forest, the brigands' country. I will attack it by way of Rossano, and
thence wander, past Longobucco, across the whole region. It may be well,
after all, to come again into contact with streams and woodlands, after
this drenching of classical associations and formal civic life!
Near me stands a shore-battery which used to be called "Batteria
Chianca." It was here they found, some twenty years ago, a fine marble
head described as a Venus, and now preserved in the local museum. I
observe that this fort has lately been re-christened "Batteria Archyta."
Can this be due to a burst of patriotism for the Greek warrior-sage who
ruled Taranto, or is it a subtle device to mislead the foreign spy?
Here, too, are kilns where they burn the blue clay into tiles and vases.
I time a small boy at work shaping the former. His average output is
five tiles in four minutes, including the carrying to and fro of the
moist clay; his wages about a shilling a day. But if you wish to see the
manufacture of more complicated potteries, you must go to the unclean
quarter beyond the railway station. Once there, you will not soon weary
of that potter's wheel and the fair shapes that blossom forth under its
enchanted touch. This ware of Taranto is sent by sea to many parts of
south Italy, and you may see picturesque groups of it, here and there,
at the street corners.
Hardly has the sun disappeared before the lighthouse in the east begins
to flash. The promontory on which it stands is called San Vito after one
of the musty saints, now almost forgotten, whose names survive along
these shores. Stoutly this venerable one defended his ancient worship
against the radiant and victorious Madonna; nor did she dislodge him
from a certain famous sanctuary save by the questionable expedient of
adopting his name: she called herself S. M. "della Vita." That settled
it. He came from Mazzara in Sicily, whither they still carry, to his
lonely shrine, epileptics and others distraught in mind. And were I in a
discursive mood, I would endeavour to trace some connection between his
establishment here and the tarantella--between St. Vitus' dance and that
other one which cured, they say, the bite of the Tarentine spider.
But I am not inclined for such matters at present. The Cala-brian
uplands are still visible in the gathering twilight; they draw me
onwards, away from Taranto. It must be cool up there, among the firs and
And a land, moreover, of multiple memories and interests--this Calabria.
A land of great men. In 1737 the learned Aceti was able to enumerate
over two thousand celebrated Calabrians--athletes, generals, musicians,
centenarians, inventors, martyrs, ten popes, ten kings, as well as some
sixty conspicuous women. A land of thinkers. Old Zavarroni, born in
1705, gives us a list of seven hundred Calabrian writers; and I, for
one, would not care to bring his catalogue up to date. The recently
acquired _Biblioteca Calabra_ at Naples alone contains God knows how
many items, nearly all modern!
And who shall recount its natural attractions? Says another old writer:
"Here is all sorts of Corn, sundry Wines, and in great abundance, all
kinds of Fruits, Oyle, Hony, Wax, Saffron, Bombace, Annis and Coriander
seeds. There groweth Gum, Pitch, Turpentine and liquid Storax. In former
times it was never without Mettals, but at this present it doth much
abound, having in most parts divers sorts of Mines, as Gold, Silver,
Iron, Marble, Alabaster, Cristal, Marchesite, three sorts of white
Chaulk, Virmilion, Alume, Brimstone, and the Adamant stone, which being
in the fifth degree, draweth not Iron, and is in colour black. There
groweth hemp and flax of two sorts, the one called the male, the other
the female: there falleth Manna from heaven, truly a thing very rare;
and although there is not gathered such abundance of Silk, yet I dare
say there is not had so much in all _Italy_ besides. There are also
bathes, both hot, luke-warm, and cold, to cure many diseases. Near the
Seaside, and likewise on the Mediterrane are goodly Gardens full of
Oringes, Citrons, and Lemons of divers sorts. It is watered with many
Rivers. There are on the hils of the Apennine, thick Woods of high
Firrs, Holms, Platanes, Oaks, where grows the white odoriferous Mushrome
which shineth in the night. Here is bred the soft stone _Frigia,_ which
every month yields a delicate and wholesome Gum, and the stone
_Aetites,_ by us called the stone _Aquilina._ In this Province there is
excellent hunting of divers creatures, as wild Hoggs, Staggs, Goats,
Hares, Foxes, Porcupines, Marmosets. There are also ravenous beasts, as
Wolves, Bears, Luzards, which are quick-sighted, and have the hinder
parts spotted with divers colours. This kind of Beast was brought from
_France_ to _Rome_ in the sports of _Pompey_ the great, and Hunters
affirm this Beast to be of so frail a memory, that although he eateth
with hunger, if he chance to look back, remembreth no more his meat, and
departing searcheth for other." Who would not visit Calabria, if only on
the chance of beholding the speckled posterior of the absent-minded
INTO THE JUNGLE
This short plunge into the jungle was a relief, after the all-too-human
experiences of Taranto. The forest of Policoro skirts the Ionian; the
railway line cleaves it into two unequal portions, the seaward tract
being the smaller. It is bounded on the west by the river Sinnc, and I
imagine the place has not changed much since the days when Keppel Craven
explored its recesses.
Twilight reigns in this maze of tall deciduous trees. There is thick
undergrowth, too; and I measured an old lentiscus--a shrub, in
Italy--which was three metres in circumference. But the exotic feature
of the grove is its wealth of creeping vines that clamber up the trunks,
swinging from one tree-top to another, and allowing the merest threads
of sunlight to filter through their matted canopy. Policoro has the
tangled beauty of a tropical swamp. Rank odours arise from the decaying
leaves and moist earth; and once within that verdant labyrinth, you
might well fancy yourself in some primeval region of the globe, where
the foot of man has never penetrated.
Yet long ago it resounded with the din of battle and the trumpeting of
elephants--in that furious first battle between Pyrrhus and the Romans.
And here, under the very soil on which you stand, lies buried, they say,
the ancient city of Siris.
They have dug canals to drain off the moisture as much as possible, but
the ground is marshy in many places and often quite impassable,
especially in winter. None the less, winter is the time when a little
shooting is done here, chiefly wild boars and roe-deer. They are driven
down towards the sea, but only as far as the railway line. Those that
escape into the lower portions are safe for another year, as this is
never shot over but kept as a permanent preserve. I have been told that
red-deer were introduced, ut that the experiment failed; probably the
country was too not and damp. In his account of Calabria, Duret de Tavel
[Footnote: An English translation of his book appeared in 1832.]
sometimes speaks of killing the fallow-deer, an autochthonous
Tyrrhenian beast which is now extinct on the mainland in its wild state.
Nor can he be confounding it with the roe, since he mentions the two
together--for instance, in the following note from Corigliano (February,
1809), which must make the modern Calabrian's mouth water:
"Game has multiplied to such an extent that the fields are ravaged, and
we are rendering a real service in destroying it. I question whether
there exists in Europe a country offering more varied species. . . . We
return home followed by carriages and mules loaded with wild boars,
roe-deer, fallow-deer, hares, pheasants, wild duck, wild geese--to say
nothing of foxes and wolves, of which we have already killed an immense
The pheasants seem to have likewise died out, save in royal preserves.
They were introduced into Calabria by that mighty hunter Frederick II.
The parcelling out of many of these big properties has been followed by
a destruction of woodland and complete disappearance of game. It is
hailed as the beginning of a new era of prosperity; and so it well may
be, from a commercial point of view. But the traveller and lover of
nature will be glad to leave some of these wild districts in the hands
of their rich owners, who have no great interests in cultivating every
inch of ground, levelling rocky spaces, draining the land and hewing