Part 5 out of 7
it was who divined the relationship between the Albanian and Pelasgian
tongues; who created the literary language of his country, and
formulated its political ambitions.
Whereas the hazy "Autobiologia" records complicated political intrigues
at Naples that are not connected with his chief strivings, the little
"Testamento politico," printed towards the end of his life, is more
interesting. It enunciates his favourite and rather surprising theory
that the Albanians cannot look for help and sympathy save only to their
_brothers,_ the Turks. Unlike many Albanians on either side of the
Adriatic, he was a pronounced Turco-phile, detesting the "stolid
perfidy" and "arrogant disloyalty" of the Greeks. Of Austria, the most
insidious enemy of his country's freedom, he seems to have thought well.
A year before his death he wrote to an Italian translator of "Milosao"
(I will leave the passage in the original, to show his cloudy language):
"Ed un tempo propizio la accompagna: la ricostituzione dell' Epiro nei
suoi quattro vilayet autonomi quale e nei propri consigli e nei propri
desideri; ricostituzione, che pel suo Giornale, quello dell' ottimo A.
Lorecchio--cui precede il principe Nazionale Kastriota, Chini--si
annuncia fatale, e quasi fulcro della stabilita dello impero Ottomano, a
della pace Europea; preludio di quella diffusione del regno di Dio sulla
terra, che sara la Pace tra gli Uomini."
Truly a remarkable utterance, and one that illustrates the disadvantages
of living at a distance from the centres of thought. Had he travelled
less with the spirit and more with the body, his opinions might have
been modified and corrected. But he did not even visit the Albanian
colonies in Italy and Sicily. Hence that vast confidence in his
mission--a confidence born of solitude, intellectual and geographical.
Hence that ultra-terrestrial yearning which tinges his apparently
He remained at home, ever poor and industrious; wrapped in bland
exaltation and oblivious to contemporary movements of the human mind.
Not that his existence was without external activities. A chair of
Albanian literature at San Demetrio, instituted in 1849 but suppressed
after three years, was conferred on him in 1892 by the historian and
minister Pasquale Villari; for a considerable time, too, he was director
of the communal school at Corigliano, where, with characteristic energy,
he set up a printing press; violent journalistic campaigns succeeded one
another; in 1896 he arranged for the first congress of Albanian language
in that town, which brought together delegates from every part of Italy
and elicited a warm telegram of felicitation from the minister
Francesco Crispi, himself an Albanian. Again, in 1899, we find him
reading a paper before the twelfth international congress of
Orientalists at Rome.
But best of all, he loved the seclusion of Macchia.
Griefs clustered thickly about the closing years of this unworldly
dreamer. Blow succeeded blow. One by one, his friends dropped off; his
brothers, his beloved wife, his four sons--he survived them all; he
stood alone at last, a stricken figure, in tragic and sublime isolation.
Over eighty years old, he crawled thrice a week to deliver his lectures
at San Demetrio; he still cultivated a small patch of ground with
enfeebled arm, composing, for relaxation, poems and rhapsodies at the
patriarchal age of 88! They will show you the trees under which he was
wont to rest, the sunny views he loved, the very stones on which he sat;
they will tell you anecdotes of his poverty--of an indigence such as we
can scarcely credit. During the last months he was often thankful for a
crust of bread, in exchange for which he would bring a sack of acorns,
self-collected, to feed the giver's pigs. Destitution of this kind,
brought about by unswerving loyalty to an ideal, ceases to exist in its
sordid manifestations: it exalts the sufferer. And his life's work is
there. Hitherto there had been no "Albanian Question" to perplex the
chanceries of Europe. He applied the match to the tinder; he conjured up
that phantom which refuses to be laid.
He died, in 1903, at San Demetrio; and there lies entombed in the
cemetery on the hill-side, among the oaks.
But you will not easily find his grave.
His biographer indulges a poetic fancy in sketching the fair monument
which a grateful country will presently rear to his memory on the snowy
Acroceraunian heights. It might be well, meanwhile, if some simple
commemorative stone were placed on the spot where he lies buried. Had he
succumbed at his natal Macchia, this would have been done; but death
overtook him in the alien parish of San Demetrio, and his remains were
mingled with those of its poorest citizens. A microcosmic illustration
of that clannish spirit of Albania which he had spent a lifetime in
endeavouring to direct to nobler ends!
He was the Mazzini of his nation.
A Garibaldi, when the crisis comes, may possibly emerge from that
Where is the Cavour?
SCRAMBLING TO LONGOBUCCO
A driving road to connect San Demetrio with Acri whither I was now bound
was begun, they say, about twenty years ago; one can follow it for a
considerable distance beyond the Albanian College. Then, suddenly, it
ends. Walking to Acri, however, by the old track, one picks up, here and
there, conscientiously-engineered little stretches of it, already
overgrown with weeds; these, too, break off as abruptly as they began,
in the wild waste. For purposes of wheeled traffic these picturesque but
disconnected fragments are quite useless.
Perhaps the whole undertaking will be completed some day--_speriamo!_ as
the natives say, when speaking of something rather beyond reasonable
expectation. But possibly not; and in that case--_pazienza!_ meaning,
that all hope may now be abandoned. There is seldom any great hurry,
with non-governmental works of this kind.
It would be interesting if one could learn the inner history of these
abortive transactions. I have often tried, in vain. It is impossible for
an outsider to pierce the jungle of sordid mystery and intrigue which
surrounds them. So much I gathered: that the original contract was based
on the wages then current and that, the price of labour having more than
doubled in consequence of the "discovery" of America, no one will
undertake the job on the old terms. That is sufficiently intelligible.
But why operations proceeded so slowly at first, and why a new contract
cannot now be drawn up--who can tell! The persons interested blame the
contractor, who blames the engineer, who blames the dilatory and corrupt
administration of Cosenza. My private opinion is, that the last three
parties have agreed to share the swag between them. Meanwhile everybody
has just grounds of complaint against everybody else; the six or seven
inevitable lawsuits have sprung up and promise to last any length of
time, seeing that important documents have been lost or stolen and that
half the original contracting parties have died in the interval: nobody
knows what is going to happen in the end. It all depends upon whether
some patriotic person will step forward and grease the wheels in the
And even then, if he hails from Acri, they of San Demetrio will probably
work against the project, and vice versa. For no love is lost between
neighbouring communities--wonderful, with what venomous feudal animosity
they regard each other! United Italy means nothing to these people,
whose conceptions of national and public life are those of the cock on
his dung-hill. You will find in the smallest places intelligent and
broad-minded men, tradespeople or professionals or landed proprietors,
but they are seldom members of the _municipio;_ the municipal career is
also a money-making business, yes; but of another kind, and requiring
Foot-passengers like myself suffer no inconvenience by being obliged to
follow the shorter and time-honoured mule-track that joins the two
places. It rises steeply at first, then begins to wind in and out among
shady vales of chestnut and oak, affording unexpected glimpses now
towards distant Tarsia and now, through a glade on the right, on to the
ancient citadel of Bisignano, perched on its rock.
I reached Acri after about two and a half hours' walking. It lies in a
theatrical situation and has a hotel; but the proprietor of that
establishment having been described to me as "the greatest brigand of
the Sila" I preferred to refresh myself at a small wineshop, whose
manageress cooked me an uncommonly good luncheon and served some of the
best wine I had tasted for long. Altogether, the better-class women here
are far more wideawake and civilized than those of the Neapolitan
province; a result of their stern patriarchal up-bringing and of their
possessing more or less sensible husbands.
Thus fortified, I strolled about the streets. One would like to spend a
week or two in a place like this, so little known even to Italians, but
the hot weather and bad feeding had begun to affect me disagreeably and
I determined to push on without delay into cooler regions. It would
never do to be laid up at Acri with heatstroke, and to have one's last
drops of life drained away by copious blood-lettings, relic of
Hispano-Arabic practices and the favourite remedy for every complaint.
Acri is a large place, and its air of prosperity contrasts with the
slumberous decay of San Demetrio; there is silk-rearing, and so much
emigration into America that nearly every man I addressed replied in
English. New houses are rising up in all directions, and the place is
celebrated for its rich citizens.
But these same wealthy men are in rather a dilemma. Some local
authority, I forget who, has deduced from the fact that there are so
many forges and smiths' shops here that this must be the spot to which
the over-sensitive inhabitants of Sybaris banished their workers in
metal and other noisy professions. Now the millionaires would like to be
thought Sybarites by descent, but it is hardly respectable to draw a
pedigree from these outcasts.
They need not alarm themselves. For Acri, as Forbiger has shown, is the
old Acherontia; the river Acheron, the Mocone or Mucone of to-day, flows
at its foot, and from one point of the town I had a fine view into its
A wearisome climb of two hours brought me to the _Croce Greca,_ the
Greek Cross, which stands 1185 metres above sea-level. How hot it was,
in that blazing sun! I should be sorry to repeat the trip, under the
same conditions. A structure of stone may have stood here in olden days;
at present it is a diminutive wooden crucifix by the roadside. It marks,
none the less, an important geographical point: the boundary between the
"Greek" Sila which I was now leaving and the Sila Grande, the central
and largest region. Beyond this last-named lies the lesser Sila, or
"Sila Piccola "; and if you draw a line from Rogliano (near Cosenza) to
Cotrone you will approximately strike the watershed which divides the
Sila Grande from this last and most westerly of the three Sila
divisions. After that comes Catanzaro and the valley of the Corace, the
narrowest point of the Italian continent, and then the heights of Serra
and Aspromonte, the true "Italy" of old, that continue as far as Reggio.
Though I passed through some noble groves of chestnut on the way up, the
country here was a treeless waste. Yet it must have been forest up to a
short time ago, for one could see the beautiful vegetable mould which
has not yet had time to be washed down the hill-sides. A driving road
passes the Croce Greca; it joins Acri with San Giovanni, the capital of
Sila Grande, and with Cosenza.
It was another long hour's march, always uphill, before I reached a
spacious green meadow or upland with a few little buildings. The place
is called Verace and lies on the watershed between the upper Crati
valley and the Ionian; thenceforward my walk would be a descent along
the Trionto river, the Traeis of old, as far as Longo-bucco which
overlooks its flood. It was cool here at last, from the altitude and the
decline of day; and hay-making was going on, amid the pastoral din of
cow-bells and a good deal of blithe love-making and chattering.
After some talk with these amiable folks, I passed on to where
the young Traeis bubbles up from the cavernous reservoirs of the earth.
Of those chill and roguish wavelets I took a draught, mindful of the day
when long ago, by these same waters, an irreparable catastrophe
overwhelmed our European civilization. For it was the Traeis near whose
estuary was fought the battle between 300,000 Sybarites (I refuse to
believe these figures) and the men of Croton conducted by their champion
Milo--a battle which led to the destruction of Sybaris and,
incidentally, of Hellenic culture throughout the mainland of Italy. This
was in the same fateful year 510 that witnessed the expulsion of the
Tarquins from Rome and the Pisistratidae from Athens.
Pines, the characteristic tree of the Sila, now begin to appear. Passing
through Verace I had already observed, on the left, a high mountain
entirely decked with them. It is the ridge marked Pale-parto on the map;
the Trionto laves its foot. But the local pronunciation of this name is
Palepite, and I cannot help thinking that here we have a genuine old
Greek name perpetuated by the people and referring to this covering of
hoary pines--a name which the cartographers, arbitrary and ignorant as
they often are, have unconsciously disguised. (It occurs in some old
charts, however, as Paleparto.) An instructive map of Italy could be
drawn up, showing the sites and cities wrongly named from corrupt
etymology or falsified inscriptions, and those deliberately miscalled
out of principles of local patriotism. The whole country is full of
these inventions of _litterati_ which date, for the most part, from the
enthusiastic but undisciplined Cinque-Cento.
The minute geographical triangle comprised between Cosenza, Longobucco
and San Demetrio which I was now traversing is one of the least known
corners of Italy, and full of dim Hellenic memories. The streamlet
"Calamo" flows through the valley I ascended from Acri, and at its side,
a little way out of the town, stands the fountain "Pompeio" where the
brigands, not long ago, used to lie in wait for women and children
coming to fetch water, and snatch them away for ransom. On the way up, I
had glimpses down a thousand feet or more into the Mucone or Acheron,
raging and foaming in its narrow valley. It rises among the mountains
called "Fallistro" and "Li Tartari"--unquestionably Greek names.
On this river and somewhere above Acri stood, according to the scholarly
researches of Lenormant, the ancient city of Pandosia. I do not know if
its site has been determined since his day. It was "very strong" and
rich and at its highest prosperity in the fourth century B.C.; after the
fall of Sybaris it passed under the supremacy of Croton. The god Pan was
figured on some of its coins, and appropriately enough, considering its
sylvan surroundings; others bear the head of the nymph Pandosia with her
name and that of the river Crathis, under the guise of a young shepherd:
they who wish to learn his improper legend will find it in the pages of
Aelian, or in chapter xxxii of the twenty-fifth book of Rhodiginus,
beginning _Quae sit brutorum affectio,_ etc. [Footnote: _Brunii a
brutis moribus:_ so say certain spiteful writers, an accusation which
Strabo and Horace extend to all Calabrians. As to the site of Pandosia,
a good number of scholars, such as old Prosper Parisius and Luigi Maria
Greco, locate it at the village of Mendicino on the river Merenzata,
which was called Arconte (? Acheron) in the Middle Ages. So the Trionto
is not unquestionably the Traeis, and in Marincola Pistoia's good little
"Cose di Sibari" (1845) the distinction is claimed for one of four
rivers--the Lipuda, Colognati, Trionto, or Fiuminica.]
We have here not the Greece of mediaeval Byzantine times, much less that
of the Albanians, but the sunny Hellas of the days when the world was
young, when these ardent colonists sailed westwards to perpetuate their
names and legends in the alien soil of Italy.
The Mucone has always been known as a ferocious and pitiless torrent,
and maintains to this day its Tartarean reputation. Twenty persons a
year, they tell me, are devoured by its angry waters: _mangia venti
cristiani all' anno!_ This is as bad as the Amendolea near Reggio. But
none of its victims have attained the celebrity of Alexander of
Molossus, King of Epirus, who perished under the walls of Pandosia in
326 B.C. during an excursion against the Lucanians. He had been warned
by the oracle of Dodona to avoid the waters of Acheron and the town of
Pandosia; once in Italy, however, he paid small heed to these words,
thinking they referred to the river and town of the same name in
Thesprotia. But the gods willed otherwise, and you may read of his death
in the waters, and the laceration of his body by the Lucanians, in
It is a strange caprice that we should now possess what is in every
probability the very breastplate worn by the heroic monarch on that
occasion. It was found in 1820, and thereafter sold--some fragments of
it, at least--to the British Museum, where under the name of "Bronze of
Siris" it may still be admired: a marvellous piece of repoussee work, in
the style of Lysippus, depicting the combat of Ajax and the Amazons. . . .
The streamlet Trionto, my companion to Longobucco, glides along between
stretches of flowery meadow-land--fit emblem of placid rural
contentment. But soon this lyric mood is spent. It enters a winding
gorge that shuts out the sunlight and the landscape abruptly assumes an
epic note; the water tumbles wildly downward, hemmed in by mountains
whose slopes are shrouded in dusky pines wherever a particle of soil
affords them foothold. The scenery in this valley is as romantic as any
in the Sila. Affluents descend on either side, while the swollen rivulet
writhes and screeches in its narrow bed, churning the boulders with
hideous din. The track, meanwhile, continues to run beside the water
till the passage becomes too difficult; it must perforce attack the
hill-side. Up it climbs, therefore, in never-ending ascension, and then
meanders at a great height above the valley, in and out of its tributary
I was vastly enjoying this promenade--the shady pines, whose fragrance
mingled with that of a legion of tall aromatic plants in full
blossom--the views upon the river, shining far below me like the thread
of silver--when I observed with surprise that the whole mountain-side
which the track must manifestly cross had lately slipped down into the
abyss. A cloud-burst two or three days ago, as I afterwards learned, had
done the mischief. On arrival at the spot, the path was seen to be
interrupted--clean gone, in fact, and not a shred of earth or trees
left; there confronted me a bare scar, a wall of naked rock which not
even a chamois could negotiate. Here was a dilemma. I must either
retrace my steps along the weary road to Verace and there seek a night's
shelter with the gentle hay-makers, or clamber down into the ravine,
follow the river and--chance it! After anxious deliberation, the latter
alternative was chosen.
But the Trionto was now grown into a formidable torrent of surging waves
and eddies, with a perverse inclination to dash from one side to the
other of its prison, so as to necessitate frequent fordings on my part.
These watery passages, which I shall long remember, were not without a
certain danger. The stream was still swollen with the recent rains, and
its bed, invisible under the discoloured element, sufficiently deep to
inspire respect and studded, furthermore, with slippery boulders of
every size, concealing insidious gulfs. Having only a short
walking-stick to support me through this raging flood, I could not but
picture to myself the surprise of the village maidens of Crepolati,
lower down, on returning to their laundry work by the river-side next
morning and discovering the battered anatomy of an Englishman--a rare
fish, in these waters--stranded upon their familiar beach. Murdered, of
course. What a galaxy of brigand legends would have clustered round my
Evening was closing in, and I had traversed the stream so often and
stumbled so long amid this chaos of roaring waters and weirdly-tinted
rocks, that I began to wonder whether the existence of Longobucco was
not a myth. But suddenly, at a bend of the river, the whole town, still
distant, was revealed, upraised on high and framed in the yawning mouth
of the valley. After the solitary ramble of that afternoon, my eyes
familiarized to nothing save the wild things of nature, this unexpected
glimpse of complicated, civilized structures had all the improbability
of a mirage. Longo-bucco, at that moment, arose before me like those
dream-cities in the Arabian tale, conjured by enchantment out of the
The vision, though it swiftly vanished again, cheered me on till after a
good deal more scrambling and wading, with boots torn to rags, lame,
famished and drenched to the skin, I reached the bridge of the Rossano
highway and limped upwards, in the twilight, to the far-famed "Hotel
Soon enough, be sure, I was enquiring as to supper. But the manageress
met my suggestions about eatables with a look of blank astonishment.
Was there nothing in the house, then? No cheese, or meat, or maccheroni,
or eggs--no wine to drink?
"Nothing!" she replied. "Why should you eat things at this hour? You
must find them yourself, if you really want them. I might perhaps
procure you some bread."
_Avis aux voyageurs,_ as the French say.
Undaunted, I went forth and threw myself upon the mercy of a citizen of
promising exterior, who listened attentively to my case. Though far too
polite to contradict, I could see that nothing in the world would induce
him to credit the tale of my walking from San Demetrio that day--it was
tacitly relegated to the regions of fable. With considerable tact, so as
not to wound my feelings, he avoided expressing any opinion on so
frivolous a topic; nor did the reason of his reluctance to discuss my
exploit dawn upon me till I realized, later on, that like many of the
inhabitants he had never heard of the track over Acri, and consequently
disbelieved its existence. They reach San Demetrio by a two or even
three days' drive over Rossano, Corigliano, and Vaccarizza. He became
convinced, however, that for some reason or other I was hungry, and
thereupon good-naturedly conducted me to various places where wine and
other necessities of life were procured.
The landlady watched me devouring this fare, more astonished than
ever--indeed, astonishment seemed to be her chronic condition so long as
I was under her roof. But the promised bread was not forthcoming, for
the simple reason that there was none in the house. She had said that
she could procure it for me, not that she possessed it; now, since I had
given no orders to that effect, she had not troubled about it.
Nobody travels south of Rome. . . .
Strengthened beyond expectation by this repast, I sallied into the night
once more, and first of all attended an excellent performance at the
local cinematograph. After that, I was invited to a cup of coffee by
certain burghers, and we strolled about the piazza awhile, taking our
pleasure in the cool air of evening (the town lies 794 metres above
sea-level). Its streets are orderly and clean; there are no Albanians,
and no costumes of any kind. Here, firm-planted on the square, and
jutting at an angle from the body of the church, stands a massive
bell-tower overgrown from head to foot with pendent weeds and grasses
whose roots have found a home in the interstices of its masonry; a
grimly venerable pile, full of character.
Weary but not yet satiated, I took leave of the citizens and
perambulated the more ignoble quarters, all of which are decently
lighted with electricity. Everywhere in these stiller regions was the
sound of running waters, and I soon discerned that Longobucco is an
improvement on the usual site affected by Calabrian hill-towns--the
Y-shaped enclosure, namely, at the junction of two rivers--inasmuch as
it has contrived to perch itself on a lofty platform protected by no
less than three streams that rush impetuously under its walls: the
Trionto and two of its affluents. On the flank inclined towards the
Ionian there is a veritable chasm; the Trionto side is equally difficult
of approach--the rear, of course, inaccessible. No wonder the brigands
chose it for their chief citadel.
I am always on the look-out for modern epigraphical curiosities;
regarding the subject as one of profound social significance (postage
stamps, indeed!) I have assiduously formed a collection, the envy of
connaisseurs, about one-third of whose material, they tell me, might
possibly be printed at Brussels or Geneva. Well, here is a mural
_graffito_ secured in the course of this evening's walk:
_Abaso [sic] questo paese sporco incivile:_ down with this dirty savage
There is food for thought in this inscription. For if some bilious
hyper-civilized stranger were its author, the sentiments might pass. But
coming from a native, to what depths of morbid discontent do they
testify! Considering the recent progress of these regions that has led
to a security and prosperity formerly undreamed of, one is driven to the
conjecture that these words can only have been penned by some
cantankerous churl of an emigrant returning to his native land after an
easeful life in New York and compelled--"for his sins," as he would put
it--to reside at the "Hotel Vittoria."
Towards that delectable hostelry I now turned, somewhat regretfully, to
face a bedroom whose appearance had already inspired me with anything
but confidence. But hardly were the preliminary investigations begun,
when a furious noise in the street below drew me to the window once
more. Half the town was passing underneath in thronged procession, with
lighted torches and flags, headed by the municipal band discoursing
martial strains of music.
Whither wending, at this midnight hour?
To honour a young student, native of the place, now returning up the
Rossano road from Naples, where he had distinguished himself prominently
in some examination. I joined the crowd, and presently we were met by a
small carriage whence there emerged a pallid and frail adolescent with
burning eyes, who was borne aloft in triumph and cheered with that
vociferous, masculine heartiness which we Englishmen reserve for our
popular prize-fighters. And this in the classic land of brigandage and
The intellectual under-current. . . .
It was an apt commentary on my _graffito._ And another, more personally
poignant, not to say piquant, was soon to follow: the bed. But no. I
will say nothing about the bed, nothing whatever; nothing beyond this,
that it yielded an entomological harvest which surpassed my wildest
AMONG THE BRUTTIANS
Conspicuous among the wise men of Longobucco in olden days was the
physician Bruno, who "flourished" about the end of the thirteenth
century. He called himself _Longoburgensis Calaber,_ and his great
treatise on anatomical dissection, embodying much Greek and Arabic lore,
was printed many years after his death. Another was Francesco Maria
Labonia; he wrote, in 1664, "De vera loci urbis Timesinae situatione,
etc.," to prove, presumably, that his birthplace occupied the site
whence the Homeric ore of Temese was derived. There are modern writers
who support this view.
The local silver mines were exploited in antiquity; first by Sybaris,
then by Croton. They are now abandoned, but a good deal has been written
about them. In the year 1200 a thousand miners were employed, and the
Anjous extracted a great deal of precious metal thence; the goldsmiths
of Longobucco were celebrated throughout Italy during the Middle Ages.
The industrious H. W. Schulz has unearthed a Royal rescript of 1274
charging a certain goldsmith Johannes of Longobucco with researches into
the metal and salt resources of the whole kingdom of Naples.
Writing from Longobucco in 1808 during a brigand-hunt, Duret de Tavel says:
"The high wooded mountains which surround this horrible place spread
over it a sombre and savage tint which saddens the imagination. This
borough contains a hideous population of three thousand souls, composed
of nail-makers, of blacksmiths and charcoal-burners. The former
government employed them in working the silver mines situated in the
neighbourhood which are now abandoned."
He tells a good deal about the brigandage that was then rife here, and
the atrocities which the repression of this pest entailed. Soon after
his arrival, for instance, four hundred soldiers were sent to a village
where the chiefs of the brigand "insurrection" were supposed to be
sheltered. The soldiers, he says, "poured into the streets like a
torrent in flood, and there began a horrible massacre, rendered
inevitable by the obstinacy of the insurgents, who fired from all the
houses. This unhappy village was sacked and burnt, suffering all the
horrors inseparable from a capture by assault." Two hundred dead were
found in the streets. But the brigand chiefs, the sole pretext of this
bloodshed, managed to escape. Perhaps they were not within fifty miles
of the place.
Be that as it may, they were captured later on by their own compatriots,
after the French had waited a month at Longobucco. Their heads were
brought in, still bleeding, and "l'identite ayant ete suffisamment
constatee, la mort des principaux acteurs a termine cette sanglante
tragedie, et nous sommes sortis de ces catacombes apennines pour revoir
le plus brillant soleil."
Wonderful tales are still told of the brigands in these forests. They
will show you notches on the trees, cut by such and such a brigand for
some particular purpose of communication with his friends; buried
treasure has been found, and even nowadays shepherds sometimes discover
rude shelters of bark and tree trunks built by them in the thickest part
of the woods. There are legends, too, of caverns wherein they hived
their booty--caverns with cleverly concealed entrances--caverns which
(many of them, at least) I regard as a pure invention modelled after the
authentic brigand caves of Salerno and Abruzzi, where the limestone rock
is of the kind to produce them. Bourbonism fostered the brood, and there
was a fierce recrudescence in the troubled sixties. They lived in bands,
_ squadrigli,_ burning and plundering with impunity. Whoever refused to
comply with their demands for food or money was sure to repent of it.
All this is over, for the time being; the brigands are extirpated, to
the intense relief of the country people, who were entirely at their
mercy, and whose boast it is that their district is now as safe as the
streets of Naples. Qualified praise, this. . . . [Footnote: See next
It is an easy march of eight hours or less, through pleasing scenery and
by a good track, from Longobucco to San Giovanni in Fiore, the capital
of the Sila. The path leaves Longobucco at the rear of the town and,
climbing upward, enters a valley which it follows to its head. The
peasants have cultivated patches of ground along the stream; the slopes
are covered, first with chestnuts and then with hoary firs--a rare
growth, in these parts--from whose branches hangs the golden bough of
the mistletoe. And now the stream is ended and a dark ridge blocks the
way; it is overgrown with beeches, under whose shade you ascend in steep
curves. At the summit the vegetation changes once more, and you find
yourself among magnificent stretches of pines that continue as far as
the governmental domain of Galoppano, a forestal station, two hours'
walk from Longobucco.
This pine is a particular variety _(Pinus lancio,_ var. _Calabra),_
known as the "Pino della Sila"--it is found over this whole country,
and grows to a height of forty metres with a silvery-grey trunk,
exhaling a delicious aromatic fragrance. In youth, especially where the
soil is deep, it shoots up prim and demure as a Nuremberg toy; but in
old age grows monstrous. High-perched upon some lonely granite boulder,
with roots writhing over the bare stone like the arms of an octopus, it
sits firm and unmoved, deriding the tempest and flinging fantastic limbs
into the air--emblem of tenacity in desolation. From these trees, which
in former times must have covered the Sila region, was made that
Bruttian pitch mentioned by Strabo and other ancient writers; from them
the Athenians, the Syracusans, Tarentines and finally the Romans built
their fleets. Their timber was used in the construction of Caserta palace.
A house stands here, inhabited by government officials the whole year
round--one may well puzzle how they pass the long winter, when snow lies
from October to May. So early did I arrive at this establishment that
the more civilized of its inhabitants were still asleep; by waiting, I
might have learnt something of the management of the estate, but gross
material preoccupations--the prospect of a passable luncheon at San
Giovanni after the "Hotel Vittoria" fare--tempted me to press forwards.
A boorish and unreliable-looking individual volunteered three pieces of
information--that the house was built thirty years ago, that a large
nursery for plants lies about ten kilometres distant, and that this
particular domain covers "two or four thousand hectares." A young
plantation of larches and silver birches--aliens to this region--seemed
to be doing well.
Not far from here, along my track, lies Santa Barbara, two or three
huts, with corn still green--like Verace (above Acri) on the watershed
between the Ionian and upper Grati. Then follows a steep climb up the
slopes of Mount Pettinascura, whose summit lies 1708 metres above
sea-level. This is the typical landscape of the Sila Grande. There is
not a human habitation in sight; forests all around, with views down
many-folded vales into the sea and towards the distant and fairy-like
Apennines, a serrated edge, whose limestone precipices gleam like
crystals of amethyst between the blue sky and the dusky woodlands of the
Here I reposed awhile, watching the crossbills, wondrously tame, at work
among the branches overhead, and the emerald lizard peering out of the
bracken at my side. This _lucertone,_ as they call it, is a local beast,
very abundant in some spots (at Venosa and Patirion, for example); it is
elsewhere conspicuous by its absence. The natives are rather afraid of
it, and still more so of the harmless gecko, the "salamide," which is
reputed highly poisonous.
Then up again, through dells and over uplands, past bubbling streams,
sometimes across sunlit meadows, but oftener in the leafy shelter of
maples and pines--a long but delightful track, winding always high above
the valleys of the Neto and Lese. At last, towards midday, I struck the
driving road that connects San Giovanni with Savelli, crossed a bridge
over the foaming Neto, and climbed into the populous and dirty streets
of the town--the "Siberia of Calabria," as it may well be, for seven
months of the year.
At this season, thanks to its elevation of 1050 metres, the temperature
is all that could be desired, and the hotel, such as it is, compares
favourably indeed with the den at Longobucco. Instantly I felt at home
among these good people, who recognized me, and welcomed me with the
cordiality of old friends.
"Well," they asked, "and have you found it at last?"
They remembered my looking for the double flute, the _tibiae pares,_
some years ago.
It will not take you long to discover that the chief objects of interest
in San Giovanni are the women. Many Calabrian villages still possess
their distinctive costumes--Marcellinara and Cimi-gliano are celebrated
in this respect--but it would be difficult to find anywhere an equal
number of handsome women on such a restricted space. In olden days it
was dangerous to approach these attractive and mirthful creatures; they
were jealously guarded by brothers and husbands. But the brothers and
husbands, thank God, are now in America, and you may be as friendly with
them as ever you please, provided you confine your serious attentions to
not more than two or three. Secrecy in such matters is out of the
question, as with the Arabs; there is too much gossip, and too little
coyness about what is natural; your friendships are openly recognized,
and tacitly approved. The priests do not interfere; their hands are full.
To see these women at their best one must choose a Sunday or a
feast-day; one must go, morever, to the favourite fountain of Santa
Lucia, which lies on the hill-side and irrigates some patches of corn
and vegetables. Their natural charms are enhanced by elaborate and
tasteful golden ornaments, and by a pretty mode of dressing the hair,
two curls of which are worn hanging down before their ears with an
irresistibly seductive air. Their features are regular; eyes black or
deep gentian blue; complexion pale; movements and attitudes impressed
with a stamp of rare distinction. Even the great-grandmothers have a
certain austere dignity--sinewy, indestructible old witches, with tawny
hide and eyes that glow like lamps.
And yet San Giovanni is as dirty as can well be; it has the accumulated
filth of an Eastern town, while lacking all its glowing tints or
harmonious outlines. We are disposed to associate squalor with certain
artistic effects, but it may be said of this and many other Calabrian
places that they have solved the problem how to be ineffably squalid
without becoming in the least picturesque. Much of this sordid look is
due to the smoke which issues out of all the windows and blackens the
house walls, inside and out--the Calabrians persisting in a prehistoric
fashion of cooking on the floor. The buildings themselves look crude and
gaunt from their lack of plaster and their eyeless windows; black pigs
wallowing at every doorstep contribute to this slovenly _ensemble._ The
City Fathers have turned their backs upon civilization; I dare say the
magnitude of the task before them has paralysed their initiative.
Nothing is done in the way of public hygiene, and one sees women washing
linen in water which is nothing more or less than an open drain. There
is no street-lighting whatever; a proposal on the part of a North
Italian firm to draw electric power from the Neto was scornfully
rejected; one single tawdry lamp, which was bought some years ago "as a
sample" in a moment of municipal recklessness, was lighted three times
in as many years, and on the very day when it was least necessary--to
wit, on midsummer eve, which happens to be the festival of their patron
saint (St. John). "It now hangs"--so I wrote some years ago--"at a
dangerous angle, and I doubt whether it will survive till its services
are requisitioned next June." Prophetic utterance! It was blown down
that same winter, and has not yet been replaced. This in a town of
20,000 (?) inhabitants--and in Italy, where the evening life of the
populace plays such an important role. No wonder North Italians, judging
by such external indications, regard all Calabrians as savages.
Some trees have been planted in the piazza since my last stay here; a
newspaper has also been started--it is called "Co-operation: Organ of
the Interests of San Giovanni in Fiore," and its first and possibly
unique number contains a striking article on the public health, as
revealed in the report of two doctors who had been despatched by the
provincial sanitary authorities to take note of local conditions of
hygiene. "The illustrious scientists" (thus it runs) "were horrified at
the filth, mud and garbage which encumbered, and still encumbers, our
streets, sending forth in the warm weather a pestilential odour. . . .
They were likewise amazed at the vigorously expressed protest of our
mayor, who said: '_My people cannot live' without their pigs wallowing
in the streets. San Giovanni in Fiore is exempt from earthquakes and
epidemics because it is under the protection of Saint John the Baptist,
and because its provincial councillor is a saintly man.'_" Such
journalistic plain speaking, such lack of sweet reasonableness, cannot
expect to survive in a world governed by compromise, and if the gift of
prophecy has not deserted me, I should say that "Co-operation" has by
this time ended its useful mission upon earth.
This place is unhealthy; its water-supply is not what it should be, and
such commodities as eggs and milk are rather dear, because "the invalids
eat everything" of that kind. Who are the invalids? Typhoid patients
and, above all, malarious subjects who descend to the plains as
agricultural labourers and return infected to the hills, where they
become partially cured, only to repeat the folly next year. It is the
same at Longobucco and other Sila towns. Altogether, San Giovanni has
grave drawbacks. The streets are too steep for comfort, and despite its
height, the prospect towards the Ionian is intercepted by a ridge; in
point of situation it cannot compare with Savelli or the neighbouring
Casino, which have impressive views both inland, and southward down
undulating slopes that descend in a stately procession of four thousand
feet to the sea, where sparkles the gleaming horn of Cotrone. And the
surroundings of the place are nowise representative of the Sila in a
good sense. The land has been so ruthlessly deforested that it has
become a desert of naked granite rocks; even now, in midsummer, the
citizens are already collecting fuel for their long winter from enormous
distances. As one crawls and skips among these unsavoury tenements, one
cannot help regretting that Saint John the Baptist, or the piety of a
provincial councillor, should have hindered the earthquakes from doing
their obvious duty.
Were I sultan of San Giovanni, I would certainly begin by a general
bombardment. Little in the town is worth preserving from a cataclysm
save the women, and perhaps the old convent on the summit of the hill
where the French lodged during their brigand-wars, and that other one,
famous in the ecclesiastical annals of Calabria--the monastery of
Floriacense, founded at the end of the twelfth century, round which the
town gradually grew up. Its ponderous portal is much injured, having
been burnt, I was told, by the brigands in 1860. But the notary, who
kindly looked up the archives for me, has come to the conclusion that
the French are responsible for the damage. It contains, or contained, a
fabulous collection of pious lumber--teeth and thigh-bones and other
relics, the catalogue of which is one of my favourite sections of Father
Fiore's work. I would make an exception, also, in favour of the doorway
of the church, a finely proportioned structure of the Renaissance in
black stone, which looks ill at ease among its ignoble environment. A
priest, to whom I applied for information as to its history, told me
with the usual Calabrian frankness that he never bothered his head about
San Giovanni was practically unknown to the outside world up to a few
years ago. I question whether Lenormant or any of them came here.
Pacicchelli did, however, in the seventeenth century, though he has left
us no description of the place. He crossed the whole Sila from the
Ionian to the other sea. I like this amiable and loquacious creature,
restlessly gadding about Europe, gloriously complacent, hopelessly,
absorbed in trivialities, and credulous beyond belief. In fact (as the
reader may have observed), I like all these old travellers, not so much
for what they actually say, as for their implicit outlook upon life.
This Pacicchelli was a fellow of our Royal Society, and his accounts of
England are worth reading; here, in Calabria (being a non-southerner)
his "Familiar Letters" and "Memoirs of Travel" act as a wholesome
corrective. Which of the local historians would have dared to speak of
Cosenza as "citta aperta, scomposta, e disordinata di fabbriche"?
That these inhabitants of the Sila are Bruttians may be inferred from
the superior position occupied by their women-folk, who are quite
differently treated to those of the lowlands. There--all along the
coasts of South Italy--the _cow-woman_ is still found, unkempt and
uncivilized; there, the male is the exclusive bearer of culture. Such
things are not seen among the Bruttians of the Sila, any more than among
the grave Latins or Samnites. These non-Hellenic races are, generally
speaking, honest, dignified and incurious; they are bigoted, not to say
fanatical; and their women are not exclusively beasts of burden, being
better dressed, better looking, and often as intelligent as the men.
They are the fruits of a female selection.
But wherever the mocking Ionic spirit has penetrated--and the Ionian
women occupied even a lower position than those of the Dorians and
Aeolians--it has resulted in a glorification of masculinity. Hand in
hand with this depreciation of the female sex go other characteristics
which point to Hellenic influences: lack of commercial morality, of
veracity, of seriousness in religious matters; a persistent,
light-hearted inquisitiveness; a levity (or sprightliness, if you prefer
it) of mind. The people are fetichistic, amulet-loving, rather than
devout. We may certainly suspect Greek or Saracen strains wherever women
are held in low estimation; wherever, as the god Apollo himself said,
"the mother is but the nurse." In the uplands of Calabria the mother is
a good deal more than the nurse.
For the rest, it stands to reason that in proportion as the agricultural
stage supplants that of pasturage, the superior strength and utility of
boys over girls should become more apparent, and this in South Italy is
universally proclaimed by the fact that everything large and fine is
laughingly described as "maschio" (male), and by some odd superstitions
in disparagement of the female sex, such as these: that in giving
presents to women, uneven numbers should be selected, lest even ones "do
them more good than they deserve"; that to touch the hump of a female
hunchback brings no luck whatever; that if a woman be the first to drink
out of a new earthenware pitcher, the vessel may as well be thrown away
at once--it is tainted for ever. [Footnote: In Japan, says Hearn, the
first bucketful of water to be drawn out of a cleaned well must be drawn
by a man; for if a womsn first draw water, the well will always
hereafter remain muddy. Some of these prejudices seem to be based on
primordial misreadmgs of physiology. There is also a strong feeling in
favour of dark hair. No mother would entrust her infant to a fair
wet-nurse; the milk even of white cows is considered "lymphatic" and not
strengthening; perhaps the eggs of white hens are equally devoid of the
fortifying principle. There is something to be said for this since, in
proportion as we go south, the risk of irritation, photophobia, and
other com-plaints incidental to the xanthous complexion becomes
greater.] Yet the birth of a daughter is no Chinese calamity; even girls
are "Christians" and welcomed as such, the populace having never sunk
to the level of our theologians, who were wont to discuss _an faemina
All over the Sila there is a large preponderance of women over men,
nearly the whole male section of the community, save the quite young and
the decrepit, being in America. This emigration brings much money into
the country and many new ideas; but the inhabitants have yet to learn
the proper use of their wealth, and to acquire a modern standard of
comfort. Together with the Sardinians, these Calabrians are the hardiest
of native races, and this is what makes them prefer the strenuous but
lucrative life in North American mines to the easier career in
Argentina, which Neapolitans favour. There they learn English. They
remember their families and the village that gave them birth, but their
patriotism towards Casa Savoia is of the slenderest. How could it be
otherwise? I have spoken to numbers of them, and this is what they say:
"This country has done nothing for us; why should we fight its battles?
Not long ago we were almost devouring each other in our hunger; what did
they do to help us? If we have emerged from misery, it is due to our own
initiative and the work of our own hands; if we have decent clothes and
decent houses, it is because they drove us from our old homes with their
infamous misgovern-ment to seek work abroad."
Perfectly true! They have redeemed themselves, though the new regime has
hardly had a fair trial. And the drawbacks of emigration (such as a
slight increase of tuberculosis and alcoholism) are nothing compared
with the unprecedented material prosperity and enlightenment. There has
also been--in these parts, at all events--a marked diminution of crime.
No wonder, seeing that three-quarters of the most energetic and
turbulent elements are at present in America, where they recruit the
Black Hand. That the Bruttian is not yet ripe for town life, that his
virtues are pastoral rather than civic, might have been expected; but
the Arab domination of much of his territory, one suspects, may have
infused fiercer strains into his character and helped to deserve for him
that epithet of _sanguinario_ by which he is proud to be known.
The last genuine bandit of the Sila was Gaetano Ricca. On account of
some trivial misunderstanding with the authorities, this man was
compelled in the early eighties to take to the woods, where he lived a
wild life _(alla campagna; alla macchia)_ for some three years. A price
was set on his head, but his daring and knowledge of the country
intimidated every one. I should be sorry to believe in the number of
carbineers he is supposed to have killed during that period; no doubt
the truth came out during his subsequent trial. On one occasion he was
surrounded, and while the officer in command of his pursuers, who had
taken refuge behind a tree, ordered him to yield, Ricca waited patiently
till the point of his enemy's foot became visible, when he pierced his
ankle-bone with his last bullet and escaped. He afterwards surrendered
and was imprisoned for twenty years or so; then returned to the Sila,
where up to a short time ago he was enjoying a green old age in his home
at Parenti--Parenti, already celebrated in the annals of brigandage by
the exploit of the perfidious Francatripa (Giacomo Pisani), who, under
pretence of hospitality, enticed a French company into his clutches and
murdered its three officers and all the men, save seven. The memoirs of
such men might be as interesting as those of the Sardinian Giovanni Tolu
which have been printed. I would certainly have paid my respects to
Ricca had I been aware of his existence when, some years back, I passed
through Parenti on my way--a long day's march!--from Rogliano to San
Giovanni. He has died in the interval.
But the case of Ricca is a sporadic one, such as may crop up anywhere
and at any time. It is like that of Musolino--the case of an isolated
outlaw, who finds the perplexed geographical configuration of the
country convenient for offensive and defensive purposes. Calabrian
brigandage, as a whole, has always worn a political character.
The men who gave the French so much trouble were political brigands,
allies of Bourbonism. They were commanded by creatures like Mammone, an
anthropophagous monster whose boast it was that he had personally killed
455 persons with the greatest refinements of cruelty, and who wore at
his belt the skull of one of them, out of which he used to drink human
blood at mealtime; he drank his own blood as well; indeed, he "never
dined without having a bleeding human heart on the table." This was the
man whom King Ferdinand and his spouse loaded with gifts and
decorations, and addressed as "Our good Friend and General--the
faithful Support of the Throne." The numbers of these savages were
increased by shiploads of professional cut-throats sent over from Sicily
by the English to help their Bourbon friends. Some of these actually
wore the British uniform; one of the most ferocious was known as
One must go to the fountain-head, to the archives, in order to gain some
idea of the sanguinary anarchy that desolated South Italy in those days.
The horrors of feudalism, aided by the earthquake of 1784 and by the
effects of Cardinal Ruffo's Holy Crusade, had converted the country into
a pandemonium. In a single year (1809) thirty-three thousand crimes were
recorded against the brigands of the Kingdom of Naples; in a single
month they are said to have committed 1200 murders in Calabria alone.
These were the bands who were described by British officers as "our
It is good to bear these facts in mind when judging of the present state
of this province, for the traces of such a reign of terror are not
easily expunged. Good, also, to remember that this was the period of the
highest spiritual eminence to which South Italy has ever attained. Its
population of four million inhabitants were then consoled by the
presence of no less than 120,000 holy persons--to wit, 22 archbishops,
116 bishops, 65,500 ordained priests, 31,800 monks, and 23,600 nuns.
Some of these ecclesiastics, like the Bishop of Capaccio, were notable
It must be confessed that the French were sufficiently coldblooded in
their reprisals. Colletta himself saw, at Lagonegro, a man impaled by
order of a French colonel; and some account of their excesses may be
gleaned from Duret de Tavel, from Rivarol (rather a disappointing
author), and from the flamboyant epistles of P. L. Courier, a
soldier-scribe of rare charm, who lost everything in this campaign.
"J'ai perdu huit chevaux, mes habits, mon linge, mon manteau, mes
pistolets, mon argent (12,247 francs). . . . Je ne regrette que mon
Homere (a gift from the Abbe Barthelemy), et pour le ravoir, je
donnerais la seule chemise qui me reste."
But even that did not destroy the plague. The situation called for a
genial and ruthless annihilator, a man like Sixtus V, who asked for
brigands' heads and got them so plentifully that they lay "thick as
melons in the market" under the walls of Rome, while the Castel Sant'
Angelo was tricked out like a Christmas tree with quartered corpses--a
man who told the authorities, when they complained of the insufferable
stench of the dead, that the smell of living iniquity was far worse.
Such a man was wanted. Therefore, in 1810, Murat gave _carte blanche_
to General Manhes, the greatest brigand-catcher of modern times, to
extirpate the ruffians, root and branch. He had just distinguished
himself during a similar errand in the Abruzzi and, on arriving in
Calabria, issued proclamations of such inhuman severity that the
inhabitants looked upon them as a joke. They were quickly undeceived.
The general seems to have considered that the end justified the means,
and that the peace and happiness of a province was not to be disturbed
year after year by the malignity of a few thousand rascals; his threats
were carried out to the letter, and, whatever may be said against his
methods, he certainly succeeded. At the end of a few months' campaign,
every single brigand, and all their friends and relations, were wiped
off the face of the earth--together with a very considerable number of
innocent persons. The high roads were lined with decapitated bandits,
the town walls decked with their heads; some villages had to be
abandoned, on account of the stench; the Crati river was swollen with
corpses, and its banks whitened with bones. God alone knows the
cruelties which were enacted; Colletta confesses that he "lacks courage
to relate them." Here is his account of the fate of the brigand chief
"Betrayed and bound by his followers as he slept in the forest of
Cassano, Benincasa was brought to Cosenza, and General Manhes ordered
that both his hands be lopped off and that he be led, thus mutilated, to
his home in San Giovanni, and there hanged; a cruel sentence, which the
wretch received with a bitter smile. His right hand was first cut off
and the stump bound, not out of compassion or regard for his life, but
in order that all his blood might not flow out of the opened veins,
seeing that he was reserved for a more miserable death. Not a cry
escaped him, and when he saw that the first operation was over, he
voluntarily laid his left hand upon the block and coldly watched the
second mutilation, and saw his two amputated hands lying on the ground,
which were then tied together by the thumbs and hung round his neck; an
awful and piteous spectacle. This happened at Cosenza. On the same day
he began his march to San Giovanni in Fiore, the escort resting at
intervals; one of them offered the man food, which he accepted;
he ate and drank what was placed in his mouth, and not so much in order
to sustain life, as with real pleasure. He arrived at his home, and
slept through the following night; on the next day, as the hour of
execution approached, he refused the comforts of religion, ascended the
gallows neither swiftly nor slowly, and died admired for his brutal
intrepidity." [Footnote: This particular incident was flatly denied by
Manhes in a letter dated 1835, which is __quoted in the "Notizia storica
del Conte C. A. Manhes" (Naples, 1846)--one of a considerable number of
pro-Bourbon books that cropped up about this time. One is apt to have
quite a wrong impression of Manhes, that inexorable but incorruptible
scourge of evildoers. One pictures him a grey-haired veteran, scarred
and gloomy; and learns, on the contrary, that he was only thirty-two
years old at this time, gracious in manner and of surprising personal
For the first time since long Calabria was purged. Ever since the
Bruttians, irreclaimable plunderers, had established themselves at
Cosenza, disquieting their old Hellenic neighbours, the recesses of this
country had been a favourite retreat of political malcontents. Here
Spartacus drew recruits for his band of rebels; here "King Marcene"
defied the oppressive Spanish Viceroys, and I blame neither him nor his
imitators, since the career of bandit was one of the very few that still
commended itself to decent folks, under that regime.
During the interregnum of Bourbonism between Murat and Garibaldi the
mischief revived--again in a political form. Brigands drew pensions from
kings and popes, and the system gave rise to the most comical incidents;
the story of the pensioned malefactors living together at Monticello
reads like an extravaganza. It was the spirit of Offenbach, brooding
over Europe. One of the funniest episodes was a visit paid in 1865 by
the disconsolate Mrs. Moens to the ex-brigand Talarico, who was then
living in grand style on a government pension. Her husband had been
captured by the band of Manzi (another brigand), and expected to be
murdered every day, and the lady succeeded in procuring from the
chivalrous monster--"an extremely handsome man, very tall, with the
smallest and most delicate hands"--an exquisite letter to his colleague,
recommending him to be merciful to the Englishman and to emulate his own
conduct in that respect. The letter had no effect, apparently; but Moens
escaped at last, and wrote his memoirs, while Manzi was caught and
executed in 1868 after a trial occupying nearly a month, during which
the jury had to answer 311 questions.
His villainies were manifold. But they were put in the shade by those of
others of his calling--of Caruso, for example, who was known to have
massacred in one month (September, 1863) two hundred persons with his
own hands. Then, as formerly, the Church favoured the malefactors, and I
am personally acquainted with priests who fought on the side of the
brigands. Francis II endeavoured to retrieve his kingdom by the help of
an army of scoundrels like those of Ruffo, but the troops shot them
down. Brigandage, as a governmental institution, came to an end.
Unquestionably the noblest figure in this reactionary movement was that
of Jose Borjes, a brave man engaged in an unworthy cause. You can read
his tragic journal in the pages of M. Monnier or Maffei. It has been
calculated that during these last years of Bourbonism the brigands
committed seven thousand homicides a year in the kingdom of Naples.
Schools and emigration have now brought sounder ideas among the people,
and the secularization of convents with the abolition of ecclesiastical
right of asylum (Sixtus V had wisely done away with it) has broken up
the prosperous old bond between monks and malefactors. What the
government has done towards establishing decent communications in this
once lawless and pathless country ranks, in its small way, beside the
achievement of the French who, in Algeria, have built nearly ten
thousand miles of road. But it is well to note that even as the
mechanical appliance of steam destroyed the corsairs, the external
plague, so this hoary form of internal disorder could have been
permanently eradicated neither by humanity nor by severity. A scientific
invention, the electric telegraph, is the guarantee of peace against the
These brigand chiefs were often loaded with gold. On killing them, the
first thing the French used to do was to strip them. "On le depouilla."
Francatripa, for instance, possessed "a plume of white ostrich feathers,
clasped by a golden band and diamond Madonna" (a gift from Queen
Caroline)--Cerino and Manzi had "bunches of gold chains as thick as an
arm suspended across the breasts of their waistcoats, with gorgeous
brooches at each fastening." Some of their wealth now survives in
certain families who gave them shelter in the towns in winter time, or
when they were hard pressed. These _favoreggiatori_ or _manutengoli_
(the terms are interconvertible, but the first is the legal one) were
sometimes benevolently inclined. But occasionally they conceived the
happy idea of being paid for their silence and services. The brigand,
then, was hoist with his own petard and forced to disgorge his
ill-gotten summer gains to these blood-suckers, who extorted heavy
blackmail under menaces of disclosure to the police, thriving on their
double infamy to such an extent that they acquired immense riches. One
of the wealthiest men in Italy descends from this class; his two hundred
million (?) francs are invested, mostly, in England; every one knows his
name, but the origin of his fortune is no longer mentioned, since
(thanks to this money) the family has been able to acquire not only
respectability but distinction.
THE GREATER SILA
A great project is afoot. As I understand it, a reservoir is being
created by damming up the valley of the Ampollina; the artificial lake
thus formed will be enlarged by the additional waters of the Arvo, which
are to be led into it by means of a tunnel, about three miles long,
passing underneath Monte Nero. The basin, they tell me, will be some ten
kilometres in length; the work will cost forty million francs, and will
be completed in a couple of years; it will supply the Ionian lowlands
with pure water and with power for electric and other industries.
And more than that. The lake is to revolutionize the Sila; to convert
these wildernesses into a fashionable watering-place. Enthusiasts
already see towns growing upon its shores--there are visions of gorgeous
hotels and flocks of summer visitors in elegant toilettes,
villa-residences, funicular railways up all the mountains, sailing
regattas, and motor-boat services. In the place of the desert there will
arise a "Lucerna di Calabria."
A Calabrian Lucerne. H'm. ...
It remains to be seen whether, by the time the lake is completed, there
will be any water left to flow into it. For the catchment basins are
being so conscientiously cleared of their timber that the two rivers
cannot but suffer a great diminution in volume. By 1896 already, says
Marincola San Fioro, the destruction of woodlands in the Sila had
resulted in a notable lack of moisture. Ever since then the vandalism
has been pursued with a zeal worthy of a better cause. One trembles to
think what these regions will be like in fifty years; a treeless and
waterless tableland--worse than the glaring limestone deserts of the
Apennines in so far as they, at least, are diversified in contour.
So the healthfulness, beauty, and exchequer value of enormous tracts in
this country are being systematically impaired, day by day. Italy is
ready, said D'Azeglio, but where are the Italians?
Let us give the government credit for any number of good ideas. It
actually plants bare spaces; it has instituted a "Festa degli alberi"
akin to the American Arbour Day, whereby it is hoped, though scarcely
believed, that the whole of Italy will ultimately be replenished with
trees; it encourages schools of forestry, supplies plants free of cost
to all who ask for them, despatches commissions and prints reports.
Above all, it talks prodigiously and very much to the purpose.
But it omits to administer its own laws with becoming severity. A few
exemplary fines and imprisonments would have a more salutary effect than
the commissioning of a thousand inspectors whom nobody takes seriously,
and the printing of ten thousand reports which nobody reads.
With a single stroke of the pen the municipalities could put an end to
the worst form of forest extirpation--that on the hill-sides--by
forbidding access to such tracts and placing them under the "vincolo
forestale." To denude slopes in the moist climate and deep soil of
England entails no risk; in this country it is the beginning of the end.
And herein lies the ineptitude of the Italian regulations, which entrust
the collective wisdom of rapacious farmers with measures of this kind,
taking no account of the destructively utilitarian character of the
native mind, of that canni-ness which overlooks a distant profit in its
eagerness to grasp the present--that beast avarice which Horace
recognized as the root of all evil. As if provisions like this of the
"vincolo forestale" were ever carried out! Peasants naturally prefer to
burn the wood in their own chimneys or to sell it; and if a landslide
then crashes down, wrecking houses and vineyards--let the government
compensate the victims!
An ounce of fact--
In one year alone (1903), and in the sole province of Cosenza wherein
San Giovanni lies, there were 156 landslides; they destroyed 1940
hectares of land, and their damage amounted to 432,738 francs. The two
other Calabrian provinces--Reggio and Catanzaro--doubtless also had
their full quota of these catastrophes, all due to mischievous
deforestation. So the bare rock is exposed, and every hope of planting
at an end.
_Vox clamantis!_ The Normans, Anjou and Aragonese concerned themselves
with the proper administration of woodlands. Even the Spanish Viceroys,
that ineffable brood, issued rigorous enactments on the subject; while
the Bourbons (to give the devil his due) actually distinguished
themselves as conservators of forests. As to Napoleon--he was busy
enough, one would think, on this side of the Alps. Yet he found time to
frame wise regulations concerning trees which the present patriotic
parliament, during half a century of frenzied confabulation, has not yet
taken to heart.
How a great man will leave his mark on minutiae!
I passed through the basin of this future lake when, in accordance with
my project, I left San Giovanni to cross the remaining Sila in the
direction of Catanzaro. This getting up at 3.30 a.m., by the way, rather
upsets one's daily routine; at breakfast time I already find myself
enquiring anxiously for dinner.
The Ampollina valley lies high; here, in the dewy grass, I enjoyed what
I well knew would be my last shiver for some time to come; then moved
for a few miles on the further bank of the rivulet along that driving
road which will soon be submerged under the waters of the lake, and
struck up a wooded glen called Barbarano. At its head lies the upland
There is no rock scenery worth mentioning in all this Sila country; no
waterfalls or other Alpine features. It is a venerable granitic
tableland, that has stood here while the proud Apennines were still
slumbering in the oozy bed of ocean--[Footnote: Nissen says that "no
landscape of Italy has lost so little of its original appearance in the
course of history as Calabria." This may apply to the mountains; but the
lowlands have suffered hideous changes.] a region of gentle undulations,
the hill-tops covered with forest-growth, the valleys partly arable and
partly pasture. Were it not for the absence of heather with its peculiar
mauve tints, the traveller might well imagine himself in Scotland. There
is the same smiling alternation of woodland and meadow, the same huge
boulders of gneiss and granite which give a distinctive tone to the
landscape, the same exuberance of living waters. Water, indeed, is one
of the glories of the Sila--everywhere it bubbles forth in chill
rivulets among the stones and trickles down the hill-sides to join the
larger streams that wend their way to the forlorn and fever-stricken
coastlands of Magna Graecia. Often, as I refreshed myself at these icy
fountains, did I thank Providence for making the Sila of primitive rock,
and not of the thirsty Apennine limestone.
"Much water in the Sila," an old shepherd once observed to me, "much
water! And little tobacco."
One of the largest of these rivers is the Neto, the classic Neaithos
sung by Theocritus, which falls into the sea north of Cotrone; San
Giovanni overlooks its raging flood, and, with the help of a little
imagination here and there, its whole course can be traced from
eminences like that of Pettinascura. The very name of these
streams--Neto, Arvo, Lese, Ampollina--are redolent of pastoral life. All
of them are stocked with trout; they meander in their upper reaches
through valleys grazed by far-tinkling flocks of sheep and goats and
grey cattle--the experiment of acclimatizing Swiss cattle has proved a
failure, I know not why--and their banks are brilliant with blossoms.
Later on, in the autumn, the thistles begin to predominate--the finest
of them being a noble ground thistle of pale gold, of which they eat the
unopened bud; it is the counterpart of the silvery one of the Alps. The
air in these upper regions is keen. I remember, some years ago, that
during the last week of August a lump of snow, which a goat-boy produced
as his contribution to our luncheon, did not melt in the bright sunshine
on the summit of Monte Nero.
From whichever side one climbs out of the surrounding lowlands into the
Sila plateau, the same succession of trees is encountered. To the
warmest zone of olives, lemons and carobs succeeds that of the
chestnuts, some of them of gigantic dimensions and yielding a sure
though moderate return in fruit, others cut down periodically as coppice
for vine-props and scaffoldings. Large tracts of these old chestnut
groves are now doomed; a French society in Cosenza, so they tell me, is
buying them up for the extraction out of their bark of some chemical or
medicine. The vine still flourishes at this height, though dwarfed in
size; soon the oaks begin to dominate, and after that we enter into the
third and highest region cf the pines and beeches. Those accustomed to
the stony deserts of nearly all South European mountain districts will
find these woodlands intensely refreshing. Their inaccessibility has
proved their salvation--up to a short time ago.
Nearly all the cattle on the Sila, like the land itself, belongs to
large proprietors. These gentlemen are for the most part invisible; they
inhabit their palaces in the cities, and the very name of the Sila sends
a cold shudder through their bones; their revenues are collected from
the shepherds by agents who seem to do their work very conscientiously.
I once observed, in a hut, a small fragment of the skin of a newly
killed kid; the wolf had devoured the beast, and the shepherd was
keeping this _corpus delicti_ to prove to his superior, the agent, that
he was innocent of the murder. There was something naive in his
honesty--as if a shepherd could not eat a kid as well as any wolf, and
keep a portion of its skin! The agent, no doubt, would hand it on to his
lord, by way of _confirmation and verification._ Another time I saw the
debris of a goat hanging from a tree; it was the wolf again; the boy had
attached these remains to the tree in order that all who passed that way
might be his witnesses, if necessary, that the animal had not been sold
You may still find the legendary shepherds here--curly-haired
striplings, reclining _sub tegmine fagi_ in the best Theocritean style,
and piping wondrous melodies to their flocks. These have generally come
up for the summer season from the Ionian lowlands. Or you may encounter
yet more primitive creatures, forest boys, clad in leather, with wild
eyes and matted locks, that take an elvish delight in misdirecting you.
These are the Lucanians of old. "They bring them up from childhood in
the woods among the shepherds," says Justinus, "without servants, and
even without any clothes to cover them, or to lie upon, that from their
early years they may become inured to hardiness and frugality, and have
no intercourse with the city. They live upon game, and drink nothing but
water or milk." But the majority of modern Sila shepherds are shrewd
fellows of middle age (many of them have been to America), who keep
strict business accounts for their masters of every ounce of cheese and
butter produced. The local cheese, which Cassiodorus praises in one of
his letters, is the _cacciacavallo_ common all over South Italy; the
butter is of the kind which has been humorously, but quite wrongly,
described by various travellers.
Although the old wolves are shot and killed by spring guns and dynamite
while the young ones are caught alive in steel traps and other
appliances, their numbers are still formidable enough to perturb the
pastoral folks. One is therefore surprised to see what a poor breed of
dogs they keep; scraggy mongrels that run for their lives at the mere
sight of a wolf who can, and often does, bite them into two pieces with
one snap of his jaws. They tell me that there is a government reward for
every wolf killed, but it is seldom paid; whoever has the good fortune
to slay one of these beasts, carries the skin as proof of his prowess
from door to door, and receives a small present everywhere--half a
franc, or a cheese, or a glass of wine.
The goats show fight, and therefore the wolf prefers sheep. Shepherds
have told me that he comes up to them _delicatamente,_ and then, fixing
his teeth in the wool of their necks, pulls them onward, caressing their
sides with his tail. The sheep are fascinated with his gentle manners,
and generally allow themselves to be led up to the spot he has selected
for their execution; the truth being that he is too lazy to carry them,
if he can possibly avoid it.
He will promptly kill his quarry and carry its carcase downhill on the
rare occasions when the flocks are grazing above his haunt; but if it is
an uphill walk, they must be good enough to use their own legs.
Incredible stories of his destructiveness are related.
Fortunately, human beings are seldom attacked, a dog or a pig being
generally forthcoming when the usual prey is not to be found. Yet not
long ago a sad affair occurred; a she-wolf attacked a small boy before
the eyes of his parents, who pursued him, powerless to help--the head
and arms had already been torn off before a shot from a neighbour
despatched the monster. Truly, "a great family displeasure," as my
informant styled it. Milo of Croton, the famous athlete, is the most
renowned victim of these Sila wolves. Tradition has it that, relying on
his great strength, he tried to rend asunder a mighty log of wood which
closed, however, and caught his arms in its grip; thus helpless, he was
devoured alive by them.
By keeping to the left of Circilla, I might have skirted the forest of
Gariglione. This tract lies at about four and a half hours' distance
from San Giovanni; I found it, some years ago, to be a region of real
"Urwald" or primary jungle; there was nothing like it, to my knowledge,
on this side of the Alps, nor yet in the Alps themselves; nothing of the
kind nearer than Russia. But the Russian jungles, apart from their
monotony of timber, foster feelings of sadness and gloom, whereas these
southern ones, as Hehn has well observed, are full of a luminous
beauty--their darkest recesses being enlivened by a sense of benignant
mystery. Gariglione was at that time a virgin forest, untouched by the
hand of man; a dusky ridge, visible from afar; an impenetrable tangle of
forest trees, chiefest among them being the "garigli" _(Quercus cerris)_
whence it derives its name, as well as thousands of pines and bearded
firs and all that hoary indigenous vegetation struggling out of the
moist soil wherein their progenitors had lain decaying time out of mind.
In these solitudes, if anywhere, one might still have found the
absent-minded luzard (lynx) of the veracious historian; or that squirrel
whose "calabrere" fur, I strongly suspect, came from Russia; or, at any
rate, the Mushroom-stone _which shineth in the night_. [Footnote: As a
matter of fact, the mushroom-stone is a well-known commodity, being
still collected and eaten, for example, at Santo Stefano in Aspramente.
Older travellers tell us that it used to be exported to Naples and kept
in the cellars of the best houses for the enjoyment of its
fruit--sometimes in lumps measuring two feet in diameter which, being
soaked in water, produced these edible fungi. A stone yielding food--a
miracle! It is a porous tufa adapted, presumably, for sheltering and
fecundating vegetable spores. A little pamphlet by Professor A. Trotter
("Flora Montana della Calabria") gives some idea of the local plants and
contains a useful bibliography. A curious feature is the relative
abundance of boreal and Balkan-Oriental forms; another, the rapid spread
of _Genista anglica,_ which is probably an importation.]
Well, I am glad my path to-day did not lead me to Gariglione, and so
destroy old memories of the place. For the domain, they tell me, has
been sold for 350,000 francs to a German company; its primeval silence
is now invaded by an army of 260 workmen, who have been cutting down the
timber as fast as they can. So vanishes another fair spot from earth!
And what is left of the Sila, once these forests are gone? Not even the
charm, such as it is, of Caithness. . . .
After Circilla comes the watershed that separates the Sila Grande from
the westerly regions of Sila Piccola. Thenceforward it was downhill
walking, at first through forest lands, then across verdant stretches,
bereft of timber and simmering in the sunshine. The peculiar character
of this country is soon revealed--ferociously cloven ravines, utterly
different from the Sila Grande.
With the improvidence of the true traveller I had consumed my stock of
provisions ere reaching the town of Taverna after a march of nine hours
or thereabouts. A place of this size and renown, I had argued, would
surely be able to provide a meal. But Taverna belies its name. The only
tavern discoverable was a composite hovel, half wine-shop, half
hen-house, whose proprietor, disturbed in his noonday nap, stoutly
refused to produce anything eatable. And there I stood in the blazing
sunshine, famished and un-befriended. Forthwith the strength melted out
of my bones; the prospect of walking to Catanzaro, so alluring with a
full stomach, faded out of the realm of possibility; and it seemed a
special dispensation of Providence when, at my lowest ebb of vitality, a
small carriage suddenly hove in sight.
"How much to Catanzaro?"
The owner eyed me critically, and then replied in English:
"You can pay twenty dollars."
Twenty dollars--a hundred francs! But it is useless trying to bargain
with an _americano_ (their time is too valuable).
"A dollar a mile?" I protested.
"You be damned."
"Same to you, mister." And he drove off.
Such bold defiance of fate never goes unrewarded. A two-wheeled cart
conveying some timber overtook me shortly afterwards on my way from the
inhospitable Taverna. For a small consideration I was enabled to pass
the burning hours of the afternoon in an improvised couch among its load
of boards, admiring the scenery and the engineering feats that have
carried a road through such difficult country, and thinking out some
further polite remarks to be addressed to my twenty-dollar friend, in
the event of our meeting at Catanzaro. . . .
One must have traversed the Sila in order to appreciate the manifold
charms of the mountain town--I have revelled in them since my arrival.
But it has one irremediable drawback: the sea lies at an inconvenient
distance. It takes forty-five minutes to reach the shore by means of two
railways in whose carriages the citizens descend after wild scrambles
for places, packed tight as sardines in the sweltering heat. Only a
genuine enthusiast will undertake the trip more than once. For the
Marina itself--at this season, at least--is an unappetizing spot; a
sordid agglomeration of houses, a few dirty fruit-stalls, ankle-deep
dust, swarms of flies. I prefer to sleep through the warm hours of the
day, and then take the air in that delightful public garden which, by
the way, has already become too small for the increasing population.
At its entrance stands the civic museum, entrusted, just now, to the
care of a quite remarkably ignorant and slatternly woman. It contains
two rooms, whose exhibits are smothered in dust and cobwebs; as
neglected, in short, as her own brats that sprawl about its floor. I
enquired whether she possessed no catalogue to show where the objects,
bearing no labels, had been found. A catalogue was unnecessary, she
said; she knew everything--everything!
And everything, apparently, hailed from "Stromboli." The Tiriolo helmet,
the Greek vases, all the rest of the real and sham treasures of this
establishment: they were all discovered at Stromboli.
Noticing some neolithic celts similar to those I obtained at Vaccarizza,
I would gladly have learnt their place of origin. Promptly came the answer:
"Nonsense, my good woman. I've been three times to Stromboli; it is an
island of black stones where the devil has a house, and such things are
not found there." (Of course she meant Strangoli, the ancient Petelia.)
This vigorous assertion made her more circumspect. Thenceforward
everything was declared to come from the province--_dalla provincia;_ it
"That bad picture--whence?"
"Have you really no catalogue?"
"I know everything."
"And this broken statue--whence?"
"But the province is large," I objected.
"So it is. Large, and old."
I have also revisited Tiriolo, once celebrated for the "Sepulchres of
the Giants" (Greek tombs) that were unearthed here, and latterly for a
certain more valuable antiquarian discovery. Not long ago it was a
considerable undertaking to reach this little place, but nowadays a
public motor-car whirls you up and down the ravines at an alarming pace
and will deposit you, within a few hours, at remote Cosenza, once an
enormous drive. It is the same all over modern Calabria. The diligence
service, for instance, that used to take fourteen hours from San
Giovanni to Cosenza has been replaced by motors that cover the distance
in four or five. One is glad to save time, but this new element of
mechanical hurry has produced a corresponding kind of traveller--a
machine-made creature, devoid of the humanity of the old; it has done
away with the personal note of conviviality that reigned in the
post-carriages. What jocund friendships were made, what songs and tales
applauded, during those interminable hours in the lumbering chaise!
You must choose Sunday for Tiriolo, on account of the girls, whose
pretty faces and costumes are worth coming any distance to see. A good
proportion of them have the fair hair which seems to have been
eliminated, in other parts of the country, through the action of malaria.
Viewed from Catanzaro, one of the hills of Tiriolo looks like a broken
volcanic crater. It is a limestone ridge, decked with those
characteristic flowers like _Campanula fragilis_ which you will vainly
seek on the Sila. Out of the ruins of some massive old building they
have constructed, on the summit, a lonely weather-beaten fabric that
would touch the heart of Maeterlinck. They call it a seismological
station. I pity the people that have to depend for their warnings of
earthquakes upon the outfit of a place like this. I could see no signs
of life here; the windows were broken, the shutters decaying, an old
lightning-rod dangled disconsolately from the roof; it looked as
abandoned as any old tower in a tale. There is a noble view from this
point over both seas and into the riven complexities of Aspromonte, when
the peak is not veiled in mists, as it frequently is. For Tiriolo lies
on the watershed; there (to quote from a "Person of Quality ") "where
the Apennine is drawn into so narrow a point, that the rain-water which
descendeth from the ridge of some one house, falleth on the left in the
Terrene Sea, and on the right into the Adriatick. . . ."
My visits to the provincial museum have become scandalously frequent
during the last few days. I cannot keep away from the place. I go there
not to study the specimens but to converse with their keeper, the woman
who, in her quiet way, has cast a sort of charm over me. Our relations
are the whispered talk of the town; I am suspected of matrimonial
designs upon a poor widow with the ulterior object of appropriating the
cream of the relics under her care. Regardless of the perils of the
situation, I persevere; for the sake of her company I forswear the
manifold seductions of Catan-zaro. She is a noteworthy person, neither
vicious nor vulgar, but simply the _dernier mot_ of incompetence. Her
dress, her looks, her children, her manners--they are all on an even
plane with her spiritual accomplishments; at no point does she sink, or
rise, beyond that level. They are not as common as they seem to be,
these harmoniously inefficient females.
Why has she got this job in a progressive town containing so many folks
who could do it creditably? Oh, that is simple enough! She needs it. On
the platform of the Reggio station (long before the earthquake) I once
counted five station-masters and forty-eight other railway officials,
swaggering about with a magnificent air of incapacity. What were they
doing? Nothing whatever. They were like this woman: they needed a job.
We are in a patriarchal country; work is pooled; it is given not to
those who can do it best, but to those who need it most--given, too, on
pretexts which sometimes strike one as inadequate, not to say recondite.
So the street-scavengering in a certain village has been entrusted to a
one-armed cripple, utterly unfit for the business--why? Because his
maternal grand-uncle is serving a long sentence in gaol. The poor family
must be helped! A brawny young fellow will be removed from a
landing-stage boat, and his place taken by some tottering old peasant
who has never handled an oar--why? The old man's nephew has married
again; the family must be helped. A secretarial appointment was
specially created for an acquaintance of mine who could barely sign his
own name, for the obvious reason that his cousin's sister was rheumatic.
One must help that family.
A postman whom I knew delivered the letters only once every three days,
alleging, as unanswerable argument in his defence, that his brother's
wife had fifteen children.
One must help that family!
Somebody seems to have thought so, at all events.
I have never beheld the enchantment of the Straits of Messina, that Fata
Morgana, when, under certain conditions of weather, phantasmagoric
palaces of wondrous shape are cast upon the waters--not mirrored, but
standing upright; tangible, as it were; yet diaphanous as a veil of gauze.
A Dominican monk and correspondent of the Naples Academy, Minasi by
name, friend of Sir W. Hamilton, wrote a dissertation upon this
atmospheric mockery. Many have seen and described it, among them Filati
de Tassulo; Nicola Leoni reproduces the narrative of an eye-witness
of 1643; another account appears in the book of A. Fortis
("Mineralogische Reisen, 1788"). The apparition is coy. Yet there are
pictures of it--in an article in "La Lettura" by Dr. Vittorio Boccara,
who therein refers to a scientific treatise by himself on the subject,
as well as in the little volume "Da Reggio a Metaponto" by Lupi-Crisafi,
which was printed at Gerace some years ago. I mention these writers for
the sake of any one who, luckier than myself, may be able to observe
this phenomenon and become interested in its history and origin. . . .
The chronicles of Messina record the scarcely human feats of the diver
Cola Pesce (Nicholas the Fish). The dim submarine landscapes of the
Straits with their caves and tangled forests held no secrets from him;
his eyes were as familiar with sea-mysteries as those of any fish. Some
think that the legend dates from Frederick II, to whom he brought up
from the foaming gulf that golden goblet which has been immortalized in
Schiller's ballad. But Schneegans says there are Norman documents that
speak of him. And that other tale, according to which he took to his
watery life in pursuit of some beloved maiden who had been swallowed by
the waves, makes one think of old Glaucus as his prototype.
Many are the fables connected with his name, but the most portentous is
this: One day, during his subaqueous wanderings, he discovered the
foundations of Messina. They were insecure! The city rested upon three
columns, one of them intact, another quite decayed away, the third
partially corroded and soon to crumble into ruin. He peered up from, his
blue depths, and in a fateful couplet of verses warned the townsmen of
their impending doom. In this prophetic utterance ascribed to the
fabulous Cola Pesce is echoed a popular apprehension that was only too
F. Muenter--one of a band of travellers who explored these regions after
the earthquake of 1783--also gave voice to his fears that Messina had
not yet experienced the full measure of her calamities. . . .
I remember a night in September of 1908, a Sunday night, fragrant with
the odours of withered rosemary and cistus and fennel that streamed in
aromatic showers from the scorched heights overhead--a starlit night,
tranquil and calm. Never had Messina appeared so attractive to me.
Arriving there generally in the daytime and from larger and sprightlier
centres of civilization, one is prone to notice only its defects. But
night, especially a southern night, has a wizard touch. It transforms
into objects of mysterious beauty all unsightly things, or hides them
clean away; while the nobler works of man, those facades and cornices
and full-bellied balconies of cunningly wrought iron rise up, under its
enchantment, ethereal as the palace of fairies. And coming, as I then
did, from the sun-baked river-beds of Calabria, this place, with its
broad and well-paved streets, its glittering cafes and demure throng of
evening idlers, seemed a veritable metropolis, a world-city.
With deliberate slowness, _ritardando con molto sentimento,_ I worked my
way to the familiar restaurant.
At last! At last, after an interminable diet of hard bread, onions and
goat's cheese, I was to enjoy the complicated menu mapped out weeks
beforehand, after elaborate consideration and balancing of merits; so
complicated, that its details have long ago lapsed from my memory. I
recollect only the sword-fish, a local speciality, and (as crowning
glory) the _cassata alla siciliana,_ a glacial symphony, a multicoloured
ice of commingling flavours, which requires far more time to describe
than to devour. Under the influence of this Sybaritic fare, helped down
with a crusted bottle of Calabrian wine--your Sicilian stuff is too
strong for me, too straightforward, uncompromising; I prefer to be
wheedled out of my faculties by inches, like a gentleman--under this
genial stimulus my extenuated frame was definitely restored; I became
mellow and companionable; the traveller's lot, I finally concluded, is
not the worst on earth. Everything was as it should be. As for
Messina--Messina was unquestionably a pleasant city. But why were all
the shops shut so early in the evening?
"These Sicilians," said the waiter, an old Neapolitan acquaintance, in
reply to my enquiries, "are always playing some game. They are
pretending to be Englishmen at this moment; they have the Sunday-closing
obsession on the brain. Their attacks generally last a fortnight; it's
like the measles. Poor people."
Playing at being Englishmen!
They have invented a new game now, those that are left of them. They are
living in dolls' houses, and the fit is likely to last for some little
An engineer remarked to me, not long ago, among the ruins:
"This _baracca,_ this wooden shelter, has an interior surface area of
less than thirty square metres. Thirty-three persons--men, women, and
children--have been living and sleeping in it for the last five months."
"A little overcrowded?" I suggested.
"Yes. Some of them are beginning to talk of overcrowding. It was all
very well in the winter months, but when August comes. . . . Well, we
No prophetic visions of the Messina of to-day, with its minute sheds
perched among a wilderness of ruins and haunted by scared shadows in
sable vestments of mourning, arose in my mind that evening as I sat at
the little marble table, sipping my coffee--overroasted, like all
Italian coffee, by exactly two minutes--and puffing contentedly at my
cigar, while the sober crowd floated hither and thither before my eyes.
Yes, everything was as it should be. And yet, what a chance!
What a chance for some God, in this age of unbelief, to establish his
rule over mankind on the firm foundations of faith! We are always
complaining, nowadays, of an abatement of religious feeling. How easy
for such a one to send down an Isaiah to foretell the hour of the coming
catastrophe, and thus save those of its victims who were disposed to
hearken to the warning voice; to reanimate the flagging zeal of
worshippers, to straighten doubts and segregate the sheep from the
goats! Truly, He moves in a mysterious way, for no divine message came;
the just were entombed with the unjust amid a considerable deal of
telegraphing and heart-breaking.
A few days after the disaster the Catholic papers explained matters by
saying that the people of Messina had not loved their Madonna
sufficiently well. But she loved them none the less, and sent the
earthquake as an admonishment. Rather a robust method of conciliating
their affection; not exactly the _suaviter in modo. . . ._
But if genuine prophets can only flourish among the malarious willow
swamps of old Babylon and such-like improbable spots, we might at least
have expected better things of our modern spiritualists. Why should
their apparitions content themselves with announcing the decease, at the
Antipodes, of profoundly uninteresting relatives? Alas! I begin to
perceive that spirits of the right kind, of the useful kind, have yet to
be discovered. Our present-day ghosts are like seismographs; they
chronicle the event after it has happened. Now, what we want is----
"The Signore smokes, and smokes, and smokes. Why not take the tram and
listen to the municipal music in the gardens?"
"Music? Gardens? An excellent suggestion, Gennarino."
Even as a small Italian town would be incomplete without its piazza
where streets converge and commercial pulses beat their liveliest
measure, so every larger one contrives to possess a public garden for
the evening disport of its citizens; night-life being the true life of
the south. Charming they are, most of them; none more delectable than
that of old Messina--a spacious pleasaunce, decked out with trim palms
and flower-beds and labyrinthine walks freshly watered, and cooled, that
evening, by stealthy breezes from the sea. The grounds were festively
illuminated, and as I sat down near the bandstand and watched the folk
meandering to and fro, I calculated that no fewer than thirty thousand
persons were abroad, taking their pleasure under the trees, in the bland
air of evening. An orderly, well-dressed crowd. We may smile when they
tell us that these people will stint themselves of the necessities of
life in order to wear fine clothes, but the effect, for an outsider, is
all that it should be. For the rest, the very urchins, gambolling about,
had an air of happy prosperity, different from the squalor of the north
with its pinched white faces, its over-breeding and under-feeding.
And how well the sensuous Italian strains accord with such an hour and
scene! They were playing, if I remember rightly, the ever-popular Aida;
other items followed later--more ambitious ones; a Hungarian rhapsody,
Berlioz, a selection from Wagner.
"_Musica filosofica"_ said my neighbour, alluding to the German
composer. He was a spare man of about sixty; a sunburnt, military
countenance, seamed by lines of suffering. "_Non va in Sicilia--_it
won't do in this country. Not that we fail to appreciate your great
thinkers," he added. "We read and admire your Schopenhauer, your
Spencer. They give passable representations of Wagner in Naples. But----"
"Precisely. I have travelled, sir; and knowing your Berlin, and London,
and Boston, have been able to observe how ill our Italian architecture
looks under your grey skies, how ill our music sounds among the complex
appliances of your artificial life. It has made you earnest, this
climate of yours, and prone to take earnestly your very pastimes.
Music, for us, has remained what it was in the Golden Age--an
unburdening of the soul on a summer's night. They play well, these
fellows. Palermo, too, has a respectable band--Oh! a little too fast,
"The Signore is a musician?"
"A _proprietario._ But I delight in music, and I beguiled myself with
the fiddle as a youngster. Nowadays--look here!" And he extended his
hand; it was crippled. "Rheumatism. I have it here, and here"--pointing
to various regions of his body--"_and_ here! Ah, these doctors! The
baths I have taken! The medicines--the ointments--the embrocations: a
perfect pharmacopceia! I can hardly crawl now, and without the help of
these two devoted boys even this harmless little diversion would have
been denied me. My nephews--orphans," he added, observing the direction
of my glance.
They sat on his other side, handsome lads, who spoke neither too much
nor too little. Every now and then they rose with one accord and
strolled among the surging crowd to stretch their legs, returning after
five minutes to their uncle's side. His eyes always followed their
"My young brother, had he lived, would have made men of them," he once
The images revive, curiously pertinacious, with dim lapses and gulfs. I
can see them still, the two boys, their grave demeanour belied by mobile
lips and mischievous fair curls of Northern ancestry; the other, leaning
forward intent upon the music, and caressing his moustache with bent
fingers upon which glittered a jewel set in massive gold--some scarab or
intaglio, the spoil of old Magna Graecia. His conversation, during the
intervals, moved among the accepted formulas of cosmopolitanism with
easy flow, quickened at times by the individual emphasis of a man who
can forsake conventional tracks and think for himself. Among other
things, he had contrived an original project for reviving the lemon
industry of his country, which, though it involved a few tariff
modifications--"a mere detail"--struck me as amazingly effective and
ingenious. The local deputy, it seems, shared my view, for he had
undertaken to bring it before the notice of Parliament.
What was it?
I have forgotten!
So we discussed the world, while the music played under the starlit
It must have been midnight ere a final frenzied galop on the part of the
indefatigable band announced the close of the entertainment. I walked a
few paces beside the lame "proprietor" who, supported on the arms of his
nephews, made his way to the spot where the cabs were waiting--his
rheumatism, he explained, obliging him to drive. How he had enjoyed
walking as a youth, and what pleasure it would now have given him to
protract, during a promenade to my hotel, our delightful conversation!
But infirmities teach us to curtail our pleasures, and many things that
seem natural to man's bodily configuration are found to be unattainable.
He seldom left his rooms; the stairs--the diabolical stairs! Would I at
least accept his card and rest assured how gladly he would receive me
and do all in his power to make my stay agreeable?
That card has gone the way of numberless others which the traveller in
Southern Europe gathers about him. I have also forgotten the old man's
name. But the _palazzo_ in which he lived bore a certain historical
title which happened to be very familiar to me. I remember wondering how
it came to reach Messina.
In the olden days, of course, the days of splendour.
Will they ever return?
It struck me that the sufferings of the survivors would be alleviated if
all the sheds in which they are living could be painted white or
pearl-grey in order to protect them, as far as possible, from the
burning rays of the sun. I mentioned the idea to an overseer.
"We are painting as fast as we can," he replied. "An expensive matter,
however. The Villagio Elena alone has cost us, in this respect, twenty
thousand francs--with the greatest economy."
This will give some notion of the scale on which things have to be done.
The settlement in question contains some two hundred sheds--two hundred
out of over ten thousand.
But I was alluding not to these groups of hygienic bungalows erected by
public munificence and supplied with schools, laboratories, orphanages,
hospitals, and all that can make life endurable, but to the
others--those which the refugees built for themselves--ill-contrived
hovels, patched together with ropes, potato-sacks, petroleum cans and
miscellaneous odds and ends. A coat of whitewash, at least, inside and
out. ... I was thinking, too, of those still stranger dwellings, the
disused railway trucks which the government has placed at the disposal
of homeless families. At many Stations along the line may be seen
strings of these picturesque wigwams crowded with poor folk who have
installed themselves within, apparently for ever. They are cultivating
their favourite flowers and herbs in gaudy rows along the wooden
platforms of the carriages; the little children, all dressed in black,
play about in the shade underneath. The people will suffer in these
narrow tenements under the fierce southern sun, after their cool
courtyards and high-vaulted chambers! There will be diseases, too;
typhoids from the disturbed drainage and insufficient water-supply; eye
troubles, caused by the swarms of flies and tons of accumulated dust.
The ruins are also overrun with hordes of mangy cats and dogs which
ought to be exterminated without delay.
If, as seems likely, those rudely improvised sheds are to be inhabited
indefinitely, we may look forward to an interesting phenomenon, a
reversion to a corresponding type of man. The lack of the most ordinary
appliances of civilization, such as linen, washing-basins and cooking
utensils, will reduce them to the condition of savages who view these
things with indifference or simple curiosity; they will forget that they
ever had any use for them. And life in these huts where human beings are
herded together after the manner of beasts--one might almost say _fitted
in,_ like the fragments of a mosaic pavement--cannot but be harmful to
the development of growing children.
The Calabrians, I was told, distinguished themselves by unearthly
ferocity; Reggio was given over to a legion of fiends that descended
from the heights during the week of confusion. "They tore the rings and
brooches off the dead," said a young officiai to me. "They strangled the
wounded and dying, in order to despoil them more comfortably. Here, and
at Messina, the mutilated corpses were past computation; but the
Calabrians were the worst."
Vampires, offspring of Night and Chaos.
So Dolomieu, speaking of the _depravation incroyable des moeurs_ which
accompanied the earthquake of 1783, recounts the case of a householder
of Polistena who was pinned down under some masonry, his legs emerging
out of the ruins; his servant came and took the silver buckles off his
shoes and then fled, without attempting to free him. We have seen
something of this kind more recently at San Francisco.
"After despoiling the corpses, they ransacked the dwellings. Five
thousand beds, sir, were carried up from Reggio into the mountains."
"Five thousand beds! _Per Dio!_ It seems a considerable number."
A young fellow, one of the survivors, attached himself to me in the
capacity of guide through the ruins of Reggio. He wore the
characteristic earthquake look, a dazed and bewildered expression of
countenance; he spoke in a singularly deliberate manner. Knowing the
country, I was soon bending my steps in the direction of the cemetery,
chiefly for the sake of the exquisite view from those windswept heights,
and to breathe more freely after the dust and desolation of the lower
parts. This burial-ground is in the same state as that of Messina, once
the pride of its citizens; the insane frolic of nature has not respected
the slumber of the dead or their commemorative shrines; it has made a
mockery of the place, twisting the solemn monuments into repulsive and
But who can recount the freaks of stone and iron during those
moments--the hair-breadth escapes? My companion's case was miraculous
enough. Awakened from sleep with the first shock, he saw, by the dim
light of the lamp which burns in all their bedrooms, the wall at his
bedside weirdly gaping asunder. He darted to reach the opening, but it
closed again and caught his arm in a stony grip. Hours seemed to
pass--the pain was past enduring; then the kindly cleft yawned once
more, allowing him to jump into the garden below. Simultaneously he
heard a crash as the inner rooms of the house fell; then climbed aloft,
and for four days wandered among the bleak, wet hills. Thousands were in
the same plight.
I asked what he found to eat.
"_Erba, Signore._ We all did. You could not touch property; a single
orange, and they would have killed you."
He bore a name renowned in the past, but his home being turned into a
dust-heap under which his money, papers and furniture, his two parents
and brothers, are still lying, he now gains a livelihood by carrying
vegetables and fruit from the harbour to the collection of sheds
honoured by the name of market. Later in the day we happened to walk
past the very mansion, which lies near the quay. "Here is my house and
my family," he remarked, indicating, with a gesture of antique
resignation, a pile of wreckage.
Hard by, among the ruins, there sat a young woman with dishevelled hair,
singing rapturously. "Her husband was crushed to death," he said, "and
it unhinged her wits. Strange, is it not, sir? They used to fight like
fiends, and now--she sings to him night and day to come back."
Love--so the Greeks fabled--was the child of Chaos.
In this part of the town stands the civic museum, which all readers of
Gissing's "Ionian Sea" will remember as the closing note of those
harmonious pages. It is shattered, like everything else that he visited
in Reggio; like the hotel where he lodged; like the cathedral whose
proud superscription _Circumlegentes devenimus Rhegium_ impressed him so
deeply; like that "singular bit of advanced civilization, which gave me
an odd sense of having strayed into the world of those romancers who
forecast the future--a public slaughter-house of tasteful architecture,
set in a grove of lemon trees and palms, suggesting the dreamy ideal of
some reformer whose palate shrinks from vegetarianism." We went the
round of all these places, not forgetting the house which bears the
tablet commemorating the death of a young soldier who fell fighting
against the Bourbons. From its contorted iron balcony there hangs a rope
by which the inmates may have tried to let themselves down.
A friend of mine, Baron C---- of Stilo, is a member of that same
patriotic family, and gave me the following strange account. He was
absent from Reggio at the time of the catastrophe, but three others of
them were staying there. On the first shock they rushed together,
panic-stricken, into one room; the floor gave way, and they suddenly
found themselves sitting in their motor-car which happened to be placed
exactly below them. They escaped with a few cuts and bruises.
An inscription on a neighbouring ruin runs to the effect that the
_mansion having been severely damaged in the earthquake of_ 1783, _its
owner had rebuilt it on lines calculated to defy future shattering!_
Whether he would rebuild it yet again?
Nevertheless, there seems to be some chance for the revival of Reggio;
its prognosis is not utterly hopeless.
But Messina is in desperate case.
That haughty sea-front, with its long line of imposing edifices--imagine
a painted theatre decoration of cardboard through which some sportive
behemoth has been jumping with frantic glee; there you have it. And
within, all is desolation; the wreckage reaches to the windows; you must
clamber over it as best you can. What an all-absorbing post-tertiary
deposit for future generations, for the crafty antiquarian who deciphers
the history of mankind out of kitchen-middens and deformed heaps of
forgotten trash! The whole social life of the citizens, their arts,
domestic economy, and pastimes, lies embedded in that rubbish. "A
musical race," he will conclude, observing the number of decayed
pianofortes, guitars, and mandolines. The climate of Messina, he will
further arene, must have been a wet one, inasmuch as there are umbrellas
everywhere, standing upright among the debris, leaning all forlorn
against the ruins, or peering dismally from under them. It rained much
during those awful days, and umbrellas were at a premium. Yet fifty of
them would not have purchased a loaf of bread.
It was Goethe who, speaking of Pompeii, said that of the many
catastrophes which have afflicted mankind few have given greater
pleasure to posterity. The same will never be said of Messina, whose
relics, for the most part, are squalid and mean. The German poet, by the
way, visited this town shortly after the disaster of 1783, and describes
its _zackige Ruinenwueste_--words whose very sound is suggestive of
shatterings and dislocations. Nevertheless, the place revived again.
But what was 1783?
A mere rehearsal, an amateur performance.
Wandering about in this world of ghosts, I passed the old restaurant
where the sword-fish had once tasted so good--an accumulation of stones
and mortar--and reached the cathedral. It is laid low, all save the
Gargantuan mosaic figures that stare down from behind the altar in
futile benediction of Chaos; inane, terrific. This, then, is the house
of that feudal lady of the _fortiter in re,_ who sent an earthquake and
called it love. Womanlike, she doted on gold and precious stones, and
they recovered her fabulous hoard, together with a copy of a Latin
letter she sent to the Christians of Messina by the hand of Saint Paul.
And not long afterwards--how came it to pass?--my steps were guided amid
that wilderness towards a narrow street containing the ruins of a
_palazzo_ that bore, on a tablet over the ample doorway, an inscription
which arrested my attention. It was an historical title familiar to me;
and forthwith a train of memories, slumbering in the caverns of my mind,
was ignited. Yes; there was no doubt about it: the old "proprietor" and
his nephews, he of the municipal gardens. . . .
I wondered how they had met their fate, on the chill wintry morning. For
assuredly, in that restricted space, not a soul can have escaped alive;
the wreckage, hitherto undisturbed, still covered their remains.
And, remembering the old man and his humane converse that evening under
the trees, the true meaning of the catastrophe began to disentangle
itself from accidental and superficial aspects. For I confess that the
massacre of a myriad Chinamen leaves me cool and self-possessed; between
such creatures and ourselves there is hardly more than the frail bond of
a common descent from the ape; they are altogether too remote for our
narrow world-sympathies. I would as soon shed tears over the lost
Pleiad. But these others are our spiritual cousins; we have deep roots
in this warm soil of Italy, which brought forth a goodly tithe of what
is best in our own lives, in our arts and aspirations.
And I thought of the two nephews, their decent limbs all distorted and
mangled under a heap of foul rubbish, waiting for a brutal disinterment
and a nameless grave. This is no legitimate death, this murderous
violation of life. How inconceivably hateful is such a leave-taking, and
all that follows after! To picture a fair young body, that divine
instrument of joy, crushed into an unsightly heap; once loved, now