Part 7 out of 7
should study the history of St. Helena. [Footnote: By J. C. Melliss
(London, 1875).] Thanks to the goats, Maltese fever has lately been
introduced into Calabria. Man, with his charcoal-burning, has completed
the disaster. What happens? The friable rock, no longer sustained by
plant-life, crashes down with each thunderstorm, blocks up the valleys,
devastating large tracts of fertile land; it creates swamps in the
lowlands, and impedes the outflow of water to the sea. These ravenous
_fiumare_ have become a feature in Calabrian scenery; underneath one of
the most terrible of them lies the birthplace of Praxiteles. Dry or
half-dry during the warm months, and of formidable breadth, such
torrent-beds--the stagnant water at their skirts--are ideal
breeding-places for the anophelines from their mouth up to a height of
250 metres. So it comes about that, within recent times, rivers have
grown to be the main arteries of malaria. And there are rivers galore in
Calabria. The patriotic Barrius enumerates no of them--Father Fiore,
less learned, or more prudent, not quite so many. Deforestation and
malaria have gone hand in hand here, as in Greece, Asia Minor, North
Africa, and other countries.
Thus year after year, from one cause or another, the conditions have
become more favourable for the disease to do its fatal work.
That much of this harm has been done quite lately can often be
proved. At Caulonia, for instance, the woodlands are known to have
reached the shore a hundred years ago, and there are bare tracts of land
still bearing the name of "foresta." In a single summer (1807) a French
regiment stationed at Cosenza lost 800 men from fever, and when Rath
visited the town in 1871 it was described to him as a "vast hospital"
during the hot months; nevertheless, says he, the disease has only been
so destructive during the last two centuries, for up to that time the
forests touched the outskirts of the town and regulated the Crati-bed,
preventing the formation of marshes. The literary record of Cosenza is
one of exceptional brilliance; for acute and original thought this town
can hardly be surpassed by any other of its size on earth. Were
statistics available, I have not the slightest doubt that fever could be
shown to be largely responsible for the withering of its spiritual life.
The same fate--the same relapse from prosperity to decay--and for the
same reasons, has overtaken many other riverside villages, among them
that of Tarsia, the Caprasia of the An tonine Itinerary. "It was
described to us," says Rath, "as the most miserable and dirty village in
Calabria; but we found it worse." It remains, to-day, a highly infected
and altogether pitiable place, concerning which I have made certain
modest researches that would require, none the less, a chapter to
themselves. . . .
Perhaps I have already said over-much on the subject. An Englishman
unacquainted with malaria might think so, oblivious of the fact that Sir
Ronald Ross has called it "perhaps the most important of human
diseases." But let him go to a malarious country and see with his own
eyes something of the degradation it involves; how it stamps its
accursed imprimatur upon man and nature alike! It is the blight of
youth--the desert-maker. A well-known Italian senator has declared that
the story of south Italy is, was, and will be the story of malaria; and
the greater part of Calabria will certainly remain an enigma to the
traveller who ignores what is meant by this plague.
Malaria is the key to a correct understanding of the landscape; it
explains the inhabitants, their mode of life, their habits, their history.
CAULONIA TO SERRA
"How do you treat your malaria patients?" I once enquired of a doctor in
India. A few good stiff doses, he said, when the attack is on; that
generally settles them. If not, they can begin again. To take quinine as
a prophylactic, he considered folly. It might grow into a habit; you
never know. . . .
It is to be hoped that such types are extinct, out there. They are
extinct hereabouts. None but an ignorant person would now traverse
malarious tracts in summer without previous quininiza-tion; or, if
infected, deal with the disease otherwise than by an amply protracted
treatment of cure. Yet it is only quite lately that we have gained our
knowledge of a proper use of the drug; and this accounts for the great
mortality long after its specific effects had been recognized by the
profession. It was given both inefficiently and insufficiently. It was
sold at a prohibitive price. The country people were distrustful;
so-and-so had taken it for three or four days; he had improved, yes; but
the fever was on him once more. Why waste money on such experiments?
I remember accosting a lad, anemic, shivering with the tertian, and
marked by that untimely senility which is the sign-manual of malaria. I
"I don't take doctors' stuff," he said. "Even if I wanted to, my father
would not let me. And if he did, there's no money to pay for it. And if
there were, it would do no good. He's tried it himself."
"Well, but how are you feeling?"
"Oh, all right. There's nothing much the matter with me. Just the bad air."
Such types, too, are practically extinct nowadays; the people are being
educated to recognize their peril and how to avoid it; they begin to
follow Professor Celli's advice in the matter of regarding quinine as
their "daily bread." For since the discovery of the anophelic origin of
malaria many devices have been put into execution to combat the disease,
not the least of them being a popularized teaching of its causes and
consequences by means of pamphlets, lectures to school-children, and so
Now, you may either fight the anopheles--the vehicle, or the disease
itself. The first entails putting the country into such a state that the
mosquito finds it unpleasant to live there, a labour of Hercules. Yet
large sums are being expended in draining marshy tracts, regulating
river-beds and afforesting bare spaces; and if you are interested in
such works, you will do well to see what is going on at Metaponto at
this moment. (A considerable portion of the Government grant for these
purposes has lately been deflected for use in the Tripolitan war.)
Exemplary fines are also imposed for illicit timber-cutting and
grazing,--in those towns, at least, where the magistrate has sufficient
sense to perceive the ulterior benefits to be derived from what
certainly entails a good deal of temporary hardship on poor people.
Certain economic changes are helping in this work; so the wealth
imported from America helps to break up the big properties, those
latifundia which, says an Italian authority, "are synonymous with
malaria." The ideal condition--the extirpation of anophelines--will
never be attained; nor is it of vital importance that it should be.
Far more pressing is the protection of man against their attacks.
Wonderful success has crowned the wire-netting of the windows--an
outcome of the classical experiments of 1899, in the Roman Campagna.
But chiefest and most urgent of all is the cure of the infected
population. In this direction, results astonishing--results well-nigh
incredible--have attended the recently introduced governmental sale of
quinine. In the year 1895 there were 16,464 deaths from malaria
throughout Italy. By 1908 the number had sunk to 3463. Eloquent figures,
that require no comment! And, despite the fact that the drug is now sold
at a merely nominal rate or freely given away to the needy--nay, thrust
down the very throats of the afflicted peasantry by devoted gentlemen
who scour the plains with ambulances during the deadly season--despite
this, the yearly profits from its sale are amounting to about
three-quarters of a million francs.
So these forlorn regions are at last beginning to revive.
And returning to Foca, of whose dreadful condition up to 1902 (year of
the introduction of Government quinine) I have just spoken, we find that
a revolution has taken place. Between that year and 1908 the birth-rate
more than doubled the death-rate. In 1908 some two hundred poor folks
frequented the ambulance, nearly six kilogrammes of quinine being
gratuitously distributed; not one of the natives of the place was
attacked by the disease; and there was a single death--an old woman of
eighty, who succumbed to senile decay. [Footnote: Doctor Genovese's
statistical investigations have brought an interesting little fact to
light. In the debilitating pre-quinine period there was a surplus of
female births; now, with increased healthfulness, those of the males
This is an example of what the new quinine-policy has done for Italy, in
briefest space of time. Well may the nation be proud of the men who
conceived this genial and beneficial measure and carried it through
Parliament, and of those local doctors without whose enlightened zeal
such a triumph could not have been achieved. . . .
Sir Ronald Ross's discovery, by the way, has been fruitful not only in
practical humanitarian results. For instance, it has reduced North's
laborious "Roman Fever" to something little better than a curiosity. And
here, on these deserted shores that were once resplendent with a great
civilization--here is the place to peruse Mr. W. M. Jones's studies on
this subject. I will not give even the shortest precis of his
conscientious researches nor attempt to picture their effect upon a mind
trained in the old school of thought; suffice to say, that the author
would persuade us that malaria is implicated, to an hitherto unsuspected
extent, in the decline of ancient Greece and Rome. And he succeeds. Yes;
a man accustomed to weigh evidence will admit, I think, that he has made
out a suggestively strong case.
How puzzled we were to explain why the brilliant life of Magna Graecia
was snuffed out suddenly, like a candle, without any appreciably
efficient cause--how we listened to our preachers cackling about the
inevitable consequences of Sybaritic luxury, and to the warnings of sage
politicians concerning the dangers of mere town-patriotism as opposed to
worthier systems of confederation! How we drank it all in! And how it
warmed the cockles of our hearts to think that we were not vicious,
narrow-minded heathens, such as these!
And now a vulgar gnat is declared to be at the bottom of the whole mystery.
Crudely disconcerting, these scientific discoveries. Or is it not rather
hard to be dragged to earth in this callous fashion, while soaring
heavenward on the wings of our edifying reflections? For the rest--the
old, old story; a simple, physical explanation of what used to be an
enigma brimful of moral significance.
That Mr. Jones's facts and arguments will be found applicable to
other decayed races in the old and new worlds is highly probable.
Meanwhile, it takes one's breath away quite sufficiently to realize that
they apply to Hellas and her old colonies on these shores.
"'AUTOS. Strange! My interest waxes. Tell me then, what affliction, God
or Devil, wiped away the fair life upon the globe, the beasts, the
birds, the delectable plantations, and all the blithe millions of the
human race? What calamity fell upon them?'
"'ESCHATA. A gnat.'
"'AUTOS. A gnat?'
"'ESCHATA. Even so.'"
Thus I wrote, while yet unaware that such pests as anophelines existed
upon earth. . . .
At the same time, I think we must be cautious in following certain
deductions of our author; that theory of brutality, for example, as
resulting from malaria. Speaking of Calabria, I would almost undertake
to prove, from the archives of law-courts, that certain of the most
malarial tracts are precisely those in which there is least brutality of
any kind. Cotrone, for instance. . . . The _delegato_ (head of the
police) of that town is so young--a mere boy--that I marvelled how he
could possibly have obtained a position which is usually filled by
seasoned and experienced officers. He was a "son of the white hen," they
told me; that is, a socially favoured individual, who was given this job
for the simple reason that there was hardly any serious work for him to
do. Cosenza, on the other hand, has a very different reputation
nowadays. And it is perfectly easy to explain how malaria might have
contributed to this end. For the disease--and herein lies its
curse--lowers both the physical and social standard of a people; it
breeds misery, poverty and ignorance--fit soil for callous rapacity.
But how about his theory of "pessimism" infecting the outlook of
generations of malaria-weakened sages? I find no trace of pessimism
here, not even in its mild Buddhistic form. The most salient mental
trait of cultured Calabrians is a subtle detachment and contempt of
illusions--whence their time-honoured renown as abstract thinkers and
speculators. This derives from a philosophic view of life and entails,
naturally enough, the outward semblance of gravity--a Spanish gravity,
due not so much to a strong graft of Spanish blood and customs during
the viceregal period, as to actual affinities with the race of Spain.
But this gravity has nothing in common with pessimism, antagonistic
though it be to those outbursts of irresponsible optimism engendered
under northern skies by copious food, or beer.
To reach the uplands of Fabbrizia and Serra, whither I was now bound, I
might have utilized the driving road from Gioioso, on the Reggio side of
Caulonia. But that was everybody's route. Or I might have gone _via_
Stilo, on the other side. But Stilo with its memories of Campanella--a
Spanish type, this!--and of Otho II, its winding track into the
beech-clad heights of Ferdinandea, was already familiar to me. I elected
to penetrate straight inland by the shortest way; a capable muleteer at
once presented himself.
We passed through one single village, Ragona; leaving those of S. Nicola
and Nardo di Pace on the right. The first of them is celebrated for its
annual miracle of the burning olive, when, armed to the teeth (for some
ancient reason), the populace repairs to the walls of a certain convent
out of which there grows an olive tree: at its foot is kindled a fire
whose flames are sufficient to scorch all the leaves, but behold! next
day the foliage is seen to glow more bravely green than ever. Perhaps
the roots of the tree are near some cistern. These mountain villages,
hidden under oaks and vines, with waters trickling through their lanes,
a fine climate and a soil that bears everything needful for life, must
be ideal habitations for simple folks. In some of them, the death-rate
is as low as 7: 1000. Malaria is unknown here: they seem to fulfil all
the conditions of a terrestrial paradise.
There is a note of joyous vigour in this landscape. The mule-track winds
in and out among the heights, through flowery meadows grazed by cattle
and full of buzzing insects and butterflies, and along hill-sides
cunningly irrigated; it climbs up to heathery summits and down again
through glades of chestnut and ilex with mossy trunks, whose shadow
fosters strange sensations of chill and gloom. Then out again, into the
sunshine of waving corn and poppies.
For a short while we stumbled along a torrent-bed, and I grew rather sad
to think that it might be the last I should see for some time to come,
my days in this country being now numbered. This one was narrow. But
there are others, interminable in length and breadth. Interminable! No
breeze stirs in those deep depressions through which the merest thread
of milky water trickles disconsolately. The sun blazes overhead and
hours pass, while you trudge through the fiery inferno; scintillations
of heat rise from the stones and still you crawl onwards, breathless and
footsore, till eyes are dazed and senses reel. One may well say bad
things of these torrid deserts of pebbles which, up till lately, were
the only highways from the lowlands into the mountainous parts. But they
are sweet in memory. One calls to mind the wild savours that hang in
the stagnant air; the cloven hill-sides, seamed with gorgeous patches of
russet and purple and green; the spectral tamarisks, and the glory of
coral-tinted oleanders rising in solitary tufts of beauty, or flaming
congregations, out of the pallid waste of boulders.
After exactly six hours Fabbrizia was reached--a large place whose name,
like that of Borgia, Savelli, Carafa and other villages on these
southern hills, calls up associations utterly non-Calabrian; Fabbrizia,
with pretentious new church and fantastically dirty side-streets. It
lies at the respectable elevation of 900 metres, on the summit of a
monstrous landslide which has disfigured the country.
While ascending along the flank of this deformity I was able to see how
the authorities have attempted to cope with the mischief and arrest
further collapses. This is what they have done. The minute channels of
water, that might contribute to the disintegration of the soil by
running into this gaping wound from the sides or above, have been
artfully diverted from their natural courses; trees and shrubs are
planted at its outskirts in order to uphold the earth at these spots by
their roots--they have been protected by barbed wire from the grazing of
cattle; furthermore, a multitude of wickerwork dykes are thrown across
the accessible portions of the scar, to collect the downward-rushing
material and tempt winged plant-seeds to establish themselves on the
ledges thus formed. To bridle this runaway mountain is no mean task, for
such _frane_ are like rodent ulcers, ever enlarging at the edges. With
the heat, with every shower of rain, with every breath of wind, the
earth crumbles away; there is an eternal trickling, day and night, until
some huge boulder is exposed which crashes down, loosening everything in
its wild career; a single tempest may disrupture what the patience and
ingenuity of years have contrived.
Three more hours or thereabouts will take you to Serra San Bruno along
the backbone of southern Italy, through cultivated lands and pasture and
lonely stretches of bracken, once covered by woodlands.
It may well be that the townlet has grown up around, or rather near, the
far-famed Carthusian monastery. I know nothing of its history save that
it has the reputation of being one of the most bigoted places in
Calabria--a fact of which the sagacious General Manhes availed himself
when he devised his original and effective plan of chastising the
inhabitants for a piece of atrocious conduct on their part. He caused
all the local priests to be arrested and imprisoned; the churches were
closed, and the town placed under what might be called an interdict. The
natives took it quietly at first, but soon the terror of the situation
dawned upon them. No religious marriages, no baptisms, no funerals--the
comforts of heaven refused to living and dead alike. . . . The strain
grew intolerable and, in a panic of remorse, the populace hunted down
their own brigand-relations and handed them over to Manhes, who duly
executed them, one and all. Then the interdict was taken off and the
priests set at liberty; and a certain writer tells us that the people
were so charmed with the General's humane and businesslike methods that
they forthwith christened him "Saint Manhes," a name which, he avers,
has clung to him ever since.
The monastery lies about a mile distant; near at hand is a little
artificial lake and the renowned chapel of Santa Maria. There was a time
when I would have dilated lovingly upon this structure--a time when I
probably knew as much about Carthusian convents as is needful for any of
their inmates; when I studied Tromby's ponderous work and God knows how
many more--ay, and spent two precious weeks of my life in deciphering
certain crabbed MSS. of Tutini in the Brancacciana library--ay, and
tested the spleenful Perrey's "Ragioni del Regio Fisco, etc.," as to the
alleged land-grabbing propensities of this order--ay, and even
pilgrimaged to Rome to consult the present general of the Carthusians
(his predecessor, more likely) as to some administrative detail,
all-important, which has wholly escaped my memory. Gone are those days
of studious gropings into blind alleys! The current of zeal has slowed
down or turned aside, maybe, into other channels. They who wish, will
find a description of the pristine splendour of this monastery in
various books by Pacicchelli; the catastrophe of 1783 was described by
Keppel Craven and reported upon, with illustrations, by the Commission
of the Naples Academy; and if you are of a romantic turn of mind, you
will find a good story of the place, as it looked duringthe ruinous days
of desolation, in Misasi's "Calabrian Tales."
It is now rebuilt on modern lines and not much of the original structure
remains upright. I wandered about the precincts in the company of two
white-robed French monks, endeavouring to reconstruct not the convent as
it was in its younger days, but _them._ That older one, especially--he
had known the world. . . .
Meat being forbidden, the godly brethren have a contract for fish to be
brought up every day by the post-carriage from the distant Soverato. And
what happens, I asked, when none are caught?
"Eh bien, nous mangeons des macaroni!"
Such a diet would never suit me. Let me retire to a monkery where
carnivorous leanings may be indulged. Methinks I could pray more
cheerfully with the prospect of a rational _dejeuner a la fourchette_
At the back of the monastery lies a majestic forest of white
firs--nothing but firs; a unique region, so far as south and central
Italy are concerned. I was there in the golden hour after sunset, and
yet again in the twilight of dew-drenched morning; and it seemed to me
that in this temple not made by hands there dwelt an enchantment more
elemental, and more holy, than in the cloistered aisles hard by. This
assemblage of solemn trees has survived, thanks to rare conditions of
soil and climate. The land lies high; the ground is perennially moist
and intersected by a horde of rills that join their waters to form the
river Ancinale; frequent showers descend from above. Serra San Bruno has
an uncommonly heavy rainfall. It lies in a vale occupying the site of a
pleistocene lake, and the forest, now restricted to one side of the
basin, encircled it entirely in olden days. At its margin they have
established a manufactory which converts the wood into paper--blissful
sight for the utilitarian.
Finding little else of interest in Serra, and hungering for the
flesh-pots of Cotrone, I descended by the postal diligence to Soverato,
nearly a day's journey. Old Soverato is in ruins, but the new town seems
to thrive in spite of being surrounded by deserts of malaria. While
waiting for supper and the train to Cotrone, I strolled along the
beach, and soon found myself sitting beside the bleached anatomy of
some stranded leviathan, and gazing at the mountains of Squillace that
glowed in the soft lights of sunset. The shore was deserted save for
myself and a portly dogana-official who was playing with his little
son--trying to amuse him by elephantine gambols on the sand, regardless
of his uniform and manly dignity. Notwithstanding his rotundity, he was
an active and resourceful parent, and enjoyed himself vastly; the boy
pretending, as polite children sometimes do, to enter into the fun of
MEMORIES OF GISSING
Two new hotels have recently sprung up at Cotrone. With laudable
patriotism, they are called after its great local champions, athletic
and spiritual, in ancient days--Hotel Milo and Hotel Pythagoras. As
such, they might be expected to make a strong appeal to the muscles and
brains of their respective clients. I rather fancy that the chief
customers of both are commercial travellers who have as little of the
one as of the other, and to whom these fine names are Greek.
As for myself, I remain faithful to the "Concordia" which has twice
already sheltered me within its walls.
The shade of George Gissing haunts these chambers and passages. It was
in 1897 that he lodged here with that worthy trio: Gibbon, Lenormant and
Cassiodorus. The chapters devoted to Cotrone are the most lively and
characteristic in his "Ionian Sea." Strangely does the description of
his arrival in the town, and his reception in the "Concordia," resemble
that in Bourget's "Sensations."
The establishment has vastly improved since those days. The food is good
and varied, the charges moderate; the place is spotlessly clean in every
part--I could only wish that the hotels in some of our English country
towns were up to the standard of the "Concordia" in this respect. "One
cannot live without cleanliness," as the housemaid, assiduously
scrubbing, remarked to me. It is also enlarged; the old dining-room,
whose guests are so humorously described by him, is now my favourite
bedroom, while those wretched oil-lamps sputtering on the wall have been
replaced by a lavish use of electricity. One is hardly safe, however, in
praising these inns over-much; they are so apt to change hands. So long
as competition with the two others continues, the "Concordia" will
presumably keep to its present level.
Of freaks in the dining-room, I have so far only observed one whom
Gissing might have added to his collection. He is a _director_ of some
kind, and his method of devouring maccheroni I unreservedly admire--it
displays that lack of all effort which distinguishes true art from
false. He does not eat them with deliberate mastication; he does not
even--like your ordinary amateur--drink them in separate gulps; but he
contrives, by some swiftly-adroit process of levitation, that the whole
plateful shall rise in a noiseless and unbroken flood from the table to
his mouth, whence it glides down his gullet with the relentless ease of
a river pouring into a cavern. Altogether, a series of films depicting
him at work upon a meal would make the fortune of a picture-show
company--in England. Not here, however; such types are too common to be
remarked, the reason being that boys are seldom sent to boarding schools
where stereotyped conventions of "good form" are held up for their
imitation, but brought up at home by adoring mothers who care little for
such externals or, if they do, have no great authority to enforce their
views. On entering the world, these eccentricities in manner are proudly
clung to, as a sign of manly independence.
Death has made hideous gaps in the short interval. The kindly
Vice-Consul at Catanzaro is no more; the mayor of Cotrone, whose permit
enabled Gissing to visit that orchard by the riverside, has likewise
joined the majority; the housemaid of the "Concordia," the domestic serf
with dark and fiercely flashing eyes--dead! And dead is mine hostess,
"the stout, slatternly, sleepy woman, who seemed surprised at my demand
for food, but at length complied with it."
But the little waiter is alive and now married; and Doctor Sculco still
resides in his aristocratic _palazzo_ up that winding way in the old
town, with the escutcheon of a scorpion--portentous emblem for a
doctor--over its entrance. He is a little greyer, no doubt; but the same
genial and alert personage as in those days.
I called on this gentleman, hoping to obtain from him some reminiscences
of Gissing, whom he attended during a serious illness.
"Yes," he replied, to my enquiries, "I remember him quite well; the
young English poet who was ill here. I prescribed for him. Yes--yes! He
wore his hair long."
And that was all I could draw from him. I have noticed more than once
that Italian physicians have a stern conception of the Hippocratic oath:
the affairs of their patients, dead or alive, are a sacred trust in
The town, furthermore, has undergone manifold improvements in those few
years. Trees are being planted by the roadsides; electric light is
everywhere and, best of all, an excellent water-supply has been led down
from the cool heights of the Sila, bringing cleanliness, health and
prosperity in its train. And a stately cement-bridge is being built over
the Esaro, that "all but stagnant and wholly pestilential stream." The
Esaro _glides pleasantly,_ says the chronicler Noia Molisi. Perhaps it
really glided, in his day.
One might do worse than spend a quiet month or two at Cotrone in the
spring, for the place grows upon one: it is so reposeful and orderly.
But not in winter. Gissing committed the common error of visiting south
Italy at that season when, even if the weather will pass, the country
and its inhabitants are not true to themselves. You must not come to
these parts in winter time.
Nor yet in the autumn, for the surrounding district is highly malarious.
Thucydides already speaks of these coastlands as depopulated (relatively
speaking, I suppose), and under the Romans they recovered but little;
they have only begun to revive quite lately. [Footnote: Between
1815--1843, and in this single province of Catanzaro, there was an
actual decline in the population of thirty-six towns and villages.
Malaria!] Yet this town must have looked well enough in the twelfth
century, since it is described by Edrisius as "a very old city,
primitive and beautiful, prosperous and populated, in a smiling
position, with walls of defence and an ample port for anchorage." I
suspect that the history of Cotrone will be found to bear out Professor
Celli's theory of the periodical recrudescences and abatements of
malaria. However that may be, the place used to be in a deplorable
state. Riedesel (1771) calls it "la ville la plus affreuse de l'Italie,
et peut-etre du monde entier"; twenty years later, it is described as
"sehr ungesund ... so aermlich als moeglich"; in 1808 it was "reduite a
une population de trois mille habitants ronges par la misere, et les
maladies qu'occasionne la stagnation des eaux qui autrefois
fertilisaient ces belles campagnes." In 1828, says Vespoli, it contained
only 3932 souls.
I rejoice to cite such figures. They show how vastly Cotrone, together
with the rest of Calabria, has improved since the Bourbons were ousted.
The sack of the town by their hero Cardinal Ruffo, described by Pepe and
others, must have left long traces. "Horrible was the carnage
perpetrated by these ferocious bands. Neither age nor sex nor condition
was spared. . . . After two days of pillage accompanied by a multitude
of excesses and cruelties, they erected, on the third day, a magnificent
altar in the middle of a large square"--and here the Cardinal, clothed
in his sacred purple, praised the good deeds of the past two days and
then, raising his arms, displayed a crucifix, absolving his crew from
the faults committed during the ardour of the sack, and blessed them.
I shall be sorry to leave these regions for the north, as leave them I
must, in shortest time. The bathing alone would tempt me to prolong my
stay, were it possible. Whereas Taranto, despite its situation,
possesses no convenient beach, there are here, on either side of the
town, leagues of shimmering sand lapped by tepid and caressing waves; it
is a sunlit solitude; the land is your own, the sea your own, as far as
eye can reach. One may well become an amphibian, at Cotrone.
The inhabitants of this town are well-mannered and devoid of the
"ineffable" air of the Tarentines. But they are not a handsome race.
Gissing says, a propos of the products of a local photographer, that it
was "a hideous exhibition; some of the visages attained an incredible
degree of vulgar ugliness." That is quite true. Old authors praise the
beauty of the women of Cotrone, Bagnara, and other southern towns; for
my part, I have seldom found good-looking women in the coastlands of
Calabria; the matrons, especially, seem to favour that ideal of the
Hottentot Venus which you may study in the Jardin des Plantes; they are
decidedly centripetal. Of the girls and boys one notices only those who
possess a peculiar trait: the eyebrows pencilled in a dead straight
line, which gives them an almost hieratic aspect. I cannot guess from
what race is derived this marked feature which fades away with age as
the brows wax thicker and irregular in contour. We may call it Hellenic
on the old-fashioned principle that everything attractive comes from the
Greeks, while its opposite is ascribed to those unfortunate "Arabs" who,
as a matter of fact, are a sufficiently fine-looking breed.
And there must be very little Greek blood left here. The town--among
many similar vicissitudes--was peopled largely by Bruttians, after
Hannibal had established himself here. In the Viceregal period, again,
there was a great infusion of Spanish elements. A number of Spanish
surnames still linger on the spot.
And what of Gissing's other friend, the amiable guardian of the
cemetery? "His simple good nature and intelligence greatly won upon me.
I like to think of him as still quietly happy amid his garden walls,
tending flowers that grow over the dead at Cotrone."
Dead, like those whose graves he tended; like Gissing himself. He
expired in February 1901--the year of the publication of the "Ionian
Sea," and they showed me his tomb near the right side of the entrance;
_a._ poor little grave, with a wooden cross bearing a number, which will
soon be removed to make room for another one.
This cemetery by the sea is a fair green spot, enclosed in a high wall
and set with flowering plants and comely cypresses that look well
against their background of barren clay-hills. Wandering here, I called
to mind the decent cemetery of Lucera, and that of Manfredonia, built in
a sleepy hollow at the back of the town which the monks in olden days
had utilized as their kitchen garden (it is one of the few localities
where deep soil can be found on that thirsty limestone plain); I
remembered the Venosa burial-ground near the site of the Roman
amphitheatre, among the tombs of which I had vainly endeavoured to find
proofs that the name of Horace is as common here as that of Manfred in
those other two towns; the Taranto cemetery, beyond the railway quarter,
somewhat overloaded with pretentious ornaments; I thought of many cities
of the dead, in places recently explored--that of Rossano, ill-kept
within, but splendidly situated on a projecting spur that dominates the
Ionian; of Caulonia, secluded among ravines at the back of the
town. . . .
They are all full of character; a note in the landscape, with their
cypresses darkly towering amid the pale and lowly olives; one would
think the populace had thrown its whole poetic feeling into the choice
of these sites and their embellishments. But this is not the case; they
are chosen merely for convenience--not too far from habitations, and yet
on ground that is comparatively cheap. Nor are they truly venerable,
like ours. They date, for the most part, from the timewhen the
Government abolished the oldsystem of inhumation in churches--a system
which, for the rest, still survives; there are over six hundred of these
_fosse carnarie_ in use at this moment, most of them in churches.
And a sad thought obtrudes itself in these oases of peace and verdure.
The Italian law requires that the body shall be buried within
twenty-four hours after decease (the French consider forty-eight hours
too short a term, and are thinking of modifying their regulations in
this respect): a doctor's certificate of death is necessary but often
impossible to procure, since some five hundred Italian communities
possess no medical man whatever. Add to this, the superstitions of
ignorant country people towards the dead, testified to by extraordinary
beliefs and customs which you will find in Pitre and other collectors of
native lore--their mingled fear and hatred of a corpse, which prompts
them to thrust it underground at the earliest possible opportunity.
. . . Premature burial must be all too frequent here. I will not
enlarge upon the theme of horror by relating what gravediggers
have seen with their own eyes on disturbing old coffins; if only half
what they tell me is true, it reveals a state of affairs not to be
contemplated without shuddering pity, and one that calls for prompt
legislation. Only last year a frightful case came to light in Sicily.
Here, at the cemetery, the driving road abruptly ends; thenceforward
there is merely a track along the sea that leads, ultimately, to Capo
Nau, where stands a solitary column, last relic of the great temple of
Hera. I sometimes follow it as far as certain wells that are sunk,
Arab-fashion, into the sand, and dedicated to Saint Anne. Goats and cows
recline here after their meagre repast of scorched grasses, and the
shepherds in charge have voices so soft, and manners so gentle, as to
call up suggestions of the Golden Age. These pastoral folk are the
primitives of Cotrone. From father to son, for untold ages before
Theocritus hymned them, they have kept up their peculiar habits and
traditions; between them and the agricultural classes is a gulf as deep
as between these and the citizens. Conversing with them, one marvels how
the same occupation can produce creatures so unlike as these and the
goat-boys of Naples, the most desperate _camorristi._
The cows may well be descendants of the sacred cattle of Hera that
browsed under the pines which are known to have clothed the bleak
promontory. You may encounter them every day, wandering on the way to
the town which they supply with milk; to avoid the dusty road, they
march sedately through the soft wet sand at the water's edge, their
silvery bodies outlined against a cserulean flood of sky and sea.
On this promenade I yesterday observed, slow-pacing beside the waves, a
meditative priest, who gave me some details regarding the ruined church
of which Gissing speaks. It lies in the direction of the cemetery,
outside the town; "its lonely position," he says, "made it interesting,
and the cupola of coloured tiles (like that of the cathedral of Amalfi)
remained intact, a bright spot against the grey hills behind." This
cupola has recently been removed, but part of the old walls serve as
foundation for a new sanctuary, a sordid-looking structure with
red-tiled roof: I am glad to have taken a view of it, some years ago,
ere its transformation. Its patroness is the Madonna del Carmine--the
same whose church in Naples is frequented by thieves and cut-throats,
who make a special cult of this Virgin Motherand invoke Her blessing on
their nefarious undertakings.
The old church, he told me, was built in the middle of the seventeenth
century; this new one, he agreed, might have been constructed on more
ambitious lines, "but nowadays----" and he broke off, with eloquent
It was the same, he went on, with the road to the cemetery; why should
it not be continued right up to the cape of the Column as in olden days,
over ground _dove ogni passo e una memoria:_ where every footstep is a
"Rich Italians," he said, "sometimes give away money to benefit the
public. But the very rich--never! And at Cotrone, you must remember,
every one belongs to the latter class."
We spoke of the Sila, which he had occasionally visited.
"What?" he asked incredulously, "you have crossed the whole of that
country, where there is nothing to eat--nothing in the purest and most
literal sense of that word? My dear sir! You must feel like Hannibal,
after his passage of the Alps."
Those barren clay-hills on our right of which Gissing speaks (they are
like the _baize_ of the Apennines) annoyed him considerably; they were
the malediction of the town, he declared. At the same time, they
supplied him with the groundwork of a theory for which there is a good
deal to be said. The old Greek city, he conjectured, must have been
largely built of bricks made from their clay, which is once more being
utilized for this purpose. How else account for its utter disappearance?
Much of the finer buildings were doubtless of stone, and these have been
worked into the fort, the harbour and _palazzi_ of new Cotrone; but this
would never account for the vanishing of a town nearly twelve miles in
circumference. Bricks, he said, would explain the mystery; they had
crumbled into dust ere yet the Romans rebuilt, with old Greek stones,
the city on the promontory now occupied by the new settlement.
The modern palaces on the rising ground of the citadel are worthy of a
visit; they are inhabited by some half-dozen "millionaires" who have
given Cotrone the reputation of being the richest town of its size in
Italy. So far as I can judge, the histories of some of these wealthy
families would be curious reading.
"Gentlemen," said the Shepherd, "if you have designs of Trading, you
must go another way; but if you're of the admired sort of Men, that have
the thriving qualifications of Lying and Cheating, you're in the direct
Path to Business; for in this City no Learning flourisheth; Eloquence
finds no room here; nor can Temperance, Good Manners, or any Vertue meet
with a Reward; assure yourselves of finding but two sorts of Men, and
those are the Cheated, and those that Cheat."
If gossip at Naples and elsewhere is to be trusted, old Petronius seems
to have had a prophetic glimpse of the _dessus du panier_ of modern
The sun has entered the Lion. But the temperature at Cotrone is not
excessive--five degrees lower than Taranto or Milan or London. One grows
weary, none the less, of the deluge of implacable light that descends,
day after day, from the aether. The glistering streets are all but
deserted after the early hours of the morning. A few busy folks move
about till midday on the pavements; and so do I--in the water. But the
long hours following luncheon are consecrated to meditation and repose.
A bundle of Italian newspapers has preceded me hither; upon these I
browse dispersedly, while awaiting the soft call to slumber. Here are
some provincial sheets--the "Movement" of Castro-villari--the "New
Rossano"--the "Bruttian" of Corigliano, with strong literary flavour.
Astonishing how decentralized Italy still is, how brimful of purely
local patriotism: what conception have these men of Rome as their
capital? These articles often reflect a lively turmoil of ideas,
well-expressed. Who pays for such journalistic ventures? Typography is
cheap, and contributors naturally content themselves with the ample
remuneration of appearing in print before their fellow-citizens; a
considerable number of copies are exported to America. Yet I question
whether the circulation of the "New Rossano," a fortnightly in its sixth
year, can exceed five hundred copies.
But these venial and vapid Neapolitan dailies are my pet aversion. We
know them, _nous autres,_ with their odious personalities and playful
blackmailing tactics; many "distinguished foreigners," myself included,
could tell a tale anent that subject. Instead of descending to such
matters, let me copy--it is too good to translate--a thrilling item of
news from the chiefest of them, the _Mattino,_ which touches,
furthermore, upon the all-important subject of Calabrian progress.
"CETRARO. Per le continuate premure ed insistenze di questo egregio
uffiziale postale Signor Rocca Francesco--che nulla lascia
pel bene avviamento del nostro uffizio--presso 1' on. Dirczione delle
poste di Cosenza, si e ottenuta una cassetta postale, che affissa lungo
il Corso Carlo Pancaso, ci da la bella commodita di imbucare le nostre
corrispondenze per essere rilevate tre volte al giorno non solo, quanto
ci evita persino la dolorosa e lunga via crucis che dovevamo percorrere
qualvolta si era costretti d' imbuccare una lettera, essendo il nostro
uffizio situato ali' estremita del paese.
"Tributiamo percio sincera lode al nostro caro uffiziale postale Sig.
Rocca, e ci auguriamo che egli continui ancora al miglioramento deli'
uffizio istesso, e merce 1' opera sua costante ed indefessa siamo sicuri
che 1' uffizio postale di Cetraro assurgera fra non molto ad un'
importanza maggiore di quella che attualmente."
The erection of a letter-box in the Street of a small place of which 80
per cent of the readers have never so much as heard. ... I begin to
understand why the cultured Tarentines do not read these journals.
By far the best part of all such papers is the richly-tinted personal
column, wherein lovers communicate with each other, or endeavour to do
so. I read it conscientiously from beginning to end, admiring, in my
physical capacity, the throbbing passion that prompts such public
outbursts of confidence and, from a literary point of view, their
lapidary style, model of condensation, impossible to render in English
and conditioned by the hard fact that every word costs two sous. Under
this painful material stress, indeed, the messages are sometimes crushed
into a conciseness which the females concerned must have some difficulty
in unperplexing: what on earth does the parsimonious _Flower_ mean by
his Delphic fourpenny worth, thus punctuated--
"(You have) not received. How. Safety."
One cannot help smiling at this circuitous and unromantic method of
touching the hearts of ladies who take one's fancy; at the same time, it
testifies to a resourceful vitality, striving to break through the
barriers of Hispano-Arabic convention which surround the fair sex in
this country. They are nothing if not poetic, these love-sick swains.
_Arrow_ murmurs: "My soul lies on your pillow, caressing you softly";
_Strawberry_ laments that "as bird outside nest, I am alone and lost.
What sadness," and _Star_ finds the "Days eternal, till Thursday." And
yet they often choose rather prosaic pseudonyms. Here is _Sahara_ who
"suffers from your silence," while _Asthma_ is "anticipating one endless
kiss," and _Old England_ observing, more ir sorrow than in anger, that
he "waited vainly one whole hour."
But the sagacious _Cooked Lobster_ desires, before commiting himself
further, "a personal interview." He has perhaps been cooked once before.
Letters and numbers are best, after all. So thinks F. N. 13, who is
utterly disgusted with his flame--
"Your silence speaks. Useless saying anything. Ca ira." And likewise
7776--B, a designing rogue and plainly a spendthrift, who wastes
ninepence in making it clear that he "wishes to marry rich young lady,
forgiving youthful errors." If I were the girl, I would prefer to take
my chances with "Cooked Lobster."
_"Will much-admired young-lady cherries-in-black-hat indicate method
possible correspondence_ 10211, _Post-Office?"_
How many of these arrows, I wonder, reach their mark?
Ah, here are politics and News of the World, at last. A promising
article on the "Direttissimo Roma-Napoli"--the railway line that is to
connect the two towns by way of the Pontine Marshes. . . . Dear me! This
reads very familiarly. . . . Why, to be sure, it is the identical
dissertation, with a few changes by the office-boy, that has cropped up
periodically in these pages for the last half-century, or whenever the
railway was first projected. The line, as usual, is being projected more
strenuously than before, and certain members of the government have
goneso far as to declare. . .. H'm! Let me try something else: "The
Feminist Movement in England" by Our London Correspondent (who lives in
a little side street off the Toledo); that sounds stimulating. . . . The
advanced English Feminists--so it runs--are taking the lead in
encouraging their torpid sisters on the Continent. . . . Hardly a day
passes, that some new manifestation of the Feminist Movement ... in
fact, it may be avowed that the Feminist Movement in England. . . .
The air is cooler, as I awake, and looking out of the window I perceive
from the mellow light-effects that day is declining.
Towards this sunset hour the unbroken dome of the sky often undergoes a
brief transformation. High-piled masses of cloud may then be seen
accumulating over the Sila heights and gathering auxiliaries from every
quarter; lightning is soon playing about the livid and murky
vapours--you can hear the thunders muttering, up yonder, to some
drenching downpour. But on the plain the sun continues to shine in
vacuously benevolent fashion; nothing is felt of the tempest save
unquiet breaths of wind that raise dust-eddies from the country roads
and lash the sea into a mock frenzy of crisp little waves. It is the
merest interlude. Soon the blue-black drifts have fled away from the
mountains that stand out, clear and refreshed, in the twilight. The wind
has died down, the storm is over and Cotrone thirsts, as ever, for rain
that never comes. Yet they have a Madonna-picture here--a celebrated
_black_ Madonna, painted by Saint Luke--who "always procures rain, when
Once indeed the tail of a shower must have passed overhead, for there
fell a few sad drops. I hurried abroad, together with some other
citizens, to observe the phenomenon. There was no doubt about the
matter; it was genuine rain; the drops lay, at respectable intervals, on
the white dust of the station turnpike. A boy, who happened to be
passing in a cart, remarked that if the shower could have been collected
into a saucer or some other small receptacle, it might have sufficed to
quench the thirst of a puppy-dog.
I usually take a final dip in the sea, at this time of the evening.
After that, it is advisable to absorb an ice or two--they are excellent,
at Cotrone--and a glass of Strega liqueur, to ward off the effects of
over-work. Next, a brief promenade through the clean, well-lighted
streets and now populous streets, or along the boulevard Margherita to
view the rank and fashion taking the air by the murmuring waves, under
the cliff-like battlements of Charles the Fifth's castle; and so to dinner.
This meal marks the termination of my daily tasks; nothing serious is
allowed to engage my attention, once that repast is ended; I call for a
chair and sit down at one of the small marble-topped tables in the open
street and watch the crowd as it floats around me, smoking a Neapolitan
cigar and imbibing, alternately, ices and black coffee until, towards
midnight, a final bottle of _vino di Ciro_ is uncorked--fit seal for the
labours of the day.
One might say much in praise of Calabrian wine. The land is full of
pleasant surprises for the cenophilist, and one of these days I hope to
embody my experiences in the publication of a wine-chart of the province
with descriptive text running alongside--the purchasers of which, if
few, will certainly be of the right kind. The good Dr. Barth--all praise
to him!--has already done something of the kind for certain parts of
Italy, but does not so much as mention Calabria. And yet here nearly
every village has its own type of wine and every self-respecting family
its own peculiar method of preparation, little known though they be
outside the place of production, on account of the octroi laws which
strangle internal trade and remove all stimulus to manufacture a good
article for export. This wine of Ciro, for instance, is purest nectar,
and so is that which grows still nearer at hand in the classical vale of
the Neto and was praised, long ago, by old Pliny; and so are at least
two dozen more. For even as Gregorovius says that the smallest Italian
community possesses its duly informed antiquarian, if you can but put
your hand upon him, so, I may be allowed to add, every little place
hereabouts can boast of at least one individual who will give you good
wine, provided--provided you go properly to work to find him.
Now although, when young, the Calabrian Bacchus has a wild-eyed _beaute
du diable_ which appeals to one's expansive moods, he already begins to
totter, at seven years of age, in sour, decrepit eld. To pounce upon him
at the psychological moment, to discover in whose cool and cobwebby
cellar he is dreaming out his golden summer of manhood--that is what a
foreigner can never, never hope to achieve, without competent local aid.
To this end, I generally apply to the priests; not because they are the
greatest drunkards (far from it; they are mildly epicurean, or even
abstemious) but by reason of their unrivalled knowledge of
personalities. They know exactly who has been able to keep his liquor of
such and such a year, and who has been obliged to sell or partially
adulterate it; they know, from the confessional of the wives, the why
and wherefore of all such private family affairs and share, with the
chemist, the gift of seeing furthest into the tangled web of home life.
They are "gialosi," however, of these acquirements, and must be
approached in the right spirit--a spirit of humility. But if you
tactfully lead up to the subject by telling of the manifold hardships of
travel in foreign lands, the discomfort of life in hostelries, the food
that leaves so much to be desired and, above all, the coarse wine that
is already beginning, you greatly fear, to injure your sensitive spleen
(an important organ, in Calabria), inducing a hypochondriacal tendency
to see all the beauties of this fair land in an odious and sombre
light--turning your day into night, as it were--it must be an odd
priest, indeed, who is not compassionately moved to impart the desired
information regarding the whereabouts of the best _vino di famiglia_ at
that moment obtainable. After all, it costs him nothing to do a double
favour--one to yourself and another to the proprietor of the wine,
doubtless an old friend of his, who will be able to sell his stuff to a
foreigner 20 per cent dearer than to a native.
And failing the priests, I go to an elderly individual of that tribe of
red-nosed connaisseurs, the coachmen, ever thirsty and mercenary souls,
who for a small consideration may be able to disclose not only this
secret, but others far more mysterious.
As to your host at the inn--he raises not the least objection to
your importing alien liquor into his house. His own wine, he tells you,
is last year's vintage and somewhat harsh (slightly watered, he might
add)--and why not? The ordinary customers are gentlemen of commerce who
don't care a fig what they eat and drink, so long as there is enough of
it. No horrible suggestions are proffered concerning corkage; on the
contrary, he tests your wine, smacks his lips, and thanks you for
communicating a valuable discovery. He thinks he will buy a bottle or
two for the use of himself and a few particular friends. . . .
Midnight has come and gone. The street is emptying; the footsteps of
passengers begin to ring hollow. I arise, for my customary stroll in the
direction of the cemetery, to attune myself to repose by shaking off
those restlessly trivial images of humanity which might otherwise haunt
Town visions are soon left behind; it is very quiet here under the hot,
starlit heavens; nothing speaks of man save the lighthouse flashing in
ghostly activity--no, it is a fixed light--on the distant Cape of the
Column. And nothing breaks the stillness save the rhythmic breathing of
the waves, and a solitary cricket that has yet to finish his daily task
of instrumental music, far away, in some warm crevice of the hills.
A suave odour rises up from the narrow patch of olives, and figs loaded
with fruit, and ripening vines, that skirts the path by the beach. _The
fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender
grape give a good smell._
And so I plough my way through the sand, in the darkness, encompassed by
tepid exhalations of earth and sea. Another spirit has fallen upon me--a
spirit of biblical calm. Here, then, stood _the rejoicing city that
dwelt carelessly, that said in her heart, I am, and there is none beside
me: how is she become a desolation!_ It is indeed hard to realize that a
town thronged with citizens covered all this area. Yet so it is. Every
footstep is a memory. Along this very track walked the sumptuous ladies
of Croton on their way to deposit their vain jewels before the goddess
Hera, at the bidding of Pythagoras. On this spot, maybe, stood that
public hall which was specially built for the delivery of his lectures.
No doubt the townsfolk had been sunk in apathetic luxury; the time was
ripe for a Messiah.
And lo! he appeared.
THE SAGE OF CROTON
The popularity of this sage at Croton offers no problem: the inhabitants
had become sufficiently civilized to appreciate the charm of being
regenerated. We all do. Renunciation has always exercised an
irresistible attraction for good society; it makes us feel so
comfortable, to be told we are going to hell--and Pythagoras was very
eloquent on the subject of Tartarus as a punishment. The Crotoniates
discovered in repentance of sins a new and subtle form of pleasure;
exactly as did the Florentines, when Savonarola appeared on the scene.
Next: his doctrines found a ready soil in Magna Graecia which was
already impregnated with certain vague notions akin to those he
introduced. And then--he permitted and even encouraged the emotional sex
to participate in the mysteries; the same tactics that later on
materially helped the triumph of Christianity over the more exclusive
and rational cult of Mithra. Lastly, he came with a "message," like the
Apostle of the Gentiles; and in those times a preaching reformer was a
novelty. That added a zest. We know them a little better, nowadays.
He enjoyed the specious and short-lived success that has attended,
elsewhere, such efforts to cultivate the _ego_ at the expense of its
environment. "A type of aspiring humanity," says Gissing, echoing the
sentiments of many of us, "a sweet and noble figure, moving as a dim
radiance through legendary Hellas." I fancy that the mist of centuries
of undiscriminating admiration has magnified this figure out of all
proportion and contrived, furthermore, to fix an iridescent nimbus of
sanctity about its head. Such things have been known to happen, in foggy
Was Greece so very legendary, in those times? Why, on the contrary, it
was full of real personages, of true sages to whom it seemed as if no
secrets of heaven or earth were past fathoming; far from being
legendary, the countryhad never attained a higher plane of intellectual
curiosity than when Pythagoras made his appearance. And it cannot be
gainsaid that he and his disciples gave the impetus away from these wise
and beneficial researches into the arid regions of metaphysics. It is so
much more gentlemanly (and so much easier) to talk bland balderdash
about soul-migrations than to calculate an eclipse of the moon or bother
about the circulation of the blood.
That a man of his speculative vigour, knowing so many extra-Hellenic
races, should have hit upon one or two good things adventitiously is
only to be expected. But they were mere by-products. One might as well
praise John Knox for creating the commons of Scotland with a view to the
future prosperity of that country--a consummation which his black
fanaticism assuredly never foresaw.
The chief practical doctrine of Pythagoras, that mankind are to be
governed on the principle of a community of eastern monks, makes for the
disintegration of rational civic life.
And his chief theoretical doctrines, of metempsychosis and the reduction
of everything to a system of numbers [Footnote: Vincenzo Dorsa, an
Albanian, has written two pamphlets on the survival of Greco-Roman
traditions in Calabria. They are difficult to procure, but whoever is
lucky enough to find them will be much helped in his understanding of
the common people. In one place, he speaks of the charm-formula of
_Otto-Nave!_ (Eight-Nine) It is considered meet and proper, in the
presence of a suckling infant, to spit thrice and then call out, three
times, Otto-Nove! This brings luck; and the practice, he thinks, is an
echo of the number-system of Pythagoras.]--these are sheer lunacy.
Was it not something of a relapse, after the rigorous mental discipline
of old, to have a man gravely assuring his fellows that he is the son of
Hermes and the divinely appointed messenger of Apollo; treating
diseases, like an Eskimo Angekok, by incantation; recording veracious
incidents of his experiences during a previous life in Hell, which he
seems to have explored almost as thoroughly as Swedenborg; dabbling in
magic, and consulting dreams, birds and the smoke of incense as oracles?
And in the exotic conglomerate of his teachings are to be found the
_prima stamina_ of much that is worse: the theory of the pious fraud
which has infected Latin countries to this day; the Jesuitical maxim of
the end justifying the means; the insanity of preferring deductions to
facts which has degraded philosophy up to the days of Kant; mysticism,
demon-worship and much else of pernicious mettle--they are all there,
embryonically embedded in Pythagoras.
We are told much of his charity; indeed, an English author has written a
learned work to prove that Pythagoreanism has close affinities with
Christianity. Charity has now been tried on an ample scale, and has
proved a dismal failure. To give, they say, is more blessed than to
receive. It is certainly far easier, for the most part, to give than to
refrain from giving. We are at last shaking off the form, of
self-indulgence called charity; we realize that if mankind is to profit,
sterner conceptions must prevail. The apotheosis of the god-favoured
loafer is drawing to a close.
For the rest, there was the inevitable admixture of quackery about our
reforming sage; his warmest admirers cannot but admit that he savours
somewhat strongly of the holy impostor. Those charms and amulets, those
dark gnomic aphorisms which constitute the stock-in-trade of all
religious cheap-jacks, the bribe of future life, the sacerdotal tinge
with its complement of mendacity, the secrecy of doctrine, the
pretentiously-mysterious self-retirement, the "sacred quaternion," the
bean-humbug . . .
He had the true maraboutic note.
And for me, this regenerator crowned with a saintly aureole remains a
glorified marabout--an intellectual dissolvent; the importer of that
oriental introspectiveness which culminated in the idly-splendid
yearnings of Plato, paved the way for the quaint Alexandrian
_tutti-frutti_ known as Christianity, and tainted the well-springs of
honest research for two thousand years. By their works ye shall known
them. It was the Pythagoreans who, not content with a just victory over
the Sybarites, annihilated their city amid anathemas worthy of those old
Chaldeans (past masters in the art of pious cursings); a crime against
their common traditions and common interests; a piece of savagery which
wrecked Hellenic civilization in Italy. It is ever thus, when the soul
is appointed arbiter over reason. It is ever thus, when gentle,
god-fearing dreamers meddle with worldly affairs. Beware of the wrath of
So rapidly did the virus act, that soon we find Plato declaring that all
the useful arts are _degrading;_ that "so long as a man tries to study
any sensible object, he can never be said to be learning anything"; in
other words, that the kind of person to whom one looks for common sense
should be excluded from the management of his most refined republic. It
needed courage of a rather droll kind to make such propositions in
Greece, under the shadow of the Parthenon. And hand in hand with this
feudalism in philosophy there began that unhealthy preoccupation with
the morals of our fellow-creatures, that miasma of puritanism, which has
infected life and literature up to this moment.
The Renaissance brought many fine things to England. But the wicked
fairy was there with her gift: Pythagoras and Plato. We were not like
the Italians who, after the first rapture of discovery was over, soon
outgrew these distracted dialectics; we stuck fast in them. Hence our
Platonic touch: our _demi-vierge_ attitude in matters of the mind, our
academic horror of clean thinking. How Plato hated a fact! He could
find no place for it in his twilight world of abstractions. Was it not
he who wished to burn the works of Democritus of Abdera, most exact and
reasonable of old sages?
They are all alike, these humanitarian lovers of first causes. Always
ready to burn something, or somebody; always ready with their cheerful
Hell-fire and gnashing of teeth.
_Know thyself:_ to what depths of vain, egocentric brooding has that
dictum led! But we are discarding, now, such a mischievously narrow view
of the Cosmos, though our upbringing is still too rhetorical and
mediaeval to appraise its authors at their true worth. Youth is prone to
judge with the heart rather than the head; youth thrives on vaporous
ideas, and there was a time when I would have yielded to none in my
enthusiasm for these mellifluous babblers; one had a blind, sentimental
regard for their great names. It seems to me, now, that we take them
somewhat too seriously; that a healthy adult has nothing to learn from
their teachings, save by way of warning example. Plato is food for
adolescents. And a comfort, possibly, in old age, when the judicial
faculties of the mind are breaking up and primitive man, the visionary,
reasserts his ancient rights. For questioning moods grow burdensome with
years; after a strain of virile doubt we are glad to acquiesce once
more--to relapse into Platonic animism, the logic of valetudinarians.
The dog to his vomit.
And after Plato--the deluge. Neo-platonism. . . .
Yet it was quite good sport, while it lasted. To "make men better" by
choice dissertations about Utopias, to sit in marble halls and have a
fair and fondly ardent _jeunesse doree_ reclining about your knees while
you discourse, in rounded periods, concerning the salvation of their
souls by means of transcendental Love--it would suit me well enough, at
this present moment; far better than croaking, forlorn as the
night-raven, among the ruins of their radiant lives.
Meanwhile, and despite our Universities, new conceptions are prevailing,
Aristotle is winning the day. A fresh kind of thinker has arisen, whose
chief idea of "virtue" is to investigate patiently the facts of life;
men of the type of Lister, any one of whom have done more to regenerate
mankind, and to increase the sum of human happiness, than a wilderness
of the amiably-hazy old doctrinaires who professed the same object. I
call to mind those physicians engaged in their malaria-campaign, and
wonder what Plato would have thought of them. Would he have recognized the
significance of their researches which, while allaying pain and misery,
are furthering the prosperity of the country, causing waters to flow in
dry places and villages to spring up in deserts--strengthening its
political resources, improving its very appearance? Not likely. Plato's
opinion of doctors was on a par with the rest of his mentality. Yet
these are the men who are taking up the thread where it was dropped,
perforce, by those veritable Greek sages, whelmed under turbid floods of
Pythagorean irrationalism. And are such things purely utilitarian? Are
they so grossly mundane? Is there really no "philosophy" in the choice
of such a healing career, no romance in its studious self-denial, no
beauty in its results? If so, we must revise that classic adage which
connects vigour with beauty--not to speak of several others.
MIDDAY AT PETELIA
Day after day, I look across the six miles of sea to the Lacinian
promontory and its column. How reach it? The boatmen are eager for the
voyage: it all depends, they say, upon the wind.
Day after day--a dead calm.
"Two hours--three hours--four hours--according!" And they point to the
sky. A little breeze, they add, sometimes makes itself felt in the early
mornings; one might fix up a sail.
"And for returning at midday?"
"Three hours--four hours--five hours--according!"
The prospect of rocking about for half a day in a small boat under a
blazing sky is not my ideal of enjoyment, the novelty of such an
experience having worn off a good many years ago. I decide to wait; to
make an attack, meanwhile, upon old Petelia--the "Stromboli" of my
lady-friend at the Catanzaro Museum....
It is an easy day's excursion from Cotrone to Strongoli, which is
supposed to lie on the site of that ancient, much-besieged town. It sits
upon a hill-top, and the diligence which awaits the traveller at the
little railway-station takes about two hours to reach the place,
climbing up the olive-covered slopes in ample loops and windings.
Of Strangoli my memories, even at this short distance of time, are
confused and blurred. The drive up under the glowing beams of morning,
the great heat of the last few days, and two or three nights'
sleeplessness at Cotrone had considerably blunted my appetite for new
things. I remember seeing some Roman marbles in the church, and being
thence conducted into a castle.
Afterwards I reposed awhile in the upper regions, under an olive, and
looked down towards the valley of the Neto, which flows not far from
here into the Ionian. I thought upon Theocritus, trying to picture this
vale of Neaithos as it appeared to him and his shepherds. The woodlands
are gone, and the rains of winter, streaming down the earthen slopes,
have remodelled the whole face of the country.
Yet, be nature what it may, men will always turn to one who sings so
melodiously of eternal verities--of those human tasks and needs which no
lapse of years can change. How modern he reads to us, who have been
brought into contact with the true spirit by men like Johnson-Cory and
Lefroy! And how unbelievably remote is that Bartolozzi-Hellenism which
went before! What, for example--what of the renowned pseudo-Theocritus,
Salamon Gessner, who sang of this same vale of Neto in his "Daphnis"?
Alas, the good Salamon has gone the way of all derivative bores; he is
dead--deader than King Psammeticus; he is now moralizing in some
decorous Paradise amid flocks of Dresden-China sheep and sugar-watery
youths and maidens. Who can read his much-translated masterpiece without
unpleasant twinges? Dead as a doornail!
So far as I can recollect, there is an infinity of kissing in "Daphnis."
It was an age of sentimentality, and the Greek pastoral ideal,
transfused into a Swiss environment of 1810, could not but end in
slobber and _Gefuehlsduselei._ True it is that shepherds have ample
opportunities of sporting with Amaryllis in the shade; opportunities
which, to my certain knowledge, they do not neglect. Theocritus knew it
well enough. But, in a general way, he is niggardly with the precious
commodity of kisses; he seems to have thought that in literature, if not
in real life, one can have too much of a good thing. Also, being a
southerner, he could not have trusted his young folks to remain
eternally at the kissing-stage, after the pattern of our fish-like
English lovers. Such behaviour would have struck him as improbable;
possibly immoral. . . .
From where I sat one may trace a road that winds upwards into the Sila,
past Pallagorio. Along its sides are certain mounded heaps and the smoke
of refining works. These are mines of that dusky sulphur which I had
observed being drawn in carts through the streets of Cotrone. There are
some eight or ten of them, they tell me, discovered about thirty years
ago--this is all wrong: they are mentioned in 1571--and employing
several hundred workmen. It had been my intention to visit these
excavations. But now, in the heat of day, I wavered; the distance, even
to the nearest of them, seemed inordinately great; and just as I had
decided to look for a carnage with a view of being driven there (that
curse of conscientiousness!) an amiable citizen snatched me up as his
guest for luncheon. He led me, weakly resisting, to a vaulted chamber
where, amid a repast of rural delicacies and the converse of his spouse,
all such fond projects were straightway forgotten. Instead of
sulphur-statistics, I learnt a little piece of local history.
"You were speaking about the emptiness of our streets of Strangoli," my
host said. "And yet, up to a short time ago, there was no emigration
from this place. Then a change came about: I'll tell you how it was.
There was a _guardia di finanze_ here--a miserable octroi official. To
keep up the name of his family, he married an heiress; not for the sake
of having progeny, but--well! He began buying up all the land round
about--slowly, systematically, cautiously--till, by dint of threats and
intrigues, he absorbed nearly all the surrounding country. Inch by inch,
he ate it up; with his wife's money. That was his idea of perpetuating
his memory. All the small proprietors were driven from their domains and
fled to America to escape starvation; immense tracts of well-cultivated
land are now almost desert. Look at the country! But some day he will
get his reward; under the ribs, you know."
By this purposeful re-creation of those feudal conditions of olden,
days, this man has become the best-hated person in the district.
Soon it was time to leave the friendly shelter and inspect in the
glaring sunshine the remaining antiquities of Petelia. Never have I felt
less inclined for such antiquarian exploits. How much better the hours
would have passed in some cool tavern! I went forth, none the less; and
was delighted to discover that there are practically no antiquities
left--nothing save a few walls standing near a now ruined convent, which
is largely built of Roman stone-blocks and bricks. Up to a few years
ago, the municipality carried on excavations here and unearthed a few
relics which were promptly dispersed. Perhaps some of these are what one
sees in the Catanzaro Museum. The paternal government, hearing of this
enterprise, claimed the site and sat down upon it; the exposed remains
were once more covered up with soil.
A goat-boy, a sad little fellow, sprang out of the earth as I dutifully
wandered about here. He volunteered to show me not only Strongoli, but
all Calabria; in fact, his heart's desire was soon manifest: to escape
from home and find his way to America under my passport and protection.
Here was his chance--a foreigner (American) returning sooner or later to
his own country! He pressed the matter with naif forcefulness. Vainly I
told him that there were other lands on earth; that I was not going to
America. He shook his head and sagely remarked:
"I have understood. You think my journey would cost too much. But you,
also, must understand. Once I get work there, I will repay you every
As a consolation, I offered him some cigarettes. He accepted one;
The goat-herds had no such cravings--in the days of Theocritus.
"Two hours--three hours--four hours: according!"
The boatmen are still eager for the voyage. It all depends, as before,
upon the wind.
And day __after day __the Ionian lies before us--immaculate, immutable.
I determined to approach the column by land. A mule was discovered, and
starting from the "Concordia" rather late in the morning, reached the
temple-ruin in two hours to the minute. I might have been tempted to
linger by the way but for the intense sunshine and for the fact that the
muleteer was an exceptionally dull dog--a dusky youth of the taciturn
and wooden-faced Spanish variety, whose anti-Hellenic profile irked me,
in that landscape. The driving road ends at the cemetery. Thence onward
a pathway skirts the sea at the foot of the clay-hills; passes the
sunken wells; climbs up and down steepish gradients and so attains the
plateau at whose extremity stands the lighthouse, the column, and a few
white bungalows--summer-residences of Cotrone citizens.
A day of shimmering heat. . . .
The ground is parched. Altogether, it is a poor and thinly peopled
stretch of land between Cotrone and Capo Rizzuto. No wonder the wolves
are famished. Nine days ago one of them actually ventured upon the road
near the cemetery, in daylight.
Yet there is some plant-life, and I was pleased to see, emerging from
the bleak sand-dunes, the tufts of the well-known and conspicuous sea
lily in full flower. Wishful to obtain a few blossoms, I asked the boy
to descend from his mule, but he objected.
"Non si toccano questi fiori," he said. These flowers are not to be
Their odour displeased him. Like the Arab, the uncultivated Italian is
insensitive to certain smells that revolt us; while he cannot endure, on
the other hand, the scent of some flowers. I have seen a man professing
to feel faint at the odour of crushed geranium leaves. They are _fiori
di morti,_ he says: planted (sometimes) in graveyards.
The last remarkable antiquity found at this site, to my knowledge, is a
stone vase, fished up some years ago out of the sea, into which it may
have fallen while being carried off by pious marauders for the purpose
of figuring as font in some church (unless, indeed, the land has sunk at
this point, as there is some evidence to show). I saw it, shortly after
its return to dry land, in a shed near the harbour of Cotrone; the
Taranto museum has now claimed it. It is a basin of purple-veined
pavonazzetto marble. Originally a monolith, it now consists of two
fragments; the third and smallest is still missing. This noble relic
stands about 85 centimetres in height and measures some 215 centimetres
in circumference; it was never completed, as can be seen by the rim,
which is still partially in the rough. A similar vessel is figured, I
believe, in Tischbein.
The small villa-settlement on this promontory is deserted owing to lack
of water, every drop of which has to be brought hither by sea from
Cotrone. One wonders why they have not thought of building a cistern to
catch the winter rains, if there are any; for a respectable stone crops
up at this end of the peninsula.
One often wonders at things. . . .
The column has been underpinned and strengthened by a foundation of
cement; rains of centuries had begun to threaten its base, and there was
some risk of a catastrophe. Near at hand are a few ancient walls of
reticulated masonry in strangely leaning attitudes, peopled by black
goats; on the ground I picked up some chips of amphorse and vases, as
well as a fragment of the limb of a marble statue. The site of this
pillar, fronting the waves, is impressively forlorn. And it was rather
thoughtful, after all, of the despoiling Bishop Lucifero to leave two of
the forty-eight columns standing upright on the spot, as a sample of the
local Doric style. One has fallen to earth since his day. Nobody would
have complained at the time, if he had stolen all of them, instead of
only forty-six. I took a picture of the survivor; then wandered a little
apart, in the direction of the shore, and soon found myself in a
solitude of burning stones, a miniature Sahara.
The temple has vanished, together with the sacred grove that once
embowered it; the island of Calypso, where Swinburne took his ease (if
such it was), has sunk into the purple realms of Glaucus; the corals and
sea-beasts that writhed among its crevices are en-gulphed under mounds
of submarine sand. There was life, once, at this promontory. Argosies
touched here, leaving priceless gifts; fountains flowed, and cornfields
waved in the genial sunshine. Doubtless there will be life again; earth
and sea are only waiting for the enchanter's wand.
All now lies bare, swooning in summer stagnation.
Calabria is not a land to traverse alone. It is too wistful and
stricken; too deficient in those externals that conduce to comfort. Its
charms do not appeal to the eye of romance, and the man who would
perambulate Magna Graecia as he does the Alps would soon regret his
choice. One needs something of that "human element" which delighted the
genteel photographer of Morano--comrades, in short; if only those sages,
like old Noia Molisi, who have fallen under the spell of its ancient
glories. The joys of Calabria are not to be bought, like those of
Switzerland, for gold.
_Sir Giovati Battista di Noia Molisi, the last of his family and name,
having no sons and being come to old age without further hope of
offspring, has desired in the place of children to leave of himself an
eternal memory to mankind--_ to wit, this Chronicle of the most Ancient,
Magnificent, and Faithful City of Cotrone. A worthier effort at
self-perpetuation than that of Strangoli. . . .
A sturgeon, he notes, was caught in 1593 by the Spanish Castellan of the
town. This nobleman, puzzling whom he could best honour with so rare a
dainty, despatched it by means of a man on horseback to the Duke of
Nocera. The Duke was no less surprised than pleased; he thought mighty
well of the sturgeon and of the respectful consideration which prompted
the gift; and then, by another horseman, sent it to Noia Molisi's own
uncle, accompanied, we may conjecture, by some ceremonious compliment
befitting the occasion.
A man of parts, therefore, our author's uncle, to whom his Lordship of
Nocera sends table-delicacies by mounted messenger; and himself a mellow
comrade whom I am loath to leave; his pages are distinguished by a
pleasing absence of those saintly paraphernalia which hang like a fog
athwart the fair sky of the south.
Yet to him and to all of them I must bid good-bye, here and now. At this
hour to-morrow I shall be far from Cotrone.
Farewell to Capialbi, inspired bookworm! And to Lenormant.
On a day like this, the scholar sailed at Bivona over a sea so unruffled
that the barque seemed to be suspended in air. The water's surface, he
tells us, is "unie comme une glace." He sees the vitreous depths invaded
by piercing sunbeams that light up its mysterious forests of algae, its
rock-headlands and silvery stretches of sand; he peers down into these
"prairies pelagiennes" and beholds all their wondrous fauna--the
urchins, the crabs, the floating fishes and translucent medusae
"semblables a des clochettes d'opale." Then, realizing how this
"population pullulante des petits animaux marins" must have impressed
the observing ancients, he goes on to touch--ever so lightly!--upon
those old local arts of ornamentation whereby sea-beasts and molluscs
and aquatic plants were reverently copied by master-hand, not from dead
specimens, but "pris sur le vif et observes au milieu des eaux"; he
explains how an entire school grew up, which drew its inspiration from
the dainty ... apes and movements of these frail creatures. This is _au
meilleur Lenormant._ His was a full-blooded yet discriminating zest of
knowledge. One wonders what more was fermenting in that restlessly
curious brain, when a miserable accident ended his short life, after 120
days of suffering.
So Italy proved fatal to him, as Greece to his father. But one of his
happiest moments must have been spent on the sea at Bivona, on that
clear summer day--a day such as this, when every nerve tingles with joy
Meanwhile it is good to rest here, immovable but alert, in the
breathless hush of noon. Showers of benevolent heat stream down upon
this desolation; not the faintest wisp of vapour floats upon the
horizon; not a sail, not a ripple, disquiets the waters. The silence can
be felt. Slumber is brooding over the things of earth:
Asleep are the peaks of the hills, and the vales,
The promontories, the clefts,
And all the creatures that move upon the black earth. . . .
Such torrid splendour, drenching a land of austerut simplicity,
decomposes the mind into corresponding states of primal contentment and
resilience. There arises before our phantasy a new perspective of human
affairs; a suggestion of well-being wherein the futile complexities and
disharmonies of our age shall have no place. To discard these wrappings,
to claim kinship with some elemental and robust archetype, lover of
earth and sun----
How fair they are, these moments of golden equipoise!
Yes; it is good to be merged awhile into these harshly-vibrant
surroundings, into the meridian glow of all things. This noontide is the
"heavy" hour of the Greeks, when temples are untrodden by priest or
worshipper. _Controra_ they now call it--the ominous hour. Man and
beast are fettered in sleep, while spirits walk abroad, as at midnight.
_Non timebis a timore noctuno: a sagitta volante in aie: a negotio
perambulante in tenebris: ab incursu et demonio meridiano._ The midday
demon--that southern Haunter of calm blue spaces. . . .
So may some enchantment of kindlier intent have crept over Phaedrus and
his friend, at converse in the noontide under the whispering plane-tree.
And the genius dwelling about this old headland of the Column is candid
This corner of Magna Graecia is a severely parsimonious manifestation of
nature. Rocks and waters! But these rocks and waters are actualities;
the stuff whereof man is made. A landscape so luminous, so resolutely
scornful of accessories, hints at brave and simple forms of expression;
it brings us to the ground, where we belong; it medicines to the disease
of introspection and stimulates a capacity which we are in danger of
unlearning amid our morbid hyperborean gloom--the capacity for honest
contempt: contempt of that scarecrow of a theory which would have us
neglect what is earthly, tangible. What is life well lived but a blithe
discarding of primordial husks, of those comfortable intangibilities
that lurk about us, waiting for our weak moments?
The sage, that perfect savage, will be the last to withdraw himself from
the influence of these radiant realities. He will strive to knit closer
the bond, and to devise a more durable and affectionate relationship
between himself and them. Let him open his eyes. For a reasonable
adjustment lies at his feet. From these brown stones that seam the
tranquil Ionian, from this gracious solitude, he can carve out, and bear
away into the cheerful din of cities, the rudiments of something clean
and veracious and wholly terrestrial--some tonic philosophy that shall
foster sunny mischiefs and farewell regret.