By Norman Douglas
Public Domain Books
I. SARACEN LUCERA
I find it hard to sum up in one word the character of Lucera–the effect it produces on the mind; one sees so many towns that the freshness of their images becomes blurred. The houses are low but not undignified; the streets regular and clean; there is electric light and somewhat indifferent accommodation for travellers; an infinity of barbers and chemists. Nothing remarkable in all this. Yet the character is there, if one could but seize upon it, since every place has its genius. Perhaps it lies in a certain feeling of aloofness that never leaves one here. We are on a hill–a mere wave of ground; a kind of spur, rather, rising up from, the south–quite an absurd little hill, but sufficiently high to dominate the wide Apulian plain. And the nakedness of the land stimulates this aerial sense. There are some trees in the “Belvedere” or public garden that lies on the highest part of the spur and affords a fine view north and eastwards. But the greater part were only planted a few years ago, and those stretches of brown earth, those half-finished walks and straggling pigmy shrubs, give the place a crude and embryonic appearance. One thinks that the designers might have done more in the way of variety; there are no conifers excepting a few cryptomerias and yews which will all be dead in a couple of years, and as for those yuccas, beloved of Italian municipalities, they will have grown more dyspeptic-looking than ever. None the less, the garden will be a pleasant spot when the ilex shall have grown higher; even now it is the favourite evening walk of the citizens. Altogether, these public parks, which are now being planted all over south Italy, testify to renascent taste; they and the burial-places are often the only spots where the deafened and light-bedazzled stranger may find a little green content; the content, respectively, of L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. So the cemetery of Lucera, with its ordered walks drowned in the shade of cypress–roses and gleaming marble monuments in between–is a charming retreat, not only for the dead.
The Belvedere, however, is not my promenade. My promenade lies yonder, on the other side of the valley, where the grave old Suabian castle sits on its emerald slope. It does not frown; it reposes firmly, with an air of tranquil and assured domination; “it has found its place,” as an Italian observed to me. Long before Frederick Barbarossa made it the centre of his southern dominions, long before the Romans had their fortress on the site, this eminence must have been regarded as the key of Apulia. All round the outside of those turreted walls (they are nearly a mile in circumference; the enclosure, they say, held sixty thousand people) there runs a level space. This is my promenade, at all hours of the day. Falcons are fluttering with wild cries overhead; down below, a long unimpeded vista of velvety green, flecked by a few trees and sullen streamlets and white farmhouses–the whole vision framed in a ring of distant Apennines. The volcanic cone of Mount Vulture, land of Horace, can be detected on clear days; it tempts me to explore those regions. But eastward rises up the promontory of Mount Gargano, and on the summit of its nearest hill one perceives a cheerful building, some village or convent, that beckons imperiously across the intervening lowlands. Yonder lies the venerable shrine of the archangel Michael, and Manfred’s town. . . .
This castle being a national monument, they have appointed a custodian to take charge of it; a worthless old fellow, full of untruthful information which he imparts with the hushed and conscience-stricken air of a man who is selling State secrets.
“That corner tower, sir, is the King’s tower. It was built by the King.”
“But you said just now that it was the Queen’s tower.”
“So it is. The Queen–she built it.”
“What Queen? Why, the Queen–the Queen the German professor was talking about three years ago. But I must show you some skulls which we found (sotto voce) in a subterranean crypt. They used to throw the poor dead folk in here by hundreds; and under the Bourbons the criminals were hanged here, thousands of them. The blessed times! And this tower is the Queen’s tower.”
“But you called it the King’s tower just now.”
“Just so. That is because the King built it.”
“Ah, sir, how can I remember the names of all those gentlemen? I haven’t so much as set eyes on them! But I must now show you some round sling-stones which we excavated (sotto voce) in a subterranean crypt-----”
One or two relics from this castle are preserved in the small municipal museum, founded about five years ago. Here are also a respectable collection of coins, a few prehistoric flints from Gargano, some quaint early bronze figurines and mutilated busts of Roman celebrities carved in marble or the recalcitrant local limestone. A dignified old lion–one of a pair (the other was stolen) that adorned the tomb of Aurelius, prastor of the Roman Colony of Luceria–has sought a refuge here, as well as many inscriptions, lamps, vases, and a miscellaneous collection of modern rubbish. A plaster cast of a Mussulman funereal stone, found near Foggia, will attract your eye; contrasted with the fulsome epitaphs of contemporary Christianity, it breathes a spirit of noble resignation:–
“In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate. May God show kindness to Mahomet and his kinsfolk, fostering them by his favours! This is the tomb of the captain Jacchia Albosasso. God be merciful to him. He passed away towards noon on Saturday in the five days of the month Moharram of the year 745 (5th April, 1348). May Allah likewise show mercy to him who reads.”
One cannot be at Lucera without thinking of that colony of twenty thousand Saracens, the escort of Frederick and his son, who lived here for nearly eighty years, and sheltered Manfred in his hour of danger. The chronicler Spinelli [Footnote: These journals are now admitted to have been manufactured in the sixteenth century by the historian Costanze for certain genealogical purposes of his own. Professor Bernhard! doubted their authenticity in 1869, and his doubts have been confirmed by Capasse.] has preserved an anecdote which shows Manfred’s infatuation for these loyal aliens. In the year 1252 and in the sovereign’s presence, a Saracen official gave a blow to a Neapolitan knight–a blow which was immediately returned; there was a tumult, and the upshot of it was that the Italian was condemned to lose his hand; all that the Neapolitan nobles could obtain from Manfred was that his left hand should be amputated instead of his right; the Arab, the cause of all, was merely relieved of his office. Nowadays, all memory of Saracens has been swept out of the land. In default of anything better, they are printing a local halfpenny paper called “II Saraceno"–a very innocuous pagan, to judge by a copy which I bought in a reckless moment.
This museum also contains a buxom angel of stucco known as the “Genius of Bourbonism.” In the good old days it used to ornament the town hall, fronting the entrance; but now, degraded to a museum curiosity, it presents to the public its back of ample proportions, and the curator intimated that he considered this attitude quite appropriate– historically speaking, of course. Furthermore, they have carted hither, from the Chamber of Deputies in Rome, the chair once occupied by Ruggiero Bonghi. Dear Bonghi! From a sense of duty he used to visit a certain dull and pompous house in the capital and forthwith fall asleep on the nearest sofa; he slept sometimes for two hours at a stretch, while all the other visitors were solemnly marched to the spot to observe him–behold the great Bonghi: he slumbers! There is a statue erected to him here, and a street has likewise been named after another celebrity, Giovanni Bovio. If I informed the townsmen of my former acquaintance with these two heroes, they would perhaps put up a marble tablet commemorating the fact. For the place is infected with the patriotic disease of monumentomania. The drawback is that with every change of administration the streets are re-baptized and the statues shifted to make room for new favourites; so the civic landmarks come and go, with the swiftness of a cinematograph.
Frederick II also has his street, and so has Pietjo Giannone. This smacks of anti-clericalism. But to judge by the number of priests and the daily hordes of devout and dirty pilgrims that pour into the town from the fanatical fastnesses of the Abruzzi–picturesque, I suppose we should call them–the country is sufficiently orthodox. Every self-respecting family, they tell me, has its pet priest, who lives on them in return for spiritual consolations.
There was a religious festival some nights ago in honour of Saint Espedito. No one could tell me more about this holy man than that he was a kind of pilgrim-warrior, and that his cult here is of recent date; it was imported or manufactured some four years ago by a rich merchant who, tired of the old local saints, built a church in honour of this new one, and thereby enrolled him among the city gods.
On this occasion the square was seething with people: few women, and the men mostly in dark clothes; we are already under Moorish and Spanish influences. A young boy addressed me with the polite question whether I could tell him the precise number of the population of London.
That depended, I said, on what one described as London. There was what they called greater London–
It depended! That was what he had always been given to understand. . . . And how did I like Lucera? Rather a dull little place, was it not? Nothing like Paris, of course. Still, if I could delay my departure for some days longer, they would have the trial of a man who had murdered three people: it might be quite good fun. He was informed that they hanged such persons in England, as they used to do hereabouts; it seemed rather barbaric, because, naturally, nobody is ever responsible for his actions; but in England, no doubt–
That is the normal attitude of these folks towards us and our institutions. We are savages, hopeless savages; but a little savagery, after all, is quite endurable. Everything is endurable if you have lots of money, like these English.
As for myself, wandering among that crowd of unshaven creatures, that rustic population, fiercely gesticulating and dressed in slovenly hats and garments, I realized once again what the average Anglo-Saxon would ask himself: Are they all brigands, or only some of them? That music, too–what is it that makes this stuff so utterly unpalatable to a civilized northerner? A soulless cult of rhythm, and then, when the simplest of melodies emerges, they cling to it with the passionate delight of a child who has discovered the moon. These men are still in the age of platitudes, so far as music is concerned; an infantile aria is to them what some foolish rhymed proverb is to the Arabs: a thing of God, a portent, a joy for ever.
You may visit the cathedral; there is a fine verde antico column on either side of the sumptuous main portal. I am weary, just now, of these structures; the spirit of pagan Lucera–"Lucera dei Pagani” it used to be called–has descended upon me; I feel inclined to echo Carducci’s “Addio, nume semitico!” One sees so many of these sombre churches, and they are all alike in their stony elaboration of mysticism and wrong-headedness; besides, they have been described, over and over again, by enthusiastic connaisseurs who dwell lovingly upon their artistic quaintnesses but forget the grovelling herd that reared them, with the lash at their backs, or the odd type of humanity–the gargoyle type–that has since grown up under their shadow and influence. I prefer to return to the sun and stars, to my promenade beside the castle walls.
But for the absence of trees and hedges, one might take this to be some English prospect of the drowsy Midland counties–so green it is, so golden-grey the sky. The sunlight peers down dispersedly through windows in this firmament of clouded amber, alighting on some mouldering tower, some patch of ripening corn or distant city–Troia, lapped in Byzantine slumber, or San Severo famed in war. This in spring. But what days of glistering summer heat, when the earth is burnt to cinders under a heavenly dome that glows like a brazier of molten copper! For this country is the Sahara of Italy.
One is glad, meanwhile, that the castle does not lie in the natal land of the Hohenstaufen. The interior is quite deserted, to be sure; they have built half the town of Lucera with its stones, even as Frederick quarried them out of the early Roman citadel beneath; but it is at least a harmonious desolation. There are no wire-fenced walks among the ruins, no feeding-booths and cheap reconstructions of draw-bridges and police-notices at every corner; no gaudy women scribbling to their friends in the “Residenzstadt” post cards illustrative of the “Burgruine,” while their husbands perspire over mastodontic beer-jugs. There is only peace.
These are the delights of Lucera: to sit under those old walls and watch the gracious cloud-shadows dappling the plain, oblivious of yonder assemblage of barbers and politicians. As for those who can reconstruct the vanished glories of such a place–happy they! I find the task increasingly difficult. One outgrows the youthful age of hero-worship; next, our really keen edges are so soon worn off by mundane trivialities and vexations that one is glad to take refuge in simpler pleasures once more–to return to primitive emotionalism. There are so many Emperors of past days! And like the old custodian, I have not so much as set eyes on them.
Yet this Frederick is no dim figure; he looms grandly through the intervening haze. How well one understands that craving for the East, nowadays; how modern they were, he and his son the “Sultan of Lucera," and their friends and counsellors, who planted this garden of exotic culture! Was it some afterglow of the luminous world that had sunk below the horizon, or a pale streak of the coming dawn? And if you now glance down into this enclosure that once echoed with the song of minstrels and the soft laughter of women, with the discourse of wits, artists and philosophers, and the clang of arms–if you look, you will behold nothing but a green lake, a waving field of grass. No matter. The ambitions of these men are fairly realized, and every one of us may keep a body-guard of pagans, an’t please him; and a harem likewise–to judge by the newspapers.
For he took his Orientalism seriously; he had a harem, with eunuchs, etc., all proper, and was pleased to give an Eastern colour to his entertainments. Matthew Paris relates how Frederick’s brother-in-law, returning from the Holy Land, rested awhile at his Italian court, and saw, among other diversions, “duas puellas Saracenicas formosas, quae in pavimenti planitie binis globis insisterent, volutisque globis huo illucque ferrentur canentes, cymbala manibus collidentes, corporaque secundum modules motantes atque flectentes.” I wish I had been there. . . .
I walked to the castle yesterday evening on the chance of seeing an eclipse of the moon which never came, having taken place at quite another hour. A cloudless night, dripping with moisture, the electric lights of distant Foggia gleaming in the plain. There are brick-kilns at the foot of the incline, and from some pools in the neighbourhood issued a loud croaking of frogs, while the pallid smoke of the furnaces, pressed down by the evening dew, trailed earthward in a long twisted wreath, like a dragon crawling sulkily to his den. But on the north side one could hear the nightingales singing in the gardens below. The dark mass of Mount Gargano rose up clearly in the moonlight, and I began to sketch out some itinerary of my wanderings on that soil. There was Sant’ Angelo, the archangel’s abode; and the forest region; and Lesina with its lake; and Vieste the remote, the end of all things. . . .
Then my thoughts wandered to the Hohenstaufen and the conspiracy whereby their fate was avenged. The romantic figures of Manfred and Conradin; their relentless enemy Charles; Costanza, her brow crowned with a poetic nimbus (that melted, towards the end, into an aureole of bigotry); Frangipani, huge in villainy; the princess Beatrix, tottering from the dungeon where she had been confined for nearly twenty years; her deliverer Roger de Lauria, without whose resourcefulness and audacity it might have gone ill with Aragon; Popes and Palaso-logus–brilliant colour effects; the king of England and Saint Louis of France; in the background, dimly discernible, the colossal shades of Frederick and Innocent, looked in deadly embrace; and the whole congress of figures enlivened and interpenetrated as by some electric fluid–the personality of John of Procida. That the element of farce might not be lacking, Fate contrived that exquisite royal duel at Bordeaux where the two mighty potentates, calling each other by a variety of unkingly epithets, enacted a prodigiously fine piece of foolery for the delectation of Europe.
From this terrace one can overlook both Foggia and Castel Fiorentino–the beginning and end of the drama; and one follows the march of this magnificent retribution without a shred of compassion for the gloomy papal hireling. Disaster follows disaster with mathematical precision, till at last he perishes miserably, consumed by rage and despair. Then our satisfaction is complete.
No; not quite complete. For in one point the stupendous plot seems to have been imperfectly achieved. Why did Roger de Lauria not profit by his victory to insist upon the restitution of the young brothers of Beatrix, of those unhappy princes who had been confined as infants in 1266, and whose very existence seems to have faded from the memory of historians? Or why did Costanza, who might have dealt with her enemy’s son even as Conradin had been dealt with, not round her magnanimity by claiming her own flesh and blood, the last scions of a great house? Why were they not released during the subsequent peace, or at least in 1302? The reason is as plain as it is unlovely; nobody knew what to do with them. Political reasons counselled their effacement, their non-existence. Horrible thought, that the sunny world should be too small for three orphan children! In their Apulian fastness they remained–in chains. A royal rescript of 1295 orders that they be freed from their fetters. Thirty years in fetters! Their fate is unknown; the night of medievalism closes in upon them once more. . . .
Further musings were interrupted by the appearance of a shape which approached from round the corner of one of the towers. It cams nearer stealthily, pausing every now and then. Had I evoked, willy-nilly, some phantom of the buried past?
It was only the custodian, leading his dog Musolino. After a shower of compliments and apologies, he gave me to understand that it was his duty, among other things, to see that no one should endeavour to raise the treasure which was hidden under these ruins; several people, he explained, had already made the attempt by night. For the rest, I was quite at liberty to take my pleisure about the castle at all hours. But as to touching the buried hoard, it was proibito–forbidden!
I was glad of the incident, which conjured up for me the Oriental mood with its genii and subterranean wealth. Straightway this incongruous and irresponsible old buffoon was invested with a new dignity; transformed into a threatening Ifrit, the guardian of the gold, or–who knows?–Iblis incarnate. The gods take wondrous shapes, sometimes.