By Norman Douglas
Public Domain Books
XI. BY THE INLAND SEA
The railway line to Grottaglie skirts the shore of the inland sea for two or three miles, and then turns away. Old Taranto glimmers in lordly fashion across the tranquil waters; a sense of immemorial culture pervades this region of russet tilth, and olives, and golden corn.
They led me, at Grottaglie, to the only convent of males now in use, San Francesco, recently acquired by the Jesuits. In the sacristy of its church, where I was told to wait, a slender young priest was praying rapturously before some image, and the clock that stood at hand recorded the flight of twenty minutes ere his devotions were ended. Then he arose slowly and turned upon me a pair of lustrous, dreamy eyes, as though awakened from another world.
This was quite a new convent, he explained; it could not possibly be the one I was seeking. But there was another one, almost a ruin, and now converted into a refuge for a flock of poor old women; he would gladly show me the way. Was I a “Germanese”? [Footnote: Germanese or Allemanno = a German. Tedesco, hereabouts, signifies an Austrian–a detested nationality, even at this distance of time. I have wondered, since writing the above, whether this is really the place of which Rossi speaks. He calls it Grottole (the difference in spelling would be of little account), and says it lies not far distant from Copertino. But there may be a place of this name still nearer; it is a common appellation in these honeycombed limestone districts. This Grottaglie is certainly the birth-place of another religious hero, the priest-brigand Ciro, who gave so much trouble to Sir R. Church.] No, I replied; I came from Scotland.
“A Calvinist,” he remarked, without bitterness.
“A Presbyterian,” I gently corrected.
“To be sure–a Presbyterian.”
As we walked along the street under the glowing beams of midday I set forth the object of my visit. He had never heard of the flying monk–it was astonishing, he said. He would look up the subject without delay. The flying monk! That a Protestant should come all the way from “the other end of the world” to enquire about a local Catholic saint of whose existence he himself was unaware, seemed not so much to surprise as positively to alarm him.
Among other local curiosities, he pointed out the portal of the parish church, a fine but dilapidated piece of work, with a large rosette window overhead. The town, he told me, derives its name from certain large grottoes wherein the inhabitants used to take refuge during Saracen raids. This I already knew, from the pages of Swinburne and Sanchez; and in my turn was able to inform him that a certain Frenchman, Bertaux by name, had written about the Byzantine wall-paintings within these caves. Yes, those old Greeks! he said. And that accounted for the famous ceramics of the place, which preserved the Hellenic traditions in extraordinary purity. I did not inform him that Hector Preconi, who purposely visited Grottaglie to study these potteries, was considerably disappointed.
At the door of the decayed convent my guide left me, with sundry polite expressions of esteem. I entered a spacious open courtyard; a well stood in the centre of a bare enclosure whereon, in olden days, the monks may have cultivated their fruit and vegetables; round this court there ran an arched passage, its walls adorned with frescoes, now dim and faded, depicting sacred subjects. The monastery itself was a sombre maze of stairways and cells and corridors–all the free spaces, including the very roof, encumbered with gleaming potteries of every shape and size, that are made somewhere near the premises.
I wandered about this sunless and cobwebby labyrinth, the old woman pensioners flitting round me like bats in the twilight. I peered into many dark closets; which of them was it–Joseph’s famous blood-bespattered cell?
“He tormented his body so continuously and obstinately with pins, needles and blades of steel, and with such effusion of blood, that even now, after entire years, the walls of his cell and other places of retirement are discoloured and actually encrusted with blood.” Which of them was it–the chamber that witnessed these atrocious macerations? It was all so gloomy and forlorn.
Then, pushing aside a door in these tenebrous regions, I suddenly found myself bathed in dazzling light. A loggia opened here, with a view over stretches of gnarled olives, shining all silvery under the immaculate sky of noonday and bounded by the sapphire belt of the Ionian. Sunshine and blue sea! Often must the monks have taken pleasure in this fair prospect; and the wiser among them, watching the labourers returning home at nightfall, the children at play, and all the happy life of a world so alien to their own, may well have heaved a sigh.
Meanwhile a crowd of citizens had assembled below, attracted by the unusual novelty of a stranger in their town. The simple creatures appeared to regard my investigations in the light of a good joke; they had heard of begging monks, and thieving monks, and monks of another variety whose peculiarities I dare not attempt to describe; but a flying monk–no, never!
“The Dark Ages,” said one of them–the mayor, I dare say–with an air of grave authority. “Believe me, dear sir, the days of such fabulous monsters are over.”
So they seem to be, for the present.
No picture or statue records the life of this flying wonder, this masterpiece of Spanish priestcraft; no mural tablet–in this land of commemorative stones–has been erected to perpetuate the glory of his signal achievements; no street is called after him. It is as if he had never existed. On the contrary, by a queer irony of fate, the roadway leading past his convent evokes the memory of a misty heathen poet, likewise native of these favoured regions, a man whose name Joseph of Copertino had assuredly never heard–Ennius, of whom I can now recall nothing save that one unforgettable line which begins “O Tite tute Tati tibi-----"; Ennius, who never so much as tried to fly, but contented himself with singing, in rather bad Latin, of the things of this earth.
Via Ennio. . . .
It is the swing of the pendulum. The old pagan, at this moment, may be nearer to our ideals and aspirations than the flying monk who died only yesterday, so to speak.
But a few years hence–who can tell?
A characteristic episode. I had carefully timed myself to catch the returning train to Tarante. Great was my surprise when, half-way to the station, I perceived the train swiftly approaching. I raced it, and managed to jump into a carriage just as it drew out of the station. The guard straightway demanded my ticket and a fine for entering the train without one (return tickets, for weighty reasons of “internal administration,” are not sold). I looked at my watch, which showed that we had left six minutes before the scheduled hour. He produced his; it coincided with my own. “No matter,” he said. “I am not responsible for the eccentricities of the driver, who probably had some urgent private affairs to settle at Taranto. The fine must be paid.” A fellow-passenger took a more charitable view of the case. He suggested that an inspector of the line had been travelling along with us, and that the driver, knowing this, was naturally ambitious to show how fast he could go.
A mile or so before reaching Tarante the railway crosses a stream that flows into the inland sea. One would be glad to believe those sages who hold it to be the far-famed Galaesus. It rises near at hand in a marsh, amid mighty tufts of reeds and odorous flowers, and the liquid bubbles up in pools of crystalline transparency–deep and perfidious cauldrons overhung by the trembling soil on which you stand. These fountains form a respectable stream some four hundred yards in length; another copious spring rises up in the sea near its mouth. But can this be the river whose virtues are extolled by: Virgil, Horace, Martial, Statius, Propertius, Strabo, Pliny, Varro and Coramella? What a constellation of names around these short-lived waters! Truly, minuit praesentia famam, as Boccaccio says of the once-renowned Sebethus.
Often have I visited this site and tried to reconstruct its vanished glories. My enthusiasm even led me, some years ago, to the town hall, in order to ascertain its true official name, and here they informed me that “it is vulgarly called Citrezze; but the correct version is ’Le Giadrezze,’ which, as you are aware, sir, signifies pleasantness” This functionary was evidently ignorant of the fact that so long ago as 1771 the learned commentator (Carducci) of the “Delizie Tarentine" already sneered at this popular etymology; adding, what is of greater interest, that “in the time of our fathers” this region was covered with woods and rich in game. In the days of Keppel Craven, the vale was “scantily cultivated with cotton.” Looking at it from above, it certainly resembles an old river-bed of about five hundred yards in breadth, and I hold it possible that the deforestation of the higher lands may have suffocated the original sources with soil carried down from thence, and forced them to seek a lower level, thus shortening the stream and reducing its volume of water.
But who shall decide? If we follow Polybius, another brook at the further end of the inland sea has more valid claims to the title of Galaesus. Virgil called it “black Galaesus “–a curious epithet, still applied to water in Italy as well as in Greece (Mavromati, etc.). “For me,” says Gissing, “the Galaesus is the stream I found and tracked, whose waters I heard mingle with the little sea.” There is something to be said for such an attitude, on the part of a dilettante traveller, towards these desperate antiquarian controversies.
It is an agreeable promenade from the Giadrezze rivulet to Taranto along the shore of this inland sea. Its clay banks are full of shells and potteries of every age, and the shallow waters planted with stakes indicating the places where myriads of oysters and mussels are bred–indeed, if you look at a map you will observe that the whole of this lagoon, as though to shadow forth its signification, is split up into two basins like an opened oyster.
Here and there along this beach are fishermen’s huts constructed of tree-stems which are smothered under multitudinous ropes of grass, ropes of all ages and in every stage of decomposition, some fairly fresh, others dissolving once more into amorphous bundles of hay. There is a smack of the stone ages, of primeval lake-dwellings, about these shelters on the deserted shore; two or three large fetichistic stones stand near their entrance; wickerwork objects of dark meaning strew the ground; a few stakes emerge, hard by, out of the placid and oozy waters. In such a cabin, methinks, dwelt those two old fishermen of Theocritus–here they lived and slumbered side by side on a couch of sea moss, among the rude implements of their craft.
The habits of these fisherfolk are antique, because the incidents of their calling have remained unchanged. Some people have detected traces of “Greek” in the looks and language of these of Tarante. I can detect nothing of the kind.
And the same with the rest of the population. Hellenic traits have disappeared from Tarante, as well they may have done, when one remembers its history. It was completely latinized under Augustus, and though Byzantines came hither under Nicephorus Phocas–Benjamin of Tudela says the inhabitants are “Greeks"–they have long ago become merged into the Italian element. Only the barbers seem to have preserved something of the old traditions: grandiloquent and terrible talkers, like the cooks in Athenasus.
I witnessed an Aristophanic scene in one of their shops lately, when a simple-minded stranger, a north Italian–some arsenal official–brought a little boy to have his hair cut “not too short” and, on returning from a brief visit to the tobacconist next door, found it cropped much closer than he liked.
“But, damn it,” he said (or words to that effect), “I told you not to cut the hair too short.”
The barber, immaculate and imperturbable, gave a preliminary bow. He was collecting his thoughts, and his breath.
“I say, I told you not to cut it too short. It looks horrible-----" “Horrible? That, sir–pardon my frankness!–is a matter of opinion. I fully admit that you desired the child’s hair to be cut not too short. Those, in fact, were your very words. Notwithstanding, I venture to think you will come round to my point of view, on due reflection, like most of my esteemed customers. In the first place, there is the ethnological aspect of the question. You are doubtless sufficiently versed in history to know that under the late regime it was considered improper, if not criminal, to wear a moustache. Well, nowadays we think differently. Which proves that fashions change; yes, they change, sir; and the wise man bends to them–up to a certain point, of course; up to a certain reasonable point-----” “But, damn it-----”
“And in favour of my contention that hair should be worn short nowadays, I need only cite the case of His Majesty the King, whose august head, we all know, is clipped like that of a racehorse. Horrible (as you call it) or not, the system has momentarily the approval of royalty, and that alone should suffice for all loyal subjects to deem it not unworthy of imitation. Next, there are what one might describe as hygienic and climatic considerations. Summer is approaching, sir, and apart from certain unpleasant risks which I need not specify, you will surely agree with me that the solstitial heat is a needlessly severe trial for a boy with long hair. My own children are all cropped close, and I have reason to think they are grateful for it. Why not yours? Boys may differ in strength or complexion, in moral character and mental attainments, but they are remarkably unanimous as to what constitutes personal comfort. And it is obviously the duty of parents to consult the personal comfort of their offspring–within certain reasonable limits, of course-----”
“Lastly, we come to the much-debated point: I mean the aesthetic side of the matter. No doubt, to judge by some old pictures such as those of the renowned Mantegna, there must have been a time when men thought long hair in children rather beautiful than otherwise. And I am not so rigorous as to deny a certain charm to these portraits–a charm which is largely due I fancy, to the becoming costumes of the period. At the same time-----”
The stranger did not trust himself to listen any longer. He threw down a coin and walked out of the shop with his son, muttering something not very complimentary to the barber’s female relations.
But the other was quite unmoved. “And after all,” he continued, addressing the half-opened door through which his visitor had fled, “the true question is this: What is ’too short’? Don’t cut it too short, you said. Che vuol dire? An ambiguous phrase!
“Too short for one man may be too long for another. Everything is relative. Yes, gentlemen” (turning to myself and his shop-assistant), “everything on this earth is relative.”
With this sole exception, I have hitherto garnered no Hellenic traits in Taranto.
Visible even from Giadrezze, on the other side of the inland sea and beyond the arsenal, there stands a tall, solitary palm. It is the last, the very last, or almost the very last, of a race of giants that adorned the gardens which have now been converted into the “New Quarter.” I imagine it is the highest existing palm in Italy, and am glad to have taken a likeness of it, ere it shall have been cut down like the rest of its fellows. Taranto was once celebrated for these queenly growths, which the Saracens brought over from their flaming Africa.
The same fate has overtaken the trees of the Villa Beaumont, which used to be a shady retreat, but was bought by the municipality and forthwith “pulizzato"–i.e. cleaned. This is in accordance with that mutilomania of the south: that love of torturing trees which causes them to prune pines till they look like paint-brushes that had been out all night, and which explains their infatuation for the much-enduring robinia that allows itself to be teased into any pattern suggested by their unhealthy phantasy. It is really as if there were something offensive to the Latin mind in the sight of a well-grown tree, as if man alone had the right of expanding normally. But I must not do the City Fathers an injustice. They have planted two rows of cryp-tomerias. Will people never learn that cryptomerias cannot flourish in south Italy? Instead of this amateurish gardening, why not consult some competent professional, who with bougain-villeas, hibiscus and fifty other such plants would soon transform this favoured spot into a miniature paradise?
The Villa Beaumont and the road along the Admiralty canal are now the citizens’ chief places of disport. Before the year 1869 the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, that skirts the sea on the south side of the old town, was their sole promenade. And even this street was built only a short time ago. Vainly one conjectures where the medieval Tarentines took the air. It must have been like Manfredonia at the present day.
This Corso, which has a most awkward pavement and is otherwise disagreeable as looking due south, becomes interesting after sunset. Here you may see the young bloods of Taranto leaning in rows against the railing with their backs to the sea–they are looking across the road whence, from balconies and windows, the fair sex are displaying their charms. Never a word is spoken. They merely gaze at each other like lovesick puppies; and after watching the performance for several evenings, I decided in favour of robuster methods–I decided that courtship, under conditions such as the Corso supplies, can only be pursued by the very young or the hopelessly infatuated. But in the south, this gazing is only part of a huge game. They are not really in love at all, these excellent young men–not at all, at all; they know better. They are only pretending, because it looks manly.
We must revise our conceptions as to the love-passions of these southerners; no people are more fundamentally sane in matters of the heart; they have none of our obfuscated sentimentality; they are seldom naively enamoured, save in early stages of life. It is then that small girls of eight or ten may be seen furtively recording their feelings on the white walls of their would-be lovers’ houses; these archaic scrawls go straight to the point, and are models of what love-letters may ultimately become, in the time-saving communities of the future. But when the adolescent and perfumed-pink-paper stage is reached, the missives relapse into barbarous ambiguity; they grow allegorical and wilfully exuberant as a Persian carpet, the effigy of a pierced heart at the end, with enormous blood-drops oozing from it, alone furnishing a key to the document.
So far they are in earnest, and it is the girl who takes the lead; her youthful innamorato ties these letters into bundles and returns them conscientiously, in due course, to their respective senders. Seldom does a boy make overtures in love; he gets more of it than he knows what to do with; he is still torpid, and slightly bored by all these attentions.
But presently he wakes up to the fact that he is a man among men, and the obsession of “looking manly” becomes a part of his future artificial and rhetorical life-scheme. From henceforth he plays to the gallery.
Reading the city papers, one would think that south Italian youths are the most broken-hearted creatures in the world; they are always trying to poison themselves for love. Sometimes they succeed, of course; but sometimes–dear me, no! Suicides look manly, that is all. They are part of the game. The more sensible youngsters know exactly how much corrosive sublimate to take without immediate fatal consequences, allowing for time to reach the nearest hospital. There, the kindly physician and his stomach-pump will perform their duty, and the patient wears a feather in his cap for the rest of his life. The majority of these suicides are on a par with French duels–a harmless institution whereby the protagonists honour themselves; they confer, as it were, a patent of virility. The country people are as warmblooded as the citizens, but they rarely indulge in suicides because–well, there are no hospitals handy, and the doctor may be out on his rounds. It is too risky by half.
And a good proportion of these suicides are only simulated. The wily victim buys some innocuous preparation which sends him into convulsions with ghastly symptoms of poisoning, and, after treatment, remains the enviable hero of a mysterious masculine passion. Ask any town apothecary. A doctor friend of mine lately analysed the results of his benevolent exertions upon a young man who had been seen to drink some dreadful liquid out of a bottle, and was carried to his surgery, writhing in most artistic agonies. He found not only no poison, but not the slightest trace of any irritant whatever.
The true courtship of these Don Giovannis of Tarante will be quite another affair–a cash transaction, and no credit allowed. They will select a life partner, upon the advice of ma mere and a strong committee of uncles and aunts, but not until the military service is terminated. Everything in its proper time and place.
Meanwhile they gaze and perhaps even serenade. This looks as if they were furiously in love, and has therefore been included among the rules of the game. Youth must keep up the poetic tradition of “fiery." Besides, it is an inexpensive pastime–the cinematograph costs forty centimes–and you really cannot sit in the barber’s all night long.
But catch them marrying the wrong girl!
POSTSCRIPT.–Here are two samples of youthful love-letters from my collection.
1.–From a disappointed maiden, aged 13. Interesting, because intermediate between the archaic and pink-paper stages:
“IDOL OF MY HEART,
“Do not the stars call you when you look to Heaven? Does not the moon tell you, the black-cap on the willow when it says farewell to the sun? The birds of nature, the dreary country sadly covered by a few flowers that remain there? Once your look was passionate and pierced me like a sunny ray, now it seems the flame of a day. Does nothing tell you of imperishable love?” I love you and love you as (illegible) loves its liberty, as the corn in the fields loves the sun, as the sailor loves the sea tranquil or stormy. To you I would give my felicity, my future; for one of your words I would spill my blood drop by drop.
“Of all my lovers you are the only ideal consort (consorto) to whom I would give my love and all the expansion of my soul and youthful enthusiasm (intusiamo), the greatest enthusiasm (co-tusiamo) my heart has ever known. O cruel one who has deigned to put his sweet poison in my heart to-day, while to-morrow you will pass me with indifference. Cold, proud as ever, serious and disdainful–you understand? However that may be, I send you the unrepenting cry of my rebellious heart: I love you!
“It is late at night, and I am still awake, and at this hour my soul is sadder than ever in its great isolation (insolamende); I look on my past love and your dear image. Too much I love you and (illegible) without your affection.
“How sadly I remember your sweet words whispered on a pathetic evening when everything around was fair and rosy. How happy I then was when life seemed radiant with felicity and brightened by your love. And now nothing more remains of it; everything is finished. How sad even to say it. My heart is shipwrecked far, far away from that happiness which I sought.”
(Three further pages of this.)
2.–From a boy of 14 who takes the initiative; such letters are rare. Note the business-like brevity.
“DEAR MISS ANNE,
“I write you these few lines to say that I have understood your character (carattolo). Therefore, if I may have the honour of being your sweetheart, you will let me know the answer at your pleasure. I salute you, and remain,
“Signing myself, “SALVATORE.
“Prompt reply requested!”