Old Calabria
By Norman Douglas

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Exhausted with the morning’s walk at Policoro, a railway journey and a long drive up nearly a thousand feet to Rossano in the heat of midday, I sought refuge, contrary to my usual custom, in the chief hotel, intending to rest awhile and then seek other quarters. The establishment was described as “ganz ordentlich” in Baedeker. But, alas! I found little peace or content. The bed on which I had hoped to repose was already occupied by several other inmates. Prompted by curiosity, I counted up to fifty-two of them; after that, my interest in the matter faded away. It became too monotonous. They were all alike, save in point of size (some were giants). A Swammerdam would have been grieved by their lack of variety.

And this, I said to myself, in a renowned city that has given birth to poets and orators, to saints like the great Nilus, to two popes and–last, but not least–one anti-pope! I will not particularize the species beyond saying that they did not hop. Nor will I return to this theme. Let the reader once and for all take them for granted. [Footnote: They have their uses, to be sure. Says Kircher: Cunices lectularii potens remedium contra quartanum est, si ab inscio aegro cum vehiculo congrua potentur; mulierum morbis medentur et uterum prolapsum solo odore in mum locum restituunt.] Let him note that most of the inns of this region are quite uninhabitable, for this and other reasons, unless he takes the most elaborate precautions. . . .

Where, then, do I generally go for accommodation?

Well, as a rule I begin by calling for advice at the chemist’s shop, where a fixed number of the older and wiser citizens congregate for a little talk. The cafes and barbers and wine-shops are also meeting-places of men; but those who gather here are not of the right type–they are the young, or empty-headed, or merely thirsty. The other is the true centre of the leisured class, the philosophers’ rendezvous. Your speciale (apothecary) is himself an elderly and honoured man, full of responsibility and local knowledge; he is altogether a superior person, having been trained in a University. You enter the shop, therefore, and purchase a pennyworth of vaseline. This act entitles you to all the privileges of the club. Then is the moment to take a seat, smiling affably at the assembled company, but without proffering a syllable. If this etiquette is strictly adhered to, it will not be long ere you are politely questioned as to your plans, your present accommodation, and so forth; and soon several members will be vying with each other to procure you a clean and comfortable room at half the price charged in a hotel.

Even when this end is accomplished, my connection with the pharmacy coterie is not severed. I go there from time to time, ostensibly to talk, but in reality to listen. Here one can feel the true pulse of the place. Local questions are dispassionately discussed, with ample forms of courtesy and in a language worthy of Cicero. It is the club of the elite.

In olden days I used to visit south Italy armed with introductions to merchants, noblemen and landed proprietors. I have quite abandoned that system, as these people, bless their hearts, have such cordial notions of hospitality that from morning to night the traveller has not a moment he can call his own. Letters to persons in authority, such as syndics or police officers, are useless and worse than useless. Like Chinese mandarins, these officials are so puffed up with their own importance that it is sheer waste of time to call upon them. If wanted, they can always be found; if not, they are best left alone. For besides being usually the least enlightened and least amiable of the populace, they are inordinately suspicious of political or commercial designs on the part of strangers–God knows what visions are fermenting in their turbid brains–and seldom let you out of their sight, once they have known you.

Excepting at Cosenza, Cotrone and Catanzaro, an average white man will seldom find, in any Calabrian hostelry, what he is accustomed to consider as ordinary necessities of life. The thing is easily explicable. These men are not yet in the habit of “handling” civilized travellers; they fail to realize that hotel-keeping is a business to be learnt, like tailoring or politics. They are still in the patriarchal stage, wealthy proprietors for the most part, and quite independent of your custom. They have not learnt the trick of Swiss servility. You must therefore be prepared to put up with what looks like very bad treatment. On your entrance nobody moves a step to enquire after your wants; you must begin by foraging for yourself, and thank God if any notice is taken of what you say; it is as if your presence were barely tolerated. But once the stranger has learnt to pocket his pride and treat his hosts in the same offhand fashion, he will find among them an unconventional courtesy of the best kind.

The establishment being run as a rule by the proprietor’s own family, gratuities with a view to exceptional treatment are refused with quiet dignity, and even when accepted will not further your interests in the least; on the contrary, you are thenceforward regarded as tactless and weak in the head. Discreet praise of their native town or village is the best way to win the hearts of the younger generation; for the parents a little knowledge of American conditions is desirable, to prove that you are a man of the world and worthy, a priori, of some respect. But if there exists a man-cook, he is generally an importation and should be periodically and liberally bribed, without knowledge of the family, from the earliest moment. Wonderful, what a cook can do!

It is customary here not to live en pension or to pay a fixed price for any meal, the smallest item, down to a piece of bread, being conscientiously marked against you. My system, elaborated after considerable experimentation, is to call for this bill every morning and, for the first day or two after arrival, dispute in friendly fashion every item, remorselessly cutting down some of them. Not that they overcharge; their honesty is notorious, and no difference is made in this respect between a foreigner and a native. It is a matter of principle. By this system, which must not be overdone, your position in the house gradually changes; from being a guest, you become a friend, a brother. For it is your duty to show, above all things, that you are not scemo–witless, soft-headed–the unforgivable sin in the south. You may be a forger or cut-throat–why not? It is a vocation like any other, a vocation for men. But whoever cannot take care of him-self–i.e. of his money–is not to be trusted, in any walk of life; he is of no account; he is no man. I have become firm friends with some of these proprietors by the simple expedient of striking a few francs off their bills; and should I ever wish to marry one or their daughters, the surest way to predispose the whole family in my favour would be this method of amiable but unsmiling contestation.

Of course the inns are often dirty, and not only in their sleeping accommodation. The reason is that, like Turks or Jews, their owners do not see dirt (there is no word for dirt in the Hebrew language); they think it odd when you draw their attention to it. I remember complaining, in one of my fastidious moments, of a napkin, plainly not my own, which had been laid at my seat. There was literally not a clean spot left on its surface, and I insisted on a new one. I got it; but not before hearing the proprietor mutter something about “the caprices of pregnant women.” . . .

The view from these my new quarters at Rossano compensates for divers other little drawbacks. Down a many-folded gorge of glowing red earth decked with olives and cistus the eye wanders to the Ionian Sea shining in deepest turquoise tints, and beautified by a glittering margin of white sand. To my left, the water takes a noble sweep inland; there lies the plain of Sybaris, traversed by the Crathis of old that has thrust a long spit of fand into the waves. On this side the outlook is bounded by the high range of Pollino and Dolcedorme, serrated peaks that are even now (midsummer) displaying a few patches of snow. Clear-cut in the morning light, these exquisite mountains evaporate, towards sunset, in an amethystine haze. A restful prospect.

But great was my amazement, on looking out of the window during the night after my arrival, to observe the Polar star placed directly over the Ionian Sea–the south, as I surely deemed it. A week has passed since then, and in spite of the map I have not quite familiarized myself with this spectacle, nor yet with that other one of the sun setting apparently due east, over Monte Pollino.

The glory of Rossano is the image of the Madonna Achiropita. Bartholomaeus tells us, in his life of Saint Nilus, that in olden days she was wont to appear, clothed in purple, and drive away with a divine torch the Saracen invaders of this town. In more recent times, too, she has often saved the citizens from locusts, cholera, and other calamitous visitations. Unlike most of her kind, she was not painted by Saint Luke. She is acheiropoeta–not painted by any human hands whatever, and in so far resembles a certain old image of the Magna Mater, her prototype, which was also of divine origin. It is generally supposed that this picture is painted on wood. Not so, says Diehl; it is a fragment of a fresco on stone.

Hard by, in the clock-tower of the square, is a marble tablet erected to the memory of the deputy Felice Cavalotti. We all remember Cavalotti, the last–with Imbriani–of the republican giants, a blustering rhetorician-journalist, annihilator of monarchs and popes; a fire-eating duellist, who deserved his uncommon and unlovely fate. He provoked a colleague to an encounter and, during a frenzied attack, received into his open mouth the point of his adversary’s sword, which sealed up for ever that fountain of eloquence and vituperation.

Cavalotti and the Virgin Achiropita–the new and the old. Really, with such extreme ideals before his eyes, the burghers of Rossano must sometimes wonder where righteousness lies.

They call themselves Calabrians. Noi siamo calabresi! they proudly say, meaning that they are above suspicion of unfair dealing. As a matter of fact, they are a muddled brood, and considerably given to cheating when there is any prospect of success. You must watch the peasants coming home at night from their field-work if you wish to see the true Calabrian type–whiskered, short and wiry, and of dark complexion. There is that indescribable mark of race in these countrymen; they are different in features and character from the Italians; it is an ascetic, a Spanish type. Your Calabrian is strangely scornful of luxury and even comfort; a creature of few but well-chosen words, straightforward, indifferent to pain and suffering, and dwelling by preference, when religiously minded, on the harsher aspects of his faith. A note of unworldliness is discoverable in his outlook upon life. Dealing with such men, one feels that they are well disposed not from impulse, but from some dark sense of preordained obligation. Greek and other strains have infused versatility and a more smiling exterior; but the groundwork of the whole remains that old homo ibericus of austere gentlemanliness.

Rossano was built by the Romans, says Procopius, and during Byzantine days became a fortress of primary importance. An older settlement probably lay by the seashore, and its harbour is marked as “good” so late as the days of Edrisius. Like many of these old Calabrian ports, it is now invaded by silt and sand, though a few ships still call there. Wishful to learn something of the past glories of the town, I enquired at the municipality for the public library, but was informed by the supercilious and not over-polite secretary that this proud city possesses no such institution. A certain priest, he added, would give me all the desired information.

Canonico Rizzo was a delightful old man, with snowy hair and candid blue eyes. Nothing, it seemed, could have given him greater pleasure than my appearance at that particular moment. He discoursed awhile, and sagely, concerning England and English literature, and then we passed on, via Milton, to Calvin and the Puritan movement in Scotland; next, via Livingstone, to colonial enterprises in Africa; and finally, via Egypt, Abyssinia, and Prester John, to the early history of the eastern churches. Byzantinism–Saint Nilus; that gave me the desired opportunity, and I mentioned the object of my visit.

“The history of Rossano? Well, well! The secretary of the municipality does me too much honour. You must read the Book of Genesis and Hesiod and Berosus and the rest of them. But stay! I have something of more modern date, in which you will find these ancient authors conveniently classified.”

From this book by de Rosis, printed in 1838, I gleaned two facts, firstly, that the city of Rossano is now 3663 years old–quite a respectable age, as towns go–and lastly, that in the year 1500 it had its own academy of lettered men, who called themselves “I spensierati," with the motto Non alunt curai–an echo, no doubt, of the Neapolitan renaissance under Alfonso the Magnificent. The popes Urban VIII and Benedict XIII belonged to this association of “thoughtless ones.” The work ends with a formidable list of local personages distinguished in the past for their gentleness of birth and polite accomplishments. One wonders how all these delicately nurtured creatures can have survived at Rossano, if their sleeping accommodation-----

You might live here some little time before realizing that this place, which seems to slope gently downhill against a pleasing background of wooded mountains, is capable of being strongly fortified. It lies, like other inland Calabrian (and Etruscan) cities, on ground enclosed by stream-beds, and one of these forms a deep gully above which Rossano towers on a smooth and perpendicular precipice. The upper part of this wall of rock is grey sandstone; the lower a bed of red granitic matter. From this coloured stone, which crops up everywhere, the town may have drawn its name of Rossano (rosso = red); not a very old settlement, therefore; although certain patriotic philologers insist upon deriving it from “rus sanum,” healthy country. Its older names were Roscia, and Ruscianum; it is not marked in Peutinger. Countless jackdaws and kestrels nestle in this cliff, as well as clouds of swifts, both Alpine and common. These swifts are the ornithological phenomenon of Rossano, and I think the citizens have cause to be thankful for their existence; to them I attribute the fact that there are so few flies, mosquitoes, and other aerial plagues here. If only the amiable birds could be induced to extend their attentions to the bedrooms as well!

This shady glen at the back of the city, with its sparse tufts of vegetation and monstrous blocks of deep red stone cloven into rifts and ravines by the wild waters, has a charm of its own. There are undeniable suggestions of Hell about the place. A pathway runs adown this vale of Hinnom, and if you follow it upwards to the junction of the streams you will reach a road that once more ascends to the town, past the old church of Saint Mark, a most interesting building. It has five little cupolas, but the interior, supported by eight columns, has been whitewashed. The structure has now rightly been declared a “national monument.” It dates from the ninth or tenth century and, according to Bertaux, has the same plan and the same dimensions as the famous “Cattolica” at Stilo, which the artistic Lear, though he stayed some time at that picturesque place, does not so much as mention. They say that this chapel of Saint Mark was built by Euprassius, protos-padarius of Calabria, and that in the days of Nilus it was dedicated to Saint Anastasius. Here, at Rossano, we are once more en plein Byzance.

Rossano was not only a political bulwark, the most formidable citadel of this Byzantine province. It was a great intellectual centre, upon which literature, theology and art converged. Among the many perverse historical notions of which we are now ridding ourselves is this-that Byzantinism in south Italy was a period of decay and torpid dreamings. It needed, on the contrary, a resourceful activity to wipe out, as did those colonists from the east, every trace of Roman culture and language (Latin rule only revived at Rossano in the fifteenth century). There was no lethargy in their social and political ambitions, in their military achievements, which held the land against overwhelming numbers of Saracens, Lombards and other intruders. And the life of those old monks of Saint Basil, as we now know it, represented a veritable renaissance of art and letters.

Of the ten Basilean convents that grew up in the surroundings of Rossano the most celebrated was that of S. M. del Patir. Together with the others, it succeeded to a period of eremitism of solitary anchorites whose dwellings honeycombed the warm slopes that confront the Ionian....

The lives of some of these Greco-Calabrian hermits are valuable documents. In the Vitae Sanctorum Siculorum of O. Caietanus (1057) the student will find a Latin translation of the biography of one of them, Saint Elia Junior. He died in 903. It was written by a contemporary monk, who tells us that the holy man performed many miracles, among them that of walking over a river dryshod. And the Bollandists (Acta Sanctorum, 11th September) have reprinted the biography of Saint Elia Spelaeotes-the cave-dweller, as composed in Greek by a disciple. It is yet more interesting. He lived in a “honesta spelunca” which he discovered in 864 by means of a flight of bats issuing therefrom; he suffered persecutions from a woman, exactly after the fashion of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife; he grew to be 94 years old; the Saracens vainly tried to burn his dead body, and the water in which this corpse was subsequently washed was useful for curing another holy man’s toothache. Yet even these creatures were subject to gleams of common sense. “Virtues,” said this one, “are better than miracles.”

How are we to account for these rock-hermits and their inelegant habits? How explain this poisoning of the sources of manly self-respect?

Thus, I think: that under the influence of their creed they reverted perforce to the more bestial traits of aboriginal humanity. They were thrust back in their development. They became solitaries, animalesque and shy–such as we may imagine our hairy progenitors to have been. Hence their dirt and vermin, their horror of learning, their unkempt hair, their ferocious independence, their distrust of sunshine and ordered social life, their foul dieting, their dread of malign spirits, their cave-dwelling propensities. All bestial characteristics!

This atavistic movement, this retrogression towards primevalism, must have possessed a certain charm, for it attracted vast multitudes; it was only hemmed, at last, by a physical obstacle.

The supply of caves ran out.

Not till then were its votaries forced to congregate in those unhealthy clusters which afterwards grew to be monasteries. Where many of them were gathered together under one roof there imposed itself a certain rudimentary discipline and subordination; yet they preserved as much as they could of their savage traits, cave-like cells and hatred of cleanliness, terror of demons, matted beards.

Gradually the social habits of mundane fellow-creatures insinuated themselves into these hives of squalor and idleness. The inmates began to wash and to shave; they acquired property, they tilled the ground, they learnt to read and write, and finally became connaisseurs of books and pictures and wine and women. They were pleased to forget that the eunuch and the beggar are the true Christian or Buddhist. In other words, the allurements of rational life grew too strong for their convictions; they became reasonable beings in spite of their creed. This is how coenobitism grew out of eremitism not only in Calabria, but in every part of the world which has been afflicted with these eccentrics. Go to Mount Athos, if you wish to see specimens of all the different stages conveniently arranged upon a small area. . . .

This convent of Patir exercised a great local influence as early as the tenth century; then, towards the end of the eleventh, it was completely rebuilt without and reorganized within. The church underwent a thorough restoration in 1672. But it was shattered, together with the rest of the edifice, by the earthquake of 1836 which, Madonna Achiropita notwithstanding, levelled to the ground one-half of the fifteen thousand houses then standing at Rossano.

These monastic establishments, as a general rule, were occupied later on by the Benedictines, who ousted the Basileans and were supplanted, in their turn, by popular orders of later days like the Theatines. Those that are conveniently situated have now been turned into post offices, municipalities, and other public buildings–such has been the common procedure. But many of them, like this of Patir, are too decayed and remote from the life of man. Fiore, who wrote in 1691, counts up 94 dilapidated Basilean monasteries in Calabria out of a former total of about two hundred; Patir and thirteen others he mentions as having, in his day, their old rites still subsisting. Batiffol has recently gone into the subject with his usual thoroughness.

Nothing is uglier than a modern ruin, and the place would assuredly not be worth the three hours’ ride from Rossano were it not for the church, which has been repaired, and for the wondrous view to be obtained from its site. The journey, too, is charming, both by the ordinary track that descends from Rossano and skirts the foot of the hills through olives and pebbly stream-beds, ascending, finally, across an odorous tangle of cistus, rosemary and myrtle to the platform on which the convent stands–or by the alternative and longer route which I took on the homeward way, and which follows the old water conduit built by the monks into a forest of enormous chestnuts, oaks, hollies and Calabrian pines, emerging out of an ocean of glittering bracken.

I was pursued into the church of Patir by a bevy of country wenches who frequented this region for purposes of haymaking. There is a miraculous crucifix in this sanctuary, hidden behind a veil which, with infinite ceremony, these females withdrew for my edification. There it was, sure enough; but what, I wondered, would happen from the presence of these impure creatures in such a place? Things have changed considerably since the days of old, for such was the contamination to be expected from the mere presence of a woman within these walls that even the Mother of God, while visiting Saint Nilus–the builder, not the great saint–at work upon the foundations, often conversed with him, but never ventured to step within the area of the building itself. And later on it was a well-authenticated phenomenon recorded by Beltrano and others, that if a female entered the church, the heavens immediately became cloudy and sent down thunders and lightnings and such-like signs of celestial disapproval, which never ceased until the offending monster had left the premises.

From this ancient monastery comes, I fancy, the Achiropita image. Montorio will tell you all about it; he learnt its history in June 1712 from the local archbishop, who had extracted his information out of the episcopal archives. Concerning another of these wonder-working idols–that of S. M. del Patirion–you may read in the ponderous tomes of Ughelli.

Whether the celebrated Purple Codex of Rossano ever formed part of the library of Patirion has not yet been determined. This wonderful parchment–now preserved at Rossano–is mentioned for the first time by Cesare Malpica, who wrote some interesting things about the Albanian and Greek colonies in Calabria, but it was only discovered, in the right sense of that word, in March 1879 by Gebhardt and Harnack. They illustrated it in their Evangeliorum Codex Graecus. Haseloff also described it in 1898 (Codex Purpureus Rossanensis), and pointed out that its iconographical value consists in the fact that it is the only Greek Testament MS. containing pictures of the life of Christ before the eighth-ninth century. These pictures are indeed marvellous–more marvellous than beautiful, like so many Byzantine productions; their value is such that the parchment has now been declared a “national monument.” It is sternly guarded, and if it is moved out of Rossano–as happened lately when it was exhibited at Grottaferrata–it travels in the company of armed carbineers.

Still pursued by the flock of women, I took to examining the floor of this church, which contains tesselated marble pavements depicting centaurs, unicorns, lions, stags, and other beasts. But my contemplation of these choice relics was disturbed by irrelevant remarks on the part of the worldly females, who discovered in the head of the stag some subtle peculiarity that stirred their sense of humour.

“Look!” said one of them to her neighbour. “He has horns. Just like your Pasquale.”

“Pasquale indeed! And how about Antonio?”

I enquired whether they knew what kind of animals these were.

“Beasts of the ancients. Beasts that nobody knows. Beasts that have horns–like certain Christians. . . .”

From the terrace of green sward that fronts this ruined monastery you can see the little town of Corigliano, whose coquettish white houses lie in a fold of the hills. Corigliano–[Greek: xorion hellaion] (land of olives): the derivation, if not correct, is at least appropriate, for it lies embowered in a forest of these trees. A gay place it was, in Bourbon times, with a ducal ruler of its own. Here, they say, the remnants of the Sybarites took refuge after the destruction of their city whose desolate plain lies at our feet, backed by the noble range of Dolcedorme. Swinburne, like a sensible man, takes the Sybarites under his protection; he defends their artificially shaded streets and those other signs of voluptuousness which, to judge by certain modern researches, seem to have been chiefly contrived for combating the demon of malaria. Earthly welfare, the cult of material health and ease–such was their ideal.

In sharpest contrast to these strivings stands the aim of those old monks who scorned the body as a mere encumbrance, seeking spiritual enlightenment and things not of this earth.

And now, Sybarites and Basileans–alike in ruins!

A man of to-day, asked which of the two civilizations he would wish restored, would not hesitate long in deciding for the Hellenic one. Readers of Lenormant will call to mind his glowing pages on the wonders that might be found buried on the site of Sybaris. His plan of excavation sounds feasible enough. But how remote it becomes, when one remembers the case of Herculaneum! Here, to our certain knowledge, many miracles of antique art and literature lie within a few feet of our reach; yet nothing is done. These hidden monuments, which are the heritage of all humanity, are withheld from our eyes by the dog-in-the-manger policy of a country which, even without foreign assistance, could easily accomplish the work, were it to employ thereon only half the sum now spent in feeding, clothing and supervising a horde of criminals, every one of whom ought to be hanged ten times over. Meanwhile other nations are forbidden to co-operate; the fair-minded German proposals were scornfully rejected; later on, those of Sir Charles Waldstein.

“What!” says the Giornale d’ Italia, “are we to have international excavation-committees thrust upon us? Are we to be treated like the Turks?”

That, gentle sirs, is precisely the state of the case.

The object of such committees is to do for the good of mankind what a single nation is powerless or unwilling to do. Your behaviour at Herculaneum is identical with that of the Turks at Nineveh. The system adopted should likewise be the same.

I shall never see that consummation.

But I shall not forget a certain article in an American paper–"The New York Times,” I fancy–which gave me fresh food for thought, here at Patirion, in the sight of that old Hellenic colony, and with the light chatter of those women still ringing in my ears. Its writer, with whom not all of us will agree, declared that first in importance of all the antiquities buried in Italian soil come the lost poems of Sappho. The lost poems of Sappho–a singular choice! In corroboration whereof he quoted the extravagant praise of J. A. Symonds upon that amiable and ambiguous young person. And he might have added Algernon Swinburne, who calls her “the greatest poet who ever was at all.”

Sappho and these two Victorians, I said to myself. . . . Why just these two? How keen is the cry of elective affinity athwart the ages! The soul, says Plato, divines that which it seeks, and traces obscurely the footsteps of its obscure desire.

The footsteps of its obscure desire-----

So one stumbles, inadvertently, upon problems of the day concerning which our sages profess to know nothing. And yet I do perceive a certain Writing upon the Wall setting forth, in clearest language, that 1 + 1 = 3; a legend which it behoves them not to expunge, but to expound. For it refuses to be expunged; and we do not need a German lady to tell us how much the “synthetic” sex, the hornless but not brainless sex, has done for the life of the spirit while those other two were reclaiming the waste places of earth, and procreating, and fighting–as befits their horned anatomy.



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Old Calabria (Marlboro Travel)
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