By Norman Douglas
Public Domain Books
XVII. OLD MORANO
This Morano is a very ancient city; Tufarelli, writing in 1598, proves that it was then exactly 3349 years old. Oddly enough, therefore, its foundation almost coincides with that of Rossano. . . .
There may be mules at Morano; indeed, there are. But they are illusive beasts: phantom-mules. Despite the assistance of the captain of the carbineers, the local innkeeper, the communal policeman, the secretary of the municipality, an amiable canon of the church and several non-official residents, I vainly endeavoured, for three days, to procure one–flitting about, meanwhile, between this place and Castrovillari. For Morano, notwithstanding its size (they say it is larger than the other town) offers no accommodation or food in the septentrional sense of those terms.
Its situation, as you approach from Castrovillari, is striking. The white houses stream in a cataract down one side of a steep conical hill that dominates the landscape–on the summit sits the inevitable castle, blue sky peering through its battered windows. But the interior is not at all in keeping with this imposing aspect. Morano, so far as I was able to explore it, is a labyrinth of sombre, tortuous and fetid alleys, whexe black pigs wallow amid heaps ’of miscellaneous and malodorous filth–in short, the town exemplifies that particular idea of civic liberty which consists in everybody being free to throw their own private refuse into the public street and leave it there, from generation to generation. What says Lombroso? “The street-cleaning is entrusted, in many towns, to the rains of heaven and, in their absence, to the voracity of the pigs.” None the less, while waiting for mules that never came, I took to patrolling those alleys, at first out of sheer boredom, but soon impelled by that subtle fascination which emanates from the ne plus ultra of anything–even of grotesque dirtiness. On the second day, however, a case of cholera was announced, which chilled my ardour for further investigations. It was on that account that I failed to inspect what was afterwards described to me as the chief marvel of the place–a carved wooden altar-piece in a certain church.
“It is prodigious and antichissimo,” said an obliging citizen to whom I applied for information. “There is nothing like it on earth, and I have been six times to America, sir. The artist–a real artist, mind you, not a common professor–spent his whole life in carving it. It was for the church, you see, and he wanted to show what he could do in the way of a masterpiece. Then, when it was finished and in its place, the priests refused to pay for it. It was made not for them, they said, but for the glory of God; the man’s reward was sufficient. And besides, he could have remission of sins for the rest of his life. He said he did not care about remission of sins; he wanted money–money! But he got nothing. Whereupon he began to brood and to grow yellow. Money–money! That was all he ever said. And at last he became quite green and died. After that, his son took up the quarrel, but he got as little out of the priests as the father. It was fixed in the church, you understand, and he could not take it away. He climbed through the window one night and tried to burn it–the marks are there to this day–but they were too sharp for him. And he took the business so much to heart that he also soon died quite young! And quite green–like his father.”
The most characteristic item in the above history is that about growing green. People are apt to put on this colour in the south from disappointment or from envy. They have a proverb which runs “sfoga o schiatta"–relieve yourself or burst; our vaunted ideal of self-restraint, of dominating the reflexes, being thought not only fanciful but injurious to health. Therefore, if relief is thwarted, they either brood themselves into a green melancholy, or succumb to a sudden “colpo di sangue,” like a young woman of my acquaintance who, considering herself beaten in a dispute with a tram-conductor about a penny, forthwith had a “colpo di sangue,” and was dead in a few hours. A primeval assertion of the ego . . .
Unable to perambulate the streets of Morano, I climbed to the ruined fortress along the verdant slope at its back, and enjoyed a fair view down the fertile valley, irrigated by streamlets and planted with many-hued patches of culture, with mulberries, pomegranates and poplars. Some boys were up here, engaged in fishing–fishing for young kestrels in their nest above a shattered gateway. The tackle consisted of a rod with a bent piece of wire fixed to one end, and it seemed to me a pretty unpromising form of sport. But suddenly, amid wild vociferations, they hooked one, and carried it off in triumph to supper. The mother bird, meanwhile, sailed restlessly about the aether watching every movement, as I could see by my glasses; at times she drifted quite near, then swerved again and hovered, with vibrating pinions, directly overhead. It was clear that she could not tear herself away from the scene, and hardly had the marauders departed, when she alighted on the wall and began to inspect what was left of her dwelling. It was probably rather untidy. I felt sorry for her; yet such harebrained imprudence cannot go unpunished. With so many hundred crannies in this old castle, why choose one which any boy can reach with a stick? She will know better next season.
Then an old shepherd scrambled up, and sat on the stone beside me. He was short-sighted, asthmatic, and unable to work; the doctor had recommended an evening walk up to the castle. We conversed awhile, and he extracted a carnation out of his waistcoat pocket–unusual receptacle for flowers–which he presented to me. I touched upon the all-absorbing topic of mules.
“Mules are very busy animals in Morano,” he explained. “Animali occupatissimi.” However, he promised to exert himself on my behalf; he knew a man with a mule–two mules–he would send him round, if possible.
Quite a feature in the landscape of Morano is the costume of the women, with their home-dyed red skirts and ribbons of the same hue plaited into their hair. It is a beautiful and reposeful shade of red, between Pompeian and brick-colour, and the tint very closely resembles that of the cloth worn by the beduin (married) women of Tunisia. Maybe it was introduced by the Saracens. And it is they, I imagine, who imported that love of red peppers (a favourite dish with most Orientals) which is peculiar to these parts, where they eat them voraciously in every form, particularly in that of red sausages seasoned with these fiery condiments.
The whole country is full of Saracen memories. The name of Morano, they say, is derived from moro, [Footnote: This is all wrong, of course. And equally wrong is the derivation from moral, a mulberry–abundant as these trees are. And more wrong still, if possible, is that which is drawn from a saying of the mysterious Oenotrians–that useful tribe–who, wandering in search of homesteads across these regions and observing their beauty, are supposed to have remarked: Hic moremur– here let us stay! Morano (strange to say) is simply the Roman Muranum.] a Moor; and in its little piazza–an irregular and picturesque spot, shaded by a few grand old elms amid the sound of running waters–there is a sculptured head of a Moor inserted into the wall, commemorative, I was told, of some ancient anti-Saracen exploit. It is the escutcheon of the town. This Moor wears a red fez, and his features are painted black (this is de rigueur, for “Saracens “); he bears the legend Vivit sub arbore morus. Near at hand, too, lies the prosperous village Saracena, celebrated of old for its muscatel wines. They are made from the grape which the Saracens brought over from Maskat, and planted all over Sicily. [Footnote: See next chapter.]
The men of Morano emigrate to America; two-thirds of the adult and adolescent male population are at this moment on the other side of the Atlantic. But the oldsters, with their peaked hats (capello pizzuto) shading gnarled and canny features, are well worth studying. At this summer season they leave the town at 3.30 a.m. to cultivate their fields, often far distant, returning at nightfall; and to observe these really wonderful types, which will soon be extinct, you must take up a stand on the Castrovillari road towards sunset and watch them riding home on their donkeys, or walking, after the labours of the day.
Poorly dressed, these peasants are none the less wealthy; the post office deposit of Morano is said to have two million francs to its credit, mostly the savings of these humble cultivators, who can discover an astonishing amount of money when it is a question, for example, of providing their daughters with a dowry. The bridal dress alone, a blaze of blue silk and lace and gold embroidery, costs between six hundred and a thousand francs. Altogether, Morano is a rich place, despite its sordid appearance; it is also celebrated as the birthplace of various learned men. The author of the “Calascione Scordato,” a famous Neapolitan poem of the seventeenth century, certainly lived here for some time and has been acclaimed as a son of Morano, though he distinctly speaks of Naples as his home. Among its elder literary glories is that Leonardo Tufarelli, who thus apostrophizes his birthplace:
“And to proceed–how many letterati and virtuosi have issued from you in divers times? Among whom–not to name all of them–there has been in our days Leopardo de l’Osso of happy memory, physician and most excellent philosopher, singular in every science, of whom I dare say that he attained to Pythagorean heights. How many are there to-day, versed in every faculty, in theology, in the two laws, and in medicine? How many historians, how many poets, grammarians, artists, actors?”
The modern writer Nicola Leoni is likewise a child of Morano; his voluminous “Della Magna Grecia e delle Tre Calabrie” appeared in 1844-1846. He, too, devotes much space to the praises of his natal city, and to lamentations regarding the sad condition of Calabrian letters during those dark years.
“Closed for ever is the academy of Amantea! Closed for ever is the academy of Rossano! Rare are the lectures in the academy of Monteleone! Rare indeed the lectures in the academy of Catan-zaro! Closed for ever is the public library of Monteleone! O ancient days! O wisdom of our fathers! Where shall I find you?. . .”
To live the intellectual life amid the ferociously squalid surroundings of Morano argues an enviable philosophic calm–a detachment bordering on insensibility. But perhaps we are too easily influenced by externals, in these degenerate times. Or things may have been better in days of old–who can tell? One always likes to think so, though the evidence usually points to the contrary.
When least I expected it, a possessor of mules presented himself. He was a burly ruffian of northern extraction, with clear eyes, fair moustache, and an insidious air of cheerfulness.
Yes, he had a mule, he said; but as to climbing the mountain for three or four days on end–ha, ha!–that was rather an undertaking, you know. Was I aware that there were forests and snow up there? Had I ever been up the mountain? Indeed! Well, then I must know that there was no food-----
I pointed to my store of provisions from Castrovillari. His eye wandered lovingly over the pile and reposed, finally, upon sundry odd bottles and a capacious demijohn, holding twelve litres.
“Wine of family,” I urged. “None of your eating-house stuff.”
He thought he could manage it, after all. Yes; the trip could be undertaken, with a little sacrifice. And he had a second mule, a lady-mule, which it struck him I might like to ride now and then; a pleasant beast and a companion, so to speak, for the other one. Two mules and two Christians–that seemed appropriate. . . . And only four francs a day more.
Done! It was really cheap. So cheap, that I straightway grew suspicious of the “lady-mule.”
We sealed the bargain in a glass of the local mixture, and I thereupon demanded a caparra– a monetary security that he would keep his word, i.e. be round at my door with the animals at two in the morning, so as to reach the uplands before the heat became oppressive.
His face clouded–a good omen, indicating that he was beginning to respect me. Then he pulled out his purse, and reluctantly laid two francs on the table.
The evening was spent in final preparations; I retired early to bed, and tried to sleep. One o’clock came, and two o’clock, and three o’clock–no mules! At four I went to the man’s house, and woke him out of ambrosial slumbers.
“You come to see me so early in the morning?” he enquired, sitting up in bed and rubbing his eyes. “Now that’s really nice of you.”
One of the mules, he airily explained, had lost a shoe in the afternoon. He would get it put right at once–at once.
“You might have told me so yesterday evening, instead of keeping me awake all night waiting for you.”
“True,” he replied. “I thought of it at the time. But then I went to bed, and slept. Ah, sir, it is good to sleep!” and he stretched himself voluptuously.
The beast was shod, and at 5 a.m. we left.