By Norman Douglas
Public Domain Books
II. MANFRED’S TOWN
As the train moved from Lucera to Foggia and thence onwards, I had enjoyed myself rationally, gazing at the emerald plain of Apulia, soon to be scorched to ashes, but now richly dight with the yellow flowers of the giant fennel, with patches of ruby-red poppy and asphodels pale and shadowy, past their prime. I had thought upon the history of this immense tract of country–upon all the floods of legislation and theorizings to which its immemorial customs of pasturage have given birth. . . .
Then, suddenly, the aspect of life seemed to change. I felt unwell, and so swift was the transition from health that I had wantonly thrown out of the window, beyond recall, a burning cigar ere realizing that it was only a little more than half smoked. We were crossing the Calendaro, a sluggish stream which carefully collects all the waters of this region only to lose them again in a swamp not far distant; and it was positively as if some impish sprite had leapt out of those noisome waves, boarded the train, and flung himself into me, after the fashion of the “Horla” in the immortal tale.
Doses of quinine such as would make an English doctor raise his eyebrows have hitherto only succeeded in provoking the Calendaro microbe to more virulent activity. Nevertheless, on s’y fait. I am studying him and, despite his protean manifestations, have discovered three principal ingredients: malaria, bronchitis and hay-fever–not your ordinary hay-fever, oh, no! but such as a mammoth might conceivably catch, if thrust back from his germless, frozen tundras into the damply blossoming Miocene.
The landlady of this establishment has a more commonplace name for the distemper. She calls it “scirocco.” And certainly this pest of the south blows incessantly; the mountain-line of Gargano is veiled, the sea’s horizon veiled, the coast-lands of Apulia veiled by its tepid and unwholesome breath. To cheer me up, she says that on clear days one can see Castel del Monte, the Hohenstaufen eyrie, shining yonder above Barletta, forty miles distant. It sounds rather improbable; still, yesterday evening there arose a sudden vision of a white town in that direction, remote and dream-like, far across the water. Was it Barletta? Or Margherita? It lingered awhile, poised on an errant sunbeam; then sank into the deep.
From this window I look into the little harbour whose beach is dotted with fishing-boats. Some twenty or thirty sailing-vessels are riding at anchor; in the early morning they unfurl their canvas and sally forth, in amicable couples, to scour the azure deep–it is greenish-yellow at this moment–returning at nightfall with the spoils of ocean, mostly young sharks, to judge by the display in the market. Their white sails bear fabulous devices in golden colour of moons and crescents and dolphins; some are marked like the “orange-tip” butterfly. A gunboat is now stationed here on a mysterious errand connected with the Albanian rising on the other side of the Adriatic. There has been whispered talk of illicit volunteering among the youth on this side, which the government is anxious to prevent. And to enliven the scene, a steamer calls every now and then to take passengers to the Tremiti islands. One would like to visit them, if only in memory of those martyrs of Bourbonism, who were sent in hundreds to these rocks and cast into dungeons to perish. I have seen such places; they are vast caverns artificially excavated below the surface of the earth; into these the unfortunates were lowered and left to crawl about and rot, the living mingled with the dead. To this day they find mouldering skeletons, loaded with heavy iron chains and ball-weights.
A copious spring gushes up on this beach and flows into the sea. It is sadly neglected. Were I tyrant of Manfredonia, I would build me a fair marble fountain here, with a carven assemblage of nymphs and sea-monsters spouting water from their lusty throats, and plashing in its rivulets. It may well be that the existence of this fount helped to decide Manfred in his choice of a site for his city; such springs are rare in this waterless land. And from this same source, very likely, is derived the local legend of Saint Lorenzo and the Dragon, which is quite independent of that of Saint Michael the dragon-killer on the heights above us. These venerable water-spirits, these dracs, are interesting beasts who went through many metamorphoses ere attaining their present shape.
Manfredonia lies on a plain sloping very gently seawards–practically a dead level, and in one of the hottest districts of Italy. Yet, for some obscure reason, there is no street along the sea itself; the cross-roads end in abrupt squalor at the shore. One wonders what considerations–political, aesthetic or hygienic–prevented the designers of the town from carrying out its general principles of construction and building a decent promenade by the waves, where the ten thousand citizens could take the air in the breathless summer evenings, instead of being cooped up, as they now are, within stifling hot walls. The choice of Man-fredonia as a port does not testify to any great foresight on the part of its founder–peace to his shade! It will for ever slumber in its bay, while commerce passes beyond its reach; it will for ever be malarious with the marshes of Sipontum at its edges. But this particular defect of the place is not Manfred’s fault, since the city was razed to the ground by the Turks in 1620, and then built up anew; built up, says Lenormant, according to the design of the old city. Perhaps a fear of other Corsair raids induced the constructors to adhere to the old plan, by which the place could be more easily defended. Not much of Man-fredonia seems to have been completed when Pacicchelli’s view (1703) was engraved.
Speaking of the weather, the landlady further told me that the wind blew so hard three months ago–"during that big storm in the winter, don’t you remember?"–that it broke all the iron lamp-posts between the town and the station. Now here was a statement sounding even more improbable than her other one about Castel del Monte, but admitting of verification. Wheezing and sneezing, I crawled forth, and found it correct. It must have been a respectable gale, since the cast-iron supports are snapped in half, every one of them.
Those Turks, by the way, burnt the town on that memorable occasion. That was a common occurrence in those days. Read any account of their incursions into Italy during this and the preceding centuries, and you will find that the corsairs burnt the towns whenever they had time to set them alight. They could not burn them nowadays, and this points to a total change in economic conditions. Wood was cut down so heedlessly that it became too scarce for building purposes, and stone took its place. This has altered domestic architecture; it has changed the landscape, denuding the hill-sides that were once covered with timber; it has impoverished the country by converting fruitful plains into marshes or arid tracts of stone swept by irregular and intermittent floods; it has modified, if I mistake not, the very character of the people. The desiccation of the climate has entailed a desiccation of national humour.
Muratori has a passage somewhere in his “Antiquities” regarding the old method of construction and the wooden shingles, scandulae, in use for roofing–I must look it up, if ever I reach civilized regions again.
At the municipality, which occupies the spacious apartments of a former Dominican convent, they will show you the picture of a young girl, one of the Beccarmi family, who was carried off at a tender age in one of these Turkish raids, and subsequently became “Sultana.” Such captive girls generally married sultans–or ought to have married them; the wish being father to the thought. But the story is disputed; rightly, I think. For the portrait is painted in the French manner, and it is hardly likely that a harem-lady would have been exhibited to a European artist. The legend goes on to say that she was afterwards liberated by the Knights of Malta, together with her Turkish son who, as was meet and proper, became converted to Christianity and died a monk. The Beccarmi family (of Siena, I fancy) might find some traces of her in their archives. Ben trovato, at all events. When one looks at the pretty portrait, one cannot blame any kind of “Sultan” for feeling well-disposed towards the original.
The weather has shown some signs of improvement and tempted me, despite the persistent “scirocco” mood, to a few excursions into the neighbourhood. But there seem to be no walks hereabouts, and the hills, three miles distant, are too remote for my reduced vitality. The intervening region is a plain of rock carved so smoothly, in places, as to appear artificially levelled with the chisel; large tracts of it are covered with the Indian fig (cactus). In the shade of these grotesque growths lives a dainty flora: trembling grasses of many kinds, rue, asphodel, thyme, the wild asparagus, a diminutive blue iris, as well as patches of saxifrage that deck the stone with a brilliant enamel of red and yellow. This wild beauty makes one think how much better the graceful wrought-iron balconies of the town would look if enlivened with blossoms, with pendent carnations or pelargonium; but there is no great display of these things; the deficiency of water is a characteristic of the place; it is a flowerless and songless city. The only good drinking-water is that which is bottled at the mineral springs of Monte Vulture and sold cheaply enough all over the country. And the mass of the country people have small charm of feature. Their faces seem to have been chopped with a hatchet into masks of sombre virility; a hard life amid burning limestone deserts is reflected in their countenances.
None the less, they have a public garden; even more immature than that of Lucera, but testifying to greater taste. Its situation, covering a forlorn semicircular tract of ground about the old Anjou castle, is a priori a good one. But when the trees are fully grown, it will be impossible to see this fine ruin save at quite close quarters–just across the moat.
I lamented this fact to a solitary gentleman who was strolling about here and who replied, upon due deliberation:
“One cannot have everything.”
Then he added, as a suggestive afterthought:
“Inasmuch as one thing sometimes excludes another.”
I pause, to observe parenthetically that this habit of uttering platitudes in the grand manner as though disclosing an idea of vital novelty (which Charles Lamb, poor fellow, thought peculiar to natives of Scotland) is as common among Italians as among Englishmen. But veiled in sonorous Latinisms, the staleness of such remarks assumes an air of profundity.
“For my part,” he went on, warming to his theme, “I am thoroughly satisfied. Who will complain of the trees? Only a few makers of bad pictures. They can go elsewhere. Our country, dear sir, is encrusted, with old castles and other feudal absurdities, and if I had the management of things-----”
The sentence was not concluded, for at that moment his hat was blown off by a violent gust of wind, and flew merrily over beds of flowering marguerites in the direction of the main street, while he raced after it, vanishing in a cloud of dust. The chase must have been long and arduous; he never returned.
Wandering about the upper regions of this fortress whose chambers are now used as a factory of cement goods and a refuge for some poor families, I espied a good pre-renaissance relief of Saint Michael and the dragon immured in the masonry, and overhung by the green leaves of an exuberant wild fig that has thrust its roots into the sturdy old walls. Here, at Manfredonia, we are already under the shadow of the holy mountain and the archangel’s wings, but the usual representations of him are childishly emasculate–the negation of his divine and heroic character. This one portrays a genuine warrior-angel of the old type: grave and grim. Beyond this castle and the town-walls, which are best preserved on the north side, nothing in Manfredonia is older than 1620. There is a fine campanile, but the cathedral looks like a shed for disused omnibuses.
Along the streets, little red flags are hanging out of the houses, at frequent intervals: signals of harbourage for the parched wayfarer. Within, you behold a picturesque confusion of rude chairs set among barrels and vats full of dark red wine where, amid Rembrandtesque surroundings, you can get as drunk as a lord for sixpence. Blithe oases! It must be delightful, in summer, to while away the sultry hours in their hospitable twilight; even at this season they seem to be extremely popular resorts, throwing a new light on those allusions by classical authors to “thirsty Apulia.”
But on many of the dwellings I noticed another symbol: an ominous blue metal tablet with a red cross, bearing the white-lettered words “VIGILANZA NOTTURNA.”
Was it some anti-burglary association? I enquired of a serious-looking individual who happened to be passing.
His answer did not help to clear up matters.
“A pure job, signore mio, a pure job! There is a society in Cerignola or somewhere, a society which persuades the various town councils–persuades them, you understand-----”
He ended abruptly, with the gesture of paying out money between his finger and thumb. Then he sadly shook his head.
I sought for more light on this cryptic utterance; in vain. What were the facts, I persisted? Did certain householders subscribe to keep a guardian on their premises at night–what had the municipalities to do with it–was there much house-breaking in Manfredonia, and, if so, had this association done anything to check it? And for how long had the institution been established?
But the mystery grew ever darker. After heaving a deep sigh, he condescended to remark:
“The usual camorra! Eat–eat; from father to son. Eat–eat! That’s all they think about, the brood of assassins. . . . Just look at them!”
I glanced down the street and beheld a venerable gentleman of kindly aspect who approached slowly, leaning on the arm of a fair-haired youth–his grandson, I supposed. He wore a long white beard, and an air of apostolic detachment from the affairs of this world. They came nearer. The boy was listening, deferentially, to some remark of the elder; his lips were parted in attention and his candid, sunny face would have rejoiced the heart of della Robbia. They passed within a few feet of me, lovingly engrossed in one another.
“Well?” I queried, turning to my informant and anxious to learn what misdeeds could be laid to the charge of such godlike types of humanity.
But that person was no longer at my side. He had quietly withdrawn himself, in the interval; he had evanesced, “moved on.”
An oracular and elusive citizen. ...