Old Calabria
By Norman Douglas

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Conspicuous among the wise men of Longobucco in olden days was the physician Bruno, who “flourished” about the end of the thirteenth century. He called himself Longoburgensis Calaber, and his great treatise on anatomical dissection, embodying much Greek and Arabic lore, was printed many years after his death. Another was Francesco Maria Labonia; he wrote, in 1664, “De vera loci urbis Timesinae situatione, etc.,” to prove, presumably, that his birthplace occupied the site whence the Homeric ore of Temese was derived. There are modern writers who support this view.

The local silver mines were exploited in antiquity; first by Sybaris, then by Croton. They are now abandoned, but a good deal has been written about them. In the year 1200 a thousand miners were employed, and the Anjous extracted a great deal of precious metal thence; the goldsmiths of Longobucco were celebrated throughout Italy during the Middle Ages. The industrious H. W. Schulz has unearthed a Royal rescript of 1274 charging a certain goldsmith Johannes of Longobucco with researches into the metal and salt resources of the whole kingdom of Naples.

Writing from Longobucco in 1808 during a brigand-hunt, Duret de Tavel says:

“The high wooded mountains which surround this horrible place spread over it a sombre and savage tint which saddens the imagination. This borough contains a hideous population of three thousand souls, composed of nail-makers, of blacksmiths and charcoal-burners. The former government employed them in working the silver mines situated in the neighbourhood which are now abandoned.”

He tells a good deal about the brigandage that was then rife here, and the atrocities which the repression of this pest entailed. Soon after his arrival, for instance, four hundred soldiers were sent to a village where the chiefs of the brigand “insurrection” were supposed to be sheltered. The soldiers, he says, “poured into the streets like a torrent in flood, and there began a horrible massacre, rendered inevitable by the obstinacy of the insurgents, who fired from all the houses. This unhappy village was sacked and burnt, suffering all the horrors inseparable from a capture by assault.” Two hundred dead were found in the streets. But the brigand chiefs, the sole pretext of this bloodshed, managed to escape. Perhaps they were not within fifty miles of the place.

Be that as it may, they were captured later on by their own compatriots, after the French had waited a month at Longobucco. Their heads were brought in, still bleeding, and “l’identite ayant ete suffisamment constatee, la mort des principaux acteurs a termine cette sanglante tragedie, et nous sommes sortis de ces catacombes apennines pour revoir le plus brillant soleil.”

Wonderful tales are still told of the brigands in these forests. They will show you notches on the trees, cut by such and such a brigand for some particular purpose of communication with his friends; buried treasure has been found, and even nowadays shepherds sometimes discover rude shelters of bark and tree trunks built by them in the thickest part of the woods. There are legends, too, of caverns wherein they hived their booty–caverns with cleverly concealed entrances–caverns which (many of them, at least) I regard as a pure invention modelled after the authentic brigand caves of Salerno and Abruzzi, where the limestone rock is of the kind to produce them. Bourbonism fostered the brood, and there was a fierce recrudescence in the troubled sixties. They lived in bands, squadrigli, burning and plundering with impunity. Whoever refused to comply with their demands for food or money was sure to repent of it. All this is over, for the time being; the brigands are extirpated, to the intense relief of the country people, who were entirely at their mercy, and whose boast it is that their district is now as safe as the streets of Naples. Qualified praise, this. . . . [Footnote: See next chapter.]

It is an easy march of eight hours or less, through pleasing scenery and by a good track, from Longobucco to San Giovanni in Fiore, the capital of the Sila. The path leaves Longobucco at the rear of the town and, climbing upward, enters a valley which it follows to its head. The peasants have cultivated patches of ground along the stream; the slopes are covered, first with chestnuts and then with hoary firs–a rare growth, in these parts–from whose branches hangs the golden bough of the mistletoe. And now the stream is ended and a dark ridge blocks the way; it is overgrown with beeches, under whose shade you ascend in steep curves. At the summit the vegetation changes once more, and you find yourself among magnificent stretches of pines that continue as far as the governmental domain of Galoppano, a forestal station, two hours’ walk from Longobucco.

This pine is a particular variety (Pinus lancio, var. Calabra), known as the “Pino della Sila"–it is found over this whole country, and grows to a height of forty metres with a silvery-grey trunk, exhaling a delicious aromatic fragrance. In youth, especially where the soil is deep, it shoots up prim and demure as a Nuremberg toy; but in old age grows monstrous. High-perched upon some lonely granite boulder, with roots writhing over the bare stone like the arms of an octopus, it sits firm and unmoved, deriding the tempest and flinging fantastic limbs into the air–emblem of tenacity in desolation. From these trees, which in former times must have covered the Sila region, was made that Bruttian pitch mentioned by Strabo and other ancient writers; from them the Athenians, the Syracusans, Tarentines and finally the Romans built their fleets. Their timber was used in the construction of Caserta palace.

A house stands here, inhabited by government officials the whole year round–one may well puzzle how they pass the long winter, when snow lies from October to May. So early did I arrive at this establishment that the more civilized of its inhabitants were still asleep; by waiting, I might have learnt something of the management of the estate, but gross material preoccupations–the prospect of a passable luncheon at San Giovanni after the “Hotel Vittoria” fare–tempted me to press forwards. A boorish and unreliable-looking individual volunteered three pieces of information–that the house was built thirty years ago, that a large nursery for plants lies about ten kilometres distant, and that this particular domain covers “two or four thousand hectares.” A young plantation of larches and silver birches–aliens to this region–seemed to be doing well.

Not far from here, along my track, lies Santa Barbara, two or three huts, with corn still green–like Verace (above Acri) on the watershed between the Ionian and upper Grati. Then follows a steep climb up the slopes of Mount Pettinascura, whose summit lies 1708 metres above sea-level. This is the typical landscape of the Sila Grande. There is not a human habitation in sight; forests all around, with views down many-folded vales into the sea and towards the distant and fairy-like Apennines, a serrated edge, whose limestone precipices gleam like crystals of amethyst between the blue sky and the dusky woodlands of the foreground.

Here I reposed awhile, watching the crossbills, wondrously tame, at work among the branches overhead, and the emerald lizard peering out of the bracken at my side. This lucertone, as they call it, is a local beast, very abundant in some spots (at Venosa and Patirion, for example); it is elsewhere conspicuous by its absence. The natives are rather afraid of it, and still more so of the harmless gecko, the “salamide,” which is reputed highly poisonous.

Then up again, through dells and over uplands, past bubbling streams, sometimes across sunlit meadows, but oftener in the leafy shelter of maples and pines–a long but delightful track, winding always high above the valleys of the Neto and Lese. At last, towards midday, I struck the driving road that connects San Giovanni with Savelli, crossed a bridge over the foaming Neto, and climbed into the populous and dirty streets of the town–the “Siberia of Calabria,” as it may well be, for seven months of the year.

At this season, thanks to its elevation of 1050 metres, the temperature is all that could be desired, and the hotel, such as it is, compares favourably indeed with the den at Longobucco. Instantly I felt at home among these good people, who recognized me, and welcomed me with the cordiality of old friends.

“Well,” they asked, “and have you found it at last?”

They remembered my looking for the double flute, the tibiae pares, some years ago.

It will not take you long to discover that the chief objects of interest in San Giovanni are the women. Many Calabrian villages still possess their distinctive costumes–Marcellinara and Cimi-gliano are celebrated in this respect–but it would be difficult to find anywhere an equal number of handsome women on such a restricted space. In olden days it was dangerous to approach these attractive and mirthful creatures; they were jealously guarded by brothers and husbands. But the brothers and husbands, thank God, are now in America, and you may be as friendly with them as ever you please, provided you confine your serious attentions to not more than two or three. Secrecy in such matters is out of the question, as with the Arabs; there is too much gossip, and too little coyness about what is natural; your friendships are openly recognized, and tacitly approved. The priests do not interfere; their hands are full.

To see these women at their best one must choose a Sunday or a feast-day; one must go, morever, to the favourite fountain of Santa Lucia, which lies on the hill-side and irrigates some patches of corn and vegetables. Their natural charms are enhanced by elaborate and tasteful golden ornaments, and by a pretty mode of dressing the hair, two curls of which are worn hanging down before their ears with an irresistibly seductive air. Their features are regular; eyes black or deep gentian blue; complexion pale; movements and attitudes impressed with a stamp of rare distinction. Even the great-grandmothers have a certain austere dignity–sinewy, indestructible old witches, with tawny hide and eyes that glow like lamps.

And yet San Giovanni is as dirty as can well be; it has the accumulated filth of an Eastern town, while lacking all its glowing tints or harmonious outlines. We are disposed to associate squalor with certain artistic effects, but it may be said of this and many other Calabrian places that they have solved the problem how to be ineffably squalid without becoming in the least picturesque. Much of this sordid look is due to the smoke which issues out of all the windows and blackens the house walls, inside and out–the Calabrians persisting in a prehistoric fashion of cooking on the floor. The buildings themselves look crude and gaunt from their lack of plaster and their eyeless windows; black pigs wallowing at every doorstep contribute to this slovenly ensemble. The City Fathers have turned their backs upon civilization; I dare say the magnitude of the task before them has paralysed their initiative.

Nothing is done in the way of public hygiene, and one sees women washing linen in water which is nothing more or less than an open drain. There is no street-lighting whatever; a proposal on the part of a North Italian firm to draw electric power from the Neto was scornfully rejected; one single tawdry lamp, which was bought some years ago “as a sample” in a moment of municipal recklessness, was lighted three times in as many years, and on the very day when it was least necessary–to wit, on midsummer eve, which happens to be the festival of their patron saint (St. John). “It now hangs"–so I wrote some years ago–"at a dangerous angle, and I doubt whether it will survive till its services are requisitioned next June.” Prophetic utterance! It was blown down that same winter, and has not yet been replaced. This in a town of 20,000 (?) inhabitants–and in Italy, where the evening life of the populace plays such an important role. No wonder North Italians, judging by such external indications, regard all Calabrians as savages.

Some trees have been planted in the piazza since my last stay here; a newspaper has also been started–it is called “Co-operation: Organ of the Interests of San Giovanni in Fiore,” and its first and possibly unique number contains a striking article on the public health, as revealed in the report of two doctors who had been despatched by the provincial sanitary authorities to take note of local conditions of hygiene. “The illustrious scientists” (thus it runs) “were horrified at the filth, mud and garbage which encumbered, and still encumbers, our streets, sending forth in the warm weather a pestilential odour. . . . They were likewise amazed at the vigorously expressed protest of our mayor, who said: ’My people cannot live’ without their pigs wallowing in the streets. San Giovanni in Fiore is exempt from earthquakes and epidemics because it is under the protection of Saint John the Baptist, and because its provincial councillor is a saintly man.’” Such journalistic plain speaking, such lack of sweet reasonableness, cannot expect to survive in a world governed by compromise, and if the gift of prophecy has not deserted me, I should say that “Co-operation” has by this time ended its useful mission upon earth.

This place is unhealthy; its water-supply is not what it should be, and such commodities as eggs and milk are rather dear, because “the invalids eat everything” of that kind. Who are the invalids? Typhoid patients and, above all, malarious subjects who descend to the plains as agricultural labourers and return infected to the hills, where they become partially cured, only to repeat the folly next year. It is the same at Longobucco and other Sila towns. Altogether, San Giovanni has grave drawbacks. The streets are too steep for comfort, and despite its height, the prospect towards the Ionian is intercepted by a ridge; in point of situation it cannot compare with Savelli or the neighbouring Casino, which have impressive views both inland, and southward down undulating slopes that descend in a stately procession of four thousand feet to the sea, where sparkles the gleaming horn of Cotrone. And the surroundings of the place are nowise representative of the Sila in a good sense. The land has been so ruthlessly deforested that it has become a desert of naked granite rocks; even now, in midsummer, the citizens are already collecting fuel for their long winter from enormous distances. As one crawls and skips among these unsavoury tenements, one cannot help regretting that Saint John the Baptist, or the piety of a provincial councillor, should have hindered the earthquakes from doing their obvious duty.

Were I sultan of San Giovanni, I would certainly begin by a general bombardment. Little in the town is worth preserving from a cataclysm save the women, and perhaps the old convent on the summit of the hill where the French lodged during their brigand-wars, and that other one, famous in the ecclesiastical annals of Calabria–the monastery of Floriacense, founded at the end of the twelfth century, round which the town gradually grew up. Its ponderous portal is much injured, having been burnt, I was told, by the brigands in 1860. But the notary, who kindly looked up the archives for me, has come to the conclusion that the French are responsible for the damage. It contains, or contained, a fabulous collection of pious lumber–teeth and thigh-bones and other relics, the catalogue of which is one of my favourite sections of Father Fiore’s work. I would make an exception, also, in favour of the doorway of the church, a finely proportioned structure of the Renaissance in black stone, which looks ill at ease among its ignoble environment. A priest, to whom I applied for information as to its history, told me with the usual Calabrian frankness that he never bothered his head about such things.

San Giovanni was practically unknown to the outside world up to a few years ago. I question whether Lenormant or any of them came here. Pacicchelli did, however, in the seventeenth century, though he has left us no description of the place. He crossed the whole Sila from the Ionian to the other sea. I like this amiable and loquacious creature, restlessly gadding about Europe, gloriously complacent, hopelessly, absorbed in trivialities, and credulous beyond belief. In fact (as the reader may have observed), I like all these old travellers, not so much for what they actually say, as for their implicit outlook upon life. This Pacicchelli was a fellow of our Royal Society, and his accounts of England are worth reading; here, in Calabria (being a non-southerner) his “Familiar Letters” and “Memoirs of Travel” act as a wholesome corrective. Which of the local historians would have dared to speak of Cosenza as “citta aperta, scomposta, e disordinata di fabbriche”?

That these inhabitants of the Sila are Bruttians may be inferred from the superior position occupied by their women-folk, who are quite differently treated to those of the lowlands. There–all along the coasts of South Italy–the cow-woman is still found, unkempt and uncivilized; there, the male is the exclusive bearer of culture. Such things are not seen among the Bruttians of the Sila, any more than among the grave Latins or Samnites. These non-Hellenic races are, generally speaking, honest, dignified and incurious; they are bigoted, not to say fanatical; and their women are not exclusively beasts of burden, being better dressed, better looking, and often as intelligent as the men. They are the fruits of a female selection.

But wherever the mocking Ionic spirit has penetrated–and the Ionian women occupied even a lower position than those of the Dorians and Aeolians–it has resulted in a glorification of masculinity. Hand in hand with this depreciation of the female sex go other characteristics which point to Hellenic influences: lack of commercial morality, of veracity, of seriousness in religious matters; a persistent, light-hearted inquisitiveness; a levity (or sprightliness, if you prefer it) of mind. The people are fetichistic, amulet-loving, rather than devout. We may certainly suspect Greek or Saracen strains wherever women are held in low estimation; wherever, as the god Apollo himself said, “the mother is but the nurse.” In the uplands of Calabria the mother is a good deal more than the nurse.

For the rest, it stands to reason that in proportion as the agricultural stage supplants that of pasturage, the superior strength and utility of boys over girls should become more apparent, and this in South Italy is universally proclaimed by the fact that everything large and fine is laughingly described as “maschio” (male), and by some odd superstitions in disparagement of the female sex, such as these: that in giving presents to women, uneven numbers should be selected, lest even ones “do them more good than they deserve"; that to touch the hump of a female hunchback brings no luck whatever; that if a woman be the first to drink out of a new earthenware pitcher, the vessel may as well be thrown away at once–it is tainted for ever. [Footnote: In Japan, says Hearn, the first bucketful of water to be drawn out of a cleaned well must be drawn by a man; for if a womsn first draw water, the well will always hereafter remain muddy. Some of these prejudices seem to be based on primordial misreadmgs of physiology. There is also a strong feeling in favour of dark hair. No mother would entrust her infant to a fair wet-nurse; the milk even of white cows is considered “lymphatic” and not strengthening; perhaps the eggs of white hens are equally devoid of the fortifying principle. There is something to be said for this since, in proportion as we go south, the risk of irritation, photophobia, and other com-plaints incidental to the xanthous complexion becomes greater.] Yet the birth of a daughter is no Chinese calamity; even girls are “Christians” and welcomed as such, the populace having never sunk to the level of our theologians, who were wont to discuss an faemina sint monstra.

All over the Sila there is a large preponderance of women over men, nearly the whole male section of the community, save the quite young and the decrepit, being in America. This emigration brings much money into the country and many new ideas; but the inhabitants have yet to learn the proper use of their wealth, and to acquire a modern standard of comfort. Together with the Sardinians, these Calabrians are the hardiest of native races, and this is what makes them prefer the strenuous but lucrative life in North American mines to the easier career in Argentina, which Neapolitans favour. There they learn English. They remember their families and the village that gave them birth, but their patriotism towards Casa Savoia is of the slenderest. How could it be otherwise? I have spoken to numbers of them, and this is what they say:

“This country has done nothing for us; why should we fight its battles? Not long ago we were almost devouring each other in our hunger; what did they do to help us? If we have emerged from misery, it is due to our own initiative and the work of our own hands; if we have decent clothes and decent houses, it is because they drove us from our old homes with their infamous misgovern-ment to seek work abroad.”

Perfectly true! They have redeemed themselves, though the new regime has hardly had a fair trial. And the drawbacks of emigration (such as a slight increase of tuberculosis and alcoholism) are nothing compared with the unprecedented material prosperity and enlightenment. There has also been–in these parts, at all events–a marked diminution of crime. No wonder, seeing that three-quarters of the most energetic and turbulent elements are at present in America, where they recruit the Black Hand. That the Bruttian is not yet ripe for town life, that his virtues are pastoral rather than civic, might have been expected; but the Arab domination of much of his territory, one suspects, may have infused fiercer strains into his character and helped to deserve for him that epithet of sanguinario by which he is proud to be known.



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Old Calabria (Marlboro Travel)
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