Old Calabria
By Norman Douglas

Presented by

Public Domain Books


I have never beheld the enchantment of the Straits of Messina, that Fata Morgana, when, under certain conditions of weather, phantasmagoric palaces of wondrous shape are cast upon the waters–not mirrored, but standing upright; tangible, as it were; yet diaphanous as a veil of gauze.

A Dominican monk and correspondent of the Naples Academy, Minasi by name, friend of Sir W. Hamilton, wrote a dissertation upon this atmospheric mockery. Many have seen and described it, among them Filati de Tassulo; Nicola Leoni reproduces the narrative of an eye-witness of 1643; another account appears in the book of A. Fortis ("Mineralogische Reisen, 1788”). The apparition is coy. Yet there are pictures of it–in an article in “La Lettura” by Dr. Vittorio Boccara, who therein refers to a scientific treatise by himself on the subject, as well as in the little volume “Da Reggio a Metaponto” by Lupi-Crisafi, which was printed at Gerace some years ago. I mention these writers for the sake of any one who, luckier than myself, may be able to observe this phenomenon and become interested in its history and origin. . . .

The chronicles of Messina record the scarcely human feats of the diver Cola Pesce (Nicholas the Fish). The dim submarine landscapes of the Straits with their caves and tangled forests held no secrets from him; his eyes were as familiar with sea-mysteries as those of any fish. Some think that the legend dates from Frederick II, to whom he brought up from the foaming gulf that golden goblet which has been immortalized in Schiller’s ballad. But Schneegans says there are Norman documents that speak of him. And that other tale, according to which he took to his watery life in pursuit of some beloved maiden who had been swallowed by the waves, makes one think of old Glaucus as his prototype.

Many are the fables connected with his name, but the most portentous is this: One day, during his subaqueous wanderings, he discovered the foundations of Messina. They were insecure! The city rested upon three columns, one of them intact, another quite decayed away, the third partially corroded and soon to crumble into ruin. He peered up from, his blue depths, and in a fateful couplet of verses warned the townsmen of their impending doom. In this prophetic utterance ascribed to the fabulous Cola Pesce is echoed a popular apprehension that was only too justified.

F. Muenter–one of a band of travellers who explored these regions after the earthquake of 1783–also gave voice to his fears that Messina had not yet experienced the full measure of her calamities. . . .

I remember a night in September of 1908, a Sunday night, fragrant with the odours of withered rosemary and cistus and fennel that streamed in aromatic showers from the scorched heights overhead–a starlit night, tranquil and calm. Never had Messina appeared so attractive to me. Arriving there generally in the daytime and from larger and sprightlier centres of civilization, one is prone to notice only its defects. But night, especially a southern night, has a wizard touch. It transforms into objects of mysterious beauty all unsightly things, or hides them clean away; while the nobler works of man, those facades and cornices and full-bellied balconies of cunningly wrought iron rise up, under its enchantment, ethereal as the palace of fairies. And coming, as I then did, from the sun-baked river-beds of Calabria, this place, with its broad and well-paved streets, its glittering cafes and demure throng of evening idlers, seemed a veritable metropolis, a world-city.

With deliberate slowness, ritardando con molto sentimento, I worked my way to the familiar restaurant.

At last! At last, after an interminable diet of hard bread, onions and goat’s cheese, I was to enjoy the complicated menu mapped out weeks beforehand, after elaborate consideration and balancing of merits; so complicated, that its details have long ago lapsed from my memory. I recollect only the sword-fish, a local speciality, and (as crowning glory) the cassata alla siciliana, a glacial symphony, a multicoloured ice of commingling flavours, which requires far more time to describe than to devour. Under the influence of this Sybaritic fare, helped down with a crusted bottle of Calabrian wine–your Sicilian stuff is too strong for me, too straightforward, uncompromising; I prefer to be wheedled out of my faculties by inches, like a gentleman–under this genial stimulus my extenuated frame was definitely restored; I became mellow and companionable; the traveller’s lot, I finally concluded, is not the worst on earth. Everything was as it should be. As for Messina–Messina was unquestionably a pleasant city. But why were all the shops shut so early in the evening?

“These Sicilians,” said the waiter, an old Neapolitan acquaintance, in reply to my enquiries, “are always playing some game. They are pretending to be Englishmen at this moment; they have the Sunday-closing obsession on the brain. Their attacks generally last a fortnight; it’s like the measles. Poor people.”

Playing at being Englishmen!

They have invented a new game now, those that are left of them. They are living in dolls’ houses, and the fit is likely to last for some little time.

An engineer remarked to me, not long ago, among the ruins:

“This baracca, this wooden shelter, has an interior surface area of less than thirty square metres. Thirty-three persons–men, women, and children–have been living and sleeping in it for the last five months.”

“A little overcrowded?” I suggested.

“Yes. Some of them are beginning to talk of overcrowding. It was all very well in the winter months, but when August comes. . . . Well, we shall see.”

No prophetic visions of the Messina of to-day, with its minute sheds perched among a wilderness of ruins and haunted by scared shadows in sable vestments of mourning, arose in my mind that evening as I sat at the little marble table, sipping my coffee–overroasted, like all Italian coffee, by exactly two minutes–and puffing contentedly at my cigar, while the sober crowd floated hither and thither before my eyes. Yes, everything was as it should be. And yet, what a chance!

What a chance for some God, in this age of unbelief, to establish his rule over mankind on the firm foundations of faith! We are always complaining, nowadays, of an abatement of religious feeling. How easy for such a one to send down an Isaiah to foretell the hour of the coming catastrophe, and thus save those of its victims who were disposed to hearken to the warning voice; to reanimate the flagging zeal of worshippers, to straighten doubts and segregate the sheep from the goats! Truly, He moves in a mysterious way, for no divine message came; the just were entombed with the unjust amid a considerable deal of telegraphing and heart-breaking.

A few days after the disaster the Catholic papers explained matters by saying that the people of Messina had not loved their Madonna sufficiently well. But she loved them none the less, and sent the earthquake as an admonishment. Rather a robust method of conciliating their affection; not exactly the suaviter in modo. . . .

But if genuine prophets can only flourish among the malarious willow swamps of old Babylon and such-like improbable spots, we might at least have expected better things of our modern spiritualists. Why should their apparitions content themselves with announcing the decease, at the Antipodes, of profoundly uninteresting relatives? Alas! I begin to perceive that spirits of the right kind, of the useful kind, have yet to be discovered. Our present-day ghosts are like seismographs; they chronicle the event after it has happened. Now, what we want is-----

“The Signore smokes, and smokes, and smokes. Why not take the tram and listen to the municipal music in the gardens?”

“Music? Gardens? An excellent suggestion, Gennarino.”

Even as a small Italian town would be incomplete without its piazza where streets converge and commercial pulses beat their liveliest measure, so every larger one contrives to possess a public garden for the evening disport of its citizens; night-life being the true life of the south. Charming they are, most of them; none more delectable than that of old Messina–a spacious pleasaunce, decked out with trim palms and flower-beds and labyrinthine walks freshly watered, and cooled, that evening, by stealthy breezes from the sea. The grounds were festively illuminated, and as I sat down near the bandstand and watched the folk meandering to and fro, I calculated that no fewer than thirty thousand persons were abroad, taking their pleasure under the trees, in the bland air of evening. An orderly, well-dressed crowd. We may smile when they tell us that these people will stint themselves of the necessities of life in order to wear fine clothes, but the effect, for an outsider, is all that it should be. For the rest, the very urchins, gambolling about, had an air of happy prosperity, different from the squalor of the north with its pinched white faces, its over-breeding and under-feeding.

And how well the sensuous Italian strains accord with such an hour and scene! They were playing, if I remember rightly, the ever-popular Aida; other items followed later–more ambitious ones; a Hungarian rhapsody, Berlioz, a selection from Wagner.

Musica filosofica” said my neighbour, alluding to the German composer. He was a spare man of about sixty; a sunburnt, military countenance, seamed by lines of suffering. “Non va in Sicilia–it won’t do in this country. Not that we fail to appreciate your great thinkers,” he added. “We read and admire your Schopenhauer, your Spencer. They give passable representations of Wagner in Naples. But-----”

“The climate?”

“Precisely. I have travelled, sir; and knowing your Berlin, and London, and Boston, have been able to observe how ill our Italian architecture looks under your grey skies, how ill our music sounds among the complex appliances of your artificial life. It has made you earnest, this climate of yours, and prone to take earnestly your very pastimes. Music, for us, has remained what it was in the Golden Age–an unburdening of the soul on a summer’s night. They play well, these fellows. Palermo, too, has a respectable band–Oh! a little too fast, that recitativo!”

“The Signore is a musician?”

“A proprietario. But I delight in music, and I beguiled myself with the fiddle as a youngster. Nowadays–look here!” And he extended his hand; it was crippled. “Rheumatism. I have it here, and here"–pointing to various regions of his body–”and here! Ah, these doctors! The baths I have taken! The medicines–the ointments–the embrocations: a perfect pharmacopceia! I can hardly crawl now, and without the help of these two devoted boys even this harmless little diversion would have been denied me. My nephews–orphans,” he added, observing the direction of my glance.

They sat on his other side, handsome lads, who spoke neither too much nor too little. Every now and then they rose with one accord and strolled among the surging crowd to stretch their legs, returning after five minutes to their uncle’s side. His eyes always followed their movements.

“My young brother, had he lived, would have made men of them,” he once observed.

The images revive, curiously pertinacious, with dim lapses and gulfs. I can see them still, the two boys, their grave demeanour belied by mobile lips and mischievous fair curls of Northern ancestry; the other, leaning forward intent upon the music, and caressing his moustache with bent fingers upon which glittered a jewel set in massive gold–some scarab or intaglio, the spoil of old Magna Graecia. His conversation, during the intervals, moved among the accepted formulas of cosmopolitanism with easy flow, quickened at times by the individual emphasis of a man who can forsake conventional tracks and think for himself. Among other things, he had contrived an original project for reviving the lemon industry of his country, which, though it involved a few tariff modifications–"a mere detail"–struck me as amazingly effective and ingenious. The local deputy, it seems, shared my view, for he had undertaken to bring it before the notice of Parliament.

What was it?

I have forgotten!

So we discussed the world, while the music played under the starlit southern night.

It must have been midnight ere a final frenzied galop on the part of the indefatigable band announced the close of the entertainment. I walked a few paces beside the lame “proprietor” who, supported on the arms of his nephews, made his way to the spot where the cabs were waiting–his rheumatism, he explained, obliging him to drive. How he had enjoyed walking as a youth, and what pleasure it would now have given him to protract, during a promenade to my hotel, our delightful conversation! But infirmities teach us to curtail our pleasures, and many things that seem natural to man’s bodily configuration are found to be unattainable. He seldom left his rooms; the stairs–the diabolical stairs! Would I at least accept his card and rest assured how gladly he would receive me and do all in his power to make my stay agreeable?

That card has gone the way of numberless others which the traveller in Southern Europe gathers about him. I have also forgotten the old man’s name. But the palazzo in which he lived bore a certain historical title which happened to be very familiar to me. I remember wondering how it came to reach Messina.

In the olden days, of course, the days of splendour.

Will they ever return?

It struck me that the sufferings of the survivors would be alleviated if all the sheds in which they are living could be painted white or pearl-grey in order to protect them, as far as possible, from the burning rays of the sun. I mentioned the idea to an overseer.

“We are painting as fast as we can,” he replied. “An expensive matter, however. The Villagio Elena alone has cost us, in this respect, twenty thousand francs–with the greatest economy.”

This will give some notion of the scale on which things have to be done. The settlement in question contains some two hundred sheds–two hundred out of over ten thousand.

But I was alluding not to these groups of hygienic bungalows erected by public munificence and supplied with schools, laboratories, orphanages, hospitals, and all that can make life endurable, but to the others–those which the refugees built for themselves–ill-contrived hovels, patched together with ropes, potato-sacks, petroleum cans and miscellaneous odds and ends. A coat of whitewash, at least, inside and out. ... I was thinking, too, of those still stranger dwellings, the disused railway trucks which the government has placed at the disposal of homeless families. At many Stations along the line may be seen strings of these picturesque wigwams crowded with poor folk who have installed themselves within, apparently for ever. They are cultivating their favourite flowers and herbs in gaudy rows along the wooden platforms of the carriages; the little children, all dressed in black, play about in the shade underneath. The people will suffer in these narrow tenements under the fierce southern sun, after their cool courtyards and high-vaulted chambers! There will be diseases, too; typhoids from the disturbed drainage and insufficient water-supply; eye troubles, caused by the swarms of flies and tons of accumulated dust. The ruins are also overrun with hordes of mangy cats and dogs which ought to be exterminated without delay.

If, as seems likely, those rudely improvised sheds are to be inhabited indefinitely, we may look forward to an interesting phenomenon, a reversion to a corresponding type of man. The lack of the most ordinary appliances of civilization, such as linen, washing-basins and cooking utensils, will reduce them to the condition of savages who view these things with indifference or simple curiosity; they will forget that they ever had any use for them. And life in these huts where human beings are herded together after the manner of beasts–one might almost say fitted in, like the fragments of a mosaic pavement–cannot but be harmful to the development of growing children.

The Calabrians, I was told, distinguished themselves by unearthly ferocity; Reggio was given over to a legion of fiends that descended from the heights during the week of confusion. “They tore the rings and brooches off the dead,” said a young officiai to me. “They strangled the wounded and dying, in order to despoil them more comfortably. Here, and at Messina, the mutilated corpses were past computation; but the Calabrians were the worst.”

Vampires, offspring of Night and Chaos.

So Dolomieu, speaking of the depravation incroyable des moeurs which accompanied the earthquake of 1783, recounts the case of a householder of Polistena who was pinned down under some masonry, his legs emerging out of the ruins; his servant came and took the silver buckles off his shoes and then fled, without attempting to free him. We have seen something of this kind more recently at San Francisco.

“After despoiling the corpses, they ransacked the dwellings. Five thousand beds, sir, were carried up from Reggio into the mountains.”

“Five thousand beds! Per Dio! It seems a considerable number.”

A young fellow, one of the survivors, attached himself to me in the capacity of guide through the ruins of Reggio. He wore the characteristic earthquake look, a dazed and bewildered expression of countenance; he spoke in a singularly deliberate manner. Knowing the country, I was soon bending my steps in the direction of the cemetery, chiefly for the sake of the exquisite view from those windswept heights, and to breathe more freely after the dust and desolation of the lower parts. This burial-ground is in the same state as that of Messina, once the pride of its citizens; the insane frolic of nature has not respected the slumber of the dead or their commemorative shrines; it has made a mockery of the place, twisting the solemn monuments into repulsive and irreverential shapes.

But who can recount the freaks of stone and iron during those moments–the hair-breadth escapes? My companion’s case was miraculous enough. Awakened from sleep with the first shock, he saw, by the dim light of the lamp which burns in all their bedrooms, the wall at his bedside weirdly gaping asunder. He darted to reach the opening, but it closed again and caught his arm in a stony grip. Hours seemed to pass–the pain was past enduring; then the kindly cleft yawned once more, allowing him to jump into the garden below. Simultaneously he heard a crash as the inner rooms of the house fell; then climbed aloft, and for four days wandered among the bleak, wet hills. Thousands were in the same plight.

I asked what he found to eat.

Erba, Signore. We all did. You could not touch property; a single orange, and they would have killed you.”


He bore a name renowned in the past, but his home being turned into a dust-heap under which his money, papers and furniture, his two parents and brothers, are still lying, he now gains a livelihood by carrying vegetables and fruit from the harbour to the collection of sheds honoured by the name of market. Later in the day we happened to walk past the very mansion, which lies near the quay. “Here is my house and my family,” he remarked, indicating, with a gesture of antique resignation, a pile of wreckage.

Hard by, among the ruins, there sat a young woman with dishevelled hair, singing rapturously. “Her husband was crushed to death,” he said, “and it unhinged her wits. Strange, is it not, sir? They used to fight like fiends, and now–she sings to him night and day to come back.”

Love–so the Greeks fabled–was the child of Chaos.

In this part of the town stands the civic museum, which all readers of Gissing’s “Ionian Sea” will remember as the closing note of those harmonious pages. It is shattered, like everything else that he visited in Reggio; like the hotel where he lodged; like the cathedral whose proud superscription Circumlegentes devenimus Rhegium impressed him so deeply; like that “singular bit of advanced civilization, which gave me an odd sense of having strayed into the world of those romancers who forecast the future–a public slaughter-house of tasteful architecture, set in a grove of lemon trees and palms, suggesting the dreamy ideal of some reformer whose palate shrinks from vegetarianism.” We went the round of all these places, not forgetting the house which bears the tablet commemorating the death of a young soldier who fell fighting against the Bourbons. From its contorted iron balcony there hangs a rope by which the inmates may have tried to let themselves down.

A friend of mine, Baron C----- of Stilo, is a member of that same patriotic family, and gave me the following strange account. He was absent from Reggio at the time of the catastrophe, but three others of them were staying there. On the first shock they rushed together, panic-stricken, into one room; the floor gave way, and they suddenly found themselves sitting in their motor-car which happened to be placed exactly below them. They escaped with a few cuts and bruises.

An inscription on a neighbouring ruin runs to the effect that the mansion having been severely damaged in the earthquake of 1783, its owner had rebuilt it on lines calculated to defy future shattering! Whether he would rebuild it yet again?

Nevertheless, there seems to be some chance for the revival of Reggio; its prognosis is not utterly hopeless.

But Messina is in desperate case.

That haughty sea-front, with its long line of imposing edifices–imagine a painted theatre decoration of cardboard through which some sportive behemoth has been jumping with frantic glee; there you have it. And within, all is desolation; the wreckage reaches to the windows; you must clamber over it as best you can. What an all-absorbing post-tertiary deposit for future generations, for the crafty antiquarian who deciphers the history of mankind out of kitchen-middens and deformed heaps of forgotten trash! The whole social life of the citizens, their arts, domestic economy, and pastimes, lies embedded in that rubbish. “A musical race,” he will conclude, observing the number of decayed pianofortes, guitars, and mandolines. The climate of Messina, he will further arene, must have been a wet one, inasmuch as there are umbrellas everywhere, standing upright among the debris, leaning all forlorn against the ruins, or peering dismally from under them. It rained much during those awful days, and umbrellas were at a premium. Yet fifty of them would not have purchased a loaf of bread.

It was Goethe who, speaking of Pompeii, said that of the many catastrophes which have afflicted mankind few have given greater pleasure to posterity. The same will never be said of Messina, whose relics, for the most part, are squalid and mean. The German poet, by the way, visited this town shortly after the disaster of 1783, and describes its zackige Ruinenwueste–words whose very sound is suggestive of shatterings and dislocations. Nevertheless, the place revived again.

But what was 1783?

A mere rehearsal, an amateur performance.

Wandering about in this world of ghosts, I passed the old restaurant where the sword-fish had once tasted so good–an accumulation of stones and mortar–and reached the cathedral. It is laid low, all save the Gargantuan mosaic figures that stare down from behind the altar in futile benediction of Chaos; inane, terrific. This, then, is the house of that feudal lady of the fortiter in re, who sent an earthquake and called it love. Womanlike, she doted on gold and precious stones, and they recovered her fabulous hoard, together with a copy of a Latin letter she sent to the Christians of Messina by the hand of Saint Paul.

And not long afterwards–how came it to pass?–my steps were guided amid that wilderness towards a narrow street containing the ruins of a palazzo that bore, on a tablet over the ample doorway, an inscription which arrested my attention. It was an historical title familiar to me; and forthwith a train of memories, slumbering in the caverns of my mind, was ignited. Yes; there was no doubt about it: the old “proprietor” and his nephews, he of the municipal gardens. . . .

I wondered how they had met their fate, on the chill wintry morning. For assuredly, in that restricted space, not a soul can have escaped alive; the wreckage, hitherto undisturbed, still covered their remains.

And, remembering the old man and his humane converse that evening under the trees, the true meaning of the catastrophe began to disentangle itself from accidental and superficial aspects. For I confess that the massacre of a myriad Chinamen leaves me cool and self-possessed; between such creatures and ourselves there is hardly more than the frail bond of a common descent from the ape; they are altogether too remote for our narrow world-sympathies. I would as soon shed tears over the lost Pleiad. But these others are our spiritual cousins; we have deep roots in this warm soil of Italy, which brought forth a goodly tithe of what is best in our own lives, in our arts and aspirations.

And I thought of the two nephews, their decent limbs all distorted and mangled under a heap of foul rubbish, waiting for a brutal disinterment and a nameless grave. This is no legitimate death, this murderous violation of life. How inconceivably hateful is such a leave-taking, and all that follows after! To picture a fair young body, that divine instrument of joy, crushed into an unsightly heap; once loved, now loathed of all men, and thrust at last, with abhorrence, into some common festering pit of abominations. . . . The Northern type–a mighty bond, again; a tie of blood, this time, between our race and those rulers of the South, whose exploits in this land of orange and myrtle surpassed the dreamings of romance.

Strange to reflect that, without the ephemeral friendship of that evening, Messina of to-day might have represented to my mind a mere spectacle, the hecatomb of its inhabitants extorting little more than a conventional sigh. So it is. The human heart has been constructed on somewhat ungenerous lines. Moralists, if any still exist on earth, may generalize with eloquence from the masses, but our poets have long ago succumbed to the pathos of single happenings; the very angels of Heaven, they say, take more joy in one sinner that repenteth than in a hundred righteous, which, duly apprehended, is only an application of the same illiberal principle.

A rope of bed-sheets knotted together dangled from one of the upper windows, its end swaying in mid-air at the height of the second floor. Many of them do, at Messina: a desperate expedient of escape. Some pots of geranium and cactus, sadly flowering, adorned the other windows, whose glass panes were unbroken. But for the ominous sunlight pouring through them from within, the building looked fairly intact on this outer side. Its ponderous gateway, however, through which I had hoped to enter, was choked up by internal debris, and I was obliged to climb, with some little trouble, to the rear of the house.

If a titanic blade had sheared through the palazzo lengthwise, the thing could not have been done more neatly. The whole interior had gone down, save a portion of the rooms abutting on the street-front; these were literally cut in half, so as to display an ideal section of domestic architecture. The house with its inmates and all it contained was lying among the high-piled wreckage within, under my feet; masonry mostly–entire fragments of wall interspersed with crumbling mortar and convulsed iron girders that writhed over the surface or plunged sullenly into the depths; fetid rents and gullies in between, their flanks affording glimpses of broken vases, candelabras, hats, bottles, birdcages, writing-books, brass pipes, sofas, picture-frames, tablecloths, and all the paltry paraphernalia of everyday life. No attempt at stratification, horizontal, vertical, or inclined; it was as if the objects had been thrown up by some playful volcano and allowed to settle where they pleased. Two immense chiselled blocks of stone–one lying prone at the bottom of a miniature ravine, the other proudly erect, like a Druidical monument, in the upper regions–reminded me of the existence of a staircase, a diabolical staircase.

Looking upwards, I endeavoured to reconstruct the habits of the inmates, but found it impossible, the section that remained being too shallow. Sky-blue seems to have been their favourite colour. The kitchen was easily discernible, the hearth with its store of charcoal underneath, copper vessels hanging in a neat row overhead, and an open cupboard full of household goods; a neighbouring room (the communicating doors were all gone), with lace window-curtains, a table, lamp, and book, and a bedstead toppling over the abyss; another one, carpeted and hung with pictures and a large faded mirror, below which ran a row of shelves that groaned under a multitudinous collection of phials and bottles.

The old man’s embrocations. . . .



[Buy at Amazon]
Old Calabria (Marlboro Travel)
By Norman Douglas
At Amazon