By Norman Douglas
Public Domain Books
III. THE ANGEL OF MANFREDONIA
Whoever looks at a map of the Gargano promontory will see that it is besprinkled with Greek names of persons and places–Matthew, Mark, Nikander, Onofrius, Pirgiano (Pyrgos) and so forth. Small wonder, for these eastern regions were in touch with Constantinople from early days, and the spirit of Byzance still hovers over them. It was on this mountain that the archangel Michael, during his first flight to Western Europe, deigned to appear to a Greek bishop of Sipontum, Laurentius by name; and ever since that time a certain cavern, sanctified by the presence of this winged messenger of God, has been the goal of millions of pilgrims.
The fastness of Sant’ Angelo, metropolis of European angel-worship, has grown up around this “devout and honourable cave"; on sunny days its houses are clearly visible from Man-fredonia. They who wish to pay their devotions at the shrine cannot do better than take with them Gregorovius, as cicerone and mystagogue.
Vainly I waited for a fine day to ascend the heights. At last I determined to have done with the trip, be the weather what it might. A coachman was summoned and negotiations entered upon for starting next morning.
Sixty-five francs, he began by telling me, was the price paid by an Englishman last year for a day’s visit to the sacred mountain. It may well be true–foreigners will do anything, in Italy. Or perhaps it was only said to “encourage” me. But I am rather hard to encourage, nowadays. I reminded the man that there was a diligence service there and back for a franc and a half, and even that price seemed rather extortionate. I had seen so many holy grottos in my life! And who, after all, was this Saint Michael? The Eternal Father, perchance? Nothing of the kind: just an ordinary angel! We had dozens of them, in England. Fortunately, I added, I had already received an offer to join one of the private parties who drive up, fourteen or fifteen persons behind one diminutive pony–and that, as he well knew, would be a matter of only a few pence. And even then, the threatening sky . . . Yes, on second thoughts, it was perhaps wisest to postpone the excursion altogether. Another day, if God wills! Would he accept this cigar as a recompense for his trouble in coming?
In dizzy leaps and bounds his claims fell to eight francs. It was the tobacco that worked the wonder; a gentleman who will give something for nothing (such was his logic)–well, you never know what you may not get out of him. Agree to his price, and chance it!
He consigned the cigar to his waistcoat pocket to smoke after dinner, and departed–vanquished, but inwardly beaming with bright anticipation.
A wretched morning was disclosed as I drew open the shutters–gusts of rain and sleet beating against the window-panes. No matter: the carriage stood below, and after that customary and hateful apology for breakfast which suffices to turn the thoughts of the sanest man towards themes of suicide and murder–when will southerners learn to eat a proper breakfast at proper hours?–we started on our journey. The sun came out in visions of tantalizing briefness, only to be swallowed up again in driving murk, and of the route we traversed I noticed only the old stony track that cuts across the twenty-one windings of the new carriage-road here and there. I tried to picture to myself the Norman princes, the emperors, popes, and other ten thousand pilgrims of celebrity crawling up these rocky slopes–barefoot–on such a day as this. It must have tried the patience even of Saint Francis of Assisi, who pilgrimaged with the rest of them and, according to Pontanus, performed a little miracle here en passant, as was his wont.
After about three hours’ driving we reached the town of Sant’ Angelo. It was bitterly cold at this elevation of 800 metres. Acting on the advice of the coachman, I at once descended into the sanctuary; it would be warm down there, he thought. The great festival of 8 May was over, but flocks of worshippers were still arriving, and picturesquely pagan they looked in grimy, tattered garments–their staves tipped with pine-branches and a scrip.
In the massive bronze doors of the chapel, that were made at Constantinople in 1076 for a rich citizen of Amalfi, metal rings are inserted; these, like a true pilgrim, you must clash furiously, to call the attention of the Powers within to your visit; and on issuing, you must once more knock as hard as you can, in order that the consummation of your act of worship may be duly reported: judging by the noise made, the deity must be very hard of hearing. Strangely deaf they are, sometimes.
The twenty-four panels of these doors are naively encrusted with representations, in enamel, of angel-apparitions of many kinds; some of them are inscribed, and the following is worthy of note:
“I beg and implore the priests of Saint Michael to cleanse these gates once a year as I have now shown them, in order that they may be always bright and shining.” The recommendation has plainly not been carried out for a good many years past.
Having entered the portal, you climb down a long stairway amid swarms of pious, foul clustering beggars to a vast cavern, the archangel’s abode. It is a natural recess in the rock, illuminated by candles. Here divine service is proceeding to the accompaniment of cheerful operatic airs from an asthmatic organ; the water drops ceaselessly from the rocky vault on to the devout heads of kneeling worshippers that cover the floor, lighted candle in hand, rocking themselves ecstatically and droning and chanting. A weird scene, in truth. And the coachman was quite right in his surmise as to the difference in temperature. It is hot down here, damply hot, as in an orchid-house. But the aroma cannot be described as a floral emanation: it is the bouquet, rather, of thirteen centuries of unwashed and perspiring pilgrims. “TERRIBILIS EST LOCUS ISTE,” says an inscription over the entrance of the shrine. Very true. In places like this one understands the uses, and possibly the origin, of incense.
I lingered none the less, and my thoughts went back to the East, whence these mysterious practices are derived. But an Oriental crowd of worshippers does not move me like these European masses of fanaticism; I can never bring myself to regard without a certain amount of disquietude such passionate pilgrims. Give them their new Messiah, and all our painfully accumulated art and knowledge, all that reconciles civilized man to earthly existence, is blown to the winds. Society can deal with its criminals. Not they, but fond enthusiasts such as these, are the menace to its stability. Bitter reflections; but then–the drive upward had chilled my human sympathies, and besides–that so-called breakfast. . . .
The grovelling herd was left behind. I ascended the stairs and, profiting by a gleam of sunshine, climbed up to where, above the town, there stands a proud aerial ruin known as the “Castle of the Giant.” On one of its stones is inscribed the date 1491–a certain Queen of Naples, they say, was murdered within those now crumbling walls. These sovereigns were murdered in so many castles that one wonders how they ever found time to be alive at all. The structure is a wreck and its gateway closed up; nor did I feel any great inclination, in that icy blast of wind, to investigate the roofless interior.
I was able to observe, however, that this “feudal absurdity” bears a number like any inhabited house of Sant’ Angelo–it is No. 3.
This is the latest pastime of the Italian Government: to re-number dwellings throughout the kingdom; and not only human habitations, but walls, old ruins, stables, churches, as well as an occasional door-post and window. They are having no end of fun over the game, which promises to keep them amused for any length of time–in fact, until the next craze is invented. Meanwhile, so long as the fit lasts, half a million bright-eyed officials, burning with youthful ardour, are employed in affixing these numerals, briskly entering them into ten times as many note-books and registering them into thousands of municipal archives, all over the country, for some inscrutable but hugely important administrative purposes. “We have the employes,” as a Roman deputy once told me, “and therefore: they must find some occupation.”
Altogether, the weather this day sadly impaired my appetite for research and exploration. On the way to the castle I had occasion to admire the fine tower and to regret that there seemed to exist no coign of vantage from which it could fairly be viewed; I was struck, also, by the number of small figures of Saint Michael of an ultra-youthful, almost infantile, type; and lastly, by certain clean-shaven old men of the place. These venerable and decorative brigands–for such they would have been, a few years ago–now stood peacefully at their thresholds, wearing a most becoming cloak of thick brown wool, shaped like a burnous. The garment interested me; it may be a legacy from the Arabs who dominated this region for some little time, despoiling the holy sanctuary and leaving their memory to be perpetuated by the neighbouring “Monte Saraceno.” The costume, on the other hand, may have come over from Greece; it is figured on Tanagra statuettes and worn by modern Greek shepherds. By Sardinians, too. ... It may well be a primordial form of clothing with mankind.
The view from this castle must be superb on clear days. Standing there, I looked inland and remembered all the places I had intended to see–Vieste, and Lesina with its lakes, and Selva Umbra, whose very name is suggestive of dewy glades; how remote they were, under such dispiriting clouds! I shall never see them. Spring hesitates to smile upon these chill uplands; we are still in the grip of winter–
Aut aquilonibus Querceti Gargani laborent Et foliis viduantur orni–
so sang old Horace, of Garganian winds. I scanned the horizon, seeking for his Mount Vulture, but all that region was enshrouded in a grey curtain of vapour; only the Stagno Salso–a salt mere wherein Candelaro forgets his mephitic waters–shone with a steady glow, like a sheet of polished lead.
Soon the rain fell once more and drove me to seek refuge among the houses, where I glimpsed the familiar figure of my coachman, sitting disconsolately under a porch. He looked up and remarked (for want of something better to say) that he had been searching for me all over the town, fearing that some mischief might have happened to me. I was touched by these words; touched, that is, by his child-like simplicity in imagining that he could bring me to believe a statement of such radiant improbability; so touched, that I pressed a franc into his reluctant palm and bade him buy with it something to eat. A whole franc. . . . Aha! he doubtless thought, my theory of the gentleman: it begins to work.
It was barely midday. Yet I was already surfeited with the angelic metropolis, and my thoughts began to turn in the direction of Manfredonia once more. At a corner of the street, however, certain fluent vociferations in English and Italian, which nothing would induce me to set down here, assailed my ears, coming up–apparently–out of the bowels of the earth. I stopped to listen, shocked to hear ribald language in a holy town like this; then, impelled by curiosity, descended a long flight of steps and found myself in a subterranean wine-cellar. There was drinking and card-playing going on here among a party of emigrants–merry souls; a good half of them spoke English and, despite certain irreverent phrases, they quickly won my heart with a “Here! You drink this, mister.”
This dim recess was an instructive pendant to the archangel’s cavern. A new type of pilgrim has been evolved; pilgrims who think no more of crossing to Pittsburg than of a drive to Manfredonia. But their cave was permeated with an odour of spilt wine and tobacco-smoke instead of the subtle Essence des pelerins aes Abruzzes fleuris, and alas, the object of their worship was not the Chaldean angel, but another and equally ancient eastern shape: Mammon. They talked much of dollars; and I also heard several unorthodox allusions to the “angel-business,” which was described as “played out,” as well as a remark to the effect that “only damn-fools stay in this country.” In short, these men were at the other end of the human scale; they were the strong, the energetic; the ruthless, perhaps; but certainly–the intelligent.
And all the while the cup circled round with genial iteration, and it was universally agreed that, whatever the other drawbacks of Sant’ Angelo might be, there was nothing to be said against its native liquor.
It was, indeed, a divine product; a vino di montagna of noble pedigree. So I thought, as I laboriously scrambled up the stairs once more, solaced by this incident of the competition-grotto and slightly giddy, from the tobacco-smoke. And here, leaning against the door-post, stood the coachman who had divined my whereabouts by some dark masonic intuition of sympathy. His face expanded into an inept smile, and I quickly saw that instead of fortifying his constitution with sound food, he had tried alcoholic methods of defence against the inclement weather. Just a glass of wine, he explained. “But,” he added, “the horse is perfectly sober.”
That quadruped was equal to the emergency. Gloriously indifferent to our fates, we glided down, in a vertiginous but masterly vol-plane, from the somewhat objectionable mountain-town.
An approving burst of sunshine greeted our arrival on the plain.