By Norman Douglas
Public Domain Books
XXXVI. MEMORIES OF GISSING
Two new hotels have recently sprung up at Cotrone. With laudable patriotism, they are called after its great local champions, athletic and spiritual, in ancient days–Hotel Milo and Hotel Pythagoras. As such, they might be expected to make a strong appeal to the muscles and brains of their respective clients. I rather fancy that the chief customers of both are commercial travellers who have as little of the one as of the other, and to whom these fine names are Greek.
As for myself, I remain faithful to the “Concordia” which has twice already sheltered me within its walls.
The shade of George Gissing haunts these chambers and passages. It was in 1897 that he lodged here with that worthy trio: Gibbon, Lenormant and Cassiodorus. The chapters devoted to Cotrone are the most lively and characteristic in his “Ionian Sea.” Strangely does the description of his arrival in the town, and his reception in the “Concordia,” resemble that in Bourget’s “Sensations.”
The establishment has vastly improved since those days. The food is good and varied, the charges moderate; the place is spotlessly clean in every part–I could only wish that the hotels in some of our English country towns were up to the standard of the “Concordia” in this respect. “One cannot live without cleanliness,” as the housemaid, assiduously scrubbing, remarked to me. It is also enlarged; the old dining-room, whose guests are so humorously described by him, is now my favourite bedroom, while those wretched oil-lamps sputtering on the wall have been replaced by a lavish use of electricity. One is hardly safe, however, in praising these inns over-much; they are so apt to change hands. So long as competition with the two others continues, the “Concordia” will presumably keep to its present level.
Of freaks in the dining-room, I have so far only observed one whom Gissing might have added to his collection. He is a director of some kind, and his method of devouring maccheroni I unreservedly admire–it displays that lack of all effort which distinguishes true art from false. He does not eat them with deliberate mastication; he does not even–like your ordinary amateur–drink them in separate gulps; but he contrives, by some swiftly-adroit process of levitation, that the whole plateful shall rise in a noiseless and unbroken flood from the table to his mouth, whence it glides down his gullet with the relentless ease of a river pouring into a cavern. Altogether, a series of films depicting him at work upon a meal would make the fortune of a picture-show company–in England. Not here, however; such types are too common to be remarked, the reason being that boys are seldom sent to boarding schools where stereotyped conventions of “good form” are held up for their imitation, but brought up at home by adoring mothers who care little for such externals or, if they do, have no great authority to enforce their views. On entering the world, these eccentricities in manner are proudly clung to, as a sign of manly independence.
Death has made hideous gaps in the short interval. The kindly Vice-Consul at Catanzaro is no more; the mayor of Cotrone, whose permit enabled Gissing to visit that orchard by the riverside, has likewise joined the majority; the housemaid of the “Concordia,” the domestic serf with dark and fiercely flashing eyes–dead! And dead is mine hostess, “the stout, slatternly, sleepy woman, who seemed surprised at my demand for food, but at length complied with it.”
But the little waiter is alive and now married; and Doctor Sculco still resides in his aristocratic palazzo up that winding way in the old town, with the escutcheon of a scorpion–portentous emblem for a doctor–over its entrance. He is a little greyer, no doubt; but the same genial and alert personage as in those days.
I called on this gentleman, hoping to obtain from him some reminiscences of Gissing, whom he attended during a serious illness.
“Yes,” he replied, to my enquiries, “I remember him quite well; the young English poet who was ill here. I prescribed for him. Yes–yes! He wore his hair long.”
And that was all I could draw from him. I have noticed more than once that Italian physicians have a stern conception of the Hippocratic oath: the affairs of their patients, dead or alive, are a sacred trust in perpetuity.
The town, furthermore, has undergone manifold improvements in those few years. Trees are being planted by the roadsides; electric light is everywhere and, best of all, an excellent water-supply has been led down from the cool heights of the Sila, bringing cleanliness, health and prosperity in its train. And a stately cement-bridge is being built over the Esaro, that “all but stagnant and wholly pestilential stream.” The Esaro glides pleasantly, says the chronicler Noia Molisi. Perhaps it really glided, in his day.
One might do worse than spend a quiet month or two at Cotrone in the spring, for the place grows upon one: it is so reposeful and orderly. But not in winter. Gissing committed the common error of visiting south Italy at that season when, even if the weather will pass, the country and its inhabitants are not true to themselves. You must not come to these parts in winter time.
Nor yet in the autumn, for the surrounding district is highly malarious. Thucydides already speaks of these coastlands as depopulated (relatively speaking, I suppose), and under the Romans they recovered but little; they have only begun to revive quite lately. [Footnote: Between 1815–1843, and in this single province of Catanzaro, there was an actual decline in the population of thirty-six towns and villages. Malaria!] Yet this town must have looked well enough in the twelfth century, since it is described by Edrisius as “a very old city, primitive and beautiful, prosperous and populated, in a smiling position, with walls of defence and an ample port for anchorage.” I suspect that the history of Cotrone will be found to bear out Professor Celli’s theory of the periodical recrudescences and abatements of malaria. However that may be, the place used to be in a deplorable state. Riedesel (1771) calls it “la ville la plus affreuse de l’Italie, et peut-etre du monde entier"; twenty years later, it is described as “sehr ungesund ... so aermlich als moeglich"; in 1808 it was “reduite a une population de trois mille habitants ronges par la misere, et les maladies qu’occasionne la stagnation des eaux qui autrefois fertilisaient ces belles campagnes.” In 1828, says Vespoli, it contained only 3932 souls.
I rejoice to cite such figures. They show how vastly Cotrone, together with the rest of Calabria, has improved since the Bourbons were ousted. The sack of the town by their hero Cardinal Ruffo, described by Pepe and others, must have left long traces. “Horrible was the carnage perpetrated by these ferocious bands. Neither age nor sex nor condition was spared. . . . After two days of pillage accompanied by a multitude of excesses and cruelties, they erected, on the third day, a magnificent altar in the middle of a large square"–and here the Cardinal, clothed in his sacred purple, praised the good deeds of the past two days and then, raising his arms, displayed a crucifix, absolving his crew from the faults committed during the ardour of the sack, and blessed them.
I shall be sorry to leave these regions for the north, as leave them I must, in shortest time. The bathing alone would tempt me to prolong my stay, were it possible. Whereas Taranto, despite its situation, possesses no convenient beach, there are here, on either side of the town, leagues of shimmering sand lapped by tepid and caressing waves; it is a sunlit solitude; the land is your own, the sea your own, as far as eye can reach. One may well become an amphibian, at Cotrone.
The inhabitants of this town are well-mannered and devoid of the “ineffable” air of the Tarentines. But they are not a handsome race. Gissing says, a propos of the products of a local photographer, that it was “a hideous exhibition; some of the visages attained an incredible degree of vulgar ugliness.” That is quite true. Old authors praise the beauty of the women of Cotrone, Bagnara, and other southern towns; for my part, I have seldom found good-looking women in the coastlands of Calabria; the matrons, especially, seem to favour that ideal of the Hottentot Venus which you may study in the Jardin des Plantes; they are decidedly centripetal. Of the girls and boys one notices only those who possess a peculiar trait: the eyebrows pencilled in a dead straight line, which gives them an almost hieratic aspect. I cannot guess from what race is derived this marked feature which fades away with age as the brows wax thicker and irregular in contour. We may call it Hellenic on the old-fashioned principle that everything attractive comes from the Greeks, while its opposite is ascribed to those unfortunate “Arabs” who, as a matter of fact, are a sufficiently fine-looking breed.
And there must be very little Greek blood left here. The town–among many similar vicissitudes–was peopled largely by Bruttians, after Hannibal had established himself here. In the Viceregal period, again, there was a great infusion of Spanish elements. A number of Spanish surnames still linger on the spot.
And what of Gissing’s other friend, the amiable guardian of the cemetery? “His simple good nature and intelligence greatly won upon me. I like to think of him as still quietly happy amid his garden walls, tending flowers that grow over the dead at Cotrone.”
Dead, like those whose graves he tended; like Gissing himself. He expired in February 1901–the year of the publication of the “Ionian Sea,” and they showed me his tomb near the right side of the entrance; a. poor little grave, with a wooden cross bearing a number, which will soon be removed to make room for another one.
This cemetery by the sea is a fair green spot, enclosed in a high wall and set with flowering plants and comely cypresses that look well against their background of barren clay-hills. Wandering here, I called to mind the decent cemetery of Lucera, and that of Manfredonia, built in a sleepy hollow at the back of the town which the monks in olden days had utilized as their kitchen garden (it is one of the few localities where deep soil can be found on that thirsty limestone plain); I remembered the Venosa burial-ground near the site of the Roman amphitheatre, among the tombs of which I had vainly endeavoured to find proofs that the name of Horace is as common here as that of Manfred in those other two towns; the Taranto cemetery, beyond the railway quarter, somewhat overloaded with pretentious ornaments; I thought of many cities of the dead, in places recently explored–that of Rossano, ill-kept within, but splendidly situated on a projecting spur that dominates the Ionian; of Caulonia, secluded among ravines at the back of the town. . . .
They are all full of character; a note in the landscape, with their cypresses darkly towering amid the pale and lowly olives; one would think the populace had thrown its whole poetic feeling into the choice of these sites and their embellishments. But this is not the case; they are chosen merely for convenience–not too far from habitations, and yet on ground that is comparatively cheap. Nor are they truly venerable, like ours. They date, for the most part, from the timewhen the Government abolished the oldsystem of inhumation in churches–a system which, for the rest, still survives; there are over six hundred of these fosse carnarie in use at this moment, most of them in churches.
And a sad thought obtrudes itself in these oases of peace and verdure. The Italian law requires that the body shall be buried within twenty-four hours after decease (the French consider forty-eight hours too short a term, and are thinking of modifying their regulations in this respect): a doctor’s certificate of death is necessary but often impossible to procure, since some five hundred Italian communities possess no medical man whatever. Add to this, the superstitions of ignorant country people towards the dead, testified to by extraordinary beliefs and customs which you will find in Pitre and other collectors of native lore–their mingled fear and hatred of a corpse, which prompts them to thrust it underground at the earliest possible opportunity. . . . Premature burial must be all too frequent here. I will not enlarge upon the theme of horror by relating what gravediggers have seen with their own eyes on disturbing old coffins; if only half what they tell me is true, it reveals a state of affairs not to be contemplated without shuddering pity, and one that calls for prompt legislation. Only last year a frightful case came to light in Sicily. Videant Consules.
Here, at the cemetery, the driving road abruptly ends; thenceforward there is merely a track along the sea that leads, ultimately, to Capo Nau, where stands a solitary column, last relic of the great temple of Hera. I sometimes follow it as far as certain wells that are sunk, Arab-fashion, into the sand, and dedicated to Saint Anne. Goats and cows recline here after their meagre repast of scorched grasses, and the shepherds in charge have voices so soft, and manners so gentle, as to call up suggestions of the Golden Age. These pastoral folk are the primitives of Cotrone. From father to son, for untold ages before Theocritus hymned them, they have kept up their peculiar habits and traditions; between them and the agricultural classes is a gulf as deep as between these and the citizens. Conversing with them, one marvels how the same occupation can produce creatures so unlike as these and the goat-boys of Naples, the most desperate camorristi.
The cows may well be descendants of the sacred cattle of Hera that browsed under the pines which are known to have clothed the bleak promontory. You may encounter them every day, wandering on the way to the town which they supply with milk; to avoid the dusty road, they march sedately through the soft wet sand at the water’s edge, their silvery bodies outlined against a cserulean flood of sky and sea.
On this promenade I yesterday observed, slow-pacing beside the waves, a meditative priest, who gave me some details regarding the ruined church of which Gissing speaks. It lies in the direction of the cemetery, outside the town; “its lonely position,” he says, “made it interesting, and the cupola of coloured tiles (like that of the cathedral of Amalfi) remained intact, a bright spot against the grey hills behind.” This cupola has recently been removed, but part of the old walls serve as foundation for a new sanctuary, a sordid-looking structure with red-tiled roof: I am glad to have taken a view of it, some years ago, ere its transformation. Its patroness is the Madonna del Carmine–the same whose church in Naples is frequented by thieves and cut-throats, who make a special cult of this Virgin Motherand invoke Her blessing on their nefarious undertakings.
The old church, he told me, was built in the middle of the seventeenth century; this new one, he agreed, might have been constructed on more ambitious lines, “but nowadays-----” and he broke off, with eloquent aposiopesis.
It was the same, he went on, with the road to the cemetery; why should it not be continued right up to the cape of the Column as in olden days, over ground dove ogni passo e una memoria: where every footstep is a memory?
“Rich Italians,” he said, “sometimes give away money to benefit the public. But the very rich–never! And at Cotrone, you must remember, every one belongs to the latter class.”
We spoke of the Sila, which he had occasionally visited.
“What?” he asked incredulously, “you have crossed the whole of that country, where there is nothing to eat–nothing in the purest and most literal sense of that word? My dear sir! You must feel like Hannibal, after his passage of the Alps.”
Those barren clay-hills on our right of which Gissing speaks (they are like the baize of the Apennines) annoyed him considerably; they were the malediction of the town, he declared. At the same time, they supplied him with the groundwork of a theory for which there is a good deal to be said. The old Greek city, he conjectured, must have been largely built of bricks made from their clay, which is once more being utilized for this purpose. How else account for its utter disappearance? Much of the finer buildings were doubtless of stone, and these have been worked into the fort, the harbour and palazzi of new Cotrone; but this would never account for the vanishing of a town nearly twelve miles in circumference. Bricks, he said, would explain the mystery; they had crumbled into dust ere yet the Romans rebuilt, with old Greek stones, the city on the promontory now occupied by the new settlement.
The modern palaces on the rising ground of the citadel are worthy of a visit; they are inhabited by some half-dozen “millionaires” who have given Cotrone the reputation of being the richest town of its size in Italy. So far as I can judge, the histories of some of these wealthy families would be curious reading.
“Gentlemen,” said the Shepherd, “if you have designs of Trading, you must go another way; but if you’re of the admired sort of Men, that have the thriving qualifications of Lying and Cheating, you’re in the direct Path to Business; for in this City no Learning flourisheth; Eloquence finds no room here; nor can Temperance, Good Manners, or any Vertue meet with a Reward; assure yourselves of finding but two sorts of Men, and those are the Cheated, and those that Cheat.”
If gossip at Naples and elsewhere is to be trusted, old Petronius seems to have had a prophetic glimpse of the dessus du panier of modern Cotrone.