By Norman Douglas
Public Domain Books
XL. THE COLUMN
“Two hours–three hours–four hours: according!”
The boatmen are still eager for the voyage. It all depends, as before, upon the wind.
And day after day the Ionian lies before us–immaculate, immutable.
I determined to approach the column by land. A mule was discovered, and starting from the “Concordia” rather late in the morning, reached the temple-ruin in two hours to the minute. I might have been tempted to linger by the way but for the intense sunshine and for the fact that the muleteer was an exceptionally dull dog–a dusky youth of the taciturn and wooden-faced Spanish variety, whose anti-Hellenic profile irked me, in that landscape. The driving road ends at the cemetery. Thence onward a pathway skirts the sea at the foot of the clay-hills; passes the sunken wells; climbs up and down steepish gradients and so attains the plateau at whose extremity stands the lighthouse, the column, and a few white bungalows–summer-residences of Cotrone citizens.
A day of shimmering heat. . . .
The ground is parched. Altogether, it is a poor and thinly peopled stretch of land between Cotrone and Capo Rizzuto. No wonder the wolves are famished. Nine days ago one of them actually ventured upon the road near the cemetery, in daylight.
Yet there is some plant-life, and I was pleased to see, emerging from the bleak sand-dunes, the tufts of the well-known and conspicuous sea lily in full flower. Wishful to obtain a few blossoms, I asked the boy to descend from his mule, but he objected.
“Non si toccano questi fiori,” he said. These flowers are not to be touched.
Their odour displeased him. Like the Arab, the uncultivated Italian is insensitive to certain smells that revolt us; while he cannot endure, on the other hand, the scent of some flowers. I have seen a man professing to feel faint at the odour of crushed geranium leaves. They are fiori di morti, he says: planted (sometimes) in graveyards.
The last remarkable antiquity found at this site, to my knowledge, is a stone vase, fished up some years ago out of the sea, into which it may have fallen while being carried off by pious marauders for the purpose of figuring as font in some church (unless, indeed, the land has sunk at this point, as there is some evidence to show). I saw it, shortly after its return to dry land, in a shed near the harbour of Cotrone; the Taranto museum has now claimed it. It is a basin of purple-veined pavonazzetto marble. Originally a monolith, it now consists of two fragments; the third and smallest is still missing. This noble relic stands about 85 centimetres in height and measures some 215 centimetres in circumference; it was never completed, as can be seen by the rim, which is still partially in the rough. A similar vessel is figured, I believe, in Tischbein.
The small villa-settlement on this promontory is deserted owing to lack of water, every drop of which has to be brought hither by sea from Cotrone. One wonders why they have not thought of building a cistern to catch the winter rains, if there are any; for a respectable stone crops up at this end of the peninsula.
One often wonders at things. . . .
The column has been underpinned and strengthened by a foundation of cement; rains of centuries had begun to threaten its base, and there was some risk of a catastrophe. Near at hand are a few ancient walls of reticulated masonry in strangely leaning attitudes, peopled by black goats; on the ground I picked up some chips of amphorse and vases, as well as a fragment of the limb of a marble statue. The site of this pillar, fronting the waves, is impressively forlorn. And it was rather thoughtful, after all, of the despoiling Bishop Lucifero to leave two of the forty-eight columns standing upright on the spot, as a sample of the local Doric style. One has fallen to earth since his day. Nobody would have complained at the time, if he had stolen all of them, instead of only forty-six. I took a picture of the survivor; then wandered a little apart, in the direction of the shore, and soon found myself in a solitude of burning stones, a miniature Sahara.
The temple has vanished, together with the sacred grove that once embowered it; the island of Calypso, where Swinburne took his ease (if such it was), has sunk into the purple realms of Glaucus; the corals and sea-beasts that writhed among its crevices are en-gulphed under mounds of submarine sand. There was life, once, at this promontory. Argosies touched here, leaving priceless gifts; fountains flowed, and cornfields waved in the genial sunshine. Doubtless there will be life again; earth and sea are only waiting for the enchanter’s wand.
All now lies bare, swooning in summer stagnation.
Calabria is not a land to traverse alone. It is too wistful and stricken; too deficient in those externals that conduce to comfort. Its charms do not appeal to the eye of romance, and the man who would perambulate Magna Graecia as he does the Alps would soon regret his choice. One needs something of that “human element” which delighted the genteel photographer of Morano–comrades, in short; if only those sages, like old Noia Molisi, who have fallen under the spell of its ancient glories. The joys of Calabria are not to be bought, like those of Switzerland, for gold.
Sir Giovati Battista di Noia Molisi, the last of his family and name, having no sons and being come to old age without further hope of offspring, has desired in the place of children to leave of himself an eternal memory to mankind– to wit, this Chronicle of the most Ancient, Magnificent, and Faithful City of Cotrone. A worthier effort at self-perpetuation than that of Strangoli. . . .
A sturgeon, he notes, was caught in 1593 by the Spanish Castellan of the town. This nobleman, puzzling whom he could best honour with so rare a dainty, despatched it by means of a man on horseback to the Duke of Nocera. The Duke was no less surprised than pleased; he thought mighty well of the sturgeon and of the respectful consideration which prompted the gift; and then, by another horseman, sent it to Noia Molisi’s own uncle, accompanied, we may conjecture, by some ceremonious compliment befitting the occasion.
A man of parts, therefore, our author’s uncle, to whom his Lordship of Nocera sends table-delicacies by mounted messenger; and himself a mellow comrade whom I am loath to leave; his pages are distinguished by a pleasing absence of those saintly paraphernalia which hang like a fog athwart the fair sky of the south.
Yet to him and to all of them I must bid good-bye, here and now. At this hour to-morrow I shall be far from Cotrone.
Farewell to Capialbi, inspired bookworm! And to Lenormant.
On a day like this, the scholar sailed at Bivona over a sea so unruffled that the barque seemed to be suspended in air. The water’s surface, he tells us, is “unie comme une glace.” He sees the vitreous depths invaded by piercing sunbeams that light up its mysterious forests of algae, its rock-headlands and silvery stretches of sand; he peers down into these “prairies pelagiennes” and beholds all their wondrous fauna–the urchins, the crabs, the floating fishes and translucent medusae “semblables a des clochettes d’opale.” Then, realizing how this “population pullulante des petits animaux marins” must have impressed the observing ancients, he goes on to touch–ever so lightly!–upon those old local arts of ornamentation whereby sea-beasts and molluscs and aquatic plants were reverently copied by master-hand, not from dead specimens, but “pris sur le vif et observes au milieu des eaux"; he explains how an entire school grew up, which drew its inspiration from the dainty ... apes and movements of these frail creatures. This is au meilleur Lenormant. His was a full-blooded yet discriminating zest of knowledge. One wonders what more was fermenting in that restlessly curious brain, when a miserable accident ended his short life, after 120 days of suffering.
So Italy proved fatal to him, as Greece to his father. But one of his happiest moments must have been spent on the sea at Bivona, on that clear summer day–a day such as this, when every nerve tingles with joy of life.
Meanwhile it is good to rest here, immovable but alert, in the breathless hush of noon. Showers of benevolent heat stream down upon this desolation; not the faintest wisp of vapour floats upon the horizon; not a sail, not a ripple, disquiets the waters. The silence can be felt. Slumber is brooding over the things of earth:
Asleep are the peaks of the hills, and the vales,
The promontories, the clefts,
And all the creatures that move upon the black earth. . . .
Such torrid splendour, drenching a land of austerut simplicity, decomposes the mind into corresponding states of primal contentment and resilience. There arises before our phantasy a new perspective of human affairs; a suggestion of well-being wherein the futile complexities and disharmonies of our age shall have no place. To discard these wrappings, to claim kinship with some elemental and robust archetype, lover of earth and sun-----
How fair they are, these moments of golden equipoise!
Yes; it is good to be merged awhile into these harshly-vibrant surroundings, into the meridian glow of all things. This noontide is the “heavy” hour of the Greeks, when temples are untrodden by priest or worshipper. Controra they now call it–the ominous hour. Man and beast are fettered in sleep, while spirits walk abroad, as at midnight. Non timebis a timore noctuno: a sagitta volante in aie: a negotio perambulante in tenebris: ab incursu et demonio meridiano. The midday demon–that southern Haunter of calm blue spaces. . . .
So may some enchantment of kindlier intent have crept over Phaedrus and his friend, at converse in the noontide under the whispering plane-tree. And the genius dwelling about this old headland of the Column is candid and benign.
This corner of Magna Graecia is a severely parsimonious manifestation of nature. Rocks and waters! But these rocks and waters are actualities; the stuff whereof man is made. A landscape so luminous, so resolutely scornful of accessories, hints at brave and simple forms of expression; it brings us to the ground, where we belong; it medicines to the disease of introspection and stimulates a capacity which we are in danger of unlearning amid our morbid hyperborean gloom–the capacity for honest contempt: contempt of that scarecrow of a theory which would have us neglect what is earthly, tangible. What is life well lived but a blithe discarding of primordial husks, of those comfortable intangibilities that lurk about us, waiting for our weak moments?
The sage, that perfect savage, will be the last to withdraw himself from the influence of these radiant realities. He will strive to knit closer the bond, and to devise a more durable and affectionate relationship between himself and them. Let him open his eyes. For a reasonable adjustment lies at his feet. From these brown stones that seam the tranquil Ionian, from this gracious solitude, he can carve out, and bear away into the cheerful din of cities, the rudiments of something clean and veracious and wholly terrestrial–some tonic philosophy that shall foster sunny mischiefs and farewell regret.