By Norman Douglas
Public Domain Books
V. LAND OF HORACE
Venosa, nowadays, lies off the beaten track. There are only three trains a day from the little junction of Rocchetta, and they take over an hour to traverse the thirty odd kilometres of sparsely inhabited land. It is an uphill journey, for Venosa lies at a good elevation. They say that German professors, bent on Horatian studies, occasionally descend from those worn-out old railway carriages; but the ordinary travellers are either peasant-folk or commercial gentlemen from north Italy. Worse than malaria or brigandage, against both of which a man may protect himself, there is no escaping from the companionship of these last-named–these pathologically inquisitive, empty-headed, and altogether dreadful people. They are the terror of the south. And it stands to reason that only the most incapable and most disagreeable of their kind are sent to out-of-the-way places like Venosa.
One asks oneself whether this town has greatly changed since Roman times. To be sure it has; domestic calamities and earthquakes (such as the terrible one of 1456) have altered it beyond recognition. The amphitheatre that seated ten thousand spectators is merged into the earth, and of all the buildings of Roman date nothing is left save a pile of masonry designated as the tomb of the Marcellus who was killed here by Hannibal’s soldiery, and a few reticulated walls of the second century or thereabouts known as the “House of Horace"–as genuine as that of Juliet in Verona or the Mansion of Loreto. Yet the tradition is an old one, and the builder of the house, whoever he was, certainly displayed some poetic taste in his selection of a fine view across the valley. There is an indifferent statue of Horace in the marketplace. A previous one, also described as Horace, was found to be the effigy of somebody else. Thus much I learn from Lupoli’s “Iter Venusinum.”
But there are ancient inscriptions galore, worked into the masonry of buildings or lying about at random. Mommsen has collected numbers of them in his Corpus, and since that time some sixty new ones have been discovered. And then–the stone lions of Roman days, couched forlornly at street corners, in courtyards and at fountains, in every stage of decrepitude, with broken jaws and noses, missing legs and tails! Venosa is a veritable infirmary for mutilated antiques of this species. Now the lion is doubtless a nobly decorative beast, but–toujours perdrix! Why not a few griffons or other ornaments? The Romans were not an imaginative race.
The country around must have looked different in olden days. Horace describes it as covered with forests, and from a manuscript of the early seventeenth century which has lately been printed one learns that the surrounding regions were full of “hares, rabbits, foxes, roe deer, wild boars, martens, porcupines, hedgehogs, tortoises and wolves"– wood-loving creatures which have now, for the most part, deserted Venosa. Still, there are left some stretches of oak at the back of the town, and the main lines of the land cannot change. Yonder lies the Horatian Forense and “Acherontia’s nest"; further on, the glades of Bantia (the modern Banzi); the long-drawn Garganian Mount, on which the poet’s eye must often have rested, emerges above the plain of Apulia like an island (and such it is: an island of Austrian stone, stranded upon the beach of Italy). Monte Vulture still dominates the landscape, although at this nearness the crater loses its shapely conical outline and assumes a serrated edge. On its summit I perceive a gigantic cross–one of a number of such symbols which were erected by the clericals at the time of the recent rationalist congress in Rome.
From this chronicler I learn another interesting fact: that Venosa was not malarious in the author’s day. He calls it healthy, and says that the only complaint from which the inhabitants suffered was “ponture" (pleurisy). It is now within the infected zone. I dare say the deforestation of the country, which prevented the downflow of the rivers–choking up their beds with detritus and producing stagnant pools favourable to the breeding of the mosquito–has helped to spread the plague in many parts of Italy. In Horace’s days Venosa was immune, although Rome and certain rural districts were already malarious. Ancient votive tablets to the fever-goddess Mephitis (malaria) have been found not far from here, in the plain below the present city of Potenza.
A good deal of old Roman blood and spirit seems to survive here. After the noise of the Neapolitan provinces, where chattering takes the place of thinking, it is a relief to find oneself in the company of these grave self-respecting folks, who really converse, like the Scotch, in disinterested and impersonal fashion. Their attitude towards religious matters strikes me as peculiarly Horatian; it is not active scepticism, but rather a bland tolerance or what one of them described as “indifferentismo"–submission to acts of worship and all other usages (whatever they may be) consecrated by time: the pietas–the conservative, law-abiding Roman spirit. And if you walk towards sunset along any of the roads leading into the country, you will meet the peasants riding home from their field labours accompanied by their dogs, pigs and goats; and among them you will recognize many types of Roman physiognomies–faces of orators and statesmen–familiar from old coins. About a third of the population are of the dark-fair complexion, with blue or green eyes. But the women are not handsome, although the town derives its name from Benoth (Venus). Some genuine Roman families have continued to exist to this day, such as that of Cenna (Cinna). One of them was the author of the chronicle above referred to; and there is an antique bas-relief worked into the walls of the Trinita abbey, depicting some earlier members of this local family.
One is astonished how large a literature has grown up around this small place–but indeed, the number of monographs dealing with every one of these little Italian towns is a ceaseless source of surprise. Look below the surface and you will find, in all of them, an undercurrent of keen spirituality–a nucleus of half a dozen widely read and thoughtful men, who foster the best traditions of the mind. You will not find them in the town council or at the cafe. No newspapers commend their labours, no millionaires or learned societies come to their assistance, and though typography is cheap in this country, they often stint themselves of the necessities of life in order to produce these treatises of calm research. There is a deep gulf, here, between the mundane and the intellectual life. These men are retiring in their habits; and one cannot but revere their scholarly and almost ascetic spirit that survives like a green oasis amid the desert of “politics,” roguery and municipal corruption.
The City Fathers of Venosa are reputed rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Yet their town is by no means a clean place–it is twice as dirty as Lucera: a reposeful dirtiness, not vulgar or chaotic, but testifying to time-honoured neglect, to a feudal contempt of cleanliness. You crawl through narrow, ill-paved streets, looking down into subterranean family bedrooms that must be insufferably damp in winter, and filled, during the hot months, with an odour hard to conceive. There is electric lighting, of course–a paternal government having made the price of petroleum so prohibitive that the use of electricity for street-lighting became quite common in the lowliest places; but the crude glare only serves to show up the general squalor. One reason for this state of affairs is that there are no quarries for decent paving-stones in the neighbourhood. And another, that Venosa possesses no large citizen class, properly so called. The inhabitants are mostly peasant proprietors and field labourers, who leave the town in the morning and return home at night with their beasts, having learned by bitter experience to take up their domiciles in the towns rather than in the country-side, which was infested with brigandage and in an unsettled state up to a short time ago. The Cincinnatus note dominates here, and with an agricultural population no city can be kept clean.
But Venosa has one inestimable advantage over Lucera and most Italian towns: there is no octroi.
Would it be believed that Naples is surrounded by a towering Chinese wall, miles upon miles of it, crowned with a complicated apparatus of alarm-bells and patrolled night and day by a horde of doganieri armed to the teeth–lest some peasant should throw a bundle of onions into the sacred precincts of the town without paying the duty of half a farthing? No nation with any sense of humour would endure this sort of thing. Every one resents the airs of this army of official loafers who infest the land, and would be far better employed themselves in planting onions upon the many miles of Italy which now lie fallow; the results of the system have been shown to be inadequate, “but,” as my friend the Roman deputy once asked me, “if we dismiss these fellows from their job, how are we to employ them?”
“Nothing is simpler,” I replied. “Enrol them into the Town Council of Naples. It already contains more employes than all the government offices of London put together; a few more will surely make no difference?”
“By Bacchus,” he cried, “you foreigners have ideas! We could dispose of ten or fifteen thousand of them, at least, in the way you suggest. I’ll make a note of that, for our next session.”
And so he did.
But the Municipio of Naples, though extensive, is a purely local charity, and I question whether its inmates will hear of any one save their own cousins and brothers-in-law figuring as colleagues in office.
Every attempt at innovation in agriculture, as in industry, is forthwith discouraged by new and subtle impositions, which lie in wait for the enterprising Italian and punish him for his ideas. There is, of course, a prohibitive duty on every article or implement manufactured abroad; there is the octroi, a relic of medisevalism, the most unscientific, futile, and vexatious of taxes; there are municipal dues to be paid on animals bought and animals sold, on animals kept and animals killed, on milk and vine-props and bricks, on timber for scaffolding and lead and tiles and wine–on every conceivable object which the peasant produces or requires for his existence. And one should see the faces of the municipal employes who extort these tributes. God alone knows from what classes of the populace they are recruited; certain it is that their physiognomy reflects their miserable calling. One can endure the militarism of Germany and the bureaucracy of Austria; but it is revolting to see decent Italian countryfolk at the mercy of these uncouth savages, veritable cave-men, whose only intelligible expression is one of malice striving to break through a crust of congenital cretinism.
We hear much of the great artists and speculative philosophers of old Italy. The artists of modern Italy are her bureaucrats who design and elaborate the taxes; her philosophers, the peasants who pay them.
In point of method, at least, there is nothing to choose between the exactions of the municipal and governmental ruffians. I once saw an old woman fined fifty francs for having in her possession a pound of sea-salt. By what logic will you make it clear to ignorant people that it is wrong to take salt out of the sea, whence every one takes fish which are more valuable? The waste of time employed over red tape alone on these occasions would lead to a revolution anywhere save among men inured by long abuses to this particular form of tyranny. No wonder the women of the country-side, rather than waste three precious hours in arguments about a few cheeses, will smuggle them past the authorities under the device of being enceintes; no wonder their wisest old men regard the paternal government as a successfully organized swindle, which it is the citizen’s bounden duty to frustrate whenever possible. Have you ever tried to convey–in legal fashion–a bottle of wine from one town into another; or to import, by means of a sailing-boat, an old frying-pan into some village by the sea? It is a fine art, only to be learnt by years of apprenticeship. The regulations on these subjects, though ineffably childish, look simple enough on paper; they take no account of that “personal element” which is everything in the south, of the ruffled tempers of those gorgeous but inert creatures who, disturbed in their siestas or mandolin-strummings, may keep you waiting half a day while they fumble ominously over some dirty-looking scrap of paper. For on such occasions they are liable to provoking fits of conscientiousness. This is all very well, my dear sir, but–Ha! Where, where is that certificate of origin, that stamp, that lascia-passare?
And all for one single sou!
No wonder even Englishmen discover that law-breaking, in Italy, becomes a necessity, a rule of life.
And, soon enough, much more than a mere necessity. . . .
For even as the traveller new to Borneo, when they offer him a durian-fruit, is instantly brought to vomiting-point by its odour, but after a few mouthfuls declares it to be the very apple of Paradise, and marvels how he could have survived so long in the benighted lands where such ambrosial fare is not; even as the true connaisseur who, beholding some rare scarlet idol from the Tingo-Tango forests, at first casts it aside and then, light dawning as he ponders over those monstrous complexities, begins to realize that they, and they alone, contain the quintessential formulae of all the fervent dreamings of Scopas and Michelangelo; even as he who first, upon a peak in Darien, gazed awestruck upon the grand Pacific slumbering at his feet, till presently his senses reeled at the blissful prospect of fresh regions unrolling themselves, boundless, past the fulfilment of his fondest hopes--------
Even so, in Italy, the domesticated Englishman is amazed to find that he possesses a sense hitherto unrevealed, opening up a new horizon, a new zest in life–the sense of law-breaking. At first, being an honest man, he is shocked at the thought of such a thing; next, like a sensible person, reconciled to the inevitable; lastly, as befits his virile race, he learns to play the game so well that the horrified officials grudgingly admit (and it is their highest praise):
Inglese italianizzato– Diavolo incarnato.
Yes; slowly the charm of law-breaking grows upon the Italianated Saxon; slowly, but surely. There is a neo-barbarism not only in matters of art.