By Norman Douglas
Public Domain Books
VI. AT VENOSA
There has always, no doubt, been a castle at Venosa. Frederick Barbarossa lived here oftener than in Sicily; from these regions he could look over to his beloved East, and the security of this particular keep induced him to store his treasures therein. The indefatigable Huillard Breholles has excavated some account of them from the Hohen-staufen records. Thus we learn that here, at Venosa, the Emperor deposited that marvel, that tentorium, I mean, mirifica arte constructum, in quo imagines solis et lunce artificialiter motte, cursum suum certis et debitis spatiis peragrant, et boras diei et noctis in-fallibiliter indicant. Cuius tentorii valor viginti millium marcarum pretium dicitur transcendisse. It was given him by the Sultan of Babylonia. Always the glowing Oriental background!
The present castle, a picturesque block with moat and corner towers, was built in 1470 by the redoubtable Pierro del Balzo. A church used to occupy the site, but the warrior, recognizing its strategic advantages, transplanted the holy edifice to some other part of the town. It is now a ruin, the inhabitable portions of which have been converted into cheap lodgings for sundry poor folk–a monetary speculation of some local magnate, who paid 30,000 francs for the whole structure. You can climb up into one of the shattered towers whereon reposes an old cannon amid a wind-sown garden of shrubs and weeds. Here the jackdaws congregate at nightfall, flying swiftly and noiselessly to their resting-place. Odd, how quiet Italian jackdaws are, compared with those of England; they have discarded their voices, which is the best thing they could have done in a land where every one persecutes them. There is also a dungeon at this castle, an underground recess with cunningly contrived projections in its walls to prevent prisoners from climbing upwards; and other horrors.
The cathedral of Venosa contains a chapel with an unusually nne portal of Renaissance work, but the chief architectural beauty of the town is the decayed Benedictine abbey of La Trinita. The building is roofless; it was never completed, and the ravages of time and of man have not spared it; earthquakes, too, have played sad tricks with its arches and columns, particularly that of 1851, which destroyed the neighbouring town of Melfi. It stands beyond the more modern settlement on what is now a grassy plain, and attached to it is a Norman chapel containing the bones of Alberada, mother of Boemund, and others of her race. Little of the original structure of this church is left, though its walls are still adorned, in patches, with frescoes of genuine angels–attractive creatures, as far removed from those bloodless Byzantine anatomies as from the plethoric and insipid females of the settecento. There is also a queenly portrait declared to represent Catherine of Siena. I would prefer to follow those who think it is meant for Sigilgaita.
Small as it is, this place–the church and the abbey–is not one for a casual visit. Lenormant calls the Trinita a “Musee epigra-phique"–so many are the Latin inscriptions which the monks have worked into its masonry. They have encrusted the walls with them; and many antiquities of other kinds have been deposited here since those days. The ruin is strewn with columns and capitals of fantastic devices; the inevitable lions, too, repose upon its grassy floor, as well as a pagan altar-stone that once adorned the neighbouring amphitheatre. One thinks of the labour expended in raising those prodigious blocks and fitting them together without mortar in their present positions–they, also, came from the amphitheatre, and the sturdy letterings engraved on some of them formed, once upon a time, a sentence that ran round that building, recording the names of its founders.
Besides the Latin inscriptions, there are Hebrew funereal stones of great interest, for a colony of Jews was established here between the years 400 and 800; poor folks, for the most part; no one knows whence they came or whither they went. One is apt to forget that south Italy was swarming with Jews for centuries. The catacombs of Venosa were discovered in 1853. Their entrance lies under a hill-side not far from the modern railway station, and Professor Mueller, a lover of Venosa, has been engaged for the last twenty-five years in writing a ponderous tome on the subject. Unfortunately (so they say) there is not much chance of its ever seeing the light, for just as he is on the verge of publication, some new Jewish catacombs are discovered in another part of the world which cause the Professor to revise all his previous theories. The work must be written anew and brought up to date, and hardly is this accomplished when fresh catacombs are found elsewhere, necessitating a further revision. The Professor once more rewrites the whole. . . .
You will find accounts of the Trinita in Bertaux, Schulz and other writers. Italian ones tell us what sounds rather surprising, namely, that the abbey was built after a Lombard model, and not a French one. Be that as it may–and they certainly show good grounds for their contention–the ruin is a place of rare charm. Not easily can one see relics of Roman, Hebrew and Norman life crushed into so small a space, welded together by the massive yet fair architecture of the Benedictines, and interpenetrated, at the same time, with a Mephistophelian spirit of modern indifference. Of cynical insouciance; for although this is a “national monument,” nothing whatever is done in the way of repairs. Never a month passes without some richly carven block of stonework toppling down into the weeds, [Footnote: The process of decay can be seen by comparing my photograph of the east front with that taken to illustrate Giuseppe de Lorenzo’s monograph “Venosa e la Regione del Vulture” (Bergamo, 1906).] and were it not for the zeal of a private citizen, the interior of the building would long ago have become an impassable chaos of stones and shrubbery. The Trinita cannot be restored without enormous outlay; nobody dreams of such a thing. A yearly expenditure of ten pounds, however, would go far towards arresting its fall. But where shall the money be found? This enthusiastic nation, so enamoured of all that is exquisite in art, will spend sixty million francs on a new Ministry of Justice which, barely completed, is already showing signs of disrupture; it will cheerfully vote (vide daily press) the small item of eighty thousand francs to supply that institution with pens and ink–lucky contractor!–while this and a hundred other buildings of singular beauty are allowed to crumble to pieces, day by day.
Not far from the abbey there stands a church dedicated to Saint Roque. Go within, if you wish to see the difference between Benedictine dignity and the buffoonery which subsequently tainted the Catholicism of the youth. On its gable sits a strange emblem: a large stone dog, gazing amiably at the landscape. The saint, during his earthly career, was always accompanied by a dog, and now likes to have him on the roof of his sanctuary.
The Norman church attached to the Trinita lies at a lower level than that building, having been constructed, says Lupoli, on the foundations of a temple to Hymenaeus. It may be so; but one distrusts Lupoli. A remarkable Norman capital, now wrought into a font, is preserved here, and I was interested in watching the behaviour of a procession of female pilgrims in regard to it. Trembling with emotion, they perambulated the sacred stone, kissing every one of its corners; then they dipped their hands into its basin, and kissed them devoutly. An old hag, the mistress of the ceremonies, muttered: “tutti santi–tutti santi!” at each osculation. Next, they prostrated themselves on the floor and licked the cold stones, and after wallowing there awhile, rose up and began to kiss a small fissure in the masonry of the wall, the old woman whispering, “Santissimo!” A familiar spectacle, no doubt; but one which never fails of its effect. This anti-hygienic crack in the wall, with its suggestions of yoni-worship, attracted me so strongly that I begged a priest to explain to me its mystical signification. But he only said, with a touch of mediaeval contempt:
He showed me, later on, a round Roman pillar near the entrance of the church worn smooth by the bodies of females who press themselves between it and the wall, in order to become mothers. The notion caused him some amusement–he evidently thought this practice a speciality of Venosa.
In my country, I said, pillars with a contrary effect would be more popular among the fair sex.
Lear gives another account of this phallic emblem. He says that perambulating it hand in hand with another person, the two are sure to remain friends for life.
This is pre-eminently a “Victorian” version.