By Norman Douglas
Public Domain Books
VII. THE BANDUSIAN FOUNT
The traveller in these parts is everlastingly half-starved. Here, at Venosa, the wine is good–excellent, in fact; but the food monotonous and insufficient. This improper dieting is responsible for much mischief; it induces a state of chronic exacerbation. Nobody would believe how nobly I struggle, day and night, against its evil suggestions. A man’s worst enemy is his own empty stomach. None knew it better than Horace.
And yet he declared that lettuces and such-like stuff sufficed him. No doubt, no doubt. “Olives nourish me.” Just so! One does not grow up in the school of Maecenas without learning the subtle delights of the simple life. But I would wager that after a week of such feeding as I have now undergone at his native place, he would quickly have remembered some urgent business to be transacted in the capital–Caesar Augustus, me-thinks, would have desired his company. And even so, I have suddenly woke up to the fact that Taranto, my next resting-place, besides possessing an agreeably warm climate, has some passable restaurants. I will pack without delay. Mount Vulture must wait. The wind alone, the Vulturnus or south-easterly wind, is quite enough to make one despair of climbing hills. It has blown with objectionable persistency ever since my arrival at Venosa.
To escape from its attentions, I have been wandering about the secluded valleys that seam this region. Streamlets meander here amid rustling canes and a luxuriant growth of mares’ tails and creepers; their banks are shaded by elms and poplars–Horatian trees; the thickets are loud with songs of nightingale, black-cap and oriole. These humid dells are a different country from the uplands, wind-swept and thriftily cultivated.
It was here, yesterday, that I came upon an unexpected sight–an army of workmen engaged in burrowing furiously into the bowels of Mother Earth. They told me that this tunnel would presently become one of the arteries of that vast system, the Apulian Aqueduct. The discovery accorded with my Roman mood, for the conception and execution alike of this grandiose project are worthy of the Romans. Three provinces where, in years of drought, wine is cheaper than water, are being irrigated–in the teeth of great difficulties of engineering and finance. Among other things, there are 213 kilometres of subterranean tunnellings to be built; eleven thousand workmen are employed; the cost is estimated at 125 million francs. The Italian government is erecting to its glory a monument more durable than brass. This is their heritage from the Romans–this talent for dealing with rocks and waters; for bridling a destructive environment and making it subservient to purposes of human intercourse. It is a part of that practical Roman genius for “pacification.” Wild nature, to the Latin, ever remains an obstacle to be overcome–an enemy.
Such was Horace’s point of view. The fruitful fields and their hardy brood of tillers appealed to him; [Footnote: See next chapter.] the ocean and snowy Alps were beyond the range of his affections. His love of nature was heartfelt, but his nature was not ours; it was nature as we see it in those Roman landscapes at Pompeii; nature ancillary to human needs, in her benignant and comfortable moods. Virgil’s lachrymae rerum hints at mystic and extra-human yearnings; to the troubadours nature was conventionally stereotyped–a scenic decoration to set off sentiments more or less sincere; the roman-ticists wallow in her rugged aspects. Horace never allowed phantasy to outrun intelligence; he kept his feet on earth; man was the measure of his universe, and a sober mind his highest attribute. Nature must be kept “in her place.” Her extrava-gances are not to be admired. This anthropocentric spirit has made him what he is–the ideal anti-sentimentalist and anti-vulgarian. For excess of sentiment, like all other intemperance, is the mark of that unsober and unsteady beast–the crowd.
Things have changed since those days; in proportion as the world has grown narrower and the element of fear and mystery diluted, our sympathies have broadened; the Goth, in particular, has learnt the knack of detecting natural charm where the Latin, to this day, beholds nothing but confusion and strife.
On the spot, I observe, one is liable to return to the antique outlook; to see the beauty of fields and rivers, yet only when subsidiary to man’s personal convenience; to appreciate a fair landscape–with a shrewd worldly sense of its potential uses. “The garden that I love," said an Italian once to me, “contains good vegetables.” This utilitarian flavour of the south has become very intelligible to me during the last few days. I, too, am thinking less of calceolarias than of cauliflowers.
A pilgrimage to the Bandusian Fount (if such it be) is no great undertaking–a morning’s trip. The village of San Gervasio is the next station to Venosa, lying on an eminence only thirteen kilometres from there.
Here once ran a fountain which was known as late as the twelfth century as the Fons Bandusinus, and Ughelli, in his “Italia Sacra,” cites a deed of the year 1103 speaking of a church “at the Bandusian Fount near Venosa.” Church and fountain have now disappeared; but the site of the former, they say, is known, and close to it there once issued a copious spring called “Fontana Grande.” This is probably the Horatian one; and is also, I doubt not, that referred to in Cenna’s chronicle of Venosa: “At Torre San Gervasio are the ruins of a castle and an abundant spring of water colder than all the waters of Venosa,” Frigus amabile. . . .
I could discover no one in the place to show me where this now vanished church stood. I rather think it occupied the site of the present church of Saint Anthony, the oldest in San Gervasio.
As to the fountain–there are now two of them, at some considerable distance from each other. Both of them are copious, and both lie near the foot of the hill on which the village now stands. Capmartin de Chaupy has reasons for believing that in former times San Gervasio did not occupy its present exalted position (vol. iii, p. 538).
One of them gushes out on the plain near the railway station, and has been rebuilt within recent times. It goes by the name of “Fontana rotta.” The other, the “Fontana del Fico,” lies on the high road to Spinazzola; the water spouts out of seven mouths, and near at hand is a plantation of young sycamores. The basin of this fount was also rebuilt about ten years ago at no little expense, and has now a thoroughly modern and businesslike aspect. But I was told that a complicated network of subterranean pipes and passages, leading to “God knows where,” was unearthed during the process of reconstruction. It was magnificent masonry, said my informant, who was an eye-witness of the excavations but could tell me nothing more of interest.
The problem how far either of these fountains fulfils the conditions postulated in the last verse of Horace’s ode may be solved by every one according as he pleases. In fact, there is no other way of solving it. In my professorial mood, I should cite the cavern and the “downward leaping” waters against the hypothesis that the Bandusian Fount stood on either of these modern sites; in favour of it, one might argue that the conventional rhetoric of all Roman art may have added these embellishing touches, and cite, in confirmation thereof, the last two lines of the previous verse, mentioning animals that could hardly have slaked their thirst with any convenience at a cavernous spring such as he describes. Caverns, moreover, are not always near the summits of hills; they may be at the foot of them; and water, even the Thames at London Bridge, always leaps downhill–more or less. Of more importance is old Chaupy’s discovery of the northerly aspect of one of these springs–"thee the fierce season of the blazing dog-star cannot touch.” There may have been a cave at the back of the “Fontana del Fico"; the “Fontana rotta” is hopelessly uncavernous.
For the rest, there is no reason why the fountain should not have changed its position since ancient days. On the contrary, several things might incline one to think that it has been forced to abandon the high grounds and seek its present lower level. To begin with, the hill on which the village stands is honeycombed by hives of caves which the inhabitants have carved out of the loose conglomerate (which, by the way, hardly corresponds with the poet’s saxum); and it may well be that a considerable collapse of these earth-dwellings obstructed the original source of the waters and obliged them to seek a vent lower down.
Next, there are the notorious effects of deforestation. An old man told me that in his early days the hill was covered with timber–indeed, this whole land, now a stretch of rolling grassy downs, was decently wooded up to a short time ago. I observed that the roof of the oldest of the three churches, that of Saint Anthony, is formed of wooden rafters (a rare material hereabouts). Deforestation would also cause the waters to issue at a lower level.
Lastly, and chiefly–the possible shatterings of earthquakes. Catastrophes such as those which have damaged Venosa in days past may have played havoc with the water-courses of this place by choking up their old channels. My acquaintance with the habits of Apulian earthquakes, with the science of hydrodynamics and the geological formation of San Gervasio is not sufficiently extensive to allow me to express a mature opinion. I will content myself with presenting to future investigators the plausible theory–plausible because conveniently difficult to refute–that some terrestrial upheaval in past days is responsible for the present state of things.
But these are merely three hypotheses. I proceed to mention three facts which point in the same direction; i.e. that the water used to issue at a higher level. Firstly, there is that significant name “Fontana rotta"–"the broken fountain.” . . . Does not this suggest that its flow may have been interrupted, or intercepted, in former times?
Next, if you climb up from this “Fontana rotta” to the village by the footpath, you will observe, on your right hand as you ascend the slope, at about a hundred yards below the Church of Saint Anthony, an old well standing in a field of corn and shaded by three walnuts and an oak. This well is still running, and was described to me as “molto antico." Therefore an underground stream–in diminished volume, no doubt–still descends from the heights.
Thirdly, in the village you will notice an alley leading out of the Corso Manfredi (one rejoices to find the name of Manfred surviving in these lands)–an alley which is entitled “Vico Sirene.” The name arrests your attention, for what have the Sirens to do in these inland regions? Nothing whatever, unless they existed as ornamental statuary: statuary such as frequently gives names to streets in Italy, witness the “Street of the Faun” in Ouida’s novel, or that of the “Giant” in Naples (which has now been re-christened). It strikes me as a humble but quite scholarly speculation to infer that, the chief decorative uses of Sirens being that of fountain deities, this obscure roadway keeps alive the tradition of the old “Fontana Grande"–ornamented, we may suppose, with marble Sirens–whose site is now forgotten, and whose very name has faded from the memory of the countryfolk.
What, then, does my ramble of two hours at San Gervasio amount to? It shows that there is a possibility, at least, of a now vanished fountain having existed on the heights where it might fulfil more accurately the conditions of Horace’s ode. If Ughelli’s church “at the Bandusian Fount" stood on this eminence–well, I shall be glad to corroborate, for once in the way, old Ughelli, whose book contains a deal of dire nonsense. And if the Abbe Chaupy’s suggestion that the village lay at the foot of the hill should ever prove to be wrong–well, his amiable ghost may be pleased to think that even this does not necessitate the sacrifice of his Venosa theory in favour of that of the scholiast Akron; there is still a way out of the difficulty.
But whether this at San Gervasio is the actual fountain hymned by Horace–ah, that is quite another affair! Few poets, to be sure, have clung more tenaciously to the memories of their childhood than did he and Virgil. And yet, the whole scene may be a figment of his imagination–the very word Bandusia may have been coined by him. Who can tell? Then there is the Digentia hypothesis. I know it, I know it! I have read some of its defenders, and consider (entre nous) that they have made out a pretty strong case. But I am not in the mood for discussing their proposition–not just now.
Here at San Gervasio I prefer to think only of the Roman singer, so sanely jovial, and of these waters as they flowed, limpid and cool, in the days when they fired his boyish fancy. Deliberately I refuse to hear the charmer Boissier. Deliberately, moreover, I shut my eyes to the present condition of affairs; to the herd of squabbling laundresses and those other incongruities that spoil the antique scene. Why not? The timid alone are scared by microscopic discords of time and place. The sage can invest this prosaic water-trough with all its pristine dignity and romance by an unfailing expedient. He closes an eye. It is an art he learns early in life; a simple art, and one that greatly conduces to happiness. The ever alert, the conscientiously wakeful–how many fine things they fail to see! Horace knew the wisdom of being genially unwise; of closing betimes an eye, or an ear; or both. Desipere in loco. . . .