Old Calabria
By Norman Douglas

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The train conveying me to Taranto was to halt for the night at the second station beyond Venosa–at Spinaz-zola. Aware of this fact, I had enquired about the place and received assuring reports as to its hotel accommodation. But the fates were against me. On my arrival in the late evening I learnt that the hotels were all closed long ago, the townsfolk having gone to bed “with the chickens"; it was suggested that I had better stay at the station, where the manageress of the restaurant kept certain sleeping quarters specially provided for travellers in my predicament.

Presently the gentle dame lighted a dim lantern and led me across what seemed to be a marsh (it was raining) to the door of a hut which was to be my resting-place. At the entrance she paused, and after informing me that a band of musicians had taken all the beds save one which was at my disposal if I were good enough to pay her half a franc, she placed the lantern in my hand and stumbled back into the darkness.

I stepped into a low chamber, the beds of which were smothered under a profusion of miscellaneous wraps. The air was warm–the place exhaled an indescribable esprit de corps. Groping further, I reached another apartment, vaulted and still lower than the last, an old-fashioned cow-stable, possibly, converted into a bedroom. One glance sufficed me: the couch was plainly not to be trusted. Thankful to be out of the rain at least, I lit a pipe and prepared to pass the weary hours till 4 a.m.

It was not long ere I discovered that there was another bed in this den, opposite my own; and judging by certain undulatory and saltatory movements within, it was occupied. Presently the head of a youth emerged, with closed eyes and flushed features. He indulged in a series of groans and spasmodic kicks, that subsided once more, only to recommence. A flute projected from under his pillow.

“This poor young man,” I thought, “is plainly in bad case. On account of illness, he has been left behind by the rest of the band, who have gone to Spinazzola to play at some marriage festival. He is feverish, or possibly subject to fits–to choriasis or who knows what disorder of the nervous system. A cruel trick, to leave a suffering youngster alone in this foul hovel.” I mis-liked his symptoms–that anguished complexion and delirious intermittent trembling, and began to run over the scanty stock of household remedies contained in my bag, wondering which of them might apply to his complaint. There was court plaster and boot polish, quinine, corrosive sublimate and Worcester sauce (detestable stuff, but indispensable hereabouts).

Just as I had decided in favour of the last-named, he gave a more than usually vigorous jerk, sat up in bed and, opening his eyes, remarked:

“Those fleas!”

This, then, was the malady. I enquired why he had not joined his companions.

He was tired, he said; tired of life in general, and of flute-playing in particular. Tired, moreover, of certain animals; and with a tiger-like spring he leapt out of bed.

Once thoroughly awake, he proved an amiable talker, though oppressed with an incurable melancholy which no amount of tobacco and Venosa wine could dispel. In gravely boyish fashion he told me of his life and ambitions. He had passed a high standard at school, but–what would you?–every post was crowded. He liked music, and would gladly take it up as a profession, if anything could be learnt with a band such as his; he was sick, utterly sick, of everything. Above all things, he wished to travel. Visions of America floated before his mind–where was the money to come from? Besides, there was the military service looming close at hand; and then, a widowed mother at home–the inevitable mother–with a couple of little sisters; how shall a man desert his family? He was born on a farm on the Murge, the watershed between this country and the Adriatic. Thinking of the Murge, that shapeless and dismal range of limestone hills whose name suggests its sad monotony, I began to understand the origin of his pagan wistfulness.

“Happy foreigners!"–such was his constant refrain–"happy foreigners, who can always do exactly what they like! Tell me something about other countries,” he said.

“Something true?”


To cheer him up, I replied with improbable tales of Indian life, of rajahs and diamonds, of panthers whose eyes shine like moonbeams in the dark jungle, of elephants huge as battleships, of sportive monkeys who tie knots in each others’ tails and build themselves huts among the trees, where they brew iced lemonade, which they offer in friendliest fashion to the thirsty wayfarer, together with other light refreshment-----

“Cigarettes as well?”

“No. They are not allowed to cultivate tobacco.”

“Ah, that monopolio, the curse of humanity!”

He was almost smiling when, at 2.30 a.m., there resounded a furious knocking at the door, and the rest of the band appeared from their unknown quarters in the liveliest of spirits. Altogether, a memorable night. But at four o’clock the lantern was extinguished and the cavern, bereft of its Salvator-Rosa glamour, resolved itself into a prosaic and infernally unclean hovel. Issuing from the door, I saw those murky recesses invaded by the uncompromising light of dawn, and shuddered. . . .

The railway journey soon dispelled the phantoms of the night. As the train sped downhill, the sun rose in splendour behind the Murge hills, devouring mists so thickly couched that, struck by the first beams, they glistered like compact snow-fields, while their shaded portions might have been mistaken for stretches of mysterious swamp, from which an occasional clump of tree-tops emerged, black and island-like. These dreamland effects lasted but a brief time, and soon the whole face of the landscape was revealed. An arid region, not unlike certain parts of northern Africa.

Yet the line passes through places renowned in history. Who would not like to spend a day at Altamura, if only in memory of its treatment by the ferocious Cardinal Ruffo and his army of cut-throats? After a heroic but vain resistance comparable only to that of Saguntum or Petelia, during which every available metal, and even money, was converted into bullets to repel the assailers, there followed a three days’ slaughter of young and old; then the cardinal blessed his army and pronounced, in the blood-drenched streets, a general absolution. Even this man has discovered apologists. No cause so vile, that some human being will not be found to defend it.

So much I called to mind that morning from the pages of Colletta, and straightway formed a resolution to slip out of the carriage and arrest my journey at Altamura for a couple of days. But I must have been asleep while the train passed through the station, nor did I wake up again till the blue Ionian was in sight.

At Venosa one thinks of Roman legionaries fleeing from Hannibal, of Horace, of Norman ambitions; Lucera and Manfredonia call up Saracen memories and the ephemeral gleams of Hohen-staufen; Gargano takes us back into Byzantine mysticism and monkery. And now from Altamura with its dark record of Bourbon horrors, we glide into the sunshine of Hellenic days when the wise Archytas, sage and lawgiver, friend of Plato, ruled this ancient city of Tarentum. A wide sweep of history! And if those Periclean times be not remote enough, yonder lies Oria on its hilltop, the stronghold of pre-Hellenic and almost legendary Messapians; while for such as desire more recent associations there is the Albanian colony of San Giorgio, only a few miles distant, to recall the glories of Scanderbeg and his adventurous bands.

Herein lies the charm of travel in this land of multiple civilizations–the ever-changing layers of culture one encounters, their wondrous juxtaposition.

My previous experiences of Taranto hotels counselled me to take a private room overlooking the inland sea (the southern aspect is already intolerably hot), and to seek my meals at restaurants. And in such a one I have lived for the last ten days or so, reviving old memories. The place has grown in the interval; indeed, if one may believe certain persons, the population has increased from thirty to ninety thousand in–I forget how few years. The arsenal brings movement into the town; it has appropriated the lion’s share of building sites in the “new" town. Is it a ripple on the surface of things, or will it truly stir the spirits of the city? So many arsenals have come and gone, at Taranto!

This arsenal quarter is a fine example of the Italian mania of fare figura–everything for effect. It is an agglomeration of dreary streets, haunted by legions of clamorous black swifts, and constructed on the rectangular principle dear to the Latin mind. Modern, and surpassingly monotonous. Are such interminable rows of stuccoed barracks artistic to look upon, are they really pleasant to inhabit? Is it reasonable or even sanitary, in a climate of eight months’ sunshine, to build these enormous roadways and squares filled with glaring limestone dust that blows into one’s eyes and almost suffocates one; these Saharas that even at the present season of the year (early June) cannot be traversed comfortably unless one wears brown spectacles and goes veiled like a Tuareg? This arsenal quarter must be a hell during the really not season, which continues into October.

For no trees whatever are planted to shade the walking population, as in Paris or Cairo or any other sunlit city.

And who could guess the reason? An Englishman, at least, would never bring himself to believe what is nevertheless a fact, namely, that if the streets are converted into shady boulevards, the rents of the houses immediately fall. When trees are planted, the lodgers complain and finally emigrate to other quarters; the experiment has been tried, at Naples and elsewhere, and always with the same result. Up trees, down rents. The tenants refuse to be deprived of their chief pleasure in life–that of gazing at the street-passengers, who must be good enough to walk in the sunshine for their delectation. But if you are of an inquisitive turn of mind, you are quite at liberty to return the compliment and to study from the outside the most intimate details of the tenants’ lives within. Take your fill of their domestic doings; stare your hardest. They don’t mind in the least, not they! That feeling of privacy which the northerner fosters doggedly even in the centre of a teeming city is alien to their hearts; they like to look and be looked at; they live like fish in an aquarium. It is a result of the whole palazzo-System that every one knows his neighbour’s business better than his own. What does it matter, in the end? Are we not all “Christians “?

The municipality, meanwhile, is deeply indebted for the sky-piercing ambitions which have culminated in the building of this new quarter. To meet these obligations, the octroi prices have been raised to the highest pitch by the City Fathers. This octroi is farmed out and produces (they tell me) 120 pounds a day; there are some hundred toll-collecting posts at the outskirts of the town, and the average salary of their officials is three pounds a month. They are supposed to be respectable and honest men, but it is difficult to see how a family can be supported on that wage, when one knows how high the rents are, and how severely the most ordinary commodities of life are taxed.

I endeavoured to obtain photographs of the land as it looked ere it was covered by the arsenal quarter, but in vain. Nobody seems to have thought it worth while preserving what would surely be a notable economic document for future generations. Out of sheer curiosity I also tried to procure a plan of the old quarter, that labyrinth of thick-clustering humanity, where the Streets are often so narrow that two persons can barely squeeze past each other. I was informed that no such plan had ever been drawn up; it was agreed that a map of this kind might be interesting, and suggested, furthermore, that I might undertake the task myself; the authorities would doubtless appreciate my labours. We foreigners, be it understood, have ample means and unlimited leisure, and like nothing better than doing unprofitable jobs of this kind. [Footnote: here is a map of old Taranto in Lasor a Varea (Savonarola) Universus terrarum etc., Vol. II, p. 552, and another in J. Blaev’s Theatrum Civitatum (1663). He talks of the “rude houses” of this town.]

One is glad to leave the scintillating desert of this arsenal quarter, and enter the cool stone-paved streets of the other, which remind one somewhat of Malta. In the days of Salis-Marschlins this city possessed only 18,000 inhabitants, and “outdid even the customary Italian filth, being hardly passable on account of the excessive nastiness and stink." It is now scrupulously clean–so absurdly clean, that it has quite ceased to be picturesque. Not that its buildings are particularly attractive to me; none, that is, save the antique “Trinita” column of Doric gravity–sole survivor of Hellenic Taras, which looks wondrously out of place in its modern environment. One of the finest of these earlier monuments, the Orsini tower depicted in old prints of the place, has now been demolished.

Lovers of the baroque may visit the shrine of Saint Cataldo, a jovial nightmare in stone. And they who desire a literary pendant to this fantastic structure should read the life of the saint written by Morone in 1642. Like the shrine, it is the quintessence of insipid exuberance; there is something preposterous in its very title “Cataldiados,” and whoever reads through those six books of Latin hexameters will arise from the perusal half-dazed. Somehow or other, it dislocates one’s whole sense of terrestrial values to see a frowsy old monk [Footnote: This wandering Irish missionary is supposed to have died here in the seventh century, and they who are not satisfied with his printed biographies will find one in manuscript of 550 pages, compiled in 1766, in the Cuomo Library at Naples.] treated in the heroic style and metre, as though he were a new Achilles. As a jeu d’esprit the book might pass; but it is deadly serious. Single men will always be found to perpetrate monstrosities of literature; the marvel is that an entire generation of writers should have worked themselves into a state of mind which solemnly approved of such freaks.

Every one has heard of the strange position of this hoary island-citadel (a metropolis, already, in neolithic days). It is of oval shape, the broad sides washed by the Ionian Sea and an oyster-producing lagoon; bridges connect it at one extremi-y with the arsenal or new town, and at the other with the so-called commercial quarter. It is as if some precious gem were set, in a ring, between two others of minor worth. Or, to vary the simile, this acropolis, with its close-packed alleys, is the throbbing heart of Taranto; the arsenal quarter–its head; and that other one–well, its stomach; quite an insignificant stomach as compared with the head and corroborative, in so far, of the views of Metch-nikoff, who holds that this hitherto commendable organ ought now to be reduced in size, if not abolished altogether. . . .

From out of this window I gaze upon the purple lagoon flecked with warships and sailing-boats; and beyond it, upon the venerable land of Japygia, the heel of Italy, that rises in heliotrope-tinted undulations towards the Adriatic watershed. At night-time an exquisite perfume of flowers and ripe corn comes wafted into my room over the still waters, and when the sun rises, white settlements begin to sparkle among its olives and vineyards. My eyes often rest upon one of them; it is Grottaglie, distant a few miles from Taranto on the Brindisi line. I must visit Grottaglie, for it was here that the flying monk received his education.

The flying monk!

The theme is not inappropriate at this moment, when the newspapers are ringing with the Paris-Rome aviation contest and the achievements of Beaumont, Garros and their colleagues. I have purposely brought his biography with me, to re-peruse on the spot. But let me first explain how I became acquainted with this seventeenth-century pioneer of aviation.

It was an odd coincidence.

I had arrived in Naples, and was anxious to have news of the proceedings at a certain aviation meeting in the north, where a rather inexperienced friend of mine had insisted upon taking a part; the newspaper reports of these entertainments are enough to disturb anybody. While admiring the great achievements of modern science in this direction, I wished devoutly, at that particular moment, that flying had never been invented; and it was something of a coincidence, I say, that stumbling in this frame of mind down one of the unspeakable little side-streets in the neighbourhood of the University, my glance should have fallen upon an eighteenth-century engraving in a bookseller’s window which depicted a man raised above the ground without any visible means of support–flying, in short. He was a monk, floating before an altar. A companion, near at hand, was portrayed as gazing in rapturous wonder at this feat of levitation. I stepped within and demanded the volume to which this was the frontispiece.

The salesman, a hungry-looking old fellow with incredibly dirty hands and face, began to explain.

“The Flying Monk, sir, Joseph of Copertino. A mighty saint and conjuror! Or perhaps you would like some other book? I have many, many lives of santi here. Look at this one of the great Egidio, for instance. I can tell you all about him, for he raised my mother’s grand-uncle from the dead; yes, out of the grave, as one may say. You’ll find out all about it in this book; and it’s only one of his thousand miracles. And here is the biography of the renowned Giangiuseppe, a mighty saint and-----”

I was paying little heed; the flying monk had enthralled me. An unsuspected pioneer of aviation . . . here was a discovery!

“He flew?” I queried, my mind reverting to the much-vaunted triumphs of modern science.

“Why not? The only reason why people don’t fly like that nowadays is because–well, sir, because they can’t. They fly with machines, and think it something quite new and wonderful. And yet it’s as old as the hills! There was Iscariot, for example–Icarus, I mean-----”

“Pure legend, my good man.”

“Everything becomes legend, if the gentleman will have the goodness to wait. And here is the biography of-----”

“How much for Joseph of Copertino?” Cost what it may, I said to myself, that volume must be mine.

He took it up and began to turn over the pages lovingly, as though handling some priceless Book of Hours.

“A fine engraving,” he observed, sotto voce. “And this is the best of many biographies of the flying monk. It is by Rossi, the Minister-General of the Franciscan order to which our monk belonged; the official biography, it might be called–dedicated, by permission, to His Holiness Pope Clemens XIII, and based on the documents which led to the saint’s beatification. Altogether, a remarkable volume-----”

And he paused awhile. Then continued:

“I possess a cheaper biography of him, also with a frontispiece, by Montanari, which has the questionable advantage of being printed as recently as 1853. And here is yet another one, by Antonio Basile–oh, he has been much written about; a most celebrated taumaturgo, (wonder-worker)! As to this Life of 1767, I could not, with a good conscience, appraise it at less than five francs.”

“I respect your feelings. But–five francs! I have certain scruples of my own, you know, and it irks my sense of rectitude to pay five francs for the flying monk unless you can supply me with six or seven additional books to be included in that sum.

“Twelve soldi (sous) apiece–that strikes me as the proper price of such literature, for foreigners, at least. Therefore I’ll have the great Egidio as well, and Montanari’s life of the flying monk, and that other one by Basile, and Giangiuseppe, and-----”

“By all means! Pray take your choice.”

And so it came about that, relieved of a tenuous and very sticky five-franc note, and loaded down with three biographies of the flying monk, one of Egidio, two of Giangiuseppe–I had been hopelessly swindled, but there! no man can bargain in a hurry, and my eagerness to learn something of the life of this early airman had made me oblivious of the natural values of things–and with sundry smaller volumes of similar import bulging out of my pockets I turned in the direction of the hotel, promising myself some new if not exactly light reading.

But hardly had I proceeded twenty paces before the shopkeeper came running after me with another formidable bundle under his arm. More books! An ominous symptom–the clearest demonstration of my defeat; I was already a marked man, a good customer. It was humiliating, after my long years’ experience of the south.

And there resounded an unmistakable note of triumph in his voice, as he said:

“Some more biographies, sir. Read them at your leisure, and pay me what you like. You cannot help being generous; I see it in your face.”

“I always try to encourage polite learning, if that is what you think to decipher in my features. But it rains santi this morning,” I added, rather sourly.

“The gentleman is pleased to joke! May it rain soldi tomorrow.”

“A little shower, possibly. But not a cloud-burst, like today. . . .”



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Old Calabria (Marlboro Travel)
By Norman Douglas
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