Italy – Modern Italy And Greece A Contrast

A THOUGHTFUL traveler in Greece and Italy can hardly fail to be struck by the paucity of relics of the Middle Ages in the one country, and their frequency in the other. In Greece he may journey for hours or even days together, without seeing any work of man’s hand to remind him of the two thou-sand years or more which divide the stately remains of ancient temples and palaces and fortresses from the mean cottages of the modern peasantry. A few a very few fine Byzantine churches, with their mosaics and eikons, the moldering ruins of Venetian castles, and monasteries which contrast by their squalor and poverty with the natural beauty of their surroundings, are almost the only monuments bequeathed to modern Greece by the centuries which have enriched modern Italy in profusion with all the splendour of media val architecture and sculpture and painting. And it is not merely the rarity, but the style of the remains of the Middle Ages which impresses the mind of a traveller in Greek lands with a melancholy sense of artistic and national decay. He contrasts the stiff grotesque figures and narrow limitations of Byzantine art with the noble freedom and variety of ancient Greek sculpture ; he turns from the rude masonry of the Venetian castles, their rough little stones hastily huddled together without order, to contrast with it the massive solidity and beautiful symmetry of ancient Greek fortifications, where the great blocks are hewn and squared to a nicety and laid together in such exact order that it is frequently difficult to detect the joinings. Yet these magnificent walls often mark the sites of little towns which played an insignificant part in Greek history, and of which even the names are in many cases forgotten. Few things can testify more eloquently to the populousness and wealth, as well as to the patriotism, the energy, and the skill of those tiny Greek communities, than the ruined but still splendid walls and towers by which they sought to guard their liberty ; few things can set in a stronger light the decline of modern by comparison with ancient Greece. It is almost as if in the history of the country the Middle Ages had been blotted out, or as if from the reign of Justinian to the War of Liberation the land had been destitute of human inhabitants or tenanted only by flocks and herds under the charge of a few wandering shepherds and herdsmen.

The causes of this long period of intellectual and moral stagnation, or rather retrogression, are no doubt many and various. By the crushing weight of her financial oppression, Rome at once drained the material resources and sapped the vital energies of the people, while at the same time her world-wide dominion, powerfully seconded by the teachings of a cosmopolitan religion, dissolved the ties of purely local patriotism and broke the spring of those civic virtues which that patriotism had fostered. On the nation, thus impoverished and enfeebled, there fell like an incubus the long blight of the Turkish dominion, which completed the work of degradation and decay. While the Turk as a man appears to have many good qualities, which win him the esteem of those who know him, the Turks as a people are to all intents as unprogressive as their own sheep and oxen. They may discard the turban for the fez, the yataghan for the bayonet, the bow and arrow for the rifle and the machine gun, but in the frame of their minds and the circle of their ideas they are what their forefathers were, when their hordes emerged from the deserts of Central Asia and trampled under foot the last surviving relics of the Byzantine Empire. In the centuries which have elapsed since they established their alien rule on European soil, have they contributed anything to European literature or science or art ? Have they produced a single man who is known to the world at large for anything but the wars he waged or the massacres he ordered ? Since the advance of their victorious arms ceased to be a menace to European civilisation, Turkey has served only as a makeweight in European politics, to be thrown from time to time into the scales by unscrupulous statesmen in order to trim the balance of power or to incline it in their own favour.

It is one of the many blessings of Italy that she has never been subject to the rule of these Asiatic barbarians, that the Turk has never gained even a foothold on her soil. True, she has bowed her neck to the yoke of many northern invaders from the days of the Goths onward, but barbarous as have been many of her conquerors, they have been at least more or less akin to her in race and language, and some of them have contributed to the glories of Italian art, and probably also of Italian literature. Certainly these invasions have never for any long period together interrupted the course of native Italian genius. The fall of the Roman Empire was followed by the rise of the separate Italian states, each with its active municipal life, its industries and commerce, its local art and literature. And in Italy the darkness of the Middle Ages was a prelude to the splendid dawn of the Renaissance. The sun of ancient learning which set on Constantinople rose again on Rome ; the fall of the Byzantine Empire scattered the dying embers of Greek scholar-ship and blew them up into fresh fire in Italy, which handed them on to the West. Hence Italy, unlike Greece, is crowded with monuments of the Middle Ages, of the Renaissance, and of the fruitful centuries which have elapsed since that mighty awakening of the European mind ; it is haunted by the memories of the great men who in every department of human activity have illuminated and enriched not only their country, but mankind by the energy of their character, the range of their know-ledge, the originality of their ideas, the light and fire of their imagination. The busy marts, the great libraries, the magnificent churches, the stately palaces, the glowing canvases, the breathing sculptures in bronze and marble which adorn Italian cities, are only the most obvious, because the outward and visible evidence of that inward spiritual life, so potent, so varied, so abundant, which has animated the Italian people uninterruptedly from antiquity till now. What a debt does not the world owe to Italian merchants and explorers, to Italian artists and craftsmen, to Italian poets and musicians, to Italian scholars and thinkers ! Contrast the amazing fertility of the Italian genius in mediaeval and modern times with the almost absolute sterility of the Greek in the same period. Since the final separation of the Eastern from the Western Empire, what has Greece contributed to the sum of human thought, to the progress of human knowledge, to the improvement of human society ? If we except the legislation of Justinian, which was rather a codification of old Roman law than a fresh contribution to jurisprudence, the Byzantine Empire produced nothing of value for the general amelioration of our race ; it gave birth to no single great writer or philosopher or artist whose influence extended far beyond the limits of his native land, and whose name the world will not willingly let die. And the same blight which sterilised the Greek genius through the Byzantine period persisted under the Turkish dominion, and has continued with little change from the War of Liberation to the present day. In literature, in science, in art, the map of modern Greece might almost be a blank for all that the country has contributed to the higher departments of thought, to the noblest activities of the human mind.

In these, as well as in the sphere of politics, Greece has been far outstripped by her ancient rival, and lives, like Spain, for the world at large chiefly in the memory of her glorious past. Of the three great southern peninsulas which were touched by the early beams of civilisation while the rest of Europe was still plunged in heathen darkness, Italy alone has kept the sacred fire burning on her altars from then till now. Naturally one of the most beautiful countries on earth, she is historically perhaps the most interesting of all, by reason of the long unbroken development which links her present to her past. She is the golden bridge across which we cant still travel in thought back through the night of the Middle Ages to the sunset glory of the antique world ; she is like one of her own ancient aqueducts which still brings to the heart of the Eternal City a current of living water from the purple mountains that loom, faint and dim as dreams, on the far horizon. Hinc lucem et pocula sacra.