I SUPPOSE that it is a matter of temperament, but, to my mind, one of the many advantages which Naples possesses over Rome lies in the fact that one does not feel that oppression of the past from which in the last-named city it is difficult entirely to free oneself. There is nothing melancholy or depressing about Naples ; and though her middle-past, if I may coin such an expression, contains tragedies enough and horrors enough to satisfy the most ardent seeker after such things, they never intrude themselves so aggressively as does the oppressive weight of dead empire and living theocracy at Rome. Even in her most tragic times, the times of the Anjou, Aragon, and Bourbon reigns, her tragedies were artistically concealed under a mantle of carelessness, gaiety, and brilliancy very different from the barbaric splendour which only brought the brutality of ancient Rome into greater relief, or from the hypo-critical mask of religion under which the usurpers of the throne of the Cæsars-the medieval Popes strove to conceal their rascalities. No doubt, as I say, this is all a mere matter of personal temperament, and I am quite aware that I am in the vast minority in regarding Rome and the Roman Campagna as the most melancholy and depressing place on the face of God’s earth a place in which one is at every step confronted by object-lessons in the vanity of all human things under the sun, and in the vanity, too, of a purely human institution which pretends to possess a divine origin.
At Rome the further one permits thought and imagination to recede into the past, the uglier are the visions of blood and lust, of violence and aggression that confront one. The very beginning of things is fratricide, and a particularly base and treacherous form of fratricide at that ? At Naples, on the other hand, the further imagination strays into the remote past, the more gracious and poetical does that past appear. This, no doubt, is due simply to the fact that the origin of things, so far as all practical purposes are concerned, is Greek and not Latin. We may, if we please, to use a vulgarism, get behind the tragic centuries of Naples and Sicily and find ourselves living in the spirit in an age of beauty, luxury, and refinement such as the coarser-minded and more brutal Romans never knew. And, indeed, it is the brutality of Rome which even to this day casts a blot on the fairness of this lovely shore, a blot more ineffaceable than those caused by all the later iniquities of Spanish and French tyrants.
Ahead of us, as we leave Piedigrotta and Posilipo behind us and make our way down the hill to Pozzuoli lies Baia and the Capo Miseno, can one ever gaze at them across the blue waters without a ghastly vision rising in one’s mindsthe scene of the murder of Agrippina by her son ? Often have I sat by the castle of Baia in the warm glow of a summer evening and conjured up the whole scene the stately imperial galley escorting the empress from the banquet at which Nero had entertained her,-to her villa by the Lucrine Lake ; the grim moment when the luxurious vessel, gliding softly over the still waters of the bay to the sound of music and the measured sweep of oars, was riven asunder as though by magic ; and then the epilogue in the villa itselfthe final consummation of that crime, the monstrosity of which has rung down through the ages. No decidedly this lovely coast owes nothing to Rome save unpleasant associations !
There is Capri, too, beautiful as a dream, and inhabited by a good-looking and good-natured population to boot, which even Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic tourists have been unable altogether to spoilan island of almost perpetual summerover which hang, like a lurid pall, the terrible traditions connected with Tiberius. I for one, however, will not allow Tiberius to spoil my wanderings about Capri, for I altogether discredit the tales concerning his appalling deeds of cruelty and unbridled lust. It was assuredly not necessary for a Roman emperor to leave Rome in order to indulge to his heart’s content in both the one and the other ; and the fact that the poor old gentleman chose Capri as a retreat in which to escape from the moral and political atmosphere of his capital does not seem to me to point to anything but good in him. No doubt he amused himself on Capri, as many other lesser individuals have done before and since his day ; and some of the diversions of even the best among the Cæsars do not, I suppose, commend themselves to strict moralists. After all, the charges against Tiberius, and the tales told concerning his life on Capri, rest almost entirely on the very doubtful word of that arch-scandalmonger Suetonius, whom recent research has detected in many a calumny. It is certainly unlikely that a man who proved himself to be so conscientious and fair-minded a ruler should have become in his old age the monster of iniquity which history and tradition has until recently made him out to be. If he were so, then he must have become suddenly insane in his latter yearsstruck by that strange epileptic insanity which, though common to the Cæsars of the Julian dynasty, was completely unknown in the Claudian family to which Tiberius belonged.
But the whitewashing of Tiberius would be a calamity for the Capriotifor who would come any more to look at the famous salto whence the tyrant caused his victims to be flung hundreds of feet down into the sea, while men were stationed in boats below to beat out the brains of any poor creature who happened to rise to the surface alive after his plunge ? And who would listen any more to the tales of the boatmen and the fishermen of the island? I listen to the tales with the greatest interest, and apologise mentally to the shade of the calumniated emperor, while I believe in them just as much as I believe in those other tales concerning the Madonna and the saints with which they are often variedbut not as much as I do in those older legends which are scornfully dismissed as pagan by the cocksure Christian, though they usually contain not a few sparks of the divine truths of Nature.
One should not, I suppose, discourse of Capri without mentioning the Blue Grotto. Here, if any-where, is a spot of pure beauty, unrivalled in ‘ its own particular way. I am thankful to say I have always had the good fortune to visit it at hours when the tourists frequent it not, and this, assuredly, should be the endeavour of every one who would fully realise its magic spell. I find that the general impression concerning this wonderful sea cave is that it is a relic as classical as the rocks of the Sirens or as Scylla and Charybdis. Even in the days of Imperial Rome, however, the blueness of the Grotto was non-existent, for the simple reason that the level of the sea has considerably altered since those times. A cave, no doubt, existed, probably when Tiberius fixed upon Capri as a pleasant place for his villeggiatura ; but the entrance to it must have been so small as to have prevented that flow of light from without, the refraction of which causes its lovely colour. Tradition, of course, points to a secret passage said to lead to one of the several palaces of the emperor, and tradition is probably right, since in times of danger such a means of escape to the sea would have been very useful.
It is strange that all through the Middle Ages, and down to the beginning of the nineteenth century, the existence of the Blue Grotto was practically unknown to the world. It is supposed that the fishermen of the island always knew of its existence, but nothing would induce them to enter it, since it was said to be haunted by demons and by fearful sea monsters who carried off the unwary into its recesses, whence they never again emerged. Of course a German went and discovered itone Kopisch. He had listened to the local legends concerning it, and, like a sensible man, he set himself to work to discover what foundation there might be for them, instead of dismissing them with a smile, as some superior Englishmen had doubtless done many a time before him. This was in the year 1826, and as any one who wishes may read his own account of his discovery, written in German, but not, I think, translated into any other tongue, I need not reproduce it here.
The tales told by the fishermen concerning the Grotto are many and wonderful, and even now, notwithstanding the proverb of familiarity breeding contempt, some of these legends are at least partially believed in. I once tried my best to get some boatmen to take me into the Grotto before sunrise, thinking that it would be interesting to watch the effect of the dawn and observe the changes the light would undergo until it reached the perfect blue which we all know. Bribe as I might, I could not find a single man who would undertake the matter. They had not the slightest objection to take me anywhere else throughout the summer night, but into or near the Blue Grotto they would not go before the sun was up. I do not know whether this would be the experience of any one wishing to gratify his curiosity at that hour when most people are content to be in their beds. Indeed, I heard afterwards that some strange sea monster had been haunting the bit of coast in question, possibly a large shark or whale, and this may have temporarily aroused the superstitious objections of the boatmen.
I am told that Capri has a little society of its own in the shape of a cosmopolitan foreign colony of which the principal element is German. I have no acquaintance with it, and the society in which I have moved in Capri has always been that of the people. I have an idea that this last is really the best society in the island, and that it is also the most interesting ; but, of course, I only judge by what the Caprioti have themselves told me concerning the signoria straniera.
Capri, Sorrento, Castellamarethe very names stand for all that is beautiful, even in Italy. As to the last, it is certainly the least attractive of the three, the town itself being a far from pleasant one, and its inhabitants far from edifying in their manners. ” Surriento,” as it is called in native parlance, is a very different matter. Facing north-ward, and shaded by the great mass of Monte Sant’ Angelo, it is an ideal place in which to spend the summer and autumn months. I am not going to describe its scenery, for no pen could do justice to it. Neither, for that matter, can any brush. The lovely lights on land and sea are so constantly changing as to be a despair to any one attempting to seize and transfer their effects to print or canvas. The whole of the Sorrento district is singularly rich in legends, and in many of these it is easy to recognise old pagan friends reappearing in Christian guise. There are individuals, called the Janara, who perform malicious acts after nightfall–witches, in fact, of whom there is an abundance in these parts, as we have seen that there were formerly at Lezzeno on the Lake of Como. Then there are evil spirits, which can only be kept out of the peasants’ dwellings by filling a jar full of water and placing it outside the entrance.
In Scotland, of course, these spirits would be fairies, and the jars of water would be represented more poetically by the two familiar rowan trees which one may see planted at the wicket of many a Highland cottage. Indeed, the magic folklore of the North is far more poetical than its counter-part in Italy. Those delightful creations, the ” little people,” are altogether absent from it, and this, as I think, is a very unfortunate loss. They are re-placed by far grimmer folk.
I have a theory of my own to account for the difference between the attitude towards the super-natural of the Northern as compared with the Latin races ; and though I am quite aware that there are several great flaws in my theory, I believe that there may also be some truth in it. It is very certain that, although the peasants in certain parts of Italy believe in evil spirits, they do not believe, and the Italian in general does not believe, in what we know as ghosts. It is extremely rare to find in Italy a house which has the reputation of being permanently haunted, and the average Italian is politely incredulous when one of even the best authenticated English, Scottish, or German ghost stories is related to him.
” Confound the man ! ” I hear Brown saying, as he turns over the leaves of this book at his club, “he jumps about from Sorrento to Scotland, and from one subject to another, in the most annoying manner “and I fear that more important critics than Brown will say the same thing ! But I cannot help it if they do. My Italian year is made up of digressions ; and so I should not be faithful to my subject were this volume not to be made up of them likewise.
But to return to the ghosts. It is, as I have said, not easy to find a permanently haunted house in Italy, though there are a few scattered here and there which bear that reputation. It frequently happens, however, that houses are suddenly subject to strange manifestations which cannot be accounted for in any normal waysuch as furniture being mysteriously moved, bedclothes being forcibly torn away in the dead of night, and so on. Not long ago a case of this kind occurred in the house of a family well known to me in a small Tuscan town. A death had occurred some months previously, and quite suddenly a room in the house became impossible to occupy on account of the noises which were heard in it. Objects placed on tables fell to the floor for no apparent reason, and repeatedly, during the night, those who occupied the bedroom adjoining it were awakened by the bedclothes being violently wrenched away and hurled to another part of the room. First of all the Carabinieri were called in, but their most searching investigations could make nothing of the matter. Then the priests were summoned to exorcise what was reluctantly supposed to be a spirit ; but even the powers of the Church were unable to put a stop to the proceedings. One of the sons of the said familya very great friend of minewas absent at the time doing his military service in Rome ; but he obtained leave to go home for a few days, and determined to investigate the matter for himself. Utterly sceptical as to the supernatural nature of the manifestations, he slept in the room on the night of his arrival, his only companions being a revolver and a thick stick, both of which he was in every way capable of using with effect. Of course he neither saw nor heard anything, nor were his slumbers disturbed by any disarrangement of the bedclothes. The manifestations promptly ceased, nor have they ever since been renewed. That they certainly had occurred almost nightly for several weeks could not be doubted ; but by what human agency they were caused remained a mystery.
To return to my theory ; I believe that, previous to the Reformation, there are very few instances of ghost stories to be found in either our own country or Germany. A belief in evil spirits of course there always was ; but not in the reappearance of departed friends and relatives, or of persons whose troubles or crimes, when alive, caused them to haunt the places where these had occurred. The religion of the masses in those times provided so completely for belief in the supernatural, by the perpetual recurrence of miracles and of apparitions of the Virgin and the saints, that there can have been little necessity for supernatural manifestations of a less sacred character. Now, among Northern peoples the faith in these things, and the possibility of their occurrence, was quickly swept away by the Reformation and the teachings of Protestantism. I do not think it is too much to assume that this deprivation of belief in the more sacred forms of supernatural manifestations gave rise to a necessity to supplant it by credulity in apparitions of the kind which we know as ghosts, and in other forms of the super-natural such as in later days became, and are still, common only in Protestant countries or among individuals in Catholic countries who have ceased to believe in Catholic doctrine as taught by the Latin and Greek Churches. I advance my theory with all reserve ; but I think it would be an interesting task to ascertain precisely the period when ghost stories, as we know them, first made their appearance and became credible to the masses I do not, of course, mean tales concerning spirits, good or evil, but those treating of the reappearance of individuals known to have lived or died in certain places. It is at least a curious coincidence that, in countries practically unaffected by the Reformation, there exists on the whole an utter scepticism as to ” ghosts,” and a contemptuous disbelief in tales concerning them. Whereas, in those countries in which the principles of the Reformation have most triumphed, there exists a firm and wide-spread belief in such appearances, which, I think, is not traceable, except as regards isolated cases, to a period anterior to the sixteenth century, and which, if I mistake not, did not gain any real footing in popular imagination until times considerably nearer to our own.
I should like to narrate some of the many bogy tales believed in by the people of Capri and Sorrento ; but they have been far better told than I could tell them, and this among others by Mr. Arthur Norway in his delightful book upon Naples.