My Italian Year – In Magna Grecia

THERE is a garden in Naples which for beauty and interest surpasses any other in the world. I am ashamed sometimes to think how much of my time I spend in it during my visits to Naples, and also sorry to think of the many two-franc pieces I spend in order to enter into its fairyland. No doubt my time might be much better employed in studying the wonderful productions of man in the Museo Nazionale—the glorious examples of sculpture, and the priceless collections contained in its galleries and halls. The productions of Nature, however, appeal to me more strongly ; and this is why I go a dozen times to my Neapolitan garden for the once that I go to the Museo. Of the garden of the Palazzo Rufolo at Ravello, by which I intend presently to pass, Wagner wrote, ” Klingsor’s Zaubergarten ist gefunden.” I think he might with equal justice have written the same thing of the Aquarium at Naples.

Most aquariums, as we all know, come into that category of frauds best defined as tourist-traps-dank and dreary places where a limited number of specimens of the commonest objects of marine life pass a miserable and unnatural existence, and than which any pool left by the outgoing tide on a rocky coast contains many more attractions. Very different is this veritable museum of the sea, which years of labour and scientific study has formed at Naples. Properly to enjoy its marvellous beauty, the Aquarium should be visited about midday, when the hot rays of the sun are reflected in the depths of the water in the numerous tanks. Then, indeed, one may believe oneself to be wandering in a garden brilliant with the hues of many flowers. And between the flowers there are jewels—living jewels that sparkle and flash in the sunlight, as they form recesses in the rocks, with all the iridescent colours of the opal. The flowers, too, are fairy flowers, and their delicate petals sway gently to and fro with the motion of the water, as though stirred by a summer breeze. You can watch the life of these lovely creatures of the sea ; and, watching, the minutes will glide into hours if only you have eyes to see and a heart to understand. It is a very fever of life, too, for all its apparent peacefulness—watchful against any attack, sensitive to the least feathery touch of the tiniest of the animalcule which may come into contact with it. Then, if you gaze long enough, you may see the sleep of the sea flowers, the folding of their petals, and the gradual fading of their gorgeous colours. There are other creatures—mysterious creations that revolve ceaselessly, weird little sea-horses, things that you think are lifeless tubes of coral until they, also, at the touch of some invisible atom, spring into motion, and shoot out threatening feelers which curl through the water around them.

But the sea has her chamber of horrors as well as her jewelled gardens. In other tanks there are terrible creatures, very devils of the deep. You may look your hardest into a tank, the sides of which are lined with caverned rocks, and believe it to be untenanted. But if by chance one of the custodi of the Aquarium should insert, from above, some repulsive-looking matter into the tank, which sinks to the bottom, you will see a sight which will cause you to shiver, so suggestive is it of a fiendish malignity, which has something about it that is uncanny. What you have taken to be a piece of yellow rock suddenly stirs, and with a horrible, gliding motion—subtle, but yet conveying a sense of remorseless power—a great octopus will approach his prey. For an instant the motion is not particularly rapid, and you can see the cruel eyes of the creature gleaming in the water, and the loathsome-looking tentacles waving before it. Suddenly there is a lightning-like rush through the water. The arms wind themselves round their prey, and the filthy white suckers fasten upon it, as the terrible mandibles rend and tear it. These octopi are, of course, small in comparison with the horrible monsters of their kind which haunt the deep ; but nevertheless they manage to convey a sense of repulsion and a suggestion of a cold and devilish cruelty, which causes one to turn away from their tank with a shudder of disgust, and to hurry back to the lovely flower-creatures near by.

I often wonder why people should go to church and listen to the theories of priests and parsons about the Creator, when they can study His ways for themselves by intelligently observing His works, and this thought is ever in my mind when I visit the Naples Aquarium. Indeed, I have more than once sought refuge in it after having attended Mass, or listened to some more than usually irritating sermon regarding mysteries of which the preacher, in common with every other created being, past or present, was entirely ignorant ; and I have derived the same satisfaction from exchanging human theories for divine facts in the Garden of the Sea at Naples, as when I have fled from a church in England to the banks of a woodland stream.

There are other departments of this marvellous aquarium which, though certainly not beautiful, are extremely interesting ; but they are not shown to the public. The upper floors of the building are devoted to laboratories for scientific research, and there is also a ” hospital,” in which ailing specimens are treated, and tanks in which various specimens are kept until they are required to replace others in the Aquarium itself. On the last occasion, when the Director kindly took me over these departments, I was shown a ” patient ” in the hospital, who had undergone the operation of having a lost portion of his tail supplied by the process of grafting. He appeared to be quite happy under the circumstances.

The Aquarium is limited to specimens belonging to the waters of the Gulf of Naples ; but, since the gulf is peculiarly rich in marine fauna—if this be a permissible expression—of all kinds, it is by no means a deleterious limitation. The institution possesses a yacht of its own, on which deep-sea dredging for specimens is carried out during the summer months, and scientific observations are made. I was once most kindly invited to accompany the Director on one of these cruises, and it is one of the regrets of my life that I was unable to do so, as I could not be in Naples at the time.

Naples, of course, like every other great Italian city, possesses an alta società of its own, and a very charming, kindly, and hospitable society it is. It is naturally small, as compared with that of Rome, and it is not cosmopolitan. That, I think, is one of its great advantages. The British and American society adventurer is conspicuous by his absence from the Neapolitan salons ; neither, I imagine, would he or she have the slightest chance of being received into them in the same way that the more unconcerned Roman hostesses are apt to receive foreigners. The Neapolitan grande dame very rightly likes to know who a stranger is in his own country before inviting him to meet her friends ; but when once she knows that his social position at home warrants her doing so, she will do all in her power to make his stay in Naples pleasant to him.

The great Neapolitan families are all more or less closely related to one another, and also to the Sicilian houses of the same standing. It behoves the stranger, therefore, to be wary ; and he will do well not to express any adverse opinion as to any individual he may have happened to meet in society. That, indeed, is a golden rule to observe in any society, large or small ; but it is only the unusually clever people who make a point of observing it. I have no intention of making invidious comparisons between Neapolitan and Roman society, since I have received too much kindness and hospitality from both to allow of my doing so, even if I had the mind. All I can say is, that I wish Naples were not so many hours’ journey from England and from Tuscany ; for, were it nearer, I should certainly spend very much more of my time in it than I am able to do, both in order to renew my pleasant associations with its social life, and to feel myself—in Naples.

The multiplicity of titles in Naples is astounding ; marquises, counts, and barons are as plentiful as blackberries in an English hedgerow, while even dukes and princes are not uncommon. The really great houses, of course, have an indisputable right to their titles, and among them are to be found some of the most ancient names and descents that figure in the Almanach de Gotha. What right, if any, the vast majority of the remainder of these titolati may have to the handles they are so fond of prefixing to their names, nobody can say. They are to be found in every condition of life ; and a cab-driver was pointed out to me, not long ago, who was a marchese, and, I believe, a genuine marchese, the title having been conferred on his grandfather by King ” Bomba.” In any Neapolitan restaurant one may hear extremely disreputable-looking individuals addressed by the waiters as signor barone or signor marchese.

Needless to say, this species of noble persons stands entirely outside Neapolitan society, which is, I should say, the most exclusive of any in Italy. But, with all its exclusiveness, it is not the least stiff or formal, but quite the contrary, being, perhaps, in reality, the most natural and genuine of any. There is plenty of wealth in Naples among the upper classes, as well as plenty of poverty. Not a few of the alta nobiltà possess enormous estates in” Calabria and in other parts of Italy. They rarely, with some exceptions, entertain on any large scale ; but there are certain Neapolitan houses in which, when they do open their doors, things are as ” well done ” as in similar great houses in London.

The Court is represented in Naples by the Duke and Duchess of Aosta, the king’s first cousins, who reside not at the royal palace, but at the far more attractive one at Capodimonte. Both are immensely popular with the Neapolitans, and with good reason. Their untiring exertions, at the time of the last great eruption of Vesuvius, to bring help and encouragement to the villages overwhelmed by the lava, making their way fearlessly to places which the authorities had declared to be too dangerous to approach, is well remembered. But Italy has become accustomed to see the members of the House of Savoy displaying a quiet and cool courage, and bringing instant relief wherever disaster occurs.

It would take not one but several volumes to describe the many and varied interests to be found in and immediately around Naples, and the variety the city and its surrounding towns and villages offer is one of the reasons why I, personally, prefer it even to Rome. But an Italian year is shorter, I think, than other years, and away over the sea lies Sicily, which must be visited ; while the great and, to foreigners, comparatively unknown districts of the Basilicata and Calabria must find some place in these pages. The Gulf of Salerno, too, and the towns which line its shores or nestle under its over-shadowing mountains, should be explored by any one who wishes fully to appreciate the charms of Magna Grecia. Most tourists in these parts go to Amalfi, and I suppose that they like it when they get there. To speak frankly, I do not. To my mind it is an odious place, inhabited by a cruel and odious people. I have seen things in Amalfi which I cannot recall without a shudder—acts of barbarity performed in the public streets, passing unheeded and unreproved under the eyes of villainous-looking ecclesiastics, who would close them to any crime, provided that motley were forthcoming to purchase absolution. And yet, when in this detestable spot, one cannot help meditating over its past greatness, and thinking of the days when Amalfi and its group of neighbouring cities, now sunk into squalor, was a powerful republic largely dominating the trade between East and West.

It is worth while, however, to go to Amalfi for no other reason than to visit Ravello. This beautiful place, high up among the mountains, was once a flourishing town inhabited by rich merchant princes. It is now not much more than an overgrown village, but a village in which there are some priceless relics of its past. The cathedral, unluckily, has been terribly mutilated, thanks to a certain Bishop of Ravello, who appears to have had an invincible hatred of any form of decorative art. He destroyed nearly everything in his church which had once made it famous, and only isolated objects have escaped his onslaughts to show us how beautiful the whole fabric must have been. But Ravello still contains one of the most fascinating things in all Italy, and this is the Palazzo Rufolo, which centuries ago belonged to a family of merchant princes of that name. Its courtyard, built by the Saracens, as, indeed, was the whole palazzo originally, is a dream of daylight. Its gardens—well, what more can I say of them than did Wagner in his sentence that I have already quoted ? The view from its terraces over mountains and sea is of a loveliness indescribable, and every point upon which the eye rests has its history or its legend. Far below lie the twin towns of Majori and Minori, nestling in a country carpeted in spring and early summer with wild flowers, and rich in fruits. The picturesque old city of Vietri stands over the sea far away to the left, and from it one may drive up a mountain valley to the high plateau of La Cava, where is a delightful little resort much frequented in summer on account of its fresh and pure air, and which boasts of a comfortable hotel, in which, I must add, the food is, or was, excellent.

Very different in character and habits are the people of these mountain towns and villages from the ruffians of Amalfi and the coast—a gracious and kindly people, at any rate to strangers, and with their behaviour towards each other I have nothing to do. A great charm of all this country is its water. Little rivers and sparkling streams intersect the valleys and the mountain plateau. Far above Cava dei Tirrheni, as the little town is called, lies the abbey of La Cava, surrounded by woods on the mountain side. It was a great place of pilgrimage in the days of the Normans and the Lombards, and here in the library of the monastery are still preserved archives and manuscripts priceless to the historian and the archæologian. Assuredly fame would await a scholar who should devote a few summers to extracting from these archives some consecutive history of those times when Saracens, Normans, and Lombards strove for mastery and to found a dynasty in Southern Italy, thus relieving the bewildered brains of those who have to wrestle with the complicated and disjointed mass of information concerning that far-off but fascinating period at present available. The scholar in question would, of a certainty, pass his summers in a delightful spot and in a delightful climate. I should like—but then, I am not a scholar.

Salerno, too, is well worth visiting, if only for its Duomo. This is very fine in itself, and full of beautiful marbles and works of art. But its chief interest to most people will centre in the tomb of the great Pope Gregory VII. Here he lies, that great and unscrupulous priest who, for ambition’s sake, first conceived in his subtle brain the idea of making the kings of the world subservient to the Papacy ; who kept the Emperor Henry kneeling in the snow at Canossa, a suppliant to be admitted to a priest’s presence, and who in reality brought upon the world the curse of that temporal power of the Vatican which his successor, Innocent iv., whom we have left lying in the Duomo at Naples, finally consolidated.

From Salerno it is easy to visit the great temples of Pæstum, standing in their magnificent desolation in the midst of a fever-haunted plain. What an object – lesson is here ! The daughter of Sybaris, that mighty Greek city in Calabria, the name of which has become synonymous with riches and luxury, Pæstum, or Poseidonia, to give it its true name, was probably nearly as splendid and luxurious as its parent. Of Sybaris not a trace remains above the ground ; but of the city of Poseidon these mighty temples bear pregnant witness to the magnificence which once reigned in the midst of this dreary plain, and of the mutability of all things under the sun.

Virgil was here, as every schoolboy knows to his cost ; but the roses he sings of are buried in the dust, together with everything else that made the city beautiful. Only the temples remain, rising gaunt and solemn out of the flowering weeds. And even they are stripped of the gorgeous colouring, the gleam of which must have been a welcome sight to the eyes of generations of merchant sailors as they brought their ships to port laden with the precious merchandise of the East. A great silence reigns at Pæstum—a silence of the tomb. It is broken only by the shrilling of innumerable grilli in the rank herbage, and by the faint, far-off murmur of the waves breaking on the flat shore. Even at Athens there is nothing so impressive as the Temple of Neptune at Pæstum ; and there is certainly no Roman ruin which can in any way vie with it for dignity and grandeur. The last time I visited it I was absolutely alone–only a couple of contadini were visible half a mile away ploughing with their white oxen. I felt as though I had dropped from the sky on to another planet, and I am quite sure that had I seen the temple thronged with its ancient worshippers, and sacrifice being offered to Poseidon, I should not have been the least surprised, though I certainly should not have cared about witnessing the sacrificial rite.

The number of foreigners who penetrate into the Basilicata and Calabria is few indeed, and it is a thousand pities that this in many ways splendid country is so little visited. Accommodation, it is true, even in some of the larger towns, leaves much—and sometimes everything—to be desired; and, as in Sardinia, those who wish to be spared discomfort must arm themselves with letters from some of the great Calabrian landowners who spend most of their year in Naples to their fattori and to the local authorities, such as the prefects and mayors. The general idea of this heel of Italy is that it is a savage land, poor and desolate, and inhabited by an altogether undesirable people. Even Italians are apt to look surprised if one suggests any such strange thing as an excursion into Calabria. And yet, were it not for the abominableness of the railroads, there are many parts of Calabria especially which are as delightful as any to be found not only in Italy but in Europe. Every kind of climate is obtainable, from that in which one swelters two-thirds of the year in a semi-tropical heat to that in which even in July and August one may breathe the freshest of mountain and sea air, and be glad enough of a blanket or two on one’s bed at nights.

Some of the great feudal families in these parts possess not only estates which elsewhere would be principalities, but they are also possessed of great wealth in comparison with that of large landowners in other districts of Italy. It is very difficult to know how wealthy a family may be in Calabria ; for, with the exception of the great nobles who visit their estates rarely, the scale of living is to all appearances the same in all households, even in those belonging to the upper bourgeoisie and the petite noblesse. This scale of living is simple in the extreme, and devoid of any display which costs money. The contadini of the estate act as servants, and the fattorie supply the family with all the necessaries of everyday life except clothes. The consequence is that there are no tradesmen’s bills to meet, no useless or idle servants to maintain, and a man who begins life with a very small capital may increase it yearly owing to the happy accident that, whatever his social status, nobody expects him to spend his income on any outward display of luxury or comfort.

The country as a whole is immensely fertile, and not only fruit and corn but also extensive pasturage exists on most of the large properties, while even the smallest of a few acres, of which there are a vast number, yield in any average year valuable crops. Brigandage, once the scourge of these districts, has practically ceased to exist, and the traveller is as safe here as in any other part of Italy—and, perhaps, safer than some in the immediate neighbourhood of Rome, where amateur brigands are not altogether unknown. The people, too, though often rough, are harmless and obliging, very sober and industrious, and far more moral than those of Campania.

It is not, perhaps, very generally known that in Calabria there exist to this day pure Greek colonies, the origin of which is lost in the mist of ages. Two of these number a considerable population. They live entirely apart from the Italian community, and speak of the Italians as ” Latinoi.” Their Greek tongue, I am assured, has little in common with modern Greek, and is probably identical with that spoken at Constantinople in the Byzantine age ; but it would appear to be an entirely unwritten language, and I believe that no sentence of it exists in print. The percentage of those unable to read or write is still enormous in this heel of Italy. Even now, on very many estates large and small accounts are never kept, simply because figures would imply nothing either to the peasant or his employer. Nevertheless, there is more honesty in this part of Italy than in any other, and the fattori in Calabria are proverbial for their strict integrity.

It seems strange in these days when it is the fashion to be democratic—from a dread, I suppose, of being considered to be ” behind the times “—to think that not a hundred years has passed since the feudal system was abolished in Southern Italy. It was long before any of the Calabrian towns possessed municipal rights ; and the great feudal families were practically reigning sovereigns over their possessions. Much of the feudal tradition still clings to the more remote portions of Calabria ; and, indeed, there are places in which life has not greatly changed from what it was in the Middle Ages. I have a shrewd suspicion that in these places the poorer and more humble members of the community are far happier and better off than they would be did they insist on benefiting by all those rights of citizenship which a democratic and enlightened age has given them, But this suspicion, no doubt, is born of that dislike of and distrust for democracy which I am benighted and unfashionable enough to entertain.

The Calabresi are an intensely patriotic people, and even the priests have set a good example in that way, since they are not as a rule by any means disposed to accept the pretensions of the Vatican in civil matters. Many of them in the days immediately preceding the revolution against the Bourbon dynasty lost their heads on the scaffold rather than obey the papal instructions to use their influence in favour of that most nefarious institution. Both in Calabria and the Basilicata, the sale of the enormous tracts of land acquired by the Church, which was carried out by the newly formed Italian Government between the years 1870 and 1875, caused a great financial crisis from which these districts are only now re-covering. These lands were largely bought up by small proprietors on a system of partial payments extending over eighteen years. That was on the face of it an excellent plan. But interest of 6 per cent. was charged on all unpaid amounts, whereas the land itself in those days of indifferent or ignorant farming often did not return a profit of more than 2 per cent., and sometimes not as much. Many purchasers were in the end unable to meet their liabilities to the Government, and properties were put up to sale a second time without finding buyers. The consequence was that much of the land acquired, often by very fraudulent means, by the Church, and rightly confiscated by the new Government, was heavily mortgaged to meet the liabilities undertaken with its purchase ; and this has been the cause of much of the poverty of the South and its inability to progress as fast as other portions of United Italy. A new order of things, however, has dawned ; and there are not wanting signs that in the not remote future the Basilicata and Calabria will perhaps rival the north of the Italian peninsula in financial prosperity.