OF all the places in Sicily which carry the mind far back into the past, there is none like Syracuse. It is as well, perhaps, to close one’s mind to the present during a stay there, since there is nothing of particular interest in the modern town which has replaced what Cicero described as the greatest of Greek cities and the most beautiful of all cities. Nothing, or next to nothing, remains of that great town which included five others within its walls ; nothing but a few columns from some one of the countless temples of the old gods, serving to support the masonry of a Christian church, and the traces of a theatre. It is doubtful whether much more survives beneath the soil, except a network of catacombs ; for Syracuse was never a marble city, and the stone of which it must have been built, brought from the gigantic quarries which still exist, is soft in quality and probably perished comparatively quickly under the influence of the moist sea winds.
What a walk, however, is that to Mongibellisi and the hill of Belvedere, near which is the site of the famous Euryaluspronounced, if you please, with the accent falling on the broad and open a !
And what a view is there from this site of tragedy ! Far away to the left rises the great snowy mass of Etna out of the plain of Catania, and the eye turns from the sapphire sea to the vivid green of vineyards and fruit gardens. Below us lies the great harbour of Syracuse ; but the steamers and sailing vessels lying in the modern port take the place of the triremes and galleys of old. But insensibly one is drawn to the famous Latomiathat place of shame and horrors unspeakable, in which ten thousand of the flower of the Athenians met a lingering death.
It is difficult to realise the tragedy of the spot now. The scene is so peacefuljust an immense quarry some hundred feet or more in depth, its sides festooned with creepers and gay with wild flowers, and overhead the deep blue Sicilian sky. Orange trees laden with golden fruit adorn it ; fig trees, lentisk, cystus, and the caper-plant cling to its jagged rocks, while among the ivy and the acanthus are gleams of vivid red, like drops of bloodthe blossom of the pomegranate. Swifts wheel screaming around and above it, and from the undergrowth comes the song of nightingales. And yet here an army diednot gloriously on the field of battle, but slowly, hopelessly, under the fierce rays of a Southern sunthe best of the gracious manhood of Greece, fair youths who sat at the feet of Socrates, athletes fresh from the triumphs of the Athenian stadium, artists and philosophersall condemned to die inch by inch of hunger and thirst under the mocking eyes of the Syracusans.
It is a tragedy which has rung down the ages, and there is none in any way comparable to it. Thucydides has described it [in vivid language, so why should I attempt to do so ? I think I would fain forget it as I linger in this lovely spotbut it will not be forgotten. The stillness is intense. No breath of air penetrates the recesses of this awful sepulchre to stir the hanging creepers. But in the bare places the sun beats on the yellow rocks, and one thinks of the days when there were no creepers, nor any vegetation to soften its rays by day or to catch one drop of moisture by nightwhen the great quarry was bare and barren, and the cruel yellow stone glared pitilessly through the long hours of the light, perchance to give out an icy coldness before the dawn of another day of such despair and misery as never had its equal in the history of human woe.
Sicily is still, as it was in the classic times, a granary of the Mediterranean, and nearly half of its total acreage is cultivated for various kinds of cereals. Around the slopes of Etna, and in other parts in the interior, there is also a considerable quantity of pasture land-and in these districts the shepherds form a race apart, wandering with their flocks, of which they are very often the owners, from place to place, and possessing their own habits and customs, and, practically, their own laws. The condition of the peasants has in very recent years materially improved, not only economically but also morally, and in both respects. there was certainly much need for improvement. Military service, as usual, is quite as much and perhaps more responsible for this improvement than legislation. As to morals, these cannot be said to be of the Sunday-school typebut they are less appallingly bad than was the case even twenty years ago.
By far the worst section of the community in this last respect are the miners engaged in the sulphur mines. The mines employ on an average some twenty thousand individuals, and produce sulphur to the value of considerably over a million sterling yearly. Child labour is largely employed, and formerly unfortunate boys were subjected to the most inhuman treatment, and steeped from their earliest years in every kind of vice and depravity. At seven and eight years old children were actually sold to the miners, and no care was taken that they should be humanely treated. They were used to transport the sulphur to the mouth of the mines, and often laden in such a manner that they became permanently deformed. Peasants accepted ” loans,” varying in amount from seventy-five to a hundred and fifty lire, for the right to employ their children in the minesand this loan in reality meant the selling of the child into slavery, for until the money was repaid, which it seldom or ever was, the child remained the absolute property of the miner who had thus bought it. As the miners were, and still are, often pregiudicati, or men already condemned for criminal offences, it may be imagined what treatment these unfortunate children had to endure. Legislation has in recent years considerably improved this state of affairs, but much improvement yet remains to be effected, and the laws are frequently more honoured in the breach than in the observance.
A few years ago, 83 per cent. of the population of Sicily was illiterate, and perhaps in no other country in the world would illiteracy on such a scale have been so little noticeable on the surface of things. The natural intelligence and extra-ordinary acuteness of the Sicilian counterbalanced, superficially, this absence of education. It is curious to note that the feudal system was not abolished in Sicily until 1813, when the government of Francis I. attempted to put an end to its exactions. It was only a partially successful attempt, however, and it caused a rebellion of the dispossessed barons. Land compulsorily sold did not, as was intended, fall into the hands of the poorer classes as small tenures, but was absorbed by communes and municipalities.
These are dry subjects, but it is only by studying them that one can gain an insight into Sicilian life, and some understanding of why so beautiful a country, inhabited by so virile a race, should not be the most prosperous portion of the Kingdom of Italy.
Not even Athens has anything more impressive to show than the great temples at Girgenti. Distant some two miles from the town, they stand on an elevated plateau from which rugged cliffs fall away towards the sea. The city, which is modern, has nothing to detain a visitor, and a good deal to send him hurrying away from it.
There are supposed to have been at least six of these gigantic temples at one time in existence, but their number is now practically reduced to two in a state of tolerable preservation, though the remains of others are still prominent features in this wild, though beautiful landscape. It is worth while to stay the night in this spot, if only to see the magnificent effects of light caused by the sunset. Then, and for long after the sun has disappeared below the sea, the great yellow temples take on a succession of most brilliant colours, at first blood-red, and gradually changing to well-nigh every hue of the rainbow. For three-and-twenty centuries these mighty relics of a former faith, and types of the greatness of a people, have stood on their plateau above the sea, while civilisations have been born, have died, and have been born again, and a large part of the history of the world has sailed beneath them. The finest of all, alas !that of Zeus-Olympus, was destroyed in the fifteenth century, and its material was afterwards used in the building of a breakwater at Porto Empedocle near by.
But, after all, they are exasperating things, these ruins of a past age, for they do but serve to emphasise the fact of how very little even the most learned among us know of the life of which they were the centre, and how impossible it is even to the most imaginative among us to conjure up that life with anything approaching to its reality. No Girgenti, Paestum, Segeste,even Athens, if you will,these are places to dream in, and to wake up humbled by a sense of the pitiful mutability of humanity and its creeds and doings, and by the reflection that the greatness of a raceits religions and its deedsare mere passing phases destined sooner or later, if not to total oblivion, at any rate to a more or less total misconception of their actual conditions and significance. It is difficult to understand why, and for what object, these mighty temples were destroyed, and why some were taken and others left. It is also difficult to understand how they were destroyed. They are far more massive than any of the buildings of Old Rome that were used in the Middle Ages as quarries for material to be employed in the building of palaces for priests and nobles. Those pestilent personsthe early Christianscould scarcely have wrecked them in fanatic rage, for the earlier faiths still lingered in Magna Grecia long after the first fury of their fanaticism had passed. Moreover, the fabrics of temples of the earlier faiths were as a rule adapted to Christian worship, the works of art only being profaned and destroyed. It is quite possible that some terrible convulsion of Nature, rather than the hand of man, laid these mighty columns lowsome earthquake such as that which has recently devastated Messina and its neighbourhood.
In all my wanderings in Italy, and some of them have taken me into very solitary places, Girgenti is the only spot in which I have had to take out a weapon from my pocket with the full intention of using it. I was alone in the dusk of a spring evening, having lingered among the temples watching the effects of a particularly beautiful sunset. Afterwards, when the afterglow had died away over land and sea, I walked along a narrow track among the brushwood of the cliffs, and presently I became conscious that two men, shepherds or goatherds, were following me. For a few minutes I lost sight of them but, turning a corner, found them in the path in front of me, they having obviously circumvented me. One of them asked for money, and his companion, I presume, wishing to accentuate the demand, played carelessly with a knife. Fortunately, I had a fully loaded revolver with me for I had no money upon me but a few loose francs, which would certainly not have satisfied the couple. I made no pretence of playing with my revolver, but gave them to understand that if they moved a step nearer to me I would fire. I am tolerably certain that I should have missed if I had fired ; but the threat, and the sight of the levelled revolver, had an instant and satisfactory effect, for the men turned into the brushwood and disappeared. I confess, however, that I was not comfortable till I regained the road leading to the little hotel near the temples, for I felt that at any moment a rush might be made upon me from the cover of the brushwood, and I had had time to notice that the men were both big, wiry fellows who could certainly have overpowered me in a struggle, unless I had the luck to disable them with a couple of bullets. I did not see them again, however, and I kept the incident to myself, not wishing to make a disturbo and perhaps be detained at Girgenti in order to make depositions before the Pretore. I had no business, of course, to be alone after dusk in so solitary a spot ; and no doubt the sight of a straniero by himself at that hour was a temptation which I ought not to have put in the way of similar individuals. Had it not been for the significant manner in which one of the men handled his knife I would gladly have shared my francs with them ; but I knew that if I had done so, further complications would in all probability have arisen, and the place was not adapted to them.
I own with shame that I have never been on the slopes of Etna, and still less ascended that mountain, neither, except en passant, have I been at Taormina. During the very few hours I once spent at that place I confess that I took perhaps an altogether unreasonable dislike to it, though I quite appreciated its peculiar beauty. I think I was unfortunate, for I ran into a huge party of touristsEnglish touristswhose manners and proceedings did not make me feel proud of being their compatriot. I noticed, however, that the people of Taormina seemed to be accustomed to the type, and, indeed, they did not appear to me to be a people easily scandalised. Here, too, I believe, is a German colony. Indeed, Germans are rapidly colonising the whole of the Sicilian coast towns and these resorts within reach of them. In Palermo, Catania, and Syracuse, German goods are to the fore where a few years ago it would have been the pride of the shopkeeper to produce roba inglese ; and here, again, I ask what our commercial travellers are about, and why we as a race continue to adhere to the stupid old tradition that ” English carries you everywhere ” ? The German travellers I have met all speak Italianand some of them very good Italian minus the pronunciation which, when all is said and done, is infinitely better than that of ninety out of a hundred Englishmen attempting to speak the language.
It is only a couple of years ago that the horrified attention of the whole world was turned to Messina. The particulars of the catastrophe which overtook and wrecked the flourishing modern city, and many places in its vicinity on both shores of the straits, causing a loss of human life the full extent of which can only be approximately guessed at, is too fresh in the minds of all to make any account of it necessary in these pages. The illustrations here given of the city as it was before the disasters, and as it appeared immediately afterwards will, I hope, be sufficient to give an idea of the devastation wrought by the earthquakes and the appalling phenomena which took place in the bed of the sea. That Messina is slowly rising again from her wreck is a sign of the perseverance and courage which dominates the modern Italians in face of adversity. The geographical position of this most ancient of seaports, too, and its commercial importance, are such as to make it well-nigh impossible to abandon it, unless, indeed, as many think will one of these days occur, some fresh convulsion of Nature cause the straits once more to disappear, and this portion of the coast to be reunited to the continent.
I fear it cannot be said that the conduct of the officialseither at the moment of the catastrophe, or during the period when the relief funds and material sent from all the nations of the world should have been properly organised and distributed-redounded to their credit. It is not a pleasant story, and the less said about it the better. The King and Queen, as usual, were the first on the spot, heedless of danger, and thinking only of how they could rescue and comfort the survivors of the disaster. The soldiers, as the Italian soldiers always do at such times, risked their lives freely among the falling masonry wherever it was known or suspected that human beings lay entombed. The danger, fatigue, and privations the troops, summoned to aid at that time, had to endure, and endured cheerfully and without a murmur, were untold and I think that recognition of their heroism has never been sufficiently manifested out of Italy, so largely engrossed was public attention in the details and horrors of the catastrophe itself.
Local bureaucracy, however, mismanaged and misspent huge sums of money, and allowed vast quantities of stores and material to accumulate and remain unutilised during many weeks and even months, when prompt and energetic action and a putting aside of red-tapeism was imperative. Had it not been for the determination and energy displayed by both the King and the Queen in recalling the authorities to a sense of duty and, it may be added, decency, and in the prompt measures for relief which they themselves initiated and caused to be carried out, it is to be feared that the tale of the Messina disasters would be but another proof of the incompetency of a democratic bureaucracy to rise to a sense of its duties in the face of a national calamity, or properly to administer funds committed to its charge.
The modern city of Messina, with its university, its cathedral founded by the great Count Roger of Sicily in 1098, its busy port and fine harbour, was second among the Sicilian cities. It was not an agreeable one, however, to spend more time in than absolutely necessary, neither was its population all that could be desired. Perhaps the new Messina may be an improvement on the older one in most respects, and doubtless it will be so.
We are on classic ground again, however, and at Messina, as in every other Sicilian town, we may profitably close our eyes to the present and dream of the past. Few cities are so ancient. The inhabitants of that mighty metropolis, Cumae, founded it nearly eight hundred years before Christ. The City of the Sickle, as it was then called, was subsequently possessed by Carthaginians and Saracens before it fell into the hands of the Norman rulers of Sicily. In its streets, in later years, the massacre of the Sicilian Vespers was carried out with savage enthusiasm, while, after the Italian Unity, it was the last place in Italy to submit to the new order of things. In reality, of classical relics in Messina there were practically none, even before its recent destruction. One must do one’s dreaming around its harbour and along its lovely straits. We can sail in the spirit with Ulysses past Scylla and Charybdis, and when we reach them we may be justified in hoping that the ancients did not always lie so unblushingly as they did when describing the dangers which mariners had to encounter when steering a course.
I would fain hope that this volume may not prove to be my Scylla and Charybdis ! I am conscious that in it I have purposely avoided certain dangerous places ; but I am by no means sure that I have not fallen into others. My readers and I have travelled togetherthough very likely many of them will have endured only a small portion of the journeyfrom the extreme north of Italy to the extreme south ; and if on the road I have not talked guide-book to them, but given them some idea, however superficial, of Italian life and Italian character, I shall have accomplished more than I had hoped to do.
Many parts of the country which has become a second home to me I have left untouched, and if I have touched on others but slightly, it is because I am too well aware that their history and their art has been already described to satiety. So far as I have ventured to touch upon these last at all, I have done so merely with a view to recalling things already well known to my readers, but perhaps temporarily forgotten by them; but not in any way with the idea that I could say anything new concerning them. My Italian year, such as it has been, has come to an end so far as journeying is concerned. I think there only remains for me the endeavour to recall to my readers’ memory some of the details of those magnificent victories which, in the course of a series of battles lasting fifty years, and which, perhaps, are not yet entirely at an end, the modern Italians have won in the face of the most determined opposition, both external and internal.