The Castle and Rock of Ischia

G. N. Wright - Shores and Islands of the Mediterranean (1840)

What sees he by that meteor's lour ?
A banner'd castle, keep, and tower,
Return the lurid gleam,
With battled walls, and buttress fast,
And barbican, and ballium vast,
And airy flanking towers, that east
Their shadows on the stream.                Scott.

The little island of Ischia is one of those volcanic productions that attract the admiration of the geologist in the igneous locality of Vesuvius. But a few hundred yards from the site of the mimic capital of the island, a bed of lava, that flowed full five centuries ago, continues still as sterile as if it were in a thermal and liquid state, giving life to no species of vegetable produce, save a few arid liveworts. The surface of this volcanic stream is now for a short depth light and spongy, but deeper it is denser, and of adamantine hardness. Every part, however, of the islet exhibits incontrovertible proofs of an igneous origin; “the burnt ground” is a cooled lava-flood; feldspar, tufa, pumice, and enamels abound on the Rotaro, Epopeo, Monte Zaro, and Monte Imperatore. Various crater-like appearances, of amphitheatrical forms, may yet be observed -and although a fountain of fire, poured forth so recently as the year 1302, these irregular rugged basins, in the vicinity of a vast assemblage of argillaceous rocks, are the only indications of the precise source of the terrible event.
The circuit of the isle does not exceed eighteen English miles, and the coast during part of that length is occupied with villages, conspicuous by their white fronts, that strongly contrast with the verdure of the vines, and roseate colours of the little hanging gardens that are interspersed amongst the cottages. The more elevated parts of the conical hills, whose assemblage composes the isle of Ischia, are black and barren, yet in the indurated, sterile rock that forms the point of culmination, a hermitage is formed, with a sacred chapel, and three silent cells, in which as many holy men pursue their pious calling. One of these reverend fathers perambulates the island-bounds every week, bringing back bread, oil, wine, and every requisite for the service of the altar; the islanders hail his hebdomadal visit with the sincerest joy, and, having gladly bestowed their bounty, sometimes follow the hermit, on a pilgrimage to his chapel on the rock. Nature has blessed the isle with a serene sky, an ever-cloudless atmosphere, the mildest winter, and most genial spring. There are isles, 'tis said, off the coast of Ireland, the early abode of saints, where the aborigines can never die, and only obtain a release from the sor­rows and infirmities of accumulated years, by being transported to the less sacred soil of the mainland.  The philosopher's stone has not yet been found amongst Ischia's mineral wealth, the elixir vita not yet concocted on its shores, nor can its healthful clime confer that immortality in which St. Leon found not happiness, yet still it is held in the highest esteem for the purity and salubrious quality of the air, and invalids are transported thither from Naples in great numbers. Through the munificence of the wealthiest or most charit­able Neapolitans, a spacious hospital has been founded here, to which some thousand convalescents are annually conveyed, in barges kept for the sole purpose; and, during the bathing season, the king generally visits the island, contributes liberally to the maintenance of the hospital, and confers a small portion upon every indigent young female of Ischia. The gardens around the convalescents' apartments resemble the grounds enclosing a mira­culous well, being hung with trophies won by the virtues of the climate; few relics, how­ever, possess a proof so palpable, as the crutches which perfect restoration enabled the patient to dedicate freely, safely, gratefully, to the patron saint.
A remarkable feature in the view of Ischia is the pyramidal peninsular rock, crowned with a strong fortress, but which was unable to resist the impetuous assault of the British, under Sir John Stuart, in the year 1809. It is joined to the island by a causeway and bridge, and communicates with the town by a subterraneous passage. The English, how­ever, soon evacuated the Ischian citadel, finding that it was a key to no useful possession; but the islanders look upon its occupation with the utmost jealousy, never permitting the castle to be garrisoned by troops that are not natives of the rock. The capital of this beautiful but barren isle is an episcopal see, with above three thousand inhabitants, and contained a still larger population before 1828, when the ravages of an earthquake induced the most timid to pass over to the continent. But little trade of any kind is conducted by the islanders; the porcelain clay found here was much valued by the ancients, who appear to have almost exhausted the supply, as true terra d'Ischia is now extremely rare.