|Norman Douglas (1868-1952)|
Though I do not see them marked upon those nautical charts which the late Admiral Magnaghi loved to draw, there must be currents in the Mediterranean that flow consistently in the direction of Campania. Long ago, in mythological times, the dead Siren Parthenope, floating upon the waters, drifted landwards and found a resting-place and an honoured tomb at Naples; a sea-current, therefore, had decided the religion of that great city. Then, in the heroic age, came Palinurus, pilot of Aeneas, whose body also drifted westwards till it touched the promontory which bears his name.
The phenomenon becomes better authenticated as we enter the historical period. Thus we possess the record of the corpse of Saint Costanzo, patriarch of Constantinople and now patron saint of Capri, which floated, carefully packed in a barrel, from the Euxine into the Bay of Naples. It arrived fresh and uninjured.
And is there not a well ascertained record of the Sainted Virgin Restituta, whose corpse was wafted from Africa to the Bay of Naples on a millstone? The blessed body came to land near Lacco Ameno on the island of Ischia, which is the subject of this modest sketch. In proof of the miracle, the millstone exists to this day, as well as the church of Santa Restituta, which stands near the famous mineral springs of the same name...
Landing one morning on this fabled and sunny beach, with my mind attuned to the marvellous by the proximity of the commemorative shrine, I beheld a sight that froze the blood in my veins; a human head was resting on the sand a few yards from the water's edge. Its countenance was turned from me and otherwise concealed under a white cloth like a towel.
The country folk walked up and down as though utterly unaware of its existence, as if such sights were part of everyday life; sedate fishermen mended their nets nearby, children played around, shouting merrily.
Shocked by the incredible callousness of the people, and half-suspecting myself to be the victim of a ghastly hallucination, I stooped, trembling, and snatched away the concealing cloth.
This innocent proceeding caused the head to burst into broken Neapolitan mingled with a few clear snatches of the English tongue which nothing would induce me to set down here.
It was only an Englishman taking a sand-bath for his rheumatisms. Presently the earth heaved in huge convulsions and the modern Typhoeus emerged, pawing, like Milton's lion, to set free his hinder parts. He had solemnly burnt his crutches two days previously, 'and, by Jove, you cannot think what a joy it is to toddle on one's own stumps again'. I could, though, for I had gone through the same purgatory. (These sand-baths are no longer taken)
It was one of the happy fables of the Greeks, this of the giant Typhoeus enchained under the island of Ischia and perpetually struggling to break his fetters. Hence the convulsive earthquakes. So you may see him depicted in the frontispiece to Jasolino's work where he looks good-natured enough - probably because the engraver did not live to witness the catastrophe of 1883.
To believe this same author, there is not a malady on earth that cannot be cured by one or other of the Ischia baths. The very names of some of them are now forgotten, and I suspect that they have either been covered by landslips, or that they have dried up in consequence of the diminution of timber. Jasolino, to be sure, wrote in 1580, but recent vagaries on this subject are not wanting. Does the hair of your eyelashes drop out? Try the Bagno di Piaggia Romana. Is your complexion unsatisfactory? The Bagno di Santa Maria del Popolo will put that right. Are you deaf? The Bagno d'Ulmitello. Blind? Bagno delle Caionche. Headache, chill on the liver, or kidney trouble? Bagno di Fontana. Does your nose itch? The Sudatorio di Castiglione. Toothache, or impetigo? Bagno di Succellaro. Perhaps your heart needs comfort? The Bagno dell'Oro will suit your case. Are you a victim to hypochondria? The Sudatorio di Cacciotto dispels black humours. Or have you scalded your fingers with boiling water? Try the Bagno di Fontana again. Does your grandfather complain of baldness, are you troubled with elephantiasis, or is your wife anxious to be blessed with children? Hasten, all three of you, to the Bagno di Citara.
The excellent Iulius Iasolinus medicus et philosophus: did he believe it all? Who can tell! Others did, and Ischia began to thrive.
At Santa Restituta can be seen an ancient vase of pleasing workmanship, now adapted to church uses. It is one of the few antiquities found on the island, and comes from the neighbouring height of Vico, the old Hellenic citadel. They were unfortunate in their choice of settlements, those Ischian Greeks. Hardly had a new colony begun to thrive, before a playful volcano burst up in their midst and scared them away. No wonder the Sirens refused to stay on such an uncertain tenement, for Sirens are attached to their homesteads; they prefer to dwell near deep-rooted limestone cliffs rather than on the lid of a cauldron. I have found little on Ischia that recalls such sea-creatures to the mind; but at Forio there is (there was, for it is now swept away) an islet which bears the strangely beautiful name of Impusa.
Enfin, nous sortimes de Babylone, et au clair de la lune, nous vimes tout-a-coup une empuse... Ouida! Elle sautait sur son sabot de fer; elle hennissait comme un âne; elle galopait dans les rochers. II lui cria des injures; elle disparut... and whoever drives from Forio to Pansa will see, couched in the waves, a pale rock of noble contour: a sea-sphinx. But nymphs there were in Ischia, nitric nymphs, whose duty was to guard the healing waters. Many antique votive tablets have been found, testifying to their friendly aid and to that of Apollo the Healer. They have been figured by Beloch and others, and are now in the Naples Museum, most of them.
At Nitroli, their home, the kindly element still gushes forth mirthfully from the warm slopes of Epomeo and tumbles downhill with pleasant din, carving a deep gully in the hillside; woodbine and wild roses trip alongside, with here and there a tuft of rustling canes — those very canes that whispered in olden days the dread secret: 'Midas has asses' ears'. The water loses itself in one of the cañons that seam the southern coast of the island and make it look, from the sea, like the rind of an overripe melon. These burroni were a sure refuge to the inhabitants during the troubled times of the Middle Ages. Their crumbling walls descend perpendicularly into the abyss, and not a year passes that some poor hay-gatherer is not found shattered at their foot. Down in those windless depths eternal twilight reigns; giant poplars crane their necks to reach sunshine and air; their crowns caress the edge on either side of the horrible chasm, and a squirrel, if such there were, could cross the gulf on this leafy viaduct.
Even now they have their uses. Criminals can skulk in them for weeks and months waiting for a chance to escape to the mainland, if the population favours them by bringing food supplies. Only two days ago a woman in one of these mountain villages calmly thrust a huge knife into her husband, who was dying at the moment of my arrival. She resented being beaten by him.
Now, Neapolitan women are proud of this kind of treatment on the part of their spouses, regarding it as a proof of affection — when I urged this point of view upon the elders of the village, they excused her on the ground that she was not a Neapolitan, and knew no better.
The whole countryside had been to examine the wound; small children joined the tips of their thumbs and first fingers of both hands crying, 'So big, so big!' and one old crone, who was regarded with peculiar veneration, remarked that she had seldom seen a finer sight.
Plainly, the husband was an unpopular man, and there was a general consensus of opinion that the murderess was not going to be caught. The old woman summed up the situation by saying: 'She will only be caught if she is a downright fool' - meaning, presumably, if she walks into the barracks of the carabinieri who were then supposed to be looking for her.
The girls in the northern villages of Ischia, with the exception of one or two at Lacco, are mostly plain, but here in the Nitroli region you may see many of rare beauty - nymph-like creatures, flower-loving, soft-voiced, with flashing Maenad eyes. Their good looks have been attributed to the fact that they wash their household linen in warm mineral water.
The boys are more commonly fair-complexioned: an interesting and anomalous case of sexual dimorphism if it be true, as naturalists tell us, that the dark type is everywhere tending to supplant the blonde, and that the males ought to be the first to display this innovation.
These youths are not of the amiable variety; they do not smile and say Buon giorno, Signore; they prefer, whenever possible, to look in the other direction. That is only their way. The Ischiotes are to some extent a mixed race; they lack the full-blooded homogeneity of the people of Vesuvius. But they have a character of their own and differ, in this respect, from those of Capri who have divested themselves of every idiomatic feature and become mere parasites on the foreigners at whose expense they thrive.
The apparent scowl of many of these islanders is not a scowl at all; it is a look of distrustful shyness, born of long centuries of piratical inroads and domestic oppression. The stupendous earthquake of 1883, when in less than fifteen seconds over seven thousand of them perished by the most horrible death, has also contributed its share; it has shattered not only their houses and well-being, but their morale.
They are poor, hopelessly poor; few of them are proprietors of the soil they cultivate - utterly different, again, from the Capri peasants, most of whom are thrice as rich as the foreigners who visit their 'humble' cottages.
Some Spanish pride, maybe, still lingers in their veins, for Alfonso the Magnanimous, in one of his most magnanimous moods, removed all the native men from the island and populated it with his Spaniards, whom he forced to marry their widows and daughters. The historian Capaccio, who has penned a spleenful sentence on this subject, supposes this to have been done in order to 'soften' the Ischiote character.
But, above all, the unsteady earth with its sinister reelings has pictured itself upon the insular mind.
If Ischia could procure a well-regulated outlet after the manner of Stromboli, this danger might be averted and a more ridibund race of mortals evolved. Or if Vesuvius ceased its activity, a new crater might open at Ischia, for these two, so far as has been observed, are reciprocally intermittent, the antique Ischia eruptions ceasing when the other began with his grand opening entertainment at Pompeii and Herculaneum, and only recommencing during the long mediaeval slumber of Vesuvius.
That was in 1301. A stream of lava, called the Arso or Cremato, flowed from the mountains into the sea.
Its pathway is now discernible from its covering of stone pines; but these were planted only about 1850 (6); unlike other lava-streams that yield sooner or later to the inroads of vegetation, this one remained for five long centuries a blot on the landscape, a barren desolation, deriding every attempt at culture.
With the advent of the pines all has changed.
A wild garden with labyrinthine paths, a marvel of taste and patient labour, covers a portion of the once arid waste. Even now the burnt stones dominate in monstrous contortion of pinnacle and dell, and their riven masses, painted with rosy-grey lichen, twist themselves into threatening attitudes of earth-demons that clench their fists and refuse to yield their ancient empire. But they are half underground already, and their days are numbered.
Where everything else has failed, the pines have conquered. Here are no lustrous carobs, no figs or olives, no groves of sombre ilex: pines are everywhere. Their crowns interlace, and sunlight pours down through their firm and coralline branches, weaving arabesque patterns on the floor. Pleasant at all times of the day it is to tread the mazes of this fairyland; in the hottest hours of midsummer a sea-breeze is always felt, and heard.
Then, too, the shady ailantus, bare in winter, comes to help the pine, and thus a lively green flits about with the months - in winter it shines on earth, for the rocks are starred with a thousand mosses and ferns and anemones that creep away at the approach of June; in summer, overhead.
At all seasons the pine struggles. Its task is twofold. Below ground, its roots must insinuate themselves into the rocks - tenderly at first, but soon with the horrid grip of a fiend - sucking strength, by strange alchemy, from their fire-scorched entrails. From above, meanwhile, a noiseless shower of pine needles is descending. Ceaselessly they fall; where they fall, they lie. The chinks of the stone receive this aerial soil, and up springs a gay family of broom, honeysuckle, cistus, erica, myrtle, valerian, ivy, lentiscus, quick to take advantage of the situation. The whole flora of Ischia riots at the foot of these glorious pines. For unlike our ravenhearted beech, this tree encourages children and neighbours alike to take pleasure under its ample skirts.
It is easy, no doubt, to say good things of other pines. Pinus laricio produces yet better timber; the Canary pine is more feathery; that of Aleppo more vivid in colour and more prolific.
But considerations of utility rule the Universe. The stone pine, besides bearing edible fruit, has sundry advantages over its rivals. It grows faster and to a larger size; its roots are more searchingly destructive to the lava; its wood has fewer knots. It despises a prop even in tenderest youth; 'the stone pine grows straight by nature', say the botanists. A thousand wooden props are a serious financial consideration in a treeless country like Italy.
The benefactor who planted these pines has given not only health and pleasure to posterity. In this pleasance of La Mandra alone are over three thousand of them, and they were full-grown twenty years ago.
The cost of planting is minimal: you scratch a hole in the lava and force your sapling into it; the tree rises aloft without more ado. Nowadays, of course, there is no further need of planting, for they seed themselves. If we could value each pine at the absurdly low figure of two hundred francs, it will be seen what a fortune this worthy successor of Varro and Columella has prepared for others, on ground, too, where formerly not a blade of grass would grow.
Yet the work - the rock-cleaving, humanising work - of this grand tree is not altogether accomplished. The demons are lurking at hand, ready to emerge once more and resume dominion. If you doubt it, cut down the pines and watch. For my part, I confess I should not be displeased if the Great Contriver's hand could be stayed at this intermediate moment, inasmuch as there are vineyards and cornfields galore on earth, but few spots as fair as this harmonious pinery of La Mandra.
Some few Ischian plants, none the less, will be sought in vain here. So the botanist Tenore, for example, made a most interesting discovery. He found, near certain outlets of volcanic vapour, two exotic plants, one of them native of Jamaica and the other growing in India, Arabia and Africa. The temperature of the earth in which these have their roots never falls below 20 degrees Reaumur, and Tenore suspects that they are relics of the former tropical European flora - relics which have found a refuge in these warm cavities from the ice-covering of the Glacial Period that destroyed the others. His theory, if correct, says much for the stability of Ischia.
Then there are the great white orchids, odourless like their fellows, but fair to see. They grow in the woods about the extinct crater of Monte Rotaro.
I recommend this hill as one of the most charming on the island. Its sides are overgrown with a dense covering of ilex and arbutus, and down below, where the fires once flamed, lies a green meadow.
In it are interred the victims of the cholera of the eighteen-thirties, many foreigners among them. (The grave-stones have since been removed, but their marks are still visible in the soil). It would be hard to find a pleasanter resting-place for all eternity unless it be the hermitage of Citrella on Capri, where simultaneously the cholera victims of that island were buried.
But what a contrast between the two! Here the volcanic soil with its hoary mantle of vegetation, and within that deep funnel a woodland calm, as though storms and seas no longer existed upon earth: - Citrella, poised like a swallow's nest upon its wind-swept limestone crag; far below, the Titanic grandeur of South Capri and the glittering ocean strewn with submarine boulders that make it look, from such aerial heights, like a map of the moon enamelled in the blues and greens of a Damascus vase.
Before the road bends downwards into the crater, it passes a grassy tract where the traveller may rest awhile from the fatigues of the climb, if he picks out a reliable spot; for the ground is honeycombed with hidden volcanic vents which send forth an invisible and odourless but steaming vapour.
One day as I sat upon this deceitful sward, I became aware of a prodigious flight of butterflies. The air was alive with them; they sat upon me and flew in my face - a veritable phenomenon.
There were no birds on the spot to profit by this banquet, and the gaudy host fluttered on undisturbed. They seemed to be indifferent whether flowers bloomed or not; driven by some strange desire of activity they struggled hither and thither in the air till, suddenly, some impulse came upon them and they left me. They were of the Clouded Yellow species, and the newspapers reported that in other countries, too, the apparition had been noted.
Only once in my life have I seen anything like it. I was in the club-house of a tropical town, and the sole other occupant of the room at that moment was poor old B -, who, as he himself used to confess, was fast 'running to seed'. He was staring with a troubled expression out of the window.
'Do you have this kind of thing often?' I innocently asked.
He at once put on the solemn and aggrieved air of a drunkard who suspects that he has been found out.
'May I ask to what you refer?'
'Why, Mr. B -, don't you see all those butterflies?'
A look of relief came over his face.
Now, if my friend had come to Ischia instead of poisoning himself with fusel oil sold as whisky by honest colonial traders, he might have drunk as much as he pleased and been all the better for it. For wine is the water of Ischia, and as a vino da pasto it is surpassed by none other south of Rome. Indeed, it is drunk all over Europe (under other names) and a pretty sight it is to see the many-shaped craft from foreign ports jostling each other in the little circular harbour, one of the few pleasing mementos of Bourbon misrule.
The Austrian, battling with his Paprikahendl, or the Frenchman ogling his omelette and his yard of bread, little dream how much Ischia has contributed to their Gumboldskirchner or vin ordinaire. Try it therefore through every degree of latitude on the island, from the golden torrents of thousand-vatted Forio up to the pale primrose-hued ichor, a drink for gods, that oozes from the dwarfed mountain grapes. Try also the red kinds.
Try them all, over and over again. Such at least was the advice of a Flemish gentleman whom I met in bygone years at Casamicciola.
Like most of his countrymen, Mynheer had little chiaroscuro in his composition; he was prone to call a spade a spade; but his 'rational view of life', as he preferred to call it, was transfigured and irradiated by a profound love of nature.
Where there is no landscape, he used to say, there I drink without pleasure. 'Landscape refines. Only beasts drink indoors'. Every morning he went in search of new farmhouses in which to drink during the afternoon, and late into the evening.
Every night, with tremendous din, he was carried to bed. He never apologised for this disturbance; it was his yearly holiday, he explained. He must have possessed an enviable digestion, for he was up with the lark and I used to hear him at his toilette, singing strange ditties of Meuse or Scheldt. Breakfast over, he would sally forth on his daily quest, thirsty and sentimental as ever.
One day, I remember, he discovered a farmhouse more seductive than all the rest .- 'with a view over Vesuvius and the coastline, a view, I assure you, of entrancing loveliness!' That evening he never came home at all....
The vineyards are steadily driving the woodlands uphill and into the remotest recesses of Ischia. From an artistic point of view this is much to be deplored, for the vine, however gladsome in its summer greenery, is bare for six months of the year, when its straggling limbs have a peculiarly unkempt and disreputable appearance. (For this reason alone, Ischia should never be visited in winter).
The whole district from Monte Rotaro down to the Pietra Cantante and the Cemetery is now planted with grapes; when I first knew it, there was not a single vine visible; it was deeply embowered in chestnut and oak woods. It is impossible nowadays to reconstruct Bergsoe charming legend of the Pietra Cantante or Singing Stone; the locality would never be recognised.
But the tale none the less deserves to be translated into Italian as a historical document - it is a memento of the long Arab domination on Ischia which seems, at this distance of time, as if it had never been and yet has left enduring traces.
The raids of the Corsairs were trifling matters; a change of wind, or the appearance of an Italian sail sufficed to unsettle their ephemeral plans. (Not quite trifling matters on Ischia, however; on one occasion Barbarossa carried off four thousand of the natives). The rule of the Saracens, though it did not approach that of a provincial or even military government, was wholly different. Where they dined, they slept.
Appropriately enough, the play given at the local theatre the other day was a drama of this period.
The theatre, I should premise, was a disused wine-cellar, and the actors were marionettes half life-size, whose movements were regulated by ropes affixed from above to their heads and arms, while the manager and his wife and family did the talking and pulled the strings as occasion required.
At first the effects of the ultra-flexible gestures of the dramatis personae somewhat disturbed the sense of reality; instead of walking, they fluttered a few inches above the ground after the manner of Hindu gods, whose feet are too pure to touch mortal earth; they likewise sat, for the most part, on air; but the illusion came quickly enough, in spite of the stilted language in which the play was written.
The Turks, as they are called, were all painted pitch-black (this is traditional and de rigueur); their general was a brave fellow covered with plumes and medals, and his favourite phrase was: 'Tremble, proud Christian, at my wrath'.
He had reckoned without his host, for soon enough his own sister fell desperately in love with the Christian leader. 'Climb into the camp of the unbelievers', she whispered into the ear of a confidential slave who swam into her presence at the proper moment, 'and seek out the bold knight Orlando. Say I love him'. The peerless Christian sent word to the effect that, if such were the case, she would doubtless have no difficulty in first procuring for him the head of her warrior brother, which he was anxious to see - without the body.
There followed a magnificent decapitation. The good pasha was sleeping after the fatigues of the day in a most uncomfortable position, when his sister cautiously flew into the room and, after performing an airy war-dance, unsheathed her sword. It took no less than eight terrific blows to sever the head from the body, and the shrieks of the pasha were life-like beyond belief.
Their crescendo and diminuendo were rendered with scientific precision and evoked an uproar of applause. The head continued to groan long after its separation from the trunk; never have I heard more realistic gurglings. I suspect that the play was to end in a wholesale slaughter of Mussulmans — a veritable Blutbad, as the Germans call it - but I was reluctantly compelled to leave at the culminating point of the third act, having gathered about me as much of the micro-fauna of Ischia as I could conveniently carry.
Economically considered, the audience of this theatre was an interesting study. There was not one woman among them (a relic of Saracenism); only a few little girls who are not considered as belonging to that sex at their tender age. The males, apart from a sprinkling of priests, were mostly young boys or quite old men. The workers have no time for such frivolities on Ischia; they must be up with the sun, and are generally asleep by eight o'clock.
Some of the older people bear the scars of hair-breadth escapes in the great catastrophe of 1883, and every one of them can relate the most improbable stories about himself or his relations; or at least about his pigs and goats. The mythopoeic faculty is well developed hereabouts. One respectable citizen assured me that his grandmother was entombed under an immense mass of masonry for fourteen days, her head protected by the leg of a chair. She was alive and cheerful when liberated, but soon took to her bed and gradually died from fright.
At present there is hay-making going on over the ruins and a rank vegetation partly conceals them, but in winter they arise in all their truthfulness.
Man and nature cooperate in their slow obliteration.
The peasant, careless of past experience, renews his forsaken homestead or carries away its stones for building material elsewhere; a promiscuous host of weeds and shrubs invades the shattered tenements, unclean lichens eat into the walls, valerian creeps behind the plaster, the sturdier broom and fennel thrust formidable roots into the very heart of the masonry, disquieting the stones and ousting them from their old places; winds and rain meanwhile beat upon the friable tufa till its edges are worn away and the mortar, disintegrated, falls to earth; one day, two lizards fighting, as is their wont, in an inextricable knot of legs and tails, tumble upon a loosened block, and down it comes. At a rough computation, I should say that fifteen more years will be required to merge the traces of the disaster into the soil which is daily rising up around them in upper Casamicciola; the wrecked bathing establishment in the valley, with its ponderous masonry and hard stucco, will offer a longer resistance, particularly as nobody seems inclined to reoccupy the site.
The man who could tell the most blood-curdling tales of this calamity was the old guardian of the cemetery. He was facile princeps in this department, and revelled in his natural gifts.
'Yes, Signore, if I were to tell you all about the many poor Christians - the arms - the legs - ah, Signore, if you had been here - why, under this very mound of cement where you are standing they lie - a few thousand of them at least - no coffins, no spades, not even earth to cover them - unidentified and in the heat of summer - it became, you understand, intolerable - so we threw them in here and a tremendous load of lime and cement on the top of them - enough to crush down a regiment of soldiers - ah, Signore, the poor Christians - it remained flat for a day or two, but you observe - just where you are standing, I mean - the covering has risen...'
Involuntarily you recoil a few paces.
He proceeds relentlessly:
'Even now, after all these years, they find them and bring them here for burial - ah, Signore - in pieces, of course...
After such horrors, it is well, to take a plunge in the sea and purge away the picture of man's frailty and unloveliness. The water at Ischia is irresistibly tempting, of crystal purity and unfrequented by devil-fish or other terrors. Once a year, maybe, a basking shark, an amiable monster, heaves in sight and paddles towards the shore in friendly curiosity; he generally receives a charge from a gun for his pains.
Or you may take a boat and sail - an afternoon's excursion - to the islet of Vivara, which may be regarded, with Procida, as a dependency of Ischia. There is no fear of shipwreck, for your Ischiote, save he of Forio, is a fine-weather sailor and the wealth of Croesus would not tempt him into his boat if he can detect a ripple on the water. Nor need you fear starvation - the boatman, like all the islanders, has the gift of discovering relations in the most unlikely spots, and relationship counts for much hereabouts. Half of the wrecked crater of Vivara slumbers under the waves, but on the summit of the other portion lies a fair champaign, with oaks and carobs, vines and fruitful fields; a spacious farmhouse stands in the centre. A priest used to live here, with four or five women who helped him to till the ground. He was a passionate agriculturalist. Once every two months he sailed to Procida to buy salt and cigars or a new spade; for the rest, his island produced timber and water, and milk and wine and oil, and corn and potatoes and salad, and rabbits and woodcock and quails - everything, in short, which he required for life. Fishermen brought him, in exchange for dispensations, the choicest red mullets, crabs, lampreys, and other denizens of the deep, and nothing ever troubled the calm tenor of his life, for he defended his domain with a shot-gun and had wounded several persons who ventured to set foot on it. He was never unfrocked, but his bishop thought him a little eccentric.
Such a state of things may constitute a mild scandal; yet this priest lived out his life according to his own recipe, and preserved health of body and peace of mind. He typified the South Italians who prate of mechanics but are true lovers of the soil, and the key-note of whose nature is anti-asceticism. The antagonism of flesh and spirit, the most pernicious piece of crooked thinking which has ever oozed out of our poor deluded brain, is to this day unintelligible to them.
The air on Vivara is ambrosial and I know of no place in this neighbourhood which I would rather choose as a hermitage than this calm and fruitful islet.
The view is superb; it embraces all Campania.
Far away, melting into the horizon, the sinuous outlines of Tyrrhenian shores; the Ponza islands, with their grim memories of banishments; the legendary Cape of Circe; the complex and serrated Apennines; the Caudine Forks; Elysian Fields, Tartarus and Cimmerian gloom; the smoking head of Vesuvius with its coral necklace of towns and villages. Ischia, in this evening light, is an immense dome of dark green foliage, while on the other side of the bay, the whole Sorrentine peninsula is bathed in rosy splendour; the longdrawn shapely mountain looks like a thing of air, an exhalation...
Or we might navigate round the whole island of Ischia, half-rowing, half-sailing; a day's trip, if carelessly lengthened out as it should be (for whoever takes account of time need not hope to catch the genius loci of these regions). Nothing more delightful than this leisurely Homeric circumgiration.
It is only from the sea that one can realise how greatly the island might still be improved. If there were a road, for instance, along the shore from the town of Ischia to Lacco - what a promenade for gods and men!
And this, they say, was the original design, but the present track was discovered
to be a trifle cheaper, and the engineers were bribed to carry it inland over a thousand hills and dales to suit the convenience of the landowners on either side. The old, old story: save the sous and lose the francs. (The new road has now been built, but runs along the sea only from Casamicciola to Lacco).
Here at least, as we sail along, is something sensible, something modern. It is a stone reservoir at the water's edge, built to receive the excellent Serino drinking water which can be brought from Naples in specially constructed vessels.
There is no Serino water in it.
The usual lawsuit.
Let it not be imagined that such lawsuits are against the wishes of either litigant; both of them are vastly enjoying the fun.
Your South Italian is a born gambler; judicial proceedings and State lotteries are his chief forms of emotional stimulation; he would rather be beaten than not have a lawsuit at all, and to enquire of him how his various 'cases' are progressing is as natural as to ask how he has passed the night. Some persons, I was told, are foolishly protesting that the promised water is not at hand; as if the contractor's original and patriotic idea were to count for nothing! As if they had not their own gelid fountain, Abocoetus yclept of old, which streams down on cunningly contrived arches from the heights overhead!
(In my old Ischian days it terminated in a stone basin with four merry dolphins spouting water from their marble throats - now replaced by the usual cast-iron abomination).
Let them protest a little longer! Let them thank God if they, or their children's children, ever taste a drop of that Serino water, seeing that there is no reason why a Neapolitan lawsuit should ever end or, indeed, why it should ever begin.
(There is still no Serino water in it. 1929).
You will already have visited the castle-rock of Ischia, whose museum of mummified nuns, a grisly exhibition of life in death, is alone worth the trouble of coming to this island. It is altogether too improbably picturesque, this towering pinnacle of basalt; too theatrical, as Symonds rightly says, to be wholly artistic. And yet it was a fitting scene for the loves of Colonna and Pescara whose shades will for ever haunt those gloomy vaults. For theirs was an age of ardour and exaggeration, and it is not always easy to take seriously these passionate lovers and cut-throats; there is a smack of Offenbach about some of them. Let us now not omit to crawl into that subterranean chapel whose walls are adorned with fading frescoes of austere beauty dating, they say, from about 1360. How well they look, underground!
Near at hand, in vine-wreathed seclusion, stands the mighty tower of St. Anna Here may be seen mural paintings depicting the town and castle of Ischia in the olden days. This tower is never visited by tourists; it commands one of the finest prospects on the island and might no doubt be bought for a song, if the usual lawsuit were not pending as to its ownership.
The coast-scenery of Ischia is not so imposing as that of Capri, but it has a rugged charm of its own; the tints are softer and more varied, and there are more genuine stretches of savagery.
Capri is a microcosm whose perfection of decor and hieratic lineaments, wrought with the simplest and poorest materials, can only have been the inspiration of some divinely frenzied Prometheus. But its beauty, though vital and palpitating, is cramped; there is no room on Capri for long-drawn, smiling levels of shimmering sand, for uplands clad in leafy foliage, for lonely promontories like that of Cornacchia, a cataract of frozen lava tumbling in swarthy confusion into the waves.
Unlike Capri, this island can boast of few natural caves. But the inhabitants supplant the deficiency by creating artificial ones where wine and other household paraphernalia are stored in the dry pumiceous earth, and where goats and goat-boys dream through the short summer nights. Sometimes you will notice one of them deserted without apparent cause; the goat-boy has seen the munaciello or popular domestic spirit, and resolutely refuses to spend another night in the haunted spot. Loudly grumbling, the peasant excavates a new cave a few yards distant from the first, and
recommends him to sleep with his eyes shut. When he grows older, he will know better than to be frightened at this friendly and useful personage, who gives him lucky numbers for the lottery and sometimes bare cash, and who is, or ought to be, consulted on all important family matters.
These old caverns, like deserted houses and empty cisterns, become invested with a supernatural glamour in the briefest space of time. Every one of them engenders a treasure-legend, though the natives are chary of supplying information on this head, fearing that the stranger may be versed in Varte (magic) and thereby enabled to unseal the enchantment and raise the treasure for himself.
Everyone knows that in the cave yonder a fabulous hoard is buried.
Three men went in one night and saw a heap of gold lying in a crevice, but the torch was blown out three times and... certain other things occurred; one of them died soon afterwards. Ah, if they had only had the book, like that man in Fontana! They found a sheep there on the mountain of Epomeo, a sheep of stone, which they dragged for fun into the village.
And there it lay till one day a man, quite an ordinary Neapolitan, arrived with a book under one arm and a sack under the other. He knew - he knew! He just touched the sheep and it opened and a torrent of gold poured put which he out in his sack, and away he went....
There is a sound of grating sand in your ears, and after an hour, as it seems, the familiar rocking movement ceases and the boat harshly strikes the shore. You open your eyes. The colours have faded out of things — it is evening.
'The Signore wished to sleep. He has slept for three hours. We are at San Mon-tano. The Signore wished to bathe here'.
It must have been that zuppa di pesce; or the sun. Or possibly the wine. True enough; it is the familiar valley of San Montano. We have missed seeing the Punta dell'Imperatore, and Citara, and Forio...
'We will see them all tomorrow or some other day. Your Excellency is in no hurry'.
No, His Excellency is in no hurry; haste is a child of Satan, the Arabs say. His Excellency will proceed to wade cautiously into the still water, for who knows what filmy creatures may not crawl up from their caverns in a place like this and at such an hour.
A purple veil has fallen over all things. Fireflies are lighting their inadequate lanterns, and far away, on the hillside yonder, a belated cicada has yet to finish its daily task of instrumental music. No sound of waves is heard on this deserted beach; an overpowering fragrance of aromatic plants and warm earth exhales into the moonless summer night....
Is it possible that on this lonesome shore, with its tufts of canes and shattered hovels, was the harbour — the harbour? There is not a trace of antiquity to be seen even by daylight, and in this dubious gloaming the mind, concentrated upon itself, is more than ever prone to distrust the reality of the historic record. It is all extremely improbable; Monsieur Berard and his colleagues are taking us in, as usual. (There is a 'Via Ulisse' on Ischia, to commemorate, maybe, its old Homeric associations).
Who were these Greeks and Romans, if they ever lived? Their clothing was so and so; their houses thus... Elusive shapes, none the less.
The moment you endeavour to fix them upon the retina they are gone, swallowed up in the murk.
A black gulf yawns between them and ourselves; however clearly they wrought or thought, their personalities glide away from us with the swiftness of a dream. Two faces peering at one another in the night through the windows of railway carriages...
Yet we must allow ourselves to be convinced, even at San Montano. Vases and cinerary urns, and ancient coins and marbles, have been brought to light within a few feet of the surface.
No doubt much soil has been washed down from the hills on either side since those days; the sea, too, must have carried in sand and stones and thus helped to bury traces of ancient life here. Yet only a few days ago a fisherman drew up from the deep a classic amphora.
It was encrusted with barnacles and other marine growths that covered, without concealing, its noble proportions. A foreigner bought it; he considered the amphora beautiful, and its encrustation 'picturesque'.
That was correctly stated. These sea-amphorae are, to my thinking, fit symbols of modern Campania, and their comely image rises up before the mind's eye whenever, amid northern gloom, I remember those shores and try to reconstruct their vanished glories. For barnacles are 'picturesque'; dirt and superstition and villainy are 'picturesque', but it needs neither learning nor acumen to see through yesterday's growth the beauty of the antique form.
P.S. Silting of San Montano harbour. This is doubtless what has happened, and a glance at the right-hand bottom corner of Jasolino's map will show that as recently as his day - 1588 - the inlet was lake-like, three-tongued, with its water running so far into what are now flat fields as almost to convert the promontory of Vico into an island (supposing this map to be correctly drawn). A comparison with more important old charts such as those of Magini or Coronelli should settle the point. I have found no traces of antiquity on the Acropolis of Vico; nothing but vineyards. Maybe those early Greeks were rough settlers living in wooden houses, and I forget what scholars like Holm and Beloch have to tell us about their short stay on Ischia, even as I forget the precise deductions in Berard's Homeric Studies. Romans will have occupied the district in later ages. On the exposed flank of Vico promontory is the small sea-cave in which the Roman general Marius is said to have hidden himself.