Old Calabria
By Norman Douglas

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Leaving the hospitable shepherds in the morning, we arrived after midday, by devious woodland paths, at the Madonna di Pollino. This solitary fane is perched, like an eagle’s nest, on the edge of a cliff overhanging the Frida torrent. Owing to this fact, and to its great elevation, the views inland are wonderful; especially towards evening, when crude daylight tints fade away and range after range of mountains reveal themselves, their crests outlined against each other in tender gradations of mauve and grey. The prospect is closed, at last, by the lofty groups of Sirino and Alburno, many long leagues away. On all other sides are forests, interspersed with rock. But near at hand lies a spacious green meadow, at the foot of a precipice. This is now covered with encampments in anticipation of to-morrow’s festival, and the bacchanal is already in full swing.

Very few foreigners, they say, have attended this annual feast, which takes place on the first Saturday and Sunday of July, and is worth coming a long way to see. Here the old types, uncon-taminated by modernism and emigration, are still gathered together. The whole country-side is represented; the peasants have climbed up with their entire households from thirty or forty villages of this thinly populated land, some of them marching a two days’ journey; the greater the distance, the greater the “divozione” to the Mother of God. Piety conquers rough tracks, as old Bishop Paulinus sang, nearly fifteen hundred years ago.

It is a vast picnic in honour of the Virgin. Two thousand persons are encamped about the chapel, amid a formidable army of donkeys and mules whose braying mingles with the pastoral music of reeds and bagpipes–bagpipes of two kinds, the common Calabrian variety and that of Basilicata, much larger and with a resounding base key, which will soon cease to exist. A heaving ebb and flow of humanity fills the eye; fires are flickering before extempore shelters, and an ungodly amount of food is being consumed, as traditionally prescribed for such occasions–"si mangia per divozione.” On all sides picturesque groups of dancers indulge in the old peasants’ measure, the percorara, to the droning of bagpipes–a demure kind of tarantella, the male capering about with faun-like attitudes of invitation and snappings of fingers, his partner evading the advances with downcast eyes. And the church meanwhile, is filled to overflowing; orations and services follow one another without interruption; the priests are having a busy time of it.

The rocky pathway between this chapel and the meadow is obstructed by folk and lined on either side with temporary booths of green branches, whose owners vociferously extol the merits of their wares–cloths, woollens, umbrellas, hot coffee, wine, fresh meat, fruit, vegetables (the spectre of cholera is abroad, but no one heeds)–as well as gold watches, rings and brooches, many of which will be bought ere to-morrow morning, in memory of to-night’s tender meetings. The most interesting shops are those which display ex-votos, waxen reproductions of various ailing parts of the body which have been miraculously cured by the Virgin’s intercession: arms, legs, fingers, breasts, eyes. There are also entire infants of wax. Strangest of all of them is a many-tinted and puzzling waxen symbol which sums up all the internal organs of the abdomen in one bold effort of artistic condensation; a kind of heraldic, materialized stomache-ache. I would have carried one away with me, had there been the slightest chance of its remaining unbroken. [Footnote: A good part of these, I dare say, arc intended to represent the enlarged spleen of malaria. In old Greece, says Dr. W. H. D. Rouse, votives of the trunk are commonest, after the eyes–malaria, again.]

These are the votive offerings which catch the visitor’s eye in southern churches, and were beloved not only of heathendom, but of the neolithic gentry; a large deposit has been excavated at Taranto; the British Museum has some of marble, from Athens; others were of silver, but the majority terra-cotta. The custom must have entered Christianity in early ages, for already Theo-doret, who died in 427, says, “some bring images of eyes, others of feet, others of hands; and sometimes they are made of gold, sometimes of silver. These votive gifts testify to cure of maladies.” Nowadays, when they become too numerous, they are melted down for candles; so Pericles, in some speech, talks of selling them for the benefit of the commonwealth.

One is struck with the feast of costumes here, by far the brightest being those of the women who have come up from the seven or eight Albanian villages that surround these hills. In their variegated array of chocolate-brown and white, of emerald-green and gold and flashing violet, these dames move about the sward like animated tropical flowers. But the Albanian girls of Civita stand out for aristocratic elegance–pleated black silk gowns, discreetly trimmed with gold and white lace, and open at the breast. The women of Morano, too, make a brave show.

Night brings no respite; on the contrary, the din grows livelier than ever; fires gleam brightly on the meadow and under the trees; the dancers are unwearied, the bagpipers with their brazen lungs show no signs of exhaustion. And presently the municipal music of Castrovillari, specially hired for the occasion, ascends an improvised bandstand and pours brisk strains into the night. Then the fireworks begin, sensational fireworks, that have cost a mint of money; flaring wheels and fiery devices that send forth a pungent odour; rockets of many hues, lighting up the leafy recesses, and scaring the owls and wolves for miles around.

Certain persons have told me that if you are of a prying disposition, now is the time to observe amorous couples walking hand in hand into the gloom–passionate young lovers from different villages, who have looked forward to this night of all the year on the chance of meeting, at last, in a fervent embrace under the friendly beeches. These same stern men (they are always men) declare that such nocturnal festivals are a disgrace to civilization; that the Greek Comedy, long ago, reprobated them as disastrous to the morals of females–that they were condemned by the Council of Elvira, by Vigilantius of Marseilles and by the great Saint Jerome, who wrote that on such occasions no virgin should wander a hand’s-breadth from her mother. They wish you to believe that on these warm summer nights, when the pulses of nature are felt and senses stirred with music and wine and dance, the Gran Madre di Dio is adored in a manner less becoming Christian youths and maidens, than heathens celebrating mad orgies to Magna Mater in Daphne, or the Babylonian groves (where she was not worshipped at all–though she might have been).

In fact, they insinuate that----

It may well be true. What were the moralists doing there?

Festivals like this are relics of paganism, and have my cordial approval. We English ought to have learnt by this time that the repression of pleasure is a dangerous error. In these days when even Italy, the grey-haired cocotte, has become tainted with Anglo-Pecksniffian principles, there is nothing like a little time-honoured bestiality for restoring the circulation and putting things to rights generally. On ethical grounds alone–as safety-valves–such nocturnal feasts ought to be kept up in regions such as these, where the country-folk have not our “facilities.” Who would grudge them these primordial joys, conducted under the indulgent motherly eye of Madonna, and hallowed by antiquity and the starlit heavens above? Every one is so happy and well-behaved. No bawling, no quarrelsomeness, no staggering tipplers; a spirit of universal good cheer broods over the assembly. Involuntarily, one thinks of the drunkard-strewn field of battle at the close of our Highland games; one thinks of God-fearing Glasgow on a Saturday evening, and of certain other aspects of Glasgow life. . . .

I accepted the kindly proffered invitation of the priests to share their dinner; they held out hopes of some sort of sleeping accommodation as well. It was a patriarchal hospitality before that fire of logs (the night had grown chilly), and several other guests partook of it, forestal inspectors and such-like notabilities–one lady among them who, true to feudal traditions, hardly spoke a word the whole evening. I was struck, as I have sometimes been, at the attainments of these country priests; they certainly knew our Gargantuan novelists of the Victorian epoch uncommonly well. Can it be that these great authors are more readable in Italian translations than in the original? One of them took to relating, in a strain of autumnal humour, experiences of his life in the wilds of Bolivia, where he had spent many years among the Indians; my neighbour, meanwhile, proved to be steeped in Horatian lore. It was his pet theory, supported by a wealth of aptly cited lines, that Horace was a “typical Italian countryman,” and great was his delight on discovering that I shared his view and could even add another–somewhat improper–utterance of the poet’s to his store of illustrative quotations.

They belonged to the old school, these sable philosophers; to the days when the priest was arbiter of life and death, and his mere word sufficient to send a man to the galleys; when the cleverest boys of wealthy and influential families were chosen for the secular career and carefully, one might say liberally, trained to fulfil those responsible functions. The type is becoming extinct, the responsibility is gone, the profession has lost its glamour; and only the clever sons of pauper families, or the dull ones of the rich, are now tempted to forsake the worldly path.

Regarding the origin of this festival, I learned that it was “tradition.” It had been suggested to me that the Virgin had appeared to a shepherd in some cave near at hand–the usual Virgin, in the usual cave; a cave which, in the present instance, no one was able to point out to me. Est traditio, ne quaeras amplius.

My hosts answered questions on this subject with benignant ambiguity, and did not trouble to defend the divine apparition on the sophistical lines laid down in Riccardi’s “Santuari.” The truth, I imagine, is that they have very sensibly not concerned themselves with inventing an original legend. The custom of congregating here on these fixed days seems to be recent, and I am inclined to think that it has been called into being by the zeal of some local men of standing. On the other hand, a shrine may well have stood for many years on this spot, for it marks the half-way house in the arduous two days’ journey between San Severino and Castro-villari, a summer trek that must date from hoary antiquity.

Our bedroom contained two rough couches which were to be shared between four priests and myself. Despite the fact that I occupied the place of honour between the two oldest and wisest of my ghostly entertainers, sleep refused to come; the din outside had grown to a pandemonium. I lay awake till, at 2.30 a.m., one of them arose and touched the others with a whispered and half-jocular oremus! They retired on tiptoe to the next room, noiselessly closing the door, to prepare themselves for early service. I could hear them splashing vigorously at their ablutions in the icy water, and wondered dreamily how many Neapolitan priests would indulge at that chill hour of the morning in such a lustrai rite, prescribed as it is by the rules of decency and of their church.

After that, I stretched forth at my ease and endeavoured to repose seriously. There were occasional lulls, now, in the carnival, but explosions of sound still broke the stillness, and phantoms of the restless throng began to chase each other through my brain. The exotic costumes of the Albanian girls in their green and gold wove themselves into dreams and called up colours seen in Northern Africa during still wilder festivals–negro festivals such as Fro-mentin loved to depict. In spectral dance there flitted before my vision nightmarish throngs of dusky women bedizened in that same green and gold; Arabs I saw, riding tumultuously hither and thither with burnous flying in the wind; beggars crawling about the hot sand and howling for alms; ribbons and flags flying–a blaze of sunshine overhead, and on earth a seething orgy of colour and sound; methought I heard the guttural yells of the fruit-vendors, musketry firing, braying of asses, the demoniacal groans of the camels-----

Was it really a camel? No. It was something infinitely worse, and within a few feet of my ears. I sprang out of bed. There, at the very window, stood a youth extracting unearthly noises out of the Basilicata bagpipe. To be sure! I remembered expressing an interest in this rare instrument to one of my hosts who, with subtle delicacy, must have ordered the boy to give me a taste of his quality–to perform a matutinal serenade, for my especial benefit. How thoughtful these people are. It was not quite 4 a.m. With some regret, I said farewell to sleep and stumbled out of doors, where my friends of yesterday evening were already up and doing. The eating, the dancing, the bagpipes–they were all in violent activity, under the sober and passionless eye of morning.

A gorgeous procession took place about midday. Like a many-coloured serpent it wound out of the chapel, writhed through the intricacies of the pathway, and then unrolled itself freely, in splendid convolutions, about the sunlit meadow, saluted by the crash of mortars, bursts of military music from the band, chanting priests and women, and all the bagpipers congregated in a mass, each playing his own favourite tune. The figure of the Madonna–a modern and unprepossessing image–was carried aloft, surrounded by resplendent ecclesiastics and followed by a picturesque string of women bearing their votive offerings of candles, great and small. Several hundredweight of wax must have been brought up on the heads of pious female pilgrims. These multi-coloured candles are arranged in charming designs; they are fixed upright in a framework of wood, to resemble baskets or bird-cages, and decked with bright ribbons and paper flowers.

Who settles the expenses of such a festival? The priests, in the first place, have paid a good deal to make it attractive; they have improved the chapel, constructed a number of permanent wooden shelters (rain sometimes spoils the proceedings), as well as a capacious reservoir for holding drinking water, which has to be transported in barrels from a considerable distance. Then–as to the immediate outlay for music, fireworks, and so forth–the Madonna-statue is “put up to auction”: fanno l’incanto della Madonna, as they say; that is, the privilege of helping to carry the idol from the church and back in the procession is sold to the highest bidders. Inasmuch as She is put up for auction several times during this short perambulation, fresh enthusiasts coming forward gaily with bank-notes and shoulders–whole villages competing against each other–a good deal of money is realized in this way. There are also spontaneous gifts of money. Goats and sheep, too, decorated with coloured rags, are led up by peasants who have “devoted” them to the Mother of God; the butchers on the spot buy these beasts for slaughter, and their price goes to swell the funds.

This year’s expenditure may have been a thousand francs or so, and the proceeds are calculated at about two-thirds of that sum.

No matter. If the priests do not make good the deficiency, some one else will be kind enough to step forward. Better luck next year! The festival, they hope, is to become more popular as time goes on, despite the chilling prophecy of one of our friends: “It will finish, this comedy!” The money, by the way, does not pass through the hands of the clerics, but of two individuals called “Regolatore” and “Priore,” who mutually control each other. They are men of reputable families, who burden themselves with the troublesome task for the honour of the thing, and make up any deficiencies in the accounts out of their own pockets. Cases of malversation are legendary.

This procession marked the close of the religious gathering. Hardly was it over before there began a frenzied scrimmage of departure. And soon the woodlands echoed with the laughter and farewellings of pilgrims returning homewards by divergent paths; the whole way through the forest, we formed part of a jostling caravan along the Castrovillari-Morano track–how different from the last time I had traversed this route, when nothing broke the silence save a chaffinch piping among the branches or the distant tap of some woodpecker!

So ended the festa. Once in the year this mountain chapel is rudely disquieted in its slumbers by a boisterous riot; then it sinks again into tranquil oblivion, while autumn dyes the beeches to gold. And very soon the long winter comes; chill tempests shake the trees and leaves are scattered to earth; towards Yuletide some woodman of Viggianello adventuring into these solitudes, and mindful of their green summer revels, discovers his familiar sanctuary entombed up to the door-lintle under a glittering sheet of snow. . . .

There was a little episode in the late afternoon. We had reached the foot of the Gaudolino valley and begun the crossing of the plain, when there met us a woman with dishevelled hair, weeping bitterly and showing other signs of distress; one would have thought she had been robbed or badly hurt. Not at all! Like the rest of us, she had attended the feast and, arriving home with the first party, had been stopped at the entrance of the town, where they had insisted upon fumigating her clothes as a precaution against cholera, and those of her companions. That was all. But the indignity choked her–she had run back to warn the rest of us, all of whom were to be treated to the same outrage. Every approach to Morano, she declared, was watched by doctors, to prevent wary pilgrims from entering by unsuspected paths.

During her recital my muleteer had grown thoughtful.

“What’s to be done?” he asked.

“I don’t much mind fumigation,” I replied.

“Oh, but I do! I mind it very much. And these doctors are so dreadfully distrustful. How shall we cheat them? ... I have it, I have it!”

And he elaborated the following stratagem:

“I go on ahead of you, alone, leading the two mules. You follow, out of sight, behind. And what happens? When I reach the doctor, he asks slyly: ’Well, and how did you enjoy the festival this year?’ Then I say: ’Not this year, doctor; alas, no festival for me! I’ve been with an Englishman collecting beetles in the forest, and see? here’s his riding mule. He walks on behind–oh, quite harmless, doctor! a nice gentleman, indeed–only, he prefers walking; he really likes it, ha, ha, ha!-----”

“Why mention about my walking?” I interrupted. The lady-mule was still a sore subject.

“I mention about your not riding,” he explained graciously, “because it will seem to the doctor a sure sign that you are a little"–here he touched his forehead with a significant gesture–"a little like some other foreigners, you know. And that, in its turn, will account for your collecting beetles. And that, in its turn, will account for your not visiting the Madonna. You comprehend the argument: how it all hangs together?”

“I see. What next?”

“Then you come up, holding one beetle in each hand, and pretend not to know a word of Italian–not a word! You must smile at the doctor, in friendly fashion; he’ll like that. And besides, it will prove what I said about-----” (touching his forehead once more). “In fact, the truth will be manifest. And there will be no fumigation for us.”

It seemed a needlessly circuitous method of avoiding such a slight inconvenience. I would have put more faith in a truthful narrative by myself, suffused with that ingratiating amiability which I would perforce employ on such occasions. But the stronger mind, as usual, had its way.

“I’ll smile,” I agreed. “But you shall carry my beetles; it looks more natural, somehow. Go ahead, and find them.”

He moved forwards with the beasts and, after destroying a considerable tract of stone wall, procured a few specimens of native coleoptera, which he carefully wrapped up in a piece of paper. I followed slowly.

Unfortunately for him, that particular doctor happened to be an americana a snappy little fellow, lately returned from the States.

“Glad to make your acquaintance, sir,” he began, as I came up to where the two were arguing together. “I’ve heard of your passing through the other day. So you don’t talk Italian? Well, then, see here: this man of yours, this God-dam son of Satan, has been showing me a couple of bugs and telling me a couple of hundred lies about them. Better move on right away; lucky you struck me! As for this son of a -----, you bet I’ll sulphur him, bugs and all, to hell!”

I paid the crestfallen muleteer then and there; took down my bags, greatly lightened, and departed with them. Glancing round near the little bridge, I saw that the pair were still engaged in heated discussion, my man clinging despairingly, as it seemed, to the beetle-hypothesis; he looked at me with reproachful eyes, as though I had deserted him in his hour of need.

But what could I do, not knowing Italian?

Moreover, I remembered the “lady-mule.”

Fifteen minutes later a light carriage took me to Castrovillari, whence, after a bath and dinner that compensated for past hardships, I sped down to the station and managed, by a miracle, to catch the night-train to Cosenza.



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Old Calabria (Marlboro Travel)
By Norman Douglas
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