Old Calabria
By Norman Douglas

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San Demetrio, famous for its Italo-Albanian College, lies on a fertile incline sprinkled with olives and mulberries and chestnuts, fifteen hundred feet above sea-level. They tell me that within the memory of living man no Englishman has ever entered the town. This is quite possible; I have not yet encountered a single English traveller, during my frequent wanderings over South Italy. Gone are the days of Keppel Craven and Swinburne, of Eustace and Brydone and Hoare! You will come across sporadic Germans immersed in Hohenstaufen records, or searching after Roman antiquities, butterflies, minerals, or landscapes to paint–you will meet them in the most unexpected places; but never an Englishman. The adventurous type of Anglo-Saxon probably thinks the country too tame; scholars, too trite; ordinary tourists, too dirty. The accommodation and food in San Demetrio leave much to be desired; its streets are irregular lanes, ill-paved with cobbles of gneiss and smothered under dust and refuse. None the less, what noble names have been given to these alleys–names calculated to fire the ardent imagination of young Albanian students, and prompt them to valorous and patriotic deeds! Here are the streets of “Odysseus,” of “Salamis” and “Marathon” and “Thermopylae,” telling of the glory that was Greece; “Via Skanderbeg” and “Hypsilanti” awaken memories of more immediate renown; “Corso Dante Alighieri” reminds them that their Italian hosts, too, have done something in their day; the “Piazza Francesco Ferrer” causes their ultra-liberal breasts to swell with mingled pride and indignation; while the “Via dell’ Industria” hints, not obscurely, at the great truth that genius, without a capacity for taking pains, is an idle phrase. Such appellations, without a doubt, are stimulating and glamorous. But if the streets themselves have seen a scavenger’s broom within the last half-century, I am much mistaken. The goddess “Hygeia” dost not figure among their names, nor yet that Byzantine Monarch whose infantile exploit might be re-enacted in ripest maturity without attracting any attention in San Demetrio. To the pure all things are pure.

The town is exclusively Albanian; the Roman Catholic church has fallen into disrepair, and is now used as a shed for timber. But at the door of the Albanian sanctuary I was fortunate enough to intercept a native wedding, just as the procession was about to enter the portal. Despite the fact that the bride was considered the ugliest girl in the place, she had been duly “robbed” by her bold or possibly blind lover–her features were providentially veiled beneath her nuptial flammeum, and of her squat figure little could be discerned under the gorgeous accoutrements of the occasion. She was ablaze with ornaments and embroidery of gold, on neck and shoulders and wrist; a wide lace collar fell over a bodice of purple silk; silken too, and of brightest green, was her pleated skirt. The priest seemed ineffably bored with his task, and mumbled through one or two pages of holy books in record time; there were holdings of candles, interchange of rings, sacraments of bread and wine and other solemn ceremonies–the most quaint being the stephanoma, or crowning, of the happy pair, and the moving of their respective crowns from the head of one to that of the other. It ended with a chanting perlustration of the church, led by the priest: this is the so-called “pesatura.”

I endeavoured to attune my mind to the gravity of this marriage, to the deep historico-ethnologico-poetical significance of its smallest detail. Such rites, I said to myself, must be understood to be appreciated, and had I not been reading certain native commentators on the subject that very morning? Nevertheless, my attention was diverted from the main issue–the bridegroom’s face had fascinated me. The self-conscious male is always at a disadvantage during grotesquely splendid buffooneries of this kind; and never, in all my life, have I seen a man looking such a sorry fool as this individual, never; especially during the perambulation, when his absurd crown was supported on his head, from behind, by the hand of his best man.

Meanwhile a handful of boys, who seemed to share my private feelings in regard to the performance, had entered the sacred precincts, their pockets stuffed with living cicadas. These Albanian youngsters, like all true connaisseurs, are aware of the idiosyncrasy of the classical insect which, when pinched or tickled on a certain spot, emits its characteristic and ear-piercing note–the “lily-soft voice” of the Greek bard. The cicadas, therefore, were duly pinched and then let loose; like squibs and rockets they careered among the congregation, dashing in our faces and clinging to our garments; the church resounded like an olive-copse at noon. A hot little hand conveyed one of these tremulously throbbing creatures into my own, and obeying a whispered injunction of “Let it fly, sir!” I had the joy of seeing the beast alight with a violent buzz on the head of the bride–doubtless the happiest of auguries. Such conduct, on the part of English boys, would be deemed very naughty and almost irreverent; but here, one hopes, it may have its origin in some obscure but pious credence such as that which prompts the populace to liberate birds in churches, at Easter time. These escaping cicadas, it may be, are symbolical of matrimony–the individual man and woman freed, at last, from the dungeon-like horrors of celibate existence; or, if that parallel be far-fetched, we may conjecture that their liberation represents the afflatus of the human soul, aspiring upwards to merge its essence into the Divine All. . . .

The pride of San Demetrio is its college. You may read about it in Professor Mazziotti’s monograph; but whoever wishes to go to the fountain-head must peruse the Historia Erectionis Pontifici Collegi Corsini Ullanensis, etc., of old Zavarroni–an all-too-solid piece of work. Founded under the auspices of Pope Clement XII in 1733 (or 1735) at San Benedetto Ullano, it was moved hither in 1794, and between that time and now has passed through fierce vicissitudes. Its president, Bishop Bugliari, was murdered by the brigands in 1806; much of its lands and revenues have been dissipated by maladministration; it was persecuted for its Liberalism by the Bourbons, who called it a “workshop of the devil.” It distinguished itself during the anti-dynastic revolts of 1799 and 1848 and, in 1860, was presented with twelve thousand ducats by Garibaldi, “in consideration of the signal services rendered to the national cause by the brave and generous Albanians.” [Footnote: There used to be regiments of these Albanians at Naples. In Filati de Tassulo’s sane study (1777) they are spoken of as highly prized.] Even now the institution is honeycombed with Freemasonry–the surest path to advancement in any career, in modern Italy. Times indeed have changed since the “Inviolable Constitutions” laid it down that nullus omnino Alumnus in Collegio detineatur, cuius futura; Chris-tianae pietatis significatio non extet. But only since 1900 has it been placed on a really sound and prosperous footing. An agricultural school has lately been added, under the supervision of a trained expert. They who are qualified to judge speak of the college as a beacon of learning–an institution whose aims and results are alike deserving of high respect. And certainly it can boast of a fine list of prominent men who have issued from its walls.

This little island of stern mental culture contains, besides twenty-five teachers and as many servants, some three hundred scholars preparing for a variety of secular professions. About fifty of them are Italo-Albanians, ten or thereabouts are genuine Albanians from over the water, the rest Italians, among them two dozen of those unhappy orphans from. Reggio and Messina who flooded the country after the earthquake, and were “dumped down” in colleges and private houses all over Italy. Some of the boys come of wealthy families in distant parts, their parents surmising that San Demetrio offers no temptations to youthful folly and extravagance. In this, so far as I can judge, they are perfectly correct.

The heat of summer and the fact that the boys were in the throes of their examinations may have helped to make the majority of them seem pale and thin; they certainly complained of their food, and the cook was the only prosperous-looking person whom I could discover in the establishment–his percentages, one suspects, being considerable. The average yearly payment of each scholar for board and tuition is only twenty pounds (it used to be twenty ducats); how shall superfluities be included in the bill of fare for such a sum?

The class-rooms are modernized; the dormitories neither clean nor very dirty; there is a rather scanty gymnasium as well as a physical laboratory and museum of natural history. Among the recent acquisitions of the latter is a vulture (Gyps fulvus) which was shot here in the spring of this year. The bird, they told me, has never been seen in these regions before; it may have come over from the east, or from Sardinia, where it still breeds. I ventured to suggest that they should lose no time in securing a native porcupine, an interesting beast concerning which I never fail to enquire on my rambles. They used to be encountered in the Crati valley; two were shot near Corigliano a few years ago, and another not far from Cotronei on the Neto; they still occur in the forests near the “Pagliarelle” above Petilia Policastro; but, judging by all indications, I should say that this animal is rapidly approaching extinction not only here, but all over Italy. Another very rare creature, the otter, was killed lately at Vaccarizza, but unfortunately not preserved.

Fencing and music are taught, but those athletic exercises which led to the victories of Marathon and Salamis are not much in vogue–mens sana in corpare sana is clearly not the ideal of the place; fighting among the boys is reprobated as “savagery,” and corporal punishment forbidden. There is no playground or workshop, and their sole exercise consists in dull promenades along the high road under the supervision of one or more teachers, during which the youngsters indulge in attempts at games by the wayside which are truly pathetic. So the old “Inviolable Constitutions” ordain that “the scholars must not play outside the college, and if they meet any one, they should lower their voices.” A rule of recent introduction is that in this warm weather they must all lie down to sleep for two hours after the midday meal; it may suit the managers, but the boys consider it a great hardship and would prefer being allowed to play. Altogether, whatever the intellectual results may be, the moral tendency of such an upbringing is damaging to the spirit of youth and must make for precocious frivolity and brutality. But the pedagogues of Italy are like her legislators: theorists. They close their eyes to the cardinal principles of all education–that the waste products and toxins of the imagination are best eliminated by motor activities, and that the immature stage of human development, far from being artificially shortened, should be prolonged by every possible means. . If the internal arrangement of this institution is not all it might be as regards the healthy development of youth, the situation of the college resembles the venerable structures of Oxford in that it is too good, far too good, for mere youngsters. This building, in its seclusion from the world, its pastoral surroundings and soul-inspiring panorama, is an abode not for boys but for philosophers; a place to fill with a wave of deep content the sage who has outgrown earthly ambitions. Your eye embraces the snow-clad heights of Dolcedorme and the Ionian Sea, wandering over forests, and villages, and rivers, and long reaches of fertile country; but it is not the variety of the scene, nor yet the historical memories of old Sybaris which kindle the imagination so much as the spacious amplitude of the whole prospect. In England we think something of a view of ten miles. Conceive, here, a grandiose valley wider than from Dover to Calais, filled with an atmosphere of such impeccable clarity that there are moments when one thinks to see every stone and every bush on the mountains yonder, thirty miles distant. And the cloud-effects, towards sunset, are such as would inspire the brush of Turner or Claude Lorraine. . . .

For the college, as befits its grave academic character, stands by itself among fruitful fields and backed by a chestnut wood, at ten minutes’ walk from the crowded streets. It is an imposing edifice–the Basilean convent of St. Adrian, with copious modern additions; the founders may well have selected this particular site on account of its fountain of fresh water, which flows on as in days of yore. One thinks of those communities of monks in the Middle Ages, scattered over this wild region and holding rare converse with one another by gloomy forest paths–how remote their life and ideals! In the days of Fiore (1691) the inmates of this convent still practised their old rites.

The nucleus of the building is the old chapel, containing a remarkable font; two antique columns sawn up (apparently for purposes of transportation from some pagan temple by the shore)–one of them being of African marble and the other of grey granite; there is also a tessellated pavement with beast-patterns of leopards and serpents akin to those of Patir. Bertaux gives a reproduction of this serpent; he assimilates it, as regards technique and age, to that which lies before the altar of Monte Cassino and was wrought by Greek artisans of the abbot Desiderius. The church itself is held to be two centuries older than that of Patir.

The library, once celebrated, contains musty folios of classics and their commentators, but nothing of value. It has been ransacked of its treasures like that of Patir, whose disjecta membra have been tracked down by the patience and acumen of Monsignor Batiffol.

Batiffol, Bertaux–Charles Diehl, Jules Gay (who has also written on San Demetrio)–Huillard-Breholles–Luynes–Lenormant. . . here are a few French scholars who have recently studied these regions and their history. What have we English done in this direction?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Such thoughts occur inevitably.

It may be insinuated that researches of this kind are gleanings; that our English genius lies rather in the spade-work of pioneers like Leake or Layard. Granted. But a hard fact remains; the fact, namely, that could any of our scholars have been capable of writing in the large and profound manner of Bertaux or Gay, not one of our publishers would have undertaken to print his work. Not one. They know their business; they know that such a book would have been a dead loss. Therefore let us frankly confess the truth: for things of the mind there is a smaller market in England than in France. How much smaller only they can tell, who have familiarized themselves with other departments of French thought.

Here, then, I have lived for the past few days, strolling among the fields, and attempting to shape some picture of these Albanians from their habits and such of their literature as has been placed at my disposal. So far, my impression of them has not changed since the days when I used to rest at their villages, in Greece. They remind me of the Irish. Both races are scattered over the earth and seem to prosper best outside their native country; they have the same songs and bards, the same hero-chieftains, the same com-bativeness and frank hospitality; both are sunk in bigotry and broils; they resemble one another in their love of dirt, disorder and display, in their enthusiastic and adventurous spirit, their versatile brilliance of mind, their incapacity for self-government and general (Keltic) note of inspired inefficiency. And both profess a frenzied allegiance to an obsolete tongue which, were it really cultivated as they wish, would put a barrier of triple brass between themselves and the rest of humanity.

Even as the Irish despise the English as their worldly and effete relatives, so the Albanians look down upon the Greeks–even those of Pericles–with profoundest contempt. The Albanians, so says one of their writers, are “the oldest people upon earth,” and their language is the “divine Pelasgic mother-tongue.” I grew interested awhile in Stanislao Marchiano’s plausibly entrancing study on this language, as well as in a pamphlet of de Rada’s on the same subject; but my ardour has cooled since learning, from another native grammarian, that these writers are hopelessly in the wrong on nearly every point. So much is certain, that the Albanian language already possesses more than thirty different alphabets (each of them with nearly fifty letters). Nevertheless they have not yet, in these last four (or forty) thousand years, made up their minds which of them to adopt, or whether it would not be wisest, after all, to elaborate yet another one–a thirty-first. And so difficult is their language with any of these alphabets that even after a five days’ residence on the spot I still find myself puzzled by such simple passages as this:

  . . . Zilji,
  mosse vet, ce asso mbremie
  to ngcnrct me iljis, praa
  gjith e miegculem, mhi siaarr
  rriij i sgjuat. Nje voogh e keljbur
  sorrevet te liosta
  ndjej se i oxtenej
  e pisseroghej. Zuu shiu
  menes; ne mee se Ijinaar
  chish Ijeen pa-shuatur
  skiotta, e i ducheje per moon.

I will only add that the translation of such a passage–it contains twenty-eight accents which I have omitted–is mere child’s play to its pronunciation.



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Old Calabria (Marlboro Travel)
By Norman Douglas
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