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Calabria, Italy and its Genealogy, History, Culture and Language

By The Ionian Sea - Chapter XIII

Chapter XIII -- The Breezy Height

Catanzaro must be one of the healthiest spots in Southern Italy; perhaps it has no rival in this respect among the towns south of Rome. The furious winds, with which my acquaintances threatened me, did not blow during my stay, but there was always more or less breeze, and the kind of breeze that refreshes. I should like to visit Catanzaro in the summer; probably one would have all the joy of glorious sunshine without oppressive heat, and in the landscape in those glowing days would be indescribably beautiful.

I remember with delight the public garden at Cosenza, its noble view over the valley of the Crati to the heights of Sila; that of Catanzaro is in itself more striking, and the prospect it affords has a sterner, grander note. Here you wander amid groups of magnificent trees, an astonishingly rich and varied vegetation; and from a skirting terrace you look down upon the precipitous gorge, burnt into barenness save where a cactus clings to some jutting rock. Here in summer-time would be freshness amid noontide heat, with wondrous avenues of golden light breaking the dusk beneath the boughs. I shall never see it; but the desire often comes to me under northern skies, when I am weary of labour and seek in fancy a paradise of idleness.

In the public gardens is a little museum, noticeable mostly for a fine collection of ancient coins. There are Greek pots, too, and weapons, found at Tiriolo, a village high up on the mountain above Catanzaro. As at Taranto, a stranger who cares for this kind of thing can be sure of having the museum all to himself. On my first visit Don Pasquale accompanied me, and through him I made the acquaintance of the custodian. But I was not in the museum mood; reviving health inclined me to the open air, and the life of to-day; I saw these musty relics with only a vague eye.

After living amid a malaria-stricken population, I rejoiced in the healthy aspect of the mountain folk. Even a deformed beggar, who dragged himself painfully along the pavement, had so ruddy a face that it was hard to feel compassion for him. And the wayside children -- it was a pleasure to watch them at their games. Such children in Italy do not, as a rule, seem happy; too often they look ill, cheerless, burdened before their time; at Catanzaro they are as robust and lively as heart could wish, and their voices ring delightfully upon the ear. It is not only, I imagine, a result of the fine air they breathe; no doubt they are exceptional among the poor children of the south in getting enough to eat. The town has certain industries, especially the manufacture of silk; one feels an atmosphere of well-being; mendicancy is a rare thing.

Fruits abounded, and were very cheap; if one purchased from a stall the difficulty was to carry away the abundance offered for one's smallest coin. Excellent oranges cost about a penny the half-dozen. Any one who is fond of the prickly fig should go to Catanzaro. I asked a man sitting with a basket of them at a street corner to give me the worth of a soldo (a half-penny); he began to fill my pocket, and when I cried that it was enough, that I could carry no more, he held up one particularly fine fruit, smiled as only an Italian can, and said, with admirable politeness, "Questo per complimento!" I ought to have shaken hands with him.

Even when I had grown accustomed to the place, its singular appearance of incompleteness kept exciting my attention. I had never seen a town so ragged at the edges. If there had recently been a great conflagration and almost all the whole city were being rebuilt, it would have looked much as it did at the time of my visit. To enter the post-office one had to clamber over heaps of stone and plaster, to stride over tumbled beams and jump across great puddles, entering at last by shaky stairs a place which looked like the waiting-room of an unfinished railway station. The style of building is peculiar, and looks so temporary as to keep one constantly in mind of the threatening earthquake. Most of the edifices, large and small, public and private, are constructed of rubble set in cement, with an occasional big, rough-squared stone to give an appearance of solidity, and perhaps a few courses of bricks in the old Roman style. If the building is of importance, this work is hidden beneath stucco; otherwise it remains like the mere shell of a house, and is disfigured over all its surface with great holes left by the scaffolding. Religion supplies something of adornment; above many portals is a rudely painted Virgin and Child, often, plainly enough, the effort of a hand accustomed to any tool rather than that of the artist. On the dwellings of the very poor a great Cross is scrawled in whitewash. These rickety houses often exhibit another feature more picturesque and, to the earthly imagination, more consoling; on the balcony one sees a great gourd, some three feet long, so placed that its yellow plumpness may ripen in sun and air. It is a sign of plenty: the warm spot of colour against the rough masonry does good to eye and heart.

My hotel afforded me little amusement after the Concordia at Cotrone, yet it did not lack its characteristic features. I found, for instance, in my bedroom a printed notice, making appeal in remarkable terms to all who occupied the chamber. The proprietor -- thus it ran -- had learnt with extreme regret that certain travellers who slept under his roof were in the habit of taking their meals at other places of entertainment. This practice, he desired it to be known, not only hurt his personal feelings -- tocca il suo morale -- but did harm to the reputation of his establishment. Assuring all and sundry that he would do his utmost to maintain a high standard of culinary excellence, the proprietor ended by begging his honourable clients that they would bestow their kind favours on the restaurant of the house -- signora pregare i suoi respettabili clienti perchè vogliano benignarsi il ristorante; and therewith signed himself -- Coriolano Paparazzo.

For my own part I was not tempted to such a breach of decorum; the fare provided by Signor Paparazzo suited me well enough, and the wine of the country was so good that it would have covered many defects of cookery. Of my fellow-guests in the spacious dining-room I can recall only two. They were military men of a certain age, grizzled officers, who walked rather stiffly and seated themselves with circumspection. Evidently old friends, they always dined at the same time, entering one a few minutes after the other; but by some freak of habit they took places at different tables, so that the conversation which they kept up all through the meal had to be carried on by an exchange of shouts. Nothing whatever prevented them from being near each other; the room never contained more than half a dozen persons; yet thus they sat, evening after evening, many yards apart, straining their voices to be mutually audible. Me they delighted; to the other guests, more familiar with them and their talk, they must have been a serious nuisance. But I should have liked to see the civilian who dared to manifest his disapproval of these fine old warriors.

They sat interminably, evidently having no idea how otherwise to pass the evening. In the matter of public amusements Catanzaro is not progressive; I only once saw an announcement of a theatrical performance, and it did not smack of modern enterprise. On the dining-room table one evening lay a little printed bill, which made known that a dramatic company was then in the town. Their entertainment consisted of two parts, the first entitled: "The Death of Agolante and the Madness of Count Orlando"; the second: "A Delightful Comedy, the Devil's Castle with Pulcinella as the Timorous Soldier." In addition were promised "new duets and Neapolitan songs." The theatre would comfortably seat three hundred persons, and the performance would be given twice, at half-past eighteen and half-past twenty-one o'clock. It was unpardonable in me that I did not seek out the Teatro delle Varietà; I might easily have been in my seat (with thirty, more likely than three hundred, other spectators) by half-past twenty-one. But the night was forbidding; a cold rain fell heavily. Moreover, just as I had thought that it was perhaps worth while to run the risk of another illness -- one cannot see the Madness of Count Orlando every day -- there came into the room a peddler laden with some fifty volumes of fiction and a fine assortment of combs and shirt-studs. The books tempted me; I looked them through. Most, of course, were translations from the vulgarest French feuilletonistes; the Italian reader of novels, whether in newspaper or volume, knows, as a rule, nothing but this imported rubbish. However, a real Italian work was discoverable, and, together with the unfriendly sky, it kept me at home. I am sorry now, as for many another omission on my wanderings, when lack of energy or a passing mood of dullness has caused me to miss what would be so pleasant in the retrospect.

I spent an hour one evening at the principal café, where a pianist of great pretensions and small achievement made rather painful music. Watching and listening to the company (all men, of course, though the Oriental system regarding women is not so strict at Catanzaro as elsewhere in the south), I could not but fall into a comparison of this scene with any similar gathering of middle-class English folk. The contrast was very greatly in favour of the Italians. One has had the same thought a hundred times in the same circumstances, but it is worth dwelling upon. Among these representative men, young and old, of Catanzaro, the tone of conversation was incomparably better than that which would rule in a cluster of English provincials met to enjoy their evening leisure. They did, in fact, converse -- a word rarely applicable to English talk under such conditions; mere personal gossip was the exception; they exchanged genuine thoughts, reasoned lucidly on the surface of abstract subjects. I say on the surface; no remark that I heard could be called original or striking; but the choice of topics and the mode of viewing them was distinctly intellectual. Phrases often occurred such as have no equivalent on the lips of everyday people in our own country. For instance, a young fellow in no way distinguished from his companions, fell to talking about a leading townsman, and praised him for his ingenio simpatico, his bella intelligenza, with exclamations of approval from those who listened. No, it is not merely the difference between homely Anglo-Saxon and a language of classic origin; there is a radical distinction of thought. These people have an innate respect for things of the mind, which is wholly lacking to a typical Englishman. One need not dwell upon the point that their animation was supported by a tiny cup of coffee or a glass of lemonade; this is a matter of climate and racial constitution; but I noticed the entire absence of a certain kind of jocoseness which is so naturally associated with spirituous liquors; no talk could have been less offensive. From many a bar-parlour in English country towns I have gone away heavy with tedium and disgust; the cafe at Catanzaro seemed, in comparison, a place of assembly for wits and philosophers.

Meanwhile a season of rain had begun; heavy skies warned me that I must not hope for a renewal of sunny idleness on this mountain top; it would be well if intervals of cheerful weather lighted my further course by the Ionian Sea. Reluctantly, I made ready to depart.