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

By The Ionian Sea - Chapter XVIII

Chapter XVIII -- Reggio

By its natural situation Reggio is marked for an unquiet history. It was a gateway of Magna Græcia; it lay straight in the track of conquering Rome when she moved towards Sicily; it offered points of strategic importance to every invader or defender of the peninsula throughout the mediæval wars. Goth and Saracen, Norman, Teuton and Turk, seized, pillaged, and abandoned, each in turn, this stronghold overlooking the narrow sea. Then the earthquakes, ever menacing between Vesuvius and Etna; that of 1783, which wrought destruction throughout Calabria, laid Reggio in ruins, so that to-day it has the aspect of a newly-built city, curving its regular streets, amphitheatre-wise, upon the slope that rises between shore and mountain. Of Rhegium little is discernible above ground; of the ages that followed scarce anything remains but the Norman fortress, so shaken by that century-old disaster that huge gaps show where its rent wall sank to a lower level upon the hillside.

At first, one has eyes and thoughts for nothing but the landscape. From the terrace road along the shore, Via Plutino, beauties and glories indescribable lie before one at every turn of the head. Aspromonte, with its forests and crags; the shining straits, sail-dotted, opening to a sea-horizon north and south; and, on the other side, the mountain-island, crowned with snow. Hours long I stood and walked here, marvelling delightedly at all I saw, but in the end ever fixing my gaze on Sicily. Clouds passed across the blue sky, and their shadows upon the Sicilian panorama made ceaseless change of hue and outline. At early morning I saw the crest of Etna glistening as the first sun-ray smote upon its white ridges; at fall of day, the summit hidden by heavy clouds, and western beams darting from behind the mountain, those far, cold heights glimmered with a hue of palest emerald, seeming but a vision of the sunset heaven, translucent, ever about to vanish. Night transformed but did not all conceal. Yonder, a few miles away, shone the harbour and the streets of Messina, and many a gleaming point along the island coast, strand-touching or high above, signalled the homes of men. Calm, warm, and clear, this first night at Reggio; I could not turn away from the siren-voice of the waves; hearing scarce a footstep but my own, I paced hither and thither by the sea-wall, alone with memories.

The rebuilding of Reggio has made it clean and sweet; its air is blended from that of mountain and sea, ever renewed, delicate and inspiriting. But, apart from the harbour, one notes few signs of activity; the one long street, Corso Garibaldi, has little traffic; most of the shops close shortly after nightfall, and then there is no sound of wheels; all would be perfectly still but for the occasional cry of lads who sell newspapers. Indeed, the town is strangely quiet, considering its size and aspect of importance; one has to search for a restaurant, and I doubt if more than one café exists. At my hotel the dining-room was a public trattoria, opening upon the street, but only two or three military men -- the eternal officers -- made use of it, and I felt a less cheery social atmosphere than at Taranto or at Catanzaro. One recurring incident did not tend to exhilarate. Sitting in view of a closed door, I saw children's faces pressed against the glass, peering little faces, which sought a favourable moment; suddenly the door would open, and there sounded a thin voice, begging for un pezzo di pane -- a bit of bread. Whenever the waiter caught sight of these little mendicants, he rushed out with simulated fury, and pursued them along the pavement. I have no happy recollection of my Reggian meals.

An interesting feature of the streets is the frequency of carved inscriptions, commemorating citizens who died in their struggle for liberty. Amid quiet by-ways, for instance, I discovered a tablet with the name of a young soldier who fell at that spot, fighting against the Bourbon, in 1860: "offerse per l'unità della patria sua vita quadrilustre." The very insignificance of this young life makes the fact more touching; one thinks of the unnumbered lives sacrificed upon this soil, age after age, to the wild-beast instinct of mankind, and how pathetic the attempt to preserve the memory of one boy, so soon to become a meaningless name! His own voice seems to plead with us for a regretful thought, to speak from the stone in sad arraignment of tyranny and bloodshed. A voice which has no accent of hope. In the days to come, as through all time that is past, man will lord it over his fellow, and earth will be stained red from veins of young and old. That sweet and sounding name of patria becomes an illusion and a curse; linked with the pretentious modernism, civilization, it serves as plea to the latter-day barbarian, ravening and reckless under his civil garb. How can one greatly wish for the consolidation and prosperity of Italy, knowing that national vigour tends more and more to international fear and hatred? They who perished that Italy might be born again, dreamt of other things than old savagery clanging in new weapons. In our day there is but one Italian patriot; he who tills the soil, and sows, and reaps, ignorant or careless of all beyond his furrowed field.

Whilst I was still thinking of that memorial tablet, I found myself in front of the Cathedral. As a structure it makes small appeal, dating only from the seventeenth century, and heavily restored in times more recent; but the first sight of the façade is strangely stirring. For across the whole front, in great letters which one who runs may read, is carved a line from the Acts of the Apostles: --

"Circumlegentes devenimus Rhegium."

Save only those sonorous words which circle the dome of S. Peter's, I have seen no inscription on Christian temple which seemed to me so impressive. "We fetched a compass, and came to Rhegium." Paul was on his voyage from Cæsarea to Rome, and here his ship touched, here at the haven beneath Aspromonte. The fact is familiar enough, but, occupied as I was with other thoughts, it had not yet occurred to me; the most pious pilgrim of an earlier day could not have felt himself more strongly arrested than I when I caught sight of these words. Were I to inhabit Reggio, I should never pass the Cathedral without stopping to read and think; the carving would never lose its power over my imagination. It unites for me two elements of moving interest: a vivid fact from the ancient world, recorded in the music of the ancient tongue. All day the words rang in my head, even as at Rome I have gone about murmuring to myself: "Aedificabo ecclesiam meam." What a noble solemnity in this Latin speech! And how vast the historic significance of such monumental words! Moralize who will; enough for me to hear with delight that deep-toned harmony, and to thrill with the strangeness of old things made new.

It was Sunday, which at Reggio is a day or market. Crowds of country-folk had come into the town with the produce of field and garden; all the open spaces were occupied with temporary stalls; at hand stood innumerable donkeys, tethered till business should be over. The produce exhibited was of very fine quality, especially the vegetables; I noticed cauliflowers measuring more than a foot across the white. Of costume there was little to be observed -- though the long soft cap worn by most of the men, hanging bag-like over one ear almost to the shoulder, is picturesque. The female water-carriers, a long slim cask resting lengthwise upon their padded heads, hold attention as they go to and from the fountains. Good-looking people, grave of manner, and doing their business without noise. It was my last sight of the Calabrian hillsmen; to the end they held my interest and my respect. When towns have sucked dry their population of strength and virtue, it is such folk as these, hardy from the free breath of heaven and the scent of earth, who will renew a flaccid race.

Walking beyond the town in the southern direction, where the shape of Etna shows more clearly amid the lower mountains, I found myself approaching what looked like a handsome public edifice, a museum or gallery of art. It was a long building, graced with a portico, and coloured effectively in dull red; all about it stood lemon trees, and behind, overtopping the roof, several fine palms. Moved by curiosity I quickened my steps, and as I drew nearer I felt sure that this must be some interesting institution of which I had not heard. Presently I observed along the façade a row of heads of oxen carved in stone -- an ornament decidedly puzzling. Last of all my eyes perceived, over the stately entrance, the word "Macello," and with astonishment I became aware that this fine structure, so agreeably situated, was nothing else than the town slaughter-house. Does the like exist elsewhere? It was a singular bit of advanced civilization, curiously out of keeping with the thoughts which had occupied me on my walk. Why, I wonder, has Reggio paid such exceptional attention to this department of its daily life? One did not quite know whether to approve this frank exhibition of carnivorous zeal; obviously something can be said in its favour, yet, on the other hand, a man who troubles himself with finer scruples would perhaps choose not to be reminded of pole-axe and butcher's knife, preferring that such things should shun the light of day. It gave me, for the moment, an odd sense of having strayed into the world of those romancers who forecast the future; a slaughter-house of tasteful architecture, set in a grove of lemon trees and date palms, suggested the dreamy ideal of some reformer whose palate shrinks from vegetarianism. To my mind this had no place amid the landscape which spread about me. It checked my progress; I turned abruptly, to lose the impression as soon as possible.

No such trouble has been taken to provide comely housing for the collection of antiquities which the town possesses. The curator who led me through the museum (of course I was the sole visitor) lamented that it was only communal, the Italian Government not having yet cared to take it under control; he was an enthusiast, and spoke with feeling of the time and care he had spent upon these precious relics -- sedici anni di vita -- sixteen years of life, and, after all, who cared for them? There was a little library of archæological works, which contained two volumes only of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum; who, asked the curator sadly, would supply money to purchase the rest? Place had been found on the walls for certain modern pictures of local interest. One represented a pasture on the heights of Aspromonte, shepherds and their cattle amid rich herbage, under a summer sky, with purple summits enclosing them on every side; the other, also a Calabrian mountain scene, but sternly grand in the light of storm; a dark tarn, a rushing torrent, the lonely wilderness. Naming the painter, my despondent companion shook his head, and sighed "Morto! Morto!"

Ere I left, the visitors' book was opened for my signature. Some twenty pages only had been covered since the founding of the museum, and most of the names were German. Fortunately, I glanced at the beginning, and there, on the first page, was written "François Lenormant, Membre de l'Institut de France" -- the date, 1882. The small, delicate character was very suggestive of the man as I conceived him; to come upon his name thus unexpectedly gave me a thrill of pleasure; it was like being brought of a sudden into the very presence of him whose spirit had guided, instructed, borne me delightful company throughout my wanderings. When I turned to the curator, and spoke of this discovery, sympathy at once lighted up his face. Yes, yes! He remembered the visit; he had the clearest recollection of Lenormant -- "un bravo giovane!" Thereupon, he directed my attention to a little slip of paper pasted into the inner cover of the book, on which were written in pencil a few Greek letters; they were from the hand of Lenormant himself, who had taken out his pencil to illustrate something he was saying about a Greek inscription in the museum. Carefully had this scrap been preserved by the good curator; his piety touched and delighted me.

I could have desired no happier incident for the close of my journey; by lucky chance this visit to the museum had been postponed till the last morning, and, as I idled through the afternoon about the Via Plutino, my farewell mood was in full harmony with that in which I had landed from Naples upon the Calabrian shore. So hard a thing to catch and to retain, the mood corresponding perfectly to an intellectual bias -- hard, at all events, for him who cannot shape his life as he will, and whom circumstance ever menaces with dreary harassment. Alone and quiet, I heard the washing of the waves; I saw the evening fall on cloud-wreathed Etna, the twinkling lights come forth on Scylla and Charybdis; and, as I looked my last towards the Ionian Sea, I wished it were mine to wander endlessly amid the silence of the ancient world, to-day and all its sounds forgotten.