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

By The Ionian Sea - Chapter V

Chapter V -- Dulci Galæsi Flumen

Taranto has a very interesting Museum. I went there with an introduction to the curator, who spared no trouble in pointing out to me all that was best worth seeing. He and I were alone in the little galleries; at a second or third visit I had the Museum to myself, save for an attendant who seemed to regard a visitor as a pleasant novelty, and bestirred himself for my comfort when I wanted to make sketches. Nothing is charged for admission, yet no one enters. Presumably, all the Tarentines who care for archæology have already been here, and strangers are few.

Upon the shelves are seen innumerable miniature busts, carved in some kind of stone; thought to be simply portraits of private persons. One peers into the faces of men, women, and children, vaguely conjecturing their date, their circumstances; some of them may have dwelt in the old time on this very spot of ground now covered by the Museum. Like other people who grow too rich and comfortable, the citizens of Tarentum loved mirth and mockery; their Greek theatre was remarkable for irreverent farce, for parodies of the great drama of Athens. And here is testimony to the fact: all manner of comic masks, of grotesque visages; mouths distorted into impossible grins, eyes leering and goggling, noses extravagant. I sketched a caricature of Medusa, the anguished features and snaky locks travestied with satiric grimness. You remember a story which illustrates this scoffing habit: how the Roman Ambassador, whose Greek left something to be desired, excited the uproarious derision of the assembled Tarentines -- with results that were no laughing matter.

I used the opportunity of my conversation with the Director of the Museum to ask his aid in discovering the river Galæsus. Who could find himself at Taranto without turning in thought to the Galæsus, and wishing to walk along its banks? Unhappily, one cannot be quite sure of its position. A stream there is, flowing into the Little Sea, which by some is called Galeso; but the country-folk commonly give it the name of Gialtrezze. Of course I turned my steps in that direction, to see and judge for myself.

To skirt the western shore of the Mare Piccolo I had to pass the railway station, and there I made a few inquiries; the official with whom I spoke knew not the name Galeso, but informed me that the Gialtrezze entered the sea at a distance of some three kilometres. That I purposed walking such a distance to see an insignificant stream excited the surprise, even the friendly concern, of my interlocutor; again and again he assured me it was not worth while, repeating emphatically, "Non c'è novità." But I went my foolish way. Of two or three peasants or fishermen on the road I asked the name of the little river I was approaching; they answered, "Gialtrezze." Then came a man carrying a gun, whose smile and greeting invited question. "Can you tell me the name of the stream which flows into the sea just beyond here?" "Signore, it is the Galeso."

My pulse quickened with delight; all the more when I found that my informant had no tincture of the classics, and that he supported Galeso against Gialtrezze simply as a question of local interest. Joyously I took leave of him, and very soon I was in sight of the river itself. The river? It is barely half a mile long; it rises amid a bed of great reeds, which quite conceal the water, and flows with an average breadth of some ten feet down to the seashore, on either side of it bare, dusty fields, and a few hoary olives.

The Galæsus? -- the river beloved by Horace; its banks pasturing a famous breed of sheep, with fleece so precious that it was protected by a garment of skins? Certain it is that all the waters of Magna Græcia have much diminished since classic times, but (unless there have been great local changes, due, for example, to an earthquake) this brook had always the same length, and it is hard to think of the Galæsus as so insignificant. Disappointed, brooding, I followed the current seaward, and upon the shore, amid scents of mint and rosemary, sat down to rest.

There was a good view of Taranto across the water; the old town on its little island, compact of white houses, contrasting with the yellowish tints of the great new buildings which spread over the peninsula. With half-closed eyes, one could imagine the true Tarentum. Wavelets lapped upon the sand before me, their music the same as two thousand years ago. A goatherd came along, his flock straggling behind him; man and goats were as much of the old world as of the new. Far away, the boats of fishermen floated silently. I heard a rustle as an old fig tree hard by dropped its latest leaves. On the sea-bank of yellow crumbling earth lizards flashed about me in the sunshine. After a dull morning, the day had passed into golden serenity; a stillness as of eternal peace held earth and sky.

"Dearest of all to me is that nook of earth which yields not to Hymettus for its honey, nor for its olive to green Venafrum; where heaven grants a long springtime and warmth in winter, and in the sunny hollows Bacchus fosters a vintage noble as the Falernian ----" The lines of Horace sang in my head; I thought, too, of the praise of Virgil, who, tradition has it, wrote his Eclogues hereabouts. Of course, the country has another aspect. in spring and early summer; I saw it at a sad moment; but, all allowance made for seasons, it is still with wonder that one recalls the rapture of the poets. A change beyond conception must have come upon these shores of the Ionian Sea. The scent of rosemary seemed to be wafted across the ages from a vanished world.

After all, who knows whether I have seen the Galæsus? Perhaps, as some hold, it is quite another river, flowing far to the west of Taranto into the open gulf. Gialtrezze may have become Galeso merely because of the desire in scholars to believe that it was the classic stream; in other parts of Italy names have been so imposed. But I shall not give ear to such discouraging argument. It is little likely that my search will ever be renewed, and for me the Galæsus -- "dulce Galæsi flumen" -- is the stream I found and tracked, whose waters I heard mingle with the Little Sea. The memory has no sense of disappointment. Those reeds which rustle about the hidden source seem to me fit shelter of a Naiad; I am glad I could not see the water bubbling in its spring, for there remains a mystery. Whilst I live, the Galæsus purls and glistens in the light of that golden afternoon, and there beyond, across the blue still depths, glimmers a vision of Tarentum.

Let Taranto try as it will to be modern and progressive, there is a retarding force which shows little sign of being overcome -- the profound superstition of the people. A striking episode of street life reminded me how near akin were the southern Italians of to-day to their predecessors in what are called the dark ages; nay, to those more illustrious ancestors who were so ready to believe that an ox had uttered an oracle, or that a stone had shed blood. Somewhere near the swing-bridge, where undeniable steamships go and come between the inner and the outer sea, I saw a crowd gathered about a man who was exhibiting a picture and expounding its purport; every other minute the male listeners doffed their hats, and the females bowed and crossed themselves. When I had pressed near enough to hear the speaker, I found he was just finishing a wonderful story, in which he himself might or might not have faith, but which plainly commanded the credit of his auditors. Having closed his narrative, the fellow began to sell it in printed form -- little pamphlets with a rude illustration on the cover. I bought the thing for a soldo, and read it as I walked away.

A few days ago -- thus, after a pious exordium, the relation began -- in that part of Italy called Marca, there came into a railway station a Capuchin friar of grave, thoughtful, melancholy aspect, who besought the station-master to allow him to go without ticket by the train just starting, as he greatly desired to reach the Sanctuary of Loreto that day, and had no money to pay his fare The official gave a contemptuous refusal, and paid no heed to the entreaties of the friar, who urged all manner of religious motives for the granting of his request. The two engines on the train (which was a very long one) seemed about to steam away -- but, behold, con grande stupore di tutti, the waggons moved not at all! Presently a third engine was put on, but still all efforts to start the train proved useless. Alone of the people who viewed this inexplicable event, the friar showed no astonishment; he remarked calmly, that so long as he was refused permission to travel by it, the train would not stir. At length un ricco signore found a way out of the difficulty by purchasing the friar a third-class ticket; with a grave reproof to the station-master, the friar took his seat, and the train went its way.

But the matter, of course, did not end here. Indignant and amazed, and wishing to be revenged upon that frataccio, the station-master telegraphed to Loreto, that in a certain carriage of a certain train was travelling a friar, whom it behoved the authorities to arrest for having hindered the departure of the said train for fifteen minutes, and also for the offense of mendicancy within a railway station. Accordingly, the Loreto police sought the offender, but, in the compartment where he had travelled, found no person; there, however, lay a letter couched in these terms: "He who was in this waggon under the guise of a humble friar, has now ascended into the arms of his Santissima Madre Maria. He wished to make known to the world how easy it is for him to crush the pride of unbelievers, or to reward those who respect religion."

Nothing more was discoverable; wherefore the learned of the Church -- i dotti della chiesa -- came to the conclusion that under the guise of a friar there had actually appeared "N. S. G. C." The Supreme Pontiff and his prelates had not yet delivered a judgment in the matter, but there could be no sort of doubt that they would pronounce the authenticity of the miracle. With a general assurance that the good Christian will be saved and the unrepentant will be damned, this remarkable little pamphlet came to an end. Much verbiage I have omitted, but the translation, as far as it goes, is literal. Doubtless many a humble Tarentine spelt it through that evening, with boundless wonder, and thought such an intervention of Providence worthy of being talked about, until the next stabbing case in his street provided a more interesting topic.

Possibly some malevolent rationalist might note that the name of the railway station where this miracle befell was nowhere mentioned. Was it not open to him to go and make inquiries at Loreto?