Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Ch. 15: Miseria

"What do people do here?" I once asked at a little town between Rome and Naples; and the man with whom I talked, shrugging his shoulders, answered curtly, "C'e miseria"--there's nothing but poverty. The same reply would be given in towns and villages without number throughout the length of Italy. I had seen poverty enough, and squalid conditions of life, but the most ugly and repulsive collection of houses I ever came upon was the town of Squillace. I admit the depressing effect of rain and cloud, and of hunger worse than unsatisfied; these things count emphatically in my case; but under no conditions could inhabited Squillace be other than an offence to eye and nostril. The houses are, with one or two exceptions, ground-floor hovels; scarce a weather-tight dwelling is discoverable; the general impression is that of dilapidated squalor. Streets, in the ordinary sense of the word, do not exist; irregular alleys climb above the rugged heights, often so steep as to be difficult of ascent; here and there a few boulders have been thrown together to afford a footing, and in some places the native rock lies bare; but for the most part one walks on the accumulated filth of ages. At the moment of my visit there was in progress the only kind of cleaning which Squillace knows; down every trodden way and every intermural gully poured a flush of rain-water, with occasionally a leaping torrent or small cascade, which all but barred progress. Open doors everywhere allowed me a glimpse of the domestic arrangements, and I saw that my albergo had some reason to pride itself on superiority; life in a country called civilized cannot easily be more primitive than under these crazy roofs. As for the people, they had a dull, heavy aspect; rare as must be the apparition of a foreigner among them, no one showed the slightest curiosity as I passed, and (an honourable feature of their district) no one begged. Women went about in the rain protected by a shawl-like garment of very picturesque colouring; it had broad yellow stripes on a red ground, the tones subdued to a warm richness.

The animal population was not without its importance. Turn where I would I encountered lean, black pigs, snorting, frisking, scampering, and squealing as if the bad weather were a delight to them. Gaunt, low-spirited dogs prowled about in search of food, and always ran away at my approach. In one precipitous by-way, where the air was insupportably foul, I came upon an odd little scene: a pig and a cat, quite alone, were playing together, and enjoying themselves with remarkable spirit. The pig lay down in the running mud, and pussy, having leapt on to him, began to scratch his back, bite his ears, stroke his sides. Suddenly, porker was uppermost and the cat, pretending to struggle for life, under his forefeet. It was the only amusing incident I met with at Squillace, and the sole instance of anything like cheerful vitality.

Above the habitations stand those prominent ruins which had held my eye during our long ascent. These are the rugged walls and windows of a monastery, not old enough to possess much interest, and, on the crowning height, the heavy remnants of a Norman castle, with one fine doorway still intact. Bitterly I deplored the gloomy sky which spoiled what would else have been a magnificent view from this point of vantage--a view wide-spreading in all directions, with Sila northwards, Aspromonte to the south, and between them a long horizon of the sea. Looking down upon Squillace, one sees its houses niched among huge masses of granite, which protrude from the scanty soil, or clinging to the rocky surface like limpet shells. Was this the site of Scylaceum, or is it, as some hold, merely a mediaeval refuge which took the name of the old city nearer to the coast? The Scylaceum of the sixth century is described by Cassiodorus--a picture glowing with admiration and tenderness. It lay, he says, upon the side of a hill; nay, it hung there "like a cluster of grapes," in such glorious light and warmth that, to his mind, it deserved to be called the native region of the sun. The fertility of the Country around was unexampled; nowhere did earth yield to mortals a more luxurious life. Quoting this description, Lenormant holds that, with due regard to time's changes, it exactly fits the site of Squillace. Yet Cassiodorus says that the hill by which you approached the town was not high enough to weary a traveller, a consideration making for the later view that Scylaceum stood very near to the Marina of Catanzaro, at a spot called Roccella, where not only is the nature of the ground suitable, but there exist considerable traces of ancient building, such as are not discoverable here on the mountain top. Lenormant thought that Roccella was merely the sea-port of the inland town. I wish he were right. No archaeologist, whose work I have studied, affects me with such a personal charm, with such a sense of intellectual sympathy, as Francois Lenormant--dead, alas, before he could complete his delightful book. But one fears that, in this instance, he judged too hastily.

There is no doubt, fortunately, as to the position of the religious house founded by Cassiodorus; it was in the shadow of Mons Moscius, and quite near to the sea. I had marked the spot during my drive up the valley, and now saw it again from this far height, but I could not be satisfied with distant views. Weather and evil quarters making it impossible to remain at Squillace, I decided to drive forthwith to the railway station, see how much time remained to me before the arrival of the train for Reggio, and, if it could be managed, visit in that interval the place that attracted me.

It is my desire to be at peace with all men, and in Italy I have rarely failed to part with casual acquaintances--even innkeepers and cocchieri--on friendly terms; but my host of the Albergo Nazionale made it difficult to preserve good humour. Not only did he charge thrice the reasonable sum for the meal I could not eat, but his bill for my driver's colazione contained such astonishing items that I had to question the lad as to what he had really consumed. It proved to be a very ugly case of extortion, and the tone of sullen menace with which my arguments were met did not help to smooth things. Presently the man hit upon a pleasant sort of compromise. Why, he asked, did I not pay the bill as it stood, and then, on dismissing my carriage--he had learnt that I was not returning to Catanzaro--deduct as much as I chose from the payment of the driver? A pretty piece of rascality, this, which he would certainly not have suggested but that the driver was a mere boy, helpless himself and bound to render an account to his master. I had to be content with resolutely striking off half the sum charged for the lad's wine (he was supposed to have drunk four litres), and sending the receipted bill to Don Pasquale at Catanzaro, that he might be ready with information if any future traveller consulted him about the accommodation to be had at Squillace. No one is likely to do so for a long time to come, but I have no doubt Don Pasquale had a chuckle of amused indignation over the interesting and very dirty bit of paper. We drove quickly down the winding road, and from below I again admired the picturesqueness of Squillace. Both my guide-books, by the way, the orthodox English and German authorities, assert that from the railway station by the sea-shore Squillace is invisible. Which of the two borrowed this information from the other? As a matter of fact, the view of mountain and town from the station platform is admirable, though, of course, at so great a distance, only a whitish patch represents the hovels and ruins upon their royal height.

I found that I had a good couple of hours at my disposal, and that to the foot of Mons Moscius (now called Coscia di Stalletti) was only a short walk. It rained drearily, but by this time I had ceased to think of the weather. After watching the carriage for a moment, as it rolled away on the long road back to Catanzaro (sorry not to be going with it), I followed the advice of the stationmaster, and set out to walk along the line of rails towards the black, furrowed mountain side.


George Gissing