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Letters from New Zealand 1857-1911


page 288


Timaru, May 1st, 1899.

My dear St. John,

Again at work, after a year's holiday, partly at Home, in Brittany, Italy, and Sicily, with six weeks in Egypt on my return journey. I can only give you some notes by the way of what I saw, and of the people I met.

Rome. Christmas Eve—late at night in the great nave of Santa Maria Maggiore,—no service, but every part of the church thronged, people slowly moving about, and exchanging greetings. In a side chapel a scenic representation of a pastoral landscape; in the foreground a grotto, in which are the Virgin and Child, with Joseph; the ox and the ass, shepherds and kings in adoration; the figures richly dressed and life-size. The scene is illuminated with a multitude of wax tapers. The only light in the vast church, besides that from this side-chapel, are candles set in patterns on the walls, scarcely sufficient to enable you to see your way. At Christmas time the country folk flock into Rome and make holiday until Twelfth Night and the Feast of Epiphany.

Twelfth Night is to the children what Christmas Eve is with us. It is then that the Christmas presents are given. But there is a curious difference between page 289our customs and theirs. The presents are not supposed to be brought by a Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, or a Christ-child, but by a stern, terrible woman, who comes with gifts for good children, but bags of ashes for the bad ones. Her name is Befana, a corruption of Epiphania. It is said that the gifts to children are symbols of the treasures brought to the Infant Christ by the Kings from the East. On Twelfth Night we went to a festival in the Piazza di Sant' Eustachio. The Square itself and streets entering it were lined with booths, lit by flares and candles, covered with toys and sweetmeats. It was a scene of astounding merriment and uproar; crowds bent on making as much noise as possible, armed with whistles, trumpets, rattles and drums. Your only course is to buy something of the kind and join in the fun, doing as others do. The Italian can let himself go in a fashion that we Northerners can hardly imitate.

Among the churches in Rome there are many specially interesting from their association with the earliest Apostolical times. "Salute Prisca and Aquila; … Eubulus greeteth thee, and Pudens," writes St. Paul to Timothy (II Tim. iv, 19, 21). Again, "Aquila and Priscilla salute thee, with the church that is in their house (I Cor. xvi, 19). This message he sends to Corinth, where St. Luke states that St. Paul had lived for some time with them (Acts xvi, 2), having been banished from Rome with other Jews by the Emperor Claudius.

In 1776 a.d., close to the comparatively modern church of St. Prisca (Priscilla), a subterranean oratory was found, decorated with frescoes of the fourth century, of the Apostles, Also a bronze tablet, 222 a.d., stating that the house containing the oratory page 290was owned by Priscilla and Aquila, and had passed into the possession of Cornelius Pudens. Pudens had two daughters, Pudentiana and Prassede. In the catacomb of Priscilla, on the Via Salaria, Pudens, Pudentiana, Prassede, and Priscilla were buried.

The church of Pudentiana, which is one of the oldest in Rome, has always been held to be on the site of the house occupied by Pudens. In 1870 excavations revealed the house itself. Not far off there is also the church of S. Prassede, containing very old mosaics, standing on the remains of an oratory dating as far back as 160 a.d. These oratories were the "houses of prayer" mentioned in the New Testament.

The church of San Clemente is another link with Early Christian days. Clemens, St. Paul's fellow labourer, of noble Roman family, is said to have built an oratory in his own house. The present church does not date back further than the twelfth century, but beneath it are two other very old churches, one of which is in fair preservation. On its walls there is a quaint fresco of Our Lord's descent into Hades, from which He rescues Adam. Eve's hand is seen on Adam's ankle, as if trying to detain him. The lower church is only partly visible, being half full of water; its walls are partly formed of the old city wall of Servius Tullius. It is supposed to be Clement's oratory. In the upper church, now in use, under the high altar, lie the remains of St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, who was done to death by lions in the Colosseum, in the reign of Trajan. This takes us back to the year 98 a.d.

Sicily. Some more notes by the way. We went by train to Reggio in Calabria, a mountainous country, but in many parts full of luxurious vegetation, oranges, page 291palms, oriental aloes, bananas, and pomegranates. Here, too, we were on St. Paul's track as he journeyed towards Rome as a prisoner. The Cathedral, of no great age, has on its facade the words: (Acts xxviii, 13) of the Latin version, ""De inde circumlegentes devenimus Rhegium"—"From thence we fetched a compass and came to Rhegium." St. Paul landed here, and the tradition of his preaching still survives. There is an amusing legend about it. Being out of doors, he was constantly interrupted by the chattering of the cicada locust. He bade them be silent. It is said that in this place only in Italy the cicada has been silent ever since.

Messina. At the Hotel Trinacria. A place of great antiquity; Greeks, Romans, Saracens, French, and Italians have successively held it. It has one of the finest harbours in the world, and does a large export trade of lemons, oranges, almonds, and fruit. Thence to Taormina, which has quite as old an history,—one of the most picturesque situations. A mass of broken, rolling hills rising sheer out of the sea, on the top of which is perched the town, approached by a zig-zag road absolutely impossible for cycles. Such a wealth of wild flowers; geranium, yellow Solanum apples, fennel, snapdragon, iris, cyclamen, arums, gentian and tall golden spurge. At the San Domenico Hotel we had bedrooms originally monastic cells, and over each door a wall painting of some old legend. Right on the top of a rocky eminence there is a perfect specimen of a Greek open-air theatre, with some Roman additions; its seats, cut out of stone, capable of accommodating forty thousand people, all within a short distance from the stage, 125 feet wide. Difficult to understand how the actors were heard, but page 292there can be no doubt of that, for here the great dramas of Æschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, and Aristophanes were received with as much enthusiasm as at Athens. I sat there on an upper seat; silence everywhere; lizards peep out and run about the stones; some artists are at work; through the arches of the stage, which is partly ruined, I could see the cone of Mt. Etna, snow-clad, twenty miles distant. The inevitable small boy appears: "Would the Signor like a guide? He knows the path up to old fortress of Mola—up there 1,500 feet,—or Monte Venere still higher? "Then he followed me like a dog through the narrow streets, and when I turned into a shop to get my hair cut, came in, took a seat, and, seeing that I paid the proper sum, nodded approval: "Va bene"—all right. I asked him why he didn't work. "Oh, yes, he did work often to help his mother." So I gave him some coppers, and a day or two later, when leaving Taormina, we passed him cutting wood,—"Ecco mi, Signor,"—"See me, hard at work!"

Termini. Another characteristic town, twenty miles from Palermo; the "Thermae Imerense" of old Greek days; a naval base where, in 480 b.c., they defeated the Carthagenian fleet that was raiding Sicily on the very day that at Marathon the Greeks defeated the Persian host,—two decisive battles which saved Europe from African and Oriental domination.

Our party of three were the only English folk in the town. Most tourists pass the place by. Our hotel was a spacious building, frequented by Sicilians chiefly in summer for bathing and the hot springs, which are included in the hotel precincts. These springs were famous in old days and gave the town its name. The personnel and the cuisine of the hotel page 293amused us much. "Could, we have dinner soon?" "Ready, signori, ready directly," said the Padrone, whose name was Mercurio, in build and appearance anything but one's ideal of the lithe messenger of the Gods. "Ready" in Sicily means any time, and when dinner came, this was the order of the menu: Omelette, sweet cakes, roast goat, cold anchovies in oil, and a sweetmeat like toffee, with red wine and coffee; Mercurio hovering round the table, and entreating us to eat well. The head waiter's name was "Salvatore" (Saviour), his wife's name "Providenza" (Providence). She also attended to our wants, with a baby in her arms. As usual in Sicily, the beds were excellent, the floors stone, quite destitute of rugs or carpets. In the morning a tall, stern-featured, elderly maid, of the Meg Merrilies type, entered my room with tub and water, and standing by my bed with hands outstretched, she said, "Levati, Signor, Levati, Ecco l'aqua,"—"Get up, sir, get up, behold the water." But for all her fierce look, she rejoiced in the name "Peppina," the little one.

As nothing better than rolls, coffee and milk are provided for breakfast, I went out early to buy eggs in the morning market. Bargaining with the owner of a stall of country produce, as one must always do, since fixed prices are unknown, I succeeded in reducing the price from threepence to a penny. Everyone buys the day's food in this way, and an elderly well-dressed man watched with great interset the foreigner's business; when the bargain was complete, he said with much approval, "Va bene"—"Good!"—quite pleased at my success. We found some excellent company in the salon of the hotel at night. A South Austrian, with his family, who owns property in the page 294neighbourhood, and, as usual, some of the citizens, who had probably heard of the advent of English travellers; one of them a local medico, an antiquarian and a scholar, glad to find visitors interested in the classical memories of Termini. He invited us to his house to see the valuable antiquities he had collected. He was a linguist after a fashion, so that we managed conversation fairly well, in which he began by offering us a choice: "Veech veel you 'ave, French, Inkleesh, or Italiano?" Another, a parish priest, a man of culture and education, finding that I was well up in the story of the Roman Pro-consul Verres, who made himself famous by plundering Termini of many of its works of art, brought a copy of the Verrine Orations in which Cicero denounced Verres so successfully before the Roman Senate, and secured the restitution of the spoils. He was quite astonished when I told him that at school and at Oxford these Orations were text books which we all studied. As a rule priests in Italy and Sicily know little Latin beyond their breviary.

Our South Austrian friend proposed an expedition to a property he held on the slopes of Monte Calogero, a fine hill of four thousand feet, which overhangs the town. We were a party of six on horseback. Starting from one of the gates of the city, which is walled, I noticed quite a crowd of onlookers who seemed much interested in our expedition. The road was a mountain track, a mere climb, through rocks and olive trees. Two of the Guardia Civile with carbines came with us, and the boys who were in charge of the horses. Every now and then, in amongst the trees, I noticed soldiers with rifles apparently patrolling the hill side. On returning and making enquiries I discovered the reason of this. A short time ago the neighbourhood page 295of Termini had a bad reputation for brigands, though according to Murray, they are a thing of the past. Termini is a military depot, with extensive barracks, and, said my informant, "The authorities, hearing of the expedition, sent a patrol of soldiers, partly as a compliment to the English visitors, and—well, there's no knowing what may happen in Sicily." But I am told that the Brigands, as a rule, were wont to confine their attentions to well-to-do Sicilian proprietors.

The harbour at Termini is the headquarters of a large fleet of boats for anchovy and sardine fishing. One night there was a great uproar, bells ringing, fireworks, gun firing, and singing. The fleet had come in laden with the spoils of the sea. This was the fashion of their thanksgiving, made as a sort of religious function.

Sicilians differ from Italians. You notice distinct types, Greek, African, Roman, and Norman. They are graver people, and I am told their songs show this. In their churches their reverence is noticeable, but they are intensely superstitious. Fortune - tellers abound, and are taken seriously. One Sunday morning, after Mass, in an open space in front of the Cathedral at Palermo, a large crowd gathered round a well-dressed woman, blindfolded, sitting in a chair. On the ground before her lay a stuffed serpent and a figure representing an Egyptian deity,—a long brass tube on supports formed the communication between her and those who wished to consult her. One of them, a woman of middle age, on hearing her fate, went away in deep distress. Palermo is a prosperous city, doing much business in the export of wine, oranges, lemons, and sulphur. Its prosperity is due to the page 296enterprise of some Scotch merchants. Left to them-selves the Sicilians would do little. "Our people are not like yours," said a Sicilian to me, "they have no courage." He meant business enterprise. Sicily has come through many changes and suffered from the domination of many masters. In Roman days it was the granary of Italy. If it could be handed over to the management of a few British business men, with capital, it would soon become the richest spot in the Mediterranean.

Palermo with its ample harbour lies in such a lovely neighbourhood, encircled by hills, that it has got the name of the "Conca d'Oro," the Shell of Gold. Its history dates from the time when it was a Phœnician settlement, then Carthagenian, then Roman, Saracenic, and Norman. The Norman sea-kings were great builders; William the Good resolved to build a Cathedral of surpassing beauty and, led by a dream, chose a site five miles from Palermo, which he named Monreale, the Royal Mount. A lofty ridge, falling abruptly into deep valleys full of vegetation, affords room for church, monastery, cloisters, and a small village. The view from the ramparts is one of the finest in Sicily but nothing compared to the beauty of the interior of the cathedral. The spacious nave, paved with coloured marbles, separated from its aisles by columns of oriental granite, taken from old pagan buildings, has a richly carved and decorated roof; the walls everywhere are encrusted with Byzantine mosaic in coloured glass and stone, on a golden ground, —the mosaic consists of a series of scenes from the Old and New Testaments, with figures of Saints and Kings. The glorious colour of the mosaic is as fresh as when first executed. Over the high altar in the page 297lofty apse is a colossal figure of Christ, distinctly of the Arab type of face, enveloped in a blue robe, showing an underneath garment of red embroidered with gold. In His right hand an open book, with the words, in Greek, "I am the Light of the world, whoso follows Me shall not walk in darkness." On one side of the chancel there is a magnificent pierced marble throne for the King, on the other side a similar throne for the Bishop. This is significant of the masterful character of those Norman kings. Church and State each with Divine authority. The first Norman king, Roger, had by way of legend on his coins, "Rex divina favente Clementia"—king by the favour of Divine mercy. So, too, his English kinsmen claimed to be "Reges Dei Gratia"—Kings by the Grace of God.

Being anxious to get good photographs of the interior, I persuaded the sacristan who came to close the church for the mid-day interval to let me remain inside. From behind a pillar I saw a side-door open, and several ecclesiastics enter. One ascended the pulpit, the others sitting and listening to his sermon. Every now and then they interrupted him, with criticism or applause, and various hints as to delivery. He was, I heard, in training for a series of Lenten sermons. As a rule, Italians are content with a few sermons on special occasions, and preachers are always carefully chosen. They are keen critics. I couldn't help contrasting this plan of preparation with our haphazard way of expecting every deacon and priest to be able to preach without training. But what will you? It is only here and there that our people care to come to a service if there is no sermon. They come, no doubt, to pray, but their first motive is to listen. With all their faults, the Italians put worship first.

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Coming out of the cathedral, we met a Sicilian country cart, drawn by one powerful mule, and carrying at least eight persons, for Sicilians are certainly not "merciful to their beasts." These carts are of the same build and decoration as in the old days of the Norman kings. Two high wheels, curiously carved and painted, run on an axle of elaborate pattern. The side panels contain scenes of old Sicilian history: King Roger mowing off the heads of Saracen Emirs with a huge sword; scenes of vintage; legendary stories of Sicilian martyrs. The mule's harness, too, was of ancient pattern, studded with brass ornament, and from the saddle there rose a tall standard, tufted at the top with coloured wool and ribbons. As yet Sicily has not adopted modern agricultural implements to any great extent. Whatever the country may lose by this, at any rate the visitor does not lose the charm of antiquity. I saw a cart in process of painting, and wondered what English agricultural labourers would think of a farm cart, destined for all sorts of "base" uses, being blazoned with the exploits of King Alfred in his conflicts with the Danes, or the story of the Battle of Hastings.

If ever you visit Sicily, go to Girgenti, on the Southern coast, the ancient Greek acragas, and Roman Agrigentum, "the most beautiful city of mortals," as Pindar says. The modern city stands on the site of the ancient Acropolis, from which the hills slope down to the coast. On a ridge which fronts the sea-shore you see the line of the old walls that fenced the city, and there still stand in ruin some of the finest Greek temples in the world. Climb up the Rupe Atenea, the Mount of Athena, the patron goddess of the city, making your way knee deep in brilliant red sainfoin, page 299and from the edge of a vertical cliff you will see a view to be remembered,—a tumbled mass of hill and rock, flecked with bright yellow patches of sulphur, the output of the mines which form the trade of the place, and in the distance the great shoulders and white peak of Etna; seawards, the deep blue Mediterranean, a little white surf breaking on the yellow sands, and the old harbour of Empedocle, still used for craft which carry sulphur, once the naval base of a Greek fleet. Then go down to the Temples. Spend several afternoons there. Not so large as those at Paestum, but more beautiful, six in number. They have stood there for twenty-five centuries, in spite of all that Romans, Early Christian fanatics, Saracens and Normans, to say nothing of old Time, could do to destroy them.

Sicily is richer in colour than Italy. Sitting there, with luncheon, cold chicken, cheese, figs, and red wine, we listened to a small goatherd who came to keep us company, piping on his rustic instrument shaped out of a hollow reed, whilst his goats skipped from stone to stone, and came to him to eat the succulent cactus leaves he had gathered for their meal. Just such a scene as Theocritus sings of in his Idylls of Sicily. We rewarded him with the relics of our luncheon. One's eyes roamed over a carpet of crocus, lily, asphodel, scarlet poppies, here and there dotted with olive and almond trees. A great silence broods over the land. Difficult to realize in the quiet peace of a golden afternoon, the old city of 550 b.c., a population of half a million; citizens of princely wealth; one of the temples, now destroyed, rivalling that of Diana of Ephesus,—with a trade that exceeded even that of Carthage.

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The story of Sicily is not a record only of warfare and trade. It was the home of the best representatives of Greek civilization. It produced the greatest mathematician of old days, Archimedes, whilst, later, the splendid reign of the Emperor Frederic II, practically led to the making of modern intellectual Europe.

Returning to Palermo, we were nearly stranded at a Railway junction. There the train for Palermo was short of carriages; we were eight in number, all English; the station-master declared that he could make no room for us, a nice state of things, as there was no sort of hotel in the place. So I attacked him, as well as I could, in my halting Italian, with the strongest language I could muster. These officials have a way of inventing difficulties which do not exist. It was quite successful, and he provided us with an extra carriage. "Well," said an English parson who was one of our number, "possibly I am a better scholar than you are, certainly I know Hebrew as well as Latin and Greek, but I would give something to be able to exhort that man as you did!"

I am,
Yours ever,

H. W. H.