"Qualis populea maerens Philomela sub umbra Amissos queritur fetus, quos durus arator Observans nido implumes detraxit, at illa Flet noctem, ramoque sedens miserabile carmen Integrat, et moestis late loca questibus implet."
("At nightfall hear sad Philomel upraise Her mellow notes amid the dark-leaved bays, Mourning her babes and desecrated bower, Which some rough peasant robbed in evil hour; She tells her story of despair and love, Until her plaintive music fills the grove.")
All is fragrant, warm, genial, and peaceful, save for the melancholy notes of poor ill-used Philomel, who is foolish enough to visit a cruel country, wherein every bird is merely regarded as a toothsome morsel for the family pot. We bird-lovers of Britain, with our Selborne Societies and our Wild Birds' Protection Acts, find it extremely difficult to understand the utter indifference displayed by Italians of all classes towards the feathered race. The whole of the beautiful country with its cypress hedges and olive groves lies almost mute and lifeless, for on every festival the fields and lanes are patrolled by bands of cacciatori with dogs and guns on the look-out for game, if blackbirds and sparrows can be accounted such. In some districts it is even dangerous for pedestrians to use the roads on a Sunday, for fear of a stray bullet, since all, as a rule, fire recklessly at any creature within and out of range. Nor is this senseless war of extermination carried on merely with guns, for trapping is used extensively, and very ingenious and elaborate are some of the arts employed in this wretched quest. Every country house has its uccellare, or snare for the securing of small birds for the table, whilst many of the parish priests in the mountain districts add to their scanty incomes by catching the fledglings which the young peasants sell in the neighbouring market. The result is what might only naturally be expected—a scarcity of birds and an almost complete absence of song, for the whole countryside has been practically denuded of blackbirds and thrushes; even the nightingale has escaped destruction rather on account of its nocturnal habits than of its tiny size and exquisite notes. It is positively sickening to observe the quantities of slaughtered wild birds in an Italian market at any season of the year, for the work of devastation proceeds apace equally in spring time. Basketfuls of thrushes and blackbirds, and strings of smaller varieties—linnets, sparrows, robins, finches, even the diminutive gold-finches, most beautiful, most gay, and most innocent of all songsters—are being hawked about by leathern-lunged contadini, who, alas! always manage to find customers in plenty. No matter how melodious, how lovely, or how useful to the farmer a bird may be, no Italian, high or low, seems to have any sense or appreciation of its merits except as an article of food; it is merely a thing that requires to be caught, killed, cooked and eaten, and Providence has decreed its existence for no other purpose; even gold-finches in the eye of an Italian look better served on a skewer than when they are flying round the thistle-heads, uttering their bright musical notes and enlivening the dead herbage of winter with their gay plumage. Che bel arrosto! (what a glorious dish!) sigh the romantic peasants, as they glance upward for a moment from their labour in the fields at the sound of the larks carolling overhead; and though an educated Italian would probably not give vent to so vulgar a remark, he would much prefer the bel arrosto to the "profuse strains of unpremeditated art" that so entrance the northerner, who is in reality far more of a poet by nature than the more picturesque dweller of the South. Tantum pro avibus.
As summer advances, the delight of bathing in the limpid waters of the Bay is added to the other attractions of Sorrento, whilst many pleasant and profitable hours can be passed in reading or writing during the long midday rest in the cool airy carpetless and curtainless rooms, where on the frescoed ceilings there plays the green shimmer of light that penetrates through the closed bars of the persiani, the outside heavy wooden shutters that let in the sweet air, but somehow seem to exclude the intense heat. With the approach of sunset and the throwing open of casements to catch the westerly breeze, there comes a delightful ramble, perhaps an excursion on mule-back to the famous convent of the Deserto or some other point of interest; or else a row upon the glassy waters at our feet, to explore "Queen Joanna's Bath," or some strange caverns beyond the headland of Sorrento, well known to our boat-men. That is the true life of dolce far niente, but such an ideal existence can only be indulged in during summer time or in late spring; to pass a winter at Sorrento the heaviest of clothing, abundance of overcoats and rugs, hot-water bottles, cough drops, ammoniated quinine and all the usual adjuncts of a northern yule-tide must be carefully provided before-hand by the traveller, who is bold enough to tempt Providence by turning what is essentially a warm weather retreat into a place of winter residence.
In early autumn also the place has its charms, in the days when the market is filled with stalls heaped with glowing masses of fruit, many of them unknown to us wanderers from the north. There are peaches that resemble our own fruit at home, and there are also great yellow flushed velvety globes, like the sun-kissed cheeks of a fair Sorrentina, that appear tempting to the eye, but are in reality tough as leather, for they are the cotogni or quince-peaches of Italy, which to our feeble palates and digestions seem only fit for cooking, though the experienced native contrives to make them edible by soaking the fruit in wine. The moment he sits down to table, he carefully pares his cotogne and cuts it into sections, which he drops into a glass of red wine where they repose until the meal is finished; by this time the fruit has become thoroughly saturated, and it is then eaten with apparent relish. There are hundreds of apples, some of a shining rich crimson and others of dull yellow peppered over with tiny black specks, the renati, highly prized by the natives for their delicate flavour and soft flesh. There are of course loads of grapes, varying from the little honey-tasting purple sort, that has been introduced from California, to the huge but somewhat insipid bunches of the white Regina; we note also the quaintly shaped "Ladies' Fingers," which are especially sweet. The figs, massed together in serried layers between fresh vine leaves and costing a soldo the dozen, stand around in glossy purple pyramids, so luscious that their sugary tears are exuding from their skins, and so ripe that they seem to cry to be eaten before noon. Here is a barrow piled high with the little green fruit, each separate fig being decorated with a pink cyclamen stuck in its crest; and here is a smaller load of the black Vescovo, which is said to obtain its ecclesiastical name from the fact that the parent stock of this highly esteemed variety originally flourished in the bishop's garden at Sorrento. No one who has not visited the shores of the Mediterranean in September or early October can realize the luscious possibilities of the fig; for there seems nothing in common between the freshly-picked fruit of the south, bursting its skin with liquid sugar, and the dry sweetish woolly object which tries to ripen on the sheltered wall of an English garden and is eaten with apparent gusto by those who know not its Italian brother. Being autumn, we have missed one prominent feature of the fruit market, the great green-skinned water-melons (poponi) with their rose-coloured pulp and masses of coal-black seeds, which form the favourite summer fruit of the people, who find both food and drink in their cool nutritious flesh. But even gayer and more striking than the fruits are the piles of vegetables, arranged with a fine appreciation of colour to which only an Italian eye can aspire. Carrots, turnips, tomatoes, purple-headed cauliflowers, all the broccoli and many others to be observed are old familiar friends, but who in England ever saw such gorgeous objects on a coster's stall or in a green-grocer's shop as the yellow, scarlet and shining green pods of the peperoni, or the banana-shaped egg-plants of iridescent purple, or the split pumpkins, revealing caverns of saffron-hued pulp within? Truly, the Sorrentine market contains a feast of colour to satisfy the craving of an artist!
At vintage time the whole Piano di Sorrento reeks with the vinous scent of the spilt juice, that is carelessly thrown on to the stone-paved roads by the jolting of the country carts which bring in the great wooden tubs, so that the very streets seem to run with the crimson ooze. Slender youths in yet more slender clothing, with legs purple-stained from treading the grapes (for in the South wine is still made on the primitive plan), are to be met with on all sides, playing at their favourite game of bowls on the public road, in order to relieve their brains of the pungent fumes of the fermenting grape juice. Somehow at the very thought of a Campanian vintage with its long hot dusty days, its bare-legged brown-skinned peasants treading the pulp, and its all-pervading aroma of wine-lees, there rise to memory the truly inspired lines of John Keats:
"O for a draught of vintage, that hath been Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth, Tasting of Flora and the country-green, Dance, and Provencal song, and sun-burnt mirth! O for a beaker full of the warm South, Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, And purple-stained mouth."
But all these joys of odorous gardens made musical by nightingales, of morning plunges into the blue Mediterranean, of the wealth of southern fruit and the novel delights of the vintage are not for the winter traveller, who had far better spend the December or January days of his visit to the Bay in a steam-heated Neapolitan hotel, rather than face the cold and wet in a Sorrentine inn on its overhanging cliff. Nevertheless the warm autumn often extends itself into a continuous St Martin's summer, that lasts almost until the New Year, before skies grow clouded and the snow-flakes descend upon the vineyards and the lava streams of Vesuvius. Nothing can be pleasanter in fact than some of the long walks in a sharp exhilarating air, and though days are short and nights are often chilly, one can sometimes linger on comfortably in Sorrento, though it is as well to be prepared for departure in case of a sudden spell of stormy weather, for winter sunshine is a necessity, not a luxury, on the Piano di Sorrento.
Unlike other towns upon the Bay of Naples, Sorrento is divided into two distinct portions; the city on the cliffs, with its streets and squares, its cathedral and ancient walls, its villas and gay gardens; and the Marina, lying at the mouth of the gorge below, close to the water's edge. The population of Upper Sorrento is agricultural and labouring, whilst that of the lower consists entirely of fisher-folk and sailors; it is needless to add that the latter are far less prosperous than their fellow-citizens who live over-head. Until recent times little communication between these two sets of Sorrentines took place and intermarriages were rare, for the sea-faring population only ascended to the town above and intermingled with the people of Upper Sorrento on the great occasions of local festivals, such as the enthronement or funeral of a bishop. Nor has the levelling spirit of the age as yet broken down the deep-rooted feeling of local clannishness; although it cannot be long before time-honoured customs and prejudices will be swept away in the tidal wave of modern development. One of the chief industries of the place is the manufacture of scarves and sashes of rich silk woven in cross bars of strong contrasting colours, so that the Sorrentine silk work strongly resembles the well-known Roman variety. Equally popular with visitors are the various articles made of olive wood and decorated in tarsia, the art of inlaying with pieces of stained wood, which is a speciality of the place. There are two kinds of this Sorrentine inlaid work; one consisting of figures of peasants dancing the tarantella, of Pompeian maidens in classical drapery, of contadini or priests bestriding mules, and of similar local subjects; and the other, of fanciful patterns made up of tiny coloured cubes of wood, much in the style of the old Roman stone mosaics. The designs employed vary of course with the fashion of the day, for there is a local school of art supported by the municipality, which professes to improve the tastes of the tarsiatori, but most persons will certainly prefer the trite but characteristic patterns of the place.
But the main industry of Sorrento consists in the culture of the orange; and the dark groves, covered with their globes of shining yellow fruit, "like golden lamps in a green light," to quote Andrew Marvell's charming conceit, constitute the chief feature of its environs. Even the coat-of-arms of the medieval city, showing a golden crown encircled by a wreath of the dark glossy leaves, attests the antiquity of this industry here. The cultivation of the orange in Southern Italy is by no means an easy pursuit, though under favourable conditions it may prove a very lucrative one, even in a spot so subject to sudden changes of temperature as Sorrento in winter time, when a continuance of severe weather, like that experienced around Naples in the opening months of the year 1905, means total destruction of the fruit crop and temporary ruin to the owners.
The fruit of commerce is propagated by means of grafting the sweet variety on to the stock of the bitter orange—said on doubtful authority to be indigenous to this district—which is fairly hardy and can be grown in the open as far north as Tuscany, so that every aranciaria ought to possess a nursery of flourishing young sweet-orange shoots, ready in case of necessity. For eight long years the grafted tree remains as a rule profitless, but having survived and thriven so long, it then becomes a valuable asset to its proprietor for an indefinite period;—as a proof of the longevity of the orange under normal conditions we may cite the famous tree in a Roman convent garden, which on good authority is stated to have been planted by St Dominic nearly six hundred years ago. As to the amount of fruit yielded, the growers of Sorrento commonly aver that one good year, one bad year and one mediocre year constitute the general cycle in the prospects of orange farming. Two crops are gathered annually, the principle one in December and the other at Eastertide, the fruit produced by the later and smaller crop being far finer in size and flavour than those of the Christmas harvest. Mandarin oranges are gathered on both occasions, but the large luscious loose-skinned fruit of March and April—Portogalli as they are commonly termed—are far superior to the small hard specimens that appear in December, and seem to consist of little else than rind, scent and seeds. The oranges begin to form in spring time, almost before the petals have fallen, when the peasants anxiously draw their conclusions as to the expected yield. But however valuable the fruit, the wood of the tree is worthless for commerce, except to make walking-sticks, or to serve the ignoble purpose of supplying hotels and cafes with tooth-picks! Lemons, which are far more delicate than oranges and require to be kept protected by screens and matting during the sharp winter nights, are less common at Sorrento than on the warmer shores of the Bay of Baia or the sunny terraced slopes of the Amalfitan coast.
With the ripening of the oranges on the trees appear those strange creatures from the wilds of the Basilicata or Calabria, the Zampognari, who visit Naples and the surrounding district in considerable numbers. They usually arrive about the date of the great popular festival of the Immaculate Conception (December 8th) and remain until the end of the month, when they return to their homes with well-filled purses. In outward aspect these strangers resemble the stage-brigands that appear in such old-fashioned operas as Fra Diavolo, for they wear steeple-crowned hats with coloured ribands depending, shaggy goat-skin trousers, crimson velvet waistcoats, blue cloaks, sandalled feet and gartered legs. Their pale faces are unshorn, and their hair hangs in great tawny masses over neck and ears, which are invariably adorned with golden rings. These fellows come in pairs, one only, properly speaking, being the zampognaro, for it is he who carries the zampogna or classical bag-pipe of Southern Italy, whilst his companion is the cennamellaro, so called from his ear-splitting instrument, the cennamella, a species of primitive flute. The zampogna may be described as first cousin to the historic bag-pipes of Caledonia, for the sounds emitted strongly resemble the traditional "skirling" of the pipes; but no Scotchman even could pretend to delight in the shrill notes of the cennamella. The former at least of these two popular instruments of southern Italy was well known to the omniscient author of the Shakespearean plays, for in Othello we have a direct allusion to the uncouth braying music still made to-day by these outlandish musicians.
"Why, masters, have your instruments been in Naples, that they speak i' the nose thus?... Are these, I pray you, wind instruments?... Then put up your pipes in your bag, for I'll away: go; vanish into air; away!"
In the midst of their instrumental duet the two shaggy mountaineers are apt to break into a harsh nasal hymn in honour of the Virgin, to visit whose shrines at this season of the orange harvest is the main object of their Christmas migration to the Neapolitan shores. Very tastefully decorated are many of the Madonna's little sanctuaries in or near the orange groves, when the arrival of the zampognari is considered imminent. The tiny lamps are well trimmed and shine brightly, whilst heavy garlands composed of masses of bay or laurel or ilex leaves, interspersed with some of the golden clusters of the ripening fruit are suspended round the alcove that holds the figure of the Virgin. This effective but simple form of ornamentation will at once suggest the beautiful glazed and coloured terra-cotta wreaths of fruit and foliage that are to be seen so frequently in Tuscan churches; indeed, it is possible that the members of the Della Robbia family may have originally borrowed the decorative schemes for their famous plaques and lunettes from the rustic shrines thus simply but tastefully embellished. Nominally, the two performers are supposed to sing and make music on nine different days at the houses of all their patrons in order to make up the total number of the novena, but the extent of their performances is generally calculated in accordance with the depth of the householder's purse, the sum given for their services varying from a few soldi to a five lire note. All classes of society employ the zampognari, for it is with the first appearance of the lovely golden fruit, essentially the winter fruit of the Italians, that the arrival of these picturesque strangers has been associated from time immemorial. The zampognari are in fact as much of a national institution with the Neapolitans at Christmastide as are the waits or carol-singers in our own country, so that to the majority of these people Natale senza zampogna e cennamella would seem no true Christmas at all.
Closely connected with the life of the people of the Piano di Sorrento is the famous dance known as the Tarantella, which may be witnessed by the curious at almost any time—for money. Even when performed by professional dancers, tricked out in spick and span stage-peasant finery, the Tarantella is a most graceful exhibition of movement, although the dance naturally gains in interest when it takes place in the days of vintage or on the popular festivals of the Church, without the presence of largesse-giving strangers. The origin of the name has always puzzled antiquarians, although in all probability the dance derives its curious appellation from the Greek city of Taranto, whence the Tarentines introduced its steps and action into other parts of Italy. But vulgar belief is very strong, so that this graceful dance is still closely associated in the popular mind with the tarantula, a kind of poisonous spider found in the neighbourhood of Taranto, the effects of whose bite are said to yield to violent exercise followed by profuse perspiration. In order to excite the proper amount of exertion necessary for the cure, the person afflicted, il tarantolato, is induced to leap and caper by the sound of music, with the result that there exist a number of tunes specially connected with this wild species of dancing. The real explanation of this fable seems to lie in the extremely excitable nature of the Tarentines themselves, assisted by the exhilarating music and by frequent pulls at the wine barrel. The two lines sung to the air of one of the tunes employed:
"Non fu Taranta, ne fu Tarantella, Ma fu la vino della carratella:"
("It was neither the taranta, nor the tarantella, but it was the wine from the cask.")
sums up pretty accurately the real cause of these strange Tarentine orgies, which have really nothing whatever in common with the rhythmical dance that is still so popular in the environs of Naples. Nevertheless the theory of tarantella and tarantismo has been gravely discussed by old Italian writers, and a certain learned prelate of the fifteenth century, Niccolo Perotto, Archbishop of Siponto, alludes to the malignant cause of this dance-cure as "a species of speckled spider, dwelling in rents of the ground caused by excessive heat. It was not known in the time of our fore-fathers, but now it is very common in Apulia ... and is generally called Tarantula. Its bite seldom kills a man, yet it makes him half stupid, and affects him in a variety of ways. Some, when a song or tune is heard, are so excited that they dance, full of joy and always laughing, and do not stop till they are entirely exhausted; others spend a miserable life in tears, as if bewailing the loss of friends. Some die laughing, and others in tears."
Such is the curious legend concerning the origin of the Tarantella, which is still danced with something of the old spirit by the holiday-making crowds of Naples, though it is at the festa of San Michele, the patron of Procida, that the Tarantella can now be seen to best advantage. Of the three islands that lie close to Naples, Procida is the least known or visited by strangers, so that when the Tarantella is danced by the Procidani, the old-fashioned popular orchestra is employed to give the necessary music. This consists of five quaint instruments (obviously of Oriental origin as their counterparts can still be seen amongst the Kabyles of Northern Africa): the first being a fife (siscariello); the second a tin globe covered with skin pierced by a piece of cane (puti-puti); the third a wooden saw and a split stick, making a primitive bow and fiddle (scetavaiasse); the fourth an arrangement of three wooden mallets, that are rattled together like a gigantic pair of bones (tricca-ballache); and the fifth a Jew's harp (scaccia-pensieri). A tarantella danced to the accompaniment of so weird a medley of instruments and by real peasants full of gaiety is naturally a thing altogether diverse from the stilted, though graceful and decorous performance that can be observed any day for payment in a Sorrentine or Neapolitan hotel; yet it must ever be borne in mind that the Tarantella proper, whether danced con amore by Procidan peasants or performed for lucre by costumed professionals, is no vulgar frenzied can-can, but a musical love-dance expressive of primitive courtship.
"The Tarantella is a choregraphic love-story, the two dancers representing an enamoured swain and his mistress. It is the old theme—'the quarrel of lovers is the renewal of love.' Enraptured gaze, coy side-look, gallant advance, timid retrocession, impassioned declaration, supercilious rejection, piteous supplication, softening hesitation; worldly goods oblation, gracious acceptation; frantic jubilation, maidenly resignation. Petting, wooing, billing, cooing. Jealous accusation, sharp recrimination, manly expostulation, shrewish aggravation; angry threat, summary dismissal. Fuming on one side, pouting on the other. Reaction, approximation, exclamation, exoneration, reconciliation, osculation, winding up with a grand pas de circomstance, expressive of confidence re-established and joy unbounded. That's about the figure of it; but no word-painting can give an idea of the spirit, the 'go' of the tarantella when danced for love and not for money."(9)
On a modest scale Sorrento can lay claim to be called an eternal city, for the Surrentum of the ancient Romans was a place of no small importance, filled with villas of wealthy citizens and boasting a fair-sized population, as its numerous remains of antiquity can easily testify; whilst its crumbling ivy-clad walls and towers point to its prosperity during the Middle Ages, when Sorrento shared the political fortunes of Naples. It is now a busy thriving little cathedral town, and the possessor of silk and tarsia work industries, so that like Imperial Rome it can boast a continuous existence as a city from remote times to the present day. Its chief local Saint—for what Italian town does not boast a special patron?—is Sant' Antonio, whose most famous feat is said to have been the administering of a severe drubbing to Sicardo, Duke of Benevento, for daring to interfere with the liberties of his city in the ninth century. It would appear from the legend that all arguments as to ancient rights, the quality of mercy and the honour of keeping faith having been vainly exhausted upon the cruel and obstinate prince, Bishop Antonio came forward with a stout cudgel and belaboured the tyrant in order to obtain a favourable answer to the people's petition. The sanctity of the pugnacious prelate and the force of this argumentum ad baculum were evidently too much for the Duke of Benevento, who at once conceded the popular demands, whilst Antonio's name has deservedly descended to posterity as the capable protector of his native city.
* * * * * *
But the name which above all others Sorrento will cherish as her own, "so long as men shall read and eyes can see," is that of the famous Italian poet, Torquato Tasso, whose interesting but melancholy life-story is closely associated with this, the town of his birth. Tasso is reckoned as the fourth greatest bard of Italy, ranking after Dante and Petrarch, and being esteemed on a level with rather than below his rival and contemporary, Ludovico Ariosto. In one sense however he may be described as the most truly national poet of this immortal quartet, for his career is connected with his native country as a whole, rather than with any one of the little cities or states then comprising that "geographical expression" which is now the Kingdom of Italy. His father's family was of Lombard origin, having been long settled in the neighbourhood of Bergamo, where a crumbling hill-set fortress known as the Montagno del Tasso still recalls the name of the poet's ancestors. His mother, Porzia de' Rossi, was Tuscan by birth, her family haling from Pistoja at the foot of the Apennines, but owning property near Naples; whilst the poet himself was destined to spend his years of childhood at Sorrento and at Naples, his youth at Rome and Verona, his brilliant period of fame and prosperity at Ferrara and the Lombard courts, and again some of his closing years of disgrace and disappointment amidst the familiar scenes of his infancy. Of good ancient stock the Tassi owed their acquisition of wealth to the re-establishment of the system of posting throughout Northern Italy in the thirteenth century, when the immediate progenitor of the poet, one Omodeo de' Tassi, was nominated comptroller, and it is curious to note that owing to this circumstance the arms of the family containing the posthorn and the badger's skin—Tasso is the Italian for badger—continued to be borne for many centuries upon the harness of all Lombard coach-horses. Torquato's father, Bernardo Tasso, himself a poet of no mean calibre and the composer of a scholarly but somewhat prolix work, the Amadigi, formed for many years a prominent member of that brilliant band of literary courtiers within the castle of Vittoria Colonna, the Lady of Ischia, of whom we shall speak more fully in another place. But for the overwhelming and all-eclipsing fame of his distinguished son, Bernardo might have been able to claim a high place in the list of Italian writers of the Renaissance; as it was, the father's undoubted talents were quickly forgotten in the blaze of his own beloved "Tassino's" popularity, so that he is now chiefly remembered as the sire of a poetic genius, as one of the great Vittoria's favourite satellites and as the author of an oft-quoted sonnet to his intellectual mistress. Bernardo Tasso did not marry until the somewhat mature age of forty-seven, when, as we have already said, he espoused the daughter of the Tuscan house of Rossi, by whom he had two children; a daughter, Cornelia, and the immortal Torquato, who was born in 1544, three years before the death of the divine poetess of Ischia.
But Bernardo was not merely a bard and a courtier, for he was also, unfortunately for himself and his ill-fated family, a keen politician in an age when politics offered anything but a safe pursuit, and as his views invariably coincided with those of his chief friend and patron, the head of the powerful Sanseverino family, Tasso the Elder found himself in course of time an exile from Neapolitan territory on account of his dislike of the new Spanish masters of Naples. The poet-politician therefore took up his abode at Rome, whilst his wife and two young children continued to reside at Naples and Sorrento. The boy was a born student, almost an infant prodigy of learning, and so great was his desire for knowledge that he would insist upon rising long before it was day-light, and would even make his way to school through the dark dirty streets of Naples, conducted by a servant with a torch in his hand. The Jesuits, who had just set up their first academy at Naples, soon discovered in the future poet an ideal pupil, and not only did they impart to the child all the lore of ancient Greece and Rome, but they also imbued his mind, at an age when it was "wax to receive and marble to retain," with their own peculiar theological tenets. It is obvious indeed that the faith implanted by the Fathers in his tender years was largely, if not wholly answerable for the unswerving belief and firm religious convictions that ever stood Tasso in good stead throughout the whole of his chequered career. "Give me a child of seven years old," had once declared the great Founder of the Society of Jesus, "and I care not who has the after-handling of him"; and in this case the Jesuit professors did not fail to carry out Loyola's precept. But his home life with his mother, whom he loved devotedly, and his course of study at the Jesuit school were suddenly interrupted when he was barely ten years of age, for the elder Tasso was anxious for his little son to join him in Rome, there to be educated under his own eye. The boy left his mother, but after his departure the Rossi family brutally refused to allow their sister access to her absent husband, who had lately been declared a rebel against the Spanish government and deprived of his estates. Thus persecuted by her unfeeling brothers, Porzia Tasso sought refuge together with Cornelia in a Neapolitan convent, where, deprived of her erratic but beloved husband and pining for her absent son, the poor woman died of a broken heart a year or two later. As for Cornelia, she became affianced when of a marriageable age to a gentleman of Sorrento, the Cavaliere Marzio Sersale, and consequently returned to live in the home of her childhood.
Of Tasso's many adventures, of his universal literary fame, of the honours heaped upon him by his chief patron, Duke Alfonso of Ferrara, and of his subsequent disgrace and imprisonment for daring to lift his eyes in love to a princess of the haughty House of Este, we have no space to speak here. Let it suffice to say that he was one of the most charming, virtuous, brilliant, manly figures, as he was also almost the last true representative, of the great Italian Renaissance, the end of which may be described as coinciding with his decease. According to his biographer Manso, the author of the Gerusalemme Liberata was singularly noble and refined in appearance, though always possessed of an air of melancholy; he was well-built, strong, active and resourceful, anything in fact but a carpet-knight who spent his days in writing verse and dallying with Italian court beauties:
"Colla penna e colla spada, Nessun val quanto Torquato;"
sang the populace of Ferrara in honour of their illustrious Sorrentine guest, for the Ferrarese delighted in the handsome stranger who could in an emergency wield the sword as skilfully as he could ply his quill. Twice only however did Tasso revisit the city of his birth, and each return home was occasioned by deep tragedy. In 1577, wounded by the attacks of his literary rivals and humiliated by the Duke Alfonso's discovery of his infatuation for the Princess Leonora d'Este, the unhappy poet travelled southward, reaching Sorrento in the disguise of a shepherd. Making his way to the Casa Sersale, the house of his sister, now a widow with two sons, Torquato passed himself off as his own messenger, and so eloquently did he relate the story of his own grief and wrongs, that the tender-hearted Cornelia fainted away at this recital. Having satisfied his mind as to his sister's genuine affection, the pseudo-shepherd now revealed his true character, whereupon the pair embraced with transports of joy, though it was deemed prudent not to acquaint their friends with the arrival of Torquato, who was represented to the good people of Sorrento as a distant relative from Bergamo. Cornelia Sersale now entreated the poet to take up his abode permanently in her house, and to forget the rebuffs of the cruel world without in the enjoyment of family ties and affections; and well would it have been for Torquato, had he accepted his sister's advice and passed the succeeding years in simple rural pleasures. But restless and inconsequent despite all his virtues, the poet must needs return to Ferrara to bask in the presence of his beloved Leonora, with the dire and undignified result that all the world knows. Tasso's second visit took place not long before his death, when his strength was rapidly failing, so that it seems strange that he did not decide to end his days amidst these lovely and well-remembered scenes of his early boyhood, instead of deliberately choosing for the last stage of his earthly journey the Roman convent of Sant' Onofrio, where the death-chamber and various pathetic relics of the poet are still pointed out.
Students of Tasso's immortal epic are apt to overlook the immense influence exercised on its author by his early Sorrentine days and surroundings. The Gerusalemme Liberata contains, as we know, a full account of the First Crusade and constitutes an apotheosis of Godfrey de Bouillon, first Christian King of Jerusalem; but it is also something more than a mere poetical description of a departed age of chivalry. For there can be little doubt that the poet aspired to be the singer of a new movement which should wrest back the Holy City from the clutches of the Saracens, and set a second Godfrey upon the vacant throne of Palestine. To this important end the experiences of his infancy and his training by the Jesuits had undoubtedly tended to urge the precocious young poet. The servants of his father's house at Sorrento must many a time have regaled his eager boyish mind with harrowing tales of the infidel pirates who scoured the Tyrrhene Sea within sight of the watch-towers on the coast; within ken, perchance, of Casa Tasso itself, perched on the commanding cliff above the waters. Scarcely a family dwelling on the Marina below but was mourning one or more of its members that had been seized by the blood-thirsty marauders, perhaps to be brutally slain on the spot or to languish in the dungeons of Tripoli and Smyrna, eking out a life of slavery that was far worse than death itself. Stories of tortured Christians, like that of the pious Geronimo of Algiers who was tied with cords and flung into a mass of soft concrete, were common enough topics among the Sorrentine folk, all of whom lived in constant dread of a successful raid by the Barbary pirates. For, despite the efforts of the great Emperor Charles the Fifth to protect his maritime subjects, the swift galleys of Tunis and Tripoli out-stripped the Imperial men-of-war, and continued to carry on their vile commerce of slavery. Such a state of terrorism must have appeared intolerable to the highly romantic, deeply religious spirit of the young poet; and his Jesuit preceptors, working on the boy's imagination, were soon able to instil into his youthful brain the notion of a new Crusade which would not only sweep the infidel ships from off the Italian seas, but would also recapture the Holy City itself. The Church, beginning at last to recover from the effects of Luther's schism, was once more in a position to re-assert its ancient authority over Catholic Christendom, and in Torquato Tasso it found an able trumpeter to call together the scattered forces of the Faithful, and to reunite them in a holy war. Astonished and delighted, all Italy was swept by the golden torrent of Tasso's impassioned verses, that were intended to urge the Catholic princes of Europe to the inauguration of a new Crusade. Nor were the times unpropitious for such an event. Tunis, that hot-bed of infidelity, piracy and iniquity, was in the hands of the Christians; and the fleets of the Soldan had been well-nigh annihilated by Don John of Austria at the glorious battle of Lepanto:—to convince a doubting and hesitating world that the actual moment had come wherein to recover the city of Jerusalem was the main object of the author of the Gerusalemme Liberata. And it was his infancy spent upon this smiling but pirate-harassed coast that was chiefly responsible for this desired end in the epic of the Crusades; it was Tasso's early acquaintance with the Bay of Naples, combined with his special training by the Jesuits, that forced the poet's genius and ambition into this particular channel.
It is pleasant to think that Sorrento is still appreciative of its honour as the birth-place of the great Italian poet. The citizens have erected a statue of marble in one of their open spaces; they have called street, hotel and trattoria by his illustrious name; and can the modern spirit of grateful acknowledgment go further than this? His father's house has perished, it is true, through "Nature's changing force untrimmed," for the greedy waves have undermined and swallowed up the tufa cliff which once supported the old Tasso villa. But there is still standing in Strada di San Nicola the old Sersale mansion, wherein the good Cornelia received her long-lost brother in his peasant's guise, an unhappy exile from haughty Ferrara. Of more interest however than the old town house of the Sersale family is the ancient farm, known as the Vigna Sersale, which once belonged to Donna Cornelia, and supplied her household with wine and oil. It is a lovely sequestered spot lying on the breezy hill-side not far down the Massa road, facing towards Capri and the sunset. Hallowed by its historic connection with the poet and his devoted sister, the Vigna Sersale can claim perhaps to be one of the most interesting and beautiful places of literary pilgrimage upon earth. Ascending by the steep pathway that leads upward from the broad high road, it is not long before we reach the old podere, amidst whose olive groves and vineyards the poet was wont to sit dreamily gazing at the glorious view before him. Here are the same ancient spreading stone-pines, the same gnarled olive trees that sheltered the gentle love-lorn poet, whilst Cornelia and her sons sate beside him in the shade, endeavouring—alas! only too vainly—by their caresses to detain the roving Torquato in their midst. Could not, we ask ourselves, the erratic poet have been content to remain in this spot, "in questa terra alma e felice" as he himself styles it, instead of plunging once more into the dangers and dissipation of that Vanity Fair of distant Ferrara? Why could he not have brooded over his ill-starred infatuation for the high-born Leonora in this soothing corner of the earth, allowing its quiet and beauty to sink into his soul, until the recollection of his Innamorata declined gradually into a fragrant memory that could be embalmed in never-dying verse? But like his own favourite hero, the Christian King of Jerusalem, the poet must in his inmost heart have preferred a changing storm-tossed life to the ideal existence of rustic ease; and had he not returned to the treacherous splendours of Alfonso's court, how much less entrancing would his own life-story have appeared to after ages! Unconsciously he seems to have composed his own epitaph in describing Godfrey's death; for the crusading king lived and died like a true Christian knight, for whom the world has afforded many adventures, and but few intervals of peace until the final call to endless rest.
"Vivesti qual guerrier cristiano e santo, E come bel sei morto: ei godi, e pasci In Dio gli occhi bramosi, o felice alma, Ed hai del ben oprar corona e palma."
CAPRI AND TIBERIUS THE TYRANT
Lying between the classic capes of Misenum and Minerva, the island of Capri appears like a couched lion, guarding the entrance of the Bay of Naples; his majestic head being formed by the stupendous cliffs of the Salto that face the sunrise, whilst his back and loins are represented by the long broad slope which stretches from the summit of Monte Solaro to the most westerly headland of Vitareta. Nor is it only as a guardian to their Bay that Capri serves the Neapolitans, for it also presents them with a gigantic natural barometer. In fine settled weather a soft haze invariably lies over the sea, so that Capri is only faintly visible from the shores of Parthenope, save at sunrise and sunset, when for a short time the graceful form of the islet looms out clear-cut like a jagged amethyst upon a sapphire bed; but before rain or storm it yields up its inmost secrets to the public gaze of Naples. The northern Marina, the towns of Capri and Ana-Capri, even the little terraced fields become discernible to the naked eye: "It will be wet to-morrow" augur the weather-wise of Naples, and the prediction is rarely falsified.
It is an easy matter to cross from Sorrento to the island, whether it be by the little steamer that plies daily between Naples and Capri, putting in at Sorrento on its journeys backwards and forwards, or—far pleasanter if somewhat slower way—by engaging a boat with four rowers, who on a calm day ought to make the Marina of Capri in less than two hours. Nothing can be more delightful or exhilarating than this old-fashioned method of transit; and it gives also a feeling of superiority over less enterprising persons who prefer the quicker passage on a smoky steamer, crammed with tourists and attendant touts. It is the very morning for a row on the cool glassy water, as we step joyfully into our boat with its four stalwart Phrygian-capped sailors in attendance:
"Con questo zeffiro Cosi soave, Oh, com' e bello Star su la nave! Mare si placido, Vento si caro, Scordar fa i triboli Al marinaro."
Bending with a will to their oars, our genial mariners quickly impel our barque round the first jutting headland, so that the thickly populated Piano di Sorrento is at once lost to view. Making good headway over the clear water, it is not long before we find ourselves passing beneath the wave-washed precipices of the Salto, and well within our time limit of two hours we reach the roadstead of the Marina, to find ourselves in a bright and busy world of traffic and pleasure. Between the houses coloured coral-pink, white, blue, and yellow, and the pale green transparent water lies a long stretch of beach covered with every sort of craft that sails the Mediterranean, and with a motley crowd of fishermen, tourists and noisy children; whilst the whole atmosphere rings with raucous voices raised in giving directions, in quarrelling, or in addressing the many perplexed strangers. We disembark, and cross the intervening beach with its sea-weed veiled boulders and masses of tawny fishing nets; we reach the village, and here we meet with our first disappointment in romantic Capri. It was not so very many years ago, barely thirty in point of fact, that this island was roadless, and in those primitive days the visitor was met at the Marina Grande by tall strapping Capriote women, who were wont to seize the traveller's pieces of baggage as though they had been light parcels, and to march up the old stone staircase poising these burdens on their heads with the carriage of an empress. The stranger's own entrance into Capri was less dignified, for either he had to toil painfully in the blazing sun up that steep picturesque flight of steps and reach the plateau above, perspiring and probably out of temper; or else he was compelled to bestride a miserable ass which a bare-footed damsel steered upward by means of the quadruped's tail. Nowadays, we are spared this original and somewhat humiliating manner of arrival at our journey's end. There are little carrozzelle, drawn by clever black Abruzzi cobs awaiting us, and even one or two hotel conveyances. We find ourselves being driven rapidly up the excellent winding road constructed only a quarter of a century ago, past the domed Church of San Costanzo, the patron Saint of the Caprioti, past hedges of aloe and prickly pear, until we gain the saddle of the island-mountain, where stands the small capital perched upon a ledge that overlooks the Bay of Naples to the north, and to the south the endless expanse of the unruffled Tyrrhene.
It is evident even to the most casual untrained eye, that this huge mass of sea-girt rock whereon we stand must in remote ages have formed part of the mainland opposite, until some fierce convulsion of nature, common enough in this region that is ever changing its outward face through subterranean forces, tore what is now Capri asunder from the Punta della Campanella, and placed the sea as an eternal barrier between the riven headlands of continent and new-formed island. The charm of this rocky fragment, thus placed in mid ocean by volcanic action, was first discovered by the great Emperor Augustus, who chancing to visit the island for some obscure reason was greatly affected by the spectacle of a withered ilex tree, that revived and burst into foliage at the auspicious moment of his setting foot at the Marina. Flattered at the compliment paid by Nature's self to his august presence and drawing a happy omen from the incident, the Emperor at once proposed to the people of Neapolis, who then owned the island, that they should exchange barren Capreae for the larger and more fertile imperial appanage of Aenaria (Ischia)—a bargain to which the shrewd Neapolitans readily agreed. Here then in a spot at once so salubrious and so convenient for the management of affairs of state, the Emperor sought rest and relaxation at such times as he could escape the cares of government. At his bidding villas and pleasaunces were constructed; roads were carried by means of viaducts across the airy plateau lying between the Salto and the Solaro; and the able bodied inhabitants of the island were enrolled as a sort of honorary bodyguard for the person of Augustus during his occasional visits. In this secluded, yet accessible retreat, the ruler of the Roman world could easily lay his finger, as it were, upon the beating pulse of his mighty empire, for Capreae was at no great distance from Rome itself, and from the heights of the island note could be made of the movements of the Imperial fleet lying at Baiae or of the arrival of the corn ships from Egypt and Asia Minor. But the name of the good Augustus is scarcely remembered in connection with Capreae, which alone recalls its association with Tiberius the Tyrant, who spent the last nine years of his reign upon the rocky islet that was so beloved of his predecessor. To this spot "Timberio" (as the natives invariably misname the Emperor) feeling the rapid approach of senile decay, weary of the thankless task of ruling an ungrateful people, sick of family dissensions and of court intrigue, at last came in the cherished hope of spending the few remaining years of his life in cultured leisure and in comparative solitude. An enthusiastic student of astronomy and of its sister science, or rather pseudo-science, astrology, Tiberius proposed to study the heavens in the company of chosen mathematicians and soothsayers. Twelve buildings—palaces, villas, pavilions, call them what you will—were now constructed for the special examination of the planets, and in consequence the whole of the island, whose limited area after all is exceeded by many an English park, was practically turned into one vast maritime residence, for all the Imperial pleasure-houses seem to have been connected with each other by means of viaducts or secret stair-ways. Yet whilst immersed in astronomy and occultism, the aged Emperor contrived to find time for the routine of public business, and, like Augustus, he was still able to direct from his rocky retreat the policy of the Empire. The reports of governors of provinces, for example, were received, read, and commented upon by Tiberius in his Capriote home, and amongst these there must have been included a certain official document from one Pontius Pilatus, Procurator of Judaea, relating how a Jewish prophet from Nazareth had been condemned, scourged and crucified by his orders at the special request of the Jews themselves. How eloquent is this bald statement of a simple fact, that here in this tiny barren islet was brought the casual news of the death of Jesus Christ to the then ruler of the Roman world! Surely an historical incident such as this is of more value than all the hazy legends or pointless miracles of St Januarius or of San Costanzo, upon which the imagination of the islanders has been fed for generations.
Remnants of Tiberius' palaces, all of which are said to have been razed to the ground by order of the Roman Senate at his death, are scattered thick as fallen leaves in Vallombrosa over the whole surface of the island, and it is to the ruins of the Villa Jovis at its eastern crest that the visitor will in all probability first direct his steps. The way thither from the little city of Capri leads through narrow lanes along a stony but populous hill-side, to which the flat-roofed dazzling white houses with their small iron-barred windows lend an oriental aspect; an illusion that is aided by the appearance of an occasional date-palm over-topping some low wall, and by clumps or hedges of the prickly pear. This latter plant, of Indian extraction as its name of Ficus Indica betrays, grows in profusion over the sun-baked rocky slopes of southern Italy, especially in the neighbourhood of the sea. The peasants find it most useful, for it makes impenetrable hedges, and its coarse pulpy leaves when pounded up afford good provender for their goats and donkeys. The fruits of the prickly pear, those quaint crimson or yellow knobs attached to the edges of the leaves, are likewise gathered and eaten by the people, or else cleaned of their protecting layers of spiny hairs and despatched in baskets to Naples, where the cactus-fruit forms an important item of the popular fare. The fruit itself has a lovely colour and a fragrant scent, which give promise of a better flavour than it actually possesses, for it is hopelessly insipid to the taste, although the Neapolitans declare that the pulp, when mashed up into patties and iced, is very palatable.
A long up-hill ramble over rough paths leads eventually to the Villa of Jupiter, perched on the Salto—the Saltus Caprearum, the "Wild Goats' Leap," of the ancients. There is little of interest to be seen in the existing portions of Tiberius' chief villa, for the building has been despoiled centuries ago of its rich marbles, its slabs of giallo and verde antico, its pillars of red porphyry and serpentino, some fragments of which may be found imbedded in the pavement of the mosque-like little Duomo of Capri. But it is evident from the immense extent of its substructures, now used for humble enough purposes, that the Villa Jovis must have been a palace of remarkable size. A hermit who offers sour wine, a fat middle-aged woman, a figure of fun in her gay be-ribboned dress who begins languidly dancing a tarantella, and a vulgar pestilent guide who produces a spy-glass usually haunt these caverns on the look-out for any chance visitor. Buy them off, O stranger! with soldi, is our advice, for you cannot otherwise escape their importunities, and then mounting to the highest point, peer down into the clear depths of the water nearly a thousand feet below. For it was here, if we can credit serious Roman historians, that the Imperial tyrant, half crazy with terror and ever thirsting for human blood, was wont to hurl the objects of his hate into the sea; "from this eminence," Suetonius gravely tells us, "after the application of long drawn-out and exquisite tortures, Tiberius used to order his executioners to fling their victims before his eyes into the water, where boats full of mariners, stationed below, were waiting in readiness to beat the bruised bodies with oars, in case any spark of life might yet be left in them." The terrible legend fits in aptly with the appearance of this forbidding dizzy precipice, especially on a dark stormy afternoon, when the dull roar of the waves dashing against the cliffs below, mounts upward to the Villa Jovis like the angry bellowing of some insatiable sea-monster.
It was whilst brooding here after the death of Sejanus in Rome, that the Emperor, not daring to move beyond the walls of his palace, shunning the society of all save his familiar friends and attendants, and with his face disfigured by an eruption of the skin of which he was painfully sensitive, that there took place an incident (which may or may not be true) mentioned by Suetonius. In the privacy of this villa Tiberius was one day surprised by an ingenious Capriote fisherman, who in ignorance or defiance of the Emperor's wishes had managed to scale with his naked feet the steep cliffs from the sea below, in order to present a fine mullet for the imperial table, and of course to earn a high reward for his "gift." Terrified at the mere notion of anybody being able thus to penetrate into his most secret domain, the irate Emperor at once gave orders for the intruder's face to be scrubbed with the mullet he had brought, a sentence that the imperial minions performed without delay. The intrepid fisherman might have congratulated himself on so mild a punishment for having disturbed a tyrant's repose, had he not been possessed of an unusually strong sense of humour. For at the close of the mullet-scrubbing episode, the foolish fellow remarked by way of a jest to the officer on duty, that he was thankful he had not also offered the emperor a large crab which he had likewise brought in his basket. This imprudent speech was immediately reported to Tiberius, who thereupon commanded the man's face to be lacerated with the aforesaid crab's claws; but whether this pleasing incident ended with a cold plunge from the Salto, the Roman historian does not relate.
Other tales of Timberio's vices and cruelties have been handed down from generation to generation, so that the dark deeds committed at the Salto have almost passed into a local article of faith; and such being the case, it would seem almost a pity to pronounce these picturesque horrors untrue or exaggerated. Nevertheless, of recent years there has arisen amongst scholars a certain degree of scepticism as regards these highly coloured anecdotes of Roman historians known to be prejudiced. The Emperor was nearly seventy years old at the time he came to reside in Capreae, and until that date his life had been orderly and above reproach; it is not likely therefore, argue these modern writers, that Tiberius should suddenly, at so extreme an age, have flung himself into a whirl of vices and crimes that he had hitherto shunned. The thing is of course possible, but it sounds improbable. That he was moody and morose; that he loved solitude and hated formal society in the spot he had especially chosen as the retreat of his declining years; that he practised certain of the mystic arts, as well as studied astronomy, are all likely enough conjectures; and these circumstances probably formed the foundation for the extravagant legends which now surround the Emperor's memory. Very shocking and reprehensible were the doings at Villa Jovis, if they really occurred there, but to try and dispute their authenticity would be a task quite outside the scope of this work.(10)
If, despite the negative theories held to-day concerning the private life and character of the second Emperor of Rome during his residence on Capreae, the traveller be still inclined to trace the sites of the remaining eleven Imperial villas, he will find little difficulty in meeting with numberless Roman remains scattered over all parts of the island. On the beach, for example, a little to the west of the Marina Grande, are clearly visible the sunken foundations of the great sea-palace, which in the Roman manner jutted into the water and ranked probably second in size to the Villa Jovis. The neighbourhood of Ana-Capri also, and in fact the whole western portion of the island, is likewise plentifully besprinkled with ancient ruins, one of which is still known by the suggestive title of Timberino. But most people will prefer to explore the unrivalled natural beauties of Capri, rather than to make themselves acquainted with its archaeological points of interest.
First and foremost of the many wonders that Capri has to show must be ranked the Grotta Azzurra. The pleasantest way of reaching this world-famous cavern is by small boat from the Marina, rather than by the daily steamer from Naples; and a perfectly calm and bright morning must be selected for the expedition, for if the surface of the sea appears in the least degree ruffled by northerly winds, it becomes impossible for any craft to make the low entrance of the grotto. Capriote boatmen are as a rule intelligent and pleasant to deal with, and not a few of the denizens of the Marina own to some knowledge of English, or rather of American, since several of the inhabitants are the sons of emigrants who have settled in the cities of the United States or the Argentine, but whose love for their island home is still so strong that they contrive to send their children back to Capri, in order that they may retain their Italian citizenship and be ready to serve their expected term of years in the Army.
Past the gay-coloured shipping of the noisy Marina, past the wave-washed halls of Tiberius' palazzo a mare, our boat swiftly glides over the pellucid expanse until it reaches those vast towering cliffs of limestone that spring almost perpendicular from the waters' edge to the plateau of Ana-Capri, fully a thousand feet above our heads. Clumps of palmetto, of cytizus, and of various hardy shrubs manage to sprout and to exist in the crannies of this sheer wall of rock; and on some of the larger ledges, far out of reach of a despoiling human hand, we see masses of the odorous narcissus, though whence they draw their sustenance it is hard to tell. At length we reach the entrance of the Grotto, and here, at a signal from our boatman, we crouch down low in the body of the boat, whilst our rower, skilfully taking advantage of a gentle surging wave, guides our craft with his hands through an opening in the sheer wall, so low that the gunwales grate against the rocky surface of the natural arch. At once we find ourselves in a scene of mystical beauty, in an extravagant voluptuous dream of loveliness, such as the Arabian Nights alone could dare to suggest. Above us, around us, behind us, before us lies a luminous azure atmosphere, which produces the effect of a gigantic molten sapphire, whose secret blue fires we have actually tracked to their lurking-place in the very heart of the gem. Against the all-pervading shimmering light our own forms stand out distinct of an intense and velvety blackness, yet the blades of the oars that cleave the melted sapphire of the water, the tips of our fingers that dabble in the celestial liquid, appear as if coated with tiny globules of silver. Our boatman's son, a picturesque lad of fifteen or there-abouts, has, we notice, been engaged in hastily casting off his scanty attire; for a moment his slight graceful figure is outlined against the blue light like some antique bronze of Pompeii or Herculaneum, and then there is a splash as the youthful form, diving into the pool, is instantaneously changed by the genius of the place into a silver-glistening sea-god, the very image of the fisherman Glaucus sung of old by Ovid, who became an Immortal and dwelt ever afterwards, according to the ancient myth, in an azure palace beneath the sea. As the stripling rises to the surface all glittering to breathe the air, his head turns from frosted silver to ebon blackness, as does likewise his hand, raised from the water to clasp the boat's prow. Slowly we are propelled round the lofty domed cavern, and are shown the little beach at its further extremity with its mysterious and unexplored flight of stone steps, down which, so our mariner informs us, the wicked Timberio used to descend from his villa at Damecuta, hundreds of feet overhead, to take a plunge in these enchanted waters. The Emperor and his friends may or may not have gambolled in this jewelled bath; but certain it is that Tiberius knew of the existence of this unique cavern; and equally certain that an artistic but demented potentate of our own days was so smitten with the idea of owning a secret staircase descending to a blue grotto, that he must needs construct within the walls of a fantastic castle in the highlands of Bavaria an artificial counterpart of the Grotta Azzurra, with metal swans moved by clockwork swimming thereon!
Our genial boatman beguiles the time of our returning by a long story, told him in his boyhood by his old grandfather, of how two English Signori had managed to rediscover the entrance to the Blue Grotto, which had been lost since the days of the Emperor Timberio, and how in expectation of the Englishmen's reward a plucky sailor, named Ferrara, had made his way all round the island in a cask, trying to force an entrance into every possible cavern, until at last he hit upon the mouth of the Grotta Azzurra itself, and thus gained the prize. But as a matter of fact the existence of the Grotto was never wholly forgotten, for its beauties were certainly known to the old Italian chronicler Capaccio. Yet doubtless during the long period of the Napoleonic wars, when Capri from its strategic position became a choice bone of contention between French, English and Neapolitan forces, there were few if any persons who possessed the courage or curiosity to visit the cavern; with the result that its exact locality became temporarily lost. It was known, however, to exist somewhere at the base of the great northern cliff, so that only a very small portion of the coast-line had to be explored, before its tiny inconspicuous entrance could be rediscovered. A far more exciting event than the refinding of the Blue Grotto was the genuine discovery of the beautiful Grotta Verde on the southern side of the island by two Englishmen, Mr Reid and Mr Lacaita, in the summer of 1848. This grotto, esteemed the second in importance of the many caves that Capri boasts, consists of a huge natural archway formed in the cliffs wherein the water and rocks appear of an emerald hue, contrasting strangely with the opaque blue of the sea beyond, and suggesting in its dual colouring the marvellous combination of dark blue and iridescent green in the peacock's tail.
Capri is a pleasant enough place of residence for a short time, particularly if one invests in a pair of the rope-soled shoes affected by the people, which enables the wearer to follow with greater ease the rough stony tracks, often at a dizzy height above the sea, that form the only walks in the eastern portion of Capri, except the villa-lined Tragara road leading to the Guardiola, now become the fashionable promenade of the many foreign residents upon the island. There are some delightfully peaceful nooks to be sought near the water's edge, not far from the Faraglioni, that picturesque trio of rocks lying off the south-eastern corner of Capri. Here we can find a sheltered corner, unfrequented alike by the pestering native or by the ubiquitous tourist; perchance the deserted hall of some maritime villa, for the caverns near the Piccola Marina abound in traces of Roman architecture. In such a retreat, with a book on one's knees and with one's own thoughts for sole company, how fascinating it is to lie
"... on Capri's rocks, close to their snowy streak Of ambient foam, and watch the restless sea Tossing and tumbling to Eternity, Feeling its salt kiss fall upon the cheek."
But to those who prefer to take long tramps afield rather than to linger in meditation on the sunny beaches near the Piccola Marina, there is always the ascent to Ana-Capri by the broad smooth winding road that affords a fresh view of the Bay of Naples at every one of its many twists and turnings. Over a ravine filled with masses of ilex and myrtle; past the fragment of the pirate Barbarossa's aerial castle, perched on a rocky pinnacle and looking like some fantastic creation of Gustave Dore's brush; the broad ribband of road leads across the steep northern flank of Monte Solaro, until it ends at Ana-Capri with its white houses nestling round a domed church. It is an easy ascent, taking no great space of time, yet strange to relate, well within living memory the only approach to this hill-set village was by means of the interminable stone staircase with some five hundred steps that connected it with the Marina Grande below. A charming writer on Neapolitan life and character thus shrewdly sums up the general opinion concerning this altered aspect of conditions with regard to Ana-Capri, now brought at last into close touch with modern civilization and its accruing benefits:
"Before the culminating point is reached, the road crosses the old staircase, which has unfortunately been almost completely destroyed by the huge masses of rock dislodged from the cliff above by the workmen. It makes one sad to look at it, and almost regret that the new road ever was constructed. Were every invective that has been vented on those same steps turned into a paving-stone, there would be more than sufficient to pave the streets of Naples anew; were every drop of sweat that has fallen upon them collected, there would be enough water to flood them. And yet now that this dreadful staircase has been superseded by a good macadamised road, every one seems to regret the change. Says the heavily laden contadina: 'The old way was the shortest;' says the artist: 'It was infinitely more picturesque; that new parapet wall is a dreadful eye-sore;' says the archaeologist: 'It had the merit of antiquity; it is not everywhere that one can tread in the footprints of a hundred generations.' Even those whose every step in the olden time was accompanied by a malediction, can remember how good a glass of very inferior wine tasted on reaching Ana-Capri."(11)
But whether Ana-Capri has or has not been really benefited by the Italian Government's finely engineered road, there can be no doubt that the primitive charm of the island, which in by-gone days constituted one of its chief attractions, has greatly declined with the wholesale introduction of modern conventions and improvements. With the sudden influx of wealthy strangers, Anglo-Saxon, German, French and Russian, it is not surprising to learn that the islanders have become somewhat demoralized under the changed conditions of life, and that not a small proportion of them have grown venal and grasping. The happy old days when artists and inn-keepers, peasants and such chance visitors as loved the simple unsophisticated life, hob-nobbed together on terms of equality are gone for ever. Fashion, that merciless deity, has annexed the Insula Caprearum to her ever-growing dominions;—there are smart villas on the Tragara road and even at Ana-Capri; there are British tea-rooms and Teutonic Bierhaelle in the town. At the present time the tourists and foreign residents form the chief source of wealth to the islanders, now that the quails have more or less deserted these shores. Instead of awaiting in due season with nets ready prepared the advent of the plump little feathered immigrants from the African coast, the modern Caprioti are continually on the look-out for the steamers that bear hundreds of money-spending tourists to the Marina, and these they proceed to enmesh with proffered offers of service. And, speaking of the quails, in the days before breech-loading guns and reckless extermination had injured this valuable source of revenue, the arrival of the birds winging their way northward was the signal for every sportsman on the island to hasten to collect the annual harvest of game. High poles, supporting nets twenty feet broad and sixty feet long, were erected on the grassy slopes of the Solaro or in the plateau of the Tragara, towards which, by dint of judicious scaring and shouting from expectant watchers stationed at various points, the flight of the on-rushing birds was directed. Dashing themselves with force against this wall of netting, the poor quails fell stunned to the ground, where they were easily taken by hand, whilst scores of guns were levelled ready to bring down such birds as had escaped the snare prepared for them. From the thousands of quails thus captured the islanders were enabled to pay their taxes to the Bourbon Government, as well as to provide the income of their Bishop—for in those distant days a prelate dwelt at Capri—who in allusion to his chief source of income was jocularly known at the Roman court as "Il Vescovo delle Quaglie."
From Ana-Capri to the western shore extends the most fertile stretch of land in the island: a broad slope set with vineyards and groves of silver-grey olives, that are interspersed here and there with clumps of almond and plum trees. Fine oil is yielded by the poderi of Ana-Capri and Damecuta, whilst the grapes produce the highly prized red and white Capri vintages, choice wine of which the casual traveller rarely tastes a good sample, for it is usually doctored and "improved" for purposes of keeping by the wine-merchants of Naples. Thus the rasping red liquid that appears on the table of a London restaurant, and the scented strong-tasting white stuff that is sold in the hotels of the island itself or of Naples under the name of Capri, have little in common with the pure unadulterated product of these sunny breezy vineyards. But besides wine and oil, the island is likewise celebrated for its beautiful and varied flora, and it is amongst the olive groves and lanes of the western side of the island that the wild flowers can be found in the greatest profusion. Amongst the tender green shoots of the young springing corn are set myriads of brilliant hued anemones, purple, scarlet, and white with a crimson centre; and even in January can be found in warm sheltered nooks the pretty mauve wind-flower, one of the earliest of spring blossoms in Italy. The grassy pathways that intersect the various holdings are gay with rosy-tipped daisies, white "star-of-Bethlehem," dark purple grape-hyacinth, and the tiny strong-scented marigold, that seems to bloom the whole twelve-month round. Amongst the loose stone-work of the walled lanes, where beryl-backed lizards peep in and out of every crevice, can be found fragrant violets and the delicate fumitory with its pink waxy bells. In moist places flourish patches of the wild arum or of the stately great celandine, the "swallow-wort" of old-fashioned herbalists, who believed that the swallow made use of the thick yellow juice that runs in the veins of this plant to anoint the eyes of her fledgelings! And with the disappearance of the anemones as the season advances, their place is taken by blood-red poppies, by golden hawkweeds and by masses of tall magenta-coloured blooms of the wild gladiolus, the "Jacob's Ladder" of our own English gardens. Strange enough amongst these familiar homely flowers appear the sub-tropical clumps of prickly pear, and the hedges of aloe which here and there have thrown up a gigantic spike of blossom eight or ten feet in height, a triumphal favour of Nature that the plant itself must pay for by its subsequent death.
From Ana-Capri we ascend to the peak of the lofty Solaro, by no means an arduous climb from this point, for we have but to follow a narrow goat-track leading across slopes covered with coarse grass and some low thickets of stunted lentisk and myrtle. The rosemary too grows plentifully on the dry wind-swept soil, and the soft sea breeze wafts its refreshing scent to our nostrils. There is a pretty legend of the people which relates the cause of this plant obtaining its perfume of unearthly sweetness:—how the Madonna one day hung the swaddling clothes of the Infant Christ to dry upon a common pot-herb in the garden at Nazareth—the rosemary is freely used in Italian cookery, and its taste is as unpleasant as its scent is delicious—whereupon the humble plant thus honoured was ever afterwards endowed with the delicate odour that is so highly prized. And beyond this, the rosemary was likewise permitted to put forth masses of flowers of the Madonna's own colour of blue, concerning which a tradition—Celtic, not Italian—avers that on Christmas morning upon every plant of rosemary will be found by those who care to seek them expanded blooms in honour of St Joseph, the Virgin and the Holy Child. Reaching the crest of the Solaro, we are well rewarded for our climb over the stony slopes by a wide-spreading view. Owing to the central position of the island, we can from its airy summit, some sixteen hundred feet above sea-level, command a glorious panorama of the three bays of the Neapolitan Riviera, each teeming with a thousand associations of classical or modern history. Upon those dancing waters of the Bay of Naples appeared in the dim ages of the heroic world the Trojan galleys that were bearing the founder of the Roman race towards the beach by Cumae yonder, where dwelt the venerable Sibyl; the fleets of ancient Rome and Carthage, the war-ships of the great Emperor Charles V., the pirate galleys of the Soldan's vassals, the men-of-war of Nelson have all rode and fought upon the bosom of the bay beneath us. What a marvellous perspective of the whole naval history of the Mediterranean does a survey of the Bay of Naples suggest!
Exquisite and inspiring as is the view on a clear cloudless day, with the keen tramontana off the distant Abruzzi flecking the azure waves with streaks of creamy foam and driving the white-sailed feluccas merrily towards the open sea, the landscape is even more impressive in dull lowering weather, when the inky clouds that envelop the sky give promise of the approaching hurricane. At such times a striking phenomenon, said to be peculiar to the Parthenopean shores, may be observed. From out the purple threatening masses that fill the heavens there suddenly falls a shaft of rosy light, as though directed by some vast celestial lens fixed aloft in the sky, upon a small portion of the opposite shore. The plateau of Sorrento with its many white hamlets first becomes illuminated; then the light rapidly passes towards Vesuvius, which is instantly revealed with marvellous clearness, whilst Sorrento returns to its former dark brooding shadows. For some moments we watch the circlet of towns that fringe the base of the burning mountain and Camaldoli erect on its wooded height, and then our gaze is diverted towards Naples, so clearly revealed that one can almost fancy it possible to detect the carriages driving along the white line of the Caracciolo. From the city this weird fairy-like light glides swiftly towards the headland of Posilipo and the great sombre mass of Ischia, and then finally seems to vanish altogether in the leaden-hued expanse of the watery horizon. Storm, rain, wind, hail and thunder will certainly follow the appearance of this fantastic rose-coloured glow, and the visitor to Capri may in consequence be compelled to remain willy-nilly upon the island until such time as communication with Naples shall be once more restored, for rough weather on Capri means complete isolation from the mainland and the outside world. A spell of four or five days without a letter or a newspaper may in certain cases be restful and even beneficial, but it can also be highly inconvenient.
* * * * * *
Comparatively few persons are aware that in the history of Capri is to be found a page, not a particularly glorious one perhaps, of the annals of our own nation. In the spring of 1806, the year after Trafalgar, whilst our fleet was blockading Naples on behalf of its worthless monarch, King Ferdinand, then skulking in cowardly ease at Palermo, Admiral Sir Sidney Smith, the hero of Acre, managed to capture the island after a sharp struggle with the French troops then holding it in the name of Joachim Murat, King of Naples and brother-in-law of the great Napoleon. Sir Hudson (then Colonel) Lowe—afterwards famous as the Governor of St Helena during Buonaparte's captivity—was now put in command of the newly conquered island with some 1500 English and Maltese troops at his disposal. Lowe and his second in command, Major Hamill, at once set to work to put the place into a strong state of defence, and so satisfied were they with their work of fortification, that Lowe in his confidence nick-named the islet "Little Gibraltar." For more than two years the Union Jack floated in triumph from the fort-crowned heights of Capri, much to the annoyance of the monarch on the mainland, who finally determined at all costs to recapture the stronghold facing his capital. Fancying himself perfectly secure in his "Little Gibraltar," now deemed impregnable by a combination of art and nature against any hostile descent, Lowe made light of any possible expedition from Naples, and when Neapolitan warships actually appeared as though making to land troops at the Marinas on either side of the saddle of the island, the British commandant was delighted at the ease with which these attempts were repelled. But whilst the garrison was busied in thwarting the movements on the Marinas, which in reality only constituted a feint on Murat's part, transports were engaged in disembarking at the low cliffs of Orico, the western extremity of the island, boat-loads of men, who quickly swarmed up the terraced slopes towards Ana-Capri and surprised its garrison. On the following day, October 6th 1808, in spite of Lowe's efforts, Ana-Capri with its eight hundred men surrendered to the French and Neapolitan troops led by General Lamarque, who at once set up a battery on the crest of the Solaro, so as to command the town of Capri and the English head-quarters, fixed at the Convent of the Certosa that lies between the Tragara Road and the southern shore. The eastern half of the island still of course remained in the hands of the British; and failing to reduce the town itself and the Convent of the Certosa by bombardment from above, General Lamarque decided upon taking the place by storm, so as to forestall the arrival of the English fleet, which was hourly expected to come to the rescue of the beleaguered garrison. As we have already mentioned, there was no road existing upon the whole island in those days a hundred years ago, so that in order to attack the capital, the French general had to march his victorious troops by the precipitous flight of stone steps down to the Marina Grande and then try to carry the position from below. Before however the Frenchmen, now further aided by supplies sent by Murat's order from Sorrento, could arrange for the projected assault upon the town, the delayed British fleet suddenly appeared in the offing, evidently with the intention of bearing down upon the island. But on this occasion the luck was all on the side of the French, for scarcely had the eagerly expected ships hove in sight, than the besieged garrison had the mortification to see their hopes of succour overthrown by the uprising of one of those sudden squalls, so common on the Mediterranean, which drove the warships southward. More than one assault was repulsed with heavy loss by the small English garrison, which had already been deprived of half its numbers at Ana-Capri, including the gallant Major Hamill, whose death is commemorated in a marble tablet set in the little piazza of the town. But with the retirement of the relieving fleet and the continuance of foul weather, Colonel Lowe deemed it useless to resist further, and like a sensible man decided to capitulate on the best terms he could obtain. In return for his immediate surrender of Capri the British commandant accordingly stipulated that his garrison should be allowed to embark and sail for Sicily unmolested, and that the persons and property of the islanders, who seem to have appreciated the British occupation, should be respected. But Lamarque, on communicating Colonel Lowe's request to King Murat, received peremptory orders to demand an unconditional surrender, whereupon an aide-de-camp of the King's, a certain Colonel Manches, was sent to interview Lowe with the royal letter in his pocket. Had the missive been delivered to him, the British Governor would in all probability have decided to fight to the bitter end rather than to submit to such severe and humiliating conditions. Happily so terrible a catastrophe, which must have involved heavy loss of life on both sides, followed by a sack of the town, was unexpectedly, averted at the last moment, for whilst Manches was actually advancing with a flag of truce, the approach of the British fleet was again signalled from the look-out on the hill now called the Telegrafo. Before the Governor could be made aware of this piece of news, Colonel Manches, cunningly keeping his master's imperious letter in his pocket, told Colonel Lowe that King Murat was ready to accept the terms of surrender offered. The weather being propitious, the British fleet would have been able this time to reach the island, but its nearer approach was prevented by Colonel Lowe himself, who sent to acquaint the Admiral, much to his chagrin, of the compact already concluded with the besiegers, a compact which, as Hudson Lowe himself very properly pointed out, was binding upon the British Government. On October 26th, three weeks from the date of the first attack, the English troops embarked for Sicily, and the island was formally handed over to the French and Neapolitan forces, who held it undisturbed until the close of the Napoleonic Wars.