Old Calabria, it is generally agreed, is the best travel book ever written about Italy. Norman Douglas was particularly well suited to write such a book. He was well traveled, knew six languages, and was an enthusiastic amateur zoologist and geologist. He was an aristocrat and a skeptic who thought knowledge was not only power but good fun. With people he was direct and unsentimental, yet he had an understanding of the geographical, political, economic, and religious factors that had made them what they were. As an observer he was precise and objective, and as a writer he was able to communicate his great zest for life by his humorous, vigorous style.
His account is the result of several tours of southern Italy made by train, by cart, by walking, in 1907 and 1911. He begins near the east coast, in Saracen Lucera. In Lucera the people had a passion for monuments which they erected and then changed with every political change. From Lucera he went to Manfredonia on the coast, a peculiar city whose streets ran into the sea instead of alongside it, possibly for ease in defense as the city had been sacked and burnt on several occasions. Here there were no trees and Douglas speculates on the results of this denuding of the land. Centuries before the buildings had been made of wood; now all were of stone, bare and grim-looking. Nowhere was there shade from the intense sunlight. Because of their hard life in a burning limestone desert, the people had no charm or sense of humor and their faces appeared to be cut out with a hatchet.
Northeast of Manfredonia the archangel Michael is supposed to have appeared on top of a mountain, at the bottom of which there is now a sacred but gloomy and odiferous cave where thousands of pilgrims come to worship. Douglas found the pilgrims repulsive, inept, dazed and weak; their very existence was bestial in its blankness. He felt unable to love or respect them; to pity them would be in accord with their religion but not with his. He felt that once divinity is comprehended by the masses it ceases to be efficacious, and that fanatics such as these are more to be feared than criminals, for they will commit any enormity in the name of their religion.
Venosa, in the land of Horace, he called a dirty city, full of mutilated stone lions. It is a city of peasant proprietors and field laborers who have little to do with one another, and no middle class: As a result the city suffers. The tax system here, as everywhere in Calabria is oppressive; every conceivable item is taxed so that law breaking becomes a virtual necessity. Nearby is a decayed Benedictine abbey remarkable for containing relics of Hebrew, Norman and Roman origin. Men were digging tunnels to create an aqueduct system. Douglas recalls that Horace liked his nature tame, subservient to man, and that in fact all southern Italians have a utilitarian view of nature. They prefer a garden or cultivated area to a wild one and a vegetable garden to a flower garden. He tried in vain to locate various sites mentioned by Horace and concluded that the wise man learns to close an eye and thus sees many fine things.
As he moved southward, Douglas observed the peasants and found that generally there was little to admire in this whole class of men; they were retrogressive and ungenerous and lived like beasts. In one region the peasants had profiles like Plato and Augustus and the manners of Louis Quatorze. These people he found to be truly philosophic in the face of adversity and he sympathized with them. Emigration, he thought, had both good and bad results. It shattered family life, but the sons who went to America and Argentina sent back money every month and sometimes returned with large sums. With this aid their families flourished. Meanwhile the landlords remained impoverished. These peasants spoke of “governing” the soil, a word they used when speaking of rearing children. Douglas was amazed to discover that they had little or no color sense. Everything was...
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