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Ch. 56 There are certain spots in the Roman Campagna which — whether it may be because of their antiquity, their natural beauty, or the characteristics of their inhabitants, or their remarkable historical monuments — invite us to visit them. The district I now have in my mind's eye belongs to the legation of Frosinone; it extends from the river Sacco to the foot hills of the Apennines. This territory of the ancient Hernici contains the towns of Anagni, Ferentino, Alatri, Veroli, and Frosinone, all of them of far greater antiquity than Rome herself; their origin, indeed, is lost in the mythical ages of Saturn and the Cyclopean wall-builders.
My intention was, after visiting these towns, to go up into the higher and wilder mountains where I might see the great Carthusian Monastery of Trisulti, the Grotto of Collepardo which is in its vicinity, and that strange depression in the earth called the Santulla, or "Italian Well," far‑famed yet seldom visited. p146 Accordingly, I rode out from Anagni one early morning, accompanied by a sturdy son of the Campagna, my brave servant and guide Francesco — out into that beautiful district.
After descending the hill Ferentinof came into sight •eight miles away, spreading along a green hillside, from which its brown towers, its convents and churches stood out boldly. It looked a considerable place, its picturesque buildings relieved against the skyline on the crest of a hill, the feet of which were clothed with gardens and vineyards. The Via Latina, by which it is reached, would be very monotonous if it were not enlivened by travelling bands of the Ciociari taking their produce and that of the frontier country of Naples1 to find a market in Rome. The compatriots of Cicero and of Marius now carry their cocks and hens to the capital. I saw these men of Arpino leading long strings of cars — great, wide, two‑wheeled vehicles laden with sacks of wool or of corn,º piled high with baskets and crates filled with poultry, and drawn by white long-horned oxen led by mountaineers, most stately to behold, in their long red vests, sandalled feet, and peaked felt hats.
I had been building upon the good offices of a p147 family to whom I had an introduction in Frosinone. A friend of mine, the lord of the manor of a certain Sabine town in which I had resided for some time, had entrusted me with a somewhat delicate commission. A love affair which had been in progress for some time had latterly gone wrong, and my friend was eager to set things right again. As he was not able to ride over to see his lady-love with me, he had besought me to be his Galeotto, or Cupid's envoy, and to take charge of a missive carefully penned, and entrusted to me with injunctions not to deliver it to the lady in the presence of her brother — a priest — but with discretion and secrecy. No sooner had I arrived and dismounted at my inn than I set forth on my mission in search of the house he had described so minutely. The fair one seemed to be leaning out of the open window; whereupon I mounted the steps, and found her alone in the first room I entered. As I saw no traces of the priest, I drew out the letter, after greeting her, and presented it. She became much embarrassed — turned red — turned white — and then, without uttering a word, she rushed into an adjoining room. Presently she returned, and asked me to come with her into this inner chamber. There I beheld the priest, extended at full length on a p148 bed — none of the cleanest — with the letter in his hands, and reading it carefully.
I discovered that the poor girl was entirely under the despotic rule of this brother. There had probably been painful scenes between them, and she seemed to lack the moral courage to break away from the tyranny of this cleric — this person whose good offices I had counted upon in my quest after the ancient monuments of his town. He received me in a chilling manner, looked anxious, and finally I departed, with the sad consciousness of having tangled the threads of this love after more hopelessly than before.
However, there was help at hand, and I was quickly exploring the old Latian city, in all quarters of it. It is an important place, the seat of a Bishop, but it consists of a bewilderment of narrow streets, broken occasionally by a square, or piazza. The silence, the deserted aspect of the houses, the absence of all stir or business, gave me a strange impression of having slipped back into the Middle Ages. Yet the broken classic columns, the cippi, or pedestals bearing inscriptions in Roman characters, lying all around, took me back yet farther — to the Roman period.
I sat down on the wall where a piazza surrounded p149 on three sides by buildings, on the fourth opened disclosing a view out over the Volscian range of mountains. With that splendid prospect before my eyes, I relapsed into a state of idyllic beatitude. The women just below were clustered round the well — at Ferentino, as at many of the Latian towns, no fountains exist — fastening their tin cans to the rope, lowering them into the depths, working them up again laboriously. In such old‑world spots it is difficult to rouse oneself from the torpor born of the warm summer air, the enchantment of the prospects, the still life around one. Here one feels oneself oblivious alike of the past, the present, and what the future may hold in store. All this seems to be swallowed up as in a dream. Luckily my eyes fell upon a Roman inscription just then, when, once more invigorated, I started off to explore the primeval walls, or such very considerable remains of them as still survive, for Ferentino to boast of.
Like so many Latian cities, it had been at first entirely surrounded by these Cyclopean defences. A complete circle still surrounds the Citadel, set on the highest ground. That works of such almost inconceivable age and colossal size should still exist is less wonderful than that they should have been even partially destroyed. p150 Enormous blocks of rock — not merely many-sided stones — have been embedded in the wall, the Pelasgic wall. On these a superstructure of well-chiseled blocks can be traced — those of the Roman period — while at the top of these are mediaeval structures in the so‑called Saracenesca style of architecture. These three periods are exemplified at the Frosinone gate and the Porta Sanguinaria. The very curious Cyclopean wall here has been altered by the Romans, an arched gateway broken through it, and finally it has been topped by some of the worst specimens of mediaeval building. The giant blocks of the lowest ranges rise on each side of the opening to a considerable height, where some enormous many-sided blocks, set fast into the original wall, remain intact.
The old Fortress is well worth exploring, standing in its ring of prehistoric walls, the arx rising above them from its rocky foundations. This was an imposing structure in the Roman period, with its towers and gates still to be traced. It must have been impregnable in those days. Even now it might easily be rendered strong for defence by the expenditure of a little money and thought. It was the palace of the Prefect in the days of the Roman supremacy, and was often attacked and defended. Two towers p151 still remain of what was once a quadrangular Castello, and these are most picturesque.
In all the Latian towns the absence of any convenient site for a cathedral is remarkable. The church seems, as a rule, to have been dropped down, casually, on the hillside. Ferentino is one of the oldest Ecclesiastical Sees in the district. The cathedral was constructed out of the ruins of the Citadel, while the Bishop's palace was built over the Prefecture. When you walk out of the Roman gate the cathedral faces you, the palace standing up beside it proudly, a purely mediaeval group.
The church is small, but finely proportioned, and rich in inscriptions, as well as in fragments of sculptured marble, wonderful in design, dating from the tenth century. Some of these are on the walls, others on the floors of the building.
Besides the cathedral, Ferentino possesses a few other excellent monuments of the best period of mediaeval architecture, and amongst others the church of Sta. Maria Maggiore. Standing below the town on a small piazza, it is the most perfect specimen, in Latium, of the Romano-Gothic style of architecture of the fourteenth-fifteenth centuries. The churches at Fossanovaa are said to resemble it p152 in character, but those I have not seen. Though I myself was chiefly busied with mediaeval Ferentino and its inscriptions, the Roman remains scattered through its precincts are too important and too numerous to be neglected here. Its chief glory is its so‑called "Testament." To see this celebrated monument, I toiled painfully up over rocks and through brambles and vineyards to it. At last I discovered it, a great table, formed out of the living rock, with its long inscription, in excellently carved letters, to the effect that Aulus Quinctilius, Quatuorvir and Aedile, a benefactor to his native town, had bestowed certain lands upon it, for which his citizens held him in grateful remembrance and in testimony of this his statue had been placed in a conspicuous position in the forum of the said town.
When I got back to my inn by the Frosinone gate, fatigued by all these explorations, I found the house in a state of noise and uproar. It appeared that this was the day when the pupils at the Gymnasium were publicly examined; that whole families had come into the town from the Volscian and Latian villages around to take their sons home for the autumn holidays. Fathers, mothers, and children filled every room in this inn, and this p153 ceaseless jubilation was quite deafening. Some were departing, some staying to sup, others settling in for the night. It cost me no little courage to keep to the room so long bespoken, but to sleep was hopeless while the women and girls, servants and children, were in such a vein of talking — almost shrieking in their excitement. No sooner had this tumult subsided a little than resonant voices streamed forth on the cool midnight air. A pilgrimage was passing through the town on its way to some hill shrine. In the silent night their litanies sounded profoundly impressive. I followed them in imagination. No sooner had one invisible choir passed on than the Ora pro nobis of the next smote on the ear, and so it continued all the night long. Though no other music can charm as does this pilgrim chant, I was thankful when the first glimmer of light came to herald the dawn.
The sun had not climbed up above the mountains when I rode away in search of Alatri, filled with new expectations. After traversing many vineyards we emerged upon a wild and rocky district, shaded by giant chestnut-trees and watered by refreshing springs of water. The farther we rode, the wilder grew the country. At length we found ourselves at the foot of a p154 high hill, on which rose up a dark, sad‑looking town, its shattered towers and crumbling walls stretching to the skies. This Fortress stirred my imagination in no small degree. I had gazed at it from Anagni and longed to visit it, not guessing that the road to Alatri led me past it. This, then, was Fumone, the prison of Celestine V, and here he died after being incarcerated here, at the age of eighty‑one, for ten months, on the 19th of May 1296.
Gazing at Fumone, I could imagine that it would be hard to find elsewhere so sad a place of exile. Solitude, however, might have but few terrors for a hermit whose life had been spent in caves and wildernesses; the prisoner, after all, may not have suffered much from it.
To me that Fortress dominating the high-road seemed to offer a perpetual menace to the traveller. As we proceeded on our way, a great mountain hemming us in on either side, a third rose up suddenly, barring our progress in front. This we climbed, and from its summit beheld a panorama of rare beauty. Magnificent mountains, hill and dale, and distant peaks unfolded before our eyes. Little white towns could be discerned gleaming from the recesses of the distant Apennines, round whose peaks gathered silvery clouds and veiling mists. p155 Then we descended to the rich plain of Alatri,b which now became visible for the first time. As I rode in beneath its dark walls the sun shone brightly, the town with all its stately houses and palaces seemed full of life and stir, and its festive look rejoiced me no little. I had not previously seen so important a town in the Latian mountains, nor yet one which was so markedly characterised by its Romano-Gothic architecture.
Woollen goods, carpets, and cloth are manufactured here, as well as all the mantles and black felt hats which are worn in these districts. It is a great place of resort for the Ciociari, or sandal-folk, of the highlands of this district, who all buy their clothes at the shops in Alatri. It was market day, and the squares and thoroughfares were set round with autumn fruits — figs, peaches, apricots, and big pears. A sight to make one's mouth water! The whole place was filled with country people; tall mountaineers with red waistcoats, sandalled feet and tall peaked hats, adorned with a gay bunch of flowers and set jauntily on the head, reminded me that I was now in Horace's Latium Ferox,c whose sturdy peasantry had been able to preserve their individuality all through the Middle Ages.
Ch. 57 The streets are dark and narrow, the houses p156 being built of brown tufa, a few are whitewashed. I was surprised to find so many palatial edifices amongst them. A palace in the Roman provinces only means a house with a portal, however, one especially that has belonged to a patrician family. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries many such families must have lived in Alatri, as these palaces are of that date. They are built, mostly with flat projecting roofs, with façades of well-dressed square blocks of stone, broken by arched Gothic doorways. I counted six of these running along the front of one dark and beautiful palace; above them was a fine cornice, and over it six windows of charming proportions broke the monotony of the long wall. Like the windows in the bell-towers of fourteenth-century churches, these were Romano-Gothic in shape — two round-topped arches united by a slender pillar. Such houses give the town an imposing aspect; they reminded me of those in old Tuscan towns of the republican period, of some, especially, in Siena. The Palazzo Jacovazzi is distinguished from its neighbours by its imposing height, and fine semi-Gothic façade. It is now the property of the town, and is a noble Hôtel de Ville for Alatri.
p157 I had an introduction from Roman friends to a family formerly from its wealth and position most influential in the history of the place. I set forth accordingly to find the Palazzo Grapelli, which amply deserves its palatial name, with its spacious inner court, its grand staircase, and its reception hall, with a private theatre attached to it. Here were suites of rooms with painted ceilings and frescoed walls. A ruined tower rising over the buildings around it, once fortified, showed that this mansion had long been the residence of nobles. Now, however, it was all in a state of dilapidation. The poor remains of furniture had been saved from the relics of ancient grandeur. I was told the its owners had sunk into poverty, like so many old families in Italy. Nevertheless, its youthful offshoots seemed to be in blooming health and spirits. It was a joy to behold such splendid creatures, nourished by the mountain breezes. Those merry girls who shone in this small provincial town, spending all their evenings in dancing or playing games, had no cause to envy the more formal gaieties of the capital.
When I inquired about the ancient monuments of the town my attention was especially called to the church of Sta. Maria Maggiore, and to the Cyclopean walls, for which alone the journey is p158 well worth undertaking. The church is small. It stands on a square surrounded by mediaeval buildings. Two towers had been projected, but only one exists; its fellow had either not ever been finished, or has been destroyed. Its pretty double windows remain, giving it a resemblance to many of the Gothic bell-towers attached to Romanesque churches. The façade of the church is irregular with three portals, a rose window above them which is foreign to the rest of the building, and is filled with painted glass. The cornices, and the ornamentation of the doorways, are of acanthus foliage, the great arch of the central one has retreating pillars. When I entered I was disenchanted. The form is good, and the three great aisles are traversed by a lofty transept, yet the same bad taste which ruins the effect of so many of the Roman churches spoils this also. Imitation marbles in glaring colours disfigure the transept, and the middle aisle is lighted by five windows similar to the one which disfigures the façade. I sought in vain for a good picture. The only bit of antique sculpture which I could find was a font in the shape of a vase supported by caryatides of rude archaic design. I strolled up to see the enormous walls. Alatri, like Ferentino, has once been entirely surrounded by these Cyclopean structures, and here also the p159 tower structures, encircling the town, have been well-nigh destroyed. Only the walls round the Citadel are still standing, and these are without a parallel the most astounding monuments of the past in Latium.
The sight of this marvellous masonry, which equals in size any existing Egyptian building, would amply repay the visitor for the longest and most fatiguing day's journey. The ancient Citadel, or civita — the town par excellence — is set on the highest hill, and the cathedral, here as at Ferentino, has been built up out of its ruins. A wide platform of rock is supported, set round, and concealed, by these Cyclopean walls, which rise up to •from 80 to 100 feet. When I walked round these black, Titanic, piled‑up masses of stone, just in as good preservation now as if years, instead of thousands of years, had passed over them, I was filled with amazement greater than when I first beheld the Colosseum at Rome.
When Caracalla and Constantine built their baths and amphitheatres civilisation had already advanced considerably; mechanical contrivances rendered any exertion of man's personal strength less imperative. Even the wall of Dionysius at Syracuse, the greatest specimens of masonry of that period, failed to impress me as did these Cyclopean walls. Here was a structure, each p160 block of which was not so much a huge hewn stone as a smooth, many-sided rock, irregular and gigantic. We ask ourselves, By what possible mechanical contrivances can these vast masses have been heaved up one on another? failing to realise how men could have possessed the strength to effect this, or yet the skill so to joint each fragment, or block, into its fellow so that there exists no interstice sufficient for the smallest implement to be inserted, or to disturb the perfection of this vast mosaic. Tradition sets back all these Latian buildings to the fabulous times of Saturn. Savants who concern themselves to prove the influence of the Indo-Germanic and Pelasgic races on Italian culture are obliged to confess their total ignorance as to any race of men able to pile up such structures as these. One must suppose that their builders were possessed of considerable material civilisation and some settled political organisation. As their Titanic remains are spread over the whole of Latium, and are not far apart, it would seem as if a number of independent republics must have existed there at some very remote period, but their relations to one another we cannot even guess at. The erection of such immense strongholds might lead us to conclude that they lived in a state of constant warfare with each other, p161 and that theft, the insecurity of life, and their apparent isolation may have led to the erection of such strong defensive works. If we picture to ourselves the workman as in keeping with his work, we might believe in a race of primeval giants, or of the Colossi, with whom all arts and appliances were believed to have originated. Later, the mere strength of men's arms was superseded by mechanical contrivances. But perhaps we dare scarcely relegate these beautiful Cyclopean structures to too remote or dark an era. Might they not, after all, be of a later date than the city of Rome? The architectural step from these many-cornered masses to the wrought limestone blocks of the Etruscans and the Romans is not a very lengthy one after all.
A great gateway, still remaining, gives ingress to the Citadel of ancient Alatri; it is formed of huge piled‑up horizontal blocks. Near another and smaller entrance‑way are three niches facing the south, which we conjecture to have once held statues of the gods. Some enormous remains in the centre of the arx are supposed to have supported the municipal altar, on which sacrifices were offered up on festal days.
Up to the year 1846 half of these high walls was buried beneath rubbish and vegetation, and p162 there was no path by which to reach the arx. Pope Gregory XVI then purposed to visit the town, and the townsfolk resolved to clear away the earth and expose to view these incomparable relics of their remote past. In ten days' time, two thousand men had cleared away all that concealed their Acropolis, had made a good road round it, and christened it the Via Gregoriana. The great gateway was disinterred, the path up to it cleared, and the great platform protected by a wall, which now shows above its Cyclopean neighbour. The cathedral is the only building at present occupying that platform. It commands a splendid view of the mountains, a view of such enchanting beauty and extent that I cannot attempt to describe it, or even to trace the ranges of summits standing all around it, wrapped in the blue and sunny air, paradisiacal meadows stretching out at their feet. The sense of sublimity it inspires is enhanced by the utter silence — that of the desert itself — which pervades this strange and enigmatic spot, with its relics of so remote a civilisation.
Of the small cathedral set at one side of this great square, I will only say that it possesses a fantastic bell-tower, and an eighteenth-century façade, with a wide flight of steps leading up to its portal. As it befalls in even the remote towns p163 of Latium, it has been barbarously modernised. The mistaken vanity of either priests or municipalities has left not a trace of the old church visible. Just as modern fashions supersede the national hereditary dress of the peasants, so these venerable buildings are being tricked out in new and tasteless façades, and gaudy, childish pictures, modern Rome competing with them in her utter lack of taste. These churches are as barbarous as those of Sicily.
Alatri captivated me more and more. Its comfortable aspect, and the finely cultivated gardens around it, the stir of business, here prove how well off its inhabitants are. If the quality of their bread and wine may be taken as a test of other things, we may conclude that its citizens do not want for any of the comforts of modern life.
I do not recollect being solicited by any beggars in Alatri, whereas in the Sabine and Alban hills they pursued me in shoals. The very prisoners beg out of the barred windows of their cells. This curious spectacle may be seen in almost all the towns of Romagna. Our more strenuous prison discipline cuts off the malefactor as much as possible from his fellow‑men, by confining him, like some plague-stricken wretch, within four walls; but a larger tolerance in the p164 south gives him a wider range. I have often heard prisoners singing gaily behind the gratings of their cells — singing ritornelli which were responded to from the street; talking — relating long histories to friends outside in a patois not to be comprehended by strangers. Begging from the jail window is quite an established custom — the offender may be shut up for some trifling peccadillo — a long reed to which is attached a linen bag is dangled from a cord; two or three of these reeds will be vibrating at the same time out of the windows, while their owners sit calmly within, making casts, and waiting for what fish they may manage to catch. So the little empty bags dance about — then some one crosses over, sees one dangling under his nose, hears a beseeching voice calling to him for the love of Madonna Maria to drop a coin into it; yet the captive is quite content if he gets a cigar, which he proceeds to smoke with great gusto behind his grating. If he collects two bajocchi, he orders wine to be fetched, or some toothsome morsel to supplement the prison fare. This classical style of begging always afforded me much amusement; it brought Belisarius to mind, begging from his tower from all the passers‑by. We learn, at all events, from that old fable, that tolerance is so old a weakness that very probably just such p165 fishing-rods may have been seen dangling out of the prison gratings in the days of the old Romans.
I broke away from Alatri in order to visit the grotto of Collepardo, having been told so much about its beauty; the path leading to it, I found, began just behind the town, and ascended thence into the mountain. A few miles being traversed, the country changed its aspect, agriculture ceased, the bare red rocks over which we climbed stretched out on every side of us, and presently I found myself in the solitudes of the higher mountains.
As I quitted Alatri, a charcoal-burner from the little village of Collepardo had just laid down his load there. Meeting him by accident as he returned home, he acted as my guide. While I listened gladly to this fellow's good-natured chat, his patois was not always easy to understand. The people in his native village had, he said, enough to eat, though they were very poor.
The masses of rock grew more and more rugged, the valleys wilder and more romantic, as we ascended. Presently we came upon the river Cosa rushing down, green as the Inn in the Engadine, out of the recesses of the mountains, and gleaming with silver trout. This artery creates a narrow strip of verdure and arable land as it hastes onward from its native p166 wilds to join the Sano, which, again, a little lower down, falls into the Liris. High up on the mountain where a rocky cliff falls down from its summit, the Cosa plunges into a narrow gorge, and here is Collepardo. No sadder spot can one picture to oneself: one row of little houses built of limestone, an odd‑looking church, a dark shattered wall round about them, attesting that not even this poverty-stricken little village had been safe from predatory foes in days of old. A few gardens, vines, and olives are visible, but these and the little platform on which they stand are all that is visible to break the monotony of the rocks scattered all around.
My brave charcoal-burner asked me to come into his house when I alighted. I gladly accepted his hospitality, being in a little difficulty as to how I might get housed. I had arranged myself as well as I could in his tiny room for the hottest hours of midday, when my most sanguine hopes were realised by the arrival of a party from Velletri, on the same quest — i.e. the grotto — and so it became possible for me to see this marvellous natural phenomenon by torchlight.
Ch. 58 The cavern lies deep down below the village. A wall of rock descends to it, and through a rift in this the waters of the Cosa pour down. We rode by its banks for a short way, sheltered p167 from the sun by chestnut woods; towering precipices rose on either side of us; the weather-worn mass of the Marginato Mountain, far up in the clouds to the left, flung its dark shadow on the turbulent river, which foamed and fretted round the rocks impeding its course, far below us. Presently we saw a good-sized opening to the right, grown over with brushwood, and within its jaws we found the grotto.
A black abyss yawned before us, dark rugged rocks hemming it in; a cold current of air rose from it and warned us to wrap up carefully before we plunged into its depths. Guides with torches had gone on ahead, and light wreaths of smoke issuing from the fissures in the rocks showed their whereabouts. Now, I have beheld many caverns, in many lands, and I must confess to being by no means susceptible to their charms, hence I promised myself but little from this one beneath poor little Collepardo. But its vastness took me utterly by surprise. Two gigantic halls came first, divided by a low jagged partition, their walls of a dull, brownish-yellow tint — great blocks strewed the floor, and these we had to climb over occasionally. Stalactites depend from the roof, and rise up from below, into the most fantastic groups and formations. In the far depths of the second hall lurk strange and weird-looking p168 objects. We waited in the first chamber whilst our guides were lighting up the inner ones. They had piled up tow at intervals, setting fire to it, whilst torches were stuck against the walls in every coign of vantage. When all were set alight the effect was magical. An ancient Egyptian temple with enormous columns and spectral stone figures of gods and sphinxes appeared to confront us in perspective. Then we seemed to be wandering in a tropical forest, palms and other great growths in stone stretching out around us. We could imagine corselets, coats of mail, swords, lances, depending from the walls, the flickering lights giving life and reality to them. Clouds of smoke shrouded them like cloaks at times, then solitary forms would stand out clearly in the torchlight. Bats, owls, and creatures which love the gloom flung themselves out into the air wildly. It is impossible to depict the scene or describe this grotto. We must each picture it by the light of our own imagination, and people it with our own pet phantasms. Certain groups of stalactites have special names — the "Roman Trophy" among the rest. The grotto extends for miles beneath the mountain, but so far it has not been possible to explore its many chambers thoroughly, or disclose all their wonders.
There are many other caverns in this region, p169 which may probably have sheltered hermits in past generations. So recently as in 1838 an Anchorite lived in one near Collepardo. A young Frenchman, named Stephen Gautier, appeared there in the September of that year, alleging that he had had a call to this wilderness, where he proposed to live the life of a Solitary. Accordingly he established himself in a cave, and began his life of prayer and penitence. Meat and drink were brought to him, and he was seen at Collepardo, at Veroli, and at the Carthusian Monastery of Trisulti, where he mixed with the monks and attended their services. His life was that of a saint, pure and blameless. He had lived there for two years, when soldiers were seen one day surrounding the cave; they seized him and bore him off to prison, no one could tell why, and no one was ever able to discover what his fate had been. All that was known was that he had fallen into the hands of the French Police for some crime which he had committed. Rumour said this offence had been an attempt on the life of Louis Philippe.
Nature has concentrated much that is remarkable around Collepardo. A short distance from these stalactite caverns, and close to the road leading to the Carthusian Monastery, lies that most celebrated Italian Well, the Pozzo di p170 Santulla. I wished to reach Trisulti in good time to bespeak the friendly hospitality of the monks; but after riding for half-an‑hour through gardens, and over a high-lying rocky plateau, I paused, finding myself suddenly on the brink of a circular hole, which reminded me strongly of the great Latomiae in Syracuse.d
Here sinks down, to the depth of •150 feet, this puzzling Well, about 1500 paces in circumference; below, in its depths, is a dark green forest, its tree-tops waving and trembling in a little breeze rising from below, and softly undulating like the waves of a verdant sea. Shafts of sunlight poured down out of the clearest of skies into those depths, in which I could see white butterflies hovering over the sunken forest far below. The bright flowers of creeping plants hung from the trees, some climbing •30 feet to fling themselves round branches and stems which looked like small twigs from above. These inaccessible flowers, with their snake-like arms, seen in the gloom of twilight, the fluttering of the wings of creatures living in that pit, seized on the imagination. This, in truth, is Paradise of the Fairy Folk, a garden of delight for Oberon and Titania. Springs with unseen sources richly fertilise the green plants and shrubs, and draw down the dwells of heaven to them.
p171 The eye dwells delightedly on the precipitous walls of this lower world; the rocks, standing out from the masses out of yellow broom and mastic clothing them, take such strange, weird forms, while all are wrapped in an iridescent atmosphere, by turns silver grey, bright red, dark blue, yellow, and black. Collepardo peeps out brown from the green foliage. An amphitheatre of mountain peaks surrounds it, valleys descend from those lonely peaks, the home of the golden eagle, now half visible as they break forth from a veil of cloud.
Wild-looking shepherds lay encamped round the brink of the Santulla — sandalled folk from the hills, with long poles, like lances, grasped in their hands. Sturdy boys were amusing themselves by rolling stones down into the hollow below, when they crashed into the woods with a hollow reverberation which startled the grey doves, sitting on their nests in the tree-tops, and made them circle around in alarm. The herdsmen would have had us believe that a tiger was prowling about in the mysterious depths below us. They told me that goats are sometimes let down by ropes on to the verdant flooring of this Well, that finding plenty of food and water there they grow fat and flourishing, to be drawn up again after a month or so of good pasturage.
p172 Place this Pozzo in Scotland or in Germany and we should find it peopled, by the imagination of the people, with fabulous beings; but the Italian has little taste, as a rule, for legendary or spiritual lore. The clearness of his atmosphere leaves him little illusion as to natural objects. The story of the origin of this Well, as told me by a herdsman, is characteristic of their land. The Pozzo, he said, was once upon a time a round threshing-floor. Once, although it was the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, the folks dared to assemble on it to thresh out their corn. The Madonna was angry at this outrage upon her, and she suddenly caused the floor, and all the people on it, to sink down into the earth, and so this great hole was made. He may have been right, for there are no traces of volcanic action about it. It might, indeed, have once been a cave, the top of which had fallen in.
Reluctantly did I tear myself away from this extraordinary spot — this vision, as it must appear to be when the moon sails up and shines over the great wilderness, her pale rays flooding the walls of this huge Well and falling on the ghostly forest in its depths.
Presently he pointed to a belt of oak‑wood — there, he said, lay Trisulti, a wonder of cultivation. Finer, wilder mountain scenery than that through which we now rode by the river I cannot recall. We saw the Cosa foaming in the depths far down, its hoarse roar rising up from below. We gazed up at the peaks of the Monna, chief summit of all those that encircled us, deifying the heavens, high above our heads. Half-an‑hour's arduous descent landed us by the brink of the river. Here it fell over in a white cataract, thundering into an abyss in the ravine. The sun now sank behind the mountains, leaving a few peaks still tipped with gold. When we turned to retrace our route, coming out on the broad flank of the mountain, I saw three soldiers following us, and not far off either. Were they banditti? The infamous Gasparone no longer gained his living by plundering travellers in these hills, where you may read the names of bandits, and see their graves, dug by their comrades' daggers. These three were soldiers from Alatri, so my companion said, going to visit the Monastery — for it appears that this rich Carthusian brotherhood is obliged to give hospitality for three days, free of charge, to all who claim it. "If an army should arrive they p174 dare not bar their gates against it." The party we had met at the grotto had spent the previous night at the Monastery, and here were these half-famished soldiers treading on our heels, we who were feasting in imagination on the Convent fare. Such being my intuition, and being also conscious of a most inconvenient hunger just then, I indulged in a certain amount of solicitude. "Francesco, come along!" said I; "let us double our pace, lest those soldiers should devour everything before we get there, in which case the monks may cut up pretty rough when we knock and ask for meat and drink and lodging."
When I reached the knoll on which the Chartreuse stands, on a fine declivity of the mountain, it was still inexorable, shrouded in that beautiful grove of oak trees. Riding through this wood, I saw in the distance two of the brethren pacing up and down, in their white gowns, I felt almost envious of those holy men, walking beneath the shade of majestic trees in the cool of the evening, and enjoying philosophical discourse. If there is one spot more than another which ought to encourage high and solemn converse, and fill the mind with devotion, it is surely this — one of the most sublime solitudes which it has ever been my lot to behold. The light evening breeze stirred the tops p175 of those great trees, so umbrageous still, in their venerable antiquity. The cloister bell resounded through the sacred grove, and filled it with the very spirit of the Middle Ages, stirring my mind and feelings profoundly.
I drew near to one of the monks, said I was a traveller, and begged for a night's hospitality. This stately, well‑fed brother piloted me himself to the guardian of the Monastery, to whom I had to report myself. Then another stretch of wood revealed the Chartreuse. To find oneself suddenly in an oasis — a spot given up to the highest cultivation — was indeed delightful, after a long and toilsome ascent over those rocks which I had climbed so painfully. This little kingdom of heaven, this Eden of pious brethren, looked forth front surrounding verdure, fantastic, mysterious, wonderful to behold, at this great elevation. It is not one building, but a collection of the most charming chapels, churches, quadrangles, dwelling-rooms of every kind, in livable condition, where all bespeaks peace and happiness and wealth; embosomed in old trees, little goats and sheep lying around, monks, servants at work, a cheerful concourse of men, all of them fed by this Convent.
The guardian, a tall, grave-looking man with a long flowing beard, met me kindly at the gate p176 of the vestibule, showing me where I might find the Superior, who would give orders for my entertainment. I was ushered into a large inner quadrangle, conventual buildings and the church surrounding it, all kept with scrupulous cleanliness. These buildings show no trace of age, having been restored in the style-de‑luxe of the eighteenth century. Within runs a long, airy corridor, the monks' cells opening from it on each side.
I found the Superior in a spacious room, seated at his writing-table, and giving an ear to many servitors, who apparently were bringing reports to him. He heard my request, and very kindly acceded to it without asking what my nationality or creed might be. One glance, indeed, is sufficient to betray to an experienced ecclesiastic whether his guest is a Catholic or a Protestant. Having been placed in charge of a lay brother I took my leave, and was conducted to the Foresteria, or guest chambers reserved for casual visitors in such large monastic establishments. These rooms are of two grades. For those of rank (the Foresteria nobile) apartments dei Signori are set apart; for those appraised as of lesser value more modest quarters are reserved; while the poor, those on the lowest round of the social ladder, are relegated to the servitors' p177 quarters, some even to the stables, where the humble pilgrim may at least stretch his limbs on straw. I was given a good room near the dining-hall set apart for strangers. A fresh-looking bed with clean sheets seemed to promise good repose, while the waiter, a brisk young fellow accustomed to wait on travellers in the hotels of the large towns, and who was engaged now to attend to the guests at the Monastery, comforted me with a promise of supper, saying that he would serve me with it when the regulation hour came; until then I might amuse myself by inspecting the various conventual buildings attached to the Chartreuse, quite sans gêne.
Ch. 59 The lay brother then showed me round, explaining everything. There are very few buildings of note or interest; the more ancient portion of the Monastery has ceased to exist, and there was little to gratify my curiosity. Its position, the mode of life of the monks in this isolated little republic of theirs, the history of the curious monastic Order to which they belong, gave me, however, ample scope for inquiry and observation.
About the end of the eleventh century, Bruno, a monk of the date of the Crusades, framed the rules of the Carthusian Order — an Order which comprises the rules of both the Monk and p178 the Anchorite, and inflicts on its followers the utmost rigour of self-renunciation. It takes its name from the famous Chartreuse, or Carthusian Monastery, near Grenoble, where the brotherhood was first established. Its statutes (Consuetudines Carthusianae) date from the year 1134, and were ratified by the Pope in 1170. The Carthusians spread rapidly and in many lands. This community at Trisulti was installed in the year 1208, Pope Innocent III having given them a grant of lands and a Convent which had originally belonged to the Benedictines, but had been destroyed. In 1211 the Carthusians rebuilt the Monastery out of the ruins of the former buildings. The castle of Trisulti is said to have given its name to the whole district, that name originating in the Tribus Saltibus, or three wooded summits of the mountain.
Although vowed to poverty, these brethren of Trisulti have come into the possession of great landed estates in the province of Frosinone, as it is now called. Their Chartreuse cannot vie with that of Pavia in the beauty of its architecture or its artistic decorative work; but it has, on the contrary, quite a rural character. No such apartments exist here as are to be found in the Chartreuse at Rome, built by Michael Angelo into the ruins of the baths of Diocletian, p179 and thus of comparatively recent construction — of the sixteenth century.2
Our ancient and respectable Trisulti Chartreuse is the acknowledged mother of the Roman one.
The small church, built by Innocent III in 1211, was restored in 1768, when it was decorated with gay marbles and many paintings. The one over the portal represents the founding of the Abbey by Innocent, and his gift of it to the Carthusians. In the interior are the martyrdoms of the Maccabees, and similar scenes during the persecution of the Carthusians in England under Henry VIII. In the choir, which is splendidly decorated, there is a picture of Moses striking the rock, and facing it a representing of Bruno performing a similar refreshing miracle in later times.
The refectory, a spacious room, is suitably adorned with a picture of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Here the brethren assemble to dine together on festa days. At other times their rule obliges them to eat alone, each in his cell. I was shown the neat kitchens and bakehouse, where excellent bread of two different qualities is prepared in great quantities. A cistern, from which a canal has been made, p180 supplies a mill in one of the inner courts. The dispensary, however, which they showed me with pride, is the department best worth seeing. I regarded it with greater respect than the church itself inspired. It is the ancient and natural mission of these monks, living in remote districts, to unite the healing of their bodies with care for the souls of their dependants. The brethren who devote themselves to the study of medicine work here with a zeal and energy which are far‑reaching and truly admirable. The natural products of the mountains, the healing plants which grow so abundantly here, invite them to the study of botany, and what pleasanter occupation can there be to botanise by rock and stream, to gather and prepare the wonder-working and fragrant plants and herbs of these mountains?
A handsome monk, with a long reddish beard, who might have sat for the portrait of a magician in the Dark Ages, received me in this most clean temple of Aesculapius, which is within the Convent walls, and not very far from the entrance gate. An open gallery looks out on a botanic garden most refreshing to every sense, so full is it of all kinds of well-tended plants and trees, amongst which gay garden flowers are not wanting. The terrace is decked with flowering shrubs in great vases. A glass door opens into an amply p181 supplied apothecary's shop. The learned monk displayed to me his treasures in flasks and gallipots with a kindly zeal which made me regret I could not give him more intelligent professional sympathy. Meantime country folk were coming in to beg for medicines, all of which are given gratuitously. The drugs of Trisulti are famed far and wide in these mountains, and reverenced for their good qualities. Their benefits are felt even in the fever-stricken Campagna. If the district around makes ample use of the medicaments in this shop, the men themselves seem to have little need of them. I cannot remember to have elsewhere seen such powerful-looking monks. Repose, a rigorously temperate diet, but, above all, the splendid mountain air, keep them in health, and their days and nights, broken as they are by constant prayer and church ordinances, leave them free from spiritual conflicts or strivings. The Convent possesses a small library. There are some monks who devote themselves to study, but, as a rule, they do not abound in these mountains. I felt sure of it, from the evident embarrassment of the librarian when I put a few questions to him as we paced up and down in the great quadrangle. The worthy man appeared in such perplexity that it seemed best not to continue the conversation; so I took p182 leave of him, and seated myself in one of the courts, where I could see the brethren wandering about. They looked stately in their snow-white gowns, and I was glad to see that they did not wear long hair or beards. Twice in the month a barber comes to shave their heads, all but a rim of hair which is always left, and is called the corona. Only the lay brothers wear beards, like the Capuchins. There are as many grades amongst these Carthusians as there were in the mystical sect of the Pythagoreans of old.
I did not see those of the highest grade, who live shut up in their cells. The silence in which they shroud themselves must be regarded as the greatest penance which the fanatic can inflict upon himself. When they cast from them the Word, the key to life and all its objects, they place their souls under the ban of a frightful spiritual silence which resembles blindness. A Memento mori, the horrible greeting which they give to one another when they meet, are the only words by which that silence is ever broken.
They say that these wandering spectres of living men are permitted to keep some one object of love in their cells. One cultivates a flower in a broken pot, with which he can hold silent converse; another may feast his eyes on a favourite picture of some saint; p183 or he may tend a bird in a cage and listen to its song, if, indeed, a bird ever ventures to sing in such ghostly cells. Sometimes they break the ban — human nature is too strong for them — and end their most devoted, self-abnegating lives. The dumb man begins to speak, and then he is publicly scourged with whips. It may be that here, in these great silent mountains, where the voice of God alone is heard in the rushing of the river, the rustling leaves of the forest, the thunder when the storm-clouds come rolling over their summits, the penance of silence is more endurable than elsewhere. And what dark and sinful souls may not this discipline, the communion with nature, the life in the cell, the rules of the cloister, educate? If we could but penetrate the secrets of some souls, we might become acquainted with the strangest things.
I was roused from such reflections by a welcome summons to the evening meal. My brisk attendant informed me that it was served, and my appetite was quite as great as my curiosity. No animal food is eaten by this community, and the guest must follow the rules of the Convent. Oil and vinegar are the only superfluities he is indulged with. Now my supper consisted of the following comestibles: macaroni soaked in oil, and sprinkled excellently p184 with mountain herbs instead of grated cheese; cold green beans, in oil and vinegar; a flask of wine, exactly like vinegar; and then, for second course, a section of a tart baked in oil. Though anxious to do honour to my hosts' hospitality, I could eat but little of these viands; I contented myself with macaroni and the excellent bread, and departed, satisfied, to find out how my man of the Campagna had fared. He said they had given him a loaf and a cold fish.
The night had closed in, and the full moon, riding high in the deep blue sky, lighted up the vast amphitheatre of mountains all around. The trees were bathed in her beams, the rocks in deep shadow; the valleys glimmered through the mist; an awe‑inspiring silence was over all, only broken by the melancholy cry of the upupu — the great owl of the mountains — and the hollow roaring of the Cosa: it was a scene of enchantment.
I was awakened at midnight by the bell of the tower ringing Matins. Then I knew that the Excitator would go from cell to cell to wake the monks. First, they must recite the four penitential psalms, and then they betake themselves to the church, where they continue to pray for the space of three hours. They return to pray again in their cells for a space, and afterwards a short time is ordained for p185 sleep. So it is, night after night. I listened to the clangour of the bell — it seemed to ring with a strange and ghostly sound — and I would gladly have gone into the church also, but that I feared I might disturb the devotions of the holy men. I slept, lulled by the echoes of their distant chanting, and when the sky was grey with the coming dawn my trusty guide knocked at my door to wake me up for our ride to Veroli.
I left the Monastery without being able to render my thanks to the Superior, for not a soul was stirring except the porter and the waiter, who had excused himself the night before for his inability to bring me a cup of coffee before I set forth — but no breakfast was procurable before the hour ordained for it by the rules of the Convent, he said. This, I confess, was a trial to me — your man of letters is seldom at his best in the early morning hours. However, Francesco comforted me by producing a piece of bread which he had taken for his own consumption, and we found a thicket of the most delicious blackberries in hospitable proximity to the Monastery.
The morning was of exceeding beauty, and in these Alpine regions the view, with the ever-changing lights and shades flitting over the mountains, is most revivifying. For an hour p186 we followed the course of the Cosa, which has here furrowed a bed for itself through deep abysses; then the path descended to long and laughing meadows, where the flocks and herds of the Monastery pasture. All the country hereabouts is in their patrimony, and their horses graze in company with occasional herds of goats. The goatherds' families were camped round a fire, turning sour milk into cheese. The solitude was broken occasionally by little farmsteads. The Monastery possesses a great number of these; I discovered them in green valleys and by fresh mountain streams, so charmingly situated that I thought the people were happy who could spend their days in them in peace and quietness. These people all looked well fed, and no one begged from me.
After long hours we reached — leaving the mountains behind us — the fruitful Campagna of Veroli, and I saw this large place before me, perched on a most remarkable hill.e It commands a sublime amphitheatre, reaching as far as the kingdom of Naples, over Latium, and everywhere, on the purple hills, gleamed white castles and towns, far away and close at hand.
Veroli is a bishop's See, and possesses considerable activities, supplying the country around with cloth of a much prized kind woven in p187 coloured stripes — the Ciociari deal in it extensively. Its streets are narrow and tortuous, many parts of the town absolutely labyrinthine, and full of odd little houses, most of which are built with open galleries. The piazzas were decked out with summer fruits, the cheapness of which was not surprising. At this season the large water-melons are the principal things brought to market, and most excellent they are. A retired soldier, a Napoleonic veteran, who heard that we had come from the Certosa, came over to me in the café, and broke out into a rapturous eulogy of the paradisiacal life the monks lead there in their cloistered solitude. It was the wish of his heart to be received there in his old age, he said, as a lay brother. He could at once become a pensioner of the Monastery if he only had the sum requisite to qualify him for it, to place in their coffers. Then the talk took its usual turn. He objurgated the Papal regiment, heaping on them the invectives which we hear every day and out of every mouth. This worthy veteran had excited my curiosity, and I resolved to see the large landed estate of the Carthusians near Veroli. As I was pressed for time I made up my mind to give up seeing Frosinone, though now so close to it, and to ride back to Ferentino over this farm belonging to the monks.
p188 I left Veroli in the middle of a magnificent thunderstorm. The Volscian Mountains and the Apennines were shrouded in the dusky blue, fleeting sunbeams came wandering with magic effect over them, bringing out this or that mountain, or convent, or castle, in the brightest reflected light. I hastened, as the rain had already caught me up, through a fertile flat country, through vineyards and orchards, and soon found myself at the Carthusian homestead. It was one any Roman prince might have been proud to own. The buildings are important-looking and admirably kept. They unite the conventual with the castellated style of architecture. Here also the Carthusian rule is carried into effect; any traveller who may knock at the gate is supplied with meat and drink, and, if needful, lodging also. I required neither one nor the other, but I begged to be allowed to see the establishment. The inspector, a robust-looking lay brother, with a white cowl and a long beard, gave me permission to do so, and took me round himself. In the Fatherland I was wont to think of a superintendent, or farm bailiff, as a pretty hard individual, in high boots and spurs, a riding whip in his hand, and an oath in his mouth. This farm manager in the guise of a monk, with all the mien and manners of a modern saint, seemed to be a curious anachronism.
p189 He took me first of all to the church, which is in the strangers' wing of the building. No sooner were we in the chapel than my conductor found out that he had got a heretic in his charge. He flung himself on his knees, and, heaving a deep sigh, he tried to benefit my poor soul by offering up a prayer for its eternal welfare and redemption.
The estate, the Ticchiena, is one of the richest in the Campagna. A thousand men, able-bodied and hard-working, belong to it and give a tenth of their profits, that is to say of their labour and the fruits of it, to the Carthusians. Six lay brothers live here and superintend the work — or farm it out. Corn, wine, oil, fruit are gathered in, in abundance. The produce answers the objects of the Convent, the first of which is good works. This Monastery of Trisulti is famed far and wide; I was told that during several years of scarcity the Campagna was supplied by its monks with the means of life. I certosini hanno governato la Campagna per moltissimo tempo. These words of praise I have heard in many places, and so with them I will close these pages with all the gratitude that beseems their guest.
1 Written in 1858. (Translator's note.)
2 Now turned into a splendid National Museum. (Translator's note.)
a Here Gregorovius has, in the German edition online, "and Casamari". In ch. 68, however (Roberts, chapter 4), he does visit that town and see those churches, and thus clearly edited the text of this earlier chapter. This passage is thus yet another indication that some of the discrepancies between this English translation and the German text online are due to differing editions.
e Veroli is nicely covered on Roberto Piperno's Gregorovius site, in interesting text illustrated with 21 photographs, including some wonderful landscape and a nice detail of the famous Roman calendar inscription known as the Fasti Verulani.
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