Chapter VIII. Naples — Sorrento.

From: The Life and Letters of Christopher Pearse Cranch (1917)
Author: Leonora Cranch Scott
Published: Houghton Mifflin Company 1917 Boston


FROM Mr. Cranch’s Journal:—

  On April 12, 1848, we set out on our journey, travelling by vettura, . . . and on the morning of the fourth day we arrived in Naples. We took rooms at 28 Santa Lucia, overlooking the sea. The whole Bay and Vesuvius hung like a great picture, always before us. The mountain was as quiet as a sleeping child; a light, slow-moving wreath of white smoke hardly distinguishable from a cloud, issued from the cone and crawled along the top of the mountain. In the evening I looked for some fiery light about the top, but there was only one dull red spot, probably from the lava, like the red half-opened eye of a lion in the dark. Nothing could exceed the beauty, for form and color, of the whole mountain coast; and the Island of Capri in the south, bathed in the rosiest sunset light; the shores on the coast all studded with white towns and scattered houses.

  April 18. Last night I ascended Vesuvius with two or three companions. We started between ten and eleven in a comfortable carriage with three horses, which took us through Portici and Resina up as far as the Hermitage. It was a glorious, cloudless, full moonlight. At the Hermitage we had a fire made; for we were chilled through. And with bread, cheese, salame and cigars, and above all some bottles of white Lagrima Cristi, we all grew very merry and sang “Suona la tromba” and the “Marseillaise” with great effect.

  As soon as it was daylight we commenced the ascent, all the way on foot from the Hermitage. We were helped up the toilsome ascent of the cone by the guides. I was up before any of the others, and in full time to see the reddening of the east and the sunrise. What a wild, bleak mountain solitude was spread around us! In the distance the eye took in the great panorama of hills and valleys and sea coast and sea, and fruitful plains and smiling villages, dotting with white the vast green expanse around, over which the thinnest white veil of morning mist was lingering, making it seem like a vast ethereal lake.

  But it was the scene immediately beneath and around us, that attracted and absorbed us most.

  Here we were walking over the hot heaps of broken scoria and lava, occasionally crossing crevices and great gaping seams where the red fire skulked, and into which we poked our sticks and drew them out blazing. Fragments of the volcanic deposit of all colors, sulphur, copper, iron and what not, lay all around. Sometimes we would step on a bed of lava, quite hard, but which seemed to have suddenly congealed in its quiet motion, before it had time to wrinkle into the fantastic forms which distinguish such large quantities of the lava. Mr. D. and I ascended, unhelped of guides, the upper cone,—and leaned over the very brink, where the mephitic smoke and exhalations steamed up in our faces, almost taking away our breath. It was unusually quiet. But there came one gush of smoke which warned us to back out and descend from this foul mouth of the Inferno.

  It was comfortable to warm ourselves, chilled by the cold mountain wind, in this black old sulphur-kitchen of Satan. I felt corporeally as a sinner might be expected to feel spiritually, attracted and made easy within, as I lingered in the precincts of this Hell.

  Sudden and swift was our descent, with gravel and stones rolling down with us and filling our shoes,—swift as our ascent was painful and slow. From the valley at the bottom of the great cone, how desolate and grand towered up the bare cliffs on the right! It was like the Valley of Diamonds in Sindbad the Sailor.

  April 21. Surely it is some visionary realm that stretches off yonder over the sea! A long dark cloud hangs over Vesuvius and reaches to the mountains of the coast. But the moon has struggled through, rising and treading down the black bars of her cloud-prison, and flinging wide open her dungeon doors, floods the sky with soft dreamy light, and paves a long pathway on the waves. A single fisher’s boat, lit by red torchlight, dances across the bright spangles of the water. Nothing is heard of all the noises, that in the bright day come up from the Chiaja,—only the dash of the waves rejoicing in the moonbeams.

  . . . An American frigate, the United States, has been lying for some time at anchor in the bay. Yesterday she sailed for Messina.

  I went aboard of her, and was struck with the faultless finish and completeness of all her parts. . . . The officers were very gentlemanly and obliging. We sat and took wine and talked politics with them. After which we sat some time in the old Commodore’s room. He is a true type of an American commander. Speaking of the state of Europe, this hard, practical, shrewd old gentleman said, that no one would ever have predicted the Viennese Revolution: that the heart of Austria was the very last place to look for such an event. I thought how Emerson would have seized upon this expression of opinion from such a man. For what things can we put faith in when the belief of such a shrewd and old-fashioned practitioner is swept away by such an event? The subtle, undermining spirit is never extinct; and let no man think the wit of the universe can be stifled, any more than the fire of a volcano. We all live on a centre crust of the world. Within, underneath our feet lies the limitless realm of the, as yet, impossible beliefs and facts. . . .

  Along the Riviera di Chiaja, a beautiful broad, clean street lying on the bay, are some of the finest houses! Passing these you come to the Villa Reale, a pleasant green promenade decorated with some good statues, copies in marble from the antique. Outside the left-hand wall of the garden lies the beach, with picturesque fishermen in their boats, and the waves- breaking upon the sand. And over the sea you look off to Capri, remarkable for the beauty of its outlines, and at sunset its magic colors. In the distance the prettiest sails are skimming always over the waters. Nothing can exceed the beauty of the color on the sea, the most delicate emerald green alternating with purple, the latter being caused by the shadows of the silver clouds. In America they would say if these colors were painted,—“It is not natural,” as Europeans would say of our autumnal tints.

  April 19. To-day we have seen Pompeii; and it has fully equalled if not surpassed, my anticipations. Dickens speaks of this “city disinterred” as solemn and gloomy. To me it seemed cheerful and bright. It was the loveliest of spring days. And all through the deserted streets and ruined houses and temples breathed the sweet breath of spring flowers, and all around in the distance slept the dreamy mountains. Then all was so secluded and still; no fashionable loungers, no curious tourists, no squalid beggars to mar the wholeness of the impression. It is a place for a poet to dream in days and days. The houses, though all open to the day, seemed sacred and inviolate. The graceful paintings on the walls of the chambers, the beautiful mosaic floors and fountains, the statues and bas-reliefs seemed so fresh and unhackneyed, as if waiting for us alone to see them.

  How beautiful and unbroken and unscathed by the fiery cinders which once overwhelmed them and hid them for centuries, stood these fresh tiles and shining marbles and warm frescoes! Here are the dreams of the architect, the poet, the painter, the sculptor, vivid, as of old. . . . As we passed along the narrow streets, marked with the ancient ruts of their chariot-wheels, and peeped among the ruined walls, I could almost fancy that some classically draped figure would steal by; some garlanded priest with hoary beard, some centurion with shining armor and crisp black locks underneath his proud helmet; some Grecian-looking maiden, bearing an antique water-vase on her head. It was hardly conceivable that all was so old. We seemed to be transported far back into those antique times. And who could look up to that mountain now so quiet and grave, with its smoke scarcely perceptible floating up in that bluest and serenest sky, and around on the smiling gardens and vineyards at its feet, and realize that there was the unquenchable fountain of fire and desolation which deluged all this vast space! And this was Pompeii! And yet we see one quarter of the buried city. Underneath these hills and vineyards sleep, and for so many centuries have slept, more beauty and splendor, more rare and curious works of art, than have yet been excavated. Lovely yet fearful site for a city,—girt by the mountains and the sea; but brooding and gloating over it the fiery eyes of Vesuvius. On one side smiled on by voluptuous love, and on the other scowled on by the deadly frowns of rage and treacherous hate. Singular has been the fascination and terrible the destiny of these cities and villages which have flocked around the fires of the destroying mountain: like moths around a lamp they have come and been consumed, one after another. And still they sit there under the spell of the evil genius, daring the fate of their sisters of old.

  One of the most remarkable things about Pompeii is the perfect freshness and stainlessness of everything excavated. The whole city seems to have been embalmed, 88 if the flowers and shrubs which grow in and over the walls had done their part in preserving it sweet and clean. There is nothing of the damp and mouldy smell which lurks about the ruins of Rome. The lava and ashes and scoria of the mountain have kept all dry and uncorrupted. This seems to take away half the sense of desolation, since we are assured that still underneath this light soil all the rest of the unsunned treasures lie so well preserved.

  Naples did not impress me as a moral city. Nor was there any reason why it should. From the King down to the lazzaroni it seemed to be all the same. I never could go into a crowd without losing a pocket handkerchief. The only time I ever saw “Bomba,” the unpopular Bourbon King, was one day as I was passing the royal palace. A curious but unapplauding crowd was gathered around the gates; and a stout gentleman puffing at a cigar came out, unattended, and got into a gig to take a drive. “Who is it”? I asked a bystander. It was curious to see his look and the shrug of his shoulders, as he answered, “Il Re”!

Margaret Fuller to Mrs. Cranch

Rome, 14th May, 1848.
  I received your note some three weeks since, and was rejoiced to find all had gone so well with you. But fortune favors the brave. I had half thought to salute you this week in person, being extremely tempted to accompany the Storys, but on the whole could not make the expedition fit all inward and outward demands of the present hour. . . .

  You know, I suppose, that we have had great trouble at Rome, and how Pio has disappointed the enthusiasm he roused. It is a sad affair. Italy was so happy in loving him, and the world in seeing one man high placed, who became his place and seemed called to it by God. But it is all over. He is the modem Lot’s wife, and now no more a living soul, but cold pillar of the past. . . .

  From Mr. Cranch’s Autobiography:—

  Sorrento. . . . We left Naples May 4, in the boat of old Rafaello the Mariner, and with a fair wind scudded across the bay to Sorrento. We have taken the second story of a little place on the Piano di Sorrento, called the Villa di Angelis, in one of the most lovely and romantic spots that could be found. We enter a gate and pass into an orange orchard, where the thick green branches darken the sky overhead, and bend down to the rich earth, laden with their golden fruit. Beautiful white orange-blossoms everywhere are interspersed with these and load the air with rich perfume. Indeed, the whole of Sorrento seems like one immense plantation of orange and lemon trees, shut in by high walls. Within the orange grove where we are, is a garden of roses and geraniums, and a few olive-trees and oaks. And here stands the Casino—the little villa which is our summer home. And all this hangs right over the sea, a hundred feet below. From a dear little terrace, on a level with our rooms, we look down over roses and elder blooms and vines to the smoothest beach ever washed by the salt waves, hemmed in and guarded by high precipitous tufa rocks.

  The whole Bay of Naples lies stretched before us. To the right, Vesuvius towers up shrouded in mystery and beauty. Opposite, the gleaming city, and the heights of Camaldoli. Farther along, in the distance, the promontory of Misene, Nisida, Baia, and the blue isles of Procida and lschia; all between, the beautiful wide Mediterranean rolling towards us, till it dashes in surf below.

  It is a lovely spot. The house too is so tidy and clean and commodious. What a contrast to the noise and glare of Naples!

  The people of Sorrento also seem more gentle, well-behaved, and handsome than in any other place of Italy we have been in. On the beach below, picturesque Neapolitan fishermen draw in their nets, and bring us fresh fish almost every morning. We have large delicious bunches of grapes brought to us, now and then. And our oranges, said to be the best in Sorrento, are an unfailing feast.

  One day I made an excursion with some friends to the Island of Capri. But we only had time to visit the Blue Grotto. Nothing could be more weird and elfin than this singular cavern of the sea. Through an opening just wide enough to admit a very small boat, with two persons and the oarsman, and so low that you are obliged to lie down in the boat, you are suddenly home by a wave into the cavern, whose interior is of a pallid blue. The water also is blue, but exquisite and clear as crystal, so that you see the fishes at a great depth all tinged with the azure. The water is said to be sixty fathom deep. It seemed like the dwelling of some Sea-King or Siren. We all looked like ghosts crossing the Styx. We sang and shouted and made the arches and dim, dark recesses of the sea-cave answer us in echoes.

  May 18. Naples has been tom and convulsed by a day of sanguinary civil war. They have had hard and desperate fighting between the Royal troops on one side, and on the other, the Civic Guard, assisted by about three hundred Calabrians, who, it is said, fought with the desperation of tigers. The King having refused the people’s demand for the abolition of the Chamber of Peers, the Civic Guard immediately erected barricades in the streets and put themselves in a defensive attitude. This was Sunday night, May 18. At eleven next morning the attack was commenced. The first firing was from the Guard upon the Swiss who attempted to take their barricades. The battle then went on. The Swiss Guard from the Castel Nuovo shot down every one who appeared in the streets. Shots were fired constantly between the windows of houses and the streets. The shops and houses were all closed. The lazzaroni went about in large herds plundering and shouting for the strongest party. The battle did not cease till two in the morning. This was the substance of what Mr. Rogers brought from the city. Two or three palaces are said to have been burned, and a large number of soldiers killed. Of the Civic Guard, many were made prisoners.

  Of all this fiery and bloody work, we, in this peaceful retreat, knew nothing. It was a warm, quiet day, and from our little home, embowered in roses and orange trees, and looking down on the beach, where the waves crept in so sleepily, and then off to the opposite shore, where the great city and all the neighboring towns slept, white and dim in the distance,—all seemed tranquil as a dream. No one could have imagined that war and bloodshed were going on there. And though all day we heard the booming of cannon, I thought it only the manifestation of some popular festive rejoicing. From the seclusion of our little villa, we seemed to look out upon the agitations of the city, as from the shores of another world.

  June 4. Sunday evening our daughter Leonora1 was born. The event was celebrated by the greatest girandole which Vesuvius has got up since 1888. On that evening the eruption was at its culmination,—the streaming of the lava down the sides of the cone was particularly beautiful.

  July 5. At Amalfi G. F. Cropsey and I established ourselves at the “Luna,” immediately on the beach. Here we had a fine chance to study boats and groups of fishermen,—boys and girls half naked browning themselves in the sun or splashing like frogs in the water,-friars, beggars, etc. Above the town tower up enormous mountains. . . . Here we found a succession of pictures waiting to be painted. But our limited time, though we made the best use of it, obliged us to select a very few scenes. As you approach the upper part of the glen, the mountains are wonderfully grand and solemn: steep, splintered, precipitous, many of them, and looming up in a hazy mysterious shadow as the sun declines behind them, and rising to an immense height.

  But sad and disheartening is the contrast between nature and humanity here. The town is a sink of filth and squalor and wretchedness—more abounding in dark narrow dirty lanes leading up steep stairs and under pitch-dark arches and caves, and the Lord knows what miserable holes, too vile for the very swine: (which by the way fare much better, being washed by the sweet seawater and walking about in the free air) and in every token of degradation worse than any Italian town I have seen. One marked instance of the degradation of the people is their converting women into beasts of burden carrying on their heads and shoulders enormous loads: half-bent to the earth, barelegged, and supporting themselves with long staves. Those, women, however, who bring snow from the mountains seem much stronger and healthier. They also are bare-legged, very picturesque, and famous walkers. Of course half the people here beg; and the children are very impudent and without any sort of manners towards the forestieri, who are a special godsend to them in the way of sport and amusement. One stranger from beyond Italy will set a whole street agape from one end to the other, and the dirty little imps tag after him as if he were a dancing bear, or the man from the moon. . . .

  July 18. Trip to Capri. At this beautiful island, Story, Cropsey, and I put up at Pagani’s, the artist’s albergo, where we found several Americans and Englishmen, who had most of them come there to frolic and dissipate.

  We visited the chief beauties of the island (according to the guides), i.e., the Ponte Naturale, a grand and wonderful arch of gray rock on a high cliff near the sea—the Grotto Matrimonia, the Piccola Marina, the Blue Grotto again, and Anacapri, to which we ascend by five hundred and thirty-six difficult steps. Above Anacapri, at a height of over one thousand feet, we visited the Castle of Barbarossa. We made a good many sketches in pencil; bathed several times in the sea, which is deliciously clear. At night we sang, with a guitar, which we found in the hotel.

  In August I made a second trip to Amalfi with Story and Cropsey. From there to Salerno, by boat; and thence by carriage to Pæstum. Our visit to these mmous old ruins was on a lovely, breezy day. As we approached them we could none of us resist the most enthusiastic exclamations of delight. Never had I seen anything more perfect, such exquisite proportions, such warm, rich coloring, such picturesquely broken columns; flowers and briers growing in and around, and sometimes over fallen capitals. Right through between the columns gleamed the sea, and beyond, the· blue, misty mountains. And over all brooded such a silence and solitude. Nothing stood between us and the Past, to mar the impression. Mysterious, beautiful temples! Far in the desert, by the sea-sands, in a country cursed by malaria, the only unblighted and perfect things,—standing there for over two thousand years. It was almost like going to Greece.

  We took our repast in the great temple of Neptune; then betook ourselves resolutely to sketching. . . . These are said to be the oldest temples existing in Europe,—so that even the Emperor Augustus visited them as ruins. Of the rest of the city nothing else remains, that we could discover from a rapid survey, but a part of the walls and a gate. They told us it was unsafe to remain here after three o’clock on account of the malaria. Our stay was too brief, but the sun began to descend, and we hurried away, and almost before we could make this vision of loveliness real and tangible, we were out of sight of it forever.

  The rocks and mountains in the gulf of Salerno are very rugged, wild and fantastic in their forms. We amused ourselves tracing out amongst them the shapes of temples, towers, and huge castles, more or less distinctively suggested by their singular formations. Sometimes the resemblance to architecture of the most gigantic and wild proportions, is very striking; Moorish towers with arches and doorways, pyramids, bridges, huge gates, and often the resemblance of the strata to the masonry of walls, amounts to deception.

  One morning Cropsey and I walked six miles from Amalfi, along the shore to sketch a fine old ruined castle beside the sea called Bazia. Near it is a famous cavern called the Grotto of San Francisco, in which are the ruins of an old church, the mortar of whose walls is preserved as white and unmarred (owing to the sea-air} as if built yesterday. At the back of it is a deep chasm with water at the bottom, down which the guides throw stones, that you may hear the reverberation. They told us that a man once found his way through this chasm underground to Castellamare. If he did, it was a miracle equal to any of the saint, whose presence presided over the Cave.

  We were between four and five months at Sorrento. Nothing could have been lovelier than the place we were in. On our little vine-shaded terrace we sat, and took our tea, while enjoying the extensive view over the Bay. We could bathe at any time on the beach below, to which we descended by path and stairway, cut through the cavernous tufa rock.

  One morning as I sat sketching on the shore, a handsome, picturesque fisherman suddenly appeared, with his boat. We were at once on the friendliest terms. He had the natural good manners of a gentleman. I got him to pose just there, and made a rough sketch of him and his boat.

  We paid a very moderate price for our rooms, and for our domestic service the cost was absurdly low. Our cook was old Luigia, one of the De Angelis family—a higher class of peasants, who owned the place, and whose cottage was within the same enclosure with us. This family took care of the grounds, and the women raised silkworms. Luigia had an original recipe for cooking eggs. She knew just how long they should be boiled by the number of Aves she said over them! . . .

1 Indeed no name [referring to Leonora d’ Este, the princes, to whom was dedicated Tasso’s verse, Sorrento being his birthplace] could be beautiful enough to match the beauty of this place. The spirits of the sea, the most transparent of all seas, laving the purple hues of the tall rocks, of the blue island and mountains, of the green, orange and olive grove, and the roses and the grape vines that embower it around, should breathe their subtlest beauties into her name.

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