Edward Augustus Freeman.

Sketches from the subject and neighbour lands of Venice online

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longer-lived? what if the second Bajazet had deserved the name of
Thunderbolt like the first? Would the threat of the first Sultan have
been carried out, and would the Turk have fed his horse on the high
altar of Saint Peter's? The eastern peninsula fell by internal
division, and the central peninsula, as his very entrance into it
shows, was fully as divided as the eastern. The French conquests
presently showed how little prepared Italy was to withstand a vigorous
attack, and Mahomet the Conqueror would have been another kind of
enemy from Charles the Eighth. But all such dangers were warded off.
The Turk still showed himself once and again in northern Italy, but
only as a momentary plunderer. Otranto remained his only conquest on
Italian ground, and that a conquest held for thirteen months only.
Alfonso, who bears so unfavourable a character from other sides, must
be at least allowed the merit of winning back the lost city for his
father's realm. Otranto, and Otranto alone of Italian cities, belongs
to, and heads, the list on which we inscribe the names of Buda and
Belgrade and Athens and Sofia, on which it may now inscribe the names
of Arta and Larissa, but from which hapless Jôannina and
twice-forsaken Parga are still for a while shut out.

It was not therefore till the Turk had been driven out, not until
southern Italy had been more thoroughly but not much more lastingly
overrun by the armies of France, that Otranto passed for a while under
the rule of Venice. The Serene Republic hardly deserved to rule in a
city which she had so lately betrayed; the place seems never to have
recovered from the frightful blow of the Turkish capture. The town now
shows no sign either of the short Venetian occupation or of the
shorter Turkish occupation. From the side of military history, this
last fact is to be regretted. We must remember that in that day the
Ottomans, pressing and hiring into their service the best skill of
Europe, were in advance of all other people in all warlike arts. So
Guiccardini remarks that the Turks, during their short occupation of
Otranto, strengthened the city with works of a kind hitherto unknown
in Italy, and which, as he seems to hint, Italian engineers would
have done well to copy, but did not. The present fortifications date
from the time of Charles the Fifth. Their extent shows at once how far
the Otranto of his day had shrunk up within the bounds of the ancient
city, and how far again modern Otranto has shrunk up within the walls
of the Emperor. It is said that, before the Turkish capture, Otranto
numbered twenty-two thousand inhabitants; it has now hardly above a
tenth part of that number. As the military importance of the place has
passed away, military precautions seemed to have passed away with it;
the castle stands free and open; no sentinel hinders the traveller
from wandering as he will within its walls. But the traveller will
gain little by such wanderings except the look-out over land and sea.
The town stands close upon the sea, on a small height with a valley
between it and the railway station. It is entered by a gateway of late
date, but of some dignity; but it is not much that the frowning
entrance leads to. The visitor soon finds that Otranto, which gave its
name of old to the surrounding land, which still ranks as a
metropolitan city, has sunk to little more than a village. It seems to
have had no share in the revived prosperity of the other towns along
this coast. Its one object of any importance is the metropolitan
church, and this is at once the only monument of the ancient
greatness of the place, and also in a strange way the chief memorial
of its momentary bondage to the barbarian.

* * * * *

In order thoroughly to take in the position of the great church of
Otranto in its second character, as a memorial of bondage and
deliverance, it may be well to pass it by for a moment and to go first
to the castle, and look out on one of the points of view which it
commands. Any local guide will be able to show the traveller the Hill
of the Martyrs. It stands at no great distance beyond the town, and is
held to mark the site of a pagan temple. There the Turks, after their
capture of the city, did as they have done in later times. Some eight
or nine hundred of the people of Otranto were massacred. Their bodies
lay unburied so long as the Turk kept possession; on the recovery of
the city, the bodies of the martyrs, as they were now deemed, were
gathered together, and a special chapel was added to the metropolitan
church to receive them. There they may still be seen, piled together
in cases, with inscriptions telling the story. There are skulls, legs,
arms, bones of every part of the human body, some still showing the
dents of barbarian weapons, some with barbarian weapons still cleaving
to them. There we look on them, ghastly witnesses that, neither in
their days nor in ours, is the Æthiopian at all disposed to change
his skin or the leopard his spots. What the Turk did at Otranto he has
done at Batak; he may, if the freak seizes him, do the like at
Jôannina. Only the deeds of Otranto were at least done by the Turk as
a mere outside barbarian; he was not licensed to do them by the united
voice of Europe. It is only in these latest times that the Turk has
been fully authorized, under all the sanctions of so-called
international right, to renew at pleasure the deeds of Otranto and of
Batak in lands to which Europe has twice promised freedom.

The martyrs of 1480, their sufferings, their honours, have made so
deep an impression on the mind of Otranto that the metropolitan
basilica has popularly lost its name of _Annunziata_, and is more
commonly spoken of as the church of the martyrs. But the great church
of Otranto, the church of the prelate whose style runs as
"archiepiscopus Hydrutinus et primas Salentinorum," is a building of
deep interest on other grounds. Like so many Italian churches, it is
not very attractive without, nor is there anything specially to tarry
over in its bell-tower. But even outside we may mark one or two signs
of the restoration which the church underwent after its deliverance
from the Turk. The west window is of that date, one of those
rose-windows to which Italian, and still more Dalmatian, taste clave
so long, even when all other mediæval fashions had vanished away. Of
the same date is the north door, showing, like the great doors at
Benevento, the Primate of the Salentines attended by the bishops and
chief abbots of his province. As we go within, our first feeling is
one of wonder that so much should have lived through the infidel storm
and occupation. But, according to the usual practice of Mussulman
conquerors, the head church of the city was turned into a mosque;
there was therefore, after the first moment of havoc had passed by, no
temptation on the part of the new occupants to damage the essential
features of a building which had become a temple of their own worship.
It is therefore not wonderful that the main features of the basilica
are still there, either untouched or most skilfully restored. Seven
arches rise from columns, perhaps of classical date, with capitals,
mostly of different kinds of foliage, but one of which brings in human
figures, after the type which was so well set in Caracalla's baths.
But a more interesting study is supplied by the great crypt, or rather
under-church. At Otranto, as in some of its neighbours, the craftsmen
who worked below clearly allowed themselves a freer choice of forms in
the carving of capitals than they ventured on above ground. The vault
of the under-church rests on ranges of slender columns, with heavy
abaci and with an amazing variety in the capitals. None perhaps can
be called classical; but very few are simply grotesque. The few that
are so are found - one does not quite see the reason of the
distinction - among the half-columns against the walls. Most of them
show various forms of foliage and animal figures; the old law that
almost any kind of man, beast, or bird, can be pressed to serve as the
volute at the corner of a capital is here most fully carried out. But
the further law, that that duty is most worthily discharged by the
imperial eagle, can be nowhere better studied than in the Hydrantine
under-church. In some capitals again, especially in the columns of the
apses, the bird of Cæsar is perched as it were on Byzantine
basket-work, clearly showing which Augustus it was to whom the
Salentine Primate bowed as his temporal lord. Other capitals again are
much simpler, but also savouring of the East; the plain square block
has mere carving on the surface. Then, of the columns themselves, some
are plain, some are fluted, some are themselves carved out with
various patterns. In short a rich and wonderful variety reigns in
every feature of the under-church of Otranto.

Our comparison of the columns and capitals has carried us underground;
but the really distinctive feature of the basilica of Otranto is
above. Other churches of southern Italy have wonderful crypts; none,
we may feel sure, has so wonderful a pavement. And here we do wonder
that the Turks did not do incomparably more mischief than they did do.
Some mischief they did; but the archbishops and canons of Otranto
seem - perhaps unavoidably - to have done a great deal more by
destroying or covering the rich pavement to make room for the
furniture of the church. It would surely be hard to find another
example of a pavement whose design is spread over the whole
ground-floor of a great church. The pictures are in mosaic, rough
mosaic certainly, of the second half of the twelfth century, when
Otranto formed part of the Sicilian realm, and when that realm was
ruled by William the Bad. Luckily inscriptions in the pavement itself
have preserved to us the exact date, and the names of the giver and
the artist. One tells us in leonine rimes:

"Ex Ionathi donis per dexteram Pantaleonis
Hoc opus insigne est superans impendia digne."

Another stoops to prose: "Humilis servus Ionathas Hydruntinus
archieps. jussit hoc [~o]p fieri per manus Pantaleonis p[~r]b. Anno ab
Incarnatione Dn[~i] Nr[~i] Ihu. Xr[~i] MCLXV indictione XIV, regnante
Dn[~o] nostro W. Rege Magnif." The design of the priest Pantaleon,
wrought at the bidding of Archbishop Jonathan in the last year of the
first William, is of a most extensive and varied kind. Scriptural
scenes and persons, figures which seem purely fanciful, the favourite
subject of the signs of the zodiac, all find their place. We meet also
with one or two heroes of earlier and later times whom we should
hardly have looked for. The main design starts, not far from the west
end, with a tree rising from the backs of two elephants. The huge
earth-shaking beast, the Lucanian ox, is, it must be remembered, a
favourite in southern Italy; he finds a marked place among the
sculptures of the great churches of Bari. The tree - one is tempted to
see in it the mystic ash of Northern mythology - sends its vast trunk
along the central line of the nave, throwing forth its branches, and
what we may call their fruit, on either side. Here are strange beasts
which may pass either for the fancies of the herald or for the
discoveries of the palæontologist; but in the lion with four bodies
and a single head we must surely look for a symbolical meaning of some
kind. He is balanced, to be sure, by other strange forms, in which two
or three heads rise from a single body. Here are figures with musical
instruments, here a huntress aiming at a stag; and in the midst of all
this, not very far from the west end, we find the figure of "Alexander
Rex." To the left we have Noah, making ready to build the ark - the
story begins at the beginning, like the building of the Norman fleet
in the Bayeux Tapestry. Four figures are cutting down trees, and the
patriarch himself is sawing up the wood, with a saw of the type still
used in the country. The centre of the pavement is occupied by the
zodiac; each month has its befitting work assigned to it according to
the latitude of Otranto. Thus June cuts the corn. July threshes it,
neither with a modern machine, nor with the feet of primitive oxen,
but with the flail which many of us will remember in our youth.
August, with his feet in the wine-press, gathers the grapes. December
carries a boar, as if for the Yule feast of Queen Philippa's scholars.
Each month has its celestial sign attached; but it would seem that the
priest Pantaleon was in a hurry in putting together his kalendar, and
that he put each of the signs a month in advance. Beyond the zodiac,
near the entrance of the choir, and partly covered by its furniture,
is a figure, which startles us with the legend "Arturus Rex." If we
were to have Alexander and Arthur, why not the rest of the nine
worthies? If only a selection, why are the Hebrews defrauded of their
representative? - unless indeed Samson, who appears in the form of a
mutilated figure, not far from the left of Arthur, has taken the place
of the more familiar Joshua, David, and Judas. Here is a witness to
the early spread of the Arthurian legends; here, in 1165, within the
Sicilian kingdom, the legendary British hero receives a place of
honour, alongside of the Macedonian. Nor is this our only witness to
the currency in these regions of the tales which had been not so long
before spread abroad by Walter Map. By this time, or not long after,
the name of Arthur had already found a local habitation on Ætna
itself. Among other scriptural pieces in different parts, we find of
course Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel; there is Jonah too, far to the
east; and in the eastern part of the north aisle, the imagination of
Jonathan or Pantaleon has forestalled somewhat of the Dantesque
conception of the _Inferno_. "Satanas" is vividly drawn, riding on a
serpent, and other figures armed with serpents are doing their
terrible work in the train of the "duke of that dark place." The whole
work is strictly mosaic, and the design, though everywhere rude, is
carried out with wonderful spirit. We may indeed rejoice that the
hoofs of Turkish horses and the improvements of modern canons have
left so much of a work which, even if it stood by itself, it would be
worth while going to the end of railways at Otranto to see.

* * * * *

Such is now the one city in which the Turk ever ruled on our side of
Hadria. In earlier times we might have passed straight from Otranto to
the lands where he still rules, or to the island where he never ruled.
But now he who looks out for Otranto on the heights of Albania, and
whose objects call him to the nearer neighbourhood of those heights,
must go back to Brindisi to find his way to reach them.


1875 - 1881.

In our present journey we draw near to the eastern peninsula, to the
Hellenic parts of that peninsula, by way of the great island - great as
compared with the mass of Greek islands, though small as compared with
Sicily or Britain - which keeps guard, as a strictly Hellenic outpost,
over a mainland which was and is less purely Hellenic. From Brindisi
we sail to Corfu, the elder Korkyra, as distinguished from the black
isle of the same name off the Dalmatian shore. In so sailing, we
specially feel ourselves to be sailing in the wake of the conquerors
who made Corfu an appendage to the Sicilian realm; we are passing
between spots on either side which have known both a Norman and
Venetian master. But it may be that we may have already drawn near to
Greece by another path. It is easy to prolong the voyage which took us
from Trieste to Spalato, from Spalato to Cattaro, by a third stage
which will take us from Cattaro to Corfu. In this case we may have
already studied the Albanian coast, and that with no small pleasure
and profit. We may have marked a point not long after we had left
Dalmatia behind us, and that where a line may well be drawn. There is
a geographical change in the direction of the coast, from the shore of
Dalmatia, with its islands and inland seas, its coast-line stretching
away to the south-east, to the nearly direct southern line of the
shore of Albania. In modern political geography we pass from the
dominion of Austria to the dominion of the Turk. In the map of an
earlier day, we pass from the all but wholly continuous dominion of
the two commonwealths of Venice and Ragusa. In modern ethnology we
pass from the Slave under a certain amount of Italian influence to the
Albanian under a certain, though smaller, amount of influence, Italian
or Greek, according to his local position and his religious creed. In
modern religious geography we pass from a land which is wholly
Christian, but where the Eastern form of Christianity, though still in
the minority, makes itself more deeply felt at every step, to a land
where Islam and the two great ancient forms of Christianity are all
found side by side. In the geography of earlier times this point marks
the frontier of a land intermediate between the barbaric land to the
north, with only a few Greek colonies scattered here and there, and
the purely Greek lands, the "continuous Hellas," to the south. We
find on this western shore of the south-eastern peninsula the same
feature which is characteristic of so large a part of the Ægæan and
Euxine coasts, both of the south-eastern peninsula itself and of the
neighbouring land of Asia. The great mainland is barbarian; the
islands and a fringe of sea-coast are Greek. As we draw nearer to the
boundary of Greece proper, the Hellenic element is strengthened.
Thesprotians, Molossians, Chaonians, were at least capable of becoming
Greeks. Epeiros, [Greek: Êpeiros], _terra firma_, once the vague name
of an undefined barbarian region, became the name of a Greek federal
commonwealth with definite boundaries. And the character of a
barbarian land, fringed with European settlements and looking out on
European islands, did not wholly pass away till almost our own day. A
few still living men may remember the storming of Prevesa; many can
remember the cession - some might call it the betrayal - of Parga. It
was only when Parga was yielded to the Turk that this ancient feature
of the Illyrian and Epeirot lands passed away. What Corinth had once
been Venice was. Corinth first studded that coast with outposts of the
civilized world. Venice held those outposts, sadly lessened in number,
down to her fall. And the men of Parga deemed, though they were
mistaken in the thought, that to the mission of Corinth and Venice
England had succeeded.

From whichever side our traveller draws near to Corfu, he comes from
lands where Greek influence and Greek colonization spread in ancient
times, but from which the Greek elements have been gradually driven
out, partly by the barbarism of the East, partly by the rival
civilization of the West. Whether we come from Otranto and Brindisi or
from the Illyrian Pharos and the Illyrian Korkyra, we are coming from
lands which once were Greek. But Otranto and Brindisi, Pharos and
Black Korkyra, even Epidamnos and Apollonia, were scattered outposts
of Greek life among barbarian neighbours; as the traveller draws near
to the elder Korkyra, he finds himself for the first time within the
bounds of "continuous Hellas." He may have seen in other lands greater
and more speaking monuments of old Hellenic life than any that the
island has to show him; he may have seen the lonely hill of Kymê, the
hardly less lonely temples of Poseidônia; but those were Greece in
Italy; now for the first time he sees Greece itself. Whatever we may
say of the mainland to the left, there can be no doubt, either now or
in ancient times, of the Hellenic character of the island to the
right. There are the small attendant isles; there are the great peaks
of Korkyra - not the lowlier peaks which gave city and island their
later name - but the far mightier mountains which catch the eye as we
approach the great island from the north. That island at least is
Hellas - less purely Hellenic, it may be, than some other lands and
islands, but still Hellenic, part of the immediate Hellenic world of
both ancient and modern days. It was and is the most distant part of
the immediate Hellenic world; but it forms an integral part of it. The
land which we see is Hellenic in a sense in which not even Sicily, not
even the Great Hellas of Southern Italy, much less then the Dalmatian
archipelago, ever became Hellenic. From the first historic glimpse
which we get of Korkyra, it is not merely a land fringed by Hellenic
colonies; it is a Hellenic island, the dominion of a single Hellenic
city, a territory the whole of whose inhabitants were, at the
beginning of recorded history, either actually Hellenic or so
thoroughly hellenized that no one thought of calling their Hellenic
position in question. Modern policy has restored it to its old
position by making it an integral portion of the modern Greek kingdom.
And, if in some things it is less purely Greek than the rest of that
kingdom, what is the cause? It is because, if Corfu may be thought for
a while to have ceased to be part of Greece, it never ceased to be
part of Christendom. It was for ages under alien dominion, but it
never was under the dominion of the Turk. The Venetian could to some
extent modify and assimilate his Greek subjects; the Turk could
modify or assimilate none but actual renegades. And, after all, the
main influence has been the other way. If Italian became the
fashionable speech, even for men of Greek descent, men on the other
hand whose names distinctly show their Italian descent have cast in
their lot with their own country rather than with the country of their
forefathers. Shallow critics have mocked because men with Venetian
names have been strong political assertors of Greek nationality. They
might as well mock whenever a man of Norman descent shows himself a
patriotic Englishman. They might as well hint that Presidents and
Ministers of France and Spain, who have borne names which proclaim
their Irish origin, were bound or likely to follow an Irish policy
rather than a French or a Spanish one.

The first aspect, indeed every aspect, of the island of Corfu and the
neighbouring coast of Epeiros is deeply instructive. The island and
the mainland come so close together that, till the eye has got well
used to the outline of particular mountains, it is not easy to tell
how much is island and how much mainland. A statesman of the last
generation twice told the House of Lords that Corfu lay within a mile
of the coast of Thessaly. We cannot say, without looking carefully to
the scale on the map, how many miles Corfu lies from the coast of
Thessaly, any more than we can say offhand how many miles Anglesey
lies from the coast of Norfolk. It is a more practical fact that some
parts of Corfu lie very near indeed to the coast of Epeiros, though
not quite so near as Anglesey lies to the coast of Caernarvonshire.
The channel must surely be everywhere more than a mile in width;
certainly it could nowhere be bridged, as in the case of Anglesey, or
in the cases of Euboia and nearer Leukas. Both coasts are irregular,
both coasts are mountainous, and the mountains on both sides fuse into
one general mass. Above all, prominent from many points, soars the
famous range where, with a singular disregard of later geography,

"Arethusa arose
From her couch of snows
In the Acroceraunian mountains."

Snow of course is in these lands to be had only at a much higher level
than the snow-line of the Alps, so that the couch of Arethousa stands
out yet more conspicuously over the neighbouring heights than it might
have done in a more northern region. The inhabitants of Corfu are fond
of pointing to the contrast between the well-wooded hills and valleys
of their own fertile island and the bare, almost uninhabited, land
which lies opposite to them. And of course they do not fail to point
the inevitable moral. As in most such cases, there is truth in the
boast, but truth that needs some qualifications. Corfu, through all
its changes of masters, has always been under governments which were
civilized according to the standard of their own times. It has fared
accordingly. Epeiros has been handed over to a barbarian master, and
it has also been largely colonized by the least advanced of European
races. Besides having the Turk as a ruler, it has had the Albanian,
Christian and Mussulman, as a settler. In Corfu the Albanian is a
frequent visitor; his sheepskin and _fustanella_ may be constantly
seen in the streets of Corfu; but he has not - unless possibly in the

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Online LibraryEdward Augustus FreemanSketches from the subject and neighbour lands of Venice → online text (page 19 of 23)