A Week on Capri
LOOKING seaward from Naples, the island of Capri lies across the throat of the bay like a vast natural breakwater, grand in all its proportions, and marvellously picturesque in outline. The fancy is at once excited, and seeks to find some definite figure therein. Long ago, an English traveller compared it to a couchant lion; jean Paul, on the strength of some picture he had seen, pronounced it to be a sphinx; while Gregorovius, most imaginative of all, finds that it is “an antique sarcophagus, with bass-reliefs of snaky-haired Eumenides, and the figure of Tiberius lying upon it.”
Capri is not strictly a by-way of travel, inasmuch as most of the tourists who come to Naples take the little baysteamer, visit the Blue Grotto, touch an hour at the marina, or landing-place, and return the same evening via Sorrento. But this is like reading a titlepage, instead of the volume behind it. The few who climb the rock, and set themselves quietly down to study the life and scenery of the island, find an entire poem, to which no element of beauty or interest is wanting, opened for their perusal. Like Venice, Capri is a permanent island in the traveller’s experience, — detached from the mainland of Italian character and associations. It is not a grand dramatic epic, to which light waves keep time, tinkling on the marble steps ; but a bright, breezy pastoral of the sea, with a hollow, rumbling undertone of the Past, like that of the billows in its caverns. Venice has her generations, her ages of heroic forms : here one sole figure, supremely fierce and abominable, usurps the historic background. Not only that: its shadow is projected over the life of the island, now and for all time to come. Here, where Nature has placed terror and beauty side by side, the tragedy of one man is inextricably blended with the idyllic annals of a simple, innocent people. To feel this, one must live a little while on Capri.
It was nearly the end of January, when Antonio, our boatman, announced that we had the “one day out of a dozen,” for crossing the ten miles of sea between Sorrento and the island. I had my doubts, placing my own weather-instinct against the boatman’s need of making a good fare in a dull season; but we embarked, nevertheless. The ripple of a sirocco could even then be seen far out on the bay, and a cloudy wall of rain seemed to be rising from the sea. “Non c’é paura,” said the sailors ; “ we have a godmother at the marina of Capri, and we are going to burn a lamp for her tonight. She will give us good weather.” They pulled gayly, and we soon passed the headland of Sorrento, beyond which the mouth of the Bay of Naples opened broadly to view. Across the water, Ischia was already dim with rain ; and right in front towered Capri, huge, threatening., and to the eye inaccessible but for the faint glimmer of houses at the landing-place.
Here we met the heavy swell rolling in from the sea. The men bent to their oars, with cries of “ Hal-li! maccheroni à Capri!” The spray of the coming rain struck us, but it was light and warm. Antonio set the sail, and we steered directly across the strait, the sky becoming darker and wilder every minute. The bold Cape of Minerva, with its Odyssean memories, and the Leap of Tiberius, on Capri, were the dim landmarks by which we set our course. It was nearly two hours before we came to windward of the latter, and I said to Antonio: “ It is one day out of a dozen for cold and wet.” He was silent, and made an attempt to look melancholy. However, the rocks already overhung us ; in front was a great curving sweep of gardens, mounting higher and ever higher in the twilight; and the only boat we had seen on the deserted bay drew in towards us, and made for the roadstead.
The row of fishermen’s houses on, the beach beckoned welcome after the dreary voyage. At first I saw no human being, but presently some women and children appeared, hurrying to the strand. A few more lifts on the dying swell, and our keel struck the shore. The sailors jumped into the water ; one of the women planted a tall bench against the bow, and over this bridge we were landed. There was already a crowd surrounding us with clamors for gifts and service. The woman with the bench was the noisiest: “It is mine ! ” she continually cried, — “I brought it! ” I gave her a copper coin, expecting, after my Neapolitan experiences, to hear wilder cries for more ; but she only uttered, “ Eh ? due bajocchi! ” in an indescribable tone, shouldered her bench, and walked away. Antonio picked out two maidens, piled our baggage upon their heads, and we set off for the town of Capri. The clamorous crowd dissolved at once : there was neither insult nor pursuit. It was a good-humored demonstration of welcome, — nothing more.
It was but a single step from the strand — the only little fragment of beach on ten miles of inaccessible shore — to the steep and stony pathway leading up the height. It still rained, and the night was rapidly falling. High garden walls further darkened the way, which was barely wide enough to allow two persons to pass, and the bed of which, collecting the rain from the steeps on either side, was like that of a mountain torrent. Before us marched the bare-legged porteresses, with astonishing lightness and swiftness, while we plodded after, through the rattling waters, often slipping on the wet stones, and compelled to pause at every corner to regain our breath. The bright houses on the ridge overhead shone as if by their own light, crowning the dusky gardens, and beckoning us upwards.
After nearly half an hour of such climbing, we emerged from between the walls. A vast, hollow view opened dimly down to the sea for a moment; then we passed under an arch, and found ourselves in the little square of the town, which is planted on the crest of the island, at its lowest point. There are not forty feet of level ground: the pavement falls to both shores. A few paces down the southern slope brought us to a large white mansion, beside which the crown of a magnificent palmtree rustled in the wind. This was the hostelry of Don Michele Pagano, known to all artists who have visited Capri for the last twenty years. A stately entrance, an ample staircase, and lofty, vaulted chambers, gave the house a palatial air, as we came into it out of the stormy night. The two maidens, who had carried forty pounds apiece on their heads, were not in the least flushed by their labor. The fee I gave seemed to me very small, but they were so well pleased that Antonio’s voice, demanding, “ Why don’t you thank the Signore?” made them start out of a dream, — perhaps of pork and macaroni. At once, like children saying their lessons, they dipped a deep courtesy, side by side, saying, “Grazie, Signore!” I then first saw how pretty they were, how bright their eyes, how dazzling their teeth, and how their smiles flashed as they said “Good night!” Meanwhile, Don Michele’s daughter had kindled a fire on the hearth, there was a promise of immediate dinner, and we began to like Capri from that moment.
My first walk satisfied me that no one can make acquaintance with the island, from a boat Its sea-walls of rock are so enormous, that they hide almost its entire habitable portion from view. In order to make any description of its scenery clear to the reader, the prominent topographical features must be first sketched. Capri lies due south of Naples, its longer diameter running east and west, so that it presents its full broadside to the capital. Its outline, on the ground plan, is that of a short, broad-topped boot, the toe pointing towards the Sorrentine headland. The breadth, across the top, or western end, is two miles; and the length of the island is about four miles. The town of Capri lies just at the top of the instep, where the ankle is narrowest, occupying also the crest between the northern and southern shores. Immediately to the west of it rises a tremendous mountain - wall, only to be scaled at one point All the island beyond this wall is elevated considerably above the eastern half, the division being also municipal and social. The eastern part, however, possesses the only landing-places on both shores, whence it is the most animated and populous, claiming at least two thirds of the entire number of five thousand souls on the island. The most elevated points are the Salto (leap) di Tiberio, the extreme eastern cape, which rises nearly a thousand feet above the sea ; and Monte Solaro, a part of the dividing wall which I have just mentioned, about double the height of the Salto. In addition to the landing-place on the northern shore, there is a little cove just opposite, below the town, where boats can land in still weather. Elsewhere, the rocks descend to the water in a sheer wall, from one to eight hundred feet in height. Although so near Naples, the winds from the mountains of the Peninsula are somewhat softened in crossing the bay, and the winter temperature is about ten degrees higher in consequence.
When we crossed the little square of the town to the entrance-gate, on the morning after our arrival, there was a furious tramontana blowing. The whole circuit of the Bay of Naples was visible, drawn in hard, sharp outlines, and the blue basin of water was freckled with thousands of shifting white-caps. The resemblance of the bay to a vast volcanic crater struck my fancy : the shores and islands seem to be the ruins of its rim. Such a wind, in Naples, would have been intolerable : here it was only strong at exposed points, and its keen edge was gone. We turned eastward, along a narrow, dirty street, to get into the country. In a hundred yards the town ceased, and the heavy walls gave place to enormous hedges of cactus. A boy, walking the same way, asked: “Are you going to Timberio ” (Tiberius) ? The ruins of the Villa Jovis, the principal palace of the Emperor, were already to be seen, on the summit of the eastern headland of the island. Along a roughly paved lane, under the shade of carob and olive trees, we finally came to a large country-house in a most picturesque state of ruin. A crumbling archway, overhung by a fringe of aloes, which had thrust their roots between the stones, attracted my attention, and I began to sketch it. Not many minutes elapsed before five or six boys came out, and watched me from the arch. They would have been good accessories, but, whenever I looked at one, he got out of the way. Presently they brought an aloe, and set it upon the rocks ; but, seeing that I paid no attention to it, one of them remarked with a grimace, “ No butiglia,” — meaning that he expected no gratuity from me. They were lively, good-natured imps, and so it was a pleasure to disappoint them agreeably.
We went also down the southern slope of the island, and came at random into the Val Tragara, — a peaceful solitude, where twenty-five centuries of labor have turned the hostile rocks into tiers of ever-yielding gardens. One range of these is supported upon arches of masonry that formerly upheld the highway which Tiberius constructed between his palaces. I afterwards found other traces of the road, leading in easy zigzags to the site of the fourth palace on San Michele. Descending deeper in the Val Tragara we missed the main path, and stumbled down the channels of the rain between clumps of myrtle and banks whereon the red anemone had just begun to open its blossoms. The olive-trees, sheltered from the wind, were silent, and their gray shadows covered the suggestive mystery of the spot. For here Tiberius is supposed to have hidden those rites of the insane Venus to which Suetonius and Tacitus so darkly allude.
A single almond-tree, in flower, made its own sunshine in the silvery gloom; and the secluded beauties of the place tempted us on, until the path dropped into a ravine, which tell towards the sea. Following the line of the ancient arches there is another path — the only level walk on the island — leading to a terrace above the three pointed rocks off the southern coast, called the Faraglioni. In the afternoon, when all the gardens and vineyards from the edge of the white cliffs to the town along the ridge lie in light, and the huge red and gray walls beyond, literally piled against the sky, are in hazy shadow, the views from this path are poems written in landscape forms. One does not need to remember that here once was Rome; that beyond the sea lie Sicily and Carthage ; that Augustus consecrated the barren rock below to one of his favorites, and jested with Thrasyllus at one of his last feasts. The delight of the eye fills you too completely; and Capri, as you gaze, is released from its associations, classic and diabolic. If Nature was here profaned by Man, she has long ago washed away the profanation. Her pure air and healthy breezes tolerate no moral diseases. Such were brought hither ; but they took no root, and have left no trace, except in the half-fabulous “ Timberio ” of the people.
It is time to visit the Villa Jovis, the Emperor’s chief residence. The tramontana still blew, when we set out ; but, as I said, it had lost its sharp edge in coming over the bay, and was deliciously bracing. As the gulf opened below us, after passing Monte San Michele, we paused to look at the dazzling panorama. Naples was fair in sight; and the smoke of Vesuvius, following the new lava, seemed nearly to have reached Torre del Greco. While we were studying the volcano through a glass, a tall man in Scotch cap and flannel shirt came up, stopped, and addressed us in Italian.
“You see that white house yonder on the cliff? ” said he ; “ a Signore Inglese lives there. It’s a nice place, a beautiful situation. There ‘s the place for the cows, and there are the columbaria, and all sorts of things. It’s what they call a quinta in Portugal.”
“Is the Englishman married?” I asked.
“ I don’t know,” he replied; “ I believe there’s a certain woman in the house.”
I handed him the glass, which he held to his eye for five minutes, without saying a word. Suddenly he broke out in English : “ Yes, as you say, the powdery appearance — the — ah, the sudden change ! Boreal weather, you know ; but the indications seem to me, having watched and kept the thing in view, quite, — ah, — quite of your opinion ! ”
I was speechless, as may easily be imagined; and, before I could guess what to reply, he handed me the glass, took off his cap, said : “ Here ’s hoping, — ah, wishing, that we may meet again, — perhaps!” and went off with tremendous strides.
“Who is that, Augusto ?” I asked of the small Caprese boy who carried our books and umbrellas.
“ Un Signo5 Inglese.”
“ Is anything the matter with him ?”
“ È un po’ pazzo ” (a little cracked).
“Where does he live ? ”
“ Yonder ! ” said Augusto, pointing to the very house, and place for the cows, and the columbaria, to which the gentleman himself had called my attention. It was his own house ! The “ certain woman,” I afterwards learned, was his legal wife, a girl of Capri. As for himself, he bears a name noted in literature, and is the near relative of three authors.
Two pleasant girls kept us company a little farther, and then we went on alone, by a steep, slippery path, paved with stone, between the poor little fields of fig and olive. The patches of wheat were scarcely bigger than cottage flowerbeds, and in many places a laborious terrace supported only ground enough to produce a half-peck of grain. Lupines and horse-beans are the commonest crop at this season. Along our path bloomed “ the daisy-star that never sets,” with anemone and golden broom. The Villa jovis was full in view, and not distant; but the way first led us to the edge of the cliffs on the southeastern side of the island. From a rough pulpit of masonry we looked down on the wrinkled sea near a thousand feet below. The white-caps were but the tiniest sprinkles of silver on its deepblue ground.
As we mounted towards the eastern headland, the tremendous walls of the western half of Capri rose bold and bright against the sky; but the arcs of the sea horizon, on either side, were so widely extended that they nearly clasped behind Monte Solaro. It was a wonderful, an indescribable view ; how can I give it in words ? Here I met an old man, in a long surtout, who stopped and conversed a minute in French. He was a soldier of Napoleon, now the keeper of a little restaurant at the Salto di Tiberio, and had just been made happy by the cross and a pension. The restaurant was opened by a peasant, and we passed through it to the Salto. A protecting rampart of masonry enables you to walk to the very brink. The rock falls a thousand feet, and so precipitously that the victims flung hence must have dropped into the waves. We looked directly across the strait to the Cape of Minerva, and towards Salerno as well as Naples. The snowcrowned Monte Sant’ Angelo, rising in the centre, gave the peninsula a broad pyramidal form, buttressed by the headlands on either side. The Isles of the Sirens were full in view; and, beyond them, the whole curve of the Salernic gulf, to the far Calabrian cape of Licosa. The distance was bathed in a flood of airy gold, and the gradations in the color of the sea, from pale amethyst to the darkest sapphire below us, gave astonishing breadth and depth to the immense perspective. But the wind, tearing round the point in furious gusts, seemed trying to snatch us over the rampart, and the horror of the height became insupportable.
Much of the plan of the Villa Jovis may still be traced. As we approached the ruins, which commence a few paces beyond the Salto, a woman made her appearance, and assumed the office of guide. “ Here lived Timberio,” said she; “he was a great man, a beautiful man, but O, he was a devil ! Down there are seven chambers, which you can only see by torch-light; and here are the piscine, one for salt water and one for fresh ; and now I ’ll show you the mosaic pavement, — all made by Timberio. O, the devil that he was ! ” Timberio is the favorite demon of the people of Capri. I suspect they would not give him up for any consideration. A wine of the island is called the “ Tears of Tiberius ” (when did he ever shed any, I wonder ?), just as the wine of Vesuvius is called the Tears of Christ. When I pointed to the distant volcano, whose plume of silver smoke was the sign of the active eruption, and said to the woman, “Timberio is at work yonder ! ” she nodded her head, and answered : “ Ah, the devil ! to be sure he is.”
We picked our way through the ruins, tracing three stories of the palace, which must have been four, if not five, stories high on the land side. Some drums of marble columns are scattered about, bits of stucco remain at the bases of the walls; there is a corridor paved with mosaic, descending, curiously enough, in an inclined plane, and the ground-plan of a small theatre ; but the rubbish left does not even hint of the former splendor. It is not one of those pathetic ruins which seem to appeal to men for preservation ; it rather tries to hide itself from view, welcoming the broom, the myrtle, and the caper-shrub to root-hold in its masses of brick and mortar.
On the topmost platform of ruin is the little chapel of Santa Maria del Soccorso, together with the hermitage of a good-natured friar, who brings you a chair, offers you bits of Tiberian marble, and expects a modest alms. Here I found the wild Englishman, sitting on a stone bench beside the chapel. He pointed over the parapet to the awful precipice, and asked me : “ Did you ever go over there ? I did once, — to get some jonquils. You know the rockjonquils are the finest.” Then he took my glass, looked through it at the distant shores, and began to laugh. “ This reminds me,” said he, “of a man who was blown up with his house several hundred feet into the air. He was immensely frightened, when, all at once, he saw his neighbor’s house beside him — blown up too. And the neighbor called out: ‘ How long do you think it will take us to get down again ? ’ Cool, — was n’t it ? ” Thereupon he went to the ladies of the party, whom he advised to go to the marina, and see the people catch shrimps. “It’s a beautiful sight,” he said. “The girls are so fresh and rosy, — but, then, so are the shrimps ! ”
It is no lost time, if you sit down upon a block of marble in the Villa Jovis, and dream a long, bewildering daydream. Here it is almost as much a riot for the imagination to restore what once was, as to create what might be. The temples of Minerva and Apollo, across the strait, were both visible from this point. Looking over Capri, you place the second palace of Tiberius on the summit of Monte Tuoro, which rises against the sea on your right; the third on the southern side of the island, a little further ; the fourth on Monte San Michele; the fifth and sixth beyond the town of Capri, near the base of the mountain wall. Roads connecting these piles of splendor cross the valleys on high arches, and climb the peaks in laborious curves. Beyond the bay, the headland of Misenum and the shores of Baiæ are one long glitter of marble. Villas and temples crown the heights of Puteoli, and stretch in an unbroken line to Neapolis. Here the vision grows dim, but you know what magnificence fills the whole sweep of the shore, — Portici and Pompeii and Stabiæ, growing visible again as the palaces shine above the rocks of Surrentum !
After the wonder that such things were, the next greatest wonder is that they have so utterly vanished. What is preserved is so fresh and solid that Time seems to have done the least towards their destruction. The masonry of Capri can scarcely have been carried away, while such quarries—still unexhausted — were supplied by the main-land : and the tradition is probably correct, that the palaces of Tiberius were razed to the ground immediately after his fall. The charms of the island were first discovered by Augustus. Its people were still Greek, in his day ; and it belonged to the Greek Neapolis, to which he gave the larger and richer Ischia in exchange for it. The ruins of the Villa Jovis are supposed to represent, also, the site of his palace ; and Tiberius, who learned diplomacy from the cunning Emperor, and crime from the Empress, his own mother, first came hither with him. A period of twenty or thirty years saw the splendors of Capri rise and fall. After Tiberius, the island ceased to have a history.
Every walk on these heights, whence you look out far over bays, seas, and shores, is unlike anything else in the world. It is surprising what varieties of scenery are embraced in this little realm. In the afternoon we saw another phase of it on the southern shore, at a point called the Marina Piccola. After passing below the town and the terraced fields, we came upon a wild slope, grown with broom and mastic and arbutus, among which cows were feeding. Here the island shelves down rapidly between two near precipices. The wind was not felt; the air was still and warm ; and the vast, glittering sea basked in the sun. At the bottom we found three fishers’ houses stuck among the rocks, more like rough natural accretions than the work of human hand ; a dozen boats hauled up on the stones in a cove about forty feet in diameter; and one solitary man. Silence and savage solitude mark the spot. Eastward, the Faraglioni rise in gray-red, inaccessible cones ; the ramparts of the Castello make sharp, crenelated zigzags on the sky, a thousand feet above one’s head ; and only a few olive-groves, where Monte Tuoro falls into the Val Tragara, speak of cultivation. One might fancy himself to be upon some lone Pacific island. The fisher told us that in tempests the waves are hurled entirely over the houses, and the boats in the cove are then dashed to pieces. But in May, the quails, weary with their flight from Africa, land on the slope above, and are caught in nets by hundreds and thousands.
We had not yet exhausted the lower, or eastern, half of the island. Another morning was devoted to the Arco Naturale, on the southern coast, between Monte Tuoro and the Salto. Scrambling along a stony lane, between the laborious terraces of the Capri farmers, we soon reached the base of the former peak, where, completely hidden from view, lay a rich circular basin of level soil, not more than a hundred yards in diameter. Only two or three houses were visible ; some boys, hoeing in a field at a distance, cried out, “ Signo’, un baioc’ ! with needless iteration, as if the words were a greeting. Presently we came upon a white farm-house, out of which issued an old woman and four wild, frowzy girls, — all of whom attached themselves to us, and would not be shaken off.
We were already on the verge of the coast. Over the jagged walls of rock we saw the plain of Pæstum beyond the sea, which opened deeper and bluer beneath us with every step. The rich garden-basin and the amphitheatre of terraced fields on Monte Tuoro were suddenly shut from view. A perpendicular cliff of white rock arose on the right; and below some rough shelves wrought into fields stood the Natural Arch, like the front of a shattered Gothic cathedral. Its background was the sea, which shone through the open arch. High up on the left, over the pointed crags, stood a single rock shaped like a Rhine-wine beaker, holding its rounded cup to the sky. There is scarcely a wilder view on Capri.
Following the rough path by which the people reach their little fields, we clambered down the rocks, along the brink of steeps which threatened danger whenever the gusts of wind came around the point. The frowzy girls were at hand, and eager to help. When we declined, they claimed money for having given us their company, and we found it prudent to settle the bill at once. The slope was so steep that every brink of rock, from above, seemed to be the last between us and the sea. Our two boy-attendants went down somewhere, out of sight; and their song came up through the roar of the wind like some wild strain of the Sirens whose isles we saw in the distance. The rock is grandly arched, with a main portal seventy or eighty feet high, and two open windows at the sides.
Half-way down the cliff on the right is the grotto of Mitromania, — a name which the people, of course, have changed into “ Matrimonio,” as if the latter word had an application to Tiberius ! There were some two hundred steps to descend, to a little platform of earth, under the overhanging cliffs. Here the path dropped suddenly into a yawning crevice, the floor of which was traversed with cracks, as if ready to plunge into the sea which glimmered up through them. Passing under the gloomy arch, we came upon a chamber of reticulated Roman masonry, built in a side cavity of the rock, which forms part of the main grotto or temple of Mithras. The latter is about one hundred feet deep and fifty wide, and opens directly towards the sunrise.
Antiquarians derive the name of the grotto from Magnum Mithrœ Antrum. There seems to be no doubt as to its character: one can still perceive the exact spot where the statue of the god was placed, to catch the first beams of his own luminary, coming from Persia to be welcomed and worshipped on the steeps of Capri. It is difficult to say what changes time and earthquakes may not have wrought; but it seems probable that the ancient temple extended to the front of the cliffs, and terminated in a platform hanging over the sea. A Greek inscription found in this grotto associates it both with the superstition and the cruelty of Tiberius. I have not seen the original, which is in the Museum at Naples, but here repeat it from the translation of Gregorovius ; —
Me, the unfortunate, take ye also now to your Hades,—
Me, whom not the will of the gods, but the power of the Ruler,
Suddenly smote with death, which, guiltless, I never suspected.
Crowned with so many a gift, enjoying the favor of Cæsar,
Now he destroyeth my hopes and the hopes of my parents.
Not fifteen have I reached, not twenty the years I have numbered,
Ah ! and no more I behold the light of the beautiful heavens.
Hypatos am I by name : to thee I appeal, O my brother, —
Parents, also, I pray you, unfortunate, mount me no longer !”
A human sacrifice is here clearly indicated. This mysterious cavern, with its diabolical associations, the giddy horror of the Salto, and the traces of more than one concealed way of escape, denoting the fear which is always allied with cruelty, leave an impression which the efforts of those historiasters who endeavor to whitewash Tiberius cannot weaken with all their arguments. Napoleon was one of his admirers, but his opinion on such matters is of no great weight. When Dr. Adolf Stahr, however, devotes a volume to the work of proving Tiberius to have been a good and much-abused man, we turn to the pages of Suetonius and the Spintrian medals, and are not convinced. The comment of the old woman at the Villa Jovis will always express the general judgment of mankind, — “ O, che diavolo era Timberio ! ”
If you stand at the gate of the town, and look eastward towards the great dividing walls, you can detect, on the corner nearest the sea, the zigzag line of the only path which leads up to Anacapri and the western part of the island. One morning when the boy Manfred, as he brought our coffee, told us that the tramontana had ceased blowing, we sent for horses, to make the ascent. We had been awakened by volleys of
musketry ; the church-bells were chiming, and there were signs of a festa,— but Felice, the owner of the horses, explained the matter. Two young men. mariners of Capri, had recently suffered shipwreck on the coast of Calabria. Their vessel was lost, and they only saved their lives because they happened, at the critical moment, to call on the Madonna del Carmine. She heard and helped them : they reached home in safety, and on this day they burned a lamp before her shrine, had a mass said in their names, and invited their families and friends to share in the thanksgiving. I heard the bells with delight, for they expressed the poetry of superstition based on truth.
We set out, in
To hoar February born.”
Indeed, such a day makes one forget tramontana, sirocco, and all the other weather-evils of the Italian winter. Words cannot describe the luxury of the air, the perfect stillness and beauty of the day, and the far, illuminated shores of the bay as they opened before us. We saw that the season had turned, in the crocuses and violets which blossomed beside the path, — the former a lovely pale-purple flower, with firetinted stamens. With Felice came two little girls, Luigia and Serafina, — the former of whom urged on a horse, while the other carried on her head the basket of provisions. Our small factotum. Augusto, took charge of the bottles of wine, and Felice himself bore the shawls and books. Beyond the town, the path wound between clumps of myrtle, arbutus, and the delicate white erica, already in bud. Under us lay the amphitheatre of vineyards and orange-groves ; and the town of Capri, behind, stretching from San Michele to the foot of the Castello, seemed a fortified city of the Middle Ages. Over the glassy sea rose Vesuvius, apparently peaceful, yet with a demon at work under that silvery cloud; Monte St. Angelo, snowy and bleak; and the rich slopes of Sorrento and Massa.
One of the giumente (as Felice called his horses) turned on seeing the rocky staircase, and tried to escape. But it was a sign of protest, not of hope. They were small, unshod, very peaceful creatures, doomed to a sorry fate, but they never had known anything better. Their horse-ideal was derived from the hundred yards of unstony path below Capri, and the few fresh turnips and carrots which they get on holidays. It was, perhaps, a waste of sympathy to pity them ; yet one inclines to pity beasts more readily than men.
At the foot of the staircase we dismounted, and prepared to climb the giddy steep. There are five hundred and sixty steps, and they will average more than a foot in height. It is a fatiguing but not dangerous ascent, the overhanging side being protected by a parapet, while the frequent landings afford secure resting-places. On the white precipices grew the blue “flower of spring ” (fiore della primavera), and the air was sweet with odors of unknown buds. Up and still up, we turned at each angle to enjoy the wonderful aerial view, which, on such a morning, made me feel half-fledged, with sprouting wings which erelong might avail to bear me across the hollow gulf. We met a fellow with a splendid Roman head, whereon he was carrying down to the marina the huge oaken knee of some future vessel. Surprised at the size of the timber, I asked Felice whether it really grew upon the island, and he said there were large oaks about and beyond Anacapri.
Half-way up, the chapel of Sant' Antonio stands on a little spur, projecting from the awful precipices. Looking down, you see the ruins of the Palazzo a’ Mare of Tiberius, the bright turquoise patches where the water is shallow, and its purple tint in shadow. White sails were stretching across from the headland of Sorrento, making for the Blue Grotto. There were two more very long and steep flights of steps, and then we saw the gate on the summit, arched against the sky. Hanging from the rocks, but inaccessible, were starry bunches of daffodils. It had seemed to me, on looking at the rocky walls from Capri, that an easier point of ascent might have been chosen, and I believe it is settled that Tiberius visited his four western palaces by a different path ; but I now saw that the islanders (not possessing despotic power) have really chosen the most accessible point. The table-land beyond does not, as I had imagined, commence at the summit of the cliffs, but far below them, and this staircase strikes the easiest level.
There are few equal surprises on Capri. Not many more steps, and we found ourselves on a rich garden-plain, bounded on the left by stony mountains, but elsewhere stretching away to sky and sea, without a hint of the tremendous cliffs below. Indeed, but for the luminous, trembling haze around the base of the sky, one would not surmise the nearness of the sea, but rather think himself to be in some inland region. The different properties are walled, but there is no need of terraces. Shining white houses, with domed roofs, stand in the peaceful fields. The fruit-trees grow rank, huge oaks and elms with ivied trunks rise above them, and the landscape breathes a sweet, idyllic air. I noticed many cherry-trees of great size. The oaks, though deciduous, still wore the green leaves of last summer, which will only be pushed from the twigs when this year’s buds open. High over this pleasant land, on a bare rock, are the towers of a mediæval castle, now named after Barbarossa, — the corsair, not the Emperor.
Presently we came to Anacapri, cleanest, most picturesque and delightful of Italian villages. How those white houses, with their airy loggias, their pillared pergolas, and their trim gardens, wooed us to stay, and taste the delight of rest, among a simple, beautiful, ignorant, and honest people ! The streets were as narrow and shady as those of any Oriental city, and the houses mostly presented a blank side to them ; but there were many arches, each opening on a sunny picture of slim, dark-haired beauties spinning silk, or grandams regulating the frolics of children. The latter, seeing us, begged for bajocchi; and even the girls did the same, but laughingly, with a cheerful mimicry of mendicancy. The piazza of the village is about as large as the dining-room of a hotel. A bright little church occupies one side ; and, as there was said to be a view from the roof, we sent for the key, which was brought by three girls. I made out the conjectured location of the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth palaces of Tiberius, whereof only a few stones remain, and then found that the best view was that of the three girls. They had the low brow, straight nose, short upper lip, and rounded chin which belongs to the Caprese type of beauty, and is rather Hellenic than Roman. Their complexion, was dark, sunburnt rather than olive, and there was a rich flush of blood on their cheeks ; the eyes long and large, and the teeth white as the kernels of fresh filberts. Their bare feet and hands, spoiled by much tramping and hard work, were out of keeping with their graceful, statuesque beauty. A more cheerful picture of Poverty (for they are all miserably poor), it would he difficult to find.
It was but a mile farther to the headland of Damecuta. Felice, however, advised us rather to visit the tower of Lima, above the Punta della Carena, the northwestern extremity of the island, and his advice proved to be good in the end. We descended a stony steep into a little valley, shaded by superb olivegroves, under which the crops of lupines were already beginning to blossom. The dell fell deeper as we advanced; the grass was starred with red anemones, and there were odors of concealed violets. A mile farther, we came upon a monastery, with a square, crenelated lower, beyond which the fields gave place to a narrow strip of stony down. All at once the shore yawned beneath us, disclosing the extremity of the island, with three deserted batteries on as many points of rock, a new light-house, and the little cove where the troops of Murat landed, when they surprised the English and recaptured Capri, in 1808. Westward, there was a wide sweep of sunny sea; northward, Ischia, Procida with its bright town, — Baiæ and Pozzuoli. Here, at the foot of an old martello tower, we made our noon halt, relieving Serafina of the weight of her basket, and Augusto of his bottles.
The children and young girls, going out to their work in the fields, begged rather pertinaciously. “ We are very poor,” they cried; “and you are so grand and beautiful you can surely give us something.” On the return, we met a group of lively maidens coming up from Capri, who said, when I told them there were no more bajocchi in my pockets : “ Well, then, give us a franc, and we will divide it among us ! ” Nevertheless, begging is not the nuisance on Capri that it is on the main-land. It is always good-humored, and refusal is never followed by maledictions. The poor are positively and certainly poor, and they seem to think it no shame to take what they can get over and above their hard earnings. When one sees how very industrious and contented they are, it is rather a pleasure to add a few coppers to the little store laid aside for their holidays.
With every day, every hour, of our residence, we more fully realized the grandeur and variety of the landscapes of Capri. The week which I thought sufficient to enable us to see the island thoroughly drew towards its close ; and although we had gone from end to end of the rocky shores, climbed all the principal peaks, and descended into every dell and ravine, our enjoyment was only whetted, not exhausted. The same scenes grow with every repetition. There is not a path or crooked lane among the old houses, which does not keep a surprise in reserve. The little town, with only here and there a stone to show for the Past, with no architectural interest whatever, is nevertheless a labyrinth of picturesque effects. In the houses, all the upper chambers are vaulted, and the roofs domed above them as in the Orient; while on one or more sides there is a loggia or arched veranda, overhung with cornice of grapevines, or gay with vases of blooming plants. Thick walls, narrow windows, external staircases, palm-trees in the gardens, and raised platforms of masonry placed so as to catch the breezes of summer nights, increase the resemblance to the Orient. Living there, Syria seems to be nearer than Naples.
In the Val Tragara, near the sea, there is a large deserted monastery, the Certosa, dating from the fourteenth century. Here, as elsewhere, the monks have either picked out the choicest spot for their abode or have made it beautiful by their labor. The Certosa is still stately and imposing in its ruin. In the church the plaster is peeling off, leaving patches of gay fresco on the walls and ceiling. The sacristy and an adjoining chapel are riddled with cannon-balls ; and two recumbent marble statues of the founders, resting on their sarcophagi, look at each other from opposite sides, and seem to wonder what the desolation means. The noble court-yard, surrounded with arched corridors, is dug up for a garden; there is straw and litter in the crumbling cells ; and the prior’s apartment, with its wonderful sea and coast views, is without an occupant. The garden only has not forgotten its former luxury. Its vines and fig-trees equal those of Crete and Syria ; and its cactuses have become veritable trees, twenty feet In height. The monks succeeded in getting hold of the best land on the island ; yet I have no doubt that the very people they impoverished wish them back again.
The Caprese are very devout and superstitious. They have two devils (“Timberio ” being one), and a variety of saints. The beautiful little church in the town, externally so much like a mosque, is filled with votive offerings, painted or modelled in wax, each of which has its own story of miraculous interposition and escape. On one side of the nave sits in state the Madonna del Carmine, — a life-sized doll, with fair complexion, blue eyes, and a profusion of long curling tresses of real blond hair. In her lap she holds a dwarfish man, with hair of nearly equal length. A dozen wax-candles were burning before her, in anticipation of her coming festa, which took place before we left Capri. She is the patron-saint of the coral-fishers, none of whom neglected to perform their share of the celebration.
The day was ushered in with volleys of musketry, and the sounds, or rather cries, of the worst brass band I ever heard, which went from house to house, blowing, and collecting coppers. After the forenoon mass, the procession was arranged in the church, and then set out to make the tour of the town. First came the members of a confraternity, mostly grizzly old men, in white gowns, with black capes, lined with red; then followed a number of small boys, behind whom marched the coral-fishers, forty or fifty in number, — brown, weather-beaten faces, burned by the summers of the African coast. They were dressed with unusual care, and their throats seemed ill at ease inside of collar and cravat. Every one in the procession carried a taper, which he shielded from the wind with the hollow left hand, while his right managed also to collect the melted wax. Next appeared the Madonna, on her litter of state, followed by six men, who bore her silken, canopy. In her train were the priests, and about a hundred women and girls brought up the rear.
Among the latter there were some remarkably lovely faces. The mixture of yellow, blue, and scarlet colors which they delight to wear contrasted brilliantly with the glossy blackness of their hair and the sunny richness of their complexion. The island costume, however, is beginning to disappear. Only a few girls wore the mucadore, or folded handkerchief, on the head, while several were grand in wide silk skirts and crinolines. The people are not envious, but many a longing glance followed these progressive maidens.
In so small a domain as Capri, all that happens is known to everybody. A private romance is not possible ; and so, on this occasion, the crowd on the little piazza were moved by a curiosity which had no relation to the Madonna del Carmine. The story, as I received it, is this : Nearly a year ago, the aunt of a beautiful girl who was betrothed to one of the young coralfishers was visited by an Englishman then staying at the Hotel Tiberio, who declared to her his violent love for the niece, and solicited her good offices to have the previous engagement broken off. Soon after this the Englishman left; the aunt informed the girl’s father of the matter, the betrothal with the coral-fisher was suspended, and the father spent most of his time in frequenting the hotels to ascertain whether a rich young Englishman had arrived. A few days before our visit to Capri, the girl received presents from her unseen and unknown wooer, with a message requesting her not to appear in the procession of the Madonna del Carmine. The Englishman stated that he was at the Hotel Tiberio, and only waited the arrival of certain papers in order to claim her as his bride. Thereupon the father came to the hotel, but failed to discover the mysterious stranger. Two artists, and several ladies who were there, offered to assist him ; but the mystery still remained unsolved. Other letters and presents came to the girl; but no young, rich Englishman could be found on the island. The artists and ladies took up the matter (determined, I am very glad to say, to drive away the Englishman, if there were one, and marry the girl to the coral-fisher), but I have not yet heard of any dénoûment. The young fisher appeared in the procession, but the girl did not ; consequently, everybody knew that the mysterious letters and presents had made her faithless. For my part, I hope the coral-fisher — a bright, stalwart, handsome young fellow — will find a truer sweetheart.
After making the complete tour of the town, which occupied about half an hour, the procession returned to the church. The coral-fishers were grave and devout; one could not question their sincerity. I was beginning to find the scene touching, and to let my sympathy go forth with the people, when the sight of them dropping on their knees before the great, staring doll of a Madonna, as she bobbed along on the shoulders of her bearers, turned all my softness into granite. The small boys, carrying the tapers before her, were employed in trying to set fire to each other’s shocks of uncombed hair. Two of them succeeded, and the unconscious victims marched at least a dozen steps with blazing heads, and would probably have been burned to the scalp had not a humane by-stander extinguished the unfragrant torches. Then everybody laughed; the victims slapped those who had set fire to them ; and a ridiculous comedy was enacted in the very presence of the Madonna, who, for a moment, was the only dignified personage. The girls in the rear struck up a hymn without the least regard to unison, and joked and laughed together in the midst of it. The procession dissolved at the church door, and not a moment too soon, for it had already lost its significance.
I have purposely left the Blue Grotto to the last, as for me it was subordinate in interest to almost all else that I saw. Still, it was part of the inevitable programme. One calm day we had spent in the trip to Anacapri, and another, at this season, was not to be immediately expected. Nevertheless, when we arose on the second morning afterwards, the palm-leaves hung silent, the olives twinkled without motion, and the southern sea glimmered with the veiled light of a calm. Vesuvius had but a single peaceful plume of smoke, the snows of the Apulian Mountains gleamed rosily behind his cone, and the fair headland of Sorrento shone in those soft, elusive, aerial grays, which must be the despair of a painter. It was a day for the Blue Grotto, and so we descended to the marina.
On the strand, girls with disordered hair and beautiful teeth offered shells and coral. We found mariners readily, and, after a little hesitation, pushed off in a large boat, leaving a little one to follow. The tramontana had left a faint swell behind it, but four oars carried us at a lively speed along the shore. We passed the ruins of the baths of Tiberius (the Palazzo a’ Mare), and then slid into the purple shadows of the cliffs, which rose in a sheer wall five hundred feet above the water. Two men sat on a rock, fishing with poles ; and the boats farther off the shore were sinking their nets, the ends of which were buoyed up with gourds. Pulling along in the shadows, in less than half an hour we saw the tower of Damecuta shining aloft, above a slope of olives which descended steeply to the sea. Here, under a rough, round bastion of masonry, was the entrance to the Blue Grotto.
We were now transshipped to the little shell of a boat which had followed us. The swell rolled rather heavily into the mouth of the cave, and the adventure seemed a little perilous, had the boatmen been less experienced. We lay hat in the bottom ; the oars were taken in, and we had just reached the entrance, when a high wave, rolling up, threatened to dash us against the iron portals. “Look out!” cried the old man. The young sailor held the boat back with his hands, while the wave rolled under us into the darkness beyond; then, seizing the moment, we shot in after it, and were safe under the expanding roof. At first, all was tolerably dark: I only saw that the water near the entrance was intensely and luminously blue. Gradually, as the eye grew accustomed to the obscurity, the irregular vault of the roof became visible, tinted by a faint reflection from the water. The effect increased, the longer we remained ; but the rock nowhere repeated the dazzling sapphire of the sea. It was rather a blue-gray, very beautiful, but far from presenting the effect given in the pictures sold at Naples. The silvery, starry radiance of foam or bubbles on the shining blue ground was the loveliest phenomenon of the grotto. To dip one’s hand in the sea, and scatter the water, was to create sprays of wonderful, phosphorescent blossoms, jewels of the Sirens, flashing and vanishing garlands of the Undines.
A chamber, and the commencement of a gallery leading somewhere, — probably to the twelfth palace of Tiberius, on the headland of Damecuta, — were to be distinguished near the rear of the cavern. But rather than explore further mysteries, we watched our chance and shot out, after a full-throated wave, in the flood of white daylight. Keeping on our course around the island, we passed the point of Damecuta, — making a chord to the are of the shore, — to the first battery, beyond which the Anacapri territory opened fairly to view. From the northern to the northwestern cape the coast sinks, like the side of an amphitheatre, in a succession of curving terraces, gray with the abundant olive. Two deep, winding ravines, like the wadys of Arabia, have been worn by the rainfall of thousands of years, until they have split the shorewall down to the sea. Looking up them, we could guess the green banks where the violets and anemones grew, and the clumps of myrtle that perfumed the sea-breeze.
Broad and grand as was this view, it was far surpassed by the coast scenery to come. No sooner had we passed the pharos, and turned eastward along the southern shore of the island, than every sign of life and laborious industry ceased. The central mountain-wall, suddenly broken off as it reached the sea, presented a face of precipice a thousand feet high, not in a smooth escarpment, as on the northern side, but cut into pyramids and pinnacles of ever-changing form. Our necks ached with gazing at the far summits, piercing the keen blue deeps of air. In one place the vast gable of the mountain was hollowed into arches and grottos, from the eaves of which depended fringes of stalactite : it resembled a Titanic cathedral in ruins. Above the orange and dove-colored facets of the clifif, the jagged topmost crest wore an ashen tint which no longer suggested the texture of rock. It seemed rather a soft, mealy substance, which one might crumble between the fingers. The critics of the realistic school would damn the painter who should represent this effect truly.
Under these amazing crags, over a smooth, sunny sea, we sped along towards a point where the boatman said we should find the Green Grotto. It lies inside a short, projecting cape of the perpendicular shore, and our approach to it was denoted by a streak of emerald fire flashing along the shaded water at the base of the rocks. A few more strokes of the oars carried us under an arch twenty feet high, which opened into a rocky cove beyond. The water being shallow, the white bottom shone like silver; and the pure green hue of the waves, filled and flooded with the splendor of the sun, was thrown upon the interior facings of the rocks, making the cavern gleam like transparent glass. The dance of the waves, the reflex of the “netted sunbeams,” threw ripples of shifting gold all over this green ground ; and the walls and roof of the cavern, so magically illuminated, seemed to fluctuate in unison with the tide. It was a marvellous surprise, making truth of Undine and the Sirens, Proteus and the foam-born Aphrodite. The brightness of the day increased the illusion, and made the incredible beauty of the cavern all the more startling, because devoid of gloom and mystery. It was an idyl of the sea, born of the god-lore of Greece. To the light, lisping whisper of the waves, — the sound nearest to that of a kiss, — there was added a deep, dim, subdued undertone of the swell caught in lower arches beyond; and the commencement of that fine posthumous sonnet of Keats chimed thenceforward in my ears : —
Desolate shores, and with its rising swell
Gluts twice ten thousand caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate gives them their old shadowy sound.”
After this, although the same enormous piles of rock overhung us, there were no new surprises. The sublimity and the beauty of this southern coast had reached their climax ; and we turned from it to lean over the gunwale of the boat, and watch the purple growth of sponges through the heaving crystal, as we drew into the cove of the piccola marina. There Augusto was waiting our arrival, the old fisher was ready with a bench, and we took the upper side of Capri.
My pen lingers on the subject, yet it is time to leave. When the day of our departure came, I wished for a tramontana, that we might be detained until the morrow; but no, it was a mild sirocco, setting directly towards Sorrento, and Antonio had come over, although, this time, without any prediction of a fine day. At the last fatal and prosaic moment, when the joys that are over must be paid for, we found Don Michele and Manfred as honest as they had been kind and attentive. Would we not come back some time ? asked the Don. Certainly we will.
When the sail was set, and our foamy track pointed to the dear isle we were leaving, I, at least, was conscious of a slight heart-ache. So I turned once more and cried out, “ Addio, Capri!” but the stern Tiberian rocks did not respond, “ Ritornate ! ” and so Capri passed into memory.