An Experience on the Island of Capri
IN the progress of every people, there is a point up to which the stranger and foreigner is habitually regarded as either an enemy or a victim: an enemy to be kept off, if need be, by force of arms, or a victim of whose misfortunes or helplessness to take advantage. The experience of not a few Americans, who have found themselves in some hour of trial and sorrow dependent upon certain classes of Italians, to whom they were entire strangers, has led them to doubt whether that people, especially in the more unfrequented districts, had even yet got beyond that point.
But I had an experience of the entering in of the more humane feelings which modern nationality brings with it, among Italians of a region where foreigners, and especially “ heretics,” are still regarded much in the old spirit, — an experience which is perhaps worth telling, as fairly illustrative of some characteristics of the great change which has come over the people of Italy.
One day early in spring, not long after the Italian Revolution had been consummated by the occupation of the city of Rome, I received, in that city, a telegram, telling me that an old friend was lying dangerously ill at Capri, and calling me to come to him. I started by the first train, reaching Naples at nine o’clock that night, but I was forced to stay there till the next morning, when I took the boat for Capri.
This island forms the extreme left of the arc which sweeps around the Bay of Naples, as that of Ischia forms the extreme right, and lies four miles off Sorrento, almost opposite, due south, Naples itself. It is less than four miles in length, and some ten miles in circumference; and it is divided into nearly equal parts by a lofty and, on one side, precipitous mountain, which, stretching from shore to shore, leaves literally no natural land communication between the two parts.
From the bay, the island roughly suggests the idea of two shoes, placed with the toe of the left against the heel of the right, the left, or eastern promontory rising over eight hundred feet above the sea; the Monte Solaro towering in the mid-island to more than twice that height above the lower slopes of the eastern half.
On the island, there are two entirely distinct communes, which are locally known by distinct names, Capri and Ana (or upper) Capri. From Roman times there has been, as there still is, an ascent from Capri proper to the heights above, by a flight of 535 rude steps cut zigzag in the rocky face of the almost sheer precipice: but the inhabitants of the two communes have little intercourse or need of communication with each other. They are of different races. Their very dialects are different. The Caprians are Latin, violent in their religious prejudices, grasping and self-asserting; the people of Anacapri, on the contrary, are of Greek stock, tolerant and easy tempered.
It was upon the south seaward slope of Capri proper, in the little Hotel Quisisana (Qui si Sana ; that is. Here one gets well), that my old friend lay dying; was indeed already dead when I reached the place. That which alone was left for me to do was to provide for his reverent burial, and to protect those who were dear to him. left in their affliction among strangers, of whose language and customs they were equally ignorant.
It was not proposed to send the remains home to America. There was no public burying ground in Capri. The inhabitants of that commune were all buried in the church-yards, or, in the case of more notable persons, beneath the paving of the churches themselves. These were, of course, out of the question in the case of a foreign Protestant. There was no nearer spot available than the burying ground of the commune of Anacapri; a lovely, quiet spot, far up on the plateau above. Thither it was decided to take the body of my friend.
The topographical difficulties were, however, the least of the obstacles which now confronted us. The Italian law required some formalities, an official permission and certain documents, which were to be procured only from the prefecture at Naples, before it would be permitted us to remove the remains from one commune to another. It was impossible to attend to these formalities and to get these documents before the following day. Fortunately the bay was calm ; for, had it been stormy, it might have been several days before any communication could be had with the mainland opposite.
But that law also required that the body should be removed from the house in which death had taken place, within twenty-four hours, —in fact, the very day of my arrival. Where should it be carried ? Where could it be placed in reverent safe-keeping, while we awaited permission to bear it to its last restingplace on the peaceful heights of Monte Solaro ?
The good-hearted Italian widow, who kept the little hotel, was full of honest sympathy, but could not tell. This worthy padrona, the kind commune physician, Dr. Ignazio Giulio Cerio (I wish to give his full name), an English gentleman staying at the same hotel, and I took anxious counsel. The bodies of residents, “ good Catholics,” we were told, were, under similar circumstances, always placed, for the time being, in the vestibule, if not indeed before the altar, of one of the churches. There was one of these not at the time in use, Santa Teresa, and the doctor went to the priest to ask that we might place the body in the outer vestibule of this church. The very suggestion of such a profanation was indignantly and contumeliously refused.
The English gentleman — who, though he did not speak Italian, was desirous of reinforcing me in any way in his power, — and I then sought the syndic of the commune. This local dignitary could only enjoin upon us the imperative necessity of removing the body from the hotel before night. In answer to our question, he could only tell us that there was no other place where it might be deposited, save the vestibule of a church, — for instance, Santa Teresa; but for permission to do this he must refer us to the priest, who alone had control of the church. In this matter, he could not take it upon him to interfere. We applied next to the captain of the carabinieri, or gens d’armes. He greatly regretted the painful nature of the circumstances, and would undertake to protect us from popular rudeness or aggression — and this was a protection of which we were now quite likely to be in need — in whatever course should be decided on : but he could not take it upon him to trespass on the ecclesiastical authorities. We finally addressed ourselves again to the priest, who in angry horror again refused to permit the church to be desecrated by the body of a heretic ; and brutally told us that the populace would soon settle the question for us in the only proper way, by throwing it into the sea.
We returned to the hotel, and held another conference. The situation was growing more than painful, for the incensed priest was exciting the rabble against the foreign heretics who were seeking to outrage their church and the blessed virgin martyr of Sicily, and to bring upon the island the anger of the holy saints. The last boat for the day had gone: there was no telegraph to the main-land, no way whatever of taking an appeal to the prefect in Naples.
But there was, on the island, a pretor, or local governor, representing the national authority, Sig. Federigo Lanzetta. To him, therefore, accompanied by my English ally, I now went.
It was well that I was able to address myself to him in his own language. We presented ourselves as foreigners, who, being under the protection of the law of the land, were so far from wishing to trespass upon that law that we were anxious to conform ourselves to it in every particular. I stated the law as applicable to the case in hand, between the twofold requirements of which we were now placed, as in a dilemma; and we appealed to him to put it in our power, as it was our wish, to obey both. Furthermore, with due consideration for the weakness of human nature which sometimes influences even official breasts, I spoke, incidentally, of friends high in political position at Rome; nay, I even showed a letter, which I had with me, from a former, and indeed, at that time, very possibly a future, prime minister.
The Signor Pretore fully appreciated the whole situation. He sent for the angry priest, and at first only asked of him the concession to us, in Christian charity, of the privilege of using for a single night the outer vestibule of the disused church. The priest positively refused. The Signor Pretore then pointed out to him the justice of our claim, that the civil authorities were bound to put it within our power to obey the law, as well as to protect us from indignity in so doing. He asked, therefore, the temporary cession of the Church of Santa Teresa to the government. The priest again as positively refused. Thereupon the pretor, summoned an officer, and quietly told the priest that, if the key of that church were not given up to him, he should order the carabinieri to break the lock, and to take forcible possession of the church. At this the priest furiously dashed the key to the floor, and left the room. The pretor handed the key to the officer, bade him take a sufficient guard, go with me, and hold himself and the church at my service till the next day; and, begging that we would call on him in any further need that might arise, dismissed us.
As we returned to the hotel, we saw that the priest was already stirring up the people, and that our difficulties were probably very far from being at an end.
The sergeant summoned a detachment of caribinieri. We called on some of the bearers already engaged for the next day. After prayers at the hotel, they brought out the coffin, the English gentleman and I preceding it; the guard going before, and closely following ; the populace, ready for an outburst, though as yet restrained by the soldiers, hanging close around, as we bore it to the little church. There, in the vestibule, the coffin was deposited on its trestles ; the door was closed and locked, and the key given to me ; and a part of the guard left in charge at the church for the night, while the others escorted us back to the hotel.
The next morning, due permission and all needful documents having been received from Naples, about eleven o’clock, we—that is, those who were most nearly concerned — repaired to Santa Teresa, the carabinieri surrounding us and the door, as it was opened. A selected body of eight strong men were ready to bear the coffin to the heights of Anacapri. A network of ropes was made around it, by which it was swung from two stout oaken staves, borne on the shoulders of four men at a time, in two relays. They walked, four of us rode, closely guarded ; the lowering rabble hanging around, though gradually dropping off, as we proceeded to the foot of Monte Solaro.
Up the rough and dizzy steps, now northward, now towards the south, we slowly climbed, — the lady of the party in a portantina, or chair borne on staves by two men, the rest, of course, on foot; pausing at times to regain breath, or that the bearers might he changed; up, up, up, till Capri lay spread out below us like a map in relief, and the Bay of Naples, from Sorrento round by Vesuvius, Naples, Posilippo, to Baiæ and Ischia, was a wondrous panorama in the broad noon light; until at last we stood upon the plateau heights, and soon reached the neat little mountain locanda where we were to rest.
Here the syndic of Anacapri met us. With respectful courtesy, he tendered the expression of his sympathies to the mourners, and, with many apologies, ventured to ask if it would be necessary that I should wear a distinctive dress, or use such a “ book of offices ” as would remind any townsfolk from below, who might be present, of the “ non-Catholic character ” of my ecclesiastical ministrations. I reassured him both as to the surplice and the book : I had not the former with me, and I knew the burial service of the Episcopal Church nearly by heart.
Going on to the little Campo Santo, we found some fifteen or twenty of the neighboring Anacaprians gathered there. As we approached the grave, they quietly drew near also, the men all removing their hats. No sooner was my voice heard than most of them reverently knelt, while I committed all that was mortal of my old friend to the earth.
Nothing could have been more kindly, more sympathetic, than the behavior of every one, from the syndic to the youngest peasant child. Nothing could more strangely contrast with the wild and angry temper of the Latin Caprians below than this silent respect shown by all. The very strangeness of the sight seemed chiefly to remind them, as one sadly murmured, “ how far away these Americans must be from home.” When we returned again to the steps, — the descent of which was much more trying than the ascent, — the syndic accompanied ns to the brow of the plateau, and there commended the bereaved ones to the comforting of the saints.
Arrived at the Hotel Quisisana, there were a dozen or twenty rapacious and clamorous Caprians to be paid for sundry services during my friend’s illness and the last two days. Now, it must be borne in mind, not only that, in the conceptions of the Italian populace, there is no such thing as a regular and definite charge, the price of every service being whatever can be gotten for it by persistent bargaining ; but also that, with such men as these, an occasion like the present was regarded as an exceptionally favorable opportunity for extortion, since those principally interested to contend with them would probably feel little disposed to do so. The settlement of these demands being entrusted to my English colleague and to me, we bade all who had any claims to assemble in the hotel yard at an appointed hour.
We first asked our padrona for the account of her extra charges. She declined to make any, on the simple ground that her regular bills had been paid, or would be at the proper time ; and that, “ when the hand of God was laid upon one in sickness and sorrow, it was not a matter of business.” This, certainly, was not the common experience of Americans, under such circumstances, in the hotels of Italy.
But the men in the yard evidently regarded the matter in a very different light. I called up the first. What was his charge ? “ Signor, not less than two hundred and fifty lire.” (A lira, it will be remembered, is a franc, or about twenty cents.) “ Now, my man,” replied I, as he ran rapidly over the numberless reasons why it was absolutely and utterly impossible for him to make it any less, — “ now, my man, you know that you would have been glad to do this for forty lire. We are willing to consider the somewhat exceptional circumstances, and pay you twice what would be a fair charge. We will, therefore, give you eighty.” He was melodramatically indignant at a suggestion which so grievously wronged him.
and positively refused to accept less than two hundred. I only answered that we had quite a number to settle with, much to do, and therefore no time to waste. We would give eighty lire without further ado, or we would go to the pretor, and leave it wholly to him. He refused again; and, without permitting any more talk, I bade the others to wait, and the man to accompany us to the pretor.
Signor Lanzetta received us courteously, heard the case from both sides, and decided that the claimant should receive forty lire, — not a lira more. He was paid then and there, and we returned to the hotel. The next man demanded fifty lire. I offered him twenty. He also as positively refused. We went to the pretor, who adjudged him but ten. The same thing was the result of a third and even of a fourth similar contest; each receiving from the decision of the pretor little, if any, more than one half of what had been offered him at first.
After this, we had no further trouble. A pleading “ Ah, Signor ! ” was the utmost that any ventured. Every one was now well assured that it was wiser to accept our offer of a double payment than to abide an official decision, which would surely reduce him to a strictly proper charge.
There remained only one more account to pay. But we had seen enough of the commune physician, Dr. Cerio, to know that we were now on delicate ground. He had been formally called to my friend, indeed, but five times ; but he had come unbidden again and again, he had sat up nights, and nursed him day and night like a brother. His tender ministrations and wonderful thoughtfulness and consideration were to be placed at no pecuniary estimate. His counsel, his sympathy, his very presence, had been everything to us.
Turning back into the hotel sala, I asked him for a statement of the indebtedness to him. Handing it to me, he, at the same time, begged me not to hesitate to say if it was more than it should be. I opened and looked at it. It was fifteen lire, — three dollars ! I handed it to our English friend, who looked at it and then at me, as blankly as I at him.
Dr. Cerio, seeing but wholly misunderstanding our interchange of look, again said, with the utmost simplicity, “ The commune regulations allow me to charge three lire for a professional visit, and I made five such visits : but I ought, perhaps, not to make the same charge for each of five visits to the same person.”
Exchanging a whispered opinion with my colleague, I went out for further instructions. Returning, I took the doctor by the hand, and giving him an envelope, said, “ My dear doctor, we will not enter into any estimate of the exact amount due you. There is no basis for such an estimate. I am bidden to ask your acceptance of this.” It contained a bank note for a very much larger sum.
The doctor, seeing that fact, returned the note to the envelope, and gave it back to me. “ Caro signor,” said he (and I copy now from a memorandum made within the hour), — “ Caro signor, I have made the only charge which I am entitled to make. If I have had an opportunity to remember that I am a Christian man, — to remember that Christians are here in this world to help and to serve one another for Christ’s sake; and if I have been permitted to render some little Christian service to this sick and dying man, a stranger in a strange land, or to his family, — surely, you, signor, who are a minister of Christ, will not wish to take away from me such an opportunity, by putting that also down in the ledger of business.” He said this as a little child might have said it, grasping my hand and gazing pleadingly into my eyes, the tears starting to his own.
We were utterly defeated by a simple, generous elevation of feeling which we should have wronged by failing to appreciate. To have said another word would have been to wound a spirit as noble as it was rare, though it were in the person of only an Italian village doctor in Capri. We did not dare do it. I thought of him who would one day say, “ Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” I paid his bill of fifteen lire, and, embracing, kissed and blessed him, leaving it to the Master to reward.
Before leaving the island, we paid our respects again to the Signor Pretore, and presented him the grateful acknowledgments which were his due for the loyal protection he had extended to us under circumstances which would otherwise have been more than distressing, which might have been harrowing.
Returned to Rome, I reported these facts to the American Minister, the Hon. George P. Marsh. At his request, I addressed to him, in writing, a statement of our special indebtedness to the Signor Federigo Lanzetta, Pretor of Capri. Mr. Marsh inclosed a copy of this statement to the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, together with the thanks of the United States Government for the protection thus extended to American citizens in their hour of distress. The Italian Minister, in turn, inclosed to Signor Lanzetta (as I afterwards learned from him) a copy of both documents, with the thanks of his own government for conduct which had been thus recognized.
Not very long afterwards, Dr. Cerio received from England a box of valuable medical books, which he had no opportunity to decline, and which will probably be handed down, as a family treasure, for generations. A little later, Signor Lanzetta was promoted to a position of greater honor and value ; and Italian officials, even in South Italy, realized generally that strangers and foreigners were no longer to be looked on either in a hostile or in an exclusively business spirit, and that it was for their interest to protect American travelers and sojourners, should need require, from imposition and outrage on the part of those who had, for the moment, the advantage over them.
Wm. Chauncy Langdon.