Unprotected Females in Sicily




It was "siesta" time between one and four o'clock, and but a few dark "Manto's" glided through the lava streets. The inhabitants were hushed in repose; awnings were drawn tight down over the bazaars and shops, their entrances secured by barricaded doors; a Pompeian silence reigned around. Through it rumbled the vehicle with noise like an earthquake. A sleepy porter bore our bags to the Hotel ∆tna, where, after climbing three flights of crumbling stairs, any doubt as to the present existence of the Furies was completely set at rest by the appearance of the three hostesses, who, roused from their slumbers, met us with streaming, grisly hair. They conducted us to an apartment worse than any we had had inland, for which they asked double what they decided to take, and quickly making up a bed with their awful long nails, left us to future torments.

After a sound nap, which I recommend every one to take who has travelled through the night, instead of setting off to explore a new place without rest, which gives a dreadfully fagged feeling the following day, we brushed up, and set out with our letters of introduction. The remark of the first awakening lazzaroni we passed, told that the English ladies' hats and feathers were uncommon in Catania. He lazily asked, "Siete una ballerina, Signora?" ("Are you a dancer, Signora?")

The streets have a decidedly handsome effect, particularly that with the sea at one end and Mount ∆tna at the other, and which seemed to lead straight to the mountain, whose namesake it is. Two open squares give a variety to the angular form of the principal thoroughfares; the houses are festooned with balconies; towers and domes rise up in abundance; but, on the slightest investigation, ruin peers through everything. Lava does not retain plaster well, and the inhabitants cover it with coats of blue, pink, and green, which, partially falling off, leave hideous gaps, through which the original material seems by comparison of a grimmer black. Here and there a smiling orange-garden peeps through a grating or over a frittering wall, and looks so eastern one cannot but be pleased. Crowds of carriages appear the moment the siesta is over. They nearly all bear coronets, the majority being, like those of the English barons, four large balls on red velvet, and belonging to baronial families of rather a good order of nobility (if there were not too many of them), which formed the hereditary members of the Upper Chamber when the Parliament existed, in which position they ranked above the princes, marquises, &c.

The ladies and gentlemen seated inside the carriages had, in the shape of their attire, imitated the French as much as possible, merely adding a variety of colour, in the same love of brilliancy which makes them paint their houses; they drove in lines up and down, making Corso in the streets, as there is no public drive outside the town: every now and then, a young man, splendidly got up, with moustaches and cigar in mouth, evidently a leader of Catanian ton, would dash down the centre, driving his beautiful English horses. The ancient dress or graceful Manto, a long black silk cloak thrown over the head, and caught bewitchingly under one arm, is entirely now left to the wives of the lower orders.

We had two letters, one to a nobleman's family, the other to a silk merchant, who possessed a large manufactory, the principal "industry" of the place; but, though celebrated, I must warn lady readers who are within reach of any other against buying Sicilian silk; particularly that twilled kind which, when of French make, never wears out, while the Catanian, if sprinkled by a slight shower of rain, puckers all over; the plain quality is thin, and has no gloss; it is sold in quantity at Naples at a very cheap rate to the natives.

We thought we would take the letter to the Baron first, as we heard he was a liberal-minded man, had been in England, of which his family spoke the language, and had learned there some notions of the way in which a gentleman ought to live; for the reader must know that abroad, it is only the tiptop nobility, with immense fortunes, who approach in the least to the style of the simple English gentry; when in more northern Italy I have seen them puffing in all the pomp of their titles, and thinking they were conferring an honour in mixing with plain English commoners, I have inwardly laughed at how much more an English girl thought of the attention of a real English gentleman, so superior in finish and mind. The Baron's family had just returned in an overpoweringly smart carriage of blue and silver; a handsome, and tolerably clean marble staircase led up to the first story of the palace where they resided; a livery servant showed us through a large painted anteroom into a drawing-room, which was really fit to enter -- spacious and neatly furnished; it opened into another apartment, where a table was laid for dinner so as one could rather fancy sitting down to it: clean napkins and glasses being placed for each person. The gentleman's daughters came very pleasantly forward, and spoke English very well, one having just passed her honeymoon in London; the mother was merely visible in the distance in a wrapper, evidently bustling about the dinner; the son was a dandy, and not very willing to enter into details as to how mules, guides, &c. could be got for ∆tna; so we inwardly decided to go to the silk merchant for the "practicals." The young ladies presented us with sweet little mandarine oranges, the first of the season, and exquisitely luscious; an inferior kind are known ad Maltese oranges in England.

This family, and another we afterwards heard of, were the only two who attempted to receive foreigners in Catania; the others all live in the desperate Italian manner, and, as some possess fortunes of eight or ten thousand per annum, with a tenth of which carriage, horses, opera-box, and all reasonable pleasures can be procured, having no occupation for the mind, they take to gambling with the remainder, as at Palermo.

The merchant, despite his manufactory, kept a shop, the distinction between wholesale and retail being very confused in Sicily. Mounting to his apartment on the first floor, we found the door barricaded, as if the entrance of a fortress; and there being no bell, our knuckles were sorely tried in making an impression on its thick outside. The sole result was a screaming inside, like a hag in a passion, and a fearful bang of a distant door. We stood in despair on the stairs, till a being likely to help us should come past; at length a man who knew something of the inmates, by making a peculiar noise, got one of them to the door; and after a long parley through the creaks as to what we were, which he found difficult to explain, being completely mystified himself, the iron hinges groaned backwards, and we were let in by an elderly female acting Duenna to the merchant's pretty young wife, who in her zeal kept her mistress barricaded up during the husband's absence, and not knowing our voices, thought it more prudent to leave us outside.

While the letter was sent to him, we were shown into a pretty apartment with the first wooden floor we had seen for three months, and whose fresh, white draperies and elegant pieces of furniture, just put in order for the bride, showed how much in advance for luxuries were the trading to the noble class, whose gaunt palaces require uncomfortable old furniture in keeping with their size. The tÍte-ŗ-tÍte with the two females was fortunately short, as their screaming Sicilian twang was both fatiguing and incomprehensible; the old duenna, whom we thought intolerably forward, taking all the words out of her young mistress's mouth, and extra shrieking them herself; her officiousness also was exactly what we afterwards saw ridiculed on the Italian stage: in fact, with uneducated, that is, most Sicilians, the servants, particularly the females, regularly take part in the conversation, and on the slightest pretext, such as holding a shawl, draw in a chair for the remainder of the visit. They ought to be very much attached to their masters and mistresses, as they are certainly "treated as one of the family."

The merchant soon appeared, a lively, intelligent man, and entered with a sort of amused, doubting interest, into our ∆tna plans; promising to see after a carriage and guides, and so strongly recommending a change for the night from Hotel ∆tna to the "Corona," that we went to look at that house. An immense crowd of people, all afflicted with ophthalmia, was on the stairs, and being received in turn by a celebrated eye-doctor in the dining room. We preferred the company of the Furies, who were only three in number; and finding dinner had been prepared by them, requested the youngest and best-looking, sister-in-law to the others, might wait upon us, fancying she had a milder nature; till next morning, happening by mere chance in the dark passage, to open the door of a room where she was sitting receiving the adoration of a "Cavaliere," she sprung forward in such a manner as to prove most satisfactorily that she also was endowed with the full Fury nature.

Not having seen anything like a regular dinner since leaving Palermo, the various little dishes of dressed pigeon, salad, sweets, &c. seemed very nice; and as the Baron's son had heard that we had been to the merchant's house, with quick Sicilian jealousy he immediately came to call, and sat in attendance while we ate, assuring us he would see all about carriages and conveyances; then wrote a letter of introduction to a fine old naturalist, who resided on ∆tna, and with whom my readers must become better acquainted. In the meantime arrived the merchant, with two Caputti; and the noble took his departure, though longing to ask questions and compare notes with him about us.

Next morning, before rising, the following subjects came for our inspection preparatory to ascending the mountain :-- amber of an ugly, greasy yellow, cut into hearts, crosses, and other useful things; a dozen pair of hairy stockings, which would have excoriated the legs of an elephant; three puppy bull-dogs with newly-clipped ears; begging friars, to whom we told the story of the Caltanisetta priest, and who, notwithstanding, hung about till we left, obliging us to lock our room-door every time we went in and out; a tray of antiquities of broken delf; four guides to subterraneous ruins; and finally our coachman, to say "last night's arrangement was off." This latter circumstance was not an irreparable misfortune, as of course our gentleman acquaintance had arrived a little after Aurora, accompanied by yesterday's fellow-traveller besides; sending them in search of another conveyance was a capital manner of getting them out of the way till breakfast-time, when they returned as spectators for that meal; and to occupy them a little further, we begged they would help to manage the Furies. We had become completely inured to feeding before an audience, and thought ourselves supremely fortunate in finding a sort of saloon without beds, though I cannot call it a private room, as a row of doors opened into it on each side, and large folding ones from the passage; round which, though on the third story and in a comparatively civilised town, a circle of miscellanies were collected peeping.

As it is not necessary to start early for Nicolosi, the village twelve miles up on ∆tna, the traveller has time to visit the town, the greatest charm of which will be to many, that it was Bellini's birthplace, whose lovely "consumptive" melodies express all the sensibility of a refined Sicilian mind. He died at the age of twenty-nine, and must, as a child, have often sat listening to the strains of the grand organ at the Benedictine monastery. The traveller should go there before ten o'clock, when the monks, who are all gentlemen of good family, are collecting for matins, and civilly mentioning to one of them that he is a stranger, some of the finer stops of the instrument, not generally used, will be pulled out, and as it is one of the finest in the world, musician or not, he will be gratified. Gentlemen are allowed to visit the interior of the monastery, said to be a most comfortable place; ladies not; we were obliged to be content with a distant peep at the garden, where the monks proudly point out a dark stream of lava in the rock above, which at the great eruption was on the point of overwhelming their vines and orange groves; when, with a consideration extraordinary in a boiling body, the lava, unwilling to annoy such capital fellows, divided and made a circling wall around them. They are a branch of the Palermo Benedictines, equally wealthy and good-tempered, as the reader shall judge from one with whom we afterwards became acquainted; they are the trustees of innumerable rich charities, which they do not always dispense to the satisfaction of the would-be recipients: consequently at the revolution were great sufferers, being dragged from under their beds, where they had sheltered, and massacred by numbers.

But they, ere they died, had also taken advantage of the confusion to effect a piece of rapine. A letter had been addressed to their community by the Abbate Trimeno of Naples, who came to see them in the year 1400, and which commenced in this fashion :-- "Ye Benedictines now think of nought but dining, playing, courting: what would St. Benedict say were he to descend and pay you a pastoral visit some morning?" and so on. This exhortation had been read every day at dinner to them for four centuries and a half, without in the least altering the state of things, till they thought it high time to get rid of such a waste of words, and, in the revolution struggle, threw it into the fire.

The Catanese think a great deal of their antiquities; but, as they are all subterranean, to those who can see Syracuse, Taormina, or Girgenti, whose trophies are above ground, a visit to their own wine cellar will be quite as satisfactory. We followed a woman with a smoking torch through pools of water, round and about some mouldering walls, of whose signification, had we not been to the former town, we should not have had the most distant idea; but which go by the name of the Grecian theatre; while a similar damp collection is called the Roman amphitheatre. The Museo Biscari, founded by the Prince of that name (who also built the aqueduct, was a benevolent, enlightened man, and made every effort to become a public benefactor), is a scrappy collection of small antiquities found in the island: the torso of Jove is considered a fine specimen, certainly very ugly; the cicerone could not give the least information about anything under his care, but begged very perseveringly for more money, though well paid; showing he had already dealt with the English. There is another museum, called Gioeni, which, as we did not see, we fancied must be superior.

While waiting for the entrance of the first-named building to be opened, we witnessed a scene which I really must beg my reader's pardon for describing, and only do so to illustrate the manners of the people, and the awful ignorance and superstition in which they are buried, while troops of priests parade in the streets, and no Protestant is allowed to give instruction. The shrieks of a cock in the street near the opposite house forced us to look round -- to see it plucked and opened while living! -- As soon as our faintness would allow us to express horror, we were answered, "it was a work of necessity, a child in that house being ill of a fever, which the spell of this ceremony alone could cure!" The same "ceremony" is universal all over the island.

Beneath the Cathedral, a showy edifice, there are cavities called ancient baths, once adorned with frescoes, of which one fancies the remains are visible: the marks of chariot wheels in the lava, as at Pompeii, are really there. A curious old picture hangs in the sacristy, showing the last destruction of Catania by ∆tna in 1669, which was preceded by total darkness. The flowing lava is systematically running down in blood-red streams from a crater now called Monte Rosso, close to Nicolosi, on the side of the volcano. Arrived before Catania's walls, it had to rise more than sixty feet high before it could pass over them, which at length it did; and in the foreground, a group of monks with relics and the veil of the patron saint of the town, hasten to embark in a galley waiting for them. That veil and its wearer St. Agatha, were out of favour for a long time after allowing their worshippers to be so cruelly overwhelmed; now the Catanese have made it up with their patrons again; for between eruptions and earthquakes, they have great need of some one to take care of them, and Providence's is the last aid they would think of invoking. Once the lava ran in a beautiful curve far into the sea, forming a complete harbour; in a succeeding convulsion, that disappeared, and a lava promontory may now be seen on the opposite side, forming a good foreground to a sketch of ∆tna. Nothing will induce the inhabitants to change the position of their town, so we may conclude a love of convulsions and eruptions is natural to them; as soon as they take the very same destroying blocks to rebuild with, and which, unlike those of Vesuvius, are of a hard, durable nature.

This digital version prepared by Martin Guy <martinwguy@gmail.com>, october 2001.
Last revision: 24 April 2004.