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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsSaunterings - Monkish Perches
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Saunterings - Monkish Perches Post by :why97 Category :Nonfictions Author :Charles Dudley Warner Date :May 2012 Read :3196

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Saunterings - Monkish Perches

On heights at either end of the Piano di Sorrento, and commanding it, stood two religious houses: the Convent of the Carnaldoli to the northeast, on the crest of the hill above Meta; the Carthusian Monastery of the Deserto, to the southwest, three miles above Sorrento. The longer I stay here, the more respect I have for the taste of the monks of the Middle Ages. They invariably secured the best places for themselves. They seized all the strategic points; they appropriated all the commanding heights; they knew where the sun would best strike the grapevines; they perched themselves wherever there was a royal view. When I see how unerringly they did select and occupy the eligible places, I think they were moved by a sort of inspiration. In those days, when the Church took the first choice in everything, the temptation to a Christian life must have been strong.

The monastery at the Deserto was suppressed by the French of the first republic, and has long been in a ruinous condition. Its buildings crown the apex of the highest elevation in this part of the promontory: from its roof the fathers paternally looked down upon the churches and chapels and nunneries which thickly studded all this region; so that I fancy the air must have been full of the sound of bells, and of incense perpetually ascending. They looked also upon St. Agata under the hill, with a church bigger than itself; upon more distinct Massa, with its chapels and cathedral and overlooking feudal tower; upon Torca, the Greek Theorica, with its Temple of Apollo, the scene yet of an annual religious festival, to which the peasants of Sorrento go as their ancestors did to the shrine of the heathen god; upon olive and orange orchards, and winding paths and wayside shrines innumerable. A sweet and peaceful scene in the foreground, it must have been, and a whole horizon of enchantment beyond the sunny peninsula over which it lorded: the Mediterranean, with poetic Capri, and Ischia, and all the classic shore from Cape Misenum, Baiae, and Naples, round to Vesuvius; all the sparkling Bay of Naples; and on the other side the Bay of Salerno, covered with the fleets of the commerce of Amalfi, then a republican city of fifty thousand people; and Grecian Paestum on the marshy shore, even then a ruin, its deserted porches and columns monuments of an architecture never equaled elsewhere in Italy. Upon this charming perch, the old Carthusian monks took the summer breezes and the winter sun, pruned their olives, and trimmed their grapevines, and said prayers for the poor sinners toiling in the valleys below.

The monastery is a desolate old shed now. We left our donkeys to eat thistles in front, while we climbed up some dilapidated steps, and entered the crumbling hall. The present occupants are half a dozen monks, and fine fellows too, who have an orphan school of some twenty lads. We were invited to witness their noonday prayers. The flat-roofed rear buildings extend round an oblong, quadrangular space, which is a rich garden, watered from capacious tanks, and coaxed into easy fertility by the impregnating sun. Upon these roofs the brothers were wont to walk, and here they sat at peaceful evening. Here, too, we strolled; and here I could not resist the temptation to lie an unheeded hour or two, soaking in the benignant February sun, above every human concern and care, looking upon a land and sea steeped in romance. The sky was blue above; but in the south horizon, in the direction of Tunis, were the prismatic colors. Why not be a monk, and lie in the sun?

One of the handsome brothers invited us into the refectory, a place as bare and cheerless as the feeding-room of a reform school, and set before us bread and cheese, and red wine, made by the monks. I notice that the monks do not water their wine so much as the osteria keepers do; which speaks equally well for their religion and their taste. The floor of the room was brick, the table plain boards, and the seats were benches; not much luxury. The monk who served us was an accomplished man, traveled, and master of several languages. He spoke English a little. He had been several years in America, and was much interested when we told him our nationality.

"Does the signor live near Mexico?"

"Not in dangerous proximity," we replied; but we did not forfeit his good opinion by saying that we visited it but seldom.

Well, he had seen all quarters of the globe: he had been for years a traveler, but he had come back here with a stronger love for it than ever; it was to him the most delightful spot on earth, he said. And we could not tell him where its equal is. If I had nothing else to do, I think I should cast in my lot with him,--at least for a week.

But the monks never got into a cozier nook than the Convent of the Camaldoli. That also is suppressed: its gardens, avenues, colonnaded walks, terraces, buildings, half in ruins. It is the level surface of a hill, sheltered on the east by higher peaks, and on the north by the more distant range of Great St. Angelo, across the valley, and is one of the most extraordinarily fertile plots of ground I ever saw. The rich ground responds generously to the sun. I should like to have seen the abbot who grew on this fat spot. The workmen were busy in the garden, spading and pruning.

A group of wild, half-naked children came about us begging, as we sat upon the walls of the terrace,--the terrace which overhangs the busy plain below, and which commands the entire, varied, nooky promontory, and the two bays. And these children, insensible to beauty, want centesimi!

In the rear of the church are some splendid specimens of the umbrella-like Italian pine. Here we found, also, a pretty little ruin,--it might be Greek and--it might be Druid for anything that appeared, ivy-clad, and suggesting a religion older than that of the convent. To the east we look into a fertile, terraced ravine; and beyond to a precipitous brown mountain, which shows a sharp outline against the sky; halfway up are nests of towns, white houses, churches, and above, creeping along the slope, the thread of an ancient road, with stone arches at intervals, as old as Caesar.

We descend, skirting for some distance the monastery walls, over which patches of ivy hang like green shawls. There are flowers in profusion, scented violets, daisies, dandelions, and crocuses, large and of the richest variety, with orange pistils, and stamens purple and violet, the back of every alternate leaf exquisitely penciled.

We descend into a continuous settlement, past shrines, past brown, sturdy men and handsome girls working in the vineyards; we descend--but words express nothing--into a wonderful ravine, a sort of refined Swiss scene,--high, bare steps of rock butting over a chasm, ruins, old walls, vines, flowers. The very spirit of peace is here, and it is not disturbed by the sweet sound of bells echoed in the passes. On narrow ledges of precipices, aloft in the air where it would seem that a bird could scarcely light, we distinguish the forms of men and women; and their voices come down to us. They are peasants cutting grass, every spire of which is too precious to waste.

We descend, and pass by a house on a knoll, and a terrace of olives extending along the road in front. Half a dozen children come to the road to look at us as we approach, and then scamper back to the house in fear, tumbling over each other and shouting, the eldest girl making good her escape with the baby. My companion swings his hat, and cries, "Hullo, baby!" And when we have passed the gate, and are under the wall, the whole ragged, brown-skinned troop scurry out upon the terrace, and run along, calling after us, in perfect English, as long as we keep in sight, "Hullo, baby!" "Hullo, baby!" The next traveler who goes that way will no doubt be hailed by the quick-witted natives with this salutation; and, if he is of a philological turn, he will probably benefit his mind by running the phrase back to its ultimate Greek roots.

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